Blake Superior: The Bud Blake Interview
Rob Stolzer talks to Bud Blake, who retired after producing nearly 40 years of Tiger
AS ANY ARTIST can tell you, it’s one thing to have fans, laypeople who love the work that you do, but it’s something entirely different when counted among those fans are your fellow artists. And when those artists look at your work and claim you to be an artist’s artist, well, that’s among the greatest accolades one could ask for. Those artists know what you go through. They know about the hard work, the lack of vacations, the need to be “on” for 365 days in a row, year after year after year. But it’s more than that. All artists have access to the same tools. Anyone can buy a Windsor & Newton series 7 brush, a Gillott 170 pen nib, a pen holder, a bottle of Hunt’s India ink, pencils, watercolors and Strathmore paper, but not all artists can provide the magic. Not everyone can make those little black lines on paper dance and sing as if someone has breathed life into them. Fellow artists recognize that magic in the hands of the artist’s artist, and they remain in awe of it. Bud Blake created that magic on paper for more than 50 years, with nearly 40 of them devoted to his wonderful comic strip Tiger.Bud Blake was born on Feb. 13, 1918, in Nutley, N.J. His father, George Blake, was an art director at the Batten Company, a forerunner of the famed advertising firm BBD&O (Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn). The elder Blake was an accomplished painter and did many illustrations for well-known ads including the Dutch Boy character for Dutch Boy Paint. George Blake died at the age of 42, when Bud was only seven years old. His mother, Hazel Blake, ran a boarding house to support the family, but times were difficult for a single mother of three. Due to the financial hardships, there was at least one occasion when Bud had to live with friends. Bud attended school in both Nutley and New York City and had various jobs along the way, from soda jerk to swimming pool lifeguard. (The latter job didn’t last all that long, as he was caught letting some friends sneak in to swim.) Bud later studied art at the National Academy of Design, and in 1937, at the age of 18, he began working as a paste-up boy at the Kudner Agency in New York. He married Doris Gaskill, who worked at the Book-of-the-Month Club, in 1939. Bud worked at Kudner until 1943, when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. Pvt. Bud Blake spent most of the three years at the Infantry Replacement Training Center in Macon, Ga. His duties included creating silk-screen instructional posters for such activities as learning how to fire a machine gun. Upon his return from the army, Bud resumed his work at Kudner, working his way up to the position of executive art director. The stresses of the job, though–the traveling, meetings, commuting and administrative work–took their toll and Bud abruptly quit Kudner in 1954, leaving what he called “good men and good pay” behind him. Bud yearned to get back to the drawing board, so he developed a panel cartoon feature titled Ever Happen to You?, which he sold to King Features in 1954, shortly before moving to Spain with his family. Bud continued working on Ever Happen to You? for 11 years, at the same time doing freelance work for various advertising accounts and major magazines, such as Family Circle and Business Week. In 1965, Bud pitched an idea for a daily and Sunday comic strip to King Features. Tiger, which was based upon his observations of neighborhood kids as well as his own children, first saw print on May 3, 1965. It started with a healthy circulation of 400 newspapers and a strong publicity push. Bud won the National Cartoonists Society’s Award for Best Humor Strip in 1970, 1978 and 2001. Doris and Bud Blake had two children, Marianna and Jay. Doris passed away in 1988, after 49 years of marriage.The humor in Tiger was based largely upon the gentle observations of kids doing kid things. The characters in the strip would explore together, wrestle, play ping-pong or simply talk about things that matter to children. Punkinhead was often the catalyst of these conversations, questioning anything and everything in wide-eyed innocence. Tiger itself was set in a more innocent time, when kids still played together without arranged playgroups; before the isolated distraction of GameBoys and computers. In that regard, Tiger harkens back to some of the classic kid strips of old: Smitty by Walter Berndt, Reg’lar Fellers by Gene Byrnes and those wonderful panel cartoons by John McCutcheon and Clare Briggs. The one element that those strips had that Tiger didn’t, was parents. The strip might have alluded to parents off-camera somewhere, but this world was truly one that belonged to the kids, with few parental restrictions raining down upon their magical parade.
