A world in a box

The Black Island by Hergé

I used to stare and stare at the two Degas reproductions in my parents' bedroom - the Blue Dancers matted in dull orange cloth, colors that perplexed and thrilled me with their contrast - and the green one, the pretty Milliner with the hat floating mysteriously over her head. I never realized it was on a hat stand.

There were other pictures - three small watercolor landscapes of the veldt by an old family friend that felt like a warm winter day to me, and a spiky black painting of ships in the living room by an artist who's name I'll never know, that entranced me with its graphic moodiness. 

I would gaze at, sink into, move around in, and puzzle over these images, soaking them up without knowing or even wondering whether or not they were any good.

A college professor told me that as an artist, everything you see influences you. While I think he meant this in an even broader sense, when I think about my earliest impressions of visual art, specifically, and the hours I spent looking at certain pictures, I think of everything on the walls in my parents' house, picture books, and cartoons.

At first it was Richie Rich and Superman. Then I discovered Asterix and Tintin.

My brothers and I spent hours and hours lying around engrossed in Goscinny & Uderzo's pun-filled, history-based, brilliantly drawn tales of a Gaulish village holding out against the Romans.

We also spent hours with Hergé's serious yet slapstick adventure tales of boy journalist, Tintin, filled with anatomically correct automobiles and planes (and an imaginative rocket ship, circa 1959).

There was something I found reassuring about these cartoons. I could return again and again to the clear, hard-edged, black-lined drawings and to the surreal dangers the main characters navigated with the comfort of knowing it would all turn out in the end, with a jolly scene and a joke to wrap it up.

Italian version of Asterix in Corsica by Goscinny & Uderzo, scan of lower half of page 23. I can now say "VLABADABAOUM!" in Italian.What fascinated me visually was the way an entire scene of Gauls battling Romans, or Tintin boarding a steamer, could fit into a tiny rectangle - a world in a box. And that box could fit with others on a page to tell a story that felt like it was moving as you read from one frame to the next. That was a neat trick.

To have all of one's imagination to draw from and to choose a very specific time and place, then imagine all sorts of detailed stories inside that constraint - it's still a brilliant plan for a work of art.

Of course at the time I didn't think in those terms, I simply read and looked, and looked. I never stopped looking. I still pull out an Asterix from time to time. Aside from the fact that I always get a kick out of pompous Romans getting pummeled, flying up through their suits of armor with their sandals left behind, I still like to study Albert Uderzo's use of color and space and line - all the abstract qualities, as well as the narrative - and marvel at how all those details fit into those little boxes.


More cartoons I soaked in as a kid:

A Century of Punch - My mother's album of Punch magazine cartoons going back to the 1800's, published in 1955 and handed down to her from her father. I couldn't get enough of it.

Beano - A British rag for kids. My best friend had piles of them we used to (needlessly) climb into the closet with and read by flashlight. Minnie the Minx, Rodger the Dodger, Face-Ache, and Val's Vanishing Cream were some of my favorites

Mad Magazine - especially Don Martin, the first artist I tried to channel (into drawings of ballerinas) and the gleefully vicious Spy vs Spy

It's the 50th anniversary of Asterix (with video of French Air Force team, La Patrouille, paying tribute)