In the first days of Alex “Flash Gordon” Raymond’s post-WWII detective adventure Rip Kirby, it was clear the master was going to redefine the look of comic strip adventure. Day two of the March 1946 launch story speaks volumes about the influence Raymond was going to have on a decade of 50’s adventure style. The panel progression here is so engaging. The first two panels are energized so that you can almost feel the weight of the murder victim slump into Kirby’s arms and instantly change valence of the scene. And that final close up communicates the deadly reality of the situation by bringing us right into the complex reaction to beauty and death. The photo-realism is here, as is the increasing influence of cinematic points of view, timing, and close-ups. And arguably, the next decade would also see in comic strip adventure a turn inwards, toward psychological realism, the emotional lives of characters, that accompanied the more photographic style of the art. All of these elements would be deployed in different ways by Stan Drake in the Heart of Juliet Jones, Leonard Starr in On Stage, Warren Tufts in Casey Ruggles and Lance and John Cullen Murphy in Big Ben Bolt.Continue reading
A little intergalactic lovers’ quarrel. Planning a wedding is hard enough without waves of alien foes gumming up the calendar.
Alex Raymond loved bodies. Male bodies, female bodies, animal and alien bodies. He couldn’t wait to disrobe them, pop on loincloths or skin-hugging gossamer robes and bras, put them on show, flex their muscles. And this made his 1930s space opera Flash Gordon (1934) a masterpiece of subverted sexual energy. Two of the most famous satires of the great strip, Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine parody, Flesh Garden (May, 1954) and the software porn cult classic Flesh Gordon (1974) got this about Raymond’s work. In many ways, Flash Gordon was laughable. Its dialogue and plotting were sub-literate. Its conceptions of aliens (Lionmen, Sharkmen, Powermen) pedestrian. Its conceptions of technology (Disolvo-Rays, Oxo-Liquifiers) paled beside even Buck Rogers. And its even sillier sexual politics (alien princesses pursuing the irresistible Flash and the forever jealous, swooning, fawning, nagging Dale Arden) were embarrassingly adolescent. And yet it was a fetishist’s delight, and certainly the most erotic mainstream comic strip of all time.
The special genius of Flash Gordon is Alex Raymond’s talent for visualizing primal urges and tired tropes with such detail, energy, operatic extravagance that they registered deeply with the viewer. His mastery of bodily form, facial expression and panel composition supercharged visually the familiar adolescent fantasies and fetishes that he and co-writer Don Moore lifted from pulp fiction magazines of the era. Xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, emasculation, dominatrices, bondage, miscegenation – all of the fodder of adventure pulp stories were dialed up to eleven by Raymond’s art.Continue reading
Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon
Taking a break from my stroll through earliest American comic strip history, I snatched up the first volume of Stan Drake’s soapy classic The Heart of Juliet Jones. It started its admirable run in 1953, under the artful pen of Stan Drake. The first week of the strip is added above, 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. But Drake’s 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.
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 int he 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.
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 and even the ways they both idealize suburban, white, middle class mid-century America but in subtle ways poke at the fantasy.