Written by Bryan Stroud
Steve Mitchell (born in 1953) is an American comic book artist known for his time at both Marvel & DC comics, where he worked mostly as an inker. He began his comic book career in 1972 with a story for Marvel Team-Up #4. His first published work for DC Comics came in 1973 for their G.I. Combat. Steve enjoyed lengthy runs as the inker on titles like Batman, Detective Comics, and Iron Man. Switching gears in the '80s, Mitchell started writing scripts for cartoons. He wrote episodes for Transformers, G.I. Joe, Jem, Viper, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He also wrote the b-movie horror classic Chopping Mall, and wrote and directed King Cohen - a documentary about legendary filmmaker Larry Cohen. But before all of that, Steve was the assistant to Dick Giordano at Continuity Studios and a founding member of the Crusty Bunkers.
Yet another enjoyable Crusty Bunker interview came courtesy of Steve Mitchell. As a good friend of Alan Kupperberg, I was given the green light to contact Steve and I'm so glad I did. From his work at the Big Two comics publishers to his time at Continuity and even a short tenure as a Junior Woodchuck at the DC offices helping to produce the Amazing World of DC Comics prozine, he's a man who's seen and done a lot. Be sure to look into his film "King Cohen" as well.
This interview originally took place over the phone on September 26, 2010.
Bryan Stroud: What contrasts do you see in the business today?
Steve Mitchell: It’s more of a business than it used to be. I think that back in the day there were fewer players in the pool and as a result there was a lot of overlap of experience and contact. When comics were a tad younger, everybody had to live within the tri-state area of New York City. Because Federal Express was not the way the world worked. I think Express Mail showed up first and then Federal Express after that. Of course, a lot of stuff is delivered digitally today. But back then you had to be near the offices. So, everybody had a lot of contact. Everybody kinda, sorta knew most people. To take that old Hollywood phrase, it was a smaller town back then. That’s what I’m talking about.
Stroud: I can see that. I wonder, sometimes, if something hasn’t been lost.
Mitchell: The one thing I think that has been lost is that there was a kind of un-hip, spontaneity about comics that I experienced first hand, and towards the tail-end of my comics career, was certainly evaporating. Guys would talk about stuff. They would get ideas and they would walk into an office, whether it was at Marvel or DC, and they’d say, “Hey, so and so and I thought it might be cool to do, (fill in the blank.)” And then whoever it was behind the desk, whether it was a Jim Shooter or Dick Giordano or somebody like that, they would react to it and they would say, “Gee, that sounds pretty good. Let’s do it.” That never happens today based on what I know.
Stroud: That sounds very consistent with what I’ve heard from other creators. The “bull-sessions” are all but a thing of the past.
Mitchell: There was a creative flow that existed back in the day, and I’m somewhat removed from comics, so I can’t say exactly how it works today, but there was a creative flow back in the day that I don’t think exists now. Comics were a lot more fraternal, and a bit more of a club than they are now. What would happen was that once you got into the club or the fraternity, whatever metaphor you want to use, and you proved that you could do it, and that you could do it on time, you would get work. So, there was a lot of “I’m going into the office today. I’m going to pitch. I’m going to deliver some work today and find out about more work.” Being a freelancer was not a hard way to make a living in the comic book business. I remember hearing something at a San Diego comic book convention, maybe as many as six years ago, where somebody had finished doing something and an editor, and I don’t know who the editor was, said, “Gee, looks great, don’t give up your day job.” Well, when you worked in comics back in those days, that was your day job. It certainly was mine for a long time.
Stroud: What an odd thing to pop off with.
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s not the same in so many ways. But the kind of clubhouse atmosphere of doing comics was part of why it was so much fun. Back at 909 Third Avenue, when the DC offices were there, which, by the way, were my favorite DC offices, they had a coffee room with a bunch of crappy vending machines, but it was sort of a coffee/lunch room that they shared with Independent News, which was the distribution arm of the company. And Neal Adams used to have an office up at 909, and he shared it with Murphy Anderson. Neal and Murphy liked to go to work. They liked to have an office to go to.
Stroud: A structured environment.
Mitchell: Yeah. That’s why a lot of artists have studios outside their home, because the going to the studio or the going to work is an important part of their process. I say this because when I was doing comics, I had 4 or 5 studios and I liked to have that structure of going to work. Anyway, Neal got a free office along with Murphy and they used to do their work in the office and they had this coffee room and the coffee room became a kind of clubhouse. Especially on Fridays a lot of guys would come in, deliver work, they would usually pick up a check, they would hang around in the coffee room, show each other their stuff…I’m sure you encounter that word “stuff” a lot, particularly when you talk to comic book people of my generation.
Stroud: Oh, yeah.
