Written by Bryan Stroud
Seymour "Sy" Barry (born March 12, 1928) is an American comic-book and comic-strip artist, best known for his work on the strip The Phantom, which he worked on for more than thirty years. The brother of comics artist Dan Barry (who drew the Flash Gordon comic strip), Sy began his professional career as his brother's art assistant. By the late 1940s, Sy was working as a freelance comic-book artist (primarily as an inker) for publishers including Lev Gleason, Timely, and National Comics. At National, he worked on features including Johnny Peril and The Phantom Stranger.
Barry went on to do assistant work on the King Features Syndicate comic strips Tarzan and Flash Gordon. He was hired by Capp Studio to draw Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a comics pamphlet published in 1957. Upon the 1961 death of The Phantom artist Wilson McCoy, King Features hired Barry to take over that strip. Barry remained on it for more than 30 years - until his retirement in 1995.
Sy Barry, in addition to being the brother of Dan Barry, is best known for his many years of work on the Phantom syndicated daily strip, but he also did some work in the Golden Age for DC comics and others - one of the few of that era who are happily still with us. Sy celebrated his 91st birthday on the 11th of March. I see he has a website now, too. Sy was fun to talk to and is yet another first rate gentleman who had a long career with both pencil and ink.
This interview originally took place over the phone on August 21, 2011.
Bryan Stroud: It looks like you had kind of an interesting path to becoming an artist. Would you tell me about it?
Sy Barry: I guess I always knew that I could draw. From the time that I was holding a pencil, before I could write my name, I was always sketching and drawing. The thing is that I rarely drew any of the Disney characters or cartoon characters. I was always drawing figures around me. Faces and people. I was always more interested in drawing illustrative things, even as a kid. I liked to draw very realistically and not doing humorous stuff. So that itself gave me the challenge of having to duplicate what I saw and to memorize what I saw and drawing things that I remembered and I developed a skill for being able to put down on paper things that were not in front of me.
I was always involved in art projects at school. Of course I was able to get off easy on some of the tough subjects. (Chuckle.) I would always cram for my tests, but I missed a lot of my subjects during the usual school hours working on projects and working on things like scenery on plays and special art projects. When something came up that had to be done for the school, any kind of staging or murals or all these artistic things, I was involved. In fact, one of my pieces of art was displayed in the New York City Museum of Art for half a term.
Stroud: Wow! Magnificent.
Barry: As a kid I thought it was an absolute highlight of my life. So these things, the fact that I was recognized and getting special treatment now and then really drew me to the field of art even more.
Stroud: I’m sure the encouragement was invaluable.
Barry: I had some wonderful teachers, too, who in my lowest moment spurred me on and got me going again. So those were my learning years.
Later I went to the School of Industrial Art, which is now the School of Art and Design in New York and many of my artist friends, several of whom have passed away, have been former students of the School of Industrial Art. Many of them landed in comics and illustration. Many illustrators also were found in the shelter and comfort of comics to start to earn some money and they began to do more realistic comic strips and comic books and became illustrators in comics rather than having to struggle and wait years to become famous as an illustrator. So comics was a wonderful shelter for not just humor, but realistic adventure formats as well.
Stroud: Ah, yes. Others have told me it was a good place to hone your skills and also to earn a living as you could get a weekly check.
Barry: Exactly. Of course, there were some rather difficult companies, very miserly companies, who made you wait months before you received your check and made you struggle and by the time you received your check it had been just about spent. So there were those difficulties you ran into with many companies. Some of the comic book companies were operating on shoestrings and they would try to get the artist to get the work going and hold them off and wait until the books got printed and on the stands and see if they sold before the poor artists got paid. Writers as well. So we had our difficulties with the publishing companies.
But there were the more respected and established companies like DC and Marvel and Ziff Davis. Hillman Publications was another pretty well established company. They were reliable.
Stroud: I remember Joe Giella telling me that Hillman was the first company he did work for at the beginning of his career.
Barry: My first job was with Famous Funnies and I must say that even though it was well known amongst the artists, it was a very difficult company to work for. That was one of the lower echelon companies, to put it nicely. (Chuckle.) You had to wait awhile before you got paid. They made it very difficult for you.
