Category Archives: character design

A Sunday afternoon wedding

Some caricatures from the weekend—

You can book me here: https://www.thebash.com/caricaturist/johnmanders

Mucho mejor

Much better. I made Rosinantes just a little bit bigger—115%. It made all the difference.

Don Quixote

What Picasso might have created if he’d learned how to draw. I have to admit I may have made Rosinantes too small. I’ll fix that when I paint him.

We did it! We slogged through every first piece of vernacular Western literature (written in the author’s own language rather than Latin)—at least all the ones I can think of. German, English, Italian, French, Spanish. Chivalry and knights in shining armor sure was a popular subject. It’s as if: even as writers were moving everyone into a more modern age they needed to fondly look back and say so-long to the Middle Ages.

Spanish author Miguel Cervantes (mee-GEL sair-VAHN-tez) was having none of that. It was the late 1500s, the Middle Ages were over and their foolishnesses needed to be lampooned. In his book, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), the doddering old gentleman Don Quixote (DON kee-HO-tay) is obsessed day and night with reading those poems of chivalry and knights and their mighty deeds—to the point where his brain dries out. It’s cooked. Don Quixote loses his marbles; he becomes demented. Don Quixote gets the idea he should put on an old suit of armor he finds in a barn and become a knight-errant to restore honor to Spain. He talks a local peasant, Sancho Panza, into being his squire by promising him a parcel of real estate. The Don chooses as his steed a moth-eaten, played-out scrawny old horse named Rosinantes. As a nod to courtly love, he fixates on a local girl he calls Dulcinea—but she has no idea that she’s being honored this way.

Don Quixote and Sancho go adventuring across the countryside, questing for wrongs to be righted and monsters to vanquish. In the book’s most famous scene, Don Quixote (whose eyesight isn’t so good) mistakes a windmill for an ogre and charges at it with his lance. He gets caught up in the windmill’s vanes and has to be untangled. In nearly every other adventure, Don Quixote and Sancho get beat up by whomever they encounter.

Don Quixote is considered to be the first modern novel (a book-length work of fiction). Cervantes intended to move us out of the past into modernity, and he sure did. One bit of pure writing genius: Don Quixote speaks Old Spanish while the other characters speak modern Spanish. For us English speakers, imagine a modern novel’s character speaking like Chaucer or Shakespeare. Cervantes’ readers understood Don Quixote’s dialogue but he sounds antique and out-of-step.*

* In fact, Aldous Huxley used this gag in Brave New World to give us information about a character—https://www.litcharts.com/lit/brave-new-world/chapter-7

Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry for Don Quixote, including a summary of the story:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote
Look! You can get a poster of the title page of the 1605 edition of Don Quixote: https://www.amazon.com/Quixote-Ntitle-Cervantes-Published-Valencia/dp/B07C4K5LDY/ref=asc_df_B07C4K5LDY/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=527702999903&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=9503647619533183764&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9005111&hvtargid=pla-1401775165677&psc=1
https://www.biography.com/writer/miguel-de-cervantes
And here’s Peter O’Toole in the musical Man of La Mancha. In this scene, Cervantes is in prison, entertaining his fellow prisoners. In real life he’d been imprisoned twice, the first stretch for 5 years as a guest of the Turks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH9nDlBr3b4
You can visit Don Quixote’s windmills—https://www.awayn.com/listing/all_listings/consuegra-spain-consuegra-the-windmills-of-don-quixote-hiking-trip/

Hey, whadayaknow—Sophia Loren’s in this movie, too! She’s Dulcinea, who maybe wasn’t so unaware of being treated like a lady. I know, it’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42y15BYusmA&t=209s

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Beowulf in one sentence

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Yes, you lucky readers, it’s time for my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of Beowulf! Ready? Hang on to your horned helmets ‘cause here we go—

The drinking song from The Student Prince ran through my head while I drew this one, so here’s the link. Isn’t that Anne Blyth adorable, though? Mario Lanza does the singing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3Bcgh4Jko

