Friedman’s Comics Artist Pantheon
Drew Friedman’s More Heroes of the Comics (Fantagraphics) is a comics nerd’s delight. His first volume, illustrated in meticulous extra-photographic style with brief biographies, shed light on the forefathers of the graphic novel and the fathers of America’s indigenous art form. No. 2 gives 100 more pictorial and textual portraits. Friedman’s voice on the subject of comics is always a treat. You’ll get some of it below. And to actually hear the voice, he’s lecturing at The Society of Illustrators next month.
Cover designed by Jesse Marinoff Reyes.
I had no idea of the large number or range of comics artists. Where and how did you come up with not one but two books of these guys? The period of the comic book industry I’m covering in the two books begins with creators who entered the business between 1935–1955, when the comics code was implemented. The first comic books were invented by Max (M.C.) Gaines in 1935, and by 1939, after the creation of Superman by Siegel & Shuster, the comic book industry exploded. By the end of the ’40s, literally thousands of people worked in the business in one capacity or another—artists, writers, publishers, editors, colorists, letterers, etc. In the first book I included those who I felt were the most obvious choices, the innovators, the cream of the crop. Siegel & Shuster, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, William M. Gaines, Carl Barks, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, etc., but also some lesser known, but to me interesting creators like Howard Nostrand, whose career basically consisted of appropriating other artists’ styles, in his case Will Eisner and Jack Davis. But I was limited to 85 portraits in the first book and I knew I had to leave some important figures out, and that kept nagging at me, especially when people would mention to me a particular artist they loved and why were they not included, like a Nick Cardy or a Sheldon Moldoff. So my list of more comic book artists, writers, editors and publishers kept growing and growing, until I realized I had enough solid names to create the sequel.
How many did you know personally? A handful. My dad (Bruce Jay Friedman) worked as a magazine editor in the ’50s till the mid-’60s at a company called Magazine Management. They published various types of magazines; my dad edited a line of men’s adventure magazines like True Action. They also published Marvel Comics, so editor Stan Lee’s office was the neighboring office to my dad’s, who would bring home stacks of comic books for my brothers and I every Friday. When we visited him at work, I’d make a bee-line towards Stan’s office. He couldn’t have been nicer and more encouraging to me, especially after he heard I wanted to be an artist. “Someday Drew is gonna draw for Marvel!” he’d repeat. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, but I included Stan in the first book and his younger brother Larry Leiber, who was a Marvel writer and artist, is included in the new book. Later, the legendary creator of MAD, Harvey Kurtzman, was my instructor at SVA, as well as Will Eisner. And more recently I’ve become friends with MAD-Men Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker and the late Jack Davis, all who were included in the first book. As for the new book, my father has been friends with Jules Feiffer for half a century now. Jules is included in the new book although he didn’t work specifically for mainstream comics, but he did work under Will Eisner as a teenager, working on The Spirit, and he later wrote the seminal book about early comic books, The Great Comic Book Heroes. Also included in the new book is the publisher James Warren, who published Kurtzman’s HELP! magazine, as well as the B&W horror comics magazine Creepy & Eerie, and later Eisner’s The Spirit. Mr. Warren wrote me a series of letters praising the first book and I’ll be doing a panel and signing with him on behalf of the new book at the Society of Illustrators on Oct. 18, along with Columbia’s Karen Green, who wrote the wonderful foreword, and moderated by comics historian Danny Fingeroth.
Who among them, if you can choose, were the unheralded geniuses? At this point, so much has been written in comics history books and comics magazine articles and online tribute groups that it’s rare you’ll find an unheralded genius from that era. Everyone seems to have a Facebook tribute book these days. But there are a few innovative cult comics artists who perhaps are not as well-known as they should be, maybe because their styles were a little more oddball than the norm. A few that come to mind include Ogden Whitney, who I included in the first book. He was a master of deadpan absurdity and his comic book adventures of the lollypop sucking Herbie, the “Fat Fury,” really jumped out at me. I also include in the new book the notorious publisher Myron Fass, actually two drawings of him in More Heroes of the Comics. He started out as a comic book artist, but he’s fascinating because his publishing career basically consisted of shamelessly and successfully ripping off what other publishers were having success with, like MAD, and Creepy & Eerie. I also include an artist named Gus Ricca. He was mainly a magazine illustrator in the ’40s and ’50s for publications like Liberty, but also drew a few comics covers, and some of the most twisted, deranged, nightmarish comics covers. Art Spiegelman used one of his images for a poster for a stage show he created about early comics. The challenge for me in many cases was coming up with reference photos for many of the more obscure people to base my images on. There was nothing I could come up with on Gus Ricca; even his online biography had limited information. But my friend John Wendler actually came up with a local newspaper diaper ad from circa 1940 that Gus Ricca posed for, holding a baby and wearing a turban. That was enough to base his face on for my illustration; I removed the turban and had to improvise his hair.
