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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

1/31/55

Once he had studied popular illustrators for the sensual figure work of Flash Gordon. Now Alex Raymond turned to the Cooper Studio-Al Parker advertising style for inspiration, spurring a new generation of comic artists to follow a fresh direction. These strips, like advertising, were meant to glorify contemporary post War American life.  This 1955 strip features Kismet Kildare exhibiting the short-hair chic then recently popularized by Audrey Hepburn. Kismet's brush off here of the debonair Rip was short lived, driven by a misunderstanding over Rip's role in the death of her father. She would soon sing a different tune. The original art for this daily measures 19" 5/8 X 5" 11/16 and comes from the collection of Jack Gilbert, as are some other examples featured here. Below right, the likewise dashing and dapper Raymond in a publicity still from a King Features Rip Kirby promotion, studying a 1949 Rip script.

Honey Time 2.0: Alex Raymond and Rip Kirby

Notes on a Scorecard

In a way, discussing the art of Alex Raymond reminds me of baseball fans arguing over Ted Williamsí place in the pantheon of all time greats--Williams had that swing, of course--but the individual components of being a ballplayer are dissected in such a way that one wonders whether Ted ever played in a real Major League Baseball game at all.  From all the carping in the press box, it seems Williams never left the batting cage.

In the same way, Raymondís achievements are chopped into bite-sized pieces by the comic art cognoscenti.  Lost in the worthwhile effort to distinguish comics as an art form, the romance, sweep and beauty of Raymondís draftsmanship, his incomparable line work, is dismissed.  To many, itís just pretty pictures. Somehow or another, itís OK for people like Caniff and Eisner to borrow from film.  Thatís real storytelling.  But for Raymond to study illustrators, well, thatís just not comics.

So letís discuss two general misconceptions:  

1. Raymond was an illustrator ďonly.Ē He didnít write the scripts (which were wretched anyway in Flash) and there isnít that text, image, panel synthesis unique to comics. Well, we do have examples of Raymondís straight magazine illustration for Colliers, Blue Book, Esquire, and Look throughout the 30s, up until his induction to Marine Corps during WWII and after, and frankly, it isnít up to the work on Flash, even though itís clearly his stuff.  There is some dynamic going on each Sunday that has eluded most critics, some cumulative narrative power in the panels.  They donít know how in the vocabulary available to them to account for this, so they disparage it as mere adolescent adulation for his astonishing technical skill.  

Misconception 2. In Rip Kirby, Raymond creates his first real comic because he abandoned the influence of illustrators, dropping the Matt Clark, Franklin Booth, and John La Gatta flourishes.  Although he said once cartoonists were superior to illustrators, it didnít mean he stopped studying their work.  Raymond had a history of responding to wide variety of visual influences, adapting and absorbing them so organically it became hard to see where influence left off and Raymondís own experimentation began, yet always with an eye to magnify, to amplify the romantic imagery in his strips. 

His main preoccupation pre-World War II was to make his characters as attractive, as larger than life, as he had idealized the fantastic world they inhabited: the first phase in the figure work and characters is his adoption of Matt Clarkís stretched and stooped figure (1934-36); then came the gradual influence of John La Gattaís sensual languor (1937-39), and the final phase, a clean period characterized by bolder, heavier outlines, and deep blacks.

But in each phase, Raymond never abandoned studying mainstream popular illustration. He just changed the models he was using.  Illustrators are visual storytellers too and Raymond, as he had done for Flash, constantly searched for ways to carry the story visually to readers, right up to his untimely death in 1956. 

Rip Kirby and Raymond brought the sharp-edged, spontaneous, contemporary style from the Cooper Studio and the advertising industry and its pretty world and pretty people to comic strips, the New York Cool School that began in the 40s and would reign worldwide in the 50s and 60s.