My very first job was a filler page, both pencils and inks, and the whole thing paid $15.00. It was a 7-panel page. I had to wait 3 months for that $15.00. I was all of 17 when I did it and $15.00 to me was like two weeks’ pay. We were so poor that $15.00 was a hell of a lot of money. My mother kept thinking that I was lying to her that I didn’t receive my money yet. (Chuckle.) These were the kind of things we ran into unexpectedly. We just had no idea this would happen.
Another thing that led me into comics was the fact that my older brother was in it and I saw him making money, and it seemed like an awful lot of money, even though I didn’t know that he was doing a lot of pages for that money. (Chuckle.) I mean layouts were like a dollar and a half a page, finished pencils were five dollars a page. My brother worked in a factory. It was actually on a farm. They worked in a barn. There were several artists. He and Lee Ames and Andre LeBlanc and Mort Meskin and several other young men. At that time they were in their late teens or early twenties and they were all in the same boat working in a factory.
What they would do is that a smart guy would take stories from a publisher, take a whole book from a publisher, and instead of hiring an editor and have an established office, they would take on people who would be able to put a book together. Getting writers, artists, getting inkers and band them all together and produce books.
Stroud: An assembly line process.
Barry: Yes, they would make a 35 or 40 percent commission on these books and pay out salaries and all. They paid out piecework. It was like a factory where they paid out piecework just like a shirt factory. That’s how things were done way back then. This was before the war. This was around 1939 and 1940.
Stroud: Right in the infancy of the industry.
Barry: The infancy, exactly. He (Dan Barry) was only around 17 then himself. He’d left school. He left school when he was 16-1/2 in his last year. He’d skipped a couple of times and he just couldn’t see himself finishing school. He didn’t have money and was just feeling too despondent and decided to take his art and make some money with it. And that’s what he did. He began to work at one of these factories and then he began to get his own work and eventually he worked at DC and that’s when I began to work with him when he began to take on some freelance work. I began to help him with backgrounds and I began to do some layouts for him and before I knew it I was getting work myself and so I began to cut down my work with him and eventually got my own accounts.
I worked for Stan Lee and I worked for Julie Schwartz up at DC and I’m sure you know of him. Julie was a writer and an editor at DC and he was very well known.
Stroud: Yeah. He cut a wide swath for a number of years up there.
Barry: He did and he influenced a lot of artists, too. He was a pretty amazing guy. He had his shortcomings. There were things he’d be a real pain in the ass about and I’d have my little arguments with him, but he was a brilliant guy and a very efficient and effective editor. He really knew his job.
I worked in comic books for about 16 or 17 years and then from the adventure work I began to do romance stories, full stories and covers for Phyllis Reed and she was a wonderful lady to work for. Really wonderful. She did a lot of her own writing as well as getting writers to write for her. I was one of her top artists.
Then I had worked up a strip with another guy, Frank Giacoia, and we had a strip idea. At that time he was a dear friend and we worked well together…when I could get him to work. I don’t know if Joe [Giella] has told you about Frank Giacoia.
Stroud: I’ve heard stories from Carmine [Infantino].
Barry: They were on again, off again friends, Carmine and Frank. They would be friends and then have arguments and then be friends again. Their relationship was a very rocky one.
Frank was the kind of guy who was a wonderful artist, but you could not get him to sit down at the board and work. There were times when he was just totally psychologically detached from his work and he couldn’t apply himself and you couldn’t get him to apply himself and he’d have scripts lying around waiting to be done. He’d be holding off the editors and they were going crazy trying to get the work from him. So Joe and I many times had to go over and give him a hand and help him finish up his work or get layouts going for him and tighten them up. He was a good artist, but there were times when he was absolutely paralyzed. He would not be able to put a thing down on a blank piece of paper.
So he had his problems, but he and I developed a strip idea. It was a civil war strip and we had just presented it to King Features and it was under consideration. A couple of months later they called me and they asked me if I would fill in for Wilson McCoy on The Phantom because he was in the hospital. They asked me to do the dailies temporarily. So, I began to work on it, and after I delivered my first week of work, they called me and said, “Sy, this looks like Flash Gordon. It doesn’t look like the Phantom. It’s beautifully done, but it’s not at all like McCoy’s style.”
