Reference: Chance of a Lifetime: Nucky Johnson, Skinny D’Amato and How Atlantic City Because the Naughty Queen of Resorts, Grace Anselmo D’Amato.
Today’s is another Gene Deitch cartoon. There’s more credits than usual for this 1960 production: we’re told the animation was by “Halas and Batchelor”. We saw those names before, on Weight For Me, the one where Olive Oyl is fat. Is this another cartoon that’s got no toxic attitudes built in to a timeless premise? Only way to know is by watching Model Muddle, or reading my thoughts about it.
Olive Oyl has a surprise: we’re doing Modern Art jokes! Comic strips and cartoons have had a curious antipathy for Modern Art ever since both modes started. It’s curious because it’s not like either is a threat to the other’s cultural niche. It’s like if train enthusiasts were always mocking fire engine enthusiasts. I get that Modern Art leads itself to easy jokes. Well, to an easy joke. That’s because a lot of it will carry the question “what makes something Art?” and sometimes you don’t want to deal with that. But even in 2021, when society’s dropped all support for the humanities, we’re still interested in the question “what makes (this) and (something)”. Else your STEM friend would not have Opinions about whether a corn dog is a ravioli.
Still, we’re set up for this being a cartoon about Modern Art and don’t quite deliver. We get a couple minutes of Popeye in the museum. For me, this is the high point of the cartoon, sold by Popeye’s disproportionate anger. Jack Mercer reads his lines like Popeye is supposed to have been wounded by all this and it’s great. Characters reacting way out of line with the scene makes for hilarity.
But after that we move to Popeye as an artist. I appreciate the cartoon letting us suppose Popeye drew inspiration from the Modern Art after all. Seems to be a lot of traditional, representational work, but you have to start somewhere. He invites Olive Oyl over and she skips merrily along. Brutus overhears and takes up sabotage. He smashes Popeye’s tall marble sculpture of Olive Oyl’s head, and gets a mallet to his own head for the trouble. That in time for Olive Oyl to arrive and treat the rubble as Art.
Then for some reason she poses while Popeye makes a new An Art, in an abbreviated remake of 1937’s My Artistical Temperature. Popeye way over-explains why he can eat his spinach off a painting, and we get a longer fight with Brutus than usual. Like, for the King Features shorts I expect Popeye to hit Brutus once or twice to knock him out of the cartoon. Here, we get a lot of action. Particularly, Popeye swinging Brutus again and again at the marble to carve a new Olive Oyl head. It’s more painful than I expect. I think that’s from all the time Popeye spends swinging around a hollow-looking, dazed Brutus. The pain is less real when it looks like Brutus would clobber Popeye if he could get a fist in edgewise.
So, in the end, Brutus is dazed, a lot of marble has been quarried and destroyed, Popeye’s made a pretty representative head of Olive Oyl, and Olive Oyl is happy. I guess the museum trip was a success?
I am happy to offer good news in my continuing series picking on one of the world’s most successful comic strips for having difficulty rendering animals in its particular style. This Sunday saw Zero feeding a squirrel that I accept as a successful depiction of a squirrel, within the bounds of the evolved Mid-Century Cartoon Moderne style that the comic uses.
I’m also glad to bring the news that a butterfly, rabbit, a blue and a red bird were depicted successfully. I think the opossum was depicted successfully too, but I accept that people might in good faith have a different opinion.
I’m sad to say that the groundhog situation isn’t looking good. This is a bit peculiar as groundhogs are a kind of squirrel. But the poses and volume of tail are different and that affects styling.
Yes, a white rabbit the size of a blue-grey squirrel is improbable, but this isn’t Mark Trail. Photorealism is not the standard. “Is styled compatibly to the regular characters” and “is recognizably the animal it’s supposed to be” is.
Any updates about what animals the guy drawing Beetle Bailey has or has not seen I shall post to this link.
I’m annoyed at all the waste. All this time the past week with people giving bad takes about Dr Seuss books when we could have been having artists draw pictures of us as Dr Seuss characters instead. There’s nobody I know who wouldn’t be delighted to be drawn as Kind Of Walrus-y, I Guess, Maybe With A Pom-Pom. Wearing nothing but gloves, a top hat, and giant bow tie. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you agree. I’m not blaming the artists for this. This is something we have all failed to do.
I am grateful to, and thank, my love for the walrus observation.
Yes, it’s time for another installment in my sequence of mocking a successful cartoonist for not solving the problem of how to render animals using a style optimized for caricaturing humans. But we had a development this week, thanks to Comics Kingdom’s run of vintage Beetle Bailey strips from nearly 60 years ago:
So, yes, we can say that Mort Walker had seen squirrels in 1964.
This week’s 60s Popeye cartoon is another one made by Paramount/Famous Studios. For a change, Jack Mercer doesn’t have a hand in the story. The story’s by Joseph Gottlieb instead. The director is again Seymour Kneitel. So here’s Scairdy Cat.
I may sound like I’m slighting the cartoon to put so little focus on the story. It’s a decently organized story. Brutus finds a potion to induce cowardice in someone, and he sees this as his chance to crush Popeye. Sensible work there. He sprays Popeye with the fear gas, using the chance to throw away Popeye’s spinach. Again, good thinking there, Brutus. And he humiliates Popeye in front of Olive Oyl, which, again, good work. Brutus slamming the door shut causes the spinach can to roll into Popeye’s hands. It makes the structure better tragedy: Brutus causes his own undoing. It does mean Popeye doesn’t really have anything to do with his own story, but that’s all right. The story hangs together sensibly throughout.
What caught my interest was — knowing this was a Famous Studios short — the first scene. The establishing shot of the library. The building itself is rendered in three colors, as I make it out, including the shading used. Granted a library of this vintage might have a marble front, and not need many colors, but that’s still sparse. The whole scene, counting the background, is five. It’s a deeply stylized, UPA-style rendition of the building.
This continues throughout the short. Brutus’s kitchen is a (speckled) mustard yellow surface, with a red quadrilateral for a stovetop and two white rectangles for cabinets and counter. Olive Oyl’s living room is a similar mustard yellow expanse, with a white box, a purple chair and a purple wall hanging in the background. Many of these details are even lineless, or nearly so.
The UPA style, with its flattened shapes and colors and great abstraction of space, isn’t one I cared for as a kid. I liked lush, photorealistic watercolored backgrounds where possible. These days, I better understand the appeal. Not just why animators would want to depict something with as little drawing as possible, but why they’d admire doing that.
Famous Studios was, usually, not a visually inventive studio. It’s easy to read its greatest animation as things left over from Max and Dave Fleischer. For much of their history they drew things in a basic, photo-realistic, functional style. This isn’t a bad thing. I understand the animators wanting, sometimes, to try a stylistic experiment, though.
Famous Studios had done this before. There’s some cartoons from late in the theatrical run of Popeye, such as Parlez-Vous Woo or Spooky Swabs, with a similar style. Later in the 60s the studio would become much more experimental, as animators like Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi were put in charge for short whiles. It’s not that they couldn’t do more innovative work; it’s that they only sometimes took the chance.
And some stray thoughts. Brutus finds the Fear Gas recipe on page 13 of Ye Olde Reliable Witche’s Cook Book. I like the Olde Thyming of that title. Page 13 is the left-hand side of the page. I think that’s an extra subtle joke, mostly because the surplus ‘e’ in Witche’s convinces me they were looking for chances to do that.
Brutus tests the Fear Gas potion on himself. This seems dangerous. If the cartoon had a higher budget he probably would’ve had a cat to test on and send running from a mouse.
When he’s first Fear Gassed, Popeye grows a nice yellow streak up his back. And then the word ‘YELLOW’ appears across in what seems like too similar a shade. But I remember this seemingly-low-contrast color choice reading cleanly enough on the black-and-white TV of my youth. So to sum up, there is no excuse for any web site to have light grey text on a dark grey background.
The Fear Gas works on Popeye, the first time, for only a couple minutes. This doesn’t seem like enough time to make him, as the spell promises, your slave. Or does Popeye just metabolize fear that quickly? I think he might just metabolize fear very quickly.
Today’s King Features Popeye cartoon is an interesting one. It’s one I like without having to apologize for its limitations. And there’s a mystery behind it.
Take It Easel is a Gerald Ray-produced cartoon. There’s no story or writing credit. The Internet Movie Database credits Bob Bemiller as director and Milt Schaffer as writer, on what basis I don’t know. Well, director I know; it’s there on the title card. It’s got a nice roster of eight credited animators, though, promising that as with most of the Gerald Ray cartoons, there’ll at least be a bunch of good pictures to look at even if they don’t move much. So here’s 1960’s Take It Easel.
This is a well-crafted Popeye cartoon. Popeye and Brutus are art students. There’s a contest in the art magazine, a thousand dollars for the best flower painting. Popeye and Brutus become rivals for the prize, and they set out to the desert. They find a lovely purple-petaled flower growing alone in the sand, and spend the rest of the short trying to paint the picture and undermine the other. Finally it all gets serious enough that Popeye has to eat his spinach. He smashes Brutus and the flower together in a canvas and presents that to the art world, which admires his bold work and lifelike nature.
There is a lot of good stuff this cartoon. Not just in the storyline but in the jokes. Some of them are throwaway bits: the letter carrier whacking Popeye in the head twice with deliveries. Or Popeye leaping from the loft window right into his car, and Brutus leaping from the same window to … right where Popeye’s car was. Some of them are fourth-wall-breaking experiences, which was always a way to make the young me love your cartoon. But they seem to echo the artists-at-work theme of the cartoon. Brutus correcting his off-center painting by grabbing the thumb in it and sliding the thing over. Popeye’s painting of a flower wilting in the heat. Brutus painting a swimming pool. In setting up the climax, Brutus painting train tracks and the rope to tie Popeye. Popeye painting his can of spinach.
