Monday, August 23, 2010
Obscurity of the Day: Dallas
The late 1970s and early 80s were a short renaissance for story strips, most of which were for licensed properties -- comic books, TV, movies, novels, even toy store racks were mined for newspaper strip properties. Dallas might seem like an odd choice for the comic strip treatment -- it is all talking heads after all -- but then Mary Worth and Judge Parker are much the same, and the TV series was a hit of monstrous proportions.
The LA Times-syndicated comic strip version of Dallas initially found a decent, if not spectacular, number of newspaper clients, but the subscriptions very quickly dwindled as the strip showed its colors. The art, especially, was all over the map. Though Ron Harris was the credited artist for the first year and a half, many ghosts and assistants were in evidence practically from the beginning, making the art look like a patchwork of different styles, few of them very good. The accurate representation of the stars' faces, crucial to reader identification, was sorely lacking. There seemed to be very little interest in blending the art styles of the various contributors, even on a single Sunday strip a bad art-spotter like me can spot multiple hands at work.
The strip began on February 1 1981, debuting in the middle of the TV show's third blockbuster season. The writing was by Jim Lawrence, who gamely stuck with the strip through the entire run, and art was credited to Ron Harris. According to Alberto Becattini, art helpers included Paul Chadwick (later of Concrete comic book fame), pencils in August and September 1981, Dennis Ellefson, Terry Robinson, Alan Munro and Bill Ziegler, art assists. Laurie Newell began assisting in 1982, getting a credit on one Sunday (7/25/82). Thomas Warkentin took over the art duties on the daily starting August 19 1982 but lasted only a month, until September 14. Padraic Shigetani took over the Sunday starting August 30, and added the daily after Warkentin's short run. Shigetani stuck with the strip into 1983, or possibly 1984, and then someone named Deryl Skelton finished the strip's run on November 24 1984.
By 1984 the fervor over the TV show had died down, and the strip's musical chair art had long ago made its client base dwindle to almost nothing. There were very few clients left to mourn the passing of the Dallas comic strip.
If anyone can supply more accurate and complete artist dates for the latter years of the strip's run, I'd be much obliged.
Your harsh comments about the likenesses sting, but they are accurate. No one is more aware than I of the shortcomings of my work on DALLAS, though I gave it everything I had at the time. The plain fact is that I was a newbie in way over my head, barely qualified for the job (though more so than the poor kid who got stuck with it after I left). I got the assignment because I was the only artist the Syndicate could find who was willing to work for the incredibly low rate they offered.
I don't pretend to excuse my failures on the strip. Still it's worth noting for completeness's sake that we received absolutely no help from Lorimar, only roadblocks. They supplied only a few headshots of the actors and forbid us from meeting speaking with, or photographing them. The comics editor and I were literally kicked off the lot when we went to check out the Ewing Ranch sets. Lorimar had given us permission to visit the set, but they didn't tell anyone we'd be there. They also forbade us from identifying ourselves. The TV people figured we were gate crashers.
The entire DALLAS debacle was run like a junior high school club. The stupid things that happened to me, which I probably deserved, pale beside the indignities heaped upon writer Jim Lawrence, a true pro of long standing who certainly didn't. I've never felt like recounting the whole story because I don't like to whine in print. However a couple of anecdotes may be found here:
Thanks for honoring me with an Obscurity of the Day, and rekindling fond memories of one of the lousiest times in my life.
Ron, I knew you'd be seeing this so I'm relieved that you, first, took my unvarnished opinions with exceedingly good grace, and two, for your explanation that the seeming patchwork had more to do with studio and syndicate monkeying than the constant presence of other hands.
You say you don't like to whine, but your memories of working on this strip are invaluable to those of us out of the loop. I assumed the 'Dallas' folks would have been burying you in a blizzard of reference material, for instance. Nothing simpler, or more useful in a pinch, than a big batch of star photos to put on the ol' lightboard.
And of course the outsider tends to assume that an artist working on such a high profile property like Dallas or Star Trek was being paid a king's ransom. After all, both properties were huge cash cows. Obviously little of that milk ever reached you.
Fwiw, I think your work on Star Trek was more successful. But maybe that's partly because it wasn't all just talking heads. And your followers on Dallas didn't come in for criticism since I've seen so little of their work -- none of Skelton's in fact, I only know about that part of the run from Jeffrey Lindenblatt who found a late run of the strip in the Chicago Herald.
Ron, if you change your mind and would like to reminisce some more about your stints on these strips I for one would consider it valuable first-person documentation, certainly not bellyaching.
I join Allan in imploring Ron to tell us more, either here or at his Words and Pictures blog.
Were the Star Trek people more accomodating with reference materials and more understanding of comic strip needs?
And certainly you had to get paid much better for that Jake Speed advertising strip, though it was only a week or two's work.
Between Dallas, Star Trek and Jake Speed you seem to have spent the 1980s drawing Hollywood people.
Tony is a pal o' mine. Cheers, Ron