Feeding Dreams, Cutting Cords

A Kid Flirts with the Big Leagues
From Comics Scene #1 / ©1981 by Howard Cruse

I was 16 when I visited Milton Caniff in his studio.

It was heady stuff for a boy raised in Springville, Alabama. I always think of Springville when I see the movie The Last Picture Show. Take away the Texas sagebrush and you've got my childhood stomping grounds, complete with mood music by Hank Williams.

Springville was born as a watering hole for stagecoaches heading west by the Southern route. Its population was less than a thousand when I lived there, and it hasn't grown by more than a few hundred since.

Lovell's Drug Store had the town's best comic book rack. Walking home from school, I would peer through the glass for new issues of Little Lulu, Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, Batman or Superman. Those were my favorites, but my stacks at home bulged with random copies of Little Iodine, Space Cadet, Martin and Lewis, Roy Rogers, Howdy Doody and others. Later I went through my Archie/Buzzy phase as I sought comics that would show me how to be a successful teenager.

There were no ECs in my collection; my parents had caught a glimpse of decomposing flesh as I perused one and pronounced them off-limits. Mostly I stuck to Dell comics, which came with a wholesomeness guarantee on the back cover, and the DC super-heroes who were unassailable national institutions. Every now and then a Harvey would creep in when the pickings were slim, but there was something uncomfortably homogenized about their house style.

As a preacher's kid, I had to take note of spiritual content. When I was 6, my father tore up my copy of Captain Marvel, Jr. because he detected sacrilege in the exclamations of "Holy Moley!"

I thought this was a grossly unjust judgment, but there was no Court of Appeals to turn to.

As a rule, Dad's attitude toward my ever-growing comic collection was benign. He and Mom both encouraged my early scribbling impulses. Dad himself was a doodler: I have his college yearbook, which he illustrated with early-Chic Young-style images. He reported his life's ambition there: "to be the world's greatest cartoonist."

Life took him in other directions. He became a minister and, when not preaching actively, he supported himself as a social worker, a journalist and a photographer. By the time I was 20 he was dead, but he did get to see my first national cartoon sale, to the most wretched of all the Mad imitations, Fooey.

One summer afternoon during those Springville days, Dad said on impulse, "Let's visit Tom Sims!"

Sims was writer of some of the post-Segar Popeye strips. He lived in Ohatchee, another small Alabama town from which he produced a homespun syndicated column called Ohatchee U.SA. He was the closest thing to a comic strip pro within driving distance.

So we drove to Ohatchee. My older brother wasn't along; it was just Dad and me. Just us two cartoonists. We didn't telephone first; we asked directions from the local townsfolk and pulled into Sims' driveway unannounced.

Sims was generous with his time and with compliments for my drawing samples. But something lay on the worktable of his assistant that I remember more vividly than the day's conversation. It was the set of textbooks for the Famous Artists Cartooning Course.

This course was prepared with the assistance of a stellar array of cartoonists from the fifties, most of whom are still active and remain stars today. Milton Caniff, Rube Goldberg, AI Capp, Willard Mullin and Virgil Partch were among the luminaries.

The three large volumes comprising the 24 lessons were wondrous treasuries of instruction and lore. I lusted after them instantly.

Dad saw that I would not be satisfied until I had taken the course myself. But the price was out of his reach.

Time passed. At 13 I began to move out of Springville' s orbit. By virtue of a scholarship, I was able to enroll at a private high school near Birmingham named Indian Springs.

At Indian Springs, great emphasis was placed on the development of a student's individual potentials. Note was taken of my cartooning bent, and soon I was decorating the pages of the school newspaper, designing posters for everybody-and-his-rival in the campus political campaigns, and rendering comic strips in French for my French class bulletin board.

One day Dr. Armstrong, the school's director, asked me what I would most wish for, given access to a magic genie or some such agent.

"I'd like to take the Famous Artists Cartooning Course,” I replied.

Nothing more was said then, but a few months later he called me to his office to tell me that a friend of the school, under guarantee of anonymity, had chosen to donate the money for me to take the course.

I still don't know the identity of my benefactor.

[NOTE: That is to say: I didn’t when I wrote this column in 1981. I do now. The giver was Dr. Armstrong himself.]

