Drawing Down The Moon

By Charles Vess, Susanna Clarke

Drawing Down The Moon By Charles Vess, Susanna Clarke.
As someone who enjoys the work of popular fantasy illustrator Charles Vess, I haven't followed his development as an artist all that closely. So a lot of the images compiled within the pages of this 200 page retrospective Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess were a pleasant surprise. If I had to sum up his oeuvre as presented in this book, it would be that Vess has been extremely succesful in pursuing projects that were suitable to his individual talents. For example, he's returned to William Shakespeare's ageless comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream several times throughout his career. That choice is emblematic of him - Vess seems particularly drawn to stories that deal with the intersection between the realms of the mundane and the magical.

One thing that I can relate to some degree are his various artistic influences. Vess cites comics legends such as Jack Kirby, George Herriman, Russ Manning, and Hal Foster. But he was also strongly informed by the work of classic fantasy illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th century such as Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham, Richard Dadd, Alphonse Mucha, and Howard Pyle. Some of his early attempts at comic book storytelling are reproduced, and show that Vess had already learned to blend his comic and illustration influences. Vess exhibited many of the characteristics of his illustration heroes: The lithe figures, pastoral settings, the finely textured pen and ink cross hatching, and the harmonious color palette and subdued tones of his subtractive style of painting. Vess had all the necessary tools to become an accomplished artist. Those youthful efforts contained just the smallest hints of the command for multi-layered tableaux and the mastery of fanciful decorative elements found in his later, more mature work.

One big misstep, from the way he tells it, was enrolling at the department of painting and printmaking of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he graduated with a BFA. Whatever valuable technical skills he acquired came at the expense of disapproval from his peers. At the time the faculty was strongly influenced by the abstract expressionist movement - the antithesis to the narrative art dear to Vess. "I had to struggle for many years to regain that lost, individual sense of whimsical fantasy that those school years tried to squelch." I guess the pop art movement had not yet penetrated the walls of VCU's academia.

The Fairy Market
The Fairy Market
Another odd choice which is only briefly touched on were his attempts to work for Heavy Metal magazine. The publication's emphasis on sci-fi, combined with a preference for a brighter, more garish palette, buff figures, and a blood-and-guts approach more in line with Frank Frazetta than with Aubrey Beardsley (just to name two of Vess' early heroes) seemed like a poor fit. Unsurprisingly, one of the magazine's editors would describe his art as "too nice" for their purposes.

They Were Like Knights and Great Ladies out of Some Medieval Story Book
They Were Like Knights and Great Ladies out of Some Medieval Story Book
However, working in the comic book industry allowed Vess to eventually make his way back to the faerie idiom and narrative illustration, especially when he began collaborating with fan-favorite writer Neil Gaiman - a professional relationship that continues up to the present. His paintings for Gaiman's novel Stardust remains his most ambitious, and one of his most successful, bodies of work to date. Along with wider recognition came greater freedom to choose who to collaborate with and which stories were available to illustrate: whether it was the victorian-era J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, modern emulators like Charles de Lint and Susanna Clarke, the darker horror-fantasies of George R.R. Martin, pro bono work for local community organizations, or his own self-publishing efforts through Green Man Press. While some of these projects are bound to come across better than others, depending on the reader's own tastes, there's a remarkable stylistic consistency to his art in this later period of his career that speaks to how carefully he's built his reputation as one the industry's foremost fantasy illustrators.

The Merry Dancer's Emporium
The Merry Dancer's Emporium
While I have my own quibbles with the book's design (I don't particularly care for the cover's color scheme and would have preferred the text to blend into the cover image), there's not much to complain about the content of the book. Susanna Clarke provides a fairly apt introduction. Apart from the reproductions of the finished artwork, there are samples of some of the underlying line art sprinkled throughout the book. Vess indulges the art geeks by concluding with an informative section on how he created the book's cover art. Overall, Drawing Down the Moon is as satisfying a retrospective as any found in today's market.

A Dream of Apples
A Dream of Apples


More NonSense: Personal Expression on the Internet

The challenge for their managers is a subtle one: How to infuse their coverage with the distinctive human voices of journalistic observers who no longer wish to suppress their personal perspectives, while also insuring that the big megaphones they own do not turn into amplifiers of treacherous rumors, personal vendettas, or partisan lies.

- Scott Rosenberg on the new journalism fostered by the Internet

PR isn't journalism, but it's getting more social, and smarter PR people realize that they, too, have a stake in showing some integrity. Think tanks and NGOs increasingly are filling a journalistic role.

- Dan Gillmor responds

The original Everybody Draw Mohammed Day poster by Molly Norris
The original Everybody Draw Mohammed Day poster by Molly Norris
...we should all be clear that it's almost certain that Norris made the imam's list not for this expression of her ideas but because folks turned her expression into a Facebook campaign that garnered a lot of attention despite Norris wishing to be disassociated from it. Nice job, you dumbasses.

- Tom Spurgeon on Molly Norris and the campaign she inspired

Update: Tom has more to say about Norris and the Danish cartoon controversy:

That this remains an issue in the news speaks to the broad, bland immaturity of the modern political world and the obvious, sad fact that nothing was learned. In fact, learning was resisted. Almost no one's conduct during that time was challenged or questioned, no matter how self-serving the subsequent spin.

Video: The Sandpit

Go to: The Sandpit by Sam O'Hare
Winner: Prix Ars Electronica Award of Distinction 2010


Reviving our Industry

Liwayway Komiks
Image from Wikipilipinas
Some random thoughts on two Senate bills proposed by former Presidential candidate Manny Villar.

1) Creating financial incentives to help efforts of komiks creators might sound like a good idea in general, but some of the language of the bills strikes me as a tad old-fashioned. From the later Senate bill:

Komiks has been the champion of the masses: political, sociological, and financial issues; the mirror of the country's times: dreams and disillusions, passions, and fashions; cultural anchor: a gentle reminder of our heritage and values; and a teacher as it contributes to the propagation of the Pilipino language in a country of more than 70 languages, thereby strengthening the Filipino race and the national language.

Sadly, with the advent of computer games, compact discs, digital video discs, and the internet, the local komiks industry suffered. Moreover, the best illustrators in the local komiks industry have been lured by the high pay they received in the United States. Thus, the joy of reading komiks has been set aside and, as a consequence, results in the twin evils of diminishing readership and illiteracy.

There's a bit of nostalgia for those good old days when komiks was a major publishing venture, mixed with economic protectionism, and a bit of nationalist boosterism for good measure. But nothing in the bill shows any forward thinking about how to respond to comics increased internet presence, its growth as a digital medium, the massive popularity of manga, or the protection of free speech and artistic expression. When looked in the context of the anti-child pornography bill passed last year, there's not a lot in the bill to prevent at least some komiks from being used as a form of government propaganda.

2) The mandating that 10% of printed educational material be komiks dredges up personal memories of attending elementary school religion classes: Komiks were a regular part, actually a big part, of moral and spiritual instruction. I don't know if that was a quirk of the particular school I attended, and in truth I remember next to nothing about the content of the stories. It's been awhile since I've been to a Filipino school. But I think they made more of an impression (both bad and good) than the regular textbooks. This was a private school, and most private schools are still religious in their affiliation.

3) Komiks was no more recognized as a legitimate artform during its heyday by the general public than when Jack Kirby was toiling away at Marvel Comics at the height of his professional career. Komiks continues to be a marginal presence, often obscured by the current influx of American and Japanese imports. And those foreign products in themselves aren't usually treated as legitimate artistic works. It's understandable if people act a little defensively about komiks vis-a-vis other comics traditions. But if komiks wants to be recognized as a worthy artistic medium, there needs to be some maturation within local fandom itself in their overall perception of the comics medium.

4) Given the heavy-handed, values-laden rhetoric that characterizes Filipino politics, I'm not sure I want the government too involved with my beloved medium. While I like the idea of tax breaks and other financial incentives, I'm concerned about the censorship that inevitably follows when local politicians become interested in mass media (Such as in the Filipino film industry, which the bill mentions as a sterling example of effective government support. Komiks has also had its own version of the Comics Code Authority). It's a dilemma that Filipino creators are going to be concerned about.


