Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Praise of Asterix

I was in my local library the other day when I was thrilled to notice the librarian checking in a brand new stack of Asterix books. It’s one of the wonderful trends in libraries these days, the introduction of comic book art, and it’s terrific to see these old chestnuts being discovered by a new generation for the first time.
Among the collection were Asterix and Cleopatra and Asterix in Britain, my first (and second) Asterix books that I ever owned. Asterix and Cleopatra was brought back to me from England by my brother and sister-in-law in 1970, which makes my dog-eared and bedraggled copy now 40 years old and possibly one of the first in English translation to reach Canada.  I went on to read and collect almost all of the Asterix books, the start of a lifelong passion for the work of Goscinny and Uderzo’s diminutive Gaulish hero Asterix and his over-sized friend Obelix.
It’s almost a cartoonist’s cliché to say that he was influenced by Asterix. But I can honestly say that I really learnt to draw cartoons by studying these books. The ink stained page of Asterix and Cleopatra shown here is proof of that, one of a long line of ink bottles spilt in my pursuit of mastering drawing with pen and ink. I loved Uderzo’s drawings, and Goscinny’s wit (the books Uderzo penned after Goscinny’s death never were quite up to scratch, in my opinion) and it would be a blatant lie to deny their influence on my work.
I think it probable that I have unconsciously borrowed from them more than once as the lines and images of those books were so hard-wired in my pre-pubescent brain. Their movements, dialogue and interaction have taken the form of archetypes in my imagination and it’s to those memories that I reach first whenever I start working on a new panel. You simply have to look at my own creations, Otto, the lovable but slightly dim-witted elephant and his clever little pal, Crackers, to see the resemblance.
Not that Asteix and Obelix were the first pairing of this sort. There is a long and venerable line of big and little pals, Laurel and Hardy,  Abbott and Costello, Gilligan and the Captain and Ren and Stimpy, just to name a few. So my dynamic duo is in good company.
But yet, when I look at Otto breaking into the zoo in the page that I was inking this week, I can’t help but think that Obelix has gone through a few similar doors in a similar way in his illustrious career. So thank you Uderzo and Goscinny for inhabiting my imagination.
Inked p. 45 of Big City Otto. No mistaking the Asterix influence here!

 As an aside, a few years ago I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with Anthea Bell at Serendipity, an international children’s literature conference held every four years  in Vancouver, B.C.  Anthea is another member of my pantheon of heroes, the small and silver-witted translator of all the Asterix books into the English language. Most of the puns are hers, as are many of the voices we read in translation. I don’t really even know how Asterix reads in French as her translations of the text are all I’ve ever encountered!
Anthea Bell, the English language translator of Asterix, my partner Esperança Melo and me (a fan!) at Serendipity in 2007.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Back to the Drawing Board (Thank God!)

I love the way this guy draws elephants!
Illustration by Heinrich Kley, from the series The Family at the Sea Shore