This may sound silly, but what was the status of this kind of job in the golden age? And what kind of person went into it? Entering the comic book profession was an exciting and welcome opportunity for many young artists in the ’30s and ’40s, many of whom were just out of high school or art school, and eager to draw for pulp magazines or the funnies, but were perhaps shut out due to the competition. When comic books exploded in the late ’30s, there was a huge overnight demand for young, hard-working comics artists and writers, especially by the comic book sweat shops who created the work to supply to the new publishers, some of which employed dozens of young creators. Many future comic book stars started in the business by working in the shops, like Joe Kubert, who was 12 when he began, mainly sweeping up, sharpening pencils and running errands for staffers. But they were a great place to grow and get experience, even for little compensation.
I’ve heard that many comic book writers and artists thought of what they did as really nothing special; it was a job like any other, like being a teacher or a plumber, or, a means to get out to the golf course by mid-afternoon. Others were actually embarrassed about working for comics. One comics writer mentioned that when he would go to a cocktail party, if he would mention that he was a writer, he would never deem to mention that he was a comic book writer, especially after the televised senate inquiry on comic books in the mid-’50s, when comic books were equated as the main source of juvenile delinquency. Some of them felt like criminals.
In your opinion, was comic book art closer to vaudeville or movies? I’d say for the early newspaper funnies, vaudeville, but for comic books, definitely movies. Most of the young men and women who drew and wrote for comic books were passionate movie fans. The MAD artist Will Elder was obsessed with the Marx brothers movies and they influenced his insane, no-holds-barred early comics style. Will Eisner’s innovative panel breakdowns and lighting and shadowing owe a lot to film, especially Citizen Kane and other film noir classics. The artist Mort Meskin went to see Citizen Kane 13 consecutive times in 1941, the year it came out; that’s how mesmerized he was by the film, and it had a profound effect on his work for the rest of his career.
What happened to them during the Comics Code period? Many, but not all, got out and looked for work in other professions with various degrees of success. A lot of artists and writers went into advertising, paperback cover and magazine illustration, and some went West to work in TV animation. Lev Gleason and EC comics went out of business entirely, aside from MAD, and the Comics code didn’t effect certain child-friendly companies like Archie and Dell comics, so those creators remained secure. Marvel and DC sanitized their comics to make sure they passed muster with the strict enforcement of the new code. Stan Lee’s once-vast comics empire was down to one office and one secretary. Some stayed in the comic book business, like Jack Kirby and Jack Davis, but the work was sparse. Eventually things would bounce back with what is referred to as the “Silver Age” of comics in the early ’60s.
The most notorious case of a post-Comics Code downslide was Bob Wood, who was the main writer for Lev Gleason publications’ “Crime Does Not Pay” comics, which folded due to the Comics Code. Things went steadily downhill for him until he met his notorious and tragic end. His portrait and biography is included in the new book; in fact the book closes out with him (it’s alphabetical). Kevin Dougherty was the research consultant on the book and did an amazing job of uncovering facts about Wood, among many others.
I asked about the unheralded heroes—who are your heroes? Mainly the humor guys included in the books, the original MAD contributors, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and the usual gang of idiots, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker and Dave Berg. Robert Crumb was and continues to be my favorite artist though.
Are there more in the hopper? Oy vey. I already have a short list of artists and writers who I wasn’t able to fit into the second volume for one reason or another, but I have no plans to do a third volume. But … never say never.
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