Mitchell: And there would be sort of an exchange of thoughts, experience; guys would show other guys pages. It was a great place to be and Neal was sort of the king of that world. Now I was on staff working at DC in the production department. I had a job that lasted a couple of days during an Easter vacation in 1970, which got me a summer job in the production department that summer, the following summer and the year after that I think I had a summer job or they gave me a job before I went to college. So, I was around for the Neal Adams coffee room/coffee table reviews and these Friday interactions of a lot of young freelancers. Guys like Mike Kaluta, Alan Weiss, Howard Chaykin. I think [Dave] Cockrum would show up. Sergio Aragones whenever he was in New York would hang out there. Berni Wrightson would be around sometimes.
If you were a young guy and you were in New York at the time, you would usually go to DC on Fridays because also after office hours usually there would be a lot of sort of co-socializing. Guys would hang out. It was like your buddies. And that circumstance was, I think, an important component of the social interaction and professional interaction of the younger guys breaking in at the time. And Neal, of course, was the champion for all of us. Neal was always trying to get the young guys into the club. And trust me; it was tough to get into the club back in those days. It was very tough.
Stroud: Was it due to a provincial viewpoint?
Mitchell: I think they hated us long-haired young kids. I mean I’ve done some interviews before about those days. One of the phrases I’ve tried to get into the parlance was that we were the blue jean generation and the guys that preceded us all looked like businessmen. Because I think they were embarrassed to be in comics on one level or another. And all the guys that I knew when I broke into comics, they were all grownups. Generally, most of these guys wore suits or slacks and a sports jacket and they were commercial artists. They weren’t comic book artists. And I always got the impression they were a little bit ashamed. In fact, you know how the original art used to be one size and then some time in the late 60’s it was reduced down to I think it was 10” x 15”?
Stroud: Right. The twice-ups went away.
Mitchell: Yeah, the twice-ups went away. I don’t know why they did it. Maybe it was to save money on paper. I think it was partly done because those smaller pages would fit into an attaché case. And guys could carry an attaché case with pages into the office. And therefore, they looked like businessmen. That’s only a guess on my part, but I’m sure it probably figured in some way or another.
But these guys all looked like they were going into a different business and then there was the blue jean generation where we all had big ass portfolios, long hair, blue jeans, and we looked like…well, we kind of looked like hippies as defined back in the day.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Not a necktie to be seen.
Mitchell: Not a necktie to be seen. I’m trying to think if there was anyone that tried to adapt. Jim Shooter was the only guy that I know who really adapted to that sort of business wardrobe. But the rest of us were all what my dad would call hippies. Some of us more so than others. Some of us a little less than others, but we were young of the time and people who were our age at the time dressed the way that they dressed. So, it was a big contrast.
Actually, I don’t think they were trustful of us. I know John Romita, Sr. really did not trust the young guys. I think it was also true of some of the other guys. I think they were worried that we were going to take over and replace them. And I’ve always maintained we didn’t want their jobs. We wanted to sit next to them and do our jobs while they did theirs. I know that from my point of view, I wanted to bask in the aura of these guys. I didn’t want to kick them to the curb. I was fascinated by what they did because I was a fan. I was most of the time charmed by them, because they were interesting guys. And I wanted to sort of soak up their opinions; I wanted to learn from their experience; I wanted to be a part of their world. I didn’t want to make it my world, I wanted to be in their world. I think a lot of guys from that time share that feeling. There was no animosity at all toward the generation before us. We loved these guys.
Stroud: You keyed in on something there, I think, based on prior conversations I’ve had. There was a completely different mindset with your generation, if I may be so bold, who went in with a passion to do that kind of work, whereas the predecessors saw it as work. A way to make a living, as you already stated quite correctly, I believe. It wasn’t considered honorable work because there was still that fallout from comics being vilified back in the 50’s.
Mitchell: Yeah, I think this is the pecking order as I’ve always understood it: If you were a commercial artist, you wanted to be an illustrator first, because illustration was a very honorable, noble profession. And that’s mostly dead today, which just makes me sad. Or you could be a newspaper strip artist. If you were on the funny page, but you were in a major newspaper, that validated you. A lot of these guys like Leonard Starr, for example and guys like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond…
Mitchell: Caniff. These guys were held in very high regard and their profession, while it was unusual to the average working person, I think, it was kind of a form of show business. Whereas comics were always looked upon as sort of pulpy, second class citizens. I mean, let’s face it: Comics were created to be cheap entertainment.
Stroud: And disposable.
Mitchell: Disposable, yeah. Very much so. The whole idea of collecting comics and them having some sort of pop cultural value was never part of the perception of comics. Whereas if you were a newspaper strip artist it was a kind of legitimacy. It was a form of illustration. And look at a lot of the comics guys who were influenced by newspaper strip guys. What guy from Neal Adams’ generation wasn’t influenced by Stan Drake? Or Leonard Starr? Or Alex Raymond? Or John Cullen Murphy? Or so many of those guys. They were amazing artists. So there was a legitimacy in that field and I don’t know if you know that comics, at one time, was probably the fastest paying art job you could get in the commercial art world.
Stroud: No, I hadn’t heard that before.
