Blake Superior: The Bud Blake Interview
Stolzer: What do you mean by “pure”?
Blake: Look at any of the things in this strip and they’re funny. The figures are funny. Look at the movement. It’s funny from the get-go.
Stolzer: His figure work was brilliant.
Blake: His compositions stunk, but that didn’t matter! [laughter] It’s interesting to see the changes people make. His lettering is very hard to follow, but what the hell! The little child there is funny as all get-out!
Stolzer: That’s Bunky. The strip ran as a Sunday topper to Barney Google.
Blake: Great stuff!
Stolzer: I’d like to get back to your advertising career for a bit. So you had enough of the business?
Blake: Yeah, I quit on my thirty-fifth birthday. Kudner was very good to me. I wasn’t mad at them. They couldn’t believe that I was quitting. I can’t give you the details, but they offered me a hell of a lot of money. They offered to do things that really surprised me. They were more than kind. By then, I had seen the clients, and then this happens. And the client might say, “Whatever happened to that fellow Bud with the glasses?” I can see that the company would be concerned once you had your clients lined up, but I had had enough. And I guess that’s how it is. I didn’t have a lot of money or anything, but I was an owner of the company. There were ten of us who owned it and they literally gave me my tenth, because I didn’t have the money to buy it. So how that works is that they give you the stock and the bank holds it. Remember, I was there since I was a paste-up boy, so all of the receptionists and secretaries called me “Little Buddy.” Even when I was the owner, they’d call me “Little Buddy.” My wife would call up and say that she’d like to talk to Mr. Blake and they’d say, “You mean ‘Little Buddy’?” Of course it drove my wife nuts! [laughter] Anyhow, it was all very nice; very fun.
Stolzer: So how was it that you turned to comic strips from there?
Blake: Remember that panel that I showed you, Ever Happen to You? I heard at that time that H.T. Webster had died, so I thought that there would be a couple of hundred papers sitting around, wondering what they were going to put in his space. His assistant had died too, so I thought there was probably a market. I had been doing, as you saw, those American Weekly and Pictorial Review pieces, which were both Hearst/King Features, which was naturally where I went, ‘cause they knew my stuff. So I went to the office two or three times before I saw Mr. Byck, who was a very nice fellow . . .
Stolzer: Sylvan Byck?
Blake: Sylvan Byck, yes, a very, very intelligent fellow. He used to be a cartoonist and was a pretty good watercolorist. He was kind of on your side. His criticisms were intelligent. At that time, the head of King Features was the guy who wrote Lady and the Tramp, a Disney thing. His name was Ward Green and he was a very intelligent man. I mean, this was my first adventure with a syndicate. He was very nice and kind, and bingo, I started. I said, “By the way, I’m going to Spain”. Oh boy…[laughter] you know, Spain is no place to mail things, but I went anyhow. I won’t say that I worked for my wife, but she wanted to travel, so we traveled. As I said, we got there. My wife had a miscarriage and the kids had the mumps. Name it, it happened. And then the mail…I started mailing the strips by the week, and then I decided that they’ll lose half of them, so I started mailing them by the day. They lost almost all of them. I figured that I’d make a couple of thousand a week with the strip. When we got home, my first month’s pay was twenty-seven dollars. I had two kids and a house…the whole shmeer. Oh, was I stupid. But I had done the panel and it went to maybe a hundred papers. Ever Happen to You? originally had a rotating title for different gags, but they changed that. I think I could’ve made a living on the panel, but I couldn’t send two kids to college. So I was freelancing at the same time, doing the kind of work that you see here, to eke out enough money to pay for the house and college. Anyway, I’m trying to think of the name of the company that had the 24-sheet poster of the little kid getting her bathing suit pulled off. That big company…Coppertone! They hired me to do a comic strip for their calendar, which they gave away. They wanted a teenage strip, which I did. So as long as I had it, I took it up to King Features to see if they were interested. But they said, “No, we have Ponytail, but try a kid’s strip.” When they mentioned kid’s strip, at that point, you think Peanuts. Jeez.
Stolzer: Do you think that they wanted some competition for Peanuts?
Blake: Yes, that’s what they were after. So I did the characters and four or five weeks of gags. I could even tell you every gag. The syndicate said to have five white kids and one black kid. Then they threw the black kid out and told me to do a little brother. They did do some good promotion. Tiger started with 400 or 500 papers, which was very nice. It is not in 400 papers now.
Stolzer: What was the highest number of papers that it ran in?
Blake: Well, I don’t check ’em and I don’t ask. You can tell by the money you get, though.
