At the turn of the century Dylan Williams was a man on a mission. The late publisher of Sparkplug Comics, and a cartoonist in his own right, Williams set out to document the life and work of then forgotten golden age comic artist Mort Meskin, ostensibly for an article in Comic Book Artist magazine. Along the way he interviewed a who’s who of golden age artists, Jerry Robinson, Fred Guardineer, Jack Burnley, Creig Flessel, Jerry Grandenetti and launched the ground-breaking Life of Mort Meskin website, which brought me to the subject. Dylan’s interests shifted along the way, as he became increasingly intrigued by the career of George Roussos, whom he interviewed extensively.
Of great interest to me was the two part interview he did with artist Marvin Stein, whose work I have increasingly grown to admire. What is significant is that Stein never had a published interview, despite his long and varied career. Stein had been interviewed by the late comic book historian Greg Theakston, but that never saw the light of day except for a few scant quotes in Theakston’s Kirby books and we can only assume with Theakston’s passing it will never be published.
Here we have the only interview with Stein on record. These two conversations took place by phone over two days in March 2000 between Williams and Stein.
Marvin Stein was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and studied at the Pratt Institute. He began his career at the Chesler Studio and went on to do the feature Captain Valiant for Croyden Publishing from 1944-46 and funny animal books for Timely. He inked National's Superboy and in the late 1940s he also worked on the syndicated Funnyman feature and comics books for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
In the 1950s he was a member of the Simon and Kirby Studio where he worked across genres on such titles as Headline, Black Magic, Justice Traps The Guilty, Young Love and Young Romance and freelanced for myriad publishers, Atlas, Feature, Prize and Ziff Davis among them. His dramatic double light source chiaroscuro style of inking lent itself particularly well to crime comics. Stein remained on as lead artist of Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty after Simon and Kirby left the titles in the mid-1950s.
Stein went on to illustrate the syndicated McGurk's Mob with cocreator Bud Wexler for New York Newsday in 1965-68, and produced art for Archie Comics, and Western Publishing’s The Twilight Zone during that period. He worked as a storyboard artist in animation and advertising and television broadcast graphics and illustrated schoolbooks for Barnell Loft in the 1970s through the 1980s. He retired to Florida where he died in 2010 at age 85. - Steven Brower
This interview is published courtesy of the Dylan Williams estate
Dylan Williams: I would like to talk to you about your career since not much has seen print. You used to work at BBD&O. Is that true?
Marvin Stein: Yep, that’s true.
I’ve been talking to George Roussos who said you helped Meskin get his job there.
I am also interested in your career as an artist, not just comic books.
That included story boards, some illustration. Then I got connected with a children’s English remedial reading publisher and that was about the last thing I did, actually. And I retired about 10 years ago. So yeah, I did a few things. I made a living (laughter).
Hopefully you had some fun at it too.
Yep, yep, I did.
Do you know a fellow named Harry Miller? Well, he was an enthusiast of something I did back in the late ‘40s, with Joe Shuster, the creator of Superman. This was Funnyman. Which died a horrible death and this guy was so intrigued with this Funnyman thing. He might not be alive because I haven’t heard from him, he lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was collecting everything he could with this Funnyman, which only ran about maybe 7 comic book issues, and then it died I think in ’48. Very, very enthusiastic fellow, he was a school teacher. But he was in love with this thing. I haven’t heard from him in a long time. I suspect he might have passed on.
Yeah, yeah, I enjoyed it, it was my reason for living, But, now, at 75, I’m retired, I have become a very good bowler. This is what I do. It’s how I spend my retirement.
Do you paint at all?
Not at all. I have no urge. At least we have very pleasant memories of our past. That is the only thing we do have as we get older. We had a hell of a lot of fun. And like I said, this goes back to ’48, ‘49, ’50, ’51. Right up to ’58.
I really like your stuff at Crestwood. Drawing myself, I am not so much interested in characters and specific dates. I am interested in what it was like for you.
Have you drawn professionally?
Yeah. I had done illustration for a while but I got a grant to do my own comic books, so I decided to do that. And I am working a day job and doing my own comic books on the side.
How old are you?
I’m 29 years old.
That’s a long way from 75.
I still have a lot to learn from you.
Well I’ll tell ya, I learned a lot from everybody that I came in contact with. Jack Kirby, Meskin, Alex Raymond from Flash Gordon. Whatever I seen, I was just like a sponge. I supped it up, and did the best I could.
Do you know Alex Toth, by any chance?
I heard of him. I don’t know if I ever meet him.
He’s actually a fan of your work, too. And he told me a story about how quick you could pencil pages. That you were pretty fast.
Yeah, well, that’s my flaming youth (laughter). It was a good training ground. When I got into advertising then I realized how much talent was in that field. Especially in the storyboard division. Fantastic people.
Did you know Noel Sickles by any chance?
I knew of his work.
He did some storyboards I heard.
I heard he was looking for work at BBDO. So I guess the illustration field was drying up. It just phased out. Story illustration, the periods of the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s was big for story illustrators.
Like Dorne, and Fawcett, all those guys.
That was on my mind just now. Dorne. The guy was a real crackerjack.
I’ve actually been talking to Fred Gaurdineer, who was a comic book artist also. Do you know him?
I know of him.
He showed me this great picture he drew of meeting Albert Dorne when Fred was about 20 or something. He went into an advertising office, and it’s a picture he drew, of this big guy, and him shaking his hand.
You talked to him recently?
How old a fellow is he? He must be 80s.
He’s 87 this year.
I have an artist friend that doesn’t live too far from me, he’s still drawing The Phantom, he penciled it. George Olesen. And he was working direct for Lee Falk who just passed on, I think last year. He’s still doing it. I said, “My god, George, it’s time to relax.” He loves it.
I think it is going to phase out. I think George might be aware of it. He told me it is very big in Europe.
They had a movie that came out a few years back. Did you see it?
Not too good. It was badly done I think.
So you’re another enthusiast. I’ll tell ya, I had the bug when I was born. And I followed through, I guess I was lucky.
So you started drawing from a really early age.
Oh gee, yeah.
Were your parents artists?
Yeah, my father was quite talented. He was a sign painter, office door letterer, scaffold worker, and he could draw too. And my older brother, who is deceased, he went to art school, he was a good portrait painter. But he went into the wrong business, he went into the advertising business and I think it killed him. Too much pressure. As an art director. It was unfortunate for him. So he managed to live 63 years. It was torture. The pressure.
From talking to everybody about Mort [Meskin] he had a hard time of it too.
He was one funny guy, though. He was something. We had so much fun. I suppose you must’ve heard of the comic book letterer Ben Oda? We used to sit opposite each other, and we had a taboret, and we set up a chessboard, and played chess.
Yeah, that’s the fabulous late ‘40s, early ‘50s.
I have that cover that you had drawn, of Kirby and Oda and Joe Simon and Meskin. A police lineup that you did. It’s a beautiful picture.
[Chuckles]. Oh for god sakes. That’s 1953. It’s like another person did it, it’s like another lifetime [Laughter].
It’s such a great picture, they all look like such hoods, you made them all look like criminals [Laughter].
That fellow, [Joe] Genalo, he was the guy who taught me how to bowl. He was a semi-pro. Fortunately where we worked, just around the corner was a bowling alley. On our lunch hour we used to go up there and have a ball. Benny [Oda] was terrific, he was a good bowler. Later on Simon and Kirby tried it. We got them all to go up there and try.
I’ve heard stories of how Ben used to have his whole family doing the lettering too.
Yeah, I think his wife Nichi, she used to do that. Besides, she was good at sewing. A very talented family.
He was so prolific.
He could’ve been a good watercolorist. He used to just dabble now and then. Over in the office where we worked, in New York City, and he was quite good, but he preferred to do this, and that is what he did. Just lettering.
