I recently came across a wonderful series of blog posts by artist Jesse Hamm (sirspamdalot.deviantart.com/) discussing the work of Alex Toth. Widely (and correctly) regarded as one of the greatest comic artists of all time, Toth’s utter mastery of efficiency in line and form set him apart from the vast majority of other artists who are often seen as fussy or wasteful in comparison. Minimalism and efficiency are without a doubt incredibly valuable ideals to aspire to and explore. The artists who have mastered their use deserve the praise heaped upon them. But their virtuosity need not be a reason to reject or ignore other approaches.
Artists like Toppi, Wood, Darrow and Charest (to name just a few) represent an entirely inefficient approach to art in comparison to Toth (or contemporary champions of minimalism/efficiency like Mazzucchelli and Mignola), but I would argue are by no means inferior artists, whether measured by technique, execution, or aesthetic impact. One need not be efficient to be effective. What makes these artists effective is, above all else, tasteful design. Design can be approached through a wide variety of techniques and styles, but in the end it boils down to a thoughtful application of technique and use of space that avoids confusion (at least where confusion is not the goal). If Toth’s genius was in the merciless excision of extraneous line, Toppi’s was in the joyful exploration of line to create texture, value, contrast, space and form. And the result is every bit as beautiful and masterful.
Much of my passion for this topic stems from a concern for developing artists. I think it is a mistake to, through our effusive admiration for Toth’s ruthless minimalism, foster an atmosphere of exclusion: “if it is not efficient, it is not good art.” While boundaries and limitations are important for any individual’s education and development, exposure to a wide range of equally valid approaches is necessary food for the growth of every artist.
And moreover, in many discussions of what makes “good” or “valid” art, I feel there is a remarkable lack of attention given to what makes an artist happy. The ideals of artistic perfection (or a deliberate avoidance of preciousness and waste if the word “perfection” rubs you wrong) are worthy goals, but as someone who regularly spends 10 or more hours a day at the drawing board, it is of deep, profound importance to me that I enjoy what I’m doing. In limiting an artist to some externally imposed ideal I fear that we rob them of finding the muse that brings them joy.
Or, more simply, sometimes it’s fun to just noodle.
Now, it needs be said that I don’t think Jesse Hamm’s discussion of Toth is done in the spirit of exclusion, but is instead a very well written and thoughtful dissection of a master’s approach. But from a broader vantage there are a number of ongoing conversations in the comic art community that often take on an air of puritanism. In our praise of heroes, let us not give the impression that ours are the only ones.