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.”
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