Sunday, January 29, 2006

B. Kliban

B. Kliban
B. Kliban is quite possibly my favorite cartoonist, which is saying a lot, frankly. His ideosynchratic “drawings” (he didn’t always call them cartoons, perhaps rightly so) are not everyone’s idea of funny ha-ha cartoons.

Occasionally his work is immensely funny and hits you like a lightning bolt. At other times you will look at a Kliban drawing in complete bemusement… there’s something there, something you can’t put your finger on that’s tickling you at the base of your brain, but it’s not a “gag cartoon” in the usual sense. Some of his cartoons are obvious and just overtly silly, he loved to stoop to outrageously dumb puns (which I’ll admit I’m a sucker for); but some of them are subtle and wonderful to the point of being sublime.

Like Saul Steinberg, who he apparently admired greatly, Kliban explored ideas in his drawings that make you stop and think and perhaps come away looking at the world just a little bit differently. Some of them are crass; Kliban was a regular contributor to Playboy for many years (and elevated the magazine’s level of cartooning considerably) and was unafraid to “draw what he thought”. He was also somewhat compelled by the marketplace to make sex a topic more often than he might have in another magazine.

Kliban achieved commercial success and recognition with the publication of his first book of cartoons, Cat. This is the Kliban that most people know, and cat lovers and cat haters everywhere think of him as a cat cartoonist. The book is actually quite good and contains some of Kliban’s more whimsical work, intermixed with actual drawings of his own cats. His cat drawings are clever and amusing but never “cute” in the cloying, saccharine Garfield sense. Kliban’s real genius, though, is in a series of “cartoon” books published after that, filled with his marvels of weird, “out of left field”, “pick your brain up and give it a twist” cartoon drawings.

Kliban is essentially responsible for the non-sequiter absurdist style of cartooning that most people think Gary Larson invented with his newspaper panel The Far Side. (I think Larson would be the first to say so and point to Kliban as a big influence.) Even more absurd and surreal than Larson, and at times even funnier that Larson at his best (which is pretty damn good), Kliban was a true original and some kind of bizarre artistic genius.

Unfortunately, inexplicably, unforgivably, most of his wonderful books are out of print and have remained out of print for years, even though his Cat calendars continue to be posthumously produced and marketed (right there that says something about America). However, you may still be able to acquire the books through eBay, aLibris, Amazon or other book search services.

Tiny Footprints, Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings, Whack Your Porcupine, and Other Drawings, The Biggest Tongue in Tunisia and Other Drawings, Advanced Cartooning and Other Drawings, Luminous animals and other drawings are out of print.

A couple of them remain in print: Two Guys Fooling Around with the Moon is the only one in print of the collections I’m talking about, CatDreams is a collection of his calendar drawings, and of course, Cat (Seventeenth Anniversary Edition) is still available (and certainly worthwhile).

And don’t get me wrong about the Cat calendars, they’re pretty cool, just not Kilban at his best and most bizarre. Here is the official Kliban Cats site (rather annoyingly done in Flash) which has a gallery of his postcard and calendar Cat drawings, and the Kliban.com merchandise site. Hopefully, his family is getting proceeds from these. Here is the Kliban Klubhouse fan site with links.

The site I’m linking to below is a fan tribute site with some of Kliban’s drawings (unfortunately not hi-res images) that may give you a taste of his work and links to articles.

11 thoughts on “B. Kliban

  1. DanO

    maybe i missed it, but i didn’t see the word “genius” used in your piece on B. Kliban. i throw out that word endlessly whenever i describe my absolute favorite artists, so let me compliment you on your restraint.
    i just think the world of B. Kliban. his books definitely changed the way i viewed the world from when i first discovered them as a kid.
    thanks so much for writing this entry about him.

  2. Some Guy

    I just read my first kliban book today (never eat anything bigger than your head which I purchased for $1.50 at a comic book store) and I laughed almost the whole way through. But I do have to admit that i’m not the largest fan of some of the lame puns, but w/e it was still the funniest thing i’ve seen in a long time.

  3. andrew

    i hadn’t seen that cartoon before but i’ll never forget it.

    it reminds me, i was listening to a show on the radio years ago and somebody was asked their favourite cartoon. whoever it was described a cartoon of two hippotamuses side by side in a swamp somewhere. one says to the other, “i keep thinking it’s thursday”!

  4. Tim Kreider

    I second everything you’ve said. No better evidence is available for the proposition that There’s No Damn Justice in the World than the neglect of Kliban’s books and fading of his reputation. I have the original of “Dirty Fat Person Sits on President’s Face” hanging in the wall over the desk where I’m writing this, and it will be one of the few possessions I lug through the blighted ashscape with me when civilization finally collapses.

    You might be interested in my essay on his cartoons, originaly published in the Comics Journal and available in the “writings” section of my website, thepaincomics.com, though it takes a good deal more time to say the same thing you have here, which is, essentially, read his books–they’re amazing.

  5. The Old Wolf

    Kliban. The very name makes me laugh. While I agree with your excellent write-up, I would go so far as to say that the mind-twisting style of cartooning had roots in earlier artists, notably Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson. Kliban, however, took the concept to a whole new level. I absolutely love his work, and thought it was a huge loss when he passed away so young.

    Tragically, the link you provide is no longer live.

  6. frankdawg

    Thanks – I have loved Kliban’s work since first seeing it in Playboy. Recently started looking him up on line as there are a couple of his books I don’t have & want to acquire.

    Its sweet and sad to see all the wonderful things people have written about him, though I am not sure he would be 100% pleased. I was also happy to see the comment here noting Addams & Wilson as possible influences. I have seen a bunch of comments trashing Gary Larson as a rip-off; I see his work as more commercial but as tied to Kliban as Kliban is to the earlier works. Thats no good or bad, it just is but it is nice to see them mentioned.

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