Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hey Kids, Comics :That Gum You Like

In 2004 Camper Van Beethoven reformed and released "New Roman Times", a key track was "That Gum You Like is Back in Style." One of my first editorial illustrations was for an article in The Rocket, on Camper Van Beethoven. I was assigned that illustration by Grant Alden. Years later, in 2004 to be exact, Grant asked me to do this extended editorial illustration in No Depression for the new CVB release. How could I resist! Grant is one of my favorite, and best art directors working. The trick to this comic piece is how little I wrote! As I recall, I used the CD track titles and notes only, in order! A tribute to how well CVB did in creating a story. We wanted to to do a comic that had a bit of flavor from the old men's magazines of the 40s and 50s. You know, the ones where badgers are ripping the flesh of a guy.

So, a healthy dose of dry brush, aggressive brush work and garish lighting were called for.
The first panel is a movie like double-truck (I love that old term!) From left to right there is; the cabal of evil old Texas Oil-men, our young GI Joe-ish/ Texas Ranger hero, and finally the warring hordes raising their guns to a Hellion in a red dress. All that's missing is the badger! While the colors are my normal garish, (red and yellow) they are muted somewhat. I think that helps the colors to work better when I pull out the more stylized monochromatic palette for effect, as in panels four, five and seven. The brush work is slashy, bold and rough, I was aiming for movement even in the static panels. All the characters are definite types. My favorite in the spread are the Old Texas Men, which I did have reference for!

Panels two and three work as one, a moment in time, divided, our attention split on two characters. In two, the old spy (who's gum that he likes, is back in style) and in three, the jittery bar keeper/informant/contact. I like drawing old men and junkies. This was actually the first image that came to mind when I got this assignment, and of course contains the comic title. It also mimics the top tier of page four, good circular storytelling.

Panel 4 is another dose of Men's pulp art. The monochromatic panels are the most obvious nod to Men's magazine pulp illustrations. The colors and the line-work. I wanted the ink brush lines to sort of have the same feel as the brush strokes in the old illustrations. At times like this I think less of what I'm doing as line-work and more like painting with one color. After that, the color goes on, with the same sort of treatment, with a cohesive textural effect. I hope.

Panel five, the background references riots in I believe LA during the 60s. While I'm working on these I am very particular about what my references are and where they come from. There can and usually are a lot of subtle and hidden connections between the reference and what I'm working towards. In fact I tend to have a large file of reference or scrap while I compose the art. Small subtle details, in my opinion create a richness and connection wit the viewer. It's not always noticed but, I like it, and when it is noticed, well, it's that much better. When the piece is done, there is the somewhat ceremonial trashing of the reference folder. Some of the scrap goes into my file cabinet/morgue, and the rest into the trash. All of it tends to go out of my memory, sadly.

Panel six. I think in this panel the two guys, (spies no doubt!) really look the part of Eastern Bloc spies! I can just see them in some 60's new cinema cold war spy movie. I know I used reference for both of these guys, they were the focus of my attention. And what says R-n-R better than a Eastern Bloc blond in a red dress? Or is she Octobriana in disguise?

Panel seven is another sort of Men's mag spin. If you look close you can see how little there is to the drawing most of the lines radiate to the point of light. That sort of restrained drawing is not something I normally do. It's akin to Dennis the Menace's one line neck.

Panel eight starts to slow things down a bit as we move from the album/discs main characters wild youth to his gradual enlightenment, via drugs! I thought the cactus was a nice mirroring of the characters lost limbs and loneliness. I wanted the spare composition to sort of slow things down and signal a change of pace. Lucky me that it fell just right so that this spread was a very masculine and boxy thing.

Panel nine, like all good last panels is intriguing. I used the same loose brush work but here to give it a more fly away, dreamy feeling. As much of a fly away dreamy feeling as I can create with my stuff! The color in this borrows from panel eight and ads some pink for effect, because they're POPPIES!! You might also see a little Kirby in this panel.

Panel one and two, more double spread goodness! This time I work both side to show the split and growth of the character, from soldier to hippie. This is another time when I so loosely use reference it looks like I just made it up, at least to me it does.

Panel three I can remember listening to Eric Clapton as I drew my famous smoke clouds. I should have gotten them out of my system before then! But no, for some reason I always think they're a good idea when I start but later, like now…ugh, not so much!

Panel four worked out well because I get bored sometimes and this was a perfect opportunity to switch up the styles. Notice the Native American influenced sun symbol, and yes, diamonds in the sky!

Panel five actually gave me a hard time. For some reason It was tough getting the image I wanted/needed into the space and having it read visually. It turned out okay enough. I think the best part is the color, which went very quick. It's amazing what I remember after all this time.

