Obscurity of the Day: Peter Scratch

Lou Fine was, along with Kirby and a few others, the royalty of golden age comic book artists. His work was revered then and continues to be now. His fine line and dramatic staging made any comic book his work graced a transcendent piece of dynamic illustration art. Unhappily for comic book fans, Fine’s work was just too good not to be noticed at higher levels of the New York publishing world and he abandoned the funnybook trade in the mid-40s to work primarily in the field of advertising comic strips, presumably a much better paying gig. For ad strips he modified his style making it slicker and far less dynamic — perhaps considered more appropriate for his new genre, but a big disappointment for his fans.

Fine dabbled in non-advertising strips, too. He drew Adam Ames from 1959-1962, and, according to Ron Goulart, a strip called Taylor Woe in the late 40s (the strip was advertised in E&P in 1945 but I’ve never found a single example – anyone seen it?).

Fine’s last newspaper strip was Peter Scratch, a hard-boiled detective yarn. Reading like Mickey Spillane, it probably seemed out of date when it debuted on September 13 1965. It was syndicated by Newsday, a Long Island newspaper that for awhile in the 1960s tried to get into the syndicate business with limited success.

The feature was written without credit by veteran comic strip writer Elliot Caplin, and the art, initially by Fine, was, I’m told, handed over to Jack Sparling to ghost later in the run. Of special note are some short ghosting stints by Neal Adams. The dates I’ve been told are:

6/13 – 6/25/66
8/15 – 8/21/66
9/11 – 9/22/66

The strip ended sometime in 1967. Unfortunately I haven’t found an exact end date for the strip.

PS – Alberto Becattini sends some additional info on Fine’s ghosts:

Glad to see the Peter Scratch feature on the blog. As far as I know, Neal Adams also ghosted on dailies from July 11-23, 1966. He ghosted on
three Sundays as well in 1966 during the period he was contributing to
the dailies.

Alex Kotzky also ghosted on the strip (in 1965, if I remember
correctly), as per an interview with him that appeared years ago in
Comics Interview.

News of Yore: Trog’s Flook Tackles American Market

Trog Leads More Lives Than Does His ‘Flook’

By Erwin Knoll (E&P, 1952)

A young Canadian now living in England, described as “a stu­dent of applied relaxation,” is the creator of a very different comic strip which American newspaper readers are just beginning to get accustomed to. The artist is Wally Fawkes, better known as Trog, and his strip is “Flook,” which Gen­eral Features Corp. introduced here last fall.

Just what makes it difficult to get used to “Flook” is not quite clear, but it isn’t just the fact that the strip is British. The London Daily Mail, which launched “Flook” several years ago at the suggestion of Viscount Rothermere, ran into the same trouble.

According to Stuart McClean, managing director of the Daily Mail, ” ‘Flook’ is something unique in strip cartoons, and newspaper readers have to live with him for quite a time before they take him to their hearts. We were not at all happy about him during his first four or five months in the Daily Mail but suddenly he became fa­mous . . . ‘Flook’ has become one of the foremost attractions in the Daily Mail, and we regard him as one of the greatest strip cartoons of all time.”

The “Flook” in question is a tubby, panda-like animal with a short trunk, sawed-off arms and legs, the ability to speak seven languages, and an uncanny faculty for changing himself—or itself— into anything and everything on a moment’s notice. Accompanied by Rufus, a small boy who was origi­nally the strip’s central character, the “Flook” stumbles into an un­ending series of far-flung and fantastic adventures.

Versatile as the “Flook” is, he is no match for his creator. When not studying applied relaxation, Trog—the pen name is short for “troglodyte”—studies serious art at London’s Studio Club, goes on re­search field trips for “Flook” or plays the clarinet at the Humphrey Lyttelton Jazz Club. Critics have commented on his “uncanny musi­cal understanding,” and the car­toonist says music is much more important to him than art.

Trog was born 28 years ago in Vancouver, Canada, but moved to England with his family at the age of seven. He attended several art schools and did commercial illus­trating until an art contest entry landed him a job on the Daily Mail in 1945. He drew column breaks until “Flook” got off to its reluc­tant start in 1949.

Robert Raymond now writes the continuity for “Flook,” but he ad­mits that “the last word is Trog’s. ‘Flook’ haunts his morning tub, squeezes out of his tube of tooth­paste and bobs up when he cracks his breakfast egg,” Mr. Raymond says.

Herriman Saturday

The election results are in. To those not familiar with American politics it might seem surprising that Gillett, tool of the Southern Pacific, won rather than the independent. But that’s the way it goes hereabouts. Independents, no matter how worthy, rarely succeed as anything more than spoilers. From Teddy Roosevelt to Ross Perot to Ralph Nader, and many in between, they find that no matter how badly qualified or corrupt the Republicans and Democrats, their hold on the election process is certain. The elephant and donkey have convinced the American public that a vote for an independent is a wasted vote.

