Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Sunday Afternoon Chat About Ink, Wash, and Totleben...

This query from Heath arrived recently, and with his permission I'll reply here, where you all can benefit from it:

As I'm pouring over my issues of [Miracleman:] Olympus tonight, I was did/does John [Totleben] get such an intricate line in his work? The line form and style seems deceptively simple, but upon trying to duplicate it, I can't. Does he use a pen, or a sable brush? The pen I was using is not a fine art pen, but lays down liquid ink rather thickly, thus I thought that perhaps the lines were rendered using a pen.

Oh, here's another lil something you can help me with, if you please...exactly what is the process of ink-wash? I saw the art in the solicits for the Roy Thomas/Dick Giordano Dracula hardcover from Marvel, but I don't understand exactly how one goes about creating an ink-wash image. Is is simply using a toothbrush or something like it to finely splatter the ink on the page, or is there a greater technique than that in using it? Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks and g'night...

Believe it or not, that intricate linework was almost second-nature to John, and from our Kubert School daze to the Swamp Thing years and a bit beyond, I got to watch John draw numerous times.

There's some voodoo folks attach, with almost mystical belief, to an artist's tools, but I have to say I've seen John work his magic with all manner of rendering implements: croquill tips, cartooning nibs (both pen, mind you), brush, magic marker, marker brushes, etc. The quality of John's line flows from his hand, heart and nature: he creates those uncannily precise patterns of lines (and, sometimes, dots) with any instrument at hand, and with an almost casual abandon by all appearances. That is, he rarely labored over the portions of drawings that one would suppose took hours and days to render. In his youth, pumped on Pepsi and cooking at the board, John inked amazingly complex-looking illustrations with a speed and ease that was disorienting (that said, John did labor over his primo work, Miracleman primary among that body of work).

John was capable of laying down rhythmic patterns of ink and line -- usually with either brush or pen, or a combination of both -- that had a real life and was never forced. Part of the fun of doing Swamp Thing with John was seeing how he'd transform directional pencil shading into such intoxicating linear patterns, preserving the directional flow of the art while lending it a grace and mesmerizing intensity undiscerable in the pencilled art. These transformations appear delicate, even mathematically precise, to the eye, but John rendered much of this with ease and assurance: there was nothing laborious about his technique or actions. It all flowed.

As for what specific tools John preferred, that changed in time and depending upon what was available. The preferred watercolor brushes we tended to favor in the 1980s (Windsor Newton Series 7) gave way to synthetic hair brushes, which John experimented with as each line of brushes emerged on the market -- always sure to tip off Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates and I and our circle to which ones he found preferable, and why. John also worked with a range of croquill and cartoonist pen nibs (the kind you dip into ink, not mechanical pens or markers) in the '80s -- alas, most of those are no longer manufactured, and as Al Williamson warned us all early in that decade, if and when we found a tip we liked, it was advisable to stock up on them in bulk, as they'd soon be gone. The preferred cartooning pen points tended to be fairly flexible -- particularly given the rigors John put them through! -- and flow of ink was critical, too.

Getting a good ink became problematic after Higgins changed their Black Magic formula: I've no idea what John prefers these days, but we used to wrestle with the (rarely satisfactory) problem of finding a decent replacement or substitute on a fairly regular basis.

Finally, John experimented constantly, and it's tough to tell what exactly you might be seeing on any given printed page. Did he get that texture with brush, pen and ink, or with some other rendering method: toothbrush, sponge, organic (as in actually pasting down lichens, molds, etc.) or inorganic (the working mechanical parts that constituted his Swamp Thing: Loving the Alien pages)? John was quite inventive at times, laying down layers of anything from painter's shellac to Elmer's Glue onto the art, letting it dry, and then drawing/painting upon or scratching/cutting/abrasively texturing the surface with ink or some other rendering substance (the sky was the limit), all to arrive at a texture he found compelling, interesting, or necessary. Really, anything went, and anything goes!

Specific to your question, Heath, some of those line patterns you find so compelling were often laid down with pen (for the finer lines), thickening gradually to the point where John which switch (seamlessly) to brush strokes, perfectly matching and then expanding the line quality of the pen portions. He was and is a master of such mixed-tool applications, and again, the flow of the lines themselves were imperative: not for their uniformity, but for their gradual variation and transmutation.

Ah, the Totleben magic! Unfortunately, almost all the reprints in all editions of John's seminal 1980s works invariably lose a good deal of his original linework, due to the diminishing returns and degradation of subtleties characteristic of shooting or scanning from photostats and/or copies rather than the originals (the DC/Vertigo Swamp Thing paperbacks are particularly sorry in this department). The original printings -- however cheesy the newsprint or paper they were printed upon -- remain the truest to John's exquisite original efforts, and are well worth seeking out.

As for ink wash, Heath, that's simpler stuff in one way. Wash is, simply, a dilution of ink in water: the greater the proportional quantity of ink, the denser (darker) the wash, the greater the proportional quantity of water, the lighter the wash. Thus, one can work from black to white via gradations of gray from one end of the scale to another, with remarkable control of density and effect, once one is skilled in the technique.

