Doing a newspaper strip is a lot of work. Many folks who've done it for any length of time have found it necessary to employ one
or more assistants.
Not everyone, of course. Sometimes, a strip is not lucrative enough for its creator to afford an extra hand. Other times,
the creator simply wants it all to be his work. Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz would be the two most notable examples of the latter.
Reportedly, no hand but Watterson's ever touched Calvin and Hobbes. Likewise, no hand but Schulz's has ever touched Peanuts or
ever will. When "Sparky" Schulz retires or leaves us, the round-headed kid and his friends will either depart the newspaper or go reprint.
Watterson is said to have been offended at the whole notion of anyone so much as inking a background line on his strip; he wouldn't
even use a colorist for the Sunday page. It has been suggested that, had Mr. Watterson employed someone to help with things like lettering and
inking backgrounds, he might not have had to take all those sabbaticals, might not have reached so soon, a decision to discontinue his feature.
Perhaps. But more likely is that the way Watterson thought and the way he worked allowed no room for outsiders; he simply had to
do it all in order for his muse to function. Artists are all a little different from one another and they must be allowed to work in the way
that is best for them.
(And let's underscore that in highlighter yellow. That's the moral of this whole column: that artists are all a little different
from one another and they must be allowed to work in the way that is best for them. If you already know that, skip to the next article.)
Schulz is another who feels he has to do it alone though, in his case, it seems more a matter of simple personal pride. Whatever,
Schulz is nearing half a century of doing it alone and that is incredible.
Few other artists in strip history have been fast enough to make do without assistants, at least for extended periods. Frank
Robbins, in the decades when he did Johnny Hazard, is said to have handled the writing and art for six dailies and a Sunday page, not only
alone but in three days a week. By contrast, Milton Caniff, writing and drawing a strip of similar style and complexity, usually had at least
one art assistant on the payroll, plus a letterer — and still worked six and seven day weeks, often to all hours. And Caniff was by no
The Caniff situation is, by far, the more prevalent, even today when newspaper strips are smaller and simpler than they once
were. The deadline must be met every day, in sickness and in health, holidays included, and it can be a killer. In the last few years, a
few strips and syndicates have introduced the concept of the sabbatical — an occasional week or three of reruns to allow the cartoonist to take
a vacation. But not every syndicate allows for such respites, and some cartoonists consider it a more serious abdication of responsibility than
hiring someone to help with inking.
(Newspaper editors, of course, loathe the whole concept of publishing reprints. They have to do a whole new newspaper every day,
365 days a year including Christmas, and don't enjoy the luxury of repeats. They can't even backlog their front pages, the way a cartoonist can
stockpile a strip.)
There are those who criticize the use of assistants, usually on the grounds that someone is getting credit for someone else's
work. Another viewpoint, held by a few, is that a comic strip is or should be an individual effort; that the purity of the form is violated by
I have no interest in that debate but those who do would be wise to keep a few points in mind. One is what I was just saying
— that a daily/Sunday newspaper strip is a lot of work. Often, it is not a matter of wanting to use assistants; it's a physical
Another point is that not all assisting is done to the same extreme. There are strip artists who only get help with the lettering
or with inking backgrounds. Then there are those who turn the whole thing over to others. The cartoonist does the strip only until it
becomes lucrative enough to allow for employees. Then he spends his time in a hammock, taking bows and collecting large denominations for the
strip, while tossing a few nickels to the kid who really writes and draws it. Bud Fisher reportedly did this with Mutt and Jeff.
Ham Fisher — no relation, except in laziness — supposedly did this, whenever possible, with Joe Palooka.
It should also be noted that employing assistants is a time-honored tradition in the strip world, dating back to the funnies' earliest
days, practiced by most strip artists, including most of the acknowledged "greats."
Though he did the bulk of the work himself, Walt Kelly employed several folks, including George Ward, Henry Shikuma and Don Morgan to
help out on Pogo. Al Capp had a number of people to assist on Li'l Abner; Harvey Curtis and Andy Amato were with him for decades
while others — including Bob Lubbers, Stan Drake, Lee Elias, Moe Leff, Mell Lazarus and some kid named Frazetta — came and went.
Alex Raymond had uncredited help on Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9 and Rip Kirby — sometimes on the art, almost always
on the writing.
Dick Tracy was not a one-man operation for Chester Gould, nor was Hal Foster unwilling to get an assist on Prince Valiant
now and then. Chic Young had assistants on Blondie and...well, the list goes on. The point is that great comic strips that
haven't employed assistants are the rare exceptions. (Roger Armstrong, who assisted on many a strip, claims that he was, at one point, one
of eight folks who made Ella Cinders happen. There are comic strips in the world that aren't even read by eight people.)
And I just thought of one more point: Assistants frequently wind up continuing the creator's tradition. Billy DeBeck hired Fred
Lasswell to assist on Barney Google, back when Snuffy Smith was just a supporting character. Eventually, Lasswell took over from DeBeck
— as did Smith from Google. Bud Sagendorf assisted Elzie Segar for years on Popeye (nee Thimble Theater) and
eventually took charge of the spinach-eater.
One might argue — and some do — that a strip should not be continued after its creator's death. This is another
argument that doesn't interest me, except to say that economic realities — and some measure of public demand — will always insist that
popular characters continue after their creators' demise.
Whether we like it or not, that's the way it is. And when a strip is continued after its originator's passing, there's something
nice about it being placed in the custody of someone who was selected, trained and "broken-in" by the originator.
