Friday, April 18, 2008

Harvey Kurtzman - Opposing Poses, LIFE

Harvey Kurtzman is one of my top favorite cartoonists. I could go on forever about his skills, but I'll start with just a couple important ones to do with character. His characters seem alive. Motivated from within. They aren't tracings of model sheets, or awkward accidental poses.

Here are a couple tools he uses to achieve this.

His characters each individually have direct poses and lines of action, but he goes a step further.

He composes each line of action and silhouette so that the characters dynamically oppose each other. They aren't parallel or mirror images of each other.

Their poses work together to create a composition and contrasts in their attitudes and respective total energies. The character with the stronger pose has more energy and is generally the focus of the panel. The other character is generally reacting to the more dynamic one. He will have less energy - which is described by a less dynamic pose - or line of action.
Harvey makes his characters' poses compose together. The negative shapes between them are beautiful and functional, as they help you see the contrasts in their attitudes.

This quality of being able to draw characters that seem completely alive and moving and progressing emotionally from pose to pose is a rare talent - too rare. It's what you need to be an animator. Kurtzman would have been a natural animator.

You don't see many comics that have this much life. We've come to accept much comic art as being stiff, using repetitive poses and appearing smug in their stagnant repetitiveness.
Sadly, this has crossed over into modern cartoons-expensive ones at that! And leagues of fans defend this stagnation as somehow being an artistic choice, rather than just a lack of knowledge or extreme conservatism. Life essence is now considered "too cartoony".
If you want to improve your posing, life and compositions, then you need this cartoon bible in your library, and you should copy the poses as an exercise every morning before you start your regular work. Then apply this quality of living characters to your own drawings and watch them come to life too.


Kali Fontecchio said...

Hahaha- I just posted some of my Kurtzman inspired doodles last night! So did Katie!


Colter said...

Wow, thank you for pointing this out to me. I had never heard of Kurtzman until now.

I think this is my favorite out of all the comics you've posted.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

On this last point, about the newspaper comics, this is precisely why Calvin and Hobbes is a thing of the past.

Bill Watterson went out of his way to give comics readers the most fun, visual and exciting comic ( especially on Sundays ) and had to fight his syndicate for this freedom. He made an excellent point, noting that he was the only cartoonist who was actually trying to be allowed to do MORE work for the same amount of money.

He and Aaron McGruder were thought to be the last of a dying breed, and if Berke Brethed does what is true to form for him, he'll be gone soon too ( though, back again in several years ).

Sorry this is so long, but I have a healthy love / hate relationship with the newspaper comics and cartoonists, and it's a passionate subject.

- trevor.

PS: Mike Peters ( Mother Goose and Grimm ) was to me what Ed Benedict was to you, John. Here's a story about how he arranged for me to talk to his good friend Chuck Jones.

John S. said...

Love Kurtzman.
An essential book for every board artist.

Wayne Modjeski said...

When I first seen Spumco's Comic Book, I felt a Kurtzman vibe coming through some of the art. I always thought maybe you were a fan of his, but I never heard you talk about him. When I was about 13 I first seen Kurtzmans work, it blew me away! I never seen art anything like his before! Thanks, John!

Adam T said...

That 'Geek Like Me' comic hurts to look at! Nobody keeps their heads in the exact same position during a real conversation. That's just laziness.

For some really lively cartoon art checkout the early MAD comics drawn by Jack Davis. Harvey Kurtzman would do the layouts and Jack Davis would do the finished art. Jack Davis is great by himself, but without Kurtzman his stuff is sometimes kinda cluttered. Together they are the ultimate cartooning machine. They fill in each others gaps perfectly... not in a gay way or anything.

JonnyPlank said...

I don't see why people think they have to give up on good composition ideas, just because they're used in cartoony work. I mean, you could just as easily apply the exact same concepts to very realistic art, and make a very exciting and visually entertaining comic. Check out Transmetropolitan and Hip Flask: Mystery City. They aren't always the best for composition, but they have some excellent examples.

