Saturday, November 8, 2014

Behind the Shelves: Russ Johnson and Mister Oswald

There are many famous comic strips and creators that have been justly celebrated, studied and collected: Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates); Chester Gould (Dick Tracy); Hal Foster (Tarzan; Prince Valiant); Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon); Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie); Charles Schulz (Peanuts) to name but a few, but one strip sits in relative obscurity despite an extraordinary sixty-two year tenure. Why? Because that comic strip was buried inside a monthly retail magazine that catered to the Hardware business.

The cover to Forty Years with Mister Oswald, published in 1968 by the National Retail Hardware Association. 

The story of Russ Johnson is fascinating on many levels. Johnson was not only a talented cartoonist, but a businessman who took over ownership of his father's Hardware store and ran the operation for decades. His first hand experiences as a store owner were the gist for many stories he devised. 

 In the introduction Johnson tells of his father's encouragement over his childhood drawings and notes the resemblance to Mister Oswald.  

What makes Forty Years with Mister Oswald such a worthwhile read is not only the reprinted strips ranging from its beginning in 1925 to 1968, but Johnson's own personal story. Each chapter begins with Johnson sharing his thoughts on both the comic strip and his experiences in the Hardware business - from the depression era and World War II to post war society and beyond.  

In Chapter 3 Johnson recounts his history in the hardware retail business, initially helping out his father and then making it a full time profession, a narrative that intermingles with his creation of Mister Oswald, a composite of he and his father.

Johnson's wit and perception of people and their idiosyncrasies (particularly customers) comes through in many of his strips. The universality of these situations and characters makes Mister Oswald far more than just a promotional piece for the Hardware industry.

In Chapter 13 Johnson relates the problems of doing business during wartime and losing employees who moved to different jobs when they returned. There is a real sense of the times, although Johnson's cartoon shows his ability to find humor in every situation. 

Johnson satirized his entire cast of characters, from customers and employees to Oswald himself. 

       Anyone who has had issues with co-workers can relate to the above two page strip!

Mrs. Oswald was an important component of the strip. As Johnson describes in Chapter 41: "Mrs. Oswald can be tender or domineering, solicitous or termagant, an inspiration or an exasperation." 

In Chapter 31 Johnson explains how the book was an opportunity to relate his experiences and not just publish the funniest strips, but in that mix there is a sincerity in both Johnson as creator and in his alter ego, Mister Oswald. In 1995 Rob Stolzer interviewed Johnson, and this quote stood out in my mind:

 " I lived that strip. I carried a little book around with me all the time. My wife complained about me looking at the book every once in a while, because I was living with all those people all the time. All those make-believe people, all those employees, I was living with them. When we would go to restaurants, they were at the table with us. I think I had some pretty good ideas."

I'll end this on a personal note. In the late 1970's or early 1980's I saw an ad for Forty Years with Mister Oswald in the Buyers Guide. I was aware of the strip because at the time I was employed as a clerk in a Hardware/Houseware store in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY. Jacobson Hardware was reminiscent of Mister Oswald and Russ Johnson's real life business in many ways. Both were family businesses, and the storefront had the same design as the version pictured on the upper right side of the book cover. I began reading Mister Oswald when I discovered it in the trade magazine Hardware Retailer (which was always available in the store) and was immediately amused by the artwork and storytelling. Johnson knew his stuff: jobbers, customers and co-workers were recognizable. My good friend Frank and I often worked together in the store and found ways to exasperate our boss Sid, much like Oswald's employees did. I sent a check out and enclosed a letter to Mr. Johnson and not only received a signed copy of the book, but the above personalized note. It's something I still treasure all these years later.

Johnson left the hardware business in 1953, but continued to produce Mister Oswald for Hardware Retailer, ending his run after 62 years in 1989. 

Russ Johnson passed away in 1995, at the age of 101.

You can read Rob Stolzer's full interview with Johnson here: 

..and for more samples of his work go here:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Astonishing Alterations!

If you've visited this blog in the past you won't be surprised by my fascination (some would say obsession) over editorial changes on artwork, both major and minor. This time out I'll delve into alterations on some early Marvel era Tales to Astonish covers.

