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. Â Who is the greatest cartoonist in American history? Â 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! Â That’s not illuminating! Â That’s just intellectual masturbation with no possible purpose beyond generating angry, pointless arguments!”
Then I remembered I was writing for a blog. Â So here they are, the contenders for Greatest American Cartoonist. Â More to follow until I tire of this exercise or Kim Thompson kicks my ass.
Pros: Embodies the abstract ideal of American cartooning, what we picture when we think “cartoon.”Â Â Kinetic, witty and flexible, with a light but indelible touch. Â Capable of adopting a dizzying array of styles while always remaining recognizably Kurtzman. Â Natural visual storyteller.Â Â 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. Â Major contributor to EC’s pioneering war, horror and science-fiction comics, turning in some of the studio’s most mature work.Â Â 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. Â Later works, especiallyÂ Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, often regarded as forerunners to modern graphic novels.Â Â Enormously influential on generations of cartoonists, especially humor cartoonists. Â 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. Â Also influential outside of comics. Â 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. Â Even in his peak periods, churned out reams of mediocre comics in addition to works of unqualified genius. Â Love affair with fumetti (photocomics) in the 1970s produced little that stands the test of time. Â Sometimes too wordy and self-consciously clever, especially in later work for adult readers.Â Â Spent most of the last 30 years of his life co-producing the lavishly drawn but forgettableÂ 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. Â 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.Â Â Many of his works, most notably “Hey Look!” andÂ Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, ignored in their own time and only recognized as masterpieces decades later. Â In summation, the kind of hard-luck story the comics world adores.
Pros: Universally regarded as the greatest artist of superhero comic books. Â Created Captain America with Joe Simon. Â Fighting American, another collaboration with Simon, developed into an early superhero satire poking fun at Red Scare paranoia.Â Â 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. Â With Lee (although it’s generally believed Kirby did the lion’s share of the work), essentially built Marvel Comics. Â Later moved to DC, where, working solo, he created the Fourth World universe and other properties. Â No other cartoonist has had as great an impact on the way superhero comics are drawn. Â Although widely imitated, Kirby has none of the magazine-illustration blandness of most superhero comic art. Â On the contrary, his art isÂ stunningly unique and expressive, even bizarre. Â Pioneered an emotive, action-oriented style of visual storytelling that remains the standard for superhero comics. Â An artist of unmatched creativity and muscular imagination.
Cons: Produced little to nothing of interest outside the genre of mainstream superhero comics. Â Not a creator of “deep” or adult works, only boys’ science-fiction adventures. Â 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. Â (Personally, I’m in the former camp.) Â One’s judgement of Kirby’s importance tends to depend on one’s judgement of the importance of superhero comics in general. Â 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. Â 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. Â In later years, lawsuit to recover original artwork from Marvel won massive sympathy from comics industry and fandom. Â Widely beloved for warmth toward fellow artists and fans. Â Kirby’s life inspired large portions of Michael Chabon’s novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a debt acknowledged by Chabon.
Pros: The uncontested master of the modern newspaper comic strip. Â Every strip that followed Peanuts owes a debt to it. Â Many indie and underground cartoonists also cite Schulz as a major influence. Â Peanuts placed second in TCJ’s “100 Best Comics of the Century” list, after George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Â (More on Herriman later.) Â Simple but beautiful art style, instantly and universally accessible. Â Dialogue clear and wise, universal but not dumbed-down, surprisingly melancholy. Â Love of language, unusual in cartoonists. Â 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. Â With a 50-year daily run, Peanuts represents the longest work by a single American cartoonist. Â Schulz has own museum in Santa Rosa, California, where he lived for much of his career. Â (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. Â Many feel Peanuts declined sharply in quality around the 1970s or 1980s, although this opinion is not universal. Â 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. Â 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. Â Passed away almost immediately after announcing the end of Peanuts; the final strip ran in newspapers the day after his death.Â Â 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.