METhinker01.jpg

More About Carmine Infantino

Carmine Infantino is, quite rightly, being mourned across the Internet — everywhere lovers of great comic art lurk. I suspect he would not be happy with a lot of the obits in that they speak of him as a great illustrator (which he was) but say little if anything about his years as editorial director and then publisher of DC Comics. I didn't have much contact with him the last decade or three of his life but when I was around him, he'd say things like, "There are a lot of good artists around, including many who are better than I ever was. I was the only one who went on to running a big company like DC." That may be true. Other artists moved into management but I can't think of another one who ever had the title of Publisher, at least not of a company anywhere near as big as his. [UPDATE, added a few hours later: Marv Wolfman reminds me that Jim Lee now has the title of co-publisher at DC.  Yeah, but that's now and he's co-publisher.]

Some of the obits are making the usual, understandable mistake of giving him sole credit as the creator of comic books and characters that he actually co-created with writers. Deadman, for example, was not created by Carmine Infantino. It was created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino. The Hollywood Reporter even said he'd "introduced" the concept of Earth-Two into the DC line. Translation: He drew the script in which Gardner Fox, working with editor Julius Schwartz, came up with it.

And a few are buying his more grandiose claims of creating Bat Lash, Kamandi and a few others where his input was from all accounts but his, microscopic. I was actually in the room for most of the creation of Kamandi and I wrote up the presentation and first issue plot synopsis based on Jack Kirby's ideas — and they were Jack Kirby's ideas. Carmine asked Jack to give him something similar to Planet of the Apes, Jack hauled out an unsold newspaper strip he'd done in the fifties called Kamandi of the Caves and proceeded to alter it to suit Infantino's request. To put it in starker terms: I contributed more to the creation of Kamandi than Carmine Infantino and I sure don't deserve even a scintilla of the creator credit. Carmine was the kind of guy who had enough impressive credits that it's not necessary to give him someone else's.

Since Infantino the Publisher is being neglected in the stampede to salute Infantino the Artist, let me say a little more about the former. When he eased into power at DC, Infantino took command of a ship that was heading in no intentional direction. "Down" was the prevailing one and no one around had any idea how to get anyplace else. There had been a recent corporate takeover and way too many of the rules were new. The company needed fresh ideas but it had this track record of almost punishing those who'd given them fresh ideas in the past. It wasn't just that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn't share in the revenues of Superman or receive credit. It was almost like Jerry and Joe had to be flogged as a warning to others who might create something successful and then express dissatisfaction with their share.

dccovers01

That was far from the only problem. The kind of old-line newsstand that carried comic books was going away in the late sixties. Those that remained cut back on their comic displays, the better to offer Playboy and Penthouse, which between them sold around ten million high-priced copies per month and spawned countless imitators. Newsstands thus were no longer a natural place for kids to hang out. Some even discouraged it because that made it easier to sell soft porn when few minors were about. In the meantime, DC's distributor, Independent News, distributed Playboy and Penthouse and was naturally more interested in them than in Action Comics. Every month, a smaller and smaller percentage of what DC printed was available for purchase. In some areas, you could walk for miles and not find the new comics.

So that was the company Infantino inherited: His creators were discouraged from creating and his distributors didn't want to distribute. Oh, yes — and the cost of printing was going up. Comics were 12 cents when he took power. Then before long, they were 15.  Soon, it became time to raise prices yet again. DC went to a very unappealing package — a mix of new material backed up by reprints that just felt like padding — for 25 cents. Marvel tried it for one month, then went back to the old size for twenty cents — which in light of DC's 66% price hike didn't seem so awful. For a year or so until they gave up and went to 20, DC got clobbered and it was some time after Infantino was ousted that the company fully recovered from that experiment.

Infantino always insisted he was not responsible for that failed strategy and he certainly didn't cause the distribution crisis. He might have been able to make the company more creator-friendly but maybe not…and even with that impediment, he managed to come up with some pretty good books. What he couldn't seem to do was to keep them running long enough to find an audience. The minute it was clear or even suspected something new wasn't selling as well as Batman, it was terminated. A few comics were even, quite literally, cancelled before there were any sales figures in on them at all and there were rumors in the office that numbers that did come in were sometimes being misread or misreported. Whatever the truth was, readers learned not to fall in love with anything new from DC because, you know, the odds were good it would be gone soon. That was another problem that took a long time to go away.

