November 17, 2011
An Unknown Great by Mark Heike
Among the best-remembered artists of the Golden Age of comics, names like Simon and Kirby, Bob Powell, Frank Frazetta, and Paul Gustavson stand out- not just because they were great artists who were very prolific during the early days of comics, but also because they SIGNED their work. It was easy to remember and appreciate their stellar craftsmanship since there was usually a NAME to go with the distinctive style. But there were others, perhaps no less great or prolific that for too long went virtually unknown. One of those is a brilliant storyteller and designer who excelled at action, movement and panel direction by the name of Pierce Rice. Frankly, I wish I knew more about this man’s early background than I do, but his work began appearing in comics sometime in 1939, in the comics put out by Centaur, Fox and Quality. Initially undistinguished and a bit hard to identify, inking and finish-out did not seem to be his strong suit. Rice seemed to come into his own once he got together with the Argentine-born Cazeneuve brothers, Arturo and Louis, while all three briefly worked at the Eisner/Iger studio. Leaving there somtime in 1940, the trio started a small art shop of their own, with the Cazenueve brothers handling most of the inking, while Rice did panel breakdown and penciling. The team-up worked well, as the Cazenueves’ bold, lush brushwork (when they were no too rushed) worked well over Rices’ interesting and eye-catching layouts. The shop worked on a number of Fox Features headline strips including The Eagle, Blue Beetle, Green Mask, The Flame, Samson, and Marga the Panther Woman. AC has reprinted a number of Rice/Cazeneuve stories in it’s Men Of Mystery Golden Age reprint anthology; The Eagle in Men of Mystery #7 and 33, and The Flame in Men of Mystery #43, among others. Rice’s work can usually be distinguished by his preference for odd-shaped panels and irregular page designs; his use of circular panels and large, dynamic figures leaping between panels or from one panel to another. The trio found their kinetic style in a certain amount of demand, and moved on to features for other punlishers including Harvey Comics ( doing Captain Freedom and The Black Cat) Prize Comics (on Yank and Doodle) and Centuar (Man of War). By the early 1940’s the shop had moved up to DC Comics, working on strips like Aquaman, The Sandman and Boy Commandos. At this point, it is difficult to be certain whether Rice was still involved, or if the Cazenueves were simply inking the pencils of other staffers. By then, Rice had made another fortuitous association with artist Irv Novick; and began providing layout and pencils for this future great on a number of strips for the pre-Archie MLJ group. As a young MLJ collector myself in the 1970s, I always wondered about two things: how could Irv Novick suddenly go from being a very slick, staid Alex Raymond imitator in his very early Sheild, Bob Phantom and Scarlet Avenger stories in 1940, to a wild, wide open Jack Kirby wannabe by 1942- AND how could he be so darned prolific? His signature (and new style) could be seen on multiple stories of the Sheild, Black Hood, Captain Commando, Steel Sterling, and 3 or 4 other strips seemingly every month. In later years, once I learned that he did those in tandem with Pierce Rice, it began to make sense. When compared to the Fox Features collaborations with the Cazenueve brothers, the approach to panel breakdown was unmistakeable. We began a phone interview with Rice at AC Comics in the late 1990s. Our buddy Jerry DeFuccio put us onto contact info for him in an assited-living facility where he was recovering from a stroke. Initially phone communication with him was difficult, but the longer we talked to him, the more he warmed up to the task. The medical staffers overseeing him were very accomodating, and felt that his remiscences were very good for his recovery. When I asked him about his status as somewhat of an unknown, he told me this “I never liked dealing with the business end of things. I much preferred letting Louis or Arturo go out and get the jobs; or later Irv Novick. I preferred to stay at the board and just do the work. If that meant that publishers, editors- or readers, for that matter- didn’t know who I was, well; so be it. It suited me to work that way.” We had to break the attempted interview up into multiple 10-15 minute conversations, as Mr. Rice’s strength would not allow for more. He proved to be a very thoughtful, articulate and intelligent gentelman and a joy to deal with. Unfortunately, his health took a turn, he had to be moved into another facility, and we lost touch with him. Regrettably, we were never able to conclude the phone interview, and after a time-lag of months, going back to the tapes of the conversations we did have found them almost impossible to transcribe due to his speech difficulties. In the moment, I was able to use context and inflection to follow him in conversation; going back later my faulty memory was unable to fill in the blanks, so we were never able to run a print version of the interview material. That does not diminish the fact that he was a great comic book artist who added much to the field he worked in for almost two decades. True students and fans of the medium should know and celebrate his great work.