Written by Bryan Stroud
Jack Adler (born July 1, 1917) was an American artist who started off his career in comic books in 1946 as a colorist and inker for DC Comics. One year later (in 1947) Jack took on a staff position doing production and coloring for the entire DC line. He held this position until 1960, when he became DC's assistant production manager - a position he held for the next fifteen years. In 1972, Adler was the visual inspiration for the Swamp Thing villain Ferrett, drawn by Bernie Wrightson in the first issue of the hit series. From 1975 until his retirement in 1981, Jack was DC's production manager and Vice President of Production.
Mr. Adler passed away on September 18, 2011.
Jack Adler has contributed so much to the comic book genre right from the very beginning that it’s difficult to underestimate the scope of those contributions. His first job was painting on engraving plates for comic books. He was, in fact, the first to color Superman in Action Comics #1, and he did so much more from that point on, up to and including doing the art restoration on what is generally agreed to be the first Golden Age reprints in Jules Feiffer’s “The Great Comic Book Heroes.” And let us not forget his ascension to Vice President of DC Comics before he retired.
This interview was epic and much like the one I enjoyed with Jerry Robinson, Jack Adler had been involved with so much of the industry and the many creators, and didn't seem to have an enemy in this world, that I found many in my Rolodex who were glad to share their memories of working with him. So, in addition to this historic interview, I also got inputs from such greats as Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Paul Levitz and more!
This interview originally took place over the phone on October 20, 2008.
Jack Adler: You know what my age is?
Bryan Stroud: If my information is correct, you’re 90 years old.
JA: I am 90 years old.
JA: Thank you.
Stroud: You and Irwin [Hasen].
Stroud: I understand you graduated from high school at a very young age. 15, weren’t you?
Stroud: And then you went on to get a degree in Fine Art?
JA: Yeah, and I spent only one year in college during the day and the rest of it was at night. I worked and was going to college at the same time. I started to get my Master’s, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to afford it. College was very cheap for me. Would you care to take a guess at what it cost me for a semester?
Stroud: I’m sure I’ll foul it up. A hundred?
JA: Two dollars a term.
JA: Two dollars. Me, my wife and my daughter. Two dollars.
Stroud: That’s a far cry from what it is today.
JA: Oh, God. I don’t know how they manage it.
Stroud: I understand you’re a man of many talents. They say that you were a good sculptor, penciler, inker, painter and photographer.
JA: The only thing that I wasn’t was a penciler. That’s the only thing I didn’t do. I was known as a “can do.” They’d say, “Can you do this?” And I’d say, “Yeah, no problem.” And many of the things that were innovations were all mine. For example, the color separation system that was used around the world was mine. I started out by working at an engraving plant with the old Ben Day system where they were doing the Sunday pages and a guy doing the Ben Day, putting the dots on spent one week on one page. On Little Orphan Annie and stuff like that. And there’s no way you could have done a comic book. It involved a problem and I was in a position where I had to do something in order to stay in the field and I worked out the system of color separation, and it was used around the world. I never got any money for it. Never got a penny for it. Not even a Christmas present for it.
Stroud: That’s dirty.
JA: No, that’s the way it was. Things I had to do. And most of the innovations were…I don’t know how to put this. Someone else took credit for what I did because he was my boss.
Stroud: So, it kind of belonged to the company, then?
JA: That was Sol Harrison. Sol Harrison took credit for it and it sort of belonged to the company. You know who Sol Harrison is?
Stroud: Yeah, you two worked together for many, many years.
JA: Well, we went to school together.
Stroud: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
JA: We were in the same class. He was in a 4-year program in art and I only had one year because I was on a souped-up program. I was intellectually gifted so that I went through school very quickly.
Stroud: It was obvious to me when I learned how early you graduated high school that you had a lot of brainpower. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, didn’t you have some involvement in the first issue of Action Comics?
JA: Correct. I was working at the engraver doing color separation.
Stroud: Wow. That’s quite a milestone to be there right at the beginning like that.
JA: I have a sad story to tell you about that. I worked on that first issue and I took three copies and put them away. Some years later I began to have a health problem and the doctor said to me, “Do you have any old paper in the house?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Get rid of it, because you’re allergic to the fibers and that’s causing your problem.” So, I threw them out.
Stroud: Oh, no!
JA: Do you know what the last copy of that sold for?
Stroud: Not off the bat, but I know it’s a tremendously expensive thing to have.
JA: $185,000.00 was what the last one sold for and I had three of them!
Stroud: You’re right. That’s a very sad story.
JA: I should have killed that doctor.
Stroud: (Laughter.) No one would have blamed you, either. I’m reminded of that recent news article where someone discovered a near mint copy of Detective #27 in an attic someplace in Pennsylvania.
JA: What did he get for it?
Stroud: He immediately put it into some kind of careful storage and I don’t know if it’s been sold or not, but you can only guess the value of that one, and of course it doesn’t compare to what you’re talking about.
JA: That was my retirement right there.
Stroud: Easily, but who knew at the time? Back then comic books didn’t have a very good reputation.
JA: Not at all.
Stroud: I remember Jim Mooney telling me that you’d tell people you did almost anything other than working in the comic book industry.
JA: (Chuckle.) Right. At the beginning I worked at the engraver’s. Emil Strauss was my boss, the engraver and Lee Woods and Donenfeld made a fortune at the very beginning and Emil Strauss was kind of peeved and wanted to do the same thing, but he couldn’t do it because they were his accounts. So, he figured out something that he would do to be in the comic field. It was called Movie Comics. Are you familiar with that?
