On April 10th, Paul Levitz posted an eloquent tribute to his long time employer, DC Comics, when he shared this:
“DC is officially closing its New York offices today, climaxing the progressive move to Burbank over the last few years. They’ve been kind enough to invite me to a final lunch at the office with so many old friends to commemorate the occasion.”
Rather than write about what the DC office in NY has meant to me personally, let me take today to write about what it’s meant to NY, and vice versa.
The various DC offices over the past 80 years have been a gateway for New York’s young people, originally mostly from immigrant or disadvantaged backgrounds, to bring their gifts to entertain the world. Kids like Shelly Mayer, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Alex Toth, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Irwin Hasen–and in a later generation, Neal Adams, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Howard Chaykin, George Perez, Denys Cowan–and so many, many more, came knocking on the doors and found an outlet for their talents. Based in a city that long opened its doors to the world, DC opened up to people with passion for creating stories and artwork, and to a generation or two of people who came to New York “to get into comics.” It wasn’t the only comics company that did this, but it was the most consistent presence–the only leader in the field to have stayed in the front of the pack for over 75 years, creating opportunities in the greatest city on our continent.
It’s not only writers and artists who came through the DC offices and prospered. A tally of the young New Yorkers who spent an early part of their careers at DC and went on to interesting lives would include publishing pioneer Byron Priess, a host of editors, leading licensing executives, and graphic designers.
The offices have also been a magnet for business change in the comics field. The idea that comics could be original periodicals was first made real and practical in a DC office, as was the first truly successful graphic novel publishing program in America. And would comics have been that same if NY English teacher Phil Seuling hadn’t had easy access to offices to pitch his direct sales idea? The comic shop may have been born in California, but the systems that fed it started here.
Has all this connecting been made obsolete in the era of the Internet and global interdependency? Maybe. There’s certainly an argument that today you can run anything, anywhere.
But New York won’t be quite the same without a DC Comics, and as a New Yorker whose life was shaped by his city and by the DC offices, I can be sad about that.”
After I read the piece I was inspired to go to my virtual Rolodex and contact some of my favorite creators who had walked the halls of DC Comics in some capacity to ask if they’d like to offer a comment or two about this big event, however brief or lengthy. The response was gratifying and I’m delighted to share with you here, beginning with my buddy Clem Robins, professional letterer, former letterhack and the guy who got me started doing interviews back in 2007:
“1700 Broadway doesn’t hold much for me in terms of memories. I think I’ve visited the place three times.
But DC as a NY company means a lot. I remember touring 575 Lexington when I was eleven, and first showing Archie Goodwin my samples at 909 Third Ave. I think the place was at 666 6th Ave. when they began buying my stuff.
I can’t add much to what Paul said. I wish ‘em the best. DC’s a good company.
Bob Rozakis, also known as The Answer Man and the driver of the famed Comicmobile was a stalwart in DC’s production department and he offered the following:
“I left my staff position at DC in 1998 and had last visited the office in late 1999 or very early 2000. I returned in December 2014, when the first wave of moving to LA had already begun.
Even before the migration began, DC’s space had been reduced from five floors to three and things I remembered, like the photostat darkroom and the massive production department had been eliminated.
Still, there were friendly faces who reminded me of good times we’d had decades ago, making the visit (and two subsequent ones) enjoyable. Yesterday’s closing ceremony was a nice occasion for me, as I got to catch up with a few more people I haven’t seen in many years. But for those who were going to LA and those who were not, the party atmosphere may have camouflaged the feeling that “there are people here that I’ve worked with for a long time I may never see again.” I experienced it a decade and a half ago and can only offer: You can’t go back, so face forward and do what you can.”
Carl Gafford was another staffer from back in the day, starting out as one of the “Woodchucks” and moving on to being a talented colorist among his other duties. Gaff had a little bit different twist on the meaning of the move:
“I’m reminded a bit about how in high school or college, freshmen were hazed by seniors and resented it until they, too, were seniors and could haze a new crop of freshmen.
