Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Season of Draut

Dynamite Joe and Dynamite Bill
A couple of posts ago I mentioned some war comic work from the sixties by Bill Draut. This was after he'd developed his mature later style. I like this later work a lot, though fans and many collectors aren't as thrilled because of its slick finish and conservative drawing style.

Going through my old CD's I unearthed the two pages I was referring to. I found them on a long-ago online auction. At right is page 3 from a story in Harvey's Warfront, issue 41. The lead character is Dynamite Joe, one of the many tough-as-nails-sarge-with-colorful-patrol-of-stereotype characters who've stumbled along in Sgt. Rock's footsteps.

At left is page 19 from the same story. What I admire in both pages is the solid draughtsmanship, the super-clean, controlled ink line, and the artists' willingness to draw what needs to be drawn without cutting corners. Though some of the panels are packed, thanks to good composition and careful spotting of blacks, the foreground never gets lost in the background. A very nice job by an artist who hid a great deal of knowledge behind a deceptively quiet drawing style.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Orphan Strips--2

Perry and Charlie
As you've probably guessed, I've been sifting through the my stack of random Sunday pages gathered over the years. I'm hoping that posting the more obscure ones will give other newspaper comic strip fans a chance to see something they've been missing.

The three Perry Mason Sundays I have are the only three examples of this strip I've ever seen. Frank Thorne was in his early twenties when he drew this feature. He was working in a stripped-down version of the Alex Raymond-influenced King Features house style. Thorne once wrote that he didn't like the strip much. Maybe that's why these Sundays, though well-drawn, lack personality.

These pages are from two different stories. The first, "The Case of the Stolen Goddess," takes place in Bagdad, where the famous attorney (in his handsome pre-Raymond Burr incarnation) is searching for weapons of mass destruction. In the second, "The Case of the Wanted Woman," Perry is in Lebanon with Miss Distraction, a Commie agent named Elena.

Here's the Sunday for 24 February 1952. Thorne goes out of his way to avoid backgrounds, with the result that (with help from a sloppy colorist), the reader might assume panels 5 and 6 take place in the same location. In fact, panel 5 is set in an upscale Bagdad restaurant, while panel 6 takes place some time later at an archaeological dig.

My next strip is from 2 March 1952, a week after the last one. In panel 7 Frank uses a nice Talking Window shot to break up the inaction.

My third and last Perry Mason dates from 27 April 1952. Perry and the Red agent are being taken for a ride by a turbaned taxi driver. We know Elena is tough from the first panel. If you can't make out the words on the pad, it's her note to Perry: "Deliberately took wrong road. A spy. You will have to shoot him." Over this Perry has self-righteously scribbled, "Nonsense."

Perry seems to be grabbing for the ignition key in panel 3, but he nonetheless allows the chauffeur to stay at the wheel as they return to Beirut. Finally Perry becomes fed up and disciplines the rotter with a quick right cross.

One thing about this strip irks me. Consider panel 4. The driver has turned the car around as Perry ordered and is back on course. How does Thorne show this? Outside the car window is a stick signpost straight from Dogpatch with a handpainted wooden sign pointing toward Beirut! Okay, Frank was still a kid, and maybe he had an overactive sense of humor. But this seems more like a public expression of contempt for the story.

Today's last offering is a true orphan: the only Charlie Chan strip I own. It's dated 16 June 1940. Charlie and a police chief rescue a girl from drowning. The third man, the lifeguard, looks like Chan's friend Kirk Barrow. However his skin is the color usually reserved for comic strip Polynesians. Maybe it's supposed to represent the lifeguard's tan. One other oddity--Charlie loses his accent in the next-to-last panel! Isn't he supposed to say something like, "Girl is hypnotized!" rather than, "Chief, this girl is..." Maybe I'm just splitting hairs.

I found myself wondering how to convert this into one-third page size without opening with the caption "And as the lifeboat races..." How about this: replace the first panel in the second row with the first panel, the rescuers running for the boat. We cut from there to the girl going under, then the rescuers jumping in after her. Not a bad solution.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Grab Bag of Strips

Stuff I Used to Have
If there's one thing I love more than artwork, it's being able to pay the bills. Somehow the second love has always managed to overcome the first. So it is that today I have very few pieces of original art left. I suppose it's just as well. I never had the space properly to display them, so most of the pieces resided in file drawers. I'm sure all of them are in better homes, unless dealers have got their hands on some of them. I feel like taking it easy today, so instead of writing something important, I'll share scans of some nice originals I was fortunate to own for a while.

