The Tracy Twins: Dik Browne's Labor of Love
Editor’s note: Throughout the article, click an image to enlarge it. Scroll to the bottom for an archive of Dik Browne’s Tracy Twins strips.
A banner headline on the cover of the September 1952 issue of Boys’ Life announced a new addition to the magazine: “FEATURING AN 8 PAGE SUPPLEMENT IN FULL COLOR.” This was the debut of a color comic section edited by Al Stenzel, an art director at the Johnstone and Cushing art agency. Inside were eight single-page features: Pee Wee Harris, The Story of Creation, Mog-An-Ah—The Mound Builder, Old Timer Tale of Kit Carson, Space Conquerors, How to Make It…, Emanon Dreemz in the Mail Must Go Through and Scouts in Action.
Alfred B. Stenzel was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1897. He moved to Brooklyn at the age of 10 and decided to become an artist. After taking classes at the Art Students League, he moved to California and went to the Los Angeles School of Design. When he returned to New York after a stint in the Navy during World War I, he set up his own art studio and sold freelance cartoons. He eventually joined Johnstone and Cushing, an art agency founded in 1936 that specialized in comic-format advertising, and he returned to Johnstone and Cushing after serving in World War II with the Coast Guard.
Stenzel did artwork for print advertisements and television commercials, but eventually discovered that his talent was better used by writing and designing layouts in collaboration with other artists. By the early 1950s, many Johnstone and Cushing clients were beginning to favor photographs over illustrations and cartoons, so the agency welcomed the opportunity to create a color comic section for Boys’ Life. Stenzel wrote many of these features and supervised the art production from the beginning.
A new monthly feature, The Tracy Twins – Dicky + Nicky by Dik Browne, made its first appearance in the October 1953 issue of Boys’ Life. One of the top cartoonists at Johnstone and Cushing, Browne had worked on a number of successful advertising campaigns including Colonel Mint, Roger Wilco, Peter Paul Playhouse, Camel Cigarettes and Lipton Tea. He is credited with designing the iconic Chiquita banana lady and reinventing the Campbell Soup kids, who were created by Grace Drayton in 1905.
In the early 1950s, Browne did a series of ads for Vaseline petroleum jelly starring The Trouble Twins. These cherubic mischief-makers closely resembled the twins he would later introduce in Boys’ Life. Browne once described his early style as “sort of between Peter Arno and Harry Haenigsen [creator of the comic strip Penny].” Among his many influences were such artists as Kimon Nicolaides, author of The Natural Way to Draw, surrealist Boris Artzybasheff and Heinrich Kley, a master of pen and ink.
Browne, who was born in New York on August 11, 1917, married the love of his life, Joan Kelly, on May 10, 1942. Their first son, Robert David, now known as Chance, arrived on June 17, 1948. The Brownes moved from Astoria, Queens, to 106 Rynda Road in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1950. A second son, Christopher Kelly, was born at Orange Memorial Hospital in 1952 and Tsui Mang Wong, born in Hong Kong in 1956, was adopted in 1961 and renamed Sally Ann.
The house in South Orange was two miles from the train station, and Chance remembers his mother picking up his father when he returned from the Johnstone and Cushing offices, which were located at 292 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. On a few occasions, Dik took Chance to Johnstone and Cushing with him. “It wasn’t a deluxe accommodation, kind of industrial, with open pipes in the ceiling. It seemed like a big playground for adults,” Chance told Hogan’s Alley. “The boss was a taskmaster but you’d get all these nudniks like my dad and Stan Drake and all the others, and they were cutting up and doing a lot of joking. Dad could have worked at home but he went to J&C because he loved the camaraderie.”
Johnstone and Cushing had drawing tables set up in the office, and many artists preferred to work there so they could get rush assignments when they came in. Dik once described Johnstone and Cushing’s competitive atmosphere: “They would throw an account out for grabs. They had about twenty people on staff and you would compete for it, you’d do a dummy or something. And I got lucky. I began to grab off accounts.”
