Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles
Edited by Dean Mullaney, biographical essay by Bruce Canwell
Hardcover, 391 pages, $49.99
Noel Sickles never really had any great ambition to be a comic strip cartoonist, but nonetheless ended up being one of the most influential of the 20th century.
Scorchy Smith was an awful Associated Press aviation adventure strip penned by John Terry. Sickles called Terry the worst cartoonist ever, and he wasn’t exaggerating much. When Terry became ill Sickles was given the thankless task of ghosting the strip in that horrible ‘style’. Luckily for Sickles the ghosting period didn’t last long, as Terry soon died. Sickles was then given free rein to experiment, and in the process he revolutionized the way adventure strips are drawn. Sickles is credited with popularizing the chiarascuro technique for adventure comic strips, a style that his buddy Milton Caniff more famously appropriated for his Terry and the Pirates. Sickles experimented endlessly in Scorchy, and this volume shows Sickles playing with various techniques, changing the look of the strip practically on a week by week basis.
Little fanfare has been given to Sickles writing talents. He famously disliked the process of writing the strip, and I expected therefore to have a hard slog reading through his entire three year stint. However, I was gratified to find that Sickles’ writing was far better than I had been led to expect. His stories make good internal sense, a basic factor lacking in some highly celebrated strips, and one that keeps me from enjoying many adventure strips. His plots, according to essayist Bruce Canwell often loose adaptations of his favorite western movies, are entertaining and solid. His story pacing, especially after he became more comfortable with his assignment, is unhurried and full of little details, a refreshing change from the frenetic pace maintained by much of his competition. About the only oddity in the stories, and I’m surprised that his editors let him get away with it, is that aviation, the raison d’etre of the strip, is noticeably absent. While strips like Tailspin Tommy strictly constructed their stories around flying, Sickles’ Scorchy stories rarely use the aviation angle in any meaningful way. Sometimes the only flying that happens is in the segue from one story to the next. The stories are better off, though, because the slavish imperative of sticking to genre makes strips like Tailspin Tommy quite a bore for those not fascinated by wind shear and the latest advances in de-icers.
The reproduction of the strips is miraculously excellent if I assume correctly that tearsheets had to be used as source material. The smaller papers that tended to use the Associated Press features seldom had excellent print quality, but the strips here look fantastic. Even the zipatone, very hard to reproduce well from tearsheets, is clear and sharp. I doff my Photoshopping hat to the work of the restorer on this project.
The book is a giant, weighing in at a whopping seven pounds. Not only do we get the complete Sickles run on Scorchy (plus a little of Terry and Christman to pad out story arcs) but there is an exhaustive biographical essay by Bruce Canwell. It is accompanied by an incredible array of Sickles work all the way from rare early pieces to his later commercial and fine art work. This section of the book, comprising over 130 pages, could easily have been published on its own to rave reviews from Sickles fans.