Remembrance of Comics Past Remembrance of Comics Past

Fred Ray

A year after World War II ended, I was commencing my teen years and looking forward to making the transition from junior high school to high school. My junior high sweetheart had moved from Berkeley to San Diego. To help drown my sorrows, in the year following the ceasing of hostilities, I devoted more time to writing to cartoonists. Comic book artists started returning from the armed forces and as soon as one of my favorites popped up again in four-color, I'd get off a fan letter and a request for an autograph. I had just learned typing and my mother, certain I was destined to be a noted author, saw to it that I got my own portable typewriter, a Royal.

Although Fred Ray is best remembered for the two decades he devoted to drawing DC’s Tomahawk, he had already been in comics for several years before he took over the buckskin-clad hero and, in the early ‘40s, he did some of the best straight adventure stuff in the comic books of the time, as well of some memorable Golden Age covers.

Frederic E. Ray, who usually signed himself Fray, was born in Pennsylvania in 1922. He always had an interest in history as well as in comics, and his major influences growing up were illustrators Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Frederic Remington, as well as cartoonists Hal Foster and, most important, Noel Sickles. He was impressed, too, by a nonfiction newspaper strip called Highlights of History by an artist named J. Carroll Mansfield.

In 1940, he recalled, he "took a portfolio to New York and was hired my first day there by Whitney Ellsworth at Detective Comics, Inc.” He was paid a salary of $35 a week. Ray broke into print with spot illustrations for the two-page text stories that were required in comic books in those days. His first regular assignment was on Radio Patrol, which he began drawing in More Fun #62 (Dec 1940), where the stars were the Spectre and Doctor Fate. This urban cop drama had been created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and several other artists had filled in after Shuster began devoting all his time to Superman. Ray's work was a bit stiff initially, though he was fairly assured for a young man just starting out. Over the next year he got increasingly good, especially in staging and applying the lush inking technique developed by his idol Sickles. He also worked briefly on another backup feature, O'Malley and the Red Coat Patrol. This outdoor saga gave him a chance to display his knack for drawing animals and for getting all the details of uniforms and costumes right.

Ray had discovered Sickles in the middle '30s while the artist was drawing the Scorchy Smith air adventure strip for the Associated Press. Milton Caniff had later assimilated his friend's innovative impressionistic style to his Terry and the Pirates comic strip and, by the end of the '30s, that style was becoming quite popular and much copied by young cartoonists. In the early '40s, Ray tracked down a back issue newspaper dealer and put together a collection of the Sickles strips. He produced a photocopied file and to defray the cost, he had a couple of his comic book buddies buy a set. They were Alex Toth and Frank Giacoa, both of whom were much influenced by what Sickles had accomplished while associated with Scorchy.

He began an association with Superman soon after joining DC. He drew covers for Action Comics and Superman. His cover for Action #52, showing the magazine’s other major characters running side by aide toward the reader, was one of his most striking and has been reprinted, and copied, in various places. No doubt his best remembered Superman cover is that for #14, showing the Man of Steel standing tall in front of a giant red, white and blue shield and holding a spread-winged American Eagle on his arm. Ray provided as well the dozen illustrations for Superman's Super Contest in three 1941 issues of Action. The reader who came up with the best titles for the twelve card-size pictures won $100, $200 if the winner was a member of the Supermen of America club. Around the same time, Ray did the artwork for the cards that accompanied the packages of Superman Gum, a product of Gum, Inc. There were seventy two full-color cards in all.

In addition to fifteen Action covers, he drew a trio for Detective and the first 6 issues of World's Finest. It was also for Action Comics that Fred Ray drew and wrote his best Golden Age feature, Congo Bill. The Jungle Jim simulacrum had been originally been for More Fun by George Papp. Congo Bill moved into Action in #37, with Ray drawing and writing and getting his first prominent credit. This was an assignment he obviously enjoyed and it was here that he developed a strong mature style. Gradually its stories moved away from lost cities and crazed hunters and began to take notice of the War. The 1942 narratives are especially fine, inventively staged and filled with accurately drawn planes, weapons and uniforms.

Ray avoided heroic poses, favoring natural figures and well-rendered locations, showing again the Sickles influence. All this added a sophistication that was missing from the work of many of his contemporaries. He got away from traditional splash panels, too, and his opening scenes are illustrations rather than teasers for action to come. His last wartime Congo Bill story before he entered the service was in Action #51 (Aug 1942) and in that opening panel five Flying Tiger pilots are simply facing the reader and introducing themselves.

