The Best Renderer of Realistically Rendered Comic Strips

Posted by on December 28th, 2009 at 10:17 AM

Almost all of the best drawrn realistically rendered comic strips are drawrn by former comic book artists. Graham Nolan, who draws Rex Morgan, spent 16 years drawing DC and Marvel comics. I said last time he was the second best limner of realistic comic strips, by which I intended no slur: he’s damn good. He has an elegant line and a sure knowledge of physiognomy and anatomy. But he doesn’t experiment with the form as much as the best of the lot, Eduardo Barreto, who has been drawing Judge Parker since May 29, 2006.

Barreto started drawing DC comics in 1983 and has also done graphic novels. His work on Judge Parker is distinguished from all other illustrated comic strips these days by Barreto’s playful treatment of layout and breakdowns: he wrings more out of the daily strip format than anyone now working in the medium, making himself a lot of extra work in the process. Nolan’s most spectacular deviation from the cadenced norm in comic strip illustration occurred soon after he took on the Rex Morgan job: he occasionally devoted an entire panel to a tight close-up of an eyeball. Nice labor-saving maneuver, but scarcely in the same vein of experimentation as Barreto’s work.

Barreto was born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, and he now lives in a nearby seaside town. Soon after taking on the drawing of Judge Parker, he was disabled for several weeks by an automobile accident; during his hospitalization, Nolan and John Heebink filled in for him on Judge Parker.

Fred Fredericks, who has drawn Mandrake the Magician since early 1965, is my vote for the third best, chiefly because of his distinctive stylish drawings. He also worked in comic books but only briefly, for five years, for Dell and Gold Key, where he drew a raft of features that included Nancy, Mighty Mouse, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and Bullwinkle as well as Boris Karloff and The Twilight Zone. He doesn’t fool around with the format in Mandrake much; apart from his drawing technique, he sticks pretty much to the customary forms of the medium.

The Phantom and Spider-Man get my votes for fourth place, a tie. The daily Phantom, according to King Features information, is drawn by Paul Ryan, who has worked for both DC and Marvel and has the “unique distinction of being the only artist to have worked on both the Spider-Man wedding issue for Marvel and the Superman wedding album for DC.” Larry Lieber pencils Spider-Man dailies according to scripts credited to his brother Stan Lee, who is assisted in writing the stories by one-time Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas. Lieber’s labors are inked by Alex Saviuk, who also pencils and inks the Sundays. Saviuk has worked for both DC and Marvel and for Swedish publisher Egmont and Australian publisher Frew on The Phantom comic books. Both The Phantom and Spider-Man are well-drawn, neither, however, with any particular flash.

Mary Worth is drawn competently by Joe Giella, a veteran of DC and Marvel and t-shirt design, but Giella’s competence has none of the flare that Ken Ernst, Mary’s long-time illustrator, displayed. The King Features online description of this strip, by the way, asserts that Mary Worth has no relationship to the 1930s strip about a pushcart lady, Apple Mary. But that assertion merely betrays King’s willful ignorance.

Oddly—perversely, even—King claims that Mary Worth was a replacement strip that was offered to client newspapers when Apple Mary’s creator, Martha Orr, retired in 1939. This bland denial of Mary Worth’s origin persists despite my having told Jay Kennedy years ago that this story was wrong. In the service of pure scholarship, I did a piece on Mary Worth being Apple Mary for Comic Book Marketplace No. 92 several years ago. Assisted by tell-tale strips supplied to me by Jay Maeder (writer of Annie these days), I thought I’d destroyed the old canard. Not so, I guess.

In three strips dated February 14, 15, and 16, 1935—within four months of Apple Mary’s debut in October 1934—the little old lady pushcart peddler is clearly identified as Mary Worth: “What luck,” exclaims a Mr. Sprockett, “—overhearing that old woman say Apple Mary is really Mary Worth, the rightful owner of this place.” In short, Apple Mary is an heiress of means whose full name is Mary Worth. It’s all there in February 1935 strips.

The least distinguished rendering in the usual line-up of continuity strips is, I’m sorry to say, Frank Bolle’s on Apartment 3-G. Bolle, who managed to draw both The Heart of Juliet Jones and Winnie Winkle to death, did some remarkable work in comic books back in the 1950s, but his comic strip work has been mundane to the point of not quite adequate. All the girls in 3-G, for instance, look alike. Alex Kotsky and his son, who followed him on the feature, could draw beautiful female faces that looked as different from one another as beautiful women do in real life. Bolle, alas, is over his head.

