Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On how I'm starting to get into George Tuska...

Did you ever have a comic book artist whose work it took you a while to get into?  George Tuska is that guy for me.  I've probably seen hundreds of comics with his artwork in them, but never really put much thought into them.  For me, George Tuska was the guy who did that Marvel Planet of the Apes adaptation where Taylor looks more like Steve Reeves, the actor from those Italian Hercules movies, than Charlton Heston.  And the apes look as though they leaped out of a humor mag.  I don't think he was the ideal choice for the material.  The typical, dynamic Marvel approach, which Tuska excelled at, is more appropriate to broadly-acted superheroics than rather downbeat sci-fi adventure flicks.

Of course, now I understand Marvel couldn't get the likeness rights to use Heston.  Licensing was different back then.  Nowadays you see Luke Skywalker, and he's drawn to look exactly like Mark Hamill.  Back then, the best artists were allowed to do was to give the characters similar hair color.  And sometimes, as with the Apes comic, not even that much.  I've also come to love those funny Tuska ape faces.  As advanced for their time as they were, the make-up appliances in the movie have a certain rigidity.  Actors like Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter learned to twitch and contort their faces underneath to keep the make-up in some kind of motion and prevent the characters' faces from freezing into masks, but there's no disguising the simple up-and-down movement of the mouths and lack of lip animation.  Tuska was able to take some artistic license with them and give the apes all kinds of gaping expressions.  None of it is particularly subtle, but it doesn't really have to be.  Alfredo Alcala will always be my Planet of the Apes artist of choice, because his ornate work fits the material and matches its melancholy mood.  Mike Ploog and Tom Sutton battle it out for second place, but I appreciate Tuska's powerful figure work and over-the-top facial acting.

This morning I read an online exchange between a pro-Tuska writer and a strongly anti-Tuska fan on why Tuska is underappreciated.  I've seen more and more of this kind of stuff lately, and the more I'm exposed to Tuska and his work, the more it appeals to me.  It's not so much the opinions of others that sway me.  It's looking at pages and not being able to deny Tuska produced solid work.  It may not be as spectacular as this artist or another-- name any of the greats-- but it's more than just serviceable.  And when teamed with a sympathetic inker, Tuska could really shine.  The underpinnings are there-- the exaggerated, heroic anatomy, the dynamic poses, the clear and easy-to-read storytelling.  A few loose pages I've seen with his pencils and decent ink jobs really look fun and lively.

I've only scratched the surface of George Tuska, but exposure has convinced me to invest some time in Tuska appreciation.  Now I just need to read more stories with his art!

Spidey says, "Everything is A-OK!"

Because he's a big Mercury 7/NASA fan, I guess.  This is a drawing I'm working on along with a number of other ones.  I'm on fire lately!  After drawing Spider-Man enjoying a sandwich, I felt like doing one where he's acting like he does in the comic books.  I need to fix the webbing on Spider-Man's costume, make an adjustment to his anatomy here and there and fix the perspective and add some windows and balconies and other architectural features to the background.  Then I'm going to give it a John Romita/John Buscema/Gil Kane era color job.  I'll never be skilled enough to be one of those real comic book artists, but I do feel I've upped my game quite a bit lately.  It's been fun and that's the most important thing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dude, you're reading a Dell 1: Alex Toth versus The Real McCoys (Dell Four Color Comics #1071, January-March 1960)

Why adapt The Real McCoys into comic form?  Why anything?  Maybe there were kids all over these great United States who were really into Walter Brennan.  Maybe some suit at Dell felt the misadventures of dirt farming hicks was the coming craze like the hula-hoop or rock and roll when he handed artist Alex Toth this assignment.  The Real McCoys ran on ABC and then on CBS from 1957-1963, and it's one of those supposedly classic old television programs I've never watched.  I do a mean Walter Brennan impression, though.  That Dell executive may have been on to something, because they ended up publishing four The Real McCoys books, just two fewer than they did of Rawhide!  And Rawhide starred Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates!