Stroud: No, I don’t think so.
JA: Okay. The Movie Comics were done this way: They got the script from Hollywood along with photographs and they put together six pictures per page. The problem with it was that there was no sequentiality with the photographs. They were scattered photographs and it meant that somebody had to straighten them out, which meant that sometimes you had to add a hat or change a tie or change a uniform. Sometimes you had to draw somebody from the back, because you didn’t have a photograph that fit the picture. That required a great deal of art work and it required people who were able to do that. And one of the tools that was required for that was an airbrush. You know what an airbrush is?
Stroud: Yes, I’ve seen them used on photographs and painting custom work on vehicles.
JA: Yeah. Now I knew nothing about any of that, and he decided that he had to have somebody do the retouching; the airbrushing. Immediately Emil Strauss ordered the airbrush and pointed to me and said, “You’re my airbrush artist.” I knew nothing about how to hold the airbrush. You hold it sort of like a pencil. I held it upside down.
Stroud: Oh, no.
JA: Yeah. And I learned how to do it upside down, and I became very proficient at it. But I didn’t know anything about it. I wrecked the airbrush the first day and there was no problem about that. He immediately had it fixed and I puttered around with it and never really learned how to do it. Emil Strauss saw that and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to hire somebody to teach you.” So, he hired a Hungarian Jew who was a famous newspaperman in Germany. But he was Jewish, and he was having a great deal of trouble making a living. So, Emil decided to bring him over and he did. He hired him. And he hired a man called Emory Ghondor. Now Emory Ghondor was a tall, thin guy who looked like a stalk, and his emblem was a stalk, and he made his living by doing demonstrations with paper and scissors. He’d call out to the kids and say, “What kind of an animal would you like?” They might say an elephant and he’d make a couple of snips in the paper and would have a four-footed elephant with a trunk that was able to stand up.
He was just a whiz at it. That’s how he had to make his living. He couldn’t make a living because he was Jewish in Germany. Anyway, Emil hired this guy and this guy was going to teach me, and I was puttering around with it and never really learned how to use the airbrush and time started to pass and nothing was happening, he didn’t do anything. One day I said to him, “Emory, I’ve got to start doing the airbrushing. When are you going to start teaching me? I’ve got to start doing the work.” He said, “Okay.” So, he takes the airbrush, put some black wash in it, makes a splat; does it again; makes another splat, and again. My heart sank. I realized that he didn’t know how to use it! So, I looked at him and asked him how I was going to learn to do this and here’s what he said to me, in his heavy accent, “Don’t vorry, Jackie dear, ve vill learn togezzer!” And so, we did.
Stroud: You did some work on the Prince Valiant strip also, didn’t you, Jack?
JA: Yes. I did four pages of separations with the new system that I had worked out and the publisher…what was his name? I have trouble with names. In fact I had an experience once. My boss then, Jenette Kahn called me in one day and she said, “We’re doing a film, and we’re going to call all the people in from all over the world who have something to do with comics, whether it’s shipping or anything at all related, and you have a good voice, so we’d like you to do the voice over. I died. I died! I walked into my office and I had my secretary, Gerda Gattel and she looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” So, I told her and she knew what my problem was, so she said, “Jack, what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to have you next to me, and every time I have a problem on a name, you’re going to do it.” You know that I didn’t miss a single name?
Note: A little later, Jack shared some more details about his groundbreaking work on the Prince Valiant strip:
JA: When I was working on Prince Valiant, I did four pages of Prince Valiant with a system that I had devised for doing the color separations, and they were four of the most beautiful pages that Prince Valiant ever had. So, I’m working on it and my boss, Emil Strauss, brings this big guy in and said, “This is William Randolph Hearst. I’d like you to explain to him what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Of course, I was kind of shaken because I remembered what history taught me about him; that he was the one who instigated the Spanish-American War.
Stroud: Yes, that’s quite a historical figure there.
JA: Yeah, so I was impressed with the man. He was a big guy. I explained what I was doing and showed him how I was doing it. Someone took a picture and I wish I could find it. But that was the end of my exposure to Hearst, because my boss would not give them a contract. I don’t know what the reasoning was, but he didn’t want to give him a contract and then had me going on to something else. As simple as that.
Stroud: What an unfortunate turn of events.
JA: I don’t know if it was unfortunate or what it was, but that’s the way it went. My contact with him was minimal and I’m grateful for that contact.
Stroud: Absolutely, and didn’t you say he was very intrigued with what you were doing?
JA: Oh, yeah. He was delighted and he wanted a contract for me to continue doing Prince Valiant. My boss had other ideas, though and wanted me to move on. I don’t know why he turned him away.
JA: I have to be careful about what I say sometimes, because I know where all the bodies are buried.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) I’ll bet you do.
JA: One that was a problem was Kanigher, but I had a good relationship with him. Bob Kanigher and I got along very well.
Stroud: What do you think the secret was?
JA: My interest in music. We had lots of discussions about music and he was a phony, really. But a great writer.
Stroud: He was certainly prolific.
JA: But he had a formula that was so obvious. He could write a story on his way into work. He’d come in with the story all scripted.
Stroud: Remarkable. Of course, when I was talking to Mike Esposito he talked about how they cranked out that first Metal Men story in record time. By the way, what was the hardest thing to deal with in your shop as far as deadlines? How late did they make changes on you?
JA: Oh, the only one that was on time, all the time, was Julie Schwartz. He was a gem. Never late. And my name is Jack. I had a problem with him. He never called me Jack, he called me Adler. I think that was his way of being funny and he got paid back once. My grandson worked with us for awhile and saw Julie's name and wrote it as Julias. Julie became Julias.
