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Hare Tonic Hare Tonic

Roger Armstrong: Conversing with One of Cartooning’s Better Sprites

No—that’s not a typo for “spirit”: Roger Armstrong (1917-2007) was a sprite, a man-sized pixie with a gray beard and a haystack hair-do and dark Mephistophlean eyebrows, an archetypically elfin presence who saw the humor in humanity’s parade and delighted in it. Come to think of it, spirit is as accurate as sprite. He was in his early eighties when I got to know him, and by then, he’d seen a lot of 20th century cartooning as it transpired before his eyes.   Roger-1I last saw Roger at the National Cartoonists Society’s Reubens Weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2005. In his Greek fisherman’s cap and alarmingly hued suspenders, he sat with his artist wife Alice Powell across from me at a table on Sunday evening. Through the busy schedule of the weekend, we had looked forward to spending some time together at this evening’s “roast” of Sergio Aragones, where, we hoped, we could share stories and some laughs. But we hadn’t anticipated the band. Loud and rocky, the orchestral din drowned out any attempt we made at conversation.

“What are they thinking of?” Roger exclaimed during one of the brief pauses between crescendos. “We come to these affairs in order to see old friends and talk with ’em, and then, during one of the only agenda-free events of the weekend, the organizers bring in this dreadful band so loud we can’t hear ourselves think, let alone speak!” His diabolical eyebrows converged over the bridge of his nose, arching upward at their outboard extremities. “Dreadful!” he emphasized.

I agreed, my outrage prompted chiefly by a sense of deprivation at not being able to hear any of Roger’s stories that night. And Roger loved to talk. He loved to tell stories about his life in cartooning and some of the legendary but now mostly forgotten people he’d worked with in the early days, and when he got going, he seemed figuratively to hug himself with barely suppressed glee in anticipation of savoring, as he told of it once again, some obscure moment in the lore of the craft, its business, and its practitioners. Typically, his tales wandered a good bit as he pursued anecdotal bypaths that invariably tempted him from the main thoroughfare of his narrative: a description of Clifford McBride’s studio led Roger to McBride’s concert piano, at which, Roger averred, McBride was adept, and from there, to a spaghetti dinner served by a Japanese houseboy. None of these apostrophes, on the bald surface, belonged together—Japanese house boy? concert grand piano?—but Roger, his eyes impishly a-twinkle, made each shed light upon the other, creating an illuminating glimpse of the creator of that giant cartoon dog, Napoleon.

Roger drew cartoons more ways than most. A stylistic virtuoso, he drew comic books in the styles of Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna Barbera. He drew comic strips as disparate in manner as McBride’s classic Napoleon, Marge’s Little Lulu, Disney’s Scamp, and Ella Cinders, a soap opera continuity. Roger-2

At this point, logic wavers. Armstrong also worked in animation as in-betweener, animator, and story director. An accomplished painter in watercolor and oil, he served as director of an art museum, and he held an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the Art Institute of Southern California.

It all began with Zim and Clifford McBride.

Armstrong at about eleven years old was enthralled by the drawings of the great Eugene Zimmerman, whose book on cartooning he borrowed so often from the library that no one else could check it out. In recognition of his devotion to Zim, the librarian at last told him not to bother to bring the book back every two weeks for renewal: “Why don’t you just keep it,” she whispered to him, glancing furtively around to see that no one overheard her.

Young Roger also took the famed Landon Course when he was in high school, and just about that time, Napoleon debuted (official starting date for the daily strip, June 6, 1932, although the dog, unnamed, and his owner, ditto, first appeared in a McBride miscellaneous weekend page dated April 13/14, 1929). Drawn with an exuberant pen and great verve, McBride’s strip focused on a roly-poly bachelor and his giant pet dog, Uncle Elby and Napoleon. Elby is forever dogged (pun intended) by misfortune: if his own bumbling doesn’t frustrate his plans, the clumsy meddling of his affectionate over-sized hound does.

“I saw Napoleon when it started in the Los Angeles Times,” Armstrong told me, “and I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen.” And when he found out that McBride lived in Altadena on New York Avenue, he resolved to meet the cartoonist. He took a bundle of drawings and knocked on McBride’s front door.

