On Strips: How To Draw 50 Cartoons

By | Friday, September 05, 2014 Leave a Comment
For I-don't-know-how-many years, Lee J. Ames was the name synonomous with "how to draw" books. He had fairly simple guides -- not exactly instructions per se -- for drawing all manner of subjects, collected in sets of 50 by category. How to Draw 50 Vehicles, How to Draw 50 Cats, How to Draw 50 Athletes, etc. One of his books was How to Draw 50 Famous Cartoons. As an aspiring cartoonist (back in the late '70s and early '80s) I was most captivated by this last one. I did not have a copy myself, but the local community college had one in their library, and I checked it out repeatedly.

Ames' guides were fairly straight-forward and easy to follow. As I think on it, they took on a comic strip quality to them as all the steps in the illustration process were represented in a series of borderless panels. Each step built on the previous one, with the additions represented with heavier lines. The only text on the page was the character's name at the top...
While I did find the book engaging and useful, it also wore thin quickly. Characters were (mostly) only presented in one pose, so if you didn't want to draw The Phantom standing with his arms crossed, you were kind of stuck. You could, of course, extrapoloate poses based on the styles and basic "rules" presented, but as a young child, I had nowhere near that level of talent yet. I was still having difficulty in mimicking the poses Ames presented.

The other limitation was that it only presented 50 characters. It didn't show, for example, how to draw these hip newcomers to the comics scene called Garfield (who had only debuted the year before the book was published) or Opus (who didn't appear in Bloom County until the year after the book was published). To my recollection, about half of the comic strips running our local newspaper at the time were not represented in Ames' book in any way.

What struck me as strange at the time, though, were all these other characters that I had never heard of before. The Little King, the Katzenjammer Kids, Jiggs... And several I had heard of but scarcely recognized because I knew them through other venues -- Popeye, to me, was from an animated cartoon, as was Flash Gordon.

But in retrospect, the book wound up being more educational from a comics history perspective than from a drawing one. I may not have known much about Bringing Up Father but I knew who Jiggs and Maggie were, despite never having actually seen the strip. I had seen them in Ames' book. And the style of art George McManus utilized to create those characters imbued them with a visual personality to match their actual character. With those handful of images Ames provided, I got a sense of who these characters were and what their relationship to one another was like.

Years later, I would still have large holes in my knowledge of comic strip history, but I still retained a cursory knowledge and understanding of many strips I had never read. So when someone did reference the Katznejammer Kids, I at least knew who they were talking about.

It's hard to fathom now in this internet-connected, Wikipedia-laced society how hard information was to come by, and how valuable any information, no matter how incomplete, about older comics was. I haven't looked at any of the updated copies of the book, and probably haven't seen the 1979 original for close to 30 years, but I can't recommend seeking it out based on what I recall of it. It was indeed a useful and interesting book to me when I was seven, but it would only be a few more years before I was old enough to sit and read through something like The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and absorb what it had to share with me.
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