By Elaine Sponholtz
The 2018 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, “ImageTech: Comics and Materiality,” closed with a panel on the role of materiality in the creation of comics. This session, which took place on Sunday, April 8 at the University of Florida’s Marston Science Library, covered a range of techniques used for creating comics that either hark back to the pre-digital past or are noteworthy in some way. The panel was organized as a roundtable interview with those who are actively creating comics, and included questions posed by the moderator, an artist-scholar, as well as by the audience members. It was composed of the following four comics practitioners and an artist-scholar: Tom Hart, the Executive Director of the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) and author of the memoir, Rosalie Lightning (2016); Leela Corman, a professional illustrator, cartoonist, and author of the graphic novel Unterzakhn (2012); Justine Mara Andersen, a comics inker and illustrator, who has worked with DC Comics, Image Comics, Wizards of the Coast, Lucasfilm, and others; Sidney Davidson, who holds a BFA in Sequential Art and an MFA in Illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design; and Elaine Sponholtz, an artist and media historian who holds a MA in Digital Arts and Sciences, and PhD in Mass Communication from the University of Florida, who acted as the moderator. This account of the session gives an overview of the subjects discussed, providing highlights and technical details offered by these artists for those who could not attend the conference. Some of the discussion from the conference panel is quoted in this piece based on a video recording.
The panel began with a brief welcoming statement by conference organizer, Madeline Gangnes. As the moderator, I (Sponholtz) introduced myself, and went on to introduce the panel by stating:
I wanted to bring together some of the practitioners in Gainesville. We’re very fortunate that we have a comics school here in Gainesville that you probably know about called SAW for short—the Sequential Artists Workshop. And, you know, it just draws all kinds of talent here that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. So, we have some images to show you as examples of these artists’ work, but we want to talk theoretically, we want to talk about materials and the meaning of materials and the deeper level of materials. I’m going to start off with Tom Hart, and we’ll go from there. So, Tom and his wife Leela Corman came down to Gainesville and opened the Sequential Artists Workshop. They are practitioners in almost every way you can imagine. Let me just go forward and start off with some of Tom’s images. Tom, do you want to narrate your own images?
Tom Hart responded to being introduced by saying, “I can’t talk theoretically about anything.” With images of his work projected on the screen, he proceeded to describe his use of an old school adhesive film, which he uses for creating shading effects. He explained, “What you’re seeing here, all of these great tones, especially on the left, are all sheets of film that comes in sheets like this and they come with transparent backings.” His wife Leela interjected, “And why are you saying this in present tense?” to underline the fact that it is an older material not often used by contemporary comics artists. Tom answered, “Yeah, because they came back, but it’s true, it’s very old fashioned and was a way for cheap printing presses to produce gray tone, which was very difficult. Now it’s gotten a lot easier.”
Tom had brought some samples of the press-on shading film to show the attendees, as well as examples of artwork prepared for the printer using another kind of masking film seldom used today, sometimes called Rubylith. Holding up the sample, I explained,
This is what I used to—doing it pre-digital—doing what was called camera-ready artwork when you had to prepare things in layers, which we now see in almost every program like PowerPoint has layers, but this is what we had to do to set things up so that they would have openings in the negative that was taken for the printers. So, this kind of film, the red peels off—you have to use a razor blade on it, and Tom brought that as an example.
Tom remarked, “Some people’s whole job is cutting this stuff.” Justine Mara Andersen added, “it was our job when I worked with a printer. That’s what we had to do.” These comments triggered a connection to a comic for Leela Corman, who pointed out, “There’s a great Dan Clowespanel in the story Art School Confidential (2006), where he’s talking about the jobs you get when you get out of art school. There’s a picture, and the caption is something like, ‘You can get a job cutting mechanicals.’ That’s what these were called. And the guy is just sitting there thinking, ‘I hope I die soon.’” After the audience chuckled, Hart held up a proof with several layers of film. While flipping through the acetate layers, he clarified that a proof is what you would get back after you sent a mechanical to a printer and compared its layers to those in Photoshop. When Corman asked if it was for stat [Photostat] cameras, he said he wasn’t sure what kind of cameras were used.
