Monday, February 03, 2014


Ralph Smith: Life in the Funny Pages, Part I

Ralph Smith -- self-caricature

Note from Allan: Ralph Smith is the creator of syndicated comic strips Captain Vincible and Through Thick and Thin. He is currently an editorial cartoonist working for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the writer on The Grizzwells strip, with creator Bill Schorr. He has also assisted behind the scenes on some major comic strips, like Hagar the Horrible and Snuffy Smith.

I asked Ralph for an interview, and he did me one better by writing a very interesting memoir of his working life. That forms part one of this series. After reading it, I peppered Ralph with questions, to which he responded with additional interesting details of his career, and more of his inside look at the profession of newspaper cartooning.

If you have additional questions you’d like to ask Ralph, he'll be watching so please feel free to do so in the comments.


My Life, Thus Far, Slaving Away In The Rough And Tumble World Of Cartooning  

… More Or Less

 by Ralph Smith

I'm going to ramble. I hope I don't bore you. It's actually going to be fun for me to dig all this stuff up. Mostly wonderful memories.

Ready, set, go.

Born in Lancaster Ohio in 19 and 46. Lancaster was also the home of Richard Outcault. There's a nice sign in downtown Lancaster honoring him. Oddly enough, William T. Sherman was also born in Lancaster. His boyhood home is a museum. My boyhood home still stands, but it is no museum.

I enlisted in the Air Force following high school graduation since it was obvious my home would never be a museum. Following the four Air Force years, I attended and graduated from The Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota Florida in 1972. Back then it was The Ringling School of Art And Design. Now it's much more expensive, so it's a college. My courses in art school were pretty varied, with an emphasis on drawing. I don't see how anyone can be a good cartoonist without training in composition, perspective, lettering, painting nude girls, etc.

Anyway, my first job was at the Sarasota Herald Tribune. It was a fabulous experience. The paper gave me all the opportunities I wanted to illustrate articles, sports events, anything I could dream up. All the space on the page I wanted. I pasted up weather maps, retouched B/W photos to eliminate dirty words from t-shirts. Things like that. But mostly I worked as an illustrator. I did a lot of straight illustration, but mostly used cartooning skills whenever possible. One of my jobs was to illustrate a daily column called "Hotline". It was a reader-generated Q and A thing wherein readers sent in questions ranging from bad bargains in town to how to get mildew out of dressers. I did 2 cartoons per page, every day, for nearly ten years. It was like boot camp. Drove me nuts because I only saw the column about three hours before the art had to be with the engravers.

One happy day, a reporter was going to interview Dik Browne and asked if I wanted to go with him. I asked him if he wanted me to drive. I could not wait. Dik was a part time resident in Sarasota during the cold months In Wilton Connecticut.

Long story short, Dik and I went to get some tasty seafood following the interview, and he asked me if I wanted to come up and visit him in the fall. I asked him if he wanted me to drive. Well no, not really.

The newspaper interview was in March 1977. My visit to his lovely home followed that September. His wife Joan was the perfect counterpoint to Dik. They were the sweetest couple ever assembled for one another.

Dik introduced me to his cronies -- Mort Walker, Bill Yates and several others. The group is all a part of Mort Walker's great read "Backstage At The Strips". I was also introduced to his amiable funny sons, Chance and Christopher.

I had one fine week there and returned to Sarasota determined to be one of those cartoonist guys. I got to work. I sent Bill Yates, who at the time was the comics editor at King Features, a submission. It was a single panel thing because I felt that was my strength, having created a zillion “Hotline” cartoons. It was nicely rejected.

I tried again and came up with a prototype for “Captain Vincible”. Actually my original name for the character was Averageman. I saw him as a hapless average guy who was fed up with all the slights and hassles the average guy has to endure. Thing was, even though he dressed like a hero, he could not do a thing about the slights or the hassles. Bill Yates told me that the strip was appealing, but the name was not. He needed a stronger name. Bill suggested Captain Vincible and I said terrific, though I kind of liked Averageman. Details.

Now here was my situation: I was a terrible writer, zero experience at it, the strip was in a hurry to be released, and I had to learn the craft of writing as I went along. Not good. I guess I did okay, but I cringe when I see the early strips. The art was heavy and lifeless and the writing was lame. I think it took me the first 4 years of constantly doing the strip to find my groove. The writing got better and the look of the characters shaped up.

When you are trying to syndicate a strip, the first look is [everything?]. This comic strip business can be one fragile cookie. Really a crazy way to make a living when your income can be subject to sudden sadness.

