23 Drawing Crowds

Scan the panel above from left to right to see my page 115 drawing morph from its bare-bones foundation sketch to the same vista after it's been packed with funeral-goers. I wanted this panoramic overview to capture the feeling that many individuals, each with an individual life history, had come together in grief. A bunch of identical ovals representing the tops of abstract heads just wouldn't do.

This meant investing each little blob with a unique bit of visual energy, suggesting one by one with a squiggle of crosshatching and the quick stroke of a felt-tip marker the many emotion-filled people who were milling around down there. Tiny as each was, their clothing and body language couldn't be rendered with cookie-cutter sameness.

It takes a lot of concentration to do this kind of drawing, and a cartoonist can quickly go nuts trying to do too much of it too fast. So to keep the process fresh I adopted a special routine that lasted for the week or so it took to complete this panel. I began each morning by allotting a half-hour or so to drawing crowd heads. My Taskmaster Self wouldn't permit my Cartoonist Self to move on to any other nearby panel, no matter how inviting it was by comparison, until I had put in my full crowd-head quota of a hundred or so. By then my own head would be spinning and further multitude-mongering would have been counterproductive. So I would leave the drawing behind and return to it the following morning.

A million strategies get adopted along the way when you're trying to do something you've never done before.

LETTER TO KIM (February 13, 1993)

… It’s easy to tempt me away from the drawing board today because the picture I’m at work on is truly tedious to execute. It’s an overhead view of a church with a huge crowd around it, including tense policemen and TV news crews taking pictures and film from a nearby roof. What's taking place is a funeral for several black teenagers who've been killed by a KKK bombing.

The scene is inspired by the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The Wednesday after that bombing there was a funeral for the children who were killed while attending Sunday School. I went with [your birth mother’s] family to that funeral.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. It changed my life – not in an instant way but in a pivotal, long-term way. It made the tragedy and violence with which black people were living real to me in a deeply emotional way, and it forced me to ask myself why I was allowing myself to be a passive bystander while other people were making sacrifices in order to combat racism. …

In the scene I’m drawing now, the streets are full of people. If I were making a movie I’d find a church, hire a thousand extras, and film everything. But since I’m a cartoonist I have to draw the church and all of those tiny little heads. Believe me, it’s exhausting. …