An Interview With Al Plastino - A Less Boring Take On Golden Age Superman

Written by Bryan Stroud

 Al Plastino at his drawing table, working on a Batman sketch.

Al Plastino at his drawing table, working on a Batman sketch.

Alfred John Plastino (born December 15, 1921) was an American comics artist best known as one of the most prolific Superman artists of the 1950s (along with his colleague Wayne Boring). Over the years, Plastino also worked as a comics writer, editor, letterer, and colorist. With writer Otto Binder, he co-created the DC characters Supergirl and Brainiac, as well as the teenage team the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Plastino drew the syndicated Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder comic strip from March 17, 1968 to January 1, 1972 and was the uncredited ghost artist on the Superman strip from 1960 to 1966. In 1970, he took over the syndicated strip Ferd'nand, which he drew until his retirement in 1989. In 1996, Plastino was one of the many artists who contributed to the Superman: The Wedding Album one-shot wherein the title character married Lois Lane.

After a battle with both prostate cancer and Guillain–Barré syndrome, Mr. Plastino passed away on November 25, 2013.


Al Plastino: Last Superman Standing - by Eddy Zeno

Al Plastino was a special guy and I had no idea of my good fortune when I first contacted him.  Larger than life and always with a hearty laugh, the man was still going to the gym and golfing into his 90s!  He was so very kind to me and I have several examples, from art gifted to me from when he worked on the Ferd'nand strip and Abbie and Slats, to photocopiers of various pencil drawings he'd done as commissions or other samples of his work from his long, long career or to little things he'd send in the mail, like the article about he and Joe Giella in the newspaper and even some flies when I mentioned it had been a long time since I'd been fishing.  I absolutely loved the guy and miss him something terrible.  He was the last surviving Golden Age Superman artist, but as you'll see, he was so much more.  I can also highly recommend Eddy Zeno's biography of Al, "Last Superman Standing."

This interview originally took place over the phone on September 20, 2007.


Al Plastino:  Did you see that article before I sent it to you?

Bryan Stroud:  I never had and I wanted to start off by saying thank you.  I learned quite a bit from the information you so kindly sent to me.

AP:  It’s been so long ago.  I did Supergirl and I also did the Legion of Super-Heroes.  It was by Mort Weisinger.  I believe he thought up the idea to have this group of young people band together.  As far as it goes, I did the drawing.  I’d pretty much forgotten all about it.

Stroud:  Well, it has been awhile ago.  (Laughter.)

AP:  I guess so.  And what I can remember is that I designed the costumes.  And then I did the Supergirl.  What else can I tell you?

Stroud:  You know one of the things that surprised me when you sent me the information; I didn’t realize you’d ever done anything on Batman.  Now was that the daily strip?

AP:  Oh, yes.  Oh, I did a lot of Batman.  I did it for 8 years for the newspaper with [Whitney] Ellsworth.

Stroud:  Okay, now was that before or after Joe Giella?

AP:  Gee, I think it was after.  I think I was the last guy to do it.

Stroud:  Oh, so you actually got to sign it then.

AP:  Oh, yeah.  Yeah, Ellsworth and Plastino are on all the proofs.

Stroud:  Ah, now that was a big change.

APBob Kane was on there, too, but he didn’t do a damn thing.

The Batman syndicated strip fro 12/6/1968, signed by Bob Kane in the first panel and Plastino & Ellsworth in the last.

The Batman syndicated strip fro 2/18/1969, signed by Bob Kane in the first panel and Plastino & Ellsworth in the last.

Stroud:  Yeah, that’s one of the things Joe Giella was telling me was that while he was doing the strip he always had to sign it “Bob Kane.”

AP:  Yeah, well I didn’t.  The letterer put Bob Kane on it, on the first panel by the title and then the third or fourth panel was Plastino and Ellsworth.   

Stroud:  Okay, yeah.  He’d told me his successor was able to put his own name on there, but he didn’t name you, so I didn’t realize that you had taken over. 

AP:  Yeah, it was me.  I did so many things.  And commercial art, I did a lot of covers, love story covers.  I could keep you here all day talking about the stuff I did.

Stroud:  Oh, I don’t mind at all, sir.  Now, Mr. Plastino, I notice that you’re one of the very few; I can think of only maybe one or two, like Joe Kubert and Russ Heath who actually inked their own work consistently.

 Al Plastino

Al Plastino

AP:  I did my own work.  One name was on it:  Al Plastino.

Stroud:   Was that by choice?

AP:  I demanded it.  I said, “I’m not going to New York to have some guy ink and then I have to wait for it.”  No, no, no.  That was the understanding that made me take the strip in the first place.  If I can’t handle it alone, I don’t want it.  I saw the rat race that was going on years ago when I was a young man and I worked for CheslerHarry Chesler.

Stroud:  Yeah, a lot of people got their start with his shop.  I think Joe Kubert did, too.

AP:  I wouldn’t doubt it.  And I saw what happened and I said, “Oh, geez, this is crazy, I’m not gonna do this.”  We had everybody in the studio.  I still inked my own stuff, but we weren’t allowed to do the lettering.

Stroud:  So you worked in the bullpen, then?

AP:  For awhile, yeah.  I did everything.  You name it, I did it.  Then I got away from it and went into commercial art.

Stroud:  That paid better, didn’t it?

AP:  Well, that was a rat race.  I was with Jack Sparling, who was a cartoonist.

Stroud:  Yes.

AP:  You remember his name?

Stroud:  I do.  In fact, I think he did some work on Secret Six and some other stuff.  I’ve seen his work.  He’s very good.

AP:  Yeah, and he did a strip for the PM newspaper called “Claire Voyant.”  And he was fast, I mean really fast.

Stroud:  Faster than Sekowsky?

AP:  Much faster than anybody.  He wrote it, drew it and inked it.  He did six dailies in one day.

Stroud:  That is fast.

AP:  Because the fella that delivered it to the newspaper lost it.  He was fast.

