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Archive for June 2010

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The Many Moods of Megaton Man

I'm working on some new material for an old project with cartoonist and Megaton Man creator, Don Simpson. More news about that sooner than later. This morn he surprised me by sending some drawings I did of Megs for him as a gift now over twenty years ago...

They're not bad, and kinda fun to see after all these years, even if they don't do justice to Don's take on his own character. Though he's not drawing comics on a regular basis, he has a couple things in the works, so keep an eye out. I'll update here.

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TothPix: Conan Pin-ups

1980, Alex Toth did a series of pin-up/poster illustrations for the interior pages of presumably The Savage Sword of Conan magazine. For all of these he used a black & white tonal wash technique which served the material and Toth well, and suited the magazine. All are strong pieces, though I've a favorite.

This first, above, shows Conan coolly walking the gauntlet of a complex slash of angled swords in the foreground. In the background, throws the two other characters and drapery in semi-shadow, adorned by interesting dress and decoration. The secondary figures are prominent and backlit, but de-emphasized by the mid-tone wash and cropping. The curves of the stone and drapery lead the viewer's eye into the picture and towards Conan, as does the criss-cross of swords. Despite the complexity of the composition, the eye is drawn to Conan's face, by high contrast, the sword behind his head, and the dark strap across his upper body. Beautiful piece.

This second is the weakest of the five, but I still like it for the use of negative space and shapes, and weird, large-toothed egghead creatures.

The third (above) is bathed more in shadow, a strong action shot, made all the moreso by Toth use of cropping and angles. Conan's enemy has the upper hand and leverage in the struggle, leaning in on the barbarian, and ready to strike, as we can see from his sword in hand on the upper right. Both faces of the primary characters are obscured, so we focus more on their violent battle. Conan has dropped his sword, creating a strong parallel angle with figures, and though he's at a disadvantage, we feel his evident strength will see him through.

Like the second piece, we don't see the attackers, but rather their weapons. The dry-brushed slashes above indicate a fire below, creating a dramatic underlighting with which Toth emphasizes the weight of the stone and Conan's strength, which also throws a shadow across Conan's face, making him once again the center of interest. He's peppered from below by pesky arrows, which zing through the foreground, mid- and background, even over the title Toth has place atop, creating graphic depth throughout the piece. Toth uses some well-placed negative areas: on the lower left, to show the debris and where the stone is headed; and just below his hand, so we see clearly how Conan is lifting the large rock.

This last is perhaps my favorite, as Toth has created a clever quilt of black and white shapes with the weird giant jury and their dark hoods. Their faces are left a stark white with a minimal use of unvarying line for their features, while Conan is set apart, modeled and toned with a grey wash.

With each piece, Toth set himself a graphic and compositional challenge, approaching the material in a way no one else would. These are fine examples to show what made him such a unique comic book artist and illustrator.

Next week: Cartoony Toth.

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TothPix: Red Fox

For the entry this week, I've chosen two panels from Mask of the Red Fox (House of Mystery #187, DC Comics, 1970).

I love especially the first of the two, the composition asymmetrical and off balance, showing us those black & white birches in the foreground from where the fox emerged. This panel is colored well, with just a tiny bit of warm an cool colors on the trees so the contrast isn't too extreme and they don't draw too much attention. The simple outline of the leaning fox gives the frame motion, and the spot of orange surrounded by yellow and green pops the fox, the center of interest.

In panel two, the red fox is in the foreground this time, and in silhouette, coming out of the tall grass. I darkened the castle slightly with a violet to help it pop (it was colored a blue not dissimilar from the sky). These are just a couple nice panels from a boldly rendered story, which you can read with Toth's annotations at the link above, as usual at the wonderful Toth Fans site. Unfortunately, it looks like the image links for pages 4 & 5 are broken, which contain the panels featured here.

Just for grins, I tried my best to blow out the color from these two frames, just to get an idea of Toth's black & white original art.

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The Holy Rocka Rollaz!

My pal, Mark Flora, for whom I've done album illustrations, and who played guitar and more for the most recent Bedbugs trailer, has assembled a new band, The Holy Rocka Rollaz! Over this past weekend, the band was out and about at a local car show, spreading the word and passing out CD samplers, which featured my art on the cover, in total Ratfink/Dragster mode.