“He was very gracious,” Armstrong recalled. “And so I went to see him every so often. He moved from the New York Avenue place to the foothills. He had a little house that was separate from the main house, and that was his studio. He was an accomplished concert pianist, by the way, and he had a concert grand in there. Well, I haunted the poor man. I’d go and lurk by his side and watch him draw, and he was very, very kind to me. Sometimes I’d have dinner over there. That’s where I found out you could have spaghetti served to you by a Japanese house boy. And Clifford showed me what pen he used—Gillott 290—and all this stuff, and bit by bit, he let me do a little on the strip—simple backgrounds, and he let me do his lettering.”

I asked if McBride drew rapidly. “That marvelous sketchy style,” I said, “—you couldn’t get the effect of such breezy abandon by drawing slowly, I wouldn’t think.”

“Oh, no,” Armstrong said. “Clifford was so fast. The guy was incredible. He developed tremendous speed and freedom of line, and, of course, I did, too, watching him.”

The visits to McBride’s studio continued through Armstrong’s high school and college years, and he’d sometimes go with McBride to Bill Ortman’s Gambrinas on Euclid Street. “All the newspapermen — artists, writers — they used to hang out there. And Clifford had a special table in the back, and he and Ned Seabrook and all his cronies used to hang out there, and that’s where I’d go and sit and talk with them. You know, big stuff to a twenty-year-old. Neat place.”

A few years later, such acquaintances led to Armstrong’s first comic strip job. After graduating from Pasadena City College in 1938, he attended Chouniard for two years until deteriorating family finances prompted him to leave school for a job making airplanes at Lockheed in order to contribute to the Armstrong coffers. A cartoonist friend told him that Fred Fox was looking for someone to draw Ella Cinders during artist Charlie Plumb’s illness. Fox had inherited the writing chores on the strip when its co-creator Bill Conselman died only a few years after the strip started on June 1, 1925. As originally conceived, the strip gave the old rags-to-riches fairy tale a modern setting, retaining the evil stepmother and selfish stepdaughters — over whom Ella triumphs by becoming a movie star despite them.

During a three-month stint on Ella, Armstrong met Chase Craig, who, a year or so later, summoned him to Western Publishing where he joined Craig to produce the second issue (and many subsequent ones) of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies.

Starting in 1941, Armstrong first drew “Porky Pig” over Craig’s scripts, then he wrote and drew “Sniffles and Mary Jane.” Then when NEA picked up Bugs Bunny as a Sunday comic, Armstrong inherited the strip after the first six (which were done by Craig) and wrote and drew it for almost two years before Al Stoffel and a couple others took it over.

Armstrong did Bugs Bunny features again at various intervals over the years, so he’s been associated with the Warner Brothers star for almost as long as the wascally wabbit has been around. He agrees that Bugs is the American comic character: he could never have been invented in the British Isles or in France. “He’s brash, self-assertive, self-confident,” Armstrong said, “the prototypical American.”

Armstrong's job at Western led to his learning animation, which he did “not by choice,” as he explained to Mike Barrier in 1975. “I had been able to avoid working in the animation industry,” Roger said, launching into one of his oral rambles as he recounted the story to me.

“I had had an opportunity to go to work for Disney, years before, in the old Hyperion studio. An animator by the name of Bob Givens took an interest in me. I had come in contact with a fellow named Frank Hawman, who had a comic strip called Sweetie Pie. The basic plot of Sweetie Pie was one that was used many years later by a group called the Beverly Hillbillies: it had to do with this desert rat and his little friend and their burro, who strike riches—and with this incredible newfound wealth, they come to Beverly Hills, they come to Hollywood—and it’s the story of their gaucherie and the things that happen to them. Bob Givens had done a couple of sample strips for this fellow Frank Hawman, and Frank hadn’t been terribly contended with them. Bob didn’t do a very good job. Frank was still looking around, and through Hank Formhals, [I got in touch with Hawman]. Frank turned out to be a first-class jerk, but he introduced me to Bob Givens, and Bob offered to get me into the Disney studio, but the whole concept of doing animation work was abhorrent to me in that I liked to do all the work myself; and I preferred to have something I could hold in my hand, like a comic strip, or a comic book—a finished drawing that was published.