“New York City was arguably the center of commerce, manufacturing, politics and the arts throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. As Frank Sinatra sang, “if I can make it there (NYC), I can make it anywhere.” But, after WW2, manufacturing fled the high cost of real estate for warmer climes and lower wages. The waterways and ports that made NYC a center for commerce were replaced by trains, highways and airplanes. Yet the attitude that you had to come here to NYC just to beg for work stayed long after NYC ceased to attract businesses. I recall one publishing business left NYC in 1976 for San Diego, citing that the inefficient NYC subway system was costing too much lost time for its employees.
“People had to come to NYC to get work in the comics. Even efforts to move to the suburbs for the freelance artists and writers met with resistance. “I had to put up with it when I got started, and I’m going to make damned sure you have to do that, too” (the freshman hazing bit). For instance, DC writer John Broome would spend half a year overseas teaching English to businessmen in France and Japan, and the other half in the States getting a year’s worth of stories approved and written… all under the shadow of NYC.
“I’m reminded of a story that Tony Tollin told me he heard from Shadow scribe Walter Gibson that a reporter could be fired from one newspaper, walk down the street to the city room of another paper and start typing and eventually the editor would notice him and put him on the payroll. Now, many major cities have only one daily newspaper. There was a time when the comics newsstands were filled with comics from dozens of publishers. A writer or artist could go from one company to another with his wares to hawk, or work for some of the art studios that serviced the comics industry.
“As the companies contracted in the post-Comics Code era starting in the 1950s, comics became a harder business to break into. One often became an apprentice, either to an artist or an editorial assistant at either DC or Marvel. When I arrived at DC Comics in 1973, DC had already lost the sales war with Marvel, but DC still acted like they were the MGM of comics. Eventually, talented artists and writers outgrew the NYC companies, with many of them getting into the animation field out of Southern California (I worked for Hanna-Barbera for a time in the later 1970s).
“The advent of Federal Express, Express Mail, DHL, fax machines and finally the internet drove the final nails into the NYC monopoly on comics. People didn’t even have to commute to a cubicle in the office anymore, but could tele-conference from home.
“To the romantically inclined who envisioned writers and artists coming in to weave a world of fantasy for teeming masses, those ghosts often belonged to businesses or offices long since closed. DC moved three times in the years I lived in NYC, Marvel at least that many. If there were any ghosts there, it was those of the many shady publishers who squeezed their creative people for every page they could get at the smallest rate without residuals, and then toss them on the slag heap with yesterday’s trash.
“NYC did little to help DC or the other comics publishers, and deserves the loss of income and other tax revenue as DC joins all the other companies that fled a bloated, elderly carcass calling itself a city. It’s just a wonder that it took this long.”
Steve Mitchell spent his time as a Woodchuck, too and went on to be a talented inker. He migrated to the Golden State some time back. His recollections are here:
“The end of an era to be sure, but the move to Burbank is the beginning of a new era. Comics and Hollywood have become closer with every year, and every mega million grossing film, so the move was inevitable. The idea of DC moving to Los Angeles is not, however, a recent idea.
“Some years ago during the 90’s my mentor, and employer, Dick Giordano was on one of his many visits out here and he discussed the possibility of DC moving west in some capacity. It sounded like, at the time, that DC would have a second office. After all, DC was a WARNER BROS. company. It said so on his business card. For some time I expected DC to have a west coast office, but it never really materialized. I got the impression that Dick and his trusty co-worker, Pat Bastienne were interested in packing up their wagons and heading west. I liked them both and it would have been swell, to have them in the “hood.” Sadly, the west coast office never came to pass.
