Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger

Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger

By Noel Sickles (Nostalgia Press)
ISBN: 0-87897-029-0

Noel Sickles had a very short and barely acknowledged career as a newspaper cartoonist. He worked as a jobbing illustrator in the features department of the Associated Press – an organisation that provided cheap high-quality filler material such as cartoons, ads, comic strips, recipes, horoscopes, puzzles: All the pages that local newspapers needed but couldn’t afford to produce themselves.

In 1934 he took over the inexplicably popular aviation strip Scorchy Smith from John Terry, who had contracted a terminal illness. The publisher’s required him to emulate Terry’s style, which he did until the artist’s death, when he was invited to make the strip his own. A driven experimenter, he replaced the scratchy cross-hatched and feathered method of Terry with a moody impressionism that used volume, solid blacks and a careful manipulation of light sources to tell his tales. He also made backgrounds and scenery an integral part of the story-telling process.

A very straight adventure series, Smith is a stout hearted, valiant Knight of the Skies, complete with trusty sidekick, ‘Heinie’, flying about and Doing Good. That’s it.

Sickles famously never worked to a plan when writing the strip, he just made it up as he went along to avoid boring himself. (For an extended exploration of his process read R C Harvey’s Meanwhile… a superb biography of Sickles’s friend and studio-mate Milton Caniff published by Fantagraphics Books ISBN: 978-1-56097-782-7).

Stories abound that the two collaborated often. Certainly Caniff admitted to helping out with deadlines and story-polishing but the bold visuals were always the product of a driven and dedicated seeker of artistic truths. The Chiaroscurist style developed by Sickles was adopted by Caniff, although he largely eschewed the lavish use of photo-mechanical dot-screens that Sickles used to create a different flavour of Black in his monochrome masterpieces.

Reprinted in this slim tome are three of the thrillers from that brief period. ‘Lafarge’s Gold’ (10th October 1935-January 30th 1936), ‘New York, N. Y.’ (January 31st 1936-March 18th 1936) and ‘Desert Escape’ (March 19th 1936- August 14th 1936) come from the very end of Sickles’s strip career, with a pretty girl swindled out of a goldmine, big-city conmen, and Tuaregs and the Foreign Legion providing the admittedly lacklustre narrative maguffins. But the bravura vivacity and artistic flair employed by Sickles to tell the tales elevate these B-Movie plots into breathtaking high art drama by the sheer magnificence of the drawing and design.

Noel Sickles left the restricted and drudge-work world of newspaper strips in 1936 for the greater challenge of higher education and eventually settled into the more appreciative and challenging magazine illustration field, making new fans in the Saturday Evening Post, Life and Readers Digest. His few months in narrative story-telling changed our entire industry, not so much with what he did but by the way he did it and who he shared his discoveries with. He is an unsung immortal, and his brief output deserves a commemorative, retrospective collection more than any other creator that I can think of. Until then lost gems like this will have to suffice.

© 1936 The A. P.