Pen & Ink

Rex Morgan panel by Frank Edgington from Jan 07, 1978

I was never really all that interested in the soap opera comics when I was a kid, but early in high school I was introduced to Frank Edgington, one of the artists who drew Rex Morgan M.D.

I had never met someone who drew cartoons for a living and listened intently as he talked about what he did and showed me the tools of the trade. I hadn’t worked with dip pens at that point, and was drawing mostly with markers and radiographs. I was struck by the quality of the line work in the cartoons drawn using the dip pens and brushes, and by how big the originals were (click on the details for larger versions closer to actual size).

When I left, Frank gave me a couple of cartoons from his collection: a fairly current Rex Morgan M.D. and an Apartment 3G strip from 1963, both duplicated here.

I rushed out and bought a bunch of nibs and india ink and tried drawing a few cartoons: spilling, splattering, blotting, blobbing, and scratching my way towards some sort of competency with what turned out to be a fairly difficult tool to master. It took me a while to figure out that the paper was also important to making good drawings with the nibs.

Rex Morgan panel by Frank Edgington from Jan 07,1978

Looking back, this strip seems an odd choice to give to a young kid, but what the hell…

Another thing these strips introduced me to was shading screen. Cartoonists used to use a sticky backed film with dots printed on it to get halftones in black and white printing. Computers make this all much easier now, but at the time, it was a fairly time consuming and somewhat annoying process. First you would cut a piece of the screen slightly larger than the area to be shaded, peel it off the backing, stick it down, cut to the exact shape needed, and then burnish it into place.

Apartment 3G by Alex Kotzky from Feb 28, 1963

Many cartoonists used it as an accent in addition to grays developed with hatching techniques and massed blacks for a strong design sense. Alex Kotzky made it look effortless (…and not a drop of Wite-Out).

panel from Apartment 3G by Alex Kotzky from Feb 28, 1963

It certainly did make for a more professional look, and when I first began to get published, I gave the main character of my first comic strip dark hair that required putting the shading screen over the elaborate contours of his hair four panels at a time. I think I initially did it so that it was easier to tell the two main characters apart, as my skills were still developing and everyone sort of looked the same.

A Wolfbane comic strip from the late 80's

It didn’t take too long before I decided that he should just be blond, and I ditched the shading screen.

Shading screen was initially used mostly in architectural renderings and design applications, and it really disappeared after computers took over. It was the Manga artists and their more dynamic use of the screens that brought back interest in them in recent years, and you can purchase them again, but they are much pricier than they were originally.

A Staggering Heights strip from 2000

Eventually, I just developed a looser approach to building halftones that gave a lot of variation, and didn’t seem so much like busy work. The later strips were drawn entirely with crowquill nibs, with brush and ink used for large areas of black. The lettering was done with Speedball lettering nibs.


Drawing a bunch of cartoons every week can make you a bit punchy. I certainly felt like this guy some days. Trying to be funny while you’re drawing alone in a room is a odd thing. At least actors can get the reaction of the director and crew. Writing jokes alone is almost like recording yourself doing stand-up alone with a video camera – it’s hard to say what’s going to be funny to other people. Some days you’re just alone in your room with a blank page and inky fingers, trying to think funny thoughts, – while rocking back and forth on your clown shoes (to take a line from Lewis Black).

Clown shoes, mouse shoes, whatever.


stag panel01

Panel from a Staggering Heights cartoon, 2003

Staggering Heights is a comic strip by Joe Forkan that was published in weekly newspapers nationwide from 1995 – 2003.

This website will eventually be an archive of the more than 400 Staggering Heights comic strips and comic book, a blog for new material – cartoons, sketches, illustration work, with the occasional rambling observation related to comics, cartooning and illustration.

Joe Forkan is currently an Associate Professor of Art at California State University Fullerton, teaching classes in the Drawing and Painting, Illustration, and Animation areas.

Comments are welcome and encouraged.