BACK TO CHILDHOOD
GROTH: Let me drag you back a little bit to when you were still a kid in North Adams. Were you equally passionate about newspaper strips and comics?
SUTTON: Oh, no. No. No. Please. No. No. No. Comic books were so special because they had… A newspaper strip could only show you three and a half images and you have to wait until tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow doesn’t come. Yes, they were wonderful. People like Stan Drake I liked and there were others that were fine in there. But no. And the only papers that I could get them in that I was interested in at all really was the New York News and I guess the Mirror was the paper. Because they ran them all the way across the top of the page, which meant that they were considerably larger than comic-book panels. The whole idea of newspaper strips, to me, is very much like movies. The only thing they’re interested in with movies is to keep the thing going. Insight or that kind of thing? No. So the first panel recaps what you saw yesterday. Then there is the panel in the middle, and the last one sets you up for what’s going to happen tomorrow. That doesn’t leave you very much room to do anything.
GROTH: And of course there were the Sundays, which were different.
SUTTON: Yeah. There were the Sundays. To me, there was always the comics. Because with comics you had a good look, a good read, or whatever a kid would want. And you had it for — one of those things would run ten, 12, 15 pages. People forget that. They were 52 pages. Companies used to advertise that all of the time. 52-page comic books. Is that just me, or…
GROTH: No. In fact, before that they were even larger. They were 64 pages.
Were you interested in other things?
SUTTON: Betty Lou Mackenzie.
GROTH: So it was pretty much that and comics.
SUTTON: [In a squeaky girl’s voice]: “Eeek! Get away from me!” Ohh…. See, you always want what you can’t have. That seems to be the way.
GROTH: Did you go to movies?
SUTTON: Oh yeah. That spoiled me for life. We had two of these great Loews Theatres with the great marquees hanging out over the sidewalk. You could go to those, and if you went on Saturday you could go there and be all day. You could always sneak into these places, too. The Man from Planet X was a favorite. Science fiction… that was about it for movies.
GROTH: You weren’t as obsessed with movies as you were with comics.
SUTTON: Oh no. Well, because you couldn’t fold it up and put it in your pocket.
GROTH: Did you read pulps? Big Little Books?
SUTTON: Ah, a few Big Little Books. I didn’t like them.
GROTH: How about pulps? Were they still easily available when you were a kid?
SUTTON: You see, they had to pass momma. Momma didn’t like spicy Westerns. My momma was really upset with Rocket Girl. Oh yeah. Yeah. It was awkward. These were the things that you stole and you took them home and hid them or something. Then make damn sure that nobody gets involved with them, because it’s just crap.
GROTH: When did your family buy a television?
SUTTON: Harry would be the last person who would be interested in the television set. I can remember one day they were putting this antenna on the roof and there was this humongous thing in the room. Do you remember those things? It was the size of a bureau.
GROTH: Oh sure. With a mountain of wood around it.
SUTTON: It had this little four-inch screen. And you could get two-and-a-half stations. That I really liked, because I could get Captain Video.
GROTH: Would that have been in the ’50s sometime?
SUTTON: I think I was in high school when that happened. Oh yeah.
GROTH: You would have been in high school about ’51 or ’52.
SUTTON: And you got that other alleged science-fiction series, about Tom Corbett Space Cadet. Da da da da!
GROTH: So the television did not diminish or dilute your passion for comics?
SUTTON: No. If I was in the neighborhood and I noticed that it was… I always carried a watch at that time. I always had a watch with me. And if it was time for whatever I wanted to see. Mr. Peepers. I liked Mr. Peepers enormously. Do you remember that?
GROTH: No. I know of Mr. Peepers, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mr. Peepers.
SUTTON: I used to watch that. Soon as that was over I was back out of the house. In other words, you didn’t sit there like a potted plant, you know.
GROTH: Now the Superman TV show came on around ’55 or something like that. Did you watch that?
SUTTON: Is that the live version?
GROTH: Yeah. The George Reeves Superman.
SUTTON: No. I don’t think we got that. Later on, yeah.
GROTH: Did you read Superman comics when you were a kid?
SUTTON: I don’t think so. I don’t think they interested me that much, and I think I know why. One of the hottest sellers or traders with the trade tree was Superman, no matter who was drawing it. They didn’t care who drew it anyway. I hated that book. Every fucking day I was getting the shit kicked out of me by somebody.
GROTH: In school?
SUTTON: Yeah. It was all part of a friendly banter. Got nothing else to do, go knock Sutton around for a while.
GROTH: Right. Right.
