I felt very fortunate getting to know Mike Esposito. He became a phone friend and sometimes I’d call him just to say hello and shoot the breeze. It was always a fun conversation, liberally sprinkled with laughter. Mike’s career had been enjoyable and he appreciated those who appreciated his time in the trenches. When he passed away in 2010 I was both saddened and honored when his wife, Irene, called to let me know, right after she’d contacted Stan Goldberg and John Romita. Mike was definitely one of the good guys and I still miss him.
Check out part one of our interview here.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: When you were inking other pencilers besides Ross was there anyone you really didn‘t like inking?
Mike Esposito: No. Some of these guys were so good. Johnny Romita I loved inking. I don‘t know if I did him justice; the way he wanted it himself when he would ink it, but I loved inking his stuff because it was all there. Silky, silky clean.
Then there was John Buscema. Excellent. Especially when he did full pencils. But then he got annoyed when he realized he wasn‘t making enough money like his brother, Sal Buscema, who was turning out five pages a day in breakdowns and blue pencil. And he was very careful with what he was doing and then it was, “What am I, nuts? I can only do one page a day. My brother is knocking out five pages a day.“
Stroud: This isn‘t cutting it.
Esposito: And Mike Sekowsky used to turn out five pages a day. And good. Really good.
Stroud: I‘ve heard Mike was just amazing.
Esposito: He was a machine.
Stroud: Joe Giella called him “The speed merchant.“
Esposito: You got that right. Joe Giella did a lot of work with him. I did a lot of work with him, but not as much as Joe because Joe was with DC all the time. I did some humor stuff with him of course, which you know about, the Inferior Five and whatever.
Stroud: Yeah. It seemed like a fun series. It‘s a shame it didn‘t go longer.
Esposito: Well, this is what happens, unfortunately. They put the books out for three months, give it three issues, and if it doesn‘t grab hold, they go to another three issues of another title. That was Bob Kanigher‘s job, and all the editors.
They‘d come out with a new book on the title of Showcase. They had to have a new idea, and Bob‘s turn was coming up for an idea and he had no idea. He was strictly a guy who loved to watch movies. We‘re talking 1955 science fiction. So he came up with the idea of robots.
Stroud: The Metal Men.
Esposito: He called up Ross and me and said, “I‘ve got to have something within a week.” Ross said, “What are you talking about?” Ross was slow to begin with, and we had to come up with something. Then we came up with the Metal Men design. We designed it for him. He flipped out. He loved it. And I‘ll tell you something. It was good. Metal Men was a good book.
Stroud: It‘s one of my all-time favorites.
Esposito: Well, I‘m glad to hear that. There was a lot of personality in there. I used to say to Bob, “Bob, you know what you got here? You‘ve got a newspaper strip. Every day, showing the personalities of these guys. Or maybe a T.V. show.” But you couldn‘t do the T.V. show because they didn‘t have any computer generated effects.
He said, “Nah, you don‘t know what you‘re talking about.” He belittled it. Anybody who had an idea, he would override it. “Just do your inking. You‘re not being paid to think.” I used to hate that expression: “You‘re not being paid to think.” I‘d come up with an idea now and then because I was creative. I had ideas and I would bean him with them. “You‘re not being paid to think, Mike.” Anyway, that book was classic for its time.
Stroud: Very much so.
Esposito: Bob didn‘t really believe in it in the beginning. Then he couldn‘t believe it because Ross and I put our guts into it. We flew through twelve issues.
Stroud: Yeah, in fact I ran across a statement that will probably ring true to you. It said, “Kanigher performed a similar astounding delivery when he created and scripted a superhero classic, the Metal Men, for Showcase #37, March/April of 1962. He art directed his artists, Andru and Esposito on the layout and they heroically rendered the story, completing the book in only 10 days, cover to cover.“
Esposito: That‘s it. That‘s it. I don‘t know how the hell we did it.
Stroud: I don‘t either. That‘s astounding. I was going to ask you if you remembered it. Did you just not sleep? (Chuckle.)
Esposito: Oh, we didn‘t. We‘d work 45 hours. (Chuckle.) When you look at Get Lost, if you get a hold of a copy, and you see the picture of Ross and me holding up Get Lost, look at Ross‘ eyes. He looks like a vampire. Like shot, he‘s shot. You look at me and I look 30 pounds heavier, because all I did was eat! It was to keep from sleeping.
