Monday, May 14, 2007
News of Yore: Labor Pains of a New Hearst Comic Strip
History Page Evolves From Hearst Memo
By Helen M. Staunton (1947)
Very few syndicate features are presented to the public exactly as they are first conceived, and frequently the changes and reasons therefore make a syndicate story more significant than the brief announcement:
King Features will launch a new Sunday page Jan. 12, titled "Dick's Adventures in Dreamland," scripted by Max Trell, drawn by Neil O'Keeffe, featuring events from American history. It will be a full page. Behind this announcement is a full year of exploration and experimentation and a lively correspondence between William Randolph Hearst Sr., and Ward Greene, KFS editor and general manager—the evolution of a feature completely developed by the syndicate.
In Process a Year
That evolution began with a letter dated Dec. 28, 1945, from Hearst to J. D. Gortatowsky, KFS president:
"I have had numerous suggestions for incorporating some American history of a vivid kind in the adventure strips of the comic section.
"The difficulty is to find something that will sufficiently interest the kids.
"It seems to me that some which told the youthful life of our American heroes and how they developed into great men and their great moments might be interesting.
"Perhaps a title, Trained by Fate, would be general enough.
"Take Paul Revere and show him as a boy making as much of his boyhood life as possible, and culminate, of course, with his ride.
"Take Betsy Ross for a heroine, or Barbara Frietchie, or Molly Pitcher for the girls.
"Of course, there are exciting enough incidents in the lives of our American heroes but the difficulty is to develop interest for the youngsters in their youthful lives . . ."
On Jan. 3, 1946, Green replied: "We can produce something like this along the lines you indicate, making separate pages or half pages out of some interesting episode in the lives of Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and other heroes and heroines. Or we could devote a series of pages to Paul Revere and another series to Betsy Ross, etc.
"There is another way to do It, which is somewhat fantastic, but which I submit for your consideration. That is to devise a new comic, or use in one of our existing comics, a "dream" idea revolving around a boy we might call Dick.
"Dick or his equivalent, would go in his dream with Mad Anthony Wayne at the storming of Stony Point or with Decatur at Tripoli, or with Betsy Ross when she was making the flag or wherever we wanted to send him.
"The virtue of this notion, as I see it, would be to provide a constant character in the comic who would become known to the kids. While the character would be fictitious, the historic episodes would be authentic.
Depends on Artist
"I think a great deal of the success of such a feature, whether it employed a fantastic device or whether it was done 'straight,' would depend upon the artist ... I am enclosing some clip sheets ... which show the work of Edward A. Wilson … Another possibility is William Meade Prince. He drew that comic for us, "Aladdin Jr.' The drawing was good . . ."
Next a telegram from Hearst:
"The dream idea for the American history series is splendid. It gives continuity and personal interest and you can make more than one page of each series culminating in the main event. You are right about the importance of the artist. Someone like Harold Foster is needed. Do you think that Wilson's wood cut style would be good?"
Then a "Chief says" note for Greene: "I like this woodcut style of Edward Wilson's for American history series." But Wilson could not undertake the page and on Feb. 1 Greene sent a week's samples of Nell O'Keeffe's art for the current illustrated book of the month for KFS, "Captain from Castile"—"That series calls for different artists, gives us a way to try out artists," Greene noted to E & P.
Samples to WRH
By early in March, O'Keeffe was finishing some black and white drawings for the history page, and by April 12 Greene was sending samples of the series to Hearst with a letter:
"We employed the dream device, building the comic around a small boy and his father. 'Dick and His Dad' is written by Max Trell. The artist is Neil O'Keeffe.
"We tried to show in one sample, the Francis Scott Key page, how an episode in history can be covered in a single page. We show in the other page the beginning of a sequence that might tell the entire career of Admiral Farragut in a series of pages. These two samples are made up in full page form. Please give me your wishes."
From Hearst Apr. 17: "I think the drawing of 'Dick and His Dad' is amazingly good. It is perfectly splendid. I am afraid, however, that similar beginning and conclusion of each page might give a deadly sameness to the series. Then again, does not that plan deprive the series of realism?
"Perhaps we could get the dream idea over by having only the conclusion in each page. I mean, do not show the boy going to sleep every time and then show him waking up, but let the waking up come as a termination to each page and let the beginning be the dream itself ...
"Can you develop anything out of the idea of having Dick the son of the keeper of the Liberty Statue in New York Harbor? I do not suggest this, as it would probably add further complications, but it might give a spiritual tie to all the dreams. The main thing, however, is to get more realism into the series by minimizing the dream and accentuating the historical story ..."
Avoiding Dull Lessons
From Greene Apr. 24 in the interests of "more realism" and "enough human interest" to avoid dull history lessons: "We do not have to show the dream at the beginning and end of every page. For example, the episode in the life of Admiral Farragut as a young midshipman should take not less than three pages to tell. We can start the dream in the first panel of Page 1 and not have Dick wake up until the last panel of Page 3 ...
"It might be an improvement to eliminate Dick's Dad entirely. It was my original feeling that the link between a boy and his father gave the comic a certain appeal to all parents and sons. But if we continue to call it 'Dick and His Dad,' we will have to keep the father in the picture pretty constantly, thus forcing us to use a good many sleeping and waking panels. If we simply call the comic something like 'Dreamer Dick', we would have more freedom ...
"Some device other than the dream might be used to put Dick into different historical scenes. A simple method would be to have him curl up with a history book in the first panel. We then see him living the story he is reading. Another way might be to make Dick a young American living in Revolutionary times. There would be plenty of material to carry such a page for years. I do not like this idea, however, because of the obvious limitations.”
Hearst to Greene July 29. "Do you think we should run the American history dream of the boy with Columbus for quite a long time—for seven months in fact, and perhaps through a year? ... If we find it is not a success of course we can brief it, but if it is a success it should be a long series. This applies not only to the life of Columbus, but to the other history incidents as well ..."
Then after correspondence on other allied matters, Greene to Hearst Nov. 1: "I am sending you two sample pages of "Dick's Adventures in Dreamland” which start a series about Christopher Columbus ..."
Hearst to Greene Nov. 9: "In January, I am told, we are going to 16 pages regularly on Puck, the Comic Weekly. That would be a good time to introduce the Columbus series, don't you think so?"
Labels: News of Yore
Take Jack Kirby, for instance. How did he 'develop' Sky Masters? What were the steps along the way? There probably was some sort of connection to is work on Johnny Reb. I'd love to know, but sadly those involved have probably gone.
Does this Heritage original mean anything to you?
"Bare Facts" Soap Opera Daily Comic Strip Original Art, dated 5-16-62 (NEA, 1962). Here's a "mystery" soap opera strip from the sixties. With no title or artist name to go by, we couldn't pin down what the feature is. All we know is that it was distributed by NEA syndicate on 5-16-62, and features Mrs. Wayne. The image area measures 20" x 6", and the art is in Excellent condition.
I find interesting that Betsy Ross and Barbara Frietchie were the first thoughts for a history page.....
Some creators did indeed save the correspondence with their syndicates. I refer you to one of my favorite books, The Aviation Art of Russell Keaton, which offers a treasure trove of that material.
Also, I own some of the syndicate correspondence from the creation of Hook Slider, a short-lived baseball strip.