SUTTON: Of course, I would not stop what I did so the thing just went on and on. And here is this guy Superman who was invulnerable. Can I relate to this guy? You know, bullets, trains, nothing bothers him. I’m sorry, Gary. No.
GROTH: You’re supposed to fantasize that that’s what you can be rather than be demoralized by it.
SUTTON: Maybe I never had that. Maybe that just never really happened. None of those characters interested me at all — the fish people, the aqua people. Bill Everett. I like Bill Everett’s drawings.
SUTTON: They may not be the greatest drawings in the world but at least they were different than the other 24,000 bastards who were turning these things out.
GROTH: So you were interested in the other genres like Westerns, supernatural and horror?
SUTTON: Yeah. There was damn little horror stuff that came my way. I don’t know why that was.
GROTH: Hmm. ’Cause there must have been a lot of it around in the wake of EC’s success.
SUTTON: Yeah. When EC started their three, all of a sudden there was a load of them everywhere. Boy, that was the place where you could see — Hey! — some guys really don’t draw too good.
GROTH: All the EC knock-off stuff.
SUTTON: Who was it that told me that they used to… I don’t know how this happened, but publishers had a method where they could take the color out of a page and reproduce the thing as a black-and-white page.
GROTH: You’re talking about currently?
SUTTON: No, not currently.
GROTH: Back then?
SUTTON: 25 years ago. No, not back then either. No. In the middle someplace, when the real horror thing was going on.
GROTH: I think it was very difficult to do that. I don’t know of any process that was available then that you could do that with. Hmm. So now in school, you were…
SUTTON: You know how you could tell? You could tell by the drawing styles.
GROTH: I’m sorry. You could tell what?
SUTTON: That the book was not contemporary.
SUTTON: And not only that, but the costumes. The little suits that the gals would wear. These things belonged back in the ’40s someplace. I don’t know. Let’s not waste time on that. I enjoyed it because you could… The possibility was there to create some real atmosphere. Thrill. Bom-be-dom.
GROTH: I’m sorry. What opportunity are you talking about?
SUTTON: To draw these things.
GROTH: Oh. Just as a kid. Sure.
SUTTON: And as an adult. Until I discovered that most of them didn’t see it that way at all. They just saw it as another detective story.
GROTH: Who is they?
SUTTON: Marvel or DC.
GROTH: The editorial…
A TRIP TO THE MAJORS
SUTTON: DC used to do stupid things. I remember trying to nicely talk to [Joe] Orlando about this, and he wasn’t buying any of it. No. He wanted something that was slick and …You defeat the whole thing that way. You know the first time I went to DC, Gary?
SUTTON: I went there and I was waiting in the outside room. What a difference between DC and Marvel. My God! It’s like the waiting room for the seven biggest lawyers in New York.
GROTH: Yeah. Right.
SUTTON: The fellow across from me, I discovered, was the guy who did Swamp Thing.
GROTH: Bernie Wrightson?
SUTTON: Bernie Wrightson. And Bernie was so incredibly skinny.
GROTH: This would have been probably late ’60s?
SUTTON: Oh yeah.
SUTTON: We both went in to see, I guess it was Orlando and [Dick] Giordano was there at the time. He’d probably just come there from Charlton?
GROTH: Yes. Right.
SUTTON: They were cordial. They were all right. But you still had this really intimidating thing. You weren’t talking to cartoonists, you were talking to F. Lee Bailey! I didn’t like that at all. They gave me a little job to go. I remember putting my stuff back in my bag. They were going on with Bernie, who was not happy at all. All this stuff is so scratchy! It’s so scratchy! There was a period when Bernie was very into pen, which sounds so strange. Most of his stuff now looks like 95 percent extraordinarily fine brushwork. I don’t know what the man said. That’s the way I like it, or something. He did get the job. I know he got the job, but he’s very, very reticent. Very quiet.
GROTH: Bernie was?
GROTH: Now you guys were talking to Orlando and Carmine Infantino?
GROTH: Or Giordano. I’m sorry.
SUTTON: I’m sorry, too. Because to me, they’re interchangeable.
GROTH: Yeah. They just sort of represented a middle-age managerial.
SUTTON: Yeah. This stuff don’t make no money.
SUTTON: “Do it this way.” That’s not fair, either. Shit. Maybe if I’d have hung around there longer I would have learned something. I didn’t. I couldn’t stand… That’s OK. We’re jumping way ahead.
GROTH: Let me rein you in, then, and get back to the chronology. When you were reading the EC comics from, say, ’48 to ’54 or something, did you have particular favorites? Favorite artists?
GROTH: Tell me who these were.
