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Ronnie Joyner practices an essentially extinct type of cartooning that was once among the most popular in newspapers. Before photography, newspapers had their cartoonists draw caricatures of players to enliven their sports pages. In my lifetime, I saw this type of cartooning by Charlie McGill in my local NJ newspaper, the Bergen Record, in the 1970s; the New York Daily News had the famous Bill Gallo in its pages. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone practicing sports cartooning regularly now, although Drew Litton, Mike Lane, and Baltimore’s Ricig keep their hands in.
“I’m not breaking any new ground—-I’m just trying to keep alive the genre that was made famous by the great newspaper sports artists of the past,” Joyner told me. “Guys like Pap, Lou Darvas, [Willard] Mullin, etc. I’m not in their class, but I enjoy contributing a little to the legacy.” In 2012, Joyner collected his some of his art in Hardball Legends and Journeymen and Short-Timers: 333 Illustrated Baseball Biographies. Arts Desk chatted with Joyner about his career.
Arts Desk: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Joyner: The short answer would be sports cartooning—-[but] more specifically, baseball cartooning. The long answer would be that I draw baseball bio-illustrations—-“bio-illustrations” being a term I came up with to try and define my work. My bio-illustrations are intended to tell the story of a baseball player’s career through the combination of a realistic portrait surrounded by cartoons and comic book-style text. There’s no trend-setting new ground being broken with what I do. Art of this type was done by hordes of newspaper sports artists from early in the 1900s to well into the 1960s, but it was almost entirely extinct by the 1970s. I’ve always loved the stuff done by those old newspaper artists, and I’m just trying to keep the tradition alive.
How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?
When I started doing these bio-illustrations back in the mid-1990s, I drew them strictly on Duoshade board. When you think of Duoshade, think of invisible ink. Duoshade was bristol board that had near-invisible 45-degree angled tone lines (for shading) pre-printed on it. These tone lines would magically appear when you painted on clear Duoshade developer where you wanted the shading to be. First, I ink the black linework of the portrait and cartoons on the Duoshade board. I do all my linework in Higgins Black Magic ink with a Windsor & Newton Series 7 Number-1 sable brush. Then I paint on the clear Duoshade developer in the areas of the portrait where I want shading. Then, I hand letter the text with a technical pen or a small chisel-pointed calligraphy pen. Cartoonists of the pre-digital age loved Duoshade because it was camera-ready hard line art and could be scaled up or down with no loss of line quality. That was great for newspaper production.
Sadly, the only company that produced Duoshade (Grafix in Cleveland) finally ceased production some years ago, so the only Duoshade bio-illustrations I do these days are done on old scraps with what’s left of my nearly-dried-up last bottle of developer. With the end of the Duoshade age, I shifted to another popular medium of the old newspaper artists: coquille board. Coquille board is a pebbly-finished paper—-imagine drawing on white fine-grade sandpaper. As with Duoshade, first I ink the linework of the portrait and cartoons with my sable brush. I then add the shading with a Prismacolor Premier Black PC935 pencil. The pebbly finish of the coquille board essentially halftones the shading on the fly since the graphite only sticks to the raised points of the paper. Lastly, I hand letter the text.
Coquille board, like Duoshade, was also a favorite of old time newspaper artists since it, too, was instantly camera-ready line-art, able to be scaled up or down with no loss of line quality and without the need to halftone the art. Sometime in the early 2000s, I stopped hand lettering my bio-illustrations and began adding the text in Adobe Illustrator after scanning the art onto my computer. Early on, my bio-illustrations had much less text, so the hand lettering wasn’t problematic. Later, as my bio-illustrations became more text heavy, it seemed a natural progression to shift to doing the text on the computer which made the pieces easier to rewrite or edit.
When and where were you born?
I was born on Sept. 4, 1963, at Providence Hospital in NE Washington. My family stayed in SW Washington until I was about 5 years old, then we moved to nearby Oxon Hill, Md., in Prince George’s County, where I lived until I got married in 1989.
What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
I got a B.S. from the University of Maryland in design communications (commercial art in the old days), but that really wasn’t where I developed my cartooning. I learned cartooning as a kid by studying and copying the work of the great comic book illustrators of the 1960s and 1970s.
Who are your influences?
Like a lot of kids, I loved superhero comics, so I learned a lot by staring at and copying the work of John Romita and Jack Kirby. Romita drew such beautiful women, and Kirby was simply a true originator with a completely unique style. I loved the newspaper strip drawing of Charles Schulz, Hank Ketcham, and Milton Caniff. I think Schulz’s tremendous art sometimes gets overlooked because his wit was so much the focus of Peanuts. Hank Ketcham blocked in black areas like no cartoonist I’ve ever seen. And Milt Caniff could do it all: plot, ink. everything. Mad Magazine was a staple for me growing up, so I envied the work of their entire stable of artists, but especially Mort Drucker, Wally Wood, Jack Rickard, Paul Coker, and Bob Clarke.
