From The Comics Journal #191.
Carmine Infantino is the living personification of the health and history of mainstream American comics. Like several others in his generation, Infantino began his career by doing a number of different jobs — writing, pencils, inks, even some support work — for a variety of publishers and titles. His strongest work during this period was for Shelly Mayer at National, where Infantino worked on popular second-tier superhero titles like Flash and Green Lantern.
Infantino produced his most fondly remembered and important comics art for DC in the “Silver Age” of the 1950s and 1960s. He was the artist on the title which marked the beginning of this period, the revamped Flash, from its launching in 1956 into the mid-’60s. His art on Adam Strange, with its elaborate cityscapes and elegant line-work, remains for many the quintessential American science-fiction comic. In 1964, his work on what was called the “new look” Batman saved that title from cancellation and pointed the way to several refashionings of the character of the next 25 years.
A popular artist and extremely effective cover designer, Infantino scaled back his artistic output at the height of his powers to become DC’s artistic director. He eventually became publisher in 1971 and then president of DC. In all of these positions, Infantino presided over a number of experimental titles and laudatory publishing efforts: comic-book version of pulp characters like The Shadow and Tarzan, the fan favorite Green Lantern-Green Arrow series, the Fourth World saga of Jack Kirby, and the revival of C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel among the high-profile efforts; the luscious Sergio Aragones/Nick Cardy Bat Lash and the active recruitment of Filipino artists among his most important, lesser-known efforts.
It’s impossible to spend as many years in the comics industry, and make as many important decisions as Infantino did, and not brush up against an item or two of controversy, including the re-drawing of Jack Kirby’s Superman heads to fit DC house style and the ultimately unsuccessful outcome of the Captain Marvel revival. Infantino looks at these issues head-on with interviewer Gary Groth in the following rare sit-down interview and provides a wonderfully forthright remembrance of the way comics used to be done and how he contributed to building and industry and creating an art form.
THAT’S THE FAMILY
GARY GROTH: I know you were born in 1925.
CARMINE INFANTINO: Right. In Brooklyn, New York.
GROTH: And you went to PS 75 and 85.
INFANTINO: You found that out? I didn’t remember that, but it’s true.
GROTH: I assume those are grade schools?
INFANTINO: Yeah, one was grade and one was junior high school. And college in the evening.
GROTH: I have an enormous list of schools you went to. School of Art and Design was one.
GROTH: And the School of Industrial Arts.
INFANTINO: Right. That school was a high school. Today it’s called the School of Art and Design. When I went there, I met Frank Giacoia for the first time. That was a long time ago. We were both young kids. And I guess both of us being comic fans, we got thrown together. He’d have a comic book of some sort, sometimes I’d have a comic book, so finally we spoke to each other and saw there was a common bond there. Those were Depression years, and it was kind of tough in those days. You could get eggs and potatoes for 15¢ and each of us would have a quarter from our parents to go to school [laughs]. So one day we would share my eggs and potatoes, and we’d buy a comic book with his money, and then the next day we’d do the reverse. Some days we got crazy — we each bought a comic book, and we had to walk home. And I walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and he walked to Astoria! And that’s a long walk — something like 20 miles.
GROTH: Now, the School of Industrial Arts was in Manhattan?
INFANTINO: Yes. That was one of the very early days of that school. It was on 42nd Street. It was an old Civil War hospital converted into a school. It was one of the exploratory avenues of a vocational art school. It was at the very beginning.
GROTH: And you were living in Brooklyn at the time?
GROTH: So why was a kid in Brooklyn going to a school in Manhattan?
INFANTINO: Because there was nothing around [in Brooklyn] in those days, and I had this burning desire to draw. My folks were dead against it. In their mind, all artists lived in attics and starved to death. I’ll tell you — their world was tough and hard. But I finally convinced them and they agreed: “OK — go.” It would take me a nickel to get to school, and then a nickel to get home.
GROTH: On the subway?
GROTH: May I ask you what your parents did?
