Sunday, November 25, 2007

John Cullen Murphy...Boxing & Broadswords

John Cullen Murphy wanted to be a baseball player when he was a child, but he also possessed a rare artistic talent. Studying under the supervision of artists like Norman Rockwell, Franklin Booth, George Bridgman, and Charles Chapman, helped Murphy develop into a professional comfortable in any medium. Cartoons as well as portraits and magazine illustration were all equally crafted with skill and precision taught to him by his many distinguished mentors. Never neglecting his interest in sports, he got the attention of Rockwell who saw him playing baseball one afternoon and asked the boy to pose for some magazine ads. After Rockwell had done a few illustrations, he soon discovered John's keen interest in art. With a lot of encouragement from Rockwell, Murphy received his formal art training from the Phoenix Art Institute, the Grand Central Art School, and the Art Student's League.

At seventeen, Murphy's first professional work was drawing boxing cartoons for Madison Square Garden's publicity department. While still in High School, sports magazines in Chicago published on average two of his cartoons a week. When later serving in W.W.II, he further pursued his art career drawing spot illustrations for the Chicago Tribune, as well as painting portraits of famous military personnel including General Douglas MacArthur, while still meeting deadlines for magazine covers and other illustration assignments.

Upon his return from the Pacific, Murphy's watercolor boxing paintings in Collier's magazine got the attention of Elliot Caplin, who contacted the artist about collaborating on a boxing strip. The artist did two weeks of samples which Caplin quickly sold to King Features when William Randolph Hearst himself bought the feature. The two-fisted hero, Big Ben Bolt, debuted as a daily on February 20,1950 and a Sunday page followed on May 25, 1952. But Bolt was not your average sports character, a New Englander who graduated from Harvard, he was educated and refined, even in the brutalizing and corrupt world of professional boxing. The character had a kindness, integrity, and generosity that made the strip highly believable as well as entertaining. With his trusted fight manager, Spider Haines, Bolt would win the world's heavyweight crown, only to lose and regain it again as the strip progressed. With an eye injury in the mid-fifties, "Big Ben" became a sportscaster and journalist which lead him to new tales of adventure, mystery, and danger. Always a beautiful woman on his arm, he later dealt with topics concerning social reforms, conservation, and the troubled youth of America. Murphy's strong interest in sports and boxing background made the strip a real knockout with his fans. His vast experience as an illustrator and cinematic approach made any possible situation or local seem realistic and effective.

In 1970, Murphy was honored by Harold Foster's offer to take over the artistic chores on his signature strip, Prince Valiant, the saga of a young Norse prince who becomes a knight of King Arthur's round table at Camelot. It is viewed by many as the premier adventure strip of our time, with over half a century of classic stories and art. Murphy gladly took over the assignment while his assistants remained on Big Ben Bolt until its demise in 1978 with the death of the character. Murphy had approached Foster with samples two years earlier to inquire if he needed help on his strip. When Foster started to think about a possible replacement, three names came to mind, but Murphy's formal art training and illustration experience made him the perfect choice. From the fall of 1970 until early 1980 Foster would give a nicely penciled layout for Murphy to complete and be published.

When Murphy's oldest son, Cullen, graduated college in 1975 he used to contribute story ideas and outlines to Foster. His degree in medieval history persuaded Valiant's creator to use Cullen as the future writer of the Sunday. Bill Crouch also contributed six storylines over the next four years to the historic strip. After forty-three years of guiding his creation, Hal Foster retired from Prince Valiant, with his last pencil layout for February 10, 1980. Foster first debated ending his epic tale, but later reconsidered and sold the property to King Features recommending that John and Cullen continue the tales. Murphy's daughter, Meg Nash, also joined the family on the strip with her lettering and coloring of the Sunday page.

