Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Everybody Loves Raymond

Everybody loves Alex Raymond, or at least I think they should! Who can doubt his impact on the comic art medium and American pop culture. George Lucas credits Flash Gordon as his inspiration for Star Wars; not to mention it kept actors like Larry "Buster" Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller working for years. Raymond's millions of fans worldwide make him one of the most influential artists of our time. But I dare say his best creation was the "film noir" detective strip, Rip Kirby. But, don't get me wrong, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 and the other projects Raymond produced during his career are undoubtedly some of the greatest comic works of the century. But for all of Raymond's skill and talent, I believe it reached its peak with Rip Kirby. Perhaps its also my favorite strip because I can still afford some examples!

The story goes that when Raymond returned from WWII he was unable to resume Flash Gordon because of King Feature's contract with Austin Briggs. Not wanting to lose Raymond to a rival syndicate, they let him produce a new feature. It's debatable if King Features editor Ward Greene created the character, that was later more fully developed by writer Fred Dickenson. Whether Alex created the character or not, it was his success and name recognition that mattered with his audience. An instant hit for all involved, it even gave Raymond part ownership in the strip. And why not! Rip's not your average private eye. He's a perfect gentleman, who's also a brilliant scientist, athlete, Marine reservist, and sports car buff. Using more brains than brawn was his usual modus operandi in solving mysteries, but he still had time for a slug-out once in a while. It has many of the classic elements of detective fiction, but with a twist -- horn rimmed Buddy Holly glasses and a pipe! Similar in ways to other heroic gumshoes like Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and his side-kick Lugg. And to sweeten the deal, all the supporting cast are just as interesting as Remington, whether they're beauties, gangsters, hoods, con men, or cops.

Who would't want the life of Rip Kirby? A Mr. Lucky that lives in a snazzy New York apartment with his trusted aide, the frail balding butler Desmond. A reformed thief who's as skillful in making a soufflé as using guns or picking a lock. Next, Rip is blessed to have a knockout fashion model for a girlfriend, Honey Dorian, who often travels with him around the world on his exotic cases. We also have some interesting heavies like the charming femme fatale Pagan Lee. She shows up in my favorite storylines to the dismay of Honey since there is this love-hate relationship Pagan has with Rip. The two girls make interesting copy since they are portrayed as total opposites. A dark seductive worldly Pagan "yin" played against a pure sweet heavenly Honey "yang." And who could forget Remington's greatest villains like the Mangler or gambler Fingers Moray.

The strip debuted on March 4, 1946, and quickly introduced many new and innovative techniques to the medium. Raymond constantly searched for different ways to carry the story visually to readers with experimentation in his style. Driven for a clear and direct graphic, he changed the look every six or seven weeks on the daily. Always in firm control of his art and career, King Features offered Raymond $35,000 a year to produce a Sunday Rip Kirby page. Raymond declined citing the extra work the page would impose on his already limited free time.

We know Raymond used models, took reference photographs, and swiped from magazines in his efforts to absorb different approaches. He worked close to deadlines, leaving only three weeks of strips at the time of his death from an auto accident. He was inspired by living and drawing in an illustrator's community with the likes of Stan Drake, Al Parker, Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne, and others. It gave him fresh ideas on Rip that helped promote the realistic story strip with a fresh contemporary new look. Abandoning the old soap opera approach of a simpler outline style, Raymond brought numerous slick advertising techniques to the daily. Often he used a minute and detailed, close up, “big head” approach on Honey and the other beauties of the feature.

The strip can also be appreciated for its sophisticated use in "spotting" heavy black ink. Early Rip's seem sparse in the placement of blacks, being applied mainly for night scenes. But about three years into the daily, Raymond switched to using a heavy black even when in full sunlight. On one of Raymond's visits to Drake's studio he explained using black areas as “pools of quiet” for pacing. It served as a pause for the viewer, something to the slow the reader's eye across the strip's panels. Later in the run, Alex's simple backgrounds fully develop into a photo realistic approach to the surroundings as well. Also with Stan Drake's influence we see an expanding use of character expressions within the Rip Kirby cast.

Perhaps Rip Kirby was such a success because Alex Raymond was a larger than like character himself that had many of the qualities of the famous detective. More sophisticated and urbane than the average artist, he was a striking figure: matinee-idol handsome, athletic, hugely talented and admired among his peers. Raymond's art influenced many of the talented comic artists of today including Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Wayne Boring, Lou Fine and scores of others.

To mention a few of his achievements, Raymond won the coveted Ruben Award in 1949 for Rip Kirby, was a member of the Society of Illustrators, and served as president of the National Cartoonists Society for 1950 and 1951. Even when producing both magazine and book illustration, and his combat paintings displayed in the National Gallery of Washington, DC, Raymond still always championed the comic strip as his preferred art form. He once said, "I decided honestly that comic art work is an art form in itself. It reflects the life and times more accurately and actually is more artistic than magazine illustration -- since it is entirely creative. A comic artist is playwright, director, editor and artist at once."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oh, Those Seventies Art Prices!

I recently ran across a stack of old Comic Buyers Guide issues that were jam-packed with original comic art ads from the early seventies, and just about had a heart attack! It was good to see some dealers from that time period are still in business today, but a majority of them have gone by the wayside. Oh, but those prices on these pieces will really make your head spin. Like the cover featured here to Avengers #73 by John Buscema was on sale for a mere $45! You might want to sit down as a give a rundown from a few ads from Richard Pryor's Gallery Of Fine Comic Art. As well as that prime piece, Richard had...Covers by Ernie Chan for Detective #461---$75, or Batman #268 for $45, or how about Justice League of America #124 staring the Justice Society for $50, not to mention Freedom Fighters #1 for $50. Would anyone like a Dick Giordano cover for Tomb of Dracula #25 for $75? Or how about a John Romita cover for Captain America #117 (sorry no logo) where Cap meets the Falcon for the grand total of $50! There's also the Ross Andru cover art to some DC war book titled, All-American Men of War, with Indian Ace Johnny Could in aerial action for...$30. Gulp! Good thing those British Planet of the Apes or Spider-Man cover were going for $15, more affordable. Whew.

How about paying some "crazy" money for comic panel pages. Lets start out with a few Craig Russell Killraven pages from Amazing Adventures #27 for $45---nice but I might spring for that Buscema cover first. Paul Gulacy had some fantastic action-packed pages from Master of Kung Fu at $35 each, or you may want to invest in a Wally Wood gem of a splash page from my favorite toy title, Captain Action #1 page 24 for $45. What would you pay today for a nice Barry Smith Conan the Barbarian page from issue #9, well they were running $150 each - WOW - finally some high dollar stuff, or is it? Ever want any Reed Crandell pages from that beautiful Gold Key favorite, Flash Gordon #1 for $35-$40 each? Maybe your money was better spent on Ross Andru's Amazing Spider-Man pages from #129 where Spidey fight this new villain named Punisher for, get this,...$30 each.

Too much to spend you say, you're on a budget and need to save for college. Richard had prices for us poor boys too, so I could spring for the John Buscema Conan #47 pages for $25 each. Ditto for Ditko's Hawk And Dove pages from issue #2, or maybe you like that weird Creeper character @$25. Can he dare go lower than that! Well, to scrape the bottom of the barrel, I guess you would have to pick up some Val Mayerick pages from Marvel's The Living Mummy or Monster of Frankenstein horror titles for $15 a piece. Or there is this guy called Russ Heath whose pages from Our Army at War with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company were selling for $15 a shot, and you can even have pages from his 1950s Battle Comics for that same price! Too bad I didn't start collecting original comic art for another fifteen years.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keith Giffen's HEX

Jonah Hex was always one of my favorite characters as a kid. I remember the teaser DC did a few months before his arrival, "He's WILD... He's SAVAGE... He's coming in the next issue of All-Star Western #10", this "weird" outlaw as a two-faced surly bounty hunter. And I must not be the only fan who loved Jonah Hex, since I saw on eBay a few weeks ago a nice page from his first appearance went for a mere $910. Quite a hefty sum for any second or third tier character from 1971. Hex had quite a long run in All-Star Western which became Weird Western Tales before his own self-titled book. Then came that infamous jump into the 21st Century as writer Michael Fleisher tried one last ditch effort to save the character in the new sci-fi incarnation, Hex.

