Nick Cardy is one of those artists whose name and work are associated with the Silver Age of Comics. He drew “Aquaman” and “Teen Titans” for years at DC Comics from the early sixties into the seventies. He was also the artist and one of the writers of the short-lived Western series “Bat Lash.” In the sixties and seventies, he crafted some of DC’s greatest cover work, and today can still be seen contributing an occasional cover to books including 2008’s “Teen Titans Lost Annual” or 2009’s “The Spirit” #31. This led to his next career as a poster artist for films like “The Streetfighter” with Sonny Chiba, “Movie Movie,” “Meatballs 2” and many others.
Cardy began working in the comics industry when he was still a teenager, working for the Eisner/Iger Studio before he was drafted. He became a decorated World War II veteran who served in the European theater as an Assistant Tank Driver in the Third Armored Division where, among his other commendations, he was awarded two Purple Hearts.
Eva Ink Publishing’s “The Artist at War” is a collection of sketches Cardy made while he was serving in the war. He packed multiple pads in his duffel bag before shipping off to Europe and the book reproduces the scenes and impressions he crafted while overseas. Many of them are brief moments of calm, and while others are less so, it’s those odd, quiet and funny moments that Mr. Cardy returns to when speaking about the war and his experiences there.
Mr. Cardy cited his age at the beginning of our conversation and joked, “If I can’t remember what the hell I had for breakfast in the morning, what is it like when I try to remember something that happened sixty or seventy years ago?” Though he admitted to only recently starting to feel old, his hearing and memory are excellent and he was as fun and charming as an interviewer could hope for. Mr. Cardy took time to speak with CBR News about his new book, his time in the service and his long career in comics. We’re grateful to Renee Witterstaetter and Todd Dezago for their assistance in arranging it. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
CBR News: Your new book, “Nick Cardy: The Artist at War” is a collection of art you did during World War II. How did the book come about?
Nick Cardy: My friend [Renee Witterstaetter], we’ve known each other for quite a while, she said, “Nick, we’re going to do a book on you.” I had a lot of combat sketches from when I was in the service. I carried 3″ x 5″ spiral bound drawing pads in my duffel bag and a watercolor set and a larger pad. Whatever I could fit in there. As I went along for those three years I sketched and did watercolors. When she saw them, she decided to make a war book out of them. I had to go digging through the photographs and I had to write on the back where the photographs were done. I wrote a story on some if I had a nice story to go with that picture.
During the war, you were originally in the 66th Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Black Panther Division,” and you designed the shoulder patch insignia.
They had a contest in the 66th Division for someone to design that and mine was accepted. Prior to that I would get up in the morning with the guys and spend some time in the field and everything was regimented. When I went to headquarters the general congratulated me and they wrote an article about it, and I stayed at headquarters for a while. I got up early in the morning and the guys at headquarters were still sleeping [Laughs]. They had a better cook than we had, so I hung around. I ended up staying there because the general wanted his portrait done.
In the 66th division, one of the fellows that was in the outfit was a bartender that used to be at the Stork Club in New York. At the bar I was sitting there and I made sketches of all the officers. When a corps general came to visit, he said, “Who’s the artist?” They told him who I was and he said, “I want him in my outfit.” The general and the chief of staff decided, we’ll promote him. They were looking to see where they could get that promotion from and they finally found an empty spot in the motor pool so they gave me the promotion to the motor pool. I went to Texarkana and when I got there the place was a mess. They were packing to go overseas to the Pacific. The guy said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m an artist.” He said, “Can you stencil duffel bags?” I said, “No, I don’t do stenciling, I hire somebody to do it, I’m not a letterer.” So he said, “Well, then you can go back, we don’t need you.” So I went back and that’s a whole other story.
How did you end up in the European theater and serving as a tank driver?
When I came back, they had transferred me so I was no longer in their company. I was extra and they sent me somewhere else and I went overseas with a bunch of other fellows that weren’t assigned to any other outfits. On the way over I got pleurisy and was in the hospital in Southampton [England]. When I got better they interviewed me and this man says, “I see here that you were in the motor pool, can you drive a tank?” I said, “I can’t even drive a truck.” He said okay and you know when people use a stamp in that humorous way. He was pounding paper with a stamp. “You are now in the Third Armored Division.” The stamping sound, I felt like it was the lid to a coffin. [Laughs] I didn’t know anything about driving a tank, but they put me in a tank. I was in the Third Armored Division and I was an Assistant Tank driver.
What did it mean to be an assistant tank driver?
If the driver has to go to the bathroom, you watch the tank. [Laughs] You sit alongside him. In the tank you had a large transmission. In car there’s a little console in the middle and sometimes if you want to get to the side seat, you have to go over that bump to get there. These transmissions, you couldn’t squeeze over. You could see his head, and your head is just below where the turret turns. The door over your head had a small periscope that when the lid was closed your seat is at the lowest angle so you could see through the periscope what’s going on. Then you could lift up the seat when the lid was open so your head was above the opening you could look out. But if the turret happens to turn with the gun and it’s over your latch you couldn’t get out there or over the transmission. It was a little terrifying. They just put me in there, and I was more or less a passenger on a sight seeing trip. [Laughs] We were a spearhead division and with the first army and we went through the Northern part of Europe.
