DESIGNING IN POST-LITERATE TIMES

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[Based on the content I would place this as early 90s. I can't recall my original intent, perhaps I meant it for PRINT, but it was never published and I believe would have predated my first published article for them. It's funny to see myself reacting to those new kids on the block, Emigre and David Carson. While the me of today has some quibbles with the my younger self, including my somewhat pedantic voice, there's still much here I stand by.]

In the course of human events, graphic design plays a significant but largely misunderstood role. Certainly in day to day international events, it seems to play no part at all, except to occasionally augment and interrupt our horror during newscasts. But if you look to our higher selves, and to the arts as the zeitgeist of our collective souls, it is there in force, and increasingly so within the last 100 hundred years. Still, it is relegated to the corner as a secondary art, lagging behind its more revered sibling, art for arts sake. However, this is a temporary condition, that with the passage of time will prove meaningless. What today is revered as “fine” was indeed commissioned by the likes of the Medici, rich patrons, and Government Grants. How often is it stated that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, belying the irony of a master’s commercial failure. Just as Irving Penn’s and Man Ray’s work now have their place in museums sans the context in which the work was done, graphic design will too be looked back at with value, and not only in the context of commerce. Since it has greater power to influence than any of the other art forms, with the possible exception of the popular song, in will be viewed in terms of that influence, which more often than not is informational rather than commercial in nature.

With that said I feel compelled to state that design has become its own worst enemy in that it has become increasingly about style versus content. Taken on its own merits, design has become “designerly” with nary a thought involved. The problem here is that it cannot rise above its secondary role as it remains a decorative art in the truest sense of the word. I do not believe this is simply the result of technology, but rather vanquished conceptual thinking, that seems to plague our society as a whole. In this post-literate time when we appear to be on a treadmill of recycled forms, concept has become the rarity rather than the norm. In fact new forms are reviled, and polarized, due mainly to their discordant nature. Although rap music has been embraced by many of the young, it remains for most an unpleasant experience, and the same could be said for the Emigre/Raygun school of design. And while these are indeed new forms that are an outgrowth of technology and share much in common (aggression, distortion filters, primitiveness), they also share a street wise lack of formality, a knowingly “un-literate” world view, or an affront to the world view, if you will.

But as much of this “new” music descends into braggadocio, much new design remains mired in style. Whether it remains the emperors new clothes is yet to be seen. Certainly, as in all trends, vital parts will remain, and will become part of the design lexicon, that we continue to hand down to posterity. Whether that posterity will continue to be part of human endeavor, or simply an ossified art form that is viewed in history books it is too early to tell. The only thing for certain is that if design is simply about how it looks, and not about what it has to say, then it will most assuredly be classified as decorative.

Not so for the general history of the form. Concept is the center that design grows out from. It is the soul, the heart and the head. Now one may wonder why a conceptual conceived poster or book cover has any greater significance then one that looks aggressively interesting, and indeed objectively to the uninitiated the two may be virtually indistinguishable. The later engages the viewers’ eyes only, and weary ones at that, while the former encompasses the whole being. Now this may seem like broad overstatement, but here in lays the truth: When the viewer is engaged in a concept and extracts its meaning, he/she receives a gift. This gift is not simply from designer to viewer. It is the gift of humanity, evidence that we have indeed crawled out of the muck and mire and are capable of a higher self, of inventiveness and cleverness, of humor and analytical reasoning. That we are not simply the nightly news, the brutality of the beast, but that we strive to be much more. And while graphic design remains one of the cooler art forms, more intellectual than heart felt, less emotive than painting, dance, song, film, it is an art form nonetheless, evidence that we have evolved, that things can improve, that there is hope for us after all.

A TOUCH OF WELLES: Orson Welles, American comic books and pop culture.

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[Note: This article was written in 2006. I adapted it for my bio of Mort Meskin "From Shadow to Light" from Fantagraphics in 2010 but it is published here in its original entirety for the first time.]

In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, author Michael Chabon writes of his character “It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was. . . . the fundamental principle of comic book story telling. . . . Without the witty, potent dialog and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have merely been an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was more, much more, than any movie really needed to be. In this one crucial regard—its inextricable braiding of image and narrative—Citizen Kane was like a comic book. ” 1 Though fiction, Chabon here touches on fact, the symbiotic relationship between Orson Welles and the birth of the American comic book. In fact Welles and the pioneers of the comic book interactions and influences on each other still resonates today. Not surprisingly, they share similar inspirations: the triumvirate of German Expressionism, The Pulps and Newspaper Comic Strips had a lasting effect on their respective mediums and our culture.