Henry Pym becomes a costumed hero after his miniaturized adventure in Tales To Astonish # 27 eight months earlier. Ant-Man was the only Marvel hero to spin-off from a Pre-Hero monster story and while he would occasionally face creatures like the Scarlet Beetle, more often than not he faced - excuse the pun - down to earth criminals, thugs and delusional scientists, aided by his loyal ants. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Stan Goldberg colors and Artie Simek letters, Tales To Astonish # 35, September 1962.

When this cover was reprinted in England the original stat was used. Changes are minimal but worth pointing out. The beakers on the desk and the wall vanished, while the hoods shoes were made darker. By eliminating background clutter the viewers eyes are focused on the main figures - Ant-Man, the criminal and the ants. Amazing Stories of Suspense # 55, Alan Class, circa mid-1960's? Image from the GCD.

Ant-Man underwent changes from his earliest days, gaining the ability to grow to great heights and acquiring a female partner, the Wasp (I felt the early stories had a charm that was not replicated when he became a towering giant, but being 5''7 I admit to a slight prejudice...)

Chic Stone's vibrant inking over Jack Kirby's pencils was a centerpiece of the early Marvel era, particularly on the many covers he graced. Two issues earlier the Incredible Hulk was revived by Lee and Ditko as a co-feature in Astonish. The Hulk would soon overpower Giant-Man as the more popular character, and  Sub-Mariner would replace Giant-Man in the lead spot. 

 In Mexico Giant-Man and the Hulk stories were reprinted in Los Vengadores ("The Avengers")  # 20, June 1966. If you look closely you might notice the minor changes in the original version. Giant-Man's left arm is in a different position and holding up a jewel; his left leg is shaded. One of the diamonds near the Wasp is darkened and some touch-ups occurred on the Hulk's hair and bricks. In both versions there appears to be tinkering by other hands. The Wasp's mask and costume was likely altered to conform with her interior look (working at a breakneck pace Kirby often forgot the exact costume designs of every character). The necklace surrounding Giant-Man was probably inked by Kirby. My guess is that Stone inked the necklace without adding any lines, but Lee in his capacity as art director may have noticed that the necklace had no "weight" and asked Kirby to touch it up. Image from the GCD.

The cover to Tales To Astonish # 66 (April, 1965) is worth taking a detailed look at. A mixture of new art coupled with images from the interior story points to a cobbled together rush job. Covers were often produced after the interior stories were completed at Marvel, and this was clearly the case here. 

                     The image of Madame Macabre was a blow-up of the figure on page 3, panel 4. 

The figure of her assistant is taken from page 2, panel 6, with the hands redrawn. Interior art was by Bob Powell, with inking by Frank Giacoia. Powell was a talented and versatile artist whose work spanned an array of publishers, including Eisner and Iger, Street and Smith, Magazine Enterprises, Harvey, Charlton and Atlas, drawing western, war, jungle, crime, horror, romance and everything in between. His layouts on Giant-Man were particularly effective, emphasizing the characters size in ways others had not exploited. While his tenure at Marvel was short-lived, his artwork graced the Human Torch and Hulk strips,and he laid out or penciled a few attractive Daredevil's with Wally Wood.

The inset figure of Giant-Man is particularly interesting and may provide a clue to the cut and paste cover art.  In this scene the hero is trapped in a room too small for him. The pencils are clearly by Jack Kirby, with inking by Chic Stone. Kirby and Stone apparently drew the Hulk figure on the bottom third of the cover. I suspect that the image of Giant-Man was reduced and originally intended to be the top half of the cover. If so, why did it become a cover within a cover? The answer may have to do with the previous issues cover scene.

 The Kirby/Stone Tales To Astonish # 65 cover which appeared a month earlier had Giant-Man in the same predicament, so either the image used for issue # 66 was an earlier version of this cover, or the same scene was duplicated in the following issue and Lee (or Publisher Martin Goodman) didn't notice the comparison until late in the game. An observation: Giant-Man was often depicted in positions of helplessness (as further examples will illustrate) and perhaps that is why the hero didn't catch on. How many kids want to see a superhero constantly weak and ineffective? This didn't happen with the Hulk!

  ... and to prove my point, what is Giant-Man doing on the cover of Astonish # 67 (May, 1965)?  Looking frightened and losing his grip as a little guy with a gun attacks him and the Wasp speeds to his rescue! Jack Kirby pencils; Chic Stone inks.

