Monday, August 31, 2009

Noel Sickles and Art of Sequential Art, Part 1

This series of posts is about finding beauty in ephemera. And few things are as ephemeral as a daily comic strip. It's something that takes but a moment to read. There's enjoyment, but it's fleeting -- usually forgotten by the time the reader's moved on to the next item.

Which is why I admire the artists and writers who do more than they have to. Mediocre art abounds in comic strips. And why not? What's the reward?

With Noel Sickles (1910-1982), it was the sheer joy of drawing, and pushing himself to become a better artist.

Sickles was a remarkable illustrator who did ground-breaking work in a number of media. But he's best remembered for his three-year stint (1933-1936) on "Scorchy Smith," a now-forgotten adventure strip. Forgotten, that is, save for Sickles' contributions.

His sequences were reprinted in the 1940's and greatly influenced the following two generations of comic strip and comic book artists. Here's part of the reason why.

Sickles was a master of negative space. That is, letting the shadows define the object, rather than lining out the surfaces. In the panel above, it's obvious that the scene takes place at night (click on the image to enlarge).

Notice that the figures are mostly blobs of black. This serves to show how bright the searchlight is, and also how dark the night is. And look carefully at the shading -- each one of those lines is hand-drawn. They cast a gray pall over the panel without obscuring the details of the figures.

And, of course, the absence of those lines make the searchlight's beam white-hot. And even the beam is a product of negative space. Most of us would draw two lines out from the searchlight to represent the beam. Sickles doesn't -- he simply stops the gray lines representing night and lets their collective endpoints define the beam's edges.

I also don't think it's an accident that those gray lines are slanted, either. The beam pulls the eye upward to the right, and the lines contribute to that motion. They're slanted just enough to hit the beam at angle, which helps provide contrast at their meeting point.

Now all of this is very fine, but consider this: Sickles didn't agonize for weeks over this drawing the way a fine artist might. It was one of four panels he drew for that day's sequence. And he was required to produce six such sequences a week, 52 weeks a year.

Below are two daily strips that put our panel in context. Don't be put off by the moire pattern -- if you click on the image you'll see the strip at proper size and the shading will display correctly.

In the two panels, notice the heavy reliance on negative space. The final image shows a rescue ship pulling close to island, with an amazing economy of line. The ship itself is mainly a black blog with small white circle suggesting a life preserver and an other white space suggesting the outline of the hull. A few small black blots behind it indicate the boat's wake as it moves. A large black blob to the right represents the island, with some white highlights that show depth.

Sickles was better than he had to be -- which is why his comic art has become the subject of serious study for working professionals. And why his run of "Scorchy Smith" is still a joy to read today.

So here's the question: think about the comic strips (either in dead-tree or online editions) you read. What function does the art serve to tell the story or deliver the gag? And are the artists you admire really working at the top of their game, or just marking time?

- Ralph


  1. You're right: Sickles was phenominally influential, yet he's not remembered much these days.

  2. Micheal:

    You're right. In many ways, he's sort of like J.S. Bach was in the early 1800's. If you were a composer on any worth, you knew his "Art of the Fugue" and the "Well-Tempered Clavier." But the general public had no idea who he was.

    But it still didn't diminish the importance of his art. I think of Sickles the same way.