Today we have a guest entry by CCS alum Al B. Wesolowsky. Below he offers a thorough overview of the comic strip time capsule These Top Cartoonists Tell How They Create America’s Favorite Comics .
Look for more entries by Al in the future!
- Robyn Chapman
These Top Cartoonists…
by Al B. Wesolowsky
These Top Cartoonists Tell How They Create America’s Favorite Comics is a snapshot of newspaper comic strips in 1964, when that form routinely commanded two pages in daily papers and a separate comics section in color on Sundays. Since the mid-1990s, however, newspapers have struggled financially as the explosive growth of the World Wide Web has created a new model for the delivery of content, and more than a few have ceased their print versions altogether. Newspapers have always relied upon advertising as their principal source of income, and declining advertising revenues means decreased budgets for comic strips, fewer sales by comics syndicates, fewer comics, and ever-decreasing reproduction sizes for the strips. These Top Cartoonists serves as a reminder of the role comic strips played in popular culture only a few decades ago and provides biographical details and personal reminiscences by 39 cartoonists, from, alphabetically, Alfred Andriola (Kerry Drake) to Chic Young (Blondie). It is a large-format publication, akin to the instructional manuals one sees in art supply shops with titles such as “How to Draw Animals” or “Landscapes for the Beginner.” Although most of the entries do contain a few sentences on tools, materials, and process, this is not a how-to book.
Each page is devoted to a single cartoonist (or, more accurately, to a single strip, since a number of the artists identify their writers and assistants) with a photograph of the cartoonist and a few sample drawings or panels from their work. The reproductions of the comics are beautiful, retaining crisp details and deep blacks that allow an all-too-brief glimpse of the quality of drafting in many of the strips. Recall that the artists produced at least six of these strips every week, month after month, year after year, a rate of work that seems impossible when we consider the pace for, say, creating a graphic novel. Those who maintain web comics that are updated frequently, however, will appreciate stress of the need for new content at short intervals.
I grew up with most of the strips covered in these pages, since my family took both the morning and evening papers; younger folks may not be aware that most major American cities once had at least two competing papers, each with their own set of comics. Each day I had several full pages (newspaper-sized pages, too; not dinky tabloid pages) of new comics to pore over, with characters I loved and worried about: Gus Arriola’s Gordo, V. T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop, Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, Alfred Andrioli’s Kerry Drake, and many others present in These Top Cartoonists.
Each page contains a statement by or about the artist, with a few essential biographical details. Credit is given to those colleagues (today we would call them “writers”) who provide “continuity” and to assistants who drew, in some cases, backgrounds or figures, lettered, or inked the pencils. Most entries mention the schedule of producing daily strips, which often precluded any real vacations for the cartoonists. Each entry has a paragraph or two that describes the working process (brainstorming stories, penciling, lettering, inking, and packing and shipping the boards), but never in any detail. Still, one appreciates that these cartoonists were able to make a living at work that they clearly loved, with several comments along the lines of “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this!”
Only a few samples from each strip are reproduced. But just about every entry discusses the writing behind the art. Without good writing, we are told, the strip will have little appeal regardless of the quality of the drawing. There is a particularly salient comment from Hal Foster (Prince Valiant):
I have emphasized the story idea here, because of all the aspiring young students who have asked my advice, not one has seemed to consider it at all. Their interest was in the pens and brushes, the paper, size, how to draw a funny figure…and would I introduce them into my Syndicate.
Mr. Foster would surely have approved of the emphasis on writing in the CCS curriculum. A particular strength of this book is the wide range of artistic styles on display, from the simple, stylized work of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Al Jaffe (Tall Tales), Mel Lazrus (Miss Peach) and Frank O’Neal (Short Ribs), through the more figurative work by Roy Crane (Buz Sawyer), Hank Leonard (Mickey Finn), and Dick Brown (The Jackson Twins), to the masterful renderings by Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt), Leonard Starr (On Stage), and Milt Caniff (Steve Canyon). Of the comics covered in this book, only a few, such as Mary Worth and Beetle Bailey are still seeing new material; Little Orphan Annie, down to a handful of papers, was cancelled earlier this year. And I think that Mort Walker (b. 1923) is the only cartoonist in the book who is still alive and active (but hardly surprising for a book that was published nearly 50 years ago).
Every one of the cartoonists is male, although female colleagues are identified, such as Ruth Harding, the scenarist and letterer for Archie (credited here to Bob Montana). Dale Messick, the woman who created the long-running strip Brenda Starr, would have been a welcome addition to these pages. Hilda Terry’s Teena ceased in 1964, possibly explaining its absence, but Martha Arguello (“Marty Links”) was still doing Mary Lou (as Arguello’s Bobby Sox was renamed in 1951) at the time These Top Cartoonists was published. It’s true that newspaper strips were predominately done by males, but one suspects that gender inclusivity was not in the editor’s mind. Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy did not begin until 1976, and Lynne Johnston’s For Better or For Worse three years later.
What value does These Top Cartoonists have for us today, other than as a nostalgic reminder of the glory days of the newspaper comic strip, an art form that seems to be disappearing along with its natural medium of newsprint? I think that it is a valuable survey of this uniquely American graphics form from a time when newspapers remained the principal source of news and commentary, and it shows the longevity of certain strips that outlived their creators, such as Mutt and Jeff, associated here with Al Smith, who had inherited it from Ed Mack, who had taken over from Bud Fisher who had started the strip in 1907.
Are there webcomics that will continue to appear to a readership, as did Mutt and Jeff, for over 70 years—some three generations? Time will show us. Will historians in 2070 be able to reproduce the run of Joe Ekatis’ webcomic T.H.E. Fox (1986–1998)? We will see. At present, a combination of digital and print distribution, as with Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, seems to offer the best chance of longer-term preservation.
These Top Cartoonists also gives us a glimpse of the process these artists and writers used to maintain the pace of output over decades and of the astonishing variety of styles that serve the medium of comics. This last may be the most interesting aspect of the book, since webcomics, likewise, display a wide range of approaches to tell their stories. Writing, drawing, composition, design and lettering all combine to give any strip its identity. While we appreciate the kindred spirits that drive Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, we would never confuse Kelly’s politically bemused swamp denizens with Trudeau’s spot-on skewering of political and cultural foibles. Doonesbury may seem to have been around forever, but it began as a strip in the Yale campus newspaper in 1968, four years after the publication of These Top Cartoonists.
- Al B. Wesolowsky
All images from These Top Cartoonists Tell How They Create America’s Favorite Comics and are the property of their respective rightsholders.
1. The cover of These Top Cartoonists Tell How They Create America’s Favorite Comics. Compiled by Allen Willette; introduction by Mort Walker. Allied Publications, Inc. Ft. Lauderdale, FL: 1964. A Margaret Harold Publication. Soft cover, 40 pp, index, black and white photographs and drawings, index.
2. Each page is dedicated to a single comic strip.
3. Alfred Andrioli’s Kerry Drake is wearing a fedora that seems several sizes too small, an odd lapse for so skilled a cartoonist.
4. Mel Lazrus’ Miss Peach uses a simple, expressive line for its stories about grade school pupils.
5. Crisp drawing, simple backgrounds, and good spotting of blacks characterize The Jackson Twins by Dick Brooks.
6. John Cullen Murphy’s Big Ben Bolt shows a level of skill that seems improbable at the rate of six strips a week.
7. One can add nothing to the book’s caption except to say that the panel is by Leonard Starr (On Stage).
8. Walt Kelly’s Pogo ruminates on the Great American Pastime, with a masterful use of negative space leading up to the last panel.