After enjoying talented figure artists like Cruz, Wildey, Ayers, and DeZuniga drawing this Western anti-hero, and some early work by Texiera for the futuristic feature, it came as quite a shock for long time DC artist Keith Giffen to draw this gunslinger turned biker gang member. Perhaps if Giffen had drawn Hex in his older “Kirby” style before his new avant garde approach, it would have been easier to swallow. I was confused, as others were, with Giffen’s sharp line, extreme exaggerated close-ups, always a big eye shot or just talking lips, strange angles, heavily inked, and other bizarre elements in his composition. Styled after the Argentine artist, Jose Munoz, Giffen once said, “All I could do was study this guy's work; poring over it and poring over it, until the point I practically became that work, and I stepped over a line.” Over a few months time where he didn’t work, Giffen just absorbed Munoz style to make it his own. Those few issues he illustrated was enough for me to quit the book, which quickly folded, even though it was very popular overseas at the time. I am glad to see Jonah Hex has been resurrected as his old crusty self in the recent series, just as wild and down right mean as ever.

So jump ahead 20 years, I ran across these issues again, gave them a second look and, surprisingly, now I've grown to enjoy Giffen! Something strange draws me in when I look at his original art. Perhaps seeing the stark black and white shapes helped me better understand what Giffen was trying to “say”, although it still helps to see the color comic pages to have a better feel for the action. Maybe now I don't mind trying to figure out the distorted angles, like the image in the middle panel of the page above from Hex #15, is that a talking chainsaw coming directly at Hex in extreme close-up? But years ago, I would have just given up on his storytelling. This moody, wild, hard-boiled approach was way ahead of it's time. I wanted that old familiar, solid figure drawing that I was used too, something, easy to "read". But with all the new approaches in comic art today, (especially Munoz’s effect on Frank Miller’s style), this page would seem tame by comparison. I never really thought this final incarnation of the character was the "real" Jonah Hex, but now I believe it worked. Once you get a taste of Giffen though, you want more of those fantastic funky pages, wild aliens, the energy bursts, all make the art more appealing as ever. And those shapes jammed together in those nine panel page layouts without any borders make it all the better too. Over the years, Giffin seems to have softened his style somewhat with The Heckler, Lobo, Trencher, and his other titles by adding more minute detail to the drawings. Even thought I enjoy his later works, I am still taken by his earlier attempts in his “Munoz” style. I've enjoyed this example, but on closer inspection, I started to wonder why the villain’s cutting hand was on the left arm in the first panel, and then on his right arm for the remainder of the page? I guess everyone is allowed some dramatic license with their work, even Keith Giffen, to make this page more powerful.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The 3 Girls Next Door --- Alex Kotzky's Apartment 3-G

Alex Kotzky is best known for his artistic work on the long running Apartment 3-G series for Publishers Hall Syndicate. But before he created the look of one of the nations most enduring soap-opera comic strips, he did a variety of other artistic endeavors. Born September 11, 1923, in New York City he attended public school and later the Art Students League with the intention of becoming an illustrator. As an art student in the early forties, Kotzky did his first penciling assignments for the newly formed DC Comics. He also worked with legendary cartoonist Will Eisner producing backgrounds on The Spirit, before his three year commitment to serve in World War II. Upon his return from service in 1946, he drew various adventure heroes for Quality's Comics like Plastic Man, Doll Man, and Blackhawk to help better develop his craft.

