Wednesday, January 30, 2008

National Cartoonist Society Profile: Jack Kent

Another favorite in my series of cartoonist from the National Cartoonist Society archives is the whimsical beloved strip King Aroo by Jack Kent. The artist's open loose-lined art style coupled with its many sophisticated puns and wonderful wordplay had many fans compare his work to classic strips like Pogo, Barnaby, Little Nemo, and Krazy Kat. Here is Kent's short from the NCS archives in his own words: Getting from 1920 to the present with a minimal loss of parts and faculties has been my most noteworthy accomplishment. Along the way I have drawn a few cartoons and magazine gags before and after my stint with the army in WWII (1st Lt, FA). The very comic strip King Aroo, which ran (or jogged) for fifteen years, beginning in 1950, made me world famous for blocks around. Since 1967 have been writing and illustrating children's book's. There have been over forty up to this time, (2:45 PM but my watch may be slow) and more are in the womb. I'm having more fun, my wife is an angel, my son is a genius, and I am thrice blessed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

National Cartoonist Society Profile: Harold Gray

The National Cartoonist Society was formed in the mid forties and over the years the became the largest and best know society of professional cartoonist in the world. With over five hundred members worldwide, the Society's home offices are in Winter Park, Florida, with an additional sixteen chartered regional chapters throughout the United States and one in Canada. Continuing in my series of favorite NCS members that are no longer with us today, is the talented artist Harold Gray and his sensational strip, Little Orphan Annie. How could a feature started in 1924 still be published eight decades later and inspire her own radio program, several motion pictures, and a hit Broadway show? The phenomenal success of the feature must be how Gray make us care about his charming characters with his wonderful stories he told that entertained one generation of readers to the next. Here is his short biography that he provided to their archives.

Born: away, way back podner, in Kankakee, Illinois on 20 January 1894 -- graduated Purdue University, 1917 -- rose in army to shavetail, bayonet instructor. Chicago Tribune art department -- then assistant to Sidney Smith on "Gumps" five years. Started "Annie" in New York News and Chicago Tribune, 1924. " Now appearing in numerous papers." As they tell it in "who's who" -- Home: Green Farms Connecticut -- West Coast base: La Jolla California. Doing business under firm name of Gray & Gray -- Drive average of 35,000 miles per year, trying to keep even with ninety million readers exposed to our lovable (?) little monster -- hope to carry on till Annie is elected president -- why not? Her "Daddy" is rich; and Annie wouldn't be the first "old lady" who ever made it!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Frank Godwin's Rusty Riley

In 1948, after a successful seventeen year run on the beautiful comic strip, Connie, Frank Godwin decided to propose a new idea to King Features Syndicate about a young boy and his cow on a rural Kentucky farm. When King Features expressed interest in the feature, but with a horse instead, Rusty Riley was born. The first Rusty Riley daily debuted on January 26, 1948, by writer Rod Reed and illustrator Frank Godwin. A Sunday page was added on June 27 of the same year and was written by the artist's brother. Godwin used the blue grass section of the Kentucky hills as the setting for his new creation, depicting the adventures of a boy, who after running away from an orphanage with his feisty fox terrier, Flip, ended up deep in thoroughbred horse country. In search of adventure, Rusty comes upon wealthy racehorse owner, Mr. Miles, who hires the lad to be a stable boy on the celebrated Milestone Farm. Rusty eventually realizes his dream of becoming a first-rate jockey and over time, winning the Kentucky Derby on his beloved horse, Bright Blaze. The storylines continue with Rusty and his pals involved in horse breeding, amateur crime detection, foreign adventures, and even a little romance with his employer's daughter, Patty Miles.