Good composition is good composition, no matter what style you put on top of it!

JSmith said...

Hey, John! Have you ever read a "Calvin and Hobbs" comic before? Those strips really have life to them. Plus, some of the facial expressions on there are to DIE for. Bill Watterson (the guy who drew them) is a great artist and one of my inspirations to be in this buisness. (You too, man!)

Sorry if you don't agree with me, but I just felt like pointing that out. Great blog, by the way! :)

Joseph Luster said...

Those comics are pretty amazing.

snogdog said...

Hi John and everyone else,

thanks for the great posts!

this has been great stuff....

snogdog said...

John, would you comment on the video
'games' based on cartoons - including your own?

Is it like making a shoe out of a hat?

Is motion the only thing they have in common?

Brian O. said...

Glad you're covering Harvey Kurtzman! Howzabout Pot-Shot Pete? Some of those are like a real storyboard.

Maybe someday you'll get around to breaking down his inking style. I'm still trying to get a handle on it. His brushwork adds a lot of energy, much more than his later pen art when he took himself too seriously.

Plastic Sam is fun to analyze, too. Shows how much life all the Mad comics could have had if the artists just inked over his layouts.

diego cumplido said...

I think that maybe, what happened is that too many people took Garfield and Peanuts as inspiration and just made a lot of wrong copies of those strips.

Anyway, .. what do you think of Garfield and Peanuts?...

Bob said...

plastic sam is pretty cool too, but I really enjoy Jack Cole's Plastic man more. Him and Harvey have insane lines of action that really draw your eyes across the panels.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Jim Davis is a hack.

- trevor.

ChuckGnomes said...


It's so cool to see you still alive on the web. I've been a follower of your work and an inspiration for me when I was working in the animation field 10 years ago. I was one of the regular on your spumco message board too. I remember the good old Wild Cartoon Kingdom magazine with your amazing collaboration (that I still keep as 'my precious')...

Unfortunatly for me, in Canada (montreal)trad animation is not what it used to be I had to take a job in a different field but animation is still alive inside me. It is fun to see your comments about some famous animators on your blog, seems like I'm part of the old timer when you talk to the beginners..

With this 3D animation era, it's really cool to see that you are still spreading the love of classical animation on the web.

Thanks again John for your commitment!


PCUnfunny said...

"Jim Davis is a hack."

He is certainly one now. Along with Cathy Guisewhite,Kevin Fagan,Bruce Tinsley,Lynn Johnston, and the list sadly goes very long. Ccmics truely suck today.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Man, the contrast of styles speaks volumes! Kurtzman's book really does belong on every cartoonist's shelf!

JonnyPlank said...

"He is certainly one now. Along with Cathy Guisewhite,Kevin Fagan,Bruce Tinsley,Lynn Johnston, and the list sadly goes very long. Ccmics truely suck today."

While I agree with most of those, I'd like to know why Lynn Johnston is on your list. The others are painfully obvious, but I can't see a problem with her work.

Julián Höek said...

great post!
please do more analysis on kurtzman!

Tim said...

Foxtrot (and other strips) often has some great writing, and it's depressing thinking about how much better it would be with some actual artwork. There's nothing wrong with little funny stories (in comics or cartoons), but the lack of anything in either medium taking advantage of what it's there for is frustrating. Considering the continued popularity of Calvin and Hobbes, you'd think more cartoonists would try to draw from that creativity (like Watterson drew from Krazy Kat).

Zorrilla said...

To be fair, the choice of modern cartoons is atrocious! Hahaha

But they make the point.

For some reason, many disciplines had their golden age in the 50s (film, comics, cartoons) and then declined deeper and deeper into a dark age.

Nowadays people are only concerned with technical improvements and forget to be creative, or even allow themselves to be spontaneous and silly.

