Crane and the Adventure Strip (July 24, 2002)
Roy Crane is undoubtedly the most unsung of the cartoonists who shaped the medium. His historic achievement was to set the pace for adventure strips in the thirties by showing the way in the twenties. Many of those who drew the earliest adventure strips were inspired and influenced by his work. We recognize the milestones in the history of comics that mark the accomplishments of such creators as Chester Gould, Noel Sickles, Ham Fisher, Zack Mosley, Milton Caniff—even Mel Graff. But we forget that Crane preceded them all onto the stage they later filled with their presence. And most of them, as they felt their way in developing adventure storytelling skills, looked to Crane for hints about how to do it.
Crane’s magnum opus, Washington Tubbs II, debuted in the spring of 1924, a few months before Little Orphan Annie. A nearly undistinguished strip about a short youth with soaring ambitions for amorous conquest and financial gain, there was little in the inaugural sequences to suggest that it was the vanguard of a new genre in the medium. Within a very short time, though, little pop-eyed Wash would be plunged into globe-circling adventure, the likes of which the funny pages had never seen before. And by the end of the decade, Crane would achieve the pinnacle of his accomplishment with the introduction of that rugged and savvy soldier of fortune, Captain Easy.
Easy would inspire a generation of cartoonists. “Dynamite Dan” Flynn in Milton Caniff’s Dickie Dare was an incarnation of Crane’s Easy. And Pat Ryan in Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates was Easy. Uncle Phil in Mel Graff’s Patsy was Easy.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact of this character on those who wrote and drew adventure stories in comic strips and comic books in the thirties. Murphy Anderson and Gil Kane (among others, surely) saw Easy in early comics. Kane, who began his comic book career in the early forties, once chanted a litany of credit to Crane before an audience at the San Diego Comic Convention: “Superman was Captain Easy,” he said; “Batman was Easy.” And he listed several more characters before he stopped.
Kane may have overstated the case in order to make his point. But anyone familiar with the earlier work of Superman’s creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, will recognize Easy in Slam Bradley, a character the two invented a year or so before Superman saw print. Bradley even had a diminutive side-kick like Wash Tubbs. And Superman/Clark Kent looks a lot like Slam Bradley. While the facial resemblance may be due more to Shuster’s limitations as an artist than to Crane’s influence, it is nonetheless clear that Captain Easy was in the minds of virtually everyone who was doing adventure stories in comics in the thirties. For the medium’s adventure genre, whether in strips or books, Easy was an archetype.
How Crane chanced upon this seminal creation is anyone’s guess. If we take the other important moments in Crane’s creative life as a guide, Easy was probably no more than the accidental by-product of plot machinery cranking out story. Crane was the beneficiary of many such accidents. He had achieved syndication through a happy coincidence and subsequently had simply fallen into doing a new kind of strip—more through frustrated disinterest in his own work than by conscious design.
Crane was born in 1901 in Abilene, Texas, and raised in Sweetwater, forty miles west, the only child of Royston Crane, an attorney, and Mamie Douthit. At fourteen, he signed up for the correspondence course in cartooning offered by the legendary Charles N. Landon. After graduating from high school in 1918, young Crane entered Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, transferring to the University of Texas at Austin the next year. In 1920, he went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he met a fellow Texan, Leslie Turner, with whom, after only six months of classes, he returned to Texas, hopping freight trains and riding the rails throughout the Southwest for a season—an adventure that Crane would recall later in Wash Tubbs. When he eventually returned to Texas in 1921, Crane went to work for the Austin American as a reporter. He also tried the University of Texas again but left in 1922 and went to sea. He shipped on a freighter that went to Europe and back, and when it docked in New York, Crane jumped ship to try newspapering again.
He was hired by the New York World, where he worked for a couple of years in the art department and assisted H.T. Webster, inking his Sunday page. Crane tried a panel cartoon, Music to the Ear, and sold it to United Features Syndicate. But when only two papers bought the feature, Crane had to agree with syndicate officials that it wasn’t worth the effort of continuing to do it. Sympathetic to his desire to draw a syndicated cartoon, a friendly United Features editor suggested that Crane try to sell his panel to another syndicate among whose features his small town humor might be more at home. Try NEA, he said. Enter, happy coincidence.