First is one of Neal Adams' legendary Ben Casey dailies. I still marvel at the delicacy of Adams' pen line. I grew up drawing twice up and never really adapted to smaller original sizes. The control Adams had while drawing at this tiny size amazes me. So does the lame dialogue in the first two panels.
Another master of stroke control--brush strokes, this time--was Alden McWilliams. He must have assisted, ghosted or drawn a hundred different strips, not to mention his comic book work. He must have been a prodigious worker! He also was damned good. I think only his rather mundane leading men held him back. It certainly wasn't his luscious women. Here's a fantastic example from Twin Earths.
His great inking licks have won Enrique Romero a big following. It hasn't hurt that he draws lotsa naked women with big breasts. While I admire Romero's craftsmanship, to me his characters have always had a generic look. Despite the admitted merits of his Modesty Blaise (which was far superior to his Axa), Romero never shook that Spanish-romance-artist look. This was a great example of his artwork, but note how much the fugitive in the last panel resembles Willie Garvin. By the way, I love the way time turned the pasteover balloons transparent and revealed the art underneath.
As long as we're on the subject of Modesty Blaise, here's another artist who worked (briefly) on that strip. I bought this John Burns Seekers daily thousands of years ago from the editors of the late lamented Menomonee Falls Gazette. While I like Burns' work, I was struck by how little work (especially backgrounds) he put into this.
No lack of work in this strip. It's a fine example of Caniff's wartime Terry and the Pirates. Terry isn't in this, but Raven Sherman and Captain Blaze are. The inking is top-drawer throughout, as is the composition. That first panel is a beaut. Can't believe how much dialogue Caniff could cram into a panel without it seeming crowded.
Just for fun here's an enlargement of panel 3.
We can't discuss Caniff without discussing Caniffists. Or is it Caniff-Sicklesists? Give a nod to the excellent Mel Graff. I found this Patsy daily in Italy in the mid-1980s. It was the only one I had ever seen. Since then I've seen the original immediately following this one and I gotta say, it makes this one look like chopped liver!
Winding up this trip down memory lane is another Caniffist, one who's taken a lot of flak. Someday I'll go into detail about my schizophrenic relationship with George Wunder. For now suffice it to say his very early stuff was much, much better than his later work. But he never was completely without merit. This daily was from 1946 and showed off Wunder's best aspects.
It also shows some of his worst aspects, like Hotshot's arm (which seems to have three segments rather than two) and his dreadful dialogue. But what the heck. Let's end with a closeup of the typically statuesque babe in the first panel.
To these beloved originals, wherever they may be today...live long and may you never moulder!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tom Corbett in Color (2)

Space Jokes for Space Jocks
Here are three more of my Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Sundays. All precede the examples in my last post. The first, from 15 February 1953, begins a story documenting Tom's adventures as chairman of the Prom Committee. Now there's action! Wait a minute--check out whom Tom will be escorting to the Prom. None other than The Dragon Lady, striking one of her most famous poses (minus the gun)! Maybe there will be some action beyond Tom losing his wallet down a very 20th-century drain.

Space Dust was Bailey's answer to the "drop panel" dilemma. Since many papers by this time ran Sundays in one-third page size, the art had to be prepared so a row of panels could be omitted without confusing the story. Some creators padded the first row with irrelevant story material. The episode began in earnest in the second row. Others, like Bailey, filled most of the space with a "side feature" that wouldn't be missed. In the strip above, more cutting still had to be done to save the final "pay-off" panel. My guess is they'd cut panel 3. They might also trim panel 1 to half-size and lose the logo.

Man, I love the way Bailey draws mountains!

As the next page shows, in 1951 the Sundays were one-shot "jokes" rather than continuities. I put "jokes" in quotes because I find them really lame. Take this one from Sunday, 11 November 1951:

I notice the space station dispatchers are all sexy women. Wonder if any of them bought purple wigs and went to work for S.H.A.D.O.'s Moon Base.

My last offering comes from 20 January 1952. It's another joke strip. Nice pose and black/white balance in panel 5. Bailey used the baseball-cap-and-green-sunglasses outfit from panel 1 many times in later years, notably his comic book adaptations of Steve Canyon and the TV show Whirlybirds. In the drop section, Space Dust tackles global warming half a century early!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tom Corbett in Color