As a youngster Welles’ original desire was to become a musician or artist, but his father ruled against it. “…he was bitterly opposed to my interest in music and painting and everything like that. As far as he was concerned, if I was going to be an artist, it’d be better to be a cartoonist, like his friend George McManis, who drew “Jiggs and Maggie,” otherwise known as “Bringing up Father”—that’s where the money was.” 2 Welles maintained a love of cartoon strips, and later on, comic books, though out his life.

This love of popular writing and art extended to the pulps, and in 1933, at the age of eighteen, he began writing for them while living in Morocco and Spain, and was eventually published in the well known Ellery Queen magazine. “ It took me fifty dollars a week to live like Diamond Jim Brady, and I made that by holding up every once in a while and grinding out stories for the pulps.” 3 According to Welles biographer Simon Callow, Welles read pulp fiction his entire life and he “had suitcases and suitcases of it.” His radio career began with the Walter B. Gibson character born of the pulps and comic books, The Shadow, in 1937.

Welles remained true to his populist roots throughout his life. A 1942 press release written by the publicity department of RKO Radio Pictures, to whom he was under contract, states “Welles is a big man, well over six feet, who tips the scales around 200 pounds. He has no hobbies, considers working at his chosen professions enough to keep his mind occupied. He likes clothes and designs his own suits and dressing gowns. He is tremendously loyal to the members of the Mercury company and is using most of them in his pictures. It is his ambition to keep a permanent acting group. . . . He is an avid reader of comic strips and is particularly fond of “Terry and the Pirates.” He believes comic strips mirror contemporary American life.”

Welles cared little for what others considered “high art” versus “low art” and took his unabashed love of popular forms of storytelling with him to Hollywood. He disliked the pretensions of intellectuals while at the same time was dismayed at the irony between what was considered high and low, and what was considered to be art at all “The arts and artists of our theatre have been so busy for so long now teaching their public to reject anything larger than life unless it be stated in the special language of glamour and charm that I’m afraid many good citizens who read comic strips with the utmost solemnity will laugh out loud at Eisenstein’s best moments. Our culture has conditioned us to take Dick Tracy with a straight face. But nothing prepares us for Ivan the Terrible.” 4

He applied dramatic devices taken directly from comics to his films. For example, the clock tower ending of The Stranger was a device used many times in the early 1940s by Batman writer and co-creator Bill Finger. As Welles notes “(It was) pure Dick Tracy. I had to fight for it. Everybody felt, ‘Well, it’s bad taste and Orson’s going too far,’ but I wanted a straight comic-strip finish.” 5 Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould, had began life as a comic strip in October, 1931. Another comic book mainstay that Welles utilized to great effect in the famous mirror sequence of Lady From Shanghai was the carnival setting, also right out of the pages of Batman. And the overall environ of a sailor and femme fatale had a direct antecedent in Terry and the Pirates. In addition, The Trial begins with sequential art to tell the tale of the law.

Thus it is clear that Welles was not only cognoscente of the comic strip and comic book as a visual and literary form, but actively engaged it in his work. Visually, his odd, edgy, upward proscenium-like angles and forced perspectives owed much to the comic strip and early comic books, which was reciprocated on their part, and back and forth, creating an interplay between the mediums that reached its zenith in Welles work in Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil.

The American comic strip first attained definitive form in the Sunday The Yellow Kid page, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault for Joseph Pulitzers’ American Weekly comic supplement to his New York Journal in 1896.6 The Yellow Kid became one of the paper’s star attractions and was soon embroiled in a battle between publishing rivals William Randolph Hearst, and Pulitzer. Hearst had begun a series of raids on Pulitzer’s staff the previous year, in true Citizen Kane like fashion, and this included Outcault. Pulitzer then bought Outcault back, but Hearst upped the ante once again. Pulitzer then hired George Luks to do their own version of The Yellow Kid, with rival identical characters appearing in both Hearst and Pulitzer papers simultaneously. This ensuing battle between the publishers coined the term “yellow journalism” a reference to the color of the Yellow Kid’s nightshirt. The strip was read by over 200,000,000 people everyday, nearly 75 billion a year.7

