Monday, September 22, 2008

Kurtzman Bonanza

Boy, I still remember the thrill of discovering Kurtzman in the early 80s. I found a tiny book with black and white reprints of his old pre-Mad comic book work. Hey Look was in there and so were his take-offs of Dennis the Menace and Blondie and some of his early "realistic" comics. I took all these tiny images and xeroxed them up into a binder for myself. I showed the stuff to everyone I knew. Some cartoonists loved him instantly. Many thought he was primitive and I would yell at them.

Between the 1st and 2nd seasons of Ren and Stimpy, I kept some of the artists on, even though we had no work to do - just to train them and improve their skills. I made them study story structure, composition, experiment with BG styles and techniques and I also took a few of them and forced them to broaden their cartooning techniques and control.
One of my exercises was for the cartoonists to take Hey Look poses and draw Ren and Stimpy in those poses. Some of the cartoonists who at first thought Kurtzman was "primitive" quickly realized how many great artistic tools the man used. These fellows improved vastly over 2 months.*

Their poses became much more concrete and readable. More dynamic, more alive and more to the point. I also tried this same exercise with Milt Gross - who the artists rebelled even harder against!
But anyway, the point of this post is how lucky young cartoonists are today. All this great stuff that I used to hunt for in dank basements and sweaty comic book shops is all becoming available for free and in much better copies on the web. Take advantage of it! Study it. Draw it. Analyze it and race past your ignorant trend-following competition!

Thank your lucky stars for generous collectors and archivists like Ger Apeldoorn , Shane Glines, Steve Worth, Kevin Langley, Kent Butterworth and Chris (Lopez?) from ComicCrazies. There are many more too, and the number of great blogs is growing.
A lot of this stuff I've never even seen before! Look at these panels of crowd scenes. It's amazing how controlled and organized they are! The whole of each page works as a design, and then it's broken down into smaller groups of shapes, each with its own sub-hierarchy.
I personally like Kurtzman's work even more than the Mad artists he supervised. Kurtzman did the layouts for most of the Mad (and E.C) comics. In other words, he drew quick compositions in thumbnail form. The artists lost a lot of the larger design element inherent in Harvey's work. His organized crowds became chaotic hard to read jumbles in the hands of the more famous cartoonists - in my opinion. But one thing most fans are in agreement on: Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Will Elder and the bunch did their best work under Kurtzman's direction.

I love this little story about James Cagney's dancing! Kurtzman has great taste in other arts.
Kurtzman is a rare creature that sees the big picture. Most artists get buried in the details. The fact that Harvey drew each character "simpler" than most artists makes it easier to see the composition and big picture and we can learn from that. It also makes beginner artists tend to think he is "primitive".

Harvey thinks like a good animation director or a good short story writer.

One other thing none of the E.C. artists ever captured completely was the sense of life that Harvey's characters had. His characters seem motivated from within. You can tell they are thinking and feeling creatures, acting on their impulses. They also react to each other beautifully. They aren't merely illustrating a script.

This is a quality I don't see in anybody's cartoons today. Even well drawn ones (if there are any left).

I am awestruck by the organization skills in Kurtz' pictures.
This is a man who has great natural instincts combined with a sharp reasoning mind. He reminds me of Clampett. He can take a ton of elements and weave them together into a clear whole, and at the same time get the best work out of a crew of other talented cartoonists who probably don't even realize it.

Here is a great picture of my pal, Kevin Kolde thinking about his first dance.

If you have articles and art by Kurtzman and would like me to link to them, just add a link in the comments. Hey, does anyone have any of his early realistic comics? I love those too!

*(those who resisted broadening their tastes and skills went on to a warm welcome on Animaniacs)


Mattieshoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Piskor said...

Hey John. Thanks a lot for highlighting this work from Kurtzman. I really dig his stuff and I've never seen a lot of what you posted.

Anonymous said...

Great post john K, I enjoyed reading it.
I have another question for you
"do most animators use windows or mac's becuase my dad always tells me the media type profesionals always choose mac's if this is true do i need a good understanding of mac's in this buisness.
thanks for taking the time out of your day to read my question.

