Unwitting Empire: B. Kliban’s Cat

Posted by on April 5th, 2010 at 5:45 AM

Rob takes a look at B.Kliban’s 1975 classic, CAT (Workman).

B.Kliban is not a widely-discussed name these days, even as his legacy continues to live on in a number of circles.  His frequently absurd, disgusting and oblique strips owed as much to the free-id expression of underground comics as they did to a sort of New Yorker-sensibility.  Indeed, many of his strips had the sort of dry, off-kilter and conceptual nature of a New Yorker cartoon, only combined with a visceral or scatological element.  If his strips sometimes felt vicious, it was only because of the particular truths he was revealing about himself and the rest of humanity.  Gary Larson obviously took a great deal of inspiration from both Kliban’s aesthetics and mastery of the absurd for his smash hit THE FAR SIDE, a strip that spawned many imitators.  John Callahan took the darkness inherent in Kliban’s work much further, while Tim Kreider drew from Kliban’s insistence on brutal but hilarious truth-telling.  John Kerschbaum is perhaps the greatest torch-carrier for the sheer power of Kliban’s work with his own oblique but visceral comics.

Of course, Kliban is best known for inadvertently spawning a merchandising empire surrounding the fetishization of cats.  His 1975 book CAT was a runaway bestseller, spawned sequels and dozens of imitators.  Even the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come.  Sitting down and reading the book for the first time, I expected a corporate turn from Kliban done so as to finance his other work.  The actual tone and contents of the book couldn’t have been any more contrary to that idea.

In many respects, CAT is an intensely personal book, with several pages seemingly ripped from his sketchbook.  It’s also so thoroughly weird and idiosyncratic that it’s a miracle in some respects that it was such a runaway success.  CAT is simply a meditation on Kliban’s endless fascination for the frequently alien nature of cats.  Some of the pages are simply naturalistic sketches of his own cats, creating shapes that he obviously found compelling.  Others are caricatures of those same cats doing funny things, while other pages are simply weird cat-related images.  I think cat lovers responded to the book precisely because it wasn’t cutesy, warm or fuzzy.  Cats are strange creatures that historically domesticated humans, not the other way around.  Kliban spends a lot of time examining and fantasizing about the nature of cats, both inscrutable and obvious.  He puts them in strange places and mutates their forms.  His cats sometimes have magical powers and at times are lumpy objects in stasis.     

Kliban’s cats aren’t cute, yet demand attention and even affection.  One strip features a man on a desert island, delighting that someone has just parachuted in a cat for him.  It’s understandable why the book’s imitators never came close to matching the source material, because it was so idiosyncratic and unpredictable from page to page.  Just when there was an especially weird flight of fancy featuring a cat (like the head of a cat on an ice cream cone), the next page would simply be a cat lying on top of a television or singing a song.  Kliban had an intuitive sense of tone and pacing that made the book work perfectly, even as it felt like an exercise done for his own enjoyment.  That rapid-fire flip between cute, absurd, weird and knowing observations about cats would never again be matched in terms of merchandising, but the spirit of the book certainly came through in the initial wave of the LOLcats phenomenon–especially in terms of theodd choices for juxtaposition of cat and environment.  There’s no question that Kliban did it first and did it best.

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3 Responses to “Unwitting Empire: B. Kliban’s Cat

  1. skeezix says:

    When I was five years old, I sent Kliban a drawing of a cat with three tails, and he sent me one back. Picture here:

    http://kim.scarborough.chicago.il.us/images/kliban

  2. Rob Clough says:

    That is awesome! Thanks for sharing.

  3. patford says:

    Kliban worked for Playboy for about 30 years.
    Given the tremendous success of his “Cat” book it’s odd no publisher has attempted a comprehensive reprinting of his work. Kliban’s cartoons are increasingly difficult to find.
    Most collections of Kliban’s work are out of print. The eight landscape format paperbacks are fairly easy to find, but the two slim books published by Wildview in the 70′s sampling the Playboy cartoons are long out of print and expensive.
    TCJ Special Edition 2002-Vol.Two features a nice essay on Kliban by Tim Kreider. Kreider says,”The reasons for Kliban’s relative obscurity are unclear.”
    Given the success of the “Cat” book it’s strange that no publisher has collected Kliban’s work.
    I’d think it would be a decent bet to match the success of the Larson, and Watterson collections.