And there’s a lot of good back-and-forth dialogue, Brutus and Popeye sassing the other. Which allows for a deft bit of plotting. Brutus’s undoing is always letting Popeye get spinach. Why give Popeye a paintbrush, when experience indicates that any tool will let Popeye summon spinach from the misty void? Well, because he’s sassing Popeye back. It is a really well-crafted cartoon throughout. There’s even a bonus bit of Popeye signing his rhyming couplet, about people calling him Van Gouher when he paints a flower. It’s just another nice small bit of business.
The cartoon is also a remake. In November 1956 the Walter Lantz studios released the Woody Woodpecker cartoon Arts and Flowers. The director was Paul J Smith, and the story’s credited to Homer Brightman and Frank J Goldberg. Smith directed roughly a hundred billion Woody Woodpecker theatrical cartoons. Brightman wrote about a billion of them. Goldberg is credited with this short alone. I don’t know whether this reflects him usually being credited under a variant name or whether this reflects “Frank J Goldberg” being a pseudonym summoned just for this one short. It stands out to me that Milt Schaffer was still getting story credits for Walt Disney shorts through 1956, then got a couple story credits for Woody Woodpecker, before going and joining Gerald Ray’s team.
To me, this matters. If Frank J Goldberg was Milt Schaffer, then there’s no real harm done. It’s no crime to plagiarize yourself. If he wasn’t, though, then someone deserves a surely-posthumous-by-now scolding.
I don’t know of an official YouTube channel for the Walter Lantz studios. I can share links which have Arts And Flowers, but there’s no reason to think they’re going to stay stable. So, let me know if the link rots and I’ll do my best to find a replacement. But Here’s one YouTube source for the cartoon, and here’s the cartoon from a web site I never heard of before looking this short up.
There are important differences. The animation in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon is better. Walter Lantz’s studio was a second-tier theatrical place, but second-tier theatrical was still way ahead of even ex-Disney-animator television. Woody Woodpecker isn’t established as an artist or art student right away; he seems to get interested just by peeking at his neighbor’s mail. The art contest is more narrowly defined as being for a “desert flower”. And it promises only a big prize, rather than a thousand dollars, which turns out to be a picture of a bag of money. Artful Art — I never knew this name, but Wikipedia seems to have settled on it — and Woody Woodpecker sabotage each other right away, even before they’ve reached the desert.
We get some of the same jokes, like Woody and Artful shoving their easels in front of the other. Here, it carries on until Artful falls off a cliff; on TV, Brutus is just baffled to find the flower no longer in front of him. I’m not sure which is the better joke. The Popeye version lets the cartoon move faster to the next beat.
The Woody Woodpecker cartoon has a joke dropped from the remake, in which Artful gets distracted by a laughing hyena. The joke’s better off dropped. It’s funny enough, allowing that the idea of a crying hyena is of course a sufficient joke. It’s that the story is Woody versus Artful. Why throw in a distraction character? Put this in the short where Woody is trying to paint and nature conspires against him instead.
The joke where Artful kicks Woody out of the scene, opens up his easel, and Woody’s in there is lost too. That’s a good joke but there’s no way to make that work with Brutus and Popeye. The joke of the desert daffodil shrinking into the ground and reappearing could have gone in the remake, though, and I’m curious why it didn’t. We get an undermining joke in which Brutus digs beneath Popeye and he sinks into the ground instead. Although come to it, we don’t actually see the moving flower is Woody’s doing, or how he does it. I’d just assumed, since, what else makes sense?
Most interesting, though, are two bits. In one, Woody paints an oasis. As is traditional for stuff cartoons paint on rocks, he can swim in it and Artful can’t. In the other, and most important difference, it’s Woody that paints the railroad tracks and railroad into existence. In the remake, these are tasks assigned to Brutus. To the villain. Woody Woodpecker was always a difficult protagonist. He’s supposed to be this zany agent of chaos. I think it’s telling that the stuff the audience is expected to root for in 1956 is so naturally slid over to the antagonist in 1960. I still like Woody Woodpecker, but appreciate more that he can only work if he’s harassing somebody who deserves it. Put him up against a well-meaning vague shape of protagonist dough, like Andy Panda, and Woody Woodpecker is awful.
In the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, the ability to paint things like the train into reality is set up early. Woody paints a cactus that jabs Artful. Woody paints a woman holding a vase, who hits Artful with the vase. Woody paints a bulldog into existence to bite Artful’s tuckus. But is setting that up necessary? I didn’t have trouble believing that Brutus could paint a train into existence, and given that, Popeye painting spinach into the world is fine.
So. Let me put forth the hypothesis that “Frank J Goldberg” was a one-off pseudonym used by Milt Schaffer. That Schaffer was working at Disney through 1956 suggests that maybe he had a foot in the door at Lantz, but didn’t want his name noticed before he had left Disney. This seems plausible enough. The Woody Woodpecker cartoon Niagara Fools came out the 22nd of October, 1956, with Schaffer’s name on it. This is before the release of Arts and Flowers, on the 19th of November, with I assume Schaffer’s name hidden. But that doesn’t say much about when production on the shorts got started or what whimsies of fate might have pushed Arts and Flowers to later in the year. It suggests that production of Niagara Fools started after Schaffer had left Disney, at least.
Having done all this detective work, I’m just assuming there’s an article on Cartoon Brew or Mark Evanier’s page that describes all the various pseudonyms that Schaffer used and why he used them, and that I’m twelve years late to the party. That’s all right. That is closer than I normally ever am.
Hi all. This recap for Tony DePaul and Mike Manley’s The Phantom, weekday continuity, should get you caught up to mid-November 2019. If you want the separate Sunday continuity, or if you’re reading this after about February 2020 and want the weekday continuity, I should have a more relevant essay at this link. Thank you.
The Phantom (weekdays).
26 August – 16 November 2019
When I last checked in, The Phantom had rescued Imara Sahara from terrorist militias and American bombing. Imara Sahara is the mother of Kadia Sahara Walker, Heloise Walker’s former roommate. Kit Walker was feeling pretty good about having got out of a pretty intense situation without serious harm.
The Phantom and Imara Sahara settle overnight at a safe house. It’s a pretty nice-looking lair and he seems to have the absent owner’s permission to be there. He takes a shower and over a meal answers Imara’s most urgent questions, like, who is he? And why did he save her? OK, he doesn’t so much answer them as say they’ll head out to somewhere else in the morning. But there’s nothing that could go wrong by needlessly withholding information about identity and motivations and objectives from a woman rescued from captivity by a massive, three-party firefight that obliterated her longtime home.
Overnight, Sahara is tormented by thoughts of her husband, and fear of the strange man who’s taken her to an unfamiliar place. While The Phantom sleeps, and relives the day in his dreams, Sahara steals one of his guns. And one of the homeowner’s cars. The Phantom discovers this only in the morning.
And, in a further surprise, The Phantom doesn’t have an idea where to track her down. He had given Sahara instructions to write The Phantom’s secret post office box, and they can watch that. In case she wants to make contact with someone the person she just fled wanted her to contact. And they’ll have to pay the homeowner for the stolen car. The Phantom jokes how he’ll get a terrible AirBnB review for this and, so help me, I don’t know if he’s joking.
Still, at least, Imara Sahara is alive and they can provide evidence of this to Kadia. And The Phantom got out of this all right. Diana Walker asks, you know, given all this, could they maybe bring Kit Junior back from his secret hiding place? (It’s a Himalayan monastery that earlier Phantoms had visited, and who remember them.)
That, the 28th of September, ended the 251st daily-continuity story, Heloise Comes Home. It had started back in December 2018, running 42 weeks overall.
It starts with a couple bikers in the Bangallan forest. They notice someone peeking at them, and shoot at him. Missing the Bandar man, but still. The gunfire attracts a warning from the biker’s superiors. No shooting. Use knives if they have to. And spread out more, for crying out loud.
The Bandar know what to do about this, and consult The Phantom. The data: there’s an alarming number of strange travellers moving through the jungle. Kipawa, heir apparent to lead the Bandar tribe, finds them suspiciously inoffensive. Like, if they were really innocent, at least a couple would be jerks. These have all been non-threatening, I guess because nobody mentioned the one that shot at somebody.
The Phantom goes looking. At one part of the trail he sees three pairs of tourists marching past the same spot over three hours. All the travellers on the trail, he learns, stop at the same moment for the night. He sneaks into one of the travellers’ tents. They’re quite well-armed. But this checks out: they were posing as artists. They got paints and canvas from somewhere, and armed robbery is the least difficult way to afford that. But they also don’t have any cards about how to donate to their ko-fi or what their Patreon is, which is suspicious. So he does another another test: he swipes their guns and ammunition. In the morning the artists blurt out how they’re useless to the mission. So now The Phantom is all but sure something is going on.
The trail of people go through Ogoru and then Llongo territory. They seem to be heading for the Wambesi lands. Next night, the Phantom wakes a different camping pair. He demands information about this whole plan. He warns he recognizes them as carrying papers forged in Rhodia. And part of an column moving to the Wambesi. He warns them to go back, and to invite all their comrades to walk back to Rhodia. He demands they tell what they know about the Python; they insist they don’t know anything about a Python. He knows well enough. And then he has some flashbacks, to help readers who don’t know who this Python is.
The Python is another terrorist leader, from the Wambesi tribe originally. He’s been in stories since 2003’s Terror In Mawitaan, sometimes under the name Chatu. The Python was behind a massive, five-part storyline that started in August 2009 and ran about a year and a half. This is long before I started doing What’s Going On In recaps. It started with The Death of Diana Walker. In this the Python feigned the death of Diana Walker, secreting her away in a Rhodian jail under a false identity.
With the help of Captain Savarna and her highly automated freighter with guns, The Phantom found and broke Diana out of jail. And captured the Python, whom he brought to a secret prison in Wambesi territory where the locals keep watch. I can’t say I like The Phantom’s civil-rights record here, but I do understand how he came to this point. And, incidentally, putting the Python away like this gave Eric “The Nomad” Sahara his big break, so, you know. Probably something about the unending struggle of life in there.
