Flight 3 preview

Flight 3I have a rant and then a rave. First, let me go on record as saying that I like superhero comics. I really do. I’ve been reading them for years and I’ll continue to read them. There is some great stuff being done in the genre. It’s just that there are… so many of them.

They crowd the shelves of the comic book specialty shops, shelf after shelf, row after row, title after title; an endless procession of teeth-gritting, brow-furrowing, muscle-popping, ridiculously costumed and stupidly named second and third string characters smashing and bashing their way through mind-numbingly repetitive stories month after month… AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

It’s not that that’s bad in itself. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of comics in any form, so you would think my attitude would be “the more the merrier”, but this overwhelming dominance of superhero comics is not a good thing. What essentially should be a niche genre (and is, in other countries where comics are popular, like France, Italy and Japan) has been the essence and substance of the American comic book mainstream for 50 years. It’s one of the main reasons comics are disrespected as a valid art form in the US; it has stifled the growth of the medium; and worst of all, kept some of the most creative and talented voices out there from being heard by anything but a tiny audience. Yes, occasionally exceptions, like Jeff Smith’s Bone, will actually break out and reach a wider audience, but these are rare.

The problem with the dominance of the mainstream superhero comic “products” (and that’s what they are to the people who own these companies, make no mistake) is that they crowd everything else off the shelves. In a field that relies on small, usually independent, comic book specialty shops for most of its distribution network, it doesn’t take much to fill up the shelves, and the shop owners’ purchasing budget, with the reams of poor quality second string superhero titles the big companies keep pumping out; which, of course, is exactly what they’re for. This is a deliberate and calculated policy on the part of the large comic book companies to stifle competition (the latest insane expression of which is the attempt by Marvel and DC to jointly trademark the generic term “superhero” so smaller companies can’t use it).

So the wonderfully varied and imaginative work of hundreds of talented independent comics creators, work that has a real potential to change public perception of the medium and dramatically expand the audience and market for comics in general, is suppressed by the mainstream companies while they fight over shelf space in their tiny superhero market ghetto. Brilliant.

Meanwhile, out in the creative hinterlands, where the aforementioned independent comics creators toil in obscurity, wonderful things are happening. Independently created webcomics, unrestrained by the narrow minded mainstream comics distribution system, are growing like crazy, creators are being noticed and voices are being heard. Delightfully, some of this creative explosion is making its way into print and actually showing up on the comic book shelves next to the latest issue of The Ultimate, Amazing, Spectacular Spider-clone.

Another exceptional breakout is trying to happen, this time with multiple creators in an anthology book, a comics format that has a notoriously poor track record but is somehow working this time. Kazu Kibuishi, one of those wonderful independent comic creators I keep telling you about, has been quietly starting a revolution with an experiment that has grown into a series of terrific anthology books that do exactly what needs to be done; using the very variety and quality of these independent creator’s voices to support one another. Each of the previous editions of Flight, Flight 1 and Flight 2, have showcased a number of wonderfully talented comics creators with unique voices, styles and things to say. By putting them together, the Flight anthologies have made a proverbial whole greater than the sum if its parts that demonstrates some of the potential out there.

The latest volume, Flight 3, is due in June. If you shop at a comics specialty store, you can go there now and pre-order it. You can also order it from your local independent bookshop (if you’re lucky enough to still have one), chain bookstore, or Amazon.

Flight 3 promises to be the best, most varied and most enjoyable volume yet and you can get a nice taste of it in advance courtesy of the Comic Book Resources site, which has put up a multi page preview of dozens of beautiful pages that you can view online. The preview is in two parts, part 1 here, and part 2 here. (Images above, from top: Johane Matte, Rodolphe Guenoden, Paul Harmon.)

You can also visit the Flight Blog, and Kibuishi’s Bolt City, for news about the upcoming release. There are also previews for Flight 1 here, and Flight 2 here.

If you thought comics are not for you because you’re just not into the whole teeth-gritting, knuckle bashing, spandex tights superhero thing; or even if you already enjoy superhero comics (as I do, remember), but are just curious about what else is out there in the way of new, different and creative comics, here’s a great place to start.


Hans Holbein The Younger

Hans Holbein The Younger
Some artists can be an integral part of, and simultaneously transcend, their times. Hans Holbein The Younger, a Bavarian artist who made his career as a court painter for Henry VIII of England, was one of the foremost portrait painters of the Northern Renaissance and was very much a part of, and in some ways beyond, his times.

I first encountered Holbein through reproductions of his wonderful portrait drawings in an inexpensive Dover book. I was struck by how immediate and precise they seemed, with just exactly the lines necessary, in precisely the position and proportion needed, to absolutely nail the likeness. Bam! No question in your mind that this is what this person looked like. Even though his drawings feel a little formal, they seem remarkably modern in some ways.

Not long after discovering his drawings, I found that his paintings were no less impressive, painted with a precision and technical mastery that also seems suprisingly modern, and can still wow you even after being exposed to centuries of subsequent painters.

