By Jacques Laliberté
Most would agree Prescott is a town of fabulous artists of all genres, talents and personalities. What may not be evident is that we’re also fortunate to be in the company — hidden though it is — of some of the best and quirkiest cartoonists, too.
Though comic book art has generally been considered a “trashy” art form, the reality is that now, more than ever, artists with real talent and rare gifts gravitate to the form because of its immediacy and unique expressive potential.
The line blurs between fine art and commercial illustration as comic artists make the leap to moving images, conceiving of and drawing gorgeous animations for studios like DreamWorks, Disney, and Pixar.
Prescott-based cartoon artist Ryan Liebe says the distinction is moot: “Cartoonists and illustrators have had to expand their skill sets to fit in to today’s mass consuming state of affairs. You can find a drawing or animated character or anthropomorphic character to represent and sell just about everything from U-Haul boxes to dog food.”
It’s a small community of cartoonists, and a few of our locals and their idiosyncratic styles are represented here.
Don’t be surprised to find new delight in one of your old pastimes: reading comics.
In the thick of the industry around 1981, at the time the field was expanding with broader subject matter and more opportunity, was Bret Blevins.
Working with Marvel Comics during a golden age, Blevins says, “Was creative, it was a lot of fun.”
The names he can drop are legion: Spiderman, Wolverine, The X-Men, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, The Fantastic Four, The New Mutants, Sheena, Ghost Rider, Conan, Solomon Kane, The Inhumans, and the Punisher. Blevins drew and story-boarded these titles, and many more.
Georgia-born, with a stint on the East Coast, Blevins followed a love of the Southwest to Prescott in 1990. It was a solid place to raise his kids and still work from home for the studios on the coasts.
As the industry and its technology became ever-more digitized, animation for television dominated most of Bret’s work, as he created and penciled elaborate storyboards for shows.
The friend who roped him into that frontier was none other than Bruce Timm, of “Batman: The Animated series” fame.
With a technique that is Old World, classic, and grounded in traditional fine art studies of materials, anatomy, and perspective, Blevins laments the current state of the business.
“The classic drawing discipline is gone, because of an art education that has been eroded for decades,” he says. “The (tools for) visual clarity required to tell the story aren’t there. … Plus there are now cultural disparities, when the studio is in China or France.”
The workers, no longer artists, can’t decipher Blevins’ instructional notes written in English, sometimes leading to unintentionally goofy results.
Working on a Cintiq tablet, Blevins drawings get immediately digitized for transmission to clients. A great tool, but for a painted look, Blevins still goes for the brush and oils. He’s content to scan the piece later.
An animation project is intense work.
It takes “weeks and weeks of drawing for it all to flow seamlessly,” Blevins explains.
He’d rather be painting from a figure model, a process he says “even being hard work, is involving — even relaxing — because it is an exchange.”
“I am more inspired the longer I go,” he adds.
In fact, Blevins could often be spotted sketching alongside Brian Lemcke and Ryan Liebe in local artist Fred Poore’s weekly modeling class.
How do harried artists unwind on the weekend? By drawing even more, of course.
Cartoonist for the ages
A Midwestern boy who became a professional illustrator at an early age, Dick Sprang painted signs and handbills for local advertisers. From there, he graduated to illustrations for newspaper advertisements, plus editorial cartoons, and eventually illustrated for the pulp magazines — the Western, detective, and adventure magazines in the era of the late 1930s.
In 1941, he got tapped to work with DC Comics and, according to “Who’s Who in American Comics”: “Sprang worked almost entirely on Batman comics and covers and on the Batman newspaper strip, becoming one of the primary Batman artists in the character’s first 20 years.”
It would make Will Eisner proud to learn, “He used to study the way children read comics in order to experiment with page layouts and panel to panel transitions, hoping to create the most suspense and the most fluidity to keep the pages turning.” (Les Daniels in “Batman: The Complete History.”)
Fellow Prescott artist Russell Miller knew Sprang.
“When I met Dick Sprang, he was retired from comics, but was still doing artwork,” Miller says.
At the time, Sprang was involved with historical illustrations for things like Civil War and Western pictures.
“I was impressed by the fidelity of his line work. It was still impeccable, absolutely fine and crisp,” Miller says. “His work was always startlingly clean and seemed to lose nothing with his aging.”
His mental faculties and character strength endured, as well.
“He was very generous with his advice,” Miller says. “He wasn’t crazy about the accolades. He seemed quite humble for someone with a career like his.”
Regarding the Batmobile, Sprang penned the first to grace a comic book cover, in 1944, though it was not the premier version. Many more iterations of the iconic-cool vehicle were to follow, and spawn a whole industry of licensed toys based on comic book — and later, film — characters.
Sprang moved to Sedona in 1946; in 1956 he moved to Wayne County, Utah; in 1963, Sprang retired from full-time comics illustrating. In 1972, he relocated to Prescott, where he lived until his death, in 2000.
The piper about Prescott
“The culprit was DC comics,” says artist-turned cartoonist Russell Miler. “You weren’t supposed to read those. And the anthologies, they had such punch, and real parables.”
With fine art degrees, it took time before Miller began drawing and sending off stuff to publishers. Once he did, the story changed. It was illustration — then comics — that got Miller jazzed.
A writer and draftsman, Russ has the “Retro ’50s Comix” and “Razorbax” to his credit, among many others.
Penned in a looser, artier style than stalwart Blevins’, Miller’s comics nonetheless tell the story asked of them, and with real punch and play.
Miller argues with the idea that comics are a lesser art.