The band provided me tons of good photo reference for the vibe and likenesses. There's still some tweaking and finessing I'll do on the art, as well as the type treatment, but this was good to go for their purposes early on as Mark and his gang lay the groundwork to set up gigs. The Holy Rocka Rollaz are a band that loves and pays tribute to early American rock 'n' roll, probably playing car shows, gigs events and even weddings by the Fall.

For your curiosity, I'm including here my initial and only sketch/pencil, done digitally, directly on the screen/computer. I printed it in blue and inked with a brush, scanning and coloring in Photoshop. I'll post updates about the band here at the blog, as well as the updated art when it's completed.

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TothPix: Gun Glory

In 1957, Toth drew an adaptation of the movie western, Gun Glory, featuring Stewart Granger and Rhonda Fleming. It appeared in Dell Comics' self titled one-shot ("Four Color" #846). Toth did many movie and TV adaptations during the late '50s and early '60s, including Zorro, Roy Rogers, The Time Machine, Sea Hunt, 77 Sunset Strip, No Time For Sergeants and The FBI Story, among many others (some of which I'll cover in future installments).

Toth was a master of spotting blacks, well known and emulated for his shadow work and use of silhouettes, and this page from Gun Glory is a prime example.

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He doesn't do it as a time saver, or 'cause he was lazy, or on every page or panel, but when it suited his purposes in creating a mood and telling the story. This scene takes place out in the open American West, with the sun high in the sky, so the light colors and stark shadows are appropriate.

He sets the scene with the rifleman leaving his horse atop a ridge, skipping down for position. Panel two is the true establishment frame, a brilliant bird's eye shot that gives us his location in relation to the rider below. In panel three, though entirely in silhouette, Toth indicates everything the reader needs to know with the gesture of the buck of the horse and turn of the rider as warning shots are fired, all while striking strong angles through the middle of the frame and page. A close up follows to show us the character, jittery, then it's back to another silhouette as the rider regains his defiance and bravado, continuing on. In the last panel, Toth leaves us anxious to turn the page and find out how this conflict is resolved.

Each frame works on its own, and the page composition is superb, all angles and triangles, positive and negative shapes, with cowboy's guns blazing along craggy rock. But my favorite panels are the second and sixth: both simple and clear, yet strong and complex.

Take a look at the whole page at a smaller size, and it's apparent how Toth expertly leads the eye of the reader from panel to panel, through the page, as indicated on the right by my bold red line:

Just fantastic.

I'm unsure whether these are particularly great scans, or if Dell's printer was extremely attentive in laying down a heavy black ink during printing. Toth seems to have drawn this story and others from the period so they'd carry and look good regardless of how well they were colored or printed. In this case, the coloring is kept simple, naturalistic and subdued, which supports well enough the art and story.

I grabbed the art for the entire story from the Toth Fans web site. To read Gun Glory in its entirety, email me directly a request to paul@bluemoonstudios.com, and I'll send you all the pages in a zipped folder.

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Portrait of a Pal

My longtime friend, editor and collaborator, Brian Augustyn asked me to draw up a little portrait for him, and it was fun to do. He intends to use it as a profile pic option for his Facebook page, and perhaps to spur other artists to contribute one of their own.

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Toth Pix: A Rolling Stone

This week's focus on Toth features a story as far as I know has never seen print. Apparently done for the American Forces Press Service, as stated in the editor's note atop page one. I'm posting the entire eight-page story in sequence, which features a smokin' Jimi Hendrix-type character acting as troubadour narrator. I'll highlight and comment on favorite panels below following the story.

Now, that's not a story that breaks new ground, or is a complete original, but it rings true, does the job for the intended audience, and within it, Toth displays typical moments of brilliance. It's drawn with bold line and spotted blacks, and thought it may seem too simple to some, the drawing is all there, and Toth conveys everything he needs to.

For all his penchant to crop and focus on certain actions and items, he never forgets to establish the characters and place. In this shot, he brings a lot of humor and individuality to this character. With a few comics devices like the "Mail Call" box, sound effect, icons and thought balloon, he tells us a lot about this guy.

Ah, remember the days when we used to look forward to and receive letters via "snail mail?" I'm all for new technology and modes of communication, nearly addicted to blogs, email and social sites, but gosh, I miss the days of sending and receiving an old-fashioned postcard or letter.

