Aug 3, 2008

Comics Review

It's that time again for a review of cartoon and animation-themed websites that are worth checking out. It is important for artists to surround themselves with other artists and artistic influences to foster their own creative impulses. This time we're going to look at both good and bad comics, and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Animation Backgrounds

Animation Backgrounds is a superb blog run by Bob Richards which examines the backgrounds on which classic cartoons take place. Because we're focused on the action in the foreground, we don't get to appreciate the exceptional artwork which sits in the background. Unlike today's cartoons, in which the quality of art and animation is truly horrendous, the golden age of cartoons (the 1930s through the 1950s) were artistic and visual masterpieces. Below are a couple of examples of this fine blog, which has a huge collection of backgrounds, everything from Disney to Popeye. Be sure to check it out!


While it's good to look at the best of comics and animation, it's also good to look at the worst. Unfortunately, there's a lot to look at, as a lot of artists don't take a lot of time with their craft, preferring to illustrate a tired pun or cliche. I understand the pressures of deadlines, but it's hard to forgive the worst examples, into which it's obvious no creativity or inspiration has been exercised.

Uncle Funny Bunny and Chumpy

The website Cartoon Brew has come to the conclusion that Uncle Funny Bunny and Chumpy (click for larger image) deserves the award for worst comic, and it's hard to argue with them. Admittedly, it was run during the fifties, a more innocent age when the humor was a lot more subtle than it is now, but this strip is just plain awful. While it strives to be humorous, the gags are painfully unfunny, the artwork is stiff and there is zero character development. You can't help but wince after reaching the punch lines with this strip. Check out Cartoon Brew for more examples; it's an excellent cartoon and comics-related website.

The Flintsones

My favorite blog Stupid Comics profiles this comic book produced by an educational publisher of incredibly lame Flintstones comics. Each page has a three panel strip on it, and you'd be hard pressed to even find the punch line. The setups are based on the lamest of gags, and what's worse, this goes on for fifty pages. Ouch.

Check out Stupid Comics for a lot more examples of poor artwork and writing. The commentary that goes along with the comics is priceless.

Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker

Beetle Bailey, like Hi and Lois, Hagar The Horrible, and The Wizard Of Id are so stale, past their prime and lamely unfunny, it's amazing they are still around. The gags awful, painfully stretched out over several panels and obviously cranked out as quickly as possible so the artists can be at the golf course by tee-time.

Nothing ever changes in these strips. The gags remain the same, and the characters never change or develop. Perfect example: soldiers feeling awkward around a pretty girl has been covered, oh, about a half million times already. Miss Buxley exists in Beetle Bailey as a two dimensional stereotype whose only purpose is to rerun the same tired theme over...and over...and over again.

The Wizard Of Id
- I don't even get the humor of this one, it's so bad. So someone added another pie to the windowsill? That's funny...why??

Hagar The Horrible
- See it's funny because the king said peace and Hagar meant piece. See? See?? Oh, never mind...

Hi and Lois - This strip has been consistently lame and unfunny ever since I could remember. Mort Walker takes a play on words, or the barest thread of a punchline, and stretches it out into two or three panels. When you've been doing comic strips as long as Mort Walker has, you eventually run out of good ideas, which is why there should be term limits for comic strips, so fresh artists have a chance. Instead, stale husks like these monopolize the dwindling real estate of the paper's funny pages.

In Contrast - Calvin and Hobbes

In contrast to the examples above, consider Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, one of the best illustrated, best written comic strips of modern times. The strips are insightful, genuinely funny, and amazingly rendered. Watterson is a true artist who put an enormous amount of effort into his strip, starting the process with a yellow legal pad to work out the ideas and dialogue before he even went near his drawing table. The strips were a way to examine the joys and miseries of life, to explore the outrageous fantasy world of a hyperactive six year old. Sadly, Watterson's constant battles with the press syndicate to maintain the integrity of his beloved creation contributed to burn out, and he retired.

The world is a sadder place because of it.

Here, Calvin makes an excellent point about society, and people's
tendency to use big words to make themselves sound more important than they really are. The artwork is not overpowering; it's simple, which is appropriate, because it's the ideas that are the most powerful element here. Watterson is making a good point, humorously.

Watterson is such a good artist he doesn't even need words to stir our emotions. We can all relate to the idea of having to be somewhere we don't want to be on a rainy, unpleasant morning (school, or work). Look at each panel individually, really look at them one by one. Each panel stands alone as an evocative image that has its own emotional impact. Watterson is telling a wordless story that touches something within us.

Bloom County

Bloom County, by Berkley Breathed, was at its most popular in the 1980s, although it it is still published today. It was filled with quirky characters, such as Opus, the insecure penguin, and Milo,
the cynical observer of humanity. Like Watterson, Breathed explored the odd facets of our society and humanity's fears and motivations. Unlike Watterson, much of the strip in the 1980s revolved around politics, making it seem irrelevant today. Be aware that what you're writing about may be one day outdated. Much of its humor still has punch though, and the artwork is well above average.

Here is what happens when someone tells us not to do something. What do we do? We do it anyway, just because someone said not to.

One of the running gags in the strip was the anxiety closet, a place where our darkest, scariest fears h
ide, only to come out in the middle of the night. Ever spent a sleepless night worrying about something that seemed so big, scary and awful overnight, that seemed completely non threatening during the day?

Another brilliant point, made with humor: our fears are a lot closer than we think they are. Comics can make some pretty profound points.


