A few of these artists have worked alone (Charles Schulz –“Peanuts,” Gus Arriola – “Gordo,” Bill Watterson – “Calvin and Hobbes). Most have employed an assistant. Some, like Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey,” “Hagar the Horrible”), have assembled creative teams for conferencing, gag writing, and producing the strip.
? How They Prepared
? Working Techniques
? Comic Strip Art
? Tools of the Trade
? The Cartoonist’s Assistant
? The Comic Strip “Ghost”
? The Comic Strip Writer
? The Cartoonist and the Syndicate
? The NCS
? Cartoonists Picture Themselves
? Success in the Comics Business
HOW THEY PREPARED
Most of the earliest comic strip producers were newpaper staff artists. (It is still amazing to see pictures of these cartoonists inking at a large drawing board wearing a coat, vest, and tie. Publicity pictures, perhaps, but the early years were still very formal.)
Several began as copy boys or art department apprentices who worked their way up.
(Many are the tales of the early cartoonists who, with sudden success, took off for parts unknown or embarked on an around-the-world cruise, leaving their editors with only a couple of strips ahead, biting their fingernails, hoping the new material would come in on time.)
Many artists of the 30’s (Roy Crane, Hal Foster, Les Turner) attended college and art school, then worked at a variety of unusual jobs (forestry, oilfield, circus, railroad) which prepared them to write adventure stories.
Several mid-western artists attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, while the Art Students League (ASL) and National Academy of Design (NAD) were key preparation for many New York artists.
During World War II, a number of budding cartoonists developed their skills in such military papers as ‘Stars and Stripes’ and ‘Leatherneck’ (Fred Lasswell, Dick Wingert). After the war, a variety of strips were begun or carried on by former animators (Gus Arriola, Hank Ketcham, Walt Kelly, Tom Massey, Pete Hansen). Others ( Dan Barry, Leonard Starr, Stan Drake, Irwin Hasen, Jack Cole, Bob Fujitani) moved from the comic books of the 40’s into comic strip art of the 50’s. Raeburn van Buren (“Abbie an’Slats”) and John Cullen Murphy (“Big Ben Bolt,” “Prince Valiant”) studied fine arts and moved from illustration into comic strip art. Charles Schulz and Dick Cavalli were magazine gag cartoonists before starting their strips.
Illustrator and “Tarzan” artist Burne Hogarth established the School of Visual Arts (Cartoonists and Illustrators School) in New York, where artists like Dick Cavalli, Don Heck, Gil Kane, Patrick McDonnell, and Angelo Torres studied. More recently established art schools include the Famous Artists Course of Westport,CT and the Joe Kubert School in Dover, N.J.
Several artists have indicated that part of the appeal of cartooning comes from the flexibility of the work schedule. While a single day’s strip may take anywhere from four to twelve hours to produce, those hours could begin at any time, even late in the evening.
Gus Arriola (“Gordo”) would devote one “thinking day” to establish a week’s gags, then
three more days to draw them. Hal Foster (“Prince Valiant”) would often spend 30-40 hours on a single Sunday page.
While most of the early cartoonists worked at a newpaper office or syndicate headquarters “bullpen,” today’s artists typically work from a room in their home, a remodeled studio in their home, or a nearby rented studio. Bill Overgard (“Steve Roper”) designed a unique studio with all of his tools and background materials within easy reach.
It is no longer necessary for an artist to maintain a huge “morgue,” a reference file of pictures of machinery, airplanes, automobiles, furniture, etc., since all of these are now available on the web.
Realistic art requires a strong working knowledge of anatomy. A few artists (Alex Raymond, Stan Drake) have used live models to set up poses. Some have worked from photographs of people or scenery. Occasionally an artist will “swipe” (or borrow the poses from) a layout from an earlier drawing. (Raymond’s “Flash Gordon” and Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” from between 1938 and 1942 are probably the most swiped art in comics.) Example
Most of the early cartoonists lived close to New York City or San Francisco, home of the parent newspaper, the syndicate, and the magazine markets. By the middle of the century, mail was pretty reliable, and many (including Stan Drake, Mort Walker, Gill Fox, Dik Browne, and Frank Ridgeway) had moved to the artist’s colony around Westport, CT (a reasonable commute from New York). Others located in greater Los Angeles and up the Pacific coast (especially artists from the animation studios), and in central Florida (Roy Crane, Zack Mosley, Fred Lasswell, Hal Foster). Dan Barry (“Flash Gordon”), Hank Ketcham (“Dennis the Menace”), and John Cullen Murphy (“Big Ben Bolt”) produced their strips from Europe for lengthy periods. A few were even more adventurous – Robert “Rupe” Baldwin set up a studio to draw “Freddy” in the back of a van, and Kreigh Collins took “Kevin the Bold” aboard his yacht. Today, fax machines, email, and computers allow a cartoonist to live and work “virtually” anywhere in the world. A drawing is readily scanned into a computer and transmitted digitally to the syndicate.
