The most influential cartoonists of 20th century

I believe we’ve discussed this topic on this blog before, but Mike Lynch ran a poll among his readers asking which 20th century cartoonist was the most influential. According to his readers, Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby, Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, and Milton Caniff were the top five. He discusses the results on his blog.

36 thoughts on “The most influential cartoonists of 20th century

  1. Can’t argue with number one. It would have been nice to see Carl Barks somewhere on his list though.

  2. I know this is going to boil down to an argument over semantics, but Chuck Jones (a favorite of mine, too) was an animator, not a cartoonist. It’s like calling Alfred Hitchcock a novelist. They are two entirely different fields.

  3. “I know this is going to boil down to an argument over semantics, but Chuck Jones (a favorite of mine, too) was an animator, not a cartoonist. Itâ??s like calling Alfred Hitchcock a novelist. They are two entirely different fields.”

    Yeah I was thinking the same thing…and he would definitely be towards the top of any “most influential animators” list.

  4. No Chuck Jones because he’s an animator, but I noticed Matt Groening was listed. Who I bet owes being on there more to the animated Simpsons more than the print “Life in Hell”

    I would have put Jeff MacNelly and Oliphant on that list for inventing modern editorial cartooning. There school of art has more graduates than any other editorial cartoonist listed

  5. Chuck Jones drew 300 layouts per cartoon short so what you see on screen, unlike with most other animation directors, is 100 percent his artistic vision. Plus, Chuck created the great (but sadly short lived) syndicated strip “Crawford”.

    For me it’s impossible not to merit Jones as a ‘cartoonist’ because his drawings were such an important part of the finished work.

  6. NO Oliphant, MacNelly or Fischetti…..???!!

    These three not only influenced cartooning they initiated major changes that are still being felt to this day.

    Oliphant introduced humor as an editorial weapon who inspired MacNelly. Before Oliphant editorial cartooning was stuck in a safe dulling symbolism of illustration.

    MacNelly influenced so many cartoonists they were called MacNelly-clones. Plus he popularized conservative commentary.

    AND before Oliphant and MacNelly, John Fischetti introduced the horizontal format to American cartooning. At the time nearly all editorial cartoonists worked in the vertical format popularized by Herblock.
    When John left NEA for the NY Herald Tribune he made a conscience effort to set himself apart from the pack by changing his format.

    This is not to demean any of the Lynch mentioned cartoonists but to remind all of these three’s contributions and influences to the art.

  7. What, no Ed Dodd for “Mark Trail”?!

    Agreed regarding Chuck Jones. Animator, not cartoonist. (Such an arrogant guy to begin with, I imagine he’d have looked down his nose upon the term.) Besides, Bob Clampett’s “cartoons” were FAR more appealing and fluid. Chuck Jones, to me, is The Man Who Ruined the Shapes of Bugs, Daffy and Porky’s Eyes, so a small part of me kind of hates him, despite his having given us Gossamer.

    Matt Groening is a lousy cartoonist and the luckiest man alive.

  8. Hmm … Semantics is right. Some of the more tactile animators (ex. sand, clay, paint) are definitely not cartoonists, but Chuck Jones’ work echoes many traditional cartooning principles.

    Ho-hum, even among rejects you’re a reject 🙂

  9. Clearly, the list is regarding comic strip cartoonists, and even when you narrow the field to just that, you’ll never reach a consensus. This is true for any of those “Top 10” lists of anything. It’s all fun and games and geared to evoke discussion… or arguments.

  10. Wiley, I think if so many people have their own unique top ten lists it reflects how many great cartoonists were (and still are) out there touching our imaginations.

  11. Randi, When you refer to Chuck Jones as arrogant, are you noting this from personal experience or from conclusion after reading Milt Gray’s anti-Jones essays?

  12. I understand the Chuck love, but he was an animator. We are ultimately talking about the end product of their creative processes. The fellow listed did their process and the end results were cartoons. Yes, Chuck drew, but that was part of his process to get to the end result … an animated film. He was an animator.

    To follow along with the Alfred Hitchcock analogy, Hitchcock had to write screenplays, but he was not a “writer”. It was a step in the process he needed to do to get to the end result … a movie. He was a director.

