My list of potential interviewees included a couple that seemed to be members of the witness protection program. I searched and searched and finally hit pay dirt when I got to speak with Mike Esposito. Mike was cutting up all through the interview, but still managed to share some terrific remembrances from he and Ross Andru’s shot at publishing a humor book to the development of the Metal Men and the huge influence Walt Disney had on him.
Bryan D.Stroud for Comics Bulletin: I wanted to start by wishing you a belated happy birthday. I missed it.
Mike Esposito: That‘s okay. It‘s a good thing you did. How many more could I have? 81, my God.
Stroud: Well, hopefully several more. (Chuckle.)
Esposito: You never know. If I owe enough money, I should last longer.
Stroud: Who do you feel was your biggest artistic influence?
Esposito: When I was a kid?
Esposito: Milton Caniff. Terry and the Pirates. It was very good stuff. A little simplistic. Not the way they draw it today. I guess John Romita was also influenced by him. His stuff had that look. Johnny Romita with his Spider-man stuff like that. You‘ll see that softness, that clean brush line. A few guys over the years imitated him and spun off their thoughts from him and their technique.
But I would say Milton Caniff and naturally Walt Disney, because I wanted to be an animator. Ross [Andru] and I were supposed to go to Disney when we were 17, but my father said, “No, I‘m not letting you leave to go to California.” I was 17, so I said, “Please, please, please,“ and what happened? I got drafted and went to Germany.
Esposito: There you go. The best laid plans of your daddy.
Stroud: Funny how things work out. Rather than halfway across the country, you‘re halfway across the world.
Esposito: Who knows what I would have been up at Disney? Because I had some great artistic thoughts. When I wrote Get Lost; Ross and I, that Get Lost book, you ought to get a hold of. It‘s very funny.
Stroud: Yeah, I‘m looking forward to that. I see it‘s available online.
Esposito: Amazon should have it. I think they discount it, too. It‘s two bucks less.
Stroud: I saw what you were telling me, too. The cover on it does look like what you‘d see on a Mad magazine back in the day.
Esposito: Oh, that‘s why they sued me. You see, at that time Mad was a comic book and not a magazine yet, and [Bill Gaines’s] editors felt that we were swiping because we had the same distributor. Leader News. And they thought they were giving us the money to put out the book and they didn‘t doing any of that.
We did it on our own and we went a different way than them. We went into lampooning movies, which they didn‘t do. They lampooned everything. And we made fun of them in a couple of stories and that bothered them. For instance, if you ever saw the book there was the sewer keeper, which we took from the Crypt Keeper. We called the guy “Sickly.” The original concept was a weird name like that, so we made it “Sickly.” Everybody was insulted.
So I went to see Gaines and I said we wanted work. We pulled our horns in and left the business and we wanted to go back into freelancing. [Mad editor Al] Feldstein came out and he said, “You‘re the last people in the world we‘d give work to.“
Stroud: Oh, no.
Esposito: Because we screwed them, he said. He said we copied them. And they lost the lawsuit. It was thrown right out of court. The judge said, “You can‘t copyright humor.” And that was it.
Stroud: Well, that was at least a sensible judgment.
Esposito: Well, he was right. He was laughing all through it when he was reading the book. He was laughing. It was a funny book. I have to admit. (Chuckle.) When I looked at it recently when I got copies from my publisher, I said, “Gee, I didn‘t realize I did this.” I was only 23. You know you‘ve got a vibrant brain.
Stroud: Sure, your imagination going all over the place.
Esposito: Oh, my God. Ross and I would be up until 5:00 in the morning. We‘d work around the clock. And he had a dry sense of humor. I was more zany. I was more off the wall. Slapstick. And Ross was more clever, deep, dry humor. The combination was great because his dialogue in those balloons were very good and I was more silly. More Jackie Gleason. And we really hit it off.
Stroud: You shared the writing on it, then?
Esposito: Well, later on we did a book called Up Your Nose and Out Your Ear. I don‘t know if you ever heard of it.
