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Obituary: Al Hartley, 1922-2003
posted June 30, 2003
 

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Allan "Al" Hartley, a much-admired veteran cartoonist who enjoyed success with both mainstream American comic book and Christian comic book publishers, passed away on May 27 in a Fort Myers, Florida hospital. He was 81 years old.

Hartley was born in Kearny, New Jersey. Hartley's father was deeply conservative U.S. Representative Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Republican who co-sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act of 1946. Hartley studied at the Art Students League. He entered the Second World War and became a B-17 bomber pilot, serving in Europe. Upon returning to the United States, he joined the American comic book industry at one of its commercial high points, fulfilling a dream to become a cartoonist. He had married during the war years, and with wife Hermine would eventually have two sons and a daughter.

imageAccording to Nate Butler, a cartoonist, editor and writer who maintains the "Christian Comics Pioneers" web site, Hartley's first work in comic books may have been for the "Roger Dodger" feature in a 1946 issue of Exciting Comics, published by Better Comics. In his early days as a freelancer, Hartley also worked for Nedor/Standard, Michel Publications and Ace Comics. Hartley soon settled into a long and fruitful partnership with Martin Goodman's Atlas/Timely/Marvel comic book division. Working on the publisher's successful western, romance and war comics, Hartley both wrote his own stories and worked with scripts provided by editor Stan Lee. His work appeared in such better-known features as "Patsy Walker," and "Two-Gun Kid," and in the early 1960s Hartley received of the few solo assignments of his early career, Linda Carter, Student Nurse. Although it does not appear in more official accounts of Hartley's career, he is also believed to have done work on the company's various horror titles employing a radical variation on his usually clean-cut art style. In 1958, following the death of original artist Joe Maneely, Al Hartley took over art chores on Stan Lee's syndicated strip Mrs. Lyon's Cubs. He also did art for the cartoon panel Suburbia the year preceding.

Hartley was not one of the artists utilized by Lee in the early 1960s transformation of the Marvel Comics line to reflect Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko's stylish take on superheroes. Yet he still picked up a few jobs with the publisher's cape and cowl set. By virtue of his drawing the Mighty Thor story in Journey into Mystery #90, published in early 1963, Hartley became the first artist after Jack Kirby to draw Marvel's take on the Norse God of Thunder. In 1965, Hartley concluded his dabbling in Marvel heroes when he wrote stories for Iron Man (Tales of Suspense #68) and Giant-Man (Tales to Astonish #69).

Hartley entered into evangelical Christianity through a conversion experience in 1967 brought about in part by seeing the effect faith had on his father despite failing health. Hartley spoke at length about his beliefs in his later memoir of that time in his life, Come Meet My Friend! (Fleming H. Revell, 1977). The cartoonist claims to have quickly lost most of his mainstream comics work due to the demands of his faith, including a slightly salacious feature in a men's magazine. But soon an editor at Archie Publications phoned and Hartley entered into his most fondly remembered creative relationship. Hartley believed the job was part of a divine plan. "The editor of Archie Comics phoned me, offering me the opportunity to draw the king of the comics." The cartoonist later wrote. "I ought to point out that during my 20 years as a cartoonist, no one had ever called me this way. Every relationship I had with a publisher, I had developed. No one had ever come to me."

Hartley would work with Archie until the mid-1980s, and with a handful of others came to exemplify the post-Bob Montana look of the features, combining slick design work with solid storytelling. Among several vocal fans of Hartley's work at Archie that claim the cartoonist as an influence are artist Stan Goldberg and scriptwriter Kathleen Webb.

In his initial years at the company, Hartley became known for writing stories that revolved around his beliefs, something that initially concerned the Archie editorial staff. But Hartley's stories were well received, and when taken into account with his high rate of production the cartoonist was considered an important company asset. As such, he was given more of a free reign as a writer instead of less. Then, after a few years of doing comic book stories with the Archie characters that touched on spiritual issues, Hartley received a chance to do some outright faith-based comics work. In 1972, book publisher Fleming H. Revell hired Hartley to provide art for a comic book version of David Wilkerson's from-the-streets testimonial The Cross and the Switchblade. After briefly struggling with finding a place in his professional schedule for the work, Hartley began the endeavor that would become a career highpoint. The Spire Christian Comics line offered a combination of biblical story re-tellings in modern dress, comic book adaptations of popular evangelical outreach works (Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place) and a few notable crossovers with Archie and the Riverdale gang via a licensing deal arranged by Hartley himself (beginning with Archie's One-Way) with Jewish publisher John Goldwater, whom Hartley later praised as a deeply spiritual man dedicated to values of family and home.

