Conventions were never a big money-maker for us. When we’d go to cons as a family ini the 1990s we’d run a table in the dealers room in addition to hanging work in the art show – and between the two we would normally cover at least our expenses – and sometimes more. One notable exception was DRAGONCON 1993 when we went $500 in the hole even though I swept the art show in three-dimensional work. However in spite that loss I was glad we went to the con because it was there I got to meet Duck Edwing.
Edwing worked for MAD magazine for 49 years, contributing his own cartoons as well as writing for Don Martin and Paul J. Coker. I loved his work and was fortunate enough to spend thirty minutes talking to him in the dealer’s room, but when we traded portfolios he got a little edgy when I started gushing over his work – I suspect that after seeing my polished cover illustrations Duck may have thought I was being condescending and it took most of that half-hour to convince him that I was sincere – I loved his cartoons because it was something I could not do.
Yes, you read correctly – I am not very good at cartoons. While it is true that the graphic nature of my work can often resemble a cartoonists’ style there is something about the economy of line and conceptual precision that I’ve never been able to master and I usually end up overworking any such attempt, but last week I decided to try again – not with cartoons per se, but with a cartoon style I’ve found in a line of toys.
In the mid 00’s superhero merchandizing was overcome with an epidemic of cuteness. Marvel came out with a line of whimsical versions of their heroes called Superhero Squad while DC came out with a similar line of figures in a tie-in with the animated series Batman: The Brave and The Bold. That connection along with a more stylized look had me favoring the DC figures over Marvel line and I was quite pleased when Mattel continued the line under the Action League banner.
A non-functioning knee has in effect exiled from my second-story studio for almost a month now so my creative work has been limited to drawing tools and designer’s markers. I was putting the finishing touches on a postcard for my granddaughter Heron when I happened to glance at one of the aforementioned DC figures sitting on a shelf next to my Big Papa Chair.
I ended up drawing three figures – and while I used existing figures for reference I drew characters that have NOT been manufactured as part of the toy line:
- Adam Strange
- Blue Beetle
In each case I went “retro”: Adam Strange is wearing his original Murphy Anderson designed rocket suit, Blackhawk is wear the short-lived mid-60s red-jacketed uniform and Blue Beetle is my favorite Ted Kord incarnation…which I’ve subsequently discovered had actually been created but never actually released as a part of the Action League series. I don’t know if anything will ever come of these drawings, but it was a good exercise in developing a more stylized “cartoony” look without getting too cutesy.
(…not exactly a Re-Run Saturday, but definitely an older creation.)
I was quite surprised the first time I encountered the melodramatic Boy Scout version Batman from the 1950’s. The creative collision came about late in 1964 in an 88 page Giant full of older stories that were quite a bit different from the tightly written, masterfully penciled New Age Batman and Curt Swan World’s Finest stories that had first drawn my attention. I didn’t quite know how to deal with story elements such as:
- Ace the Bat-Hound
- A Batwoman and Batgirl with clutch purses and masks resembling our school librarian’s glasses
- A Batmobile resembling an inverted goldfish bowl on wheels.
Camp elements just got “campier” with the 1966 Batman TV series and I found myself slowly easing over into the Marvel and Charlton circles until some of the Dark Avenger flavor started to return with superstar penciller Neal Adams.
Years later I find myself not quite so critical – as I get older and the world gets more and more chaotic I find myself more accepting of the pure escapism found in those Bat-titles from fifty or sixty years ago. I like the idea of a world where an middle-aged of debatable athletic ability can don a set of mauve leotards and instantly become a vigilante hero. As my protesting knees and back plot to confine me to a sitting position I become more and more accepting of a world where no one ever gets hurt very badly during fights and the good guys always win.
I also look back at the creators with more respect. Contractually the name of series creator Bob Kane figured prominently on all the covers, but I soon figured out that the best work came from associate Dick Sprang. Sprang’s “perfect storm’ of creativity combined strong design skills, wicked caricature and a compelling sense of narrative that put him head and shoulders about all the other members of Kane’s artistic stable. I particularly enjoyed the facial expressions he drew and literally triggered a “charley horse” in my cheek when trying to match the gloat of one of his penciled villains.
