An essential component of creating comics is, of course, drawing. I’ve never considered myself much of a drawer. There’s a specific bird I doodle on occasion, a part flamingo, part emu creation I inherited from my mother’s doodles. I have my own little doodle creation, a heart-shaped dude with devil horns. I’m great (relatively speaking) at daisies, palm trees, and cute little elephants drawn from
behind with their trunks in the air spraying water. I wouldn’t call any of this a talent for drawing, and therefore was hesitant last semester to sign up for a comics class, even though the description stated artistic skills were not necessary.
I’m thinking of all this now, during my second comics class (this one literature-based), after being assigned Peter Selgin’s “Dead to Rights: Confessions of a Caricaturist.” It’s an autobiographical tale of his time working for the rich and famous as a caricaturist, all the while dreaming of becoming a writer. When Selgin realized his life’s ambition, he stated “Where drawing had led me only to surfaces, words (I promised myself) would take me deeper.” It’s a bold undertaking, but also one of several contradictory remarks he makes in the story.
In describing how to draw a caricature, Selgin states “to draw someone’s caricature is to grasp their essence, a Zen-like undertaking, archery with a pen.” In other words, getting to the core of the person. He describes that, in five minutes, he “knew if they were happy or sad, content, or frustrated, witty or dim, sensitive or numb, earnest or sarcastic.” He claims to know them in ways their most intimate partners may not have. This certainly doesn’t describe only drawing the surface of a person.
Selgin also contradicts his own attitude toward drawing throughout the story. In one instance, he builds up the importance of caricature drawing much like Scott McCloud does with comics, by tracing them back to some of the earliest art known to man. Selgin links caricature to “the bovine drawings in the caves at Lascaux,” and references renowned artists such as Claude Monet and Edvard Munch to bring a reverence to caricature drawing. I don’t argue his points, but it’s a shame he also puts down his own work in the profession.
Selgin calls his work as a caricaturist “a gross means to that noble end,” the noble end being writing, and likens the job to driving cabs and washing dishes. He acknowledges that caricaturists were looked down upon just as cartoonists were. He makes a grave distinction between drawing and fine art, likening drawing to good sex – something personal and naughty not to be exposed.
Selgin did go on to become a writer, an award-winning one at that. His book, Drowning Lessons, won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. His memoir and play also won awards, and he teaches creative writing at Antioch University and Georgia College and State University. Selgin has also written and illustrated children’s books, so he didn’t completely abandon his drawing talent.
Selgin states that little evidence remains of his caricature years, admitting the few drawings he kept are “tucked deep in dark closets and drawers.” He insists he isn’t ashamed, but the contradiction in his statements still linger, at least for me. I do wonder if he’s ever considered creating a comic. The two can be very similar. After all, how Selgin describes drawing a caricature is exactly how I was taught to start my first comic.
Selgin states, “You start with mechanics, the basic forms: square, cone, cylinder, cube.” My first little comic character started with a diamond-shaped head, triangle torso, and rectangular bottom. His name is Ed, and I guess he was a sort of caricature, what Selgin describes as “more symbol than duplication or representation.” Certainly, there are no diamond-headed people walking around with triangular bodies. I applaud Selgin reaching his dream and hope I do the same someday. But I’ll do it with Ed and his cats Max and Leo still sitting on my desk, for all to see.
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