In addition to being one of the most acclaimed cartoonists of this era, Seth (It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Wimbledon Green) has become renowned for his extensive knowledge of cartoonists and illustrators. Seth’s appreciation for the masters extends to an involvement with the reprint projects for Charles Schulz (The Complete Peanuts), kiddie-comics purveyor John Stanley (Drawn & Quarterly’s “The John Stanley Library,” featuring such titles as Melvin Monster and Nancy), and fellow Canadian Doug Wright (The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist). In the tradition of The A.V. Club’s Random Rules and Random Roles features, we made a list of well-known comic-book, comic-strip, magazine, and children’s-book artists and fired the names off at Seth, who responded with his opinions of and personal associations with the artists in question.
Carl Barks (1901-2000, best-known for developing the Donald Duck universe in various Walt Disney comics)
Seth: Carl Barks is a strange case for me, because he’s such an important figure in comics, but I have no connection to him at all. I think the big stumbling block for me is that I’ve never liked those Disney duck characters. I’ve always felt a weird sense of alienation from them, even as a child. Back in the ’80s, when I got to know Chester Brown—Chester’s a huge Barks fan—we talked about it, and I made a strong effort at that point to understand why everyone liked Barks so much. Chester gave me one of those big Barks sets and said “This is his very best material, the most interesting and adult work that Barks did.” I read through those volumes, and the work did nothin’ for me. So that pretty much was the end of Barks for me. I said “Okay, I’ve talked to the expert, and I trust Chester’s opinion on just about everything except politics. If I don’t care for this stuff, then obviously this material is just not for me.”
Floyd Gottfredson (1905-1986, did for Mickey Mouse what Carl Barks did for Donald Duck)
S: Actually, I like Gottfredson quite a bit. I think it’s because Gottfredson has that same feeling of, say, Roy Crane to me. Maybe I just prefer those early Mickey Mouse characters, too. There’s something in the way they’re constructed that visually appeals to me. I enjoy the adventure strips that Gottfredson did with Mickey Mouse in the early years. There’s something about them that transmits a kind of charm of the 1930s, a lot like when I watch an old Laurel and Hardy film or something. And I do not get any of that from Barks.
Don Freeman (1908-1978, author/illustrator of a number of beloved children’s books, especially Corduroy)
S: I like Don Freeman, what I know of Don Freeman. Primarily what I like about him is his graphic novel from the ’40s called It Shouldn’t Happen. He’s not an artist I would have a great interest in if he hadn’t produced that one book. I know his children’s books, and I think he’d fall into that category of children’s-book artists that are secondary—maybe even third—in the hierarchy of ones I’d be interested in. But that one book of his is so interesting. Almost independently, every 10 years or so through the 20th century, someone seems to have invented the graphic novel. It seems a natural idea, especially for people who were working with things like children’s books or other kinds of narrative art forms. And Freeman was a lithographer too, doing those kind of American narrative WPA drawings of the ’30s. I think these works naturally led him to a “graphic novel”—since he was already doing street scenes and drawings of everyday life in the ’30s. It’s not surprising that he would take the next step and try to do an actual story—and a story with a social conscience, too. So I think it’s a very interesting book, and that makes him interesting to me.
After that, less so. He’s one of those guys where I think it was his ambition that I’m attracted to more than anything. It Shouldn’t Happen is really an interesting book and a good book too, but he never really followed it up with anything of a similar ambition—nothing that pushed his whole body of work into a higher category for me. Certainly he did some nice children’s books, but nothing that made me love him in the way I love Margaret Bloy Graham, who did all the Harry The Dirty Dog books. Those are really charming, and I like them just for themselves. With Freeman, I’m interested primarily because of that one book.
