The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod


Noel Sickles, Extraordinary Illustrator and Creator of "Scorchy Smith"

May 31, 2013


The man was good.  Really good.  Cartoonist Milt Caniff met Noel “Bud” Stickles at the Columbus Dispatch in 1927, when Stickles was 17 and still in high school.  The teenager “liked my work,” wrote Canniff, “but when his samples fell out across the desk, they were so good it made me want to jump out the window.”  Admired for his drawing abilities, Stickles was an extraordinary illustrator and the creator of the "Scorchy Smith" comic strip.


Teaching himself the technical skills of drawing, Noel Stickles spent his time in the local library, copying the works of others, learning by doing, examining and practicing.  The boy drew anything and everything in sight.   By the time he was 15 years of age, Stickles was ready for the big time – a job in art.  He “procured his first paying assignments from the Mead Corporation, which purchased spot illustrations and gag cartoons for the Mead Co-operation, a monthly employee newsletter/magazine” in Chillicothe, Ohio, said Leif Peng in “Today’s Inspiration.”

Studying art and cartooning through correspondence courses, Stickler enrolled in the Landon School of Art. The distance lessons were his only formal artistic training.   Fresh out of high school, he was offered a job at the Columbus Citizen and before he was 20, Stickler was working full-time for the Ohio State Journal as the publication’s political cartoonist.  Three years later, in 1932,, the cartoonist was assigned to take over the cartoon , “Scorchy Smith” as ghost artist.  The strip’s ailing creator, John Terry, had developed tuberculosis.

Scorchy Smith  
Reprinted Collection of "Scorchy Smith" by Noel Sickles  

Image by Noel Sickles

A rousing adventure comic strip, “Scorchy Smith” was a high-flying pilot who flew around the globe on daring for-hire escapades.  The strip captured the imagination of readers and drew avid fans across the United States.

Sickles' cartoons were much more than basic cartooning and humour. The cartoonist wanted to have a feel, an atmosphere to his work, something intangible but yet could be felt by readers. He achieved his goal with "Scorchy Smith," fans enjoying the thrill of adventure through detailed and vibrant art.

When John Terry died in 1934, Sickles took over as signing cartoonist of "Scorchy Smith.".   In 1936, Sickles requested a raise.  He was working "12-hour days at the drawing board, said Ron Goulart in The Encyclopedia of American Comics From 1897 to the Present (Promised Land Productions, New York 1990), "and his salary was far too low." His earnings had improved from $42.50 at the start to $125 a week, but Sickles learned "Scorchy Smith" was in hundreds of newspapers, bringing in $2500 a week for the Syndicate, said Ron Goulart.

The syndicate refused to give the prolific cartoonist a raise.  Sickles left, with other projects waiting for his irrepressible talents.  He was already staff artist along with Milt Caniff at Associated Press  (AP).

An illustration displaying the immense artistic talents of Noel Sickles.  

“When I first met Noel in 1940,” wrote Harry Devlin in Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, “he had abandoned cartooning to begin his career in free-lance illustration and the work he was producing was, to my young eyes, nothing short of magical.  The ease with which he drew and the scope and variety of his abilities were awesome.”  Major magazines featured Sickles’ fine artwork. Devlin recommended Sickles for a civilian job with Navy Intelligence in the Identification and Characteristic Section. 

Old West Painting by Noel Sickles

Sickles was hired and worked with the military department for four years.  His crowning glory was his last poster job for Navy Day.  Another Navy photographer and artist had ideas for the piece, but “when presented with Noel’s painting, Captain Steichen, a wonderful and gifted painter, cheerfully admitted that there was no contest,” said Devlin.  In between his Navy projects, Sickles was doing impressive illustration work on books such as Old Man and the Sea and The Bridges of Toko-Ri.

"By the 1940s [Sickles] was well-established as an illustrator, and his highly individual work--both black and white and in color--was appearing in such prestigious and well-paying markets as The Saturday Evening Post and Life," wrote Goulart. "He also did a great deal of advertising illustration."

Strikingly beautiful painting of Old West by Noel Sickles    

A different type of adventure captured Sickles in the 1970s. The setting a passion of the artist, Sickles created paintings of the Old West, featuring cowboys and Indians, silky horses, and scenes filled with the atmosphere of western beauty. "His Saturday Evening Post illustrations of the West were of such excellence and created such interest that he was encouraged to continue in that genre," noted Devlin. The paintings were "infused with history and are unrelenting in the recapturing of the space and light and the vastness of the early West.

Noel Sickles was born on January 24, 1910 in Chillicothe, Ohio; he died in Tucson, Arizona on October 3, 1982. Married in the early 1940s, the two loves of his life were his work and his wife Louise. After Sickles' death, Milt Caniff described the cartoonist reverently and succinctly:

Noel Sickles, Caniff said, was the "greatest natural cartoonist I ever knew."


© Susanna McLeod 2013