So back to Hagar. I guess I forgot to mention that by now Dik and Joan had moved full time to sunny Sarasota, followed by his sons, Chance and Christopher. Chance was doing the pencils on “Hi and Lois” and Christopher was handing in gags to his dad.

Dik was a genius writer. He always felt more comfortable if he had a big stash of gag ideas in the back room. He also was buying gags from Bud Jones, an old friend and cartoonist from the Connecticut days. When Dik passed away, he left behind in the studio an incredible amount of great ideas to keep Hagar on schedule. Dik was amazing. The kindest, most delightful man to be around. He absolutely LOVED to work on Hagar. He also somehow found time to do other drawing and painting just for fun. He liked to keep his hand in, trying different drawing techniques.

Dik’s health deteriorated rather quickly and he died on June 4 1989. I miss him as much today as I did that day. He was one super man. I learned so very much from him, and only part of it was about how to produce a comic strip. A comic as successful and loved as Hagar must go on, so everybody went back to work.

Dik had assembled a small team, including his old friend from King Features, Bill Yates, to edit the gags. The chemistry had changed, obviously. There was only one Dik Browne. I continued to work on Hagar until 1993.

Things happen in the world of comic strips that weren't covered in Mort Walker's “Backstage at the Strips” book. My ride on the Hagar Express was over. I had to find work in a shaky career. Fortunately I had learned the art of writing for comic strips and was very pleased that some of my syndicated friends could use extra gags for the conveyor belt comic strips they were producing. I was actually getting regular work as a writer.

Fred Lasswell called me one fine day and asked if I wanted to assist him on “Snuffy Smith”. I had known Uncle Fred for many years and was thrilled to get that phone call. Fred lived in Tampa, about an hour's drive north of Sarasota. Working for him would be full-time, so I reluctantly contacted my new client friends and thanked them for saving my bacon by buying gags, but I had this new opportunity to work full-time again and had to go for it.

Short story shorter, it was not such a good idea. Working at Fred's studio was not a good fit for either of us, and one year later I was trying to figure out my next step.

I contacted the Sarasota Herald Tribune to see if they would buy editorial cartoons on a freelance basis. The editor said, “why not?” Why not, indeed!

I also contacted Bill Schorr, another great cartoonist friend. I had written a handful of gags for him to help out with his funny strip, “The Grizzwells”, before my ill-fated “Snuffy Smith” experiment. Bill was happy to take me back, and I began a wonderful collaboration with him, writing for his terrific characters. Bill is a good guy, a fabulous editorial cartoonist, and draws like a Disney animator.

The Grizzwells, by Schorr and Smith

This time it is a perfect match. I love to write, and he likes having that writing chore off his shoulders. It's nice. Very nice. I love this business.

At one time I started thinking about developing another strip that would be fairly easy to produce. It was about a couple of sixty-ish female types who were great friends and basically put up with each other's habits and quirks and loved to walk the beach. You get a lot of that action here in Sarasota. I called it “Through Thick And Thin” because that described them physically and they were also best of friends. Clever, huh?

The big syndicates turned it down, but Copley Features in San Diego said sure, let's try it out. My editor at Copley, Glenda Winders, was brilliant. She was very sharp and supportive and watched my punctuation like a hawk. She had explained that Copley was basically interested in columns, but wanted to see how they could compete in the rough and tumble world of comic strips. They had, I think, 3 other strips when they signed me up. It was a bumpy ride. It's very hard to tangle with syndicates that have more resources and longer track records.
Through Thick and Thin

I loved those girls in my little strip, but it was easy to realize that my labor of love was not a labor of riches. After about 6 years I let them walk away and babble into the sunset. I called Glenda and asked if I could give up the ghost. She understood totally.

I like Glenda and miss working with her. I love this business. I guess I already said that. Have been very fortunate. Have made some wonderful friendships. This is a strange fraternity.

Cartoonists tend to be hermits. Our annual Reuben Awards Banquet is a great chance to be best friends again for a few days before we leap back to out friendly drawing boards. These days I'm happy working on “The Grizzwells” and editorial cartoons for my hometown Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Sarasota Herald Tribune editorial cartoon

A wonderful remembrance and it goes to show that you have to be persistent and optimistic to make it in this business!

I have posted a link at my blog to Ralph's story. Looking forward to Part 2!
~ Absolutely love Ralph Smith's work and in particular his revelations about the business of cartooning! Well done, Sir!
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