Alex Toth produced some treasures for Dell.  There's his work on The Land Unknown (you can see a gorgeous, richly textured page from that story at The Comics Journal, illustrating their interview with Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell); Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (one of my favorite comics ever and a page from which you can find at the TwoMorrows site along with an interview with Toth himself that appeared in Comic Book Artist #10); Clint and Mac; the John Wayne airplane flick The Wings of Eagles; and the charming No Time for Sergeants, a film which starred Andy Griffith.  You remember Griffith.  He would later play Sheriff Andy Taylor on his own program for Danny Thomas Productions, the same studio that made The Real McCoys.  Those comics are all worth tracking down. 

I have no idea how Alex Toth felt about drawing Walter Brennan's bucolic sitcom misadventures, but I don't imagine it was a dream job for him by any means.  "Wild Wheels," the lead story in The Real McCoys (Dell Four Color Comics #1071, January-March 1960), the first issue, does feature elements that would play to his strengths.  Real human beings doing relatively realistic things, plus all kinds of cars.  I know Toth liked to work a bit on the minimalist side, or essentialist, if you prefer.  The drawing is in what you leave out, simplify, simplify, simplify, edit yourself ruthlessly.  Well, Toth  the hell out of these drawings!

Let's take a closer look at a few pages.

Here's, from near the start of "Wild Wheels," we see a Toth interpretation of a Walter Brennan-caused traffic jam (oh, you crazy Grampa!) on a busy freeway.  Toth, probably exceeding in a single image the entire The Real McCoys shooting budget for half a season's worth of episode production, turns the top two tiers of the page into one large panel.  Toth may not have been giving the art his all, but this page is a shows some of the storytelling techniques he uses to overcome the limitations of the Dell six-panel page format.  The eye enters the image at the usual spot, top lefthand corner where Toth places a concrete overpass in stark white, kind of crushes the cars driving along top of it, then leads us down the on-ramp (backwards!) to the busy middle-ground where suddenly we have dialogue balloons and sound effects. 

This gives us time to absorb the situation-- the same way a TV show or film might use an establishing shot, then pan along it before introducing the main characters, which Toth does when he starts to speed up the pace and inserts action by cramming all the truly important stuff in the center of the page, in the area that would be the second two-panel tier (although the large balloons break into the top tier area), and just before quick-cutting the action in the two bottom panels.

It also means Toth can fill a page with a minimum of actual drawing.  To that end, Toth leaves the grassy median and shoulders as open areas to be filled with green.  No Tothian dabs of ink spotted here or there to suggest detail.  While I'm in favor of leaving out visual noise, the rendering here feels unfinished. 

There are a lot of cars, though, on the lower half of the page.  At first, given the overhead angle and one-point perspective, the backed-up cars become an almost abstract suggestion of the typical American automobile, brightly colored rectangles lacking wheels.  As we find ourselves in the middle of the action, with a more grounded viewpoint, Toth adds sparse detailing to the vehicles, resolving them a bit more with tailfins and brakelights, but leaving the troublesome in-perspective work of the oval tires simply suggested through quick brushstrokes underneath.  Maybe we'd like to see those tires and hubcaps all worked out in proper perspective, but with Toth, even a shortcut like these inky blobs work as undercarriage shadows, as opposed to something a wannabe like I would do, where you'd see it just as ink.  Grampa's jalopy with its old-fashioned rounded shapes and circular headlights contrasts sharply with the ultra-modern boxes around it.

The fist-shaking pose isn't particularly original, but I love the skewed "beeps" and "honks," which invoke different volume levels and pitch.  One big blue "honk," probably from a truck, a smaller red one no doubt from a car.  "Beep" is probably one of those Volkswagen VWs.  The hot yellow background contrasts with the cooler blue/gray fore- and mid-ground elements to give this panel a frenetic energy even though everyone's just kind of sitting there because of Grampa.  The last panel has a great sense of movement, with the two-point perspective animating the cars into the tunnel, along with the speedlines and exhaust puffs from Grampa's car, which is badly in need of an emissions inspection.  The purple-gray highway and the light purple truck passing into shadow and the orange sky-- complementary colors-- also create deep-focus depth, and allow the primary-colored cars to pop.

Other pages throughout show Toth rushed this one.  It's not even so much just the uninvolving groups of figures and lack of backgrounds.  The linework itself shows a certain lack of precision that comes from slapping down ink in a hurry.  It's especially evident on this page, where the cop wears some misshapen sunglasses on his indistinct face and poor Richard Crenna looks as if he's in for some serious sinus problems.

