Sunday, May 01, 2005


In my opinion, the best "story" strip of the past 50 years was unquestionably Leonard Starr's On Stage, which ran from 1957 to 1979. At its height in the 1960s, On Stage was unsurpassed by any other strip in its genre, including Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby , Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon, and Hal Foster's epic Prince Valiant. Starr combined a full range of talents to produce On Stage: his drawings sparkled with his fine brushwork and his compelling use of blacks; he captured subtle facial expressions that went beyond anything his peers were doing; he employed strong compositions, his pictures were dramatically and intelligently staged, and he sure knew his anatomy. Above all Starr wrote like a dream; thoughtful, witty and as erudite as his comic page audience would permit. Starr bound all these components together into a consolidated work product that set a new standard for the genre.

John Updike once noted that writers and artists share a common urge to put black marks on paper. Nowhere is the connection between the literary and graphic arts more evident than in comics, where the words climb right into the picture to create a hybrid art form. The creators of comics try to straddle the dividing line between words and pictures, but usually either the pictures or the words dominate. The lesser of the two talents then detracts from the total effect. The medium has a long history of mismatches. There are comics where brilliant drawings are linked to puerile content (such as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon) or where thoughtful and intelligent stories are saddled with crude drawings (such as Frank Miller's Daredevil). Establishing a balance is difficult, and rare.

Starr was an artist who achieved that balance. His stories, and particularly his depiction of relationships, had insight and depth. The medium has never known a smarter author.

The relationships in On Stage were complex and mature. They made most previous comic strip relationships seem one dimensional and simple minded by comparison.

The dialogue in On Stage often contained the humor and irony one might find in excellent fiction.

In addition to thoughtful dialogue, Starr could stage action sequences with the best. (These are, after all, comic strips).

On Stage combined action with wonderful verbal exchanges

Whether the scene was a windswept mountaintop in some exotic location or in a Manhattan foyer, Starr combined dialogue, facial expressions and hand gestures to give On Stage a quality that none of his peers could match.

Starr's crisp drawing style is supported by his understanding of anatomy and design

Starr's Vietnam story was a highpoint of the strip

The poignant end of the visit to Vietnam

The strip went through different phases. Starr originally planned a career as an ilustrator, but anticipating the demise of illustration in the 1950s, he turned to a syndicated comic strip instead. He rode the decline of the story strip until 1979. As newspaper space shrunk and newspaper circulation dwindled, On Stage shed some of its detail and charm, and Starr jumped ship to take over Annie, the successor strip to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie.


leifpeng said...

A fascinating and inciteful overview in capsul form, David. I was only vaguely aware of Leonard Starr's work and now feel like seeking it out, thanks to you. The scans look like they are from originals... do you collect Starr's art? It's gorgeous stuff!

Anonymous said...

GREAT ARTICLE! We lived in St. Paul, but I got a subscription to the "Minneapolis Star" while I was in college in the '60s, just to get "On Stage." Our St. Paul paper didn't carry it. I clipped the strip every day. The thing that amazed me the most about the strip is the fact that all of Starr's women looked different. Caniff, Foster and Raymond's women had different hair styles, but their faces remained pretty much the same. Not Starr. His women were all individuals. Leonard Starr and Russ Heath are the great comic artists.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this site by mistake, but was completely taken by it. Ah, what a blessing the Internet is, and what a talent Leonard Starr.


Anonymous said...

How wonderful to read so much more about the career of my distant relative 'Cousin Leonard'! I live in Canada but visited Leonard and his wife Betty near New York when I was little, and even saw his studio. I also grew up in houses where signed and framed originals of his 'On Stage' strip always decorated the wall. I read 'Mary Perkins On Stage' when I was growing up and it was always a treat to know the talented artist was a relative. Thanks for filling in some family history!

Anonymous said...

What a pleasant surprise to find someone else who loves On Stage, my favorite realistic comic strip of all time. I had the pleasure of meeting Leonard Starr back in the late 60s (my father was a cartoonist and was and still is a collector of comic strip art and illustrations) and Starr completely charmed me. BTW, if he had a computer, my father might tell you some stories about Flagg's kinder side.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I'd love to hear some of those stories. What is your father's name?

Anonymous said...

David, I told my father a little about your blog and he'd enjoy talking with you too. His name is Morris Weiss and he lives in West Palm Beach, but I don't feel comfortable posting his full address or phone number here. I don't know if you're familiar with Alter Ego magazine, but there was an article about him in the Dec. 2004 issue. w

Anonymous said...

David, I don't think you ever contacted my Dad. My brother wrote a beautiful tribute to him in the June issue of The Artist's Magazine. I can't help wanting to play matchmaker.


David Apatoff said...

Wendy, if you can send me your Dad's contact information at I'd be happy to reach out to him. Or tell me how to reach you and I'll send you my contact information. I'm sure I would enjoy talking with him. I just don't know how to reach either of you.