My eyes are pinchy and I have a crick in my neck that’s reduced my arc of vision to about 90 degrees. It’s times like these that I’m glad that I made the decision early to break up this mammoth project into bite sized and varied pieces. Ten pages drawing, send them to my editor, ten pages inking, ten pages colouring, get approval on the first ten and then start the whole process over again. The relentless mathematics of doing a book has kicked in now as I find my stride. One day pencilling, a half day inking, three quarters of a day colouring adds up to four to five more months work before I reach the end of Book One.
I woke up in a cold sweat the other day from a half dream where I suddenly realized that I would be 60 by the time I’ve finished the three-book arc of this story. The relentless math had transposed into a relentless march through a good portion of my allotted time on this earth. But in the cool light of day I remembered that I had to be doing something with my time over the next decade and at the moment I’m having the time of my life.
Except when I’m colouring.
It’s not that I don’t like colouring. It’s simply the least favourite part of my work. And because I have elected to colour this on the computer, it’s also the most physically demanding. I haven’t figured out a good interface with my computer that doesn’t leave me eye sore and weary at the end of the day. But I still prefer it to colouring on my art board, enjoying the options inherent in using flat colour with Photoshop, the possibilities to play around with tones harmlessly and without consequence and to be able to create certain effects that would be difficult using paint. But it still hurts!
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog (I think) the drawing and inking is really where my passion lies. I barely touched paint before I was thirty, and would gladly abandon it again if my work would allow. (My partner, on the other hand, loves her colour, would eat it up if she could, and in some books has been my Jack Spratt’s wife to my preferred diet of lean, clean line.) I think my love of line is the love of the immediacy of it all, that the picture takes shape with very few material intermediaries (just a pencil or pen) and not a whole lot of preparation. The line is drawn, the mind image transferred to paper, corrected, altered, completed.
With my inking, I always start with a tightly drawn pencil sketch so there are few surprises at this stage. But there is something about the transfer of the grey medium of pencil to the stark black line of ink, starting always in the upper left corner and working my way through so that I don’t smudge the ink (that being a hard lesson learned young!) that I find meditative and immensely gratifying.
I think for me drawing and inking are a fairly intellectual pursuit, using the cognitive part of my brain where I exercise a million little decisions in working through a drawing. But there is also something that is very unambiguous about ink, a finality where, if you don’t get it right, the drawing is ruined but it also doesn’t allow for the endless tinkering that paint does.
I thought I would mention a couple of books, one that was my bible for pen and ink drawing when I was working at improving my technique many years ago, and the second an artist who’s work I admire greatly. The first was originally published in 1930 – my edition is from 1976 – and I don’t know it it’s still in print. It’s titled Rendering in Pen and Ink by Arthur L. Guptill, and includes step-by-step instructions on a variety of techniques and portfolios of early 20th century ink drawings that are lessons in themselves. The second is a book of drawings by the German artist Heinrich Kley. Irreverent and sometime misogynist, they are still brilliant renderings that always inspire.
Now, back to the drawing board!

Above: One of the many inspirational pen and ink drawings from Guptill's book. This illustration is by John R. Neill.
This week's preview, p. 38 from Big City Otto. One of my favourite panels in this story is the bottom panel, where Otto is looking out over the city and realizing for the first time how big it is (and how hopeless their task of finding Georgie). I found a great old photo from the '30's of the New York skyline and used this as my inspiration for the cityscape.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Man with the Wooden Nose

Pencil rough for bottom panel, p. 46 of Big City Otto.

Every hero needs an anti-hero, and for Otto it’s The Man with the Wooden Nose. But it was a strange and twisted trail that brought this shadowy worm out of the woodwork.
He began life as The Man with the Ten Gallon Hat, the outwardly affable yet deeply sinister fiend that had spirited Georgie the chimp away to America before our own story begins. But it was felt by those in high places that there may be an unfortunate confusion with other literary figures out there in the big wide world, so a makeover, although strongly resisted, was inevitably in order. My editor, who had championed this project from the first, expressed the view that the story was strong enough to survive on its own merits, which was a nice thing for her to say!
So my co-conspirator Esperança and I bandied a few ideas around, beginning by considering other headgear – pith helmets, Scotch bonnets, baby bonnets – but then moving away from the hat idea completely. “The Man with the Rubber Gloves” eventually emerged, but was discarded as too creepy. He was followed by “The Man in the Green Galoshes” (too cute), before we finally settled on “The Man with the Wooden Nose”.
This seemed to strike the right balance between the macabre and the silly, and rather than simply being an "also ran", offered up possible interesting back stories – nose chewed off by vengeful piranhas deep in the Amazon, a motivating case of probiscus envy when The Man with the Wooden Nose finally meets his nemesis, Otto the elephant. So the moniker stuck, and what began as a change generated by outside forces ended up being a change, I think, for the better.
Spoiler alert, but The Man with the Wooden Nose doesn’t even make an appearance in the first, or even the second Otto stories. In a way it is better to let him build in the reader’s imagination, although if pushed, I would say that I have imagined his nose as some sort of over-sized wooden prosthetic attached with leather straps and buckles. But as that particular image is yet to make it to paper, it may still change.
Anyhow, here is the page I was colouring today, where a jive-talking musician with an unfortunately large hooter is mistaken by Otto as his arch enemy. Ah well, nothing a little flattery won’t fix!
Final art for Big City Otto, p. 31

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bogbrush Ho!

