Wednesday, May 26, 2021



 This is another in a series of posts about the working materials of cartoonist Leonard Starr.  These materials were donated to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus Ohio where they will be available for viewing by the public.


Leonard Starr drew and inked over 30,000 pictures for his comic strip, On Stage.  How did he create distinctive faces for hundreds of different characters, and then keep those faces consistent and recognizable from different angles with different facial expressions over many years?

That was one of the unique challenges of a syndicated comic strip-- no other art form in history imposed such a requirement.  

Starr would begin by identifying a person with a particular "look."  He'd then take about half a dozen photographs of their face from different angles and use those photographs as reference for future drawings.

Young actors on the NY theatre scene were usually desperate for a little modeling money.  Here is Starr's photo of acting student Larry Hagman who later became famous starring in the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and as J.R. Ewing in the TV series Dallas.

Hagman became Starr's character Jed Potter:

The following are Starr's photos of actor George Lindsey, who became famous as the character Goober Pyle on the Andy Griffith show.  Starr took eight photographs with different angles and expressions, which he used as the starting point for his character, Claude Harper:

If Starr knew that the plot would eventually involve a difficult scene
such as a fight, he'd take a photo with mussed up hair 

Once he had the basic features-- for example, a profile, or a distinctive nose or unusual chin, he could improvise how they'd look in different positions.  For example, he could take this profile... 

...and mentally rotate it in the opposite direction:

He could also predict how shadows would fall on such a face.

But in order to keep his characters recognizable, he maintained files of his key drawings and revisited his past solutions for continuity:

For example, having mastered the shadows on the character, his clipping file would keep that lesson at hand should the character ever re-appear:

Over several years, Starr developed quite an extensive working file of his drawings, organized from every possible angle.  You can tell from the numerous pushpin holes that he got a lot of practical use from them.  

Mary Perkins right profile

Mary Perkins left profile

Mary Perkins right profile from behind

If he was happy with a particular drawing, he'd also file that away for future reference.  He kept files of his past clinches, semi-clinches, people using the phone, etc. 

If your job requires you to draw 30,000+ drawings, it makes sense to keep track of your best examples to save you from needlessly re-inventing past work while at the same time protecting yourself from slipping into formulaic approaches. 

Classic comic book artists such as Jack Kirby, Wally Wood or Wayne Boring often employed a standard template for basic male or female faces.  They'd vary only a hair style or add props such as glasses. But Starr, along with Stan Drake and similar "soap opera" comic strip artists of the 1950s and 60s embraced some of the broader artistic challenges of a continuity strip.   The materials that you see here demonstrate how Starr handled the "business" side of his strip behind the scenes.


al mcluckie said...

What did you think of Kelly Green ? Can't recall if Starr or Drake drew it .

Robert Piepenbrink said...

Be fair to Kirby at least. He may have lacked Starr's full variety, but he had a "stock company" of faces for bit players and walk-ons. You'd see the same ones--maybe a dozen, all told?--in westerns, romances and super-hero comics. They were sometimes called "Kirby's Kast of Kharacters."

I've also seen Caniff doing very similar reference photos for his regulars--which takes nothing away from Starr.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see what he could do from a few basic photos.


chris bennett said...

Wonderful post David, thank you. I could look at miles of this!
I don't know too much about strip artists apart from a couple of books on Frank Hampson who drew the Dan Dare stories for the British comic 'The Eagle', and one of my most treasured possessions is a Jim Holdaway original artwork for the newspaper strip 'Modesty Blaise' - If my house was burning it would be under my arm as I ran out the door!

Laurence John said...

Some unusual decisions in the backgrounds; the way in 12 and 13 the windows and doors have been outlined only - as if he was going to add some darks, but then thought it didn't need it. And the loopy / scribbly edges in 15 also look like the same fine-liner pen, and have a different look to the slicker, brush and ink work.

Possibly by an assistant background artist, as mentioned in the previous post ?

David, the control, economy and precision of figure construction and inking brings to mind Alex Toth's 'Bravo for Adventure'. I wondered if you rank that work as high as Starr's 'On Stage' ?

Tom said...

That's great! Those are two pretty famous television, "stars." Were young actors at the time thinking, "if I can just get a chance to pose for Leonard Starr, it could be my big break." LOL!

Frank Furlong said...


David Apatoff said...

al mcluckie-- Starr wrote Kelly Green and Drake drew it. The two shared a studio for a long time and were mutual admirers. I wouldn't say it was their best work, partially because the two were a bit "old school" to appeal to the younger, more racy graphic novel market but Kelly Green did contain some very nice passages in my view.

Robert Piepenbrink-- Caniff was Starr's favorite comic artist when Starr was growing up, and Caniff presented Starr with his Ruben award, so i wouldn't be surprised if Starr learned this technique from Caniff.

As For Kirby, I'm a huge fan of his work but I confess I haven't seen a full dozen faces in his roster of characters, at least after his style was fully formed for the silver age. I think he cared less about nuanced facial expressions at that point because he recognized that his strengths lay elsewhere. I've seen his prototypical "old guy with a mustache" and a few others. His women's faces all look identical to me.

Anonymous / JSL -- Yes, it's clear the photos were just a starting point for him, and that he was able to take them pretty far, adapting them to a variety of uses.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- Jim Holdaway was another great from a bygone era of comic strips. I hope you aren't living with any family members who might be upset that you'd leave them behind in the flames to rescue your Modesty Blaise strip.

Laurence John-- actually, 12 and 13 were from a Sunday strip where the background was a dark blue/gray and the thin outlines were of illuminated yellow windows. But I do think you're right about the assistant; Starr penciled in a background and I'm guessing he turned it over to his assistant to finish.

I think Toth was terrific, and so did Starr. In Starr's papers I found correspondence between the two of them with little doodles they traded. Perhaps it won't surprise you that Toth was far more blunt than Starr in expressing opinions about the quality of other comic art. I posted a portion of one of Toth's letters here.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- As a New Yorker and a theater fan, Starr crossed paths with a lot of young actors trying to make it on Broadway. Not every one of them hit it big. Perhaps the most interesting one was the lingerie model who became a character in a 1966 story. Thirty years later, after Starr's wife had passed away, he went back and married that lingerie model.

Frank Furlong-- Thanks! I'm glad you like them.

chris bennett said...

I hope you aren't living with any family members who might be upset that you'd leave them behind in the flames to rescue your Modesty Blaise strip.

Not at all David, they're used to suffering for my art.

Donald Pittenger said...

Yet another side-issue from me (can't seem to help it)....

Besides a good sense of priorities that you mentioned in the previous Starr post, in the present post I see strong, practical discipline. It's akin to computer programming, something that drastically changed the way I think. The core thing (as opposed to efficiency, elegance of the algorithm & such) is that the program should not crash. Achieving that requires focus and experience -- discipline.

So Starr clearly wanted his strip to work. That, plus a sense of pride in craftsmanship must have led him to go those extra miles you write about. I think all that referencing was a form of discipline helping him achieve the outcome he wanted.

Anonymous said...

I do love Leonard's work on MARY PERKINS...but I often wonder how he would render a strip like Wally Wood's CANNON or SALLY that would certainly be interesting!