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Obituary: Stan Drake

Stan Drake was one of the most surprisingly versatile cartoonists in the history of the American comic strip, and at the same one of the least known by name in Britain.

His talent in drawing newspaper strips stretched from the daily soap-opera The Heart of Juliet Jones to the joke-a-day domesticity of Blondie, two strips so vastly different in art technique that in appearance it seems impossible that they have stemmed from the same pen. Jay Kennedy, the current comics editor at King Features Syndicate, paid an extraordinary tribute to Drake's drawings when he said that Drake's craftsmanship was outstanding.

"His control of the pen was so great," said Kennedy, "that you could enlarge one of his two-inch drawings to a poster the size of the door, and every nuance would be there as if he had drawn the poster that size to begin with."

Drake was born in Brooklyn in 1921, later moving with his family to New Jersey. After college he attended the Art Students League in New York where he studied anatomy under their famous tutor George Bridgman. Drake was 18 years old, but was already a published black-and-white artist turning out illustrations for the 10-cent pulp magazines Popular Detective and Popular Sports. He had also started to contribute strips to the ballooning comic-book industry, writing, drawing and lettering for the munificent sum of seven dollars per page. He also worked for the young Stan Lee, later the fabled editorial impresario of Marvel Comics but then a simple strip-writer.

Drake joined the army just before America entered the Second World War, and was duly discharged in 1946 after active service in the Pacific theatre of war. Immediately returning to commercial art, he joined the Perlowin Advertising Agency on Madison Avenue, later transferring to the Johnstone and Cushing Agency, which specialised in producing strip- cartoon advertisements for the Sunday newspaper supplements. Success prompted him to set up his own agency in collaboration with two former cartoonist friends from the comic-book field, Bob Lubbers and John Celardo, who would later take on the Tarzan strip. The volume of work was so great that, despite enlarging the agency to 12 artists, Drake quit from exhaustion.

Wishing to try his hand at newspaper strip work, but realising that the writing of a daily serial was beyond him, he contacted Eliot Caplin. Caplin was the younger brother of the top American strip cartoonist, Al Capp, who drew the hilarious hill- billy strip Li'l Abner. No artist, Caplin had become an expert writer of strips, and had created a highly popular romantic series entitled Abbie & Slats, which was drawn by the brilliant stylist Raeburn Van Buren. This strip contained a sprinkling of comedy, and Caplin was keen to attempt a more serious romantic drama that would latch on to the then popular soap-opera serials of American radio.

The result, Drake drawing, Caplin writing, was The Heart of Juliet Jones, which made its daily debut during March 1953. It opened with a record starting sale to 90 newspapers, eventually rising to over 600, and won the National Cartoonists Society Best Story Strip Award in 1969, 1970 and 1972. The sophisticated story-line was matched by Drake's artwork, which was not only realistic, but frequently used differing art techniques, including unusual tinting.

With the decline in popularity of dramatic newspaper strips, Drake switched his style completely when the artwork of Blondie became available. This famous strip, created by Murat (Chic) Young in 1930, was the epitome of home-spun humour, built around the suburban family Bumstead; smart wife Blondie, half-daft hubby Dagwood, and their kids, Baby Dumpling and Cookie. Written by the late Chic Young's son Dean, Drake illustrated the gags to perfection as befitted the most frequently filmed strip in history; 28 features between 1938 and 1951. Blondie was played by the pretty actress Penny Singleton while the comedian Arthur Lake played Dagwood. Drake's expert artwork helped maintain Blondie as the highest syndicated strip in the world, touching on 2,000 newspapers a day.

Drake was an expert hobby golfer, and turned his favourite pasttime to profitable use by drawing instructive illustrations for Golf Digest, but he will be remembered best as a cartoonist whose talents spanned the two extremes of the strip cartoon.

Denis Gifford

Stanley Drake, cartoonist: born New York 9 November 1921; died Norwalk, Connecticut 10 March 1997.