Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hoosier Cartoonists in World War II

Seventy years ago today, on a date that will go on living in infamy, the Japanese navy launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States was thrust into world war. Within a few days, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States as well. After suffering early setbacks, the country gained its footing with an extraordinary victory at Midway (June 1942) and an invasion of North Africa (November 1942). After Pearl Harbor, young men rushed to enlist in the armed forces. Others were drafted. Figures vary, but by war's end upwards of 10 million American men and women had served in uniform. Over 400,000 were killed.

It's rare to find a man of military age who did not serve in one capacity or other. Hoosiers in uniform who had their cartooning careers interrupted by war or who went on to become cartoonists after the war included Wally Bishop (Muggs and Skeeter), Ted Chambers (gag cartoons), David C. Eastman (Carmichael), Bill Eddy (gag cartoons), Frank O'Neal (Short Ribs), and Bill Williams (Josephine). I would like to consider another group of cartoonists here, though, the men who cartooned while in uniform, for Yank, Stars and Stripes, All Hands, and other military magazines, newspapers, and newsletters.

Time was when cartoonists were celebrities and cartooning--especially syndicated cartooning and magazine gag cartooning--carried with it a heaping helping of prestige. Cartoonists entertained the troops, kept up morale, trained men in difficult and intricate tasks, and decorated airplanes with pinups and cartoon characters, among their many duties. One of the most famous of all folklore characters to come out of the war was a simple cartoon, a man with a bulbous nose who left his mark from Kiska to Bougainville to Marrakesh to Berlin: Kilroy Was Here! Another was the Gremlin, that mischievous little saboteur made famous by Roald Dahl and a planned movie by Disney that never reached the silver screen. A little less famous was Hubert, a lumpy dogface with an enormous nose and a talent for getting into trouble. Hubert, created by Herron art grad Dick Wingert (1919-1993), appeared in Stars and Stripes and was voted more popular than Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe. After the war, Hubert returned to civilian life and lasted in the comics until 1994. What Wingert did for the army, Nicolas Pouletsos (1911?-1990)--"Nick Penn"--did for the navy in Stalemate. The title character is a diminutive, pop-eyed sailor always on the make. Nick Penn also drew Helen Highwater, featuring a shapely female, for all the men at sea.

Other Hoosier cartoonists in uniform included Wayne Campbell (Yank, Stars and Stripes), Ted Drake (The Spindrift), Charles K. Hall (Army Times, Yank), Roderick Hipskind (Beachhead News), Thomas G. Karsell (Stars and Stripes), Gilbert Sweeney (Stars and Stripes), and Pat Weishapl (The Returnee, Salty Breezes). Dave Gerard of Citizen Smith fame instructed navy men on technical drawing in his hometown of Crawfordsville during the war. In the immediate aftermath, husband-and-wife cartoonists Tom and Mary Blakley taught art to returning servicemen, while Indianapolis News staff artist J. Hugh O'Donnell--late of the 509th Military Police Battalion--illustrated Report from the Pacific by Leo Litz (1946). 

Indiana cartoonists had varying degrees of success in the postwar world. Dick Wingert, Nick Penn, and Ted Drake were among the men who stuck with cartooning. Most lived long, productive lives. But in thinking about the men who were young once and drew pictures during their wartime service, I can't help but consider those who didn't make it. What great future cartoonist or illustrator, artist or writer, lies buried under a green field in France or Italy or some other far-flung spot on the globe?

A cartoon by Ted Drake from The Spindrift.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Almost a Hoosier

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Half the world was at war in 1941 when nineteen-year-old Stan Lee assumed the position of editor at Timely Comics. Within a few months, the United States was involved as well, and Stan had enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His basic training came at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. In short order he was transferred to the Signal Corps' Training Film Division in Astoria, Queens, and found out that he had been classified as a playwright. "I also learned that there were only eight other men in the U.S. Army with that particular military occupational specialty (MOS) classification besides me," Stan writes in his autobiography. They included moviemaker Frank Capra, author William Saroyan, and cartoonist Charles Addams. During his tour of duty, Stan wrote scripts for army training films. He also continued penning stories for Timely Comics.

After a stop at Duke University, Stan Lee was transferred once again to Fort Benjamin Harrison, located northeast of Indianapolis. He would serve out the rest of his tour in the Hoosier State, advancing to the rank of sergeant, writing training materials, and even authoring the lyrics to a marching song for the Army Finance Department, sung to the music of "The Air Force Song." Fiscal Freddy, a cartoon character used to train fiscal officers, was one of Lee's creations. So was the poster design and slogan for a prophylaxis campaign: "VD? Not Me!"

"I was mustered out of the army in Indianapolis," Stan remembers. "Five minutes after receiving my discharge papers, I was in my convertible heading for New York." Thus ended his career as an army sergeant and a Hoosier. He married in 1947, wrote romance, western, horror, and other stories during the 1950s, and finally--with comic book artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others--revolutionized comics during the 1960s. Stan Lee is still going strong today.

Update (December 6, 2019): And as we all know, Stan Lee died on November 12, 2018, in Los Angeles after a very long and illustrious career. He was ninety-five years old.

Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee by Stan Lee and George Mair (2002), in which Stan remembers his time served in Indiana with the U.S. Army. The cover art is by John Romita, the mainstay on The Amazing Spider-Man after the departure of Steve Ditko.

Text and captions copyright 2011, 2019 Terence E. Hanley