Ever the showman, Hearst advertised his comic pages thusly:
NEW YORK JOURNALS’ COMIC WEEKLY—EIGHT FULL PAGES OF COLOR THAT MAKE THE KALEIDOCOPE PALE WITH ENVY . . .
Bunco steerers may tempt your fancy with a “color supplement” that is black and white and tan—four pages of weak, wishy washy color and four pages of desolate waste of black.
But the JOURNALS COLOR COMIC WEEKLY! Ah! There’s the diff!

In January 1912 Hearst introduced the nation’s first full daily comic page in The Journal, adding it to his other papers from coast to coast. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Rudolph Dirke’s Katzenjammer’s Kids, Windsor McCays’ Little Nemo were among the earliest to by syndicated nationwide, soon joined by the aforementioned Jiggs and Maggie by McManis. Cartoonists were the superstars of their times, many under contract earning upwards of one million dollars per year and going on national tours to give chalk talks to a willing public.

The pulps also first appeared around the turn of the nineteenth century and combined serialized writing with often lurid cover art. Pulps satisfied an urge for exaggeration: Athletes were stronger, heroes were nobler, and women more luscious—with a dollop of sex to spice things up.8 These pages contained intrigues of crooked cops, clever criminals, sinister spies, and dangerous femme fatales that were grist for the mill for Welles’ radio shows and films to come.

Cartoonist and writer Milton Caniff was born in 1907 in Ohio, and in 1934, he was hired by the New York Daily News to produce a new comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, which made him famous. Initially the strip told the tale of an American sailor and his adventures in China, battling both pirates and femme fatale The Dragon Lady. At the onset of the war Terry enlisted into the armed forces. One of the innovations Caniff brought to the medium was the use of changing viewpoints from panel to panel, to arresting effect. This, and dramatic use of shadow and light combined with beautiful women who he fashioned after the movie stars of the day influenced the film noir cinema to come in general, and Welles in particular.

Another writer and artist, Will Eisner was born in New York City in 1917. He first sold strips to Wow, What A Magazine! in 1936, and in 1939 created his seminal character The Spirit, a masked detective brought back from the dead to avenge his own death. Depicting a city rife with crime, Eisner also employed tongue in cheek humor and deep shadows along with a gritty view of the criminal world. Combined with Eisner’s innovative use of dramatic perspectives and bird and worm eye views this work would also pave the way for Welles’ films and the film noir that would follow shortly.

Comic books first appeared in the mid 1930’s, originally as reprints of the Sunday newspaper strips that Pulitzer and Hearst had championed. In 1938, Superman premiered in Action Comics Number One, and the superhero was introduced into popular culture. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it owed much to the movie serials and pulps of the day. Originally created as a proposed comic strip, visually Superman was full of charm, but fairly straight forward in its storytelling technique. It would not be until the follow year with the birth of Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, that German Expressionism would find its way into these pages. Steeped in shadow, The Bat-Man, as he was originally called, was the “dark knight”, donning a vampire like outfit replete with black cloak, to avenge the murder of his parents years earlier. The character was a direct descendant of the hero Zorro from the pulps, written by Johnston McCulley, who first appeared in 1919 in All-Story Weekly. Another prototype was the pulp figure The Shadow who starred in his own magazine from 1931 to 1949. In addition Batman’s gallery of villains soon resembled those of Gould’s Dick Tracy. Still, Batman ultimately was a totally original creation, and one that was in sync with late depression era angst.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer summed up the differences this way “ Batman’s world was more cinematic than Superman’s. Kane was one of the early experimenters with angle shots . . . though he was not compulsively avant-garde in his use of the worm’s eye, the bird’s eye, the shot through the wine glass. . . ” 9

