A new milieu for an old art form: Erik Kuntz and a spellbinding (kid-friendly) “Hex Libris”

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Who is the creature lurking in the library in Erik’s Webcomic? I think I know, and I’ve entered Erik’s contest, but I can’t share my guess with anyone. But I will say this much — it’s a character from a book we know. After all, the strip is Hex Libris, in which Kirby, the main character is charged with taking care of a ginormous enchanted library. 

Ever read a novel that just comes to life before your eyes? Well, Hex Libris seizes that theme and runs down the field in an unexpected direction with it. The webcomic by designer- writer Erik Kuntz of Austin, Texas began as a New Year’s resolution. So did his illustration blog A Dog a Day Project  that features Erik’s unstop able canine imagery — with doggy bites of daily commentary.  But that’s a subject for a future post. 

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Erik was thinking of the classic Nancy Drew stories of the 1950’s, mulling  how they compared to and contrasted with the Nancy Drew graphic novels being created for today’s teens.

“I wondered, ‘What if there was a place where characters could wander out of their books?’ ” Erik says. “‘And what would happen if the real Nancy Drew ran into the punky Manga style Nancy Drew?'”

Our hero Kirby meets them both as a result of his new archival responsibilities. And so it is inevitable that the trio and who knows who else (stay tuned…) join forces to solve a mystery or two.

Kirby’s story unfolds in  semi-weekly panels that move us cleanly, easily — even sweetly —  through space and time.  We care about Kirby and Amy (a girl who likes him) and teen girl detective Connie Carter ( the “original” Nancy Drew) and even the little old lady (or is she a witch?) who leases Kirby the uptown apartment that, somehow, magically contains a Library of Congress-like basilica within its tiny walls.

Erik hatched the idea at last year’s Summer Arts Workshop at California State University. He studied comics and animation in the summer program.  He knows and adores comics.  He’s studied under Scott McCloudthe author of Understanding Comics, Re-inventing Comics and other titles all about the ‘language’ of an art form that goes back to well, let’s just say paintings on cave walls. 

One of the teachers at the summer workshop, comic book writer-illustrator Trina Robbins encouraged Kuntz to see it through  — his Hex Libris storyline.

“I’ve done so much study over the last few years as to what makes a comic a comic as opposed to an illustrated story,” Erik says. “It’s a constant struggle between what needs to be put in the picture and what needs to be said ‘out loud’ in words.”  For inspiration, he looks to the late “father of MangaOsamu Tezuka and the late  E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye and Thimble Theatre.

Kimba the White Lion  was my favorite show as a kid,” Kuntz says. “It was cartoony without being overly simple.”

“I like the older style of newspaper comics, where the adventure strips had a more realistic look.”
As much as he enjoys comic books,  Erik says, “it’s the comic pages in the Sunday paper that I most enjoy and try to emulate here — their sequential nature and the art style and sense of humor — especially from the 1940s to the 1950s, where they could work bigger and there was more possibility.” 

Alas, the gorgeous graphics of Prince Valiant (Gary Gianni carries on with the storybook imagery first created by Hal Foster in 1937) and For Better or for Worse  (Lynn Johnston) have been scrunched to near-insignificance as newspapers continue to shrink their content. 

Newspapers themselves seem to be folding (no pun intended) as a mainstream media and the ultimate cartoon delivery vehicle. But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.

“I think every artist who does children’s or cartoony stuff would do well to look at the web as an opportunity.” Kuntz says. “There is a huge number of people publishing strips. Often the content is poor. You won’t ‘get’ it if you weren’t out drinking with the cartoonist and his friends the night before. Other webstrips cater to extremely specific readers, such as Penny-Arcade.com.  “If you don’t know anything about video games, you’ll be mystified by the strip,” he says. 

“There is a stunning amount of good work out there. There are quite a few brilliant child-friendly comics.  More kids are reading comics on the Web. Half of them are newspaper strips in syndication — the traditional old newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, which is being run again and again on the Web. That’s where kids go now to read Calvin and Hobbes.  My browser opens all the comics I want to read each day in tabs. I don’t read them in the newspaper any more.

“I decided some while back that the Web would be an ideal way for me to do an old fashioned serial strip.  It’s an inexpensive way to put work out there and a much easier way to get in front of somebody. With the Web and the 2.0 social networking, everyone’s sharing things, pointing their discoveries out to each other.  It’s a new milleu. It’s an old art form, but a different way of delivering it.

