Saturday, September 5, 2009

Amazing Adventures: Emberley Galaxy

Rob reviews EMBERLEY GALAXY, an anthology designed as a tribute to children's illustrator Ed Emberley.

I've read a lot of themed anthologies and comics textbooks, but I've never read anything quite like EMBERLEY GALAXY, edited by Joe Kuth. It's a tribute to illustrator Ed Emberley, best known for his long series of innovative how-to-draw books for children. The genius of his approach was to start with a simple series of shapes that anyone could draw and add elements one-by-one until the image was complete. This anthology paid more than mere lip service as a tribute, given an extended introduction and demonstration of the technique, along with providing an annotated bibliography. Every artist who contributed based their strip on a particular Emberley book or set of techniques, but even those unfamiliar with the artist will find something to enjoy.

The anthology is also wise not to overstay its welcome, clocking in at just 60 pages. Some of the biggest alt-comics stars make appearances, including Jeffrey Brown, Dan Zettwoch, Dave Kiersh, Sam Henderson and Warren Craghead, among many others. One of my favorite pieces was from Rina Ayuyang, who was inspired by Emberley's thumbprint/fingerprint comics. It's also the only color piece in the book, as Ayuyang used her fingerprints to form most of the framework of the figures and buildings in a story about how living in paradise is harder than one might think. This was a beautiful-looking entry that worked both as a comic and a children's story, especially in the way that she integrated text and image.

Stefan Gruber contributed what may have been the single most clever entry in the anthology, using Emberley's panel-at-a-time additive drawing technique to create a clever series of punchlines. Every strip stays true to the spirit of Emberley's technique while turning it into an opportunity for conceptual humor. Along the same lines, Craghead employed his thin line while imagining Emberley's shapes as sentient beings that are slapped together and magically transformed into building blocks. In this instance, they were used to magically create a pencil, which in turn created more triangle-shaped beings. This is a beautiful piece, perfectly executed, that would be an outstanding entry in any anthology. Brown used the technique to draw himself (naturally), but threw in a self-deprecatory job as he drew himself sulking. Alex Holden created a narrative around a shipbuilder needing triangles and finding ways to improvise using the material at hand (rectangles, squiggles, etc)--a clever way to wrap a gag around the concept.

Henderson and Kiersh's work in general was a perfect fit for an Emberley tribute. Indeed, Henderson's page looked like a variation on his own sketchbook doodles. Here, he added a bit of narration on his quest to find Emberley books for reference, with each of the monsters acting as his mouthpieces. Kiersh's work has always had a bit of a childlike quality to it, and here he directly talked to children about music, and then featureed a page of nothing but Emberley-inspired drawings. There were a few such entries of nothing but drawings, mostly eschewing narrative. Jack Fraley's take on this was reproduced so small as to look like little but chicken scratch. Kuth and David Paleo's monster matchups, on the other hand, , were a playful delight. Paleo, known mostly for grotesque drawings, was quite adept at doing something much more playful.

The biggest standout strip in the anthology was Zettwoch's epic "Big Orange Vs Purple". Given his obsession with schematics and the building blocks of things, it should be no surprise that Zettwoch masterfully carried out a story dealing with the building blocks of drawing itself. This strip was inspired by his own obsession with a couple of Emberley's books as a child and had him set up a huge sea battle between the forces of Orange and Purple. Fans of Zettwoch's classic minicomic IRONCLAD (name-checked in the strip) will be delighted to see him mount a steadily-escalating battle with both sides steadily constructing their weapons, only to have it dashed at the last moment by a giant shark and giant ape. About the only thing this strip lacked was color, though Zettwoch's thorough exploration of Emberley's mark-making was still a lot of fun to look at. What I liked best about this strip was the childlike way Zettwoch went about building up each side's forces. This was done as a child might--with a great deal of seriousness and exacting detail, since play is very serious stuff.

There's an almost meditative quality to Emberley's technique. The more you do it, the more you want to do it. The technique is also quite empowering; even someone who can't draw can still create sturdy figures. That empowerment undoubtedly encouraged so many children to keep drawing even past the age when a lot of children with lesser skill might choose to give it up. The technique is also flexible enough to allow for greater complexity later on, as Zettwoch demonstrated in his strip. At the same time, it was never so prescriptive as to box children in to drawing in just one way, inhibiting creativity. EMBERLEY GALAXY is a tribute to Emberley giving children tools to draw and doing it as a form of narrative. The simplicity of the technique gave it its power and appeal, opening up a world of self-expression that many of the artists here still draw upon as adults.

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