Everyone goes to comic book conventions for different reasons. Me, I go to meet and talk with people like Irwin Hasen.
Let me clarify that: There really isn't anyone else precisely like Irwin Hasen. There are other great cartoonists out there, and
folks who've taught the succeeding generation — directly and indirectly — how it's done. There are other charming, witty artists in
But there's only one Irwin Hasen.
I really like Irwin Hasen. I always liked the work he put on paper and, at a couple of recent conventions, I've gotten to sit and
talk with the man himself, and I like him even more than I like his work...if such a thing is possible. I also think he's one of a rare breed
that deserves a compliment that my old pal Kirby used to lay on those he liked: "He knows comics." Irwin Hasen knows comics...books and
Year before last at the Comic-Con International in San Diego, I spent a delightful 75 minutes interviewing him in front of a rapt
audience. I've done probably a hundred panels and interviews and this one instantly became one of my ten-or-so favorites. This week and
next, I'd like to share excerpts with you...
M.E.: It's a pleasure to be able to chat with this gentleman whose work I knew first from the Dondi newspaper strip. I
only later found out that he had done not only that strip but many of DC's best comics of the forties. He has more recently had a fabulous
career as a teacher of art, especially art for comic books. The con is full of his students and the other night, they were all in the bar
trying to get him drunk. Would you join me in welcoming Mr. Irwin Hasen? (Applause)
I know you've told this story many times but I'm going to make you tell us again, how Dondi came to be.
IRWIN HASEN: In 1952, I was let go from DC. I was told, "You're a nice guy and everything, and we'll give you a couple of covers
to do. But we've got Carmine Infantino, we've got Joe Kubert, we've got Alex Toth..." I was not really a comic book artist like these
other guys. In the back of my head, for all my life, I'd wanted to do a comic strip in the newspapers. My idols were Roy Crane, who did
Wash Tubbs, and Milton Caniff, of course.
I thank God for the comic book industry. I was able to sustain myself after the depression and 1939 to 1952 is a long run, but
now I was being phased out. As a matter of fact, I think created that expression, "downsizing." I'm 5'2", you know. (laughter).
Anyway, in 1952, I was nowhere. I was 35 years old.
M.E.: Did DC ever try to put you on humor-type strips?
HASEN: No. There wasn't that. There were only fillers, in comic book magazines...little one-page fillers. If I had
been married with kids, I'd have been in bad trouble. But as a single guy, I worked it out and now I was at liberty to travel. I belonged
to the National Cartoonists Society and we had U.S.O. trips to Korea during the war. I went to the front lines with six cartoonists. They
flew us in helicopters over each base, and we were all in full packs, with our drawing boards over our shoulders, and we would entertain the
We arrived the day the peace accord was signed but it gave me a perspective on what the Korean war was. It was one of the
bloodiest things. Vietnam was bloody, of course, but Korea was one of the bloodiest wars. We went to the hospitals and everything.
Then there was a trip to Germany to entertain troops. I went with Gus Arriola, Wilson McCoy, who did
The Phantom...Bob Montana, who did
Archie...and among us was Gus Edson, who did The Gumps. That was before your time.
We went to Dachau. We went all through Germany. It was incredible. And Gus Edson...he and I got to be very close on
the trip. One day, he asked me, "What are you doin'?" Now usually, when you're not working, you say, "I'm in advertising."
(laughter). I wasn't doing any advertising. So then he said, "Well, would you be interested in anything?" I said yes. I would
have done anything at that time.
Finally, we got back to New York. Three days later, I get my mail and I'm sitting in my car going through it and I come to an
envelope: "Gus Edson." Inside is a little piece of stationery and a very crude drawing of Dondi — a little kid with a big, oversized hat...big,
oversized everything. And Gus writes, "Dear Kleine — ("Kleine" means "short" in German. He was making a cartoonist's half-assed
joke...) — "Dear Kleine — The kid should look like this." He had told me he had an idea for a strip about an orphan...and I'll tell
you something. I looked at that drawing, Mark, and it's like that old story that you're on a dance floor, and you look across a crowded room
and you say, "That's the woman I'm gonna marry!"
M.E.: How much did that drawing resemble the Dondi we know?
HASEN: Pretty much. Of course, things change after 30 years, 25 years...the nuances of the face...
M.E.: Had he created this strip because he said, "Gee, I've gotta find Hasen a job?"
HASEN: No. He probably had created it and was sitting on it, waiting for a time when he would meet a guy like me. You know,
it was fate...
M.E.: Was it perhaps inspired by your travels? You probably saw orphans...
HASEN: No, no orphans. At that time, we saw no orphans. What inspired it was that during the Korean war, officers were
adopting war orphans. That was where it was started. And then we just made it World War II, instead.
M.E.: Okay now, did Gus write the script first?
HASEN: Gus wrote it. He wrote it in longhand — no computer, no typewriter. He couldn't use a typewriter. He drank a
M.E.: Now, leaving aside for a moment the money and the prestige, did you find doing a newspaper strip to be a greater creative
challenge than a comic book page? Or did you find that it was more confining?
HASEN: I tell you, it was natural. I didn't even think about it.
By the way, I want you people to know that before Dondi, I had two or three strips that I took up to syndicates. One, I
took to McNaught. It was called Irwin, about a bachelor and his married friends, and they bought it...but I was emotionally disturbed,
as they say. I couldn't handle it, the whole thing before it started. I was a little screwed up at the time.
They gave me the contract. I was very proud. I'd sold a comic strip...a comic strip of my own, one that I wrote. But
then one day, a whole group of them came to me at once — the editor, the controller...it was like a black-and-white film noir movie as they
converged on me and they said the one thing they should never have said to me — "We're all family here."
