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Dick Ayers: A Life In The "Gowanus"
A Conversation with One of Magazine Enterprises' Best and Most Prolific Artists
Interview conducted by Roy Thomas Transcribed by Brian K. Morris
From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #10
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is projected as the first of at least two interviews with Dick Ayers on his career in comics. The second, longer one-including a considerable part of this interview which we didn't have room to print this time around-will be published in a near-future issue of Alter Ego and will deal in particular with Dick's work for Timely/Marvel.-RT.
ROY THOMAS: You actually wound up getting into Magazine Enterprises by the back door, didn't you?
DICK AYERS: I saw a poster-Burne Hogarth [artist of the Tarzan strip] was up on 89th Street, at a new school he started, Cartoonists and Illustrators School. This is like October. It had already started in September. Burne looked at my samples and he said, "Gee, Dick. You want to be in this comic book stuff?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Don't you know that's the Gowanus of the industry?"
RT: The what?
AYERS: Yeah, the "Gowanus." And my face went blank, just like yours right now. [laughs] And he laughed. That smile of his, it looked like Clark Gable's, and he said, "It's the garbage in the canal." The Gowanus Canal is the canal in Brooklyn where they dumped the garbage at the time, and that's what he referred to comic books as. And Burne went into it more, and I argued more about it. But he let me in, and he taught me nights. It was wonderful.
Then Joe Shuster came in. Not just to talk; he came in and he sat beside you and chatted with you, real nice. He'd just come in and visit like a regular guy. And, also, Marvin Stein taught there. He was Joe Shuster's top honcho of the studio. It was Marvin, really, who did all the work and he passed on everything. He gave out the assignments and Joe would come in, maybe once or twice a week. And then there was Ernie Bache, who was in my class; we had dinner together, and I would go down to the studio to visit him. And the next thing I knew, I was drawing. So I started out penciling. That would be the end of October, November 1947.
RT: And so what did you start on?
AYERS: The Funnyman comic book. I'm doing that, and I guess around the first of the year, Joe tells me, "Vin Sullivan would like to see you." So he sent me down to see Vin, and to take some samples. Vin had drawn a newspaper strip, Schnozzola, in the '30s, about Jimmy Durante. My Jimmy Durante later is more or less modeled after what he drew.
RT: You didn't know that you were already working for Sullivan in a way-since Sullivan published Funnyman by Siegel and Shuster?
AYERS: He did, but I never realized Funnyman was a Magazine Enterprises book. I never connected it, really. I thought I was working for Joe Shuster, which I was.
RT: Because they had their own special deal, with their studio supplying art and story.
AYERS: It was under the Magazine Enterprises label, so Vin had me try out for Jimmy Durante. And I sent you a copy of the drawing that I made. And then I traced that onto illustration board and then I inked it and colored it.
RT: So did you ever meet Durante or was it all done through the mail?
AYERS: No, I didn't. I didn't even get to know who Mrs. Calabash was. [laughs] Vin either didn't know or wouldn't tell me. I noticed the other night, they had on television an hour show on Durante. Oh boy, I really had tears in my eyes. It was terrific.
RT: Of course, you were aware that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who were doing Funnyman, had created Superman and were going through this lawsuit.
AYERS: Yes. We thought, "Oh, boy! We'll get to do Superman. We'll have it made!" We were very upbeat. But then I left, before the end came. They did a few more books. They went six books and I think mine was, maybe, #3, or something like that.
RT: I'll check my complete bound set of Funnyman. Were you aware that Sullivan was one of the people who discovered "Superman"?
AYERS: No, I didn't know that till years later that Vin was the one who more or less hired Siegel and Shuster. I liked Vin very much. He was really a very nice, outward person, a very good guy. He came and he sat with Ray Krank and me. I did three issues of Jimmy Durante as my first work for Vin. The third, he never did publish. I'm eating my heart out to see it, because that was just about when I was really into the character. Oh, God, I loved it. The first one, where Jimmy went to the circus-the whole book was one story. When he went west, we had an added feature in the book where he went to college, so that was, like, only maybe 5-6 pages. And in the third, he went to London. He became like Sherlock Holmes and it was a lot of fun. But I never got to see it.
