Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Navigating a Linefield

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The Linefield is a word I have been looking for for 20 years.  I’m using it partially to  describe the visual mark making and image making that gives much of a comix’s feeling to the reader. It’s not the “art!” If I hear one more person commend “the art” in a comic I’m going to key somebody’s car. Art is a word that encompasses much more than the visual conveyance of ideas, which is usually what people mean when they say it.

The linefield is much closer to what they mean.  It’s the drawings of the character and character of the drawings, but it’s also the reading and navigating experience, and it’s the soul of the creator poking through to the material world like buds and weeds through a sidewalk. Shards of the creator’s intention and confusion (because who isn’t confused just being alive?) making it’s way to wall, papyrus, cloth, paper, screen.

The linefield, while visual, isn’t just describing the visuals. It’s also the complete synergy of mark-making with narrative intent, whether it be dramatic or reflective. More about that below.

In fact, I don’t know entirely what linefield means. I think in the case of a word used to describe an emotional and subterranean action you are involved in, you are perhaps better off not being able to entirely nail it down.  (Like a sufi chasing the meaning of Allah, I have been chasing the linefield and I never find it, I never look it in the face, I just like it when it and I are close by. )

Ben Jones' Thaz- "story?" "art?"

Ben Jones' Thaz- would you separate "the art" and "the story" here?

Why do we create art at all? Partially because our senses are wrong, our perceptions are limited. We need art to refocus what we see, and allow us to create other pathways to experience our world. The linefield is that new pathway. It describes a visual record of a creative experience incorporating elements of drama, poetry, mark-making, dance, acting, imagining, crying, celebrating and just about every verb a human is capable of.  But in our medium, comix, and for the sake of this exploration, I want to focus on the first three as helping us define the linefield: mark-making, drama and the poetic reflection.

The mark-making in a comic is what has traditionally been called “the art.” (I’m keying that teal Buick right now.) It’s a simple word to define. We call it style, drawing, etc. It often combines the ability of the artist to convey our concrete world into 2-dimensional representations,  with a sense of exaggeration or emphasis that distorts to a psychological and emotional effect.

Drama and poetic reflection (shorten the latter to “poetry”) I think are the two poles of what has traditionally been called “the story.” (That will really get me on a tear. Separate “art” from “story” and I’ll key anything in sight.) Drama refers to the dynamic tensions between personalities in opposition. Characters wanting something different. Poetry, for me in this instance (because the word is extremely malleable), refers to the impulse to reflect deeply and slowly and to allow space for reflection. It tends to hamper drama unless that reflection is being used to inform dramatic decisions (see Hamlet.)  (And for more on “poetry in comics” see my post here.) (And more tomorrow, too.)

Somewhere mashed around these three ideas, lies the linefield. You can’t talk about one with the other two, and maybe it’s best to discuss all three at the same time.

In my favorite comics, and even many I don’t enjoy reading but respect, the linefield can be a powerful new manifestation in my ordinary world. Gary Panter has one of the most powerful linefields you will see. In his best work, you ARE Jimbo, walking his denuded landscape, navigating the hatches and lines of his apocalyptic, commercial, anti-commercial, historical limbos. The linefield in Jim Woodring’s comix shimmer and constantly spin off into new characters and visions. E.C. Segar’s comix did something similar; sweat, desire and ferocity spinning and shaking off from the linefield into weird compact myths about giant birds and witches, injustice and hamburgers.

The list could and will go on and on. The best artists in this medium have made marks and drama and poetic reflection their own. I’ll explore those creators in time,  but I want to start with a look at the linefields of Yoshiharu Tsuge, Ron Rege and Jack Kirby.

Tomorrow, an old unpublished post furthering drama vs. poetry, then later in the week, Tsuge, Rege, Kirby.

Written by hutchowen

January 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Cartooning Like You Mean It

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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

On Themes, Situations, and Characters in Cartooning.

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At the first day of our Hothouse class at SVA, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel and I offer our different strategies about creating stories and work. Jessica works from a character, plots out a story. Matt works from form. He looks at categories of rhythms and structure that he hasn’t created work in before, and creates characters and situations that relate to those forms. The story develops from there.

I’ve always gone next, discussing how I work from themes, first and foremost. This is changing and I want to explore that a little here.

