Sunday, May 15, 2005


A panel from Drucker's "Patton"

Mort Drucker is the genius caricaturist who was a centerpiece of MAD magazine for decades. His ability to capture a likeness from many different angles and with a variety of expressions bordered on the supernatural. If Drucker had been born 500 years earlier, he might have been burned at the stake for witchcraft. But practicing his art on the pages of MAD magazine for almost 50 years, he remained safely below the radar of most people over the age of 18.

Drucker's Jack Lemmon

One of the most striking characteristics of Drucker's work was how liberally he dispensed his abundant talent. He was able to lavish creative attention on background details and inanimate objects without restraint. While other more prominent caricaturists such as Al Hirschfeld or David Levine might labor for a week over a single likeness in a fixed position, a torrent of superior drawings flowed nonstop from Drucker's miraculous pen. He might easily draw a hundred distinctive faces for a single issue of MAD, depositing them effortlessly in crowd scenes, or in a picture frame in the background, or even on a passing horse or dog.

Note the complex architecture of a typical Drucker "background" crowd. Drucker's crowds compare favorably to the famous "group portraits" of celebrities by artist Ralph Barton that caused a sensation in venues such as Vanity Fair in the 1920s.

Theatre audiences gave Drucker an opportunity to indulge himself

Another crowd scene, this time the hard way: over the shoulder of the speaker, from above.

Superfluous background characters each have a distinctive personality

It is difficult to think of an artist who doesn't start from a standard template when drawing the human face, either because their style hardens with repetition or because they resort to shortcuts to save time. You can spot an artist's standard presumptions about the human head, usually camouflaged by a few distinguishing details added at the end. This approach was apparent in the work of excellent artists such as Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon)as well as lesser artists such as George Wunder (Terry & The Pirates). But Drucker makes no assumptions. With each new portrait he seems to start back at the Garden of Eden and redesign the human head from scratch. Never has an artist drawn the head in so many different shapes and sizes. A garden of Drucker faces follows:

Drucker's brilliant drawings were all rendered in his trademark style, a springing, bouncy line that adds energy to each and every picture. (Drucker's forte was his line work. With a few exceptions, his color work was far less successful). One look at his pictures made clear that Drucker's jaunty line was based on a rock solid understanding of perspective, anatomy and composition.

In addition to being more prolific than other caricaturists, Drucker has the advantage of being a superb draftsman. While many caricaturists mastered portraiture, Drucker mastered anatomy and perspective and technical drawing so that he didn't share the limitations of his more specialized peers. Drucker's brilliance at all around drawing enabled him to transcend some of the limitations of the comics medium. While his artwork may be confined to tiny rectangular boxes, he is able to squeeze the illusion of great depth and scope into those spaces.

Drucker's understanding of anatomy and perspective makes him fearless about taking visual risks.

Drucker seemed to be able to squeeze limitless depth into a tiny panel

Another example of Drucker making the most of a small panel

Drucker's use of perspective at work

On thousands of pages, he crowded every panel with dense images and still had enthusiasm left over for visual jokes and playful sidebars.

Drucker's enthusiasm for the act of drawing sometimes took him to bizarre lengths.

Drucker sustained his extraordinary quality over many decades, compiling an unrivaled body of work. To paraphrase Bohun Lynch, Drucker "had drawn so many caricatures that he must now wait for new subjects to be born."

A panel from Drucker's "Godfather"

Drucker's one Achilles heel as a caricaturist seems to be the benvolence of his drawings. He seemed incapable of generating the type of nasty pictures that brought fame and notoriety to Thomas Nast or Daumier.

Those who swoon over the caricatures by Daumier found on museum walls forget that those very pictures originally appeared in the French satiric tabloid, La Caricature. They would do well to invest some time in studying a superior artist hidden in the pages of MAD magazine.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


In my opinion, the best "story" strip of the past 50 years was unquestionably Leonard Starr's On Stage, which ran from 1957 to 1979. At its height in the 1960s, On Stage was unsurpassed by any other strip in its genre, including Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby , Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon, and Hal Foster's epic Prince Valiant. Starr combined a full range of talents to produce On Stage: his drawings sparkled with his fine brushwork and his compelling use of blacks; he captured subtle facial expressions that went beyond anything his peers were doing; he employed strong compositions, his pictures were dramatically and intelligently staged, and he sure knew his anatomy. Above all Starr wrote like a dream; thoughtful, witty and as erudite as his comic page audience would permit. Starr bound all these components together into a consolidated work product that set a new standard for the genre.

John Updike once noted that writers and artists share a common urge to put black marks on paper. Nowhere is the connection between the literary and graphic arts more evident than in comics, where the words climb right into the picture to create a hybrid art form. The creators of comics try to straddle the dividing line between words and pictures, but usually either the pictures or the words dominate. The lesser of the two talents then detracts from the total effect. The medium has a long history of mismatches. There are comics where brilliant drawings are linked to puerile content (such as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon) or where thoughtful and intelligent stories are saddled with crude drawings (such as Frank Miller's Daredevil). Establishing a balance is difficult, and rare.

Starr was an artist who achieved that balance. His stories, and particularly his depiction of relationships, had insight and depth. The medium has never known a smarter author.

The relationships in On Stage were complex and mature. They made most previous comic strip relationships seem one dimensional and simple minded by comparison.

The dialogue in On Stage often contained the humor and irony one might find in excellent fiction.

In addition to thoughtful dialogue, Starr could stage action sequences with the best. (These are, after all, comic strips).

On Stage combined action with wonderful verbal exchanges

Whether the scene was a windswept mountaintop in some exotic location or in a Manhattan foyer, Starr combined dialogue, facial expressions and hand gestures to give On Stage a quality that none of his peers could match.

Starr's crisp drawing style is supported by his understanding of anatomy and design

Starr's Vietnam story was a highpoint of the strip

The poignant end of the visit to Vietnam

The strip went through different phases. Starr originally planned a career as an ilustrator, but anticipating the demise of illustration in the 1950s, he turned to a syndicated comic strip instead. He rode the decline of the story strip until 1979. As newspaper space shrunk and newspaper circulation dwindled, On Stage shed some of its detail and charm, and Starr jumped ship to take over Annie, the successor strip to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie.