SAMMY HARKHAM ON WEDDING NIGHT

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At first glance, Sammy Harkham’s Wedding Night poster might seem like an exercise in ghoulish violence. The references of blood, urine and spit carry with them a feeling of anxiety and terror but also point to elements of ritual, magik and alchemy.

Creating a sort of “marriage” of elements, the image is also oddly self-referential. Pointing to some of Harkham’s previous early work – the anchor tattoo (from Poor Sailor) bandaged foot (from Typewriter) and the position of the figures is reminiscent of the Golem from Crickets.

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Martin: From what I understand, this image was taken from a painting you had done for an exhibition?

Harkham: It was a drawing that grew organically for a show at the Yerba Buena Art Museum with the theme of Werewolves. I started the drawing with the werewolf and nothing else. I had the hand out stretched in a typical monster lurch and was unsure where he was or doing. As I kept drawing I drew a female face under the hand and it started to make sense, it clicked … especially when the tongue part emerged.

As I worked on the drawing over the next couple days each element was clearly defined in my mind. I am not a fine artist, and rarely do stand alone pieces of art, but this was one of those rare drawings that went beyond being a nice drawing, and had a lot of content – at least to me. The anchor tattoo, the rings, the blood, the knife, the placement of her fingers, etc. None of these elements are just there to look good.

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Living in it, from my point of view, are ideas and symbolic imagery that address the underlying rapture and violence inherent in a ritual that proceeds to kill the individual and embrace the unity of the new bond. Mythology expert Joseph Campbell puts it as “In marriage you are not sacrificing yourself to the other person, you are sacrificing yourself to the relationship”. How does this all tie in together for you?

Harkham: It was drawn pretty soon after I got married, and it touches on a lot of things about love and lust and commitment I was just discovering (the anchor tattoo is as clear symbol of her commitment to the endurance of love that I could think of) The whole idea that’s interesting about men turning into animals is the idea of the inner self, the true-self emerging outward … I could go on and be more specific, but I rather viewers took from it what they will without my concrete interpretations.

It’s an uncomfortable piece because of its personal nature to me, and I am aware that it can be read in a sexist, violent way, but to me it is romantic and hopeful above all else.

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RASL: COMICS REVIEW

RASL_Full_Crown_1.1“It would be so simple to split the world like an apple.”  – Nikola Tesla

Context: In 1991 Jeff Smith released the first issue of a black and white comic book serial called Bone. It was an impressive debut that found Smith, already fully formed, producing unique adventure comics in a notoriously terrible time in the medium’s history. Bone became one of the biggest success stories in comic book publishing, eventually reprinted in color by Disney and Scholastics. Four years after Bone’s 2004 finale, RASL is Jeff Smith’s follow up series.

Story: A scientist turned art thief (RASL) is thrown into an adventure story that involves him having to travel through different dimensions in order to steal priceless, original artwork. His crime spree stops short when he finds himself followed by an odd-looking salamander secret agent and a phantom mute girl. He is being hunted down because of a series of lost journals he has in his possession that once belonged to renegade scientist Nikola Tesla.

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Influences and background: Smith’s background is in animation, and he even owned his own small studio called Character Builders in 1993. He’s also cited an early university strip called “Thorn” and its tight daily deadline for 4 years as a good schooling for making comics. His influences are deeply rooted in older works including Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and more importantly, Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

Look and feel: Above everything else what really stands out and is a real joy to look at in a Jeff Smith book is the artwork, especially in the original black and white runs of his books (he often colors them afterwards in updated editions). Another surprising element from Smith is that he is one of the rare cartoonists still working in individual 32 page serial outputs.

RASL_Sal_Face_1_6RASL’s artwork pops with a real focused line holding a mix of gentle curves and geometric page layout designs. Clean, fast and crisp. His drawings are intelligent enough to avoid using the page as a poor man’s film camera all the while relishing in the medium’s ability to present an exaggerated, malleable, hyper reality.

His animation background becomes apparent in the pacing and overall rhythm of how he makes you travel the page … building up to moments, holding beats, distracting the eye and finally handing you the payoff.

He mostly works within a 6 tier panel grid as the foundation of his design, and then deviates from that when needed. This is traditional, conservative comics pages that rely on grounded storytelling instead of flashy layouts. Seems simple, but too few do it well, especially in adventure comics.

