Ranking the Masters


Friday, February 18, 2011


Gary Groth twitted: “The greatest artists who worked n commercial comics? My vote (in order); Carl Barks, Jack Kirby & Harvey Kurtzman (tie), John Stanley.” The list seems on target but the ranking can be argued with. These are all superb cartoonists and as such, their writing/art needs to be seen as an integrated whole. Still, some of them are stronger on the writing front, others as visual artists. And of course Stanley, Kirby and Kurtzman all did a lot of collaborative work, including some of their best work.

So if I were ranking them as visual artists I’d say Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks, Stanley. If I were ranking them as writers I’d say Stanley, Kurtzman, Barks, Kirby. But what if writing and art can’t be separated? What if I had to rank them simply as cartoonists? A really tough choice. Purely a personal matters but I’d say Stanley, Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks. But that’s a ranking that could easily change at the drop of a hat. Fun factoid: three of these cartoonists (Stanley, Barks, Kurtzman) were doing their best work at the exact same time, circa 1950-1955. That was the real Golden Age of commercial comics.

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24 Responses to “Ranking the Masters”
  1. Twitted or Tweeted? Oh, you kids with yer new tangled gadgets!

  2. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Kirby was certainly doing some peak stuff during the 1950-55 period. Simon and Kirby’s BOYS’ RANCH might not be Kirby’s best-known work, but damn, those were some good comics!

  3. patrick ford says:

    Those four match my own list.
    Kirby is something of a wild card because his best writing came later in his career.
    Personally I’d rank Kirby’s best writing as superior to anything the other three wrote.
    This may have been because the stories Kirby wanted to tell percolated for far longer than the stories told by the other men. Barks, Stanley, and Kurtzman, were all at least slightly less focused in their later work, while Kirby was feeling liberated (although he was still shackled to a kids genre platform).
    Kirby’s late period stories vary widely in quality, although they are all informed by his unique sensibility. Of course a man who is creating 60 pages of story and art every month is going to resort to auto-pilot from time.
    There is also the problem of Kirby being undermined by home office editors in the 70’s and 80’s.
    I don’t at all agree any of Kirby’s best work was done in collaboration.
    Early on Kirby collaborated with Joe Simon (and others) on things like Captain America, and the 1940’s DC work. None of that stuff is very interesting.
    By the 1950’s it’s my observation that Kirby was working alone for the most part on his pet stories which he wrote, penciled, and inked himself. Through the 50’s Kirby was “only” producing around 25-30 pages a month on average.
    Kirby was also involved in many other stories produced by the S&K studio, but the lead stories for most of their packaged comic books were most often pure Kirby.
    Kirby certainly didn’t collaborate with Stan Lee, that isn’t the right word. The two men didn’t work together. Kirby did his part was done with it, and passed to Lee who then rewrote the stories, often altering the plots, and character motivations. Kirby did on occasion have to redraw panels, and whole pages to accommodate what he saw as tampering, hardly a collaboration.

    • Daniel C. Parmenter says:

      Do you really feel that none of the Simon & Kirby collaborations were interesting? BOYS’ RANCH? BOY COMMANDOS? NEWSBOY LEGION? FIGHTING AMERICAN? The romance genre as we know it?

      • patrick ford says:

        My feeling is Joe Simon had almost nothing to do with Kirby’s lead-off position stories in the 50’s.
        This is based on reading the stories, but also reading interviews with people whop were there at the time.
        The Jim Amash interviews with Walter Geier, and Kim Aamodt are particularly useful.

        When people question Kirby’s writing ability I’m always wonder: “compared to who?”

  4. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Discussing Kirby as a writer strikes me as a bit like discussing Jimi Hendrix as a lyricist. Good, yes. Very good even. But outside of the context of their work as a whole? I’m not so sure.

  5. Cris S. says:

    Aw, the first five are easy (although it’s notable that Stanley has pretty much permanently replaced Eisner in these lists). It’s the next five that are hard. Maybe Eisner, Ditko, Kelly (remember, we’re talking comic-book writer/artists here, or at least I am), Wolverton, and, um, I don’t know. Wiseman, Bolling? Does Kubert or Toth count? Wood? Anyone modern (post-’70s)? GIffen?

  6. Cris S. says:

    Oh, I forgot: Sheldon Meyer! Jack Cole (although I don’t really much care for Cole–sorry, sorry)! C. C. Beck (or was he just an artist)!

  7. Robert Boyd says:

    No Tezuka? No Herge? Is this an American comic books-only list?

