Monday, November 29, 2010

Cartoony, Graphic and Directly to the Point: Kurtzman's Hey Look

Harvey Kurtzman's "Hey Look" is UPA before UPA. It's also something more. It has the graphic qualities of "Gerald McBoing Boing" and "Fudget's Budget", but without abandoning its cartoony roots. It's similar to T. Hee's style, but with a lot more verve.
Technically, Harvey has a lot of obvious great qualities but above and beyond them all is his ability to balance them graphically to convey a sense of uber-life.
His use of space, positive and negative is the best of any cartoonist I've ever seen. He balances the spaces to make perfectly readable and appealing pictures that tell a story in the most direct possible way. I could write a whole page just explaining the genius of the picture above.
His continuity is wonderful too. He only changes what needs to be changed from panel to panel and uses hierarchy in how much he changes each character. The chef above changes more from panel 1 to panel 2 than the guy watching him. He is the active character while the little guy, being reactive, moves only enough to help draw more attention to the main guy.
His angles, compositions, poses and eye direction all serve to focus our attention exactly to the point of the scene. I don't know any other cartoonist who is so perfectly direct in his graphic technique. No extraneous busy distracting details. Everything leads our eyes to where Kurtzman wants us to look.
It's very hard to have this much thoughtful planned skill and still be able to convey a sense of spontaneity and fun.
I love the way his characters are so interested in everything they do. They believe intensely in every pose, gesture, emotion and expression they perform.
Even without knowing the context of some of these drawings, the graphic skill and balance of shapes are aesthetically beautiful. It's truly modern art.

Very graphic, but still cartoony.
Nothing vague about his poses and expressions.
This is such a contrast with today's completely timid approach to everything. No one wants to commit to a clear statement anymore.
It takes a rare kind of talent to have such an unabashed and bold way to communicate clear ideas through his art.
Even though the images are beautiful in of themselves, the content and context of the stories is what inspired every pose and composition. These aren't floating doodles in a sketchbook. They are all continuity drawings of characters acting out a little story.
More cocksure masterful balancing of positive and negative shapes. I feel like I'm reading the comic equivalent of Fred Astaire. This work glorifies in its confidence and show offy skill.
One of the few real cartooning geniuses: Harvey Kurtzman.

To Denis Kitchen: Please re-release "Hey Look"!

Thanks again to Chris Lopez for scanning all the great comic art from his collection to share with us.
HEY LOOK! and Harvey Kurtzman's great MAD covers



spøf said...

Harvey Kurtzman was one of the first/few cartoonists who perfectly understood the medium. That's how he managed to get the best work out of already talented cartoonists like Jack Davis and Will Elder. Nobody did better work than when they worked for Kurtzman. I heard for MAD and his war comics he'd jump around re-enacting the stories so that everyone got it.

HemlockMan said...

Kurtzman was indeed a genius. I hate it when that word is tossed around like popcorn and used for people who don't deserve it. Kurtzman did deserve the label.

I got to meet him one time back in the late 70s. He was probably the sweetest, nicest comic creator I have ever met. It was great to see him in action around his fans. He was genuinely happy to be around the people who admired his work. And he was very helpful--I watched him doing a spontaneous teaching assignment for a fan who had some talent and a few technical questions. What a great guy!

PS: During the day, some woman yelled at him from across the room. Some snide remark about Little Annie Fannie and sexism. He laughed. It was a real, genuine laugh. We laughed, too.

top cat james said...

I believe Kitchen Sink is no longer publishing, K., but as long as we're throwing in requests, bring back Kurtzman and Elder's Goodman Beaver collection, too.

Steven M. said...

Harvey Kurtzman is a cartoon god. He knew his craft and how to use it well. Everything he makes is genius. He, along with many others, are gods in cartooning.

EalaDubh said...

All those Hey Looks are the ones reprinted in the early comic-book issues of MAD (either 7 and 8, or 8 and 9, I forget which two). Kurtzman himself knew how much of an underappreciated genius he was (and Lord, did he let everyone else know about it as his own bitterness ate away at him), but this attitude doesn't seem to apply to his own individual pages - Hey Look was only included as a desperate space-filling measure, and he only credits himself obliquely in the third person as 'zany master of nonsense' from his position as 'managing editor'.

I'd love to be able to see Kurtzman's original layouts for MAD stories to see how closely Wood, Elder, Davis, Severin and (occasionally) Krigstein kept to them (Krigstein was Kurtzman's own favourite comic artist). Bill Gaines kept all the original art pages safely under lock and key away from the elements for years and years, but I'd be absolutely gobsmacked if any of the layouts still survive to this day.

J C Roberts said...

A true master and a big influence, even though I didn't get to see things like Hey Look until my mid-twenties. I'm not sure I ever gave his composition much thought in the past, but that's because it's done so well.

His work is mostly out-of-print again? I hope that's remedied before long, we could definitely use his influence lingering around
to be seen by new generations of cartoonists. Imagine a world where new cartoonists could only find things like "Garfield" to learn from. This post is a public service if it helps keep his name out there.

Elana Pritchard said...

Very inspirational.

pappy d said...

It's a gift to be simple.

Mykal said...