Some cartoonists endeavor to make an income from their sites. “The business model is web advertising, or accepting donations or sale of merchandize, such as T-shirts, mugs or print versions of their work. Others are willing to do it for free,  for the artistic expression or to have an online portfolio or as just another way of posting,” Erik says. “It’s an interesting way to get people to your site. ”

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 He begins by writing a synopsis of what’s going to happen in the chapter, without the dialogue.

“With a serial strip, just like in the Sunday funny papers, you kind of need to have a stop every day. You want each page of the comic to be a beat  Each one has to be a sort of mini cliff hanger. And each chapter must have its own arc. That’s the other thing I work with to get right.”

Then he sketches in the panel and the individual frames. Once upon a time it was pencil on paper. “But now I’m working directly on the computer, starting with rough sketches in Corel Painter using my Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor,” he says. “To be more precise,  I use Painter’s Mechanical Pencil brush set to a light blue color.”

“They look a lot like my traditional sketches look, since I use a col-erase blue to do my roughs on paper,” he says.  “I’m most of the way done with this roughing, I have some poses to adjust, some faces to finish and I’ve got to fix the perspective on the backgrounds, which are currently just scribbled in.  Oh, and I need a background in the final panel. Painter has a perspective grid,  which is useful for simple 2-point perspective, so I’ll be using that to get the kitchen sorted properly.”

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Erik’s ‘pencil rough’ for the March 13 panel of “Hex Libris”, except he’s done it digitally, using the “mechanical pencil” brush  (set to blue) in Corel Painter.  

“I stay with Painter through the inking process. Then I bring the whole thing into Illustrator to do the lettering. Once in a while when I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I capture a pose I want to use and scan that in and mix it in with my computer sketches.

“When I ink, I use a variety of Painter’s Ink Pen brushes — mostly the Smooth Round Pen one. For the next one, I’m going to experiment with the tools that more closely imitate traditional comics inking brushes. It’ll be looser and I am not certain whether I’ll like it. I’ll know in a day or two when I get to the inking.”

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Erik incorporates a slight shading  – a barely perceptible yellow layer — behind his “inked” panels.  The off-white tinge “warms up” the strip and maybe subconsciously evokes the nostalgia of newsprint, Erik believes. “That kind of pulls it together for me,” he says.

He imbeds his URL on the bottom left and his copyright information on the bottom right. 

Erik and his wife, writer-actress-comedian Maggie Gallant own 2 Bad Mice Design in Austin, Texas. He teaches classes (for children and adults) in animation, digital art and digital cartooning at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.  The “Hex Libris” webcomic can be found at http://hexlibriscomic.com/

Mark Mitchell writes for How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator and The Admiral’s Blog    An award-winning author illustrator, he also teaches classes (for adults) in children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School. 

 

Illustrators’ round-up

Gustaf Tenggren “Tell It Again Book” illustration
 Swedish folk art-inspired? From “Gustaf Tenggren’s Tell It Again Book” courtesy of ASIFA- Hollywood Animation Archive

Now that we’ve got the elephant in the room (the year’s Caldecott winner) out of the way,  we can talk of other children’s illustration news.

School Library Journal serves up coverage of the National Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2007 Golden Kite Award winners and runners-ups, as does SCBWI’s own  website

“Little Night” by Yuyi Morales  Little Night, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales,   published by Roaring Book Press – Holtzbrinck (designed by Jennifer Browne) won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book illustration.  
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April’s The Artist’s Magazine  (F+W Publications) features an interview with Jan Brett (33 million books in print and still going strong.)

Funny, I was reading The Mitten to my three year old-granddaughter just the other night and we were both enjoying this book very much.

Brett’s only formal art training came from museum art classes when she was young.

She works with a very dry (watercolor) brush technique, “almost like a colored pencil,” she tells interviewer Paula Theotocus.  

Loved as much by booksellers and librarians as by children, she  travels the world  researching the locales of the stories she works on, accompanied by her husband, Joe Hearne, who is also her business manager and webmaster.   
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In recent weeks Cynsations, the blog of teen and children’s author Cynthia Leitich-Smith has featured interviews with children’s books folks in anticipation of this month’s SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008

And it has not neglected the art end of the industry, with interviews by guest writer Anita Loughrey  of Caldecott winning illustrator Paul O Zelinksy, French comic author-illustrator Emmanuel Guibert  and Harper Collins executive art director Martha Rago.

For Loughrey’s question, “What makes an artists illustrations stand out for you?” Rago had an interesting answer:

“I would not underestimate technical skills, which are very, very important: anatomy, composition, and perspective, good use of color and line, and effective use of materials,” she said.

