A Tribute to the of

Star Spangled War Stories began its run in 1952 and as best I can tell in 1960 somebody had the bright idea to incorporate dinosaurs into the stories with issue #90.  It could happen…  Well, the next thing you know, the dinos were there to stay and the first pterodactyl appeared on the cover of issue #95 in 1961.  Rolling ahead to 1966, the pterodactyl is still a popular cover attraction and aside from the perspective, you'll note nearly identical covers between issue #129 and #131.  The lead story in issue #129 was called "The War That Time Forgot!", written by Howard Liss and illustrated by Russ Heath with the cover by Joe Kubert.  Issue #131 has a cover titled "The War That Time Forgot!" and the lead story is by Howard Liss with illustration by Russ Heath.  Whatever works, I suppose, but I found it curious.  Speaking of curious, if anyone knows anything about Howard Liss, I'd love to hear about it.

All that aside, the story featured for review this time around is the backup tale from issue #129, with a publication date of October/November 1966.  The 9-pager is titled, "I Owe You My Life!" and was also written by Howard Liss, drawn by John Calnan and edited by Robert Kanigher.  No dinosaurs to be seen in this story, but let's see what it's all about, shall we?

The setting is a combat zone in Vietnam with Olson, the veteran, looking at the unit replacement, a young kid with a haunted look in his eyes, reminding Olson of a fateful day in his life six years prior. 

Olson was the wheel man for a bank heist when a kid, car-crazy as kids tend to be, happened along the sidewalk and admired the getaway car and noted the driver.  Bedlam breaks loose immediately when the robbery goes awry, the two stickup men, empty-handed, dash into the vehicle after gunning down the guard, who happened to be the boy's father. 

With the police chasing the car and expertly shooting out the tires, the robbery comes to an ignoble end with both robbers being gunned down, but Olson managing to escape. 

Returning to the present, the guilt-ridden Olson is convinced the new troop, the boy from the robbery, recognizes him and is plotting to seek out revenge for the loss of his father. 

The unit manages to break out of their pinned-down position and take the fight to the Viet Cong hand to hand.  Olson then sees the kid fire a round his way, but the slug takes out a sniper.  Olson is convinced it was coincidence and poor aim and continues to note how closely the kid stays to him. 

Later, the company locates a VC chamber and tunnel system and advances through it, disposing of the enemy at each turn. 

Olson has taken a position behind the unnamed soldier, hoping it will help him survive, but also knowing he owes the kid his life. 

A little later, a booby trap is sprung by the rookie with explosive charges and a partial cave-in resulting.  Olson is at first relieved to see his antagonist pinned down from the collapse, but sees those eyes again, wordless, looking at him and he undertakes a one-man rescue operation. 

Slogging through the tunnel with the kid in a fireman's carry, they encounter another obstacle as the tunnel is flooding. 

Struggling to keep the kid's head above water, but encountering a dead end, Olson fires a signal shot with his rifle to alert his unit of their presence and dilemma.  The other G.I.'s blow a hole in the hillside with grenades and pull the kid from the cavern, who tells them to help Olson. 

It was too late for the veteran soldier, however, and when his drowned body is recovered and the litter is placed near the kid he asks, "Why did he do it?  I never laid eyes on him before I joined the outfit!  He didn't owe me his life!"  The Corpsman replies, "He must have had his reasons!  He has a smile on his face!"

A rousing battle tale with a twist that I'll give a 7 on the rating scale.  John Calnan's art is excellent throughout with realistic rendering and terrific detail.

I had the great good fortune to speak to John recently and am pleased to share his thoughts about his comics career:

Bryan D. Stroud:  Mr. Calnan, thanks for taking some time for me.

John Calnan:  Please call me John.  By the way, how did you get my name?

BDS:  You know, I'm a bit fuzzy, but I stumbled across something online where the rumors of your death had been somewhat exaggerated.

JC:  That's right.  It was two or three years ago and I got a call from someone saying, "Hey, we'd heard you were supposed to be dead."  He called very nicely and asked my wife, "Can I speak to John?"  He was wondering whether I would answer or not.  I did answer.  (Chuckle.)  So I managed to straighten that out pretty quickly.

BDS:  Good!  So how did your career as a cartoonist begin?

JC:  Well, I graduated high school and then went to the School of Visual Arts, which at that time was the cartoonists and illustrators school where I met Tom Gill and inked The Lone Ranger and also worked on other Westerns, including Cheyenne.  So that was my introduction into the field.

From there I just sort of progressed along until I found myself doing a little bit of work for Classics Illustrated and then I started doing work for advertising agencies.

BDS:  That was a big leap back in the day.  It seems like if someone could get that kind of work they'd leave comics in a heartbeat.

JC:  Yeah, I just sort of did that very thing.  I let them go and I was working on staff.  Then around 1966 I started doing a few more of them and then I again stopped and went to another agency and one of the guys there who knew some people over at DC suggested I show my stuff over there.  So I began doing some work for DC while I was still on staff at the ad agency.

