Charlie Biro and the Two Girls Upstairs
GROTH: You worked on Crime Does Not Pay briefly in '57 and '58?
FLESSEL: Sadly, I did.
GROTH: That would have been Charles Biro, who was something of a pioneer in that he introduced a sort of realism to the crime genre.
FLESSEL: Yeah, he was full of ideas.
GROTH: How did you involve yourself with him?
FLESSEL: I met him, as I said, at Chesler. I knew him socially, I guess, at the Illustrator's Club. He was a member up there. When he started out, he and Lev Gleason and Dick Wood were making so much money that he actually bought an airplane, a little pusher-type plane. I think they were amphibious.
I wasn't thinking when I went in. They said, "Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that?" I didn't have the time. I was doing it just to make the bucks.
A Charles Biro cover from the notorious Crime Does Not Pay.
GROTH: So what was working with Biro like?
FLESSEL: Probably hands off. The Wood brothers were there. Wild men. Irving Watanabe was his delivery man. Watanabe did a lot of work for Johnstone and Cushing. He was with us in the war and he was Japanese-American. Back East, no one thought much about it. He went back to Hawaii and retired. There was no art work out there. He says, "I'm out cooking guava and working on the farm. I hate it." But he was up with Charlie Biro. I remember staying up all night one time trying to finish a story, a six-page story and Charlie Biro fell asleep up on a filing cabinet. He was big. A massive, happy guy.
I left early one night and was going home when Charlie Biro came up, all full of enthusiasm. He said, "I've got this idea and I want to talk about it." I said, "Well, how about tomorrow?" He said, "No, let's sit down and talk. We'll go up to Armando's" — a guy named Armando at the Hi De Ho Club. Upstairs there were rooms and downstairs a restaurant. So we got to the restaurant, ordered dinner and started talking. He was looking past me and was signaling me, "What's going on?" and I turned my back and looked at this gangster type with his back to me. Sitting with him was this beautiful dame. I could actually see the bulge of the guy's gun. So Charlie said, "Get rid of that guy and we'll go out." Charlie was a handsome, big guy. She was interested, but Charlie never got to talk. The gangster and the girl finally got up and went out. Charlie said, "Aw gee. Boy, she was something." And we just kept talking. Then this short man came over and said, "Charlie, I see you were interested in that girl." Charlie said, "Gee. I'd like to find something like that." He said, "I got two girls upstairs." Charlie said, "Hey, you want to go up, Creig?" I said, "I get on the train, I go home. I don't do things like that." So, when we finished dinner, and this little guy says to him, "Charlie... " Charlie looked at him and said, "Hey, you go up with me." And the little guy said, "I'll go up, but I wanna watch." Forget it!
The next morning I went downtown and bought the New York Mirror and on the front page of the Mirror is a picture of this little guy and he's being charged with keeping girls in captivity for the purposes of prostitution. I thought, "My God, I could've been in jail for this for the rest of my life."
GROTH: Biro was evidently quite the rogue.
FLESSEL: His daughter called me years back. Because he was a rogue, evidently the family was split up and she evidently sympathized with her mother, like daughters do, and I think the reason his daughter called me is that Charlie Biro was up for the Hall of Fame down at San Diego and she evidently thought that I was going to go down because I knew him, and would put in a good word for him. Her father should be in the Hall of Fame.
GROTH: Crime Does Not Pay was published by Lev Gleason. Did you know him?
FLESSEL: No, I didn't know him.
GROTH: Did you know the Wood brothers?
FLESSEL: Well, one of them killed his girlfriend and had her in the room for a week before he called the police and went to jail. He got out in a couple of years but he was a lady beater. Jack Cole told me a story that they had a party at "Busy" Arnold's and, coming out of the party at Grand Central, they looked up the street and there's Dick Wood beating up on his girlfriend, reallybeating her [laughs] so I remember Dotti said to him, "Jack, do something!" So Jack said, "Hi, Dick!" That's his stubborn way! [Laughs.] That was a wild period!
Drawing Tits for Al Capp
GROTH: You assisted Al Capp on Li'l Abner in the late '50s.
FLESSEL: Well, it ran '58, '59, maybe into '60 — just 2 years.
GROTH: How did you get that gig? And what did you do?
FLESSEL: Lee Elias and Al Capp had a to-do, so he needed an assistant. And I was shifting around, trying to keep my head above water. So I agreed to go up to his studio once a month to try out for a week, which was a good deal. I had a kid starting pretty soon and money was tight, so I did it for a couple of years and it was a great experience. It was crazy.
GROTH: What was crazy about it?
FLESSEL: The main thing was to get some work out. They were always running behind and, at that period, Capp was running all over the country lecturing colleges to students who loved to be screamed at. They'd pay all kinds of money, any college, just to have this guy come and call them a bunch of idiots, which he did for years.
