Friday, January 02, 2009

For the love of Al

Friday Comic Book Day.

Though you may not say it from the content of this blog up till now, my interest in the great comic book artists of the fifties isn't limited to cartoonists. I am also a member of the Yahoo TImely/Atlas Group, where we discuss the mostly realistic work of one of the biggest and most forgotten comic book companies of the forties and fifties. Usually called Timely by the artists working there and at times called Atlas (for the self-owned company that distributed the books) or The Marvel Comics Group (in some of the ads), we now know it as that company that came to be Marvel. Marvel is even reprinting some of their old material in the highly recommendable Atlas Era editions of their Marvel Masterworks series. This line of mostly superhero-free comic books edited by Stan Lee for his uncle twice removed Martin Goodman, featured almost everyone who was anyone in the fifties. From fresh out of nighschool hopefuls like Ross Andru and Steve Ditko to old hasbeens (such as Ed Moore or Vernon Henkel), bottom of the barrel hacks (Lou Morales and Rocco Mastroserio) and refugees from the sunken ship EC. For a complete list of creators and much more, I point you towards the excellent Atlas Tales website.

One of the more interesting artists at Timely/Atlas was Al Hartley. Like many of his collegues at that company, he was one of those hacks that had more talent in his little pinkie than many well known names now have. Hartley started out in the early forties selling cartoons. In the late forties he arrived at Timely to drawn war stories in a style most collectors these days don't recognize as his. Like much of the company he moved on to horror stories, when the trends shifted. He drew those dark and gritty, like his war books. He also picked up a regular assignment drawing covers for the love books. Most of those were not signed, but he proved very good at them. In the mid fifties he did some of his best work, doing sexy and funny genre parodies for Stan Lee's Mad comic book imtations Crazy, Riot and Wild. If only he could have worked with Harvey Kurtzman then, his career might have taken another path. After the Mad craze cooled down (as every craze did after a couple of years in the fifties), he took to drawing love stories almost exclusively. He hit upon a fast and easy style, that probably made his work a lot easier.. and sadly a lot less interesting. With constantly dropping page rates it may have ben a necessity, but artist Gene Colan took the dropping page rate and shrinking size of the original art pages as a creative challange that brought him to the next level. Hartley just got dull. He hit the bottom artisticly when he took over the newspaper strip Mrs. Lyon's Cubs. This strip, written by Stan Lee, was originally drawn by Lee's favorite artist, Joe Maneely. When Maneely died in 1958 in a tragic train accident, Lee had to find a replacement for this not very inspiring strip about Cub Scouts. Hartley failed to provide the visual excitement that Maneely's art added to the sub-juvenile gags this subject got out of Lee. I suspect that he had hoped to write a hit strip that would be sold in any town that had a cub scout division and tired of it very quickly when that didn't happen. Hartley's dailies are dull and static. After that he did more love books for Stan Lee and finally found some degree of succes. When writer/artist Al Jaffee left Timely to start his dialy gag panel Tall Tales (ending up at Mad after that folded in the early sixties), Hartley tookover as the main artist on Patsy Walker. When the superheroes exploded all over Marvel in the early sixties, Hartey was given a chance to draw some of those as well, but they didn't fit his style. It was too cartoony for the deadly serious (even though they were written tongue in cheek by Lee) superheroes. Around this tiome he became a born again Christian and made a lot of Christian comics, which he believed to be his best work. Most of these are now available on the internet on several sources and they are mostly regarded as a curiosity. Well drawn, but still a bit odd. He also started working for Archie Comics, where his style and (Christian) politics fitted in well.

For a long time I wondered what Hartley had done in the forties. Had he been in the war of was he still at school at that time? His Wikipedia page gives some of the answers, even though I always try not to believe anything written there until I have seen it for myself.

"Al Hartley studied at the Art Students League of New York before serving as a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot in Europe during World War II. On his return, he became a commercial artist while beginning to freelance for comic books. He wrote and drew the backup feature "Roger Dodger" Exciting Comics #51-67 (Sept. 1946 - May 1949), from pulp magazine publisher Ned Pines' mix'n'match Better Publications/Nedor/Standard Publishing. Hartley also did humor one- and two-pagers for that company's America's Best Comics #20-28 (Dec. 1946 - Nov. 1948), "Zippie" in The Fighting Yank, and pieces for Startling Comics and Wonder Comics.During this time he also did the backup features "Debbie" and "Teen Tales" in Michel Publications' Cookie, The Funniest Kid in Town; and "Peg" for ACG's The Kilroys. As well his worked appeared in the titles All Romances, Dotty, Dotty and Her Boyfriends, and Vicky for A. A. Wyn, Inc.'s Ace Comics."

I couldn't find his work in Cookie, but he did indeed have one or two pages in ost issuesof The Killroys. Here are a couple of samples.I think thye provide a good sample of the essentials of his style... a solid realistic style, with very pretty ladies and just a hint of cartoonyness.

From Killroys #4:

From Killroys #5:

For those of you who want to have their cartoon humor a bit more cartoony, here's a short story from Killroy's #5 by Milt Gross. Gross had one issue of Milt Gross Funnies for this company as well as a guest feature in almost every issue of The Killroys for the first 20 or so. From Killroys #12:

Here is one of Hartley's Sunday pages for Mrs. Lyon's Cubs, followedby one of Joe Maneely, who started the strip. Both are from the collection of DocMichael Vasello, the biggest expert onTimely currently around (who is also working onabook on Joe Maneely).

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