When Creig Flessel (born Feb. 2, 1912) entered the comic-book field at its birth in 1935, he already had his education from New York's Grand Central Art School and his short-lived career drawing for pulp magazines behind him.
Pulps were dying, and Flessel saw comics as a stop-gap until he could find legitimate illustration work. Like many artists of his generation, Flessel entered the comics field reluctantly, hesitantly, skeptically; having no confidence that they would last more than a few years — besides, he wanted to be an illustrator for the slick magazines. But, like many of his contemporaries, he was scrounging for work during the Depression and the pittance comics paid was more than enough to lure him in. And, like many of his fellow artists of the time, he never quite left.
Flessel never became an auteur with a truly recognizable narrative voice or characters that he could call entirely his own. He was so skilled and versatile that he became an artistic chameleon, a commercial propensity that served him well throughout his career. He wrote and drew stories for the earliest published comic books: More Fun, Detective Comics and Adventure; worked for the advertising firm of Johnstone and Cushing; assisted Al Capp on Li'l Abner and worked with Charlie Biro on Crime Does Not Pay in the '50s; spent the '60s and early '70s drawing David Crane, a comic strip about a minister in a small town and segued seamlessly into an eight-year gig doing The Tales of Baron Von Firstinbed for Playboy.
A jazzy watercolor by Flessel, ©2008 Creig Flessel.
Flessel now lives in a beautifully tended retirement community in Mill Valley, Ca., where this interview was conducted in July 2002. He was hospitable, generous, articulate, alert and funny while the tape as running — and when it wasn't. If he knew where the bodies were buried, he would, I suspect, say so, with a disarming anecdote and a ready laugh. Alas, his career appears to be largely free of acrimony, contention and grudges — if he could get along with Al Capp, he could clearly get along with anyone.
If I detected a whiff of regret at not using his skills to greater effect, there was also a sense of deep satisfaction that his career allowed him the time to cultivate his home life, raising his children and enjoying his 64-year marriage to his wife Marie. It was a pleasure listening to him recount the early, heady days of comics when commercial comics lacked pretense and valued craftsmanship.
[This interview was transcribed by Christine Hahn and copyedited by Milo George and Gary Groth.]
GARY GROTH: You were born in Huntington, Long Island on February 2, 1912, and you graduated high school in 1930. Somewhere between there you described your interest in cartooning by saying, "I like cartooning and I used to read the old Evening World. Vic Forsythe, who did the comic strip Joe Jinks, was my idol at the time." What was your childhood like, and when did you start to get interested in comics? I assume you read the newspaper strips.
CREIG FLESSEL: Yeah, it was all newspapers and magazines. At that time there was theCosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, you name it. There were a million magazines. I had picked up an old Cosmopolitan recently and I think there were 20 stories with illustrations by everybody from Dean Cornwell to Henry Raleigh, in black-and-white and color. Of course, Saturday Evening Post had Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.
GROTH: Were the drawings accompanying those short stories what caught your attention?
FLESSEL: Yes. It was the magazine illustrations. I didn't have access to a library. I lived about a mile or so out of town, and we weren't a bookish family. My father could draw. I had an aunt who was an art teacher. My mother was talented. She could play the piano and the organ and she would decorate acorns and things like that at Christmas time. There were always crayons and watercolors and things to paint with. It's just so natural to paint and draw, even at that time. And being out of town on a five-acre sprawling farm, drawing seemed to be a natural thing. My older brother was very mechanical. He could draw. He was an electronics genius but I was not very mechanical. I didn't know a left-handed screw from a right-handed screw. Of course, I learned later on about the screws.
GROTH: Do you have any other siblings?
FLESSEL: I have two older sisters. One ended up being a church organist. She was talented and liked to draw, so it was a natural bent.
GROTH: Did you go to a public school?
FLESSEL: Yes. Walked a dirt road by a brook and I would jump the rocks in the brook and generally end up in school with wet feet. But they dried out. I survived.
Flessel's cover to Detective Comics #13, ©1938 DC Comics.
GROTH: How old were you when you started noticing illustrations and drawings and newspaper strips?
FLESSEL: I guess right from the beginning, because newspapers and the comic strips were always there. On Sunday we would get the Hearst paper and there was a man in the magazine section, Lee Conrey, who did stories about the French police investigations which he would illustrate with a split-hair brush. That's the first time I saw anybody use it. You take the ink on a big brush, flat-angle it to spread the hairs out and run it quickly on the brush. It was just wonderful in newspapers. I found newspaper stuff real blood-and-thunder.
