GROTH: At some point when you were a kid, you’re drawing. And then at some point you sort of get serious about it and you realize you have to discipline yourself and learn how to draw. You have to learn anatomy and you have to learn certain formal aspects of drawing. When did that happen? When you buckled down and really applied yourself?
SUTTON: Let’s see. That happened…
GROTH: Or, I should say, did that happen? But I sort of assume that did.
SUTTON: That happened…I’m trying to think in terms of numbers again. We got out of high school and those four years back in the ’55. ’55 I went into the service. And after a whole bunch of disasters we wound up in Tokyo and we worked at Stars and Stripes for two years, two-and-a-half years in Tokyo. There was a mix there between military and civilian people. These are called GS-13’s, GS-18’s, government service people. There was a mix there. By the way, the newspaper would look very much like the New York Mirror or the Boston Record, the tabloids. It was a very real place. It was — I can’t think — that was my art school.
GROTH: Stars and Stripes.
SUTTON: Are you digging what I’m saying here? It wasn’t a lot of people whose intention it was to paint a picture that would hang in the gallery some place.
SUTTON: These were working men and women — not very many women — and they had to turn out… I remember one of the first jobs I got was they wanted me to draw this temple and some GIs or something, and they tossed a couple of photographs on the drawing table, and they said, “You’ve got 45 minutes!” Forty-five minutes? That kind of thing, right from the beginning. Learn it. Do it. This is not a place to sit around and contemplate. All right, so I did. Because of these other men… There were men there who had worked at Collier’s, who had worked at Saturday Evening Post, who had worked on various other magazines, you understand what I’m saying? That was real. I don’t think there is anything better than what we used to call on-the-job training or apprenticeship.
GROTH: Yes. Right. You joined the service when you were 18?
GROTH: I assume that you enlisted for four years?
GROTH: Do you remember the year you enlisted?
SUTTON: Fifty-five. How could I forget!
GROTH: Now Korea was going on at that time?
SUTTON: Oh yes.
GROTH: You enlisted. You were not drafted.
SUTTON: That’s right.
GROTH: What branch?
SUTTON: Air Force.
GROTH: Wouldn’t it be considered a little imprudent to join the Air Force at that time, when there’s a war going on?
SUTTON: It wouldn’t make any difference. Everybody was there, Gary. Everybody.
GROTH: Was there a draft in place at that time?
SUTTON: Everybody was there from the ’Nam war. The Marines were there…
GROTH: Why did you enlist in the Air Force as opposed to the Army or the Navy?
SUTTON: They told me it was easier.
GROTH: That’s what I thought. Were you concerned that you might be sent to Korea, or did you actually want to go to Korea? What were your concerns about that?
SUTTON: Thank God I never met anybody who wanted to go to Korea. Even Koreans!
GROTH: Jim Warren did.
SUTTON: As it turns out, I was at a big repo-depot where hundreds of guys were on their way to go to Korea. I was sitting there, and I would sit there for three, four, five, six, seven, eight nights — those cafeterias stay open all night. That’s where I drew the first stuff that got me into the Stripes. There were a couple of guys that I’d met who were from Stripes. They had big bands around their arms like MPs and they turned out to be really great guys. They said, listen, we’re going back there. You get that stuff done, we’ll take it back and we’ll see what we can do. The next thing I knew, that’s where I was.
GROTH: Now this is before or after you joined?
SUTTON: This is quite a ways after I joined. Things stateside are usually pretty crappy anyway, or stupid.
GROTH: One of your motivations, I assume, for joining the service, was to get out of North Adams.
SUTTON: Yeah. It’s time to fly the nest, kid.
GROTH: So tell me a little about your service, what you did in it.
SUTTON: First of all, you go through basic training.
GROTH: What was that like?
GROTH: You didn’t enjoy this.
SUTTON: I did not enjoy this. And I fucked up.
GROTH: How did you do that?
SUTTON: Oh, I had a habit of leaving whenever I felt like it.
GROTH: Isn’t that technically called going AWOL?
SUTTON: Uh-huh. They didn’t like that.
GROTH: I see.
SUTTON: They expressed their dislike of that. And I found myself down at Cheyenne, Wyoming at a place called Fort Warren.
GROTH: An omen.
SUTTON: An omen?
GROTH: Fort Warren.
SUTTON: Oh. Yeah. Well, that’s just up the street from Laramie? What’s the big fort that was there? Fort Warren dates to the Indian Wars before the Civil War. And they haven’t helped it much. I was there. I was going to learn all of the parts that are required to build a B-52. Fascinating, right? They go through… there was a slot for that. Shove him in there and that was that. I screwed up some more down there. I was getting really crazy, really crazy. That’s the time I did all of these murals in officer’s clubs.
I’d like to get one last thing straight with you. Originally, the idea of going to Stars and Stripes, getting these guys to get me in there, was… I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was just the idea that I wouldn’t have to go to Korea. That sounds very cowardly and whatnot, but…
GROTH: It is pretty cowardly, Tom.
SUTTON: It sounds very sensible to me.
GROTH: Did you have any political feelings about Korea?
SUTTON: No. I didn’t have any political feelings about anything!