COMIC STRIP ART
Various artists have expressed the idea that part of the enjoyment of developing a comic strip is that you are totally in charge of a small drama - script writer, set designer, costume designer, and director.
Alfred Andriola, who wrote and drew “Kerry Drake” for many years described his working techniques this way-
"The idea must come first, obviously. The story, the characters, the locale, the gimmicks, the names for the villains and the subsidiary cast -- all must be decided in advance. Then the plot must be broken down into weeks, and the weeks into days, so that each strip progresses the action and yet in itself possesses a measure of unity -- while it develops plot, suspense, humor or character traits.
"Once all that is accomplished, I do a very rough rough, one which never leaves my studio... It is merely a breakdown, so that I can see how the whole week ( six strips and a Sunday page) look, feel, move and build.
"From that the pencilling is drawn on Strathmore two-ply Bristol board. The finished strip is done over the pencilling, with crow quill pen points, sable brushes and Higgins black ink. Sometimes I apply Ben Day paper to areas that I want in a gray tone. That's all there is to it -- but why, after all these years, does it still take so long to do? If you enjoy doing it, it's not a chore. After all, there are no short cuts, even to shaving, and if you try, you get nicked pretty badly.” (Andriola)
Aspects of comic strip art include-
Camera movements -- cut, pan, track, off-screen voice
“Flow” of action
Use of solid blacks and whites
Students of the graphic arts often suggest that many comic artists fall into one of three major “schools,” depending on the stylistic influence of three major artists of the 1930’s and 40’s-
1) “Alex Raymond” school – most realistic, detailed, thin lines, portrait faces
Al Williamson, John Prentice, Alden McWilliams, Dan Barry, Gray Morrow, Leonard Starr, Warren Tufts, Jose Luis Salinas
2) “Milton Caniff / Noel Sickles” school – heavier lines, less need for detail, strong use of blacks
Ray Bailey, Alex Toth, William Overgard, Frank Robbins, Marvin Bradley, Ken Ernst, Alfred Andriola, Charles Raab, Frank Frazetta, Doug Wildey, John Romita
3) “Roy Crane” school – least realistic faces, yet realistic backgrounds, strong use of black spaces and shading effects
Les Turner, Mel Graff, Floyd Gottfredson
“Alex Raymond's style is noted by an academic accuracy in figures, done without very many lighting effects. There is a clean outline in most details, delineated by brushwork that follows the countours of an object or figure -- the details are strategic, and emphasize the structure of what is drawn. The figures tend to be heroically proportioned, originally derived from models. Clothing is there, but subsumed by the figure. (Rip Kirby is less anatomy-driven.) [Raymond] had a light touch with the brush, but it was wielded with skill and beauty -- very decorative in Flash Gordon, and utilitarian in Rip Kirby.
Milton Caniff's style is very cinematic -- the light and atmosphere dominate. Figures are stylized (cartoony) in their features, but are well-structured, and placed in complex scenes with accuracy. His style features a "heavy" brush that ties everything together calligraphically, and brings out the "big picture."
