Sunday, January 22, 2012

America, America

After attending two IMCs and being exposed to so many influential names from the history of American illustration there, it was both informative and inspiring to sit down with this recent publication and pore through such an amazing heritage of technical prowess and stylistic virtuosity. I remember James Gurney and Greg Manchess making repeated mention of some of the names artists mentioned in the book as sources of influence and inspiration. The book also includes a handful of women artists. Naturally the absence of African-American artists and images makes the book less enjoyable as a record of the history of opportunity and access where the profession is concerned. Nonetheless, the author saw fit to include examples of a few artists' interpretations of the African-American experience, including a moving gospel scene by an artist whose name escapes me at the moment. Famous American Illustrators emphasizes the kinds of work artists did, which to be fair, may at times have more to do with the conditions and demands of the time than their own personal interests, politics and attitudes. Thankfully, nothing overtly racist or demeaning appears in the book. One page includes an illustration within the illustration of a ad featuring Rastus, the iconic black chef featured on Cream of Wheat ads and packaging. The image dates back November 1896, and is included on a poster in a scene with two boys playing hooky while evading a stout, switch wielding school teacher. The scene seems to reference Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

The lack of diversity in the people depicted in vast majority of illustrations is part of what would have caused me to avoid it several years ago. For me, it was really hard to disassociate the images from days of de facto discrimination, lynchings and Jim Crow laws. I saw an element of self-aggrandizement and white supremacist beliefs, and a history of misrepresenting the truth about American life. I had similar feelings about one of the latest editions of Spectrum. However, I keep coming back to the fact that illustrators paint what they know and what they are commissioned to paint in order to survive. We are beholden to whatever the market demands.

Prior to my first IMC, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that artists commissioned to illustrate for Magic: The Gathering are encouraged through the game's style guide to include a more diversity in terms of things like costuming, facial features and skin tones in their art. My understanding is that the goal is to add value and interest to the art by avoiding old cliches and stereotypes. However, such images are not used to promote the game itself. Blizzard's highly anticipated Diablo III features a witch doctor class of playable character that is clearly influenced by various African traditions. Their fictional race of humans known as the Umbaru are new to the Diablo universe. Some might remember the black sorcerer in Diablo 1 and the s dark-skinned paladin from Diablo II. Diablo was the first rpg I played that included a female character with a range of abilities as engaging as those of the male characters. In fact, all of the new character classes in Diablo III will have both male and female options. Yet another refreshing and groundbreaking feature in D3 is the design of the female barbarian. She is a strong, hefty woman, but still appealing. The female witch doctor on the other hand has a lot of face paint and is usually shown with a big-assed mask in the concept art and gameplay videos. Which brings to mind my top ten pet peeves about black or African-inspired female characters in mainstream fantasy art:

  1. face paint; This might work for an alternate battle mode, but it's always better to present the character at some point without the face paint.
  2. she only likes white guys; I guess the thinking here is to show openness or to appeal to the target demographic, but I see this so often that I wonder if there might be something else at work here.
  3. face covered with a mask; My own co-creation Guila notwithstanding, wouldn't you rather illustrate a beautiful black woman's face? Wouldn't your audience rather see that than a big-assed mask?
  4. cover her head with an animal skull; Again, it's the old "return to primitivism" thing. If you're consistent with these kinds of treatments with your white characters, cool. Otherwise, think about where these images come from before you include them in your designs. And no more dangling chicken bones, okay? Or at least have them carved or styled into something appealing.
  5. long straight hair; I'll admit that I've been fooled by many a weave in my day, but trust me, naturally straight hair, while it definitely has its appeal, is actually quite rare amongst black women. Chemically straightened hair takes a lot of work, and just doesn't make sense in certain situations. Unless you can find a way to work some new technology or add a hairdresser to the game or story, you might want to consider something natural.
  6. skin lightening; If you can get the color, lighting and textures to work for blue, green and purple skin, fur and everything else, you can do it for dark brown skin. No more excuses.
  7. the white woman with dreads trick; Self-explanatory.
  8. give her a stick; Grace Jones really got shafted in the second Conan movie. Wilt Chamberlain too. How many sword and sorcery flicks from the 80s gave black characters sticks and clubs to fight with?
  9. the spiritual guide; I may have to back off on this one. I liked the Legend of Bagger Vance and the shaman in BSG. I just would rather have her spiritually guide HER OWN PEOPLE for once in the script.
  10. no mechs and tech; Try a little research on black women in fields like engineering and biotech. You might find some inspiration out there.
I doubt that I will ever even be in a position of decision-making on any of this as an artist at any significant level, but hopefully this list will provide food for thought to someone. So much has improved in the entertainment world over the past 30 years, and I keep seeing an increasing number of thoughtful characterizations of black women in a variety of media. Couple that with independent black writers and artists who have taken it upon themselves to create the things we want to see, and things can only get better at all levels of the industry. Big kudos to the artists and writers out there who make an honest effort to change the game. Pat yourselves on the back. You know who you are. But, I digress.

AAU illustration folks and others should definitely take a look at this book, as it connects with so many of the teaching methods and traditions of our department.

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