MICHAEL H. PRICE: Roy Crane: A life in comics
The following text contains the remarks of comic-strip master Roy Crane (1901 – 1977) from a visit with George E. Turner and Yrs. Trly. on May 13, 1969, in the Editorial Art Department of the Daily News & Globe-Times at Amarillo, Texas. George and I had become acquainted with the Texas-bred artist a few years earlier when he had visited various client-newspapers on behalf of his Reuben Award-winning feature Buz Sawyer. – M.H.P.
Back about 1912, when I was a boy, our next-door neighbor in Sweetwater [Texas] was a traveling salesman for a wholesale grocery firm. Mother and I went with him and his wife, once, when he made his rounds, and we went up to Amarillo. I had an impression of endless grass, and the car seemed always to be going uphill. The grass was very thick and grew right up to the ruts – there wasn’t a graded road. There was a world of prairie dogs. They’d dive into the runs, and we’d run over hundreds of them a day. Now they [residents of the Texas Plains] have discovered trees, and there are beautiful lawns and flowers.
Les Turner, who later was my assistant on the Wash Tubbs daily strips, is from Wichita Falls [Texas]. We were going on a sort of bumming trip together after we finished art school. There were no jobs for us, and we went riding freight trains and hitching rides. I missed him by one day when he got a ride to California. I went to Galveston and got a job as ordinary seaman on a tramp steamer to Europe. When we returned and landed at New York, I got my first art job on the New York World.
I started Wash Tubbs in 1924. Later that year, [Harold Gray’s] Little Orphan Annie came out, and it was quite a departure. Here was a strip that tried to make you cry instead of laugh! I wanted to make Wash Tubbs an adventure strip, and the office wanted to make it a movie [humor, i.e.] strip. When I broke in, there had been a few continuities. I think Andy Gump [of Sidney Smith’s The Gumps] ran for President, and they had running gags about the election. He lost, of course.
But 1924 was in the day of joke comics, and the guy who took [subscribed to, i.e.] the most joke magazines was the biggest-rated cartoonist. Some [cartoonists] collected foreign joke books and had them translated. I was living in Cleveland, then. Once, two different strips in the Cleveland paper had the same joke on the same day – and there it was, the next day, in still another one! No one paid much attention to adventure strips until the Depression. They were called comics, and they ran on the comics page, and they were supposed to be funny.
A number of us were trying to tell stories. We called them continuities, not stories. They were more or less like the situation comedies on teevee today. I was trying for adventure, connected with romance. In 1929, I picked up [Captain] Easy. He was someone I could put some force behind. [The title character] Wash had been with a pal about like himself, and they couldn’t fight or anything. I even had to have some eunuchs in a harem help them out a bit, and that was going too far! Easy was what I needed, a two-fisted type.
I’ve just been to Syracuse University – I’ve given all my originals, papers, and files to them – and I came across an ad that advertised it [Wash Tubbs] as an adventure strip and said it would be continued and it would grip the reader. Here it is: “OFF TO THE SOUTH SEA ISLANDS … the background is comic, yet is composed of connected incidents that will maintain suspense and grip the reader…”
From about 1930, I got Wash and Easy aboard Bull Dawson’s ship, and there was a shipwreck, battles with Borneo headhunters, a war with everybody mounted on elephants, and so on. By that time, I’d learned how to write an adventure strip. It took about five years to learn the business.
I had always thought that I had started the adventure strip, but lately the daughter of C.W. Kahles has shown that he started them, back about 1900. At one time, he was drawing seven Sunday features at one time – he was a prodigious worker. He started Hairbreadth Harry in 1906, and [Kahles’ daughter] claims that was the first adventure strip. I always thought of it as a sort of parody on dime novels and old movies and plays about villains who are going to foreclose on the mortgage.
