Thursday, May 26, 2011


At the peak of the intense and thoroughly enjoyable seven years I spent as a professional cartoonist and illustrator (starting when I was 17-years-old), and before I became a "writer," I would produce five finished drawings a day, Monday through Friday, for a total of 25 by week's end. I was in early graduate school then (1971), and I would usually sell 5 of the 25, and that was enough for my wife and I to buy groceries every week. More even than the comic idea, I prided myself on my draftsmanship, which was at its best between 1970-73. 

But sadly (for me), this is an important side of my life and work that literary scholars and other writers usually ignore because their training is in English (words), not art. They don't know how to talk about the work of cartoonists and illustrators, though so many Americans have been both writers and visual artists, for example, James Thurber and John Updike. If you want to blow your mind and see just how many writers have been excellent artists, look at The Writer's Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers, edited by Donald Friedman with essays by William Gass and John Updike (Mid-List Press, 2007). I was very pleased that work from that book was on exhibit in two galleries on the east coast shortly after its publication, and that my humble offerings were included. To be honest, I often talk about writing and aesthetics in terms of the grammar of the visual arts, because that was the first professional Tribe I belonged to.

These days when I have a drawing assignment, I prefer to spend eight hours on  just one composition. Since my childhood I've immersed my mind in the visual arts of the world, comic art especially, everything from Zen drawings to Honoré Daumier,  Thomas Rolandson, Thomas Nast, George Cruikshank, the late great black editorial cartoonist Ollie Harrington (a friend of Richard Wright) who I had the pleasure of meeting at a cafe in Berlin in 1989, everything. This wide-ranging interest in visual art is, I suspect, the basis for my similar interest in world literature, and in the possibilities of formal variations, for a journeyman artist must learn to work in many styles and have many approaches for solving a particular creative problem.

My first published article was on this subject, "Creating the Political Cartoon" in Scholastic Editor/Communications and Graphics (1973), and for that I did both the text and illustrations. The hope for any artist is to create something worthy of being reprinted over the years. But I also love writing about cartoonists. See my introductions for Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, by Fredrik Strömberg (Fantagraphics Books, 2003), and Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans, by Roland Owen Laird, Jr (W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).

First comes the idea. Then I do some research on the costuming and the setting I want to use. After that, I play with sketches to arrive at a composition that I feel is balanced. The pencil work takes the most time, but since I was a kid I've loved the ekagratha (Sk. for "one-pointedness") of focused attention to detail (every line, every stroke), and the total absorption I experience at this stage.

Then comes the fun part, the inking. As when doing calligraphy, you must feel free and flexible when the ink pen is in your hand. I prefer bold strokes and strong outlines. (You can identify every cartoonist by his style; and that was the premise of one of my teacher Lawrence Lariar's detective novels.) Your whole body is involved, not just the mind. Indeed, drawing is a right-brained activity, and I relax into this final stage like a man easing into a warm bath, with music from a Seattle soft jazz station playing in the background on my radio. After that comes shading by using wash, half-tone screens, or Photoshop (which I'm still learning how to use). In other words, I'm in heaven. Truth to tell, like John Updike, I'd rather draw than write on most days. I love the feel of the paper, the ink sometimes staining my fingertips, the wholeness that comes from the experience of drawing. (Words are symbols, so abstract and cerebral  by comparison.)

If readers would care to see a portfolio of what I think is some of my best work, please go to my author's website at Look toward the left and you'll see "Cartoons 1970-2004." Click on that. It also has a publicity photo from my 1970 PBS how-to-draw series, "Charlie's Pad." (To this day---even just two weeks ago---I hear from people who tell me they learned how to draw from watching that show when they were kids.) 

For one of the best articles written on my work in this area, check out cartoonist Tim Kreider's essay on my first published book, "Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles Johnson," posted in The Comics Journal, Jan. 18, 2010. The link for this is Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson « The Comics Journal.

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