RT: That was pretty unusual for comics at that time, to have book-length stories. You sort of wonder why he didn't carry that book-length policy over in the westerns or the hero books... only into a few movie adaptations.
AYERS: Vin would go by percentages. If they didn't do big in the percentages market, it would frighten him, or make him cautious.
RT: So did Sullivan lay on the bad news about the book's cancellation and give you another assignment right away, or was there a time between?
AYERS: Well, he would make it sound like it was inventory. If things picked up, like the humor market, then he would go back in again. But he killed Fibber McGee by Phil Usgis. After that, he gave me a one-page feature in Tim Holt.
Oh, I forgot-before I got to do Jimmy Durante, while I was waiting for Ray to write the script, he gave me a western. I don't know how many pages. "Doctor of Fate - the Story of Doc Holliday." That's the first job I did... the first job that I penciled, inked, and lettered, that got printed!
RT: Between Sullivan and editor Raymond Krank, ME was basically almost a two-man operation, wasn't it?
AYERS: That's what it was. Vin would come in and sit down and describe what he wanted in The Ghost Rider. He told me to go see Disney's Sleepy Hollow-Ichabod Crane, the Headless Horseman-and then he told me to play the Vaughn Monroe record, "Ghost Riders in the Sky." And then he started talking about what he wanted the guy wearing.
RT: So even though Krank was officially the editor, Vin Sullivan took a very big editorial part, too? That's the thing he really liked the most, I suspect.
After the bad news that the Durante book was cancelled and you had only a filler to do, were you beginning to wonder whether you had a future at that company?
AYERS: Well, I hung on because they always saw that I had something to do. But I was heart-broken that I lost Jimmy Durante, because I loved drawing him. That was the style I would have loved to keep, because you could tell adventure and you could also be funny, like Roy Crane. Then when they started up the westerns, I found out, boy, did I love doing those! [laughs]
RT: You'd never thought about them before?
AYERS: No, but as a kid I loved cowboys and I loved playing "Cowboys and Indians" and the movies and all that.
RT: So the next big thing for you after Jimmy Durante was Ghost Rider? Well, I guess first came "The Calico Kid."
AYERS: Yes, "The Calico Kid" came first; he was just a few short stories. I did them all except one that I know of. Ernie Bache did that one and I didn't know it until Bill Black told me.
RT: It was very strange-and very inventive-to take this character that already existed, The Calico Kid, and turn him into another character, The Ghost Rider. Is that Sullivan?
AYERS: Yeah. The Calico Kid, the "a.k.a.," as you call it, was Rex Fury; that was a great name.
RT: He had the same sidekick-Sing-Song-and it's like the hero suddenly graduated to another strip. He got a secret identity and he was off and running.
AYERS: Vin Sullivan, I remember, came and said, "And now we're going to turn The Calico Kid into The Ghost Rider." And so Ray wrote the one story. He was in Tim Holt first.
RT: Yeah. I bought Tim Holt, too. But "The Ghost Rider" quickly proved popular enough to get his own book.
AYERS: We went to a fancy dinner. We celebrated at the Waldorf-Astoria and I was sitting at the table with Vin's brother Frank, and he said-"You know, that Ghost Rider book [#1] you did sold 67%," which was high in their eyes. Vin watched percentages and 45% meant it was doing bad and he would lay off for a while.
RT: They must have felt that the series had been helping Tim Holt's sales, or else they just thought it would do well on its own. How did the all-white costume come about?
AYERS: I don't know which one it was, Vin or Ray, thought that one up, but I know they thought of the white and also said it glows in the dark, so we had to think of what made it glow. [Laughter] All we could think of was phosphorescence or phosphorus. And even the horse, we had to have him painted with phosphorus.
RT: And you did every "Ghost Rider" story that ever was ever done, didn't you? Everything but the couple of covers Frazetta did.
AYERS: For Magazine Enterprises, yes. I'd be jealous if anyone else touched it. [laughs] There were three covers Frank did, which made me focus on Frank's work. And boy, did I love his Thund'a, and all that. So I would try to capture some of his style, which was impossible. I would rave about Frank's work to Ray Krank, but Ray did not like all that scratchy-[laughs] He wanted it nice and bold.