And that’s where we stand on the field: some armed force is moving, in pairs, towards The Python. The Phantom knows that they exist, but their exact motives and goals are not actually yet known. There’s a lot of sinister explanations, though.
We check in on the time of King Arthur with Mark Schulz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant, barring surprises or breaking news. Also please consider looking at the comic strips discussed in my mathematics blog. Thanks for reading.
Thanks for being here, readers of Terry Beatty’s Rex Morgan, M.D.. This recap should get you in touch with the story as it exists in mid-October 2019. If you’re reading this after about January 2020 I probably have a more up-to-date recap at this link. That might be what you need instead.
On my other blog I read the comic strips for their mathematical content. You might find that fun too.
Rex Morgan, M.D..
22 July – 13 October 2019.
Rex Morgan, M.D., was going to face down Serena Galexia, center figure of the Celestial Healing movement. This on behalf of Lana Lewton. Lana’s husband Merle has gone all in for Galexia’s spiritual healing of chemtrail toxins. The process costs only all the cash he can get. Galexia is holding an in-person seminar, in town, right soon. Merle wants Lana to attend. Lana wants Rex to come so he can write up a thoughtful rebuttal for Skeptical Inquirer.
Everyone’s excited for the show over at Galexia Sanctuary Master Command. It’s a smaller operation than you might imagine. Serena Galexia herself is someone name of Angie. She’s the public face. The mastermind of the operation is Brother Almonzo. Or, as he’s known to the strip, Rene Belluso.
We last saw Belluso about two years ago. He was forging 50s comics art “Horrible” Hank Harwood pages as part of a scheme to break up Buck Harwood and his girlfriend Mindy. Before that, Belluso had last been a regular player in the strip from 2014 to 2016. Belluso was introduced by the former writer, Woody Wilson.
The last few years of Wilson’s writing saw a lot of people finding reasons to throw incredible good fortune at Rex Morgan and family. In particular, young Sarah Morgan turned out to be an artistic prodigy. A local mob widow took an interest in her, and sponsored art lessons. Her tutor: Rene Belluso. When Terry Beatty took over writing much of the over-the-top stuff got dialed down. Sarah Morgan’s artistic super-geniusnessocity, for example, got wiped out by a car accident that gave her Soap Opera Amnesia. She forgot a year of her life and how to draw.
On the way to this, one of Sarah’s painting lessons got interrupted. Two rather grim-looking men pulled up in a car, and that freaked Belluso way the heck out. He apologized, said Sarah might not ever see him again, pulled off his wig, and bugged out of the strip for a while. The men told Sarah and her babysitter Kelly that Belluso had pocketed the money given him to buy some stuff in Russia. This was one of the final straws before June and Rex Morgan pulled Sarah out of the mob widow’s sphere.
And once again I owe Mark Carlson-Ghost’s web site, listing appearances of characters in Rex Morgan, M.D., gratitude.. I’d earlier used another page on the site to work out the deal with Norton in Judge Parker. Thanks to Carlson-Ghost’s work I was able to track down just what was Rene Belluso’s deal.
Back to this year. Rene Belluso’s new scam is this health-scam marketing business. They’ve got the meeting room, they’ve got the merch, they’ve got a good twenty people signed up for the seminar. What could go wrong? Well, Rex Morgan could recognize Belluso right away and reveal who he is to the whole crowd. But, on entering, Rex thinks there’s something familiar about Brother Almonzo, but can’t place it. So, no problems then, right?
But then Angie Serena Galexia mentions how Brother Almonzo painted portraits of her spirit guides, Chiro and Ninazu. That’s the clue he needed. Morgan steps over to the side and demands — he’s not sure what exactly. But Belluso is happy to refund Merle’s money, that’s doable. Rex declares no, he’s going to shut this down. Belluso makes an offer. He could give kickbacks if Morgan referred hypochondriacs their way. Morgan has a counter-offer. He won’t tell Belluso’s mobster pals where Belluso is if he leaves town and never returns. Now. Belluso takes the deal.
Brother Almonzo shuts down the seminar. And her calls Galexia “Angie”. Galexia calls him “Rene” back. Merle starts suspecting something is wrong. So do other followers. You know, the way people will when something weird embarrasses someone they’ve given lots of time and thousands of dollars to. Merle pulls of Belluso’s fake beard and wig. He and Angie flee into the night.
Merle admits that yeah, he fell for an incredibly obvious scam, he’s sorry. Lana admits that yeah, Merle felle for an incredibly obvious scam. Also she’s going to grab some bath salts and candles from the merch table because, what the heck. They’re owed it.
Rex goes home and recaps the story for June. So if you wanted to you could just read the week from the 1st of September and skip this whole essay. Sorry to take up so much of your time.
With a phone call on the 6th of September the new story begins. Yes, it’s the rare midweek segue. It’s Buck Wise, reporting, “It’s time.” He and Mindy are going to the hospital.
So yeah, that was a surprise. Who knew the characters in a story comic could have sex? And in a subplot? I mean, when June was pregnant she was carrying for like 27 months and I don’t think that’s even my exaggeration.
But from that point we’ve been in flashbacks. First, Mindy having a lingering heartburn. She turns to the Morgan Clinic for medical help. June diagnoses pregnancy. Mindy didn’t think that possible, because of her polycystic ovarian syndrome. But June explains that only makes pregnancy extremely unlikely, which isn’t the same thing as impossible.
Moving forward a bit. While going out to dinner, Mindy trips and falls down the front steps. Well, if you’re going to love Buck, you’re going to fall down steps. I don’t make the rules. The emergency room says Mindy is fine, and the baby is fine, but they should get several weeks of bed rest anyway. Mindy’s reasonable question: why?
The ultrasound showed a very small tear in the placenta, which should heal on its own, but they’re cautious. Fair enough. The strip since then has been Mindy trying to actually get bed rest. It’s a tough prescription to get, because nobody believes how fatiguing that is.
And that’s where the story is right now: in the flashbacks of Mindy getting bedrest, while she’s actually getting to the hospital. Everything seems all right despite the mishaps. But I have no information on whether that’s a fake-out ahead of a suspenseful delivery scene or what. You’ll have to check whatever the successor essay to this one is to know. Or just read the comic, that also works.
Will Hadley V Baxendale’s father accept her choice in fiancée, even though he’s an up-and-coming NBA player who’s not even playing for the Bulls? Will true love be able to handle both partners in a relationship being successful professionals? Will Mary Worth come in and throw muffins at Neal Rubin and Rod Whigam for poaching her business? We’ll see in a week, with the Gil Thorp plot recap, barring surprises. And at this link I’ll have recaps or news about all of the story comics that I cover. Thanks for reading.
This week’s is a short Popeye’s Island Adventure. I clock it at running two minutes exactly. That’s all right. It’s really funny as it is. Popeye The Painter doesn’t need to be longer just to be longer. Let’s watch.
There’s almost no plot to this short. It’s all setup and punchline. It works. Maybe because the premise is both simple and flexible. Popeye wants a painting. Setup: he tries painting something. Punchline: we see what he’s looking at. Repeat for as many good jokes as the still-unknown-to-us writers have. Add any running jokes and you have a story.
It’s all solid enough jokes, too. Fine art almost always harmonizes well with cartoons. I’m not sure why. It might be that the technical skill of a masterpiece gives a cartoon a better sounding board for its jokes. It might be that animators get really excited about playing with great art. Maybe not; the animation here was about the same as ever, with the writing setting up the comedy. In any case it usually goes well, unless the cartoon goes on about modern art.
Popeye’s first painting is a riff on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, starring Olive Oyl, Eugene, and Swee’Pea. The reality is less glamorous: Olive Oyl, Eugene, and Swee’Pea are trying desperately to escape a giant man-eating clam. It’s a funny setup, and I like seeing how the other characters are off having adventures even when we’re busy watching Popeye.
Then we get a version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, featuring Popeye and Bluto. It’s theologically weird. But we can ask whether Popeye would have been such a great cartoon character if he didn’t have Bluto to play against. There are many cartoons without Bluto, but they are typically less interesting. The “reality” scene is a bit odd too. Bluto’s hanging from a crane in what looks like the aftermath of a scheme to make mischief. That’s fine, and again, I like the suggestion the characters have other stuff going on. Also that apparently Bluto mistook the scarecrow Popeye for the real one, pleasantly goofy. Popeye throwing away the painting makes sense; that this hits the crane’s controls and sends Bluto spinning away seems imbalanced, though. I feel like just abandoning Bluto to his plight would fit better.
On to modern art! Cartoons and comic strips are usually very cranky old men regarding modern art, the last place you can get paid for saying “my kid could’ve drawn that”. This cartoon isn’t so cranky. Popeye paints a Picasso-esque Portrait of Dora Maar. Eugene’s horrified by how distorted his head’s gotten; a good sneeze fixes things.
Then Swee’Pea in a version of Edvard Munch’s Scream. Swee’Pea has something to scream at: it’s the giant man-eating clam, off on a rampage. It’s sudden and funny and by making a running joke gives the cartoon just enough story.
Finally Popeye gets inspiration, drawing a spinached up version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. There’s some nice variations on the eating-the-spinach routine here. In past art cartoons Popeye’s eaten a can of spinach to gain artistic skill. Here he just uses it as a dab of paint, and that’s another smile for me. The music is different too, doing a more chamber music version of the New Popeye theme. He’s finally got the right painting for his wall. Meanwhile Olive Oyl, Eugene, Bluto, and Swee’Pea are fleeing the giant rampaging man-eating clam. Perfect resolution.
I watch these shorts several times over before writing them up, and usually another time while writing an essay. Sometimes shorts improve on the rewatching; sometimes I need a couple watches to get it. This is one I just got right away, and liked from the start. Good concept, well executed. And it finds space to fit in a Magritte joke that’s thematically appropriate to the cartoon and a riff on how Young Popeye doesn’t have his pipe. Good work all around.
I’m doing my best to review all these Popeye’s Island Adventures. Essays about them should be at this link.
