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.
Read Part One of this wonderful interview here.
Read Part Two of this wonderful interview here.
Stroud: When they had the so-called DC Explosion, with the introduction of all the new titles how did that affect you?
Adler: It didn’t affect me at all. I just had more work. I had a good crew and I was able to get the stuff out. When I was originally made production manager, at that point they were paying a fortune for shipping the plates because every one of them was late. They told me that my job would be to try to correct it, because it cost a fortune. So what I did was that I worked out a system. What I decided was to do it without telling anybody and what I did was when the schedule was made out I added one day each month. Nobody caught on except Julie Schwartz who came in and said, “Adler, what are you up to?” He was the only one who understood what I was doing. Eventually I got it down to where everything was shipped on time.
Stroud: When they did the oversized issues, what sort of challenges did that present?
Adler: I had to make copies from the old books and I figured out a system for bringing out the image. They asked me if there was any way I could copy the stuff that was in the books and I gave them two systems. One was a very simple system that didn’t get very good copies, but needed a lot of clean up work and the other one was sophisticated, but slow and expensive. And of course they chose the cheaper one, and that was the way it went and they made the larger books.
Stroud: Sounds like quite a challenge.
Adler: That’s what I lived on. I wasn’t aware of the things I’d accomplished until the convention when I was given an award.
Stroud: San Diego.
Adler: In San Diego. When I ended the interview on the question “How do you feel about it?” I said, “I’m proud of all I did.” It was the first time I realized all that I had done. You know when you’re doing your work, it’s simply your job, and I just never thought about it.
Stroud: It adds up.
Adler: When I look back now, it was quite a career. I hate to sound like I’m bragging.
Stroud: Well, as they say, if you did it, it’s not bragging.
Adler: Correct. Correct.
Stroud: Stan Goldberg and Mike Esposito told me that the paper and ink quality at Marvel was so poor that they had to make the ink lines extra thick. Did you run into any of that?
Adler: No. I checked every page and our stuff was fine. And as far as the color was concerned, I had total control. I was responsible for the change in color at DC. I was never interested in anything that Marvel did. I never looked at their stuff, their coloring, nothing. I was only interested in what I could do for my company.
Stroud: So you were competing with yourself.
Stroud: Do you remember when they drew you and the other members of the production department in the Inferior Five comic book?
Adler: I was in a number of comics. I was kind of a foil for them.
Stroud: Okay. That was the only depiction I’d seen of you.
Adler: I don’t remember that one.
Stroud: I’ll send you a scan of the page.
Adler: Okay, good.
Stroud: You said you taught Neal Adams quite a bit.
Adler: Adams sat with me and when he caught on to what I was doing, he came in and sat with me and asked questions of everything I was doing. He wanted to know all about color and color production. The only problem I have with Neal Adams is when they do an interview with him about me, he talks about Neal Adams.
He is great, though. A great artist. I think there’s only one artist who was better and that was Alex Toth. He was a gem, and one of the things I’m proud of is that Alex Toth liked my coloring and asked me to color a story of his, which I did. He needed no color really. The title of the story was “A Dirty Job,” and it had to do with the crucifixion, and he’s the only one who ever showed the crucifixion without the gore. He showed it from the back. And he just showed the crown of thorns with the light emanating from it. He was great. The thing that was great about him was not what he drew, but what he left out.
It wasn’t just the clean lines. You look at his drawings, and you look at a girl’s face and there’s nothing on there. Two little dots for the nose, the eyes and the mouth and it was a gorgeous girl, and there was nothing else. No shading of any kind. Nothing. It was just a beautiful girl. He drew a figure like that. Nothing in there. What he left out, you saw. You were able to discern what was there. He was also the only one who didn’t care about money. He gave his stuff away. I wish he had given some to me. I could have asked him for anything, and I just didn’t. To me he was amazing, just amazing.
Stroud: You’re obviously a fan, as is Irwin Hasen. He really liked Alex.
Adler: If you speak to Irwin Hasen, give him my best.
Stroud: I’ll be happy to. When did you retire, Jack?
Adler: About 25 years ago.
Stroud: So you’ve had time to reflect on your career. I was going to mention that Todd Klein has a webpage and he recently posted what he described as one of his very few treasured pieces of original artwork, which is the color guide to the debut of Swamp Thing in the House of Secrets that he received from you and your signature is on it.
