Blog Stalking for Rex Morgan

Posted by on December 24th, 2009 at 12:17 PM

Rex Morgan returned to the strip bearing his name a couple Sundays ago. He’d been gone since June 29. Over five months’ absence. Oddly, no one noticed this untoward occurrence until approximately December 14 when Mike Kernels at the Virginia Pilot blew the whistle on Woody Wilson, who writes the strip. Kernels asked Wilson if he’d ever done anything like this before—if he’d ever taken the spotlight off the title character for such a stretch in the 19 years he’s been writing the strip. “I have not,” explained Wilson. Well, no—truly—he hasn’t absented Rex Morgan for anything like five months before. Not Rex Morgan. But he’s effectively written another title character out of his own strip: Wilson also writes Judge Parker whose title character has been gone for so long he’s all but forgotten. Wilson has been writing both strips since 1990 when he inherited them from Nicholas Dallis. No contest: Wilson is the funnies’ reigning expert at writing strips whose title characters aren’t there.

But Wilson is scarcely the first to prey upon his readers’ affections in this dubious manner. In Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff used to send Terry off camera for months, leaving the stage to other characters (mostly Pat Ryan but, later, Hotshot Charlie). At first, Caniff performed this dodge in order to enable Terry to grow up a little out of sight from the scrutiny of diligent hawk-eyed readers of the famed strip. In the early 1940s, Terry went away looking like a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old kid and came back 3-4 months later looking like a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old—old enough, that is, to enlist in the air corps and take pilot training so he could participate in the World War II hostilities then enveloping the planet.

The maneuver worked so well in Terry that Caniff revived it in Steve Canyon over the last decades of that strip’s run, regularly rotating members of an ensemble cast on and off the stage; Steve sometimes disappeared for half-a-year at a time. But Mike Kernels at the Virginia Pilot doubtless never heard of Steve Canyon, Milton Caniff or Terry and the Pirates. The only people writing for newspapers these days are punk kids just graduated from college and therefore too young and inexperienced to find jobs in vocations that aren’t about to become extinct. Caniff’s strips all happened before Kernels was born.

And so Kernels is left to wild speculation about the importance of title characters to their comic strips: “What would Hagar the Horrible be without Hagar?” he asks. And answers: “Just horrible. Mary Worth? Worthless. [Kernels probably set this whole thing up in order to make that joke.] The Phantom? Non-existent.”

In Rex Morgan, Rex and his loyal wife June (formerly his nurse, for, say, forty years) and their daughter went on a cruise in June where they had one adventure, and then Wilson was stuck, he claimed: “They’re out at sea,” he elaborated to Kernels, “—we couldn’t bring them back right away. So I just let them keep going.”

Meanwhile, the storyline got tangled up around Rex’s new (relatively speaking) nurse, Becka Hanson, who went looking for two escaped Alzheimer’s sufferers while simultaneously fending off the romantic advances of “the not-so-suave Tim,” as Kernels put it.

“Unlike most strips,” Kernels said, “Rex Morgan has evolved into an ensemble. Think of it like a comic-strip version of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ with Becka as Izzie, her doctor/husband Peter as McSteamy and Rex as—you got it—McDreamy.”

See? Kernels never heard of the most celebrated ensemble strip of all—namely, Steve Canyon.

But Kernels is merely elaborating on what Wilson told him: “You try to create a back story, a story where Rex and June are not the only compelling characters but the rest of the cast as well. We’ve got a lot of good characters. Becka being one of them.”

The Alzheimer’s continuity was hardly a spontaneous invention: a relative of Wilson’s was stricken with the ailment, and Wilson felt “compelled” to address it in the strip. Rex Morgan often focuses on some current medical issue. Back near its beginning in 1948, it dealt with leprosy, a nearly taboo subject then. More of the same have regularly ensued. And will continue to ensue, no doubt. However, we should be prepared for future episodes during which the suave Rex is not on camera.

But on December 14, Rex and his happy family returned home only to find it occupied by someone else, who had moved in and taken over the place while Rex was off gallivanting in the Barbados.

