From The Comics Journal #292 (October 2008)
(Excerpted from Gary Groth’s “You Are Now Entering Deitch World” Introduction)
Simon Deitch was, evidently, something of a prodigy in terms of drawing, but his focus was less prodigious than his skill; he was peripherally involved in underground comics, wrote and drew a handful of stories, but didn’t stick to it as his bother Kim did. Recently, he’s enjoyed a bit of a flowering. His drawing appearing regularly in the excellent fanzine Mineshaft and collaborating with his other brother Seth in the brand-spanking-new book, Deitch’s Pictorama.
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Gary Groth: Now, I’m not sure if you were born in ’46 or ’47.
Simon Deitch: ’47. 5/12/’47.
So that would make you —
Sixty-one this month.
And that would make you three years younger than Kim?
Right. And 10 years older than my other brother.
I understand that your relationship with Kim was pretty contentious from the beginning.
Yeah, when we were kids, we had problems. Kim didn’t like me too much; he was the only kid for three years, and then I came along, stepping on his toes. What I always tell is, he would set me up, like if we were at a drug store, I’m looking for a comic book, something like Captain Marvel, Superman or something, and he sees Frankenstein. Kim says, “Ohhh, Frankenstein, why don’t you get that? Dad likes that. Of course, I got in big trouble for bringing home a horror comic. My father tore it to pieces, and my brother was just in the background, [going], “Heh, heh, heh.”
[Laughs.] I didn’t know that about Kim.
Well, when we were younger, he was real vindictive and shit. But I liked him. He was my brother; I looked up to him.
But I assume you would say he changed over the years?
Yeah, yeah. Actually, in a lot of ways, we’re just about best friends. I don’t know how to put it, but we can have really good conversations. We know each other better than we know anybody else.
What was it like having a father who was an animator and a cartoonist? How did that affect you?
Actually, that was great. I must’ve picked it up a lot from him, I guess, because I became interested in drawing at a really early age. When he had his comic strip, I’d hang around his desk and watch him draw those things. I even gave him ideas. I came up with names of characters. He was always listening to us kids because he was trying to do a comic strip that was about kids.
Terr’ble Thompson, right?
Well, Terr’ble Thompson, and then when he went to Terrytoons [and created] Tom Terrific, which was pretty much the same thing, reformed.
How did you develop your interest in drawing, and how young were you?
Gosh, I was pretty young. I was interested in dinosaurs, and I started wanting to draw pictures of dinosaurs. My father would definitely point out things to me, showed me how to put the muscle structure in to make it look better and more real, so, it shouldn’t have legs that looked like logs, and [things] like that. I really picked up a lot from him. I was always watching him and his cartoon characters and stuff. I’d always draw pictures of them the way he did it.
Did he take you into the animation studios that he worked at?
He sure did; that was always really great. I remember Terrytoons in particular was really fascinating. They had a vault room that had like every comic book ever printed, supposedly. But they probably had just a lot of Timelys and stuff since they were the first ones to do a Terrytoons comic. He gave us some 3-D comics when they first came out; of course, the first 3-D comic ever was Mighty Mouse. There was a lot of fascinating stuff; you go dig around the Terrytoons studio, and they let us take home cels and all kinds of great collectibles that are, of course, long gone.
I understand you bought comics, but that your parents didn’t approve of many of the comics you dragged home.
Yeah, well, the answer to that was like that story about the Frankenstein comic. The thing is, ECs for instance, were coming out, but the only EC, my mother begrudgingly approved was Mad, Kurtzman, stuff like that. But then I’d see Tales from the Crypt with all this great Jack Davis art and this and that, and it struck me as pretty much the same kind of thing, only a little different, but no, there was a big difference. I was not allowed to have anything like that. There was a tree house in the neighborhood where most of the kids from various families kept things like horror comics, and we’d go up in the tree house and read the horror comics. I’d definitely end up with nightmares.
They had that great forbidden-fruit quality.
Yeah, absolutely. My mother didn’t really approve of even Plastic Man, because around that time, even they were getting into the kind of horror subject matter, only by Jack Cole — it was really weird, you know. And she said, “What are you reading these things for?”
Where do you think that attitude came from? Was it a devotion to higher art, or was it a middle-class attitude toward vulgarity, or what?
Well, I didn’t really know what was going on at the time, but of course all of that Wertham stuff was going on, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. There were all these articles about terrible comic books and juvenile delinquency and all that crap. In fact, I even remember watching some of the hearings on television. Of course, my mother was watching that. It was mostly my mother. My mother encouraged my father to get in on it, too: “Gene, don’t let them read this stuff.” He’d get in on it from an art aspect. He’d go, “This is the lowest form of cartoon art there is, the bottom rung. People who draw these …” Etc., etc.
Especially someone like Basil Wolverton.
Well, that’s strange. My dad, once he saw Mad, he went down to EC and met Harvey Kurtzman and got a whole pile of every issue printed and came home and gave them to Kim. But I looked at all of them. Wolverton was in Mad, and I guess my dad had a lot of respect for Kurtzman — interested in it, but I mean, not in the way that Kim and his friend Tony Eastman were, where they were actually making cartoons.
Were you involved in that at all?
Not really. I got involved in the monster movie we all made.
Dial M for Monster?
It was about two kids who find a mummy case, and then one thing leads to another, and I was one of the two kids who found the mummy case. I had a lot of fun making that: all kinds of stop-motion and all kinds of mask-making and make-up. We did everything that you could do in a monster movie.
Was there a point at which your interest in drawing became an obsession and you really wanted to devote yourself to it?
