The Greatest American Cartoonist: Part Two

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 2:07 PM

Robert Crumb

Pros: In many circles, is regarded without question as the greatest cartoonist of the age.  Erupted in the 1960s as the standout creator of the underground comix movement, giving the hippie counterculture (which he held in disdain) some of its iconic images: Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, the Cheap Thrills album cover.  Obsession with old cartoons and comic strips strongly influenced the aesthetic of underground comix and counterculture art in general.  Continued as a major force in alternative comics in the 1970s and 1980s, both influencing and encouraging countless fellow creators.  The best pure illustrator in comics, with a distinctive style that blends naturalistic detail with cartoony roundness and exaggeration (perhaps ingrained during his early stint as an illustrator for American Greetings).  Has worked in a dizzying array of genres, including autobiography, biography, literary adaptations, political and social satire, psychedelia, and pornography.  One of the early practitioners of autobiographical comics and a massive influence on later autobio cartoonists.  Has produced remarkable collaborations with other creators, illustrating the early issues of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and drawing jam comics with his wife, Aline Kominsky.

Cons: Has never produced a magnum opus, or indeed almost anything of length; until the recent publication of his adaptation of the Book of Genesis, his comics seldom topped five or six pages.  Works in bursts of inspiration and skill, often with dazzling results, but seems to offer little of depth.  In fact, actively discourages deep readings of his work, retreating into aw-shucks disingenuousness in the face of criticism.  (Example: brushing off accusations of racism in his comics with the glib comment that he’s just “playing around.”)  It’s possible that critics read a lot more into Crumb than Crumb is actually saying.  Sequential storytelling and layouts very simplistic, like the children’s comics he absorbed as a boy.  As Robert Alter noted in his review of Crumb’s Genesis, he sees incapable of drawing emotions other than lust and rage.  Crumb would probably argue there are no emotions other than lust and rage.  Popularized the wearing of old-timey hats by indie cartoonists.

Compelling Personal Background: In the 1960s, Crumb was compelling because he was mysterious: shy and reclusive, he was known to fans through his weedy self-portraits and the peculiar signature “R. Crumb.”  The 1994 documentary Crumb, by fellow jazz enthusiast Terry Zwigoff, lifted the veil, establishing the now-familiar image of Crumb as a combination of classic tormented artiste and Darger-esque outsider.  Crumb’s unhappy middle-class 1950s childhood and deeply dysfunctional family are now part of his personal mythos, alongside his festering sexual resentments and fetish for physically intimidating women.  In other words, exactly the type of profile the art world takes seriously.

Lynda Barry

Pros: Unique.  A strange and remarkable talent incomparable to anything else in comics.  One of the pioneers of the alt-weekly comic strip, Barry is the creator of the long-running Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which first ran in her college newspaper.  At first an observational comic with a 1980s New Wave look, Ernie Pook evolved into the unfolding story of a hard-luck circle of kids.  When Barry switched from pen to brush, her comic developed a loose, organic style with a strong sense of graphic design.  Recent books One Hundred Demons and What It Is play with color and collage.  Though more acclaimed for her writing than her art, Barry is one of the great visual experimenters of comics.  Remarkable ear for dialogue and ability to evoke the inner lives of children and teenagers.  In recent years, has established herself in the comics community as an inspiring teacher and lecturer.

Cons: The weakest draftsman on the list, with a rough, scratchy style that turns some readers off.  The early years of Ernie Pook are especially crude.  Not a prolific creator.  Unlike most of the cartoonists on this list, has few, if any, direct imitators.  Most great cartoonists inspire movements, but Lynda Barry and George Herriman stand alone.

Inspiring Personal Story: Even in her autobio work, Barry is circumspect about the details of her childhood.  The impression left by her comics is that her father was absent, her mother troubled and abusive, her family often poor.  In lectures, describes loving The Family Circus because it offered a window into a happy, loving nuclear family nothing like her own.  Is one-quarter Filipina and seems to have been raised mostly by the Filipino side of the family (comics about her childhood usually depict herself with red hair and freckles surrounded by dark-skinned relatives), giving her an unusual ethnic perspective.

George Herriman

Pros: The great sui generis talent of the comic-strip page.  Editorial and strip cartoonist best known as the creator of Krazy Kat, a dreamlike strip drawn in sharp, quirky lines and glowing colors, written in a Creole-influenced patois unique in literature.  Never wildly popular with the public, Krazy Kat was a favorite of artists and intellectuals from early on, including such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, e.e. cummings (who wrote the introduction to the first collection of strips), and Jack Keroac.  Central love/hate triangle between mouse, cat and dog often regarded by comic aficionados as the perfect distillation of comic-strip conflict.  Krazy Kat ranks #1 on The Comics Journal‘s list of Top 100 Comics of the Century.  Combination of loose, expressive art, elegant layouts, and jazz-improv dialogue have made Herriman’s work a favorite of the intelligentsia for over 80 years.

Cons: Can be dense and inaccessible to the average reader.  Has anyone ever read a Krazy Kat book just for fun?  Be honest, fellow TCJ bloggers.  Although some cartoonists have incorporated elements of Herriman’s style into their work–a motley crew ranging from Jules Feiffer to art spiegelman to Patrick McDonnell–no one has created anything remotely like Krazy Kat.

Compelling Personal Story: Born to “mulatto” Creole parents, Herriman concealed his ethnicity in his career life, allowing his newspaper colleagues to believe he was Greek.  Famously wore a hat at all times, supposedly to conceal his kinky hair.  Although the influence of Herriman’s African-American background and racial ambiguity may be exaggerated by contemporary critics eager to read personal meaning into the surreal ramblings of Krazy Kat, his life as a black cartoonist passing for white, coupled with the paucity of other biographical information (most of his contemporaries remembered him as a friendly but quiet and private man), evoke an air of mystery that seems suited to Herriman’s whimsically impenetrable work.

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

  1. patford says:

    Krazy Kat is the perfect daily strip. It might be the only comic strip ever produced which is best appreciated one day at a time rather than read in large chunks.
    The best way to enjoy Krazy Kat is to look at it often, every day if you like, but don’t sit down and expect to read a years worth of it like you might Wash Tubbs.
    Emily Dickinson poems are short, you could read a whole book of them in a sitting, but it isn’t the best way to enjoy them, and Krazy Kat really shouldn’t be read that way either.

    BTW
    The strip is not written in creole dialect. The characters all have different speech idioms. Coconino County is a melting pot, not a ward.

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  4. VanessaJJ says:

    “…no one has created anything remotely like Krazy Kat.” Really? Are you unfamiliar with Adam Koford’s Laugh Out Loud Cats? Whether or not you like it, he has created something at least remotely similar to Krazy Kat.