On September 29, 2012, Richard “Dick” Ayers (1924–2014), who is best known for co-creating Ghost Rider (the cowboy character), inking Jack Kirby’s pencils, and his long association with the Sgt. Fury character, spoke to Shaun Clancy. (For a more in-depth overview of Ayers’ life and career, see Art Lortie’s obituary.) In this interview, Ayers talks about WWII, art school, freelancing in the 1950s, what went on behind the scenes at Atlas / Marvel / DC, and more.
SHAUN CLANCY: Any brothers and sisters?
DICK AYERS: I had a sister that was 10 years younger than me. She was still in kindergarten when I came home from the war. [Clancy laughs.]
CLANCY: Did your parents want you to be an artist?
AYERS: Oh, my father all the time! He started out reading me the comics when I was a little kid. And then one day, he finally said, “Hey, I’m wise to you now. You’re putting in the words. You’re not reading what it’s saying.”
CLANCY: [Laughs.] So that was something that you always wanted to be someday?
CLANCY: When did you get drafted?
AYERS: I didn’t get drafted.
CLANCY: Oh, you volunteered?
AYERS: I was a senior in high school, and they said anyone 16 or older. I was 18, and in the regular Army you had to be 18 before you could enlist, which I did. You wouldn’t have to wait to be drafted. So that meant I could go into the Air Corps, and I had a brother and a friend of mine I grew up with who said, “Dick, if you go in the Army, go in the Army Air Corps. You get a hotel room while the other guys are sleeping in a tent. You get a lot of preference.”
So we did! The first month, we were all scared that we weren’t gonna get into the Air Corps but, by golly, we did. We went down there to Miami Beach. Nice hotel room. We were sent to school to learn radio mechanics. But I got through it, and I’d built my own radio and everything, and passed on theory with high marks. So they said, “Now you’re a corporal, we’re gonna send you to Boca Raton to learn something secret.” So that was radar.
Now, I like the theory, but here I was again. I had to take the damn thing apart, and radar was far worse than regular radio mechanics because they had a color code system. And here I go with the color problems. I’d pass high on theory. What resistor is this or what condenser is that — and it left me high and dry. So … I failed. I went to see the commanding officer of the school, clicked my heels and saluted. “Soldier, I didn’t tell you to stand at attention. You’re now a PFC.”
I became a private with one stripe instead of two. And I was sent to McTomb Field, and assigned to a new barracks quarters, and one of the buddies that went with me who was in radar school said, “Dick, I read today on the bulletin board, if you volunteer, they’ll put you in art school. You’d go to art school for a month or so to study to be an artist! They’ll have you at a fancy table in Operations.”
I plugged in, I got a month’s course at McTomb University, and when I came out I had a nice drawing table, the best of my life! In Operations. [Clancy laughs.] And they’d see me drawing all the time. So one of the guys came to me, a young pilot, and said, “I got my plane. If you like, I’d like for you to put a picture on it?”
“OK, I appreciate that. What is it you want me to draw?” He wanted POON-TANG! You know what that is? Now you’ve got the plot. He’s riding the bomb down. That’s poon-tang.
CLANCY: Just the one plane?
AYERS: Just that one, because they were forming a T-94 bomber group. So the B-26 were new orders, and they were nice-looking airplanes.
CLANCY: I’m assuming he made it through? Did it see action? Did you follow the plane?
AYERS: Oh, yeah. Well. I got six battle stars. I got more points; I got home right away. [Clancy laughs.] I went everywhere they went!
CLANCY: Wow. So you were stationed in Miami the whole time?
AYERS: No. Just basic training. I was sent to Madison, Wisconsin. Then I designed a squadron. As soon as I got that change I turned it into 586th Bomb Squadron: 394th bomb group. Then I was put in my squadron, and we knew we had it made.
There was a fella that worked for Disney. He did this Radio Ray, but they were transferring him. So, the personnel officer said, “Ayers, I’m gonna have you do Radio Ray. You’d be good at that.” So I had my first comic strip.