In early 1951, Kotzky started out doing storyboards for the Johnstone and Cushing advertisement agency, while also working on the Ford Motor Company and Dodge auto accounts. In the mid-fifties he began freelancing, creating medical illustrations for magazines and ghosting newspaper strips like Juliet Jones, Big Ben Bolt, and Steve Canyon. He also drew for Phillip Morris the very popular Duke Handy Sunday cigarette ads at this time.

When Harold Anderson, head of the Publishers Newspaper Syndicate, heard of a new strip idea from psychiatrist and writer Nick Dallis, he quickly contacted Alex about drawing the upcoming feature. The newspaper strip Apartment 3-G developed from their well matched collaboration and debuted with a daily and Sunday format on May 8, 1961. The story detailed the adventures of three beautiful career women who shared an high-rise apartment in New York City. Lu Ann Powers was the spunky school teacher; Tommie Thompson a brainy registered nurse; and Margo Magee, a knock-out executive secretary. As well as the varied look of the ladies, usually the three have different attitudes to match there respective hair colors! To round off the 3-G trio we have their neighbor, Professor Pappagoras, a local Greek college professor who helps the girls as father figure, advisor, friend, and some time protector. This remarkably fresh strip for the day was one of the first realistic portrayals of working women in the comic pages. The intelligent storylines concentrated on the characters and their different personalities, making the strip more realistic and enjoyable to read than many of their contemporary story strips. Better writing, coupled with Kotzky's slick illustrative style and delightful portrayal of the women, made the feature a fan favorite world wide.

With the death of Nick Dallis in 1991, Kotzky began the chores of writing the strip as well. He continued with many imaginative plots and continued the spectacular graphics until his death in 1996 from kidney disease. The strip continued for a few years in a similar art style by Kotzky's son, Brian, and with a new female writer, Lisa Trusiani. As Brian Kotzky later wanted to make a career change from his artistic endeavors, veteran comic artist Frank Bolle was called to draw Apartment 3-G until its demise. Though a shadow of what it was, this classic strip still endured and was distributed to more than one hundred newspapers across the country at the time of cancellation.!

I've been fortunate to have had a nice variety of Apartments 3-Gs from its thirty-five year run with loads of beautiful girls, handsome gentlemen, buildings, autos, and those great New York City scenes. I bought a nice selection from the late sixties and the "looser penciled" seventies period which were always some of my personal favorites. I believe the strip just started to look more like fashion illustration and slick advertising artwork by the end of his run. I hope you enjoy Kotzky's beautiful detail in the panels provided!

Friday, October 5, 2007

From Out of the Wilderness Thunders...Frank Thorne's TOMAHAWK

For my money, (twelve cents), the best DC Western produced in the late sixties and early seventies was the twenty-one issue, tour de force, of Robert Kanigher and Frank Thorne's wilderness drama, Tomahawk. National Comics debuted the unusual frontier series in 1950, about the adventures of an enterprising group of Rangers working for General George Washington. Behind British enemy lines, they fought troops, weird creatures, and various spies like Lord Shilling and The Hood during the Revolutionary War. Their first roll call included the coonskinned-capped leader Tom Hawk or "Tomahawk", his brave second in command giant, "Big Anvil", the keen sharpshooter know as "Wildcat", a youthful dandy called Jud "Brass Buttons" Fuller, and his trusted wilderness scout, Dan Hunter.

These freedom fighters often raided redcoat headquarters, ambushed British soldiers, fought savage Indian tribes, and even saved Miss Liberty a time or two. As the title progressed, there were countless issues with both good and mediocre art by Bruno Premiani, Fred Ray, Dan Spiegle, Frank Frazetta, Bob Brown, Dick Dillin, and others. Writer Ed Herron produced some straightforward war yarns, but we also enjoyed those zany Bill Finger gems with giant spiders, wasps, and gorillas to torment our heroes (and sell those crazy covers). Along the way, over the twenty-two year run, these frontier fighters picked up new members like Horace Calhoon, or the mighty"Cannonball", the Parisian dapper gentleman "Frenchie", a black ex-slave doctor "Healer" Randolph, one pinpoint marksman named "Long Rifle" Morgan, the always resourceful "Kaintuck" Jones, and a comical haberdasher Leroy "Stovepipe" Johnson.