Frank Godwin made two brief visits to Lexington in the late forties shortly after he began drawing the feature. The first trip was to get some background information and reference material for the strip. Godwin had always loved the beauty and grandeur of horses, but unfortunately had never made any detailed studies of them. He quickly made the mistake of picturing blue grass farms and their horses before he had seen any of them first hand. A few weeks after starting Rusty Riley, Godwin received some complaints from the locals that the barns, gates, and fences he drew, just didn't look like Kentucky barns, gates, and fences. Furthermore, some of his horses didn't even look like thoroughbreds, which they were supposed to be. Instead of ignoring these complaints, as some cartoonists might have done, Godwin made another trip to Lexington to visit his critics. For more than a week, he toured the central Kentucky horse farms, took pictures and made numerous sketches of the horses, fences, gates, barns, farm homes, horse cemeteries, country lanes, trees, and other references necessary to make his strip correct. He talked with the thoroughbred horsemen, standard-bred horsemen, saddle horsemen, racetrack officials and newspapermen to get all the information he needed. He also took many pictures in and around the Keeneland and Lexington Trotting Tracks, which were a couple of the sites he later used frequently in his comic strip. Godwin was now ready to make his strip better than ever.

Ed Ashford was the local reporter assigned to escort Godwin to the various places he wanted to visit on his stay in Lexington. He stated that Frank was so sincere in his desire to make Rusty Riley authentic in every way, that he bombarded him with questions by the score night and day. A lot of those questions were about little things that would appear to be of no consequence, but to Frank Godwin, they were all important. "It's those little things you get wrong that people notice," he said.

The following year, Godwin made a return trip to Lexington to attend the 1949 Plug Horse Derby. He enjoyed the event so much that Frank featured it several times in some of the most popular episodes of the strip. Over his many trips back to Kentucky, Godwin made a number of friends in Lexington and would never fail to remember them at the holidays. Every Christmas, from his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, cleverly drawn personalized greeting cards from Frank and his wife, Georgiana, Rusty, and the whole comic gang went out to all his new friends down south. Frank would also draw local figures in the dailies like newspaper reporter Ashford, for a few days, and a week later Ed would receive letters from several of his old army buddies who were happy to have seen him, "in the funny papers."

One of the last great penman in the business, Godwin had forty years experience as an illustrator, painter, and cartoonist when he started his last great story strip. Being influenced by both James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson, he developed his own unique style in his ability to create tones and especially facial characteristics with his pen and brush. His skill at portraying recognizable and realistic characters, animals, and lush outdoor scenes made Rusty Riley one of the most beautiful comic strips ever produced. Using every panel to its fullest, Godwin's richly textured compositions, meticulous cross-hatching, and attention to detail made this purely an artist's strip. After a wonderful eleven year run and appearing in more than one hundred-fifty newspapers, the feature ended in 1959, just a few weeks before Godwin's death.

I remember the first Rusty Riley I ever saw was a wonderful Sunday page with a birthday party in which the cook burned the cake and smoke curled out the oven. I was amazed by the amount of work and realistic effect down to every last delicate brush stroke wisp of smoke. That piece alone quickly helped me change my focus from collecting comic book art to the photorealistic illustration of classic story strips. My search for new examples of Godwin's work fortunately lead me to Godwin's family and my chance to represent his estate in selling some of his works. A family member related how they had recently discovered a large collection of dailies in the attic of the old Godwin estate when cleaning it out in preparation to sell the home. They were giving the originals away at church raffles and carnivals and trying to sell them in garage sales. The family was surprised that there was still interest in comic strips that ended over forty-two years ago, but were happy to sell these newly found examples to Godwin's many fans. Unfortunately, in their extensive search, none of the rare Connie strips were found and very few paintings or illustrations have survived. After a few years of successful sales, the family decided to keep the remainder of the collection. Surely, Godwin should be remembered as one of the premier penman of his day, a man who could perform miracles with brush and ink. Anyone with a Frank Godwin piece would have to agree he was one of the finest illustrators of our time and a rare talent to have worked in the comics' field.