GROTH: I see.
SUTTON: I knew that if I got into Stripes. Let me explain something. There was no
barracks. You don’t wear a uniform.
SUTTON: You get a housing expenditure, and you could go find an apartment in Tokyo someplace. Believe me, at that time it was very different than it is now. You were an occupation army at that time. You could have anything that you wanted. I said, yeah. That makes sense. Little did I know that what I was doing was much more important. The perks were much more important than that. I think that what I never realized until I got out of there, it was one of those things that was going on that was just bad. We needn’t go into that, either.
GROTH: Not yet. No.
So that’s where you got hooked up with Stars and Stripes?
SUTTON: But they weren’t dangerous. What was dangerous was sitting there waiting to get on a boat to go to Korea, where everybody was reassuring everybody else that there was no war in Korea. On the left lane were all of these trucks with Red Crosses on them.
GROTH: Can you explain how this works? You enlist in the Air Force. Do they just send you where they choose to or do you have a say in this?
SUTTON: Oh, you can try. I think we talked about that. There’s internal maneuvering. I went in with the idea that I’m a fucking slave. Just do with me what you want to. I discovered that ain’t necessarily so. It’s like any other huge bungling thing. Once you’re inside it, you can manipulate a little bit if you’re very careful. Just don’t get caught. All of those guys that I was with were going to Korea for the non-war. What do you need hundreds of thousands of guys in Korea for? This is no fucking war! Never mind. Skip it. In the process I discovered a way that I could get into Stars and Stripes. I got very lucky and there were some very nice people involved and that’s where I wound up. Stars and Stripes was located in Roponge Heights, which is in the middle of Tokyo. Stars and Stripes was over to one side. At that time it was not a glamorous outfit as it is today. It was a series of quonset huts all nailed together somehow or other. I still hadn’t realized how I had lucked out. I discovered that there was nobody in the barracks. There was this great barracks, this 10-story high rise thing. It had been built not that many years ago. It wasn’t built by the Japanese, it was built by us. Also, Japan at that time was still, after ten years, an occupied country. That got a little itchy, too. Anyway, you had a housing allowance — go find an apartment in Tokyo.
GROTH: And Tokyo was affordable at that time?
SUTTON: Oh, yes. I have a friend who goes there from General Electric to do business with these people, and our stories don’t come together at all. That’s interesting, I guess, only if you were there. You had a clothing allowance so you could look reasonably decent in civilian clothing. They did not want you to go trotting around in your uniform. They discouraged that as much as possible.
GROTH: At what point did you start working at Stars and Stripes?
SUTTON: Immediately. Immediately I got off the chopper.
GROTH: And what was your ostensible position there?
SUTTON: Illustrator, factotum, paste-up. Whatever. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. You were always late and you learned very quickly what the real world was all about. I would say that it was really equal between military and civilian. There were service people who had been recruited because they had failed at every newspaper in the country.
Shel Silverstein was there.
GROTH: Shel Silverstein?
GROTH: Working on Stars and Stripes?
SUTTON: Yeah. Sure. Shel’s drawings were over on one wall, stuck up there. For a while I sat at the same drafting table that he sat at. He was in Korea.
GROTH: Did you work in the same office at the same time?
SUTTON: No. I never met the man person to person. No. But it was quite a load, because you were being compared to — everybody loved Shel. They really did — except his officers. Because Shel would continually come up with these magnificent drawings which were humiliating to the people who were allegedly in charge of him, but nobody was ever in charge of Shel. What a shame that that man had to go so young.
GROTH: Did he go young?
SUTTON: Oh, sure! Why, he was hardly my age! It wouldn’t be young to you.
GROTH: You didn’t meet him or you didn’t interact with him.
SUTTON: I heard all about him.
GROTH: Did you hear some good stories? He was apparently quite — I’m not sure what you would call it — a rogue. Lived life fully.
SUTTON: Yeah. He did things that I would never think of doing.
GROTH: Such as?
SUTTON: He would… He was a libertine in the middle of the service. It was quite the thing! He walked out when he wanted to walk out. He went where he wanted to go, and wound up in Korea.
GROTH: Sort of a role model.
GROTH: You were at Stars and Stripes and you started a strip for them. Tell me how that came about?
SUTTON: I had done another strip before that at one of the most northern of the Japanese air bases called Itami. That strip was called F.E.A.F. Dragon.
GROTH: F.E.A.F. Dragon?
SUTTON: I didn’t invent it. That’s Far East Air Force Dragon. Isn’t that a clever play on words, though? That was another attempt to imitate [Frank] Robbins or to imitate how Milton Caniff worked, in an extremely humble way. I liked that place. That’s where they filmed… Did you ever see Sayonara?
GROTH: With Brando?
SUTTON: I did the work on Brando’s plane.
GROTH: What? You mean Brando’s plane in the movie?
SUTTON: Yeah. There’s this scene where he’s climbing down out of the cockpit, and you can see the nose art. That’s my nose art.
I got so many breaks. You were attached to the people who were making Sayonara, and you just followed them around. You were acting, ostensibly, as air force liaisons. I was not the only one. There were three or four of five of us. And I met Mr. Brando.
