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Liam Sharp
March 6th, 2006, 07:11 AM
I have often described comic art as being "symbolic art", as in the Jungian definition. It might sound a bit pretentious, but bear with me. What I'm talking about is really amongst the first kind of artwork there was: Cave painting, pictographs - language itself was partly born out of symbolic art. In many ways the last century saw the death of this artform, or at least saw it relegated to supposed geekdom and subcultures like comics, fantasy art, fantasy literature, etc. But I genuinely believe there's so much more to it, and that if we lose it, and our capacity to seriously appreciate it, then we lose something of our basic nature, our elemental selves.

Hopefully there's some interesting stuff here for anybody considering this as a career, or for anybody who wants to be any kind of creator. It might even open some eyes to the reality of day to day creative drawing. Some of it might appear quite sweeping, but we can only draw from our own experiences and the people we have met and known along the way.

So, finally, to the big question: Is comic art REAL art?

Generally I'm disappointed by a great deal of what I've worked on because it's never as good as I'd like it to be. I have no artistic formula to fall back on, and drawing never gets any easier. People might think that in comics skill alone will get you there, but it's a lot like the music industry: Talent might be one thing, but somebody in a position to publish your work has to like what you do. And taste is a VERY subjective thing. There are thousands (actually, millions) of people who like their entertainment in easy-to-swallow bite-size chunks. They don't want to stretch themselves when they get home from work or school or whereever. They don't want to think too hard in the cinema, or read stuff with words they have to look up in the dictionary. They want music to dance to, or as a background soundtrack to their lives. It is a pop culture we live in, on pretty much all levels. This makes it hard for more alternatively creative people to find an audience. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-pop, though on the whole it's just not my thing.)
I sometimes suspect there are two types of people: Those that think a little deeper, look inward and outward and have genuine compassion and empathy for other people. Those that push back the levels of what the human body or mind can achieve. Those that try to be better people on a daily basis, and honestly attempt to find moral equilibrium within themselves.
Then there are those for whom the primary concern is acquisition. Those whose sole aim is apparently to become as wealthy and infuential as they can in their lifetime. For whom what car they drive is a priority, as is the town, city and neighbourhood they live in. What watch they wear. Whose dresses and suits are IN whatever season. The morality of this is irrelovent. Other people's lives are irrelevant.
Sometimes I wish I slotted into this second category! I have friends I dearly love that exist in this tougher, dog-eat-dog world. Classically born with the silver spoon at their lips, they are blissfully ignorant of the creative worlds of art, science, literature, except for what they have been informed is good (usually by some style magazine or TV program. Consumer cool). Their shelves may have Jane Austin or Thomas Hardy lining them, often unread. They might even have a book on Piccasso, or a preraphaelite print framed in the living room. They might, if they are wealthy, have an original painting by some hot young thing they've been told would be a great investment, and which goes well with the couch. These are things to control, or to consume, or to sell. They look at my pictures with a kind of smug bewilderment! Briefly, distractedly, interested. They are unencumbered by any creative drive, and the doubts and frustrations that are inevitablely associated with creativity. Now really, wouldnít that be nice to be as black and white?
I'm not judging. I'm not saying one way is right, the other, wrong. I suspect the consumer lifestyle is closer to our natural animal state than the creative mind. It's on a more savage, survivalist level in many ways. Animals seek the very best of what they can get out of their existence. The best mates, the best feeding grounds. The most beautiful plumage wins the most attractive partners. The strongest win pretty much the best of everything.