But I’ll save my complaints about that for the Comics Kingdom tech support, who won’t do anything about them, or read them. Instead I’d like to offer a follow-up to the August 2017 question, Has The Guy Who Draws Beetle Bailey Ever Seen A Squirrel?
I have to rule “No, not yet.”
I hope to help in preparing things for Thanksgiving. I have reason to think I can. I cook most dinners. I don’t do advanced cooking. I mostly use the cooking trick of “warm up a food thing”. Make sure it’s a food thing (very important.) Warming it up is also important. You can try having, say, an un-warmed baked potato. The results are sad to taste, plus then you have a conversation afterwards about how you reached this point in life.
Still, warming is pretty much the one trick I’m good at. Thanksgiving dinners need two or even four tricks. So its cooking is a challenge. The first challenge is getting over my offense that we find recipes on the Internet. The thing is in the early 80s computer magazines would tell us three things. That we should learn BASIC to program computers. That we could use computers to store recipes. That we needed to know what “modem” was short for. This was all nonsense and I’m annoyed we’re letting computers give us recipes. I don’t care if it’s the only way to find out what a blanched tomato might even be. We don’t need to know that much. “Modem” is short for “modulator/demonstrator”.
So I take a recipe and step into action. I check first that it is a recipe for a thing we want to have at or around Thanksgiving. This isn’t my first rodeo. I confirm the ingredients:
- 1 (one) loaf, adumbrated
- 3 cloves
- 2 5/8 cups water (rotational cut)
- 4 tbsp cream cheese
- 14-18 crackers, club
- pinch allspice
- two eggs (British-style)
- pinch somespice
- 1 can, peas or what have you, 8-12 oz (troy weight)
- cheek-rub nutmeg
- yellow squash (at least two parts yellow to one part squash)
- 1 and 7/9th cups scuppered niblicks
- some mushrooms of the “usual kynde” (Ref: Chaucer, c 1387)
- 2/5th cup sugar (mixed white and dark, or as it is known to professional cooks, “chiarosucrose”)
I spread the cream cheese onto the crackers, interrupted by the two crackers that break in half mid-spread. Placing the smaller half on top allows these to become tiny pyramidal cream cheese snacks. It fortifies me for the work of making food. I’m lucky not to need a snack to get the fortification crackers ready. I discard 2/7 cups of water as surplus to requirements.
There’s sure to be a need for some milk product. I look over the cans: evaporated milk. Condensed milk. Sweetened condensed milk. Unsweetened unevaporated milk. Powdered half-and-half. Half-and-unpowdered-half. Instant yoghurt [sic]. Partially assembled yogurt [sic]. Whipping cream. Whipped cream. Lightweight whipped cream. Summer-weight whipping cream. Pitted milk. Unpitted milk. De-unpitted milk. Re-pitted milk. Lots of pulp milk. Pitied milk. I take out a can of cheese soup stock and pretend to be dusting the cabinet shelf when challenged.
Anticipating a serving-spoon shortage I select some spoons, “fiiyne and trew” (Ref: Pepys, 1667), and set them in a secure spot, thereby causing the shortage.
Preheating the oven to 395 I start telling anyone who’ll listen of how I replaced the heating element in the old electric oven. The only one willing to listen is the new electric oven. I trust this story rallies it to new heights of oven skills, as like four months after I put the new element in we got rid of the old oven. Well, we had a new one. So with the old we looked through Craigslist. We found someone named Craig who wasn’t going to check their lawn any too often to see if someone abandoned an electric oven there. It has a good home now with a Craig who’s entertaining fantasies about some home-based food-making service, so far as we know.
There are instructions on one of the recipe pages printed out about fluting a pie. This is a prank and I pay it no attention.
I open the carton of bread crumbs. It’s a cherished carton, handed down in the family for decades now. The box’s design betrays its age. The lettering is in that check-numbers typeface they used for future-y stuff in computer magazines of the early 80s. Its UPC number is 4. I take a clean handful of crumbs and rub them against the loaf until the crumbs, themselves dryer than my hands if such a thing is possible, crumble. The cloud of bread crumb crumbles spreads in a vaporous movement off the counter. It settles on the floor, where it becomes a patch of the tile that never feels comfortable to walk on again, even in socks.
I set the microwave timer to 1:99, and switch it to 20 percent power, before turning it off.
The butter needs clarifying, as far as we know. We’ve been getting these “butter rolls” from the hipster farmer’s market. They’re cylinders about four inches in diameter and upwards up twenty feet long. I begin the clarification process by connecting it to our lie detector. It’s actually the old iPod Nano, with a broken pair of earbuds used as the sensors. Don’t tell it. We discuss its past and whether it feels any trauma from having once been milk. And then its feelings on converting from milk to butter. What is it to endure the process the dairy industry professionals know as milk-into-butter-converterization-processificationizing? We can only hope to know. Its alibi checks out and it is released from custody.
In a moment of whelming curiosity I look up what it is to “parbroil” a thing. It is to boil a food until it is partially cooked. This makes me rant about how “part boiled” is exactly the joke I would make about what it means. And it’s irresponsible of actual food-related people to pull a stunt like that. I start to ask whether it is a “pound” cake because of the many steps in which one punches the cake. Furthermore, I show with logic everyone agrees to be supremely correct and right and everyone else was wronggity wrong wrong wrong that the word “demonstrator” must imply the existence of a word “monstrator” which would be an explanation which makes the workings of a thing completely obscure.
I am excused from the kitchen.
OK, first thing, the title’s a fib. This isn’t everything there is to say about making art. That would be two or even three whole essays, at 700 to 900 words per kilogram. But I already wrote the title down and it’s pretty snappy as it is and “One-Half or Even One-Third Of Everything There Is To Say About Making Art” reads as wimpy. And not in the good ways.
Also I don’t want to talk about making real art. Real art is too hard. It’s hard enough getting agreement on what “art” even is. “Art” is anything that, when you call it “art”, gets you into an argument about what “art” is. And that’s all great stuff. If you’re willing to get into the argument you get to seriously looking at 2,038 coats of paint brushed onto some wood salvaged from the Demolishing All The Buildings With Character Neighborhood-Revitalization Project and then gouged by a putty knife so you see about half of the colors. If you’re not willing to get into the argument, then you get to point and laugh at the people who’re seriously looking at the scraped over-painted rubble that some creamer-potato of an MFA has titled Renewal. Everybody gets something they enjoy! A “Building With Character” is one that has chipped asbestos and exposed live electrical wires and in each stairway at least two duct-taped steps.
I’m thinking more about low-argument kinds of deployed creativity. Stuff like painting, for example, drawing. Drawing is great because even without specialized tools you can get great responses. Right near you this moment there should be a decent pencil and a clean sheet of paper that you could draw on right this moment. There’s not. Everyone agrees there should be. The closest to either of this is a notepad from that Knights Inn Express Deluxe you stayed at overnight eight months ago. You know. When you were having too much fun in Findlay, Ohio, to get back home that night. The one with four sheets of paper, each dogeared somehow a different amount and bearing coffee stains. The only writing tool is one of those pens with the spring-loaded button up top that, when pressed, makes the pen fall apart. The writing stylus will roll under the heaviest furniture you have.
But you can imagine all the stuff you need to draw on hand. This takes one trip to an art supply store, where you can get a 60-page sketchpad. This will last you fourteen years and survive four major moves, one to another part of the country, and six garage sales. Also get a mechanical pencil with lead so soft that it feels like butter. It feels so comfortable and smooth that you have to be restrained from brushing it on your skin or rolling in a big pile of it.
Amateurs think that drawing is a matter of imagining something and then putting down lines that represent it. This is needlessly hard. I mean, you can sympathize with someone figuring they can’t draw a cool-looking basilisk by looking at a basilisk and then sketching really quickly before your death sets in. But most any drawing is done better with references. With references, you find a thing and look at it, and then you don’t draw that. To make it cool, add sunglasses and a confident attitude. This is expressed by thumbs up.
Like, suppose you want to draw a chair. Why is your business; I don’t judge. Take an example chair. Look hard at it. Then sketch in some rectangular boxes. I mean on your paper. Maybe add a circular box for the curvey part. There’s no boxes in the chair. Unless you’re using it as storage space which I would totally do if my love let me get away with it. But. If you draw the boxes that you don’t see in the chair, and then keep adding more lines, you get a drawing of the chair. It’s as simple as that!
(Yes yes, this simplicity comes with a cost. If you want to draw a box, you have to start out by drawing bunches of chairs. And now you know why you could never convince your friend who does art but for real to draw a box for you!)
Putting in those lines that turn boxes into chairs takes experience, yes. But that’s no reason to be shy about trying. The wonderful thing about drawing is in lines. The more lines a drawing has, the better it is. So keep on putting in lines until it looks like what you want. Or until pressing the button to make more lead come out of the mechanical pencil causes the pencil to fall apart. This lets you learn what your heaviest furniture is now, after the garage sale. What’s important is how much fun it is to get to this point. It is about 58 units of fun. 62 if the chair looks cool which, again, you do by adding sunglasses and thumbs up.
Something I always get in December is the Peanuts page-a-day calendar. It’s an important piece of organizing my life. How can I confirm to myself all afternoon that I’ve completed the tasks I must do every day or else die or break a streak except by tearing off that day’s colorized reprint of a joke from 1966 that I memorized by the time I was seven? But somehow, through the machinations of fate and whatnot, I forgot to get one this December. And nobody was able to find one for me for Christmas. And the bookstore in town didn’t have any, either. So I had to resort to the thing that still feels weird and alien and exotic and maybe a little too much fuss for me, and buy the thing online.
So here’s what I faced looking at the Peanuts 2018 page-a-day calendar on Amazon. And by the way I trimmed out of this the estimated delivery date, which was that it usually strips “in one to two months”. That is transparent nonsense. What could take two months to get a calendar? I know the production rates of the vast calendar mines of Ecuador and I know how much containerized cargo is shipped from Guayaquil to Los Angeles daily. Even with the traffic difficulties caused by Panama Canal expansion. (The shipping goes through Rotterdam for efficiency’s sake.) The numbers don’t lie. Two months is just a fib. Anyway, don’t worry, the nonsense runs deeper.
