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

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

GROTH: To get back to you, you studied painting at the Philadelphia Tyler School of Art. And I assume that’s when you studied with Hans Hoffman?

LEVINE: No, that was after I graduated from there. I graduated in ’49, ’50. Six or eight months later I went to Hoffman’s.

GROTH: Was the Tyler School of Art a valuable experience?

LEVINE: Yes, because I met Shikler, the man who eventually dropped painting and became a gallery dealer and owner, but who had an intuitive feeling for art. Their influence guided me towards an awareness of how to look at art, and possibly how to think about what I was doing; that was very vital. There were artists who did things that were – for instance there was a fresco artist of enormous talent, but very poverty-stricken, he died eventually of tuberculosis, he did imitations of Michelangelo’s murals in the school. There were cartoonists there – not people who did cartooning then, but I’d see on a locker where we kept our equipment, there would be somebody who painted a cartoon. There was a wide spectrum of talent, it was an open atmosphere, and being a very undisciplined kid – and that’s why I couldn’t go to art schools really, I couldn’t take it in high school – this was just right. Slowly but surely they pushed things toward me, engraving, etching, ceramics, and sculpture, which I didn’t take to, but which were introduced to me. They had a way of doing it that wasn’t pressured, whereas in other schools I think I would have been under too much pressure. And I’ve always thought of how to raise the awareness and the quality of what the disciplines were for cartoonists because cartoonists are very free creatures; they don’t want to be forced into any discipline, I want to fool them in some way, teach them something, but fool them. I’ve got some ideas for a book which I can’t divulge yet… But it’s with that in mind. But I also see it with people studying painting. They need to be opened to the study of cartooning, because that would free them up to be much more expressive.

GROTH: I assume your passion for comic books lapsed at some point.

LEVINE: I don’t read them any more. But I go and look because I’m interested. Every now and then I’m flabbergasted by the quality of some draftsmanship, and that keeps me interested.

GROTH: But the content doesn’t interest you.

LEVINE: Not really. The underground comics did not appeal to me.

GROTH: And the traditional comics?

LEVINE: They left me, in a sense. When Terry and the Pirates was no longer done by its originator [Milton Caniff], it lost something. Other strips dropped off as the cartoonist died, and the replacements were so mechanical, they just don’t interest me. I can’t go back to Prince Valiant without a man whose whole emergence in the periods that he drew was so authentic. I loved Abbey an’ Slats, but the story ran out after a while, it repeated.

GROTH: Do you know who Carl Barks is? He’s considered the best cartoonist who drew Donald Duck and the Walt Disney comics.

LEVINE: No, I don’t know him individually. I went with my daughter when she was a Trekkie and there was a Trekkie convention, and I was the only person of a certain age in line, and right behind me was a guy who was fairly old enough for me to ask, “What are you doing here?” and he said, “Well, I’m here for the Donald Duck stuff, you know, the sexy parts?” “What sexy ones?” And he went into this thing about the fellow you just mentioned. Is he the fellow who paints?

GROTH: He paints now.

LEVINE: That to me is a joke. But listen, if Andy Warhol was still around, what’s the difference?

GROTH: No, I wouldn’t defend his paintings, but he’s widely considered one of the greatest cartoonists in comic books.

LEVINE: You mean in the animated style. I sold one strip to Wings comics, and it was terrible, but it was done in an animated style. I was one of the few artists at the time who could even think of doing an adventure or an animated style. Most cartoonists were in one style or the other.

GROTH: He’s in what’s called the “funny animal” tradition, which had a number of good cartoonists working within it. By an informed consensus, he is considered the best of that tradition – a tremendous storyteller who could draw long stories –

LEVINE: Did he write the stories?

GROTH: Yes, he did.

LEVINE: Wow.

GROTH: He wrote Andrew, and he created Uncle Scrooge and created this enormous cast of characters at Disney which Disney of course made millions off of.

LEVINE: But they’ve sort of put him out to pasture, haven’t they? He’s retired and they allow him to paint… You see, I got out of it. They allow him to paint because …

GROTH: Which is sad, yeah.

LEVINE: That’s terrible. But he sells them for a lot of money?

GROTH: He has an enormous reputation, and I think misguided people who like his stories, think somehow that the paintings legitimize him as an artist, which is ass-backwards.

LEVINE: Well, it’s that kind of a thing. [Laughter.] Most of the cartoonists that I knew, and I knew for instance, Howard Post — Howie Post was everything. Talented beyond … At one point we were just beginning to be in-betweeners. He was already an assistant animator when Fleischer went out of business. And I convinced him and another fellow to leave because the conditions were terrible, and you really couldn’t get anywhere, so we went out to try the comic books. Years later he came back and took over the Famous studios and the last time I spoke with him, he was into licensing. But his draftsmanship was incredible on every level. When he tried to paint, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what painting was about. He just thought it was the same thing, only now in oils. He would say, “Well, why would anybody want to? It doesn’t look nice!” That’s a bridge that’s not there for most cartoonists. I had a wonderfully talented classmate in college who eventually ended up doing architectural rendering. When I asked what he painted, he said abstracts. He said he worked in such a realistic vein, that he didn’t see the reason for that any more: therefore, in order to be more creative it had to be an abstract. The thinking that goes into why people end up doing what they do is very strange.

GROTH: Luckily most cartoonists don’t paint.

LEVINE: Luckily.

GROTH: One of the reasons I’m asking you your take on some of these comic book artists is because you re an outsider and I think you would have a unique perspective. I interview cartoonists who are so integral a part of the contemporary scene that they tend to fall into a groove and don’t get a …

LEVINE: What I’m not aware of is who inked whose pencils … There’s so many combinations of those things, that therefore I couldn’t tell whose work was really there.

GROTH: Are you familiar with Harvey Kurtzman?

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROTH: Did you like his work?

LEVINE: I wasn’t terribly aware of his work, because when I met him, he was infinitely more involved with storyline. For instance, we worked on a redo of A Christmas Carol which he wrote and I illustrated, for Esquire. That’s really what he was doing, he wasn’t drawing any more.

GROTH: That would have been in the ’60s?

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROTH: That’s when he started getting into Little Annie Fanny.

LEVINE: Again, he didn’t draw. That was drawn by who, Wally Wood, or one of those guys? [Jack] Davis?

GROTH: He did the under-drawing, and then Will Elder did a lot of the –

LEVINE: Yeah, but the difference in the ability to draw was extraordinary there. He may have penciled in something, but I’m sure Will Elder changed it a great deal. Anyway, over the years I knew him.

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