I don’t know if you remember Wilson McCoy’s style on the Phantom back in the late 50’s, up to 1961?
Stroud: I’ve seen some examples.
Barry: Okay. Well, it was very childish looking, very un-slick and it lacked the real bold and dramatic technique that was applied in those days.
Stroud: A little simplistic, perhaps.
Barry: Very simplistic, and what they wanted was a gradual change. They wanted me to try to duplicate his style. I didn’t realize that. I thought they wanted my artwork. So they discarded it and asked me to do another week of work. So I did it much more simply and they were more satisfied with it. They were worried that the editors would see such an extreme change that they could lose papers as a result. So they wanted me to follow the style and it was just murder. It was so difficult for me to undo what I knew and work in those simplistic terms. It’s almost like being a philosophical writer and then having to go back and do childish fiction stories or children’s stories. (Laughter.)
Stroud: A giant leap backward.
Barry: You had to undo everything that you had developed. Your own technique and your own thinking and begin thinking the way this guy thought. I only gave it about three or four weeks and then it gradually became my style. So by the second month it was pretty much my own technique.
Stroud: That had to be a relief.
Barry: Oh, it was. I hated working that way. It took me twice as long! To do the work simply, believe it or not, took me twice as long because I had to un-think my own thinking in those terms. It was just a whole different process.
Lee Falk’s writing was marvelous. He was just a brilliant writer, but as the years went on, some of the Phantom villains would get lost on islands and never came back. The stories got distracted. The Phantom ended up someplace else and sometimes I’d call him and say, “Hey, what happened to Bababu?” This is one of the villains. “You left him on an island and he’s lost or stranded somewhere. Don’t we need to get back to him?” He’d say, “Don’t worry about it, Sy, I’m working on it.” Bullshit! He wasn’t. He’d forgotten him! (Mutual laughter.) He was totally into another story. He was working his way into another story without ending the previous story. He just forgot that he left the guy stranded there.
These were the things I was running into. He’d show an army and then the leader of this army has a certain name and then in the middle of everything he changes his name. He’s got a different name altogether and a different leader. These were the things that were beginning to happen and I was getting very worried. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I can imagine.
Barry: Another problem I had with Lee was that he would never come through with the script that I wanted. He always kept me behind with a script. Every time I tried to take a vacation and I’d ask him to write several weeks ahead, he never did it for me. He only did it when he wanted to go away somewhere. So when he got an extra script going, I would have to try to work doubly hard to get the extra script finished so that I could take a vacation at that time.
That was the only time I was able to get my work ahead was when he was going away. So I would plan my vacations around that time. So my life was tied to his, not just by way of the scripts, but also vacations. It went beyond the work itself. So he had his way of trying to put me down and he found little things to do to try to minimize my significance on the strip. He was the power on the strip.
Stroud: That’s a shame and it’s not necessary.
Barry: Our relationship was not evenly divided and I was always fighting for positioning and for the kind of credit that I deserved while he was always trying to minimize and withdraw the credit from me. It was so ridiculous and unnecessary. He had his position. He already had all the honors and accolades that he needed. He was given the sterling silver T-square and the gold T-square and the golden compass and everything for all the work that he’d done honoring the work that he’d done on the strip. So he had all the honors. Why did he have to take it away from a guy who just wanted to produce a good piece of art and contribute to the advancement of the strip?
Stroud: It makes no sense.
Barry: Not only was he egotistic, but it’s obvious that he was also insecure. He felt that I was taking a certain amount of prominence away from him. I mean he’d secured his position so solidly. He was one of the officers at the National Cartoonists Society. He never quite made president, maybe because of his personality. (Chuckle.) People could not really warm up to him. He seemed to have this paranoia about people taking away his position in comics itself.