There was a lot of mayhem, but when we had a break, I’d take my pad out and draw what I remembered. I had notes. It was something. Those are things that I remember, but in talking about it, I talk about the light things that happened. I try to lean towards that. Sometimes when you tell a war story long enough, it gets bigger. [Laughs.]
After the war, when I was in Paris, there was a hospital. They said, “Oh, you’re an artist, we could use you.” I said, “Where the hell were you three years ago?!” [Laughs] I wound up near Versailles. I was stationed there doing drawings. We came home on a freighter. They had bunks that were about eight high or six high in the hold of this ship and when you wanted to get down you had to walk down these things. [Laughs] As we were coming across the Atlantic we had these storms that were bouncing us up and down. All the guys were sick. To make it worse, some of the guys who worked on the ship would come around hitting a bell yelling, “Dinner, dinner!” and everybody would end up throwing up in the bathroom. When [the storms] finally stopped after a week, one of the officers said, “Nick, can you get a couple of guys and clean up the deck?” It was very foggy. You couldn’t see the top of the mast. We were there and as we were cleaning, the fog started descending and I looked up and there, right over my head, was the head of the Statue of Liberty. Talk about a lump in your throat after three years.
How many pads and drawings did you make during the war?
There were six pads, 3″ x 5″, and there may have been twenty or thirty pages to a book. And I did what I call “spit drawings.” [Laughs] Let me explain that. I had a waterman’s fountain pen. If you drop water on [the ink], it spreads. So if I drew in ink and wanted a little tone on something, I would wet my finger and rub that part that I wanted toned with enough spit that it created a gray tone. Well, actually it was a blue tone, because it was blue ink, and I had what I called “spit drawings.” [Laughs] I mean we didn’t have water around. We were in the middle of no man’s land. [Laughs] I did a lot of those. Sometimes I would make little notes and write down, like, this was crimson, or burnt sienna, and mark the color for the sky. I would make notes in case I wanted to do something with that.
They used to have these little cough drop boxes, Sucrets. I soldered a little piece of wire with a loop in it so I could hold that box with my thumb through it. I put some watercolors in that, as many as I could, and use the lid to blend my watercolors. I would do my sketches that way. Some have watercolor and some didn’t. I went through the war doing that sort of thing.
I have to admit I like the term “spit sketches” just because it gets across the atmosphere in which you did them.
The spontaneity. It’s something that’s very quick.
Do you have any favorite pieces amongst those in the book?
I have one that’s a watercolor of a tank. A guy is sitting outside [the tank] and in the background you can see the red bursts of artillery. Another one is where you could see the tank that I was posted in. You’re looking at it from across the street to a house that’s been partially demolished and you can see the bannister going down and no door, no windows. That was done in sepia. There’s one I did where an armored truck, this was in Arkansas, got stuck in the mud after the rain and we’re pushing it. When I finished pushing it, I couldn’t find my shoe. My stocking was trailing me, but the mud had sucked my shoe off. [Laughs]
When you were drafted, you were already working as an artist. Since you started as teenager I’m guessing you’re largely self-taught.
I was born in 1920. During the Depression you couldn’t go to art school because you didn’t have any money and food was very scarce and then it got worse. I used to go to public library and look at books. When I was in junior high school, my art teacher gave me a book with colored plates. In those days they’d have regular pages, then on a blank page they would take a piece of art that was printed in color and they would tack it very lightly on that page in the book. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rubens, and all the way up. That’s where I got my education.
When I was in junior high school they wanted me to do a mural. There [were] two artists, one was doing the educational and they gave me the sports. Those murals were later printed in a newspaper. They showed the photographs of those two paintings and then they had another photograph of some of the paintings I did at the Boys Club. My teacher wanted to keep me off the streets. I lived on the East Side of New York City and they sent me to the Boys Club on 10th Street. I was having sculpture lessons and art lessons and they had a swimming pool. They had me do some murals in empty rooms and those were published by a magazine at that time called The Literary Digest. I won a lot of awards at the Boys Club and so they pushed me along.
I was into fine art and then after school there was a job open for a sculptor. Then I got a job at an advertising agency. I stayed there for a while. Someone said, “Why don’t you take this stuff to the Eisner and Iger outfit?” They had a bullpen of artists like Lou Fine and a few others. I stayed there doing comic books and then when World War II started, the guy that was doing “Lady Luck” with Will Eisner got drafted and I went to work there. Now Will Eisner, I called him Bill. Later on, I found out everybody calls him Will. [Laughs]
When he was drawing “The Spirit,” at that same time “The Saint” started in the movies. They had a theme song, this guy whistling. Every time when I would come in in the morning, there [Eisner] was, whistling this theme from “The Saint” and I think that he had a little of “The Saint” in “The Spirit.” “The Spirit” was a supplement that they fit into the Sunday newspaper. The majority was “The Spirit” and then they had “Lady Luck,” the one that I did. Bob Powell had “Mr. Mystic.” I was there about ’40, not even a year, and then I went to Fiction House and then into the army.
