This is Part Two of an interview with Irwin Hasen, who is best known for the long-running newspaper strip, Dondi, which he
co-created with Gus Edson. Irwin also had a long, glorious career drawing super-heroes for DC in the forties but in this chat — conducted
before an enthusiastic audience at the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con International — we somehow never got around to discussing that period of his
And no one minded...because Irwin Hasen is a Cartoonist with a capital "C." No one ever put more passion into his work, and that
became crystal-clear to all who attended my little interrogation of the man. Let's join us in progress...
M.E.: How many papers was Dondi in?
HASEN: We had very few papers but we had all the best ones. In those days, the syndicate [Chicago Tribune-New York News] was
called the Cadillac Syndicate. They got only the best papers — The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego
Whatever...We did okay but of course, the split was rough. Gus Edson got 25%, I got 25% and the syndicate took 50%. 50% for acting as
the agent — can you imagine that? Not only that but they charged us $750 a month for expenses! That's $750 out of our take...and if
you're late, they charge you mailing costs, as well.
M.E.: How often were you late?
HASEN: Never! (laughter)
M.E.: Gus was writing it up until —?
HASEN: Until he died in 1965.
M.E.: Now, I think we should talk about the other very important person in the creation of the strip...
HASEN: Bob Oksner. He took over writing it then...
M.E.: No. Not Bob Oksner.
M.E.: Ben Oda.
HASEN: Oh! Ben Oda was the letterer to the stars. Ben Oda had five strips...
M.E.: I think he had a lot more than that at times.
HASEN: He may have. He was a wonderful person...a Japanese-American who'd fought in World War II as a paratrooper. He was a
wonderful person and a slave to several of us cartoonists. He lettered On Stage, The Heart of Juliet Jones, Dondi, a couple of
We would all give him the keys to our apartments and Ben would come in the dead of the night, like Santa Claus. He'd slip in and
the strips were on the drawing board. He'd sit right down, and it didn't matter how late he had to work...two, three o'clock in the morning,
whatever. But he'd do the lettering and then he'd leave, as quiet as a mouse...
There's a funny story about me and a lady one night but I don't think I can tell it here...
M.E. Sure, you can. [And with prompting from the moderator — who has heard the story and loves it — various audience
members demand its telling.]
HASEN: All right. (laughter) I have a large apartment — a Brownstone. A gorgeous apartment with high
ceilings. My desk is over here (gestures), there's a little garden outside the second floor...bedroom over here...living room...and this is my
One night I'm entertaining a lady friend and we started getting intimate in the living room on the couch. There's a coffee table
right in front of us. The lights are out and we're sitting there and I'm about to make my big play...and all of a sudden, I hear, "click"
— the door! And I thought, "Oh, my God! It's Ben!" Quickly, I whisper to the lady, "Get underneath the coffee table!"
We slid off the couch. We slid under the coffee table so he wouldn't see us. Ben comes in, puts on a light...doesn't say a
word. He puts a light on by my drawing table, takes his coat off, lights a cigarette, rolls up his sleeves and goes to work. I thought we
were going to have to stay like that 'til he'd lettered a whole week of Dondi! (Audience laughs hysterically)
I should have just said something when I heard the click but no, I had to be a wise guy! So it ended up with the lady and me...we
finally crawled slowly, so Ben wouldn't hear us, into the bedroom. On our hands and knees. But to this day, I'm sure he knew. He
just didn't want to embarrass us because, you know, he was that kind of gentleman.
M.E.: Did she understand who he was?
HASEN: Oh, yeah. But Ben was that kind of man. It was very sad...he died of a heart attack. He smoked
incessantly. When I went to his funeral in Jersey, there was that line where the family stands and you pay your respects. Now, I'm prone
to guilt anyway, but when I got up to her, his wife said, "You had him up working lot of nights, late." Oh, boy!
M.E.: Everybody had to work late.
HASEN: Everybody. It wasn't just me.
