Burne Hogarth

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The Independent Online
To use the American term "comic strip", or the British variant "strip cartoon"', when describing Burne Hogarth's pictorial version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' immortal jungle hero Tarzan of the Apes, is to demonstrate yet again the poverty of our descriptive vocabulary.

Perhaps the finest drawing ever to decorate American coloured Sunday comic supplements went unnoticed and unacclaimed by all but fellow professionals and a few comic collectors during the strip's heyday in the Thirties and Forties, and it was not until the French academics, with their love of lauding icons of popular arts such as the cinema, turned their attention to what they called la bande dessinee that Hogarth received his first accolade. They dubbed him "The Michelangelo of the Comics".

Burne Hogarth was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Christmas Day 1911. When he was 12 years old his father, much impressed by the boy's sketching, gathered up a folder full of pencil and crayon pictures and took Burne and the bunch to the famous Chicago Art Institute. Burne became the youngest pupil in their Saturday class. As a teenager he studied art history and anthropology at Crane College, at North Western University in Chicago, and later at Columbia University, New York. This heavy foundation course in art proper is rare indeed for a strip cartoonist; indeed the ambition to draw newspaper strips was the last thing on Hogarth's mind.

"My generation looked down with contempt upon the comics because they reflected the social conditions of their times," Hogarth once confessed. "For the sophisticats of the time it was like owning a lower-class passport." However, he did admit to enjoying as a small child the fairy-tale cartoon adventures of The Brownies by Palmer Cox.

Hogarth was only 15 when he became a junior cartoonist for the Associated Editors Syndicate, his first job being a single picture series entitled Famous Churches of the World.

His first venture into drawing comic strips was called Ivy Hemmanhaw, but it was no great success. For yet another syndicate he drew a factual panel called Odd Occupations and Strange Accidents, which was clearly inspired by Robert Ripley's world famous series Believe It Or Not.

A second plunge into strips came in 1935 when he illustrated a popular pirate serial, Pieces of Eight, scripted by the American novelist Charles Driscoll.

Fate finally struck in 1937 when Harold Foster, until that time perhaps the best artist working in strips, decided to leave Tarzan of the Apes, which he had been drawing for some years at United Features. Inspired to try his hardest, Hogarth submitted a sample page and was immediately hired. The first Hogarth Tarzan was published on 9 May 1937. His drawing style, originally faithful to that of Foster, soon developed into something truly original. Hogarth's page layouts were brilliantly different from the traditional 12 neat panels. They staggered around the broadsheet page, their sizes drawn to fit whatever dynamic image Hogarth envisaged, from oblongs, both upright and landscape, to vast action panoramas. His words formed part of the design within the frames, but never interfered with his illustrations. He also avoided the traditional speech balloons, placing dialogue inside inverted commas within the stretches of text.

Hogarth continued with Tarzan for eight years, over 400 full pages in all, before tiring of his syndicate's restrictions. He created a new character of his own, Drago, for their rival the Hall Syndicate, a serial set in Argentina depicting the hero's battles against the Nazi Baron Zodiac. It was not a great success, and nor was a second strip, Miracle Jones, a Walter-Mitty-style comic hero.

In 1947 Hogarth left strips to found the School of Visual Arts, which is now perhaps the most comprehensive centre of commercial and fine art training in the United States. He retired in 1970 to devote himself to painting and writing. His several books include Dynamic Anatomy, but superb as they are more will prefer his definitive 1972 pictorial version of Tarzan of the Apes, an original work depicting the Burroughs book in great exactitude. This year Burne Hogarth was the official Guest of Honour at the Annual International Comic Art Festival at Angouleme in France. He died in Paris while on his way home.

Chicago 25 December 1911; died Paris 28 January 1996.

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