Friday, October 31, 2008


In 1655, the great English poet John Milton wrote in despair how, halfway through life, his blindness prevented him from fulfilling his god given talent:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
If he couldn't make maximum use of his gift, Milton felt he would not be able to present a "true acount" of himself to his maker. 

Beethoven, too, was tormented because the gods who gifted him with genius perversely thwarted him from achieving his full potential.  Robbed of his hearing midway through life, Beethoven despaired over his inability to use his gifts. 

The artist Noel Sickles was not able to use his own talent when he worked as a ghost artist for the comic strip Scorchy Smith. He had to conceal his ability in order to earn a steady living imitating the awful drawings of cartoonist John Terry.

Sickles recalled the pain of deliberately doing bad work in order to make money:

Have you ever seen John Terry's work?.... I had to forget everything I learned about drawing -- absolutely everything -- because it was the worst drawing I had ever seen by anybody. Your children do better drawings than John Terry.... But it took time to copy that horrible style, you know.
After Sickles escaped from the shadow of John Terry, he was able to flex his own muscles, develop his own talent and begin doing great work like this:

Artist Frank Frazetta had a similar experience. He earned a steady living as the ghost artist for Al Capp's comic strip, Li'l Abner:

Frazetta later recalled the the soul-numbing effect of drawing under the weight of Capp's mediocre formula:

"I shouldn't have done it, " Frank confesses, "but I was lazy.... Al Capp came along and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The pay was wonderful and it took me only a day to pencil his Sunday page and I had the rest of the week off! What more could I ask for? On a couple of occasions I went up to his Boston studio and he paid me $100 a day, which was really big money back then." Frazetta worked for Capp for the better part of eight years, burying his own style under that of his employer.... Frank devoted his full attention to Li 'l Abner.... "Because of Capp's strong style of drawing, I had all but lost all the things I had learned and developed on my own," states Frank. " I had to get away." (Even after a year away from Capp, his own work looked awkward).
After he cast off the straightjacket of Li'l Abner, Frazetta developed astonishing artistic gifts that dwarfed those of Capp:

Time and again, gifted artists have subordinated their true talent in exchange for a regular paycheck.

Illustrator Bernie Fuchs was commercially successful working on car brochures in Detroit, where he painted happy couples standing next to fancy cars. Fuchs worked in a large studio for a boss who promised, " if you stay with me, I guarantee I will make you the richest illustrator in all of Detroit." The work was safe and lucrative, but Fuchs knew he was capable of more. A friend recalls,

All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
He gambled everything and broke away to work independently in New York. There, he encountered a wider range of challenges and was able to make use of his talents to their fullest.

His gamble paid off. Within just a few years, Fuchs was at the White House meeting with President Kennedy to paint his portrait. He had a long, exciting career filled with experiences he would never have encountered in Detroit.

Not every story had such a happy ending. Artist Don Trachte worked for years behind the scenes on Carl Anderson's mediocre comic strip, Henry. When Anderson died in 1948, Trachte stepped into Anderson's shoes and continued to make identical drawings following the same mindless formula for another 40 years.


As Shakespeare wrote,
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries



Anonymous said...

Alright, call me convinced. Noel Sickles is a genius. Everything I see by him, I'm seeing with new eyes. From his space pictures to his war pictures to his Klee-inspired line illos:

You've also convinced me about Fuchs. That indians-at-the-bottom-of-a-mountain-range picture has completely knocked my socks off. So beautiful.

Jack R said...

Maybe Trachte's professional frustration had a bit to do with him producing an utterly convincing replica of Rockwell's Breaking Home Ties (that and him wanting to keep his hands on it).

Jack Ruttan said...

This speaks more to the gap between satisfying one's inner self, and doing things that pay the bills. Great art, or the art that you want to do, rarely does both. Sometimes, in very lucky cases, they do.

Fame, as Keats kind of said, is a rose that cannot pluck itself. That also goes for popularity. (I mean, you can't make something that you know will be popular. Well, at least you or I). Of course, that doesn't stop most artists from drawing.

Roland MacDonald said...

Interesting post. Love the Noel Sickles comment. So cutting, understandably.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as usual. Thanks.

Great talent, while rare, seems to be only part of the picture. I suspect that many artists have technical skills to spare, but may lack the desire or ability to say something truly original. Others may have that, but lack the blind confidence in their talent that make the frustration of otherwise steady, comfortable work intolerable. Others may have that, but lack the consuming drive and ambition it takes to endure early failure, rejection, and poverty. We can't blame any artist for not going the whole distance; we can only marvel at those who do.

Anonymous said...

There are ways to show one's talent outside of positions of monetary gain. At least nowadays. Does the art-making stop once the work shift is over? Frazetta did a week's work in a day? Well what the hell was he making during the rest of his time?

Not feeling the melancholia with this one.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, welcome to the Sickles fan club. He is really quite extraordinary. As for Fuchs, there is a lot to love. After 50 years of making pictures, he still seems to be a bottomless source of great designs. Regardless of whether he is making a picture of a building or an accountant or a car, he is in constant touch with the music of design.

Jack r, don't you find it extraordinary that Trachte could create an oil painting like that and still be satisfied creating drek day in and day out for 40 years?

David Apatoff said...

roland, Sickles was apparently a very sweet and laid back guy, but I think it really burned him to do affirmatively bad work-- like a prize fighter who has to throw a fight in order to get work.

Anonymous said...

I've encountered these situations myself on many past occassions. One recently calling for an anime manga style that made me cringe, but that's what was necessary to appeal to the client. My protestations to the contrary fell on deaf ears. Quality in the rendering wasn't required. It had to come in the cleverness of the design or presentation. To use another sports analogy, sometimes hitting a home run is not always required. Finding commercial opportunities to shine can sometimes be rather difficult.

David Apatoff said...

Jack Ruttan, anonymous and crisp-- I think there is a complex cross section of issues here. These artists aren't being thwarted by blindness like Milton, but rather by their own economic insecurity.

It is unfortunate that the world seems to reward artistic mediocrity. And artists are turned into cowards by the need to pay for their children's orthodonture. We should not underestimate the combination of economic and social constraints that cause artists to create whatever people are reliably buying.

But perhaps most interesting is Shakespeare's point about the moment of choice. 3 out of the 4 artists I've described here all took a big chance, walked away from security and transformed their lives. The one artist who chose to cling to a sure thing spent 40 years cranking out mediocre work and had little to show for it at the end of his life. The consequences of that choice are staggering to watch. Of course, to complicate things further, plenty of artists choose the adventuresome path, gamble on their skills and turn out to be talentless. There are no guarantees.

Kagan M. said...

Yes, that Shakespeare quote is brilliant. This blog is my favourite internet place.

Stephen Worth said...

The problem with Frazetta working under Al Capp wasn't that Capp was an inferior artist. Frazetta said of Capp...

"I think [Al Capp] had a lot of talent, no question. He was a good artist. He could capture the peak expression- what made something ultra-funny or ultra-nasty or ultra-cute. He was a very brilliant guy, although a little screwed up. But he was talented, no question. I think he was quite the artist." -Comics Journal Feb. 1995

The problem was that Frazetta was being paid so handsomely, he didn't have to work more than one day a week. He spent the rest of his time playing baseball. Without the fire under him forcing him to create, he became complacent.

Being too comfortable is sometimes the worst curse of all, but I'd sure like to be cursed a bit more with it myself!

See ya

David Apatoff said...

Why, thank you, Kagan M. I am genuinely touched by your comment.

David Apatoff said...

Hi, Stephen, and thanks for the comment. A fair point, although as you know I am not as big a fan of Capp as many of the enthusiasts who write into ASIFA. Putting aside that whole art / morality / politics debate, I feel safe in concluding that Capp was "an inferior artist" to Frazetta (compare my two examples of Frazetta's work when he was trying to mimic Capp and Frazetta's work when he was following his own natural gift). If you agree, then you may also agree that it is a shame that Frazetta dedicated 8 years of his life to doing the former. Imagine what he might have accomplished (as lazy as he was) if he had spent those years developing his painting? There might be a lot more prime Frazetta art out there, and who knows where it might have taken him?

