My latest book, which comes out in August from Fantagraphics, is titled Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books. In advance of the book’s release, I’d like to briefly explain how I decided who I felt is qualified to be included in this collection of 85 portraits.
The series kicked off with the great comics artist Will Elder and evolved from there. Shortly after Will died, his son-in-law Gary contacted me and asked if I would create a portrait of Will as a gift for Will’s daughter, Gary’s wife Nancy. They were very pleased with the result, (which is included in the book), so I decided to create a companion piece, a portrait of Will’s long time collaborator, the brilliant creator of MAD, Harvey Kurtzman, who had been my instructor at the School of Visual Arts. I was happy with the portrait and a limited edition print was made, which quickly sold out. I felt I might be on to something and decided to paint portraits of all the original MAD comic book artists including Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and John Severin, and also planned to release them as prints. I then added all of the EC artists (I’m a lifelong EC fan), and I realized I had the possible makings of a book, The Legends of EC Comics. It soon became apparent that depicting only EC artists would be too limited, so I expanded the idea to portraits of Legendary Comic Book Artists, centering on the early pioneers of comic books, those who entered the field during the first twenty years of its existence (mid-1930s to mid-1950s), and were virtually responsible for inventing the medium.
From there I started creating portraits of some of the great “Golden Age” artists who I’d long admired as a young comic book reader and had learned more about by absorbing Jules Fieffer’s essential book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. I then drew Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee. Soon, I was discussing the project with several knowledgeable friends, among them Paul Levitz, Gary Groth, and Eric Reynolds, and asked them who they would choose as their “top pics”—including any females and people of all ethnicities—who qualified as the true Legends of Comic Books (the working title).
Being fully aware that the early comic book business, like most publishing businesses at the time, was almost 100% white male-dominated, I felt I couldn’t include any creators based simply on their gender or ethnicity, but on the scope of their contribution to the comics industry. Sifting through the responses I received and weighing them against my own choices, I was able to narrow the list down to an essential 75, later expanded to a final 85, all of whom had made the most profound and lasting effect on the dawn of comic books. As Al Jaffee writes in his foreword, these were “the writers, artists, editors and publishers who helped make comic books the worldwide phenomenon that it has become.”
I understand comics fans are passionate and some may be disappointed that their favorite creators are not included in my book. Going into this project I knew it would be impossible to please everyone. This book was by no means meant to be a complete “who’s who” of every man or woman who worked in comics, of which there are probably thousands. I chose those who I felt were the most essential and iconic among the early creators. A few of my final choices might seem controversial to some. There are two Heroes included who might qualify more as Villains of the Comics: Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, who was instrumental in the downfall of EC; and the “Walter Keane of comics,” Bob Kane, who masqueraded for half a century as the sole creator of Batman. For better or worse, each played an important role in the course of comics history.
Another consideration was the quality and quantity of photo reference I was able to obtain, which in some instances was none. My friend Paul Karasik suggested I include a portrait of early comics artist Fletcher Hanks, but aside from one small self-portrait in one of his comics, there are no known photos of him that exist. In other cases, due to the lack of photos, and not wishing to intrude on the deceased’s relatives with my project, I reluctantly decided to omit several creators I had considered, including artist H. G. Peter, writer Otto Binder, editor/artist Vin Sullivan, editor Dorothy Woolfolk, and All-Negro Comics publisher Orrin C. Evans. In the end, I feel the final choices I made qualify as the Comic Book Cream of the Crop; all of them, for one reason or another are true legends, Heroes of the Comics.