Dressing Up

Some Thoughts About Drawing Style

From Comics Scene #3 / ©1981 by Howard Cruse

Why do I draw it this way? Why don’t I draw it another way?

If the image that’s perking in my brain could be beamed into the brains of Jack Kirby or Johnny Hart, what would their drawings of my picture look like?

They certainly wouldn’t look like Howard Cruse had drawn them.

If we choose, we cartoonists can play psychiatrist with ourselves about our drawing styles, sifting through today’s shapes and shadings for touches that remind us of our creative infancy. Subtly they will always be with us, those days when our scribbles were pure play and everything professional or polished in our art had yet to be acquired.

This column is about how drawing styles take root. You see, I’ve just flashed on how it felt when I was a small kid and I used to play in my parents’ bedroom, trying on Daddy’s shoes. I happen to know I wasn’t the only kid to do this, because I have spies. I’d clomp awkwardly about the house in these oversized shoes, pretending nonchalance and feeling disappointment if I failed to draw the attention of everyone on my clomping route.

I’m recalling my dress-up game because it makes a handy metaphor for the way we begin our artistic lives by "trying on" drawing styles. Young cartoonists who sneak swipes from Will Eisner may bristle at the suggestion that their efforts usually look as wobbly as I did in my father’s footwear, but there’s definitely a similarity of effect.

Which is not to deny that true artistic promise can still be on display.

In my first published comic strip, drawn for an Alabama weekly when I was 13, I assembled my characters’ heads out of spare circles from Little Lulu. I raided Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby for proportions, composition and whimsy and ransacked Peanuts for the curve of its lines and the weight of its figures. I copied everyone from Chester Gould to Dr. Seuss during my beginning years. I was rummaging through the grown-up shoes, stepping out, showing off, rehearsing for a time when I would be more than just a kid with a knack for drawing.

One might say that the rehearsing for life itself—not just cartooning—never ends. We grow stumblingly into our long-pants roles. As grown-ups we may continue to dress up in Daddy’s or Mommy’s shoes, but we buy them ourselves, buy them to fit our grown-up feet, select them to suit our perception of who we are and what image we wish to project.

Clothing is never the same as the self inside the clothing. The self inside is the naked one, the fearful, hungry baby grown to adulthood, having absorbed a thousand lessons about what parts of itself may be shown and what parts must—because of this or that social rule—be hidden.

And within that clothing of flesh is an even more naked child: the innermost self, the soul. This one too ventures forth in "Daddy’s or Mommy’s shoes," except that now it wears Daddy’s or Mommy’s body, shielded by Daddy’s or Mommy’s clothing and living by (or rejecting, but inevitably shaped by) Daddy’s or Mommy’s rules.

If we could know each other’s souls, we’d probably find ourselves more alike than different. But girded in so many layers and styles of protection, we feel divided. This guy affects the strut of a bully as his survival tactic; another does better as The Comedian, or as The Sincere Fellow who hopes he’s too nice to get punched. This girl ambles down the street as Ms. Punk from Mars; another will polish her Scarlett O’Hara routine until she’s 90.

And that’s just speaking psychologically. Look at these bodies we’ve got wrapped around our delicate souls: fat ones, trim ones, lanky and squat ones. Apply clothing and diversity really flowers! There’s tough Mr. Marine, Earth Mother Jane, efficient Ms. Executive, slick Mr. Stud.

In cartooning, our drawing styles are the clothing in which we artists dress our imagery. Sexy, serious, goofy, heroic—our drawings’ personalities are projected not by the width of a tie or the cut of a gown, but by the texture of ink lines (the texture following from our choices of tools: brushes, crowquills, markers, tooth-picks, whatever) and the manner in which these lines are combined, balanced and shaded.

We should never forget that the stylistic wrappings are not the same as the naked soul of the art. As with human beings, that soul is usually hidden from the eye. As with human beings, the wrappings can be phony poses or honest expressions of what is within.

The style of a drawing, like the clothing of a stranger entering a room, broadcasts an instant message that attracts, repels, or bores. What makes a drawing attractive? There’s no single standard; readers come with a dizzying variety of tastes. The anarchic works of S. Clay Wilson and the nuzzly Love Is... syndicated panel both have their legions of enthusiasts.

Should creators "dress" their art for targeted audiences, or should they dress it to please themselves and let the chips fall where they may? Should they "sell out" to mass tastes? Should their work go unread because to the eyes of anyone but friends it looks amateurish or ugly?

You tell me!

When I was greener, the sage advice in how-to-cartoon texts was usually: "Don’t worry about creating a ‘style.’ If you keep drawing, your style will find you!"

