Written by Bryan Stroud
Lewis Sayre Schwartz (born on July 24, 1926) was an American comic book artist, advertising creator and filmmaker. He is credited as a ghost artist for Bob Kane on Batman, and as co-creator of the villain Deadshot. He also did ghost art for Brick Bradford and Agent X-9. After he had left his career in comics, he was cofounder of Ferro, Mogubgub and Schwartz in 1961 (a film company whose work includes the credits to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove). Lew was a teacher at the School of Visual Arts during the early 1960s. He produced a film about Milton Caniff in 1981. He was the recipient of an Inkpot Award in 2002, and four Emmy Awards. Mr. Schwartz passed away on June 18, 2011 at the age of 84 as the result of a head injury he sustained during a fall.
I felt it a privilege to speak with both another Golden Age artist who was also another Bob Kane ghost. Lew became a phone friend and we enjoyed several wonderful conversations and he was the gentleman who produced my very first commission. It was a sad day when he took a fall and it ended up taking his life. He'd lived quite an interesting life and comics were but one facet of it.
This interview originally took place over the phone on August 19, 2007.
Bryan Stroud: When did you first become interested in art?
Lew Sayre Schwartz: I’m told when I was about five years old.
Stroud: Ah, crayons? (chuckle)
LSS: No. I recall a lot of excitement, very, very early and then I’d say the buds began to show at eleven or twelve. Like most kids, I think, I used to run for the Sunday funnies and I would copy them - and the copies I did, I still have some of those, by the way, they were remarkable for what they were. I loved to draw. Since I was…I thought I was fat, let’s put it that way. I wasn’t good at any spectator sports. I didn’t play ball or any of that stuff, so I would sit home and draw. I think the story repeats itself with a lot of my colleagues over the years, but one way to get attention or achieve any status more than likely would be if you could draw, so that’s what I did.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. That makes sense to me. When I talked to Denny O’Neil a few weeks ago he said the same thing as far as what led him to writing. He said, “I wasn’t much on sports.”
LSS: Yeah, and it happens that way and then when I got into high school I contributed to the school paper for four years. I was extremely lucky, and this sometimes happens, because there was a young fellow, about a year younger than myself who was also very interested in art and he truly had talent and when I thought Chic Young was a great illustrator and looking at Milton Caniff, well, we became very close friends and there was a mediocre art school in New Bedford where we both went and we’d go to Saturday morning classes there and compare things and I must say that thanks to him I began to see things that developed a case for people like Milton and Alex Raymond, some of the bluebloods, the masters, very early on. Initially I thought Blondie was a great comic. I still do, as a matter of fact, interestingly enough. It’s surprising how that has lasted out it’s time.
Stroud: Did you ever imagine this would become a career for you?
LSS: I think that in the back of my mind I had hoped that it would, but I don’t know. As you probably know I worked with Bob Kane from 1946 until about mid-1953, but in the middle of ’53 I had drawn the last Batman that I wanted to draw. I had put pages side by side to try and balance the design, page to page, anything to prevent boredom, but it set in very strongly. I was doing a tremendous amount of work for Bob and his contract called for I think 12 stories that would amount to 12 pages to a story, so that’s 144 pages and I always did, in the years I worked for him, on average, I would turn out 20 stories.
Stroud: Oh, wow.
LSS: And I had a job in New York working for King Features, but in ’53 I just got bored stiff and with my wife’s acquiescence joined a cartoonist’s junket to Korea, so I spent 90 days with the 10th Army, which I will never forget as long as I live.
Stroud: I’ll bet that was a tremendous experience.
LSS: The best way for me to describe it, or the way I did describe it is that I spent 2-1/2 years in the Navy during World War II, but the bulk of that had to do with airplanes. I was an aerial gunner. I flew the greater part of that time, not as a pilot but as a radar operator and aerial gunner and so you’re very apart from reality, sitting up in an airplane, unless you get shot at, and getting on the ground in Seoul, and you’ve seen pictures of this modern city. When I was in Seoul, there was not a paved street. They’d all been blown away. There was no glass in any of the major buildings in the city and it’s beyond comprehension in terms of what you see today.
Stroud: I can only guess.
LSS: I was in London in 1947 and London didn’t look much better. (chuckle)
Stroud: No, I’m sure it didn’t.
