Saturday, December 14, 2013

Graphic Grandeur (In Memoriam Edition)

The November that just passed was not a good one for cartoonists. We've lost two, both of whom worked primarily for DC Comics during the Silver Age (1956-1970), so expect to see a lot of superheroes in this post. Now, I know some of you may not like reading about superheroes. I'm cool with that. You can just look at superheroes instead. After all, it's a visual medium we're talking about here. Anyway, each artist drew in what's called a "house style", as opposed to the kind of signature style you'd expect from a Jack Kirby or Todd McFarlane, and thus they were perhaps more craftsmen than artistes. Very good craftsmen, as you shall see.

Nick Cardy 1920-2013

Nick Cardy actually started out as a Golden Age (1938-1950) artist, working at Eisner & Iger, a kind of free-lance studio that  provided art and stories for various comic book publishers in the early days of the medium. They're best known for the The Spirit Section, a comic book-like supplement that ran in Sunday newspapers. This supplement concerned itself chiefly with a character called The Spirit, hence the title, but had backup features as well, including one about a crime fighting socialite named Lady Luck. Cardy didn't create the character, but certainly improved it. The thing that stands out most in Cardy's work was his knack for drawing beautiful, sexy women, and he's now seen as a rival of sorts to John Romita Sr., who drew his own memorable females for Marvel Comics in the 1960s. If you're wondering who "Ford Davis" is, that's the house pseudonym, used no matter who was drawing or writing the strip (boy, they had a house-everything back in those days!)

Cardy was drafted during World War Two, where he earned two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a tank driver in Europe while with the Third Armoured Division. Before all that, though, and while still serving stateside, he won a competition to draw a logo for the 66th Infantry Division. No word on whether Huey Newton or Bobby Seale also served in this division.

After returning home from the war, Cardy worked in advertising for a while, and then got a job drawing the daily black-and-white Tarzan comic strip for a couple of years in the 1950s, while Burne Hogarth continued with the Sundays. Hogarth was already something of a legend at that point, so for Cardy to have his work appear in conjunction with the more established artist was quite an honor. As far as I know, nobody ever complained about a drop in quality from Monday through Saturday.

Around the same time, Cardy started his long tenure at DC Comics. His first book was Gangbusters, based on a popular radio show. Notice how the program's characters were described as "coast to coast favorites." That everyone in the country could listen to the same show at the same time was still considered quite amazing.

 Tomahawk was a frontier spy during the Revolutionary War, Dan Hunter his juvenile sidekick. Don't worry, Dan. I can't find any record of this marriage lasting beyond this particular issue.

The waterlogged superhero Aquaman was Cardy's best known character.

"Ramona Fradon had been drawing the character but was moving on for some reason. I remember being in [editor] Murray's [Boltinoff] office with Ramona during the transition. ... Anyway, they must have liked my work because when the character got his own series, they made me the artist".

Cardy drew the first 39 issues (1962-1963) and all the covers until 1971.

 I hope Aquaman knows a thing or two about bankruptcy court.

Yessiree, look at Aquastud sow his wild oats (or seaweed.) And to think there's some online speculation he's gay! (Of course, these covers ARE pre-Stonewall.)

Enough of Aquaman already. Wonder Girl (Diana Prince's kid sister) gets a makeover, much to the amazement of Robin and friends.

"Not now, darling. I'm trying to kill someone."

I've already compared Cardy to John Romita Jr. Like his Marvel counterpart, he was in great demand as a romance artist.

If not for the downcast expression, she could pass for Romita's Mary Jane Watson (Spider-Man's girlfriend.)

Is it any wonder "love" means zero in tennis?

Al Plastino 1921-2013

I said before that Nick Cardy drew in DC's house style, but an argument can be made that his work became more individualistic and recognizable (a well as a bit psychedelic) as time went on. Al Plastino, however, was a true chameleon who could disappear in another artist's style to a startling degree. Just you wait and see.

An early stint with a now-forgotten superhero. Actually, there's two 1940s comic book characters with this name, both androids. So whoever came up with the second version probably hoped everyone would forget the first one, which happened to be Plastino's.

