My Life in Pictures Part Four

Early Influences

Along with the old back issues of ‘Mad Magazine’ that I found in my Uncle’s closet back in the early 70s, I also found a stack of back issues of various ‘Hot Rod’ Cartoon magazines. I wasn’t nearly the ‘car nut’ that my Uncle was, but I certainly could appreciate the goofy artwork. I always found it fascinating how meticulously detailed the illustrations of the cars were in these publications, and then how slapdash and amateurish the drawings were of anything ‘non auto related’.

My exposure to these magazines also led to an interest in various ‘trading cards’ a few years later. I’m not really sure where Ed Roth fits into all this, but I’m guessing, based on how similar all these designs and concepts are, that his was the original, and everything else fed off his designs. I recently came across a web site devoted to ‘Odd Rods’ cards (link here) that seem to be the images that stir the most memories for me, although there seem to be several competitors and knock-offs of the same general idea.

A package of these cards would come with probably 4-7 cards and a stick of rock hard bubble gum that would break and pierce your cheeks and gums, and all for the paltry sum of 5 or 10 cents. With my 50 cent allowance, this would leave me plenty for a can of pop and a bag of green onion potato chips for the bike ride home. I was also endlessly fascinated by the ‘Wacky Packages’ cards that started coming out in the early 70s (pictured below), which almost seemed like a ‘trading card’ version of ‘Mad Magazine’, with similar irreverent sensibilities. If they were aiming to corrupt the youth, they certainly succeeded with me.

My allowance also disappeared through the occasional issue of Cracked or Crazy magazine when I couldn’t wait for the next issue of Mad to appear. The art wasn’t nearly as awe inspiring in these, but I still diligently pored over each issue I got in my grubby little hands, and spent a lot of time copying styles and recreating my own crude versions of movie satires and cartoon panels in my own pads of drawing paper (another expenditure, but one that I was usually able to talk my Mother into providing for me without having to dip into my own funds).

Gradually, I started noticing the National Lampoon hovering around the edges of the ‘humor magazine’ section of our local drugstore newsstand. From flipping through issues at the store, I was able to determine that there was no way my parents would allow this stuff into our house. I was fascinated by the fact that this magazine used actual photos for its comics (often featuring women without clothes on), and I was also struck by how the magazine layouts had more sophistication,┬ámore like a ‘real magazine’ rather than a ‘cartoon book’.┬áThis magazine had more of a ‘design’ and ‘subversive sensibility’ influence on me, rather than any illustrative influence (even though there were several memorable illustrators working for the magazine over the years).

My Life in Pictures Part Three

Early Influences

More than any other influence, I would have to credit Mad Magazine with single handedly steering me towards a career as a professional illustrator.

I was home sick from school in March of 1972, ten years old, and it was my Mother’s habit to bring us home a magazine to cheer us up and give us something to do while sniffling on the couch. Usually it was ‘Jack and Jill’ or ‘Highlights’, but this time she brought home something drastically different. Issue 149, March 1972, Mad Magazine (featured movie satire was ‘Willard’). It was like an electric shock after all that sanitized entertainment that I had been exposed to previously. Spoofs of advertising where the product was exposed as worthless, movie and tv satires where holes were poked in flimsy plotlines and pompous acting egos, politicians portrayed as buffoons or worse — but what really grabbed me was the art. The mix of realistic techniques with cartoon imagery, the odd square speech balloons, even the fact that the interior was completely black and white (where was the color from my usual kiddie fare?). To the ten year old mind, it just screamed sophistication and forbidden adulthood tastes.

Around this same time, I also discovered a stash of old back issues of the same magazine in my uncle’s closet at my Grandparent’s house (my parents fearfully thinking I had discovered the ‘OTHER’ magazine in my Uncle’s closet, namely “Playboy”), dating from the early to late sixties. I’m sure my parents were worried about me, sitting for hours up in that dusty attic pouring over and over these ‘cartoon books’ instead of being outside and taking part in more healthy pursuits, but as far as I was concerned, I was in heaven. They so wormed their way into my head, that, thanks to the internet, I can now recreate the cover images for the entire ‘Mad Magazine Stash’ that I found in that long ago closet. And they still have the power to enthrall me to this day.

