For many of us, the first thing we learned to draw was Homo
Anorexia: the Stick Figure.
A circle, a few straight lines, and
there it was: a shaky but recognizable approximation of the human
body. The Stick waltzed into our games (hangman), the surreptitious
notes we passed around in class (“Mr. Biderman eats monkey spooge!”)
and, for a select few, the artwork we developed in adulthood. Many
art schools still teach their students to begin with a Stick, to
pose it like a skeletal Gumby before adding the flesh and fineries.
Like its cousin the smiley face, the Stick is an icon,
pliant enough for a million uses. Its simplicity, however, has made
it an emblem of artlessness. If anyone can draw it, the reasoning
goes, why bother? Yet the emergence of a thriving alternative-comics
industry has created an outlet — and an audience — for cartoonists
who defy such conventions, even those who base their work on this
touchstone of artistic ineptitude.
Sam Brown is one such deviant. Brown is a cartoonist and
illustrator from Connecticut whose comics blog (http://www.explodingdog.com/)
is a virtual Stick theatre, a collection of colourful panels with
whimsical captions (a recent sample: “fairy on a mushroom looking at
a butterfly or the stars”) and a cast overrun with underdrawn toons.
He makes his comics in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet, a digital
drawing board with an electronic stylus — hi-fi tools for such
lo-fi work. The drawings are crude, which keeps his cartoons from
becoming precious, though the panels are composed with obvious
care, and his stories, some of which are available in booklets and
sold through his site, are absorbing. One of his best, 2002’s New
Job, concerns a hapless office drone on his first day at work
who is given the Kafkaesque task of finding something without being
told what it is.
Brown’s comics wobble between adult whimsy and children’s lit.
They would equally suit the head shop and the daycare. His work is
sweet, slightly melancholy, and it proves one of comics’
counterintuitive rules: the simpler the characters are drawn, the
more the reader — provided the story holds our interest — will
identify with them.
It’s what comics theorist Scott McCloud calls amplification
through simplification, the abstraction of an image to its essential
“meaning” (one circle for a head, two smaller circles for eyes,
etc.). This focuses our attention on just those bits, and encourages
us to fill in the rest.
This certainly happens with Brown’s comics. We read nuance into
his characters’ vacant faces, find expression in the slightest shift
of the eyeballs’ distance from the mouth, see grace in the scribbled
hand rubbing the bottom of the circle (what we know instinctively is
the chin). We even find ourselves coming to like these strange,
empty vessels. They seem alive somehow, in a way the
hyperarticulated work of a more technical cartoonist rarely does.
Vancouver’s Dustin Ladd also draws Sticks, and he wants his to
live in three dimensions. Ladd’s strip is called Almost Evil
(read it at http://www.dustinladd.com/).
Its world is large and bare, as sparsely furnished as that of
Peanuts, though the occasional prop (a fridge, a bureau) is
The strip’s essence, however, is our pre-caloric man. Each male
figure sports the same earless head and rapier limbs. (The girls, at
least, get mops of hair.) The contrast between these facile figures
and their naturalistic environment is a constant source of yuks.
Ladd trades often in puns, both verbal and visual — especially ones
that toy with the characters’ relationship to their surrounding
panels. In one memorable strip, a Stick steps out of his panel onto
the blank page, only to start gasping for air and clawing back into
But Ladd doesn’t trust his conceit as fully as Brown does. He
notably gives his Sticks expressive, articulate hands, and accents
their movements with a full glossary of motion lines and effects.
What makes Brown’s surface simplicity poignant is the care of its
presentation and the equally austere story it helps tell. It gives
us permission to overlook the artwork’s glaring, intentional
omissions. Ladd is afraid we might not get it. He wants to subvert
the conventions of cartooning. But not enough to be called a hack.