“I grew up in New York City, and because of that I had access to all the offices and it was easy for me, sort of, to break into comics. I went to High School three blocks away from the 909 Third Avenue offices, and I was a constant pest/visitor looking to show my stuff to the editors in the hopes of breaking in. I also just liked hanging around at a place where all they did was talk about making comics. Sol Harrison, the notorious production manager, who scared the crap out of me when I was young, even though I was a foot taller than he was, saw me walking the halls one Easter vacation, and said to me on that Wednesday, “if you’re going to hang around…you might as well get paid.” I reported to the production department the next day and auditioned for a summer job. I didn’t know it was an audition, but it turned out that way. I worked that summer as a lowly gopher, art assistant, and delivery boy. I also on a couple of occasions was sent to fetch cigars for publisher Carmine Infantino. I was the low kid on the totem pole, and I could not have been any happier! I saw a ton of great artwork, and I learned a lot about the business. Unforgettable summer for a wannabe fan boy.
“Eventually, I became Jack Adler’s assistant at 909, and those offices were a lot of fun. The “Blue Jean generation” as I insist they be called, broke in to the biz when DC was at 909, and because of the coffee room that was at that office — shared by sister company employees of Independent News — there was a lot of socializing. The coffee room, which had a couple of vending machines, became sort of a meeting place/clubhouse for freelancers. Neal Adams held court in that room on a near daily basis. He had free studio space which he shared with Murphy Anderson, at 909. Both of them were handy to have around in case something needed to be penciled or inked at the moment. There was a lot of creativity going on in those halls and I loved being there!
“From that point on I experienced all the DC offices one way or another. I was on staff in the production department at 75 Rockefeller Plaza; just down the street from NBC. I also became a freelancer during that era, and I delivered work there. While it was also a fun office, it felt a bit more button down, even though it was the 70’s and things were still loose and mostly fun.
“Here is my favorite 75 Rock moment. On a rainy, dark, sort of dreary morning, that was typical for NYC, during the summer months, I was working in the production department, and uncharacteristically for me, I got in rather early. The only other person in the office was Sol. He was always the first in, and the last to leave, and he was a bit shocked to see me walking down the hall that morning. “You’re early,” he said, with his perennial poker face — Sol kept a check on his emotions most of the time. Anyway, we meet right in front of Archie Goodwin’s office where Sol noticed an art size envelope leaning against the door. It was from Alex Toth.
“Sol picked it up and said, “Let’s take a look.” He opened it up — committing a Federal crime by doing so, I think — and removed a batch of pages that comprised the famous Batman story with the bi-planes which was published in Detective 442… “Death Flies The Haunted Sky.” Sol set the pages on a flat surface and turned the pages at an even pace. He was calm as he did it. I was buggin’! This was such a cool story and I was along with Sol, the first east coast eyes to see this now famous and classic Toth story…before everybody else.
“Like I said, I was going nuts as Sol turned each page. When he was done, he turned to me and with just a hint of a smile said, “Nice job.” That Friday, a bunch of freelancers went nuts like I did, because Archie summoned everyone and any one that walked by his office to come in and take a look at what would become, justifiably so, one of Toth’s best color comics jobs. As crappy as the weather was that day, it was bright and sunny in the halls of 75 Rockefeller Plaza, because when you could lay eyes on new work by Toth… it was for pros and fans alike a very good day.
“By the way, Sol was probably the biggest fan in the company. He kept it to himself, but he really was very proud when DC got special work from the greats like Toth. He loved the company more than any one knew, I think. I liked Sol a great deal even though most folks found him to be somewhat cold and impersonal. It was really just a mask. The company owes him a great debt and even though he made a good living, I don’t think that he ever really collected for all the blood and sweat he gave the company.
One other good memory…I met my wife, Barbara, in those halls. She did not work for DC, but her company shared our floor, and coffee room. As was the case, for me, interesting things happened at DC coffee rooms.”