The discussion moved on from the pre-digital techniques for preparing camera-ready artwork to some of the illustration techniques that Tom uses. Referring to a set of four panels on a page drawn in black ink on white paper (see Figure 1), Hart talked about his use of a knife for rain effects. He said:
I was noticing some things when I went into reading these horror comics of the 50s. I was looking at the imagery—people looking over—people stuck in muddy crevasses or over big holes. But one thing I noticed about this top image is that a lot of the rain was drawn by carving out over top of the ink with a knife. So that’s what’s going on in that last [panel] here. I’m trying to showcase this in the book just a little bit more. It’s all just rubbing across the ink with a knife to get that cold, chilly, icy rain effect.
The next slide was of an image of several acorns scattered across a white background (see Figure 2), which Hart showed as an example of how he also draws on top of the shading film. With regard to his next image, a black, white, and gray image of branches seen against a bright sky as if viewed from inside a dark hole (see Figure 3), Hart noted, “This is trying to recreate leaves growing from a budding tree. The tones let you get really abstract, working with a knife rather than something that flows a little more easily. It sort of forced me to go a little more abstract sometimes.”
Next, Hart talked about trying to show “how the eye can see only certain distances at a time. It can’t see the foreground, middle ground, and background all at once. So, with the tones I was trying to indicate that.” He described using the gray tones of the shade film in a series of three panels to draw attention to the middle ground and foreground, while the eye of the viewer is focusing on the details in the background (see Figure 4).
I asked Hart about whether using the shading film made a book cheaper to print or easier to have published. Hart answered that he thought those days were fading, and other panelists agreed. After Hart noted the cost of color printing has decreased significantly, Corman said it wasn’t an issue with her publisher, but the story length was, saying, “The actual publishing issue is short stories versus novel length. … Book publishers don’t want to publish short story collections.” In another two-panel image inspired by the film Totoro (1988), Hart indicated areas of white highlights on another group of acorns as having been created with white paint on top of the adhesive shading film, either white gouache or Pentel white pen (see Figure 5).
As Hart’s time was drawing to a close, for the benefit of the audience, I added that the images we had been viewing were from Hart’s best-selling graphic novel, Rosalie Lightning, which is “a very poignant memoir, an account of losing a child.” Hart continued by revealing his emotional state and its connection to the materials he chose to use, stating,
The last thing I can say, since you pointed out the subject matter, is that at this time I really wanted to draw with a knife. It wasn’t enough to draw with a pen or a brush. Holding a knife and carving into something was an important part of the process.
When Corman asked why it was an important part of the process, Hart said, “I just wanted to stab things.” She shot back, “I want you to elaborate on using those materials. I think that would be well appreciated. … It’s not obvious to everybody.” Hart made clear, due to the sudden death of his young daughter, that he was “in a very painful state, I was in a very raw state, and a very corporeal state.” He went on to say, “Merely trying to reproduce this as some kind of abstract process wasn’t going to work—I needed to like carving into things, dealing with the emotions in my body more.” He could do this with a knife, more than a brush or a pen, Hart said.
I asked Hart if he thought about whether the way he was using tones affected the tone of the story. He described how his brush and pen drawings became “really raw” and, pointing to an image of vultures on the screen, recalled how his images reflected the sense of horror he was feeling. “Sometimes I would just lay down these tones and let them code-form the drawing,” he recalled. In the next image, he showed how he had used shapes from the leftover shading film to structure the image by applying shard-like pieces around a character he identified as a stand-in for himself (see Figure 6). I asked if the tonality of the shading film acted as a through-line between story worlds, helping him to move between his real world (with its powerful feelings of mourning) and the fictional worlds (like that of Totoro) that were favorites of his late daughter. He agreed with the observation, saying that he had just decided to stick with the technique throughout the artwork for the memoir.