JohnK said...

Hi John

most of the artists I know prefer Macs. I do. Although Macs get clunkier with each new model.

Jake the Animator said...

i think kurtzman was one of the early guys of MAD magazine, too, wasn't he? He used to sign his name "Kurtz" with a stick figure of a man. as an 8-year old, i thought this was the coolest thing!

Mitch K said...

Haha These are not only amazing well drawn, they're also hilarious! :D

Anonymous said...

This is sheer brilliance, professor. If you still had the manual, would it be possible to post a page or two? I would also love to see some more of those Pig Tales comics; I literally started 10 minutes at one of the panels you’ve showed in your last post.

If you’re concerned, I’m being a good little egg and studying these old masters for months now, and a few others (such as Albert Uderzo, Burne Hogarth, etc.) I only did the history posts to pass the time, but in the end, I decided that I dearly wanted to focus my energies on becoming a well rounded artist.

From an aspiring animator/ artist

P.S., If you’re interested to know who Uderzo is, here is a link to a brief summary, with some of the stuff he worked on over the years.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the reply john,
greatly appreciated
"I guess I need to look into mac's for a change".

My animation classes start next year, Once I graduate highschool.
any advice you give me will help out alot. :)

thanks again

patrick said...

wow, these are gold!!! Thanks John & everyone!

Bob Flynn said...

Thanks for opening my eyes to Kurtzman's work. Tons to pour over here and elsewhere on the web. His character's gestures, interactions, and framing in the panels is as dynamic as anything you'd see in great animation. Something I strive for in my comics and illustrations.

Studying as we speak.

SoleilSmile said...

Did Kevin draw that pic in an older style or is that a pic you found and it looked like him?

I didn't know he could draw:)

Pedro Vargas said...

Wow, really cool! I've always liked how his drawings are real simple with so much appeal. Did he work with Milt Gross at some point in his life? Some of his Hey Look comics have a certain feel that's kinda like Gross' drawings.

I like that you said that he drew in a simple way so that the copmposition of the whole drawing is readible and easy to see and that we can learn from that.

Vanoni! said...

What a great post, John.

I love reading about your own introductions to these artists.
I think I've mentioned on my blog before that for whatever reason, I was introduced to Kurtzman (and Elder) later in life. And I was ashamed I hadn't discovered them before.
I had obviously been indirectly influenced by him through other artists and there I was, finally staring at the originator.

And this:
Between the 1st and 2nd seasons of Ren and Stimpy, I kept some of the artists on, even though we had no work to do - just to train them and improve their skills.
is pretty great. I wish I had been around to partake.

ComiCrazys said...

Hey John - I saw your post and decided to post another Kurtzman Pigtales story I had planned for later this week. Not sure I've seen this one online yet?

I have a bunch of his later work too from the small digest-sized magazines, the Esquires, as well as a few prints, including one gorgeous comic-con print. A lot of this was reprinted in the Comics Journal volume.

I would love to get a hold of his Dracula strips for the French magazine, whose name escapes me now. I'll have to look it up.

JohnK said...

Wow! Thanks again. I've never seen that one. It's fantastic!

I just added a link to it.

ComiCrazys said...

Anytime, John. Glad I can contribute to some of your posts with some of my posts.

Thanks for sharing so much your knowledge, insight and anecdotes about cartooning on a semi-daily basis. Your site is the second site I hit everyday when I get online, and that's only because my site is my homepage. =)

PS - Yeah, it's Lopez.

Shawn said...

Harvey Kurtzman is one of my VERY favorite cartoonists. The first time I ever saw "Hey Look!" I nearly crapped myself. I can see some of that influence in some of your Ren and Stimpy cartoons too.

The other EC artists are some of my favorites as well, but I do agree with you when you say that some of their final art looks more chaotic and hard to read compared to Kurtzman's layouts. For a good comparison of how the same artists worked in the similar humor/comic style WITHOUT the aid of Kurtzman, check out "Panic" (a Mad rip-off from the 1950's). Panic was also printed by EC and used all the same artists, however without Kurtzman's layouts, the art (although still REALLY great) doesn't read nearly as well.