“So here I was, all these years later,” Roger continued, “—four or five years later—and it was during World War II. One by one, the guys were disappearing into the vast maw of the United States Army. I remember when Chase Craig went off to Fort Roach [Hal Roach Studios at Culver City where a large contingent of cartoonists served their country by making animated training films]. He was one of the Fort Roach commandos. He didn’t wear a uniform for the first six months. Finally, they sent him down to the quartermaster’s, and he came back with this funny Navy uniform, with the bell-bottom trousers. About that time, they made him work in the barracks over there, so he had to quit living at Miss Bell’s [a rooming house where Roger also lived].

“Anyway, the guys were disappearing, and it was narrowing down more and more. I had married [my first wife] young, and I had a daughter, and the draft board was taking younger people, and they weren’t touching me. Eleanor Packer, Craig’s boss, who by then was running the joint [the Western shop] by herself— over there in Beverly Hills—at the old Brighton Building—she began to panic, all her people leaving, one by one, and she said, ‘They’re getting awfully close, and the first thing you know, you’re going to get drafted,’ she told me.

“I think it was during that period that I did those Benny Burro things. I can remember Eleanor shipping me off to MGM one day, and I looked at a whole stack of those things. She said, ‘We’ve got to get you into some kind of deferred work.’ She cast about in her mind, and she thought, ‘My old friend Walter Lantz is doing Navy training films, and maybe if you’re in what is considered essential war work, we will get you off the hook, and you will be deferred, and then you will be able to stay and do all this nice comic book work for us.’

“I didn’t particularly relish the concept of going into the Army myself,” Roger rolled on, “—what with an ex-wife and a child—so I said, ‘Okay.’ Evidently, she pulled the wires. She called Walter Lantz, and he said, ‘Send the guy over.’ So I went over and talked to Walter. Walter was a nice little gnome-like man with a shock of white hair—very, very friendly type guy. At the studio, he had this spook—I can’t remember the guy’s name—I think his first name was Fred. He ran interference for Walter, and you always had to get past this guy to see Walter. Anyway, I had an appointment, I went over, I got past this guy Fred, and I got in to see Lantz. He said, ‘Okay, come to work next Monday morning.’

“The hours were 8 to 12 and 1 to 5, I think. I remember we punched in at 8 o’clock. Everybody came in the front entrance. It didn’t make a damned bit of difference whether you were there on business, whether you were a high mucky-muck or you were one of the peons—we all came in through the front door. There was a little swinging gate.

“So Walter hired me, and I went back and reported to Eleanor that all was well. She said, ‘The catch is, you’re going to have to continue doing your Sniffles and Mary Jane and your Porky Pig stories.’ So I was confronted with the prospect of holding down two jobs in order to stay out of the Army.

“That’s how I got into animation. It was a matter of convenience for Eleanor Packer. And that was probably one of the toughest years I’ve ever spent in my life. I would leave the studio at 5 o’clock—the rest of the guys would go off, get drunk, whatever the hell they wanted to do, but I could go back to my little room at Miss Bell’s and draw comic book stories. I do not actually recall when I went to work at Lantz. I have a hunch it was in April 1944. It would be easy to ascertain because all we’d have to do is find out what month Virgil Partch left Lantz: he left a week before I went to work there. He just quit and joined the Army. He and Sam Cobean had both been working there, and they say the place was an absolute riot while those two guys were working there.”

Not that the place was a model of decorum when Armstrong was there. He recalled several instances of horseplay among the animators for Barrier. “They used to take the newspapers,” he said, “and they’d find pictures of girls in bathing suits. With a carbon pencil and a kneaded eraser, they would remove the bathing suit—erase it— and leave the girl nude—leaving the Benday dots totally undisturbed. Then they’d put them up on the bulletin board. That bulletin board got fuller and fuller and fuller with these naked women, who had been clipped out of the newspaper. Xenia Beckwith [one of only two women in the shop] got upset about it so she began to cut out pictures of men, and she doctored them and put them on the bulletin board. Finally, one day Walt came in and stopped in front of the bulletin board and said, ‘You guys have got to get this damned thing out of here!’

“Incidentally,” Roger finished, “it turned out I never did get a deferment out of it. I was finally drafted when they began to scrape the bottom of the barrel. That year that I put in at Lantz, aside from the tremendously fine experience and the people I met, didn’t achieve the objective for which I’d taken the job in the first place. But I learned a hell of a lot about animation because they were all eager to explain and tell me things. I started as an in-betweener, then did breakdowns, and finally became an assistant animator. But I was still doing the comic book stuff for Western, too.”

