Friday, August 16, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Derek, Son of Thane –
Hal’s Foster Son

by Rick Marschall

You probably do not know Derek, as a character or as a strip title.

But that was the name of the eponymous King Features proposal that the world knows today as Prince Valiant.

Overhead view of Foster at the drawing board in his Redding CT studio, reference at his side, drawing his Prince Valiant page typically from the bottom up. Most pages took him a full week to produce.
Creator Hal Foster was born this week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1892. My “mind” raced back in time to several stops along the way with the elegant, distinguished master Harold Rudolf Foster. He once told me that he learned to draw fast in those northern climes because the frigid air obliged him to slip mittens on every few minutes. Good anecdote, especially from a usually reserved man.

In 1921 Hal rode a bicycle to Chicago, where he studied art and drew (and painted) for advertising agencies. It was in Kansas, I think, about a decade later, that Hal was offered  the job of illustrating Tarzan, not for books or magazine, but for serialized newspaper installments. He was less than enthused, but the Depression’s grip was colder than Canada’s wintry blasts; and – paraphrasing the Bible’s account of Esau selling his birthright in Genesis 25 – he said he sold his soul for a mess of pottage. “But pottage tasted pretty good at that moment.”

Advertising painting by Harold R Foster, 1931.
Hal was not the first cartoonist to tackle the strip, which was a substantial hit especially when his Sunday pages attracted attention. Eventually he wrote his own jungle (and non-jungle, for instance Egypt) tales. I once owned – in fact I technically still own – a multi-page typescript account How I Came to Create the Tarzan Stories not by Foster but by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The founder of ERBdom and a keeper of the Burroughs flame, Camille Cazdessus, agreed to trade a Sunday Foster Tarzan for that manuscript. I sent it to him but, for decades, he has not honored the trade nor returned the manuscript. Tracked down in Illinois, no longer Louisiana, he admitted to still having it; and asked that I provide the postage for its return – an infantile and perhaps desperate condition, I thought. But I agreed… and still have not received either element of the transaction. A Crowded Life of Rogues, unavoidable.

Foster put the strip, and himself, on the map along the way. King Features, that vacuum-cleaner of talent, lured Hal with the promise to own his own creation (he received only a salary, no percentage or royalties, from Tarzan) and editorial freedom. Proud of his heritage and a student of history – and an admirer of the storytelling illustrator Howard Pyle – he staked a claim for a Medieval epic.

Its original title was Derek, Son of Thane, as attested here in this King Features promotion from 1936 (long buried in my archives). Myself, I will not attest to the fact that King ever published the strip under that title (although I have seen a reprint page, not a contemporary tearsheet with a Derek title-bar) nor that Foster’s second choice was Prince Arn.

A paragraph from an inside page of the “King Pins” brochure, announcing the new strip by the pride of Topeka.
The full-page Sunday (first a tabloid page) commanded attention, and had immediate impact, a prestige feature for American newspapers. In its early years Hal infused fantastic elements – Merlin was a regular character – and was exacting with visual references like furniture, castles, weapons, and clothing. He bent or condensed history, however, over approximately 600 years.

All that really mattered to readers, about a timeline, was every next Sunday.

The first fan letter that ever produced a response when I was young was Hal Foster’s polite, elegant explanation to me that he could not respond with an original Sunday page. I was making a scrapbook of Val Sundays (with my own running captions beside his!), and told him so. In later years we were Connecticut neighbors – he in Redding; I in Bethel – and was surprised to learn that Wayne Boring, whose work on Superman I considered stiff and klunky, did backgrounds on Val.

A letter from Hal Foster to a 12-year-old fan, 1961…
Around 1971, age and arthritis caught up with Hal and his lovely wife Helen, and they moved to Florida. I still have letters and Christmas cards from them, a long run. My wife and I visited them in their retirement in Spring Hill FL. On one of those visits I asked Hal what he thought – how he would assess – the work of his successor on Tarzan. In probably the most critical but diplomatic statement this gentleman could make, he thought and said, “It always interested me how Hogarth managed to draw all the muscles on top of the skin.”