RT: Maybe that's why Frazetta didn't do a second Thun'da. He was still just a kid at that time. You said Ray Krank wrote the first "Ghost Rider" story. It's usually been said Gardner Fox wrote most of the ME line. Did Gardner write much of "The Ghost Rider"?
AYERS: I don't remember seeing his name on the scripts, no.
RT: Were the writers' names usually on the scripts when they came to you?
AYERS: No. Over at Timely they were on the front page, but not from Ray Krank. I never knew Paul S. Newman wrote a "Ghost Rider"-"A Coffin on Snow," I believe it was.
Most of the "Ghost Rider" scripts were by Carl Memling. I brought him in. I met him through one of my fellow artists who went to the Art Career School. He was working for some artist named Winter. They were doing a big mural of "The Last Supper of Christ" and I was visiting him, and I met Carl. I liked him, so I'm riding on the elevator with him, after I've seen him a couple of times, and I said, "Gee whiz, you should write for comics. I can get you with this Magazine Enterprises." "I couldn't write for children's books. I don't want to do that." So I said, "Well, give me one of your things. I'm going to show it to my editor." He gave me a page he'd written for a Street and Smith western and I took that in and, by golly, that got him started in the comic book business. And boy, he got adept at it. I went to visit him out on Long Island one time and he showed me how he kept a file of every synopsis that he ever sold and so he could write the same story over and over. [laughs] He did!
RT: Did he write much else for Magazine Enterprises besides Ghost Rider?
AYERS: Bobby Benson. I don't know what else. But I talked on the phone with him often. And then he got with Classic Comics and with DC. He was going strong and he died young. I don't know if he made it past fifty. But he was a loss. He was working for Charlton and he was knocking that stuff for $3 a page, or something. I was doing penciling, inking, and lettering for fifteen.
RT: Let me go back to Funnyman for a moment. You worked on the comic strip version, too, didn't you?
AYERS: Yeah, that was in 1949, I think... in January, February. It was the first part of the year. Joe [Shuster] called me and had me pencil. I don't know who did the inking. He lived up by Columbus Circle and I delivered it; they were down to just one room by then, and I felt sad. I don't think the strip lasted much past that. Also, Joe was in such straits, he was always behind in paying me, and it did reach a point where I had to have a lawyer threaten him. I'm running around with my tongue hanging out, too, because it's only like twenty-five bucks or something.
RT: A sad situation. Funnyman just didn't take off. But I can see why Sullivan went for it. You go with the creators of "Superman"-maybe they can hit lightning again. It just wasn't what people were looking for.
AYERS: It was just like with Jimmy Durante. Nobody bought humor.
RT: I bought 'em.
AYERS: You did?
RT: Yeah. I bought every issue of Funnyman I saw, starting with the first issue. I bought the first Ghost Rider, and the first Avenger and Strongman, all that stuff. Lots of the ME westerns, too. I don't remember Jimmy Durante, though. [laughs] So, anyway-you inherited Bobby Benson from Bob Powell?
AYERS: Yeah. That helped me because then I got so busy that when they gave me Bobby Benson, I had just started with Marvel or Timely, too. And Stan started me right off. As fast as I got a story done, he gave me another one. At this stage I needed help, so I called Ernie Bache, and he joined me.
And then I had to quickly get a studio. And my wife, Charlotte Lindy, had worked for this salesman who had rented this one-big-room apartment and it had a kitchen and he didn't know what to do with the kitchen, so Lindy said, "Why don't you rent it to my husband?" Great! Twenty-five bucks a month-I had this nice big kitchen with a sink and all that. So I got Ernie and he came to work with me. Side-by-side we worked for-oh, that was '52. It wasn't until '55 when that damn Wertham thing came and killed all our books, The Ghost Rider and Human Torch. So we were down and we had, mostly, just Charlton. We didn't quite make it.
I lettered first and then I would pencil, and then I'd ink the outlines and then I'd give it to Ernie. Ernie would erase the page [laughs] and then he would finish it. He would put on all the blacks and the Kraft-Tone and bring in all that stuff. So we made a good team. I didn't bother throwing in heavy blacks. I would start them, maybe, but then he would accentuate the lines I'd put in, make them a little stronger. And he was very meticulous in his approach. I mean, everything had to be a certain formula so that we could knock out four pages a day, so he was a good asset for me.
