Mike Esposito: 1927 - 2010

Michael Esposito was born on July the 14th 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. The depression was ending, but as far as Mike’s upbringing was concerned it wasn’t all pain sailing. “It was pretty rough as far as my own personality not developing properly because of the depression, fears and the separation with my mother and father and things like because of there being no jobs. People were making nine dollars a week and they had to live on that, if they were working at all. I can remember seeing my father going out and he didn’t even have shoes, he had newspapers wrapped around the legs of his pants so he could walk through the snow. I was about six years old.” These memories remained with Mike over the years and, like most of the depression babies, a lifelong fear of being poor saw him infused with a work ethic that would have stunned other people. There was hardly a time when Mike wasn’t working.

As a child and well into his teens Mike felt victimised due to his last name and heritage. “Even in high school, being the Italian guy, it was always ‘Esposito, get in the back’. The reason was because there were two gangsters, the Esposito brothers. In 1941 they killed two cops in front of the Empire State Building. The media called them ‘Mad Dog Killers’, and they were the Esposito brothers. I lived with that for years in the ‘40s, “Oh Esposito, you’re the Mad Dog Killer”. It was so publicised, it was like Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and all those gangsters, and it was all in the papers, the Mad Dog Killers: The Esposito Brothers. My brother and I were far from killers. My brother liked to sing and was a very good singer and I was a cartoonist. Naturally I said I was going to change my name.” The names Mike explored included Duvall and Perry. When asked why Mike’s answer was perfect in its simplicity – he liked the sound of them. It was the same reason why he studied the French language – he loved the melodic sound of the words as they rolled off the tongue. Still, not wanting to be an Esposito forever saw Mike choose another name for future ventures. “I think that’s why I called myself Mickey Demeo later when we were publishing. I didn’t want to sign anything Esposito. In fact, to prove my point that it was a stigma attached to me, when I first got involved with Lev Gleason he was going to do a story about the Esposito Brothers for Crime And Punishment. Because my name was Esposito Charlie Biro suggested that I draw it. It was put to me that it’d be The Esposito Brothers adapted by Esposito. I refused to do it. A lot of my buddies up there were saying, ‘Are you crazy? It’s a feature story!’ but I turned it down and said, ‘I won’t do that.’ There was no killer blood in my family at all.”

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.”

After serving a period at Camp Dix and Camp Crowder, Mike was assigned to the Signal Corps, but, in a story that would be repeated by several WWII era artists, was quickly recognised for his art and received his first overseas posting by being sent to Germany. On the way Mike experienced another traumatic experience that would remain with him for the rest of his life. “I was in France for a while and I saw these kids and they were scarred by the war. They didn’t look like children anymore. They were hardened. You hear this a million times from other veterans about that period so I’m not unique in that respect, but I can still see their faces. I’ll never forget one kid; when we got off our ship in Lahore, France, he was pointing a little revolver at us. All my friends were about 18 years old and were soldiers and he was bragging and showing off in front of us and pointing the gun in our faces, kidding around. Then he said he wanted some chocolate or something and it was loaded! We were just standing there petrified thinking, ‘What do we do?’ We didn’t even have guns, we were there to occupy and help and we didn’t have guns. He didn’t shoot me though.”

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.

As happy as Mike was with the US Army, the lure of home was just too strong to resist. Despite being offered a promotion to the rank of Major (on the proviso that he re-enlist for twenty years), Mike wanted to head back to New York and pursue his love, to be a cartoonist. As soon as he returned home Mike put his plans into action by joining the Burne Hogarth school of Cartoonists And Illustrators, and in doing so, met other artists such as Don Perlin, Martin Rosenthall and, more importantly, he reunited with Ross Andru.

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.

Jack Abel worked as an inker at various companies, including Timely (he’d work at Marvel right up to the end of his life in 1996). Martin Rosenthall, better known as Marty Thall, Martin Rose and Emrose, was younger than the others, but had excellent pedigree having worked with Wally Wood on Wood’s first comic book art. Moe Marcus was a journeyman who worked for virtually all the comic book companies at the time. Phil Amaldo penciled comics for the likes of Fox. Sachs inked Peddy and, along with Mike, Ross.

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.

Their other title, Mister Mystery, had a more successful run, lasting for several issues. The stories were considered fictional horror, and were highly popular back in the 1950s. Using graphic imagery of blood and violence, these books were banned from the newsstands with the newly introduced “Comics Code”. The code came into being for the protection of the minds of young readers. This censorship effectively crippled the Mister Mystery series as well as MR Publications.