Holbein’s remarkable portrait of Sir Thomas More (above), Henry VIII’s diplomatic envoy and Privy Councillor and later Lord Chancellor of England, had impressed me in reproductions for years before I had the opportunity to see it in person at the Frick Collection in New York. I was still stunned by it.

The painting is large, 29 x 24″ (75 x 60 cm), and the life-size visage of the subject is imposing, with an almost physical presence. Closer examination of the painting just adds to the impressiveness of Holbein’s mastery. The velvet sleeves look as though they must be actual velvet that you could reach out and touch, and the texture of the other cloth is remarkable as well. The face and hands are rendered with a confident virtuosity that is just astonishing.

The Frick’s online collection provides a larger image here, and a nicely done zoomable image here.

Holbein has many other notable paintings and one stands out in particular. The Ambassadors is remarkable for a number of reasons. Enough so, in fact, that I think I’ll make it the topic of a separate post.

Holbein, conveniently enough, apprenticed to his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, who was also a painter of note, straddling the transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles. Holbein the Younger was firmly in the Northern Renaissance and clearly influenced by the masters of the Italian Renaissance. There is some debate as to whether he actually traveled to Italy to acquire that influence first hand, but his mastery seems to suggest more than a second hand exposure.

You can still buy the very inexpensive Dover book that got me going on Holbein: Holbein Portrait Drawings, as well as more expensive volumes on his paintings, like Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII by Stephanie Buck, Jochen Sander, Thames, Hudson.

If you’re tempted to think of Holbein’s painting of Moore as looking “photographic”, keep in mind that it predates Niépce and Daguerre’s first attempts to capture a photographic image with silver iodide by more than 300 years.


Gamma Ray Studios

James Clyne and Feng Zhu
One of the fascinating things about concept art is the tension between restraint and imagination. On one hand, concept art is restrained by the set demands of the project, usually a movie or high end game for which specific scenes, settings, costumes, props and other elements must be designed. Within those restrictions, however, the goal is to be as imaginative as possible, all in search of the dazzling images and settings in the finished product that will help bring jaded audiences into the the theaters or game stores in search of a new visual high.

The best concept artists manage to be very imaginative in spite of the “creativity on demand” nature of their field, and occasionally step outside the restrictions to do personal work, like the pieces above from veteran concept artists James Clyne (left) and Feng Zhu (right).

I profiled James Clyne last September, and Feng Zhu in October. Both are in the top echelon of movie and gaming concept art and art direction. I just recently learned that they partnered last fall to form a conceptual design studio called Gamma Ray Studios.

Their combined histories have left them with an impressive client list, and a wonderfully imaginative body of work, some of which can be seen in the Gamma Ray Studios Gallery [Note: not anymore, see update below]. The amount of images there is limited, but both artists still maintain their individual portfolio sites, with more extensive galleries, information and tutorials. In addition, Feng Zhu has a new venture and website called SketchGirls.

In both cases, a walk through their galleries will show you something about high end concept art. The “restraint” aspect of the project requirements won’t be visible, but the “imagination” aspect certainly will.

Update: Gamma Ray Studios is no more, and the domain has been grabbed up by spammers. I’ve left the article in place but removed links to the domain. See the individual sites of James Clyne and Feng Zhu, below. – Charley 5/31/09



CampaigntoonsBy now we’re all acculturated to being sold things by way of animated cartoons.

They start us early, dazzling our just-out-of-babyhood eyes with bouncing, sparkling bowls of chocolate-frosted, sugar-coated imitation food-like substances that are “part of this nutritious breakfast”, and move on to toys and games and even later to cars, insurance and everything else.

With their bright colors, simplified forms and magical moving drawings, animated cartoons are just so gosh darned appealing.

Get ready for a new wave of being sold by way of cartoon animation, this time being sold a political choice.

Most of you are probably familiar with the Jib-Jab cartoons, a series of modestly amusing and not particularly well done animated web cartoons that lampooned political figures. The key thing about them is that they became amazingly popular across the web by word of mouth (or, more accurately, word of email), a phenomenon that has become marked by a buzzword dear to the hearts of marketers, “viral marketing”.

The idea behind viral marketing is that, instead of spending millions to buy a few seconds of air time to try to shove your message down the throats of a resistant and TiVo-armed populace, you spend much less on an advertising vehicle that is clever and appealing enough for people to willingly spread across the internet themselves, via email, blogs, web site links, etc.

You and I are both participating in this process at the moment.

I’m telling you about, and providing a link to, an animated cartoon that is intentional viral marketing for a political campaign.

I find it interesting enough to pass along, partly because it’s well-done and partly because it represents the tip of a trend that will grow to be overwhelmingly obvious in coming months and years.

