Sunday, July 21, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

San Diego Memories


by Rick Marschall

I am not at Comicon International this week, and if you are reading this in Yesterday’s Papers at release time, you probably are not either. On the other hand, you might be. True cartoon and comics fans don’t put their worlds on hold when a convention like San Diego consumes 18 hours of days during the Con: they somehow fit them into their “normal” waking hours.

I have received many texts and calls, asking if I am there this year. Not this year, but I have attended most of them since 1976. Some memories here from an event whose functions including making memories, not only tracing them or collecting them.

In 1976 I attended with Bob Weber, who drew and still draws the Moose comic strip. I was living in Chicago; he divided his time between Baltimore and Westport CT. Bob loves hanging with other cartoonists and talking cartoons; and he has a fan’s enthusiasm for meeting artists for the first time, and sharing his fan perspective.

True to form for this poster child of a deadline-challenged cartoonist, Bob traveled cross-country, but was so late with his strips for King Features, he stayed in his hotel room almost every moment of the Con, drawing and inking strips. Once the Con ended, he was free, and we spent a week tooling up the West Coast, visiting cartoonists and haunting used-book stores.

A few years later, during the peregrinations between the El Cortez, the US Grant Hotel basement, the old convention center, before the monstrous current site, I was then an Editor at Marvel. To make a long story short – it is worth a separate column – the Con largely was still for collectors alone, virtually; and more and more pros and legends dropping in. My big project at Marvel at the time I recall was the three-issue process-color Weirdworld epic called “Warriors of the Shadow Realm.”

I convinced Stan Lee and Jim Shooter that the Comicon was something where Marvel should establish a beachhead. I proposed taking tables and showing the latest products. Then, since Peter Ledger, colorist, was delaying the third book – John Buscema and Rudy Nebres having finished their work – I suggested a PR gimmick of having Ledger actually paint his pages for the public. My motive was to make sure he finished the damned book, which he might not have done if we left him in New York City.

Actually my larger motive was to scam a trip to Comicon. Indeed, Marvel footed the bill for me and Ledger, and my assistant Ralph Macchio, and production wiz (and great friend) Elliot Brown, even Shooter too… to set up a large Marvel display. The pages were squeezed out of Ledger (who decided after the Con to stay in the US and not return to Australia).

Gary Groth, just having founded The Comics Journal, became an impromptu sidekick as I and Ralph and Elliot tore up Southern California, from Tijuana up to L.A., for the week afterward. We stayed out of jail; but Ledger did not; another story for later…

By the way, Comicon Board members, many of whom became very close friends, told me that the stunt I pulled off – Marvel’s presence; sales, promotion, and “meet the artists” – was the first space reserved by a comics publisher at the heretofore fan event.

Shel Dorf had founded Comicon and was always more of a strip fan, than a superhero or animation guy. Even after the Con had expanded beyond his dreams, and capacities, he always was deferential, I supposed due to my historian’s cred, and would take me one or two evenings during the Con to dinner at the Hotel Del Coronado, very gracious. That is how I met and had sane conversations with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Alex Toth (reasonably sane).

Ironically, eventually, sensible management of the Con really outpaced Shel’s vision and abilities, and a couple years Board members actually asked me to run interference if Shel erupted over being persona non grata at the event he founded. He never made a scene.

          Four historians share a moment at SDCC: R C Harvey, Shel Dorf, Rick Marschall, Ron Goulart

Before movie madness and video games and red carpets consumed Comicon, there was another-world aspect each year, of casual meetings becoming special; and special moments occurring routinely. So I will share three sketches that became special to me:

          Russ Manning drew Tarzan at and on the old El Cortez Hotel.

          I asked Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff’s onetime inspiration and studio-mate, to draw a sketch. “Of what?” he asked. I should have requested Scorchy Smith… but I suggested an impression of San Diego. 

          Everybody’s favorite gentleman, Batton Lash, was an old friend of mine from School of Visual Art days; before he and Jackie Estrada were wed. Bat, sadly, died this past year. He drew this page featuring his classic Wolff and Byrd characters.

We all have ‘em. Sketches and memories. Jackie Estrada published a great book of Con photos she took over the decades, fun and “candid” surprises on every page.

For a few years after launching Hogan’s Alley magazine, I held get-togethers – usually lunches or dinners at a local Mexican restaurant – for Friends of Ol’ Hogan as Tom Heintjes would call them. Here is a group of such friends on the steps. Good ol’ John Province would have been in the shot, except that he took the photo:

          Gene Hazleton; Rick Marschall; Shelly Moldoff; Ron Goulart; Dick Sprang; Vin Sullivan.

