Sophisticated Shadows: The Inner Worlds of Carol Day

U.S. readers never got to experience one of the most visually arresting and subtle narrative comic strips of the 1950s and 60s, David Wright’s (1912-1967) Carol Day. Syndicate editors on this side of the pond deemed the popular UK newspaper soap opera too “sophisticated” for their audiences. They may not have been entirely wrong. To American eyes, this peerlessly drawn tale of an orphaned young model’s adventures in the stylish upper echelons of post-WWII London is more emotionally restrained and understated than its Yankee counterparts. But we will get to that.

The most impressive aspect of Carol Day is David Wright’s meticulously detailed and thoughtful art style. Before trying his hand in the lucrative comic strip market, Wright was a well-established and highly respected magazine illustrator. His cover art depicted fashionable sophisticates. In his extensive commercial work, he was best known for crafting effervescent Schweppes girls. And during WWII his alluring pin-ups famously titillated British troops.

This background in aspirational magazine art deeply informed both the setting and style of his Carol Day strip. Financed by a wealthy benefactor after her parents’ death, Carol breaks free to find her path in mid 1950s London. She soon enters the rarified air of the modeling and fashion world, and the strip remained entrenched in a well-heeled, stylish, professional upper-middle class setting. Wright’s art style had been hewn depicting this world. He applied a realist style that owed much to Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, which he admired, and the post WWII photo-realists like John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt), Leonard Star (On Stage) and Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones). 

But Wright’s talent was singular. His precise use of lighting and shading, posing and composing of characters, a penchant for symbolism and detailed peripheral detail breathed its own atmosphere. The upscale style of 50s and 60s London is palpable here, as is the achingly proper and reserved figures passing through it.

After an inaugural backstory episode that launched the strip in 1956, aficionados of the strip often cite as its best Carol’s introduction to London and its morally complex ways in the “Lance Hallam” storyline that stretched across the first four months of 1957. The story itself is disarmingly straightforward and absent any of the suspense, melodrama or intrigue that characterized American soap strips. Carol has a chance encounter and falls in love with dashing book publisher Lance Hallam. An unapologetic player, Lance introduces her to the heady London fashion scene where she soon excels as a model. But of course, Lance is married, which everyone seems to know but Carol. Whatever drama this cast of proper privileged Brits can muster comes when Hallam’s wife returns from abroad, one of Lance’s former girlfriends gets jealous and Carol’s innocence about people and love gets its first kick. The episode is critical to the development of the strip because it brings us and Carol to London, catapults her into its privileged echelons, and is her first painful life lesson for this picaro heroine.

The Carol Day strip is relevant now because of an ambitious and painfully expensive art book project that prints at original scale and from original art the full Lance Hallam storyline. This necessarily massive 19.25″X14.25″ 152 page behemoth adopts the technique of recent “Artist Editions” in making hi-res, full color scans of Wright’s original black and white artwork. Every fine pen line, etched out sections, variation in stroke thickness is fully visible. And the full storyline comes to us at the scale of its creation, which I believe is a first for comic strip reprints. The viewer feels in direct contact with Wright as he is executing every creative decision. Among the many reprints of comic art I have seen, this is unparalleled and almost worth the (wait for it) $350 price tag for one of the 500 printed. Yeah, right. Taschen’s doorstoppers occupy the bargain bin compared to this.

But, oh, the artistry here. Understanding the limits of newspaper printing, and eschewing Zipatone shading, Wright made extensive use of tightly packed parallel lines to give his shadows both depth and detail. Shadows in Carol Day never obscure anything so much as cast the unlit detail in a different, mysterious tone. In fact, I would say that Wright’s use of light and shade was more aesthetically meaningful than Caniff and Sickles’ wonderful chiaroscuro effects. Wright’s style expresses a fundamental emotional tone of the Carol Day strip – emotion as subtext, restraint, opaque social relationships. 

