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October 23, 2007

The Best Adventure Comic Strip Artist?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Newspaper comic strips started off as humor and that's pretty much what the radically miniaturized versions of today offer.

But during the 1930s, "adventure" strips came to the fore. Think Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Red Ryder, The Phantom, Smilin' Jack and Mandrake the Magician. This genre continued through the 40s and 50s, eventually fading as television and shrinking newspaper cartoon-panel sizes took their toll.

Most adventure strips weren't well-drawn. In part this was because many of the cartoonists lacked extensive art school training. Perhaps more importantly, the pressure of cranking out panel after panel --- especially for a strip running both daily and Sunday -- is a punishing task. So most artists cut as many corners as they could to keep the product flowing. Successful strips, those with large syndications, generated a large enough cash flow for the cartoonist to employ assistants. Sometimes the assistants did the backgrounds or perhaps the inking over "roughs" drawn by the cartoonist himself. And there are instances where the assistant would do all the drawing, this being possible if the "author's" style could be exactly mimicked.

Nevertheless, some adventure strips rose to a level that might reasonably be called "art," if indeed "commercial art" is Art and not simply "art" as a task or process. This is my favorite book about comic strips. First published in France in 1967 under the title Bande Dessinée et Figuration Narrative, it treats comic strips as art and contains an excellent selection of the best panels appearing up to that year (along with some mediocre ones to complete the coverage).

If adventure strips are borderline or even actual art, then who were the artists doing that high-level work? Who was best? I don't have the digital space to be encyclopedic, so will focus on those active in the 1930s who I consider superior.

The first is Noel Sickles, who for a time drew the "Scorchy Smith" aviation strip. He didn't do Scorchy for very long and quit to become a successful commercial artist. It's pretty shrunken, but below are sample panels.

Noel Sickles - "Scorchy Smith"

Note that Sickles was (1) skilled at drawing humans, an ability not common in the comic strip universe, and (2) employed large areas of black for reasons of design as well as for the occasional chiaroscuro effect. Due to his short stay in the field, I'll eliminate him from my "best" list.

That list is comprised of Milton Caniff, Frank Godwin, Burne Hogarth, Harold Foster and Alex Raymond.

Let's take a look.


Milton Caniff - "Terry and the Pirates"
Many observers consider Caniff the best "all-rounder" in the adventure strip field. He could plot and write well and his panels were powerfully done once he shifted from pen to brush. The only place I can fault him is that his humans tended to have a caricature-ish tinge: they aren't quite convincing. It's likely Caniff did this for dramatic effect.

Frank Godwin - "Connie"
Godwin was a highly skilled pen-and-ink man who did a good deal of commercial art as well as having a career as a comic strip artist. The "Connie" strip shown above showed more skill in portraying people than most early-30s comics. Godwin could do better than what you see here; perhaps his commercial work and deadline pressures kept "Connie" sketchy.

Frank Godwin - "Rusty Riley"
Godwin dropped "Connie" and, after World War 2, started a new strip, "Rusty Riley." Here the drawing is far more detailed -- lots of skillful pen-work. Both strips are too light on the page for my taste.

Frank Godwin - commercial art - 1931
Here is an example of Godwin's commercial work to show you what he was capable of. Some commercial work was pen-and-ink, some was conventional painting and a few pieces were like the picture above.

Burne Hogarth - "Tarzan"
Hogarth took over the Tarzan strip from Hal Foster (see next). He later taught art and wrote art instruction books that remain in print: I own a few myself. The authors of the book linked above are quite fond of Hogarth's work. I respect his work, but don't really like it. The poses and contortions Hogarth gives the Ape Man strike me as being affected, odd. Plus, Tarzan's face is almost unnaturally harsh. If the strip were still running, I'm not sure I'd follow it.

