Friday 29 April 2011

More Dore

Well I just couldn't resist. Phil Rushton's comment that Dore employed 40 engravers to work up his ideas into densely detailed printable artworks hints at just how successful Dore became as his work continued to expanded it's markets through the development of the electrotype which allowed reproduction from molds of his studio's engravings rather than the original engravings themselves.

His work as a result became internationally recognized and the contract that he had with the UK publisher Cassell netted him £10,000 per year, a fortune for the latter half of the 19th century.

Here then are more examples of his amazing artistry from Dante's Inferno and the final image from Tennnyson's Idylls of the King, which although I listed amongst the samples included yesterday were in fact conspicuous by their absence. An oversight I need to make up for - hence the posting.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Light and Shade and the Genius of Gustave Dore

Having made mention on more than one occasion on this blog of the importance of light and shade and the huge influence it had on the work of Denis McLoughlin, makes me think of the world of nineteenth century illustration and the work of Gustave Dore.

Dore was without doubt one of those very rare phenomena, a child prodigy, at the age of five his drawing displayed a maturity and finesse well beyond his years. Such was his fascination and drive to exploit the opportunities that the expansion and development of printing and publishing afforded artists to share their visions with a mass audience that by the age of twelve he was carving his own lithographic stones.

His bewildered but indulgent parents thought that at the very least they should broaden the boy's horizons by showing him some of the great galleries, so in 1847 at the age of fifteen Gustave accompanied his parents on a visit to Paris. Needless to say the boy immediately fell in love with the city and not only imbibed the contents of all the galleries, but browsed through all the bookshops and sought out the publishers that were producing all the books and journals which so enchanted him.

As Gustave wandered hither and yon he discovered the premises of the publisher Charles Philipon and viewed in their windows with particular interest a set of engravings that Philipon had recently commissioned. The following morning instead of accompanying his parents, he feigned illness and they left him at the lodgings as they set out for another day's explorations. As soon as they had departed the boy got out his pencils and drawing paper and set about creating his own distinctive response to the Philipon brief. Once he had completed the drawings to his own satisfaction he set off for Philipon's shop, where with his folio tucked under his arm he insisted on being ushered into the presence of the publisher, who although bemused was somewhat charmed by the diminutive lad's forthrightness and granted him an audience.

Dore whose precocity was matched by his confidence then proceeded to give Philipon the hard sell, and declared that not only were the engravings on display a little lackluster, but went on to insist that he, Gustave Dore could do a much better job and with a flourish laid his folio on the desk and proceeded to show Philipon how the illustrations should look. It was at this point that the career of Gustave Dore took off and with it the course of Western illustration was set. He didn't return to Strasbourg instead with his parent's consent he signed a lucrative contract with Philipon and by the age of 16 was the highest paid illustrator in France.

By 1854 he had produced a series of literary art books on the writings of Rabelais and Balzac and was working with France's biggest publisher Hachette. It was at this point in his career that he decided he wanted to produce the ultimate art book and proposed to Louis Hachette that they publish a folio on Dante's Inferno. The idea was attractive to Hachette but the costings were daunting, the book would need to retail at a 100 Francs and the highest price that Dore books had sold for was 15 francs in what was considered the luxury end of the market (to contextualize the minimum wage was 550 francs per annum and a lot of families would get by on about 1200-1500 francs per year - womens wages being half those of male workers). Needless to say Louis Hachette got cold feet but when Dore insisted, saying that he would pay for the whole enterprise, essentially reducing Hachette's role to printer rather than publisher, Hachette assented but advised Dore only to print 100 copies rather than waste money on binding books which would never be sold.

When the book was eventually published in 1861 with 70 of Dore's haunting and powerful visions of Hell and Damnation the reaction was unprecedented. Summoned by a telegram from his publisher which has now achieved it's own legendary status; "Success, come quickly! I am an ass!" Dore's reputation became international.

Here is a selection of his amazing artistry, including some of the plates from Dante's Inferno, illustrations to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Milton's Paradise Lost and the tragic expedition to the summit of the Matterhorn. In all these you become aware of the power and  majesty of nature in a world where light mattered. It mattered because it was so temporal. Dore's work is suffused with encroaching night informed by a world where the best that people could aspire to in terms of artificial light was the hideous green of gas lighting or the guttering candle that ebbed and flowed with every little draft of air and where intimations of mortality came hard on the heels of evening shadows.

