The Ghost Who Draws (My Adventures Drawing Newspaper Strips)
Well, they're not books--not really. They're magazines. Also known as periodicals. Long ago they were called funny books. And even if they no longer cost 10 cents, nonetheless they had their birth in the free four-color section of the local newspaper known as the "funny papers."
Ever wonder why comic books are 32 pages or 64 pages in length? It's because somebody got the bright idea to take the tabloid size Sunday pages and fold them in such a way that, once re-paginated for the new format and stapled in the middle, they became a book version of the comic strips. In fact, most of the early comic books consisted solely of reprinted newspaper strips. And, that's why all comics were originally printed on newsprint.
It is ironic that the term comic book uses the word "comic" which of course means funny--because most comics now are not humorous. True, they started out that way and so did newspaper strips. But now the labels "comics book" and "comic strip" are oddities we are stuck with. Eventually the "adventure strip" emerged in all its permutations, and that's where we are headed here.
Question for all you amateur comic book historians: Who was the first costumed hero in the comics? If you answered Superman you were wrong. It was "The Ghost Who Walks"--Lee Falk's The Phantom! A character which I had the pleasure of drawing--but not in the comic books. And that brings us to the topic of this installment, which is not about comic book history but rather about that primarily American art form's close relative, the newspaper strip.
And since this column is about "secrets behind the comics" I'll be talking a lot about the drawing aspect of things. By the way, Isn't it odd that drawing for the comics is commonly referred to as cartooning? I mean, these days very few comic book artists draw cartoons or work in a cartoon-like style. So that's another misnomer that causes a bit of confusion.
I always favored the "adventure strips" that ran in the daily newspaper, which in my case was the Detroit News. As a collector I used to clip out my favorite strips every week and paste them into albums--and I never thought of them as cartoons. My favorite ones were drawn by what I would more appropriately label as "illustrative storytellers."
So, for me there was no confusion about it. This art was not quite like the exaggerated and imaginative stylings that graced the pages of super-hero books. To me it was always clear that being a comic book artist and being a newspaper strip "cartoonist" were two very distinctly different things.
Why am I bothering to point that out? Well, it's obvious that not all artists are alike, but think about this: Not all comic book artists can do newspaper strip illustration--and not all newspaper strip artists can do comic books. There is some crossover, yes. But only a handful, at best, are equally adept at both. Despite obvious similarities, they are really two different art forms that involve different disciplines.
To make things clearer, let me just say that, based on my experience, to draw newspaper adventure strips you need a lot more than cartooning skills to put you over. A lot more. You need to really know good draftsmanship in the classical sense, and to be able to apply that skill while working in a very limited and specific graphic format, producing it fast and with a convincing veneer of "realism." So for our purposes, that tends to beg a few pointed questions.
Do you have to know how to draw really well to draw like Al Williamson? Of course you do.
Would that same good draftsmanship be needed in order to "ghost" for artists like Dan Barry and Seymour Barry? You better believe it!
So when I ventured into drawing for newspaper strips I was at an early age joining the esteemed ranks of some highly skilled and very accomplished comic book artists who also drew for this medium--artists like Neal Adams, Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, Frank Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Joe Kubert, Wally Wood, Dan Barry and Seymour Barry (just to name a few).
You earn the respect of men like these by doing--and not by faking it.
I was fortunate to get the opportunity to explore this challenging medium, and I didn't delve into it empty-headed either. From my early fan artist days I was fully immersed in the art of some of the best illustrative storytellers in the business: Alex Raymond, Leonard Starr, Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Milton Canniff, Stan Drake, etc.
I'm not comparing myself to those giants, and maybe I didn't exactly climb the greatest heights or break any world records--but I did scale a few peaks.
In the comics world, I'm known mostly for my super-hero work (even though I have worked in nearly every genre). I thought it would be interesting to feature some of my work in this medium that most comic book fans are not aware of, along with some comments about how the work was done.
Comic Book Publishers & Newspaper Syndicates...
