Remembering Roy Crane
At this website and my personal blog, I’ve taken the opportunity to write about some of the cartoonists who’ve been major influences on me. This group includes Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, and Alex Toth who absolutely are the top tier of artists I admire.
On an equal footing with them in my book is Roy Crane. Crane was a true pioneer of the classic adventure strip. In fact, he arguably was the first true adventure strip artist, cited by even both Caniff and Toth as a seminal influence for each of them.
Crane began as a classic “big foot” cartoonist and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, he finally hit paydirt with Wash Tubbs (short for Washington Tubbs III) in 1924. Wash Tubbs began as a fairly traditional gag-a-day strip about a diminutive all-American, small-town everyman with a passing resemblance to silent film star Harold Lloyd. I’ve written elsewhere how Tubbs perfectly embodied the American character of the time, as an optimistic, happy-go-lucky dreamer, where the world was his oyster.
Before settling down, Crane was a bit of an adventurer himself, often traveling cross country riding the rails. Crane eventually incorporated this sense of wanderlust into the strip. This opened up the series to high-rollicking globetrotting adventure, with Wash and his new simpatico sidekick, Gozy Gallup, finding themselves involved in rescuing beautiful slave girls in the Sahara and looking for treasure in the South Seas. Crane soon realized, however, that his two leads were vastly ill-equipped to deal with the level of peril and danger he was bringing into the strip, and soon introduced a two-fisted soldier of fortune named Captain Easy in 1929. Easy quickly eclipsed Wash—the strip was even eventually renamed Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, and for a time, the Sunday strip was devoted solely to Easy.
Like many of his peers, Crane soon yearned for ownership of his own work, and in 1943, at the height of the second World War, he launched Buz Sawyer. The title character was a naval aviator at the start of the strip; after the war, Sawyer became a globetrotting private investigator. Crane’s name appeared on the strip into the late 1970s (he died in 1977) and the strip ran until 1989. (Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy continued under Crane's assistant, Leslie Turner, who worked on the strip until 1969. The strip ended in 1988. Turner was a fine artist in his own right who faithfully adapted Crane’s style yet made it distinctly his own. Turner’s run is considered one of the few cases where a strip successfully maintained its high quality under a successor).
Though Crane always retained elements of classic “big foot” cartooning, he nevertheless developed an innovative cartoon style of his own that used black and white/positive and negative space masterfully. In this way, he took the first step that eventually evolved into the groundbreaking chiaroscuro look developed by cartoonist Noel Sickles with his studio mate Milton Caniff. Crane was particularly a master of the use of Craftint, a shading process in effect similar to Zipatone, but which was chemically ingrained in specially treated paper and was brought out through a chemical wash brushed on. The effects he achieved with Craftint is remarkable and remains unmatched to this day. A good example of the field of depth he achieved with Craftint can be seen in the sample below. Note how Crane uses the gray Craftint tone to portray depth and distance, particularly in the second and fourth panels. In that final panel, the trees in the far background are entirely evoked with Craftint.
While Caniff’s work was my first love and served as my introduction into the world of the classic adventure strip, in some ways I’ve come to appreciate Crane even more. Caniff was certainly working at a different plane than most cartoonists in that he was a more sophisticated writer—as I’ve said of Caniff, he was a master of character and motivation, and he achieved a level of complexity and sophistication rarely achieved since in comics. His work had a documentary effect, and a sense of immediacy.
But Crane’s work had a charm and deceptive simplicity. Crane was less subtle, but his characters were also well defined, and their motives too often fueled the plot. As an old school entertainer whose roots were in the early 20th century, much of Crane’s work traded on melodrama, but in a positive sense—when his characters got into scrapes, you rooted for them and could not wait for the next installment.
Unlike the more urbane Caniff, Crane’s Midwest values were integral to his work. Crane’s protagonists—even those that were confirmed globetrotting adventurers—held at their core strong middle-American values that had their roots in small town America. These ideals were clearly central to Crane’s personality and embodied in his work.
Just as importantly, Crane’s drawings—from the figures, to the props, and especially the figures—were full of life. As author Ron Goulart has noted, when figures TK. Crane’s linework was full of vibrancy and joy, which perfectly fit the optimistic world view of Crane’s stories. (See excerpt panel below.)
I never read Crane’s work when they originally appeared—it was only in books about the history of comics did I learn about his work. Fortunately, beginning in the 1970s and ‘80s, there have been enough collections of his work (the most definitive being the NBM collection of Wash Tubbs in its entirety) that have rightfully claimed his place as one of the finest and most innovative cartoonists to work in the history of the medium.
Goulart, Ron. The Adventurous Decade. Arlington House, 1975. (Reprinted by Hermes Press, 2004.)