Drew Friedman Presents "Heroes of the Comics"

Drew Friedman is a renowned, award-winning cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared everywhere from "RAW" and "MAD" to "Spy" and "The New Yorker." In addition to his magazine work, Friedman also has a number of books to his credit, including "Old Jewish Comedians" and "Drew Friedman's Sideshow Freaks," which demonstrate his mastery of portraiture.

His latest book is "Heroes of the Comics," for which Friedman created portraits of 84 of the most significant people in the history of comics and wrote about their contributions. The book, which includes an introduction by Al Jaffee, where the artist talks about how his paths crossed with many of the creators depicted within, from his childhood to college to adulthood. An undeniably great tribute to the people who shaped the business and the artform that is comics, the book was the main topic of discussion when we spoke with the cartoonist.

CBR News: You're known for your portraits of people. Where did the idea for "Heroes of the Comics" come from?

Drew Friedman: It actually evolved over time, after I was asked by Will Elder's son-in-law Gary to create a portrait of Will shortly after he died for Will's daughter and Gary's wife, Nancy. They were very pleased with the results and so was I, so I decided to create a companion piece: Will's longtime collaborator and my former teacher Harvey Kurtzman. Some limited edition prints were released of the Kurtzman image, which sold out instantly, so I thought I might be onto something. I expanded the series to include all the original EC "MAD" artists, Wally Wood, Jack Davis and John Severin, then expanded to all the EC artists who I'd long admired, and then realized I had the makings of a book, a series of portraits of the early pioneers of comic books. At that point, I began creating portraits of several Golden Age comic book artists, including Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Siegel & Shuster, and kept going from there.

As a kid, I was a big comic book fan and collector, and I've also gotten to meet several of the legends over the years. My dad worked as a magazine editor up at Magazine Management, the company that ran Marvel, from the mid fifties to the mid-sixties. His desk was side by side with Stan Lee's, separated by a thin partition, and my brothers and I got to visit Marvel many times when I was young and kibbutz with Stan, who took a liking to me because I liked to draw. Later, I spent the day up at "MAD" magazine as a teenager, mainly hanging out in Bill Gaines' amazing mini-museum of an office, and then I had comics legends Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman as teachers at the school of Visual Arts.

How did you decide on who to include in the book? Was it people whose work you loved or who influenced you or what, exactly?

I wanted to include who I felt was the cream of the crop, those who had the most lasting impact,  as far as artists, writers, editors and publishers, people who began in comic books in the early formative years of the industry, 1935-1955, just before the Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency and the newly enforced Comics Code sanitized the business. I actually consulted with a few comics experts and historians to get their lists of who they felt should be included. I was locked into choosing about 80 subjects for the book, which was later expanded to 84, so I sadly had to leave out a few comics greats. My decision on who to include also hinged on getting good reference photos, which at times was difficult. Some of the subjects were rarely photographed, while I could only come up with a single grainy photo for others, or, none at all. The majority of the creators I chose for the book I admire for one reason or another, some created work I adore to this day while others may have been overrated. Some might even be classified as Villains of the Comics. Still, each one, in one way or another, or for better or worse, had a profound effect on the early years of the comic book industry.

You have a print of Siegel & Shuster on your website, which is them as young men. In the book, you depict them as older men. Why?

My plan was originally to depict everyone as older, but I soon realized I'd have to leave several essential folks out who died fairly young, including Bill Everett, Matt Baker, Jack Cole and Maxwell Gaines. Also, Steve Ditko hasn't been photographed for over 50 years, so I didn't want to attempt to imagine what he might look like today, just in case a photo of him should turn up, like several did of J.D. Salinger late in his life. So I included many younger and middle-aged portraits. In the case of Superman creators Siegel & Shuster, I really wanted to capture them a bit later in life, circa the mid-seventies when they were still struggling to get some recognition and financial compensation for the famed character they created who had made fortunes for others. If anyone was ever treated in a shameful manner by the comic book business, it was those two. They weren't ripped off -- no one held a gun to their heads and forced them to sign away all their rights to Superman for $130 -- they were bamboozled. So I wanted to capture both their weary sadness, and their fortitude in their portrait for the book. Both of them would have turned 100 this year, Shuster this past July and Siegel in October, so I created the younger portrait of them at the beginning of their careers to celebrate that milestone and released it as a print.

