Jefferson Rock

March 26, 2010

By Jim Sizemore

March 20, 2010

To celebrate Spring my friend Mary and I headed to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. (Click images to enlarge.) Harper’s Ferry is about 60 miles west of Baltimore—a short and scenic drive, especially if you tend to get lost and have to take two-lane roads to avoid backtracking—which no self-respecting day-tripper would consider. After all, getting lost—assuming it isn’t overdone or dangerous—is part of the fun. Once at Harper’s Ferry, we drove through town and up to the graveyard overlooking the valley and the rivers. After hiking down to Jefferson Rock—so named for Thomas Jefferson who visited the spot in 1783—which is on part of the Appalachian Trail, we made a few pictures of the area and each other. That’s me atop Jefferson Rock, taken by Mary; and Mary below, taken by me—mutual muses.

I love the first photograph not because I’m in it (posing like Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead”), but because Mary composed the image so beautifully. The shot is full-frame, simple shapes artfully arranged, the sky above, the boulders and hills below taking up most of the image, each odd shape with its own personality, each contributing to the overall design. Most of the time when someone sends me a snapshot I immediately want to crop it to give it more unity, make it stronger. But in this case I didn’t consider doing that. It was picture perfection. One way to better appreciate the composition is to reduce the image to lines only, as I’ve done to the right. Then we understand how Mary arranged the photographic elements so that no two areas are the same size or shape (variety = visual interest), and the focal point—the human figure—is off to one side rather than centered, the saturated blue sky acting as its frame.

Meanwhile, in photo three, to toot my horn, over Mary’s left shoulder there’s a partial view of what Thomas Jefferson would have viewed—including we happy day-trippers—had he been there last Saturday.

If you’ve never visited Jefferson Rock here’s a bit of what Wikipedia has to say about Harper’s Ferry. The National Historical Park is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in and around Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The park includes land in Jefferson County, West Virginia; Washington County, Maryland and Loudoun County, Virginia. Managed by the National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Originally designated as a National Monument in 1944, the park was declared a National Historical Park by Congress in 1963. The park includes the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, notable as a center of 19th century industry and as the scene of John Brown’s abolitionist uprising. Consisting of almost 4,000 acres, the land marks the site on which Thomas Jefferson said, after visiting the area in 1783, “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

Copyright © 2010 Mary Azrael and Jim Sizemore.

City Kids

August 18, 2008

Buddies, February 24, 1974

Back in the days when I was doing natural light street photography in South Baltimore (in squint-producing sunlight on this occasion), just about the only challenge I had was how to frame the image. When these boys spotted me and my Minolta they struck a pose and one of them yelled, “Hey, mister, take our picture!” With kids, I usually tried to lower my point of view so I was on their eye level, but if I had done that here I would have had a clutter of background cars, buildings and telephone poles to organize visually. Since those things added nothing of value to the image, it was not an option. With backgrounds, the ideal is to have large simplified shapes, so I stood erect and shot down at the boys and the sidewalk. Shooting either up (“worm’s-eye view,” ceiling, sky, or a forest canopy) or down (“bird’s-eye view”, floor, sidewalk or street) is a good way to eliminate unwanted visual clutter. In this image we still see a bit of curb, chewing gum spots on the pavement, and a pole shadow cutting diagonally across the top of the frame. But that’s fine; it’s just enough background detail to suggest an urban context, but no more. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

Bad Mickey

June 14, 2008

(Click images to enlarge.)

Over fifteen years, I presented a one-hour program called “Cartooning for Kids” at libraries and schools in the Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia region. The target group,” as described in my promotional materials, was six to twelve year old children. During the same period, 1991-2006, I also offered extended workshops (three to fifteen hours) for groups of elementary, middle and high school students. An exercise I employed at the start of each of the older group’s workshops, and one that I found to be very effective for getting them involved in the program quickly, was to ask what basic shapes Walt Disney began with when he drew Mickey Mouse?

Not a tough pop quiz, nor was it intended to be. The kids always replied quickly, loudly and in unison, with cries of “circles!” At that point I would write the title: “Bad Mickey” in large cartoon letters on the chalkboard, or on my easel pad. The brief delay intrigued them, pulled them deeper into the program. Then I would go on to explain that we would use circles to make our own version of the famous mouse, but cartoon mouse that would give Walt nightmares if he were still alive. The one rule was this: We weren’t allowed to use “perfect” circles. Our circles—or ovals, or even shapes that wound up being rectangles—had to be stretched, bent, bloated, blown up, squished, squashed, smeared—anything, so long as they were distorted in some way, and the more grotesquely the better. (Very early-on in my teaching career I discovered that kids — especially teens — enjoy a bit of “edge” to their education.) These three sketchbook pages will give you an idea of the images that resulted when be began by using basic shapes that were themselves bent out of shape. Those unique proportion-shifting building blocks became a device to create cartoons that helped us claim “Bad Mickey” as our own creation.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

