Sunday, December 27, 2015


Animation drawing from Fantasia, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies (at 1:01)

Prais’d be the fathomless universe... 

For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;

And for love, sweet love.

                          --Walt Whitman

See you in 2016!

Saturday, December 19, 2015



I've heard illustrators and cartoonists grumble that the glory days of their profession are behind them.  The legend is that illustrators used to have abundant work, longer deadlines, more freedom and bigger paychecks. They worked in spacious studios with beautiful live models rather than googling for reference material.  They were summoned to judge beauty contests around the country because illustrators back then (who were 99% male) were supposed to be experts on feminine pulchritude.

Today, illustrators hunched over their laptops in small apartments glower at the 1950s photos of stylishly dressed illustrators consorting with celebrities at cocktail parties.   Bob Peak and Peter Max both drove Rolls Royces.  Al Dorne drove a custom Mercedes with a burled walnut dashboard and a pull-out bar.  The steering wheel had Dorne's initials engraved on a silver plate below a star sapphire. Bernie Fuchs drove a tasteful Porsche.

Leonard Starr, who worked as an illustrator and comic artist during that era, drove a snappy Jaguar and lived in a substantial home in rustic Westport where his neighbor was the actor Paul Newman.   Today his attic contains the brittle, yellowing remnants of that bygone era.

According to the legend,  illustrators back then always managed to attract gorgeous wives.  Is the legend true?  I don't know.

In Starr's attic I found a battered suitcase containing old photos of a fashion model from the 1950s and 60s. 

It turns out that the model was Starr's wife Bobbie.  Years ago she had been a well known lingerie model who appeared in the famous "dream" advertising campaign for Maidenform bras.  Her ad was, "I dreamed I went to the circus in my Maidenform bra."  She danced with Caesar Romero at the Copa.

Perhaps there was something to those old legends after all.

Even cooler, there were a few pictures of Bobbie's mother-- an earlier generation of beauty-- mixed in with the modeling shots.

 It turns out that her mother was one of the famous Ruth St. Denis dancers.

St. Denis started out as Ruthie Dennis, a "leg dancer" (female dancers whose legs were visible under their short skirts) in a dime museum and in vaudeville houses.  Through talent and grit, she escaped to Broadway, founded her own dance troupe, and toured internationally as an avant garde dancer.

Yes, it was truly a different era.  You never know what you'll find in the time capsule of an artist's attic.  But it's worth looking.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


One of the boxes in Leonard Starr's attic was filled with legal papers from his failed lawsuit against the Rankin/Bass production company .

In the 1970s, soap opera strips such as On Stage were dying off.  Newspaper readership fell as audiences migrated to television. Starr ended his strip and took over the simpler, more cartoony strip Annie.  This left Starr with spare time, so he decided to try writing and drawing for the new media.  He wrote TV specials for Rankin/Bass -- creators of animated Christmas shows such as Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

In March 1984, Jules Bass received a proposal for a new show about cat people from outer space (combining the success of Star Wars and Cats) but didn't know what to do with the idea.   Bass called Starr and asked if he would take a crack at developing the program, including inventing the characters and plot lines that might be extended into a series.

The result was the hit show ThunderCats which began in 1985.  The series was so successful that it spun off other shows, comic books, computer games, and worldwide product lines.  It is reputed to have generated a billion dollars in revenue.

 In a later interview with Jim Gauthier, Starr recalled how he came up with the series:
What came to me immediately was Egypt, because of their ancient animal gods-- jackal, cat, etc.  It could also bring in mummies, tombs, things that twigged me when I was a kid..... So I said I'd give it a shot, did it the next day, just a few pages, pretty much a précis of what the first show would turn out to be, the imminent destruction of Thundera, their Exodus and so on.  Jules had wanted a team of Cats so I added the other Tcats, their specific weapons, Snarf for comedy relief, named them, also the bad guys, Slythe, Monkian, Jackalman, etc,   I called them "mutants" because it was a word that resonated with kids as bad guys… Mumm-Ra the Immortal…no, the Everliving because "immortal" had a benevolent sound to it, anyway, as the overarching evil that awaited them on Third Earth, which was what remained of Earth after two nuclear holocausts. 
Bass loved Starr's ideas and asked him to come in the very next day.  Starr recalls: 
When I got there Jules had had a "Deal Memo" prepared, specifying a certain sum for agreeing to the Memo, another for completion of a "Bible" which is a basic format for a series of 65 half hour shows for other writers to base their scripts on, another sum in the event of commencement of production, a price for each following script, a specific percentage of any merchandising revenues, all else to be further defined in, quote, "a more formal and complete contract now in preparation."
 Starr told Bass that if he was going to put everything aside and develop such a major project he wanted residuals.  He recalled, "Jules said we'd work that out when we did the formal contract. "  There was no time for formal contracts just then; the important thing was to meet the tight deadlines.  Starr jumped on the project and worked day and night to get the first shows out.  He wrote and rewrote the scripts.  The show became a smash hit but unfortunately, the promised "formal contract" never appeared.

