by Rafael Alvarez
Burne Hogarth (1911-1996)
The first vine from which Tarzan swung connected the tip of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ quill to a 1912 public hungry for adventure stories. Even in our decidedly non-literate world, the name Burroughs – Edgar more than William, his non-linear literary kin — resonates.
What about the Tarzan films of the forgotten Elmo Lincoln, released the year America entered the First World War. Or the better-known follow-up flicks in the 1930s starring Olympian gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the role for which he is still remembered?
Generations of boys and more than a few tomboys — from those in Depression-era movie houses to post-war, boomer knuckleheads watching black and white TV — imitated Weissmuller by banging fists against their puny chests and yodeling: “Ow-ah, ooww- aaah, oow-oow-AH!”
[This may or may not be the proper phonetic spelling, but no matter. Just say “the Tarzan yell” and folks around the world will know what you’re talking about.]
All of these presentations are qualified for the indelible Tarzan award. But we are here to argue on behalf of an artist whose genius is recognized well beyond the worlds of pulp and celluloid. Today we make the case for the Michelangelo of The Comic Strip: Burne Hogarth.
For if Burroughs gave birth to Tarzan, it was Hogarth who taught him to swing from the trees.
Born a year before Burroughs’ first Tarzan serial appeared in All-Story Magazine (and coincidentally in Burroughs’ hometown of Chicago as well), Hogarth brought the Man of the Apes to life via illustrated novels and comics strips. Tarzan was a muscular hero of the jungle. And few have drawn the human body — particularly as it moves — as Hogarth.
“One of the best,” said Robb Klein, a comic artist and animator working in the Netherlands and Europe. “His ‘Dynamic Anatomy’ is my Bible of how to draw the human figure in action.”
Not to mention “Dynamic Figure Drawing,” and “Drawing the Human Head.”
“Hogarth’s art was always a child of his energy, drawn from the volcanic capital of his own self – earnest, visceral, yet structured and measured,” said Dr. Kenneth Smith (Professor of philosophy, artist and longtime friend). “Most artists have to struggle to invest their work with passion, to raise it from room temperature. Burne’s task was to hold his passion in check…”
Hogarth was born in Chicago, Illinois, December 25, 1911. His father, Max, was a carpenter who moved to Chicago with his wife Pauline, after working on the reconstruction of San Francisco following the great earthquake and fire of 1906.
Max’s work involved sketching and young Burne soon began his scribbling on the backs of his father’s carpentry drafts. In a September 1982 interview with Howard Zimmerman for Comic Scene Magazine, Burne reminisced,”My father would sit and design furniture and cabinets – he was a carpenter and cabinet maker – and I would ask for my own piece of paper and pencil. And when I would say, ‘What should I draw?’ he would push a cartoon under my nose and say ‘Here, draw this.’ So the cartoon became a kind of focus of attention.”
Max kept those sketches and took them and his young son to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924. Burne was accepted as a student at age 12. By age 15, he was an assistant cartoonist at Associated Editors’ Syndicate. He flourished at the Institute and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where Harold Foster, a future comic strip notable whose path would cross Burne’s, had also studied.
Burne graduated high school at the dawn of the Great Depression. His father’s untimely death in 1930 placed a profound responsibility upon his shoulders and young Hogarth worked any job he could get: truck driver, laundry presser, and salesman. And he never stopped drawing, finding newspaper work as a teenager in which he wrote and edited in addition to providing illustrations and cartoons.
Hogarth’s first strip — “Ivy Hemanhaw” — met with enough success for Hogarth to try his luck in Gotham City. In New York, he took on several commercial art jobs; as an assistant for writer Charles Driscoll on Pieces of Eight in 1935, creating spot illustrations for other publications, and as an assistant at Fleischer Animation Studios, the people who brought Betty Boop, Superman and Popeye the Sailor to the screen.
One day, a friend at United Features Syndicate told Hogarth that Hal Foster — the guy who’d studied at the same Chicago schools as young Burne — was leaving the popular Tarzan comic strip that ran in hundreds of papers every Sunday. Previous titles included such cliffhangers as “Tarzan’s First Christmas” and “The Mystery of the Elephant’s Graveyard.”