In my old Nemo magazine I recruited two old European friends to address Hal Foster. Fred Schreiber dusted off an old interview with Hal; and Prof Giulio Cesare Cuccolini analyzed the influence of Howard Pyle. For the German publisher Carlsen I helped produce (with my friend the historian and publisher Andreas Knigge) The Big Hal Foster Book (never yet appearing in the US).

The cover of the book treatment of Foster’s career and Prince Valiant’s place in history. With Andreas Knigge; Carlsen Verlag, Hamburg, Germany.
Hal passed off the production of Prince Valiant to his Fairfield County neighbor John Cullen Murphy. Jack was predisposed – culturally, racially, politically – to be the simultaneous heir to Foster and the good Prince himself. Other artists auditioned, but there was no real competition. At first Foster provided the scripts and penciled layouts; and he finally surrendered all aspects. Murphy, and eventually other family members including his writer son Cullen, valiantly sustained the epic. In recent years other hands have continued.

When Foster died, my friend Bill Crouch proved that he was more than a Pogo fanatic. He and his brother Miller, when younger – I am not sure how much younger; but that might be another column. Or not – used to dress in licensed Prince Valiant pajamas and have mock sword fights. He felt a proprietary interest in Val, and somehow got Helen to share Hal’s King Features’ contract when she was a fresh widow. It turns out that Foster still owned the strip – and its rights and royalties – a rare situation that the syndicate somehow neglected to reference in their Good-byes; and that Helen actually did not realize. How long thereafter she received the surprising royalty checks, or what settlement was reached, I have forgotten.

A detail from “King Pins,” a King Features Syndicate mailer, in 1936. Hal Foster is #9.
Movies (including a 1950s epic with Robert Wagner in pageboy coiff), many reprint books, board games, costumes and, um, pajamas, flourished through the years. At times the strip was more popular overseas, for instance in Germany, than in the US. For me, I remember the first reply from a cartoonist; a warm friendship and visits; a few projects together; and material for a book of my own, the memories of a Crowded Life in Comics.

Also, Prince Valiant is where I first read and learned the meaning of the word Synopsis. 


Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –


by Rick Marshall

Searching for illustrations for the imminent revival of Nemo Magazine, I have been ransacking my bookshelves. After a crowded life in comic collecting, occasionally I come across books I forget I own, or inscriptions I forgot inhabit their inside front covers or flyleaves.

Some of these were dedicated to previous collectors. Some are sketches or lines to me, and I will share some of them here.


has a place in comic-strip history as being in the right place at the right time, more than almost any other cartoonist. He drew for Puck and the New York World in 1884, one of the most contested years of presidential campaigns. When newspaper photoengraving was introduced at the time, McDougall drew front-page cartoons that, by common  consent, helped decide the election. A decade later, he drew some of the first color cartoons in American newspapers. Through the years he drew for Pulitzer, Hearst, the Philadelphia North American and various pioneer syndicates. No less a figure than H L Mencken was an admirer, and a chapter of McDougall’s autobiography appeared in the very first number of Mencken’s American Mercury. In book form it was published by Knopf, and contains valuable material for cartoon historians.

My copy is an “association,” with McDougall’s self-caricature and the signature of the book’s first owner, screwball cartoonist Nate Collier. McDougall committed suicide in 1938.


On a trip to California some years ago I strolled through cartooning’s family album, of sorts. I met and interviewed and discussed possible projects with Mary Jane Outcault, Robert Winsor McCay, and R F Outcault III. Mary Jane was a delightful 96, having been born around the time of the Yellow Kid, in 1896. She married the nephew of Gemeral “Black Jack” Pershing, who led American forces in World War I; her memories were vivid, and salty, about her father, the Yellow Kid, and Buster Brown (and Buster’s girl friend… Mary Jane).