I suppose. You know, the thing is, almost everything that I was interested in had an art aspect to it. Like around, let’s say, 1960, I was 13 [and] was interested in horror paperbacks and old Weird Tales, pulp magazines, and then of course I got interested in the various artists. There was a guy named Matt Fox who did the covers on Weird Tales in the late ’40s, and I got obsessed with him, and I started drawing like that, and then I discovered fanzines, and got a hold of a fanzine editor (George Zebrowski, later a science-fiction author) who put out a thing called Epilogue. It had like weird little illustrations in it, but they weren’t very good. I knew I could do better ones. I’d been reading all the Arkham House books with various great cover artists, so I was interested in this stuff, and I got interested in weird drawings, so I guess I was the first one of us Deitch boys who got published — in a fanzine called Epilogue, and that was somewhere in the early ’60s, ’62 or something like that.
Your father said you were a difficult kid, a real hell-raiser, referred to you as a juvenile delinquent. And he said you gravitated toward the worst kind of people who got you deeper into trouble.
I know what he’s saying. I don’t exactly see it that way. Of course, I did get involved with guys who were sort of crazy, but I was sort of crazy, so I just gravitated toward people like that.
Minor league juvenile delinquency.
Yeah, right. I wasn’t public enemy No. 1 or anything. [Groth laughs.] I was difficult, yeah. I’d steal money and stuff, but not a million dollars or anything, just money to go out to get some candy bars and comic books and stuff like that.
But more so than Kim would do.
Definitely. Kim was more straight-laced than me. He’d get involved with people who drew stuff and painted and whatnot.
Your dad left in 1960. What kind of an impact did that have on your life?
That was a rough thing. I outright told them that they didn’t have permission to do that: “You’re not allowed to do that.”
I think your mother agreed with you.
Well, she told me there wasn’t anything she could do about it. But I was pretty young, and I guess I was messing around. When they broke up, I guess I was around 11 years old.
Well, you would’ve been 13 in 1960. That’s when he left for Prague.
All right, but it was shaken up before then. I can remember being a bit young, maybe 12, but for some reason, 11 sticks in my head as when the problems started.
And that hit you pretty hard.
Yeah, yeah. It did. My dad was the artist, he was the cartoonist, it was great having him around. He was very interesting; he was interested in all kinds of things. He was interested in monster movies, Universal stuff, Frankenstein, King Kong, stuff like that. He taught me about what stop-motion animation was after we saw King Kong; it was re-released in ’54. And it was just great having him around; he was real interesting. And when they broke up, I couldn’t understand it. It seemed like we were the greatest family in the world.
Did your dad sit down and explain to you what was going on as best he could?
Ehh, you know, if he did, I probably was ignoring him. I was just looking at my feet or something. He might’ve — if he says he did, he probably did. But I don’t really remember him doing that.
I understand you dropped out of high school. Is that true?
Oh, you’re getting up into ’63, ’64, and there were a lot of drugs around, and I got involved in that. You know, I just didn’t have time for that. I dropped out of high school, and I moved to Greenwich Village.
Didn’t you drop out after your junior year in high school?
Yeah, that’s what it was. I was doing my junior year for a second time. I got left back and that was a real drag. It’s just like they always say: Your friends move on a grade, and you’re in grades with the younger guys, and they’re all looking at you like, “Jesus, who’s this?” A year’s difference can be monumental when you’re a kid. But anyway, it became very difficult for me, and I thought, “To hell with this.”
Why were you left behind one year?
Because I wasn’t doing anything; the only subjects I was paying attention to were art and science. It’s funny about math: That was my absolute worst subject, but now, I have a real interest in math. I’m not bad at math at all. [Laughs.] All the things I was bad at in school, I’ve since picked up on my own: you know, history, and all this stuff.
It sounds like you were not good in an academic setting.
I wasn’t too much. I guess I had some kind of a superior attitude or something. I just thought everything that I was doing myself was more interesting than what was going on in school.
You dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village? About what year would that be?
Seventeen, I think I even had just become 18. And it was wild. We had a little rock group, so all of the people who were in this group moved down to the Village and we were going to try and get into something. But of course, all we were really doing was going down and taking lots of drugs. We tried out for a few things. We even cut a record, but it was all for naught.
What instrument did you play?
I was just playing blues harmonica.
And was this a rock band?
It was more or less a rock band, but it was like the rock bands that were coming out around that time, like the Rolling Stones. We were definitely into the Checker and Chess records and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Howlin' Wolf, all that kind of stuff. We were doing somewhat rock versions of those kinds of things.
Kim told me that after you dropped out of high school and started living in the Village, he was in upstate New York working at the nuthouse. And he says that he would come down and you guys would hang out with pre-hippies around Washington Square Park.
Kim came down one day and just said that he was ready. He’d heard all about LSD; of course, I’d been taking that sort of thing for some time. But he was ready; I turned him on to that. And I remember, I couldn’t find any LSD at the time, but I found some pharmaceutical mescaline, which was even better [Groth laughs], and we just absolutely went to Mars on that stuff. And that was Kim’s first trip. It had an immediate effect on his painting. He’d been doing painting, but now everything had a real psychedelic edge. If you ever look at his early comics, how there’s all these little circles and little design motifs going around everything? Well, his paintings were like that at first, before he’d ever even thought about doing a comic strip. The first thing he was doing was these kind of weird, psychedelic paintings. Some of them still exist somewhere, and they’re real interesting.
Kim told me it was that mescaline trip that reconciled you guys.
Yeah, I think so, pretty much. I remember him coming down to the Village previous to that time and just saying, “Man, come on, you gotta get your shit together. What are you doing? Get back out.” And I had various friends coming down, trying to drag me out of the Village. Everybody had it in their head that, “Oh, my God, he’s gonna kill himself down there.” Eh, maybe they were right, I don’t know, but it was just something I was going through. I had a girlfriend down there, and it was all working out.