Rex Morgan is the second-best well-drawn realistic comic strip in the papers. Graham Nolan draws it. To find out the first-best well-drawn realistic comic strip drawer, ’toon in here on Monday, December 28, after all the festivities are, until Thursday, over.

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8 Responses to “Blog Stalking for Rex Morgan”

  1. patford says:

    The best drawn realistic strip in the papers? It would have to be Prince Valiant by Gianni wouldn’t it?
    Not to slam Gianni or Nolan, but this isn’t the golden age is it?
    Remember the old days when a guy like Alex Kotzsky was second tier?

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Gianni is an excellent illustrator, but his illustrative techniques are not well served by newspapers these days, most of which publish Prince Valiant too small, and Gianni’s elaborate linework smudges and blotches as a result. Gee, I don’t think Alex Kotzky was ever second tier. He aped Jack Cole on Plastic Man and did the master one better.

  3. patford says:

    I don’t have a real high opinion of Gianni as an illustrator or a comics artist, but placing Larry Leiber above him is something I couldn’t ever imagine.
    I love Kotzky. Second tier doesn’t equate with second rate. It’s one step below the absolute best. I couldn’t quite see Kotzky as on a level with Raymond, Foster, Caniff, and depending on how you define realistic the best of all Roy Crane, certainly Buzz Sawyer is far more realistic than any of the modern cartoonist you mentioned.
    Anyhow I like Kotzky a bit better than Starr, and Drake if you are looking at the photo-realist school. Speaking of comic strip photo-realists, today there aren’t any.

  4. patford says:

    The outstanding web site: “The Rules of Attraction” which featured a tremendous amount of information on “photo-realist” comic strip artists appears to have vanished from the web. Archived pages can be ferreted out with a bit of digging.
    Does anyone know if the site is down for good?

  5. R.C. Harvey says:

    Larry Leiber works as a comic strip cartoonist, deploying his pictures within the framework offered by the sequential form; Gianni does not. He is essentially illustrating a narrative, not telling a story. He may draw better than Leiber, but he’s not exploiting the forms of the medium. Barreto does that, and it is for that reason that I rank him at the top.

  6. patford says:

    It’s your term “well drawn realistic comic strip” that threw me. Graphic storytelling ability (in my opinion) isn’t a part of “realistic comic strip” but is a distinct element of comics art having nothing to do with realism.
    I’m not a fan of Gianni as an illustrator or a comics artist (he’s done a bit of comic book work). I almost never read Prince Valiant when it was appearing in the local paper, when it was dropped six months ago I didn’t bat an eye, and haven’t made any attempt to view it online. Gianni pales next to the great comic strip realists, and isn’t close to being a peer of the dozens (if not 100’s) of great illustrators from the past.
    In terms of well drawn realism in a today’s comic strips Gianni is in my opinion better than any of the five on your list, which is less a comment on Gianni than it is on the sad state of modern comic strips.
    Lucky for me that I’m perfectly happy reading strips by dead men. I’m happy to say my two children, ages 8 and 10, fight over the comics page each morning. I follow the comics page closely enough to have noticed a real live dragon in this mornings (12/30) Beetle Bailey making it different from every other Beetle Bailey strip I’ve ever seen.

  7. R.C. Harvey says:

    You’re right, Patford. Graphic storytelling and realistic artwork are two separate things. But I think what I was saying is that among realistically rendered comic strips the best (or at least the most adventuruous) graphic storytelling is being done by Barreto. “Realistically rendered comic strip” is merely a category I used to separate some comic strips from the rest.

  8. patford says:

    We’re on the same page now. This brings up a quote from Jack Kirby. Although I like, and am interested in the great realists of the past, it’s cartoonists like Kirby, Crane, and Segar that are my favorites.
    Jack Kirby: “I’ve been told at times to draw like a photograph. In other words some people feel an artist should draw realistically. I feel that telling a story is no matter what kind of style you have is more important than having a nice drawing to look at. I don’t have to be Michelangelo to be effective.”