Imitators tended to copy lighting effects and anatomical shortcuts, rarely getting at the quality of his layouts and storytelling.” (Mike Evans)
“The so-called ‘Caniff school’ of cartoonists used shadow, solid black, to SUGGEST shapes, modeling, wrinkles, equippage, etc.; the ‘Raymond school’ (which should, legitimately, include Hal Foster as inspiration) was straight, uncomplicated illustration of the every-wrinkle-must-show variety. Caniff was impressionistic in the
sense that his drawings created an impression of reality; Raymond/Foster was literal realism.” (R.C. Harvey)
A fourth major influence on many artists, though not the originator of a “school,” would be Hal Foster’s work on “Prince Valiant.” Foster’s art is noted for realism, layout, detail (including knight’s chain mail armor) and outstanding scenic panoramas. Hal Foster has influenced the art of Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, Sheldon Moldoff, and Barry Windsor-Smith.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Traditional comic art technique has been to work “twice up,” preparing the original drawing at twice the size it will be reproduced on the printed page. (Divide the gag or story into 3 or 4 panels, rule the borders, draw in the characters and backgrounds in pencil, go over the lines with ink, write in the lettering.)
The bare necessities for producing a comic strip typically have been-
Bristol board – thick paper on which the original is drawn
Pencils – black, and, occasionally, non-reproducible blue
Brushes and pens
Favorites of the leading artists have included-
2-ply or 3-ply kid-finish or plate-finish board (Bristol board)
#2, #4, , 7H, F pencils for roughs
#170 penpoint for drawing (Hank Ketcham, Mort Walker)
#102 round point pen for faces and outlines (Dan Heilman)
#104 penpoint for backgrounds (Tex Blaisdell)
#290 penpoint for heads (Alex Kotzky, Al Smith)
#659 pen for outlines and backgrounds (William Overgard)
#1 fine point brush for hair and shadows
#3, #4 Winsor-Newton sable brush for figures
stub pen, 314 relief pen for lettering
Roy Crane (in “Buz Sawyer”) was the master of shadows, silhouettes, and the use of CrafTint, a commercial shading material for artists.
Hank Ketcham, a former animator, used an animator’s light table in producing “Dennis the Menace.” Ketcham sketched the strips in pencil on tissue paper then traced the final drawing onto Bristol board using the light table. (Light would shine through the glass top from below, allowing the pencils to shine through.) Gus Arriola used a similar technique on his “Gordo” strips, inking with a brush directly onto the board. Ferd Johnson first penciled his “Moon Mullins” strips, then turned them over on a light box “to catch - and correct any disproportions.”
Computers have become a high-tech tool for several cartoonists. Bill Amend (“Fox trot”) and Michael Jantze (“The Norm”) have indicated that they are dedicated users of Mac’s. Brooke Mc Eldowny (“9 Chickweed Lane”) draws with a stylus on a Wacom tablet to digitize the artwork from the start. Computer programs are then used to clean up the artwork, add shading, add lettering fonts, and set up colorization. Chris Cassatt, assistant and colorist on “Shoe” for many years before Jeff McNally’s death, now creates the strip with Gary Brookins and continues to use a computer to assist with the art. Cassatt has used a searchable database of characters and scenes, scans of his own inked artwork, fonts of McNally-style lettering, and color descriptions with his computer. About 75% of United Media’s cartoonists transmit their artwork to the syndicate office digitally. (Astor, 1998)
THE CARTOONIST’S ASSISTANT
Many of those who became successful comic artists spent at least part of their career as an apprentice to a master of the craft.
Howard Boughner, an artist who drew and ghosted for years, wrote about the assistant’s position in his “Cartooning Jobs for Beginners”-
“The comic strip artist’s assistant job is a tough job but worth it. This is a proven path to cartooning success... To start, the artist usually pencils the comic, inks heads and more difficult parts, while the assistant fills in blacks, etc. As he improves he has a chance to take over more of the creative work...usually artist and assistant work together and pass work (often wet) back and forth...If you become an assistant you’ll be expected to run various errands such as buy supplies, mail the comic. You may have to hush up the fact that you work on such-and-such a comic strip...You see that assisting is quite a job and has its problems. It also has its rewards. It’s a very good way to learn the cartooning business and get paid for it. It makes the next job much easier to get. And it may lead to a feature of your own.” (Boughner, 1960)
In recent years, established cartoonists have assisted syndicated strip artists, most typically with inking chores. Editorial cartoonist Jeff Parker has been assisting on “Blondie” and artist Mark Brewer has been inking “Comics for Kids.”
