Looking Back With Vic Carrabotta
Once Vic left the comic book industry he never really looked back. Vic managed to parlay his illustration skills to excellent effect, becoming an award winning advertising illustrator and earning the nick-name 'Quick Vic' due to his speed in meeting deadlines. A short list of companies that have benefited from Vics conceptual and illustration skills can be found on his web-site, and they include companies such as Y & R, Grey Advertising, McCann-Erickson, Disney, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, AT&T Worldwide, General Motors, Palmolive, SCANA, Advil, Reader's Digest, Sunbeam, Ometric, Jell-O, Kenner Toys, and many more.
This interview was originally conducted in January of 2006. Since that time the tape was misplaced and I always believed that it'd been lost forever. Recently, due to a clean-up, I found the missing tape, along with a few others, buried at the bottomed of a box. Armed with the tape I did the transcript and now present it for the world to enjoy. And before anyone decides to send an email to the contrary, I'm more than happy to post an audio sample of certain sections...but until then - read and enjoy this insight into one of the more unknown of the Golden Age comic book artists!
Daniel Best: How did you get started in comic books?
Vic Carrabotta: I’m probably one of the lesser comic book artists of the old days. I got out of comic books a long time ago. I started with Stan back in the mid ‘50s, so far back I can’t remember. [laughter] I’m 75 years old, although I’m pretty spry for my age and I’m still working. I ended up doing storyboards; there was more money in that than in comic books. I’ve done some stuff for a local guy, the Mecca Comic Group, just little things, no big time things though.
I was 21 years old when I started out in comic books. I lived in New York and I had just come back from the Marine Corp. I’d been in the United States Marine Corp for three years and I was a young kid, wet behind the ears and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I used to like to draw a lot as a kid and in fact one of my mentors as a kid was Jerry Grandenetti who worked with DC. Jerry was a couple of years older than I am and he was nice enough to teach me the inking and that kind of thing. My first wife was more inspirational for me for doing comics and she said, “Just get yourself together and do something with this talent.” I made some samples up and we canvassed New York city and went to every publishing house you could think of. One of them, of course, was Timely Comics which ended up being Marvel later on, but nothing really happened and I couldn’t get in to see anyone like Stan Lee. Finally my wife and I ended up with a cup of coffee walking the streets of New York and I got to see Jack Kirby. He’s really the one who got me started. My wife and I went over together to Jack Kirby’s office, which was then called Simon and Kirby, and Jack took me into his office and looked my stuff. My sat in the lobby and by this time she was about eight and half months pregnant. So I went into Jack’s office and he looked at my stuff and said, “Well this is nice,” because I was an amateur and I don’t think I was very good at the time. [laughter] So he walks out into the lobby and while he’s telling me, “You know Vic, your work is nice, but don’t call me, I’ll call you.” It was the old story, the brush off, and as he walked out my wife stood up and I said, “Jack, this is my wife Connie.” He looked her up and down and he did a double take and saw that she was pregnant and what ran across his mind was, “This poor guy, he needs work,” and he said, “How are you?” and introduced himself to my wife and said, “By the way, have you seen Stan Lee at Timely Comics?” I said, “Yes Jack, I went there but I couldn’t get to see Stan.” I was walking around with a pack full of amateurish work; I couldn’t even afford a proper portfolio. He said, “Well, wait a minute,” and he went back into his cubby hole and he writes a letter and sealed it and said, “Take this back to Stan now.” So I took it back to Stan and got past the secretary and I was sitting across the desk from Stan Lee. Stan was a very casual guy and had his feet up on the desk and he said, “Oh, Jack says you can draw this and that,” and I said, “Yes Stan, would you like to see me work?” and he said, “No, that’s ok. Here,” and he threw a script across the desk and said, “I want this back in a week.” And that was the beginning of my comic book career.
I never knew what was in the letter; obviously it was Jack telling Stan to help this poor guy. And that’s how I got started in comics. Had it not been for Jack Kirby I’d probably be laying bricks with my cousin or something. [laughter]
DB: What were Stan and Jack like back in the mid ‘50s?
VC: Jack Kirby was a heck of a nice guy. He was always a model guy and I felt sorry when he died. A very, very nice man. Stan was very nice too, he was a young guy and interested in what he was doing. At the time there was just a handful of guys, I was there, John Romita, Joe Maneely was there, there had to be at least eight to ten cartoonists working up at Timely during those days. Not that many. Stan had not even started Spider-Man. John had come over from Jack Kirby and was doing Captain America, so John Romita had more experience with the superheroes. I wanted to do superheroes but in those days superheroes were not big, so Stan would give me these horror stories and I did a lot of westerns. Ringo Kid, that kind of stuff. I worked with Stan for about five years and my wife, who was born in the South, wanted to go back to her home to her mother, she was young and didn’t like New York city so we left. Stan continued to send me work through the mail. So there I was, living on a farm, sitting out in the sunshine and drawing comic books [laughter], rolling them up and sending them out to New York. I also did some work for Charlie Biro and Lev Gleason.