INFANTINO: My father was a plumbing inspector at the end of his career. But he was a musician when he was a young man. He taught himself the clarinet, the saxophone, and the violin. He was brilliant. Unfortunately he got married quite young, they had me, and my mother asked him to give up his career. From that, he went into plumbing. I’m sure it had to break his heart. But he was a wonderful man. If I could be half the man he was, I’d be very happy. I really love that man. Mom was born in Italy — Pop was born here, by the way — she came here when she was 6 years old. She had five sisters and one brother, I believe. They grew up in Brooklyn. And in those days they lived in an all Italian neighborhood, and then all the Jewish people were in the Jewish neighborhoods. People would form their own ghettos in those days. Then my mother met my father — they both were from Brooklyn — and they got married, then I came along, then another brother. That’s the family.
GROTH: He’s a younger brother?
INFANTINO: Younger, right.
GROTH: He’s in advertising, correct?
INFANTINO: Yes. Very talented.
GROTH: During the Depression, was your family making enough money to get by on?
INFANTINO: No. It was very bad. I started out at 6 years old shining shoes with my grandfather to make a couple of bucks to help the family out. Then I went to work for my uncle delivering groceries. We’d get up at four in the morning, we’d go down to the market and buy things, and then deliver them. So it was kind of rough. But it helps you grow, this kind of thing. At the time you don’t think so! [Laughs.] But it helps.
Then my entrance into the art field was with Harry Chesler. I used to go around as a youngster to companies, go in and try to meet people — nothing ever happened.
GROTH: So your first contact with comics was the Chesler shop. Can you tell me how you chanced upon Harry Chesler?
INFANTINO: A chance meeting took me to 23rd Street, this old broken-down warehouse, and I met Harry Chesler. One day I met this artist in the coffee shop, and he told me about it. He was a guy who worked up there, Ken Battenfield, and he said, “Why don’t you come up and look around? Maybe you’ll learn something.” But he said, “Harry’s not a nice guy. I don’t know if he’ll let you stay. But just take a chance.” [Laughs.] So I did. Now, I was told he was a mean guy and he used people and he took artists. But he was very sweet to me. He said, “Look, kid. You come up here, I’ll give you a dollar a day, just study art, learn, and grow.” That was damn nice of him, I thought. He did that for me for a whole summer.
GROTH: How old were you then?
INFANTINO: It was my first year in high school, the School of Industrial Arts. So l would probably be 14 or 15. So I hung around and met some artists there and I studied them. That was a very nice thing to do. And a buck a day was a lot of money in those days.
GROTH: Now, Chesler’s was a shop.
INFANTINO: Yes. They packaged books for people. I understand he didn’t pay very well. There were all sorts of stories about him. But I personally had one of the nicest arrangements with the man. He did for me something he didn’t have to do: paid me to learn.
GROTH: What did you actually do there for a dollar a day?
INFANTINO: I just sat and studied the art. There were a couple of people whose artwork I studied there. One was Ken Battenfield. I believe, another was Dan Zolderowich, and a couple of other guys. I’d sit and study their artwork,. I’d practice my inking, and then they’d come over and make corrections for me, they’d show me what I was doing wrong and why it was wrong. And they encouraged me to go to the Art Students League at night. It was a little tough at that time — I was still going to high school. But they pushed it and I knew l needed it, so I started. So during the day I’d go to regular school, then I’d go to Chesler’s for a couple of hours, then I’d run down to school at night. It was a very long day. But when you’re young you can handle that kind of thing.
GROTH: Let me just backtrack a second. What spurred your interest in cartooning and comics?
INFANTINO: I really don’t know, Gary. I’ve been asked that question a number of times, and I just don’t know. My only reasoning or background was, as a kid, for some reason, I started drawing Dick Tracy’s head, Orphan Annie’s face, that sort of thing, like most kids. I was really enjoying it, I really got drawn to it. My father thought I was tracing it — he couldn’t believe I had drawn these things.
GROTH: I was going to ask you if Harold Gray and Chester Gould were influences.
INFANTINO: Oh yes, very much so. I kept drawing them, and I enjoyed it. That’s what spurred it.
GROTH: You once said you were originally more interested in movies than comics.
