GROTH: Sometime after school, you started doing illustrations for the pulp magazines. You worked for Street & Smith, which was a big pulp publisher. How did you acquire those jobs?
FLESSEL: Well, gradually, you keep going in and you keep looking up. There was a guy that taught at Pratt — James, Mr. James — who liked to give out work to young people. There were a lot of pros — people who had to go down the ladder because there was no work in the bigger magazines. So you’d see all kinds of old-time illustrators down there and you were just getting enough so you would not quite make your living. Honing your abilities, trying to get your foot in the door. There were a few of the pulp publishers around: Popular and Goodman and different ones that I did work for.
GROTH: You said in the past you did a lot of illustrations for Street & Smith pulps. Can you tell me how that worked? They would give you a story to illustrate?
FLESSEL: They would give you a copy of a story and the space. Double spread would be $15; single would be seven, sometimes ten. I did some stuff for The Shadow. It’s funny; did you know there are aficionados of pulps? There are people that get together and trade old pulp magazines both in Dayton, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They have contacted me and I talked to one of them and I said, “Gee. I’ve gotten rid of all my magazines. I don’t know what I did.” He says, “I’ll send you a copy of what you did.” He sent me a sheet of every story that I ever illustrated. Imagine that! I’ve been invited to the one in Dayton, but I never went.
I eventually got to use my split- brush, dry-brush technique. Then eventually when I was using it I was practicing to do stuff for the slicks, you know. My stuff in the beginning was better because it was geared for the pulps and broad and eventually I tried to sharpen it up. I figured advertising and illustrating and yeah, the other mode of illustration because pulps were shaky at that time. I really was shaky. You were trying to find — do you know what the name of this whole thing is? For you, too — survival. The VCR is going to DVD, it’s all a bunch of e-mail, a-mail, c-mail. I talked to a young interviewer the other day and he didn’t know what a linotype machine was. Well, you wouldn’t know.
An early illustration, ©2008 Creig Flessel.
GROTH: Actually, I practiced on a linotype machine in college. Now you’re being interviewed by the magazine that does know what a linotype machine is. The individual metal type would slide down a slide when you pressed the corresponding keys on the keyboard, and into a tray.
FLESSEL: Yeah. I worked for a daily newspaper, cleaning off the type. You had to clean them off every so often.
GROTH: So you must have been pretty excited about getting work in the pulps. That meant money and it meant doing what you wanted to do.
FLESSEL: I never have been really excited, really, because I knew that this might be the last one. Because I looked around and it seemed to me that everybody was so much better and I couldn’t figure out how they’re buying my stuff, but I don’t knock it.
GROTH: Did you enjoy reading the pulps before you got your job?
FLESSEL: There was some good writers and a lot of the top writers — these were bread-and-butter things that they would do. Yes, I liked the stories.
GROTH: Now, at this point were you constantly trying to improve yourself as an artist? You were looking at other artists’ techniques…
FLESSEL: Oh yeah, I was looking at Mario Cooper and photography had come in and was cutting in and everybody was using Arthur William Brown’s stuff. He just took the photograph and would trace it, either with a poloptogan or right on the paper. He was going photographic and slick and all the magazine stuff was going from the broad, painterly stuff like Harvey Dunn and Pruett Carter to that slick photographic stuff. When I started, I didn’t know which way a coat buttoned or how to shade colors. It didn’t exactly look like Leyendecker’s Arrow collars, and I could see that.
GROTH: Were the Street & Smith people easy to work with? Was it a comfortable arrangement?
FLESSEL: Oh, no problem. Very few changes. There was one change I had to make, where one guy was holding this person that looked like there was intercourse going on. The editors said “You can’t do that.” They’re a little fussy about that sort of thing.
Another early illustration, ©2008 Creig Flessel.
GROTH: I assume the work was lurid in the pulps. It was about gangsters and melodrama — but you wanted to work for more upscale magazines, so the subject matter would require a difference in your whole approach.
FLESSEL: That’s right. Everything was blood and thunder and exaggerated; stabbing and gouging out eyes. I drew a picture of a guy being dragged over a gravel road. That’s pulp magazines and comics too. Maybe it was for Charlie Biro in the comics.
GROTH: That was in a comic.
FLESSEL: Yeah. But anyway, they don’t do that in the slick magazines and especially not with advertising. In advertising, everybody is white, American, Protestant, good-looking, got all their teeth and their little smile and college fit. It’s a different world.
GROTH: More William Powell than Humphrey Bogart.
GROTH: You saw an ad in the New York Times that was placed by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and you answered that. I think that was in 1935.
FLESSEL: Must have been ’35, because by ’36 Marie [Flessel's wife of 65 years] is up in Alfred College upstate and saw my name on a comic book.
GROTH: Now, I also understand that you applied for a position at Johnstone and Cushing in ’36. I understand that they thought you weren’t ready and they sent you to John Streibel. And you worked with him for a year?
