Thursday, July 2, 2009

Carmine Infantino's Final Interview? No way.

“Let me ask you a question,” Carmine Infantino says at the end of our interview. His voice normally reaches the lows of a mumble, except when he has a point.
Like now.
“Where do you think I fit in the whole picture of comics?” he asks with an air of sincerity, as if he were asking if the sky was really blue. “Be honest. A lot of people don’t like what I did as editor, but some did.”
Once the cartoonist behind fast-moving superhero The Flash, then art director and then editor, and finally publisher, of DC Comics, Carmine Infantino travels the block and a half with us to a corner booth of a busy diner.

Carmine helped start the Silver Age of comics with the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash in Showcase #4 in 1954, inciting a flurry of superhero revivals and rejuvenations. Carmine also introduced an organic sense of design to his comics, eschewing realistic renderings and anatomy for sheer visual effect. He also, as editor and then publisher of DC Comics, brought a dynamic art sensibility that the older company then lacked, in comparison to rising competitor Marvel.

“I was born in my house in East Brooklyn, by a midwife, and then we moved to Central Avenue in Brooklyn,” Carmine recalls. “My father owned a house, and things were bad. It was Depression era, and things were brutal, just brutal. We paid $18 a month rent for three rooms and couldn’t even afford that. That’s how bad it was.
“It was all Italians and Jews, and one black. He was a teacher, and a nice guy. There were also real Mafia guys, no joke.”
Carmine was a Depression kid whose father was a former musician-turned-plumber, and mother an Italian immigrant. Growing up, Carmine finally got his parents to send him to the School of Industrial Art, where he met his best friend Frank Giacoia.
“The school on 40th street [in Manhattan] was where our art school was,” Carmine says. “Frank and I went there and (this is how bad times were) we each got a quarter from our folks for the day. One day we’d eat off of my money and one day we’d eat off his money, and then we’d buy comics with the other’s money. One day he had to walk home to Brooklyn.”
Where the first generation of comic book artists were inspired by the pulp magazines and daily comic strips, Carmine and Frank were part of a new generation that added comic books to their list of influences. They were merely six to eight years younger than their predecessors, haunting editorial offices with portfolios, scraping for work and aiming for a chance to break in. One of their trips took them to All-American Comics, the sister company of DC, where Carmine encountered editor Shelly Mayer, and future Infantino friend and colleague Irwin Hasen.
“Frank Giacoia and I went up there, and there were two offices, one in the front and the back where Shelly Mayer was,” Carmine says. “We went up there and were told to show our work to Shelly because ‘maybe he could use you’. We got down there, and you look around and see all these artists working at the tables, and Shelly is in the middle. So the receptionist took us in and he’s looking at our work, and we hear ‘En garde!’ and little Hasen has a t-square in his hand. Shelly drops the work, picks up his t-square and they’re going around the room, jumping up on desks. I said ‘Frank, let’s get the hell out of this place!’ Then, Irwin kisses him on both cheeks, and leaves, and then Shelly gets back to looking at our work.
“That was how I met Hasen the first time; sweet little guy, and he’s a good guy.
“They asked me to get an award down in Atlanta [recently], and I said ‘I can’t describe me, but Irwin can.’ He says ‘I’ve known [him] so long now. There’s something wrong with his head,’ and they all start looking at me.”
Carmine laughs. “He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”

“Frank and I first worked at Marvel Comics,” Carmine notes their first success as freelancers. “They were then called Timely Comics, and we did a character called Jack Frost. The funny part is that Joe Simon liked Frank’s work, but didn’t like mine. He gave Frank work and then he said to me ‘If you want to work here, I’ll pay you.’ I told my father and he said ‘No, you’re going to finish school,’ so I finished school.”
Like several of his contemporaries, Infantino was influenced by the thick brush line and heavy shadows of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon cartoonist Milton Caniff. Inspiring an army of Depression era kids, Caniff’s atmospheric tales of river pirates, aviators, and sultry femme fatales permeated the comics of the ‘40s through the pencils and brushes of this new army of teenage artists. Carmine came onto drawing super-fast character The Flash for All-American Comics in 1947 (later part of DC Comics), a character he would soon have a lasting and defining relationship with. He was also drawing Johnny Thunder in the back pages of Flash Comics; writer Robert Kanigher and Carmine introduced the fishnet wearing blonde crimebuster the Black Canary, who soon took the strip over from her bowtie-wearing costar.
“The mail came in and she took over,” Carmine says, and then smiles fondly. “The interesting thing with her, and I was in Korea and she was a dancer with the USO. We went out together, and we had a good time. She’s the one I based the Black Canary off of, with her long blonde hair and fishnets.”