A lot of those artists didn't like working under Kurtzman's thumb, with the exception of Will Elder. The art Kurtzman and Elder did together just kept getting better and better as time went by. Goodman Beaver and Little Annie Fanny comics are pure quality! But I still prefer Kurtzman's "Hey Look!" style more than all else.

I have some of his early "realistic" comics if you'd like me to scan some for you.

Caleb Bowen said...

Great info and pictures. That Sheldon comic and Cagny in Ireland are amazing. Such perfect use of negative space!

Let me know what you think of my George Liquor ink, here

Nikita said...

Um.. do you still remember what you did as the excersise? cause I would really enjoy to see them, I think we all would benefit from a more structured look, then asking the 12 year olds on DA

Kali Fontecchio said...

This stuff is gold, seriously.

Look at the ideas that were applied Katie from a while back. When you told me about him and got me that book I got super excited and inspired and did some drawings from some of his poses, which reminded Katie how much she loves him. Yay!

Phantom Spitter said...

Jake: Not only was Kurtzman one of the early artists for MAD, but he created MAD. It's true. Look it up on Wikipedia. Today's MAD magazine insists that that fat schmuck Bill Gaines founded MAD. Don't believe a word of it! Kurtzman came up with the title, some stories, and covers, while Gaines only OK-ed it and published it. He deserves credit as publisher, but not founder!

Anonymous said...

Artists (sorry, "Creative Professionals") use Macs because Macs are for fags.

The modern photoshop graphic design industry teamed up with Apple to give subsidies to all the art schools so they'd almost exclusively use Macs.

This, along with Job's presense at Pixar, trickled down to the other creative indsutries, like animation, indsutrial design, architecutre, etc...

By the 90s it was ubiquitous, which is ironic, because Macs have terrible OS.

trevor said...

do most animators use windows or mac's

The best way to differentiate between PCs and Macs is this: a Windows machine is more likely to have problems more often, but they usually aren't difficult to fix and they don't cost much to do so.

Macs, on the other hand, have better security and seldom have problems, but when they do, they're real doozies and cost a bit to fix.

One is a PC ( Personal Computer ) and the other is a professional machine. You truly get what you pay for.

- trevor.

trevor said...

One of my exercises was for the cartoonists to take Hey Look poses and draw Ren and Stimpy in those poses.

I'm totally going to do that with my own characters! Thanks again for the great advice, John!

- trevor.

Vince M. said...

Hey, Phantom Fact Splitter, I've never read anywhere that MAD magazine or Bill himself ever claimed to be the creator of MAD. Kurtzman was always credited as the creator. In fact Harvey was pushed to create the humor comic by Gaines when he wasn't making a living creating and editing the war comics for EC.
That "fat schmuck" was in fact one of the most straight up, honest and generous publishers in the business, paying high rates on delivery, giving bonuses, Christmas gifts (even though he was Jewish) and taking his creative people on trips all over the world.
If anybody was a schmuck it was poor Harvey, who had some people whispering in his ear when he demanded 51% ownership of MAD, and was rightfully turned down by Gaines. I don't know of any publisher who would strike a deal like that with a cartoonist, especially in the decades before 'creator-owned' properties came into play.
Don't believe everything you read on Wikipedia, it's usually written by schmucks like you.

JohnK said...

>>Um.. do you still remember what you did as the excersise? <<

"One of my exercises was for the cartoonists to take Hey Look poses and draw Ren and Stimpy in those poses."

Adam Robinson said...

John, I remember Kurtzman from my uncle's extensive Mad collection. When I was a kid, I would read all of his magazines and emulate the artists on my own paper. Since I've gotten a little older, I still remember those exaggerations and subtleties.