 

Magazine Illio, 1936

Franklin Booth

Left, Raymondís straight illustration work outside Flash lacks, for various reasons, the stripís scope and grandeur. Raymond's first primary influence, Matt Clark, 1930, left.  (Middle) Roughly four years later, Raymond exhibits his own Clark stretched figure of the time for two magazine illustration western characters, an element he would eventually discard over the next 2 years (at least for the female).  Clark had been an experienced pulp artist since 1929 and the original choice for the art chores for 1934ís Secret Agent X-9.  Many have noted Clark's painterly use of dry brush under watercolor, its effect on Raymond, and the physical resemblance Clark's lanky cowboys bestowed on Raymond's male strip characters (notably, Jungle Jim and X-9). Upper right, Franklin Booth, 1911, ďThe Valley of Silence.Ē Booth achieved an unmatched depth and scale by spacing fine pen strokes lightly in the foreground, heavy so the mid-ground had the darkest values, then light again to suggest the far, thin, empyrean distance. This borrowing served Raymond well, so that Mongo became a vast vault, desolate, mysterious, breathtaking. Right, a panel from Feb 1940, the same Sunday of Flash dancing at the bottom of the page.

1940

 

7/31/35

JungleJim Banner

11/26/39

6/11/39

7-9-39

In Secret Agent X-9, his previous daily, Raymond tried for the feel of the best pulp interior art of the time, leaving this strip just as his great flourishes begin and would later blossom to full effect in Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim.  The transition was shaky. The top X-9 daily, July 1935, came 4 months before Raymond would turn over the reins to Charles Flanders and shows the busy 24 year old artist still in the thrall of the Clark stretch.  Besides having the Chief's left arm more appropriately attached to a orangutan rather than a human being, the sample above is an exception on several more counts. Raymond typically used a 4 panel arrangement on X-9 and predominantly a middle distance and beyond point of view, almost as if the reader was observing the action no closer than the 50 yard line.  And the portrait of X-9 (aka "Dexter"), second panel, just may be the largest headshot in Raymond's two year run on the title.  The corresponding b/w July Sunday for Jungle Jim has the same look, the extreme distance and the exaggerated stretching on both figures. It's a shame Jungle Jim has never had in the US a reprinting that would allow fans to see the astonishing strides Raymond was undergoing in the same full glorious color and size that makes its more illustrious cousin, Flash, so well known and admired. (The strip was reprinted, in many confusing configurations, by Pacific Comics Club in the 70s.) Jungle Jim in the late 30s, early 40s, is undeniably a thing of beauty.  And it was always more than just a topper or a shallow response to Hal Foster's exquisite Tarzan. It had serious effort. The first two years Raymond used two tiers and up to six panels, with speech balloons.  By 1939, it was down to a single row, of four very tall panels with declamatory text and static, vertical composition, but in Raymond's hands, that's all he needed.  (Note the females here, guest star Helen Stacey and series gal pal in pith helmet, Lil De Vrille, rendered in the manner of John La Gatta as explained below although the panel of Stacey in a nightgown above left is derived from a figure art magazine photograph.) Although the strip was set in contemporary times and the exotic Malay peninsula of islands, it was intended to hark back to the original tales of Kipling, Haggard and Burroughs.  The color panels above, from a French album with the original text overlaid by me, has all the seductive earmarks of the genre--the sudden appearance of a stranger bearing a strange tale, the journey into the heart of darkness, evil magic and fierce wildlife, faithfulness and treachery, human sacrifice and unexplained deaths, all set against the untamed, lush jungle.  The words for the closing panel for June 6, 1939 (above left, in French) has a husband recalling his desperate intent to take his young wife home before she's bewitched by something lurking in the thick air, "But I was too late!  We found her a few nights later at the jungle's edge---swaying to the savage rhythm of the distant drums!"  

