MURPHY ANDERSON IN THE 21st CENTURY
In the sixties and seventies Greensboro’s own Murphy Anderson created or co-created hundreds of the most iconic comic book covers of all time featuring DC mainstays Superman, Hawkman, The Flash, and Justice League of America. Arguably the greatest science fiction artist the comics world ever knew, certainly the most prolific, Murphy Anderson’s career spanned the fabled Golden, Silver and Bronze ages.
M.C. Anderson Jr. recognized early on the transformative power words commingling with pictures could have on the imagination, spending hours as a youngster in the thirties lying on the living room floor of his North Spring Street home in Greensboro pouring over the comic pages of local papers and, on Sundays, the New York Journal- American which allowed him to follow the full color adventures of The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and his favorite strip the scientifically forward-looking Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
He also dropped dimes on crudely drawn 64 page four-color pulp minimagazines, a curious new addition to the newsstand at the Southern Fruit Store on Market and Elm, including the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective, two characters and titles he would one day become closely associated with. For fun he wrote and drew his own homemade comics, winning an art contest sponsored by the Greensboro Daily Record when he was 14. Amy Hitchcock was a classmate, “At Central Junior High there were two boys that sat together all the time, sort of separate from everybody else, and they drew in their notebooks all the time. One of them always drew cars but Murphy, we called him M.C., he always drew figures. My impression of him was that he was withdrawn, quiet, and always did his own thing, but he was pleasant.” Later, Murphy and Irwin Smallwood became coeditors of Greensboro (now Grimsley) Senior High School’s newspaper.
A college dropout facing certain military service in 1944, Murphy borrowed $100 from his skeptical father to make the rounds of New York City’s funny book publishers. Whether he knew it or not Murphy was marching into what has become known as the Golden Age of Comics, so christened because sales were so astronomical, upwards of 6 million copies per unit, that publishers were setting up shop in every corner of The City. Their biggest problem was securing enough newsprint to meet demand.
After content bundler Harry “A” Chesler rolled his grapes over Anderson’s portfolioâ€”heavily influenced by Lou Fine and Will Eisner who were known for their realistic, anatomically correct figures, alluringly distressed damsels and spectacular space age machineryâ€”he referred the teenager to Fiction House on the corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, home of Planet Comics who’s main selling point seemed to be the undulating breasts belonging to whichever curvaceous blond was being snatched up by salivating BEMs that month. Mars needs women!
The Fiction House bullpen worked in what we now call Marvel-style, with artists blocking out the stories from a loose premise; dialogue was added afterward. As Murphy Anderson related to biographer R.C. Harvey about the artists he shared a room with, “Everyone was talking about Alex Raymond and Flash Gordon. Most of the work at Planet Comics was influenced or copied from Raymond, sometimes from Milton Caniff or [Hal] Foster.”
Anderson continued slinging ink for Fiction House even while serving two years in the Navy as a radar repairman stationed in Chicago; that’s where he met his soon to be wife Helen. In 1946, after his stint in the military was over, Murphy was scouring the hind pages of the Chicago Tribune when he happened upon a notice from the National Newspaper Service in search of an artist for an “adventure comic strip.” That strip turned out to be Buck Rogers.
His enthusiasm for the character and interstellar efforts for Planet Comics helped seal the deal. After a nearly year-long tutorage under Buck Rogers’ overseer John F. Dille, who admittedly “wanted the cheapest artist he could find,” Murphy took over the daily art chores in December of 1947. “I grew up on Buck and it was a dream come true when I worked on the feature.”
Not particularly happy in the long term, creatively or financially, Murphy left Buck Rogers in 1949. No going back to Fiction House in New York, Planet Comics was in a tailspin, so Murphy and his bride instead made their way to Greensboro where, during the day, he served as office manager for his father’s fledgling business, the Blue Bird Cab Company (“Dial 5112: Then Count The Minutes”). At night he applied brush to paper for Ziff-Davis magazines before agreeing to join their ill-fated comic book line in New York under the direction of Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman. Before long, Murphy found himself once again canvassing the concrete jungle, portfolio in hand.
