Monday, December 26, 2011

Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff--2

The Great Postum Face-Off

In my last post I presented a Noel Sickles Postum ad. I mentioned having once seen an alternate version. I am grateful to Fortunato Latella for turning up a copy of that version. (In case you don't know, Fortunato curates an excellent comics blog which is always worth reading.)

Fortunato's ad is in third-page format, while mine is a half page. I had misremembered that the art in each version was completely different. In fact some panels were the same. The two make an interesting comparison.
Panel 1 of the third page is a completely different drawing from panel 1 of the half. Note that in the third page the girl sits on the passenger's side of her car. In the half page the car points the other way and she sits (more logically) behind the wheel. The dialogue in the third page panel is shorter, which is a good thing because the panel is only half as wide.The second panel of the third page telescopes into a single frame what takes the half page three panels to tell. The half boasts a lot more great artwork, but the third-page version takes the prize for economical storytelling.The next panels are the same in both formats. However the third page's panels have more art. We see more of Mr Coffee Nerves' vest and the hero's coat in the first panel. There also seems to be more "air" at the top. The next panel shows more of the house in the third than in the half, and we see all of Mr. CN's left arm, which is cropped in the half page.

The dialogue has been tweaked between versions. Some changes are so small I wonder why they bothered: "What does he advise" in the third is "What did he advise" in the half, while "If you give up flying" becomes "If you give up trying." The hero's dialogue is considerably simpler in the third page. Mr. CN's lines are the same in both versions.
The last two story panels are the same in both formats. Again they show more art in the third than in the half. In the award scene we see an extra aviator on the left side and an extra spectator on the right. The officer's dialogue differs slightly between versions. The girl's dialogue is the same, but her balloon is lettered anew in each version to fit the different panel sizes. The hero's final balloon has also been relettered between versions. In the half page the hero's picture is larger relative to the copy, pushing the final paragraph into a narrower column.

When I first saw this ad I assumed that the half-page version was the original. But comparing the versions I believe the third-page came first. I'm pretty sure panels from the third were cropped to fit the half-page layout. It makes more sense than extending the edges of smaller panels for the third.

Why would the agency draw three new panels and add extra dialogue to convert a third page to a half? Why not? It occurred to me that my assumption that the half-page was the "real" one was based on the syndicate procedure of using expendable panels to convert half page Sundays into thirds. But when this ad was produced in 1940, that process wasn't yet standard procedure. Probably after the agency finished the third page the client asked for a half-page version. The agency reformatted existing panels and added extra art and text to fill the space.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff

A Postum Posting
This is the only tearsheet I own from the "Paul Arthur" Mr. Coffee Nerves adventures. A fine one it is! Caniff has said that "Bud" Sickles handled all the art on the CN strips except Mr. Nerves himself. That is borne out by this half-page, which features a sort of Scorchy Smith gone to the Dark Side. What love and enthusiasm Sickles put into drawing those planes and cars!Reading these old ads one wonders if 1930s women were really as materialistic as all that. Don't bother calling me until you get those wings, loser! (Nitpicker's afterthought: doesn't it look as if the balloon in panel 8 was re-lettered? A Comics Code change?)

Interestingly, in a library magazine archive I discovered a versiion of this strip (printed in black and white) with the same script but entirely different art. Still by Sickles, but a complete re-draw. Unfortunately I didn't have a portable scanner in those days. If anyone has the alternate version I'd love to see it again. Were there other similar variants?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

George Wunder, Artist

In Glorious WunderColor!

All my comics-reading life I've had a love-hate relationship with George Wunder. His was a nearly impossible assignment: to take over an iconic American comic strip from its superstar creator almost at the apex of its popularity, and make it his own. There were many reasons why Wunder's Terry never reached the heights of Caniff's. Some of them, like the fading interest in heroic adventure strips ,weren't Wunder's fault. Others, like his clunky stories and increasingly-idiosyncratic way of drawing people, were. Taken together, I still feel GW has gotten a raw deal from comics historians. He put a lot of skill and effort into Terry. Especially during its first decade, Wunder's Terry was a visual feast of elaborate chiaroscuro inking and ambitiously-detailed backgrounds. And there was something else, the subject of this post: beautiful Sunday page coloring.

When George Wunder took over Terry, the palette available to Sunday page colorists was still broad. Wunder made the most of it. He had a knack for making unusual color choices--greens, purples, pale yellows--which when laid over his film-noir artwork created stunning pages unlike anyone else's. The three samples I show here date from mid-1949.
Interestingly, Wunder's color schemes would have looked garish printed on quality paper. The softening and yellowing effect of newsprint contributed mightily to the beauty of the pages.

Years ago I read somewhere that Wunder's wife had colored his Sundays. This is quite possible, of course. I just haven't seen any other reference to her contribution. I did see a couple of illustrations Wunder did after retiring from Terry. I think they were for a book about military uniforms. He drew them comics-style in ink, then colored them with watercolosr. The color schemes were identical to those of the Terry Sundays. And being painted on bright white board they looked really garish. Which reminds me of something that happened to me because of my love of WunderColor--a story I'll tell some other time.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Albert Dorne, Illustrator

When Art Was His Oyster

Here is the earliest signed artwork I've found by legendary illustrator Albert Dorne. It appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine in December, 1926.

