Jack Adler has contributed so much to the comic book genre right from the very beginning that it’s difficult to underestimate the scope of those contributions. His first job was painting on engraving plates for comic books. He was, in fact, the first to color Superman in Action Comics #1, and he did so much more from that point on, up to and including doing the art restoration on what is generally agreed to be the first Golden Age reprints in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. And leave us not forget his ascension to Vice President of DC comics before he retired.
Jack is as sharp as ever and gave me a great interview, which I’m pleased to share with you now.
Jack Adler: You know what my age is?
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: If my information is correct, you’re 90 years old.
Adler: I am 90 years old.
Adler: Thank you.
Stroud: You and Irwin [Hasen.]
Stroud: I understand you graduated from high school at a very young age. 15, weren’t you?
Stroud: And then you went on to get a degree in Fine Art?
Adler: Yeah, and I spent only one year in college during the day and the rest of it was at night. I worked and was going to college at the same time. I started to get my Master’s, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to afford it. College was very cheap for me. Would you care to take a guess at what it cost me for a semester?
Stroud: I’m sure I’ll foul it up. A hundred?
Adler: Two dollars a term.
Adler: Two dollars. Me, my wife and my daughter. Two dollars.
Stroud: That’s a far cry from what it is today.
Adler: Oh, God. I don’t know how they manage it.
Stroud: I understand you’re a man of many talents. They say that you were a good sculptor, penciler, inker, painter and photographer.
Adler: The only thing that I wasn’t was a penciler. That’s the only thing I didn’t do. I was known as a “can do.” They’d say, “Can you do this?” And I’d say, “Yeah, no problem.” And many of the things that were innovations were all mine. For example the color separation system that was used around the world was mine. I started out by working at an engraving plant with the old Ben Day system where they were doing the Sunday pages and a guy doing the Ben Day, putting the dots on spent one week on one page. On Little Orphan Annie and stuff like that. And there’s no way you could have done a comic book. It involved a problem and I was in a position where I had to do something in order to stay in the field and I worked out the system of color separation, and it was used around the world. I never got any money for it. Never got a penny for it. Not even a Christmas present for it.
Stroud: That’s dirty.
Adler: No, that’s the way it was. Things I had to do. And most of the innovations were…I don’t know how to put this. Someone else took credit for what I did because he was my boss.
Stroud: So it kind of belonged to the company, then?
Adler: That was Sol Harrison. Sol Harrison took credit for it and it sort of belonged to the company. You know who Sol Harrison is?
Stroud: Yeah, you two worked together for many, many years.
Adler: Well, we went to school together.
Stroud: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Adler: We were in the same class. He was in a four-year program in art and I only had one year because I was on a souped-up program. I was intellectually gifted so that I went through school very quickly.
Stroud: It was obvious to me when I learned how early you graduated high school that you had a lot of brainpower. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, didn’t you have some involvement in the first issue of Action Comics?
Adler: Correct. I was working at the engraver doing color separation.
Stroud: Wow. That’s quite a milestone to be there right at the beginning like that.
Adler: I have a sad story to tell you about that. I worked on that first issue and I took three copies and put them away. Some years later I began to have a health problem and the doctor said to me, “Do you have any old paper in the house?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Get rid of it, because you’re allergic to the fibers and that’s causing your problem.” So, I threw them out.
Stroud: Oh, no!
Adler: Do you know what the last copy of that sold for?
Stroud: Not off the bat, but I know it’s a tremendously expensive thing to have.
Adler: $185,000 was what the last one sold for and I had three of them!
Stroud: You’re right. That’s a very sad story.
Adler: I should have killed that doctor.
Stroud: (Laughter.) No one would have blamed you, either. I’m reminded of that recent news article where someone discovered a near mint copy of Detective #27 in an attic someplace in Pennsylvania.
Adler: What did he get for it?
Stroud: He immediately put it into some kind of careful storage and I don’t know if it’s been sold or not, but you can only guess the value of that one, and of course it doesn’t compare to what you’re talking about.
Adler: That was my retirement right there.
Stroud: Easily, but who knew at the time? Back then comic books didn’t have a very good reputation.
