Jack C. Harris is a many of many skills in comics. He worked as a writer, editor and production manager for many years in comics and has some great stories to share.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It looks like you started your DC career as a “Woodchuck.”
Jack C. Harris: (Chuckle. ) That’s what they called us.
CB: In Amazing World of DC Comics #4 it says, “Our newest Woodchuck comes to us from Wilmington, Delaware via the Philadelphia College of Art where he earned a BFA and also taught a course on the History of Comics and the U. S. Army Signal Corps which he served in Germany. Mr. Harris lists as his hobbies comics (Adam Strange and Green Lantern especially), creative Make-Up, Amateur Theater and movies.”
Harris: I think I wrote that myself.
CB: Do you remember who did the little illustration of you that accompanied it?
Harris: I did. I actually graduated with a degree in illustration, I just never used it, but it was very helpful when I was an editor being able to direct artists and to talk in their language.
CB: That sounds exactly like what Len Wein told me.
Harris: Yeah, Len had that art background.
CB: He said it was very helpful when an artist wasn’t sure what he meant about how to do a shot and he would sketch it out for them.
Harris: Exactly. I could do the same thing.
CB: Your interest in comics history must have served you well as a member of the staff at DC.
Harris: Right. Just to briefly give you a history of how it started, I was into comics at a very young age. But my favorites before I discovered superheroes were Little Lulu and anything that Donald Duck was in. Those are the two that I was really into.
Then I discovered Superman on television first. Some local kiddie show was showing the Max Fleischer cartoons and I remember watching those. The first one I remember seeing was an episode called “The Arctic Giant,” about a giant dinosaur ravaging Metropolis, and I’d heard of Superman, but that was the first time I’d ever seen him. Then some months later I saw the first television show that I remember seeing. George Reeves in black and white, and I was dumbfounded because it was live action. I thought, “He’s not just a cartoon, he’s real!” Then I think it was that summer I was on vacation with my parents and we stopped in at some store along the way and my mother said I could buy a comic book. She gave me a dime; remember when comics were a dime?
CB: Weren’t those the days?
Harris: I walked over and began looking for Little Lulu and Donald Duck and then I looked down and saw an issue of Action Comics and it had Superman on the cover and surprisingly that was the very first time I knew the colors of his costume. Because I had seen nothing but black and white television. So all of a sudden I found that Superman had a red and blue costume. Very cool.
So I picked it up, and while the Superman story was okay, what really got me in that issue was a Tommy Tomorrow story, which was drawn, I remember, by Jim Mooney and that was my introduction to Science Fiction. I’d never seen anything like that before in my life. And it just blew me away.
I remember there were house ads in that edition of Action Comics, including Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space and so that’s when I started looking for those. And while I was in there and got Superman I also got World’s Finest and got into that, the science fiction titles were my real love. Mystery in Space, Strange Adventures and things like that. I really, really loved those.
Those were my favorites hands down. If I had a dime and said, “Well, I can buy one comic. There’s a Superman and there’s a Mystery in Space.” I would always go for the Mystery in Space. No contest. And then of course when fandom started, I was there.
What I remember was Julie Schwartz’s letter columns in Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures and The Flash and things like that and they were very oriented toward the reader. He wanted us all to get involved. I really got sucked into that. He would publish everybody’s full address and created the network, which later became fandom.
So I wrote a letter at one point and won some original artwork from Adam Strange and that got me on mailing lists for Jerry Bails’ Alter Ego. Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas. I started reading that and I realized there were other people in the world that loved comics as much as I did. Then I got very much involved with buying all the fanzines and kept up with that kind of stuff, too.
I wanted to be an artist. That was my goal. I started a correspondence with Sid Greene who did the Star Rovers in Mystery in Space. I corresponded with Sid for quite some time and in fact right now, hanging on the wall in my den is the original artwork, one of the splash panels to a Star Rovers story, which Sid gave me during our correspondence. Oddly enough he was one of the few artists I wasn’t able to work with because he passed away before I ever got to work at DC, which is really too bad.
Then when I got into college…actually I went into the Army first and the Army paid for my college, for which I am extremely grateful, so when I got out of the Army I went back to college and I met some other comics fans. One of my friends pointed out this article by a kid in Indiana who created a course on comic books that he was teaching in his college and I thought that was amazing. So we proposed the same thing at the Philadelphia College of Art and they accepted it and we had a course that we created and taught for two years at the University of the Arts, which is now called the Philadelphia College of Art.
