Tuesday, February 04, 2014

 

Ralph Smith: Life in the Funny Pages, Part II -- Q & A

Ralph Smith

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 query him in the comments.


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Q: I understand you did the comics "The Strange World of Mr. Smith" and "Sarah Sota" for the Sarasota paper. Could we get a description of what they were, how they came about, how often they ran and an estimate of how long they ran?

A: How in the world did you know about Sarah Sota?! I had totally forgotten about her. Thank you for asking.

Actually Dik Browne came up with that one. He thought I should have a character that readers would relate to that was also tied to me as the local cartoonist at the paper.

My initial sketches were not as slick as his conception after he simplified the design. The man was good. Like knowing the Wizard Of Oz and Santa Claus all in one. Basically I used Sarah, though if memory serves the spelling was just Sara, in spots around town at whatever was in the news at the time, commenting on them.

The Strange World Of Mister Smith was mine. We had a weekly tabloid called Florida West that was basically an information/entertainment deal. The Hotline cartoons were based on readers' questions and I asked my editor if I could get space in the tabloid for my own panel.

My editor was right out of central casting. A south Georgia native who had a bit of a problem enunciating words. He sounded like a Southern Elmer Fudd. Everyone in the news room could sound just like Ed. That was his name, Ed Pierce.

The Strange World of Mr. Smith
Ed had been the editor at the Miami paper and had served as their sports photographer before his editorship. Don Wright set up his lights for him as Ed did a lot of boxing coverage. Even took some wonderful shots Of Ali and Frazier.

Anyway, Ed's story was that he encouraged Don to be a cartoonist after Ed became managing editor. Don Wright was and may still well be one of the best editorial cartoonists in the biz.

So Ed said he thought my panel would be a splendid addition to our little weekly, and that it should be called The Strange World Of Mister Smith. I thanked him, but said I thought the title was too pretentious for my personality [Allan’s note: not to mention the title being awful close to The Strange World of Mr. Mum, a syndicated strip of the time]. He smiled and said he understood, but thought it was such a great title that without that title, there would be no sense in wasting the space. I smiled back and told him it was a perfect title. We both smiled, shook hands, and I went to work.

As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, I used the best of those ideas to put together my first syndicate submission as a panel. I did not call it The Strange World . . .etc. Don't even remember what I did call it. Maybe I should have, in retrospect. See, my skill was quick one panel cartoons. I had to learn to write dialogue to build up to the punchline. In fact, a lot of those same ideas with little twists went into my Captain Vincible submission a few years later.

Q: Was there any feedback from readers/editors that they were confused about Captain Vincible's lack of superpowers? What sort of things did newspaper editors say about it? Do you recall how many papers you had at the start of CVs run, and at the end? Was it you or the syndicate that pulled the plug, and was there the loss of a major paper that was the last nail in the coffin? Do you think King adequately vetted their cartoonists to make sure they could handle producing a 7-day a week strip at that time? You sound like you really didn't feel prepared.

A: I received no feedback regarding Captain Vincible’s outfit. I guess most editors and readers sort of got the joke. I thought if Vinny did not refer to super powers by wishing he had them it somehow might have been funnier. A few times he would go charging off for one reason or another, but he never mentioned trying to fly, etc. I guess he thought just wearing the outfit was enough to scare away the hassles.

The problem was lack of newspaper sales. Back in the day (1983) salesmen tended to travel throughout their turf and made contacts personally with editors they had come to know and schmooze and show off the latest offering. I'm sure phone calls were part of it, but mostly it was a personal meeting. I think King had 6 salesmen, each with his own region. The salesman covering my region was out of action due to health issues. He covered the Southeast. That left a lot of newspapers out of the loop. One funny story, though, was that the Lakeland Ledger somehow got word of the strip and bought it. I live in Sarasota, sort of the same area as Lakeland.

A Ledger reporter called me for a phone interview. My first interview. I had not learned the art of the interview from the subject's vantage point. After a nice Q and A, we both sort of relaxed and just chatted. He asked me about the change from the newsroom grind to learning to work at home, things like that. I told him I had to learn to discipline myself. Too many temptations. Also I immediately missed the interactions of the newsroom. He then asked me how many papers I had.

This was the very start of the sales process and rather than dance around the question, I felt like I was talking to a fellow newspaper pal. I told him we were just getting started and only had about 25 papers, so the syndicate asked me to not mention numbers yet. I thought he would see the humor in that and not mention it. When the interview was printed, the lead was Florida cartoonist sells a comic strip with only a handful of papers, but is optimistic. Bullseye.

