Monday, April 27, 2020

Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon, April 27, 1960

This daily was published 60 years ago this very day. Far out.

This is not one of my favorite pieces. I’m not sure why I bought it, 25 or so years ago at San Diego Comic Con (as it was known in those halcyon days). I don’t particularly like it now. I only like panel 2 out of the four. The woman, Miss Barker, annoys me; she’s a dead ringer of Summer Olsen, Poteet Canyon, Bitsy Beekman and Stalky Schweisenberger. Which is to say all of his women looked alike by this time in Caniff’s artistic evolution.

The only enjoyment this particular piece gives me is from studying panel enlargements to luxuriate in Caniff’s fearless freehand brushwork. He makes it look so easy. I suspect his penciling was minimal, that he did most of the drawing in the inking stage. I cite the generous swaths of white paint on the reclining figure in panel 1 as evidence of my theory.

Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon, November 10, 1951

As a lad, I had no use for Milton Caniff. I had grown up, in the 60’s and 70’s, reading his later-day Steve Canyon strips in my local newspaper (or, starting in 1973, the Menomonee Falls Gazette) and was completely unimpressed. It wasn’t until 1983, when Kitchen Sink Publishing started reprinting the series from it’s 1947 beginning, that I saw what all the fuss was about. Unlike the tiny (in every respect) soap operas of the latter years,  the first 15 or 20 were epic, grand, full of exotic locals, eccentric characters, and beautiful women who were almost individualized as the men. His lighting/cinematography was realistic yet stylized, simplified, and the compositions were clear-yet-dynamic. The character’s acting/ posing was… what was it? Not over the top and operatic, like the work of Neal Adams in his early 60’s Ben Casey comic series. Often the characters in Steve Canyon were just standing inexpressively… yet, like everything else in these strips, there was not a wasted line, word or gesture. Everything, the compositions, the acting, the lighting, posing, inking, character designs conspired together to move the stories briskly, clearly forward. This, I saw immediately, was the work of a world-class cartoonist at the top of his game.

Panel 1) Check out the cool way the men and jeep in the middle-ground are in shadow as though cast by strong daylight. In the background, cropped by the horizon of the foreground unpaved street dropping steeply downhill, we see foreign-looking figures, also in shadow, with their arms raised (is this a story element or just background texture? I’ve never read this storyline, so I have no idea) I appreciate the simplicity of the rendering; thick, juicy blacks with light areas picked out for a back-lit feeling. The dirt road in the foreground is similarly treated, giving a unified feel. The lightly sketched far-distant background, we see the military base looking out toward sea, the unseen, undrawn horizon disappearing in the haze. The word balloons, with the generously large lettering, occupy over half of the panel yet, masterfully, hide nothing of interest to the story.

Panel 2) Caniff structured his daily strips like gag strips. Each strip would usually have 3 panels; the first panel would be set up, the second would develop the action or character interaction, the 3rd would pay it off with a punch line of sorts. This daily appears to be the ending of one storyline and the beginning over another (apparently featuring Steve’s love interest and future wife, Summer Olson) so the usual set up/development/payoff structure is truncated into panels 1 & 2.  The two soldiers, apparently supporting players in the previous storyline, feel themselves to be heroes for their involvement in the previous storyline and crow expectantly about their impending victory lap/homecoming. The payoff, in panel 2, is that nobody knows or cares about their exploits. As for the acting, the soldiers have their hats off as if expecting a ticker-tape parade but their only audience is a grunt doing KP and the smirking jeep driver. Everyone is in the perfect pose to pay off the joke. And the inking, as in panel 1, is thick and juicy, slopped down at high speed, yet accurate and controlled. Notice, as with panel 1, how the lettering takes up the better part of the panel yet in no way impinges on the artwork.

Panel 3) Let’s say a word about establishing shots, especially those of interiors with windows exposing daylight exteriors. It is an artistic challenge, in both photography and art (if one is aspiring to a realist effect) to get enough light to see the interior space while not having the exterior be completely blanched out. Caniff handles it masterfully here, using a technique similar to that in panel 1, i.e. keeping the foreground (laboratory interior) in black shadow with just enough light areas picked out for readability, and sketching the distant background (college campus exterior) loosely, lightly with just enough tiny lines for it to be recognizable. The black shading on the back and lower jaw of the foreground man gives the impression that both figures are lit by the panel-right window even though the middle figure is only similarly treated by the thick shadow on his left lapel. One more time I have to gush about the inking. I love the ink blotches on the middle figure’s crumpled vest and the almost signature like squiggles on his panel-right arm.

