FRANK ENGLI – MILTON CANIFF’S LETTERER

From Steve Canyon Daily, Sept 18, 1947 by Milton Caniff and Frank Engli, © Field Enterprises. All original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

In the world of newspaper strips, there was generally one artist named, but often that artist had help from others who were not credited. These unknowns might do any part of the job, including backgrounds, inking, lettering, even help with main figures. There were probably artists who specialized in lettering for strips whose names remain unknown. The earliest one I have a name for is Charles F. Armstrong, Hal Foster’s letterer on Tarzan and Prince Valiant. They began working together on strips in 1932. The next one I know of is Frank Engli. He was a talented artist in his own right, and produced two short-lived comic strips entirely created by him, but Engli loved to do lettering, and he was good at it. When he teamed up with Milton Caniff on Terry and the Pirates in 1936, they formed a partnership that would last for decades on three strips, Terry, Male Call, and Steve Canyon. I believe his lettering had an influence on both comic strips and comics books.

Engli by Noel Sickles from Cartoonist PROfiles #9, Feb 1971, © 1971 Cartoonist PROfiles Inc.

This story begins with a group of artist friends. Milton Caniff and Bil Dwyer were both born in 1907 in Ohio, while Noel Sickles was born there in 1910. They met while attending Ohio State University in 1925. Sickles was a talented but largely self-taught artist who found work as a political cartoonist at the Ohio State Journal in the late 1920s. Caniff was hired as an artist at the Columbus Dispatch around the same time, and Sickles and Caniff shared a studio. Dwyer also worked for the Columbus Dispatch, but by 1930 the Great Depression had thrown all three artists out of work. Dwyer decided to move to New York City around that time to try his luck with the newspapers, magazines, and syndicates there.

Frank Engli was born in Chicago on Nov 10, 1906. He lived in Michigan with his parents in 1920, and later studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In an interview with Jud Hurd for Cartoonist PROfiles #9, Frank Engli remembered:

After I finished my art schooling, I took a 10,000 mile hitch-hiking trip around the country just for the experience — rode freight trains, went to the oil fields in Texas, washed dishes, and, all in all spent only $75 on the entire trip. After I got home I came to New York and met Bil Dwyer, who was doing gag cartoons at the time.

Dwyer and Engli began sharing a Manhattan apartment/studio in 1931.

Dumb Dora Daily strip, Nov 22, 1933, by Bil Dwyer with help from Milton Caniff. © 1933 King Features Syndicate Inc.

In 1932, Caniff and Sickles also decided to move to New York seeking work. Both found it in the Associated Press bullpen. Caniff did general assignment art for several months, drawing the comic strips Dickie Dare and The Gay Thirties, then inherited a panel cartoon named Mister Gilfeather in September 1932 when Al Capp quit the feature. Sickles was assigned to the action/adventure strip Scorchy Smith whose creator, John Terry, was suffering from tuberculosis. The series, which started in 1930, was heavily influenced by Roy Crane’s adventure strip Wash Tubbs. Sickles initially illustrated the strip as a ghost artist, but he signed his own name after Terry’s 1934 death.

When Caniff arrived in New York in 1932, he called their friend Bil Dwyer. As Caniff remembered in an interview with Will Eisner (first published in THE SPIRIT numbers 34 & 35, Kitchen Sink Press, 1982):

I called him just socially and told him I was in town to say hello. I didn’t know where he lived, on Christopher Street. I didn’t even know where Christopher Street was. So he said, “My God, I’m glad you called! I’ve got a problem here. Come on down!” This was like the first night I was in town and he had been submitting things to King Features and selling gags, by the way, to the magazines, Colliers and The New Yorker. Anyway, he had submitted a gag-type strip to King Features and he got a call back saying that Paul Fung was being pulled off Dumb Dora and Dwyer had the assignment. Here he was suddenly with six strips and a Sunday page to do and he’d never done anything except single panels. And he was in trouble. Frank Engli was helping him…he did the lettering.

Caniff agreed to pitch in, and in the example above, his work is most obvious on the female figures. Engli’s lettering hadn’t yet found the style he would be using a few years later, but perhaps he was asked to follow what had been done before on the strip. In the few examples I’ve found, the style is the same. Caniff only worked on Dora for a while, but he and Engli got to know each other then.

Here’s what Engli had to say about this time in the Cartoonist PROfiles interview:

For three years I did all the lettering on the Dumb Dora comic strip, much of the penciling, and sometimes, when he was away, I’d ink the whole strip. During this time I got a job as art director at the Western Electric plant in Kearny, New Jersey. My work included doing a full page of cartoons each month for the plant newspaper, advertising lettering, plus posters and billboards.

