Bill Ward (    -    )

Pin-up fans lost one of the greats of the field with the recent passing of Bill Ward, whose work also encompassed Captain Marvel comic books, Cracked parodies and fetish porn paperbacks. Ward, 79, succumbed to the ill effects of several strokes and Parkinson’s disease. Once a ubiquitous presence in many different markets, Ward was robbed of his ability to draw by the infirmities of his later years.

While not as well known as Jack Kirby, Ward shared Kirby’s prolific productivity, having penciled thousands of pages for books ranging from Captain Marvel and Blackhawk to his own creation, Torchy. But Ward eventually moved away from the comic-book field, gracing men’s magazines with his instantly recognizable renditions of the female form.

“Bill loved women, and it came through in his work,” said Ward’s longtime friend, pin-up dealer Art Amsie. “I would, without a doubt, put Bill down as the greatest comic-book portrayer of feminine sexuality.”

Imagine a stunning woman boasting Barbie-like proportions – and then some – poured into a shimmery dress, silky gloves, sheer lingerie and thigh-high stockings, all perched atop a pair of stiletto heels, and you have the recipe for the typical Ward drawing.

“Bill could’ve been a designer,” Amsie added. “Whereas other cartoonists always had their girls in the same dress, Bill always dressed his girls to the nines in evening gowns with sparkles and sequins. He sometimes spent more time on the dresses than on the girls themselves.”

Given the sophisticated and worldly look of his women, it’s hard to believe that Ward never strayed far from his hometown of Ridgewood, NJ. Born William Hess Ward in 1919, Ward began his professional art career at 15 as the sports cartoonist for a local paper. At the age of 17, he spent a week in Ocean City, MD, where he earned a buck a pop drawing images of women on jackets.

Writing in the 1978 edition of The Comic Book Price Guide, which features a Ward cover, Ward said he was less impressed with the financial rewards of art than he was with “what a fantastic way it had been to meet girls. Right then and there I decided to become an artist.”

To facilitate his art career, Ward attended Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Upon graduation in 1941, he, along with many of his classmates, landed a job in Jack Binder’s shop, which produced comics for Fawcett. Under Binder’s tutelage, Ward laid out thousands of pages of such titles as Bullet Man, Doc Savage, The Shadow, and even, to his own astonishment, Captain Marvel.

Judy, Ward’s wife of 46 years, said, “Binder was a tough taskmaster, but that was the best thing that could’ve happened to Bill. Though they were all waiting to get drafted, they had a great time there.”

Ward’s Binder shop work eventually led to a stint at Quality Comics, where he took over Blackhawk from his idol, Reed Crandall. Shortly afterward, Ward found himself following Crandall into military service, but even World War II couldn’t stop him from drawing.

Drafted in December of 1942, Ward was assigned to communications after completing basic training and, to while away the night-time hours (as well as make a few extra bucks on the sly) sitting in an airfield tower, Ward laid out stories for Fawcett.

Ward’s moonlighting also led serendipitously to the creation of his most famous creation, Torchy. One night, a naval officer saw Ward “practicing,” and that resulted in an Army strip called Ack-Ack-Amy, which centered on the exploits of a shapely brunette who later became Ward’s template for his blonde bombshell.

After the war, Ward returned to Quality and Blackhawk, and when Quality publisher “Busy” Arnold asked Ward if he had any ideas for Modern Comics, Ward showed him his military strips. Arnold went for it, and Ward was given the cover and lead-story duties on the new Torchy book.

Torchy, as it turns out, wasn’t Ward’s first choice of names for his heroine. Ward was partial to Scorchy, but there was a book called Scorchy Smith in those days, and he didn’t want any problems.

Though Ward was ecstatic that his creation was being given her own book, his elation soon turned to disappointment when he was almost immediately taken off the book to work on romance comics, which had just begun to take off as a genre.

With or without Ward, however, Torchy’s run was short-lived. His innocent blonde had made Dr. Fredric Wertham’s “unfit list,” and the title ceased after just six issues. By that time, however, Ward had already begun moving away from the comic-book medium.

Hustling to find non-comic-book work, Ward turned to Abe Goodman, brother of Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman, who at the time was the largest buyer of cartoons in the world. Publishing under the Humorama banner, Goodman churned out titles like Joker, Romp, and Jest, which featured cheesecake photos and one-panel girlie cartoons.

For a 20-year period beginning in 1947, Ward produced 30 cartoons a month for Goodman. That comes to 7,200 cartoons for just one account. “Bill’s output rivals Jack Kirby’s,” said Joe Anderko, another long-time Ward friend.