In doing that we also had guest speakers from DC Comics to come and speak at our course. Along the way we had Len Wein and Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano. They all came down to Philadelphia to talk to our course, so I got to know them, which was very good.
Then when I got out of college and started to apply for jobs I applied at DC and dropped a lot of names like Len Wein and Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano. Of course I’d met Julie Schwartz at a couple of conventions and had visited at DC comics, so they knew me up there.
So I got a job as Murray Boltinoff’s assistant, which I did for a couple of years and then became an editor myself and worked there for seven years or so working for DC until I went completely freelance after that. I’ve been doing that ever since, so along with teaching at the School of Visual Art and I’ve written a whole lot of stuff along the way. As a little aside, by the way, the guy who was doing that course in Indiana that inspired us to do it, too, was Michael Uslan, who later became the Executive Co-Producer of all the Batman movies.
CB: Wow! The seven degrees of separation strike again.
Harris: And of course he also was an assistant editor at DC for a while, too. Mike and I became good friends and remain good friends to this day.
CB: Outstanding. I’ve managed over the last year or so to assemble the complete set of the Amazing World of DC Comics prozines and what a treasure trove of stuff they contain. From issue #4 on you were very heavily involved.
Harris: Absolutely. That was our little pet project that I think Sol Harrison created as a training ground for all the assistant editors. That was our project. We did that completely on our own. The editors would help us if we asked. Otherwise, it was ours. We did that whole thing.
CB: You got to interview a lot of your heroes during the course of it all.
Harris: Yes, in fact the cover of #7 with that really nice Curt Swan drawing of Superman is another of the pieces that hangs on the wall of my den. He gave me that, as a gift, which I thought, was very nice.
CB: Wonderful. I wish I could have got to know Curt.
Harris: Curt was terrific. When they started giving the artwork back to the artists, we had a foot-high stack of Curt Swan artwork and so when Curt came in the first time after that was Okayed, we said, “Curt, here’s all your artwork back.”He looked at it and he said, “Oh, my God, I can’t carry all that home. You guys can have it. Divide it up.” (Laughter.) Everyone just dove in.
One of the pieces I got was a splash panel from World’s Finest he’d drawn that was inked by Al Milgrom. So years later I’m talking to Al via e-mail and he said, “You know, you have a piece of my artwork.” I said, “Which one is that?” He said, “The World’s Finest page, which was the only time I inked Curt Swan.” “Oh, yeah, I remember that piece. I have it tucked away somewhere.” So I said, “You know, Al, I really think you should have this piece of artwork, but I would not have any idea what to charge you for it, so instead what I want you to do is to draw me the best drawing of Hawkman you’ve ever done and I’ll trade you.” So that’s what I did and I have this really nice Al Milgrom Hawkman drawing that no one in the world has seen except me as a trade for the World’s Finest page. I thought that was an equitable and unique sort of trade to do with Al.
CB: And everyone’s happy.
Harris: We both got what we wanted. (Chuckle. ) It was a very good deal for both of us.
CB: I don’t suppose there was such a thing as a typical day in the production department, but can you try to describe it?
Harris: Well, the production department was different from the editorial department.
The editorial department was mainly us sitting in our offices thinking. (Chuckle. )We were just sitting there sort of staring off into space.”What are we going to do next?”But no, it was never the same twice. It was always different. We’d be plotting the stories or going over the artwork or coordinating something with somebody else, or making sure that you weren’t doing something that somebody else was doing or that your artist was available and other scheduling things. I think my favorite part of it all was sitting and plotting stories with the writers. Sometimes we’d get the artists involved, too.
We’d just get together and throw ideas around.”What would be cool?”A lot of times we’d start with an idea for a cover.”Okay, this would make a good cover. Now, how do we build a story around it?”Sometimes we’d plot maybe three or four issues at a time. Sometimes we’d just try to do one good story. We’d want to use a particular villain. We’d want to do something unique.
It was always just throwing ideas around. That was probably the best part of the whole experience. Then the second thing was when the artwork would come in and the artist would come in and show me the art and my first thought was, “I’m seeing this before anyone else in the world. No one else has seen these drawings and this story before except me. Then the rest of the world will get to see it, but right now I get to see it.”
