Howdy All and Happy Friday!
This week finds me on vacation in Ontario, where I am taking in the sights and sounds of my nation’s largest city and some of the surrounding areas. As I write this, I am relaxing in a motel room in beautiful Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario with a belly full of lamb burger and a head full of stories heard on the local ghost walk.
While this trip has spurned a number of ideas for future blog entries (including an entry on the use of other art as an inspiration for my own work), I would like to write about a subject I had intended to write about last week, before my computer “issues” left me with a blank computer; the art of cartooning.
Better Living Through Cartooning
For the purpose of this entry, I will restrict cartooning to mean the sort of newspaper or webcomic art that features a panel or series of panels that tells a gag, either in a single panel, or with a series of panels, using a set-up, twist, and punch-line format.
The reason this topic has been on my mind is because of the strip I did in reaction to the death of Robin Williams.
Like many others, I had a hard time coming to terms with RW’s death, more so than any other celebrity death I can recall. I had never met RW, so I really had no direct connection that was lost, but, like a lot of others, his work had connected with me on a deeply personal level, and I suppose it was the loss of that “voice” that had spoken so clearly to me when I was a struggling teen (Dead Poets Society), when I was a burgeoning non-conformist (Good Morning Vietnam), and when I was a young adult (Good Will Hunting).
Shortly after I read the news of his death, my sister texted me to see if I had heard, and to see if I was doing OK. I let her know I was shocked and upset, but would be fine. When I signed off, I joked that I would be heading off to stand on a desk.
As soon as I typed those words, a single panel strip formed in my head and I immediately set to work to get that idea out of my head and onto the paper (or, rather, the digital canvass…but paper sounds better). The result of that day’s efforts is reproduced below:
In the days that followed, I found it hard to look back at that piece, as it stirred up all the confusion and sadness that I was feeling that day. However, when I thought about how that piece made me feel, I realized that it was one of the few drawings I had done this year that stirred that powerful of an emotional response in me.
As I thought about why that might be the case, I realized that it was because the drawing was actually a strip that just happened to express a single idea: my sadness at RW’s profoundly tragic death. There was no story, no joke; just a single idea expressed in a strictly visual format.
This got me to thinking about the other pieces I have worked on in the past year that hold a personal, emotional resonance for me and it turns out they all have two things in common. They are all comic strips and they are all deeply personal.
One of those pieces is the strip I did for my family in reaction to the loss of our beloved family dog, Harrison.
As with my RW strip, this strip was an effort to convey an idea (the unfathomable love that a dog has for its owner) into a series of short words and pictures, and, when I look at this strip, I still feel the mix of love and loss that I felt as I was drawing it.
A happier example of this kind of personal work is the strip I did for my Mom for Mother’s Day.
This strip is based on an actual event, so it adds a further personal connection, but it also reminds me of the irrepressibly enthusiastic love that my Mom has for me and my sister (the idea behind this strip). Seeing the strip, like the others, puts me back in that same joyful emotional state I was in as I was creating it.
Coffee vs. Espresso
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with the broader topic of “cartooning”?
Glad you asked.
You see, this reflection on my own work has me thinking that, while comic book creators and comic strip creators may be, broadly speaking, in the same general business, there are significant differences between what they are serving up as a finished product that goes beyond the extended panel/page count that comic book creators enjoy.
For instance, I believe that, while comic books are often “about” an idea, their longer format allows that idea to be clothed in layers of story, character, and setting. I would also say that these layers of story, character, and setting are often so engaging, themselves, that they can allow a reader to enjoy them for those elements alone, without ever engaging the underlying “idea” (for instance, how many readers of Marvel’s Civil War event were happy enough to enjoy the series for its superhero versus superhero fights and ignore the underlying political ideas).
By contrast, a comic strip is almost always about a single idea (be that a joke or a more somber thought). The shortened format also provides a more limited ability to add extensive story, character, and setting elements (though I suppose all successful comics introduce character elements…be they Calvin’s manic energy, Opus’ forlorn eyes, or Crankshaft’s perpetual scowl).
Comic strips do not have the visual real estate to add many other trappings, though I suppose the very best find ways to do some of that (as an example, I think of Bill Watterson’s extraordinary work in Calvin and Hobbes, where he was able to incorporate set pieces that drew from science fiction, film noir, and giant monster film).
That said, I think, generally speaking, a comic strip presents a much more refined or purified execution of an idea as sequential art than a comic book. In this way, they can be thought of as products with similar ends, but different executions (as coffee is to espresso, perhaps).
On a related note, this might help explain why comic strips speak to a wider audience than comic books (or, at least, did when newspapers were more successful). It is, after all, easier to get someone who is not a comic fan to get through four panels to understand the idea the artist is trying to convey, than to get them to read 20 or more pages of a comic book.
This may also explain why I feel the closer connection to those strips than I do my other comic work, as they are each a single idea of mine made whole in a strip form. The other, longer, pieces I have worked on, have not had the chance to see those ideas come to fruition, which may explain why they lack that same emotional “punch” for me, personally.
However, since I now find myself comparing comics to coffee products, I should take that as a sign that I should wrap up this week’s entry and turn in for the night (there is more of Ontario to see tomorrow).
As always, thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings, I hope the week has been a great one for you, and I hope to see you back in seven days!
Until then, I have some drawing to do.
Yours very truly,
Kevin B. Madison
#yearofdrawing #comics #comicstrip #robinwilliams #calvinandhobbes #billwatterson #opus #bloomcounty #crankshaft