But more on the value proposition here later. What makes this book invaluable is this unique rendering of Wright’s art, because his was a meticulously detailed art style that benefits from this kind of reproduction. Wright’s Carol Day was all about visually defining an emotional atmosphere that his characters rarely expressed explicitly or with the melodrama common to other soaps. The physical distance between characters and their staging often communicates the unsaid. Roiling ocean waves, or a collapsed doll in the corner of a panel, or gauzy halos around fog-bound street lamps symbolize inner turmoil. Meanwhile the dialogue is often cool and cerebral, the facial expressions reserved and oh so subtle. 

Wright’s use of setting, especially his signature rainy and foggy nights, are equally expressive of the unspoken. He uses perspective and open space to indicate emotional distance, even our own voyeuristic involvement and remove from the characters. And yet, the poses and expressions of his cast often carry the outward emotiveness of mannequins or the disaffected magazine fashion models on which Wright cut his teeth. Arguably, this strip is more cerebral, psychologically rich and complex than other soaps. Consider the shocked, sobbing and raging faces in Juliet Jones, the cartoonish ancillary characters in Rip Kirby and Ben Bolt, the scheming snarls of Mary Perkins’ Broadway casts in On Stage. The American soaps were considerably more emotive and melodramatic than anything David Wright would put in ink. This is a decidedly British and refined take on the genre. 

But it is that tension between Wright’s aesthetic expressiveness and his characters’ repressions that gives Carol Day a unique flavor. An overlong and unpolished essay by one of the volume’s co-editors Roger Clark argues that Carol Day’s characters had a psychological roundness and depth that transcended the genre. Lance seems morally torn over his own deceptions. His wife is accepting and philosophical about her husband’s affairs. And the story itself refrains from easy moralizing. Maybe so, but I am not convinced that these elements are extraordinary or absent from the other American strips I would say the great American soaps are at least as engaging as Carol Day, but in different ways. The storylines of this strip are often too straightforward and lack dramatic energy. For instance, Carol’s three panel revelation that Lance is married is as unimaginative as it is unconvincing, and the emotional aftermath for Carol gives us little sense of what exactly she has learned or how she has grown. Subtlety does not always suggest greater psychological depth.

Before wading into my reservations about the editorial decisions and overall value of this book, I must commend and thank the brains behind this passion project, Chris Killackey and Roger Clark. This is the first time I have seen an extended storyline of a comic strip reprinted in full (minus a few strips) from its original art at original size. They have done the field of comic strip study a great service by showing us the benefits of viewing original art and by reasserting the singular talnet of David Wright.

The creators claim this is just the first in a series of books reprinting Carol Day art. As much as I appreciate the work they have done, I already have reservations about having dropped $350 on this volume and most likely would not follow up subsequent volumes if they follow the same editorial directions. To be blunt, there is too much filler in this book at this price. The reproduced Wright artwork at original scale occupies a small piece of the book, and many of the panels are repeated in the overlong analysis section and then again in a scaled down reprint of the full storyboards. The illustrated bio of Wright is welcome and necessary. But the “analysis” of the strips could easily have been halved and made more effective. An additional section reproduces riffs on Carol Day by modern artists, which adds little. To my mind, a celebration of David Wright would have been better served by more of David Wright, at least a reproduction of another storyline. Indeed, I think including the inaugural story or Carol’s post-Lance sojourn to Paris would have given us both more value and a deeper appreciation for her character development and the larger context of the strip. I admit that I do not have the collector’s sensibility that seemed to drive some of this project. The book project is not aimed at someone like me who wants to study as many of the strips as I can get. Even with lower quality source material, I would urge the publisher to consider more affordable and extensive reprinting of longer runs.

All that said, I will value this unique book as a great way to let any student of the comic strip experience the look, feel and scale of this art form as it was created. The reproductions of comic strip art are revelatory, matched only by the IDW Artists Editions of Eisner’s The Spirit. But one is left wanting more. The Carol Day Project is ongoing. Many more samples of the original art and updates on the book releases are well worth exploring at the its site.

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