I only wish Hey Look was the subject of one of those big hardback anthologies so popular now. I'd by that in a second.

David R said...

I'm lucky enough to own "Hey Look;" I think you'll pay an arm and a leg for it now. I'd like t osee it reprinted in color, though.

Mykal said...

"I could write a whole page just explaining the genius of the picture above."

At your convenience, please do.

Martin Juneau said...

I can admit how despite the modernish art look, Kurtzman's style is a true master of this and he made it for Art. Not everyone i know will made this kind of insanity for art value.

HemlockMan describe about the genius label problem. I think claims someone as a genius is often a matter of taste. Yeah, there's too much genius vibes but be lucky that peoples like Krickfalusi can explain you what a true cartoonist genius is. It's not a easy that we think about.

ComiCrazys said...

On Ger Apledoorn's blog, he mentioned that Denis Kitchen was working on a book of all of Kurtzman's rejected attempts at getting into the newspaper funnies. I remember hearing about this book years ago and am wondering what the heck is taking so long?!

She-Thing said...

Wow... def inspirational, specially watching a master using such simple lines. I'll keep this post with my list of "mini-treasures"

Mykal said...

" "I could write a whole page just explaining the genius of the picture above."

At your convenience, please do."

Completely agree with the man. Please, pretty please.

Amanda H. said...

Kind of off-topic but I was wondering if I could get some help on my Preston Blair studies. Not any specific problems, just wondering where to go from there or just keep drawing from the animal examples.
>Preston Blair Studies

Preston Blair Studies
(I hope I formatted that right :/)

Erik B said...

Simple yet funny :)
great example
lot of expressions too

J C Roberts said...

Yes, that burning building panel is a prime example of clear composition. Plus it has a great dynamic to it, conveying more action, despite being a still, than most modern cartoons do.

I also like how often he uses complete black backgrounds and pulls it off so well. It can be difficult to make some characters read well when none of their outer lines are defined.

Paul B said...

Hi John, I have a question.
I've been doing a composition study from the frame where the two guys are jumping out of a building in flames, the question is: What should I draw first, the characters, the buildings, the smoke that frames the characters?

Zoran Taylor said...

@Paul B. - For what it's worth, ($2.75 CAN+HST) I would suggest you start by blocking in whatever first strikes you as the clearest definite division between positive and negative space, or where the largest area of one meets the largest area of the other. That might help the drawing come together a bit more naturally. Just make sure you don't absolutely rely on your first observations being completely accurate. They will change as you get deeper in. That sounds messy, but even Jim Smith lets that happen. Remember his animation drawing of George with two mouths that John posted something like a year ago? JIM SMITH!!! At the time I didn't believe it. Now, from greater experience, I do.

Zoran Taylor said...

Kurtzman is among my absolute favorite stylists, right up there with Gross, Messmer, Clampett, Jones, Benedict and the Fleischers. (Not to mention Our Host and his many satellites, obviously...) Many of his drawings have repeatedly defied my best efforts to describe EVERYTHING that's great about them in one go. John is right, they are "directly to the point", but they also manage to be immensely complex. They hit you square in the face in a fraction of a second, yet remain satisfying and fun to stare at for about as long as you could go without a meal. I'm always finding something new in them. But even if I wasn't I could still "Hey, Look! at them" forever....

Zoran Taylor said...

.....In fact, in a way that's the one slightly frustrating thing about his comics, and all good funny comics - There's hilarious dialogue and plotting that one would certainly miss if it were absent, yet the word balloons and the information they contain are about the only thing standing in the way of a downright zen-like perfection of entertainment value. Christ, you have to READ the damn things! You have to switch between words and pictures without averting your eyes in-between! I mean, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's a little frustrating sometimes, and sometimes it renders the dialogue a bit less funny. I feel the same way about Calvin and Hobbes: It's a comic strip through and through, as it ought to be, but there is still the occasional clash of two interlinked tracks of genius ideas, and once in awhile they get in each other's way, yet I can't imagine changing a single thing about them. They are just fated to be ever-so-slightly frustrating compared to the best animated cartoons in certain, thankfully very marginal ways. And it's obvious that Watterson knew this, too. Heck, he played it for laughs once - Anyone remember the bus stop dream reverie in the rain, where the word balloon takes up so much space you can just barely see that it's raining? Good one, Bill. You're an it-getter, you are.

Brian O. said...

Someday I'd like to see you breakdown his "Hey Look" inking/brushwork techniques. What he does "works" but I've never been able to figure out his choices. His crosshatching, for example, looks random but I know it isn't...

J C Roberts said...

Paul B: I don't want to speak for John here, and his advice may differ, but I would start with the larger forms of the characters, then the building and firemen below, and finally the smoke, being the most free-form element to shape, is framed around them.

Naturally the process is different if you're looking to copy this panel as a study or design a similar setup of your own. Before all the above steps I would be coming at this from deciding what a given panel needs to convey to move the story, pre-visualize that, then block out the size and positions of the key elements. If I'm feeling confident I might go straight to the actual page and pencil in the rough shapes, or if still vague about it I'll doodle-sketch on a scrap pad first.

I hope that helps some. Like I said though I'm not trying to guest lecture here, it's just how I'd approach it.