AYERS: I came out of the war, and I was going to art career school on 23rd Street, I think it was. It was the first skyscraper! There was 23 floors, on which the last floor … You took the elevator, it only went 22 stories. [Clancy laughs.] Then you walked up the last, and you got to the school. Now, it wasn’t till many years later when somebody — when I was at a show — he spoke to me, and said” “Oh, that’s nice. You get paid for doing that. Doing those drawings on airplanes.” [Clancy laughs.]
I got a kick out of that, because it’s really a nice, modern building now. So that went along and it was mostly doing commercial drawings, which I wanted to do: but I kept hoping I would find somebody that would get me more into the comic strip line — for which, it turned out, I realized, there WAS none! Nobody was teaching how to write and draw comic-book stories. I read a poster on a subway wall, and Burne Hogarth was starting a school. It was the beginning of the School of Visual Arts.
I was about a month late. The school had already started in September, and I was about October. I got to be interviewed by Burne, which made me just thrilled! He was my big idol at that time! We got going, and he said something to the effect that, “Your samples have only comic book art. There’s much more to it than that.”
I said, “Yeah, but I don’t like the idea of drawing the same character week in and week out. I’d like to have it so I do a cowboy this week, and a soldier the next week, and like that.” He admired that.
He started a course in writing that started me learning to write, which I’d never touched before, the schematics of doing the story and writing it. It came along fine. We did great, and I think I was the first student in his school to get work at it.
As I’m going into my class for about the first evening, there’s a fellow and on his notebook is “Bache.” Bache is MY middle name. So that made me stop and talk to him. I got more interested, and then I found out he worked for Joe Shuster right nearby, and then would go to the school there, too … which is what I did for quite some time. I penciled Funnyman.
CLANCY: Only lasted about six issues or so, didn’t it?
AYERS: Seven. Good guess! I was so happy to get that and I worked in the studio. Joe Shuster was in the art department, and he would more or less finish up what I drew to get it into his style.
CLANCY: So you were a penciler at that time?
AYERS: Yeah, I was a penciler.
CLANCY: At this School of Visual Arts — you would have been there by ’47? ’46?
AYERS: Oh, yes! I started there like about ’45.
CLANCY: Do you remember the other students? Were there a dozen or so, or less?
AYERS: No. Ernie Bache was a fellow student. I have to really stretch my memory. [Clancy laughs.] I liked Ernie and we got along good together. Carl Memling, he was always around. He was very good. So I said, “Why don’t you show your writing to Vin Sullivan?” So, lo and behold, he took a page down and Vince Sullivan took him on and assigned him to the Calico Kid, I think he was.
The Calico Kid had an assistant who’s Oriental, and they brought around the idea of selling fabric from the wagon but then one day no more. “We’re gonna have him be a different character. You think up the costume. We wanna call him the Ghost Rider, and he’ll have clothes that glow in the dark and all that… ”
CLANCY: And that was Vinnie’s idea?
AYERS: I’m sure most of it was.
CLANCY: So you were on staff or freelance?
AYERS: I was freelance.
CLANCY: And did you pencil AND ink your own work?
AYERS: No. I didn’t ink it, but I penciled it.
CLANCY: Your style kind of looks like Frazetta! Have you heard this before?
AYERS: No, but I’m very honored.
CLANCY: [Laughs.] Yeah, that stuff really stands out. Were you trying to emulate anybody, or was this just something you came up with?
AYERS: No, he was a young fella that came along. I liked his style. I would take a lot of what I could see in his drawing and anatomy that I could apply to what I was working on. So he came into the office one day when I was there, and I got to meet him. He was about two or three years younger, and he had a girl on each arm. [Clancy laughs.] Quite a nice system!
CLANCY: You were at the School of Visual Arts, and you were at Siegel and Shuster’s studio, but how did you hear about Magazine Enterprises?
