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The Rules of Attraction

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The Look of Love: The Rise and Fall of the Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip, 1946-1970

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Stan Drake Juliet JonesThe well-crafted pop song.  Think Brill Building at 1619 Broadway in the early 60s and its Aldon Music counterpart down the street at 1650 Broadway. Lieber and Stroller. Phil Spector. Barry Mann and Cythnia Weil. Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Hal David and Burt Bacharach.  In the tradition of the Great American Songbook, of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, these artists fashioned tremendously successful product that was commercially sophisticated, elegant and simple, adult and youthful in its pleasures. 

These composers before Dylan and Lennon and McCartney were for the most part urban postwar kids who had grown up across the Hudson River and could see the Manhattan skyline from their bedroom window. They loved traditional music forms but infused with rock and roll spirit, youthful melodrama, swelling chords, and soaring melody.

The music they created was under appreciated for years. 

Alex Raymond Rip Kirby

Our Man Rip Itís with real regret that one realizes dailies used to look this good and may never again.  Alex Raymond, who had already once before revolutionized comic art, manages the feat again with the evocative Rip Kirby.  Once, he had followed illustrators Matt Clark and John La Gatta to create the sensual figurework of Flash Gordon. Now the visually acquisitive Raymond turned to the Al Parker-Cooper Studio inspired fashion and advertising artists for inspiration.  High adventure, drama, romance came in a spectacular daily blend of lush blacks, varied line work, and bold composition.  The late John Prentice ably continued on for 43 years after Raymondís death in 1956, the strip lasting until June 1999.

Swinging the SongbookLeonard Starr promo Mary Perkins On Stage

Once there was the well-crafted story strip too.

In Post War II America, mass entertainment was in flux. Americans were restless. While Hollywood vainly counterpunched with huge Technicolor Biblical epics, stark black and white Film Noir and The French New Wave became the cutting edge in film. Be-Bop intellectualized Jazz.  The contrasting trends were everywhere in fine art and Pop Culture. There were Free verse and the Beats. Rock and Roll. Elvis. James Dean. Brigette Bardot and Bikinis. In most media, Photo journalism was now king. Narrative radio was on the way out and TV was on the way in. Readers, accustomed to years of the immediate impact of visuals from newsmagazines, wire photos, and newsreels, wanted real but a heightened reality set in the drastically changed world around them. 

American Illustration was changing too. The first comic artist to show the new order was a familiar name for innovation, Alex Raymond. He adapted for his new post War strip, Rip Kirby, design concepts from the Charles E. Cooper Studio and Al Parker, concepts which gave the impression of spur of the moment visuals--thereby beginning the advent of romantic deep-focus realism to the pages of the nationís newspapers.  New York art services which used comic strip style ads, the most famous Johnstone and Cushing, made the Sunday paper a line art billboard for a variety of products, ironically the work looking more and more like the photographs they recently replaced. The Poloroid instant camera, introduced in 1947, made photographed based figure reference convenient and economically possible for artists on a deadline and budget. For places and props, artists turned to, again ironically, to huge clip files culled from the same magazines which had used to feature hand-drawn illustration.

Neal Adams Ben CaseyIt was a matter of career timing as well.  

The comic book and comic strip industry had undergone some major shifts. Most likely the first of the photographic, contemporary dress strips was Elmer Wexler's little seen Jon Jason in January 1946 about an artist in South America, as it shows (in the few panels I've seen) the move away from brush-inked Crane-Caniff-Sickels impressionism which marks the old style,Teen Magazine Clip Art, 60s, Harry Volk Studio with Rip following three months later in March.  (When Jason faded, Wexler ran to Cushing where he would stay long enough to pass along his secrets and frustration with the form to a kid named Neal Adams.) 

But there wasn't an immediate rush to follow in Raymond's large footsteps.  That took the mass exodus of young second generation comic artists out of comic books in 1950 to advertising and Madison Avenue.  It was in these crucibles, among them one headed by Lou Fine as well as the celebrated Cushing with Al Dorne in its stable, where the young artists learned the discipline and craft they would bring back to comic strips.