Note: Speaking of Todd Klein and his website, I noticed that Jack’s assistant, Anthony Tollin had commented at length about Todd’s article on coloring and shared some fairly technical information on the topic which includes some comments about his old mentor:
I really enjoyed your memories of ancient comic book coloring, Todd …
… but did Jack Adler actually permit you to color with a Winsor-Newton series 7 #3 brush. He routinely instructed colorists to work with a Winsor-Newton series 7 #7 brush, which laid down color at a much faster rate. And he made sure we used the bigger brushes from our first assignments. The series 7 #7 brushes still came to a super-fine point for small detail work, so they could even be used for full-process color assignments where our coloring was actually scanned, but they really did speed things up for conventional comic book assignments.
I certainly enjoyed the better offset (as opposed to letterpress) printing and the better paper stocks, but found the higher-grade Baxter paper stock could have an overly-bright “Day-Glo” quality, so on books like THE SHADOW STRIKES I routinely traded in the 100% yellow, magenta and cyan tones for 10% and 24% K (for key plate, or black) tones. On THE SHADOW STRIKES, I desired a slightly muted, somewhat retro rotogravure quality that I felt better evoked the 1930s.
I found dropping the 100% really worked on the brighter Baxter paper, which Adrienne Roy and I eventually also used when coding THE NEW TEEN TITANS Baxter series.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Marvel colorists had one less color tone available during the Silver Age, while DC colorists lacked two. 1950s and 1960s Marvel books didn’t utilize the 50% yellow, while DC colorists weren’t permitted to use the 25% or 50% yellow tones. This severely limited the color palette available. (I suggest your readers scroll back up to your color charts and imagine dropping any lines of color that included the 25%, 50% or 75% yellow tones, coded Y2, Y3 & Y4.) Neal Adams successfully lobbied to use all three yellow values when he started coloring some of his own stories, which is why we finally saw Batman’s costume colored a dark gray (25%Y, 25%R, 50%B) rather than the earlier light purple (25%R, 25%B).
When I colored three issues of Alan Moore & Steve Bissette’s 1963 for Image, I purposely restricted myself to the same colors (minus the 50% yellow) that Marvel colorists had available during the 1960s. And I did without either the 25% or 50% yellow for one of my last DC jobs, a retro story drawn in the 1950s style. (It was the first time I ever received royalties for my coloring, and ironically I was paid those royalties to make the stories look the way they had when Marvel colorists were earning something like $2 per page.) It’s really amazing what DC colorists like Jack Adler were able to accomplish during the Silver Age with a color palette that only utilized a 100% yellow.
One more quick comment: Sometime around 1970, Chemical Color in Bridgeport Connecticut purchased new cameras which unfortunately used the same dot patterns for both the magenta/red and cyan/blue dot patterns. This was done over strong objections from DC’s resident color genius Jack Adler. Previous to this, the red and blue dot patterns were at different angles, which resulted in a consistent amount of white paper showing through. One might assume that the darkness of a printed color is directly representative of the size of the dot (25%, 50% or 70%) but it’s really dependent on how much white shows through between the dots. Once the red and blue plates were being printed at the same angle, there was no control over this. For example, a 50% blue dot could print directly on top of a 50% red dot (allowing a lot of white to show through) or the red dots could print between the blue dot patterns (resulting in less white and a much darker value). The levels of lightness and darkness became luck of the draw (depending on how the dot patterns aligned in printing) and were beyond the control of 1970s and 1980s colorists whose work was separated by Chemical Color.
Adler: Oh, God. I hired Todd Klein. I hired many of the people that worked there. I hired them as kids. And now they’re senior citizens. (Chuckle.) Unrecognizable.
Stroud: Todd has established quite a reputation as a letterer.
Adler: He’s a great letterer. So was Ben Oda.
Stroud: Frank Springer told me some great stories about Ben.
Adler: I worked with Frank Springer on a project. It was a special book that he did, but I can’t think of the name. You might call Frank and find out.
Note: I did just that and Frank responded thusly:
Jack Adler – one of the greats in this business – did the color separations on “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist” which I illustrated as you know, and perhaps other jobs I worked on at the National Lampoon.
Back in ’04 at the San Diego Comicon, I found myself on a panel with Jack. I was so delighted to see him – and frankly to know he was still around! Warm greetings all around!
I don’t know the color process today, but back then no one did it better than Jack Adler
Stroud: Did you pal around with anyone from the office?