You’ve conjured up all kinds of memories. All these file cabinets are opening up in my head [Laughter].
I think at your age I was already in comic books. Yeah, 29, 1950 for me. I was having a ball. Doing my thing. Oh memories.
So you read the strips at an early age?
Oh, yeah, Jesus, when I was 9, 8, 7, I used to read Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon came into being I think in the early ‘30s, then of course The Phantom. Even the comics, Blondie, Popeye, that was one of my favorites, I loved it all.
Did you like Roy Cranes’ Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy?
Did you get all the stuff I sent to you?
Thank you. Interesting.
I thought you might get a kick out of it.
There were a few things in here, I don’t have any recollection of some of the things. Really going way back, huh? Boy Commandos. That was 1948, I think.
Was that your first stuff in comics?
No. You have some here, [Harry “A”] Chesler. My goodness.
Do you remember working for him?
Yes, I did a few jobs for him.
I didn’t know you had worked for Hanna-Barbera.
That was strictly freelance. I never met any of the principals. That was an educational thing. One job, it was layouts for animation.
But Chesler goes back to 1943, I was about 18 years old, I did a few jobs for him.
Do you remember Fred Gaurdineer from the Chesler studios?
I know of him. I remember he did a feature, sort of like Mandrake the Magician. Zatara.
They stuck him with all the magicians. He wasn’t a big fan of that stuff.
That was for comic books.
For DC. Or National, as it was called back then.
That was probably prior to 1940? Maybe?
He started in ’36 I think, but I think he may have done that in ’39.
Also you have something here, Sky Masters.
That you worked on?
I think that was a syndicated strip? With Jack Kirby. The writing was so bad I just walked out of it. It was in the papers briefly and it just disappeared. Things got out of hand, we started as partners, but he was so desperate to get into the newspapers, he signed deals, I think, we were supposed to be partners and I had no part of it, I said I think I better leave. Not right. And it died. It died very rapidly.
They’ve reprinted it a couple of times, recently in a big book. And there’s a bunch of your stuff, I think your inks on him, of preliminary stuff from before the strip ran, a couple of wordless pages, of just characters jumping around.
(Editor’s Note: The proposal pages Stein worked on inking Kirby were actually for an earlier incarnation of the later published strip Sky Masters strip, entitled Sky Busters, in 1957. It was written initially by Dave Wood as was the later strip, along with his brother Dick. Apparently Stein was still on board when Sky Masters was about to go into production, and was replaced by Wallace Wood).
[Looking over list]. Captain Valiant. I can’t recall. Too far back.
The Boy Commandos, that was for Simon & Kirby, I did pencils on those. Oh, listen to this, this rings a bell. When it was it was printed I said to myself, ‘Boy, the guy who inked this sure followed my pencils to a tee.’ I found out later it was never inked, they printed the pencils as is. It was pretty clear so I guess they saved some money. (laughter).
You were that sharp of a penciler?
I don’t know if I was that sharp. I found out a few years later. This is something I never forgot, I said, boy this inker, he really followed my stuff. Son of a gun. That was Joe Simon, a sharp character.
Do you know Alex Toth?
I know of him. He would be what, 70?
Yeah, he’s in his 70s, I think.
It’s funny, well it’s not funny, my ex-partner, on McGurk’s Mob, you know of that?
Was that a strip that you did?
Yeah. That was published in ‘65. Died a horrible death in ‘68. It was Bud Marvin, that you have down here, Bud was the first name of my partner. The strip was based on 7 of his 8 kids. I tried to call him last year and his wife said he passed a year before, ‘98. [laughs]. After the strip died we just drifted apart. That was the reason it was Bud Marvin. His name was Bud Wexler and I’m Marvin, so it was Bud Marvin. This was when we were in the agency field, 1965. It ran 4 years, it never picked up much papers. That was a fun thing. Had it lasted I would probably still be doing it. That was entirely all fun. I met him in an art studio. And we became good friends and he was a damn good cartoonist.