JA: But he was a gem. I loved him.
Stroud: Len Wein called him a wonderful curmudgeon.
JA: He was absolutely great, and he was so precise about everything. And he was so knowledgeable. You know what his background was, in science fiction?
Stroud: I know he did some work in the pulps and didn’t he represent Ray Bradbury at one point?
JA: Yeah. He was his agent.
Stroud: Good eye for talent.
JA: Yeah. He was a no-nonsense guy. And very calm. He never yelled. He was just never that way.
Stroud: Good for him. You don’t need to be abusive if you know what you’re doing.
Stroud: Now one of the neat things that you did were the washtones. How much of that was your idea and how much was Jerry Grandenetti’s? Wasn’t he involved in that?
JA: No. I was the one who thought up the idea of doing stuff in washtones for the covers; they were not line drawings, but wash drawings, and I did a number of them to show the artist what I wanted. In other words, I did what I guess you’d call the inking on covers in order to show the artist what I wanted; what I needed; and that was it. There were many things that I did that way where I did the first of it in order to show someone how to do it. And I did everything.
Stroud: So, you really were the unsung hero.
JA: I had a problem. The problem was that I had a boss who took credit for everything I did.
Stroud: Sol [Harrison.]
JA: Yeah, and so whenever I did an interview, I had to say “we.” I never said “I.” And today it bothers me that I didn’t speak up. My daughter, who knows exactly what occurred, said to me, “Dad, you couldn’t, because he was your boss.” In any place it’s the boss who counts.
Stroud: That’s right. There’s always a certain amount of politics that you’ve got to endure.
Stroud: Your story reminds me a little of Bill Finger.
JA: Oh, God. That really is a crime.
Stroud: Did you know Bill at all?
JA: Yeah, he used to come to my house.
Stroud: What do you remember about him?
JA: He was bright. A good writer. And he was uncomfortable because he wasn’t given enough credit for anything. I liked him.
Stroud: It sounds like everyone did. A likeable guy that just took a real shellacking.
JA: Oh, God. Did he ever.
Stroud: When I talked to Jerry Robinson he was very quick to give Bill full credit for his work on Batman. It’s a sad story. Irwin Hasen lovingly called Bill a loser.
JA: He was a loser, absolutely. There are people who go through life like that. And there are people who go through life where everything turns to gold. I have a friend like that. There isn’t anything he touches that doesn’t make him richer. He was an engineer working on submarines and he just didn’t like it, decided to try other things and he really made out well.
Stroud: Going back to the washtones for a moment, it seems like they sold very well when that technique was used.
JA: Oh, yeah. Every time I made an innovation, sales went up enormously.
Stroud: But it doesn’t seem like that one was used terribly often. Do you know who made the decision on its use?
JA: Each editor made his own decision on that.
Stroud: It seems like they were mostly used on the war books by Kubert and Russ Heath. It added a great deal of drama.
JA: You said Russ Heath is still working?
Stroud: He sure is.
JA: And Joe Kubert is one of my closest friends. He’s a gem. He’s a gentleman. He’s exactly what the character is: Rock. That’s Joe. Have you met him?
Stroud: I haven’t had the pleasure. I’ve always wanted to.
JA: He looks like a rock, and he is.
Note: I called Joe up to ask him about his recollections of Jack and he graciously shared the following:
Stroud: When I talked with Jack it occurred to me that Jack had worked with literally everyone at DC and he absolutely adores you and said, “If you get a chance, talk to The Rock.”
Joe Kubert: (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I said, “The Rock?” He said, “Yeah, Joe Kubert.” So, please tell me about Jack, Mr. Kubert.
JK: Joe, please. Well, my relationship with Jack; he’s a terrific guy and has been a good friend, and the first thing, right up front, is that a great deal of what I’m doing concerning the school is a direct result of discussions and talks that I had with Jack prior to my opening it.
Stroud: He mentioned that he kind of helped you set things up.
JK: Well, the questions I had, I knew nothing about a school or anything that had to do with opening up this kind of an institution, and I tried to get as much of an education in that direction as I could, but the details and the mechanics of it were not really what I was looking for from Jack. What I was looking for from Jack was his information as to what he felt a cartoonist coming into the business should know in order to be assured of being able to make a livelihood at it. And so, we talked about what the curriculum should be, which is, of course, the most important factor that has to do with the school. And with that information and with the discussions I had with Jack I was able to set up, I feel, the kind of curriculum that prepares those people coming out of the school to be able to make a living in this business.
Stroud: History has certainly shown you to be correct. You’ve got a pretty impressive string of alumni that lead right back to your door.
JK: Yep, and I’m proud of that and Jack also should be proud of that because a good piece of that belongs to him.
Stroud: If I understood correctly, he said you were actually talking about having him on staff?
JK: Yeah, oh, yeah, I would have loved to have had him be able to work here, but distances just proved to be impossible, and I know how difficult that would be. One of the reasons that I was able to open the school was that I only live five minutes from the building, and if I had to commute or travel I don’t think I’d have ever opened the school. So, I could understand completely Jack having to come all the way from Queens to come in here to teach, it was just too much.
Stroud: Sure. It sounds almost like what Dick Giordano was telling me about commuting from Connecticut into the city when he was freelancing.
JK: Yeah. Dick taught at the school here, too, incidentally.
Stroud: I didn’t realize that.
JK: Oh, yeah, he was great. He was a terrific teacher.
Stroud: You’ve really had an all-star cast there.