But all of this is a prologue before Carmine’s story really picks up. As the comic book industry was collapsing in the early to mid 1950s – a combination of a Senate investigation that scared parents, low sales, the collapse of a distributor, and the advent of television – Infantino was about to enjoy his reinvention from comic book illustrator to artist and would help rejuvenate the medium. Carmine, at the time, was working under old friend and editor Julius Schwartz and DC Comics.
“We gave superheroes up and tried romance, science fiction, and everything else, but nothing worked,” he recalls. “I went into the office one day and Julie said ‘We’re going to do superheroes again.’ I said ‘That’s nice.’ He said ‘You’re going to draw them!’ I created the costume for the Flash, and we went on from there.
“Three issues of [Showcase with] the Flash, and the numbers were so good that no one believed them. We thought that would have been the end of it, but it was just the beginning.”
Carmine had earlier put together a pitch for a superhero called Captain Whiz, which he’d even tried to sell to former boss Joe Simon. No one was buying, so Carmine put the pitch away, and let the character resurface as the new Flash, criminologist Barry Allen.

Emblazoned on the cover of 1956’s Showcase #4 is the new Flash, a red-suited and cowled figure leaping off of an unwinding roll of movie film. The story inside, written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Carmine with inks by Joe Kubert, introduced police scientist Barry Allen, who is chronically late for everything – until he’s simultaneously blasted by a random bolt of lightning and doused in chemicals. Then, he becomes on time to stop crime, as the super-fast Flash.
The first appearance of The Flash was successful enough to soon prompt a reimagining of old superhero Green Lantern, followed by others like Hawkman and The Atom. By 1960, the reinvigorated heroes assembled as the Justice League of America, and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was thinking of ways to cash in on this newfound superhero craze; the result was Marvel’s editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby coming up with The Fantastic Four…then The Amazing Spider-Man (with Steve Ditko)…and so on...
Showcase #4 has been long credited as the start of the Silver Age of comics, where the medium was lifted out of the slump by a smartly designed red-suited superhero.
Looking at the story in Showcase #4, it’s understandable why the strip was so successful: where superhero comics had prior been crudely drawn affairs, with nary an ounce of sophistication, the new Flash had more substance and gravitas than his predecessors. Kanigher’s sense of character placed Barry Allen alongside Clark Kent in terms of quirkiness, making the alter ego as diametrically opposed to the hero. The smartest thing Kanigher did, however, was to tell the story from Barry Allen’s point of view: when Barry over runs a bus he’s trying to catch, or when he sees a platter of falling food suspended in mid-air (due to his perceptions altered by the onset of super-speed), the reader can relate to him more than any other hero.
Infantino’s panels were told in widescreen, giving a cinematic sense to the story, and using the space around the character to further reinforce his speed.
“It was a tough character to draw,” Carmine admits. “The motion was the big problem…You need space for him. You got the feeling of a lot of space with his running.”
Kubert’s inking cemented Infantino’s pencils, giving the strip a more real-world feel than the other superhero strips that came before. It was as if superheroes had graduated from the make-believe police work of the Dick Tracy movies and to the realism of the Dragnet TV show overnight.
But Showcase #4 was also the start of Carmine’s new style, a far cry from the standard comic book artist of the ‘40s, and the beginning of his realization as a blend of artistry and design with sequential illustration. His characters bent at weird angles, geometric towers of concrete erupted from the ground of Central City (his experimental architecture is also in full force on the spaceman strip Adam Strange: “I liked doing science fiction, and I always wanted to be an architect, so it was a way of getting my rocks off,” Carmine jokes), and design dominated over rendering.

“What happened, actually, was I was going to the School of Visual Arts at night, and I was drawing and knocking myself out every week,” Carmine says of the end of his realistic period. “So I asked my teacher, Jack Potter, ‘How do you like it?’ And he said ‘If I want real life, I’ll take a photograph.’ He buried me. His point was ‘I want you to be a designer. You have the ability to be a designer.’”
“It got so bad that Julie wanted to fire me,” he laughs about. “The change took place in my style, but then they appreciated it.”

