Monday, October 25, 2010
Mike Esposito: 1927 - 2010
A chance meeting with a fellow student at the age of fourteen would see the future laid out before Mike. Over sixty years later Mike would remember that meeting in 1941. “I happened to be doing a little lecture to a class on animation because I wanted to work for Disney. Evidently it was very interesting because a lot of people reacted to it. And this little French girl - this is during the war, remember - came up to me said, ‘I know somebody who would like to speak to you. He's very shy. He comes from Ohio. He wants to be a cartoonist. He wants to work with Disney also’.” That shy child was named Ross Andru. At first Mike was unimpressed by the quality of Ross’s artistic abilities, but could see a lot of potential in him. “At the time, I thought it was crude. But he had something that was different from anybody else at his age. He paid attention to detail that we always fluffed on. He was very complete in his finishing. A lot of work went into it. I said, ‘You'll be all right if you stick to it.’ We got to be friendly. And he kept improving and improving. You have no idea how he improved. And he went right by me like a shot.”
A year later World War II broke out. This didn’t affect Mike as much as it did other artists, being that he was fifteen at the time and still in school, but it did terrify him. Mike was a self-confessed paranoiac and found peace within himself at the age of eighteen when he joined the army. It was the tail end of the war and the American army was fast becoming a peacekeeper in Europe. Mike was happy when he was drafted, shortly after his 18th birthday, in September of 1945. “I felt good because the Army was my daddy and mommy. No matter what happened, if I fell down in the street while walking they would pick me up and take me to the hospital. They would protect me. I was their property, I was G.I. issue. That was one of my best periods, believe it or not, in the Army.”
Mikes job in Germany was to design and draw army posters. Typical for Mike the posters he designed weren’t action, but rather posters showing the perils of casual sex. “I got a job doing venereal disease posters. I did a very famous one that was in all the Army papers, and on posters all over Germany. It was a picture of a guy in a hospital, seen from the rear as he looks out the window at American boats departing, and it said, ‘If you're drippin', you ain't shippin'’. It was famous; I got more compliments on that thing. I did another one that said, ‘VD or not VD; that is the question,’ with a hypodermic needle in the middle, a hot blonde on one side, and fire on the other.
Hogarth recognised the budding artist he had in Andru and had him ghost several of Hogarths Tarzan newspaper strips. Mike also recognised that Andru was going to be the artist that he never could be and went to work on the business side of things. This didn’t stop Mike from obtaining work. In the late 1940s and early 1950s work was fairly easy to come by for any competent artist in the comic book field. However there was a fly in Mike’s ointment – he found it easier to ink than pencil, and on the other side of the fence, Ross Andru was finding it easier to pencil than ink. Things came to a head in 1949 when Ross Andru was working for Hillman and Mike was working for Timely Comics. Ross asked Mike to ink a book as a favour, which Mike did. Then Ross returned with another story, and another. Inking Ross meant that Mike had to turn down lucrative pencilling jobs as he needed to learn how to ink properly. A deal was struck and over a handshake the two artists decided to join forces and work together. From 1949 through to Ross’s death in 1993, the pair were linked, in name, in business and in art. Ross rarely inked again, and outside of a few stories, a period ghosting newspaper strips and the occasional advertising art, Mike was a full time inker.
Their first venture as a partnership was the formation of Top Flight Cartoonists. While still at the Burne Hogarth School moved into two apartments located at 130 West 47th Street, one block away from Broadway. Joining them in the three rooms (one two room apartment and one single room) were fellow Hogarth alumni Mo (Morris) Marcus, Martin Rosenthall, Phil Amaldo and Jack Abel, along with Arthur Peddy and Bernie Sachs. The men shared costs and once the art studio was formed it was named. Top Flight Cartoonists was drawn up on a sign and duly hung on the outside of the building.
The apartments were more of a social setting than a serious attempt at an art studio. Andru and Esposito were working together, Abel worked with both Marcus and Thall, and Amaldo basically worked alone. Despite the goodwill and friendly setting, Top Flight Cartoonists wasn’t to last long and folded soon after. That didn’t stop Mike and Ross from working for virtually every major, and some minor, publishers in New York. Avon, Ziff-Davis, Lev Gleason, Fox, Timely, DC, Standard, Premier, Aragon – Mike and Ross worked for them all. Underlying all of that was the dream of both men to publish their own work, to be the boss and to make as much money as possible in order to secure their financial future. Out of this dream MR Publications was founded.
MR Publications marked one of the first times that comic book artists had broken away from the mainstream companies and formed their own publishing arm. MR Publications predated the better known Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Mainline by nearly four years, with MR Publications being formed in 1950 and Mainline not coming into the picture until late 1953.