Now, you were still reading comics and still obsessed with comics?
Yeah, even Kim says that I stuck with comics longer than he did. He’d kind of given them up, but I discovered Marvel when it first came out, and before Marvel, I was reading all those cool monster books, Kirby and Ditko. I was reading the Charlton books, anything with Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby, before Marvel, I was really into. All of a sudden, they started doing these hero books, and I really liked Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and stuff like that. They were really good comics at first. And before that, there was an interesting period in DC after they sued the Fawcett books out of existence. All the Fawcett guys came over — except for C.C. Beck — but all the writers like Otto Binder went over to DC. You started seeing these stories like Jimmy Olsen comics and Lois Lane comics. They might as well have been Captain Marvel stories; they had that flavor.
Did you want to draw these kinds of comics at some point?
I don’t know about that.
I mean, you were an artist, and you were obsessed with comics.
Yeah, I know. You know, back in about ’59, when the last Simon-and-Kirby thing, The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong, those really impressed me. They were like Marvel before Marvel. I thought they had a really nice, strange feel to them. I remember drawing all kinds of illustrations, not copied straight, but stuff like that. Strange, strange stuff. And then, pretty soon after that, I started discovering Steve Ditko and like that. And yeah, I’d draw that kind of stuff, but, I didn’t really feel like I wanted to become a comic-book artist, a superhero-comic-book artist or anything, per se. I liked the strange comics. The horror comics were run out of existence, but there were still weird comics, and there were guys like Ditko, like Kirby, who could do these kinds of books and do them within the structure of the Comics Code.
Not quite as grisly, right?
Yeah, not quite as grisly, but they had this weird style that gave them that same kind of forbidden-fruit quality.
Especially Ditko, yeah.
Oh, yeah, gosh, back in the early days when he’s doing those kind of books, some of the inking he did, you know, really great stuff. It’s a shame what happened with him, you know, when he had that disagreement with Stan Lee and left Spider-Man. He was never the same. I mean, he did some nice things after that through Warren, those wash things he did for Warren; some of those were very nice.
Those were gorgeous.
But basically, any time he’d try to start up a new superhero or something, like for DC, you could tell his heart was not in it. And the further time went on, the less detail he was putting into anything.
Around ’65, ’66 you were in the Village. How were you making money and surviving there?
Well, various ways: I was a manager of this coffee-house sort of place for a little while, me and another guy, but some gangsters came in and got rid of us. [Groth laughs.]
It seems like you were always peripherally involved in the underground scene, and I’d like to nail that down a little bit more. Kim started working with East Village Other. What was your involvement with that?
He started doing this comic strip; there was one other guy before him, Bill Beckman, doing this thing called Captain High?
Which was not very good.
Yeah, right. But anyway, it showed Kim that there might be a market for something, so he started doing things. I don’t think the first thing he did was Sunshine Girl, but things like that, you know? And it became Sunshine Girl really fast. And I took an interest in what he was doing. And he’s smoking pot, and so was I. At first it just started with me making a suggestion here and there, and then we just did a few that were absolute collaborations, and they were signed Deitch Brothers, Inc., that sort of thing. So from that point on, anytime I saw him working on a strip, whether it was an absolute collaboration or not, I always gave him some suggestions, or you know, I’d do him a little sketch, like, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” He liked what I had to say. He always thought I had a good sense of these kinds of things. But what happened then, you know, suddenly, it looked like things were happening in San Francisco, so he and Trina went out there to check on what was going on, and when he did, I just showed up on paste-up night with a piece of Bristol Board under my arm and a bunch of felt tips and whatnot. Joel Fabricant, who was the editor — great guy — he just said, “Hey, are you gonna have a strip? Are you gonna have a strip ready?”
And I said, “Absolutely.” So I did my first solo strip right then and there. And then Kim was gone for a few weeks, so I guess I was working on the third one when he came back. So it was like two and a half weeks. But then, after that, it was just like, well, I’ll do one, you do one, you know, and they were perfectly willing to pay me to do my own. And so I kept doing them. And again, I’m lazier than Kim — I probably didn’t do one every week or anything, but like when Gothic Blimp Works, the comic paper they put out started, I did a couple things for that. Right around that point, I guess Kim up and went to San Francisco. I, of course, was having my problems with the drug culture. I had an outright heroin habit, you know. Finally, I knew I had to get the hell out of the town. If I didn’t, I was going to destroy myself. So, I found a way to get out of town entirely cheap. I borrowed someone’s ID card from New York University and got a student-rate ticket to San Francisco, and I just went out there; I showed up. And when I showed up on Kim’s doorstep, of course he was terrified, you know.
[Laughs.] He wasn’t thrilled to see you?
Not exactly. It actually worked out well. He took me down to Gary Arlington’s, the San Francisco Comic Book Company, which was really one of the very first comic stores. I hear it said that it is the first one. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it was certainly a very early one. And Gary let me live in the store, I got very much involved in the goings-on in the San Francisco Comic Book Company. You know, another guy who was down there was Rory Hayes. He also worked there.
Let me skip back just for a second and ask you a couple of questions about New York before we leave there. Enlighten me a little about the drug culture in Greenwich Village circa 1969. Was heroin so cheap you could become addicted to it?
If you wanted to go up to Harlem, you could get it for $2 a bag, and if you just bought it downtown, it was double that, $4 a bag, but still not very expensive. But it got expensive. If you started getting yourself a real habit, you’re doing 10, 12 bags a day. In 1969 money, that could be a lot of money.
I see. So you were a low-level addict.
Yeah, right, you know, right.
Tell me a little about Joel Fabricant. What’s your take on him? I have Kim’s.
Well, Jesus. He was really something. He had his own attitude. I remember, though, a great quote from him was, “Never trust a n[...].”
Was he serious?
Oh, definitely, yeah. Yeah, it had something to do with this guy Miccleunis who worked down there, one of the sub-editors, you know, getting ripped off big time by some black guy. “I told you, Miccleunis, never trust a n[...]!” It was like that. He was like a gangster or something, you know? But he was a good guy.
Tell me how he was a good guy.
Well, if you needed something, he would see that you got it. If you didn’t work that week, but you were busted, he’d throw me some money or something. I liked that. He definitely was like a father figure for all the crazy hippies who were working in the paper.
Did he ever haul you out of the offices by the scruff of your neck and throw you out?
Well, yeah, I guess that happened at one point.
But then he actually gave you some dough, too?
That was near the end. What happened was, things were getting pretty bad, and I knew it. And I got busted on, what was it, Dec. 31, 1969, and by the time I was booked, it was Jan. 1, 1970, and I remember, this cop literally beat the living shit out of me. You know, it was crazy. It was like assault. It was really nutso, tactical patrol cop. And I had to sit in the Tombs for 10 days or so — I guess it was actually 15 days — and then my case came up, and when I showed up, the cop didn’t show up, so the judge said, “All right, we’re going to reschedule this. In the meantime, you’re released on your own recognizance.” I got my shit together and got the hell out of New York.
What were you busted for? Drugs?
Yeah, possession. Heroin.
I understand, the Tombs is not a place you want to be.
No, it’s not. I actually did OK there. You know, all this stuff about getting raped and all that shit in jail, I mean, if you’re some kind of attractive, young thing, that’s another thing, but if you’re either a slimy-looking hippie type like I was or when you get older too, nobody wants to mess with you. It’s like any other kind of sex. You gotta be somehow sexually attractive to the guy.
But you were young, you were probably sexually attractive.
Well, I don’t know. I didn’t see it that way. I don’t think they saw it that way. [Groth laughs.] I mean, you gotta realize, these guys didn’t like hippies, you know? These kind of guys, like big black guys, it wasn’t their cup of tea. They thought we were fucking crazy. They pretty much stayed away from me. But actually, I got fairly friendly with some of the guys in there.
Who else did you get friendly with in terms of underground cartoonists in New York? Did you meet up with Crumb?
Yeah, I met Crumb in New York, and I met Art Spiegelman, and gosh, people would come through, like Jay Lynch. I got to where they all knew who I was, and I knew them. They all knew that I was Kim’s troublesome brother.
Did you get to know any of them reasonably well?
Well, yeah. I mean, gosh — Roger Brand and all, we were good friends. Most of them liked me. I guess I was likable in a certain way, so I really had no trouble. I usually got off with people well from the start. I can’t say that there were any underground cartoonists who disliked me. It was nothing like that.
Although, I understand Spain might’ve beaten on you a little bit.
That was years later.
Oh, really? [Laughs.]
We were living together. When you live with people, you know … That was sometime in the early ’70s.
In San Francisco.
Yeah, where I was just talking to Spain about, “Boy, it was a good thing I got out of New York when I did. I was just ripping off everybody,” and I just made the mistake of saying to him, “I probably would’ve ripped you off, too, given the chance.”
And right then he slammed into me and said, “You would never have done that!” I don’t know; it was a crazy situation. I pissed him off. See, I have this cocksure thing that can, especially when I was younger, piss people off.
Seth used the same word to describe himself.
Maybe that’s a Deitch trait.
Well, now, you moved to San Francisco, and from what you just said, you moved into Gary Arlington’s store?
I did that. I lived there for a while.
Did you actually work there as well?
Yeah. I worked there and got involved with the publishing aspect, too. I helped him with that kind of stuff. I mean, it was a whole comic universe there. Right away, it was like the first few days I was in town, I was working on something for Bogeyman #3, you know, for Rory.
Tell me what he was like.
Well, Rory, he’s a strange little guy. He’d always walk around, and he had this suede coat, a long suede jacket, and he had white socks and penny loafers, and he was real straight-looking and kind of strange. His eyes were a little off-kilter. He always looked like one of his eyes was looking off in some far direction. He was probably crazy also. We all were. He had this thing about the teddy bears: Him and his brothers had been doing storybooks initially about these toys they had when they were kids. There was teddy bears and there was an old lady rag doll named Granny, I think they named her Granny Crackbaggy. They did all these stories about them, and then they did 8-millimeter movies using the actual rag dolls. But then Rory, who was also interested in EC Comics, came up with this crazy thing of doing a horror comic starring teddy bears, which was Bogeyman #1, in that strange, primitive style of his.
You say you worked on Bogeyman. What did you do?
I remember, I did one about drugs. I did one about a mass murderer. I was into these weird comics and shit, you know? And in California at that time, the Charles Manson trial was kicking up, so the newspapers were like some kind of crime comics, you know — it wasn’t like real news. It was like the San Francisco Chronicle turned into the Enquirer or something. They had all these stories about devil cults and this and that.
Not good PR for hippies.
No, it wasn’t. I came up with the idea to do Thrilling Murder Comics.
You edited that comic, right?
Yeah, right, I edited it. I should’ve had a story in it, but me and Gary got into a terrible car accident, and I was in traction, so I had Bill Griffith do the story I should’ve done. I did the front cover and the back cover, and I put it together, and I came up with a gimmick: Blood-o-rama. Anytime that somebody got cut, it had the red color, so it had this special effect.
And apparently you got your younger brother in a lot of trouble by sending a copy to him.
Yeah, apparently, I did. Well, I was proud of it. I guess. I sent him a copy, and my mother sent it back. She apparently got it before he did, and she opened it and looked at it, and said, “I don’t want you sending him these terrible books.” This was right back to the ’50s with horror comics. “Bad enough that you were doing these things —”
Did you feel socially comfortable in the underground-comics scene in San Francisco?