James said...

didn't vin waller work on an animated version of Hey Look?

Ross Irving said...

I really like these Kurtzman drawings. I was always concerned when I drew a line of action that fit too well with the other pose, if you know what I mean.

I would draw a guy in a pose that almost tessellated with the other guy's pose. Then it looked like a puzzle and that really threw me off. So it's okay to make the poses fit that well?

Ross Irving said...

Also, if you were interested, I finally put up some of my own drawings. I hope they're okay. Off topic, sorry. Thanks, John.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

I love the work Harvey did for Playboy and "Little Orphan Fannie"! Someone should post some of that stuff.


- trevor.

carlo guillot said...

Hey John,
Searching for Kurtzman, I've just found some milt gross stuff, hope you like it.
It's here


Miles Long said...

Oh yeah, Harvey Kurtz (picture of man)!
He's so awesome! I had only known him from his later MAD magazine work and little annie fannie (shudder), but when i got his Hey Look! book, it was like a new world opening up. There was more creativity in one strip of heylook than in i'd say every newspaper comic out today. Each one was like a different porky in wackyland each time. Such creative stuff. So good.

Miles Long said...

Newspaper comics have been shit for awhile now. Not even worth looking at. Not a laugh on the whole page. I think the problem was Matt Groening. I think he was awesome, but he'd have nine panel comics that were all the same panel. Of course, he was such a good, honest, funny writer that it didn't matter, but people come along after that and think that they can do that too. Actually, what they think is that their writing is as good as a Groening when it really just isn't.

PCUnfunny said...

"While I agree with most of those, I'd like to know why Lynn Johnston is on your list. The others are painfully obvious, but I can't see a problem with her work."

Her work is just plain dull as dishwater. I don't have a problem having serious issues in a comic but you got to make the audience care about the characters. Also the artwork is nothing remarkable at all.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

As an artist, what I really appreciate about Calvin and Hobbes is how varied the posing and facial expressions are in almost every strip. It's not just characters standing around, with their mouths open for three or four panels.

That said, my favorite Watterson art is around 1988-1989. In the strips from that period, Calvin and Hobbes are more solidly constructed and espressive than earlier, but not as harshly geometrical as later.`

Tony said...

I'd like to buy the book but $60 is a bit pricey.

If there's anything I hate more, it's the constant presence of static poses in comics and art in general. And if the artist can only make the faces of his characters accomplish only 3 different emotions, it makes me want to throw my keyboard at the screen.

Kevin M. said: "my favorite Watterson art is around 1988-1989. In the strips from that period, Calvin and Hobbes are more solidly constructed and espressive than earlier, but not as harshly geometrical as later."

I like his later stuff because he really started to get his composition down. With the new Sunday format he demanded came new possibilities to be expressive and creative which he exploited more than anyone since.
And I don't see his later work as overly geometric but sharper, confident, and not as mushy as his earlier work.

dedmonky said...

Hey thanks for these. They've help me alot lately.

dedmonky said...

Thanks John. These are helping alot lately working on boards.

Kevin W. Martinez said...


my comment was mostly based on Bill Watterson's actual drawings of the characters.

Here's a Calvin strip from 1985, which exhibits some of the "mushiness" you've described:

Here's a strip from 1988:

Here's a strip from 1995:

The construction of Calvin and Hobbes (the characters) is more solid in the last two strips than in the first one, but in 1988 there are still subtle-yet-palpable vestiges of, for want of a better term, "roundness" to the characters that I don't see in the 1995 strip, hence the "geometrical" description.

I'm not saying that the art in the later strips is bad or inferior. To the contrary, I don't think we're ever going to see newspaper comics that are as well-drawn as those were ever again. I just find the 1988-89 Watterson drawings of Calvin and Hobbes a tad more appealing and prefer them.

Captain Napalm said...