RT: You did a handful of books that are particularly in the purview of Alter Ego. One is Ghost Rider, which is half-super-hero, half-western. And of course Funnyman with Siegel and Shuster. Then you did the first issue of the closest thing ME ever got to a super-hero-The Avenger. How did that come about? Did you ever get any idea why they were trying the super-hero? Was it because the Superman TV show was so popular?
AYERS: Well, maybe. Gardner Fox wrote that. Maybe Vin thought it might be time for super-heroes to come back. He was always thinking ahead of what the market was.
RT: And then came the Strongman character, who was also not super-powered. They never really did a super-hero at Magazine Enterprises. It was all Batman-types. Ghost Rider, Avenger, Strongman, Funnyman...
AYERS: And The Presto Kid, who was a magician.
RT: Yeah. As a teenage reader in the mid-'50s, I had the feeling that somehow, because Ghost Rider died and Presto Kid started up very soon with the same artist and also using magic-it seemed to me as if, even though there was no overt connection-he wasn't Rex Fury, as Ghost Rider had been-it seemed like Presto Kid was an attempt to do as close as they could to The Ghost Rider under the Comics Code.
AYERS: Yeah, no guns, and then Carl came up with the magic thing. In that, also, he made it magic that the reader could do, if he was adept. But he practically had to be told how the trick was to be done.
RT: It was a nice idea, but it didn't have that magic The Ghost Rider had. Would the Code just not allow The Ghost Rider at all, because he wasn't really a ghost?
AYERS: No, so we sat there, trying to think up a new name.
RT: But why couldn't you? There's nothing in the Code that says you can't have a hero called "The Ghost Rider." You couldn't use the words "horror" and "terror" on a cover, but he wasn't really a ghost. I guess it's just because he had the word "ghost" in his name. [laughs]
AYERS: I don't know. They said that they just didn't like him.
RT: And you had been skirting a little close to horror stories, near the later Ghost Rider issues.
AYERS: Yeah. So Vin, Ray and I sat there-what do we do? Phantom Rider? Well, that won't go. All the names you could think of. Night Rider? No, that wasn't it.
RT: All the ones that Marvel did later. [laughs] Not "The Haunted Horseman," though?
AYERS: Where do you think Timely got "The Black Rider"? And "Kid Colt"-Trail Colt came first, with the cowhide vest.
RT: The Presto Kid didn't last very long-but Ghost Rider-there were quite a few of those.
AYERS: Oh yeah, because I think I did 167 "Ghost Rider" stories.
RT: I can believe it, because he appeared in Ghost Rider and Best of the West, and in other books from time to time. He got stuck into everything. So you did the first issue of The Avenger, except for the cover. So what happened with #2?
AYERS: The weeks went by, and it went into months, and I'm sitting up here. Lindy and I are saying, "What the hell? When are they going to send the script for The Avenger? It's about time for #2." So I call up Ray, "Where's The Avenger?" He said, "We gave that to Bob Powell." "Why didn't you tell me?" "We don't have to tell you everything," he says. So I was quite angry about that, and then I pushed further. I think it was Vin who told me, finally, "Powell works cheaper than you. You started doing stuff for Marvel, and they gave you more money, and we tried to match it, and it kept going up." They hadn't matched it, but Vin said Powell would do it cheaper for $28 a page, and I was getting $35!
RT: Powell had a very distinctive style, but he also seems to have had a lot of assistants working with him, more than you did. Still, somehow it all got tied together into a coherent whole. Did you know Powell at all?
AYERS: I only met him once.
RT: He must've been home drawing all the time, just like you. [laughs] You two guys were real workhorses. Were there any other artists at ME who did as much work as you two? I don't think Frank Bolle or Fred Guardineer did nearly the volume of work you did for Sullivan.
AYERS: And at the same time as we're talking about all that work I did with Stan and Vin, there was work with Al Fago up at Charlton.
RT: And Powell was working with Harvey, too, at the same time, wasn't he? Did you resent losing The Avenger, or was it more just the way you lost it?
AYERS: The way that I lost it. No, I missed the character. I enjoyed that he was the scientist kind of thing, and he had this fancy airplane that I designed.
RT: I think Bill Black's AC Comics has reprinted most everything from all four Avenger issues. It was a shame at the time to see that and Strongman die. What was that other book you worked on in there-Danger Is Their Business!?