Stephen Worth said...

The choice to work for Capp was Frazetta's. You can't blame Capp for hiring a very talented artist and paying him a lot of money. The fact that Frazetta was better on his own doesn't take anything away from what Capp created himself. Without Al Capp, there might not have ever been a Mad magazine.

More amazing examples of Capp's genius posted today...

See ya

David Apatoff said...

Steve, you are certainly right that it was Frazetta's choice to work for Capp-- the same choice was presented to each of these artists (Sickles, Fuchs, Trachte). In each case, the ghost artist was more talented than the artist he imitated, but he had to summon the courage to break away in order to make the most of his ability. (It is ironic that Capp himself was the under-appreciated ghost artist for Ham Fisher on Joe Palooka, but couldn't become a success until he chose to tear himself away). The main point of this posting is that (in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson) "the hour of that choice is the crisis of your history."

I view the question of Capp's talents as a separate issue. I am a regular follower of ASIFA's great website and I have read the praise heaped on Capp by Ralph Bakshi, Rick Marschall and other astute observers. I have to say, I don't buy it. Put aside his personal misconduct (which I find repellent), his nasty politics (which I find petty and mean spirited) and the ease with which he subcontracted his artistic responsibilities to others (which I find shrewd for a businessman but unworthy of a committed artist). I agree that Capp had a brilliant mind and a sharp tongue, but I just don't care for his drawing that much. I think his major contribution to MAD magazine was the way he drew bullet holes, but in my view Bakshi does a huge disservice to Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and a host of other creative and hard working people when he exaggerates the connection between Capp and MAD. We should discuss someday.

Stephen Worth said...

Believe it or not, Ralph worked with everyone you name there... Frazetta, Wood, Capp and Kurtzman. He knew them all!

Francisco Martins said...

Hey, nice blog! (I love Frazetta by the way)

Check out my illustration blog and my online portfolio:

David Apatoff said...

Steve, I find it easy to believe that Ralph worked with all those guys. I know he has quite a pedigree.

Having heard him talk, I know he also has strong (some might even say intemperate) personal reactions to people, so I wouldn't presume to guess why he makes some of the judgments he does. Of course, anyone who does good work deserves to be listened to and taken seriously, but there is only so much that Ralph's testimony can do to change my views of Capp's artistic ability. Ultimately Capp's drawings must stand stand or fall on their own.

David Apatoff said...

Hi, francisco, and thanks for writing. I enjoyed looking at your blog, you have some nice pieces.

Jack Ruttan said...

Comics are different than drawing. Often a beautiful illustration will slow down the narrative. Capp was a good storyteller in the tall tales tradition, or maybe like Isaac Bashevis Singer. He happened to use pictures, (and didn't draw many of them,) and also went a little crazy late in life.

But what characters did Noel Sickles create that you remember, and became part of the common vernacular, like "schmoo?"

David Apatoff said...

Jack, I agree with you on all counts. Comics are certainly not the same as drawing (although drawing is a part of comics, and there are plenty of "beautiful illustrations" in comics that serve their purpose well without slowing down a narrative).

I also agree that Capp was a good story teller-- far better with words than Noel Sickles. His Playboy interview was dazzlingly articulate. He has a better sense of humor and a sharper, more wicked intellect. But I'm a guy who cares a lot about drawing, and his drawings don't wow me the way that drawings by many other cartoonists do.

As for "going a little crazy late in life," I agree that supporting President Nixon while being rude and churlish to people such as John Lennon is a little crazy. Being a cheerleader for the war in Vietnam was a little crazy too. But being a predator of vulnerable young women, using his position of responsibility to exploit and molest them-- that's more than a little crazy, and it is hard for me to overlook. Perhaps if Bakshi had been a young woman desperate for a job, he would have a different perspective on Capp.

Jack Ruttan said...

Didn't know that last bit about Capp, or at least didn't register it. That's a whole different question (whether a good artist should be a good person), though Capp's curmudgeonliness and randiness are relevant to the art at least in his case.

Still, picking random comic panels and finding them wanting as illustrations is sometimes like taking frames of film, and complaining they're not Ansel Adams.