Another detail about my contract: my guarantee was for 600 dollars a week, plus of course fifty per cent of the royalties. Very nice while it lasted. Those monthly royalty checks were wonderful.

My sales hit, I guess, about 130 papers, with mostly overseas clients. The sales dropped off here and there, with the occasional sales. That's the usual route. I had The London Sun right from the start. That's a big client. I had them, or they had me, for I guess 5 years. One day I received a personal note from the managing editor telling me that they were, as he called it, refurbishing their content. Reluctantly they decided to let Vinny go to make room for fresh material. That one hurt.

They paid really well, and losing a top client is never good. Rival syndicates jump at open spaces on the comics pages. Once the slide begins, all you can realistically do is keep working to hang on to the clients you have. Syndicates obviously would rather pay their sales force to push new stuff than to beg for more time for a strip to catch on.

As far as your question about the syndicate not giving me time to develop my material before releasing me to the hounds, that was obviously a mistake. I do remember they moved my launch date up a few months to get it out there. I could have used a few more years! I was as anxious as they were to start up, though. You have to catch the ball when it's hit to you whether you're ready or not. Captain Vincible rule of life, I guess.

I'm sure that syndicates make sure their cartoonists are ready to go these days.


Q: Any memories of the Tor Captain Vincible reprint book? Did it sell well? Did you market the idea of a reprint book, or was it King Features?

A: That was awful . My contract was for 2 books. Sweet! One day after a year passed, a box arrived on my door step. Inside were several books.

I had zero idea they were printing one. I had even forgotten about the contract promise. The strips were basically the first year's worth of the newspaper feature. They were pretty rough.

Like I said, I was pretty much learning as I was producing. I still cannot look at that book without feeling embarrassed and depressed. It could have been SO much better if hey had waited for more work to develop. Then soon thereafter there was another box on my doorstep. My second book. With virtually the same cartoons. The size of the book was different, but even the cover was identical. I did not design the cover, either. Someone from the art department used a drawing of Vinny tripping over a manhole cover.


Their obligation was fulfilled. I got my two books. Though I thought the book thing was terribly handled, I got past it at lightning speed. I had to keep working on the strip to keep on schedule, and just tried to improve in case another book rolled around.


The people at King Feature were terrific to me. I still see Joe D'Angelo at the annual Reuben Awards and we have some great conversations. He and his wife Marcia are amazing. Very down to earth types. Everybody at King was great to me. That darn book thing was like Captain Vincible actually tripping over a manhole cover. You gotta move on and keep working.

I have no idea about sales of the book. I do know that my local bookstore had a dozen copies on the shelf, and after about a month there were 10. I was so discouraged and embarrassed that I bought all 10 one day. Funny thing was, by the time I had my turn at the sales counter, there were a handful of people behind me. The sales clerk recognized me from newspaper coverage and said, "My , aren't you the fellow who does this strip?" I wanted to crawl under the floor . Talk about a real Captain Vincible moment. Humiliated cartoonist buys his own books to get them out of sight.


Q: Do you think your relationship with Dik Browne did anything to smooth the way for Captain Vincible at King?

A: I'm sure that Dik Browne got a call from Bill Yates after he received my submission. Remember, I had met Bill a few years prior during my first trip to visit Dik and his family and cartoonist chums. I'm sure that Dik reminded Bill what a swell fellow I was, eager to take the ride. But also, syndicating a strip is a business move, very expensive to get going at first. Syndicates don't hand out contracts as favors.

They must have seen something in Vinny they could sell or I would not have been invited to New York for a nice dinner.

Q: Every time I see Captain Vincible strips, I derive a little extra pleasure from your lettering. It is so distinct and wonderful on that strip. I love those little descenders that you use on certain letters in certain situations. I've always felt that the power of the lettering in a comic strip is unfortunately ignored by most cartoonists, though Walt Kelly, for one, paid lots of attention to it. Your lettering is so lively that I really do think it adds an extra burst of energy to the Captain Vincible strips.


A: Thanks for the comment . I was proud of that lettering , thanks to Harry Habblitz . He was my lettering instructor in art school . He LOVED lettering and numerals. Taught me to appreciate the way each little image should fit relative to the adjoining one. The lettering I chose for Through Thick and Thin was much looser and sort of feminine I thought to reflect the way the girls spoke and may sound in the reader's head. I really overthink these things , don't I ? Walt Kelly really raised the bar in every way . Talk about knowing how the characters in Pogo should sound! In today's shrinking comic strips you would have one difficult time doing that.

