The Watchful Eye of David Levine: Interview by Gary Groth (Part Two of Six)

Posted by on January 14th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

GROTH: Your caricature of Buckley is one of the most brilliant things you ever did. I actually tore it out of wherever it appeared and Xeroxed it and blew it up and put it on the wall. It captured his essence.

LEVINE: I’ve done about four. The one I like is the one where he looks like a rat.

GROTH: That’s the one I’m talking about.

LEVINE: But there was never anybody who gave you the caricature so well.

GROTH: [Laughter.] Yeah, it was barely a caricature.

LEVINE: Yeah.

William F. Buckley

GROTH: Do you go to the comic shop on Montague Street?

LEVINE: Oh, absolutely: Because I’m interested in all the developments of any medium.

GROTH: What is your take on the development of comics?

LEVINE: I think they have become only readable to those who keep up reading because they are overstuffed, there is too much on every page. It was interesting, when I was just starting to get into this industry, I was an eraser of pages, I would hear the men discussing how many boxes the page was going to hold. Six boxes was about the limit, and after that, they would feel overworked. “Seven, eight boxes? We should be paid more for that.” That probably was broken down at some point, and now there’s just so much on the page –

GROTH: [Initially puzzled.] Oh, I’m sorry, you’re talking about panels.

LEVINE: Yes, they talked boxes.

GROTH: Is that right?

LEVINE: I suppose I heard the word “panels” … But anyway, that’s the kind of thing now, it’s almost impossible to read. The other thing is, I look occasionally for the enormous talent of some of the men who draw for Heavy Metal. They are unbelievable in terms of their talent as much as Durer and da Vinci ever were. They may not have as broad values in terms of content, but the quality and ability to draw is extraordinary. When I tell that to an audience who is looking at my work, they look at me blankly and think I must be crazy to say it: “How dare I compare it to these names!”

One of the most interesting things is to hear one of your friends suddenly become taken with a strip that you didn’t see much within yourself. I liked Popeye for a very short time, but Jules Feiffer went bananas over it. Recently, because he also called attention to Roy Crane’s work – the clarity of his work is coming through –

GROTH: Wash Tubbs?

LEVINE: Right. I didn’t read that in my reading days, but I see it now and love it. To a certain degree I was involved with Terry and the Pirates, then I left it. I never liked Little Orphan Annie. I loved the takeoff of it by Capp. Then it was wonderful because he could make a world that was full of sarcasm and satirical references, generalizations about American boys’ relationships to their fathers – those were the things that grabbed me because he was talking in bigger terms. I loved Li’l Abner; that was great.

GROTH: Did the poisonous political strain of Little Orphan Annie turn you off?

LEVINE: No, it was the storyline that was in question. I maintain a stand now that I have to be able to do a caricature of anybody in power, period. Power corrupts, and I’m there to say, “Don’t let it.” It’s just the role I’ve taken on and recognize whether it’s a Communist or a Capitalist – what’s the difference to me? Look what’s happened.

GROTH: I want to get back to your impression of the undergrounds for just a moment if I may. I assume you know that Art Spiegelman was instrumental in introducing underground cartoonists into the new New Yorker. Is your criticism of a lot of that cartooning that the cartoonists don ‘t draw very well, or is it also because there’s a vulgarity to it that you don ‘t countenance?

LEVINE: One thing follows the other, or one initiates the other, it doesn’t matter which end. It is not enough to merely have an idea. Not if you’re going to put it in a graphic or a visual form. Because then anybody who has a good idea or a good storyline could say, “I’m a great cartoonist.” That’s not true. So I do demand a standard be met in some way. I think great draftsmanship has been exhibited by guys who are doing gag cartoons – George Booth. But the quality of drawing that goes with the humor, it’s in the line. Osborne is a wonderful example; he is a superb draftsman. Two inches of line by him is all that’s necessary to carry humor. It has to be able to describe something visually that is not merely childlike. I don’t subscribe to the “children are great draftsmen,” and that Paul Klee can just literally lift a whole drawing quality from children, and therefore because he did it it’s great. Those things break down for me.

