Friday, September 6, 2013

OT: Noel Sickles (1910-1982) - The Writer's Digest Illustrations

The great illustrator Noel Sickles is best known to students of panel art history as the artist who took over Scorchy Smith in 1933 from the feature's ailing creator, John Terry. Scorchy was patterned after hero aviator Charles Lindbergh, and at first Sickles attempted to follow and duplicate the work of the feature's creator, but before long this approach was gradually abandoned and Sickles imparted his vastly superior talents to both the storytelling and a cinematic visual presentation, catapulting it to artistic heights never seen before in a commercial syndicated newspaper strip.

"Sickles invested his figures and backgrounds with a striking naturalism. Compared to Terry's approach (where there was no specific light source, and light was everywhere), Sickles now defined his subjects through light and shadow. Most often he positioned figures with light behind them, so they'd appear as dark, dramatic silhouettes against white backgrounds with minimal detail." (1)

Original art to a later daily, 6/9/36

Sickles' influence on his contemporaries and the next generation of artists is legendary. The list of comic strip and comic book artists alone who drew inspiration from his talents is a wonderful roll call of artistic talent, including his one-time studio-mate Milton Caniff, and continuing with Gene Colan, Bert Cristman, Stan Drake, Frank Giacoia, E.E. Hibbard, Sparky Moore, John Prentice, Fred Ray, Lew Schwartz, Angelo TorresAlex Toth, and untold others.

(*** The Milton Caniff / Noel Sickles studio produced a lot of commercial art. Here's one example, an ad for the beverage Postum and featuring the recurring character "Mr. Coffee Nerves", appearing in the April 5, 1936 New York Sunday News comics section. The ad is signed by the pseudonym "Paul Arthur", who was in reality Noel PAUL Sickles and Milton ARTHUR Caniff..***)

Sickles would leave Scorchy Smith in 1936 after a dispute with the syndicate and spend most of the rest of his artistic career in commercial magazine illustration, where he received awards and well deserved accolades. That portion of his career is well covered in numerous blog posts by wonderful chroniclers of commercial illustration art. Leif Peng's illustration archive Today's Inspiration has extensively covered the career of Noel Sickles through the years:

Today's Inspiration

As have others:

Illustration Art

Society of Illustrators

But there is one short-lived part of Sickles' early career that has rarely seen the light of day, and there's a good chance that most have not seen what I'm going to present below.

The background:

Over the last 3 years I've been researching a book I've co-written with my pal Blake Bell, The Secret History of Marvel Comics:

As I write these words, the book is done, at the printer, and expected to appear in stores in early November, with a possibility of my holding advance copies in my hands sometime in October. The book will be published by Fantagraphics and is available for order here:

The Secret History of Marvel Comics

The book is the deepest look at the earliest publishing history of Martin Goodman to date and the path of the research took me to areas long overlooked, to the writer's trade magazines of the day. Over the course of about a year, I accumulated a near complete run of WRITER'S DIGEST from 1929 to 1959. As I pored through these invaluable resources, in addition to all the important data I mined pertaining to our book, I kept track of any and all superfluous data as well as the great period articles.

Early on, I also kept track of the spot illustrations done in the margins, at the top and at the bottom of pages, always on the lookout for recognizable comic book and/or pulp names, the type of obsession that lead to the initial impetus for our book in the first place.

Leaving 1929 and entering the early 1930's, nothing of note caught my eye regarding these spot illustrations and cartoons. Starting in late 1932, the cartoons were quite noteworthy for readers who liked these sort of quirky marginalia. But as I made my way into 1933, something really caught my eye.

The December 1932 issue of Writer's Digest had several spot cartoons that were very good, but unsigned. The January 1933 issue similarly had eye-catching cartoons but most were stylistically different from the previous issue, also unsigned. Unfortunately, I'm missing the February 1933 issue, so that's a wash.

But in the March 1933 issue, something did catch my eye, three simple cartoons signed by the initials "NS". As someone who has made a passion about uncovering comic book artists moonlighting in other venues, I didn't think anything of this at all. NS could be anyone and probably was no one, a long forgotten, unknown cartoonist who for a brief spell made $2 apiece for knocking out spot illustrations for a writer's trade magazine at the height of the great depression.

Here are those cartoons, from pages 14, 15, and 20, respectively. Nothing terribly noteworthy, although I like the reclining woman on the bed. The artist is decent, if unspectacular.

The April 1933 issue provided 10 more similar illustrations, 8 of them signed by the same "NS", two unsigned, and two of them taking on a slightly more illustrative bent, a style that immediately caught my eye and impressed me, as I love the look of slick pen & ink drawings. These were on pages 3, 21, 23, 26, 27, 28, 33, 34, 35 and 36. With this issue, I began scanning these cartoons, planning to file them away into a file of unidentified artwork, with the idea to hopefully one day put a name to this mysterious "NS", but truthfully thinking I was wasting my time and other than collecting cute little illustrations for posterity, they'd never be identified.

p.3 cropped image, unsigned


In the very next issue, May 1933, nine more cartoons appeared and my assumptions about anonymity would be proven wrong!!!!

