Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Cartooning Like You Mean It

with 6 comments

In 2009, I am dedicating this blog to “Cartooning Like You Mean It.”

It is about the art of cartooning as a method of self-expression, a way to figure yourself out and untie your own knots (Leonard Cohen), a way of cartooning stories characters, situations and stories as if they was burning to get out of you and you didn’t even know til you noticed the cinders.

“The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.” – William Butler Yeats

(To which I would add: “Or Mars.”)

This is about burning off your influences- the unconscious styles and other people’s languages that you’ve inadvertently stolen from while learning- and getting your own soul out there on the paper in ink, color, lines, scratches and wiggles.

Herzog- “ My belief is that these dreams are yours as well. And the only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them… It is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are, and we have to articulate ourselves–otherwise we would be cows in the field.”

You are your own earthly project. You are some sort of bizarre combination of individual sensations, reactions and history, explosions and whispers. Don’t use someone else’s language. This is about finding, forging and refining your own unique voice, story and code.

It’s about getting your stories out that are inspired by your own experiences, passions and lifeforce.

But even more importantly, letting that lifeforce emerge from your own creation. Reversing the cycle, letting your work create you. Discovering the depths of your self through surprising yourself through work.

Brian Eno, from his diaries: “What part of myself have I discovered now?”

You must allow yourself to be surprised. You have to allow yourself to not know what will come next, to not be always in control, to not plan everything. This is cosmic stuff- can you allow the spaces of your spirit to be filled with something unexpected?

Milan Kundera: The novel is a counter to the “noisy foolishness of human certainty”

Don’t be certain. Be open and be curious. Arm yourself with pens and brushes and a knowledge of story structure and visual techniques. Read these books:

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
The Empty Space by Peter Brook
Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
What It Is by Lynda Barry
On Directing Film by David Mamet
Story by Robert McKee

And then set out.

(images from Vaughn Bodes RIVERMEAT.)


Written by hutchowen

January 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Not to nitpick or be a pedant or whatever, but isn’t all language someone else’s language? I mean, the whole point of language is communication, and your reader needs to be able to understand (or recognize) your idiom if you’re going to communicate. I don’t know whether it’s completely possible (or even desirable) to completely cast off one’s influences. That’s not to say that I’m in favor of imitation or repetition — only that all expression has to happen in a context, and one’s artistic predecessors are part of that context.

    Or at least that’s what I’d argue.


    January 5, 2009 at 4:49 pm

  2. Hi Isaac.

    In response, Yes! And No! If I get you, I agree- it’s not possible or desirable to entirely cast off one’s influences, but you can begin to, to cast out alone to make an idiom of your own, and to invite others into it. I’ve been reading Ron Rege’s Against Pain- I can’t think of a more original creator right now. I don’t think he (at first) asks his readers to understand or recognize (entirely) his idiom. He creates and leaves you enough data to figure out how to decode it.

    But of course we all are products of our artistic predecessors, but every single soul is different, and I bet, if we try hard enough we can find the ground where we uniquely stand…

    Or at least, that’s what I’d argue.


    January 11, 2009 at 1:40 pm

  3. I think that’s basically what I meant—but I’d put a lot more emphasis on continuity with one’s influences and predecessors, or at least reaction against them. I tend to think of an artist’s uniqueness as consisting of a particular blend of ingredients, most of which are influences and antecedents (embraced or rejected), along with other ingredients like personal history, idiosyncratic learning, and so forth.

    To put it another way: if you read Ron Rege and think he’s awesome, aren’t you a better artist if you find a way to learn from his work? Shouldn’t understanding what makes his work “tick” help you make your own artistic work better? I want to be influenced by every artist I admire. (I don’t try to copy them, but I’d like to learn from them.)

    One problem I have with the idea of “finding your voice” or “finding your idiom” is that it implies that once you get there, once you achieve that, you’re done with the process of learning how to make good art. I don’t think you believe that—judging by the way you describe the process in your next post, as one of never quite achieving the ideal you’re hoping for—but I’ve known people who do. I think total stylistic stasis is bad for an artist.


    January 11, 2009 at 3:29 pm

  4. Right. Stasis is almost always a negative. “Finding one’s voice”, if that’s what we’re calling it, happens every single day and never stops. But as a teacher, I’ve seen scores of students fresh out of Manga 101 (the floors of Barnes and Nobles across the country) and I want those kids to learn how to see marks-making and dramatic stories freshly, and to see their own impulses removed from their influences. They can re-embrace them later, more consciously, presumably.


    January 11, 2009 at 8:53 pm

  5. Oh, yeah—ouch. Manga 101 and “How to Draw Comics the Liefeld Way” or the equivalent: those are bad ways to draw comics. I wonder whether, in those cases, it’s mainly a question of revising their ideas of artistic success.

    What I mean is that the Manga 101 kid (or the Superheroes 101 kid) usually isn’t shooting for personal expression; he or she is aiming to get the style “right.” That’s not even a shifting target: that’s an attempt to fill in a form, to repeat the (moderate) successes of others.

    You and I are questioning how to define or construe an individual voice—a way to find success as an artist—and those kids often want to have “success” that requires their individuality to disappear pretty totally into a genre and its conventions.


    January 11, 2009 at 10:35 pm

  6. Just as coral polyps grow on the skeletons of their ancestors to create a reef, so too do art and self-expression. A person needs to know where they’re coming from to get where they’re going. And we also need a guiding star for direction, otherwise we muddle around in circles. Frequently, this guiding star is the essential/core principle of a prior artist or visionary who inspires us.

    There’s nothing wrong for an adolescent to imitate what’s “cool”, most often whatever is antipodal to the values & mores of the primary relationships from whom they’re trying to separate. By such means they are provided method & motivation to learn technique, an essential ingredient prior to setting out on ones’ own. After all, isn’t this how teacher’s learn how to teach? By imitating successful teachers?

    The mentor’s role is to identify & nurture the new shoots of Self which pop-up unconciously in a student’s exercises. In the course of dialogue between them a curious thing happens…the mentor/teacher gets insightful flashes about that which distinguishes him/herself from THEIR mentor-teacher.

    In my experience, finding one’s voice is not so much about being original. One needn’t even try–it occurs genetically just as snowflakes are infinite variations on a theme. Finding one’s voice is bursting into full-throated song of self-expression with no fear of one’s critics. And we know it when we hear, see or read it because the authenticity & conviction are those of a person who has lived the experience.


    January 31, 2010 at 10:36 pm

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