GROTH: Perhaps this is generational, but from my point of view, the underground comics liberated traditional comics from all of the conventions and constraints to which they traditionally subscribed; comics and cartoonists could finally deal with sexual issues, political issues, real-life issues in comic books, whereas previously the content was mostly infantile.

LEVINE: Yeah, but the interesting thing is I can’t recall seeing what I considered to be a sophisticated or adult level on subjects that have been liberated. Liberating a subject is not enough. You have to draw it and discuss it on at least a complex level whereas I don’t get that, I only get the liberated subject.

GROTH: What about Spiegelman’s Maus?

LEVINE: That’s an enormously developed, complex thing. When you see the exhibition that followed it, of his work and how hard he worked on simplifying and getting a certain kind of look … I don’t think of Art as a great draftsman, but I think that what he achieved in those books, is a complete level of something that’s very big, very sophisticated.

GROTH: Art is, of course, a child of the undergrounds.

LEVINE: I know that. And I do fault everything else that he’s done for the New Yorker. I’m not very taken with that. The drawings aren’t nearly as effective, the ideas aren’t necessarily that funny or to the point; they’re just ideas.

I’ve looked at some of the sexual comics and the artists who are wonderful, are really good erotic draftsmen – that is, they draw a girl walking through a peculiar world, jungle-like, those are usually very well drawn, and that’s why they’re doing it, they can draw well, that’s what they do. But Cherry or whatever it’s called [Cherry Pop Tart] – Uggh!!

GROTH: An important part of our magazine is that in a sense we’re trying to elevate comics through criticism and through interviewing people like you, and it’s my impression that comics as artform has progressed a lot in the last 20 years.

LEVINE: It’s growing. The Rube Goldbergs weren’t necessarily talented draftsmen, but boy, were they expressive, they made an adequate drawing to carry that, and at times even went above that. They all seem to resemble each other too – there was a certain way of drawing a mouth that’s there in Opper, Sullivant, etc. In the earliest American comics, around 1900 on up, I could find 10 different cartoonists drawing a head in the same way.

GROTH: You know who Burne Hogarth is.

LEVINE: Yes. I went to listen to him with the greatest caricaturist – Hirschfield – I think he’s the most original caricaturist in the last 80 years. I am a legitimate user of an earlier convention of the 19th century, and I make it into my own vehicle because I’m me. I’m imitative of a lot of painters, but by the time I get through in a watercolor or a painting, if I held it next to a painting that somebody said I derived it from, it wouldn’t look like their work at all. You just can’t be in somebody else’s pants. But he had something for me, a stylist, absolutely original, never seen before.

GROTH: I understand that Hirschfield’s attitude about cartooning is completely antithetical to yours: that he disavows that he’s a cartoonist. Have you ever had any discussions with him about that?

LEVINE: No. On several occasions, I tried to put him up for membership, or for a George Polk award, and the answer that always came back was, “He doesn’t do anything political.” I’d say, “Where does it say that journalism is only politics?” But that literally stands against him getting anywhere in the field, with awards. It’s very peculiar. And when I talked to him on that occasion, we went to Washington for a convention of cartoonists, he told me about how he’d been dragged in front of the Un-American Committee, and the reason they associated him with the Left is because he had made some lithographs, and who else made those graphic forms other than the Left, to try and get the people’s art out? He got very frightened by that and said, “I don’t want to be looked at as a political anything.” So therefore, after a certain while, he didn’t do political work. After we talked and a question and answer thing, Burne Hogarth started to talk. I listened to what Burne thinks is in a page of his, including the panel lines, and it was so umgestupped with symbols, it was impossible. Only he could see all the angles. I’ve always loved his drawings. But I happened to love Foster more.

The Manchurian Candidate by Al Hirschfeld (1962)

GROTH: Did Hogarth’s drawing books influence you at all?

LEVINE: No. There were a bunch of Harold or Steven Foster paperback things you could find in an art store about how to draw an eye, how to cross hatch. Those books were given to me. That, along with a sketch class at the Brooklyn Museum where they had stuffed animals before they shifted them over to the Museum of Natural History, and I would draw the wolves, the squirrels – they were all in glass cases – that was my first real sketching.

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