Friday, December 4, 2015

Wash Tubbs – Twenty-one Damned Dailies by Roy Crane

by Huib van Opstal

WASH TUBBS. Plenty lip service nowadays for good old Roy Crane (1901-77) and plenty reprints of Crane’s Wash Tubbs comics in bold black and white — in bad covers and cramped interior designs.

See here Yesterday’s Papers’ 21 tear sheets of some great Crane dailies. Suspenseful daily comic strips which a nationwide American public devoured from December 1929 to January 1930 when his Wash Tubbs was at its nicest. In the 1930s Crane would take on larger full-page full-colour adventure strips too, his Captain Easy and Buzz Sawyer series, but
‘I got the feeling Roy Crane took greater delight in his Wash Tubbs work. Perhaps he felt that in the early days the comics looked their best in six- or seven-column wide format.’Bob Zschiesche, cartoonist

JUST CALL ME EASY. Since its launch on April 21, 1924, Crane’s daily Wash Tubbs strips were designed and syndicated in ‘split’ or ‘break’ format, with a fixed gutter in the middle. The newspapers that ran it could retain the single row of panels, or split it up and print it as a square box, in two rows of panels placed on top of each other. His little hero George Washington Tubbs II, a boyish shop clerk becoming an adventurer, was soon nicknamed Wash Tubbs and turned into the sidekick of a stronger, more adult more mysterious hero — ‘Easy, Just call me Easy’ or Captain Easy‘formerly chief of the Kandelabran Intelligence Service (…), beach-comber, boxer, cook, aviator, seaman, explorer, and soldier of artillery, infantry, and cavalry.’ — whose name would eventually become the strip’s title.

1929 [1] 27 DecFriday!
1929 [2] 28 DecSaturday!
1929 [3] 30 DecMonday!
1929 [4] Dec 31Tuesday!
1930 [5] Jan 1Wednesday!
1930 [6] Jan 2 — Thursday!
1930 [7] Jan 3 — Friday!
1930 [8] Jan 4 — Saturday!
1930 [9] Jan 6 — Monday!
1930 [10] Jan 7 — Tuesday!
1930 [11] Jan 8 — Wednesday!
1930 [12] Jan 9 — Thursday!

‘In Crane’s hands, letters did not merely combine to form words. The very style of lettering suggested a mood; their display revealed a voice; even their size conveyed actual emotions.’Richard Marschall, 1989

1930 [13] Jan 10Friday!
1930 [14] Jan 11 — Saturday!
1930 [15] Jan 13 — Monday!
1930 [16] Jan 14 — Tuesday!
1930 [17] Jan 15 — Wednesday!
1930 [18] Jan 16 — Thursday!
1930 [19] Jan 17 — Friday!
1930 [20] Jan 18 — Saturday!
1930 [21] Jan 20 — Monday!
PAGEWIDE OR BOX. In the 1910s and 20s huge page-wide or near-page-wide strips and cartoons in daily newspapers in the US were no exception, some to stunning effect. But judging by the Crane Wash Tubbs strips in box-format layout I’ve seen, the effect is even better. I’d really like to see a square Wash Tubbs book published — fat, large, soft, and definitely not in hardcover — with just one daily strip per page, just two per spread. Not as single rows of panels as shown here, but as a box in two rows of panels on top of each other — as a boxed double-decker strip. It would be a lovely page-turner and bring present-day readers decidedly closer to the daily rhythm and suspense that Crane delivered in endless succession since the mid-20s.

NOSTALGIA PRESS. The bad example set by Woody Gelman’s oblong books from 1977 (with old Scorchy Smith dailies by Noel Sickles, Nostalgia Press reprints, 3 daily strips per page) still wreaks havoc in our modern reprint business. Reprinted Wash Tubbs dailies continuously end up in unpleasant books, with too little horizontal space on the page, and with a nefarious split in the middle killing their overall design.

DOWNSIZED. Roy Crane himself, during his long career, already witnessed the sad shrinking in size of US newspaper comics.

