Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gretta (1904-1988)

Né Joseph Clemens Gretter
Illustrator, Cartoonist, Author, and Inventor
Born December 11, 1904, Benton County, Indiana
Died April 8, 1988, Wilton, Connecticut

Joseph Clemens Gretter lived a long and productive life, yet few readers knew him by anything other than his one word signature, "Gretta." The artist behind that signature was born on December 11, 1904, in the prairie country of western Indiana and grew up in Avery, Iowa. His schooling came at the Iowa Academy of Fine Arts, Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and Art Institute of Chicago. His art career began in earnest in 1926 when he began drawing Hippity Skip Puzzles for the Chicago Tribune. During the lean years of the Great Depression, Gretter stayed busy illustrating series novels including the Ted Scott Flying Stories,  the X Bar X Boys, the Air Combat Stories, and the Hardy Boys. He also made his way into comic books.

In 1935, a former cavalryman and pulp fiction writer named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson put together a 36-page, black-and-white, tabloid-sized comic book called New Fun Comics, the first comic book made up of all original material and the second newsstand comic book ever published. New Fun Comics #1 (Feb. 1935) marked several other firsts as well, including the first original science fiction feature for a comic book, "Don Drake on the Planet Saro." The author was Ken Fitch, the artist, Clemens Gretter. "Don Drake," probably inspired by Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford, ran in seventeen issues of New Fun and its successor, More Fun Comics, and even made the cover spot in April 1935. Gretter worked in comic books for many more years after that. His last known credited work showed up in Fatman, The Human Flying Saucer in 1967.

By the early 1940s, Weird Tales magazine had moved to New York City. A change in editorial personnel, writers, and artists accompanied that move. The art of Margaret Brundage, Virgil Finlay, and others was increasingly rare on the cover of "The Unique Magazine." Other artists had been brought in to take their place, including A.R. Tilburne (another Hoosier) and Clemens Gretter. Tilburne produced ten covers in as many years between 1938 and 1947. Gretter on the other hand drew just one, for the January 1942 issue, an illustration unrelated to the stories inside.

Clemens Gretter continued as a cartoonist and illustrator after 1940. Between 1941 and 1948, he ghosted Ripley's Believe It or Not! He drew his own fact-based features, In This World and In Our Time, syndicated between 1953 and 1988. In semi-retirement, Gretter painted portraits and wrote two books, The Genius of Man and Chain of Reasoning (1978). He also invented a building panel and was granted a patent for it in 1976. Gretter died on April 8, 1988, in Wilton, Connecticut, at age eighty-three.

Gretta's Cover for Weird Tales
Jan. 1942

Further Reading
You can read more about Gretter and his comic book work in Ron Goulart's books, Comic Book Culture (2000), Great American Comic Books (2001), Great History of Comic Books (1986), and Over 50 Years of American Comic Books (1991).

An exciting and colorful cover by Joseph Clemens Gretter for Eustace L. Adams' War Wings (1937), typical work from the artist for series novels of that era.
"Don Drake on the Planet Saro" by Gretter and Ken Fitch, the first original science fiction story for a comic book. This is the cover of New Fun for April 1935. Don Drake could easily be the pilot on the cover of War Wings: their outfits are identical.
A cover by Gretter for Short Stories, August 25, 1940, illustrating a tale by H. Bedford-Jones, a prolific pulpster and a teller of weird tales.
Finally, Gretter's only cover for Weird Tales, from January 1942.

Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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