Julius Schwartz, editor for National Periodical Publications’ (as DC Comics was known in 1951) new line of science fiction comics, immediately recognized Anderson’s work as compositionally superior toâ€”and more finely rendered thanâ€”many of the company’s artists, most of whom had little affinity for sci-fi. Murphy walked out after that meeting with a script to illustrate.
With the raising children to consider, Murphy wasn’t ready to give up on his Carolina roots. Proving himself a reliable player over a two-year period, Schwartz allowed Murphy to mail in his contributions from Greensboro, a most unusual arrangement. He’d discovered that respect for the field he’d chosen was non-existent in New York, comic book artists and writers routinely lied about what they did for a living. Better to be a trash collector, especially after comics were crucified in the press for being a pathogenic virus manifesting itself in a plague of juvenile delinquency, flames fanned by fraudulent research studies and oh-so-serious televised Senate Subcommittee Hearings. Few publishers survived the mid-fifties, DC being the healthiest.
Back home trafficking for Blue Bird Cab, Murphy spent nights illustrating the adventures of Captain Comet and dreaming up compelling covers populated with pointy-eared giants capturing fighter jets in butterfly nets, invading radioscopic weirdos from other dimensions terrifying the tourists, genetically superior gorillas confounding the laws of man and nature, scalyskinned Martians broadcasting the end of human civilization. Stories were then written around these phantasmagorical scenarios.
After the Soviet launch of Sputnik spread space fever across the USA, Murphy was summoned to again reinvigorate Buck Rogers in 1958. This time he was enlisted for both the dailies and Sunday full page. Murphy’s more modern, slick, detailed artwork was light years ahead of the antiquated approach that preceded him. Comic strip artists, as opposed to their comic book counterparts, were very well regarded in society as purveyors of wholesome family entertainment. When folks picked up their morning or afternoon newspaper most turned first to the comics page. As such, Murphy Anderson commanded more respect as Buck Rogers’ delineator than he could ever hope to achieve laboring over DC’s juvenilia. Still, Murphy chose pop culture’s redheaded stepchild over Buck Rogers after just two turns around the sun.
He and Helen relocated to the New York metropolitan area in 1960 in order to work full-time for DC, a company undergoing an unexpected resurgence. Editor Julius Schwartz had, on a whim four years earlier, re-imagined one of their dead as a doornail superheroes from the 1940s, The Flash. With this act a grotesquely tarnished golden era gave way to the Silver Age of Comics; an explosion of furloughed warriors in baggy underpants worn outside their tights like Green Lantern and The Atom returning with new backstories.
Along with writer John Broome, Murphy originated The Atomic Knights in 1961. Although infinitely more fanciful (for instance, the Knights are waited on by anthropomorphic plants) this feature has a lot in common with a current best seller, The Walking Dead. Both envision a post-apocalyptic world with pockets of survivors set upon by predatory sub-humans, there’s even the tyrannical leader of a walled off community not unlike The Governor called Black Baron. Because of the architectural detail and research involved Anderson told an audience in San Diego, “[The Atomic Knights] is something I really enjoyed doing. Except it was a back-breaker and I was thankful it only appeared every three months.”
He also created the sexy sorceress Zatanna and, with few exceptions, drew and/or inked the first seven years of covers for Justice League of America. Julie Schwartz turned to Anderson when reviving Golden Age back-of-thebook heroes like Dr. Fate, Hourman, and The Spectre. After Hawkman was given his own berth Murphy settled in for a three year run.
Anderson’s meticulous, featherful flourishes defined the DC house style of the sixties and early seventies, that’s why Schwartz preferred to have him inking other’s pencils, most notably Carmine Infantino (Adam Strange, Batman) and Gil Kane (The Atom, Green Lantern). Infantino benefitted most notably, other inkers were too severely covering over his line work or exaggerating his worst traits. Anderson infused Infantino’s fluid pencils with a majestic quality, a pitch-perfectness neither was able to fully achieve without the other. (Gil Kane was equally well-served by Anderson but Kane traveled to higher artistic planes with a number of other outstanding collaborators, among them Wally Wood, Nick Cardy and especially John Romita on Spiderman in the seventies.)
He rescued the superhero genre, could Schwartz do the same for Batman?
