Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tom Sawyer: The Adventure Begins

An excert from Tom Sawyer's memoirs:

"For the moment anyway, all of the invisible baggage I’d schlepped from my hometown was trumped as I emerged onto 42nd Street, and experienced the excitement, the mid-morning energy, the thrill of finally being there, in Manhattan! The place in which I knew I belonged."

"My first order of business after the train from Chicago brought me into Grand Central Station had been to cash in the return–part of the round-trip ticket my mother insisted I purchase…"

"That first morning in Midtown the freedom, the tingle I felt at the back of my neck as I melded into the crowd of self-involved, rapid walkers and honking drivers at the bottom of that incredible canyon, and began absorbing their energy – the thrill of it still resonates for me."

"Less than a week after arriving in New York City, my abundant chutzpah and invulnerability to rejection began to pay off for me when a comic-book editor looked at my drawings and remarked: “Kid, yer stuff isn’t very good. You really oughta go back to Chicago.” My instant reaction, was: this guy has gotta be out of his fucking mind."

"It would be a long, long time before I’d come to appreciate what a unique and amazing gift that was… And, hell, for much of my life I figured everyone was similarly equipped, as immune to negative responses as I was…"

"I didn’t discount the validity of that comic-book editor’s negative reaction to my artwork. I’ve never had a problem accepting constructive criticism – especially from qualified individuals – only outright dismissal. And in pitching my wares at a few more publishing houses, and listening to their comments – and especially the subtext – I quickly realized I’d need better samples. Comic-book pages that walked the walk and talked the talk, that looked more like those they bought from working artists, rather than the assortment of strips and individual panels I’d produced before leaving Chicago."

A chance meeting with Tex Blaisdell lead to Tom 'picking up some background work' from Leonard Starr who, Tom writes, "was one of the most prolific and gifted people working in a business where, at that time, except to aficionados, artists were largely anonymous, rarely signing their work."

Of his first days working in Starr's studio apartment, Tom recalls, "There I was, the kid from Chicago, alongside colorful, working artists and writers, earning my first few real professional dollars while laughing and telling jokes."

"Leonard Starr appeared several days later, in town from his home in Centerport, on Long Island’s North Shore. His presence didn’t disappoint. Handsome, tall, blonde, self-assured, witty and, true to Tex’s billing, striking in a star-quality way. We hit it off immediately, beginning what would become the single closest friendship I would ever have – the kind where, even after weeks or months without contact, our wide-ranging conversations would resume as if there had been no interruption, endlessly stimulating as always. Books, art, movies, theater – and especially, once he’d educated me about it, music."

"And among the best of all, for me, was the fact that he liked my work, quickly ‘promoting’ me from merely doing backgrounds to handling ‘breakdowns’ as well. Another new piece of terminology, this consisted of taking the scripts he was given, and laying out the pages, deciding on panel-size and shape, rough-penciling the figures, arranging and loosely lettering dialogue balloons so that the lettering-man had sufficient space. Storytelling, actually, and in a cinematic way."

"Through Leonard, John [Augustin] and Tex, I began to meet and socialize with other artists, some who’d drop by the studio, several of whom would become close friends, meaningful players in my life for years to come, Stan Drake, Warren King, John Prentice and Howard Post, to name a few."

With Leonard Starr's encouragement, Tom began seeking out his own assignments. One of his first came by way of a true comic industry legend, Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, who was then the Editor-in-Chief at the publishing house, Ziff-Davis.

With a script in hand and Siegel's complimentary remarks ringing in his ears, Tom writes,
"As I headed uptown, my feet barely felt the pavement."

"In truth, my drawing ability at that point wasn’t terrific – certainly not by Milton Caniff nor Leonard Starr standards. But it was improving, coming closer in reality to my ahead-of-my-own-curve confidence-level. I realized a few years down the line that during that period, and for some time after, there was always this gap; at any given moment I thought my work was better than it actually was. But hey, it did the job for me."

"A few months later, Ziff-Davis dissolved its comic-book publishing entity, but by then, I’d moved on to other gigs, for other comic-book houses: DC, Avon and a couple of others, including a writing assignment or two which I didn’t solicit, but gladly accepted – and enjoyed."

"Along the way, I was absorbing life-and-writing-and-drawing lessons, some of them throwaway lines, jewels, really, that would stay with me forever. Like the one from a crusty editor, gesturing at the penciled pages I’d presented for his okay to go ahead and ink them: “One thing you gotta remember, kid – even yer bad guys hafta be attractive.”

*Jim Amash conducted an excellent and very thorough interview with Tom Sawyer in Alter Ego #77, which is still available from the publisher.

*Many thanks to Dr. Michael J Vassallo for all of today's scans!

All of this week's content is Copyright © 2008 by Tom Sawyer Productions, Inc.

My Tom Sawyer Flickr set.


  1. You've gotta love those artists who could write. It's clear from his biography that Sawyer has a way with words (I love the story of how he cashed in his return ticket so he was working without a net). It's also clear that Sawyer had an eye for talent, and found it in Starr; his description of the early days in Starr's studio makes me salivate. I've never met a more erudite man than Starr, and I envy Sawyer's working relationship.

  2. ... and those writers who can draw!

    I should mention that I (unfortunately) had to heavily edit Tom's memoir excerpts for the blog this week. The details he describes are indeed 'mouth watering' and we can only hope that the complete memoirs will be published in book form some time soon.

  3. If you left in "this guy has gotta be out of his fucking mind," it's hard to imagine what you felt it necessary to take out!

    But you're right, I would love to read the book.

  4. Anonymous12:27 AM

    Do you think he was looking at Alex Toths work (who was also doing romance comics)?

  5. Anonymous6:11 PM

    Tex Blaisdell ghosted the Heart of Juliet Jones for perhaps a year in the early 60's and I was his model. I have many polaroids of me posing for the lines that he took and some of the matching strips, but would like to get copies of the other strips. Anyone have any ideas about how to go about that?

  6. Linda; If you go to Amazon.com and search Stan Drake Juliet Jones the first result will be the new collection (Vol. 1) of the first three years of the strip. This new book just came out late last year and I believe further volumes are planned.