AYERS: Oh, that was in the very beginning. It was about a photographer. I'm pretty sure that was the one. I did covers for Undercover Girl, but I don't know if I did any stories. And there was "Jolly Jim Dandy," in Dan'l Boone.
RT: You obviously really enjoyed humor.
AYERS: Oh, yeah. Ray was very, very exacting on how he wanted Jolly Jim Dandy to look. He had to be a certain height, and he had to look like he was almost a dwarf, with short legs and short arms. And over and over, I'd send in sketches and over and over, it would come back: "You gotta do this, you gotta do that." Yep, he was a good character.
RT: Did you run into Gardner Fox often or he wasn't in the office that much?
AYERS: I don't know if I really ever did meet him.
RT: Magazine Enterprises didn't really do horror comics, exactly, did they? They came close with Ghost Rider and a few things here and there. Yet the 1950s were the heyday of the horror comic. Do you have any idea why Sullivan didn't do horror comics?
AYERS: Well, Vin was slanted towards the young audience. So he wouldn't want to go all that way. He may want to scare them a little bit but not to get so monsterish or horror-like.
RT: Wasn't there a Ghost Rider cover you did that had the Frankenstein monster in it?
AYERS: Yes. I loved that story. I can remember doing it because Carl wrote it and I don't know what was behind him to get him to do it, but it was a good one. That cover-one of these collectors' magazines featured that as their #1 choice, the all-time best. They reprinted it, a nice, full-color job. I re-created it for myself, and I sold some copies of that. Oh, I did the cover for one of those collectors' magazines, that's what it was. I had the guy getting drowned and he was saying, "Boy, that Ghost Rider book is up to $500!" as he goes, "bubble, bubble, bubble." [laughs]
RT: Do you have many of the original ME comics?
AYERS: I have one run and then maybe a couple of extra ones here and there, that type of thing.
RT: If you'd known, you'd have taken more copies from the ME office when they first came out.
AYERS: What actually happened was, you'd go in and they'd have it on a wire rack, or something. You'd beg, borrow, or steal one!
RT: So how did things come to an end for you with Magazine Enterprises? Were you with them right up to the end in the late '50s?
AYERS: As far as The Presto Kid went, and then that was about it. '56, I think it was.
RT: ME was around for a couple more years, but with few books, pretty much reprints there at the end. And by that time, you were busy enough working for other companies. Of course, you later drew The Ghost Rider for Marvel-which we'll cover in the second Dick Ayers/Alter Ego interview. And, in the '90s, you drew Ghost Rider yet again, for Bill Black's AC Comics-only now he's called "The Haunted Horseman," since Marvel now owns the "Ghost Rider" name.
AYERS: Around 1991, the National Cartoonists Society had a cruise that went from Miami to Nassau. And this cartoonist from up in New Hampshire, Larry White, is standing by the rail with me and he says, "Dick, I just got a book at home that's a collection of your westerns." "Holy shoot," I said, "I never heard of such a thing." So he sent me a copy when we got home.
It was Bill Black's printing of Presto Kid. So I counted the pages [laughs] and I sent a note to Bill-and Mark Heike [Bill's right-hand man at AC Comics] tells me how Bill got the envelope and says [excitedly] "Oh, I got a letter from Dick Ayers! Ohhh, jeez!" [laughs] So Bill opened up the letter-and it was a bill! But he was very good, and in the next mail I got a check from him. So I called him and said, "Bill, how come you use my old stuff and you don't use my new stuff?" "Dick, I can't afford you," he says. And I say, "There's no such word, dammit!" We talked a bit and I gave him a nice cheap price and, by God, he had me do the pencils for quite a while.
RT: It was nice seeing you do some original Ghost Rider/Haunted Horseman stories.
AYERS: Yeah, and the funny thing is-in the old days, if I drew soldiers and one of them had a girlfriend, he got killed. And if I drew a cowboy, he only kissed a horse. That was for forty years. Finally, I get to draw girls. And Lindy says she had a hell of a time getting me down for dinner. [laughs]
RT: That's a good note to end on-until we talk about the rest of your long career, one day soon. Thank you very much, Dick.
AYERS: Nice talking with you. See you at the Big Apple Con.
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