It was well-secured, though. Everyone told him that he was a great writer and had a couple of brilliant ideas like the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician and he had everything going for him. It was definitely a sense of insecurity. There’s no question about it. You wouldn’t be trying to take little bits of popularity away from another guy who you feel might be threatening you when all he’s doing is just doing his artwork and doing his thing and helping make the strips more secure. That’s all I was trying to do. Trying to get some quality into the artwork. That was my principle, to try to get some excitement into it and I felt like I was successful in doing that, because judging from the fan mail I got and remarks from other artists, things they noticed in my artwork that were unusual and so forth helped me know that I was doing well with the strip.
I never felt my own need to have to put him down. I always praised him any time I was asked about him. Publicly or privately. I praised him for having been the kind of genius he was for having developed these two strip ideas and for maintaining them and for maintaining the quality - or most of the quality anyway. (Chuckle.) Over the years it wasn’t quite as well written as it was earlier, but I always praised him for the brilliance of the concept of these strips and the fact that he kept it going for all those years.
Stroud: And what did that cost you? Absolutely nothing.
Barry: It didn’t cost me anything. He deserved his credit and I gave credit where it was due. I always did. If I felt an artist was good, even the young guys coming up, when I saw them developing I would praise them. I told how much I admired the fact that they’d made something of themselves.
There were guys that I broke into the business who later became very successful. They themselves got to do a lot of work and went on to become members of the Cartoonists Society, officer in the Cartoonists Society and not only were they grateful to me, but they were very good. I would praise them for it and years later I would see them at a Society meeting and I’d tell them of my admiration for them. I’d praise them for having made it and contributed so much to comics. Nothing was more important to me than how comics itself was doing. How well it was getting by and how well it was doing. To see young men with extreme talent creating new ideas and new concepts: I admired all this. It kept it alive. It kept it thriving with these new ideas.
I never regretted having lost some of the old techniques or regretted seeing new techniques come in and new ideas and concepts and approaches. These changes are what keep art and comics going, I think.
Stroud: I agree. For some reason you remind me of a story Mike Esposito told me about Burne Hogarth, who he’d studied under. Apparently Hogarth had a rather complicated personality, but Mike said he made it a point to tell him how much his mentoring had helped him and he said he could tell that Burne was touched.
Barry: Oh, that’s wonderful. You see acknowledging this and making it known to the person that you feel this way; not being embarrassed to tell the person that you admired what he did or appreciated what he did and contributed to comics. Because I know what it’s like to work hard and try to establish an idea or a concept or a style. I know what it means. I know the application that’s needed for this and the difficulty and hard work and sweat that goes into it. To maintain that style and that quality is a very difficult task. When somebody acknowledges it, it’s a beautiful thing for them and they feel better. It inspired them. To hear from another artist that they like what you’re doing and especially when it’s someone you personally admire, my God, it’s so inspiring. It just gives you such a boost.
Stroud: What higher compliment could you receive?
Barry: So true. Now you spoke about Bernie Hogarth. It’s funny, because in the early days, one of the things I did with Dan was working on the Tarzan daily strip.
Stroud: I’d forgotten.
Barry: Yes, it was one of the earliest bits of freelance work that I did with Dan. He was paying me on a freelance basis. I was doing layouts for him or I would ink for him. He’d do layouts and I’d tighten them up for him and I would ink them and ink with him. It was just the Tarzan daily. We actually did it for a few years in the early 50’s just before he got Flash [Gordon].
I think he started in ’49 and left it in ’51. It was about a three-year run. I think he got Flash around the end of ’51. There, too, I helped him get a few weeks ahead on Flash. Three, too, he got started on the Flash daily, so I got to meet Alex Raymond. When I got to meet Bernie Hogarth, I went up to his studio, which was in his apartment. My brother had an apartment like that later on.
You would go into the main area of the apartment and it was one step down into the living room area, but there was also a staircase at the end of the living room that went upstairs to the bedrooms, in an apartment house, believe it or not. I don’t know how they designed this thing, but it was really remarkable. So you’d go up the staircase and there’d be a landing there and that landing would take you into the bedrooms. Then in one of the upstairs bedrooms was his studio. It was this beautiful, brightly lit studio and it was on Central Park West.