The original cover as published in Los Vengadores # 20, June 1966 has Giant-Man's legs straighter. The published cover has his legs altered, likely by Sol Brodsky, putting him in an even more precarious position. The Wasp is also re-positioned.  Image from the GCD.

Tales To Astonish # 68 (June, 1965) is another piecemeal cover. the bottom tier featuring the Hulk and his cast of characters is by Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta. 

While the Hulk is poised to lash out and filled with rage, Giant-Man is unconscious and threatened by an ordinary man with a bolder! Is there any question why the Hulk became more popular? A hero that can tower over his opponents appears to be as efficient as Alex Rodriguez was on the New York Yankees! 

 The figure was taken from page 3, panel 1, with art by Bob Powell and Vince Colletta. The cover included a few alterations on Giant-Man and the figure of the man on the ground was replaced with a more menacing version.

The cover figure was drawn by the same team who drew the bottom tier featuring the Hulk: Kirby and Colletta. Was there an earlier version of the Giant-Man portion of the cover by Kirby/Colletta? If so, why was it replaced? It's one of many ongoing mysteries that may never be answered.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bill Everett and Company: Who Else Drew Tales To Astonish # 87?

It's no secret that Bill Everett had trouble meeting deadlines. While the credits to the Sub-Mariner story in Tales to Astonish # 87 read "Illustration:Wild Bill Everett" clearly other artists are involved. Comic book credits of earlier decades can often be deceiving due to the production method. The story would first be penciled, then lettered and sent off to the inker - or the presumed inker. The letterer would add the name that Stan Lee provided, but sometimes another inker would be substituted at the last minute after the credits were lettered. The new inker would occasionally add his own name, or someone in production might correct the credits, but there are numerous instances when the printed comic book had erroneous credits. These mistakes were sometimes acknowledged in future letter columns; other times they were forgotten and have remained in print for decades. 

Over the years I've noticed the Sub-Mariner lead story in Astonish # 87 ("Moment of Truth!" Stan Lee story; Bill Everett art; Artie Simek letters, Jan 1967) looked odd; Everett's art appears throughout the 12 page story, but uncredited artists assisted in the pencils and inks, which I will attempt to detail here.

The first alteration can be seen on page 2; panel 2, although this is a case of Stan Lee having John Romita alter Lady Dorma's face to make her prettier. Krang, in the background and Dorma's hand are all drawn by Everett.

       Page 4, panels 3-4 have redrawn figures of Lord Vashti, possibly by Marie Severin who was an artist/colorist/production person for Marvel in this period. Although Everett was involved as inker over Gene Colan and Jerry Grandenetti (Tales To Astonish #'s 79, 85 and 86) this was the first time in over a decade he returned to draw his creation. Everett's Sub-Mariner was a feature in Marvel Comics # 1, October, 1939, publisher Martin Goodman's entry into comic books. Sub-Mariner had a long and successful run in comics for a decade; Everett returned to the character for a brief revival in 1954-55 and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him into the Marvel era. Lee and Colan developed new characters when Namor was given his own strip in Tales to Astonish, such as Lord Vashti, so Everett may not have drawn him to Lee's satisfaction.

Starting on page 5 onward there are signs of Everett getting into trouble.

The inking on most of this page, particularly the backgrounds and figures, is the work of Frank Giacoia. His bold inking is evident in panel 5, especially on Krang and his guards.Everett may have inked only the Sub-Mariner figures and perhaps Vashti in panel 2. If deadlines were looming Lee probably decided to bring in others to help Everett to get the job done. A lack of backgrounds and unfinished pages two years earlier on Daredevil # 1 led to Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky pitching in to get that book completed. 

Here's where it gets interesting. 

On page 6, panel 1, Everett appears to have penciled and inked the Sub-Mariner, which I suspect he did throughout the issue. This mixture of Everett pencils/inks and perhaps partial pencils in parts of the story point to a rush job.

  In this three panel sequence on page 6 the face of Krang is the only evidence of Everett art. My guess is that the costume was altered from this point on from whatever Everett originally drew. Panels 1 and 2 are inked (and perhaps finished) by Frank Giacoia. The final panel may be the work of Marie Severin and Giacoia. 