Adler: Not at all.
Stroud: I remember Jim Mooney telling me that you’d tell people you did almost anything other than working in the comic book industry.
Adler: (Chuckle.) Right. At the beginning I worked at the engraver’s. Emil Strauss was my boss, the engraver and Lee Woods and Donenfeld made a fortune at the very beginning and Emil Strauss was kind of peeved and wanted to do the same thing, but he couldn’t do it because they were his accounts. So he figured out something that he would do to be in the comic field. It was called Movie Comics. Are you familiar with that?
Stroud: No, I don’t think so.
Adler: Okay. The Movie Comics were done this way: They got the script from Hollywood along with photographs and they put together six pictures per page. The problem with it was that there was no sequentiality with the photographs. They were scattered photographs and it meant that somebody had to straighten them out, which meant that sometimes you had to add a hat or change a tie or change a uniform. Sometimes you had to draw somebody from the back, because you didn’t have a photograph that fit the picture. That required a great deal of art work and it required people who were able to do that. And one of the tools that was required for that was an airbrush. You know what an airbrush is?
Stroud: Yes, I’ve seen them used on photographs and painting custom work on vehicles.
Adler: Yeah. Now I knew nothing about any of that, and he decided that he had to have somebody do the retouching; the airbrushing. Immediately Emil Strauss ordered the airbrush and pointed to me and said, “You’re my airbrush artist.” I knew nothing about how to hold the airbrush. You hold it sort of like a pencil. I held it upside down.
Stroud: Oh, no.
Adler: Yeah. And I learned how to do it upside down, and I became very proficient at it. But I didn’t know anything about it. I wrecked the airbrush the first day and there was no problem about that. He immediately had it fixed and I puttered around with it and never really learned how to do it. Emil Strauss saw that and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to hire somebody to teach you.” So he hired a Hungarian Jew who was a famous newspaperman in Germany. But he was Jewish, and he was having a great deal of trouble making a living. So Emil decided to bring him over and he did. He hired him. And he hired a man called Emory Ghondor.
Now Emory Ghondor was a tall, thin guy who looked like a stalk, and his emblem was a stalk, and he made his living by doing demonstrations with paper and scissors. He’d call out to the kids and say, “What kind of an animal would you like?” They might say an elephant and he’d make a couple of snips in the paper and would have a four-footed elephant with a trunk that was able to stand up. He was just a whiz at it. That’s how he had to make his living. He couldn’t make a living because he was Jewish in Germany. Anyway, he hired this guy and this guy was going to teach me, and I was puttering around with it and never really learned how to use the airbrush and time started to pass and nothing was happening, he didn’t do anything.
One day I said to him, “Emory, I’ve got to start doing the airbrushing. When are you going to start teaching me? I’ve got to start doing the work.” He said, “Okay.” So he takes the airbrush, put some black wash in it, makes a splat; does it again; makes another splat, and again. My heart sank. I realized that he didn’t know how to use it! So I looked at him and asked him how I was going to learn to do this and here’s what he said to me, in his heavy accent, “Don’t vorry, Jackie dear, ve vill learn togezzer!” And so we did.
Stroud: You did some work on the Prince Valiant strip also, didn’t you, Jack?
Adler: Yes. I did four pages of separations with the new system that I had worked out and the publisher…what was his name? I have trouble with names. In fact I had an experience once. My boss then, Jenette Kahn called me in one day and she said, “We’re doing a film, and we’re going to call all the people in from all over the world who have something to do with comics, whether it’s shipping or anything at all related, and you have a good voice, so we’d like you to do the voice over. I died. I died! I walked into my office and I had my secretary, Gerda Gattel, and she looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” So I told her and she knew what my problem was, so she said, “Jack, what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to have you next to me, and every time I have a problem on a name, you’re going to do it.” You know that I didn’t miss a single name?
Note: A little later, Jack shared some more details about his groundbreaking work on the Prince Valiant strip:
Adler: When I was working on Prince Valiant, I did four pages of Prince Valiant with a system that I had devised for doing the color separations, and they were four of the most beautiful pages that Prince Valiant ever had. So I’m working on it and my boss, Emil Strauss, brings this big guy in and said, “This is William Randolph Hearst. I’d like you to explain to him what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Of course I was kind of shaken because I remembered what history taught me about him; that he was the one who instigated the Spanish-American War.
