Attack of the Fleagle Gang!
While the artists, collectively known as “the Fleagle's” or “The Fleagle Gang” accomplished some amazing things in their time, their story is also one of great promise that was in part, unrealized. During the 1950s, dozens of comic book companies were driven out of business by the anti-comics hysteria at the time, including EC Comics, Famous Funnies, Fiction House, Fox, Crestwood, and many others, thereby greatly limiting the markets the Fleagles had for their talents.
Although Frank Frazetta had been working in comics as early as 1944, and Al Williamson since 1948, other members of the Fleagle Gang didn’t start drawing (or in Nick Meglin’s case) writing comics until around 1953. Williamson and Frazetta had begun collaborating in 1949 and by 1950, they met Roy Krenkel and all three began working on jobs together. These three men formed the core of the Fleagles, which would eventually include George Woodbridge, Angelo Torres, and Nick Meglin, with Wally Wood and Gray Morrow as honorary members.
The heyday of the Fleagles, once they had all met up, was a surprisingly brief period, from around 1953-1960, although some of the Fleagles, notably Williamson, Torres, and Krenkel, continued to collaborate well into the 1960s, while Frazetta and Krenkel worked together until around the mid-60s, with Krenkel contributing ideas to Frazetta for his famous Conan the Barbarian series, as well as thumbnails for cover paintings for Creepy and Eerie. Frazetta also assisted Krenkel in several paintings for Ace Books and others.
Harvey Kurtzman jokingly christened the group “The Fleagle Gang” when Williamson brought Torres, Meglin, Frazetta, and Krenkel into Johnny Craig’s office during the peak of the EC period. Williamson and Krenkel did not work with Torres until 1953, and Williamson only worked with Woodbridge after the demise of EC on stories for Classics Illustrated and Atlas. Williamson’s collaborations with Krenkel continued past the demise of EC, and after Atlas imploded around 1957, and then on into the early 60s when Williamson took on Flash Gordon at King and did some work for Warren’s horror magazines, Creepy and Eerie. One of their last collaborations is one of their best, the story “H20 World” for Creepy #1, an issue that also included one of Frazetta’s last stories in comics. Williamson’s other story in that issue didn’t involve Krenkel, but “Success Story” did include characters modeled on fellow artists Angelo Torres, and Al McWilliams, and writer Archie Goodwin.
Frazetta quit comics to focus on doing cover paintings. Torres joined the Warren crew early on and contributed many stories that are ranked among the best comics stories of the 60s. Warren’s Blazing Combat title featured many excellent stories by Torres, playing to his penchant for history, including one where he teamed up again with Williamson. Frazetta did classic covers for all four issues of the short-lived magazine. While Frazetta would periodically contribute covers to Warren magazines after his prolific period in the mid-60s, most of the Frazetta Warren covers after that were reprints of earlier work; for example, his cover for Blazing Combat #1 was reused as the cover for a special war-themed issue of Creepy (#89). A later Eerie cover titled “Queen Kong” was recycled from an abortive Wally Wood-edited magazine that never came to pass.
Williamson stopped contributing to the Warren titles for years because of his commitment to the Secret Agent X-9newspaper strip from 1967 through 1980, but he still managed to draw three new stories in 1976, ’77, and ’79. Issue #137 of Creepy is an all-Williamson reprint issue, and issue #142 is an all-Torres collection. Torres rarely worked in comics book, when he joined Mad, working alongside fellow Fleagles George Woodbridge and Nick Meglin, though he did collaborate with Williamson again on an advertising comic book, Cliff Merritt and the Very Candid Candidate. A second Cliff Merritt comic, Cliff Merritt Sets the Record Straight is often attributed to Williamson and Torres, but in fact, is solely by Torres.
After EC ceased publishing color comics, Williamson lost his main source of income and had to really scramble to get enough work, taking whatever work he could find, from Classics Illustrated to short Atlas war, western, science fiction, and romance jobs, sometimes collaborating with Torres, Krenkel or Woodbridge, and with non-Fleagles like Gray Morrow. Torres did a considerable amount of work for Atlas working solo until Atlas stopped buying new work around 1957. Interestingly enough, Torres’ lush brushwork is often mistaken for Frazetta’s work despite the fact that Frazetta never drew any comics for Atlas.
Torres and Williamson were then reduced to working for Charlton for much lower rates. Even though Torres and Williamson later jokingly referred to this period as “The Dark Ages”, they still managed to scrape by with jobs like illustrating the Harwyn Picture Encyclopedia, art-directed by Jack Kamen, who recruited many old EC colleagues like Williamson, Torres, Crandall, and Wood. Williamson, Torres, and Gray Morrow, all contributed to a one-shot black and white horror magazine entitled Eerie Tales that featured a horror host who hearkened back to EC Comics. Torres later said, “I always had something to work on, as did Al, as new projects kept popping up. I have never worked at anything but drawing since the day I left art school.”
Williamson worked for Dell, exclusively on westerns including one collaboration with Reed Crandall, and one with Torres. During the late ‘50s, Williamson did a small amount of work for Harvey Comics’ mystery and science fiction titles. For Harvey, Williamson collaborated with Reed Crandall on a couple of science fiction stories, and again with Krenkel and Torres on at least one job. Williamson also worked on a couple of rare superhero stories for The Fly, including one he penciled that Torres inked. Some of the work Williamson did during this period didn’t see print until the early 1960s in Alarming Adventures and Blast-Off. One of the stories that appeared in Alarming Adventures #3, “The Secret of the Mountain” was for many years attributed to Williamson, but is actually Torres’ work. Williamson’s last work for Harvey, “Clawfang the Barbarian”, is a beautifully drawn 7-page science fantasy story that appeared in Thrill-O-Rama #2 and Unearthly Spectaculars #2 (1965) and was written by old friend Wallace Wood.
American Comics Group (ACG) was one of the few publishers that survived the great comics purge of the ‘50s, and Williamson and Torres did a couple of short romance jobs. Williamson also teamed up with Roy Krenkel on a couple of science fiction stories, and did some solo stories during the late 50s and early 60s for both Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown.
Frazetta, Williamson, Krenkel, and George Evans all worked on Buster Crabbe Comics, through issue #5. In the mid-50s, there was a second series of Buster Crabbe comics published by Lev Gleason that only lasted for four issues, although Williamson and the other Fleagles had completed a story and a cover intended for the fifth issue. It is this story, untitled in its earliest iteration, but later rewritten and re-titled “Savage World”, that represents the absolute apotheosis of the Fleagles as a creative team. Its creation involved Williamson, Frazetta, Torres, and Krenkel, and it is truly one of the most beautiful stories ever created for an American comic book.