On History: Ted Shearer

By | Tuesday, January 06, 2015 Leave a Comment
My introduction to highly stylized comic strips -- with heavy, almost noir-ish, emphasis on deep shadows -- actually comes via Sesame Street. Like many kids who grew up in the 1970s and later, Sesame Street was a staple television program educating us on a wealth of topics, well beyond the alphabet and basic counting. And the show introduced me, after a fashion, to the work of Ted Shearer.

Shearer was a Jamaican-born, Harlem-raised cartoonist. He sold his first cartoon work as a teenager before entering the army during World War II, serving as an illustrator for Stars and Stripes. He eventually went on to successfully sell his comic strip Quincy to King Features, and the strip debuted in 1970. I don't recall it being printed in our local papers when I was a kid, though, so I didn't actually see Shearer's work until 1978.

In 1976, Shearer's son, John, published a children's book called Billy Jo Jive, Super Private Eye: The Case of the Missing Ten Speed Bike. Ted Shearer provided the illustrations. The book sold well and a sequel was published in 1977, but more significantly, it had already attracted the attention of someone at Children's Television Workshop. It written up as a series of animated shorts, following Ted Shearer's drawing style, and debuted in Sesame Street episode #1186 in late 1978 with a funky Richard C. Sanders score.

Here's a later installment that's pretty indicative of the series...
At some point later, I recall seeing the same style of art in Shearer's comic strip Quincy. Like I said, it wasn't in our local paper, so my best guess is that it was published in some sort of newsletter that was distributed through the school system. I know that's how I first encountered Luann and I think Quincy may have shown up the same way.

Regardless, I know Quincy stood out because of the heavy spotted blacks. It seemed much more "graphic" than any other comic strips I had seen at that point. (This was before Gary Trudeau started getting really creative with his art, and before I had discovered any of the older adventure strips that were more illustrative. Pretty much everything I was exposed to previously was of the Hagar/Blondie/Marmaduke styles of cartooning.) Shearer's strips were significantly more dramatic looking than anything else on the newspaper page at that time.

It was only later that I realized some of the other things he was doing: constantly changing the viewer's perspective, sometimes radically; including often elaborate backgrounds; giving readers a very distinct sense of place... I don't know that I found the jokes that much funnier than anything else I was reading at the time -- a different style of humor, I suppose, but not really more laugh-inducing than anything else -- but the images were visually arresting by comparison to every other cartoonist I was seeing. The characters were both more fluid and more solid than their peers in other strips.

Shearer retired in 1986, and Quincy retired with him. I've noted before how I'd love to see some of Shearer's work republished. As near as I can tell, none of his Quincy material has been collected since 1978, meaning Shearer produced more strips after that collection saw print than before and more than half of his work on that one strip has never been collected in any form. The Billy Jo Jive books are out of print as well, but are available online. In 2012, John Shearer began work on reviving the Billy Jo Jive property, but eschewing his father's design sensibilities in favor of CGI characters.

It's a pity that such a strong cartoonist is largely forgotten. What makes it doubly-disappointing is that, as I noted last week, comics syndicates would probably be much more successful overall if they did a better job of mining their back catalogs. There's a lot of great work back there that's being unjustly ignored.
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