In 1933, Engli helped another art school friend, Zack Mosley, get started on his strip Smilin’ Jack, but it’s not clear if he lettered any of it. Dumb Dora was canceled near the end of 1935, and Frank went to work as an in-betweener and opaquer on Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons at the Fleischer animation studio in Manhattan from 1935 to 1936. Meanwhile, Noel Sickles was having success with Scorchy Smith, and in 1934, Milton Caniff was asked by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate to launch a new strip called Terry and the Pirates. It began running Oct 22, 1934. Caniff and Sickles had again formed a studio together In New York, where they helped each other meet deadlines. At first, each artist probably did his own lettering, as was common in the early days of most strips. As Caniff remembered in the interview with Eisner:

It was at that time we decided that between us we’d hire a lettering man. We went back to Engli. Between Sickles and me we were able to afford to have him quit his job and come to work for us. He was glad to be able to leave the animation place. It was a backbreaker — hell on the eyes.

In the Hurd interview, Engli recalls that when Caniff started Terry:

I happened to be one of the first guys to write and congratulate him. I had no thought of a possible job in mind so I was pleasantly surprised a couple of months later when he got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to do the lettering on the strip. Thus began our association. Milt and Noel Sickles and I worked in a small studio in the Daily News building for a time.

From Scorchy Smith, Dec 12, 1933, probably lettered by Noel Sickles, © AP Newsfeatures
From SCORCHY SMITH, Jan 22, 1936, lettered by Frank Engli, © AP Newsfeatures
From Terry and the Pirates, Oct 19, 1934, probably lettered by Milton Caniff, © Tribune Content Agency LLC
From Terry and the Pirates, Sept 25, 1936, lettered by Frank Engli, © Tribune Content Agency LLC

Compare the examples above to see what Frank Engli brought to the two strips. His style was now more angular than on Dumb Dora, with wide letters, and for Terry he used a wedge-tipped pen that gave appealing contrast between the vertical and horizontal strokes. Up to this time, most comics lettering was done with a round-tipped pen, giving a more even line. In the rare cases where a wedge-tipped pen was used, the letters were usually more rounded. Note the letter S with a straight middle section connected to curves at each end, later emulated by long-time comics letterer Gaspar Saladino.

From Life Magazine, Jan 6, 1941, Milton Caniff’s studio, © Herbert Gehr

Before Engli was in the new arrangement for long, Noel Sickles became bored with Scorchy Smith and moved on to commercial illustration. His last strip ran Oct 24, 1936. Engli and Caniff continued to work together on Terry and the Pirates. By 1941, Terry had become a great success, and Caniff was able to have a much larger studio with places for his secretary, and Frank Engli, seen at upper center above.

Unused photo © Herbert Gehr for Life Magazine, Jan 6, 1941, showing Engli lettering Terry.
From Terry and the Pirates, March 19, 1939, © Tribune Content Agency LLC

Frank Engli’s lettering style on Terry was not only appealing to the eye, it was innovative. In addition to his angular wedge-tipped pen letters, I believe he was the first person to letter thought balloons with a tail of bubbles decreasing in size, as seen in the third panel here, something that became the standard method in strips and comic books.

From Terry and the Pirates, March 19, 1939, © Tribune Content Agency LLC

While Engli used underlining for slight emphasis, shouts and screams used larger, bolder letters, often with squared corners as above.

From Terry and the Pirates, Feb 12, 1939, © Tribune Content Agency LLC

I think Engli was also the first to use jagged triangular shapes on radio balloons and tails, as seen in this example, which again became a common way to do them.

Rocky the Stone-age Kid, May 16, 1943, © Tribune Content Agency LLC

In addition to his work for Caniff, Engli found time to create two strips entirely on his own, doing the writing, art, and lettering. The first, Rocky, ran from August 25, 1940 to October 31, 1943. You can see some similarities in the art style to Dumb Dora.

Looking Back, April 7, 1946, © Field Enterprises Inc., from Cartoonist PROfiles #9

The second strip, Looking Back, also about prehistoric people, ran from December 30, 1945 to May 25, 1947. I’ve split it in half to show the lettering better.

From Male Call, 1943, © Milton Caniff, this and all original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Male Call was a strip done by Caniff and Engli for U.S. military newspapers from 1943 to 1946. In this example we see two different handsome script styles by Engli.

From Steve Canyon, July 27, 1947, © Field Enterprises Inc.