I had a good time. It was like this: I had a good time being an underground cartoonist, and I spent more time being an “underground cartoonist” than I did actually drawing underground comics.
Why was that? Why didn’t that spur you to be more productive?
Well, for one reason or another — I wasn’t doing drugs or nothing — but boy, when I got to San Francisco, it was like a real toddlin’ town, you know. It was like everything sold liquor. Here in New York, we don’t do that. There’s a liquor store where you can buy liquor, but boy, you walk into a supermarket out there, they had a liquor aisle!
And you therefore found liquor irresistible?
Well, I guess I just fell into it. I started drinking mainly beer, but every day, you know? When you start going over my life story, this is gonna come up all the time. I was always doing something to get high. It was one of my stumbling blocks.
As opposed to drawing.
Exactly. That’s the thing. You know, Rolling Stone would have a party. There was a party at Janis Joplin’s house, and she had just been tattooed, and she had a tattooist there, and anybody who wanted to could get tattooed. So, I got tattooed there, and, oh God, that was wild. But you know, that’s the thing, there were all these really wild parties, and so I’d be at all of them, and I’d get interviewed and stuff, you know, as though I were like Crumb or something. I was just me, having a good time.
[Laughs.] I understand you got fairly close to Wilson because he was a beer drinker as well.
Yeah, Wilson, well, he was like the Devil himself. He was always getting me into a bad situation somehow.
Well, we were at his place, and there was some other guy there, and we were all drinking, having a good time, this and that, and ends up, “Oh, why don’t you go home with this guy? You know, you’re not gonna make it home on your own.” I ended up going home with this guy who turned out to be gay and throwing a pass on me. Another time, he got me involved with some girl he didn’t want to get involved with, and I ended up with her.
That doesn’t sound too bad.
Ehh, well, I don’t know. She was kind of like suicidal and shit. It was always some bad little thing to it as well, in whatever situation I’d end up with with Wilson. But, you know, we both liked blues music, and he knew Charlie Musselwhite, and we went to some club there and saw him, and then Musselwhite came and sat with us. Boy, that was terrific. So yeah, there was an attraction. I liked to hang out with Wilson, but like I said, he was like the Devil himself.
And you drank more than you drew.
I understand you have a great story about flying to Los Angeles, posing as Gary Arlington and visiting Jerry Siegel.
Yeah, as a matter of fact I’m writing that up right now, an illustrated story about that. The way it goes down is, Gary, for some reason didn’t want to leave the Bay Area. It was more a phobia, it seemed. Like an EC convention happened in New York and nobody liked these guys more than Gary. And it’s probably the last time in any of their lifetimes all these guys got together again, they were all still alive. He just wouldn’t go. I remember I went and Jack Jackson went, we all went and we had a good time. And this is connected to this other thing. You know, Gary thought he was the next Bill Gaines. Anyways, he thought he was going to start EC up all over again and the artists were gonna come from all over the world to meet at his comics store. And then sure enough, one day this letter shows up from Jerry Siegel, and he wants to write some comics for some of Gary’s artists to illustrate. It’s this real nice letter and he invites Gary out: “If you want to come out to Los Angeles, I’ll have you over for dinner.”
And Gary thought about it for a little while and he came to me and says, “Why don’t you go. You could be me. They don’t know what I look like. So you could be me.” So I did. It was one of those so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas. I ended up calling up Siegel and arranged a day and said, “Yeah, I’ll come down and we’ll talk about this.” We put together a whole briefcase full of San Francisco comic-book goodies. We’d just printed Rick Griffin’s book called The Man from Utopia, it had all the best paper and it was really a deluxe-looking book. We put a whole thing together, we tried to soft-peddle all the sexual stuff, We had all this stuff, so I could go and be Gary Arlington and hand these things out. I went out there and I met with Siegel and we talked. It was real interesting because we got to talk about the case. Of course, I’d heard about the DC lawsuit and all that, but I figured that whatever was going to happen with it had already happened and it was a done deal, but it was really anything but. All these years later, he’s still working on it. Once he talked to me a little bit, he saw that I really knew my stuff about Golden Age comics. He dragged out these scrapbooks, which he’d put together. They had a panel from Batman, a panel from Superman, you could see that the Batman panel was swiped cold from the Superman stuff. He had whole volumes full of this stuff, things you wouldn’t expect to see, things you wouldn’t believe. In fact these scrapbooks he had were put together from thousands of dollars worth of Golden Age comics. I mean I’m sure they only cost him a dime apiece when he started putting these things together. But it was really fascinating to see.
And you got along well with him? He must have been about 30 years older than you.
Yeah he definitely looked like an old guy compared to me. He and I got along good, and we went through all his stuff. And he had all these scripts, the only real trouble was, they were just so lame. There’s just no other way to put it. He seemed to think he had a latch on what to do, and he really didn’t. The only one I remember clearly was this one with some little girl who ended up stabbing the guy to death with a pair of scissors in the last panel. Which sounds like at least he had his heart in the right place. [Groth laughs.] Other than that, they just weren’t very good. I know my brother was interested, and I ended up telling him, “You know these things are just not good; they’re just lame.”
You told Siegel this?
No, I told Kim this. I told Siegel that I’d do the best we could. I guess finally I just had to say, “Sorry.” I explained it to him up front, that the way most of the people in the underground worked was they did the whole thing, and that we didn’t really do scripts in the time-honored way that comics had been done for years and years. I tried to be nice about it.
It was weird though — years later I was at some convention in New York, I was just buying some Golden Age comics, which I still collect, and all of a sudden I hear from across the room: “Gary! Gary!” And I look over — it’s Siegel and his wife.