INFANTINO: Well I always enjoyed films. But to the point of working in films? No. I enjoyed them, but never a thought of working in them. What I did enjoy, and what I would have liked — ’course, we didn’t have money then — but I would have preferred to have gone to school to be an architect. I really enjoyed that sort of thing. That was my really deep desire. But that would take college, money... It just wasn’t feasible. Not during the Depression. So I took it out on my comics! [Laughs.] I drew my buildings there...
GROTH: You can actually see that interest in your drawing.
INFANTINO: Oh yeah, that was my burning passion. When I had buildings to do, I enjoyed designing them.
GROTH: Can you tell me what the Chesler shop was actually like? Did the artists hang out there?
INFANTINO: It was an old factory building, and there was this broken elevator, and it rattled its way up to about the fourth floor — it was a five-story building. And as you got off the elevator, you faced a brick wall. In front of the brick wall was Harry Chesler sitting with his cigar in front of an old, broken-down desk, puffing away. A Milt Caniff Terry original hung on the wall behind him. That was one room. Then when you went in to your right there was a larger room where about five or six artists and letterers sat, and did their artwork. That was it. But they worked most of the day, they didn’t talk much. They rarely kidded around, not that much, because Harry would be sitting out there watching everybody, and puffing his nickel cigars.
GROTH: Were you the kid of the group?
INFANTINO: Yes. And they were very nice to me. They all were.
GROTH: I’m wondering how and when your career intersected with Joe Kubert’s, because he also worked at the Chesler shop when he was a kid.
INFANTINO: I didn’t know that. But if he did, we never ran into each other at that time. The first time I met Joe was up at DC. So that was a long time coming from that period.
The following summer I got a job over at Quality Comics. That was the Ray, Black Condor, and that group. My job was to erase pages and white out any lines — Busy Arnold, the owner, didn’t like any little black lines sticking outside of panels. He had a fetish about it. [Laughter.] So l had to white out all the panels, erase every page that came in, and white out, and add blacks where blacks were missing. I would get a quarter a page for that. At the end of the week my fingers were down to the bone. [Groth laughs.] But more important, I saw the likes of Reed Crandall’s Blackhawks come in, I saw the fine work of Eisner and Fine, and all sorts of wonderful artwork.
GROTH: And that inspired you?
INFANTINO: Oh, tremendously. That was worth the effort and energy. It was great. They never came in, those people, they just sent their work in. But it didn’t matter — the artwork was there. And Crandall’s Blackhawk was just an incredible thing to see.
GROTH: Quality was a publishing company, not a shop.
INFANTINO: Right, a publishing company. They published a character called The Ray, by Lou Fine, and I think Fine did the Black Condor, too.
GROTH: Yeah, he did.
INFANTINO: And he also did Doll Man, didn’t he?
INFANTINO: What were they called — “Feature Comics” or something? But they were wonderful. I loved the artwork in those books. And of course, I found out later that that was a group of artists that were just unbelievable: Fine, Crandall, Eisner...
GROTH: So then you moved, from Chesler to Quality?
INFANTINO: Yeah. Then from Quality, somehow or other, I got a job with Charlie Biro, doing backgrounds for his Boy Comics, and Daredevil. That’s where I met Norman Maurer for the first time, and Norman and I would go to Charlie’s house and we’d work all night long sometimes, meeting his deadlines.
GROTH: At Charlie Biro’s home?
INFANTINO: Yes. He lived in an apartment in Forest Hills in those days. His wife had just had a baby, and they’d be in the living room, so Charlie, Norman and I would be in another room just working away all night long. We’d do this for a couple of days in a row just to get the stuff out.
GROTH: What would you be doing?
INFANTINO: The backgrounds. Norman was doing inking — he was doing more stuff than I was. You know who Norman Maurer was, right?
INFANTINO: Joe [Kubert] knew him very well. I was not that close with Norman, but Joe was extremely dose with him.
GROTH: Right, he was Joe’s partner at one point.
INFANTINO: That’s right, later on. But at this point Norman was doing some inking there, and he was a favorite of Charlie’s. Charlie had a lot of respect for Norman.
GROTH: Now this would still be the early ’40s.
INFANTINO: Very early. I was still a teenager at the time.
GROTH: And there would be so much work that you’d go to Biro’s home and work all night?
GROTH: You were paid per page?
INFANTINO: Yeah, I’d just get three or four bucks a page. There wasn’t much money involved, but it was strictly a learning curve, you didn’t really care [about the money]. I mean, we cared, we needed the money at home, but you still had to grow and develop. I’m still going to school at this point, by the way. Then I had to give up going to night school for, a while because I couldn’t take it any more. But I went back later.
GROTH: Now, Biro’s was a shop?
INFANTINO: No, Biro and Bob Wood had a partnership. They worked for a guy named Lev Gleason. They were partners with him. And they put out a couple of books, the Crime comics, Daredevil, and I believe a book called Desperado — I think I did one of those stories, actually. A Western, but that was much later... The book was called Desperado — it was really a crime Western. But he had a few titles. He was a fine writer, by the way. He wrote a character called Daredevil who had this group of orphans he’d be with constantly. It was good stuff.
GROTH: Is it accurate to say that your work at Charlie Biro’s was the first time you actually drew?
INFANTINO: No. I did one job before that. I had gotten a job with Victor Fox at Fox Features Periodicals. Some editor came out, and they gave me a story to do. When I brought it back, they rejected it! [Laughs.] Six pages! And that was it! I didn’t get paid, I didn’t get anything. But it didn’t deter me. I didn’t care. I went back home and worked harder than ever. When you’re young you’ll bounce back — you’re very foolish.
GROTH: The editor rejected it because he didn’t think it was good enough?
INFANTINO: Apparently. I guess they didn’t think it was good. And they were only paying about $6 a page.
GROTH: Now, when you worked for Biro, did someone just give you a script?
INFANTINO: No, no. Charlie would write directly on the page — then he penciled and inked it, and he inked the main figures. Then Norman [Maurer] would do the other figures and I’d do the backgrounds. But he’d pencil it all out, and we’d ink. But I didn’t do much creative work, it was mostly straight lines. Chairs, tables, lamps, you know.
GROTH: Now, after Biro’s, I know at some point you worked for Timely. I think you did a character called Jack Frost.
INFANTINO: Right. Frank Giacoia and I were always in constant contact through all of this. And he and I decided one day we were going to go up to Timely Comics, which was later Marvel Comics, to see if we could get some work. And we did. They gave us a script called Jack Frost. Why I remember that, I don’t know. Frank was the penciller and I was the inker. We did it, and I think it was [Joe] Simon, I’m not certain who the editor was, but they liked the work, and they offered us both a job. Frank took it. And I told my father about it: “This is a great opportunity!” And he says: “No way! You’re gonna finish school.” I can’t love the man enough — he was desperate for money, things were so bad — but he wouldn’t let me quit school. School comes first. “If you’re that good,” he said, “then the job will be there later.” So Frank took the job, and l didn’t.
GROTH: You must have been around 15 or 16?
INFANTINO: About that. So I just kept studying, making my rounds. Then I did some stuff for Ed Cronin. He was the editor at Hillman Comics. I did writing, I wrote a couple of Airboys, I wrote a couple of Heaps for him, and a couple of crime stories. He liked my writing.
GROTH: That must have been in the early ’40s as well?
INFANTINO: Yes. In fact, I did more writing than drawing there. That was strange. He really enjoyed the writing. And he would correct some of the scripts, and he taught me some of the basics about writing: plotting and characterizations.
GROTH: Can you tell me about Hillman Comics? What were they?
INFANTINO: They were a publishing house, but they had a variety of magazines. Comics were just one particular group of their books. I think they had magazines like Photoplay, and things like that. I’m not certain. And Cronin was in a back office, and he just did comics.
GROTH: So you drew The Heap, which Lenny Starr inked.
INFANTINO: Yes, but we didn’t meet until years later. And I wrote those, too.
GROTH: And you also wrote Airboy?
INFANTINO: Right, a lot of those. And some crime stories.
GROTH: And you also drew The Flying Dutchman?