Sometimes the artistic arrangement is complicated, as artist George Evans found when he assisted George Wunder on “Terry and the Pirates” during the ‘60’s. Wunder would set a horizon line, pencil in key characters’ faces, and make notes on the scene’s settings. Ben Oda would then letter the dialogue in ink, and, finally, Evans would complete the strips, drawing the remaining characters, completing the backgrounds, and inking it all.
We usually picture an assistant working in the same studio as the main artist, but assistants tell stories of exchanging penciled drawings for finished inked drawings (the ink often still wet) in a mall parking lot just minutes before a mailing deadline. Occasionally the help is truly long-distance. When Nate Butler assisted Fred Lasswell with “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” in the mid-90’s, Butler was an artist living in New Mexico and Lasswell in Tampa, Florida. Drawings were faxed, inked, scanned, and e-mailed back and forth.
When the creator of a strip, for one reason or another, gives it up, it is usually the assistant who has first crack at carrying on the work.
Several assistants later “inherited” the creator’s strip and carried it on for several years –
Al Smith on “Mutt and Jeff”
Fred Laswell on “Barney Google”
Currently, John Rose on “Barney Google”
Les Turner on “Captain Easy”
Dave Graue on “Alley Oop”
currently, Jack Bender on “Alley Oop”
Harold LeDoux on “Judge Parker”
Max Van Bibber on “Winnie Winkle”
Jack Elrod on “Mark Trail”
Rick Fletcher on “Dick Tracy”
Ferd Johnson on “Moon Mullins”
Jim Scancarelli on “Gasoline Alley”
Bud Sagendorf on “Thimble Theatre”
Les Carroll on “Boots”
Sometimes, as in the case of Vern Greene, years of association are not necessarily required. In the early years of his career, Greene ghosted some panels for George McManus’ “Bringing Up Father” but turned down full-time work on the feature. When McManus became ill, a full twenty years later, he recalled the help Greene had given him and gave him the nod to work on – and eventually take over – his daily strip.
Al Smith was another whose work paid off. When Bud Fisher’s original assistant died in the ‘30’s, Smith was hired to replace him on “Mutt and Jeff.” Fired one day, Smith was desperately searched out and rehired at an increased salary. Toward the end of Fisher’s career, Smith was doing all the work on the strip while his employer travelled the world, married a countess, and nearly forgot about his famous creation. At the end, Smith was left with $5,000 in Fisher’s will along with custody of Mutt and Jeff.
Al Capp began as an assistant to Ham Fisher on “Joe Palooka” but later wrote (“I Remember Monster” in Atlantic Monthly, May 1950) that his experience was a nightmare. On the other hand, Phil Boyle, who worked for Fisher through the 40’s and ‘50’s found him a fair man and was intensely loyal to Fisher.
Other assistants went on to develop strips of their own-
Don Sherwood – from assistant on “Terry and the Pirates” to creating “Dan Flagg”
Jim Davis - from assistant on “Tumbleweeds” to creating “Garfield”
Jack Berrill –from assistant on “Winnie Winkle” to creating “Gil Thorp”
Pete Hoffman - from assistant on “Steve Roper” to creating “Jeff Cobb”
The prize for employing the greatest number of assistants would go to the late Dan Barry, who worked with over 30 helpers during his 40+ year career on “Flash Gordon.” Many of the early assistants were likely “whatever friend walked through the door” with time to ink some panels. Later long-term helpers, like Fred Kida and Bob Fujitani, were prior comic book associates from the ‘40’s. Interestingly, those who worked with Barry called him an outstanding storyteller, a master of layout.
When it came to hiring assistants, you had to hand it to Al Capp. At one time or another, to help with “Li’l Abner” he hired six of the best in the business-
George Shedd, famed watercolorist
Frank Frazetta, Tarzan paperbacks and poster illustrator
Tom Scheuer, top advertising artist
Bob Lubbers, famous comic book artist
Lee Elias, illustrator and comic book artist
Jack Rickard, MAD magazine artist
Comic strip lettering can be produced from an electric typewriter (and glued into word balloons) or by various computer fonts. Most artists still prefer to hand-letter their strips or to hire a lettering artist for that task. The late Ben Oda was a master letterer, providing crisply inked captions and dialogue for hundreds of comic books and such strips as “Big Ben Bolt,” “Flash Gordon,” “On Stage,” and “The Phantom.” Artist Irwin Hasen recalls that he used to leave his apartment unlocked for Ben to come in at night and letter “Dondi.”
