Interview: Al Plastino, the Classic Superman Artist Part Two Bryan Stroud August 22, 2014 Interviews Concluding the wonderful interview we began last week with the great Al Plastino. Bryan Stroud: Did you have a favorite person who was a scripter for you? Al Plastino: Jack Schiff was the early editor at Superman. I don't know if he's still alive. He was very nice. And Jack Adler was the colorist. I got along with him all right. And Harris I think his name was. He used to color, too and he was the one who went to bat for us to get our name on it and the royalty. He fought for it for the artists. I get royalties for the early work I did and the reprints. They make money on those reprints; my God do they make money. I get a full list of the sales they make and what they pay for pencils and inks. That's why I make so much because I get paid for pencil and inks. Stroud: You were the one man show. Plastino: Yeah, in fact I had to correct them a few times. They'd say, "Oh, no, you didn't pencil it." I said, "What do you mean, I didn't pencil it?" Here's what happened. The girls, when I worked for Ray Van Buren, who did beautiful women, beautiful women with pen and ink, by working with him, melded into making my drawing of women. So the women didn't look different in Superman for awhile there, toward the end and they thought Reuben Moreira was drawing them. I said, "Are you crazy? I'm drawing my own stuff." I worked for Ray Van Buren who did beautiful work. The guy was an illustrator one time and I worked with him for quite awhile. So I got to look at his way of drawing women and it was great. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from everybody, I think. Ernie Bushmiller's stuff. Nancy was the toughest strip to draw. The toughest. Stroud: Really? Why is that? Plastino: Because he was a real German draftsman. And every line meant something. He drew simply, but clean, crisp lines of a certain thickness. No less, no more. No brush. In fact, I had to use a fountain pen for his stuff. Stroud: Oh. Plastino: I used to dip it in the ink and I got a consistent line with the fountain pen. It didn't spread. It held its consistency. Stroud: Oh that's a very different way to work. Plastino: Oh, my God, it was tough to do, believe me. When they finally gave this other guy the strip in California it lasted less than a year. He murdered it. He murdered the strip. And eventually just dropped out. They said I was too old to continue. I think I was 65 then. Too old. Why, you bunch of boobs. Stroud: (Chuckle.) Yeah, I don't know how they can put an age on talent. Plastino: Yeah, well see at United Features, 65 and you're out. Not the artists, but the people that work on staff. After 65, boom! Out. No matter how much talent you've got. But anyway it worked out all right. I wasn't too concerned about it after it happened. I decided to quit and said "Let me retire, I think I've had about everything." Stroud: So how many years altogether were you in the business? Plastino: Let's see, my God. I started in '47. I ended in '81. Stroud: That's a good, long run. Plastino: That's a long run. Even younger than that. I mean I was in high school when I got my first job. There was a magazine called Youth Today, in high school. We'd get it once a month and they had a contest. If you win, you get $50 and they put your drawing on the cover. So I won that twice. Then I won second prize, third time. So Mr. Cooden, I'll never forget his name, the art director, he says, "Look, Al, we'd like to hire you because we can't afford to keep giving you prizes." Stroud: (Laughter.) Plastino: You know the format was like The Reader's Digest. Stroud: Oh, yes. Plastino: That's what I was doing for him. So I would read the copy and make some sketches and show him and he would approve them or disapprove them, but most of the time he approved them and I would ink them. I read the article in the paper. Chesler said, "Black and white artist wanted." So I said, "Let me go and see this." It was comics. And he said, "Hey, kid. Throw that stuff away. You work for me. Make money." He always had a cigar in his mouth. When I went to him I think I was about 18 years old. I was also copying paintings in the Metropolitan when I was a kid of 13 or 14. A Renoir I did, right there they'd set you up and you could paint from the original. Then I got a few commissions. I did a couple of Rembrandt's, Sargent's. You name it, I did it. Stroud: You've always been interested in art, obviously. Plastino: Since I was a kid as far back as I can remember. And I was encouraged by my brother, my oldest brother, who was a good artist and I used to watch him as a kid, drawing. I'd also watch him making model airplanes, which got me interested in it. So I had a pretty active life. (chuckle.) Stroud: I guess so. Did you ever think you'd be able to make a living at it? Plastino: No. My Dad was the one who encouraged me. In fact, he's in Who's Who of Italian Americans