Surprisingly, artist Bob Kane’s (né Robert Kahn) dual influences for his creation were both Milton Caniff and Welles, but not in the way one would expect. “Milton Caniff was my greatest inspiration. . . . the first year of Batman was heavily influenced by horror films, and emulated a Dracula look. I also loved mystery movies and serials; The Shadow on radio was a big influence. . . . I was particularly fascinated with the mysterious Shadow, whose ominous voice cut through the air waves, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men . . . . ’ And he would end his prologue with that ominous basso laugh which sent chills down my spine.” 10 The aural effect on Kane and others in the field may have not ended there. The Mercury Theatre was known for its pioneering use of sound effects for dramatic effect on the radio, and the written equivalent of these sounds effects rapidly became part of the comic book genre. Writer Bill Finger concurred about the influences: “My idea was to have Batman be a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, The Shadow, and Doc Savage as well. . . My first script was a take-off of a Shadow story. . . … . . I patterned my style of writing Batman after The Shadow. . . . I always liked that dramatic point of view. It was completely Pulp style.” 11

It was Bob Kane’s art, soon assisted by Jerry Robinson, that introduced the world to the odd angles, and deep shadows on the comic book page, displaying directly the influence of German Expressionism and also the horror film pictures of Hollywood. In fact Batman’s most famous villain, The Joker, was a direct descendant of a German film. As Robinson notes “When Bill (Finger) came back with a script, he brought in a picture of Conrad Veidt. . . . Bill knew about Veidt because he was into German expressionist films and had seen the movie.” 12

This visual presentation was not lost on Welles, and ironically, as the comics were influenced by film, Welles was influenced by the comic book. Thus began a yin-yang relationship between Welles and the comic book that would last throughout his career. According to comic book historian Les Daniels “A favorite film of the Batman staff was Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane (1941). Its dramatic lighting and camera angles struck a responsive chord, as did its hero’s surname; less obvious is the fact that this film and their comic book share a similar plot. Psychologists say that it’s a common if transient daydream among children to be rid of their parents, but having it actually come true is the stuff of nightmares. Neither Charles Foster Kane nor Bruce Wayne ever recovered, perhaps in part because they experienced survivor’s guilt over the price they paid for wealth and power. We’re told that Batman adopted his dark disguise to scare criminals, but there could be other reasons why he felt compelled to dress as ‘a creature of the night, black, terrible.’ Consumed by guilt and grief, this was a fellow who needed a friend.” 13

Superhero comic books were wildly successful from the onset, selling in the millions per copy. As their popularity grew, they began to replace the pulp magazines, a victim of the paper shortages of World War II. While the original auteurs of the comics maintained artistic control for a very brief time, much like Welles with Citizen Kane, this environment didn’t last long. Soon comics would change in tone and look. Spearheaded by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a child psychologist, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, a campaign was begun that viewed comic books as the corrupters of youth, with damaging Freudian overtones. The Comics Code Authority was established as a way of censoring content, and much like Welles after Kane, the creators and early artists and writers lost full control of their creations. Dark expressionism was replaced with light-hearted humor, and deep shadows and chronicles of revenge with fanciful tales of aliens and alternate dimensions, and other far fetched story lines that impressionable youths couldn’t replicate at home. Still, the unusual point of view of the panels remained.

Ironically, it would take a television to bring comic books back into popular culture. Like many of his generation writer Rod Serling was influenced the radio shows of his youth, especially the Mercury Theater productions. The Twilight Zone, which was broadcast from 1959 to 1964 displayed some of the visual techniques and themes of cold war alienation that appeared in Welles’ films in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the title was also published by Gold Key as a comic book form 1962 to 1979. In fact, creator Rod Serling had pitched the pilot to the network with the idea of Welles as narrator, but Welles asked for too much money, and it was decided that Serling should do the narration.

Welles’ influence on comics reached its peak, and some would say its downfall with the Batman television show that first appeared in 1966. A broad parody of comic books, the show featured the same low angle shots, odd perspectives and extreme close-ups familiar to students of Welles, here played for laughs. Interspersed between sound effects (Pow!) and sight gags, and in color, the twisted perspectives and close-ups are at once the visual equivalent of the comic book panel and Wellesian in ambiance.

In 1989 director Tim Burton adapted Batman for the large screen, again employing many of the same visual techniques as the television incarnation, albeit more respectfully. In his second film in the series, Batman Returns the corrupt Citizen Kane like capitalist is named Max Schreck, in tribute to the star of Nosferatu. Sadly, the next two films, in lesser artistic hands, fell back into caricature, with ever increasing twisted angles and exaggerated story lines and acting.