 

Raymond, after La Gatta: From my very first comic art essay, written 10 years ago: "The key to recognizing La Gatta's influence on Raymond is to look for the 'collapsed female,' the relaxed, unbalanced pose.  This kind of composition [to my eyes anyway] begins with the 'Water World of Mongo' . . . but in any event, by the time Flash surfaces and fills his lungs with fresh Mongo air and takes to the trees of Prince Barin's forest kingdom (Nov 1936), Raymond embarks on his deepest period of La Gatta emulation." Back then I believed the earliest examples in Flash and the other strips occur a few times in 1934, but  David Applegate in a 2002 CFA article he edited and revised from my original draft featured a 1932 Raymond ghosted Blondie strip from his collection which seems to be derived from La Gatta as well.  Raymond kept an extensive clip file and loosely used La Gatta's figures--mostly Saturday Evening Post story illustration of one to three years previous--as he would later loosely use his own photographed reference, but at some point--and it's impossible to tell exactly when--the use becomes less and less direct and becomes instead a sense, a mood, a graceful and sensual voluptuousness.  Raymond could bring this sensuousness to bear even to the very end (the last examples come from Raymond's last story on Rip. Note the tighter focus), even as La Gatta himself found he could not update his style and saw his popularity and employability evaporate with the rise of the smartly dressed, thin, young city girls of the Cooper Studio.  (See the recent book on La Gatta for his futile attempts to modernize his mature, full figured women.)  The illustrations above show all of La Gatta's lasting marks on Raymond--the languid posing, upraised arms with hands behind the head, the use of the long accent shadow to model the compact body beneath clothes that tantalizing revealed rather than concealed, the pointed legs (one leg forward, one back), the rear view, a dazzled male close by.  There is the usual 3 year gap between La Gatta's lounging woman appearing on the newsstands and the unconscious Dale on the right.  The top panel of Queen Desira, a main feature of the strip the last two Raymond years, is from a newspaper proof. Below, La Gatta's original in 1936, one of Raymond's adaptations for Flash in 1939, and the close reuse in 1956, appearing a week before his death.

LaGatta Nov 1935

Oct 1939

8-30-56

 

2-13-44A portion of Raymond's final period on Flash ('41-43) has always puzzled admirers and detractors alike, as it seems both incredibly polished yet sterile and lifeless at the same time.  Many believe he loses his enthusiasm for the strip when Flash, as most American comics of the period did, increasingly begins to reflect real world tensions and conflict in the days before Pearl Harbor. In 1942 Sunday Flash and Raymond return to Mongo and leaves fighting the Axis to the daily strip under his sometime substitute Austin Briggs.

Yet Al Williamson, for example, once said in an interview he felt the last sequence contained some of the best work of Raymond's entire run, perhaps leading up to a big finish before Raymond's enlistment and Marine Corps service in the Spring of '44.

I used to think that Raymond returned after the War and took the forced directive of a new strip to clean the slate and start over. But I see now that some of the Cooper Studio trademarks had already begun to surface in Flash, as the Cooper-Parker approach had already begun in mainstream magazines, and Raymond was already shifting his focus to the hip new style of illustration.  

Rip Kirby would prove to be the perfect opportunity.

 

 

8/12/54

Rip Kirby seemed to be a study in contrasts but really was an extension of the direction Raymond had been heading for a long time, before WWII.  On the surface, the difference between Raymond's two main strips was considerable. Flash was a Sunday, Rip, a daily.  In Flash, the hero was a mythic, blonde-haired man of action in a wondrous, fantasy world of treetop kingdoms, ice monsters, and reverse gravity caves.  WWII Marine Corps vet J. Remington ďRipĒ Kirby, a dark haired, expensively dressed man about town, scientist, author, amateur and later professional detective, on the other hand, lived and worked in a recognizable, glamorous, modern New York City on cases involving very human frailties and vice.  The strip could encompass the momentous and world threatening to the mundane. Rip grew older as the strip progressed and the dayís action and dialogue would not be out of place on the emerging sentimental Soap Opera genre on radio and TV. 

 

Rules of Attraction Home

Raymond 1 : Notes On A Scorecard

Raymond 2. Something Cool

Raymond 3. The Raymond Touch

Introduction

 Raymond

Drake

 Starr

 Adams

 Kotzky

Bald

 Holdaway

Romero

That 60s Girl

Gillon

 Williamson

Sources