In Denmark King Hrothgar builds a big mead-hall it’s a big barn where his warriors can hang out and party (mead is an adult beverage) play music and listen to storytellers they’re whooping it up and making a racket at all hours which annoys Grendel who is a horrible monster who lives in the swamp near the mead-hall Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night he even kills a bunch of

them which dampens the party atmosphere none of the Danish warriors is a match for Grendel finally a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s situation Beowulf sails to Denmark with 14 guys Hrothgar holds a big feast for Beowulf at the feast a little wiseacre named Unferth says maybe Beowulf isn’t up to the job the music stops Beowulf tells the crowd all about the big things

he’s done the party starts back up again but then Grendel bursts in and Beowulf fights him unarmed because he’s so strong they have a rip-roaring mortal battle and Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off so Grendel limps back to his swampy home to die the warriors party on and eventually fall asleep but things are about to get real Grendel’s mom is a much worse monster who chews gum and kills Danish warriors and she’s all out of chewing gum she comes to Hrothgar’s party and grabs Esher who was the emcee so Beowulf says I’ll handle this and tracks Grendel’s mom to a lake where Esher’s head is bobbing in the water and he thinks this must be the place so he dives down to her underwater lair at the bottom of the lake and they have a knock-down drag-em-out fight the situation looks bad for our hero but there’s a magic sword on the knick-knack shelf Beowulf grabs it and kills her with it so now no more monsters in Denmark King Hrothgar thanks Beowulf with great heaping piles of treasure they have another big party and Beowulf heads home with his pals he gives his treasure to King Higlac who rewards Beowulf with real estate and swords now we skip ahead 50 or 60 years Higlac is dead and Beowulf is king of the Geats there’s an underground cave full of treasure that’s guarded by a dragon some stupid Geat steals a bejeweled cup from the cave while the dragon’s asleep and when the dragon wakes up he knows right away the cup’s missing so he goes on a rampage and burns everything down including Beowulf’s house so Beowulf goes to the cave to kill the dragon but he’s not so young as he used to be they have a harum-scarum fiery battle Beowulf breaks his sword and the dragon bites him on the neck Beowulf’s old pal Wiglaf comes to the rescue and stabs the dragon then Beowulf cuts the dragon in half with his knife (it doesn’t say lengthwise or crosswise) but it’s game over for Beowulf that was his last fight Wiglaf builds a giant tomb for Beowulf with lots of treasure the Geats give Beowulf a viking send-off with a big funeral pyre and bury his ashes and treasure in the tomb.

https://www.ancient-literature.com/other_beowulf.html
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-43045874
Here’s a movie reviewer who gets Beowulf. https://www.salon.com/2007/11/20/beowulf_2/

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Arrivederci, Rome

Three things were happening that I think are worth noticing: 1) the Renaissance was a celebration of Humanism—they revived the philosophical thinking of Greece & Rome and toned down the theology of the Catholic Church; 2) the Protestant Reformation happened because people were already dissatisfied with the Church; 3) Latin had become a way to keep regular shmos from reading and understanding the Bible themselves. Renaissance authors figured out that rejecting Latin in favor of vernacular languages was a way they could communicate directly with their readers.

The Roman poet Horace who deserves a lot more respect than I’m giving him in this cartoon

It looks like the intellectuals of that age were all about giving the Church a kick in the shins, and maybe the Church had it coming. One of the themes of this history is how institutions get bloated, entrenched and run by a handful of elites. The regular shmos put up with it for only so long. When somebody invents a way to work around the elites’ communications apparatus, regular shmos seize on it and the elites lose their power. We saw it happen with the invention of the alphabet. Now we’re looking at how movable type busted up the Mediæval Church’s monopoly on reading & writing.

Geoff Chaucer trying out some new lines in Middle English

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible was in German. German is vernacular—that is, it’s what everyday regular shmos in Saxony spoke. French is vernacular. English is vernacular. Spanish and Italian are vernacular. They are the romance languages that developed from Latin. From the days of the Roman Republic to the Mediæval period, anything worth writing was written in Latin or sometimes Greek. The Renaissance—the 13-, 14- & 1500s—was different. Authors said no thanks to Latin & Greek and began writing literature in their own language. The printing press allowed them to reach a wide audience.

https://www.definitions.net/definition/vernacular+literature
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/protestant-reformation/
https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanism
https://www.britannica.com/art/Latin-literature

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The mighty Alcuin

Alcuin with his students

Charlemagne was king of France at 20-something years old. He was remarkable simply for being able to make big, important decisions—a good general and executive. Charlemagne was also eager to learn new things.