What I do find interesting about assistants is that they're all employed in different ways. Some write, some pencil, some ink,
some letter, some color and some do any combination of these things, changing from day to day.
The way Caniff worked, at least in his later days, was that he would write Steve Canyon, dictating the script over the phone to
Shel Dorf. Shel would inscribe the lettering on blank art paper, then write the "stage directions" in pencil in the margins. He would
then ship it off to the assistant (Dick Rockwell, for the longest time) who would pencil the strip and sometimes do some minor inking. Then the
art would go to Caniff, who would re-pencil where he felt necessary and then ink. If and when Rockwell was busy, Caniff would do it all
Garry Trudeau, on the other hand, writes and draws Doonesbury on plain paper, then faxes it to his syndicate office. An
artist named Don Carlton takes the fax and traces it onto the final art board, lettering and inking it all. If you pick up a Doonesbury
original, it could well be that Trudeau's hands never touched that piece of paper.
(A quick discussion topic for original art dealers: Are these really Trudeau originals? If Carlton traced the same fax twice,
would he have created two Trudeau originals? Hmm...)
There's another artist (who might prefer I not mention his name) who used to employ an assistant on his adventure strip who would
pencil the whole thing out. Then it would be returned to the artist of record and he would erase anywhere from 60 to 100% of what the assistant
pencilled and redraw it all and ink. He often erased every line his assistant had sketched, but this did not mean the assistant was
incompetent. "I need him to pencil it first," the main artist told me. "I simply cannot stare at blank paper and start. I can
redraw but I cannot draw from scratch."
If there's such a thing as a "typical" creator/assistant relationship, it was typified when the late Russ Manning employed my pal Mike
Royer to assist on the Tarzan strip. Russ was a brilliant talent but he was not the fastest artist in the world; he often needed help to
get the work out. (And it was especially bad during the fire season in his area. Russ was an officer of the local Volunteer Fire
Department. When that bell rang, he dropped his brush, grabbed an ax and ran. Russ was very devoted to meeting his deadlines but he was
even more devoted to saving his neighbors' homes.)
The way Russ and Mike worked varied from week to week, strip to strip. Russ wrote and usually pencilled. Mike usually
inked. But sometimes, Mike pencilled and Russ inked: it depended on the schedule but also on the storyline.
For instance, if a week of strips had Tarzan boogeying around the usual jungle, Mike could easily handle all the backgrounds.
Russ had established the "look" of the jungle and Mike could simulate Manning-style foliage. But if the continuity took Lord Greystoke to a
strange, new land, Russ usually had to do the backgrounds. Often, he would finish the first few as a model, then leave the rest for Mike.
Mike is a better letterer than Russ, but as Russ worked through his phase of the work, it was sometimes more convenient for him to
letter right then — so he did. If the subject matter played to Mike's strengths, he might rough pencil some figures for Royer to
They worked together — often in the same room — and discovered for themselves, the best way to collaborate, with Russ (of
course) having the final say. The end result was that, by the time a Tarzan strip reached the papers, neither Manning nor Royer could
tell which of them had done what.
Now, obviously, if a Russ Manning needs an assistant to help him draw a strip, this is the way to do it...let Russ decide how best to
use the assistant. The final responsibility for the work still rested with Manning.
Can you imagine how ridiculous it would have been for the newspaper syndicate to intervene in this creative relationship?
Wouldn't it have been absurd for an editor at the syndicate office to intrude and demand, "No, no, Russ! You do all the art in pencil, then
have Mike letter and ink. Keep Royer away from the pencilling and don't you look at the inked work before it's printed!" Wouldn't that
have been moronic?
Well, folks: That's how we do it in the comic book business.
Yes, all this time, I've been sneaking up on a major point. If this had been a DC or Marvel-published Tarzan comic book,
instead of the Tarzan newspaper strip, the whole nature of their collaboration would have been different. For one thing, the two men
might never have met or spoken.
Russ would have been hired to pencil it all out...and if he cared at all how the finished work looked, he'd have had to pencil it very
precisely, because he would have had no contact with his inker. On the newspaper strip, Russ could pencil some things loosely because he might
ink certain things himself...or he had learned that Mike, as inker, could handle certain things to his satisfaction. And, of course, Russ had
the final approval of the work and could retouch something if he didn't like what Mike had done with it.
But if Russ were the penciller (only) and Mike were the inker (only), Russ would likely not touch the art before printing. He
might or might not learn Mike's strengths and be able to pencil with them in mind. Mike would be on his own to learn how best to render Russ
Manning art. There is a difference between two artists working together on the same project...and two strangers who play tag-team with the
pages via an intermediary.
And on many projects at many comic book companies, inkers are frequently rotated about. To achieve his vision on the printed
page, Russ would wind up pencilling as tightly as possible, drawing in every leaf on every tree, hoping that Mike would understand what he wanted,
praying that the editor wouldn't hand this issue to some new kid, less talented than Royer and schooled in a different style.
Does this make sense to you? It doesn't make sense to me. Like I keep saying, artists are all different. Why then, do
so many in the comic book industry strive to have every team of artists collaborate in precisely the same way?
There are reasons for this — lousy reasons, perhaps, but reasons. In our next installment, we'll be discussing how things
will (and should) change. And maybe the column after, we'll also talk about how technical advances in our business will further destroy the old
divisions of labor on a comic book. The day of the rigidly-separated writer-penciller-letterer-inker-colorist teams is ending and I, for one,
couldn't be happier.
Next week, I'll tell you why.
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