Arts Memories set in ink
As the Bruce Museum continues to attract comics aficiondoes to its current exhibition on cartoon art, one name is sadly missing from its display of works by Fairfield County writers and artists: Bob Fujitani.
A talented illustrator and painter, Bob Fujitani rode the comics craze from the 1930s into the ’90s, illustrating such popular strips as “Uncle Sam,” “Flying Dutchman,” “Rip Kirby,” “Dr. Solar,” “Crime Does Not Pay,” “Turok” and “Son of Stone”. He was the original illustrator on “Dr. Solar” and “Judge Wright,” strips that ran in newspapers. He also drew “Prince Valiant” for comic books.
Fujitani began his career in comics while still a teenager. His professional life found him at drawing boards in the offices of MLJ comics, Quality Comics, King Features and Western Printing, among other titans of the industry. Pen, India ink, pencil and waterproof paints were the tools of his trade. He illustrated whole histories of West Point and the island of Jamaica in comic book formats. He did romance, horror, western, crime and adventure strips. Some bore his signature, some he ghost illustrated and some he shared credits with other artists at different times.
Fujitani also drew the terrifying vigilante Hangman (a gallows and noose was his calling card) and sketches for “Boy’s Life” magazine. But it was Flash Gordon, that Adonis of space who grappled with Ming the Merciless, the insane dictator of the planet Mongo, that was Fujitani’s favorite comics hero and his most consistent labor of love. Long before Luke Skywalker took to the skies in “Star Wars,” there was intergalactic hero Flash Gordon grappling with Earth’s enemies.
“It blew me away,” Fujitani says of the first time he read “Flash Gordon” as a kid. “I never dreamed that one day I would be drawing him.”
Fujitani has lived in Greenwich for most of his life, home to better known comics artists Mort Walker, Jerry Dumas and John Cullen Murphy. Fujitani, however, was a loner and is not well known despite his prodigious output. You’ll have to forgive him some short lapses of memory, after all he is 97 years old, but for the most part, his mind is sharp as a tack. He remembers names, dates, places. A born raconteur, he talks about the good, the bad, the hilarious and the sad. His conversations can take up a whole afternoon as it did one particularly cold winter day.
That day found Fujitani sitting on a low ottoman, comfortable in tan boat shoes, belted jeans and plaid blue flannel shirt over a white cotton one. Fujitani looked directly at me through large glasses, fussy about the best place for me to sit, all the better to take me in. No need for back or arm rests for him. He leaned forward with elbows resting on his thighs, and he was ready for serious conversation. Outside the picture window of his Cos Cob home, where he moved several years ago, two squirrels darted between bowls of peanuts placed on the deck by Fujitani’s niece and caregiver Joan. When the squirrels raced off to scavenge elsewhere, birds swooped down in a whirl of flapping wings to feed at basins filled with seeds and raisins. Beyond the deck is the Cos Cob School field.
“I used to play on that field when I went to school there. Now I look at kids playing there,” says Fujitani. “It’s crazy,” two words he uses repeatedly as he remembers the days of yore. Then he laughs, which he does often.
Half Irish and half Japanese, Fujitani endured many ethnic slurs growing up and though he skims through the telling of them, the hurt has obviously stayed with him. Yet he has fond memories of his years at Greenwich High School. Encouraged by a favorite teacher, he showed tremendous talent in painting.
“She would bring flowers to class,” recalls Fujitani of that teacher, “put them in a vase, and I would paint them. Then she would sell the paintings and give me the money. She gave me these Winsor Newton watercolor paints and brushes that she would lock away in a desk drawer. I was the only one who got to use them.”
He spent his teens playing sports at Greenwich High and picking pears and apples at Conyers Farm in backcountry Greenwich in the summer to earn money to help his mother. He readily admits that he had no career aspirations, although his art teacher envisaged a studio that smelled of resin and oil paints for him. At her urging, he applied for and landed a full scholarship at the American School of Design in New York City. There, one of his instructors told him never “to go into commercial art,” but he knew that that was where the money was.
So it wasn’t fine art that would appear like magic on sheaves of Strathmore paper on Fujitani’s drawing board. It was comics. His induction into the world was fast and serendipitous: When he got a call from a friend to bring some samples of his art work down to a comics publisher, he didn’t hesitate. He raced from Midtown Manhattan to Tudor City and he soon found himself in the rarefied world of comic mayhem, heroism, derring-do and romance. He never completed his scholarship at art school and he never looked back.
Fujitani worked alongside such legendary giants as Will Eisner and Nick Cardy. It was a grind, he admits, even later when he did most of his work at home. It sometimes took three people to complete an illustrative comic strip: writer, artist, letterer. Fujitani would get the text from the writer and do the artwork to accompany the words. Then he and his wife, Ruth, also a painter, would drive “over the Tappan Zee Bridge and down 9W to letterer Ben Oda’s house.” Oda would open the door in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Fujitani remembers, laughing heartily at the memory. It was Oda’s job to fit in texts in the “speech balloons,” working in the spaces left in the drawings done by Fujitani.
When he retired, having already earned the Comic-Con International Inkpot Award in 2005 for his work in comics, Fujitani devoted himself full time to fine art. His home is filled with his oil paintings and a few watercolors of seascapes and landscapes, many of which were exhibited in the Cos Cob Library in 2017. He paints in the mode of “the Hudson River boys,” his niece Joan says of his painting style. There are also wonderful portrait sketches. Some canvases lean two to three deep against walls and in closets. One low shelf in his living room has books written by his daughter, Susan Meller, a talented fabrics designer.
And in a bedroom are finely drawn strips of his Flash Gordon series, four panels for daily runs, eight panels for the Sunday papers. They’re almost film noir in feeling, with intricate pen-and-ink details. He stores the triptych of a poster — he painted the two side panels, Dan Barry painted the center one — that was displayed to promote the Flash Gordon movie produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s an exciting visual, full of drama, sweeps of bold colors, and vivid characterizations.
“I loved Flash Gordon,” says Bob Fujitani. Everybody did.
The Bruce Museum’s exhibition, “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art,” continues through April 20.
Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.