Irwin Hasen R.I.P.

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Panel by Panel is a special download from Print Magazine all about comics and their creators. Here, we take a look at the work of some of history’s most iconic comic book artists.

Dondi by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, April 15, 1962.

Dondi by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, April 15, 1962.

For many of those of my generation, Dondi was a mainstay, something to look forward to in the Daily News comics section, if you grew up in New York City. The adventures of a World War II Italian orphan adopted by an American G.I., Ted Wills, Dondi offered a worldview very different from my own. Throughout it all he remained the eternal optimist despite his humble beginnings and as I aged and became more jaded his “Gee” response to his surroundings (and pretty much anything) seemed all the more precious. Somewhere along the line he inexplicably transformed into a Korean War orphan and then Vietnamese, but like Dondi himself, I was nonplussed.

Dondi was the creation of Gus Edson and Irwin Hansen. The two met during a USO tour, and soon afterward Edson suggested the strip. Edson died in 1966, and Hansen enlisted friend and fellow cartoonist Bob Oksner to assume the writing chores.

I was quite saddened to learn of Irwin’s passing this past March 13, at the age of 96. I met Irwin some years ago at the New York Comic Con, when I approached him to see if he was willing to be interviewed for the book I was writing on the golden age comic book artist Mort Meskin (From Shadow to Light, Fantagraphics, 2010). He declined, simply saying that, “Mort was a very sad guy” but had nothing to add. At the following year’s comic con I thought I would try again, and this time received a very different response. “Sure,” Irwin said, why not come visit him at his brownstone and he’d be happy to talk about Mort.

Soon thereafter I braced myself against the winter cold and headed uptown. Irwin greeted me at the door and we entered his well-appointed apartment, decorated throughout with his artwork. He took me on a tour of the art. He seemed most proud of a portrait of several women he told me he had relations with, and planned to publish a book of their likenesses (published in 2009 as Loverboy: An Irwin Hasen Story, Vanguard Productions). “I always had the fantasy of having a wife, “Darling, dinner!” I never had that, I was a bachelor all my life. And I sat there with a martini and I said,“I ought to draw these women, that I remembered, that I loved. And they loved me. A lot of them.” Irwin stood all of five feet as best I could estimate.

Hasen began his career as a golden age comic book artist, working for the Harry A. Chesler Shop on such characters as The Green Hornet, The Fox, Secret Agent Z-2, Cat-Man and The Flash, and later co-created Wildcat with writer Bill Finger for National Comics (today DC). Hansen grew up on the West Side of Manhattan and went to DeWitt Clinton High School and then the National Academy of Design.

Wildcat by Bill Finger and Irwin Hasen. Sensational Comics #64, 1942.

Wildcat by Bill Finger and Irwin Hasen. Sensational Comics #64, 1942..

Wonder Woman #52, pencils by Irwin Hasen, inks by Bernard Sachs, Nov./Dec. 1952

“My mother, I don’t where she got the money, she enrolled me for 3 years at the National Academy of Design, and I went for 3 years, 5 nights a week, drawing the statues of Michelangelo, and that’s how I started my career as far as school. It had nothing to do with comic books. In other words I wanted to be taught, because I was just a cartoonist. My first job was on a magazine, called Bang, a prize fighting magazine, a trade journal. From there on in I walked around the corner and there was a comic book industry. That was 1938. I went to Chesler , that’s where I met Mort Meskin, Charlie Biro, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert. I was in the bullpen sitting with a group, we were like students in a class. I was a baby among those giants, all those great artists. And then I went over to DC. I went over to Timely (today Marvel), Goldwater and Silberkleit (today Archie Comics), and then I was introduced to Sheldon Mayer (writer at DC).

Wonder Woman #52, pencils by Irwin Hasen, inks by Bernard Sachs, Nov./Dec. 1952

You worked around the clock but you were young enough not to know that you worked around the clock. I sat in a room, where I lived with my parents, my grandmother and grandfather. They put me in one room; I had a little desk with my drawing board and a radio. I listened to all the radio stations. I did my work, and listened to the shows, the ballgames. We all did that. We sat alone in a room. At 9:00, 9:30, I’d leave the apartment, my parents were sleeping, and I got in a cab, I’d get downtown, to an elegant bar, and I go to sit at the bar alone, I was a loner. I just wanted to get the hell out of the house. I didn’t get drunk, I’d just go there to sit at the bar.

In 1952, Whitney Ellsworth (editor at DC) called me into his office. “Irwin, we love you, you know, you’re a nice guy, and you’re single, a bachelor, why don’t you take a trip?” At that time I was a dumb kid, and I went to a bar and had a couple of martinis, and I went to a travel agent, and when I got on the ship, the Liberté, one of the fanciest, and I passed the Statue of Liberty, and it hit me: I’d been fired!

It was the greatest thing I ever did. Went to Europe, London, Paris, and Italy. There are things people do sometimes when you’re dumb and sometimes it works out fine. And I came back broke. And I went on USO trips for the (National) Cartoonist Society. In the back of my mind, all my life, I wanted to have my own comic strip and it came to fruition. Lucky. I was very fortunate, because that was my dream. I had my eye on the star and I stayed with it. And someone must have been looking over my shoulder, because then I met Gus Edson, who did The Gumps. He met me at a USO trip with the Cartoonist Society in Germany, we entertained the troops. He asked me one day, “What are you doing?” He liked me, for whatever reason, and when you’re not working you say you are in advertising, and I said, “I’m in advertising.” He said, “ Would you be interested in something? I have an idea.” And he mailed me a drawing of Dondi. He said “What do you think?” and I said, “Gus, we are going to have the best strip in America.”

Dondi ran for 30 years. Daily and Sundays. Worked my ass off.
Edson died ten years later and my friend Bob Oksner, who was my closest friends at the time, helped me write it. He would write the story; the plots and I would help with the dialogue. We would be sitting here day and night, working on the dialogue. He would say to me “and then Dondi would say this…” I’d said, “The kid wouldn’t talk that way.” I became part of the kid.

All cartoonists are beautiful people. I’ve been so lucky and blessed to be in that company, in my life, not in business, not in mutual funds, but to be a cartoonist. Because we all love each other. Whenever we see each other we hug, and kiss. Which is a lovely way to live your life.

It was a beautiful life.”




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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →