Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tom Sutton's World of Fear, Fantasy and Frolic

Tom Sutton was a comic book artist whose talent was often taken for granted. His style was a blend of the cartoonish and horrific, inspired by past masters of the form, including Simon and Kirby, Will Elder and Wally Wood. Much of his work was under the radar of fans, who focused largely on superheroes and ongoing characters. Sutton, like other superb artists such as Russ Heath and Alex Toth, often preferred to mine their craft in genre material, which allowed them the challenge of new settings and ideas. For Sutton, it was largely horror and mystery oriented fables, although he did respectable work on western, war, science fiction and romance. While Sutton largely steered clear of costumed heroes, he parodied them to great effect in Marvel's Not Brand Echh. Sutton was in his environment illustrating murky, swamp infested bogs, dilapidated mansions and bizarre creatures, almost always with a slight wink of the eye. This post will focus primarily on his first decade in comics, from 1967-1977, a rich and productive period in his career.

Sutton's earliest comic book assignments both appeared on newsstands in the summer of 1967, although by his own recollection he was first hired by Stan Lee, who gave him western fillers to draw. His initial effort appeared in Kid Colt Outlaw # 136. For Jim Warren's black and white magazine line he drew a horror tale in Eerie # 11. Both were dated September 1967. 

"The Wild Ones!", Sol Brodsky script, Artie Simek letters, Kid Colt Outlaw # 136, September 1967.   

 In his western stories Sutton invariably drew inspiration from two of the top talents in the business (and a team he greatly admired), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, particularly their 1950s western series Boy's Ranch, which Sutton described as "One of the finest batch of comic books around..they were absolutely incredible."   

Sutton's work often had a humorous bent, as seen on his first story for Warren. "The Monster from One Billion B. C.", Sutton script, pencils and inks, Ben Oda lettering. Eerie # 11, September 1967. 

"The Honest to Irving, True-Blue, Top-Secret Original Origin of Charlie America", Roy Thomas script, Gaspar Saladino letters. Not Brand Echh # 3, October 1967. 

Sutton hit the ground running on his first effort for Not Brand Echh, mocking Jack Kirby's super-heroic pyrotechnics. 

Marvel's self-parody title, Not Brand Echh, could not have arrived at a better time; it was a comic book perfectly suited to Sutton's strengths. Beginning with the third issue Sutton became a major contributor with his work appearing in every issue. Sutton was greatly influenced by Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, specifically the stories illustrated by Will Elder, who added bits of what he termed "chicken fat" (lots of little details and asides) in every panel.       

Sutton had the opportunity to embellish Jack Kirby in NBE, an artist he greatly admired. Sutton heightened the hi-jinx by adding characters to backgrounds while retaining Kirby's basic structure. "The Human Torch has to...Meet the Family!", Stan Lee story, Jack Kirby pencils, Tom Sutton inks, Sam Rosen letters, Not Brand Echh # 6, February 1968. 

"And The Dragon Cried...Forbush!", Gary Friedrich story, Marie Severin pencils (and likely colors), Tom Sutton inks, Artie Simek letters, Not Brand Echh # 8, June 1968.

Sutton inked the other NBE mainstay, Marie Severin, who never took superheroes all that seriously to begin with! Severin worked on the staff of EC Comics, colored their line of comics and directly assisted writer/editor Harvey Kurtzman. Severin had a quick wit and a sharp pen; whether separately or together the pair was responsible for some of the best work in the series.     

"Best Side Story!". Gary Friedrich script (from an idea by Roy Thomas), Sutton art, Gaspar Saladino lettering, Not Brand Echh # 6, February 1968.

Sutton's chaotic scene above exaggerates (just a little) Marvel's style of over-the-top dramatics that dominated their line. The story not only parodies DC's heroes but the wildly popular musical and film West Side Story. 