M.E.: Ben was the most prolific letterer in comics...or, at least, he was. John Costanza has probably surpassed his record.
But Ben worked for everyone...not just a half-dozen strips. He lettered comic books for DC, he lettered for Simon and Kirby in the fifties, he
was Kurtzman's letterer at EC...
HASEN: Like I said...letterer to the stars. But she had to say, "He worked at your place very much late." Anyway, that was
Ben Oda. I hope I'm not talking too much.
M.E.: I think that's what we're here for. (laughter) Ben used to have a standing offer for professional artists who were doing
newspaper samples. He would letter them for free.
HASEN: Yes! The first three weeks. I'm glad you brought that up. He wouldn't take money! He said to me, like he
said to everyone, "If you sell it, you can pay me." And I got a chill...because in our world, there aren't many people like that.
M.E.: Editors used to say to Ben, "I need these three pages lettered overnight so that so-and-so — some inker — will have
work tomorrow." And Ben would go home, letter them and then take the train back in from New Jersey, first thing in the morning, just so that
inker would have work. The inker didn't even have to be a friend of his, and usually wasn't. Ben would always come through. That
was simple professionalism to him.
HASEN: That was Ben. Absolutely.
M.E.: If not for him, hundreds of comics would have shipped late...hundreds of artists would have had their incomes hurt...
HASEN: He absolutely worked himself to death. They say that about a number of artists but he's the one guy, I'm sure it was true
M.E.: Did you have any other assistants on that strip?
HASEN: At the beginning, I had Tex Blaisdell, and Tex was a character. He was six-foot-eight. Later on, he did Little Orphan
Annie and, unfortunately, he had a chance to have a good thing there and he blew it. He died three months ago. He was teaching with
me at Joe Kubert school. And he was also a "ghost" — an assistant, I'm sorry — for Leonard Starr [On Stage], for Stan Drake
on Juliet Jones, for me, a few others...but he was everyone's ghost. He couldn't be his own man.
M.E.: And Bob Oksner began writing in what year?
HASEN: When Gus died. Bob helped me with the plots. I was not that great a writer. Most cartoonists have
assistants...like Johnny Hart on B.C. and The Wizard of Id. He and his guys have a meeting every Wednesday...a group meeting,
just like in Hollywood when they have a script meeting. Same thing! Bob Oksner at that time was one of my closest friends, and he also
wanted to be a strip cartoonist. He was one of the top comic book artists in the world. The greatest with women...
M.E.: He drew the best-looking ladies...
HASEN: You said it.
M.E.: How much trouble was it to get the strip done each week?
HASEN: Oh, it was...The only thing you had to worry about was a mental block. That's all...a writer's block. And there were
times when I would just look at the board and say, "I'm not going to do it! I'm not going to sit down!" It's a game and something inside
your head says, "I'm going to drink. I'm not going to go into that damn studio." It's a game.
M.E.: How many hours a week did you spend at the board?
HASEN: Seven hours a day, six days a week. You gotta do dailies and Sunday. And that's a lot of work. I just want to
let you guys know, doing a comic strip...the way I'm glib up here. Don't get fooled. You work your tail off. Jesus, you work
hard! It's a tremendous pressure.
But then I realize, "I feel good, I have a lot of wonderful friends, I have a good life. How the hell did I do that? And
now, I don't ever remember working hard in my life! That's the beautiful part of doing something you love.
M.E.: Are you a day person or a night person?
HASEN: Well, when I was a kid, I used to have a fantasy about working nights because that would make me a martyr. Everybody's out
having a good time...I'd be working from four in the afternoon until eleven at night. I'd listen to the radio and I'd be working at
night. I was young...everybody's out having a good time and here I am — the martyr!
Finally, I got rid of that garbage! Because you don't have to work at night. Nobody has to work at night if you're a
creative person. The best time in the world to work is at 6:30 or seven in the morning. You're fresh. You finish your work by two
or three in the afternoon.
