by Dylan Williams
At the age of twenty-two, comic artist Fred Guardineer was fresh out of Syracuse University. He had traveled to Europe and then returned to New York City to pursue a career making art. Like most artists, Guardineer kept a sketchbook; unlike many artists, he was always efficient and organized. He documented everything and his sketchbook (and all of his work) reflected this. It also led to the production of a most amazing document, a sketchbook diary that reads like the finished one-panel-per-page novel of a young man job-hunting for an art career in the days leading up to the comic book boom that would take place in 1936.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Guardineer at the end of his life, sixty years later - forty years after he had quit comic books to become a postman, and ten years after the death of his loving wife Ruth. Most of the information I'm presenting here comes from these interviews. We talked on the West Coast, a country away from Long Island, where Guardineer had spent most of his adult life, delivering the mail and hunting, which was his real raison d'être. The drawings that Guardineer would produce from 1955 to 1987 were created both for the Post Office and, more importantly, for a regular one-page strip that ran in almost every issue of the Long Island Fisherman for twenty years. He would occasionally produce illustrations, like those for a history of Long Island called Witches, Whales, Petticoats and Sails. When he was "rediscovered" by comics historian bar none Jerry Defuccio, Guardineer produced reworkings of the first comics he had drawn.
Guardineer's parents were an attorney and a housewife, both college educated. He was an only child. Born in Albany on October 3, 1913, the family moved to Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York. They returned to Albany for Guardineer to attend secondary school. He drew during most of his childhood, encouraged by a high-school art teacher, his parents, a local furniture artist, and local celebrity animator Frank Moser, co-owner of the Terrytoon cartoon studio at the time. "I was always going over to see him. I'd go skating with his daughter, Marjorie." Guardineer said of Moser, "He helped me quite a bit. I had all these expectations of maybe working for him later on." These youthful dreams would be dashed after Guardineer returned from college. "He had a couple of workers named Hanna and Barbera. They managed all kinds of underhanded stuff, to get Terrytoons away from Frank Moser."
Guardineer's parents had sent him off to school at Syracuse University, somehow convinced that he would have a career in art or drawing. He went to the School of Fine Arts and got a degree in illustration. In the summer of 1935, as a graduation present from his parents, he took a trip on the ocean liner Normandy. With a group of students from prep schools, the newly graduated Guardineer got to see England, Denmark, Finland, Lapland, Norway, Sweden, France, and more.
When he returned to New York in October of 1935:
My parents dropped me off at someplace to stay on 36th Street. I had a room that didn't even have a bath. I had to go down the hall for a bath. It was five bucks a week or something like that. I had a lot of letters of introduction for this and that, jobs here and there...including Moser and the Terrytoons. Having lived in that area I still had friends in Westchester where I could go for Sunday dinners. I had a college roommate who lived out on Long Island. I went out to his house in Jones Beach for Sunday dinner. So, I wasn't exactly alone in the desert but I was alone in the city, there, by myself.
Now, I was in just a plain rooming house. I took the elevator up and so forth. My parents dropped me off. I mean, it was a tearful good-bye, but my mother and father went up to Albany and I stayed there and looked for a job. The first thing I did, it was only a few blocks, I walked up to Grand Central Station, sorta sightseeing. I think it was a Sunday afternoon. The first person I ran into was a girl from my hometown, a neighbor girl.
Well, I pounded those pavements. I didn't get anywhere at all but I tried. I finally [met] a guy who had graduated four years ahead of me at Syracuse, a fraternity brother, Tom Lovell. I haven't heard from him in years. His pictures are all over: he illustrated for National Geographic, these beautiful paintings, museums all over the world, in Hawaii and out West. He was a knockout artist, but he was a good friend. When I first came to the city he was doing the pulps. He did some black-and-whites inside but basically he did the covers. He used to do the insides for The Shadow. On the outsides, he was basically doing cowboys and Indians. He invited me to his house for dinner and was giving me tips. He got me a job. He had a lot of influence and he had this editor of Street and Smith give me a job because if you'd broken in through Street and Smith, then every other pulp [followed].
The story continues from there. Guardineer got involved with pulps, then comic books, where he drew some of the first costumed superheroes for Centaur Publications and DC Comics. He joined the army and was sent, alongside another comics great, Ogden Whitney, to serve in the Pacific. He returned to a host of jobs drawing comics and spent ten years working hard in an industry that became harder and harder to make a living in. He quit in 1955, after being offered what he saw as an insecure job by Will Eisner. He stopped drawing for a living to go to work delivering the mail on Long Island, to have a family (one son), and to enjoy life as a field-and-stream hunter type.
Sadly, Guardineer got a short straw in the history of comics. His work has been slighted in a few gossip-minded books, and even by a nostalgic Jules Feiffer in his Great Comic Book Heroes. The truth is quite different, although it takes some time and an eye to really get his work. Fred Guardineer is one of the great examples of a working guy who spent years making a living producing the highest level of craft in a throwaway medium. His comic drawing is a total package, featuring unwavering design and composition on page after page. It can't be broken up into elements like technical skill or pen line, as each page is a rock solid division of space into captivating shapes.
This sketchbook, "that thing nobody would be interested in," as Guardineer himself put it when he pulled it out from under his bed to show me, is just the beginning of a lifetime spent making art.
[Originally published in Comic Art #7, Winter 2005]