Then of course some of the people I got to work with, like Steve Ditko. Nobody gets to work with Steve Ditko. (Laughter. )There are only like ten of us in the whole world who have worked with Steve Ditko. That was unique. And then meeting people that I’d always admired and then working with them. I mean Julie Schwartz was my hero, and now here I was his colleague and later his friend. That was fantastic. And again, Curt Swan and Joe Kubert and Dick Giordano and I can’t even think of all the names. Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson and people like that. I had known them by their names before that and now I was not only working with them, but in some cases telling them what to do or what to draw. (Chuckle. )
I mean, telling Steve, “Don’t draw it that way, draw it this way.” “Okay,” and he’s making these changes. “My God, I’m telling Steve Ditko what to draw. And he’s agreeing with me!” That was an experience that was just unique.
CB: Everyone is just fascinated with Steve, too. That aura of mystery he’s surrounded himself with has only fanned the flames I think.
Harris: It’s terrific. I used to help it along. I remember one thing we did. It was a series for a while called DC Profiles. It was a little half page profile of all the people that were involved. It was just a little quick interview with somebody and you’d run a piece of their artwork or their picture on the page with it and Mike Gold, who was working on it at the time and he was coordinating all these and he came to me and said, “Do you think we could get Steve to do one of these profiles?”I said, “No way. There is no way you could get Steve to do it.”Then I said, “You know, I have an idea, though.”
So the next time Steve came in I said, “I know you don’t want to do one of these profiles, but here’s the thing. You always said that you should let your artwork speak for you. So what I’d like to do is a half-page of all the characters you’ve done for DC in a group shot and we’ll run that as your profile.”He said, “That’s a good idea.”So we did it. (Chuckle. )So for that profile it just said something like, “Steve Ditko lets his work speak for him,” and there’s this big drawing of all his characters and I thought that was just really cool.
Harris: It also helped continue the mystique that Steve has built up around himself. The thing that I like about Steve, and it parallels some of his characters; remember Mr. A and he never compromises. Something is either all good or it’s all bad. There’s no gray area. That’s Steve. That’s the way he feels. Either it’s all good or it’s all bad. If you accept any part of any of those then you’ve compromised your own feeling toward those things, and you really shouldn’t do that. I always respected that.
CB: He’s a man of firm convictions. We corresponded for a while and I’ll always be grateful for his giving me his impressions of being Jerry Robinson’s student. What was it like to work with Jack Adler?
Harris: He was a very creative guy and Jack had very specific ideas for coloring things. He was a very good trainer for the people coming in and he loved teaching people how to color and what would work and what wouldn’t. He always had these wonderful, creative ideas. Whenever I wanted to do a special cover I’d ask Jack. I’d say, “Jack, can this be done? And if it can be done, what does the artist have to do in order to make it easier or to make it work?”And he was always there with the idea of how to work things.
I liked working with Jack a lot. He was creative in a whole different way. Not as an artist, but more as how to present the art in a new and unique way. That’s what I liked about working with him. The last time I saw him, and it was a long time ago, was at a memorial for Julie Schwartz when he’d passed away.
CB: He’s still very sharp and frustrated at his physical limitations, but he is in his nineties after all.
Harris: I used to love all his wash covers when I was a kid. I was just fascinated, but I could never figure out how they were done. They looked like photographs. How in the world do they get this effect?
I remember a Green Lantern cover that was done that way and I remember a Detective or Batman cover in the wash cover technique and it was fantastic.”How is that done?”It was a really great thing when he showed me.”How do you do that?””Let me show you.”He pulled out some old original art and he said, “We do this ink wash and then we half tone it.”It was fantastic. I loved it.
He was always very happy to tell you about his “secrets,” because he wanted everyone to learn how to do it. That’s true in the industry as a whole, by the way. Everyone I ever met was always leaning over backwards to tell you how they were doing things and how it was done, from the writing to the artwork. Joe Kubert made a whole second career out of that. He created a whole school to teach people how to do it.
CB: You worked with some legendary editors. You mentioned Murray Boltinoff already and of course Joe Orlando…
Harris: Julie Schwartz.
CB: Of course. Do you remember anything significant you learned from them?
Harris: I always thought Julie was the best editor in the world. Julie was always good about sparking the idea. You had to come in with an original idea. He inspired me to do that. Whenever I came in to see Julie with an idea I always had like twenty of them written down. I’d just throw them at him.”How about this?How about this?How about this?”Usually there was at least one out of the twenty that he liked. We could then build on it from there.