Roy Thomas' "adaptation" of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat!", Sutton art, Sam Rosen letters, Not Brand Echh # 9, August 1968. Superheroes were not the only targets of satire. Sutton often included his favorite comic strip characters into the mix. The three panels above spotlight Dick Tracy, Blondie, Popeye, Pogo, Mickey Mouse and The Spirit. Sutton also winked at his other employer, Jim Warren. Sitting in the stands above Popeye were none other than Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, the narrator/hosts of their respective horror titles - two characters he often drew at the time. 

In the first three years of Sutton's professional career he freelanced primarily at Warren (on Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella) and Marvel (fill-ins on Sgt. Fury, Captain Marvel, western back-ups and mystery stories for Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness). In addition Sutton worked for Topps, a company every kid was familiar with, either from Bazooka Joe bubble gum or their line of baseball and trading cards. Sutton produced art for Wacky Ads and a variety of sticker and card sets.

An example of Sutton's work for Topps. Wacky Ads parodied many popular products of the time and Sutton produced most of the art for this sticker set in 1969. You can see the entire line (almost all with Sutton art) at this site:


Sutton was not only a skilled artist, but turned out many complete stories (script, art and lettering) for publication. "Boxed In" is one such example. Creepy # 33, June 1970.

Sutton added a layer of atmosphere as an inker over Dick Ayers' pencils on the Ghost Rider feature. "Return of the Tarantula!", Gary Friedrich script, Jean Izzo letters, Western Gunfighters # 1, August 1970. 

Sutton's first art job for DC appeared in House of Mystery # 189, December 1970. "The Thing in the Chair", Jack Oleck script, Ben Oda lettering.

On Vampirella Sutton combined two of his favorite subjects; horror and voluptuous women. Sutton illustrated eleven stories starring the scantily clad protagonist from 1969-1971. "The Testing!" Archie Goodwin script, Vampirella # 9, January 1971.

Sutton also worked on a new series for Western Gunfighters, "The Renegades", again evoking the manic energy of Simon and Kirby. "Deserters!", Mike Friedrich script, Sutton art and lettering, Western Gunfighters # 5, June 1971. 

"Frankenstein; Book II; Freaks of Fear!", Sutton script and art; Jack Abel inks, Psycho # 4,  September 1971.

Sutton picked up another account in 1971 when Skywald began. He worked on both their color comic book line (Butch Cassidy, The Heap) and the black and white horror magazines Psycho and Nightmare. Since they competed directly with Jim Warren's mags, and he didn't take kindly to  freelancers competing with his product, Sutton worked under the name "Sean Todd". Among his other assignments Sutton wrote and drew a series starring the Frankenstein monster. 

Composing a page to its fullest potential is another Sutton attribute. "Something to Remember Me By", Sutton story and art, Creepy # 44, March 1972.   

Some of Sutton's most evocative art appeared in black and white. The medium was perfectly suited to his strengths, including the use of shading techniques. The cinematic splash page above casts a macabre mood.  "The Disenfranchised", J. R. Cochoran script. Eerie # 39, April 1972.   

In 1972 Sutton began an artistically (if not financially) rewarding relationship with Charlton, a publisher that paid low rates but gave artists the opportunity to experiment. He joined an eclectic group that included Pat Boyette, Steve Ditko, Sanho Kim, Pete Morisi, Charles Nicholas and Joe Staton. Charlton's genre titles were a perfect fit for Sutton, he drew a number of war and romance stories but was prolific on mystery and horror. 

Sutton often wrote, illustrated and lettered complete stories; other jobs were authored by Nick Cuti and workhorse Joe Gill. While some of Sutton's jobs were admittedly rushed out and uninspired, an equal amount had a distinctively quirky charm.

In an interview conducted by Mark Burbey which appeared in the fanzine Rocket's Blast Comicollector # 135, April 1977, Sutton commented on his Charlton work:

"Despite the reputation Charlton earned I liked some of my stuff done for them better than anything; I guess it must have been the freedom. There was a time you could do a six or seven or even a ten pager right off the top of your head, just do it and send it in and get the check. That was fun and allowed for a freedom of working, an attitude quite different from other jobs." 