“He was very appreciative of Johnstone and Cushing because to be a freelancer was a scary thing when you have a family,” Chance explained. “It gave him some stability.”
His father also did assignments at home. “I always remember him having a non-permanent working situation,” Chance said. “He was very comfortable working on a card table—just a little bridge table he could unfold, sometimes with not even an art lamp, just a house lamp. Eventually he did get a regular draftsman’s board. He always worked with the same equipment, which was Strathmore plate 500 series paper, Higgins ink and the Gillotte 170 pen point, the ‘singing sword of cartooning.’ The radio was always on and there were a lot of cigarettes stubbed out in ashtrays around. He would work, light a cigarette and leave it. That was his pattern.
“He also had a very liberal policy towards me playing around his space,” Chance added. “He would give me some art supplies, and I would just be under the card table doing stuff. It was a great environment.”
Stenzel produced large pencil layouts of the Tracy Twins pages on tracing paper with extensive directions on staging, costumes and historical details, since many of the episodes contained flashbacks and elements of fantasy and folklore.
Chance described what these layouts looked like: “Stenzel’s drawings would be in vignette form, roughed in with a lot of notations and problem solving. They looked like a storyboard. He had a very naturalistic feeling for people, which my Dad brought to life. There was less design and more articulated anatomy, posing the characters in situations. A lot of thought went into it because of what they were trying to show in terms of the items in the panels and the people.
“It was great to have a cartoon in which kids could relate to the characters. It wasn’t written down to them. Al Stenzel did a great job on these. Everything he wrote was really smart. He could get really wacky, too. There was some true adventurousness in the writing that gave rise to these drawings.”
In the January 1954 episode of the Tracy Twins, Dicky and Nicky’s grandfather, an old gent with a bowtie and suspenders who loved telling tall tales about past exploits and long-lost relatives, made his first appearance. Grandpa became an integral member of the cast along with a set of typical 1950s baby boomer parents. Most of the plots revolved around clever schemes, often inspired by Grandpa’s stories, which inevitably backfired.
“I love the relationship between the grandfather and the twins,” Chance said. “It skipped a generation. They were partners in crime. There’s an innocence in it that seems to be missing today.”
Johnstone and Cushing and the Tracy Twins led directly to a career-changing opportunity for Dik. In 1954, Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, and Sylvan Byck, the comics editor of King Features Syndicate, were looking for an artist to draw a new family comic strip that was a spinoff of Beetle. Mort had seen a Peter Paul Playhouse advertisement; one of the few assignments Dik had signed. Sylvan picked up a copy of Boys’ Life while waiting in his dentist’s office and discovered the Tracy Twins. When they got together, Mort and Sylvan noticed that the same name had been added to both of their lists. Sylvan called Dik at Johnstone and Cushing and asked him if he would be interested in drawing a nationally syndicated comic strip. At first, Dik thought his coworker, Stan Drake, was playing another practical joke on him, but eventually he called Byck back and agreed to a meeting.
Dik had some reservations. “I went back and thought it over. And Al Stenzel and some of the people and I got together and talked about it, because it was so clear. I had seen people get strips and become prisoners of them. … I didn’t know anybody who had made a lot of money doing a strip. I knew that they were a gamble. So my friends had to say to me, ‘Don’t be dopey. Take it.’ So if I was successful, it was almost against my will.”
The new strip debuted on October 18, 1954. “When Hi and Lois happened, everything took shape for him in his life. It was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Chance remarked.
The First Six ‘Hi and Lois” Dailies and Ads for the New Strip
In 1957, the Browne family relocated to 85 Rivergate Drive in Wilton, Connecticut. Before the move, Dik had purchased a Polaroid camera and often used it to take shots of Chance for reference. “There were times when he would say ‘grab a baseball bat and pose.’ ” Eventually, other local cartoonists and illustrators in Connecticut hired Chance to model for them at 50 cents a shot. “There was some serious money in my pocket.
“I went into scouting and my dad was a scoutmaster,” Chance continued. “There were scouting projects that I would do with my Dad, like building a teepee fire or making a drum. He would use these as reference for the strip.”