The Newspaper Enterprise Association was based in Cleveland, and its art director was no other than Crane’s former mail-order mentor, Charles N. Landon. Still operating his correspondence course on the side, Landon had developed an interlocking, reciprocating relationship between the course and the syndicate. When he saw a talented student submitting work in the course, he waited until the youth graduated and then tapped him to do a feature for NEA. If the feature was successful, publicity for the Landon course would point with pride to another graduate who’d made it big in cartooning. Merrill Blosser with Freckles and His Friends in 1915 was the first beneficiary of this system, according to the Landon course’s promotional materials, and he was joined over the years by Martin Branner, Paul Fung, Ralph Hersberger, Gene Byrnes, and others.
Crane knew nothing of this, of course. He simply sent his panel cartoon off to Cleveland. He heard nothing for six months. Then one day, he got a phone call from Landon. The maestro was in New York and asked Crane to come and see him. Crane went. And he took with him samples of a comic strip idea he was working on, Washington Tubbs II.
“Landon seemed to like the strips well enough,” Crane said, recalling the interview in later years. “But when I mentioned that I was one of his graduates, he got enthusiastic and exclaimed, ‘Crane, I like your stuff!’”
Wash Tubbs was launched forthwith. And shortly after the strip debuted on Monday, April 14, 1924, a Landon course ad listed Crane as another graduate who had made good.
Wash Tubbs was a shrimp of a fellow with spectacles and a curly wad of hair, who quickly emerged as a slang-slinging, girl-chasing opportunist, a brash version of Harold Lloyd, always on the look-out for a quick buck. The immediate inspiration for the strip may have been Walter Berndt’s Smitty, a gag strip about an office boy that had started in November 1922; or perhaps Jerry on the Job, another humorous feature about a youth in the world of work that Walter Hoban had been doing since 1913.
Like these strips, Wash Tubbs told a joke a day, and Crane strung his gags along the frail thread of a tenuous storyline. In the first strip, Wash takes a job in a grocery store in order to pursue the owner’s dimpled daughter. In between pursuits, he hatches plots to make money quick. But Crane quickly found he didn’t like thinking up jokes. He didn’t like much what Wash was doing either. And it showed in the strip’s feeble humor and plot. Dissatisfied, Crane was bored. He dreamed fondly of the excitement of his seafaring days. “I wanted to be a hell of a long way off,” he said. And about the furthest way off he could think of was the South Pacific. Since he couldn’t go himself, he sent Wash.
He sent him on a treasure hunt—a device he would employ again and again in the future. It was a romantic, simple-minded machination; but Crane made it work time after time. By the end of the fifth month in the strip’s run, Crane had moved from pallid gags about his pint-sized Romeo to high adventure with a comic emphasis. Marooned on a South Sea isle, Crane’s diminutive protagonist, surrounded by pretty native girls, finds buried treasure. Unknowingly, in following his fantasies, Crane had struck it rich, too. Wash didn’t hold on to his fortune long; he never did. But he had harrowing adventures, capering breathlessly from one exotic locale to another, and with that, Crane had found a successful formula for his strip—one that pleased and interested him and, as it soon proved, comic strip readers, too. Secure now in a career, Crane married Evelyn Hatcher, February 8, 1927; they would have two daughters.
Crane drew in a comic “big-foot” style, and his pictures and the irrepressible ebullience of his hero gave his adventure yarns a decidedly humorous complexion. Throughout the first couple of years of the strip’s run, Wash bubbles with boyish enthusiasm, flitting like a summer butterfly from emotional high to emotional low at every turn of his fortune. With its exuberant hero, reaching always to fantastic heights quite above his stature, Wash Tubbs continued to be essentially a humorous strip. But by the summer of 1927, the daily jokes all but vanished from the strip. Crane played the stories for laughs, but he also saw to it that Wash scampers rapidly from one exotic locale to another, engaging in a succession of desperate gambles to strike it rich again and, at the same time, to capture the undying affection of the latest “bon bon” that catches his ever-roving eye.
Wash wanders the world, and along the way, he picks up a side-kick named Gozy Gallup. Taller than Wash and furnished with a city slicker’s moustache, Gozy shares Wash’s hunger for action, his get-rich-quick motivations, and his fascination with dimpled damsels. Two of a kind, the pair prompt nothing particularly new from Crane. But on the treasure hunt in early 1928, Crane developed a new kind of character, and with that, he added another dimension to the strip.