Years of poorly drawn short stories with Batman, Robin, Batwoman, and Ace the Bathound confronting bulbousbodied aliens and overcoming silly transformations (“Batman Becomes Batbaby!”) led to sales so dismal cancellation of the Batman titles was all but certain. Julius Schwartz was yanked off the sci-fi line in 1964 and given 6 months to save the bat-franchise. The result was a monthly onslaught of playfully gripping covers sketched out by Carmine Infantino, the best of which were inked by Murphy Anderson. Delectable distractions of youth introducing The Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Batgirl to a new generation. The stories themselves scarcely delivered the excitement promised on the outsides but business was booming by 1966 when the Batman TV show sent DC’s sales into hyperdrive.
From 1969-71 Murphy Anderson and Neal Adams were DC’s de-facto cover artists. In a rare pairing they created one of the most enduring comic book images of all time, with Superman soaring high above an aerial photograph of the city. There was seemingly no storyline Murphy couldn’t encapsulate with a compelling image: Captain Cold gloating over the death of The Flash, savages overwhelming America’s Justice League, Superman witnessing his girlfriend’s marriage to Satan, Lois Lane transforming herself into a black woman for the day.
Anderson was teamed with Curt Swan when Julius Schwartz rebooted Superman in 1970, their memorable stories together over a period of many years constituted a happy association. So meshed were their styles they took to crediting the art as ‘Swanderson.’ And then there was Murphy’s stoic portrayal of Wonder Woman for the first issue of Ms. in 1972, one of the most striking and culturally significant magazine covers of the decade.
His was a career lacking only in controversy… unless you count that whole Jack Kirby, Jimmy Olsen beheadings fiasco. Count you say? After luring Marvel’s creative juggernaut Jack Kirby to DC in 1971 the aforementioned Carmine Infantino, now overseeing the entire operation, felt The King’s version of Jimmy and his pal Superman were too far afield of the accepted look. He ordered their heads redrawn, then pasted over Kirby’s artwork in every panel they appeared. It eventually fell to Murphy Anderson to do the defacings and the effect was jarring. Murphy wasn’t pleased about the task but, as a professional, did what was required. Ironically, one of the reasons this 14- year old fan was so excited about Jack Kirby’s defection was the possibility of the medium’s most powerful penciller uniting with Anderson, the best inker in the business. Careful what you wish for, outside of a cover and a half that failed to happened.
In a twist not unlike those found in the comics, it was Anderson’s one time schoolmate Amy Hitchcock’s son John who organized Greensboro’s first major comic convention in 1983 with Murphy Anderson as guest of honor. As John Hitchcock tells it, “It was a disaster. I don’t think we had 100 people in two days, if that. When the show was over Murphy walks up to John Butts, Tom Wimbish and I and he goes, ‘If you could get anyone you wanted, who would you like as the guest of honor at your next convention?’ We were real close to saying, ‘Well, we tried and it didn’t work.’ But we all looked at each other and at the exact same time we all said, ‘Will Eisner.’ And Murphy goes, ‘Well, that’s no problem because I worked with Will Eisner on PS magazine.’ Because of him getting Eisner for us Jack Kirby said, ‘If it’s good enough for Eisner it’s good enough for me.’ “Murphy was here in 1985 when Jack Kirby was here. They were in the kitchen of my apartment and Murphy went up and apologized to Jack, he was always embarrassed that he had to change his Jimmy Olsen artwork because he had so much respect for Kirby. Jack went out of his way to thank him and say, ‘Murphy, that’s okay, that’s the way business was back then, I have no ill will’ and they shook hands. That shows you what a great guy Murphy was, it bothered him all those years.”
Murphy Anderson, universally respected as both draftsman and gentleman, passed away on October 22, 2015 in Somerset, New Jersey. He was 89. He left behind his wife of 67 years Helen, two daughters, a son, grandkids, and an indelible impression on millions of thrill-seeking comic book lovers. !
All illustrations contained in this article are copyrighted by their respective copyright holders and are reproduced for historical reference and research purposes. Buck Rogers â„¢ and Â© The Dille Family Trust. All other charactersâ„¢ and Â© DC Comics. All rights reserved.