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Monday, October 16, 2006

Ross Andru, Mike Esposito & I.W./Super Comics

ROSS ANDRU, MIKE ESPOSITO and I.W./SUPER COMICS

The I.W./Super Comics era mark a little known part in the careers of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. I.W. Publishing, also known by its alternate name of Super Comics, was founded in 1958 by Israel Waldman. Waldman’s publishing policy was a simple yet effective one; he’d seek out defunct comic book companies, buy up the physical assets (in the case of I.W./Super Comics this meant the original art and printing plates) and then merely reprint the comics with new, glossy covers. In this way Waldman able to reprint material that had appeared at companies such as Avon, Toby, Stanley Morse (including Andru and Esposito material), Quality, Novak, Star, Harry A Chessler, Spark, Ajax, Fox, St John, Steinway, Universal Phoenix Features, Nesbit, Cambridge House, Standard, Superior, Stanhall, Ace, Comic Media, Prize, Realistic, Merit, Marvel, EC, Red Top and Fiction House. In at least one case Waldman was able to initiate a deal between himself and the publisher of a defunct company directly, as he did when he obtained the reprint rights to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Mainline Comics line from Joe Simon himself for pittance. Simon recalled his meeting with Waldman in a colourful fashion in his autobiography, ‘The Comic Book Makers’; “Mr. Waldman was all business. He took the comic books out of the envelope I shoved at him: Bullseye, Foxhole, In Love, Police Trap. He rifled through a few pages of each then set them down next to the checkbook. I was disappointed that he hadn't read a story or two.

"This material is really superior," I told him.
"Where can I pick up the mats?" he asked. He was referring to matrix, the fiber molds for the zinc plates from which the final letterpress printing is made. I wrote my address on a pad on his desk. He wrote a check. It was for fifteen hundred dollars, as agreed upon by phone prior to our meeting.

"We need to keep the copyrights," I said.
"So keep them." He shrugged. "What do I need with copyrights?"

“Generally, when negotiating this sort of a deal, there would be legal papers, contracts, releases, and other legal details to take care of, but Waldman didn't have the time or inclination to mess around with such trifles.*”

One popular theory is that Waldman was able to engage in a direct transaction between himself and the printer Eastern Color. One of the largest printers in America, Eastern Color had done an estimated 90% of all the comic books published in the USA to that point in time. This theory lends us to believe that Waldman, by circumventing the publishers themselves, was able to buy printing plates that Eastern had in their possession from various companies which had gone out of business and who had defaulted on their accounts. If this is true it would help explain how Waldman came into possession of plates from companies such as Marvel, as those plates might have been included in the deal by accident. By 1961 Marvel still had an active account with Eastern Color and was gearing up for what would ultimately be a successful assault on the world of comics via the skills of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers and Steve Ditko amongst others. One of the biggest problems Waldman had was that he never bothered getting permission from the original copyright owners when he reprinted. As such, he printed a number of dubious titles; including Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and other characters that were otherwise tied to creators or other companies.

I.W. comics were rarely cover dated and the numbering system defied all logical explanation. The numbers would start at any point; some runs had an issue 1, sometimes a 2, 5, or 8, 9 through 12, 14 through 18. Some numbers were never used though; for example there are no I.W./Super Comics bearing the number 13. The comics were then given new covers that often belied the contents inside of them, then packaged in sealed plastic bags and sold in lots of three comics per bag, mainly at grocery stores. This unusual method of distribution and the odd outlets in which they were sold through meant that the comic packs were regarded as novelties, in the same sales category as colouring books, rather than periodicals. As novelties and toys were exempt from the Comics Code Authority, Waldman was able to avoid any problems with the Code and thus remove himself from any possible dealings with other comic book companies. In this way Waldman was able to function from the company’s beginnings to its eventual end in late 1964.

Eventually Waldman approached Sol Brodsky to help him get artists in to draw new covers. Brodsky was able to entice Esposito and, by default, Ross Andru. Other artists who provided covers included Joe Simon, Jack Abel, Vinnie Colletta, John Severin, Brodsky himself and some time pulp artist Everett Raymond Kinstler. In the early 1980s Jack Abel remembered his work for Waldman, "Mike Esposito and Sol Brodsky asked me if I wanted to earn some extra money pencilling and inking covers for this guy Waldman, whom I never met. Mike and I would submit sketches – twenty at a time, or something like that – and Sol would pick out some, and say, “Do these,” and we’d do a complete pencil and ink job. The only one I remember that still survives is Plastic Man. And there were some old Fiction House jungle titles – Kanga and Sheena – and other titles left over from the Forties.*"