GROTH: You did?
SUTTON: I found out that Mr. Garner was a far nicer person.
GROTH: James Garner? Huh.
SUTTON: He was the most laid-back sucker I ever saw. He projects that on television.
GROTH: Yes, he does.
SUTTON: “I’m here making my bucks!”
GROTH: Whereas Brando does not project that.
SUTTON: No, but Brando’s quite funny. He really is. He doesn’t want to talk to you because you might be a fan or something. And they’re all dressed up in these fucking uniforms and they’ve got them all wrong. This is a nonsense picture. It’s another one of those, “Oh, we all love the Japs now.” Uh-huh. Sure.
GROTH: It was a romantic war picture, right?
SUTTON: Right. Red Buttons lost his girlfriend.
GROTH: As he was always doing. So that would be the kind of thing where you would just be assigned? They would just tell you, this is your assignment go out and…
SUTTON: Yeah. And in your spare time make some drawings. And you do that and back in the quonset hut the boys were building me a drafting table. Of course, their idea of a drafting table wasn’t my idea of a drafting table. You see, what I’m getting at here is you have to think about what you could have been doing. I went there to actually go to Korea, but I kept on dodging that the whole time I was there.
GROTH: Wait a minute. Let me get back to that first strip you did. This was a strip that you took over from someone else?
GROTH: This is a strip you somehow inherited, right? You didn’t create the title.
SUTTON: I didn’t create the title, but I created the idea. You go in and say, What this base needs is a comic strip in the base newspaper. The lieutenant, who was a very easy guy, said, OK. Make one.
GROTH: So you created this.
SUTTON: The most fun I had was drawing Truman Capote.
GROTH: Truman Capote? I can’t imagine what context Truman Capote would be in it.
SUTTON: I don’t either. It was like that. Whatever he wants, let him do it.
GROTH: So you wrote this as well as drew it?
GROTH: I assume it had to be approved by…?
SUTTON: Oh, yes. You knew the parameters. As long as they win it doesn’t matter. It was air-force propaganda. They had to look good, and it had to get across the idea that the Chinese were very evil people and da da da da da. I did get one thing out of it. I went on four missions with the A-26s that were there. These were old airplanes. These were things that they pulled out of service at the end of World War II. But like a lot of things, when Korea came along everything was back in service again. They were beautiful airplanes — twin engine, serious bombers. We weren’t using them for reconnaissance. The idea was to go find Chinese submarines. Don’t ask me how. I don’t think we ever did. It was a triangle route over the Japan Sea because this base was the furthest north. That was very exciting. That really was. We had no weapons. Side arms, but it wasn’t an attack bomber, which was what it was built to be.
GROTH: So you actually went up in the planes?
SUTTON: Oh, yeah.
GROTH: In your position on Stars and Stripes why would you have done that?
SUTTON: I’m sorry, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. I wasn’t at Stars and Stripes at this time. This was a much smaller thing that this particular base had. In order to draw the airplanes and understand what went on within them… they would treat it as if it was an MGM production or something. And you knew yourself that you could sit at your table and fake the thing. They’re really not that much different.
GROTH: Let me get back to this first strip you did. Was this the first sustained effort at comics that you did? What had you done prior to this, if anything, other than just sketching and drawing on your own? How easily did you take to the strip format?
SUTTON: Oh, bingo! Because this is what I thought at that time, that really, truly, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to get that leather looking like Milton [Caniff] could get it. Those things made you feel as if you actually were there. Other than that, I would draw constantly. That was just off-duty. I remember seeing… This is a little anecdote for you that I found interesting. It sticks with me to this day. This was in the days when you’re in the barracks with like 80 other guys, right? There would be times when there was quiet time, and they would be off doing whatever they do and you would be sitting on the edge of your bunk with your sketchbook and you’d be drawing Buffy. Hi! I didn’t realize there was this guy standing right next to me. He was looking down at me saying, Hey! You can do whenever you want, can’t you?!
GROTH: You had the power!
SUTTON: He was perfectly straight. He wasn’t making a joke. He was in awe. Wow! That’s all there was to it. He sort of wandered away.
GROTH: This was a revelation to you?
SUTTON: It was. It still is to this day that you can do this. You don’t have to put blivets on top of blivets. You can draw pictures for somebody, that kind of thing. The big shove. I have to be shoved to do things or I won’t do them, I think. That’s the way it’s come down through the years. You miss a lot of good deals because you’re just not aggressive enough. But the threat of Korea and actually having to go there, that was threat enough, yes. Then we went to Stars and Stripes.
GROTH: So you did this one strip and then you moved from there to Tokyo?
SUTTON: Yes. Flown to Tokyo, dig it, on Japan Airlines. I love that part. Do we have 900 fucking airplanes? They’re all over the station, all over the goddamn place. They have this manifesto: I have to go on Japan Airlines. OK, fine. You know what I mean? Some things just don’t make any goddamn sense? But you do it. And as soon as you get to Tokyo — it was Tokyo International. It’s called something else now. There was a chopper waiting and the chopper took you to Tokyo with a lot of guys who looked like they should be in the psycho ward.
GROTH: That’s reassuring.
