Friday, April 29, 2011

Visit From a Small Planet

We get visits from extraterrestrials every so often. At least that's what the people who take their family vacations in Roswell, New Mexico insist. The Area 51 types are convinced that space aliens have come to Earth, and that's not just because they've witnessed Burning Man. If the little green men do indeed like to come visit, they picked a strange place to land in early 1977 - Meldrim Thomson's New Hampshire. It's not known what exactly happened, but witnesses claim they saw an unidentified craft crash into a lake in New Hampshire...where it was promptly swallowed up by the Loch Ness Monster, who must have been visiting his cousin Sasquatch somewhere near Bretton Woods (I guess New Hampshire lakes look so much like Scottish lakes). I kid you not; is the Manchester Union Leader ever wrong about anything?
In 1977, most ships were registered by their owners in Liberia. The reason Liberia was popular is the same reason Delaware is a popular place for businesses to incorporate: the rules in Liberia are incredibly lax, especially for seagoing vessels. Consequently, there were a number of rather messy accidents involving oil tankers and their cargoes in the '70s. Oil tankers with Liberian registrations (until Manuel Noriega was deposed, Panama was also a popular place for merchants to flag their vessels, for similar reasons). People who claim that businesses would be much better off with fewer regulations have never seen a Liberian oil tanker sink. Double hulls? Sure they keep oil from spilling into the ocean when a ship springs a leak, but who wants to go through the expense? Anyway, the cartoon above was inspired by the synthesis of crashing spaceships and sinking steamships flying the Liberian flag. (I should note in passing that a good chunk of the cruise ship industry uses boats registered in Norway, which makes me suspicious of Norwegian maritime regulations).

This strip gives me an opportunity to comment on the artist's technique for a moment. The comic strip above was drafted with a dark blue pencil (remember, blue did not reproduce on a film negative back then) and then inked using a quill pen and India ink. India ink was a favorite of most cartoonists because it was nice and black, and it produced a nice, clean, solid line. It also set very quickly. For a time I was inking my cartoons with a Rapidograph (a pen much preferred by draftsmen for making a line on a sheet of mylar, which is a clear plastic film rather than a woven sheet of paper) and Chinese ink. China ink is a more dilute ink than India ink, which would clog a fine-point pen like a Rapidograph, but it has issues when it is used in a quill pen. For one thing, you can't control the ink flow like you can with India ink; you may be drawing a line or writing letters on a piece of paper when suddenly a large bead of ink will come out of the pen, ruining your work. All you can do is either let it dry (or try to blot it dry without it spreading), and then paint it over with white-out. We had two kinds of correction materials - liquid and tape. The tape came in rolls and covered in strips, but there were seams between each strip of tape. The liquid had no seams, but was occasionally so thin that the line underneath shone through. And occasionally it would smear the ink. To avoid all that, I typically used India ink.

While I could work very quickly and efficiently with the Rapidograph (most of my early strips were done with one), it offered only a single line-weight; to vary the thickness, I typically had to trace a line multiple times. I could have switched to a pen with a thicker line weight, but that would have meant switching pens every time I changed lines, which would have been a pain. I would also have had to invest in multiple pens, which is an expense a modest college student really doesn't need. No, I needed a pen that could make a line sing and give it a personality, and that meant using a crow quill pen.

Just as there are multiple Rapidographs, quill pens came with multiple styles for the nibs, or tips of the pen. Some had a chisel tip, some had a ball tip and some had feather tip. The only problem with a quill pen was the need to dip the pen in the ink on a frequent basis, since the pen surface really didn't hold much ink. But it was possible to get a quill pen with a reservoir in the tip, which meant you didn't have to dip as often. The only problem was that a reservoir could occasionally release a bead of ink, which is exactly what you don't need when you're lettering a drawing.

Just as there were different types of pens and inks, there were also different types of paper that could be used. Typing paper is good and cheap, but ink tends to bleed on it, producing a messy line (some of the strips I drew in 1980 were done on cheap paper, and it showed). Card stock is a little heavier (and more expensive), but ink doesn't bleed as much on it. A third type of paper was a clay-backed paper (cotton fabric mixed with a clay slurry). It had a nice smooth slick surface, and the ink dried on top of it, rather than getting absorbed into the page. It could be a wonderful medium, but a bead of ink would smear so easily on that. On the other hand, you could make a nice solid black fill and then use the quill of the pen to etch a white line on the black fill. If you look carefully at the comic strip above, it has some of those white etchings on a black ink fill; that strip was drawn on clay-back paper.

When I come back in a few days, I will try to explain the blue lines in hockey.

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