Somehow — and I put this order in, like, the 3rd of January — someone is selling a used calendar for 2018 for $39.59. In fairness, they don’t say what it’s used for. If it’s used, for example, to scribble down the clues leading to the lost Schulz Treasure, then $39.59 seems pretty reasonable. (The Treasure is what’s left of this stock of ink pens that Schulz really liked, and that he bought the company’s entire stock of when they were discontinuing the model. This may not sound like a lot of treasure, but understand, if you have an art supply you can go up to any artist who draws — including writers or musicians who just doodle while avoiding writing or musicking — demand as much money as they have, and they’ll give it to you. They’ll sulk while they do it, yes, but don’t we all?) But what if it’s not? What if it was used for something more mundane, like, the thing wasn’t even taken out of its box and it was just used to keep a taller calendar from sliding down before someone could thumbtack it onto the wall?
Because if it turns out you can turn a ten-dollar calendar into a forty-dollar calendar just by using it then my entire financial situation has changed. And I’m going to have to have stern words with the version of myself that was asking serious questions about what I needed versus what I would merely like back in 2002 when I was getting out of grad school and preparing to move to Singapore. Because there’s, like, a dozen years of used official Star Trek Starships Of The Line calendars that I just tossed into the bin because they finally seemed to have no value. And don’t doubt that they were used. Every one of them had a little channel individually cut by thumbtack through the paper above the punched-out hole for hanging the things. Many of them also have little strips of manually-added scotch tape attempting to keep December from completely falling off the wall and onto the bare mattress sitting on the bedroom floor. You don’t get much more used than that.
I can’t promise to make every calendar so well used, of course. But I’m sure I could buy some calendars and give them some use. Maybe try to fold out the plastic leg on the back of them that’s supposed to make the calendar stand on its own and doesn’t. Maybe take a date and scribble an illegible note about an appointment nobody can quite make out. What is important to do at 4:45 on Tuesday with Nurl? I don’t know. But every appointment I ever write down is at 4:45 on Tuesday with Nurl. Do you want to miss it? Maybe write out for one of the activity puzzles at least four words you can make from the letters of “resolution”.
I’m not saying this is going to make my fortune. There’s the up-front cost of ten or fifteen bucks per calendar. But at a per-calendar profit of $25 per this is at least as good an hourly rate as anything else I’m doing. Back in the day, my father made a modest but reliable profit buying, fixing, and selling houses. I’m not competent to do that, but why couldn’t I flip a couple days? It’s only fair.
Hi, enthusiast of Terry Beatty’s Rex Morgan, M.D. trying to figure out what’s going on. This is my best effort at catching up what’s happening in the strip as of mid-December 2017. If you’re reading this after around March 2018, barring some surprise, I’ll have some more current essay describing its events. You should be able to get that essay here. And, must say, it looks to me like the strip is transitioning from one story to another. So if you’re reading this in, say, February and don’t know what’s going on, and can’t wait for me, you’ll probably have it all if you just go back to mid-December in the archives and catch up from there.
And if you’re just interested in mathematically-themed comics, I’ve got a week’s summary on my other blog. The mathematics one.
Rex Morgan, M.D.
18 September – 10 December 2017.
I keep remarking how it seems like my story comic summaries coincide with new stories starting in the comics. Some of it’s luck. Some of it’s the ease of confirmation bias. I get to each strip about every 12 weeks. If I’m off by half a month that’s still one chance in three of being “near” the start of a story. Still, last time I checked in on Rex Morgan, M.D. I was like right on the end of a story. June Morgan’s old childhood friend Margie Taylor, dying of plot, had got the Morgans to agree to adopt her child. And she had just vanished, leaving only a pile of problem-clearing paperwork and nice enough kid Johnny in her wake.
Like the week after my last essay the strip went around the horn, touching on some of the major storylines. Wealthy industrialist Milton Avery was shown settling back in his old home in England, no longer recognizing his wife Heather, and unaware that she’s pregnant. The Avery’s house-sitters for their on-panel house are shown to be … nice people that I guess have something going for them. Edward, the kid who tried to bully Sarah during the gas-leak year when she was resident child artist at the municipal art gallery, comes over to show off a dog that’s supposed to be fantastically weird that he can only be shown as a Dick Tracy-style explanatory caption.
And then, come October, we started the real story of the last couple months. It involves the highest form of art according to the people who write comic strips, which is, comic books. Early this year the Morgans helped their friend Buck reconnect with Great 50s Horror Comics artist Hank Harwood. Since then “Horrible” Hank’s gotten some satisfying late-in-life glory from fans who had just supposed he was dead or something, plus a bunch of commissions. But, following an anonymous Internet tip Harwood’s son discovers: somebody’s posting fake Horrible Hank art on auction sites.
Buck, who’s been managing Horrible Hank’s return to the money factory that is commissioned comics art, is horrified. He lodges complaints with the auction site. The counterfeiter responds by saying (a) their stuff is too legit and (b) here’s some news stories about Buck being arrested for art forgery so nyah. Buck is offended by what he calls “doxxing” and files a complaint with the Commissioner of the Internet to get these untrue things removed.
But his certified letter to the Commissioner of the Internet is barely mailed when a major clue steps in. Buck’s getting-quite-serious girlfriend Mindy recognizes the women who spent an hour lingering around her antiques store. It’s Doris, Buck’s abusive ex-wife, who’s supposed to be in jail after this incident where she nail-gunned his head and came after him with a knife. He’s supposed to be under a protection order and get notified when she’s released, but, you know, things happen.
Mindy texts Buck when Doris re-visits the antiques shop. Buck immediately charges into the scene, which goes as well as you could hope for doing the dumb thing. She misses hitting him with a paperweight, runs off, and lets him catch her in her apartment. Her plan: ruin Buck’s reputation as a legitimate comics-art dealer, thereby breaking up his relationship with Mindy, after which she’ll get Buck all to herself. Well, I’ve heard dumber schemes. A disgusted Buck tries to leave, but Doris charges, ineptly, and falls down the steps just after a witness arrives to see the whole thing.
With the crazy ex put back in jail, Buck can look forward to a life as a reputable comics-art dealer. And, with his son’s encouragement, he asks Mindy to marry. She’s happy to. Horrible Hank finally gets to see some of the forgeries. And he recognizes the artist: Rene Belluso. The guy who was giving Sarah art lessons up until Terry Beatty took over the comic and dialed way down the “free stuff for the Morgans” theme.
And besides that Rene Belluso is still out there forging art, that wraps up that storyline, one week ago. This past week was spent delivering the news that Margie Taylor had, indeed died. I intend no guess as to whether that’s starting a new thread about the adoption of Johnny or simply resolving the previous thread. Still, it’s a bunch of successfully deployed soap opera plotting, so, well done.
Viral videos! Micro-managing stage uncles! Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy! No word on the playdowns! It can’t be anything but Neal Rubin and Rod Whigham’s Gil Thorp. Please stop in and see what football players are singing and for what reasons.
Drawing a thing can be a fun recreational and creative pastime, people who are able to draw tell us. For the rest of us it’s a lot of being angry at how we have this killer hilarious cartoon in our heads and it will never, ever be manifested in a way that doesn’t look like it was rendered by a squirrel that was handed a crayon and told there was an almond inside. And is now angry about being lied to. But still, you can’t get good at drawing without learning to sketch some, so let’s look into how to do that.
Before sketching the thing you should decide what kind of sketch to do. A “traditional” sketch is done with a pad of paper and pencils that have been handed down, from house move to house move, since you were in high school because they cost more than your house. I mean, yeow. They’re six-inch tubes of wood with colored lead inside, how do they run so much? Is the Koh-i-noor company thinking it will get rich piggybanking on artists? Have they considered, like, selling pencils to people with more money, like the folks with cardboard signs standing at streetcorners asking for any help and promising God blesses stopped cars? Good grief. Anyway. Traditional sketches are good because they’re easy and portable and you can hide them in your messenger bag for a quick getaway if someone asks why you’re drawing a picture of a squirrel without permission.
The other kind of sketch is “digital”, done on some glass-covered rectangular thing that has to be recharged. This is a popular choice not just because it means you can put off your drawing for the day for six hours while the battery fills back up. It’s also liked because you can effortlessly hit “undo” until your sketch looks not so completely messed up. And then you can try again, until the drawing program crashes. The main drawback is finding a good drawing program. There are six things that a drawing program needs to be good. Coding Law dictates that every drawing program has to leave one out. The one that looks like it has everything? I’m sorry, if you use that program now and then they send someone around to punch you in the stomach. It turns out there’s a secret seventh thing a good program needs: it needs to not sometimes send someone around to punch you in the stomach.
So, choose wisely, and then spend part of every day reconsidering your choice and wondering why you didn’t make a better one. It’s a little something to help you doze off better at work after staying up all night cursing the immutability of the past.
Now you need to figure whether you’re sketching something that exists or something that doesn’t. The advantage of sketching a thing that exists is you can check back on it to see what you’re doing wrong. The advantage of sketching a thing that doesn’t exist is that other people can’t say you draw it wrong. “But wait,” someone might say. “Sea serpents don’t have Popeye arms and warp nacelles!” And then you can glare at them and say, “Prove it.” This doesn’t help your sketch any, but it lets you win the argument, and isn’t that an even more precious thing in these troubled times? You get into some tricky metaphysical territory if you want to draw, like, Garfield, who as a creature of fiction doesn’t exist but who does have a well-agreed-upon appearance that you can’t vary from too much without getting fired by the Guy Who Does Garfield from your job drawing Garfield. If that’s your situation I got nothing for you. Sorry.
And the last thing is to decide whether you’re doing a realistic or a cartoony sketch. To make a realistic sketch, start by drawing a big oval on top of a slightly offset square. Then add cylindrical tubes to the side and the base. Then at the bottom put in a couple of rectangular boxes.