Harold Foster - "Prince Valiant"
Canadian Hal Foster quit drawing Tarzan because he wanted to work on a creation that was entirely his own: Prince Valiant. Foster's art is more static than Hogarth's (the picture above notwithstanding), but nevertheless beautifully composed and executed. For many years Prince Valiant filled an entire page of Sunday comics sections, a wonderful way to expose youngsters to great illustrative art.

Alex Raymond - "Flash Gordon"
Good as the others were, my personal gold medal goes to Alex Raymond who drew "Flash Gordon." And "Secret Agent X-9," "Jungle Jim" and, later, "Rip Kirby." Like Foster, his action drawings were more subdued than Hogarth's. His compositions were good and his use of blacks and chiaroscuro was effective. Where Raymond shined was drawing people; at that task he was perhaps the best comic strip artist ever. Examples from "Flash Gordon" are below.

Nice use of black. Keep in mind that the Sunday "Flash Gordon" was colored, which meant that Raymond had to leave plenty of white areas available for the flat colors used in newspaper reproduction in those bygone days when printing was by letterpress (today offset printing is most commonly used).

There's some missing continuity to the lower row. In a clipped-off panel to the left, post-wedding, merciless Ming states "Now that I've kept my promise to make her empress, take this rebel girl to the dungeons and execute her at once!"

A fine drawing. I really like the '30s streamliner-type car Raymond designed.



NOTE: Most of the art shown above is around 70 years old. Just for the record, original copyright holders were King Features Syndicate for Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon, United Features Syndicate for Tarzan, Ledger Syndicate for Connie, Editor Press for Rusty Riley, Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate for Terry and the Pirates.

posted by Donald at October 23, 2007


For me Milt Caniff is the gold standard. Great economy of line, little extraneous detail and most of all a grasp of the drama inherent in black and white. For the most part he eschews subtle shading or crosshatching and midrange effects for clean edges and bold contrast. It makes for high impact images.

Posted by: ricpic on October 23, 2007 8:38 AM

Alex Raymond, hands down. Boy, I sued to love this stuff back in high school. I still have the Nostalgia Press editions of Flash Gordon and the few books available at the time about comics, which I was delighted to discover existed at all. I haven't so much as glanced at them for ages. Lost passions or obsessions, now there's a subject.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 23, 2007 10:22 AM

Maybe not the best artist, but probably the best adventure strip cartoonist: Roy Crane.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on October 23, 2007 8:27 PM

Roy Crane is so widely considered to be one of the top three adventure-strip artists of all time (along with Sickles and Caniff) that his absence is notable -- although I suppose it could just be your favored timeframe at issue here. While the pre-WWII Captain Easy is where he first made his name, it was during the war when he really made his mark with the masterful Buz Sawyer.

Posted by: Dirk Deppey on October 23, 2007 11:35 PM

Hal Foster is my favorite, as I remember seeing his Sunday strips in my local paper growing up.

Raymond is great as well. I'll have to look up more on him.

Also, that Godwin piece with the women by the pool is incredible! Thanks for the post.

Posted by: BTM on October 24, 2007 12:26 AM

I agree that Raymond has the most overall appeal.
And I agree with BTM that the Godwin piece with the women by the pool is very nice work.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on October 24, 2007 4:49 AM


Here are two great links for fans of Alex Raymond. The first is an eye opening article about Raymond's death. The second link is the first of three very well illustrated pages devoted to Raymond's last strip, Rip Kirby.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 24, 2007 2:47 PM

Peter -- Thanks for the links. Extremely informative. Although I like Raymond's stuff, I never found the time to become a buff or comix maven like Mendez. For instance, I didn't know that Stan Drake was involved in the car crash. Nor did I make the La Gatta connection despite the fact that I have a copy of the catalog for the La Gatta museum show from a few years ago.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 25, 2007 3:03 AM

I was never a big comic book person - but I did like the old Look and Learn Magazines because they had the Trigan Empire mainly drawn by Don Lawrence. Some Trigan Empire sites can be found here and here.

Posted by: Mild Colonial Boy on October 27, 2007 1:36 AM

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