Saturday, July 4, 2020

Gray Morrow (1934-2001)

The police are in the news. Or they were. Now it's people against the police who are getting all of the attention. A couple of years ago, I found an old comic book drawn by one of my favorite comic book artists, Gray Morrow. I had planned at the time to feature it in this space, but that little project slipped away from me. Now the time seems right . . . or wrong, depending on how you look at things. From one angle, you can see Gray Morrow's comic book The Super Cops as a piece of 1970s pop culture: a little cheesy, a little exploitative, but nothing at all serious. Some people will no doubt see it differently. That won't stop me from showing it, as I think Gray Morrow's cover for The Super Cops, published forty-six years ago this month, is a beautifully done piece of comic book art.

The Super Cops, published by Red Circle Comics in July 1974, was based on a movie of the same name released in March of that year. The Super Cops was directed by Gordon Parks (1912-2006), a man of extraordinary accomplishment who had previously directed Shaft (1971), now considered one of the first movies in the genre known as blaxploitationBy the way, Gordon Parks' second wife was the daughter of a cartoonist, E. Simms Campbell (1906-1971).

In 1975, American International Pictures released Friday Foster with Pam Grier in the title role playing an intrepid magazine photographer. She was supported by Yaphet Kotto, Eartha Kitt, Scatman Crothers, and Carl Weathers. (During his long and varied career, Gordon Parks was also a magazine photographer.) Friday Foster is considered a blaxploitation film. It was based on a comic strip, the first of the postwar era and the first widely syndicated comic strip with a black woman as its title character. (It was preceded by Torchy Brown in "Dixie to Harlem", which was drawn by Jackie Ormes [1911-1985] and syndicated in 1937-1938.) Friday Foster began on January 18, 1970, with Jim Lawrence as writer and Jorge LongarĂ³n (1933-2019) as artist. LongarĂ³n was with the strip for most of its run. Gray Morrow took over on December 24, 1973, and carried it through to its end on February 17, 1974. Below is an image of the daily from January 29, 1974. Note the artist's inscription under the last panel.

Dwight Graydon Morrow was born on March 7, 1934, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended North Side High School in his hometown and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he received the sum total of his formal art training in just three months under Jerry Warshaw (1929-2007). Recognizing Morrow's talent, Warshaw told his young student, "Pack your bags and get started," and that's what Morrow did.* In 1954, he moved to New York City and found enough work to keep himself from starving. Not long after arriving in the city, he decided to look up political cartoonist Eugene Craig (1916-1984), formerly of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel but by then with the Brooklyn Eagle. Craig took Morrow to a meeting of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and introduced him to giants, including Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), and future giants, including Wally Wood (1927-1981). Morrow went on to work with Wood, as well as with Al Williamson (1931-2010) and Angelo Torres (b. 1932). That made his start as one of the great American cartoonists, comic book artists, and science fiction illustrators of the 1950s and after.

In 1956, Morrow got caught in the draft and spent two years in the U.S. Army, including service in South Korea. He returned to civilian life and his career as an artist in 1958. In the 1960s, he drew comic book stories for Classics Illustrated. In The Illustrated Story of Whaling, a title in the World Around Us series (#W28, Dec. 1960), Morrow depicted in his original artwork a number of black whalers in an attempt at historical accuracy. He later told of how his publisher, Roberta Strauss Feuerlight, made him change their features so as to avoid controversy. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of this comic book or any images of Morrow's artwork to show you.

In the mid-1960s, Morrow illustrated children's biographies of famous black Americans, Crispus Attucks: Black Leader of Colonial Patriots by Dharathula H. Millender (1965) and Frederick Douglass: Freedom Fighter by Lillie Patterson (1965). I have two images from these books:

An illustration by Morrow from Crispus Attucks: Black Leader of Colonial Patriots by Dharathula H. Millender (1965). Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Dharathula H. "Dolly" Millender (1920-2015) was an author, educator, librarian, and local historian known as "Gary's Historian" for the northern Indiana city where she made her home. I should point out that Crispus Attacks was also at one time a whaler: in this case, Morrow was right in his research and in his art, and there should have been no controversy at all when he drew his comic book story for Whaling. Instead his art was bowdlerized. Today, with all of the smashing of statues, we see the same thing happening, though in a far worse way. What are artists and lovers of art to do in this age of violent, ruthless, aggressive iconoclasm, destructiveness, and culture of cancellation?

An illustration by Morrow from Frederick Douglass: Freedom Fighter by Lillie Patterson, a Discovery Book published by Garrard Publishing Company of Champaign, Illinois, in 1965. Lillie Griselda Patterson (1917-1999) was an author of children's books and a librarian in the Baltimore Public Schools. She also wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington, and Francis Scott Key, whose statue was knocked down recently in San Francisco. I wonder what Ms. Patterson, who was black and a creator and an educator, would have thought of that.

Update (July 6, 2020): Now comes word that a statue of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, has also been toppled. The date was July 5, 2020, the 168th anniversary of his famous speech, "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" At this point, the question must be: what statue in America will stand?

You can read more about Gray Morrow on the Internet and in magazines and books, including Gray Morrow: Visionary, published in 2001 by Insight Studios Group. His work is characterized by flawless draftsmanship, an extraordinary ability to handle the human face and form, great skill at composition, and an excellent sense of color. His sense of aesthetics placed him above most comic book artists of his time and ours. Mr. Morrow died on November 6, 2001, in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. May he rest in peace.

Dharathula H. Millender's biography of Crispus Attacks is part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series, originally published by Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis. The image above is from the Aladdin edition of 1986. The cover artwork was not by Gray Morrow, but his interior illustrations remained.

On this Independence Day, we should all remember Crispus Attucks and the men and women who sacrificed so much so that we might have and enjoy our freedoms. We should also hold in contempt the people who want to take all of that away from us. And we should remember people like Gray Morrow, who sought the universal in the particular and looked past surfaces to see the truth in things, as good and great artists do.

Happy Independence Day, America!

*After leaving art school, Morrow worked for a Chicago art studio. He also met a fellow Hoosier, Allen Saunders (1899-1986), famed author of Mary WorthBig Chief Wahoo, and Steve Roper, who encouraged him to get into the field of syndicated comic strips. Morrow gave it a try, but only later did he find success as a not-always-credited artist on such strips as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Tarzan.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment