Tuesday, September 23, 2008


A lot of present day print cartoons look like they were executed by graphic designers, rather than cartoonists. The best examples, like the one above, are thoroughly professional and even lots of fun, but I still prefer the old styles. They seemed to have more to say about the human condition. A graphic artist's first concerns are all technical, things to do with repeating shapes, arcs, negative spaces and all that. A cartoonist on the other hand, is informed by design but is more interested in what's being expressed. Take George Herriman for example.

When compared to modern cartoons Herriman's work (above) looks positively untidy. Some of it looks more like sketchbook pages rather than formal drawings. The lettering is all askew and the cartoonist seems in danger of drifting off the point sometimes. Does it matter? There's a marvelous sense of fun and life here. You can see the artist struggling with his medium and with his own imagination. There's a sense of performance, of spontaneity. You feel the drawing could easily have spun out of control, but the artist brought all his skill to bear and wrestled it to a satisfying finish.

Some artists refer to Herriman disdainfully as "the Scratchy Artist," because his lines were always short and broken. I have to admit that I quit working in pen and ink because the results came out that way. Maybe I should have stayed with it. It occurs to me now that a lot of old cartoonists couldn't get around the problem either, and simply learned to live with it. They made scratchy into an art form. In the Herriman drawing above (click to enlarge) the scratchiness actually adds to the humor. It makes everything more comically ignorant, and makes for interesting textures.

Here (above) Herriman shows us his delight with the idea of riding around in wheeled vehicles, and the pleasure he takes in encountering hills and waterways and trestle bridges. Some cartoonists are sensualists who feel compelled to use the cartoon medium to express their delight with the physical world. I feel that way myself. Herriman reminds me of how privileged we all are to be alive and able to experience all this!

Sometimes (the two drwgs above) Herriman tuned out the environment and focused on cartooning for it's own sake. Sometimes you just have to draw characters all by themselves so you can surprise yourself with silly drawings that seem to posses a life of their own. Like all artists in their best moments, Herriman must have been amazed by the power of what he put on paper. I imagine that he must have felt like he was a conduit for some mysterious energy that exists in the world. Maybe that's when you know you've arrived as an artist, when you frequently find yourself "in a zone," watching the stuff that comes out of your pencil as if you were a spectator being awed by someone else's work. That's only an occasional feeling for me. For Herriman it must have been an every day experience.

BTW, all the Herriman here was courtesy of "The Stripper's Guide," a blog about old comic strips. Blogger won't accept my link for some reason.


Anonymous said...

those are some beautiful comics, and you have a great eye for interpretation. i completely agree with your analysis about the life in the Herriman comics.

lastangelman said...

I have to wonder if Robert Crumb was aware of or read Herriman's early work; there's something about Herriman's style of newspaper editorial cartooning, developed when he started out at seventeen as an on the spot illustrator for the Los Angeles Examiner for many sporting events, it's funny and fantastic but grounded in the everyday immediate reportage style or you are there documentary look.

Of course many of us are aware of his famous "Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse", a seemingly simplistic but bizarre cartooning approach that appears to be a million miles away from his busy, detailed, immediate editorial illustrations.

You can learn some more of Herriman here.

Adam T said...

You have to be more conservative and take fewer chances if you want your work to be as clean and consistent as your first example. I'd rather have cartoons that are rougher and sketchier if that means more original ideas about layout and character expression. Some ways of working lend themselves to discovering new tricks along the way but others are just dead ends and application of formula.

One thing I noticed is that print cartoons with a lot of ink work and deep perspective suck you into their worlds. You forget you're looking at a sheet of paper. There's fewer print cartoonists working today who can effectively create that feeling that you're peaking into another world. Flat styles with super clean linework don't lend themselves well to sparking the imagination of the viewer so they can get that feeling.

Mark said...

Uncle Eddie its like you reached into my soul and pulled the Krazy Kat out of it.

I love Herriman, his work is quirky and sometimes unpredictable, but you can see the passion he has for his work.

Deniseletter said...

Hi again,I admit that the comic above has nice colors also few lines can represent something interesting if they aren't so symmetrical.Indeed Herriman's drawings have more spontaneity!you can link:http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/ or any more you like easyway on your blog by paste the url using the widget in add gadget: "my blog list":-)

Phantom Spitter said...

Thank you so much for doing a Herriman post! He was so brilliant. I actually hadn't seen any of his pre-Krazy work before.

Do you really like that first image? I kinda like it, but it looks a little... computery. Like it's TOO slick. And I don't think enough is going on. The setting has huge potential, though.