Stroud: Yeah, I think I did.
Esposito: Well, we did that because we wanted to do a dissenter‘s book. Dissension. We were teed off at the world, and politics, and racial prejudice; everything that was bothering us as Liberals. We were irritated, and we wanted to make a book about it.
We put out a book called Up Your Nose, and the reason why the title was what it was…my wife hated the title. She wanted to make it Get Lost 2, like an extension of “Get Lost.” But Ross felt that because with Get Lost we were getting sued and everything, he didn‘t want any part of it.
So I said, “Okay.” Johnny Carson used to have an expression on T.V.: “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose, and out your ear.” So I said, “Hey. Why not Up Your Nose and Out Your Ear.” “It‘s not bad,“ Ross said, “Why not?” So we had t-shirts with the finger going up your nose. We sold a lot of t-shirts. The college kids loved it. Because it was the deep, dry humor that made sense.
And there was one character I created with Ross called “Thelma of the Apes”, and she was naked…all the time, in the jungle. She was like Tarzan. She comes to America and actually she gets turned on when everybody is fighting her, but when anybody is fighting she goes back to her gorilla mentality of the jungles, and she joins the fights. She gets in a lot of trouble. It‘s called “Thelma of the Apes.” And also there‘s this bit where a bunch of lesbians come out in a parade and they start a fight with her (chuckle), and…I can‘t explain it, but it‘s funny when you look at it.
Stroud: It sounds terrific.
Esposito: Well, the college kids loved it, because they saw what we were doing. We had the mayor, with all the screw ups, Mayor Lindsey at that time, and we did two issues.
We were starting our third one with Marlon Brando, a take-off on Marlon Brando, and we were knocked out of the box because what happened was the distributor said, “We got a winner!” He got so excited; Kable News, he called us up and said, “We‘re going to bury Mad magazine!” Because he approached it as a magazine, not a comic book, like Mad magazine, and he said, “We got a winner!“
Then all of a sudden the books started coming in from Hawaii, from the west coast. Carloads. Because they thought it was a drug book. And it wasn‘t! But when they heard Up Your Nose; cocaine. And also, the main character was Joe Snow. And that was his name! My daughter knew him from school. So he was perfect for the book, and we gave him a contract, and he appears in all the stories in photographs and we‘d draw around him. It‘s kind of cute when you look at it if you ever get a hold of one. They‘ve got to be in second hand bookstores and so on.
Definitely I want you to see Get Lost. Because that one, we put our souls into that. You‘ll see the artwork in that, for that period, 1953; nobody drew that way. There was so much detail. I‘m talking about certain stories, not all the stories, because we didn‘t do all of them. We did the lead stories and so on, but they were good. And the caricature of John Wayne in the Hondo type movie…you‘ll like it.
Stroud: Great. I look forward to getting a copy.
Esposito: You should. You really should. As a fan of Mike Esposito, you should.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Absolutely. What sort of art training did you have, Mr. Esposito?
Esposito: Call me Mike, please.
Stroud: Okay, thank you.
Esposito: I went to the High School of Music and Art. Ross went there. Joe Kubert went there. Lots of guys that finished up. Frank Giacoia. We all went there. Well, some of them went to Art and Design, which was right nearby. Mine was in Harlem. It was created by Mayor LaGuardia for underprivileged kids who were artistically gifted in music and art. In fact Bess Myerson, the famous Miss America, went there. Some great musicians went there. Kids that became great artists went there. And it was a good school.
Stroud: A very impressive alumni at the very minimum.
Esposito: Oh, yeah. There were some great guys who came out of there. Joe Kubert came out of there…wait. I‘m wrong. He and Frank Giacoia and Tony Bennett came out of the High School of Art and Design. Which was very similar to Music and Art. But it was right there in New York while we went to Harlem.
Stroud: So that was how you and Ross got acquainted?