Below are two figures taken from my 2012 sketchbook, figures drawn after the manner of Dick Sprang a gesture of creative respect. I came up with the basic concept while getting stuck at a red-light (my best ideas seem to always happen at traffic lights or bathtubs) and somehow came up with a plot thread about time-travel back to the Napoleonic era.
As I wrote last winter I’ve never been happy with the Batgirl cut-paper sculpt that I put together five or six years ago so it should be no surprise that I am up to my elbows making a new version, based on the original sketch. As I was taking pictures my Beautiful Saxon Princess suggested that I make a video presentation about my technique…and I think it’s a good idea. I’m in the “baby-steps” stage of planning right now, still researching video production and funding options like Patreon but it may be that this is the direction my teaching career will take now that I am no longer in the classroom.
…but for now I will share a snap of the work in progress, which starts with a drawing that I cut up to use for templates when making the individual parts.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I started my training as a “commercial artist”. Few schools offered any sort of specialized training, but I was lucky enough to snag a spot in Richard Bird’s ground-breaking design program when it first started up at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in the mid-1970s. Despite my good fortune I remained essentially clueless – while Richard was refining a traditional illustration and graphic design program I was aiming for more adventuresome forms of expression featured in comics and the covers of books and record albums.
…and when I say clueless I mean clueless. I’d struggle with an overwhelming sense of despair as I looked through my collection of cover illustrations knowing that I’d never be able to render such tiny yet perfect images like the ones rendered by Frank Frazetta…never realizing that those gems were the phot0graphically reduced copies of larger and more manageable works.
While my first tentative efforts were heavily influenced by Frazetta and his contemporaries I made no conscious effort to emulate that work to the exclusion of other styles. I just thought it looked cool and I wanted to see more of the same, even if I had to make the stuff myself. Sometimes there was some actual risk involved. The vivid colors you see in this drawing were made by Flo-masters inks…which I don’t think are legal to use anymore. The intensity of the colors stemmed from the use of several exotic solvents in the ink’s preparation.
…just to give you a hint of what I was working with: the pens had interchangeable nibs, and when I’d put a used nib back into it’s slot in the carrying case the ink would spot-weld that used nib in place.
No need to dig out the old Hanna-Barbera VHS tapes – there is no “Jadex” among the Herculoids, at least anywhere outside of the Deitrick household. My Star Pupil and I spent last Saturday morning doing what Saturdays were made for: watching cartoons. We spent a lot of time with the old H/B action shows like “Herculoids”, “Jonny Quest” and “Space Ghost” and once I was able to muzzle the internal critic complaining about the absence of all three Laws of Thermodynamics we had a good time
We were at most seven minutes into our session when it became evident the team needed an extra member bearing a strong resemblance to my Star Pupil.
Things were looking pretty grim for the Caped Crusader in the fall of 1963. The familiar Caped Boy Scout image that had seen him through the Superhero purge of the Fifties1 had started working against him driving sales so low that all of the Bat-titles were facing cancellation. Fortunately Batman was given a last-minute reprieve in the form of new editor Julius Schwartz – the same fellow who had successfully relaunched the Flash and Green Lantern into Silver Age versions.
Julie made some changes – after learning that a simple bat shape was too generic for a trademark he added yellow oval to make it a more complete – and more marketable – logo. Most importantly he instituted a “New Look” for the bat-books by bringing on board comics superstar Carmine Infantino as the penciller for Detective Comics starting with issue 327 “Mystery of the Menacing Mask”. ‘
There were other changes and improvements:
- Bat-themes associates (Bat-mite/Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound) were shown the door.
- Costumed super-criminals were conspicuously close to a year ”
- Aunt Harriet replaced Alfred the Butler
- The bubble-top Bat-Cadillac was replaced with a convertible sports car model
- The Bat-signal was replaced by a telephone hotline similar to the one connecting the White House with the Kremlin in real-life.
….but the biggest change was in the stories themselves. Instead of Gotham City serving as the crossroads for every itinerant alien in a saucer or stories featuring bat-uniforms constantly changing colors, shapes or themes Detective Comics now featured (wait for it!) DETECTIVE STORIES! Plot-drived who-dunnits that challenged your intellect and bore up under repeated readings, all of which pulled me into the superhero comics world in major way.
