Harry Lucey, a forgotten artist, brought doomed characters to life

May 14, 2010 | 4:52 p.m.

FORGOTTEN COMIC BOOK ARTISTS, PART 1: HARRY LUCEY 

The American comic book has produced a massive mountain of brightly hued pop culture since the 1930s and the peak moments of the medium have been appropriately celebrated — but what about the pulpy landscape’s strange caves and broken trails which are now forgotten? It’s those curious and esoteric places that author and art director Dan Nadel surveys with his new book, “Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980,” which is a strong companion to his acclaimed 2006 book, “Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969.” Here at Hero Complex we’re going to be running excerpts from the Abrams ComicArts book leading up to Nadel’s appearance on May 30 at Cinefamily.
 

Art in Time Harry Lucey 3

Like so many of the other men who entertained generations of children, Harry Lucey remains as anonymous in death as he was in life.

Lucey attended the Pratt Institute in New York, and his career in comics began in the late 1930s. He bounced around various companies in the 1940s, drawing such characters and features as Madam Satan, Magno, Crime Does Not Pay, and even, for a handful of issues, Captain America.

Art in Time Beginning in 1950, Lucey drew Sam Hill for seven issues, creating some wonderful stories in the Roy Crane/Milton Caniff/Alex Toth tradition of lush brushwork and cinematic compositions.

Lucey spent most of his life drawing for MLJ, which published Archie, among other characters, and which later became Archie Publications.

As one of the lead Archie artists, Lucey drew the freckle-faced teenager and his pals from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Lucey took some breaks from the business to work for an advertising agency in St. Louis, but otherwise was dedicated to comics.

In most years Lucey penciled and inked a page a day, often drawing the complete contents of the Archie comic book every month in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Lucey’s work is distinguished by his close attention to the body language, or acting, of every character he drew. Each aspect of a Lucey figure is drawn to express what that character is feeling at that moment.

Posture, position and facial expression are all geared toward maximizing that moment in the story, and Lucey was equally dedicated to refining the depiction of action with a minimum of lines.

The character Sam Hill, an “Ex Ivy League halfback” private eye with a white streak in his hair, is rendered with loving precision and an acute attention to detail. Lucey was certainly influenced by film noir’s expressionist angles and perhaps by Will Eisner’s “The Spirit”: The sixth page of “The Cutie Killer Caper” contains six panels, all drawn from a different angle — from below Sam Hill to over a cop’s shoulder, to above Hill and the cop, and finally to a level over-the-shoulder shot from behind Hill.

Art in Time Harry Lucey 2Lucey, like Eisner and the filmmakers they both borrowed from, was seeking different ways to approach action sequences. The effect can be a bit jarring, but Lucey brings an economy of line and form to the proceedings that echoes the work of Roy Crane — allowing cartoon panels to show, rather than only tell the action.

For example, Hill’s wry expression on the seventh page is contrasted by the surprise of Mrs. Berkley and the fear of her lawyer

Each emotion is played out in their bodies, across their faces, and in an articulated space. Remove the words from a Lucey story and readers still know precisely how each character feels and what that means for the plot.

This strong technique makes Lucey’s cartoon characters seem alive on the page like few others, and gives Sam Hill an urgency that raises it above its obvious genre and cinematic influences.

Lucey never returned to Sam Hill after his final issue, and toward the 1960s he developed an allergy to graphite, reportedly wearing white gloves while drawing.

In the 1970s he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and, sometime later, cancer. He refused treatment for the latter and died in Arizona in the late 1970s or perhaps 1980.

– Dan Nadel

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Artwork: Top three images courtesy of Abrams Books. Bottom, 1962 self-portrait of Frank Frazetta: The Frazetta family and Lance Laspina.

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