Bull Dawson is captain of the ship Wash and Gozy engage to take them to the desert island where the treasure is supposed to be. A burly, swaggering, boastful, cunning and unfeeling brute, Dawson is the uncrowned prince of roughneck villains. He meets and surmounts every crisis with his fists. “Ain’t never seen the day I couldn’t handle the likes o’ you pretties by the boatload an’ call it fun,” he roars, pummeling Wash and Gozy into submission. No physical abuse is too savage or murderous for Dawson; no underhanded trick too vile. He simply radiates evil. Crane would bring him back repeatedly for encores.
The presence of Dawson and his ilk did not alter entirely the essential nature of Wash Tubbs. Even as Crane introduced serious villainy into his formula, he preserved the strip’s high-spirited joie de vivre. For all the menace of its villains, Wash Tubbs remained a boisterous, rollicking, fun-loving strip, full of last-minute dashes, free-for-all fisticuffs, galloping horse chases, pretty girls, and sound effects—Bam, Pow, Boom, Sok, Lickety-whop. When Crane’s characters ran, they ran all out—knees up to their chins. When they were knocked down in a fight, they flipped backwards, head over heels.
These old-fashioned comic strip graphic conventions gave to the action the pace of a headlong sprint. Bull Dawson heightened this excitement by adding an ingredient vital to an adventure strip: he made the threat of danger real. Dawson wasn’t fooling around. He was no joke. We could see that when he beat up Wash and Gozy, they were hurt. They ached; they had bruises. With Dawson’s arrival, Crane’s adventure strip matured. The horseplay now produced hors de combat.
The aura of adventure in the strip was enhanced by Crane’s increasingly realistic backgrounds. His seascapes were dramatic renderings, the water a brooding solid black with white foam flecking the caps of the waves; his jungles, shaded and ominous tangles of vines and underbrush. Crane began experimenting with graphic techniques. For the desert scenes, he used crayon shading to give sandy, gritty texture and tone to his pictures. In other sequences, he began to shade more extravagantly, drawing diagonals through substantial portions of many scenes.
Crane’s combination of the fantastic and the authentic—cartoony-looking people capering through realistic scenes, whimsical plots jammed with life-threatening dangers, humorous heroes with real feelings—made Wash Tubbs unique on the comics page. It was the comically rendered characters that gave the strip its distinctive appeal. The funny-looking cast underscored the light-hearted ambiance of the strip. No one could take such characters altogether seriously, so the strip radiated a fellowship of care-free excitement and of good times had by all. And in so doing, it gave the adventure story strip an aura the genre would not have otherwise had.
Wash Tubbs was high-spirited and often laugh-provoking; its sole reason for being, to tell entertaining adventure stories. Infected with a fun-loving spirit, the strip was every boy’s dream of what adventure should be—and the dream of every man who still harbored the boy he had been within him. Adventure should be exciting and dangerous, but not too dangerous: the idea was to have some fun out of an otherwise mundane life.
Milton Caniff read the strip avidly while in college at Ohio State University. “I admired it,” Caniff said. “I felt then and still do that Crane was the greatest in his field. He combined almost big foot comedy with magnificent drawing. I think I leaned in that direction myself then, without being fully aware of it. I was bending toward my natural way to go.” And Caniff, following Crane’s lead, would show the way to the next generation of adventure strip cartoonists.
Incorporating the threat of real danger into the strip had given Wash Tubbs an edge it had lacked before, but Wash was too frolicsome a personality to sustain the feeling of reality over the long haul. Besides, he was neither bright enough nor rugged enough physically to surmount the dangers he now encountered. The strip still needed something—something serious, something capable. Finally, on May 6, 1929, Crane introduced the character who would complete the transformation of his strip.
For a couple of months, Wash had been in the comic operetta country of Kandelabra, trying to restore to the throne its rightful heiress, the Princess Jada. But the Grand vizier has matrimonial as well as monarchical designs involving Jada, so he drops Wash into the castle dungeons, a maze of booby-trapped doors and dismal corridors. After wandering the passageways for days, opening doors and narrowly escaping death, Wash finally tugs on the door of a cell that he quickly finds is occupied.
“What in blazes are you up to—trying to get in here?” snarls the unshaven face that appears suddenly in the door’s window. “Dang foolishness, says I. I been trying to get out for months.”
Wash finds a crowbar and helps the fellow break out of his cell. And he meets a hawk-nosed, squint-eyed, lantern-jawed hard-case dressed in what passes for a military uniform in Kandelabra.