Syd Hoff (1912-2004, another children’s-book author/illustrator, best known for Sammy The Seal and Danny And The Dinosaur)
S: I did have a really strong attraction to Hoff’s work when I was younger, and it has kind of faded away. I think he had a great drawing style and a lot of charm. But again, his actual work ultimately kind of passed out of my main area of interest. I’d still like to read like a book of his gag cartoons; I think he was funny. What’s most interesting to me now about him is something I didn’t realize when I was younger. William Steig, the New Yorker cartoonist, pretty much hated Hoff, because when Hoff came along, he was kind of stealing Steig’s material. I hadn’t known this fact until I read it in that Lee Lorenz book from a few years back [World Of William Steig. —ed.], but when you do look back on those early years of The New Yorker, Steig was doing all these Brooklyn and Bronx ethnic types, this working-class humor with these potato-nose characters, and then Hoff came along and started doing pretty much the same thing. Steig moved on to such a wide, diverse career, whereas Hoff really stuck with that stuff, so Hoff ended up being the guy people think of when they think of that sort of material. Ultimately, that’s colored my viewpoint of him. It’s not that you can’t have influence, but I think maybe he was stepping on someone’s toes when he first appeared. Too much of an imitator.
Ultimately, his children’s books leave me a bit cold too. Children probably like them, but I don’t think there’s a lot to return to as an adult in, say, Danny And The Dinosaur. Recently, Art Spiegelman was putting together this anthology of good old-fashioned children’s comics that he’s going to release though Toon Books. He asked a variety of people in the comics industry to try and assist him in finding old comics that would be good to discuss as possible inclusions in the anthology. And at one point, we really did try to find some Syd Hoff work that would fit, and I sent him a story from a comic called Tuffy, and we really sweated it out trying to find a way to make this work fit, but the problem was that ultimately, it just wasn’t very good. As much as I love his style—it looks great and there’s a lot of that “smell of boiled cabbage,” as they say—unfortunately, I just don’t think that he produced a strong enough body of work to be of great interest to me.
The A.V. Club: You don’t actually have kids, do you?
S: No I don’t. And that does make a big difference in material produced exclusively for children. As I get older and I see all my friends starting to have children, I see them have different reactions to the material that was probably not of great interest to them when they were younger, because they’re re-experiencing it through their kids. I’ve certainly seen a lot of my cartoonist friends embrace Little Lulu in a much deeper way because their kids love it so much. But that’s not gonna be happening for me. There are no kids coming.
Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993, best known for spearheading the creation of Mad magazine, and for his gritty war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat)
S: Kurtzman is such a great figure; it’d be hard not to like Kurtzman. He’s just so important, and a fabulous cartoonist. I think that’s one of the things that’s maybe starting to get more play now, what a great visual cartoonist he was. For so many years, he was mostly respected because he was such a driving force, intellectually, behind the comics he worked on. People were so influenced by Mad magazine and so impressed by his writing that I think he’d gotten short shrift as a visual artist. But it was the cartooning itself that drew me to him originally, because I’m from a later generation, and Mad wasn’t as seminal an influence as it was to the original underground guys. I didn’t even see Kurtzman’s work when I was growing up, except in small doses. When I was an adult and really experienced his work for the first time—well, it was his drawing and storytelling that seduced me. He was just so clearly head and shoulders above everyone else. When I read his war stories, I was just so excited by his compositions and brushwork. It was dynamic and smart. And the storytelling as well. A total lesson in smart cartooning. As I got older, I did come to appreciate more of the other work he did, specifically his satire, but I’m still mostly drawn to Kurtzman as a visual stylist first and foremost. The work has such a gorgeous finish. It’s beautiful to look at.
AVC: I don’t actually laugh much at Kurtzman’s gag strips, but I’m stunned by how good they look.
S: It’s true. I mean, the thing is, humor does date. I can recognize in that old Mad material why it was so funny—the absurdity is so evident—but I don’t think I actually laugh out loud at much of it. Maybe some of those Elder collaborations, like “Starchie”—I’ve always found that one pretty funny. Still—that’s one of the reasons old humor comics don’t hold as much appeal to comics fans as old adventure strips. In many ways, it’s hard to put yourself back in the mindset of what people found funny at different times. A lot of times, when I’m interested in old humor strips, it has nothing to do with the main point of them at all; I’m just enjoying the rhythms, or how they were put together, or how they were drawn. The gags become completely secondary to me, whereas that was probably the main concern of the cartoonist when he created it.
AVC: What’s been most impressive about all the John Stanley material that’s recently been repackaged is how actually funny it is.