Esposito: Well, we got acquainted in class through a girl from France. The war was on, and this little French immigrant girl who could barely speak English, but she was so sweet, and she saw me do a sketch on the wall, on the blackboard, of animation; how it‘s done. I was about fourteen and a half, and I was showing how it was done. How you make the in-between animation and extreme animation. And she was so impressed.
She got me up to the class and she said, “There‘s somebody I think you should meet. He‘s a very shy guy from Cleveland. He was born in Cleveland, and he moved to New York, and he skipped the first term. I‘ll have him meet you.” So I said, “Meet me down by the tree.” Off the side of the school building there was a big tree. So he met me there and he was making snowballs. He was very clumsy (chuckle), poor guy. It was like he had two left feet. He could never play ball. I could, but he had no rhythm. In fact my son, who passed away, was just like him. Maybe he‘s the father. (Chuckle.) He was so similar and disoriented. They both had two left feet.
Stroud: No coordination, huh?
Esposito: That‘s the word. Coordination. Both were brilliant. My son, of course got it from me, really.
Esposito: I‘m kidding. But Ross would show me his drawings, and they were so crude, I said, “Boy, this poor kid. He‘s not gonna make it.” They were heavy handed and crude and it was supposed to be a cartoon; very simplistic. But it wasn‘t.
But he was going another way. He was seeing it in a different perspective. He was seeing it as art rather than simplistic cartoons, so he loaded it up with detail. But it didn‘t look Terry-Toons. It didn‘t look like the simplistic animation of the old days. And so I said to myself, “This kid‘s not gonna make it.” I felt bad for him.
What happened was I started explaining to him what was wrong. And he exploded, and exploded, and exploded. He passed me like a bullet. And I grabbed his coattails and zoomed with him. “Go ahead, Ross. I‘m your partner for life.” But anyway, that‘s when we became partners. We shook hands and said, “Partners for life.” No contract.
Of course we separated from time to time because of the business being the way it is. He went his way to DC at one point and I stayed with Marvel. Then we came together again after his wife passed away and we were going to publish together. We had these brokers all hot and heavy to do the work, and they screwed us. Wall Street can be very, very bad with all the promises. Well, look at Wall Street today. It‘s just as bad.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. There‘s no heart there.
Esposito: Not only that, the dreams can explode so quickly. We were promised so much stock and they were all liars. It was whatever they could get out of it. And we‘re going ahead and we‘ve got plans upon plans and we‘ve got writers. I almost had a nervous breakdown over it. I just felt so responsible for all the people who were lining up. And then I had to tell them, “It‘s over.” Did you ever see the movie Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra?
Esposito: Remember when he had to go back to the nightclub and say, “It‘s all over?” They pulled out on him. Rita Hayworth. She took the money and she said, “We‘re going to close Café Capri,“ or whatever it was. And he had to tell all the help. They couldn‘t believe it. Well, that‘s what happened to me, in a sense. I had to tell all the people that were so excited about this venture, “It‘s no more.” Almost overnight. It‘s not easy. Not easy being me.
Stroud: Do you feel that when you spent time in the service that it was helpful later when you were doing the war books for DC?
Esposito: No, it didn‘t help me that way. It helped me get to the idea that I wanted to be a cartoonist.
Esposito: I really mean it. I couldn‘t wait to get home.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Soldiering was not your thing, huh?
Esposito: It was not. One thing was good about it. It says in my book with Ross in the history, Andru and Esposito, Partners for Life, in there it says I caught myself saying, “One thing about the Army: I never was frightened about falling down, or being left alone.”
I always had a problem psychologically all my life, as a young fella, with anxiety. Always had it, and if I was on the subway too long I‘d get a little panicky and crowds would bother me. Of course I got over it as the years passed, but at that time I was 17 and it was pretty rough. So when I was in the Army, I had no fear of that. And the reason why I say it in the book was that the Army was my mommy and daddy. If I fell down, they picked me up and took me to the hospital. I‘m Government Issue. I‘m their property, and they will take care of me. So I felt confident. I wasn‘t alone.