Adler: Not really. I spent my time at work and at home. I was married for 64 years to one woman. She passed away in ’01. She was beautiful, she was courtly and very bright.
In fact I have a story about her. I used to meet her at night at the subway back when you could walk the streets, and I’d take her home. She’d call me if she was going to be late, and I’d walk out to the train and pick her up. One night she called to say she’d be late. They were doing an audit. Okay. She called me the next night and same thing. She’s going to be late because of an audit. I said, “What the hell are they doing a second audit for?” She said they’d found some kind of an error. I let it go at that. I didn’t know what she was doing.
She was doing Top Secret work for Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt decided that the British and the French needed help, and Congress would not give them any money. So on his own he made a program of lend/lease, giving money to the British and the French to build their planes and their boats. My wife handled all of that. In her job she was an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank. A brilliant, brilliant woman. And she never said a word to me about it. She had a phone under her desk, and she was told that when you were talking into that phone, don’t smile or anything, and she was talking to top brass in France and England. I didn’t know anything until one day a note came from the Queen of England with a little pin thanking her for her work.
Stroud: So she had a big part in history
Adler: Absolutely. And she never told me a word about what she was doing. When I would go up to visit her, they would send a guard with me, even if I wanted to go to the john, and I couldn’t understand why they sent a guard with me. She was working on that project and never indicated anything to me. By the way, does the name Ray Perry mean anything to you?
Stroud: I don’t think so.
Adler: He did the drawings for Story Pages. Ray Perry worked until he was 93 years old. He was still working. He played the cello. He played it badly, but he played it. And we swapped; I did a photograph of him and he did a watercolor sketch of me that is so good I hate it, because he was able to catch the look in your eyes, and I was bored! Anyway, at 93 he had surgery and when I met him he said, “Goddamn doctors! They screwed me up and I can’t have sex any more.”
Adler: Remember, he’s 93. I believe he lived on 34th street in Manhattan. It was a major thoroughfare. The building that he was in was one window wide. You know, these narrow buildings in the city. One right next to the other. On the day he died, his building collapsed to the ground! And on the building right next to it you could see the outline of his green painted room. Remember he had a cello and he had called me and said, “Jack, I want you to have my cello.” I said, “Are you crazy, Ray? Why?” He said, “Because my wife is a bitch, and if I die, she’s going to sell that cello. And I want that cello to go to a student, and I know you’ll honor my wishes.” I said on those grounds I’d take it. I took his cello, and I put it in my basement. The day he died, as I said, the building came down to the ground. The next day he was cremated and I attended the ceremony, and when I came home, my wife said, “Something’s wrong. You don’t look right.” I said, “No, I had a terrible experience.” She said, “So did I.” “What do you mean?” She said, “I can’t tell you. Go down into the basement and take a look.” I went down and there was the cello, totally unsprung. Every glued joint was unsprung. Did that curl your hair?
Stroud: It sure did. That’s simply astounding. I’m reminded of Creig Flessel, working right up to his passing at 96 awhile back. He told me all he ever wanted to do was to draw.
Adler: That’s what I did when I was a kid. When I was 6 years old and had started school, the teacher asked me to bring my mother in. I thought I was in trouble. When she came in and sat down, the teacher said, “Did you know that at the age of 6 your son is an artist?” It came from the other side, and she didn’t know what the hell it was. She had no concept of it, and that was it. I was an artist at 6 and I have some of the drawings that I did and the sculptures that I did in soap.
Stroud: Your life’s calling. You found what you loved and you stuck with it.
One final note: Jack mentioned that when Sol Harrison became publisher at DC he congratulated him and immediately suggested he hire Paul Levitz, who of course ultimately succeeded Sol. I shared the anecdote with Paul and he responded with the following:
I enjoyed working with and learning from Jack for many years. He taught a generation of us DC folks how to think in color, and set a high standard for to do production work back when it was a very personal craft.
At the time Jack mentions, I’d been laid off the formal payroll and remained on the DC staff working directly for (and paid personally by) Joe Orlando and Gerry Conway. Jack was a good advocate, and a good friend…even teaching me how to wire my first stereo.
As you can see, Jack cut a very broad swath during his career and earned the love and respect of many of his peers and I’m more than grateful for so many who shared their thoughts about this fine gentleman who did so much behind the scenes to help bring us some of the excellent reading that enthusiasts of the genre have enjoyed for decades.