Monday, February 27, 2012

THE 1973 COMIC ART CONVENTION: Bob Kane, C.C. Beck, Sol Harrison, Russ Heath et al...

A few weeks ago I reprinted the 1970 Comic Art Convention Luncheon, which featured Bill Everett and Joe Kubert interviewed by Gil Kane and Neal Adams.  It got me to thinking, how many other such interviews are out there that are largely forgotten these days?  I then started to peek through the mountains of convention programmes and the like, and found another such luncheon that would have been great to attend, and a bitter-sweet one as well – the 1973 Comic Art Convention Luncheon.

Much like the 1970 Luncheon, this event featured some heavyweight creators talking about their time in the industry.  C.C. Beck was an established legend, having been the first artist to draw Captain Marvel (later re-branded as Shazam) and his crew.  Beck’s art was, and still is, a delight; mixing realism with cartoon creating a style that many artists have emulated through the years.  His influence can still be found in some of today’s artists, and his minimalistic approach to the medium was truly original.  He was always open with his praise and acknowledged those who he worked with. 

Conversely another guest on the day was known for being slightly deceptive when it came to the truth of matters, and in this regard, he did not disappoint.  Bob Kane’s greatest creation was Bob Kane, not Batman, and although the guests present were being asked general questions, Kane managed to mention what he’d done, to the detriment of others that had worked with him over the years.  Sadly Bill Finger’s contribution to the Batman ethos was reduced to Kane insisting that he (Finger) only started work on the character after Kane had finished the creative process, and Jerry Robinson is reduced to being just another artist.  Kane took credit for everything, even when it was proved that he’d not worked on Batman for years, he still insisted that he had, and kept reducing the likes of Finger and Robinson to mere hired help.  Kane might have been more interesting if he’d told the truth.

Others on the panel included Sol Harrison, who started at DC in the early 1940s and remained part of the furniture, rising to the title of President of DC Comics in the mid 1970s, and Russ Heath, one of the finest artists of his era.  The only frustrating part of the entire affair is that only a snippet of the luncheon was reported – someone out there must have complete transcripts of these luncheons and it’d be a boon if they came to light so that all could see and read them.   In the meantime, we have these snippets, and more are coming.

PHIL SEULING:  We have an opportunity today to ask some questions about the comic book scene right in the beginning, the first ten years of the industry. What I've heard is that there were many printing houses set up in many different ways, and nobody knew what to do with the new comic book baby. And there were even some companies that specialized in packaging, an idea that we don't even have any more. They would put together 64 pages of comic book stories with covers, and it would be bought by the publisher as a package. I'd like to ask C. C. Beck:  what was the Fawcett bullpen like, or the Chesler bullpen like in the early forties?
C. C. BECK:  I can tell you about the art end of it. I don't know anything about this packaging. 
In the bullpen we were hiring artists, just as you see National today, one after another, long lines of people coming in, because whoever was producing and distributing them (probably Sol) was expanding, and we had to expand, too. And, of course, the worst part was during the war years when you'd hire a guy and he'd be drafted a week later. That is about all I can say about that, Phil. It was just as hectic as it is today.

SEULING:  Who were some of the people you worked with in the beginning of Fawcett?
BECK:  Bill Parker wrote everything for the first three or four issues, I think. And I drew almost everything. Then we brought in Pete Costanza, who had just come from the pulp magazines which were fading away at that time, and the reason he got the job was that he could draw a horse, and none of us knew what a horse looked like. (laughter) Wendell Crowley worked for Jack Binder, and he came in a little later as editor, one of the best editors we ever had. He really put his heart into everything, and I've read since in somebody's book that he was an ideal Chief of Staff because he was almost seven feet tall and had a big booming voice, and he could make anybody do whatever was to be done. Then the other artists:  Chic Stone - I guess you've all heard of him, Dave Berg, John Putnam - whom I met again last night, Kurt Schaffenberger, and so many others-I can't remember how many there were. I keep running into them all the time. I just heard from Rick Taylor, who was about 17 at the time.