That is, of course, easier said than done. As anyone who works or has worked with watercolors can attest, "control" is as much a factor of one's willingness to let accidents happen and "go with the flow" (literally) as anything. Black-and-white-and-gray wash is less volatile a medium than full spectrum watercolors, but it's still a matter of playing with the tools and washes with a certain disregard for "control" that's the ticket. I just did a couple weeks of sessions at CCS on wash, urging the students to relax enough to experiment and explore the potential via lots of messy accidents and seeing what happened, where things went, without fretting over "control."

It is most often applied with brush -- as with ink or watercolor, brushes of different sizes and types yield different levels of control, from laying down wide areas of wash to delicate work with finer brushes. Other tools are applicable -- sponges, rags, toothbrushes, whatever -- once one gets the hang of it and wants to play with different textures and such. As in with the cases I mentioned with John, the sky is the limit -- I mean, I've done wash pieces using glued down shed snake skin, painted with yogurt, used spilled coffee -- but the typical tool of the trade is a watercolor brush.

Once one gains a certain comfort level via trial & error, wash can be a tremendous medium to work in. Many of our greatest single-panel gag cartoonists (e.g., The New Yorker tradition, etc.) were masters of the medium -- check out Charles Addams work sometime, if you haven't already. In comics, it's hard to beat the early Warren work by Steve Ditko for a real crash-course in the power and possibilities of working with wash: the medium transformed Ditko's art, at a time when he was also drawing his key '60s stories for Marvel and Charlton.

Then, just to confuse matters (especially since I can't post illustrations and have to rely on clumsy words to describe what's better shown and seen), there's also the matter of transparent washes vs. opaque (or more opaque) washes -- the former, washes as watercolors, the latter a more painterly approach to using graytones. But let's not go there today -- just note the two approaches exist, and are quite different in technique and effect, though they can be used quite effectively in combination with one another.

I went through a very productive dance with wash as my preferred rendering technique, from about 1979 to 1983 (with some of my Scholastic Magazines stories, Bizarre Adventures stories like "A Frog is a Frog", and the story "Kultz" for Epic). Alas, the crap printing Marvel used on Bizarre Adventures prompted me to abandon the technique -- no matter, I was soon pencilling Swamp Thing, which leads us back to the first part of your question about John's work.

Hope this answered your question!
Home Agin, Home Agin, Jiggedy-Jig...

I'm back to the Blogosphere after a healthy few days away. I've much to share, and here it comes, piecemeal today -- I'll post a few posts, just to catch up and bring you all up to snuff.

My website pro Jane Wilde and I got together a week ago to pull together the homepage graphics for the Bissette website under construction. This was a key turning point, and it's at last beginning to fall into place. Soon, my site will be up and running, with mucho art, pix, articles and fun!

Among the hinderances every step of the way -- which I've bitched about here before, and which is pending as a Marlboro Town Meeting issue -- is the fact that we poor louts here in Marlboro have no access to high-speed internet services of any kind. Thus, building this site has been a slow-mo process, as everything takes two to five times longer than it should, particularly where loading images is concerned.

One of this week's distractions was the necessary every-couple-of-months weedout of email. Being away for a few days, email always gets completely out of hand, and I spent yesterday plowing through 200+ emails. The process is extenuated enormously due to dial-up-only access; what takes seconds on my high-speed access friends' computers takes literally hours to move through. When a hog-ass banner ad comes up, the email message won't open, necessitating 'refresh' (sometimes two and three times) before the damned email letter is even visible. The system will freeze up at least once every two hours, necessitating rebooting and then cleaning up the fragmented debris from the freeze/crash -- it's an endurance test and a major waste of time.

Hence, the blog sabbatical.

Amid the sabbatical, I also avoided checking everyone else's blogs.

This morning, I caught up reading my friends's blogs (I'll catch up on other online fun later in the week, or not at all). Among the fine reading there was Tim Lucas's Video Watchblog, sporting an amazingly detailed review of the new Warner The Adventures of Superman: Season 2 DVD set. Worth a read, particularly for you vintage TV show and Superman buffs, and Tim's words of wisdom await you
  • here.
  • Enjoy!

    This was posted on the blog in the past day or two, in reference to my two-part writeup a month or two back of Abel Gance's J'Accuse and Joe Dante's Homecoming episode of Masters of Horror. I've no idea if Paul will catch this followup reply here, but here's my best shot. Paul posted the following comment on 2/25:

    "Hi, I've just found this page and was intrigued to know how I could get hold of a copy of the silent version of J'accuse - I've looked everywhere for it but without success! I know there was once a 148 minute version on NTSC vhs, but I have never found it - is there any way I can get a copy? Thank you! Paul"

    Hmmm, you know the silent J'Accuse was available? It took me a decade to luck into a watchable bootleg (with the original French intertitles) of the silent J'Accuse, which to my knowledge never saw a legal (or, for that matter, accessible "gray market") release of any kind. The copy I have certainly isn't 148 minutes; I've never heard of the film running that length (if you see this reply, email me directly, Paul -- -- and let's talk).