SUTTON: Isn’t it, though?
GROTH: So you got to Tokyo and then you started another newspaper strip for Stars and Stripes?
SUTTON: Yeah. Johnny Craig.
GROTH: The strip’s name was Johnny Craig?
GROTH: That’s great. I assume that that was a deliberate homage on your part?
SUTTON: You know, that’s the curious part. I don’t know why. Johnny Craig was not one of my favorites of the EC artists. It’s something that had to do with the time, and has as such faded away. I don’t know why. I guess I could have called the character Wally Wood if I’d wanted to.
It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate Craig. I did. Craig was dynamite. If I knew half of what that man knew! It wasn’t visceral enough for me. Some of these other fellows were really — they had juice.
GROTH: He was a very, very clean cartoonist.
SUTTON: Yeah. But by god, as a young person you could learn from people like that. Wow!
GROTH: He was quite masterful. So you don’t remember why you named it Johnny Craig? Johnny Hazard could be part of it.
SUTTON: It could be. It could be. It was the same kind of a thing. I can also tell you another problem that you have when you’re doing a daily strip which runs six days a week just like it would in the Mirror or the Record American or anything else. You can do it. After a while you can do these weekly six strips in a couple of days. You don’t have to say very much.
GROTH: Did you do these strips seven days a week?
SUTTON: Six days. That was the idea. What I’m saying to you now is that you could do them in two days. And then your head would say, I’ve got the rest of the week off. Don’t let them ever know that.
GROTH: How long did F.E.A.F. Dragon run and how long did Johnny Craig run?
SUTTON: The little strip — I call it the little strip, and it was a damn good learning experience, too — ran, I’d say, six months.
GROTH: How long did Johnny Craig run?
SUTTON: Oh, as long as I was there. It ran like two-and-a-half years or something.
GROTH: Did these follow the format of a newspaper strip?
SUTTON: Yes. The first panel recapped what happened yesterday. The last panel sucked you into tomorrow, hopefully. But it wasn’t real. You know that. But they’re going to run it anyway. That was one of the things that dawned me. If you weren’t careful and they discovered that you could do it in two days then they found all kinds of incredible things for you to do. Some of them were very wonderful. You got to go to Kyoto, you got to go to — you name it, they’d take you there. Draw temples! Yes sir! Stuff like that. You also went to Korea. You went to Korea because they wanted some drawings of that. They had guys staying at Korea that I’m sure could have drawn the goddamn things, but no, you go. Also I learned photography. I was attached to the photo-recon wing.
We landed at K-14. This is a war zone, and they’re trying to tell you that everything’s just fine. Shoot a gook! Shoot a gook! Shoot a gook! You got an image. And eventually, even someone as dull as I got the other image. The other image, you weren’t really working for a newspaper, as huge as it was. You were working for a misinformation service.
GROTH: Right. Of course.
SUTTON: Therefore, everything that you did, including the photographs that you took, you never saw again.
SUTTON: Ma, everything’s fine.
GROTH: How was Johnny Craig different from the previous strip that you did? Was it more of a character-oriented strip starring Johnny Craig?
GROTH: And was it essentially a take-off of Steve Canyon/Johnny Hazard?
SUTTON: Yup. Here’s your big hero, this guy, and he had a little girlfriend named Tanya. I still have a note some place from the managing editor, Ernest Richter, who was very upset because the female would often squat. It’s a funny note to get. That was OK. He never bothered me just as long as you did it. I had this one fucking colonel who was on my ass. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. He knew this. He was going to…Well, you’ve met these people. You come across them and the chemistry is just all wrong. Too many times I didn’t salute his majesty, I guess. He just rode me and rode me and I finally got out of there. I got out a little early. That was mainly why I did. I had to kill off Johnny Craig. The villain who killed him off was a rather telling caricature of this colonel, who by that time had moved to assistant editor somehow or other. I don’t know. I’m guilty of that, too. I don’t pay too much attention to what’s going on around me. There were nice people there and there were crazed people and there were sad people, because this was as far as they were ever going to go, Gary. And this was not exactly the New York Times.
GROTH: You did Johnny Craig for two-and-a-half years. What was the learning curve on that like? Was that a tremendous learning period?
SUTTON: Oh yeah. Do you ever hear of a cartoonist named Jack Labarr?
GROTH: Jack Labarr?
SUTTON: Yeah. French. Labarr. He was an older man. He was in the service. He did a lot of big-foot guys, guys like Beetle Bailey. He did that. I learned inking from him.
GROTH: Now this artist that you learned from, Labarr, you struck up a relationship with him?
SUTTON: Yup. He had his whole family there. He was one of these guys that loved to talk. Around there, free speech was a lost art. He loved to talk about cartoonists. You could mention anyone to Jack and he loved ’em. It was great. And at the same time he was very humble. I would say that at the time that I knew him he was 40-something or other. He could hack the goddamn service routine and make his cartoons and make enough money to keep his family, and what the hell else would you want? We’d go down and we’d have some beer and talk about cartoons all night! And there were other guys. Do you remember Colby Whitmore? Colby Whitmore was another cartoonist. He was an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. He was there. Boy, could that guy draw. He was scary! But we had very little to do with one another.