Stroud:  Oh, that’s amazing.  How long did it usually take you to do a completed page?

AP:  Me?  Oh, I averaged about 2 pages a day.  Not truly completed, but I had to pencil, too.  That was my schedule.  And I always had two accounts.  When I was doing Superman I was doing Batman.  I was doing Superman AND Batman.  I had maybe two weeks to do a story, so it didn’t interfere too much, but of course with Batman there were six dailies and a Sunday.

Stroud:  That’s full-time employment.

AP:  I was working like a dog.  My kids were little.  Anyway, I got pretty fast watching Jack.  He was a great help to me.  We had a studio on 40th Street and Lexington Avenue.  A third-floor walk-up.  (chuckle)  And another fella worked there.  Daryl Walling did a strip for Herald Tribune called Skeates.  He only did the Sunday page.  So the three of us had a studio.  We shared it.  So I learned a lot from Jack

Action Comics (1938) #134, cover by Al Plastino.

Action Comics (1938) #140, cover by Al Plastino.

Action Comics (1938) #208, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  A lot of short-cuts and stuff?

AP:  Well, the kind of work.

Stroud:  Style?

AP:  No.  I never copied his style.

Stroud:  I guess what I meant were techniques.

AP:  Well, when you’re around people that work fast, it gets into your blood.  It’s like, “I’m not working hard enough, and I’m not doing it fast enough.”

Stroud:  Okay, it kind of sets the bar for you.

AP:  I think so.  And during World War II I worked for the Pentagon.  I invented a plane, believe it or not.  I know it sounds crazy.  I’m an avid builder of model airplanes and I always loved aviation and I got an idea for a plane.  It looks like the space shuttle of today.  It was 1941 when the jets weren’t around.  No jets.  Anyway, maybe I’ll send you a picture of it some time.

Stroud:  I wish you would.  I’d love to see it.

AP:  Anyway, so they got me at the Pentagon and they didn’t know what the hell to do with me, so I started drawing posters for the building.  I’m drawing posters and then an Army General spotted me downstairs and says, “What the hell is this guy doing here?  Get him upstairs.  We need him upstairs.”  So I was assigned to the art department in the Pentagon, the A.G.O. department and I learned a lot there, too.  Man, I learned a lot.

Stroud:  I’ll be that was a wonderful training ground.

AP:  We had the best art directors you can name.  And from there, they decided to place me in New York with Steinberg [Studios] to do the art work there because he was doing most of the art work.  So I worked with Steinberg when he approached me, and said, “Al, they’re looking for a guy to do Superman.”  I said, “Hell, no.”  He said, “They’re paying $55.00 a page.”  I say, “What?”  Anyway I did a sample and I went to see Jack Schiff and we talked and he says, “Okay, we’ll give you $35.00 a page.”  I say, “Good-bye.”  “What’s the matter?”  I say, “Oh, no, no, no.  Wayne Boring is getting $55.00 a page.”  “But, he’s been here 10 years.”  So we settled for $50.00.

Superman by Al Plastino - 2006

Stroud:  Not bad.

AP:  So I remained at $50.00.  And I said, “Okay, great.  I’ll do it.”

Stroud:  Good negotiating on your part.

AP:  Well, you see, when you have other income, you can do that.  I was interviewed in an article where the headline is, “He’s not my boss, he’s my editor.”  And from there I explained why I was the way I was.  I always had something else on the side.  If you don’t have something; and in my business, the comic business, they’ll step all over you.  So I just said, “No way!  No way, good-bye.”  And I was able to do that because I had other work and that’s how that came about.  And I did that most of my life anyway, when I had an account like when Mikkelsen said about Ferd’nand when he was retiring, he was giving me $100.00 a week for just finishing up little things.  Oh, another guy I worked for was Ray Van Buren on Abbie and Slats.  I worked with him and I used to finish up his work and he gave me $100.00 a week.  I was getting $100.00 all different places.  (chuckle.)  He would write on the original, “Al, finish up this; Al do this; Al put that in,” and that was it.  I always had something going.  I never was satisfied with one thing.  And I was able to draw different characters.  That’s the thing that amazed me.  Just by looking at it I was able to copy it.  They’re all different styles you know.

Stroud:  I was looking through some of your old work the other night and I saw the most beautiful rendition of the front of maybe a ’58 Chrysler and I thought, “Man, that looks like a photograph.”

AP:  Was that a Batman strip?  I used the Mercedes, was it Mercedes?  I forget now, but that was the only time I’ll use photographs for a material thing like that.

Stroud:  I’ve got an artist friend of mine and he had a question he wanted me to ask and it says, “Ask him how tight his pencils were…”

AP:  Not very tight.  (chuckle.) 

Stroud:  He says, “His work always looked like they were drawn with a brush over very, very simple roughs.”

AP:  Right, right.  That’s what I did.  I did that purposely because they asked me from time to time to do pencil drawings and I said, “Look, if I’m going to pencil tight, I might as well ink it.”  I mean, come on.  So I always used a No. 3 Winsor-Newton brush, come to a fine point, and to this day I don’t know how the hell I did it.  My eyes are not that great any more.

Stroud:  That took some skill.

AP:  That’s when you’re young.  You don’t need glasses.  I started reading glasses.  I was doing Topps bubble gum cards.  I did the Tarzan series and they were 3” x 4” and you’d have 60 on a page.  So when I was ready to ink them I was backing up my head and I said, “What the hell’s going on?”  Then I realized I needed reading glasses.  I did that for awhile for Topps bubble gum.  I did that guy with all the animals.  Dr. Doolittle from the movie strips.  I did so many things.  God, when I think about it, I wonder how the hell did I do it.  I never turned anything down. 

 Al Plastino in 2007.

Al Plastino in 2007.

Stroud:  A very full career.  Well, when you’re supporting a family, you do what you’ve gotta do.

AP:  Yeah, they’re all big now.  And I’m 86 years old.  I go to the gym twice a week.  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  You’re a young man.

AP:  Well, people think I’m young.  I think that way, anyway.

Stroud:  That’s excellent.  Now, I’m told there was kind of a house style at the time.  Did you have to kind of imitate Boring’s style?

AP:  Yes, at the beginning, yes and I hated it, oh, God, I hated it.  I had to imitate his style and then there was an article where it said, “Al broke away to his own style,” after I was there awhile.  The guy wasn’t bad, he just had a style that was kind of, you know, rigid, and, you know we’re going back to 1947.  (Laughter.)

Stroud:  Yes, and I’m glad you said that because, you know, I don’t want to criticize anyone, but when I look at Wayne’s work, he doesn’t seem capable of drawing a smile.  Everybody looks like they’re angry.

AP:  Well, that’s the same with Neal Adams.  Every time you look at his stuff a guy’s got his mouth open yelling.  He’s a great artist, don’t get me wrong.

Stroud:  Yeah, I got to talk to Neal awhile back…

AP:  He’s a great artist.  I remember him from Superman.

Stroud:  Yeah, and he did some wonderful work.  It sounds to me like you two have one thing in common, too.  He told me that he was able to tame the wild beast that was Weisinger and Kanigher.

AP:  Oh, yeah, oh, God, Weisinger was a mess.  Murray Boltinoff, I also disliked.    That’s how I got into drawing Batman for Ellsworth

Stroud:  Oh, yeah?

AP:  I don’t know if I should tell you this.  But anyway, I got into an argument with Murray Boltinoff.  They wanted me to work with him drawing Superboy and I couldn’t stand the man.  They got this attitude that they think who the hell they are.  Later, when I was interviewed for an article, I said, “You’re not my boss, you’re my editor.”  So I never took no…baloney.  I have to watch my language; my wife doesn’t like it.

Stroud:  (Laughter.) 

AP:  So when Ellsworth came in, Ellsworth saved his life.  I swear, I was really angry and I said, “I wouldn’t work with you.”  And he heard me, he said, “Look, Al, what’s the matter?” I said, “Blah, blah, blah.”  He said, “Never mind.  You work with me on Batman.  You want to do Batman?”  I said, “Yeah, rather than do work with this…banana head.”  Now Weisinger, I got along with him because I straightened him out a long time ago.”

Stroud:  That seems to be what it took with him.

AP:  Because when [Joe] Shuster was in, when the poor bums that created Superman, was in his office one time and doing some writing for him, and he talked to them like they were dirt.  So when they left, I just said, “Mort, if that was me, and you spoke to me the way you spoke to [Joe] Shuster and [Jerry] Siegel,”  I don’t know who wrote it, I think Siegel wrote it and Shuster drew it, I’m not sure.  He worked for a post office!  “How the hell do you get the nerve to talk to him that way?  Who the hell do you think you are?”  Oh, I wasn’t afraid.  My wife used to yell at me.  “Don’t talk to them that way.”  I said, “What are you worried about him for?  I’m not worried about him.”  So anyway, I laced into him.  I said, “If it was me, I would have not only punched you in the jaw,” and I’m not a big man, but when I get angry, I don’t care how big the guy is, I get angry.  Anyway, we got along fine after that.

Adventure Comics (1938) #129, cover by Al Plastino.

Adventure Comics (1938) #148, cover by Al Plastino.

Adventure Comics (1938) #151, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  That does seem to be what it takes.

APNeal Adams has a lot of talent.  He’s a terrific artist, don’t get me wrong, but the thing that upset me with his work was that if you look at it, you get nervous, ‘cause there’s always somebody yelling, running, jumping.  In fact I just saw [Paul] Levitz this past summer.  I went to see him and he showed me around.  You can’t believe the place they have now and I was talking to him about it and he says, “You know, Al, I have to agree with you.”  I said, “The new stuff that comes out now, you’ve got a letterer, you’ve got a penciller, you’ve got an inker, you’ve got a background man, you’ve got a colorist.  There’s five or six names on this thing.”  Now everybody’s trying to outdo the other guy.  (chuckle.)  The background man tries to put in…I mean, it gets confusing.  Cars, buildings, ‘cause that’s all he’s worried about is the background.  The other guy’s worried about the figures.  I mean, come on.  Back then it was simple.  We told the story, and everybody could understand it.  Not the best artwork in the world, but it told the story.  It was clean cut.  And he agreed with me.  I don’t hold back any opinions.  Do you remember when we did the wedding story where Superman got married?

Stroud:  Yes.

AP:  I had two pages on that, and everybody had two pages.  So my villain was a young boy.  It called for a young thug, maybe fifteen, sixteen or seventeen [years old] in my series.  The next two pages the guy aged about 20 years.  (chuckle.)  So when I went in to see Levitz, I said, “Paul, who the hell’s the editor that checked this out before it was printed?”  There was about five guys in the room.  So the one guy was quiet.  He said, “It was me.”  I said, “How the hell…”  “It was one of those things, Al.”  “How the hell could you mistake my character, ‘cause I did the pages first, and he was supposed to pick up on mine?”  The guy became an old guy.  I don’t know if anybody caught it when they see the story.  The poor guy was standing in the doorway.  I said, “You’re the guy who did this?”  I said, “How the hell did you do that?”  “Well, it happens.” 

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Too many cooks.

AP:  Well, you know, even at United Features, five guys have to check a copy and there’s still mistakes.  A guy overlooks a word, a word looks like something it’s supposed to be.  So, it’s gonna happen.  But it was funny.  It was a funny day. 

Stroud:  When you were doing the Superman titles, Carmine was telling me that typically they’d do a cover first and then build the story around it.

AP:  No, no, no.  The cover came later.  I did 48 covers.  I’ve got a book with all my covers.  Sometimes they’d copy from the splash, the opening page, but the covers; where the hell did they get that idea?  How could you do a cover from a story that’s not even done yet?