Murphy and his family worked on Val's adventures for thirty-four wonderful years before he handed over the feature to the current artistic team. The remarkable quality of this unique strip survived even thought the size of the page diminished greatly over the years. Murphy never tried to copy Foster's distinctive style. His preference for a harder pen line rather than a softer brush look helped give the strip a more angular feel than its original creator's version. Murphy was assisted by artist Frank Bolle in layouts and research, but John's detailed pen work could still be seen in all the finished pages. Murphy's superior illustrative skills was also highlighted by the expressions on the characters faces being confirmed in their hand placement and use in conveying the story. His enormous library of books and reference materials given by Foster, always made the episodes fresh with its many historical characters and places. With little known about the time frame of Prince Valiant, the fifth century after the fall of Rome, Murphy and his staff could take creative license to create a rich visual tapestry of castles and palaces with elaborate and ornate surroundings. John Cullen Murphy's talent and professionalism helped maintain Prince Valiant's worldwide popularity, and has won him numerous awards, including the National Cartoonist Society's Best Story Strip -- more than any other syndicated cartoonist. We are all fortunate that this young boy gave up his sports ambitions to become one of our most respected and thought of cartoonists in America.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Dick Dillin - National's "Team" Player

When you think of great "team" artists that drew comics with so many characters, who often comes to mind? You might like John Byrne on his wonderful X-Men run, or perhaps George Perez for his beloved New Teen Titans with all those heroes and villains that filled the comic pages. Maybe you’re a fan of John Buscema’s art on the Avengers, or Curt Swan for his Legion of Super Heroes work in the mid 1960s. But the one artist that had a real gift for producing those "team" books for DC was the underated comic genius, Dick Dillin. Richard Allen "Dick" Dillin was born on December 17, 1929 in Watertown, New York, and from an early age knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. A comic book artist! Inspired from the great strip masters, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Hal Foster, young Dillin used to copy Prince Valiant panels to hone his skills on the one and only drawing board he ever owned. After graduating Waterford High School and a stint with the 8th Army Division in Japan, Dillin attended Syracuse University on the G.I. bill as an art student. Soon married and needing to support his new family, Dick pursued other work, but being bitten by the art bug, Dillin left his factory job for New York City. Dillin's artistic skill quickly landed some commercial and magazine illustration before achieving his goal of penciling stories for both Fawcett and Fiction House. His success on their features eventually lead Dick to the steps of Quality Comics where he illustrated romance, science fiction, horror, and war titles, until his big break as illustrator of his first "team" book, Blackhawk. Dillin worked at Quality Comics for five years, further developing his skills as a penciler before the untimely demise of the company and the unexpected sale to National Comics the rights to Blackhawk. Fortunately, when Dillin hit the streets of New York in search of work, DC was looking for him to continue his run on the popular title, which started his long and friendly relationship with National Periodical Publications.

After years of solid work on the Blackhawk, there was a change in direction at DC, and the title was canceled. Dillin was given a few issues of Batman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Flash, and World’s Finest Comics, before landing on his best know work, DC’s ultimate "team" book, Justice League of America. Being initially worried about drawing all the super heroes together in every issue, Dillin quickly got over his hesitation and lasted a historic twelve years on the feature for a total of one hundred fifteen consecutive issues!

Dillin is fondly remembered today not only for his extensive run on Justice League of America, but by adding so many characters back into the DC mythos. He reintroduced to a new audience the likes of Red Tornado, Quality stars Plastic Man and Uncle Sam, Leading Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Victory, Black Canary, Hourman, Dr. Fate, Starman, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, The Ray, Black Condor, The Human-Bomb, Dr. Mid-Nite, Sandman, and other historic heroes and villains from the Golden Age. Doing some amazing detailed work, Dick never missed a deadline on JLA under the grueling pace to pencil the book. He even found time to do some back-up stories for other titles, such as the Atom features in Action Comics, Detective Comics’ Robin stories, and Superman’s Fabulous World of Krypton tales.