BDS:  So you sort of bounced back and forth a little bit.

JC:  Yeah, I became and advertising art director and TV producer for agencies and still kept the comic work on the side.

BDS:  Goodness knows the life of a freelancer is far from secure, so hedging your bets was probably a good thing.

JC:  I worked all the way up through the early 80's with the agencies and then I went completely freelance.  I kept my hand in on the comics and also freelanced on advertising work.

BDS:  Obviously you made a career out of it.

JC:  A pretty good career, I think.  I retired in 1996.

BDS:  So your career began in the 60's?

JC:  Right in the beginning of the 60's, yes.  As I mentioned earlier I was inking over Tom Gill on The Lone Ranger, but you probably won't see my name anywhere.  Dell Publications at the time didn't give any credits at all no matter who was working on it.

BDS:  I think that was the case for pretty much all the publishers for years.  Speaking of inking, you inked over some pretty good names at DC like Dick Dillin...

JC:  I loved his work.  I inked over his work quite a few times.  That was a really easy job.

BDS:  I understand he did very tight pencils.

JC:  That's right.

BDS:  I think I read somewhere that he put so much detail into his work that they wondered how he made a nickel at it.

JC:  I think we were all wondering that.  (Chuckle.)  He must have used both hands at the same time.

BDS:  In fact, it seems like he didn't use paste-ups for logos and such.

JC:  I don't recall ever seeing any paste-ups on his pages.

BDS:  He must have been fast.

JC:  Some guys were.  I won't mention who, but I knew one guy who could pencil five pages in a day.

BDS:  I've heard that legend told of two men just off the top of my head:  Jack Kirby and Mike Sekowsky.

JC:  I guess you did hear about it then.

BDS:  Joe Giella called Mike "The Speed Merchant." 

JC:  (Chuckle.)  That's a good definition.

BDS:  How long did it usually take you to do a page, John?

JC:  Considering the fact that I worked all day, it took me quite a few hours at night to do it, because I wouldn't get home until about 7 o'clock at night.  I'd have dinner and then get to work.  I was still doing freelance work for the agencies at that time, too, so I'd sometimes have to prioritize.  "I can't do a page tonight.  I'll have to do it tomorrow night."  Still, I delivered the story on time.

BDS:  Burning the candle at both ends.

JC:  Yeah, I did quite a bit of that.

BDS:  From what others have told me it seems to be an occupational hazard.  I know for a few of them night time was the only time they could work without distractions or interruptions.

JC:  I fortunately had a very tolerant wife.

BDS:  I see you did a fair amount of penciling, too.

JC:  I penciled all my Batman stuff.

BDS:  Yes and it looks like Tex Blaisdell worked with you a lot as an inker.

JC:  Yes and Dick Giordano did some, too.

BDS:  Dick was really fantastic.

JC:  He was great.  I wish I'd had him all the time.

BDS:  No less than Neal Adams told me that Dick was his best inker at DC.

JC:  Dick had a great faculty for inking sort of in the style of the penciler.  So the pencil work wasn't lost.  There were one or two guys out there that if you handed them the story it came out looking like his work instead of anybody else's.

BDS:  Another notable collaborator was Rich Buckler.

JC:  Yes, I think I inked Buckler at least a couple of times.

BDS:  I noticed on an issue of "Ghosts" you got to draw none other than James Dean.

JC:  (Laughter.)  You've done your homework.

BDS:  I try.

JC:  I worked on so many different things at DC.  It's amazing I got that much work out of them.  I did war books, young love, Unexpected, Witching Hour, Ghosts, Teen Titans, I did some stuff on Superman.

BDS:  It looks like you got to work on a lot of the major characters, including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and even Metamorpho, the Element Man.

JC:  I had Metamorpho for a year and half or something like that.  One thing nice about him was that you couldn't screw his figure up because he kept changing so much.

BDS:  (Laughter.)  Of course Ramona Fradon was the original artist on that book and she said she loved the goofiness of the character.

JC:  I think I got it shortly after she left to do her syndicated strip.  (Brenda Starr.)  I remember thinking, "Gee, I've got to change completely for this one."  But it turned out to be a lot of fun working on it.

BDS:  Did you have a favorite scripter you liked to work with?

JC:  No real stand outs.  Most all of them were pretty good and I had no problems with anybody.

BDS:  Did you have a preference between penciling and inking?

JC:  Oh, yeah, I prefer the penciling for the simple reason that everything had to look spic and span perfect by the time the inker left it, whereas if there's some little thing wrong as a penciler, the inker could come along and straighten it out.  I won't tell you who, but I had a prime example.  There was a story I had to ink for one artist and all his major figures were about 5'4".  So I had to go through the story and lengthen the majority of them.  That takes up a little extra time.

BDS:  Sure, and time is money in that world. 

JC:  Oh, yes.  So, anyway, I can't say anything wrong about National Periodicals.  They were great and they just kept feeding me work and I was quite happy with it.

BDS:  I believe it comes through in your work.  I looked at a handful of examples and it all looked like terrific stuff. 

