DANIEL BEST: How did you start? What was your first exposure to a comic book?
MIKE ESPOSITO: Like everybody else I was a young boy in 1938, 39. Most of the comics in the 30s were reprints from the newspaper strips, like the Sunday papers, Dick Tracey and stuff like that. Then in 1938, 39, Timely Comics, which is now Marvel Comics, started super characters. Two of my buddies, Carl Burgos and Bill Everett, did Sub-mariner and the Human Torch. So that’s basically when I started reading them and like every other kid I wanted to be one of the artists. It didn’t happen until I came out of the Army, in 1945 I went in and came out in about ’47, and I started working for Fox Periodicals. It was short lived because it went out of business, and then I went to Timely Comics with Stan Lee. He hired me for a position as a staff penciller. I didn’t do any inking until I was with Timely Comics and I met a girl up there who was in charge of the inking department. I was at a bar in the Empire State Building with Mike Sekowsky, and I said to her “Gee, I’d like to get some inking done”, because the inkers would take a page or two home a week. We were supposed to do a page per day of pencils, or ink, on staff at the bullpen. That was our job and we got paid so many dollars per week based upon a page per day. So she said, “You can have some inking Mike”. I didn’t know then, but she was in charge of all the inking, so she gave me some pages of a story by Ed Winiarski. He did all teenage stuff like Millie The Model. I took one home, and I did it. I was getting $15 or $17 a page and that was pretty good on the inking. Pencillers were only getting $2 to $3 a page more and at that time there was a lot more work than pencil. Stan Lee found about it. He called me and said, “Who gave you this stuff? You’re a penciller, you do a page per day and if you want to do freelance pencilling at home on the weekends then you can take a pencil story home”. I said, “Well, no. I just wanted to try it”; the whole idea of inking was something new.. He said, “Well it’s a damn good job”; Stan was a very complimentary guy. Stan knew how to make you feel good and develop your ability by not nit-picking you. If it was good then he’d tell you it was good. Maybe it wasn’t that good at all but he made me feel comfortable with what I did. The end result was that I wanted to do more of the inking but I never got an opportunity. I stayed there for quite a while and I worked on Lev Gleavson’s Crime And Punishment magazine.
Ross Andru and I were a team from high school for six decades. We are known as the longest running team in comics. I remember saying to Ross when we were young fellers, we wanted to out-do Simon and Kirby, because they were like, fifty years. We went for sixty and unfortunately Ross passed away in 1995. I miss him terribly but we were together from high-school days. A handshake partnership.
DB: The best kind. Sixty years, that’s longer than a lot of marriages last.
ME: You got that right. Well it’s six decades is what it is. You overlap your decades and it’s not really sixty years. The 1940s, well it was 1949, but we say 40s, and then we stayed until the 1990s, so that’s six decades, but it didn’t start from the whole decade. So it’s not really sixty years, more like fifty five. <laughter> If he was still alive we’d still be doing it together, but unfortunately he had a brain aneurism and he just died on the spot. It’s a good way to go I guess.
DB: No prolonged period of suffering I guess.
ME: Oh yeah, in comparison. He didn’t know what hit him. It’s like somebody unplugged him, you know the radio’s the same thing. We are a radio receiver you know.
DB: We are? <laughs>
ME: <laughs> Our brain is transmitting all these things same as a radio. We’re like robots. We were created probably <laughs> by some out of space group and put upon the planet. As you get old you get bored and start thinking stupid things.
DB: I know plenty of people who are younger than you who think stupider things. <laughter> The two things that always stand out in my mind with you and Ross would be the Metal Men and Spider-man.
ME: When Ross and I broke up for a temporary time and he stayed with DC and I went to Marvel and then funny, he came back to Marvel with me in around 1977 and that’s when they teamed us up on some Spider-man stuff. Stan Lee or Johnny Romita was the editor, but that was late in the run, around the time of The Punisher, we did a couple of stories with The Punisher; they were nice stories.
DB: Of course, you worked on Spider-man with John Romita.
ME: Oh, for years. I’m more recognised with Romita than I am with Ross. Johnny and I did, from the very first ones, numbers 39, when he took over from Ditko, that’s the one where Spider-man is being lassoed by the Green Goblin and dragging him over the rooftops on the cover. That’s a very famous one, I’ve done a lot of re-creations on that one. A guy in England bought three of them, a guy in Germany, a guy in Spain… they all like that particular one. And number 40 also, they like. Where Spider-man is standing over the Green Goblin, ‘Spidey Saves The Day’ is the name of it.
DB: Did you see the Spider-man movie?
ME: I own the DVD. I watch it all the time.
DB: What did you think of it?
ME: I loved the movie. And I loved the Hulk. My wife just bought the Hulk on DVD, and the animation in the Hulk is unbelievable. It’s very technical in the first twenty minutes, where the director, this very fabulous director, he wanted to show the reason for what happened. He didn’t just want to make a you prick your finger and now you’re a super character. He made a very involved and very detailed where the technical stuff… little kids were probably squirming in their seats getting bored because he didn’t rush it. Then after twenty minutes it takes off and boy does it take off! Have you seen the Hulk?
DB: Yes I have.
ME: What’d you think?
DB: I thought it was really good. Especially when, as you said, it took off and the Hulk appears. The whole thing of him throwing the tanks around…
ME: That’s exactly the way we used to draw it. When we did the early books, the very first Hulk magazines before he had his own magazine. There were these comic books with two stories and two characters, the Hulk and somebody else (Tales To Astonish). Kirby was doing the breakdowns, the layouts. And I would tighten the pencils and finish it. Stan wanted to get Kirby to do more work. He had to move fast so they had guys take his breakdowns, which were not finished pencils, and finish it. I remember that part where he would bounce on the desert there, bouncing around, and that’s exactly the way the comic book was.
DB: I also thought that part was fairly true to the comic book as well.
ME: And the next one! They left you knowing that there’ll be more because he went around the world after that. His adventures really became more and more interesting.
DB: You studied with Burne Hogarth.
ME: I first went to Burne Hogarth’s school of Cartoonists And Illustrators. A lot of guys went there. You’re familiar with that school?
DB: Yes. Dick Ayers went there, Don Perlin, it seems that everyone I speak to went there.
ME: Don Perlin. My buddy Don, he was about a year or two behind me, he was maybe two, or three years younger. Quite a few guys went there I found out later. I got there in 1947 when I got out of the Army. It was only about 1939 that it was opened under the recommendations of Mayor LaGuardia who was very liberal and he wanted to start this liberal arts type school in New York for under privileged people who couldn’t get to learn that stuff. Burne was instrumental in starting the school with Silas Rhodes. The school is still there, it’s very received for credits for college and so on. I went there because Ross and I had come out of the Army and we didn’t know what to do. Things were tough trying to sell stuff to the Journal American for newspaper strips, we had a character called Smarty Smith; it was Walt Disney style in artwork, which is what we really wanted to do. We went there and Joe Musial, one of the editors at King Features loved it but there was no place for us. He said, “You know, all our stuff that we do is Walt Disney. We do Mickey Mouse, we do Donald Duck, we do all his movies and we could never put this in the paper, we could never hire you”. That’s when we went to the school for a couple of years. The school was very instrumental, with Burne Hogarth teaching me, with drawing itself. Nobody was really teaching comic book work, it was almost like it was a taboo that wasn’t looked too well upon. After about two years there I quit when I had a chance to work as a penciller at Fox Periodicals. They did the Blue Beetle, they had a pretty good run in the late 40s and then he went under in about ’49. He owed me some money, he owed a lot of guys money and I got my schooling you might say, by freelancing to that guy. Woman Outlaws, Western Outlaws, Female Outlaws, one of those things, Female Western Outlaws. <laughter> It was gutsy stuff. They had beautiful covers, I didn’t do the covers, they had this guy Matt Baker and he did covers for Fox Periodicals in the 1940s and he could draw. Really beautiful women and the crime doesn’t pay type stuff. I did a few stories for them and then when I went bankrupt and was out on the streets again I called Ross. What happened was Burne Hogarth took Ross out of the class because he saw the talent he had and asked him, “Would you like to assist me on Tarzan”, the newspaper strip for the Sunday page of the Daily Mirror. He paid Ross so much a month, plus the GI Bill gave him a few bucks, and Ross would lay it out and then Burne would ink it with his approach and it would actually change everything and it would really look like Burne Hogarth when he got through with it. But Ross had a great concept for visuals for the layout, for the story telling, and that’s what Burne Hogarth saw in Ross and he developed Ross to pull all that out, the shots, the depth of field. That only lasted a couple of years because the strip died in about 1950, 51 and that’s when Ross came to me when I started publishing and we more or less teamed up.