FLESSEL: Half a day for a year, while I was doing pulps and of course keeping my contact with Johnstone and Cushing, maybe picking up a job.
GROTH: You must have been working for Striebel and Nicholson at the same time.
FLESSEL: Sure. I was juggling them.
GROTH: Now, Striebel did a strip called Dixie Dugan. What did you do for Striebel exactly?
FLESSEL: Yes, he came from the Midwest and he had a place in Woodstock, NY. Dixie Duganwas written by J.P. McEvoy. He created the Dixie Dugan character, modeled after Clara Bow.
GROTH: She had a great haircut.
FLESSEL: She had the haircut and the Chinese little eyes. McEvoy wrote the story, but never wrote any of the scripts. One of his sons wrote the copy and John Striebel did the drawing. Striebel was a night worker. He would manage to get up by noon and would go to work at one o’clock, sometimes by 11 o’clock. It was over by Bloomingdale’s on the East Side, near the 59th Street Bridge, a three-floor walk-up.
The first week I was there I used to meet this man coming down the stairs and he always had his overcoat hanging over his shoulder. It was in November. And he would try to bump me every time I’d come down. And I figured, “What is he trying to do?” So finally, after about a week of it I said to John, “Next time this guy comes down the stairs … ” and he lived on the second story, “I’m going to bump him and maybe he’ll go down the stairs.” And John said, “Don’t do it! That’s my landlord! You know who he is?” Harold Ross. I was running into the editor of the New Yorker! The man who started it!
GROTH: Who was also the landlord?
FLESSEL: He was the landlord! He owned the house. People ask, “Did you ever meet Harold Ross?” and I would say, “Well, I certainly did! I met him every day when I went to work!” I guess he hated cartoonists. I never could figure it out.
Anyway I would come in for half a day and do pencils and backgrounds.
Excerpt from a Dixie Dugan strip, artist and publication date unknown.
GROTH: If you penciled it and someone else wrote it, what did Striebel do?
FLESSEL: Striebel did all the inking. The inking and penciling the heads and I would clean up. He penciled with a 6B pencil and sometimes he would get working and he’d look like a coal miner! I was used to working with a 2H. I finally got down to a HB pencil. He was also doing some advertising. That’s why he took me on. There was a cereal account, which was being sponsored by Vic and Sade, which was a radio show like Lum and Abner, a cornball thing. I was doing that for him. So, when Tom Cushing was still hemming and hawing about whether or not to take me on I said, “Well you know I did the Vic and Sade ads.” He said, “Vic and Sade?” I said, “Sure.”
GROTH: Dixie Dugan was the first comic strip you worked on. That has to be a different discipline than drawing illustrations for pulps. How quickly did you take to comics?
FLESSEL: Well, luckily Dixie Dugan and her partner went out West. There were cowboys and horses. It wasn’t that hard. I just had to clean up my act and use a different approach.
What is interesting to have somebody point out to me things like neck ties go this way and shirts button this way and this is the way the pants hang. John was a trained artist and he went to art school in Chicago and he was conscious of composition and arrangement. Regardless of whether it’s in the pulps or a comic strip, you are telling a story. If somebody is jumping, they are jumping. If they’re punching, they’re punching. I found out soon on that I couldn’t take my violence seriously. I always had a humorous touch and the best stuff I’ve done is semi-comic.
GROTH: When you answered DC’s New York Times ad, did you talk to Wheeler-Nicholson himself?
FLESSEL: I can’t recall. I can recall the dinginess. There was a bigger leather couch that seemed to be 20 feet long, and the smoke was thicker than you’d see in the comics. There was always somebody sleeping there. It was a crashing place for everybody: transits, cartoonists, Nicholson’s friends, people waiting at a job or killing time, salesmen. His secretary was a born-again Christian with a droopy flower and a beat-up desk. There was a picture by the French poster, a couple of photographs by the water fountain — not a water fountain but a sink — one of which was of a duck in a pond who’s looking at a little boy peeing in the pond. The duck says, in French, “Don’t drink the water.”
Major Nicholson had a double-breasted coat made out of brown camel hair and a beater hat. He always had a long cigarette holder and his teeth were gradually being eaten away. He had a bald head and round face and big, full nose. I think he had spats on. Always had this briefcase, which we looked in once. There was nothing in it, ever! He was formally a pulper and he’d written a lot of successful pulp stuff. Of course he’s a Major in the Calvary. The story goes, the expeditionary force eventually went into Russia. About 100 men were going to settle the Russian Revolution, and they didn’t succeed. He escaped by way of Sweden and picked up the lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Sweden and married her. Very charming lady.
Flessel’s cover for Detective Comics #7, ©1937 DC Comics.
GROTH: What kind of skills were they looking for when they interviewed you?
