The Greatest American Cartoonist: Part One

Posted by on December 11th, 2009 at 8:53 PM

Lately I’ve been thinking in terms of sweeping legacies, possibly because I haven’t read a lot of great new comics but I have been flipping through old issues of Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth.  Who is the greatest cartoonist in American history?  I thought it might be illuminating to lay out the case, pro and con, for each of the top names in cartooning.

Then I thought, “Wait, no!  That’s not illuminating!  That’s just intellectual masturbation with no possible purpose beyond generating angry, pointless arguments!”

Then I remembered I was writing for a blog.  So here they are, the contenders for Greatest American Cartoonist.  More to follow until I tire of this exercise or Kim Thompson kicks my ass.

Harvey Kurtzman

Pros: Embodies the abstract ideal of American cartooning, what we picture when we think “cartoon.”  Kinetic, witty and flexible, with a light but indelible touch.  Capable of adopting a dizzying array of styles while always remaining recognizably Kurtzman.  Natural visual storyteller.  Early “Hey Look!” cartoons, first published as filler material in Timely comic books, have since come to be regarded as brilliant gag strips, years ahead of their time.  Major contributor to EC’s pioneering war, horror and science-fiction comics, turning in some of the studio’s most mature work.  Arguably the most talented writer/artist of the MAD stable and the editor who helmed MAD in its brilliant comic-book and early magazine issues.  Later works, especially Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, often regarded as forerunners to modern graphic novels.  Enormously influential on generations of cartoonists, especially humor cartoonists.  Reached out to 1960s underground cartoonists at a time when most older cartoonists shunned the undergrounds; later shepherded new cartoonists as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts.  Also influential outside of comics.  New York Times obituary called him “one of the most important figures in postwar America.”

Cons: Tended to value quantity over quality, often producing uninspired or slapdash material just to keep working.  Even in his peak periods, churned out reams of mediocre comics in addition to works of unqualified genius.  Love affair with fumetti (photocomics) in the 1970s produced little that stands the test of time.  Sometimes too wordy and self-consciously clever, especially in later work for adult readers.  Spent most of the last 30 years of his life co-producing the lavishly drawn but forgettable Playboy strip “Little Annie Fanny” with Will Elder, an endeavor widely regarded as a waste of two great artists. Reputation further diminished after his death by the lackluster, mostly ghostwritten posthumous book From Aargh! To Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman’s Visual History of the Comics.

Compelling Personal Background: Despite widespread admiration of peers, had amazingly little career success; only during his brief stint heading MAD magazine did he enjoy anything close to financial stability.  Career filled with tragic wrong turns: leaving MAD at the height of its glory, dropping everything to work for Playboy only to find that Hugh Hefner had no idea what to do with him, spending years on an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that would have been one of the first graphic novels had anyone been willing to publish it.  Many of his works, most notably “Hey Look!” and Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, ignored in their own time and only recognized as masterpieces decades later.  In summation, the kind of hard-luck story the comics world adores.

Jack Kirby

Pros: Universally regarded as the greatest artist of superhero comic books.  Created Captain America with Joe Simon.  Fighting American, another collaboration with Simon, developed into an early superhero satire poking fun at Red Scare paranoia.  Collaborated with Stan Lee to create and/or flesh out almost all of Marvel’s flagship characters, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer and the Hulk.  With Lee (although it’s generally believed Kirby did the lion’s share of the work), essentially built Marvel Comics.  Later moved to DC, where, working solo, he created the Fourth World universe and other properties.  No other cartoonist has had as great an impact on the way superhero comics are drawn.  Although widely imitated, Kirby has none of the magazine-illustration blandness of most superhero comic art.  On the contrary, his art is stunningly unique and expressive, even bizarre.  Pioneered an emotive, action-oriented style of visual storytelling that remains the standard for superhero comics.  An artist of unmatched creativity and muscular imagination.

Cons: Produced little to nothing of interest outside the genre of mainstream superhero comics.  Not a creator of “deep” or adult works, only boys’ science-fiction adventures.  Opinion varies wildly on the quality of his work for DC, some considering it brilliantly imaginative and superior to his work for Marvel, others unpleasantly weird and goofy.  (Personally, I’m in the former camp.)  One’s judgement of Kirby’s importance tends to depend on one’s judgement of the importance of superhero comics in general.  For instance, Kirby’s work failed to crack the top 25 of The Comics Journal‘s Top 100 Comics of the Century list in 1999 (the Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four made #30).

Compelling Personal Story: Found success late in life, after decades in the comics industry, with his career only taking off in his mid-forties.  Badly treated by Marvel, which built a fortune and, later, a corporate empire on the Lee/Kirby comics and characters while shutting the creators out of any profits.  In later years, lawsuit to recover original artwork from Marvel won massive sympathy from comics industry and fandom.  Widely beloved for warmth toward fellow artists and fans.  Kirby’s life inspired large portions of Michael Chabon’s novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a debt acknowledged by Chabon.

Charles Schulz

Pros: The uncontested master of the modern newspaper comic strip.  Every strip that followed Peanuts owes a debt to it.  Many indie and underground cartoonists also cite Schulz as a major influence.  Peanuts placed second in TCJ’s “100 Best Comics of the Century” list, after George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.  (More on Herriman later.)  Simple but beautiful art style, instantly and universally accessible.  Dialogue clear and wise, universal but not dumbed-down, surprisingly melancholy.  Love of language, unusual in cartoonists.  One of the warmest of cartoonists, but with a sharpness and sadness that save his work from the glurge to which most family strips succumb.  With a 50-year daily run, Peanuts represents the longest work by a single American cartoonist.  Schulz has own museum in Santa Rosa, California, where he lived for much of his career.  (The museum is part of a Schulz-owned complex that also includes a store and skating rink.)

Cons: Produced almost nothing besides Peanuts, making it difficult to gauge his overall ability.  Many feel Peanuts declined sharply in quality around the 1970s or 1980s, although this opinion is not universal.  Responsible for introducing or popularizing many elements that have, in recent decades, contributed greatly to the artistic decline of comic strips: small, shrinkable panels (which Schulz drew as identical squares so newspapers could stack them as they pleased), stripped-down artwork with little visual detail, focus on the mundane details of middle-class domestic life and childhood replacing the rowdier, more fantastic subject matter of earlier strips.

Compelling Personal Story: His work was his life.  Popular belief that his hard-luck protagonist Charlie Brown was autobiographical was supported by the posthumous biography Schulz and Peanuts, which spoke frankly about Schulz’s depression-prone personality and parallels between his life and events in Peanuts.  Passed away almost immediately after announcing the end of Peanuts; the final strip ran in newspapers the day after his death.  Within the newspaper strip community, Schulz was known firstly for his tireless support of younger cartoonists, especially women; Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston were among his closest disciples and friends.

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4 Responses to “The Greatest American Cartoonist: Part One”

  1. Lou Copeland says:

    I’m really racking my brain to find any context in which stating he “Found success late in life, after decades in the comics industry, with his career only taking off in his mid-forties.” could accurately be applied to Kirby.

    However the word “success” is defined: by financial, artistic, or other means, it could be used to describe the first two decades of Kirby’s career. As a partner in The Simon and Kirby studio, Kirby’s financial rewards surely must have been greater and more satisfying than when he was slugging away at a page rate with Marvel and DC in the sixties and seventies. As artists, The Simon & Kirby brand was highly in demand from both readers and publishers. As examples, Kirby’s work on the first ten issues of Captain America, as well as his contributions to the romance and kid gang genres clearly rippled throughout the industry. That Kirby was nearly always working in bust periods as a cartoonist when the rest of his peers were forced to look for work outside the industry (all seemingly as night watchmen) could in itself be seen as a great success.

  2. Brandon J Beane says:

    After years of lurking, I finally got myself a Username because this analysis is so flawed and inaccurate. Lou Copeland makes a couple points that have great merit. Kirby co-created one of comics’ great icons in his twenties- Captain America. He worked in virtually every genre in comics- war stories, romance, monsters, crime, slice of life etc.. To isolate his impact to superheroes is ignorant.

    And your reference to the creation of Spider-Man is completely inaccurate. No credible history claims Kirby as a co-creator.

    Any analysis that minimizes Kirby’s importance because of his deity like status in the superhero world is sadly devoid of reality. Love them or hate them, the super hero set have been the economic backbone of comics for decades, in large part because of Kirby’s creations.

    And Kirby did not suit Marvel.

    Check your facts or write about something you know about- like Power Girl’s cleavage.

  3. patford says:

    The comments about Kirby aren’t well thought out at all.

    “Produced little to nothing of interest outside the genre of mainstream superhero comics.”

    Only a fan of super hero comics would agree with that statement. Anyone familiar with Kirby’s work wouldn’t know what to make of it.
    “Not a creator of “deep” or adult works, only boys’ science-fiction adventures. Opinion varies wildly on the quality of his work for DC, some considering it brilliantly imaginative and superior to his work for Marvel, others unpleasantly weird and goofy. (Personally, I’m in the former camp.)”

    There is great depth to Kirby’s solo work, the common perception of super hero fans that it is in some way near laughable is…well laughable. The silver age work is like almost all silver age super hero comic books not worth reading. This isn’t because Kirby worked in an industry catering primarily to children.
    An author can choose to aim his work at a younger reader, and still write something with merit, even depth. Kirby did this on his own, just as John Stanley, Harvey Kurtzman, Roald Dahl, and E.B. White did. The reason Kirby’s 60’s work is worthless as reading material for an adult is because the writing wasn’t Kirby’s. Kirby wrote and drew a story, and gave
    it to Stan Lee who then wrote his own story over top of Kirby’s script. The result is something a kid can read, and enjoy, but has nothing to offer beyond that.

    “One’s judgement of Kirby’s importance tends to depend on one’s judgement of the importance of superhero comics in general.

    This certainly isn’t true of me, it also isn’t true for any of the Kirby fans I’ve talked to aside from the ones who are huge fans of silver age comics. Super hero fans tend to view Kirby as an embarrassingly bad writer, who should have stuck to penciling. My view is Kirby is the only writer of super hero comics from the 60’s, 70’s, who’s writing is interesting, and thought provoking. His writing certainly was “weird” in it’s context. It was weird in that it was something brilliant floating on a sea of kiddie junk.

  4. Ed Howard says:

    Quibbles about these choices aside, I’m hoping George Herriman crops up here sooner rather than later. Writing about possible “greatest American cartoonists” without mentioning him pretty close to the top of the list would be unforgivable.