Mainstream comic books are produced by publishing companies. The publisher then hires editors, and the editors hire the writers and artists. Newspaper strips are produced by writers and artists who are not supervised by an editorial department. The creators, in this case, have no boss. There is no art director or editor. They essentially answer to nobody.
The "product" is not published by the syndicate, but is distributed to newspapers who did the actual printing. A newspaper syndicate, depending on how large it is, could often reach an international readership (as in the case of The Phantom and Flash Gordon).
Stories in the comic books were usually told in single monthly books--sometimes two or three issues. But the story arcs for newspaper strips were told in a much more condensed and serialized format. There were no set lengths for the story arcs. Often the storyline that ran in the Sunday pages would be an entirely different one than what ran in the dailies.
Okay, so how did I come to draw The Phantom, Flash Gordon and Secret Agent Corrigan? Well, the reality of this field is that it is very much a somewhat exclusive and almost private club--very few get in, receive their own bi-line and achieve status and longevity. Those that do tend to hold onto it forever.
You see, you don't break into the business, because this industry doesn't actually hire anybody (not on a freelance basis, anyway). It is big business, but as I said, it is very exclusive. To further underscore that point, the chances of somebody new creating an original property and getting a contract with a syndicate to launch it are, frankly, slim to none. So job opportunities for artists seeking work in newspaper strips are normally few and far between even up to this day.
So, what is left? A practice called "ghosting"--which is when another artist "pinch hits" for the artist, usually on a totally anonymous basis. That happens when a creator artist wants to take a vacation, or gets sick and needs a leave of absence, or if in rare instances he is working perilously close to deadline and needs to catch up or get ahead.
This is not an ususual practice, but it can be risky for the creators. Sometimes the transition from one artist to another is a smooth one and goes more or less unnoticed. Other times the differences in style can't be avoided and are very noticeable.
The trick is to get away with it without the syndicate becoming alarmed, because this is a business practice not sanctioned by them. The syndicate as the licensor might overlook this practice if they do find out--then again, they might not. And I'm fairly certain that there are penalties for breach of contract (for example, an artist can be penalized as much as hundreds of dollars per day for every day he is late). So when the artist hires a "ghost" this is a private undertaking, and always done with the utmost discretion of the involved parties.
Now with Secret Agent Corrigan, Al did hire other artists to assist him (Carlos Garzon, for one) and working with assistants actually was a common and accepted practice. As for "ghosting", this was much rarer. I know that Neal Adams actually substituted for Al on some dailies before I came along.
In my case, I met Al at a time when he was actively looking for an artist to "ghost" for him. I picked up on this lead via the artists' grapevine. Looking back now I realize that by choosing me, Al might have been perceived as taking an unusual risk because of my age (I was only 22 years old at the time). Was I up to it? Check out the week of dailies below which I penciled and inked for him, and you decide.
Here is another trivia question: What do Flash Gordon and Secret Agent Corrigan have in common? Answer: Alex Raymond. He was the creator of both of these characters (originally, Secret Agent Corrigan was known as Secret Agent X-9).
My work on Flash Gordon called for a whole different treatment than what I did for Al. While Williamson's art style subtly evoked Alex Raymond's later period, Dan Barry's style suggested much of Raymond's earlier Flash Gordon stylisms--and to some extent Mac Raboy's work on Flash after Raymond left the strip. For my money, though, nobody has yet surpassed Alex Raymond.
I was recommended by highly esteemed Ben Oda, a letterer for D.C. Comics who also lettered many of the big name newspaper strips. That led to a meeting with Dan Barry and he hired me to "ghost pencil" the Flash Gordon daily strip for him, with Dan and his assistant Bob Fugitani doing the inking.
I had already earned a name for myself in the comics field, so I didn't really need the work. But there was no way I could pass this up! For a style guide I was given a few dozen proofs of Dan's work up to that point. I was not working from layouts, and not lightly sketching either. This was fully finished pencils.