Obviously the above is very general, and I know people from the monied world who look at me with envy, and dream of what it's like to have the ability to create. Anything. But the moneymen DO rule the world, and they DO say what goes and what doesn't. They pull the shots. They rule the media. They own the companies that distribute and produce the music, the movies and, naturally, the comics. How many people do you know that wanted to do art or drama at school, but whose parents wouldn't let them? It's not seen as REAL work. It's not percieved as viable, socially acceptable. In the UK art is often seen as the subject slackers take. Wierdo lefties and hippies. It's not a proper subject!
Ruskin said "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts; the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art...of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." I'm not sure this can be said to be the case any longer as art becomes commodity. The masses only get their share of it when, and if, it becomes stylish.
On my messageboard one poster wrote ""Why bother to go and not try to get that big deal and draw batman issues every day for the rest of your life?" And then it hit me, that this is something you like to do, not to get paid a crapload. I had a time figuring this out, just because I assumed that all artists love their jobs and would kill for that chance on whatever popular title."
He's right. Most artists and writers don't JUST DO IT to get paid a "crapload". We have to be driven. There has to be a point. Only recently I realised that I'm not driven by money, though we certainly all nead it and if I did ever get rich I wouldn't be unhappy about it! I'm driven by either the deadline - I hate letting people down and causing problems. (This is the WORST form of motivation!) Or by inspiration - where the shear pleasure of drawing takes over and you just have to do it. Sadly, I'd say the later accounts for maybe 10% of it, as mostly it's just hard graft drawing the same old stuff. No matter how interesting comic art might seem on the outside, try drawing the same faces over and over again, day after day after day. It only gets fun, really, when you get to splash out creatively. Or try new techniques, or new ways of lighting, etc. Mostly itís graft and craft.
I know some artists who can motivate themselves with the paycheck. They have formulated a technique that they don't have to deviate from. They can replicate this technique on any title and with any subject matter. This is where I draw the distinction between draughtsmen - the above - and artist, ie. myself. And again, in many ways I'd rather be the former.
Draughtsmen, like architects, have tremendous skill and are able to interpret their commisions with clarity and technique. It's a business proposition between the publisher and the creator.
Artists are a much trickier creature. They tend to be less reliable, less consistent, and often less mentally stable. (I, at least, am pretty reliable. And relatively mentally stable!) We're trying to change things. Move the industry on. It's not enough to just have a series, you want it to be a GREAT series. One that provokes and has meat. One drawn in blood and sweat, not just ink. One that is controvercial - but paradoxically you also want it to be a success. The starving artist in his garot is a romantic notion, but we have to eat!
I think often I've tried to make something out of nothing much at all. My heart has often sunk when reading a new script for the first time. What I'd do for an Alan Moore, a Warren Ellis, a Neil Gaiman. (Thankfully I currently work with the scholarly, controvercial Douglas Rushkoff. And I'm delighted to say Iím being motivated primarily by inspiration. The pleasure of drawing it. A genuine, rare treat.)
