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The Visual Verve and Vibrancy of Bud Blake and Tiger

The Home News was the newspaper in central New Jersey that my family subscribed to when I was a kid.  It’s where I was introduced to the weirdness of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, the trials and tribulations of Harry Hanan’s Louie, and the beautifully drawn, sweetly humored Tiger by Bud Blake.  Growing up, Tiger was comfortably familiar to me.  Blake’s gags revolved around everyday kid stuff.  The strip didn’t have the psychological weight of Peanuts.  There wasn’t a ton of depth to the cast of characters.  We knew that Punkinhead could be a nudge, Hugo liked to eat, and Julius was a bookish type.  Tiger himself was sort of his strip’s version of Pogo.  Neither main character stood out on his own but played an important part in the ensemble of the strip.  As I grew older and began collecting original comic strip artwork, I noticed something else about Bud Blake’s strip: the guy could flat-out draw.  And he did so in a way that was seemingly effortless, with figures and objects cutting across the small picture planes with wonderful movement in both form and line. 

At some point I wrote Blake a fan letter and he responded with a nice note and an original Tiger daily strip.  Years later, in 2004, I had the opportunity to conduct the last interview that Bud gave when I met with him at his home in Damariscotta, Maine.  I found in Bud a gracious and generous host who was glad that someone still took an interest in his work.  While he had recently retired from drawing Tiger, he loved talking about the strip, especially the process behind the creation of the work.  The interview that resulted from that visit appeared in the magazine Hogan’s Alley (#13), titled “Blake Superior”.  For anyone interested in reading the interview, it can be found online at:

https://www.hoganmag.com/blog/blake-superior-the-bud-blake-interview

I was able to visit with Bud one last time in the summer of 2005.  He was in failing health, but remained in pragmatically good spirits, simply waiting “…to croak” as he put it.  There was nothing morbid in the way he talked about his mortality.  It was just another deadline.  We stayed in touch until his passing at the age of 87 on December 26, 2005.

Because Bud was so generous with his originals to anyone who wrote to him, they were fairly easy to buy from autograph dealers in the 1980s and 90s.  He was also generous with me, gifting me with a number of original daily strips and Sunday pages, as well as a stack of pencil roughs, which is where he felt the “true creativity” in the strip was.  When we discussed his roughs, I’ll never forget the image of Bud in his lightweight checked bathrobe and slippers, shuffling off into his first-floor studio, and coming out with a small stack of the roughs.  Some of the drawings were almost Daumier-like in the movement of the lines and understanding of forms.

Tiger daily strip pencil rough

Bud worked in a similar fashion to Hank Ketcham.  Both artists would rough out their strips in pencil on a lightweight paper.  Ketcham tended to work on a sheet of vellum and would play with the composition and proportions until he got things just right.  Bud worked on a lightweight sheet of bond paper, the same size as the daily strip.  His prelims tended to be quite rough, almost a gesture drawing that would become the armature for the strip.  Both men would then put the pencil rough on a light table, place a sheet of one or two-ply Strathmore paper on top, and ink directly onto the paper using a dip pen for the line work.  The idea was to allow the line to maintain its liveliness, without it feeling like it was simply a tracing over the pencil lines.  Bud’s early work on Tiger, in the 1960s and 1970s, featured a strong but slightly staid line.  There was movement in the line, but not a whole lot of liveliness.  That changed in the 1980s, as Bud’s line started to gain a more calligraphic quality, working in concert with his often-dynamic compositions.  From the 1990s until the end of his tenure on Tiger, the size of Bud’s originals shrunk, but the energy in the drawing grew.  He started bringing more brushwork into the strip, not just to fill in black shapes, but to create a more active contour line in the work.  The more expressive line was a perfect partner to Bud’s figure work, which often teemed with energy.  A figure could stomp off in one direction, or Tiger and Hugo could fight, or a sled might careen out of control.  There was energetic movement everywhere, in the lines, the figures and the compositions.  It was brilliant stuff.

In a Sunday page from January 9, 1983, you can see the wonderful movement throughout the strip.  Bud accomplished this in a few ways.  First and foremost were his individual compositions.  The top tier is quietly masterful, as Bud changed the viewpoint slightly from straight-on, to bird’s-eye view, then to a worm’s-eye view, and finally to a bird’s-eye view again in panel four.  In the bottom tier the viewpoint remains the same, but the angle shifts, until Tiger and Hugo come crashing into the stop sign.  The way that Bud drew the collision makes it seem as if the boys ran right into the front of the picture plane, in front of the viewer. 

Tiger Sunday page, January 9, 1983

Composition aside, Bud was a master of “spotting blacks”, a term which refers to the use of creating contrasting shapes in the work, allowing the viewer’s eye to travel from left-to-right across the Sunday page.  You can see that easily in this page as the black pants of the characters help to create movement, along with Tiger’s black hat and the dark trees and spaces in the landscape. 

Finally, the line work.  You’ll notice that Bud’s contour line tends to be a bit heavier, with the interior lines—folds and creases—being a bit thinner.  It’s a controlled calligraphic line, with beautiful variation in line weight.  Everything planned out and in its place. 

Bud’s compositions create the movement in these two panels, as he played with angles and eye-levels
No sound effects are needed in this glorious panel. The CRASH is evident

Now take a look at this Sunday page from October 6, 1996, and you can see what a difference 13 years makes. 

Tiger Sunday page, October 6, 1996

What you cannot see from the image above is the size of the original.  The later Sunday pages are approximately three-quarters the size of the ones from the 1980s.  But something you will notice is Bud’s line work.  It still has that calligraphic thick-and-thin quality of the early work, but the line has become more expressive.  While not anything like a scrawl, the line has a different sort of movement to it, as Bud was using the ink to find the forms based on the pencil lines on the rough.  It was a bit briefer approach, as if he had developed something like a shorthand to the drawing. 

In the second and third panels of the Sunday page, Bud shows Tiger punting the ball, followed by Tiger and Bonnie dashing forward towards the fourth panel.  The expressive line work adds to the energy, as does the wonderful figure movement and attitude.  The forward-lean of the figures helps to convey that speed.

Then comes panels five and six, those glorious scenes in which Tiger and Punkinhead tackle Hugo, forming a small mass of humanity in each panel.  There’s something sculptural about Bud’s forms in these panels, as he conveys movement, weight and expression perfectly in two little packages. 

Panel six reminds me of a mix of Rube Goldberg’s Reuben Award sculpture combined with a Jacques Lipschitz figure sculpture.  It teems with energy, vibrancy and verve.  It’s some of my favorite work by Bud.  Perfect drawing, compositions, and pacing.  A master-class in cartooning.

I’ll revisit Bud’s work again in the future, as there is a lot to examine in his work.  Until then, thanks for tuning in.

Rob Stolzer

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.

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