By 1946, Milton Caniff had become unhappy with Terry, and started a new strip where he had more creative control, Steve Canyon, featuring an Air Force pilot. The first strip appeared Jan 13, 1947, and continued for several decades with fine Engli lettering in the same styles he’d used on Terry.

From Steve Canyon, Oct 16, 1960, © Field Enterprises Inc.

On this example we see Engli using printed type for a telegram and both larger letters and underlining on the word SIMPER.

From Steve Canyon, Aug 19, 1962, © Field Enterprises Inc.

Here Engli has lettered a map with lots of variety, lower case in some places, and serif letters on the compass points.

This is how Engli described his lettering method in the Hurd interview:

I use the Esterbrook Probate Stub pen #313 on all balloon lettering and the C-Series flat chisel edge Speedball pens for heavier stuff. When I start with a new pen, in order to get the oil off, I stick it in my mouth, lick it a few times, dip it into some water and wipe it off. When the oil is off, a little of the ink will dry on the pen, and this coating will help hold the ink better on succeeding dips. By the way, even though these 313s are theoretically all the same, they do vary — sometimes you pick one up and you can’t get to first base with it — it scratches the wrong way or something like that — and the best thing is to throw it away. Naturally, the same thing is true of all pens. I use the standard black Higgins ink and buy it in the large bottle size. I then fill one of the regular small-size bottles from which I work. Every once in a while I wash out the small-size bottle, clean it thoroughly and then fill it fresh so that I’m not picking up a lot of sediment on my pen point each time I dip in. The pen I use gives the lettering a certain dark weight, and because of the way I space it, it’s nice and strong when the reader looks at it. Individual letters in a word never touch. The spaces between lines of lettering are about one third the height of the lettering and I never measure guidelines with a ruler. They are done by sight only, with a T-square. In this way I’m varying the height of the lines very slightly, and I also vary the height of the individual words a very little bit. All this is done deliberately to keep away from the precise hard, cold type in the rest of the newspaper. I also leave plenty of air space between the balloon outline and the lettering. I prefer straight balloon tails pointing at the speaker’s mouth or head — not too far away. I don’t use curved, limp or wiggly lines for balloon tails, incidentally. I guess all cartoonists are aware of the fact that you use differently-shaped balloons when indicating a voice coming from a radio or a telephone, etc., and that yelling and emphasis can be shown with underlined or heavy lettering. Once, as an experiment, I reduced a panel I had lettered to postage stamp size, and I was delighted to see that I could still read the balloons clearly. Milt draws, and I letter, for 1/2 reduction, and we work on Strathmore medium three-ply paper using the rougher side of the sheets. I stay away from a plate finish in all my work because the pen slides too much and I require excellent control. I use a pen point about a week — sometimes two weeks. I flex the pen upside down, and if the thin hair line between the two sides of the point stays open, the pen is too old and I throw it away. I have to think about things like the humidity too because that affects your paper and your ink. Lettering always heavies up in humid weather. If you can hear your pen scratch on the paper, then you know the paper is right and that it’s nice and crisp and hasn’t been affected by too much humidity.

From Cartoonist PROfiles #9, Feb 1971

Some time in the mid 1930s, Frank married his wife Mary, and their daughter Marylee and son Frank Junior followed.

From Cartoonist PROfiles #9

By 1940, the Engli family was living in Nyack, New York on the west bank of the Hudson River, and remained in that area until at least 1971, as seen above.

Frank Engli from Cartoonist PROfiles #9

In the 1971 Hurd interview, Engli said:

Even today, after all these years, I still love to do a page of lettering. I didn’t go into this branch of the profession because I wanted to become known as a specialist — I just liked to do the work. For a while I did gag cartoons for Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, but I soon found out that was a full-time job. I’ve done the lettering on ‘L’il Ivory’ pages for Ivory Soap, for Camel cigarettes, French’s Mustard, Instant Postum, Mr. Coffee Nerves, General Electric and Alka Seltzer. Also posters, charts, and color slides for McGraw-Hill, St. Regis Paper and Volkswagen. Political campaign posters for people like Bill Mauldin, when he ran for Congress, and on another occasion, a 30-foot banner with letters three feet high on canvas. This latter, naturally, was my biggest lettering job! And, in recent years, among all these other things, I directed a home-study art course in greeting cards. In addition, of late, I’ve gotten into doing titles for animated movies.

From Cartoonist PROfiles #9, lettering sample sheet by Engli sent to prospective clients.

