In 2011 I had the great pleasure of interviewing colorist, cartoonist and total sweetheart, Ms. Liz Berube. Liz had worked with the greats like Jack Adler, Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando and apparently had a ball doing so. Her syndicated strip “Karen” is another treasure. Liz was a fixture on the romance comics at DC as well.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Did you have an interest in art right from the beginning, Liz?
Liz Berube: My mom used to tell me I painted on the walls when I was 3.
My uncle’s bedtime stories (aside from Disney) were from the “POGO” comic strip, by Walt Kelly. There were also some books of reprinted strips that were very popular in the late 40s.
You could say I was “weaned” on them. Very political satire. I still have 6 or 7 original books. They’ve been out of print for 40 years. But I just loved it. Still do.
I look at it now and think, “My God, I was reading this when I was 7?” That was my destiny as far as I was concerned. I was determined to become the next Walt Kelly.
I met him when I was a student at School of Visual Arts – my class was picked for a TV audience, along with Al Capp, Walt Kelly…. and the man who did “Sad Sack.”
I started to gush a little, when introduced ….and he brushed me off. “Yeah, yeah, kid…drop me a line at Hall – and I’ll send you an autographed strip.” All Al Capp wanted was a lunch date.
Yup – my destiny was cartooning … no doubt in my mind. I also used to make little books for family birthdays and holidays. Nothing I liked better, except riding horses and swimming. And, yes – I would have gone in that direction, had it been more available to women. It wasn’t.
I was offered a job with another Walt…Disney, though.
BERUBE: I sent a copy of Bambi with the butterfly on his tail that I’d copied off some comic book back or something. I sent it to him and of course the personnel department got back to me and they said, “We would hire you tomorrow if you weren’t 10 years old. So when you reach 18, contact us (the Disney personnel department) and we’ll see what we can set you up with.”
I was born and raised in New York City. I graduated high school early. I was 16. So by the time I was 18, I was in the business world. I was coloring comic books and in my off times I was a receptionist. I had a lot of friends who had gone out to California told me, “Its plastic! You’ll hate it! Don’t go.” And I took their word for it instead of trying it for myself and I never did get out there. But then, I’ve been gullible all my life. For instance: I actually turned down a scholarship to Cooper Union … because they asked me to teach, after graduation.
I had no real support from my family….and no real knowledge of the art field – so I turned it down. (ME? Stay in a classroom?) Whatta maroon, to quote Bugs Bunny!
So – the wordy answer to that question… is Yes, Bryan…. I carried a sketch book with me everywhere I went …I was very interested in art. Naïve, but interested.
CB: Did you have any formal training in the arts?
BERUBE: Well, I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York and I majored in cartooning. At Visual Arts they have a wonderful program. They go from foundation up. So you learn life drawing, you learn cartooning, you learn everything. I really enjoyed it, but it was such a Bohemian atmosphere that I got very little school work done. It was mostly gabbing in the lunch room and everybody sketching everybody else and that sort of thing, wearing black and drinking coffee. (Chuckle.) I never did graduate. I think I had 1/2 year there left to go.
From there I went to Archie Comics because that was the only thing on the bulletin board that it looked like I could do for an immediate income. They gave me a job right away. I worked as a colorist and as an editor with Victor Gorelick. Vic really taught me the business, in general, from the ground up. From there I went into freelancing and when I couldn’t find work I’d get all dressed up out of Vogue Magazine and I’d get myself a job as a receptionist. I was tricky. (Mutual laughter.)
You would be amazed, but in 40 years things have changed. I went to Dell Comics and the editor, whose name I forget, promised me a summer issue, which was like 80 pages, to color and I was tickled pink. He said, “Why don’t we have lunch and talk about it?” Being raised in New York I was pretty careful about things like that. So I politely declined. I told him I had other plans. And he asked me 6 or 8 times to meet him somewhere for a drink or for lunch. I was 18 maybe at that point. I began to see it was the old casting couch thing that they had in Hollywood. When I finally turned him down quite firmly, he never called back again. Of course I never did any work for Dell.
Shortly after that I met Jack Adler and he got me started at DC.
CB: After Jack passed a few weeks back I was going through my copy of the Amazing World of DC Comics that featured him and Sol Harrison on the cover (Issue #10) and as I was re-reading it, I discovered you were mentioned in there. Maybe you knew that.