After the war, Armstrong returned to Western where he did a lot of Disney features for a while— “Little Hiawatha, the Little Bad Wolf,” he remembered, “I did a whole bunch of Little Bad Wolf, some of the best drawing I ever did. I had a real affinity for that stuff.” And then he went back to Chouinard Art Institute on the GI Bill.

Finding he couldn’t make ends meet on the government’s allowance, he continued drawing comic books. “I’d go over to Chouinard about 5 o’clock in the morning and sit in the backseat of my car in the parking lot with a drawing board and draw Bugs Bunny comic books until school started. Then I’d go to class and then go home at night and do more comic books. Pencilling only, this time no inking.”

(Some years after this conversation, I picked up some old Looney Tunes comics and was astonished to see the signature “Roger Armstrong” scrawled distinctively in the last panel of a “Sniffles and Mary Jane” story. I sent Roger a copy of the page and professed amazement at his being “permitted” to sign his work at a time when most comic book cartoonists were anonymous. “I both wrote and drew the feature at that time,” he explained, but “the signature was an aberration, I’m sure: I do not recall being ‘granted the privilege.’ I just signed ’em until the studio caught up with me.” He had other ways of “signing”: in one 1949 Porky Pig tale, he makes “a cameo appearance in a slightly altered persona as a cartoonist”—in the first panel on the third tier.)  Porky

Just as he was about to graduate from Chouinard, Fred Fox called again. The syndicate wanted Plumb to retire, and Fox needed someone to draw Ella Cinders. Fox offered the job to Armstrong with the proviso that he take Plumb’s assistant, Joe Messerli. Armstrong agreed to the stipulation, although at the time he thought an assistant would be superfluous.

“I had a bad habit of thinking of myself as the fastest draw in the West — which I partly was — and inexhaustible,” Armstrong said. “But Joe turned out to be one of the blessings of my life, my absolute mainstay. I can’t tell you how wonderful he was. And as I began to encounter the problems of drawing that thing — Ella in particular—I cannot tell you how happy I was to have Joe at my side.”

When Ella began her life destined to be a motion picture actress, she had been modeled after Colleen Moore, a popular movie star of the day — the hair-do, the eyes. And she was,  Armstrong said, undrawable. “Why?” I asked.

“Because there’s nothing to hang on to.” he explained. “She’s like Mickey Mouse. You see, you look at Goofy, and Goofy has all kinds of facial structure. But Mickey has no structure. And there’s no structure to Ella: she’s absolutely flat. You have to really become accustomed to the space between the eyes, the two little dots, and the mouth — the way that fits into the whole face. You almost have to measure it off with calipers. And you miss a fraction of an inch, and you’ve missed it altogether.”  Plumb

Plumb had faced the same predicament. And he had overcome it with outrageous ingenuity: he had invented the Ella Cinders Machine.

“The Ella Cinders Machine was a contraption Charlie Plumb rigged up with pipes and sash weights and mirrors,” Armstrong said, his voice suddenly smiling with infectious eagerness. “It was a sort of overhead projector, and you could put a drawing of Ella into it and project it onto the paper and reduce the size of the image or make it larger. It was a magnificent invention, an absolutely ingenious device. And it was the only way I could draw Ella — by tracing her from the projected image. There were two perfect drawings of Ella — a profile and a three-quarters view. No full face. So we projected one of those drawings onto the strips. We used only a profile or a three-quarters view in every strip that was drawn. In various sizes. I let Joe ink the main characters because when he came to me, that’s what he’d been doing for Charlie. And I did the backgrounds and all that stuff — the figures. But I let Joe ink all the faces.”

“That’s funny.” I said. “Usually a cartoonist with an assistant does just the reverse. I understand Al Capp, for instance, let his assistants draw everything but the faces of the main characters. He never let them draw Abner or Mammy Yokum or Daisy Mae.”

“Well, Joe had more experience with Ella and Blackie and Patches than I did.” Armstrong laughed.

The Ella Cinders Machine was only the latest in Plumb’s solutions to the problem of drawing Ella, Armstrong told me: before that, Plumb had used rubber stamps.