One of the most popular comics in the twentieth century, around the world (particularly in Europe), is Tintin, created by the Belgian artist Herge about an intrepid reporter named Tintin who travels the world, getting into all sorts of amazing adventures, running into strange characters. The artwork is nothing short of superb, and the stories are easy to follow, approachable, and keep you engaged throughout. The Tintin books have been translated into over fifty languages, and over two hundred million copes of the Tintin books have been sold to date. For an in-depth look at Tintin, visit this page.

The most striking feature of Herge's creation is its use of color, going far beyond the American comics of the time, using color for emphasis and to simulate the visual look of films. Some panels would take up an entire page just to showcase the vivid, intricately rendered detail. Herge considered his pages the printed equivalent of movies and the colors fairly burst from some of the pages.

Tintin's adventures ranged from open seas pirate adventures, to mysteries, to secret societies, and even a two-volume story about his trip to the moon (one of my personal favorites).

Herge had an excellent understanding of comic book pacing, using panels to slowly build up tension and intrigue, carrying readers along for the ride, letting them discover the clues along with Tintin. There are no annoying word boxes that narrate the action, and there is a good dose of humor (some it works, some of it doesn't) infused throughout, stemming from the odd collection of characters.

Herge, whose real name was Georges Remi, did a lot of research in preparation to planning another Tintin adventure. He would create fictionalized
countries, complete with its own particular culture and style of dress, amassing a library of photographs to draw from, in order to render his fictionalized countries as realistically as possible. Months of research and preparation went into the two-volume Moon books, even going so far as to create a miniature mock-up of the interior of the rocket so he could draw it as flawlessly as possible.

Artists are seldom spared criticism, and Herge was no exception. Some of his depictions were labeled racist, particularly blacks. At the insistence of American publishers,
several black characters were made to look more neutral in color. There were also a couple of characters that were criticized as fostering unflattering Jewish stereotypes. The lesson we can draw from this, is that your artistic creations will be scrutinized by people. Their criticisms may or may not be valid; it depends on the point you are trying to make. Cartoon art can be used to entertain, or it can be used as a tool to advance a specific agenda, one of its most powerful uses. In this case, Herge's experiences and background guided him to depict the world in a certain way, a way that some people disagreed with. Such is the life of an artist.

Herge, who was inducted into the Comic Book Hall Of Fame in 2003, died in 1983 at the age of 75 due to complications arising from anemia caused by bone cancer.

Non-Mainstream Comics

Garfield Minus Garfield

Garfield, as everyone probably knows by now, is about a lonely loser named Jon who has no life and talks to his arrogant, lasagna-loving cat. It's a mystery to me why people find this strip funny and endearing; the Jon-can't-get-a-date theme has been explored so often it's not even remotely funny anymore.

A site called Garfield Minus Garfield
removes Garfield from the comic strips, leaving just Jon, and the result is striking: an existential, thought- provoking strip that, while not funny, is nevertheless intriguing. Here you have Jon talking to himself in his sad, lonely little world, without even the company of a cat. There's something sad, and a little creepy about this new world without Garfield in it.

The Outbursts of Everett True
was a bizarre comic strip that ran from 1905 to around 1927, when one of its creators, A.D. Condo (the other was J.W. Raper) had to give it up because of health reasons. It was a fairly popular comic strip which followed a predicable pattern in every strip.

In the first panel, Everett True would be confronted with the rudeness, lack of compassion or annoying behavior of someone. In the second panel he would launch into a violent rage. The strip was meant to point out the frustration people would experience everyday nuisances and annoyances. Later, the strip added a Mrs. True, at which point Everett became the victim. There was even a movie inspired by the strip, called Everett True Breaks Into The Movies, released in 1916.

Enjoy the following examples of this truly unique comic strip! To see a lot more of this strip, click on the following link, then click on each numbered square (the website doesn't have thumbnail images, just numbered boxes for each page). LINK

Everett True is a man who truly needs a lot of anger management classes.

These days I think they would call that "simple assault", or "assault and battery".


Not all comics and graphic novels have to be funny, amusing and lighthearted. Maus is a perfect example. The only graphic novel (yet) to win a coveted Pulitzer Prize, it is a masterpiece of storytelling that tells the story of the Nazi Holocaust with mice as Jews, and cats as Nazis. This is one of the most powerful comics you will ever read.

Maus is based on the experiences and recollections of Art Spiegelman's father, who struggled to survive the mass murder and oppression of Jews as a Polish Jew, and the way those experiences affected Spiegelman's family in later years. For more information about Maus, you can visit this link.

Sometimes the most powerful artwork can emerge from the deepest of tragedies and the darkest of times. Very often writing about (or illustrating) traumatic experiences can help the healing process.

So, what have we learned today about comics?
  1. Garbage in, garbage out - In other words, if you spend a minimal amount of time cranking out a piece of art, you're going to get unimpressive, sub-standard results. If you put a great deal of thought, effort, energy and passion into your art, you're going to get superior results. This is true of just about everything in life, actually.
  2. Writing is just as important (if not more) than the artwork - Tired one-liners and cliche situations do not make great visual artwork. Use your imagination and creativity before you pick up your pencil.
  3. Be art smart - Learn about art. Look at what other artists are doing (whether good or bad), and learn from them. Art is not created in a vacuum; it requires nurturing from the inspiration provided by other artists.

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