Art Young and Dr. Seuss

by John Holbo on January 28, 2019

I don’t have time for a full appreciation of Art Young today, but I’ll re-recommend the new Fantagraphics book about him [amazon associates link] and advance one art historical thesis: Young was a significant influence on the style of Dr. Seuss. I have never seen this point made before. I didn’t realize it myself until a week ago. As an avid, amateur Seussologist, and student of lines of graphic influence in American cartoon art in the early 20th Century, I’m interested to see it.

Thing is: the reason Seuss’ style is such a signature is that it is, in many ways, very original and distinctive. His monsters with their floppy feet, the way their legs fold. The Seuss ‘look’ is well-established long before he is a popular children’s book author. Check out these old ads (I got them from this collection.)


These aren’t dated with certainty. Between 1930 and 1940. His wartime cartoons are the same [there’s a serious Kindle bargain]. One example will do:

That could be right out of If I Ran The Circus. You are in no doubt it’s Seuss.

But compare these ‘Complexes’ Art Young published in The Saturday Evening Post, in 1924. The ‘Indecision Complex’:

And the ‘Hurry-Up Complex’:

And Seuss actually drew a deliberate Art Young homage for one GE ad [from the collection linked above]:

Per the previous post, that’s a reference to Hell Up To Date [ has it], which was the first of three Dante spoof’s Art Young perpetrated. We don’t need that to prove Seuss knew who Art Young was. He was famous. But this is evidence Seuss liked him and was influenced by him.

Neat! (Since this isn’t an academic article I can say that.)

On a yet more personal note, a couple years back my youngest daughter gave me a challenging commission. Steven Universe in Dr. Seuss style. No Photoshop! (She knew I would cheat!) It would have been easy enough to do a standard Seuss boy, make him a bit chubby, give him round hair, stick a star on his shirt. But I decided to go for a more ambitious theme: Rose Quartz and Lion, in front of the beach house. Now: lions are standard Seuss beasts, but Seuss lions didn’t seem right for Lion, who called for something weirder. I needed to add floppy feet and that Seuss way that legs fold and the butt sticks up. I think it came out pretty well. But now I realize that, in a weird way, I drew it to look like that first Complex from Art Young (above). Nice to know who your ancestors are.




John Holbo 01.28.19 at 9:57 pm

Whew! Tough audience!


alfredlordbleep 01.28.19 at 10:12 pm

Nice to know who your ancestors are

CECILY [very much under her breath] Glad you think so.


John Holbo 01.28.19 at 10:56 pm

“Well he was said Bernard in a proud tone he was really the Sinister son of Queen Victoria.

Not really cried Ethel in excited tones but what does that mean.

“Well I dont quite know said Bernard Clark it puzzles me very much but ancesters do turn quear at times.

Peraps it means god son said Mr Salteena in an inteligent voice.

Well I dont think so said Bernard but I mean to find out.”


Bill Benzon 01.29.19 at 12:40 am

Well, John, I read the whole post. FWIW this is the first I ever heard of Art Young. I leafed through Hell Up to Date. Yes, I see the homage. And, yes, it’s interesting. But I don’t know enough to have anything interesting to say.

Some naive questions: Are there cartoonists who have obviously been influenced by Seuss or is he without artistic progeny? If not, then, given his enormous popularity and success, why not? What about Art Young? He obviously influenced Seuss. Anyone else? If so, any resemblance between those others and Seuss, or was the influence of a different graphic kind?


John Holbo 01.29.19 at 2:14 am

Seuss was influenced by Peter Newell and by other early 20th Century illustrators. His style of drawing human figures, although it has signature details, resembles a lot of earlier cartoonists. Eugene ‘Zim’ Zimmerman, for example. (Although Zim is more of the big feet school.)

It is a bit of a puzzle to trace Seuss’ own influence. It seems like he ought to have been copied more often than it seems he has been. The little things that make him recogizable have not, in fact, been widely imitated. Although some of the larger craziness has had an impact.


Sebastian H 01.29.19 at 6:37 am

“It is a bit of a puzzle to trace Seuss’ own influence. It seems like he ought to have been copied more often than it seems he has been. The little things that make him recogizable have not, in fact, been widely imitated. Although some of the larger craziness has had an impact.”

The Animaniacs? Though maybe I’m just allying two types of zaniness as if they were one.


John Holbo 01.29.19 at 7:43 am

Yeah, I think that’s common zaniness at a higher level. The way to think about that one, formally, is like this: the Animaniacs are heirs to a ‘squash-and-stretch’ Disney line, graphically. It would be very difficult to animate Seuss, as it is drawn, because there are actually so few poses that are characteristic of it. It’s like all the terrible trouble they had animating “Peanuts” in the 60’s. (Another good story!) Seuss characters aren’t really designed to move and rotate through all possible positions.


Jeff R. 01.29.19 at 8:35 pm

Phil and Kaja Foglio are the most Seuss-like cartoonists I can think of.


John Holbo 01.30.19 at 6:41 am

Phil Foglio! That’s interesting. I’ve been staring at his stuff since it appeared in “Dragon” magazine way back in the 80’s. It’s never done much for me, honestly. Too shiny! I guess there is a certain Seussity to it. But again – as with many artists – it’s the little things. Seuss’ little things have never caught on – just his big dreams. But the little things are why we know a drawing is by Seuss. (I don’t know about Kaja Foglio. I guess I never gave her a chance because I never got into her husband’s work.)

I remember one really funny joke from Phil Foglio from “Dragon”. I don’t even remember what his strip was, at the back of the magazine. But one of the installments was all about replicating the effects of dungeoning on the the human body. He suggested tying 13 cats to your body and then whacking two phonebooks together, at arm’s length for 20 minutes, while taking a cold shower. That’s funny. Kids today wouldn’t get it. What’s a phonebook? Is that like … an ebook?


Another Nick 01.30.19 at 9:26 am


Another Nick 01.30.19 at 10:53 am

Nice picture by the way John! Very cool.


John Holbo 02.01.19 at 4:24 am

Yeah, Wilhelm Busch. Totally, should have mentioned that. In the biographies that is definitely mentioned. Good stuff! Glad you like the Steven Universe fanart!


John Holbo 02.01.19 at 4:29 am

That’s good about the butts. I never really thought about whether Seuss got his butts from Busch. Could be! The thing with squash-and-stretch is that it is a very technical, animation key pose concept. The ones you link are for sure squashing and stretching, but not in the technical sense.

Disney animators figured out how to get movement to ‘read’ as movement very strongly – how to trigger a super strong recognition response. And some of that visual vocabulary then bled back into comics. This produced a line of powerful, simple forms. But Seuss is in a different line. And Busch is in a different line, too.

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