FLESSEL: I don’t think they were looking for any pedigree or “Would you do this?” More like, “You’re a live body. What do you want to do? Take this and do it, then.” I realized they were desperate so I had to go out and buy a drawing table. They had just one table that they were doing all of the mechanical work on. So I got a table and managed to find a chair and sat down and they said, “Here. Do this.” I think I did a couple of center spreads for More Fun. I did Fishy Frolics, I did an Acorn and Andy double-spread. Little nonsense cartoons.
GROTH: When Nicholson hired you, you started working on Detective Comics?
FLESSEL: Detective was created while I was there. I think there was just More Fun and Adventure. As I recall, they used to sit down and think up titles and copyright them — the business of trying to mail something to yourself, so that you have a record that you created it — trying to corner the market on everything from “horror” to “terrific” or any word you can think of.
GROTH: You did all but one of the first 17 covers of Detective Comics. Can you tell me what the hierarchy was there? Vince Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth were two editors, correct?
FLESSEL: Very loose-knit. There was two offices, maybe as big as this room [approximately 15' x 20']. I think maybe the main office was a little bit bigger and had two windows. The Major had an office and there was a second, sparsely furnished office on Fourth avenue, down in the garment district.
GROTH: So Sullivan and Ellsworth were editing and you were working directly with them — for them? They would essentially assign you material?
FLESSEL: They were desperate for material. If you look in the early books, I wrote Steve Conrad,Hanko the Cowhand. I did all the writing. I created Pat Morgan and Steve Conrad, the Bradley Boys. There was a comedy routine: they’d say “Two pages,” and you’d do two pages off the top of your head. The covers I could give a little more thought, as compared to many of the so-called stories — like the Steve Conrad one where the monkeys throw turkey legs at him. I also had the first black man in a comic strip. I think they were in such a hurry that they didn’t even notice that he was black. He was a crew member of a special gas-operated ship. I was way ahead of my time. I was reading science fiction at that time.
GROTH: Now, you started writing scripts, but you hadn’t written before, had you?
FLESSEL: No. I learned on the job. That’s how crazy it was. I look back and say, “I had a lot of nerve!” I was hungry.
GROTH: Did you work in the offices?
FLESSEL: I worked in the offices in the beginning. I’m not very smart about money, but I saw the guys come in and lay down and cry for money. And they were threatening to kill the staff guys, who would hide. I figured “If I’m here and I do this stuff, then maybe they’ll be embarrassed and want me back on Monday morning, so they’ll pay me,” which they did. I didn’t have a studio.
GROTH: Were you still living at home at this point?
FLESSEL: No. I took a room in uptown New York, later in Brooklyn — I married in ’37 and lived in Brooklyn — and eventually went back to Huntington, my roots. I stayed there until I came out here.
GROTH: You mentioned that the artists would come in routinely and demand to be paid. Is it your impression that it was a shoestring operation?
FLESSEL: Oh, sure. It was hairy. You couldn’t see a future. Even after the comic books were put out, they didn’t sell. There were several piles of books lying around — like Superman #1 — that I should’ve taken! I could’ve walked down the street and buy Cadillacs!
GROTH: So you had the feeling that the comic-book industry was not going to last and that this was something that you were going to have to work through and move on to something else?
FLESSEL: I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. It was just dark, dark, dark. Even though they’re paying you $5 a page, you’d have to do five pages. Of course, $25 or $30 a week was a lot of money at that time, but you would have to repeat it. I didn’t know if, had I stayed in comic books, I would have had the staying power maintain the workload. Some of these guys, like Joe Shuster, it was unbelievable the amount of work he has turned out! Gil Kane, any one of them. Unbelievable!
Flessel’s cover for Adventure Comics #40, featuring the DC character for which he’s best known, the original Sandman. ©1939 DC Comics.
GROTH: Were you a fast artist?
FLESSEL: I did a lot of stuff real fast. I guess I was medium-fast. I did a lot of stuff I’d like to forget about, because I just took the money and ran. I can’t believe I had the nerve to turn it in, but they accepted it. But things were so bad. They needed it so bad.
GROTH: Now, you studied to be an artist and that’s what you wanted to be. Did you see this as fulfilling that goal of being an artist? Did you see what you were turning out as the kind of art you wanted to do?
FLESSEL: No. I was always wanting to do illustration, gradually realizing that it was a dying profession and that I wasn’t that good — maybe as good as some, but there just wasn’t room. There were a million illustrators.
GROTH: And illustration was certainly dying at that point.
FLESSEL: That’s right. There was no future, and I wanted out. Marie wanted to get married and have children and a home and all the American, Norman Rockwell-type dream.
GROTH: Did you, at some point, formally give up the ambition of being an illustrator and accept the fact that you were a cartoonist, or realize, “I am a cartoonist now and that’s the kind of artist I am”?