Panel six is my shame! This one falls like a clunker! There is not one thing I like about this panel. Most of the time as in panel five there is something I like, something I feel went well. But this one lacks any sort of merit. I'm not sure why it exists the way it does, other than due to my own laziness. Note to clients, avoid lazy artists!
Now that I think of it, I must have been at a low ebb as I was winding this page up. Both the last panels are not that inspiring to me.

However, PAGE FOUR starts with a good panel! Another spread, (Mmmm, gotta love those) Plenty of fun stuff to draw. Crazy old men, a craggy ex-spy and an Invaders type flying saucer! Topped of with better clouds than in panel three on the previous page. I think I obviously had a clear vision of what I was aiming for on this page. It seems to skip the herky jerky creative mess of page three and pick up where the double truck left off. I mean look, I even pick up the hippie theme and gradually disintegrate the figure over the remaining four panels. The lines going dead, images overlapping, breaking panel borders. Going from Captain America to a suicide bomber, all the while keeping it light and happy.

I do like my little graphic, the Peace symbol with "The end is near have fun" written around it. Of course without punctuation it could as well be read "Have fun the end is near." Is the glass half empty or half full.

NEXT WEEK in "Hey Kids, Comics!"…advertising comics, the amazing BTS Master, or how I got away with one long inside joke!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Hey Kids, Comics; 9/11 Page

Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a call went out to cartoonists for art to be used in a benefit/memorial anthology. This was done for Dark Horse Comics' anthology. However, in the rush to secure content, not all the art received saw print. This is one that didn't make the cut. Never found out why.
I sometimes look at things I did and wonder "what was I thinking," and "how did I do that." In this case I remember.
My first attempt/idea was sort of a piece about a guy who gets mistaken for a terrorist. That seemed kind of knee jerk-ish to me and was later pulled off better in an issue of Captain America. Patriotic fervor, now there was something. At the time pride in our country was very high, and things were a bit confusing. So what would be more appropriate than to put that into a page. I have always had the sneaking suspicion that a lot of Americans get the Start Spangled Banner and the Pledge of Alligiance mixed up. I can remember mumbling the archaic terms myself in school and in military Post theaters before the movies started! Very patriotic and at the same time confusing. So, like the former DJ I am, I did a remix.

O' say can you see
I pledge allegiance
to what so proudly we hailed,
from sea to shining sea.

By the republics gleaming,
and over the rockets red glare,
one nation
gave proof,
under God,
and spacious skies,
that the flag ,indivisible,
was still there.

O say does that star spangled banner yet wave,
with brotherhood,
liberty and justice,
o're the land of the free
and home for the brave.

As for the art, the airbrush, black and white is my weapon of choice! I wanted the art to have some emotional weight and gravity, so I used my illustrative style instead of a comic book style.
Each panel is like a stripe on a waving flag, the values alternate like the red and white. Each panel focuses on a segment of American history, a part of history, good or bad, that helps define what America is.
Panel one, like the beginning of the universe, just stars. Also there are 13 stars, one for each colony. They sort of come out of darkness, groping and moving. This was a good set up for me, I feltl it was sufficiently evocative as opposed to being literal.
Panel two is sort of Francis Scott Key, a nod to the influence off the page and the role of creativity in the birth of our nation. Plus it's got bombs bursting in air! I always wondered what that would look like and why they would burst in air. I worked to have the focus of the panels move from left to right, alternating down the page.
Panel three is breaking the chains of slavery, and uniting our country. An important step for a lot of reasons. In this panel I tip my hat to some of the great artists of The Harlem Renaissance, including Aaron Douglass, one of my favorites.
Panel four, a break in the pace and a chance to show how precarious the growth of a nation can be. I placed the flag small in a black field, the same size as the narrative blocks. The remixed copy reflects a turning point. Okay, I know that all this is not in any kind of correct order, but that's part of my point and the fun. America is a real mash-up of people, cultures, races, times and eras.
Panel five sort of brings us to current (at the time!) time frame. Does that banner still wave? Is Uncle Sam there? Yes after 911 he is there, still the superhero/mythical figure he's been since James Montgomery Flagg cemented him in our visual memory. In this shot he appears as he has in tons of comics, sleeves rolled up and ready for action, moving out of the clouds, actually to stage left. This allows me to have sort of static action with Lady Liberty in panel six. Even though there is no motion the composition moves to the right, forward. this allowed me to take some, well, liberties with the figure. My interpretation of Lady Liberty is of her more as a mythical figure than an actual statue.
This was a quick piece. A simple page that reads very very fast. More than most of my other comic book work, this is the closest to an editorial illustration. Looking at it now I still think it holds up. Although I did think of redoing the lettering for this post. But, that would be cheating.
NEXT WEEK on Hey Kids, Comics…Camper Van Beethoven comics! and That Gum You Like!