In 1986, having just completed some layouts for a Jonny Quest strip, professional comic book artist Steve Rude decided to fax his work to a personal hero – celebrated cartoonist Alex Toth – in the hope of garnering some productive feedback. Toth’s brutal handwritten response, the reading of which must have been more than a little painful for Rude despite the inclusion of some undeniably sound advice, can be seen below.
Steve Rude’s 2005 interview with Draw! magazine, in which he speaks about Toth’s reply, can be seen here.
Transcript follows. Scans courtesy of the Concept Art Forums.
Re Page One (of 12) Splash — I won’t mince words! You’re too good to be so bad! Right up front! Your ‘Quest’ splash is fake everything! From palm tree, camel (!?), tarp’, supplies, ‘copter, shack, pumps, incidental props! Terrain, etc. You could have researched the lot (since it was your story’s setting) via photobooks, mags, like Nat’l Geo’, etc, etc, and your library or bookshop! The fakery’s so obvious, in the most important splash, that it detracts from what follows — you cripple credibility at the start (yours! And the story’s!) by sloughing-off the setting and integrity of your depiction of it —christ, man, you weren’t asked to depict another planet! Just (what I assume to be) North Africa or the Middle East — (i can’t read your copy!) — so why didn’t you document the locale?! Authenticate it?! Or, fake it, one helluvalot better!
Re all this — and your odd diminution of the characters’ importance by placing them so poorly (except for Jonny’s dad) — Jonny’s hardly identifiable, so far away, and his back to us (!!) and Tina Haaji and the pudgy guy with him; testing our eyesight, perhaps?
Look — this scene’s meant to set up our cast, close enough, and posed, so as to be identifiable! Also to establish just where the hell we are! Thinking comes first, Steve — then drawing — to tell the story — intrigue the reader — delight, surprise, edify, inform, entertain him; in the context of the story! Tell the story, man! Don’t throw away your opening shot! Your intro to all our key characters! Think! If you must fake what you don’t know, do it better, be more clever about it, or don’t fake! It’s not difficult to get what you need to research a story! Do it!
I think you slapped out the splash with too little thought or care — and I don’t understand it, kiddo! It wouldn’t have been much tougher to do it right! It would’ve made drawing it more interesting for you, for the story, for the reader — you — and they — would’ve learnt something! About camels, their gear, the oasis (?!), the two ‘copters, and the safari gear layed out and the terrain, its heat, fauna (palm trees, etc) of that region! You just threw out all the pictorial interest native to that locale — and substituted nondescript fakery! You don’t realize that your sets/locales are vital to the whole job!
P.1 — Who’s the silhouetted guy in the bg, and why is he important?
P.2 — Faked bg, figures, confuse, don’t reveal any story point or ‘local color’ — and when did you last heft a heavy box? Jonny + haaji are not carrying them as if they held weight! Fakery again!
P.3 — More of our mysterious background man in silhouette! Why? Who is he? Should we care? You make me wonder — and if i’m not meant to wonder, then you’ve distracted me from what I should’ve seen first and understood straight away, and you’ve failed as a proper storyteller! You don’t think!
P.4 — Who’s the woman? Where the hell did she pop out from? Is she important? Why don’t we establish/intro her face/identity, clearly — if she is important, that is —?
P.4 — Faked Jonny/Haaji/’copter —(Ye Gods!)— poses of work!
P.5 — All fake, fg to bg — silhouetted nobody — tiny ‘copters.
P.1 — Tiny figures/unidentifiable/faked ‘copters worsened by 3 different perspectives here — all out of whack!
P.2 — More tiny figures! Fake! Where the hell’s Jonny, our hero? Shame on you!
P.3 — There he is! Squeezed him in, did you? But again, who’s pudgy, with his back to us? Why can’t we see what the Dr.’s bending to see? It’s off-camera! Why? Show it! Bad!
P.4 — Okay — I guess —
P.5 — Where’s Jonny? Why cheat our other leads out of the shot?
P.1 — What the hell kind of camera and tripod is this? Fake! Who’s the guy behind it? Why’s she hiding? Who’s the gal? We’ve not yet seen her face clearly! She’s with our ‘keys’ (principals) in the boonies, but always in the bg, or as in —
P.2 — With her face off-camera!!!! Why?!? Damn it!! Why? You call this storytelling?! You’re not thinking! Why is her holster empty here, but filled with gun in P.6? (perhaps your unreadable copy might’ve explained this!?)
P.3 — Good pose on Jonny, but you’ve cheated his face down/back, so is unclear — only his hair (color) and turtleneck identify him — I know that — will a new reader have to figure it out?
P.4 — I pass!