FLESSEL: I don’t think I ever gave up the dream of being an illustrator, but I was faced with the reality that I can do this type of stuff — and do it fast — and people like it, so I’ll have a certain amount of success. It wasn’t until I went to work for Johnstone and Cushing that I realized that that’s where I belonged and settled down, tried to do the best job I could do and take the money and run.
GROTH: At some point Wheeler-Nicholson’s company was taken over by Irwin Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. My impression of Wheeler-Nicholson was that he was somewhat of a charlatan hustler. Is that correct?
FLESSEL: Well, no. He was to be pitied, because he had a great idea but he didn’t have the money. He didn’t have the wherewithal and he was stubborn. They said, “Look, we’ll give you whatever amount of money plus a percentage,” I remember that, and he said, “No. This is my idea.”
GROTH: Donenfeld was the printer.
FLESSEL: He was also American News Distribution. He had everything.
GROTH: And he was really intersted in buying Nicholson out.
FLESSEL: Well, sure. Jack Liebowitz was a gentleman about that. He knew business. He wanted to buy the idea. And, of course, the Major had a vision. I don’t blame him. I might have done the same thing: “This is my idea! I want to be in on the glory days.”
GROTH: But he couldn’t make the business work?
FLESSEL: No. He couldn’t borrow any more money. He was over a barrel and he couldn’t pay the money. It was inevitable that he would have gone bankrupt and out of business, except for Liebowitz and Donenfeld.
GROTH: So they essentially just took him over because he was so indebted to them.
FLESSEL: Well, yeah. I guess it may have been that he didn’t use the money properly or that he had to use the money to pay off his own debts, let’s say. Maybe he didn’t pay the artists and the artists would say to Liebowitz, “Hey! I didn’t get paid.” And he would say, “Well, I sent so much. What happened to it?” I’m not sure, but I think that’s the scenario.
Click image for larger version in new window. Sandman art from “The Pawn Broker” in Adventure Comics #51, ©2002 DC Comics.
GROTH: When Donenfeld took over, did the shift in management manifest itself in obvious ways to you?
FLESSEL: Well, by that time I was ready to get out. Whitney Ellsworth went uptown as the editor, and I remember going up and Liebowitz gave his little speech, “Where is Creig Flessel?” He wanted to meet me, even though I said, “I’m here.” The first job I did for Whitney was the Shining Knight. But I got a big advertising job and got working that. I got a friend named Al Bare to work on the Knight job and I remember turning in some 12-page feature we whipped out. I never did another job for Whitney. I went to advertising.
You know, the Shining Knight was a great idea. This guy from way, way back goes to rescue a lady friend and meets a dragon and the dragon freezes him in ice — and eventually the ice melts and he appears on horseback. A great story. I would like to finish it up. It was the type of thing that sort of excited me, but money excited me more then.
GROTH: What were Sullivan and Ellsworth like as editors over at DC?
FLESSEL: Hands off. They didn’t bother you. I never had to make a change.
GROTH: So, did they do as editors if they were that hands-off?
FLESSEL: Well, Whitney wrote a lot of copy and Vin got to be a great packager. It wasn’t a very nice job but he would tape stuff together and wrap stuff back up. Do a lot of mechanicals. Whitney, of course, was off writing all the time. But he could sit down and draw. It was like any fly-by-night outfit in the beginning.
GROTH: Now you just said that you thought the Shining Knight was a pretty good story. A lot of stuff looks like pretty bottom-of-the-barrel stuff: Pete Saunders, Cutter Carson, Gun Boss, Larriet Law. Do you remember any of this?
FLESSEL: Well, I get mixed up with a lot of stuff. They proved to me that I did some Superboy. I actually did a feature — I can’t think of the editor’s name, a big guy — just to please him. He said he wanted all the lines closed, like a coloring book. Then again, I’ve seen stuff recently where I know it’s mine but I shudder, I can’t believe that I could do such things. Just a case of “get it out.”
GROTH: I have a note that you had something to do with Superboy from 1958 to ’59.
FLESSEL: I did one. You know, it’s frightening; it’s like going out and drinking a lot of martinis and doing a job and not remembering.
GROTH: The editor you would have done that for would have been Mort Weisinger, a real tyrant.
FLESSEL: But as I recall, I only did one because we had a confrontation and I said, “Well, that’s for a coloring book.” I closed up all the lines and I said, “Well, how about Joe Kubert?” and they said, “There’s only one Joe Kubert.” Joe Kubert never finished a line in his life — beautiful stuff. So I figured I wouldn’t bother. I figured that I could always go back to the comic books. It was in one of those slow periods and they wanted me to do Superboy and I said, “No way!”
Sandman art from “The Pawn Broker” in Adventure Comics #51, ©2002 DC Comics.
GROTH: Now, I understand you also drew Jimmy Olsen in 1959 and 1960?