And maybe I‘m stupid to say that, but I have to be honest with you, that‘s exactly the way I felt. So when I came home, I couldn‘t wait to get into the artwork business, you know, comics. So Ross and I went to a school. We went to Burne Hogarth‘s Cartoonist‘s and Illustrator‘s School. That‘s where Jack Abel was, that‘s where Joe Kubert was. Joe and I were very close.
We were both up at DC. I couldn‘t believe it. He started in comics in his early teens, and I‘d just come out of the Army. And Ross and I heard about the school, which he had gone to also. Burne Hogarth was very much a guy who was into himself. When he‘d get up to teach us, we were all in awe of him, but he wasn‘t really teaching us. He was telling us his life. There are two ways to teach: You teach, and we absorb; you B.S. and we just look at you and say, “Very entertaining.” But nothing happens. You get the drift?
Stroud: (Laughter.) I sure do. I‘ve had instructors like that.
Esposito: There you go.
Stroud: Very impressed with themselves.
Esposito: Right. He was good, though. He was impressed with himself, but he was also good. He could cut the mustard as well as spread it.
And the point is that he picked Ross right out. When he was working on Tarzan, the syndicated strip for the Sunday page, he wanted to do other things, Burne Hogarth, and he said, “I need an assistant, so I‘ll get one of my students real cheap.” Because he‘d give them $25.00 a week for each page and the government would pay another $75.00 through the G.I. Bill — on the job training, they called it.
So he grabbed Ross and taught Ross everything. And boy, Ross just ate it up. I‘m telling you, Ross just studied by using big pages, doing just ears, ears, noses, noses, everything he could get from Burne Hogarth. Rocks, rocks, rocks, trees, tress, jungles, jungles, branches… I could never do that. I wouldn‘t have the patience.
Stroud: It would drive you crazy after awhile, I‘d think.
Esposito: He did so many pages of that, that one day in our studio when we were doing pretty well in 1952 or ‘53, Gil Kane came in. You know of Gil Kane, of course.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Esposito: Brilliant, brilliant artist. A genius in his own right. He really was, for what he did. Of course he was slow and he was not personable, but he was a good, good artist. And he came in and he saw these pages where Ross did all these sketches to improve his knowledge of all the noses and the ears as I said, and he said, “I would love to have that.” So Ross said, “Well, they‘re just sketches I made when I learned from Burne Hogarth.” He said, “I‘ll pay you for them.” He paid him $100.00 for each page, which was a lot of money in 1952.
Stroud: Oh, absolutely.
Esposito: I didn‘t get it. Ross got it because it was his stuff, and he took them and he studied them and then he met Burne Hogarth and became very close friends; Gil Kane with Burne Hogarth. For years they were like buddy, buddy-buddy.
I saw Burne Hogarth at a convention for Marvel Comics in 1977 and I walked up to him, and Gil Kane was there. I said, “Burne, you have no idea how appreciative I am of what you did for me.” He looked at me and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “What?” I said, “If it wasn‘t for you, I wouldn‘t be here now. You taught me well, and I‘m a professional now because of you. And my life is completely changed, and it‘s everything I wanted to do.”
And he was in tears that I would say something to him like that, because guys are sometimes funny. They hold grudges. They‘re mad at a guy for a reason and they never let go. Like the editor, Bob Kanigher. He made enemies, but I could feel sorry for him, because when he was sick, I put my arm around him and I felt sorry. And Ross said, “What the hell are you doing? He screwed us. He‘s always screwing us.” I said, “Ross, the man is miserable right now.” I couldn‘t help it. You can‘t hate forever.
Stroud: No, no. Because it only hurts you.
Esposito: That‘s exactly right.
Stroud: Good for you. I‘ve heard a few horror stories about Kanigher.