Always wanting to improve on his artistic talents, Dillin enjoyed many art forms. Whether doing painted portraits of family and friends, or animation storyboards for TV cartoons like Johnny Zero, The Mighty Hercules, and Johnny Cypher. Dick even produced modern fine art in the vein of Jackson Pollack. Unfortunately, a star that burns twice as bright -- lives half as long. So was the fate of Dick Dillin, who passed away at the young age of fifty while working on JLA #184 in 1980, after only completing the first two and a half pages of pencils. But he will always be remembered as the fun-loving artist with a room full of children, enjoying family and friends while creating the comics he loved so much.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Some Wacky Humor Titles

I never appreciated the humor artists as a kid, since the super-hero genre was really my bag, until I gave them a long second look as an adult. (If I'm now considered grown up?) Then I discovered the amusing artwork of Bob Oksner on The Adventures of Jerry Lewis. His zany off the wall stories were just wonderful, and I especially loved those Flash, Superman, and Batman cross-over issues, because I was crazy about the characters. They were a real blast, and started my interest in other DC humor titles like the earlier Adventures of Bob Hope, or TV related properties such as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which I've seen a few pages of original art surface on eBay recently, but have not yet been lucky enough snag one for my collection. I did have the pleasure of viewing some rare original Shelly Mayor Sugar and Spike pages from a local friend who is also a cartoonist/collector. Until recently these beauties were impossible to find, since Mayer loved doing this comic based on his children. Sheldon kept most of his original artwork, but some pieces have shown up lately in auctions. The blue pencil details under the India ink were really fantastic to behold, giving the pages a cool look, and they had a lot more punch that I'd imagined from just seeing the printed

National Periodical Publications had many fun titles like Fox and Crow, Laurel and Hardy, Stanley and his Monster, Swinging with Scooter, Angel and Ape, Welcome Back Kotter, and a score of others that were often a strange mix of a humor/teen type book in the Archie tradition. Though Archie Comics always had them beat on any of DC's attempts to enter the wacky teen market. I enjoy them all now because of the great art by Scarpelli, Estrada, Severin, Oksner, and others. But still, I was never a real fan of the "big foot" funny animal school that Harvey, Dell, and Charlton, seemed to produce the best product overall. But what I really loved were those spot cartoons by Henry Boltinoff for the Cap's Hobby Hints, that taught us all those neat tricks about model building. Since I was assembling all the Aurora monster and cave man kits at the time, any help on making them look better was information well received. I always enjoyed any of the fact pages that taught me something that were often shoecased in the DC titles. I once saw a bunch of these Cap's Hobby Hints originals and literally drooled all over them, since their simplicity was a marvel of design and clarity. But before I realized I really needed one, they were gone down the art highway to another quick thinking collector. Boltinoff also did some Casey the Cop gag panels and other features, before he moved on to his syndicated park ranger daily, Woody Forest, and his later extremely popular Word Jumble puzzle panels.

Remember those little Sergio Aragones drawings in DC's Plop! comic from the seventies. Another DC experiment that tried to compete with the one and only MAD magazine, which of course never really occurred. But the energy and humor of Aragones little figures running across the Plop! borders or in pages of MAD work just as well today, where they can still be seen in every issue. MAD has also been running some great reprint features on artists Bill Elder and Wally Wood, and the wild cartoons of Basil Woverton's really knocked me out. Though, in my humble opinion, Woverton's art was not as powerful in black and white when compared to those spectacular Plop! covers which are truly goofy comic gems. And what about Sergio Aragones long running Conan spoof from Marvel, Groo the Wanderer, that was also a favorite of mine, and those originals go for some sky high prices. Not Brand Echh, was another wonderful Marvel book from the sixties that poked fun at itself and other publisher with that zippy Marie Severin artwork and all the other solid figure artists from their talented bullpen in every issue, similar to the later What the...?, laugh comic of years later.