In 1992 Batman: The Animated Series began as a Saturday morning cartoon, and once again artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini revisited comic book’s roots. “Movies themselves contributed to the look and the feel of the series” Dini noted. “A short list of films favored by the artists included such film-noir classics as The Big Sleep and The Third Man (starring Welles), thrillers such as Vertigo and The Night of the Hunter. . . and examples of German Expressionism such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.” Timm concurred: “(The backgrounds) had weird shadows that aren’t actually motivated by light sources but give a kick to a scene. They help create that kind of chaotic, Caligari look. It’s an effect based in part on German Expressionism, which in turn influenced Orson Welles and Greg Toland on Citizen Kane and after them the whole film noir school.” 14

The comic book has since become a pervasive part of our culture, now more than ever. Film series based on comic book characters such as Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and the soon to be released Superman appear to be in endless supply, with more on the way.

A recent serious attempt at recreating a comic book on the screen took the form of Frank Miller’s Sin City in 2005, co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Shot mostly in black and white as a virtual panel by panel recreation of the film noir styled graphic novel, the film was quickly compared to Welles and Kane in several reviews. “The connections between comics and films go back to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and have operated in both directions. Welles wanted to do something different with the near unlimited creative freedom he’d been given to make the film, yet he’d never directed cinema in his life. His experience was as a broadcaster and theatre director, and much as Miller would look outside the convention of his medium in the 1980s, so did Welles in 1941 make a film about a news broadcast. More importantly for comics, Welles took perspectives found in the audience of a proscenium arch and replicated them in film. Shortly after the release of Kane, comics started to change: the flat side-on perspectives were replaced by a roving comics eye. While Welles’ had to dig up studio floors or construct elaborate rigs to get his desired shots, the freedom of perspective he inspired in the work of comics artists like Will Eisner was unlimited.” —Little Ben.

“The visuals are quite extraordinary – one could easily compare the stylized effect that Robert Rodriguez achieves here with the same sort of amazing things you see Orson Welles doing with camera and light when you discover Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time.”—Richard Scheib

The relationship between comics and Welles reached new heights in 2003 when well known comic book writer Mark Millar posted a story on the Comic Book Resources website, detailing the newly unearthed plan for Welles to direct his own film version of The Batman in 1946. The article details the proposed casting (Basil Rathbone as The Joker, James Cagney as The Riddler, Marlene Dietrich as Catwoman!) and even included a production sketch with detailed information. Supposedly Welles was in negotiations with RKO Pictures and DC National Comics to bring this to fruition from 1944 to 1946. All this was based on an upcoming biography of Welles by author Lionel Hutton, due out the following year. Alas, none of this was true, Millar having perpetrated a hoax in the spirit of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast 65 years earlier. An Amazon search of biographer Lionel Hutton turns up blank. The article even went so far as to say Welles wrote a review of a new comic books series in The Village Voice, entitled The Real Counter-Culture Lives Here in 1973, raving about the Denny O’Neil/ Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic book, but a search of the archives for that year turns up empty. Still, this apocryphal tale and the willingness of so many to believe goes a long way towards exemplifying the relationship between Welles and the comic book, and afforded all a chance to dream what might have been.

In today’s climate of the Hollywood blockbuster, with 100 million dollar plus price tags, and little risk taking or experimentation, it is doubtful Orson Welles would have more luck today bringing his vision to the screen than he did in his own lifetime. However, the graphic novel (as comic books are now called) and by extension films based on them, are alive and well, and encompass a wide range of styles and creative explorations. Ironically, Orson Welles’ influence is still yet felt, in the most unexpected of places.

“Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others. ”—Orson Welles

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Blackbeard, Bill and Williams, Martin, The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, Smithsonian
Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1966 (13)
Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Picador, 2000 (362)
Daniels, Les and Kahn, Jennette, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book
Heroes
, DC, 1995.
Dini, Paul and Kidd, Chip, Batman Animated, Harper Entertainment, New York, 1998. (no page
numbers in book)
Feiffer, Jules, The Great Comic Book Heroes, The Dial Press, 1965. (28-29).
Kane, Bob with Andrae, Tom, Batman and Me, Eclipse Books, California, 1989 (2-45)
Print, September/October 2003, Heller, Steven, Pulp Fiction (108)
Robinson, Jerry, The Comics: An Illustrated History of the Comic Strip, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974 (12)
Welles, Orson and Bogdanovich, Peter, This is Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, (65-190)
http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/orson-welles_biography.htm
http://www.moria.co.nz/index.htm, The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review, Sin City,
Richard Scheib, 2005
http://www.musicalbear.com/Shooting Frank Miller: Comics in Hollywood, Little Ben, 2005
http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/rodserling.html

