Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What Makes A Comic Book Artist?

The Merlin asked me earlier today, if I love comics and animation so much, why don't I learn to draw. Apparently one of my younger brothers is teaching himself to draw precisely because of his similar love.

My reply was something along the lines that I consider myself to paint using my words and I hadn't really thought of taking time and energy to learn a new skill from scratch - such as with drawing. But then I came online and stumbled into this post about Greg Land. It led me to this defense of Land. In it Rich of Comic by Comic uses this phrase:

I appreciate what Land can do, even if half of it is from some kind of collage.

That phrase has momentarily rocked my world. While reading the previous admonishment of Land's recycling, reusing and swiping, I'd found myself thinking that he must spend an awful amount of time collecting poses from magazines and tv-stills. I had the thought that if he used that time actually drawing, his skills and speed might improve to the point he wouldn't need to keep doing what he has been doing. But then I realized that given how long he's been allowed to pass with his lightboxing, he probably has a fair enough build up images with which to make collages.

So why aren't more people tracing off collages and creating their own comics? And is that an avenue I'd want to take in order to tell a story? Or is it better to find an artist to collaborate with if I ever decide/want my love of comics to go from appreciation to creation.

Does one need some artistic talent to trace? What if you have a good eye, as Land is thought to do via his composition? Is that enough? Does anyone have any ideas on how long it'd take to become proficient at tracing? Does it count as drawing? Could an entire comic actually be done that way? Should I get a digital camera and go out and take as many pictures of city-life as I can? Should I save interiors from a magazine? Is someone out there besides Land already doing precisely that?

What makes an artist? What constitutes vision?

I don't think I've actively thought about this in terms of drawing/visual representation before.

What's the difference, in technical terms even, between the stills that Land draws (I see them as movie stills/ movie storyboarding) and panels that speak of action. I know when I look at comics I often see the characters moving in my head. Realistically I know they're standing still, but as I read and involve myself in the story, there's movement - I read it from the panels. Where does that sense of movement come from and is that the only really important thing when it comes to drawing comics? Is it one of the most important things?

For example, with Land, I've often found myself bored with the story, because the pacing seems slow. Is that impression a result of the lack of movement?

Does it matter to most readers what the quality of art is? The defense of Land also mentioned the 'too plastic' sensation I've gotten with a lot of Land's drawings. I've mentioned before that I find photorealistic artwork staid - more slideshow than living breathing tale. But is that something that can be ignored in favour of good storytelling? Or is it not just the writing, but also the artwork that makes or breaks the tale?

I know for me, some of my absolutely favourite animated stories, are my favourites because of the combination of artwork and writing/dialogue. One of the reasons that I know I'm unlikely to appreciate certain classics of Japanese animation is because the artwork's often too blocky for me to enjoy watching it. I can't really define it at the moment but the art, background and foreground has to be all of a piece to me, and living; the creation of a world. In some animation it feels to my eyes as if the buildings and characters and rubble and sky are all different pieces instead of one whole. It's not just a flipbook level of animation with jerky movements, it's as if a different person drew the buildings, or the buildings were stock drawings added in against the cel.

Hmm, I've rambled a bit. But I think I'm asking: What makes a comic book artist an artist? Should we be thanking the inkers and colourists for making Land's compositions seem alive to some? I know when I've found a story I want to read that involves Land's artwork, I check the colourist first. The beauty of their creations may sway me.


  1. Great post. Just now I'm teaching myself to draw (yep, I've got How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way :D) and I'm watching my teenage neighbour, who's just getting into comics, do the same thing with a teach-yourself-Manga-style book. And it's made me more curious about the process of comics artists, so this debate is intriguing to me.

    I remember that when I read British girls' comics in the late 80s-thru-90s, they became increasingly dominated by photo stories - everything would be posed by actors and the comic strip would be like a series of stills from a TV show. Obviously how well it worked depended on the ability of the photographer to direct the actors and capture a moment, but then it wasn't pretending to be anything but a photo-story.

    Now Rem often points out to me instances in comics etc. where an illustrator has worked from a photograph, though I don't think they're usually traced. I don't know how he spots them in the first place (Artist Spider-Sense, I guess), but the funny thing is that once he's pointed them out I can usually see something different, though I lack the vocabulary to explain it. Maybe it is stiffness, not just because it's from a photograph, but because of the intent of the original photographer.

    Like, if you were going to make a comic where a teenage girl talks to her friend, you might decide to copy or trace a magazine cover where the girl in the photo is sitting with her chin in her hands, smiling broadly. And that would look a little off in the comic context because the original context comes through - that the smile's too broad, the eyes focused in a different way to how they'd be in a conversation. I think that if there's problems with some of Greg Land's work, it's because he hasn't understood that you can't always transfer an image, even if it shows roughly the pose you want...

    I do think it's a pity he resorts to this so much. I'm not sure whether artistic integrity loses so many points between copying a photo and tracing it (also, is he only tracing or is he adding to it with heaviness of line, shadow etc., in the manner of an inker?), but to copy another artist's work so blatantly (as is stated in one of the linked articles, some cases will be homage, but many clearly aren't) just seems dodgy.

    And I think you're right that he's coasted on this for a long time - maybe he's afraid to test his skills in drawing figures because hes got this far by copying.

  2. Tracing is a VERY good way to start, most people traced letters when they started writing I think? When I was a kid I traced over fashion models... After a while you should be able to draw whatever you were tracing on your own.
    A lot of manga artists trace backgrounds, which doesn't bother me because everyone knows about it. They sell background books for you to trace out of in Japan. The characters 'look' are very important in manga (and for marketing :D) so tracing people would not work as well, because they need an original stylized look. I guess that's why I don't trace either. My art is not great but people recognize it.
    Since American comics are more photo-realistic (i'm guessing I don't read them) tracing people is probably not as bad. I just think that would make it hard to compete against other books if the art was all the same...
    Another note on learning to draw, you can also use the grid method
    can't really answer what makes a comic book artist an artist, comics is just a medium to me, but inkers and colorists are important.^_^ good luck with what ever you decide