Lastly, Hart described a working method which begins with making what he described as sloppy analog paintings, then scanning them and manipulating them as digital files. He found it freeing, and said that he felt it gave him a kind of permission to experiment, beyond what he thought he would be able to do with paint alone. He said it was for a new comic strip about a guy dying in a ditch. Corman added that it is an update of “The Angriest Dog in the World” (1983-1992), a comic strip written by David Lynch that is always the same in three panels. She described it as a “really crude drawing of a dog tied up in a yard, growling. … It’s just an exercise in juxtaposition.”
After a brief introduction, I asked Leela Corman to talk about an image found on one of her blogs, which refers to Corman’s mother being very supportive of her as an artist (see Figure 7). She explained:
It’s about my family, kind of the baggage of being the child of immigrants and Holocaust survivors who gets to be an artist, which is a very big privilege. You know, my grandparents barely made it out of World War II, hiding in the woods and having horrible things happen to them and all around them, and to everybody that they loved. And then, when they came to this country, they worked like seven days a week. It’s about how they squashed and distorted my mother’s artistic ambitions, were incapable of doing so to my aunt’s artistic ambitions, and how my mother kind of turned her—I think she turned that into support for me.
I remarked that Corman was the only one of the panelists to talk about why she became an artist in her work. She replied that “there was just no other thing I could have been, so it’s really lucky to have been born where and when I was and to whom.
The subsequent group of images concerned the subject of Corman’s two experiences of birth (see Figures 8, 9, 10). She prefaced her comments by acknowledging the personal nature of the birth experience, and that no two are alike, and continued discussing her creative process. She started out planning to create a scientifically-oriented story of birth, but the story became completely focused on the personal aspects. Speaking about the importance and popularity of storytelling, including live storytelling events, Corman expressed hope that others would follow her lead in telling very personal stories.
Corman was asked to point out her use of metallic inks in her images. Pointing to an area of an image of a large hand (see Figure 9) surrounded by nebulous painterly blueish purple swirls, Corman elucidated in detail:
If you look at the crackle and that sort of blueish thing . . . that’s where I dripped iridescent, kind of opalescent, like gossamer-colored iridescent ink into black ink. So, what I’m doing when I’m working this way is that I’m working with viscosity and tone. My background training is in painting and printmaking, and I hated printmaking, but I think I did get some interesting stuff with texture under my belt, studying it. But what I’m doing is I’m laying the page flat on the floor as opposed to my tilted drafting table, so it doesn’t drip—unless I want some drip. Sometimes I do. But if I’m working with high viscosity with a lot of stuff, usually what going on is that there’s a lot of water on the page and then there’s like heavy, heavy layers of black ink. I use liquid Sumi ink, which is very, very, very flat. It has a nice liquidity, but it can become sticky, especially if you let it evaporate a little bit. And then I’m dripping this liquid acrylic ink made by this company called FW. It acts a bit like an interference color, but it has a little bit more liquidity to it. … What I’m doing is that I’m directing the flow of the pigment on the page only to the point where it doesn’t interfere with the drawing, and then I’m stepping back and relinquishing some control. Then I see what happens with the texture. So, this crackle was a complete surprise.
Corman also explained, in answer to a question, interference colors refract light, interfering with the perception of a pigment, therefore creating a color-shifting effect.
Later in the discussion, Corman spoke of using metallic inks in a dreamlike image of Corman in a hospital gown holding her newborn on her chest, while floating above a purple and red background resembling a kind of Milky Way flecked with globular shapes in gold and silver.
She explained, “So this is another place I’m using metallic. … This is Liquitex. And I don’t think it’s an acrylic. I think it’s a metallic-pigmented ink. So, I’ve got layers of red water color and black ink and these two metallic Liquitex inks on top.” Describing these inks as “pulverized metal suspended in a liquid [non-solvent] media” that is thick, not viscous, and “almost crumblier” than others she uses, Corman noted that, when the metallic ink is placed on top of a puddle of ink, some remains above the surface and some sinks into to it to become partially submerged. Before it dries, the metallic ink can be manipulated to draw it out, and once dry, Corman suggested it had the look of Venetian glass, or Raku. In answer to a question about how well the metallic inks used in this way reproduce in print or when scanned, Corman indicated her surprise at how well they show up, even without being reproduced by printing with metallic inks.
