Whether wearing sneakers, playing a guitar, or donning a superhero cape, the cartoon cats drawn by artist B Kliban adorned a wide variety of goods through the late 1970’s into the early 1980’s.
Known simply as Cat or Kliban Cats, the usually black-and-white striped felines first appeared in a 160-page book titled “Cat,” published by Workman Publishing in 1975. Kliban (1935-1990) legally changed his first name to the letter B, as he hated his given name of Bernard, though among friends he was known as “Hap” in reference to his New Year’s birthdate.
While Kliban had been inspired to be a painter, he found his calling as a cartoonist, selling his first six to Playboy magazine for $25.00 each in 1962. It was Playboy’s cartoon editor Michelle Urry who discovered a cache of cat drawings during a visit to Kliban’s studio, suggested they could be a book, and found an agent to handle the idea.
The resulting book sold 450,000 copies in English, and was translated into Japanese, French, Spanish and German. Inspired by the success of the book, Workman also had the cat drawings printed onto aprons, tote bags and pillows. New drawings were produced for a 1977 calendar that sold 90,000 copies, and the 1978 calendar sold 237,000 copies.
Kliban’s second wife, Judith, took over licensing arrangements, and soon Cat began to be featured on T-shirts, towels, bed sheets and comforters, mugs, vases, canisters, Christmas ornaments, posters, notecards, puzzles and as plush toys.
Despite the fact that his Cat was extremely popular, Kliban rarely did appearances or interviews, describing himself as much like the cat that would hide behind the refrigerator when a stranger entered the house. During a rare interview for an article in the New York Times in 1978, he said, “People assume I’m gaga about cats. I like them, but I’m not silly about them. Cats look like cartoons. There’s something funny and vulnerable and innocent about them.”
Explaining why the cats he drew always had stripes, he stated, “All my cats – four at one time – had stripes, so I drew striped cats. I must have drawn 200 miles of stripes by now.” His first wife got custody of the cats when they divorced.
Prior to his death from a pulmonary embolism, Kliban insisted Judith learn how to draw Cat. While not as prevalent as decades ago, Kliban Cat is still available through various licensed products, some featuring B. Kliban’s original drawings and some now drawn by Judith Kliban.