I guess what I'm really trying to ask is, how do you try to find the right way to depict someone the way you do? There's a number of factors, and I'm just curious how you go about making these choices.

I really didn't begin any particular painting with a preconceived idea of how, exactly, I was going to approach it. What I wanted to capture was just a quiet moment, either working at their desks or addressing the reader with a subtle, relaxed pose. I had originally sketched a younger Jack Kirby image, smiling, with his pipe, looking heroic, with a classic Kirby tableaux behind him, but it just didn't seem honest. Kirby had a long and amazing career, arguably the most important, celebrated  and influential artist to ever work in comics, but I don't feel he was treated fairly. Although he virtually created the template for the Marvel Universe, which is still being duplicated to this day, he was modestly paid and wasn't allowed to keep his artwork. He was treated shabbily and was undeserving of that treatment. I felt a more solemn portrait of Jack Kirby was more in order, yet still including the Kirby crackle tableaux. When it was finished, I felt it reflected the entire tone of my book, which is why I decided to make it the cover image as well.

Some drawings just evolved. I wait to feel what seems right. I drew Batman co-creator Bill Finger sitting at his writers desk, looking at the reader, before I decided to add the background image of Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine from "The Man Who Laughs," who the Joker was based on. Again, I generally prefer drawing older faces rather than younger; you see the subject's life etched into their faces, which you don't get with younger faces. Many of the artists are pictured at their desks because when I think about them, that's how I instantly imagine them, working in their small offices or studios, in some cases, like Jack Kirby, dark, basement studios. One of the interesting things for me is that so many of the artists who created some of the most wild and insane work for comics, looked like everyday guys you'd see on the street. Jack Cole, Boody Rogers, Basil Wolverton and George Carlson could have passed for bookkeepers. These comics artists created extraordinary work, yet so many looked ordinary. That's sort of the reoccurring theme.

Did you draw any of them from real life? Do you prefer that?

No, none of them posed. I think only about a dozen are still alive, at this point. Al Feldstein died while the book was at the printer in China, but we were able to get his death date included in time with his biography. When I set out to do my books of portraits, including my "Old Jewish Comedians" books, I try not to intrude on the subjects themselves or their family members if at all possible. Once the books are out there, let the chips fall where they may. I welcome the subjects' and families' responses. In the case of the "Old Jewish Comedians" books, the responses were overall very positive, with many of the still-living comedians embracing the books, including Jerry Lewis and Larry Storch.

In the case of the new book, some of the subjects proved so difficult to come up with reference on that I did break my rule and finally got in contact with several relatives, including the son of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who my dad had once worked for, and the granddaughter of comics pioneer M.C. Gaines. They both happily sent me some rare family photos of Goodman and Gaines, which proved to be very helpful.

Still, it's tricky for me. My fear is that when people hear my name is connected to a project, a red light goes off. "Uh oh, Drew Friedman -- the guy that draws all the liver spots!?"  But I think anyone who looks at this book will pick up on the majority of the portraits and biographies being respectful and unbiased toward each subject, including several I have little respect for like Bob Kane and Dr. Fredric Wertham. OK, maybe a few liver spots are included.

When including some people you have little respect for, like Bob Kane, how conscious were you about how to present him and how fair should you try to be writing about him? You didn't write anything factually incorrect, and you weren't mean, but how conscious were you about how you were presenting people?

With Bob Kane, I tried to keep his biography respectful enough to a point, but I wasn't going to whitewash him. So many negative stories have come out about him in recent years, and continue to come out. That had to affect the bio I wrote, and, finally, my portrait. The smirk on his face and the cocky attitude in his stance are evident, I think, and depict him as he was: A phony, a poser and a credit hog.

Again, I don't love all the creators I chose for the book, just as I wasn't crazy about all the old Jewish comedians I included in the three volumes. For those books, what was important to me was that they have great, expressive faces to draw, even alone in their dotage. With the "Heroes of the Comics," what was important to me in my selection process was that they all created vivid and outstanding work in comics that had a lasting affect. 

People who knows comics will know most of the people, though some are definitely more obscure than others, like Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson or Dick Briefer. Were you thinking about a mixture of the famous and the less well known?

