Four Stars for Mr. Norris
(Bergen Evening Record, May 7 1955)
It’s a long, circuitous haul from the grain and tobacco fields of Greenville, O. (Pop.: 8,820), to a daily spot on the comic pages of 184 American and Canadian newspapers. But when you’re riding on talent, the trip goes much faster. And, although artist Paul Norris of Hillsdale had his ticket punched at a few whistle stops along the way, he still made the grade at an early age. Today he is recognized as one of the top men drawing for the King Features Syndicate.
Paul’s current assignment is turning out the “Brick Bradford” science fantasy strip 6 days a week — it joined the Record’s family on Monday —and if Paul accomplishes nothing else in this world, he will have achieved one phase of immortality.
For he was the boy voted most likely to succeed during his undergraduate days at Midland College in Fremont, Neb., and he went ahead and succeeded, in defiance of tradition, which says that the people most likely to succeed usually wind up as embezzlers or stealing candy from babies.
Paul’s success didn’t come easily; it was achieved only through hard work and much burning of the midnight oil. But once his fortune changed, it changed quicker than a tote board at Jamaica. Tonight he can go to sleep counting his blessings: a fine wife, two talented sons, a home in the Holiday House development off Werimus Lane in Hillsdale that has everything but gold-plated plumbing fixtures, and the knowledge he’s reached the top in his chosen profession.
Norris, a handsome 6-footer who blew out 41 candles on a birthday cake a week ago last Tuesday, first saw the light of day in Greenville, O., and has been drawing for as long as he can remember. He sold his first work during his senior year in Palestine, 0., High School—several editorial cartoons used by the Dayton, O., Daily News—and, with his imagination fired, landed a job during the depression as a card writer with J. C. Penny Co. in Greenville.
The job didn’t last long, however, so Paul—with his mind set on becoming an editorial cartoonist— headed for Midland College to study journalism. His first year there he became art editor of the yearbook and, in his own words, “no actor ever stole a scene more viciously than I took over that book.”
Like a good many other cartoonists, among the most noted being Otto Soglow, Paul’s affections were evenly divided between art and the drama and it was a tossup, he says, whether he would try starving as an actor or as a comic strip artist. Finally, in his sophomore year at Midland—after he had been voted most likely to succeed—he hibernated to his grandmother’s farm to work out 8 weeks of drawings for a syndicated strip. The strip sold to a syndicate, all right, but turned out to be a quickie affair and went down faster than an old maid’s bedroom shade.
“There followed,” Paul says gravely, ” a period of idleness. Most people considered it downright laziness, but 1 prefer to look back on it as a plateau of learning.”
Soon this “plateau of learning” gave way to a day-time job in a Dayton factory while at night Paul attended the Dayton Art Institute, which provided a background for his meeting with pretty Annbeth Mayenschein, now Mrs. Norris. It was here, too, that he made a connection with the Dayton Daily News and, under the guidance of Art Editor Myron E. Scott (now the man in charge of the national Soap Box Derby), Paul did a comic page that ran for several years.
By 1940 Paul thought he was ready for the big step: a move to New York City. And, with the encouragement of Milton Caniff, the artists’ artist whom Paul knew in Dayton, he traveled East and proceeded to do comic book drawings for several publishers.
Then one day came the big break: a phone call from the now out-of-business newspaper, PM. “Caniff had been pointing his finger at me,” Paul says, “and before I knew it, I was drawing the ‘Vic Jordan’ strip. Sometime later King Features called with an offer for me to draw ‘Secret Agent X-9’ and I quickly accepted.”
For 3 months everything ran smoothly and Paul seemed on his way to the top. But events at Pearl Harbor forced an interruption of some 30-odd months. Paul became Uncle Sam’s guest on a trip half-way around the world working for G-2 in the Tenth Army and drawing assorted propaganda leaflets, sketching Jap caves and gun installations, and “cooking up my secret weapon—a propaganda comic book”.
Propaganda comic book? What, pray tell, was that?
“Well, actually it was this way,” Paul elaborated. “I was assigned to the Signal Corps when I entered the Army and at Leyte I met two officers from Joint Intelligence, who were seeking a cartoonist to prepare leaflets to be dropped on Okinawa. I volunteered for the task and, while aboard a ship in the Okinawa invasion fleet in 1945, I drew the illustrations for the leaflets.
“They worked out so well, and so many Japanese soldiers surrendered, that word got to General Bruckner and he had me transferred from the Signal Corps to the psychological warfare branch of G-2 in the Tenth Army. That’s when I got the idea for a propaganda comic book. You see, ‘Jiggs’ and ‘Popeye’ were very popular strips in Japan. I thought if we could come up with propaganda strips involving these comic figures, it should prove very effective. However, before we could complete the job the atom bomb was dropped and the war ended.”
