Thursday, April 2, 2009

Scorchy Smith--Just Passing Through

The Many Cooks of Scorchy Smith
Surrounded by online newspaper comic strip historians and collectors, I'm aware of the shortcomings of my knowledge. Almost everyone out there knows more than I do about almost everything. Still I'll offer what I do know in hopes it will help someone somewhere fill in some blanks. In return I hope you'll fill in a few of mine.

AP Newsfeatures' Scorchy Smith surely must deserve a prize for the greatest number of artists to draw one adventure strip. We're all familiar with its early days. In 1930 John Terry started the feature, modeling its hero after Charles Lindbergh. We have seen examples of Terry's scratchy, rather clumsy artwork (So unpopular was Terry's version that most online sources actually ran Noel Sickles' art, not Terry's).

We also know that Terry became ill and young Noel Sickles imitated the creator's style for a while until it became clear Terry wouldn't return. Then Sickles began changing to his own personal style. In the process he revolutionized comics. Sickles left Scorchy in 1938 when AP refused him a raise. For a while he assisted on other people's strips, but finally Sickles moved on to a distinguished illustration career.

Bert Christman replaced Sickles. Thanks to the people at Big Fun Comics we can see a long run of Christman's work. He was an able successor. Not only did he draw exceptionally well, he also (in my opinion) wrote better stories. Christman might have become a big name had he not joined the Flying Tigers and died in combat.

This part of Scorchy's history is well-documented. Afterward things get fuzzy. An article in Il Fumetto by Franco Fossati says Christman was succeeded by one Howell Dodd. The only Howell Dodd I turned up was a prolific magazine illustrator who painted lots of “men's sweat” illustrations in the 1950's. From his career dates he could have worked on Scorchy. I found a 1946 pen-and-ink drawing by Dodd that suggests he would have done a nice job. However I can find no further info.

Next in line (1939) was Frank Robbins, another young man who made his name on the strip. Though his approach was cartoonier than Christman's, Robbins' rich blacks and dynamic staging worked well on Scorchy. Sometime during Robbins' five years' stay on the feature a Sunday page began. Impressed by this young artist, King Features stole Robbins away from the AP in 1944. At King Robbins created another flyboy, Johnny Hazard.

Robbins was replaced by Ed Good. Good was a Canadian comic artist who later did much work in American newspaper strips and comic books. I've never seen a sample of his Scorchy.

According to the Who's Who of American Comic Books, Good drew Scorchy through 1950. Fossati cuts him off in 1946, which seems a likelier date. His replacement was Rodlow Willard, one of the most painful adventure strip artists I've encountered. Here's a sample from an Italian translation of one of his continuities. The sequence begins on 14 January, but no year is given. It's amazing that Willard ran the feature for eight years, considering that as time passed he only got worse.

Willard was succeeded by John Milt Morris. Morris seems to have taken over circa 1954. I haven't seen a sample of his Scorchy, either. However the one sample I've seen of Morris' strip work makes me wonder if Willard wasn't so bad after all! I've found no biographical information about Morris.

In almost every source, Scorchy's saga ends with Morris, crashing the strip ignominiously in 1961. Hardly anyone mentions the two artists who actually saw the strip out: George Tuska and A. C. Hollingsworth. I've seen several Tuska Scorchy dailies. They were drawn in Tuska's Buck Rogers style. This jibes with's note that Tuska was “main illustrator” on the strip from 1954 to 1959, when he left to take over Buck. Interestingly, says Tuska assisted on Scorchy back in 1939, which would have been in the early Robbins days.

Where this puts Morris, I don't know. It does suggest a term for A. C. Hollingsworth: 1959-1961. Hollingsworth, one of the few (two, perhaps?) African-American artists of 1950s American comics, is worth an entire article. Several of his Scorchy dailies and Sundays are available online. Though variable in quality, they're generally rather good. The last of the old-school Scorchy Smith style was gone by the time Hollingsworth took over; his work owed more to Wallace Wood than to Noel Sickles. It seems as if Scorchy became a space pilot in his last years. These Sundays take place on other planets. The day of the earthbound flyboy was over, as was the day of Scorchy Smith. It had been quite a ride.


Anonymous said...

Man, this is down in the weeds! I had no idea Scorchy survived Christman. What a pity he died in the war -- that guy was a talent. And man what street cred he'd have had on an aviation strip after that.

I haven't seen Dean Mullaney's Sickles book, but I bet it's mouth-watering.

I would enjoy an analytical post on Sickles' approach to drawing, composition and storytelling from you, one who has been so influenced by him.

Smurfswacker said...

I hope to scrounge up the dough for the Mullaney book soon. The excerpts I've seen have been tantalizing.

It's interesting how much excellent illustration work Sickles did in later years without achieving the public recognition of artists like Fawcett. He seems to have remained one of the guys appreciated mostly by fellow pros. Maybe if he'd had his picture in Famous Artists School ads.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

You have gotten Hollingsworth and Morris the other way around. Hollingsworth drew Scorchy inbetween Willard and Tuska. he continued Willard's version with Scorchy as a rocket pilot. I have a lot of scattered dailies and even some color Sundays by Hollingsorth, so I am holding of posting about him until I can get a longer seuence together. I would also like to scan of Hollingsowrth work on the Mad magazine imitation Fooey (where he drew about half the pages) later in the fifties. Morris was an AP artist, who did political cartoons for most of his life. he took over Scorchy when Tuska left, in a very light style. And ran it into the ground.

Smurfswacker said...

Ger, thank you for clarifying the Scorchy timeline. I derived mine from articles in various Italian fanzines; obviously I got it wrong!

I would love to see some Hollingsworth Sundays. He's an interesting subject. Online research suggests he had a significant place in modern African American art as well as having drawn comics.

Now that I know Willard made Scorchy a spaceman, I'm curious how he got back to earth. All the Tuska samples I've seen have been set in the present. Not that there needs to be a big story behind the change. Strips have made huge changes with minimum explanation before (like Kevin the Bold, or Adventures of Patsy).

john adcock said...

I found Dean Mullaney's Sickles book very disappointing. The comics are 'complete' but reproduced the size of a postage stamp. Scorchy was a one-dimensional figure, the stories are poor, and the squeezed constipated look of the strips is unappealing.Since the artwork was the most important draw you have to wonder why it's presented in a way that the artwork is almost unreadable. Would have been much better if they had printed in the size of the recent Rip Kirby from the same publisher, large clean reproductions, where the artwork can be truly appreciated.

S16 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S16 said...

I recently came across some Edmond Good strips for Scorchy Smith. This was published in 1948, so I believe the timeline until 1950 is accurate

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Since my comment I have run almost complete runs of Hollingsworth and Tuska's Sundays. The Sundays I had were from Willard. I have not yet done anything with Dodd, because I do no hav samples of his Scorchy. But he was an interesting artist, part of the AP team in the early forties. He worked in the same manner as Sickles and Graff, other AP alumni's. I have some of his AP illustrations from the mid war years. After that he also did a load of stuff for Liberty.