Clash of the Titans

A couple of folks have written to ask me about this piece by Howard Chaykin about Carmine Infantino. It has some good observations about Carmine as an artist but that's not what they're asking me about. They're asking me about Howard writing about Infantino, Gil Kane, Alex Toth and Joe Kubert and then saying…

As noted above, all these men had known each other since their early adolescence — and, for the most part, they regarded each other with distaste, frequently bordering on genuine loathing. Perhaps it was the postwar contraction of the comic book industry, creating more competition for work, that was responsible for this mutual hatred, but I tend to believe it was a simple case of familiarity breeding contempt. There was no greater animosity in that generation than the one that existed between Gil and Carmine. They hated each other with an operatic passion from the day they met — and, since I was regarded as Gil's protégé, I was never one of Carmine's boys.

"Is that true?" my correspondents ask. Well, yes…though I don't think Kubert, who in that group of four was easily the most secure of himself as an artist, ever had anywhere near the same animosities…and I suspect whatever hostility Infantino had towards Chaykin was more a resentment of youth and talent. Some — a clear minority but some — of those in comics' first generation had an underlying bitterness towards an incoming talent pool that seemed to be shoving them aside by its sheer presence. And of course, older men often have a primal jealousy towards younger men, especially younger men who seem to have more opportunities to make money, more opportunities to get laid, more opportunities to not die in the next twenty years, etc.

A lot of the anger folks like this felt towards each other struck me as a redirection of the anger they felt not about their work but at the seeming disconnect between doing successful work and being rewarded for successful work. Whenever I was around Gil or Alex and they got on the subject of Carmine, that's clearly what it was.

Carmine Infantino was a very good artist…one of the best. His work sold well, the editors at DC were glad to have him doing as much as he could and he made a decent living…but that's all it was: A decent living. Most people on this planet want more than that. If nothing else, they'd like to have enough money in the bank so that if they slow down or get sick or just can't keep up the pace, they won't be out in the street.

To make that decent living back then, a comic book artist had to keep cranking out a certain number of pages per week. Jack Kirby, in the sixties, was outputting 15-25 — an incredible pace even if he'd been doing average pages where he just drew what he was told. As it happens, they were magnificently drawn pages that he plotted or co-plotted and which introduced and developed properties that would be worth billions of dollars…for someone else. You'd think a guy who could do that would be set for life but no. All the time he did them, he was fretting over what would happen to him and his family if his health failed or the company went under or they fired him. One of his eyes was giving him trouble — a big scare when everything in your world depends on your ability to draw and to draw rapidly. All of these guys had lived through the Great Depression. All of them had lived through periods of rampant unemployment in the comic book industry…and fears that comics would soon go the way of the pulp magazines that had once been a similar, flourishing market.

For someone like Infantino when an artist was all he was, it was not a question of, "Gee, maybe if I do my job better, I can get rich." Oh, if only it had been that. All the comic artists I'm mentioning here were men who did their job about as well as anyone could. Doing it better, if that was even possible, would not lead to better paychecks or more security. Harvey Kurtzman, speaking once about his superlative work creating MAD said, "I know what I did had a value far beyond what I was paid at the time. What I don't know is how to get my reward." It's a problem they all faced. Jack Kirby used to say that the guys who didn't do great, profitable work in comics were probably happier in their jobs than those that did. It wasn't that difficult for even a mediocre artist in comics to get the meager top pay. It was impossible for the best guys to get much more than that…or the kind of financial security you get when you're among the best guys in almost any other field.

They all dealt with this disconnect in different ways. Some, like Kirby, just worked harder, hoping somehow there'd be so much profit from one of his brainstorms that some of it would have to fall his way. Jack, by the way, had no animosity towards anyone I'm mentioning here; only respect and empathy.

Some, like Toth and Kane, got mad. In fact, Toth lived in a state of near-perpetual fury at the comic book industry and also his other area of intermittent employment, TV animation. In this other article, Chaykin makes some excellent points about Toth's anger and how difficult he was to work with. If anything, it could be worse than Howard makes it out to be. It wasn't just that Alex could be unpleasant; it's that before he'd completed an assignment, he might well have some sort of anxiety attack about it and find some excuse to quit as matter of alleged principle and not hand in anything. I did a couple of projects with him before coming to the same conclusion as Chaykin; that "…that avoiding contact with Alex Toth was a positive and healthy lifestyle choice."

And in his own attempt to escape that disconnect, Infantino had to give up doing what he did best, which was to draw Flash and Adam Strange pages. He had to get himself promoted into management.

Obviously there were other perks besides the salary to being The Boss. There were also downsides. Infantino stepped up from a job he did well into one he did not do well, at least in the estimation of the corporate bosses who sacked him before long. No other management positions came along and eventually he had to return to what he thought he'd left behind: Cranking out pages as long as his health would endure. The disconnect between the quality (or marketability) of a comic creator's work and his or her income lessened in the eighties. It became possible to get rich by writing or drawing a top-selling comic but by the time he returned to DC, he was not capable of doing a top-selling, royalty-earning comic. Howard Chaykin could produce one but Carmine Infantino couldn't.

Before Carmine became DC management, the hostilities Chaykin mentioned in his article had been simpler: Several men of throbbing egos crammed into a leaky lifeboat. Of course, they'd fight but at least the enmity was tempered by the awareness that they were all in it together. Once Infantino was out of the boat — once he seemed to be in a position to fix the disconnect but claimed he couldn't — that's when you got your real antipathy. Plus, there were simple, old-fashioned business disputes. Both Kane and Toth felt they'd been wronged by the company under Carmine…and their rage towards him and each other was nothing compared to the animus 'twixt Infantino and another artist once viewed as a peer and an equal, Mike Sekowsky. I got along with all these men except, after his exile, Infantino. I also learned not to mention Gil in front of Alex, Joe in front of Mike, et cetera, and Carmine in front of any of them.

It was jarring to me. I respected and loved the work of all of them. I also liked them all on a personal but individual basis. But when I saw what the comic book industry was doing to them, I think I liked it a little less. Those men all deserved better.