Saturday, August 6, 2016

Top Ten Boomer Cartoonists

OK. Any top ten list is arbitrary. Riddled with blind spots, biases, and bullshit. An exercise in triage. But that's unfair! Yeah, but a fair list would look like a phone book. I say: "Top Ten Boomer Cartoonists." I really mean: "Top Ten Late Mid-Twentieth Century Cartoonists: 1960-1970"* -- a jawbreaking, boring title with a handy asterisk directing you to the fine print. (*Underground cartoonists, single panel gag magazine cartoonists, and daily strip cartoonists only. This list excludes animators, illustrators, mainstream comic book artists, and editorial cartoonists while shutting out the dream teams of Playboy and The New Yorker so they don't stomp everybody else on the field.) But Gahan Wilson was a Playboy cartoonist. Go jump up a stump, OK? Basically, these are the top ten Boomer cartoonists who warped my mind. Fairness has nothing to do with it. Artistic talent alone doesn't cut it. Cartoonists are a weird hybrid of writer and artist. Some great artists who can't write create beautiful, lousy cartoons. Some writers who can't draw create ugly, outstanding cartoons. It doesn't make sense to me, either.

Mad Cartoonists

Jack Davis. The best of the best with a strong, fluid line and a high-voltage composition that only seemed sloppy to ignorant eyes. Not a scardy-cat cartoonist. Not tidy. But his raw, rough art breathed life into his drawings. Along with his work for Mad, he did movie posters, record covers, sports ads, you name it. Before Mad, he summoned fetid creatures in the EC horror comics. His characters leaped out at you in busy compositions that only looked like anarchy. Art so good it looked artless. An artist so good he had nothing to prove. A Southern gentleman, and a sui generis talent.

Mort Drucker. He did most of Mad's TV and movie parodies. The man was such a genius it hurts. He drew his pen-and-ink line art freehand -- without any pencil underlay or tracing and retracing on a light table. His sense of caricature was a superpower. Sean Connery, James Joyce, David Niven, Khrushchev, whoever. He'd look at somebody's face and nail it. He grokked the face's underlying structure: the core elements that triggered your brain's pattern recognition. On top of that, Drucker's parodies worked like storyboards. Not the stiff art of Torres and others. His panels moved like movies. As a kid, I looked at his stuff and thought, "I will never draw like that." I was right.

Underground Cartoonists
R. Crumb. This sex-crazed specimen popped the lid on his own twisted mind -- and a Fellini-esque freakshow spilled out. Mr. Natural, Flaky Foont, Devil Girl, Bigfoot, Whitman, the Snoids, Boy Howdy. Alive, alive, alive! By the man's own admission, his all-American freaks were acid-inspired. The weird, sleazy, working class, retro vibe of Crumb's art nailed America's ugly side — the face the PR of the official version air-brushes away. In the process, he let the Monsters of his Id hump your tender mind. Crumb drew (and draws) his dangerous visions with the most anal of inky instruments — the Rapidograph technical pen. A sick freak, Ralph Bakshi's mortal enemy, but a damn good draftsman. The sumbitch was too good for America and fled to France with his 75 RPM record collection.

Gilbert Shelton. Another damn good draftsman. Outside the inner circle of Kartoon Cultists, almost nobody remembers him, and that pisses me off. Sometimes, if you're too insanely funny, nobody takes you seriously. Shelton was insanely funny. This good old boy from Austin, Texas created, among other things, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Three SoCal dopers, whose exploits were exploited in a running underground comic series. As a goofball ensemble, these cats were right up there with the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges. Shelton's comics were really little movies. His drawings were only theoretically flat -- they pulled you into a 3-D world that never stopped moving. Shelton's slapstick would make you howl, and spit out jets of whatever you were eating and drinking through mouth, nose and other orifices. But it was doper humor. Smartass intellectuals sneer. Rednecks reach for the nearest baseball bat.