Joe Staton, whose long career as an artist included many milestones at DC with the Green Lantern title and the Huntress, with Paul Levitz, gave some great insights:
“There was the day, back when if you worked for DC you could just go on up to the offices and wander the halls. My sister and her son Timothy, who was probably about six at the time, were passing through so I was taking them up to 75 Rock for a visit. As we passed Al Milgrom’s office, Al rushed out and swept up my nephew. Al was trying to explain to an artist (I think it was Michael Golden, not sure) how he wanted Bat Mite to fly around. So while were all laughing hysterically Al was running up and down the hall with Timothy in hand, being used a visual aid. Jenette’s [Kahn] secretary stuck her head out of a meeting room and yelled “Would you people please be quiet! We’re trying to save the company in here!” That was just before the Implosion hit.
“Or there was the time a bunch of serious-looking guys wearing long coats motioned me and everybody else back away from the bank of elevators. I later found out this was so Richard Nixon could go up to see an editor at Warner Books.
“I worked for DC for over thirty years, with breaks and distractions, but always seemed at home wherever they had their offices. Paul Levitz called me to come in to 75 Rock in ’75, and we hit it off. I’d been finishing The Hulk for Marvel and he was looking for finishers. Paul was probably Editorial Coordinator then. The book editors were in charge of the content, but he was in charge of getting things on schedule and keeping them on schedule. He was so young, but then I wasn’t much older.
“The DC offices got to be my home away from home. I think I probably knew everybody who worked there way back when. Sometimes I’d pick up Famous Amos cookies on the way in and pass them around.
“I’d walk down the hall and generally wind up with more work than I came in with. Mike Carlin would need somebody for a Batman Adventures Annual and see me go the door. “Joe, you want to do this Annual?” Or Joe Orlando would call “Hey, Joe, you want to work for me at MAD?” Or Paul Levitz and Paul Kupperberg would have another idea for SHOWCASE for me. Or somebody would need a cover done on the spot, or somebody’s pages would need to be reworked somehow. Or Mike Gold called me in to come in work on an ad for the DC Explosion, before it was the Implosion. I’d pick up work and I’d do work somewhere there during the day. It wasn’t just me. The feeling was open and freefloating. It was fun.
“Sometimes Tex Blaisdell would be inking some pages and telling tales. Adrienne Roy would be coloring away, always with that great smile. Once Curt Swan got some Superman pages returned and decided he didn’t want to take them home some he was going around handing out his originals. Joe Kubert would wander by, looking at what everybody was doing. Or I’d have the chance to hang out with Steve Ditko when we waiting around. When Dick Giordano came in, he’d always be inking away, wearing a three-piece suit. Once Marty Pasko was working on an On-Star project for flash animation, so he basically locked me and Rodney Ramos in a room and we penciled and inked constantly ‘til it was done.
“I think now I’m amazed that any work ever got done, since it seemed that I was always going to lunch with somebody. Always the Indian buffet around the corner with Andy Helfer, trying to be healthy at the American Charcuterie with Karen Berger, or indulging at the Applejack with Joan Hilty. Once there was a weird lunch where Sol Harrison rounded up a bunch of freelancers and pontificated about something over lunch. I never did figure that one out.
“And Joe Orlando heading out one day with this other guy: “Hey, Joe, you want to have lunch with Russ Heath?” So that was fun, conversation and jokes never to be repeated. Joe was my favorite and I had a lot of meals with him especially toward the end, sometimes at the Society of Illustrators, sometimes at an Italian place around the corner, but especially at an Irish pub up the street. I wish I had taken notes of Joe’s stories about his old neighborhood, his time in the Army and, particularly, tales of EC. Joe was a link to so much history. And recipes, he talked a lot about Italian cooking.
“Sometimes there was a meal with Paul Levitz, but it got to where he was so busy, that happened less and less. There was once, I was working on something with Marty Pasko and (I think) Paul Kupperberg, and Paul L stuck his head in and asked us to lunch. Marty apologized we couldn’t really were working right then. “So I guess you guys really are working.” I’m sorry we turned him down that time, but we really were working.
