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.