BERUBE: Really? No … I didn’t know he’d passed. Once I left NY… most of my friends and co-workers grew “out of touch”.
CB: As he’s being interviewed…the publication date was January of 1976, he said, “…I began to color the covers on a freelance basis because there was no time for them during the day, until we reached a point where we realized that that was too time-consuming. They had to be done some other way and I had been discussing it for some time.
That’s the point at which Tatjana Wood started to color them. Jerry (Serpe) had become a full-time colorist then as did Tommy (Nicholosi). Then Tommy left and Liz Safian (now Liz Berube) started coloring and she’s been coloring ever since.” “Did Liz ever work in your department?” “No, she never did. She worked at Archie Comics, as an assistant editor and colorist. She’s a good artist, too. She did some romance art for Dick Giordano’s love magazines in the sixties.”
So, you made the interview back in 1976.
BERUBE: How nice. I’d love to get a copy. I love saving these things. Jack was always a prince, to me and I’m flattered.
CB: Jack was very gracious when he granted me an interview.
BERUBE: I can’t see Jack as being anything BUT gracious. He taught me an awful lot because I kept coming up with interesting combinations for color and in those days it wasn’t easy for the separators. So he taught me how to draw a line and how to mark it up and I marked up every page with a Rapidograph. Very small, but very legible. And I never had errors in my comics the way the other colorists did. Jack taught me a lot. He knew so much about production and really everything that had to do with comic books. He became a very good friend.
He even got me started in photography because we both loved instant art. Jack was one of the people I was very sorry to leave behind in New York.
CB: He seemed to be a man of many talents and gifts.
CB: It’s remarkable how many innovations he came up with between the washtones and the use of photographs on some of the covers and so forth.
BERUBE: And, he had a fabulous sense of humor. Jack got me started. I went up to DC cold. Absolutely cold. And I had absolutely nothing to show except a few things from Archie Comics. Jack took one look at my colors and said, “You’re hired.” Even when I’d go off to do other jobs there was always a place waiting for me when I came back.
CB: That certainly speaks to your ability.
BERUBE: Good man. It speaks to his loyalty and generosity. I wouldn’t mind having 5 minutes with him again. Just for a hug. 🙂
CB: He used to call me and at one point he said, “Bryan, if you’d like to spice up the interview, I’ve got an idea. I’m going to give you my cousin’s phone number. Perhaps you’ve heard of Howard Stern?”
BERUBE: (Laughter.) That’s funny, because I didn’t realize the connection until I saw it on Facebook. I knew one of his other cousins who was a photographer for Vogue helped my son when he was with FIT when we moved back to New York for about 5 years. Jack was wonderful to David. But I didn’t know that he was related to Howard Stern.
CB: Well it certainly shocked me no end and it took me awhile to work up the courage to use the phone number he gave me, but as it turned out all I could get was a sophisticated voice mail system and I didn’t have the guts to keep trying. The only other time I used it was after I heard of Jack’s passing to leave a message of condolence.
When you were doing your illustration work I noticed that you did a Robert Kanigher script among others. Did you have a particular writer you enjoyed interpreting?
BERUBE: Well I absolutely loved Alex Toth’s more modern stuff, but generally, Bryan, I have to be honest; it was a job to me. I was good at it, but I had a son to support. I was a single mother. This way, I could do it at home and I just didn’t pay much attention to who did what. Except later on when it got to Batman and Neal was my editor. There were a few other people. I enjoyed working for Sal Amendola very much. Of course – Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, Carmine Infantino. Oh – I should mention that Bob Kanigher was helpful in preparing a folio. Nice man. Yes – his stories were more with the times.
There were a couple of others whose names I don’t’ recall right now. It was great because I’d go in and they’d flip through the book and go, “Okay.” No corrections, no nothing, just, “Here’s another one.”
Because of the tricks that Jack taught me, and out of necessity, there were times that I would just color a book overnight and bring it back in the next day. And I was the only one who did.
Pencilers are always late. Inkers are always late. And it comes down to the colorist to make up for the lost time and get the comic book printed. So Jack used to say to everybody, “If you need it two weeks ago, call Liz.”
CB: So you were the Vinnie Colletta of colorists.