Stroud: Some way to keep going. Oh, my goodness.
Esposito: And I‘m telling you, that‘s very true what he said in that book. But at one point he wrote somewhere giving Ross and I credit for co-creating it with him, which was nice. This was years later. Some of the reprints that were put out years later said, “Co-created by Andru and Esposito.“
Stroud: That‘s almost unheard of. A lot of people like Mort Weisinger, for example…
Esposito: Oh, poor guy.
Stroud: He wouldn‘t give credit to anybody.
Esposito: No way! (Chuckle.) He used to run through the hall. This big, heavy guy and he‘d be on his toes. Ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti. Running around like a little pixie.
Esposito: You‘d look at him and he was so light on his feet. A story about him: I feared him so much. Because he would take the pages…I was doing Wonder Woman then, too, along with the Metal Men. Trying to squeeze Wonder Woman in every month as well as Metal Men those first 10 days.
Stroud: Oh, goodness.
Esposito: And it showed. It was kind of raw at times, because we were burned out. But he took the pages one day, and he was looking at them, and I happened to have them on the floor. “What have you got on the floor there? You got $2,000.00 on the floor! What if they get dirty? What if somebody steps on them?” I said, “It won‘t reproduce the dirt!“
He was annoyed that I was too smart. I mean I‘d published. I knew all about that. It can‘t reproduce, you dumb ox. The grease from ketchup and stuff like that, when Ross and I would be eating and Ross was sloppy with his eating, his hands were always dirty from food and his pages were dirty from grease marks and what have you, but when it‘s printed, it‘s clear as a bell! You don‘t see that. And he [Weisinger] got annoyed. And he was kind of hard on me sometimes.
Stroud: You and everybody else, it sounds like.
Esposito: Yeah, he was a pretty tough guy. And I was going to buy a house with my late wife at the time, in Dix Hills, which was a very nice neighborhood. It was a ranch house. This was about 1962 or ‘63, and I went with the salesman and he showed us the house. Beautiful house. He said, “What do you do?” I said, “I‘m a cartoonist.” “Well that‘s good. We have cartoonists out here.” I said, “Who?” “Mort Weisinger just bought the house next door.” I said, “What? Mort Weisinger? Forget it, let‘s go.“
Esposito: I walked away from the house. I said, “I‘ll be damned if I‘m going to live next door to Mort Weisinger.” The first thing I‘ll hear is, “You‘re making too much money if you‘re living out there with me.” That could happen, you know.
Above: Mort Weisinger with Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson
Stroud: I believe it. And who would need that? I think I read an interview somewhere with Arnold Drake and he referred to him as “The Whale.“
Esposito: That‘s right. That‘s very good from Arnold Drake. Arnold Drake the writer?
Stroud: Yes. I don‘t know if you remember or not, but if I recall there were actually four appearances by the Metal Men in Showcase before they got their own book…
Esposito: At least three.
Stroud: In one of them at the end it said, “Readers, you let us know if you want to see more of us,“ and then in the next issue of Showcase they were back again. Do you know what happened there?
Esposito: No, I don‘t know. I do know that we did three issues, and the first cover I hated. Because the figures were little tiny figures of the Metal Men near the bottom with this big Stingray coming down. The stingray was the whole thing. Bob Kanigher was into science fiction with the movies and the stingray was the big flying thing in the first Metal Men.
That was timely for that time because of all those cheap ’50s era science fiction movies, with The Thing From Outer Space and all that stuff. Ray Harryhausen stuff. Some of them were good. I enjoy looking at them today, but he would borrow from almost every one of those stories. They weren‘t Bob Kanigher‘s creations. He saw the movies and recreated and rearranged the thoughts into a comic book.
Stroud: Ta-da and there you go.
Esposito: He had a very fertile brain and he knew how to do that. Not only that one; he did it for almost all of his books. A lot of the science fiction stuff that he wrote was borrowed from science fiction movies; which was understandable, because people did it all the time. There was only one original and then you filter it many directions.
Stroud: No new ideas.
Esposito: Well, I always use the expression like people say, “Getting to the top,“ and I said, “Look at a pyramid. There‘s only one on top and a billion slaves underneath.“
Stroud: Good analogy.
