The thoroughly engaging and visually captivating The Heart of Juliet Jones is an underrated gem of 1950s comic strip photo-realism and romantic adventure. Its admirable run began in 1953 (through 1999), under the artful pen of Stan Drake and the scripting of Elliott Caplin. The first week of the strip is added below, and it illustrates the melodrama of the this soapiest of soap operas.
The basic setup involves the Jones family – a widowed father “Pop Jones,” his 30-something unmarried daughter Juliet and teen wild-child other daughter Evie. Sibling rivalry and the tension between responsible Juliet and adventurous man-obsessed Evie form the basic dynamic. I am working from details in the excellent reprints of the early strips by Classic Comics Press (2008). The first volume has introductions by Leonard Starr (of Mary Perkins fame) and Armando Mendez.
A few things strike me about the strip. First, Drake was a well-regarded advertising cartoonist of the day before starting the strip, and he brings that precise idealized vision of 50s America to Juliet Jones. We are far removed from the moody brushwork of Caniff and lush outlines of Al Capp or Chester Gould here. This is very precise penwork that is aimed at a kind of idealized photo-realism. As Drake himself admitted about advertising art, the trick is to make the everyday and all people perfect and beautiful but to do so in a precise way. Fellow artists of the time like Starr and Alex Raymond (in Rip Kirby) had similar approaches. As I have written elsewhere, Raymond’s Kirby strip really helped introduce to the comic strip this post-WWII vision of mid-century culture. And the era’s greater use of close-ups and facial expressiveness visualized a psychological turn in American culture. But Drake’s style was the clearest link between this style and and emerging consumerist slant. It really looked like the advertiser’s vision of mid-century America come to life. And because of that, the mixed motives and emotional angst of the characters seemed to poke at, if not undermine, that idealized American self-image.
Drake also worked in a three-panel cadence, usually in medium close-up framing of two character dialog. There was a lot of space for reaction shots and close-up pay-off frames that highlighted Drake’s talent for facial expression. More than his peers of the 50s (Raymond in Rip Kirby, Caniff in Steve Canyon, or even Kelly in Pogo, Capp in Li’l Abner, or Johnson in Barnaby) Drake relied most on this demanding three-panel snippet of daily storytelling. It was demanding in that it forced Drake to move the story along and deliver some level of emotional impact and cliffhanger for the next day. And it was very much in the romance genre, surfacing the internal lives of characters and resonating emotional notes day to day. These were adventures of the heart.
Drake did not credit himself with innovation or even tremendous talent. He was among the first owners of the instant Polaroid camera. He used photographs of friends and family and tracing tools to model and copy his characters. Still his gift was in the precision of his line, the way he staged each frame and the little inflections he gave each face to express inner attitudes.
Per Mssrs. Starr and Mendez in this intro I picked up a ton of great tidbits about Drake’s fascinating life and work.
- His original ambition was to become an actor, with which he enjoyed some success. His father discouraged the insecurity of an actor’s life and had his good friend and actor Art Carney help talk young Stan out of an actor’s life. Yet, Drake seemed to bring to comics an actor’s appreciation for facial expressiveness.
- The Heart of Juliet Jones storyline was loosely based on a soap opera proposal Drake’s editor had received in the 30s by Margaret “Gone with the Wind” Mitchell.” Indeed the contrast between sensible, responsible Juliet and adventurous, flirty Evie resembles GWTW’s Melanie and Scarlett.
- While Drake handled the graphics end of the strip, it was scripted by Elliot Caplin, a prolific strip author (Abbie ‘n Slats, Big Ben Bolt) who was also brother to Al Capp.
- Drake was involved in one of the great tragedies in comic strip history, the auto accident that killed friend and fellow artist Alex Raymond. Raymond was taking Drake’s new Corvette out with him for a test drive. Raymond accidentally drove at high speed into a tree. Raymond was killed instantly while Drake was thrown from the car.
- Drake’s involvement in Raymond’s deadly crash, as well as the evolution of photo-realism in post-war comics have been chronicled in Dave Sim’s wild graphic novel The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, which I explored a bit in my review of best books of 2001.
The Heart of Juliet Jones is among a long but often overlooked history of strips (Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G, On Stage) that not only featured women but followed more the conventions of soap opera than adventure or cartoon comedy. Both Juliet Jones and Mary Perkins On Stage demonstrate how some of these strips really stand out and deserve attention. Some of these artists are exercising muscles of comic art that adventure and comedy just don’t touch. Gesture, emotion, social and class dynamics, tension among characters drive these strips into areas of social and personal insight that adventure, satire and gag genres rarely penetrate. More to the point, these strips both idealize suburban, white, middle class mid-century America and at the same time poke at and disrupt the fantasy.