The Day Bill Told Off His Boss

By | Tuesday, January 24, 2023 2 comments
If you've read almost any volume of early 1970s comics, you've likely come across this CIE ad I'm showcasing here. I don't know precisely how widespread it was or what issues it actually ran in, but I know I saw it a lot. CIE ran some other ads in comics that were done in comic form, but this one always stood out to me.

The Cleveland Institute of Electronics actually began in 1934 under the name Smith Practical Radio Institute, and they've always focused on correspondence courses around electronics. They apparently had their highest number of students in the 1970s, and seem to have been dwindling since. I've seen sporadic reports that they actually closed late last year, but their site still seems to be up and running and I can find no official mention of them shuddering.

But back to this ad specifically. It of course makes sense to use a comic style format for an ad within a comic book. Ther are few things that strike me as interesting with it, though. The basic script and layout of the piece -- both the overall page and the specifics of each panel -- suggest it was created by someone who has some familiarity with the medium. What you often find with these types of ads are radical panel-to-panel transitions that don't make sense or trying to cram too much into a single panel and a lot of basic rookie mistakes. But here, each panel has its own tone and statement, and the flow between each of them makese sense. It's not a great story, but the story it is telling is told well.

The execution always seemed... challenged, though. I know that the printing technology of the time meant they had to use some rough half-tones to replicate the photos but there's some odd (to me) treatments here. In the first two and final panels, for instance, some of the background has been cut out around Bill. But I don't understand why. Normally, you would do something like this to make a distinction or separation betwen the background and the foreground. In the second panel, it looks like maybe the front of Bill's face may have blended a little too much with the background once you got to the rough half-tones, but that doesn't seem to be an issue with panels 3 and 4. It certainly wouldn't have an issue with panel 1 where Bill's face has a pretty strong shadow along the edges that would clearly delineate him from the background.

The other possiblity for cutting into the background would be to remove something ditracting like a crack on the wall or a strong shadow. But here again, panels 3 and 4 show there's nothing really offending on the back wall in the first place, and panel 1 leaves in Bill's pretty heavy shadow anyway. So the background cuts don't make sense to me.

The cuts seem awfully rough as well. They're not bad in panel 1, but the front of Bill's face in panel 2 has more than a little extra around it, and the last panel is so roughly cut as to make him look almost blurry. Not only around Bill, but the whole right edge of that last panel seems to have part of the half-tone visible. Maybe around Bill's dialogue balloon as well. (Although that's maybe just a printing smudge?) Regardless if the person working on this was using an X-Acto blade or White-Out to get rid of the background, it looks like a really rough job. Honestly, I'm confident I could've done better back when I was an intern and if they only gave me five minutes to fix things!

Next, Mr. Bemis' shirt seems almost drawn in. My guess is that the natural shadows on his white shirt didn't translate well to half-tones -- possibly not at all, just coming across as a glaring white blob -- and someone went back in and added some Zip-a-Tone to indicate shadows. Which make sense, but adds a strange artificialness to things. But it's odd in the amount of precision work that's gone into fixing Mr. Bendis' shirt compared to the lackadaisical approach to the background cut-outs.

The last thing that always stood out to me with this was the overall style. I get that Mr. Bendis is intended to be the mean, old boss-man character but he always seemed wildly out-of-date. Even with the intention of his being wildly out-of-date. This was an ad that ran in the 1970s, and he looks like a stereotype from a 1960s television show that was itself behind the times. He would be the antagonist in the electronics department of some company that would cause problems for John Astin's Gomez Addams or Dick Van Dyke's Rob Petrie. Even comic book villains, which historically held on to outdated stereotypes for excessively long times, were more contemporary than Mr. Bendis here! Morgan Edge first appeared in 1970, Ra's al Ghul debuted in 1972, Lex Luthor upgraded to the green and purple jumpsuit made famous in the Super Friends in 1974... yet here's Mr. Bendis still looking like he got yanked out of the 1950s.

Honestly, I don't expect any ad agency or design department that doen't work in comics regularly to knock things out of the park with a one-page ad for a correspondence course. But it does seem strange to me how they would handle some aspects of this particular as extremely compentently and some parts very poorly. I'm genuinely more curious about how this ad came to be produced than anything about CIE or its current status.
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Ted Dawson said...

This is a whole nuther level of comics geek, and I love it! I pay attention to these things, too. I searched and found a couple of other version of the ad, which might inform the points you raised. One is from an old Spidey comic, and doesn't have the cutaways and looks worse... I can see the CEI people getting a copy and saying, Whoa, this looks awful. We need to fix it. And the other is a copy from the inside back cover of a better-printed magazine; it looks fine without the odd cutaways (or whatever the term might be). As always with comics, final decisions on design were based on the poor printing methods.

Ooo, those are some really interesting examples to compare against. I wonder if, between these two and the one I posted, we're looking at a basic duplication problem. Like every time they sent out the art to run in a new/different place, they sent a copy of the last one they ran instead of a copy of the original? They would've lost some clarity in each subsequent version and eventually had to start manually adding details back in, like Mr. Bendis' shirt or the panel borders that drawn in only with my copy. And the things that they couldn't fix -- like the general grey color of the back wall that's starting to drop out in the Spider-Man version you linked to -- they just cut out entirely. That would explain why some parts are done well and some aren't -- multiple people worked on it over several successive iterations!