Comics was a big word when I was a kid. You had comics about everything: funny animals , westerns, mystery and horror stories, detectives…you name it. Even super heroes. Now of course, if you're not working in the latter, no one pays much attention to you, and your chances for financial success as an artist are nil. Consequently, conversations on who rates as the best in the business over the years is usually limited to the folks who worked in this particular genre. Occasionally an Eisner or Barks reference slips in there but I'm not sure they are ever seriously considered. Nor is Leonard Starr. At least not by the uneducated. While there are a few who might give Leonard competition as an artist and draftsman, and a few who might compete as writers, it's hard to find anyone in the field who has ever put art and story together as successfully Leonard Starr. Maybe Hal Foster, Caniff, the aforementioned Eisner and Barks and a select handful of others…and I'm not sure any of them are superhero artists.
When Leonard was on the west coast as a special guest at the San Diego convention a couple years back, we took the opportunity to finally meet. The two cartoonists who had the biggest influence on my work as a youngster were Joe Kubert and Leonard Starr. Joe I met early on in my career in the DC offices, but Leonard, since he did comic strips, I'd simply never had the chance of meeting when I visited New York. Leonard was visiting his friend Tom Sawyer who had been his assistant at one time;Tom had moved to the west coast, where he achieved his own fame at a TV writer and producer, most notably of Murder She Wrote. I drove out to Tom's place in Malibu for lunch with both of them. I was a little trepidatious meeting someone who was in his 80's, but when Leonard walked into the room, the first thing I blurted out was, "Good God, do you have a picture in your attic?" (A Dorian Gray reference) Not only did the man look 25 years younger than he should've, but his manner and conversation throughout the lunch always belied his age.
Normally during these lunches with comic folks, I would hear some tidbit about Stan Lee or some other comic book luminary that I would be less than interested in. Leonard and Tom wound up talking about their studio days in New York with connections to Carl Sandberg, Andy Warhol , Marilyn Monroe and opera. The lunch only needed Don Draper to make it complete. Beginning with the scenic drive out through Malibu Canyon, it was a magical afternoon.
Fortunately, Leonard's magnificent run on stage is currently begin reprinted by Classic Comics Press. SO if you've never had the thrill of reading Mary Perkins On Stage, do yourself a favor and pick up one of these books. As a kid I rarely got to read more than the Sunday pages of the strip, but having the chance to read the entire stories, I've really come to appreciate just what a magnificent storyteller and writer this man is. In my conversing with Leonard you realize that this is a man who is not only extremely well read and knowledgable about art and the cinema, but is also a student of the greatest dramatic form, the opera. What follows is a short piece I did a few years back for the CAPS newsletter.
In the 20’s and 30’s the great actresses were Garbo and Deitriech. In the 40’s there was Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard. In the 50’s and 60’s there was Liz Taylor and Mary Perkins. One might argue that Mary Perkins wasn’t a REAL person- au contraire, mon frere. With the magic of his writing and wizardry of his brush, all of Leonard Starr's characters were as real as anything the celluloid had to offer.
Starr began his career doing backgrounds for artists such as Carl Pheiffer, Ed Ash Jr. and Bob Oksner for Funnies Inc. and Fawcett Pub. among others. He was still attending the Pratt HighInstitute in NYC at the time, but these were the war years and jobs were plentiful and talent scarce.The money was great for a high schooler and the work undemanding. As Leonard explained, you weren’t expected to do too artistic of a job--often that was detrimental to what the publisher wanted.
Starr assumed he could simply turn it on and leap forward as an artist when the time was right. It was only when he moved on to eventually doing his own work that he found that an incredible effort was required for even a minor improvement in the quality. But it is apparent he never shrank from the task.
Leonard's first jobs were for superheroes (Timely’s Flaming Torch was one) where “posing” was essential. The superb acting skills he brought to his characters were more evident in the western stories that he did at D.C. during the early fifties.The also reflected Starr’s ability as a draftsman and his flair for drawing realistic figures, both of which were important in the advertising work he was doing.
Having just gone through a divorce Starr decided it was time for a career move and a different life. He approached the syndicates where a number of ideas including one about a medical missionary (as first generation immigrants the Starr’s had planned on their son being a doctor) and one about an young actress. The syndicates mulled over the properties-- then fate intervened: Alex Raymond unfortunately was killed. Reading this news item and afraid that there talent might be lured away as a replacement on RIP KIRBY an astute executive literally deboarded a train on his way home and called Starr to tell him a contract was ready. MARY PERKINS, ON STAGE was born. ( As a footnote, Leonard recommended his good friend John Prentice for the Rip Kirby job...the rest is history.)
Starr lists Raymond, Caniff and Noel Sickles as the major influences on his work, and they are all evident in ON STAGE. The grace and movement of the characters, the stylish costumes and backdrops, the heavy use of black and silhouettes were always strong elements. But like Caniff, Starr understood that unless the story grabbed the reader it didn’t matter how pretty the drawings were; and Leonard’s writing was every bit as good as the artwork.
A soap opera about an actress would seem to have little appeal to a young boy of ten. But every Sunday ON STAGE was the first strip I turned to, even bypassing Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy. It was characters like Maximus, the handsome actor with putty for a face, the tough hood Johnny Q, the evil but beautiful Morgana and so many others that drew me in.
Unfortunately, times change, and newspaper story strips have declined dramatically in readership. Consequently, in 1979 the syndicate proposed to Starr the option of dropping his strip and taking over the duties on ANNIE- whose popularity boosted by the musical and movie adaptation was soaring . Leonard brought his own elements of style to the Harold Gray strip.
In the 80’s Leonard wrote a number of KELLY GREEN stories drawn by studiomate Stan Drake. Kelly is a detective and the stories were written with adult sensibilities; they are a terrific read and well worth tracking down.
More than anything, Starr’s work has always combined the best aspects of the comic strip and film. Given a camera instead of a brush, Leonard would have undoubtably become a great cinematographer. He would have been a successful screenwriter or director. But it was his ability to mesh all of these talents that makes him a living legend as a cartoonist. I hope that Mr. and Mrs. Starr understood that the medical profession’s loss has been the graphic story’s gain.
For those of you who would like to see more of Leonard's incredible work, I recommend picking up a couple of volumes of On Stage
from Classic Comics Press:
And Alter Ego issues 111-113 have run a very in depth interview with the artist/writer. Avalaible
at Two Tomorrows: