I just finished the book “Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles” which I received for my birthday, and the fact that my birthday is in January will tell you how large this book really is. I became interested in this book for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I’ve been really into story strips for a few years now and this one looked promising – good artwork and coming from the golden age of contnuity strips. I also enjoyed the fact that everything was in this book – the entire Sickles run was here, unlike other strips whose collection spans several books. Plus, while I’m waiting for the Terry and the Pirates books to be reissued so I can pick up number 4 in that series, I figured this would tide me over.
First off, Sickles is a heck of an illustrator, someone who completely mastered a type of artwork that you rarely see anymore in the age where photography seems to be the medium of choice for advertising.
Apparently, this guy could work in just about any media. His drawings for “The old Man and the Sea” have the feel of quick pen sketches, but are well composed and energetic nonetheless. This is a guy who was extremely talented at a time where the demand for this type of work was steady. He would probably go underutilized today.
However, the real draw for the book is Sickles’s run on “Scorchy Smith,” a strip that limped along until Sickles got a hold of it. The book included some of the strips before Sickles took over, and it’s amazingly bad. The story arc involves a land takeover of a mine, something that perhaps was interesting during the Gold Rush, but certainly had to have been of limited interest to most people. All of the characters look about the same so it’s darn near impossible to tell anyone apart, and the dialogue is clumsy, especially in a dialogu heavy strip in which one character explains the intricacies of the mining process.
Once Sickles took over, he had to maintain the look and feel of the strip, at least for a time (just as artists do today when they take over a strip) but you can see Sickles gradually getting better as an artist and introducing his own tools and style. Sickles was a huge influence on Caniff (and vice versa) and it’s pretty easy to see why in these examples:
All of a sudden you had an artist on the comics page making dramatic use of black ink and zipatone to achieve a terrific amount of depth and drama.
Comic fans have longed to see these in print for years, many putting the Sickles run of “Scorchy Smith” on their top ten lists of either strips that people wanted to see reprinted or just top ten strips period. It’s a terrifically handsome book and a wonderful collection of an artist’s entire career. However, I have to admit that “Scorchy Smith” left me a little unimpressed, and I was kind of glad to be done with it. The atwork, of course, is superb, and worth every penny. But here are my problems:
1. I found the characters to be pretty flat. It never seemed like Scorchy had a distintive look – he was a pretty bland good-looking guy whose appearance never quite settled in while Sickles was on the run. Sickles did get better at drawing distinctive characters as his run went on, particularly the bad guys. But I never felt like Scorchy had any defining personality traits, nor a really good sidekick that stuck with him. It seemed like Sickles always tried to find someone that Scorchy could pal around with, but never settled on one he liked.
2. The dialogue. Too many of the characters speak with a foreign accent, painstakingly rendered in prose. This may have been fine when you were reading the strip once a day, but reading through this volume several strips at a time, the German and French and what have you accents really started to wear me down. Well done accents will add color and character while still preserving an effortless reading experience (this is, after all, the comics page), something that Caniff did really well with Connie. Not so here. I found myself wishing for an adventure in the Midwest simply to get a break from the accents.
3. The planes are underused. The one defining feature of Scorchy that is really interesting is his background as a pilot. This figured into a lot of the plots, but is still, in my opinion, underused. I would have like to see more globtrotting (not just have the plane be the way to get wherever the storyline was going to happen) and a few more conflicts that involved aircraft directly. I guess when I head about the book I assumed much of it would concern planes, so maybe I am a victim of my own expectations.
Certainly, though, I did enjoy reading it, and it’s head and shoulders above anything else out there now (Mark Trail, Mary Worth.) I have always felt like the story strips in their heyday contained some of the best writing out there, and I still consider Al Capp to be one of the best authors period. it was, if nothing else, a captivating look at a guy who briefly graced the comics page and changes the game for the three years he was there.