By Tom Ward
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the legendary comic book character ‘Batman’ which made his debut in Detective comics issue # 27 in 1939. Batman may have been created by artist Bob Kane, but this week I want to tell you about a friend of mine named Joe Giella who had a vital role starting in the mid 1960’s when the caped crusader’s career really took flight. The multi-talented Giella is probably best known as one of the most prolific inkers in DC history, working on numerous titles like The Flash, Green Lantern, Batman and many more.
His impressive resume is so long that it would take up my entire space in this column and then some so I am going to focus on his work on Batman in the comic books and newspaper strip. During our recent phone conversation I asked Joe how he got involved in working on the Batman comic books.
”Well, I started at Timely comics which is now Marvel,” recalled Joe. “My friend Frank talked me into going over to work at DC Comics because it would be a better deal for me. That’s where I met Julius ‘ Julie’ Schwartz who became my editor who I worked with for 45 years. He introduced me to another artist named Carmine Infantino because he thought we might make a good team and he wanted to revive the fading Batman titles. Prior to that I was working mostly on Westerns (Hopalong Cassidy & Jimmy Wakely) and then I was switched over to the superheroes and one thing lead to another and we were kind of stuck together. I must tell you in the beginning it was difficult working on Carmine’s work because our styles are opposite. I like a more complete drawing because I’m a nut on anatomy and Carmine was more like layout and he was a pretty good layout man so you really had to know how to pencil to work on his stuff. He just didn’t pay attention to anatomy so when I was inking it I had to make the corrections. Many times our editor, who knew I was a good penciler, would come up to me with Carmine’s pages and say, ” Joe, I don’t like how Carmine has got the head or what he did with his arm it didn’t look right”. I would tell him in a nice way it’s wrong. I told him maybe you should let him ink his own work or mention it to him to make the changes. Julie would say, Oh! He’s too sensitive. I ended up making the changes because that was how it was in the comic business.”
I had to ask Joe the obvious question, why didn’t he just do both pencils and inks in the comic books because he was so good at both? “The reason was this”. Joe said.”It was partly my fault because of monetary reasons at the time with my situation. I could ink 2 or 3 pages as opposed to one page of penciling. My penciling is very complete and I put everything in it and I spend a lot of time on the anatomy and the layouts and the drawing. I take a lot of time. So it’s very difficult to make money when you’re turning out 1 to 1 ½ pages a day. Now, Carmine could turn out 6 or 7 pages a day. Another artist named Mike Sekowsky could turn out more like 7 or 8 pages a day. We used to call them speed merchants. I couldn’t do it so I stayed with the inking.”
Joe mentioned to me that Carmine Infantino passed away in 2013 and they ended up working together for over 40 years. ”We did Batman and the Flash together for many years and he was instrumental in changing the Batman look starting in 1964.”
After the Dynamic Duo of Infantino & Giella got Batman back on the sales track in the 1960’s with their vibrant artwork in the comic books Joe was chosen to draw the syndicated Batman newspaper strip. I asked Joe how did he get the highly coveted newspaper strip? ”It started with John Higgins who was the head of the Ledger Syndicate,” Joe Answered. “He wanted to do the Batman strip because of the popularity of the TV series starring actor Adam West. He wanted it done in a particular style and he pointed to my work because of the way it looked and reproduced and that’s how I got it. At the time I had no knowledge of this. All of this was told to me much later. The editor on the Batman newspaper strip was Mort Weisinger. My editor Julie warned me about him because they grew up together. Julie told me, ”Joe, he’s a rough guy to deal with. You may be making a mistake leaving the comic books with me to do the newspaper strip in syndication.” Well, I was Gung Ho back then and I thought I would love to do this. At least I need to try it anyway. Julie was right as I had some problems with Mort which was all monetary. We couldn’t come to terms on the money. I remember my brother Frank was painting my living room and I was on the phone with Mort Weisinger and in one hour I quit twice. We finally settled on them providing me this very expensive paper which cost $5 a sheet. It was called Kraft Tint paper and if you wanted a gray effect on the figure especially on the Batman costume you would apply this liquid and then it would turn into these gray dots and it looked great. So they provided me with the paper and a letterer and that was a big deal for me. The first letterer I tried on my own before they gave me one I had to drag this guy out of a gin mill and my wife Shirley made him some black coffee to sober him up. Oh boy, times were crazy back then. So I settled for that and they also colored the Sunday page for me. After all that I went through and the fact that I couldn’t sign my own name was a bit aggravating. It always bothered me when I did the strip that I had to personally put Bob Kane’s name in it and I got no credit for it. My family, friends and fans knew that I did it, but it’s nice to have your name on it. It’s a lot of work doing those adventure strips. Sometimes it’s a lot more than money. Sometimes you would like credit for doing something. I remember working till 2 or 3 in the morning on those strips. Then right after I left to go back to the comic books when Al Plastino took over the strip they bought Bob Kane’s contract out and Al was able to sign his own name.”