Did he work in comics, too?
No. When he worked for one of the big agencies, he used to do layouts for Nichols and May. Mike Nichols and Elaine May, when they were young, I think they met each other in college. And they got together and they were doing TV commercials, they would write the material. This was for beer companies. And Buddy would get the tapes, and listen to the tapes and he would make up character sketches. Once approved they would go through an animation studio. Yeah, he was a very good cartoonist and so we got together and did this strip. He would lay out and I’d do the finish and the lettering.
Do you have any art that I can use to illustrate the interview? I don’t have a lot of the advertising things, art and all that.
Advertising. I started with advertising, I was strictly TV storyboards.
I looked through my stuff, I said “Christ’ I did a hell of a lot of stuff. The industry realized the value of the ex comic book artists when it came to storyboarding because all of the commercials were pre-sketched. I imagine even today. In those days I met some crackerjack artists when I was doing that. One guy comes in mind, Kang Wu, he was a Chinese fella. This guy was a crackerjack. I’ve never seen anybody so fast and so good, color and everything. Unbelievable. The talent in the agency field.
I got close to animation in ‘67 . That was for the storyboards. There was a thing called Animatics where the storyboards were animated maybe 5%. It was put on with a soundtrack and film and it was kind of a glorified story board. They would show the clients this and if they approved it then of course they would hire the real models and make a commercial. Through this medium I met some animators and that led me to Ralph Bakshi who was an art director for Steve Krantz, he had a big animation shop, it was his wife Judith Krantz, who was the novelist. It was all these Daniele Steel type of novels. So I worked in this animation studio, that would be, 1967 ‘68 ‘69, I worked on Spider-Man, layouts. That was great stuff, I got kind of kind of close to animation.
Did you know Creig Flessel? I think he worked at Johnstone and Cushing.
See, when I was a kid I used to read his stuff. It was in DC. He was ….
Sandman. But also Speed Saunders, the Detective. I think that was pre Superman.
When I lived on Long Island, we used to get together, the cartoonists. Like the last Thursday of every month, get together. I met Creig Flessel that way.
It seems like that island was full of cartoonists.
Well, I guess. Also Raeburn Van Buren. He drew Abbie an’ Slatts, an illustrator, very good. He had a scratchy style. But it was quite good. Yeah, he was there, but I never met him. If he was still alive he would be over 100 now (laughter).
Did you know Dick Briefer by any chance?
No. I worked for the firm but I never met him. I think he was in Florida doing the stuff and just mailing it.
Headline, Justice Traps the Guilty, yeah. Gilberton.
You worked for Marvel, too.
Where were you born?
In Brooklyn, Brownsville, moved to Coney Island in the ‘30s. That is when Nathan’s Famous hotdog was a nickel.
Did you grow up around the amusement park? Would you go out there?
Yes. And then we moved after about 8 years in Coney to Brighton Beach, also Brooklyn. I met my wife there. And then we moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn.
What’s your wife’s name?
And you guys were married back then?
Yeah. This was 1945.
This is before you started in comics?
I was already in, I did a couple of things for Fawcett, Don Winslow. Yeah, I started to get things now and then.
There were two guys who came to my wedding that were renowned. One was Burne Hogarth. He started the School of Visual Arts. Of course it t didn’t start big, it started as a private school and I was one of his original 7 students. I met Al Williamson there and Don Perlin. Do you know of him?
He was a strip artist?
Yeah, he became editor. He was workhorse-like guy, it was unbelievable. He put in long hours, I think he moved down to Jacksonville. So he was there. I was about 20, 19, Don Perlin was about 16, Williamson was 14. The school grew. Burne Hogarth met Si Rhodes, who had big connections with the G.I. Bill of Rights, and he knew how to start this thing, the mechanics of operating a big school and it grew. And it grew and it grew.
So they got a lot of ex G.I.s in there?
