Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tom Sawyer at Johnstone & Cushing

Continuing with excerpts from Tom's memoirs...

"While I remained fixated on the goal of writing and drawing a syndicated strip, and thus had no desire to paint, Leonard [Starr]’s discovery of advertising illustration raised my sights to another level. And not least because, per Leonard’s counsel, the key skills required – an ability to draw pretty girls and handsome men (virtually the only types represented in advertising art at that time) – seemed fairly easily achievable, and definitely not a detour from my end-frame. It was in fact a major no-brainer."

"This fresh focus was purposefully in mind as I prepared a couple of new sample-pages and sought my first post-army client. Timely Comics was run by a gifted, charming, driven fellow named Stan Lee, already a legend in the business."

"I made it clear to Stan from day-one, insisting that in order to hone my skills for this next move, his romance comic-books were the only ones I wanted to illustrate. Very understanding and sympathetic, he immediately assigned me stories and cover art for those magazines. At his request, I agreed to handle some of his mystery-comics assignments as well. Stan and I got on very well, and he so liked my artwork that after a few gigs, he commissioned me to do several pages of heads – of gorgeous girls and beautiful young men – copies of which he then distributed, as examples, to his other romance artists."

"Re-examining my drawings from that period, it’s obvious that while they showed a lot of natural ability and, thanks to practice and working from photos, growing expertise, there was a painfully slick coldness, an unfeeling sterility to my line."

"…It was a wonderfully productive time for me, and a few months later, eager to be done with comic-books, I felt confident enough to prepare a couple of sample-pages of advertising-comics, which after vetting and approval by Leonard Starr, I presented to Al Stenzel, the diminutive, amusing white-handlebar-moustached art director at Johnstone & Cushing. Al liked my work, and immediately introduced me to Tim Johnstone and his partner, Jack Cushing who, on-the-spot, offered me space in their studio. My kind of meeting."

"The deal was that while getting started with them – basically, being an at-the-ready in-house guy who could handle quickie assignments for which the client hadn’t specified a particular artist – I would also be able to work on whatever outside work I had."

"…Within a day, I was drawing pages for Al Stenzel’s highly regarded – and relatively high-paying – comic-book section in Boys’ Life Magazine, the monthly publication of the Boy Scouts of America. And a week or so later, advertising art as well. The latter mostly consisted of what I came to think of as ‘happy people with happy problems'."

"Between those gigs and the occasional ghosting of syndicated strips such as The Heart of Juliet Jones for Stan Drake, I was soon able to say goodbye to the standard comic-books."

"…between Johnstone & Cushing and my other accounts, I was never without more freelance work than I could handle, even necessitating my hiring Tex Blaisdell to assist me. And one sadly memorable afternoon in September, 1956, he was working with me at my Jackson Heights apartment when we received stomach-sinking news. In Connecticut, earlier that day, Stan Drake had gone for a drive – as the passenger – in his new Corvette. At the wheel, his friend Alex Raymond, the great comic-strip artist and fellow sports car aficionado. Coming over a rise, Alex had lost control, the car had gone airborne, they’d crashed into a tree at high speed, and he’d been killed instantly, impaled by the steering column. Stan, fortunately, had been thrown out of the car and, except for a few bruises and an ear nearly torn off, was okay. For the rest of the day, Tex and I glumly lamented Raymond’s death. Held in awe by all of us for his legendary drawing ability – demonstrated first on Flash Gordon, and at that time on Rip Kirby – he allegedly knew human anatomy so well that he didn’t need to use photos, but rather would draw the skeleton, add musculature and flesh, and then drapery. The result: a kind of heightened, super-dynamic, line-rendered-realism. Tex and I discussed who might step in to replace Alex on Kirby. There were really only two qualified successors: Leonard Starr, or another of our pals, the laconic Texan, John Prentice."

"Within a day or two, we learned it would be Johnny. Leonard was suddenly no longer available. The head of the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate had been giving serious consideration to a comic-strip notion created by Leonard, and on learning of Alex’s death, knew instantly that Starr was the logical first choice, and would thus be lost – likely forever – to rival King Features Syndicate. Within minutes, he phoned Leonard and informed him that Mary Perkins – On Stage was a ‘go.’

An instant classic, carried in hundreds of newspapers, Leonard wrote and illustrated it beautifully for nearly 28 years, winning along the way the National Cartoonists Society’s coveted Reuben Award. And John Prentice handled Rip Kirby superbly for many, many years."

*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 providing many of today's scans.

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

My Tom Sawyer Flickr set.


  1. nice. thanks for sharing

  2. I am much taken with how Sawyer saw his own passionless work on those
    Timely Romance titles. I was about ten years old when these filled the newstands and they all seemed alike,
    every single one from every single publisher. I.e., images of the perfect boy and the perfect, yet with as much life as a store front mannequin. Over the years, via my love of comics, I learned that most of the guys (& gals) worked the Romance trenches, to include greats like Jack Kirby and lots of others.
    I have to admit, I was completely unaware of Alex Raymond's passing in such a manner until now. As the saying goes, you learn something new every day. Thanks for that, Leif.

  3. Great comment, Ron - thanks!

    Another favourite illustrator of comics, John Romita, produced some beautiful romance story artwork (for DC). I've read in interviews that he also found it to be dreary work. Its a testament to the crafstmanship of artists like Tom and John Romita ( and John Buscema and Gene Colan and on and on ) that they churned out so much attractive, professional work while, as you say, feeling no passion for the material.

    These romance comics look very much like a stripped down version of what we have examined so thoroughly on this blog - the 'clinch' illustration style of the Cooper artists... a connection I find particulary interesting.

    For more on Raymond, romance, the Cooper artists and how it all connects, be sure to visit my friend Armando Mendez' excellent website:

    The Rules of Attraction

  4. nancy1:28 AM

    Just a side note: The Pickle Barrel was a real place in Westport.