INFANTINO: I believe so. See, you knew more about it than I do. Yes, I guess so.
GROTH: What was the process involved in how you would get these assignments?
INFANTINO: For writing, I’d go in and see Cronin, and he’d tell me to go out and bring him back a Heap plot. “Let’s see what you come up with.” So I’d write two or three different plots. Then I’d bring them in and he’d choose one. Then I’d go back and I’d write it first, show it to him, then I’d go back and draw it.
GROTH: You were essentially an artist — how did you start writing?
INFANTINO: It was Cronin’s idea. He was the one who said, “I want to see you write.” He was very clever in that way. He said, “You gotta learn all the avenues of this business. Don’t confine yourself to one particular thing.” Which made a lot of sense.
GROTH: And you were a kid at the time.
INFANTINO: Oh, yeah. And I was writing.
GROTH: Were there a lot of creative people around your age in the business at this time?
INFANTINO: I don’t know. I know of course Frank Giacoia was there. And I guess Joe Kubert had been around. He was 16 when he started.
GROTH: Right, and Gil Kane was around that age.
INFANTINO: Gil Kane, Alex Toth... But none of us had met at that point. Only Giacoia and I had met. But we were all quite young, and loved what we did. That was the lure. And you had to learn. You really had to learn quickly.
GROTH: I know you met Gil Kane when you were both very young; what was he like then?
INFANTlNO: He was very buoyant. We grew up together, you know.
GROTH: Oh yeah, he talks about you in his interview, and your careers are real parallel.
INFANTINO: Yeah, we knew each other when we were kids in Brooklyn. He’s very talented. Gil and I were never really very close. We knew each other only for a short time as youngsters. Then went our separate ways. I hear he has a highly critical and often exaggerated opinion of everything and everyone. I guess he can be considered the Don Quixote of the comics field. But, what the hell, I understand he can be quite entertaining. I remember he enjoyed films, and he knew a lot about films. And he could tell you everything about every goddamn actor that lived. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Still can!
INFANTINO: He still can? Isn’t that funny. He really got hung up with that stuff.
GROTH: Now, somewhere during this time you worked for Jack Binder?
INFANTINO: Yes, Binder had a shop. I went up there one day — again, somebody suggested I try him — and I got a staff job there, penciling. That’s right, I had forgotten that whole period, isn’t that interesting? But he was a packager. There were some fine, talented people there, such as Ruban Moreira, a fine, young Puerto Rican talent. And another guy up there at that time was Nick Cardy — he became my favorite later. But his real name was Nicholas Viscardi. And he changed it to Nick Cardy later. He was doing a thing called Lady Luck [that shared the weekly tabloid comics supplement with Will Eisner’s Spirit]. Do you remember that? That was Nick. He drew these beautiful women.
GROTH: Cardy was terrific.
INFANTINO: Oh, to me, he is one of the best in the business. He and Alex [Toth] I think are the best. That’s my opinion, then and now.
GROTH: Alex’s work from the ’50s was just gorgeous.
INFANTiNO: He was brilliant. These two, to me, are great. They had no peers. You know what bothers me about Cardy? Very few in the business know about him, and he was so talented.
GROTH: Well, he did work in the late-’60s...
INFANTINO: When I got took over at DC he drew Bat Lash, and his artwork was just magnificent.
GROTH: Yeah, but then he stopped doing comics, didn’t he?
INFANTINO: Yeah. After Bat Lash I put him on covers, I tried to keep him in the worst way. And I couldn’t. He was so good, he had a calling to do other things, and he left.
GROTH: He had a lovely stint on that original Teen Titans comic. Lush drawing.
INFANTINO: The strange part of that story about Nick is, the day I took over as editor [at DC], he had come in to me and said he was quitting. He was dead serious. He was hurt. I said, “What the hell’s wrong?” And he said that Sol Harrison didn’t like his work. He said he didn’t put enough fishes into Aquaman! [Laughter.] It was silly, but not to Nicholas. I said, “Give me a chance. I just took over. Try working with me, if you’re not happy, then of course leave.” So he says, “OK.” So he did Titans, he did Aquaman, he did some beautiful covers in those days, if you recall. And of course Bat Lash was always in the back of my mind, to do that with him. And we did. And that to me, was the most stunning stuff ever done. That strip, by the way, didn’t sell in this country, but in Europe, they re-used them, and re-used them, and re-printed them I don’t know how many times. Over and over. I loved plotting it! But it did not sell. I had to drop it.
