Double Standards in Style

I had an interesting realization the other day about the way people judge the quality of realistic versus cartoony drawing styles. It seems to me that the more someone tries to maintain a realistic style, the more harshly criticized they will be when they don’t “fully achieve” it. Cartoony styles get no critique like this.

As I’ve done before, perhaps Rob Liefeld will be a good example. Liefeld is often criticized for his unrealistic body proportions and suspect anatomical correctness — despite being proficient in his craft. However, I’ve never heard of Matt Groening criticized as having a poor understanding of anatomy for the Simpson’s only having four fingers, or that practically no one has chins.

It seems to me that with cartoony styles, we accept that drawings are more of a representation of a concept than a re-creation of “reality.” The more realistic the style becomes, the less accepting people are of this, yet it still remains true: The capacity to draw is for representing thoughts visually.


  • Last year the Dick Hyacinth blog had a Rob Liefeld retrospective (Part One / Part Two / *) and while that overview seems hardly like an unabashed fan’s work, it at least in part concedes that Rob has the skills and will to do some good drawing.

    I’m no expert in superhero comics and their special brand of quasi-realist drawing but one thing that frequently occurs to me is how horribly hard it is to make a complete 22-page issue where every panel is flawlessly composed. (Time constraints, exacerbated by the demands of this drawing style surely play an important role in this.)

    * Though announced, I don’t think there’s a Part III.


  • Yeah, the problem people have isn’t Liefeld’s “style,” it’s just the fact that he isn’t proficient in his craft. His art is horrible inconsistent, he has little ability to tell a coherent story through his art, and he has a bad habit of stealing other people’s layouts.

    If he could actually be consistent in what he draws from panel to panel and make a 22-page comic that didn’t totally confuse the reader, then he might actually get a pass as a competent comics artist.

  • Yes, while it’s fun to mock Liefeld’s weird proportions, what genuinely offends most is a certain laziness, be it conveniently leaving feet out of frames or lay-out swipes or just general inconsistency. And especially n his hey-day, it seemed like the “let’s get this over with for a check, those stupid kids won’t tell or care…” type of laziness, which is way worse than a lack of craft.

  • While unoriginality and laziness may be detriments to artistry, they do not take away from the fact that he still has a high proficiency to create consistently patterned meaningful graphic images in coherent sequences.

    Really, this is another instance of the “fluency” versus “skill” issue I’ve talked about here. Just by looking at his drawings, you can tell Liefeld has passed a certain threshold of graphic fluency that most people have not (whether his approach is your cup of tea or not).

    Despite the (thankful) links to this post to this extant, I didn’t necessarily intend the post to be about Liefeld’s abilities specifically — he just makes a prototypical case for the overall bias.

  • True Groening may not get criticized for his drawings not looking realistic, but there’re those who will call him out on being a bad artist, most notably (URL= John Kricfalusi9(/URL). Well noted for complaining about non-artists critics and writers pushing cartoonist out of the world of animation.

    Despite his concentration on animation a lot of his thoughts can easily be applied to comics, and well I don’t agree with everything he says, he’s certainly worth a listen. (In some ways I think he’s the anti-Cohn.)

    ((URL= Page(/URL) of his Blog)

  • “this [the difference between skill and fluency] would be the difference between description and prescription”

    Whoa, methinks there’s a whole lot of conflatin’ goin’ on, or else I’m seriously confused (NB–inclusive “or”). If I’m reading you correctly—all right, if I’m *skimming* you correctly—fluency is the visual analogue of linguistic competence.

    A speaker is linguistically competent in a given dialect, let’s say, just in case she can produce strings that are accepted as grammatical by other speakers of the dialect (and she can recognise such grammatical strings herself). Or something like that, anyway.

    So, by analogy, a drawer is fluent just in case she can produce a visual array that is recognised by other members of the relevant visual-language-using community as well-formed (and can recognise other such arrays herself). I’m not sure what the analogue to grammaticality is, but it’s true that certain panel compositions or juxtapositions can “just look wrong” to some communities. And that’s sort of like how ungrammatical sentences get a star.

    Am I (sort of, almost, kind of but not really) right so far?

    Let’s grant all that. Now I still want to say that Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist, even if he is visually fluent in the sense just defined. RL is visually fluent in the 90s Image Superhero visual language. Similarly, I’m reasonably competent in my dialect of English. But I’m no Shakespeare, and Rob Liefeld is no Kirby.

    Hell, he’s not even a Silvestri.

    Surely I can make such aesthetic judgements about the quality of our relative productions (RL’s in pictures, mine in sentences) without being at all committed to any kind of prescriptivism about language (either verbal or visual). I’d have thought that prescriptivism about visual language was the view that there are standards of correctness for grammaticality that are (to some degree) independent of the judgements of native speakers: e.g. Regardless of How Many Other Speakers Do It, Thou Shalt Not End Sentences With Prepositions, Even When Thou Wantest T–oh, bugger. Mutatis mutandis, the same for prescriptivism about visual language.

    But prescriptivism, thus understood, says exactly nothing about aesthetics, which is what people are invoking when they criticise Liefeld’s work. Or when they tell me I’m no Shakespeare.

    I think you may be right that RL is visually fluent, and that such fluency is independent of artistic qualities (or lack thereof). But I just don’t see the parallel to description vs prescription. It seems like a much better parallel would be linguistic competence vs. verbal aesthetic quality.

    So what have I missed?

  • Jones, you have gotten everything down pat! The “skill” versus “fluency” issue would be that Liefeld is undeniably fluent, though he can still not be considered “skilled” for his “artistry” (not image-making ability).

    And by that standard, yes, you can make aesthetic judgments. Though when people usually say “bad artist” they are conflating the “skill/fluency” issues to mean both “I don’t like this person aesthetically” and “I don’t think they can draw.”

    The descriptive/prescriptive comment was partially a response the the link that NathanS gave, so sorry for the confusion. I guess this is within the skill/fluency issue as “how one determines skill” vs. fluency — you can do things that are prescriptively good/bad while still being graphically fluent.

    For example, Liefeld’s ability to draw feet is not sub-fluent (within his graphic dialect), it’s just a strange habit he has to not draw them. Judging him by it is prescriptive about his choices, along the lines of “Thou Shalt Draw Feet.”

    However, mainly my statement from the beginning has been that “poor realism” is not a criteria for being “not graphically fluent” (whatever the aesthetic opinion).

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