AYERS: Magazine Enterprises. I like that. They were coming up a little faster and bigger. And I always remember their secretary; she told me, “Dick, in this business, they’ll keep you very busy for a few weeks and months, and then they’ll build up a supply, and then they’ll sit back and not buy any more from you. So you’ve gotta be prepared to have more work to do besides Vin Sullivan’s.”
CLANCY: And that’s when you decided to freelance at other places?
AYERS: I love this story. It was around fall of 1951, I think. Might have been ’49. I started to go look for work, and there came a day when I went down in the morning, and I took the addresses all out of the books that they put out that I could find. I always tried to cover them as much as I could, ’til one or two o’clock in the afternoon. So there was an afternoon and I just decided, “Boy, I’m gonna go up and see that Stan Lee [Clancy laughs] and see if I can get some work.”
I went up, and he was on vacation! So I got a story, but I don’t know what happened to it. I can’t even tell you the name of it any more. I guess it was a detective story. Anyway, the first time, they put me off a couple of weeks in a row… started me off, and as fast as I got ’em done, I went in for another story. I was going pretty good.
CLANCY: So you were working with both Vin Sullivan AND Stan Lee, both at the same time, for a little bit.
AYERS: Well, for a long time. Stan, as fast as I brought in a story — first, I’d pencil it, then put the lettering in, then he’d say, “Don’t bother with all that. Just bring in the work when you get it done.” So that was great. I loved working that way. And every time I went in with a story, I went home with a script.
So there I was getting a complete story to do every week, week and a half. I was real busy! I had Magazine Enterprise, Vin Sullivan, and then I had Stan Lee. They were nice short stories, three or four pages, and they kept me busy.
CLANCY: Was there any other publishers you also worked for?
AYERS: Not quite yet. I did get into that, and I got three publishers. So I get Ernie Bache to quit and come work with me.
CLANCY: Whatever happened to Ernie Bache?
AYERS: Ernie smoked too much. We worked close together in the same room and I even got a filter queen to put in the room while I was working just to absorb that smoke. And one day he died in his sleep.
CLANCY: Oh, my goodness. And that would have been the 1960s or 1970s?
CLANCY: Who was your editor over at Charlton?
AYERS: Al Fago.
CLANCY: That would have been 1950s, early ’60s.
AYERS: It was ’53. That was a good year for me, Boy, oh boy. Ernie and I were really turning it out.
CLANCY: [Laughs.] I was gonna say you must have been VERY busy in ’53! Al Fago had his own shop, and he was actually selling it packaged to Charlton.
AYERS: That’s why some of the work that I had done for him was not being printed where it was supposed to go.
CLANCY: Oh, it went in different issues than it should have been?
CLANCY: I see. How was Al Fago to work with?
AYERS: He was nice and fair and a friendly guy. They moved to Connecticut. I lived here in White Plains and sometimes he’d stop by and have me do a cover while he sat and watched. I think he and his brother were more like publishers.
CLANCY: That shocks me that you did some Charlton. Do you remember: was it Western or horror or romance?
AYERS: I got to do some horror stuff. Ditko did at the same time. Steve Ditko, I never got to really meet him to this day, but I was sitting in the reservation room or whatever it is before you get to see the editor. I was planning on going to see … I guess it was Stan Lee himself, at Marvel. I never said hi, but the guy said, “OK, Mr. Ditko, come on in.” I heard this voice — I guess it was Stan Lee — telling him, “OK, I want you to do it THIS way. I want it to look like this.” “Oh!” My turn to go in, and I wanted to see who he was telling to work like me, and I was quite amazed. I can’t remember who it was at that time at Marvel that told him, but he was telling it to Steve Ditko himself, and I never got to say hi.
CLANCY: I remember seeing his name quite a bit.
AYERS: I liked all his stories; they were really different ones.
CLANCY: When Stan Lee went through some tough times in ’56, ’57, when they lost their distributor, you were still there?
AYERS: Oh, yes. I never left. As soon as they bought something, I was there.