Bob McCay’s great-grandfather was Little Nemo’s father, and he shared family history gleaned from his mother Janet Trinker.

R F Outcault III was the grandson of the Father of the Comics, but did not inherit drawing talent. So he signed, without a sketch, an ancient copy of Buster Brown’s Resolutions.(And I secured another signed copy for Tom Heintjes; we were planning Nemo Magazine at the time.) By the way, Dick maintained that he could not draw, but he attended weekly painting classes… with Ferd Johnson (Moon Mullins) at the next easel!


was a respected illustrator and cartoonist. He was on the staff of Harper’s Weekly and the House of Harper in the 1870s, and after the turn of the century he drew daily political cartoons for the New York Herald into the 1920s. His 1922 autobiography A World Worth While is worthwhile mainly for a plethora of recollections about illustrators, cartoonists, and political figures – information that might otherwise be lost to history.

His first “splash” was as a reporter-illustrator in the Wild West. His account of the colorful figure known as “The Voyageur” attracted attention, and it is that figure Rogers drew on the endpaper of his autobiography. Another “association,” as booksellers call it – the inscription is to writer and editor James Leicester Ford (whose own Forty-Odd Years in the Literary Shop also contains a lot of historical minutia); and is co-inscribed by Clinton Brainerd, president of Harper and Brothers.


I knew Joe Dennett, onetime assistant on Mutt and Jeff, and resident of the next town from me in New Jersey as a kid. After working for Al Smith he joined the Harvey Studios and drew Sad Sack characters and stories. He put me in touch with George Baker, the Sack’s creator who produced wonderful covers for the line for years. Like Bill Mauldin (subject of another column) this iconic vet drew his iconic army schlump in many books and albums through the years.


God bless ol’Jim Ivey, whose Wash Tubbs reprint project (with Gordon Campbell and Tony deLuna) introduced many fans to that great strip by the great talent Roy Crane. … and provided pages for the affable and willing Crane to draw sketches. Here is one of the drawings in my copy of the book. Oboy!


Saturday, August 3, 2019

Sunday with Jesse Marsh

Walt Disney's Pollyanna

Star Weekly, Sept 17, 1960


Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

More Than Peanuts 

by Rick Marschall

I am capable of sharing memories wherein I am not a hero but a goat; when “the right time and place” felt like times and places I would have traded for anonymity. But the worst days in the fields of comics and cartoons and history are better than long summer days picking and chopping cotton. Almost as bad, in fact, as that analogy.

The first jobs I had in cartooning were after college, actually during college, too, freelancing – but after a passel of duties on papers in New Jersey and Connecticut where I drew political cartoons and illustrations; edited a weekend magazine; and wrote a political column, I felt it was time to climb the ladder to another goal, to edit comics for a newspaper syndicate.

The late Sid Goldberg was General Manager of United Feature Syndicate. He had been a protege of syndication pioneer John Wheeler, who had lived near me in Connecticut. “Back in the day” for John was ghost-writing newspaper columns for the great New York Giants pitcher Christy Matthewson around 1910; and stealing Bud Fisher and Mutt and Jeff away from William Randolph Hearst. At the time of this story he had just passed away, but I remained close with his charming wife Tee.

Wheeler had mentored Sid at the North American Newspaper Alliance, even so far as offering the avuncular advice during the recent (1972) presidential campaign to rein his wife in; she had committed political tricks like infiltrating the McGovern press entourage. Mrs Goldberg was, and is, Lucianne, who today manages the essential, eponymous political website, and among whose trophies was persuading Linda Tripp to persuade Monica Lewinski to record Bill Clinton’s erotic phone calls and to save her blue dress with his, um, evidence on it. (Jonah Goldberg, of National Review and cable news, is their son.)

End of tangent. Tee Wheeler warmly recommended me to Sid, and I was hired at United Features. Editing comics was only a portion of my duties. I reviewed submissions, edited columns and puzzles, and – not alone – routinely shorted the brand-new computer terminals by unwittingly generating static electricity. Hardly any papers then took electronic submissions, but UFS wanted to be in the vanguard.