The best part of that job was that we sat there and worked and we had Andy Amato, and Harvey Curtis and Walter Johnson was the inker. Curtis was the manager of the office and Amato was the man who created all the crazy things — crazy penciler — but the reason why I was there was no one could draw a pretty girl.
Sequence from a 1959 Li'l Abner strip, ©1959 Capp Enterprises.
GROTH: You specialized in drawing the pretty girls.
FLESSEL: I knew how to draw big tits. If they made them the size of a grapefruit, I'd make them bigger. So that was it. Three of them would write the story. They would come up with a germ of an idea and kick it around: They would say, "Well, she said this" and they knew, for instance, what Mammy Yokum would say, since they knew the characters. I got in in the middle when they would have a story going and it was hilarious just to hear those three guys — you could see why Harvey Curtis and Andy Amato were both bachelors. Harvey Curtis was a high Irish descendent of so-and-so in Ireland and Andy Amato, with his big cigar, always came in with the racing news and would check off all the races. He lost a lot of money. Every day he would come in with his calendar and he would black out the day, for some reason.
They would write it and, as I read the strip over the years, could see whose input was whose. I was a good writer, but the three of them wrote it and Al did all the inking of the heads, which was what kept it the strip. It didn't matter if Frazetta or Lee Elias or Stan Drake drew it — no matter who was up there, the inker would pull the body so that it looked pretty much like an Al Capp drawing and Al would put the heads in.
GROTH: Capp was, by many accounts, an unpleasant guy. He could be pretty high-handed and nasty —
FLESSEL: Well, when he was up there he was all business. Never had a word with him. I never talked politics with him, but he had his own opinion about different things and sounded off. I could see if you wanted to cross him... I mean, I worked with all kinds of people and you could fight with any of them.
GROTH: You never met up with Frank Frazetta, did you?
FLESSEL: I met Frazetta at an auction house when he was auctioning off a lot of his stuff at Christie's.
GROTH: You didn't know Joe Maneely, did you?
FLESSEL: Maneely? No.
GROTH: After your stint with Al Capp, you took over the newspaper strip David Crane from Win Mortimer. Do you know who conceptualized it and put it together?
FLESSEL: No, that was started by Hartzell Spence, the author of One Foot in Heaven, a big seller. He came up with it but couldn't write it, so they got Ed Dodd of Mark Trail to write. Win Mortimer drew it, and then he wanted to do a thing about the Canadian mounted police on his own, but it never got off the ground. So about 1960, Marie and I were ready to go on a camping trip we'd planned for years. I hadn't got a job, I'm used to freelancing. I went and interviewed with the syndicate and I told them, "If you want to wait a full month and you still want me... " so that's the way it worked. When I came back from our trip, I went in and they said, "OK, here's a ticket. Go down to Atlanta, Ga. and visit this guy. See if you two guys get along." Which I did, and he wrote it and I did it.
David Crane was the weakest character in the whole thing, but luckily he was just a minister and a ploy for all the stories. It was bread and butter. It was a chore because, as Bill Hoest said, "How do you draw a guy drinking coffee for a week?" It was a challenge.
Click image for larger version in new window. A David Crane Sunday strip, ©The Hall Syndicate.
GROTH: Your stint on David Crane lasted 12 years, a good, steady gig.
FLESSEL: Yeah, it was the first time I ever had anything steady for so long. And eventually the Sunday page petered out, like all story strips. They are all dying.
GROTH: Did you have an affinity with the subject matter? You said you grew up in a Protestant family; you were a member of the church.
FLESSEL: I understood the situation very well. Not that I'm religious. I try to stay as far away as I can from the church.
GROTH: Is that right?
FLESSEL: Well, after all, they've got blood all over their hands and it's not from killing Christ. It's ridiculous. I came from a small town and that's what the world's all about. If every town could be like Boulder Bluff and David Crane, that would be great. I enjoyed the simple stories.
GROTH: Do you think the changing times just killed it?
FLESSEL: Yeah. It was a soap opera.
Hanging Loose in the '70s
GROTH: Did you actually draw the DC comic Prez?
FLESSEL: Yeah. Well, Jerry Grandenetti did the first one, maybe, but I worked for a couple of years. There were a lot of them, maybe four or five issues. In fact, I inked Jerry Grandenetti. It probably didn't look like me. They didn't like his inking.
GROTH: That's roughly how much work I know you did in the '70s.
FLESSEL: Well, I was doing textbooks. Do you know Lee J. Ames? The Draw 50 books?
GROTH: Like Draw 50 People?
FLESSEL: Right. That's where I worked.
GROTH: When did you assist Alex Kotzky on Apt. 3-G for a couple of weeks?