GROTH: Well, what did you like? You were probably reading them in the late teens and '20s. What strips would you have paid most attention to?
FLESSEL: Well, at that time there weren't any story-type strips. They were all Mutt and Jeff-type strips. I said Joe Jinks. I liked the way his people ran and he always smoked a cigar and had an old car. He had a car called Le Mon — like lemon — and his wife Blanche. I created a strip of my own, Wrenches of Mr. Dudebing.
GROTH: Prior to your attending the Grand Central Art School in Manhattan, how would you describe your education in elementary and high school?
FLESSEL: All education is self-taught when you come right down to it. When you think about it, they can present all sorts of things to read and things to do but unless you have an interest ... I'm amused that everybody from the President on down says we've got to train our kids to use computers but unless they are interested in it they are going to be as dumb as I am about a computer. I like reading, I like history, I like things like that. When I look back on it, I should have taken that college entrance course because they are much more interesting subjects. I think that really getting history and all the wonderful Joseph Conrad stories and Alan Pile stuff would be the training for someone who wanted to become a creative person. And regardless of what you took or what you did, if you are going to do creative stuff you are going to do it eventually by being 16 or older. It took me a little long time.
GROTH: Were you much of a reader?
FLESSEL: Not too much of a reader. I think I really started, maybe at 15 or 16 or 17, realizing that there were books. I wasn't really turned on too much. Just probably with magazines. I read a lot of them. I read a lot of stories. A lot of good people wrote at that time for the magazines. Clarence Budington Kelland, names like that, who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. All of the top people wrote for them. And I have a lot of names. As authors, there's nothing to it. I didn't realize at the time I was reading top people.
GROTH: You once said, "Like most cartoonists and artists, I felt that this was the only thing that I wanted to do. I didn't know anything else." At what point do you think you understood that you had passion for drawing and cartooning?
FLESSEL: I think in high school. I was crazy for sports. I wanted to play football, basketball and baseball and all of the things. But I didn't have the equipment; I was tall, lanky and I couldn't run. I didn't have good coordination. It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I finally made the football team and the basketball team, but I still was terrible. I used to do cartoons in the local publications in high school. I also did a sports-page cartoon in the local supplement bulletin when I was 16 or 17; I did a little panel and got paid $5. Which is what I got paid when I went to New York where I was a big success. My first comic-book page I got paid $5.
GROTH: You could buy a car with it.
FLESSEL: That's right — as I told you earlier, my first car was a Model T. I paid $5 for it. Sold it for three. Lost money on it. You could pick it up right there and you didn't have to have insurance, just a little gasoline. And you could blow up the tires by hand with a pump. Things were simple.
I guess my school days were misspent because in high school I took a business course. I learned how to do double-entry bookkeeping and commercial arithmetic. Stupid stuff. I spent four years. The art course you could do in a week — the whole course. Nowadays, if the kids really want to do comic books, then they could really be ready by the time they are 16, like a lot of the guys who followed me. They were looking at my stuff because I was the old man. I had already been to art school and was about 22 or 23 by the time the comic book came out.
Grand Central Art School
GROTH: You graduated high school and I understand that somehow you became a hall monitor or a classroom monitor at Grand Central Art School and then somehow finnagled your way into attending as a student. Is that correct?
FLESSEL: Well, there was a lady in town who I knocked around with in the summer. There were no summer jobs — we just were lazy. We swam and we had a little money and we had a boat, which was great. So I lived the life of Riley when I was 16 or 17 and then it came time to go to college and she said, "I'm putting my one son in Pratt Institute and the other son, I'm going to put him into Bernie Prep and try to get him into college. What are you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I'd like to go to art school. I have no money." She said, "Come on. We'll go look where you want to go."
I'd read the ads at Grand Central, of course, people like Pruett Carter and Harvey Dunn taught there. So I went in and the the secretary said, "We don't give scholarships." Because it was the Depression, they were lucky to be in business. "But," she said, "We need a hall monitor; somebody to stand and check the people who are coming in and out." They had no method of checking them. See, if you were a businessman in those days or worked for the First Church of Connecticut, you would come into town and then spend the day and they only had about two trains. They found out if they went to Grand Central and Track 17, took the elevator to the seventh floor, they could go into the life classes and walk in and stand around and for a couple of hours and monitor the nudes and see if they were standing in the right position. The secretary said, "Wait a minute. Who's coming in and out of here? We need a bouncer." So I'm six-feet tall, and I couldn't break a stamp hardly. I was supposed to keep the people out but it was no problem. I just asked the person if they were a student and if they said "No," then I'd say, "Well, you can't come in." And they wouldn't come in.