Paul Gillon 13, rue de l'Espoir (13 Hope Street)There was no doubt that strips were where the action was. Comic strips were still the high ground in the 50s.  Not only were these artists after Raymond following his lead by going to strips, but a nationally syndicated strip was by far the most lucrative venue for a comics artist.  After Stan Drake makes his smashing debut with Juliet Jones in 1953, taking only 18 months to match Raymond and Caniff in circulation, we see the regular appearance of new photo strips for over a decade.

Two genres especially benefited from the glamour and idealization the style could bring on a daily basis--which primitive network TV could not match for 20 years--the high adventure strip, the detective or secret agent story, and the romance continuity, the soap opera. The tight photographic style thrived for time and was very influential overseas as well.


Alex Kotzky Apartment 3G

Ken Bald Dr. Kildare

Jim Holdaway Modesty Blaise

Stan Drake, a former advertising artist for Johnstone and Cushing, set the standard for the romance strip.  In The Heart of Juliet Jones, Drake tried every line art device he had learned, ransacked every trick of photo reference of his profession, and even invented some to meet crushing deadlines for 36 years  with efficiency and elan.  Other Cushing alumni followed regularly thereafter, Leonard Starr and On Stage,  Ken Bald with three strips including Dr. Kildare,  Alex Kotzky and Apartment 3G, and Ben Casey with precocious Neal Adams.   Al Williamson kept the adventure strip in step with his work on Secret Agent X-9 (later Secret Agent Corrigan ).  Overseas the style flourished among many with Jim Holdaway on Modesty Blaise (later Romero) and Frenchman Paul Gillon.  The un-credited Teen magazine clip art above shows how pervasive and linear the look became in the 60s--and how slick even throwaways could be. Note the crayon-like open line on the girl, the sketchy, fluffy hair, the obligatory headband, dark expressive eyes and asymmetrical mouth.

Al Williamson Secret Agent X-9Times change, tastes change, but sales and deadlines are constant.  Created as a response to the competition embodied in television and the movies, the photo-realistic strip couldnít match the explicit sex and violence or narrative pace that became standard in other media and slowly began to die because the form required such relentless work on the part of the cartoonist. Newspapers of the time were fighting their own battles for readers. Finally, declining syndication in the 70s meant less space, both in prep and reproduction, which made the fine detail impossible, even for the best artists. 

The form was strong enough to weather many of the changes story strips endured, but not all.  Some strips continued on, notably Rip Kirby, Juliet Jones, and Apartment 3G.  Others, like Ben Casey or On Stage, became a pleasant yet distant memory.  

They are largely forgotten in most comic art surveys.  But like the well-crafted song, the work endures and deserves a closer look. 


That 60s Girl. After the war, there was a close connection between photography and illustration as photo magazines featuring pin ups exploded in popularity as well as their previously under-the-counter cousin, the figure art photography periodical.  These magazines before and after Playboy not only offered a wealth of poses for swipes, but helped fuel an amateur photography craze. From 1956 and Fawcett Publications #318, Russ Meyer gives advice on tastefully photographing well endowed women, including a demure (and pregnant) Diane Webber. Pat Tourret and Jenny Butterworth's Tiffany Jones was a true child of the 60s, in its heyday as emblematic of the British Invasion in Pop Culture as Jean Shrimpton and mini skirts.  It was no surprise that Tiffany was a model. Tourret herself was a product of the British romance and fashion industry, but the pacesetters overseas were young Spanish artists like Jose Gonzalez, Esteban Maroto, and Jorge Longaron.  Longaron's Friday Foster, the first female black lead character in American comic strips and an aspiring photographer as well, gave America a brief glimpse of the Spanish take on the legacy of the photo-realistic era and the changing roles for women the 70s would bring.


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