Many superficial aspects of the FA course are dated by today's standards, but the basics were solidly there. During the three years that I spent working through the course's 24 lessons, I had to root out lazy habits accumulated from years of copying the surfaces of other artists' drawings. I didn't complete the course a polished cartoonist, but the groundwork for a more professional approach and self-teaching techniques had been provided.

Milton Caniff's chapter fascinated me. In it, Caniff describes the embryonic development of his Steve Canyon strip. He also describes his typical workday and includes photos of his working space.

Never had the process of actually living as a professional cartoonist been made so concrete for me.

But when I first saw those pictures, I could never have imagined that within two years I would wander about Caniff s New York studio myself.

It turns out that I had a serendipitous link to the famed creator of Terry and the Pirates. Coach Fred Cameron of the Indian Springs P.E. Department had once been a neighbor of Caniff s. Coach Cameron was taking the basketball team north to a tournament during the summer. Would I like to come up for the ride?

"I think I could arrange for you to meet Caniff," he said.

I won't try to describe my excitement. I had never met another cartoonist, much less one of Caniff s stature. I felt as though I had been invited to rocket to another cosmos—the cosmos of my cartooning fantasies.

Perhaps meeting Caniff would trigger some set of events leading to a permanent place for me in that cosmos.

Caniff agreed to spend time with me, and asked to see samples of my work before I came. I gathered my recent drawings, cringing at flaws I had never noticed before. My lines were stilted, my inking clumsy, my compositions awkward, my concepts juvenile. Willing away apprehensions, I packaged them up and hoped for the best.

I included a special strip drawn for the occasion, depicting Caniff’s characters in a silly, Mad-style parody. I mailed the parcel to New York.

I received a courteous response from Caniff himself, declaring his interest in meeting me soon.

So a station-wagon full of basketballers and me rolled northward on a brisk summer morning, they to dribble across their courts and I to pay stars truck homage to my hero. Coach Cameron would be fully involved with his basketball exhibition during my New York stay, so I was to be on my own for four days, bedding down at the Sloane House YMCA by night and exploring Manhattan by day. On the appointed evening, Coach Cameron would pick me up, escort me to Caniff’s home in Rockland County, and leave me to spend several hours in discourse with Caniff.

As an additional treat, the cartoonist had arranged for me to lunch with himself and Sylvan Byck, [then the] comics editor at King Features, the following day at Sardi's.

All went as planned. I found myself in a setting I had already memorized from the photos in my Famous Artists textbook. Caniff proved accessible and kind. I'm sure my visit disrupted a tight production schedule, but if he was restless to get down to serious work, it didn't show.

I peered over his shoulder as he inked promotional drawings of Steve Canyon. I perused his huge library of reference materials, and reverently handled his stacks of old strips. I gushed about my favorite comics and my dreams. He cautioned patience and advised me to get all the schooling I could before trying to hop a freight bound for cartooning glory.

Details of our conversation are hazy now, but one fragment remains vivid. Whenever the story of Caniff s early career is recounted in print, reference is made to his quandary over whether to pursue acting or cartooning. Asked for advice, his mentor Billy Ireland counseled, "Stick to your inkpots, kid. Actors don't eat regularly!"

That pithy counsel clearly had an impact, for Caniff has quoted it repeatedly. It appeared in the FA course and in the edition of Milton Caniff: Rembrandt of the Comic Strip that I unearthed in the, Birmingham library before my New York trip.

So I sat in his studio and he began the familiar anecdote. I felt a glow of special privilege: others might read it in print, but I was to hear it spoken by the man himself!

"Stick to your inkpots, kid. Actors don't eat regularly!" I could have recited it along with him, but it might have seemed presumptuous.

In these days when comic conventions regularly bring fans and their favorite artists together, it may be hard for younger readers to understand how overwhelming it could be for an aspiring cartoonist from Alabama to have this single opportunity during his youth to be in the presence of a major artist like Caniff. My most idealized dreams were (in a considerably less ideal form) mundane reality for Steve Canyon's creator. What was said was less important than the simple verification that one cosmos need not be separate from another, that people really do pass from childhoods spent yearning to adulthoods spent accomplishing.