“The best artists work at cartooning,” Miller says. “The reason I say that is they’re asked a lot. The (comic book format) has very close parameters requiring different talents, and you’ve got to be fast. Those guys are monsters!”
Miller alludes to the publishing biz and the strictures of serialized stories, with their established characters and narrative arcs, the specialized skills of story-boarding, penciling, inking, lettering and coloring — and, oh yeah, the killer deadlines.
Often, different artists take on each of these tasks, but most can do it all.
Well-known to Prescott locals as the library’s reference librarian, he also writes book reviews, schedules displays in the library viewerie and lines up musical guests. He added acclaim to his rep by illustrating Cody Lundin’s books on survival. His tableaux-style images aptly embody the perils of end-of-world scenarios.
Plus scads of students learned a bit about the way to see and draw in Miller’s Prescott- and Yavapai College courses over the last two decades. His dream project is a graphic novel that tells the real story of the fabled and yet suspect Pied Piper.
The culture-savvy cartoonist
Considering the current cartooning culture, Prescott’s Ryan Liebe looks to real-life heroes.
“As someone (who) is trying to break into a field separate from the 40-hour-a-week job that pays my rent, I focus on the artists that are doing exactly what I (want to) do in the future,” Liebe says. That means, “Conceptual design and visual development — art that is used visually to interpret the author’s script, character sheet, comic book, and even the characters and environments that makeup today’s cinema experiences.”
Social media is now the norm and for those working the biz like Liebe. It’s an essential part of his day.
“For the most part, artists that are able to stay on top in the field of design are constantly posting to an array of social media platforms on a daily basis,” Liebe says. “I have experienced personal success during a sketch-a-day challenge, posting the drawings daily as I finished them.”
It’s even landed him freelance work. Still, cartooning remains a slog.
“There are many hardships that every artist working to support their habit can agree on,” Liebe says, “There isn’t enough time in the day to get to all the projects we are aspiring to.”
The support of a tribe or mentor can make a big difference, though, and lo and
behold, Prescott is home to a number of gurus. Liebe has hooked up with none-other-than Bret Blevins.
“Bret is by far the most-talented artist I have ever had the pleasure of befriending,” Liebe says. “I used to bring my artwork to his house for a critique, a cup of tea, and miles of inspiration.”
The energy and attention flow both ways.
“I have had drawing and painting session with Bret, not instructed but, sort of a jam — we would get together and either draw/paint from a model or studies,” Liebe says. “I learned more from the time spent with Bret than my entire four years of art college studying illustration and animation.”
To be sure, Prescott is home to many a resource and many a talent — and in the now-more-venerated art form of cartooning, no less.
The thinking man’s cartoonist
A dual-minded guy with an analytical and philosophical slant on the art form, Brian Lemcke blends thinking and drawing.
A few years back, Lemcke had some new ideas to express and saw drawing as the way in, so taught himself to cartoon by assigning himself creative milestones and getting down to it. One such challenge was to draw 1,000 portraits in one week by strolling the downtown streets, dropping into bars and cafés and spontaneously doodling instant portraits of the folks he ran into. His subjects loved the attention — and the free portrait Brian left with them. He noted the time, place, and number of each.
“I like my cartoons to reveal a moment of impact, or a moment of realization, or a play on words,” Lemcke says.
Often those moments are absurd and playful. And they’re only figments of Lemcke’s fervid inner vision.
After a year of diligent pencil sketching by day and furiously focused inking by night, he began sending them out to magazines in hopes of being published.
Meanwhile, he conceived his first annual “Loose Leaves” — as he signed his doodles — Art Rake. (He was a landscaper at the time. See? More word play.) He took his oeuvre to the streets on folding panels and offered them for sale, though in reality, he largely gave them away to the folks who saw themselves in a sketch, forgetting they, too, had indeed been captured one afternoon by that affable guy who had sat down beside them.
As to the word play Lemcke mentions, his newest creative brainstorm, dubbed “Word Herd,” are pairs of words that share a few letters yet, when combined, mangle and mingle both words into a fulsome third word. Illustrated in a tasty colorful block, Lemcke’s words are reinvented flash cards of skool daze with an adult’s sophistication and adept manipulation of language.
“Illuminstrate” perfectly defines his system of drawn language, while the color of “Suprapradise” adds punch to the game.
“To draw from life, you must first stop and recognize it, perceive it,” Lemcke says. “Be a person of the world fascinated by the world.”
See more of Bret Blevins’ artwork at BretBlevins.Com; see more of Dick Sprang’s artwork via the Richard Sprang Collection at Northern Arizona University; see more of Russell Miller’s “Oddly Enough” artwork every month in 5enses; see more of Ryan Liebe’s artwork at LiebeDesigns.Tumblr.Com; and contact Brian Lemcke at LooseLeaves@Yahoo.Com.
A 20-year Prescott resident, Jacques Laliberté has written for and designed several publications, as well as his own Art-rag. See his fine art work at Society6.Com/DazzlDolls.
Tags: Are-you-really-reading-all-the-tags-?, Art Rake, Batmobile, Bret Blevins, Brian Lemcke, Captain America, comic books, Conan, Daredevil, DC Comics, Dick Sprang, Disney, Dr. Strange, DreamWorks, Fred Poore, Ghost Rider, Jacques Laliberté, Loose Leaves, Marvel, Pixar, Razorbax, Retro '50s Comix, Russell Miller, Ryan Liebe, Sheena, Soloman Kane, Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Inhumans, The New Mutants, The Punisher, The X-Men, Thor, Uncle Scrooge, Wolverine, Word Herd