LSS: Well, there were all kinds of things that happened. There’s a wonderful little guy, you probably see his name from time to time, Irwin Hasen?
LSS: We’re dear friends. Irwin was on that trip with me and we had incredible experiences. We were with a communications group and we went over, the cartoonists that volunteered to do this, usually there’d be twelve guys. The oldest they’d leave in Japan and then eight of us went into Korea. Four, they sent down south to where the prison camps were and the other four lucky ones - namely Irwin, myself and two other guys - went up with the 8th Army. But being on the ground with people shooting at you is pretty wild.
Stroud: How did you happen to get acquainted with Bob Kane?
LSS: A funny story. I was discharged from the Navy in April and I had family in Florida at that time, my sister and her husband were living there and I went to Miami after I was discharged before going back home to New Bedford and there was a very pretty lady that caught my eye and there was this obnoxious guy that was trying to hit on her at the same time and I suddenly discovered one day that this obnoxious guy was Bob Kane.
LSS: Anyway, the girl was nice and said that I was an amateur artist and for whatever reason he asked to see my work and when he looked at it he asked me if I’d be interested in working for him. And lo and behold he said he would call me in the fall and he did and I started to do some things for him. Interestingly enough, very recently, the period of time that I worked with Bob is being archived by DC. I don’t know whether you’ve seen them or not, but they have a Batman archive from the beginning.
Stroud: Yes, I have one of those copies.
LSS: They have now reached number six, which just started I think to have one of my stories, and when I say one of my stories, I penciled for Bob and of course you’re probably aware that this is sort of a factory operation the way DC operated. There’d be a writer. In many cases that would be Bill Finger, who worked with Bob from the beginning, and not so incidentally, the best scripts that I ever got to work on were Bill Finger’s. Most imaginative. I think, in a way, the most successful because they were so damn visual. He was brilliant and he got no credit.
Stroud: Totally criminal, the treatment he received.
LSS: That’s a good word for it. That’s exactly it, which I’ll give you a little anecdote. Archive number seven is being put together right now. In number seven I have three out of the, I think it’s seven stories in that one, and the bio on number six and anything else that I’ve done where there’s been credit on it, the bio apparently was written by Bob for them, because it describes how he broke me in, to the extent that I used to do backgrounds. (chuckle) I never did a background for him in my life, and in fact when he first hired me it was to work on a joint venture that he said he and Will Eisner were doing. This goes back to ’46 when he first hired me and I was doing pencils and inks on that one. So it just galled me because the way the portrait was painted was demeaning.
Stroud: Yeah and unfortunately, what I’ve learned from talking to some of your other colleagues and so forth that’s very consistent with the way Bob operated.
LSS: Oh, yeah. I’ll put it in a very specific framework, and this is the last time that I talked to him that I can recall. It was around ’93 and he had been trying to hawk his biography for 20 years and couldn’t get anybody to buy it. Publish it. “Batman and Me”?
LSS: And I heard that it was finally published and I called him and I said, “Congratulations, Bob.” I said, “Why don’t you send me a signed copy?” And there’s dead silence. And I said, “What’s up?” He said, “Well, you’re not in it.” And I said, “Well, that makes perfect sense. I worked for you for seven years and apparently that wasn’t sufficient cause to mention it.” (chuckle) “Isn’t it lucky for me, Bob, I went on to have another career?” Which is exactly what happened to me. I got out of…first of all the only comic book work I ever did was Batman and I got out of that in ’55, went into an advertising agency and if you’ve read anything that our good friend Will Eisner wrote about sequential art, it trained me for the film business.
Stroud: I understand you were tremendously successful in those efforts, too.
LSS: Well, I got the recognition that I never got in the comics, and so in ’02 when I was an invited guest to San Diego and got handed an Ink Pot Award by Will Eisner and I must tell you it was a shock. I never expected that. But I had a good 40 some odd years in the film business and it did well by me and I got all the recognition that I didn’t get in the comic business. So strange, you know, what goes around comes around.
Stroud: Yeah, and cream always rises.
LSS: And you know, it’s amazing to me, every week, well not every week, but I mean every month, certainly, I’ve got at least one or two e-mails from somebody (the last one from Germany) wanting commission drawings and it’s a hoot.
Stroud: It’s wonderful. So, you still do commissions on occasion?
