It's time to let the cat out of the bag: B Kliban's 'Cat' cartoons first appeared 25 years ago. Today, they're at the heart of a multi-million dollar business and Kliban himself is recognised as a major influence on Gary Larson. But who was this enigmatic figure?
By Martin Plimmer
30 June 2000
Playboy cartoonist is an oxymoron. Such a creature never existed, except in a mischievous drawing by B Kliban, where he is walking the street with cane, cravat and shades, buttressed by two vamps and preceded by a stick-wielding cop, kicking a beggar into the gutter: "Out of the way, you swine! A cartoonist is coming!"
There is such a thing as a cartoonist for Playboy, though. That was Kliban, up all night with a pencil, seeing how far he could force an idea, inciting philosophers to loot small towns, pretty women to fix their lipstick in the mirror of a blind man's dark glasses, running gags past four idly indifferent studio cats, and plumbing darkly glittering ironies from a troubled psyche, inherited from Russian immigrant forebears. "A fascinating and demanding man," says his widow, Judith Kliban Bixby, "a voracious reader, brilliant wit, working all the time in one of those dark places."
Kliban turned out cartoons for Playboy for many years, at a time when all the plaudits seemed to be monopolised by New Yorker cartoonists and when Playboy was better known for its photography. In his early years he did have cartoons accepted by The New Yorker (and some by Punch, too), but preferred the licence Hugh Hefner gave him to startle, both in subject matter and angle of approach; to savage sacred cows, to be surreal, bizarre, unexpectedly poignant and at times downright peculiar.
His work, whose artistic integrity mirrored that of his own idol, Saul Steinberg, was original to a degree that sometimes troubled mainstream audiences. "He always said he wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, strafing civilians," says Bixby. "He figured he did it as a cartoonist instead."
His maverick stance has exacerbated his isolation today, despite innovations which opened up possibilities for the current generation of cartoonists, not least the phenomenally successful Gary Larson. The syndicated cartoonist Dan Piraro says he used to consult Kliban's book Never Eat Anything Bigger than Your Head and Other Drawings "as frequently as many people do their Bibles".
Ten years ago, when Kliban died, a great many people carried on as before, not realising the world had just lost a twisted and irreplaceable visionary. They're still not sure. In this country there was one squeak of recognition, a short yet poignant obituary by Michael Feast, much of which was taken up by an explanation that, like most people, he knew nothing about the man, not even his first name. Like me, Feast had come across him by a chance book purchase in a second-hand shop.
Nowadays, despite the efforts of a Ms Z to have his collection, Whack Your Porcupine, banned from the Standley Lake Public Library, Colorado, little is heard of him.
And this despite the fact that Kliban, in a curious parallel development every bit as surreal as the subject matter of one of his cartoons, is the creative force behind an industry that generates $10m a year. It began in a small way 25 years ago this month in 1975, with the release by the tiny firm of Workman Publishing, of Cat, a haphazard collection of Kliban images, jokes and sketches of his cats, drawn and doodled in those moments in the studio when he could think of nothing else to do.
The drawings had been spotted by Playboy's cartoon editor Michelle Urry, who persuaded him to let her peddle them round the publishing houses. The resulting book was a huge hit and spawned a massive merchandising phenomenon. Type "Kliban" into any search engine and you will come up with a host of sites devoted to the thousands of people who collect Kliban key rings, mugs, doormats, pillow- cases and T-shirts, very few of them knowing anything about the cartoonist, or his other work. Cat paved the way for cat books by other cartoonists, and for hundreds of other cat collections with gaudy artistic themes.
Unlike many of them though, Kliban's cats were never sentimental. As an artist of abominations, it follows he should have a perceptive insight into the mind of cats. He drew them with affection, but revealed them as the self-important, sadistic, comic, hedonistic, disturbing creatures they are. We laugh at them because he shows us how cats are, from their language ("Ngow!", "Prt?"), to their nibbling mousie's feet. As bewitching as the humour is the occasional sketch of his own cats Nitty, Norton, Burton Rustle and Noko Marie the Snake.
It is clear by the rambling and playful approach of Cat that it was never conceived as a commercial blockbuster (it can still be bought at internet bookstores, as can two of his seven subsequent and more rewarding collections, Never Eat Anything Bigger than Your Head and Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon). Nobody was more surprised than Kliban by the success. "He was really not comfortable with it," says Bixby. "He wouldn't do the talk shows or the dinners. He didn't want people knowing what he looked like. He told people he was a blonde Scandinavian type." Which, of course, has increased his obscurity.
Actually, Kliban was dark, handsome, around six-foot-two, unselfconscious and phlegmatic, and for all his depressive nature and dislike of parties, good company. He was born in 1935 in Connecticut, on New Year's Day. The B stands for Bernard, which he detested. He dropped out of art college to roam Europe, hanging out so frequently at Florence's Uffizi that he began to think he lived there. He returned to the States and rode to California on a motorbike. He pursued the Beat lifestyle, took a variety of jobs, including rock-poster designer and drawing showgirls in a San Francisco club, then settled in Marin County.
Despite loving Benny Hill, his humour was subtle, influenced more by Monty Python. "He disliked the cheap shot," says Bixby. "He enjoyed playing with perception." An admiring letter from Michael Palin was the biggest thrill of his life.
Among Kliban's most skilful work are his jokeless cartoons, simple portraits entitled "The Victim's Family", "Partial Awareness" or "Tough Cookie", which, in the manner of William Steig's work, are funny simply because they are so recognisably accurate. "He loved artistic excellence, skill, discipline," said Bixby. "Drawing made him most happy." As for the unhappiness, well, at least it was funny. As Kliban's fakir says, as he lowers himself on to his bed of nails: "It only hurts when I exist."
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