Mitchell: DC comics, at one time, you could put a voucher in on Monday and it would be paid on Wednesday. You would put a voucher in on Wednesday and it would be paid on Friday. And then years later they went to a system where you would get paid once a week. I don’t know how it works today, but the whole idea was if you could work fast, deliver, you would be paid fast. And being paid fast was not an inconsequential draw for comics, I think. To some guys.
Stroud: I’m sure you’re absolutely correct. I’m reminded of when I spoke to Ric Estrada…
Mitchell: An incredibly sweet, warm, delightful man, by the way.
Stroud: Absolutely. I loved him immediately. One of the things he mentioned was that he had a large and growing family to provide for, so he said, “I loved doing those little 6-page backup stories. Because I could turn those around and turn them into cash and buy groceries.”
Mitchell: I met Ric when I was a fan and he was warm and delightful to me, and he was warm and delightful to me every single time I had contact with him. He was the kind of comics professional they don’t make any more. He was a delightful, delightful person. He was a very human being.
Stroud: We are poorer for his passing.
Mitchell: No kidding.
Stroud: How did you end up at Continuity, Steve?
Mitchell: I was part of the firmament at 909 and I knew Dick [Giordano] and I knew Neal. At one time I was the youngest guy in comics. And when Dick and Neal decided to go in business for themselves, they needed assistants, so Alan Kupperberg, who is a friend of mine and who I went to high school with by the way, the High School of Art and Design, in Manhattan, in New York, it was about 3 blocks from 909 Third Avenue, by the way, not inconsequently. They needed (laughter), slaves, so we filled the bill. Alan was Neal’s assistant and I was Dick’s assistant. That’s how I came on board with that. I was not being paid a salary, but for Dick I was doing backgrounds. I was inking backgrounds and then when certain jobs would come in to Continuity, I would be a part of the advertising jobs. Which, by the way, took forever to get paid. I mean Dick and Neal said, “When we get paid, you get paid.”
Stroud: Oh, no.
Mitchell: Well, on some of that advertising stuff, it took months to get paid. The work was interesting and it paid better than comics, but it took a long time sometimes to get money for that, so primarily what I did was I worked with Dick on comic stuff. Alan and I also were general assistants around the studio so we did other crap as well, but some of it got pretty boring.
Stroud: Alan told me you guys had a lot of scut work.
Mitchell: That’s not an inappropriate description. My day started when Giordano showed up and he’d give me a couple of bucks and I’d go across the street and get him coffee and a roll and so I was fetching him breakfast. Which, by the way, I didn’t mind. It wasn’t sitting behind a drawing table.
Stroud: Was Dick as nice as I’ve heard?
Mitchell: Dick was, for the most part, a charming, delightful, smart guy. He was a real grownup and a real professional. By the time he and Neal decided to go into business for themselves, Dick had spent quite a lot of time as a freelancer and he’d spent an enormous amount of time as an editor and as an editor-in-chief. My understanding was the reason he left DC to start up with Neal was that he didn’t like working with/for Carmine Infantino. I think that Dick felt that Carmine was not really equipped for the job as the guy who ran the company. I don’t know how many people you’ve talked to about Carmine. I have mixed feelings about Carmine. But I do remember that most of the people who worked in comics did not really think that Carmine was a good comics executive. Wonderful artist. Amazing artist. Unique artist. Iconic artist. But as an executive, I think that there were a lot of people that thought he was underqualified. I’ll put it to you that way.
Carmine, to me, just to me, was kind of an enigma. On the one hand I think that he was a pretty ballsy guy. And then I think sometimes he was an insecure guy. I think that he had opinions based on experience. I think he almost blackmailed his way into the job, from what I understand. He had a contract and Carmine was, in a sense, the face of DC comics. Back in the day you would see covers for so many books, like the Batman books, that were all done by Carmine. Carmine was basically Julie Schwartz’s star player. When you think of DC in the 60’s, I think of Carmine. Because of the war books, I think of [Joe] Kubert.
Carmine had a contract with them, but I think he wanted to step away from the board and have a somewhat easier life. I think that’s how he kind of got the job. He sort of said, “Listen, I’m going to leave if you don’t promote me to some kind of creative position.” And I think that’s how he got that job.
Stroud: Could be. It’s interesting how he went from art director to the executive ranks.
Mitchell: Listen, everybody wants to move up in their life. Nobody is satisfied in just doing what they do. I think it’s different in today’s world. I think in today’s world if you’re an artist and can make a living doing what you want to do, that’s actually pretty good. Actually, for the blue jean generation, we just love comics. We love being in the comics business and loved being around guys that were our heroes. For the most part, it could be a living. For some more than others. It depended on your ability to produce. But if you were a professional, you went to work every day and turned out a certain amount of work every day and you made a living. But then again, and I think this is true for anybody who gets into their 40’s, perhaps, they start to go, “I don’t want to work that hard, but I want to get paid more money.” Remember now you had guys like Giordano, Orlando, Kubert, those professionals who had turned out so many pages of work. I think they wanted to be recognized as elder statesmen and not have to sit behind a drawing table to make a living.