Corman’s attitude toward her materials is perhaps more akin to that of an alchemist, as it seems to go beyond the scientific and into esoteric and philosophical qualities. Continuing to emphasize the importance of experimentation and the necessity of purposely decoupling the artist’s expectation of control from the creative process, Corman related her approach to the creative process by saying,
And letting there be a realm in which you have no control, where you have your parameters. Into those parameters you insert your factors—your colors, your textures—and then you step away and you let them work with each other. You have to relinquish a little control. I operate from the principle of something Brian Eno said, “Honor your mistakes as hidden intentions.” There’s a lot more to that, but that’s a really good directive when you’re creating anything.
She compared this idea of stepping back to music-making, playing guitar in a band that is using a lot of sound distortion and having voices and other sounds cutting through the distortion.
Corman is currently working on a book called Victory Parade, which she described as being set partially in Brooklyn and partially in Buchenwald, a World War II concentration camp liberated in 1945 by the U.S. Army (see Figure 11). She stated the book is a reaction to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991), with the aim of putting individualized faces and names to those experiencing an atrocity.
Justine Mara Andersen
The discussion moved to Justine Mara Andersen, who was introduced as a professional comics artist and inking specialist of long standing. She currently teaches as an instructor at SAW and has worked with and for some of the most recognizable names in the world of comics and animation, including designing characters for Lucasfilm. Describing herself as a staunch traditionalist, her focus is on penmanship, preferring the illustrator’s traditional tools, primarily brushes and ink. However, while teaching art at a South American school with no funding for art supplies, she taught her students how to draw with (readily available) toothpicks and ink. Gesturing toward a multi-paneled page, she identified her tools as very tiny (size 00) brushes and ink, and that one panel depicting an old man’s craggy, bearded face was created by drawing with toothpicks and ink (see Figure 12). In addition to ink on white illustration board, she also uses “a lot of white gouache,” a type of opaque watercolor, “to bring out the highlights and to keep the textures in place.” Later in the presentation, she acknowledged one of teachers, Jeffrey Jones, who encouraged her to use more white as a design element.
Crediting her background as a student of mythology as a continuing influence on her work, Andersen has also found inspiration in the intricately detailed style of Russian illustrators (see Figure 13). Her approach differs from those of Corman’s and Hart’s deeply personal memoirs in that, “I’m not really interested in dealing with drama, or memoir, or ideology as much as dealing with fantasy. … I don’t really want to focus on it in my art too much. But I do tell personal stories, but they’re always mythologized” (see Figure 14).
Remembering the beginning of her career, Andersen described herself as having “No talent for drawing when I started,” but a strong desire and self-discipline, which she noted is far more important than talent in order to succeed as an artist. In her words, “Talent is a pretty useless commodity. … People with no talent and ambition will rocket past talented people, if they have self-discipline and desire.” Andersen stated that she had sought mentorship, especially from people twice her age, who taught her traditional techniques. She now sees herself as having surpassed her dreams.
Echoing Corman’s earlier comments on the creative process, Andersen credited the medium of watercolor for forcing her to let go of control and let the artwork “be what it wants to be,” as opposed to her normal meticulousness. She defined watercolor as “a series of barely controlled accidents.” When further delineating her techniques, Andersen described how she usually starts with lightest tone or ground color, then moves to next darkest and the next darkest, specifying that there are often only four to six layers of color. She also prefers paper with “little bit of tooth [surface roughness] but not too much,” as she doesn’t trust glossy paper “because you don’t want the paper to dominate the work, unless you want it to.”
Art school and the advice of teachers shaped both Corman’s and Andersen’s use of color. In answer to a question from Corman about how much Andersen mixes disparate colors, Andersen said that she uses color mixing “a lot,” because one of her teachers said, “You really know a good figure artist by how well they use purple.” Corman replied that she loved what Andersen had just said, recalling that one of her worst art teachers derisively said, “Every painter goes through a purple phase,” which made Corman question her own use of purple in shadows as an art student.