Esposito: There‘s only one on top. It‘s so difficult to be a winner. So difficult. With a syndicated strip, with anything. Number one this or number one anything. So difficult, but you can be popular and you can make money, but you‘ll always be near the middle somewhere. You‘re probably not going to get to the top. People who got to the top…what‘s his name with Playboy?
Esposito: Hefner. Now I saw him crying the blues in the reception office of National Periodicals, which is DC‘s company. It was called National Periodicals. And he was walking back and forth with a little magazine under his arm. Back and forth, back and forth. I‘m sitting in this chair, because I was waiting for Ross. We were going to go in there and pitch some of our ideas to DC after we were freelancing there, but not Get Lost,“ we were going to do other things.
And I found out who he was. He had the first book with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Playboy. And they bought it. National Periodicals decided to print and distribute it. And he rocketed to the moon. It happens. Gaines had the chance, but he was a bastard and who the hell knows? He could have gone further, but he had some good help. Gaines had a lot of good people working on Mad. Mort Drucker. A lot of good, famous artists.
Stroud: Yeah, Al Jaffee. Lots of good folks. Russ Heath was there for awhile.
Esposito: Russ never had a sense of humor with his artwork. He was more graphic and detailed. He was good. Not so much in Mad magazine, but his adventure comics were terrific.
Stroud: Right, the war comics and westerns and so forth.
Esposito: Russ Heath always impressed me because I knew him when he was very young and starting. He was very impressive with his knowledge of horses. For some reason I‘m thinking he was brought up out west. But horses, he loved horses. And he was very detailed.
Stroud: His work is quite impressive.
Esposito: Very much so. But he doesn‘t have a sense of humor in his work. That‘s not a fault, it‘s just that you could never give him something like a Mad magazine gag situation and make it funny. He‘s not the type. I guess that‘s where Ross was different and I guess myself, too. We could do both. We could be very serious, very dramatic, and very funny. Not every partnership can do that. Not any one inker can usually do that. Not any one penciler can do that. But Ross and I seemed to excel in both areas.
Stroud: That‘s a gift.
Esposito: It‘s a sense of humor that you retain through all the garbage.
Stroud: It keeps you going.
Esposito: Right. Ross and I were very funny when we‘d be writing things until 3 o‘clock in the morning, and we‘d make up things as we went along and we‘d start to play act. That‘s what we did. Anyway, it was a great ride.
Stroud: Were you surprised when your Wonder Woman was made into a postage stamp a couple of years ago?
Esposito: Oh, definitely. I got a nice check from DC. A big check. I couldn‘t believe it. But they wanted me to go out west to sign stuff in San Diego, and I said, “No, I don‘t want to.” I said, “I don‘t leave the house.” They didn‘t bother me any more. They accepted the fact that I wouldn‘t go, but they didn‘t say, “Give me back the check.“
Stroud: (Laughter.) You know that‘s one thing that some of the folks I‘ve had a chance to talk to have told me. It seems like the consistent story is that DC‘s been doing a good job of paying royalties to the talent.
Esposito: You‘ve got that right.
Stroud: But Marvel has kind of fallen behind.
Esposito: It has. I was talking to my wife about having to pay $600.00 for the damned oil. It‘s going to get cold soon, and I‘m waiting for a check from Marvel because they put out a lot of books recently where I did almost all of them. Like the Iron Man book from the movie. I‘ve got tons of stuff in there. It‘s probably a couple of thousand dollars if I get it. I‘ll get a little check from them, but never the big checks. So maybe they‘ve slowed down, but why I don‘t know. They made a fortune on Iron Man.
Esposito: They own every penny. They produced and directed it and own it. It‘s not like before with licensing where they got 5%. They got it all. The DVDs. It‘s all theirs.
Stroud: Yeah, in-house production and everything.
Esposito: Right. You‘re going to see a lot coming up, too. They‘re gonna come out with Thor. They picked Thor because it‘s different from the regular superheroes. It‘s going to catch on with regular audiences that are not fans of comics only. It‘s very mythological.
Stroud: Right. It would have a broader base.
Esposito: Right, and I think it will make a lot of money. I don‘t know who‘s going to be in it.
Stroud: I‘m not sure either, but that‘s a good point. I hadn‘t thought about the fact that it would appeal beyond the comic book fans.
Esposito: That‘s exactly right. And of course DC made $500 million already with Batman.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. The Dark Knight is going through the roof.