Working with Jap prisoners of war, Paul said, one comic layout was completed but never used. A picture of it accompanies this article. It was a series of 12 drawings, with Japanese writing, tracing a Japanese soldier’s experiences from the time he found an American propaganda leaflet until he surrendered.
“Turning out that strip was something,” Paul recalls. “I needed someone to insert the Japanese writing and was told one of the prisoners spoke some English. Locating him in the stockade, I said very slowly: ‘I … understand . . . you . . . speak . . . English? To which the prisoner responded: ‘I speak a wee bit, old chap.’ I then learned this Jap master sergeant was named McNeil. His mother was Japanese, all right, but his father was a Scotch seaman. He spoke English as well as I did.”
When the war ended, Norris returned to King Features and began illustrating syndicated mystery stories and the “Flash Gordon” comic book series. During the summer of 1948 he was also asked to do “Jungle Jim”, an adventure strip which proved exceedingly popular, and in the early 1950s he started doing the daily adventures of “Brick Bradford”.
It was a few years back that the Norris family— Paul, Ann, Michael, 12, and Reed, 6—moved to Westwood and it was here that a rather amusing episode took place. Paul, relating the incident, grinned like a Boy Scout receiving his first merit badge.
“I worked on my books and ‘Jungle Jim’ in my drawing room,” he said, “and consequently I was home more than I was away. This seemed to mystify some people, who didn’t know if I was unemployed or what. It finally got to be too much for one of them and she stopped Mike one day and, among other things, asked him what I did. Said Mike: ‘Oh, Pop makes book!’ He meant I drew for comic books but I often wonder if that woman really thought I was a bookmaker!”
For the benefit of Paul’s neighbors in his new home in Hillsdale—the Norrises moved in last September—this might be as good a time as any to repeat why Paul’s home so much: his drawing room is there, it takes him between 3 and 4 days to turn out the week’s quota of six strips, he’s not unemployed or a bookmaker!
Regarding the “Bradford” strip, Paul says he limits sequences to from 6-8 weeks—feeling continuity in adventure strips should not lag—and uses his two sons as a barometer:”If it’s getting uninteresting to them, I know it’s time for a quick change.” He says he’s luckier than most artists since his strip is not confined to one area or era. Brick can be in the Pacific today; then moved to a planet when the current sequence ends.
Ideas for the strip just seem to come, Paul says. Some are from current or past events, with names and places changed but facts kept intact—with some fantasy added. “Brick Bradford” is the strip’s only continual featured character, most others being dropped after appearances in a single sequence. Occasionally a character from one sequence will put in an appearance at a later date but this is the exception, rather than the rule.
Paul says readers of the strip send all sorts of bouquets and brickbats but that he tries to answer every letter. Samples: when he was doing the “Vic Jordan” strip the scene was the French underground and he used a character known as The Glove. He received a nasty letter from a reader who said Paul drew American noses on all the Continentals in the cast. Another man complained of the way Paul had his characters tie neckties. The knots were not big enough, he asserted.
Meeting the Norrises in their luxurious, 7-room home, it is quickly apparent that talent runs in the family. Both Michael and Reed draw better than their young years should permit and both are clever when it comes to putting model planes and cars together. In fact, a model plane turned out by Mike served as Paul’s model for a plane you’ll see in his strip of June 6. Ann Norris is a fine photographer and a good homemaker. She also has contributed in the way of decorations for the home, having painted a number of articles and collaborating with Paul in making a most unusual lamp.
Paul’s talents aren’t confined to art work, either. Occupying a prominent place in the raised living room are two modern lamps he made from walnut wood scheduled to become railroad ties at the Ohio plant of his father-in-law. A photo illustrating one of these lamps is included in this article but no photograph could do justice to the project.
He also spends considerable time making home movies (“You’re lucky,” he said. “Usually when anyone has been here this long I’ve had the blinds down, the screen up, and the projector whirring.”) and is quite proud of a 400-foot movie he made in color for the Westwood Intermediate Girl Scouts. A bug on traveling, he also has numerous travelogues in his reel collection. Another favored pastime is running his Lyman outboard motorboat-he tows it 700 miles to Ohio whenever he returns to the hometown— while other interests include golf, television, and reading, with the latter two taking up much of his time.
Yes, it’s a long, circuitous haul from Greenville, 0., to success in the cartooning field—one of the toughest professions to break into you’ll find. But Paul Norris, riding on talent, made the trip successfully—just as his classmates at Midland College said he would. And everyone who knows him is quick to report, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
–article provided by Mark Johnson — thanks Mark!