Recently I was in the Philadelphia Library, and in the year Wash Tubbs started, 1924, I couldn’t find any of the Hairbreadth Harry strips that were connected. A typical one had the villain, Relentless Rudolph, about to do something to the girl, and Hairbreadth Harry flew over in an airship, dropped an anchor and hooked her skirt, and carried her away, and Rudolph said, “Curses! Foiled again!” The main idea was how screwy they could make the rescue. The whole heart and soul of an adventure strip is in the continuity, and how to make the audience interested in following the story of the characters. [Kahles’ daughter] is hurt that Kahles hasn’t received more acclaim, and rightly so.
By 1930, I knew what the hell an adventure story was. It was there if you knew what to do. Les Turner was my assistant on the Wash Tubbs daily strip. He smoothed it quite a bit and made the characters more realistic and believable.
Then Chester Gould, in Dick Tracy, found out how to draw a detective murder mystery … I think I had about the first murder mystery, in 1929. It wasn’t much of a mystery: A con man was trying to take Wash over, and Bull Dawson was involved in some way. Bull Dawson got into the strip about 1928, and there was treasure hunting in a country called Candelabra. Meanwhile, Tarzan began, with beautiful illustrations by Hal Foster, with paragraphs under them from the book, which was something much different. And Buck Rogers started at about the same time – it was pretty powerful. Then there was Tailspin Tommy…
A lot of very good strips fell by the wayside. After World War II, gag strips came back – some very fine ones – and they probably overshadow the story strips now.
I’ve no need for all that [depiction of] Navy travel anymore, now that Buz [Sawyer] is a civilian. I did about 80 Navy stories. I like it much better now: We’re free! I can work without having to worry about stepping on toes! You can’t have a Navy captain as a villain because it could reflect on all Navy captains. We sort of had to bring the F.B.I. into the story that’s running now, which is about a kidnap case, and they’re touchy as hell.
A friend of mine, an Episcopalian minister, used to greet me the same way every time he’d see me. He’d say, “Ah, Brother Crane, how I envy you. I preach a sermon twice a week to a few people, and you do it every day to many people.” This worried me, and finally I asked him what he meant. “Well,” he said, “Buz and Christy are exemplary characters. They lead good lives. They set a standard for the rest of us. They’re what we’d like to be.”
… But the strip is meant to be upgrading. Buz is against dope, for example, as we’ve brought out several times. And he’s a selfless person who helps others.
Also, about that time, I found out – and I was a little bit surprised to learn – that the strip was educational. I guess, in a way, it is. Like when Buz and his family go to Antarctica – we have to tell how people there live.
And oceanography – you can’t draw Buz and his family diving 450 feet below the surface of the ocean without telling how and why.
I thumbed through a book I have – it’s quite large; weighs about 23 pounds – and it’s filled with a lot of nice letters. There’s a letter from the president of a large university and one from the President of the United States, one from the Secretary of the Navy and one from an admiral … Every one mentioned Buz Sawyer as being educational, although I never considered it educational at all. But maybe you are being educational, helpful and useful and being a good influence when you do a cartoon strip.
I don’t worry about the violence. It’s good for children to read something about violence to prepare them for this world we live in. What literature doesn’t have violence? The Bible is full of it. And there was that girl who went through the looking glass, Alice, and the Queen threatening to cut off everybody’s heads! Comics are the cleanest writing you can find, next to a Sunday School book.
I enjoy a lot of the strips. [Milton] Caniff does a good job with [Steve Canyon], and I’ve been following [Leonard Starr’s] On Stage. Rip Kirby [as continued by John Prentice following the death of Alex Raymond in 1956] is extremely good…
Comics as a whole are at least 300 per cent better than when I broke in. You couldn’t do it now with no more to offer than I had then. It’s too bad they run them so small now, but editors are always hollering about space. And the way we have to do the Sunday pages, where they can chop off the first three panels and make them up different ways, takes a lot of the fun out of it.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.
Buz Sawyer artwork copyright King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.