I’ve first and foremost started with themes, especially when I knew what character I was using: Hutch Owen. From a starting point of a familiar character, themes would appear in the outside world that I would want to explore.

Here’s a quick list of Hutch Owen stories and the themes I had hoped to explore:

Road to Self – how we change or don’t change our ideals over time
Aristotle – what is freedom? creativity? as it relates to this character?
Emerging Markets – how have we colonized other cultures both through commerce and religion?

Mind you, a lot of these stories were also excuses to draw guys with sticks and bats pounding on a man dressed up as a sheep. But first came the idea to explore, the question, then the characters and situations. HOPEFULLY, at that point, those characters and situations developed organically, and became their own interesting narrative entities.


Since those stories, I’ve move into comic strips (for a host of reasons I’ll go into some other time), and this is changing how I start, where I work from.

I recently finished 2 1/2 years of working with Hutch Owen as a daily comic strip character. Working with a stable of 4-8 continuing characters, my method is still to work from theme.

Friendship loyalty, male/female handling of the environment to silly things like Spiderman’s effect on the culture are just a few of the themes I explored in the strip.

In another instance, a colleague eagerly asked me if I had done any work on the Dalai Lama or world peace, which he would like to feature in a show he was curating. I hadn’t, but it was easy to make happen. With my characters, which represent particular kinds of reactions, wrestling around with the character of the Dalai Lama and the idea of world peace made for a fun and robust series of strips.
One of the main values for this as a creator, and one of my many reasons for switching to comic strips was that inventing situations and themes for the characters to explore, greatly expanded the characters themselves. They began revealing themselves to me in constant, ongoing new ways, in ways that couldn’t happen with larger stories which tend to involve less invention and let’s say it: more depth of exploration. The quickness of the comic strip allowed me to alight frequently on the personalities of the characters and explore new facets of their behavior. This is incredibly fun. And the nimbleness needed requires me to live constantly in the present. I digress.

Lately, in my newest strip I find myself playing less with themes, and more with situations. The overarching themes of the strip are traditional ones: sibling rivalry, the love of one’s work, what does it mean to be new to a culture, plus what the heck is America about. Now I design situations to explore those themes: an Arab food stand in a mall, cousin’s traipsing the woods outside their back yard, immigrant grandparents with their Americanized grandkids at dinner, etc.

So it’s all about themes, situations, and invention. The invention comes from the initial thoughts, the hopeful power of the stories or strips comes from allowing invention and connection to flow without agenda.

Here’s a sneak peak of a secret series of strips I’m making with my good pal Margo Dabaie.

Written by hutchowen

June 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Manga versions of Shakespeare by my students

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Two of my students have recently adapted Shakespeare into m-a-n-g-a format…

Yali Lin drew Romeo and Juliet and Tintin Pantoja did Hamlet. Hurray for them. Order the books here:

Also on the roster was Julius Ceaser by Hyeondo Park (great guy, who was not one of my students) and Macbeth by Candice Chow (I don’t know her.)

Written by hutchowen

March 27, 2008 at 11:47 am

Posted in Teaching

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Lileks’ section on comics and funnybooks

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Few sites raise joy in my dark heart like James Lilek’s Institute of Official Cheer. This panel is from his subsection on Big Little Books in his “Unimpressive Examples of the Sequential Art” section.

Written by hutchowen

March 4, 2008 at 1:07 pm

New Classes, new interview

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I’m teaching two Continuing Ed classes this fall: Mondays at the SVA and Tuesdays at the 92nd Street Y. You can browse curricula/registration links here:

The classes are pretty similar, though the 92nd Street Y class is much more about comic strips, and the focus will be on short form much more than the SVA class.

I’ve also been refining my teaching pages a bit more. There’s a page of recommended books there now, and other links I’ve been trying to gather and organize. Do not miss Samm Schwartz! Master of the suit!

Finally, a new interview with me is up at The Daily Crosshatch:

Written by hutchowen

August 25, 2007 at 3:55 am

Posted in --N E W S, Teaching

Recent grad, Margo Dabaie

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Go read my essay about recent SVA grad, Margo Dabaie, at the Daily Crosshatch.

Written by hutchowen

August 6, 2007 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Teaching