The ad is part of the govenor’s race in Nevada, where candidate Jim Gibson is using the cartoon to accuse his opponent Dina Titus of taking money from Enron without acknowledging its disposition. To do this he enlisted the services of the web animation studio Slamtoons, which has changed its name to Campaigntoons, to create an animated viral marketing ad that portrays Titus as a Jedi being corrupted by the dark side of the force, in the form a $2000 contribution from The Emperor (who one assumes is Kenneth lay in a hooded cloak).

The cartoon is actually nicely done, with nicely stylized characters, good backgrounds and good use of simple color and shading. The animation is minimal, of course, as in almost all web cartoons, but it’s effectively used.

I think we’ll see a lot more from this group (the cartoon also acts as viral marketing for them), and from many other web-based animators of varying degrees of ability, as the election approaches and the campaign funds start to flow. So pull up a bowl of chocolate-frosted, sugar-coated imitation food-like substance and enjoy the show.

Link via Wired.


Karen Hollingsworth

Karen Hollingsworth
Academic art students have a long tradition of starting their training drawing simple-but complex subjects like drapery (often a bed sheet arranged over an object like a chair) or paper bags that have been folded or crumpled and then unfolded. These are easy to come by subjects that both sit still and have lots of shapes and variations in tone to challenge the young artist’s eye and hand.

From there the ernest young art students would move to cast drawing, using plaster casts of classical sculpture as a subject, and finally move to drawing the figure from life, rarely looking back at the earlier training subjects they have “graduated” from.

Atlanta based artist Karen Hollingsworth takes these humble subjects of sheets and paper bags and raises them to high forms of interior painting and still life.

Her paintings of interiors with sheet covered chairs, usually arranged in front of windows that are spilling light over them and behind them, making the sheets glowingly translucent, are luminous wonderlands of light and shadow. Her paintings of paper shopping bags, which I just love, are feats of transmogrification. In her hands, the humble paper objects come alive as if flowers of a mythical bag tree.

Her oils of unmade beds, their sheets rippled with valleys and crests of light and shadow rendered with subtle variations in color, are landscapes more than interiors, and her still life paintings of fruit and vegetables (occasionally arranged with drapery and, yes, paper bags) are remarkable excursions into light and dark, which seem to chase each other around the forms.

And, as if this weren’t enough, Hollingsworth is an accomplished portrait artist. Her portrait paintings are beautiful and marvelously done, but my one thought is how wonderful it would be if she brought to them more of that same sensibility of light cascading over forms that she lavishes on her other subjects (a very difficult challenge, I know, but wow).

Hollingsworth is married to artist Neil Hollingsworth, also a wonderful painter, who is sure to be the topic of a future post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get my sketchbook and draw some paper bags.

Link courtesy of Karin Jurick.



I wanted to recommend this site to you because of its terrible navigation system (he said, grinning).

If you actually want to find something, like a simple “About Us” or “Press” page, the navigation on tokyoplastic is abysmal. If, on the other hand, you want to be amused and delighted by series of clever and superbly executed animations, that selfsame navigation is a treat.

On the “this is no way to navigate a web site” downside, you have to hunt around to find the site entrance (a graphic of some Japanese characters below a tiny gray “enter tokyoplastic”, on a home page with too many things on it), which opens the site proper in a popup. Within that you have to guess about enigmatic navigation choices (“Do I click on something? Are there words here somewhere?”) and work your way through an animation series just to get to the actual navigation choices. Then you have to guess again where to rollover and click on the main navigation image (a big tentacled plant/animal/monster thingie) and guess yet again about enigmatic section names like “workshop”, “factory” and “drummachine”, which are meaningless until you’ve actually gone to those sections at least once to see what the term means. Once you select one of those you have to wait through another animated sequence, which will often pause mid-sequence and require user input to continue, before actually reaching a site section, which is again likely to be enigmatic in content. There’s no way to navigate through this site without having looked around already.

But, of course, looking around is what the tokyoplastic site is all about. tokyoplastic is the site of a UK animation studio that does stylized, cartoonlike, elegant and superfluid CGI/Flash animation. (You can find out more on the Picasso Pictures site.) If you’re wandering around the tokyoplastic site, checking things out instead of actually trying to find something, they will tickle you brain and optic nerve with wonderfully silly, imaginative and amusing animated sequences. You may want to turn off iTunes long enough to listen to their excellent use of sound (particularly drum sounds), beautifully integrated with the animated sequences.

In the “workshop” section (upper left “flytrap” on the plant/animal/monster thingie), you’ll find some examples of their work for clients like MTV and Mitsubishi. The “drummachine” section features that wonderful use of sounds, and you’ll be rewarded with other fun items as you explore. Back on the home page (under the pop-up, remember?), the image of the er,.. dog thingie, is linked to a recently added animation that pops up in a separate window. There is also a newsbox on the home page in a small scrolling inline frame.

Oh, yes, the About Us and Press sections do exist, they’re accessed by clicking on the flower labeled “bits and pieces” (lower right tentacle of the plant/animal/monster thingie), which also gives you access to a bunch of other sections including the whole of their previous web site with lots of other animations.