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Pay Attention: Late-Period Ditko

Written By Rana G on Monday, January 10, 2011 | 3:59 AM

When I was in high school (10th grade?) I saw Masters of Comic Book Art. It was a videotape collection of interviews with Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, Frank Miller, Moebius, Dave Sim, and Art Spiegelman. Somehow, I was able to dub my own copy and used to watch it when I would draw. It was really inspiring back in 1988. Still is, I think.

The one interview that kind of baffled me as a teen was the Art Spiegelman interview. He was the only artist represented who wasn’t on my radar at the time. He didn’t draw costumed heroes or genre comics. He was drawing something from his own experience but using comics to flip the script. Spiegelman was talking about how he wanted to feel like he was writing. He said he was using office supplies to draw with like typing paper and white out.

Then he talked about how most comics are drawn larger than they are actually printed. He explained how the lines become smaller and how there is a refinement process that occurs with the artwork. And then he said that’s what he didn’t want to happen with Maus – that the refinement process created a distance between the reader and the maker. He said that he wanted it to feel like a diary – that he wanted the mark he made to be the mark you see.

That expression “the mark you make is the mark you see” stayed with me for years. It really had an effect on me. Maus worked like no other comic I’d ever read. It did feel like a diary – I felt connected to the story in a way I’d never really experienced before. And, I think, because I’d read Maus after I’d seen the video interview of Spiegelman describing the process, I felt like I understood why I was so connected to the work.

Around the same time I stumbled across an exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art devoted to Maus. There were original pages of art from the book (maybe the entirety of Maus Book One?), Spiegelman’s diaries, sketches, the works. The most interesting things to me were display cases containing examples of how he composed his pages. There were sheets of tracing paper and a museum card explaining that he used Harvey Kurtzman’s tracing paper process. First Spiegelman would sketch out the page in yellow colored pencil on 8.5 x 11 inch tracing paper. Then he’d lay another sheet of tracing paper over the first (yellow) layer and pick out the lines he liked in red colored pencil – shaping up the figures and backgrounds on the fresh sheet. Then he’d take the red layer and lay another sheet of clean tracing paper over that and using a blue colored pencil he’d pick out the best lines from the red layer. Each layer become less and less sketchy and the whole composition came into focus from light to dark.

Looking at the whole exhibition, I remember being struck by the scale of it all. It was epic yet it was possible to contain it all on a small desk. It did feel like writing. And, to me, it felt like comic book making on a scale I’d never comprehended before. Add to that the fact that the exhibit was at MOMA. The context was key, I thought. It was a radical idea back then that comics could be fine art. The notion of “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” had been around for years and I was an ardent believer in that concept, sure, but even my prep classes on comics as a teen didn’t prepare me for the emotional uppercut that this exhibition delivered.

I remember thinking “here is the proof” that comics are fine art. This wasn’t a western or superhero comic elevated to fine art status. It was personal, real. It was like the same personal expression as the best painting or the best writing. It was a real bridge between fine art and literature. People were going bananas – I saw old couples crying & sniffling into their hankies. Here was the proof – all happening in front of me.

Plus, it didn’t just have to happen in a public exhibition. The folks that enjoyed it here could take the work home – that was also a radical idea – the intimacy of it all and the power of that connection between reader and maker. The proof was also in that connection yet I couldn’t spy on folks in their homes communing with the work. It was powerful to see folks reacting, responding to the work – and great to be a part of that. But the fact that they could each take that experience home – unlike with most art in the museum – left a deep impression on me.

So after going to art school and becoming frustrated with the “preciousness” of the art object and the social dance that is the art world – I returned to Maus. I returned to it’s scale and it’s process. I felt like of all the art making processes I’d been exposed to – that this was the most genuine and the closest to what I wanted to do. It was personal and epic; public and private.

And then when I began drawing comics again after painting for years I chose not to draw on 11 x 17 inch Bristol board. That’s how I’d learned back in high school: draw on 11 x 17 Bristol, create a 10 x 15 “live area”, draw it, and then shrink it down to a 6.25 x 10 inch comic book. Worse still I would often make standard zines (half 8.5 x 11 paper – that creates a 4.25 x 5.5 inch page) which are proportionate to the 11 x 17 original art. So I was often shrinking my art even further than a standard comic book. Why? Well, it was cheaper to do it that way cuz everything was printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper. If you wanted to make a standard, “real” comic book you had to pay an offset printer a lot of money or make your own by trimming down one made on a copy machine out of 11 x 17 inch paper. See how complicated all that is? Plus you lose much of the detail and the line weight of your drawings in the process. I didn’t wanna deal with all that. I wanted a direct approach.

Why not draw 100%? I remembered that expression of Spiegelman’s, “the mark you make is the mark you see” and I set about trying to learn what it was all about. After all, I’d been drawing & painting for years and there was no reducing it all down to look better. That didn’t happen in painting. It didn’t happen in drawing or even in printmaking unless you were doing silkscreen. The whole idea of the reduction process in comics started to seem really strange to me. Spiegelman was right – there was a refinement process – there was a distancing effect. Why not draw 100%? Meaning the art is printed at a one to one ratio.

So I did. Storeyville was drawn “same size”. It felt right. My pen lines didn’t shrink down and disappear when reduced cuz there was no reducing. I knew that what I was looking at on my page would be what the reader saw in the printed version. It was very freeing because I didn’t have to worry about what it would look like after it was reduced – I didn’t have to make thicker lines on the original to insure that the lines wouldn’t thin out and feel weak in the printed version. The mark I made was the mark the reader would see. To me, it worked. I found a direct way of composing that felt new, exciting and somehow more genuine. And it was all cuz of that video interview I saw in 10th grade.

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