Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Dick Moores versus Dale Messick

    
1977 [1] Gasoline Alley Sunday by Dick Moores, Dec 11. 
      
by Rick Marschall 
    
“O Tempora! Oh, Moores!…”

OUR SECOND installment of A Crowded Life in Comics will start somewhere in the middle of my crowded life. Like ‘middle age,’ literal mathematical calculations can get scary. I will jump around, here in columns to come, from childhood to last month; from formal meetings with cartoonists to casual encounters; and so forth.

With that understanding, I will recall today a Dick Moores story — my homage to one of comics’ geniuses, a gentle giant — and collaterally tell a story on stuffy syndicate executives. Not out of spite, but to reveal or confirm that certain types of syndicate chiefs were some of the nails driven into the coffin of the once-thriving syndication field.

It was 1975, and I was Associate Editor/Comics of the New York News-Chicago Tribune Syndicate in New York City. The syndicate was oddly specific about my title Associate Editor/Comics, down to the slash; I suppose to distinguish me from the Text Editor in the next office. I had jumped from a similar job at United Feature Syndicate, ironically a few floors away in the same building — the News Building, 220 E 42nd Street. Emblazoned across the front of the News Building was Lincoln’s aphorism, ‘The Lord must have loved the common people, because He made so many of them.’ (Altered by my college professor, ‘The Lord must have hated the common people, because He made them so damn common.’)

Anyway, I was lured to the job by Robert S. Reed, whom I knew peripherally from golf tournaments in Connecticut; and Jack Minch, who had been a salesman for NEA Service (Alley Oop, etc.) and used to call at the paper where I was cartoonist, The Connecticut Herald. We had a jolly time every few months when he called with some new feature to sell. I was among the first editors to buy Frank and Ernest.

When I was hired, Minch had become VP or General Manager of NYN-CT. He might have even brought me in, but was a different character when three-martini lunches were not involved; nor were sales commissions. Full of himself, he was a blowhard who wrote execrable promotional copy, but insisted on doing it, and seemed to regard every piece of tedious prose worthy of a Nobel Prize. He took most of the work off Reed’s desk, so they were a happy couple for awhile.
    
1977 [2] Dec 18.
DICK MOORES. The annual Reuben Awards were approaching — the National Cartoonists Society version of Oscar night, in those days invariably held in New York City, at the Plaza or the Waldorf. Usually in April, to coincide with the American Newspaper Publishers confab.

I had made quick friends with cartoonists in my stable whom I did not already know. I was friends already with Leonard Starr, Bill Holman, and Henri Arnold in the office; Bill Kresse, Bruce Stark, Bill Gallo, and George Ward of the News’ bullpen downstairs. I made friends with Chester Gould (at the time down in the dumps because he designed promotion for the lagging Dick Tracy because the syndicate would not produce its own promo for the strip; and they coldly ignored even these gestures); and Dale Messick. I met Mike Witte and Tug McGraw, partners on a new baseball strip, Scroogie. It flopped, but as a Mets fan I was thrilled to work with the legendary relief pitcher.

And I met Dick Moores. I had been a longtime admirer; the versatile cartoonist had assisted Gould on the early Tracy; had drawn his own crime strip, Jim Hardy; followed by Windy and Paddles; a domestic humor strip called Merton Musty; and did Sunday Disney comics for years, all before assisting Frank King and inheriting Gasoline Alley.

Dick was never bad, but in the mid-1970s his work on Alley was astounding. Well written (with new characters of his own in the cast); overflowing with meticulous detail — hand-done shading and cross-hatching, almost mechanical; unorthodox camera-angles, for instance up-shots — odd for a man much taller than six feet, I always thought; and delightfully gratuitous design surprises, like upper and lower case lettering; no panel borders; and… much more. Every strip was a masterpiece.

My admiration was not unique; I was not a fan crying in the wilderness. My cartoonist friends in Connecticut around that time — on golf courses, over lunches, at parties — would revel in Dick Moores’ work. Most had never met him. But — ‘Did you see the details in Tuesday’s strip?’ and ‘Wasn’t the bird’s-eye view of the neighborhood in Gasoline Alley insane last week?’ … like that.
   
1977 [3] Dec 25.
REUBEN AWARDS. So this became my unofficial survey, added to my own wonderment. I pegged Dick Moores to win the Reuben Award that year as Cartoonist of the Year.

I was sure the lunkhead execs at the syndicate would be sweaty with anticipation. But they had other plans for the Reuben dinner. The syndicate would reserve two tables. At the ‘head’ table, the suits would sit with Tug McGraw, a natural bragging decision, given that moment in time. But also they pimped… Dale Messick. A wonderful lady, colorful and successful, and perhaps deserving of a Reuben statuette. Brenda Starr, Reporter was iconic. She was the predicted princess-in-waiting in the eyes of Reed and Minch.

At the second table, I was deputized to ‘handle’ the ‘old man’ Dick Moores, who traveled from North Carolina with his son-in-law Chuck. In fact Dick might have been younger than Dale, but his strip was old-news and rural in their eyes.

… besides, the syndicate was trying to option movie rights to Brenda Starr. Ah. Feelthy lucre. (In fact, it was a film shot in 1986, 10 years later, but only released six additional years after production. Starring Brooke Shields, Timothy Dalton, Jeffrey Tambor, and Charles Durning, it is legendary as one of the worst productions and biggest flops in Hollywood history. Its budget was $16-million; and its box-office was a mere $67,000: a very difficult feat.)

So my wife and I were the evening’s companions of Dick Moores and his son-in-law. (I recall having invited Hal Dareff of Hyperion Press, which had just produced 22 volumes of Bill Blackbeard’s early comic series, The Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips.) This ‘task’ was pleasant indeed. No offense to Dale, but she was not destined to win the Reuben; Dick Moores was destined, if there is a God.

There is. When ‘Dick Moores’ was happily announced as the winner of the Reuben Award (for work done in 1974, technically), the entire head table, as if they were deaf, halfway rose from their seats to whoop it up for Dale. At our table, my wife and I compensated in the cheerleading department, and the modest Dick Moores made it to the stage. He received prolonged applause from the entire assemblage — sincere from his peers.
     
1975 [4] Dick Moores (b. 1909) with Rick Marschall.
The syndicate heads were boorish and churlish, barely congratulating Dick Moores, and mumbling to anyone who would listen about the black eye Women’s Liberation suffered that evening.

We spent the rest of the evening basking in Dick’s modest pride, and seeing all the well-wishers who embraced him. That’s the rest of the story, but the important fact is that Dick Moores was recognized by his fellow cartoonists; and I did not really have to feel like a soothsayer. He was great.
    
1971 [5] Feb 3, Gasoline Alley, original daily strip.

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Pictures [1-3] courtesy of ilovecomix.


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