Monday, January 7, 2008

National Cartoonist Society Profile: Frank Robbins

Continuing in my short profiles of favorite artists that are no longer with us is another talented strip artist, Frank Robbins, who ended out his long career doing various super-hero assignments for Marvel and DC Comics. Here is his story in his own words from the NCS archives. --- Born Boston Massachusetts September 9.1917... Aspired to the fine arts at an early age -- won scholarships to Boston Museum and later National Academy of Design, New York. Rockerfeller Grant at age fifteen...designed murals for NBC in Radio City, 1932-3 --won Thomas B. Clarke prize in painting, National Academy Annual at age eighteen -- did exploitation art for RKO Radio Pictures starting at age seventeen until taking over 'Scorchy Smith' for A.P. in 1944 created 'Johnny Hazard' for King Features Syndicate which continues to date and is sold wildely, daily and Sunday, both nationally and internationally. Have done illustrations for Life, Saturday Evening Post, Look, etc. Have continued serious painting, exhibiting annually in National Academy Annual, Corcoran Gallery, Washington. Whitney Museum, New York, Metropolitan Museum, New York Audubon Artists, New York Walker Art Gallery Minnesota, Toledo Art Museum, Ohio, etc..painting bought by Ranger Fund, National Academy Annual, 1960.

Married since 1945...lovely wife, Bert...and children, Mike, age 11...Laurie Beth, age 5...Hobbies: Hi-fi, with one marketed invention to my credit...antiques and armor collecting...sports: swimming, archery, fencing and pistol shooting -- enough, I'm tired!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Shaken Not Stirred: The James Bond Newspaper Strips

In 1957, five years before United Artists' Dr. No hit the screens, the London Daily Express approached writer Ian Fleming with offers to publish a serial strip based on his world famous secret agent, James Bond. Fleming was initially reluctant to accept the very generous offer due to concerns over the quality of the writing, not wanting to see his new creation cheapen in value while he was still planning more novels. Even though he had worked as a journalist for the Express, he desired to keep his secret agent, as secret as possible for the time being. Fleming wrote at the time: "The Express are desperately anxious to turn James Bond into a strip cartoon. I have grave doubts about the desirability of this... Unless the standard of these books is maintained they will lose their point and I think there I am in grave danger that inflation will spoil not only the readership but also become something of a death-watch beetle inside the author. A tendency to write still further down might result. The author would see this happening, and disgust with the operation might creep in."
With the assurances of Express editor, Edward Pickering, that it would be the "Rolls Royce" of strips, and that Fleming would have final approval over all the material, the author finally agreed to sell the rights. The first novel, Casino Royle, was published in July 1958, adapted by Express staff writer Anthony Hearne and illustrated by John McLusky. During the planning of the feature, Fleming commissioned his own artist's impression of James Bond as a guide to how he saw his hero. Having seen the portrait, McLusky found it too "outdated" and "prewar" and created Bond with a more aggressive masculine look. He based the character on a number of film actors such as Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, and others with a fine chiseled look. There is a difference of opinion as to who helped create the face of Bond. It's been said that McLusky's drawing of Bond may well have been responsible for Sean Connery being cast as 007. Even though Dr. No was filmed years after the first strip appeared, there still was an uncanny resemblance to the Scottish actor. One rumor is that after a performance, Connery was sitting in his dressing room with a fellow actor who was reading the Express and remarked that Sean should one day play Bond since he looked remarkably like the character. Others believe Connery's agent saw the dailies and encouraged him to tryout for the role, and made Sean up for the audition "to look like the drawings McLusky created." Another view is that McLusky just changed his concept of Bond to fit the likeness of Connery once the films became so popular.