Stroud: Yes, that’s quite a historical figure there.
Adler: Yeah, so I was impressed with the man. He was a big guy. I explained what I was doing and showed him how I was doing it. Someone took a picture and I wish I could find it. But that was the end of my exposure to Hearst, because my boss would not give them a contract. I don’t know what the reasoning was, but he didn’t want to give him a contract and then had me going on to something else. As simple as that.
Stroud: What an unfortunate turn of events.
Adler: I don’t know if it was unfortunate or what it was, but that’s the way it went. My contact with him was minimal and I’m grateful for that contact.
Stroud: Absolutely, and didn’t you say he was very intrigued with what you were doing?
Adler: Oh, yeah. He was delighted and he wanted a contract for me to continue doing Prince Valiant. My boss had other ideas, though and wanted me to move on. I don’t know why he turned him away.
Adler: I have to be careful about what I say sometimes, because I know where all the bodies are buried.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) I’ll bet you do.
Adler: One that was a problem was Kanigher, but I had a good relationship with him. Bob Kanigher and I got along very well.
Stroud: What do you think the secret was?
Adler: My interest in music. We had lots of discussions about music and he was a phony, really. But a great writer.
Stroud: He was certainly prolific.
Adler: But he had a formula that was so obvious. He could write a story on his way into work. He’d come in with the story all scripted.
Stroud: Remarkable. Of course when I was talking to Mike Esposito he talked about how they cranked out that first Metal Men story in record time. By the way, what was the hardest thing to deal with in your shop as far as deadlines? How late did they make changes on you?
Adler: Oh, the only one that was on time, all the time, was Julie Schwartz. He was a gem. Never late. And my name is Jack. I had a problem with him. He never called me Jack, he called me Adler. I think that was his way of being funny and he got paid back once. My grandson worked with us for awhile and saw Julies name and wrote it as Julias. Julie became Julias.
Adler: But he was a gem. I loved him.
Stroud: Len Wein called him a wonderful curmudgeon.
Adler: He was absolutely great, and he was so precise about everything. And he was so knowledgeable. You know what his background was, in science fiction?
Stroud: I know he did some work in the pulps and didn’t he represent Ray Bradbury at one point?
Adler: Yeah. He was his agent.
Stroud: Good eye for talent.
Adler: Yeah. He was a no-nonsense guy. And very calm. He never yelled. He was just never that way.
Stroud: Good for him. You don’t need to be abusive if you know what you’re doing.
Stroud: Now one of the neat things that you did were the washtones. How much of that was your idea and how much was Jerry Grandenetti’s? Wasn’t he involved in that?
Adler: No. I was the one who thought up the idea of doing stuff in washtones for the covers; they were not line drawings, but wash drawings, and I did a number of them to show the artist what I wanted. In other words I did what I guess you’d call the inking on covers in order to show the artist what I wanted; what I needed; and that was it. There were many things that I did that way where I did the first of it in order to show someone how to do it. And I did everything.
Stroud: So you really were the unsung hero.
Adler: I had a problem. The problem was that I had a boss who took credit for everything I did.
Stroud: Sol [Harrison.]
Adler: Yeah, and so whenever I did an interview, I had to say “we.” I never said “I.” And today it bothers me that I didn’t speak up. My daughter, who knows exactly what occurred, said to me, “Dad, you couldn’t, because he was your boss.” In any place it’s the boss who counts.
Stroud: That’s right. There’s always a certain amount of politics that you’ve got to endure.
Stroud: Your story reminds me a little of Bill Finger.
Adler: Oh, God. That really is a crime.
Stroud: Did you know Bill at all?
Adler: Yeah, he used to come to my house.
Stroud: What do you remember about him?
Adler: He was bright. A good writer. And he was uncomfortable because he wasn’t given enough credit for anything. I liked him.
Stroud: It sounds like everyone did. A likeable guy that just took a real shellacking.