JC:  Thank you.  In quite a few cases the inker made me look good.  There were so many books I forget all that I worked on.

BDS:  Did you ever read anyone else's books?

JC:  Several come to mind.  I enjoyed the work of Jim Aparo, Joe Kubert, Dick Dillin, Rich Buckler and of course Neal Adams.  I liked the Green Lantern/Green Arrow books.  That was a great series.

BDS:  I liked it, too.  Even after Neal Adams left it.

JC:  I didn't really follow it after that.

BDS:  It's interesting how characters evolve.  I asked Jerry Robinson where or even how he thought Batman could go after 70 years.

JC:  Jerry Robinson.  When did you speak to him?

BDS:  I spoke to him last just a few weeks ago to let him know about Lew Schwartz passing away.

JC:  Is he still working?

BDS:  Not as a cartoonist, but he stays busier than any three men between his National Cartoonist Society Work and some recent books and other activities.

JC:  He wouldn't remember me, but he was one of my instructors at the School of Visual Arts, back when it was still called the School of Cartoonists and Illustrators.  Jerry was a very good instructor and gave some valuable tips about cartooning work.

BDS:  How about that?  He told me about some of his students who went on to make a name for themselves to include Steve Ditko, Stan Lynde and Stan Goldberg. 

JC:  Unfortunately I never met any of them.

BDS:  Well, in the case of Steve Ditko, hardly anyone has.  (Chuckle.)  He keeps a very low profile.

JC:  I guess that sort of brings you up to date on me.  I'm retired, but not really retired.  I've got so many requests for paintings and drawings that I keep busy.  I generally have a listing of what I need to do right on the drawing board here.

BDS:  So are you doing commission work?

JC:  I haven't had commission work for a little while now.  I've been doing favor paintings I guess you might say.  I just did one with 37 figures in it with a hellish scene at the bottom and a more heavenly one at the top.  And I've been asked to do a city scene by a mountain in Italy.  Fortunately I'll have photo reference for that one.

BDS:  Good for you.  I know some of your peers have done the same, by going into painting.  Al Plastino has sent me copies of some of his paintings and Frank Springer was doing them before he passed away.

JC:  Joe Giella really loves to paint.

BDS:  He told me that.  I'd love to see some of his work.

JC:  I saw one he did of the Phantom and he is quite the painter.

BDS:  One thing I neglected to ask is that so many cartoonists got into the field because they were fans of strips as kids.  Would you categorize yourself there?

JC:  Absolutely.  I was an avid reader of comic books and strips.

BDS:  Any particular favorites that leap to mind?

JC:  Prince Valiant, of course.  And the thing about Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is that he had an original hanging up in our school on exhibit.  We're talking the 1950's.  At the time it sold for $300.00, which today I guess would probably be around $4,000.00 in today's dollars.

What really impressed me though was the sheer size of the page.  It must have been 20" x 30".  It was about the size of a drawing board all by itself.  Such beautiful work.

BDS:  I've wondered just how many careers Hal Foster started without even suspecting it.  He's mentioned consistently as an influence along with Milt Caniff and sometimes Roy Crane and Van Buren.  I actually have an original Abbie 'n Slats.  So much great stuff and I wonder where it's all going in the computer age.

JC:  It's all going that direction and I think it won't be long before newspapers are out of it completely.

BDS:  Kindles and iPads are changing the world of the printed page it seems. 

JC:  The digital medium has really been a game changer.  Animated film times have been cut in half at least.

BDS:  Did I neglect anything?  Was there a genre you enjoyed over the others during your career?

JC:  Well, to make a dollar it was whatever came along.  (Chuckle.)  But I still prefer working on comics.

BDS:  Is it correct that you worked on the Catholic Treasure Chest series of educational comic books?

JC:  I don't believe I did any work for them.

BDS:  Okay.  There's some misinformation out there, it seems.

JC:  Now I did do some things for a Catholic organization in the Midwest, but that was little spot illustrations.  No comics.  I don't recall the name of the publication, but I'm sure it wasn't Treasure Chest.

BDS:  If I'm not being too personal, how old are you, John?

JC:  In February I turned 79.

BDS:  You're still a young man.

JC:  Well, my doctor says that cartoonists keep working, even after they're dead.

John was a fine and interesting gentleman to talk to and it seems I'm fortunate enough to be the first interviewer to have spent time with him, so I feel doubly lucky.

I received a nice note from comics pro Scott Rosema, letting me know about an ambitious and worthy project he's undertaking to reintroduce some Silver and Bronze age sensibilities to a line of all new comics.  A worthy endeavor in my humble opinion and he's looking for interest and help from the fan community.

For details, do the clicky thingy:  


The webmaster and I are appreciative, as always, of your spending a little of your time with us here at the Silver Lantern and we invite you to be a regular visitor.  Another edition of this feature will be posted in about two weeks and we look forward to your comments, which can be submitted to this e-mail address:  professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you then and…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2011 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by John Calnan

This feature was created on 05/01/00 and is maintained by



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