There is no doubt that the gentle humor in Tiger was an integral part of the strip’s charm, but the real show-stopper here was the drawing. Simply put, Bud Blake could flat-out draw. He drew with a graphic verve, one that created a rollicking rhythm of energy throughout the strip. Creating that energy in the finished work had a great deal to do with the process of drawing the comic strip, which was vital to Bud’s work on Tiger. He started out with lively preliminary drawings, pencil ramblings that had a Daumier-esque quality. In this part of the process, Bud was able to set up spaces, move characters around, get both figural and facial expressions but, most importantly, form the attitude of the drawing. That attitude was filled with energy, vibrancy and immediacy, like the best gesture drawings. After the preliminary pencil sketches were drawn, Bud would sometimes go over them with marker, in an effort to tighten up aspects of the drawing a bit. Most times, though, the pencil prelims would go straight to the light box, where he laid a piece of one-ply Strathmore paper on top of it, which would help to preserve that energetic quality that Bud strived to maintain. He then proceeded to work his magic with India ink. Contour lines–those lines that help define both the outer and inner edges of forms–got laid in first. In Bud’s case, those lines had wonderful thick and thin variations, much like you see in calligraphy or Asian brush painting. You can see where Bud might speed up a line or slow it down, turning it this way or that way in an effort to maintain the liveliness of the drawing. Bud also managed to create a real weight in the characters and forms that he drew. By creating such variation in his line work, he alluded to weight with very little shading. Sure, you’d see a small bit of feathering here and there, on Tiger’s baseball cap or a background tree, but by and large that weight was created through Bud’s expressive line. It’s the weight of the lines themselves that gave the weight to the forms. After the contour lines were drawn in, Bud typically added the masses of blacks to create a rhythm in the strip. Take a look at a Tiger comic strip. Look at any one at all. Notice how those black shapes, in conjunction with the contour lines, pull your eye around the panel, leading you from one frame to the next. It might be Punkinhead’s hair that leads you to Stripe’s spots, which direct your eyes to Hugo’s black shirt and on to Tiger’s dark cap. All of these elements, the lively line work, the weight of forms and spotting of blacks, combine to create a comic that is full of life. It is sheer mastery of drawing and design at work.
Bud Blake, after 39 years of drawing Tiger, recently retired from the comic strip. He has given newspaper readers 50 wonderful years of charming and innovative comic-strip work. Those magical little black lines are not so easily duplicated.—Rob Stolzer
Rob Stolzer: I thought you might get a kick out of seeing this. [Stolzer is holding an early Bud Blake watercolor painting.]
Bud Blake: Holy gosh!
Stolzer: I was wondering what it might’ve been done for.
Blake: I have no idea, but the colors have faded some. Some of the flesh tones have faded. That isn’t bad for me.
Stolzer: It’s wonderful work! Do you have any idea when it was from?
Blake: Probably ’60 or ’65. That would’ve been done for Pictorial Review, which is a King Features publication. It came out every week, like a Sunday supplement. I think I did 20 or 30 a year. I don’t quite remember this particular piece.
Stolzer: It’s all brushwork?
Blake: That’s all brush, and I haven’t used a brush in 40 years, because, well, comics are a different matter. I’m rather proud of the piece!
Stolzer: When I first saw it, it reminded me a little bit of William Steig’s kids.
Blake: Bill Neely was the agent for that work. Neely Associates is probably still going. Agents at that time made 25 percent, which doesn’t seem fair. On the other hand, they usually got you 25 percent more than if you took your own work in yourself, which isn’t a good idea. The agent could dress you up better than you could dress yourself up. I forget what they paid…$350…$400…something like that.
Stolzer: Which was good money back then.
Blake: Oh, you bet! Anything over $100 was big!
Stolzer: So you were doing that in addition to Tiger at the time?
Blake: I’m not sure that Tiger began at that point. No, that would’ve been before ’65. I wouldn’t have had time to do anything else. Once I started Tiger, I was also doing that panel I showed you [Ever Happen to You?], and there just wasn’t time. That other work was freelance. That was for kids in college, because I had two in college. Admittedly it’s not what college costs now, but it’s all relative. My wife usually made more money than I did, particularly early when we were married. But when we had children, she just quit.
Stolzer: What kind of work did she do?
