Punching Up

In comedy, there’s a theory that a comedian should always be “punching up.”  In short, that means that comedy is funny when you’re taking on subjects that are higher in the hierarchy than you are, and that you risk coming off like a bully or worse when you make fun of those who are lower in the social hierarchy than you are.

I love reading David Apatoff’s “Illustration Art” blog for a lot of reasons – he’s got great taste, shines a light on amazing artists who aren’t necessarily in favor right now, and writes insightfully about illustration art.  So, take five minutes and read “An Artist’s Attic, part 3” right now.

Here’s what drives me insane about this article: Leonard Starr was a fabulous cartoonist, who’s particular skill at drawing facial expressions is deftly illustrated by the examples in that blog post.  Then, Apatoff tries to go the “the kids are all wrong” route by giving examples of more contemporary cartoonists’ work.  Unfortunately, it’s the work of cartoonists who’s work uniformly appears as if it was drawn with a pen clutched between one’s butt cheeks.  It’s not a throw-down between Starr and Kevin Maguire, who is known for his comedic mastery of facial expressions, and who has worked for the big two publishers consistently for something like 30 years now, which would have been a more fair fight.

There are great working young artists right now, and there are also ones who appear to draw only during seizures.  I wouldn’t have used any of those contemporary examples as examples of anything, other than of books I probably would leave on the bookshelf at the bookstore that I found it at.  This is what punching down looks like in art writing – taking someone’s unique, indisputable skill and juxtaposing it against people who barely qualify as visual artists.  You can make anyone and anything look badly through that technique, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

But also, feel free to take another five minutes to really go over those Leonard Starr faces, they are stunners.


2 thoughts on “Punching Up

  1. Hi Clayton, and thanks for noting my blog post about Leonard Starr. A friend of mine (and fan of yours) sent me here. You are absolutely right, punching down is never a useful comparison and I didn’t intend to suggest that the ability to draw good facial expressions had suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. I should have been more precise with my description. I focused on a handful of artists who (despite your “butt cheek” comment, with which I concur) are hugely influential today. Roz Chast recently won the Ruben award as the best cartoonist from the National Cartoonist Society. Others in this same category appear on the NYT bestseller list, win the Pulitzer prize, and regularly dominate the cover of the New Yorker. For better or worse, these artists are held up as the cream of the crop. But I agree with you that none of them can draw facial expressions the way Kevin Maguire does.,

    • Hi David! I see what you’re saying about the artists you used as examples being highly regarded. I’m not sure that’s a completely new phenomenon – Jules Feiffer’s work wasn’t technically brilliant, but very expressive. A lack of anatomical skill does seem to be more prevalent now in critically-favored graphic novels, and I suspect that’s a little bit of comics shame! Talky, wordy, visually-simpler comics are going to be considered more “literate” than something that’s beautifully and skillfully rendered.

      I enjoy your blog and look forward to each new post! It’s rare to find quality and insightful in-depth looks at aspects of any kind of art, particularly that of illustrators.


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