"If I would defend Charlton for nothing else, it would be for just being there. The idea of having just TWO companies to work for is a terrible hang-up; very bad for the artist and the fan-reader. It is a bad thing to have just two companies, no matter how good either one is. It just is not healthy." 

One of Sutton's earliest stories for Charlton appeared in Ghostly Tales # 100, December 1972. "Crystal Clear", possible Joe Gill script, Charlotte Jetter lettering. This page flows with a sense of composition and sequential storytelling. 

"The Beast!", Gerry Conway script, Syd Shores inks, Sam Rosen letters, Amazing Adventures # 11, March 1972. Scan courtesy of John Caputo.  

Sutton divided most of his work in 1972-73 between Warren, Skywald, Charlton and Marvel. When the powers that be decided to revive The Beast, formerly a traditional superhero and member of the X-Men, they altered his appearance in order to appeal to the horror crowd, since that type of material was selling well. Sutton was up to the challenge, as this metamorphosis page illustrates. Sutton drew the first five episodes of the strip before moving on.  

"The Sinister Secret of Sarnak!", Gerry Conway script, Sutton art and letters, Petra Golberg colors, Werewolf by Night # 10, October 1973.

"Comes the Hangman", Marv Wolfman script, Gil Kane pencils, Petra Goldberg colors, Sutton letters, Werewolf by Night # 11, November 1973. The above two Scans courtesy of John Caputo.   

In addition to his five issue run on "The Beast" in Amazing Adventures, Sutton was also employed as artist on other horror related titles, including stints on Ghost Rider (the skull faced motorcycle riding character, not the horse riding western hero seen earlier, for those of you not fully versed on comic book lore...and you know who you are!) and Werewolf by Night. Sutton drew two issues of the latter, #'s 9-10, and inked # 11, over Gil Kane's dynamic pencils. Sutton's inking was sharp and striking, adding personality to the pencils while keeping the essence of the artist. At Marvel he embellished a variety of pencilers, including Barry Smith, John Buscema, Herb Trimpe and Marie Severin, but his finest work, arguably, was over Gil Kane, on strips such as Warlock and Conan.    

Sutton worked with one of his idols, Wally Wood, who provided layouts for "The Anywhere Machine". Nick Cuti script, Sutton letters, Ghostly Tales # 107, October 1973. 

                                                      Ghostly Haunts # 38, May 1974.

Haunted # 17, July 1974.

                                                    Ghostly Tales # 113, February 1975.

The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 52, July 1975.

A few examples of the inventive, decorative and downright quirky covers conjured up by the mind of Tom Sutton. The bottom three are painted. Some of these covers undoubtedly gave more than one child nightmares.

 Sutton used many styles in his repertoire, such as the thin, airy line employed on this story.  "The Collector", Joe Gill script, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 47, September 1974.

An interior page from the Sutton authored and drawn story "Through a Glass Darkly", which was published in black and white, even though it appeared in a color comic book . Charlton allowed artists such as Sutton the opportunity to experiment in ways that most of the large publishers would have frowned on. Ghostly Tales # 113, February 1975.

A wonderful "portrait" of Charlton's horror hosts that Sutton drew for the fanzine Charlton Bullseye # 1 in 1975.  

                                                        War # 3 November 1975. 

                                                     I Love You # 118, June 1976.

While Sutton was a prolific contributor to mystery and horror stories, he also drew a selection of war, western and romance art for Charlton. Sutton had an interest in aviation and enjoyed drawing airplanes much more than soldiers in combat. The small selection of romance covers were often standard fare, although this example stands out for his use of color and technique. Images from the Grand Comic Book Database. 

                        Illustration for Rocket's Blast Comiccollector # 131, October 1976.

                       Doctor Strange illo from Rocket's Blast Comicollector # 137, April 1977.