JK: I really have. And that, in particular, Bryan, was humbling, because the guys who agreed to come here…I think a great deal of the reason they did what they did was because it was kind of a payback. I think all of the guys, including myself know that without the help of guys in the business, like Jack, it would have been impossible for us to really learn what we had to know. So having acquired that ability and knowing how difficult it is to get that kind of information, I think the guys that came here to teach felt that more. They sure as hell didn’t do it for the money, I can tell you that. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Well, the love for you and the institution obviously showed through. I know Irwin Hasen kind of regretted having to hang up teaching at the school, but things being what they are…
JK: When you start hitting 90, I guess things start slowing down. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Oh, yeah. I shared one with Jack just yesterday. He called me back and had another tidbit to share with me and I asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, all things considered, and I shared a line I heard from a gentleman who was in the latter part of his life: “The Golden years are filled with Lead.”
JK: (Laughter.) Well, that may or may not be true, but I tell you, if you’re lucky enough to be able to kind of handle that lead, you can still get along.
Stroud: That’s exactly right. Anything else you’d like to share about Jack?
JK: Just to let you know I think Jack was probably one of the most brilliant guys around. You know back in the 50’s I was involved in putting out a three-dimensional comic book that included the red and green glasses to give it a three-dimensional image to the illustrations. Jack was the first guy that not only figured out how it was done; not only figured out a better way of doing it; but was able to also introduce color on top of that with the mechanicals and the reproduction and the means of doing the kind of work that we did prior to the introduction of computers. Jack was incredible. Absolutely incredible.
As you probably know he’s a wonderful photographer. He took beautiful, beautiful pictures. He knew comic book production…any kind of book, production or reproduction backwards and forwards. That guy is really a fountain of knowledge when it comes to this kind of business, plus the fact that he’s the kind of a guy that is more than willing to share it in any way he can. It’s been my experience in this business, and a lot of stuff that I’ve done that the more a guy knows, the more sure he is of what he knows, and the better he knows it, the more apt he is to give that information out to other people, and Jack is really the epitome of that.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, I mean if you’re confident and capable, you don’t feel intimidated or insecure about sharing knowledge like that.
JK: Yeah. It’s only the guys that are kind of worried that if they give too much knowledge and information that this guy they’re talking to is going to take over their job; it’s only that kind of a guy with that sort of insecurity that kind of holds the stuff to himself.
Stroud: Yeah, precisely. As I recall on your new TOR series that just wrapped up you did some of your own coloring. Was that a result of what you’d learned from Jack?
JK: No, (chuckle) I’m trying to learn how to do this coloring with the computer and stuff. That’s what I’m working with now and I’m kind of stepping in very tenderly, but excitedly and it’s really an exciting thing for me to be able to get a handle on it. Number one to learn a new color process and reproduction and number two to be able to control as much as I possibly can, all the things that go into putting my stuff together.
Stroud: Yeah, and since you own that character, of course you’ve got much more flexibility than you would ordinarily.
JK: Yeah, I’ve been a very lucky guy. Very lucky.
Stroud: And your gifts have shown above all else. It’s been remarkable. I can’t think offhand if it was ever done, but was Jack’s gray tones ever used on any of your war book covers?
JK: Oh, yeah, I did some wash drawings…under his tutelage, really. He directed me and I don’t recall if Sol, Sol Harrison participated. I don’t think so. I think it was all Jack who really was so knowledgeable with the reproduction factors and how the grays would work and how they should be converted into line from a wash drawing. Jack was extremely helpful to me with that.
Stroud: I’d seen several examples, like your old Hawkman covers.
JK: Yeah. There was a Hawkman cover that I did in wash and as I said that was pretty much under Jack’s direction.
Stroud: That was a real pioneering effort by him, and I understand those tended to sell a lot more books when they were done that way.
JK: Well, I think that’s true of covers in general, but yeah, if you can create something outstanding or something that piques the interest of a potential reader you’ve got the possibility of selling a hell of a lot more books.
Stroud: Weren’t you involved in setting up the art school with him?
JA: (Chuckle.) Not involved, I set it up. He called me…I have a background not only in fine art, but in education as part of my college schooling, and he called me one day and we talked about it. He asked what was needed and we sat down and we talked about it. I outlined what he needed. He sent it in and it was approved immediately, and then he offered me the job of running it, and I didn’t want to move out there.
Stroud: New Jersey didn’t appeal, huh?
JA: New Jersey is okay, but its way out in the boondocks.
Stroud: That’s neat that you were so deeply involved.
JA: I laid out the entire program for him and the thing that amazed me is that it was instantly approved.
Stroud: Something to be proud of. You developed the 3-D comic book, too, didn’t you?
JA: Correct. Sol Harrison came to me and said there were rumors that people were working on 3-D and did I know how to do it. He always came to me for help. I said, “Yeah.” His words to me were strange. He said, “Crap or get off the pot.” So I said, “Give me a picture,” and that same day I did the thing and showed him with the red and green glasses and that was it. We went ahead and worked with it. Joe Kubert was working on that with Norman Maurer. I don’t know if you knew that.
Stroud: No, I sure didn’t.
JA: They worked out a system, but I refined it so that mathematically we did certain things. It was great. You know one of the things that my daughter held against me was that I didn’t go to the conventions and sell my autograph. You know these guys were getting $25.00 an autograph and making a fortune on it and I never did. I was not a businessman. I never cared about that. Never cared about money. I made a lot, but I never cared about it.
Stroud: Well, you avoided getting obsessed with it, which I think is probably good. Is it true that you also developed the 3-D technology for the Viewmasters?