I'm saying that to be argumentative, or maybe just reflective. I love your blog in general, and find it stimulating.

Jesse Hamm said...

I agree that Capp wasn't as talented as Frazetta (although to accuse him of drawing worse than Frazetta is perhaps a case of praising with faint damnation, since almost no one can draw better than Frazetta). And I'm glad Frazetta left and carved out a niche for his own work.

But I do think that Frazetta's work grew better, not worse, as a result of working for Capp. Frazetta's post-Capp linework has a snap that his art lacked prior to their association. (Maybe a stiffness crept in, too, that Frazetta had to shake early on, but in the end I think the results were positive.) Capp had a way of linking parts of a form into a cohesive, iconic whole. This may be what Frazetta referred to when he said that Capp "knew how to take an otherwise ordinary drawing and really make it pop." Capp's characters' thick, juicy outlines and their theatrical poses & silhouettes unify their forms, and you can see this effect in much of Frazetta's later ink drawing. (See his Kubla Khan and Lord of the Rings portfolios, for instance.) Frazetta's line art prior to working with Capp had a delicate, whispy quality similar to that of Krenkel or Pogany, but afterward it had a sturdier quality that reminds me somewhat of Ivan Bilibin or Winsor McCay.

David Apatoff said...

Jack, I personally don't care if an artist is a bank robber, an axe murderer or a drug addict. If I dismissed every great illustrator who cheated on his wife, it would decimate the ranks. But there is a special place in hell for an older man who lures hopeful young teenaged girls to his hotel room for an "audition" and exposes himself. If you believe them, a number of aspiring actresses such as Goldie Hawn and Edie Adams were subjected to the Al Capp "treatment." Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that when Capp was prosecuted for molesting a student, Richard Nixon intervened politically to protect him because Capp was so useful as Nixon's attack dog against the Kennedys. I generally believe that private indiscretions should be left private but, as I said above, I make a special exception for someone who causes that kind of damage.

But let's put Capp aside. I find your reflections very stimulating and right on point. I think there are lots of great comic artists who don't burden a panel with extraneous detail, who instead simplify pictures and streamline panels with an eye toward the movement of the plot and the balance of the overall page. I would say Toth was a shining example, as was Kirby. Chester Gould, George Herriman, Crockett Johnson, Watterson-- all fabulous artists who retained a sense of proportion about what belonged in a panel.

The most exciting issue for me is your question, should a good artist be a good person? I would love the views of you and others on that. Perhaps I will save my very last blog posting for that subject.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse, you also raise a fascinating point. That's one reason I love blogging, there are so many layers to this onion. I do believe that, as Tagore said, "the bee fertilizes the flower that it robs." It may be that, in exchange for giving up 8 years of his career, Frazetta acquired some important offsetting benefits. It may also be that being stymied for years gave him the motivation to get off his butt and finally try hard to do something serious. It may be that, without Li'l Abner Frazetta would never have become Frazetta.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post as always, David. I disagree once again with you on the count of transgressions in life affecting the quality of an artists' legacy.

Judge an artist by his art, and a person by his character; I think a person can be an artist, but the two are never the same entity. As far as I'm concerned, Michelangelo could have been a child rapist, and that wouldn't deter my opinion of the David one bit.

As for the biting, bitter comment made at Capp's expense - Frazetta could have left that money on the table and continue to scrap bye doing perhaps more interesting pieces for less pay. But he didn't, and so it should be his choice to take the money and run rather than try to grow as an artist which should be chastised.

You wouldn't blame a contractor for offering to pay people to build homes, would you? It's victim syndrome - "oh, it was good money and I didn't want to go without it!" Well, that shows me a sense of priorities more than anything.

Stephen Worth said...

Personally, I really don't care if Capp was a masher. Half of Hollywood has always mashed the other half and vice versa. "Attempted adultery" isn't even a crime anywhere in the US anymore is it? Either way, it really doesn't matter. All of that is irrelevant to his cartooning work.

Capp's gifts lay in continuity more than individual drawings. There is a beauty in "functionality" in telling a story through drawings. It's a skill akin to a live action film director whose responsibility it is to create a personal vision without ever running a camera or setting up a light himself. But Capp could draw quite well too. Maybe not as well as Frazetta, but he was no slouch with a pen.