FLESSEL: Well, he had dialysis. Andre LeBlanc called me and he was in a bind. Andre worked with Will Eisner — he taught Eisner's class — and with Kotzky and Mike Sekowsky. I was reined in to help. That's when I really saw a lot of Kotzky's work because he had done tablet-sized pages — beautiful stuff! Unbelievable. And the research he would do and how he would use research! He was a genius at using negative space. He and Alex Toth did layouts that nobody could touch! They lose a little bit in the inking, but the things would work. Beautiful stuff. I just helped, really, Andre LeBlanc try to save the ship.
GROTH: Around what time would that have been?
FLESSEL: Around that period I was hanging loose, doing textbook stuff and was semi-out of comic-books. Mostly '70s.
GROTH: What was Kotzky like? Did you get to know him?
FLESSEL: Well, I knew Kotzky from early days. He was a very good friend of Jack Cole. They worked together. Kotzky, as I say, he was a worker. He would get up and just go to work at night. He lived on the Belt Parkway and part of the Belt Parkway just fell flat, so his wife and he decided that they ought to go to Connecticut. They built a house up in Connecticut and, in the meantime, his wife bought the house and did all the shopping — he never drove, never went out. And they moved up there and she immediately hated it, so they had to buy another house. So she leaves him up there with the frozen TV dinners to live on. He's up there and she came back having bought a house on the Parkway again, so they moved back down. Over a year, I guess. He worked nights. Very talented.
GROTH: Not a real social animal?
FLESSEL: No, but get him on a convention panel or something like that and he was very aware, very articulate. You'd think he had been out in Wall Street. Amazing guy and very good artist. Started very young and died young. His son took over the strip.
GROTH: You had something to do with the last two weeks of the newspaper strip Friday Foster. What was that all about?
FLESSEL: That was a madhouse. I couldn't believe it. It was this guy, Jorge Longaron, who was in Spain. Great artist! You look at some of his good stuff. He was always behind, always disappearing. Jim Lawrence, the writer, called me and they gave me the script. I took it home, and I think I did the whole thing — a couple of Sunday pages and a couple of weeks — in three or four days. Then I come to find out that the guy who was running the syndicate there didn't know that just down the hall from him they had a rescaling department and made me do my own paste-ups. It was the weirdest thing. It just turned me off.
GROTH: When was this?
FLESSEL: About the '70s or '80s. The guy who did it was great.
GROTH: So you were the guy they called in to fix things.
FLESSEL: Well, I could approximate most anybody. I was called on many times. Frank Godwin, I had to do a Godwin once. How do you do a Frank Godwin? Just fake it. Take some of the element things. Had I lived years ago, I'd be the guy at the bottom of the ladder while Michelangelo was doing the Sistine Chapel who had to climb up and put a nose on Moses!
GROTH: Did you ever want your own newspaper strip?
FLESSEL: Well, I tried out things. I worked on different strips, but had a lot of failures. I did a thing called Cy Poppins, about a guy who ran a country store, and the only thing about it was it was beautifully drawn. I guess the story was as dull as a Rotary Club luncheon, but that's what it was all about.
GROTH: You wrote this too?
FLESSEL: Yeah. I did a thing called Willie Wildwood, about a little guy who was environmentally correct — trying to save the woods. I did a strip with Bill Seay, just before he came out here — The Other Foot, it's called. It's feet that talk to each other. Bill Seay was the art director for J.C. Penney in New York. When they moved out to Dallas, he didn't go. He had to do all the catalogues. He had a budget of millions to do all the catalogues.
Click image for larger version in new window. Blah blah blah. Page from Title, ©xxxx Rightsholder.
GROTH: You also did an astrology strip in the early '70s.
FLESSEL: Just the Sunday page for Tom Peoples for NEA. I was still doing David Crane and it was going downhill when they came up with this astrology strip. It was just a Sunday page. There was no money in it. I said, "Well I can't work for two syndicates" so I used the name Valentine, but everybody knew I was doing it. Valentine is my middle name. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, but it wasn't going anywhere.
GROTH: You drew a strip for Playboy, titled The Tales of Baron von Firstinbed for their comics section. I'm not sure how long you did that.
FLESSEL: About eight years. The guy that I worked with on Friday Foster wrote stuff for Playboy. They needed stuff for the Playboy Funnies, and he was writing and they would send it back, so we arranged to do stuff together. I would get notes from Hefner that said, "I like your drawing, but the story's not good." So finally I asked the writer if he would mind if I wrote my own copy. So I did and sent off a color page and they wrote back and said that they liked it, and would like to see some more. So, almost immediately, I was in business.