Esposito: Right, and they sent me a little check this morning. DC, like you said, is very quick to pay, along with balance sheets and everything to double check when I was paid this or when I did this or when I did that.
Stroud: Yeah, I‘m sure you‘ve seen you‘ve seen the Showcase Presents reprint collections they‘re doing now. They‘ve been real good.
Esposito: Which ones?
Stroud: They‘re doing particularly Silver Age stuff. They‘re doing Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Justice League…
Esposito: Well how long ago are you saying?
Stroud: Just within the last few years.
Esposito: Oh, okay.
Stroud: They‘re a black and white paperback.
Esposito: Yeah, I‘ve been paid and get my residuals on those. About a year ago.
Stroud: I think on the Metal Men they‘re getting ready to release Volume Two.
Esposito: Really? They haven‘t done it yet?
Stroud: If I‘m not mistaken.
Esposito: Well, they put a Metal Men out about a year ago.
Stroud: I wonder if that was the hardbound color Archive Editions?
Esposito: It was about a year ago and it was Part One. It was not the whole ten years. So there should be another one. I‘m hoping, anyway.
Stroud: I‘m sure there will. They had a real following. They did very well for a long, long time.
Esposito: Metal Men?
Esposito: Good. I‘m glad you said that. I know they sent me a set of all the Metal Men figures two years ago.
Stroud: How nice.
Esposito: They sent me a whole box. I was surprised. They were a very good looking job they did.
Stroud: That‘s neat.
Esposito: I used to get orders from fans who would want a Metal Men cover or a Metal Men head. Stuff like that.
Stroud: Are you still doing commissions, Mike?
Esposito: Yeah, I am, but I don‘t have the energy to turn them out like I used to. I‘m 81 now. I have some finished work on hand, like #40 of Spider-Man standing over the Green Goblin. The famous one you see all the time. I‘ve got one lying on my table. Maybe someday someone will buy it. And I‘ve got about 4 or 5 others that are 90% done. They‘re just sitting there. I have no way of distributing it.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) Back to the distribution problem. When I talked with Carmine [Infantino], he praised your and Ross‘ artwork to the rooftops on the Flash…
Esposito: I‘m glad to hear that. I really am.
Stroud: He said it was wonderful on the Flash and he was surprised that some of the fans were unhappy initially.
Esposito: That‘s right. They were.
Stroud: I guess it was just the notion of change.
Esposito: They were. First of all, Ross, when he drew the Flash, compared to Carmine; Carmine made him two dimensional. Lean, very lean. Always running with the same arm out and leg back, you know? And he was swift! Lithe and swift.
But when Ross did it, he made him muscle bound. Because Ross, being part Russian, he used his legs. Now my legs are skinny, like Carmine‘s. (Chuckle.) Ross used to look at me in the mirror at the hotels and so on, and he‘d say, “You got no legs. You call those legs? These are legs!” Boom! Boom! Big, muscle bound legs. That‘s the way he was built. He was Slavic. And I was a slob.
Esposito: Sorry about that, but the humor never stops.
Stroud: I appreciate it. I sure do.
Esposito: You can write a book now. Anyway, he drew himself. And that‘s what bothered the people. He didn‘t look swift any more. But then when the movie came out, the T.V. show, it looked like Ross‘s. Remember the T.V. show during the short time that it was running?
Stroud: I sure do.
Esposito: And it had the thickness of what Ross was doing. Now, they didn‘t want to use a skinny guy flying around, they wanted to use a muscular guy. He was a guy who was going to punch guys out. And in a sense Ross was right. But the fans, they would never say die. The king is dead. Long live the king no more. Because Carmine was the king of what he was doing, and we come in, upstarts, you know. “What did you do to Carmine‘s Flash?” And they weren‘t happy. When they had letters to the editor in the book, they tore us apart.
Stroud: Some of them were pretty brutal.
Esposito: They were. But you said Carmine appreciated it.
Stroud: He did. When I spoke to him I told him, I said, “After you left the book, it seemed like poor Ross and Mike couldn‘t get a break,“ and he says, “Why? They did wonderful work. Why were they (the fans) that way?” So he obviously appreciated the work that you guys did.
Esposito: Well, visually, in the content with Ross, his depth perception was evident in the book when it never was when Carmine did it. Carmine would have the guy running with buildings in the background. Skyscrapers.