National/DC Comics was very much the old guard, even as far back as the 1960s. Owned by Harry Donenfeld and his accountant Jack Liebowitz, they were the one comics publisher who survived the crash of the ‘50s. Even Marvel Comics and Mad Magazine, who both nearly died with their distributor in the ‘50s, were distributed through DC’s network. Harry Donenfeld’s son, Irwin, went on board as Editor in Chief in 1948, and became a close friend of Infantino’s.
“Harry was a drunk, a bad drunk, and they say one day he fell out of bed and hit his head,” Carmine notes. Donenfeld’s head injury occurred in 1962, leading the man to an amnesiac state until his death three years later.
Liebowitz remained at National after Harry Donenfeld’s departure and death. At one point in 1966, a collection of National writers that included Batman co-creator Bill Finger and Flash writer Gardner Fox approached Liebowitz about benefits and royalties. Shortly after being turned down by Liebowitz, they apparently stopped receiving work from National Comics, despite many of them having worked for the company for over two decades.
“I enjoyed working for Jack,” Carmine notes. “He was very straight and said what he meant. He kept his word. He had given Siegel and Shuster a marvelous contract with a hundred thousand a year, each, in the early days. This is when $20,000 was a lot of money. Jerry said ‘No, I want my character back.’ And he blew it. But I liked Jack. He didn’t bother me.”
It was an exciting and tempestuous time for comics, as Marvel Comics had emerged from obscurity with their ground-breaking take on superheroes: The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor…Editor/writer Stan Lee and his handful of artists reached out to teenage and early college readers, their heroes flawed and (in turn) more believable. The violent and kinetic art of Jack Kirby, as well as the moody weirdness of Steve Ditko, gave the Marvel books a look unlike anything else on the newsstands. National, meanwhile, was turning out a more visually sedate product that had trouble competing with the pathos-laden and off-kilter Marvel Comics.
Carmine rose to Art Director in 1967, and was charged with designing and producing covers for DC. Later that year, Warner Communications bought DC out, and Irwin Donenfeld found his Editor-in-Chief position in jeopardy.
“Irwin was a great guy,” Carmine recalls. “I loved him. He was my boss much later, and they didn’t appreciate him. What happened was that when they bought out DC, they promised him that he’d be on the Board of Directors. When they came in they told him he’d be on the Junior Board, and he knew something was fishy. He quit. I said ‘You’re crazy, you have so much pull there.’
“ I worked with the old man, Liebowitz and asked him who the boss was, and he said ‘Yourself.’ I wound up in charge the same way.”
Taking over as Editor-in-Chief, things changed at DC under Carmine, in a way that would open the doors for new talent that gave the company a much-needed and overdue infusion of talent while keeping the established talent happy. Carmine brought Sgt. Rock artist Joe Kubert and famed EC Comics’ Joe Orlando on board as editors, and also started a line of mystery books. Carmine’s “artist as editor” philosophy helped DC grow into a more visually distinctive company than it had been in years.
Carmine also went to low-rate publisher Charlton Comics who, under the editorship of artist Dick Giordano, had developed a formidable line of “Action Hero” comics.
“I wanted some of his people from over there,” he admits. “I knew who they were: Jim Aparo, Denny O’Neil, Steve Ditko, and Steve Skeates. I needed a change at DC, so I brought these guys in. It revived the company. They were all good: Jim was good, Steve was Good, Denny was good, Aparo was great. We had good guys.”
Carmine also implemented the legendary coffee room, where inexperienced artists could hang out, hopeful for their first break.
“They could bitch about anything they wanted,” Carmine elaborates. “And no editors were allowed in there.”
The coffee room provided breaks to young aspiring artists like Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Alan Weiss, Howard Chaykin, and Walt Simonson—all of whom became the superstars of the 1980s.
One of the most important policies enacted at the time of Carmine’s editorship was the return of original comic book pages to artists. Prior, DC had kept all original art, either giving pages away to visitors, or destroying them en masse.
“What I did was I put it in print so that the guys upstairs couldn’t correct it, and it said that you’d get your artwork back and you’ll get a piece of the action. I put it in the books and the guys upstairs threw a fit: ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re giving the company away!’” Carmine says. “It was important. The guys should always get something, you know? That I’m happy about. You have to do that: you’re like a family.”

