|POEM FOR A MAN I LOVE
||[Feb. 5th, 2010|02:49 am]
This is copy-and-pasted from my blog. I feel weird about it but the time has come for all good men to die for their country.|
I am the last person who should be doing anything like this, but blogs like Comics Comics and Comets Comets and Jeet Heer's blog have made me want to try to write comics "essays," which from time to time may start to appear on this blog. I'm mainly trying to figure things out for myself. I don't know how seriously these should be taken. But they shall be sincere.
I want to try to talk about Theador Guisel.
Obviously, Dr. Seuss has had a deep influence on my drawing style that I'll never be able to shake, no matter how desperately I try to. It's not something I consciously set out to do; I never wrote Dr. Seuss fan-fiction and I never drew those characters at all. My deep love for that man's line was too powerful to hide, I guess, and out it came. Sometimes when people are looking at a drawing I've done they'll say "Is that the Grinch?" The habit of drawing in that way is a little disgusting and weird but I hope you understand. While I hope it never looks like I'm trying to use his visual language for my own purposes (I hope there is something fresh in there somewhere), I'm not really ashamed at all for drawing like that. Every time I go back and look at Seuss' drawings a wave of guilt and confusion happens ("I draw wheels like that, I draw cars like that, I draw trees like that, I draw eyes with those loops"), but that is deluded with plenty of pleasure and awe at one of the most beautiful bodies of work ever created.
With all of the shameless, violent rape that Dr. Seuss' work has gone through the last couple of decades, theme parks and CGI movies and Nickelodeon puppet shows and Broadway musicals, it's hard to separate that awful product from the actual work. That isn't to say that the difference isn't obvious to everyone -- it definitely is -- but even I, as a dear Seuss fan, take the extra peanut-butter-jar-Halloween-costume-Pizza-Hut-reading-day baggage to Seuss' books, and I get overwhelmed and disgusted and confused by the whole thing. The forced "wackiness" of the whole thing. There is a beautiful elegance to whatever "wackiness" there is in Dr. Seuss' actual work. The tone of it always, time and time and time again, seems to be misinterpreted and transformed into something awful. Something out of the worst John Kricfalusi rip-off cartoon mixed with the Berenstain Bears. (Another ruined property!) It is hard to put into words, but in my mind, there is a fine line between whimsy and wacky, and Seuss never crosses into wacky territory. He never loses his dignity.
Dignity seems to be what his work is all about. His style and life outlook was never compromised for any project he worked on in any medium. Obviously a statement like that is an exaggeration by nature but as far as I can judge it is completely true. Advertising, comic strips, children's books, adult's books, animated cartoons, musical albums, even a computer game late in his life, all have a weird and intimidating consistency to them, as though they are all part of the plan. It's one of the hugest draws to his work for me. "I trust this man." It's a shame what has been done with his "properties" since his death but if we can all push them to the back and focus on the actual work, the world is a better place. Even the children's books themselves, as objects and products, have a certain feeling to them that makes me uncomfortable. Glossy, plastic, colorful, menacing. Touching those books feels weird to me. Even as a kid I knew something was "off" about them. I felt like I was being tricked somehow. That is part of the charm of Seuss to me, too: in some ways it feels evil.
When I was in third grade, my mom gave me a book for my birthday called "The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss." That is the book that opened the floodgates of Seuss beauty for me. I really loved that book, and I still do. It may be my most prized book. If you have not seen this book, it is definitely worth finding; I think it's still in print. Sprawled before the viewer are amazing drawings and paintings that hint at what Seuss would be known for if he were born two or three decades later. I fell in love with all of the naked women in that book, drooped over the arms of dog-faced men and tied to giant hammers. Potentially offensive and damaging on the surface but the actual product never feels that way. That book, looking back, singlehandedly made me do the drawings and comics I do today. The language in those painting captions was more influential to me than the poetry in his children's books. Please find this book. The Theador Guisel portrayed in it is, in my eyes, the perfect artist.
That isn't to say that his gag cartoons and (short-lived) comic strip and children's books weren't amazing -- they were -- but there is something about that "fine art" that really stuck with me. Of course, Seuss wouldn't be Seuss without that strangely appealing "advertising man" nature. The books often have that practical, almost businesslike tone and feel to them sometimes, to contrast with the rest of the experience of the book. It's strange but it works. His books often feel like extensions of his advertising gags. "I am selling this moral, although I'm not even sure if I completely believe in it, but I really need to sell the idea that this has a moral in order to make everything seem like a children's book and everything must seem right and comforting in the best of ways, in the most dignified of ways."
Seuss knew exactly what he was doing. He was no accidental wacky genius. He was selling his gift for "beautiful whimsical 'nonsense' images" -- a gift shared by only a handful before him and maybe one or two after him -- in the smoothest and best of ways. "Here is a new gimmick for elementary school primers, here is a new way for children to learn the piano, here's an entire line of people making books imitating mine, here's a new way for me to be king of the kulture." Seuss would have probably approved of the Rozz-Tox manifesto.
But none of that really matters and I don't think it really changes the work at all. Sometimes it feels really formal and serious and that usually works in contrast to the images. The children's books are often confusing to me in a way but I love them. They are among my favorite things in the whole world.
Sometimes I think the idea of Dr. Seuss is what I'm really in love with, and that's probably true. It's hard for me these days to look at his output for any length of time; the images are vaguely burned in my brain and almost cause me pain to look at sometimes, like seeing pictures of my mother as a young woman. But there is no doubting that he is the perfect artist and I want him to stay that way in my mind. In a better world I would try in all of my heart to mimick his surviving-as-an-artist-in-the-cold-world attitude but it's a different world and I'm a nonfuctional idiot.
Seuss was a master of cartoon drawing composition. Character here, trees here, buildings here, everything is sprawling and great, text goes here, eye moves across page; it never fails! It always works. It almost seems sometimes like Seuss was influenced by the animation of his (late) youth -- sprawling happy animals and their environments. Crazy machines. Wide-eyed youth destroyed. Speed lines. Tricksters. It connects to early cartoons to me, in my brain, really nicely, and it helps feed the dangerous imaginary "funny animal" machine that I'm always thinking about and drawing from. I think the way Seuss' drawings always look, whether they are in Good Housekeeping or are promoting General Motors or are in the comics pages, always flow in this beautiful, perfect, appealing way that, whether you want to admit it or not, is the very drive and essence of what makes great cartoon drawing work. They are beautiful things and among my favorites and I try not to think any deeper than that. I've tried to here and it's baffling and angering me but I'll try to keep going.
Strip away all of the bad associations you have with Seuss and you have a beautiful, appealing style and some of the best-sounding language to ever appear in the world. It comes off the tongue like serenaded silk. The coupling of those two things, rare and wonderful gifts, is so flawless that I keep expecting to hear that Seuss was actually several men, many men, a Walt Disney studio.
A Walt Disney studio. That is a subject for another day.
Frank Santoro I am not.
Please ignore this post.