Adler: Oh, God. Did he ever.
Stroud: When I talked to Jerry Robinson he was very quick to give Bill full credit for his work on Batman. It’s a sad story. Irwin Hasen lovingly called Bill a loser.
Adler: He was a loser, absolutely. There are people who go through life like that. And there are people who go through life where everything turns to gold. I have a friend like that. There isn’t anything he touches that doesn’t make him richer. He was an engineer working on submarines and he just didn’t like it, decided to other things and he really made out well.
Stroud: Going back to the washtones for a moment, it seems like they sold very well when that technique was used.
Adler: Oh, yeah. Every time I made an innovation, sales went up enormously.
Stroud: But it doesn’t seem like that one was used terribly often. Do you know who made the decision on its use?
Adler: Each editor made his own decision on that.
Stroud: It seems like they were mostly used on the war books by Kubert and Russ Heath. It added a great deal of drama.
Adler: You said Russ Heath is still working?
Stroud: He sure is.
Adler: And Joe Kubert is one of my closest friends. He’s a gem. He’s a gentleman. He’s exactly what the character is: Rock. That’s Joe. Have you met him?
Stroud: I haven’t had the pleasure. I’ve always wanted to.
Adler: He looks like a rock, and he is.
Note: I called Joe up to ask him about his recollections of Jack and he graciously shared the following:
Stroud: When I talked with Jack it occurred to me that Jack had worked with literally everyone at DC and he absolutely adores you and said, “If you get a chance, talk to The Rock.”
Joe Kubert: (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I said, “The Rock?” He said, “Yeah, Joe Kubert.” So, please tell me about Jack, Mr. Kubert.
Kubert: Joe, please. Well, my relationship with Jack; he’s a terrific guy and has been a good friend, and the first thing, right up front, is that a great deal of what I’m doing concerning the school is a direct result of discussions and talks that I had with Jack prior to my opening it.
Stroud: He mentioned that he kind of helped you set things up.
Kubert: Well, the questions I had, I knew nothing about a school or anything that had to do with opening up this kind of an institution, and I tried to get as much of an education in that direction as I could, but the details and the mechanics of it were not really what I was looking for from Jack. What I was looking for from Jack was his information as to what he felt a cartoonist coming into the business should know in order to be assured of being able to make a livelihood at it. And so we talked about what the curriculum should be, which is, of course, the most important factor that has to do with the school. And with that information and with the discussions I had with Jack I was able to set up, I feel, the kind of curriculum that prepares those people coming out of the school to be able to make a living in this business.
Stroud: History has certainly shown you to be correct. You’ve got a pretty impressive string of alumni that lead right back to your door.
Kubert: Yep, and I’m proud of that and Jack also should be proud of that because a good piece of that belongs to him.
Kubert: If I understood correctly, he said you were actually talking about having him on staff?
Kubert: Yeah, oh, yeah, I would have loved to have had him be able to work here, but distances just proved to be impossible, and I know how difficult that would be. One of the reasons that I was able to open the school was that I only live five minutes from the building, and if I had to commute or travel I don’t think I’d have ever opened the school. So I could understand completely Jack having to come all the way from Queens to come in here to teach, it was just too much.
Stroud: Sure. It sounds almost like what Dick Giordano was telling me about commuting from Connecticut into the city when he was freelancing.
Kubert: Yeah. Dick taught at the school here, too, incidentally.
Stroud: I didn’t realize that.
Kubert: Oh, yeah, he was great. He was a terrific teacher.
Stroud: You’ve really had an all-star cast there.
Kubert: I really have. And that, in particular, Bryan, was humbling, because the guys who agreed to come here…I think a great deal of the reason they did what they did was because it was kind of a payback. I think all of the guys, including myself know that without the help of guys in the business, like Jack, it would have been impossible for us to really learn what we had to know. So having acquired that ability and knowing how difficult it is to get that kind of information, I think the guys that came here to teach felt that more. They sure as hell didn’t do it for the money, I can tell you that. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Well, the love for you and the institution obviously showed through. I know Irwin Hasen kind of regretted having to hang up teaching at the school, but things being what they are…
Kubert: When you start hitting 90, I guess things start slowing down. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Oh, yeah. I shared one with Jack just yesterday. He called me back and had another tidbit to share with me and I asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, all things considered, and I shared a line I heard from a gentleman who was in the latter part of his life: “The Golden Years are filled with Lead.”