“Things changed after 9/11 and it wasn’t really fun to go up in any building in NY anymore. You had to be checked in and out and have an appointment and a destination and you couldn’t go from floor to floor without a key. And, with a change of regime, I didn’t feel welcome any more. The DC that I worked for hasn’t existed for several years.
“But, more than anything else, Paul Levitz isn’t there anymore. Paul was the soul of the DC that I knew and without him, it doesn’t really matter where they hang the nameplate.
But there was a time. It was fun.”
John Workman, another wonderful production guy, had some remembrances that dovetail nicely with Joe’s and the open atmosphere at DC helped launch he and good friend Bob Smith’s careers, as you’ll see:
“I knew in the 1960s that I loved the comic book form when I realized how one could do things with that method of storytelling that could not be equaled by any other combination of words and pictures. Even the ever-growing amount of words that filled the increasing number of non-illustrated books that I had acquired, when run through my mind and joined with the pictures that I created there, could not equal the overall impact of comics material done by Will Eisner or Jack Cole or Alex Toth or Carl Barks or Jim Steranko.
“Today, the relatively recent advances in 21st century movie-making that allow unbelievable visual elements once seen … and accepted … only in comic books to seem natural and realistic do not mean that motion pictures can supplant the visual part of comics because the individuality of the line-work of Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, and so very many others could not be easily recreated in the same way on-screen.
“By the time I was twelve years old, I realized that I wanted to be a part of the creation of comic books. Thirteen years later in the summer of 1975, after almost ten years of making money off of drawing and writing everything from advertising to comics stories on a level that I considered just a notch above “amateur,” I had my chance. Mostly because of a handful of pages that I’d written and drawn for Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, Mike had put me in contact with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano at their Continuity Associates in New York City. When I talked up the abilities of Bob Smith who had been working with me for several years, Dick urged the two of us to make the journey from our home turf in Aberdeen, Washington to the Big Apple. “We’ve got work for you,” he said.
“And when we arrived in New York City, Bob and I did some work for Continuity, including inks on a Bugs Bunny ad for CBS and a day’s worth of drawing on a “Six Million Dollar Man” book. In the meantime, we had picked up some things to do for Marvel and paid a visit to DC’s Rockefeller Center offices. At the company that was still known as “National Periodical Publications,” we met and showed our art samples to young staffers Jack Harris and Bob Rozakis. They liked our work well enough to usher us in to see the company’s Vice President Sol Harrison. Sol looked at our work with interest, but told us that he had nothing to offer, softening the blow by sending us along to see Joe Orlando.
“Joe didn’t offer us any work at DC, either, and we noticed that he seemed on the verge of falling asleep, the result of long hours spent freelancing in addition to his editorial duties at DC. Knowing that in order to survive economically, we needed to be a part of the creative team on at least a couple of books that would provide regular work, we stopped by to see Gerry Conway. Gerry was editing the new Plastic Man series, and Bob and I had, while still out in Washington, started working on a Plastic Man story. I’d written a précis of it, and Bob had drawn and inked the first page. The lettering had been done for that page, so it was all ready for us to show to Gerry, but he was especially busy that day, so we made an appointment to see him early in the following week.
“A few days later, we made our way from the seedy hotel that we were staying in on Staten Island to that appointment and arrived a bit early. The DC receptionist told us that Gerry was in a conference with a writer, and that we would have to wait. Bob Rozakis came by and saw us sitting in the reception area. Smiling, he asked, “What are you guys up to?” “We’re here,” I explained, “to see Conway.” “He’s not doing anything right now,” Bob said. “Come on!”
