There are probably two cartoonists who I absolutely adore not just for their abilities as artists but their knack of spinning a ripping yarn day after day week after week. The first is Milt Caniff who is sometimes called “the Rembrandt of the comic strip” and his amazing run on Terry and the Pirates. The second, somewhat less well known, is Roy Crane and his work on Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy.
I first encountered Roy Crane and Captain Easy in my local library, between the pages of this wonderful book: “The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics” The story in the collection introduced us to the two protagonists: the diminutive, girl-crazy Wash Tubbs and the superman prototype Captain Easy. In that particular story they were kidnapped by a villainous First Mate “Slugg” and forced into labor on an old time whaler. The art was gorgeous and the story was like if Robert Louis Stevenson wrote pulp fiction.
Ever since then I’ve been trying to collect Wash Tabbs and Captain Easy stories but they’re hard to come by. I’m still waiting for a complete collection to come into print. Still, I’ve managed to gather quite a few.
As a cartoonist, Roy Crane deserves to be ranked among the best. His characters are deceptively simple but amazingly expressive and come in such a wide variety of designs. His girls are gorgeous (consistently prettier than Milt Canniff’s). His backgrounds are detailed, exotic but charmingly loose. His use of tone to give black and white panels depth and excitement is easily some of the most astute I’ve ever seen.
Today comics seem to have almost completely lost the creative, adventurous imagination that could conceive of stories revolving around obscure European kingdoms named “Kandelabra” or “Sneezia”, or spend weeks aboard a whaler in a battle of wits with a cruel first mate, or diverge into wrestling a tiger in a circus. Comics today are dour, violent, overly-important, overly-rendered slogs that seem to have completely severed themselves from their fun, charming past. Roy Crane is someone who understood how comics could take you on an adventure better than any other medium and did just that. And he did it better than almost everybody else. Which is why he’s one of my favorites and deserves to be read.
As an added bonus, read through Roy Crane’s Scapbook, where he gives advice on how to draw to other artists who are going to be working on his strips. It’s invaluable.