Monday, January 19, 2009

Irwin Hasen on New York Dreams

“I think New York is the greatest city in the world,” Irwin Hasen reflects while sitting in a living room chair in his apartment in the Upper East Side. Irwin’s a spry 90, sitting up straight in an antique chair. Just minutes earlier, he’d taken the flight of stairs to his apartment with little effort. “You’ve got every kind of person, and every kind of attitude. It’s my hometown wherever I go. New York is in my blood, because I was here for so long of my life. 80 years of working and mixing. That’s all I can say: It’s really, truly my hometown.” 

Irwin Hasen is the embodiment of the Golden Age artists from the 1940s, the generation that invented an initially disposable comic strip knock-off that became a vital narrative medium: the comic book. Like most of the first generation of cartoonists, he was a native New York Jew who entered the field hoping to score a comic strip.

 “The business men in those days were mostly Jewish men in the lower East side. I worked for those men. I wouldn’t want to live with them, but anyways, that’s another story,” Hasen has a high and hearty laugh, and he laughs often. “But I worked with them in the early days, all those guys. Then, I went to DC with Sheldon Mayer and M.C. Gaines, working on Green Lantern and Flash. I was always waiting for the opportunity to get a syndicated newspaper strip. That was my life, and thank God it came true. “Very few cartoonists in those days thought about syndication, it was beyond them. The syndicated newspaper strip was secretly the dream of the young cartoonists; they wanted to get the hell out of comic books. They worked hard in comics, but I was always on the cusp of wanting to have my own comic strip. It happened.” 

His earliest work, in its crudest form, included the first appearance of obscure character Catman: a superhero donning a leopard-print toga, mask, and paw-like gloves. Irwin was the second artist to later draw Green Lantern for DC Comics (then the All-American Comics sister company), and also co-created Wildcat with Batman co-creator Bill Finger, and chipped in on team-book All-Star Comics. Irwin’s art developed into a clean line with solid blacks, the end product a well-balanced and slick comics page.

Irwin’s bright blue eyes remain steady as he speaks, exuding an immense amount of self-confidence from such a short man. A confirmed bachelor, it’s probably that amount of moxie that got him everywhere he needed with work and women. One can only imagine his spunk over 60 years ago, as a younger man. “Life in the ‘40s was pretty good for a guy like me. Making a good buck from comic books, I was a man about town. I worked my ass off during the day, and at night I wore a double breasted suit, smoked small cigars and went on dates. Most of the guys were married, and I was the only bachelor.”

Then, the war came. Like a lot of cartoonists, Irwin was  drafted. “I was living with my parents, and then got into the Army, inducted as it was called. It was a limited service because I’m just under the height requirements. I got in by a hair, and it was one of the happiest days of my life…God bless my height requirement: I didn’t get killed. A couple of people that I knew were killed at D-Day.” When Irwin came back, he worked in comics for a few more years, moving on to draw the comic strip Dondi in 1955, with writer Gus Edson. The daily, about a war orphan with button eyes, let Irwin move into his current digs. When you come in the door, a bedroom and small kitchen hang off of a hall to the left, while the right takes you into a long living room (“When my father first saw this,” Irwin notes with a chuckle. “He went ‘What the hell do you need a bowling alley for? Irwin, for God’s sake, it’s a bowling alley!’”) The living room ends with an old drafting table with a built-in custom lightbox at the end, separated by a black metal railing. According to Irwin, it’s “where it all happens.”

“I live in a wealthy enclave near a bunch of millionaires,” Irwin says. “Little did I know where I was moving. I lived in a small one-room apartment on the Upper West Side. When I got Dondi, I decided to get the hell out of the one-room apartment. I come across town, and I see a sign hanging downstairs, so I asked someone in the building about the apartment; it was a friend of mine who was a woman doctor. Crazy bastard, but thank God he told me ‘Irwin, that’s the best apartment in New York City’. “I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He sends me over to the landlord, who had a dry-cleaning establishment, and I asked him how much? $300 a month. In those days, it was a lot of money. In those days…” 

The walls are covered with paintings and prints, and dark wooden shelving is built into the walls. A surrealistic painting by his late cousin, Bert Hasen, hangs on the wall; Bert died recently, and had lived above a whorehouse in France. Wooden lamps and furniture populate the apartment; a small wooden table sits (at the end opposite the drawing table) with flanking chairs and a loveseat. 
“My father was in the furniture business, so he took me down to the Lower East Side and he pulled in a few favors from friends,” Irwin notes. “I decorated the whole damn apartment myself. Everything you see here is me. No decorator could’ve done it, no professional. Anyway, I got lucky. I never invested in any real estate in my life, but I invested in my life. I’m 90 years old for Christ’s sake, but I’ve been here for 45 years.”

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