Whether attending as a fan, or speaking or interviewing, strolling or displaying at a booth, Comicon always provided memories. Friends from Europe would attend and hope that I would play Tour Guide afterwards to Hollywood, the deserts, Tijuana, Palm Springs, Julian… and I was always happy to oblige. Friends I made at the Con sometimes blossomed into greater friendships and extra-curricular activities. For a while I sought to establish a formal alliance with the Angouleme Festival in France, arranging for guests to attend San Diego; and helping Fay Desmond and Jackie Estrada navigate the communications, including room service at rural hotels, in France…

I hope the multitudes are manufacturing many memories this year too…


Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –


 Coy Watson (left) co-starred with Jackie Coogan in Buttons (1927) 

By Rick Marschall

When I began these “Crowded Life” memoirs for Yesterday’s Papers almost a year ago, I promised, or threatened, that the stories would not all be about cartooning and comics history. One of the byproducts of a long life and careers in several fields has been to accumulate many acquaintances; make many friends; and thank God for the consequential people I have met along the way.

I could actually call it a hobby to have collected friends and acquaintances – never my intention, but I am grateful for the fact. It has almost been a Forrest Gump-like existence, during which rambles through cartooning, politics, music, religion, and old-fashioned luck, enabled me to meet great and/or significant players in fields of culture and popular culture.

So: not strictly cartooning this week, but people who populated some of my Crowded Hours.

In 2001 I took a job with Youth Specialties, a company that provided resources for church youth workers. I was editor, occasional speaker, and Director of Product Development. YS was located outside San Diego – friendly territory for me; I had attended Comicon since 1976, and had many friends in Southern California. I found a condo in Alpine, 30 minutes west of the Pacific coast and 30 minutes north of the border. It is the last major (?) town west of San Diego before the faraway El Centro, in the “high desert.” I chose it partly because my wife was born in Alpine NJ; but also because the beautiful setting combined the flavors of frontier life and the atmosphere of gated celebrity neighborhoods.

When I became acquainted with locals, enough of them asked or assumed whether I knew Coy Watson Jr. I admit I had never heard of him. I did a little research and remedied that situation. The modest man who lived two streets from me was in fact a Hollywood legend and was a motion-picture pioneer in several ways. It was not difficult to become friends with Coy.

He was in his 90s when I met him. His kind manner and youthful smile, dimples and all,  made him look younger than his years. The early history of Hollywood is inextricably related to the story of the Watson family – which has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – including the father, five brothers, and three sisters. A virtual cast of thousands.

– In later years, Coy Watson Jr., at the monument on the grounds of the Edendale (Hollywood) lot where film comedy was born… and so was Coy. The plaque reads: This is the birthplace of motion-picture comedy. Here the genius of Mack Sennett took root and grew to laughter heard around the world. Here movie history was made – here stars were born – here reigned, and still reigns, “The King of Comedy” Mack Sennett. 

Coy Senior was a prop man for Mack Sennett, therefore often in demand at the laugh factory. So much so that the Watsons’ home was on the actual Sennett lot. Coy Junior appeared in a Sennett comedy when he was only nine months old – much as the baby Mendel Berlinger (eventually Milton Berle) was a baby in Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler only a year later.

Coy’s movie debut was followed in quick succession when babies and toddlers were needed in Sennett’s Keystone comedies, leading to the nickname he had ever thereafter: The Keystone Kid. He was co-star to Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Billy Bevan, Wallace Beery, Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling, Lloyd Hamilton, Fatty Arbuckle, and Marion Davies. Eventually he appeared in feature films with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jackie Coogan, Thelma Todd, John Barrymore, Mae West, and Cary Grant.

His father (and uncle) graduated from props and carpentry to acting (mostly in Westerns)  and even directing; but Coy Senior’s major contributions to early movies was inventing special-effect tricks and illusions. His handiwork enabled Fairbanks to “fly” the magic carpet in Thief of Baghdad.

In 1921 little Coy starred in his own comedy, A Nick-Of-Time Hero. Otherwise, through the years, Coy appeared in more than 60 movies, including Stella Dallas; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Puttin’ On the Ritz; and I’m No Angel. Counting the credits of all the Watson Kids, as they became known, they collectively appeared in a thousand movies.