On the "starving artist" front, it's often not in our hands - even if we DO have a mainstream style. Over the last decade a great many of my contemporaries have had to drop out of the industry entirely because there simply hasn't been enough work. And many of them were incredibly skilled. I had pretty much three years without any work, and in that time I looked for illustration work, children's book work, computer design, etc. What else could I do? I'm not qualified to be anything other than an artist. But there is massive competition in all these fields. And often you have to have an agent. I was unable to find an agent to represent me because I've spent the previous 17 years as a comicstrip illustrator. Graphic art agencies HATE comic art. They don't get it. One agent actually told me I should work on my expressions! They don't understand that comic artists have to be able to draw anything. That we work at great speed. That we have to understand design, form, lighting. That we explore and are skilled at many techniques. That we can DRAW - an ability rapidly fading from the world. All they see is the panels. The comics. This mongrel under-dog subculture artform. Porn has more status in the art world! Those two years were soul destroying. Agents and publishers rejected me because of my comics roots.
So if it is going to be tough, then it's important that you try to be the very best artist that you can be. And I just couldn't be anything other than what I am because that is WHO I am. I am a part of my art, like it or not. I couldn't draw Barbie. Iíd never be able to motivate myself enough to do it. I'd be fired immediately I'm sure! Iíd rather drive a bus, or retrain at something else. I CANíT see that as art. Nothing against those guys, but that certainly isn't aspirational work as far as Iím concerned - though itís certainly skilled!
In truth, comics is not the ideal area to try to be an ARTIST. It is, after all, commercial by its very nature. Disposable. But I believe all my comics heroes have been genuine artists of the capitol "A" variety, and it's this I aspire too - whilst still realising that it's a fun medium, not to be taken TOO seriously ALL the time. I think there's a big problem in the self-styled serious Arts world with anything that is considered related to science fiction or fantasy.
So why is this? Looking at literature, the most ancient epic poem known to us is a heroic fantasy piece called Gilgamesh. There's a beast-man, a mighty hero, tragedy, companionship, all we have come to expect from that genre. Follow this through and we get works such as Homer's Illiad and Oddessy. The Trojan war. Fabulous, fantastical characters such as Achilles with his famous heal. Hector, whose dead body was dragged four times around the city of Troy in a terrible act of revenge vergeing on hubris. And Odysseus and his twelve year journey home. The great quest. The fellowship. The unsurmountable obstacles. And of course, the monsters!
The Romans give us their version in Virgil's Aeneid. Here it's Aeneas - the fictional ancestor of later Roman Emperors and a propaganda device of great complexity - that visits the underworld. He, again, makes a great journey. Out-witting and defeating any and all obstacles - even resisting the love of the queen of Carthage, Dido. Eventually founding Rome.
Europe has a great host of heroic fantasy characters. Germany gives us Siegfried, the epic ring cycle. Ireland gives us Cuculain - it's greatest hero who had to be rolled in the snow to cool him down after battle. And the Tain - the famous cattle raid. Somewhere out of europe, possibly france, arose the legend of the roman Artorus, laterly King Arthur, who became England's most famous mythic monarch. Gregory of Monmouth is the first writer to mention Merlin, and his three-fold death. (A common thing in mythology. Even Christ suffered three fold. The nails, the spear, the drowning in lungs filled with liquid. Similarly, so did Odin on his tree.) Here Merlin is simultaneously stoned, impaled on a spike, and drowned. A very different character from the Merlin we picture today!
Then there's Englandís most ancient written poem concerning a certain Viking called Beowulf. The beast, Grendel, and his monstrous mother out in the swamps.
The list is endless, but the point is clear. In literature, at least, the heroic fantasy saga is one of the highest and most ancient of artforms. It is the form from which sprang ALL literature, all stories. It confirms man's struggle against nature, against his enemies. It empowered those that listened. It emboldened them before battle. It gave them strength in times of famine or hardship. It enobled them, giving them heroic ancesters of astonnishing strength and vitality. Ancestors who's parents were gods, and which linked them, in turn, with their creators - much as Jesus does for Christians today. It gave them hope beyond life.