The minute I hear that from any corporate structure — "we're all family" — it hits me.
M.E.: It was a bad contract?
HASEN: A bad contract, a bad set-up. I was seeing a psychiatrist at the time...everybody did in the 50's. And I said to my
Doctor, ´You know it really was like my family in there..."
So I didn't do the strip and the editor said to me, "Irwin, you're going to regret this the rest of your life. This is an
opportunity that you'll never get again!" Two years later...Dondi!
M.E.: When I hear an employer say, "We're all family here," I try to borrow the car. (laughter)
HASEN: That's better than I do. It's a psychological thing. When they say that we're all family, watch out!
M.E.: Never confuse your workplace with your home...never confuse your co-workers with your family.
HASEN: Absolutely! It's the kiss of death. I happened to have been in a malaise in my life and psychologically, they said
the wrong thing. But then sure enough, there was an angel on my shoulder saying, "Don't worry about that! There will be another
one. Wait two years." And sure enough, along comes Gus Edson.
M.E.: So you were more comfortable in strips than in comic books?
HASEN: I'm such a damn good newspaper strip artist...not comic book. I'm not blowing my horn. I'm just saying, I look at
that stuff and I see Roy Crane. You guys don't know who Roy Crane is...
M.E.: These people know who Roy Crane was, right? (Most of the audience puts hands up)
HASEN: All right, I'm sorry. Forgive me for my sins, oh Lord. (laughter)
But Roy Crane was a newspaper cartoonist's cartoonist. And he did everything so simply. And if I may digress a
second...ten, fifteen years later, I'm in a small lecture room with Al Capp and a group of top cartoonists. It was some sort of meeting,
whatever the hell it was. I'm sitting in this row of chairs and looking at the guy sitting next to me and I go, "Oh, my God! " The long,
pointy nose, the little mustache...the master, Roy Crane, is sitting next to me.
He doesn't look at me. All he does is say, "I like the way you're doing it...nice and simple." I don't know if you know
what I'm saying. He didn't even look at me. He just said, "I like the way you're doing it...nice and simple."
M.E.: How long did Gus write the strip?
HASEN: Gus wrote it for ten years and then he had a heart attack and died. And, of course, I took it over. The syndicate
couldn't have cared less. When you start talking to me about syndicates, the blood goes to my throat. The guy at the syndicate, one of
the editors said, "We could get someone here to do it."
He was ready to give it to some guy in the office to write it! And I said, "What the hell are you talking about? It's my
strip!" I sold Dondi, by the way. Gus didn't take it to them.
The strip was turned down by King Features. That's another story. When you take a strip around, have faith in it! The
fellow in charge was an [M.E. interruption: Mr. Hasen here used a term that cannot appear in these pages, though it was recently used by the
Republican nominee for President to describe a reporter for The New York Times.]
He looks at it. This shows you the visionary aspects of our business. This is the biggest syndicate in the world and the
guy in charge looks at it and says, "Geez, Irwin, its very nice, but it's only a two-week strip. Once you get him from Italy to America, what
are you gonna do?"
I looked at him and I said "Goodbye."
The next stop was the Daily News and Gus hated them. He'd worked there for thirty years, so I said, "Look, I'll go up and
sell it." Actually, I didn't say "sell it" because you don't sell a strip. You just put the thing on the desk and go like this (covers
his eyes, as if waiting for rejection). I had a drink first. It's a very scary thing to sell your own stuff. That's why agents are
born...because you have your life on the line, you know.
And I sat across the table from Moe Riley...Maurice Riley. He looked at the strip. He was a black Irishman, one of those
wonderful, tough guys with intellectual, Irish eyes...and he said it got to him.
By the way, the working title was Two Bits. We didn't have a name for it but he said, "The Making Of An American."
That's the difference between the guy at King Features and Maurice Riley. He understood...he encapsulated the whole concept. That aspect
came not from me, not from Gus, but from Moe Riley. And then he said, "You know, I think we can go to work on this." And we started to
work...I did. I worked my ass off...and no money for one year.
Gus offered to lend me money. I said, "That's okay, no."
Anyway, to make a long story short, three weeks later, Moe meets us for a drink at the bar in the Delmonico Hotel and he says, "I got
I said, "How'd you get to that?"
He said, "Well, the kid is in Europe. He's in a Flotsam-and-Jetsam war, and a Red Cross worker picks him up, and she says to him,
"My, you're a dandy little fella..." He sneaks aboard the ship, comes to New York and he gets lost.
A cop picks him up and the cop says, "What's your name, young fella?"
And he says, "Me, Dandy!"
Do you realize what a simple damn thing that is? "Me, Dandee." And that's the way it was named...by Moe Riley. After
that, I worked almost a year to get three weeks' worth — three weeks of dailies, that's all. Finally, we took it to the News and
they turned it down. The guy there — another genius — said, "Take it somewhere else."
I did want to let you all know who you're dealing with in the real world. A creative person like myself, and Gus and Mark and
everyone...we're living in another world from those people. They don't know their asses from their elbows. They're lucky to have talented
When the News turned it down, Moe said, "I'm going to fly to Chicago with you." We took it to the Chicago Tribune
and they bought it just like that. They were our first client. When we got back to New York, the News — which had this
family arrangement with the Tribune — said, "Okay, we'll take it." Before long, it was one of their biggest hits, right up there
with Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie.
...and that's all we have room for, this week. Next time out, we'll conclude our chat with Irwin Hasen, including — you
won't want to miss this — the story of Ben Oda and Irwin's late date. ("Who's Ben Oda?", I hear someone ask. Oh, you should know
about Ben Oda...one of the most important people in the history of comics. Irwin and I will both tell you why in our second part.)
Click here to read the NEXT COLUMN