The next five pages show little Everett input. While Sub-Mariner is drawn and (apparently) inked by Everett, everything else, including Krang and Vashti, are rendered by Marie Severin. Either Stan Lee was dissatisfied with Everett's rendition, and didn't feel it had enough larger than life Kirby theatrics, or Everett only drew Namor, with Marie filling in on the four page sequence. Whatever the circumstances Marie's figure work and poses are distinctive. 

Dick Ayers' inking also begins on page seven. Ayers usually worked at home and mailed his artwork in, but was asked to come into the office several times in 1966 to assist on deadlines. According to email correspondence in my files dated 7/21/2004, Ayers inked a few Daredevil stories (#'s 21 and 22, with Everett and Giacoia). On 6/10 and 7/8 he again helped out, although his record books had "no mention of what I was assigned". The January, 1967 dated issue of Tales To Astonish # 87 arrived on stands sometime in October, 1966, which would leave a 3-4 month period before the comic was published. This fits into the time frame when Ayers could have worked on this story. 

                            Page 8; panel 2 Marie Severin/Dick Ayers art; Sub-Mariner by Everett.

                                          Page 9; panel 2, Severin/Ayers art.

           Page 10: Everett Sub-Mariner (pencils/inks?); Severin/Ayers Krang. Ayers background art?

The four page fight sequence on pages 7-10 predominantly spotlight Namor and Krang's brawl. Large panels are employed and backgrounds are minimal. The cheering Atlanteans on page 10 look like Dick Ayers solo artwork.

 Page 11 is an interesting blend. Frank Giacoia's inking is evident in panel 1, although Everett drew Namor and Krang (or - at the very least - his face). 

 Panel 2 on page 11 has Giacoia backgrounds, but it looks like another artist did some inking on Sub-Mariner. I'm not sure who, though. It looks a little like Dan Adkins. Not impossible, but this was a month or two before his first published Marvel art. 

The final panel on page 11 appears to be mostly Everett pencils and Giacoia inks. Namor, Krang and the guards all have Everett styled poses and faces. The inking on Sub-Mariner looks a little different though, similar to the "Adkins" style in the previous panel. 

The final page includes Everett drawing complete figures of Namor and Dorma (with another Romita face-lift in panel 2). Ayers likely inked the backgrounds, and either inked the last panel over Everett pencils/breakdowns, or drew it all himself. As for the next issue blurb: "The Greatest Threat of All!" may have referred to a missed deadline and late fee payments!    

Marie Severin showed up three issues later in an Everett story, redrawing this sequence from the Sub-Mariner story in Tales to Astonish # 90, April 1967. Two years later Marie took over the art on Sub-Mariner (who received his own title) with issue #12 teamed with Roy Thomas and did an impressive job on the character. I would be remiss not to mention Marie's excellent collaborations with Bill Everett on a run of covers in the early 1970's (and you can see and read more about it on my earlier blog post:

John Tartaglione also appears to have contributed to Astonish # 90, with some uncredited inking.

While Bill Everett's return to his creation in late 1966 was welcome, the combination of deadline issues, stiff artwork in places and a lack of interest in the direction Stan Lee had taken his character led to a short-lived venture. In 1972 Everett was again reunited with the Sub-Mariner, this time for a more enjoyable run due to greater control and a more appealing take on his creation. While deadline issues again surfaced, with fill-ins and assistance needed, Everett's work shone brightly. His death in 1973 at the age of  56 was a tremendous loss to the industry and lovers of comic art.   

Exquisite Bill Everett art on his return to Sub-Mariner. "Who Am I?" Everett story/art (and probably colors); John Costanza letters, Sub-Mariner # 50, June 1972.  Throughout his career Everett's artwork had a distinctive flair. Diverse, thrilling and suited to all types of genres: superhero, adventure, horror, jungle, crime, romance, even animated features. In his final years Everett's art reached a plateau. His fluid ink line was as attractive as the sea he rendered with subtle beauty. One of a kind, Everett made his mark in comic books and remains unparalleled.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Unknown Ditko Marvel Cover?

The cover to Tales of Suspense # 45 has puzzled me for some time. This time out I'll share my step by step process of investigation, deduction and conclusions.