It was a beautiful apartment and of course he was very wealthy. He’d written anatomy books and he taught and of course they paid him very handsomely on the Tarzan daily. Trust me, he was very well paid, especially for those Sunday strips. He was a brilliant guy. My brother was pretty much an intellect, too, so they had some very good discussions and Dan could hold his own, intellectually and philosophically.
As a result, I began to read up on some of the things they would discuss, like the philosophers and their early writings and I began to study the Greeks so it rubbed off a little on me. I guess it never hurts. I felt that a little learning was not a dangerous thing. (Mutual laughter.) It can even be a very useful thing.
Stroud: It was probably good grist for the mill on your work down the road.
Stroud: It looks like most of your work in the comic industry was pre-Comics Code. Do you think the Code made much of an impact on the industry from your perspective?
Barry: I’ll tell you about those days. During the time that they began to use the Code there was a lot of horror artwork that was being produced. A lot of horror stories and new horror books were coming out all the time. In fact, little tiny publishing houses began to open and turn out these horror stories, paying very little and producing some of the ugliest stories you’d ever want to see. I mean, you’d be horrified by them, which was the purpose of the story, of course, but it upset me very badly, because to me it just represented a terrible deterioration of comics itself and what direction it was going.
Loving comics so much and just admiring every facet of it, as well as the artists themselves; some of my best buddies having to do this kind of work in order to make a living. It so disturbed me. At the time I was working up at DC and DC wouldn’t touch this stuff.
Marvel, or Timely back then was a company that always seemed to be on a rollercoaster. It would produce something like 50 books at a time, and they paid their artists and paid them well, and they had wonderful new ideas all the time. In fact, DC would take 3 or 4 years to develop the same idea that Marvel would use. They (DC) waited awhile, taking a more cautious and conservative approach. But, they were successful because of their caution.
But Marvel always had these new ideas and new concepts and eventually it began to pay off, but the way they would present these ideas way back then in the 50’s is that they would produce a great deal of books suddenly, flooding the market with them, to try to have some impact on DC. They were always competing with DC. So these books would sell in the beginning and then after a couple of months these books were just being left on the stands and they would start to lose money on them, so of course they dropped them. They would go down to like 20 books. Then they would stay on that level and then a year or two later, they’d flood the market all over again. (Chuckle.)
It would always be some new idea. “War stories! We’ll do war stories!” And they would begin to influence the market, and they did this all the time. And before you knew it, about six months later, DC is starting to produce war stories. So their editor, who used to do science fiction, and was buying science fiction scripts and art, suddenly was beginning to change to war stories.
The next thing you know these armies from other planets started coming to our planet and they’re starting wars with us and before you knew it, we got into soldier’s uniforms again. (Mutual laughter.) From futuristic uniforms to present-day uniforms and we’re back in Korea. You’d see some of their best artists working on the war titles. Then Two-Fisted Comics came in with Harvey Kurtzman’s crew over at EC comics.
Stroud: Classic stuff.
Barry: Jack Davis was there, too, and was one of their best artists. What a wonderful artist he was.
Stroud: When you were doing your work, did you use much reference?
Barry: I did. I had my own file and called it my morgue. Particularly for my Phantom work, I had past stories that I could refer to with villains until I developed some of my own. I certainly did use reference for particular places and vehicles and planes and things like that. I needed a lot of reference, so I had a pretty thorough file. In those days, of course, we didn’t have the internet. Now I don’t even need those files. I gave them away because all I have to do is get onto Google for all the reference I need.
Stroud: It has become a game changer.
Barry: It changed things radically, and there are caches of information and links providing thousands of sources of information.
Stroud: Yes, Nick Cardy was telling me that he doesn’t have a computer, but is familiar with how it works and he compared it to getting stuck in a revolving door with no way out.
Barry: (Chuckle.) That’s right, because the more you research, the more you find. It can make it a challenge to find THE picture that you want to use or THE area that you want to use. What I always tried to do was to take several pieces of reference and then make my composition out of it. I never just stole something cold. It’s not a good idea. You leave yourself vulnerable for a plagiarism suit or something if you aren’t careful.
