Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Roy Crane

Captain Easy by Roy Crane
Roy Crane, Father of the Adventure Strip

by Rick Marschall

When I was growing up – yes, I have grown up; grown older, anyway – my father nurtured my interest in comics, a vicarious interest, I eventually realized. He indulged and encouraged my drawing, collecting, and… reaching out to living, breathing cartoonists. When I was young, some of the ink-stained idols of his youth were still alive.

Annual vacations to Florida invariably included visits, usually one or two days, to cartoonists. I would arrange them beforehand, and my mother and sisters resented them, of course. The visits invariably were on the last one or two days before we headed the station wagon back toward New Jersey.

Every year, Frank King would be one of the stops, supplemented by other artists like Roy Crane, Les Turner and Mel Graff around Orlando; Lank Leonard and Zack Mosley on the east coast; Fred Lasswell in Tampa. In Florida I met Jim Ivey, cartoonist and collector, whose historical publications and local museums influenced me greatly – second in inspiration to his vast knowledge, big heart, and generous spirit.

These visits, and their resultant friendships, will be fodder for occasional future Crowded Life installments. One I will share here is about Roy Crane.

It was a privilege to know Roy, whom I realized before I met him was a special talent. His strips were cinematic; his scripts were taut, or funny, as the most compelling of novels; his early Sunday pages were marvels of layout, composition, and colors; his famous use of Craftint and Duo-Tone shading tools were astonishing, creating photographic effects otherwise unseen in the funnies; he pioneered the continuity strip, and its sub-categories of action and adventure. Did I mention that he drew the most alluring women in the comics, before or since?

–Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane
The serendipitous “right place at the right time” nature of my youth enabled me to acquire early tearsheets of Roy’s work – Wash Tubbs; Captain Easy; Buz Sawyer; and Rosco Sweeney Sundays. The latter two ran in the New York Journal American, attracting my attention… but it was his early work that floated my boat.

Roy almost felt the same way, by the time I met him in the 1960s. He had retired, for the most part, although his name still appeared on the strips. In his waning days on Captain Easy he grew similarly overwhelmed and, frankly, discouraged. When newsprint shortages and syndicate strictures dictated that he compose the Sunday page according to a template, he said, all the fun went out of it.

Already the Sunday page duty was “the straw that breaks camels’ backs,” he said – seven deadlines a week, not six. But the fun of constructing pages with enormous splash panels, random arrangements, and circular panels, had been an exhilarating counter-balance.

On my first visit, our vacation-loaded car had gotten lost in the winding roads that wove around steamy Orlando’s many lakes. Pre-GPS, of course; and my father was growing steamy himself. When we finally arrived at Roy’s house, I was so unnerved that I asked at the door, “M-Mr Ray Croyne? I am Mick Marschall.”

Roy Crane sketch
Despite the tropical heat I soon cooled, and Roy’s wife Ebba brought us sweet tea. Roy’s studio was stacked high with books, artwork, and boxes. Not a dream: he was one of the first cartoonists contacted by Syracuse University to donate his work. He was happy, he said, to make room around the studio and house. In such a mood, he offered me some mementos – daily and Sunday originals; a Big Little Book (despite having been inscribed to his daughter, “To Marcia from Pop” back in the 1940s); and sketches he drew.

He casually vouchsafed some gossip. He listed other cartoonists who lived in the area – Leslie Turner, who inherited Captain Easy, was probably his closest friend – and offered to make introductions in my subsequent vacations (I was glad my mother and sisters were in the car and didn’t hear that). He said that many of the local cartoonists would meet for lunch at least once a week… but I remember he mentioned that Mel Graff, the Secret Agent X-9 artist whose style attempted an amalgam of Crane and Caniff, generally was excluded. “Drinking problem.” (I subsequently had enjoyable visits with a very sober Graff, however.)

The mention of Caniff recalls another casual comment that I was interested to hear. Two of our story-strip idols, Roy Crane and Milton Caniff, really did not get along. Or something more serious than that. A part of Roy’s antipathy stemmed from his being lured from the NEA Service and Captain Easy to join King Features where he created Buz Sawyer. The principal bait was “You will be OUR Caniff” (who was still drawing Terry and the Pirates for the Chicago Tribune). However, KFS simultaneously was courting Caniff… their strips (Milt created Steve Canyon) had debuts almost at the same time… and Buz Sawyer never DID receive the push that Canyon did.

(Frank Robbins, one of the best of the Caniff clones, was lured away from Scorchy Smith at the same time, with the same promise, to create Johnny Hazard; and similarly was resentful. Neither Crane nor Robbins was completely angry, as King was a great home, even despite the false premises and promises.)

I kept in touch through the years, and would see Roy at events like Reuben dinners and Jim Ivey’s OrlandoCon. Once, at dinner with Roy and Jud Hurd, at a posh New York restaurant, I asked Roy about the Landon Correspondence School. It was one of the great mail-order cartooning courses, and Roy took lessons but also became an “instructor,” taking the drawings of students and mailing back suggestions and corrections. (By the way, I am writing a book for Fantagraphics on the history of these great schools.)

–Rick Marschall, Jud Hurd, Claude Moliterni and Roy Crane
Old man Landon was to some degree a charlatan, because Roy said a major function of the mail-order course was to discover talent, and seamlessly recruit cartoonists for Cleveland newspapers and the nascent syndicate NEA Service.

This dinner was sometimes in the 1970s, and I think I was Comics Editor of Publishers Newspaper Syndicate then. I wish I had had a camera or even a mere tape recorder at the table, because Roy was inspired to go theatrical. He said that Old Man Landon always wore detachable celluloid cuffs on his shirt sleeves… and Roy pulled his suit jacket sleeves way up. He said that Landon had a ridiculously high-pitched voice… that he proceeded to imitate, loudly. He emphasized the circus-barker routines of Landon… recreating every aspect of  his pitches. And so forth. Hilarious.

Roy Crane was a man without shadow of guile; casual, friendly, generous, and funny. Oh – and talented. Like nobody else, hardly, in all the comics. Charles Schulz’s primary affection, by the way. And mine; and many future cartoonists.



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