Ward also had a long tenure with Cracked magazine beginning in 1954. At his best, Ward was able to complete two highly detailed works in a day.

His secret? The Conte crayon.

[Artist himself]

Ward admits that he paid very little attention in art school, preferring to focus on area coeds. There was, however, one instructor who used the Conte crayon, and that caught Ward’s attention. “This instructor couldn’t draw very well, but he was doing it so rapidly,” Ward recounted in a biographical video entitled The Wonderful Women of Ward”. That caused a bulb to light up in Ward’s head: “The faster you do a drawing, the better money you could make.”

Not only did the crayon allow Ward to work quickly, but it allowed him to create the textures that became his trademark.

“The Conte crayon is a stick of crayon that is square, but the sides are sharp and so when you press down, it lets you grade things off so beautifully,” Ward added. “Many art students ask if I use an air brush for my drawing, but I don’t. It’s the Conte crayon that gives the soft effect, especially on the legs. If I do dark stockings, I get that sheen (using the Conte crayon) that I can’t possibly get with a wash.”

The only downside to the Conte crayon was that it forced Ward to work on a large scale. As a result, though the pages of Humorama measured a paltry 7 ¼ by 5 ½ inches, his originals often measured two feet tall.

In exchange for each cartoon, Ward was paid $30 a cartoon, and in keeping with the custom of the era, Goodman got to keep the originals. Ward, nonetheless, felt fairly compensated; it was an account he could count on, and Goodman also paid Ward a royalty for cartoons sold overseas.

“Abe (eventually) got more for the originals than he paid Bill, but in the 1950’s, gas was 22 cents a gallon and Pepsi was a dime, so Bill, who could whip them off, didn’t get a bad deal,” Amsie said.

When his tenure at Humorama came to an end, Ward, whose work crossed genres, began contributing to adult and fetish magazines like Club, Juggs, Screw, Reflections and Fetish Times, as well as the Eros Goldstripe line of adult paperback books.

In contrast to his Humorama drawings, which were simultaneously elegant and risque’, Ward’s line drawing for the adult publications was cruder, involving partial and full nudity, and every deviant act imaginable. According to Amsie, “Bill used to say, `They want big pussies and big penises, so what can I do? I have to put food on the table.’”

Reflections editor Reb Stout said Ward didn’t like to show much penetration: “Bill felt it kept the drawings on the art level as opposed to the pornographic level.”

While Ward’s friends and wife turned a blind eye to his adult material, his son, for one, remains proud of it. “He did it, and it’s one of the things he’s famous for,” Gary Ward said. “There’s also no doubt that his style lent itself well to the subject matter.”

Ward took the adult work partly because, being a freelancer, he was always a bit insecure, noting that the only way he could protect himself was by having lots of accounts.
Ironically, Ward probably could have worked less if he had marketed himself better, but he rarely made public appearances, and as a result, had little idea of his popularity.
“Bill was so dreadfully shy,” Judy Ward said. “The comic-book conventions would come begging for him to come, but he lived for his family and his work. He lived in his own little world and had a very happy time of it.”

For the most part, Ward was a workaholic who got up at 4 a.m. to start drawing and didn’t knock off until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. In his spare time, Ward was a scratch golfer, a collector of civil war photographs and an avid antique hunter, scouring garage sales for bargains.

Only later in his career did Ward begin to make public appearances at comic-book conventions, where he was taken aback by the reception he received. Ward told friends he was flabbergasted to see his drawings, which he used to give away, selling for as much as $250.

Despite the volume of Ward’s output, there exists no comprehensive catalog of his work. According to Gary Ward, however, a coffee-table book is in the planning stages, and in recent years, Ward’s family has engaged the services of a licensing agent to help exploit Ward’s images, resulting in a line of greeting cards.

For the time being, however, fans of Ward’s work will have to be content with the plethora of material available in the secondary market. A few years ago, one of Ward’s editors at Cracked, Mort Todd, published a comic-book sized collection of Ward’s work titled World of Ward, and, here and there, a Ward portfolio, a few limited-edition prints, and even an original can be found.

While the Master of the Conte crayon himself is gone, Ward’s images continue to rekindle memories. “Bill’s work remains a big part of my life, and I can still remember when I first laid eyes on Bill’s Conte drawings,” Anderko said. “I thought to myself, `Holy cow! Look at them legs!,’ and I’ve never stopped looking.” 

(Researched and written for “The Comics Journal” by Alex Chun – Published 1999)