Off my soapbox.

The first cartoon was published on November 7, the second on the 12th. There was one additional Herriman cartoon in the interim but it was in too bad a shape to restore. Now that the election is over and Herriman has gotten some well-deserved rest he’ll come back with a nice potpourri of editorial, sports and assorted other cartoons in the coming months. Stay tooned!

Obscurity of the Day: Snapdragon

Here’s another strip that’s been sitting in my mystery pile. This feature did manage to survive long enough to get listed in E&P in 1986, and my one and only example is from October of that year. The creator, Steve Barr, is online and has a website. I sent him an email asking for more information on Snapdragon but unfortunately never received a reply.

The Tribune Media strip about a wizard and his magic dragon would probably have a much better reception in the funnies today with Harry Potter mania sweeping the globe. Too bad for Barr that he jumped the gun by a decade or two!

If anyone has the start and end dates for the feature I’d love to know about it.

News of Yore: End Of An Era For WNU

Western Newspaper Union Suspends Printed Service

End of an Era for 1,412 Weekly Papers Using 1,250,000 Copies
By Ray Erwin (E&P, 2/9/52)

Printed Service, the “ready-print” or “patent insides” used through the years by thousands of weekly newspapers, will be dis­continued by the Western News­paper Union on March 29, mark­ing the end of an era.

The preprinted four-page half, backed up with four pages printed locally, has been a fixture in the weekly newspaper field since Civil War days.

Victim of Costs
WNU officials told Editor & Publisher its widely known Printed Service has fallen victim to rising costs of newsprint, pro­duction and distribution, coupled with a declining need for a pre­printed service because of faster, more modern news and feature dissemination methods.

The company plans to continue and expand its many other syn­dicated feature services to news­papers.

Western Newspaper Union as­sured the 1,412 publishers of weeklies who currently are ready-print users that newsprint equal to the amount included in their Printed Service and feature mate­rial in grooved plate, mat or copy form, will be available. Hardship is not expected to result for most weekly newspapers as nearly all of them now have typecasting machines and casting boxes so they can make plates from mats.

“The decision for the suspension was reached because mount­ing costs required a price increase which would have taken the Printed Service out of the cate­gory of a sound, economic value for most weekly papers,” ex­plained Farwell W. Perry, WNU president.

While hard, economic facts dic­tated the suspension, it was obvi­ous that recognition of newspaper publishing progress in the rural field was involved in the action. With improvements in weekly newspaper machinery, with the de­crease in the number of weeklies and the increase in the number of larger and more prosperous week­lies came a decline in the need for the readyprint service.

“We helped them grow and then lost them,” observed W. W. Brown, executive vice president of WNU, with a broad smile. “There are no more frontiers.”

1,250,000 Copies
Printed Service has been fur­nishing 1,250,000 copies, produced in 27 plants throughout the U.S., each week for its current 1,412 customers. At one time, it printed four pages each week for ap­proximately 7,000 newspapers. WNU was still supplying Printed Service to 4,500 newspapers in 1923.

While Printed Service once rep­resented 100% of the company’s income, it was only 5% of last year’s sales volume. The total volume, incidentally, increased from $7,000,000 in 1938 to more than $22,000,000 last year.

Expansion was accomplished in other feature service sales, mer­chandising of paper, printing ma­chinery and equipment, plastic plates, commercial stereotyping, typography and electrotyping for advertisers and advertising agen­cies.

Expansion Planned
Plans were announced for ex­panding the company’s editorial, art, sales and service efforts for further improvements and devel­opment of all types of newspaper features tailored especially for non-metropolitan newspapers.

WNU’s Budget Service, provid­ing two pages of material in mat form, is available to the papers that have been using readyprint, in addition to other editorial fea­tures. Some small dailies use the Budget Service.

Charges made to the papers failed to cover costs of newsprint, features and delivery, according to Mr. Brown. WNU had the privilege of selling national ad­vertising in a certain amount each week and this made up the loss and provided a little profit, which meant that, in effect, part of the advertising receipts went to the weekly publisher by making up the loss in the operation.

The company will still offer Christmas, graduation and other special features, including car­toons and comics, in plate form, to be used on patented grooved metal base.

Gone with Buckboard
“As the buckboard, five-cent cigar and nickel beer have disap­peared from the American scene, so goes Printed Service,” observed Mr. Perry. “America has been a richer place for having had all of them but it is not poorer for having outgrown them for indeed they have been outgrown even as many of the elements considered essential today may be outgrown in the future.”