I know Joe Orlando was at a point where he could not do that. He just could not just sit behind a drawing table and draw for a living. I just don’t think he had it in him anymore. But Joe was a fantastic editor. I mean, the proof is in the pudding. The Joe Orlando books were some of the best books that DC ever put out. Dick was very good and personally I think Kubert walks on water. I’m a huge Joe Kubert fan. But things were changing. Guys wanted to step up a little bit. I think Carmine was one of those guys.
Stroud: Logical. Artists are in kind of a difficult position because with obvious exceptions, it’s not the sort of work you can do forever. Eyesight and motor skills begin to dwindle with age and your back can’t continue to be hunched over a drawing board for 12 to 20 hours at a stretch.
Mitchell: I think that’s mostly true. I think during my inking career that with each job I got better. One thing you didn’t mention is that your hands go. Your hands are just not the same. Part of that is the evolution of your talent. Part of that is your hands just can’t quite take the having to hold something and whack away. It’s a tool. A brush or a pen or markers, they’re all tools, but your hand has to sort of cramp into a claw-like position and I just think that guys who are mentally as good as ever but their hands aren’t as good. That’s part of what happens.
Stroud: And of course, the computer has put a whole new spin on everything from lettering to coloring to the art itself. Collaborators can now be literally across the globe, which is kind of “gee whiz,” but…
Mitchell: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. There’s no longer that same sense of community. It’s amazing that the world has become a smaller place, but at the end of the day, what you have and what you’ve lost is a sense of community. Part of why I liked being in comics was that sense of community. The guys that were in comics when I was in comics for the most part were really pretty interesting people to one degree or another. And it’s just different today. Today if you want to get to know people in the comic business you have to go to the San Diego comic con and walk around to the different booths.
Stroud: That’s true. They’re scattered to the four winds.
Mitchell: You got that right. One of the things that was also nice about being in New York back in the day: I’m sure you’ve heard stories about the Phil Seuling Comic Con. Well, one thing that always happened at the Phil Seuling Comic Con was that Phil would throw a cocktail party for the guys in the business. Because all the guys in the business would show up and help him put on the show in a sense because they were there to be on panels and we made ourselves available to Phil. And Phil always threw a pretty nice cocktail party that was sort of a social event for that summer. So, you got to meet guys. You got to hang out with guys. Sometimes guys who would never be in the neighborhood, so you would get to speak to guys like Joe Sinnott and Jim Aparo and other guys like that who would sometimes make the trip in for that party. Or, there was the DC Christmas party, which was a pretty big deal. And it was another chance to interact with people that you would not see very often. Which was nice.
Stroud: Sounds fantastic.
Mitchell: It was great. I had many good memories even though often times I was a little polluted. I can’t remember a bad DC Christmas party from back in the day. I always had a great time.
Stroud: Speaking of those you don’t run across I’ve heard Ditko would show up at Continuity on occasion. Did you run into him?
Mitchell: Oh, yeah. I knew Ditko very well. I have an interesting relationship with Steve Ditko. It wasn’t very deep, but it was a little bit different than everybody else’s. I know that we’re talking about Continuity, but this is worth talking about. When I was a kid I used to go around and barge in on artists in their studios so they would do a sketch for me. It was a way of me sort of taking my heavy-duty fan boy interests, in fact I grew up in New York City, and just decided I had access to these guys. So, one day I looked up Steve Ditko and he had a studio on 44th Street and 8th Avenue, which was kind of a funky neighborhood. It was a neighborhood where there was a certain amount of strip clubs and porno shops. It was up until maybe the last 10 or 15 years not the best of neighborhoods. Steve had a little studio there and one day I knocked on his door and he came to the door and he talked to me in his doorway for about an hour. We were always on a first name basis after that and I made a little bit of a connection with him.
There was not much of a connection to be made with Steve Ditko. He was a very private guy. My other sort of intimate Steve Ditko experience (chuckle) was when the James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever” opened up. I think it was Christmas of 1970. I went to go see it one afternoon at the DeMille theater on Broadway in Times Square and going into the same show was Steve Ditko. We sat next to each other, totally silent until it was over. He hated it, because the hero didn’t really save the day and I kind of got an insight that Steve had very, very defined ideas about hero fiction. It was pleasant enough. I said, “Nice to have seen the movie with you. I’ll see you around.” It was all very amicable and whenever we saw one another we smiled at each other. Maybe because we have the same first name. (Chuckle.) He was always very nice to me, even though Steve Ditko was, and this is no secret, he was probably what you would call an odd duck. He was somebody who did not really interact. He wasn’t unfriendly, but he was kind of his own guy. He kind of stuck to himself and he had very strong opinions on things. But personally, I thought he was a nice guy. I liked him.