LSS: Yeah, oh yeah.
Stroud: Good. And you get to sign them. (chuckle)
LSS: Yeah. You know DC, bless their hearts, I guess they started giving royalties to everybody that did either the pencils or the inking or the writing or the coloring. Even the letterers.
Stroud: It’s high time.
LSS: Yeah, well they started doing that back in the 70’s. I got a phone call, and this is a funny story, I got a phone call from a guy in Michigan, I think, and he said, “Did you work for Bob Kane?” and I said, “Yeah, many years ago.” He said, “My name is so and so,” and he said DC had hired him to begin to try and get a record of who’s who. Well during the course of all of this he suggested that I get in touch with a guy who was sending out the royalty checks and I was in New York for one reason or another and went up there to see him and my God they took me around that place for about an hour. Every editor knew who I was. I mean it was just like the strangest experience because by that time I was very committed to the television business and the film business and this is all coming out of nowhere. (chuckle)
Stroud: I imagine it was a little surreal.
LSS: Oh, it was, absolutely. And then at the end of the tour, he said, “Wait here.” It was a fun day. I was with a guy who was handling art for Sotheby auctions for comic art and we waited in the anteroom and he walks out and hands me a check for $6,500 bucks (chuckle), which is very nice.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. That’ll make your day.
LSS: It’s interesting. At that time, they were paying 32 bucks a page for pencils, but that same page after 10 years was paying $2.40 a page. It dropped considerably. But the point is I’m not even sure that Marvel pays any royalties. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t.
Stroud: The last time I knew anything, I had the pleasure of talking to Neal Adams about a month ago and of course he did a lot of crusading for artist’s rights and so forth, and on his webpage, it shows him receiving a residual royalty check from DC and he was castigating Marvel for not following the example. So, I don’t think that’s changed unless it has very recently.
LSS: That’s amazing, isn’t it? Some of these guys got real money and he’s always in there with a big smile and getting credit is Stan Lee. (chuckle)
Stroud: Oh, yeah. Carmine Infantino had a few stories to share about Stan with me, too. He definitely knows how to market himself. (chuckle)
LSS: Well, there were those guys who were very proficient in that. I remember when I left, I had a staff job at King Features from ’47 or ’48 to ’55, I think and I went into an advertising agency called J. Walter Thompson, which at that particular time was a big gun in the ad business. They hired me primarily because I had drawn Batman and I had, without realizing it, I had been churning out a tremendous amount of product. I’d never thought about it.
Stroud: It adds up quick, doesn’t it?
LSS: Well, in the course of events, over the last few years, I discovered, I didn’t even know this myself, but I did about 115 of the Golden Age stories. That’s quite a body of work.
Stroud: Yes, it is. It’s an impressive amount, especially over a relatively short period of time.
LSS: Six or seven years.
Stroud: You were quite productive.
LSS: Well on top of that I rode the train three hours a day. An hour and a half from Connecticut and an hour and a half home and freelanced other stuff. (chuckle)
Stroud: What did you freelance on?
LSS: Oh, I did some magazine illustrations and I did illustrations for a number of newspapers, a newspaper feature called “Disturbia,” for about a year. One of the Sunday sections. I did a lot of stuff. The major thing was Batman, of course. He always complained about it, but he paid me pretty well.
Stroud: I guess so. When I got a note from Shelly Moldoff he said he was just happy to be working.
LSS: That’s exactly about the size of it. We were happy to have the work. We weren’t very proud of the fact that... Listen, my mentor, as a kid, was Caniff, and this guy was a giant in the business and probably one of the most influential cartoonists that ever lived. Prolific, the amount of work he turned out. Unbelievable. But I would never in a million years tell Milt that I was drawing Batman. That was very demeaning. I remember sitting…where I lived in Connecticut I lived close to a lot of artists, in Westport, all the great illustrators were living in that area. One of my neighbors was a guy named Robert Fawcett. Do you know that name at all?
Stroud: It’s not coming to me.