By 1975, Engli had moved to Arizona. In a Feb 2 article in World-Herald Magazine, Milton Caniff described how Steve Canyon was produced at the time:

I take a ruled Sunday page, which Frank Engli (an associate) has already prepared, rough out in pencil what will be involved as far as drawing is concerned, indicate wording for the balloons, then send it off to Frank (in Tucson, Arizona) who does the lettering in ink. Next, Engli sends the page on to Dick Rockwell (a nephew of Norman) in Peekskill, New York for inking.

Caniff once described Engli’s lettering as “especially good,” and their partnership remained strong until Engli was forced to retire due to illness in early 1977. He died at age 70 in Los Angeles, CA on February 16, 1977. Other letterers continued on Steve Canyon in his style, including Shel Dorf, until the strip ended with Caniff’s death in 1988.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you might know that Gaspar Saladino was a friend and my favorite comics letterer, working at DC Comics and other publishers from late 1949 until the early 2000s. I see lots of Engli influence in Gaspar’s lettering right from the beginning, and throughout his career. I think he was a Terry and Canyon fan. He probably didn’t know Frank Engli’s name, but he certainly absorbed his style. From the early 1940s on, the use of wedge-tipped pens for lettering became much more popular. Again, I think other letterers were looking at Engli’s work, liking it, and copying some of what he did. Letterers like Abe Kanegson, Walt Kelly, and Ben Oda all show Engli’s influence in my opinion. Frank Engli made a fine career using his lettering skills, even if his name went largely unknown by readers and fans. He deserves to be remembered.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

6 thoughts on “FRANK ENGLI – MILTON CANIFF’S LETTERER

  1. David Goldfarb

    As well as Engli’s S-shapes, it seems to me that Saladino copied (or was at least very influenced by) Engli’s question marks, with their near-horizontal lines above the bottom dot.

  2. Ger Apeldoorn

    Hi, great stuff! You can find a sample of Li’l Ivry on my blog.: https://allthingsger.blogspot.com/search?q=ivory+soap. There is another weird connection. I’l Ivry was drawn by Paul Fung Sr., who also did the Dumb Dora ads for Shredded Ralston (https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-z3ZhkveYGmI/Vecci9q25MI/AAAAAAABb8g/MOqOJGnFHPY/s1600/Dumb-Dora-Ad-1943-08-08.jpg). Only for a short time, because he died unexpectedly in 1944 (or something like that)> His son Paul Fung Jr. had started working for Chic Young and Blondie. He may also have been the one doing Fireball Twigg (https://allthingsger.blogspot.com/search/label/Fireball%20Twigg), which seems to have had a different letterer. And as long as you are on my blog, please have a look at my posts about Egli’s Rocky and the remarkable strip he did after that. And would you know if Engli also lettered some of the other artists in the Caniff school? Ray Bailey (certainly in Vesta West and Bruce Gentry, possibly Tom Corbett), but maybe Frank Robbins’ Johnny Hazard too? And how about Robbins and Graff on the Dr. Lyons ads? https://allthingsger.blogspot.com/search?q=frank+robbins

  3. Todd Klein Post author

    Hi Ger, I wrote about Rocky and Looking Back in my article, briefly. I looked quickly at some of the other strips you mentioned, Bruce Gentry by Ray Bailey might be lettered by Engli, I’d want to know more about where Bailey was when he did it. I’m not looking for more Engli lettering really, but thanks for the suggestions.

  4. Ger Apeldoorn

    Ray Bailey started Bruce Gentry under the wings of Caniff. Caniff had devised a new strip for his new syndicate (what became Steve Canyon) in 1944. Ray Bailey developed the very similar Bruce Gentry at the same time. But Caniff had to ride out his contract and did not start Canyon until 1946, while Bailey started Genrtry a whole year earlier. I don’t know what their arrangement was, but Caniff clearly supported Bailey (as he did all his assistants). Bruce Gentry didn’t have the same succes as Canyon, though. He had a very small syndicate for it and although the art was great and up to par compared with Caniff (to whose work he had contributed a lot), but the writing was just okay, whereas Caniff was the best ever. The fact that Caniff allowed Engli to work with Bailey, speaks volumes. Of course, it is not something he had any say over, but there are plenty of other creators who would have objected. Similarly, I think Engli worked on Charlie Chan and Scorchy Smith as well.

  5. Todd Klein Post author

    Engli was working at Fleischer animation before being hired by Caniff and Sickles, as explained in my article. He might have worked with Bailey after that, but probably not before.

  6. Matt Tauber

    Thank you for this tribute to Frank Engli, whose contribution to Caniff’s probably hasn’t been highlighted since the Hurd interview 50 years ago.

    It did this il’ Caniffite’s heart good to read it!

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