Esposito: Believe me, they‘re true. But he treated me well in one respect, and I told him this before he died. He wrote a letter back, in fact it was in a magazine with an interview with him and he said, “Gee, Mike, I wish my wife and family could hear that.“
Because I said so many nice things about him. I said that he did what he did to me to make me a better guy, artist-wise. He picked on me, tore me apart, (chuckle) but the things that hurt was I‘d be in the taxicab downstairs with the pages to bring up, and I was listening to the Yankees ballgame when it was a no-hitter. I‘ll never forget it. I‘m listening to the last pitch of the no hitter and I come running up the steps. It‘s a little after 5:00 and he says, “Where the hell have you been?” I said, “I was downstairs listening to this ballgame…” “Ballgame?” That was the furthest thing from his mind. He had no feeling for that. I said, “I‘ve got the pages.” He said, “It‘s too late.” “But I‘ve got the pages.“
And that‘s what he would do. He would insult me. One time Ross and I (chuckle), well; maybe we were the Bobsey Twins. But the point is, we didn‘t do it intentionally. We went into a store. Howard‘s Clothing Store, one of the cheaper places, and we saw these very stylish for the time salt and pepper jackets with black pants. It was the wave of fashion in 1955 or 1956. So we each bought a salt and pepper jacket with black slacks. We walk in (chuckle) to Bob Kanigher‘s office, and he says, “Oh, the Bobsey Twins!“
Esposito: He made fun of us! But we looked good! We looked really good. All we needed was horn-rimmed glasses, sunglasses, and it would have been perfect. Like Will Smith would say, “But I look good!“
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Men in Black.
Esposito: Right. “But I look good.” So that‘s the way Ross and I were.
Stroud: Great fun.
Esposito: Well, we had a lot of fun together. And we had our moments of irritation because he thinks one way and I think the other way and we fight back and forth until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, until finally we both agree. And we usually agreed, in the end. Of course I was standing over him with a knife and shovel.
Esposito: He wasn‘t a fighter. Neither was I. I‘m kidding. I have to kid around, because if I don‘t kid around, I die. I manage to keep going. Like the song keeps going on. The humor keeps going on. The day I can‘t be funny, hey, it‘s over.
Stroud: That‘s right. What‘s the point? In fact, it‘s funny, I was going to mention to you it seems like throughout your career quite often you‘ve been involved in humor related material.
Esposito: Oh, yeah.
Stroud: Do you remember when you and [Mike] Sekowsky worked on the Inferior Five, for example?
Esposito: Yes. I loved that book.
Stroud: You got a unique opportunity there to draw not only yourself but the other DC staffers in that one issue.
Esposito: Right, right.
Stroud: Was that quite a bit of fun?
Esposito: Oh, I loved it. In fact, in Get Lost there‘s a page, the central page, the two-page filler they always had in those days, put in by law by the U.S. Post Office in those days in order to get the mailing cheap, and I drew Ross‘s face smoking a million cigarettes and I drew myself with a puffy face, you know, a chubby face. At that time I was blowing up my face by eating so many steak dinners and working around the clock. I got fat.
Stroud: Yeah, it‘s hard to get any exercise with that schedule.
Esposito: We never did. Although we did run down the street on Broadway while the steam was coming out of the sewers at 4 o‘clock in the morning just to work off the liquor.
Esposito: We just ran all the way down from 42nd street way up to 80th street and back. We were nuts. We were living. There are stories I can‘t tell you.
Stroud: I‘ll bet. I wanted to mention that I looked up your credits in the Grand Comic Book Database and you had over 3,000, for heaven‘s sake. Does that surprise you at all?
Esposito: No, it doesn‘t. (Chuckle.) I think I saw something like that in the end of my book, Partners for Life, they had a page of all my credits over the years and it was like 2 or 3 pages [editor’s note: the checklist in Partners for Life runs twelve pages].
Stroud: It‘s just amazing how much you‘ve produced over the years.
Esposito: Well, you know you stay healthy and you churn it out. Ross and I did a lot of work and I did it with Johnny Romita and I did it with quite a few pencilers, plus penciled my own stuff years ago when I was a kid. Did you get a chance to find the book Up Your Nose or Get Lost?