SEULING:  I was wondering how Jack Binder ran the Chesler house.
BECK:  I don't know anything about it except what I've read in the books, so let Sol tell about that.
SOL HARRISON:  When I started in comic outfits, the packaged comic was a normal situation. And Harry Chesler was the grand-daddy of it all, for setting up packaging in the comics. He had the first 'Ford assembly plant' for producing artwork. Jack Binder was an expert in animals and he would draw all the animals. There was someone who was good in layout; he would do layout. They would have background men working on the same stories, and it was set up like an assembly line. And for I think something like $500 he delivered a package of 64 pages of art and story, complete with covers. That was the going price in those days. And you never saw a pencil mark left when it came to the engraver. They had young artists, like Joe Kubert, erasing the pages just so they could feel the artwork. I think Kubert was 14 years old when he went up to Harry Chesler. I recently had the good fortune of seeing Harry Chesler; he's still alive and kicking and has just donated to Fairleigh Dickinson University art-work which he had saved, and they are going to be on permanent display there.

That's the very inception of comics, practically. A number of years after that, when I started working at Detective Comics, there were staff men working, actual artists, pencillers and inkers and writers as part of the staff. We don't have that as much today. Today, I would say that 98% of the artists in the business1 are freelance who work at home and only come in to deliver their work. There was a camaraderie that was like a Boy Scout patrol in those days—army buddies. It was a fun type of job.

SEULING:  Bob, in this assembly line, what particular cogs were you putting into what particular wheels?
BOB KANE:  This is very interesting. Today, to me, is a grey day for a nostalgic looking back to the early days. That's the biggest thrill I think I've gotten out of the whole comic art forum:  to reminisce and look back, because I'm a great nostalgia buff, me and Joe Franklin, I love old movies and old comic books and old girl friends. It seems to me that the past was better than today; I don't know how many of you feel that way about it.  But when I started, way back before Detective Comics, there was an outfit called Eisner and Eiger. They had, I believe, one of the first original material comic books, called Wow Comics, and Bill Eisner had a thing there called "The Hawk" I believe. Bill Eisner and I went to DeWitt Clinton High School together. And we were always vying for who would be the top cartoonist, because I did some very awkward cartoons on the Clinton News, and I know that Bill was a much better cartoonist than I was and I envied him because he'd get three cartoons a month to my one a year, maybe. So when we graduated from DeWitt Clinton, they had that set up with Eiger and Eisner and Wow Comics, and I did a thing there called "Hiram Hick." It was about a sheriff who came to New York, which reminds me of the TV show McCloud. I kind of predated McCloud by 30 years or so.

But what always annoyed me at the beginning was the fact that a cartoonist would sell his copyrights away, and it's an unfortunate thing. I think somebody ought to start a creators' guild. I know in Hollywood they have a Writers' Guild that protects the writers. But there's no creators' guild, even in television. I don't k now whether you know it or not, but I've done a few TV shows.

I've created them. It will say "Created by Bob Kane," but the man who writes the first pilot on TV gets much more money that the creator. The creator may get $400 a show and the writer will get $1,000 a week, because he's protected by a guild. And I think all the new creators should have a union, a guild that would at least give them part of the ownership or a percentage deal. Of course, I know it's a tough thing to start, but somebody should start one somewhere.

But getting back to Eisner and Iger, in those days I did a full Sunday page. I did the pencils, the lettering, and I had to put in Ben Day that I had to buy. I got $5 for the whole Sunday page, and the Ben Day cost me $5. I was practically working for nothing in those days.

I did "Peter Putt" for them, which was kind of a Disney copy. And when I went to National, which was then called Detective Comics, they paid much better prices. I did fill-in cartoons, and I thought I was a millionaire in those days —I think they started me off at $10 a page, and then $15 a page, and before I knew it I was making $25 a page. I think Detective Comics was one of the highest payers in those days. I remember I used to come in for a monthly check and it was something like $250 and I thought I was a multi-millionaire. In those days I guess it was a lot of money. But they've always been very fair, they've paid good rates.

