Jesse Hamm (sirspamdalot) wrote,
Jesse Hamm

Jesse Marsh

I was planning to feature more advice from '20s cartoonists, but demand has been low, and anyway they all pretty much recommend the same thing: practice. (I'd argue that most comic strips show practice to be overrated -- *cough* -- and that the secret of improvement lies elsewhere, but that's another post.)

So instead, I'm resurrecting some material I once wrote (at my long-defunct Jesse Marsh site) about the fairly great and fairly obscure cartoonist, Jesse Marsh. His Tarzan stories will be reprinted soon -- lushly, deservedly, and for the first time -- by Dark Horse. As a preliminary, allow me to prattle on about


Beginning with the first issue in the late 1940s, and continuing for nearly two decades, Jesse Marsh drew 153 consecutive issues of Tarzan, the work for which he is best known.

In addition to its usual strengths, Marsh's work is distinguished in Tarzan by the realism he brought to the series. His careful, ongoing research of Africa paid off grandly in his drawings. Unlike most Tarzan artists, who rarely depict Tarzan outside of the jungle, Marsh depicted Tarzan in a variety of African settings -- most notably the African plains. His drawings of animals are superb, and his depictions of African people are marked by a level of realism and respect that is rarely seen in comics of his era. Africans made up their share of the stories' villains, of course, but Marsh also depicted Africans as beautiful, noble, friendly, and sophisticated -- a welcome departure from the bland or caricatured black characters readers were used to seeing.

Much credit here also belongs to writer Gaylord DuBois, who wrote all but the first two of the Tarzan issues drawn by Marsh, and who treated his characters with equal respect regardless of race or gender. DuBois (rhymes with "to VOICE") wrote quietly human stories that celebrated domesticity, community, and simple altruism. In addition to the typical derring-do we associate with the character, DuBois's Tarzan might as easily pass his time feasting with neighbors, or helping them sow a field, or repair a boat -- a sort of Sheriff Andy Taylor of the veldt. DuBois's humble, easy-going stories were well-suited to Marsh's low-key visual approach, and gave Marsh ample opportunity to showcase his languid figures and solemn landscapes.

The Tarzan series also let Marsh show off his skill at drawing lovely women in exotic dress. Fierce or fragile, modest or seductive, black or white -- Marsh was able to depict them all with ease. The natural grace of his female poses suggests he was a student of life drawing, and provides a welcome alternative to the brittle posturing of most female comic characters. (Dirk Deppey helpfully provides a scan from Comic Art #9 here, at his blog.)

His knack for drawing children is also worth noting. Unlike the stiff, oddly proportioned and cloying depictions of children in many comics, his kids' proportions, body language, and facial expressions all suggest real, live children.

Marsh's style on Tarzan went through different phases as the series wore on. His earlier issues had a fluidity similar to that of Milton Caniff in Terry and the Pirates. Later in the series, Marsh seems to have followed Caniff's lead (in Steve Canyon) toward a looser, choppier, more angular style. His style from this period also resembles the styles of later cartoonists Gary Panter, Tony Salmons, and David Mazzucchelli (and may even have influenced those artists). Sometimes this later style evinces a sloppy impatience, but at other times it looks great: his deft strokes carve figures and objects into interesting, poetic shapes.

The page below, from Tarzan #149, is an example of Marsh's creative use of space. Most cartoonists are content to leave a uniform moat of space around their characters at all times. The character typically occupies the center of the panel, being ringed about by a trivial wreath of space or background detail. Rarely is much space devoted to elements that lack obvious importance to the story. After all: space is at a premium in comics, and stories are about the characters. To the average cartoonist, leaving extra space in a panel would be as unorthodox as two strangers sharing the same half of an elevator.

However, Marsh saw beyond this convention. He frequently abandoned the "moat" approach to include spaces in his panels that other cartoonists would never have bothered with. On the page below, notice panel 3. The average cartoonist would have focused this panel entirely on its figures, dividing it among them: Mogok at the cliff's edge, a third of the way down the panel, and Tarzan clinging to the cliff, one third of the way below Mogok. Yet Marsh devotes over half the panel to an expanse of empty space beneath the figures. As we can see, this was a wise decision. While the script calls our attention to the length of the jump facing our heroes, Marsh glosses over that point to underscore the real issue: the height from which they might fall.

What's more, Marsh avoids the melodrama inherent in the situation. It's easy to imagine a modern cartoonist depicting a vertiginous down-shot past Tarzan's dangling feet, bits of stone tumbling into the abyss. Yet Marsh takes a quieter approach: we see Mogok; no problem... we see Tarzan; no problem... then, as our gaze drifts downward, the gravity of their situation finally sinks in. In such moments, and spaces, we encounter the quietly eloquent world of Jesse Marsh.

Note also the emptiness surrounding Mogok in the final panel. No hint of any background; just a courageous monkey leaping into nothing. In tandem with the preceding panels, this shot almost makes you hold your breath.

(I previously discussed Marsh's work here and here, and more can be read about him in the recent Comic Art Magazine #9.)


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