Was Hogarth interested? Does Tarzan poop in the woods?
Smart enough to know that continuity would be key, Hogarth submitted a Foster-like panel. The bosses couldn’t tell the difference and Burne got the job, starting in the middle of 1937. Burne was 25 years old and Tarzan — his sinews and muscles, the tendons that form the shape below the skin — was his. Along with Jane and lions and apes and all the rest of the teeming jungle — an entire page’s worth every Sunday.
Hogarth moved slowly from a spot-on mimicking of Foster’s style to his own. Over the next dozen years — from 1937 to 1950 — he synthesized aspects of popular cinema with his fine art training to bring respect to an art form that had known few true masters. Hogarth thoroughly understood the elements of action and tension; translating the fragile tether between the two into a rigorous approach to foreshortening and shadows. Thus: a template that has defined the comic book hero from the 1950’s boom to the near-literary present.
Over the decades, both before and after his death, superlatives have piled up at Hogarth’s easel: brilliant teacher, master anatomist, philosopher … and that Michelangelo line again and again. All correct, all insufficient. What the eye knows, language fails.
In 1950, Hogarth left Tarzan in the jungle to devote himself to a school he co-founded in 1947, the New York School of Visual Arts. He made it a training ground for all types of artists, most notably those working in comic strips and comic books.
Philip Hays, a teacher at the school, said of Burne’s classroom style: “Hogarth has an awesome energy level and is not a quiet man. He illustrated his lectures with giant anatomical drawings done on the spot from memory in an extraordinary and unique style of his own invention.”
The thousands of classroom drawings Hogarth produced for his students became the basis for the 1958 classic Dynamic Anatomy. The book defined the figural concept in art while giving solutions for drawing figures in deep foreshortening and from multiple perspectives. It has never been out of print.
In his 1982 interview with Howard Zimmerman, Hogarth said: “I began doing art instruction books. One day a buyer from Barnes and Noble told me that Watson-Guptill was looking for an anatomy book – did I want to take it on? I said, ‘Gee whiz, yeah!’ But when I got the feedback that they really did want my book, I said to myself, ‘Am I going to do an anatomy book?’ I’d never thought about it. So I sat down to think about it and I said, ‘Well, why not!’ Cause I’d been teaching it – so I sat down to think about what it should be and my first thought was, ‘I’m going to write a book that will be different from any other.'”
“I began to think in terms of all the things that I’d been doing, that I never saw in any book that I had access to. And some of them were really good books, like George Bridgeman. Bridgeman is really a classic anatomist in the tradition of Michelangelo, but he is not an anatomist in the tradition of the 20th century. He does beautiful carvings of figures that are pillars… supporting devices for the roof of a building. They’re not things that move, they are not light as air.
“Michelangelo’s Captives are prisoners of the stone, and what I wanted to do was free (the human figure) from its gravitational plane. I began to create multi-figure sequences of movement through space. I invented ways of seeing foreshortening in terms of elliptical devices, such as the pivot of the shoulder and the elbow.
“I developed a system that George Bridgeman never thought of. I created a book with a total concept. I created the book color-wise and texture-wise – it was terra-cotta and black like the Greek vases. I used bald heads so they wouldn’t be caught up in hair styles. I designed the book with a total flow. The book won an award from the American Association of Graphic Artists, one of the 50 best designed books of the year.”
Though he is golden in the world of comics, Burne Hogarth is known today for six volumes of drawing anatomy which are the foundation of art study for students around the world. After “Dynamic Anatomy came Drawing the Human Head”(1965), “Dynamic Figure Drawing” (1970), “Drawing Dynamic Hands” (1977), “Dynamic Light and Shade” (1981), and “Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery” (1992).
Hogarth retired from the School of Visual Arts in 1970, more than a decade after his work became the subject of the first serious scholarly research into sequential art. The scholarship took place in France, conducted by the Societe Civile d’Etudes et de Recherches des Littératures Dessinées (SOCERLID).
Founded in 1965 by Claude Moliterni and Pierre Couperie, SOCERLID studied the comic genre for its political, social, humanitarian and satirical content as well as what it said about economics. It was the beginning of a process of legitimization for an art form once thought — like rock and roll — to be a pox on adolescents.