This enabled Andru and Esposito to work on a number of characters that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to work on. The duo provided stunning covers for Waldman’s war, western and fantasy lines, along with the odd crime cover. Generally the western covers looked very much like the Marvel western covers, the war covers looked like standard DC covers and the science fiction covers at times looked as if they’d been taken from either DC’s Strange Adventures line or any of the Marvel monster lines, such as Tales To Astonish and Tales Of Suspense. The perfect examples of this would be two covers that the duo did for Strange Planets; issue 11 could have easily been a Marvel cover, being very reminiscent of the early Ant Man covers that adorned Tales To Astonish. However issue 16 looked like it could have easily been lifted directly from DC’s Strange Adventures. Strange Mysteries, issue 11 was very Ditkoish in both its layout and execution, and Fantastic Adventures, issue 15 could have easily been a DC ‘gorilla’ cover. Mike Esposito recalls, "We got paid around twenty five dollars per cover. The comics were done as quick one shot issues just to make a buck. We didn’t hack it; the covers had a lot going on. I pencilled one cover, Blazing Six-Guns, from a layout that Ross did. He gave me a rough scribble of where the figure should be and I went ahead and pencilled and tightened it. We didn’t create the covers from the top of our heads. A lot of the covers were based on layouts from inside the books. Waldman would tell us to draw a cover a certain way, he’d get the ideas from old comic book covers and we’d have to redesign and reorganise them."

As Andru and Esposito were still technically under contract at DC none of the covers were signed. This also was common practice although it wasn’t too hard to work out what artists were responsible for what cover. Some artists, such as John Severin and Everett Raymond Kinstler did sign their work from time to time, however those under contract elsewhere, Vinnie Colletta and Jack Abel amongst them, also did not sign their covers. As Waldman wasn’t considered to be that much of a competitor by DC their efforts were largely left unnoticed.

According to Esposito, Waldman worked on a small profit basis and he did pay his cover artists for each cover they drew, which was unusual in some regards as small publishers often had reputations for taking art and then crying poor and not paying the artists. This policy for prompt payment held Waldman in good stead when he later teamed up with Sol Brodsky to form Skywald in the early 1970s, recruiting Andru and Esposito as his first art directors, along with the likes of DC writers Bob Kanigher and Len Wein and artists Dick Ayers, Syd Shores and Tom Sutton amongst others.
As near as I can gather Ross Andru and Mike Esposito provided covers for the following I.W./Super Comics in 1963/64. All the comics had cover art by Ross Andru (pencils) and Mike Esposito (inks) unless otherwise noted:

Battle Stories: #10
Black Knight: #11 (Ross Andru and Vince Colletta)
Blazing Sixguns: #15 (Ross Andru - layout and Mike Esposito - pencils and inks)
Danger: #11; #12; #15; #16; #17; #18
Daring Adventures: #10; #11; #17; #18
Doll Man: #11; #15; #17
Eerie Tales: #10; #11: #12; #15
Fantastic Adventures: #11; #12; #15; #16: #17; #18
Gunfighters: #12; #16
Human Fly: #10
Jungle Adventures: #10; #12
Master Detective: #17
Mystery Tales: #16; #17; #18
Plastic Man: #18
Police Trap: #8; #11; #14; #16; #17; #18
Strange Mysteries: #10; #11; #12; #15; #16; #17; #18
Strange Planets: #11; #15; #16; #18
Tell It To The Marines: #16
U.S. Fighting Men: #16
Wild Bill Hickok: #10

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*Joe Simon, The Comic Book Makers pg150, Vanguard revised edition 2003
**Jack Abel interview by David Anthony Kraft, Comics Interview #7; Jan 1983

1 comment:

Kevin Patrick said...

Hi Daniel

Thanks for another great insight into the machinations of the IW publishing 'empire'!

It's hard to imagine any comics publisher today being able to get away with such 'fast & loose' business practices.

But I have to admit, I always admire these 'fringe' comic publishers from the old days - I know they might have been 'shysters', but I'm slightly in awe of their 'moxy' - or should that be 'chutzpah'?

(If I had as much gumption - and as few morals! -as they did, I probably would've made a better fist of publishing The Panther back in 2001, let me tell you!)

Reprinting 'The Spirt' wiithout getting permission? That Waldman guy must've had a pair of brass balls, let me tell you!

Great stuff, as always, Daniel.

- Kevin