Ross didn‘t do that. He went in and in and in, like Disney‘s multi-plane effects and that‘s what Ross and I grew up on. Multi-plane. In, in, in, in. There‘s a front, there‘s a center plane, the middle plane and the background. Way in. And when you draw the guy in the background, then the multi-plane should be way up the front plane so you get depth.
Stroud: It makes perfect sense.
Esposito: Yeah, but a lot of guys don‘t want to think that way.
Stroud: Too much work, I guess.
Esposito: Well, not only that, but not as attractive. When Ross did it, the young readers of Ross‘s stuff never appreciated that plane. That depth. They liked Gil Kane‘s, which was visually beautiful to look at the figure, with a wall behind it. You follow me?
Esposito: There was no depth. No planes. One guy that came close I would say would be John Buscema. John Buscema had great style. I remember the book I did with him on the Avengers. It was the wedding of the giant girl. I loved that story. He drew her in a gown, and I think the giant girl was marrying the little guy. What was his name? The ant? Not the ant.
Stroud: I thought maybe you were talking about Ant-Man, but I‘m not sure. I don‘t know my Marvel characters as well.
Esposito: I don‘t think so. Whatever it was, she was marrying the little guy, and the way he drew that gown was unbelievable. When I inked that, I had never been able to ink Ross this way. It just flowed off my pen. So to me, he did things Ross couldn‘t do, and I did some Thor books with him, too. A couple of books. I did so much inking my fingers were full.
Stroud: Sure. I saw where you even inked Steve Ditko there for a little while.
Esposito: Yes, and I got in trouble because he did the last issue of U.S. One or whatever it was that was written by Al Milgrom, and the penciler was Frank Springer. Beautiful stuff. Really beautiful. I had so much fun doing it, because he was an advertising artist. He knew how to draw trucks.
The trucks for U.S. One and the characters were so good, I loved doing it. And then the last story had to be done and Milgrom said that Springer wasn‘t going to do it, so they got Ditko. And I couldn‘t make heads or tails of it.
So I went to the editor, whose name was Ralph Macchio, and I went up to him and I said, “I can‘t do this.” Well, he got really pissed off. He got mad. And actually he‘s the boss and I‘m only the worker, so turning down a job, and he wanted it finished because it was like the 12th issue, the final run of the book, well, that was unacceptable. I told him, “I can‘t do it. It‘s all scribble. It‘s not the style that was there before. I‘ve got to try and make it look consistent.” Springer was the guy who should have finished it, but Springer was put on something else. So I refused, and ever since then he never treated me well. He didn‘t give me work. If he did give me work it was the worst jobs. The worst characters.
Stroud: How dirty.
Esposito: One you wouldn‘t make money on in reprints. That idea. Things like Iron Fist. I hated that character. I mean there are some losers up at Marvel, believe it or not. They did like 40 different characters a month for the Marvel Universe. Some were great, but some of them were…what it was, was they had all these young writers. They were creating things off the top of their head like crazy, and they were accepted because they had to turn out 40 books a month.
Stroud: So just give me product, huh?
Esposito: Right. And it showed.
Stroud: Yeah, when you‘re mass producing like that your quality is probably not going to be able to hang in there.
Esposito: And when you‘ve got a guy like Roy Thomas, a damn good editor, he had enough to handle, he almost had a nervous breakdown because of all the work they had to turn out. Johnny [Romita] was going nuts because he had all those covers to do. That‘s when they brought in Gil Kane to do the covers with Johnny.
Johnny Romita used to get so upset with Stan Lee and say, “We‘re doing too many books!” And Stan Lee would say, “You‘ll never be number one, Johnny. You don‘t think like a publisher who wants to be number one. We want to be number one. We have to have more books than DC.” And he was right. Stan had a vision, and he was right. Stan was a bit of a genius. You know the story about him standing on the table and telling me how to draw?
Stroud: Was that the Green Goblin?
Esposito: No. I was penciling then. Sol Brodsky was there by the table, and he was telling me something I was doing wrong with the criminals. He said, “No, you‘ve got to give them a thick neck, you know? Big, knobby hands.” And I was drawing my own hand, which is delicate. I‘m not a knuckle-bound, thuggy guy.