A cartoony sketch is very much like a realistic sketch, except that you draw while thinking about how you’re hungry. Start with an egg shape on top of a giant square food, such as a waffle. Instead of cylindrical tubes draw a couple of bloated hot dog shapes. Instead of rectangular boxes, draw mooshy dinner rolls. Then somewhere put in two dots with half-circles around so it has some emotion.
Now just add details to make your sketch look like the thing you wanted. Save it or scan it, and post it to your DeviantArt account with this caption:
Silly little sketch done to try getting back into the swing of things. Didn’t really come out like I figured but at least I like how that little mooshy dinner roll with the spaghetti curls came out. I’ll see if the art gods are nicer to me with tomorrow’s sketch.
Then, embarrassed by how much it is not what you thought the sketch would look like, put all your drawing equipment away for 34 months.
Before I get into writing way too much about way too small a point, I want to mention my mathematics blog, where I had some more comic strips to write about yesterday. I’d like to say a little more about that, because I want to include an image of a comic strip with alarming art in it.
And if I pad the text enough before including the image, then WordPress makes it appear below the little block on the left with the dateline and tags and so on, then the image is larger, and that’s better.
And I need like one more line before it works on my computer to come out right.
Maybe one more.
One more, I think.
No, don’t need that one.
OK, so, yeah, since about 1950 comic strips have relied on this Mid-Century-Modern-influenced styling. Every comic strip develops its own non-representational but, hopefully, expressive design. And trying to fit something very different into that design can be difficult. Charles Schulz never figured out how to put a cat he liked into Peanuts. But this … I mean … what the heck?
I’m not saying I can do better. My own squirrel-drawing abilities are sharply limited. I would probably give you a better squirrel if I handed a canvas and ink brush to a raccoon and asked her to draw something. She would refuse, because it’s really crummy to ask an artist to draw something for free. I would offer the onion we kind of forgot we’ve had in the refrigerator since May as payment. She would insist also on getting the block of year-old cheddar that’s going a bit off because we’re not eating as much cheese as we expected. I would say she could have the parts that are starting to go dry, but not the salvageable part. And there we would reach an impasse. In any case, we wouldn’t get some Apartment 3-G nightmare like that. That’s what I’m saying.
According to Reuters, Abraham Poincheval, a French artist, has successfully hatched nine out of ten chicken eggs which he had been incubating by sitting on for three weeks. He had been sitting in a glass vivarium at the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum in Paris. He sat on a chair, in an insulating blanket, over the egg container, leaving for no more than thirty minutes a day for meals. Meanwhile I’m in the early stages of an e-mail dispute with coworkers about whether the password for a server was, in fact, changed. I’m not saying he necessarily has used his past month at work better than I have, but he did spend two weeks living inside a hollowed-out bear sculpture in 2014. So he’s got something figured out which I don’t.
- Dogs in glasses.
- Raccoons in glasses.
- I mean eyeglasses.
- Wearing eyeglasses.
- Not “in drinking glasses”.
- Although that would kind of be cool too.
- So maybe raccoons in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- Or any animals in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- 3-D glasses would work too.
- Oh, uh, I dunno, maybe you as a kid doing that Calvin and Hobbes “Let’s Go Exploring” final-ever panel? That’s art, right? I bet that’s art.
[ Edited the 15th of May, 2017 to add: ] I’m grateful you see this site as a place to learn what’s going on in Mary Worth. My most recent story summaries should be at or near the top of this link’s essays, if you are looking for the current or for more recent stories than this post has.
Some of the story comics have undergone changes that aren’t hard to explain.
Most of the story comics are written and drawn by teams of people. The only exceptions I can think of are James Allen’s Mark Trail and Dan Thompson’s Rip Haywire. Mark Trail I’ve talked about. Rip Haywire is a weird case. It’s a humor adventure strip for one thing. Also Dan Thompson is apparently some superhuman force as he produces an estimated 14 to 22 daily comics as it is. I don’t know if any of them appear in newspapers. They should.
For the most part, though, story strips have an author and an artist and they’re separate people. It’s easy to think that the important part of a comic strip is the writing. After all, if the story is boring who cares if the art is good? And there are drearily many comics that get by on pretty good writing and indifferent art. So it seems like the change of artist, such as happened with Mary Worth this spring, shouldn’t change much.
People who pay attention should know better. They’d remember Bill Watterson writing of how when he had a weak Calvin and Hobbes joke he’d go all out on illustrating it. Somehow a lavish picture makes a weak joke better. Or they might remember how that experiment in redrawing Apartment 3-G turned a disastrously bad strip into one that at least parses as a story. And yet I was taken by surprise too.
First things, though: it’s not like the art was bad when Joe Giella was drawing it. Above is his last Sunday strip. It’s composed well enough, with a good balance of close-ups and distant shots, and the camera movement is clear enough. Where people are relative to each other is never confusing, and we never get close to that mess where the character on the right speaks before the character on the left. The worst you can say is that the faces seem a bit weirdly flat — Dawn’s hair does not do her any favors, especially in the third row there — and the fingers look weird. Fingers always do. I don’t think newspapers provide enough space for fingers not to look weird anymore. But if I could draw as well today as Giella did, I’d not be beating myself up for not taking drawing more systematically when I was eight.
Joe Giella retired this year, to enjoy rolling around in the piles of syndicated newspaper story comic money I’m sure he has. June Brigman, last artist for the Brenda Starr comic and a longtime comic book artist, took his place. I can’t deny it took time to get used to her style, and I’m not sure we’ve yet met all of the Charterstone Regulars.
The art’s gotten better, though. Brigman’s doing better at getting a sense of volume into the confined spaces of modern comic strips. And she seems to show more ambition in the choice of camera angles. We’re more likely to see the view from higher above or far below figures. It conveys motion even in a static panel.
I can’t say the stories have changed since Brigman (with the help of her husband) took over the art. The stories have been quite the usual for Mary Worth: Dawn pursues a relationship with one of her instructors that every college and university warns its instructors not to do. Tommy gets injured at work and turns his Vicodin prescription into a Vicodin addiction in no time. Charterstone regular Wilbur Westin, who survived a cruise ship, is taking a sabbatical year to interview survivors of other disasters. His girlfriend is pondering whether to date someone she met at community college even though Zak is decades younger than she is. In some of these stories Mary Worth has something relevant to say. In some of them she just makes a cameo to remind you who’s in charge here.
Still, they read better. They do feel like stuff is happening. The little shortcuts and elided bits of logic needed to carry on a story when you get two or maybe three panels a day haven’t stood out so much. I don’t remember any strips showing action or emotion that might have challenged Giella. But a comic strip is the writing and the art, and it turns out somewhat better art does make the comic enormously better.
I realize that it’s just a programming convention. But when you stop and notice it, it’s kind of weird that the Muppets name all their stuff Muppet stuff. Imagine the reverse; would you watch The Human Show? Well, I guess I would, but I’d be expecting some faintly punk British-produced angry comedy along the lines of The Young Ones. Special case. But then how about, say, Human Treasure Island or Human Wizard of Oz or Humans From Space? … All right, again, that’s starting out interesting. The Humans Take Manhattan? … Saying that out loud I guess I see why the Muppets do that. All right, but let’s imagine a reporter for the local news introduced himself, “Hi ho, this is Kermit the White Guy with a Human News Flash.” OK, this is getting compelling. Forget that I was doing something like grousing.
Based on the Reuters article The Man Who Paints Cows.
Headline: Well done. If there’s anything more immediately obviously amusing than painting a cow, it’s painting multiple cows. Oh, a jerboa has novelty value, but nobody knows what a jerboa is, and in any case they don’t have nearly as much material to paint, what with being small? I think? I’m pretty sure they’re one of those mutant little mouse critters in southeast Asia or Peru or something like that. Cows might be used a lot but they hit the sweet spot of promisingly funny to start with and not being strained. Rating: 6/8.
Story: Disappointing. The story reveals that John Marshall paints pictures of cows, not on cows directly. Well, where’s the fun in that? Anyone who wants to paint a picture of a cow can do so. We’re even encouraged to, with popular books in the arts and crafts stores with names like How To Draw Cows and 40 More Cows To Draw and Here’s Some Cows You Missed Before, Do You Maybe Want To Draw Them Too? and Why Are You Hurting The Feelings Of These Undrawn Cows.
If he were painting cows, that is, using cows as canvas, that would be remarkable. It takes something special to go up to a cow and dab paint on it. Mostly it involves being able to paint before the cow loses patience with the whole business. Also it takes some reliable paint, paint that can stand up to being licked by a cow (painted or neighboring). So the article content is most disappointing. Rating: 2/12.
Picture: This story of a man in East Sussex, England, United We Guess Kingdom is illustrated by a stock Reuters photograph of “Dairy cows [eating] gras in a paddock on the New South Wales south coast near the town of Nowra, Australia, September 5, 2014”. While they still remain cows, they are two-year-old photographs of cows on a continent that hasn’t got anything to do with the painting at hand. Rating: 7/4.
Overall: 15/24. May be re-submitted at the end of term.
Without denying the slick style of this 1969 Chicago Coin-produced pinball machine, and pointing out the game has got some pretty nice, slick shots to play that make it a pretty engaging electromechanical game …
Shouldn’t their oxygen supply be connected to their space helmets instead of their space pants?
Years ago I got a book about skyscrapers. It was a collection of articles from Architectural Digest or some similar quasi-trade publication. The articles were mostly about what contemporaries thought of buildings at the time. It was one of those this-looks-interesting-in-the-dollar-bin purchases, since I know less about architectural criticism than you imagine. No, less than that.
One essay catching my attention, though, was about a circa 1910 skyscraper. The article praised its design for having finally solved the problem of skyscraper proportions. And the picture looked … normal. Boring. There was nothing distinctive about this building. You could drop this maybe fifteen-storey thing into any city and not be noticed. It was a mystifying phrase until I understood the context. If this solved the problem, well, of course it wouldn’t stand out nearly a century later.