When you came back from the war, you did a number of things before working in comics for a longer period of around two decades.
When I first came out of the army I decided I wasn’t going into comic books, so I started doing a portfolio of illustrations. The magazines used to be full of illustrators. Later on photographs replaced them, but I always wanted to be an illustrator. I was offered the job of doing the “Tarzan” daily strip. I was also doing covers for various magazines, more or less testing to see how my colors worked. When you do an illustration, if you print it as a watercolor or another medium, it doesn’t always come out right. I was experimenting and doing that. The first jobs I did were for DC. They were all freelance. I worked for DC and then the money was coming in steady so I stayed with them doing freelance work and then I was full-time at DC. I did “Tomahawk,” then “Congo Bill” and then I went into “Aquaman.” I did “Aquaman” for quite a while. Then I did “Teen Titans.” I was doing “Teen Titans” and then I went to do “Bat Lash.”
The short-lived but great western series “Bat Lash.”
I was late because I was starting on “Bat Lash” so they had Neal Adams pencil a “Teen Titans” story for me and Gil Kane pencil one and I inked them. Carmine [Infantino] and all of them helped me out. I did the inking, but I could never just pencil something because I would draw a leg and have two or three lines. Sometimes when I inked my own stuff I would ink between the lines. Anyone else, they wouldn’t know what the hell to do with it. So when Neal Adams or Gil Kane did women’s heads, I would go over their pencils but do it as if I were drawing my own heads, because it kept the style the same. Because when Neal Adams does a girl’s head he does it differently than I do it. Same with Gil Kane.
I was getting tired of doing people in long underwear so I did “Bat Lash” and I had a ball with that. Sergio Aragones [laid it out] and then Denny O’Neil, who’s a fantastic writer, did the writing. Aragones and Joe Orlando used to work in “Mad Magazine” and every time they met they’re patting each other on the back and laughing. Aragones could do no wrong and every now and again Orlando would say, “Why can’t you be more like him?” I’m like, oh geez. It was like a father going, “Why can’t you be more like your big brother?” [Laughs] That didn’t help matters.
I think Orlando and Aragones thought I put too much fun in it. They didn’t want that humor [in the book] and I just picked up a magazine and there was an article about where Aragones didn’t like me. Anyway, DC, when they published a new book, they would give it a seven month trial. After the seven month trial, they dropped it. At the time in Europe, Carmine Infantino said everybody loved it. They couldn’t get enough of it because it came out the same time as the spaghetti westerns. Here in the states it didn’t sell well because the western genre had started to drop off. They didn’t have “Gunsmoke” anymore or the others because they were pushing too many of those, so they didn’t have the sales here but in Europe they kept reprinting them.
Then [Carmine] had me do about five hundred covers of all the heroes but then I got tired of it. It got boring. It wasn’t a piece of art anymore. That’s when I went out to Marvel and I was experimenting with covers again because I wanted to see what paints I could use to get the effect I wanted. Then I did movie posters. Where I was getting 40-45 dollars a page [in comics] or I don’t know what it was, I would do a layout for “Grease” or some of these other movies, a charcoal thing almost the size of the posters with the characters — not the final — I would get $3,000 for it.
If they want it on the humorous side, you get two or three guys that do humorous covers and they let each one of you do one for, say, $5,000 each one, and if they picked yours you’d get an extra $5,000, which was nice. You don’t turn your nose up at that. But then photography took over. I also did portraits and other illustrations.
You’ve done so much, but is there anything else you still want to do? Anything you have yet to try?
I like to do I do pastels and portraits. In some circles they say that I do beautiful women. I figured I’d do some watercolors, loose watercolors because everything is done by computer now, and I’d take those figures and put them in watercolors. Very simple, very direct. It would be more powerful. Leave a lot of air around it, like vignettes, and they will sparkle by themselves. I figured I can’t do anything because of the copyright. At one point I was thinking about doing these women partially nude. Say a girl is sitting at a vanity table and she’s combing her hair and in the room you can see a chair with something draped over it. It could be Wondergirl’s costume. This woman is in a pond and she’s bathing and it’s night it’s dark. On the bank is the silhouette of a motorcycle and hanging like spanish moss from a tree is lace stockings. Maybe I could [work] with that.
A lot of these things I put down in a memory pad and I put it in my Vivien Leigh closet. When Clark Gable walks out on her [in the movie “Gone with the Wind”], she says, “What am I going to do?” and he says, “Honey, I don’t give a damn.” Then as she closes the door she says, “Oh well, I’ll worry about it tomorrow.” So I have a “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” closet where I keep these ideas. [Laughs]