Mister Universe was a simple story revolving around the life of a wrestling champion, his life and his travels. Mister Universe had a very short run of five issues; the idea had not caught on as well as they hoped. Mister Universe was a nearly perfect copy of the better known Joe Palooka, but with the world of pro wrestling substituted for pro boxing. Tommy ‘Mister Universe’ Turner is the freckled equivalent of Joe Palooka, his manager Jeff Clayton is a slightly-less hair-challenged clone of Joe’s manager Knobby Walsh and Jeff’s dimwitted, ape-like assistant Scarcely is a more muscular version of Joe’s dumpy friend Humphrey.
Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of Mike and Ross’s lack of business acumen, Stanley Morse made a run for the company. “He just ripped us off. He and his partners bought our company for one dollar. I’ll never forget. He put up a dummy that was buying it, a phoney name. Morse was my silent partner. His brother Mike Morse was the editor when they took over. Kantor’s cousin said, ‘I can get someone to buy the company and wipe out any future bills and you’ll be off the hook’. I’d just gotten married and I was concerned so we said, ‘Ok’. But I didn’t trust him. I kept saying to my wife, ‘You know, there’s something very phoney about this. Why would anyone want to buy a bankrupt company? It doesn’t make sense’. The business way of doing it was one dollar for the legal acceptance of the company. You had to transact with some amount of money, so a dollar. Harry always felt guilty about that.” Despite telling Mike and Ross that the company was failing Stanley Morse continued to publish stories in Mr Mystery only with strict adherence to the Comics Code. Learning their lesson, Ross and Mike decided to take a new approach in the years to come.
After another short stint at DC Comics, the duo tried once more to become publishers, this time using humour and romance comics. They sank all of their money into the new venture, called MikeRoss and began publishing two comics, the humour of Get Lost and the romance title Heart And Soul. The latter was tried out as a 3D comic; however it came at the end of the 3D craze and sold very few copies leading to the company going broke, once more. The simple fact was that no kid in the early 1950s was interested in a 3D romance book. Finally their distributor turned on them and handed all of their contracts over to Simon and Kirby. Ross and Mike again returned to DC and were rewarded with pay cuts and general insults from two editors, but found stability and security in their art.
Mike didn’t like the convention circuit. He’d often be paired up with John Romita, and he loved Romita, but he suffered from anxiety and hated the crowds. “The last one I did was back in 2001 about a month after the twin towers. I was in that part of the city and we had a big convention and they put Johnny (Romita) and me at the same table. I got mad at Johnny because he kept drawing pictures for everybody and the line kept backing up. Johnny is a very good artist and never does a bad job so if a kid asked him to do something then it became a production. I said, ‘Johnny what are you doing? The kid’s probably going to sell it for $500!’ and he said, ‘Well what can I do?’ and I said, ‘Give ‘em an autograph, that’s what I’m doing, just an autograph’. A lot of people like me have just gotten tired of travelling.” Despite his fears Mike loved the fans. He’d invite people to call him and he’d talk for hours on end, about his life, about his family and about his career. He’d answer questions about people he’d worked with and for and his memory was still sharp. He was funny, he’d mimic people and act things out. I could imagine his hands flying all over the place and several times I could hear Irene chuckling in the background. He was generous with his time, as long as it didn’t mean he’d have to travel to a convention. After 2001 he’d regularly refuse to attend conventions, even when my book on Mike and Ross was published, even when Ross and Mike were given an Eisner Hall Of Fame award.
Writing the book took a lot of time, effort and tears – all of which can be read here. After the dust had settled we spoke again and Mike was contrite. “These things happen,” he said, upon learning that the publisher had stiffed me, “consider it a lesson.” A harsh lesson, to be sure, but a lesson all the same and one well learned. Mike was teaching me the harsh reality of publishing and I still loved him for it.
In his later years Mike’s health began to suffer. I suspect that he was something of a hypochondriac in his younger days (and I told him as much, after abusing me he told me I was probably right), but his health issues suddenly became very real. He’d talk about just giving up a bit too often. Out of the blue Mike’s son Mark passed away. Mike took this loss very heavily and seemed to withdraw a lot more than usual. I spoke to him and we patched up our differences. Mike wouldn’t apologise, but by speaking with me and being kind, well that was as good as an apology for me. Towards the end I didn’t want to bother him, Bryan Stroud kept me updated on Mike and his health, and I’d ask Bryan to say hello for me. Deep down I knew Mike had lost his will to live; Mark’s loss was just too much for his heart to bear, and finally he decided to slip away peacefully and quietly.
When I spoke to Mike in 2004 he said these words about Ross Andru. “I still miss Ross terribly.” I know that I shall miss Mike terribly.
God speed sweet Mickey. Rest easy, you’ve more than earned it, and say hello to Ross for me.