Dorne, you'll remember, was born in the New York City slums and began working to support his family when still a kid. His Wikipedia entry gives a sketch of his career arc from office boy to prestigious illustrator to founder of the Famous Artists School.

We all gotta start somewhere...Dorne would have been twenty years old when he drew this ad pushing the health benefits of oysters. It's competent, certainly, but looking at it one wouldn't have suspected the heights the artist would attain. The hands--later one of Dorne's specialties--are a bit clunky. Missing overall is the spirited mixture of realistic drawing and cartoon exaggeration that filled Dorne's illustrations with action and character.

One funny thing: he already had his signature down!I always felt that Dorne, who drew many continuity-style ads, would had been a heck of a comics artist. He just would have earned a few million dollars less during his career.

P.S.: I'd be interested to hear if anyone is planning to stuff their holiday turkey with oysters this year.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Stuff I've Done--8

The Need for

In 1986 I was hired by an L.A. ad agency to draw four comic strips advertising an indy action film called Jake Speed. The movie was a one-man show. Wayne Crawford, not-well-known for a handful of small films like Valley Girl, Barracuda, and Night of the Comet, produced, wrote, directed and starred.

The movie was sort of Romancing the Stone in reverse. A woman seeking her kidnapped sister is aided by a man who seems to be the real-life incarnation of Jake Speed, hero of a series of paperback books. There follow lots of one-liners, high-speed chases, and explosions.

The agency came up with a month-long teaser campaign. They wrote a mini-adventure, supposedly a prequel to the movie, in the form of four daily-size comic strips. One strip would appear each week during the month preceding the film's release. On the fifth week the strip's position on the page would be filled by the regular movie ad.

I don't know what went wrong--the strips were delivered to the agency on schedule--but the first one didn't appear in the Times until two weeks before Jake Speed opened. The remaining three were run in a block the following week. Then the movie opened and, 100 minutes later, disappeared. Here are the four strips. [In the movie "Reno Melon" was the author of the Jake Speed paperbacks.] I've never seen the movie. Reviews of the time savaged it. I remember one writer noted that Wayne Crawford had "all the charisma of a can of tuna." Many remarked that the body-count was unusually high even for such a genre film. On the other hand, IMDB offers nearly two dozen reviews praising Jake Speed as an unjustly-ignored minor classic. One thing I do know: the "production values" on the strips were much higher than those of the low-budget feature...a sad truth as old as the first comic adaptation of a motion picture.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Comics Code Changes

A Code Wind Bloweth
The new issue of Roy Thomas' ever-fascinating magazine Alter Ego has a lengthy article about the effects of the Comics Code on American comics. Way back when Jim Vadeboncoeur and I used to hang out and scour old comics, we frequently encountered early Code-approved stories which had obviously been extensively retouched, often with bizarre results.

The advent of the Code threw the comics industry into a tizzy. Over a period of about a year and a half, comics appeared carrying stories written and drawn before Code censorship went into effect. Publishers were forced to overhaul them to meet Code demands. Weapons disappeared from hands, balloons were clumsily relettered or even blanked out, and endings were changed in sometimes ridiculous ways.

I urge you to check AE for the full story. It goes beyond the changeover period to document the Code's evolution and eventual demise. However for my money the best period was the Great Changeover. And my all-time favorite Code change craziness (not covered in the Alter Ego article) was "Face to Face" in Charlton's This Is Suspense #24.

Charlton took over This Is Suspense from Fawcett, reprinting stories from the pre-Code Fawcett run. The first and last stories in #24 are Fawcett stories with a redrawn and re-lettered panels. "Face to Face," though, may have been a Charlton original. It was drawn by Dick Giordano, who I believe didn't work for Fawcett. At any rate, the story encapsulates the craziness of the Code Changeover in one classic page.

The set-up: crook Quentin Ajax set up his twin brother Paul to take the fall for a swindle they both worked on. Now Paul has escaped from--oops! sorry, been let out of--prison, seeking revenge. The twins argue and Paul socks Quentin:There follows the old head-hits-the-edge-of-the-table gimmick. The helpful Paul decides...hell, panels two and three speak for themselves.
I don't want to leave you hanging off that fire escape, so here's the rest of the story. Paul is elated to discover his twin was hiding a fistful of money. Unfortunately he also learns that a notorious hit man intends to shoot Quentin on sight. The gangster will surely mistake Paul for his target.Suddenly a mysterious someone comes to the door...then lets himself in.'s none other than--
I'll never know whether editor Al Fago intended the story to end this way (a less-peculiar "send an ending" feature had appeared in a different Fago Charlton comic), or whether the Code bounced the original ending and Fago threw up his hands rather than fix it. I suspect the latter is the case because the prize offer is not lettered in the same professional hand as the story. It looks more like the same guy who invented the fire escape.