Every so often I get a comment on my blog that makes blogging worthwhile. One of them is this comment I got on a post about comic book artist Samm Schwartz:
I’m Sam Schwartz’s daughter. I googled him and was surprised to see a substantial number of hits. I think it’s terrific that people are still talking about him!
(No, she’s not mis-spelling her father’s name; as his Wikipedia entry notes, his name was actually “Sam,” and most people called him that in everyday life, but at some point in the ’40s he started signing his drawings “Samm.”)
Well, that got me thinking a bit more about Schwartz, the first comic book artist whose style I could identify as a child. And so did this post by veteran artist/inker Kevin Nowlan about some pages of original Schwartz art and how good Schwartz was at making characters fall down. So I decided I’d comment on a different Schwartz story:
The story is called “A Loan and Blue,” written by Frank Doyle and drawn by Schwartz (who, as usual, inked and lettered the story as well), and you can click here to read the five pages.
Now, one thing that I can’t really put into words is that Jughead has a bigger range in Schwartz’s stories than he does elsewhere. He’s not exactly a character you can do a lot with, visually, but Samm always seemed to understand how much could be conveyed by having him open his eyes at the right time (or open his eyes halfway instead of all the way), or putting some extra folds in his very simplified clothes.
But the story does illustrate a few tricks Schwartz was in love with:
1. Letting the characters violate the panel boundaries. This wasn’t a new technique or anything; it was especially common in the Golden Age. But as the technique became less common, Schwartz started to use it more often to put extra interest into the pages. After he left DC and came back to Archie in 1969, he used this in virtually all his stories. Characters’ legs and arms simply go wherever they want to go.
2. Silhouetting. There’s actually only one silhouette bit in this story, which is unusually low for Schwartz; his motto was “when in doubt, silhouette,” and there’s one story where he just did an entire page of nothing but silhouettes. I don’t know if he did it as an experiment or if he was just running behind schedule, but it sure caught my eye as a kid.
3. Eliminating panel lines and backgrounds. This story has no plot — like a number of Frank Doyle scripts, it’s just two guys talking about not a whole lot. But there is a structural spine to the script, as Jughead becomes more and more angry about the scenario he imagines. (It helps that he’s basically right. Archie is an idiot and this is exactly what he would do.) And as Jughead gets more involved in acting out this scenario, Schwartz sometimes lets multiple Jugheads float across a white space as he gets caught up in his fantasy.
4. Keeping stuff out of view. It’s Archie, rather than Jughead, who does this here, but Schwartz sometimes liked to figure out what he could get away with not putting in the panel. So Archie has a rubbery, broad reaction to Jughead’s line — but all we see of him are his legs; otherwise we’re left to imagine what his reaction was. In the late Joe Edwards’ interview with Jim Amash in Alter Ego magazine — which is a treasure trove of information about MLJ/Archie — he recalled “a story where the dogs were chasing [one of the characters], running, and Sam drew the panel so all you saw was the tail wagging.”
IDW will presumably get around to doing a Schwartz collection in their upcoming Archie artist tribute series; in the meantime, here’s Schwartz in his own words. In 1980 he wrote the following to a young aspiring writer, Craig Boldman, who now writes the Jughead comic book (this quote is courtesy of Boldman, who hopefully will put the original letter up on his website).
“I’m delighted that I could make you laugh. That’s the name of this game… The prime purpose of the artist is to tell the story, with pose, gesture, expression, all of it relating to the dialogue and the character involved… The comic book is not a vehicle for display of talent. It’s assumed the artist has already reached a stage of professionalism or he wouldn’t be there.”
I think of this as an acknowledgement that his spare, stripped-down style was not because he couldn’t draw any other way, but because he didn’t want anything to detract from his ability to sell the jokes.
And, for an example of Schwartz’s later work, this silhouette-filled 1980 story was always one of my favourites in the decades old “Jughead plays cruel psychological mind games on Reggie” genre. (You know, if it weren’t for the fact that all his friends are idiots who deserve this kind of treatment, Jughead would be kind of a dick.) Note the background gag on page 5: as a paper airplane crashes to the ground, a tiny pilot apparently parachutes out of it. And that’s pretty normal compared to some of the other unscripted stuff Schwartz drew into the halls of that high school.