Tales of Suspense # 45, Sept 1963, lettering by Artie Simek, colors by Stan Goldberg, art by??

This cover is often cited as pencils by Jack Kirby and inks by Don Heck, and the error is understandable because it's partially correct (stay with me, they'll be a quiz at the end..)

When examining this cover something bugged me. Iron Man looked like a Kirby/Heck drawing, but the figures and poses of Jack Frost, Happy and Pepper didn't. 

                                                     Close-up of Kirby/Heck's Iron Man.

The Iron Man pose also looked awfully familiar, so I decided to go through Tales of Suspense #'s 39-44 which included all of Iron Man's stories up to that date, and I soon found what I was looking for.

        The splash page to Tales of Suspense # 43, July 1963. Jack Kirby pencils; Don Heck inks.

The figure of Iron Man used on the cover of Tales of Suspense # 45 was a stat taken from the splash page of Tales of Suspense # 43, published two months earlier! The illustration is exactly the same, with only a little "ice" added to his armor. This meant that it replaced a different Iron Man drawing that was apparently rejected by either editor/art director Stan Lee or publisher Martin Goodman for reasons lost to time. Kirby had penciled every Tales of Suspense/Iron Man cover before this one, and Don Heck, Iron Man's primary artist on interior stories,was rarely given cover assignments (some exceptions include Tales to Astonish # 49, Kid Colt, Outlaw # 113 and Two-Gun Kid # 66, all cover-dated November 1963). Jack Kirby was Marvel's primary cover artist in this period; the  exceptions being Stan Goldberg and Al Hartley on the teen humor/"girl" titles (Millie the Model, Patsy Walker, Modeling with Millie, Patsy and Hedy and Kathy) and Steve Ditko handling the Spider-Man cover art.  

Once I discovered the Kirby/Heck image was a stat I took a closer look at the other figures on the cover.

                                            An isolated image of the new cover art.

The first thing that struck me was Jack Frost. The villain lacked the solidity that Jack Kirby brought to his characters. The pose does have a Steve Ditko flavor, particularly Frost's fingers and gesture on his right hand. Happy and Pepper also had poses that looked Ditko-esque. Could this be a Ditko cover, inked by Don Heck? (there is no doubt in my mind that the inks are by Heck whose sharp line is evident) Was a Ditko Iron Man image replaced by a Kirby drawing? As of this writing no unaltered stats of the original cover have been discovered, but one never knows what will turn up...

I took a look at the interior Heck artwork to see if I could decipher any differences. 

                      The splash page to Tales of Suspense # 45, with sensational art by Don Heck.

Jack Frost doesn't look significantly different from the cover image, although that's not surprising since covers were often produced after the interior story was drawn, and Ditko would have based his figure on Don Heck's.   

"Iron Man Battles the Melter!", Tales of Suspense # 47, November 1963. Steve Ditko and Don Heck art. 

Two issues later Steve Ditko took over the art on Iron Man for a three issue run while Don Heck filled in on Thor in Journey into Mystery. According to Heck, Ditko only provided breakdowns, not full pencils, and Heck did the finished art. Heck's strong hand is clearly evident throughout the story, although the layout, figures and poses point to Ditko's involvement.     

Ditko drew Jack Frost some sixteen years later when he was an adversary of the Incredible Hulk, including a flashback to his first appearance. (thanks to Jon Holt for the reminder!). The Incredible Hulk # 249, July 1980. 

 So, who drew the cover? My gut instinct tells me that Ditko penciled the cover, but there is no conclusive proof. As often happened in the nascent period of Marvel's super-hero line, a hectic pace led to anyone stopping in the office lending a hand. Stan Lee may have needed a cover quickly; perhaps Steve Ditko showed up in the office and penciled it for him. When inked by Heck, Lee may have been disappointed in Iron Man's pose, and, with deadlines breathing down his neck, used a stat in lieu of new artwork. As an indexer for the GCD I added question marks to the artist id:

As my friend and fellow art identifier Michael J. Vassallo often states, there's no shame in adding a question mark when you're not 100% certain of an artist's contribution. 

We may never know the genesis of this cover, but it remains one of the many comic art mysteries that continually intrigue me.