For me, though, the great Jack Davis was the best. His linework and hatching; the full spectrum of expressions on his characters; his ability to capture exaggerated action—-unbelievable. There’s no denying that I’ve borrowed/stolen from him heavily when it comes to the cartoons that populate my bio-illustrations. The sports stuff he did in Mad and for Topps bubble gum cards is unparalleled, and I spent many hours emulating his style—-but never approaching his excellence. No one can approach the excellence of Jack Davis, in my opinion. He’s a national treasure. The general influence of all those guys, and others, went into my drawing evolution, but as for the newspaper sports artists who specifically influenced my baseball bio-illustrations, I’d list Willard Mullin, Lou Darvas, [Amadee Wohlschlaeger] and [Thomas Paprocki]. There are many other great ones, but these guys would make up my Mount Rushmore of newspaper sports cartoonists. All four of them were great portraitists, all four had excellent and stylish secondary cartoon characters, and all four were rock solid at laying out their strips.
If you could, what in your career would you do over or change?
I would have bought an entire lifetime supply of Duoshade and developer had I known the Grafix would stop production! Seriously, though, I’m pretty happy with my trajectory, but maybe if I had a do-over I might have made an effort while young at being a full-time comic artist somewhere instead of going right into the commercial art field.
What work are you best known for?
Being that my work is very niche oriented (not just comics, but baseball comics), I’m certainly not on most people’s radar. That said, it is definitely my baseball bio-illustrations that I’m most known for in certain circles. I’ve created a number of 1950s Topps-styled baseball card sets that have gained me some low-level notoriety, but it’s my bio-illustrations that most people know me for. There’s a weekly sports memorabilia periodical out of Wisconsin called Sports Collectors Digest that has featured my bio-illustrations regularly since the 1990s, and it’s through that publication that I’ve gained a small but devoted group of much-appreciated fans.
What work are you most proud of?
It may sound like a broken record, but I guess I’m most proud of my bio-illustration body of work. I’ve done somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 baseball bio-illustrations. These pieces bring together two things I’m passionate about: comic art and baseball history. So it’s given me a lot of pleasure to produce these over the last 20 years. Many of the living ex-players I’ve drawn really like them and often make prints to send to their fans when they get autograph requests in the mail. So it’s a nice feeling to contribute something of value to these old players—-guys who didn’t make much money in their era.
Do you do current players? Do any of them ever contact you asking for a drawing?
Since my passion lies with old-timers, most of my bio-illustrations are pre-1980, but I occasionally draw a current player. The current player needs to have a particularly interesting storyline for me to draw him. There’s so much info out there on modern players that I don’t feel overly compelled to retell their stories, but a lot of the old players have amazing stories unknown to all but the most hardcore historians, so it’s their histories I really enjoy illustrating. And it continues to be the old-timers who really appreciate having me draw them, and they often ask me for the original art. With all the attention they recieve, the new players are hard to impress, it seems. I can’t say that any new player has actually asked me for my original artwork, but there are a few who have been very complimentary and have asked for copies of my bio-illustrations of them. One formerly local player who seemed very taken with my drawing of him was Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, so I made sure he got a batch of copies!
What would you like to do or work on in the future?
Really, my plans involve just continuing to do what I’m doing. There’s an endless supply of material to draw upon when you consider that any guy that played in the 20th century is fair game for me, and I never seem to get bored with what I’m doing. Every few years or so I take a break and create a card set, but then I get right back on my bio-illustrations. It took me about 15 years to create enough drawings for a big compilation book. In 2012 McFarland Books put out a book compiling 333 of my bio-illustrations that were published from 1998-2012. So with a pace like that, maybe I’ll be ready for a second book in 10 years.
What do you do when you’re in a rut or have writer’s block?
Well, since the nature of my bio-illustrations are biographical, I don’t really have to deal with writer’s block in the traditional sense of the word. The cartoons that surround the portraits in my bio-illustrations require some creativity, and I’ll occasionally get a block coming up with something new. I guess that’s to be expected after drawing bio-illustrations of over 350 baseball players, many of whom come from similar backgrounds. Usually I’ll get over the block by walking away from the piece until the next day, then something will pop up. Or sometimes I’ll flip through the work of some other artists and it’ll trigger something.
What do you think will be the future of your field?
There’s not much of a present for the type of work I’m doing, so I don’t think there’s much of a future in it. Sports cartooning of the style I do had its heyday in the past, and I have a hard time imagining it ever having a major renaissance. Not because it’s not a cool form of cartooning—-because I, and many like-minded people, think it is cool—-but I don’t see it coming back because there just doesn’t seem to be enough young folks out there with the throwback sensibilities that would bring my style back into the mainstream. But it’ll always be popular with a niche group, and that’s plenty good enough to keep me happy.
What’s your favorite thing about D.C.?
Being a rockabilly (music) fan, I always loved the D.C. music scene of the late ’70s to early ’90s. Great local rockabilly from guys like Robert Gordon, Billy Hancock, Danny Gatton, Tex Rubinowitz, etc. Nowadays, I appreciate the history of D.C. that I ignored as a youth. I went through a spell a couple years ago when I must have read four books in a row about Lincoln/Booth. Fascinating. In spite of spending my whole life right here, I never visited Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson House—-until a couple months ago, and it was pretty amazing.
Do you have a website or blog?
No website or blog yet. I spend too much time doing my bio-illustrations to get too much into stuff on the web—-but I need to join the fray. It’d be the best way to spread the word on what I do, for sure.