There are 2 different kinds of comic book/strip inkers: those whose work suffers when seen full size (or enlarged) and those who look better, as if one is really seeing them for the first time. Caniff is one of the latter. Unlike Harvey Kurtzman who struggled to give the false impression of looseness and spontaneity, Caniff really did slap the ink down. There’s a story told by a visitor to Caniff’s studio: When asked for a piece of artwork, Caniff grabbed a brush hardened with dried-in ink, bashed the ink-dried brush end into a table to loosen it up, dipped the brush into an inkwell, and whipped out a typical Caniff drawing with this crude tool. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, October 12, 1940

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been posting my original art collection in alphabetical order. I’ve worked my way though “A” and “B”; now on to “C”. What better place to start than with “Caniff”, i.e., Milton Caniff. Here we have a gorgeous “Terry and The Pirates” daily, part of the historic “Death of Raven Sherman” storyline (Ms. S is seen in the back ground of panel 1. Look fast; in 2 months she’ll be dead). For an added bonus, the Dragon Lady is featured in panels 1 and 2.

Every panel has something beautiful to look at, either with the characters, the composition, the spotting of blacks and use of silhouette. I especially like panel 2, with the outdoor shadow bisecting the bald dude’s head, acting as the outline of his skull, the rest of him practically a silhouette against the ground-white. (Interestingly, no texture ground-texture marks are made to add perspective to that surface).

I don’t want to neglect panels 2 or 3; they could have been used as examples in Wally Wood’s famous “Panels That Always Work” tutorial. We are in the presence of a master, sure of his abilities, flinging a multitude of grace notes with casual ease, like droplets of sweat from a Whirling Dervish.

Panel 3: Note the jagged rocks forming an inverted “V”, giving depth to the down-shot composition, the silhouetted figure acting as middle ground for the lower-right man and the lower left riflemen lying in ambush.

Panel 4: Another down shot (two in a row!), the grassy hump in the lower foreground serving as a frame for the line of parked cars further downhill. And I LOVE LOVE LOVE the middle car with its open door and the tiny figure, again, basically, a silhouette with the light of the shoulder picked out with a tiny fleck of white paint, the gun he loosely holds clearly but subtly framed by the light on the running board and the ground beneath. And the white-silhouette power lines, framed against the darkness of the hills.

And all the expository yadda yadda yadda. This is one dialogue-heavy daily. And it’s PAINLESS, in fact, even enjoyable. The compositions are arranged around these balloon blimps so that nothing pictorial is lost. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Robert Fabian Butts Jr., Whiz Comics 129, Page 1, "Lance O'Casey"

I won in this page in auction (Heritage Auction) on December 18, 2016. It is from Whiz Comics 129 and is attributed to “Bob Butts”, who I have never heard of. Being unfamiliar with the artist, and uninterested in “Lance O’Casey” (whoever HE was), my sole attraction was to the page itself. More precisely, what caught my eye was panel 2. I LOVE the ink work  in this panel and jagged almost serrated wave-lines and spotted blacks, and how the artist worked back into the wave-shadow shapes with little brush flecks of white paint, similar to the black brush-ink shapes in the light areas. Far from a placid ocean establishing shot, this image speaks of high winds, emotional turmoil.

The rest of the page is “not so much”, not up to the spectacular operatic line quality of panel 2. Not bad- I rather like the chunky slabs of shadow-ink on Lance’s pants in panel 3, and the weird squiggles pretending to be cross-hatching is swipeable to my eyes. And the lines of movement in panel 1 are pretty cool. One quibble: there’s no line-of-action connecting the conch conking the crook in the lower right corner, to Mike Bellew, the man throwing it in the upper-mid left.

Bob Butts is not listed in has nothing on him except that he has art credited in Amazing Mystery Stories #20 and #23. An obituary for Robert Fabian Butts Jr. says he was born on June 20, 1919 and died on May 26, 2008, of cancer. 

“Robert Butts… was the oldest of three sons … and was a graduate of the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn. Durning World War II Rob served in the Air Force as an Instrument Specialist, repairing airplanes in the Pacific Islands. After the war, he worked in New York City in such diverse venues as medical textbooks and the comics including panels for Batman and the Mike Hammer series.

