Tuesday, June 30, 2015

LEONARD STARR (1925-2015)

Toward the end of his life,  John Updike reflected on the nature of bliss:
To copy comic strips, stretched prone upon the musty carpet--
Mickey's ears, the curl in Donald's bill,
The bulbous nose of Barney Google, Captain Easy's squint--
What bliss!
When I was ten years old, my version of bliss was lying on the floor and copying Leonard Starr's drawings for On Stage out of the Chicago Tribune Sunday comics section.  His drawings thrilled me, and I carefully cut them out and preserved them in a little box of treasures.

I learned anatomy and faces from Leonard Starr.  I could tell that he knew how to draw hands real good and I traced them as best I could.

Later I recognized that I wasn't alone; I spotted tracings of his work in many comic books and strips.  He was the cartoonist that many cartoonists swiped from, because he was so rock solid. 

I learned about composition and design from Leonard.  That's a holy bond.

I wrote my second fan letter to him.  (The first was to Zorro).

After I grew up and went on to practice law, I had the great pleasure of meeting my boyhood hero, and last Sunday I sat by his hospital bed and held his hand.  In our last conversation he wanted to discuss William Faulkner's Nobel award speech, the one in which Faulkner said, 
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
I promised that when I came to visit him next, I'd bring the text of Faulkner's speech.   This afternoon, Leonard passed away so I'm posting the text he wanted here, in the hope that he'll see it.

Leonard, thanks for the bliss. 



chris bennett said...

It's strange, but Starr's western scene put me in mind of the Bonanza annual I opened one Christmas day as a kid. It rekindled the same sense of bliss all those years ago when I, a European boy, lay on a carpet among the fallen pine needles under the fairy lights of the tree with its resinous scent in my nostrils and poured over the annual's illustrations. The purples, the pinks, the yellows, all trapped by the black ink outlines of another world and another time, flooding my young mind with an intoxicating delight.

Thank you both for that. :)

Matt Dicke said...

Sad to hear the lost of another giant talent. Great tribute, going to go read some ON Stage in his memory.

Dominic Bugatto said...

Sad day indeed , so fortunate that I got to meet him a few yrs ago in NY , what a class act . He'll be missed by many . Lovely post.

Charles Pyle said...

Another great passes. Consummate draftsman and cinematic storyteller.
great tribute.

etc, etc said...


Sorry to hear about Starr. We disagree on a lot of things, but every time you proclaim Starr's greatness I can only shout amen brother. He was a special talent.

kev ferrara said...

His work is beautifully concentrated. Says a great deal with sparse means; one of the great evergreen challenges of art.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I loved Leonard Starr's work from the time I first encountered it as a young boy. Though many of my youthful enthusiasms did not hold up, Starr's work is as fresh and as vibrant today as it seemed to me all those years ago, and few have written about it with the same degree of taste and perception as you. I hope you will have more to say, in the months to come, about Starr.

Coincidentally, you post panels from one of my favorite, perhaps my all time favorite, Sunday On Stage's. The original was recently up for sale in a Heritage Auction, and although I bid many times the typical (modest) selling price of a Starr Sunday, I was not successful. If you bid, I hope you were the winning bidder.

It's a shame Starr didn't live to see the last of the On Stage volumes to be published, although I suspect it did not trouble him over much. I look forward to them, and hope someone can one day publish his Annie volumes, even if, for me, they never quite matched On Stage.

--Bob Cosgrove

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks for sharing the memories. Yes, the gaudy colors that tarted up those clean black and white drawings --always just a little bit off register-- were an important part of the sensory experience.

Matt Dicke-- Thanks so much for writing. I can't think of a better way to honor his memory.

Dominic Bugatto-- Yes, a class act indeed. Many thanks.

Charles Pyle-- Thanks, Charles. I think he was perhaps the last great draftsman from the era of the realistic soap opera strips. Looking at those wonderful, dense, rich strips today there is nothing like it on the comic page anymore.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Well, Starr is a great litmus test. If someone "gets" him, I can forgive a lot of other misguided positions.

Kev Ferrara-- Agreed. Starr could employ detail and complexity when it was warranted, but turn sparse on a dime.

Anonymous / Bob Cosgrove-- I couldn't understand why some crazy investment banker kept bidding up that On Stage Sunday, way past any previous sale. I assumed they just didn't know what they were doing and didn't care about money. But by that time I was already visiting Leonard weekly in the hospital and was so emotionally committed, I wasn't not going to let go of that strip for anything. It was one of those I copied as a boy. Besides, the seller and beneficiary was the family of Morris Weiss, a good friend of Leonard's. I didn't realize that if I gave up it would've gone to a good home. Sorry about that. If you ever want to spend some time with it, you're welcome to come on by

Charles Pelto said...


I am so thankful you where there beside Leonard these past couple of weeks. I will miss the man dearly. I am honored to have known Leonard, an amazing man who I am proud to call my friend.

JonInFrance said...

Nice tribute - a definition of 'art' -

The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail

Jordan Faris said...

For Leonard Starr (1925-2015)

The smudge of ink
and unfast colors bled
from childhood's
unbridled bed

Sunday pages'
embroiling tapestry
of heroes and
beautiful captives freed

The panels stretched
from week to week
as artfully limned figures
took form to speak

to something deeper
than newsprint thrills;
we are a legacy
of lines these strips once built--

Goodbye now to the grand
pilot of shadow-contoured pen;
the child that we were once
grieves here at the end--

but the grown-up version
pauses to turn back
remembering the daring hope
that we so currently lack,

and all our thank-you's
slip in softly pale now;
what is gratitude but the modest
echo that sorrow allows.

chris bennett said...

That's an elegantly touching and well-crafted poem Jordan. Thank you.

David Apatoff said...

Charles Pelto-- Thanks, Charles, your reprints of On Stage at Classic Comics Press (http://www.classiccomicspress.com/collections/leonard-starrs-mary-perkins-on-stage) are a real public service.

JonInFrance-- I agree. And I was so impressed that Leonard, hospitalized and heavily medicated, chose to focus on that during his last days.

Jordan Faris-- That's quite a tribute to Starr and his work. Thank you for writing it. The modest echo that sorrow allows, indeed.

Chris Bennett-- agreed.

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John Musker said...

I still have my Chicago Tribune clippings of On Stage from the mid-Sixties as well as a few of Starr's originals, in some cases purchased from Leonard himself. He agreed to sign them to me and he did so in a red pen, that somehow over time has disappeared, like the man himself. But the drawings remain bold and incisive as ever, as does his writing. He was and is an inspiration to me. Long live the memory and art of Leonard Starr.

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Tony Marine said...


Always enjoy your insights into Starr's work. I was very sad to hear of his passing and had hoped to meet him one day. I sometimes feel he is underappreciated but then I read blogs like this, or comments from industry professionals (as in the introductions to the On Stage reprints) and I breath a sigh of relief knowing others get his greatness. Congratulations on that fine Sunday win - it was higher than most others, but well worth it in my opinion. If you saw the daily that recently sold, I think the Sunday may actually have been a bargain. Also, can I visit it too?? ;)