Sidney Davidson, the last artist to speak at the roundtable, holds a BFA in Sequential Art and an MFA in Illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Though he is an accomplished comics artist and illustrator, Davidson told of his struggles in art school:
I went through art school and I was terribly insecure. I didn’t feel as talented as a lot of other people. And I think that a lot of people have the experience when you go through art school that people, who are successful right off the bat, are celebrated, whereas the people who take a few years [aren’t] … by the school, that is.
He recalled comparing his work to others, and feeling awful, thinking he had lied to himself about his mistakes being okay. “I couldn’t deal with my own ineptitude.” He realized he didn’t understand how to achieve visual hierarchy—that is, being able to direct a viewer’s eyes to certain things in an intended order. As he continued to work, Davidson explored the question of why he was drawn to cartoon-like, boyish violence and superheroes, deciding to push his art in those directions. Directing the audience’s attention to one of his highly detailed images undergirded by strong diagonals, which depicted a boy holding an umbrella in the rain next to a girl sneaking up behind him (see Figure 15), Davidson disclosed that it was created entirely with razor blade. He said he decided that, “The way I could show my appreciation for the compositions I had planned out was the same way I would show my appreciation for food, which is to tear it apart, destroy it, then turn it into waste.” He was asked how he came up with the idea of using a razor blade as a drawing tool. Davidson answered, citing the work of a comics artist from Argentina, Alberto Brechia, who had used a razor blade to make drawings that “looked really cool and he had a lot of control over it. I had such poor control of the brush, they already looked similar, so I thought, I’ll just go to this.”
Davidson went to school again because “I wasn’t successful the first time,” but was enjoying it more and was able to work longer hours at it. In his illustration technique, he concentrated on using value (see Figure 16), cutting in details with a razor blade, and coloring his drawings digitally (see Figure 17). He said he tried to learn how to paint, but decided to learn how to draw because learning to paint would take more time, and he didn’t think he could do both. He then tried dry brush, omitted the razor blade, and tried for more control through digitally coloring the scanned image. He explained his approach to color by saying, “I really don’t know how to intuitively work with color, so I have to handle it theoretically. Using the computer allows me to do that, because I can keep changing things until I get some better understanding.” Thanks to a technique he learned from a professor, he also produced intricate drawings that deconstructed geometrical objects, such as cars and helicopters, and was able to draw them from any angle by adapting techniques from industrial designers to sequential art. He also practiced what he described as very tight inking with a brush, in a Marvel/DC style. During this period, he “started the long process of tightening up my brushwork. … I started to get, at least, control over it.” For one of the black-and-white drawings, a page from a book he is completing called Lunacy, he plans to use color to create visual hierarchy. He describes it as being “about Alan Greenspan … and deals with the extremes of oligarchical capitalism, and the kinds of things that produces—and it’s kind of meaningless excess … in this world the only people who can get money are those who can talk to investors … there’s this overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and nihilism.” Andersen asked, “Do you think you made that up?” As the audience laughed, Davidson retorted, “I wish I did.”
For his next image, a figure drawn in ink being blown backward after answering the door (see Figure 18), Davidson cited the work of Jeff Darrow and his comic mini-series Hard Boiled (1990-1992) as his taking-off point. He explained that he enjoys breaking the 180 rule, which he read about in The Five C’s of Cinematography(1965), employing a shifting point of view to create a sense of unease and disorientation in the viewer. At the end of his presentation, Davidson offered more particulars about his techniques, mentioning that he often uses a razor blade for creating texture on the forehead of a character (see Figure 19) and uses a toothbrush with opaque white for adding splatters. He declared his favorite white to be Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleedproof White. On the image of a generator exploding, he noted his use of paint squeezed through his finger and thumb to create texture, in addition to grease pencil.