Stolzer: Tiger started in 1965?
Blake: Yeah. Remember, we fooled around for five or six months. They [the syndicates] always do. And I was doing the panel, too. But I told them that I couldn’t do the panel anymore, and they agreed, but the panel was more fun.
Stolzer: Why was that?
Blake: Well, it’s you. I mean, I could draw adults and situations. I haven’t drawn an adult in 40 years.
Stolzer: I guess you could vary the situations more.
Blake: That’s right. That’s why I’m fascinated with certain small children, although they’ve changed. I mean, their games and attitudes have changed. They seem more adult than they used to me. It may be that box [referring to Isaac’s GameBoy].
Stolzer: You drew Tiger for almost 40 years.
Blake: Just about 40 years.
Stolzer: That’s a lot of strips. How did you do it?
Blake: Well, I buy some gags, and I do some gags. Most gags are switches, you know, when you switch a gag around to work it again. I had a gag the other day that pleased me to no end. Just had a kid ask, “Why are you bare foot?” “Because I have no socks and shoes on,” says the other kid. That’s what I like. The kid is telling you the truth! [laughter] But you do get nervous sometimes, wondering if you’ve seen the gag somewhere before. It’s not always easy to tell.
Stolzer: I noticed that a lot of your gags seem like gentle observations.
Blake: That’s all they are. I have a fella, who I’ve never met, out in St. Louis, who does a lot of gags. He must have another job. He’s very taciturn or something. As I say, I’ve never met him, which is great. When you work with another guy doing gags, he’ll say, “Why didn’t you do this or that?” It’s all very hard to explain why you didn’t do this or that. It’s almost impossible. I mean, I’m back to standing on that stage at Goodyear, telling them why I’m using ol’ Sickles here instead of Norman Rockwell. I don’t know. Because I felt like it! [laughter] But you can’t get away with that!
Stolzer: How did you entertain yourself for almost 40 years?
Blake: I don’t know. I had no vacations or time off. They always tell you to get ahead, but you can’t. So this is the first vacation I’ve ever had, outside of my time in the hospital.
Stolzer: Some vacation.
Blake: Yeah, well, I should have been dead. Whatever they did didn’t work.
Stolzer: Do you missing working on the strip?
Blake: Sometimes. I mean, I have gags going on in my head and nowhere to put them. Frankly, I keep thinking that I’m going to go back and do that panel again, because old people aren’t having enough fun. Then there’s a friend I had named Reamer Keller. I don’t know if you know of him.
Blake: I think he was the mayor of somewhere. Anyway, he told a story about going to an art supply place in Florida and asking for crow quill pen points, but they never heard of them. So he wrote me and asked if I’d send him some, because they didn’t have any. All they had were ballpoint pens and other disposable ones.
Stolzer: I remember talking with Rick Yager some years ago. He needed a particular Gillotte nib, but he wanted the brass ones, so he asked if I could help him out. He said that the new ones didn’t last for more than a few days. I can’t remember if I had any luck.
Blake: Well, Gillotte is one of the main brands. I went into one of the art stores up here and asked for some one-ply paper. She said, “We have two-ply, but they don’t make one-ply.” “Well”, I said, “You can’t make two-ply without making one-ply!” “Well, we don’t make one-ply. We only have two-ply,” she said. Round and round. I said, “When the boss comes in, tell him about that.” Pretty soon they call up and say, “We found some one-ply.” What I’m getting at is that’s all two-ply is. If they make two-ply, they have to have one-ply. And I like one-ply because you can see through one-ply on the light table.
Stolzer: Two-ply is just a one-ply sandwich.
Blake: That’s all it is! [laughter] What I’m getting at is that the guy who used to run the store is an old pro, but he went to Florida and sold it to ladies who now deal in crafts more than artwork. I have nothing against crafts, but it’s not what it was. [To Isaac] What are you drawing now? More snakes! You’re crazy for snakes!
Isaac: Uh huh.
Blake: You’re talking to a guy who used to own a boa constrictor.