S: Yeah, it’s surprising. He really was funny. And that’s not true of 90 percent of old comics. When I first started looking around at comics in the ’80s to educate myself on the history of the comic book, I thought there would be a lot of funny old comics out there, and there really aren’t. The truth is, there are almost no good old comic books out there. Those old comics turned out to be exactly as you’d expect: cheap junk produced quickly to sell to children. And a lot of it really does not hold up, on any level, at all. I mean, it depends; often you can like things because they’re bad. And there is a lot of charm in middle-of-the-road pop-culture junk. But if you’re really looking for top-notch work, it’s no surprise that it’s coming from the handful of names people have already heard.
Lynn Johnston (1947-present, creator of the newspaper strip For Better Or For Worse)
S: I wish I could say I liked Lynn Johnston more. She’s a nice person. I respect her body of work, but it’s not for me. I’m not the right audience for it. I wish the strip was more of a modern Gasoline Alley. They share some surface qualities. I certainly think the work was more ambitious than 90 percent of what else was in newspapers at the time, but the soap-opera nature of it just never spoke to me. At some point, I lost track of what was going on. Not that I really follow what’s going on in the newspapers much anyway. I think For Better Or For Worse is for a different audience, and clearly an audience that really connected to it. But it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Bill Watterson (1958-present, creator of Calvin And Hobbes)
S: I read all the Bill Watterson books, but they didn’t mean anything to me. In fact, I feel a strange disconnect from all that Calvin And Hobbes material—material that is obviously loved by a lot of younger cartoonists. I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be the new great strip. I’ve felt the same way about Mutts. I wanted to really like it, and I think it’s very nicely drawn, but the strip doesn’t have any great meaning for me. The last cartoonist in the newspaper I really liked was Gary Larson. But I don’t think of that as being a great strip in any way, I just think Larson was a very funny gag cartoonist, and I certainly enjoyed his work.
For me, the very last great strip is Peanuts. After Peanuts, there are a very few strips that I enjoyed for different reasons, but I don’t think they were great. I don’t think anything’s come along since Charles Schulz—and I mean since 1950—that I think rises above the professional or the eccentric into that realm of greatness. I think the first five years of B.C. were really nice, and that could’ve been a great strip. I think Andy Capp actually was a really great strip within its limited parameters, although certainly not in the same class as Peanuts. But really nothing else, beyond things that I think were clever diversions. I think Dilbert actually is a very enjoyable strip, but it falls far short of being great.
AVC: Have you read Cul-de-sac by Richard Thompson?
S: Yeah. Actually, that looks very promising, I’ve got to say. I bought the first collection that came out this year, and I was impressed, I thought it was really good. We’ll have to see where it goes in the long run. It’s funny, I really think there are only two strips in the history of comic strips that rise to the top of the heap, and that’s Peanuts and Krazy Kat. It’s hard for anything to get into that top pantheon for me. I’d have to see where Cul-de-sac goes, but I would say so far, it’s in the group right below that, which is the tier of the really good strips. I’m impressed. He seems to be far better than anyone working in the newspapers at the moment.
AVC: So no interest in Garry Trudeau or Berke Breathed?
S: No, but I think that’s because I’m a very apolitical type. The subject matter just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m sure there are people more geared toward that who’d put Doonesbury up much higher. Even on the level of just reading it as a strip, without the political undertones, it just never really excited me. I’m just not interested in how he constructs the work. I’ve never even read five strips by Breathed; he wasn’t carried in any papers that I read.
George Herriman (1880-1944, creator of Krazy Kat)
S: Herriman and Schulz are interesting to me, because I think they’re the two cartoonists working in a commercial vein who managed to infuse their own personalities into their strips in a much deeper way than anyone else has been able to do. I think modern cartoonists working in the underground or graphic novels have managed to do this in a more direct way, like Robert Crumb for example, because they clearly sat down and produced a body of work that is entirely personal. But in that old newspaper format, I don’t think anyone has done it like Schulz and Herriman. Sometimes when I look at their work, I almost think that having to turn out a newspaper strip made the work more powerful than if they had just decided to draw personal story-strips of some kind. I have a feeling that Schulz’s work wouldn’t have been as great if he didn’t have to filter it through that gag-a-day formula.
