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.

Staggering Heights – the first strips…

In 1994, after years of drawing several different strips, panels, and editorial cartoons for publication, I created what I thought was a one-off character named Jake for a comic strip titled Wolfbane, then published in over 50 college papers nation-wide through a college syndication service.

I guess I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Carver at the time. The music of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, early Bruce Springsteen were omnipresent in my studio, and the comics pages seemed overrun by cutesy one-note family humor that I wasn’t interested in (and couldn’t have made if you held a gun to my head). What about adults who liked comics? What about adult ideas, and adult humor?

The first appearance of Jake in Wolfbane, an earlier comic strip

The first appearance of Jake in Wolfbane, an earlier comic strip from 1994

I’d been looking to have some fun with the form and threw in this character as a lark. The character was a hit, I was having fun, and so I set off to develop a new strip. Created with more influences from fiction, music, poetry, and film noir than from the comics pages, and with Tucson, Arizona as a backdrop and inspiration, there was plenty to riff on. What possessed me to think this would all translate into a good comic strip is still a bit of a mystery to me.

Staggering Heights 001

The first Staggering Heights cartoon 1995

So, Staggering Heights started its weekly run in the Tucson Weekly in 1995 and ran in a constantly changing number of alternative press papers until 2003, when after 20 years of cartooning – comic strips, cartoon panels, editorial cartoons, children’s books, editorial illustration, I put it aside to concentrate more on my painting, which I had also been pursuing at same time (see and