Monday, July 25, 2005

Why I love Richard Sala

Obviously I like him because his artwork’s brilliant and his stories are ace. But it's more than that.
One of the things that has frustrated and thwarted my writing and drawing career (aside from my dubious abilities) has been my inability to genuinely look at myself to fully see what I like and why I like things and then mix all those influences together in a way that allows me to express myself rather than simply being an awkward stilted piece of genre nonsense. This is where Sala shines. What inspires Sala is horror and comedy, two different genres that nonetheless use similar methods (ie the shock of the unexpected and a need for careful structure to be effective), not the first nor I doubt trhe last, but certainly one of the best. If there is a ‘unholy trinity’ of gothic comedy cartoonists then it is Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Richard Sala. The interesting thing is how different these three are, Addams produced a certain macabre humour that is still grounded in a familiar setting (a loving family), Gorey’s work manages to be decadent, funny, whimsical, sinsister and anachronistic without it being always obvious why, and Sala also has his own path. What Sala brings is a love of ‘b’ movies, cheap thriller, 1920’s melodrama, German expressionism (his quirky angular wood cut style art nearly always brings to mind Cabinet of Dr. Caligari whenever anyone sees it), cheesecake, camp gothics and crazed serial killers. If Russ Meyer had decided he liked classics such as Cat People, Bluebeard, Murders in the Zoo and Eyes Without a Face as much as big bosoms he’d have been making ‘The Chuckling Whatsit’ and ‘The Fellowship of the Creeping Cat’ and had Lemony Snicket offering to write comics for him (as seen in ‘It Was a Dark and Silly Night’)
Sala mixes it all his influences together in a way that makes sense, it manages to embrace it’s genre and campy origins without ever seeming like it’s knocking them or suffering under their limitations, he turns genre into personal expression. Why can he do it and I can’t?!!
And that’s why I love his work, he does something that I’d love to do. It’s why I hate him too!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Appreciating the funnies

One major ‘project’ of the last few weeks has been the reading of certain comics and comic strips. I’ve been looking at a lot of classic work by some of the best the medium has produced and trying to figure out why I like them and why they work. It’s a wonderful ‘job’ reading the work of Robert Crumb (scary that he was an early influence on Simian, but I love Crumb’s Fritz the Cat and his artwork of that (and any) period), Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay, Harold Gray, E.C Segar, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Messmer, Walt Kelly, Patrick McDonnell, Bill Watterson, Frank King, Crockett Johnson, Lewis Trondheim, Carl Barks, Cliff Sterrett, Chester Gould, Dr Suess and many many more. I’ve been particularly enjoying old comic strips, it’s intimidating looking at such astonishing work but also incredibly enlightening and inspiring. The comics that graced the newspapers of the the early 20th century are staggering in their beauty, originality, wit and invention, that they have been reduced to the tiny crudely drawn little things that are tucked discretely out of the way is a terrible crime. Once upon a time the comic strips were a real draw (no pun intended) for newspapers and the publishers and editors knew it using them to increase circulation. Huge full colour pages containing the elegant mastery of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland no longer exist but they used to be the reason people would choose one newspaper over another (although Nemo lasted a long time it’s popularity came more after the fact, back then slapstick comic strips were the most popular). Now the small space allowed creators has meant they have often become visually bland or have had to fight tooth and nail to allow their work to be showcased in a deserving manner (Bill Watterson is the best example, but Patrick McDonnell is another good one and thankfully McDonnell hasn’t deserted the medium) Even with the reduced space there are still some great strips coming out, but not that many. Once a medium has been so severely restrained and restricted a lot of the greater talent has to go elsewhere, so apart from creators so in love with the medium that they just have to work in it and try their hardest to produce something worthy, what the medium tends to get is hacks (Jim Davis) who churn out dross (Garfield)
If this sounds like the whining of someone unable to realise that something’s day has done then consider the amount of people who still appreciate Peanuts (I am still amazed (but grateful) that a comic strip based on loneliness, losers, depression, pain, whistfullness and failure can be as popular as Peanuts was) three years after the strip ended and it’s creator died. Doonesbury is an institution. Dilbert whilst being nobody's idea of a beautiful looking comic strip is nonetheless smartly written and incredibly popular. Mutt’s has a huge and strong following thanks to McDonnell's understanding of comic history love fine art, poetry and whimsy. Calvin and Hobbes has been over for something like 10 years and is still remembered fondly and appearing regularly in reprints with the books collections still selling, the same can be said of the Far Side.
Chester Gould noted that newspapers struggled to compete against the rise of TV journalism yet the only thing newspapers could do that TV news couldn’t was the comic strip. Comics strips could offer readers something extra, something different and special, instead shortsighted editors gave the comic space over to advertising and forgot that people had grown to see Charlie Brown et al as part of their family. It’s doubtful that the comic strip will ever recover it’s former glory, most people are unaware of the rich history and have no idea what comics strips can be, but thankfully there are people out there who remember and reprint and the internet is perfect for allowing material to be cheaply archived waiting for someone to stumble across it and be transported somewhere magical.


No posts for a while as I've been tired. Really tired. Atempting narcolepsy tired. Whether it's work, the heat, the alergy pills (not for hayfever, just to calm down the large itchy welts many insects thought I should have) or something else I've had trouble staying awake and concentrating over the last two weeks. This sleepy state has not helped my productivity any, my blog is not the only thing to have suffered. The ‘regular’ comic has faltered, although I do have 2 single page strips to scan in, and I’ve not written much more of Runt’s Tale (apart from a fairly meaningless but fun slug sequence that I quite like), my anthropromorphic ideas haven’t amounted to anything just yet and Simian still needs completing. The third draft of Simian was intended to be the last but prompting from a friend made me take a more objective look. I’m glad I did. I’m working on the fourth draft and the fourth chapter at the moment, and am beginning to understand the expression ‘kill your children’, what was about 8200 words is now 7000. It’s not just removing words either, whole paragraphs and sentences were repeated several times and I've had to cut paste and reduce accordingly. How had I not noticed? This has been the real lesson of Simian, be objective, and don't fake the rewrites. Looking at it now I can see that my earlier rewrites were simply taking a word out here and there, replacing a few, adding a couple but rarely (ever?) taking the hard looks neccessary to see what's working. So Simian’s first adventure is going to be a little shorter than originally intended but I think it’ll be all the better for it.
Inbetween writing and struggling through my sombulent daze I’ve started sketching some of the artwork to accompany the book, it’s difficult but exciting, which is how I’ve always felt about drawing.