DB: What was Burne like as a person?
ME: A very interesting guy. Very easy to talk to. He liked to talk about his experiences while we had our pencils in our hands and the pads in front of us at the desk. We’d be about to draw for a lesson for the day and he’d start to talk to about his experiences of when he was drawing this or drawing that, or when he had to do a certain strip a certain way, when he had to draw Tarzan doing a certain thing like snap his fingers without sound but you’d know it and how he’d come up with all these tricks visually. We would sit in there with our mouths open and we really enjoyed it, but we got no work done. He just went on and he was a little bit long winded you might say. But it was very interesting, what he was saying. Very interesting to listen to but it was not conducive to doing your work because you sat there and listened and listened and listened. It did get to you because you took it home in your brain and you applied it later, but for that afternoon all we heard was him talk, and, as I said, in a very interesting way and I would give a million dollars if I had to hear him do it again. I miss the guy’s ability to do that, I miss hearing him. Very funny guy and very talented, a very good artist. Most of that you saw in Tarzan on the Sunday pages. But he would go beyond that, that was his illustration of a comic strip, but as an artist, a real artist, illustrator, painter, he could do it all. In those days these guys were working for peanuts, struggling in the early 1930s and they were geniuses and they got their break, like he did. Like Alex Raymond did. Like Milton Caniff did. They got their breaks late in the 30s and you think well they were just cartoonists, but they were more than cartoonists. They could do a lot of stuff. They could write, Burne could write, Milton Caniff could write. Of course they had writers. Once you become successful you have a stable of writers, letterers, inkers. Everybody does work for you all the time, you become a producer, like Walt Disney, a producer, but you know have to get the help around you and get the most out of them and they all have to think your way. Another guy like that was Ham Fisher with Joe Palooka. I don’t think he drew one strip. He had the idea and then he hired a guy (Moe Leff) who did Curly Kayoe later and he was his ghost for Joe Palooka. And the guy made millions! Syndication in those days was about 7,000 newspapers, they made millions of dollars, it’s unbelievable, in the depression. Chic Young who did Blondie, the millions and millions of dollars. The one who did it in recent years was Schulz with Peanuts, he became and to this day is a multi-million dollar organisation. It was a company unto itself.
DB: Did you ever meet people such as Milton Caniff, Charles Schulz…
ME: Schulz I never met. Schulz started in 1950 when I was already publishing and I had no reason to be in a position to meet him. Crazy about his stuff, I used to buy all his reprints and pocket books. It was unbelievable stuff and you have to realise that he did it all, he wrote it and he wouldn’t let anybody else touch it. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but he had no ghosts doing it for him, but he did it a way that people don’t do it. Artists this day and before him, always had a stable. On Moon Mullins, Frank Willard would lock himself up in this soundproof studio with no windows when he was late on the job, because he was always late and they’d go crazy at the syndicate. They’d start piecing together pieces of the figures and start a strip made up of old pieces, putting Moon here, putting the others there, and he would call this guy Ferd Johnson who was his assistant and they would sit together for 48 hours straight and do nothing but turn it out to catch up on the deadline. Because with newspapers you’ve got eight weeks they give you to get ahead, and if you miss on that eight weeks you destroy the whole progress on the strip. For it to be lettered and printed and shipped, it’s gotta come out every week. But you’ve got eight weeks as a buffer zone to get it ready and he was always late. Always. And hey, that’s the way comic book artists are as well, always late. It’s not like working as I used to tell my father. My father would get mad when I would be late on a job, I was maybe twenty years old and he had a store. I said, “Dad, it’s not like packing potatoes, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. You just stand there and pack potatoes. I have to think, I use my brain”, of course I was exaggerating, being a bit of a ham myself and I wanted sympathy because I was lazy.
DB: And Caniff?
ME: I never met Milton Caniff, although Johnny Romita did and he ghosted some Sunday pages for him. This was right when he switched to Terry Drake, around that period. He was good. I was a big fan of that guy. Terry and the Pirates, I would read that paper. In those days the pictures were so big on the dailies. They were like three inches high. Today they’re like a postage stamp they’re so tiny. They try to put so much into one little area of entertainment in the newspaper, they are really spoiled. You can hardly read them and that’s why realistic strips have died because you can’t see anything. That’s why they print mostly humorous stuff, very simplistic stuff. They’re much more simple. They don’t have any room to draw anymore so you can’t see any detail. Things like Flash Gordon and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant have no place in newspapers anymore because it’s too tiny. You couldn’t enjoy it as a visual thing, as a work of art.
DB: Even the Phantom has become simplistic.
ME: The Phantom? The Phantom was one of the last ones to go. It was very big in Europe, Morocco…
DB: It’s huge here.
ME: There too? I guess you know the original artist, and then it was taken over by Seymour Barry. Seymour Barry was a very good man, I knew him quite well up at DC Comics. His brother, Dan Barry, I was a big fan of his. He taught Seymour a lot of stuff. He developed Seymour I think. Seymour learnt from his brother Dan. Dan did very well, he did a great job on Flash Gordon when he took it over. He wanted to make it a work of art when he took it over in the mid 50s until the strip ran out of gas and it died. Newspapers changed, down to about seven newspapers in Manhattan when you used to have hundreds of newspapers around the country. Thousands. Blondie, for example, had three thousand newspapers. Three thousand. You charge these papers an average of four or five dollars a pop, some papers, like the News, would give you four hundred dollars for the week, and you’ve got a lot of them giving you fifty cents. That’s how it builds in a syndication, and it ends up that you’ve got maybe ten thousand a week.
DB: Did you ever attempt to do a syndicate strip?
ME: Oh, I did! We got close a couple of times. Ross Andru and myself with Marv Wolfman had a strip. Marv wrote it and Ross and I designed it and put it together. The Daily News advanced us for eight weeks of continuity before it was going to be printed, before we got our contracts. It was all set to go. It was called the Unexplained. The girl was a college major, graduated and her career was being a ghost hunter, like Ghost Busters, she’d hunt ghosts and spirits. It was a pretty good idea, a pretty good script. A damn good script actually, probably too good for a newspaper, and the Daily News in New York flipped over it. They loved it and said, “Go ahead and start it”. We got paid for the first eight weeks and then a big strike came at the Daily News. I think it lasted for like months and months, so when finally the strike was over the head guys at the Daily News said, “We can’t do it. Forget it, we’re not going into this”. So it’s the old thing again about timing.
[I wanted to explore this a bit further so I asked Marv Wolfman for his recollections:
“It was actually called ‘The Unexplained’ and was done in 1979. The female lead was Raven Winters - I used both names in comics later on, Raven in the Titans, Winters in Night Force. She was a parapsychologist at a university with a male associate. Done in 1979 it was a decade or more before the X-Files and almost exactly the same. Otherwise, Mike is right - the paper did flip for it and paid us to do a Sunday strip.”]
DB: Back to those days of Marvel. Back when you first started working Timely…
ME: Timely was actually Marvel.
DB: What did you work on at Timely?
ME: Stan put me on a lot a westerns. They were all something ‘Kid’.
DB: Two Gun Kid, Kid Colt…
ME: Not Kid Colt. Kid Colt, if I recall it, was Russ Heath. Very excellent artist. I remember him very well. He was younger than me but boy was he good. He had a natural gift for it. Another guy was Johnny Severin, Marie Severin’s bother. Very good penciller. There was a room of pencillers and inkers and then there was another room that had, and that’s where I was because I came in late, I had a desk that had other pencillers around, and writers. Some of them went on to become pretty big names. Mike Sekowsky was in the room where all the inkers and pencillers were and he was fantastic. He used to turn out five pages a day. Unprecedented, he would just knock them out and good. Very good. His design was beautiful. He was very big up at DC with Justice League, but that was much later. I got to know him and you’ve got to remember I was a kid when I met him and he was much older. When you’ve got five years difference and you’re twenty the other guy’s twenty five, that’s a world of difference. He’s lived those five years and you’re like a little puppy dog. He knows all the ropes because he’s been through them all, but he was a very good artist. Stan Lee loved him up there. He was like a key to that whole bullpen. If anybody was going to be let go it would be everybody but him, because he churned so many pages out for that salary. Another great artist that was there, and he was about the same age as me, was John Buscema. He sat in the same room, three desks ahead of me. Thy were like church pews, and I was in one and behind me was a very young guy. We used to argue who was the youngest guy. I had just turned twenty one and he was twenty one. It was Gene Colan. Gene was like a little kid, and I was too, but he even looked younger than me. He was a penciller and there was Sol Brodsky who was an inker. He became an editor with Stan Lee years later and was a very, very close friend of mine. We were very close in a lot of ways, what with the publishing and what have you. And a lot of other guys like Syd Shores, a lot of guys up there.
