A Glorious Age Passes in the World of Comics, Cartoons and Caricatures

loading Comic panel of Beetle Bailey, created by Mort Walker.

DEATH, to artists of some repute, is an immortality, the proverbial life-after-death, with the legacy of the largesse of works by the deceased defining the age, the people and the culture. Be that as it may, the year 2018 has proven to be a graveyard of sorts for dedicated cartoonists or caricaturists, but it’s moot if they have the last laugh and their comics/animation continue to entertain and intrigue generations.

First to fade off the 2018 grid, on January 27, was Mort Walker (b. 1923), the creator of Beetle Bailey. Launched in 1950, Beetle Bailey revolves around the antics of a tardy soldier in the US Army noted for his run-ins with the pugnacious Sarge Snorkel. Then on November 26, Stephen Hillenburg (b. 1961), the creator of Nickelodeon’s favourite SpongeBob Squarepants, succumbed to his battle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), first diagnosed in 2017. Hillenburg, who was trained in marine biology (his characters were inspired by anthropomorphic sea-life), had the first show of his creation in 1999 and went on to produce two movies, the first in 2004, and the second, Sponge Out of Water, in 2015. He also received his Masters in experimental animation (under his mentor Jules Engel). SpongeBob had won two Emmys and six Annies.

Marvel Comics lost three greats at a trot with the passing of publisher-editor Stan Lee (b. 1922-d. November 12), his cocreator Steve Ditko (b. 1927-d. June 29) and Marie Severin (b. 1929- d. August 29), a rare “rose” in male-dominated comicdom.

Poster of animator-director Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies.

DC Comics lost one of its most beloved Batman artists, Norm Breyfogle (b. 1960-d. September 24), active from 1987 to 1995, and again from 2011-2013, but who became partially paralysed in December 2014. In 2008 he conceptualised Archie comic’s new look.

No sinister links here, but two top industry figures, Carlos Ezquerra (b. 1947) and Isao Takahata (b. 1935), died of lung cancer on October 1 and April 5 respectively.

Ezquerra was the co-creator of the futuristic law enforcer Judge Dredd with the famous British comicman John Wagner. Judge Dredd, which started in 1977 as part of the British sci-fi weekly 2000 AD, appeared in several movies (including the one from 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone) and video-game adaptations and was even commemorated in stamps by the Royal Mail in 2012.

Takahata – director-animator-screenwriter-producer – cofounded Studio Ghibli in 1985 with Hayao Miyazaki. A student of French literature, he was known for iconic animation films such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Pom Poko (1994), and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013).

“Superhero” Stan Lee created Spiderman, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Dr Strange, someone with a dark side and with personality flaws in contrast to DC Comics’ pure fantasy “Kapow” characters. He also pushed for the superheroes’ transition from print to the silver screen and video games.

Ditko was the co-creator of Spiderman and Dr Strange. Marie Severin designed the first Spiderwoman (February 1977) with Archie Goodwin, and was known for her works on Dr Strange, SubMariner and The Incredible Hulk. She was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Khalil Ibrahim – self-portrait.

On the local front, the legendary Khalil Ibrahim (b. 1934), a fulltime artist virtually all his life, died on March 15, albeit not being able to feel pain again after a stroke in 2012. Versatile in batik, acrylic, oil, watercolours, gouache, pastels and ink drawings, southpaw Khalil innovated the collage and directportrait in batik, imbuing his early batiks with the colours of Byzantine mosaics. His tutelage at St Martin’s in London (1960- 1963) set his foundation in figures which he kept honing through copious drawings with his Montel pens. He was best known for his paeans of the industrious fisherfolk at work, realistic and in abstract forms and in different colour treatments.

The 2018 morgue also had two outstanding women artists, Dolly Unithan (b. 1940-d. June 30) and Renee Kraal (b. 1945- d. Sept 30). Unithan, who got her BFA at Hornsey, London, in 1975, continued with her MFA at Pratt, New York, in 1978, and had stayed in New York since. She also had a stint at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts de Nancy in France. She also took part in the Archives of Contemporary Arts component of the 1990 Venice Biennale, and was a grants awardee of the Lee Foundation (Singapore, 1972, 1976), Rainbow Art Foundation (New York, 1985) and Pollock-Krasner Foundation (1991-1992). Kraal, from the Wednesday Art Group and known for her spiritualsupernatural works of chakras and faith-healing, had her “AHa” moments in a virtual mini-retrospective in an eponymous exhibition at Sutra Gallery, KL, in July. She also had a stint at the Rimbun Dahan residency.

Lim Chee Boon (b. 1946-d. March 27), one of the five founding members of the Utara (North) group in 1977 and known for his hardedged Hexagram geometry, took part in Utara’s “last hurrah” exhibition in 1990 before withdrawing into personal spiritual concerns.

Utara stalwart Lim Chee Boon.

The year also sadly marked the demise of former National Visual Arts Gallery chairman cum celebrity compere Datuk Mahadzir Lokman (b. 1957-d. August 3), writer-curator Shireen Nadkarni (d. June 7), fashion designer-academician Prof Madya Sulaiman Abdul Ghani (d. September 4), street artists “Dwen Karikatur” Md Ridhuan Mustafa (b. 1976-d. October 30) and Johari Alias (d. November 23), and Johor-born Singaporean Nanyang artist Tang Juey Lee (b. 1954-d. May 12).