“Easy. Just call me Easy,” he says. And when Wash presses him for his last name, Easy snaps: “Don’t recollect, suh, as I mentioned my last name!”
“Wow!” Wash thinks. “A hard-boiled bozo! Must have a reason for keepin’ his name to hisself!”
Easy is the classic soldier of fortune. A wanderer (“Hang my hat on any old flagpole now. Like a flea, I reckon—most any old dog looks like home-sweet-home to me”), he will one day give his occupation as “beach-comber, boxer, cook, aviator, seaman, explorer, and soldier of artillery, infantry, and cavalry.” And he’s a champion brawler.
When he and Wash fight their way out of the dungeon, Easy demonstrates his superiority over Gozy Gallup as a two-fisted side-kick. Gozy was no better than Wash in a fight, but Easy handily dispatches three guards and then, seeing Wash in trouble with his opponent, he disposes of him, too, with one punch.
When Wash leaves Kandelabra, Easy goes with him. And shortly after they get home, Wash is accused of murdering a con-man who swindled him. The murder story is told with nearly unrelenting seriousness, and Easy solves the mystery ingeniously but realistically. Throughout, it’s clear that the threat to Wash’s life is nothing to jest about.
Stories like this established the fundamental realism that underpinned Crane’s big-foot graphic style and his frequently indulged penchant for broad comic effects. After the trial, Crane took his heroes off on another treasure hunt, and they wind up on a desert isle where they find and rescue the obligatory beautiful damsel. (Crane’s desert island plots are wonderfully predictable.) And during the desert island sequence, we find Crane doing the kinds of things that riveted the attention of his contemporaries in cartooning, inspiring them to develop the adventure strip by refining Crane’s techniques and re-applying them.
If Crane wasn’t the first cartoonist to use the devices of the cinematographer in telling his stories, he was among the very first. He didn’t shift his camera angles much more than some of his fellows did in those days, but he varied the camera distance—first (probably) for simple graphic variety but sometimes with dramatic narrative effects, too. But Crane’s most striking use of cinematic technique was in setting the scene for a daily strip with an establishing shot of the locale.
He had devoted considerable creative energy to realistic background detail in outdoor scenes since at least 1928, and in the 1930 desert island adventure, he again pulled out all the stops in depicting the setting for his story. Beach scenes are bleak and desolate; the island jungle, lush and dark. His careful attention in the first panel to environmental details gave to the exoticism of his story a convincing realism. Crane was probably the first to experiment successfully with achieving realistic narrative effects through purely visual means.
Crane may not have been more conscious than some of his colleagues of the graphic aspects of his art and of the effects that could be achieved through visual means alone, but he was more willing than many of them to explore the possibilities. That willingness led him to draw pictures and compose panels and time the action chiefly for the impact produced upon the narrative. He wasn’t just drawing pictures: he was telling a story, and the pictures had to serve that purpose. And his pictures did more than simply advance the story by identifying speakers and depicting actions and scenery: they also provided dramatic emphases. Establishing shots set tone as well as depicting locale; and close-ups emphasized the emotions of the speaker being pictured.
However much Crane’s graphic devices may have attracted the attention and admiration of fellow members of the inky-fingered fraternity, it was Captain Easy that won their unalloyed admiration—and that of all of Wash Tubbs’ readers. Easy was an inspired invention. (Even the name is absolutely apt. Crane almost called him Early. Good but not quite as perfect as the laconic Easy.) A swash-buckler of the old school, Easy wore jodhpurs and boots for most of his early adventures. He looked the part of a soldier of fortune. And he was supremely capable. With his wits if not his fists (and usually, by deploying both), he won through every time, no matter what the difficulty. Not that he was invincible. Crane knew better than to make his hero a superman. In his first encounter with Bull Dawson, for instance, Easy loses the fight. And that makes his victory the next time they meet all the more satisfying a triumph.
Easy provided precisely the right ingredient to take the strip the last step from simple exuberant horseplay to suspenseful high adventure. The adventures were still light-hearted, and they were undeniably life-threatening whenever their plots required. And now, with the addition of Easy to his cast, Crane succeeded in convincing us to take those threats seriously. Easy took them seriously. And Easy was a serious fellow, not a feather-weight like Wash. The over-arching formula was simple: Wash pursued his effervescent dreams of love and wealth until he got himself (and Easy) into trouble; then Easy, both fists flying, got them both out again. But the spirit of adventuring—an essentially fun-loving spirit—still pervaded the strip.