Ray Bailey, Space Cadet
Today I offer four of the handful of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Sundays I found in a thrift shop. They come from the San Francisco Chronicle. Three seem to be from the same story. All show off Ray Bailey's great artwork.First comes the 20 April 1952 episode, featuring Ray's take on the Dragon Lady. "Sultra" even sports Madame DL's cape, not to mention the official Sophisticated Bad Babe Cigarette Holder. Note that while everyone else comes from Caniff Land, the fellow in green leaning on Venger's seat definitely hails from Mongo. Was Bailey just having some fun?In the next strip, from 28 June 1953, The Polaris crew have entered a space race. Almost everyone smokes in Tom Corbett except the cadets themselves, and as we see here the top brass is partial to stogies. This seems more like Civil War generals than futuristic Academy faculty members. Come to think of it, the officers even look like Civil War generals, sporting moustaches and full beards which weren't common in 1953's U.S. military.We learn in the 12 July 1953 Sunday that Roger believes the ship has visited an alternate earth. Tom and Astro figure he's space crazy. They may be right, considering that Roger is glassy-eyed and he wanders off in search of the "one person" who will believe him.My final offering is from 26 July 1953. From the reference to "Manning and his charts" I think this is from the same storyline, and that Lorelei in panel 3 is the "only one" Roger was looking for. Sydney Greenstreet makes a guest appearance in the first panel, smoking one of Commander Arkwright's cigars and enjoying a great rendering job. Meanwhile, in panel 4 we see some of those great Ray Bailey mountains. Then there's Lorelei herself, a classic Caniff Girl if ever there was one.
If from the above you gather I'm a Bailey fan, give yourself a 25th-century cigar. I plan to run some more Corbett Sundays next time (I have maybe eight more), and when I can scan it, I'll post my beloved Undersea Agent original which proves that Bailey still had that spark in the late 60s.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Sight Unseen--2

Bill Ziegler's Dallas

During the extended period of weirdness during which I was drawing the Dallas and Star Trek newspaper comic strips for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, I seldom sought assistance. Not out of pride. The pay was so poor that no one in his right mind would work for the money I could afford to pay. But twice things got so tight I had no choice.

One of guys who pitched in was Bill Ziegler, a comics artists with a long West Coast career and a super nice guy. Bill was semi-retired after working many years for Western Publishing (Dell and Gold Key) on westerns and movie tie-ins. He drove down from Santa Barbara and sat at the kitchen table in my crummy apartment, penciling two weeks worth of strips while I lettered and inked.

Bill's work was great. Though he always seemed to draw heads too big, his understanding of body language and his knack for composition left me feeling even less competent than I already did. But Bill was too nice a person for me to take it personally. Having him around was a relief from the loneliness of round-the-clock ass-busting; while we worked we chatted about a wide range of subjects. On breaks he showed me his sketchbook, filled with lively, beautiful pencil studies of people and animals.

Bill was also no fool. By our second meeting he'd seen through me and realized that the paltry money I was paying him was more than I was making off the strip. Guilty as charged. In fact I lost fifty 1980's dollars on each week he penciled for me. He refused to take any more pay and said he'd finish the batch I'd given him without charge.

I felt both embarrassed and humiliated. I could accept myself working for nothing, because I'd gotten myself into this mess. I could accept my neighbors working for nothing because it was only now and then and they were my buddies. But I couldn't let a professional of Bill's stature and experience work for nothing. So I went back to doing it all myself.

When I'd finally had enough of the rat race and told the Syndicate I was leaving the strips, they asked me to suggest a replacement. Since Bill already knew what he'd be getting into, I tipped him off. He drew two sample dailies which I present here. To my knowledge they've never seen print before. I admit the faces are rather more cartoony than the strip called for, but all of Bill's gesture and staging are here. I like 'em.

One other cartoonist drew samples for the job: writer Jim Lawrence's friend, Australian illustrator Yaroslav “James Bond” Horak. Through Jim I learned that the Syndicate never got back to Horak after soliciting the samples; Horak was understandably annoyed and that was the end of that. Would I love to have seen his version of the strip!

The Syndicate finally realized they weren't going to get an established artist for the money they offered. They settled on giving both strips to a young kid just out of college. His girlfriend, a Syndicate employee, heard about the opening and pushed him hard to take the job. I met him once to discuss the strips and to hand over two binders full of reference material I'd collected. He was a nice guy, but even further over his head than I had been. I wished him luck.

By the way, they also gave him $50 less a week than I'd been getting. Gotta love that syndicate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Orphan Strips

Bruce Gentry & Stony Craig

I've never been a hard-core newspaper comic strip collector. All my collections are composed of stuff I've run into those rare moments when I've had both the inclination and the money. Not surprisingly there are several strips of which I have only one or two samples.

On the heels of Ger's Appeldoorn's excellent coverage of Tom Corbett come my only two samples of Ray Bailey's earlier newspaper strip, Bruce Gentry. The first is from 15 August 1945 and the second from 1 January 1946.