The National Cartoonists Society announced yesterday the death of Mell Lazarus. He was renowned in comic strip circles for Miss Peach and Momma. Miss Peach, particularly, I keep hearing singled out for brilliance, and I confess I don’t get it. Probably that’s from lack of exposure. It was never running in a newspaper when I was growing up, and I never saw it on a newspaper’s web site before the strip closed up in 2002. I may have seen it parodied, mostly in Mad Magazine, more than I’ve seen the original. It’s hard to understand what’s great in something that way. It looks like an average example of that Mid-Century Modern comic strip style shared by every comic strip from between about 1960 and whenever it was Dilbert became trendy. But see the problem of the solved skyscraper.
Momma, though, that I read growing up and through to the present day. The family dynamics are awfully screwed up, but in a way normal enough for a joke-engine daily strip. The art, at least at Lazarus’s peak, had that style that looks shaggy and undisciplined, but which you learn is really tightly controlled when you study it seriously or, better, try to imitate it. And the jokes may have gotten harder to parse lately, but it’s hard to land every joke successfully, especially in a comic strip with a necessarily small cast of characters and limited set of continuing stories.
Anyway, by all accounts, Lazarus was a fantastic person and your life was considerably better if he was in it. That’s a great thing for people to be able to say about you.
Apartment 3-G is, by all reports, to end on Saturday, the 21st of November. I am sincerely sad, and not just because people trying to find out what was with the plotless void of the summer have driven my readership to all-time highs. Well, they’re only all-time highs so far. I don’t like seeing long-running stuff end. I especially don’t like seeing them end on sad, pathetic notes.
And before I forget: Over my mathematics blog I look over recent comic strips and discuss their mathematical themes. I’ve also been giving a tour of sets that mathematicians use a lot as domains and ranges for functions. Please give them a try.
Back to business. What’s the final week of Apartment 3-G held, though? It seems to be trying to make an honest attempt at tying down as many of the loose plot threads as it can, finally. On Monday the narration box opened with the declaration “Four Weeks Later, At Their House … ” to show Margo’s parents talking. This time-jump to get away from the mess of unresolved stories is something the strip has used before.
A couple years back a crazed boyfriend of one of Margo planted a bomb that blew up in a charming Christmastime vignette. (Because of comic strip time, the event actually happened a month after Christmas, but that’s not doing too badly.) The comic strip took this promising chance to tell stories about where the characters lived and what they did, presumably separately, while the building was repaired, and the presumably interesting police and court action to follow, and piddled it down its leg. After some admittedly exciting rescue scenes and a few hospital scenes in the burn ward, we got a narrative box that it was “a few weeks later”. Everyone moved back in to an apartment that looked just like it had before.
Still, jumping ahead a couple weeks is an efficient way of getting story threads nailed down quickly. You can just drop anything you don’t have time to deal with. A character can fill in anything essential Mad Libs style. They mention they’re happy now that ___(DEAD FIANCEÉ ERIC)___ has gone back to ___(BEING DEAD IN HIMALAYALAND)___. That reads like a resolution and takes almost no time.
Monday through Thursday was entirely Margo’s parents talking to one another, violently not making eye contact while taking a tour of the few random backdrops left to the artwork. Granted the things Margo had been thinking about, before her eight-month sojourn through the Manhattan wastelands, had all related to her parents’ wedding and her mother’s falling under the spell of a fake psychic. It’s still an odd choice to have the last week of the comic strip basically feature none of the main cast.
Gabby, Margo’s mother, broke up with her fake psychic because of the reasons, so that’s one storyline and the proximate cause of Margo’s breakdown resolved. And the Martin/Gabby wedding is apparently on, since they speak of “our” wedding on Wednesday. They speak of this prominently enough that only the reader who’s ever read any other piece of fiction, ever, would suspect this was setting up for a double Martin/Gabby and Margo/Greg-or-possibly-dead-Eric-who-died-of-death wedding to close out the comic strip’s run.
Thursday takes place in a nearly featureless void, with a plant growing out of the date box. It would be appropriate for the start of a double wedding ceremony. Granted, Gabby and Martin aren’t dressed for a wedding, certainly not one they’d be part of. They’re more dressed to experience that vague awkwardness of maybe being a little overdressed for TGI Fridays without being actually, clearly, too dressed up for it.
So, of course, having teased the idea of a double wedding Friday dashes that. Margo makes her first appearance in a week and a half to say she isn’t marrying Greg, who she wasn’t planning to marry even before she spent 2015 wandering around a featureless void.
Obviously this’ll be the last Friday-night-Eastern-Time post recapping the nothing happening in Apartment 3-G. I do mean to have some closing thoughts, after the final strip posts. I don’t suppose there’s another story strip likely to capture the strange baffling charm of the last few years of Apartment 3-G.
I’m sorry to get to this late, but other stuff kept coming up. Remember the architecture critic for the local alt-weekly? The one who took his mandate to ridicule shabby and run-down buildings around town as a chance to explain how ugh but the vertically oriented windows do not work with the lines of the house? He’s still at it.
With autumn in full flush, one’s eyes are naturally drawn upward to enjoy the resplendent colors of the season. Unfortunately, that view is diminished when the bright colors are pruned away to allow for the unrestricted distribution of utility lines.
So my headline here is a bit unfair since he isn’t actually decrying the natural progression of seasons. He’s more protesting that we have power lines. To be fair, the city was hit badly by an ice storm two winters ago that knocked out power for a lot of the area. Some homes were without electricity for up to 23 months and reverted, Flintstones style, to having their cell phones charged by trained pterodactyls on bicycles hooked up to generators. And underground power lines would have a harder time being knocked out by ice storms and falling branches. And then we wouldn’t have to trim branches so as to better knock out power lines during ice storms.
Anyway, the cover story of last week’s issue was Art Infusion: Public Art Is Popping Up Around Lansing, But Where Is It Coming From? The question suggests that city officials just patrol the streets each day, and occasionally run across some bright-orange pile of twisted metal girders, and phone the main office to report, “Yeah, looks like we got some new public art on Eight Street. No, don’t think it’s actively threatening. I did hear a rumor of a Dali-esque melted-clock installation at Cedar and Kalamazoo, going to check that next.”
Before chatting about Apartment 3-G, may I remind you that I regularly talk about comic strips over on my mathematics blog? In this series I explain mathematically-themed comic strips, which lets me talk about monkeys a lot more than you might have guessed. I’ve also been doing a sequence of essays about the kinds of sets mathematicians see a lot. It’ll completely revolutionize your sense of small talk.
On to Aparment 3-G. Let me first get this out of the way. From Sunday’s recap strip:
I mean, honestly. Let’s look at that first panel again:
So. I trust you’re all here because you heard the rumor. According to Joe McQuaid’s Publisher’s Notes column at the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union-Leader — a newspaper that dropped the strip earlier this year, citing its catastrophic decline — Apartment 3-G is to be cancelled later this year.
It’s a plausible enough rumor. No story strip is in good shape, reader-wise, and few of them are in creatively good shape. Mike Staton and Joe Curtis’s Dick Tracy is producing good, energetic stories, but they’re all built on fandom-pandering and nostalgia. (The current storyline appears to be some kind of Mirror Universe/Earth-3 plot. This lets them pull out every character that got killed off in the 40s back on-screen, to be killed again.) James Allen’s produced several exciting and well-paced stories at Mark Trail, although they’re all based on nature trying to kill us. This makes for some rollicking adventures but seems off-message.
I can’t find confirmation, though. All the reporting on this seems to be based on McQuaid’s comment. And in the same column McQuaid talks about having lunch with “my friend, The Donald” and how they totally should have played nine holes of golf like he said even though The Donald mistakenly thought the weather would be too bad. So McQuaid deserves to be wrong, and punched.
Frank Bolle’s web site is obviously derelict. Its latest news announces Bolle’s upcoming appearance at San Diego Comic-Con for July 2004. Margaret Shulock’s blog was last updated in June of 2012, with a post that she was back, she thinks. Comics Kingdom’s News Around The Kingdom blog today has nothing to say about the strip one way or another, even though the strip’s fate is the biggest news about a King Features Syndicate comic strip property this week. Syndicated comic strip fans live in a weird space.
But there is the blood in the water. I can’t think of any comic-strip cancellation rumor from the past five years that turned out to be wrong, with the possible exception of Dick Tracy. (I forget just what rumors were running at the end of Dick Locher’s tenure on it.) Still, apparently James Allen is pitching himself as a new artist, possibly new writer, for Apartment 3-G to King Features. (I say apparently because he posted this on Facebook, in an account not available to folks like me that happen not to be on Facebook. I’m inferring its content from what other people say about his posting.) I do not know how his revitalization of Mark Trail has gone financially. If good work were rewarded, the strip would be holding its own or growing in subscribers again, and we would live in a world different to this one.
And many have noted that the occasional “flash forward” week done that Francesco Marciuliano writes for Sally Forth. These depict Hilary Forth and her friends Faye and Nona ten years in the future, as a trio of women sharing an apartment while struggling as young women in The City. The resemblance is uncanny. Coincidence? Perhaps, although Staton and Curtis did write and draw a Dick Tracy adventure with the serial numbers filed off to show what the comic strip could be like, with fresh writing and solid art. Why not Marciuliano and Allen? (I have no information to suggest Marciuliano is interested. The original flash-forward read as a simple lark, and the premise is enough to sustain revisiting it now and then.)
I would like to think so. If Bolle and Shulock aren’t interested in, or aren’t able to, carry on the strip then I would like it to be in enthusiastic hands. Soap opera syndicated comic strips should be good, and the people who like reading them should have them available. And I would sincerely like to see more soap opera strips be good enough that they don’t support snarky, ironic readership. It’s not a law of nature that the story strips have to be bad. I hope that if Shulock or Bolle are leaving the strip then King Features Syndicate will find interested talent who can give us interesting, well-drawn stories.
When last we looked in on Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G the flow of time had broken down entirely, with something like ten months of reader time taking about two days in-strip. I was willing to let that pass. Margo was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, and her dead fiancée Eric was sent out to tell her parents.
