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Fred Rhoads; Drew 'Sad Sack' Comic Strip for 23 Years

Obituary

February 26, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Rhoads, who created such memorable Army misfits as Gen. Rockjaw, Capt. Softseat, Gabby Gob and Slob Slobinski in the long-running cartoon strip and comic book series "Sad Sack," has died. He was 78 at his death Sunday in Greenwood, S.C.

Created by George Baker, "Sad Sack" originally focused on the misfortunes of a bumbling GI in World War II, shifting to civilian struggles in the postwar years. The comic made its debut in Yank magazine, the U.S. Army weekly, in 1942 when Baker was an Army sergeant.

Rhoads took over in 1954 and drew "Sad Sack" for 23 years, expanding its cast of characters.

In the late 1970s, his life became as woeful as those of some of his comic creations when he began a long and ultimately unsuccessful legal fight for royalties that he said were owed him by the comic's publisher, Harvey Comics.

The battle lasted nearly eight years and, according to Rhoads, cost him his house, his car and his life savings.

"Sad Sack" was one of the longest-running in the Harvey Comics stable, which also included the "Casper," "Little Dot" and "Wendy" series.

When World War II ended, "Sad Sack" became a popular Sunday feature in newspapers. Harvey released the first "Sad Sack" comic book in 1949. Jerry Lewis starred in a movie loosely based on the cartoon characters in 1957.

Rhoads started doodling in his youth. For a few years before World War II, he attended art school in New York but he said he "never learned a thing there." In 1942 he was in Marine boot camp, where he drew everything he saw.

Just before Rhoads was to be shipped off to combat in the Pacific, a captain asked if would like to be posted to Washington instead. Rhoads quickly replied that he would.

Assigned to the Marine publication Leatherneck, he created the characters Gizmo and Eight Ball. About this time he also met fellow Marine Fred Lasswell, who was developing the "Snuffy Smith" cartoon character. Lasswell was just one in a slew of cartoonists who emerged during the war years, including "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker and Bill Mauldin, who created the griping GIs Willie and Joe.

After the war, Rhoads went to work as Lasswell's assistant, helping him develop gags for the "Snuffy Smith" strip.

In 1954, he was asked to take over the "Sad Sack" comic books. The characters he added included the music fanatic Hi-Fi and the conniving Sen. Fastbuck.

Rhoads' "Sad Sack" was less risque than Baker's, he once recalled. "He was used to drawing for men in the service. His humor tended to be more dirty, more sexy. And that didn't work as well in the comic book," Rhoads said.

He drew "Sad Sack" until 1977, when Harvey stopped sending him assignments. To his shock, Rhoads discovered that he had been considered a freelance artist by Harvey and would receive no unemployment or Social Security benefits. In 1978, he sued Harvey for back royalties on republished installments of the cartoon he had drawn for more than two decades.

According to trial testimony, "Sad Sack" creator Baker drew only about 800 pages of the cartoon. Rhoads drew 9,500 pages of "Sad Sack" over the years, for which he was paid $35 a page, plus small bonuses, for a total of about $330,000. He said Harvey should have paid him each time it republished his cartoons, many of which were reissued as many as five times.

An Arizona jury sided with Rhoads, awarding him $2.58 million. But the award was overturned on appeal in 1984 by an Arizona appellate court, which found no evidence of fraud on Harvey's part and said Rhoads, then a Tucson resident, should have inquired about his rights long before the company terminated their relationship.

Rhoads said the long legal battle bankrupted him.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Tucson Citizen. He was thrilled to find a market for his original drawings years after "Sad Sack" was retired.

"I'm thrilled to death to be doing this," Rhoads, a member of the National Cartoonists Society, said in 1989 when he was selling his artwork at a San Diego comic convention.

"Back when I started, mothers wouldn't let their kids read comic books. They were considered trash. What is trash nowadays? Trash is in. Compared to the movies, comic books are tame."

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