Photo by Greg Preston
I’ve been a comic book fan almost my entire life, probably since I was three, so it was unavoidable. My dad, the author Bruce Jay Friedman, was a magazine editor in the 1950s and early 1960s at a company called Magazine Management, and he worked at the very next desk to Stan Lee, the editor of Marvel comics. As early as I can my remember, I had stacks of brand new Marvel comics deposited in my bedroom every Friday evening via my dad. I had amassed a huge collection by the time I was six. I loved to draw at an early age and my goal was to be a MAD magazine artist, to join the ranks of the "usual gang of idiots," something I would finally accomplish… at age 35! I also have had a fascination for comics history and wanted to learn as much as I could about the artists who I most admired, as well as learn what they actually looked like, something that was not always easy to accomplish. The great MAD comics artist Will Elder’s family commissioned a portrait of Will from me shortly after he died and that’s what triggered this series of portraits. Will’s longtime creative partner Harvey Kurtzman, who had been one of my teachers, as well as Will Eisner, at the School of Visual Arts in New York was the next portrait, then several more EC artists, leading to some Golden Age comics greats like Eisner, cover subject Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Siegel & Shuster, and then I realized I had the makings of a book.
2) Your work is visual. Without the luxury of words, how do you communicate each of your subjects' specific stories/personalities/pasts in your portraits? With what details?
I suppose I belong to the “Warts & all” school of illustration, meaning I don’t try to pretty things up with my work. I want to show what the individual really looked like, not a glamorized portrait, which people seem to appreciate. I like to draw people older or very old because you get to see their lives etched into their faces. Every line, wrinkle and liver spot tells the story of their life. Drawing younger faces is finally boring for me. It's too bland and uninteresting, although I do admire a beautiful face. I like Ava Gardner’s quote when she was asked late in life why she didn’t get a facelift: “Honey, I earned every line."
In many cases, what is going on in the background of my drawings is just as important, if not more important, to convey the “story” of the individual I’m depicting. Even a subtle gesture, a slightly raised eyebrow or a half smile, is essential in my communicating the subject’s story.
3) Do you like everyone you draw?
It does help to like and admire people I draw. I don’t necessarily want to spend days staring into the face of someone I loathe as I’m rendering their features. But it also sometimes helps to not admire someone. In Old Jewish Comedians, I included many comedians I don’t especially love as comedians. The majority of them I do love and respect, but I personally find Eddie Cantor and Red Buttons, among others, to be not very funny and even somewhat cloying. What I do love about them all are their wonderful, expressive faces, which still want to have attention paid to them even in old age and dotage, almost demanding it. That’s what I attempted to capture in my portraits, how in-your-face they all were. Even at the end none of them were shy or withdrawn, with the possible exception of Woody Allen. The Heroes of the Comics from my new book are for the most part more average looking, demure, low-key folks, not demanding attention aside from a few like notorious publicity hounds like Stan Lee and Bob Kane. Of course with much of my editorial political work, it certainly helped to dislike the likes of a Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney. How could one not? But I do pride myself on being an equal opportunity offender. I’ve taken shots at both Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in my work. A good, honest political artist can never be one-sided.
4) Is there anyone you wanted to include in your latest book who didn't make the cut?
I had a long list that I finally had to cut down when the book was being planned, so finally I chose the 85 most essential early comic book artists, writers, publishers and editors, those who began in comics between 1935 at the very dawn of the industry, to 1955, when the Senate hearing on juvenile delinquency basically sanitized mainstream comic books and helped to put many creators out of work. I regret not including some creators who I greatly admire, among them Captain Marvel writer Otto Binder, artists Nick Carty, Don Heck and Gene Colon, and early DC editor/artist Vin Sullivan. I also attempted to include more female creators, but like most businesses of that era, it was mainly a men’s club. Still, I feel I included the most important and lasting, the cream of the crop.
5) What's next for you?
I have a few projects I’m weighing right now. I have considered doing a sequel to Heroes of the Comics, but I might not want to repeat myself. It’s also possible that I’ll jump a decade or so to the late 1960s and create a series of portraits (and eventual book) of more underground-type cartoonists like Robert Crumb, the ZAP artists, Jay Lynch, Rory Hayes, Bill Stout, Harvey Pekar, etc. I admittedly - with just a few exceptions like the early sixties Silver Age Marvel comics, Ogden Whitney’s baffling “Herbie," and the bizarre Jimmy Olson comics - pretty much lose interest in most mainstream comic books after the mid-1950s, when EC and Lev Gleason publications were driven out of business and comics for the most part became safe and bland. Underground comics exploded in the later 60s, a breath of fresh air, and honestly I still remember that jolt I got when I first was exposed to Robert Crumb’s work, and the other ZAP artists. If I do that book, it would also lead up to more contemporary creators I greatly admire who were also influenced by the undergrounds - artists like Chris Ware, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes, whose portrait I just completed. So we’ll see. Stay tuned!
Drew Friedman discusses and signs Heroes of the Comics with special guest William Stout on Friday, November 14th at 7pm.