In the panel below, I love the natural pose and body language of this superior. It tells us though he's taking care of his business, he's fairly casual about this situation, even as it may seem or be of dire consequence to the main character.

And then in these two panels, once characters and conflicts are made evident, Toth pulls his neat trick of cropping out those very characters to focus instead, sometimes in extreme close-up the objects most at hand. Superlative storytelling.

You can see what I mean here in the next four panel sequence, where he gives us two panels that are essentially "talking heads," but without them, in the next two following panels we'd be pretty lost. In those frames, he again crops in tight to give us great detail on the process of accessing the worth of the stones/diamonds.

And in a near-final frame, Al salvages a little something for himself, while getting a little satisfaction in taking his crude chum, again Toth having no problem cropping both character to go close up on the ring. Nice stuff.

The editor's note makes mention that this story was to appear in print sometime in a Toth collection, but I've never seen it anywhere but online. Fortunately, the scans are great. I'm not sure when this story was drawn, but I'd guess the late '70s-early '80s, given the style and content.

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Dennis Hopper Through the Years

Not only could you respect his acting talent, but I enjoyed observing his evolution over the years. From James Dean pal and a young Hollywood pretty boy being groomed by the studios; to hippy and drug-crazed rebel, independent upstart and entrepreneur; and finally to cleaning up his act, still a political rebel in his old age, but then by going against the grain of the rest of his baby-boomer peers, turning more conservative.

What a life he led. You never knew where he was going to stand, but what a character! And it looks as if he fought cancer towards the end with a smile on his face.

Here's to ya', Mr. Hopper.

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Great Album Opening Tracks

This topic was kicked off by NPR, then picked up by blogger Ann Althouse. Everyone's gonna have their own take on it, depending on personal musical tastes and preferences, and whether a great track can lead off an otherwise mediocre album. The Beatles' Revolver is pretty much my favorite album, and Taxman is a great opening track, but it didn't make the cut for my top twelve, as I'm looking for more: a particular superb track that sets the tone and theme for an album, or perhaps kicks off a great career for an artist or band. So here are my faves, some well known, some far less so.

Wouldn't It Be Nice - Beach Boys - Pet Sounds The wonderful tune to open a classic album, the opening song perfectly encapsulating Brian Wilson's naive, innocent and optimistic state of mind in his mid-twenties. The album explores the themes and ideas most important to Wilson at the time: how to find his place in the world; break out on his own; personally and creatively. He's a musical prodigy, yet has been stunted emotionally, damaged by his father, his growth delayed. The album becomes bittersweet as it closes, and more mature, as one can sense his entry into adulthood. And there's no going back. In hindsight, Wouldn't It Be Nice becomes bittersweet itself, because of the loss of innocence (also lamented in J.D. Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye), and it just about breaks your heart hearing it and knowing how life went for him not long after. Hello There - Cheap Trick - In Color I find this to be a classic rock tune, a superb opener for an album, show, playlist or party. Sure, they had released an album previous to this, and Surrender was on the following album, but to me, Cheap Trick announced themselves as major players with this song and this album. I love that they kept it so short; it's an intro, really. I love the double guitar lead that finishes it. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water To open their final album, the folkster duo gives us a hymn (released about the same time as McCartney's Let It Be) that soars. Like The Beatles last, Abbey Road, which opens with Here Comes the Sun, the second side starts with their last and ultimate folk song, a story of survival and persistence, The Boxer. What begins as a simple folk tune with guitar and voice, it builds with additional and effective instrumentation to become a bombastic epic, and one can really feel the triumph of the narrator. We Will Rock You/(We Are the Champions) - Queen - News of the World It's tough to beat the one-two punch of the opening of Queen's second best album (following Night At the Opera). Sure, both anthems have been overplayed and have become nearly cliches, but We Will Rock You bursts with energy from the opening insistent beats and claps, Mercury's rough vocal and Brian May's astounding solo.