[Laughs.] And you’re still Gary Arlington?
Yeah, I mean I’ve got this big badge on that says I’m Simon Deitch and I was just got caught totally off guard and I wasn’t really ready to take on the Arlington persona. I just didn’t have it. So I go over, and I say, “Oh hi, great to see you, but listen, I’m not really Gary Arlington.”
You told him this?
Yeah, and I do my best to explain how this all came to be: “I was working for Gary Arlington and this is what he had me do; I didn’t mean to mislead you but this was my job.” And dadadada. But by the time I summed it up, they were looking at me like I had to be the craziest person on the face of the Earth, maybe even dangerous. [Groth laughs.] You know, it was really an embarrassing situation, so I just said, “Well, good to see ya.” And I shambled away.
It might have been better if you just told him you were using Simon Deitch’s badge.
Yeah, it’d be better if I would have told him I was impersonating Simon Deitch. [Laughter.] I was just totally caught flatfooted. I didn’t know what to do. And there they were and they wanted to talk to me right then and there. If I had known, when you go to this convention chances are pretty good you’re gonna run into Jerry Siegel, I could have mulled it over. I could have come up with something. It’s just not the way life is sometimes.
Well now, you also befriended Roger Brand, and from what I understand you were both incredibly knowledgeable and interested in the history of mainstream comics and the artists in comics.
Yeah, right, and Roger was really interested almost in a whole other level than I was. He liked all these guys like Noel Sickles and guys who I didn’t know much about. I was already more into strange artists like Bill Everett and Basil Wolverton and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko … I always liked people who had some kind of style, where the artwork looked more like it was coming straight out of their brain onto the page. That’s the kind of stuff that always did it for me. You know I wasn’t really impressed if a guy could really draw people just the way they are. It had no real meaning for me; I wasn’t a big Alex Raymond fan or anything like that.
Brand would have been Gil Kane’s assistant when he was in New York.
Yeah, he was. Earlier than that, he was Wally Wood’s assistant.
Did you ever meet Wood or Kane?
Oh yeah, both of them. Absolutely. I met a lot of those old pros, Bill Everett was another one. I got on pretty good with Bill Everett.
In what context would you have met Bill Everett?
Well, it was one of the very first New York conventions, and nobody really knew who he was. He just sort of showed up and saw me with some old Marvel Mystery comics and he kinda sidled up to me and sat down and started telling me, “I used to work on these books. You know I did that strip, The Sub-Mariner.”
And I said, “Oh! You’re Bill Everett!”
And he said, “Yes! Yes!” And he was of course impressed that I knew all about who he was and all the various things he’d done over the years. So I got to know him, and he never really forgot me. Any convention I went to after that and I’d see him, he’d always have fans around him once they got onto who he was. But I was one of the first guys to meet him at that stage.
And you liked him?
Yeah, and he had problems. Like later on when I was having problems again with the drugs.
He was a heavy drinker, wasn’t he?
Yeah, he was an alcoholic. He was real understanding and sympathetic. I met him one time and I said, “Ahh, I’m not doing too good right now, Bill.”
He understood and said, “You just gotta get it together,” or something. He didn’t look down on me for being a drug addict.
And how did you meet Wood?
Well, I met him at some party, and I had a butterfly knife. It’s a knife that’s got a split handle and the handles wrap around the blade. You can flip it around in a real impressive manner and open it up, like a switch blade only a little more interesting. I remember I had one of those and he saw it and he wanted to know about it. ’Cause he was a real weapons nut himself.
So you bonded over the butterfly knife?
Yeah, we got along pretty good. I did a little horror comic strip for the East Village Other. It was one of these things about these people at an old age home, but when they were 84, the guy who ran the place would go dump them in an incinerator pit. Wood got a look at that and thought it was really pretty good. It wasn’t all that good, but he liked it, I guess he liked the twistedness of the story, and that was a really good feeling, him being one of the all-time greats and all.
And how did you meet Gil Kane?
That was just a matter of going up to see Roger when he was working. He’d invite me: “I’ll be working at Gil’s this week. Why don’t you come up? He’s got great stories.” And he was right, ’cause Gil went all the way back to the Golden Age.
So you guys would just sit around and shoot the shit.
Pretty much. Also he had a closet full of artwork, and he said, “Ahh, go through this, if there’s something in there you want.”
His own artwork?
No, it was all kinds of people’s. I got a nice Russ Heath page out of there. Yeah, he was real nice that way.
So getting back to San Francisco, how did that evolve and what happened? I mean underground comics sort of evaporated in the mid ’70s, ’74-’76.
Oh yeah, when they started saying that local communities could take you to court over it. Some guy down in the middle of Podunk could bring you before the bar, you know? ’Cause maybe their standards didn’t match with what you were doing. It was really a terrible ruling.
And there was a crackdown on head shops.
Yeah, yeah it was a whole thing across the board.
So what did you do? What was your next port of call after undergrounds were on the wane? What was going on in your life in the mid ’70s?
I was still having my problems with various things. I went back to New York and I didn’t really do a whole lot for a while. Well, I had a 15-year marriage, but the only thing about that is that I didn’t do a single piece of professional artwork throughout my whole marriage. But then when I finally broke up, I got into animation, which I knew from growing up around it and everything. I worked for Nickelodeon.
Now that would have been approximately when?
I guess around ’92, something like that.
Well there’s a good 20 years there where we have to figure out what you did.
Yeah, right, well, I’m pretty much telling you I didn’t do nothing.
[Laughs.] Well, you got married, and I guess you got divorced. What year did you get married?
Oh boy, I don’t know, I guess it was around 1976.
How did you earn a living when you were married?
Actually I did things in and around town, like I was a manager of a store in New York called Supersnipe.