One more anecdote here, before I give back the microphone. I remember working for one outfit; I think his name was Major Nicholson. I'm still looking for Major Nicholson. He used to pay you, not when you brought your work in, but he'd promise to pay you thirty days later. And I did in good faith about six months work for Major Nicholson, and he owed me $300 to $400. After harassing him and calling him and my lawyers calling him he said, "Well, finally I've got your check, Bob.  Come on down on Saturday morning and you shall have your whole $350." Well, I lived in The Bronx at the time and I took the subway down to lower Manhattan with great expectations and great excitement that I'm going to get this great big check that would take me to Europe or something. And I walked into an empty loft! He had moved out lock, stock and barrel, with all the cartoons and everything. That was one of my sorriest days. I guess he's probably dead by now, but if any of you've heard where Major Nicholson is, I'd like to find him.

SEULING:  Bob, National Comic is moving. This time I thought I'd tell you in advance.
KANE:  Oh, thank you. (laughter)  As a matter of fact, I'm on National's payroll and I didn't get a card telling me where they’re moving to. I hope it doesn’t happen again. History shouldn’t repeat itself.
BECK:  I think that was about the early days in comics. Along t middle forties, with Fawcett's blessing, Pete and I took on the job of drawing a comic strip for a publishing company that was a corporation. We didn't know what a corporation was in those days. That was "Tom Travis and the Tiny People" by Dave Berg.  Some of you will remember that.  And we did six months worth or something like that. And he was into us for $6000 when he went broke. And Pete and I between ourselves, paid off the $6000. So that's what it is to be in business.

SEULING:  I hear the name Busy Arnold quite a bit. Can you place him in the early days?  Was that his name, "Busy?" It sounds like the eighth dwarf. (laughter)
HARRISONThey called him "Busy" and they called him "Dizzy." He published a series of magazines that were very popular in those times. A lot of the packages came I think from Iger and Eisner as well as Chesler. That's where they started. And when that broke up, they did their own work and had artists working directly with them.   Lee Elias was one of the popular artists in those days; Cole... there were many others.

We have a fourth member of our team here who hasn't said a word, and I know he's ready to jump in.  I just wanted to say hat between Bob and C.C. and fuss and myself, we have here about 115 years of experience in the field. Think about it.
KANE:  You're giving away my age, Sol.
HARRISONI said 'experience'. (laughter)

SEULING:  What was the optimum time for an artist? The rates went up as comic books grew, and then for a long time they stayed pretty much the same until finally five or six years ago they were very low. What time were the rates the best?
RUSS HEATH:  I've been kind of unaware of the ups and downs because my career has not been just comics. I work for advertising agencies doing storyboards, and other things, too. I kind of jumped around. For me it's not too measurable, as far as a peak, or something like that.

One thing, I have lost the comic that had the first job I ever did. It was in Arrow Comics and it was called "Hammerhead Hauley". I don't know what year this was, but I think I did that when I was 16, which I guess was 31 years ago. Hammerhead Hauley had a little midget submarine and sank about a quarter of the Japanese Navy every story. (laughter) But I'd like to get my hands on that, so if anyone sees it, let me know.

SEULING:  For a while, a lot of comic book artists were doing advertising work. There was a whole Madison Avenue firm based on the production of comic books.
HEATH:  Johnstone and Cushing.

SEULING:  C.C., how did Captain Tootsie compare, as far as rates and everything, with drawing Captain Marvel?
BECK:  In the advertising field the rates are much, much higher. You can expect pay in the hundreds instead of in the tens, because they make much more use of the material. I have always based my prices to advertisers on the use they're making of the drawing. If it's going into a national magazine, $1,000 is nothing.  If it's to be used in a little local newspaper with a circulation of 500, I charge $10 for almost the same thing. Captain Tootsie paid, I think, $200 a page. Comics have never reached that. But they did so much with that, selling their Tootsie Rolls, that it was worth it.

SEULING:  How did that $200 compare with the rate of a regular comic page then?
BECK:  The comic page paid one-fourth as much. And that was good money. I don't know how Captain Tootsie started. One time Rod Reed was writing and I was drawing. At another time I was writing and Pete Costanza was drawing. One of the fans asked me to make a drawing of Captain Tootsie and I couldn't remember what he looked like. He tried to find a picture for me to copy, and I said, "Write to me and when I get home I'll dig one up and send you a drawing of Captain Tootsie."
HARRISONHe looked like Shazam.
BECK:  Yes, but his hair was different. He had blond hair, but I don't remember now if it hung] down like Billy Batson's or back like Captain Marvel's.