It’s almost like working in the haiku format, where you have to deal with a rigid, strict formula, to formulate your personal experiences, in some manner, through the imagery of the natural world. There’s something about the strict newspaper form that made the work really unique in some special way that nobody else has ever replicated. As much as I love Crumb—and he’s at the top of my heap—it’s an entirely different kind of cartooning. Both Herriman and Schulz managed to take those works that don’t appear to be directly autobiographical and make them entirely about their inner lives. I think they can both be read on the surface as enjoyable diversions, but read as an entire body of work, if you get to know the work deeply, it starts to have that much greater quality of very deep, meaningful works of art. There’s really nobody like those two cartoonists in my mind.
Frank King (1883-1969, creator of Gasoline Alley)
S: I think King’s great. King’s a different type of artist as well. He obviously put a lot of his life into Gasoline Alley, but in a much more direct, less poetic manner. I think Gasoline Alley is one of the great overlooked masterpieces of the newspaper strip. He certainly would be very close on that list behind Herriman and Schulz, but in a slightly different category. It’s almost as if he was doing a big pastoral novel of some sort. Although that might be overselling it, because I do think a lot of it does fall into the world of soap opera. Still, I think that because the work is so folksy, so breezy, it skirts the main problems that I have with the kind of soap-opera approach—like I mentioned earlier with Lynn Johnston. I think there was a wonderful unpretentious quality to Frank King’s work. It had a kind of naturalism that I don’t think you found in comic strips before that. It had, in the early years, a bit of that page-turner quality that Little Orphan Annie has, but I think the work is much wider in scope, which makes it a lot more appealing to a modern reader. It’s not so clearly based around an adventure model. I do think Gasoline Alley has a shorter lifespan than people think. I think by the end of the ’40s, it was pretty much played out. Maybe even by the beginning of the ’40s, it’s hard to say. But I do think there’s at least 20 years of really great work there. And I do think visually that King is also undersold. He really had a beautiful drawing style. A master cartoonist.
AVC: Do you feel on a personal level that King “belongs” more to Joe Matt, who’s collected a lot of Gasoline Alley, and Chris Ware, who’s designed the Drawn & Quarterly collections? Do you feel that you can’t “claim” King so much?
S: Yeah, this is something that does go on in the world of comics. There’s less of it in other mediums, because the work hasn’t been buried in the same way. As a cartoonist, you have to go out and find your own ancestors, because they’re not as readily available to you as they would be if you were a writer, for example. As a writer, you could just enjoy Nabokov and not feel like you have to stake any claim to him. With cartooning, the fact that it was all considered junk for so long—and that it was so hard to get hold of the old material—meant that you did kind of have to start picking who was important to you. You’re kind of forced to become a collector, which I suspect is a natural inclination for cartoonists anyway, but it’s out of necessity as well. If you want to learn your craft, you have to say, “Well I’ll go find this work and study it.” Especially if it’s anyone any more obscure than Charles Schulz. Even Schulz, I remember it took me about 10 years to track down all the books that reprinted his work, simply because most of his books were out of print half of the time. That’s not the case if you wanted to go out and read the complete works of Dickens; you’d just walk into a bookstore and buy them. Obviously, I’m simplifying here—I’m sure there are plenty of lesser-known out-of-print writers that you'd have to search out with the same zeal.
So I think there is some sense in staking out your own territory. And certainly this felt extra-strong between myself and Joe Matt, because we were living in the same town, and we were both collecting. And we certainly would run up against each other in fights. When we used to go into bookstores, we would both run to the humor section and immediately start scanning it as soon as possible, to make sure we found anything worthy before the other guy did. In fact, it got to be kind of a joke with us, where one of us would pretend to grab for something—reach out and go, “Oh! Look at what I found!” and reach out, just to see the other person’s reaction. I can remember there was an antique market in Toronto, and it was always a battle every weekend to see who got there first. You’d know that the other person had beat you there, because as soon as you got to those certain booths that had the right kind of stuff, the dealer would say, “Oh, your friend was here already.” And you’d know you’d missed your opportunity. At some point, we actually had to come to an arrangement where I said “Okay, you get these guys and I get these guys,” and we sort of traded off who we were collecting. At that point, he agreed to stay away from the Canadian cartoonists that I was pursuing, like Jimmy Frise and Doug Wright, and I agreed to keep away from Frank King. So I do feel some sense that I don’t have any proprietary interest in Gasoline Alley. It’s been taken away from me. But I am allowed to deeply appreciate the work.