And we continued to dream. The early scientists speculated on the nature of the universe from the time they first noticed the stars. Achemists made their blind experiments and eventually we were starting to predict our own future with uncanny accuracy. Leonardo Da Vinci with his helicopters and gliders. In literature, H.G. Wells predicting time travel. Asimov and AI. Arthur C. Clarke and space walks, moon landings, elevators to the stars. Looking into the future. Imagining the not-yet-possible. The seemingly impossible. Visualising worlds we have never seen. Speculating on how thing might be on planets entirely different from our own, a billion lightyears away.

But where did it change? At what point did the inteligentia decide this was all hocum? Merely interesting diversion? Swift's Guliver's travels was a biting satire, sure, but it still used that ancient quest format and was peopled with incredible creatures, giants, so on and so forth. Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland is, of course, a drug-fuelled quivering meditation on denial and frustrated longing - but it's primarily a fantasy. The rest is subtext and retrospective disection based on what we know of the man today. (Such a text would be unlikely to be published now. Most agents wouldnít have a clue what to make of it. It would be considered too obscure!) H.G.Wells was a respected literary figure, not purely regarded as a fantasist, yet shortly after him things were already starting to change. Of those who's work survived intact and respected as genuine literature into the 20th century, we have George Orwell's 1984 - but again they focus mainly on the political satire as opposed to the genre - Future fiction. Maybe a handful of others. Brave New World. A Clockwork Orange. Stranger in a Strange Land. But what else? Even Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - despite it's clearly drawing on ancient and noble source material, despite the shere magnitude of it's creativity, despite his intelectual pedigree - even this is belittled, shrugged off and disgarded by the so-called serious literary and art critics of today.

So given the above, given that we used to comfort ourselves with great flights of fancy. Given that that we put our fears in the hands of the epic saga writers, and our hopes in the hands of visionarys, why have we now turned our back on both? What is it the educated ellite hate or fear? Why are they so disparaging, given the opulent treasures of the past? Is it that they believe we are above such trivialities as escapism? That removing ourselves from the horrors of this world is somehow a BAD thing? A kind of running away? That for literature and art to be worth it, it has to reflect our current condition? Our current state? It must be all about context and concept, never escapism - the only true freedom we can ever experience.
What is so low-brow and anti-intelectual about escapism?

I'm going on a bit, so I'll try to bring this to some sort of conclusion: My point is that I can't help feeling that those of us who can imagine and create visually or with the written word worlds we have never seen, could never see, are using a unique facility. THe facility that drove us across continents, and eventually to the moon. I would argue that it is our ability to IMAGINE what might be that defines us as human beings.

And that's a part of what we do in our pointless, trivial, artless little comics. We imagine.

Re. All of the above. If I've come accross as pretentious or overblown in anyway, I apologise. I felt it might be of interest to you to know some of the thought proccess that goes into producing comic art. The desires, and what we set out to acheive. It's an incredibly hard discipline, you have to be able to draw ANYTHING, and make it sequential and appealing. And you're on your own with your own demons and doubts. Self belief is hard won. And in the end, it's just comics. Disposable entertainment.


Or IS it...?

March 13th, 2006, 03:42 AM
Jeez, Liam... I hope to goodness that wasn't just a random post you made! I hope this came from somewhere else.

My quick surface answer (because I really should get back to work!) is that I face the same question every day. Because I do graphic design work (both visible to my friends and quiet, behind-the-scenes stuff that no one knows about [you know, boring corporate crap]), I am always struggling with the question of whether I'm creating "Art" or just "marketing". Most designers toe the line, saying that it isn't exactly an art (but you won't find anyone more obsessed with the notion of creativity!), but goes beyond mere 'product'.

Thrust of it? I don't know that there IS an answer. To some, design (and comics!) will always be Art. To others, it will always be Product. And I say, f em all. I'll simply enjoy both.

Liam Sharp
March 13th, 2006, 04:50 AM
I think you're right. Everything, ultimately, is subjective.

And re. the above post - it's running as an article, which I was invited to write, on the sffworld front page too. It's taken from an ongoing thread of some time ago on my board in terms of content, but it's also something I'm very passionate about. People who look down their noses at our artforms are missing a huge point in my opinion, so it's kind of a personal crusade... :)

Cheers for the feedback.


March 13th, 2006, 05:40 AM
You really ought to talk to Scott Bakker. He seems of the opinion that "popular" artforms is where it's all at, these days.

I tend to agree.

Great piece, by the by.

March 13th, 2006, 06:00 AM
Wow, this was an interisting post to read. There's so much in it, that it's hard to take in all of it at once. Some thoughts:

1. Art vs. art

I never really cared about "Art"; art was always enough for me. I sympathise with Bert Brecht's reduction to the bare points; though Oscar Wilde's aestheticism ("All Art is useless") is more me. I have conceptual fondness for Andy Warhol's alienation technique's but found out that's not so much me.