FLESSEL: Never touched it. Occasionally I get checks from DC for stuff they’re reprinting that they say I’ve done but I don’t remember doing. I don’t question them any more! If they want to send me money, sure.
GROTH: Well, there’s a database of cartoonists available that lists the credits of almost all cartoonists. My notes indicate that you did Air Patrol and Cutter Carson in 1939, River of Death,Silver Saddle and Living Death in 1937. [Flessel is shaking his head.] Silver Saddle and Living Death in 1937. These all sound like Westerns. Are you sure you didn’t do these?
FLESSEL: I’m sure. In ’37, I know what I was doing. As for Jimmy Olsen, I don’t even know who he is.
GROTH: He’s Superman’s pal.
You did Sandman from ’39 to ’41, Shining Knight in ’42 and you worked on Crime Does Not Pay in ’57 and ’58. Did you distinguish between work that interested you and work that didn’t? Or was it all just, “Give me the job and I’ll do the best I can under the circumstances.” Did you feel more involved drawing certain strips?
FLESSEL: No, I’m ashamed. Well, I’m not ashamed. I guess I probably needed the 100 bucks, 150 bucks or whatever. It was a survival thing. I’ve got a home, I’ve got two kids and advertising is up and down. Of course, you know, Johnstone and Cushing was gone by the ’60s, completely dead. TV had taken over.
GROTH: You must have taken pride in the draftsmanship, doing a certain caliber of work in the drawing especially if the stories were good.
FLESSEL: Well, yeah, if the stories were good and I wasn’t bugged by something else. I admire these guys who stayed up all night working and then again all day. That’s why I’m here at 90 years old! I did a hell of a lot more than just draw with my left hand!
GROTH: [Laughs.] There’s a lesson in there.
FLESSEL: Survival. Nobody knows the difference when it’s all over. They’ve got me doing other stuff and I’m getting paid for it.
Johnstone and Cushing
GROTH: You worked at DC the same time you worked at Johnstone and Cushing. You went back to Johnstone and Cushing about a year after they told you that you weren’t ready, and then they hired you.
FLESSEL: Yes. That means it’s freelance so they did all the publicity and put out flyers. I was on the roster. If they published your work they took the percentage, did all the martini drinking — the publicity and running back and forth — and layouts and things. You did the work, which was what I wanted.
GROTH: When you went back to Johnstone and Cushing, who did you talk to? Johnstone and Cushing?
FLESSEL: Pete Reynolds was the first person I met. They were up on the 35th floor of the Commerce Building. A beautiful view, right there at 41st street and Third avenue. Pete later went over to work at King Features and eventually went up to Famous. But he got me in to see Tom Johnstone. At that time, Norman Rockwell’s kid was doing his woodcuts and I made a couple of imitation woodcuts. I did a couple of things and old Tom Johnstone looked at them and said, “Gee, they’re great,” and gave me the first job.
People would get busy — Bill Sakren or Joe King or Bud Briggs — and you would substitute for them. So you got to imitate different people and get your foot in the door. I was a natural. I tried to make myself not look like advertising. I thought that would be different because everybody was so slick. For instance, whenever there was any cross light, I tried to make them look like illustrations. Also, I found out that, to do advertising, you had to be very versatile. If somebody said, “Can you do this?” you’d say, “Of course!” Then you’d go home and find somebody to copy!
Click image for larger version in new window. Promotional card advertising Flessel’s services.
GROTH: Tell them you can do it and then figure out how to do it! So Johnstone and Cushing would just give you assignments and a cut?
FLESSEL: Right. Somebody would call up from J. Walter Thompson [agency] and say, “We’ve got this account and we don’t know what we want to do.” Comics advertising was fairly new at that time and not very popular with the art directors because it’s pretty well cut-and-dried. They were afraid of it and hated it for years, because it gave them no chance to do a layout. If there was a million-dollar campaign, they just had to turn it over to Johnstone and Cushing and pay them the fee. Of course, the art directors would get the credit if an ad won a prize, but they never really liked us.
GROTH: But the art director couldn’t micromanage it.
FLESSEL: He didn’t know what was going on.
GROTH: So what would the arrangement be? Would the account be with Johnstone and Cushing and —
FLESSEL: No, no. There are a million odd services and artists and here’s where the competition was. They were all bidding on the account. You’ve got competition with several people, not only with other art services, but with other artists — like Dik Browne and Stan Drake. So we would go and come up with ideas. It was hairy, because only one guy would get the account. But one good thing that Johnstone did was he would pay everyone who tried, so even if you didn’t get the account, you would get a few hundred dollars for having tried. But it always was a feather in your cap to have gotten an account. Your stuff was picked over, let’s say, Dik Browne’s.
GROTH: How competitive of an environment was it?
FLESSEL: Well, you never thought of it as competitive. It wasn’t cutthroat. The guy that got the account got the account. I don’t remember being mad and jealous. Of course, I was lucky at that time that a lot of it came my way and I was able to please them. It was a happy time. You got ego and it’s what you want to do and you knocked your brains out and the client recognized that.