BERUBE: (Chuckle.) I haven’t heard that name in a century.
CB: From the material I read it sounds like he was either very much appreciated or very much reviled because apparently he used to commit the cardinal sin of inking Jack Kirby and to save time he would sometimes change the backgrounds by removing characters or it abruptly became the brick wall from a brownstone or something.
BERUBE: Oh, Kirby must have loved that.
CB: People were just furious about it, but I’ve read where more than one person said, “Look, Vinnie never blew a deadline. Sometimes it was not the most attractive thing, but the most important thing to an editor is making those schedules and Vinnie never failed.”
BERUBE: The only time I got in trouble with being late one time…I was going to tell about it – but it has to do with an unfortunate time in my family…so I’d rather not. Let’s just say: “I fell off a horse.” And I totally agree with that theory on Vinnie. If the clock came down to US – and a book was late…. it was “due to the last person holding it.”
CB: Well after all, if your track record was as good as it was that had to have been a very understandable anomaly.
BERUBE: “Track record ” ” I fell off a horse ” ….too funny.
I enjoyed doing the artwork as well. The filler pages were a lot of fun. The ones for the girl’s romance books.
CB: You did quite a few of those.
BERUBE: Yes…and just when I was really getting into it and developing a specific style for it, I kept saying to them, because they kept saying they were going to cut them out, “Turn it into a comic book Cosmopolitan.” Because Cosmopolitan had just made that big thing with Burt Reynolds where he was the centerfold. And then Cosmopolitan became a very popular magazine for girls in their 20’s and 30’s and late teens I would imagine.
I began to turn my pages more and more toward the Cosmopolitan format. Then they offered me the job of giving it one more shot if I’d edit the magazines. And I have to say I had a couple of reasons for not doing it. The first one, and I’m ashamed of this, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t know how I would be able to handle “the boys,” being the only female in the office who knew nothing about editing, or next to nothing. I didn’t know how I’d be able to handle them.
CB: Of course.
BERUBE: The second reason was that I didn’t want to put my son in one of those preschool places that were so bad at the time. I think that would have been the early ‘70’s. There were horrible things happening. It was so convenient to work at home. And then lastly, it’s not that I’m lazy, but I like my comfort and I like my own schedule. And to be able to work at home when I wanted to do the work; if I wanted to stay up all night or if I wanted to work in the morning, I really didn’t want to have to go into Manhattan every day.
It was a totally stupid thing to do, because when I look back at it now, as an adult, (laughter) I don’t consider 24 being an adult. When I look back at it now I realize they were earning $75,000.00 or $100,000.00 a year! I could have hired someone to bring David into the office to be with me.
I think the biggest problem was that I was intimidated. Even though I was very friendly with all the guys and they were wonderful to me. Oh, they were a little flirtatious, but harmless. It wasn’t like the guy at Dell. I was very close to Dick Giordano and Carmine Infantino. I got a real kick, too. I’d come in wearing these short skirts and Carmine would yell, “Liz, you got the best legs in New York!” I’d say, “Where’s that raise, Carmine!” (Mutual laughter.) So there were definite advantages to being a woman at that time.
But I was afraid of failing. As I look back, I don’t think I would have. I might have saved the romance line. (Why not – look what Wonder Woman could do with a couple of bracelets.) Hah… listen to ME…I MIGHT have found a cure for the common cold, too ……. (snort)
Shoulda, coulda, woulda ..
CB: Well, hindsight being what it’s, I applaud your priorities. My wife and I made that kind of decision and we never drove new cars, but we didn’t regret it.
BERUBE: With all the stories in the papers of things happening at the day cares I just wasn’t willing to take the risk, but I was also concerned about how I’d deal with the guys.
Looking back at it now I know they would have helped me. They would have been very helpful, but there were some who would have been jealous of my position in the company. Because I was getting work that they used to get and weren’t getting any more.
CB: I can see where that would be a hindrance.
BERUBE: When you’re young and attractive, which I was; people used to stop me and tell me I looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor, it makes it even more difficult. .. Then there’s a certain amount of resentment, because “she looks that way and I don’t ” I don’t think it’s that bad, now – but back in the 60s ….the cat fights were wild… and priorities were surface, much of the time.