Slightly tangential from my diligent and obsessive chronicling of the graphic novel, I thought I would break to announce the arrival of my newest book. Well, Howard Whitehouse’s newest book but I did have the pleasure of drawing some pictures for it.

Returning from two weeks’ holidays in the Azores (I know you missed me, faithful readers  — both of you!) I found the massive yet dull-witted Bogbrush the Barbarian, thews a-glistening, lurking in ambush betwixt the slender covers of a brand new book found amongst two weeks unpaid bills stacked by our cat-sitter on the dining room table.

Now I’d read this story before (naturally, I had to illustrate it — some of us illustrators do that, you know!) but I promptly set aside the long and tedious history of the German – Russian war (see first post, other passions) that I’ve been grinding through (being at Stalingrad itself may have been less exhausting, if not, perhaps, less murderous) and sat down to read the adventure of Bogbrush one more time. I always do this with new books. There’s something about cracking the spine and seeing the whole thing finally together, words and pictures sandwiched between the magic of two covers creating that remarkable text delivery-device – a book! — that never fails to delight.

I highly recommend it (Bogbrush, that is, not the tedious history of the German — Russian war. And I would, wouldn’t I, being the illustrator and all) with its laugh a minute. So many, in fact that if you don’t care for one just wait a bit and another will be along shortly (much like buses, if they’d been invented, which they are, but weren’t in Bogbrush’s time. Don’t ask.) And I would be remiss to mention that it also includes some excellent and charming illustrations.

One of the trends that I have seen emerging recently is the return to illustrated novels for kids. It was something that I loved finding in my books when I was young, but had been more or less abandoned at some point, doubtlessly because publishers figured out that they could print books for less if they didn’t have to pay the illustrator. Also, I expect, it was a result of the growth in popularity of picture books, resulting in a stricter delineation between illustrated books (for little kids) and non-illustrated books (for older kiddies). Whatever the reason, some bright souls decided that kids didn’t want or need pictures to go with their slightly more wordy books. Wrong, of course.

So I’m glad to see the trend reversing. For a number of years now I have been illustrating a series of first novels for Formac, the hilarious Morgan stories written by Ted Staunton. The pen and ink illustrations I have done for those books, and later, Howard’s books, are some of my favourite work and that mostly akin to what I am now doing in my graphic novel (there, I tied it in!) I have always loved pen and ink work and for the first thirty years of my life or so rarely did anything in colour. Pen and ink is still my medium of choice, my early inspirations being some of the great Mad Magazine illustrators of the 50’s, people like Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and Bil Elder that I found in my older brothers’ and sisters book cases when I was growing up, reading by flashlight after bedtime under the covers.
Bogbrush is the fourth of Howard’s novels I’ve had the pleasure to illustrate, the first three being The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones series. This one is clearly more down market, as Howard will readily admit, down in the sense of being written for a younger audience. In time, as his comic genius is properly recognized, many will claim to have discovered Howard and Howard will doubtlessly claim to have discovered himself. But I do take pride in being the person who introduced him and his work to Tara Walker, editor extraordinaire at Kids Can Press. An introduction that I’m proud to say lead to the publishing of his first novel for kids, The Strictest School in the World. (Not, I should point out, his first publication, having previously authored some sort of book on the Boer war, I think, that Howard claims nobody read as well as numerous hilarious rule sets for various miniature-based games, sold in their dozens world-wide. But I digress from my digression.) I fell in love with his whacked out sense of humour on my very first reading of his manuscript, which had been forwarded to me by a mutual friend. So as I was saying, I had the great privilege of introducing Howard’s work to Kids Can Press, with the caveat that, should it be published, I would be allowed to illustrate it

Anyhow, ‘nuff said. My reading recommendation of the week: Bogbrush the Barbarian by Howard Whitehouse, illustrated by me. If you want to see more of it check out the “New Books for 2010” page at the top of this blog.