DB: What were the differences between the two periods, from the Timely/Marvel days of the 40s and 50s and the Marvel of the 60s?
ME: What happened was Timely Comics went bankrupt in 1957. I was working up at Timely and then there was no more work, it was ended. You couldn’t keep feeding pencillers and inkers work every day when you didn’t publish them, but you kept paying them. It was not a good marriage having a staff of pencillers, inkers, writers, editors, colourists and letterers. The only way to go is freelance, and have a skeleton crew of maybe one or two guys. So the whole place went down.
So fortunately Ross and I had other accounts. We went to DC Comics and we were drawing Wonder Woman. And that’s when we developed Metal Men for Bob Kanigher. We developed all the characters and so on, and a lot of other stuff that we did. We did the Frog Men, we loved doing the war stories with dinosaurs. In fact most of my fans who want re-creations want those war stories, the covers. Big, exciting covers with the dinosaurs in the Pacific Ocean. Then I worked there, Ross wasn’t with me then. Ross stayed with DC and I went to Marvel and then it became Marvel Comics. Stan Lee had sent me a letter, then called me up and wondered if Ross and I wanted to do, there wasn’t much money in it, but do like a five page story, an eight page story, science fiction, stuff like that. So I talked to Ross and he said let’s try it, so Stan said, “There’s not much money now but we’re gonna get big.” I’ll never forget he said that. He said, “We’re gonna be bigger than DC.” I couldn’t believe he said it because DC was the whole world. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. They were a very classy outfit, were DC. But Stan’s outfit was very small, they were trying to make a comeback and he said, “Stay with us and you’ll see that we’re really going to do something”. He hadn’t developed the characters yet. He hadn’t developed Spider-man yet. He did some horror stories, Strange Tales, stuff like that, and then he came up with these new characters with Kirby, the two of them. To do a take off on the Justice League they had the Fantastic Four. They would sit together and pop ideas back and forwards, the way Ross and I would. Ross and I when we would do our own writing would do the same thing. We’d bounce each others ideas of each other until we developed something that would never resemble what we started with. It would just keep changing and changing. You’d go back to page one and it doesn’t even look like page one anymore. We learnt that from Disney storyboards that they’d have when the writers would get together. My theory and Ross’s theory, and I’m sure Stan’s theory was also, that you can’t just sit there by yourself and have everything come out of your head. You may be going down the wrong road and opening the wrong doors. By having somebody with you in a storyboard conference you keep bouncing ideas back and forth. And then return to all your earlier thoughts and realise you were going down the wrong road. That’s the only way to go for this kind of work. Now if you’re going to write Shakespeare it’s a little different. If a brilliant novelist could do it all by himself then that’s great. But movie making, and Disney, and the way Stan did it, and the way Ross and I would do it, with story conferences of the whole thing. There’s more than one way to skin a cat as they say, to come up with an idea. <laughter> You might come up with something completely different from me, and that’s why Kirby has his ideas. Kirby always had these very brilliant ideas for the weird, grotesque . That’s why the Hulk is Kirby’s. Kirby is really the Hullk. Stan definitely developed it with him but the thinking was really from Kirby’s head. The whole idea, the monster, the Frankenstein monster that the Hulk looked at the beginning. And with the two of them together, he sees what he’s doing there with the Hulk, and I’m sure he defined the direction of it, on Stan Lees part to make it the way it is with Bruce Banner and so on. The Jekyll and Hyde, the alter ego, the two characters in one. The famous story line for everything in the past, nothing is original. You just shape it differently but it’s basically the same thing that’s been done before.
DB: Mickey Demeo, where did you get him from?
ME: Stan Lee wanted me to sign and I said, “I can’t”. He wanted me to come back and I was still working for DC and I said, “You know, Stan, I’m exclusive with DC. I do Wonder Woman, I do Metal Men with Ross” and he said, “Well, change your name, give yourself a pen name. They’re all doing it”. Frankie Ray was Frank Giacoia, Joe Carter was Jerry Siegel, Adam Austin was Gene Colan, Gil Kane was something. Johnny Romita was Johnny Romita because Johnny was young and just got there later. He had no reason not to reveal his name, or saying who he was because he wasn’t with DC on an exclusive set up. So he said to me, “Give yourself a pen name” so I thought I published a book once with Ross called Mr Mystery in 1950. We were one of the few young cartoonists that published our own work, which was unheard of in those days because you were in a stable of pencillers and inkers who all worked for a company. But we were ambitious and we went out and we decided, “Hey, let’s publish our own” and we did Mr Mystery and Mr Universe. And Mr Mystery was a horror type thing with the Mr Coffee Man. Ever seen the Maxwell House coffee in the old days? With the top hat?
ME: Well that was our mystery. We said, “Let’s design that character” that he would tell the stories with a book under his arm, Mr Mystery, and he would tell the stories. And the first story we did I didn’t want anybody to know it was Mike Esposito. So I signed it Mickey Demeo, who’s a relative of mine who’s name is Demeo. So I said, “Hey, that’s a cute name, it’s cute” and it caught on. So Stan said, “Ok, use Mickey Demeo”. You know in England, you’d get fan mail, and one kid said, “I know who Mickey Demeo is” to Stan Lee. And Stan wrote back ‘Who?” and he said, “Mickey Demeo is Mike Esposito and I can tell by the way he does his ears”. <laughter> Now you see, kids, they see things that you don’t realise they see. But whatever it is the name caught on and I stayed with Mickey Demeo for a long time. In the early stages with Johnny Romita I would sign it Mickey Demeo and I’m finding, years later when I got real big I said, “I want to be known as Mike Esposito again” and then Ross came in and it was Andru and Esposito al over again. And I get fan mail to this day saying “Long live Mickey Demeo!”. I thought they’d forgot, but no, I get guys, one guy – I’m mailing it today – I got a fan letter with a self-addressed envelope from a guy in Scottsdale, Arizona, who wants me to put down two cards with my signature on it. He says, “Will you please put Mickey Demeo also?” I said, “Ok”, I signed one card Mike Esposito and the other card I sign Mickey Demeo.
DB: You had another name also?
ME: Joe Gaudioso. My wife’s maiden name is Gaudioso, and her brother’s name is Joe. So I figured I’d give him a thrill. I signed something Joe Gaudioso. So one day, <laughs> this is the truth, Stan Lee came into the Bullpen and he sees Johnny Romita and Tony Mortellaro and a few other fellows, Marie Severin, and he says, “Hey, who’s this new guy?” It was a story for the Sub-Mariner and I signed it Joe Gaudioso. And he said, “Hey Johnny, who’s this new guy? He’s terrific!” and Johnny says, “What’d you mean?” “Let me see, let me see it” they’re all saying – they told me this, I wasn’t there. He says, “He reminds me a little bit of Esposito”. He says, “It is Esposito! That’s another one of his pen names” and Stan, in a huff, walked out. And he was upset because he thought that nobody had told him, and he didn’t recognise it and he should have.
And there was one other one: Mickey Dee. The only reason it was Mickey Dee was because I didn’t want to sign it. I told Stan because it was the first job ever done by Barry Smith. It was the X-Men number 53, in fact I’m just doing a cover re-creation now for a guy in Ireland. It’s half done and that’s what made me think of the Mickey Dee. He said to me, “How come you signed it Mickey Dee in the book?” I said, “Well I didn’t, it’s just that I had an argument with Stan that I couldn’t understand the guys work”. So he said, “Ok, call it Mickey Dee instead of Mickey Demeo”. So that’s that.
DB: Did the name change ever fool anyone professionally? Did you ever have a publisher approach you and say, “C’mon Mike, we know it’s you”.
ME: Once. Carmine Infantino when I was sneaking off a job. Sol Brosky said to me, “I want you to do one a month of Spider-man”. I said, “I’m working for DC”; I was exclusive to Carmine Infantino and I was doing quite a bit of stuff. So Stan said to me use the pen name, which I did. One day I’m in the office and Carmine said, “Mike, I know what you’re doing.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “You’re doing that Spider-man stuff. You think I didn’t know that Mickey Demeo is you?” I said, “Well, uh, I gotta eat, and it’s only one story a month”. And he said, “All right, just as long as it’s one story a month, just Spider-man, you can keep doing it. You can have it, but if I tell you to stop, then you gotta stop”. When I finally stopped, when I finally put my name down that was when I said, “I don’t care, I’ll be exclusive” and I got a contract with Marvel and I stopped working with DC.