Footnotes:
1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, p. 362.
2. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 65.
3. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 44.
4. Welles and Bogdanovich , p. 144.
5. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 190.
6. Blackbeard and Williams, p. 13
7. Robinson, p. 12.
8. Heller, p. 109.
9. Feiffer, p. 29.
10. Kane and Andrae, p. 2–45.
11. Kane and Andrae, p. 45.
12. The Man Who Laughs, 1928, Directed by Paul Leni.
13. Daniels and Kahn.
14. Dini and Kidd.

A Ghost for a Ghost: George Olesen

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There are few comic book creators whose careers span 60 years, and they are generally well known within the comic book culture. Even more rare are those who both wrote and illustrated their own stories. George Olesen fits that bill, yet rather than a household name with the comic’s community, his name barely registers. Although he illustrated The Phantom syndicated daily strip for over 40 years, he began it as a ghost for fellow artist Sy Barry.

Olesen was born on December 6, 1924, in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, New York.  His mother registered him late for kindergarten at PS 102, and as a result there was no desk provided for him. “Two kindergarten teachers came to me and bent over and they said they were sorry but I didn’t have a chair. But that changed my whole life. They were sorry but my mommy brought me too late for a chair. So I had to stand up and draw on the blackboard and they showed me how to draw on the blackboard. And therefore I had a special place.” The result of this was that Olesen soon became the “school artist” for the entirety of his public education experience.

Olesen attended Manual Training High School (now Brooklyn Technical High School), where he continued his art studies, creating murals for various productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. He also worked on the school magazine and yearbook. “I got a real broad education. I just got a great deal of more training then I was scheduled for and it came in very handy when I got to New York and my actual work where they paid me.”

Immediately following graduation he enlisted in the military service at age 18. At 6 ft 1 1/2 inch he was too tall to fly fighter planes so he was trained as a B24 pilot on fuel supply duty. Soon he was flying across the globe supplying gasoline to the US Army Air Force. “My first major flight was across the Atlantic to Greenland, from Greenland to Scotland, to Wales, to Italy, and then across North Africa, to Cairo, to Bethlehem to Southern India to Western India and then into Middle China, and then I went back. My base was in Western India and I flew from there on a day to day basis,  (providing) aviation gasoline into four of the major airbases.” While stationed there his talent became know and upon request began drawing cartoons that parodied officers and enlisted men on the base. These were soon hung up in the officer’s mess hall, and became a big hit. So much so, that when Olesen didn’t provide one on a daily basis, his superiors would seek him, and would inform him who they wanted him to characterize. “If I didn’t put in a cartoon every once on a while, they came by and hinted that they hadn’t seen a cartoon. They would say, ‘What happened, did they fly you too much?’ I kept drawing it to the end of the war.”

After V-E-Day, (“…and when the war ended they flew me home! “) Olesen returned to New York. He attended both Pratt and the American Art School, studying illustration.  “There were some summer classes I was able to take, illustration and so forth, and I would do a little of that at my convenience. It just worked out very well for me.” He soon began his dual careers, according to him, working “full-time” in two different fields, advertising and comics.  “I worked at BBD&O, and Doyle Dane Bernbach, you go down the list, I worked there.”

Concurrently he began working in comic books, both as hired artist and also writing and illustrating his own stories, which he then sold to the publishers. He worked for the lower tier of publishers, Hillman, St. John, Street and Smith, Toby, Ziff–Davis. “You have to learn how. I did comic books. I did a whole bunch of them. Some of them were my own, and some were when a comic book company needed some.” In 1949 he worked on Little Beaver for Four Color Comics, published by Dell, ghosting for comics creator Fred Harman. Later he worked for Atlas and EC. Along the way he meet and formed a life long friendship with fellow Brooklynite and Pratt Alumni Marvin Stein, who like Olesen worked both in advertising, comics and later broadcast graphics.