GROTH: Yeah, in some ways I think Cardy was almost too sophisticated for the market.
INFANTINO: That could be the problem. His work was beautiful. He could do anything, this guy. You know what his work reminded me of at times? Al Dorne. You remember Albert Dorne? He could be very humorous and dynamic.
GROTH: But Cardy was good even back then, in the ’40s?
GROTH: Was he around your age?
INFANTINO: Nick was, I think, a year or two older. But I’m not certain. We were in the same ballpark.
GROTH: When you worked for Jack Binder, were you out of high school at that point?
INFANTINO: No, I was still in high school. I was working at Binder’s in the summer, and after school.
GROTH: Were you drawing for him?
GROTH: Do you remember what you drew?
INFANTINO: God, some silly kind of strips, I don’t remember what the hell they were.
GROTH: This would have been penciling?
INFANTINO: Yeah, just penciling. He had some very talented people working there, though.
GROTH: Can you describe what his shop looked like?
INFANTINO: Yeah, it was the same sort of thing. They were big factory rooms, huge rooms, with guys at desks lined up, one in back of the others, just rows of them drawing away, writers writing, letterers...
And he’d package comic books and send them out. And of course the guys weren’t making good money. But that was the way of the world in those days, and everybody just kind of accepted it.
GROTH: And he would pay the artists per page?
INFANTINO: Yeah, and it wasn’t much at all. They were not making great money.
GROTH: Yeah, but probably during the Depression you were happy to get anything.
INFANTlNO: You didn’t care. You got work. The money was not important. I was still learning.
GROTH: Now at some point you worked for Holyoke.
INFANTINO: Right after Binder I went to Holyoke. That’s right, I’d forgotten about that. [Laughter.] God, you do know more about me than I do!
GROTH: [Laughs.] That’s my job.
INFANTlNO: Yeah, I got the job at Holyoke. They were in the Times Building on 42nd Street.
GROTH: That location sounds a little more upscale.
INFANTINO: To me it was upscale then. It was a small office. We did just a few books. It was myself and a couple of other people — there was a letterer there named Milton Cohen. This fellow Cohen had somehow gotten friendly with Lou Fine and he did a strip called The Cisco Kid for Lou. He tried, but he could never sell it. I don’t know why, it was a beautiful strip.
But I worked at Holyoke for about a year or so. All the while, Frank [Giacoia] and I kept in contact. We’d meet for coffee at night and we’d talk, we’d kid, we’d look at each other’s work, he’d show me his growth at Timely and I was very impressed. Then one day he and I decided to just go into DC Comics — what the hell, why not? We went to 480 Lex, where they were originally. We went in and saw a guy named Eddie Eisenberg. He looked at our work and he says, “We can’t use anybody here.” That was where Superman and Batman were being done. He said, “But go down the hall, there’s a company called All-American Comics, it’s a sister company, and talk to a guy named Shelly Mayer there — he’s the editor. Tell him I sent you.”
So we went down, and Shelly saw us, he saw our work, and he said to me, “Your stuff is good, I could give you work today if you wanted.” My eyes lit up. But he said, “I really think it would do yourself a world of good to go back for six months and study. Come back, and I promise I’ll give you work then. But if you want it now, I’ll give it to you.” But he reminded me of Sheldon Moldoff who did lots of copying rather than drawing, and he said, “It’s better to go home and learn to draw.” That was the point. Because Sheldon used to copy Alex Raymond. Copy Foster, Caniff, anybody. Everybody.
GROTH: So he was basically advising you not to do that.
INFANTINO: He told me not to do it. But he says, “But if you want work now. I’ll give it to you.” I said, “OK, I’ll go.” But Frank stayed, he took the work on. He left Timely Comics then.