clcick to enlargeLeslie Turner, Assistant No More
A Second Act as Good as the First

Roy Crane's niche in comics history routinely overshadows that of his one-time assistant, Leslie Turner, but Turner's place is every bit as unique. Our Hindsight Department has a longish segment on Roy Crane and his seminal role in the history of the medium (which you can get to by clicking here). For the moment, however, let me just brush by the main points in order to get to Turner and his place in the saga of Captain Easy and in the history of cartooning. Despite the praise Crane has received in recent years, he is still 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, began April 14, 1924 (not, as I've previously stated in everything I've written on Crane— Comics Journal, Oxford University Press's American National Biography, my own [sob!] The Art of the Funnies —April 21, the date cited in the otherwise impressive Paul Leiffer/Hames Ware Chronological Listing and the source of my error; in any case, a debut only a few months before another of the pioneering continuity strips, Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, which was launched August 5). A nearly undistinguished strip about a diminutive Harold Lloyd character with soaring ambitions for amorous conquest and financial gain, there was little in the inaugural sequences of Wash 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.

            Arriving on May 6, 1929, while the excitable Wash was cavorting in a comic operetta country called Kandelabra, Easy would step out of the prison cell in which Wash finds him to inspire a generation of cartoonists. (Easy was, naturally, wrongfully imprisoned.) "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. Gil 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. And by 1933, Easy had completely usurped Wash in the Sunday strip, now entitled Captain Easy—Soldier of Fortune. The next big change in the strip came towards the end of the 1930s, when 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.

            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. Some of the work on the strip had been done, until then, by an NEA bullpen artist, but that personage had apparently been assigned to other chores, leaving Crane to draw everything himself. That, doubtless, was a jolt. Whatever the case, sometime in the summer or early fall of 1937, Crane wrote to an old friend, a fellow Texan who'd been born two years earlier than Crane and 80 miles away, and asked him if he'd help him out on the strip. Despite the proximity of their birthplaces, Roy Crane and Leslie Turner didn't meet until they were both grown men.

            Turner, in a letter to cartoonist and collector Bob Bindig, recalls those times: "Roy Crane and I were close friends since 1920 when we met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. Soon after that, while I was at SMU Dallas, I spent parts of several summers traveling over the U.S. on the 'blinds' of passenger trains (between the coal tender and first baggage car at night), first led astray by a fraternity brother who is now a highly respected judge in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I visited most major cities except Seattle and Atlanta—and incidents I told Roy seemed to amuse him. Later, he used several in early stories and had his characters travel extensively by freight, as I recall."

            Crane started at "a few colleges" (as Ron Goulart puts it in his Adventurous Decade) in Texas about the same time, but the two Texans parted ways soon, when Crane dropped out of college and went to sea. They ran into each other again 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 in those primitive times 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.

            "His strip was always my favorite by far," Turner wrote, "—the real pioneer of adventure strips with enough humor sprinkled through his stories to add reader interest. He was an excellent artist, and fast—with the right amount of exaggeration to be most effective. When he called me in 1937 to ask if I'd draw his daily and Sunday for six weeks while he took a much needed rest in Europe, I was very flattered but highly doubtful that I could do the job. For years, I had been doing magazine illustration in halftone, hadn't touched a pen in ages. But I went to Cleveland and worked with Roy for two weeks while he wrote six weeks of dailies and Sundays for me to draw."