DB: When you do the re-creations do you sign them Mike Esposito or Mickey Demeo?
ME: Oh, no. Only if the re-creation was as Mickey Demeo. I will sign the re-creation based on what I signed it in the original book. For example, number 40 (Amazing Spider-man) the splash page will have inside it the signature ‘Mighty Mickey Demeo’. I write ‘Mighty Mike Esposito’, which Stan had all those little names, Mighty Mike Esposito, Jazzy John Romita and that was the period of the late ‘60s that they did all that. In the ‘70s they got more sophisticated and it would be strictly the person’s name. But I remember, maybe you remember this splash page – The Tangled Web We Weave?
ME: There’s like a spiders web, Peter Parker’s walking and the girls are caught in the web, Mary Jane, and Ant May and everybody. Well on the bottom it says breakdowns by Johnny, Don Heck tightened it and Mickey Demeo inked it – it didn’t say Mike Esposito. So when I do that splash for somebody, which I did once, I signed it Mickey Demeo. When they want a re-creation they want the lettering, everything, the logo , the seal of approval, all done by hand on the page. So no paste ups. So I have to do it exactly what it is. And that’s one thing about re-creations that John Romita told me. You gotta do it even though you hate it. Even though you’d draw it differently today when you did something thirty years ago, you might have done it wrong by today’s standards. And you can’t change it because then it’s not a re-creation.
DB: It’s an all new piece of art.
ME: Right. So when you’ve got proportions, maybe the head is too small, or the arm is too short, you’ve got to do it exactly like that. And I’ve been tempted so many times to change it. Johnny said it drove him crazy, when Johnny Romita would do one. And he said, “I have to do it exactly, even thought I’ve progressed to such a point where I’ve improved since then, you can’t change it”. That’s what they mean by the re-creations. They want it exact. It’s very tempting to sharpen it, and change it and modernise it, but you can’t. If a guy wants it done that way then of course I’ll do it. They want the same look as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
DB: Back to the Mr Mystery and Mr Universe. You and Ross were one of the first ones to break away and form your own company as artists – in a way you foreshadowed companies such as Image.
ME: Oh definitely. 1950 was the first publishing venture we had with Ed Haas. Ed Haas is the guy I teamed up with later when I was publishing. Ed Haas went on to create The Munsters for TV, with Norm Liebman, his cousin. They both wrote it together, but Norm was really the professional writer at the time and Eddie was a very funny guy, ad-libbing all the time off the top of his head. He would do things that would break you up. You’d be sitting around in a room and he’d just break you up. He went to California to see his cousin and the next thing I knew The Munsters were on TV. It’s amazing how things happen in your lifetime. We were together doing things on our own and he ended up with The Munsters. He was my first partner in publishing in the 1950s with Mr Universe and Mr Mystery. What happened was Eddie and I went to a movie preview of the film Mr Universe with Jack Carson and Mr Universe was played by Vince Edwards, he was a big actor later, but then he was a kid staring out in Hollywood, just hanging around and he got the job because he was a weight lifter and he had that look of a muscular body and so on. He didn’t know how to act or anything as he was learning and I remember at the preview, it was a preview at Manhattan not for the public, but for the press, Carson was very upset because he only got twenty five grand to do the film and he thought the film was a bomb, and he was very upset with the crowd. The producer was there and the director, so Eddie walked up to the director, he was a pretty gutsy guy, he said, “This would make a great comic book” and the guy said, “Ok”. And within minutes the guy wrote a piece of paper down that gave us the rights to produce the movie as a comic book for a five percent royalty to the director. We took it to a distributor, we had a silent partner who knew the distributor, and we ended up with our first publishing adventure. Ross came into the picture while we were publishing, Eddie and I, and I called Ross in and he did Mr Universe and Mr Mystery, the covers and the stories. It didn’t last too long but we had a lot of fun and a lot of chance to develop as artists and people growing up in the professional sense.
Then in 1953 we did ‘Get Lost’. Like Mad Magazine, Mad Comics. One day we were sitting around in my apartment, my wife was sitting there, and Ross and I were on the floor throwing ideas around and Ross and I said, “You know, I’d love to do satire.” Ross and I loved to write satire. “So let’s do one and we’ll call it ‘Bored With Life? Get Lost! The Magazine Designed To Send You’. And Mad had ‘Humour In A Jugular Vein’, so we did our thing and we went to a distributor who flipped out when he saw it. It turned out it was the same distributor for Mad. So he said, “Look, two guys came into my office in 1938, two young fellows, just like you.”, we were 22, 23, “Two guys came in and I turned them down. They went across the street”, he was on Lexington Avenue, “to DC Comics, which was then known as National Periodicals Magazines, and they sold it. It was Superman”. And he said, “I’ll never make that mistake again”. He called his secretary in, he says, “Write them up a cheque and bring out a contract”. Ross and I couldn’t believe it. When we got the cheque in our hand for ten grand, which was more money than we ever saw at that time, we went down the hall to the elevator dancing and jumping up and down like two kids with the cheque in our hands. If Mike Estrow had opened up the door and saw that he would have stopped everything. We were like two idiots. Crazy little kids bouncing off the walls. And then was when we did Get Lost. But then he said to us, “Don’t do Get Lost” and we said, “What do you mean? We’ve got a contract”. He said, “No, no, we’ll do Get Lost, but do 3D comics first.” We said, “Why?” And he said Mighty Mouse came out in 3D for a quarter, comic books were ten cents, and he sold over a million copies. We gotta go 3D. The kiss of death. 3D destroyed more companies, the company that put out Mighty Mouse went bankrupt after that, because it was a one shot type thing, people read it and that was it. They didn’t want to buy the next one, or the next one, because it was a gimmick. So we said, “Well what are we gonna do? He wants a 3D comic”, our brains were so smart you know, “Let’s do something that no-one’s done yet – let’s do romance”. 3D Love and 3D Romance were our two books with the glasses. It cost us a fortune. We lost $25,000 of our own money, which was a lot of money in those days. We printed 500,0000 copies and we sold 5%, which is death. Because who wants to read about love in 3D? They’re not naked. We thought we were smart by doing something different and he said do something that the others aren’t doing, the distributor said. The reason why nobody did 3D love was because it wouldn’t work. Usually they do 3D action, things jumping at you, arms coming at you, animals coming at you with the glasses. But they didn’t last, they all went bankrupt. In fact the distributor went bankrupt too. In fact Mad sued him because they thought he’d set up the whole thing for us to do Get Lost, which was like Mad. And then Mad sued me and Ross to get us off the stands. We won the case but we lost the war because they knocked us out of the box distribution-wise, we had no distributor, they broke ties with the distributor and Mad went on to be unbelievably successful. And we were pretty successful that Mad were worried. We sold 39% of 350,000 run of the first issue and the distributor said, “We’ve got a winner with Get Lost”. But then all hell broke lose and everything went down the tubes.
DB: Did you and Ross ever work for Mad at any stage?
ME: Never worked at Mad. We went to work for him and we met Gaines and he said to his editor to tell us he wouldn’t give us work if we were the last two guys in the world. He held a grudge. <laughs> But he’s dead now, who cares? <laughter> Like the Joker said to Batman, “He’s dead, he’s dead!”
DB: When you were working in the ‘50s all the censorship and the Senate Hearings were underway.
ME: That killed my horror book. Knocked us out of the box.
DB: What was the climate like at the time?
ME: Terrible. This guy Wertham, he was claiming that we caused kids to go crazy in his book The Seduction Of The Innocent, and one of our books was on the TV. I’ll never forget it, the politician that wanted to be president, Kefauver. I hated Kefauver for what he did to me. As an example, he put up a lot of stuff and one of them was one we did with a kid who’d died in his oatmeal, his head was in his oatmeal, and he drowned. And another one we had where the guys with a knife, some weird thing and it was the drawing, and he made examples of how bad it was. And he really hurt us. Hurt the whole industry. So now we had to put little seals on the top, Approved By The Comics Code. You couldn’t even have a gun pointing towards another guy. You couldn’t have red blood, it had to be black blood. If the blood was on the guy’s body it had to be black, not red. It destroyed comics as we knew it.
DB: How was it on a personal level? I spoke to Dick Ayers and he recounted a story about how his kids, when they were at school and the kids were asked what their parents did for a living, they were too embarrassed to say.
