George Rife Clark, who lived and worked in New York, was born in 1902 in Bridgeport, Oklahoma, before that territory became a state. Clark’s father died when he was 9 and to help support the family he joined a 15 year old entrepreneur in the sign-painting business. The two boys concentrated on signs but would paint anything from a building to a farm-wagon. Clark attended high school in Oklahoma City and attended various art schools, with the majority of his training done at the Chicago Art Institute. His first job was with the Oklahoma News drawing political and sports cartoons, followed by a 4 year stint as head artist at the Cleveland Press where he took long walks on his lunch hour sketching lakefront scenery. His drawing continued long into the night with his wife a willing model for his pen and pencil.
Around about 1925 Clark became a regular contributor of illustrations to Collier’s, Country Gentleman, McCall’s and Judge. He quit the Cleveland Press and moved to New York to freelance. In New York he wandered the city filling his sketchbooks with drawings of street corners, waterfronts and lunch counters. He joined the staff of NEA Service illustrating feature stories and prize fight sketches.
He began drawing a regular single-panel cartoon called Side Glances on January 19, 1928. Side Glances was, in a way, similar to the ‘slice-of-life’ comics of H. T. Webster, Frank Beck and J. R. Williams. It was markedly different in conception however. Where Webster and his school drew in an old-fashioned nostalgic pen and ink style, Clark used brush and pen in a thoroughly modern sophisticated way and his gags had a great human emotional appeal. He would have felt right at home among the cartoonists of the New Yorker. Clark firmly believed that the best commercial art was influenced by the fine arts, and Picasso was one of his major influences. “You would not, perhaps, think of Picasso as having anything to do with cartooning. And yet there is a man who has given his life to pursuit of the elusive realities of art.”
When he joined the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate in 1939 the panel name was changed to “The Neighbors.” A Sunday page, “Our Neighbors’ the Ripples” began soon after and ran until 1948 as The Ripples. The daily Neighbors ran until 1971.
NEA continued Side Glances with the aid of William Galbraith, another very talented cartoonist. Galbraith’s lunch pail style was similar to Clark’s but he had a more earthy style of humor. By 1969 Side Glances was being drafted by Gill Fox, again aping Clark’s famous style of drawing. Side Glances was finally discontinued in 1985.
“A drawing,” Clark once said, “is feeling rather than conscious thought.” For Clark starting a drawing was sheer torture:
“He dawdles and smokes, he rummages through sketches or clippings. Or he may turn on his projector and display on the wall some candid camera shots he has taken of unsuspecting men, women and children watching parades or baseball games, or just walking down the street. At last he begins to draw.
“The first one takes forever,” said George Clark, the pipe-smoking creator of “The Neighbors,” “then it’s easy. I do six at a time -- one weeks supply.”
“There is a certain idealization in my work. I present what everybody wishes our civilization were like. My work ends before I get to the objectionable qualities in people.”
In 1962, with Bill Mauldin winner of ‘Cartoonist of the Year,’ New York Daily News artist George Clark was given the award for best newspaper panel cartoon. Actress- comedienne Carol Burnett won an Ace Award for best amateur cartoonist. George Fletcher Clark died in 1978.
*Original ink sketch (top) courtesy of Don Kurtz