I guess I worked with Stan for about five or six years and then things got pretty bad in the comic book field, the industry went downhill because of the horror stuff that was going on, which was nothing like it is today. Stan couldn’t send me any more work that point. He said, “Vic, I just can’t send you anything anymore. I’ve got guys that live here, like Gene Colan and John Romita and I can’t even give them work.” At that point that’s when I got out. I’d spent a total of five or six years doing comics with Stan.
From there I got out of comics altogether. I was living in the South and travelled to Atlanta and got a job in a printing house called Stein Printing Company. There were using me as an illustrator doing little booklets and I really learned the printing industry in those days. I learned typography and in those days nothing was computerized, it was just layouts, and from printing I ended up doing advertising and went back to Columbia and started up my own studio there and worked on my own all the time.
Then I went to New York and I went from doing my own advertising stuff to doing storyboards and became the senior Art Director with Alden Advertising Agency in New York. Again, I was jumping around; there were so many politics in advertising. My field of advertising was always up and down and one of the years I was out of work I was offered a job with Mother Earth News Magazine, the owner of that was John Shuttleworth and it was located in Henderson, North Carolina. I worked there, but that didn’t last too long, so I moved back to New York and worked for Reader’s Digest as an art director.
I finally ended up in Atlanta working as an art director with a company called BDA/BBDO, which still exists in New York and I became an accredited art director. I began winning awards in TV and print and the comic book field was past me at that point because I was winning awards. I always used to draw my own layouts and at the point I started to win awards I was propositioned to leave BDA/BBDO with a good friend of mine, Jonas Gold. Jonas told me, “Why don’t you just quit and work with me?” He was with an agency in Atlanta, McDonald and Little was the name of the place. So I started working with him on the side, just moonlighting and I finally quit my job with BDA/BBDO and began freelancing and did very well in Atlanta as well. Jonas got me into the field of storyboarding and I got the reputation and nickname of ‘Quick Vic’, which I use on my web-site, because I’m famous for drawing 100 frames in an hour [laughter] because when I draw I seldom use reference. Even now I don’t do it unless I have to do it. It’s the old comic book background; if you wanted to make money then you had to draw. Jonas then left Atlanta. He was my key man, where he went I’d follow, and he moved to West Port in Connecticut and was working in York City and he called me one day and said, “Vic, why don’t you come up? I’ve got a job for you.” I said, “Ok,” and packed my family up for a summer vacation thinking I’ll only be going for one job for Jonas. In those days you could work two days and make $15,000, and there was nothing unusual about that in the old days. There was far more money in those days in storyboarding than in comic books, so before you know it Jonas says, “Vic, why don’t you just stay here because I can use you all the time.” My wife went back to Atlanta and sold the house and I remained in New York. We finally ended up in West Port, Connecticut and I was making almost two to three hundred thousand dollars per year. It was wonderful, living in West Port with all these famous illustrators like Joe Ives and Bernie Fuchs. I had a beautiful home there; my house was a couple of blocks away from Phil Donahue. And that’s what I did. For the rest of my life I did storyboards. In New York I worked with numerous accounts like General Motors, AT&T Worldwide, Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola; I had a long list of accounts that I worked on and I worked creatively too. Sometimes I had storyboards but I did a lot of conceptual stuff as well. I did a lot of conceptual stuff with Pepsi Cola that I’m very proud of. I’m still doing it now. I’d go from New York to LA and back and worked for many people, including Disney. I did the original posters for 101 Dalmatians and got paid for that very well.
Finally I was in New York and I remarried and then 9-11 hit. It was just horrible and I guess we both panicked and we just got out of there. Nobody in the storyboard industry was even freelancing anymore because they were afraid to go into the city in case something happened. So, at that point, about a month after 9-11 we decided to go south to Columbia, South Carolina. My first wife lives here and five of my kids live here and we came down and I got a few little jobs, only storyboards, but it was bad all over. I still had one shot and I thought, maybe I’ll call my friend John Sabel at Disney, who I’d done the concept for 101 Dalmatians and see how he’s doing. So I phoned him and John said, “Yeah, come on out. I want you to work with me on Pirates Of The Caribbean.” I went out to California and worked with John on the Pirates Of The Caribbean posters and everything was fine. I worked with him for a month and he paid me over $10,000 which was wonderful, but I was out there for another three years and he never called me again. I know they had some problems with Disney, they were laying people off and strangely enough four or five years later he emailed me and asked, “How are you doing?” I was really surprised and I wrote him back, of course. He was a good friend and I liked him a lot.