Blake: At the time, she worked for the Book-of-the-Month Club. She was the head of correspondence. It’s when they answered letters. Doris was perfect for that era. She sat at a little platform with the correspondence and stuff. I’d have to wait outside. I was still a paste-up boy at the time, so I’d be cutting mats for layout presentations while I waited [laughter]. I’m not sure who the heck cuts mats anymore. We used guys from Art Center [Art Center College of Design] out in California. They had pretty much taught their graduating class what an art agency would hire them for. Other places, like Pratt, were teaching kids how to do 24-sheet posters. Kids aren’t going to do 24-sheet posters. They should’ve been teaching them about ruling pens.
Stolzer: They’d start out by cutting and pasting, wouldn’t they?
Blake: Well, we worried about that because kids were coming in with their samples and their samples would be of book covers and things that you knew kids weren’t going to do for another 10 or 15 years. It made it harder to pick them out. It was much easier to pick the kids from Art Center, who all came out east to get jobs. They all had good skills. I hired Warren Rogers over someone else because Rogers’ solution to a particular problem was better than the other guy’s. But more than that, Rog had the personality that would work on the client. Remember, we [Kudner] were a New York agency. Our clients were Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, and Buick in Flint, Mich., and GM. We had to pick, at the time, young men who could go out and talk to the clients. Not all artists and art directors are going to do that. We had to pull some of them and give them jewelry accounts or something like that. It’s tricky.
Stolzer: You had to find people who could make the sales.
Blake: You don’t want to lose the account. You have to worry about the guys in Akron or the guys in Flint. It was quite a problem. My best friend had a hard time with it. I told him that if he gets another job, take it, because he was too good for where he was. He became the head of some agency in Chicago.
Stolzer: The firm you were with was Kudner?
Blake: Yes, I worked for Kudner. They went defunct. Once you lose Goodyear, the big one, the other ones go too. Oh, the whole advertising business…I quit. I literally quit at 35.
Stolzer: Had you always had aspirations of comic-strip work?
Stolzer: How did you go in the direction that you did, toward advertising and comic strips?
Blake: My father, when he died, left me all his stuff. I had to do something with it [laughter]. It’s true. That’s why I say that you don’t know how lucky you are when your father leaves you something. My father left me all of his brushes and stuff. But he also left me the ability to do something. That’s exactly what’s going on. Maybe he could leave you the plant or the factory, but maybe he left you something better: the ability. You know, even before the advertising work, I was doing art. Remember, when I was a kid I went to state fairs as a wood carver.
Stolzer: I read about that. You were doing balsa wood portraits?
Blake: “9-to-90,” that’s what the sign [advertising the demonstration] said. It’s embarrassing to think about it, but they paid me something like $30 a week and all expenses. To a kid, that was magnificent. Think about it, Rob–a block of wood…it’s white balsa, which was just like cutting soap. You had to do it quick, because people were watching. From this block of wood, which you had to buy from the Ideal airplane company, you’d build a caricature head and then you painted it. But you’d leave it on the block of wood. It was more interesting that way. That’s what I did. The old guy, who was always loaded and who was working with me, had a long white beard. He did the little ships in a bottle. He hated me [laughter].
Stolzer: How old were you at the time?
Blake: I would’ve been around 10, 11 or 12, somewhere around there. But they fired me when I started shaving. I did different expositions; places like the East States Exposition, the Texas Centennial and Atlantic City. We didn’t sell anything. We gave away pocket knives.
Stolzer: You were doing these as demonstrations?
Blake: Yes, for Dupont or whoever was making the knives.
Stolzer: How long would a caricature generally take you?
Blake: They wanted you to do them as fast as you could. An hour or so. It wasn’t artwork. It was any-kid-could-do-it kind of stuff. And you were supposed to use Remington knives. Razor blades worked much better, but you were promoting knives. Remember, the old guy was doing boats in bottles, chains…really tricky stuff. He was really a good carver. I was a child.
Stolzer: How do you think that experience affected your cartoon work?
Blake: Well, you cared about the back of stuff, when you think about it. You spend your life just drawing the fronts of people in cartoons. Damn few showed many backs.
Stolzer: So, when you were a kid, which comic strips did you enjoy following? Which were your favorites?
Blake: All of them. I loved ’em all.
Stolzer: Do you remember J. Millar Watt, a British cartoonist who drew Pop?