The Arrival

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.To begin on a personal note, I'm surprised that I didn't read The Arrival when it first came out, considering how celebrated a figure Shaun Tan is in Australia. I do remember making a perfunctory search for his works at a few Brisbane comic book stores before losing interest. Shows how much I know. In retrospect, Tan's book now seems almost a timely response to the xenophobia then sweeping the country. This is far from a polemical work. Rather, Tan chooses to address the history of modern diasporas in broadly universal terms.

Shaun Tan came to the comics medium from the completely different tradition of children's book illustration. So he was a virtual unknown to most comic book fans despite significant mainstream recognition, especially in his home country of Australia. It also may not have helped with certain segments of comics fandom that the children's book illustrator's approach to narrative art emphasizes divergent aesthetic qualities from most comic book art. Tan's use of graphite to draw photorealistic images, reminiscent of , is unusual for comics. But such lavish rendering is not atypical in children's picture books.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

One consequence of Tan's illustrative style is that it prevents him from utilizing many of the narrative conventions and iconography found in comics. But I suspect that Tan is either too unlearned or uninterested in those techniques to have taken full advantage of them anyway. Instead, Tan employs the virtuosity of his art to draw sepia-toned images that are strongly suggestive of old passports and faded photos of immigrants coming to the New World. This creates an impression that one is looking into someone's past. But the art also has a sensuous quality, not just as a found object, but also within the images themselves. At the story's beginning various household objects are seen in isolation through a series of small panels before the view pulls back to reveal a family of three packing them into a suitcase. The quiet poignancy of the domestic scene is cut short when the trio steps outside into city streets full of crumbling tenement buildings being menaced by enormous, dragon-like coils. These objects have a powerful literal presence within the panels. But both the coils and buildings simultaneously work as metaphors for the dire conditions that are forcing the family to flee to a better place. The surreal imagery works to a great extent because of Tan's detailed artwork.

The father's exodus grows increasingly fantastical. The first part of this book heavily references contemporary photos of immigrants traveling to and being processed at Ellis Island: from the cramped conditions of ships steerage; the New York style skyline; and the bureaucratic nightmare immigrants experienced when being processed by the government. But the promised land they finally enter looks like a combination of a 20th century metropolis, an abstract expressionist landscape, and a child's play-land, with a hint of "The Unifactor". Elevators and mailboxes are carried by balloons, birds look like origami fold-outs, people commute on flying boats, and family pets all look like eccentric cartoon animals. This is a wondrous and somewhat frightening utopia where people from other parts of the world have fled from tyranny, slavery, and war - truly a "New World".

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

While Tan's page layouts and panel compositions are conventional, he has an intuitive grasp of comics-style pacing. Small square panels portraying little details and nondescript actions carry the reader along until the view expands with the use of page spreads to include a larger tableaux. The uniform simplicity of his panel arrangements and the photorealism of his art are sometimes reminiscent of cinematic storyboards and the sequences of . I particularly liked how the characters communicate through subtle movements and small gestures instead of more typical over-the-top posturing. His narrative is assured, controlled, and easily accessible to the mainstream reader.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

I mentioned at the beginning that The Arrival almost seems like a response to the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment of the time. However, Tan neither directly addresses the casual or institutionalized racism that immigrants experience in reality. The story is primarily an aspirational tale, and the overall mood is one of hope. Needless to say, this is one that mitigates some of the negative consequences of personal displacement. There is no fear and hate in the New World. There is just some culture shock, temporary unemployment, and the drudgery of working in menial factory-based assembly line production. This makes the story less than totally convincing to adult readers. Some will probably find it a naive fantasy. But in choosing to concentrate on the personal rather than the political, Tan focuses on the transformative nature of the immigrant experience - Every person is in search for something better for themselves and their loved ones. Is it wrong to want that? Conveying this message to today's younger audience may actually be a better answer than writing a more vitriolic work. Maybe...

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.


Ping, Schming!

Joy of Tech by Nitrozac and Snaggy
Go to: Joy of Tech by Nitrozac and Snaggy

Draw Muhammed Day

Muhammad Ali at Angelo Dundee's, Fifth Street Gym, Miami, FL
Go to: Muhammad Ali, The Champ by Michael Gaffney
Muhammad Ali at Angelo Dundee's, Fifth Street Gym, Miami, FL
More photos at Proud
Gotcha! Michael Gaffney released several previously unseen photos to celebrate that 50 years ago, Cassius Clay won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rome.