Eventually Coy moved from in front of the camera, and exercised the inventor’s genes of his father, and developed cameras and lenses. In the early days of television in Los Angeles, he invented equipment that allowed for remote broadcasting. For a while he served as one of TV’s first cameramen, assignment reporter, and mobile weatherman.

Many cartoon fans are interested in early movies and film comedy. So when I got to know Coy I invited him to address the Southern California Cartoonist Society when I was Program Director. The show-and-tell, and Q+As, went on forever; and Coy loved every minute of it. And so did I – my neighbor was History Before My Eyes. Amazing.

After California, I moved to Michigan; our daughter, then a youth pastor, hoped we would move nearby, and we did. We joined a little Assembly of God church most of whose members were from the South – or whose parents and grandparents were, yet every member retained thick accents of North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. “Automotive Alley” had many such migrants, white and black alike, who had been drawn north by the auto booms of World War II and the ‘50s and ‘60s.

After a few Sundays I got to “visitin’” with a white-haired fellow and his wife in the pew next to me. He was older than Coy back in California: 97 at the time; and I dared not believe the coincidence when he told me his name – Wade Mainer.

Yes, it was Wade Mainer, who back in the 1930s was a major RCA Victor recording star; he and his brothers fronted Mainer’s Mountaineers, after which Wade struck out as a solo artist. He was a famous banjo player, in the old-fashioned three-finger drop-thumb style. Back in North Carolina in the early ‘30s his style was popular, and he influenced a local picker, Smith Hammett. In turn, Smith influenced his cousin who developed a variation.

That cousin was named Earl Scruggs. His variation of Wade’s picking became the “sound” that gave birth to Bluegrass.

Wade never changed his style, and in fact rejected the term Bluegrass: he was proud to play Traditional or Mountain music. After RCA, he recorded on other labels; formed ensembles with other pioneers (once he declined a feeler from Mac Wiseman, who wound up with Bill Monroe’s original Bluegrass Boys); performed on Broadway with Woodie Guthrie and Burl Ives; and was invited to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt.

Musical tastes changed, of course, especially when rock ‘n’ roll and folk music dominated charts, and Wade sought other work. He joined the migration north and took an assembly-line job with General Motors. He also got saved and his faith prevented him any more from playing secular music, in his view. Years later the legendary Molly O’Day (partly responsible for discovering Hank Williams) visited Wade and persuaded him that God would not have graced him with talent only to have it lie fallow. Afterwards he performed gospel music – locally, before he died at age 103, at grand birthday get-togethers – and he continued to record.

Serendipity again. I had written four books on country music, two with passages about Wade Mainer, never dreaming that he still was alive; that I would worship with him, become a friend, and pick and sing in his living room. His delightful wife Julia, by the way, still played a great guitar in the Mother Maybelle Carter  / Riley Puckett style. She had been a star in the 1930s also, under the stage name “Hillbilly Lilly,” at the mention  of which she would wince.

I usually drew portraits of Wade and Julia for birthday fans to sign, or as presentation pieces. Here is one I painted when Wade was past 100.

Forrest Gump was an amateur, ya think?…


Friday, July 12, 2019

Maxfield Parrish –

New York Tribune

Dec 22, 1918


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Caran d'Ache –

The Father of the Comic Supplement,

The Literary Digest, Mar 13, 1909


Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

George Priceless

by Rick Marschall

One of the great stylists of the New Yorker stable of cartoonists, George Price, lived near me when I was growing up. After all these years, New Yorker cartoon fans will still name one or two of his cartoons as their favorites.

His drawings for Judge, in the 1930s, were fluid and loose. His style evolved, through his New Yorker period, into angularities, sharp edges, and almost abstract, geometric  shapes that coalesced into the trademark “look” of George Price’s world. As if Modigliani drew cartoons.

He lived in Tenafly NJ, near railroad tracks and a block from the iconic Clinton Inn; and I lived 10 minutes away in Closter NJ. I consigned many collectibles to the charming Collectors Corner of Veronica Ronyets in Tenafly, so I was there often.

The first time I met George Price was when I cold-called him and requested an audience. Surprisingly, he cheerily invited me.

“Surprisingly” because – while he was never unfriendly – George was about the most dyspeptic person I ever met. It was almost appropriate, because his cartoons were populated by a cast of thousands equally divided into groups that were bewildered, bonkers, and… incurably crabby.

George was crabby. Angry. Complaining. Resentful. Like many of his characters. Sitting in the living room, fists clenched, ready for an argument.

