Friday, May 15, 2009

The 19th century theory of Directionalism, and how it applies to Joe Kubert

Last week I read Dave Standish's Hollow Earth, a 2006 book about the history of the concept of the hollow earth and what might be within it, beginning in the late 17th century when the idea was taken seriously by many scientists (most prominently Sir Edmond Halley) and then, by the time the 20th century rolled around, as an aspect of popular culture from utopian novels, works from H.G. Wells and Edgar Allen Poe and science fiction writers (Warlord's Skartaris didn't rate a mention, perhaps because Standish rightly considered it derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar; in fact, the only comic book mention is the cover and a page of a 1955 Classics Illustrated adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth).

In discussing how Verne's work reflected the science of the mid-19th century, Standish brought up the competing ideas of directionalism and progressivism. Here, I'll let him explain it:

Progressivsm meant what it suggests, that there is an observable progress in the geologic record, an upward march of creatures from lower to higher, culminating with man at the pinnacle. This was both in keeping with the spirit of the times—all sorts of progressive social measures were afoot—as well as being in harmony with religious ideas of a Divine Plan. Progressivism found metaphysical purpose in geologic events. Directionalism was a scientific expression of the biblical idea, going back to the work of [Thomas] Burnet and others, that the earth is in a state of decline from an earlier perfection...

This was my first exposure to either of those terms, but I suppose Progressivism is probably the more widely accepted of the two now, as it sounds more in keeping with evolution.

I was thinking of the idea of Directionalism as I started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years Vol. 1, and not because Burroughs created his own Hollow Earth setting and eventually sent Tarzan down there. Rather, I was thinking about the idea of a more perfect past getting lamer and lamer as time progressed as I read Kubert's prose introduction to the collection.

Kubert talked about how Hal Foster's newspaper strips based on Burroughs' Tarzan were what sparked his interest in comics as a child, and what an effect Foster's work on that strip had on his own development as an artist. Then, "jump ahead with me now some forty or fifty years later," and he talks about how Carmine Infantino asked him to become an editor at DC, which gave him "responsibilities including the war books, covers, and as many Sgt. Rock stories as I had time to do."

It was while he he was managing all those responsibilities that his friend Infantino, who knew of Kubert's love for the jungle lord, offered Kubert the Tarzan book that is collected in the volume the introduction appears in.

So Kubert wrote, drew, lettered and provided cover art for the monthly Tarzan while simultaneously working as an editor for DC.

That's a lot of work right there.

I'm having trouble thinking of a modern day equivalent to someone with that kind of workload. Perhaps Erik Larsen, who was writing, drawing and covering Savage Dragon while running Image for a while. Joe Quesada would attempt to write and draw or at least just draw Marvel stories here and there while serving as the company's EIC, but each would be thrown spectacularly off schedule (Although to be fair, Quesada's editorial duties were probably more equivalent to Infantino's at the time, rather than Kubert's).

Heck, forget editing though, how many people are even capable of writing and drawing 22 pages a month anymore? Or just drawing 22 pages a month? Not too terribly many. Certainly not many on DC's payroll (Jim Starlin might be the only writer/artist with long-form series even working for the company at the moment; Tony Daniel is writing and drawing a three-issue miniseries at the moment, though).

And then, how many of them can draw anywhere near as well as Kubert?

So looking around the comic shops today, at who's doing what and how well they do it, and then looking back at comics from Golden Age, Silver Age and even as recently as the mid-'70s when Kubert was producing this comic, it's not hard to imagine the artists of his generation as being the ideal comic book artists, working in a state of perfection, and the creators that followed devolving into further and further fallen states, along the lines of the fallen world theory of Directionalism as I understood Standish' brief explanation of it.

Kubert and his generation of artists may seem like the comic book artist equivalent of Bibilical heroes, people with super-human lifespans for whom great feats difficult for modern people to even comprehend were a daily occurrence but he and his peers were, I understand, actually regular human beings.

He felt the pressure of deadlines like all other artists (er, or at least like all other artists who used to work in comics back when there was still such a thing as a deadline), and he talked about that in his introduction to Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years Vol. 2.