One of the thrills of editing the strips (Nancy, Tarzan, Captain and the Kids) was editing Peanuts. The parsing of the word “editing” is what nearly got me canned… almost finished in the strip business before I started.

I had met Charles Schulz a few times, but not to know him. At the syndicate, people said from Day One, “Don’t call Schulz,” “Don’t bother Sparky,” his nickname. I wondered if it were his celebrity – strange, because he was always affable, even modest – and I regularly talked to other artists about gags, typos, deadlines, and such. But Sparky was off-limits.

The reason, it turned out, was that Schulz was then engaged in a battle with United Features: ownership; royalty splits; licensing; merchandising; everything. It had dragged on for 13 months. United might have folded its tent without Peanuts.

A batch of his strips arrived and a Sunday page, a classic baseball gag, featured Charlie Brown instructing Lucy to fold her umbrella in center field; of course she ignored him; a fly ball was hit to her… and it perfectly spiked itself on the top of the umbrella. She calmly walked to the pitcher’s mound and delivered it to Charlie Brown. In classic Peanuts structure, the gag had one more panel – Charlie Brown looked at the reader to say, “I can’t even criticize good.”

The printed version of the first and third versions of the 1975 Peanuts Sunday, April 20, a day that will live in infamy.

After chuckling, I wanted to save Sparky from 10,000 letters from English teachers. Any other cartoonist, I would have made a phone call. “I can’t even criticize well,” I would have said; “no offense.” BUT all those warnings to Leave Sparky Alone rattled in my head.

So I had the bullpen letter the correct word in Schulz’s style… and production began. After the engravings were made, color guides processed, proof sheets – as well as, in those prehistoric days – paper mats and zinc engraving plates, all were sent out to 2000 newspapers around the country. Postal envelopes, not e-mails or even faxes.

A week or so later there was a hubbub in the office, people racing around with frightened looks on their faces. Whispers. A succession of people handing a phone to each other. What happened was that Sparky received his set of proofs out in Santa Rosa. And he was not happy. Like a school principal or a scout master, he dressed down everyone, from the syndicate president to, eventually, me.

Of course I confessed to being the editorial bad guy; I had been fingered by everyone, anyway. Not boastfully but as a supreme logician, Charles M Schulz asked me if I thought he achieved his place in the business without knowing how to write a gag. In that moment I pictured myself as one of the kids in his strip being lectured by a blaring adult trombone – wide-eyed, mouth in a squiggle, beads of sweat flying.

There was no defense – except internally (and rather futilely) at the office – that I had towed the “Don’t call Sparky!” line. The fallout respected the Corollary: “Keep Sparky happy!” In emergency mode, United corrected and engraved the first Sunday page; made new mats and plates; contacted every client newspaper; and sent out, one by one, often Special Delivery, the corrected material. I believe there were several sovereign nations around the world whose national GDP was less than the costs of that correction.

… or, as I might call it, Marschall’s Editorial Dicta – always better to check; Mr Bell invented the phone for a purpose; and… Keep the Sparkys Happy.

Sid understood, indulgent as always. Whether Sparky remembered me as the specific culprit in the episode, I never knew. I never asked him in subsequent years, in many meetings, over several projects. I mean, I am dumb but I am not stupid. If you expected an ending like, “Years later I reminded Sparky of that incident, and we had a good laugh over milk and cookies...” – you will be disappointed. That is not the ending.

But, as Paul Harvey used to say, Now you know the rest of the story.

Later halcyon days. I went on to collaborate on several projects with Charles Schulz. He wrote pieces for books of mine; I interviewed him for the final issue of the old Nemo magazine (and an Italian book, pirated but with our names on the cover) and, pictured in this photograph, I flew to Paris when he was awarded the French government’s Award of Arts, ca 1988.