M.E.: They used to say that Frank Robbins would draw his six dailies and a Sunday strip in three days.
HASEN: I'm sure. He was a genius. He was also an inventor and a hell of a painter. He and I were very close.
M.E.: You took a whole week to get a week of strips done?
HASEN: Oh, yes.
M.E.: So Bob helped you with the...
HASEN: ...with the plots. I did the dialogue. He would write dialogue sometimes for the kid and I said — you know,
this is scary — "Dondi wouldn't say that." I'd really gotten into that kid's head.
M.E.: Now, you really enjoyed being a syndicated cartoonist, getting together with other cartoonists, talking about the business...
HASEN: We didn't even talk business. In the comic books these days, I can't believe what I'm hearing. Everybody's talking
about their work when they get together. All we did was love each other and laugh and drink. Cartoonists then were like newspaper
people. They all drank. They worked their asses off but then they'd get together all the time and drink.
M.E.: ...which was not healthy.
HASEN: No, it wasn't. You know, the guy who created The Gumps — Sidney Smith — got the first million dollar
contract from the Chicago Tribune. You guys are all too young to know that...
M.E.: How many people here know Andy Gump? (laughter; most of the audience puts its hands up.)
HASEN: Boy, am I misunderstanding this crowd!
The Chicago Tribune gave him a big lunch. This is Sidney Smith. They gave him a big lunch and handed over the
million dollar contract and they even gave him a gift of a new Rolls Royce. Over lunch he got bombed and then he got in his car — the
Rolls — drove off, had an accident and got decapitated. So that's what life is all about.
M.E.: So the advice to young cartoonists is: Never let them give you a million dollars and a Rolls Royce. (laughter) Okay,
now. Let's talk about the Dondi movie.
HASEN: Let's not! (laughter)
M.E.: No, we have to talk about it. Somebody came in with this idea...
HASEN: Gus had a friend. Gus Edson was kind of a sweet guy — a little weak — and he said, "I have a friend who wants
to do Dondi. His name is Albert Zugsmith."
M.E.: Albert Zugsmith was a producer and director of exploitation films. He did Sex Kittens Go to College and The
Private Lives of Adam and Eve. He was a lawyer...in fact, I believe he was Siegel and Shuster's lawyer when they sued DC in the
forties. He's the one who supposedly got them to take a quick settlement that they later regretted. But he took his share of the
settlement and went into producing cheapo movies...
HASEN: Yeah. He had an ugly name and he was as ugly as his name. But he was in contact with Jerry Wald, who was one of the
most respected producers in Hollywood, and he was also interested. I said, "Gus, are you sure? The movies this guy has made...do you
really want him handling Dondi?"
Gus said, "Well, he's an old friend...and no one else is asking to do a movie." I couldn't argue with him. If I'd been Jim
Davis, I'd have argued, but I'm not Jim Davis. Zugsmith wanted to clean up his name with Hollywood. He wanted to make a sweet, clean
picture, and I had to sign the contract.
I went out there and — I swear to God — the guy made me pay my own way. The whole thing was so sleazy. They got
a kid who they picked up on the street in a contest and they made the worst movie ever made. I think it won the Turkey Award. They used
to play it at four in the morning on Christmas day, when no one was up.
...and this is M.E. again, apologizing for ending this on the low point of the fabulous career of the fabulous Irwin Hasen. (It
wasn't my choice; that's where my copy of the tape ran out.)
I hope these two excerpts captured a smidgen of the joy that filled the meeting room that afternoon. At the end, the audience
stood and cheered, not only Irwin's many years in comics but his generous, loving commitment to The Art Form.
Among the things I cut were about a half-dozen self-deprecating remarks that Hasen made about his own height...or lack, thereof.
He kept saying he was short and even though it sure looked that way, no one who attended the panel believed it for a moment. We all knew we
were in the presence of a giant.