And he said, “No, you‘ve got it all wrong. He looks like a lawyer. You‘ve got to make him look like a thug.” And he gets up on the top of the table and he starts acting it out, showing his thick neck and all that and Sol Brodsky is standing off to the left starting to laugh.
Some guy called me up in February. He‘s writing a book, an interview with me about that scene. It will be appearing in one of these TwoMorrows type books, I guess, about Stan Lee and so on. You‘ll probably see it when it comes out.
Stroud: I‘ll have to be on the lookout. I‘d heard the story, but I didn‘t realize that it was with you.
Esposito: Yeah, he did it with me. He did it with a lot of guys. In my take, it‘s Stan Lee and a little picture of me.
Stroud: Super. Was that in your Mickey Demeo days or was that later?
Esposito: That was Mickey Demeo days.
Stroud: Demeo, I‘m sorry. (Note: I mispronounced the last name.)
Esposito: No, don‘t be sorry. I should be sorry.
Esposito: Because others knew it all the time, but never once called me Mickey Demeo. I was hiding behind a name. Because at the time I was doing work for DC under contract with Wonder Woman and all that stuff. The satire stuff with Mike Sekowsky. So when Stan said to me, “I want you to work here on staff,“ I said, “Well, I can‘t.”
He said, “Well, use a pen name. Everybody does.” Gil Kane was somebody else. The only guy that didn‘t change his name was Johnny Romita because he had no other company he was working for that he would get in trouble.
Stroud: No need to hide, huh?
Esposito: Right. But everybody else did. Even Jack Abel had a different name. They all had different names. So Stan said, “Go ahead and change your name.” So I said, “Mickey Demeo.” He said, “I like that.” (Chuckle.) Then he gets a letter…this is the truth, the God‘s honest truth, he gets a letter from a kid in England, a big fan; wrote him a letter that said, “You know, Mr. Stan Lee, I know who Mickey Demeo is. He‘s Mike Esposito. I can tell by the way he does the ears.“
Esposito: Stan is telling me this and I‘m laughing my head off. I said, “You mean to tell me that‘s what it is?” They see things that you don‘t realize they see. The way you do fingers, or hands. The way I did my ears. You can‘t mask that. It‘s an ear. The kid was sharp. I‘d like to find him now, the dope. This must have been around 1961 or ‘63. Something like that. The kid was sharp.
Stroud: That‘s an eye for detail.
Esposito: That‘s right. And Stan was saying that, “You can‘t fool the young readers. The fans know everything.” He was right. That‘s why he was the only guy…DC never did this, the only guy that would make sure that every artist, writer, letterer, was signed with little nicknames.
Stroud: Right. You were “Mighty Mike“ as I recall.
Esposito: “Mighty Mike“ Esposito, “Jazzy“ John Romita; everyone had a little nickname, and the reason for it is that he was copying Hollywood. He was thinking in terms of character actors so that people would remember them. You‘d associate the name to what he did.
Stroud: Of course.
Esposito: Otherwise it‘s cold and cut and dried. You‘d go up to DC and it was no name. Just the little numbers on the bottom of what story it was. 603452 or whatever.
Stroud: Yeah, although I did notice at least on occasion…
Esposito: Bob Kane.
Stroud: Well, yeah, good old Bob. (Laughter.)
Esposito: He made sure. What did you notice on occasion?
Stroud: That on the covers that you and Ross did…
Esposito: That was later, when we got a byline.
Stroud: Yeah, there would be a little square there that said, “Andru and Esposito.“
Esposito: Right. That was the Metal Men.
Stroud: Right, that‘s what I was thinking of.
Esposito: It was years later with Wonder Woman because the creator of Wonder Woman was still alive. The guy was a writer and the name Charlie Moulton was on every Wonder Woman book. Every book had Charlie Moulton, so we could never sign it. And then finally… (dramatic lowering of voice) he passed away. It was our day.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) And you were able to take it from there.
Esposito: “Art by Andru and Esposito.” That was something good about DC. They would always say “Art by,“ not “inked by“ or “penciled by.” They saw it as an art team. “Art by Mike Esposito and Ross Andru.” I always felt good about that. Because it made me not look like what Marvel was doing. Some of those young editors would say, “Delineated by Esposito.” What the hell is delineated?
Stroud: (Laughter.) Yeah, talk about talking over the head of your audience. I notice you had some credits for doing the Hostess ads for awhile. How was that?
