Comics icon Jim Steranko swapped stories with comics legend Carmine Infantino Saturday afternoon at Wizard World Philly at a panel moderated by historian J. David Spurlock. While the two have been friends for decades, this was the first time, Spurlock noted, that the two had ever appeared on a panel together.
Steranko got the ball rolling by asking Infantino how he'd come to create the "New Look" Batman, an event comics historians now consider the demarcation point between Golden Age and Silver Age Batman. It began, Infantino related, when Batman editor Julie Schwartz called him into his office. Infantino wanted to wait until the end of the week when he'd be delivering some artwork anyway, but Schwartz told him publisher Harry Donenfeld wanted to see them both the next day. At the meeting, they were told that Batman was losing the company money and they had six months to turn him around or they'd dump him. This was a significant threat, since co-creator Bob Kane still owned some of the rights to Batman, and if they stopped publishing the character they could lose the rights they had.
Infantino began by modifying the art style of the book, abandoning the style established by Bob Kane for a starker, cleaner look. He redesigned the Batmobile and changed the shape of Batman's cowl to make it more batlike. The yellow circle around the Bat symbol on his chest was Schwartz' idea. They also talked about having Batman carry a gun, as he had in his earliest appearance, but Schwartz vehemently opposed the idea.
Sales picked up slowly and Batman was soon out of danger. More importantly, TV producer Bill Dozier saw the book and liked it. When the TV show came out, sales skyrocketed and Batman has been safe from cancellation ever since.
Infantino then prompted Steranko to tell us about his role in the creation of Mr. Miracle. Before his work in comics, Steranko had worked as a magician and escapologist. One night while having dinner with Jack Kirby he asked why, though every comics company had at least one magician character, no one had an escape artist. Kirby didn't know much about escape artists, but the idea intrigued him. Steranko told him some of his exploits as an escapologist and later sent Kirby a book on the subject. Months later, Steranko was visiting Infantino in his office when Infantino showed him the cover proof for Mister Miracle number one. "This is you!" he said, pointing to the title character.
Infantino once tried to hire Steranko for a project. He'd just seen "West Side Story" and got the idea for a gang book called "Rumble" or "The Rumbles." Steranko agreed to draw it, but only if he could be paid at the higher rate he was receiving from Marvel. DC publisher Donenfeld wouldn't pay the higher rate, so Steranko didn't work for Donenfeld.
When Marvel started outselling DC in the late sixties, Batman was still outselling Marvel. Stan Lee tried to hire his friend Infantino away from DC, and Infantino was willing to go. DC's business chief Liebowitz called every editor at DC and asked how important Infantino was to the company. Julie Schwartz responded that he was the single most important person Schwartz worked with. Liebowitz made a counter-offer which still wasn't as good as Lee's, but he said something to Infantino that guaranteed Infantino would stay. He said, "I always thought you weren't afraid of a challenge. I guess I was wrong."
Steranko was also always looking for new challenges. He thought the art style of romance comics had become "constipated" over the years and asked to draw one. Stan Lee gave him a script and he used a sparse, open style with a lot of bright colors and "emotional coloration." He knew if he turned the story in too early, the editorial office would tinker with it, "which I despised," so he turned it in on the afternoon of the deadline day. Marie Severin, head of coloring, "hit the roof" when she saw it.
Steranko often tried new artistic techniques. Some worked, some didn't. "S.H.I.E.L.D." was a particularly fertile ground for experimentation, leading to some covers that are iconic today, but were considered outrageous at the time. When Stan Lee balked at some of his more experimental moves, he'd gently remind him, "House of Ideas, Stan."
Infantino was instrumental in DC's reviving Captain Marvel in the early '70s. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that editor Julie Schwartz was unable to work with Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck.
In the fifties, Infantino tried to sell a newspaper strip called "Captain Whiz and the Colors of Evil." In many ways, it was an homage to Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, the same changes in fashion that had caused Captain Marvel to be cancelled made it difficult to sell a superhero strip and Infantino put the idea on the shelf. Later, when Julie Schwartz asked him to revive the character of The Flash, the new character was based more on Captain Whiz than on the original Flash. Many of the Colors of Evil villains eventually found life, somewhat altered, as Flash villains.
Infantino and Schwartz would always try to top each other. Infantino would draw increasingly wild covers and challenge Schwartz to write a story about it. This game culminated in the now-famous Flash of Two Worlds cover, featuring both the Golden Age and Silver Age Flashes. He handed the artwork to Schwartz triumphantly and drove home. By the time he got there, Schwartz was on the phone with a story outline. That was the end of the game, but the beginning of the Earth-2 concept, which led directly through "Crisis on Infinite Earths," "Infinite Crisis" and ultimately to the current "Countdown" storyline. All because Infantino tried to out-clever Julie Schwartz.
A fan asked if they'd ever had any conflicts between their artistic impulses and marketing considerations. Steranko told a story about countering an artistic objection with a marketing argument. He'd been drawing a 9-part story in "S.H.I.E.L.D." He knew that after all that time he was going to need an amazing climax and he hit on the idea of a four-page spread. The picture would be so big the reader couldn't see it all at once. Stan Lee didn't like it, but Steranko pointed out that if readers wanted to see the whole thing they'd have to buy two copies. "Great idea, Jim!"
A fan asked what characters they most enjoyed working on. Steranko said "Captain America." He felt he didn't draw the book long enough to really get a good feel for the character. Making comics, he said, is like acting, with the artist playing all the roles. After all, they can't do anything we don't think up. Sometimes it takes a while to settle into a role. Even Jack Kirby didn't have the characterization down for the Fantastic Four until he'd drawn eight or ten issues.
Carmine interrupted to say his favorite character to work on was Detective Chimp. "What does that say about me?"
"I don't know," Steranko replied, "Have a banana!"