Q: When did you first leave the Sarasota paper? Was it when you started assisting on Hagar, or when you sold Captain Vincible?

A: I left the paper a few months before Captain Vincible was launched, in order to stockpile strips and ideas. I was reluctant to leave the paper. I had found my comfort zone. I knew my job, was fairly good at it, and enjoyed the newsroom atmosphere. Leaving that security to start a syndicated strip was something else, especially since I was suddenly in deep waters. But obviously I was excited. Could not wait to jump in.


Q: What specifically were your duties on Hagar and did they change over the years? Did Yates only get involved after the death of Dik, or was he actively editing gags for Dik before his death? Were there others on the Hagar team that you recall? Was Chris already involved when you came on board?

A: My job description was penciling in Dik's gags. Well, that was my main task. The rest was soaking in as much of Dik's vibrations as possible. Lots of intangibles.

For example, when he had to make an important phone call, even if it was to someone like his good friend Joe D'Angelo, he would sort of pause, lower his head, and as he explained to me, imagine the conversation before it happened. He was a terrific, loose conversationalist, but was obviously careful not to blurt out the wrong words.

I learned to study the character sheets of Dik's characters and studied the way he laid out a panel. Look at the strips in the 1980's and you can see how good he was at composition. He knew exactly how to direct the reader's eye to the humor sweet spot. No ink was wasted on unnecessary clutter.

His space on the page was very limited and he knew that anyone looking at his strip, or anyone else's strip, would not spend much time searching for the point of the gag.

Bill Yates was not brought on until Dik became very ill. Dik needed no editing of his gags. He loved to write, knew what humor was all about, and what he expected of his characters. He could take anyone else's good ideas, shine them up and make then worth laughing out loud.

Dick Hodgins was handed the job of inking Hagar. Dick had been inking the lettering for many years. Dik knew that Dick could handle the inking chores. As I said, Dik had assembled a small team to keep the strip going. The team needed a strong leader. To be perfectly honest, after a while things began to bob and weave. My years working on Hagar were fantastic. Dik had been very pleased with my penciling and life was very good. But one day it came to an end. Without Dik in control, there was no control. I was gone and it was not a happy time for me, to be honest, but backstage at the strips can be very unpleasant at times.

So what are you going to do? You sigh a lot, then try to find another way to pay the mortgage doing something you love to do. That's when I started writing on a freelance basis, then to Uncle Fred, etc.

Bill Yates had a worse fate than I did. He died in 2001, so I've got no complaints! I do miss those productive days in Dik's studio though.


Q: Did Hagar's circulation take much of a hit when Dik died? Was there any talk at King of trying to low-key his death so as to not hurt Hagar sales?

A: Regarding sales, the answer is no, at least as far as I know. They did lose a couple of big clients at one point, but frankly most readers read strips out of habit and any gradual change in art and gags goes unnoticed.

The syndicate did ask Chris and Chance not to sign their respective strips for a length of time after Dik died. No sense alerting the editors that Dik was gone, in case they had missed the news.

Editorial cartoon, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Q: What were your duties on Snuffy Smith?

A: Uncle Fred was one of the cartoonists I had been selling gags to after my demise at Browne Creative Enterprises. He bought several for several months and we spoke often on the phone. I made a nice trip to his studio in Tampa for a tour.

Fred was one of the most personable cartoonists in the business. He knew a lot of the old-timers and had some swell stories.

From time to time, he and wife Shirley would come to Sarasota to visit with Dik and Joan. Many times the Brownes would entertain folks at their condo and Fred was always the life of the party. Fred loved being Uncle Fred, and was great at it.

When he told me to come to Tampa for lunch to discuss full time employment to learn how to put Snuffy together, I nearly cried with joy. I was going to be back in the cartooning saddle again. Actually I must have cried in my sleep in the proceeding months.

Now, understand, Fred was great at what he did. He could ink like a master. Without going into snotty details, working for him was not so entertaining. Lovable Uncle Fred the Entertainer was also Fred Lasswell the former Marine.

My job was penciling, as I had done on Hagar for 6 years, so I kind of knew the job description. Fred had a wee bit of a temper and could never decide whether he wanted the pencils drawn loosely or tight as a Marine's jaw. I laughed till I cried. After a long year the party was over. Later on I found out that he had been soliciting samples from other cartoonists to replace me, just as I had replaced the artists before me. So the experience wasn’t 100% positive for either of us.

