Even cowgirls get the blues. Drawing by Jaime Hernandez (1999)
I recently told a friend of my interest in telling stories with pictures and he recommended Cartooning, by Ivan Brunetti. This slim volume is a written version of a class Brunetti teaches on the cartoon format (he doesn’t care for the terms graphic novel and I don’t blame him). It is broken down into a 15-week course. There is no point in cheating or cutting corners. Brunetti insists that the reader, or student, follow each assignment. If they do, they’ll arrive at a place where they’ve acquired some fundamentals.
Dig this, from Brunetti’s introduction:
Most Italian dishes are made up of a few simple but robust ingredients, the integrity of which should never be compromised. It is a straightforward, earthy, spontaneous, unpretentious, improvisatory, and adaptable cuisine, where flavor is paramount: not novelty, not fashion, not cleverness, and not prettiness. If it tastes good, it will perforce also look good (note that the inverse is also true). It is a cuisine entirely based on a relative few, but solid and time-tested, principles. The techniques are not complicated, just hard; mastering them really takes only time, care, and practice. Originality, as Marcella Hazan instructs, is not something to strain for: “It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions.” One plans a meal around what is available and what is most fresh, usually a vegetable, allowing this ingredient to suggest each course.
…Once you know the basic principles, what you are “going for,” you can add your own personal touch. The most important thing is the potential misstep at the beginning that can ruin the entire dish: don’t burn the garlic. If you do, it will not matter what fancy or expensive ingredient you add to try to cover it up; it will still taste bad. Thus, what I hope, in essence, is that by the end of the book you will learn not to “burn the garlic” and to create art based on sound principles.
[Picture by Will Eisner]
WEST: In looking at Krazy Kat, do you draw any strength from what Herriman did in terms of the relationships of his characters?
WATTERSON: Krazy Kat is a completely unique strip. I think it’s the best comic strip ever drawn. Ultimately, though, it’s such a peculiar and idiosyncratic vision that it has little to say to me directly. I marvel at it because it’s beyond duplication. It’s like trying to paint a sunrise — you’re better off not even trying. Peanuts and Pogo have been inspirations, too, but these strips are much more down to earth, and are much closer to my own way of thinking, and have had much more direct influence. Even so, I try to keep the instances of blatant plagiarism to a minimum. Looking back, you’ll see that some of the old strips are one-gag formulas, endlessly varied. Krazy Kat revolves around the tossing of the brick. Little Nemo was always a dream, and you know the kid is going to wake up in a heap at the bottom of his bed in every single strip. I find Herriman a lot more interesting than McCay, but both are working within a very limited construct. It’s a very different approach to cartooning that what we do now. I would go insane working with limited formulas like theirs, but on the other hand, Herriman and McCay gave us something better than gags. Back then, the fun was in the getting there. The destination of each strip was the same, but every day you went there by a different road. Today, we want the strip over as soon as possible — “Just hand me the punch line, please.” The fewer panels, words, and drawings, the better: I think Pogo was the last of the enjoy-the-ride strips. It’s a shame. We’ve really lost what comics do best.
WEST: Can’t you still do that with the Sundays?
WATTERSON: The Sundays are frustrating — you have to waste the entire top third of the strip so that the panels can be dropped or reconfigured for certain-sized newspapers. This really limits what I can do. Krazy Kat had a whole page to itself, as did Nemo. Even so, there’s more flexibility on Sundays than in the daily strips. I’ve always tried to make the strip animated, even when the characters aren’t moving, with expressions or perspectives or some sort of exaggeration. There’s great potential for that which has yet to be fully mined.