    Gance's stunning 1937 remake, however, did enjoy a legal home video release, as noted in my two-part blog essay. That was a vhs-only release via Connoisseur Video Collection copyrighted 1991, clocking in at 125 minutes and now long out-of-print. In a full year of scouring eBay regularly for all things Gance, I've never seen a copy up for sale, nor a DVD copy of either version of J'Accuse, though 'gray market' boots of other key Gance works (like La Roue) do surface from time to time, usually from UK sources (and hence playable only on 'all region' DVD players). As I also noted in the two-parter, Sinister Cinema did offer a vhs version of the US edited version of the 1937 J'Accuse under its US roadshow title That They May Live. That may still be available from Sinister, and is worth tracking down if access to the relatively complete (it seems there are no truly complete Gance films in existence!) Connoisseur Video Collection edition.

    Anyhoot, Paul, I've no idea if you'll see this reply -- if so, write me. Best of luck!

    Speaking of looking for curios and elusive movie-related thingies online:

    One of the odd occurences of the past week that will only make sense to the more rabid collectors out there was the frustration of not being able to identify, or coax a proper identification from the eBay and Abebooks dealers of, a particular book I have been seeking for some time.

    The book in question is Volume 2 of the 1985 Harvard University Press Cahiers du Cinema, which is subtitled
    The 1960s: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, and edited by Jim Hillier, who also edited the first volume in the series. I long ago picked up volumes 1 and 3 in a nearby used bookshop, and they're great collections of key Cahiers texts (Cahiers du Cinema was, for those of you who don't know, one of the seminal magazines on the medium, wellspring of the auteur theory and the springboard for the entire French "New Wave" movement of the late 1950s and '60s: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol et al wrote for Cahiers before making films). But finding the elusive second volume has been a fool's errand.

    I've ordered no less than three copies over the past year via online venues, and in every case, the dealer sends me (unfailingly) the first volume! I am refunded in each case, though I'm losing $$ with the return shipping costs. The 'stock' photo used for all online listings is of volume one, and given the constant burn of ordering what is clearly listed as volume two turning out to be the same book I've had for ten years, I have taken the precaution of asking in advance if it is indeed the second volume I'm purchasing -- but that, too, fails!

    Here's this week's exchange with an eBay dealer offering "three copies" (most likely, volumes one, two and three, not three copies of the same book) of the elusive volume online. I wrote:

    Item: Cahiers Du Cinema - Hillier, Jim *NEW (4613822476)
    This message was sent while the listing was active.
    stevebissette is a potential buyer.
    Thanks for your time -- This is a THREE-VOLUME set of
    books originally, and I'm wondering WHICH of the three
    volumes you have for sale. Please read carefully:
    I need volume 2 (CAHIERS DU CINEMA: The 1960s:
    New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood,
    edited by Jim Hillier) -- I already HAVE vols. 1
    (CAHIERS DU CINEMA: The 1950s, pictured with your
    listing) and vol. 3 (CAHIERS DU CINEMA: 1969-1972,
    ed. by Nick Browne), and do NOT wish to bid/purchase
    on those.
    Please reply ASAP and please help me -- reliable eBay
    buyer (see my rating) -- THANK YOU! Steve Bissette,
    [email and phone number provided]
    Respond to this question in My Messages.
    Item Details
    Item name: Cahiers Du Cinema - Hillier, Jim *NEW
    Item number: 4613822476
    End date: Mar-17-06 00:34:45 PST

    Clear enough?

    Here's the reply I've received, in duplicate, from the dealer in question:

    From: "Regina - Movie Mars, Inc."   
    Subject: RE: Question for item #4613822476 - Cahiers Du Cinema - Hillier, Jim *NEW
    Date: Tue, 21 Feb 2006 12:03:01 -0500

    Thank you for your interest in our item.  The auction page has all of the information that we currently have.  I have requested this information from our supplier, however they may not get back to me beofre the auction ends.  You may want to look on for the information as they have the same supplier that we do, we are just a bit cheaper.  I would also like to mention that we have a 30-day satisfaction guarentee on all items.  We do hope that you will deicde to make a purchase from us.

    Customer Service

    Movies. Music. Madness.

    The other three dealers haven't bothered to reply at all.

    Well, reckon I won't be bidding on or buying that book.

    Anyone out there have any bright ideas, I'm all ears. This has been the single most frustrating online non-experience I've had -- and promises to remain such.

    A few Lucio Fulci book updates, from my associates in Italy:

    Posted as a comment on the Fulci book blog posting from Tuesday are these links from "nuvoleonline" -- thanks, C! -- which I want to alert you to in case you don't read the comments (particularly those from past posts):

    "Hi! News on the book Lucio Fulci - Poeta del macabro:
    you can see some previews online
  • here

  • and
  • here.

  • Bye!

    And the man who invited Daniel and I to submit work to the book, Smoky Man himself, wrote me with a different link to share:

    "...take a look to
  • Comicus
  • (scroll the page) there you can see some posts of the Fulci book..."

    Thanks, Smoky Man!

    I've got about 9 inches of snow to go shovel, folks, and will be talking to Coke Sams before the morning is out...

    More later today.

    Nice to be back!