 It gives Dore's work a power that illustrators working in a world cosseted by light at the click of a switch can never really recapture.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Peff, Pan and Poachers; The Weird World of U.K. Postwar Paperbacks

Here for your delectation is artwork that hearkens back to the world of post war UK illustration and the rise of the paperback as a portable and affordable means of putting books into the hands of a far wider readership than hard back novels which often retailed for the daunting sum of 25 shillings  or in today's money £1.25 - yup really THAT expensive! The paperback in comparison would set you back a mere 2s 6d or 12 pence in today's worthless coinage. (Even as I type this the pound in our pockets continues to shrink)

The work you are looking at is by one of the busiest illustrators of those now faraway times; Sam Peffer. This was in the days when as a successful paperback and magazine illustrator you would require paints, pencils, illustration board, a knowledge of anatomy, access to models (including in The Case of the One Eyed Witness -- the artist himself) and a studio to pose them in and a large collection of reference files, stuffed with cuttings cataloged and indexed to cover every illustrative eventuality.

Oh yes and a darkroom for developing those photos rather than awaiting the return of your photos from Boots photo labs. In Pepper's case his darkroom was his bed, with eiderdown over his head as he semi anaesthetised himself leaning over his developing tray.

Yes a lot of resourcefulness was called for if you were intent on making it as an illustrator (so what's new?) but the rewards were good and when shortly after Sam had finally got to the point where he could make a decent living as a freelance illustrator, he was approached by agent Tony Bowen-Davies to join his newly formed team of artists specializing in paperback cover artwork he readily signed up. Even though in doing so he would immediately have to fork up a percentage of the money he was making from his own contacts - most notably Panther Books.

The lure of the Tony Bowen-Davies deal was Pan Books and the resultant through flow of work more than compensated "Peff" as he signed himself for the commission he was obliged to pay.

The work that emanated from Pan was not entirely unexpected as co-incidentally Bowen-Davies was also art buyer at Pan Books.

Not so much a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, more like poacher cum gamekeeper.

More of Sam Peffer's work can be seen at Steve Chibnall's excellent website as well as on this site dedicated to Sam's work.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Achtung Achtung - This Week's Commandos

I should have posted this days ago but better late than never as the 50th birthday Commando celebrations continue.

As can be seen by the two reprint issues editor Calum Laird and his team are casting their net much further back through the mists of time to present some of the earliest Commando comics to a new readership. And what better "window display" than covers by Jordi Penalva and Ken Barr?

Here's more detail about the latest issues:

Commando 4383    International Squadron

South Africans in Catalinas, French in Dewoitine fighters, British in Hurricanes…what a terrific bunch they were!
   They fought among themselves, they scrapped with the Japs — and to crown it all they had a German saboteur and spy in their midst creating more havoc!

Introduction by Calum Laird, Commando Editor

This was one story I was sure remembered clearly from 1966 (which was otherwise a pretty unmemorable year). So it was with some relish that I opened the dusty copy from the Commando archives. There was Commando stalwart Gordon Livingstone’s artwork bringing to life a story of feuding nationalities almost too busy with their personal quarrels to fight the Japanese enemy. And the whole mixture stirred with a spy in the camp. Just as I recalled.
What I had forgotten, though, was Wally the monkey — the real hero of the story.

International Squadron originally Commando No 216 (June 1966), re-issued as No 887 (November 1974)

Story: Brunt
Art: Gordon Livingstone
Cover Art: Ken Barr

Commando 4384    DRESSED TO KILL…

It was quite a sight to see Bert Morris ride to war over the parched desert sands in a battered, bucking jeep…with hundreds of bloodthirsty Arabs thundering along on horseback behind.
   Branded a coward by the Foreign Legion but labelled a hero by the British Army, Bert’s story of how he raised this rebel army is now told for the first time. And what a story!

Introduction by George Low, former Commando Editor

A great combination here from 1970 with an opening panel that sets the scene…“Dressed as an Arab, dressed as a British soldier, dressed as a French legionnaire…it didn’t matter what this guy wore, he was a fighting fury in any uniform!”
So it’s desert action galore with sparkling artwork by Ramon de la Fuente to bring the best out of Nick Allen’s script. And the wonderful cover by Penalva has won its place in Commando history as the heaviest illustration to date. The paint on the hut wall is authentically deep and rough, lovingly laid on with a trowel I suspect.

Dressed To Kill, originally Commando No 470 (April 1970), re-issued as No 1387 (February 1980)

Story: Nick Allen
Art: Ramon de la Fuente
Cover art: Penalva
First Published 1970 No 470

Commando No 4385    Deserter!