I think so, mixing the obvious and unavoidable choices with the less famous and perhaps more obscure. Certain creators were of course impossible to leave out, like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, etc. But adding less well known folks like shopowner Harry "A" Chesler, and National/DC founder Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson and artists like Dick Briefer, Howard Nostrand, Ogden Whitney and Jesse Marsh made things more well-rounded.

Again, to my mind, I've included the cream of the crop, including some creators who basically worked in obscurity, many of them at the time using pseudonyms or working uncredited for very little money. The response I've gotten from a few folks has been, "Wow, I never knew what that guy looked like!" which to me is surprising since I was always interested to see the artist's faces who I admired the most. Serious comics fans are quite familiar with the faces and stories to do with their favorite creators. Some of them like Stan Lee are well known celebrities, but to the general public, who might be fans of iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, they have no idea of the names and faces behind the creations. Of course, many people probably couldn't care less, but I'm happy to give the creators the spotlight this time around.

Who did you want to include but didn't, for whatever reason?

Several people were nearly impossible to come up with any decent reference on, so I reluctantly had to leave them out. I also sketched out a few portraits, but wasn't pleased with the results, so I wound up putting those aside. I'm pretty hard on myself. Because the book was locked into a format which would only allow for 84 images, I was regrettably forced to leave out several talented artists. I include a few comics editors -- basically the obvious choices like Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Charles Biro, Carmine Infantino, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein -- but there were literally hundreds of editors who worked in early comics, so I drew the line at just those few, basically, aside from Stan Lee, editors who were also artists. I had originally planned and hoped to include more female creators, and, again, consulted with several comics authorities including Paul Levitz on their top female choices, and settled on the three included in the book, Lily Renee, Ramona Fradon and Marie Severin. There were certainly other women who worked in the early years of comics, some as editors and artists, but like most publishing businesses at the time, it was mainly dominated by men, and they sadly didn't have a great impact on the industry in the long run. I wasn't going to include women just due to the fact that they were women. That's another book. The three I chose had the most lasting impact.

How did you decide on the order to place them in?

The book kicks off with the earliest pioneers of the industry, from the mid thirties, and evolves from there. Max Gaines, who concocted the first four-color saddle-stitched newsprint pamphlets of comic strip reprints, is the book's first subject. From there, it's the earliest artists and writers who worked in comics or began their careers in comic books, like Walt Kelly, and several early publishers and the guys who ran the shops that outsourced comic book material to the new publishers. I tried to keep the order of appearance consistent to the years the particular creator entered comics, or, did their most important work. For instance Johnny Craig, who worked at the Chesler shop in the late thirties when he was 12, but didn't make a splash in comics till the late forties/early fifties when he created work for EC. His portrait and profile appear a bit later in the book as EC emerged in the late forties.

You've worked with Fantagraphics in the past, but how did this book end up with them?

I've been working with Fantagraphics for about 30 years now. They published my first anthology back in 1985, co-written by my brother Josh. The "Heroes" book was originally under consideration by another publisher, but in time, I felt the book was slowly becoming compromised -- smaller-sized format, biography text by another writer and more -- so I chose to finally walk away from what would have been a far more lucrative deal, and place it with Fanta, and get the exact book I envisioned without compromise. 

How Al Jaffee come to write the foreword?

I've been a contributor to "MAD Magazine" for two decades and have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know several of their long-time contributors, the usual gang of idiots, including Al. We've become friends over the years, and I know Al admires my artwork. He's one of my long-time cartooning heroes and I though he'd be the perfect choice to write the foreword because, aside from being funny, wise and articulate, he worked in the early years of the comics industry as an editor at Timely under Stan Lee -- and his portrait is included in the book!

What's next for you? Is there any chance we'll ever see a "More Heroes of the Comics" volume 2?

I'm trying to decide what my next project will be. I'm feeling I'd like to come up with something totally unexpected, but I'm not sure what just yet. Maybe a book of bunny rabbit portraits? A sequel to the "Heroes" book is a possibility, depending how the first volume does. I do have  a substantial list of subjects for a second volume I can finally get to, including Vin Sullivan, Otto Binder, Gene Colan, Nick Cardy and Dorothy Woolfolk. I know comics fans are passionate about their favorites, so I feel bad many were not included in the book. So we'll see, stay tuned. 

Friedman will appear at the Society of Illustrators with Al Jaffee on October 8 to talk about the book.

Why "Suicide Squad" Replaced King Shark With Killer Croc

More in Comics