who made it. He was THE hatter of Manhattan. He made all the hats for all the Presidents. He made La Guardia's hats when La Guardia was Mayor of New York. He made the Governor's hats. He made LBJ's and the last hats he made were for President Kennedy and his wife. [Editor's Note: We couldn't find a picture of Mario Plastino, but we did find a page of patents he registered for hats] Then my dad went into hunt caps, so he made him a top hat, a felt hat and a riding hat and he gave his wife, Jacqueline a top hat and a riding hat for jumping horses. And then Kennedy never wore a hat, right? And the hat business took a nose dive. It went right down the tubes. The hat business just died. He never wore a hat. Truman wore a hat, LBJ wore a hat. Everybody wore hats, but he didn't wear a hat. In fact they say if he had a hat on in that car, he might be alive today. Stroud: I hadn't heard that before. Plastino: When you're aiming at something and you've got a little distraction…his head was large. That's why he didn't wear a hat. I thought he looked good in the felt hat. So my father was THE hatter. Luckily he went into the equestrian hats and he survived and my brother survived with it and now my nephew runs the company. My dad lived to be 96. Stroud: Ah, so you've got some good genes. Plastino: Yeah, my grandfather died in his sleep at 98, I think it was. My aunts were in their 90s. (chuckle) Great genes I guess. Golf. I'm an avid golfer. I love golf. I used to play with Jackie Gleason at Shawnee. I met Gleason because his group would come out following our group, the cartoonist's and I got to know him real well. I played with him for six years at Shawnee. Stroud: Oh, fantastic. Plastino: Ah, it doesn't mean anything. He was a nice guy. I liked him. He was an all right guy. Stroud: It had to be pretty fun. Plastino: Well, he was a pretty serious guy when it came to golf. I don't know why I'm rambling on. You're bringing back memories. Stroud: I don't mind at all. I'm enjoying every minute. Plastino: My Dad would drop me off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd go Saturday and he'd pick me up at night. And then I tried working in the factory and I was burning the candle at both ends and he said, "Look. Go back to art school." "I'm not sure I can make a living at it." "If you keep up, you'll do fine." And that's what kept me away from the business. My two brothers went into the business. I stayed with the art. Stroud: Did you know any of the other creators very well? Jerry Siegel, for instance? Plastino: Jerry? I think I met him once at Shawnee for the cartoonist's golf outings. I met a lot of guys there. Gus Edson of The Gumps. These guys were characters. You talk about characters. (Chuckle.) They were half-bombed half the time. Yet they could do their work! Otto Soglow did The Little King and the guy I never liked, even though he was the greatest artist, Hal Foster. He was so obnoxious. The guy was a great artist, I mean great and I looked up to him. I met him at Shawnee. Big, tall guy. And he knew he was great and he boasted about it. And I said to myself, "You're not supposed to do that, are you?" But he was a great artist. My God, when he did Tarzan, oh, God that was gorgeous work. Gorgeous. Stroud: Yeah, it seems like he and Milt Caniff were the ones that inspired everybody. Plastino: Milt, now there was a nice guy. Milt was a great man. I met him just twice. Just before he died I think I met him at the castle in Connecticut. The cartoonist's castle. They show all the work there. Some of my work is there. And I met him there. I think he was about 91 then. He was a great guy. He was such a pleasant man to talk to. There were some good guys. Nice people. Pleasant. Answered questions nicely. Wouldn't think you were a jerk, you know. Because I always thought I was a jerk. "How do you do that? Well, what time do you do it?" You know crazy questions that I used to think about. By the way, I still do recreations for cancer funds. I just came from an outing yesterday and I did Superman and Luthor in an action scene and they auctioned it. I don't know what they got for it, but the one I did, who I can't stand, is Tiger Woods, because I'm an avid golfer. I can't stand this man. But I did one that got $1,100. I don't know if you ever watch golf, but they lifted what they call the loose impediment and about 10 guys lift this rock up so Tiger can hit the shot without hitting the rock. So I got Superman lifting a tremendous boulder, tremendous boulder. So, Tiger Woods and his caddy are coming over the horizon where the ball is and the caddy says, "Superman!" And dopey says, "Wow!" Tiger Woods. (chuckle.) They got $1,100 for it at the auction. Stroud: Wonderful. Plastino: Most of it went for Jerry's Kids for Muscular Dystrophy research and some of it goes to churches and I don't get a dime. It's all donated. Stroud: Good for you. Plastino: I've been doing that for over 20 years. Stroud: Do you do commission work that you sell? Plastino: Yes. I make covers for different people and commissioned them, but you know what happens? There's always something that's not in the original. Like a fold. These guys count the folds! One guy says, "Al, you've only got three folds. The original has four folds." I said, "Hey! (laughter.) What do you want me to do? It's still my work. I'm trying to copy it as best as I can for you." What? Are you guys kidding me? Another guy said to me, "Al. Something is wrong with Superman." I said, "What is it?" He said, "One hand has nails and the other hand doesn't have the long nails." It's a cover of him on a different planet, and he's got a beard, and his nails got long. Stroud: Okay, like an exile thing. Plastino: Yeah, you only see one finger, but, "I don't see the long nail." I said, (chuckle) "Hey, fella, do me a favor." (Laughter.) So I stopped doing that. I said I'm not doing that, to heck with it. I got paid well, but it's a lot of work. You gotta get the lettering right, you've gotta color it. Stroud: Right, all that stuff you're not used to doing. Plastino: And then I never send frames with them. I wouldn't do that. I sent them matted. And so I did a nice job. In fact I have some of them here, because before I send them out I make a copy of it. There's a machine at the library and I make a copy of it in color, so I've got copies of all my stuff. Just in case it gets lost. (chuckle.) That's happened, too. Stroud: That would be heart-breaking. Plastino: Does Jack Binder sound familiar to you? Stroud: I think so. I wonder why? Plastino: He worked for Chesler. And he said, "Hey, kid! You want to help me out with these…" He was doing pulp magazines and he let me lay out a whole page in pencil, and then ink it and he'd give me $5. And it was a big deal; he'd give me $5.00. "You learn anything, kid?" I said, "Yeah, I'm learning." Which I didn't mind. I enjoyed it because I was anxious to do anything. When you're young, you'll do anything. Stroud: Sure and you're kind of in an apprentice status. Plastino: Yeah, and his brother's still alive. He does writing for Superman. I'm trying to remember his first name. Otto. Otto Binder. He's a nice guy. But the thing that got me is they try to take advantage of you, right? And I was still a little uppity in those days, so I did a story for him, a six-page story, and he had a reputation that he was very tough on paying. So I went to his apartment and I took him the story. He says, "Very nice, Al, I like it. I'll see you later in the office and I'll pay you." I said, "No, no, no, no. You pay me now." "What do you mean now?" "Now." One thing led to another and this is a true story. I went into the corner of the room and I held the six pages open in a tearing position. I said, "If you don't pay me now I'm going to tear these." "Oh, no, no, no, no, don't tear the pages!" They were paying $9.00 a page. (chuckle.) Stroud: You got your point across. Plastino: Oh, I was going to do it, too. He said, "Okay, okay." I'd heard he had a bad reputation and one time I got paid 10 cents on the dollar. The company I worked for, a couple of guys, went broke. So I learned my lesson. No more. I want the money now. So I got it. Stroud: No kidding. You didn't need any broken promises. Plastino: We became good friends. He said, "Al, I don't know." I said, "Look. I've heard stories; I witnessed some of this stuff myself personally. People, who are going to pay you later, sometimes don't pay you." What are you supposed to do? Get a gun and shoot 'em? I don't want to shoot anybody. (Laughter.) Stroud: And you can't eat a promise, either. Plastino: Right. So that's the end of my stories now. You got enough material there? Stroud: You were very generous. Plastino: But I did meet a lot of nice people, believe it or not. Stroud: Who were your favorites? Plastino: Other than the editors I already mentioned I dealt with the other guys. I tolerated them. Nobody got along with Mort [Weisinger]. Nobody. Everybody had something to say about him, but I put it in print. (Laughter.) He's gone now, but it was a cut-throat business in those days. Cut-throat. Here was the approach they'd take: "Hey, Al." This is Mort. "Hey, Al, you know there's a guy here wants to do Superman for $20 less than you get." My answer was, "Give it to him." And that was the end of that conversation. They always kept trying to keep you below them. I don't care what it was. "You're below me." But I'd tell them, "I'm above you. I'm the artist. You're an editor." I made that clear. In a nice way. I wasn't always belligerent, but they got to me sometimes. They really got to me. Stroud: Well, you can only take so much of that after a while. Plastino: I'm of Italian descent, and proud of it! Stroud: Yes. Plastino: First generation. And Jackie used to call me… I don't know if I should say it. You know, the word. He'd say, "The little skinny G can sure play golf!" Stroud: Oh, yeah, yeah. Plastino: And I didn't mind. I got a kick out of it. He said this little skinny guy can hit a ball. See they started Jackie Gleason with woods, all woods. I don't know if you play golf. You've got to have woods and irons. Stroud: Right. Plastino: And Ed Sullivan talked them into all woods and Fred Waring. So we got to this one hole, quick story, we got to this one hole, a par 3. So I take a 7 iron, bang it on the green and it was all water around this green. All water surrounding the green at Shawnee. So he gets up with his woods and knocks one in the water. He knocks two in the water. He knocks one over. He's going crazy. So he picks up the bag, a leather bag. In those days they were $300 a pop, today probably much more. A big leather bag, he throws everything in the water. He said, "If I can't play and hit the ball like Al, I'm not gonna play this game any more." Jackie Gleason and I became good friends and played golf together for the next six years. Getting back to my story about Boltinoff in the art room… We were all in the art room. I don't know if Neal was there. A lot of guys were there. We'd come in with our artwork and we'd talk and maybe we'd have corrections to do. Murray Boltinoff comes out of his office and yells, "Hey, you!" To me, he says, "You, you, you! What the hell is your name? Come with me!" Well, I put the pencil down, and I excused myself with the guys, I went into his office, closed the door and got him by the collar, and I said, "You obnoxious, insecure, nasty person! If you ever yell at me again I'll… You call me Mr. Plastino or else! I wouldn't work with you on Superboy if I had to starve to death!" So when Ellsworth heard the commotion, Ellsworth came in and he said, "Al, what are you doing? Come on; come on, what's happening?" I said, "I'm not working with this…" You know what I said. "I'm not working with him. And I refuse to work, I'm gonna quit." "No, no, no, no, Al, don't quit. Work with me. You want to draw Batman?" I said, "Yeah, I'll do Batman." And that's how I got the assignment. Whitney Ellsworth Plastino: And the two guys that were responsible for my having a lot of articles done were two fellas, one from England, named Jim Kealy and one from Tennessee, named Eddy Zeno. Stroud: Tennessee. Plastino: Yeah, the names are on the article. And they were very good to me. Very good. They bought some of my work in the beginning and now I just send them stuff. Every time I've got something new I send it to them. And they were really nice, they sound like you, a nice guy. You sound like a nice guy. Stroud: Oh, thank you. I do my best, Al. I've been having so much fun talking to the old creators this year and everyone has been very, very kind. Just like yourself. Plastino: I know someday, the articles I've been interviewed for; I'm on tape, on cable, cable out here. They showed my work and how I do it. I did Batman demonstrations; I did some talking to this man. I don't get paid. Nobody pays me anything, but it's nice to have for my grandchildren someday to look at. "Grandpa was a pretty big guy." And I'm a pretty good looking guy, you know. (chuckle.) Stroud: Yeah, I saw that drawing of you. Did you do that drawing of yourself? Plastino: Yeah, oh sure. I draw portraits of myself. That I worked from a photograph. You know, when you're a kid, there's nobody around, right? (chuckle) So you look in the mirror and say, "Ah, what the hell? I'll draw myself." Hands, you know, and there's a mirror in front of my desk. A big mirror. And you want to get an expression on a face; you look in the mirror, and draw. Stroud: Sure. You've got to have a model. Plastino: With a hand, you put your hand in the mirror, toward the mirror, and you handle a gun, or a guy going like this, it's there, right in front of you. The action is right in front of you. So I believe in that. Anyway, that's it. Stroud: Were there any characters that you really didn't like drawing? Plastino: Superdog. (Laughter.) I can't see a dog flying through the air with a cape. I never did Supercat, though. And a dog is tough to draw, you know, even though I owned a couple of dogs at one time. Flying. You know, it's crazy, what do you do with that? Stroud: You're right. You bring up an excellent point. That's an unnatural position. Plastino: The dog's flying. (Laughter.) It's like a dog jumping. Four legs, all apart. It's all right. One time I had to draw him in multiple action scenes. That takes time. Stroud: That had to be just maddening after awhile. Plastino: Yeah, but I enjoyed everything. I still paint. I exhibit at the galleries. Watercolors. Oils. I sold one of my wife sleeping in a chair. It's called "Noon Nap." Oh, she's gorgeous, my wife. When she was 18, I was 35. Stroud: Well, a good looking guy like you, why not? (chuckle.) Plastino: And her sister is Millie Perkins, the actress that played in The Diary of Anne Frank, by George Stevens, who directed the movie. She was a fashion