JA: Yeah. It’s a sad story. I applied for a patent on it, and it was turned down on the grounds that I was using materials that had been used before, which is ridiculous.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. A unique application should stand on its own.
JA: Anyway, it was turned down and that was it. It took Viewmaster seven years to figure out how I did it. My interest was in the science of optics and it led to that. Also, I’m a woodworker. I have a complete workshop and I built furniture. I built most of the furniture in my house.
Stroud: You’re a man of many talents. Perhaps you’ve got the soul of an engineer.
JA: I don’t know what I’ve got, but I was happy with what I was doing. Every day was fruitful and I loved it.
Stroud: So, you never actually “worked” a day in your life.
JA: That’s correct. Do you know anything about cameras?
Stroud: Just a little.
JA: I invented the stop-down lens. And the mistake I made was that I went to show it to one of the top companies and they’d just come out with the Stop-o-matic diaphragm, and it was a copy of what I did.
Stroud: Speaking of photography, you were also the innovator in using photos in creating comic book covers as well, isn’t that correct?
Stroud: What brought that to mind?
JA: Damned if I know. I don’t know how it came to me. I usually went to bed with something on my mind, and about 3 o’clock in the morning I’d wake up and had the solution to what I wanted to do.
JA: Don’t use the word Marvel!
Stroud: (Laughter.) Fair enough, Jack.
JA: One of the things I had to promise when I left was that I wouldn’t go to Marvel. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: They didn’t want them to poach you, huh?
JA: That’s right.
Stroud: You were a DC or National exclusive. That was something Carmine [Infantino] told me that I didn’t realize was that the editors and the production people were the only ones actually on staff.
Stroud: You must have felt you were fairly treated to stay there so long.
JA: It didn’t matter. I was doing something I liked. I will say that I never got the kind of money I should have had, and one of the problems is that I never was able to get past Sol Harrison. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Sure. He ended up as publisher while you were ultimately Vice President in charge of production?
Stroud: You obviously worked with pretty much all the editors and we already talked a little about Julie. Did any others stick out in your mind?
JA: Jack Schiff was a gentleman. Joe Kubert, of course. In fact, Joe came out to see me with Irwin Hasen about a year ago and he’s planning to come out again.
Stroud: Nice that he still remembers his friends. Did you run across Bob Kane at all?
JA: (Chuckle.) Which one?
Stroud: (Mutual laughter.) That says it all right there, Jack.
JA: Bob Kane was lucky. His father was an accountant and a close friend of Jack Liebowitz’s, and he was the one who set Bob up with a contract, and Jack Liebowitz was nice enough to set up that contract and it made a fortune for him, whoever he was. (Chuckle.) Also, I have photographs of most of the people, the artists who freelanced for DC back in the day. I’m an excellent photographer. I use photography instead of drawing. I replaced my drawing capability by doing photography, and my photographs have everybody.
Stroud: What a great thing to look back on. How long did you and Sol end up working together?
JA: Until he left.
Stroud: Okay, so literally decades.
JA: Yeah. As a matter of fact, he came to visit me and I asked him why he retired and he said, “Because I didn’t want to die on the job.” He was having a problem with Jenette [Kahn] and I got involved in it, which was stupid of me; it cost me…I don’t know if I should go into it.
Stroud: Whatever you feel comfortable with.
JA: You might ask me again.
Stroud: Okay. What memories do you have of Ira Schnapp?
JA: Ira Schnapp was a gentleman, and I have a very funny experience about him. I was up in Cape Cod in a famous restaurant up there and I saw a picture on the wall which had a drawing of Ira Schnapp; a watercolor of Ira Schnapp that I had done. I don’t know how it got there and I never found out. How a portrait of Ira Schnapp that I’d done got there, I’ll never know. I used to do sketches of the people I worked with. I used to get by on 4 hours of sleep a night. I worked full time and did freelance work for agencies around the country doing color separation work.
I did many magazines. I did the first copy of Ms. Magazine, the cover, for example. I did a lot of that. I did a lot of work with Murphy Anderson. He can tell you a lot of things about me. He’s the best friend I’ve got, I think. The nicest man I’ve ever met. He asked me to give him space in the department because he didn’t want to work at home. So, I gave him a desk and he came in every morning and worked and if he took a pencil…he stayed past the time I was there, in the morning he’d bring one in. He’s replace it, and you know, there were pencils all over the place. He didn’t have to do that.
Stroud: Just a man of the highest integrity.
JA: Absolutely! I can’t say enough about him.
Note: I gave Murph a call and asked him what he remembered of working with Jack and he graciously shared the following:
Murphy Anderson: We worked on a lot of freelance projects together.
Stroud: Was anything particularly memorable to you?
MA: Mostly licensing projects. People would get a license to do various things from DC and it would be for any number of different projects. They’d get permission to use the art and so forth and Jack would help me with the coloring and that kind of thing. I remember working on toys, too and he helped me a lot. Advertising things, too.
Stroud: He did say you had your own space in the production department where you liked to work.
MA: He and Sol Harrison, who was his boss most of the time had things arranged there in the shop.
Stroud: Right, he mentioned that he and Sol moved up the ranks together.
MA: They went way back and were also involved with A. L. Strauss who was the father of another good friend of mine, Andy Strauss. I never knew the older Strauss, but he was a color separator and up until then they’d never done much work in comics, but Sol and Jack, with their interest in comics, they got to work on a lot of comic projects. They were very capable. They were doing commercial work in advertising and that sort of thing.