            Turner, who had been making a good living as an illustrator, had to learn how to draw cartoony pictures, and he had to learn on the job. He told Goulart that the toughest part of the assignment was learning to draw with a pen again after using a brush for years. And Crane's style, a combination of big-foot cartoony and realistic rendering, was not easy to imitate. On the one hand, it was deceptively simple: an imitator could err by veering too much in the direction of big-foot comedy. On the other hand, realistically drawn wrinkles in clothing could seduce an imitator into producing drawings that were too realistic. Turner, learning the craft as he went, was bound to produce work at first that wasn't equal to Crane's. Turner was feeling his way. Some recent observers, historian Bill Blackbeard chief among them, complain of a "stiffness" in the drawings. That, I submit, is the hallmark of realistic rendering as opposed to cartoony rendering. Crane's big-foot style permitted him to exaggerate movement: when his characters ran, for instance, their knees came up almost to their chests. This treatment gave his drawings great energy. But realistically drawn people do not seem as energetic. In real life, when people run, their knees do not come up to their chests. And an illustrator attempting to render people running realistically would not draw them the way Crane did. They would be drawn without Crane's exaggeration. And they would therefore not seem as full of energy as Crane's people did. The drawings Turner made in the fall of 1937 were not as exaggerated as Crane's. They're realistic. And they therefore seem click to enlargestiff. And that's because Turner was, at that point, more illustrator than cartoonist. But if his drawings suffer in comparison to Crane's in consequence, it does not mean they're bad drawings. They're pretty good, in fact. In many ways—in fluidity of line, for instance—they are superior to Crane's. Turner's work was published from October 17 through December 1, 1937. When Crane came back home, Turner stayed on as his assistant.

            Wrote Turner: "When Roy returned, he suggested that I stay with him a few years for the experience in writing and drawing a strip, then start one of my own. Since I enjoyed cartooning again after so many years, and the field of magazine illustration was apparently petering out, I took him up on it and have always been grateful. 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, according to Turner, it wasn't quite that clean-cut a division of labor: "For the first few years, Roy would often make tiny sketches for me to follow and would occasionally draw a panel. Sometimes we would be so down on deadline that we would cut a strip in tow, he drawing one half while I drew the other. And on rare occasions he might drawn an entire strip that he had clearly in mind. But for the most part, he concentrated on writing the daily and Sunday, also drawing the latter, while I gradually got the 'feel' of the daily."

            In the early spring 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 assume, 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 had 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, which he did, his first solo work appearing May 31, 1943.

            Turner is one of the few cartoonists to continue another's creation successfully—equaling and sometimes, as Goulart says, surpassing his mentor's achievements. Turner's 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. click to enlarge

            I'm not trying to debunk Crane's reputation here. I'm not saying that Crane has been given credit all these years for something he didn't do. I'm not saying that he did not develop the technique for which he is acclaimed. I'm sure he did. But I am saying that Turner was with him from 1937 on, so Turner undoubtedly had a hand in creating that technique. Given the long-standing friendship between the two artists and (judging from Crane's testimony as well as Turner's) the way they worked together, it would be surprising if Turner did not, on occasion, apply the doubletone developer to the illustration boards himself. Joining Crane in 1937, Turner is rightfully entitled to enjoy some of the credit that has been lavished entirely on Crane all these years.

             "For about the first two years," Turner said, "Russ Winterbotham wrote the stories, with me gradually taking over the writing by 1945. Since I was never as interested in straight adventure stories as in writing comedy, I began to place more emphasis on the latter in most continuities, hopefully without the change being too apparent."

             Turner stayed with Captain Easy until 1969—and here's his last strip, which, he says in the marginal note, he completed November 28, 1969 for publication January 15, 1970. click to enlargeHis 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. "In 1952, I also took on the Sunday page, both writing and drawing," Turner continued, "with Bill Crooks doing much of the inking. But early in 1960, three coronaries forced me to get Mel Graff to write and draw the Sunday, under my supervision. Mel and Roy and Dick Moores (who inherited Gasoline Alley) all pitched in to carry on for me for several months until I was able to take over the daily again. We had quite a colony of cartoonists in Orlando at the time."

            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. In the postwar strip, Crane sometimes echoed the light-hearted operetta ambiance of his prewar ramble with Wash and Easy but never with quite the same free-wheeling effect. Buz Sawyer was an accomplished piece of 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 performers 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. Cartoonist Bob Zschiesche, who knew Crane and Turner during their Florida years (and drew the caricatures of them that accompany this dissertation), believes 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. 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. Leslie Turner was among the very best of them.

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