Joe Orlando was also a good teacher. One of the best things I ever heard Orlando tell was when he was talking to an inker. He said, “Every time you do a job, you get better. You improve. Here’s what you do if you have a twenty-page story. You work from the middle. You work so that the first page and the last page are the last two that you do. So they’re going to be your best. So when someone opens the book they’re going to see one of your best pages and when they’re finished with the book they’re going to see one of your best pages. So the first and last pages should be the last two pages that you do.
I thought that was brilliant advice. What a good idea. That way you’re going to leave them with that. You’ve showcased your best two pages when they open the book and when they close the book. You’ve put your best foot forward and left that impression also at the end. That kind of thing would come from the artists and the editors all the time. Very clever.
CB: Utterly brilliant. I’m reminded of something I read by a music producer that said your first couple of tracks on an album should be the ones that grab the listener because that’s what they’ll hear first. Very similar.
CB: Did the Comics Code give you any grief?
Harris: I never had any trouble with the Code at all. We were pretty well versed on it by then. I do remember trying to get things over on them occasionally. I recall an issue of Challengers of the Unknown that had Swamp Thing guest starring in it. Just for fun I had Bernie Wrightson ink the one panel that showed the Swamp Thing in it. Bernie inked that one panel just as sort of a tribute thing. In black and white it looked like Swamp Thing was showing his ass off. The Code objected to that and we said, “It’s green. He’s a plant, for heaven’s sake. Imagine the whole thing as green and it won’t look like he has a naked butt.””Okay, all right. We’ll let it go through.”We had to explain it to them.
CB: (Laughter. ) I always enjoy the stories of battling the code. Russ Heath sure had no love for it.
Harris: That was another thing. I got to work with so many people who drew my stuff. Russ did a chapter once in one of my Wonder Woman stories and it was so amazing to have him do that. Then to have Joe Kubert doing covers to books that I wrote:Hawkman and mystery stories, just the little throwaway stuff with this great Kubert illustration on the cover. My jaw would drop. It was like, “My God, here’s Kubert doing MY story.”That was probably the best thing about it. To get the story drawn by the people that you really admired as a kid.
CB: I can only guess. You lived the dream of many fans.
Harris: Oh, gosh, I got to write “Adam Strange”. I got to edit Green Lantern. Those are my favorite two characters. And right now with the Green Lantern movie about to come out, I am so excited. I mean this is what I envisioned years ago. This is one of the characters that I helped. There are elements of that storyline that I created, that I made up that are still being used.
CB: Which ones, Jack?
Harris: Well for instance I figured out how many Green Lanterns there really are. There are 3,600 of them. I figured that out and it’s all based on the circle. The galaxy is a circle and every degree is a space sector. That’s how we came up with that. It’s 360 degrees, so there are 10 per degree, so that makes 3,600 Green Lanterns to cover the entire galaxy. That’s how it works. That was my theory.
I have to put this claim out, too. I’ve put this claim out before and people say it’s a claim, but I can prove it. I created Arkham Asylum. The story goes like this: Of course Arkham Asylum was not created by anyone at DC, it was created by H. P. Lovecraft. Arkham Asylum is where all the nuts who were driven crazy by the cthulus to Arkham Asylum which is in Massachusetts in the Lovecraft stories. It’s nothing that anybody at DC came up with.
But during one of those times that Denny O’Neil came to visit and talk at my college course, I remember we were at dinner. We always took our guests to dinner. So I was talking to Denny and I said, “Denny, you know criminals like Two-Face and the Joker shouldn’t be just jailed. They’re nuts. They should be in an insane asylum. And what better one than Arkham Asylum from the Lovecraft stories?” He thought that was a great idea. So he used it.
And if you look, it was in Batman #258 from September of 1974. That’s the first mention of Arkham Asylum in DC comics history. It’s been reported elsewhere, but that’s incorrect. If you check it, this is the first time it’s ever been mentioned, in this story. If you look at it, if you read it, the story involves Two-Face being brought in out of Arkham Asylum. The guy who breaks him out is a military man named John Harris. And that’s Denny O’Neil’s tip of the hat to me for the Arkham idea. Now I think it was Len Wein who picked up on that idea and later expanded the whole history of Arkham. But Denny did it first in that issue of Batman and I’m the one who gave him the idea for it. Every time I see Arkham Asylum I go nuts.
CB: What a great story. Thanks for sharing that.
Harris: I think in the Arkham Asylum intro they mistakenly try to determine where the first appearance was and they are mistaken. They got I much later than when it really was. I have a page of artwork from that that Dick Giordano gave me from that story and it’s where John Harris appears. I have that page.
CB: Rightfully so.