    Being a big animation fan I would have to agree that Chuck Jones was a hugely influential animator. But as far as cartooning, there were many more influential than him.

  13. The above comments have got me re-thinking some of my own biases when it comes to defining what a cartoonist is, so for the sake of discussion (or argument) …

    The terms “animation” and “comic strip” are easily distinguished, but when people refer to either as a “cartoon,” does this not imply that it was created by a cartoonist? Is there something common between these static and moving pictures?

    Chuck Jones aside, I recall the #1 person on Mike Lynch’s list as once referring to Bill Melendez as a cartoonist. I don’t think anyone would debate whether or not Winsor McCay was a cartoonist either.

    But what about the editorial cartoonists who are now animating their work? Are they no longer creating cartoons?

  14. Larry, I have read some of Milt Gray, but my general feelings about CJ come from stories told to me by animator friends. (You know–the pre-Flash, Neanderthal types. Some of them are even still alive!) I’ll tell you this: I remember exactly where I was–a boiling-hot tire store, staring at the TV set that was bolted ten feet up, seeing a Road Runner cartoon for the first time–when I realized Warner Bros. had changed forever. Or maybe I was just thirsty.


    I almost wrote Kliban, but was too weary of the argument with Larson fans.

  16. I agree with Rick and Randi, Kliban’s work was great. I love those Kliban cats.

    And why no Winsor McCay? His ground breaking sequential work both in his comics and in his film experiments, set the stage for every cartoonist AND animator to follow in the 20th century.

    Also, if I had my druthers, I’d have to add HT Webster to the list, but I think that’s just because his work influenced and inspired me, but maybe not necessarily influential in the grand scheme of the last 100 years in cartoons and comics. But I can’t help but think of his work as so important now when I look back at it and see so much of the way of life in the first half of the 20th century that I think is being lost nowadays.

  17. I think that one can only speak for
    themselves and who influenced them.
    Was Wil Eisner, Walt Kelly, Jack Davis,
    Hank Ketcham, Al Capp an influence
    on anyone?

  18. Sometimes it is difficult to pin down the influence of an artist once that influence is one or two generations removed. Winsor McCay’s influence has been filtered through so many cartoonists since his heyday that the newer cartoonists themselves are probably unaware of his impact on them.

    I once saw a documentary on Ernie Kovacs. His stuff did not seem all that funny or groundbreaking to me until I realized that it was because almost every TV comedian that followed him (Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman to name a few) had imitated him and built on his repertoire of gags.

  19. Bob, Hank Ketchem was a tremendous creative influence–and a very nice (and witty) man. I used to exchange letters with him where he would discuss the humor ‘of yesteryear’ that influenced him: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, George Price and Peter Arno.

    I personally met my greatest influence, Chuck Jones & found him to be a wonderful gentleman. Chuck did several very nice things for me that I will always be grateful for.

    Everyone has their own picks–and everyone is right because they are all great choices!!!

  20. I havenâ??t yet come across any cartoonists (let alone artists) who effectively shaped national policy and influenced social awareness of issues to the extent of J.N. â??Dingâ? Darling (1876-1962).
    Picked up a CD-ROM years back with 6,800 digitized panels of his work â?? still less than half of his lifeâ??s work, and am still amazed at the level of craftsmanship of his artwork. Very inspirational along with being influential: I include his cartoons in every public presentation plus use him in the classroom as an example of someone that actually changed things for the better.
    The library at University of Iowa has a great on-line archive:

  21. George Herriman is the greatest cartoonist ever! Followed by Johnny Hart and a UK cartoonist called Tom Patterson.

  22. I think the key word here is influential.
    Without a doubt, Sparky would have to be tops with TV shows, stage plays, and all other aspects.
    Somewhere on the list would have to be David Low, Bill Mauldin, and Chester Gould.

    Of course, the others mentioned are worthy; just not as influential.

  23. Larry…I also exchanged letters with
    Ketcham… I wonder where he found
    the time. Although it doesn’t look it
    …I based my comic on Jack Benny and
    George Burns. Clean fun.

  24. Bob, The first time I wrote to Hank Ketcham was to ask if I could obtain a Dennis drawing in exchange for a donation to the IMOCA (which was being built at the time).