Oh yeah, sure, the famous comics store. But you weren’t compelled to do creative work, comics or drawing?
No, you know it wasn’t really coming up. I suppose I drew some stuff here and there but, nothing really.
So what did your wife do?
Ah, God, she was a boring person. [Groth laughs.] I know she worked for a Jaguar dealership and then a Cadillac dealership. She had these brothers who were really into cars, so she knew a lot about cars growing up. See, I knew her from school.
So you married your high-school sweetheart?
She wasn’t my sweetheart at the time, but we were friends back then and we ran into each other later, yeah.
It doesn’t sound like a match made in heaven
Nah, it wasn’t. Hey now, actually, I’ve been married three times, and it was the most successful marriage I’d had. The rest of them were like what, five years, two years, you know? And this one was 15 years, so …
But 15 fairly uneventful years.
Yeah, very uneventful years.
So what was your life like? You had various jobs in retail stores, and your wife was working at the Jaguar dealership. How did you spend your free time?
Oh, I know what I was doing that was creative. I had a friend who was into filmmaking, and I knew a lot about makeup, monster makeup. You know, creating fake wounds and gore and whatnot. So I worked on, jeez, a few movies. Maybe even a couple of them came out on tape and what not.
Your father said you missed your true calling as a Hollywood makeup guy.
Well, I was doing it for a while. Almost anything I’ve ever been interested in, I’ve done for a living at one time or another.
There was one film called The Astrologer, it was a strange cult sci-fi pastiche. And then I worked on a movie called Igor and the Lunatics, and you know, the thing is I’d have to go down to like, 42nd Street to see these movies in a theater. They’d be in dive theaters, but it was something I was doing. There are some photos of some of my stuff in Fangoria #19.
You said in the early ’90s you started working for Nickelodeon? Tell me how that came about and what you actually did.
All right, I was going through a divorce. My wife moved out of the house, so Kim moved in and he was talking with Tony, and Tony brought up the fact that they were looking for people at Nickelodeon. There was a little company called Jumbo Pictures down on Spring Street in New York, and he just told me the kind of samples I should put together. They asked me to come in and bring my portfolio, and I did, and I told them I had an animation background in my family, and they put me to work. I stayed in that for a while. It was the very beginning of what they call “Nicktoons” nowadays. One of the very first ones was called Doug and I was a designer on it, and a layout guy. Then I went from job to job. That’s the way the animation thing was, you know. They’d start up a different company every time there was a new project. They’d start up a company to make a commercial.
But it was still the same umbrella company? They would just start different …
Yes and no. There were different places. There was a place called Curious Pictures. I worked there for a while on a couple of different things. There was some kind of series we were doing for ESPN; it was like a sports cartoon. And then a Captain Crunch commercial, at Curious Pictures. Then I was working for a guy, J.J. Sedelmayer who opened a studio in White Plains, and what we did was the first season of Beavis and Butthead.
And that would have been the mid-to-late ’90s?
Yeah, about the mid ’90s. And then at the same studio I worked on the revival of Schoolhouse Rock, and a lot of animation stuff. Sometimes I’d be working on animation, I’d actually be doing in-betweening, and another place I’d be doing design work.
Where were you living at the time?
Westchester. That’s when I got married, that’s where we were and we were buying a house from the girl’s parents.
I see, so you must have divorced sometime in the early ’90s?
Yeah. About ’92.
And then you burned your way through two more marriages.
No, no no, they were previous.
Yeah, the first marriage, I was young, 19, 20 years old, and the second one was in San Francisco. That only lasted a couple years. [Pause] It was exciting, you know?
Right, but it was the boring one that lasted 15 years.
That was the last one. You know, I sort of lost interest since then.
I was gonna say, you’re now available again.
Yeah, but not really. I’m just not interested. I’m not out lookin’ or anything.
Seth tells me you returned home for a few years when he was around 16 or so.
Yeah, that’s when I first came back from San Francisco. I had to nest somewhere.
What was that like? You must have just been getting to know your younger brother at that point.
Yeah, actually we had a pretty good time together. We had fun together, but there was a lot of smoking marijuana and stuff, you know. So of course my mother was not all that happy about it.
Seth says he learned a lot from you, and I assume he means more than smoking marijuana.
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure he does. But I’m not sure what he means. Did he say what he learned from me?
Well, in terms of introducing him to a variety of comics, and you taught him a little about sculpture.
That’s right, he was interested in that. Yeah, he got into working in micro-crystaline wax. He did some interesting things, and I taught him some stuff about old cartoons. He didn’t have the advantage of growing up around my father. But you know, we’d smoke grass, and we’d watch cartoons together, and I’d tell him all about this stuff and that stuff or stop-motion movies.
What was your mother doing?
She was working at a place called Secon Metals. They dealt with gold wire and all kinds of thing. She’d actually had several careers in bookstores, being a bookstore person. She ran the book department in Macy’s for several years. My mother’s really pretty smart, you know. I mighta got into cartoons and stuff like that, and comic strips from my father, but my mother is the one that got me into pulps, like science fiction. Mother was a real science-fiction fanatic, I remember as a kid going down in the basement and there’d be all these cardboard boxes, and I started opening them and, God, it was full of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Avon Fantasy Readers and Startling Stories. All kinds of great things with terrific lurid covers. And even some of the very first fanzines, she had copies. So she really knew about that stuff.
Did you become a reader because of her?
Oh, among other things, yeah. She started me on science fiction. I told her I was interested and she gave me a book of seven famous novels by H.G. Wells. She had me read War of the Worlds. I went from there into modern sci-fi.
It sounds like you had a great combination between the two parents. One was the written word, and one was the image.