Carmine found himself wearing a bigger hat in 1971, when Sol Harrison left as Publisher, and Infantino inherited the role.
“I tried everything,” Carmine says. “We did pretty well with some of the characters, and the mystery books did pretty well. That was something Marvel didn’t have. I did them because they were beating us in superheroes, so I made a bunch of the mystery books and hit them all at once.”
The mystery books, including House of Secrets and House of Mystery, were just as much a showcase for new talent as they were collections of different material. They were pretty tame by both today’s and pre-Comics Code standards, but gave the new breed of artists a chance to develop in back pages.
Then, there was Carmine’s biggest coup: getting Jack “The King” Kirby, the lynchpin artist at Marvel Comics, over to DC. Kirby’s art, character designs, and storytelling had helped Stan Lee build the once-failing publisher into a “House of Ideas”. Frustrated with feeling like he didn’t get the credit he deserved, and boiling over with thirty years of working in the shadow of a writer, Jack Kirby was ready to strike out on his own.
“Jack Kirby – his problem was that he couldn’t dialogue,” Carmine says. “With Joe Simon, the dialogue was great; with Stan Lee the dialogue was great. [Jack] just couldn’t do dialogue.
“At one point, Joe Simon was willing to work with him again. I said ‘You’ve got to do it, Jack,’ and he said ‘I’d quit, then.’ I did everything I could to keep him going.”
Kirby started at DC by writing and drawing Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, a third tier title that Kirby populated with bizarre clones and a rejuvenated Newsboy Legion (a team he and former partner Joe Simon had created for DC back in the ‘40s). Due to Kirby’s non-DC style, and apparently with Kirby's knowledge beforehand, Carmine had inker Murphy Anderson re-ink the Superman and Jimmy Olsen faces to maintain character integrity.
The short-lived Olsen run served as a launching pad for Kirby’s own project, the otherworldly Fourth World books: New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People. The books introduced warring outer space gods in an epic setting, while Simon and Kirby and Lee and Kirby had created magic on the comics page, the energetic Fourth World merely produced awe-inspiring special effects. While the books wouldn’t run beyond a few years, the characters and ideas are still being used by DC Comics today and have become a mythology all their own.

Carmine, in an effort to bolster DC’s sales, added a higher page count and price tag (from 15 to 25 cents a book) to DC’s titles, offering extra reprints of older material to the books. In a pricing war with Marvel for shelf space, DC was hurt when Marvel met them blow for blow, and then decreased their cover prices back down to 20 cents.
“Many years ago, DC knocked off Western Comics that way,” Carmine recalls. “Marvel was trying the same thing with us, but screw them, I hit them book for book. We both lost a lot of money, and the guys upstairs were not happy with that.”
In the late ‘70s, a big-budget Superman movie was in production through Warner Brothers, with a script written by Godfather’s Mario Puzo.
“Then there was helping with the Superman movie with Mario Puzo,” Carmine laughs. “He sent the script in, and it had someone trying to kill the Pope, and Superman [sleeping with] Lois Lane. I went ‘We can’t put this out.’ I went upstairs and was told to go fix it. I went to California and we fixed it in about a week, coming up with the villains and the story for Superman I and II…We had the villains in there, and each one took over a continent. When it got to the producers, they said ‘We can’t afford this!’ so it came down to a town.”
According to Carmine, his return to New York ended in his being let go by Time Warner as publisher of DC. The pricing and shelf war with Marvel had lost DC money, and Infantino was also not given script credit for the Superman films.

After leaving DC, Carmine went freelance, drawing some stories for the black and white Warren magazines, and even finding a home at Marvel Comics as a freelancer. Star Wars had just come out in theaters, and Marvel had the license to produce the comic book.
“Lucas asked for me [to draw Star Wars],” Carmine reveals. “It was tough to handle, with all of those characters, and then I couldn’t take it anymore so I left. He called Marvel and offered more money and I said ‘It’s not the money.’”
At one point, Carmine moved to California to produce storyboard and design work for animation, but his mother’s illness caused him to return to New York. He even found a home back at DC, when he returned to drawing The Flash, a second tenure that lasted from 1981 to the series’ final issue in 1985. He continued with DC as a freelancer, drawing pieces for their Creative Services department.
Now, back near Lexington Avenue, Carmine lives in retirement. When I first asked him for the interview, he told me I was “the last of the Mohicans”, and it would possibly be the last time he would ever go on record. After all of the twists and turns in his life and career, he seems a mixture of being both resigned and comfortable with his place in comics.
“Would I change it?” Carmine reflects on his career. “I don’t think so. I would’ve done the same things again. I enjoyed all of the people I worked with over the years. There are some I didn’t care for, but that’s life.”

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