Friday, October 27, 2006

Leonard Starr on Stage

I grew up in New York City during the 1960s and '70s, where my family's newspaper of choice was the New York Daily News. That turned out to be a stroke of luck because as I became interested in classic comic strips and their history, I realized that some of the famous strips I read about were actually still being published and syndicated by the Daily News. These included Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins, Winnie Winkle, Smoky Stover, Dondi, Brenda Starr, and others.

One of the strips carried in the News was Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage. However, I never read it. As a kid who drew his own crude comics, I could see it was well drawn. But as far as I was concerned, it was a soap opera "chick" strip, so I always skipped over it to look at the other features.

Well, the first volume of a projected collection of the series has just been released and now that I'm older, wiser, and a bit more mature, I'm glad I've been given this new opportunity to re-discover this strip--and from its very start too.

In short, I was blown away.

Starr hit the ground running with the strip. Though the art continued to show improvement over the years, the artist was already at top form. Starr's art is photorealistic slick, and his advertising art background is apparent (samples of this can be found in the collection's extras). His figure work is beautiful, his use of blacks terrific, and his sense of place and staging would rival any movie production designer. And fitting for a strip set in New York's theater world, the characters are emotive yet naturalistic. (and, of course, the women are beautiful yet feminine.) And though the art was lush, Starr's work was also very expressive, warm and full of life.

After reading just this first volume I realize now that Starr is perhaps one of the finest draftsmen/illustrators to ever work in the medium, certainly technically. He's that good.

The writing matches the art fine. Yes, I guess it is a "chick" strip, but I nevertheless found the stories in this first volume to be a compelling page turner. Yes, Mary is a "goody two shoes"--a classic small town girl in the big city who is the trusting ingénue--but with the help of some good folks who sincerely wish to help out the young naïve actress, her pluck and good nature allows her to overcome the many shady characters she comes across.

Telling a story in the daily strip format is a unique skill and Starr was adept at it. As little I read of the strip, I'm still somewhat familiar with how it turned out in later years, so I can see that the series already was fairly well realized from the start. As someone who partly loved classic strips because they offered a more sophisticated alternative to the heroic operatic fantasy stories that characterized comic books (at least at the time), it's nice to know there room for a quality strip like this in today..s market.

But make no mistake--as the text pieces point out (which includes an introduction by comic-book super-fantasy artist Walt Simonson, who mentions Howard Chaykin is a fan as well), On Stage was an adventure strip--the lead character just happened to be an actress in New York.

While On Stage probably would not be the first choice on many people's list--even comics fans--worthy of reprint, this collection clearly makes the case of why it's deserving to be seen by a new generation of comics readers. In later years, Perkins' character became professionally successful, more mature, and less naïve. I am looking forward to watching the continuing adventures and growth of the strip and the characters, and I hope sales on this first volume are strong enough to continue the series.

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