Stroud:  Well, the way Carmine was explaining it to me, he and Julie Schwartz would get together and they’d cook up a cover and then give it to a writer…

AP:  Not for Superman

Stroud:  No, not for Superman.

AP:  Okay.  Maybe they worked different.

Superman (1939) #58, cover by Al Plastino.

Superman (1939) #63, cover by Al Plastino.

Superman (1939) #65, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  I didn’t know if they did that for the Superman titles, because as I was looking through I got to thinking about one of the Action comics that you illustrated with the Parasite, do you recall that one?

APParasite.

Stroud:  Yeah, a purple guy that absorbed the powers from Superman.  Anyway, Curt Swan had done the cover, but you had done the interiors, so I wondered which one came first.

AP:  No, the cover never came first. 

Stroud:  So in essence you helped create the Parasite then.

AP:  Probably.  When Mort would call me in to do a cover for a story that I’d already done, like Luthor…  I did so many covers, I mean, my God.  The imp and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you name it.  It doesn’t make sense.  Unless you worked with the editor and the artist who was doing the story, like Carmine, who’s a hell of a nice guy, by the way.  I got along great with him.  He’s a good guy.  But I’m positive we didn’t do the cover first.  Why would you do a cover and then do a story?  They got the best part of the artwork.  See, what happened later on, I guess Curt Swan, poor guy, I didn’t mean to say that, but I felt sorry for him.

Stroud:  Oh yeah?

AP:  Well, all he did was pencil.

Stroud:  Oh, okay. 

AP:  You’re an artist, but just do pencils and you have to make them exact, because anybody could ink them.  Anybody could ink Curt’s stuff.  Anybody.  And I think Murphy Anderson used to ink most of his stuff.  And Murphy is a great inker.

Stroud:  I know he did a lot of it.

AP:  Yeah, because you just follow his lines.  You just give it a little snap with the brush, but you’re still following the man’s lines.  He puts the blacks in, he puts everything in.  I think I did only one story with Reuben Moreira, I think it was Ruby who penciled and it drove me crazy because I couldn’t conceive his heads.  So I insisted on doing Superman, I said, “You don’t do Superman, you do all the other characters.”  You can see the difference.  It’s a story I did a long time ago. 

Stroud:  That reminds me there’s another legend I was going to ask you about.  When Jack Kirby took over Superman they had you re-do the heads?  Is that correct?

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen (1954) #133, cover by Jack Kirby with faces redone by Al Plastino.

AP:  Yes, yes.  That’s a pain in the neck.  I had to paste in the heads. 

Stroud:  Okay, so you just pasted them right over the top.

AP:  Yeah, well you just put it on very thin paper.  You draw it and you put rubber cement and cut it as close as you can and put some outside lines to lead into it so it looks kosher, you know.  It looks like it hasn’t been touched up.  Which is a job in itself. 

Stroud:  Oh, I bet.  Did that bother Jack at all?

AP:  I don’t think so.  He didn’t say anything to me. 

Stroud:  Okay.  You hear different stories and you’re never sure what the truth is.

AP:  I know I did paste those.  Mort would call me in and Mort would talk like…I’d better not imitate him, forget it.

Stroud:  (Chuckle.)                      

AP:  One good thing I have to say about the man.  He had these crazy ideas, which I thought were crazy at the time, like Superdog and Supercat and all this junk, but it sold books!

Stroud:  So those were his ideas.

AP:  Yeah, Supercat?  What the hell are you guys talking about?  I did Superdog in many stories. 

Stroud:  It was a running character there for quite some time.

AP:  Yeah.  The imp.  I had changed him to my way.  I didn’t care for what he looked like and they mentioned that in an article once. 

Stroud:  Yeah, that you had redesigned the costume.

AP:  Yeah, everything.  The guy’s hands.  Everything.  So long ago, my God.

Stroud:  Have you seen the new paper back reprints they’re doing of the old Silver Age stuff?

AP:  Yeah, I get them.  They mail me three or four or five copies at a time.  One good thing came out of all this:  Royalty checks.  I get great royalty checks.  (chuckle.)  Every time they reprint something I get…last year I made $10,000.00 on royalty, because I have so many stories.  In one book there’s twelve stories, the soft cover and another one had fourteen of my stories and covers.  Foreign covers aren’t so good.  I was interviewed by a Canadian broadcaster a couple of weeks ago, so it gets out and gets to Canada.

Now Batman, I don’t get a damn thing for that.  I didn’t do too many comic books I just did it for the syndicate and the syndicate went broke.  So I don’t get anything from there, just Superman and Superboy.

Stroud:  Did you have a favorite person who was a scripter for you who was easier to work with?

APJack Schiff was the early editor at Superman.  I don’t know if he’s still alive.  He was very nice.  And Jack Adler was the colorist.  I got along with him all right.  And Harris I think his name was.  He used to color, too and he was the one who went to bat for us to get our name on it and the royalty.  He fought for it for the artists.  I get royalties for the early work I did and the reprints.  They make money on those reprints; my God do they make money.  I get a full list of the sales they make and what they pay for pencils and inks.  That’s why I make so much because I get paid for pencil and inks. 

Stroud:  You were the one man show.

AP:  Yeah, in fact I had to correct them a few times.  They’d say, “Oh, no, you didn’t pencil it.”  I said, “What do you mean, I didn’t pencil it?”  Here’s what happened.  The girls, when I worked for Ray Van Buren, who did beautiful women, beautiful women with pen and ink, by working with him, melded into making my drawing of women.  So the women didn’t look different in Superman for awhile there, toward the end and they thought Reuben Moreira was drawing them.  I said, “Are you crazy?  I’m drawing my own stuff.”  I worked for Ray Van Buren who did beautiful work.  The guy was an illustrator one time and I worked with him for quite awhile.  So I got to look at his way of drawing women and it was great.  I learned a lot from him.  I learned a lot from everybody, I think.  Ernie Bushmill’s stuff, Little Nancy was the toughest strip to draw.  The toughest.

Al Plastino with the original art for his President Kennedy story in Superman (1939) #170.