Charlemagne’s dad and grand-dad had set up a school at the royal palace. It was meant to teach young princelings how to behave at court, how eventually to become a king. Charlemagne wanted to learn more than that. He wanted to know literature, art, math, science, music and to understand Christianity more deeply…so he gathered up scholars to teach him and his sons.

One scholar was Alcuin of York, in Northumbria, in the British Isles. The school at York was doing booming business—its students learned the liberal arts as well as Christian Ed, which was the new kind of curriculum Charlemagne was after. Alcuin had been an honor roll student and was encouraged by his mentor, the Venerable Bede, to stick around the York school to teach. Alcuin was headmaster by the time Charlemagne dragooned him to teach at his palace school. Alcuin not only taught at Charlemagne’s school, he ran it. He introduced the same curriculum that had been so successful at the York school. Alcuin used the classical framework of the trivium and quadrivium—“The trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium consists of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry.” Alcuin taught the basics first: the rules of speaking & writing; how to think in an organized way; then how to persuade through speaking & writing. After that his students were ready for the more complicated subjects in the quadrivium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcuin
https://jameswoodward.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/alcuin-of-york/
I quoted from this article: https://www.hillsdale.edu/hillsdale-blog/academics/understanding-trivium-quadrivium/

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How my sketches evolve

Probably my best tool for convincing an art director to hire me is my ability to sketch. I like my drawings to look like they came together without much effort. That’s an illusion, of course. To make something look easy you need to put in a bit of work.

Here are the stages of the Hannibal drawing I did for the last post:

1) A rough thumbnail sketch of the idea. Believe it or not, I drew it 10 years ago when I first started planning this book. I like the carelessness of this drawing.

2) I grabbed reference for Hannibal’s elephants and drew this sketch by tracing over the thumbnail and refining it. I added a guy behind the elephant for some drama. I think it looks way overworked, like I’m trying too hard.

3) So I traced over the tracing. This one feels light and fun, like the thumbnail. But, I overlooked one thing…

4) …that howdah needs to be drooping further back on the elephant. That change makes the elephant look even less in control—the balance has shifted—there’s tension because he could go tumbling at any moment. I didn’t redraw the whole sketch, just the howdah.

If I use this image in the printed version of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing, I will paint it traditionally. I will concentrate on keeping it light and fun.

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Darius the Great

As you look at those old, old clay tablets with the weird, impossible-to-read cuneiform inscriptions, you have to wonder: how do we know what’s written on them? None of those symbols seem to resemble anything we recognize today. Yet somehow we got the epic of Gilgamesh.

Who figured it out? Who cracked the code? How was cuneiform deciphered?

Good question. To be honest, it was only a hundred or so years ago that archæologists even found out there were Sumerians living in Mesopotamia. The land between the rivers was very desirable real estate—people who didn’t live there really wanted to live there. When a nation wants to take over a piece of land, its army usually straps on armor and makes war on the people who live there. It’s a bad old world we live in, gang. So the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians who were conquered by the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians.

At one point, the Persians’ head guy—the emperor, the shahanshah (king of kings)—was Darius the Great. What made him so great? Well, for one thing, he was a monster for organization and standardization. In other words, he liked understandable systems for complicated things. He liked it when merchandise weighed and cost the same wherever he went. Darius made weights and measures standard throughout the empire. He instituted universal currency—coins—which made it a whole lot easier to do business, because everybody knew how much something cost.

https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/6-organizing-the-empire/

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That dirty rotten Rochefort

Here’s a little scene from The Three Musketeers where our hero, D’Artagnan,  recovers from having been knocked out by Rochefort’s henchmen. Rochefort has a quick conversation with Milady DeWinter—and you can see that he has stolen D’Artagnan’s letter. That scoundrel!

Reference photos (yes, that’s a Wells-Fargo stagecoach), thumbnail sketch, tight sketch, color sketch, work in progress, final art—bon appetit!

Christopher Lee and the astonishingly lovely Faye Dunaway

The birth of Western Lit

Literature, that is.

Because of the cuneiform writing system and the scribes who could write in it, the Sumerians left us a beautiful gift: the first ever epic poem, Gilgamesh.