AVC: Speaking of Doug Wright, there was some criticism when the book Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist came out about the use of the word “master” in the title. Which I found strange, because in cinema studies, people use the word “master” all the time, and it doesn’t mean the absolute best, it just means somebody who’s extraordinarily good at their craft.
S: And that’s how I intended it to be understood. I actually don’t think there would have been any controversy about it if the publisher, Chris Oliveros, hadn’t, in my opinion, made a flub by overpraising Wright on the Internet. He actually compared Wright to… I think he compared him to Kurtzman and Crumb. I think what Chris was trying to do was imply that here’s a chance for the reader to discover a great pile of work by someone fantastic that they’d never heard of before—the excitement of finding a real master cartoonist where you’d never seen their work before, yet here it all is. I don’t think he was actually trying to imply that Wright was as important or as meaningful a cartoonist as either of those names. But the minute you pull out those big guns, it causes unfortunate comparisons. If that hadn’t happened, I think most people would’ve just seen Wright’s work and said, “Wow, this guy is really a good cartoonist.” But because of that comparison, people had to immediately start saying, “Well, he’s no Crumb.” And of course, he is no Crumb. It’s not his intention, nor is it the area of the cartooning world he was working in at all.
He’s a lesser cartoonist than some of the top names like Schulz or Crumb or Kurtzman, but then so are most of the great cartoonists you could name. He was a very good journeyman cartoonist, and he was a master cartoonist. Like you said, I certainly don’t see that as any kind of exclusive title. If I think someone’s a master potter, it does not mean they’re the only good potter. But for some reason, in comics, that word really got on people’s nerves, and they assumed he was being put forward as a candidate for greatest cartoonist. I guess “Canada’s Master Cartoonist” probably does imply he’s being promoted to the top spot. Who knows—when you’re putting a book together, you’re not thinking of those kinds of reactions at all. I merely wanted to honor the man.
Harold Gray (1894-1968, creator of Little Orphan Annie)
S: Gray is in there with about three or four cartoonists I can think of that I would consider really, really great cartoonists of the early period of comics. And they’re great because they are so incredibly readable. I would put him in there with Frank King and Chester Gould, for sure. I like those three for very different reasons, but the one common thing is, you can sit down and read an incredible amount of them and really enjoy the experience. It’s never a slog. Little Orphan Annie is a very charming strip. I love the way Gray has constructed the narratives. I love how Annie talks to herself endlessly; I think that’s so charming. I just think that kind of dialogue reads so well. It’s amazing how he can pull you through those stories, where you’ll have five days of basically just Annie talking to herself about the value of keeping the house clean, but it’s very, very engaging. He’s got a narrative style that’s really appealing, and it’s utterly different from someone like Gould, whose narrative approach is like a juggernaut in comparison—with everything utilized to simply pull you along with the sheer power of the plot. Annie’s plots are interesting too, but you’re really pulled along on the charm of the main character. Which is probably a little closer to what King is doing, as well.
Annie’s a very interesting adventure strip for that reason. In most of the adventure strips, I find the characters kind of boring. Somebody like Roy Crane… I love his work, but I don’t have much personal attraction to Wash Tubbs or to Buz Sawyer. They’re somewhat irritating or uninterestingly staid central characters. But Annie seems like a very fully rounded creation. Even though she’s clearly just a mouthpiece for Gray’s ideas and his political beliefs, when you close the book, you really feel like she was alive in some way. I sure don’t feel like Dick Tracy was alive. He was a very empty sort of character. Yet Dick Tracy was still a terrific strip, because it was so beautifully constructed, and such a page-turner. Not all old strips are that enjoyable to read. Even someone like Roy Crane, who I love, I don’t really want to sit down and read 12 volumes of Wash Tubbs. I tried it, but I didn’t make it past volume six, I think. It gets to be too repetitive. Whereas I do think those three cartoonists—King, Gould, and Gray—you could pretty much read their entire body of work.