ME: My daughter was that way, the same way. In fact John Buscema’s nephew, he stood up very proudly in the same class as my daughter. And I got my daughter and said, “Why didn’t you say?” and she said, “I didn’t want anybody to know daddy”. In fact my mother had a fight with somebody at a wedding. When she said to this woman who’d asked what does your son do for a living and she said, “My son’s an artist”. So they said, “What agency does he work for?” real snobs. She said, “He does comic books”. “Oh he does comic books! Oh my God!!”. Comic books are a wonderful American pop art, there’s nothing wrong with them.
DB: The irony is now the books are more graphic than they were back then.
ME: Well, when you think about what we couldn’t do in the 1950s when that all came out, with Kefauver and all that stuff. We couldn’t do anything. The war stories were so tame, that’s why Bob Kanigher said, “Let’s go with the dinosaurs”. We went to dinosaurs because you’re not killing another guy, you’re shooting a dinosaur. There were no Japanese to shoot. There were no Germans to shoot, you’d shoot a dinosaur. We had to write around the code. It destroyed all the imagination, all the movement until Stan Lee, genius that he was, he created human interest in the characters. Like a time when my daughter was reading a comic book of Spider-man. And I walked in from my studio to her bedroom and I see her reading a Spider-man by Ditko. I said, “You like that?”. I was doing Wonder Woman and Metal Men, we thought that was better illustration, it was higher grade of DC. She said, “Yes, I like it daddy”, I said, “Why? His proportions are all off, his head’s too big”. She said, “No daddy, he worries about his homework and he’s afraid his aunt May’s going to get mad at him because he’s got a cold because he was out all night fighting the enemy”. I said, “Oh my God, Stan Lee did it”. Stan Lee hit it right on the head, he put his finger on the pulse and that was human interest. They’re real people that you can identify with. Something that DC never did. Superman is a rock. You can’t identify with him. You can’t identify with these other characters that are unbelievably super, but little Spider-man, little Peter Parker, you can identify with him. And the college kids did and everybody did and Stan said, “I’ve got a new method and that is human interest. Identifiable characters”. And he won the game. He was right and the books just took off. When I started with him the pay was so low that I used a pen name because I didn’t want to leave DC, but after that he’d pay more than DC. It just took off.
DB: One thing I’ve noticed, is that during the 1960s you and Ross were one of the first two to sign your names on to the covers of the books that you were doing at DC.
ME: We wanted a by-line. What happened when we did Wonder Woman, the guy that did it before us, H.G. Peter, as long as he was still around they said you can’t sign it. But we took over when he retired, so finally we got our by-line on Wonder Woman. And then we did it with Metal Men, because we started that, and a lot of the covers for DC, the war covers, we didn’t sign it on the cover. They had that policy. Stan figured you’ve got to get some kind of identification between the creator and the fan. He believed in that, like Hollywood. And he set that up, Jazzy John Romita, Mighty Mike Espo, these were things that the reader identified with those characters and the names of the creators and the artists. He was a believer in Stan Lee, Stan Lee, Stan Lee, Stan Lee, Stan Lee on everything. Even things he did nothing with, just Stan Lee Presents. It’s like Walt Disney – Walt Disney Presents. He had nothing to do with the artwork, he was the producer. So Stan knew that the identification to the reader when he saw the characters by John Romita, by John Romita, by John Romita, by John Romita, by Jack Kirby, that that makes for sales in the future. They want a Jack Kirby story, they want to see a John Romita story. DC didn’t do that. DC had very cold looking splash pages and covers. There was nothing on them, no word balloons, nothing. And Stan decided to put word balloons on the covers. It took years before DC caught on and put balloons on the covers.
DB: Along with Ross you worked with quite a number of exceptional artists, like Kirby, George Tuska, Romita, Gil Kane… who were your favourites?
ME: Well it’s gotta be Ross, because Ross and I grew up together. We developed our thinking together. There were other artists that I worked with who were much better than Ross was, as far as being attractive, and good looking drawings. John Buscema just flowed the stuff. John Romita’s was just beautiful stuff. Gorgeous women. Ross was a little on the crude side, he had to be softened. When you worked over Ross you had to ease up on very angular shapes. He wasn’t attractive is the best way I can put it, like a John Romita, like a John Buscema, or a Sal Buscema. Jack Kirby was not attractive. Jack Kirby was very designy, but very good, very dynamic. Ross was very tough to work over, but I loved him for it. I loved the way he told a story. He didn’t cheat. He put everything in that had to be in there.
Gil Kane, by the way, was a genius. I worked with him for years, I knew him for years, I’ve been at his home, we were good friends. He loved Ross’s stuff. He thought Ross Andru was the most under-rated guy of all. He loved Ross’s feeling for depth in a picture, that would go in and in and in, many planes of depth. Ross was that way. But Gil did some unbelievably good stuff when he did that syndicate strip, with the science fiction. They were some designs. The way the designs would wrap around and come up and down. He learnt a lot from Burne Hogarth that way with Tarzan, to be able to have from the top, it was like an under-riding current of line where he’d go up and around and around and round and underneath the panels, from the start to the bottom there’s a design. And he learnt that. Ross learnt that, and Gil learnt that from Hogarth. He was very friendly with Burne Hogarth, right til his death. He was very good. I remember when I first met him, he was just a kid. He was a little older than me, but we were both kids I guess. I was like maybe 21, 22 and he was about 25. His name was originally Eli Katz, and he changed it to Gil Kane. I guess because of Bob Kane, it had a nice look to the name, a nice sound to it. He didn’t have to change his name but I guess he figured it’d help him as an artist to see his in print, with Bob Kane: Batman and Gil Kane: DC Comics. It’s all related I guess. I made mine ‘Espo’, not Esposito, a little Espo.
George Tuska, we did a lot of work. We did a Planet Of The Apes series in a black and white book. They reprinted those books at Malibu Press, the whole series of ten comic books into one pocket book. 20th Century Fox did not want us to use the face of Charlton Heston as the hero, so we had to alter it slightly. I don’t know why, but when we first started it, I was up at Marvel doing it, and George Tuska did the pencils, and I was going to ink it and put some great tones on it to give it that black and white book. They said no you can’t use Heston. I guess it was a money thing because then Heston might have wanted to be paid, or maybe his agent wanted to be paid, or 20th Century Fox wanted to be paid, it was one of those things. So we had to alter his face, I don’t remember exactly. I think we gave him a moustache, changed his hair colour, but it was very successful and we did quite a few issues. Did you get those books?
DB: We used to get those books as black and white reprints. A company here called Newton used to reprint a lot of the Silver Age Marvels in large size, black and white format.
ME: England used to do the same thing – British Books the used to call it. British Marvel comic books were all reprints of my stuff and all the other guys stuff. We even did a Captain Britain. They went over well in England and I guess you had them too.
DB: We did, and I remember that towards the end of the ‘70s they used to reprint all stuff like Dr Strange, Tomb Of Dracula – stuff like that – in black and white.
ME: Steve Ditko. And the Dracula stuff, that was good, that was Gene Colan.
DB: Gene Colan’s Dracula looks beautiful in black and white.
ME: There was only one guy who knew how to ink him. He was the most difficult guy to ink because he doesn’t use lines. He doesn’t use contours, he uses shading. Light and dark. And so the guy who used to understand him the most, not Frank Giacoia, not me. Frank Giacoia is like me, we worked with line, we construct. Even John Romita, it was all line, same with John Buscema. But this guy is Tom Palmer. You’re familiar with him?
ME: He is brilliant. I gave him his first job when he was a young fellow. I needed a background man and I called up Wally Wood. And I said, “Do you have a background man” because a lot of pages were piling up. He said, “Well I can’t give you my top man, I’ll give you my new kid who just came in called Tom Palmer”. So I was living in the suburbs and he sent him to my house. He came to my house, he was attractive, nice guy, just married, clean cut, and I showed him the stuff I wanted and I gave him a page of Wonder Woman to do and do the backgrounds. I looked at the stuff when he brought it back and said, “My God, this guy’s too good for this. He shouldn’t be doing backgrounds, he should be doing the whole thing”. So I called up Sol Brosky at Marvel Comics and I said to Sol, “Please, I got a gentleman here I think you guys could use. His name is Tom Palmer, he’s never done comics to any extent other than backgrounds, but he’s too good for backgrounds”. So I sent him up there and he became a star. And I’m so proud of him. He’s excellent. He really knows how to twirl that lustier look to a simple dynamic hero. He really jazzes it up. Most of us other fellows from the old school didn’t work that way. We worked like Milton Caniff of Terry And The Pirates, stuff like that.