LSS: Do you remember the famous Artist’s school with Norman Rockwell? Twelve famous illustrators, one of whom was Robert Fawcett. Brilliant. He did all the P.G. Wodehouse stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. All the Sherlock Holmes. Possibly, aside from (Noel) Sickles, probably the most prolific craftsman and just breathtaking art work. I’m fortunate enough to be able to look up on my wall and I’ve got a couple of his pieces that are just breathtaking. I look at them all the time. Anyway, I was going to tell you a little story. We became, my wife and I, became friendly with Fawcett and his wife and they came to dinner one night. He had just signed a contract with the Saturday Evening Post and he said, “It’s amazing. I have seven million people that see my work every month.” Now, that’s a pretty good showing, except that I was drawing Batman and there were 20 million. I would have never dared make any comment like that. (chuckle) And so it goes. But can you imagine what a put down that would be? The newspaper strips always had a status, which is again part of my story. When I was going to the Art Student’s League in New York, my best friend was Murphy Anderson, and we both lived at the YMCA on East 63rd Street for a buck a night. Worked during the day. Murphy went into comic book work and I shunned that and I went and became an errand boy for an illustrator’s studio and I would always look down the end of my nose at what Murphy was doing and of course you know with the books he became a super star.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. I saw one of his old Hawkman covers recently sell for I think it was the low to mid-5-figures. I was just dumbfounded.
LSS: Well that day that I was at DC, Jerry Weitz, the guy handling comic auctions at Sotheby’s and my splash with the Red Hood, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that story.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, I’ve got a reprint of it in my collection.
LSS: Well that splash, which I didn’t think much of, but that sold, and I didn’t own it, somebody sold it, at the Sotheby auction for $7,500.00 at that time.
LSS: So, it’s insane.
Stroud: Quite a following for those. I noticed you followed some of what Jerry Robinson and others have done with the oversized villain on there. Whose idea was that?
LSS: The oversized villain?
Stroud: Yeah, that Red Hood splash where it showed of course the Red Hood in the background and then a smaller Batman and Robin swinging in.
LSS: Yeah, you know what, I think that those are instinctive things that you just do. For example, if the medium begs for anything that will make it attention-getting…take the gorilla cover, for example. The Gorilla Boss, do you remember that one?
Stroud: Yes, I sure do.
LSS: Well, the contrast between the small figures and the giant ape just adds to the drama. But we live in a world of contrasts, don’t we? (chuckle)
Stroud: We surely do, and you’re right. Ultimately that’s part of the marketing. You want someone to be curious enough to plunk down their dime or twelve cents.
LSS: Yeah. Exactly right.
Stroud: Did you ever actually meet Bill Finger or know him at all?
LSS: You know, to my regret, I never did. I didn’t know any of the guys at DC with the exception of Jerry Robinson because Jerry was very active in the cartoonist’s society, so I got to know Jerry early on and of course Jerry had worked directly for Bob just before Bob hired me. I’m told that Jerry kept, among the few of us, a lot of that old stuff that he got back.
Stroud: Yeah, that’s what I understand. I think I’ve seen photos of an old Joker splash page that he did and of course I haven’t had the pleasure to talk to him yet, but it seems to me I read somewhere that he claims creation of the Joker and of course Bob does, but of course Bob claims creation of everything.
LSS: Well, let me put it to you on this basis. At one point I owned page #4 of the first Joker story and that page was the first appearance of the Joker. I finally succumbed to an offer for it (chuckle) because it looked like an awful lot of money. But Bob, you could always tell Bob’s work because Bob very rarely drew an arm coming out of an arm pit. Arms would come out of the waist. (chuckle) If you look carefully at his work, and I’m sure you know the difference, the timeframe, if you look, you see arms that have fingers spread and the elbow seems to be attached to the waist. Just below the line of committal where the border ends, but the arm would never have come from the arm pit.
Stroud: (chuckle) I think I know what you’re talking about. As I think back, I think I understand exactly what you’re saying.
LSS: That’s exactly right. Bob…let me put it on this basis. When I was a kid, long before I knew him, I was a Batman fan and I loved the work. And I liked Bob’s work and was drawn to it because it was comic, as opposed to a Neal Adams or any of those guys.
Stroud: Right, not quite as realistic.
LSS: Getting even further into the blood with Frank Miller, and what a wonderful craftsman Miller is, but, you know, come on. (chuckle) These were the comics, not medical charts. They became so dark and I relate back to one of my influences, who was a guy named Roy Crane. Are you familiar with Roy Crane?
Stroud: No, I’m sorry, I’m not.