Gil Kane (1926-2000, comic-book artist who worked on several Silver Age D.C. and Marvel superheroes, including Green Lantern and Spider-Man)
S: I think Gil’s work was very nicely drawn and composed, had a nice classical quality to it, but he was not one of my favorites as a child. I think the work was kind of cold, in some manner, to me as a kid. I was drawn more to the cartoonier cartoonists, which I think is obvious, because my work has ended up being more cartoony and stylized. The comic-book artists I was most drawn to when I was young would probably be Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Later, I made some bad choices. I was really into John Byrne for a while. I actually think that ties into a love of cartoony artwork too; I think Byrne’s work is closer to Kirby than to Kane, for example.
Neal Adams (1941-present, a Bronze Age superhero artist who helped redefine the looks of Batman, Green Arrow, the X-Men, and other D.C. and Marvel favorites)
S: I never had any interest in him at all. It’s funny, because Chester Brown and Joe Matt had a real teenage fascination with his work. They were much more interested in his illustrative approach than I was. I can remember being left completely cold by the work. In fact, I don’t think I even thought about it as a teenager. I didn’t dislike it; it just didn’t enter that area where I pulled it out to look at or to copy from. It left me cold in the same way that other artists who I considered bad left me cold. I wouldn’t have thought about Neal Adams any more than I would have thought about, like, Don Heck.
AVC: You mentioned Byrne; were you looking at George Pérez at all?
S: Yeah, I liked both of them at that time, and in retrospect, I can look back and see what I liked. I don’t think they were bad cartoonists, I just have no interest in them now. I’m not interested in reading what they’re doing today, because I’m just not interested in those kinds of comics anymore. And, I must say, I’m not really all that interested in the work I liked then, either—I don’t have a great nostalgia for it. I wouldn’t pull out like an old Byrne X-Men or something, though it sure had potency to me as a teenager. I do think they were both doing a kind of Kirby-inspired cartooning that was really appealing at the time. I sometimes think it had a lot to do with how they were inked. It was really slick work, and something about that appealed to my teenage mind. Slick in a different way than Neal Adams was slick. There was something about it that… I don’t know why you’re attracted to things, but they both seemed very rounded and shiny to me. That work really pushed my buttons as a teenager. It was fetishistic in some way.
AVC: Perez even drew little reflections off of metal and starburst gleams… effects that made the art look even shinier.
S: When I look at the bad teenage comics, I was drawing at the time, I can see a lot of the stylizations that both of them were using: those shiny reflections on metal, or the way they would use a broken line to create effects when they were drawing musculature. I sometimes think maybe Terry Austin is who I really liked; I don’t know.
Jay Lynch (1945-present, one of the original underground cartoonists, known for a style that evoked old newspaper strips)
S: I liked Jay Lynch when I read his work in the ’80s, when I was figuring out who all the underground cartoonists were, but I don’t think I felt any particular attraction to him beyond his historical importance. I certainly went out and collected all the Bijou comics. I was interested in his work. Him and Denis Kitchen both had really nice cartoony styles. Both of them appealed to me, but they didn’t produce a big enough or interesting enough body of work for me to make that deeper connection. I certainly read all Lynch’s “Nard N’ Pat” comics and strips that were around, but this again falls into that category where there weren’t enough of them—or maybe it's just that the work didn’t leave a lasting imprint on me. It was very competent and appealing, but it didn’t have within it the qualities that raised it into the camp of someone like Crumb or Spiegelman, where the ambition in the work is so high that it changes how you respond to it. If Spiegelman had only done the work in Breakdowns, he’d still be high on my list. If he’d only done Maus, he’d still be high on my list. I have a feeling Jay Lynch could’ve done 200 more pages of Nard N’ Pat strips, and it just wouldn’t make it for me. They obviously had different goals as artists, but when it comes to the underground cartoonist, I suppose my sympathies lie with the more ambitious of the lot—the Crumbs and the Spiegelmans and the Deitches.