P.5 — I pass (tripods telescope in reverse of your item!) I’m guessing that this is a remote-controlled or self-timed 360° rotating panoramic camera — but why the flash unit on it? It’s serve no purpose by day, or night! Too small and just plain wrong! Fake!—(i’m a camera buff, Steve!)
P.6 — So’s this shot — a photog’s ‘blind’? Well, maybe so! But, again, why don’t we see/identify this gal’s face?!!?
P.1. Oh, great! More rearviews (no faces!) of our leads! And two tiny figures again in bg — minimal, fake, setting
P.2 — At last, Jonny — overpowered by out-of-the-blue — antiquity not established in previous shots of the new setting — lousy unthinking storytelling!
P.3 — Why is this sculpture so damned important? To you? To the leads? To the story? I Think not! You’ve shrunk our leads for this slight shift of view of it, for no good reason!
P.4. Again — tiny, near-invisible figures! Fake ruins! Confusion, distraction, senseless, unfocused, framing!
P.5 — Fine Jonny — but confusing object he’s leaning on! A well? Old stonework? I can’t be sure? Can you? Ever see centuries’ old stonework, in photos, films, in the real world? It ages, man! It erodes in deserts, by weather, wind, rain, sun’s heat, etc, etc, etc — it’s rough, pitted, deformed, and very interesting — in closeups! You’ve failed to make use of it — didn’t research it — didn’t think!
P.6 — Tiny figures again — poor fg figure (silhouette or not?)
P.1 — No teeth? No eyes?
P.2 — Back views of our heroes again! Confusing bg!
P.3 — Tiny, tiny, nothing, faked figures! No focus, no real center, to this mishmosh!
P.4 — Pass
P.5 — Pass (but this guy doesn’t match with his P.1. Face!)
P.1 — Tiny, fake figures — confusing, pointless downshot!
P.2 — Face changes panel to panel!
P.3 — Fake! Tiny heroes again!
P.4 — Tiny — but passable —
P.5 — Unconvincing/confusing downshot/can’t ‘read’ what’s below! Skeletons? Too tiny! Unclear!
P.6 — Fake — all of it! Every really look at a turban? See how it’s wound around a head? Is that a teepee/wigwam in bg? Are we in the 1800’s west?
P.1 — Pass
P.2 — Pass
P.3 — What in hell’s goin’ on here?!! Downshot’s wrong
P.4 — Pass
P.5 — “
P.6 — “
P.7 — Confusing — poor bg figure — black overlaps, etc
P.1 — Your downshots never fail to confuse and confound the eye! Clarify! Don’t confuse!
P.2 — Pass —
P.3 — Another damned backview Jonny! Damnit! And where the hell did the pop-up tripod/camera come from? You failed to clearly set this up, previously!
P.4 — Your blacks only confuse figures’ overlaps more!
P.5 — Damn! Running the wrong way on that bridge — they came in that way (L-R), should run back, the other way now (R-L) — you don’t think!
P.6 — This directional switch confuses more again — but is, surprisingly, correct! If you reverse P.5!
P.7 — You’ve reversed again! Wrongly!
P.8 — Ditto —
P.1 — Oh, terrific! More unidentifiable tiny figures of our heroes in bg! And more gd backviews of equally unidentifiable fg figures in unclear, awkward poses on ground! If they’re tied up, then, damn it, show that!! Your natives’ garb are fake! Where’d the woman in her babushka, or kerchief come from? Who/what is she? Do you care? I Don’t at this stage of confusion!
P.2. Whose face are you hiding now? The guy in specs! Who is he? Didn’t you get enough H+B model sheets?
P.3 — Where did race bannon come from? Who’s the gal? Is she in a beret now? Where are we? What’s goin’ on?
P.4 — I don’t know where this radio set is! You didn’t set it up previously — didn’t think! Ahead — or back — to adjust, change, have it all tie together smoothly! If you saw a movie/tv show as poorly though-out and shot, you’d have fits too — like I am now! Mercy!
P.5 — Whatever — I can’t figure out who’s on first?! But the direction of toss is wrong!
P.1 — So’s this!
P.2 — Pass — hell, I don’t know, nor care, anymore!
P.3 — So — ?
P.4 — ?
P.5. Okay, I s’pose — (but mg’s at hip level, as shown)
P.6. And, here, needlessly hoisted up to eye level to blow away the gal right in front of/and below the baddie, no sense to this at all — it’s a rifle pose, without cause — as an mg is a spray weapon — at close or far range!
P.7 — I can’t ‘read’ all your black art — can you?!
P.8 — You’ve, thoughtlessly, reversed figure positions, so have destroyed action flow/followthrough here, in sequence! You don’t understand visual continuity or directional flow at all! I’m amazed! Look, think! Once you’ve set up figures on left, and right, for a sequence like this, keep left left and right right! Orientation of all key figures will keep the action going in the proper, and same, direction. This is called action flow/directional flow/followthrough! Verstehst du?