SUTTON: Graham Ingels. All my heroes are dead. Wally Wood of course. Tragic Wally. So fucking good. There were certain jobs that Jack Davis did that were fabulous, absolutely wonderful. There were other jobs that he did that were… I think that he’s said that on his own, that he didn’t really care that much.
SUTTON: Do you know the WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin?
SUTTON: Do you have any of his stuff?
GROTH: Oh yeah. I have a lot of his books. Yeah.
SUTTON: Check him out alongside Mr. Davis.
GROTH: Oh yeah. There’s definitely an affinity there.
SUTTON: Oh yes. Especially when Jack gets in a hurry.
GROTH: Especially of course with Davis’ war stuff he did for Kurtzman. You can see it.
SUTTON: Let’s see. Who else. The fellow I used to help out, but I don’t know if he ever got credit. He was a pal of the painter…
SUTTON: He was a pal of his. His name is…
GROTH: Angelo Torres? Al Williamson? Roy Krenkel?
SUTTON: Roy Krenkel. I met Roy at one of these shindigs one time, and he turned out to be the nicest person there.
SUTTON: Really. Next to Frank, who wanted to go down and play softball.
GROTH: Krenkel seemed very modest and soft-spoken when I knew him.
SUTTON: Yes. And amongst most of these people was unique.
SUTTON: It’s almost the voice of doom. If you don’t barge in the door you ain’t gonna get it.
GROTH: That’s right. That’s right. How did you feel about Kurtzman’s war books as opposed to the science fiction and horror? Did you like those?
SUTTON: Oh, it took me quite a while to understand what was happening with Harvey. It’s difficult to talk about this thing, because I could never understand. I was drawing comics. I was getting money for drawing comics, and I couldn’t understand why Harvey wasn’t. This is all wrong!
GROTH: This would have been some time in the ’60s you’re talking about?
GROTH: Yes. Well…
SUTTON: I also didn’t understand that a lot of the stuff that my favorite artists were doing was not their concepts. They were Kurtzman’s concepts.
GROTH: Yeah. Sure.
SUTTON: That’s an old story to you, I know, but it isn’t to a lot of people. But he was very adamant about the way that you did this, and he would really get pissed if you did something else. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.
GROTH: Of course, that’s one of the reasons that the artists did some of their best work for him, because he was such a hard taskmaster. But it took you a while to sort of come around to their war books?
SUTTON: I think I was reading them, but I wasn’t understanding what was going on in the… I wasn’t understanding how the thing was put together. They were anti-war stories.
GROTH: I see. I see.
SUTTON: I really didn’t. And I loved the Civil War series.
SUTTON: There were things in there that were totally cinematic, in the good sense. He wasn’t trying to make a movie. And yet, Harvey seemed to be delighted when Bill came in and said, “They won’t let us do any horror books.”
GROTH: Yes. That’s true. Well, Harvey was very much opposed to the horror books.
SUTTON: I guess we’re out of business. And they go to the other story that I get, which is Harvey pulls out this Mad magazine in its formative stages. We got this. Well, we’re paid up at the printers, let’s run it. And of course the rest is history. It becomes the biggest blah blah in the blah blah blah blah.
SUTTON: At one time I had all of the comic-book versions. What… Did they run 15 or something comic-book Mads before they went to the magazine format?
GROTH: I thought 24.
SUTTON: All right, 24. I wasn’t interested in it anymore after that. I suppose that’s dumb, but I just wasn’t.
GROTH: That’s because you were so wedded to the comic-book format?
SUTTON: Yeah. I was wedded to that. I was wedded to the idea that Harvey could do these incredible things in this fucking — I don’t know what to call it? What kind of magazine you’d call it? A funny book. I began to see in the magazine some kind of desperate hope for legitimacy or something.
SUTTON: You know. We’re going to deal with social issues. I don’t care about fucking social issues! I’m glad somebody did. But enough of that. I also remember that there was a magazine that Roger Price… Do you remember Roger Price?
SUTTON: Roger Price and Harvey had a little company of their own. Or at least they had some kind of deal. I was in New York then. I was invited over to Central Park West. Ah ha! I had to spray my armpits. Harvey was just leaving at that time. We had a few words. I don’t know what the hell we talked about. Oh yeah! He was also getting ready for Annie Fanny.
GROTH: I’m sorry. What is the context of you having seen Harvey?
SUTTON: We’re in Price’s fancy apartment there at Central Park West. And Harvey’s…apparently they’ve had a meeting there, and the other people are staying to get shit-faced. Harvey’s going back to Harvey land.
GROTH: And why are you there?