    • patrick ford says:

      Tezuka is a giant. I’d rank him with Kirby as someone who is a mainstream icon who’s work stands far outside the mainstream.
      Certain stories by Kirby and Tezuka have just hammered me.I’ll finish the story, or even stop at a point in it, and just become lost in thought. With no intent on my part the story will haunt me, even for years it will stay in my head.
      There has been recent talk about Eisner in a few different places.
      From my point of view his work is of uniform quality. It isn’t awful like most mainstream comic book writing (and it’s not as a lot of comic strip writing).
      His later stuff is very much like The Spirit strips in style and depth.
      It’s okay, it’s readable (this places it apart from most comic book writing, and along side newspaper strips), but there is nothing that slaps me across the face and gets my attention.
      Decent diversion entertainment. The Spirit stands up better than the later stuff because being genre work it “knows” it’s place. The later material comes off as almost pretentious. Eisner’s insights are pedestrian, he’s no Isaac Singer.
      I’d rank Basil Wolverton, and Sheldon Mayer ahead of Eisner.
      Herge reminds me of Steven Spielberg.

  8. I’m not sure what “commercial comics” means, but does it include comic strip folks? Because, you know, *McCay* (and Schulz and whoever else you want).

    Also, to echo Robert: Tezuka!

  9. Briany Najar says:

    All are pre-underground, US news-stand comic artists.
    (Just an observation, not an objection, because I wouldn’t really know how to go about ranking artists.)
    So, what kinds of criteria are in effect here?
    Personal favourites? Innovation? Tenacity of “vision”? Coherence / efficacity of technique? Lotsa fun?
    What gives folk the conviction to compare these amazing masters of the artform and say one is better than the other?
    (As opposed to general criticism of a qualitative / historic (etc) nature.)
    I suspect that the eloquent, expressive minds ’round here have come up with some edifying justification already. I want to read it.
    What’s the best essay online about e.g. John Stanley? I want detailed analysis. (Gimme, I want!)
    I would vaguely agree that the early 50s make a better Golden Age (of US comicbooks) than the usual superduperhero-centric one, but I would have to extend it back to about 1946 so as to include some more great kids’ humour strips, e.g. George Carlson’s and the odd exceptional adventure thing.
    I think my favourite comic-books (series) from the whole 1940s are Klaus Nordling’s Barker and Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, but only because I enjoy the effects they have on me.
    It may be a flimsy, subjective reason, but anyway, I’m hereby nominating Klaus Nordling for the top 100 and a half, because not many things from that time retain such pure entertainment value and that makes up for how he’s a bit like a knock-off of jack Cole and Will Eisner.
    From the UK, my selection is the very great Tom Browne (1870-1910) and maybe Roy Wilson (1900-1965) as well, oh and Frank Hampson for goodness sakes.
    Even though nobody asked me.

  10. Briany Najar says:

    Oh, and out of the four megastars listed upstairs, it’s Kurtzman for me!
    For his stylistic range, which is still united by his particular strong-willed way with ink, as well as his really solid sense of dramaturgy!
    And for the ernestness and sober, circumspect rumination of the EC war comics in a cynical era of sausage-factory genre work!
    (even though i love all that nasty shit – btw, Kirby/Simon fans, 1954 Black Magic is the shizzum – and now back to the Kurtzman bit…)
    He really seems to take the reader seriously!
    To me, nothing else in overground, traditionally distibuted comicbooks seems less patronising or more outward-looking (in relation to the ingrained expectations of the medium) until maybe Eisner’s rather sentimental 1970s stuff!
    Or maybe the 4th world things but I couldn’t sell that to someone who wasn’t already into nutty fantasy stories!
    Mind you, Kurtzman’s use of punctuation does take some getting used to!

  11. Briany Najar says:

    … and Potshot Pete is bloody hilarious!

  12. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, by “commercial comics” Gary clearly meant “commercial American comic books” and I followed him in keeping to that perimeter. Obviously a list of commercial American cartoonists would include many more comic strip and magazine artists (Herriman, Schulz) and a list of global commercial cartoonists would include the names mentioned above (Herge, Tezuka) among others.

    But I think it’s good, for the purposes of orderly comparison, to keep within the original perimeters. Who aside from the big four should be on the list? Well, Eisner, obviously. And then various skilled craftsmen like Toth and oddballs like Wolverton, Fletcher Hanks, Breifer. And of course the other cartoonists found in Art In Time and Art Out of Time.