When I look at the world with an artist's eye, I think, what it boils down to for me is the aesthetic impulse. The Coke and Pepsi bottles are art. People who are spending ages in front of the mirror doing make-up, and then agonise a few additional eternities over what clothes to wear are artist (though the fine points of their art is entirely lost on me).

To me, the idea that Art belongs to an elite is the death of it all. It's static; if I know exactly what Art is supposed to be, then why do it at all? Anything I could produce is just a bastardization of the ideal, anyway.

Keep your eyes and ears and nostrils and skin and mind open, and perceive and process. If someone says "that's art", they'll have their reasons for it.

So, are comic-books "Art"? Myself, I don't really care, but if someone says it is, I'll take the time to try and figure out what they mean by that.

Wait, I already have thought about this a bit in the past...

2. Comic books and Art

First, I'm really not much into comic-books. It's not the medium; it's that the genre is dominated by the series. If graphic novels were more prominent (stand-alones, above all), and if they were more readily available (I'm an impulse shopper, when it comes to books of all sort), I'd probably be more into it.

I have followed two series, though: Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and Sam Keith's The Maxx. I loved them both. Others look interesting, too. I'd like to look into some of the Japanese ones one day (Clamp's Tokyo Babylon looks good, for example).

Naturally, since I'm a reader of - above all - short stories (but also novels), I've compared the way comics and short stories (novels) tell their stories.

What I found is that there are a lot of decisions within comic books that I can only describe as "artistic" descriptions: panel arrangement, the detail of texture, the detail of setting... Sometimes, you'll have small panels, almost no background, a face drawn with just a few strokes; all this emphasises the expression. It's iconic (but in the context of the progression of panels). Next you might have an entire page devoted to one panel; extreme detail in the expressions, lots of attention to light and shadow; it's aesthetically enhancing a key moment. There is dramatic progression in more than just text or visual content. There's dramatic progression in the very style. (And that's even apparant in the rather uninteresting series I've sampled in the dedicated stores.)

I also like the way you can characterise people in a comic book, simply by drawing their rooms (or their clothes). There's no limit to the amount of detail you can put into a picture (but beware cluttering the panel!) All this will be viewed at once; it will be one effect (try the same in a short story, and you'll bore your readers to tears with the flood of irrelevant details.)

The bottom-line is: every medium has it's modes of expressions, and if you know how to use them effectively, it's art.

The moneymen may not agree, but then, well, that's the way the world is run. Make lots of money yourself and be different; say what you have to say; or just take it, and get on with it. Economic considerations go into every job.

Hopefully, you experience "being drawn by inspiration" many more times. It's what makes the job worth it, isn't it? :)

Liam Sharp
March 13th, 2006, 08:16 AM
Thanks Dawnstorm. Can't really argue with anything you said here - not that I'd want to! Though despite the title I think I was talking not just about comics, (though clearly that's my area of expertese,) but about fantasy and sci-fi in general. I think it's rooted in the earliest forms of art, and therefore can't be derided - It has to be taken seriously. The pompous elite that snub it are completely misguided and narrow-minded. Even in it's crudest form, isn't wish-fulfilment art incredibly interesting - not so much for what it portrays imagewise, but for what it says about the creator? I think that self-exploration of our fantasies through art and literature can throw amazing light on the human condition and tell us alot about ourselves and our race, and that validates it as something worthwhile and important as much as any obtuse abstraction, or well-observed ironic deconstruction of the modern age through ingenious (or crass) concept. I too like many forms of art, from classical to abstract - even your Damian Hursts and his like have raised a wry smile - but I think the associated spin that accompanies much so-called "Fine Art" is utter bulls**t.



March 14th, 2006, 01:27 AM
Fantasy is like the flames that lick around the box that some folk choose to hide in, rather than bare their soul.
They will stamp it out before it even takes hold.