GROTH: When you were doing work for Johnstone and Cushing and DC at the same time, did your social circle comprise your colleagues in the profession? Fellow artists, cartoonists?
FLESSEL: Well, in the olden days I belonged to the Illustrator’s Club, and that was alright. Cartoons were cutting into illustration, so if I went to the Illustrator’s Club — it’s a nice place to take a client. Everybody wants to be seen there — and somebody asked me what I did, I’d say, “Well, I do comics,” which was looked down upon, because they were worried, not only with photography climbing down their back, but here were these comics guys coming in and cutting into their business.
Russell Patterson was a cartoonist and he was a member. He had made the mistake of making the statement that he used the Illustrator’s Club as a place to bring his clients, people from Broadway and Illustration and Design. He would always run up a bill and they posted the bills up on the bulletin board — the cheats or the different guys who had run up money. Well, sometimes he had run up $800, which was a lot of money at that time, so he made the statement that, “You illustrators better be careful or we’ll get the cartoonists over here and we’ll take over!” That was not the statement to make. So that was against us, too.
GROTH: There was definitely a class hierarchy.
FLESSEL: Yeah. It was a great place to go. It’s still a great place to go. I quit and became a member of the National Cartoonists Society. I had no trouble getting in the second time around. The first time, Stan Drake and I were refused admittance to the Society because we didn’t sign our work. I think Hal Foster and a couple of them had a few drinks and said, “Oh no. I’ve worked for years and I always sign my work. If you can’t sign your work, you don’t deserve to be a cartoonist.” And they were beating up on Stan and I. We finally left, and Milt Caniff and Alex Raymond, who was the president at that time, didn’t know what was going on! I remember Ed Wexler — he did ads for Johnstone and Cushing — stood up for us. He was great.
Advertisement with art by Flessel.
GROTH: Correct me if I’m wrong, but comics were looked upon as being slightly disreputable.
FLESSEL: I hadn’t thought about it until that night but I gradually realized it from the Illustrator’s Club that, yes, they were. Even though Harrison Cady and Rube Goldberg and millionaires like that belonged, the reason why the Cartoonists Society was such a success was that cartoonists were a little more sociable than illustrators.
GROTH: What was the shop talk like back then when you got together with other cartoonists and artists? Did you discuss the profession and whether it was going to exist ten years from then and where were you all going?
FLESSEL: I don’t think we did. I think it was, just as you say, shop talk. The most interesting guy was Dik Browne. He could carry on a conversation with 16 people and he had a great knowledge of everything! Stan Drake was interesting. He had already had a screen test in Hollywood. He’d been out to Hollywood and back. There were old-time cartoonists who had been around and worked with Chic Young, for instance. Ray McGill worked with Chic Young. We had an overlapping there of old-time cartoonists and new ones coming up. The talk covered everything, from what was going on on Broadway to what was happening back home. You got mixed up in people’s family. It was a family affair, and every year we would go up to Jack Cushing’s. He had a big place around Stamford with a swimming pool and a great big estate. Everybody would bring their families along.
GROTH: Were people passionate about their work? Excited about new techniques and great drawing?
FLESSEL: I think everybody really appreciated what was being done. There was no jealousy at all. We had great respect for each other. I remember showing Stan Drake a 290 pen once and he took to it like a duck to water. It was great and they shared their knowledge and a lot of anecdotes.
Al Stenzel, who was Johnstone and Cushing’s art director, called up Stan Drake and said, “Where the hell is that drawing? It was supposed to be in here yesterday. What are you, sick? Are you throwing up blood? Are you spitting up blood? For Christ’s sake, don’t get any on the drawing!” One time I went in and they said, “Flessel, you are 40 years old. For a long while, we didn’t think you were going to make it. But, now that we see you, we don’t think you did!”
GROTH: Who were your best friends back then? Who’d you hang out with?
FLESSEL: In those days, I knew Freddie Guardineer and Gill Fox, but they were really spread out. Not much socializing. It wasn’t until Johnstone and Cushing that we — Joe King and Bill Sakren and different people — really socialized, going out to lunch together.
Later on, I bought a house out there in Huntington, right by the water. I was going to watch the kids grow up and work at home. That was my life.
GROTH: Was it nice to be able to work at home and not have to —
FLESSEL: Yes. Also, I could paint and watercolor. I still do a panel for a local paper here in my retirement home.
Watercolor ©2002 Creig Flessel.
GROTH: Did your kids know that their father had an unconventional occupation?
FLESSEL: Yes. I was the man on the block that never went to work. So naturally when people got locked out of the house they would come to me. Or if somebody wanted their dog walked of if the kids had to be picked up at school, I would be the one. Or, after school, the kids would come home and they would want to bat at a few baseballs, go skating. I guess I was lazy at that period, but the kids don’t resent it.
GROTH: Did you make up the time?
FLESSEL: Yeah, at night, but I was never concerned about the routine. I was the sort to work early. Morning is a good time to work. I never worked at night. People like Kotzky, you’d call him up during the daytime and he would be in bed. Streibel worked afternoons and evenings. A lot of guys worked nights.
GROTH: Many artists are night owls.
FLESSEL: It’s a quiet time.
GROTH: There’s an impressive list of artists who worked at Johnstone and Cushing when you arrived: Lou Fine, Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff. Did you meet these guys?
FLESSEL: Yes, worked with them and knew them very well. Knew Noel very well and a whole bunch of them. Lou Fine didn’t work there that much. He went over with a guy named Lou Comisaro, who took credit for his work too. He died recently. Here’s a case of stuff not being signed and people not being able recognize it. I didn’t know they knew Lou Fine, one of the greatest draftsmen going, but Comisaro represented him and sold his stuff as Lou Comisaro’s. Can you imagine that? This is what is not known, but I know it because I would occasionally have lunch with these guys from the agencies and they’d say, “Boy, you’re getting competition.” And I’d say, “Well, what do you mean?” and they’d say, “Well, there’s a guy named Lou Comisaro who is bringing his work in.” and I’d say, “Lou Comisaro?” [Laughs.] I didn’t bother going into details, but I knew who did the work.
GROTH: Why would they do that?
FLESSEL: I don’t know. If it’s a known fact that it comes out of a certain studio of a half-dozen guys, I don’t mind. Joe Shuster penciled or he looked at something that somebody else did, and he’d always get the credit. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind people doing other people’s work, but to pass yourself off as somebody else, forget it.
GROTH: In ’37 and ’38 you worked for the Harry Chesler shop.
FLESSEL: Well, that was just a couple of weeks. I was in there, met everybody in there: Charlie Biro and Freddie Guardineer.
GROTH: Why did you last only two weeks?
FLESSEL: Well, I was over doing work with the Major and I was convinced that Chesler was not going as far as the Major. Chesler wanted us all to sit there.
GROTH: What was Chesler like?
FLESSEL: He was out of Chicago. He always had a cigar and he would come in, take a hard office chair and stand on his head with the cigar in his mouth and a derby hat on. That’s quite a trick!
GROTH: He would literally stand upside down on a chair?
FLESSEL: Stand on his head with a derby hat on and a cigar in his mouth. [Laughs.] It was a lot of fun. Those were the wild days.
|An expressionistic Flessel sketch, Â©2002 Creig Flessel.|
Fat Salvage and Teaching
GROTH: You did not go into the armed services, but you drew something called American Armed Forces in ’44 and ’45. Remember this?
FLESSEL: I did a lot of propaganda. I worked for the Office of War Information and I did advertising and recruiting for the Air Force. They say I did stuff for the Air Force and the Marines at that time.
GROTH: During the war you also created a character called Nurse Jane.
FLESSEL: That’s right.
GROTH: You said this was a job for the Office of War Information?
FLESSEL: Well, for fat salvage, I guess you could say war information, yes. It was a comic through Johnstone and Cushing. I wrote those, too. It was letters from Nurse Jane telling about what happened and at the bottom was a giveaway. A free thing they would give to the newspapers. The idea was to get people involved fat salvage, whatever that meant. Gave them something to do, I guess.
Do you know I had imitators? Occasionally I look back and I just talked to Gill Fox and I remember I read in some interview somewhere that he had done a bunch of spot ads for a clip service. And he had taken one of my techniques — he had worked with me at Johnstone and Cushing — and worked it up under a clip service. For a period, people would say, “Gee, that looks like… ” and I’d say, “Yeah, but I didn’t do it!” Let’s say I have imitators. That’s the highest praise you can have. And worse yet, they’re making money at it!
GROTH: Well, you weren’t one of those guys, like Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby, who did nothing but comics. You ranged all over the place; illustrations for a Bible series in the ’50s and illustrations forPictorial Review in ’59.
FLESSEL: Covers, yeah.
GROTH: Apparently you drew Jungle Jim in 1957. Was that the newspaper strip?
FLESSEL: No. For Olson Printing. I did a couple of books. I’ve never seen those.
GROTH: During the ’40s and ’50s, did you consider yourself evolving as an artist? Were you continually learning? Were you conscious of any sort of evolution of your fundamental approach to drawing?
FLESSEL: Well, I think I gradually realized that I was happiest doing a more direct attack at things. I would have liked to work at Mad, but I never got over there. I was happiest doing a poor man’s Norman Rockwell as opposed to some people like Stan Drake, all these starker men who did more of a realistic thing. The stuff I did, I realized that I was happiest doing a semi-comic, more exaggerated type of thing.
GROTH: During this period, were you doing work for yourself? Were you painting for yourself?