Thanks for highlighting him. I'm kinda new to your blog, but have you ever highlighted any other Mad artists?

k.dubb said...

this was a great read, thanks John K!

it's funny actually because i was just thinking the other day about how Vince Waller and i used to talk about these very same techniques you made the R&S crew do. i still use these exercises (along with a couple others he told me about) to try to push my skills even further!

hope to read more tips like this in the future!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

And if you haven't got Hey Look, get it! You even have the only Pig Tales story I haven't got! Now for a color copy of his other humor work for Timely. I have some in black and white from Greg Theakston's Sunday Package. Tomorrow it's my turn for somemore rarely seen Kurtzman pages. You'll flip.

Do you know Kurtzman's unpublished adaptation of Dickens' Christmas Tale? He layed out all 60 pages with the full text and then painted about ten... and still didn't sell it. Denis Kitchen has the whole thing. I hope it will be published one day.

You mention Milt Gross. Did you now he was in almost every issue of The Killroys? Available for download on I could go and post them, but they are out there.

Phantom Spitter said...

Vince M.: Sorry if I offended. I really didn't mean to. It's just that I sometimes get mad that today's MAD doesn't mention Kurtzman in its credits, but lists Gaines. I actually know next to nothing about Gaines, and had no right to disrespect him. Forgive me, as I didn't know what I was talking about. Truly sorry.

Phantom Spitter said...

I just read more about Gaines and have built much, much more respect for him. I feel really awful about calling him that, and truly regret it. If anyone's a schmuck, it's me.

ComiCrazys said...

Ger, do you have any of the Madison Avenue Magazine work the he did, listed in the Kurtzman Index? I had no luck when I was in my Kurtzman hunting stage.

Oh, and I've seen and have some jpegs of that Christmas Carol story that Shane Glines had posted on his site years ago, along with jpegs of Jack Davis' finishes based on Kurtzman's layouts. Kurtzman's take is so much better than Davis'. The mood comes through better in the 'simplicity' of Kurtzman's drawing, rather than Davis' detailed style. If you could post that story I'd appreicate it. Save me the trouble of digging through backups disks. =)

John, what do you think of Kurtzman's later drawing style, i.e., The Grasshopper and the Ant story in Esquire and especially Jungle Book? While I like The Grasshopper and the Ant story, the colors are gorgeous, I'm not a fan of Jungle Book. I've opened it numerous times to see if I'm just not getting something, but that style doesn't appeal to me.

oppo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikita said...

thanks for the reply john! I'll have my friends try it!

Zorrilla said...

The Sheldon comic reminds me a lot of Peter Bagge, and particularly of Girly-Girl and Chuckie Boy.

Bagge used to read Mad magazine since he was a child. He even did a comic about the first time he read it.

Ryan G. said...

>>his, along with Job's presense at Pixar, trickled down to the other creative indsutries, like animation, indsutrial design, architecutre, etc...<<

Architecture, industrial design industries use PC's. 3D programs are usually PC based because of the processing power needed. Until recently, Mac's couldnt supply this horsepower needed. They now have duel quad core power and you can run windows XP on Macs for 3D programs.

Macs are huge in the Graphic Arts/Desktop publishing indutries.

Ger Apeldoorn said...


Too bad I can't leave notes on your page.

Yes I have the MoM stuff and will show it today. Too bad Kurtzman is the only one who could ever finish A CHristmas Carol. He layed it all out. You wouldn't want someone to do it in his style and I don't think Denis Kitchen would ever publish it as is. I suggested he he'd have John Severin finish it, but that was a little bit perverse.

Mattieshoe said...

>>When I look up the credits of Animaniacs, the only artists that I see that were also on Ren and Stimpy were Lynne Naylor and Mike Fontenelli. But the ones that resisted your direction probably got the short end of the stick and didn't appear in the credits.

Rich Arons (Who worked on Ren and Stimpy) worked on Animaniacs, where he got alot of recognition (I think he ended up writing a couple of episodes)

Barry Caldwell was the only cartoonist to both write AND direct the same segment. ("Cat On a Hot Steel Beam")

Does that name sound familiar, John?

Miss Karen Jean said...

Kurtzman is also amazing when he's not funny: s-Two-Fisted-Tales