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Archive for June 2011

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 2

In today's TothPix, we continue our exploration of the artist's work on the 1957 story, The Land Unknown with pages 3-5. At any time, visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series.

Having established the locale, mission and characters, Toth covers now the details of the mission and their equipment, and with a variety of angles, well chosen to tell the story and provide tons of visual interest. The ships trudge through ice and prepare to embark on their helicopter. He uses a bird's eye view to give us a sense of scope and the position of the ships to the ice, a look from the deck of a ship, a superb wide shot of the helicopter as it is being readied, three main characters in relation to the 'copter and a shot from below the 'copter, a worm's eye view, looking through the landing skids to the crew as they await the arrival of Maggie. Nice page!

Toth's color note at the bottom of the original art: "'Copter, dark (navy) blue body - pontoons, yellow!!" And inscription, signed August, 1975: "You're still wrong, Howie! Best Wishes ~ Alex Toth." Hm...I wonder what Howie was wrong about? He probably said something nice to Alex about the page.

Toth is sometimes knocked for a lack of finesse and fussiness in his inking, but a comparison of the original art to the reprinted black & white version shows a fine touch, a subtle use of line and texture in the sky, on the lead ship, smoke and fine-lined ice/snow...

Page 3, panel 1 original art (left); the same panel (right) from the B&W reprint (The Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1)

What can appear rough and smudgy in the reprint or poorly printed comic is detailed, refined, bold and sparkling in the original. Just look at the feathering on the helicopter, the pipe smoke done with dry brushed white out, the nicely rendered faces and additional texture on the jackets and collars. Those strokes for clothing folds are to die for.

Page 3, panel 4 original art (left); the same panel (right) from the B&W reprint (The Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1)

Details from each tier of page 3...

And I'm not finished with this page yet! Just to show Toth's expertise in spotting black areas to add weight, depth and contrast, I've blown out the finer lines and detail here...

...so one can also spot easily how Toth uses dark and negative space to focus the eye on the center of interest in each panel, lead the reader's eye through the page and give the page compositional balance. The art of some devotees of Toth looks close to this at times, taken to the extreme, and you gotta admit, it's striking and attractive!

Moving on...

On page 4, the Captain warns Maggie of the dangers of the trip, and Toth sets them aloft on the helicopter. The colors from the printed comic (below) are simple but effective. Interesting again how white is used as a color, especially in the last three frames. Though we see a talking head of the Captain in panel 1, there's plenty of personality in Maggie's face and hand, though we see her from behind, not even in profile. Very well drawn. In panel 2, we view the crew inside the 'copter, again a fairly straight shot before the 'copter lifts off. The rest of the page displays an assortment of angles and diagonals to give the reader the sense of motion; almost riding in the helicopter themselves. In the final two panels, the crew spies a slew of seals on the ice. Were I drawing that last panel, I bet I'd fill that negative space with more seals, but Toth smartly mixes it up, creating an interesting flow and composition, not staged or crowded but seemingly natural.

Below is that page in black and white, and on the right I marked a red line to track how deftly Toth employs those angles to lead the viewer's eye throughout the page. Brilliant.

With page 5, we're in the 'copter with the crew (shown in striking silhouette; Toth avoids flatness by adding rim lighting as we see into the shadows), a simple line through the windshield indicates a mountain range ahead. Then from outside the vehicle, a long shot to show the 'copter hopping the mountain. In panel 3, Toth places the crew at an angle - they're a little lost and tossed askew during the ride. He then opens up the six-panel grid, utilizing the lower right third for an expansive wide shot that conveys a sense of scale as they (and we) enter a new and wonderous world!

Boy, I love the rendering on the ice and glaciers. Sweet! And look how the dark spaces of the upper left balance the white areas of the lower and upper right. Great page composition!

OK, that's all for now (ain't that plenty?)! Of course, you can keep going with Part 3. Or - visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 13 parts of this blog series.