SEULING:  Bob, did you make any excursions into the advertising field?
KANE:  When I first started I die some one box cartoons, and I did some advertising cartoons, too. I must have been very young. I always knock 20 years off my age when I give these biographical interviews.  "Yes, I must have been four years old when I was in advertising." Then they figure out, 50 years with Batman plus four - 54. It adds up, you know.

I've been more interested in animated cartoons. I started a thing years ago called Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse for television. It's really a miniature Batman and Robin; they drive a Catmobile. Then I had another animated show called Cool McCool on NBC a couple of years ago. It was sort of an animated Get Smart. So I'm more into the animation and television field now.

I'd like to do my own show, called The Bob Kane Show, a half-hour children's show where I can teach children how to draw cartoons and have some educational value. There'll be Professor Bookworm who lives in a book, and we'll have the origin of things in that book, like who drew the first Captain Marvel and when did young boys discover girls. That's what I'm working on now.

And then finally I'd like to produce motion pictures. In fact, Jules Feiffer once said that Bob Kane's Batman was like the early Warner Bros. films. They always had that smog laden had big moons in the back ground. I must have had a thing about big circle moons and a lot of fog, I guess. I figured if the moon was big enough and the smog was dense enough they wouldn't see my bad drawings because they were very stylized.  I never tried to be a great illustrator. I tried to be more of a stylized cartoonist like Chester Gould. So, again, I deviated from the original question. I was in advertising for a while, yes.

SEULING:  When I first went up to King Features about 7 or 8 years ago I saw what Sol describes as the way it was in the beginnings of comic books— a couple of big rooms where fellows were working on the drawings right there. They came into work every day. That would seem to have certain benefits; a lot of exchange of communications. Is this inconceivable today, or would there ever be a chance of reconstructing this kind of set up?
HARRISONI think we're going back to a little of it. Our junior bullpen project at National is an attempt to get young people to work together with us to build the future artists and writers of our business. I think there was a great deal that the artists were able to learn from each other. If someone had a problem in layout or the breakdown of the script, everyone was able to help you. You were able to work in a different way. It was a very good experience. Of course, when you have 200 people working for you, you just don't have the room for that group. But the junior bullpen idea is a way of learning and working with artists that come in...or a writer being able to assist an editor, to do a text page or work on a script. I think it's invaluable for a beginning artist, just seeing the artwork passed through the plant, seeing how it looks, how someone inks something. I think that it's the only way to learn. We're very happy about the turnout of talent that we've seen. And they're going to have that same feeling, I'm sure.
BECK:  I'm glad to hear about the bullpen idea; because that's the way we used to work in the old days, even the artists who had their own studios, as I had. Because artists are very lonely people and writers even more so because one writer can keep ten artists working. I've never been in a neighbourhood where another artist or writer was within miles of me. You don't find them on your own block or in your own apartment building. And it's great for these people, especially the young ones who are still tender and timid, to find so many other nuts in the same room. (laughter)
PAUL FUNG:  (from the floor) Excuse me, Phil, I just want to set something straight. I'm Paul Fung, by the way. (applause)
KANE:  I've got the original of your Dumb Dora on my wall at home.
FUNG:   No kidding?
KANE:  I love it; it's beautiful. You were one of the deans.
FUNG:   I just wanted to set some-thing straight. Phil, you're wrong about King Features. Nobody worked there for at least 15 years. The last one was Bob Dunne; he and Dave Breger until he died.

SEULING:  What it was, was the production people.
FUNG:   They do a lot of what we call 'make over,' making the strips different shapes for different publications, adding the Ben Day, etc.
KANE:  Paul, can I ask you a question? Are you doing any comics today?
FUNG:   I've been working on Blondie, the daily, and I still draw the Blondie comic book.
KANE:   How long had you been doing Blondie when Chic Young was living?
FUNG:   Sixteen.
KANE:   Sixteen years? You did all of it?
FUNG:   Yes, the daily. Most of them, I won't say all of them.
KANE:   When you did Dumb Dora, what year was that, 1931?
FUNG:    Yes.  From about '30 for about four or five years.
KANE:   There's a great similarity in the drawings of Blondie and Dumb Dora, of course. Those were all beautiful. You had great style.  May I make a motion and invite Paul Fung up on the dais? I'd love him to come up here. (applause)