Flessel's cover to Adventure #32, ©1938 DC Comics.
GROTH: You always had to dissuade them. Now, the Grand Central Art School was located above Grand Central Station, correct?
FLESSEL: We go in Grand Central Terminal and look up at the ceiling, which is high, and you'll see paintings of the constellations and the stars at night. And above that there's a space, a dead space of 20-foot ceilings. They took about five or six classrooms with skylights and everything. They were wonderful. Yeah, I went to Grand Central Terminal. That's why I'm a martyr.
GROTH: How did you segue from being a hall monitor to being a student at this school?
FLESSEL: Well, it was a half-a-day job and I would go to class in the afternoon. I managed to go to Harvey Dunn's night class with people like Harold Von Schmidt and Mario Cooper — everybody came in for Wednesday night criticism and it was very intimidating. Here were all these top people and I knew nothing about the mechanics of it, but there was the inspiration, kind of why I should paint and Harvey Dunn, and how to approach a painting.
GROTH: Dunn was quite a reputable painter at the time.
FLESSEL: He studied with Howard Pyle down in Wilmington. He was a big man. He was six foot, maybe one or two, weighed about 250, smoked his cigarettes and [raspy voice] never breathing. Beginnings of emphysema even then. He was one of the painters sent to France and had painted pictures of the doughboys and the bombs going off. In one of them, I remember he had done a painting of a bunch of prisoners who'd been mustard gassed, standing up against the cold dawn, holding on to each other. Very impressive. Painted the West. Painted the skies. He said, "The clouds in the sky — either put one cloud or a hundred clouds. One cloud or a hundred." I always remembered that. But he didn't do the type of thing that I wanted to do. He painted with a two-inch brush and twisted the paint. Of course, everybody in the class was doing the same thing and making paintings that looked like Harvey Dunn's. That's a mistake. The kids today go to Joe Kubert's school and they learn how to draw like Joe Kubert. You go to New York and there are many little Joe Kuberts running around but there is only one Joe Kubert. It's the same thing when kids bring drawings to me; they've done imitations of Gil Kane or Bob Kane or different guys when they should be seeking out their own Superman, or whatever.
GROTH: They aren't attempting to find their own style.
FLESSEL: Their own thing.
GROTH: Do you think it was Dunn's purpose to teach people to paint like him or was it just a side effect of his teaching methods?
FLESSEL: No. His critiques were great, what he said about your paintings. Dunn saw one of my drawings and said, "It looks just like Jean Valjean." Well, I didn't know who the hell Jean Valjean was and I was informed that that was a man in Les Misérables. So I went over to the New York library and started reading [Joseph] Conrad and all the rest of them. But Dunn loved to get in there and work on somebody else's painting. That was an ego-trip for him. This was the way he did it and naturally when I taught I showed them how I did it, and it was an ego-trip for me. I taught at the School of Visual Arts and I showed them how clever I was, or thought I was, with the 290 ink pen and a #3 brush. Teaching is great if your main job is to turn the kid on — convince the kid that he can do it. If, along the way, you have a little fun and show off a little — why, that's the greatest thing.
GROTH: One of the things Dunn said about teaching is, "The only purpose in my being here is to get you to think pictorially." Would you agree that that's what he did?
FLESSEL: That's right. I don't think anybody — Von Schmidt didn't come in to learn how to paint,per se, he came in just to listen to the critique and to see if his approach was right.
Flessel would learn the mechanics of drawing after a while, of course. Colored-pencil sketch ©2002 Creig Flessel.
GROTH: Now you say that you didn't learn the mechanics that you wanted to learn. What did you mean by that?
FLESSEL: For instance, if you went to the Slade School in London, England — they start you when you're 16 and they teach you the business of drawing. How to light and shade, perspective — all that nonsense, which you should have behind you. By the time you're 20 you should know how to mix colors and things like that. That wouldn't be taught by people like Harvey Dunn. It has to be taught by somebody who wants to take the time and patience to teach it — but, by the time you are 18 or 20, you should know all of that.
GROTH: So you did it ass-backwards, learning the mechanics afterwards.