SUTTON: Why was I there? Because of Roger. Because of Roger and this woman who started a magazine called Ms. What the hell was her name?
GROTH: I’m not sure. Did Steinem start Ms.?
SUTTON: Gloria Steinem. She was also in the pages of Help!
GROTH: Yeah, she was a secretary at Help! Right.
SUTTON: Great ass.
SUTTON: You can’t have it forever, babe.
GROTH: Let me ask you this. I wanted to skip back. You said that you really didn’t like Captain Marvel and the C. C. Beck material. You seemed to appreciate the more illustrative approach to comics than the big-foot approach to cartooning. Is that true?
SUTTON: Yeah. Yes.
GROTH: Is that perhaps because it’s more lush and you can escape into it a little more friendly?
SUTTON: The Captain probably had his clever points or whatever, but that kind of material… I used to think that it was drawn with a speedball lettering pen. Which may mean nothing to you, but it does to me.
What did you think of Kurtzman’s work? Because that sort of straddles both sides of that divide.
SUTTON: Oh yes. It does everything. I mean, from the Hey, Look! things, to the things that are really riding the fence. They’re in between. He did a story — I wish the hell I could remember what book it was in. It was a story of racism and prejudice in the South. They’re going to hang this guy, and there’s this crazy old man whose eyes are actually craziest. No. Kill him without torture first! It is a thing that is ugly to even right, but he’s making his statement. The way he gets away with it — the way Harvey gets away with everything — is he keeps with his story. But it’s so ludicrous, you can’t really get very upset with it, I think. He can turn right around and he can do his… John Severin talked about it in that wonderful article you did with him. He’s another one of my favorite people. He inked me once.
GROTH: It sounds like all of the EC guys eventually inked you.
SUTTON: No. One of the jobs that I got from Stan in the early times that I was at Marvel was Sgt. Fury. Christ! At that point, I’m standing there and I know what this amounts to. You got all of these assholes with guns running around. It’s a hideous amount of work. At the same time, you’ve got to say, it’s so many pages. It’s so many bucks. I did the best I could with it. I knew it was terrible. I mean, Gary, you’ve got German tanks and English tanks and American tanks. You’ve got this kind of rifle and that kind of machine gun…
GROTH: Did you have tons of reference for this stuff?
SUTTON: Did I get? I got a pile of blank paper.
GROTH: Did you have to acquire all of this reference?
SUTTON: You betcha. Yeah. And nobody even sent me one [copy]. I remember going by the newsstand, and there it was. I remember the cover. I bought five and took them home with shaking hands. By the time I got through with them I said, Oh my God, I’m good. [Laughs.]
GROTH: That wasn’t the first thing that you did at Marvel?
SUTTON: Oh, no. No. No. No. No. That was a thing that happened, a lot of these things would happen because someone was working at something else. And also it tells you a lot about just what they thought about it, too. That they would take someone who just knew nothing about it and throw them in the middle. Because Severin will get it all straightened out. I’d look at those pages, and only vaguely could I remember that I’d drawn these panels. It was like he had taken a fountain pen and he’d gone over the entire thing. I would check it against my reference, and that rifle was absolutely perfect.
GROTH: So you didn’t need a reference if you had Severin.
SUTTON: No. But I think we go back to where we were talking about that encyclopedic memory. I think he has that for that kind of stuff.
GROTH: I think you’re right. Yeah.
SUTTON: Because I don’t think he goes to a bookshelf every time he has to draw one of those.
GROTH: No. No. I think you’re right.
SUTTON: He seems to think that that’s all fine. I doubt if he recalls that at all. He did 100 of those things.
SUTTON: This is the same guy who did Frontline Combat doing Sgt. Fury?
GROTH: It does seem wrong.
SUTTON: But you do what there is to do.
GROTH: Yeah. Right. When you were a kid, and you were looking at all of these comics and you were looking at all of these newspaper strips, and you were digesting all of these influences and these passions, were you specifically copying artists whose style you appreciated? How were you sort of digesting all of this stuff and putting it into your own work? Can you describe that?
SUTTON: Well, I think it was your outfit that had a book on Woody when he was a high school boy. Bill Pearson?
SUTTON: There were these little things where Woody was trying to capture the essence of Will Eisner, that kind of thing? That’s what I would do. Not as well as he did, but I would do that. But you would think it was, for a little while, anyway. That’s what everybody needs. Everyone needs to get a little bit of encouragement and you go a little bit further. It only takes one son of a bitch to come in and blow your whole balloon. Fortunately I didn’t. My mother was especially supportive. To my mother, I could do no wrong. Dad wasn’t so sure about that.