The Artistry of Burne Hogarth


In 1964 I sat in the upper row of a small amphitheater located on the second floor of New York's School of Visual Arts and watched a compact mustached man standing next to a large newsprint pad take a piece of chalk and swiftly sketch out a leaping horse in perfect perspective.

With every muscular structure on that horse's body correctly shaded and rendered, the drawing was impressive --but what was even more spectacular was the fact that Burne Hogarth had drawn the horse from the vantage point of a man in a trench staring up as it leapt over him! I've been drawing for over thirty years and if I worked on that problem all night, I doubt if I could accomplish even half of what Hogarth did in less than fifteen minutes. And I know damned well that Hogarth would berate me for admitting that, pointing the flaws of my attitude towards tackling the problem, pointing out just where I had gone wrong, pointing out where the forms were --perhaps with a dash of the sardonic, but never bullying, always encouraging.

As a lecturer, Hogarth was as interesting as he was infuriating; infuriating because he was extremely opinionated, extremely well informed, extremely intense. A man with a love of knowledge who could passionately expound on medieval economic structures and somehow spin that out into the meaning of virtue. From there he could easily go on to a discourse on, say, the Judaic custom of prayers recited over wine, showing how this contributed into our modern perceptions of art as exemplified in modern film!

And it always hung together, this passionate, logical, convoluted chain of thinking! As an educator and a co-founder of The School of Visual Arts, Burne Hogarth was important in the education of generations of artists, and in the comics field alone he has guided and inspired many a comic book great, including Frank Frazetta, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, and Al Williamson.

Prior to his cofounding SVA with Silas Rhodes, his professional cartooning career reached impressive heights. Most would agree with Ron Goulart in his Encyclopedia of American Comics: "Next to Hal Foster, Hogarth is the best-known artist to have drawn Tarzan."

Burne Hogarth was born in Chicago in on December 25 1911. His interest in art began at a very early age, encouraged by his father, who was a maker of custom-built furniture. "I'd draw whatever I saw in the newspaper. Very quickly two things happened: I began to develop a pretty sharp eye within the limited sense of whatever that talent was, and I began to get interested in cartoons."

Thanks to his father's continued interest in Burne's drawing skills, the young artist enrolled Chicago's Art Institute at age 12, and later studied anthropology, psychology, and art history at Northwestern University, continuing in with his studies at New York's Columbia University. At age 15 he landed a job as an assistant cartoonist at Associated Editors Syndicate while still managing to study fine arts at the Institute. For a year and a half, in addition to doing all the usual apprentice tasks, Hogarth worked on doing a series of drawings called Famous Churches of the World, learning different rendering techniques ("I would do one as a woodcut, another one like an etching, a third like a lithograph.") In 1929 he created his first original strip, Ivy Heminhaw. The strip didn't make much money (the syndicate was rather a small one), but for an 18 year old the experience was a heady one.

There were other strips (Odd Occupations and Strange Accidents in 1930, and Pieces of Eight in 1935), but the really big break wouldn't come until 1937. Hal Foster had started work on the Tarzan strip, adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels by Joseph H. Neebe, on January 7, 1929. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of his art, Foster never warmed to ERB's Ape-Man (he thought it was rather silly) and left the strip's jungles for the more northern climes of Prince Valiant.

In the winter of 1937 Hogarth was 26 years old and casting around for syndicate work in New York. He happened to hit the offices of United Features just after Foster had departed. "They said, 'Tarzan is open and we'd like you to give it a try.''And so they threw some scripts at me and I scanned them, and I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to try it.'" Hogarth worked on a sample page for about a week, and it was submitted to the general manager as a Foster page. "He said, 'O.K., Print it.' So that's how I got it."

At first Hogarth's work was derivative; Foster was a hard act to follow, but the young artist was undaunted and built on what he called "syntax of the figure," or the organization of action, aiming for an internal sense of the body's kinetics and dynamics. In a few short years Hogarth had developed his own style which made him one of the most admired artists in the field, fashioning Tarzan into almost a mythic figure, and investing ithe strip with a lush visual splendor that is, despite later talented Tarzan artists, unrivaled.

Hogarth's first signed Tarzanstrip was on May 9, 1937, and he continued on with the ape-man until 1945. Unhappy with his syndicate's contractual restrictions, Hogarth took a break to work on his own strip for The New York Post, Drago (Nov.4, 1945-Nov. 10, 1946), moving the action from Tarzan's Africa to other lush locales in Argentina. Drago, looking like a younger Tarzan, fought Nazis for a year, but the strip never caught on. During the same period Hogarth created his only humor strip, about a daydreamer called Miracle Jones.

1947 was a busy year for the artist. GIs, mustered out of the services with time on their hands, had meet Hogarth during wartime ("I'd gone around to the hospitals and did lectures and did drawings and that sort of thing") and followed through, often meeting him at his home for advice, criticism, and lessons.

These casual lessons began to snowball into classes and from there a school. Soon The Cartoonists and Illustrators School was born (changed to Visual Arts in 1956). Hogarth had gone back to doing the Sunday Tarzan while teaching (aided by students Al Williamson and Gil Kane), but when a contractual conflict again arouse in 1950 (no royalties for foreign reprints), he dropped the strip and devoted himself to the school full-time.

In addition to his comics work, Hogarth taught for the WPA Arts Project from 1933 to 1935, founded the Academy of Newspaper Art in 1944, and taught anatomy at the Parsons School of Design from 1976-1979 after retiring from Visual Arts in 1970. In 1972 he returned to the comics format with a book-length version of Tarzan of the Apes, followed by Jungle Tales of Tarzan in 1976, both published by Watson-Guptill. Other Watson-Guptil publications by Hogarth are a series of books on anatomy and drawing instruction that are absolutely indispensable to anyone serious about art and/or comic book illustration. They are: Drawing the Human Head, Dynamic Anatomy, Dynamic Figure Drawing, Dynamic Light and Shade, and Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery. Burne Hogarth continued to teach after moving to Southern California in 1981.

In addition to being the past President of the National Cartoonists Society, Hogarth won numerous international awards during the last two decades of his life and was a frequent guest at cartoonists' conventions at home and abroad. On January 28, 1996, at age 84, this energetic man finally succumbed to a heart attack in Paris, just after returning from the 23rd International Comic Strip Festival where he had been guest of honor.

--Steve Stiles