Here he talks about the positive side of deadlines:

Every artist asks himself the question: "How can I finish my drawing at a specific time, when I know I can improve it if I have more time?" Ironically, however, I have found that having a deadline can be helpful, not a deterrent...having deadlines engenders an ability to make drawing decisions more quickly and decisively. It also tends to build a stronger sense of self-confidence. Anyhow, I hope my theories are correct. I think they are.*

I found that interesting, and I wonder if some of the artists who take such a great deal of time to turn out 22 pages—artists like Brian Hitch, Frank Quitely, Joe Quesada, Carlos Pacheco, Dale Eaglesham, Ethan Van Sciver, Steve McNiven, Kubert's own sons, et cetera—might be better artists if they honored deadlines to the point where getting all of the art done in a particular time period dictated some of the choices they made (I should note I don't mean to call into question the abilities of the above artists. I really like a lot of those artists quite a bit, and some of them it's hard to imagine some of them actually drawing any better than they already do, but I admit to being curious about what a faster Hitch or Quitely might look like, you know? Some of them—like Van Sciver and McNiven, for example—I think might actually draw better if they spent less time over-drawing).

We've all heard Quesada, DiDio and other editors at the Big Two pose some form of the argument "Do you want it on time or do you want it good?" And Joe Kubert's work is one of the many (many, many) examples of why that line of reasoning is an artificial one.

Regarding Kubert's precise workload during the time he was drawing Tarzan, which he alluded to in the introduction to the first volume, he had this to say:

...I was also the editor of a number of other publications at the same time. So, in addition to drawing covers, editing, and sometimes illustrating other stories, I was also responsible for writing and drawing the Tarzan books. It was a lot of work, but it's the thing I love to do...At one point, I found myself leaning heavily (and dangerously close) to a deadline. No need for me to go into details, suffice it to say that at one point, 24 hours a day was simply not enough time for me to finish all I had to do and continue to eat, sleep, and breathe. So I called out for help.

Help came in the form of Frank Thorne, who pencilled and issue of Tarzan for Kubert. A fact at which I could only shake my head in disbelief. Even when Kubert couldn't meet his obligations, he still managed to write and ink the damn issue. My God.

I realize I'm kind of skipping around at this point, but there was one more passage of Kubert's introduction to this second volume I found impressive as all hell. In the first volume's intro he explained how, in preparation for the gig, he re-read all of Burroughs' Tarzan novels and re-read Hal Foster's strips, including many he hadn't read the first time around. Here he describes what else he did to perfect his craft on the book:

Drawing Tarzan enabled me to focus on the human figure more than any other comic strip work I'd done previously. I attended life-drawing classes. I garnered a huge amount of reference, such as photographs of animals (gorillas, chimpanzees, monekys, snakes, lions, elephants, and sundry other jungle denizens)**. It was a learning experience, especially rewarding when I felt that I'd succeeded in achieving some dramatic impact or physical action engendered by the original stories.

I was really impressed to read that. Here's an artist who essentially had it made. Not only was he working for one of the bigger comics companies, but he wasn't a boss there. He wasn't a freelancer who had to worry about being fired off all his books or anything, and yet he still took the time to attend life-drawing classes to get a better handle on anatomy, because...well, why exactly? Out of respect for the character, and the work of those who instilled in him his passion for that character, Burroughs and Foster? Out of respect for his audience? Out of respect for himself, wanting to be certain the work he was signing his name to and accepting pay checks for was as good as it could be while still honoring the time-constraints of a monthly schedule, even if it meant continually learning how to be a better artist?

Reading these—both the thirty-some year-old comics work and the few prose pages of introduction—made me glad that Joe Kubert has a school teaching future generations how to draw for comics, while more than a little bummed out about the caliber of comics work that Kubert's old company and their cross-town rivals (and, more importantly) comics fandom reward these days.

