In the smallest of nutshells, Noel Sickles entered the comic strip field in 1933, spent three years working on Scorchy Smith, and left the field after revolutionizing the way adventure comic strips and superhero comics would forever be drawn. Not too bad for a 24-year-old young man, right?
Before I get to the Cliff Notes (or Spark Notes, for you young ‘uns) version of the events, let me share an image with you to help set the stage:
Royal Sickles, Noel Sickles’ father, was a ticket agent for the B&O Railroad in Chillicothe, Ohio, so it made sense that a young Noel would be familiar with the railroad yards. This pencil drawing of scrapped locomotives was drawn by Noel Sickles in 1933. He was 23 years old, the same year he would take over drawing Scorchy Smith from John Terry. The drawing is a small masterpiece, with Sickles alluding to every nut and bolt, without drawing every nut and bolt. Even at this young age, Sickles knew what information was important to draw and what was important to leave out. That approach would serve him well in both the comic strip and illustration fields.
Noel Sickles was born on January 24, 1910, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Chillicothe was the first capital of Ohio and is in the southern portion of the state, 51 miles south of Columbus. The proximity to Columbus is important, as it allowed Sickles the ability to learn from Billy Ireland, the beloved cartoonist at the Columbus Dispatch. Ireland became a mentor to Sickles, and if it weren’t for Ireland, Sickles and his lifelong friend Milton Caniff might not have ever met, which they did for the first time in 1927, in Billy Ireland’s Dispatch office.
Sickles and Caniff remained close, sharing a studio in Columbus until Caniff left for New York City in 1932, starting work on various features for the Associated Press (AP). Sickles followed Caniff the following year, where he worked as a staff artist for the AP. John Terry, the brother of the animator and Terrytoons co-founder Paul Terry, created a new comic strip in 1930. Scorchy Smith was a globe-trotting pilot-for-hire who was loosely based on Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 transatlantic flight increased interest in aviation. It also increased the number of aviation-based comic strips, including Skyroads, Connie, Barney Baxter, and Tailspin Tommy. Terry had a scratchy approach to drawing, employing a line with a light touch to convey both volume and atmosphere. In 1933, Terry was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to leave the strip, sadly passing away on February 27, 1934. The AP tapped Sickles to take over Scorchy Smith in 1933, though he worked as ghost artist, one who did the work without signing his name. Sickles continued the strip in Terry’s style, until he was able to start signing the strip, which first occurred on April 2, 1934. Sickles proceeded to experiment with the drawing and storytelling in the strip, moving away from Terry’s scratchy approach, and playing more with compositions, light and shadows. Rather than draw all the details, in much the same manner as the drawing of the scrapped locomotives, Sickles began playing with lights and darks, employing an Impressionistic approach at times, conveying visual movement throughout the drawings. This approach was not lost on his studio-mate Caniff, who began incorporating similar approaches in his Terry and the Pirates. Sickles further experimented with different techniques, drawing on Craftint paper at times, which allowed for a pattern embedded in the paper to be revealed with the use of two chemicals. One chemical revealed a hatched pattern, while the other revealed a cross-hatched pattern. Sickles’ approach with the drawing, as well as his ability to create realistic compositions from seemingly any angle, caused Scorchy Smith to become the top-selling comic strip for the AP. By 1936, Sickles was earning $125.00 a month from the comic strip, not too bad during the heart of the Great Depression. But he also figured that the syndicate was taking in roughly $2500.00 a month from his work, so he asked for a raise. The AP had a reputation as being a notoriously cheap syndicate and they turned Sickles down, who promptly quit. His last strip ran on October 24, 1936. Sickles would ghost various strips in the future, and would help out friends like Caniff, including creating the logos for Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, but for the most part he turned to the lucrative field of illustration for the rest of his professional career.
Sickles’ three-year run on Scorchy Smith changed the comic strip field forever. Caniff employed the techniques popularized by Sickles for the rest of his career. Other artists such as Frank Robbins, Alfred Andriola, Lee Elias, Alex Toth and many others all owe a debt to Sickles.
But this post is not about Noel Sickles’ work on Scorchy Smith. It’s about his work before Scorchy Smith, and before his work at the Columbus Dispatch, before he left for greener east coast pastures.
In 1991 I was in touch with gentleman from Chillicothe named John Grabb. Mr. Grabb was a retired U.S. Postal letter carrier and lived in Chillicothe his entire life. If I recall correctly, Mr. Grabb listed a Noel Sickles-related item in some publication, likely the Comics Buyer’s Guide. He later wrote me, letting me know of some other items that he had for sale. A few years later, in 1995, Mr. Grabb and I corresponded again. He related information to me about work that Sickles had done for the Mead Paper Corporation, whose paper mill was located in Chillicothe. Mr. Grabb’s father had worked for Mead at the turn-of-the-last century, and again into the late 1920s, so he had an interest in the history of the company. Out of the goodness of his heart, Mr. Grabb checked out the holdings of the Chillicothe Public Library and found that they had bound volumes of The Mead Co-Operation, an in-house publication for the company. Mr. Grabb sent me a photocopy of a page from the May 1927 issue, which featured a full-page cartoon by a 17-year-old Noel “Bud” Sickles. Titled Bud’s Meaco Comics, Sickles was clearly influenced by his cartooning idol, Billy Ireland and his Sunday feature, The Passing Show. I lost touch with Mr. Grabb, who passed away in 2010 at 95 years of age.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, on a driving trip to the southern portion of North Carolina, I discovered that Chillicothe was a two-hour detour off my route. Figuring that I would likely not pass through that area again, I pointed the car towards Chillicothe and made my way to the public library. Once there, I found the bound volumes of The Mead Co-Operation and began searching through the issues. The monthly publication was small in size, and contained anecdotes about employees, safety warnings for the workplace, messages from the higher-ups in the company, and an occasional cartoon. In the February 1925 issue, a spot cartoon appeared depicting a Mead employee stuck in the loudspeaker of his radio. The cartoon was signed by a 14-year-old Bud Sickles, beginning his five-year relationship with the magazine. The May 1925 issue marked the first appearance of Bud’s Meaco Comics, which ran in a full-page Sunday comic strip format. Sickles’ comic strip was drawn specifically for Mead and featured employees of the paper company. The teenage Sickles himself made a rare appearance in the February 1928 strip. As comes as little surprise, Sickles’ early efforts have an amateurish quality about them, pointing to his youth. By the October 1925 installment, you can see Sickles making better use of compositions, changing angles with greater ease. By the middle of 1926, Bud’s Meaco Comics takes on a more mature stylistic look, and by October of that same year, Sickles’ feature looks like a professional newspaper comic strip.
Structurally, Bud’s Meaco Comics pays strong homage to Billy Ireland’s The Passing Show, which Ireland drew from 1908 until his passing in 1935. Sickles literally grew up with Ireland’s feature in the Columbus Dispatch, and you can see the profound influence on this early work of his. The logo panel, the approach to drawing, and the layout of Bud’s Meaco Comics all owe a great debt to Ireland’s long-running Sunday feature.
Over the course of his Mead Co-Operation career, Sickles drew 38 installments of Bud’s Meaco Comics, with the last one appearing in the June 1929 issue. Along the way Sickles also drew one magazine cover and numerous spot illustrations. Gene Sickles, one of Noel’s four older brothers, attempted to continue the feature without Bud’s name in the title, but with very large shoes to fill, the elder Sickles lasted only one issue, October 1929.
I’m very pleased to present the entire run of Bud’s Meaco Comics for the first time anywhere online. I do hope you enjoy them.