At the 83rd meeting of the New York Comics and Picture-Story Symposium, artist William Anthony presented on his work and satirical style, while Jonathan Bass discussed his research on the intersection of comics and linguistics.
William Anthony began by asking the audience to look at an array of drawings, paintings, and somewhat satirical reviews displayed on the back wall; after this, Anthony showed slides of his work, dating from the 1960s through the present day.
Anthony majored in art history at Yale, an interest which continued to influence his work later in life. After Yale he studied art in New York and California, and then taught figure drawing in San Francisco in 1962. His first artwork was primarily composed of small drawings and paintings made with oil wash and pencil on canvas paper. He sold very little, and donated many of these to machine collections. This is what Anthony referred to as his “old style… a style somewhere between Larry Rivers and Francis Bacon,” both enormous influences on his artwork from this period.
However, over the past forty years, Anthony’s work has shifted completely to a satirical style, modeled heavily on the common drawing mistakes he would notice while teaching figure drawing in the 1960s. Anthony noted that this was a commercial arts school, and that therefore the students were largely beginners. “It was very pleasant… a different atmosphere from college.” During one class, Anthony drew a figure illustrating what not to do in a figure drawing. Anthony was pleased to discover that the students had a sense of humor about this project, which soon became “A New Approach to Figure Drawing,” published in 1965.
This style, which one audience member compared to Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butthead,” usually incorporates a long face without a chin, a thumb stuck in the middle of a palm, high, overly spherical breasts, and hair which is just parallel lines stuck to the side of a face. It is in fact extremely time-consuming, as Anthony first draws with pencil on canvas, then paints with oils on top, reproducing the penciled lines in dark gray oil paints with an extremely thin brush.
Anthony’s idiosyncratic style from this period onwards began from an internalized visual vocabulary of his students’ mistakes. He noted that his style is meant to derive from the mind of an 11-year-old, noting that an 11-year-old “just lets it all hang out.” The subjects most prevalent in his work, from Cowboys and Indians to bank robbers and Bonnie and Clyde, are therefore also drawn from this 11-year-old imagination. Perhaps the most significant recurring theme in these drawings is World War II, which fascinated the young Anthony, who experienced war as a child without having had it near enough to make it horrifying. Instead, war fascinated him and his friends, who loved it without having ever had a parent or friend who died in combat. Anthony’s work includes satirized drawings of Nazi war generals and Hitler, as well as representations of D-Day and various tanks that Anthony described as looking like “a potato with a smaller potato on top of it, and barrel sticking out.”
Other than these, Anthony’s work often satirizes important works in art history, including reworkings of Matisse, Balthus, Bosch, Magritte, Picasso, Rousseau, and many others. “Everything I see, I say to myself, ‘Can I satirize this?’” Anthony noted. Other works satirized by Anthony include the covers of Mexican comic books and prewar advertisements.
Right now, Anthony is looking for someone to animate a strip he drew called “Titslapper,” and has several upcoming shows in Croatia, Denmark, and Iceland.
In the second half of the Symposium, Jonathan Bass gave a talk called “Approaches to Genre in Short Comics.” The short comics he researches are primarily drawn from the half-page short comics of the early 20th century, and the single-page comics largely created in the immediate postwar period. Graphic novels, he said, get a lot of scholarly attention, while short comics are usually ignored—a fact Bass tries to remedy in his teaching and research.
The bulk of Bass’s talk linked various types of short form comics to genres as described by linguistics research—or, more specifically, by Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). He listed five specific examples of genres described by SFL that can be mapped onto comics: Recount, Anecdote, Observation, Exemplum, and Narrative.
Each of these could be broken down into corresponding schematic structures necessary for each genre. For instance, in the Narrative Genre, related to William Labov’s research in sociolinguistics, all comics have a similar schematic structure:
(Title)(Abstract)(Orientation)(Complication)(Decision to Act)(Resolution)(Coda)
This does not mean that comics include a panel for each element of the structure, but rather often might have several coexisting within the same panel.
Bass used a broad array of comics examples to illustrate the Narrative Genre, including “Little Lulu,” Otto Soglow’s “The Little King,” R. Crumb’s “Freak Out Funnies,” and more.
Bass then described another genre, the Anecdote, which presents a remarkable event experienced by the narrator as well as a psychological reaction to this event. Bass used the example of diary comics, such as those by Vanessa Davis, as well as a segment from Jaime Hernandez’s “Angel of Tarzana” and Rick Geary’s “The Joy of Falling.” Bass also discussed Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” which was an interesting deviation from the traditional anecdote structure, since each panel incorporated a reaction within it—what SFL called a Prosodic, rather than a Punctual, reaction.
Another interesting example of short form comics genre, the Exemplum, presents an undesirable incident or outcome followed by a moral lesson. This genre was popular in the turn of the century, and used by cartoonists such as Wilhelm Schulz in “To No Avail” (1896). It was also utilized in the early Yellow Kid comics.
Bass then briefly described what Lebov called an “observation” genre of storytelling, but found that this was difficult to translate into the comic medium because it was inherently action-light and word-heavy. He hopes to do more work on what a student of his described as a “puzzle story,” which includes incongruence in sequencing.
During the Q&A, Bass was asked several questions on the style of comics in particular, and why the use of SFL was particularly appropriate. Bass noted that he was interested in the narrative quality of style as well, and hopes to do more work on drawing itself as a remarkable event, in which the interest is less on the content of the story and more in how the event is represented. Bass is also a comics practitioner, and his comics can be found at tigershorts.com.
1. Selection of art by William Anthony displayed on back wall at the Comics Symposium, Parsons, New York City, 2014
2. The Robbery by William Anthony
3. War is Swell (D-Day) by William Anthony
4. Earthly Delights by William Anthony
5. Jonathan Bass explaining SFL at the Comics Symposium, Parsons, New York City, 2014
6. Example of graphs used in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL)
7. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay, 1905
8. To No Avail by Wilhelm Schulz, 1896
About the author: Julia Alekseyeva is an illustrator and PhD student of Comp Lit at Harvard. She is currently working on a nonfiction graphic novel entitled The Soviet, and is writing a dissertation on Soviet, French, and Japanese film. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can see her work here.