Daily Strip Cartoonists
Charles Schulz. His Peanuts strip burned so deeply on America's brain that nobody really sees it for what it is anymore. Charlie Brown (the nice guy who eternally finishes last), Snoopy (Walter Mitty reincarnated as a dog), Lucy (Schulz' nagging, domineering wife reimagined as a cartoon character), Linus (a pint-sized Christian theologian). Unforgettable characters -- and that's no easy trick. The average cartoonist can't sit his ass down and create them. Layout-wise, Schulz' strip had a perfect simplicity and flow. That strip was funny -- and surprisingly dark. The bleak, occasionally suicidal humor of sun-starved Northern Europeans that creeps into A Prairie Home Companion. His kids were cute -- and often as mean as real kids. Bad things happened to good people. Rotten Lucy always won. Sweet Charlie was predestined to fail. It's God's will. Take heart. In the next life, he'd get to fly a kite, kick a football and win a baseball game.

Walt Kelly. He drew Pogo and drew it beautifully. A wistful, gentle, idiosyncratic world of talking animals who lived in a swamp. Quotable animals. "We have met the enemy and he is us." Yeah, we all know Kelly said it. His line art was obsessively detailed -- with a sharp hierarchy and use of solid blacks that made everything clear. One strip showed only black, outlined shapes. The alligator outline noted that, "These silhouettes sure save a mess of drawing." A man after my own heart. When I try to do what he did with pen and ink, the resulting splatter looks like a crime scene.

Al Capp. The cartoonist behind L'il Abner -- a world of hillbillies that stood for America. The Beverly Hillbillies ripped him off. Capp's strip was a whole lot smarter. Full of great characters and lots of running gags. The Jethro Bodine-esque L'il Abner was a professional mattress tester; Daisy wanted to get him on a mattress and test him; Mammy sold a hallucinatory substance called Kickapoo Joy Juice. Capp's pen speared Dick Tracy with the vicious caricature of Fearless Fosdick. He speared the hippies and the counter culture as well. (One scruffy war protestor's sign read: DON'T SEND ME TO VIETNAM. "Me" was crossed out. "Our Boys" was substituted.) Lousy bums like that are ruining this country! !@$ cowards! Yeah. Capp was slightly to the right of the John Birch Society, but the man could draw. One of Walt Kelly's few peers.

Single Panel Magazine Cartoonists

Gahan Wilson. The man made horror funny with the twisted karmic symmetry of a Harlan Ellison story and dripping, eldritch entities straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Shmucks on a sport fishing boat ask, "Why'd you name your boat the Revenge captain?" Behind them, the captain removes the human mask from his grinning fish face. Dr. Frankenstine rages that GE beat him out on the death ray. A guest in a mansion sees human heads mounted on plaques like hunting trophies. The Edwardian gentleman rages, "Damnit! Staff knows this door is supposed to be kept locked!" Black humor, eh? Charles Addams was Wilson's obvious predecessor. But Addams' humor had a skull's sadistic grin. Wilson's a decent guy who makes a joke about the rotten things humans (or aliens) do to each other. A great self-taught artist, never fussy. He draws just enough detail to make the cartoon work. Then he stops.

Jules Pfeiffer. He captured hipsters, flipsters, long-gone daddies and asshole conformists with scratchy line art that wrapped around the contours of human bodies in space. His full-page spreads (for The Village Voice and other rags) broke down into unmarked sequential panels. Within these panels, saints and self-absorbed jerks would argue, soliloquize and speculate. The vast majority were trapped in the mirror maze of self. Indifferent to what they did to other people, and either clueless to how they looked or paralyzed with self-consciousness. His dialog kicked ass; his politics leaned to the left. Gary Trudeau, Robert Altman and many others stole from him.

Shel Silverstein. Yeah. We know him as the lovable cartoonist behind Where the Sidewalk End and The Giving Tree. This delightful children's author also penned the twisted Uncle Shelby's A to Z Book (which advised kids to dump a box of lye down the toilet and tell their parents that they ate it -- all the better to get their stomach pumped and get a lollipop after the ordeal) as well as horndog humor for Playboy involving more orgiastic combinations than I have time to list. More of a beatnik than a hippy; as anti-establishment as they come. Airy compositions with lots of white space. Tough, unstudied line art, sometimes loving, sometimes scathing. Silverstein poked the powerful and the powerless alike. In his spare time, he wrote raunchy lyrics for Dr. Hook and Johnny Cash. "A Boy Named Sue" was one of his tunes. Don't ask me about the sequel.

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