He would occasionally come to Continuity, getting back to your earlier question, but not a lot. The guys that came to Continuity, and by the way, Continuity became the new 909 Third Avenue DC coffee room, because when guys would come into the city to drop off work… It’s funny. Manhattan has always been referred to as New York City. If you lived in Connecticut or New Jersey, or Queens, or Brooklyn, or Long Island, people were always saying, “Going into The City?” So, when guys like Gray Morrow and Jay Scott Pike and Jeff Jones and Berni and Vaughn Bode occasionally would come in, a lot of those guys lived out of town. They lived upstate or in the general tri-state area, but they didn’t live in Manhattan. They didn’t live in the boroughs. A lot of times they would go to Neal’s to hang out.
Neal would always give them the worst coffee in the world. It’s not like it was designed that way, it just wasn’t very good. And guys would come in and hang out. So, I think in some ways the fact that Neal’s studio was a social destination, it also became a place for and of certain kinds of ideas.
Stroud: When did the actual Crusty Bunker thing kick off?
Mitchell: I don’t recall. I think Alan would have a better memory of it than I did. What happened was there were certain guys that were getting their start in comics. Guys like Chaykin in particular. Chaykin was getting work, but Chaykin could not ink to save his life. His inking style was very unattractive. But Chaykin was an interesting penciler, and Howard was a very interesting guy. I think Neal saw something in Howard’s work that was a plus. I think Neal volunteered as almost kind of a guarantor in terms of the quality of the final product and Neal would ink the job. Neal would occasionally take time away from penciling and Continuity work and ink. Generally, my recollection is that a lot of these jobs didn’t have deadlines. You didn’t give anything to Neal that you needed in a week.
I think sometimes the turnaround had to be pretty fast. Anyway, what happened was the Crusty Bunkers kind of evolved from having me and Kupperberg there and guys who would come and visit. Guys like Alan Weiss, or Berni, or Jeff or Kaluta would sometimes come in and spend some time inking some panels and maybe ink figures. It was really one of the original, to use a musician’s phrase, jam ever done in comics. I don’t think any comics were ever inked that way. There was always a guy like Dick or Wally Wood or somebody who would ink all of the figures or most of the figures. I can’t remember the last time Dick ever inked any backgrounds. Although I think when he penciled and inked some work of his for Marvel, Dracula stuff I think, he did ink his own backgrounds on those, but I’m not completely sure. But anyway, guys had help. The thing about the Crusty Bunkers was it was sort of all help. Neal did most of the key figures, but he didn’t do all of them. I would come in and see some job, I think often it was the Fafhrd the Barbarian and the Gray Mouser and I would come in and see some of it had been inked over night by other guys.
Neal would say Alan Weiss had come in, or Jeff or Berni or other guys and they would poke at it for fun. That’s kind of how some of these Crusty Bunker jobs were done. If you look at the pages, especially on the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser backups…do you remember what books those were published in, because I can’t.
Stroud: Not off the bat, I’m afraid.
Mitchell: Well anyway, if you look closely, there are all kinds of different styles going on in there besides Neal’s. I don’t even remember how we got paid for them. I know we didn’t get paid much. But it was really Neal trying to help young guys get in and sort of quality controlling the job. While Kaluta and Berni could ink their own stuff, Weiss was often inked by other guys, although Weiss was a pretty good inker as I recall. Chaykin could not ink. But these were all guys who were working very hard to get into the club and Neal was trying to help them do that.
I’m sure you’ve talked to a lot of guys about Neal, and you’ve heard a lot of interesting and contrasting opinions or thoughts about Neal. One thing about Neal that I liked is that he was very paternal. I think he was often times referred to as “Uncle Neal.” He was just sort of the father of all these wayward children who were living in New York doing comics. You could also maybe say there was a slight Fagin quality about him. But I don’t think it was ever malevolent or malicious or negative. I mean Neal kind of liked being the center of the universe. He just thought it was a stimulating and interesting place to be. And he created that environment along with Dick, who was the grownup of the two. I think ultimately that’s why Dick left. It just wasn’t working out. I think they were making money. But it was just an interesting pairing of two different types, and ultimately Neal kind of was a corrosive factor on that relationship.
That’s the way I remember it.
Stroud: Well, I’ve heard a lot about how complicated Neal can be.
Mitchell: I think Neal has evolved into something that ultimately is not the Neal that we knew. But Neal was always a complex guy. There are dozens of reasons and I could probably come up with a few and they would either be the same or complement what you may or may not have heard. Neal has an enormous ego. I don’t think that’s any secret. And Neal’s ego is so enormous that there have been times when I think he has taken reality and tried to mold it to fit his ego. It’s kind of what makes him an interesting character. I mean if you were to see a guy like Neal in a movie, you would say that’s a really interesting guy. And trust me, there are a number of guys in comics that are interesting in that way. I think Jim Shooter is another one of those guys.