A DAILY DOSE OF CRANE. Analyse the 21 samples above, originally published from December 1929 to january 1930. Only three-and-a-half weeks of a five months-long story. A veritable Daily Crane Theatre, with — besides comical characters — strong shots of suspense and realism, action, adventure, loud sounds, virtual voice-overs in newspaper headline-style, courtroom drama, night scenes, tough guys, lying dames, a crashing plane, fistfights, pistol shots, killings, mayhem, shouts, nightmares — all told in pen and ink and crayon, completely drawn, written and hand-lettered by the author himself, and filled to the brim with graphic and typographic effects. 

DAMNED STRIPS. Unbelievable but true: this particular sequence of strips by Roy Crane was one of several thrown-out sequences in a 1974 Luna paperback reprint — a book titled Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs; The first adventure comic strip. A book with more damned sequences — simply served off in mid-story under the banner ‘A minimum number of strips are omitted.’ With no reason given.

GEORGE STORM. A label with ‘first’ in it stays tricky. In a reprint of two daily comic strip series by George Storm, the adventures of Phil Hardy (1925-26) and Bobby Thatcher (1927-37), historian Bill Blackbeard documented how the ‘grimmer aspects of realism’ entered the American adventure strip with Storm’s work in the mid-1920s. Storm was from 1893, Arkansas, Crane from 1901, Texas. Both artists had a soft spot for swashing pen lines and grainy crayon-line effects. The first 19 episodes of Phil Hardy had rounded panel corners too, but Storm’s earliest strips could not be split in the middle. This oblong Hyperion Press reprint of 1977 based on Blackbeard’s tear sheets of Phil Hardy and Bobby Thatcher is still unique. And a great eye-opener — George Storm in his seemingly comical strip style could be wondrously realistic. A more complete series of Wash Tubbs reprints began in 1987, based also on Blackbeard’s collection. 

1920s, 40s, 70s [22] Roy Crane in photos and self-portraits.
1929 [23] Nov 29 — Tuesday evening! An earlier scene from the same story; Crane’s Wash Tubbs among the other large-sized strips and cartoons in the Greensboro Daily Record.
1970s [24] Roy Crane self-portrait.
‘Have wife [Ebba], 2 daughters, 2 grandsons, 2 orange groves, 3 assistants and ulcers. If I had to do it over, I’d never do a Sunday. It’s the straw that breaks backs.’ — Roy Crane

FURTHER ANALYSIS. Nineteen of these strips are taken from five mysterious, large oblong sheets, numbered 1 to 10, in greyish offset, from the 1970s. Sheets that were probably printed privately by an American collector. Reproduced from tear sheets of an unknown newspaper that around 1930 maltreated syndicated source material. Pictures are partly cut off or repasted into badly redrawn frames, strips were in the wrong order, and one was missing altogether. Halfway this sequence the strips carry daily titles. Crane’s consistent rounded panel corners at the time could be dissimilar too. For our analysis we corrected some corners and gutters and pepped the whole lot up a bit, but some details were beyond saving. Two of these strips, [1] and [14], are taken from volume 4 of The Complete Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, with comments by Bill Blackbeard, a reprint series of publishers NMB in 18 volumes (1987-92).

A SCENE A DAY. One of the first conclusions, based on just this batch, is that the following order of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs daily strip episodes — sometimes consisting of just one stand-alone scene a day — can be changed without damaging plot, story or continuity. Some strips can even be left out.

1920s [25] Roy Crane self-portrait

Rob Stolzer,
Alex Jay,

Ron Goulart,
Richard Marschall,
R.C. Harvey,

Lucy Shelton Caswell,
John Adcock,
Cyril Koopmeiners,
Bill Blackbeard,
NCS National Cartoonist Society,
NEA Newspaper Enterprise Association

For a 2015 Fantagraphics Wash Tubbs reprint see HERE.


  1. EXCELLENT essay and assay, Huib!

    I revere Caniff (and it is an artificial challenge to compare the two masters) but I would take Crane over Caniff, if I were stranded on a desert island. By the way, the two did not get along.

    I have another self-caricature, color, done about 1975, but cannot figure how to download here...

  2. I agree about a square Crane book. Great post.