So Burne Hogarth was at my wedding and so was Joe Shuster — Superman. I was working for Joe. Funnyman. Superboy. Never worked on Superman, though. He had several artists that were working, Wayne Boring, I think.
Al Pastino. Creig Flessel worked on Superboy too for a little while. That was in the ‘50s.
That was that. Joe Shuster lost everything through the lawsuits and he ran out of money. And lost everything. Then when I was at Crestwood, this goes back to the ‘50s Joe Shuster comes up looking for work, how do you like this? I felt like I just wanted to jump out the window. And I don’t think he got work. Then something else happened also, the manager, his name was Riece, he came to me, he asked me, is Joe good enough to give him work? How do you like that? I just wanted to hide. I never saw Joe again after that. And I worked for him for 3 years. How do you like this turn-around?
But I think there is some story after, I think that he and Jerry Siegel, they received some kind of token pension. From Warner Brothers.
I think it was for 30 or 60 thousand a year. And they got full credit for creating it eventually, But was Joe the one who ended up working as a stock boy or something like that? It was bad news.
I left Joe Shuster in ’48. I was working for him before I got married, that was ‘44. I met Burne Hogarth too, he had started that school and I introduced Joe to Burne Hogarth. And they became friends, I don’t know how good.
Is that the same school Jerry Robinson taught at?
I think so.
But I left Joe in ’48, I figured I can’t make a living this way because he had no money to pay the artists, I think it was all tied up and I became a teacher at Burne Hogarth’s school, this was after he got the G.I Bill and met Si Rhodes. I didn’t like teaching, I taught it for a year and in ‘48 I never saw Burne Hogarth again. I saw Joe Shuster, he came up to Crestwood in the early ‘50s looking for work. That was so sad. I’ll tell ya. I just wanted to cry.
There were a lot of crooks in the comics field.
Oh, yeah. That contract Siegel and Shuster signed…
They said they had to sign the contract on the back of their paychecks to get their money. That way they got ‘em.
I heard that story too.
Jack Kirby, he got taken for a lot of stuff, eventually he got attention, but back then, Captain America, and everything, he got taken for a lot of stuff.
But some people like Will Eisner were smart.
Yes, these guys had a brain, like Joe Simon, he had a very good brain. He made out very well. And because of that Jack Kirby made out very well. On his own I don’t think Jack faired too well. After the split. Which occurred later.
Let’s see, 1958 that was it, I had to get out.
That was when you quit comics?
Yeah, it left me actually. Television came in strong and it rocked the boat quite a bit. So in ‘58 that was it, I had to get my tin cup to go peddling in the city.
Is that when you ended up at BBDO?
No, not quite. In fact I took my comic book samples up this BBDO and they rejected me. They looked down at comics, at least the TV director, he thought it wasn’t good. And so I got a job in a slide film studio. That’s where I met my partner on that strip, it was Cellomatic. It was quite a job, it was very interesting work. They had ties with the NBC 6 o’clock news and the 11th Hour news. Drawings had to be made for these news shows. Cellomatic had some kind of projection machines, rear projection, it was actually a double light source and it was controlled by an operator and they were able to make last minute adjustments. Drawings had to be made, and then it was photographed, and line positives were made for the projection machines. It was very interesting. And I met some people at NBC. It was very fascinating.
I think when I started my hours were like from 3:00 in the afternoon to 11:00 at night to cover the 11 o’clock news and the 6 o’clock news. It was very interesting. For the 11th hours news I had to get the assignments first from some guy at NBC, do the drawings myself and then photograph it myself and develop it myself and then hop down to NBC and deliver it to them. I worked for the company, it was run by two young fellas, they had very good connections. Then of course there were presentations, for insurance companies, General Motors, other big outfits that had sales presentations to be done and they enlisted the aid of slide film companies like Cellomatic, so that the presentations could be made with cartoons and visual aids. Most interesting type of work, covered a wide range of styles, cartoons, realistic stuff, some illustration. It was fantastic. There was one guy who came up, he drew Ozark Ike, I forgot his name, but he was very slow and they had to let him go.