I Will Follow - U2 - Boy Not their best album, but still one of their best songs, and that's saying something for a band with such a long and storied career. I Will Follow is quite an intro for the band, as these teens declared themselves to the world, with the Edge's distinctive guitar sound, Mullen's pounding beat, Clayton's pulsing bass and Bono's dramatic vocals. With their first song an album called Boy, these young men had already come of age. Welcome to the Working Week - Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True Another startling entrance for an artist, as Elvis Costello emerges fully formed, in your face and fighting for the blue collar worker, though offering little comfort. With the backing vocals ooh-ing and aah-ing behind Costello's first lines, he kicks it into high gear and doesn't let up as the song clocks in at 1:23. He and the band keep up the pace and quality for the rest, in one of the greatest introductions in rock history. American Music - The Violent Femmes - Why Do Birds Sing? Accompanied by a guitar strumming simple chords, pastor's son Gordon Gano whines to us the question whether we like American music, challenging us to answer in the affirmative as the drummer and band kick it into gear. This semi-punk trio takes us for a ride on this opening song, speeding up in a furious flurry 'til it stops on a dime. The rest of the album is heartbreaking, snarky, joyous, silly, sophomoric, primal, vengeful and literate, leaving one to answer that sure, "I like American music (We like all kinds of music!)", but can't for our lives figure why birds sing. The Blues Walk/Here I Am - Lyle Lovett and His Large Band After the sprightly Blues Walk sets the stage, it then all goes quiet as the spotlight hits on Lyle Lovett who introduces himself, stating simply, "Hello, I'm the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder/ Wait - don't turn the page/ I'm not finished/ Life is so uncertain." Here he is indeed. The rest of the song/album is funny, quirky, gender and genre-bending, and contains an array of great bluesy tunes jilted lovers and aching ballads of lovers still together.

I Feel Young Today - Peter Himmelman - Gematria
A personal favorite, Himmelman kicks off his solo career with a rhythmic opening track that gets the heart pumping and a person ready to take on the day/life. It begins simply with a syncopated guitar pattern, but soon builds to a crescendo with grunts & groans, soaring and screamed vocals, drum bursts and echos, and more. It hard not to listen to this without feeling energized and ready to roll. Just One of Those Things - Blossom Dearie - Give Him the Ooh-La-La Opening with a smoldering whisper of a slapping, bouncy upright bass, Blossom Dearie brings a new sound to an old standard. One of the most distinctive voices in pop and jazz history, Ms. Dearie breezes through a tune of rapture and regret in just over two minutes. Accompanied by that bass only for the first minute, the band joins in for the second half, until Blossom and the bass dwindle and fade off. A superb start to her best album, for the Verve label, recorded in 1957. Let the Day Begin - The Call - Let the Day Begin An epic, exuberant, compassionate call to all, a rocker predating U2's Beautiful Day by more than a decade. Michael Been & company lift us up, every one: babies, preachers, dreamers, teachers, doctors, soldiers, the lonely and the homeless in a song that is actually narrated by God, with blessings from above. The Call is one of my favorite bands, and they seem to open every one of their albums in strong fashion. Don't Wake Me - Toby Lightman - Bird On a Wire A rousing opener to one of three of Lightman's great albums. It kicks off with an a capella gospel intro before jumping into a funky/soulful exploration about indecision of a relationship. Toby's incredible pipes hold it all together. I strongly recommend you pick up everything she's done.

I couldn't help but include these two more:

I Saw Her Standing There - The Beatles - Please Please Me Their first album, which included their two previously released singles and B-sides. But ten more tracks were recorded in a rigorous nearly ten hour session - incredible. Much of the album seems dated now, due to early efforts that weren't their best and some forgettable covers. But it also includes the immortal first-take of Twist & Shout, Love Me Do, Please Please Me & Do You Want to Know A Secret. And the album kicks off with what is still one of the greatest rock tunes ever. What a debut!

Beyond Belief - Elvis Costello - Imperial Bedroom

Another Elvis Costello song & album - had to. Beyond Belief is an evolving, free-form, explosive tune that opens a fantastic album, one of Costello's best. It's one of my all-time favorite songs and one of my favorite album covers ever.

Now, what are yours?

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TothPix: The Crushed Gardenia

The Crushed Gardenia is one of Alex Toth's most famous and lauded comics stories he drew. Published in 1953, it's a morality tale, a slice of stark crime fiction that appeared only about a year before Fredric Wertham had published his Seduction of the Innocent, claiming that comics led to juvenile delinquency. This short story puts the lie in part to Wertham's claim and remains largely a timeless piece, contemporary and modern in almost every sense even nearly sixty years later.

