Monday, October 14, 2019

Scorchy Smith's Adventure Comic Strip Style Legacy

For several decades, American comic strips have been shrunken (compared to 1940s sizes), humor-oriented creatures. But from roughly 1930 into the 1960s there were many plot-driven strips with day-to-day continuity extending for months. The motivation of newspapers for featuring such strips was that they captured the attention of readers who became more likely to buy that particular paper on a daily basis.

Some continuity strips dealt with romance, but most were adventure oriented. There were Africa strips such as Tarzan, the Phantom, and Jungle Jim. There were science-fiction strips such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Among a number of other categories was the aviation-centered comic strip.

One such aviation strip, "Scorchy Smith," brought together some artists who evolved or practiced a distinctive, representational, chiaroscuro style of drawing for comic strips. Yes, there were other comics in the key mid-1930s to mid-'40s era that also were artistically superior. But the aviation strips are worth examination in their own right.

Although he didn't initiate Scorchy Smith, it was Noel Sickles who transformed its visual style as I posted here.

A co-worker at Associated Press and good friend of Sickles was Milton Caniff, who at about the same time began the famous "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip. Influenced by Sickles (who quit drawing Scorchy in the fall of 1936 to become an illustrator), Caniff slowly evolved the strip's style from thinly lined images into lushly brushworked, strikingly composed scenes that made him one of the most honored conic strip artists of his day. His skill at plotting and characterization added to this.

After World War 2, Caniff left Terry and the Pirates, being replaced by George Wunder, who I wrote about here.

One of the many artists who drew Scorchy Smith was Frank Robbins, active 1939-1944. In the summer of '44 Robbins launched the "Johnny Hazard" strip that in appearance and content was not far removed from Terry and the Pirates.


A Noel Sickles "Scorchy Smith" strip for 20 October, 1936 -- one of the last that Sickles drew,

"Terry and the Pirates" for 2 January, 1934, showing Caniff's original style.

Terry for 3 October, 1936: his style about the time Sickles dropped Scorchy Smith. They were headed in the same direction, but Sickles was more advanced.

18 January, 1938 -- Caniff is doing better depicting people than he did a year or so before.

Now, 1 August, 1941 we find dramatic chiaroscuro.

By 24 March, 1945 Caniff's classical style has emerged.

Here is a Scorchy strip for 15 February, 1941 drawn by Frank Robbins. He was a skilled artist, doing fine art as well as comics, and his work is comparable to Caniff's at his point.

A late Scorchy strip by Robbins (24 February, 1944). Now he seems to be lagging behind Caniff.

Lead panels from a Robbins Sunday "Johnny Hazard" from the mid-1950s. Here his work is richer, more like that a of Caniff and George Wunder who was drawing Terry by then.

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