When the first show aired, Starr was upset to discover that his credit had been reduced to "head writer" instead of "developed by."
It was important to me was that my credit should have been "developed by" in addition to "head writer." I asked Jules about it, he said they had to do it that way. Why? He shrugged as if he didn't really know himself, it was out of his hands.
Starr also drew a map of the world he envisioned for the ThunderCats:

Rankin/Bass took that map and had it redrawn by a Rankin/Bass artist without any credit or acknowledgement to Starr:

If you'll notice, the resemblance between the two maps was uncanny:

Starr original version
Rankin/Bass copy

A suspicious Starr asked Bass,  "has that 'formal contract in preparation' been prepared yet?"
 "Look,"says Jules, "If you want to sue us, sue us. It'll cost you a lot of money and you'll lose." 
So Starr sued but as Bass predicted,  got nowhere because he did not have a contract.  He  only received what he was owed under the "preliminary" Deal Memo.  Starr reflected,
"I didn't realize that 'A formal and complete contract now in preparation' turned out to be one of those complex legal terms that translates as 'Up yours.'"
 Looking over the legal papers, it's clear to me that Starr never had a prayer against the corporate armies of Rankin/Bass.  He later recounted, "I mostly remember being disgusted, that such a fascinating, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating, ultimately successful venture should have come to such a shabby end. ...These stories are Legion in that business. "

A lot of things changed as the comics industry evolved over Starr's lifetime.  The business went from soap opera strips drawn in india ink on strathmore paper to television to multimedia global entertainment.  But some things in the business remain the same.  As the wise David Sims said, "No comics publisher will ever pay an artist enough to sue the publisher successfully."

Monday, December 14, 2015


Leonard Starr's attic contained dusty stacks of original comic strips with drawings of complex and subtle facial expressions.



Two frosty expressions that are very difficult to capture



Starr put a lot of effort into crafting thousands of facial expressions over the decades. Today there's not much demand for such skills. We've put them in our cultural attic, along with other unwanted artifacts.



Starr was able to capture the most delicate expressions, such as an encouraging gaze:

The size restrictions of the comic page didn't seem to daunt him. The smallest faces in Starr's backgrounds could be used to reveal significant feelings:

Few of today's popular cartoonists and graphic novelists even try to draw such facial expressions.  In this recent New Yorker cartoon by Ruben award winner Roz Chast...

...the faces of the three characters are  supposed to show irony, sarcasm and passive aggressiveness, yet their expressions all seem identical-- kind of a demented rage:

If not for the labels, her faces would tell us almost nothing. Like many of her peers, Chast relies on words instead of facial expressions.  When Starr wanted to convey sarcasm, his viewers never needed a label saying "this is sarcasm."


As I noted, Chast is hardly alone.  Several top  cartoonists and graphic artists today substitute words for pictures because their facial expressions are indecipherable:

Alison Bechdel's version of an "abject and shameful mien"
Kate Beaton's version of "consumed with lust"
Artists from Garry Trudeau to Chris Ware have mastered the art of drawing smiles and frowns, but beyond that their drawing ability cannot keep up with the sophistication of their concepts. 

I should emphasize that my point has nothing to do with a preference for loose or tight drawing. In previous generations, even loose, freely drawn faces could be expected to add value to the underlying concept:

William Steig

William Steig

Our generation does not seem to place as much value on the skillful treatment of faces. One reason may be that much of skill and accuracy in drawing can now be simulated with cheap software. If tight, observant rendering can be purchased from Adobe, it seems less admirable.

But the old sketchbooks piled up in the corner of Starr's attic help explain how he wrote and drew those faces into his strips for all those years.

Starr's preliminary drafts contained very specific comments about facial expressions. He noted when he wanted "wry acceptance" or a "sweet nostalgic smile." More importantly, Starr's drafts show that as he zipped along at lightning speed he was able to summon up these expressions from his finger tips.

"Modest smile"

Part of Starr's ability comes from drawing a lot.  Also, his sketchpads reveal that Starr formally studied the muscles and bones of the face.

Facial expressions are one of the rare phenomena in the universe that tie together the physical and the non-physical worlds: they are physical manifestations of non-physical emotions.  Scientists believe expressions are rooted in what makes us distinctly human.

For example, many anthropologists believe that humans developed facial expressions when our ancestors became the first (and only) primates to lose our fur and live in nearly naked skin.  According to Dr. Nina Jablonski, head of the anthropology department at Penn State, we had to lose most of our body fur to make possible the evolutionary enlargement of our brain, which is our most temperature-sensitive organ.  But losing our fur meant we could no longer use fur to communicate, the way all lower mammals do, "from raised hackles indicating aggression to coat patterns that help members of the same species to recognize each other."  Concludes Jablonski: "one might even speculate that universal human traits such as social blushing and complex facial expressions evolved to compensate for our lost ability to communicate through our fur."

Our brains and our expressions emerged simultaneously and today expressions are one of our most subtle and eloquent means of communicating feelings and thoughts.  That makes them a potentially rich tool for artists capable of mastering them.  Our current trend of replacing these important visual cues with text makes life easier for artists with poor draftsmanship skills, but it comes at a price.

When you hang around a cold attic long enough, you start asking yourself odd questions.  My question was: why do so many graphic novelists who can't draw facial expressions elect to draw faces instead of just writing about the underlying emotions?  Why choose this medium?  When we see drawings of faces, perhaps we should ask ourselves, does this drawing contribute anything to the written concept? 

Friday, December 11, 2015


Leonard Starr received thousands of letters from fans.  Some of his correspondence was from fellow artists, such as Alex Toth or Milton Caniff.  In an era before email, their letters often came adorned with funny sketches.

Sometimes cartoonists sent him originals inscribed with messages:


But the vast majority of the letters were from everyday readers around the country.  Many of the letters he never got around to opening, let alone answering.  I was intrigued to find hundreds of them  stashed in bags or boxes in Starr's attic.  Apparently they were "temporarily" placed there to get them out of the way and remained there for decades until Starr passed away.  I  went through some of them and soon realized why Starr didn't open all his mail. 



I can't say this experience improved my view of human nature, but it did help me understand the experience of a mid-century cartoonist.