Stroud:  Really?  Why is that?

AP:  Because he was a real German draftsman.  And every line meant something.  He drew simply, but clean, crisp lines of a certain thickness.  No less, no more.  No brush.  In fact, I had to use a fountain pen for his stuff.

Stroud:  Oh. 

AP:  I used to dip it in the ink and I got a consistent line with the fountain pen.  It didn’t spread.  It held its consistency.

Stroud:  Oh that’s a very different way to work.

AP:  Oh, my God it was tough to do, believe me.  When they finally gave this other guy the strip in California it lasted less than a year.  He murdered it.  He murdered the strip.  And eventually just dropped out.  They said I was too old to continue.  I think I was 65 then.  Too old.  Why, you bunch of boobs.

Stroud:  (Chuckle.)  Yeah, I don’t know how they can put an age on talent. 

AP:  Yeah, well see at United Features, 65 and you’re out.  Not the artists, but the people that work on staff.  After 65, boom!  Out.  No matter how much talent you’ve got.  But anyway it worked out all right.  I wasn’t too concerned about it after it happened.  I decided to quit and said “Let me retire, I think I’ve had about everything.” 

Stroud:  So how many years altogether were you in the business?

AP:  Let’s see, my God.  I started in ’47.  I ended in ’81.

Stroud:  That’s a good, long run.

AP:  That’s a long run.  Even younger than that.  I mean I was in high school when I got my first job.  There was a magazine called “Youth Today,” in high school.  We’d get it once a month and they had a contest.  If you win, you get $50.00 and they put your drawing on the cover.  So I won that twice.  Then I won second prize, third time.  So Mr. Cooden, I’ll never forget his name, the art director, he says, “Look, Al, we’d like to hire you because we can’t afford to keep giving you prizes.”

Stroud:  (Laughter.)

AP:  You know the format was like The Reader’s Digest.

Stroud:  Oh, yes.

AP:  That’s what I was doing for him.  So I would read the copy and make some sketches and show him and he would approve them or disapprove them, but most of the time he approved them and I would ink them.  I read the article in the paper.  Chesler said, “Black and white artist wanted.”  So I said, “Let me go and see this.”  It was comics.  And he said, “Hey, kid.  Throw that stuff away.  You work for me.  Make money.”  He always had a cigar in his mouth.  When I went to him I think I was about 18 years old.  I was also copying paintings in the Metropolitan when I was a kid of 13 or 14.  A Renoir I did, right there they’d set you up and you could paint from the original.  Then I got a few commissions.  I did a couple of Rembrandt’s, Sargent’s.  You name it, I did it. 

Stroud:  You’ve always been interested in art, obviously.

AP:  Since I was a kid as far back as I can remember.  And I was encouraged by my brother, my oldest brother, who was a good artist and I used to watch him as a kid, drawing.  I’d also watch him making model airplanes, which got me interested in it.  So I had a pretty active life.  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  I guess so.  Did you ever think you’d be able to make a living at it?

AP:  No.  My Dad was the one who encouraged me.  In fact, he’s in Who’s Who of Italian Americans who made it.  He was THE hatter of Manhattan.  He made all the hats for all the president’s.  He made La Guardia’s hats when La Guardia was Mayor of New York.  He made the Governor’s hats.  He made LBJ’s and the last hats he made were for President Kennedy and his wife.  Then my dad went into hunt caps, so he made him a top hat, a felt hat and a riding hat and he gave his wife, Jacqueline a top hat and a riding hat for jumping horses.  And then Kennedy never wore a hat, right?  And the hat business took a nose dive.  It went right down the tubes.  The hat business just died.  He never wore a hat.  Truman wore a hat, LBJ wore a hat.  Everybody wore hats, but he didn’t wear a hat.  In fact they say if he had a hat on in that car, he might be alive today. 

Superboy (1949) #8, cover by Al Plastino.

 Superboy (1949) #10, cover by Al Plastino.

Superboy (1949) #10, cover by Al Plastino.

Superboy (1949) #59, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  I hadn’t heard that before.

AP:  When you’re aiming at something and you’ve got a little distraction…his head was large.  That’s why he didn’t wear a hat.  I thought he looked good in the felt hat.  So my father was THE hatter.  Luckily he went into the equestrian hats and he survived and my brother survived with it and now my nephew runs the company.  My dad lived to be 96.

Stroud:  Ah, so you’ve got some good genes.

AP:  Yeah, my grandfather died in his sleep at 98 I think it was.  My aunts were in their 90’s.  (chuckle)  Great genes I guess.  Golf.  I’m an avid golfer.  I love golf.  I used to play with Jackie Gleason at Shawnee.  I met Gleason because his group would come out following our group, the cartoonist’s and I got to know him real well.  I played with him for six years at Shawnee.

Stroud:  Oh, fantastic.

AP:  Ah, it doesn’t mean anything.  He was a nice guy.  I liked him.  He was an all right guy.

Stroud:  It had to be pretty fun.

AP:  Well, he was a pretty serious guy when it came to golf.  I don’t know why I’m rambling on, you’re bringing back memories.

Stroud:  I don’t mind at all.  I’m enjoying every minute.

AP:  My Dad would drop me off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’d go Saturday and he’d pick me up at night.  And then I tried working in the factory and I was burning the candle at both ends and he said, “Look.  Go back to art school.”  “I’m not sure I can make a living at it.”  “If you keep up, you’ll do fine.”  And that’s what kept me away from the business.  My two brothers went into the business.  I stayed with the art. 

Stroud:  Did you know any of the other creators very well?  Jerry Siegel, for instance?