    Hank sent a special color drawing with a note on the back saying it was a gift & not to send money. This gentleman was (and still is) a hero to me on many levels.

  25. I’m disappointed that Chester Gould wasn’t on this list. Gould inspired generations of cartoonists in both their art, but more importantly, their storytelling. He’s the godfather of the procedural detective story.

    For those who just aren’t familiar you NEED to check out IDW Publ for his “little work” DICK TRACY & inquire with The Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum at for details on The Sunday Project.

  26. Beyond Gould’s INFLUENCE on other cartoonists, he was instrumental in shaping public opinion here in the United States, certainly, but even overseas. Chester Gould touched the hearts and minds of Americans who were fed up with the bloody social costs of Prohibition from the start and later ALL forms of crime. Dick Tracy remains the NUMBER TWO image recognized worldwide as an “American icon,” followed only by Grant Wood’s masterful painting, American Gothic.

    As I stated in my previous post — Chet Gould created and popularized a genre of both fiction and popular culture, the likes of which we’ve never experienced since. I believe he still holds the record as cartoonist drawing and writing a comic strip daily for 46 years, 2 months and 21 days.

  27. I felt that Sidney Smith being absent from the poll was also disappointing. With the introduction of Smith’s The Gumps in 1919 the circulation opportunities of the entire industry were stood on its ear when Captain Joseph Patterson & Colonel McCormick started the Chicago Tribune Syndicate and amassed national readership practically overnight.

    The popularity, and therefore, circulation of The Gumps during Smith’s tenure was untouchable by any other single comic strip of its’ time. Smith was the proverbial “grease” that brought MASS syndication to the newspaper industry.

  28. Interesting list. Some were legit(Schulz, Eisner), some I think were there more for conversation/debate/argument starters(with all due respect to Patrick McDonnell and Scott Kurtz, talented artists of quality toons, but there were others that I would put on that list ahead of you fine gents), but all certainly talented.

    Here’s a few random names, although I’m not sure if comic book artists are considered cartoonists or illustrators. I say both, but anyways:

    Steve Ditko– For his marvel work, but especially for setting the visual tone for Spider-Man that all future and current Spider-man artists like Todd McFarlane would try to emulate.

    Neal Adams– He brought Batman back to the adult world with more serious themes and a darker look that other artists would later build on.

    E.C. Segar– For his classic characterization and great storytelling in Thimble Theater and more famously, Popeye.

    R.Crumb(mentioned on the blog) If he wasn’t such a miscontent and recluse he probably would have been even better known than he is…although those same qualities made his work what it was. Who drew creepy perversion better? He was an underground success without the internet, a feat hard to imagine today. R.Crumb succeded without a myspace page…

    Frank Miller He revolutionized a B-list superhero into an A-list one with Daredevil and took an aging A list hero and took Neal Adams version to the next level and made Batman arguably the most popular comic book hero ever…even more so than Superman. Add in Sin City, Ronin…he’s on par with Alan Moore, but Frank Miller is also an artist!

    I have to say that I was surprised that Wil Eisner had only 11% of the vote. He’s such a legend…could it be that some of the poll voters are actually unaware of who Wil Eisner is??

  29. An incedental anecdote/ personal story. My grandfather was a drinking buddy of Sidney Smith. Both were characters. Some of Smith’s talent rubbed off on my dad. My dad may be the most influential unknown cartoonist. He was doing odd strips and gags, and then Pearl Harbor happened. He enlisted the next day, ARMY. They made him a tank driver, but he drew toons on the side. After Normandy, he did some uncomplimentary satires of the brass hats. These eventually worked their way up. He was pulled summarilly to advanced base HQ and confronted by Ike, Clark, and Patton. They needed a MAPMAKER. He was given a field promotion into S-2 and drew most of the maps for the allies final assault on Germany ( the Nazi’s had changed most of the roads, making previous maps obsolete. These new maps had to be hand drawn on silk from aerial recon photo’s ).

  30. I love Oliphant and Mcnelly, but Paul Conrad probably set the bar for that generation editorial cartoonists. Ron Cobb did some amazing work back in the 60’s and 70’s as well. I couldn’t agree more with putting R. Crumb on this list. He turned the perception of comic book artists on it’s head.

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