“Robert worked for many years as a part-time illustrator for the Artistic Greeting Cards Company. Commercial work aside, Rob was an accomplished artist in oils, watercolor, egg tempera and other media, producing a large body of paintings during his lifetime  which with few exceptions he chose not to sell.

“He is probably best known as the co-author of the Seth material, the lifework of his wife, Jane Roberts, for  which he provided extensive and meticulously-researched comments, footnotes, appendices and manuscript editing, not to mention transcribing the Seth sessions themselves by hand, in his own home-made shorthand, then typing up each (usually quite lengthy) session, two carbon copies per page, on an old manual typewriter. Today the books he helped produce have sold over seven and a half million copies world wide. The entire collection of his and Jane’s work resides at… Yale  University, New Haven, Connecticut.”

iTunes Preview says, “Seth is the acclaimed non-physical teacher whose collected works are the most dynamic, brilliant and undistorted map of inner reality and human potential available today. His articulation of the furthest reaches of human potential, the eternal validity of the soul, and the concept that we create our own reality according to our beliefs…stands out as one of the major forces which led to the current New Age philosophical movement.”

Bob Brown/Murphy Anderson, Superboy 167, Pages 11 and 12, DC Comics, July, 1970

As an adolescent comic-phile, I had my pantheon of most beloved artists  Similarly, I had my “Bottom Ten”; Bob Brown was in the latter list. I especially resented his presence on Batman, a sore thumb in the regular rotation of Neal Adams and Irv Novick. At Marvel, on Avengers and Daredevil. I considered his character drawing ugly, his men too beefy, too fleshy, his women stilted and unsexy. As is the case with everyone else on my negative list, I’ve come to like and even collect Bob Brown artwork. I now consider his layouts clear, dynamic, simple and concise, with excellent variety of angle and camera distance. In other words, his pages read like greased lightning.
Since, at DC, Bob was working from complete scripts (and not, as he presumably would be a few years later, “Marvel Style”) one must give him props on how he handled the dialogue-heavy page 11. This issue was scripted by Frank Robbins, a skilled storyteller in his own right- I’m curious to know if Robbins provided Brown with thumbnails for word balloon placement, as if seems an integral part of the page and panel compositions.

I had not changed my mind on Bob Brown when I won these pages in auction(Heritage Auction) on December 23, 2012. My only interest was in the inking, by Murphy Anderson. Mr. A. has long been one of my favorite comic book inking specialists, and I was eager to have originals by him for closer study. Page 11 and page 12 are excellent for that purpose, as page 11 has a looming close-up of Ma Kent and two useful medium close-ups of Pa Kent. I also like the inking treatment of the radio in both close up and long shots. 
Page 12 has the textures of the volcano cone (with both long-shot ink treatments in panel 2 and close up in panel 3, with the added benefit of the lushly inked shadow from Super Baby flying in with the boulder. 

Side note: I regret that Anderson never got to ink the artists associated with Marvel Comics during the late 60’s and early 70’ s. I’m referring to John and Sal Buscema, Neal Adams (a whole story, not just a couple of covers), Gene Colan, Steranko, Dick Ayers, Herb Trimpe, Jack Kirby, Ross Andru and George Tuska. Oh well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Wayne Boring, Action Comics 351, Page 7, DC Comics, June 1967

When I was in junior high and high school, Wayne Boring was firmly entrenched in my pantheon of most-despised comic book artists. In those days, Neal Adams was my unassailable favorite, the standard by which all others were judged, usually unfavorably. I demanded Neal’s brand of hyper-dynamic, heightened realism and emotion; by comparison, Wayne’s work seemed stilted, silly, childish, a hold-over from a previous era of repressed sexuality; the comix equivalent of a badly acted 50’s low-budget Sci Fi movie, like “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” or “It”

I hadn’t really flipped my script on Wayne Boring when I purchased this page at San Diego Comic Con in the mid/late 80’s. At that point in my evolution, Neal Adams had been de-throned by Alex Toth, so what caught my eyes was the dynamic chiaroscuro lighting and the composition of the multifigure panel 4. I was willing to overlook the stilted, almost spastic posing, and he “all-full-figure-alll-medium-shot” panel compositions 

Upon further examination, the total page design is interesting as well. While, to my Adams/Toth indoctrinated gaze, the “all-full-figure-alll-medium-shot” panel compositions was a basis for rejection, the manner in which these medium long shot figures (and the other pictorial elements) direct one’s eyes through the page is really quite striking (see my annotated copy). I’ve not seen the printed comic; now I’m curious to see if Zha-Vam’s elbow, linking panels 4 and 5, made it in or not.