Easy was so popular that he eventually took over the strip: for all intents and purposes, Easy is the star of Wash Tubbs from his first appearance on. And in 1933, Crane abandoned all pretense and retitled the strip’s Sunday installment (with drum roll and trumpet) “Captain Easy—Soldier of Fortune.” And the Sundays retailed a continuity separate from the daily adventures.
On Sundays, Crane concentrated on Easy, and these pages soon absorbed him. The art chores on the dailies were assigned to others in the NEA bullpen so that Crane could pour his imagination into the weekly installments of Easy’s adventures. Crane loved the spacious potential of the Sunday page—as would any graphic artist; and he spent most of his energy here rather than on the less visually challenging dailies. And on the Sunday pages, Crane did some of his finest work. Since he was drawing for the addition of color, Crane shaded these pages very little, so his artwork here is refined to its unembellished essence. And in its essence, Crane’s work demonstrates the marvelous precision and telling efficacy of a line so simple it seems naive. But appearances in art are as often deceiving as they are in life. The simplicity of Crane’s linework is the ultimate sophistication—irreducible economy, the absolute in purity of graphic expression.
Crane’s Sunday pictures are carefully, lovingly, drawn, every panel composed to tell the story while sustaining the illusion of time and place. And the pages themselves are artful designs, irregular albeit nonetheless pleasing patterns of panels rather than uniform grids. But these layouts are not simply designs: they were devised to give visual impact to the story. When Crane drew Easy at the brink of a cliff, he gave depth to the scene by depicting it in a vertical panel that is two- or three-tiers tall. When Easy leads a cavalry charge or paddles a canoe down a lazy river, the panel is as wide as the page, giving panoramic sweep to the scene depicted.
And the old Wash Tubbs excitement courses through Easy’s Sunday adventures, too. The stories are rambunctious, fast-moving gallops. Nobody walks on these pages: everyone runs, knees up, elbows pumping. Scarcely a page passes without a fist fight or some similarly vigorous knockabout action. And despite the comic opera countries and the caricatured villains, these pages pulse with the authentic excitement of real adventure swash-buckled into lively entertainment.
Towards the end of the 1930s, Crane added two new arrows to his creative quiver—Craftint doubletone illustration board and a full-time assistant. Both figure importantly in the history of the medium; both can be seen as Crane contributions to the art of the comic strip.
As we have noticed, Crane had been experimenting for years with ways of giving his pictures different textures and tones. Late in 1936, he chanced upon Craftint doubletone, and within six months, he had adopted exclusively this method of achieving tonal effects. Doubletone illustration board is a chemically treated drawing paper. By applying a foul-smelling liquid developer with a brush or pen, an artist can make fine lines or tiny dots appear. The lines Crane brought out created two patterns: parallel diagonal lines or cross-hatching. In reproduction, the diagonal lines gave a drawing a light gray tone; the cross-hatched lines, a dark gray tone.
Crane had dabbled briefly with the use of Ben Day shading as early as the spring of 1936. Ben Day shading, a gray tone of tiny dots created mechanically in the photographic stage of reproduction, produced a single, uniform gray tone. Crane used it sometimes alone, sometimes augmented by hayey cross-hatching with a pen. During 1936, he would deploy every method he could think of for creating variety in texture and tone—grease crayon, splattered ink, Ben Day, and cross-hatching and shading with a pen. He was searching. And once he found Craftint doubletone, the quest was over. With twice the gray-tone capability of Ben Day, Craftint was clearly the superior product.
By April 1937, Crane was using doubletone on a daily basis. Grease crayon and all the other textural effects were abandoned for good. With Craftint doubletone, Crane created some of the most beautiful scenes in comics. With solid black as a third “tone”—progressively, the darkest of the three—he produced pictures with photographic gradations of gray, giving his strip a visual depth no other strip on the funnies pages had. He is noted for the exquisite delicacy of shade and tone in his outdoor scenes. Distant objects, he rendered in the lightest gray tone; closer to the camera, he added the dark gray. With doubletone, he could give the backgrounds against which he played out his stories a photographic realism—dramatic seascapes, moody wind-swept swamps, majestic mountain ranges, brooding jungles festooned with foliage and vines and mysterious shadowy somethings. As always, the realism of the settings added an aura of actuality to the otherwise sometimes fantastic events.
