A History of Webcomics

A History of WebcomicsTen years ago, the landscape of comics on the web was a vast empty plain dotted with a few (very few) examples of what we now call webcomics. One of them was my own online comic, Argon Zark!, which was the first long-form comic created specifically for distribution on the web (started in June of 1995).

It was preceded by short form and single strips that had moved from print to the web, most notably Where the Buffalo Roam by Hans Bjordahl, which had been distributed over the internet via Usenet newsgroups even before the first graphical web browsers came into use, and Dr. Fun, a single panel cartoon that had began running in September of 1993.

Soon after the first Zark page went up, newspaper cartoonist Bill Holbrook brought Kevin and Kell to the web. Other online comics started to dot the landscape and the nascent world of webcomics started to look like a small colony. In June of 1996, Peter Zale began the strip that would become Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet, the first webcomic that would move in the other direction, (eventually making the transition from webcomic to sydicated newspaper comic in 2000).

The tiny colony was fast becoming a thriving town. Major landmarks like Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly appeared, Scott McCloud began his “infinite canvas” online comics experiments, Penny Arcade and Keenspace erected their skyscrapers an the town grew into a city. By the turn of the century, the advance of webcomics began to snowball. Even the sleepy self-satisfied print comics companies were trying to figure out how to use this phenomenon to sell more of their usual wares.

It’s hard to estimate how many webcomics there are today, or even how many of them are added daily (yes, daily), but where once an empty plain stood is now a webcomics megalopolis, stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions.

The history of webcomics is a lot more complex an detailed than I can possibly indicate here, which is why it’s so cool that webcomics author and commentator T Campbell has done the painstaking research and organization to put together A History of Webcomics, which has just been released from Antarctic Press.

There isn’t a lot of direct promotinoal material available on the book. You can read an discussion board interview with T Campbell on the Comicon boards.

(There is also a good set of articles on The Webcomics Examiner, on The Artistic History of Webcomics, in which Campbell was also involved and Argon Zark! is also prominently mentioned.)

Campbell has traced the history of webcomics in considerable detail in this volume, and included a number of illustrations of key points and players in the field.

The book includes several illustrations of mine: two Argon Zark! pages, a drawing of my characters and a chapter heading (image at left, top) that I did specifically for the book, in which my characters Argon, Zeta and Cybert peer out of a Netscape 1 browser window (Netscape had just come out when I started Argon Zark!), and point at characters from Hans Bjordahl’s Where the Buffalo Roam (incorporating Hans’ own drawings), ensconced in windows of the first and second generation of Mosaic, the first widely used graphical browser on the web.

This has never been a personal sketch blog, and perhaps it’s a little self indulgent to feature a book that my work figures prominently in, but it happens to be quite a good book, and I’m allowed to be self indulgent today, it’s my birthday!


Mike Luckovich

Mike LuckovichMike Luckovich doesn’t pull his punches.

Luckovich has been the editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years. Sometimes his cartoons earn him vitriol and threatening letters and sometimes they earn him editorial acclaim. They often bring him both simultaneously.

When he goes after a public figure he considers foolish, irresponsible or even reprehensible, he shoots with a fully loaded pen. For example, he portrays Ann Coulter, (who recently accused widows of the World Trade Center disaster, who had pushed for the formation of the 9-11 Commision and come out in support of Democratic candidates, of “enjoying their husbands’ deaths”, in an attempt by Coulter to stir up controversy and increase sales of her new book), as drooling, acid-blooded alien (image at left, top, his blog entry here).

One of the cartoons that simultaneously earned him threats and accolades (and probably had an influence on his receipt of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning) was a remarkably unique piece of editorial image creation. He sat down at a larger than normal sheet of board and hand-lettered the 2000 names of the soldiers who had been killed in Iraq at that point in time, arranging them in the form of the word “Why?” (image at left, middle and detail, bottom – click on image here for large version). Love it or hate it, you have to admit it makes a powerful statement.

Luckovich’s drawing style doesn’t pull any punches either, His loose, unrestrained linework and frenetic hatching look as if his drawings were created at a furious pace, his pen too charged with emotion to make more careful lines. I have no idea how carefully he actually draws, it’s just that his finished drawings have the look to me of frantic activity driven by some unspeakable urgency.

Luckovich won the Pulitzer prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1995, and was awarded it again this year. He was also awarded the Reuben this year, the National Cartoonist Society’s award for cartoonist of the year. (You can find a fascinating history of the Ruben winners from 1946 to 2003, with bios and artwork, on the NCS site.)