We see here that most of the elements of Bailey's mature style were in place. In the later example is one of those rendered-up heads that appeared in Corbett from time to time. They only thing Bailey doesn't have down is how to draw a good mouth for his hero. The one in the last panel of the January strip looks like a Golden Age comic book artist drew it.

My other orphan for the day is Stony Craig, a war strip that would soon be on its way out. Joakim Gunnarson has a good article about Stony Craig at this address:


It's hard to recognize the mature Draut in this early example. By the 1960s he had grown into a solid draughtsman with considerable merits that didn't seem to catch on with the public. Bill Draut was another of those good artists whose conservative drawing and storytelling style didn't fit with the approaching age of the superhero. He was definitely more at home in romance comics. In the late 60s he did some very nice work on a war-adventure story for Harvey's comic line. I regret that I don't have a sample to post.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Sight Unseen

Many years ago I drew a couple of newspaper comic strips for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. One of them was written by veteran comics author Jim Lawrence (James Bond, Friday Foster, Captain Easy etc.). Jim was the source of these two sample weeks of a proposed Harlequin Romances strip, based on the insufferable and insufferably successful Canadian series of paperback romances. To my knowledge the strip never went anywhere.

Jim wrote. It's not hard to guess the artist's identity: none other than the immortal Leonard Starr. In fact, Mary Perkins leaves the stage briefly to star here as Helen James, runaway heiress. Mary's, er, Helen's car breaks down in the snow, and she is given shelter by the Brooding Handsome Stranger that always seems to inhabit these novels.

Jim loaned me printed proof sheets of the samples. I made Xerox copies of the proofs. It's from these copies that I made the present scans. You'll note the top strip of each page is clipped off. That's because back then legal-size copies were 20 cents and I was a cheapskate.

I'm not sure how Starr figured he was going to handle the workload of both this strip and On Stage. Maybe he would have shopped one of them out to assistants. At any rate, it's a very nice job by a consummate illustrator.

P.S.: I read in a 2005 forum posting that Cosmo Girl magazine was running Harlequin romances in manga form. (A perfect match. Two tirelessly repetitive imported creative traditions.) Does anyone know anything about this? Couldn't find an example online.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eccentric Orbits

Searching online archives of newspaper radio schedules led me to two comic strips I hadn't heard of before: Sandy Hill, which I discussed the posting before last; and The Orbits, a family comedy signed by William Juhre.

Juhre is fairly well-known as the artist who filled in for Rex Maxon on the daily Tarzan from 1936 to 1938. I didn't find much else about him on the Web. Lambiek.net credits him with a wartime strip called Draftie (1941-1944) which Juhre inherited from Loren Wiley; and assistant work on Buck Rogers (with Len Dworkin), Flash Gordon, and Apple Mary. Juhre also painted covers for Amazing Stories. A poster of his cover for “World Without Death” is on sale everywhere on the Internet.

I'd only known Juhre's Tarzan work and liked it only a little better than Maxon's, which I didn't like at all. So The Orbits came as a surprise. The drawing is quite competent and rather likeable. The clean line and designy composition on some strips (e.g. the 5 June 1950 episode) remind me of Alex Toth's romance work for Standard Comics, though the dates make it unlikely there was any actual influence.

The newspaper archive contained only scattered examples of the strip, so it isn't possible to say much about the stories. The strip concerns a typical 1950s family in a small town. Mr. Orbit (no first name given) seems to work for an ad agency (interpolating from the last 1951 strip). His wife is named Grace and he seems to have a son (Michael) and a daughter (Sara). One stray strip, not reproduced, implies there is another Orbit daughter named Finch. Just why the family was named “Orbit,” which implies an outer-space connection, I don't know. The strip's setting is about as down-to-earth as you can get.

Various online dealers offer Orbits dailies and Sundays from 1948, at which time the strip's title seems to have been The Orbit Family, through 1952. Could it be that's when the strip ended? I notice The Orbits was syndicated by John F. Dille, the syndicator of Buck Rogers (and hardly anything else). I wouldn't be surprised if Juhre got the strip through his job as a Rogers assistant.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Big Readership with 10% Balloons!

I'm going to delay describing the other obscure strip I found so I can post this unique item, re-discovered while excavating my computer room. It's from a 92-page, tabloid-sized softcover book called ADvisory Service for Students of Advertising. On the first page is "Copyright 1954 by Thomas E. Maytham, Publisher, Westport, Connecticut." There's no other information about who produced the book.