APJerry?  I think I met him once at Shawnee for the cartoonist’s golf outings.  I met a lot of guys there.  Gus Edson, The Gump’s.  These guys were characters.  You talk about characters.  (Chuckle.)  They were half-bombed half the time.  Yet they could do their work!  Otto Soglow did The Little King and the guy I never liked, even though he was the greatest artist, Hal Foster.  He was so obnoxious.  The guy was a great artist, I mean great and I looked up to him.  I met him at Shawnee.  Big, tall guy.  And he knew he was great and he boasted about it.  And I said to myself, “You’re not supposed to do that, are you?”  But he was a great artist.  My God, when he did Tarzan, oh, God that was gorgeous work.  Gorgeous.

Stroud:  Yeah, it seems like he and Milt Caniff were the ones that inspired everybody.

APMilt, now there was a nice guy.  Milt was a great man.  I met him just twice.  Just before he died I think I met him at the castle in Connecticut.  The cartoonist’s castle.  They show all the work there.  Some of my work is there.  And I met him there.  I think he was about 91 then.  He was a great guy.  He was such a pleasant man to talk to.  There were some good guys.  Nice people.  Pleasant.  Answered questions nicely.  Wouldn’t think you were a jerk, you know.  ‘Cause I always thought I was a jerk.  “How do you do that?  Well, what time do you do it?”  You know crazy questions that I used to think about. 

By the way, I still do recreations for cancer funds.  I just came from an outing yesterday and I did Superman and Luthor in an action scene and they auctioned it.  I don’t know what they got for it, but the one I did, who I can’t stand, is Tiger Woods, ‘cause I’m an avid golfer.  I can’t stand this man.  But I did one that got $1,100.00.  I don’t know if you ever watch golf, but they lifted what they call the loose impediment and about 10 guys lift this rock up so Tiger can hit the shot without hitting the rock.  So I got Superman lifting a tremendous boulder, tremendous boulder.  So, Tiger Woods and his caddy are coming over the horizon where the ball is and the caddy says, “Superman!”  And dopey says, “Wow!”  Tiger Woods.  (chuckle.)  They got $1,100.00 for it at the auction.

Action Comics (1938) #217, cover by Al Plastino.

Action Comics (1938) #224, cover by Al Plastino.

Action Comics (1938) #252, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  Wonderful. 

AP:  Most of it went for Jerry’s Kids for Muscular Dystrophy research and some of it goes to churches and I don’t get a dime.  It’s all donated.

Stroud:  Good for you. 

AP:  I’ve been doing that for over 20 years. 

Stroud:  Do you do commission work that you sell?

AP:  Yes.  I make covers for different people and commissioned them, but you know what happens?  There’s always something that’s not in the original.  Like a fold.  These guys count the folds!  One guy says, “Al, you’ve only got three folds.  The original has four folds.”  I said, “Hey!  (laughter.)  What do you want me to do?  It’s still my work.  I’m trying to copy it as best as I can for you.”  What?  Are you guys kidding me?  Another guy said to me, “Al.  Something is wrong with Superman.”  I said, “What is it?”  He said, “One hand has nails and the other hand doesn’t have the long nails.”  It’s a cover of him on a different planet, and he’s got a beard, and his nails got long.

Stroud:  Okay, like an exile thing.

AP:  Yeah, you only see one finger, but, “I don’t see the long nail.”  I said, (chuckle) “Hey, fella, do me a favor.”  (Laughter.)  So I stopped doing that.  I said I’m not doing that, to heck with it.  I got paid well, but it’s a lot of work.  You gotta get the lettering right, you’ve gotta color it.

Stroud:  Right, all that stuff you’re not used to doing.

AP:  And then I never send frames with them.  I wouldn’t do that.  I sent them matted.  And so I did a nice job.  In fact I have some of them here, because before I send them out I make a copy of it.  There’s a machine at the library and I make a copy of it in color, so I’ve got copies of all my stuff.  Just in case it gets lost.  (chuckle.)  That’s happened, too.

Stroud:  That would be heart-breaking.

AP:  Does Jack Binder sound familiar to you? 

Stroud:  I think so.  I wonder why?

AP:  He worked for Chesler.  And he said, “Hey, kid!  You want to help me out with these…”  He was doing pulp magazines and he let me lay out a whole page in pencil, and then ink it and he’d give me $5.00.  And it was a big deal; he’d give me $5.00.  “You learn anything, kid?”  I said, “Yeah, I’m learning.”  Which I didn’t mind.  I enjoyed it because I was anxious to do anything.  When you’re young, you’ll do anything.

A Supergirl sketch by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  Sure and you’re kind of in an apprentice status. 

AP:  Yeah, and his brother’s still alive.  He does writing for Superman.  I’m trying to remember his first name.  OttoOtto Binder.  He’s a nice guy.  But the thing that got me is they try to take advantage of you, right?  And I was still a little uppity in those days, so I did a story for him, a six-page story, and he had a reputation that he was very tough on paying.  So I went to his apartment and I took him the story.  He says, “Very nice, Al, I like it.  I’ll see you later in the office and I’ll pay you.”  I said, “No, no, no, no.  You pay me now.”  “What do you mean now?”  “Now.”  One thing led to another and this is a true story.  I went into the corner of the room and I held the six pages open in a tearing position.  I said, “If you don’t pay me now I’m going to tear these.”  “Oh, no, no, no, no, don’t tear the pages!”  They were paying $9.00 a page.  (chuckle.) 

Stroud:  You got your point across.

AP:  Oh, I was going to do it, too.  He said, “Okay, okay.”  I’d heard he had a bad reputation and one time I got paid 10 cents on the dollar.  The company I worked for, a couple of guys, went broke.  So I learned my lesson.  No more.  I want the money now.  So, I got it.

Stroud:  No kidding.  You didn’t need any broken promises.

AP:  We became good friends.  He said, “Al, I don’t know.”  I said, “Look.  I’ve heard stories; I witnessed some of this stuff myself personally.  People, who are going to pay you later, sometimes don’t pay you.”  What are you supposed to do?  Get a gun and shoot ‘em?  I don’t want to shoot anybody.  (Laughter.) 

Stroud:  And you can’t eat a promise, either.

AP:  Right.  So that’s the end of my stories now.  You got enough material there?

Stroud:  You were very generous.

