“If army sergeant Charles Schulz can do it, so should you!”
Harry Gilburt was the comics editor of United Features Syndicate during the period which covered the 1950s. UFS was and still is, one of the major newspaper syndicates. At the time I got a distribution contract with them, they had an impressive roster of daily and Sunday features, including, LI’L ABNER, PEANUTS, ABBIE & SLATS, THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS, NANCY, ALLEY OOP, FERD’NAND, TARZAN, and many which have now vanished. At the time, PEANUTS, with Charlie Brown, Snoopy and all, was just on the verge of becoming the mighty hit. LI’L ABNER was then the King of The Hill.
It was not only my persistence, and three weeks of sample continuity that got me on board, but the richly produced musical recording of Mitch Miller that fired their imagination. Most importantly was that the Editor in Chief of the syndicate, a warm-hearted and encouraging gent named Harry Gilburt, decided to give me a chance. He seemed to like me, and helped me learn the ropes.
The “ropes” were in fact roughly woven into a hammock that mainly supported themselves, United Features Syndicate. The only things they provided to the comic strip creators were their sales staff and contacts with virtually every newspaper that existed. They took half the income before paying me anything. Additionally, they advanced me the sheets of heavy weight Strathmore drawing paper in the standardized size, with the basic panels and guides for the dialog lettering printed in light blue. When the drawings and lettering were done with Higgins black drawing ink, and scanned for reproduction, the light blue guide lines completely disappeared. The main problem, which bedevils comic strip creators even today, was that newspaper comic strips, which once stretched across four columns for daily strips, and allowed up to a full page for the colored Sunday features, were now being squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces, in order get into most newspapers. The new and untested strips especially had to be drawn in specific ways to allow for three different sizes. Basically, we had to produce a half-page. Full-page Sunday features were gone with the pterodactyls, except in tabloid format.
Only a favored strip was printed even to the half-page format. You had to write your story in such a way that it would still be “complete” without the entire top row of panels, which had to be written and drawn as throw-aways! The full-page variation was reserved only for the upright format of the small-sized “tabloid,” and they required elimination of the top right hand panel. You may have noticed that this was the “treading water” panel, where virtually nothing can happen; it’s actually a waste of effort for a cartoonist to even bother drawing it! These limitations were especially deadly for continued story features such as mine. I may have been one of the last continued story Mohicans. Nearly all strips today are daily gags, with no continuous story line.
Well Harry Gilburt helped me understand all of this, with his useful tips and encouragement. I too was forced to scale back to individual daily gags as I fazed out. Terr’ble Thompson needed cliff hangars, and might have survived as a TV serial… in fact it did, as it was later transmogrified into another TT, “Tom Terrific!”
One of my strongest boyhood wishes had been to have my own nationally syndicated comic strip. It was reinforced in my WW2 army days, in 1944, when I was being trained as an Air Cadet at Washington State University. The greatest thing I learned there was that the University had a massive newspaper archive in a remote basement; Hundreds of bound volumes of newspapers from the earliest days of comic strips in the 19th century! Every moment I could escape from the army duties, I would be down there, going through those bound papers, seeing the day-by-day development of the classic comic strips and Sunday color pages. If we were going to be bombed, I was in the greatest bomb shelter I could imagine! “What did you do in the War, Daddy?” “I was right there, with TERRY & THE PIRATES, son!”
Well, I saw and dreamed of the newspaper comics at their peak. By the time I actually got my strip in the papers, the decline was in progress. Now, I watch my favorite daily strips on my iPad! Harry Gilburt would surely be pleased, wherever cartoon strips still live!
In the intense race for space, we were regimented to rigid format restrictions. This half-page format was the very best we could hope for, a half-page in the Sunday funnies. The greatest plum would be to get on the front page of the comic section. I got that placement in a few regional city papers. That was a thrill for me to see!
But we had to construct our gags and stories so that all essentials would be there even if the entire top row was cut off, so that three features could be squeezed onto one page.
Then there were the “Tabloid” small sized papers which would run the features in a smaller full-page upright format, eliminating the upper right panel of the original half-page format. All the panels of the story had to be the exact sizes to all for all three formats, thus eliminating any creative page designs of the early days of the Sunday comics. It was a struggle to be creative with all these required format variations.
The dailies too suffered constant reduction in size. A space in the upper corner of the first panel had to always clear, so that the strip title could be inserted, thus allowing the strips to be more tightly squeezed together on the comics page.
Further space could be saved if some of the strips could be printed in a “stacked” format, which meant we always must have a panel division in the exact center of each strip!
I first tried the strip 8 years earlier, but my style was too extreme for 1940s newspapers. I enventually did the Cleopatra story in the published strip. You can see how it actually looked in my Fantagraphics “Terr’ble Thompson” book. This was my first crack at it.
Heck! There was not even Mean Morgan here! Whatever you thought of the actual strip, I realized I didn’t yet have a handle on it.