GROTH: Is that just because he was in the upper echelons or something?
SUTTON: That’s right. Yeah. Mainly it was because he was hanging out with the editor’s daughter or something, God help him.
GROTH: Didn’t want to hang out with the riff-raff.
SUTTON: Yeah. It was that. It was that. Another neat thing, and I’m sure because you’re a word person you love libraries, obscure libraries. This place had a library that went back to Yank Magazine and WWI. To browse in there and see what those fellows were doing at that time was great. There would be some familiar names in there, too.
GROTH: Were you fanatically omnivorous about hunting down cartooning and searching out artists and that sort of thing?
SUTTON: I don’t think so. I think I was interested. But I’m talking about a room that was just at the other end of the building. It wasn’t like going all the way across the island to find something.
GROTH: Well, did Jack Labarr’s conversation fuel your passion for comics?
SUTTON: Sure. As it should: I think when you’re young, you can be very crass. Not crass, but I could be dull. It didn’t occur to me for some time that this was a guy who had been there and back. And had managed not to become bitter about it. He had worked with some of those people doing comics and we talked about it. He had worked for Avon or something. It was just work. If you think about it, for as many people as you have written about, and I imagine that’s many, there are a thousand that neither one of us has ever heard about. They were all there. They did it. Whatever became of them, who knows?
GROTH: I don’t have any Johnny Craig strips in front of me, but can you give me a sense of how your drawing evolved and what you learned in that period??
SUTTON: I think I did the best that I could at the time. It wasn’t anything that you’d want to pull out now and say, I did this! But you did learn — I think I learned — about dialogue and how to manage the simple little tricks of this puppet theatre.
GROTH: All the mechanics of comics.
SUTTON: Yeah. But it’s amazing how quickly something, if you have to put out six of them a week, it doesn’t take that many weeks before it’s no longer a thrill.
GROTH: So you actually think that you lost momentum as you continued to do it?
SUTTON: Oh, absolutely. I knew definitely that I never wanted to do a newspaper strip. There was no room to tell a story.
GROTH: Well, you already expressed how unsatisfying the newspaper strip was to you, so it’s funny that that should be the first thing that you do.
SUTTON: There was a fellow — a sailor — named Dell Lane who wrote, I think, the last year of the thing.
GROTH: So you didn’t write the whole thing?
GROTH: Did you write any of it?
SUTTON: Yes. When I started it. Year one, I wrote year one.
GROTH: Why did someone take over when you were already obviously expert at doing it?
SUTTON: Oh, we were friends and we had a few beers and I read some things that Dell had written. That was it. I think Dell needed some more work or they were going to throw him out of there.
GROTH: And you provided it for him.
SUTTON: Yes. Gotta have this guy. That was OK. He and his wife lived there. They had a little cottage up on the opposite end of the city, on the hill. What a weird thing I think it was. We managed to get Johnny shot off by Colonel Poop and that was the end of that. And he knew what I was doing, too. He had to sign the papers. I was dismissed, because there can’t be any comic strip if you just kill the character off.
GROTH: So you pulled a Fritz the Cat. Whacked this guy.
SUTTON: Was Fritz a comic strip?
GROTH: Well, Fritz was in comic form, but Crumb killed him off.
SUTTON: I didn’t know that.
GROTH: Yeah, he stuck an ice pick in his head and that was the end of that.
SUTTON: I guess. Yeah.
GROTH: So you Fritzed him.
SUTTON: I thought I was the only person who ever killed off the hero.
Anyway, then it was back to the States.
GROTH: This was before your enlistment was up.
SUTTON: Yes, it was. I gained like four months or something. At that point they can’t reassign you because it’s not worth it.
GROTH: So then you just had a lame duck period where they put you behind a desk or something?
SUTTON: Yeah. You have to hang around this gigantic hangar and everybody’s totally rowdy. They call out over the speaker. It’s like taking a number at the deli. 749, loading.
GROTH: You killed the character off because you were just bored with him? Or what?
SUTTON: No. I wanted out.
GROTH: You just wanted to get out of Tokyo?
SUTTON: Yeah. Because somebody had carefully explained to dull Tom how you could get out early.
GROTH: Just make yourself useless.
SUTTON: Yeah. I wound up where it started, actually. I wound up at Travis, a giant airplane place. Takes up most of California, I think.
GROTH: I’m trying to get what was going through your mind when you joined the Air Force. Were you worried about going to Korea? What were your motivations for going?
SUTTON: I had no… I just needed a place to hang around for four years. I don’t know. Also if you went you had these school things, these grants that they give you. I didn’t contemplate ever going overseas at all. Actually, I was very scared.
GROTH: You certainly wouldn’t have had any say over whether you did or not.
SUTTON: I know. See, you’re trying to apply logic again. I had a copy of Frontline Combat! [Laughter.] And I had four or five guys that I knew real good. We all put on our leather jackets and put some extra grease in our hair.
GROTH: Sort of outsiders?
SUTTON: Yeah. When I had anything to do with anybody, I was with them. We used to drive over the line to New York, and you could drink in New York when you were 11 or something like that. We’d get a little bombed over there and we’d come back again. It was a little warped Kerouac — as if Kerouac had written Archie. They worked on their cars all of the time. These were not subversive, evil people.
But I loved to get home when there was nobody there, get in my place, and close the door. Christ! If somebody’d never opened it, I’d still be there. I’d just draw my pictures. That’s who I am. That’s it. I’m sure you’ve been told this many, many times. It’s like an Eastern kind of mantra thing that happens as you get deeper, and deeper and into this damn thing. The grade school was the school of hard knocks, I guess. That was the grade school. When I did get out, I got a scholarship to go to the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Oh boy, or boy. Wherein I discovered that it’s just as much fun fucking rich girls as it is poor girls.
GROTH: Not more fun?
SUTTON: Not much.
GROTH: About the same.
SUTTON: Yeah. What was supposed to happen there, I have no idea.
GROTH: When did you get this scholarship? How old were you then?
SUTTON: I was out of the service. I went ’59-’60. This was ’60 I’d say.
GROTH: OK. So this was post-service, then.
SUTTON: And I was in the museum school for about two-and-a-half years. And that didn’t work, either.
GROTH: Did you learn a lot there?
SUTTON: Yes, I did.
GROTH: I assume this was primarily art?
SUTTON: Oh yes. Once again, usually, you were being taught by people who taught in the morning, and went home to their studios, and painted in the afternoon. And these people I got along with famously.
GROTH: Working artists.
SUTTON: There were others, though…
TO SAN FRANCISCO, BOSTON AND ON
GROTH: So when you got out of the service in ’59, the earliest professional comic-book work that I can find that you did was for Warren in ’67. I’m interested in knowing what you did between ’59 and then.
SUTTON: OK. I got on a bus. There was a fellow I had to visit who was in the gigantic V.A. hospital in Travis. I got on a bus after I did that, and I felt I needed to make myself feel good. I went to San Francisco. I love San Francisco. I got off at San Francisco and Gary, this is no lie, they couldn’t really make a movie about the little flower girl — what the hell did they used to call them — the latter-day beatnik bimbos. Some of them came from Kook Creek, Oregon and others came from Radcliffe. They all did it the same. I thought I had gone to heaven. As long as you got rid of that uniform. “My God, he can talk.” I really don’t know why they were all there — maybe it was spring break or something. But there were so many. My God, you’d trip over them.
GROTH: These women?
SUTTON: Yes. I don’t call them women. They’re girls. Teeny little skirts. It was wonderful. I stayed there six months.
GROTH: Only six months?
SUTTON: Well, there were financial excesses. There were some publications in San Francisco that I sold or gave artwork to.
GROTH: …The beats would have been big in San Francisco at that time. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Did you ingratiate yourself into that scene at all?
SUTTON: Oh, I tried. This is still the little boy from North Adams. Oh, look at that! Hi! They were not standoffish.
GROTH: These girls you’re talking about were essentially groupies or hangers-on?
SUTTON: Yeah. I think so.
GROTH: Were you aware of this scene before you got to San Francisco? Were you aware of the beats?
SUTTON: No. No. I’m about as naïve as they come. It was cool, again, because of the pictures. I went home after six months and it was nice just to be on a mountain all by yourself. Home being, at that time, Jacksonville, Vermont.
GROTH: So you went from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Vermont?
SUTTON: That’s right.
GROTH: Let me ask you a question or two about San Francisco. Tell me a little bit more about the social situation you discovered there.
SUTTON: After the service you have a certain kind of … I don’t know if it’s attitude. Because you’ve been surrounded. There’ve been so many people in your life for four years that gangs of people are natural. You don’t have to like it. They’re just natural. I don’t like it, as a matter of fact. I don’t think I liked it then, but I would do that. And of course there was always the business — I’m sorry to be so shallow — but there was always the business of getting laid. When you’re that age that’s all you want.
GROTH: That’s important.
SUTTON: Yeah. These people, Ferlinghetti and whatnot I read about in books. Maybe they were standing beside me. I wouldn’t know. And they certainly were not the only people in San Francisco. Another thing I liked about that strange outfit — that’s not strange at all. It would be any place else. It was there was none of this baiting of homosexual people. I liked that very much, because I saw a lot of it happen in the service. It was very ugly. All I can say is what I know. There was no baiting of black people or people…
GROTH: Did that always discomfort you?
SUTTON: Yes, it certainly did.
GROTH: So the more liberal environment in San Francisco was much more to your liking. What attracted you to Vermont from San Francisco?
SUTTON: Well, my father had just finished rehabbing a house up there. That’s where ma and dad were: but not very long. I wasn’t there for very long. I was there for a short period of time and the only body relief there was Bennington College. They did not admit you with the same fervor as San Francisco. Do you remember those stories of Al Capp going to lecture at Bennington?
GROTH: Of course: He apparently did well for himself.
GROTH: Or tried. Did you, in this period, go to Boston Museum School?
SUTTON: I had some going away money and I applied for a school in Boston and I didn’t expect much. I just went to Boston. If you’re in that area, that’s where you go. That was fun. That was fun. It wasn’t San Francisco, but it was fun. Worked for the usual junk places — Atlas Advertising! A whole bunch of those things: funny little things going up in the corner. Little cartoon characters there. You’d make $50 a week or something. I remember doing this job. This will fascinate you, Gary. I did 200 banks.
GROTH: Two hundred what?
SUTTON: Banks. I think the net result — I never saw what they did with them in the end — but I think they wanted a sharp line cut they could put into the yellow pages. What you would get would be a shitty Polaroid…
GROTH: You did it for an advertising agency in Boston?
GROTH: So you basically just banged around looking for art jobs?
GROTH: Did you want to draw comics at this point? Was that a goal?
SUTTON: I guess not, because I didn’t. If you had wanted to do that, you’d better have a good portfolio and go to New York.
GROTH: That’s my next question. You had drawn a strip for Stars and Stripes, why didn’t you head for New York and start banging on doors?
SUTTON: New York to me was scary. I don’t know exactly why, still is. I enjoyed Boston. I liked some of the people who were there sort of. Then eventually we got into the school and …
GROTH: I’m sorry. What school was that?
SUTTON: The school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
GROTH: And this was due to your constant quest for learning?
GROTH: Did you have a G.I. Bill?
SUTTON: Yep. I don’t know if they called it the G.I. Bill at this time, but they came through with whatever it was that you were supposed to have.
GROTH: How long did you go to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts?
SUTTON: Two-and-a-half years. But I have to confess to you that I wasn’t there every day. No, I wasn’t. I missed clay pot molding. Other things much more important I missed.
GROTH: What kind of curriculum did you have there?
SUTTON: Well, the first year you didn’t have any choice. Ten thousand hours of drawing which I understand they quit trying to make people do now, because drawing is no longer necessary and it’s hard. And to tell you how utterly perverse I am, I loved it. The first year you do what they tell you to do. The second year you get electives, and I elected to work with a teacher who is a great painter. He told me I was great. It’s a wonderful thing to have someone tell you you’re great. Not precisely that way. “What the hell are you wasting your time with this shit for?”
GROTH: This shit being comics?
SUTTON: That’s right.
GROTH: You told him of your interest in comics and cartooning?
SUTTON: I don’t think so. He saw me drawing comics.
GROTH: Well, how did he know that you were interested in comics?
SUTTON: There were a couple of other ex-G.I.s there and, regrettably, I realize now, we formed a little clique. We were the elite, right? We’d seen everything, done everything. The rest of these fuckers were goddamn wimpy high-school kids. How stupid can you get? And you also cut yourself off at the knees from getting other good stuff. Her name was, I forget. They were also into comics. I stayed with this guy; we stayed in the same apartment. Flynn was his name. He was an ex-marine, but you’re never really an ex-marine. You’re always a marine. One of the first things that he pulled out of his trunk was the entire run of EC comics. We were dear friends ever afterward. I think my teacher Henry saw some of this. His or mine or something else. There probably were drawings that were after Severin or after Wood or something like that. Henry couldn’t understand it. “What the hell do you want to do that for?” And I said, “Henry, when I finish my painting, who buys it?” That’s what’s wrong with that place, anyway. I don’t know it it’s wrong with other places like that, Gary. There is no thought there, anywhere, about how the hell you’re going to live.
GROTH: That’s why it’s a fine art school instead of a commercial art school.
SUTTON: I didn’t know that such a place as the School of Visual Arts existed. Or I would have been there, and the government would have paid for that and I might have learned something.
GROTH: Did you not learn something in that first year of intensive drawing?
SUTTON: Yes I did. I imagine that the curriculum at the School of Visual Arts would have included extensive life drawing classes.
GROTH: So your drawing improved, at least, in school?
SUTTON: Yes, it did. And it changed a lot. I began to appreciate things that I was numb to before. They were real. I loved the people in the graphics department. I seldom got to make a lithograph, because they only had one lithograph press.
GROTH: Can you tell me the years that you attended the Boston Museum School of Fine Art?
SUTTON: I was there from ’60 to ’62 and a half.
GROTH: Now, you were the animation director at Transradio Productions?
SUTTON: How did you know that?
GROTH: I’ve got my spies.
SUTTON: You do. Oh yeah. Yes, I did work there. It was a deal that I had where I would give them their eight hours or whatever the hell it was. I could work there all night if I wanted to. I became very interested in animation. But I wanted to animate, not these goddamn station breaks that they were doing, but I wanted to animate other things because by that time I had seen really artsy-fartsy animation and I wanted to try that. I learned that you don’t go buy an 8-millimeter camera and try to do that. That was really neat. In between that, and during that, I would go into any art school in Boston and walk in the door and find the drawing class and draw until I got thrown out. There were some fellows there who were running the class — graduate students — who knew I didn’t belong there.
GROTH: But they allowed you to monitor the class.
SUTTON: They surely did. As you know, Boston is almost a city of schools. It was. I don’t know what the hell it is now. This went on all of the time, and I pride myself in that. I think that’s great. When I did get to New York, I found out that most people who draw pictures did exactly the same thing. They just walked in. They had a little chutzpah.
GROTH: So you were pretty obsessed with learning how to draw or improving your drawing?
SUTTON: Absolutely. Yes. And isn’t it odd that I only really latched onto the great Japanese draftsmen like Hokusai and Hiroshige and whatnot after I came back.
GROTH: That is ironic. So you were doing that while you were working at Transradio Productions?
GROTH: What exactly did you do at Transradio Productions, and how did you get involved with them?-
SUTTON: I would take whatever it was going to be, a half a minute or a one minute spot, and we would develop this advert. We’d have a little Speedy Alka-Seltzer running around. You had to think, constantly, the cheapest way to do this, the minimum amount of cels.
GROTH: You had no animation experience prior to this, correct?
GROTH: So you learned on the job.
SUTTON: It doesn’t take that much. Look at what the other guys are doing. I’m sorry. It sounds like a big ego, and I think at that time it was. I can do anything. That was OK, but of course the money was pathetic. I worked at an advertising agency for a while. I did probably a half a dozen stints in various advertising agencies and shops. I would just call them shops. I don’t think I was ever there long enough for them to learn my name. I worked at Radio Shack at one time.
GROTH: Jesus! As a clerk?
SUTTON: No, man. It was where the catalog was made.
GROTH: In Boston?
SUTTON: Yeah. You’d touch op these things with Wite-Out or ink, and you’d stat them down and you’d paste them up.
GROTH: Why did you not stay at any one place for very long? Were you restless throughout this period?
SUTTON: Yes. I think I always have been. Also, a place like Radio Shack (I think they were more deplorable then than they are now — the Tandy Corp) they only did this for a certain number of months, like two months. The catalog was done and you’re fired. Got the picture? So you went and found another place to do this, a direct mail thing or anything, Gary. Anything: as long as you could draw something. In the process, meet people, older men, who knew stuff.
GROTH: Who served as mentors?
SUTTON: Yeah. Some of them were wretched. Most of them were pretty good guys. Animation was… Don’t confuse this with Disney or something. This was pretty wretched shit. But you made it look as good as you could and that was it.
GROTH: And you were learning certain fundamentals. You were also the art director at a place called AVP Inc. What was that?
SUTTON: Yes, I was. That was a whole bunch of little dink jobs. I brought my portfolio — they were looking for a person and somebody told somebody who told me. So you go there and you tell them this is what I do. It was a funny thing that happened there. There were only two guys who owned it, and they hired freelance help. They both left. I was left alone at the front desk, and they had one of these Rolodex things and I wondered if I was in there. So reached over and I flipped to S, and there I was. Underlined in red — The Best!
GROTH: Hmm. That must have been quite an ego boost.
SUTTON: Yes. See what shyness will get you?
GROTH: Throughout this period in Boston were you more or less content to be bouncing from job to job and learning the ropes or were you anxious to get on with it?
SUTTON: Oh, Gary. I live in anxiety. Yeah, there were times when I slept in a sleeping bag under my drawing table in this little space that I had rented with other guys who rented it. They didn’t stay there like that. I did. Yeah, it was funny.
GROTH: But then it got tiresome?
SUTTON: Sorry to bring up sore feet, but my first wife decided she’d had enough.
GROTH: When did you get married in this period?
SUTTON: Some time when I didn’t have any sense or any money. Shit. Where are we now? You’re forcing me to follow this timeline. I understand what you’re trying to do and you must also understand that I have tried very hard to put a lot of this stuff out of my head.
GROTH: I’m sorry.
SUTTON: I honestly have. Beverly was the mother of my two children. Well, they’re grown up. Now they’re 35, 34 years old.
GROTH: Beverly, you said?
SUTTON: Yep. I still talk to her every once in a while.
GROTH: If your sons are around 35, that means you had them around ’65, so you must have married not too long before that.
SUTTON: That’s right. I think what throws it off is that we lived together for a while before we got married. Finally got married. Why not!
GROTH: You married in the early ’60s, let’s say. How long were you married?
SUTTON: Five years. I think. I don’t know. I don’t think she knows either. We were mostly happy. Our problems were very, very simple. Money. I thought I had it solved several times only to watch it disappear. It wasn’t there. When she would get pregnant, which anyone has a right to do, women are very nesting creatures, I’m told. She’d get very anxious about this. Her family had lots of bread and they were always there to help out. Oh, Christ! You know what I’m saying. Go away!
GROTH: So this was not a lucrative period.
SUTTON: Oh, no. It was not a lucrative period despite the fact that I was making more money than I ever had in my life. I was broke all of the time. And a lot of that had to do with me. I bought cars and I forgot where they were.
GROTH: It doesn’t sound as if you had a money problem.
SUTTON: All you have to do is have a job. You know that as well as I do. And you can sign here. I always had jobs. Dinky jobs, but I always had jobs. Again, it didn’t amount to that much and it didn’t last that long. By that time, my alcohol thing had become… All of this shit has to expose itself one way or another. I was too often in the saloon. I didn’t like nice piano bars. I liked these things with 50-foot ceilings and ancient fans going. What happened after that?
GROTH: You were attracted to atmospheric squalor?
SUTTON: Yes. I was. And I always have been. A saloon should look like a saloon, not like the Harvard Boys Club.