FLESSEL: I was painting. I taught adult education. I taught a couple of years at the School of Visual Arts with Burne Hogarth in the ’60s. I had more contact with Tom Gill, but occasionally Burne Hogarth would come in and hold forth.
GROTH: What did you teach there?
FLESSEL: Illustration. Generally, it was a very satisfying job and very exhausting because teaching is more work than you’d think. Lecturing, I don’t think you can get the message through, especially with kids. I came in with a necktie on and they were looking at me like, “This is a square!” and they finally said to me, “You’re the first instructor that ever spoke to me.” They had been there for two years and evidently the teachers would say, “Here’s what to do. Do it!” and that was it.
I sat down with kids and they had problems like you couldn’t imagine. One kid became, I won’t mention his name, but he became successful, and he said, “You know, they told me to quit. They actually told me to get out of here.” And I said, “No, no.” Actually he did like everybody did, and he went up to DC and he became a success. Teaching takes up a lot of time. It’s exhausting because you have to do it one-on-one, especially with kids that have problems. One kid came in and he was on some kind of drugs. He’d go down — boom! — and you couldn’t wake him up! I didn’t know what the word “stoned” meant, but he was stoned. Could’ve died, I think.
GROTH: I’m interested if you have any specific recollections of some of these guys. Jack Cole, for example.
FLESSEL: Beautiful guy. I met Jack Cole when I first moved out to Huntington, in the mid-’40s. He’s working with “Busy” Arnold at the time. Freddie Guardineer called me and said that “Busy” Arnold was going out of his mind because he couldn’t get a hold of Jack, because he had the phone off the hook. Freddie said, “Would you go look him up?” So I went over to Jack’s house. Dotti, his wife, was upstairs and says, “Oh, he’s downstairs.” And it’s a typical Jack Cole thing: It’s been raining, so he’s got water in his cellar up to his ankles. and he’s patching up spots where the water is actually coming out of the walls. So he squirted it out and he’s like, “Oh, hi Creig,” and he’s trying to put putty up in this Laurel-and-Hardy situation. He’s laughing about it, and wasn’t too concerned about the fact that Arnold wanted his stuff. He was a genius. I don’t think that he has gotten the correct credit. He was a funny guy.
You think you know somebody and you know why they would kill themselves… I don’t know why he shot himself. He was a beautiful, beautiful person. Very much in love with his wife. He bought all her clothes. He worshipped her. I never could figure it out.
GROTH: Was he an enjoyable companion?
FLESSEL: We took vacation trips with him. In fact, Art Spiegelman came out and saw an 8mm film we took of our trip up through New Hampshire. Jack and his wife and Marie and our two kids went on this week-long trip. We used to entertain together, back and forth. I’ve been to his home in Stamford. They don’t mention that in any of the articles I’ve read about him. He had about 200 acres and a big house. Just before he went to Chicago, Hugh Hefner came up there and actually talked business with Jack.
GROTH: This was a country retreat?
FLESSEL: That’s where he lived and did his work. He was searching for some place. He jumped around, made a lot of money, spent a lot of money.
GROTH: So you’d say he was a gregarious guy?
FLESSEL: Yeah. He reminded me of Dik Browne. Dik was the funniest guy and intelligent. Jack Cole was very astute, very articulate.
GROTH: But you didn’t detect any demons?
GROTH: Nothing at all?
FLESSEL: Probably we all have demons. You don’t know who they are until they do you in. He would be the last person I would have said…
GROTH: What was Lou Fine like?
FLESSEL: He was very withdrawn, very talented, a very hard worker. There again, I remember he did a job, and to show you the extent that he worked: most guys would have either traced it or used a photograph or they’ve done this or they’ve done that. Lou Fine had actually drawn this gal going off of a diving board and was concerned with the perspective — the clouds and everything. He was describing it. My gosh.
GROTH: How about Noel Sickles?
FLESSEL: I just knew him briefly from Johnstone and Cushing. He was in there with Milt Caniff doing a lot of stuff. But he was not successful because with advertising you have to bend it a little. The art director would say, “We want it this way” and Noel Sickles would say, “You know, it would look better this way.” They disliked that. He would change things for the [aesthetic] better, but you don’t do that.
GROTH: You’re not going to win that argument.
GROTH: Did you know Jack Kirby?
FLESSEL: No. I met Jack in 1992 at a convention and he was ill at that time, but I admired his work. Unbelievable. His penciling … of course, a lot of people did the inking and that must have driven him crazy. You know, the business of collaboration — Jerry Grandenetti had something that kicked me off and I could ink his stuff and enjoy it, but I couldn’t touch everybody else’s penciling. He did stuff for Joe Simon.
GROTH: Grandenetti had a really nice, fluid line.
FLESSEL: It was nice. I don’t know what the tool was, but I loved to ink his stuff.