Stroud: I looked them up online and they look like great fun. I‘m still planning to get a copy of Get Lost.
Esposito: Get Lost is a good book. It really is. Get Lost is the last thing I published, but actually the first thing I published with Ross in 1953.
Stroud: So that one has come full circle for you.
Esposito: Well, it really did because that book holds up so well over the years. It doesn‘t look dated at all. At least I don‘t think so. And the comedy is very well written. Ross and I, we laughed our heads off doing it and I think we did a good job.
Stroud: I‘m sure you did. And as we discussed earlier if you hadn‘t done a good job, Mad wouldn‘t have taken an interest in calling you on the carpet for it.
Esposito: That‘s right. They wanted to kick us right out. Well, they did in a sense because our distributor was canned by Mad and they distributed Mad as well and because of that we had no distributor.
Stroud: You‘re dead in the water then.
Esposito: Right. And he was kicked out. He lost Mad as a comic book before they became a magazine. Then they went to National Periodicals. DC, to become a magazine.
I‘ll never forget Yvonne Ray, who did some writing for us, she was very good, and she used to pick up all the Twilight Zone type comedies. She‘d make comedies out of them. These 5-page weird stories with crazy endings. It was based on the Twilight Zone type of theme. They were like mysteries with a little twist at the end. She put a couple of magazines out. She was the editor on one of them. Weird stuff.
Anyway, she told me and Ross one day, “Why don‘t you go to DC, National Periodicals?” Because we worked for them with the war stories. We were freelance cartoonists for them. For Bob Kanigher. And I was so embarrassed to even think of that. I said to Ross, “No, we‘re not going to go there! After what we did to Mad.” And they were distributing Mad now as a magazine. But we were going to put out a magazine called Get Lost, like Mad magazine. And she said, “You should go back to DC.” And I said, “How can we face them?” We just couldn‘t do it. So Ross and I said no.
We tried to get our own distributor, which is what happened when we did Up Your Nose with Kable News. Anyway I guess we should have gone (chuckle) to DC. You never know. The feeling was that, “Who the hell are we, two cartoonists for DC, doing frogmen stories or war stories, doing the Flash; we‘re going to go in there and tell them we want to put out a book or a magazine for twenty-five cents they were in those days, for a black and white magazine like Mad called Get Lost.” Who knows? Maybe we would have been picked up right off the bat. Maybe they would have said, “Yeah, why not?“
Stroud: Yeah, you could have been ahead of your time.
Esposito: But it‘s all under the bridge and into the water to even think about it now. What is that? You always think about what could have been. And if I had been born a woman, I would have been beautiful.
Esposito: I would have been. If you‘re going to be silly, be really, really silly. Go all out.
Stroud: I like the way you think, Mike, I really do.
Esposito: Thinking about the movie that just went on, which I‘m not going to watch because I have it on DVD, Some Like it Hot. It‘s funny, this morning they had Joe E. Brown on TCM in an old movie, 1937, and he was so funny. And I was telling my wife, “You know, when I was a kid, movies, they say, don‘t affect you. It does affect you.” What kids read, and what they see does affect you. Because I was an impressionable kid, and when I saw things like Joe E. Brown or films with a pretty blonde, and the guy keeps getting kicked around by the pretty blonde, it affected me. So I never wanted to go out with a pretty blonde!
Esposito: Was I stupid. But I was always feeling the embarrassment of the underdog. They were all underdogs, being taken advantage of by a sharp woman. When I was in the Army in 1945 in Tulsa, Oklahoma and this beautiful blonde was at the piano. It was a baby grand and there was a live orchestra playing soft music. She‘s holding a cocktail and she sees me in my uniform.
A young kid, 18 years old, probably attractive to her because she was probably in her mid-30s, and she calls me over (chuckle) and I‘ll never forget her words, she said, “Don‘t be afraid. I‘m not going to bite you.” I‘ll never forget it. I was shaking in my boots. I was a kid. I was 18. And here was a worldly woman in a state that had no liquor! It was a speakeasy. There was no liquor in those days. Those were the dry states and dry cities.