For me, it is a prime template for how comics of certain genre should be drawn and told, an approach and style I seek to emulate. To read the story in its entirety, click the title above, if you'd like, before moving on to my highlights and analysis.

I've cropped the opening splash panel which runs vertically along the entire height of the page. Toth's line is simple and flat, creating an angular and sharp look to the art, though there is a flow and sweep to some of the elements and composition. The victims lay foreshortened on the ground (not easy to draw, but Toth makes it look easy), surrounded by the petals of the title.

This noir romance is peopled with all types of interesting characters, not least of which is the troubled and dangerous Johnny Faber. Every character in this story is distinct and unique, whether ruffian, psychiatrist, warden, policeman, shopkeeper, girlfriend, father or rival. Such care Toth takes in making sure each player is an individual, whether a main character or appearing in but a single panel, and all for an eight-page comic book story.

Though we see plenty of Johnny and his cohorts, when it comes to a specific violent action, Toth employs a technique I've pointed out in previous posts, to focus on the detail rather than show pain, emotion and expression on a character's face. That he saves for surrounding frames...

...such as this panel, only the second following, showing Johnny in all his rage and fury:

I particularly love this following tier of panels, introducing his girlfriend, Ellie and her father. He establishes the garage in the simplest of terms, indicating the car with open hood, most of the rest of the panel in shadow, yet it's immediately clear where we are. Often throughout this story, Toth let's white areas run into each other, as well as black, creating interesting shapes and compositions, letting the eye of the viewer finish the picture and fill in the details.

And yet, in the sequence above, with deft use of expression and body language he conveys a familiarity, tenderness and love between Ellie and her father, Sam.

Of course, Johnny's jealous and brutal nature get the best of him, as we see in this panel, all sharp edges, swaths of black, twisted angles, lights askew and chaotic violence.

Johnny can't control or outrun his bad behavior and attitude, let alone his lip, and it begins to catch up to him. He can't escape some payback and the consequences in another striking tier of panels. In frame one, Sam has had enough, but is still calm and collected, in charge of the situation, dominating Johnny who is relegated to the lower right of the frame, cropped. In frame two here, Johnny is still relatively small in the panel, enveloped in black, off balance. And in frame three, Toth chooses another unorthodox shot, showing just Johnny's legs and feet as he leaves the garage, humbled yet defiant.

And yet more violence, as Johnny is confronted by Ellie's new beau. What a shot! We don't see the face of either fighter, as Toth instead uses the folds of clothing and a flopping tie to convey the movement and action.

And in these two panels we see some great emotive work on the three primary characters, setting up the conflict and climax, even as the narration indicates a passage of time:

I couldn't pass up including these seemingly inconsequential panels (below), just because of Toth's brilliant use of point-of-view and sharp angles. He establishes the setting in a 3/4 overhead view on Sam's house as Ellie's date arrives, cutting back to inside where the background angles play off the previous panel and work within the composition of the whole page. All the info conveyed graphically by Toth here helps tell the story, but is subordinate to and in support of Ellie, the center of interest, as she places the Gardenia on her lapel.

The story inevitably ends in more violence and tragedy, as we'd been shown in the first panel of the story. Johnny is all shadow, blending in with the trees and darkness around him as he attacks his victims in cold blood:

The story wraps shortly from there, things not ending well for Johnny, go figure.

The Crushed Gardenia appeared re-colored in the early '80s in a reprint series called Seduction of the Innocent, playing off and tweaking Wertham on the title of his book. Those colored pages were annotated by Toth himself, a fascinating look at the thought process of the artist. He also goes into detail about his approach and use of drawing tools (he filed down a Speedball B-6 nib for lettering and drawing). He's a bit too kind about the recoloring, which I'm not particularly fond of, preferring there'd be a more flat color look over Toth's work here, rather than the hand-painted style and process that was the rage in the early '80s. The story has recently been reprinted with the original color as it first appeared in Who Is Next? (cover above) in 1953, in Setting the Standard, a comprehensive collection of Toth's work for that publisher in the early '50s. The colors are rudimentary, so I'm glad for the reproduction from the original art in the first big Toth volume, Genius, Isolated. Do yourself a favor and pick up that book - great bio and lotsa superb Toth photos and art!

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