For the occasion, I wanted to spark a discussion about the differences between digital vs hand drawn comic art. What better artist to focus on than one who has mastered both: Kyle Baker.
Kyle Baker used to draw with pencils and ink and white out and paper back in the 80s. According to his high school classmates, he used to ink Marvel Comics assignments on the NYC Subway trains. Baker would later describe this inking technique to The Comics Journal as “expressionistic”. By the mid-90s, he started toying with computers and he hasn’t looked back since. Much to a few purists’ chagrin, he’s almost completely abandoned the old ways in order to make room for the new.
I’m paraphrasing here but Baker has stated that cartoonists are the only people left in the world that still use nibs and brushes dipped ink the way our forefathers used to. OK, so he’s not into ink anymore, but that’s only a criticism in contrast with other media such as animation and illustration. After all, canvases and paint are still used. Baker’s point is broader, though, in that he knows exactly what he’s competing with in the realm of entertainment.
Baker’s new digital approach wasn’t my favorite (I still like using an actual dry brush over a dry brush tool in Photoshop) until I realized that he was using computers the same way Gary Panter uses paint or Ralph Steadman uses ink: he was maximizing the specific properties of those tools in an aggressive way. As he recently discussed in his Modern Masters book, Baker is unabashed about having his comics look like computers made them.
Baker’s argument is why shouldn’t it look like computers? With that, he’s at odds with most of the cartoonists that use this technology to mimic other styles, which is almost everybody. Baker abandons all such pretenses about trying to make something look like something it isn’t.
Brian Bolland makes a strong, intelligent case for digital comic booking in the introduction for the DC Guide to Digital Inking, boiling it down to the primal concept of tools and their function. It wasn’t enough to convince me, though, that it isn’t just a mechanism used to expedite production as opposed to using it to enhance the art form.
I’m not entirely dismissing digital art. I know Chris Ware draws and letters by hand but aren’t his color done digitally? You cannot argue with his results; they’re perfect. Most cartoonists use computers in some way or another. Who doesn’t use their computer for their comics, anyway? Why do I sound like an old man when discussing this? My suspicion is that the hand drawn line will eventually be obliterated. It will become a niche hobby like poetry or stamp collecting. One can say it already has. Another scenario is that the old school ink line will increase in value and reclaim its chokehold on the world, as it should.
Frank Quitely recently went directly “onscreen” with his drawing of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, but despite how cool and exciting that process may be, I find that the results generally lack… something. Watch this video and see for yourself. Quitely’s process is interesting, but this may be one of the very few pieces of his that didn’t do it for me. Granted, Quitely’s comfort level will eventually adjust itself to this new approach. As for Bolland, take note and compare his older covers to his newer ones. The skill is still there, but the line is a little cold, a little dead.
Thing is, Baker’s narrative chops are as strong as ever, his writing’s still funny and you can still see his style beneath all of the pixels (recently, though, some of his figures look like digital models). So is this a question of the tool or our perception of the tool’s results? I’m still a little skeptical about those results, but Baker’s attitude is what makes me appreciate his recent efforts more than ever.
Anyway, with all this talk about futuristic art making propaganda, I posted a bunch of old school Kyle Baker art over here, including a few rarely seen bits, and a Fishbone interview conducted by Kyle himself from way back. What better way to celebrate the future than by saying goodbye to the past?
Happy Birthday, Kyle.
Clutching onto my nib and inkwell with my life,