The old comic book artists, well most of them are dead or they’ve moved on to other fields. In my case it’s a completely new generation as you know. Comics are computerized, some of it’s nice and some of it I just can’t put up with because a lot of these kids I think just don’t know how to draw. I have some friends who are doing work for Marvel, and they’re doing very well I guess, but the problem with me is that I am 75 and I don’t want to stop working. Want’s happened with the storyboard business, which is basically my field, is that my agents will not receive work for me on paper anymore; it’s all got to be done on computer. I was shunning away from that whole field because I said, “Yeah, Quick Vic, I can work faster than anyone with a stylus pen and a tablet,” and it’d drive me crazy. I have a computer and I’d scan it and send it off but they don’t accept that, they want that computerised look. I’m learning to use Photoshop and Corel Paint and my agents said, “If you can learnt to do stuff on the computer then we’ll send you work again,” so that whole field has completely changed. It doesn’t matter how good an illustrator you were they just won’t take stuff on paper anymore; it all has to be done on computer. That’s the way it is.
DB: There are some Fantastic Four illustrations on your site. What’s the story behind them?
VC: A friend of mine, Sanford Greene, who works for Marvel and who’s more of an animator than I am. He does the drawings on computer, the pencils, the inks and the colours. He was telling me, “Vic, if you want to start practicing now to get into comics then maybe you should start drawing character stuff,” and he suggested that I draw the Fantastic Four. I did two pieces, but I did it the old style, paper with magic markers, but its obsolete now, no-one uses markers.
DB: Do you see Stan Lee anymore?
VC: I call him every once in a while. He doesn’t forget who I am, he’ll say, “How ya doin’ Vic?” and I start talking about the people we knew and he’ll say, “My God, you’re still alive and you’ve got such a wonderful memory.” Stan’s memory is terrible [laughter] but he’s nice though. I’ve had lunch with him and tried to talk about the old days but you mention Jack Abel and that’s it. Jack did a lot of my inking. I started off doing my own inking but Jack did a lot, but these days a lot of those people aren’t around anymore. Years ago when I worked with Stan I used to bring him into the Cartoonists and Illustrators Club and I remember going in one evening and walking up to the bar and meeting Al Williamson and Wally Wood. These are things I’ll never forget. Ross Andru, you mentioned him, I only met him once and he was playing great jazz piano, he was a very talented guy. Joe Maneely was a really nice guy. When I met Joe he was an in-house artist. Every time I’d go to deliver my work to Stan Joe would always be there doing mostly war stories that I remember. He was always on the premises and he was Stan’s favourite. He was a very nice guy. Joe Kubert, Joe Letterese, Mike Sekowsky, they were always there, George Tuska, Gene Colan, Alex Toth they were all my mentors. Alex, if you’ll excuse the expression, was a real prick. [laughter] I called Alex up several times, never met him, but I always admired his work and lot of my stuff used to look like Alex’s because I used to copy his stuff. We all used to copy from each other back then. If you look at a lot of the guys we’d copy each other’s faces and hands. I spoke to Alex one time when he was in California and he was very down in the dumps and he was very unfriendly. I remember talking to John Romita about him that he was very reclusive and didn’t like people but he was a very funny guy and he always did his own stuff. He’s a very talented guy. Alex, Gene Colan, I always admired those guys a lot.
I was only in the field professionally for only five years and that was it. There’s such a drive now for the old artists, it’s a funny thing. When I left comics I became better than comics by drawing illustrations. A lot of the comic book artists, like John Romita, are terrific illustrators. But the young kids of today they hype up the muscles and stuff and I guess the kids like that stuff. I once spoke to John before he retired and said, “I wouldn’t mind going back into comics John,” and he said, “Well don’t kill yourself trying.” It’s just a totally different field and you have to have a mindset to do that and it’s difficult for me to even think the way these kids think, not so much with the drawing but the attitude.
The old artists were trained mechanically so to say. We all copied, as kids, from Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond. If you look at Al Williamson you’ll see that he copied him to a T. John Prentice was another. It’s a trend. It’s not to say they don’t draw well, some guys are interesting, but they tend to follow the TV with the action shots and the foreshortening. There were certain rules, per se, in the old days and you just didn’t break the rules.
Vic Carrabotta's official web-site
Vic Carrabotta at the GCD
Vic Carrabotta's Atlas/Timely Credits