SEULING:  We have time for some questions from the audience now.
QUESTION:  Mr. Beck, do you know where Otto Binder is?
SEULING:  Can I answer that? Otto and Jack Binder are in Chestertown, New York. It's a bad time for both of them. Their wives are ill, Jack is ill. It's nothing critical, but they are having rough times right now. And I'm not talking financially; they are both working and doing OK. But it's hard. I did try to get Otto Binder to come to the convention, and that's the reason I couldn't. But it would have been a sheer delight. Between Gardner Fox and Otto Binder, they wrote all the comics that ever were.

QUESTION:  Mr. Kane, may I have your opinion on the two movie serials based on Batman?
KANE:  The ones in '43 and '49?  I thought Lewis Wilson needed a brassiere. (laughter) He was pretty fat. I didn't like that too well. I was out in Hollywood at that time and the Batmobile was a grey convertible. At least they could have gotten a black limousine. It was all screwed up.

I liked the TV show. I thought that was done with great class and style. It's kind of campy. A lot of my fans would prefer to see the old mysterioso Batman; they didn't like the TV show. But I liked it because it brought me back into the spotlight again (laughter) and made me a few more bucks. But aside from that it's really a comedy, and I guess Batman should be taken seriously. There is the ambiguity of the whole thing.

QUESTION:  Do you remember an early Batman villain named Professor Radium? He was a provocative villain, and I was surprised you didn't bring him back in a sequel.
KANE:  No...a lot of the stories I didn't write and they were ghosted, so I might have been out of town when the ghost did that story. There was a Professor Strange many years ago. There was a Professor Radium, you're right. I remember drawing that many years ago. I was thinking of Mr. Freeze. There've been so many villains and it's been so far back that after awhile truth merges with fiction and you forget what began first and who's on second. Like Jerry Robinson says that he created the Joker. Not to take away from is statement, but I remember that I created the Joker and that Jerry Robinson inked it. But I wouldn't swear on my mother. It's so far back you forget, actually.

QUESTION:  Wasn't there a sketch in the Steranko History of Comics showing that you originally did the Joker?
KANE:  I'm not sure. I remember Bill Finger and I were kicking it around. Bill Finger is one of the unsung heroes of The Batman, actually. The only reason didn't get a co-byline unfortunately, is that he got there after the fact, after I created the Batman figure. But Bill was instrumental in creating with me many of the villains. And he created many of the stories of the first twenty years or so. I think Bill was the best delineator of all the writers. I haven't seen him lately.

Sol, does Bill do any work for National?
HARRISONBill was back at National only last week. He was working with Joe Orlando on some new scripts.
KANE:  Great. Prior to that, how long have you not seen him?
HARRISONHe's been in and out, but he hasn't been doing work in possibly ten years.
KANE:  Bill had just one problem...
HARRISONHe still does.
KANE:  He'd promise you a story by Monday, July 4th and you would get the story July 30th, on a Friday. Then he'd come up with all kinds of excuses as to why the story didn't get in... "I was sweating and I didn't fool well, and my girlfriend was sick...”
VOICE:  Neal who?  (laughter)
HARRISON:  That's an 'in' joke. I don't know if Bob really understands it.
KANE:  Is that Neal Adams? Is he late also?
HARRISONA little late.

QUESTION:  Mr. Beck, I read somewhere that Dave Berg said he modelled for you when you did Captain Marvel. Is that correct?
BECK:  He modelled? You mean on a stand in the nude?  (laughter) Someone asked me yesterday if Captain Marvel's body was modelled after Primo Carnera, and that reminded me that I had a picture of Max Baer when I started. Max Baer has the most perfect build of any athlete that I've ever seen. Mar Baer's the father of Max Baer, Jr., who played on the Beverly Hillbillies. But it wasn't Dave. Dave might have posed for Sivana or something. (laughter)

1 comment:


Funny you should reprint this Danny,i went to this con in July of '74 (i was 15) was the second con i ever went to,the first was the '73 Phil Sueling July 4th con...lots of great memories...i remember seeing Bob Kane up on a stage talking...