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5 Responses to “The Best Renderer of Realistically Rendered Comic Strips”

  1. D.D.Degg says:

    But you forget the illustrations of Gary Gianni on Prince Valiant, and while you mention Maeder of Annie fame you ignore the efforts (the deserving of credit efforts) of Annie artist Ted Slampyak.
    Too much reusing of panels for me to put Jack (Alley Oop) Bender or June (Brenda Starr) Brigman at the top of the list, though Brigman’s line are pleasing and not without their own commendations.
    While it is hard for me, I must agree with you about Bolle. I enjoyed his work in the 60s and 70s, but now he is just phoning it in. Acknowledging the pittance he is probably getting paid for it must be taken into account for the time he spends on Apt. 3-G. Even so I put him ahead of the Dick Locher/Jim Brozman art on Dick Tracy.
    I’m not real pleased with Rod Whigham on Gil Thorp either. I thought he would improve but he remains about where he was when he first started drawing the comic strip. Disappointing.
    That leaves the pedestrian art of Jack (Mark Trail) Elrod.
    I agree that Baretto is doing the best work these days, while Nolan seems to improve if he has a storyline he likes. I would put Gianni in the top five along with Slampyak. (I will accept you knocking Slampyak out of the “realisticly drawn” category; accept it but not agree with it.)
    I amaze myself by finishing out the top five with your #3, Fred Fredericks. Turning 80 years old this past year and having drawn Mandrake for 45 years come next June, his art is very loose, as you say, stylish. I find I really enjoy looking at his barely finished art.
    Anyway, thought the rest of the comic strip “illustrators” should be mentioned.

  2. patford says:

    Thinking of realistic drawing in comic strips I went to visit the superb “Rules of Attraction” web site by Armando Mendez only to find it has vanished.
    I wrote to Professor Mendez, and received the bad news; The site is no more, after a decade of maintaining the site at his own expense Armando has taken the site down.
    This is a great loss, and in my opinion TCJ should ask Armando if he would be willing to allow his exhaustive research to be hosted by TCJ.
    Even better would be a print edition of the complete contents of the site.

  3. D.D.Degg says:

    Pat, I think your idea of binding The Rules of Attraction between covers is great.
    Until then, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:

  4. patford says:

    D.D., Thanks for this. Wow the whole site all functioning, I’d only been able to dredge up were a few scraps devoid of images. I have to wonder just how long the archive link you posted will work? I guess I better save everything to disc, or start printing out pages.
    Armando told me he had offers to collect the essays as a book, but he didn’t have the time to devote getting everything into shape for publication. As far as I’m concerned the whole thing is ready for print as is.
    Really TCJ should just see if Armando would be game either for a book collection, handing over the editing to someone else, or posting the content of the site in the essays section.
    What does looking at these old strips say about the current state of comic strips?

  5. R.C. Harvey says:

    Big THANQUES for reminding me of such illustrious masters as Jack Elrod and Dick Locher/Jim Brozman. Elrod I’d rank with Bolle. I don’t think of Dick Tracy as a realistically drawn strip, so I didn’t bring it up. But Brenda is, and I should have mentioned June Brigman, whose work, alas, is marginal, akin to Giella’s in Mary Worth–competent, adequate, but lacking any flare whatsoever. I don’t think Annie is realistically rendered either; Slampyak’s work is nice but not, quite, realistic. I haven’t seen Gil Thorpe in quite some time; I’ll check on it. Gary Gianni is another sort of problem. The Flesk book, The Prince Valiant Page, promises to be an engaging insight into the history of Prince Val artists. Some years ago, I changed my view that Prince Val was not a comic strip: I now concede that the pictures, while essentially illustrating the narrative text, add enough visual information to qualify the feature as a comic strip. I generally like Gianni’s work, but it is too hachered for newspaper reproduction, particularly at the reduction most newspapers give the strip. And Gianni doesn’t treat the feature as a comic strip: he treats it as a text to be illustrated, hence, he’s not in Barreto’s league where breakdowns and layout function both decoratively and dramatically. Or so it seems to me.