I have no real axe to grind with Jim Shooter unlike most people. I think Jim has the perspective of a man who has lived many lives. That’s number one. Jim was always good to me when I worked for him, until that one day when he decided to fire me. I don’t know if you know anything about my comics career or not, but I was inking Iron Man in the 80’s. I had a very long run on Iron Man with Luke McDonald and we were doing some nice work. In fact, those books had the famous Tony Stark alcohol storyline that Denny [O'Neil] wrote.
Stroud: Oh, okay.
Mitchell: And Obadiah Stain, the first villain in the Iron Man movie was created during our run on the book. Of course, I didn’t make any money from it, but “Hey! There’s Obadiah Stain!” When I worked for Marvel Jim was a very good boss. I remember clear as day that I walked into his office one day and whenever I went to Marvel, I always went in and said hello to Jim, and I always worked the room a little bit, because as a freelancer you sort of found it was smart to do so.
Stroud: Keep your face out there.
Mitchell: Yeah. I’m a big guy, I’m a tall guy. Jim’s taller than I am, but not by much. This particular day he said, “So how’s it going? Everything okay?” I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind making a little more money, but otherwise I’m okay.” He said, “What are we paying you?” I told him what my rate was and he gave me a $5.00 page raise on the spot. Five dollars a page might not sound like much, but over the course of a 20-page job that’s an extra hundred bucks and back in the early 80’s a hundred bucks was worth a lot more than a hundred bucks is worth today.
Stroud: It adds up.
Mitchell: Over a course of a year, it does add up, and the one thing about Jim, you cannot take this away from Jim: He always felt that a well-paid freelancer, a freelancer who could pay his rent, feed himself, take care of his family, would be a loyal freelancer. Loyalty was a big deal for Jim. That was always to me one of the most endearing things about him. If Marvel took care of you, then you would take care of Marvel by putting extra effort into it.
One time when Jim was really good to me was when I got a call from Bob Layton. I was at my studio in the west 20’s. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New York, so I don’t know if the layout of Manhattan means anything to you.
Stroud: No such luck.
Mitchell: Anyway, I was in my studio one night and I think it was 7 or 8 o’clock and I got a phone call from Bob Layton. “Steve, it’s Bob.” “Hey, Bob, what’s going on?” “I’m trying to finish an issue of Hercules and I’m horribly late and I need help. Can you come on over to Marvel and anything you can do, I would appreciate.” It was a hot, sticky night. The studio I was working in did not have any air conditioning and I said, “I was going to go home anyway, so sure.” I went to Marvel’s offices, which were kind of directly across town. I was at 21st and 7th and they were at Park Avenue and 27th, so it wasn’t that far. I spent the whole night there just poking away. I was literally there to put lines on the paper.
Shooter was the last guy who left. He said he really appreciated me helping out Bob and helping out Marvel. Shooter was the first guy there in the morning and he said, “How are you guys doing? What can I get you for breakfast?” He went out and brought us breakfast and we just kept going and going until I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. I don’t remember doing a lot, but I do remember that Bob was very appreciative and Shooter gave me a sort of Marvel bonus check for my efforts that night. I seem to recall it was about 400 bucks. I don’t think I did 400 dollars’ worth of work at the time, but it was Jim saying, “I really appreciate you helping us out.” And that was what Jim was like.
Now in many ways Jim was not always everyone’s favorite executive. I’m sure you’ve heard about that. I read not long ago in an interview that he was described as fascistic, but that’s again what made Jim like Neal. They were very strong contrasts. I was working on Iron Man for I think a couple of years and then one day Mark Grunnell says “I’ve got to let you go.” I said, “What? Why? What’s going on?” “Jim told me to get rid of you. I don’t know if there is a why, he just told me.” I had a very good relationship with Grunnell and those guys. They were very happy with me.
So, they just outright fired me and I think Luke McDonald was fired an issue or two later. I was sort of told at a later time that if anything was sort of successful or good, if Shooter didn’t feel he had a personal finger, thumb or hand on that, he felt he had to destroy it because it was not representative of him. So, I was a victim of Jim’s sort of dark side. Len Wein explained it to me in a sort of articulate but vague way. The Shooter Way. “With Jim Shooter everything is hunky dory, everything is swimming, everything is just fine until you do “The Thing.” “What thing?” He said, “The Thing. It is like this noun that covers a multitude of somethings.” So, I guess in the case of Luke and I, the thing that we were doing was that we were doing a good job and Jim had nothing to do with it.
I always heard that the worst place to be at Marvel was to be doing something at the top of the food chain or at the bottom. If you could stay in the middle comfortably, Jim would never pay any attention to you. But I guess Iron Man was getting some attention at the time, partly I think because of Denny’s storyline. He created Rhodey and Obadiah Stain and Tony Stark had that really serious alcohol problem and while comics were different than they are today, it was getting some press, believe it or not, because we were dealing with something like alcoholism.
Stroud: Socially relevant stuff.
Mitchell: Stuff that people were noticing. We were on time, for the most part. We were a problem free book and getting a little press and Jim had nothing to do with the book, so he had to destroy it. So, I’ve benefited from Jim from when he was at his best and I have been affected by Jim at his worst.
