Take a moment to pore over a panel in Tony Millionaire’s stylish comic Maakies. Ignore, for now, the charming antiquities — the florid prose and oppressive minutiae, the eyes empty of pupils — and pay close attention to the line itself. See how Drinky Crow’s bottle of hooch is sculpted with stiff strokes, a thick, languorous line for the shape and a jittery, thin one for the shadow. And how the whole drawing practically reeks of some codger’s smoking jacket, a pipey aroma rolled in from the 19th century. That, in full bloom, is the signature scent of a single pen: the rapidograph.
Rock guitarists have their Les Paul; cartoonists, their rapidograph. The pen is a rite of passage, an instrument that lends their line instant character and plugs their work into comics’ striated heritage, which trails back to the days when illustrators dipped before they drew.
The revolutionary stylus was developed by German penmaker Rotring in 1953 (named for the “red ring” that fluted their creations). A new $40 rapidograph is as finicky as its line. It arrives with instructions, explaining how its eight separate pieces fit together, the important ones being the ink cartridge (refillable or replaceable, depending on the model) and a removable stainless-steel nib that comes in a dozen variations of point size, from the .13 mm of a single eyelash to the 2 mm of a swollen vein.
Against a delicate leaf of paper, the sound of a rapidograph is as raw as the line it produces; the shrill scrape of a rodent gnawing its way out of a milk carton. Forget the balletic sweep of a brush or the bleeding discharge of a permanent marker. The rapidograph doesn’t merely apply ink to paper: it claws it in, scratching black lines onto the virgin white page. It’s only natural that a fussy thatch of abrasions should be its characteristic look.
The rapidograph quickly caught on among draftsmen and designers, who elevated the technical pen to an industry standard. It became an art-school accoutrement — like the beret and the sneer — and its reliable lines began to gristle blueprints, advertisements and, of course, comics.
In the latter field, its star adherent is Robert Crumb, whose voluptuous translation of classic Americana the pen perfectly complements with its unyielding exactness, emitting a steady stream of ink from a precision-crafted nib that rolls as easily as a ballpoint but doesn’t bleed, and mimics the sharpness of a quill without needing a bottle of India ink.
Aside from the pen’s ubiquity and convenience, many cartoonists, especially in the underground swell of the late ’60s, grew enamored of its arcane effects, its lacerations that lent even something as far-out as a flaming eyeball or a plump breast sprouting from a glen the rustic charm of a pioneer’s cabin. When Crumb came along, wielding his “stoopid rapidographo” like some foil-waving musketeer, the pen became de rigueur among the underground artists who flocked to his side– Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson and the rest — who used it to finesse their baroque freakouts.
Rapidograph has become the generic name for any ink-cartridge pen, and its incisive style is now deeply gouged in the comics aesthetic, reaching as far as Japan, where its crow-quill fingerprint in the work of an artist like Hayao Miyazaki accompanies the region’s calligraphic tradition. Even cartoonists who stray from the density it often engenders stake their line on it: Matt Groening uses several in his spartan Life in Hell strip (the .70 mm nib to draw the characters and dialogue, the .50 mm for small lettering and the 2 mm for the frames and speech balloons). So does Gary Larson, and they fastidiously record every tick of his drawing hand. Adrian Tomine draws his backgrounds with one, while countless others use it for their lettering or in their sketchbooks. The pen is a prickly beast, and it’s left quite a mark.
FIVE BOOKS OF RAPIDO-GRAPHY
When We Were Very Maakies by Tony Millionaire
The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book by Robert Crumb
Zap #3 (reprint) by R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin et al.
Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
Big Book of Hell: The Best of Life in Hell by Matt Groening