Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Creig Flessel, AKA
Mr Sandman, Bring Me a Dream...

By Rick Marschall.

I was a mere 13 years old when I attended my third National Cartoonists Society Meeting. The New York Metro chapter met monthly in the legendary, ancient actor’s “clubhouse,” I think on 44th Street. Meeting rooms, conference halls, a restaurant, and bars everywhere. Old wood, old mirrors, old actors – many of them asleep in overstuffed leather wing chairs. I swear I spotted a slumbering Brian Aherne, but what does a 13-year-old know?

And of course, one evening a month the NCS had the restaurant and meeting room. These were substantial monthly events, not only excuses to go and fraternize. Always a dinner… always a speaker and entertainer… always a time for drinks before, during, and after… and always a “Shop Talk” to close the evening (except for drinks) (boy, did I get sick of ginger ale).

The Shop Talks were formal affairs, carefully planned and well attended in a separate room. Usually they revolved around a cartoonist visiting from out of town; sometimes they addressed issues like taxes and IRS write-offs for professionals – good discussions, and a lot of Q&As.

After Al Smith (Mutt and Jeff) took me to my first meeting, I became something of a mascot or something – more like a curiosity, this kid who knows about turn-of-the-century comics – and other cartoonists invited me. Vern Greene, Harry Hershfield, others. Was it a kick? Unbelievable.
But on the evening I recall here, and maybe because I felt like a jaded veteran, I largely eschewed the programs. I was in the thrall of two cartooners.

The first was Al Kilgore. He died too young – age 155 would have been too young – and he is remembered today as a caricaturist; a founder of the Laurel and Hardy Society Sons of the Desert; and artist on the Bullwinkle comic strip. I will devote a future column to this genius and friend – eventually I was his editor and a frequent guest at his home in Hollis, Long Island. But that evening, totally impromptu, he held court for me and commercial artist Jim Ruth, on a giant Lamb’s Club red-leather sofa – delivering a steady monologue of anecdotes, reminiscences, dating stories, problems with taxi drivers, crazy friends… I thought he was in a class with Jean Shepherd, if tears of laughter were a gauge. If it sounds like he was the funniest guy I ever met, that’s only because… he was.

The other magnet drawing my interest that evening was Creig Flessel.

I only knew Creig as the artist on the Sunday page of David Crane. It ran in the Newark Star-Ledger, so I knew it well. I was aware that the dailies originally were drawn by Winslow Mortimer, who had created the strip, or was its first artist. At first it was a continuity strip about a small-town pastor, the Sunday pages given to a religious “message.” This was the template of the Mark Trail strip (that is, Sunday pages given over to educational messages); and I believe its cartoonist, Ed Dodd, created David Crane and scripted its first years. When other writers came in, and the syndicate thought that Sunday gags would be more appealing, comic-book and advertising artist Creig Flessel was brought in.

(I recall that at one point while I was talking with Creig, Win Mortimer walked passed, and the two cartoonists exchanged rather hostile glances; nothing more.)

I had absolutely no sense or knowledge of Creig Flessel’s “earlier lives” that evening. He was one of the pioneer comic-book artists – breaking ground and producing “firsts” of titles, characters, covers, and formats with people like Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and Vin Sullivan. The Shadow pulps for Street and Smith… Johnstone and Cushing ad strips… More Fun covers… the pre-Batman Detective Comics… New Comics… the earliest appearances (maybe significantly creating) The Sandman… eventually Superman and Superboy.

In my opinion, nobody ever drew more handsome comic-book covers than Creig Flessel in the medium’s first generation. 

I was years away from an interest in comic books and superheroes, so there were a thousand un-asked questions from me that evening at the Lamb’s Club. But I had many other questions; and many of those were typical of a 13-year-old aspiring cartoonist. Creig answered everything, and flattered me by asking a lot about me – my favorite cartoonists, my ambitions, my family’s encouragement.

He was genuinely interested. A genuinely nice man. And he confirmed this when, less than a week later, a package arrived at my parents’ house from him. It contained inscribed Sunday and daily originals (he had taken over the daily strip); color proofs; and a three-page, hand-written letter full of advice, encouragement, even information about his working methods and his tools at the drawing board. We reproduce it here; I hope double-clicking will make it readable for you.

Such encounters were not detours but the essence of my Crowded Life in Comics, a chronicle of blessings of time and chance; and of exceptional people.

– XXX –


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