Ray was in the service for four years. After, he want back home and took advantage of the GI Bill; he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He drew a few more Congo Bill stories and then took over Tomahawk in Star-Spangled Comics. This frontier character, which allowed Ray to indulge his strong interest in history, got his own magazine in 1950. Comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey has said. "In Ray, Tomahawk had found his ideal illustrator. Through careful research Ray brought absolute authenticity to his rendering of colonial America.” In Ray’s letter to me, you'll note that he mentions that he was working on a new feature called The Frontiersman. This must have become Tomahawk, but in the earliest appearances of the feature it was drawn by former Scorchy Smith artist Edmond Good.

Fred Ray retired from comics in the early 1970s. He felt that his "style and subject matter were dated and no longer called for.” He devoted the rest of his days to drawing and writing for history magazines, mostly those published by Historical Times, Inc. On his own he published a series of booklets dealing with such American battles as the Alamo, Gettysburg and Valley Forge. To him comic books had been simply one phase of his long career and one that he was not particularly nostalgic over, nor much interested in reminiscing about. He died in 2001.


7 Responses to Fred Ray

  1. ryanholmberg says:

    This was great.
    I developed a one-month-long obsession with Ray last fall, while doing research for a translation of manga author Sugiura Shigeru’s The Last of the Mohicans (1953/74).
    From secondhand sellers in Tokyo in the early 50s, Sugiura had picked up multiple copies of Star Spangled Comics and Tomahawk (as well as All American Western and All Star Western). Presumably they were thrown away on the Japanese market when the Occupation GIs started leaving.
    Sugiura’s jokey appropriations — sometimes mixing Tomahawk with Marsh’s Tarzan and Toth’s Johnny Thunder — are detailed in the essay I wrote for the translation.
    I developed a liking for how Ray drew faces and noses — always big, for Tomahawk, the Colonials, the Indians. Very different from the Sickles-inspired Congo Bill you show. It’s always easiest to write about an artist’s beginnings and the art history there. Would love to hear someone’s thoughts on how Ray’s style developed once he got in his groove with Tomahawk.
    I cannot judge the truth of his reputation as an impeccable historian. But I have doubts. When it came to the human face, he could be a gross caricaturist, and I wonder how that might have affected the “absolute authenticity” of the historical details of his work. Would a historian of American history today look at his work and agree with R.C. Harvey?
    I really suspect this part of Ray’s reputation when it comes to native American dress and custom . . . how impeccable and absolute could a white man of the mid-20th century be? The pictorial and textual archive for the Colonial Era and Revolution was presumably fairly reliable and accessible. But for native Americans, what were his sources there?

  2. Benno Rothschild says:

    I had some brief correspondance with Mr Ray in the late 1990’s through his friend and fellow cartoonist George Ward. Apparently he had a pretty nice collection of original comic strip art at some point including folks like Raymond and Foster (George Ward had an even better collection with top examples by most of the great strip cartoonists) At his death apparently most of that had been sold or given away but much of his later historical art was intact and was purchased by collectors from his estate. Jerry Robinson had acquired his famous Superman 14 cover and it was quite amazing to see that when Jerry loaned some of the masterworks from his collection to the Bremen museum for the art of the golden age of superhero show in Atlanta. What an iconic image!!

  3. ryanholmberg says:

    Happen to know who owns the original artwork for “Battle at Fort Junction” (Star Spangled Comics, no 116, May 1951) and “The Brave Who Hunted Tomahawk” (Star Spangled Comics, no 107, August 1950)?

  4. ryanholmberg says:

    Asking because there might be an exhibition in the future for which they would want to be borrowed.

  5. Jeff says:

    Thanks Ron for taking the time to write this piece on one of my favorite artists,…..

    I poured over his Tomahawk work, both he and Bob
    brown did good work on that title.,……

    I guess ultimately that title changed directions as the style of the day moved away from cowboy/western type fare of the 50s and early 60s and into other areas……

    You are correct —-he did good research in getting his details right.,…..uniforms, rifles, wagons, etc….

    And that
    Superman 14, maybe one of the best
    Supes covers which to me were normally abit bland especially as compared to Batman and
    TEC issues of the same period

    You mentioned he drew a splash of some Flying Tigers for a comic, I wonder if he would have known Bert Chrisman,…

    Take care

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