… not with me, but with the world. I never really had much of a conversation with him, but rather our meeting were like He was the commentator, I was the audience. Which was fine; a lot of celebrities are like that, or need that. He was always cordial and welcoming before clearing his throat and starting rants. And I can be a good audience. But there are a hundred questions I would like to have asked. Instead…

A propos of nothing (I did not raise the subject) – “Bob Hope. He’s not a comedian. He’s not funny. Just a glib wise guy.”

OK. This was the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Price was extremely left-wing and, locally, famously so. Again, out of the blue. “I know those bastards just want to harass me. It’s an organized plot. Here’s how I know. I get piles of postcards, all signed God Bless America. It’s all BS.”

OK. One of the cartooning facts I did glean was that he never wrote his own gags, which surprised me, and still does. All his cartoons were so idiosyncratic, organic, and seemingly personal, that to buy – or have The New Yorker provide – premises and captions seemed unusual. And – by the way – was not George Booth the natural inheritor of Price’s Funny Farm Folks? The same mood; the same percentage of crossed eyes and bare light bulbs; only more (in Booth’s case) original drawings with corrections-upon-corrections, Scotch Tape, and no straight lines to be found...

George Price was unusual. Thank goodness he was prolific, too. We are left with several anthologies of his work. I had him inscribe one of them, George Price’s Characters, about a comprehensive a title as one could imagine. He did sketches of the New York Mets, too, from his skewed perspective. Until 1969, his favorite team would have fed anybody’s dyspepsia.

At a time in my Crowded Life in Cartooning when I was meeting a lot of cartoonists who loved golfing and cocktail parties; and cartoonists who retired to Florida and… to golfing and cocktail parties, it was almost refreshing to meet a talented misanthrope. Whose cartoons reflected his eternal dissents, or vice-versa, and still made millions laugh.

God bless America, indeed.  


Sunday, June 23, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Jim Scancarelli drew this poster design for an exhibition I organized in 1988 for the Salina (KS) Art Center and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.


by Rick Marschall

Two legendary comic strips celebrate their centenaries this year, in fact about these same mid-year weeks.

Gasoline Alley and Barney Google sprouted in the fertile soil that was Chicago cartooning of the ‘teens and ‘20s. For all of the camaraderie and cross-pollination of the  Chicago “school” who fraternized, were students at, or taught at, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, there are no substantial records of a close relationship between Frank King and Billy DeBeck, respective creators of those strips.

Otherwise they were nurtured by common ferment and the glories of a great era in American cartooning.

Frank King was born in Wisconsin, but moved to Chicago and lived in the northern suburbs before the Florida sun seduced him late in life. Gasoline Alley was self-consciously set in those Chicago neighborhoods where garages faced each other behind rows of Sears Catalog Homes. Billy DeBeck first cartooned in Youngstown OH and Pittsburgh before moving to Chicago. Before settling in Tampa, after Chicago he mostly lived where good times and golf courses beckoned.

The halcyon days of the Chicago School produced an amazing Who’s Who of talent and influence in American cartooning: Editorial cartoonists John T McCutcheon, Carey Orr, Luther Bradley, Vaughn Shoemaker; strip cartoonists King and DeBeck, Sidney Smith, Harold Gray, Frank Willard, Ferd Johnson, Carl Ed, William Donahey, E C Segar, Sals Bostwick, Penny Ross; panel cartoonists Clare Briggs, H T Webster, Quin Hall; illustrators Garrett Price and Dean Cornwell… and others too numerous to mention.

Long were the careers – and influence – of many of these creators. Gasoline Alley and Barney Google are unique in that they have survived a hundred years, the latter albeit largely having been kidnapped and eclipsed by Snuffy Smith.

When I was the young cartooning-enthusiast son of indulgent parents, the last day or two of annual family vacations to Florida were given over to visiting cartoonists. The only condition was that I be bold and clever enough to arrange appointments in advance. Al (Mutt and Jeff) Smith, my mentor, and other professional friends, and Marge Devine of the National Cartoonists Society, helped me with addresses and phone numbers. After that, I reliably trusted on the native good will and friendliness of professional cartoonists.

So, criss-crossing the Sunshine State for many vacation years, I first met Frank King, Roy Crane, Leslie Turner, Jim Ivey, Ralph Dunagin, Dick Hodgins Sr., Lank Leonard, Zack Moseley, Fred Lasswell, Mel Graff, Don Wright, Worth Gruelle, and others.

