Canadian-born Cartoonist and WWII Navy Veteran Became Artist for Dell Comics
by BK Munn
Mel Crawford died peacefully February 23 at Valerie Manor, an assisted living facility in Torrington, Connecticut.
Crawford was born in Toronto; his parents divorced when he was young and Crawford and his mother briefly sojourned in Alberta and Oklahoma before returning to Ontario. He attended Toronto’s Western Tech highschool.
At 16 he began to draw for Toronto’s Bell Features Publications, illustrating a feature written by Frank Mann Harris called “The Three T’s” beginning with Bell’s Joke Comics No. 1, published in the Spring of 1942. The feature, about a trio of Hardy Boys-styled adventurers, was short-lived, but Crawford went on to illustrate a host of pages and features for the Bell line, eventually creating “The Young Commandos” for Commando Comics in October 1942 (the strip seems to have been modelled on Simon and Kirby’s “Boy Commandos” feature which had debuted in Detective Comics in June of the same year). Even at this young age, Crawford demonstrated a versatile classical-realistic style in his work for Bell, with a confident line and strong figure work.
According to Canadian comics researcher Ivan Kocmarek, “Before the year (1942) was out, Mel Crawford, at 17, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy,” where some sources list him as a fighter pilot.
After the War, Crawford returned to Toronto and attended the Ontario College of Art and Design, eventually finding employment at Bomac Printing. In 1949, he moved to the U.S. and found work at the Walt Disney Studios before drifting back into comics work for Western Publishing, which held the licences for Disney comics. At Western, Crawford’s work appeared alongside that of a storied group of peers, including Alex Toth, John Stanley, and Carl Barks.
While Crawford’s pencils for comics stories, for the likes of Dr. Solar, Boris Karloff, Twilight Zone, and Dell Junior Treasury, were fairly unremarkable, notable mostly for his ability to stay “on-model” and tell a clear sequential story, his painted comic book covers are what he is most remembered for, and display a fine artist’s eye for composition and colour. During his long career, Crawford worked on a plethora of licensed titles featuring a “Who’s Who” of animated and children’s characters, mutating his style effortlessly to capture the essence of these childhood favourites. Among his numerous strong cover jobs, Crawford painted a host of Disney characters, as well as such mid-Century icons as Rootie Kazootie, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Twinkles The Elephant, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Tom & Jerry, Raggedy Ann, Wizard of Oz, Howdy Doody, and Mr. MaGoo. He also handled many film adaptations and children’s record albums, and was the cover artist for Western’s The Golden Magazine as well.
Perhaps the best known of his Dell comics output is the work he did on the Gerald McBoing Boing property: Crawford drew inventive picture book and comic book adaptations of the the Academy Award-winning UPA animated cartoon written by Dr. Seuss and animated by P.D. Eastman. As testament to the enduring quality of that work, The Golden Book version remains in print, and the comics were reprinted in 2009 for The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.
As late as 1993, Crawford provided the cover for Gladstone’s Uncle Scrooge Adventures #23.
Of his cover work, Pete Emslie wrote “Mel Crawford’s art is full of joy. His colour palette is rich and warm without ever becoming garish. I particularly appreciate the economy in his approach to painting with gouache, in that he keeps his rendering simple, showing the shadow side of the form with just a pleasing shape described with a crisp, clean dry-brush technique.”
Crawford also worked in magazine illustration and provided painted covers for many A-list newsstand clients. He worked in newspaper comic strips as well, usually as a ghost or assistant, but sometimes as the main credited artist, including tenures on forgotten strips such as Iffy, Versus, Rabbits Rafferty, and McCall of the Wild.
In later years, Crawford made wildlife paintings and did work for the U.S. Postal Service, including a series of first day covers for stamps.
Crawford is survived by his wife, Virginia, four children, two stepchildren, and several grandchildren.