An introduction positions the magazine-like volume as a way for students of advertising to understand how real ad campaigns are created. The remainder of the slick-paper book comprises full-color spreads featuring case histories of numerous national ad campaigns: Coca Cola, Bufferin, Westclox...and Vaseline Hair Tonic. On the left page is a detailed description of the thinking and research that went into creating the campaign; on the right is a sample of a finished ad. Credits are given for agencies, art directors, even copywriters...but never, ever artists.

The star of the show for me is the final case history: selling Vaseline with Rusty and Dusty comic strips. I scanned the article so you can read it for yourself. It's a fascinating nuts-and-bolts piece, brimming with statistics like "When the total number of balloons occupies less than 10% of the total area of the comic strip, the advertisements fall more often in the high [readership] groups."
Another intriguing statistic maintains that Rusty and Dusty "leads the list of the ten best-read comic strips, with an average 'Men Noted' of 35% and 'Read Most' of 31%."

I don't have the eye for ad agency comics artists that some other bloggers do, so I have no idea who inked the strip. But based on the caveman in panel 2 and, especially, the typical "sock" scene in panel 6, I'd bet dollars to donuts Mike Sekowsky had a hand in the penciling.

In conclusion, I direct you fellow strip artists out there to heed point number 6: "Two or more balloons in this [first] panel may discourage reading appreciably." You've been warned!

New Old Strips Refound--1

Diggin' Sandy Hill

When I read the online 1951 newspaper comic pages I found yesterday (see the last post, about Dawn O'Day), I came across two more strips I'd never heard of. The names of their creators were known to me because both had been around a long time. I'll share these finds with you in this post and the next.

The first strip was Sandy Hill by Bill Dwyer. The strips I found are clearly from the feature's first week. Sandy Hill is a youth soap opera about a farm boy's competition with the local rich kid to win the affections of the Pretty Young Thing from the City. These two weeks are the only ones I found. Saturday strips were missing.

The strip starts pleasantly enough. Dwyer follows the ancient tradition of giving his characters descriptive names. Our farm boy hero is Sandy Hill, the object of his affection is Gay Lark, and his nemesis is Skip Playmore. Dwyer's Gay resembles the early April Kane from Terry and the Pirates. Overall, though, his style is refreshingly free of imitation. His layouts are good and he handles both figures and backgrounds well. This work is miles above Dwyer's art for Adventures of Patsy, which was (if I may be permitted a disparaging word) pretty bad.

Sandy Hill seems to be conceived as warmhearted Americana. Thematically it was probably already old-fashioned in 1951. The postwar boom was beginning, and the American Dream of the nuclear family with two cars and a house in the suburbs was on the public's mind more than was life down on the farm.

I wonder where the story went from here. Unlike every other story about rich-kid / poor-kid battles, Gay sees through the snob from the beginning. The only way Sandy will lose out is if he's too shy to follow up his advantage. This is a unique twist, but unless the story is about Skip's revenge upon the lovebirds, there's not much drama in store.

Googling Dwyer and his strip returned very little information. Don Markstein was aware of Sandy Hill, but provided no information; Lambiek didn't even mention it. Neither source seemed to know much about Dwyer except that he'd taken over Dumb Dora from Chic Young in 1932, when Young left to create Blondie. If we assume Dwyer was in his twenties during the Dumb Dora years (we have to guess because neither source supplied a birthdate), then he would have been in middle age by the time Sandy was launched. The only other reference I found was an expired listing on ebay for a few Sandy Hill tabloid Sundays. Like these dailies they were from 1951. From this listing I conclude (a) Sandy had a Sunday page and (b) the strip may only have lasted a year.

I'd enjoy hearing anything readers might know about the late unlamented Sandy Hill.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It Just Dawned on Me

I've followed with interest Ger Appeldoorn's postings about the obscure Dawn O'Day daily strip bv the equally obscure Val Heinz. It's always interesting to discover a strip I'd never heard of before, and the Caniff-school artwork in Dawn O'Day is, as they used to say, not without merit.
Recently I stumbled on an archive of newspaper radio schedule scans. Lo and behold, one paper ran their schedules on the comics page, and on the comics page was Dawn O'Day.
So here are two weeks worth of dailies from the latter half of January, 1951.
The story concerns a supposed child actor who's really a "midget;" revealing this would torpedo Dawn's new picture. There are no Saturdays, by the way; the comics apparently ran on a different page on Saturday.
Val Heinz' artwork is not as good in these dailies as it was on the Sundays. This could simply be the result of rushing, or it could be that this isn't the same artist who drew the Sunday pages. There are still many unanswered questions about the strip. That's what makes it interesting!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things that happened to me

1. Blades and Guns

While I was working as director on the final season of the animated TV series Street Sharks, an odd thing happened. One day Management came in and announced that the legendary Sharks were going to be booted out of their own series and replaced by an entirely new cast of alien dinosaurs.