At approximately eighteen months in duration the New Look was a very short phase and was sadly replaced by a camp version reflecting the ABC Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Oddly enough the television show was based on the 1950’s “goofy” Batman image that Schwartz had worked so hard to purge. At we got through eighteen months of a more realistic version and who knows – would Neal Adams have gotten permission for his darker more realistic version of Batman in 1970 if the New Look had never happened? Who knows?
This sketchbook image happened yesterday after I spent an hour or so reading a hardbound collection of Carmine Infantino’s New Look pencils. I have so many favorites when it comes to Batman artists: Dick Sprang, Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers….but in the end Mr. Infantino is my favorite.
1: See upcoming post: “Seduction of the Stupid”
Another page from my sketchbook: Nightshade, a back-up character from Charlton Comic’s Captain Atom book. Sketchbooks are good place to experiment and my books end up with a lot of drawings from unexpected POV’s,
It’s always a challenge to update old characters – I mean how much do you change before they start to lose identity? Added to the challenge is the shallow depth of detail in most Silver Age heroes: comic work doesn’t pay very well now and paid even less fifty years ago. The emphasis was on speed so the fewer wrinkles, seams, belts, tools and such the better and it wasn’t unusual for pencillers to see their work gutted by inkers who omitted detail and resorted to heavy shadow area just to increase daily page rates.
In some ways superhero costuming has hit a baroque – almost Rococo level of excess detail. I think Michael Keaton’s original bat-suit/armor as designed by Jim Ringo for 1989 version of Batman had the ideal degree of detail.
Comics fans tend to divide the market into two monolithic superpowers – DC and Marvel – especially when talking about the Silver Age of the 1960s. However there was a smaller third contender known as Charlton Comics that would weekly duke it out with the Big Two for space on those spinning comic racks. Charlton started out doing television and movie tie-in books but for a short time they had an Action Hero line that gave the big boys a run for their money.
…and the title Action Heroes was a deliberate move to distance the Charlton books from the rest of the market. Editor Dick Giordano had always favored the Batman-model for heroes – regular human beings righting wrongs and facing danger armed with just hard work and imagination rather through the benefit of superhuman origins or equipment. During Giordano’s tenure all the Charlton super-powered heroes were either changed into non-super versions (like Ted Kord’s Blue Beetle) or substantially reduced in power as was the case with Captain Atom.
DC bought out Charlton in the Eighties, so you can still find versions of Blue Beetle and The Question in print, but some of their comrades weren’t so lucky as was the case with The Peacemaker. Billed as “The man who loved peace so much he was willing to fight for it” Peacemaker always struggled to find a home in DC and was finally written out in a recent reboot event. His methods of operation didn’t translate well into contemporary books, but I also think he suffered aesthetically ; there was a logical explanation for his outsized helmet (it housed long range communications and sensor equipment) but I imagine his foes weren’t able to look for long at that particular piece of headgear without starting to snicker…and I personally wonder about the effect a good stiff crosswind would have on that thing.
It’s also hard to draw. I’ve tried my usual update-magic on Peacemaker’s entire outfit, but that helmet is proving to be troublesome….
Tesla Strong, daughter of science-hero Tom Strong and a rugged science-hero in her own right. Tom Strong is a creation of Alan Moore/ Chris Sprouse and appeared in America’s Best Comics, part of DC’s Wildstorm imprint. The books ran through most of the 2000s and are among the best comics of the new millennium.
Additional references can be found at:
Life seems to be dominated by friction between factions:
- North Vs. South
- Republican Vs. Democrat
- Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones
- Marvel vs DC
In that last line up I’ve traditionally lined up with DC, but there was a time (1967-68) when I was a devoted Marvel fan – I joined M.M.M.S. (Merry Marvel Marching Society) not just once, but twice, thought I have to admit the second time around was mostly to get the full-color membership button.
(In retrospect I should have saved my buck as all the button got me was a lunch-time beat down.)
I went through a period of renewed Marvelmania in the mid-2000s, so it should be no surprise that my trip to Manhattan in 2006 would include visiting the site of the Avengers mansion…or at least as close as I could get to that mythical address.
(yep, that’s me in trimmer times)