An anti-trust suit, entered at Jacksonville, Fla., by Attorney-General J. Howard McGrath against WNU and two of its sub­sidiaries (E & P, July 7, 1951, page 15) is still pending. The suit, charging the defendants with attempting to monopolize supplies and services to the rural printing industry of the U. S., grew out of a complaint by a Florida weekly.

WNU officials said one reason they have maintained Printed Service as long as they have is because they sell ink, type, print­ing paper, machinery, stitching wire for job plants and other sup­plies to the customers from the company’s 17 paper houses, which carry a $3,000,000 paper stock.

44 Branches
None of the company’s 44 branch offices will be closed. It is expected that only 40 or 50 printers will have their employ­ment affected and it was explained that they easily can obtain other work in their field. Six or seven of the WNU plants will continue to do commercial printing.

It was in 1865, when the Civil War was creating a labor short­age, that Ansel N. Kellogg, pub­lisher of the Baraboo (Wis.) Re­public, a weekly, made arrange­ments with the Madison (Wis.) Daily Journal to print half of his paper, filling it with material al­ready used in the Journal. The daily paper branched out and be­gan supplying such service to other weeklies.

Mr. Kellogg went to Chicago, formed the Kellogg list and be­gan supplying readyprint to week­lies in competition with the Madi­son daily. Later, the West Vir­ginia list, the New England list and other similar groups were formed for readyprint services.

George A. Joslyn supplied a list of weeklies in Iowa. He man­aged to buy other lists, combined them into a Western Union of lists, with headquarters in Omaha, Neb., to serve the recently estab­lished newspapers in the vast trans-Missouri empire. Mr. Joslyn’s enterprise grew into the com­pany now known as the Western Newspaper Union and spread its operations over the entire coun­try, gradually adding other serv­ices and supplies. The general office was moved to New York in 1929.

Perry Takes Over
John H. Perry, publisher of multiple dailies and weeklies in Florida, became president in 1938 and a year and a half ago he be­came chairman of the board and his son was chosen president. Readyprint pioneered syndica­tion as an economical and prac­tical production aid to early hand­set papers in tiny communities that could not support eight pages a week.

“The weekly publisher was able to give his readers a well-bal­anced community newspaper in a way that would have been impos­sible had it been necessary for him to set all the material and print it himself,” asserted Mr. Brown. “The history of Printed Service, then, corresponded exact­ly with the growth of weekly newspaper enterprise. Both coin­cided with the wonderful growth of America.

“There was a far different pat­tern to newspaper work in those days,” he continued. “The itiner­ant printer, with a ‘shirt-tail full of type and a G. Washington hand press’ was a familiar character. These pioneer publishers formed the van of westward emi­gration. From the 1870s up to about 1910, each new community, when its population reached 200 to 300 and supported a few stores, had its newspaper.

“Just how much this Service contributed to the beginnings of American journalism can hardly be estimated,” he continued. “This was before rapid distribution of dailies; news magazines were non­existent; radio and television had not been invented. Yet the week­ly newspaper, using readyprint, brought both local and world news to the small towns.

Need Declines
“But, even as rural America changed, so did the market for Printed Service,” Mr. Brown add­ed. “The quality kept pace and the price remained right but the need declined. Rural roads were improved, villages grew up or were overshadowed by larger towns. The weekly newspaper population of the nation declined. Those weeklies remaining, for the most part, improved their print­ing facilities.”

During this early period, news of agriculture was needed to im­prove the farms. Printed Service played it up. There was a dearth of good fiction in small towns for 50 years before community libra­ries were established. Printed Service ran hundreds of complete novels in serial form by such writ­ers as Rex Beach, Jack London, Booth Tarkington, Zane Grey and others.

Readyprint featured for many years the grassroots cartoons of Magnus Kettner, the “Weekly News Review” by Ed Pickard, sports by Dixie Carroll, illus­trated fashion notes by Julia Bottomley and Nellie Maxwell’s “Kit­chen Cabinet.”

Despite indications to the contrary in this article, the syndicated comics business of WNU also ended this same year. That business was sold to another company which claimed to have big plans for it, but those plans never came to fruition. WNUs comic strips, most of which were reprints bought from other syndicates by this time, all ended in 1952 – Allan

Obscurity of the Day: Teena A Go Go

Teena A Go Go was a short-lived strip about a teenage girl, a soap opera-adventure mix with that inimitable 60s mod overtone. The strip was written by Bessie Little who definitely had a feel for the genre (she had been the editor of various teen and movie magazines in the 1950s) but was not cut out for writing a comic strip. As you can see in the examples above, Little went way overboard with captions and balloons, turning what might have been a better strip into a sea of lettering.

The cartoonist on the series, Bob Powell, was a well-known comic book artist. Powell became a fan favorite in the 1940s with an art style that was recognizable and a cut above the typical comic book hackwork. However Powell was long past his prime here and the art is muddy and sloppy compared to his best years.

Teena A Go Go was syndicated by the Bell-McClure Syndicate, a combination of two old-timer syndicates that merged in 1963. The syndicate was on its last legs and there was probably no sales force left to hawk the new feature. Depending on the how you like the strip, you can ascribe its rarity to that or the quality of the strip itself. The strip also displayed a copyright to something called Publication House, but I have no idea what that is.

The strip, which ran Sunday and daily, started on August 14 1966 and apparently ended February 18 1967 (at least that’s the latest I can find). The end date is in mid-story, but it may have been cancelled abruptly due to Powell’s health — he would die later that year. One reference cites a start date in June 1966 but I can find no evidence to corroborate that.

Obscurity of the Day: Pilgrims

In another case of delving the mysteries of obscure comic strips through the good graces of the ‘net, here’s another that surfaced recently. The artist, Kirk Luehrs, found his name in the mystery strips listing and sent me these samples of his strip Pilgrims. The strip was syndicated from about 1974 to 1976, first through Catholic News Service, then through something called Telefriends Inc.

I asked Luehrs additional questions about his strip but sadly never got an answer. So I’ll take some guesses. The listing for his strip in E&P also credited Stephen C. Graham. I’m going to guess that he was the writer. Another guess is that the Pilgrims strip actually went by two additional titles — Jericho Jones and Mister Demgopi — all three titles were listed in E&P, and Luehrs said in his email that Jericho Jones was the main character in Pilgrims.

Here’s the bio that Luehrs sent:

“Kirk Luehrs has been a northwest artist, writer and illustrator for over 30 years. Known as Bro Kirk, he was a contract illustrator, writer and editorial cartoonist for the Oregon Journal, and the Oregonian newspapers in Portland Oregon. He wrote and illustrated the internationally syndicated cartoon strip, Pilgrims for three years. Kirk wrote and illustrated 18 books for children and young people, 12 on contract for Word Publishing Co. Waco, Texas. He has worked as an artist, art and creative director for northwest advertising agencies, and fortune 500 companies, working in both print and electronic media. He was the owner of Luehrs Advertising for ten years. In his early years his sand and oil paintings were in high demand after his shows in the San Francisco Bay area, not to mention his psychedelic and electronically flocked posters. Kirk’s interests turned to fine line pen and ink drawings for newspaper and magazine publication for a number of years after that. Creative direction took him into the commercial and advertising phase of his career. Now that the remaining chapters in his life are growing fewer he is concentrating his efforts on the subjects that delight and amuse him painting, in acrylic’s on canvas and watercolor papers. A world traveler, he draws his inspirations from the people and events around him, both in the northwest and from his other home in the Philippines. While he will occasionally do work on commission, he prefers just having fun and painting the things that he has always wanted too. “

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Bumstead Family History

Blondie – The Bumstead Family History
by Dean Young and Melena Ryzik
Thomas Nelson 2007
ISBN 1-4016-0322-X
$29.99, hardcover, 192 pages

“Blondie” has a 75-year and counting history, so you might expect that a book bearing this title would afford us a great retrospective of all those years. Well, think again o gullible one.

What we actually have here is almost exclusively a selection of Blondie strips from the 1990s and 2000s. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s really not what the book cover or the publisher’s description would lead us to expect.

What we do get, in addition to a copious mix of recent strips, are a series of short essays describing the personality of each of the strip’s characters (written as if we don’t know the Bumsteads as well or better than our own family after all these years), and two very short sections of vintage material. The first section, a miscellany of strips and isolated panels from the sequence where Dagwood and Blondie wed, is an almost exact reprinting of the same section in a previous book, Blondie and Dagwood’s America, published in 1981. The only differences I could find is in the pithy captions, which have been reworded, and the loss of a few of the examples from the previous book.

The second historical section, in which we get a short history of the Young family, talks about Chic Young’s earlier strips (The Affairs of Jane, Beautiful Bab and Dumb Dora) and gives us exactly one example of each, all of which, again, are culled from the 1981 book (even duplicating the prior book’s horrifically bad reproduction of same). Even most of the photos of the Young family, except the later ones, are also reused.

Taking the book for what it is, rather than what it claims to be, it is a perfectly decent reprint volume. The selection of recent strips is good, albeit a bit repetitive, as is the strip itself. Reproduction is generally good, although the strips from the 90s sometimes seem to be scanned from tearsheets rather than proofs (why?!) and are therefore not really crisp. Blondie’s catering business, which made news in the early 90s as America’s favorite housewife entered the workforce, is well represented.

If you are looking for vintage Blondie, give the book a pass and seek out a copy of Blondie and Dagwood’s America. If, on the other hand, you want a reprint volume of current strips this is right up your alley.