Ink-Slinger's Blog #6: Bud Blake

I grew up with Bud Blake’s work on his comic strip Tiger, as the feature was in the newspaper that my family received.  There is a nostalgic tug with Bud’s work for me, but as I got older and started to collect original comic and cartoon artwork, something else dawned on me: Bud was a damn fine artist.  And I wasn’t alone in that thinking.  Chatting with many cartoonists over the years, there was a shared love and admiration for his work.  The highest praise a cartoonist can receive is to be considered a cartoonists’ cartoonist.  That was Bud. 

Over the years, I had corresponded with Bud every so often, and he was always generous in his replies, sending a sketch or a folded, autographed Tiger original daily strip.  In 2004, I had the opportunity to visit Bud at his home in Damariscotta, Maine, where he kindly put Isaac and me up for the night and treated us to dinner.  I recorded an interview with Bud, which turned into my Blake Superior feature for Hogan’s Alley #13.  I was able to visit with Bud one more time, in the summer of 2005.  He was in failing health, but in good spirits.  We stayed in touch until his passing, at the age of 87, on December 26, 2005.

I have a biographical excerpt from my Hogan’s Alley interview/article, but it’s rather long, so if anyone would like to view it, please click here. 

There are four main things that I think about when it comes to Bud Blake’s work: an active contour line, seemingly easy figure movement, panel compositions, and contrasts.

In the first two panels of this 1982 Tiger Sunday page, Bud sets the stage for a hike that Hugo isn’t so interested in going on.  A simple enough premise, supported by a wonderful spotting of blacks to create movement and rhythm.  And you see from the start the quickly changing camera angles, from a profile shot to a slight diagonal birds-eye view.

Then Bud starts showing off a little, combining some high contrast lighting with lovely feathered brush edges on the characters, to give them a sense of weight, setting them off from the construction equipment in the background.  You can also see that he’s changed the camera angle for the third time, this time putting the viewer just below the horizon.  In the panel on the right (the fourth one of the Sunday page), Bud reverses the angle from the second panel, again spotting the blacks beautifully to move the viewer’s eye diagonally through the picture plane.  You go from Stripe’s ear to Punkinhead’s hair to Hugo’s shirt, and finally to Tiger’s hat.  The inside of the drainpipe is thrown in for good measure.

 So far, we’ve been fairly close to the characters.  In the fifth pane of the Sunday, Bud pushes them off to the background, allowing us to focus on the pile of junk in the small ravine.  Then it’s back to the close-up, as the focus moves to Tiger hanging upside-down, talking to Hugo.  

The final two panels demonstrate how Bud would “sell the gag”, as he referred to it.  Actually, the entire Sunday page sells the gag, but these two panels are the wind-up.  While not as visually interesting as the other panels in the strip, Bud continues to keep things moving with the black and white contrasts that he creates throughout.  None of this is accidental, and it all works to keep the viewers’ eyes moving throughout.

Here’s the full Tiger Sunday page, from September 19, 1982.  You can see how the panels all tie together, and how Bud moved the camera around with such seeming ease.  There ain’t nothing easy about it, but in the hands of a maestro, it looks like a piece of cake.

And now for the bonus round!  Bud loved the process of creating, and remarked to me, as he shuffled out of the studio carrying a stack of Tiger daily roughs, that these were the “real” art.  Like Hank Ketcham, Bud would begin his process in pencil on tracing paper or vellum.  He would put the pencils on a lightbox, and laying a single-ply piece of Strathmore drawing paper on top, he would ink directly over the lightboxed pencils, trying to maintain the liveliness that he loved in the pencil drawing.  Below is an example from that stack that Bud gave me.

And then there are Bud’s Sunday page roughs.  These pieces, done in loose pencil, black marker, and watercolor, again show the movement and gesture that Bud was striving for in the finished pieces.  Bud used these little books of watercolors, each page being a different color.  He colored in the final panel as an indication to the printer for the colors that would be used in the Sunday page.  This rough is for the October 12, 1997 Sunday page.

Finally, a shot of Bud’s drawing table.  When Isaac and I visited him, Bud had just retired from drawing Tiger.  He told us to take a look at his drawing table to see why he had made that decision.  To Bud, he simply could not draw to his expectations any longer, so it was time to hang up the dip pen.  When he saw that page on his drawing table, he knew that he couldn’t mail it in, so that was that. 

In these days of shrinking spaces for comic strips, Bud Blake knew how to use every damn square inch of the strip to his advantage, and made it look too easy in the process.

Thanks for tuning in.

Okay, one last bonus.  Bud was housebound in his last months, and when we chatted, he mentioned how much he loved mystery books.  So I packed up a small box and sent them off to Maine.  This was his response a couple of weeks later.

 

Jyrki Vainio
- 20 August 2017 at 06:38pm

Bud Blake was the start of my original comic art collection. In early 1996, when I was a 18-year-old high school senior, I looked up in the phone book a local cartoonist in Turku, Finland. I went to meet him, and he introduced me to the trade magazine Cartoonist Profiles. In those very early days of the internet, that was the first place that gave me the addresses of the newspaper syndicates. So I immediately started writing fan letters.
In a lucky coincidence, I happened to reach simultaneously two of the last cartoonists who would send out actual published originals to fans. So in reply to a letter (not the FIRST letter, though as I recall, I think it took two!) in the mail arrived two original Tiger strips from Bud Blake. And the very next day, an Andy Capp strip from London (that one though I think was a purely secreterial reply: it came from the newspaper that published the strip in London, while the artist Reg Smythe lived in northern England: I don't think he ever even saw my letter).

The main Helsinki newspaper published Tiger to the end. The deterioration in the art was almost painful to watch towards the end. When Bud died, I wrote an obituary of him for a website. And I think the paper copied a phrase from it for theirs, because I knew I struggled how to express this thought and took time to find a polite way to do it. I wrote: it was moving to see that unlike many other newspaper cartoonists, mr. Blake did all his work by himself until the end.

After Tiger ended, the Helsinki paper replaced it with a Finnish comic strip that became very successful. In one strip, the characters are on an archeological dig and find "remnants of this place's ancient inhabitants". They found Tiger's cap.
Rob Stolzer
- 20 August 2017 at 06:58pm

Thanks for sweet anecdote, Jyrki. I'd love to see a scan of that Finnish comic strip that you mentioned.

A couple of other observations. Before meeting Bud, I had heard that he was a curmudgeonly so-and-so. That could not have been further from the truth. I found him to be both generous and direct, but curmudgeonly; no. Also, King Features did plan on continuing "Tiger" with an artist-writer team, but plans seemed to have fallen through. I saw some of the new versions of the strip, and they were really quite good, but Bud was a tough act to follow.
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