Posts Tagged ‘Alex Raymond’

Comics and Photography: Research Note 1


Thursday, February 4, 2010

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Eadweard Muybridge’s motion study of a galloping horse.

This is the first of a new series of blog posts I’m going to be starting up under the umbrella title “Research Notes.” These posts will be quick notes on ideas that could (and maybe should) be spun off into larger, more polished essays. But in the research note I’ll just jot down the preliminary notion. Since Comics Comics has a very smart and articulate readership, my hope is that the notes will spark suggestions for how the idea can be refined and developed.

So the first research note is for an essay on “Comics and photography”; the idea was sparked by Dan’s earlier comments on the new Rip Kirby book (and by a subsequent conversation Dan and I had). Some quick thoughts:

Comics and photography were both part of the proliferation of images that occurred in the 19th century, the explosion of the visual made possible by mechanical reproduction.

To what extent were late 19th and early 20th century cartoonists like A.B. Frost and Winsor McCay, who did so much to introduce sequential movement into comics, influenced by the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge?

Winsor McCay’s motion study of a galloping bed.

Frank King was a lifelong shutterbug, at the vanguard of the first generation of middle-class Americans who used the camera to record family life. As Chris Ware and I have documented in the Walt and Skeezix series, photographs were a major source for King, who used family photos as a reference tool. Yet King only very rarely directly copied from photos; rather he used photos as a memory tool. And indeed, even King’s own photos seem somehow not to record so much a moment in time as a slightly-fuzzy memory of a moment. King’s photos are nostalgic and backward looking.

The Sickles/Caniff school is often linked to movies, and it’s true that Sickles and Caniff were great film buffs and absorbed much from the cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, not just classics like Citizen Kane but also B-movies with their slightly darkened sets. Caniff and Orson Welles had a mutually admiring correspondent. A fan letter to Caniff in the early 1940s smartly compared Terry and the Pirates to Casablanca. What hasn’t been investigated is the likely impact of magazine photos: the 1930s were the decade Life magazine took off as America’s leading photo-magazine. The use of photographs to record the news, particularly the darker corners of the Depression and the onset of the war, transformed the world’s visual imagination: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange (who was friends with George Herriman by the way), George Strock, and many others. Caniff was paying attention.

Socially and politically he was very close to many people in the Time/Life staff, who tended to be smart, internationally minded college boys like himself. The Luce magazines often promoted Caniff’s work, since he did the comic strips that most closely resembled their own aesthetic and political outlook.

If Caniff came out of Life, the post-war Alex Raymond was affiliated with Vogue. Depression austerity and wartime rationing were over and Paris was in ruins, so the post-war years were the period when New York became the world’s fashion capital. The first Rip Kirby story involves a fashion model; and the whole ambience of the strip comes from the fashion world. Raymond’s drawings weren’t just done in a photorealist style; they were distilled fashion shots.

If King used photos to pull him back to the past, Raymond was interested in snapshots that caught the present, the sleek and shiny now rather than the blurry bygone days.

Like Caniff, Raymond often photographed models. But when Raymond reinvented his style with Rip Kirby he was able to take this use of models and photos an extra step because of a new invention: the Kodak instant camera. Photorealist comics depended on this new technology.

Even among naturalistic, literal-minded illustrators, not everyone was a fan of photography. Here is Burne Hogarth’s thought: “[Hal Foster] is one of the great geniuses of the comic strip….Other artists were fixated on photographs; this guy worked it out straight out from his eye outward. He solved problems that very few people ever did. I began to realize that because when I had to draw figures that were flying, I sat down and draw those things, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t have models pose. Milt Caniff many times had model pose. Stan Drake had models pose. The point I’m making is that those guys used Polaroid cameras all the time.” (The Comics Journal, #166, p. 75).

The decline of photorealism as a comics style might have something to do with the parallel decline of magazine photojournalism. During the years when Life was supplanted by television, photorealism lost favour as a cartooning style.

In sum, it’s not just the case that some major cartoonists were influenced by photography. More complexly, as photography evolved, comics followed along; the two art forms developed in tandem.

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The Romance


Sunday, January 17, 2010

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Alex Raymond (1909-1956) made a certain kind of drawing that drove the boys wild. His Flash Gordon strips are the height of lush eroticism in comics (lush as compared to Burne Hogarth’s spiky cocks and taut flesh in his highly sexed Tarzan strips), his lines not finding any form, but creating it – becoming the substance of the image itself. Like a pulpier Franklin Booth, he seemed like he couldn’t help but draw the air that swept around his characters. Sometimes criticized as not being great comics qua comics, his stuff nevertheless worked best on the comics page, where sequences of drawings forgive the occasional clunker and where he could push even further than was commonly done in the pulps.

A gloss on his biography finds Raymond’s initial break in 1934, when, he debuted an astounding three strips: Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9 (he only stayed on until 1935) and the more successful Sunday-only Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon. Flash, of course, would make his name, and he carried on until 1944, when he joined the Marines and served as an artist and designer until 1945.

Meanwhile, King Features had assigned Austin Briggs to Flash Gordon, so the company offered Raymond a strip of his own. Conceived and written with editor Ward Greene, Rip Kirby was born in 1946. Kirby is a gentleman detective complete with a golf hobby, a butler, and a bespectacled gal Friday who is not quite a lover. Kirby is moral and stern, but not without a wry sense of humor and, of course, a weakness for dames. None of the pulp madness of contemporaneous crime novels lurks within his psyche. Nope, he’s the public side of the post-WWII world: cosmetically sound and mostly sexless, all the better for him to be able to move through his various storylines while remaining mostly unruffled.

