Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Frank Bellamy and lettering Garth comic strips

Garth: The Beast of Ultor (#H56)

I want to write something about lettering in relation to Frank Bellamy's work. In the Skinn and Gibbons' interview Bellamy answered the guys' question:

I should imagine your experience in making movie billboards stood you in good stead for the “splash” frames in your “Churchill” strip……
FB:  Yes. I did my own display lettering. I like to do my own lettering wherever possible. I always try to give a completely finished piece of artwork, on clean white board, camera-ready. The right size, bleed marked, something that an editor can send straight off to the engraver. This is getting on to technique, but I’ve seen artwork which goes so close to the edge of the board that there’s not even enough room to fit the reduction indication anywhere. I like to give a client a piece of board with a working area, where he can put any notes down the side – “Urgent”, “Infra-red” or whatever.

David Jackson commented to me: The graphics aspect - ruler-straight lines and title deign lettering and all large-scale compound curve lines (which many, particularly ‘fine’ artists would run a mile from - is the single aspect which FB had nailed first.

Bellamy began in a advertising studio in Kettering, his home town. It was here he learned the craft that he would follow for the rest of his life. When it came to comic strips in comics in the 1950s there would be an author who wrote the script; the artist who laid out, pencilled, inked, and maybe coloured his artwork. In later years the letterer would add text into balloons which might have been left empty by the artist or he (mostly 'he') might actually add balloons and then letter. I have read that some of the Eagle balloons were on adhesive film which was lettered and then added to the artwork. 

All three would have to understand each other. If the author produces reams of text, the artist knows it can't work in a panel. If the artist places a balloon such that the letterer has no room to create complete words - but hyphenated ones only, the letterer knows it won't work. And so on. A collaboration.

In an interview with Barry Askew for BBC TV (the film is lost but we have an audio recording) he was asked again about his method of working.   

BA: Tell me how one sets about drawing a Garth strip. Can you show me?
FB: Well, yes. In this way; there is a piece of board exactly the same way I would use for the Garth strip. Set it out in pencil in this manner and once again you’ll notice I break up the frames. I’ll show you on this one here. For the start, of course, there’s the balloon and stuff to go in, it’s about the most important piece of all.
BA: Does the scripting give you a problem? How do you relate the script to your er..to your work?
FB: I keep in general to the script. Occasionally you get little things that on a typewritten script don’t work visually. Then it’s up to me to er.. re-draw, or re-think, or present it in a different manner.
BA: How long would it take you in fact to do a complete Garth strip?
FB: Ah, that’s a difficult one. All I can say is that I have a complete bank of six a week and come what may, a deadline is a deadline, it’s a religion to me. And they have to have one every week.

From the outset, a lot of the strips Bellamy drew he lettered the boards himself. For "Thunderbirds" which was syndicated abroad, he left the boards with space for captions and balloons.

Bellamy poses with his completed artwork
for the "Thunderbirds" episode from TV21 #74

Thanks to Alan Davis rescuing many Polaroids of the original artwork from Bellamy's studio after his death, we can see the completed 'clean' artwork just waiting for captions and balloons.  

Garth was drawn to an established scale to accommodate the word-balloon lettering. The strip which ran in the Daily Mirror from July 1943, was created by Steve Dowling and Gordon Bushell. Bushell moved on to concentrate on his work as a producer for the BBC and therefore Dowling took an assistant, the 15 year old John Allard, who Dowling in a later interview said "I have my assistant John Allard to help me now and he supplies all the backgrounds and lettering". The word 'now' is interesting as Allard was there from the start - in Allard's own words: “I started work there as an assistant to Steve Dowling a few months before the creation of Garth in July 1943." Allard is certainly a great influence on this long-running strip.  

Dowling and Allard formulated a method of working whereby Allard would sketch out the strips which Dowling would then correct, inking in the main figures, leaving Allard to complete the inking of the backgrounds and do the lettering, a system which continued essentially the same for 25 years, with a break between 1946 to 1948 when Allard was called up for his national service in the R.A.F. and the task of inking fell to Dowling’s other occasional assistant, Dick Hailstone.

Allard remained Dowling’s assistant until 1969, when Dowling retired to run a farm and riding school [...] Allard took over the strip full-time, working with writer Jim Edgar until 1971, when Frank Bellamy was invited to take over the strip and Allard found himself relegated to drawing backgrounds for some months before Bellamy took over the strip full-time.