His official site at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a selection of his previous cartoons, but it’s not that easy to browse, and the gallery of available reprints is crippled with watermarking (see my rant about watermarking in yesterday’s post), so you may want to just do a Google image search. There is a good gallery of his cartoons on the Pulitzer Prize site.

There are collections of his cartoons, LOTSA LUCKOVICH and Four More Wars!. The former is out of print, but copies may still be available if his acid-tinged cartoons haven’t eaten through the paper.

I heard an interview with Luckovich on the radio and he actually sounded soft-spoken and deliberate, but his cartoons come at you like buckshot at a quail hunt.


Tim Hildebrandt 1939-2006

Tim Hildebrandt
It’s difficult to separate the work of fantasy and science fiction artist Tim Hildebrandt from that of his brother Greg. For the greater part of their careers they have collaborated on most of their work.

Word has gone around the web that Tim Hildebrandt died Sunday (June 11) at the age of 67 of complications from diabetes.

The Brothers Hildebrandt, as they are often referred to, have done book, magazine, game, card and calendar illustrations that are some of the most widely known in the fantasy art field. Before Peter Jackson’s movies cemented the “look” of the world and characters of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Hildebrandts created one of the more widely known visual interpretations of Tolkien’s work with their calendar illustrations in the 1970’s. They also created widely distributed illustrations for collectable cards of Star Wars themes and Marvel Comics superheroes.

Their work together was often brash, bold, in-your-face and exaggeratedly colorful. They would frequently employ the technique of juxtaposing brilliant complementary colors on the same face or figure in areas of backlighting or secondary highlights to increase the visual drama and “push” the color. (Complementary colors, such as blue and orange, are actually the inverse of one another. If you stare at a patch of light blue for 30 seconds and close your eyes or look at a white sheet, you will see orange. Many artists and illustrators know that this process is constantly occurring when you perceive colors, and the placement of a color next to its compliment will exaggerate the intensity of both colors. This is the basis of much “op art” and is particularly common in fantasy and science fiction art and comic books.)

The two brothers did go their separate ways at times. Of the two I think that Tim was perhaps more inclined to subtlety. He did a lot of science fiction illustration in which the color range was a bit more muted and atmospheric. Both brothers have been prolific and there is a good deal of their work available in books, calendars and posters.

The official Brothers Hildebrandt site has some good images. Unfortunately, a large number of them are defaced by the overzealous application of watermarking. (When will people realize that they can’t “protect” an image by limiting its size or watermarking it on the web? If the image is in print, anyone with a scanner can produce a higher-resolution version than anything you’re likely to post on the web.)

If you find the watermarking as frustrating as I do, you may want to simply do a Google image search to turn up images like the one above (larger version here), but if you’re looking for printed versions, make sure they’re the approved versions from which profit is actually going to the artists or their families.


Joe Ciardiello

Joe CiardielloSometimes there is a fine line, if you’ll excuse the expression, between drawing and painting.

Illustrator Joe Ciardiello manages to walk on both sides of that line at will by developing his color work out of his black and white drawing style.

His black and white drawings have a wonderfully loose and lively line quality, often mixing lightly suggested figures with more fully rendered detail in the areas of focus, usually the faces, in his drawings of well known individuals. Those drawings, themselves, straddle the line between caricatures and portraits, employing varying degrees of exaggeration.

Most interesting is the way he will render portions of a drawing in color. With deft applications of watercolor, at times sketchy and at other times as rendered as a painting, he will bring even more intense focus to the face of an individual or accent other elements in the drawing.

Ciardiello seems to choose a different point in each drawing for the balance between color and black and white elements. The result is a terrific mix that can have the rendered subtlety of a painting and the charming immediacy of a drawing in a single image.

Ciardiello has a new website (designed by Jack Harris, himself a talented illustrator) that makes an effective showcase for his work. There are sections for Illustration and more casual Drawings from sketchbooks, including travel sketches from Venice that I particularly enjoy.

The highlight, though, is the section on images of Musicians, an area in which Ciardiello excels. He is a musician himself, he plays drums with several groups including an all-illustrator band, the Half-Tones, and his images of greats from jazz, blues and rock reflect the touch of someone intimately familiar with these players and their music.

Ciardiello has worked for major publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Jazziz, The New Yorker and others. His drawings cover a wide range of subjects from politics to sports to literature, but it is his portraits/caricatures of musicians that are most widely recognized, and they are emphasized in the prints available in the For Sale section of the site.