Frank King was old and slow, but with a quick memory, when I met him and visited several times. The strip then firmly was in the hands of Dick Moores. On each visit Frank would give me an autographed, vintage Gasoline Alley original. They ranged from the week after Skeezix appeared on Walt’s doorstep (depicting him holding the baby before the Alley gang) to the 1930s.

I have several distinct memories. One is tragic. Frank said he could dig out an old original for me, and went to a shed out back… where he, evidently, had not been for years. There were stacks of old Gasoline Alley originals, but the years – and Florida humidity, maybe a leaky shed roof – had taken a toll. They were mildewed, stuck together; hundreds and hundreds of them. He was shell-shocked.

Other things I remember, and I hope they were saved by his family. For his own amusement Frank created what he called “shadow boxes,” scenes mostly from Gasoline Alley. Each was a large wooden box, open at the front and top. He painted backgrounds on the sides, bottom, and back; and then he painted characters and image details on panes of glass that slid into grooves. The one I remember was of Walt and Judy raking Autumn leaves – when you looked into the shadow box at eye-level, you beheld a three-dimensional cartoon of Walt and Judy and hundreds of colorful leaves all around them, including behind and in front of them.

Frank had many originals on his walls, and I remember being struck by names I had not heard of – Sals Bostwick, a talented assistant who died young; and Quin Hall; and his friends from the early days whose names I knew as illustrators but not as cartoonists, like Garrett Price and Dean Cornwell.

Audacious camera angles, meticulous detail, masterful shading, dialog revealing mature character delineations – hallmarks of Dick Moores’ work on Gasoline Alley)

Later I became a friend of Dick Moores, also as his Editor at the syndicate. An amazing talent, as was the next successor and current resident of the Alley, Jim Scancarelli. A friend who discusses mountain fiddling and Uncle Fletcher’s washrag collection (from radio’s Vic and Sade) as readily as he discusses comics history.

Gasoline Alley can be read as The Great America Novel. For my money, the continuity lines and characterizations in Billy DeBeck’s creations (including in Parlor, Bedroom, and Sink and Bunky) rival Dickens in craft, depth, and invention.

I did not knowe DeBeck, of course; he died in 1942. But I got to know his successor Fred Lasswell very well. One of the most colorful figures in American cartooning; surely the inevitable cut-up in any room he filled with his outsized personality. And body. King Features Present Joe D’Angelo was resigned to being, in some innovative way or another, the butt of a Lasswell practical joke whenever Fred visited New York. For instance having a waiter deliver a bottle of champagne and flowers to every table in a restaurant… charged to Mr D’Angelo.

By the time DeBeck died, relatively young, during World War II, Barney, Loweezie, and assorted hillbillies had taken over the strip. Barney himself receded as a side-character – Spark Plug even more so – and the mountain-folk indeed were a national sensation. Never a casual about any of his passions, DeBeck became a first-rate scholar of Appalachian life, lore, and language. He read all the dialect humorists of the mid-1800s, and caught the mountain folks’ personalities and ways. Phrases he did not borrow, he manufactured… with authenticity.

Such things were not in DeBeck’s background; neither Lasswell’s; but he was a quick study. The stock cast has dominated the strip for nigh-on 80 y’ars naow. Fred was an “A” personality, and even starred in “Uncle Fred’s Cartooning Lessons” videos in the 1980s. We occasionally appeared together in the mid-1990s promoting the US Postal Service’s “American Classic” set of commemorative stamps. We each sported ties, by coincidence, with hand-painted Yellow Kid figures on them.

Snuffy and other denizens of Hootin’ Holler comfortably are in the capable hands of John Rose these days. As in life itself – I mean real life; or realer life than comics – longevity can be attributed to many factors. With Gasoline Alley the old characters and new faces surely have attracted readers’ sympathies. It was the first comics strip where characters aged in real time. (I remembering urging Dick Moores to have Walt die, something that he would have handled sensitively; today Walt should be at least 120 and Skezzix 100. It would have maintained the comic-context realism, and garnered publicity.)

But the changing cast of Gasoline Alley and the frozen-in-time setting of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (it probably has been a half-century since Barney or Snuffy visited a big city, the strip’s original setting) explain only parts of the strips’ longevity. Obviously the talents of the successors are responsible as well.

But as in real life, as I said, in strips there is a healthy gene pool that is dominant. The premises and conceptions of the progenitors obviously are the gloriously guilty parties. I feel especially blessed to have known, in my Crowded Life, some of the gifted people who have managed these precious creations so well.