Blake: I vaguely remember it.
Stolzer: He used a very fine line and he would often have his gag fall into the second-to-last panel, letting the gag sink in in the last panel.
Blake: That would’ve been in Punch?
Stolzer: It was syndicated in the States by the Bell Syndicate.
Blake: I did get Punch for while and it was great. The British cartoonists were so different from the American cartoonists. There was some intricate work.
Stolzer: I brought along some artwork by some of the old Punch guys. Here’s one by Phil May, from the 1890s.
Blake: [Looking at the May drawing] My goodness. Isn’t it funny about styles of drawing? This is very nice. These are almost not cartoons in a way. Looks like a bit of Norman Rockwell right there, in the faces. Where do you get pieces like this?
Stolzer: From dealers, or auction sites on the computer.
Blake: See, that’s all new to me.
Stolzer: The computer has changed everything. It’s made the world a lot smaller. You can correspond with collectors in Europe on a daily basis.
Blake: I would get more letters from Europe than anywhere else. I quit answering letters, but I can’t throw them away. It’s too bad, because I used to answer every one. My wife would, too. She would carefully answer every one. But when I was in the hospital for six months, the letters accumulated and I never got around to doing anything about them. [Blake stops to look at what Stolzer’s son, Isaac, is drawing.] What are those last ones? What are those?
Isaac: Some monsters I like to draw.
Blake: You’re crazy about those monsters! The world is full of stuff. You made the clarity of some little person’s line here. Usually they do not. But draw stuff! Draw everything! Tables, lamps, chairs; not just one thing…everything! Once you draw a chair, the next time you need one, you’ll remember how to draw it.
Stolzer: I do love how you would draw furniture in the comic strip. There was a real sense of…
Blake:…old fashioned! [laughter]
Stolzer: Not necessarily old fashioned. You had a beautiful sense of space. A lot of times today, a comic strip will consist of a figure in a blank space.
Blake: They’re filling it up; trying to find a way to fill blank space. I don’t think that is necessarily helping the whole comic world. I want to see more of this [pointing to some old originals Stolzer brought] and less of the copywriters, which is what we’re getting. We’re getting more copywriters’ stuff and less artists’ stuff. But that’s part of what the syndicates do, and we’ve got to have them. I’ve had my arguments with them. I’ll tell you a good one. “Come with me” or “take me.” We had an argument about this one for some reason. You see, my wife was nuts about words, and I argued that “come with me” is much nicer than “take me,” but the syndicate wouldn’t leave it alone. I mean, it doesn’t mean a thing, it won’t get you one more reader, but there is a difference. “Come with me” is kind and sweet. It had to do with Tiger saying to his little brother “come with me,” not “I’ll take you.” My goodness, you wouldn’t believe the discussion on the phone between here and New York.
Stolzer: It’s about your love of language.
Blake: I’ve had my discussions with King Features and some of the big shots there, which have caused some…moments [laughter]. One time a big-time King Features salesman called up. He wanted me to come to New York because they were going to give me a prize or something, but I said, “No, it’s too long a trip.” “Oh,” he said, “You’ll like this.” I said, “If you really want to do something nice for Tiger, why don’t you promote it a little bit?” That didn’t go over well [laughter]. I remember having a discussion with Frank Springer, and at one point he says, “You big-foot people,” like I have some sort of disease [laughter]. I know what he means when he calls me a big-foot fella. Of course, my argument is “What are you talking about? You’re talking about cartoonists when you’re an illustrator.” I really feel that way. Guys like Springer are really illustrators, and there is a difference. Looking at what this guy did [pointing to a Phil May “Guttersnipes” drawing], I would say that guy is more an illustrator than a cartoonist.
Stolzer: Or an illustrator doing cartoons. It’s sort of like Hal Foster. Was he an illustrator or cartoonist? Or an illustrator working in the cartoon field?
Blake: I’d say Foster was an illustrator, like Noel Sickles. There were a bunch of them that did that same style. Let me show you something. This is the last job I did for Kudner [pulling out some drawings]. That’s a series for Goodyear. They’re pastels. Do you remember Peter Helck? He did the automobile ones. Al Dorne did one of them and Noel Sickles did the other one. Oh, I was so proud.
Stolzer: They’re beautiful pieces.
