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Scorchy Smith And The Art Of Noel Sickles
posted August 19, 2008


Creator: Noel Sickles
Publishing Information: IDW, hardcover, 394 pages, August 2008, $49.99
Ordering Numbers: 1600102069 (ISBN10), 9781600102066 (ISBN13)

I first saw IDW's massive Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles spread across the lap of editor Dean Mullaney, who while showing its pages to me had the giddy and slightly apologetic air of a man who'd come home with a much more expensive car than he'd announced he'd be purchasing at breakfast. The reason for much of Mullaney's enthusiasm can be found, I think, in the almost embarrassing amount of riches he was able to provide in the arts section: paintings, commercial art, war-related efforts, commissioned work, personal items such as birthday cards, and abortive syndicated newspaper comics efforts like a mid-'70s Bruce Lee strip. Scorchy Smith is really two separate books, and that's not just a facile slogan here; there's simply that much material. Sickles was an obviously gifted artist that rarely if ever seemed to cheat in terms of preparation and out-there commitment to craft. I don't know much about illustration or where he might stand in the histories of that field, but I would suppose that at the very least he was one of a handful of skilled artists that could boast of a prolific career spanning decades, able to depict the fruits of his visual research while supplying the art with that drama that comes from evocative picture-making. In other words, I have to imagine he was considered quite good, admired as much as he was hired, even if he's not a pantheon-level talent. It's fun to look at his art here.

And then there's the strip. Noel Sickles is known to comics fans for his 1930s run on Scorchy Smith, where he created a way of adding depth and drama to comics imagery that has been borrowed from ever since, most famously by his close friend Milton Caniff in giving his seminal Terry and the Pirates its flair. Having an entire run of a strip is always a nice thing; Mullaney goes one better by showing a bit of the run on each side of Sickles' in addition to the full run of the cartoonist's contributions. Looking through Sickles' Scorchy strip you can quickly pick up on the progression in his experiments. The work becomes darker-looking as Sickles innovates in terms of shading and light sourcing and use of negative space -- the famous chiaroscuro effect. However, it's not quite a simple walk from A to B: there are a few stops and starts in addition to the general improvement in visual quality, including what seem like experiments with the weight of the line Sickles employed.

An underappreciated aspect of Scorchy Smith peeps through in a few domestic scenes: Sickles' art may have added weight and depth to the action, but it also brought to a life a sumptuous world that served as a perfect backdrop to the feature's mix of slight, sometimes simply hinted-at soap opera and domestic adventures. The strip's writing has the problems you might expect of a non-first rank strip of its period. It takes itself a bit too seriously and it resides so comfortably within a popular genre (aviation adventure) that it rarely has to innovate in terms of plot. I don't think this is an undiscovered gem of the kind that might eclipse its creator's medium-wide contributions through men like Caniff, but it's certainly lovely to look at, and a treat to have under one cover. That there's another entire art book in front of it proves to be a remarkable bonus.


please note: these are my scans, not the book's. the book's are nicer