    Wonder Woman illustration. Back cover art to The Comic Reader # 149, October 1977.

       Scarlet Witch illustration. Back cover art to the Comic Reader # 156, May 1978.

Sutton often contributed art to fanzines over the years, drawing material he loved. In addition to ancient castles and sorcery, Sutton loved to draw the ladies!   

"Where is Gallows Bend and What the Hell Am I Doing Here?" Don McGregor script, everything else by Sutton, Vampire Tales # 7, October 1974. Scan from the collection of that erudite connoisseur of comic art (aka my brother) John Caputo.   

When Marvel entered the field of black and white horror magazines in 1973, directly competing with Jim Warren's line, Tom Sutton was soon on the scene, this time using his real name. Along with genre stories Sutton drew several "Morbius, The Living Vampire" chapters, a character that Roy Thomas and Gil Kane originated in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. Morbius graduated to his own color series and made appearances in (where else?) Vampire Tales.

"City of Nomads", Doug Moench script, Planet of the Apes # 12, September 1975. Scan courtesy of Barry Pearl. 

Sutton greatly enjoyed contributing to the "Future Earth Chronicles" segment of Marvel's Planet of the Apes magazine with writer Doug Moench. In each episode he experimented with different techniques, as the stunningly ornate page above demonstrates.    

  The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 61, September 1977. The cover is taken from Sutton's interior story, a cost-cutting method Charlton often employed. Charlton returned to publishing after an eight month hiatus, but the company was nearing the end of the line. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

In 1976 the long running Charlton comics put a halt to the publication of new material, although they continued to package reprints for many years. Inventory was eventually used up, scattered throughout the line in 1977 and 1978. Charlton briefly resurfaced, attempting to make another go in the market with a mix of reprints and new stories. It was not a success, and the company closed its doors for good in 1986. Sutton and other pros, including Steve Ditko, missed Charlton; the company offered a variety of work in in a field that was rapidly becoming miniaturized into predominantly fan oriented, superhero fare. Charlton's offerings of war, romance, adventure, suspense, western and children's comics was becoming a thing of the past and their demise marked the end of an era. 

For more on Charlton, read my previous blog posts:



"A Gathering of Fear!" Roger Stern script, Irving Watanabe letters, Petra Goldberg colors, Doctor Strange # 30, August 1978. Sutton had an eight issue run on a character Steve Ditko was instrumental in creating and conceptualizing, bringing his own offbeat style to the strip. 

After Charlton's demise Sutton continued to freelance at Warren and Marvel; in addition he picked up assignments at DC, drawing short stories for their war and mystery titles and illustrating most segments of the "I, Vampire" feature in House of Mystery from 1981-83. Independent companies began to spring up in the 1980s offering Sutton further opportunities, including covers and stories for Eclipse, Topps, Harris, Fantagraphics and First comics.

                        Grimjack # 23, June 1986. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

Sutton worked for one of the earliest independent publishers to make a mark in the 1980s, First Comics. In addition to filling in on several issues of Timothy Truman's Grimjack, Sutton worked on the "Black Flame" feature and illustrated Squalor. 

                      Sutton pencils, Ricardo Villagran inks. Star Trek # 9, December 1984

One of Suton's longest runs on a continuing series was Star Trek. The title was published by DC from 1984-1988 with Sutton the primary artist. Unfortunately the heavy-handed inking eviscerated Sutton's distinctive qualities. Despite this, Sutton took his job seriously; photo references of the cast and material related to the original series filled cabinets in his studio. In Bhob Stewart's article, Sutton Place (Charlton Spotlight # 3, Winter/Spring 2004) the author recounted the artist receiving a call from the DC offices, topped off with this amusing conversation:

"Tom, We're doing The Next Generation."

"Fine. The next generation of what?"

"Tom, it's a new Trek series, a spin-off of Star Trek with a complete new cast. We have the rights and we're ready to begin."