Looking back on it, my Snuffy Year was pretty intense, but funny in retrospect. After the Snuffy debacle I went to work doing editorial cartoons, The Grizzwells, and then my 6 years failing on Through Thick and Thin. I also taught evenings for about five years at Ringling Art School. Real "Welcome Back Kotter" fun. And nice to absorb energy from young cartoonist wannabees.


Q: Regarding Through Thick and Thin, did Copley pay based on subscribing papers, or were you on a salary? Did you ever see a list of which papers were running the feature? Were they all west coast? Where they all small town papers? Did Copley have sales force visiting newspapers to sell their features, or did they just send out sample kits? Were there other ways they differed from a big syndicate like King?

A: There was no weekly guarantee. I received a monthly royalty check, very thin, not thick. I'm guessing the bulk of my papers were on the west coast. I never saw a list of clients. Did not bother asking, since it was obvious there weren't many. The papers were probably small town types. Copley made up a sales packet. I don't know if they had any wingtips on the ground at all.

Copley probably did well for feature writers, but like I said, they were experimenting with comic strips. I hung in there and did my best. I think my characters were pretty realistic and I tried to write some clever dialogue. By this point I had learned the art of writing fairly well, and the strip was drawn fairly loosely, so it was not a major effort to get it done every week. I've considered resubmitting it to the big syndicates, but honestly I keep very busy with The Grizzwells as well as my editorial cartoons.

As to what happened to the strip, basically nothing did. The syndicate did not cancel it. I did. I called Glenda, my editor, and asked if I could be let go from my contract in order to work on other things (The Grizzwells and editorials). I just wanted more time to devote to them and sleeping. She understood completely. No problem.


Q: On to your current gig, The Grizzwells. It is exceedingly rare for the originator of a comic strip to start sharing credit during their tenure. So how is it that Bill Schorr has you co-signing the strip? And why do you get credit within the strip but not receive a byline? How do you and Bill go about dividing the workload? Are your duties purely in the writing category, or do ever contribute to the art?


A: Here is our process … Bill asked me to help him out at a point when he was the editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News. He had to go in every day, and was really, really busy keeping both things going. Once I started writing for him, I found that I loved writing for his characters, and he was able to continue to work on editorial cartoons as well as produce the strip. We quickly evolved into a nice routine. I write. He draws. We're both happy.


My drawing skills are not on a par of his, but rather than just send him dialogue, I sketch out a rough drawing of my impression of how the characters may look during their chats. It makes me feel like a cartoonist! Bill sometimes uses my sketch as a template, but he knows how his characters should look. I think the way he draws their expressions can make a lame gag not so lame after all.


I guess about a dozen years ago Bill told me he wanted to adhere my signature to the strip, as he appreciated my work on the thing. That was a nice thing to do. Not really necessary, as he was already paying me anyway.


I'm not given a byline as I'm not a co-creator. I'm fine with that. It's Bill's baby. I'm just helping him speak.


I send Bill gags on a fairly regular basis, usually more than one week's worth at a time, so he can filter through and trash the bad stuff.

Universal is in the process of making 3 Grizzwells books available as e-books . I'm not even sure of that process. I still have flashbacks of the box of books in a box at my doorstep. Anyway, the books each have a theme. One will deal with the Grizzwell kids, another is either love and romance or eating, I forget . The third book is titled The Grizzwells Unscripted. It's my favorite and it's pretty much their ramblings while loafing.


I guess that is The Grizz in a nutshell.

Thank you very much Ralph! I enjoyed learning more about your career and some of the great people you've worked with. Readers, if you have any questions for Ralph, he'll be watching these posts for at least a couple days I imagine, so please feel free to fire away with your inquiries by leaving a comment below. 

The next two days we'll round out our visit with Ralph Smith with a pair of posts that form a gallery of Ralph's work.  We hope you enjoy it.

Comments:
I am one of the lucky ones to still have my copy of the book collection of CAPTAIN VINCIBLE. Before the internet, book collections were the only way to read comics that did not appear in the local papers.

Who owns the rights to CAPTAIN VINCIBLE and THROUGH THICK AND THIN? I wonder in a day where newspaper readers accept more and more rerun comics, if releasing some older strips on e-books might be worth while. I would like to read the older CAPTAIN VINCIBLE strips you liked and check out THROUGH THICK AND THIN.
 
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