One of the great things about Library of American Comics books is that each is a shout-out into the big, big world—and sometimes, really interesting halloos come back.
That has certainly been the case with our 2008 release, Scorchy Smith and The Art of Noel Sickles. It remains one of our very favorites, a project that taught us a lot on many levels. For me it was and is an honor to be Bud Sickles’s primary biographer, to call attention to his place in comics history, and to help present so much of his splendid artwork to a 21st Century audience.
A few years ago our Scorchy came to the notice of Ohio’s Kristy Swope, from the firm of Swope and Swope, Attorneys at Law. Now, that sentence might make some of you gulp with trepidation, but I can assure you this was contact for the most amicable of reasons. Ms. Swope represented the nephew of Noel Sickles, Wesley, who during his teen years produced artwork of his own for his school publications. Ms. Swope originally contacted The Library of American Comics regarding any other surviving Sickles family members about whom she might have been unaware. We exchanged a few pleasant e-mails, with me primarily confirming that Noel and his wife Louise had no children of their own, the names and last known towns of residence for his siblings, and the scant information we had about nieces and nephews. Kristy thanked us for our time and information, and then we went our separate ways and heard nothing from her…
…Until recently, that is.
I hear you gulping in trepidation again—but it’s not necessary. Kristy reported that, sadly, Wesley had passed away in February, and while processing his papers she found a handful of documents from Noel she believed would be of interest to us. And was she ever correct!
The earliest of those documents is from late May, 1935, and is titled “Tribute to William A. (Billy) Ireland.” Ireland, of course, was the long-time cartooning guiding light of the Columbus Dispatch; his jam-packed Passing Show feature for that newspaper was beloved by thousands of readers and drew a number of aspiring Buckeye State cartoonists to the Dispatch, Sickles and Milton (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) Caniff foremost among them.
Sickles’s tribute, written following Ireland’s death on May 29, 1935, begins, “Bill Ireland meant so much more to me than I could ever convey with words that I feel it a little useless even to attempt to speak,” then goes on to characterize Ireland as, “A deeply serious man, his approach to his work was unusually light-hearted and gay. There were laugh wrinkles in his face, and that is what I will remember most about him.”
Flash-forward slightly more than eight years, to September 5, 1943. Sickles wrote a letter to the second of his four siblings, Royal, sister-in-law Hazel, and nephew Wesley (yes, the same Wesley whom Kristy Swope represented). This missive was penned while Bud was working for Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. and it offers intriguing additional facts about this period of Sickles’s life, saying, “The Navy had been pursuing me—asking me to work for them—for over a year. As I couldn’t do the job I wanted to do for the Army, primarily due to Army red tape, I transferred into the same sort of work for the Navy. I was offered two different commissions by the Navy, but preferred to remain a civilian, as I believe I can do the job better that way.” Leave it to Sickles to turn down military commissions—and the higher pay that likely went with them!—in order to maintain his primary alliance to his craft and the end results.
The letter also discusses the Sickles’ living situation in D.C., where they took up residence in a Swedish boarding house (“It is unusually clean and has an individual restaurant—good for us all around”). Bud reports that his wife, Louise, was seeking work as a department store fashion artist, which is a terrific bit of first-hand proof that part of the ties that bound the couple together was their shared talents in the field of illustration.
Noel further writes that, “Our one disappointment is that we left Butch—our cat—in care of some people in West Nyack [the Sickles’s former town of residence], and now we can’t bring him down.”
Sickles was in a letter-writing mood on September 5th of ’43, because he followed his letter to his brother with one to his father, James Sickles. The deep affection of a son for his father is clear in two passages. In the first Noel asks, “Are you drawing any pictures? I have those you gave me in Chillicothe and when the war is over and we can have a home of our own we want to frame them for our walls. You probably don’t remember them, but one of them is an iron works in Scots County, another an Ohio River steamboat, and so on. If you have any more, we would appreciate having them.” Later, as he closes, he says, “We yearn for the day when we can live in the country again and have you with us for a long visit. We’re sure you would like it. Things have been so unsettled for us for the past two years that we couldn’t ask you to come, for fear that we would have to tear up stakes and move the following week.”
Whether or not James Sickles ever got that long visit with his son and daughter-in-law is unknown. The knowledge may be lost forever to posterity, yet I hope otherwise. Whether it’s me or some other, as-yet-unknown (perhaps as-yet-unnamed!) writer, future investigations may bring to light still more facts. After all, as Dean and I regularly say, “The more we know, the more there is to know!”
For now, however, we extend our most sincere thanks to Kristy Swope as we leave you with some amazing images of Sickles art (some of which weren’t in Scorchy Smith: The Art of Noel Sickles):