Stroud: He did tell one kind of amusing story about you. He said anytime you were in there doing any kind of work if you happened to pick up a pencil you made absolutely sure that it got returned. He said despite there being pencils everywhere you wanted to make certain you didn’t take anything that didn’t belong to you.
MA: That’s kind of true, I guess. (Chuckle.) That was a bit of a problem when you had a guy like Milt Snappin who was taking care of things and was also an artist who did a lot of lettering, but he could only squeeze that kind of work in on his lunch hour, so lunch time would come and Milt would have some kind of freelance project, but he had no tools, so he’d wander around while other guys were away from their desks and borrow things so that he could use them. He tried to return them all most of the time, but sometimes he didn’t. (Chuckle.) He just left them where he finished the job. So that created a bit of consternation. (Chuckle.) A lot of shouting and hollering for awhile.
Stroud: Did you and Jack socialize much at all?
MA: Not a whole lot, but we did some. We knew his wife and his daughter. His daughter would come up fairly often to the office and so I got to know her quite well. Dorothy was a very nice lady and Jack would invite us over and she’d tolerate us. (Chuckle.) We always had a good time. Dorothy was one of a kind. Never very boisterous or anything and she obviously felt a great deal of affection for her husband.
Stroud: Always so nice to hear. He had fond memories of working with you on the P.S. Magazine as well.
MA: Right. He colored and did some of the separations on it. Separations only on the four-color section of it. I introduced the Army to a type of color separation they did at DC. Jack and Sol were the guys who invented the process and they did it for Andy Strauss. In fact, I discovered that Andy Strauss was close by to me and could help me, so when I got the P.S. contract he did all the photography and the engraving for us, but someone had to do the color separations and that brought Sol and Jack back into it. Well, not Sol so much, but Jack mostly and they were both delighted because they had a good relationship with Andy’s father.
Stroud: It sounds almost like a homecoming.
MA: It was. They (A.L. Strauss) were doing the engravings of newspaper comics as I think about it along with advertising. One of the things they worked on was Prince Valiant. They did the plates and color separations for that. Jack and Sol were instrumental in introducing the unique separation technique they’d arrived at. They created a process that allowed them to do it without such an elaborate process. So they pioneered there and then later were hired by DC and they started doing their covers like that and adapted the process they’d been using on newspaper strips.
Stroud: Magnificent. I also asked Jack about his innovations with the washtones.
MA: That’s right. They did it as a wash and shot it and matched it up with the line art and added tone to color. They understood color so well that they could make a mix of 3 or 4 colors if they had to in order to achieve a color and have it work out to be a brown or some other color that normally was not used much in comics. DC’s covers were unique in that respect. The other publishers didn’t have anything quite like it. While the folks up at Chemical knew how it was done, they had no one with the expertise to do it really. They didn’t have the ability that a trained artist did to take care of the drawing as well as the color separation. Of course, I’m just giving you a layman’s view of what they were doing. It was very involved and very technical and they did it extremely well.
Stroud: I have no doubt and unfortunately a layman’s viewpoint is probably about all I could understand anyway. (Laughter.)
MA: They would often take black and white photos and color them so that they looked like color photography.
Stroud: You worked with him on the P.S. magazine, too, didn’t you?
JA: Correct. I did all the separations. I did it every month. I taught Murphy how to do the separations and he set up a system for himself. I turned it over to him. I began to have a problem with one eye. Macular degeneration. I have 20-20 in the other eye.
Stroud: That would make depth perception difficult.
JA: Yeah, the image is displaced and the center is blacked out. It’s weird.
Stroud: Someone was telling me that toward the end Ross Andru was having vision troubles that made it difficult for him to do some of his penciling.
JA: Nice guy, Ross.
Stroud: I’ve heard good things about him. Did you know Mike Sekowsky?
JA: Oh, Mike was funny. Mike used to do little sketches, that I saved, fortunately, that are light. He had a good sense of humor. I’ll give you an idea of the kind of thing he’d do. He’d draw a sundial and write “Tick, tock, tick, tock” on it. He did one thing where, “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s Rye Bread,” and he had some sort of insect on it. He was always very funny. Very cute drawings. A lot of stuff I didn’t save. As a matter of fact, I have a number of awards, and I’m hunting like crazy for them. Not for me. Of course, I never cared about them, but I have two great-grandchildren now and I was looking for them. I’m trying to find everything I can. I’m finding some treasures, and I look at the stuff that I did and I marvel about how good an artist I was. I really marvel at it. I’m impressed with me. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Speaking of saving treasures, I was going to mention to you that I’m lucky enough to be the beneficiary of one of your efforts. When the so-called Jack Adler Collection was being sold on eBay, I ended up with one of the approval covers that you rescued.
JA: Which one?
Stroud: Adventure Comics #374.
JA: Ah. I’m looking for a cover that I did for Green Lantern. I think its #8. It was the wash cover, and it was stolen by one of my assistants and given to one of the artists and I’ve not been able to find it and I could get a fortune for it. If you come across it, I’d appreciate hearing about it. I’m looking for it. It’s the one with the prehistoric monster. Gil Kane did the pencils.
Stroud: Ah, Gil. Now there was an artist.
JA: (Laughter.) I have a very funny story to tell you about him. I used to take photographs and on Wednesday night I would have a model come in at the Art Student’s League, and we would invite the writers and the artists to come in and they’d sketch. It was a coffee klatch kind of thing. And I took pictures of the artists, not the models, and Gil Kane had one of the ugliest noses you ever saw, and when I made the prints, I printed it, but I never showed it to him, because he would have been embarrassed by it. He met a girl who said she’d marry him on three conditions: That he fixed his teeth, because they were baby teeth; that he’d change his name, which he did, from Eli Katz; and that he’d fix his nose.
