|Left: Female Bust by Picasso, 1937. Right: Popeye by E.C. Segar, 1929-1937|
|Left: Picasso Bull, 1945. Right: Disney Studios Hell's Bells, 1929|
|George Herriman, Krazy Kat, 1918|
The forces driving innovation in the two movements was different. In animation, the whole medium was new; there was no grand tradition of painting to overthrow. No one had seen drawings move before. They were alive! Simplification was a practical and economic necessity because they had to be hand-painted by the thousands on acetate cels. It was a collaborative and often anonymous enterprise, yet no less innovative than the work of the easel-painters.
Cartoon characters in the newspapers had to be reduced to something that could be printed on a mass scale. As the decades passed, comic characters were reproduced more and more quickly at relatively small sizes on cheap paper.
But the most important difference was that images in the world of comic characters had to be expressive. People had to love them. They had to convey character and story and personality. Without that, they were dead on arrival. There was no artificial life support system to keep them going. If no one loved them, they died.
The language of abstraction in the world of comic characters took a while to develop. The Yellow Kid and Little Nemo were among the earliest newspaper characters, and they were still based more or less on the arrangement of a real face. By the time Betty Boop arrives (lower left) in 1930, we're very far from reality.
Mickey's earlier incarnations had dots for pupils floating in a big white shape that could be either the whites of the eyes or a big forehead.
When Fred Moore redesigned Mickey in 1938 for Sorcerer's Apprentice, his pupils became white ovals with smaller pupils inside them. But Mickey always had those two purely abstract circles for ears, which became a problem as Disney Studios strove for more and more realism.
|Characters from Pixar's Inside Out. All Disney images ©Disney, Inc.|
The give and take between realism and abstraction continues to this day with character designers in the 3D digital animation world deciding how to boil down the characters to their simple essence. The goal is always to make them more expressive, to make their emotions come across better in a story.
The person who first got me thinking about comics as the "other abstract art movement" was toy collector and inventor Mel Birnkrant, who is fascinated by the design of comic characters, especially between 1920 and 1940. In this heretical view of art history, the art of comic characters is not only a legitimate art form, but perhaps the most protean, innovative and enduring form, which transcends all the "isms," and is the central story of 20th century art history.
Mel says, "Isn't it ironic that modern art had to fight so hard to introduce abstraction to the world? When all the while, abstract art had already been peacefully introduced and willingly accepted by an eager public, many years before, in the form of comic characters."
Mel Birnkrant's essay "Reflections in a Pie-Cut Eye"
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