Return of the Moose

May 28, 2008

Bob Weber, creator of the classic comic strip “Moose Miller” (titled “Moose & Molly” since 1998), visited Baltimore recently and invited me to dine with him at the Bob Evans establishment out on Ritchie Highway, eight miles south of South Baltimore, the neighborhood where Bob was born and raised. It’s also where I spent the happiest five or six years of my youth. In fact, I moved back to South Baltimore in 2003, which is proof, I guess, that you can go home again. Bob, on the other hand, lives and works in Westport, Connecticut and calls his adopted home “Westpork.” Until he called I hadn’t talked to him for at least ten years, hadn’t seen him for over twenty, but I wasn’t at all surprised to hear from him. You see, Bob sort of owes me—or at least I think he thinks he does.

Our connection goes back to at least June 27, 1986, when I wrote the following note to the Features Editor of the Baltimore Sunday Sun: “I’m a big fan of comic strips—have been all my life—and I especially love some that appear daily in the Evening Sun: “Peanuts,” “Andy Capp,” “B.C.,” and, more recently, “Zippy,” “Calvin & Hobbes,” and “Moose Miller.” However, it’s very disappointing to follow these features each day of the week and then not be able to enjoy them in color on Sunday. I refer to “Calvin & Hobbes” and “Moose,” my two very special favorites, which have so far been missing from the Sunday pages. Can this situation be corrected?”

That was the first of several letters I wrote, over the span of a few years, to insure that “Moose Miller” got some respect in the Sunday comics section, and to help see to it that the feature was reinstated once it had been dropped from the funny pages altogether—which, if memory serves, happened three times, with the third strike turning out to be terminal. Sadly, “Moose” has not run in Bob Weber’s hometown paper since, I believe, 1995.

(Click images to enlarge.)

During the period I was able to help keep “Moose Miller” in Baltimore my arguments for the strip emphasized the local angle, the fact that the characters referred often to Baltimore landmarks such as “Sparrows Point Shipyards” “Curtis Bay” and “Pratt Street,” and used the names of local people in the balloons, mine included. Here’s a memory jogger for Balti-morons, as we like to call ourselves. In the strip below “Bill Buxton” refers to the Baltimore Sun fishing writer Bill Burton; “Vince Baggy” was the beloved local sports columnist Vince Bagli; and announcer Stu Kerr plays himself, a real announcer for a real local TV station; and me, Jim Sizemore. Along with Vince Baggy I’m the “written by” guy. For some reason Bob didn’t, or couldn’t, come up with nicknames for Stu Kerr and me. (There are also three names in the strips I was unable to I.D. See the end of this post for more about that.)

But I believe the strongest points I made in favor of the strip were aesthetic and social. The gag writing is excellent, words and images working together to create the humor, a characteristic always present in the best visual/written humor. The visual appeal of “Moose” is the result of strong composition and the use of simple shapes to define human and animal characters, places, and things, as in the “Nancy,” “Henry,” and “Snuffy Smith” mold, all of which, like “Moose Miller,” read well visually when reproduced at very small sizes. That’s important these days with the shrinking space given to comics features. The strip above is an excellent example of Bob’s astute way with dramatic visual composition—it couldn’t be simpler, or bolder, or better. In my opinion “Moose Miller” was (and is, since it’s still running) a unique work at once fluid, funny and very lively—and it’s an example of very good graphic design. And finally, the strip has social value. It is one of the very few remaining syndicated comic strips that depict the day-to-day humorous conflicts of working class family life. These are simple comic characters but they have real lives and real jobs. Well, except for Moose—but at least he makes an effort to find work, he just can’t seem to hold on to it.

The way I see it, Bob repaid my small efforts on behalf of “Moose Miller” many times over with his friendship—intermittent but always fun—plus the pleasure the feature gave me when it ran locally and I could read it every day, including Sunday. (Not to mention the sliver of immortality having my name appear in it from time to time.) Bob, being a humble South Baltimore guy, doesn’t realize I’d happily settle for that. Well, a bit more than that. I would like Bob to show up in Baltimore more often so we can stroll around the old neighborhood and gab about the misty days of yesteryear. But it’s O.K. with me if he never again feels he has to spend big bucks on me at fancy restaurants. After all, guys like us have simple tastes.

Help the Blogger Plea

If you know the identities of these folks—”Johnny Walker,” “Andy Thomas,” and “Don Puff”—all mentioned in the comic strips above, please use the comment space below to clue me in. I’ll be forever grateful.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.