February 21, 2013


Modern Cartooning: Essential Techniques for Drawing Today’s Popular Cartoons. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $21.99.

A Pet Named Sneaker. By Joan Heilbroner. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Random House. $8.99.

      You have to love an instructional manual that begins, “First, let’s examine the various theories of cartooning from a contextual standpoint. Just kidding! Let’s just start drawing instead!” One thing that makes Christopher Hart such an enjoyable guide to the fine and not-so-fine points of drawing is that he takes the work itself seriously – and is very good at showing budding artists how to do it – but does not take himself seriously, at least in his teaching role.  The drawing of cartoons is actually an art that has changed very little over the centuries – it is possible to deconstruct the works of, say, Thomas Nast (the famous 19th-century editorial cartoonist best known for bringing down the corrupt Tweed Ring in New York City), and discover the same basic components as in, say, South Park.  Yes, those components are used very differently, and the underlying cultural sensibilities have changed dramatically, but the figures themselves – the things that make these drawings cartoons rather than elegant portraiture – are by and large the same.  Thus, Hart can start with a simple circle and call it “the mother of all cartoon head shapes” that “has been around since the dawn of cartooning and even before.”  And he can then show today’s would-be cartoonists how the circle is used in cartoons with contemporary flair and a modern twist.  Same basic ingredients; different outcome from what would have emerged in the past.  Throughout Modern Cartooning, Hart starts with very simple shapes and then shows how to modify them to produce different character types and expressions. Some of his revelations are surprising: for instance, women’s earrings often float instead of being attached to earlobes. Other comments are reasonable notions that less-experienced cartoonists may not think of: “You’re allowed to draw the character in a semi-distorted manner as part of his or her basic character design,” Hart says in connection with showing how to “use a huge forehead for smart characters, or for evil characters who like to think of themselves as smart.” Each drawing decision leads to others, Hart points out: for example, in the case of giant foreheads, “note how the hair is drawn within the head shape, not on top of it, for a funny look.”  And of course Hart does not just say these things – he draws what he is talking about, and so clearly that readers will easily be able to follow him.  Hart also knows where cartoonists often go wrong, and clearly shows why. For example, he points out that when drawing a woman wearing a flowing cape, “there is no need to draw the underlying body shape before starting on the cape. It would waste your time. I, on the other hand, am forced to waste my time on it, partly because I am teaching the concept and partly as penance for something I must have done in a past life.”  Yes, that is the way Hart writes – amusingly and with enough self-deprecation (even if it is only make-believe self-deprecation) to keep his lessons interesting.  Another example among the many here: “Take the basic construction and compare it to the final image. What do you notice? That I go through a lot of pencils? Yes, good point, but there’s even more.”  And then, having enticed readers with his writing style, Hart gets into the serious stuff, both verbally and in his illustrations.  Hart has written a whole series of books on drawing and cartooning, and has his method of dealing with the field down pat – but it does not come across as formulaic.  He knows cartoons very well indeed: “There is only one kind of dad in cartoons: the one you don’t have – always good-natured, with no temper (or brains).”  And he knows how to take less-knowledgeable cartoonists step-by-step through the process of creating characters that fit the traditions of this form of drawing – which also means showing them how to break away from those traditions once they master the basics that have been the foundation of the field for a very long time indeed.

      It is interesting to look at real-world examples of cartoonists applying Hart’s approach to drawing, even if they are not knowingly following his precepts but are simply creating cartoons on their own.  Pascal Lemaitre, for example, is a highly experienced artist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker as well as in children’s books and elsewhere in both the United States and France. He certainly does not need to follow Hart’s ideas – but a look at his art for A Pet Named Sneaker shows just how pervasive those notions are.  This is a particularly amusing “Beginner Book,” a new entry in a series dating back more than 50 years and tracing its origin to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.  Joan Heilbroner’s story blends amusement and mild adventure in just the right quantities. Sneaker is a snake who goes home from a pet store with a boy named Pete and soon shows some remarkable qualities: Sneaker not only learns to be a hat or necktie when playing with Pete but also goes along to Pete’s school, where he soon disabuses the other kids of the mistaken notions that snakes are slimy or gross.  In fact, Sneaker learns to spell words (including his name). And when school is over for summer, Sneaker turns out to be a hero by rescuing a baby who has fallen into a swimming pool.  Now, Sneaker does not look at all like a real snake (except for his generally long, legless body), but what he does look like is an adaptation of some basic cartooning shapes.  For that matter, so does Pete, whose head and body designs and proportions are right in line with traditional cartooning, and whose postures and gestures reflect exactly the ones given by Hart in Modern Cartooning. The other kids in A Pet Named Sneaker look different from Pete but are still drawn in accordance with cartooning norms; so is the teacher, whose elongated shape and head-to-body proportions are quite different from those of her students.  The baby that Sneaker saves, and the big-nosed lifeguard who thanks Sneaker, are also clear cartoon “types” whose very different appearances are clearly in accord with the basic designs that cartoonists have used for many years.  A Pet Named Sneaker is a fine book all on its own, great for beginning readers.  And it is also an interesting object of study for young artists who want to do their own cartooning – and would like to see how some basics of cartoon drawing show up, again and again, in a professionally created and very effective work like this one.

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