I think to really be important to me, there’s got to be some really greater ambition in the work that makes it have a longer, deeper connection to me. That’s why with someone like Don Freeman, that one book makes all the difference for me. That one ambitious book. That one thing that defines his career in a different way than if he hadn’t done it. This is sounding really unfair to Jay Lynch. I am certainly not singling him out as an unambitious cartoonist. Far from it. As one of the original underground artists, he certainly was part of a movement that made more seminal changes in comic books then my generation could ever boast. It's just that his work didn't speak to me in the same way that some of his peers did. It just didn't have some spark that put him in my personal pantheon.
Bill Griffith (1944-present, another of the original underground wave, who later found a niche with the newspaper strip Zippy The Pinhead)
S: Bill Griffith is unfortunately in some similar category as Doonesbury. I can recognize the ambition, but almost nothing in it speaks to me directly. He’s done a couple of pieces outside of the newspaper that I think were really great, and I kind of wish he’d never got involved with doing Zippy The Pinhead. That’s the work that I don’t feel any great connection to, but, what can you say? That’s obviously his life’s work. I know he did a couple of pieces in Weirdo that I remember as more personal, direct works, in the sense that they didn’t feel like they were part of the Zippy continuity. Those spoke to me a lot more. I think actually his work in the old underground comics, like Short Order Comics with Art Spiegelman, that was the work that made me think he would be one of the cartoonists I loved the most. It was smart, and had a hard edge that appealed to me. Zippy is the problem, and Zippy is what Griffith is about. But I have this feeling he could sit down and do a graphic novel that would blow me away.
AVC: With his syndicate income, maybe he could afford to take a break and create one.
S: It’s hard to say with these sorts of things. Sometimes I think the lone graphic novel that comes at the end of a career isn’t necessarily going to turn out to be the good one that cartoonist might have had in him. But with the popularity of the form, I think this is something we’ll be seeing more of now, where veterans who haven’t actually worked in the form before will produce their one graphic novel, and it may not be a good one. I think sometimes you have to do five or 10 books to produce anything of real worth. Producing a comic strip or a serial comic book is a different animal than a comic “novel.” But you never know; sometimes that first one is the great one.
Nowadays, you’ll occasionally see a mainstream cartoonist from the past sit down to try to do a more personal book, and it’s clear that they’ve had too many years in the salt-mines of commercial work to be able to produce this other kind of work and have it connect with the audience in the right way. For example, those Joe Kubert books. As much as I admire him for doing them, somehow he couldn’t break through 50 years of doing Sgt. Rock to produce something more personal. It’s like that earlier commercial work polluted the water. You can’t just filter it out when the time comes for the graphic novel. The stink of it remains. The most interesting book I saw in that vein was from Dick Ayers, an old cartoonist from the early days of Marvel. He produced a three-volume autobiography, and it really was a total mess, but it was so earnest and uncontrolled—almost like a piece of outsider art—that it may have been the most successful personal work I’ve seen from one of those guys who worked in the mainstream.
Steve Ditko (1927-present, veteran comic-book artist who brought an idiosyncratic style to a number of mainstream adventure comics from the ’50s through the ’80s, most notably the original run of The Amazing Spider-Man)
S: Ditko’s work is totally interesting for his continuing desire to communicate. The big problem is, the later work is simply unreadable. I’d like to appreciate everything Ditko’s done since he stopped working on Spider-Man, but the truth is, it’s just not that interesting to me. I’d rather sit down and read some of those pre-hero monster books he did. I think that stuff’s always a lot of fun to read, and it’s great cartooning. Obviously it’s just cultural junk, but that’s the stuff I’d rather look at than Mr. A, or, God knows, all the stuff that followed it.
B. Kliban (1935-1990, magazine cartoonist known for his aggressive surrealism and drawings of cats)
S: I like Kliban’s work a lot, actually. I think he may be the only gag cartoonist who managed to infuse an underground sensibility into his work. I would like to see a really substantial reprinting of his stuff. I’ve got all his books, but I’m still not sure that’s all of his work. It’s certainly not the best presentation for his work. I think he died fairly young, didn’t he? It’s hard to say where he would have gone eventually. You can kind of see that he paved the way for Gary Larson, but in some way, Larson is a much less interesting cartoonist than Kliban. I think Larson was consistently funny, and he had a really particular eccentric sense of humor. I think Larson may have popularized a kind of humor that perhaps didn’t exist as fully before him in our culture. But when you look back at Kliban, who was doing something similar a few years earlier, the work is just a lot more eccentric. I know he was somewhere on the periphery of that underground scene; he knew people like Crumb, and you can see it in the work. I think possibly after maybe 1965 or something, he’s probably the most interesting gag cartoonist to come along. It’s kind of a wasteland after the classic period of The New Yorker.