We have this treasure because of a disaster—the library at Nineveh burned to the ground. But here’s the good news: the cuneiform books and records were written on clay tablets and so they were fired in the blaze. They became as hard as pottery and lasted though the ages.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the hero of this story. He’s semi-divine—both god and human. Gilgamesh has been translated into modern English. You can likely find a copy at your library. Parts of Gilgamesh are rated R so you probably shouldn’t read it until you’re at least 30. But, because I’m a prince of a fellow, I will tell you the entire (cleaned-up) epic poem in one sentence—

The gods create Enkidu

Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man he’s the super strong handsome king of Uruk a Sumerian city he built towers and walls and orchards well he didn’t he made everybody else do all the back-breaking work because Gilgamesh is a cruel king who goes around kissing other people’s wives of course nobody is happy about this so the people pray to the gods and the gods create a man-beast Enkidu who is strong enough to teach Gilgamesh a lesson Enkidu is a hairy wild savage he lives in the forest with the animals a hunter finds Enkidu and brings him to a temple where a priestess gives Enkidu a kiss and all his hair falls off and all the animals reject him because now he’s civilized Enkidu goes to Uruk and has an almighty wrestling match with Gilgamesh afterwards Gilgamesh and Enkidu are best buds they go to the forbidden cedar forest and fight and kill the terrible monster Humbaba who was guarding it when they get back to Uruk the goddess Ishtar chooses Gilgamesh to be her boyfriend but Gilgamesh says no thank you ma’am your boyfriends tend to die unpleasantly so Ishtar is pretty steamed and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish him Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull and kill him the gods say this is a problem and decide Enkidu must die Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is heartbroken so he sets off to find the meaning of life and achieve immortality he needs to meet Utnapishtim who is immortal Gilgamesh travels to the mountain Mashu and convinces 2 gigantic scorpions to let him through the tunnel under the mountain on the other side is a beautiful garden Gilgamesh meets Siduri who owns a restaurant she tells him to give up looking for immortality and just enjoy his life but Gilgamesh isn’t convinced so Urshanabi the ferryman takes Gilgamesh on a boat across the Sea of Death to Utnapishtim who tells Gilgamesh all about the Flood and how the gods decided to destroy humankind but Ea the god of wisdom warned Utnapishtim and told him to build a really big boat Utnapishtim built it and loaded his family and every kind of animal into the boat after the flood was over the gods said okay that was a bad idea sorry dude we’ll never do that again and they gave Utnapishtim immortality Gilgamesh says I want to live forever too so Utnapishtim says okay hotshot you can be immortal if you can stay awake for a week but Gilgamesh can’t do it so Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh back home Utnapishtim’s wife tells Gilgamesh about a plant of Eternal Life Gilgamesh finds the plant and means to take it with him but a snake eats it so Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing bupkis nada but he’s older and wiser and he realizes that Kansas isn’t so bad after all.

Enkidu runs with the animals

Gilgamesh isn’t merely the first epic story. It’s a blueprint for all the stories that followed. Every great story has an arc—a character moves from Point A to Point Z and undergoes a transformation. His character is fundamentally changed. Gilgamesh starts out a selfish bully and ends humbled by his experiences, and wiser. The same kind of arc happens to Lightning McQueen in the Pixar movie Cars. Lightning is a selfish and self-centered user; an accident resulting from his selfishness forces him to spend time with characters in a place way outside his narrow world; in the end Lightning values and cherishes his new friends and his life is richer for them. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is unhappy with her dull life on a Kansas farm; when her dog’s life is threatened she and Toto run away from home; she has a whirlwind adventure in Oz; when Dorothy returns she realizes how blessed her life is—and maybe now has the moral strength to stand up to Miss Gulch and protect her little dog.

The temple priestess gives Enkidu a kiss

Gilgamesh is about a hero who refuses to accept life without meaning. That theme is universal, which means we all feel that way. Everybody wants to leave something behind. Gilgamesh left behind towers and walls and orchards, but the story he left behind is the most enduring.

Enkidu loses his hair and becomes civilized

Side note: You alert readers will have noticed one or two details that can be found in the Hebrew Bible: a beautiful garden, a global flood and the man who preserves creation by putting a pair of every species in a big boat, a Tree of Life (and a treacherous serpent nearby). It’s no secret. The Bible uses themes from ancient Middle Eastern story-telling. The big difference is that—unlike Gilgamesh—the heroes of the Bible are all regular schmoes. No immortals, no demigods. The God of Abraham linked His destiny with ordinary people like you and me.

https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gilgamesh/summary/
https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/

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