When you get a chance to interview a Golden Age creator, you jump on it. From 2012, it’s the great Ken Bald!
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You must have been a comic fan from the beginning based on that contest you won in More Fun Comics #9 as a young man.
Ken Bald: Yes, but I was first impressed by Hal Foster. He had a Tarzan strip first before Prince Valiant and I thought that was great.
I went into comics when I graduated from Pratt because it was a job and there were 5 or 6 of us who graduated. There were illustrators and quite a few went into advertising bullpens in the big agencies. They started in the bullpen at $15.00 a week. We went out to Jack Binder’s studio where everything was piece work, but the first week I remember going home with $55.00. So it took off from there.
We didn’t make much per page. On the backs of those 17” boards we worked on we had a list of what you did. The layout guy who roughed things in had his name down and he got so much and the ones that did the secondary figures got so much, the ones that did the main figures, which was what I was mostly associated with got so much and this is all penciling mind you. The inking on secondary got so much as well as the main figures and the background and of course the lettering, so you had sometimes 6 or 7 guys working on the same page.
That was how it went for a while until Jack Binder made me the art director and that paid so much and after that I just did the covers. That was good work.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps December 7th, 1942, a year to the day after Pearl Harbor. So I really only worked for Jack from late May or early June of 1941 through 1942. We got so big that we moved to 507 5th Avenue which was between 42nd and 43rd which was great. We had 30-some guys working on the pages at that time. Jack Binder was great to work with. He and Olga his wife were wonderful people and he had a daughter that was awfully sweet, too.
We were great out there in Englewood, New Jersey where we started. There were maybe 10 of us when this all started in his living room which had drawing tables all around it and then we got so big he renovated this area above a barn/garage kind of thing. It was very nice, actually and that was when we’d grown to a group of 30-some odd and moved into New York City to be closer to our clients like Street and Smith and Fawcett. Most of the famous characters we did, such as Captain Marvel, Bulletman, Bulletgirl, Mister Scarlett, Spy Smasher and Captain Midnight were for Fawcett.
Then for Street and Smith I know I did Doc Savage, Mandrake and some Ibis the Invincible. It’s been so many years now. It’s crazy. (chuckle) Then in December 3, 1943 they sent me overseas. I married Kaye October 30, which was a Saturday and that Wednesday we went back to Camp Lejeune where I was stationed and the following Saturday, one week after we married, they sent me to San Diego and Kaye followed me out as soon as she could, but by December 3rd I was aboard ship and I served for 25 months before I got back. I did well. We saw a lot of combat in the 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. I eventually ended up a Captain. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
But while we were at Binder’s it was great. We could take a 2-hour lunch and play 6 or 7 innings of softball right across the street. We were mostly young guys and then we’d work late into the night because it was piece work so it was all about how much you wanted to work and how long you worked as far as how much you made.
When I came back in the early part of ’46 I went to Timely and met Stan Lee and we really hit it off and became very close friends. He had a studio apartment in the Hotel Alamac up on 77th Street and Broadway and I’d meet him there and we’d go out in the evenings. He started me out writing and drawing things like Millie the Model and a whole slew of those girl magazines and then Captain America. Later it was Namora and Namor, the Blonde Phantom and Sun Girl. I did a lot of girl stuff along with Captain America and Namor.
I actually drew Millie the Model in Paris because my wife, Kaye, who performed on Broadway and had a wonderful career as a singer and actress, was invited to perform in France and she accepted with the stipulation that I could come along. So I was able to do my work and send it back to Stan during the period which was about six months. She sang all through France and Belgium. It was sort of a delayed honeymoon for us and it was delightful. As I mentioned before, we had a quick wedding and a week later I was shipped out overseas.
Kaye took a break from her career when the children began to come and later, after our third child was born she began to do so many television commercials they dubbed her the “Commercial Queen.” She did a large number of them and I believe she was in her 70’s when she did the last commercial.
She also had a starring role in a movie she did in California while we were stationed out there. She stayed with my aunt and uncle in L.A. and signed with Columbia Studios and was in several movies there. Then she had the opportunity to star in a movie titled, “An Angel Comes to Brooklyn.” It was a musical and featured a great song called, “It’s a Great, Wide, Wonderful World we Live In.” She gave it up, though when we moved to New York to pursue my career.
She’s a Brooklyn girl that I met while I was at Pratt because my best friend was Vic Dowd, who is her brother and that’s how we met. It’s worked out beautifully and she’s still good looking at 88.
CB: Good for you! My brief chat with her on the phone made me feel like she was an absolute delight.
BALD: She is. Marrying her was one of the smartest things I ever did. I’m not giving you much except for the fact that I got to put Millie the Model in Paris while we were there. We lived not far from the Eiffel Tower and Paris was great. I was introduced to escargot and loved it.
Thinking back, we had no idea that we were in the Golden Age of comics at that time. Comics to me were a step toward illustration. I kept trying to do illustration and advertising while I was doing this stuff for Stan and while I was doing all the covers for American Comic Group. That included titles like Lovelorn and Romantic Adventures and western covers and scary ones; The Unknown sort of thing.
Eventually a fellow up in Boston had seen some of the commercial comics I’d done and he had an idea for a syndicated strip called “Three Against the City.” He came to see me and did a script for one week and I drew it up and we gave it to King Features and they had it for a month and then they decided that it was too much “big city,” to try to sell throughout the Midwest and so forth. But they did say they liked the artwork and when they had what they considered a saleable strip they would call me. Usually you think that’s a lot of bunk, but almost two years to the day they did call me with this idea for “Judd Saxon” who was a troubleshooter for a big, major conglomerate that would go one time to offshore drilling rigs and then to Asia for some other thing they were investing in. It was an adventure kind of strip that included business.
At that time they had “Executive Suite,” and other big business themed things like that which had been popular in the movies so they were trying to capitalize on that and asked me to draw it. So I did that for 7 years, and it did okay but it never got a Sunday page. So then they came up with the possibility of doing “Dr. Kildare.” They said I would have a Sunday strip immediately and I think I did that for 23 years. There was one full year where I didn’t have a single day off. It was when I was doing “Dark Shadows,” which was a 7-day strip with the 6 dailies and the Sunday and “Dr. Kildare” which was 6 days and a Sunday.
Meanwhile I was still trying to do the advertising work that paid and so for one year I could not take off a day, it was so much work. So at the end of that year while Dark Shadows was really big in the bigger cities, particularly the East Coast and West Coast along with Chicago and Detroit; it didn’t do too well in the Bible Belt. They couldn’t buy into a vampire hero evidently. I liked doing it and the people at the Daily News in New York got more mail about when it got dropped than they ever had up to that time. People liked it, just not enough. It was not carried by King Features.
I had to sign the strip “K. Bruce.” My middle name is Bruce. King Features didn’t want me to sign it “Ken Bald” or whatever I was using on “Judd Saxon” and “Dr. Kildare. “ I hated in a way to give it up (“Dark Shadows”) but financially it wasn’t doing very well whereas “Kildare” always had a big overseas market in places like South Africa and Japan and at least one Chinese paper and of course Europe.
So I kept that up and also did some movie posters in the ‘50’s for films with Mario Lanza and “Frisco Bay” with Alan Ladd. In addition I did some book illustrations and of course the advertising work. Advertising work paid better than most anything else. Consequently I didn’t do any comic book work since the middle ‘50’s.
CB: So you missed out on all the backlash at the time.
BALD: And now with the website and all (www.kenbald.com) I’m back to doing the comic work again. (Laughter) It’s like I’m starting all over again. So far the most popular commission I’ve done is Captain Marvel, but I’ve been asked to do Sun Girl, Blonde Phantom, Namora, the Sub-Mariner, Doc Savage and of course lately there’s been a demand for the Dark Shadows stuff. I owe that to Johnny Depp. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: That’s created new interest, I’m sure.
BALD: It certainly did. We got to see it at their invitation, Kaye and I, and it seemed like it couldn’t make up its mind if it was going to be campy or drama. That’s what I thought about it, so it was a bit of a disappointment in a way. It had a few good laughs, but I was disappointed. I preferred the way it was on the television series.
CB: My wife and I went to see it and I had a similar reaction. I didn’t dislike it, but I don’t think it will become part of my personal movie library.
BALD: I’d like to reiterate that everyone I worked for and with was very nice and kind. Stan Lee and his wife Joan are still some of Kaye and my closest friends. He just recently sent me a picture of the two of us at the last Comic Con in New York and it was the first one I’d ever attended. It shows the two of us sitting together and he’s doing his autograph and I’m still laughing in the picture because he’d just said, “Can you believe it, Ken? They pay $50.00 to stand next to me while I’m sitting for a picture, and they line up to get it autographed for another $50.00. Is that something else?” Anyway, we talk quite often and our wives talk more often than we do. He also sent me a photo of him signing when he got the star on the walk of fame or whatever it was just recently. I am very proud of that friendship. We go back to 1946.
Until just the last few years, where I’ve had to give up flying we used to go out there pretty much every spring we stayed with Stan and Joan both when they lived on Long Island and then when they moved to L.A. Unfortunately we don’t travel like that anymore. I played basketball until my 84th birthday, but my knees aren’t that good now, so I teeter and totter some, so I’m a lot more careful. It’s kind of a shame because I’ve been an athlete all my life and love football and basketball. In fact I’ve been a fan of the New York Giants since I was probably 17 years old.
CB: I see you’re going to be a guest at the Baltimore Comic Con in a few months.
BALD: Yes and Michael Finn put out a nice press release about it. This will be my second one since the one back in March that I mentioned earlier.
I wish I still had more of my originals. Syracuse University has over 1,000 of my Judd Saxon strips and a doctor who is a collector has all but cornered the market on my Dr. Kildare run.
All the things now are new work and I just continue to think it’s funny that after 70 some years of being a working professional artist that I’m back to doing what I started with. (Laughter.) My memory may not be accurate, but it seems to me that back then, doing main figures was worth a dollar and a half or at the most two dollars for the pencil work. Inking was about the same. So I estimated that the total cost of a page to Jack Binder might have been $17.00 or $18.00 back in the day. But of course because it was piece work you tried to get it done as quickly as you could to get by. One of the things the artists, including myself, used to do was to put a lot of back views into the panels. Those were much easier to do, drawing the back of the head and the shoulders and such. But then I think it was Rod Reed at Fawcett who started saying, “Backside Binder.” We had to do less back views. (Mutual laughter.)
Oh and before I forget I wanted to mention another very close friend of mine, Kurt Shaffenberger who did Superman for a long time and Supergirl and Superboy. He remained for his whole life doing the comics. I think he stopped in his late ‘70’s. I went to his 80th birthday party and I’m glad I did because he died shortly thereafter. I also knew Clarence Beck who originated Captain Marvel and his wife, Hildy through Jack Binder from the time when I was doing Captain Marvel.
CB: The original crew. What a wonderful opportunity. You worked on so many characters, but did you have a favorite?
BALD: As far as overall, it was Barnabas Collins, but for superheroes I guess maybe Bulletman was my favorite at the time. But of course I was happy to do whatever assignment I had given to me by Stan or whomever I was working for.
CB: You’ve had a wonderful career.
BALD: I’ve had nothing to complain about. I’ve met nice people, had my scholarship at Pratt renewed which helped me get my start and had a very good life.