    Kirby did some great work in the early 1950s, of course, but my point was that the era wasn’t his peak. In fact, unlike the others on this list, Kirby had not one peak but multiple peaks: the early 1940s, late 1940s/early 1950s, late 1960s, early 1970s (to pick only the most obvious examples). The sheer number of productive years he had really set him apart from the others.

    As for a good guide to John Stanley, see the essays on the “Stanley Stories” blog or Seth’s Stanley essay (in the Best American Comics Criticism book, and the intro to 13 Going on 18).

    • Michael Grabowski says:

      I think that the constraints of Twitter forced Groth into a careless description of his list. Surely Crumb counts as one of the “greatest artists who worked in commercial comics,” unless I misunderstand commercial. We may call them “underground” comics but it’s not as if they were difficult to find when they were produced or limited in their production. They made decent if not very good profits for their publishers and provided the best and most prolific cartoonists with income. They weren’t part of the normal distribution chain but I don’t think that disqualifies them from being considered commercial.

  13. Briany Najar says:

    Thanks very much, Mr. Heer, that blog looks amazing.
    I don’t know if Britain imported many Dell comics, but somehow hardly any of them have crossed my path, meaning I’ve been missing out on a vast array of titles and some interesting creators. (Barks as well, of course, but I do prefer funny humans to animals, personally)
    This is a rich seam, judging by what I’ve seen in just a few minutes.
    And so highly recommended.
    Exciting times, thanks again.

  14. Simon says:

    For me, Barks without doubt; he’s the only one of those four who had an equally (if not bigger) impact internationally. Sales numbers in themselves are not a good measure of quality, but being popular enough to still being published in regular mass market editions 50 years later is. Kirby & Kurtzman did some amazing stuff for their time, but for a modern reader not interested in the comics field itself they are a tough sale, whereas Barks (and Stanley somewhat) are still published in regular comic books, without the reader necessary knowing they are reading classics.

    But more important, Barks’ comics are the most well-rounded of them all. I don’t think Kirby was never able to truly do what he wanted and I get the feeling that he always had to make concessions when writing/drawing. Kurtzman was extremely important for developing the comics medium but I have a hard time to point to a single story/comic he did which is a masterpiece. To me he’s a major person in the comics field more than as a creator. Stanley’s Little Lulu is very very good but he doesn’t have the breadth of Barks, who did adventures, 1-pagers, and the fantastics 10-pagers with the same flair.

  15. Jeet Heer says:

    @Simon. Well, if we take the whole of Stanley’s career into account and not just his Lulu work, then he also had a fairly wide range. He did horror comics and teen romance comics and a number of other genres (see Art in Time for a sample).

    It’s true that Kirby’s work is more resticted to a comics audience right now than Barks, but it’s also the case that Kirby fundamentally shaped a genre, the superhero, which continues to dominate commerical comic books and has a wide resonance in the film world.That does’t take into account Kirby’s large role in other genres as well.

  16. PD Houston says:

    It’s easy to forget Tezuka, but we shouldn’t. Personally I might consider him at the top of this list considering his longevity and output. Thanks for mentioning him.

    • patrick ford says:

      As a cross post with what Frank’s thread is covering.
      Tezuka earned a medical degree, and then chose to stick with cartooning.
      He never auditioned for a male strip club however.
      Even his kids comics, like Astro Boy, deal with “deep” concepts that might seem to intense for children.

  17. patrick ford says:

    No knock on Barks but a large part of the reason his work has reached a wide audience is because it features Disney characters.
    You haven’t seen his non-Disney work widely reprinted.
    Barks as a writer and artist is leagues ahead of Paul Murry, and the other Disney comic book artists of the past, but their work is reprinted as well.
    Stanley’s work until recently has not been reprinted in a “popular” format, and even the current reprints are reaching a tiny audience (a shame because they’d have wide appeal).
    As Jeet points out Stanley worked on a far wider range of material than Barks. This isn’t to say Barks couldn’t have worked in different genres (he could have done so easily, and it’s to bad he didn’t), it’s just that he had a regular gig.
    And Stanley did do loads of one page gag strips, 10 pagers, and even did a few stories which were around 60 pages long.
    Stanley’s Lulu covers are are as good as most New Yorker cartoons covers.
    Another unique aspect of Kirby’s is his intense expressive impulse.
    In addition to his comic book work Kirby wrote an unpublished novel (three drafts over a twenty year period), he created many large collages, and paintings strictly for his own pleasure.
    When Barks took up painting he created bland looking “art fair” stuff, and later settled into cover recreations. Kirby’s private work is at least as fascinating as his published work, and he was doing it while he was working full time.

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