Blake: I got it from a boarder at our house who ran an import and export business. One day he came home with a baby boa constrictor that was on a ship from South America, among the bananas or something. So he brought it home. I was more or less Isaac’s age. We got a box with a glass top and holes in it. We had it in his bedroom. My mother, of course, went nuts. My job, as a little boy, was to get either a frog or a mouse once a month and put it in the box with the boa constrictor. If you’ve ever seen a mouse in a tank with a boa constrictor, then you’ve seen fear. We all felt sorrier for the mouse than anything else, because then we had to feed the mouse little pieces of cheese, since the boa wasn’t always ready to eat. But it made me a big kid on the block. “Hey, you want to see my boa constrictor?” [laughter] So this guy paid me so much per mouse to feed the boa, and the kids would pay me to look at the boa. So it all worked out. However, he got killed in an automobile crash, so my mother had the room vacant, looking for customers. It had a four-poster bed in it, with those curls around it. I can remember being with her when she took a new customer up to show him the bedroom he would use. And here the snake had gotten out of his box! [laughter] That was a shock, to say the least! All what I want to say is that when we sold the house, or had it taken by the mortgage people, I had the boa constrictor and they wouldn’t let me take it to the apartment, so I let it go in the backyard. Twenty years later, I still worried about those little children in the schools! [laughter] But I doubt that it made it through the winter. Twenty years later, he’d have been pretty big. [laughter]
One of the reasons that my marriage worked so well was that my mother had a boarding house and her mother had a boarding house. So we all knew about it; what you had to do, and the troubles and all that stuff. We were married for 50 years. Sure, we fought. Who doesn’t? But we got along pretty well. She was smart. And boy, when I sent Tiger in, there were no proofreading problems, ever! I mean, she went through it, and boy did I need her, because I can’t spell worth a damn.
Stolzer: I noticed that one of the things that you seem to enjoy in Tiger is to play around with space and perspective.
Blake: I loved doing that. I would say that almost anything that I’ve drawn isn’t original, that I must’ve seen it somewhere. But you don’t know. Is it original? I don’t know, but as new people come along, you get original ideas.
Stolzer: What kind of reference material would you use for the strip?
Blake: Of what?
Stolzer: Reference material to work from. I read that all Gaar Williams used was a Sears, Roebuck catalog.
Blake: Oh, I used Toys ‘R’ Us. But I didn’t use much of it, because they changed so much. But I’m cornball in what I used. A lot of the toys have changed a lot, but some haven’t. I would think, looking at Dennis the Menace. By the way, I was buddies many years ago with Ketcham, before he became a big deal. [laughter] Ketcham used to live next door to a friend of mine, in Westport, Conn. Happily, I was able to give him some business, for Goodyear hoses. He did his first commercial cartooning for Goodyear hoses.
Stolzer: Would that have been in the late ’40s or so?
Blake: Yeah, it would’ve been around that time, maybe earlier.
Stolzer: You mentioned Ketcham. I see as a real similarity between your styles in terms of line work. So much of it is about a lively line.
Blake: Yes, that’s something that he fooled with for a long time. In the early stuff, he didn’t do that so much. It was a flatter line. The guy who’s doing it now is pretty good.
Stolzer: That’s Marcus Hamilton who’s doing the daily panel.
Blake: Well, he’s doing a pretty good job. See, they tried another guy on Tiger a couple of times, and I realized how difficult it is to ape somebody.
Stolzer: Both you and Ketcham used a calligraphic sort of line, with a lot of thick and thin variation. There was also a beautiful spotting of blacks, causing your eyes to travel around the strips.
Blake: The Pogo stuff, particularly early Pogo, was awfully good. I can still, in my head, see those roots of the trees. They’re so good! [laughter] I believe that after Kelly died, his wife did some of the strips. I thought they were pretty good. I wonder sometimes about the amount of papers strips are in. In one of my books, it says that H.T. Webster’s strip was in something like 200 papers, while Blondie was in 3,000 or something. I have an awful lot of Webster and Briggs books. They weren’t in that many papers, but they were bigger cartoonists. I don’t know how they charged for their work. Maybe larger markets.
Stolzer: I had mentioned before about gags that were more like observations, and both Briggs and Webster were that way. Their work was a lot about observing life and commenting on it.
Blake: That’s right.
Stolzer: There’s also that purity of drawing that you talked about.
Blake: Well, you still have to know how to draw, to arrange the compositions and to know values and all that. There are tricks to drawing and anyone can learn them. You just have to spend time.
Stolzer: In the end, I consider myself a line guy. I especially love pen and ink because you can’t hide from ink. It’s all right there. Whether it’s guys like Russell Patterson, A.B. Frost or Winsor McCay, there’s a real purity to their line. You’ve managed to maintain this really lively line in your work for over 40 years. How did you do it? How did you manage not to become bored by it?
Blake: Frankly, I still like the pencils better than the finishes every time, because they have more spirit to them. Remember, that kind of layout is what I did for years before doing comics. [Blake goes into his studio to get some roughs.] What do they say? “With warts and all.” I must have 10,000 of these roughs. But you can see what I mean. I love the pencils. Even with the mistakes, I love them.