AP:  But I did meet a lot of nice people, believe it or not.

Stroud:  Who were your favorites?

AP:  Other than the editors I already mentioned I dealt with the other guys.  I tolerated them.  Nobody got along with Mort.  Nobody.  Everybody had something to say about him, but I put it in print.  (Laughter.)  He’s gone now, but it was a cut-throat business in those days.  Cut-throat.  Here was the approach they’d take:  “Hey, Al.”  This is Mort.  “Hey, Al, you know there’s a guy here wants to do Superman for $20.00 less than you get.”  My answer was, “Give it to him.”  And that was the end of that conversation.  They always kept trying to keep you below them.  I don’t care what it was.  “You’re below me.”  But I’d tell them, “I’m above you.  I’m the artist.  You’re an editor.”  I made that clear.  In a nice way.  I wasn’t always belligerent, but they got to me sometimes.  They really got to me. 

Stroud:  Well, you can only take so much of that after awhile.

AP:  I’m of Italian descent, and proud of it!

Stroud:  Yes.

AP:  First generation.  And Jackie used to call me…  I don’t know if I should say it.  You know, the word.  He’d say, “The little skinny G can sure play golf!” 

Stroud:  Oh, yeah, yeah.

AP:  And I didn’t mind.  I got a kick out of it.  He said this little skinny guy can hit a ball.  See they started Jackie Gleason with woods, all woods.  I don’t know if you play golf.  You’ve got to have woods and irons. 

Stroud:  Right.

AP:  And Ed Sullivan talked them into all woods and Fred Waring.  So we got to this one hole, quick story, we got to this one hole, a par 3.  So I take a 7 iron, bang it on the green and it was all water around this green.  All water surrounding the green at Shawnee.  So he gets up with his woods and knocks one in the water.  He knocks two in the water.  He knocks one over.  He’s going crazy.  So he picks up the bag, a leather bag.  In those days $300.00 a pop, today probably much more.  A big leather bag, he throws everything in the water.  He said, “If I can’t play and hit the ball like Al, I’m not gonna play this game any more.”  Jackie Gleason and I became good friends and played golf together for the next six years.  Getting back to my story about Boltinoff in the art room…  We were all in the art room.  I don’t know if Neal was there.  A lot of guys were there.  We’d come in with our artwork and we’d talk and maybe we’d have corrections to do.  Murray Boltinoff comes out of his office and yells, “Hey, you!”  To me, he says, “You, you, you!  What the hell is your name?  Come with me!”  Well, I put the pencil down, and I excused myself with the guys, I went into his office, closed the door and got him by the collar, and I said, “You obnoxious, insecure, nasty person!  If you ever yell at me again I’ll… You call me Mr. Plastino or else!  I wouldn’t work with you on Superboy if I had to starve to death!”  So when Ellsworth heard the commotion, Ellsworth came in and he said, “Al, what are you doing?  Come on; come on, what’s happening?”  I said, “I’m not working with this…”  You know what I said.  ”I’m not working with him.  And I refuse to work, I’m gonna quit.”  “No, no, no, no, Al, don’t quit.  Work with me.  You want to draw Batman?”  I said, “Yeah, I’ll do Batman.”  And that’s how I got the assignment.

AP:  And the two guys that were responsible for my having a lot of articles done were two fellas, one from England, named Jim Kealy and one from Tennessee, named Eddy Zeno.

Superman (1939) #67, cover by Al Plastino.

Superman (1939) #110, cover by Al Plastino.

Superman (1939) #114, cover by Al Plastino.

Stroud:  Tennessee.

AP:  Yeah, the names are on the article.  And they were very good to me.  Very good.  They bought some of my work in the beginning and now I just send them stuff.  Every time I’ve got something new I send it to them.  And they were really nice, they sound like you, a nice guy.  You sound like a nice guy. 

Stroud:  Oh, thank you.  I do my best, Al.  I’ve been having so much fun talking to the old creators this year and everyone has been very, very kind.  Just like yourself.

AP:  I know someday, the articles I’ve been interviewed for; I’m on tape, on cable, cable out here.  They showed my work and how I do it.  I did Batman demonstrations; I did some talking to this man.  I don’t get paid.  Nobody pays me anything, but it’s nice to have for my grandchildren some day to look at.  “Grandpa was a pretty big guy.”  And I’m a pretty good looking guy, you know.  (chuckle.) 

Stroud:  Yeah, I saw that drawing of you.  Did you do that drawing of yourself?

AP:   Yeah, oh sure.  I draw portraits of myself.  That I worked from a photograph.  You know, when you’re a kid, there’s nobody around, right?  (chuckle)  So you look in the mirror and say, “Ah, what the hell?  I’ll draw myself.”  Hands, you know, and there’s a mirror in front of my desk.  A big mirror.  And you want to get an expression on a face; you look in the mirror, and draw. 

Stroud:  Sure.  You’ve got to have a model.

AP:  With a hand, you put your hand in the mirror, toward the mirror, and you handle a gun, or a guy going like this, it’s there, right in front of you.  The action is right in front of you.  So I believe in that.  Anyway, that’s it.

Stroud:  Were there any characters that you really didn’t like drawing?

APSuperdog.  (Laughter.)  I can’t see a dog flying through the air with a cape.  I never did Supercat, though.  And a dog is tough to draw, you know, even though I owned a couple of dogs at one time.  Flying.  You know, it’s crazy, what do you do with that? 

Stroud:  You’re right.  You bring up an excellent point.  That’s an unnatural position. 

AP:  The dog’s flying.  (Laughter.)  It’s like a dog jumping.  Four legs, all apart.  It’s all right.  One time I had to draw him in multiple action scenes.  That takes time. 

Stroud:  That had to be just maddening after awhile.

AP:  Yeah, but I enjoyed everything.  I still paint.  I exhibit at the galleries.  Watercolors.  Oils.  I sold one of my wife sleeping in a chair.  It’s called “Noon Nap.”  Oh, she’s gorgeous, my wife.  When she was 18, I was 35. 