Just about the time he had mastered doubletone, Crane acquired a full-time assistant. Apparently, Crane lost his most trusted bullpen assistant because NEA assigned that individual to other chores. Whatever the case, sometime in the summer or early fall of 1937, Crane wrote to a friend of his youth, Leslie Turner, and asked for help. The two had reconnected briefly in 1923 when Turner came to New York to pursue a career in illustration. Then Crane went to Cleveland in 1924 to do Wash Tubbs out of the NEA offices, and Turner stayed on in the Big Apple.
Turner was an established illustrator by 1929 when a medical condition forced him to seek a warmer climate. He tried ranching on his father-in-law’s sheep ranch in southeastern Colorado for several years but returned to New York and magazine illustration in 1933. By 1935, he was re-established as an illustrator. Then in 1937, he got the letter from his old chum Crane.
Crane had been doing the strip for nearly fourteen years without a break. It was a grueling pace—albeit no different than that endured by every syndicated newspaper cartoonist. The only way a syndicated cartoonist got a vacation was by working twice as hard: if a cartoonist drew two weeks’ worth of strips in one week, he could take the next week as vacation. By 1937, Crane needed a rest. He wanted to escape the deadline-meeting ordeal for an extended period—say, six weeks—without having to double his rate of production. He could do it if he had an assistant who could draw enough like him to sustain the strip. His old friend Turner was his choice.
Before leaving for his European vacation, Crane finished writing the story he was in the middle of. Then he left, and Turner drew the strip. Turner’s work was published from October 17 through December 1, 1937. When Crane returned, Turner stayed on as his assistant, and the two moved to Florida, the first of the NEA stable to escape the, er, stable in Cleveland. “This new field appealed to me,” Turner once wrote, “and I stayed on as his assistant for nearly six years [until Crane left the strip]. And he taught me all I know about the writing and drawing of the continuity strip. During those years we worked together harmoniously, with never an unpleasant episode that I can recall.”
Crane described the way he and Turner divided the production chores: “We each had our specialties. I did the writing, drew all of the Sunday, all water and action on the daily, while he drew girls, aircraft, etc. The strip sprang back to life.” In the early days, it wasn’t quite that clean-cut a division of labor: Turner recalled times when, pressed to meet a deadline, they’d work together on the same strip, cut in half, each doing two panels.
In the summer of 1943, Crane left NEA to create a new strip for Hearst’s King Features. It was the old story: Hearst offered Crane a sweeter deal (including, I suspect, ownership of his feature). Crane was only the second major cartoonist in the medium’s history to leave a successful feature to create an entirely new one. (The other rebel had also been an NEA cartoonist —Gene Ahern, who had abandoned Major Hoople in Our Boarding House to create a similar feature, Room and Board with Judge Puffle, for King in 1936.) On November 1, 1943, Crane’s Buz Sawyer debuted.
Crane expected Turner to join him on the new strip, but NEA presumably made him a better offer to stay on and continue Wash Tubbs over his own signature. Turner is one of the few cartoonists to continue another’s creation successfully—equaling and sometimes, as Ron Goulart says in The Adventurous Decade, surpassing his mentor’s achievements. His Wash Tubbs (which became Captain Easy, finally, in 1949) was every bit as lively and exciting as Crane’s Wash Tubbs had been. At the same time, Turner evolved a style of his own—derivative of Crane’s but different, too; distinctive. He continued using Craftint doubletone—which by this time was a hallmark of the strip and of which he was as much a master as Crane. (In fact, many of the Wash Tubbs panels printed in history books about the medium to illustrate Crane’s artistry were probably created by Turner.) Visually, however, Turner’s strip was darker than Crane’s: Turner made more lavish use of solid blacks. And his linework was bolder, his strokes more fluid.
After a year-and-a-half, he was writing the strip as well as drawing it. His stories were as action-packed as Crane’s—and as loaded with comedy. Like Crane, Turner had a genius for a certain kind of secondary comic character; Turner’s creations, however, were of a different order than Crane’s—again, distinctly his own. Turner stayed with Captain Easy until 1969. He did the dailies throughout his tenure on the strip; the Sunday page too for most of the 1950s. Ultimately, Turner’s reputation will rest on his solo work on Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy. Ironically, Crane’s reputation also rests largely on his first strip.