“At one point, he had rubber stamps made of all the main characters,” Armstrong said, figuratively licking his lips, relishing the outlandishness of what he was recalling, “—stamps of their faces in every size and from every angle he thought he would need. And he kept ’em in this huge cabinet, specially built for the stamps. And if you wanted Ella turned left, one inch high—they were all categorized in the cabinet, and you’d go and pick out the one you needed and stamp it on an ink pad with photo-blue ink on it, and you’d carefully stamp the strip with it where you wanted the face. And then you’d ink it. Very cumbersome way to draw a comic strip,” Armstrong chuckled.

“Yes, but it’s a classic,” I said. “You always hear cartoonists muttering about the repetitive work in strips. I remember a story about one guy, who came into the bar one evening, muttering, Noses, he said, how I hate to draw noses — I spend my life drawing noses! And you think about it, and you do: you spend your life drawing noses and the rest of the faces of the characters you’re stuck with, And Plumb’s rubber stamps — they’re almost too perfect an evasion of the onerous. Classic.”

At just about the time he started working on Ella, Armstrong got another phone call — this one from an old classmate from his undergraduate days at Pasadena City College. It was Margot McBride, Clifford’s second wife, who had worked on the student newspaper with Armstrong long before she knew McBride. She remembered that Armstrong had helped McBride on Napoleon. It was 1950, and McBride had just died. Margot wanted to continue the strip and engaged Armstrong to do it. Suddenly, he was doing two comic strips at once. And each one was rendered in a distinctive but wildly different style.

“How did you do that?” I asked him. “I can understand being able to draw in different styles. I can do that. But I have to think about it a lot as I’m doing it, and when I look at the drawing afterwards, I’m likely to find mistakes — a thumb that’s drawn in the wrong style, Style A not Style B. And I would imagine that you can train yourself to avoid such slips if you take up a new style and do it steadily, but you were doing two styles simultaneously — flipping back and forth. How did you manage it?”

“No wonder I’m schizophrenic,” Armstrong quipped. “Seriously, I just changed hats in the middle of the week, changed my philosophic approach— my attitude about inking, for instance. Ella was done very meticulously, as if it was carved out with a wire, whereas Napoleon was fast, fast, fast. Was it Shakespeare who talked about sea change? The only thing I can say is that I changed. Right in the middle of the week. I spent half the week on one strip; half on the other. A little more on Ella because it was more meticulously drawn. It wasn’t that big a deal. I’d done stuff in other styles — Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny. And I was painting at this time, too — landscapes.”

I wondered about the different ambiance in each strip: “In your book, you say the strip cartoonist must create a whole world, including the people in it. You have to believe in that world. And there you were, living in two different worlds. How did you feel in Napoleon’s world? In Ella’s?”

“Schizophrenic again,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “To tell the truth, the McBride world, the world of Napoleon, was not a real world in the sense that it had any depth. Berrydale, which is where Uncle Elby lived, was a very ephemeral concept. But the world Ella lived in, which had no specific name, had more content to it. When we got her into an adventure, she moved in a much more real world. And in Napoleon, we were aware of people in the world there, but they did not constitute in my mind a real world. Berrydale was a fantasy.”

“Funny you should put it that way,” I said. “I’ve always felt the same about Napoleon. Every time I see a Napoleon strip, I feel as if I am looking through a kind of gauze screen and seeing a bright, hot, humid August afternoon where you can hear the faint buzzing of some kind of insect in the trees and all other sound seems distant and removed, and nothing really moves around very fast. A dream world, a languorous summer afternoon sort of place. Somnolent, relaxing. But not, as you say, altogether real.”

Messerli and, later, Mort Taylor, helped Armstrong in the production of Napoleon as well as Ella Cinders. “They researched for me,” Armstrong said. “When I first took over the strip, I referred to Clifford’s stuff a lot. And they’d go through all the release sheets and find specific poses and put them aside for me so I could draw from them. Eventually I didn’t need to refer to them anymore. I’d learned the drawing well enough not to need ’em.

“Napoleon is one of my two favorite subjects,” he continued. “I absolutely adored drawing him: he moved so freely off the pen onto the paper that it was just a sheer joy. Another favorite was the Inspector in the Pink Panther comic books. I think he’s one of the most beautifully designed characters. I drew him later on when I was doing freelance work for Western. But Napoleon just flows out of the end of my pen. I can draw him practically with my eyes closed. Some characters I had to labor over. Ella was probably the worst. I loved her dearly: she was a dear, sweet girl. But she was hard as hell to draw. And during the time I drew her, incidentally, I subscribed to Mademoiselle magazine and Seventeen, and I used to pick up dress patterns at the dress shop. When you’re dressing a girl character, you have to stay up on that stuff.”