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Film noir & science fiction: The tone and mechanics behind RASL is drenched in film noir mannerisms, and to align itself with its ethos Smith presents the story to us through an unlikable (or at least at first, an unreliable) protagonist. A friend of mine recently boiled down the elements to a film noir story as being: A hotel room, a dame and a bottle. RASL has all three.

But any new work in that genre projects, whether you like it or not, a sense of self-consciousness. If done well, the result carries a sense of homage and nostalgia, and at its very worst it turns into parody. Smith is able to keep a tight focus on injecting the story with the right amount of respectable genre elements and at times even jumps into parody, which feels intentional.

So while the dialogue is sometimes a bit clunky, it all evens itself out nicely because of the drawings … that is to say his writing and cartooning are one and the same, he writes in images. And he’s one of the best doing that in adventure comics.

RASL_Sketch_Coffee_1In seeing some process work for RASL, one thing that stood out for me was his use of computer lettering. I think he is the only cartoonist I follow that does this.

Even tho the story was divided into fifteen single issues (often months apart) Smith didn’t hold back from anchoring the story arch with proper pacing and slowing things down between the action. It meant leaner issues if you read in in the singles (I read it back to back in the softcover editions) but more than anything, it’s this attention and dedication to slower moments that make it enjoyable and rewarding.

RASL_Full_Page_1Favorite page: Some of the best cartooning in the book is Smith recreating the mysterious, and possibly Tesla related Philadelphia experiment (this section does not fit in the mini history lessons mentioned in the critisism section). The sequence underlines the frightening results of dimension traveling, logistics of emerging in the wrong place, most notably in walls or structures. The page ends up that acting as an emotional reminder of what RASL is fighting to stop.

RASL_Hand_1Favorite panel: At a point where the dimensions are rubbing up against each other, strange things start to happen. Sums up RASL’s fun, surreal and adventurous tone.

Criticism: RASL’s narrative sets up a system that allows the story to jump from its main narrative to small history lessons taken from Nikola Tesla’s life. This often breaks a bit of the pacing. They didn’t bother me much other than the fact that the visual treatment of these sections are slightly different than the fiction portions; less cartoony, a bit stiffer and not as polished. I suspect this happened because of possible photo references, but it creates a subtle shift in the mood. And I’m not sure yet if this was intentional.

JACOB COVEY ON POPEYE BOOK DESIGN

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Martin: The overall global language constructed for the Popeye reprint Books seem pretty elaborate, what was the initial brief for the project?

Jacob Covey: The initial brief for the project was basically that my bosses love Popeye and they were keen to reprint the original strip in the best format possible.

Since the creator is long passed and the syndicate is more concerned with the creation as a “property” the only real client demand was pleasing my bosses. King Features was pretty remarkably hands-off. Maybe because Popeye hasn’t managed a great resurgence of popularity, they’re willing to just see what happens. I mean, nothing can be much worse than the (licensed) Reggae Popeye t-shirts I’ve seen.

Were you familiar with the original work before going in?

I wasn’t familiar. I had the common opinion that Popeye was just some repetitive cartoon about a guy who eats spinach and gets into fights over a skinny girl. After reading the first year of his appearance in comics Popeye became one of my all-time favorite characters. It’s really a genius strip. Brutal, hilarious, and totally lost in existential adventure.

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In the initial stages of brainstorming did the editors of Fantagraphics play a big role in helping mold the vision, or were you left on your own in planning things out? Do you have complete carte blanche on something like this, or do you (like many designers) crave and feed off creative restrictions?

That’s a smart question because I had carte blanche in a way but I sort of need restrictions in order to function. I find too much of celebrated contemporary design to be the work that’s most free of restrictions.

Even in school I’d open these magazines and find design-cum-Art that, for me, feels masturbatory [ugh, no pun intended] and meaningless to the content of the project. Meanwhile, the folks at Fantagraphics are totally removed from that world and design doesn’t mean a lot to them because their interest lies more in preserving work they see as important. Their vision is more archival than product-driven. So I end up looking for the restrictions. Asking for them.

In this case, the main priority was how to reprint all of the Sunday color pages and the daily black-and-white strips with the best presentation while also being within budget. So the editors broke apart the two formats within the book– basically creating a front section of 1c and a back section of 4c to save on costs. And then I had to find a way to give the book an overall feel that wouldn’t make this progression feel polarized, visually.

