Is it ART?
(2006-03-06)Liam Sharp, current artist on the critically acclaimed Testament title, CEO of MAMTOR, creator of Event Horizon and comic book artist for almost two decades ponders the question.
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 where ever. 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 influential 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 irrelevant. 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 pre-Raphaelite 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 inevitably 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 moneyed 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 perceived as viable, socially acceptable. In the UK art is often seen as the subject slackers take. Weirdo 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 need 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 commissions 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 controversial - but paradoxically you also want it to be a success. The starving artist at his easel 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, controversial 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 inspirational 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 verging on hubris. And Odysseus and his twelve year journey home. The great quest. The fellowship. The insurmountable 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, latterly 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 ancestors of astonishing 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 intelligentsia 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 dissection 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 sheer magnitude of it's creativity, despite his intellectual pedigree - even this is belittled, shrugged off and discarded 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 visionaries, why have we now turned our back on both? What is it the educated elite 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-intellectual 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 across as pretentious or overblown in anyway, I apologise. I felt it might be of interest to you to know some of the thought processís that goes into producing comic art. The desires, and what we set out to achieve. 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...?
Liam Sharp © 2006