by Kevin Czap
A while ago, the ever-inspiring Frank Santoro wrote up a little soapbox on Comics Comics about drawing style. His position seemed to be a yearning for artists who were mean with a pencil in that representational way Noel Sickles, Alex Toth and Jaime Hernandez (his examples) were known for. Frank was wondering where all the naturalism had gone, seeing a trend away from this style of observational drawing in alt comics. What there tends to be a lot of is what Frank terms as mannerism, or affected drawing.
Part of the issue for him was how at odds this cartoony style felt coupled with the kind of unaffected, slice of life stuff it depicts in these kinds of comics, typically. Now, he wasn’t making a big stink in favor of either approach, per se, but between the lines one could feel some judgement coming through. The underlying bias in the piece was that, just maybe, there’s more to learning to draw from life and then developing a natural style from this than learning to draw cartoons from cartoons.
I’m not bringing this up to pick any kind of fight with Frank or to disagree with his post. At the core of his kind-of-argument, I agree that style can tend to be more exciting when develop through one’s own personal observation of the world. I’m a big big fan of diversity, and of having everyone represent or interact with the world as they alone see it, as much as that is possible. However, whereas the Comics Comics post places an emphasis on sight and naturalistic drawing, I have to confess that my preferences reside elsewhere.
I won’t lie, I mean, I’m as impressed as anyone else when I see folks who can draw really really “well.” What really gets my brain sweating, though, are the ladies and dudes who can draw wild. Aside from whatever emotional or experiential delights I get from it automatically, part of what attracts me to these kind of super-abstract, cartoony drawings is how I’ve come to think about comics. Matt Seneca was speaking truly in his recent Deathcast when he said that everything visual, including things in our real physical space, is made up of encoded symbols and forms. Comics, though, because of the associative nature of the images, seems to really let abstracted forms sing. Our minds are already primed and seeking to make connections — between paneled images, but also the lines and forms that make up everything on the page. I believe that our brains love to be challenged and thrill at the opportunity to decode cartoons. With a lot of fumetti (photo comics), there’s not enough work to do putting the images together, this holds true with drawing styles that are too photo-realistic. It’s almost like we need stylization in comics to get the most out of what we’re reading (feel free to disprove these outrageous theories, by the way, I’m just talking).
Abstraction in comics also lets us fulfill other roles beyond just sight. Something that is draw especially well, yeah that’s what something looks like. Cartooning can get in our heads in a way naturalistic drawing is less capable of, activating other areas of our brains. With it we can somehow show what something feels like, what something might even taste or sound like (for the latter we already have letters, sound effects and onomatopoeia, which all can be stylized out to further the impression). Having a flexible grip on style can induce a wide spectrum of emotional response.
My original intention for writing this post was to talk about the influence my brother’s (Matt Czap) work has had on me. We’ve both been at this cartooning game for a while, but he’s fluctuated between comics artist and first-rate animator for several years. The skill of his that I’ve always aspired to cultivating in myself is his ability to let go and get pretty abstract and silly with his drawings. It’s like he is able to unsee things in a way I am unable to do. The comics I like of his the best are when he’s at his most cartoony, with big round eyes and noodly arms. My favorites are probably the ones he likes the least, like his ill-fated FLCL/Dragon Ball flavored Afro Celebratiom.
It’s clear to me that my appreciation for this kind of cartooning comes out of something that affected both my brother and I while we were growing up. It wouldn’t be too risky to draw a line to the Looney Toons shows I talked about the other week, or to Dr. Seuss’s work, which I’ve also talked about in the past. Yeah, I’ve been saturated with cartoons my whole life, that’s no doubt a large part of my whole thing with it. But I think there’s something more. As I mentioned above, my understanding of comics and drawing has changed over the years, and the feelings I get from looking at cartoony work is different now. It’s almost like an appreciation for the beautiful minimalism of cartooned shapes. There’s a power in the condensed information encoded in the simple lines and colors, kind of like how there’s power in the gutter between two comics panels.
Knowing Matt as well as I do, I don’t think he gives all this stuff much thought. He’s more interested in making good, funny comics and animations than my metaphysical hooey.
Matt’s drawing style matches his humor… pretty weird. He currently posts a weekly comic strip on his site, where you can also see his his series Robotbox & Cactus and Breakfast Soup I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I do.