But I believe that my all time favorite humor art must be Harvey Kurtzman's Hey Look! strip feature, was first published in Patsy Walker #22, way back in May 1949. It was the first work that Kurtzman had complete control over and and totally defined his abilities in storytelling and style, using just those two simple characters, always really killed me.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Russ Heath's Lone Ranger Rides Again

When Russ Heath was chosen to illustrate the new syndicated Lone Ranger strip in 1981, he soon got a call from Amber creator Doug Wildey. "Any illustrated strip is going to fall behind deadlines, and you will call your artist friends (to help), and stay up working all night," exclaimed Wildey. Heath soon found out how true that was, after only a few short months. Russ later said, "He sure as HELL was right! I called on Doug to help, and I called on others...If you've never had a syndicated strip, you just can't imagine what it entails...I had no time for exercise and put on thirty pounds."This almost forgotten feature that followed on the heels of the movie revival, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, debuted on September 13, 1981. Giving the feature one final strip incarnation of Fran Striker's world famous Western hero, created for a 1933 Detroit radio show. We all know the story right? West Texas in 1880... a group of six Texas Rangers lead by Captain Dan Reid rode towards a gap in the mountains...there Butch Cavendish's Gang launched a surprise ambush...and when the dust settled and the battle was over...all the Rangers were dead except the Captain's brother, John. Nursed back to health by his Indian friend, Tonto, John Reid took on a mask and vowed vengeance against all evildoers. This lone survivor...this Lone Ranger. (Which was actually the biggest misnomer in comics since Tonto was just as important in the strip, not to mention their beloved horses, Silver and Scout!)
The first artist to draw the famous lawman in 1938 was Ed Kressy, which most fans believe looked awkward at best in his adaptation of the material, but it had some great scripts by Striker. It was followed shortly by a brief interim stint illustrated by Jon L. Blummer, whose unigue style I really enjoyed. But the artist most fans remember and recognize today for the Lone Ranger was artist Charles Flanders, and his thirty-three year run on this Western legend. Better than most who drew the feature, it hit its peak in popularity in the mid-forties before slowly sliding down in quality to develop the look of a cheap grade-B Western (with no sets or background atmosphere of any kind). There was a boost in the title when writer Paul Newman and ghost artist Tom Gill did some later Sundays, as there solid teamwork had shown on the popular Dell Lone Ranger comic book. Although the strip seemed to be getting better with time, it still could not stop cancellation by the syndicate in late 1971. But hold on there folks, for the best artist and writer team is yet to come!

After searching for the right talent, the New York Times Special Features Syndicate finally chose comic book artist Russ Heath and longtime DC writer Cary Bates to produce the work. The strip even had a unique opening (breaking with most strip precedent) when the first daily just continued the storyline from their Sunday page the day before. Of the other creators who tried out for the new feature, only Gil Kane (who did the Aurora's 1974 Lone Ranger model kit illustrated comic) was considered a rival to Heath's skill and precision with Western subjects. Some of those rare Kane tryout dailies and Sunday still exist, though most of the Heath/Bates material was discarded by the syndicate making the art harder to obtain. I've had one daily I picked up a few years ago, and can tell you the quality was as good or better than any other Heath art I 've ever seen. I though these originals were difficult to find, until Heath consigned his work to a local auction house, so now some fantastic example have recently surfaced. However, you sometimes have to search for a good piece with the Ranger, since he was disguised in many of the storylines, and then his trusted scout Tonto was wonderfully showcased.

Clearly the best artistic team to ever produce the feature, unfortunetly, the Lone Ranger really never got its due. Published in no more than sixty papers at the height of its all too short two and a half year run, it ended on April 1, 1984. Most of us never even saw this beautiful strip the first time around, unless you lived in larger cities like Seattle or San Francisco. And when you did see the strip, the Sunday format usually lost its top tier splash panels, being cut down for space in many of the papers, so readers just missed out on what Heath was trying to do altogether. You can see that Russ put his heart and soul in the work, spending up to twelve to fourteen hour a day at the drawing board. Yet the high quality of art and writing was as fresh and alive the last day of the strip as the first day they started. Heath had his hand in all aspects of production, working his rich and detailed style on the preliminary sketches, pencil layouts, color proofs, test pages, as well as keeping up the penciling and inking the strip.

If not for Greg Theakston's fantastic Pure Imaginations black and white Lone Ranger reprint from 1993, most of us would never had the pleasure to read these delightful stories, unless you collected dailies or haunted some library newspaper vault. But don't take my word for it, just check out thes panels provided and that last Sunday page as the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride out into a sunset for the final time, with none other than Heath and Bates saying good-bye.