Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World
By Alex Beam
BOSTON IS UNDER ATTACK!
That’s right, Ming the Merciless has unleashed his hideous Gorkons on Boston Common, and they are wreaking havoc from the harbor all the way to Copley Square. President Clinton has authorized a full-bore aerial attack on Ming’s minions, which gives Flash Gordon just enough time to reenter the space portal and, next week: RETURN TO MONGO!
What brings Flash Gordon riding to the defense of the aptly named Hub of the Universe, you might ask? For one thing, current Flash Gordon artist Jim Keefe has an aunt here, and he plans to draw her a cameo role when the Boston story concludes next month. But perhaps more important, Boston is the last major city in America to carry the 65-year-old strip. ”Flash appears in just a handful of US papers,” explains Keefe, the ninth in a distinguished series of ”Flash” artists. ”Adventure strips are not as prominent as they used to be.”
What happened? What didn’t happen might be a more appropriate question. Television; ”Star Trek”; ”Star Wars”; declining newspaper circulation. The great stories that command the attention of children and adults alike just don’t run on the comics pages any more.
But in 1934, all the great adventure stories ran on the comic pages, and the powerful King Features Syndicate had a cosmic problem: His name was Buck Rogers, and he belonged to a competitor. King decided to vaporize Buck with a Sunday page, featuring two new adventure stories, both drawn by the legendary Alex Raymond: ”Jungle Jim,” a knockoff of the popular ”Tarzan” strip, and ”Flash Gordon.” King also assigned Raymond a daily strip, ”Secret Agent X-9,” written by Dashiell Hammett.
The agent and the ersatz ape-man didn’t last long, but Flash caught on. The art was bold, and the stories pitting the ”renowned polo player and Yale graduate,” his lady companion Dale Arden, and scientist pal Dr. Hans Zarkov against Ming, the tyrannical emperor of Mongo, won Flash a huge following. Within just a few years, Flash was a multimedia hero, boasting a daily comic strip, a novel, and three famous movie serials, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming. There was also a radio program and a television series.
Raymond quit the strip to join the Marines during World War II, then returned stateside to place yet another star in the comic strip firmament: ”Rip Kirby.” A fast-car aficionado, Raymond died tragically at age 46, behind the wheel of a Corvette belonging to Stan Drake, who drew ”Blondie” and ”The Heart of Juliet Jones.” But Flash was well launched into a life of his own. George Lucas has acknowledged that he borrowed the famous ”Star Wars” opening screen crawl (”A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … ”) from the movie serial ”Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.” And insiders know that Princess Leia’s honey-bun hairdo really belongs to Princess Fria, queen of the arctic kingdom Frigia, who was once hot to separate Flash from Dale.
So … will Boston survive? ”There’s a lot of damage, and the Common is pretty badly trampled,” Keefe says from the shelter of his Long Island home. ”But Boston will be saved.” And Flash? It turns out he has quite a following overseas, and King Features has no plans to decommission him.
What’s funny about this article is that when it originally ran in the Boston Globe it didn’t include the Flash Gordon Sunday page. Flash Gordon ran in the Boston Herald, and so fierce was the rivalry between the Globe and the Herald that the Herald wouldn’t give the Globe the rights to run any Flash Gordon art – even though the Boston Globe was in essence promoting a comic strip in the Boston Herald.
Fun fact: The reason I picked Boston for this Flash Gordon story was that my Uncle Whit and Aunt Pat lived there. When I was 13 my Aunt Pat, who had always encouraged my interest in drawing, had clipped and sent me the Spider-Man comic strip (a personal favorite) for years. This after a letter I had sent, voicing my displeasure that it had been dropped by the local paper, wound up being printed in their “Letters to the Editor” page.
To say thanks years later, I gave her and my Uncle Whit a cameo in the strip. Hint: They’re the elderly couple in the last few panels.
John Prentice (1920-1999) was born on October 17 in Whitney, Texas. From 1940-1946 he served in the Navy. Having survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he went on to serve on two destroyers through eight major military campaigns.
Having briefly attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he moved to New York in 1947 where he worked on everything from comic books to magazine covers. Following Alex Raymond’s death in 1956 Prentice was chosen to carry on the strip and did so for 43 years.
His work on Kirby was awarded the National Cartoonists Society’s silver plaque for best story strip three times and Rip Kirby is an honorary member of the honor legion of the New York City police department.
Rip Kirby celebrates his fiftieth anniversary as a syndicated comic strip in 1996, due in no small part to the excellent work done by John Prentice, who has done the strip for forty years.
John Prentice’s work remains on a level above many other story strips. The point-of-view angles move constantly; characters make eye contact with the reader; the Raymond technique of the establishing landscape continues; and creative and unique crosshatching is used.
Rip Kirby is a mature story strip with a bright future. Many hope that King Features will realize this and give Rip Kirby the promotional and sales push it seems to have lacked from the syndicate for many years.
Back in 1999 when John Prentice passed away I contacted some of his colleagues in the industry. They were kind enough to share the following reminiscences.