Stroud: She didn’t ask for much…
JA: He did all three. Of course, he screwed around and married someone else. Anyway, when he had it done, Julie Schwartz came in and said, “Gil is coming in with his new nose. Can we play a gag on him?” So, I thought for a minute and I said, “Yes. I have a picture of him,” and I told him what I wanted to do. So, he said, “Fine.” Now the place had windows in all the offices, so everyone could see into every office. I said, “When Gil Kane comes in, I know he’s going to ask me to take a photograph.” That’s exactly what happened. He came in and incidentally the guy did a gorgeous job on him, he was now a good-looking guy. He was six foot two and handsome. And he came in and as soon as he saw my camera he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m taking pictures of some of the people. I do it regularly.” He said, “Will you take a picture of me?” I said, “Yes.”
When he came in to the sketch class, I set him up in the same position as that earlier picture. He said, “When are you getting it back?” I said, “It’s going out and will be back by the end of the day.” I get a call that the photographs are in. I set up about a hundred photographs with his at the bottom, and I went to Julie and said, “Julie, I have all the photographs,” and he said, “Come in.” Gil Kane is on my back waiting to look at the picture. We’re going through each one slowly, and Gil is dying. Finally, we get to that and he looks at it and I hear him say, “Wha? Wha?” He turned white as a sheet and didn’t speak to me for two years! I made up my mind then that I’d never play a stunt like that on anyone again, and I never have. He used to talk to me all the time about the movie stars and how they moved. He was really a great artist.
Stroud: I fully agree. When they had the so-called DC explosion with the introduction of all the new titles how did that affect you?
JA: It didn’t affect me at all. I just had more work. I had a good crew and I was able to get the stuff out. When I was originally made production manager, at that point they were paying a fortune for shipping the plates because every one of them was late. They told me that my job would be to try to correct it, because it cost a fortune. So what I did was that I worked out a system. What I decided was to do it without telling anybody and what I did was when the schedule was made out I added one day each month. Nobody caught on except Julie Schwartz who came in and said, “Adler, what are you up to?” He was the only one who understood what I was doing. Eventually I got it down to where everything was shipped on time.
Stroud: When they did the oversized issues, what sort of challenges did that present?
JA: I had to make copies from the old books and I figured out a system for bringing out the image. They asked me if there was any way I could copy the stuff that was in the books and I gave them two systems. One was a very simple system that didn’t get very good copies but needed a lot of clean up work and the other one was sophisticated, but slow and expensive. And of course, they chose the cheaper one, and that was the way it went and they made the larger books.
Stroud: Sounds like quite a challenge.
JA: That’s what I lived on. I wasn’t aware of the things I’d accomplished until the convention when I was given an award.
Stroud: San Diego.
JA: In San Diego. When I ended the interview on the question “How do you feel about it?” I said, “I’m proud of all I did.” It was the first time I realized all that I had done. You know when you’re doing your work, it’s simply your job, and I just never thought about it.
Stroud: It adds up.
JA: When I look back now, it was quite a career. I hate to sound like I’m bragging.
Stroud: Well, as they say, if you did it, it’s not bragging.
JA: Correct. Correct.
Stroud: Stan Goldberg and Mike Esposito told me that the paper and ink quality at Marvel was so poor that they had to make the ink lines extra thick. Did you run into any of that?
JA: No. I checked every page and our stuff was fine. And as far as the color was concerned, I had total control. I was responsible for the change in color at DC. I was never interested in anything that Marvel did. I never looked at their stuff, their coloring, nothing. I was only interested in what I could do for my company.
Stroud: So you were competing with yourself.
Stroud: Do you remember when they drew you and the other members of the production department in the Inferior Five comic book?
JA: I was in a number of comics. I was kind of a foil for them.
Stroud: Okay. That was the only depiction I’d seen of you.
JA: I don’t remember that one.
Stroud: I’ll send you a scan of the page.
JA: Okay, good.
Stroud: You said you taught Neal Adams quite a bit.
JA: Adams sat with me and when he caught on to what I was doing, he came in and sat with me and asked questions of everything I was doing. He wanted to know all about color and color production. The only problem I have with Neal Adams is when they do an interview with him about me, he talks about Neal Adams. He is great, though. A great artist. I think there’s only one artist who was better and that was Alex Toth. He was a gem, and one of the things I’m proud of is that Alex Toth liked my coloring and asked me to color a story of his, which I did. He needed no color really. The title of the story was, “A Dirty Job,” and it had to do with the crucifixion, and he’s the only one who ever showed the crucifixion without the gore. He showed it from the back. And he just showed the crown of thorns with the light emanating from it.
He was great. The thing that was great about him was not what he drew, but what he left out. It wasn’t just the clean lines. You look at his drawings, and you look at a girl’s face and there’s nothing on there. Two little dots for the nose, the eyes and the mouth and it was a gorgeous girl, and there was nothing else. No shading of any kind. Nothing. It was just a beautiful girl. He drew a figure like that. Nothing in there. What he left out, you saw. You were able to discern what was there. He was also the only one who didn’t care about money. He gave his stuff away. I wish he had given some to me. I could have asked him for anything, and I just didn’t. To me he was amazing, just amazing.
Stroud: You’re obviously a fan, as is Irwin Hasen. He really liked Alex.
JA: If you speak to Irwin Hasen, give him my best.
Stroud: I’ll be happy to. When did you retire, Jack?