The "NS" had now morphed into an actual cursive-like scrawl, but both names still appeared to begin with an "N" and an "S". At first I was puzzled. On page 3, on the very same full-page advertisement for writing critic Lurtin Blassingame, I pulled out a magnifying glass and attempted to read the scrawl ... "Nor...Sik..." I had no idea who this was but I  kept paging through the issue. Some signatures were just as bad, but then it hit me! On page 27 was a very illustrative depiction of a woman in bed. The signature cleared up and seemed to jarringly come into focus... "Noel Sickles". Noel Sickles??? Scorchy Smith Noel Sickles?????? Was this possible?? The very next illustration was as lush as can be and immediately reminded me of the pen and ink work of Reed Crandall. This also read as "Noel Sickles"!! Others following were not as impressive, simple cartoons knocked out in two minutes, seemingly. I pulled out the massive and marvelous Bruce Canwell biography of Sickles I have on my shelf, a must-have book collecting the entirety of Sickles' tenure on the Scorchy Smith feature.......

.... Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, published by IDW in their "The Library of American Comics" series, and looked back into Sickles' history, a history I'd read when I initially acquired the book, but whose details were long forgotten. He started Scorchy Smith in December of 1933. Prior to that....... THERE IT WAS!!!  On page 28, Canwell writes:

"It was difficult for Bud to stay optimistic in Cincinnati - difficult, but not impossible. While he awaited the next big opportunity, preferable one that would take him East, he landed a freelance job producing black-and-white illustrations for a series of young-reader biographies published by a scholastic press based out of Columbus. He also began a relationship with Cincinnati's Rosenthal Publishing, home of WRITER'S DIGEST. He produced spot illustrations and cartoons for their magazines while waiting to find a path to New York." (2)

Page 26 even reproduced the image above of the reclining woman from the March 1933 issue. So armed now with the knowledge that all these illustrations and cartoons were by Noel Sickles, I will now present the rest of them in a collection of what I believe are "all" of his Writer's Digest spot illustrations.

Here are the May 1933 illustrations, all found on pages 3 (3), 25, 27, 33, 36, 37 (2)



This is the one! Legible as "Noel Sickles"!!!

Realizing I now had a goldmine of never-seen-before Noel Sickles illustrations, I kept going. The June 1933 issue had six more illustrations and now these were all signed with a "printed" signature, rather than a cursive scrawl. As clear as a bell, "Noel Sickles". These were found on page 3, 16, 17 (2), 21.

p.3 crop

Ten more illustrations followed in the July 1933 issue. Some of the illustrations went back to a "NS" initialing, others sported his classic signature with the underscored line. These were on pages 3, 21, 26, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33 (2), 40

Noel Sickles' involvement with Writer's Digest "seems" to end with the August 1933 issue. There is one signed illustration on page 25 and two unsigned illustrations that do not believe are his. One illustration on page 42 is actually a reprint of an illustration from the December 1932 issue.

And that's it. These two unsigned illustrations below I do not believe are Sickles' work. The top illo, as I mentioned above, is from p.13 of the December 1932 issue. The bottom I suppose could be, but it's unsigned and unless it's inventory from work I didn't realize was Sickles' from late 1932, illustrations I've already discounted and have not scanned, I'm overall doubtful unless more evidence forces me to revisit them in the future. As I also do not have the February 1933 nor the September 1933 issue, there could possibly still be a handful more to be found. The October 1933 issue has illustrations by Eric Berry, and the November 1933 and December 1933 issues by unsigned, completely different artists. By this time, Noel Sickles was already starting his seminal work on Scorchy Smith.

not Sickles' work, reprinted from p.13 of December 1932 issue

unsigned and not likely Sickles' work


  1. Steranko, Jim; Introduction to Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, IDW Publishing, 2008.
  2. Canwell. BruceScorchy Smith and The Art of Noel Sickles, IDW Publishing, 2008, p.28


  1. An incredible find. I'm blown away. It's always encouraging to see that the greats started as 'mere' everyday artists, that it took time and circumstance for them to rise to their accomplishment.
    -- Greg Huneryager

  2. What a revelation - I can completely appreciate the rush you felt at that moment of realization, Michael. Thanks for all the time and effort you put into sharing these ultra-rare treasures with us!

  3. It's always great to see a master's path to greatness. You can see him here jumping back and forth between simplicity and rendering. Neither one being particularly successful or satisfying. He clearly had the talent but didn't have the experience yet.

    And I'm sure everytime he did one of those crosshatched drawings, he castigated himself for for doing more work than the job paid.

    Excellent work finding and identifying these. And thanks for the nice large scans as well.

  4. Thanks for the great detective work. Fun to see Sickles quick cartooning.

  5. Really cool compilation of obscure Sickles work!