Esposito: I know I penciled a couple of them. It was nice money. I was up at Marvel and Marvel‘s rates were low at the time, but these things paid like $100.00 or $125.00, so it was a big difference when you‘re used to getting $25.00 or $30.00. But those jobs didn‘t come often.
Stroud: Did you have a preference between DC and Marvel?
Esposito: As an inker?
Stroud: Right, just in general.
Esposito: I liked DC, because with DC I could use a lot of pen as opposed to brush up at Marvel. I was never a brush man. Johnny Romita wanted everything in brush, and I don‘t blame him because the reason for that is that the color reproduction was so bad up at Marvel at the time, in the early days, it would bleed. In other words you would have an outline on Spider-Man, and if the line wasn‘t thick enough, with a brush, it wouldn‘t hold the shape together. All the colors would be running into each other with the bad color reproduction. If you look at the old books you‘ll see it. They‘d overlap sometimes and run into each other.
Stroud: Stan Goldberg told me it was kind of a nightmare being a colorist back then.
Esposito: Sure. Of course it would be. And he was a damn good colorist. One of the best. Not like DC‘s colorists. Frank Giacoia and I went one day up to a meeting and he was really bitching.
Above: Frank Giacoia inking Fantastic Four #97
Frank was a funny guy. He was late on everything, but he made them know he was mad so they wouldn‘t remember he was late. That was his whole game. He‘d get annoyed, then he‘d look the other way and apologize. When you walk out with your check, even though you were late on the previous one, and they won‘t even remember.
But what happened was we were sitting there and they were talking about the colorists and the books. I think Jerry Serpe was the guy‘s name. He was a colorist along with Jack Adler. He used to take his brush, and he‘d put it in blue, and he started hitting everything with blue on the page. On the page they used to make the coloring. Not the original, of course.
So Frank Giacoia said, “You know, when you do that, you got blue mountains, a blue horse, you got blue grass. Wherever you put the brush and use it. There are other colors to use, too.” That‘s how they‘d knock out five pages an hour at $3.00 a page. So anyway, he got really mad and he stood up and I never saw Frank yell so much. And he got his point across. Because all of a sudden…I think Carmine was just coming into the picture as the top dog, and I think he listened, which was good. Because it was pretty bad. Those guys made so much money as colorists. We cartoonists were in the poor house by comparison. We‘d do one page a day if we were lucky. They would do 10 pages in an hour to color.
Esposito: I‘m serious. The colorists would use these little Xerox sheets and then those things were sold later for a lot of money. But when they colored them, they didn‘t color them in detail and make sure no notes were off the line. Then they‘d write “YR,“ a certain type of yellow, “BL,“ a certain type of blue, and they‘d put the code numbers on it to make sure that the colorists, when they did it, the engravers, when they did the coloring, would use that code to make sure if they were off a little bit on the color, the code would tell them which one to use. They didn‘t do any creative coloring at all. All they had to do was write down the code.
Stroud: Just follow the script, huh?
Esposito: Right. And they made so much money. They made over $100,000.00 a year then. Tons of money. They‘d get $4.00 a page to color and they‘d color tons and tons and tons of pages. The covers always got more. The cover would be maybe $50.00. A lot of covers. And I think that‘s how Stan Goldberg got into it. He realized the coloring was very, very lucrative. And then you‘ve got Marvel cranking out 40 books a month, and he did a good job. An excellent job. And he does a great Archie.
Stroud: He sure does.
Esposito: Without him, Archie would be dead. He really kept it modern and up to date. Michael Silberkleit up at Archie should kiss his feet every time he sees him. Because they‘re not paying any reprint money. They just take the money and run. “Here‘s your check. Goodbye.” Maybe he gets a little bit, because he did tons and tons of stuff with the digest books. Maybe he gets a buck a book or something.
Stroud: Speaking of Archie comics you were art director there for awhile. Did you enjoy that?
Esposito: That‘s where I was doing the book called Zen. What happened was I met this guy, Steve Stern. He came from Maine and he created Zen, Intergalactic Ninja, and he wanted me and Ross to pencil and ink it. Actually we did some writing, too.