From Steve Holland's blog

In 1971 John Allard began the story "Sundance" and after 12 episodes, Bellamy came on board as the main artist, possibly in competition with the sophisticated decorative linework of the new rival 'Scarth' in the revamped Sun newspaper. However, here is where it gets hard to describe who did what (although we have attempted to distinguish things a bit in a series "Garth strips analysed").  But it seems clear that Bellamy left the lettering to John Allard from the start although there appear to have been some clashes here.

On Alan Davis' site he shows two examples of how Bellamy took Polaroids of what Allard suggested as a layout with balloons completed and how Bellamy wanted to see the layout - thanks to Alan for permission to use these images. Now I have to say I cannot prove this, but it seems the most likely explanation to me as to why Bellamy took the photos. He wanted to communicate this to a third party, is my theory.

Bellamy and Allard layouts for Garth: The Mask of Atacama (#G165)

The published version of G165

"The Mask of Atacama" story is significant in that it's the first of the seven stories Bellamy had drawn to date where he added his very recognisable signature. So it does not seem unreasonable to assume that he might have been presented.with the image above - Allard's drawn layout with completed balloons. Bellamy has drawn his version of the opening strip with pencilled balloon lettering to show the Cartoon Editor how he sees the script being interpreted. I suspect this is where they settled the confusion over Allard's part in "Garth" and Bellamy was left to complete the strip without fully lettering it.

I prefer Bellamy's layout here, as we have the intro panel first, followed by Garth's comment, whilst holding the mask, we see Professor Lumière and then the speaker of the second balloon - reading left to right. I find Allard's layout OK, but clumsy, as we have to read 'around' Garth's back to see who's talking.

Bellamy and Allard layouts for Garth: The Wreckers (#G279)

The published version of G279
In this second example I wonder why Allard laid out the completed balloons as it would appear to have already been settled who did the artwork (proof being FB signed the previous story as well as this one). But the choices Bellamy makes - in breaking up the dialogue - are illustrative of his design sense. There was too much talk in one balloon and the shorter "Next month!" aids the flow, in my opinion.

There are a few other things I'd like to mention regarding the lettering and corrections in the Bellamy version of "Garth". In The Beast of Ultor (#H56) - shown at the top of this article - there are firstly the pencilled words in the second panel visible under the inked version and secondly overlays of inked text stuck on, saying "Professor Lumière activated". What's underneath isn't easy to see, but I'd love to know.

Also in the example owned by and used with permission of Jonathan Wilson, H3, we can see a few overlaid pieces of text. In the first panel it looks like Allard might have misspelled 'instructions' and in the third panel 'beneficial'. Bellamy was proud of the fact he never used process white, 'white-out' or correction fluid, but in many original boards and balloons we can see Allard has resorted to this. Even perhaps unnecessarily,over tiny overlap lines which would have in any case been unnoticeable when reduced in reproduction.

Garth: The Wreckers (#H3)

In an email with me in 2015, Ant Jones had just interviewed John Allard and asked him something for me.

"In the strips department there was a guy called Ken White who did the lettering but sometimes he could be unreliable, so John would end up doing the lettering. John Allard does the lettering on F194 (and all the other strips in that story that aren't Ken). When John started on Garth, Stephen Dowling's main priority was to train John to develop his lettering so it could be used in Garth."

Garth: The Wolfman of Ausensee (#F194)

Garth: The Wolfman of Ausensee (#F193)

I wonder if John meant F193 was John's work and F194 was NOT - but that of Ken White - compare the two and see what you think. 

Lastly Dez Skinn presented a strip (G274) which again shows completed lettered balloons and Bellamy's version in his book Sez Dez (p78), following the same lines as we have discussed above. 

Garth: The Wreckers (#G274)

Just for completeness sake, I should say that, if anyone is wondering, John Allard did not do the lettering on the "Perishers" strip that also ran in the Daily Mirror, as Maurice Dodd explained that Dennis Collins, the earlier artist, did it - The Perishers Omnibus No.3 - Thanks to David Jackson for reminding me!

I have yet to say anything about the markings and dates on the original artwork borders but that's for another time.