Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Obscurity of the Day: Ambler
In 1972 the Chicago Tribune was in the first stages of a bloodbath on the comics page. In 1972-73 they dumped Terry and the Pirates, Smokey Stover, Little Joe, Smilin' Jack, Aggie Mack and other funny page veterans. These strips were put out to pasture as a crop of new hip replacements were tried out (and I'm truly sorry for that pun, it just slipped out).
Among the new crop of with-it comics was Doug Wildey's Ambler. The titular hero was a successful folk singer who spent his time drifting around the country righting wrongs and helping those in need. Try to imagine a combination of Easy Rider and Mary Worth and you'll have Ambler pegged. The stories are utterly silly, earnestly trying to capture the flavor of youth in a comic strip penned by a middle-aged man -- a bad idea that was executed over and over in the 60s and 70s.
Ambler is certainly no classic, but the Doug Wildey art at least makes the feature quite pleasing to behold. For an excellent capsule bio of Wildey see this site. In a rare case of critical myopia, Ron Goulart in The Funnies says "Wildey, not a first rate illustrator, relied heavily on photo swipes for many of his panels. His far from masterly inking gave Ambler a muddy, blurred appearance." Wildey did use photo references, of course (how many illustrators don't?) but there's nothing muddy about the strip that isn't due to bad newspaper printing. Wildey was experimenting with the use of a lot of tone in the strips, but when decently printed these strips really stand out as a cut above the other straight continuity strips.
The strip ambled out of the starting blocks on October 16 1972 as a daily strip, with the Sunday apparently added a month later, on November 19. It never caught on at all with newspaper editors and just squeaked past its first birthday. Ambler became roadkill on December 29 1973 with the final Sunday on December 23.
Adventure Feature Syndicate tried to resyndicate the feature to newspapers in 1994 but there was, not too surprisingly, little interest in running a badly dated hippie strip 20 years after the fact.
For me this strip failed for two reasons and the first was almost all the action drama strips were getting the heave-ho (readers were apparently too cynically fashionable to read "lame" strips like Prince Valiant or Buzz Sawyer, two strips repeatedly known for quality but had low numbers of readers and saved far longer than others because of their legacy status). Also, while some of this seems dated today it had dialog and story plots that were similar to any number of good television serial action shows from Hawaii 5-0 to The Rockford Files.
So, I'll have to disagree with the clever denouncements. I read Ambler along with Doonsebury and Dondi and others and enjoyed it quite it bit.
And when compared to the large number of comic strips today that are witless drivel this was very entertaining and gorgeous.
As for the "swipes" that are attributed to Wildey's art, well, I don't expect the critics to get this but as an artist I know how photo references help to cut down the time required to draw new characters from scratch and it also keeps the work from looking exactly the same every week. While other artists pride themselves on their lack of "swiping" they also have a short list of characterizations to deploy. After a couple of months their character reference style's been used up so the new character in their strip has the same face as the last guy but with different hair, nose, wears glasses, etc. That works but it gets boring, especially in comic strips.