Once settled in at DC, Plastino worked with the most famous superhero of them all. Never as the primary artist, though, but as backup to Wayne Boring and, later, Curt Swan, both of whose styles he successfully mimicked.

Primary artist or not, Plastino did get to create supervillian Brainiac, who shrunk and stole the Kryptonian city of Kandor and all its citizens before the planet exploded, actually saving a lot of lives when you think about it, though he never got credit for that.

Back in the day, a superhero was no match for a crooner.

Teen idol.

Superboy travels to the future and gets blackballed. Apparently, superpowers are a dime a dozen in the 30th century. Plastino co-created the Legion with legendary comic book writer Otto Binder. Ironically, Binder got his start writing for Captain Marvel, whom DC sued out of existence. So Binder simply brought his whimsical approach over to the legal victors. 

Another Binder/Plastino creation. I wonder what the citizens of Metropolis thought when they first saw her fly over their fair city?

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a's a's Superma--hmm, he looks like he lost some weight, and is that a skirt he's wearing?"

Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about Jack Kirby having a signature style? In the early 1970s, DC managed to lure him over from Marvel, hoping he'd perk things up some, but when they took one look at penciller Kirby's version of Superman... 

...they had inker Plastino redraw his head in a non-signature style as possible.

Probably the most noteworthy bit of art ever to come from Plastino's pen. Originally done in cooperation with the Kennedy White House, it was withheld, redrawn some, and then released after JFK's death. In this story, the President instructs Superman to get those missiles out of, no, actually, the  Man of Steel takes part in a physical fitness campaign. Not his physical fitness, of course--who needs exercise when your powers are fueled by a yellow sun?--but the nation's. This story has been the subject of a recent controversy, one having nothing to do with single bullets or grassy knolls. For years it was assumed the original art had been donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. Instead, it turned up a couple of months ago at some auction house in, of all places, Dallas. Right before he died, Plastino was taking legal action to get it back, claiming "creators rights". I would normally applaud such an action, and I rather not have this art sold to the highest  bidder, but it should be noted that Plastino himself once almost got in the way of another creator's rights, and wait until you see who! 

The above, as you might expect, was drawn by Charles M. Schulz. What you might NOT expect is the Al Plastino-drawn Peanuts strips below, which were never published, and remained unseen until the Internet came along. What accounts for their existence? Stories vary. One is that in the early 1980s, after Schulz had suffered a heart attack, his syndicate United Features (now United Media) asked Plastino to draw up a bunch of strips, just in case the recovery wasn't speedy enough. Another, more diabolical explanation is that these strips are from about five years earlier, when an uncharacteristically obstinate and demanding Schulz was renegotiating his contract with the strip's legal owners, United Features, who were now actually considering replacing the cartoonist. The two sides eventually came to an agreement, and seeing as Schulz died a millionaire many times over, I'd say the terms were probably in his favor.

I've gone outside my allotted space because I want you to get a good look at this. See what I mean by true chameleon? Plastino's got Schulz's line work and lettering down pat. Charlie Brown and Lucy look pretty good, too. What gives the charade away (other than Plastino's own signature) is Snoopy. His head is much too big. That might be an apt description of his personality, but it's not the way Schulz drew it. Actually, Snoopy on a whole is a little outsized. He's supposed to be a beagle, not a St. Bernard!

I don't know if Plastino or someone else wrote these strips, but they lack Schulz's nuanced approach. I guess the middle one is the funniest (or least unfunny) of the three, but it's more something you'd expect more from Ernie Bushmiller than Charles Schulz.

And speaking of Ernie Bushmiller...

Plastino worked on Nancy, too, and this time got the heads just right.



  1. Kirk, regarding the Schulz United Features affair, I bet you anything they were going to try and replace him. It's wierd that Plastino didn't get Snoopy's head right. Snoopy is the easiest character to draw. One of my first volunteer art projects was drawing posters of Snoopy on posters welcoming home Vietnam Vets. I would spend hours perfecting Peanuts characters. I loved them all. This was another fine post with something for everyone. Keep up the excellent work!