One of the really neat things about collecting original art, and blogging about it thusly (i.e., studying the page in question to try to articulate why I bought it and what I see in it now) is that I’m discovering all kinds of coolness. Now I’m determined to look at other Wayne art jobs for previously un-noticed subtleties.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Jordi Bernet, Torpedo 1936, "Every Dog Has His Day", Page 3

This is a “Torpedo 1936” page by Jordi Bernet, page 3 from the story “Every Dog Has His Day”. This story is anthologized in “Torpedo 1936” Volume 1, published in the U.S.A., in 1984. 

It’s the first Torpedo story illustrated by Bernet after the character’s co-creator, Alex Toth, dropped out after illustrating the first 2 adventures. 

I purchased this page at the San Diego Comic-Con in the late 90’s. (Had it yet become Comic-Con International?) The dealer I to whom I paid $600 was international, German I believe. 

I feel I lucked out on this page; it has everything—cool film noire lighting, great spotting of blacks, a beautiful woman in 2 panels, a cool close-up of a gun… 

But this page fucked me up, in a way, the same way Tony Salmon’s inks on “The Strange Adventures of H. P. Lovecraft” did—as I tried to imitate their bravura looseness and spontaneity (I had the original to this page leaning on my drawing board when I was inking the Fogtown graphic novel), I could only achieve crude and crappy. Check out the folds on the back of this guy’s jacket in panel 3. Mere mortals can’t get away with that kind of brushwork.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Dave Berg, "Biting Criticism", Mad Magazine, "Dave Berg Looks at Things"

"The Lighter Side of..." is an American satirical comic strip series written and drawn by Dave Berg and published in Mad Magazine from 1961 to 2002. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). This specific page saw print in “Dave Berg Looks at Things”, a paperback published by EC Comics in 1967. The image area is 12 x 20”, on a sheet of 14.5 x 24.5” sheet of 3 ply Strathmore.

I won this page at the Heritage Auction Weekly on line auction on July 10, 2016. The virtual hammer price was $110.00, the “Buyer’s Premium” (i.e. commission) was $21.45, postage handling and fees $15.25 and sales tax $13.20, resulting in a grand total of #159.90.

I bought the page out of a sense of nostalgia- I may have even read that paperback as a child, when my favorite comics were MAD and ARCHIE. In the present day, I rather like Berg’s realistic style of caricature. His subjects are specific, idiosyncratic and precise, simultaneously realistic and broad. 

Side note #1: Recently, through Heritage Auctions, I’ve become aware of the work of W. E. Hill. Quoting The Library of Congress>>Researchers, “TOPICS IN CHRONICLING AMERICA: W.E. HILL: MAKING THE WORLD SAFE FROM HYPOCRISY.
“Although cartoonist W.E. Hill ha now been largely forgotten, he was hailed as the artistic genius of his time… Every Sunday for years (1917-1962(?)), Americans eagerly awaited “Amon Us Mortals”. a full page pf satirical illustrations devoted to the everyday citizen. The drawings were so believable that readers swore every sketch was modeled after someone they personally knew.” It would be interesting to learn whether or not Berg was aware of and influenced by W. E. Hill.

Side note #2: While researching this blog, I saw, for the first time, photographs of Dave Berg. These reminded me that Mad Magazine was part of my sexual upbringing. Part of the reason I aspired to be a cartoonist was so that I could “get with” the cartoonists of my parent’s generation. I’ve always been sexually attracted to men in their 40’s to 60’s, around the age of my father when I hit puberty. Dave Berg’s  fits firmly within that category. Even stranger. 

Interesting Irony #1: Mr. Berg resembles my first lover/spouse, Dennis, who was 46 when I met him at age 21.

Interesting Irony #2: AT age 60, the “older man” is now usually my age or younger.

Interesting Irony #3: Berg’s satiric depictions are frequently “my type of guy”. 

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