An immense talent. A consummate craftsman with a rock-solid work ethic. A man generous with his talents, gracious to his fans and a devout family man. John’s wonderful sense of humor was capable of taking twists and turns before hitting you on the funny-bone. Being with John was knowing you were at the best party in town… and knowing John was one of life’s little perks.
Dick Hodgins Hagar – Henry
I first heard of John on the occasion of Alex Raymond’s untimely death in an automobile accident. The question on everyone’s lips was, “Who is capable of carrying on Rip Kirby?” George Raymond, Alex’s younger brother (and my assistant at the time) told me that John Prentice had been selected as Alex’s successor. The rest is history.
John had a wonderful sense of humor and was always a very gracious and generous person. Everyone liked and admired him and his work. He liked to tell stories of his naval career and always had an appreciative audience. In his later years he was fortunate to marry Antonia who proved to be an excellent helpmate. We will all miss John.
John Cullen Murphy Prince Valiant – Big Ben Bolt
I first met John in January of 1960. He was looking for an assistant to go down to Mexico with him to help him out on “Rip Kirby”. I learned a lot from John Prentice. It was great working with him. It was fun. We were good friends – I’ll miss him.
Al Williamson Star Wars – Secret Agent Corrigan
John Prentice was a close and admired friend. One of the foremost black and white illustrators in the United States. He was an extremely brave man. How else can you describe a young sailor who in the middle of all the strafing and bombing at Pearl Harbor commandeered an admiral’s tender and went out into the harbor looking for a gun to fire at the attacking Japanese? From then on he was on a destroyer involved in almost every big Pacific island battle.
He approached his “Rip Kirby” strip like an illustrator. After reading a new sequence script, he researched every detail. Using his vast personal morgue, he checked costume, architecture, geography, everything. It slowed him down, but oh, it was beautiful… and it made him one of the top adventure strip cartoonists. John was a sincere, decent man. We all loved him.
Gill Fox Side Glances – Golden Age Comics
I’ve known John Prentice for 45 years. We’ve shared a studio. I assisted him for years since he started “Rip Kirby”. We’ve been close friends all those years. I enjoyed John’s good sense of humor and knowing him was to know someone who was always kind, honest, fair and always a true gentleman.
Frank Bolle Heart of Juliet Jones – Winnie Winkle
After John Prentice died the decision was made by King Features to discontinue the Rip Kirby comic strip. Here is the final week of Rip Kirby dailies ghosted by Frank Bolle that wrapped up the last storyline.
Examples of John Prentice’s work on Rip Kirby.
To see more of John Prentice’s exceptional work on Rip Kirby, check out Rip Kirby Volumes 5-11 from IDW Publishing – Highly recommended!
The girl in the image is 14-year-old Catholic Polish girl Czesława Kwok. The young girl was deported to Auschwitz from her home in Zamość, Poland in December 1942, along with her mother as part of the Nazis’ secret A-B action, the deliberate extermination of the Polish intelligentsia.
According to reports, Czesława was photographed by “the famous photographer of Auschwitz” Wilhelm Brasse, a young Polish inmate in his twenties, as part of a project by officials to document those taken to the death camp. Trained as a portrait photographer at his aunt’s studio prior to the 1939 German invasion of Poland beginning World War II, Brasse and others had been ordered to photograph inmates by their Nazi captors.
The photos of Czesława were taken just moments after she was beaten by a female prison guard — apparently the young girl couldn’t understand the orders that were being barked at her in German, as it wasn’t her native tongue. Brasse, who died in 2012, said the prison guard had beaten the girl across the face with a stick, leading to her cut lip. Speaking about his memory of Czesława in in 2005 documentary The Portraitist, photographer Brasse recalled “she was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her.
“So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. “Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.” Though ordered to destroy all photographs and their negatives, Brasse became famous after the war for having helped to rescue some of them from oblivion, and keeping the memory of the photographed inmates alive.
Czesława died in March 1943, just three months after arriving at Auschwitz, weeks after her mother Katarzyna. According to the Auschwitz Memorial, she was killed by Nazi doctors with a lethal injection of phenol into the heart.
Artist Marina Amaral has coloured the portraits of the young girl, bringing a more haunting, lifelike quality to the images.Mirko Ilić
Born in Bosnia, Mirko Ilić has worked as Art Director of the Time Magazine International Edition and Art Director of the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. In 1995 he established his firm Mirko Ilić Corp.
My Polish Catholic Grandfather, Luke Kasmar, came to America about 47 years prior to this photo being taken (around 1895). The girl in the photo above was the same age as my Mom.
First met Pat Lowery freshman year of the Joe Kubert School back in 1986. We were roommates in an apartment over a bar in Dover, New Jersey — He got me a part-time gig when I was first starting out (in the Empire State building no less) — And New Year’s Eve 1992 (along with fellow Kubert School alum Mark McMurray) we celebrated in Times Square.
Since then he’s worked on such film franchises as Star Wars, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings – and as a major name drop, has worked for legendary stop-motion animator Phil Tippett.