Yawn.  The script is uninspired.  In case you haven't figured it out, the guys take a fishing trip, but end up mistaken for criminals.  I don't know how idiosyncratic the TV show was, but this is the generic kind of thing you could plug any characters from any property into.  Even ramrod Rowdy Yates on a horse instead of a junk car.  There's a half-hearted attempt at slapstick, but it's borrowed-- the ol' "fish hooks catch each other under the boat" gag used in one of Our Gang's later, lesser MGM shorts, "Three Smart Guys."  If you're going to steal gags to liven up a dead story why steal from a stinker?  Or maybe they took it from another source.  It seems mighty familiar.  As if unimpressed himself, Toth doesn't bother with a lot of drawing of nature during this interlude, either.  Pine trees that are simply suggested with dabs of angular ink jut from horizontal lines indicating a landscape, but it's curiously under-grown.

Eventually, just before the readers put down The Real McCoys to re-read Darby O'Gill or else fall asleep, Grampa and family end up involved in a car chase complete with winding mountain roads and desperate bank robbers blasting away.  Only during this  sequence does Toth finally seem fully engaged with the material.  Again, this is probably more expensive-looking than The Real McCoys ever got on TV, but how should I know?  If I were going to write a script for even something like One Day at a Time for Toth to illustrate, I'd make damn sure I stuck a car chase in there at some point.

Here's a page that makes The Real McCoys as exciting as an episode of The Untouchables.

Do you buy Grampa's ancient car being able to pull off such a wicked, professional pursuit-driver level maneuver?  One wonders why the bank robbers didn't blast away at the McCoys as they passed.  This all seems like a plot contrivance, but Toth does some fine work here.  If you look at the third panel, with that improbable stunt, you see the tree the car crashes into in the fourth panel.  The tree doesn't just pop out of nowhere.  Toth thinks the action through.  Excellent placement of sound effects and dialogue, too.  It helps set the chronology of the sequence, compressing three distinct moments-- immediate pre-crash break-squealing, a character reaction and then the crash itself-- into one effective panel.  Nice Billy Jack hat on that guy in the fifth panel. 

But even on some of the more inert pages, there are still little touches of Tothian brilliance.  There's some nice facial acting on Grampa in "The Apology," a one-page gag story that appears on the comic's back cover.  I absolutely love the wry expression in the fifth panel in particular.

Oh, the second story is about a goat that eats the McCoys' barn.  It's not exactly prime Toth, either, but it's the only place you'll ever see him draw a goat eating a barn.

I love the cow and goose in the first panel.  The cow in particular wears a dismayed "What the hell?" expression, as if she can't quite process what she's seeing.  I hope they weren't injured when the barn collapsed!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

More imperfect comic book memories: Ants climb the ladder of intelligence and some idiots land their spaceship on the sun...

Years ago, when I was a kid, one of my friends lived on the next street.  His house was across the alley from ours, so we used to hang out a lot in our backyards.  Either he or his older brother collected all those black and white horror and sci-fi magazines Marvel/Curtis put out back then.  I don't remember the titles after all this time, but I do have some vague memories of reading a story about some doomed astronauts who had accidentally landed their spaceship on the sun and couldn't take off again.  So they bickered for seven pages, then died on the eighth.  My takeaway from this is a feeling of claustrophobia.

I always enjoyed anthology comics, even when they creeped me out or cost me a night's sleep.  I rarely bought them, so what I'd do was furtively read them at the store, then put them back on the spinner rack.  The perfect crime!  Only every so often, my curiosity would cost me.  A story would give me a passing chill, warmed by the bright summer day outside.  Then I'd forget about it.  Sometime after dinner, when I hit the sheets and turned out the light, the story would return, its unsettling qualities magnified by my own imagination.

One such story, which I could have sworn was in the DC book Time Warp, but may have been in the brief early-80s revival of Mystery In Space, featured a luckless space traveler who crash-landed his rocket ship on some desert world where it started leaking some of his nutrient fluid.  You know, space food.  Whatever our astro-people ate up there where they couldn't get turkey sandwiches or Pop Tarts toaster pastries. 