Crane’s Buz Sawyer was another masterpiece of doubletone shading, and the pace and the action were in the tradition Crane himself had established. But Buz Sawyer is a younger man than Easy. Taking advantage of the opportunities for action and adventure offered by World War II, Crane put Buz in the Navy. The strip remained a military strip for most of its run, with Buz in Naval Intelligence after the War. The Navy recognized Crane’s public relations value, awarding him the Gold Medal for distinguished public service in 1957. A member of the National Cartoonists Society, Crane received its Reuben as “outstanding cartoonist of the year” in 1950. In 1974, he was given the Yellow Kid Award by the Salone Internazionale dei Comics in Lucca, Italy. Long before his death in Orlando July 7, 1977, Crane had relinquished most of the work on the strip to his assistants, Edwin Granberry and Henry Schlensker. Buz Sawyer was an accomplished work by a master of the medium, but Crane broke little new ground here compared to the vistas he had opened in the 1930s.
Curiously, by the time Buz Sawyer was launched, the tables of inspiration had turned: Crane was now clearly influenced by a cartoonist he once inspired, Milton Caniff. Buz, like Caniff’s Terry, is a pilot. And Crane now strove for authenticity in military details with the same zeal as Caniff. And when Crane conjured up a beauteous sultry female guerrilla leader in the South Seas and gave her the code-name Cobra, the character (not to mention the serpentine nom de guerre) cannot help but evoke comparisons with Caniff’s celebrated Dragon Lady. Later, Crane also introduced a blonde bombshell in the mold set by Caniff’s Burma. Crane’s work continued to be impressive in its own right, too, but Buz Sawyer never had the magic that animated Wash Tubbs in those halcyon prewar years.
Crane was doubtless not as intrigued by the character of Buz Sawyer as he had been by Captain Easy. When creative artists are stimulated by their creations, they do their best work. And while Buz Sawyer was by no means any kind of a slouch of a strip, it lacked the fire of Crane’s earlier achievement. The invigorating excitement of discovery, of innovation day-by-day in a medium not yet fully formed, wasn’t there at the drawingboard anymore. Buz Sawyer was the work of a master who knew all the tricks of his craft and who put his characters through their paces with the sangfroid of an experienced ring master, an old trouper who never made mistakes because he had seen and done it all before.
Bob Zschiesche, a fellow cartoonist who knew both Crane and Turner in Florida, also thinks Wash and Easy enjoyed a place in Crane’s heart that Buz never approached: “The last drawing Roy drew,” he wrote, “—a week before he died—was of Wash and Easy in Jim Ivey’s Wash Tubbs book, which Roy sent to Dick Moores in Asheville, North Carolina.”
Zschiesche continued: “I got the feeling he took greater delight in his Wash Tubbs work. Perhaps he felt that in the early days the comics looked their best in six- or seven-column wide format. ‘In the early days,’ Roy said, ‘cars and planes were more simply designed—and a cartoonist could make ’em look funnier. The cars today, they’re big, wide, enclosed things. You can’t do a thing with ’em!”
In the 1930s, illustrators would make the adventures in comic strips seem more real with pictures that accurately depicted enclosed automobiles—not to mention jungles and space ships, soaring skyscrapers, office furniture, ladies fashions, people in general, and every other thing under the sun. But before illustrators brought serious authenticity to comics, there was Roy Crane.
And it was the work of Roy Crane—those often funny stories of treasure hunts and melodramatic villainy and pretty girls and a hook-nosed soldier of fortune—that an entire generation of cartoonists sought to equal as they invented and refined the adventure comic strip. All of them, like Crane, were seeking adventure for the fun of it.
And for more stories and lore about the giants who created the newspaper comic strip medium, you could do worse than consult my tome, The Art of the Funnies, which can be previewed by clicking here.
Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy (1924-1943) has been reprinted
in eighteen quarterly volumes (1987-1992) by Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine
Publishing, N.Y. Bill Blackbeard’s prefatory notes in some of these
volumes include biographical as well as historical information (sometimes
rather speculative). The only other biographical material on Crane
is in The Adventurous Decade by Ron Goulart (Arlington House,
New Rochelle, NY; 1975). A sympathetic and insightful appreciation
of Wash Tubbs can be found in Coulton Waugh’s classic, The
Comics (Macmillan, NY; 1947; rpt. University Press of Mississippi,
Jackson and London; 1991). Crane’s papers (1918-1965), including some
original drawings, are archived at the George Arents Research Library
of Special Collections at Syracuse University, New York.