Fantasy art is visual, perhaps a little scary to them!
Words however, are literary, i.e. a page of words looks much the same at distance, be it about Beowulf or the Bible.
Films are featuring "actors", and actors have a "reputation".

I was saddened and somewhat grumplified to see the "sanitised for the serious" covers of the Potter and Narnia re-releases.
Those poor people who fear to be seen to be reading a fantastic or frivolous work!!

Have just finished reading a book on Edmund Dulac, one of the early "fantasy artists" from the golden age. His draughtsmanship was admired. He won prizes in art exhibitions. Admittedly, it was not squeezed into the panel format, it had a whole page to breathe on. His compositions were carefully designed.

Is it the subject then, that is the problem? (Dulac illustrated the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, the Arabian Nights, Fairies and fairytales, follies, gods and goddesses...)

Or is it the format of the comic - the panels? The relativity to its moving picture cousin, "animation"? (Which in the western world still managed to be lumped into "a genre for children", regardless of its sophistication - certainly in the drawn/illustrative context. "Watership Down" - how many adults took their children to that one? Cute bunny wunnies, and - whoopsie! ;) )

I think it is unfairly treated as "unserious".
I am wondering whether or not I will be accepted by both a scholarship committee and a university for much the same reason. I wander back and forth between graphic lines on a small scale, and oil painting on a large scale. Some of it is design, some of it is what I guess may be accepted as "fine art".
Probably more because anything "on a large canvas" is recognised as a painting, and therefore appears to be bestowed the royal title of "art".

But it's not any particular art format that drives me, it is the subject matter. I am hoping they will be able to see that though my assorted mediums and scribblings.
It was a difficult, and yet (with hindsight) a very rewarding exercise to have to pin down exactly what my true motivation was. Along the way I even had to fight myself. I was thinking, "they'll never take this seriously". But then, I thought "why shouldn't they? I do." And then - if they don't - then they are not the kind of people, nor the kind of place, around which I ought to be.
Fantasy is a scary brush sometimes, the word has been long maligned. Should there be an alternative term? ("Graphic Fine Art", perhaps? ;) )
Even I have trouble with the word "fantasy". Yet I love the subject matter.

March 14th, 2006, 01:35 AM
After a moment of thought, I find myself wondering if Myth and Legend is accorded more tolerance because of some grain of truth in its background. And I'm not even going to go down the path of stories of a religious persuasion - the truth depends on the belief of the person, there.
Fantasy however, is seen as totally generated from the imagination, yes?
And some achieve it with more success than others - I like fantasy that incorporates elements or facsimiles of reality.

I still don't really like the word "fantasy" though!
I prefer "Imaginary".

Liam Sharp
March 14th, 2006, 04:34 AM
Hey Kirby.

You're so right - the word "Fantasy" in adult life started making me squirm. You could see eyes glaze over at the mention of it, and yet it never bothered me as a child. I didn't really want to draw comics, I wanted to paint fantasy pictures and hopefully write too. But why does the term bother people? Is our own reaction born out of the reaction of others? Are we just a little nervous of the labels it might engender in ourselves when we know and value this imagery for what it is?

Maybe we should talk in terms of "Ironic fantasy", or "psycho-fantasy", or perhaps we do what China Miťville does, and call it "Weird Fiction Art"? :D

Or just "Weird Art"? That's what my friends call what I do anyway - at least those who don't get it!



July 16th, 2006, 03:57 PM
I see comics as art. Particularly manga, but maybe because it's all I've really read, except maybe X-men and some random Sonic comics I got from my uncle.
It matters on who you are. What your opinion is. If you thinkj it's art, it's art. But, only to you. If someone els thinks it's not art, then it's not art, but only for them. Yes, you do need quite some talent to be a comic artist. If it's comedy you're trying to put into comic form, then you need to know what the average reader of these kinds of comics finds funny. If it's funny to you, it may not be funny to anyone else.

And, somehow, manga is different from normal comics....I just can't remember why. If you know why, please tell me.