THE COMIC STRIP “GHOST”
A number of comic strip assistants have “graduated” to the point of anonymously doing all of the drawing on a strip. Like a ghost writer, these are “ghost artists,” usually working under the creator’s signature. Some have carried on the entire chores of writing, penciling, and inking the work. Their identity is typically held secret for several years.
Why would a successful cartoonist turn a prized feature over to other hands?
Most ghosting is simply a short-term favor, covering for another artist for a week or two so the friend can leave on a vacation.
Sometimes the creating artist becomes ill or is otherwise unable to continue doing the strip. (Bill Hoest filled in the last several months of Haenigsen’s “Penny.”) When Gus Arriola injured his back in 1958, his local friends (Hank Ketcham, Al Parker, Eldon Dedini, Al Wiseman) jumped in and covered for him for about four weeks. (See “Accidental Ambassador Gordo” by R.C. Harvey, p.147-148.)
Perhaps the creating artist died, and the strip has continued for months under his name. For years, King Features Syndicate employed a number of skilled staff artists who were ready to step in and ghost a strip whenever necessary, including Joe Musial, Bob Naylor, and Hy Eisman. Some talents – like Al McWilliams, Bob Lubbers, Frank Bolle, and Tex Blaisdell – could fill in and duplicate almost any artist’s style. When Bud Sagendorf became ill in 1994, Hy Eisman was asked to temporarily ghost the Sunday “Thimble Theatre (Popeye)” page.
Eisman continued to write and draw the Sunday after Sagendorf passed away.
On occasion, the creator may be grooming an assistant to take over upon his retirement.
(Hank Ketcham was both manager and mentor for Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton on “Dennis the Menace.”)
Usually, the creating artist needs some time off or wants to develop some new ideas.
Bud Fisher (“Mutt and Jeff” in 1907) was one of the earliest artists to employ ghosts.
Zeke Zekely worked for years with George McManus on “Bringing up Father.”
The dramatic improvement in the appearance of “Tailspin Tommy” in the mid-30’s was likely due to the hiring of Reynold Brown to assist with the art. Brown went on to become a major poster artist for the movies.
Phil Boyle developed a major portion of the art on “Joe Palooka” in the 50’s.
Nat Edson had a significant hand in “Tim Tyler’s Luck.”
Jim Raymond helped with “Blondie,” and continued the art after Chic Young’s death.
Bob Fujitani drew “Flash Gordon” with Dan Barry, and later signed the art.
Sururi Gumen drew “Kerry Drake” for many years, later signing the art.
THE COMIC STRIP WRITER
A number of popular comic strips have been the result of a teamwork between an artist and a writer.
Among the leading comic strip writers have been-
Allen Saunders – “Mary Worth,” “Steve Roper.” Saunders’ stories are carried on by his son, John.
Nicholas Dallis – Dallis was a psychiatrist who began writing for the comics in 1948 with “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and later added “Judge Parker.” Dallis’s strips are currently written by his former assistant, Woody Wilson.
Lee Falk – Falk specialized in adventure stories, creating “Mandrake” and “The Phantom.”
R.R.Winterbotham wrote dozens of children’s stories and scripted later stories for “Red Ryder” and “Captain Easy.”
Elliot Caplin – the brother of Al Capp, Caplin was a magazine and comic book editor and developer of newspaper funnies. Caplin wrote “Abbie An’ Slats,” “Big Ben Bolt,” and “Juliet Jones.”
Paul S. Newman (not the actor) is credited with writing hundreds of comic book stories and the comic strips “Smokey the Bear” and “The Lone Ranger.”
Jim Lawrence wrote novels and scripted the comics “Dallas,” “James Bond,” “Friday Foster,” and “Captain Easy.”
Howard Liss - did fiction, non-fiction, and the comics “Buck Rogers” and “Johnny Hazard.”
Science fiction novelist Fritz Leiber wrote the “Buck Rogers” strip for two years.
Steve Carlin wrote the “Happy the Humbug” strip before creating TV’s “Rootie Kazootie” and “The 64,000 Dollar Question.”
Among the current writers are Jerry Jenkins, best-selling author of the “Left Behind” novels and several sports biographies. Jenkins currently writes the high school sports strip“Gil Thorp.”