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 1

In 1957, Alex Toth drew a comics adaptation of a Sci-Fi Adventure B-Movie: The Land Unknown. From the looks of it, the movie is utterly forgettable and cheesy (the trailer video viewable at the bottom of this post), but Toth used that raw stuff and forged of it comics gold. Much like Orson Welles took a cheap, pulp novel in Badge of Evil, rewriting and molding it into one of his best movies, Touch of Evil (1958, which some have called the greatest B-movie of all-time) Toth improved mightily on the source material to create something that stands the test of time.

The entire story is available to read with cleaned and tweaked scans at the Hairy Green Eyeball blog (nice job, Harry!), and can be found in black and white in the Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1. I analyzed a single panel from this story two weeks back, and in doing so took a real long look at this adventure yarn which I've read and studied for years. So, this is but the first of several Land Unknown posts, in which I'll dissect various pages and panels from this story, comparing the black and white art to printed color.

Now - here we go!

The cover of Dell Four Color 845, 1957 (left) and a striking Toth splash panel from the comics story.

Toth kicks off the proceedings with a frame that works better in black & white than color, in which it is nigh indecipherable. In fact, even without color it's a bit confusing and busy. That would've been aided by different placement of the title and narration text. But even if the opening panel is something of a failure, it fails in spectacular fashion. Toth places the reader on one of the ships at sea, pitching forward into and surrounded by swaths and walls of water. More ships can be seen in the distance, silhouetted against the stormy sky, through the angles of the deck, masts and rigging. Reading quickly, one gets the gist, but studied longer the panel is daring. From there, he establishes efficiently the locale, characters and mission. And even though kept simple and straightforward, the panels are interesting compositions and are rendered with a variety of texture and some dramatic lighting. The original colors help define space, areas and depth. The light blue used for the ice and glaciers is typical, it's effective, the yellows a bit too bright. From here on out I'll be showing the cleaned scans. Though the blues appear more grey, the yellow shades are more subdued. Given this treatment, the colors are more naturalistic, more in line with what one might see in the coloring of Sean Phillips work on the Criminal series. I was hard on the coloring in the previous post, but viewing the entire story in color, it's done much better than one would expect, especially for cheap 4-color printing on newsprint over a half century ago. I've come across some originals from this story, where it's apparent Toth made color notes, so he had a say in how this was presented. It's amazing how white is used as a prevalent color in the piece. Fitting, one supposes, given that it takes place in the Antarctic, but there's less of that blue than I would've imagined.

On page two, Toth further establishes the characters, with close-ups and expression before he shows the people in their setting, the ship further trudging through the ice. Then, the action begins, the horizon line of the ship off-kilter, the angles askew as we see Hal and Maggie on the deck floor from behind another crew member and ladder in silhouette. I love the comic-booky, big & bold Toth hand-lettered sound effect weaving their way through the last two panels.

The lower two tiers of this page work well in color, but also really shine in black & white. The simple rendering of the glaciers and ice caps frame and house the ship and people nicely, the bold folds on the jackets too cool for school, harsh shadows on the ship, characters grounding the page against the frozen backdrop. And for good measure, textures in the sky, on clothing and lines of the deck flooring in perspective vary it all visually. Wonderful stuff, done with an ease and flow most artists dream of and struggle for. For grins, I've included here a sweet, classic poster for the flick, and below, a movie trailer in all its glory!

An original Land Unknown promo poster, promising more than the movie delivers.

Keep reading with Part 2, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 13 parts of this blog series.

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Sketch Cards for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

I was pleased to be invited by Comic Book Legal Defense Fund current president and Beanworld creator, Larry Marder to draw up ten sketches for the Liberty Trading Cards series and fundraiser. It not only gave me a chance to contribute to a worth cause, but to draw my characters (Trollords and Bedbugs) and some of my favorites like the Bone cousins, Kevin Matchstick (from Matt Wagner's Mage), The Mask, Scott McCloud's Zot! and Larry's own Mr. Spook. Fun! These along with tons of other one-of-a-kind sketch cards by oodles of artists will be randomly inserted as one of three subsets in the 72-card deluxe series which tells the story of comics censorship. See more sample cards and learn more about the project at the CBLDF News Blog.

