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)