A Christmas card from Al Plastino.

The Christmas inscription, from Al Plastino.

Stroud:  Well, a good looking guy like you, why not?  (chuckle.)

AP:  And her sister is Millie Perkins, the actress that played in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” by George Stevens, who directed the movie.  She was a fashion model, and picked for the part from 10,000 girls.  This stuff, just one thing leads to another as I talk.  (chuckle.)  But my wife is still a beautiful woman and I was doing Love Story covers when I met her and I was living with my sister in Jersey, in Fairlawn, and I was going to New York on a date and I stopped for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, just enough for the road.  When I walked in I saw this beautiful young girl and her girlfriend and two guys sitting at a table and I was looking at her and I was doing Leading Love Stories covers.  If I saw a pretty girl, I would ask her to pose.  I would take a photograph of her, naturally.  Anyway, I was going back out to the car and I caught her eye again.  I said, “Al, if you don’t go back in there and speak to that girl, you’ll never see her again.”  So I went back in again.  Being a shy guy, you know.  (chuckle.)  I went back in again and told her my story, and the two guys didn’t say a word.  When I tell you who the two guys were, you’re gonna drop.  And she says, “You’ll have to ask my mother.”  And I says, “Fine, I’ll call Mrs. Perkins any time.”  The two guys at the table were Tom Lasorda and Rob Pomenowski, the pitcher.  They weren’t anything then, they were young guys.

Stroud:  Oh, holy cow.

AP:  Yeah, yeah, how about that for a story?  And they didn’t say a word.  Not a word.  Rob Pomenowski was a big guy.  He was the pitcher for the Dodgers and Lasorda was a short, stocky guy, but he was a young kid.  A young guy.  We were all young.  I was 35; they must have been 18 or 19.  What could they have been?  Anyway, so a week later I call her mother.  A gorgeous woman, beautiful woman, and she said “Okay, Mr. Plastino.”  I said, “Call me Al.”  She said, “Okay, Al.”  Or Alfred, call me Alfred.  And she said “I trust you.”  I said, “Mrs. Perkins, believe me, she’ll be fine.”  So I took a photograph of her, and we started dating.  We dated for a year.  And I’ve still got the cover I did.  I’ve got her and I’ve got me in a Lieutenant’s outfit, kissing.  We’re kissing.  What the hell, I might as well put myself in it, right?  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  You bet. 

AP:  And it was the only cover accepted in watercolor!  Because in those days, pulp covers were cheap reproductions, and if you did it in oil, which I did, you’ve got to exaggerate the colors.  A yellow’s got to be YELLOW!  A red’s got to be BRIGHT RED!  And different colors have to be exaggerated.  That’s why those paintings never amounted to anything ‘cause they were over done color-wise.  So when it came to the reproduction, it would come out great.               

Stroud:  But then the original didn’t look good.

AP:  Right.  ‘Cause the process was very, very poor.  So when I did mine on watercolor on a board, the guy says, “Gee, I don’t know if we can do a watercolor.”  I says, “Well, let me test it.”  So he calls me up, he says, “Great, Al, it turned out great.”  I said, “Good.”  And it was all speculation.  Believe it or not I got $150.00 for a cover.  That’s way back, though. 

Stroud:  Not a bad fee at all.

AP:  Yeah, well, at that time it sounded good.  As I’m talking, I’m thinking of other things I did.  I don’t want to talk any more.   You know, another thing.  One more thing.

Stroud:  Please.

AP:  I don’t go to conventions any more.  I was there one time at the hotel near the Madison Square Garden.  They set you, blah, blah, blah, so it was supposed to be a 3-day thing.  So the first day I’m there, I’m sitting at a desk and guys come up to me for my autograph.  So I’m signing them.  Drawing a little picture.  But I’m not getting any money.  I didn’t think I was supposed to get any money.  There’s a guy next to me getting $25.00 a shot.  So I says, “Hey, what the hell’s going on here?”  He says, “Aren’t you getting paid?”  I said, “No.  They seem like nice kids.”  In fact, we never signed our work in those days, remember?”

Stroud:  Right.

AP:  So I said to this one kid, “How do you know it’s my work?”  “Oh, we know your work, Mr. Plastino.  The way you draw folds.  The way you draw this or that.”  They go by the way you draw things.  I said, “But we never signed it.”  We used to sneak in our initials once in awhile.  On the covers I’d sneak my initials in some corner there.  But I said, “What am I doing here?  I’m not gonna stay here.”  So I got up and went home.  And they called me up and said, “Mr. Plastino, where the hell are you?”  I said, “I’m home.”  And I told them the story.  They said, “Well, why didn’t you ask?”  “I’m gonna ask for money?  What am I, a beggar?”  If it’s a thing that’s supposed to be done, have a sign:  “All autographs and illustrations, $25.00.”  Or whatever.  So I said, “I’m not going any more.”  They call me up from time to time, “Oh, come on.”  No, no, no, no, no.  They’ve got that big one going in San Diego.  I said, “No, I’m not coming.  I’m not gonna go.”  “Why, Mr. Plastino?  We’ll pay your fare.”  What the hell does that mean?  You’re paying my plane?  What about the room and food?  No, I just don’t do those any more.

An interior page from Superman (1939) #170, drawn by Al Plastino.

Comment

Bryan Stroud

Bryan Stroud is a longtime fan of DC Comics, particularly the Silver and Bronze Ages, and has been published in a number of places over the last decade plus, to include the magazines Comic Book Creator andLurid Little Nightmare Makers and websites like The Silver Lantern and Comics Bulletin.  Bryan wrote the afterword to “Think Pink,” is a frequent contributor to BACK ISSUE magazine, Ditkomania and co-authored Nick Cardy:  Wit-LashHe and his indulgent wife have dined with Joe and Hilarie Staton and Jim Shooter.  He owns a comic book spinner rack that reminds him of his boyhood.