I asked Joe if he preferred working on comic books over comic strips? Joe said, “ No, not really. Years ago that was the pinnacle having a daily comic strip. It was like Wow! You’re doing a comic strip that was unbelievable. I worked on a lot of strips like the Phantom which I did for 17 years. Also, I did Sherlock Holmes, Johnny Reb and Flash Gordon. I didn’t get to sign my name on any of them either.”
As we continued talking Joe told me about Bob Kane the creator of Batman. Joe mentioned, ”I first met him in the office of DC comics. He would come in occasionally and he knew I was working on the Batman newspaper strip for my editor Jules Schwartz. He would say hello and we would make small talk. He was never friendly. It was just mostly hello and goodbye. Then one day he contacted me because I guess he liked what I did on the comic strip. He mentioned to me that he would be appearing on his own TV show and he needed some help. I think the TV show ran either on Saturday or Sunday back in the 60’s. He would appear on a stage and he had an audience of mostly kids. He would make drawings on the easel of Batman and all the villains. Well, those were actually my drawings. He would come to me and say Joe this week could you give me 3 villains and I would draw them in a very light blue pencil that was not reproducing so you couldn’t see it on TV. It would look great on TV if you were viewing it from your home because you couldn’t see my drawing lines. I would meet him at his apartment in Manhattan and that’s where we would exchange the art and then he would give me another assignment. During the show he would go over my lines with a magic marker. My kids would get angry watching the show saying Dad that’s not fair! I would tell my boys you have to understand it’s not my character as I’m one of the artists. It was Bob Kane’s creation. I don’t know if they understood at the time, but I know how they felt.”
Joe mentioned time he met up with the real life TV version of Batman. ”Adam West wanted me to go on tour with him,” he said. “They gave us a show at An Amazing gallery in New York where we both appeared as guests and they had the Bat mobile downstairs and we we’re upstairs taking pictures. The cops blocked off the street with wooden horses so no cars could come through. It was really something. Adam mentioned all the states we would visit and bring the Bat mobile. I told him I just couldn’t do it as I had a commitment to my comic strip and because I’m a family man.”
These days the eternally youthful Giella continues his work in comics at 85 years old. His current strip is called ‘Mary Worth’ which is seen in over 400 newspapers worldwide. ”When they offered me Mary Worth I asked them if I was going to be able to sign this?” he said. They told me, ”Oh! You have to!” So I said, ”Okay! I’ll take it and that was 23 years ago. My son Frank who is a school teacher colors the Sunday page for me.”
When Joe’s not working on the Mary Worth strip he likes to paint in his spare time. He still does a fair amount of commission work for fans and Batman is the most popular request. ”I ask the fans who request my work what are the dimensions and what size do you need? Do you want it just in pencil? Do you want it in pencil and ink? Do you want it in color? Most of my fans like me to color my work. That’s what I do on the side because I like to keep myself busy.” Joe replied.
I asked Joe if his drawing skills had diminished in any way over the years. “No, that’s the thing. I still go to the Long Island Academy of Fine Arts. Going there has helped keep my mind fertile.” he answered.
Finally, Joe was very excited when he learned that he is finally going to get the proper credit for his outstanding work on the 1960’s Batman comic strip. IDW publishing is about to release the first volume of Batman: Silver Age Newspaper Comics Vol.1: 1966-1967 featuring nearly 600 consecutive comics, both the black & white dailies and color Sunday strips. Joe’s artwork will be seen for the first time in decades so fans both old and new can enjoy the adventures of the caped crusader.
As our phone conversation concluded, I asked Joe which was his favorite character to draw over the decades. Joe laughed and said, ”I loved the Batman. I think he’s got a real cool costume.”
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com