“Feeling that something wasn’t quite right, Bob Smith and I followed Bob Rozakis down the hallway that connected the editorial offices, one of which was Gerry Conway’s. As we continued walking past Conway’s office, I saw that he was, indeed, talking with a writer about an upcoming issue of one of the comics that he edited. Turning toward Rozakis, who had advanced down the hallway, I stopped short when I saw where he intended to take us. We were all headed toward a door with lettering on the outside that read “Carmine Infantino, Publisher.” When I’d told Bob that we were waiting to see Conway, my mumbling manner of speaking had caused him to understand that we were there to see “Carmine.” When I tried to inform Bob that a great mistake was being made, he repeated, “He’s not doing anything right now.” and opened the door to Carmine’s office.
“Inside, we were introduced to the artist who had been one of my heroes since the time prior to my teen years. I considered and then dismissed the idea of telling Carmine that, when students in my junior-high-school art class were required to write a paper about the life of an artist, I’d written about Carmine Infantino rather than Leonardo or Michelangelo or Van Gogh. We sat down and Bob Smith and I began to search through our respective portfolios for some things that might be worth showing to the guy who headed up DC Comics. At first, I thought that Carmine might just turn us both away, telling us that we needed to learn more about anatomy, perspective … everything … before we could seriously think about working for DC, but then something wonderful happened.
“As he went through the pages of comics that Bob and I had created. Carmine started talking about how we brought to mind the days over thirty years before when he and pal Frank Giacoia had gone from comics publisher to comics publisher attempting to find work as artists. Looking at more of the pages, Carmine seemed to become energized and excited by those examples of our individual and collective art. He began calling for Sol Harrison, Jack Adler, and Gerry Conway all of whom came into Carmine’s office to look at our art. We walked out of DC that day with work to do.
“Bob was given sample pages of Plastic Man to ink with the results confirming Carmine’s decision that Bob would be the new inker on the Plastic Man book. I was instructed to create cover lettering for an issue of Detective Comics. When I brought the lettering in the next morning, I was offered a job in the Production Department, an on-staff position that included all the freelance work that I could do during my off-staff hours.
“All this had happened because of years spent in continuous work at experimenting with ink on Bristol board, but our good fortune that day was mostly the result of my tendency to mumble. Because of that, we had become employees of a company whose comic books had been an important part of our lives. When I later, somewhat reluctantly, left DC in order to take the position as Art Director at Heavy Metal,
“I made it a point at that new job to see every person who brought me illustrations and comics material. The prospect of finding some truly wonderful creators and their unique work made the necessity of skimming over page after page of the mediocre and the atrocious palatable. In looking back over the decades to the Rockefeller Center offices and that incredible time when people such as Julie Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Bill Gaines, Curt Swan, Kurt Shaffenberger, Wally Wood and Joe Orlando (not to mention Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, and Christopher Reeve) were no more distant that a few steps down the hallway, I find one rather sad certainty: It couldn’t happen again today.
“After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, businesses in New York went a little bit crazy. At DC, by then located a bit more uptown and across from the Ed Sullivan Theater, the friendly informality was replaced by a much colder tone that would have been normal in the world of Winston Smith and Big Brother. Where once I could pop into the DC offices just to say “hello” to the editors and other staffers and to perhaps make use of one of the bathrooms, the new rules made it necessary to call first and to set up a time for a meeting.
“Then my appearance in the lobby of the building meant that one of the guards would call upstairs and, after a few minutes, an intern or assistant editor would come out of the elevator and accompany me to the DC offices. Such restrictions do not make possible the kind of unintended but serendipitous meeting that Bob Smith and I had with Carmine Infantino on that summer day in 1975. I’m hoping that, in their new Burbank offices, the DC people will welcome all visitors and be willing to wade through tons of substandard and mediocre material in order to discover the truly outstanding things that young comics creators can bring to them.”
It isn’t difficult to see how times have changed and inevitably we must change with them, but the memories will always remain and the mark that DC Comics has left on New York City and those who worked there is obviously an indelible one.
I’m indebted to those creators who took the time to share with me and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about the real life characters that made it great as much as I did.