CB: It’s funny that you made mention of legs earlier. I found a couple of examples of your art pieces on the web and there’s one here in front of me titled, “Legs,” and you’ve got some fun little depictions of young women with these long, lanky legs and text with, “The shorter the skirts get, the more looks for your legs, whatever the occasion. Give the legs the attention they deserve and watch the attention they get!” (Mutual laughter.)
BERUBE: Now I didn’t write most of these pages. (I did write that one.) Somebody else did. Like the “Happenings” pages. Or “Love Life” or whatever it was called. It was usually a 2-page spread. I took a lot of my things out of Cosmopolitan. New styles, only I adapted them to the younger people. There was one that Mike (Frigon) keeps talking about and he said everybody talks about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen it on the net. You probably have. I used to call it “Beauty on a budget.” I’m a big fan of Windsor McCay. Always have been.
So I started trying out the little people with the big objects. So I had one girl sitting on a cucumber. Now most men might not know this, but cucumbers are a beauty treatment for many things. But all Mike gets is comments about the sexual aspect of it. He says that I was the only person who put sex into the comic books. I said, “Well, Mike, it wasn’t intentional.” (Chuckle.) It was just something I was trying out. I never really thought much about the cucumber aspect.
I found one blog that I was looking through that somebody was putting me down rather harshly for bringing sex into the comics and the whole cucumber thing and I’m like, “Lighten up.”
CB: One of the things that strikes me about your artwork is the intricate hair. Good grief it must have taken an age to pencil and ink some of these incredibly elaborate hairstyles.
BERUBE: It did. It did. I got that from my mom. She did several beautiful portraits that unfortunately were ruined in a flood. There was one of Katharine Hepburn that was exquisite and she did it by creating the shadows and then erasing to get the light. It was unbelievable. She had one of a woman sitting by a pool with Pussy willows and the hair went the length of the drawing. I was so struck by that I began to experiment with it and it became my trademark, along with the art deco and the art nouveau that I still love. If I was rich I’d do my whole house like Erte.
CB: I bet it would be marvelous.
BERUBE: When I had the comic strip they used to tell me my long legged drawings were like John Held, Jr. who I’d never heard of. And I looked him up and sure enough. I think his era was the ‘20’s or ‘30’s and sure enough there it was and I’d never seen anything of his. Flappers were his thing….
They say that artists put a lot of themselves into their artwork and I had what I thought were large feet and very long legs. Of course over the years that’s changed… So I was just drawing myself as far as the comic books went and the comic strip. I did a comic strip for Newsday Syndicate.
CB: “Karen,” right?
BERUBE: Yes, “Karen.” I’m trying to get hold of Bill Moyers to see if I can get copies. Most of the originals are gone. They were ruined in a flood out here. I think I have 3 originals left. They used to send me tear sheets every week and I don’t know where they went. They were probably in the pile that got ruined. I was very lucky to find a great agent. I had 3 agents, who would rather take me to bed than get me work and then I found this guy named Bill Neely and he liked my work so much that he didn’t even charge me. He said, “When you get going, then you can pay me.” He went to Bill Moyers and he showed him my stuff and Bill Moyers, in turn, took the cartoons to his daughter- whose name was Karen. He said, “Do you think these are funny?” Well, if you look back at the now, some aren’t really funny anymore because the ‘60’s were a different time and girls are actually dressing that way.
Anyway his daughter was 15 and she liked it very much, so he said, “She’s in.” “We’ll buy her.” Bob Gillespie, who was the editor, came to my home and brought the contract and my father, who swore I’d never make it as an artist, and said that I should marry a rich man, you know, the whole thing, how fathers are, (laughter) he broke out the champagne and we had a little party and it was wonderful.
Then … along came life … and “I fell off a horse”…and couldn’t work.
Don’t you just know that the very next week they were taking “Mark Trail” from the New York Post and they were going to put in “Karen.” !!!!
CB: Oh, no.
BERUBE: Oh, yeah. I had 40 newspapers and they were all taking them at top dollar, but when that happened they put in something else and a couple of years later Cathy Guisewite came up with “Cathy.” My God, they were going to put me on the Johnny Carson show to promote it and I was deathly afraid of Johnny Carson. He was so nasty to women. I begged them. I said, “Please. Merv Griffin!” (Mutual laughter.) “Don’t put me on Johnny Carson!” But it all ended anyway, so I guess things happen the way they’re supposed to.