Science fiction author/editor wrote the “Flash Gordon” strip for Dan Barry for a while in the late ‘50’s. Shaw commented on writing for the strips:
“Aside from all the other requirements of a good story, each daily strip
should (ideally) be a complete incident in itself, resembling a short story
or a novel in having a beginning, a middle and an end. Since it will usually
have a cliffhanger in the last panel, the first panel will usually resolve
yesterday's cliffhanger. At the same time, it should not leave the new
reader, who has never seen the strip before, totally befuddled as to what is
going on. If that sounds difficult, let me assure you that it is -- but
plenty of good men have done it the past.
“It's comparatively easier, of course, if you resort to the use of lots of
captions, but I have always believed and Dan Barry agreed with me that
captions are a copout. The perfect comic strip should be composed of
pictures and dialogue only. It's probably impossible to avoid captions
completely, and the temptation to use them is always there, but they make
the strip an illustrated textual story instead of a visual drama with
dialogue. At his peak, Milton Caniff rarely used captions; now he throws
them in indiscriminately. If you're not convinced, ask yourself if you've
ever seen a good movie (since the advent of sound, of course) with captions
to explain what is happening in the pictures.” (Shaw, 1957 )
THE CARTOONIST AND THE SYNDICATE
Syndication is the link between the cartoonist and the newspaper. Major syndicates (which often represent columns, panels, and puzzles, as well as comic strips) will contract for the feature, then sell, package and distribute it to newspapers around the country. Of the dozens of syndicates that have been developed, King Features, Chicago Tribune, NEA, and United Features are among the few that have have survived.
Each year a large syndicate may add only three or four new strips, selecting from hundreds of submissions. Syndicate salesmen offer samples and release information to papers, and the newspaper features editor continually chooses a mix of panels and strips appealing to a broad audience of readers. A few years ago, many cities had multiple papers, with both morning and evening news. Local newspapers would bid on the most popular strips, since the same strip could not appear in both papers.
The syndicate agreement has typically involved:
? A 50-50 split of costs and profits between cartoonist and syndicate
? A requirement to submit daily strips 6-8 weeks ahead of appearance date
(Garry Trudeau is an exception: to keep “Doonesbury” topical, he works only two weeks ahead of publication.)
? An agreement on licensing and merchandiding of the characters
? An editorial say in the content at syndicate headquarters
Over twenty years ago Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) developed a contract guide for cartoonists to work with syndicates. The National Cartoonists Society distributed it to members.
A few creators have chosen the tough road of self-syndication of their feature.
The best book for anyone interested in developing and selling a comic strip is “Your Career in the Comics” by Lee Nordling.
Most of the popular syndicated cartoonists have been members of the NCS, the National Cartoonists Society. Activities of the NCS have included chalk talks at hospitals and visits to members of the military and veterans. The Society holds an annual meeting at which time the “Reuben” award (named for Rube Goldberg) is given for the best work in several categories (humor strip, story strip, comic book, magazine gags, ...)
Recent cooperations have involved strips promoting literacy and a series of Thanksgiving strips focusing on world hunger. Proceeds from the sale of these strips have gone to assist the hungry.
On April Fool’s Day a few years ago, several dozen cartoonists agreed to swap strips or to feature characters from other cartoons in their strips.
CARTOONISTS PICTURE THEMSELVES
Every so often, a comic artist will include a cartoonist as one of the characters in his strip. This is usually amusing and often insightful.
In 1947, “Little Orphan Annie” (Harold Gray) briefly featured a cartoonist named Tik Tok, creator of “Little Widget the Waif.” Somehow the public always wound up mad at poor Tik Tok.
In 1953, Les Turner introduced the cartoonist Patakey as a character in “Captain Easy.”
Patakey is desperate for strip ideas, continually battling deadlines, and always looking for a way to mail his artwork to the syndicate. Easy concludes that battling worldwide criminals is an easier career than being a cartoonist.
Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” (1957) showed us Allen Flounder, creator of “Mary Worm,” America’s most beloved busybody (a parody of Allen Saunders, who was writing “Mary Worth.”) In the strip, Flounder’s model is his own mother-in-law whose constant chatter and advice are driving him bonkers.
