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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/30/2008

The Morning Line: Brad Pitt & the Art of Body Language

By Michael Cavna

As Brad Pitt coolly strode past us in the newsroom, my co-worker sighed, "I would marry him in a heartbeat."

"But can he cook?" I teased.

"Who caaares?!" she replied without pause, as the word "cares" hung in the air, buoyed by some unbashful mixture of longing, lust and deadeye certainty.

Her statement -- made a year ago now -- is also a fitting response to anyone who finds flaws in truly funny comics. As in: Who cares if "Pearls Before Swine" animals have stick-figure appendages? If anything, that makes them funnier.

Today, though, I want to appreciate the cartoonists who can cook. That is, the artists whose knowledge of the anatomy is so refined that even their "cartooniest" figures ring true visually. Today, soaring above pages of static character postures, a handful of artists stand out. They've got it, and like a movie star, they flaunt it:

From expressive hand to clodhopping toe, a visual joy. (KFS) Enlarge Comic

1. ZITS: I've written before of my deep appreciation for Jim Borgman's line (and Borgman recently told Comic Riffs that Jerry Scott organically collaborates on the entire strip, so we shan't slight him). But in terms of body language (Jeremy's hand-in-pockets slouch especially), "Zits" gets so many subtle touches just right that it's a joy to gaze over.

An artist with a lovely "Blues" period. (KFS) Enlarge Comic

2. BABY BLUES: In another Jerry Scott co-production, he and Rick Kirkman likewise get so many small things right. The lean of Zoe's back, the curled dangle of Wren's legs. Sometimes we linger over the art even before reading; there's an entire education to be found in there.

We save our deepest love for Mom. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

3. CUL DE SAC: Richard Thompson (also a Washington Post freelancer) has great visual fun with his kids, but we're convinced that some of his most exquisite touches are saved for Mom. (Take, for instance, how she leans into the table in today's last panel.) Small things, but they all add up to a finer meal.

Exotic or no, Dixie's lines dance. (NAS) Enlarge Comic

4. JUDGE PARKER: Perhaps its newest artist, Eduardo Barreto, flaunts so much skin in "Parker" precisely because so many of his lines are so elegantly true. Some poses can get stiff, but his shifting weights are a study in cartoon grace.

A self-styled type of visual vocabulary. (KFS) Enlarge Comic

5. SALLY FORTH: An unconventional choice, especially because Craig MacIntosh inherited the reins of an artistically stiff strip. While the anatomy may not always read as technically true (not necessarily the goal here anyway), we stop to appreciate MacIntosh's knowledge of body language. Today, Sally--suddenly inquisitive about Ted's new woman-friend--is all crossed and akimbo'd arms; Ted, newly high on his geeky acquaintance, is all loosened ties and relaxed power -- so much so that he's literally holding the control. For once, Ted "Lady Hands" Forth is a little more than mannish boy.

Which strips cause you to pause to appreciate the artwork? Fire away.

By Michael Cavna  | September 30, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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Next: The Riff: "Garfield's" Jon Arbuckle: Unlucky Chap or Self-Loathing Sicko?


Ever since "Brewster Rocket" made its debut in the Post, I have been impressed with its visual execution as well as with its writing.

"Zippy" may or may not be well drawn; Like all Post comics, it is so tiny on the printed page, and in the case of "Zippy" so much of it is filled with dialog, that I really can't see all that much of the art.

Posted by: Seismic-2 | September 30, 2008 8:51 AM | Report abuse

No question: "For Better Or For Worse."

Credit Lynn Johnston's training as an illustrator, proof that even a cartoonist benefits from classical training. She's always had a great comprehension of gesture and the panel layouts have been excellent.

As a response to your question, I automatically thought of the wordless single panel penultimate strip from the story arc where Lawrence came out. With no dialogue to fall back on the artwork had to be perfect, and it was.

Posted by: Daniel J. Drazen | September 30, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I love the art of all the ones you mention except for Sally Forth. The story lines are what makes that one for me.

But the one grouse I have with Zits's anatomy are Connie's breasts. I hate how they are drawn like mosquito bites. Otherwise, the strip is right on.

Posted by: debit | September 30, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

1st: Cul De Sac and Poor Richard's Alamanac

2nd: Zippy

3rd: Zits

4th: NonSequitur

5th: Get Fuzzy

Posted by: Horacio | September 30, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, the art in Sally Forth looks like drawings, not characters. It just doesn't work for me.

The characters in Zits, PBS, Pooch Cafe, Frazz, and Brewster Rockit are so alive that you forget they are child like line drawings. Great stuff.

I don't read Zippy, the dialog is often more then the yet-to-be-caffeinated brain can manage, but the pictures are fabulous.

As far as the 'realist' serials, (JP, Mark Trail, Spiderman), Barreto is absolutely lapping the field with his drawings in Judge Parker.

Posted by: JkR | September 30, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Zippy the Pinhead is really beautifully drawn. I love the artwork even on bad writing days.

The animals in Get Fuzzy may not do realistic animal things, but they sit/move/etc. in ways that you can imagine that cats and dogs *would*. Plus the humans are extremely well-drawn, with animated expressions.

Brewster Rockit is also a joy for me to look at.

Sally Forth...I disagree. The body language may be all right, but the overall effect is mechanical, and they don't get facial expressions at *all*.

Posted by: Jayelle | September 30, 2008 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Zippy may be "beautifully drawn" but the artist continually fixates on hair stubble, seemingly to exaggerate Zippy's base condition. It's too much of a downer to spend any time on.

I'd like to put in a word for Mutts in this regard. In sparse lines, McDonnell captures movement so well. And his latest books include blow-ups of certain details that make the artistry so much more apparent.

Posted by: Ollabelle | September 30, 2008 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Connie's breasts also tend to point upwards a lot, which is very disturbing.

Frank Cho of the late lamented Liberty Meadows had incredible detail, which he only lavished on his buxom female characters as opposed to the barnyard supporting cast.

McIntosh briefly experimented with a softer rounder style for the Sally Forth gang (this may have been before Francesco Marciuliano took over writing duties from founder Craig Howard). It was wildly denounced and McIntosh quickly went back to imitating Howard's stiff figures.

The writing for Sally Forth is key. Over the past couple of years Ces has done some marvelous low-key storylines on depression, job loss, sibling rivalry, toxic parents and so on. On my blog, I put together some ideas on where the Ted/Aria story is going.

And yeah, I plugged that a few days ago as well.

Posted by: yellojkt | September 30, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a big fan of 9 Chickweed Lane's humour, but you've got to admit that it is well drawn. Amos' slouch, back when he was a kid, made my spine ache just to look at it.

Also really like Non Sequiter, especially those bears.

Posted by: marshlc | September 30, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Judge Parker's Eduardo Barreto can make a character painting a room visually exciting.

Annie's Ted Slampyak brings back memories of when cartoonists could draw.

My favorite is Friday's Six Chixs' Kathryn LeMieux. Her use of black and cartoony faces makes me stare with wonder long after I finish reading the rest of the comics.

Posted by: michael | September 30, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

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