As the panel was wrapping up, the artists fielded a few questions from the audience. Asked about the topic of dehumanization and the responsibility of artists by an audience member, Leela Corman answered that, as a writer and a relative of survivors of Auschwitz, she feels artists have a burden to keep talking about genocide, as difficult as it is to comprehend, to the honor individual victims. Referring to atrocities around the world, Corman advised, “If you are a person interested in working with that and feels drawn to it, go to the ones that draw you and work with them. It means that there’s something there for you, and perhaps something that you can give the world, give back to those people to re-humanize them.” Corman differentiated her approach to that of Maus, which uses stereotypes and animal tropes “to give groups of people a generic face.” She observed that it is so much about dehumanizing, making people have one face:
Nazi ideology and racist ideology in general is so much about dehumanizing and making people into these mass groups with one face that is disagreeable or superior. It’s binary, it’s gross, and it doesn’t serve anyone. It only serves the people in power, who are doing that. But I felt like it was also a really good way to talk about mass trauma, and if you come from people who went through mass trauma, you know most don’t talk about it … Not everyone is Premo Levi … Maus was really helpful for people like me who were in families like that… But you always know if there’s trauma in your family—and trauma can come in any form—you can feel it. It’s there. It lives with you like a family member. So, now, I didn’t really know that I wanted to put faces on the dead, until I had done it … I wanted to give them names, faces, give them families, because I’m sick of watching humanity waste people.
Next, panelist Tom Hart asked Sidney Davidson to explain what he had meant by the term “visual hierarchy” earlier. Davidson described it as follows:
If I don’t know how to draw and want it to look impressive, I put a lot of detail in it. But will all kind of look muddled and unclear what I’m actually drawing, if I don’t organize it on the page a certain way. So using different kind of design theories or principles, or whatever I’ve figured out on my own, I want the viewer to look at the image in a certain order, almost. I want them to look at a focal point, then a secondary, then I want the eye to go around the page. So the way that I will organize objects on the page, the way that I use the lighting in the page, where I choose to make certain things black and white, I will do to drag the eye throughout the page. So, in some of my grittier work with more of the texture and darkness, razor blade stuff like this, I will rely more on blacks and whites and alternating shapes and values, whereas with the more line-work stuff, I will rely more on digital color.
Finally, the panelists were asked how they feel about using digital technology, and how they use it. Andersen adamantly denounced digital tools, saying that she wished they had never been invented and didn’t exist. She is not a user of social media, though she does email and use Flash for animating drawings. In turn, Leela Corman said she loves it, but as a tool, and that she is “militant about building hand skills for students.” She realizes that the incoming generation of students want to use it, but thinks that using digital tools tends to make artwork look very generic, adding that handheld tools are much more malleable and attuned to each individual’s style and energy. She averred, “Drawing is a physical act. You’re not only having this visual product in the end. There’s an entire physical process that goes into it and it is responding to and working with the physical world. It is carnal.” Although Corman feels she is opposed to digital painting, she uses Photoshop for lettering, digitally adding color to illustrations, and preparing artwork for the Web.
Andersen concurred with Corman, commenting that drawing digitally immediately diminishes art by robbing it of its physicality. “And there’s no spiritual connection,” she concluded. Corman asked, “What about using it to clean up a scanned page, remove a spill?” Andersen replied, “That’s why the good Lord created White-Out.” She expressed the belief that without the digital option, the artist develops more masterful skills. Corman agreed, but said that she finds digital tools useful for production, not the creation of art. Sidney Davidson said, “I prefer to work with my hands, because I need the threat of ruining the surface.” Davidson admitted that he is “a perfectionist to a fault,” and if he spends a great deal of time cleaning up an image digitally, it becomes sterile. Primarily, he uses the computer to apply color and change color combinations until he is satisfied. He stated that he tries to keep it ambiguous as to what he used to create the artwork. Tom Hart said that he sometimes scans old artwork and works on top of that image but doesn’t use digital tools often.
Leela Corman had requested time to give her thoughts on practitioners and their relationship to those in academia. She expressed her belief that, in discussing comics, “theory is nothing. It’s useless without practice. If all you do is write a paper about people’s work and never fact check it with the comics creator, you run the risk of being wrong.” Addressing the scholars in the audience directly, she tried to impress upon them the importance of academics coordinating with the artists themselves, whenever possible. At least try it once, she insisted, telling the story of a researcher who argued in a paper that Corman had used Jewish stereotypes and Russian fairytales in her work, when that wasn’t Corman’s intent at all. She asserted that the scholar should have asked her, adding, “I’m not dead yet.”