Abraham Brown’s older brother Robert went off to serve in the US Army in the American Civil War…and he didn’t come back. Abraham followed in his footsteps grimly determined to avenge his brother’s death.
   But when he discovered that it hadn’t been enemy action that ended Robert’s life but a pack of outlaws he saw only one way to settle the score — and that meant deserting the flag he signed up to serve.

Story: Matt Badham
Art: Macabich
Cover Art: Macabich

Commando 4386     Fire And Water

John James came from a long line of Royal Navy men. Yet he chose to join the RAF as a pilot. It seemed, though, that his naval heritage didn’t want to let him go. When he ditched his Hurricane in the English Channel he thought it was a one-off incident.
  How wrong he was!

Story: Mac Macdonald
Art: Keith Page
Cover Art: Keith Page

All images © DC Thomson 2011

Saturday 23 April 2011

Batman Archives and the Arbitrary Nature of Comics Restoration

DC Archives Editions have been with us for a long time, in fact over twenty years and as such they provide an interesting insight into the oft times problematic craft of re-presenting U.S. comics golden age to a modern audience. I say modern audience slightly tongue in cheek, more likely old farts who even if they haven't sold off their collection, or consigned it to a plastic tomb (aka slabbing) are probably a mite apprehensive at actually turning the pages of seventy year old comics for fear that either they or the comics might not be equal to the task.

The only series I have stuck with and this out of sheer nostalgia, are their Batman reprints. These are as good an indication as any about the vagaries of the restoration process. As has been discussed here before, there have been all kinds of learning curves involved for the people tasked with revitalizing these comics. Even setting aside their recent experiment with presenting verbatim color scans of pages in some of their Simon and Kirby reprints, there have been some real inconsistencies which are fascinating and frustrating in almost equal measure.

Take for instance Batman Archives Volume 2 which collected some of Jerry Robinson's earlies stories from Detective Comics, where not only were some covers badly redrawn as DC no longer had complete copies of all issues, but to further compound the disappointment, no allowance was made for the fact that the paper the comics were being printed on was glossy and less absorbent than the newsprint that the colors had originally been intended for. Which meant that everything looked hideously garish and the purple of the Joker's suit was so dark that all the line work simply disappeared into a morass that was even darker than John Carpenter's Dark Star. To any serious comics devotee this was a heinous crime of unparalleled magnitude. Even the burning of the library of Constantinople seemed fairly mild in comparison.

However things have gradually improved although there are still minor setbacks. To my mind the best volumes in this series so far are The Dark Knight Archives 4, 5 and 6. Volume 6 is a particularly impressive affair and as I have owned many of the comics reprinted in that book I was perhaps more aware of what could have been lost. The work that has been done on these pages is simply astonishingly good. All the color has been stripped out without losing any obvious detail to provide black and white linework with new color added digitally. This is still a weak area in some respects as there are totally inappropriate gradations and airbrush efx that still creep in from time to time.

But and it is a big BUT, the linework on these volumes is superb. Just check this sample with the original splash page from Batman No. 24's lead off story It Happened in Rome with the recent Dark Knight Archive 6 reprint to see what I mean.
So I really was looking forward to seeing the latest in the Dark Knight Archive series, but sad to say although covers such as this beauty (Batman No. 31) are superbly reproduced, others (Batman 27's hideously heavy red on Santa's cheeks) are not and what is worse the contents are also badly restored with lots of drop out of detail and in fill of feathered blacks as in the Jerry Robinson page shown at the end of this posting.

When you check the sources of the digital restoration you find the possible cause of all these inconsistencies as this work is farmed out to a variety of sources. But be that as it may, these books are still the most affordable way of viewing these old treasures from U.S. comics infancy and I can only hope that DC stick with the project a little longer.

All images © DC Comics 2011

Crap Layout courtesy Blogger Interface (aka I tried and tried with this one but in the end...

gave up)

Friday 22 April 2011

The Art of Restoration, McLoughlin, Minton and the Bloody Pulps!

As mentioned earlier on this blog, now that Wulf the Briton is published, Book Palace Books have been back on my case reminding me that there is work to be done completing "The Art of Denis McLoughlin" book which was occupying my "spare time" for the earlier part of last year.

So I'm back on the McLoughlin case and last night I was restoring as best I could some scans that Steve Taylor (the man behind the amazing Dan Dare website) had sent me. They were scans of some of those fabulous McLoughlin 'Noir" type covers that he hosts on his site.