CLANCY: [Laughs.] All of your contact was always Stan Lee, not Syd Shores, or anybody else? He was doing the writing for you?
AYERS: Well, he bought the scripts from somebody else.
CLANCY: Did you write anything yourself? Did you say, “Oh, I can do this: let me try it.”
AYERS: Well, I didn’t take credit for it. Whenever I did it on the side, it was out into a little action border.
CLANCY: So when they cut down on the amount of work in 1956-’57 at Atlas, you stayed on. Were you trying to get work at other places, or did they still give you enough work to continue?
AYERS: I don’t know how I got into it, but Charlton at that time did this far-out humor stuff, and Ernie and I liked doing that. You could add your jokes or whatever and he and I kept very busy doing that.
CLANCY: So you were with Ernie as a partner for quite a while, then: was he working for you on the side, or was he actually working for Stan Lee as an inker?
AYERS: No, I had a system where I lettered, penciled and outlined so as to keep my style. And that’s what I kept doing for quite some time and then they had to start censoring. You had to take this out of your stories, no more of this, no more of that.
AYERS: One day I lost the Ghost Rider, and I lost everything that I did. I hated to lose it. It was steady work. Magazine Enterprises came in for more than one book. Ghost Rider appeared in about three or four different titles.
CLANCY: I remember that. Did they pay better than Stan Lee?
AYERS: Somehow, Stan had a way of getting ahead of the other guy. They were giving you $30; he’d give you $35. [Clancy laughs.] Or then, he’d call you up and say, “Dick, I can’t afford you.”
CLANCY: I see, but steady work the whole time. Ghost Rider had some merchandising with it…
AYERS: Yes, I remember the mask, but I think that was Vin Sullivan’s.
CLANCY: You didn’t design…
CLANCY: You don’t HAVE any of that merchandise, do you?
AYERS: You’re forgetting that I had three young sons that played cowboys, and they always wanted to be the Ghost Rider, so my sample drifted off.
CLANCY: [Laughs.] Were Westerns one of your favorite genres? Would you enjoy doing the war stuff over the Westerns? What was one of your favorite subject matters?
AYERS: I liked anything they gave me that had to do with Westerns. I have quite a few of them hanging on the wall. I’ve got one; it was a five-pager. Not a word was spoken. That was the whole story, the whole bit.
CLANCY: Didn’t Magazine Enterprises try that artistic 3-D process where they didn’t need glasses—they just tried to do it with the drawing? Were you involved in that at all?
AYERS: Oh, yes. I didn’t take that seriously.
CLANCY: You weren’t involved in that process where you just had to draw outside the borders?
AYERS: No. I just got it by 3-D effects. Be like Frank Bolle. He’s still around. I see him once in a while when we go to a meeting.
CLANCY: I didn’t know you were a member of the National Cartoonist Society.
AYERS: They have a dinner a month, I think.
CLANCY: Are you from the Burnt Toast Society, the Long Island Branch?
AYERS: I’m connected with Connecticut.
CLANCY: I know Frank did lots of daily strips. Did you work in dailies at all?
AYERS: I had a couple, but I never got enough to really keep me busy. I loved humor and I loved working for Joe Simon on that Sick magazine. He had a way of getting the type so he made where the panels were gonna go, and then he put that in there. All I had to do was draw, pencil and ink.
CLANCY: I didn’t know you were on Sick but, of course, now that you mention you it, I realize you were. Did you do any of the other humor magazines like Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! Or any of those?
CLANCY: Never worked for Mad.
AYERS: No. I tried to get on, but somebody else was there ahead of me.
CLANCY: Going back to Stan Lee and those time frames: when they relaunched in 1962 with the superhero stuff and such, they grabbed you for, I believe, the Howling Commandoes.
AYERS: Yeah. Sgt. Fury.
CLANCY: How did Sgt. Fury’s launch come about? Did they approach you?