I asked him if Fred Fox had ever scripted situations in Ella that were un-drawable, a tendency not unprecedented when strips are produced by writer-artist teams (even when, like Fox, the writer can also draw).

“Only once,” Armstrong said. “It was during the first week of dailies, and he never did it again. But it happens. Once I was doing a ten-page Bugs Bunny story, and the writer— it was his first story for comics— wrote for one panel: Bugs comes into the room, picks up a vase, does something with it, and goes out again. One panel. Three actions. But to the writer, it was perfectly logical to have all that action in one panel.”

“He’d probably learned to write by going to the movies,” I said, “and in a movie, all the action takes place in one panel, that big square one on the wall.”

Armstrong once said it was easier to do a continuity strip than a gag strip. I asked him about that.

“That’s an entirely subjective statement,” he said. “It’s easier for me to do continuity because I’m not a very good gag man. For some people, continuity strips aren’t easier. Guys like Phil Interlandi, for example— whose mind is nothing but a gag file— he would have no problem with a gag strip; he could just knock ’em out. But it’s easier for me to plot a story and write dialogue than to come up with gags.”

Although Fox wrote Ella for most of Armstrong’s stint on the strip, Armstrong wrote it for a couple years before Bill Conselman’s son stepped in to write the last year or so of the strip.

“When I was plotting the story,” Armstrong said, “I’d work out a six-week synopsis. Plotting is like writing a novel: I’d just tell a story and not worry about the daily installments. Then I’d break it down into weekly segments, and then I’d write the dialogue which broke it into daily strips. Some guys actually write their stories on little pieces of paper that they pin on a bulletin board in front of them. Then they take ’em off one by one as they use ’em up.

“And if you’re smart,” he continued, “you always know where you’re going before you start to ink your final drawings. I learned that the hard way at Western: once I inked several pages of a story I was doing even though I hadn’t figured out the ending, and then, half-way through inking, I realized I couldn’t finish the story I had in mind in the six pages they’d allowed for it. Boy, was Carl Buettner mad! He was the editor. They paid me for the pages, but we had to completely re-write the story. So I learned. Even with a daily strip, I always make sure of the end; I did the last panel first, Napoleon or Ella. I always knew where I was going. I did the gag in the last panel, and then I’d lead up to it.”

“So how do you come up with gags for a gag strip?” I asked, having found at last an opening into which I could lob cartooning’s perpetually unanswerable question.

“Well, I’m not the world’s greatest gag man,” Armstrong confessed. “Now, Clifford, in his early days, was: he was a magnificent gag man. Some of the funniest damn stuff you ever saw. But eventually, you get to the point where the creative edge is blunted a little from meeting constant deadlines. He used to get frantic for gags. I did, too. There’s just so much you can do with a fat man and big dog. That’s why he introduced other incidental characters— the nephew Willie, the neighbor woman. Margot and I devised Indian Joe, the guide on camping trips. And I did a couple of things to find gags. I subscribed to Punch, and I would go back ten years and do switches—take a gag and turn it around somehow. And I bought gags. Clifford didn’t, but I did. I put some of my funny friends to work.”

“Do you ever just doodle with pencil on paper in order to think of a gag?” I asked.

“Oh, sure — you can sometimes come up with gags by just drawing your characters in various situations, letting the gags grow out of that.”

Armstrong did a book for Walter Foster, How to Draw Comic Strips. I told Armstrong that to the best of my knowledge, his book is the only one I know on comic strip drawing that begins where every comic strip cartoonist must begin — with speech balloons, where they should be positioned and the like. “In most how-to books I remember,” I said, “speech balloons are treated as a perfunctory matter, and yet they’re the absolute beginning of every panel composition.”

“It’s the heart of the thing,” Armstrong agreed.

“And they must appear in the right order,” I said.

“Right,” he laughed. “The book is written out of the experience of my cartooning classes. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to tell students that English is read from left to right. You don’t put the opening balloon in the first panel at the right and then put the response to the left. It just doesn’t read that way. But it happens over and over and over.”