The Spire comics found an audience among Christians you, comics-reading children who received them from concerned relatives and friends, and various comics fans who simply stumbled across them in the marketplace. Some of the biblical stories in the Spire line featured well-designed splash pages and nicely paced silent sequences, and with Hartley's clear storytelling driving them they have become favorites of some fans who may not necessarily agree with the underlying messages emanating from the pages, pages over which Hartley is said to have prayed with conviction. Hartley claimed to have done 59 Christian comics in all, important items of both 1970s American evangelicalism and that same decade's irresistible kitsch.

They were also critically important comics for Christian cartoonists, including many working in comics today. Kathleen Webb cited the cartoonist's judicious storytelling sense and ability to present various messages as organic character development. "It was Al's 'Betty's Diary' stories that intrigued me the most," she told the Journal. "He wrote a lot of them for the Betty & Me books in the early 1970's. At that time, he was 'getting away with murder' - writing blatantly Christian stories that Archie went ahead and published, regardless of the fact that the publisher was Jewish. Al's way of handling Betty as she shared her thoughts in her diary was with insight, humor and care. He never 'preached' in those pages; he just had Betty share her feelings, good and bad. His other Betty & Me stories were also written well, tackling Betty's relationship with Archie carefully, never making Betty out to be so much the 'sore loser' as the 'never-give-up-gal.' She wasn't bitter - she kept in there, swinging, believing that someday, Archie'd come to his senses. In Al's Spire comics, he handled difficult subjects masterfully. I remember in particular the book adaptation he did of Hansi: The Girl Who Loved the Swastika. There is a traumatic scene that suggests the Russian soldiers raped some women prisoners. Al made sure you knew what was happening without showing the details. It was his way of preserving the truth of the story without becoming sordid. He also was excellent at picking and choosing the most important points of the books he adapted for Spire, and recreating them in comic form, so that you got the meat of the story in a condensed version."

Hartley suffered his first stroke in the early 1990s, and stopped drawing afterwards due to the physical difficulties involved. In addition to the book about his decision to embrace Christianity, Hartley wrote children's books, illustrated several others, and authored the popular title It Takes a Family: How to Create Hope and Celebrate Your Future (Barbour and Co., 1997). In the ten years preceding his death, Hartley worked with son Fred and wife Hermine on separate book projects, including multiple volumes on family relationships.

Hartley received an Inkpot Award at the San Diego Comic Con in 1980, and enjoys a listing in Jerry Bails' The Who's Who of American Comic Books.

imageHartley's art is fondly remembered by many of his fans and fellow professionals. Nate Butler told the Journal, "Personally, I think he was one of the best visually storytellers in the business. He always had a lot happening in his stories, and he knew how to maintain the action and interest level in his scripts, even during 'talking head' sequences. You can learn so much by studying his work." Butler plans to celebrate Hartley's contributions on a page of the Christian Comics Pioneers web site, regretting only that Hartley himself won't be around to double-check the information provided.

"Hartley's work always featured a bold design sense and an enthusiastic sincerity I don't often see in comics," cartoonist Jesse Hamm told the Journal. "I enjoyed his Christian comics a lot as a kid, so I was pleased as an adult when he wrote the foreword to a comics anthology I contributed to called Proverbs and Parables. His comments about cartooning in his foreword made me realize what had appealed to me about his work: unlike most of the Christian cartoonists who preceded him, Hartley valued entertainment and fun, and saw an organic connection between those things and God's activity in our lives. He avoided the dour didacticism of many religious tracts and the smirky reticence of many kids' comics, instead plunging wide-eyed and grinning into the stories he told."

Hartley's writing on the subject of Christian Comics gives the reader perhaps the best glimpse into the cartoonist's thoughts on comic books as a ministry. "So yes, our job is to entertain, but our goal is to offer something far more important than slapstick and suspense. Folks by the thousands are seeking all kinds of thrills and kicks to escape the reality of life. Our great motivation is to take a slice of life that the reader can identity with and then show precisely how God wants to be involved in that life experience."

Al Hartley is survived by his wife of 61 years, Hermine; his mother, Hazel, 101; two children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was buried on June 4 in Mendham, New Jersey.

Originally Published in The Comics Journal #254

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