“But I am always looking for someone who has not just the technical skills but a distinct individual style, a clear voice and images that suggest narrative through context,emotional tone, and the way they relate sequentially.”  It’s not often you get to peek inside the mind of an art director at a major children’s publishing house. Read the full interview with Martha Rago here.

Rago, Zelinsky and Guiberty are among  the 31 scheduled to speak at the conference set for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy.
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Speaking of SCBWI, the Austin chapters of SCBWI has been preparing for its Spring conference “Write in the Heart of Texas”  on Saturday April 26 at the University of Texas Club. 

The line-up of expected prestenters and critiquers includes artists agent Christina Tugeau , along with Deborah Wayshak, editor at Candlewick Press, Alvina Ling, editor of Little, Brown and Co. and artist-illustrator Christy Stallop and other special guests.  
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Tenggren’s “Rapunzel”

Courtesy of the ASIFA – Hollywood Animation Archives

Check out the March 11 post: Illustration: The Genesis of the Golden Book Style  in the Animation Archive website. The Archive is part of ASIFA-Hollywood, which is part of the International Society of Film Animation. 

The post,  by the society’s director Stephen Worth, focuses on the towering (see above, pun intended) work of Gustaf Tenggren.

The Seven Dwarfs from Disney’s “Snow White”
Hey, who are these guys?


I stared, mouth open at the work of this Swedish born artist who had worked on the Disney classics Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi,  before storming off to basically create the look and feel of the Little Western Golden Books of  the 1950s. 

Reading Worth’s insights and devouring his digital feast of Tenggren images, I realized that I already knew these.

 Pokey Little Puppy  Poky Little Puppy, which launched Golden Books. Yep, Tenggren’s art illuminated Janette Sebring Lowrey’s text.
 

Tenggren’s “Sleeping Beauty” 
Courtesy of the ASIFA – Hollywood Animation Archives

I never had any idea of who Tenggren was but, clearly, his images have never left me.  They must have been everywhere in my childhood and somehow imbedded themselves in the deep recesses of my psychic tissue. 

This made me think of a storybook that stayed on a shelf  in my little brother’s room. Everytime I opened the book its illustrations cast a spell on me.  Hmmm. The style was like Tenggrens!

Could it be? I Google-searched the title that I remembered for it, Pirate Ships and Sailors  (I was never able to forget that either.) Up popped a certain Golden Book by that name, written by Byron Jackson with Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaff Tenggren – 1950!

I always remembered that Pirate Ships and Sailors  was not your ordinary pirate book. 

Now I know that it was because of Tenggren’s hypnotic artwork — sweetly beautiful and hauntingly disturbing at the same time.  Great for the Grimm bros, right? In fact Tenggren was the ultimate Grimm’s tales illustrator.

Clearly, his pirate pictures had traumatized me at some level.  I remember one in particular of some emaciated old sailors chained up in a dungeon.

Steve Worth discusses in his post how Swedish folk art probably influenced Tenggren, particularly  in the golden Golden Book days, when he often placed his figures in silouhette-like vignettes against the blank background of the page — perhaps to save labor and time. But it sure made for effective design (as it did for those Swedish arts & crafts folks of earlier generations.)

The ASIF -Hollywood Animation Archive features vast stores of images and scholarship on Tenggren and hundreds of other illustrators, animators and cartoonists. It also makes available courses and tutotials, such as the Preston Blair animation course.
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Speaking of cartoonists The Boston Globe ran a review by Daniel Akst of a new book about comic books, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, By David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) “My mother didn’t like it, but the children’s books of the time were thin gruel if you were accustomed to the thrilling life-and-death adventures of Spiderman, Batman and Robin, and the Fantastic Four,” Akst writes.

“A key thing to bear in mind about all this is that the primary market was children. And in those days comics weren’t just about superheroes fighting injustice. Two of the most popular genres were horror and crime…” 

Hajdu’s book brings home how “New York was the epicenter of this [comic books] creative ferment, just as it was for painting, baseball, and musical theater,” Akst says.

“Everyone knows about Jackson Pollock, Jackie Robinson, and ‘Guys and Dolls,’ but few appreciate the role comics played in American culture. In those days the industry put out perhaps 100 million copies a week, each of them passed among several readers. Producing this colorful weekly avalanche required a small army of artists, writers, letterers, and others who grew out of the Depression and leapt at the chance to work at the intersection of art and commerce.” See Akst’s review.
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Mark Mitchell writes for the new webzine How to Be a Children’s Book Illustrator. He is the author-illustrator of the nonfiction children’s book Raising La Belle, which has a few pirates in it.  You can download it for free right  here.