I used a lot of material from libraries and of course I had 60 years of National Geographic at my disposal as well. I’d also taken the time and effort to make a separate index to help me find things when I needed them. What year and what issue. That kind of thing. You couldn’t afford to spend all your time sifting through 60 years of magazines to find an elephant in the jungles of Africa.
Stroud: I have some reprints of classic stories you worked on and I know you did some work on Superboy, but you seemed to do mostly non-superhero characters. Was that by choice or assignment?
Barry: It just happened to be the story that was written at the time. I had no influence over which stories I would take. I did work on Curt Swan’s wonderful pencils and I did work with Jerry Robinson. In fact, I finished a story when Jerry became ill and finished up a Batman story he’d done. He was, of course, very attached to that character. In fact, he developed the Joker. I got to know him way back. He was a friend of my brother’s and I got to know him. Dan moved out of the country for a while and I got to see Jerry every so often. Just a lovely guy, and he’s still around.
Stroud: Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him a few times and of course he’s been very heavily involved in the Cartoonist’s Associations and other activities.
Barry: He always was. He was always interested in and worked on social issues and credit and compensation for reprints and all those things he felt artists and writers had earned and deserved. He worked very heavily to try and improve our lot. A lot of it came to pass, too.
Stroud: I think the title of his new book puts it very well: “Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics.”
Barry: He really is and he knows how to speak. He knows how to handle both sides. He could deal with publishers and executives and how to deal with artists, too, because artists can be very individual. To try to get individual heads together is a very difficult task.
He helped to form a guild many years ago, back in the early 50’s, he and a few of the other guys I knew. One of them we shared an office with and they began the guild and it was working for a while, but then again, the individualism of the artists forced it to break up. Thank heavens other things were happening to help artists get their commissions and royalties on reprints. That’s been a wonderful thing.
You’re probably wondering why I retired. I began to run into more and more problems with Lee [Falk] and there were more and more battles with the scripts and what have you. Also, productively and creatively I felt like I was running into a brick wall. I couldn’t produce any more. I was physically getting tired of it and emotionally getting unhappy with what I was doing and I felt no desire to continue doing something I was unhappy with.
At the time I was beginning to paint and I was enjoying doing that and that’s when I began to think, “I’ve had enough.”
Stroud: Well, if the joy has gone out of it, what’s the point?
Barry: Right, and I recognized that and I’m not unhappy that I did that.
Stroud: After a 33-year run I can’t imagine there’s anything to regret.
Barry: Exactly. 33 years is a long time. I think if he’d been a different kind of individual and collaborated and worked with me I would have been a lot happier and still been on the strip.
As a side note, Joe [Giella] and I worked together in comic books where he collaborated with me on stories and he worked on my strip, too.
Stroud: I was going to ask you about that. I think the world of Joe.
Barry: We’re dear friends. In fact, we went to high school together.
Stroud: I didn’t realize that.
Barry: Yes. Joe and I and Emilio Squeglio, another artist and Al Skaduto who did “They’ll Do It Every Time,” and he passed away about 3 years ago. We miss him dearly. The four of us were very, very close friends and we still are. I just spoke to Emilio the other day. He worked on Captain Marvel for Fawcett Publications.
Stroud: One final thing, Mr. Barry. I ran across a beautiful rendering of the Phantom that you’d done where he’s unmasked. Now is it me or does he look just a little bit like Sy Barry?
Barry: (Laughter.) Do you think so? I don’t know if you have a picture of me, but he doesn’t look like Sy Barry, that’s for sure.
Stroud: Well, your self-portrait and some of the photos I’ve seen show a pretty handsome man, so I just wondered…
Barry: (Laughter.) Thank you. No, no. It was just a face I was trying to produce that should have looked like this when the mask was off. And the funny thing is that you never see his eyes and so I’d never developed what his eyes look like and they’re such an important part of the face.
In fact, Bill Lignante tried putting eyes on the Phantom in the Sunday strip before I started. He was temporarily doing the Sunday and I was doing the daily and when he tried putting eyes in there it caused such a terrible reaction. The nerve of the man. What gall. (Mutual laughter.) I think he was trying to get some attention.
Stroud: He got it!