Legitimization of “the 9th Art” — as the French have defined comics — prompted Hogarth to reconsider the mythic jungle lord of his early career and re-envision Tarzan in a modern format two decades after his last strip. In 1972, Hogarth published the prototypical graphic novel, “Tarzan of the Apes” (1972). This large-format, 160-page hard-bound volume was published in 11 languages, serving as a demarcation between juvenile comic books and a sequential art form in which pictorial narrative is both mature and enduring.
With “Tarzan of the Apes,” Hogarth finally visualized the Edgar Rice Burroughs story as he wanted. Free of editorial interference, he interpreted the literature as a true Homeric epic. He transfused the power of Renaissance and Baroque artists — as well as German Expressionism, European “9th Art” and the art of the Far East — into new and dramatic pictorial fiction.
Four years later, “Jungle Tales of Tarzan” followed in black and white. The lack of color spurred Hogarth to greater rendering with stories ranging from adventure to philosophy to religion to surrealism. It is lauded as Hogarth’s most impressive version of Tarzan.
Using Burroughs’ text that peered more deeply into Tarzan’s interior life, Hogarth used subliminal covert and negative space images in addition to overt symbolism. By applying cinematic technique, Hogarth utilized facing pages to link across separate panels, approximating a widescreen effect.
Throughout both volumes is a considered, unified design aesthetic of unmatched creativity and skill. The books offer harmonious integration of image and text to tell an enchanting tale. A new genre in publishing was born and adults began to read these comics — now validated as the graphic novel — for the first time in a long time.
Hogarth moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, where he taught at the Otis School — where much of the animated Zwigoff movie “Art School Confidential,” was filmed — as well as the Art Center of Pasadena. He also served as a guest lecturer at schools and studios, including his own New York School of Visual Arts and the Parsons School of Design. During this time, Hogarth created a portfolio of prints chronicling the life of King Arthur. He also expanded his treatment of the human figure with “Dynamic Light and Shade” and “Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery.”
From this time into the 1990s, Hogarth attended industry conventions, challenging peers and fans with insights into the nature of comics. The 1992 publication of “The Arcane Eye of Hogarth” reveals sketchbook pages of his preliminary pen work, an intimate look at the synchronicity of his mind, hands, and eyes.
Hogarth’s cartoons, drawings, prints, and paintings have been exhibited at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs of the Louvre, Paris. A past president of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and member of its Board of Governors, he was awarded the NCS Silver Plaque Reuben for the best in illustration and advertising in 1974, 1975, and 1976. And in 1975, he was named artist of the year at the Pavilion of Humor in Montreal.
In 1986 he received the lifetime Caran D’Ache Award in Lucca, Italy, and in 1988 was awarded the Lauriers D’Or by the Cesar Society in Paris. Three years later, Hogarth was awarded the Premio Especial by the Seventh International Salon of Humor in Barcelona, Spain, and received the Grandmaster of Comic Art Bronze Trophy prize at the German Comics Fair in Cologne in 1990.
In 1974, the city of Angoulême, France, created the first International Comics Festival to demonstrate how influential and popular the “9th Art” had become. Burne Hogarth was among many internationally known artists who honored the new festival with their presence. In January, 1996, Hogarth was invited back to Angouleme. It had become the world’s largest comic art convention.
Taking the stage for his award, Hogarth was overwhelmed with a standing ovation from his peers, an unprecedented occurrence at Angouleme. After receiving the accolades of his fellow comic artists and enthusiasts, Burne returned to his Paris hotel. There, at the age of 84 on January 28, 1996, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Burne Hogarth was a visionary who looked to the most ancient of models — the human form — to achieve those visions. About the future of a once demonized craft he pushed into the mainstream one panel at a time, Hogarth was quite clear.
“We need not only mature practitioners, but we need mature writers … the artist has to be better prepared but the writer even more so,” he told Zimmerman in 1982.
“We need a whole new generation … the more intelligently educated and more intense personalities in the art phase [must be] balanced by an extremely sensitive and comprehending writer … [this] will create a future for this field that will simply outdistance any other. It will then take its place as one of the really decisive art forms of the 21st century.”
This article was researched by Kyle Ryan and Kathryn Bergstrom.