Attack of the Fleagle Gang!
Written by Steve Ringgenberg
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, 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.
As Angelo Torres recalled in a recent interview: “Nick Meglin met Al Williamson at EC and showed him my work, which led to our meeting and eventually to my working with him. Nick deserves much of the credit for bringing our group together.” As Meglin recounted in an interview in Tales of Terror, “The secretary at EC was Nancy Siegel... She liked us…(and) never charged us for the comics and would always introduce us to anyone who was there. That’s how I got to meet Al Williamson, whom I thought to be one of the best EC artists, and we became friends…I got to talking with Williamson about my school buddies Angelo Torres and George Woodbridge because they were the best (at the School of Visual Arts) at the time…I showed some of (Angelo’s) stuff to Williamson and Al was very, very impressed. We all started hanging out together from time to time.”
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 illustrations. 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.
When the comic was canceled, the publishers offered to pay contributors for their completed work, but Williamson, who had poured his heart and soul into this story, asked if he could just get his art back. His editor at Lev Gleason probably thought Williamson was nuts but agreed. Williamson hung onto it for many years, not knowing if it would ever see print. However, one day in the mid-60s, old pal Wally Wood asked Al if he could print the story in his new prozine (at first titled etcetera, but soon to find lasting fame as Witzend.) Al agreed, and Wood wrote a new script around the existing eight-page story, titling it “Savage World” and giving the old Buster Crabbe story about battling an advanced race of subterranean aliens a new, more cynical spin. So, in 1966, over a decade after it had originally been drawn, this Fleagle's masterpiece was finally published.
The combination of Wood’s intelligent sci-fi script and the gorgeous art made it an instant classic, and it’s been reprinted a number of times since then, notably in the first issue of Marvel’s black and white science fiction anthology Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, which enabled Williamson to finally pay Torres and Krenkel for their work, and was published again in color in Alien Worlds #3 by Pacific Comics, and again in Death Rattle #10 published by Kitchen Sink. It’s one of those stories that’s too good to stay out of print for very long. This was the last time that Williamson and Frazetta worked together.
Despite the crash of the comics industry, Frazetta always had plenty of work, whether it was drawing romance comics, Famous Funnies covers, or syndicated newspaper strips. From around 1955, Frazetta’s time was occupied by penciling the Sunday page for Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, a job he would maintain for the next seven years since it paid well and left him with plenty of free time to pursue his own interests. Frazetta was sometimes summoned to Boston to work in Capp’s studio, penciling daily strips or doing illustrations for Li’l Abner advertising, promotional drawings, or products like a set of 16 greeting cards that featured Frazetta’s watercolor portraits of the entire Li’l Abner cast.
Williamson’s own bleak period of under-employment ended when he agreed to accompany Rip Kirby artist John Prentice down to Mexico for 17 months to assist on the strip. It was Prentice who recommended Williamson to take over the Secret Agent X-9 strip. Williamson had just gotten back into regular comics with some excellent work on King Comics’ Flash Gordon when King Features offered him X-9. It was steady work and a chance to illustrate a strip created by Alex Raymond. He stayed with X-9 until 1980 when he was hired to do the Star Wars newspaper strip. Even though he was employed on X-9 and Star Wars, Williamson would take breaks from both strips to avoid getting into an artistic rut. Among the artists who ghosted X-9 were Angelo Torres, Al McWilliams, and Gray Morrow.
George Woodbridge, who left the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in 1954, was too late to work with Williamson on any EC jobs though they did work together at least once at Atlas, and Williamson, Krenkel, and Torres assisted Woodbridge on the Classics Illustrated adaptation of The First Men in the Moon. It was a severely rushed job, and shows only a few touches of the better Fleagles jobs. Woodbridge entered the comic book business at just the wrong time, and despite doing a few issues of Masked Ranger and some horror comics like Mysterious Stories, as well as some westerns and war stories for Atlas, he mostly just focused on the historical illustrations that would become one of his primary fields of endeavor. He also worked with Nick Meglin on Mad magazine starting in the late 50s and continued for decades until his retirement in 2002.
Nick Meglin also helped orchestrate some of the lesser-known Fleagles collaborations by having Frazetta and Torres assist Sid Check on some jobs. Meglin started as an “idea man” for EC, contributing story concepts to Panic and gained greater prominence at Mad following Harvey Kurtzman’s abrupt departure. Publisher Bill Gaines was afraid Mad would go belly up for lack of material, but his wife reminded him of what a good job Al Feldstein had done on Panic, so Gaines drove out to recruit Feldstein as Mad’s new editor. Nick Meglin was there, writing new material and making himself invaluable to Feldstein and Gaines. He left Mad for two years when he was drafted, but went back to work for Mad and never left until he retired. In fact, Nick Meglin worked on Mad longer than anyone, including Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Gaines, or Al Feldstein. He gradually lost touch with Williamson, Krenkel, and Frazetta, but he remained close with Woodbridge and Torres until his death in 2016.
Roy Krenkel was the most eccentric of the Fleagles and cared more about collecting than he did about making a living. Still, Krenkel is responsible for the artistic ethos of Williamson, Frazetta, and Torres, since he was a living conduit between the best magazine and book illustrators of the past and the friends who went on to create some of the most beautiful comic book art of all time. As Frazetta’s only lifetime friend, he also became Frank’s biggest fan. Krenkel’s encouragement made Frazetta venture into paperback book painting, and from there, Frazetta went on to become the most prominent fantasy artist of the 20th Century and the best-known of the Fleagles.