LSS: Well, if you want to learn about the comic business, this is the guy who invented the adventure strip. A book came out three or four years ago giving that credit to Hal Foster, but neither Tarzan nor Prince Valiant were ever comic strips if you think about it. They were illustrated adventures of specific characters and the figures…there was nothing comic about it. Roy Crane, in 1924, invented a comic strip called Wash Tubbs. Roy Crane was the father of “Pop!”, “Sock!”, and “Slam!” Roy invented it. He was the first one to take sound and put it on a flat surface. He created pop art, unbeknownst to him, but he was that unique combination of an incredible craftsman…he was the first guy to come along and use that chemical Ben Day on his stuff. Roy Crane was the godfather of the comics. You will see the most…well, when I was a kid I wouldn’t miss one of those for all the world. The most inventive, exciting, beautifully drawn adventures of this little sawed-off guy, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy. They were great stuff. Caniff was the disciple and Crane was one of Caniff’s favorite artists.
Stroud: And he went on to make his own mark, so that says a lot.
LSS: Well, Crane told me that Hal Foster told him that he used to use his composition, pictorial composition, in Prince Valiant. Even though it was like apples and oranges, Crane always was the comic. Do you remember a strip called Buzz Sawyer?
LSS: Well, that’s Roy Crane. If you look back to the development of the adventure comic, that’s Roy Crane. These guys were just such masters, they’re just great. I twice started a book on Crane and have never gotten a publisher, but there’s just nobody better.
Stroud: He sounds like a most worthwhile study.
LSS: What had happened was I visited with Crane and I asked about the pop sounds. He was a very shy Texan and I visited with him in ’79 just before he died and he said, “Well, I could show people what was happening, but I wanted them to hear it.” (chuckle) Isn’t that great?
Stroud: I love it. So, a true pioneer.
LSS: A true pioneer. A brilliant, brilliant artist. And character and story-telling? None better. If you can find them, get them. There were a whole series of reprints done by Kitchen Sink years ago, as a matter of fact. One other thing. Do you have any of the books on the comics?
Stroud: I’ve got a few.
LSS: Do you have Jerry Robinson’s book?
Stroud: I do not.
LSS: Oh, okay. Because there’s plenty on Crane in that one.
Stroud: I’ve still got a few gaps in my collection and even though I will always and forever appreciate what Bob Kane did, I haven’t quite gotten around to buying his autobiography yet. (laughter)
LSS: You want to know what? Neither have I. (chuckle)
Stroud: Now I do have Julie Schwartz’s and that was interesting reading. You’re not related to him, are you?
LSS: No and not only that, you know, it’s funny, he was one of the few guys that for some reason…I was at a con, maybe five or six years ago and I introduced myself. He was not friendly. For whatever reason, I don’t know.
Stroud: Oh, how strange.
LSS: Anyway, I got that feeling and I dropped it, which doesn’t mean, that since we didn’t know each other, it should have any meaning at all.
Stroud: Yeah, he might have been having a bad day or something, but that’s very strange. Now what about Alvin Schwartz? Was there any connection with him?
LSS: That has always been a curiosity to me, because in 1953 or ’54, my wife and I built a Tech-built house, which was an MIT design that was very fascinating and advertised at ultimately half of what it wound up costing, but it was an appealing design and one of the people who came to visit us, we had people from all over. We put the first one up in Connecticut and you’d get up in the morning and go downstairs and there would be people on your terrace looking in. (chuckle) But one of the people who came to look at that house was a guy named Alvin Schwartz who was, I thought, the writer, and wrote children’s books and I always wondered whether it was the same guy. I have no way of knowing. It’s funny, though, the one I knew, it was a very superficial relationship.
Stroud: Okay, so you didn’t know him well at all.
LSS: No, but I always wondered when I looked at the products and a lot of the Batman or Catwoman books, you know that have come along since, his name is there a lot, yet I never knew whether it was the same guy.
Stroud: Yeah, that’s a good question and as I understand it primarily his work was on the strips rather than the comics themselves.
LSS: Oh, really?
Stroud: That’s what I understand.
LSS: But he was strictly a writer, wasn’t he?
Stroud: I think, but I’m honestly not certain. I tried sending him an e-mail once and never heard back from him. Perhaps I should try again.
LSS: I can’t help you there.