So Cellomatic, the slide show studio opened up its doors to the agencies. Now hear this, I go back to BBDO but they already knew me up there, because of the work that was done for Cellomatic. They did a lot of work for NBC and ABC so I had some little reputation. The same guy that rejected me, he looks at the work, he don’t remember me, and offers me a job, at BBDO. And I took it! (laughs).
Do you remember that guy’s name by any chance?
Larry Berger. Don’t tell him I said so. (laughs).
Ray Gaitto was that guy’s name who did Ozark Ike.
Oh yeah. Ray Gaitto.
He had a really clean style. Real polished.
So slow. They couldn’t keep him, That was a new ballgame, The storyboarding, ooof!
What happened is I was doing the storyboards for the slide film studio. They had these huge presentation shows, and that also started as storyboards. And once it was accepted by the client, whoever they were, Mony, some insurance company, Mutual of Omaha, I think GM was another one, they had some big ones. A lot of these shows started with storyboards. And the storyboards ran like a few hundred. Storyboards. All kinds of stuff.
And they would have one guy do the whole things?
Well, they had different artists. I remember doing certain shows. Some of it was art, some of it was photography, some was cartoons, some of it was high style painting, depending on the nature of the narration, you know. Very interesting work. Slide films. But the hours were long and the deadlines were severe. It was quite an experience. Well, being young, you know.
What an education. Especially the dark room. And the old Brady type portrait cameras they had on a track. It was really something. It was a very interesting shop. But then I learned there were other shops too, there were competitors, some were big. And it was a nice way to make a living. But it opened up doors to the agencies so I began to freelance again.
I joined BBDO, they fired me in ‘62 and I was rehired in ‘64 and I quit in ‘65 because I had the comic strip going. The reason I was fired is because we did so much freelancing on the outside that I didn’t pay much attention to the inside. So I was rehired in ‘64 and the first week I get a call from the accounting department that I have a 2-week vacation coming. I said, “Why is that?” She says, “According to the law, you worked in ’61 and ’62, you are supposed to get two weeks vacation, according to the state law.” So I told this Larry Berger, he says, “Two weeks vacation, you just came back!” And I explained what happened. He called up to the accounting department, and he said, “Oh.” It was funny [laughter].
So you quit that to go do McGurks’ Mob?
Yeah, I was freelancing. I’ll never forget this, ‘61, ‘62, and in the interim I was freelancing, ‘63 and that’s when I got the news that Kennedy was shot, while I was doing a freelance job, and I’ll never forget, this Chinese fella, Kang Wu comes into the little cubicle and he says, “Kennedy was shot.” His eyes popping. I’ll never forget this, I said, “What are you talking about?” And that was it. I was there. BBDO. Strange thing.
Jeez. Were you working on Steve Canyon during that time? It said on that thing you were working on Steve Canyon.
’63. That was in between the staff jobs.
How was he to work for, Milton Caniff?
I didn’t meet him. It was strictly through the phone. I only met him years later at some comic meeting, it was the Comics Counsel, when you do a strip you automatically belong to the Comics Counsel and we had some shows and affairs. Expo ’67, that was in Montreal. We all took a plane and went up there.
Where did you go to school?
Went to Pratt, that was in Brooklyn.
Did you get a degree from there?
Yeah, got some sort of certificate, it was night school. I think I went twice a week.
Mort Meskin also went there, too, Did you know him then?
No, I met him at Crestwood. ‘48
How did you guys meet? You just were both in the studio?
He just came in from out of the cold, I think he was a little ill at the time, and he came out of this little rest home, and he got a job there, just freelancing and he preferred work space. I had workspace there, and that’s where I met him.
Did you like to work at home, too? Or you preferred that?
No, because we were cramped for space, we had a small apartment. And I felt better working in the studio.
It’s kind of a rough field, it’s difficult, unless you are a super writer, super talented.