I think Neal, on a parallel universe, had that as well. Neal had a really good side, and I think Neal had sort of a dark side as well. And people were affected by that. If I had a dollar for every time some young guy came up to the office and wanted to be in comics and would show Neal his stuff…Neal could be a complete and utter bastard. Generally, it would start off like, “There is so much wrong with your stuff that I don’t have enough time left today to tell you what’s wrong with it.” That’s a pretty crushing thing to say.
Mitchell: Yeah. I think it actually did affect some guys who did want to get into comics. I believe Frank Miller may have come up to Continuity and showed him his stuff and I think Frank Miller, of all people got pasted by Neal (chuckle) in that classic Neal way. I think Neal felt like “If you can put up with that from me then you’ve got the stones to make it in the business.” A Marine drill sergeant sort of tough love thing, I guess.
Stroud: It does sound like boot camp.
Mitchell: Artists are very sensitive people, though and Neal could be merciless.
Stroud: The Bob Kanigher school of nurturing. (Laughter.)
Mitchell: Bob Kanigher never nurtured anything in his life. There was another interesting character of the comic book business.
Stroud: Mike Esposito told me about how he thanked Bob once, despite all he’d done to Ross and him and that he thought Bob was going to cry.
Mitchell: I think I know why Mike said that, too. Bob was one of those people and if you looked at a bunch of DC comics in the 60’s, Mort Weisinger’s books were drawn by Mort’s guys; Julie Schwartz’s books were drawn by Julie’s guys; Kanigher’s books were drawn by Kanigher’s guys. All of these guys had these sorts of unofficial contracts. “You work for me. You get the job done on time at a certain level of quality and I will continue to give you work.” It was a non-contract contract. And Kanigher was very loyal to all of these guys. You know why? Those guys made his day easier. If you talked to Jack Harris, you know that a freelancer is an editor’s best friend or worst friend.
Getting into the whole Vinnie Colletta controversy, as a consumer, I’m sure you and thousands and thousands and thousands of other people would say, “Why in the hell did Vinnie Colletta ever get work?” The one thing Vinnie Colletta did was he never made your day harder as an editor. I said to [Paul] Levitz, “Why do you give Vinnie work? Why do you give Vinnie good pencils?” He said, “It’s Friday. The book is late. I need the job on Monday and with Vinnie, I’ll get it on Monday. It won’t be good, but I’ll get it.” It’s the periodical business! This shit has to come out every month! And a lot of guys forget about that. A lot of the artists that were part of my generation and generations to follow, and Neal…they didn’t give a flying rat’s ass about deadlines for the most part.
Neal always felt that if he did, and this is a quote, “Good stuff,” that the deadlines didn’t matter. Which is not true.
Stroud: They’re unforgiving.
Mitchell: It’s a periodical business. It’s not the art business. And a lot of the guys who followed the Silver Age and Golden Age guys didn’t get that. An editor wants to know that it’s coming in tomorrow. If it doesn’t come in tomorrow, it can f*** things up. And Neal was horrible at that. Horr-i-ble!
By the way, I’ll tell you a quick Neal story. Remember the Superman/Muhammad Ali book?
Mitchell: I actually worked on that. I did some backgrounds and some figures on that. Like a lot of guys did. I remember when Neal brought the pencils in. It was a BIG deal. And Sol Harrison was looking at the pencils. Sol had a way of looking at the pencils very quietly. He would just sort of turn one page over right after another. His eyes were very quick. And he turned to Neal and he said, “You know, Adams, it’s the best work you’ve ever done…and not worth the wait.” The book was like a year late. So Sol, who was another of the great comic book business characters, who a lot of people don’t say good things about, but I always liked Sol, gave him a compliment and then yanked it away.
But it probably was Neal’s best comics work. But that was Neal. Neal always had contempt for the restrictions of the job, I think. I don’t know what he says, but I always got the impression Neal felt that deadlines were meant to be broken. The only deadlines he ever kept were for his advertising clients. A lot of times we were working very close to the edge on those.
Stroud: That’s probably where the bread and butter was, I suppose.
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s just that sometimes the bread and the butter took a long time to get there. There was an ad agency that we used to do animatics for. It was about 3 blocks north of Continuity and I remember running over there with a lot of pages and I remember saying all the time, “Gee, they’re three blocks away from us. Why does it always take them so long to pay us?” It’s not like it’s coming cross country by mule train. It just took a long, long, long time to get paid. If you could afford to live in that universe and wait, that’s great, but most of us can’t. That’s why comics are so attractive. You just knew when you were going to get paid.
Stroud: Cash flow can make or break. I’m reminded of stories a distant cousin told about dealing with Wal-Mart’s tactics of demanding deep discounts from suppliers, the deepest in the industry and then insisting on freebies and then routinely paying 60 days beyond invoice.