Blake: Those are the roughs.
Blake: Yeah, those are my roughs. But I got four of the best guys in the field to do the finishes. And you have to realize that these guys weren’t always anxious to work for you. They were making pretty good money. When Al Dorne came in, he wanted 2,000 bucks apiece, which at that time was big money. Eddie Owens, the account man, grumbled about it and said “That’s too damn much.” He said he wanted to meet this Al Dorne. Now I don’t know if you ever met Al Dorne, but Dorne looked like a gangster. He looked tough and talked tough, a real New York type. So Al Dorne comes in. We’re all sitting around, waiting for the big account man to come in and talk him out of two thousand dollars a shot. So he comes in and the first thing Dorne says is, “You Eddie Owens?” And Owens replies, “Yeah.” Dorne asks, “How much do you make a year?” Bang, he had ‘im [laughter]. Al said, “It’ll take me this long. I make this much. That’s what I charge.” He got his price. In those days the art director could only pay that price by taking the same picture that you paid two thousand dollars for and put it in other ads. That’s part of being an art director. I remember it vividly. I was so much in favor of Al Dorne. He was so quick. He didn’t fool around. I remember being on the side of the artist. Now, how many artists have the guts to say, “That’s how much I make and you’re going to pay me that”? I’m only saying this because I was so proud that I was getting guys that were that good to do this stuff.
Stolzer: As the art director, you were getting the top talent.
Blake: Well, that’s what made me feel so good. I got good guys! That’s [the rough] from 1952, which is an awful long time ago…a hundred years now [laughter].
Stolzer: Fifty-some years. Now, you started with Kudner in the late ’30s, didn’t you?
Blake: ’37, I think. Kudner had just begun. When you think about advertising agencies, think about this one. Kudner was an off-shoot—Art Kudner was the boss—of Erwin Wasey, which was another agency. Erwin Wasey’s logotype was a little sailing ship. When Kudner started his agency, his logotype was a little steering wheel. It was typical advertising thinking. You know, “We’re taking a wheel.” I think I started there when it began. Nobody knew what they were doing.
Stolzer: And were you the art director when you started?
Blake: Oh no, I was the paste-up boy for two years. In those days, that was fine. You cut mats, you mounted, you used the photostat machine, you ordered material. They don’t teach most of that stuff in school. Maybe they don’t do it anymore.
Stolzer: Most of those processes are gone.
Blake: But later you moved onto a board. And then you’re in the room with the bullpen, which was anywhere from five to ten guys. And you’re sitting next to a guy doing different work. And it’s good for you. You can say to the guy next to you, “What do you think of that?” Whereas when you work alone, that’s probably when you show it to your wife. She might say, “That’s nice, dear. Dinner’s ready” [laughter].
Stolzer: How long did you work as art director for Kudner?
Blake: Oh, 17 or 18 years. I quit at 35 years old. I started around 17, because I didn’t go to school. In those days, when the old man died, the kids went to work. They ran errands or whatever. I worked in a drugstore, and at a city pool in New York City. I had a good time. Also, I carved wood before that.
Stolzer: Did the art [wood carving] pretty much start as a hobby for you that turned into a career?
Blake: No, I think they were being nice to my father. It was an agency thing. Remember, my old man was an art director for George Batton. They eventually became BBD&O, which is a big joint. They handled the Remington account, which was Dupont. I think they were looking for something for this little orphan to do. What the hell. They tried to peddle these heads that I would carve, but nobody bought them, so they found something else for me to do. But I had a whole bunch of them. They looked like those waxwork kinds of things. They were all caricatures presumably, most of them of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Stolzer: She made for a good caricature.
Blake: Oh, she was such a patsy [laughter].
Stolzer: So when did you become art director at the agency?
