Doodle is one of those great words that really captures the essence of the activity it describes, something frivolous and lighthearted but also a little bit lazy. Writing the word in cursive, which for some reason seems perfectly appropriate, demands little more than a carefree succession of circles–you can just sort of let your pen tumble along like an old-timey trick pilot doing loop after loop after loop in a clear blue sky. For a professional artist, though, doodling can quickly become something else: sketching, or drafting, or practicing, or even working, which is fundamentally antithetical to the whole doodle ethos. But as we see in a new book, even when an experienced hand isn’t striving for anything beyond lighthearted and lazy, the results are still worth looking at.
Comics Sketchbooks: The Private Worlds of Today’s Most Creative Talents culls unseen work from the personal files of some 80 artists, including among them big names like the legendary Robert Crumb, Marvel guru Jim Steranko. and graphic novelist Charles Burns alongside scores of lesser-known talents. Some deal strictly in comics, others work in particular lanes like political cartoons or animations.
The visual offerings are as diverse as the artists. Some of the images seem like concerted works in various states of progress. We see drafts for comic strips, complete with text; cartoon characters whose smooth lines betray their digital origins; and more than one mock-up for a New Yorker cover.
But the most interesting sections are those that honored the book’s title and offer an unguarded look at artistic talent in its rawest form. In many cases, contributions announce their authenticity with traces of their original materials, things like faded composition book margins or lengths of spiral binding left uncropped after a scan. French artist Sebastian Lumineau bravely offers up a two-page spread of drawings on yellow Post-It notes. Mark Newgarden includes a cartoon-strewn red file folder. Underground comic artist Denis Kitchen probably takes the prize for most unconventional canvas; his section features a brown parcel with sketches squeezed in among the labels and stamps.
Some of the artists understandably weren’t comfortable with coughing up their roughest work. And some declined to cough up anything at all. “I contacted about 25 more than I’ve included,” says Steven Heller, the former New York Times art director who served as the book’s editor. “Some said they did not retain their sketches. Others were reluctant to share. And most were not as good as I had imagined.”
But for amateurs like myself, those roughest sketches are often the most revelatory. They’re the places where the “private worlds” promised by the book’s title are most fully glimpsed, and where the innate talents of the artists are most evident.
In Heller’s words, the collection “takes the magic out of ‘art,'” essentially showing us what comes before the finished product. But I prefer to look at the sketches from the other direction, as the stuff the pros do when art is the last thing on their minds. Basically what doodling looks like at its finest, before it turns into something else entirely.