DB: What were John Buscema and Gene Colan like all those years ago?
ME: John kept to himself. John Buscema would just turn out the pages, an unbelievably great draftsman. He could draw! He learnt to draw differently from us. When Stan started Marvel after Timely went bankrupt in 1957, Ross and I were at DC doing Wonder Woman and Metal Men, and John Buscema, he went to Dell Comics. A lot of guys got out of comics, it was dead, there was nothing left. When Timely went under all these guys were left like fish trying to get back in the water, stuck on the beach and they gotta get back in. And they couldn’t get jobs because a lot of work was handled by Timely – they were like a factory. Then other companies, like Fiction House, they all started going under with the little staffs that they had. Then it became strictly freelance for all these publishers. Some of the real good guys, like John Buscema, they got a lot of work up at Dell Publishing. Then he went into advertising. Mike Sekowsky stayed in comics because he was always needed with his gift of speed, and guys like him went to DC Comics and started picking up the slack there. Ross and I went to DC when we teamed up after I left Timely, we started with war stories and war books. Then we went to Ziff-Davis and Standard Publications and did Joe Yank. There were so many little companies that we went to before we started publishing. Then when we went bankrupt we went back to DC and had to take a cut in pay. Bob Kanigher said, “You’re coming back? You’re coming back with your heads down? Bad boy, bad boy. Bad dog! Take a five dollar cut”.
DB: What was Bob Kanigher like?
ME: A tough cookie. Ross and I worked for Bob until we feel into the hands of Julie Schwartz when Carmine stopped doing the Flash and we took over the Flash. Ross and I did not appreciate, we did not understand the Flash. He was too muscular. He wasn’t lithe and swift looking like the way Carmine did it. Carmine did a great job. Carmine set the whole stage, the whole pace for sci-fi at DC Comics with that style, that look. The very clean, very metallic and very sterile. It wasn’t like Milton Caniff, which was powerful. And the perfect marriage was with Joe Giella the way he inked him. Joe Giella had a beautiful line was able to get a nice clean look to Carmine’s stuff. Carmine was not a clean penciller. Although everything was there but he would dirty up the page with a million pencil lines and a guy like myself, when I got it, I was stunned when I did a few things. I was like ‘where do I start’? But Joe Giella once told me, just take an eraser and rub it down and then cleanly design everything that’s under there. And he did an excellent job. Joe Giella is living not too far from me and I think he’s doing the strip Mary Worth.
DB: What was Kirby like?
ME: I met him when I went bankrupt, when I was publishing and his company took over, Simon and Kirby. He and Joe Simon took over a bunch of titles for the same distributor that I had that I was supposed to do with Ross but we had a falling out with the distributor. Bullseye Comics and all those comics, westerns and so on, in about 1954. We did a couple of stories for Jack. Kirby was a cigar chomping, fast talking guy. He was a good guy. Joe Simon was more the business man of the two, just like with Ross Andru and Mike Esposito I was more the business guy because Ross was very introverted. He didn’t mix too well with going into business, with the meetings and so on. Although he developed a better understanding of how to handle himself and not be awkward when he got older. But in the early days he never pushed himself. He never showed too much self-esteem about what he was doing. He always felt that he had to do a hundred times better than the next guy or the next guy would say he was hacking. He used to tell me, “If you don’t bleed you’re not really trying”. And do you wanna know something? After he died, I inherited all of those qualities. And I’m mad at him for that. Because now when I send out stuff the biggest worry I’ve got is “Will he like it? Will he like it?” and it’s not fair to me, or to you, or anybody because you’re going to see something that you wanna see that I don’t see. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I look at the thing that I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks and I look at and look at it and then I start to go “My God, I’ve got to run away from it”. If I saw it six weeks later I’d say, “Gee, that looks pretty good”. But when I’m doing it all these insecurities are piling up in my head that this is wrong, and that’s wrong and I’ve got to change this, and Johnny once told me, “Mike, you can’t change anything when you do a re-creation. You’ve got to do it exactly the way it was, almost like you’re printing it”. And I said, “Yeah Johnny, but when we did that splash page with number 40, where the Green Goblin is pulling off his mask and Spidey is strapped to a chair” and even Johnny couldn’t stand that one because the left arm of the Goblin, the foreshortening was off, and I wanted to change that. I did one for a guy in Ohio and he said, “You changed it”. I said, “I thought I’d make it better. I made the teeth more real” and he said, “No, no that wasn’t the way it was in the original” so I did it over. That’s when I learnt my lesson: don’t try and change what you did thirty years ago, because they’re buying the dreams of thirty years ago. They’re buying the images of thirty years ago. No matter how amateurish it may look by today’s standards, that’s the way it was when they were sixteen years old and looked at it.
DB: Do you still see many of those people?
ME: Just Johnny Romita. Another guy who just died that I found out about, John Tartaglione. I was stunned because he did all my backgrounds for years, and then when I was doing the syndicate strip Spider-man, with Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother, he was pencilling and I was inking it. Larry wrote it. Then I had a falling out with Larry and I left the strip and John Tartaglione came into the picture and he worked on it until he died. Good man, all around man. He could paint, illustrate, do comics but he wasn’t that stylised. He didn’t develop a technique that fans knew it was John Tartag. He was a damn good artist. You’d give him a job to do and he’d do it. He wasn’t like guys like George Tuska, who had a look. Or Johnny Romita, or Ditko who had his own look. He wasn’t that kind of a penciller and inker.
DB: What were the differences between Marvel and DC, both as companies, and the working environment?
ME: DC was like the New York Yankees. It was class. I’m not a Yankee fan, I have to say that because I realise they always had class. I always felt that to work at DC as a young man, that’s class. Just like Broadway, it’s the ultimate. Like MGM movies compared to the little fly-by-night places. Marvel, on the other hand, Timely Comics was a factory. Timely Comics used to turn out tons of stuff without any real quality at that period. When they became Marvel then they became damn good. They did things that DC couldn’t keep up with. DC started to fall apart and Marvel kept growing and growing. They created the Marvel Universe, they created thousands of characters and between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, they were unbelievable. Everything had a human interest, you could relate to it and you didn’t get that at DC. They were good stories but they were strictly stories. You as fan couldn’t feel any connection to the characters.
DB: I was once told that DC were very professional, yet almost sterile.
ME: Right. That’s what I meant when I said they were the elite as a business. It was very clean cut, very smart business wise. They were known as top draw.
DB: With Marvel you had virtually the one editor in Stan, at DC you had several.
ME: (Martin) Goodman said to him, “It’s your baby, do what you want”. And he became a one man show and he did a lot of work. He used to write stories, I can’t believe how fast he used to write them, he did them all. This was even before Marvel took off with the super characters, this was when he was doing terror, horror and science fiction, he was knocking them out. And good quality, and then in comes Kirby and they teamed up and they became a real volcano erupting with talent and ideas. I’m sure they sat together in a room and just bounced them back and forth. Stan created the new approach to writing comics. He decided to forget scripts, nobody wrote scripts anymore. DC still wrote scripts, but what Stan would do, he’d have the penciller lay out the story and then he would write the word balloons in the panels in pencil. By this way, by doing this, he gave the creative juices to the penciller to enable him to do his own pacing, to do his own story line. He would get a thin story line from Stan, like a one page of type, typed out on his typewriter, it would say simply, Spider-man and Green Goblin, in the battle scene they’re going to do this and do that. And the artist gets it and he’s got to pace it in ten pages. And he takes it from there, and the genius of the penciller, he becomes the movie director. He becomes a story teller. Where in the old days he’d just do the drawings dictated by the writer in the script. He was held back. I’ve worked with a lot of writers and you’d get a script, very good writers, like Bill Finger, and we’d get scripts, Ross and I. And they were brilliantly written scripts, but you were controlled and stuck into his little area that he wanted you to do. The balloon would say this and the description would say this and you had to follow that description. The editor, Bob Kanigher, would say, “That’s the script and you gotta do it”. Now what Stan Lee did was to say no, you get a thin outline of what takes place on one page that’s supposed to go into ten pages. You pace it your own way, any amount of panels you want on a page, you want four panels on a page, you want ten panels on a page, you do it, lay it out and pencil and then it goes back to me to write it, Stan Lee, and he would write the balloons in pencil. Along the border of the page the pencil would also make little indications of what he intended this to be, what he intended that to be and then it goes to the inker after the lettering went in and the pencils tightened, it would go to the inker and he would embellish it another step. By doing this he got speed, it was like an assembly line, like Ford Motors in 1910. He gave the artist the freedom to be his own movie director, his own story teller. There’s no restrictions, you’re not restricted to the pacing of the writer who sees it his way and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it restricts the penciller to just follow it almost like a mechanic, like a paint by number, like the plans for a building to build a house. It’s already laid out for them. So Stan did something that was never done in comics and I give him credit for that. And that’s part of his genius, like Walt Disney with his story boards with writers, they didn’t do that in the old days. Walt Disney started all that, where all the writers would put on the wall the scenes and the whole story in pictures and that enabled the animators the freedom to do it. Stan created this approach (for comics) and I don’t know if they do it at all up at DC today, I think it’s still scripts. And there’s nothing wrong with scripts, but I think Stan did it in a way that really enhanced the ability of the penciller to do his thing.