In 1952 Olesen began ghosting the daily baseball comic strip Ozark Ike for creator Ray Gotto, published in the Journal American. Olesen was able to draw upon his experience growing up in Brooklyn working on the strip. “I played my share of baseball as a child, I was not on a team, (it was) after school. I tried hockey as a kid, all the things you could play on asphalt on a street, stickball, street stuff.” He also illustrated for pulp magazines, such as Fantastic Adventures.

This was soon followed by another ghosting job on another syndicated strip, Red Ryder, once again for Little Beaver associate Fred Harman. All was going well until the owner of the syndicate died suddenly and it was discovered that the second in charge had been embezzling funds for years, bankrupting the company. “They had the books checked and he had been stealing more than half of the company’s money. They had to let me go, they had no more money. They had to stop the strip. They ruined the lives of all those people. They couldn’t give me anything.

“I kept doing okay. People heard about it and had sympathy for me. I just had to change subjects. Advertising pays the most. I wasn’t sorry about that part.”  Not derailed long, Olesen soon was working in yet a different field, creating broadcast graphics for the Nightly News on NBC featuring Gabe Pressman. “I did only the weekdays, someone else did the Sundays.” Anything that couldn’t be filmed was grist for the mill. “The reason why I did a lot of robberies, that was the only thing NBC couldn’t get a film crew to. I did the drawing in the NBC newsroom. Or I brought them up to Studio Five.” Olesen remained there for 8 years. During this period Olesen also met and married Rigmor, a newly arrived librarian from Denmark.

Keeping his dual lives active, he also began assisting artist Sy Barry, younger brother of fellow comic artist Dan Barry, on The Phantom daily strip. The Phantom was created by writer Lee Falk in 1936, who was also the creator of Mandrake the Magician, and drew the strip for a short time himself. A tale about a hero avenging his father’s death, donning his costume and therefore believed to be a ghost, the strip was soon drawn by Ray Moore, who received an artist credit. Moore left during the war, leaving the art chores to Wilson McCoy, whose wife Dorothy did the lettering. Upon his death in 1961 it was continued by Bill Lignante, who worked in advertising with Olesen and also created news graphics for rival ABC. When he left Barry took over. Olesen signed Barry’s name for the first several years. “ I actually did pencil both the daily and the Sunday Phantom. From 1962 to l984 I mainly penciled the Sunday story, and from 1984 to 1994 I penciled the daily as well the Sunday story. When Sy Barry retired in 1994, I took over and got my name on the Phantom. In June 2000 I gave up drawing the Sunday stories in order to have more leisure time.” He also contributed to the Scandinavia Phantom magazine, Fantomen. Olesen continued on the daily strip, assisted by inker Keith Williams, until his retirement in 2005, when the art duties were taken over by Paul Ryan.

Starting in 1965 he also worked at BBD&O, alongside another comics refugee, Mort Meskin, both brought in by the departing Marvin Stein. Both were illustrators and storyboard artists, creating comprehensive layouts for print ads for photographers to follow and storyboards for television commercials. The storyboards would be animated approximately 10% through a technology known as “Animatics” to sell the concepts to clients and used as guides for the directors.

Olesen worked in cubicle next to Meskin.  “We didn’t have a door to block entry for anyone who wanted to drop off a bulletin, or a notice, or to let one of the ‘wheels’ come in, so they could drop in and drop out very easily, without knocking doors. I was right across from Mort; we saw each other every day. My ‘door’ lined up with his ‘door.’ Mort was usually working; he liked work as much as anybody I know. I would go there when things were dull to see if I could key up some of his stories. He was a storyteller for me.” On occasion Meskin and Olesen would meet with Stein for lunch, although, unlike Stein, his friendship with Meskin didn’t last beyond BBD&O.

Today George and Rigmor enjoy the temperate clime of Florida and vacationing during the summers in Denmark.  Looking back, Olesen reflects, “All during my working period I had two full time jobs and they always seemed to work out. It was a lot of fun, and I liked work.”

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Art: The Phantom Dailies; Authentic Police Cases #27, St. John, May 1953; Hawk#3, Ziff-Davis, December 1952; Tales of Horror #10, Toby, April 1954; Fantastic Adventures, Ziff-Davis, March 1953-03; Weird Science No.9, EC, September 1953

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