FLESSEL: Sure. I think kids that — well, they aren't kids any more, but they are ten years behind me — by the time they were in their late teens, they were all working in the business, but they already knew what Higgins ink was, and pens, brushes and how to use a light box and how to trace and how to swipe and who to copy and who was good and who was bad and what they wanted to do. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know. Kids who want to get in the business should just get away from the damn TV and let their imagination go, to try to create and try to do something. Try to think.
GROTH: What was your curriculum like at the school? Were you learning to draw, to paint, to use pen and ink?
FLESSEL: Not really. This was a very loose-knit school. They did have sections that taught design and things like that. What they wanted to do — the aim of the art school years ago was to take a year drawing plaster casts and shapes and things. Learn light and shade, which is very good. You could do that in a place like Slade School or other schools, or years back, painters like Rembrandt all learned the process; how to grind their own paints and things like that. But 1930 was a crisis time. No one had time. They all wanted to go out and make a buck. Just one dollar, they wanted to make.
GROTH: Were you affected deeply by the Depression?
FLESSEL: We always had food on the table. My father was a blacksmith and a blacksmith was the center of the whole town. It's like the local saloon, local post office, local general store — you could tell what was going on in town by who was hanging around the blacksmith shop. It would be a labor market. There was a need for putting things back together again in that period; if something broke, you would have to take it down and have it re-welded, re-put-together. Blacksmiths took a lot of their payment in trade. People were always paying my father with food and different things like that, so he was always busy and there was always food on the table.
GROTH: How long were you at the Grand Central School of Art?
FLESSEL: Just two years. By 1932, Charlie Addams was in school with me. He came to the art class and the illustration class. And he had a derby hat, a cigar and a chesterfield coat with a moth-eaten collar. Everybody smoked in those days. He was six-feet-something tall and dour, and he stood in the corner and smoked his cigar and flicked the ashes all over his coat. Everyone would go out to lunch and come back and go to the next class and do the same thing. He never drew a picture. Three years later, he was working for the New Yorker.
GROTH: Did you know him at all?
FLESSEL: Well, I knew him and spoke to him and I guess maybe he said "Hello" and "Goodbye." I can say I knew him. Well, I say I was in class with him every day. I guess you have to speak to people to say you know them. I never knew him, but I know anecdotes about him.
GROTH: Did you ever see his drawing back then?
FLESSEL: Never did any in class.
GROTH: Were there any other artists in your class who went on to become successful?
FLESSEL: Well, John Falter was there in the daytime. He did magazine illustrations. He did a lot of advertising and some Saturday Evening Post covers. A lot of the guys went on and became art directors. I knew Jack Lehti in art school. A lot of living in New York was fortunate for me because I was in school with people from Potaski, Mich., and Atlanta, Ga., and San Francisco. All very talented but after they got out of school they had to get their portfolio together and get a few bucks together and go to New York and make the rounds, where as I could — I was working at a boat job the time I read the ad to go to DC Comics, National Comics, so I could get a few books and I guess you could get to New York for a buck and a quarter at that time, round trip. You could go in and make the rounds, which I did, to pulp magazines...
GROTH: Was Grand Central Art School a vocational school? Were they teaching you to be a commercial artist?
FLESSEL: No. They were teaching art, per se.
GROTH: Did they make a distinction then?
FLESSEL: They had many art classes: portrait and painting classes. They did have two illustration classes and Harvey Dunn's class, at night. The rest of them were painting classes. Of course, the guys teaching the classes were starving to death, too. They made a lower income. Eventually a lot of them went on to WPA painting. In '32, of course, Roosevelt came in with his wild communist, socialist ideas: put people to work and pay 'em! And get something for it, you know. I almost went with the Citizen's Conservation Corps. We would come out to places like Montana and pull out noxious weeds all summer. I think Al Hirschfeld worked on one of the WPA projects. I never did. I got job working on an estate as a gardener for $25 a week.
GROTH: After you got out of Grand Central Art School, you actually did a stint as a gardener on Willie K. Vanderbilt's estate. How did you get that gig?
FLESSEL: I knocked around with a neighbor's son. They always needed help. Mostly Italian immigrant help at that time. There weren't Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, so it was only a summertime job. But the summertime job went into a fall and wintertime job, because Vanderbilt was building a wing on his museum for his son's stuff that he shot in Africa. The son shot a lot of animals, so he put an extension. That was another few months of $25 a week.