Monday, April 18, 2011

Appreciating the greats: Jose Luis Salinas

   On the recommendation of a friend, I've decided to devote some of the space here to expressing my admiration for some brilliant artists and illustrators whose work hasn't had the recognition it deserves. Foremost among these is the staggeringly talented Argentinian artist Jose Luis Salinas, best known for his work on the syndicated comic strip The Cisco Kid, published from 1951 to 1957 by King Features Syndicate. It was written by Rod Reed, who was recruited by the syndicate's editors. The character of the Cisco Kid was originally created by O. Henry in a short story entitled "The Caballero's Way". By the time the strip made its debut, he had appeared in no fewer than twenty-eight movies and had been featured on his own radio program since 1942. He was also the star of his own TV show beginning in 1949, as played by Spanish actor Duncan Renaldo. The program was the first television show to be filmed in color and survived in syndication for many years as a result.
   While Salinas and Reed can hardly be credited with Cisco's creation, their work ranks with the best adventure strips: Prince Valiant, Scorchy Smith, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, Terry and the Pirates, and Secret Agent X-9 (later reprised by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson as Secret Agent Corrigan). The Kid is a hero in the tradition of the early Hollywood Western. Although he  wears a sidearm and is an expert marksman, fistfights are more common than gunplay. There are liberal doses of humor and romance in well-constructed stories spanning anywhere from one to three months of daily strips. It's an entertaining read, but nothing earth-shattering.
  The art, however, is stunningly good. Salinas came from a fine-art background and had worked in advertising since the late Twenties, achieving considerable fame in his native country. His comics work is neither hurried nor condescending. Details like the embroidery on Cisco's shirt are always rendered with immaculate precision, but Salinas is equally comfortable with lavish panoramic views of the Southwest, dramatic horseback chase scenes, and subtle, keenly observed body language. Painstakingly researched and utterly credible to a degree that evokes Hal Foster's best efforts, the strip also has a hint of the dramatic flair and dynamism of Frank Frazetta's  Johnny Comet (1952-1953).
   Few artists are masters of both of these extremes, however. Salinas was decidedly more akin to Foster than to Frazetta. Over time, his drawing became more and more rigid. By the 1970s, when he returned to comics, naturalism and spontaneity gave way to the same stilted, lifeless quality that undermined Foster's own later work. Other artists of great promise suffered the same fate: Wally Wood and Reed Crandall are two of the most tragic examples.

   Copyright restrictions do not permit me to reproduce more of his magnificent work, but some examples can be found below. Classic Comics Press will be publishing the complete run of The Cisco Kid at some point, making Salinas's work available to the public for the first time since the long out-of-print 1983 Ken Pierce paperback collection.

A nice high-resolution image of a Cisco Kid daily

Another spectacular strip

A single panel

Another single with gorgeous lighting effects

Painted Illustrations of military figures through history

Classic Comics Press page with Cisco Kid strips

Eddie Campbell waxes rhapsodic about the Kid's shirt (with more art examples)

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