Wednesday, June 14, 2023

A Crowded Life in Comics –


by Rick Marschall

We learned that John has died, aged 93. 
Death comes to all, but in John's case, anybody who met him feels it came too soon; that he was too young; that he had more to give. Maybe Johnny was ready... but we are not. This good-bye hurts.

When I joined Marvel in the mid-'70s, I had known Stan Lee outside the superhero world, but didn't really know the Marvel Universe. What a collection of people that office was, what an impression I had of legends, kids, wannabees, hangers-on, future superstars, nervous nerds, confident wonks. A great and fascinating time of my career. My assistant Ralph Macchio and I had our office in the geographical center of the floor, within glass walls, opposite the bullpen, and the sea of Marvel-humanity floated by for our delectation... and commentary.  

Within the colorful cast were the "sorta normals" as I called them lovingly, and sometimes desperately. Marie Severin; Eliot Brown; the old-timers who still reported to work in ties, Tartaglione and Roussos; the freelancers Tom Palmer and Gene Colan; Ralph, Jim Salicrup, and Mark Gruenwald. John Buscema, sensitive Renaissance man masquerading as a dese-dem-dose workman.

But this is about John Romita. Buscema was a "cartoonist's cartoonist"; there were a few of them -- John Severin, Alex Toth, and Curt Swan were others in the business -- who could draw any thing, any time, any way, but always flawlessly. Impeccable instincts. John Romita was one of them too. Styles and fads came and went, but John always understood, always mastered, always TAUGHT. By example... but (one of his many utterly unique gifts) also by generous, helpful, masterful, arm-around-the-shoulder tutelage also. 

John had no ego. There was no room for it: his talent crowded out every other possible tendency. He did not only convey the "house style"; he WAS the house style. 

Soon after I joined Marvel I was properly impressed by Stan's instincts as he explained storytelling, composition, balloon placement, even color schemes. At that point, Stan basically concerned himself with business and covers, not characters or interiors; however I soon learned (and I am not denigrating his genius or accomplishments) but his great pointers and virtual lectures were essentially translations of what Buscema and, especially, Romita, taught HIM.

More than that -- getting back to what I called (and to their faces, BTW!) the "sorta normals" -- John Romita was envied as the Guy you wanted as a next-door neighbor. In that lovable zoo, he was always the modest, quiet, nice guy, never a prima donna, never displaying an artistic temperament, always the nicest person you'd meet that day. Except maybe for his wife Virginia, who worked in the office too. And except maybe for John Romita Jr (Gruenwald called him JR-Squared), also the nicest guy within laughing-distance at all times.

I was lucky to work at Marvel when I did. I was privileged to meet and know so many great people. But I was blessed to know the Romitas -- just as fans were blessed that he was a Guiding Star of the Marvel Universe -- and a great part of my life was to call John a friend.



Monday, June 5, 2023

Seven Men Who Draw Funny Pictures


Clare Briggs, Jan 19, 1916



Literary Digest, August 14, 1920, author unknown

DRAWING A FINE PICTURE of Niagara Falls on the starched front of his father's dress shirt and standing up that night to eat his supper marked the first venture into art of Bud Fisher, creator of Mutt and Jeff. Now Mr. Fisher's drawings earn him a quarter of a million a year, he lives in a ten-room apartment on Riverside Drive, New York City, and we are told he is the possessor of a pearl-inlaid ukulele and a German police dog, to say nothing of a yacht and a fine country estate in England. Bud Fisher is one of seven nationally famous comic artists, not one of whom earns less than $25,000 a year, and at least three of whom receive salaries exceeding that of the President of the United States. The others are Rube Goldberg, of "Boob McNutt" fame; Clare Briggs, originator of "Skinnay"; Gene Byrnes, who portrays the antics of "Reglar Fellars"; T. A. (Tad) Dorgan, responsible for "Silk Hat Harry''; Fontaine Fox, who runs the ''Toonerville Trolley''; and George McManus, who lets the world in on "Bringing Up Father." 

To Jane Dixon, representing People's Favorite Magazine (New York), these gentlemen recently related the circumstances of their entering the cartoonists' profession and how they happened to develop the comic features which have made them famous. Of Mr. Fisher we learn that he was connected with the San Francisco Chronicle, covering the races at $15 a week, when he drew the first of the "Mutt and Jeff" series. He says:

"One evening I came into the office late. My ponies had all run backward that day and I was feeling low. I sat down, drew a picture of my own idea of myself, labeled it 'A. Mutt,' and handed it to the night editor.

"'That's a funny-looking bird,' said the N. E. 'Who is he?'

'"That's me,' I answered, 'A. Mutt.'

"The next day they sent Mutt to cover the races."

The success of A. Mutt was instantaneous. He began picking winners. His luck was uncanny. It seemed he could not lose. The editor of The Chronicle once told me race fans used to line up outside the building every morning for a block or more waiting to grab the first papers off the press for Mutt's tips.