But as is often the way with this kind of exercise, there were problems to be addressed. All the shortcomings that needed fixing were the result of a greater problem and that is the absence of about 99% of Denis McLoughlin's original artworks. There are some original McLoughlin artworks in the hands of collectors but they are primarily his Wild West paintings - all the other work, including all those superb hardboiled covers are gone ... as in REAL gone Daddyo!

Robert Lesser in his book Pulp Art (excellent and indispensable volume),  fulminated about the destruction and disappearance of so much of America's trash art. He should complain! When I see the fantastic biographies of Norman Saunders, Reynold Brown and most recently Hugh Ward and the articles that preceded these lovely books in Dan Zimmer's Illustration magazine, I am constantly amazed at just how much there is still out there.

Sadly this is not the case with Denis McLoughlin, which is why reconstructive surgery is being applied to some of the surviving covers. The artist did have up until the time of his self-imposed death, a complete set of perfect proofs of all his 'Noir" covers. But those all disappeared with the contents of his house when his relatives settled his estate.

So what we are left with is printed sources and in the case of the paperback covers, these can be particularly problematic. The covers even if they aren't creased, can still be affected by even the slightest hint of damp which means that certain areas of the covers appear sharply in focus, whilst other areas are blurred. With the covers I was working on last night, I discovered "quelle horreur" that the focused areas had nasty jaggedy scanning artifacts, which presented a double jeopardy.

It's really like being a picture restorer in the old sense, and even with executing weird manoeuvres like converting from RGB mode to Lab colors and working in each channel separately, you still need a bit of artistic experience, combined with knowledge and study of the techniques employed by the illustrator concerned and the way his work was printed.

The processes I am using with these McLoughlin artworks are completely different to those used on the Wulf book. Each new project makes it own demands in regard to getting the degree of digital reconstruction to achieve the right balance between drawing the artist's original intent back out of the murk without completely over-riding his work with intrusive reworking.

Do here are two of the covers I was occupied with last night. They are really interesting insofar as they show not only McLoughlin's sheer inventiveness at it's best but also his reference points. Midsummer Nightmare with it's hen scratching penmanship shows more than a passing homage to that legendary illustrator and Fitzrovian John Minton. In much the same way that McLoughlin's work has suffered at the hands of good old Anglo Saxon snobbery, so to did Minton's. Although it has to be said that while much of McLoughlin's work was destroyed, Minton's illustrations were cherished from the get go, it was Minton's ambition to be welcomed into the world of fine art that were subject to rebuff. As many have since speculated, precisely because he devoted too much time to the "comparatively inferior" world of illustration.

McLoughlin's cover for Theodora Du Bois' High Tension on the other hand, shows influences which if not geographically are thematically at least, much closer to home. As a collector and reader of Pulps, he would have been more than aware of the work of such legendary illustrators as Norman Saunders and Rafael De La Soto.

With McLoughlin's covers his reference points are as tantalizing as his ever inventive mind.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Illlustration At It's Purest - More of the McLoughlin Magic!

I was going to make an ambitious posting this evening from the era of pre offset litho illustration, but I was inveigled out for a swift bevvy by my good friend Charles and have returned seven sheets to the wind.

So instead and bearing in mind my delicate condition I want you instead to gaze on this wonderful cover by none other than Denis McLoughlin.

And then when you have regained your bearings how about this beauty?

When McLoughlin was creating these covers he was operating as a one man graphic studio for T.V. Boardman, one of the UK's top publishers. This was in the 1950's when McLoughlin was also responsible for producing Boardman's comic strips and annuals including the Buffalo Bill Annual.

The artworks were usually delivered by McLoughlin himself taking the train from Bolton down to London, and after receiving sign off from Tom Boardman, would be delivered to the printer as a one piece ready to go image. This meant that all the lettering was also handled by McLoughlin.

This schedule was so intense that Denis was required to execute anything up to three images a day, just to keep on top of his schedules, which is why some of the images he created were simply confined to two colors. But whatever he created was always incredibly inventive and it was this ability to provide smart solutions to stories he would frequently have to skim read while reclining on his sofa as a blessed relief to working hunched over a drawing board that makes his work so timeless.

OK - so here are those covers.

It's image making like this that make you itch to read these books.

Like Dave Johnson, this is imagery that shifts stories into the hands of the uninitiated.

The Art of the Illustrator at it's purest...