My allowance around this time was 50 cents a week. The latest issue of Mad was 40 cents at the time (and rapidly rising thanks to inflation) and as far as I was concerned, it was priority number one for several years after that first issue. (later, when I became desperate between issues, I would also pick up the occasional issue of Cracked or Crazy magazine, which was a poor substitute) Ironically enough, it was buying a subscription that eventually ended my love affair with the magazine. Becoming so easily provided every month in the mailbox took all the fun out of the trip to the newsstand. Or maybe I was just getting older and more sophisticated in my tastes (National Lampoon was starting to look more and more interesting on that newsstand, especially with the occasional photo funnies featuring naked women). Below are a sampling of the issues that still have the power to send me back in time in a rush of recognition.

After a while, I developed a set of favorite artists in this magazine and looked forward to discovering further examples of their work. I especially liked the color cover illustrations by Kelly Freas and Norman Mingo.

My first artistic fascination was with Don Martin, who regularly drew several single page cartoon panels in each issue. His distinctive style of flop footed characters with elongated faces and always punctuated by hilarious sound effects were the first to inspire me to try and duplicate. After a while, though, they started to pale in my estimation when the limits of his stylistic straightjacket became more and more obvious. But his work still occupies a soft spot in my heart for being the first to grab me.

Another artist who grabbed me early on, and continues to fascinate to this day, was the movie satire caricature work of Mort Drucker. I am constantly amazed at his skill at capturing a likeness with seemingly a few lines and squiggles. The more I study his work, the more impressed I also am with his skills at drawing hands, figures, perspective, layout and design, those amazing crowd scenes — and all the time, not only fighting with those ungainly ‘speech boxes’ at the tops of the panels, but also managing to throw in the trademark ‘Mad background jokes’ that constantly hide in the corners. Oddly enough, I was never all that thrilled to see his color work on the cover. The color seemed forced, and seemed to diffuse the power of his masterful lifework.

Thanks to reprints of the ‘Early years’ of Mad Magazine, I also discovered the wonderful work of Bill Elder and Wally Wood. I am constantly amazed at the amount of ‘background jokes’ they would cram into each and every panel.

To Be Continued.

My Life in Pictures Part Two

Early Influences

We moved from Flint, Michigan to the nearby small town of Durand (the Railroad capital of Michigan, and dubious honor of being the home of the ‘Durand Dirties’, an X rated drive in theater of statewide notoriety, I would discover years later). One of the first things my Mother did for us children, once we moved there, was take us to visit the local library, where I got my first library card.

One of my early obsessions at that time was dinosaurs. I must’ve checked out each and every book about prehistoric life that the small Durand library had on its shelves, and sometimes the same books over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of this idea that at some point in the past, the world was crawling with giant lizard-like beasts. I found the illustrations even more captivating. Some of them have burrowed into my brain to the point where I get a rush of childhood memories just by glancing at certain images, especially by the artist Charles R. Knight, and his beautiful (but inaccurate, especially to modern paleontologists) brontosaurus pictures, and his amazing murals for the Chicago Natural History Museum.

When, in the early 90’s, the movie “Jurassic Park” was released, I was super excited to see it, and to take my young son, who was nearing the same age that I was when I was bit by the ‘dinosaur bug’. The early CGI of that film literally made me gasp the first time the beasts came on the screen. But then something sort of sad happened (and the end of the movie sort of has the same melancholy feel). The monsters lost their mystery and allure for me. When they were relegated to my imagination, and to poorly executed stop motion photography (like Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs from ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ and ‘King Kong’ and ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’), the dinosaurs still had the power to spark awe and wonder. Once digital animation took over the media, ANYTHING that could be conjured up in the mind could now end up on a movie or television screen. And the latter day discoveries that dinosaurs eventually evolved into our modern day birds, also sort of deflated the excitement and allure of these mighty beasts. What’s to get excited about? There’s dinosaur relatives flying all over the back yard bird feeder.

I still prefer Knight’s vision, and I still feel a glimmer of awe when I look at his pictures.

To Be Continued.

My Life in Pictures Part One

Early Influences

As far back as I can remember, I have been drawing pictures. I was always a very shy child, and drawing pictures was a quiet, introspective way to spend my time, while concurrently and paradoxically the act would garner me with attention and praise from friends, parents and teachers.

