Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tom Gill: A Personal Remembrance

On the occasion of the publication of THE MISADVENTURES OF A ROVING CARTOONIST by Tom Gill with Tom Lasiuta, I thought I would share some memories of this man, best known as the Lone Ranger comic book artist. I first wrote this after he passed away on October 17, 2005 at the age of 92. The piece originally appeared in the NCS newsletter The Cartoon!st. This is the first time I've shared it.


Tom Gill: A Personal Remembrance by Mike Lynch who was co-chair of the Berndt Toast Gang with Tom Gill

This starts with a phone call I made to Tom a couple years ago. I had left a message on Tom Gill's phone. I didn’t know him then. I was hoping he would allow me to maybe, possibly attend one of the Long Island NCS chapter luncheons. I was nervous. I rambled on, explaining I was a magazine cartoonist, and hemmed and hawed as I asked about the Berndt Toast Gang lunch.

Tom returned the call the next day, saying, "Look, I don't know what you were saying, but you say you're a cartoonist, and, well, that's all right with me!" He said I was welcome to come to the next meeting, and then I kept coming.

Tom Gill was one of the giants of the golden age comic artists. It’s been estimated that over his 72 year career in commercial art, he’s impacted thousands of people. I’m glad to count myself among those who knew Tom as a colleague and friend.

A couple years later I got to know Tom better. One visit on a snowy day stands out. I took the train from Grand Central to Croton-on-Hudson to visit Tom and his wife 'trish.' They picked me up at the station.

We drove through the park and reservoir. There was a dusting of snow on the trees and the rocks. Although Tom was legally blind the last years of his life, he could still see light and shadow. Tom asked her to slow down. He pointed out the car window, smiled and said, "That's a Caniff rock." And sure enough, the spattering of white snow against the dark rock looked just like Caniff inks!

We continued to their condo. Red wine was poured and we settled into talking about his career.

Tom Gill started work as an office boy at the New York Daily News in the 1930s. He knew Captain Joseph Patterson, the paper's founder. Patterson’s secretary was writer John O'Hara's sister, Mary O'Hara. Tom recalled the day she let him see Patterson's executive office suite in the then-new News building on 42nd Street. Patterson had his own private bathroom. Just above the toilet, mounted on the wall, was a large, red fireman's axe. It had been put there at the command of Patterson, in case the door should ever get stuck and he couldn't get out. Mary confided that Patterson was a claustrophobic.

Not many people know that Tom competed in a contest to design a logo for the Associated Press, losing out to Frank Robbins.

Tom drew the first map of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for the December 8, 1941 edition of the News. He moved to the New York Herald Tribune in 1946, drawing a strip titled "Flower Potts" for three years. The New York Times was also an employer.

He began freelancing for comic books in 1949. Tom worked on romance comic books back then. One day he got a call from Gene Autry's office. Mr. Autry had decided that since, at that time, there was a popular Roy Rogers comic strip, that he (Gene) should have a strip as well. Autry's people wanted Tom to draw up 20 strips. Tom said he could get it to them in four weeks. "A month? We want it tomorrow morning!" Well, Tom did it in a couple weeks -- but up to that point in his career, he had never drawn a horse. So he bought a book titled HOW TO DRAW A HORSE: IT'S FUN AND IT'S EASY. The book showed how to draw a horse correctly, and then, on another page, how NOT to draw the horse. Tom kept at it and soon he was drawing horses -- but a lot of times he had to refer to this little book (which he told me he still has on his shelf) to make sure he was drawing a horse from one of the HOW TO DRAW pages and not one of the HOW NOT TO DRAW pages. When it was all finished, the syndicates passed on it. This was bad news since Tom had done all this work on spec!

So, he went back to eking things out drawing the comic book romances. He had to regularly go to Western Publishing (Dell Comics) and beg for scripts. One day he had his Gene Autry samples with him and an editor saw it. He said, "Tom, I didn't know you drew horses!" Tom told him, yeah, of course he drew horses. He drew great horses. Drew horses all the time!

So the editor told him that was great and handed him a 52 page script for a comic book. "We have tons of Western scripts and not enough artists!" Tom was off and running as a prolific Western artist.

From 1950 to 1970, with writer Paul S. Newman, he drew The Lone Ranger comic book for more than 135 issues -- one of the longest consistent runs of any artist on a comic book. Herb Trimpe, Joe Sinnott and John Verpoorten were among his many assistants.

I was looking at some of his pages of original Lone Ranger art, asking him what he kind of reference he used for all that Western detail. “Reference? We didn’t have time for reference!”

Tom was just as busy outside of the studio, teaching at The School of Visual Arts and other colleges.

Tom had been with the National Cartoonists Society for over 50 years. He was Membership Chairman during the terms of Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond and Bill Hoest. He was Veteran Affairs Chair under Mort Walker and Vice President with Walt Kelly. He traveled with the NCS Armed Forces shows worldwide. The Silver T-Square, an NCS Comic Book Division Award, the first NCS Volunteerism Award, and a 50 Year Membership Recognition award were some of the honors he received. (And I’m not even mentioning his cartooning and illustration classes at The School of Visual Arts where he began as department chair in 1948 and was also alumni director until 1969.)

When the Long Island Chapter was formed (“I introduced ‘chapters’ to accommodate out expanding numbers.”), Tom was made co-chair for life.

On that cold day in January, Tom showed me a new how-to-draw book that he was pitching to publishers. He also had a book of memoirs. And he was teaching a class. He always had projects!

I saw Tom a number of times since then, at the Berndt Toast lunches. And we would talk on the phone. Tom never hesitated to call. Once he phoned on his cell from New Mexico just to chat. Trish, as ever, was by his side, driving them through the desert to visit a new great grandchild.

Whenever he phoned me at home and left a message, he would bark in his gravelly voice, "What are you doing out? How are you going to get ahead if you aren't in your studio drawing?!"


Today is another get together of the Berndt Toast Gang, the NCS chapter that Tom Gill was co-chair for life. Of course, Tom is on my mind, as some of the other men and women who were part of the Gang, and now are no longer with us. Here's a Berndt Toast to Tom, as well as my friend Bill (and Mimi, who was always at his side) Seay. I remember you and am thankful for our time together.


Brian Fies said...

Very nice, Mike. You were lucky to know him.

In general, I really enjoy meeting all the "old-timers" (I say that fondly) who never get enough respect. The quintessential convention experience is seeing long lines form in front of the 20-something Flavor of the Week while, at the next table, an artist or writer who built the industry 40 or 50 years ago is ignored. Too many people's memories are too short.

Mark Anderson said...

That's was lovely Mike. I wish I'd know Tom. (And now I have two more books to buy: his bio, and How to Draw a Horse.)

Unknown said...

I lived in Tom's neighborhood as a young boy. At about 11 years old (now 58) Tom asked me (and my parents) if I would care to be his model for a new cartoon strip entitled The Adventures of Brains Benton. As a tall and awkward glasses wearing kid, he thought I looked the studious, science oriented type. He was right. I spent a summer posing for different action scenes outside his home. At only 11 Tom made me feel like a celebrity. He was a fine man, a gentle guy who was fun to be around. Brains Benton was styled after the Hardy Boys series of books. Unfortunately, the strip was never picked-up by the papers. None the less, I still cherish the prints I have from the experience. In fact to this day, friends of mine from the old neighborhood, still call me by the nickname "Brains."