AYERS: I guess it was Stan Lee, working for Marvel. Said he could make a war story and it would really be big, but it would be human, and so that’s how I got it. Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby had three issues and I started penciling right from the beginning. I did not need to switch to do the penciling.
CLANCY: Did you have any input on the design of characters like Dum-Dum? Were any of the designs yours?
AYERS: No, but I sharpened ’em up a bit. They were a little bit too slapstick, so I had to try to get them a little bit more military.
CLANCY: Then of course you had a relationship with inking Jack Kirby for quite a while. How did that work? Were Jack’s pencils very loose or did you have to…?
AYERS: Well, sometimes Lindy, my wife, would wonder what the hell they were paying him for. It doesn’t look like he’s doing much artwork there.
CLANCY: I’ve seen his roughs and wondered, is he ALWAYS that way? [Laughs.] I had heard his pages always smelled of cigars.
AYERS: Oh, GOD, yes! The mailman was terrific on the special delivery. He’d be at my door at least by 7:30, so I could get a cover done Saturday morning and mail it and then whoever would have it on Monday.
CLANCY: Was Jack one of your favorite pencilers? Who was your favorite penciler to ink, besides yourself?
AYERS: I enjoyed inking Kirby’s pencils. They were mostly free outline, and one day I came in to Stan, and gave him a story. It was a Western and I had done it just the way Jack penciled it, and he took it and said, “If I wanted somebody to ink LIKE Kirby, I could get him off the street!” [Clancy laughs.] “I know you with your brush, you can do anything. So ADD to it!”
I went home thinking some weird thoughts. He didn’t say anything about a raise in pay or anything but when he got me doing that, I enjoyed it. I figured to help balance it out, make it more interesting. I was part of it, that way.
CLANCY: Do you recall anything that you worked on being rejected for any reasons?
CLANCY: Any feedback from Jack on your work? Did he have any input: say, “That’s a great job, Dick?”
AYERS: A couple of times, on Westerns and some other stuff.
CLANCY: Didn’t you work on Fantastic Four, also?
AYERS: Oh, yeah. I started with #6. Then I went through for ’em until about 26 or 27.
CLANCY: You were freelance still? You weren’t in the bullpen?
CLANCY: At what point did you leave Marvel?
AYERS: Marvel I left when they started reprinting stories that I did. One week would be new and John Severin would be inking. The next week would be a reprint and Vinnie Coletta might be the inker. So, bouncing from one thing to the other, I felt it was hurting my standing, so I walked in and I saw Johnny Romita —I think that’s who it was — and I started: “I’ve got somethin’ I wanna tell ya, John. I’m leaving.”
And with that, I saw Virginia, his wife, was going to come into the office, too, and I didn’t want that while he’s standing there taking it in. So I stood by the door and kept her out ’til I got going.
CLANCY: He tried talking you into staying?
AYERS: No, because … the big fella, John Verpoorten? He said, “Why, my work sells as good as yours … blah, blah, blah, blah…” and he said they were gonna keep that up. One’d be new, and one’d be a reprint. That nearly killed the book. It damn near did.
CLANCY: Which book were you on last?
AYERS: Sgt. Fury!
CLANCY: That would’ve been the mid-’70s. After that you just freelanced on and off, or you went into full retirement or advertising?
AYERS: I went along and I went up to DC, and they said they had something for me and to come out tomorrow. When I went in, “Oh, sorry, Dick, we don’t have anything for you. And there was in the back Neal Adams and he looked at me and said, “You sit here a minute. That’s not the way it’s supposed to go.” He went and talked to a different person, and came back and said: “Now you go over and you see this fella.” I went over and I saw Joe Orlando and, “Oh, we’ve got a script all ready for you.” I think it was Kamandi he gave me. So I started right off in that way, when I had had trouble for a while.
CLANCY: Kamandi was another Jack Kirby series. [Laughs.]
AYERS: I was SO attached to him, yeah. The story I got with that … One of these auction houses said to me, “We don’t have a picture of you two guys.” I said, “Nobody has a picture. We don’t have any.” “Well, we’ll send you to California and you can do a job and get some pictures taken.”