Kubert: (Laughter.) Well, that may or may not be true, but I tell you, if you’re lucky enough to be able to kind of handle that lead, you can still get along.
Stroud: That’s exactly right. Anything else you’d like to share about Jack?
Kubert: Just to let you know I think Jack was probably one of the most brilliant guys around. You know back in the 50’s I was involved in putting out a three dimensional comic book that included the red and green glasses to give it a three dimensional image to the illustrations. Jack was the first guy that not only figured out how it was done; not only figured out a better way of doing it; but was able to also introduce color on top of that with the mechanicals and the reproduction and the means of doing the kind of work that we did prior to the introduction of computers. Jack was incredible. Absolutely incredible. As you probably know he’s a wonderful photographer. He took beautiful, beautiful pictures. He knew comic book production…any kind of book, production or reproduction backwards and forwards. That guy is really a fountain of knowledge when it comes to this kind of business, plus the fact that he’s the kind of a guy that is more than willing to share it in any way he can. It’s been my experience in this business, and a lot of stuff that I’ve done that the more a guy knows, the more sure he is of what he knows, and the better he knows it, the more apt he is to give that information out to other people, and Jack is really the epitome of that.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, I mean if you’re confident and capable, you don’t feel intimidated or insecure about sharing knowledge like that.
Kubert: Yeah. It’s only the guys that are kind of worried that if they give too much knowledge and information that this guy they’re talking to is going to take over their job; it’s only that kind of a guy with that sort of insecurity that kind of holds the stuff to himself.
Stroud: Yeah, precisely. As I recall on your new TOR series that just wrapped up you did some of your own coloring. Was that a result of what you’d learned from Jack?
Kubert: No, (chuckle) I’m trying to learn how to do this coloring with the computer and stuff. That’s what I’m working with now and I’m kind of stepping in very tenderly, but excitedly and it’s really an exciting thing for me to be able to get a handle on it. Number one to learn a new color process and reproduction and number two to be able to control as much as I possibly can, all the things that go into putting my stuff together.
Stroud: Yeah, and since you own that character, of course you’ve got much more flexibility than you would ordinarily.
Kubert: Yeah, I’ve been a very lucky guy. Very lucky.
Stroud: And your gifts have shown above all else. It’s been remarkable. I can’t think offhand if it was ever done, but was Jack’s gray tones ever used on any of your war book covers?
Kubert: Oh, yeah, I did some wash drawings…under his tutelage, really. He directed me and I don’t recall if Sol, Sol Harrison participated. I don’t think so. I think it was all Jack who really was so knowledgeable with the reproduction factors and how the grays would work and how they should be converted into line from a wash drawing. Jack was extremely helpful to me with that.
Stroud: I’d seen several examples, like your old Hawkman covers.
Kubert: Yeah. There was a Hawkman cover that I did in wash and as I said that was pretty much under Jack’s direction.
Stroud: That was a real pioneering effort by him, and I understand those tended to sell a lot more books when they were done that way
Kubert: Well, I think that’s true of covers in general, but yeah, if you can create something outstanding or something that piques the interest of a potential reader you’ve got the possibility of selling a hell of a lot more books.
Stroud: Weren’t you involved in setting up the art school with him?
Adler: (Chuckle.) Not involved, I set it up. He called me…I have a background not only in fine art, but in education as part of my college schooling, and he called me one day and we talked about it. He asked what was needed and we sat down and we talked about it. I outlined what he needed. He sent it in and it was approved immediately, and then he offered me the job of running it, and I didn’t want to move out there.
Stroud: New Jersey didn’t appeal, huh?
Adler: New Jersey is okay, but it’s way out in the boondocks.
Stroud: That’s neat that you were so deeply involved.
Adler: I laid out the entire program for him and the thing that amazed me is that it was instantly approved.