Chance described his father’s working methods at this time. “Dad often did things over twice. To see some of the first-time stuff he redrew is mind-boggling in trying to figure out what he didn’t like about it. He had a bunch of stuff taped up on the walls to keep away from kids and animals. He was not a very organized man.”
Dik’s studio in Connecticut was in the basement of the family home. “It was a very informal set up, not meant for public viewing—a private workshop,” Chance recollected. “It was right next to the laundry and all of the chaos that engenders coming and going. He would just get up early and stay up late every day. He was pretty much a full-time worker. If he was awake, he was at the table.
“The Tracy Twins was always a presence there. They were large pages, up on the wall. The Hi and Lois dailies were smaller in size, more organized, and kept cleaner. He did all the penciling and inking on the Tracy Twins.” Johnstone and Cushing staff artists did the coloring, with input from Dik.
A talented cartoonist in his own right, Chance has a unique perspective on his father’s technique. “He couldn’t do a panel that was not designed. Every one of these panels is a beautiful layout piece, like a course in how to maintain interest box-to-box. If you back up and see the whole page, it looks terrific throughout. There’s no drop out, the blacks are spread out evenly, and when you get in close you can see all the thought that went into it. He would draw everything before he put it to paper and pretty much knew what was going to happen with every line before the pen hit the paper.
“He was using a cinematic technique. He loved movies,” Chance added. “Some panels are like stills from a Frank Capra movie. He had the technical ability not to fear any kind of camera angle, low or high, and took it on to serve the story, never in a show-off way like ‘look what I can do.’ It all serves the story and the characters in the story.”
Chance stated proudly that “in terms of the art, I consider my dad to be one of the wonders of the world. His style is so many different things. I don’t know if there is any contemporary cartooning quite like it. In terms of cartooning that straddles the big foot and little foot, four- and five-finger styles, I don’t know if there is anyone else who does it all. With these pages it’s just cartooning at its best.”
In 1962, Dik had a serious fall and broke his arm. He ended up with blood poisoning from the surgery and developed an infection. Forced to take a year off from work, other cartoonists pitched in to help Dik. Gill Fox did many of the the Tracy Twins episodes during this period. “He came to the rescue in an emergency and did a terrific job,” Chance remembered.
The last full-page episode of the Tracy Twins by Dik Browne ran in January 1962, before switching over to a semi-permanent half-page format. That same year, Stenzel took the Boys’ Life account from Johnstone and Cushing and set up his own studio. He eventually bought out the agency and continued to supervise the production of the Boys’ Life comic section.
In 1968, Mort Walker launched a third comic strip, Boner’s Ark. “That got dad thinking about what else he could do.” Chance recalled. “The partnership with Mort had really formed dad’s voice as a cartoonist. He was looking for a vehicle to do what he loved to do. He was restless, that’s for sure.”
Around this time Dik encouraged his son, who was in art school, to go see Stenzel, who had seen some of Chance’s drawings. “I remember him, with his white moustache. He was like a little Hemingway kind of a guy, an outdoorsy type.” He did not end up doing any assignments for Stenzel because he realized “the work was just beyond me.”
By the time Hagar the Horrible was launched on February 4, 1973, Dik was no longer producing the Tracy Twins. Frank Bolle started working on the feature in the mid-1970s and took over after Al Stenzel passed away on January 23, 1979. The last episode ran in the October 1997 issue of Boys’ Life.
“He was experimenting for his own joy on The Tracy Twins,” Chance concluded. “He used this as a platform to experiment with his pen technique. His artistic development came to fruition with The Land of Lost Things [a 1972 children’s book written by Mort Walker] that was his masterwork, in my estimation.
“There was a great family spirit to the whole thing—both of our families were keepers of the flame. I have such fond memories of that period,” Chance said with a smile. “It was the greatest thing in my life and my family’s life, finding our home in the world. Looking back on it, it was very nostalgic and wonderful.”
This article is © Brian Walker.