But I'm guilty of liking some of that "up to date" stuff too, so I shouldn't talk. I'm a sucker for stuff by Dan Clowes and Tim Lane.

Before I finish, I have been wondering: Do you like work by these guys?:
-H.T. Webster
-John Severin
-S. Clay Wilson (I know, I know his work's a little... I don't know how to describe it, but still I wonder if you like it at all.)
-Stanislav Szukalski
-Robert Williams
-Boris Artzybasheff
-Gahan Wilson

Oh, and please please PLEASE bring back The Smoker!

oppo said...

So, the pen is not mightier than the pencil when it comes to animation?

Didn't Bruce Timm do some nice work with pens, though: http://www.cartoonbrew.com/tv/beany-cecil-boards-by-bruce-timm

Lester Hunt said...

Those political cartoons about Mr.-Dooley-era scandals are so charming! Oh for the innocent days when the worst political misdeed people could find was some schmuck siphoning off some of the county's road construction funds!

trevor said...

Holy crap! Those Beany and Cecil boards are beautiful! You could use those as layouts, they're so good!

I love George Herriman! Thanks so much for doing a post on him, Eddie! He's surely one of the fathers of the scratchy pen technique!

What is your take on some of the political cartoonists of today who utilize the thick and scratchy pen technique? People like Jim Borgman, Mike Peters or the late Jeff MacNelly.

You think it's safe to say they're cut from the same cloth as Herriman or is it more of a Walt Kelly influence you see going on there?

Also, did you ever see any of the Krazy Kat cartoons?

- trevor.

trevor said...

Also, this post reminds me of a Chuck Jones quote I heard last week. It was during an interview with Charlie Rose.

Chuck temporarily lost his pencil and was going to begin drawing something. Rose offered his pen as Chuck found the pencil. He then held both up, and said towards the pen, "This is full of ink," and then with the pencil said, "this is full of ideas".

Just thought it was worth mentioning.

- trevor.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Sam: By the way, Herriman -- who's a hero of mine -- was half black. I didn't mention that because his work speaks for itself and doesn't need social re-enforcement. When Herriman drew funny blacks as minor background characters he drew them in the humorous style of the day, and they looked fine.

Denise: Thanks a million for the tip! I'll try it!

Phantom: Sukalski? You mean the Polish sculptor? The other names are all fine, except I'm not a big fan of John Severin or Dan Clowes. I do like Clowes' live-action movies though.

I'll do more Smokers when I'm well enough to do videos. Recovering from this $#*&% surgery is really crimping my style.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Trevor: Ha! A great Chuck jones quote!

Stephen Worth said...

Hi Eddie

Sherm Cohen stopped by this afternoon and left a whole bunch of great Herriman Stumble Inn dailies from 1922 for me to digitize. Good time to come for a visit!

See ya

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve: No kidding!? I never even heard of that strip! I can't wait to see them! God bless the ASIFA archive!

lastangelman said...

1.)deviating slightly, but commenting about the Chuck Jones quote: I don't ever recall seeing him draw (in public) with a pen, he always preferred a soft pencil. This was the few times I saw him in seventies, eighties and nineties.

2.)I never knew about Herriman being a mulatto until very very very recently (apparently, he encouraged the belief he was an exotic white, like Greek or Cypriot), I never even knew what he looked like until about four or five days ago, from the time as a kid, I assumed he was some crazy talented European immigrant that Hearst treasured and loved more than any of his other cartoonists. Learning about Herriman's actual heritage and personal background adds an extra dimensionality to my appreciation of his work.
A lot of comic art I love and appreciate without knowing dot about the artist. Do you think, Eddie, it is necessary or valuable to have some insight or knowledge of the artist to further appreciate their work? That may be a question to explore in a future blogpost, perhaps.

Rudy Tenebre, esteemed secretary. said...

Finding scratches, or marks, repellent is a curious reaction from someone interested in drawing...

Anonymous said...

You could see Chuck find ideas when he sketched with a pencil, in those films where you saw him draw. He would work off the accidents to find the expression.

Which is slightly odd given the tightness of some of his pencils on RR. Or Maybe not.

I have loved Krazy and Ignatz SO much I have completely ignored the rest of Harrimans career as if it may never have existed. Thanks Uncle Eddie.

Mark Simonson said...

These drawings remind me of Barry Blitt. I always loved the regular feature he used to have in Entertainment Weekly. He's been seen more recently in the New Yorker (including a rather controversial cover), but I've missed a lot of that.

Deniseletter said...

Psst!Hey Eddie,there's more Herriman for you: