Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Peace of Ass (Hindsight with B. Kliban)

   Not quite an epiphany, but a strange association occurred to me while surfing around the other day. There's been an uptick in the media onslaught what with the constant barrage of body parts being used for marketing Lady Gaga (seen above), Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, et al. Feminist perspective aside, it recalled for me a huge poster that used to grace my room as a kid, by the cartoonist B. Kliban:

Image: "Sorting It All Out" by B. Kliban  (from "Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head" 1976)

   I was eleven years old when this book, "Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head," was released in 1976. This was his second collection of works, preceded by the iconic "Cats," and followed by another nine volumes of works, the last published posthumously after his death in 1990. The promotional poster was produced by the publisher from the B. Dalton Bookseller store my father managed. It was there in the back room amidst piles of boxes, packing materials and mountains of books that I first discovered the inspirational works of this giant in the field of cartooning. Kliban rubs elbows with other contemporaries such as Gahan Wilson and Charles Addams. Tangentially speaking it's probably very revealing as to my own future as a cartoonist when I can clearly recall being more drawn to his panels in the pages of Playboy (where he started appearing from 1962 for more than a quarter century) than any of the other incidental content in that magazine.

   Well before Gary Wilson's "The Far Side" feature began to gain in popularity and exposure, Kliban's single-panels had already paved the way for this "subgenre" in the medium:
Based on data from Art Spiegelman, Kliban invented the form of cartoon, popularized by Gary Larson and others, of a single panel by having a third-individual caption describing the action. (link)
That said, I think to the editorial panels of William Hogarth, Francisco Goya and Daumier also to a degree often incorporated image with text, so "inventing" is a bit of a stretch. Still, as noted here before, these seems to be somewhat of a revival of his work... if it spurs an omnibus edition and/or a historical retrospective + biography that'd be sweet, and stand as testimony to his talents, honesty and humility. From Kliban's obituary in The New York Times:
''I find it amazing to be making money at what I like doing,'' he said in 1976. ''When I was in art school, I was nowhere near the top. So much of success is just perseverance. Maturity comes from banging your head on sharp corners. If the cartoon thing ended tomorrow, I would have a craft to fall back on and not have to work for some corporation. I could just take one of these paintings and trade it to some farmer for a chicken.'' - Peter Flint
That the National Cartoonists Society has never seen fit to award Kliban with any official recognition is an unfortunate oversight and is a disservice to his legacy and our profession.

Screen-grab of a surprising ad that appeared on an unrelated website

   I always use Kliban's black & white line art in my Drawing courses as examples for my students to follow when learning the techniques and craft of using pen & ink. Kliban's use of line and texture - primarily by employing the use of hatching and cross-hatching - and the ease with which his drawings incorporate these marks from one extreme (simple, descriptive contour) to the other (rich, dense range of value) and everything in between for balanced compositions like the one above. Illustrator Pete Sanfa├žon gives us a wonderful window into the genius of Kliban - and an insight to his technique - with some delightful correspondence he had with the artist:

For one of the best essays I've ever come across on Kliban's cartoon works, click here for a PDF, and the Eat Mousies Official Site is here.


  1. Do you know where I can find Mr. Kliban' s cartoons in poster form? Or on a t-shirt? Probably don't exist I'm guessing. When I was like 12 all I wanted for Christmas was the book Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head. Great stuff.

  2. Given that the posters were issued by the book publishers (kinda like record labels used to herald the arrival of a band’s new LP with massive posters) and that the only place one can find old copies of Kliban’s books is tucked away in old used bookstores I sadly don’t think any prints featuring his work will be forthcoming. Note: that particular title is listed on ABE Books.com, along with many other of his books, as it is on Amazon too).

    A friend recently brought me back a couple of tshirts w/the infamouse (get it? infaMOUSE!) (sorry) Kliban cats from a store in Hawaii, where his legacy still lives on, along with annual calendar releases that my local independent bookstore stocks. But aside from that I have yet to see or hear of any reissue of his cartoon works, which is a shame: given the recent preponderance of nostalgic and historical compendiums being republished of other great cartoonist’s works (re: Fantagraphics flood of Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Popeye, Pogo etc.) I think it high time someone gave Kliban his due.

  3. I just came across a privately pressed jazz lp by Jim Purcell which has a Kliban cartoon on the cover or possibly an insert pasted on a generic white slick? Know anything about it?

  4. No - never heard of it, that would be a treasure... love to see a pic. I suspect it isn't something that was authorized by Kliban's estate, seeing as how it's a private label.