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As much as Popeye ends up intimidating others with his physicality, your book literally towers over its surrounding books on the shelf …it seems like one of the projects crucial decisions was the size, did the original newspaper context influence the size, why the need to go so big?

I’ve found that Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics’s co-owner) helps me a lot by giving me really intuitive direction then stepping back. Kim and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics’ founder) both knew they wanted a large format so the Sunday strips would be done justice. When I proposed the diecut smacked clean through the middle of the cover, that dictated the heft of the cover board and we had our final size.

And, as you pointed out, Popeye is about physicality and so this book is. That was important.

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Its size (multiple sections on a page) gives a unique view of something that was initially visually digested one strip at a time …do you think Segar made conscious design decisions when making the strips that would take under consideration what they would look like next to / on top of each other?

I’m not an expert but I very much doubt Segar imagined these strips being preserved in this way. Newspaper strips weren’t archived in those days (the ’20s and ’30s). Even in later decades as commercial packaging of comic strips became the norm, collected books were just picked-over versions of the strip and they never considered the ‘artistry’ of the storylines much less the format.

The strips were ephemera, meant to be digested and discarded in one sitting. Which is why half of each day’s strip is often taken up with reminding the viewer what happened the day before (except in Segar’s case he began to master making the strip stand on its own while also part of this arc).

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Your typographic decisions in the overall language is pretty eclectic and varied, serifs, sans serifs, slanted / italics different sizes … there are many different things happening but the overall rhythm is still one of refinement. Was there a need to modernize the application of type for the project, or was there a conscious decision to reference older typefaces in order to reflect and comment on its newspaper origins?

Hearing you say it, I realize that this same theme turns up often in my work. I think it’s rooted in an appreciation of the eccentricities born from the hands-on nature of past design but a desire not to make something that would have been done decades ago.

This book design is definitely meant to make the strip’s original context clear while expressing its relevance to a modern audience. While I would tone down something like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, I want to emphasize the intensity and purity of Popeye using only colors mixed from 100% or exactly 50% of the press colors, CMYK.

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Was the main Popeye type header drawn especially for this project?

Trick question. It was inspired mostly by old Castle Films home movie titles but I did it in the computer, not by hand. In fairness to the creator, it’s a font called Samson. I have now destroyed the romance.

Along with its towering size, the punch out / die cut on the front cover visually sets the collection apart from many other books. Playing along with Popeye’s aggressive physical behavior, it seems so fitting to have the main typographic logo seen through a punched out cover …how did this come about?

Eric Reynolds is the third member of the Fantagraphics Royal Family and he was the first to see my comps and push for the diecut. I didn’t know if it was feasible to do– in fact I assumed it wasn’t feasible and presented the comp as a fake diecut, complete with a Photoshop drop shadow that I never would have followed through with using. Ultimately, that diecut is what most communicates the nature of Popeye and makes the series feel complete to me. He is aggressive and, poetically, his violent nature only reveals his core purity.

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One particular design decision that intrigues me is the act of cutting up the main image on the cover (which is repeated for Volume 2 and 3). It looks incredible, and (to me) oddly makes reference to films strips or movement, which is an odd link to a static medium …what are the reasons behind this cutting up? Was there a concern in distorting the original image, especially for the cover – does this end up saying anything about the attitude of these new reprints?

I put this down to an unconscious association with the cartoon, which has had a much more lasting cultural impact for good or bad. It seemed natural to break the image this way, even though it is completely contrary to the structure of a comic strip.

The entire concept was born from when I saw the image that ended up as the cover of Volume One, of Popeye in a boxing match swinging so blindly that he ends up K.O.ing himself as well as his opponent in a fight. It encapsulates everything that’s so charming about Popeye’s humanitarian-but-prideful nature. There is a self-destruction that happens when he lashes out at the source of his frustration.

And, of course, it’s just a fun look. It’s very pleasant to handle the book and that punched out cardboard feels like childhood adventure. I have a friend who keeps talking about the “mouthfeel” of food. These books probably even have that.

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The back of your book is beautifully dynamic – offering vertical and horizontal information and what HAS to be the most carefully considered bar code I’ve ever seen. It’s really raised the bar on how much care can be put in this subtle area of book design. Along with the small chapter dividing images it’s my favourite part of the design.

It means a lot to me to hear anyone noticing that back cover. Only you and Chris Ware have commented on it. I hope that means other people are responding to it. The way a viewer first experiences the book and how they later experience it is constantly on my mind. I want there to be little things to appreciate each time you pick up the book. There’s a lot more that design could be doing if we designers just had more time to focus on it.

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BLACKLUNG: COMICS REVIEW

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“I enjoy doing all these crosshatching details, you just got to do it for the love of it. I once got a letter from a guy who said he loved my crosshatching more than he loved getting stoned. Its things like that that make it all worth it.” – Robert Crumb

Context: I first heard about Chris Wright on the Comic Books are Burning in Hell podcast (an episode entitled Violencia!) and picked up his book called Blacklung. It’s his first major work and there isn’t much of him other than a smaller comic called Inkweed from Sparkplugs books, which I now need to hunt down.

Story: A bookish sixteenth century teacher finds himself accidentally aboard a ship of bandits who partake in a level of violence and comradery that opens his eyes to a different kind of human interaction, suffering and violence. The captain of the ship – taken over by a delusional vision of reuniting with his dead wife in hell – commits as many evil acts as he can. And as the crew falls into an abyss of violence, our main character slowly finds himself fitting in.

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CARTOONING
Influences and background: Wright’s drawings take their cue from older cartoonists like E. C. Segar and Frank King. Parallels can also be seen in a piece like Louis Riel, but maybe that’s only because he shares some of Chester Brown’s same influences. As an image maker, film seems to be a big thing with Wright as we see glimpses of Bergman and Peckinpah seep into his tale, but I can’t help but sense some of Cormac McCarthy and Melville’s imaginings have found their way in this as well.

Look and feel: Wright is a great character designer. His world is inhabited by Jim Henson-like fuzzy balloon beasts that give off the feeling of being bendable and solid at the same time. An interesting contrast is achieved when these puffy creatures engage with and inhabit the more realistic background elements that frame the story.

His line is not about elegantly inked curves but the metallic scratch of a nib pen scraping against the tooth of the page. These scrapings show a unique command of composing gradients, were blacks are mixed in with various tones of greys that are a compendium of obsessive cross hatchings.

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At the core of Blacklung is an affirmation to explore the limits of extreme violence through harsh imagery. The cartoony style used throughout creates a strong contrast against the violence that allows it, at first glance, to be more palpable. But he soon takes advantage of the elastic and bendable nature of his characters as the imagery drives forward into mutilations, lashings and torture, pushing the limits of what can be done to a human body.

The abnormally oversized book allows for Wright to physically pack in more panels than we usually see, and from my understanding the question of size also got in the way of him finding a publisher. The book needed to be printed big.

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Wright sticks to a pretty simple plot and works within the action-adventure-pirate genre, but allows for a pretty loose narrative that ends up focusing more on character behavior then plot. The book does build up to a climax and has all the elements needed to satisfy someone looking for a story with momentum (although some have found the ending’s resolution lacking, which has not been a problem for me). Infused in the text are biblical overtones that pack the dialogue with a heaviness … no doubt Melville and McCarthy are living in these pages in one form or another. And in a Deadwoodian fashion, curse words and insults are aplenty. I am always fascinated when a story finds a way to pull me in and get me involved and engaged with unlikable, mean characters. I’m not sure I sympathize with the outcome for most of them, but I was surprised to have such an affection for the cast on repeated readings.

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Favorite page: Part Empire Strikes Back, part belly of the whale – a man is stuffed into the water beast after being found guilty of keeping a woman on the boat and using her for his own sexual pleasure. This is the first encounter the main protagonist (and the reader) has with the crew, setting the chaotic tone that will eventually overtake the story. Albeit being grotesque, there is something attractive about its dreamlike imagery.

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Favorite panel: A big bulky character called Sweany is the dark centre of the story and where Wright can really unleash his ugliest depictions of man’s unconscious sadistic impulses. Sweany reminds me of Blood Meridian’s main character, but without the moral codes. Here we see Sweany – calm and collected, after torturing the captain of a ship and his crew – slowly adding to his trophy, one tongue at a time. (I can’t help but be reminded of how my family used to decorate our x-mas tree by slipping popcorn together in a similar fashion).

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Criticism: The characters in the story can be broken up into archetypes (strong character, smart character, naïve character, weak character). Not a bad thing, but at times it was hard to keep track of who was who. Especially when it came to a few of the “big /strong” characters. I had to make quick sketches of faces so as not to be confused when certain references were made.