Mitchell: I haven’t worked in comics since the early part of the decade and one of the things I do to make a living, such as it is, is to produce DVD special features and Wal-Mart does not report its sales numbers. Everybody reports their numbers so people have an idea, “Well, how is it selling?” But the Wal-Mart numbers are not available to the public and the Wal-Mart numbers are probably the biggest numbers or have been in terms of DVD sales.
Stroud: They move the market. I sometimes wonder what would happen if they controlled comic book distribution.
Mitchell: They operate to the beat of their own drummer. And they get away with it because they sell so much product. But, that’s a topic far afield.
Stroud: Yes. Steve, what do you think, in summation, you took away from your experience at Continuity?
Mitchell: It helped me learn how you went about doing comic books and what I mean is literally the experience of putting ink on pages and also working with guys like Neal and Dick. Jack Abel, by the way, was renting space up there and it was a chance for me to be around guys who had a lot of experience. Guys who could tell interesting anecdotes for purposes of entertainment, but could also give me anecdotal information about doing the job and being a pro. It was clearly a way to apprentice in the business that I wanted to be in. It gave me exposure to the business and being around guys who were at the top of their game.
Jack Abel, to me, it was interesting that Jack worked at the same office that Neal did. Because while Neal seemed to work all day long, but it didn’t seem that his output or his productivity was good every day. But Jack would come to work at 10:00 in the morning, and he would go home at 6:30 or 7:00 at night and he would ink 18 panels that day. Because Jack felt that 18 panels was the equivalent of 3 pages. So, Jack was doing 3 pages a day and he did it like f***ing clockwork. Sometimes he came in on Saturday for half a day. But basically, Jack was turning out about 15 pages a week. Like clockwork. I thought Jack was a very good inker. I think Jack was sometimes not as good as he needed to be and sometimes better. Jack was one of those guys I would call an equalizer. I did not like Jack on certain guys and I saw Jack on other guys and he was fantastic. I always thought he was underrated as a Curt Swan inker. I thought his work on Curt was quite good. Although I think he would tend to flatten out some of Curt’s drawing.
Curt Swan, by the way, as a draftsman, was one of the finest draftsmen I’ve ever seen in comics. If you saw his pencils, you would be amazed at how well he drew.
Stroud: The pictures I’ve seen looked like they were very tight and detailed.
Mitchell: It wasn’t that tight. It was amazingly well drawn. It wasn’t so tight because it was more grey-toney than line specific. I think Andrew Loomis, who was a great illustrator and an illustration teacher was a strong influence of his and I’ve seen pencils of Curt’s and I’m going, “Look at how good he can draw!” Amazingly so. I don’t think anybody, unless they’ve seen his pencils, know how well Curt could draw. Of course, in a sense I don’t think Curt ever got really good inking. He got good inking, but I don’t think he got great inking. I think George Klein was stylistically pretty good with Curt and Murphy and I think Jack, too, although I think Jack would flatten out some of his work, but I thought the overall result of Jack on Curt was a pretty nice result.
But there’s Jack, cranking it out like clockwork. Totally professional, and Neal just being, you know, Neal. I learned a lesson from being exposed to those two different approaches to the business. Dick was very professional as well, and I learned a lot from Dick. I liked Dick a great deal. And listen, I liked Neal, too, back in the day. Neal was an interesting guy to be around. It was an interesting place for young guys like me and Kupperberg. We were exposed to a lot of interesting characters, a lot of interesting talent, some crazies. I don’t know whether Alan named names or not. There were some nutty guys who worked up there. Alan and I were sort of the…and how’s this for a self-complimenting kind of thing? We were the vanguard of assistants.
Mitchell: I say that with a smile on my face. Alan has a shockingly good memory for stuff that can be personally embarrassing to me. He’s a good guy. I live in California and he still lives in New York. For many years we just kind of lived our own lives and we’ve reconnected a bit in the last year or so and it’s nice to be in touch with Alan. As an aside, do you watch Madmen?
Stroud: I’ve been meaning to, but haven’t pulled it off yet.
Mitchell: Madmen is the best show on television, bar none. It would behoove you to go out and get the DVD’s and get caught up. Other than the fact that it’s great, I will tell you why in particular if you are interested in Silver Age comics. The environment of Madison Avenue and the advertising business was not terribly different than the environment of the comic book business. There are a lot of parallels that exist, I think, between the world of that show and the world of DC. To a larger degree at Marvel, to a lesser degree of the day.
For example, this season on Madmen, season four, they have new offices. The new offices really remind me of the offices of the Lexington Avenue days. The Lexington Avenue offices physically, architecturally, are very similar to the offices in Madmen. The overall 60’s style of the offices. And some of the attitudes as well. I like Madmen because it’s good drama, but it does take me back. If you’ve never been to New York City and would like to get the tonal atmosphere of New York City in the late 60’s in a business that is involved with art, as advertising was and is, it will give you tonally sort of a parallel universe and an understanding of what comics was like. To quote Neal Adams, it’s “Good stuff!”