During the same month, in August of 1957, the lead character of “Mary Worth” visited the mansion-studio of Hal Rapp, the creator of the “Big Abe” hillbilly comic strip. The ego-driven Rapp shows Mary his “assembly line” – a room full of artists at a huge drawing table.
“Every man here is a specialist!” brags Rapp. “Joe does the ads for that (Ugh) cereal! Ed handles the hair oil account. Fred there draws nothing but pigs! And I’ve even got a specialist on bare feet! I use a lot of bare feet! Any questions, Mrs. Worth?”
“Yes! One, Mr. Rapp!.. What do YOU do?”
The nearly simultaneous appearances of Hal Rapp and Allen Flounder suggested a nasty feud between the creators (although the strips would have been prepared several weeks before they appeared). It was later revealed that both cartoonists had planned the satires together and apparently had a lot of fun with the concept.
In October of ’68, “Li’l Abner” included a sequence about cartoonist Bedlay Damp and his strip “Peewee,” a little boy with a dog Croopy and a lot of psychiatric ideas. (Sound familiar?) Eventually the syndicate fires Damp and hires his neighbor, a psychiatrist.
Gus Arriola, in his delightful “Gordo” strip, created the harried cartoonist Windsor Knott who regularly races to the post office with his strips just before the deadlines and loses sleep coming up with new gags. For awhile the antics of the young Texas girl Mary Francis Sevier supply him with material. Another time he stumbles onto some local hallucinogenic mushrooms that provide him with bizarre stories.
Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” parodied a cartoonist with multiple assistants during September of 1964. The story involved the artist of “Sawdust” who has four assistants who sit side by side, each drawing a panel of the strip simultaneously.
Recently, Robb Armstrong’s “Jump Start” has included a series of gags about the Cobbs’ favorite comic strip, “Klondike Ike” by Vic Van Streck (“a goofy comic about some dude and a crazy polar bear”). The creator has now retired to the golf links and his son is drawing the strip. (“Dad, I have a funny idea.” “Draw it up and stop calling me.”)
Probably the most bizarre portrayal of a cartoonist was a story titled “The Success Story” that appeared in the first issue of Creepy. Written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Al Williamson, it was the story of a no-talent artist named Baldo Smudge who dreamed of having his own comic strip. He begins as an assistant to a famous cartoonist, learning the tricks of the trade. (“Get me some coffee, Smudge, then you can finish ruling those panel borders.”) He finds it slow going selling his strip to the syndicates. (“This stinks!...You ought to look for work ruling panel borders!”) Eventually a rich uncle dies, and Smudge is able to produce a strip, hiring one assistant to write it, another to draw it, a third to ink and letter it. (“Just leave your scripts here, I’ll start penciling as soon as I finish ruling these panel borders.”) Eventually the assistants, still unknown to each other, manage to get several years ahead on the strip and start demanding a credit line. Then one day they run into each other. (“You write Smudge’s strip? I pencil it!” “Write? Pencil? I ink it! Something fishy’s been going on here!”)
When the three confront Smudge, he shoots them and tosses them into a lake, but they return as monsters to drag him off. Did Goodwin base the premise of the story (not the ending) on a situation he’d heard about? Only the Shadow knows.
SUCCESS IN THE COMICS BUSINESS
It is a fact of life that some comic strips take off like a rocket while others wither and fade in a year or less. Many of the most successful cartoonists tried one or more strips before hitting the winning combination-
Sidney Smith did “Old Doc Yak” before creating “The Gumps”
George McManus did “Panhandle Pete” (and several others) before creating “Bringing Up Father”
George Herriman did “The Family Upstairs” (and several others) before introducing “Krazy Kat”
Pat Brady did “Graves Inc.” before creating “Rose is Rose”
Jim Davis tried to market “Gnorm Gnat” before creating “Garfield”
Major syndicates often receive over four thousand candidate strips in a year and accept fewer than five for a contract. Most have guidelines for submission of a strip, including materials, size (proportional to printed size), three weeks of daily samples, description, and cover letter. Some syndicate editors will work with a good prospect to develop it for publication.
What makes a successful, top-selling, humor comic strip?
? true humor – whether joke, pun, satire, irony, situation
(A humor strip may readily generate a gag for such events as New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Tax day –April 15, the Fourth of July, the start of school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, but that still leaves 355 gags to develop.)