In animation, great storyboard artists like Mike Maltese couldn't draw their way out of a paper bag, but their drawings came to life in continuity. Ward Kimball said that the art of animation doesn't lie in the individual drawings. It lies in the *differences* between them.

Capp's work is a lot like this. If you scan his Sunday pages looking for standout drawings, like you would reading a Kirby comic, you are going to be disappointed. But if you read them as a narrative, the drawings come to life and have a pacing and energy as a continuity that they don't have as individual panels. Capp's skill is as a satirical storyteller more than as an illustrator. He's like a Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain that drew instead of writing.

Of course, no one really *reads* comics any more anyway... There's nothing much left worth reading. It totally makes sense that Capp's gifts would be overlooked today.

David Apatoff said...

Brad, I think your position on art and morality is the more consistent and intellectually pure position; it is the one that I hold most of the time. But every once in a while an artist is such a skunk that it is difficult to keep art and morality separate.

In the case of Capp, I could look the other way if he drew like Michelangelo because the amount of beauty he introduced into the world might offset the ugliness that he contributed. There's no such dilemma for me with Capp, who I view as a second rate artist and a fourth rate human being.

If anyone out there can refer me to a drawing by Capp that they believe is truly excellent (not just reasonably competent), please do so. I will seek it out and study it with an open mind.

David Apatoff said...

How in the world did this topic devolve into a focus on the moral worthiness of Al Capp???

Steve, I agree with you 100% that "Capp's skill is as a satirical storyteller more than as an illustrator" and I didn't intend to criticize, or even comment on, his writing ability or the national icons he created. I also thank you for your discussion of the special qualities governing continuity, focusing on the "differences between drawings." That was as persuasive and eloquent a treatment of the topic as I have read. I have great respect for the lessons you have learned in animation (which really puts continuity to the test.)

I would be curious about your view of the transition between the two Abner panels I included on this posting. I gather they are by Frazetta, but Capp put his name on them. To me, they seem very awkward and ungainly. Do you have a different reaction?

Stephen Worth said...

I'm afraid I can't tell much from that particular drawing. I'm not familiar with that story. Is that an early story? Capp definitely grew and got better as an artist as time went by.

This is a story that Frazetta had more of a hand in than most. Capp loved his work and offered to let him do a Li'l Abner story more in his own "Johnny Comet" style inking... Here's a page...

Wolf Gal and "Frankie" Page

Unfortunately, the readers and editors immediately noticed the difference and wrote in complaining about the change in style. After this story, they went back to Capp's bolder style of inking again.

Capp wrote the stories and dialogue, designed the lead characters, and pencilled the rough layouts. This is actually very similar to the way an animation director works with his crew. The assistants did tie down and inking, except for faces and hands, which Capp reserved for himself. When it comes to drawing, this is what Capp was best at- specific personalities and expressions.

There were several assistants who worked for Capp besides Frazetta. Andy Amato posed characters, Walter Johnson specialized in background and mechanical details. Harvey Curtis did lettering and inking. With the amount of material being produced during Li'l Abner's heyday, no one man would have been able to keep up with the demand.

The backs of the original inks I've seen of Li'l Abner usually have pencilled sketches of layouts and poses by Capp along with instructions for how the page was to be drawn. He was involved with every stage of the process, and he used his assistants for their strengths.

After his mistreatment by Ham Fisher, Capp resolved to always give his assistants a fair shake. He cut them in as profit participants and when Time Magazine profiled him, he insisted that his key assistants at the time be photographed for the story...

Time Magazine page

Capp's assistants- even Frazetta- all spoke well of him. A lot of what you read about Capp is colored by people who aren't above rewriting history because they didn't like his later political views.

Anonymous said...

genius. . . great quote :)

Unknown said...

great post. i loved it. please keep up this standard!!

Unknown said...

Hello Dave,

Could you please email me your address ---re:Fuchs

Got your name through them.


David Apatoff said...

Thanks, canvas and William.

Dan, you can reach me at