Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles

The sumptuous, Brobdingnagian feast that is Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles is nothing less than the first-ever complete reprint of this seminal newspaper adventure strip during the period when it flourished under Sickles’ hand, from 1934 to 1936. Alone, that offering of some 900 daily strips would impress. But the reprinted strips — three years’ worth of continuity — represents only two-thirds of the total pages. The other third consists of a stimulating and informative biography of Sickles and an overview of his career by Bruce Canwell, fleshed out with roughly 200 pieces of artwork. As lovingly and gracefully recounted by Canwell, Sickles’ life and professional accomplishments during the golden age of newspaper adventure comics and magazine illustrations read like some combination of Horatio Alger and Thomas Wolfe. When he got his first big break — taking over the aviation adventure strip Scorchy Smith from its deceased creator, John Terry, after laboring as Terry’s apprentice — he slyly and gradually morphed the style and tone of the strip from Terry’s crude renderings to an unheard-of level of sophistication that would influence every graphic artist from his lifelong pal Milton Caniff on down. But his three compact years on that strip were just the beginning of a flourishing career that came to include everything from advertising imagery to government work to magazine illustrations. As for Scorchy Smith itself, the groundbreaking strip remains very readable, without quite attaining to the level of genius. Sickles believed in cursory, spontaneous plotting, and his characters lack the depth and animation of those of Alex Raymond or Caniff. Modeled originally on Charles Lindbergh, Scorchy is something of a Boy Scout, an American Tintin despite his supposed maturity, more Dick Powell than Humphrey Bogart. But Sickles’ dramatic compositions and “chiaroscuro” effects seduce the reader’s eye and more than compensate for the standard melodrama.