"Not me, " he responded.      

Sutton's five year voyage was over.   

Steve Gerber script, Tom Sutton art, Bill Oakley lettering, Michael Higgins coloring, Marvel Comics Presents # 12, February 1989. 

 Sutton moved on from the Enterprise to assignments that were more his forte, including a Man-Thing serial for Marvel. Sutton had worked on the swamp creature in the 1970s from time to time, and his interpretation was - if the word is applicable - appealing. 

In the 1990s and into the twenty first century Sutton continued to work in the field for an array of publishers as both artist and inker. 

 Tom Sutton always brought his own sensibilities and approach to his work. His style was immediately recognizable; a blend of the macabre mixed with a touch of humor and childlike wonder. For more than three decades Sutton wandered through the back woods of comics where he was largely (and thankfully) left to his own devices. His inspirations ranged from horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and EC Comics to the radio dramas, movies and comic strips he grew up on, all molded into a new concoction under Sutton's pen and brush. 

On May 1, 2002 at the age of 65, Tom Sutton left this world, but his accomplishments as a cartoonist live on, in book collections, in the pages of musty old comics, and in the hearts of fans who continue to study, admire and be enchanted by his efforts.     




bzak said...

His work in EErie #26 was the best!


Brian Riedel

BK said...

There is a world of Tom Sutton comics to discover. I had no real knowledge of him as a young fan and was probably turned off by his non-"House" style but what a fascinating, ever-morphing career in U.S. comics he had! Now I love him!! There should be a book of his self-scripted stories but it's easy to compile your own for a few dollars here and there...

BK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Caputo said...


As a child I was largely aware of Sutton because of Not Brand Echh, which I loved, but it would take some time to truly appreciate the diverse work he did over his career.

Michael Tuz said...

Tom Sutton was a treasure. His work with Dan Adkins on Captain Marvel #15 was among my favorite examples of the works of both artists.

Richard Gagnon said...

Fantastic piece, Nick! One small caveat (sorry!): Haunted 36's "The Night of the Demon" might not constitute the best example of Sutton's late Charlton work, since it's a reprint from 1974 (Midnight Tales 9); A more representative piece (there are a handful) may be Ghostly Tales #127's "The Wire Man", scripted by Cuti and cover-dated January, 1978.


Nick Caputo said...

Richard - Thanks for the kind words and the correction. I was going through my collection and forgot to check the data against the GCD info. I don't have the issue you mentioned but did find a cover substitute on the GCD.

Kid said...

Another name that comic fans of a certain age (like me) are familiar with, while at the same time being uncertain of precisely what he worked on. Until now, that is, with your illuminating article filling in the details. Another well-researched piece, Nick - well done.

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks, Kid. Always glad to know you enjoyed my latest effort.

AirPiratePress said...

Excellent profile of the under-rated Tom Sutton - not least, by me. Back in the late 60s / early 70s, I wasn't a fan of Sutton's work, probably because I was too young and stupid to recognise skill when I saw it. But then, I didn't have any time for Frank Robbins, either, but have now come to realise what a master he was. You've inspired me to revisit Tom Sutton's work. However, one piece I remember well. that you didn't mention, was his splash page for Doctor Strange 29, featuring Clea ... you can see it on this this chap's "Hammer Film" blog: https://billydunleavy.wordpress.com/tag/doctor-strange/ ... absolutely gorgeous.

- Alan McKenzie

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks for the high praise, Alan. Like you, I've grown to appreciate quite a few artists who didn't appeal to me when I was younger. I actually liked some of Robbin's work back in the 70s, but recall how reviled he was by many fans.

Anonymous said...

Great piece on a great artist. And nicely written too! One error: Mark Burbey, not Mike. Mark Burbey is now known as Dana Marie Andra.

Jeff Clem

Nick Caputo said...

Jeff, Thank you for the kind words and for pointing out my error. I'll make a correction.