America, Australia and Spain lost a great artist each in Robert Indiana nee Clark (b. 1928-d. May 19), Charles Blackman (b. 1928-d. August 20), and Eduardo Arroyo (b. 1937-d. October 14) respectively. Pop artist Indiana was known for his LOVE sculptures and prints, and was a pioneer of assemblage and hard-edge abstraction. Blackman, an Antipodean artist with Arthur Boyd and Jack Brack, was best known for his works based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (1956-1957), featuring the poet Barbara, the first of his three wives, as Alice. For the last quarter of a century, he was afflicted by the dementia Korsakoff Syndrome.

Eduardo Arroyo, The Four Dictators (1963) Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Arroyo was known for his politically committed New Figuration, resulting in his two-decade self-exile to Paris from 1958, away from Francoist Spain. He even lost his citizenship in 1974, which he got back two years later. He had been an artist, a cartoonist, a scenographer cum set designer and an author. He was given a retrospective at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in November 2017 and the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1982, and honoured with Spain’s Great National Prize for Painting in 1983.

Pioneering abstract artists, American Sonia Gechtolf (b. 1926- d. February 1) and New Zealander Milan McKusich (b. 1925-d. June 13) also went through the 2018 trapdoor.

India-born virtuoso printmaker (of viscosity printing) cum sculptor Krishna Reddy (b. 1925-d. August 22), who trained under Ossip Zadkine, Stanley William Hayter and Marino Marini and who was a Santiniketan disciple, died in New York. He was the first Indian director of Atelier 17. Portugal’s multimedia experimental Photo-Conceptual artist Helena Almeida (b. 1934- d. September 25), who used herself in constructed photography, video and performance, also innovated 3D sketching using horsehair threads.

Novelist Tom Wolfe (b. 1930-d. May 14), though not an artist, was known for his 1975 book of art criticism, The Painted Word, apart from The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wuxia novelist Louis Cha Jing Yong or Jin Yong (b. 1924-d.October 30), dubbed the Chinese Tolkien, had many of his works adapted into comics, films, television series and video games. The notables are Legend of the Condor, The Book of the Sword and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre.

In the realm of photography, two great photographers Abbas Attar, better known by the mononym Abbas (b. 1944-d. April 25) and David Douglas Duncan (b. 1916-d. June 7, aged 102) pressed their last clicks. Coincidentally, Iranian-born Abbas and American-born Duncan both died in France, the former in Paris and the latter in Grasse.

Another loss in the photography firmament is Armenian- Turk Ara Guler (b. 1928-d. October 17), nicknamed the “Eye of Istanbul”, who was also known for his work on Turkish cinema. He photographed mainly politicians and artists such as Indira Gandhi, Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso and Ansel Adams, and his awards include the coveted Lucie Award for Lifetime Achievement (2009).

An example of viscosity printing by printmaker-sculptor Krishna Reddy.

Abbas, who became a Magnum Photographer in 1981, covered wars and revolution in Iran (1978-1980), Biafra, Bangladesh, Ulster, Vietnam, the Middle East, Chile, Cuba and South Africa. He had 17 books including those on religion, mainly Allah O Akhbar: A Journey Through Militant Islam, for which he travelled to 29 countries. Duncan covered World War II (Battle of Bougainville in Japan), the Korean War and Vietnam War, and had six photography books related to the great artist Pablo Picasso.

Requiems in photography also for Americans Laura Aguilar (b. 1959-d. April 25) and Henry Wessel Jr (b. 1942- d. September 20); South African David Goldblatt (b. 1930-d. June 25) who in his own words captured “the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired”; Haitian Gerald Bloncourt (b. 1926-d. October 29, Paris) who did work on immigrants, and Swiss Jean Mohr (b. 1925-d. November 3), known for his half-century work on Palestinian refugees. Dyslexic Aguilar was known for her Chicana feminism and portraits of the marginalised, while Wessel emerged in the New Topographics of “man-altered landscapes” and was known for his vistas of the American West.

R.I.P.s also to American ceramist Betty Woodman (b. 1930-d. January 2); American sculptor Jack Whitten (b. 1939-d. January 22); American Pop artist Mel Ramos (b. 1935-d. October 14); Australian sculptor-designer Matthew Harding (b. 1964-d. February 22, winner of the McClelland Award); Indonesian surrealist Makhfoed (b. 1942-d. April 18), Nyoman Suradnya (d. June 15); Rene Yanex (b. 1942-d. May 30); Thai sculptor Pitak Chalermlao (d. November 3); folk artist Sam “The Dot Man” McIllan (b. 1926-d. August 22); Carol Rhodes (b. 1959-d. December 4); Russian “non-conformist” renegade Oscar Yakovlevich Rabin (b. 1928-d. November 7, Florence); Australian Mirka Mora (b. 1928-d. August 27); and art historian Wen C. Fong (b. 1930-d. October 3).

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.



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