We did about three issues. First we did them in black-and-white and they were terrible. But finally he got a contract with Archie to them up there, because Archie was looking for another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When that one came out of the blue it made them wealthy. So they figured, “Hey, let‘s try this Zen the Intergalactic.” So we did three issues in color and I was the art director and editor. So it was pencils and inks by Andru and Esposito, created by Steve Stern, and colored by Barry Grossman. And we had a budget.
Because we had a nice budget I told the colorist he could have $10.00 a page, which was unheard of at Archie. It was the Japanese guy. Yoshida. And I liked that guy. And he was so happy because he‘d never seen that kind of money from them. He‘d get $3.00 to $5.00 tops. He did a good job. He did the lettering and Barry, for the coloring he got $10.00.
And then after the third book they said, “It‘s costing us too much money.” Before the results came in. “It‘s costing too much money to put it out. You‘ve got to cut the amount of money.” This is Michael Silberkleit telling me this. So what could I do? So I had to cut it in half. I cut it to $5.00 a page, which hurt Yoshida. He was really upset. He said, “What happened?” I said, “I had to. They told me I can‘t do it.” And I cut my rate. It was down to practically nothing left for Ross and me.
Stroud: Oh, man.
Esposito: This is what happens. And of course, they killed the book. After a few issues they discovered it wasn‘t another Ninja Turtles that made a fortune for them. It happens. Lightning doesn‘t strike twice.
Stroud: Well, it is a business, and that‘s what it ends up being, first and foremost.
Stroud: One of the things that I always thought was very unique about the work that you and Ross did was that bursting out of the panels look, when the figures went beyond the panel boundaries. Was that Ross‘ idea or yours or collaboration?
Esposito: It might have been both of us when we did it for Get Lost. We had a scene where the kid was being beaten up and he‘s falling through the panel and stuff like that, but later on, when he was designing the pages for DC or Marvel, that was his department. I didn‘t sit down with him and discuss how he was going to do the penciling of a story that was given to him by Stan Lee for Spider-Man or stuff like that.
He was on his own, and I was just the inker and he was the penciler. We had nothing to do with collaboration between us. When we worked for DC in the old days, with Metal Men and before we went to Marvel, when we were a pencil/inker team, then we had more time that we collaborated.
Stroud: I was thinking of this one particular Superman story I have that you both worked on and that technique was used a lot. One scene showed him visiting Lori Lemaris, the mermaid and it showed her being tangled up with this monster underwater and it completely broke out of the panel boundaries and I thought, “Gosh, what a neat idea.“
Esposito: Was that in Action Comics? We didn‘t do many in the Superman book.
Stroud: I‘m not certain.
Esposito: I remember one in Action that had his face poisoned by Kryptonite.
Stroud: Yeah, I‘ve got that one, too, where he‘s all green and disheveled. Anyway, I thought that was an extremely unique thing and I don‘t remember anyone else doing it at the time.
Esposito: It was really Ross, I would have to say, when it came to designing pages as a penciler, but when it was the satire stuff, done in a humorous way, then I would incorporate my thinking more. I would be more involved with him in designing the pages.
Stroud: What sort of equipment did you use in your work?
Esposito: Well I used crow quills and I used more stiff points. Frank Giacoia schooled me in that area for pen points. Esterbrook, I believe it was called. I don‘t think they‘re around anymore.
A lot of those things disappeared like Guillot, who made pen points. They had one with the little lip on the end that worked like a brush. You could almost bend it like a brush. And of course brushes. The #3, the #2. I loved to do pen with the ink rather than the brush. Marvel wanted more brush. I still say it was because printing was so bad. They wanted a thicker line to hold the color what with the bad printing in the comic books in those days. It kept it from bleeding. With DC, they liked the idea of more pen work back in the old days, the ’50s.
Stroud: So that was your preferred tool rather than a brush.
Esposito: Well, it was good because I could draw on top with my pen like it was penciling on top of Ross. I used stiff points. Hard points. Not flexible ones. Then I could control it like a pencil. You‘d get the clean lines, where a brush sometimes would get heavy handed, and you can destroy some of the guy‘s contours. Like Jim Mooney used a very heavy brush, and when he would do Ross, sometimes he would change some of the hard contour approach. Stan Lee loved it because it was a thick line. You follow me?
Esposito: They liked the heavy line better. And Stan wasn‘t wild about my using a pen, but that‘s the way I liked to work. You could control it more like a pencil.