As you look through his work you’ll be delighted with the playfulness and visual fun of Ciardiello’s unique mixture of lines and colors.


Gobelins Animation Students

France is the largest producer of animation in Europe, and the third largest in the world.

Gobelins, L’Ecole De L’image (Gobelins, School of the Image), is a school in Paris that, in addition to studies in Graphic Arts, Multimedia and Photography, offers an apparently superb program in animation. I make that judgement on the basis of the quality of their animation students’ short films.

Each year since 2002, the Gobelins animation students have divided up into small teams of 4 or 5 students and created short (90 second) animations for entry in the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (English version here).

The resultant short animated films are just a treat.

There is some general information about the school in English and about their summer program, which is offered in English as well as French.

The majority of the school’s site is only available in French, but the films rely very little on words and there are links to view them in the browser as well as direct podcast “Add to iTunes” links. The clips require Quicktime, but you should have that anyway if you care about viewing quality video on the web.

The image above is from a delightful part traditional, part CGI animation called Sébastien, one of this year’s entries. I could go on about the individual entries but UK animator and designer Michael Hirsh has a good introduction to this year’s Gobelins entries on his excellent Articles and Texticles blog, which is where I learned that the current entries were available.

I give links below to the school itself as well as their previous years animation festival entries.

If you were surprised to learn that France is the third largest producer of animation worldwide, you may also be surprised an delighted to preview the next generation of French animators.

Link via Articles and Texticles.

Addendum: Michael Hirsh writes to say that one of the animations teams has created a fascinating website describing the process of creating their short, Pyrats, including background designs, character model sheets, storyboards and more. They also discuss it on their blog (English version). Michael fills you in on the details here.


Sir John Everett Millais

Sir John Everett Millais
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Hamlet, Act IV, Scene VII

Such is the description by the Queen of sweet, mad Ophelia’s suicide, a key scene in one of Shakespeare’s most powerful plays, and thus a perfect subject for the brush of Pre-Raphaelite master Sir John Everett Millais.

Opheila is one of the most fascinating of Shakespeare’s tragic characters. There are web sites devoted to her, organizations named for her, and many artists painted her, including other Victorian masters like John William Waterhouse (image at right in my post on Waterhouse, another version here).

Of all the depictions of her that exist, it is Millais’ striking image of Ophelia’s tragic, floating form that we remember, her beautiful face turned to heaven as if just relinquishing her spirit, and her delicate, upturned hands gone limp, releasing their grip on the earthly blossoms.

Millais, along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. True to the aims of the Brotherhood, Millais painted Ophelia’s surroundings with an an almost fanatical devotion to the true representation of nature; his plants could be used as botanical studies (high res version of Ophellia here).

Ophelia herself was modeled on Elizabeth Siddal (study at bottom), who would eventually become Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s wife and was a frequent model for several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. She posed in a bathtub full of water for weeks on end while Millais painted Ophelia, which eventually led to an illness from which she never fully recovered.

The members of the Brotherhood were devoted to the accurate depiction of nature within the context of their literary themed paintings, in contrast to the Academic Classicism of the time. They also rejected the Academic practice of painting on dark grounds, Millais and Holman-Hunt in particular developed a method of working color directly into a wet white ground to give their work a brilliance of color for which it is treasured today (by art lovers, not by critics, most of whom still follow the modernist doctrine of denigrating any art with a “literary” component).

Millais was also an illustrator (another “sin” to modernist critics), and in his paintings often interpreted the work of Shakespeare. He made an artistic break with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood itself when he moved away from the tight detail they, and their critical defender John Ruskin, admired, saying he could no longer afford to spend a whole day painting an area “no larger than a five shilling piece”. This was after he had married Ruskin’s former wife Effie and had eight children with her in short succession. Juicy details can be found in the Millais bio on Art Renewal Center.

Millais was elected President of the Royal Academy of Arts when Frederic Lord Leighton died even though Millais was quite ill at the time and lived only a year after.

Even though Millais is under-represented in the wondeful Pre-Raphaelite collection of the Delaware Art Museum (two exquisite but small oils), I had a reproduction of Ophelia on my apartment wall while I was an art student, sometimes rotated with an image of his painting of Mariana in the Moated Grange.

The collection is still traveling, by the way (I’m really beginning to miss it) and is currently at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK. Millais’s Ophelia, alas, is not among that superb collection’s treasures, but the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite art that it exemplifies is certainly there in other works, rich with color and fidelity to nature.

Ophelia is still one of the most powerful Pre-Raphaelite works. It is striking that an image of tragic death should be so rich with color and life.