One piece of advice often given to aspiring comics artists is that they shouldn't teach themselves how to draw simply by looking at other comic books, and yet how many in the Big Two's stables are currently producing art that was so clearly learned from years of re-drawing Image Comics panels in the early '90s? How sad is it to think that thirty-years ago a DC editor took the time to take a life-drawing class in order to be sure he got Tarzan's musculature just right, while today we have artists who can't even draw the human foot, and would rather set every scene in a deep fog or shallow water than risk the attempt?

*I can't speak to comic book drawing, as what little drawing I do is just for fun, but that certainly sounds right when applied to writing. I know I became a much, much better writer over the course of the year I spent working at a daily paper, where each day between three and four p.m. I was expected to turn in one to three articles between 400 and 1,200 words each, depending on what the other two guys in my bureau had gotten out of their beats that morning. In the years since, as newspaper staff writer and freelancer I know I've often turned in work that wasn't my best and I could certainly have improved if it was the only story I was working on, or if I didn't have to go to sleep at some point, or go interview someone or see a movie or show up for my day job or whatever. But on the other hand, having a ton of time to labor over something just as often would lead to poorer results, as there's a great temptation to over-think things and end up editing something into incoherence. The professional writing I've done that I'm most proud of more often than not was done when I had a deadline defining the amount of time I had to fuss over it, a time that was never so great that I could spend hours and hours laboring over it, but no so short that I was aware of rushing.

**One thing I noticed almost immediately in reading these stories is that the species of "ape" that Tarzan is the king of is pretty vague. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I still haven't read the Burroughs books yet, so perhaps he assigns a definite species to the apes there, or notes that they are a sort of lost, fantasy species of ape. Of course, Burroughs was first writing at a time when virtually nothing was known about the great apes of Africa. His first Tarzan story appeared in 1912, while as late as the 1860s they were being described as bloodthirsty, man-fighting beasts, and the mountain gorilla wasn't even discovered until 1902. In the Johnny Weissmuller movies, they have men in gorilla suits playing the apes, and chimpanzees are supposed to be the baby and juvenile versions, which grow up into the gorilla suit-apes (I think by the third or fourth one they abandoned this idea completely, and the chimpanzee Cheetah is the only great ape around). In the Disney version, which deals with Tarzan's childhood, the apes are clearly gorillas, and their depiction reflected modern understanding of them). Anyway, the apes in Kubert's stories seem to be something between a chimpanzee and a gorilla. They look and behave more like chimps than gorillas—for which there's a special ape-language name, "Bolgani"—but they're huge, bigger than Tarzan, and their ears are usually smaller and their faces hairier than chimpanzees. I've read about giant chimpanzees in various cryptozoology books before, and I guess there has been a recent discovery of rare, large chimpanzees that look and behave a bit more like gorillas then their smaller cousins in the congo, as reported by National Geographic and The Guardian. They're usually called Bili apes, after where they live, although locals call them "tree-beaters" or "lion-killers." They would certainly seem to fit the bill of Tarzan's apes better than either chimpanzees or gorillas.


If you're sick of hearing me going on and on about Joe Kubert's Tarzan, given that this is my fifth post or so on the subject within the last week, don't worry, this is the last one I have planned for now. Unless I find the third volume of Dark Horse's collection somewhere, anyway.


Tracer Bullet said...

There is something to be said for knowing you have to put a period on the damned thing no matter what you think about it. Besides, anybody, well, almost anybody, can produce good work with unlimited time. Real talent is producing good work on deadline.

Unreasonable Action said...

The creatures who took young Tarzan in were noted to be the "great anthropoid apes" by Jane's father and his colleague, and were created by Burroughs for the series. Chimpanzees and gorillas both appear alongside these fictional apes, as allies and adversaries, respectively.

I certainly recommend reading at least the first four Tarzan novels, as well as the Jungle Tales of Tarzan, a collection of short stories about Tarzan as a boy and teenager.

Caleb said...


Thanks for clearing that up. I do plan on reading those sometime soon. I'm finishing up Green Mansions right now, which has been fulfilling my prose jungle adventure needs for the week.

BP said...

I've very much enjoyed these essays on Tarzan, this one in particular.