model, and picked for the part from 10,000 girls. This stuff, just one thing leads to another as I talk. (chuckle.) But my wife is still a beautiful woman and I was doing Love Story covers when I met her and I was living with my sister in Jersey, in Fairlawn, and I was going to New York on a date and I stopped for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, just enough for the road. When I walked in I saw this beautiful young girl and her girlfriend and two guys sitting at a table and I was looking at her and I was doing Leading Love Stories covers. If I saw a pretty girl, I would ask her to pose. I would take a photograph of her, naturally. Anyway, I was going back out to the car and I caught her eye again. I said, "Al, if you don't go back in there and speak to that girl, you'll never see her again." So I went back in again. Being a shy guy, you know. (chuckle.) I went back in again and told her my story, and the two guys didn't say a word. When I tell you who the two guys were, you're gonna drop. And she says, "You'll have to ask my mother." And I says, "Fine, I'll call Mrs. Perkins any time." The two guys at the table were Tom Lasorda and Ron Perranoski, the pitcher. They weren't anything then, they were young guys. Stroud: Oh, holy cow. Plastino: Yeah, yeah, how about that for a story? And they didn't say a word. Not a word. Ron Perranoski was a big guy. He was the pitcher for the Dodgers and Lasorda was a short, stocky guy, but he was a young kid. A young guy. We were all young. I was 35; they must have been 18 or 19. What could they have been? Anyway, so a week later I call her mother. A gorgeous woman, beautiful woman, and she said "Okay, Mr. Plastino." I said, "Call me Al." She said, "Okay, Al." Or Alfred, call me Alfred. And she said "I trust you." I said, "Mrs. Perkins, believe me, she'll be fine." So I took a photograph of her, and we started dating. We dated for a year. And I've still got the cover I did. I've got her and I've got me in a Lieutenant's outfit, kissing. We're kissing. What the hell, I might as well put myself in it, right? (chuckle.) Stroud: You bet. Plastino: And it was the only cover accepted in watercolor! Because in those days, pulp covers were cheap reproductions, and if you did it in oil, which I did, you've got to exaggerate the colors. A yellow's got to be YELLOW! A red's got to be BRIGHT RED! And different colors have to be exaggerated. That's why those paintings never amounted to anything ‘cause they were over done color-wise. So when it came to the reproduction, it would come out great. Stroud: But then the original didn't look good. Plastino: Right. Because the process was very, very poor. So when I did mine on watercolor on a board, the guy says, "Gee, I don't know if we can do a watercolor." I says, "Well, let me test it." So he calls me up, he says, "Great, Al, it turned out great." I said, "Good." And it was all speculation. Believe it or not I got $150 for a cover. That's way back, though. Stroud: Not a bad fee at all. Plastino: Yeah, well, at that time it sounded good. As I'm talking, I'm thinking of other things I did. I don't want to talk any more. You know, another thing. One more thing. Stroud: Please. Plastino: I don't go to conventions any more. I was there one time at the hotel near the Madison Square Garden. They set you, blah, blah, blah, so it was supposed to be a three-day thing. So the first day I'm there, I'm sitting at a desk and guys come up to me for my autograph. So I'm signing them. Drawing a little picture. But I'm not getting any money. I didn't think I was supposed to get any money. There's a guy next to me getting $25 a shot. So I says, "Hey, what the hell's going on here?" He says, "Aren't you getting paid?" I said, "No. They seem like nice kids." In fact, we never signed our work in those days, remember?" Stroud: Right. Plastino: So I said to this one kid, "How do you know it's my work?" "Oh, we know your work, Mr. Plastino. The way you draw folds. The way you draw this or that." They go by the way you draw things. I said, "But we never signed it." We used to sneak in our initials once in awhile. On the covers I'd sneak my initials in some corner there. But I said, "What am I doing here? I'm not gonna stay here." So I got up and went home. And they called me up and said, "Mr. Plastino, where the hell are you?" I said, "I'm home." And I told them the story. They said, "Well, why didn't you ask?" "I'm gonna ask for money? What am I, a beggar?" If it's a thing that's supposed to be done, have a sign: "All autographs and illustrations, $25." Or whatever. So I said, "I'm not going anymore." They call me up from time to time, "Oh, come on." No, no, no, no, no. They've got that big one going in San Diego. I said, "No, I'm not coming. I'm not gonna go." "Why, Mr. Plastino? We'll pay your fare." What the hell does that mean? You're paying my plane? What about the room and food? No, I just don't do those any more.