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Self Portrait

I'm not in as bad a mood as it looks, thank heaven. Not a great likeness, but there you go. I did this one straight up with the Pentel Pocket Brush, no pencils. Also quickly worked up a version in blue... Since SketchMonth in March, I've been part a weekly sketch blog, trying my best to contribute each week. Check out the other artists' scribblings there, and if you're an artist - C'mon, join in!

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Meat!

A recent storyboard frame, penciled traditionally, scanned and colored in Photoshop...

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Green Jar Portrait

I recently completed this pop art portrait for Jamie Baratta at Green Jar, an online environmental lifestyle magazine, bridging the gap between the environment and urban city youth. I penciled digitally and inked with a Niji Waterbrush (medium) on a marker paper (Bienfang Graphics 360) overlay. Mary and colored this one in tandem.

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Comics Panel Process: Smack the Fist

As I've written here recently, I streamlined and simplified my process for doing comics and the occasional illustration. Rather than doing a series of thumbnails, layouts and pencils, I jump right in and pencil digitally, which looks like this, drawn at print size...

That keeps my gestures and expressions loose, drawn with no reference at hand. From there, I convert the pencils to blue line...

...and usually just ink away. It's more fun than nailing down the pencils overmuch, 'cause it feels more like drawing in ink than the more technical process of embellishing or almost tracing something you've already drawn. But sometimes I don't feel I've gotten things quite right, so take photo reference to make sure of details, gesture, positioning and perspective.

I was surprised with this figure that I was more on the money than I'd thought. I tightened the drawing a bit lightly with a pencil over my blueline, focusing mostly Joey's cap and hands.

And I liked this photo well enough I made it my new Facebook profile pic. It was time for a change from my Bedbugs book author photo, anyway.

After inking, scanning and clean-up, my wife and I color in Adobe Illustrator for a clean, largely flat-color look. I added a few lines to accentuate the smack of the fist, and we're done! From a series I draw of comics for Jewish kids.

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TothPix: Playing on Paper

Later in life, when Toth wasn't drawing comics or designing characters for animation, he continued to sketch and doodle, sometimes on postcards for friends and fans, sometimes a "thank you" drawing, but most times filling sheet after sheet of whatever came out of his head. He drew known superheroes like The Shadow, The Batman and Plastic Man, a wide variety of people of all types, periods, shapes and sizes. He'd play with graphics in a series of panels seemingly non sequitur, a visual and conceptual stream of consciousness. And he'd break down faces, bodies and expressions to their simplest lines and shapes, as if drawing like a child again, but with years of skill, experience and observation brought to bear.

These are glimpses into the workings of the mind of the artist, letting go of artifice and ego, stripping away the superfluous, finding truth, all while playing on paper.

Some of these can be found in the splendid Alex Toth Doodle Book - recommended not only for the Toth scratchings, but also his thoughts on art, tools, comics, culture, style and substance.

Now pick up your favorite marker, or try a new brush and unleash your mind - point that pencil, pirouette and play on paper!

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Sketch: Mom & Dad Dance

My parents marked and celebrated their 53rd anniversary earlier this week. Here's a sketch of the graceful couple, based on a photo taken when they'd made it only 44 years. Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad! Love you!

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Sketch Cards for Free Comic Book Day

While appearing at Westfield Comics in Madison, WI in early April for a Night of the Bedbugs signing and cartooning workshop, I whipped up a few sketch cards as part of prize packages awarded to raise money on Free Comic Book Day in May. It's always fun to draw my characters for comics lovers, and some of my favorite characters I don't get to draw much, like Hellboy. And it was for a good cause, so it's all good. We got a pic of three of the five I did. I can't even recall who else I drew!

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