Blake: Like everyone else, you worked your way up. As I mentioned before, they want to be sure that you’re not going to embarrass anybody or lose the account. So they watched you, and I don’t blame them. I’m a company man and agree that that’s probably the way to do it. The sequence then was that you were bullpen material, and then you became an assistant art director, which meant that you were under another art director, doing trade ads and other things while he did the big ads. You did the paste-ups and stuff that he didn’t want to do. He in turn could look at new artwork and see agents. And then, when that’s done, you get to be an art director and get your own accounts. You get to see your own clients, get your own rug and get the key to the toilet, all the perks. At that point, if you owned the agency, you’d be pretty careful who you sent to see the clients, because back home in the office, maybe 20 people were dependent on that account. I used to be scared to death, coming back from Flint or somewhere thinking, Holy cats, if you didn’t have that deal all sealed, 15 people may lose their jobs. I couldn’t stand it. Remember, there was a company plane and I don’t like flying much anyhow, so that didn’t help. And my wife would tell me to get out of there.
Stolzer: So there was tremendous pressure on you.
Blake: She told me to just get out. I didn’t get home much. I left the business and we took the kids to Spain to live.
Stolzer: Really? For how long?
Blake: Well, it didn’t work out. We landed in the rain and they both had mumps. Can you believe it? Anything that could go wrong went wrong. We thought it would be good for them and even with the experience, I think it was good for them.
Blake: [To Isaac, who’s drawing] How about lettering? Do you fool with lettering at all?
Isaac: Not really.
Blake: You will. If you don’t, you will. Some of it is fascinating. One of the things that Kudner did was to send me to school. They sent me to any school that I wanted to go to, at night. They sent me to Cavanaugh, which was a lettering school.
Stolzer: Where was that located?
Blake: New York City. And that’s where they taught chisel-point rendering, with those carpenter’s pencils. That was all the rage back then. The chisel-point guy worked for a sterling silver company, and he could draw the most beautiful shiny spoons in black and white. It was really beautiful. But Kudner paid for it.
Stolzer: It benefited them as much as you.
Blake: Well, I worked cheap [laughter].
Stolzer: I had asked you before about the comic strips that you read when you were a kid. Did you prefer adventure or some other type?
Blake: Edwina was one. Do you remember Edwina?
Stolzer: I happened to bring an original with me, just in case.
Blake: She’s got to be getting on in years . . .
Stolzer: Well, she passed away a few years ago.
Blake: There you go. That’s called getting on. [Looking at an original Sinbad page from Life] Yeah, she’s good. That dog is wonderful. I know how tough this took, to do this with a dog. I mean, I’m not good at animals, and she is good. Now, where the heck did you get this original?
Stolzer: That piece belonged to a good friend of mine for years and years. I bought it from his widow after he passed away. He treasured it, as do I. The cartoon ran in Life, where she was doing the ink wash pieces.
Blake: I remember seeing these cartoons when I was a kid. Where did she live?
Stolzer: I’m not sure, but I believe in the Midwest. It might’ve been Ohio.
Blake: The dog is great! I don’t care much for her figures, but the dog is great!
Stolzer: I also brought some of the older kid strips, like Reg’lar Fellers and Smitty.
Blake: [Looking at a Reg’lar Fellers daily] You know, this guy wrote a book once. I’m in it!
Stolzer: I think Gene Byrnes did two books, one on cartooning and another on illustration and painting.
Blake: It was before I started cartooning. I did a hula dancer for someone that was in the book.
Stolzer: I’ll have to check my copy.
Blake: It’s interesting to see the lettering in these strips to see how much space they wasted. It’s funny; we all use the same gags! [laughter]
Stolzer: Byrnes’ characters always reminded me of city kids, leaping over fire hydrants, playing leapfrog, doing kid things.
Blake: See now, Punkinhead, who’s one of my characters, was not my idea. That was King Features. And I see here that we have Puddinhead [in Reg’lar Fellers]. They didn’t like my name, so they gave me Punkinhead. They liked their name. But I guess when they’re giving you the money, you say “go ahead.”
Stolzer: Charles Schulz ran into the same thing. He never liked the name Peanuts.
Blake: It ain’t bad! [laughter] 1929, eh? [Referring to a Reg’lar Fellers daily] Whatever happened to Reg’lar Fellers?
Stolzer: I think when Gene Byrnes passed away, they ended the strip, even though Byrnes employed a lot of ghosts to draw the strip. If you take a close look, you’ll see that the panel lines and signature are pre-printed on some of them. He had them all set for his ghosts.
Blake: I’ll be…[looking at a Billy DeBeck Parlor, Bedroom & Sink topper] Now Billy DeBeck is funny even before you look at it! [laughter] I mean, he’s pure.