What Harry Lucey Knew
by Dan Nadel
Monday, June 5, 2006
Not to go on too much about my book, Art Out of Time, but while getting this blog up and running it seems a good source of material. Anyhow, a few major artists were left out of my book because their work was mostly anonymous and for licensed characters. They just didn’t fit. Perhaps my biggest regret is cutting Harry Lucey (1930-1980?), who, like so many of the other men who entertained generations of children, remains as anonymous in death as he did in life. His career in comics began in the late 1930s and he bounced around various companies in the 1940s, drawing such features as Madam Satan, Magno, and Crime Does Not Pay. In the early 1950s he helmed Sam Hill, creating some wonderful stories in the Roy Crane/Milt Caniff/Alex Toth tradition of lush brushwork and cinematic compositions.
He spent most of his life, however, drawing for MLJ, which published Archie, among other characters, and later simply became Archie Publications. Lucey became one of the lead Archie artists, drawing the freckle-faced teenager and his pals throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He took some breaks from the business to work for an advertising agency in St. Louis, but otherwise was dedicated to comics.
Like Ogden Whitney, at first glance Lucey’s work on appears to be generic and undistinguished, but a closer look reveals the artist to be a master of body language, or, in more concrete terms, acting. Every aspect of a Lucey figure is drawn to express what that character is feeling at that moment. Posture, position, and facial expression are all geared towards maximizing that moment in the story. Take a look at this Sam Hill page by Lucey, and note the precision of his character’s movements, particularly Sam Hill’s relaxed smoke rings panel. Lucey was certainly influenced by film, but brings a cartoon economy to the proceedings that can only be accomplished in, well, comics. And, take away the words (as Lucey did in a remarkable Archie story, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”,) from a Lucey story and readers still know precisely how each character feels and what that means for the plot. In that sense, Lucey’s cartoon characters seem alive on the page like few others.
The only real inheritors of this tradition are Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, whose Love and Rockets stories continue to be among the most eloquent and passionate comics drawn in the world. They, like Lucey, tell their stories through their character’s precise actions on the page, a topic addressed very nicely by Frank Santoro and Bill Boichtel in the debut issue of Comics Comics.
Anyhow, in most years Lucey penciled and inked a page a day, drawing the complete contents of the Archie comic book every month. Towards the’60s, Lucey developed an allergy to graphite, and reportedly wore white gloves while drawing. In the 1970s he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and, sometime later, cancer. He refused treatment for the latter and died in Arizona in the late 1970s or perhaps 1980.