Harvey Kurtzman - Style and Working Method

Style and Working Method

According to Kurtzman, "Cartooning consists of the two elements, graphics and texts ...Obviously it is to the advantage of the total product to have good text and good art and the more closely integrated the good text and good art are, the greater the opportunity is to create the capital-A Art". The stories he created and had others illustrate had a balance between the captions and dialogue, in contrast, for example, with Al Feldstein's EC stories,in which the artists had to compensate for the text which dominated the page.

In his war stories he drew himself, which were realistically written, he used a exaggerated, abstract drawing style that distorted figures in expressive ways that was more akin to modern art than the stylizations of contemporary superhero and funny animals comics. R. C. Harvey described this style as "abstract and telepathic" in stories that were realistic in the telling, but "his figures were exaggerated and contorted, demonstrations of posture as drama rather than reality as perceived". His style was described by French comics historian Jacques Dutrey as "movement and shapes, energy and aesthetics".

"Though it may look deceptively simple to the casual observer, is the end product of a long process of paring an elaborate drawing down to its essential line. Nature is not straight. In Kurtzman's art even the horizon is curved."

Comics historian Jacques Dutrey

Kurtzman's working method has been likened to that of an auteur. Kurtzman's goal in working up the stories in this way was to reach a balance between the text and graphics of his stories. He developed a way of creating stories incrementally. He would begin with a paragraph-long "treatment" of the story. After deciding on a story and an ending which had impact, he would lay out thumbnail sketches in miniature, with captions and dialogue. Then would revise repeatedly on tracing paper, tacked one layer on top of another, as he worked out "what characters have to say". He would prepare layouts on large pieces of vellum to be passed on to the artists, along with additional photographs and drawings, and would personally lead the artist through the story before the finished artwork was begun. According to Jack Davis, "When you'd pick up a story, Harvey would sit down with you and he...acted it out, all the way through...You felt like you'd lived the story."

Typically when working on Little Annie Fanny, after researching the background story, Kurtzman would prepare a pencilled layout on Bristol board, and would create a color guide for Elder on an 8+1⁄2-by-11-inch (22 cm × 28 cm) vellum overlay. He would then create a larger version of the page on vellum with a 10+1⁄2-by-15-inch (27 cm × 38 cm) image area, which he would create using colored markers, working his way up from lighter to darker colors as he tightened the composition. He would then trace this onto another sheet of vellum (perhaps more, if he was still unsatisfied with the results). The final result would be passed on to Elder, who would render the final image following Kurtman's layouts exactly after having the image transferred to illustration board.

Kurtzman's layouts and owed considerable debt to Will Eisner's work on The Spirit. He derived a chiaroscuro technique from Milt Caniff in his 1940s studio work.

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