Stolzer: They’re beautiful. The line work is so lively.
Blake: When I do pencils, I think, “This is how to do it. I’m the greatest thing in the whole world, blah, blah, blah.” What do they call that? Psyching yourself up. I think you have to do that.
Stolzer: The line work is gorgeous. They have a great rambling quality about them.
Blake: You’ll find that I move them around when I ink.
Stolzer: How do you approach the inking?
Blake: I put the roughs under the one-ply and draw them one more time on the light box.
Stolzer: Do you start with the contour lines, or do you lay in the blacks first?
Blake: I put in the blacks last, because I’m not sure where they might wind up.
Stolzer: Creig Flessel once told me that he sometimes laid in his blacks first to get the rhythm of the piece.
Blake: Oh, sometimes I’ll do that, lay in the blacks as a pattern.
Stolzer: One of things that I so admire about your work is that the line is working with those black areas. You’re actively causing the viewer to follow the rhythm of the piece.
Blake: Look at some of the blacks that Ketcham used. I sometimes want to say, “Take it easy. Don’t make the background more important than the front.”
Stolzer: You must’ve really enjoyed doing these little fight scenes, with the kids wrestling, shoes and buttons flying around . . .
Blake: I enjoy that stuff. Hell, I enjoy it all. But when you run out of joy, you don’t want to continue.
Stolzer: I love the sketches.
Blake: There’s something about them that I just like. Maybe it’s because of the work that I did at Kudner all those years, all those roughs.
Stolzer: I remember a story about an artist who had done a 30-second figure drawing that someone wanted to buy. When they asked about the price, the person was shocked that the artist would ask so much for a drawing that took so little time. The artist replied that although it took him only 30 seconds to do the drawing, it took him a lifetime to get to the point of being able to do the drawing.
Blake: My father had a similar line about that. He said, “I charge for the paintings, maybe 20 percent for the equipment, 20 percent for blah, blah, blah and 60 percent for knowing how.” I find that perfectly logical. He died at 42, which was very unfortunate. He could draw anything but figures. Figures bothered him.
Stolzer: Before, in your studio, you talked about Willard Mullin.
Blake: Yes, his work was magnificent. I think his drawings of the boxers were great. And I was a kid. That’s how long ago it was when he was doing sports stuff for the World-Telegram. Even as a kid I bought the paper just to look at his stuff. Kids who are 17 don’t do that.
Stolzer: He would do those portraits on the Coquille paper and then would have those little figures around it. They might be Yankees or Dodgers or boxers. He was one of those guys, as Alex Toth has put it, who was a real ink slinger, a guy who could really throw the ink around.
Blake: Well, I think he was one of those guys who could draw to order.
Stolzer: Talk about great figure artists . . .
Blake: Boy, was he good. I got a letter from him once, out of the blue, and he wanted a drawing from me. That’s how I got that piece on the wall in my studio.
Stolzer: That’s a wonderful Bum drawing.
Blake: One of the things that I made a little money on was selling roughs to the Saturday Evening Post, among other places. I didn’t sell many, but I sold some. In other words, you did a little rough drawing that you think would be cover material and you rather hope that they’ll say, “Oh, fine sonny, why don’t you do this and we’ll run it as a cover.” But they never do. They would say, “Who should we give this to?” It always killed me. They’d give it to Gordon Utz or somebody. I did one of the railroad station at Red Bank, N.J. There was a train full of commuters with their hats and stuff. And running down the station platform in her nightie was an obviously young wife, holding up her husband’s briefcase. The drawing I made showed the inside of the train, with all of the smoke and gloom. And out of the window was the wife, really the star of the piece. So they changed it around and showed her in the front instead. Maybe he was right. Maybe he was wrong. But they paid me $150, so swell. I can’t complain. [laughter] I wanted to argue about the drawing, but they gave me the money, so I had to shut up. The same thing applied to paperback books. The paperback book covers were a good source of money. A famous book about a mouse came out, titled, The Mouse That Roared. What I’m getting at is that it was me versus someone else. So I did a cover for them. Not a big deal, just a cover. They paid me something like $300. The book sold like crazy. It sold millions of copies. And then they came out with a whole bunch more, using the same picture. My argument was that I should’ve been paid extra, but my agent said, “No, don’t do that because we’ll lose our business with Bantam Books.” I was thinking that everyone else is making money, so why can’t the guy who drew the picture? Remember, I wasn’t whining or being greedy. I just felt that they should pay if they were going to use the picture again. This happened at least three times. They also used some various spot illos that they never paid me for. Still burns me up.
