Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Badmouths of the West

Thursday Story Strip Day.

I don't trust Howard Nostrand. In his interview with John Benson in the terrific Graphic Story Magazine, he badmouths his former boss Bob Powell several times. Powell was not around to himself, having died in 1966. Most american fans only know Powell as an not very appropriate inker of some of Jack Kirby's work, but in fact he was a very good and very prolific artists from the early forties on. He started with Will Eisner and Quality and did a back-up strip for Eisner's Spirit section. Later he started working for Street and Smith doing lots of comic book stories as well as illustrations for their pulp line. But they were not his only client. Not by a long shot. He worked for all companies in all genres, except maybe superheroes. Which wasn't much of a problem because the superheroes were pretty much absent in the late forties and into the fifties. Powell started a studio of his own, with several artists. The most often mentioned names are Marty Epp and Howard Nostrand. When he introduced Nostrand to publisher Harvey (who at that point still had several genre-lines - including horror, war and romance books - as well as the 'funny' titles with which they later became synonymous) he started drawing on his own and under his own name. A major talent, Nostrand did a lot of great work for the horror and war books as well as Harvey's Mad comic book imitation Flip.

So it was great John Benson was able to do an exstensive interview with him about his work and his career. That included some of his later work as a magazine illustrator and his short run as the artist on the Bat Masterson newspaper strip as well. On Bat Masterson, Powell was said to have been his assistent, turning around the roles they started out with. In the interview Nostrand said two things that I have believed for years. One, that Powell was quite a miserable man and possibly an anti-semite. I may be wrong in blaming this all on Nostrand, by the way. It could be, that Nostrand only mentioned Powell's disposition and it was Will Eisner who mentioned Powells anti-semetic remarks. Furthermore, Nostrand stated boldly that Powell had 'no sense of humor'. That fit in rather well with the fact that Powell's men and women are (in my opinion) some of the most miserable-looking creatures in comics. This is mostly due to the fact that he draws his characters with heavy eyebrows, but often the rest of their faces are pretty sour-looking as well. All in all, there is very little humor in Powell's work. His storytelling and composition skills equal those of Eisner, but there is very little of Eisner's sense of fun and charicature. Or so I thought for many years.

But when I started delving into Powell's work for the Mad comic book imitations and magazines, I found someone who did has a sense of humor. Often sardonic rather than playful, but never mean-spirited. And I discovered that Powell spend the last ten years of his life drawng satire material for the magazine Panic and Sick. A pretty odd choice for someone supposedly without a sense of humor.

I started looking at Nostrands statements with new eyes. As a comedy writer, I have had many discussions about humor and it is not uncommon of fans of one kind of humor not understanding another kind of humor. One major divide is the idea if humor should be 'a bit of fun' or 'laughing instead of crying'. I suspect this difference is at play between Nostrand and Powell as well, with Nostrand in the 'silliness' corner and Powell more in the 'reality-bound' camp. Anyway, a proper look at Powell's impressive career will show he was not a dour of unfunny man or artist.

Having had a second look at that statement, I immediately started questioning the other as well. Was Powell an anti-semetic or had he just used some unfortunate phrases describing his dealing with the notoriously pinch Will Eisner? A minefield under any circomstance, I decided to stay away from that one.

And that's where I left it a couple of years ago. I incorperated some of the ideas I mentioned here in an article about the satirical work of Powell for Alter Ego, which unfortunately still has not been schedule for publication (although Roy Thomas said he liked it and would like to use it). But then I got a subscription to NewspaperArchive which allowed me to have a good look at Bat Masterson. I did have three sunday pages from that strip and one of the later ones looked to be all Powell and an earlier one looked to be all Nostrand, but they were published without credits, so I did not know where to place them.

When I saw the dailies, I got a big surprise. It turns out Powell was never Nostrand's assistant on this strip. In fact, in some publications it has been mentioned that a young Neal Adams was Nostrand's assistant (although he may have done little more than filling in blacks or erasing pencil lines). Nostrand started the strip on September 7th 1959. By December 12th Powell takes over the strip, signing it with his own name. He then continues it until the end of it's run, in April 1960. My last strip is April the 12th, but it ends midstory, so I don't know if that is the official end date. Anyway, that means Powell did not only NOT assist Nostrand, he even ran the strip longer than Nostrand did. Both used the same writer, Ed Herron.

Bat Masterson is a very pretty strip. I don't know if there would be any probems with the ights to the name and the look of the characters, but it is a strip I would love to see in a cleaner version, with all of the Sunday pages added. Hy, maybe Neal Adams still has a complete run somewhere in his closet.

I hope to complete the run here over the next few weeks. Tomorrow I will have more rare Powell material.


Harry Mendryk said...

Joe Simon has frequently commented to me on Eisner's labeling Powell as anti-Semitic. Joe is very firm in saying this is not true. Joe knew Powell for many years as a co-worker or employer so I would think he should know.

I think Powell's humor is on display before his work for Sick in the feature Spirit of 76 for Harvey Comics.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Harry, thanks for mentioning that. I will use that in my article on Powell. I sort of knew, but hadn't used it yet. Powell did humor work in the forties as well, although I do not find it as good as the stuff he did for Flip.

Allan Holtz said...

Hi Ger --
Coming in just a tad late here; only two years. Alberto Becattini alerted me that you had found an earlier start date for Bat Masterson than I had (Washington Star started it a week late for some reason). Do you recall which newspaper you found that was running the strip from 9/7? I did a newspaperarchive search but came up dry.

Thanks, Allan Holtz