Like all toy-driven series, Street Sharks was owned (and run) by the toy company. Publicly both studio and manufacturer belched a lot of gas about how toy shows were independently-produced entertainment, not manufacturer-dictated commercials. Everyone inside (indeed, anyone with half a brain) knew otherwise. In this case the toy company had run the latest Street Shark numbers and determined that the finheads were at the end of their long, lucrative career. The company wanted to get busy on what they hoped would be the Next Big Thing. Plugging the dinos into Street Sharks would introduce remaining Shark viewers to the new toy line, giving the rollout an extra boost it wouldn't have were the dinos simply launched cold in their own series.

The last several Street Sharks scripts were ditched and new ones quickly written. The Sharks would meet the team of good-guy alien dinosaurs (and their bad-guy alien dinosaur antagonists), then work with them for an episode or two. After that the Sharks would disappear and the dinos--as I recall their name back then was the Dino-Vengers--would have the remaining shows all to themselves. Once the change was decided upon, there was no time to mourn the Street Sharks' passing. If anything the toy company was annoyed by the transition episodes. They'd rather have dumped the Sharks immediately and got on with it.

We needed to rush out new model sheets because we had no development time. The toy company arranged for us to see their character prototypes. Our studio brass and several of us creative types drove to toy headquarters, a shiny high-rise south of Santa Monica. In a generic conference room we met with their management and chief designers. The designers, pleasant if rather intense fanboy types, proudly displayed their maquettes. These were highly-detailed resin statuettes the same size as the finished toy. The maquettes were modeled in pieces and came with removable accessories. Eventually they'd be the basis of moulds for the actual toys. The maquettes were amazing pieces, bristling with teeth, blades, spikes, guns, and every other mayhem-producing device imaginable.

After the meeting I found myself chatting with one of the toy executives, a tall youngish man who bore an uncanny resemblance to self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins. Our conversation turned to how the studio would tone down the dinos' blades and guns to meet network guidelines limiting violence in cartoons. Clearly the exec chafed at the rules. After all, the blades and guns were the toys' selling points. Then in a moment of remarkable honesty the executive said something that really creeped me out.

You know,” he said, “we advertise these things as being for 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, but they're not our real audience. You gotta learn to like these things, and if you're 8 or 9 and aren't already playing with them you never will. But four- and five-year olds, they love this stuff [the blades and guns]. If we hook 'em when they're four, we've got them for years. They'll keep buying 'til they're practically teenagers. We can't say it directly, of course, but four- and five-year-olds, that's who we're really designing these things for.” I remember thinking the guy would make a great tobacco company executive.

Anyway, the Sharks went bye-bye and the Dino-Vengers took their place. The following season the dinos, now rechristened Extreme Dinosaurs, spun off into their own series. Alas, they were not the Next Big Thing. Many, many more maquettes have marched across the conference table since then. Some have hit the mark; most haven't. I wonder how many four-year-olds we hooked with our show. And whether their present-day incarnations--they'd be in their early twenties now--are training their own four-year-olds to love blades and guns.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Full Circle

1954 thru 1956 were magic years for me. My father, a career Navy man, was transferred to the Philippines. I was five, the perfect age for visiting a “foreign land.” I had a ball. It was during that period that I developed my passion for comic art. Dad would buy the Sunday Manila Times, an English-language newspaper in the American style, complete with a color comics section. I loved the adventure strips. Every weekend I'd thrill to Buck Rogers (the later Murphy Anderson years), Brick Bradford (Paul Norris), and Flash Gordon (Mac Raboy). I was so crazy for comics that I'd read anything presented in comics form, no matter what it was. This included advertising strips--notably the adventures of Nurse Cafi and Captain Cortal in the Times magazine supplement.

Cortal was an aspirin- based pain reliever. Cafiaspirina, apparently produced by the same company, combined aspirin with caffeine for an extra “lift.” Each product had its own weekly mini-comic, presenting scenes from the lives of everyday Filipinos whose happiness was threatened by pain. Whether they were sightseeing, planning a party, or attending an important business meeting, the hero/heroine would almost lose everything to a headache. Just in the nick of time Nurse Cafi or Captain Cortal would swoop in, deliver a quick sales pitch, and administer their pill of choice. By the final panel the day had been saved. The beaming protagonists, pain-free once more, would bless the product and its spokesperson.