But with issue #119, "Bait for a Buzzard", in December 1968, we see some gritty new realism being pumped back into the series. Issues now had fantastic cover art by Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Joe Kubert, and Irv Novick. Coupled with the dynamite team of Kanigher scripts and Thorne's visuals, the stories now just exploded off the page. The work often reminds me of Michael Mann's supercharged cinema thriller "The Last of the Mohicans", but in a four-color format. Thorne's devotion to authenticity and love for the subject matter was always apparent and even poured over into the letters page where he elaborated about the long guns (1763 model French musket .69-cal) and side arms used in the feature. Thorne constructs brilliant full and double page splashes, moody zip-a-tone masterpieces with startling silhouettes, and he cleverly worked peace and war symbolism into panels, had beautiful pioneer women and fierce warrior braves, not to mention a wide array of wildlife and scenic vistas. Credit should also be given to the other talented members of the DC staff, like colorists Jack Adler and Tommy Nicolosi whose rainbow pallet of colors lit up these issues like never before, and likely ever to see again! One also needs to mention that Tomahawk's editor at this time was Murray Boltinoff, and Howard Liss, Carl Wessler, and George Kashdan wrote some quality back-up stories about the individual Rangers origins. Finally, the main letterers who helped us devour these tales were Ben Oda, John Constanza, Ray Holloway, and (no pun intended) Joe Letterese.

Bob Kanigher's genius was how he used the American frontier of the 1780s to mirror the turbulent social life and times of the 1960s. Tackling many of society's problems, he expertly crafted these stories into little morality tales. In one book Wildcat's prejudice against Indians jeopardized all the Rangers until Tomahawk helps resolve his problem. Often messages of "peace on earth" and Kanigher's signature "make war no more" themes can also be found within these stories.

As a boy of nine, I probably learned as much history from the factoid pages from Tomahawk as from my portly third grade teacher. At least the subject was presented in a format all us kids understood! These informative treats by Sam Glanzman and numerous other artists were almost as much fun as the science facts the Mystery in Space comic taught me. Fred Ray also did some choice Indian Album sequences and Revolutionary War pages describing the armory, costumes, and specific battles of the era. I don't know where he found the time to create these splashes while working for the Civil War Times magazine and penciling new stories for many of DC's "Big 5" books.

The stories and art were so hot they sparked a wildfire with readers, and when the smoke cleared with issue #131, there was a new editor, Joe Kubert, and in reality a "new" title, Son of Tomahawk was born! Now Hawk took center stage protecting his family, often from the prejudice of the local townsfolk. This was primarily caused by Tomahawk's mixed marriage with his wife, Moon Fawn and their "half-breed" offspring, Hawk and Young Eagle. Thorne scratches out even more detailed action-packed panels with this legendary patriarch from the past. Even though Tomahawk is now long in the tooth, he still has enough energy to save his family on more than one occasion. Having jumped three decades in the future, Kanigher slowly weaves other elder Rangers (Big Anvil, Stove Pipe, and Cannonball) back into the storylines of greed, revenge, betrayal, redemption, slavery, and hope. Reactions were mixed to the new focus of the book since it became a more mainstream Western using the Great Plains, pistols, and outlaws over the prior Pennsylvania forests, long rifles, and British soldiers. But all fans agreed that Kubert's Firehair back-up stories were a fantastic new addition. When the title expanded its pages and price to twenty five cents, it included other terrific tales by John Severin, Nick Cardy, Jerry Grandenetti, and Gil Kane, just to mention a few.

Unfortunately, without a direct subscription service for the book, as one reader asked in the sporadic letters page "Smoke Talk," how could they hope to survive the "new" look. Even though Tomahawk had an average circulation of one hundred forty thousands issues, the new direction could not save the comic from cancellation with issue #140's ironic last title "The Rescue" in June 1972.