AVC: Where does Roz Chast fall in that continuum?
S: She’s probably the most interesting current one. Thinking about it, I should refine that wasteland statement I just made. I would say that there have been a couple of really good gag cartoonists to come along in the post-’50s period: Wilson, Gross, Kliban… a couple others. Chast is certainly the best cartoonist to come into the New Yorker since maybe 1955. She’s just great. Gag cartooning’s an odd world now, ’cause it’s pretty much dead. There’s no market for it at all. And Chast is great, because clearly she didn’t set out to be a gag cartoonist like Charles Adams or Peter Arno or someone of that ilk. She’s someone with a great sense of humor and a perfunctory drawing style, and it came together to create a really funny, entertaining, idiosyncratic artist who found her perfect niche. I really enjoy all her work.
Jules Feiffer (1929-present, a cartooning renaissance man who helped pioneer the alt-weekly cartoon at The Village Voice, and has also worked on superhero comics, newspaper strips, children’s books, graphic novels, plays, and screenplays)
S: Feiffer’s an interesting figure. I really like Feiffer, I certainly collected all his books back in the ’80s, and I read them all repeatedly. I think I liked his earliest work best: those first three or four books. But I think as he became a more political cartoonist, I started to lose interest in him, for much the same reason that I don’t care for Doonesbury. I don’t care for a lot of Feiffer’s mid-career work, where he’s talking about Nixon or Reagan or whatever. I do think he’s an important artist. He stands alone, in some manner. You don’t really see him listed with other cartoonists as part of a movement or school. He forged his own territory, kind of like Edward Gorey. They’re off to the side.
I know that when Art Spiegelman and I were curating a show for a gallery exhibit for the Vancouver Art Gallery, we were hashing out who would be in the show, and our big conflict came over Feiffer and Schulz. We had a limited number of people who could go in. We had one spot left. I personally could not let Feiffer in if Schulz couldn’t be in, and Art could not let Schulz in if Feiffer couldn’t be in. We were both pretty much entrenched in our positions. We each had a more personal connection to one than the other. Ultimately it had to come down to a handshake agreement that neither of them was going in, and we had to pick someone else, because neither of us would back down. I think it may be a generational thing. For people of Art’s generation, Feiffer was such an important cartoonist, in the late ’50s, early ’60s. For me, I didn’t experience that period of Feiffer at all. For me, it’s Schulz who was the seminal artist—the first cartoonist I recognized as using cartooning in a personal way. I just felt way too connected to Schulz to pick Feiffer over him.
AVC: That’s funny, because those two guys are essentially contemporaries, though Peanuts wasn’t pitched directly to Feiffer’s generation.
S: I think Peanuts had a period where it was considered very adult humor, probably in the early 60s. Probably college students really glommed onto it. It was seen as very black humor with all its psychological jargon, etc. But I don’t think the cartoonists of Art’s generation liked Schulz in the way that kids who came after them did. In some ways they thought of him as a real square, and they thought of Feiffer as the guy who was telling it like it is. In fact, Art has written about how he had to come to terms with Peanuts later and had to come to understand why others thought Schulz was so great. To him and many of his hippie contemporaries, I'm guessing they thought he represented a kind of establishment ‘50s mentality.
I have to wonder if Art’s lack of interest in Schulz is in any way comparable to my lack of interest in Watterson. The younger cartoonists coming up now—I mean the ones I admire—seem to have a deep appreciation of Watterson’s work. I suspect they may be revising the canon to include him. I can understand that. Like I said, as a cartoonist you have to create your own ancestors. You change the context of the work by looking back at it. That's inevitable.
Watterson’s okay. I can see the value in his work. But he’s no Charles Schulz.