JA: About 25 years ago.
Stroud: So, you’ve had time to reflect on your career. I was going to mention that Todd Klein has a webpage and he recently posted what he described as one of his very few treasured pieces of original artwork, which is the color guide to the debut of Swamp Thing in the House of Secrets that he received from you and your signature is on it.
JA: Oh, God. I hired Todd Klein. I hired many of the people that worked there. I hired them as kids. And now they’re senior citizens. (Chuckle.) Unrecognizable.
Stroud: Todd has established quite a reputation as a letterer.
JA: He’s a great letterer. So was Ben Oda.
Stroud: Frank Springer told me some great stories about Ben.
JA: I worked with Frank Springer on a project. It was a special book that he did, but I can’t think of the name. You might call Frank and find out.
Note: I did just that and Frank responded thusly:
Jack Adler - one of the greats in this business - did the color separations on "The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist" which I illustrated as you know, and perhaps other jobs I worked on at the National Lampoon.
Back in '04 at the San Diego Comic-Con, I found myself on a panel with Jack. I was so delighted to see him - and frankly to know he was still around! Warm greetings all around!
I don't know the color process today, but back then no one did it better than Jack Adler.
Stroud: Did you pal around with anyone from the office?
JA: Not really. I spent my time at work and at home. I was married for 64 years to one woman. She passed away in ’01. She was beautiful, she was courtly and very bright. In fact, I have a story about her. I used to meet her at night at the subway back when you could walk the streets, and I’d take her home. She’d call me if she was going to be late, and I’d walk out to the train and pick her up. One night she called to say she’d be late. They were doing an audit. Okay. She called me the next night and same thing. She’s going to be late because of an audit. I said, “What the hell are they doing a second audit for?” She said they’d found some kind of an error. I let it go at that. I didn’t know what she was doing. She was doing Top Secret work for Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt decided that the British and the French needed help, and Congress would not give them any money. So, on his own he made a program of lend/lease, giving money to the British and the French to build their planes and their boats. My wife handled all of that. In her job she was an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank. A brilliant, brilliant woman. And she never said a word to me about it. She had a phone under her desk, and she was told that when you were talking into that phone, don’t smile or anything, and she was talking to top brass in France and England. I didn’t know anything until one day a note came from the Queen of England with a little pin thanking her for her work.
Stroud: So, she had a big part in history.
JA: Absolutely. And she never told me a word about what she was doing. When I would go up to visit her, they would send a guard with me, even if I wanted to go to the john, and I couldn’t understand why they sent a guard with me. She was working on that project and never indicated anything to me. By the way, does the name Ray Perry mean anything to you?
Stroud: I don’t think so.
JA: He did the drawings for Story Pages. Ray Perry worked until he was 93 years old. He was still working. He played the cello. He played it badly, but he played it. And we swapped; I did a photograph of him and he did a watercolor sketch of me that is so good I hate it, because he was able to catch the look in your eyes, and I was bored! Anyway, at 93 he had surgery and when I met him he said, “Goddamn doctors! They screwed me up and I can’t have sex any more.”
JA: Remember, he’s 93. I believe he lived on 34th street in Manhattan. It was a major thoroughfare. The building that he was in was one window wide. You know, these narrow buildings in the city. One right next to the other. On the day he died, his building collapsed to the ground! And on the building right next to it you could see the outline of his green painted room. Remember he had a cello and he had called me and said, “Jack, I want you to have my cello.” I said, “Are you crazy, Ray? Why?” He said, “Because my wife is a bitch, and if I die, she’s going to sell that cello. And I want that cello to go to a student, and I know you’ll honor my wishes.” I said on those grounds I’d take it. I took his cello, and I put it in my basement. The day he died, as I said, the building came down to the ground. The next day he was cremated and I attended the ceremony, and when I came home, my wife said, “Something’s wrong. You don’t look right.” I said, “No, I had a terrible experience.” She said, “So did I.” “What do you mean?” She said, “I can’t tell you. Go down into the basement and take a look.” I went down and there was the cello, totally unsprung. Every glued joint was unsprung. Did that curl your hair?
Stroud: It sure did. That’s simply astounding. I’m reminded of Creig Flessel, working right up to his passing at 96 awhile back. He told me all he ever wanted to do was to draw.
JA: That’s what I did when I was a kid. When I was 6 years old and had started school, the teacher asked me to bring my mother in. I thought I was in trouble. When she came in and sat down, the teacher said, “Did you know that at the age of 6 your son is an artist?” It came from the other side, and she didn’t know what the hell it was. She had no concept of it, and that was it. I was an artist at 6 and I have some of the drawings that I did and the sculptures that I did in soap.
Stroud: Your life’s calling. You found what you loved and you stuck with it.
One final note: Jack mentioned that when Sol Harrison became publisher at DC he congratulated him and immediately suggested he hire Paul Levitz, who of course ultimately succeeded Sol. I shared the anecdote with Paul and he responded with the following:
I enjoyed working with and learning from Jack for many years. He taught a generation of us DC folks how to think in color and set a high standard for to do production work back when it was a very personal craft.
At the time Jack mentions, I'd been laid off the formal payroll and remained on the DC staff working directly for (and paid personally by) Joe Orlando and Gerry Conway. Jack was a good advocate, and a good friend...even teaching me how to wire my first stereo.
As you can see, Jack cut a very broad swath during his career and earned the love and respect of many of his peers and I’m more than grateful for so many who shared their thoughts about this fine gentleman who did so much behind the scenes to help bring us some of the excellent reading that enthusiasts of the genre have enjoyed for decades.