CB: I suppose and it’s always interesting because at that time, and maybe still today, a syndicated strip was the brass ring. Everybody wanted one of those.
BERUBE: When I ran into trouble after my mom died, because I lost my sense of humor, I started buying gags. It was Jack who put me onto the people who could really catch onto my humor. So I was buying gags for a while and just illustrating them. Then it all went to pot. That’s when I got into the filler pages for the romance books. I enjoyed that even more than the comic strip. Almost. I have no complaints – I “peaked” at 24 … and had my “dream”.
CB: Nice. It looks like Dating IQ and Beauty on a Budget were totally your baby, so to speak.
BERUBE: Yes, they were. I did my own inking and coloring, but let someone else do the lettering on them. Once in a while I would do the lettering. I had that little lettering guide. That ancient tool we used to use. My son is trying to get me to do it on Photoshop and so far I just can’t get the hang of it. I’m currently under some tight medical restrictions, too, which frustrate me, because I need more time than just an hour or so in a day to exercise my creativity. But, it will change and improve with time. I will get it back.
I also have a goal to do some convention appearances, but again, I need to get to the point I can do it. I’ve told Mike that I can maybe do it this spring if he gets me a lounge chair so I can stretch out and not have to sit in a seat for an extended period of time. And, as life throws me off horses – I continue to work on commission and illustrate a children’s book here and there.
CB: (Laughter.) Did you use pen or brush for your inking work?
BERUBE: Both. Basically I used to do a very loose pencil, just for position, and I would take a Rapidograph, which nobody uses any more, and I used Magic Markers in a very thin configuration for when I would draw. I would use the colored ones if I wanted to color something in. But I would use a brush for a large area. Anyplace you’d need a large area of black rather than just sit there with a Rapidograph and keep going back and forth. That was a pain to say the least and it slowed me down. I’m very good with a brush. I learned how to do the brush strokes in high school art class. I can work with just about anything. And I surprise a lot of people because there are so many specialists out there. Nobody seems to know how to do it from soup to nuts any more.
Just as an aside, I did a cartoon the other day with a woman in a delivery room, feet in the stirrups and all and suddenly it’s “If you’d like to deliver, please press the “#” sign.” So I know my sense of humor is coming back. (Mutual laughter.)
I was thinking of Non Sequitur for a comic strip, but of course, according to the cosmic consciousness theory, at any given time an idea you’re having is simultaneously being had by at least 5 other people, so of course someone had already come up with this wonderful idea for a strip. I always liked Bloom County, too, as far as strips go.
CB: That was a favorite of mine, too. Calvin and Hobbes, too.
BERUBE: Oh, Calvin and Hobbes. Yes!
CB: I saw it written that you were the last woman to illustrate a romance comic. Is that hype or the real deal?
BERUBE: That’s the real deal. I didn’t know it. I had no idea. I didn’t know I was the only woman illustrating romance comics. And when Dorothy Woolfolk took over when I turned down the editor position, she was much older. She must have been in her 50’s or more and she just wasn’t in touch with the mind of a teenager. So they decided to cancel it.
Sadly, it’s like the soaps…there are just so many ways of saying the same thing, over and over…. and over.
CB: Unfortunate. I know there were a lot of titles and the credits I saw for you included Girl’s Love Stories, Girl’s Romances, Heart Throbs, Secret Love, and Young Love. I mean there was a pile of the romance titles there. Did they all get canceled at the same time?
BERUBE: Yes. They just discontinued the entire romance line. Pretty sure. Trina Robbins would probably know more about that.
CB: Was it Jack Miller who was the overall romance editor at the time?
BERUBE: What do you mean by overall editor? Carmine was the one in charge.
CB: Right, but they had editors over some of the different genres, like Joe Kubert for the war books and Joe Orlando for the mystery titles…
BERUBE: If Jack Miller was a “higher up”….I didn’t know it. Dick Giordano was my “go-to-guy”… and it was Joe Orlando who got me my first pages. It was his idea to have me start doing the pages. I did some really beautiful stuff. I have copies of them, but the originals have walked off. That’s probably how they ended up in Germany and Mike got a hold of one of them for $150.00. That’s actually what I used to get paid for the penciling and inking. That’s back in the day, of course. I’m sorry that I never kept any of them. I mean, who knew? I thought it was all Superman and Batman and those kind of things. I never thought that I would be some kind of celebrity. It’s nice, but…
CB: As you mentioned earlier, quite correctly, back in the earliest days of the comics industry, the thing I’ve discovered from a lot of the folks I’ve spoken to in that first generation, it was, simply, a job. Nothing more than that, and for the most part it wasn’t even what their main desire was. Often they were doing that while they were chasing illustration work in the mainstream magazines or a syndicated strip. Comics was a last resort for a lot of these folks. It was disposable, cheap entertainment that didn’t get much respect.
BERUBE: I was a single mother – I gave it plenty of respect.
CB: On the other hand it was a quick buck where you could get paid each week.
BERUBE: I loved it. I loved coloring. To this day I just love to color. I consider myself more of a colorist than a comic artist.
CB: After all you spent a number of years doing it and I’m presuming when you did so you went from freelancing to a staffer?
BERUBE: No. I was still freelance. If I had wanted to change that – I would have taken on editing the Romance Line.
CB: Okay. It seemed like most of the production people were on staff along with the editors.
BERUBE: As far as I know. I just did my job, Bryan…and the more they gave me, the happier I was. My attention was on my responsibilities to my family and taking care of business.
(along with a monthly run to the Dude Ranch …. to take a break and undo the stress of my working hours .)
CB: I probably conducted the last interview with Ric Estrada before he passed away…
BERUBE: I remember Ric.
CB: He was telling me that when he taught at the Kubert School, being one of the original instructors, was that he had to try to overcome the thought that when you tell your parents you want to be an artist, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, “Oh, you’ll starve.” He tried to point out that many people have succeeded and continue to do so.
BERUBE: Well, I wasn’t Van Gogh, but my work was accepted very openly. I think that the average Joe is concerned with making a living … and, yes, starving is the general train of thought. Joe doesn’t realize that someone has designed the label on his beer…or the cereal box on the table. I think that’s the problem – or WAS. When people mentioned “art”…the train stopped at the Rembrandt station…and few realized how lucrative and enjoyable COMMERCIAL art could be.
CB: You mentioned earlier you’d done some work at Continuity. How did that come about?
BERUBE: In 1985 or 1986 I went back to New York just because I missed it so much and there was nothing available at DC. I think it was Dick Giordano who had started Continuity with Neal and he suggested that I go talk to him. My interview was with Neal’s wife Corey and she took one look at my coloring and said, “Did you do this with a brush or an airbrush?” I said, “That’s all brush.” So she talked to Neal and they hired me that day. I worked “on staff” … and still did freelance for DC.
Once in a while I’d get a comic from DC, but that was when Sal Amendola was doing the job as editor of the Elvira book that they were trying. I did an absolutely fabulous sketch of Elvira and I inked it up and I showed it to him and I said, “Sal, wouldn’t it be great if you got different artists to do their version of Elvira and publish it in each book?” He thought it was a fabulous idea, but it got kiboshed and as a result, I gave Sal the original. I still have many copies of it, though. You want to talk about sexy. That screamed sex. And I meant for it to do that. I brought the hair in draping over her arms and it’s a technique I still use now when I draw. It was too bad, because I think that would have gone over very big. You know, to have a collector’s thing. I even suggested to them…do you remember the old Katy Keene comic books?
CB: I sure do.
BERUBE: I tried to get DC to start something like Katy Keene, because the girls loved that and that’s a market for younger girls. They loved cutting out fashions and putting them on little dolls. But nope, they didn’t like that either. To this day I think it would be a marvelous idea. Or maybe even some kind of coloring book. But, nobody listens to me. (Laughter.) They don’t know what they’re missing.
CB: This is a little off the wall, but I discovered a Phil Berube who did filler pages during the Golden Age at DC. Any relation?
BERUBE: I have no idea. Berube comes from a man I was married to for 10 years and I sometimes get questions about an Alan Berube, but I don’t know any of these people.
I may even drop “Berube “…and go back to “Safian.” Of course, I’ve been saying that since life “threw me off the first horse”….but that’s a horse of a different color!
It’s been fun, Bryan….thanks.