Yeah. I think I got along with my mother better than Kim did. I don’t think he ever really got into sci-fi or anything like that ’cause he didn’t really spend a lot of time going over stuff like that with her. He got interested in it later. He interviewed my mother several times. But he’s doing it more in [the context of] the history of the Deitch family, trying to get it all together.
When you were in New York, and when you moved to San Francisco, and you were involved in the underground scene, what was your relationship with your father like?
Did you have one?
It was weird. I think, for instance, when I was in New York, I’d get to see him here and there but the most memorable time of course, you gotta remember, is I got busted for drugs, and then all of a sudden, my dad’s in town and, boom, he’s at the visitor window. And I’m going, “Oh God.”
[Laughs.] Was this when you were in the Tombs?
Yeah, when I was in the Tombs, my father suddenly shows up, and I’m going like “Oh Christ,” you know.
Did you not assume he was going to get you out?
Well that’s the thing, he wouldn’t. It was like “Oh well, uh, Marie told me not to bail you out. You gotta learn your lesson,” or something.
I was going, “Dad please, you gotta get me outta here,” I mean I wasn’t interested in talking to him if he wasn’t going to get me outta there, you know?
In that case, why did he drop by?
Yeah, I know, really. I think he just wanted to check on me, make sure I was all right. “I’m not all right!” You know? “Get me outta here!”
Like you were saying initially how he was talking about how I was a bad seed and all that. Yeah, he’s got a lot of that in his head. Actually we do get along quite good. Now and then. There was a point, I guess about two years ago, where I was really staying in touch with him, writing him all the time. He was getting on me ’cause I didn’t have a computer. He likes this e-mail thing. Therefore it’s my duty to get a computer. I said I really didn’t want to, but I kinda took him up on the fact that we just don’t talk much, so I started writing him a lot. And we had a good series of letters. And now, every time I see him, it’s definitely very friendly, positive.
I’m not sure what year it was, but maybe’ 97, you created, or co-created with Kim, “Southern Fried Fugitives”. Can you give me your side of how that came about?
It was basically another thing with Nickelodeon, and they had a section in their magazine called “The Comic Book” [a section of Nickelodeon Magazine] and they were taking ideas. We came up with about four or five good ideas, and Southern Fried Fugitives was just another one we threw in. It was definitely not the best idea we had. But sure enough, that’s the one they picked out of the whole pile of ideas. Kim was upset about that; he didn’t really wanna do "Southern Fried Fugitives". So it got down to: If I was willing to write it and draw it, he’d put that Deitch sheen on it, and that’s what we did. And I started writing it. And it worked out pretty well for about a year or something. Then of course I got into some kind of trouble, and he took it over. He continued it for a while.
I just noticed, I found a few back issues of Nickelodeon, and for some reason, he did it for longer than he had let on to me that he was still doing it. You know, I thought he had quit it years earlier than apparently he did. For some reason, he didn’t keep me straight on that particular project. But he didn’t like working for them. I’d already told him the various problems you run into working with these guys. You know, they would censor you for what seemed like ridiculous reasons.
It was a pretty good strip. As a matter of fact, just recently, they paid us to re-run the origin story in their Best of Nickelodeon Comics magazine that they put out. The fact that they started with the first episode has me thinking that maybe they’ve got in mind to run some more, so who knows. We’ll see.
It seems like you do your creative work desultorily. Why haven’t you had a more consistent commitment to doing this kind of work?
I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. I just did that Golem story, that was my story, and Seth wrote it up. I gave him a synopsis and exactly what was going to happen, and he went from there. And now I’m working on this other story about Jerry Siegel. I’ll try to keep working for a while. Now and then, I’ll go into a slump where I’m not doing anything. I gotta work my way out of it, right now.
Your work hearkens more back to mainstream comics, and almost ’40s and ’50s comics than it does underground comix with the latter’s emphasis on the irreducibility of word and image together. Your work is primarily drawing, not writing and drawing together, and your drawing is closer to the draftsmanship of the best mainstream artists rather than the more idiosyncratic underground artists.
I had some problems with underground cartoons. Like, I didn’t like to do any of the stuff that was particularly pornographic. That didn’t really appeal to me much. I love what Crumb did; that was hilarious. But as far as me doing it, no, it didn’t really work for me.
With the Golem story that appears in Deitch’s Pictorama, you did the drawings for that first, as I understand it, and gave the drawings to Seth, who wrote a story around the drawings; can you tell me a little about how you collaborated with Seth on that?
Yeah, but it was my story. It was Kim that suggested it to me. I was sending Kim the drawings on it, and I had the synopses of various parts of it, and he said. “Why don’t you give these synopses to Seth and maybe he could write it up, and I thought, you know, that’s probably a good idea, so I did.
Are you happy with the way the Deitch’s Pictorama is turning out?
I saw a picture of the cover, but I just haven’t really seen that much.
Kim was just telling me that, if there was any way to darken up some of my illustrations, it would be better.
Because there was a certain delicacy to the pencil work.
Yeah, that’s the thing. He was bugging me like crazy to get the original, so let the guy fool around with it, but my experience with pencil drawings and printers is most of them don’t understand how you want it to look. I find that you do better to make Xeroxes and once they look about how you want it to look, then let them print from the Xeroxes. But Kim was bugging me and saying, “Well, you know, these guys want to see the originals,” and now, here we are, it’s on the verge of coming out and I’m hearing that, ah, they’re looking too light.
I don’t think that’s true, I think that you’ll be happy with the reproduction. I think they look very, very good.
Well that’s good.
Kim’s kind of a worrier.
Yeah, he is. He said, “This is my biggest concern as we go to press, but I’m worried, so I guess you should be too.” [Laughter.] “I may be going overboard here, but at this stage, that is part of my function.”
Well, he’s right, but if I were you, I would not worry.