When I asked about his philosophy of teaching, Armstrong said he often used principles that are found in Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which, he said, is a psychological synthesis of Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw.

“But I guess I teach intuitively most of the time,” he said. “I lecture, then I demonstrate, then I go around the room and work with each individual. A lot of instructors are reluctant to demonstrate. They don’t seem to have the facility to sit down and knock out a drawing quickly that will show what the student should see. I’ve been told by many students that watching me do what I do is one of the major ways they learn.

“I believe in starting with the basics. When I teach watercolor, I have people puddling color. And then I give them a color lecture, and then I give them exercises in how to manipulate the color, and then I give them exercises in how to lay a wash. They can’t paint a picture until they’ve done at least ten weeks of exercises.

“Philosophically,” he continued, “I feel that in order to achieve a creative result, you must have the tools. If I wanted to play the piano, I could not sit down and play a Chopin waltz until I had learned that keyboard and knew it by heart and had done my five-finger exercises over and over. It’s the same damn thing with painting or drawing. And I’m a strong believer in having my students achieve successes; I don’t want them frustrated. So I try never to give a student more than I know he or she can handle. If they can handle it, then I move them on to the next thing, but I don’t let people move forward until I know that they can do what I know they’re going to need for the next step. Take your time and learn the basis, that’s my philosophy of teaching.”

Some years after our interview, I watched Roger demonstrate watercoloring by videotape. He poured the color onto the paper, splashing great areas with liquid color, then returning, again and again, to add nuances of hue and form. The scene was a bluff along the sea coast overlooking the ocean, and after he developed the steep slope, Roger built houses up its pitched side—imaginary beachfront domiciles, conjured up from his mind and memory, all fiction but it seemed real in its vibrant color in the Southern California sun.  Water-2

Armstrong got into the teaching game by way of an art museum. He was involved with Napoleon and Ella Cinders until they ceased (1960 and 1961 respectively). Then he did The Flintstones comic strip for a year or so, and he was story director for the Hanna-Barbera prime-time television show, “Wait ’Til Your Father Gets Home.” And then in about 1963, his wife talked him into entering an art show sponsored by the Laguna Beach Art Association. He won second prize for a watercolor and soon found himself on the Association’s board of directors; a couple months later, he was director of the Association’s museum (now the Laguna Beach Museum of Art), a position he held for four years. During that time, he also drew the Little Lulu comic strip, an incongruous coupling of occupations that still gives Armstrong a chuckle.

“Every day, I’d get into my museum director’s costume,” he recalled with a twinkle, “—a nice suit, gray silk, and a vest and a necktie (my wife made me buy a couple of these get-ups) — and I’d go off to work on my ten-speed bicycle, carrying my little attache case. And I’d go in and sit at my desk and give directives to my secretary and arrange shows and so on. And at the end of the day, I’d come home, get into my blue jeans and my sweatshirt, and I’d sit down and draw Little Lulu.” He laughed.

After leaving the directorship, Armstrong taught at the Laguna Beach Art School (cartooning, basic drawing, oil painting, figure drawing, watercolor— everything, he said, but design). Then in about 1977, cartoonist Ed Nofziger told him he’d recommended him to the Disney people to draw Scamp, their comic strip about a mischievous pup. Nofziger had told them Armstrong was the best dog artist in the world.

“So I went up there,” Armstrong said, “and I showed my portfolio and drawings to Don McLaughlin, who was head of the department at the time, and they gave me a script to take home and work up. And just before I left, McLaughlin said, ‘Oh —wait a minute: can you draw Mickey Mouse?’ And I said, ‘Oh, God, I can’t draw Mickey Mouse to save my life.’ And he said, ‘Good — you’re hired.’”

Roger did Scamp for about ten years, gags supplied by the Disney Studios. (Tom Yakutis did the best of them, Armstrong remembered.) And he enjoyed his association with Disney: “I had the great good fortune to have the finest guys for editors. Tom Goldberg was absolutely wonderful.”

In addition to Scamp, Armstrong illustrated five books for the Disney Library. He hadn’t drawn a strip regularly since 1988, but he’s worked up a strip about lawyers called Ben Barrister with writer Joe Jares.