I’m all looking eager to go and be doing this work for Sotheby’s, and lo and behold, Jack died. One morning I went and got the paper and a cigar and sat down to enjoy it, and there it was. That was kind of a lesson.
Right away they said, “Oh, all right, Ayers. You’ll do the whole thing. You’ll pencil AND ink.”
CLANCY: On the recreation stuff?
CLANCY: Do you think Jack Kirby, when he left Marvel, did he ask you to go with him at all?
CLANCY: Did you see that coming? Did you know he was going to quit?
AYERS: No, he never said anything. He was a very quiet fellow and he never said anything when we would walk to appointments that were at the same time as mine. He never commented…
CLANCY: Did you help in the creation of any characters?
AYERS: I stayed away from that because I got burned in the beginning. I got my first…
CLANCY: Was that at Jerry Siegel’s shop or the first job at Marvel?
AYERS: I think Marvel.
CLANCY: How do YOU feel about seeing these characters on the TV screens and the movies? Have you watched any of them?
AYERS: No, no. The wife and I get a little off-target on that because we don’t think … DC was the only one that got us … Any of us that worked on Superman, got to go see the free big movie, y’know?
CLANCY: I didn’t know that.
AYERS: I really never want to see one of those movies. I turn away from ’em now.
CLANCY: You can’t miss ’em now.
AYERS: They do something to change ’em so it can be one of theirs. They change the costume and they change the character.
CLANCY: Right. When you worked with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; after Funnyman, they had a real tough time finding work so they would send out letters looking for work. They even worked over at Ziff-Davis. Did you keep in touch with them after Funnyman?
CLANCY: Did you know they fell on hard times?
AYERS: No, because they were doing the newspaper strip: the dailies.
CLANCY: Most of their work was ghosted if I remember right. I don’t think that Joe Shuster was drawing very much. I think [Paul] Cassidy was on ’em. So your contact at DC was Joe Orlando. He fed you Kamandi …
AYERS: No, no. I went from Kamandi to Unknown Soldier…I did a whole flock of different titles.
CLANCY: Do you remember the last series you worked on regularly?
AYERS: Yeah. Jonah Hex.
CLANCY: Did you work on Scalphunter, too?
AYERS: Oh, I started the first one, yes.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
CLANCY: When I met you in 1997 in San Diego, the first thing you drew for me was Jonah Hex. In fact, I had a Ghost Rider that you did for me, in a graveyard. I think your son colored it.
AYERS: Yeah, he’s practically work-study with me now, and we got three studios. Two got real busy, and then one of my own and one of his.
CLANCY: All three of your sons are into the arts?
AYERS: No, Richard is the only one that’s really into comics. He’s done an awful lot for me. In fact, he called me. “Hey, Dad! Look at this. I did this with a # 6 brush.”
I said, “Geez, who taught you to hold onto it that way? [Clancy laughs.] Nobody can use a # 6.”
“Well, I stood beside you all the time, you roll it to a point.”
So we got close. He told me one time, “You’re not color-confused. You’re color-BLIND.” [Clancy laughs.] I said, “You mean they’re NOT wearing the brown uniforms I put on them when I’m working in color?”
In other words, it was a green. A brown-green. Nobody ever said anything. They just let me go.
CLANCY: Did your wife help you at all with the art chores?
AYERS: No. She’s an awful good organizer. A “Dick needs this” or “Dick needs that” type thing.
CLANCY: Are you still doing commissions?
AYERS: Oh, yeah.
CLANCY: Which is your most requested commission? What character?
AYERS: My Ghost Rider. He just keeps going. An awful lot of people want to get a war story — Sgt. Fury.
I finished a horror story a couple of months ago, but I don’t have anything steady.
CLANCY: Well, who does? [Laughs.]
AYERS: Yeah, who does?
—Transcribed by Steven Thompson