Roy Crane's Two-Fisted Tales

No, Roy Crane never contributed to Harvey Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales, but he was the creator of the comic strip world's first two-fisted hero, Captain Easy, a strip that both Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff drew inspiration from as the hallmark of adventure continuity. When Crane first appeared on the scene with his exotic locales, beautiful women, lickety-wap action, and cliff-hanger pacing, he had a few years' edge on Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Hal Foster's jungle lord, Tarzan.

Prior to Crane's first effort, Wash Tubbs, virtually all the newspaper comic strips were just that: comic, or exclusively humorous. One might wonder why it took comics so long -almost thirty years- to produce an adventure strip. It may have been that the genre was then regarded solely as children's entertainment. But, it was, after all, an adult who put down the nickel for the paper containing the funnies that his children would pour over that evening. Perhaps that thought occurred to Crane.

Roy Crane's early life was a fitting training ground for an adventure cartoonist. Born in Texas in 1901, Crane followed a typical pattern for fledgling cartoonists, drawing for the high school newspaper and then doing the same in college. In addition to taking mail-order art lessons from something called The Landon Correspondence Course, Crane studied for a few months at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of Carl Ed, creator of Harold Teen. Then wanderlust took Crane on a hobo's journey across America, riding the rails with another drifter, aspiring artist Les Turner. Crane went from the railroads to the high seas when he enlisted as a common seaman on a freighter.

When he finally disembarked in New York in 1923, the twenty-one year old Crane landed his first job at The New York World. In addition to the usual art shop duties, Crane worked doing the pencils for an established cartoonist, H.T. Webster, creator of that classic case of timidity, Casper Milquetoast. In his spare time Crane sold cartoons to Judge magazine and shopped samples around to various syndicates.

One of these was the National Enterprise Association, which packaged stories, art, and strips for the syndicates (and continues to do so today). By happy coincidence, the NEA's art director was Charles N. Landon, the same man who produced the mail order course Crane had subscribed to. It was an "in," and in 1924 Crane's "Washington Tubbs II" became the NEA's newest property.

Wash Tubbs didn't begin as an adventure strip. Landon wanted down-home humor and dictated that the Wash character work as a store clerk. Crane had other ideas and within a year bespectacled little Wash had hung up his clerk's apron for a fortune-hunting jaunt in the South Seas. He never went back.

Crane's strip adventures were given a tongue in cheek treatment from the very beginning. Wash Tubbs was an extroverted and exuberant strip with a sense of fun to match the adventure. Sound effects blasted from the panels with a blast of stars and exclamation points. The fights, a Crane trademark, were often brutal, drawn with an excellent feel for fluid anatomy, and had a certain cheerfulness about them. Fight sequences in Crane's strips could take days of continuity, rather than the one or two panels other strips used. Wash himself often enthusiastically participated in the kicking, biting, wrestling brawls, but he was fairly puny, somewhat resembling a diminutive Harold Lloyd.

Wash needed a sidekick and in 1928 Captain Easy was introduced into the strip. Easy was the adventurer Tubbs had aspired to be, a brawler and a soldier of fortune with a mysterious past. It was a perfect team up and gradually Captain Easy became the strip's central character. By 1933 Easy was given his own Sunday page, while the Wash and Easy team continued on in the Wash Tubb dailies. In the 1940s the two strips were combined as Captain Easy.

Crane's Sunday pages were a joy to behold. The artist gave full vent to his love of impressive vistas and dynamic panoramas, with a visual punch none could match.

Crane employed bold primary colors in a complex pattern of panel arrangements that went beyond the simple tiers commonly used on Sunday pages, using unusual shapes and overlapping panels, dropping borders, and sometimes employing huge compositions that filled half a page.

That period of great Crane graphics came to a rude ending in 1937 when the syndicates decreed that cartoonists plan their pages in convertible formats, forcing cartoonists to design pages with panels that could be dropped without interrupting the story-line, a practice still mandated today. The new rigid design structure was supposedly due to paper restrictions, but was really designed so that mere comic strips could be squeezed in favor of space for advertising.

As an artist Crane must have had a lot of fun with those pages, and was justifiably bitter about the restriction on his creativity. He turned the Sunday Captain Easy over to his assistant, his former hobo friend Les Turner, by now an accomplished cartoonist in his own right, devoting all his attention to the dailies.

In 1943, lured to the Hearst syndicate by the promise of strip ownership, Crane left the NEA and Captain Easy to develop Buz Sawyer, a strip about a naval airman during the Second World War. In dropping Easy for a military strip, Crane left behind a more flamboyant world. Wash Tubbs and Easy were freebooters answerable to no one, wandering the world and encountering the likes of lady wrestler Lulu Belle, comic relief boss Mr. McKee, and witch woman Wooga Zazula. Also left behind was Bull Dawson, Easy's perpetual opponent and one of the meanest grizzled brutes ever to appear in a panel (if Popeye's Bluto had been real, he would've been a Bull Dawson).

Buz Sawyer was far more realistic than Captain Easy because of its very nature, although Crane retained the usual exuberant brawls and suspenseful pacing. Buz existed in a military world that was at war with a very real enemy. It was obvious that Crane did a great deal of research and every precise drawing of planes and ships were rendered with unerring accuracy. With his previous strip Crane had displayed great ability with color, and with Buz Sawyer he became a virtuoso of black and white art.

Crane had experimented using grainy drawing paper (coquille board) and a grease pencil on Captain Easy,creating texture and shading. In Buz Sawyer, the artist carried this further with the use of duotone, a process of chemically treated paper that produces screen patterns that can be painted on a drawing in two shades. Crane used duotone to create depth of perspective, hazy atmosphere, and a new dimension to lighting that would be impossible to create in today's postage-stamp panels. Only John Severin, a great fan of Crane's, would come close to matching Crane's duotone work in Coleman Dawkins' New Two-Fisted Tales. (One of Severin's characters, Cannon, was an obvious homage to Easy.)

Just as an end of the war signaled the end of many a comic book hero, peace time seemed to tame Buz Sawyer. The character continued his fight for democracy, not in the military but with the Central Intelligence Agency, not against the Axis, but against drug kingpins and communist cold warriors. It lost something in the transition. Crane dropped Sawyer's adventures on the Sunday page and turned it into a page I always enjoyed reading, the humorous adventures of Buz's wartime ship- mate, Roscoe Sweeney.

Crane continued the adventures in the daily strip, but the bloom was off the rose and he eventually turned the strip over to his assistants, writer Ed Granberry and artist Hank Schlensker. The two continued on with the strip after Crane's death in 1979. Crane had accumulated an impressive array of awards during his life as a cartoonist, including a Reubens. As an inventive and brilliant graphic storyteller, he certainly deserved them.

--Steve Stiles