Over the years I probably should have sat down like Dik Browne did. He was easy-going and was doing advertising when he was tapped to do Hi and Lois. I remember when it happened: We were sitting there this one day and his secretary said, "Dik, pick up the phone." So he picked up the phone, said "Yeah?" put it down and said, "All right, who's missing?" So we said, "What's wrong?" He said, "Some guy is pulling my leg. He said that he was Sylvan calling me from King Features. He said he has a feature that he wants me to do." And we said, "Well, we didn't have anything to do with it." Of course, we played jokes like that. It was a sick joke. So the phone rings again and Dik picked up the phone and the voice on the other line said, "Don't hang up! Call this number! Call this number!" And they pleaded with him not to hang up, so he said, "OK. You know that was Sylvan Byck. He was calling me about a strip."
GROTH: Did you have any concerns about doing a sex strip?
FLESSEL: No, it didn't concern me. Once, my son, who has a PhD from MIT in molecular biology and was working at the health department in Berkeley, was walking through the corridor and a guy came up to him and said, "Peter, are you leading a double life? Your first name is Creig, isn't it?" He's Creig, too, but he goes by Peter. And Peter said, "No. What do you mean?" He said, "I see there's a Creig Flessel in Playboy." So he had to admit that it was his father. To me, that's not pornographic, what I did. I mean, that's a lot of fun and romps —
GROTH: Very playful. You didn't do that every month for eight years, did you?
FLESSEL: No. It's only ten issues a year and I didn't make every issue. But I ended up with a stack of them, because I would do the whole thing and never had to look at them again. Never changed anything, never changed any copy.
GROTH: Who did you work with at Playboy?
FLESSEL: Michelle Urry. We still correspond. She's a nice person. When she turned something down, as opposed to a lot of editors, she would write you a personal letter and tell you why. I think that's probably the reason why she's a success. She knows what she wants and has her own policies.
It was a lot of fun, which was why I did the whole thing; writing and drawing it. Michelle Urry wrote me once and said she'd just seen the Baron von Munchausen movie. She said, "Yours is much better."
Click image for larger version in new window. A Firstinbed strip, ©1985 Playboy.
GROTH: Frank Thorne did a strip for Playboy around the same time. Did you know Frank?
FLESSEL: I used to meet him, of all places, at funerals. We were terrible. We'd sit in the back of the funeral hall and laugh and holler. People thought, "What is the matter with that couple!" Of course, he with his white hair and his beard. And his wife — believe it or not, he is a pretty straight guy and his wife is an organist in a church.
Because I went from David Crane to The Tales of Baron Von Firstinbed — piety to pornography in one lifetime, right?
GROTH: Maybe in one week! You know, Hank Ketcham refused to do an interview with us because he thought the Journal was pornographic.
FLESSEL: Oh? Well, what is pornography? I wonder. I think the worst pornography is the killings and the bashing that goes on in movies. It's really bad. Holy smokes! You get the blood all over you and you hear it and see it. That's pornography. Somebody kissing somebody else or somebody in bed with somebody isn't. I don't think the stuff I did was pornography! I mean, the poor Baron running around the countryside trying to get in bed with the girls and he didn't make it most of the time! He rarely ever made it. He didn't know what a devil of a guy he was! Once in a while he made it but that was the whole premise of the thing. Frustration. Baron von Frustration!
GROTH: Looking back over your long career as an artist, how do you view it yourself? How do you see your career?
FLESSEL: Survival! I'm just busier with home life. I probably should have worked harder. You probably wouldn't be seeing me here — I'd be in a fancy place with a swimming pool. I'd probably be divorced, too.
GROTH: One thing you said that I thought was very good, was, "So many of the kids coming up today think that all you have to do is learn how to draw" — actually that's not true any more — but "all of the top men in our field were the most articulate, the most well-rounded, the best educated guys in the business."
FLESSEL: That's right.
GROTH: It seems like part of your career involved a lot of self-education and you were continually —
FLESSEL: Let me expand on that. Dik Browne, for instance, may be self-educated. He went to a Catholic school. He said he spent a third of his life on his knees doing Hail Marys, but at the same time he had an education and was a bookish guy. Mort Walker took journalism classes, learned how to write, and got a college degree. While he was in college he was selling gag cartoons. All of the top guys: Al Capp is certainly educated, even though his stuff is a little raucous. Biro was an intellect. Kotzky. Charles Schulz goes deep. It's not just psychobabble. There's a religious angle and morals in the stories that he tells. It went on for years and years, and they're still running it. Still the best, you know. But education won't hurt anything. You're the sum total of what happens to you and after so many years of school and your reaction to the people and what's going on and what you do with it, I guess, in your genes. I suppose the original caveman started painting a picture on the wall of a cave in France and the other guy wanted to go out and hunt. It's curiosity. We all want to see how it comes out.