If you’d think more, half your work’d be done for you! You keep shooting yourself in the foot! And destroy your tentative visual continuity! Don’t you study movies/tv and notice these things? When it’s right, when it’s wrong — and why it is?!
Page Twelve —(Alas!)
P.i ‘Spec’s’ head’s down again —!!?! Who is this gal?! Is she the one with the pith helmet way back at the beginning of all this confusion?
P.2 — Pass
P.3 — Pass
P.4 — What’s she doing?
P.5 — More tiny figures — I give up!
If you didn’t have talent, I wouldn’t give you .5 minutes’ sweat at this, Steve — but I think you’ve cheated and faked your way through this whole story! As if you didn’t care enough to think any of it through!
A few welldrawn figures in 12 pages, doesn’t cut it, kiddo! Since you asked, I gave you the critique — if you’re pissed, i’m sorry! But i’m dismayed that you don’t concern yourself with what is vital/important to any story you do, to do it right — or not do it at all!
Forget technique, tricks, cheating, faking, and concentrate on how to tell a story as it should be told!
Clarify! Reveal! Don’t conceal! Don’t confuse! Show! Explain! Simplify! Economize! Open up areas! Don’t clutter! For God’s sake, if you don’t know about a subject you must draw, then find out! You’ll learn! So will your readers! Once drawn, you’ll keep memory of it — so, years later, you’ll recall it, if need be — photos help document/authenticate subjects, people, places, things, and we’re swarming with sources for such info — there’s no excuse for not using it — camels and palm trees and ‘copters and deserts and costumes are infinitely varied — their differing types provides you with pictorial fun and interest — ditto your readers! Use it! Learn!
Think! Think! Think!
— before you draw — while you draw — and after — and redraw, if it doesn’t work — be honest, with yourself! And your readers! Stop faking! You don’t know enough to do it well, so don’t! Learn! See! Observe!
I’m old fashioned, but I don’t comprehend your (and too many other young cartoonists’) disdain for designing all your captions and dialogue balloons’ exact shape/size/positions in every panel and page — and, clearly, pencilling-in legible readable copy!?
I always did, and do — as did most of my generation of crocks! You’re missing half the fun (and all of the responsibility!) by throwing that part of your job away, too! Copy, in strips, as in all graphic/aural media, is of vital importance, and part of overall design! It controls your reader’s eyeflow, through your panels, up, dow, around, and pages! Why fob it off on a letterer who’ll care less, know less, about such vital components and who may just mess it up more? I Don’t get it!
The logo (title) placement’s very important, too, and if you’re given a ‘Jonny Quest’ stat for pasteup, or design your own, plus the story (episode) title, that’s your job!
You’ve played fast and loose with this too! Disappointing! You don’t care!
Or do you?
As it is, I don’t see our title here ‘Jonny Quest’ in all of this splash page — just the backview of a kid who ‘might’ be him, unimportantly sized and positioned and posed — for a first-time reader to see this page, he’d wonder which character was the hero?
You give more importance to an incidental character in Panel 2, than Jonny in the splash? Why? And who’s the guy in the bg? Study staging, in films/tv/and yes, the stage!
And keep doing that all your productive life!
Always be a student! A scholar! Admitting to how little you know, how much there’s still left to learn, is your key to learning! For a lifetime!
Study everything! Be curious/interested/in everything. You may have to draw it someday! You can’t draw something credibly until/unless you do/can understand it! And vice versa!
Comic books print the worst junk art! 99% of it is cheap, vulgar, ignorant, ugly, senseless, fakery and trickery of characterless hue — if that’s all you want, just do what you’re doing — you’ll be a mite better than the rest, but that won’t be much!
Your growth is in your hands, not mine!
I hate giving critiques — an emotional drain! They anger me! And those I critique! Like you! If you’re angry — don’t waste it on me! Be angry with you! You are in your own hands, like clay, waiting to be formed — you must always be your own best teacher! Not me! I Refuse that — unless I hold classes!
No old pro, no teacher, no school, no book, no how-to film/casette will ever teach you as well as you can and must. But they help you to think!
To do that, you must be aware! Not smug, or complacent, or cocky, or relaxed, about how good you are! You’ve used 10% of your thinking skills thus far — you’ve got 90% left! For the rest of your career and life! How much of it will you use?
Forget all the fandom bullshit and kudos and hype and cons’ groupies’ adulation — and be true to yourself and your long road ahead to the top, or to wherever you want to go — and don’t let ego stop you from learning to do better, best!
That’s all, kiddo! Study our old masters of art, sculpture, illustration, strips, film, of the last 100 years and beyond, here and abroad!