DB: You said previously that although the art at Marvel might have been all wrong, out of proportion, it was more realistic than what was on offer at DC to me as a kid.
ME: It wasn’t sophisticated. I’ll give you a great example. You get a guy like Curt Swan. Brilliant artist, but it was dull, and that’s not an insult. I’m not insulting the man, or criticising the man, but it was dull, it wasn’t dynamic. Stan wouldn’t hire a guy like Curt Swan, and if he did, he would change his whole approach. John Buscema never thought like this. John Buscema worked for Dell Comics, which was very static and very quiet. They did movie books and so on, like Zorro, any hot movie they would do up at Dell Comics. And the stories were scripted, six panels on the page, very square, very simple, and the pictures were very simple, almost like it was taken off photos from the movie. Very quiet. Ogden Whitney was a guy like that, a very good artist but very quiet. I loved Ogden’s horses. When I was fourteen I used to eat his stuff, I would copy his horses, but he didn’t have the dynamics of a story telling look. You get a guy like John Romita, and John Buscema, after Stan got a hold of this guys they changed their whole approach. They exploded, they opened up because of the way he had them work from the non-script, so to speak. He let them do it their way. If they wanted one panel to be as big as the whole page, they would do. “I want action here, I want the whole page to be a knock-out page” where the writer might not have thought that way in a script. So it became a very visual thing with the penciller.
DB: How much influence did Jack Kirby have in all of that?
ME: Definitely Jack Kirby. I think the two of them together worked well. Stan had to write faster, and this was better for Stan because he just had to put the balloons in pencil after the guy did the work, rather than get a blank piece of paper and write the whole script out. And Kirby was able to do four or five pages a day this way in layouts, and then give it to a penciller, like myself, and an inker, to tighten his layouts and then ink it. But if I had to take a script, it would take me forever. But the fact that he was able to knock out four or five pages a day, in just lay out form. You’ve seen some of his rough layouts?
ME: There’s no features on the face, just a circle. A lot of the Hulk stuff was done that way. It enables the inker to refine it, pull it together with his pencil or with a pen, and then embellish it with the ink, add the shadows and it enables Stan and Jack to knock out tons of stuff. I remember when I first met Kirby. Stan brought me up to him and said, “Look, I’d like you to meet Kirby” and Jack Kirby said, “I want you to work with Mike” meaning me, “to show him our approach”, because I was from DC and everything was very literal. If the guy had someone standing in his bare feet then every toe had to be exact with the nail on it – that’s how DC worked. Everything had to be real. But with Marvel, they found a way of shortening that and designing things differently.
DB: What was the life of the freelancer like?
ME: You had to jump ahead before the guy behind me collapsed. Go to the next one, and the next one, because freelancers have to do that. You can’t have your allegiance to just the one publisher, you can’t. Because even though they say they’ll give you a contract, they want you as an exclusive, you still get screwed in the end. When push comes to shove, you’ll be shoved. Unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast. If you’re a guy like Kirby, who was important to Stan, that it would never work out bad, he would still be top drawer. He would still be the top guy. He would still get the all the best deals. Certain guys, when things would get rough, would be weeded out because the ship is sinking so it’s every man for himself. But not with a guy like Kirby. Kirby left on his own, not because things got slow or anything like that, he just went to DC. He had the name, he could do anything he wanted. He did some nice stuff at DC, Kirby.
DB: The Fourth World material.
ME: Right. Actually what he was doing in a sense was taking some of Marvel with him. I think Stan knew that, because all of these things were developed between the two guys. So it was easy for him when he went to DC to give DC what they were lacking in their approach, that Marvel had. And it was like industries that swap engineers, executives. By him going to DC he was able to give them the real look of Marvel, and the way they approached things, the type of characters. They were pretty good, too. He had some success with them. But then again you’ve got to remember that comics were dying at that time. So there wasn’t much he could do to resurrect their status of being the top company anymore, because the only ones that were holding on were Marvel really. The Marvel Universe, that was a great idea, all the books that came out on each character.
DB: The thing that got me in was the way they all interacted. You’d have the Fantastic Four in an issue of Spider-man, Iron Man in the Hulk…
ME: That’s the genius of Stan Lee. When I say the genius of Stan Lee I mean the genius of Walt Disney, he did the same thing. How he made all his people better that worked for him. Stan was able to get the talent and delegate the responsibility to these groups to do these things when he couldn’t do it anymore because he was too involved with so many things. Guys like Marv Wolfman, Len Wien, these guys were very good, that were developed by Stan in new areas. They were developing new ideas, new characters that would intertwine. They would be all related, the Marvel Universe. Jim Shooter was also responsible for that. It all came out of the original ideas of Stan and Jack Kirby, but developed further through these other guys that were put into position to develop these ideas. Marv Wolfman is a very good writer. And one of the best is a guy who’s doing TV now, Gerry Conway. Real sweetheart of a guy. He used to come to my house because we were in the movie collecting business together. We were getting our own films through the underground, big films like 2001. I had a cinema scope down in my basement, unbelievable stuff. I had to pay through the nose, $800, now you buy them for $19 on DVD. <laughter> My son was into that stuff and I spent thousands and thousands, Judge Roy Bean was his first one. We had a club, with John Verpoorten, we had a movie club. We’d all buy these films, we bought sound projectors, Gerry Conway was involved, and John Romita, we all did it. They were dupe negatives, dupe prints, but they were still a lot of money, $800 a pop.
DB: You and Ross created Metal Men.
ME: I love Metal Men. What happened was they had a situation up at DC where they had to get a new book every three months. They had a try out book called Showcase. Each editor had a turn with coming up with something, and they only had a couple of weeks to develop it for the next three issues. If it caught on then it became its own book. We did a lot of crap like Rip Hunter Time Master, all these things. The Brave And The Bold was another one of the offshoot things, but Showcase was the key one for new ideas. Bob Kanigher, it was his turn as an editor, Julie Schwartz, Murray Boltinoff, they all had opportunities down the line. Murray Boltinoff did the time machine with Rip Hunter. Besides the Metal Men, Bob Kanigher did Suicide Squad that Ross and I did, for three issues. It was a good book, but it didn’t go anywhere. So it was his turn and he had a week so he came up and tried all these different ideas and said, “What’s wrong with using metal characters, like robots?”. And little by little he did it so fast, within a week he had the whole thing laid out and he called Ross and me to design the characters. Mercury being the hot head, he gets his temper up and he shoots up like a thermometer, and Gold was immaculate, beautiful, and Platinum was the girl. But she had a bad habit of falling in love with Doc Magnus because her responsometer was screwed up and he had to operate on her constantly. He wanted to kill her a couple of times, destroy her. In fact one cover I did she’s on the operating table and he’s trying to change her problems and all the guys are hanging around the operating table with tears in their eyes. So Bob said, “We gotta turn this out in one week”. So the first book that Ross and I did wasn’t the way we’d have liked it. The cover was the one with the giant sting ray coming down over the rooftops and bombarding the Metal Men on the rooftop. I hated the cover because they were on the bottom, about an inch high, and this big sting ray is the whole cover.
DB: I remember the cover, it always made me think it was an Aquaman book.
ME: Yeah, they were all on the bottom. Ross didn’t know what to do, so Bob Kanigher said, “We want to play up the sting ray” because at that time, the 1950s, cheap B movies of science fiction was a big thing like that, with sting rays and things from outer space. So he had this thing attacking and it had to be big, so that meant the Metal Men had to be tiny, like an inch and a half high. Anyway, that’s what we did, and we did it in a week and it caught on. It became its own book after three issues on trial in Showcase. It went on its own and took off until Bob Kanigher started running out of ideas and <laughs> he was going crazy after a while. He was running out of ideas for Wonder Woman, he had Wonder Tod, he had the impossible stories. He had Wonder Tod and the mother all in the story. Girls liked it, but I don’t think the guys liked it because it was too unreal.