“I think it’s a good idea for a strip,” Armstrong said. “I think it has a place in the comic strip world. I wouldn’t want to do all the drawing, though,” he went on. “I’d like to do the pencilling and then hand it over to one of my students to ink. I don’t feel like sitting in solitary at my drawing board these days. I could do that when I was a kid. But I’m too gregarious. I never knew that until I started teaching. And I find that this is really my forte — getting out there and communicating with people.”

Here’s a gallery of Roger’s cartooning career—Napoleon, Ella, Scamp, Bugs Bunny, and a couple try-outs, Perilous Pauline and Ben Barrister, plus one of his oil paintings.

Armstrong-4 Armstrong-3 Armstrong-2 Armstrong-1

For as long as I knew Roger, he was conducting classes in painting, taking students on junkets abroad—“Three weeks painting the summer in Spain!”—and making instructional videos. And painting. He painted whatever he saw. “His art is really the art of everyday life in Southern California,” said Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, quoted by Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. He painted what he saw wherever he lived—Los Angeles, Crystal Cove, and Laguna Beach. “He’s one of those artists we really like because they paint their everyday life and the things and people around them. Essentially, where he lived became the subject matter.”

Armstrong’s paintings are in more than 300 private collections and several public ones, including the Smithsonian Museum and the Laguna Art Museum as well as the Irvine Museum. Onetime president of the National Watercolor Society, he taught painting and drawing at a number of Southern California schools—Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, the Irvine Fine Arts Center, and the Laguna College of Art and Design.

By the time we met, Roger was more painter than cartoonist, but the cartoonist was just below the surface. We exchanged Christmas cards and other occasional correspondence. Once, he wrote: “Was pondering at breakfast a bit ago: has any research ever been done—perhaps a magazine article—anent Charles Nelson Landon, who figured so importantly in the development of so many cartoonists (including me)?”

In August 2004, he sent me a drawing with a note: “I’m enclosing a small reproduction of one of the big drawings I’m doing currently. They’re three feet by two feet on watercolor paper, and I’ve finished ten of them. No rhyme nor reason for doing them, just self-gratification. Stream of consciousness. What to do with them?”

The drawing depicted a swarm of cartoony people, some clothed, some not (the women were all naked), an elephant, a donkey, a dog, and at least two Rogers. Roger-3

A few weeks later, he explained the genesis of the drawings: “Karl Hubenthal [the great sports cum editorial cartoonist at the Hearst Works] left me stacks of pen points (as well as lotsa other art supplies) when he died, so, dipping one of them into a bottle of walnut ink one day, I started a series of stream-of-consciousness drawings, 32 so far. What in God’s name will I do with them? They’ve become an obsession.”

The bottle of walnut ink was part of the provocation, he explained: “When Ruth Hunter [an erstwhile student of his] gave me a bottle of walnut ink several months ago, she inadvertently opened up a window of creativity for me that I haven’t experienced for years.”

The cartoonist drowsing within the watercolor artist had been awakened from a long sleep.

Roger continued: “I start each drawing with a small image somewhere on the page and let the conformation of that drawing lead me, with no conscious thought, to the next image, usually totally unrelated to the first image, and so on, growing, growing until the entire page is filled with unrelated ‘doodles.’ Yes! That is what they are, doodles. Like New York City or London, the total drawing is composed of many small neighborhoods, each complete unto itself, but the total is a gestalt in which the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts.”

He continued doing drawings in this antic mode for months, periodically sending me batches of them, recording the ever-increasing total each time—“32,” “over 60,” “more than 150 of these things.”

Roger was a fine painter, but the inner cartoonist lurked with a vengeance that had, at last, burst forth in a flurry of freehand hilarities—no penciling, just pen and walnut ink. By the summer of 2006—the year before he died on June 7— he said he’d done more than 200 of them and felt no inclination to stop. Roger Armstrong’s last testament. Here are a few.  Roger-9 Roger-5 Roger-4


One Response to Roger Armstrong: Conversing with One of Cartooning’s Better Sprites

  1. KK says:

    What a wonderfully written piece on Roger Armstrong. I was his student at Pasadena City College for a water color class. I have never forgotten his lively personality and what he taught me. He made art fun!
    Three of my paintings from his class were put into my portfolio, and that got me accepted into ACCD.
    Thank you for this tribute. ~Kim K.

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