This past week has seen Eric, who spent months (our time) hovering around a confused Margo without telling her who he was or why he was there, doing his bang-up job communicating Margo’s condition to her parents. To be fair, he did meet Margo’s Dad. In the daily strips Margo’s Dad turned out to be Eric drawn from the other side. In the Sunday recap it turned out Margo’s Dad was Eric but fifteen years younger. He got them to the hospital, which appears to be the same room as the diner and every apartment in the strip. Margo’s Dad suggested they go outside for no reason other than the strip was going to start being drawn outside anyway. Margo’s Mother didn’t understand this, or why Eric wouldn’t come along, and they started bickering.
They kept this up all week, ultimately making Tommie appear out of the aether to join them in squabbling. Tommie asserts that Margo’s taken a turn for the worse. This might be because she disappeared on the streets back on the 22nd of September and wasn’t seen since. Invisibility will complicate even the simplest of medical conditions.
The storytelling has been stumbling ahead all right. The Eric-and-Margo’s-Parents thing looked like action without actually being anything. But it’s at least consistent with Eric’s incompetence at telling people things he is aware they ought to know. And Margo taking a turn for the worse is at least a development, placed reasonably at Thursday, a spot where it can be reiterated enough times for people to get that it happened.
The art continues its sad decay. Margo’s Dad — Martin — may have swapped ages with Eric; I’m honestly not sure. That’s been more or less consistent for the week, at least. Margo’s Dad suggesting they leave the Apartment Diner Hospital in favor of outside almost looks like writer Margaret Shulock working around artist Frank Bolle’s background shifts. When they suddenly start Wednesday’s strip outside the reader can suppose the characters chose to go outside and we were spared the details of the decision. The backgrounds look almost natural.
This implies that characters are now going to start suggesting they change their locations, so that when the backgrounds do inevitably shift it’ll have some narrative justification. This also implies the conversations will turn into a series of characters saying, “Let’s go to the diner”, being answered, “Let’s go outside”, and countering, “Let’s go to the apartment”, with nothing ultimately happening. I am not sure this is worse than the actual dialogue, which this week ran something like this:
Margo’s Mom (Gabby): What about you, Eric? Why don’t you come with us?
Eric: That’s very kind, Gabby. Maybe later.
Margo’s Mom: Why later? Do you know something we don’t?!
Margo’s Dad (Martin): Calm down, Gabby. You’re scaring yourself for no good reason.
[Suddenly outside] Margo’s Mom: You don’t understand how a mother suffers! You have no feelings, Margin!
Margo’s Dad: I’m not going to fight with you, Gabby. There’s no point.
Eric: Martin and Gabby, please don’t argue. We’re all very upset.
Margo’s Mom: See, Martin?
I know a story stalling for time when I see it.
So that’s this week’s action, for all who are confused. Margo’s Parents are now aware that she’s in distress, and is getting worse. And they’ve apparently gone to one of those famous Hospitals Without Walls, so it just looks like everything is happening outdoors. They’re in front of that car that might be pointing either direction.
Why do we art? And if we must art, can anything be done about it? These are questions that come to mind if we’ve already worked out what we mean by ‘art’, or by doing artistic things. Let me explain what art is. Art is the way you make yourself feel inferior whenever you observe something you used to enjoy.
Let’s say you enjoy drawing. If you just like drawing, you can find drawings and look at them and enjoy them. If they’re bad drawings, you can enjoy laughing at them. If they’re great you can pass them around to people who don’t care about visual arts and demand they respond. They’ll finally nod and agree that’s an awesome whatever the heck it is. Also, they’re moving to a secret location inside a linen closet, beside the towels, so don’t need any more pictures, thank you.
If you attempt to draw, though, you can’t enjoy drawing anymore. Any really skilled drawing is a reminder of how awful you are at it. You can’t do that thing where a line is drawn so it looks like a line. Your best attempts at drawing a foot earned you hate mail from the Foot-Drawing Hall Of Fame. And that’s even though you never let it out of the spare room where you hide all your creative dreams and you don’t know how they got your address. You’re not allowed to look at feet now, says the Hall of Fame, which seems like an excessive reaction since you weren’t even attempting socks.
No, you were just making yet another attempt to get any good at drawing. This time you were following the instructions in some How To Draw Fifty Popular Cartoon Characters For Kids book. It’s a fun book, what with how its title implies Mutt and Jeff or Hardy Har-Har or the cast of comic strip Boner’s Ark are characters kids love, or have ever heard of. The book’s a reprint from 1984, which makes it a little better, but still. If you completed the book perfectly, it implies, you might be able to finally draw! Some strange figure named Wash Tubbs! In exactly one pose ever! But what you actually have are a series of off-model Felix the Cats and the haunting discovery that while Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble have toenails, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble do not. Why? Why? Why?
So you can feel worse about yourself, of course. You can put time in. You can put in better materials, too. I mean, you can draw just using a sheet of paper stolen from the printer and the pencil that’s supposed to be near the phone for messages and never is. But down at Michael’s you can get a nice quality sketchbook and some mechanical pencils and a few basic ink pens for little more than all the money you have. And it comes with a coupon good for forty percent off anything except purchases at Michael’s. Really, it’s just worth it to be in the line that consists of four people, none making a complicated purchase, that somehow still doesn’t move until someone from outside, dressed for winter in so many layers of clothes they’re a tumbling sphere of laundry, rolls in and knocks people over.
None of that matters. You can put in all your time and your best effort and best materials and it will always look to you like you’ve drawn lovable alien monstrosity Stitch as a potato, using potatoes smeared onto tree bark. You can scan it and try to touch it up in software, and so get Stitch drawn as a potato using smeared potatoes on tree bark, but airbrushed. And you can’t look at a picture of Stitch, or worse, the whole movie Lilo and Stitch, anymore without feeling inferior.
I’ve picked on drawing, because it’s easy to understand. Everybody used to draw, and most of us stopped doing that and felt good about ourselves instead. But the same effect applies in any field. Photography, singing, music, writing … There are even people who say computer programming is an art, because they don’t have to deal with people who use their programs. But look close at people who’ve taken up any of these fields. You’ll find musicians trying to do something that sounds like the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”. They’re growling at the guitars and cursing out Ray Davies’s chord progressions, just like everybody else.
Or consider writing. I’ve done a lot of it, and I like to think I’m decent in the pop-mathematics and the humor fields. Back in August I caught an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It mentioned among other overpriced Whole Foods nonsense items “a plate of grain blown back and forth between two fans”. Every day since then I’ve chuckled at that phrase, and that video. The only thing stopping that chuckling is my anguish that I can’t even imagine my writing something that effortlessly absurd. If I didn’t write, I would just enjoy the line. But because I do write, it makes me feel inferior.
What if you already feel inferior? I’m sorry to break this to you. I don’t know who wrote the line about the fan-blown plate of grain. But I can tell you this, truthfully. That writer is haunted by how much worse that joke was than something she’d read not a month before. And how she might someday, maybe, write something that’s close to how funny she wanted it to be. So not only will your art make you feel inferior, but your feeling of inferiority will be inferior to other people’s feelings of inferiority.
I’ve got further thoughts about the sensible thing to do. You can catch me with them, on line at Michael’s. I’ll be jotting ideas down on my iPod and screeching out unfunnily bad notes on the violin I took up in third grade. See you there.
Let me get my publicity out of the way first. A couple days ago my mathematics blog gave serious thought about how the teachers in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith could do better. Also I reveal its fictional location, based on a reference to a 1940 story where Snuffy Smith brings the United States Army over for training. Really.
So. What has gone on in Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G since I last explained the nothingness? We’ve gotten actual information, is what. I think this reflects the Just End The Story Already Fairies taking hold and trying to get out of this failed storyline as soon as possible. Tommie somehow examined Margo’s heart without visible stethoscope on the streets of Manhattan, and then rushed her to Manhattan General, which I guess is the hospital Tommie supposedly works at. Or worked out. She made noise about quitting but goodness knows if her supervisors or even she took it seriously.
This week, Tommie and Margo’s dead fiancée Eric have been talking, while standing randomly on the streets of 1958 Albany. Tommie revealed that Margo’s problem is hyperthyroidism. Tommie says typical symptoms are anxiety, impatience, and depression, which I suppose fits Margo well enough. I do not think that wandering around in an amnesiac fugue state for months is one of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism. However, I won’t get in the way of the Just End The Story Already Fairies in trying to use that to get out of things. To demand medical authenticity out of a soap opera strip is to demand scientific authenticity out of science fiction. It’s not what the genre is about.
Since the story has been progressing well enough that makes the ineptness of the art stand out more. The week’s strips have been Tommie and Eric standing around random street scenes talking with one another. I suppose since they’re just casually (if understandably) violating health privacy rules they could be speaking anywhere. I’d put the action in the hospital or in either of their apartments, but this is an artistic choice that can be defended.
If it’s a made choice. And here the strip from Sunday, the 27th, stands out. As usual the Sunday strip repeats the action from the previous week: Tommie listening to Margo’s heart, declaring they have to get her to the hospital, and telling Eric they won’t give up. During the week before, the action switched at random between street and apartment setting. And, amusingly, Margo stopped appearing altogether after the panel in which Tommie declares she’s going to listen to Margo’s heart and breathing.
In the Sunday redraw of this, the action takes place entirely on the street, except for the penultimate panel in which they’re suddenly back inside an apartment somewhere. Then it jumps back again. This doesn’t even parse.
And here we have a convenient experiment. One of the supererogatory commenters on the Comics Curmudgeon site, A Lee, took the Sunday strip as scripted and laid out, and redrew it. It’s inked in, only, not colored, but the effect is radical.
Nothing more happens, but it at least looks like things are happening. I don’t know whether tight, controlled, and well-composed artwork like this would wear better day-to-day. Things are still only barely happening and that because the Just End The Story Already Fairies have stepped in. But at least in this example the strip reads well. I would rather the strip were well-drawn and well-plotted. But it’s astounding how much effect simply making the artwork better has.