Whatever the case, the public must have liked the face of Bond because of the immediate success and increased sales of the London Daily Express. McLusky's clean style coupled with the loyal adaptations of the novels helped fuel the early beginnings of Bond-mania. Fleming's worries over the simplification of the narrative turned out not to be the problem he thought it might be. The stories were told as clearly and simply as possible, trying to avoid any confusion for the reader since they often lasted close to a year in length, which was customary of a newspaper daily format. Even without Ian Fleming's detailed-filled prose, the tales still managed to be extremely entertaining and held up surprisingly well, in their strip incarnations.

John McLusky began his art career illustrating for the British Royal Air Force during and after the second World War. He also worked on other various projects like Laurel and Hardy, The Keystone Kops, The Pink Panther and numerous Thames children's television programs. His artistic style emphasized simplicity and readability, and even though the Bond characters could appear rather stiff at times, they were always clearly identifiable. This was something of a necessity, since one always needed to identify the characters, even though they may not have been seen for several months. Like most strip cartoonists, McLusky had a collection of reference material to help him produce that meticulous attention to detail required in a daily feature. Every day his two young sons would help critique the Bond panels up until being submitted to the publisher. Once when McLusky needed a quick reference for a Luger pistol, one boy loaned his toy Luger gun. The next day in the finished drawing Bond was holding a weapon with a little popup hatch for a roll of paper caps. Fortunately, his two loyal proofreaders, not to embarrass 007, suggested a return to the drawing board to whiteout this minute mistake.

For the next six years, McLusky and Gammidge worked their way, fairly chronologically, through Fleming's Bond novels and short stories, and in doing so, helped lay the visual groundwork for the upcoming films. Only taking a break in 1962, when episodes of Thunderball were stopped due to Fleming publishing The Living Daylights in the rival Sunday Times. This angered Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Express, who immediately dropped Thunderball in the middle of its storyline. Fleming also had his own legal problems with co-writer Kevin McClory, who contributed ideas to Thunderball. After a lengthy settlement and reinstatement with the Express in 1964, the daily feature started up again, with the adaptation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

After completing thirteen Bond thrillers, our "Licensed to Kill" agent got a fresh start with a new creative team on the the last Fleming novel. Writer Jim Lawrence's stylish scripts burned up the page as artist Yaroslav Horak dramatic illustrative style brought a new hardness to the feature. Horak's crisp line and beautifully textured black and white designs were always equally matched by Lawrence's rich and imaginative prose. James Bond now became more ruthless, and more complex than his readers had ever seen before. This fresh approach in gritty realism made the villains more savage, women more beautiful, and Bond a lot tougher. The new look for 007 also lost his striking resemblance to the Scottish actor and further dissociated him from the famous film persona.

Yaroslav "Larry" Horak began his career in portrait painting, but soon switched to illustration for the larger Australian magazine publishers. His successful comic series The Mask, ran afoul with Victoria's State censors, but was soon followed by his daily outback adventure strip Mike Steel for Sydney's, The Woman's Day. A quick talent for animation and storyboards also kept Horak busy on many different projects. When given the Bond strip in 1965, Horak's adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun was highly praised in the direction he approached the series. The syndicate was so pleased with their new creative team that Lawrence was given permission by the Fleming Trust to produce new original stories for Horak to draw. Overall they worked on thirty-three thrilling Bond tales for the Daily Express and other various syndicates in Europe..

A total of fifty one Bond stories were produced. As well as the above mentioned creators there was one story, Doomcrack, illustrated by artist Harry North. When the Bond series finally ended in 1983, it had spanned four decades, with a total output of more than 6500 individual strips. A number of the original Horak and McLusky stories have been reprinted by Titan Books and there is a separate McLusky's version of The Illustrated James Bond, 007. There was also a series of Scandinavian James Bond comic books reprinting some Horak dailies and also providing some new original stories. Unfortunately, these are the only appearances of the Bond strips since they originally ran in the London Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Daily Star. These adventures are almost completely unavailable and largely unknown for the millions of Bond fans. Hopefully, these spy stories with there lasting and intriguing appeal will one day be fully appreciated by Fleming's fans worldwide.