Even at age five I didn't buy this cornball stuff. Still I devoured every adventure. Being packrats, my family saved many of the old Times magazines. Thus it was that some forty years later I still had them. I was living in L.A., designing storyboards and backgrounds for DiC Animation. TV animation was booming and a cadre of Filipino artists could be found in every studio. Most were former comics artists who'd moved the US to work for DC comics. They were lured to Hollywood by the abundant work and much higher pay of the animation industry. At DiC I made the acquaintance of a wonderful artist named Fred Carillo.

Fred was some twenty years older than me. Back home he'd had a distinguished career in comics. In fact he was considered one of the founding fathers of Philippine comics. His conservative style lacked the flash of Alcala or Nino, so he wasn't very popular with American readers. It didn't matter. Fred was a highly talented, thoroughly professional artist who could draw anything except really scary monsters. He always had plenty of work, which he produced with deceptive ease and remarkable speed.

Fred and I became friends. Often while we worked we'd discuss history, politics, and comics. Fred loved to tell stories of his early days in the industry. One day I brought my Times magazines to show him. Smiling, he pointed out the movie actresses he'd had crushes on as a young man. Then he came to a Nurse Cafi ad. Imagine my astonishment when he laughed and said, “I worked on that!”

It turned out that one of Fred's first paying comics jobs was with a Manila advertising agency. Along with several other beginners he drew the Cafi and Cortal strips, switching off penciling and inking. The coincidence blew me away. There was young Filipino Fred Carillo drawing ad comics in Manila, while sitting across the Bay in Cavite City reading them was kindergartener American me--and now four decades later, halfway around the world, we meet!

Following the TV animation implosion Fred returned to the Philippines and I lost track of him. He died a couple of years ago of cancer. Thanks to another coincidence, I had found his daughter's email address and was able to get a greeting and a “thank you” through to Fred before he passed. I'm grateful I did. Fred was one of my favorite comics people. Someday I'll share some of his stories about Philippine comics in the 50s.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Kurt Caesar--Part 2 of 2

Rendering unto Caesar those things that weren't Caeser's

As much as I like Kurt Caesar's work, I always feel a little guilty about it because of his rampant swiping. I'm of two minds about swiping. In the fannish days of my youth I adopted a self-righteous zero tolerance policy. I was one of several apa hacks (the 1970s equivalent of bloggers) who delighted in excoriating Dan Adkins for stealing almost every panel. Adkins would swipe from s-f magazine artists when drawing comics, and from comics artists when illustrating science fiction mags; it seemed like a calculated effort to reduce the chances of readers recognizing his source material. I changed my tune about swiping once I found myself on the other side of the page. I saw how, in the face of looming deadlines or insufficient skill, swiping could save one's neck Still it's hard to view Caesar's best-known work, the Urania covers, without noting that this planet came from Bonestell, this robot from Mel Hunter, this spaceship from Alex Schomburg.

In his comics work Caesar was hardly alone in being awash in influences. In the late 1930s Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff were the twin gods of the comic strip. Almost every “realistic” cartoonist of the time was influenced by one or the other. Not only in America: American strips were enormously popular in Europe. There, Raymond was undisputed king. Kurt Caesar was one of a shipload of European strip cartoonists who based their work on Flash Gordon's master. Not only cartoonists admired Raymond ; he was equally popular with the public. A Serbian comics website describes how one publisher tried to boost sales by packaging Caesar's “Il Pirata del Cielo” as “the latest creation of the great A. Raymond,” going so far as to paste Raymond's signature onto the artwork!

Another source of Caesar's work was photos, especially movie stills. Working from stills is a time honored tradition. These photos are readily available, often dramatically lit and posed, and treat the same themes as comics. The practice seemed quite popular in pre-war Italy. To give one example, the South Pacific adventures of Franco Caprioli were littered with American movie stars. It's kind of fun to watch a character morph into Wallace Beery and back depending upon whether Caprioli had a movie still that matched his layout.

It's worth noting that comics didn't flow one way across the Atlantic. Some Italian strips appeared translated in American comics. Among them was the ubiquitous “Il Pirata del Cielo,” which appeared as “Sky Pirates” in Sky Blazers #1 (1940).

In Roy Thomas' Alter Ego magazine Alberto Beccatini has documented how after the war several Italian cartoonists worked for Archer St. John's comics. Other Italian work appeared in Fiction House titles, though I'm unsure whether it was new work or translated reprints. I suspect it was both. Kurt Caesar drew a Wings feature under his “Jack Away” byline, and the panels show extensive cut edges, meaning they might have been existing art reformatted to fit the American page. However the cuts may simply have been evidence of pasted over dialogue. I no longer own the comics so I can't go back to figure it out.

