Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Noel Sickles: Early Years

From Bruce Canwell's biography of the artist in Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles we learn that "Bud" Sickles was born on January 24th, 1910, the youngest of six children, to James and Laura Sickles in the town of Chillicothe, Ohio.

Being born into an artistic family, Sickles was not discouraged in his interest in drawing and sketching. He spent many boyhood hours at the library, "studying and copying a wide variety of styles" as well as roaming the local environs drawing everything and anything that struck his fancy. By age 15 he had procured his first paying assignments from the Mead Corporation, which purchased spot illustrations and gag cartoons for the Mead Co-operation, a monthly employee newsletter/magazine, produced for those who worked in the company's Chillicothe paper plant.

At the same time, Sickles "was in the midst of his only formal art training -- the mail-order Landon School of Illustrating and Cartooning."

In 1927 Noel Sickles ventured into the offices of the Columbus Dispatch where he first met the man who would become a life-long friend: Milton Caniff. Caniff, three years older at age 20 and working part-time as a staff artist for the Dispatch said later of that first meeting with the young Sickles, "He liked my work, he said, but when his samples fell out across the desk, they were so good it made me want to jump out the window. He was still in high school at the time."

Sickles regularly made trips into Columbus, Ohio, visiting the local newspapers and meeting their editors and staff artists, and through that perseverence he was able to go directly into a job at the Columbus Citizen on the day after graduating high school.

At age 19, restless and wanting to make more money, Sickles found himself working for the same mail-order art school from which he had taken lessons only a few short years before. Now, instead of being a student, he was correcting the work of others who had paid extra for the privilege of "individual criticism and commentary".

"[It] was boring as hell," said Sickles of his job, and after just six months he quit.

With the Great Depression settling over America one might expect that Sickles would hang onto whatever work he had managed to secure, but after returning to newspaper work in Columbus for only a year or so, Sickles' restlessness compelled him to reject a steady paycheck in favour of a new venture with Milt Caniff. The two young bucks had now been friends for about 5 years. Caniff had recently been let go from the Dispatch, a victim of those times of massive unemployment.

Sickles and Caniff formed a studio and hustled the ad business, turning out work at a furious pace that neither could hope to maintain for long. The venture lasted only 3 months. Caniff received a job offer from the Associated Press in New York and Sickles , in desperation, took on work in Cincinatti drawing theatre ads for RKO. "I had the job to help out this guy, who was doing 'the San Fransisco style', they called it," said Sickles of that unenviable time in his young career. "It would be impossible for me to try to explain what that style was, but it was so horrible for me to do it."

Happily, in 1933, Milton Caniff was able to rescue his friend from his artistic purgatory. "Please come to New York," wrote Caniff from his office at the AP, "We have a drawing board waiting for you."

Noel Sickles career was about to begin in earnest.

* My thanks to Charlie Allen for providing all of today's scans. Be sure to visit Charlie Allen's Blog today for a new CAWS post!

* My thanks as well to Dean Mullaney for granting me permission to excerpt passages from Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles. The book is available from all bookstores, comics shops, and online retailers. If your local bookstore doesn't have it in stock, they can order it for you: ISBN 978-1-60010-206-6. The text excerpted is © 2008 Bruce Canwell.

* My Noel Sickles Flickr set.


  1. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Thanks for all that biography.

    The fellow must have been an infant prodigy.

  2. Those Sickle's illustrations on the Soviet Union leave my mouth hanging open. I use them every term in Clothed Figure Drawing as instructional aides. He was amazing.
    The SF style, well look up Patterson Hall, and you know what he was talking about.

  3. Good point, Chuck - infact, there's one really amazing fold-out poster in the book for Navy Day that has some of the SF influence.

  4. Anonymous6:57 AM

    Apparently there are dozens of universities in the United States with a "Patterson Hall."

    Amazon emailed me today that my copy is on its way. Yay!