Stolzer: I recall reading an earlier piece about you, from maybe ten years ago, where you talked about Jimmy Hatlo. You referred to Hatlo as a “dirty cartoonist.” What did you mean?
Blake: Yes, well think about DeBeck. It’s the same thing. He’s not going to draw just any character. It’s going to be funny, with a big nose and a pot belly. He can’t leave it alone. He’s a pure cartoonist, which I’m not.
Stolzer: Why do you say that?
Blake: I have to think about it too much. [laughter] DeBeck looks very much like Hatlo to me. Not the same line or anything, but if you look at the characters, he wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t funny to him. And Hatlo was the same way. You know what he’s going to do. If he showed you an office, you knew what was going on in it. It’s a little old timey . . .
Stolzer: But there’s a lot of character in the work.
Blake: There sure was.
Stolzer: I also wanted to ask you about the Tiger comic book from the early ’70s.
Blake: There were a couple of them, but they didn’t sell.
Stolzer: Did you have much input into them?
Blake: No. They let me do a cover. They gave me instructions, but they let me do it. One of the problems that I had with the whole experience was that I was never able to buy any copies of the comics. I lived in New York and went through the stations and stores and could never find any. So they didn’t sell, and I can tell you why. There were distribution problems. I would’ve bought a bunch of them, but I couldn’t find any. So I took it up with King but got nowhere. You know, when you do a comic, you think about to whom you’re going to sell it. I don’t know enough about syndicates to know which are bad and which are good, but I know about the deals with the syndicates. Guys like Caniff had a 75/25 split, rather than a 50/50 one. If you can get away with it . . .
Stolzer: Caniff left the Trib Syndicate over ownership rights with Terry.
Blake: Then he came to King and made his deal with Steve Canyon.
Stolzer: What do you think are the biggest changes that you seen in the comic-strip field since you started?
Blake: I would say that there are more gimmicks than there used to be. If I say something, it sounds like I’m picking on them, but I’m really not. I think some of them aren’t really comic strips at all but are a copywriter’s gimmick. I don’t think it helps the world. I get the Bangor paper, which is a good one, but some of the comics aren’t all that good. Who was the guy who was so popular who did a panel? He just up and quit. You know, he was very funny and did cows . . .
Stolzer: Gary Larson.
Blake: Right! Now they got a guy doing something similar. I don’t know. Gary Larson had a macabre sense of humor that worked very well.
Stolzer: He saw the world through different eyes.
Blake: This guy just does odd things. I can’t really tell you why I object. They’re just not funny.
Stolzer: Are there any cartoonists today whose work you admire?
Blake: Oh, I think Zits is very well done. Borgman’s a hell of a cartoonist. I don’t know if he’s going to kill himself or not. Just think of what he’s doing. I know, just from my own experience, he’s doing a hell of a lot of work. And I wonder if he isn’t burying himself with it. Shoe is very well done, even by the new guys. They’re very good. I’m very appreciative of it, because I know it’s not easy to follow someone like Jeff MacNelly. Both of those are pretty good strips. I think King Features has done a very good job with Hi and Lois and Hagar. Hagar was a wonderful strip. And it’s still pretty good. There’s one that’s in our Sunday paper that I just don’t get, by a guy who’s a wonderful cartoonist. I just don’t get what he does. It’s just very complicated. It’s very well done, but it’s just, what’s the word I’m after? “Rarified,” my boy would say. [laughter] I make no bones about it. A comic is a comic is a comic. It is to amuse. How it amuses…it shouldn’t be too much trouble. [laughter] I’m no expert, but sometimes strips have too much going on.
Blake: I do think that story strips are done by illustrators and comic strips are done by cartoonists, but it all kind of runs together.
Stolzer: I’ve got one last question for you, Bud. You mentioned those last drawings on your drawing board that you didn’t send in. How did you know that that was it? How did you know that you were done with the strip?
Blake: When you have a lot of problems, you get awfully tired for no reason. The constant you’d-better-be-ready-to-mail-by-Monday-morning wears on you, and I’d been mailing every Monday morning for 40 years. So I thought that it would be nice not to have to do that. I’ve done enough. I don’t think it was going any better.
Stolzer: But the one sitting on your drawing board looks awfully good.
Blake: Well, could I do more? Sure, I could keep doing it. But I can’t. I’ve had enough.
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