Some space ants started drinking the stuff and would return daily with more and more advanced technology.  First, little wheeled wagons.  Later, trucks with internal combustion engines.  The astronaut, trapped in the wreckage upside down (if I remember correctly, which I doubt), watched in fascination as the ants progressed along our human scientific advancement tree.  By the time rescue approached, the astronaut had become the reluctant witness to black-on-red ant warfare, which ended in an atomic blast because the ants had invented the atom bomb.  The rescuers chalked it up to the wrecked ship's atomic powerplant blowing up, but the last panel showed them walking away, having failed to notice a teensy-tiny wagon overturned in the dirt.

Or maybe they were earth ants.  Or maybe the story was in some Marvel comic or other.  Or a Charlton.  Or perhaps it never existed at all and I only dreamed it and instead of writing it as a short story and submitting somewhere and making a billion dollars I just gave it away like an idiot.  Nah, I'm pretty sure it exists and one day I'll find it and learn the only thing I remember accurately about it is the astronaut.  And those others, the ones from the black and white magazine, actually landed on Saturn and had a picnic.

Monday, April 7, 2014

I haven't forgotten you!

We're coming off spring break here, heading into another school year and it's looking to be a busy one.  As you can probably tell, I used my recent surplus of free time to work on my art.  After a year or more without completing anything of note and confining my drawing to doodles, sketches and experiments, I've once again re-dedicated myself to producing finished pieces.  I have this vague dream of eventually reviving my art career in some small way.  Back when I was a graphic designer, I had access to tools and time, but when I moved to Japan to teach English, art became just a hobby. 

I'd like to reverse that.

Oh, I have no idea where I'm going with this and I've been out of the game so long I don't even know where to start, beyond doing the actual drawings and paintings.  Most of the art jobs I see posted online take the form of, "Artist wanted.  I'm out to get rich as a famous comic book/children's book/animation person.  I've done the easy part and now I need someone to do the difficult, time-consuming stuff I don't know how to do so I can fulfill my dreams.  Your work must be of professional quality.  Looking for someone with the imagination of Dr. Seuss and the rendering skills of Norman Rockwell, so only send samples if you can meet my high standards.  Salary:  $0."

Anyway, between my quixotic ambitions and the work I'm actually paid to do, I haven't been spending much time reading or writing about comics.  I've got a couple of posts about Alex Toth's Dell work coming up, but you're probably going to find Spider-Man eating sandwiches and crap like that here for a while.

Coming up:  More Spider-Man, Supergirl versus Darkseid and Superman versus Batman!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Superman versus the Thing (in color)

There!  Yet another ridiculous image I've had in my head for a while.  I imagine after Superman and the Thing settle their difference, they'll go have a meal or share a drink or something and become really good friends.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Superman versus the Thing and Spider-Man takes a swing! A couple of "in progress" drawings

Two of my favorite characters come into conflict with each other.  I'm pretty sure Superman could take the Thing.  The Superman figure is largely complete.  I need to fix his hands, right calf muscle and the cape, and I may adjust the line weights a bit.  Poor Ben Grimm needs a lot of work, though.  Not happy with the arm shadow.  It needs to be wider and extend down his chest a bit.  And all those rocky facets!
Here's Spider-Man acting more like the Spider-Man we all know and love:

The color scheme for this one is going to be more John Romita/Gil Kane era Spidey than Steve Ditko.  I have to fix the perspective (look at the wonky windows on the building under Spider-Man's right foot, just to point out something that's pretty obvious), finish the webbing on his costume (and he needs his chest emblem!) and adjust the left leg. The muscle on the outside edge near the knee isn't working for me and the foot is angled wrong. The pose itself is lacking in dynamics. I've got a rough sketch of a more exciting (I hope) one I'm going to start inking today.

These are penciled in Manga Studio 5 and inked in Adobe Illustrator.  I'm considering another work flow, though, where I print out the pencils and hand-ink them on vellum or using a lightbox or something along those lines.  Digital inking is no panacea, although it's nice for fidgety, shaky-handed fools like me.  I like being able to fiddle around with the lines and get them "just so," but the results are lacking in humanity.  I am a machine.

Other works in progress include Supergirl versus Darkseid and, for one of my other blogs, a couple of Cassandra Cain Batgirl images, one where she goes up against Wolverine and another where she takes on the Joker.