Dan Barry's storytelling approach on Flash was much more straightforward and conservative than Al's. Very conservative. What was my approach? Well, first a few observations: What I never liked in action-adventure strips is that for the most part the artist's "camera" was always straight on and at eye level. This seldom varied, even for close ups. That often meant little excitement visually, even when something exciting was happening. Also, the "acting" of the characters seemed to me to be a bit stiff and underplayed.
So I pumped up the volume a bit. I was coming from a comic book storytelling sensibility. But I had to keep in mind that the strip was not aimed at a comic book audience but was rather more of a mainstream readership that was mostly adult. So subtlety was the key ingredient.
The main thing Dan Barry always insisted upon was clarity. He was a master at this. Lots of shadows and mood, all of the drawing solid and convincing, but always done with a clear idea of what was happening in the frame. Another thing that he and his brother Seymour both had in common. That was insisting that every element in the drawing look real and totally convincing. That is, absolutely no "fudging" or making things up.
You had to nail it, to get it right every time in terms of details and accuracy. Nothing vague or distracting. Everything had to look like it was, whether it was an animal, a human figure, a weapon, costumes, or something architectural or mechanical. That was a discipline I would learn well and apply to my later comic book drawing.
Also, there was a bare minimum of "motion lines" used to indicate movement, and no comic book special effects were allowed--ever! If there was an explosion, for example, it had to really look like something exploded. Hence, none of the flashy tricks and effects we rely upon in the comic books to pump up the drama and make the action more dynamic.
When I got hired to "ghost" for "The Ghost Who Walks," Dan's brother Seymour Barry didn't need to audition me. Dan's recommendation was enough. I had helped Dan get ahead on his deadline by a few months. Now it was Seymour's turn.
The Phantom character was always special to me. He looked like a super-hero, he had a touch of the supernatural to him, and I always thought he looked striking and a bit sinister (the skull imagery and mask with opaque eyeholes did a lot to augment that).
Seymour (or "Sy", as he was known professionally) was a bit more demanding than his brother. My job, again, was to "ghost pencil"--this time for both dailies and an occasional Sunday page. Seymour worked often with Joe Giella, who assisted on the inking chores now and then--and style-wise, there were times when you could hardly tell where Sy would leave off and Joe would begin.
We got off to a rocky start, though, because Sy did not welcome my comic book style of action at first. So I toned things down for him while still exercising my storytelling strengths and doing everything I could to at least make the Phantom look heroic in every shot.
The quality of the color printing would vary with each newspaper. Also, the top tier of panels on a Sunday page were always scripted in such a way that the story worked without them. This part of the page was considered a "throw away" because many newspapers only ran the formatted three tiers with or without the optional color logo at the top.
Regarding credits--It's interesting to note that my name obviously never appeared because I was working anonymously. But with Al Williamson and Dan Barry, none of the work I did for either of them carried their signatures anywhere. Just their typeset bi-lines at the top. With the Phantom strip there was always a pasted in credit box with Sy Barry's signature (whether he drew the work or not).
In comic books, I seldom got many opportunities to draw animals. With the Phantom, animals were more than plentiful--and you had to get them right! For me that was no mean feat. I remember making many treks to the main library's picture department to do the necessary research so I could get all the details right. Sy was always very exacting when it came to this. The Phantom lived in what was supposed to be a real jungle, not a comic book version of it.
I don't remember ever getting a compliment from Sy about my figure work (or any of my drawing, for that matter--he was always a bit on the stingy side when it came to that). He did however remark one time that he was impressed with my handling of horses and all of the creatures of the jungle. I think he was surprised, actually, considering just how many comic book artists usually fall short in this area.
Be sure to visit Rich's Hermetic Surrealism website at www.richbuckler.com and of course his comicbook-related site at www.bucklercomicart.com. And if you're interested (and who wouldn't be?) Rich does commissioned sketches, drawings, cover recreations and paintings. You can contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org!