Stroud: Mercy. What a great memory. You‘re absolutely right, too, those things do stay with you.
Esposito: They stay and they affect you. A young girl across the way where I was standing with this woman had two soldiers my age with her, and they waved me over to their table. The girl was like 17 and I felt more comfortable and she became so friendly with me that she wrote me letters in Germany and she kept going and going sending me mail. No other girl I knew did. So you meet people your own age and style and you feel more comfortable. Anyway, I do digress.
Stroud: Quite all right. I‘m enjoying every minute. You inked after Ross for years and years. I know an inker‘s got a pretty important responsibility, so was he tough to clean up after?
Esposito: Ross was a difficult guy to ink. First of all he‘d dig into the paper so much that if you had a pen or a brush the grooves would stop your line. He was really hard to ink. But good. His stuff was so beautiful when you looked at it, you wanted to ink it. But when you tried to ink it, it‘s not easy. Some guys really know how to do it, but rubbing the eraser over it and just making it disappear, guys like Frank Miller and stuff like that, they re-do the stuff to the point it‘s not even him anymore.
But what Ross liked about me; he used to say to me, “I want it to look exactly the way I penciled it.” And that‘s the way I was trained to do it with him. So if a guy had a lantern jaw, that‘s what he got. If Wonder Woman‘s eyes were bugging out, that‘s what he wanted. People used to think I was doing it. I said, “No, no, no. It‘s in the pencils. It‘s just that I follow his pencils.“
Stroud: And you were true to it.
Esposito: True to it and to the point I got criticism that I didn‘t know how to ink Ross. Because it didn‘t look good. But that‘s the way he wanted it. Guys like Frank Miller and people like that would alter it to such a state that you didn‘t see Ross, and they thought they were doing a great job.
Stroud: Sure, but that makes no sense to me. The original design was what was intended, obviously.
Esposito: Well anyway, we did well together and he appreciated what I did because I followed it. And then certain editors or other artists thought that all I was doing was doing what he did. Some inkers were so frustrated; they felt they had to make it look like their stuff. Well, I was trained by Ross to make it look like his stuff.
You get a guy like Tom Palmer, who is very good. Tom Palmer I always thought was a genius. I got him his first job up at Marvel. He was just a background man. When I saw his stuff when he was working for me a couple of times, I said, “You‘re too good for this.” I called up Sol Brodsky up at Marvel Comics and I said, “I‘ve got a guy that shouldn‘t be doing backgrounds. He should do features.“
So I sent him to him and he got the job and he did some great stuff in the black-and-white magazines. The vampire stuff, you know? And he did a great job inking. The only guy I thought could ink Gene Colan the right way was Tom Palmer. Gene Colan used to pencil like a photograph. He‘d use an outline of it.
But he knew how to take that photograph look and make it unbelievably crisp. Whereas Frank Giacoia and I would ink him and we‘d do it as an outline, because he didn‘t work in lines. So you‘d destroy his soft pencil sketches by putting a hard outline. And the only guy that really knew how to do him was Tom Palmer. You look up the stuff and you‘ll see how beautiful those black and white vampire books and Dracula books turned out.
Stroud: I‘ll have to do that. I‘ve heard similar things about Bernie Wrightson when he would ink his own stuff they said he was the only one that really should do it for some of those same reasons you were just talking about.
Esposito: That‘s right.
Stroud: That real light kind of a fade rather than a hard line.
Esposito: That‘s exactly right. There are some guys like Frank Giacoia and myself, Johnny Romita, too, for that matter; we were trained in the school of Milton Caniff‘s Terry and the Pirates. Everything was line, line, line. It was all lines. It didn‘t look like an illustration, where the line is secondary. And naturally all the colors take over when you make a painting. The outline is secondary. You never use black as an outline on a painting. You use colors. A brown against a green and it creates its own line. Well, Norman Rockwell.