Came the Reuff scandals in San Francisco. The Chronicle was bitterly opposed to the policies of the Reuff mayoralty ring. Bud Fisher took Mutt to visit a local insane asylum. There Mutt found little Jeff, and adopted him because, as he explained, "Jeff was the only man in the world crazier than Abe Reuff." The little fellow proved such a hit he was kept in the picture.

By way of the San Francisco Bulletin Bud Fisher came to New York, joined The American, moved on to The World. The trail leads upward in such leaps and bounds it has the effect of making the audience dizzy.

"Salesmanship?" says the leaper. "Sure. Make up your mind what you are worth and stick to it. Never ask more than you know you are worth. The other fellow may say you are crazy, but if you prove he is wrong he will not haggle with you the next time you come to sell your goods."

Today Mutt and Jeff are cashing in to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars a year. They are harvesting laughs from their cartoons, moving pictures, "legitimate" shows, and books in cities and jerkwater junctions of every State in the Union, not to mention Great Britain, Japan, Mexico, Australia, Canada, Cuba, and France. Even New Zealand joins in the chorus.

Rube Goldberg told the interviewer that the first picture he drew that brought results was one of his teacher. He admitted it did not flatter the lady much, but said the results made him sore for several days. Goldberg's father decided his son should be a mining engineer and to that end sent him to the University of California, where the young man drew some pictures for the college paper. Further:

"When I was graduated I went out into the gold-fields of California to embark upon my career of mining engineer. I suffered through two miserable months, with the drawing urge growing stronger every hour. Finally I packed my kit, went back to San Francisco, and told father he'd have to dig up another mining engineer for the family tree. He was disappointed but agreed to compromise on civil engineering. I was sent to the city hall, where I drew a hundred dollars a month and plans for sewerage systems. One day I dropped into the office of The Chronicle. The editor's son had been a college friend, and the governor was familiar with my work on The Pelican. He agreed to pay me eight dollars a week. I would gladly have worked for nothing.

"The drop from twenty-five per to eight did not sit well with the home folks. Father gave me up as hopeless. Not until I came in, many months later, and announced I had been raised to thirty-five dollars a week did he concede he might have been wrong about the mining stuff.

"From The Chronicle I went to The Bulletin, where the cartoonist was given a better show. Here I developed a New York bug. The editor offered me $50 a week to stay put, but it was the big town or nothing. Arrived in the city of my dreams, I peddled my drawings to every paper. I ended with The Mail, and there I landed. That was thirteen years ago. I've been on The Mail the entire stretch. To be successful, a fellow must keep his work moving along. The minute he stalls the engine popularity begins to slip through his fingers. And he must get better all the time. Just as good is not good enough. He must be out to beat his own record."

Clare Briggs went to school at the University of Nebraska, where General Pershing was his teacher in mathematics, a branch of learning in which the cartoonist admits he held the cup for remaining longer than anybody else at the foot of the class.

On one occasion, when the teacher's patience was completely exhausted, he yelled: "Briggs, sit down. You don't know anything." After that, says Briggs, there was nothing left for him to do but become a cartoonist, and on the advice of a friend he went to St. Louis to look for a job —

 "After several discouraging weeks I tackled The Globe-Democrat. I asked for $15 a week, on the principle you can't shoot a man for asking. They gave me a ten-spot. You should have heard my six-dollar friend howl from his perch on The Republic.

"Just as it seemed I was about to make my fortune on a twenty-five-dollar-a-week shift, and that I could go back home and claim the girl I was convinced every fellow with a grain of sense was trying to steal away from me, the half-tone picture came along and kicked the feet from under newspaper artists. It looked Kke the end of the world then, but it proved to be exactly the thing we needed. Now we were compelled to use our imaginations, our inventiveness.

"At the close of the Spanish-American War I was fired. I had enough left over to make a smoking-car trip to New York. My total fortune on reaching the big town was 15. For the next two years I lived mostly on nothing a week, the exception being an occasional comic to The World. The minute I hit the twenty-five dollar mark I made a flying leap out after the girl. Under her influence my star began to ascend. I received an offer from the Chicago Herald to draw sport cartoons. It was here I began my kid series, an idea inspired by the fact Chicago was thoroughly disgusted with the conduct of its baseball teams. I called my series ‘The Days of Real Sports.’ Skinnay and the pup brought me back to New York and to The Tribune. A great boy —Skinnay. He built me a fine home in the country, and the girl from home likes him."

In the picturesque Briggs home. New Rochelle, are three of the younger generation — a daughter of nineteen, a son of fourteen, and a girl of two. It is on the strength of the baby that the artist and the girl from home are collaborating on a new series, ‘What a Baby Thinks About.’ Says father Briggs: "As it is the finest baby in the world, it ought to be a bang-up series."

The Briggs house is built from the timbers of an old schooner reclaimed from a shipyard, because, as the owner explains it, he "hates anything new and shiny." It is situated on a rocky knoll, with a brook tumbling along at its base, and is the show place of a section where artistry and architecture go hand in hand.