  2. I found it weird, too, Patricia, that Plastino didn't get Snoopy right. Charlie Brown should be the hard one to draw. Another thing about the strip in the middle. In the highly unlikely even Schulz had come up with that joke himself, I think he would have had Snoopy in his lawyer's outfit--the derby and bow tie--and quoting some illusory court case. That would have made it a lot funnier.

    The Schulz-incapitated-by-a-heart attack story comes from Plastino himself, who was refuting the Schulz-not-resigning-his-contract version, which made the rumour mills first. I think Plastino just thought the contract version made him look bad (which it kinda did). What's so significant, in my opinion, about the whole sordid affair is that its evidence that Schulz did not own Peanuts, even if it did spring from his own pen, ink, and imagination. In the many interviews he gave, Schulz stressed that Peanuts was a commercial, rather than a strictly artistic, property. That he managed to wring so much genuine art out of that commercial property anyway, is what makes him and the strip so amazing.

    Thank you for your kind words, Patricia.

  3. Kirk, I've long heard of Plastino's "Peanuts", but these are the first examples I've seen. It appears they have been traced from existing panels by Schulz. Why come up with an original panel when Schulz had thousands of examples in the archives ready for cherry-picking? Get some hack (or maybe Plastino himself) to write some "jokes," then it's easy for an artist to open up a Peanuts paperback book and start swiping.

    If Sparky Schulz ever saw these examples I'm sure it caused some anxiety that his characters (and owned by a syndicate or not, they were his characters) could be usurped in such a way.

    The fact is that Schulz could not be replaced, and it wasn't necessary anyway, because he left thousands of strips which, like I Love Lucy or Seinfeld TV episodes, can be rerun forever.

    Not to diminish Al Plastino as an artist (I have a lot of affection for his old Superman stories), but I wonder why he, of all people, would have been chosen to do Peanuts.

    1. Tracing occured to me, too, Postino. The third comic resembles a Peanuts Sunday done by Schulz in in which Lucy arguably goads Charlie Brown into hitting her. Guilt-ridden, Charlie Brown then goes to Lucy's psychiatric booth and explains what happened (as if it was a totally different person he was talking to.) Lucy then slugs Charlie Brown. Dizzily lying on the ground, but nonetheless smiling, he says, "I don't feel guilty anymore. Psychiatry has cured me!" A much better punchline.

  4. I think I might have mentioned this before but when I work at Hallmark they could produce "Peanuts " but they had to send them to Mr. Schulz to OK first. I heard that items came back smashed and or torn up if he didn't like it. But If that your product, idea as all the characters... then you want the best.
    I did some note card that had Snoopy in a sweater and roller skates. The directors sent it be said they didn't think he would like it. But he did. I wish I could have done more work for him.
    I love Aquaman. He was my favorite.
    Such an interesting post. I had to save it to read later when I had some time.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. You did tell that story before, parsnip, but left out the "smashed and/or torn up" part, a detail I find rather intriguing. Schulz's famed passivity may have been a bit of a ruse.

  5. Nobody seems to have noticed (including myself when proofreading this post) but my opening sentence originally read, "The November that just passed was a good one for cartoonists." I left out a "not" that should have preceeded "good". I've since restored it. I meant no disrerspect to either Mr. Cardy or Mr. Plastino.

  6. I did see that but I though that you were saying because they were here it was a good day.... or something like that.
    But I just read one of my sentences and it makes absolutely no sense so we are even !

    cheers, parsnip

    1. I got the gist of your comment, parsnip. That's all I need.

  7. What a superb piece of work! Brilliant in words and pictures. Just as it should be of course.

    Kids like me used to get most of their pleasure from devouring comics in the 1940s. My regulars were The Dandy and The Beano, closely followed by Film Fun and Radio Fun. Then there were The Hotspur and Wizard.

    Many of these are now rare collectors' items and worth huge sums of cash when in good nick.

    The artistry was unbelievably good but at the time I just did not appreciate that. I do now!

    Thanks for a great posting.

  8. Welcome to the blog, Philip. I take it you're from the UK. I recognize The Beano as a British comic involving a mischievous little boy, though I've only read about it and never actually seen it. I'd like to investigate all of those comics you mention. They all have Wikipedia entries, so that's a start. Thanks for commenting.