Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A-Whale Huntin' We Will Go!

Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy was the first adventure-themed comic strip. Written and drawn by Roy Crane, it actually began life in 1924 as a humor strip. But Crane was soon bored with coming up with gags every day and he gradually morphed his creation into an adventure story, albeit one that never lost its initial sense of humor. The main character--Washington Tubbs III--was soon joined by rough-and-tumble soldier-of-fortune Captain Easy. Together, the two bummed around the world, getting into one scrap after another.

In fact, even when they weren't looking for trouble, trouble would find them. In a 1933 story arc, the two are drugged and shanghaied aboard a whaling ship. Easy raises an objection to this, but the brutal first mate Mr. Slugg forces him to sign the articles.

So Wash and Easy become sailors. Their ship is not a happy one, though. The elderly captain is sick, allowing the sadistic mate Slugg to run things his way. His way isn't very nice.

Eventually, the ship does encounter whales, allowing our heroes to learn just how dangerous their new profession can be.

Things continue to get worse. Slugg eventually murders the captain. Wash is a witness to this, so Slugg takes the little guy ashore on a remote island and tosses him in a well. Easy rescues Wash and the two of them decide it's a good time for a mutiny.

By now there's a pretty girl involved in the adventure--because in the world of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy it is quite impossible to go ashore on a remote island without practically tripping over a pretty girl. So after a pitched battle or two and some captures, escapes and recaptures, Wash, Easy and the girl find themselves tied up in a cabin while the ship burns around them. Fortunately Easy has good teeth, allowing him to engineer their escape and have a final showdown with Mr. Slugg.

Wash Tubbs was  a fantastic strip on so many levels. Crane was a great artist--his style on Wash Tubbs never lost an element of cartoony-ness left over from its humor-oriented beginnings, but that proved to be a strength once he began to tell adventure stories. Crane's tales were violent and often full of death and brutality. But the art style, though it was realistic enough to
generate a real sense of danger, also kept it from becoming unpleasantly graphic. No matter what, the yarns Crane spun were always full of pure fun.

And then there's his skill at composition--designing each individual panel so that every detail looked just right. He was a pioneer in the use of onomatopoeia sound effects. He used blacks and gray tones effectively to heighten drama. He choreographed action scenes as skillfully as did later artists such as Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko.

The whale hunting story arc is one of my favorites, not just because it's a typically well-told adventure story, but because it shows off Crane's skill as a visual storyteller. The whale hunting sequences, for instance, are particularly awesome. Watch the video below--one of a 5-part series I made for the library at which I work--for a better sense of just how skilled an artist Roy Crane was.

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