A lot of those books were terrific. True, Green Lantern/Green Arrow by O'Neil and Adams only lasted fourteen issues but with a different man in charge, it might not have existed at all. Give him credit for that. Give him credit for helping move comics into a new era by among other things, treating covers as intended works of art rather than copy-heavy sales pieces. Give him credit for all the new careers that were launched during his time in charge. And a lot of comics that were considered flops during his regime — considered that by him as well as others — are still with us, some reprinted time and again in expensive hardcover editions with their characters turning up in other media and current comics. Time-Warner is now making a lot of money off some of Carmine's "failures."

dccovers02

For several years running, Infantino flew out for the big Comic-Con in San Diego. Few professionals did then and of course, since he was an artist we all loved and the Head of DC, he was a very big deal, indeed. Each year, he would make a speech touting the great, sure-to-revolutionize-the-field new comics DC was about to bring out. Each year, he would deftly avoid mentioning that all of the previous year's great, sure-to-revolutionize-the-field new comics were either cancelled or about to be. I still think some of them would have caught on big if they'd been given more of a chance. Marvel's concurrent Conan the Barbarian comic debuted to sales lower than some of the DC innovations that Carmine quickly axed but Marvel kept Conan running (and published monthly, unlike most new books DC introduced) until it found an audience and paid off big for them.

One evening at one con, I dined with him and Mr. and Mrs. Jack Kirby in the hotel's semi-swank dining room. Fans kept interrupting the dining to ask for autographs or quick sketches and it went like this: Someone would approach and tell Kirby how much he or she loved New Gods, Fantastic Four and/or the Silver Surfer. Jack would say thank you. The person would then tell Infantino how much he or she loved The Flash, Adam Strange or the Batman comics he drew. Carmine would say thank you and then remind the person that he didn't do that anymore; that he was now the publisher of DC Comics and, oh, wait'll you see this great new book that's about to come out.

Jack didn't do quick sketches. He wasn't good at them and there were other issues relating to how when he did them, they always seemed to turn up on some dealers' table being sold before the ink was dry. But Carmine did quick sketches and he was amazing at them. "Whadda ya want?" he'd ask the fan — and if the fan said "Adam Strange," a lovely profile shot would appear after the kid said "Adam" but before he got the "Strange" part out. If the fan was really smart, he'd ask for the obscure character, Detective Chimp, which Carmine always said was his favorite. He'd take more time and care drawing Detective Chimp. He'd spend, like, five seconds instead of the three it took him (appropriately enough) to draw The Flash.

At one point after that meal, I found myself alone with Carmine and I kidded him that he was slowing down: "That Batman you did for that kid took you almost four seconds." He chuckled and I said, "I hope you take it as a compliment when guys like me tell you how much we miss seeing you actually draw comics." He said he did…then he added, "I sometimes miss it too. It was so simple. I mean, I struggled with a lot of pages and did some over and over again to get them right…but I didn't have to deal with all the pricks upstairs and down the hall." I believe the pricks upstairs were his corporate overlords and the ones down the hall were Independent News. I don't think any of them intentionally sabotaged what he was trying to do but they couldn't have done a much more effective job if that had been their intention. And they had a lot of help…from him.

He went on to talk of how when he drew comics, he at least knew pretty much how to do that. Working the business side of things — dealing with numbers and sell-throughs and printing contracts and licensing deals — it was all so frustrating. I believe that was the word he used: Frustrating. Did I detect a bit of longing to go back to the easier, more appropriate, I thought, job description? Just for a second, I believe I did…but he knew what I was thinking and quickly set me straight: No, absolutely not. An executive he was now and an executive he would stay. He stayed one for about three more years before they called him in and told him he was no longer one, at least in their building.

Hearts broke for him across the industry, mine included, when they told him that. I don't think he was suited for that job but he was so very, very proud of it. And besides, I'm not sure there even was anyone then good enough at publishing to stop DC Comics from crashing into icebergs.  It certainly wasn't possible to be as good a publisher as Carmine Infantino was an artist. When he was at the drawing board…ah, that's when he could really work magic. Just take a look at every single thing he did while in his prime.