March 31, 2010

Golden Age Artist Spotlight -- Fred Guardineer

"When I sat down to work at Chesler, I started with a blank piece of paper and did the whole bit:  I penciled it and I lettered it and I inked the lettering and then I inked the pencil drawings and turned out the finished product.  I know of no other way to work."  -- Fred Guardineer (interviewed by Dylan Williams in Comics Journal #282)

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are the names that come to mind when Action Comics #1 is discussed.  For those not in the know, it's the historic issue featuring the very first appearance of Superman, and depending on who you talk to, also heralding the success of an entire medium.  A recent on-line auction of a higher-grade copy of this issue went for a reported million dollar final gavel price.  But Superman wasn't the only costumed hero making his debut in the first issue of Action.   There was also a tuxedoed magician-detective named Zatara with the ability to create magic by speaking commands backwards (it's probably more impressive displayed in print than in real life -- where it probably resembles a mentally ill person shouting gobbly-gook or a Baptist preacher speaking in tongues).  Fred Guardineer was the creator of this sartorially splendid magical crimefighter.   Zatara, while often on the periphery of D.C. Comics up through the decades following his debut, did outlive a good chunk of his golden age compatriots, finally meeting his demise in an issue of Swamp Thing (#50) in 1986.  His daughter Zatanna, famous for the fishnet stockings, continues his backwards-spoken-spell legacy in the Justice League and in her own set of solo series.  But Zatara wasn't Guardineer's only magician-adventurer.  Zatara was merely the first, of many magic-spouting heroes, across numerous comic companies, most lost to the ages.

Guardineer was born in 1913, and grew up in Albany, New York.  Guardineer became a rarity in that day and age, a college-educated comic artist, after graduating from Syracuse University in 1935, with a degree in fine arts.  Like many other Syracuse grads, he continued to follow their nationally-recognized sports teams for the rest of his life, and bemoaned the lack of Orangemen lacrosse coverage when he relocated in his later years to California.    His first art job came about after he walked in off the street into the Harry 'A' Chesler offices and negotiated a pay rate of $15-$20 a week.   He drew for both the pulps and the comics, strip art in particular, both daily and Sundays on the Dan Hastings adventure strip from 1937 through 1938.   While at Chesler he was introduced to the equally talented Jack Cole, who he would later work with at Quality Comics, working for Busy Arnold.  He also appropriated one of his most valuable possessions at Chesler -- a drawing desk.  He exhanged his own desk with the one he was assigned at Chesler, and ended up dragging it down the street to the hotel he was staying at, then to his studio, then finally out to his home in Long Island.   He worked on that desk his entire life.

But it was a twelve page back-up feature that would signal a bigger move.   While also contributing work to Centaur, Guardineer developed Zatara and pitched it to D.C., who were developing a new action-based series of comic books.  That series turned into Action Comics (which also led to work in Adventure Comics, More Fun Comics, Detective Comics, and other superhero/adventure series).  Guardineer was a perfect fit for early D.C., utilizing a clean, clear style, and possessing that most important quality of speed. Guardineer was also a self-taught letterer. He had a dorm-mate studying engineering who had an additional printing textbook. Guardineer practiced each exercise diligently until he had the form and technique for filling word-balloons down pat.  He also used photo references relentlessly, and kept a huge clippings file, and remarked that no magazine escaped his house without being stripped clean of every photograph available.  Perhaps as a consequence of looking through so many pics, Guardineer often enjoyed putting photographic likenesses of Hollywood stars into his comic book art, including a notable cameo of Clark Gable into an issue of the cowboy comic Durango Kid.   As the covers show below, Guardineer was selected for a wide range of cover assignments at D.C. in addition to his regular twelve page interiors (Pep Morgan and Speed Sanders being regular Guardineer-drawn features along with Zatara),  my favorite cover being a blood-spewing elephant attacking some big game hunters.   It's been also been noted that one of his Zatara stories, in Action Comics #12, might feature the first same sex couple in the history of comic books -- where two kingdoms continually at war settle their differences by having their two queens share the same combined throne and rule the dual lands as "wife and wife." 

Guardineer then moved on to Quality Comics, creating characters like the Blue Tracer

As well as features like this splash page (for the Lev Gleason comic Crime Does NOT Pay):

While at other companies like Quality, Columbia Comics, Marvel, Hillman and ME Publications, Guardineer also found that when a formula works, it might work again somewhere else.   Hence a series of clones of Zatara, including such characters as Merlin the Magician, Tor the Magic Master, Yarko the Great, and Marvelo, tuxedoed and mustachioed to a man. They didn't all start off wielding the superpower of magical backwards-speak like Zatara, but eventually most of them did.  Again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Maybe to stave off the comparisons, Guardineer worked under pseudonyms during this time period, including Lance Blackwood, F.G.B., and Gene Baxter.    Additional creations during this time (early to mid-forties) include characters like Moon-Man, Dragon, The Mouthpiece and features like Anchors Aweigh.  From 1949 to 1955, Guardineer drew the western feature, The Durango Kid (issues #19-41) for Magazine Enterprises, working for his old Action Comics editor Vin Sullivan.

In 1955, at the age of 42, Guardineer saw the comics companies consolidating, collapsing, and cutting artists left and right.  He retired from regular comics drawing to start a career with the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked for the next twenty years.  Even while at the post office, he continued to provide drawings and written features for hunting and fishing columns in local newspapers and on the radio, and supplemented his income later in life with cover re-creations of his early Action Comics covers.  

As noted by Mark Evanier in his blog here, in 1998 Guardineer attended Comic-Con International to be part of several panels, including one gathering every surviving person who had a hand in the creation of Action Comics #1.  Guardineer also received the Inkpot Award that same year.  Reportedly, Guardineer was most flattered, gracious and surprised by all the attention he received at that and other California cons.  He passed away on September 13, 2002. 

Enjoy the covers!


  1. Love the Adventure & Fun Comics covers.

    Guardineer illustrated a book in 1971 titled "Witches, Whales, Petticoats, & Sails: Adventures & Misadventures from Three Centuries."

  2. Another very nice piece, Ray. I had no idea about that 'wife-wife' story.

    My first encounter with Guardineer was that More Fun #47 cover. It was in cover gallery of the 1983 Overstreet Guide. I was amazed that there was this entire 'pre-hero' group of comics. My first impression (and it still lingers today), is that the lion was leaning on the tribesman for support, with almost a sad expression on his face. Weird how the mind sees thing, huh?

    I've seen more of Guardineer's work via Durango Kid reprints. Initially, I wasn't very impressed - as it all seemed very flat & stiff, as if he hadn't been part of the shift in sophistication in comic book art. It still had that 'simplistic' look that pervaded comics in the 40s. What I came to realize, though - was that he was a terrific storyteller, and while his pencils may not have had the depth of a Severin or Wildey on a western - I was still engaged in the story.

    That Action #7 cover is tremedous - I wonder if he did any Hot Rod stuff.

    Keep up the good work!