Anyhow, as you may know, IDW recently released the first volume in a comprehensive Rip Kirby reprint series. Some 300 pages of seriously high quality work reproduced beautifully. I’ve been waiting a while for this book, having only recently come to Raymond via Wally Wood, really, and following on my sudden, distressing, and then comfortable, and then soothing conversion to the many virtues of Hal Foster. It’s kind of like rediscovering the Grateful Dead as adult. You’ve passed through an unfortunate period of rejecting things your adolescent brain thinks aren’t appropriately “sophisticated” and then you come back around and realize that none of that fucking matters and your standards were mostly specious. Meanwhile you’ve made an ass of yourself rejecting all this great stuff. Well, fuck it, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the younger kids out there (and lots of other older smart people), bless them. And I’m sort of mortified it was a problem for me. But we’re all idiots sometimes, even if those times last years.

Back to Raymond. With Rip Kirby he introduced a drawing style highly influenced by the classy illustrations found in Good Housekeeping and elsewhere – a moderate, well crafted realism that emphasized solidity and modesty without the flash and drama of the pre-War generations.

Foster was dramatic and stagey and Caniff overtly filmic and grotesque. Raymond wanted to bring a sense of fidelity (and here I mean something akin to a hi-fidelity audio recording – a highly polished simulacra of the “real” but without all the messiness of actual palms-in-the-dirt realism) into the mix – he relies on standard close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, and crowd set-ups and avoids expressive angles and obvious dynamism. He keeps the figures rooted in the kind of photos you’d find in magazines. Nothing too far out. It’s a kind of media-based realism rooted more in images of America than any kind of documentary impulse.

For the first month of the strip Raymond uses his Flash Gordon fine line style, but a month later the art gets thick and brushy. Not Caniff brushy, but more like Al Parker brushy, and that’s where it gets really interesting.

Fine line and then brushy…

Raymond the aesthete (though not Raymond the storyteller) always seems like a hedonist, and these ink-heavy images look like they were fucking fun to make – big, juicy strokes like long honks on a saxophone (side note: I’m currently reading Larry Rivers’ autobiography, in which he has much to say about honking, which is a subject I think Frank relates to more than me, but I find interesting nonetheless) and in stark contrast to the rather pallid stories.

So, here is also where I can see Raymond’s profound influence on comic books – minus his finicky fine line style, this stuff has a surface sheen and a visceral feel that I can imagine comic book guys (many of whom hoped for strips) imitated. No hysterics here, but lots of detail and respectability.

The middle panel looks like every villain in every 1950s comic book. Except drawn to utter surface perfection. Not a line out of place. Not a move made without consideration. And dig that background stroke.

Of course, the comic book guys were saddled with lurid stories – so there you have a powerful combo: Attempts at “respectable” drawing in service to the down-and-dirty. I can see all of 1950s Ogden Whitney unfold, and Wally Wood baroque compositions, as well as John Romita, not to mention Russ Manning, and so many others. Those guys understood in a way that I bet Raymond did too, that taking that kind of technical drafting facility and cutting out the showiness of it – forcing it into the time and space constraints of a daily strip – can make it work as cartooning. The less Raymond put in – the more he feinted at realism but dove at cartooning – the more successful he is.

This realism is stunning in its facility, and the marks are beautiful, but the far more rushed drawing below kinda reads better as cartooning (um, Toth anyone?).

I haven’t said much about the stories. After all, it’s a comic. There is a blackmail storyline, there’s one about counterfitting; there’s a missing model in London; there’s even a kind of island adventure. The villains are stock and so are the situations. Kirby himself isn’t too interesting. But they move right along – I can happily sit and read them as the strips move through the basics of a plot. But really, that doesn’t matter. Rip Kirby isn’t a classic – not in the way that Mary Perkins on Stage is, or Terry and the Pirates is. I get the feeling Raymond wasn’t that interested in the “literary” end of things, so you can’t go looking for the kind of visionary experience you might have with Chester Gould or the feeling of a unique voice from Caniff. It’s an oddly impersonal strip, really. It’s all in the drawing – and that in itself is enough in this case. It gives me everything I need from the strip. The pleasures derived from Rip Kirby are unique and worth pursuing.

Judging by this first volume, Raymond’s greatest success with Rip Kirby was, in a way, inspiring the likes of Stan Drake (who was with Raymond the night of his fatal crash) and Leonard Starr, both of whom would marry Raymond’s “realism” with a sense of melodrama straight out of Douglas Sirk and snappy, well observed stories filled with moral ambiguity and undercurrents of fear and sex. The two ongoing Drake and Starr reprint series, The Heart of Juliet Jones and Mary Perkins on Stage, respectively, are my favorite finds of 2009 (the best source for info on these guys is the now defunct web site. The Look of Love). More on all of this another time.

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Time For Byrnes


Monday, June 4, 2007

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This has probably been going around the internet for a while now, but for some reason, it didn’t really sink in for me until today.

About a year ago on this blog, Dan recommended a book by Gene Byrnes, The Complete Guide to Cartooning. The ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive started posting excerpts of it this March. Whenever you have some spare time, you should definitely check it out. Lots of great stuff. Part one alone includes Byrnes, Alex Raymond, Jeff Machamer, Al Capp, and Milton Caniff, among others. (And here’s part two. Follow the links for more.)

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