The True Heroes of Comic Books, Revealed

Drew Friedman's new book vividly illustrates the men and women behind the early comics boom.

Drew Friedman’s previous illustrated books, Old Jewish Comedians and Even More Old Jewish Comedians, were celebrations of the great shtickmeisters of the Borscht Belt and early TV. In his most recent book, Heroes of the Comics, he turns pen and brush to the great early comic-book artists and writers who invented some of the most iconic characters in print and on screen. “Now the creators' faces will finally take the spotlight,” Friedman told me. But jeepers Batman, does this make a book?

Actually, what’s surprising is that this collection of 85 mostly unknown faces is as exciting to my eye as most comics are—and the short biographies are nice to have, too.

Harvey Kurtzman (Fantagraphics)

Friedman is known for adroitly capturing gesture, mood, and psychological nuance in vivid portraits somehow combining elements of caricature and realism. “Someone asked me if any of [the book’s subjects] posed for me, which would have been quite a feat since most are deceased,” he says. “I did depend on good photo ref for the portraits. Many faces I pulled from random photos on the web, then placed them in my own imagined settings.” Each of his portraits feels so alive, it is like being welcomed into each artist’s private world.

Friedman has met quite a few of the book's subjects over the years because his father, the author Bruce Jay Friedman, worked as an editor at Magazine Management, the company that ran Marvel comics from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s. Marvel editor Stan Lee’s desk was right next to his. “By the early ‘60s when I was a young kid, my brothers and I would frequently visit my dad up at his office and Stan would always hold court,” Friedman recalls. “He seemed to love kids and took a particular liking to me because I liked to draw. He even proclaimed, ‘Someday, Drew is gonna draw for Marvel!’”

Stan Lee (Fantagraphics)

Friedman remembers seeing several “nondescript artists sadly wandering around the office,” possibly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko dropping off their latest Spider-Man and Fantastic Four pages. He also encountered many comic-book legends at the New York comic conventions in the early ‘70s: guys like Bob Kane, Wally Wood, and Bill Everett. In high school he spent a day up at Mad magazine, where he met with publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein. When he attended the School of Visual Arts in the late ‘70s, two of Friedman’s teachers were the comic legends Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, both of whom are represented in Heroes. Later, when he became a regular contributor to Mad, he met comic greats Dave Berg, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee, who wrote the foreword to this book.

Al Jaffee (Fantagraphics)

“My criteria for inclusion in the book was basically the cream of the crop as far as artists, writers, editors, and publishers who worked in the early years of comic books,” Friedman says, “covering the first 20 years, from the birth of comics in the mid-‘30s, to the comic book witch hunts in the mid-‘50s, which left in its wake the strictly enforced, self-censoring Comics Code.” He adds that he wanted to include as many women as possible, but prior to World War II very few worked in comics. He consulted with several comics experts, including Paul Levitz, former head of DC comics, who helped him select Lily Renee, Ramona Fradon, and Marie Severin. 

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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