Metal Men got to a point where Ross walked away from it. He said, “I can’t stand these stories anymore. I don’t want to do them”. Ross was the kind of guy that if he didn’t enjoy the script he wouldn’t get into it. He was like, “I’m prostituting myself, I’m doing garbage. I want to do what I think is good. If it’s good I’ll break my back to do it”, that’s the way Ross was to his dying day. Like he did on the graphic novel (Spider-man: Tangled Lives) that Gerry Conway wrote. He worked very hard on that, very hard. It took us a year to do it and it was way behind schedule for many reasons. Anyway, that’s how that started and we were top dog on that book, and we did it for a long time, almost ten years. Finally, when we pulled out, Mike Sekowsky did a couple, and I did a couple with Mike, and Gil Kane did one or two and I inked them. I couldn’t do it like Ross would do because his style was completely different. It was more lyrical. Ross was more jumpy, harder looking. Gil was fluid, but Bob loved it. And the transition from Ross and me to me and Gil Kane did not bother the sales at all. Where it did bother sales was when Ross and I took over the Flash from Carmine Infantino because he wanted to quit pencilling and just be the editor. I had to say that Ross and I did not understand the Flash. Ross, being Slavic, that was his background, he was very think in his wrists, in his ankles and his whole body and usually you draw yourself from a kid. You know what you look like in the mirror and you draw yourself. So Ross, when he drew the Flash, he made him very muscular. And when you make a character that muscular, and not that light, he doesn’t look swift. Carmine had a way of doing the Flash that made him look like he was speeding. He was like two dimensional, he was so thin. He’d go right by. When Ross did it he was angular, muscular and powerful. And it looks very powerful, and the lay-outs were very powerful, but they would look like they were in slow motion. The Flash has got to be fast and he didn’t get that in his drawing. Some fans loved it, some fans hated it, but we stayed on it because we had to stay on it. They didn’t want to replace us with anybody else until it finally petered out and it almost killed the book. Sometimes it doesn’t work when you change a guys work. It worked with Johnny Romita with Ditko. It wasn’t easy for Johnny, but he did a good job with the transition from Ditko’s approach to his own approach. The very first cover, he tried to make it look as close to Ditko as possible. I inked it with him and the inside of the book, I inked the whole book with Johnny.
DB: Did you get much of your original art back from DC and Marvel?
ME: We never got it. It was Kirby that got everybody to start getting it back. All the art work was being kept by the publisher, and who knows how much money they made over the years. I never got any Wonder Woman pages. I never got any Metal Men. I never saw one, because either they shredded it or they gave them away. Fans would come to the office and they’d hand them a page. It wasn’t til years later that Sol Harrison went to Marvel and spoke to Stan Lee and said, “We’re going to give the artwork back to the guys”. Something happened in Washington DC, where it became illegal to hold that stuff. It was rightfully the creators. Whether it be music, whether it be paintings, advertising, comic books, the creator owns it. A guy like Norman Rockwell, in the old days he’d have to ask for it back. But today, anyone that does an illustration in a magazine, he own that. They’re allowed to print it, but he owns the original. So Marvel started giving back the art work. I was getting tons of it but the collectors weren’t into it then. Now, if you have a Kirby original page you get five grand, at least. I had all that stuff. I gave them away. My nephew coloured a Hogarth Tarzan page with thick crayons, and now they’re worth ten thousand dollars each. The only reason we got those was because Hogarth was nice enough to say, “Take what you want fellows” because we were his students. And he thought we’d appreciate them. He never thought they’d have any value otherwise he’d never have done it. He had five hundred pages that he’d done over ten years.
DB: A lot of it’s out there though…
ME: It’s out there but not where I’ve seen it.
DB: I did a quick search and found some Flash pages…
ME: Flash from Ross and me?
DB: Do you ever see those pages and think, “Well by rights they should be mine because it was taken without my knowledge”?
ME: Well, of course! I get very upset about it. That’s why Kirby went into an uproar with Marvel Comics when he never got his pages. And that all started the repercussions of his anger, it came to the point where law was passed, I think a lot of it had to do with Neal Adams realising the plight of Jack Kirby and guys like him, guys like us and so on, and the law came out that when somebody publishes a great cover for the Saturday Evening Post, like Norman Rockwell, they publish it but Norman Rockwell still owns that painting. Their right was just to publish it, they don’t own it. So the Congress in Washington put out this ruling that you have the right to reproduce it for so many times, but the ownership of the original artwork still belongs to the creator. So then Sol Harrison met up with Stan Lee and all of a sudden we started getting our work back. It started in about 1977, around that period. All of a sudden tons of work started coming in because they weren’t destroyed or lost. But a lot of it was lost, DC used to shred the stuff. They didn’t know that it had any value. They’d just burn it because you had to have a warehouse just to keep all that stuff. But some people knew the future value and they got their hands on it and some guys have warehouses full of the stuff. It’s unbelievable the values of this stuff. Johnny Romita had a cover for Spider-man 122, the one where Gwen is dead in the arms of Spider-man and the Green Goblin is screaming, “You’re Next!”, and it was sold for $75. Then after the guy bought it for $75, and Johnny maybe got $25 for it when he sold it to the original dealer, who also used to buy stuff from me for fifty cents or a dollar per page, car loads of it, and it was sold on for $65,000 about a year later. When I told Johnny I thought he was going to have a stroke. He said, “My God! We’d all be rich Mike if we didn’t sell them or give them away. When you think back who knew there’d be any demand and value in nostalgia and collecting of the stuff”. Who knew…
DB: When you see the stuff are you tempted to contact the sellers and point out that some of the art wasn’t obtained legally?
ME: Unfortunately, I don’t think we can do that. I know John Buscema had a big fight with Stan over the phone when he found out that someone was buying the art for the Silver Surfer. Stan had these pages, he had a lot of pages that we never saw, and at that time nobody was taking them back, and he gave them to somebody, who sold them to somebody who sold them somebody. And John found out about it and he called Stan up and he was screaming, “Those were my pages! How did you get them?” and a big fight ensued. And Stan apologised and said, “You can have them back, don’t worry about it. I don’t know how this happened but a lot of things pass by me that I don’t know who’s got them. I just see them and give them away to students, I give them away to fans when they come into the office. To a politician, I sign it over to them”. So anyway, there is this argument that comes out of this where the artist feels cheated and Jack Kirby was one of the guys who was very upset. He felt he was really being raped, and probably true. Because there was tons of stuff. I never did as much work as Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, but Ross and I did a mountain of work. We did a lot of work and I don’t think we saw on fraction of an inch of any of it. I don’t recall getting any Wonder Woman pages back. I don’t recall ever getting any Metal Men pages back. I do remember getting a couple of Suicide Squad pages back. The reason for that was because DC wanted us to do something that we needed reference for and they gave us the pages to work on something else. I don’t recall what happened to them. The only things I’ve got left are a couple of pages of Zen, that Ross and I did. I do have the lead page of the Spider-man Fear Itself graphic novel. It’s the first page with Hitler on it. I only have that opening page. I had a lot of those pages and I sold a lot of those pages. As far as the Metal Men? I wish I had some.
DB: And the Flash pages?
ME: I wish I had them. But if I had them today, I think I’d sell them.
DB: With Ross, and by yourself, you worked on pretty much every major character at Marvel and DC. Is there any character left that you’d have liked to work on?
ME: I can honestly say no. Because it seems like we had our hands in just about every direction. There were a lot of characters that we didn’t do, but not because we envied the guys doing them, “Boy, we’d like to do that”, we just liked to work. When we got a story, like Annie Oakley, and I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was something we had to do because Stan wanted us to do. Joe Maneely had died, and he asked us to do it. I remember I had the flu, I’ll never forget it. I was about 27, 28, in 1955, 56, around that period. I got a bad case of the flu and I was in Ross’s studio, in the basement of his mother’s house, and I broke into chills and fever, I was about 104, and Ross called my doctor up and said “He keeps throwing up, he’s got to finish this story by tomorrow morning!”. So he said “Just keep giving him tea, hot tea, hot tea, aspirin, aspirin, aspirin”. Well the next morning I had a head like I was drinking all night, but the job was done. The funniest thing about being an artist, being a cartoonist and coming from this environment, when you put the pressure on yourself, of working 48 hours straight, through all kinds of situations and pressure and tensions, the euphoric feeling you get when you finish is unbelievable. You feel so good. I equate it to the fact that if you keep pounding your head against the wall, and when you stop it feels soooo good. But it doesn’t last because two weeks later you’ve got another deadline and it starts in all over again.