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 learned from his previous mistakes. While working at DC the pair was approached by Burne Hogarth with the idea of all three collaborating on a syndicated strip. Mike didn’t leave DC and advised Ross to stay put; instead they’d moonlight on the strip. This time Mike made the right move, the strip failed, as did the next one and the one after that and so forth. They made one more foray into the world of publishing, in the early 1970s, with another humour magazine, this time titled Up Your Nose. Despite it looking good, the premise of the magazine having a ‘narrator’ was a bit much, and when the name of the narrator was revealed as being Joe Snow – his actual name – groups cried drugs and that was that. “What happened was that I got another telegram following the first saying, ‘Stop all publication’. I called up the guy and asked what happened. He said, ‘Hundreds and thousands of books are being returned in boxes unopened. From Hawaii, from Alaska, from all around the world’. When they got news that something was wrong then they didn’t want them, and they didn’t want them because they thought it was a drug book, because of Joe Snow and Up Your Nose. It wasn’t that at all. The windup is that they told us to stop and cease publication. Every store owner said it’s a drug book and they wouldn’t put it out.”

Mike proved himself as an artist many times over. In the mid 1960s he crossed over to Marvel Comics where he worked as an inker for virtually every top name in the industry. Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John Romita, John Buscema, George Tuska, Syd Shores, Don Heck, Steve Ditko – it’s difficult to find an artist who Mike didn’t ink. At DC he inked Curt Swan, Mike Sekowsky, Irv Novack and many more. Mike worked fast for mixed results. When he put his all into a job he could ink as well as anyone in the industry, but by the 1970s his reputation was slightly tarnished. This didn’t stop him from being assigned more of the top pencilers. George Perez, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, Mark Bagley, Herb Trimpe, Ron Frenz, Greg LaRoque, Alan Kupperberg, Bret Blevins, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Byrne, Bob Hall, Paul Gulacy, Carmine Infantino, Rich Buckler, Mike Zeck, Jim Mooney – the list of artists that Mike inked over his career is a rich list indeed. Mike was always a reliable inker, able to fix pencilling mistakes and he delivered the goods. Unlike Vinnie Colletta, Mike didn’t erase pencils just to finish a job, but he would employ assistants, such as Tom Palmer, Bob McLeod, John Tartaglione and Frank Giacoia. This way Mike could hit the deadlines, continue to get work, and continue to provide for his family.

Mike’s family meant everything to him. He used his son, Mark, as an assistant, and placed his daughter, Michelle, into the pages of Up Your Nose. Talking to Mike about his family you’d hear the love in his voice. Ross was part of that family as well and when Ross passed away a part of Mike died as well. He retired and went to live quietly with his beloved wife, Irene, with whom he’d continue to earn money via commission work and the royalties that continued to flood in from Marvel and DC.

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.

When I first approached him in 2003 to buy some art he invited me to contact him. I arranged an interview and phoned him. For a week, every morning at around five in the morning my time I’d wake up just to talk to Mike for an hour or so. We’d talk about many things, comic books, movies, people we both knew. He’d tell me stories about how he really felt about people he’d worked with, writers, artists and editors; he’d laugh and make me promise not to say anything until after he was gone. Knowing the nature of these comments I wasn’t at all surprised that he didn’t want them published while he was alive, so I kept that promise. I found myself calling him every month or so until I asked the obvious question – why had nobody ever written a book on him and Ross? Mike was self-depreciating about it all. “Nobody would want to read it,” he’d say, “let alone write it.” Finally he asked if I’d do it, and I immediately leapt onto it.

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.

Mike’s legacy is one of an artist who achieved more in his life and career than most others ever will. His work ethic was one that many an artist today could learn from. He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t a superstar, but he was there and he did it. He led the way for artists to become publishers and he led the way with his work. His inks formed the cornerstone of a lot of other artists’ careers, and his art graced stories and books that people fondly remember today. The Amazing Spider-Man. Thor. The Avengers. Metal Men. Wonder Woman. Archie. Superman. Batman. X-Men. Captain America. Daredevil. Defenders. Ghost Rider. Hulk. Iron Man. The Flash. I could go on and on here, but I won’t. Needless to say if you were reading comics from the mid ‘50s through to the 1980s then odds are better than good that you saw Mike Esposito’s artwork. You might not have known it then, but it was there. I’m glad to say that I was part of Mike getting the public recognition that he deserved with the Eisner Award, and I’m glad that he got to see it and enjoy it. More people loved Mike and his work that he’d ever admit in public and, deep down; he got a kick out of all the people who’d make contact with him.

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.


Anonymous said…
Another great comic artist gone. But, thanks to your book, he won't be forgotten. Good work, Mr. Best.
Jean-Daniel Brèque.
PS: BTW, there is no Lahore in France. Mr. Esposito probably said (or meant) Laon.
diceciper said…
Thanks for the remembrance of Mike.
Rob said…
Thanks Daniel. A beautifully written and informative tribute.

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