? identification – something, somewhere, in the strip that many readers can
? some uniqueness
? a continuing cast of characters whose personalities generate ongoing gags
? a good mix of art and words.
Many freelance gag cartoonists and comic book artists have looked at producing a daily comic strip as the ideal situation, “the holy grail” for a cartoonist.
The talented artist Jack Davis, however, found the syndicated comic strip field a huge hurdle in the early ‘60’s with his “Beauregard” offering. Nick Meglin writes, “Difficult to crack under any condition, it’s practically impossible if you’re a non-writer...Most strips are bought as a package – art and story.” (Meglin, 1981)
Sylvan Byck, former comics editor at King Features Syndicate, once offered the following guidelines for prospective cartoonists:
“There are some things I always look for in a new strip, and it is possible to point out a few guidelines that may be helpful to the cartoonist whose aim is syndication.
"The most important ingredients in a comic strip, in my opinion, are the warmth and charm of its central characters. If it is a humor strip, readers must like the characters enough to laugh with them as well as at them. If it is a narrative strip, readers must care enough about the hero to really want him to win out over the villain.
"An artist who attempts to create a comic strip character is in effect trying to create the equivalent of a movie or TV star. If you will stop and think about it a minute, you will see why this is so. When Bob Hope steps into view on the TV tube, all of us are on his side immediately. ...We want to laugh at his jokes because his charm and the warmth of his personality make us like him. With only his pen to aid him, the cartoonist is faced with the task of bringing to "life" a personality that, hopefully, will match that of a Bob Hope or a Cary Grant or a Red Skelton. It isn't easy, but the rewards are substantial for those who can do it.
"Although characterization is the most important element of a comic, the cartoonist also must cope with the problem of choosing a theme for his new strip. What will it be about?
"Actually, it is possible to do a successful comic strip about almost anything or anybody if the writing and drawing are exactly right for the chosen subject. In general, though, it is best to stay away from themes that are too confining. If you achieve your goal of syndication, you want your strip to last a long time. You don't want to run out of ideas after a few weeks or months.
"In humor strips, it is better to build around a character than around a job. For example, it is possible to do some very funny comic strip gags about a taxi driver. But a strip that is limited to taxi driver gags is bound to wear thin pretty fast. I'd rather see a strip about a warmly funny man who just happens to earn his living as a cabbie, and whose job is only a minor facet of his potential for inspiring gags.
"Narrative strips can be and often are based on the central character's job. For example, the basis of a private eye strip is the work he does. But even here the strip will only be as successful as the characterization in it. The big question is what kind of a man is this particular private eye.
"A few final words. Syndication is the big leagues. A young sandlot outfielder would hardly think of applying for Mickey Mantle's job without first getting some minor league experience. Learn how to draw. Learn how to write. Keep at it until your work has the polish of a professional. Then and only then, produce a set of samples and submit them to the syndicattes. Good luck!” (Byck)
These are difficult times for the comics – printing sizes have been shrunk drastically,
most adventure strips have ceased, and there is strong competition with newspapers from other media, particularly the Internet. Nevertheless, quality funnies are still in high demand and their creative artists and writers will continue to entertain us for many years ahead.
Andriola, Alfred, quoted in Hoff, Syd, The Art of Cartooning, Struver Educational Press, 1973.
Astor, David, “Putting the Byte in Comics,” Editor and Publisher, Nov. 14, 1998, p.24.
Byck, Sylvan, quoted in Hoff, Syd, The Art of Cartooning, Struver Educational Press, 1973.
Boughner, Howard, Cartooning Jobs for Beginners, Walter T. Foster, (1960).
Harvey, R.C., Accidental Ambassador Gordo, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Meglin, Nick, The Art of Humorous Illustration, Watson-Guptill, 1981.
Nordling, Lee, Your Career in the Comics, Andrews and McMeel, 1995.
Outcault, R.F., “Buster Brown”,1910, quoted in Blackbeard, Bill, “The Comics,” Friendly Exchange, 1981.
Shaw, Larry T., “I Was a Dropout from the Planet Mongo,” Esdacyos 22, 1973.
Prepared by Paul Leiffer and Hames Ware
Return to Home Page