My earliest drawing memories date back to my childhood in Flint Michigan. I would have been about 6 or 7 years old in 1968-69 and in the first grade. A older boy next door had a small blank notepad and would take requests to draw things from the younger kids. I was fascinated by this talent, and began imitating this behavior in my own circle of siblings and friends. I seem to remember many pictures of Dinosaurs and Lava Spewing Volcanoes (another of my early childhood obsessions). The biggest ‘AHA’ moment of my childhood was seeing a cartoon image of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer pasted to a neighbor’s front door around Christmas time, and actually seeing how the picture was made up of a series of lines and shapes that I could duplicate when I got home. Many photos and home movies of me feature a pad of paper and pencils/crayons nearby.

My Grandfather on my mother’s side had ambitions as a young man of being a graphic artist. The Great Depression and the demands of raising a family pushed him toward a more practical career working for the auto industry, and cost him the tip of one of his fingers. He dabbled in oil painting for a period, and I’m not sure if any of his paintings have survived, but what I remember is a series of outdoor scenes, shorelines and birch trees. My mother, also had early ambitions of an artistic bent, and from what I am told, wanted to be a fashion designer. She got married, had four kids, and like her father, contented herself with the occasional oil painting or craft project to satisfy the creative urge.

On my Father’s side, the history is of simple farm folk, who valued hard work, mechanical know-how, and if you needed recreation, there were card games or sports. My Grandfather played the fiddle for barn dances, which may have been where I got my musical aptitudes. My Father had a particular talent for mechanics. He could cobble together a solution to nearly any engineering problem out of spare parts and left over hardware from his work bench.

I see my talents as arising from the melding of these two sides of the gene pool. I see myself as a ‘blue collar’ picture engineer. I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘artist’ and its pretentious and elitist connotations. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I ‘draw pictures for a living’.

We didn’t have many books or magazines around the house when I was a small child, but I rabidly devoured the images in whatever I could find. We would make occasional visits to the library, and for a time we subscribed to a children’s mail order book club.

One book that really impressed me, from an illustrative standpoint, was “Alexander and the Magical Mouse”. This was a story about a little old lady who lives in a huge victorian mansion on top of a hill along with a mouse (in tiny wizard garb), a cat, a yak and a crocodile, who, with their combined talents, save the close-minded townspeople in the valley below from a devasating flood. The pictures were lush and densely crowded with detail with vivid colors that really caught my eye, and I remember long hours poring over each of the images to the point where I can still recall many of them to this day.

Other books in the series I remember were: ‘Sam Bangs and Moonshine’ – about a girl with an overactive imagination who nearly gets a friend drowned on a stormy night because of her wild storytelling (I remember the illustrations in this one being rather loose and expressionistic, and I would later discover that they were very representative of the sort of fashionable illustration of the time).

‘The Summer Folk': a tale about a young boy on vacation who meets a number of strange companions who live on the river in elaborately designed rafts. The copious details of the fanciful rafts really caught my eye and sparked my imagination to the point where I would draw and design boat plans and treehouse layouts that I hoped to build myself at some future point (still waiting for that day).

Other books of note were a series of Reader’s Digest Condensed Children’s Classics with some memorable illustrations in a variety of styles (a Robinson Crusoe illustration of the remains of a cannibal feast, I remember quite vividly).

My Grandparent’s house was also a treasure trove of illustration influences. There was a Walt Disney book adaptation of one of the Mickey Mouse Cartoons (“Pluto’s Judgement Day” to be precise) that featured Mickey’s Dog Pluto being dragged down into hell in a dream where he is judged by a nightmarish jury of cats that he has wronged in his life. Also memorable, in a nightmare inducing way, was an illustrated book of the Arabian Nights full of One Eyed Giants, Sea Monsters, Giant Flying Birds and other exotic characters. In later years I would discover my Uncle’s treasure trove of Mad Magazines from the early sixties, but that is a story that needs its own chapter.

In third grade, one of the first of my school teachers to take notice of my drawing abilities and encourage me was a young woman named Mrs. Lint (she was a Miss Something in the first semester, but got married — a devastating bit of news to a shy young boy with his first ‘teacher crush’). She actually had a talk with my Mother about me that I overheard on one visit, and how she described my way of ‘drawing eyes’ as very sophisticated. ( I was merely copying the Disney method of taking a pie chunk out of the black part of the eye, ala Mickey Mouse ) It was the first time I can recall anyone mentioning that this might be a possible career path for me in the future.

to be continued…