There Clare Briggs, who asserts there should be a law passed permitting a man to change his name at will, plays at being a boy again. He drops down to the city in his trusty Cadillac long enough to turn out "When a Feller Needs a Friend," or "Somebody's Always Taking the Joy Out of Life," or "Ain't It a Grand and Glorious Feehng?" While in the city he visits his banker to see if the last quarterly ten or twenty thousand came in on time.

"Dinty Moore," the perpetual source of trouble between "Maggie" and "Jiggs" in that edifying drama, "Bringing Up Father," was first seen by George McManus in a show in St. Louis, where the cartoonist's father was in the theatrical business. McManus says he liked Dinty the minute he saw him and has been using him in his cartoons ever since. Of Mr. McManus's career we read:

"Nineteen seemed to me a fairly good age to start on the trail to fortune. I had saved a little money, and it bothered me. New York was the place to spread it. I hit the big town and found its possibilities as a playground had been greatly underestimated. Not until the bank-roll had melted did I bother about work. I was up against it, but too proud to wire home a distress signal. On the strength of some half-page series, the Sunday World gave me a six months' contract.

"My first character of importance was a tramp I called Panhandle Pete. Then I struck my first real pay streak. I met the girl who has since become Mrs. McManus. She was the inspiration for the 'Newlyweds,' serving as the model for the principal character. She went over big. Then came 'Let George Do It,' for The Evening World. Finally I signed a long contract with The Journal and American and started 'Bringing Up Father.''

Thomas A. Dorgan, "Tad," was brought up in San Francisco. His first job was on The Bulletin in that city, where he started at $3 a week. He fell down on an assignment, was fired, and had to work six months for nothing before he got back to three per once more. To quote Mr. Dorgan himself:

"Shortly after I hit the thirty-dollar mark —large money in those days—I had a letter from a man by the name of Brisbane. He said if I would come to New York, he would pay me $75 a week. I showed the letter to the boss's secretary, a young lady wise in the business.

'Forget it,' she said. 'The boys are kidding you.'

"I remember the gang held a heavy conference to decide whether the letter was a cheater or on the level. They came to the conclusion there wasn't that much money.

" I wrote to this Mr. Brisbane to find out what made him think he was one of the Morgans. Back came a note repeating the offer. My getaway broke all speed records in a town where traveling was never anything but the fastest. In New York I went to the address given in the letter and met Mr. Arthur

Brisbane, a power on The American. He offered to sign me for a year at the given figure. If he would only have made it a hundred years I would probably have choked to death in my haste to yell 'Let's go.'"

Fontaine Fox, who operates the "Toonerville Trolley," came from Louisville. His artistic bent manifested itself, when, at the early age of seven, he drew a train of four hundred freight cars on the new parlor wall-paper. Apparently his ability was not appreciated at home, for he was sent to Indiana University to become a lawyer or doctor. After leaving school, however,

he became connected with the Chicago Post. Further: He bethought him of the trick trolley-line which bounced him to and from work back in Louisville. Might be a good idea to try it out on the city folk. With the since-famous "Skipper" in charge, he sent the Toonerville trolley on its daily run through The Post. It carried the ambitious creator straight through to

success. At the same time he found "Thomas Edison, Jr.," trying on a discarded derby hat retrieved from an ash-pile in a vacant lot near his home. The junior Edison's mother caught her dear hopeful just as he was emerging from the lot, the hat riding well down over his ears.

" I followed the two of them to a barbershop, where the boy received one close haircut by way of punishment," says Mr. Fox. "I went home and drew my first kid cartoon. I have always been glad I followed that indignation meeting to the barbers.

"It took my father a long while to become reconciled to the absence of a handle at the end of my name. Even now he shakes his head and allows as how cartooning is a queer way to make a living."

Fate spoiled a perfectly good harness-maker when she made Gene Byrnes a cartoonist, according to his own version of the case. He says:

" I was booked to follow in my father's footsteps, but I lost the trail and started a shoe-repairing shop instead. I ran the first electric repair shop in Brooklyn -' Sole you while you wait.' My next job was selling a certain bug dispeller, for which I drew down the weighty recompense of $12 a week, with a promise of $15. One day I was sent to give a practical demonstration of my wares in a hotel. I couldn't stand the gaff, so I checked my stock and went to The Evening Telegram. "I had done considerable drawing for The Brooklyn Times but had given it up as a wrong lead. It took all my time explaining my 'balloons' to an editor who had charge of the comics during my stretch. He was the sort of a cuckoo who went to the Winter Garden and thought Frank Tunney was a tragedian.

"The Telegram editor agreed to give me a try-out. I turned in a one-panel comic, 'Reglar Fellers," After a while the editor informed me I would have to come across with something else; he was not running a seed catalog. The result was ‘It ' s a Great Life If You Don't Weaken.' The success of this strip encouraged me to try ' Wide-Awake Willie' for The Herald. You should see them now translating Willie for the Hungarian trade. It hands me a jolt every time I look at Willie done up in bundles, ready for his overseas journey. A fellow never knows how far he can go until he starts traveling."