Apt advice, but incomplete. There’s no need to seize onto artificial eye-catching devices that make drawings labored and self-conscious. Relax! Do enough drawings as effectively as you can and your work, in time. will bear your individual stamp. It’s as inevitable as the personalized signature that evolves from the grammar school script with which we all begin.

Still, I have to propose this amendment to what I've just written: Relax, but don’t forget to monitor the changes as they evolve. Signatures that mutate into illegible scrawls may be personalized, but may also make communication hopeless.

Changes happen because we experiment. When a catchy new graphic flourish strikes our fancy, we tend to repeat it. And sometimes we do so for dumb, self-defeating reasons.

When we think about what we see happening in our drawings as the years pass, our intellect has a chance to influence what begins as a random process. If we’re wise, we avoid artificial tricks. Instead we edit or reject graphic tangents that may be trendy but which undercut our authenticity.

Our intellect and our natural growth are in partnership. The experiments we try are affected by tastes and values that change as we understand more who we are. A sober philosopher will gravitate toward a different range of graphic options than a clown. Someone like Richard Corben, who makes most of his statement visually, creates from a different point of view than a Cathy Guisewite, whose heart is in the verbal component of the comic strip mix.

Earlier, when I was talking about souls inside naked bodies inside clothing, I was talking about the essence of art, which has to do with revealing hidden things, and with conjuring fantasies which tell of things too intense or frightening to face squarely, naked soul to naked soul. How to seize our essential feelings and dramatize them in styles that mold honestly to their emotional reality can be a lifetime’s quest. The quest requires both thought and respect for our instincts.

Eventually experiments will provide a repertory of stylistic riffs that clothe an artist’s ideas so organically that one cannot imagine his or her visions depicted in any other way.

Draw a Spain Rodriguez Trashman strip in the style of Blondie and you will send a very altered emotional signal to your readers. It’s no accident that Spain finds angry shadows in faces that Chic Young would have decorated with pug noses. It’s by design that Spain’s cross-hatching seems piped like carbon monoxide into cityscapes alternately drained of life, then teeming with hostile populations in perpetual heat. This isn’t the Bumsteads’ suburbia, and Spain doesn’t want you feeling cozy. His drawing style makes that clear before the first word is read.

If somewhere behind his glower lurks a facet of Spain that is whimsically affectionate and he is moved to express that facet on paper, his art may require modified costuming. A benign impulse dressed as a storm trooper may not be spotted for the creampuff it wishes to be. It will be time to loosen up, allow some playfulness and frump to humanize the harsh silhouettes. Time, stylistically, to smile.

Whether Spain ever wishes to express such a facet (or already has, unbeknownst to me) is beside the point. There is no reason to ask him to, any more than we ask the denizens of Miss Peach’s classroom to don artillery belts and try to liberate El Salvador. Neither Spain nor Mell Lazarus is in his creative infancy; neither draws as he does because he is "trying on Daddy’s shoes." Their respective experiences have taught them the graphic wardrobes that best suit what they want to say.

Many a budding artist, though, will follow in their paths, trying on the shoes of Lazarus this month, of Rodriguez the next, and of another artistic "parent" the next. Note will be taken, consciously or unconsciously: the wide, tarry lines of a Ron Cobb carry the weight of outrage more naturally than the theatrical finesse of an Al Hirschfeld. A sense of the ludicrous may call for the exaggerations of a Don Martin rather than the realism of a Neal Adams.

And so on. A style is synthesized that reflects each artist’s inner world. Once style and content click together to provide income and applause, quite a few cartoonists seem to lose interest in stretching themselves creatively. Happily, there are others who persist in surprising us.

Robert Crumb’s history is laced with such surprises. The Rapidographed playfulness of Fritz the Cat made way for the bulbous insanity of the Zaps. Crumb has satirized "clean" comics with squeaky-cheeked prurience, or has draped his characters in a crosshatched grunginess that hovers like body odor over the page. He’s explored every tone and format from Lenore Goldberg’s commando confrontations to "Cubist Be-Bop." Crumb can wear many shoes by now, but he’s grown into them; they’re his and they all fit. He’s not clomping in whatever footwear Daddy happens to have provided.

We all have to start out with some clomping, though; Crumb did, too. We start out choosing lines and shapes haphazardly, working with tools that may or may not be the most appropriate. Trying this style and that, we watch things work and we watch things fail.

Gradually, we grow at ease with ourselves. The details of it all take less thought as we move and dress our bodies and our drawings to tell others who we are, or who we would like them to think we are.

And thus we present ourselves: toddlers no more. Our shoes fit. Our garb is snappy. Heads turn: we have taken charge and learned how to gain the world’s attention.

The next question is: do we have anything to say?

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