Bill Watterson was the only truly great newspaper cartoonist of his generation, as others have pointed out. His best strips were a crash course in all the principles you talk about here. I dunno if these links will work, but try to follow them, they are very much worth it -

If you're a stickler for composition / line of action, this one is like watching porn:

Gotta love that third panel:

Calvin's dad having a John K. moment:

That second panel is just SOOO Spumco!:

The mounting tension has a kind of R&S vibe, I think:

Shapes, lines, angles, contrast, composition, timing, expression, colour....I'm putting my foot on the floor here, this one is Perfect with a capital P:

I loves the shapes and sense of movement in this one:

Kevin W. Martinez said...

Hey Capt. Napalm, most of your examples are from the period I was talking about, roughly 88-89.

The composition and expression in those early strips is partly why they're so appealing.

And to be fair, Watterson's later strips are still full of those moments.

Here's one (Calvin's mad expression in the middle panel is not just generic comic mad, and there's a mushroom cloud over his head to add to it.):

Calvin's pose in the second panel is eye candy:

Captain Napalm said...

Y'know, Miles, I get what you're saying about Groening's negative influence on comics and cartoons, but technically speaking, "Life In Hell" didn't really start going in that direction until the late 1980s when he created Akbar & Jeff. Obviously he fell so in love with the idea of these two bastardized Charlie Browns acting as Brechtian automatons for his endlessly ridiculous verbiage that he couldn't get enough of it, but for me it grew stale pretty quickly. And it bugs me how few people realize that LIH was totally different before that. For all their political venom and verbosity, those early strips are overflowing with wacky design quirks, from the literally faceless rabbit in "I, Binky" to Bongo's "What does God look like?" reverie to the "Nine Types of boyfriends/girlfriends/teachers/bosses/etc". Groening's biggest shortcoming as a cartoonist was construction. Everything else about his drawings is good-to-passable (and occasionally brilliant), but I still thank heavens that David Silverman cleaned up and LOOSENED up his style at the same time when he initially masterminded The Simpsons. And let's not forget that a certain compadre of John's from the "Mighty Mouse" era made a pretty splashy turn as well, one which lasted for years and produced some of the finest moments in the show's whole history!

Captain Napalm said...

Kevin, I couldn't agree more about that sweet spot you speak of -'88 - '90 or so- and while I'm at it, I might as well mention: A while back John posted a breakdown of how Lichty influenced Rod Scribner, and it got me thinking, and I realized that when Watterson draws insane cartooniness of one kind or another, his style seems to exist in realm somewhere between Lichty and Scribner when he's channeling Lichty -it looks tighter than Lichty, but it's still has a certain touch that can only exist in comics, whre you can have varying qualities of line or lines that don't perfectly connect. And the faces change model very believably. there's a great animator, in Bill, but alas, he isn't specifically trained in that field. If he were, though, he would probably be better than just about anyone.

T.E.B. said...

You think with technology today, people could educate themselves on how to make their comics a bit more visually appealing.

Ugh, don't get me started on the comic ctrl+alt+del, no unique poses. And if that wasn't enough, too many words in a single panel and bad writing.

Jesse Oliver said...

I love Vincent Waller's cartoon that starred the "Hey Look" characters! :)

Jym said...

=v= Kurtzman had the best approach to repeated panels that I've ever seen, and of course it was the furthest thing from stagnant. He would make the panels narrow, and he'd boil the scene down to three panels. Normally the first panel would be sedate, the second one subtly different, and the third one on the verge of boiling over. The following full-sized panel would be the boilover.

Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony said...

I suppose arguing about what years Calvin and Hobbes was best is like arguing about who was the best cartoon director at WB in the 40's. It's all much better compared to today's offerings.

Bob Lizarraga said...

BEAUTIFUL Kurtzman pages-- thanks for the lesson!

Bob Lizarraga said...

BEAUTIFUL Harvey art- thanks for the lesson! I see Bill Wray's cartooning influenced by the Kurtzman style, yes?