After the War, Caesar's covers for Il Vittorioso resembled those of the American “popular science” magazines. He romanticized racing cars, speedboats, new aircraft, and future predictions. The cover at left was from a 1961 issue (sorry about the extreme cropping; I scanned it in two pieces from a bound volume). In his comics work Caesar had simplified and modernized his style somewhat. But he hadn't thrown out his reference library--note the guest appearance by The Mangler in this fictitious strip about the X-15 rocket plane!

(Sky Pirates page from a reproduction of the story at goldenage comicbook stories. blogspot. com. Urania cover from mondourania.com. Other pix from my collection.)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kurt Caesar, illustrator--part 1 of 2

Italian comic artist Kurt Caesar (1906-1974) is best known today for having illustrated the adventures of “Romano il Legionario,” a daring pilot who fought the good fight for Mussolini in the years before World War II. Almost as well known is his series of cover paintings for the science fiction magazine Urania in the 1950s. During his busy career Caesar specialized in hardware stories, with an emphasis on aircraft. Caesar's love for planes showed especially strongly in his strips from the 1930s, when dashing aviators, explorers, and air pirates filled the pages of kids' weekly newspapers like Topolino and Il Vittorioso.

Caesar was born Kurt Kaiser (or Kaisar?) in Montigny-les-Metz, France. Though his German father would rather he'd have been a surgeon, Kurt preferred the arts and wound up at the Prussian School of Fine Arts in Berlin. An able sportsman, Caesar became a professional boxer and even captured a German title. Following his graduation he became a journalist, working for a variety of German magazines. While at Die Kultur he married the magazine's owner, Elfriede Ensle. Soon he took a job as a roving journalist for a Zurich-based periodical. He traveled throughout Europe and Asia, learning to speak several languages. Finally, in the mid-1930s, the Kaisers settled in Italy, where Kurt began his successful career as a comic artist.

Kaiser changed his name to Caesar, and confused later generations of fans by using several variations on this name during his career. At various times he was Kurt Caesar, Curt Caesar, Cesare Avai, Caesar Away, Jack Away, and Corrado Caesar. His first strip, written by legendary Italian comics scenarist Federico Pedrocchi, was “I Due Tamburini” for Mondadori's paper I Tre Porcellini. Shortly thereafter he illustrated the serial “Il Pirata del Cielo,” one of Italy's first strips featuring a “bad guy” protagonist, renegade American aviator Will Sparrow. I've reproduced a page below.* The love Caesar lavished on the strip--especially the airplanes--is obvious.

Caesar's biggest success, as already noted, was “Romano il Legionario (1938).” Flying for the Fascist air force, Romano first fought nobly in the Spanish Civil War, then branched out to battle on air, land, and sea. Some of Caesar's finest work appeared in this strip, as shown in the reproduction below, shot from the original art. Caesar left the series in 1943. During the war he served as a journalist in Spain and northern Africa. He wound up in Africa as an interpreter for General Rommel. There he was captured by the English and spent the remainder of the war as a POW. He resettled in Rome after the war and began producing strips and illustrations for Il Vittorioso.

[Sidebar: Oddly, the Lambiek entry on Kurt Caesar states that he was actually working for the Resistance during the War, and that “his activities were recompensated” afterward. While I have no grounds to challenge this statement, it seems incredible that the author of such unabashed propoganda as “Romano” would be working for the enemy. What's more, the statement doesn't appear in any other Caesar biography I found online. Stranger things have happened, though. Can anyone supply details?]

In 1952 Caesar accepted the assignment of painting covers for Mondadori's Urania, the first Italian science-fiction magazine (sample below.) Over the next six years he produced some 160 covers, which were quite popular with readers and today capture much of the spacefaring spirit of those years--even though large pieces of many covers were lifted from other artists. Unfortunately the death of his wife following a long illness broke Caesar financially. He was replaced at Urania and moved with his son to a village north of Rome. There he continued to paint covers for other s-f magazines. He also drew features for England's Fleetway magazines, including Jet Logan. Beginning in 1968 Caesar illustrated many of German publisher Moewig-Verlag's comics adaptations of the Perry Rhodan science fiction novels.

Kurt Caesar died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 68.

*(Most of the biographical material here was found in lambiek.net's “Comiclopedia” and the Italian and German language versions of Wikipedia. The page from “Il Pirata del Cielo” was scanned from an Albo d'Oro reprint, and the Urania cover came from the fantastic gallery of Urania covers at mondourania.com. The “Romano” original was found at dandare.info)