Stroud: Yeah, a perfect example.
Esposito: Yeah, he never used a black line. He used tone, and some guys learned from a guy like Norman Rockwell, but we didn‘t. We learned from comic books. We learned from comic strips. Our period. Terry and Pirates. Flash Gordon. Now there was a guy, Alex Raymond, who really could illustrate. He used to photograph everything besides when he did that Sunday strip when he left Flash Gordon. It was a detective-type thing. Anyway, he used photographs, but he knew how to use those photographs and just put enough wispy line on it and have it reproduce with color on the comic strip. Another guy was Hal Foster.
Stroud: Prince Valiant.
Esposito: Right. These guys were really illustrators. Not cartoonists. And by cartoonists I mean caricaturists of life. They wanted to draw real life.
Stroud: There is a difference.
Esposito: Right, but there‘s a personality with a cartoonist that you can‘t deny. They give it charm; they give it warmth, and personality. When you get a guy like Gil Kane, who can draw like crazy; he really can draw and his black and white stuff is beautiful on the syndicate strips he drew over the years. That special strip he had about science fiction.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, Star Hawks I think it was.
Esposito: Right. Brilliant stuff. But it was too good for comics as we know it. Guys who really did the comics well, I think, are naturally Milton Caniff, which was the start of all that stuff; Johnny Romita, who was a Milton Caniff fan, to such a point that he almost had a chance to ghost for him when he got old.
Stroud: Holy cow.
Esposito: Johnny was young, and he had a chance to try out to be one of the ghosts because they had so many of these guys who had so much money, they didn‘t do hardly anything anymore.
Stroud: Sure. The Bob Kane school of production.
Esposito: Right. Anyway, Johnny Romita is brilliant with a pencil and a brush. It sings. It‘s beautiful. It‘s smooth and silky. Something Ross could never feel. He was not silky and smooth. But that didn‘t mean he didn‘t have drama.
As I said there was a picture in one of the books that I have that reproduces Ross and me in the book, Partners for Life; a certain scene where he‘s coming down the fire escape to the floor where the garbage pails are to the ground and in the alleyway he goes on to the police cars. It‘s like an “L,“ the letter “L.” He comes down and goes down to the bottom and then goes forward, down to the background. That‘s depth. That‘s movement. And do you know where Ross got that? He got that from Disney‘s Bambi.
Esposito: Do you remember when the rabbits were running? The camera came down on them and I couldn‘t believe it when I was a 14-year old kid watching it. It came down on them and it looks like it turned around to their rear end going the other way.
Now, you don‘t do that with a cartoon. Everything is flat and that‘s it. But they had that pan camera, that special depth camera and they spent a fortune on one scene. I remember in Pinocchio with the little children running around in the streets from up above. They paid $40,000.00 for the multi-plane camera that Disney‘s brother Roy said, “Stop! Stop! We can‘t afford it!” So anyway, you want stuff like that, you pay through the nose.
Stroud: It turned the world on its ear. It was a good investment.
Esposito: Now we‘ve got it all on DVD and we slow it down and look at it frame by frame and you‘d be amazed what those guys did.
Stroud: It really is incredible what they were able to accomplish with the technology of the time.
Esposito: And that‘s why they say nobody wants 2-dimensional drawings any more. They want the 3-D effect from the computer animation.
Stroud: Yeah, Pixar and that kind of thing.
Esposito: Well, I‘ll tell you. It is good. When you look at Monsters, Inc. with the one-eyed character voiced by Billy Crystal, it‘s very good and very clever with the John Goodman character, Sully, the hairy blue monster.
And then when you look at Bambi and you look at well-drawn animation like Pinocchio, the original Fantasia, you say, “My God. What went into that?” It‘s really not two-dimensional. It‘s really not three-dimensional. But it‘s rounded. It looks real. And the kid‘s shows all have it now. And it does improve the quality for a little kid to look at and it looks like it‘s really coming to life. Anyway, we went into another direction.
Come back next week for part two of this delightful interview!