At Sardi's the next day I ordered spaghetti. It was the only thing on the menu that I recognized. Sylvan Byck was more forbidding than Caniff. His brusque frankness, birthright of New Yorkers, was intimidating to the ears of a youngster nurtured under the courtly umbrella of Southern delicacy.

Byck spoke the unadorned truth. He pronounced my sample drawings "promising" but he permitted me no illusions that King Features was waiting in the wings with a syndication contract.

"These are the Big Leagues!" he growled, as the sandlot bunter squirmed uneasily before him.

But if he chose not to feed my illusions of instant grandeur, neither was Byck unfriendly. He treated me to a tour of the King Features offices, and I could return to Indian Springs having set foot in the true professional cartooning world. King Features' tiny copyright notice in the corner of a Blondie panel would never again seem so impersonal!

Over the following years, as I finished high school and negotiated several departments of Birmingham-Southern College before emerging as a theatre graduate, I would drop Caniff an occasional note. He always responded with an encouraging reply.

Once he wrote that, when I was out of school, he perhaps could help me find a staff position in the cartoon field. A foot in the door. Maybe Byck would have something in the King Features office.

His words were a gesture, not a promise. But I stored them away, a private insurance policy assuring that someone cared. If all else failed, Milton Caniff would be willing to help me.

1969 was a year of collapsing illusions for me. College had deflected me from cartooning into theatre, and I entered graduate school at Penn State on a playwriting fellowship.

Then a writer's block paralyzed me and panic set in. I didn't know who I was, what I had to offer, where I wanted my life to lead me. I left Penn State three months after arriving.

Squatting with other Alabama refugees in New York, I survived by doing paste-ups for typesetting companies while trying to launch a free-lance illustrating career on the side. I gathered a few drawing jobs, but most art directors spotted my unreadiness the moment I unzipped my portfolio.

What savings I had melted fast as the summer of '69 heated up. By then I was living in a tiny Chelsea apartment. With no air-conditioning, it was useless to draw. The India ink invariably bled into the puddles of sweat from my forearms.

I remembered how, in Alabama, the world of cartooning success symbolized by Milton Caniff’s studio had seemed miraculously accessible. Now I was in New York where cartoons were drawn and published by the hundreds every day; but the chasm, separating me from that world appeared unbridgeable.

I thought of Caniff, and telephoned him to remind him of my existence. When I described my plight, he said, "Send me some of your stuff and I'll show it to my agent. Maybe he can help."

So I bundled my recent sample strips along with my plays, short stories and everything else I had that might bear evidence of creativity. I mailed them all to Caniff.

Nothing ever came of that gambit except a fragment of wisdom. Months passed, and during those months, my childhood dreams of easy fame died a quiet death.

I saw that I had invested Caniff with a magical power that he did not possess — a power to provide me with a foothold in the cartooning world that I had not earned by doing the work it takes to become genuinely skilled.

Caniff has powers that border on the magical, powers of imagination embodied in his decades spent creating first Terry, then Steve Canyon. But he was not the genie who could grant me my boyhood wishes.

So I ultimately wrote and asked for the return of my work. It arrived from his agent with no comment. I suppose I must have seemed ungrateful in the process; Caniff has never chosen to respond to the occasional letters I've sent since.

[NOTE: Caniff did write me a brief, friendly note after this column was published in Comics Scene.]

I felt an umbilical cord to long-held fantasies being severed as I packed up and moved back South. It was all over for me, I thought. A certified failure at 25.

But gradually, old impulses reasserted themselves. I started over, did some relearning, approached drawing from some new angles. And for better or worse, here I am in New York again. I've been here since 1977, and this time I've carved out a niche.

I missed out on a skyrocket career, but so far I'm earning a living at the craft that I've loved and respected since I first clutched a Crayola.

Now Comics Scene has asked me to write a column about my feelings, thoughts, and adventures as a practitioner of this craft, which at its best can be the most accessible of art forms.

I don't pretend to be an artist of Caniff’s stature. The chaotic jumble of paper scraps where I work scarcely deserves to be called a "studio."

But if I invite you into my bejumbled world, perhaps something will click for a few new fledgling artists for whom actually surviving as a professional cartoonist still seems an unattainable fantasy.

I daydream a lot, but my life is definitely no fantasy.

Welcome to whatever it is.
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