Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Q and A: Sgt. Rock's Robert Kanigher in 1999

Words: Christopher Irving

This interview with the late and great Robert Kanigher was conducted in 1999, right as I was starting to research the Golden Age Blue Beetle comic book (later the basis for my first book, The Blue Beetle: His Many Lives from 1939 to Today). After initially refusing an interview, Mr. Kanigher then decided to go ahead. He was mercurial, brilliant, and well-spoken, and the results of our insightful chat are below.

CHRISTOPHER IRVING: I wanted to see if you had any insight that you could offer me.

ROBERT KANIGHER: I wrote 100 pages a week. I created The Bouncer, the first character I created. After that, I created the rest for DC, probably 100 characters, from Sgt. Rock to Metal Men, Black Canary, Star Sapphire, Rose and Thorn, The Fiddler was a villain. Lee Elias complained; he played the fiddle and said “I can’t use the fiddle like a bow and arrow.” Every time he did the strip, he kept complaining about it. I also created Poison Ivy, who became a movie star.

CI: Yeah, Uma Thurman in Batman and Robin.

RK: Yes, that single character made her a movie star. She went from there to other pictures. Schwartzenegger bought the movie rights to Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.

CI: Do you know if he’s doing anything with it?

RK: I did about 420 stories about Rock and Easy. They were so realistic that I received mail from servicemen who claimed to have served with Rock. I received a letter from Vietnam; the sergeant said he was calling himself Sgt. Rock, they had renamed themselves Easy Company, and the other men were taking the names of the characters that I created: Little Sureshot, Loudman, Bulldozer, Canary (Canary sings the birds out of the trees). Anyways, they changed the names of an entire frontline company!

CI: That’s something else, that has got to be pretty flattering.

RK: It’s unbelievable. I just found out that, all of a sudden, I seem to be getting Internet messages: I seem to be in the Internet! I don’t know who did it. I don’t bother to seek those sources...I like it, because it ranges from somebody from Montana [to Snyder] “I understand that you received a letter of recommendation for Kanigher’s story..do you like it?”

“Like it? I’m rabid about it! I have a friend who is even more so!” Another one came that “Kanigher should be stood up against a wall and shot for writing Blitzkrieg and Enemy Ace and Panzer.” I wrote that from the German point of view. Enemy Ace is considered (I’m quoting and not making it up) “...a world-wide achievement. There is nothing like it in Europe or anywhere in the world.” I made a sympathetic character who kills French, British, Americans. Neal Adams told me that, in Europe, they consider him the most psychological, complex character in all of American comics.

CI: You said that you wrote some The Blue Beetle stories...

RK: [This magazine] is called The Comic World: Vol. 1, No. 18; bimonthly by Robert Jennings, RFD 2, Whiting Rd., Dudley MA. 01570. This is September, 1978. Victor Fox was the publisher.

CI: He was a former accountant at DC.

RK: Fox had nothing to do with DC.

CI: I’d heard that he was an accountant back in the day.

RK: An accountant!? Oh. Jack Liebowitz was an accountant for Harry Donenfeld, who was a certified alcoholic. There are so many things that they get wrong, that it’s unbelievable.

CI: Did you write the first The Blue Beetle story?

RK: “Kanigher may never have written for comics before,” it’s true; I never wrote comics, I never read comics. I never looked at comics. “But he was a natural-born storyteller with an ability to build fast-moving plots and intricate subplots into the framework of a short comics story. Once he ironed out his weak points, he began to turn out stories by the hundreds. He sold work to the MLJ titles, and then some to DC. He sold so many to DC, and they were of such consistently high quality that he eventually landed a job as editor there in 1945.” I didn’t land a job, they called me up and invited me as a writer/ editor. Liebowitz and Shelly Mayer invited me as an editor. I said “I can make more money without even getting out of my pajamas at home.”

They said “We want you to be a writer and an editor; to be a staff editor and to be a freelance writer.” Anyway, Jennings writes “...mixed in with the bad or foolish were occasional episodes that really stand out. Episodes that were so good, it seems incredible that any Fox character, even The The Blue Beetle, should be entitled to that. One such adventure involved a scientist with a substance called ‘homodesiline,’ which has the ability to clone double cells of animals and humans. In other words, rapid cloning process.”

I was the first for many things.

There are some things that Jenette Kahn killed. I could have been with the first female astronauts. This is why I left. I was the sole editor and writer of Wonder Woman for 22 years. Remember, I never read or saw a comic book. Even after I began writing them, I never looked at them. Once I proofed a book of mine, I never looked at it. Or anything that anybody else was doing while I was there as an editor-writer, or at Marvel.

I was visiting Marvel, Joe [Kubert] told me to come over. When [Jim] Shooter heard my page rate was $50 a page. Giordano didn’t want to give me more, but Giordano said something [sort of] crap. Carmine [Infantino] said that they wired up the sales; war books were very high sellers consistently.

Anyway, Jim says “$50 a page for you? You’re getting $65 -- my rate, retroactively.”

I don’t know why you’d want to write about the The Blue Beetle.

CI: I’m doing a comprehensive story because nobody has before. There’s been an issue recently as to which artist created the character...

RB: I’m a painter, and when I say painter, there is no artist in the field. There are no artists in the field. They are ILLUSTRATORS, they ILLUSTRATE the written or verbal word. I am a writer and an artist. I’m an artist because I start with a blank canvas. I promised Ross Andru the wedding present of an oil painting. This story is legendary.

So, I brought along paints, pigments, a brush, a pallete knife, and a stretched canvas. It was after work and people gathered around. I got down on my hands and knees (that’s the way I do oils, on the floor). He said “Where’s your sketch?”

I said “No sketch.”

“What’s your subject matter?”

“No subject matter.”

“What are you going to paint?”

I said “The painting will tell me what to do.” I always start with a wet canvas. In less than an hour and a half, I had a painting.

He said “If I painted like that it would kill me.”

He’s very famous, and he became the head of an Oregon advertising agency.

He said “Kanigher eats artists for breakfast and spits them out for lunch,” which is ridiculous! I say I’m a writer because I start with a blank page. No plot. That’s why Fox hired me. I know nothing.

I answered an ad (things were very bad at our house, economically) and walked into an office about a mile long. At the end of it is a desk about the size of a football field. Behind it is a bald head.

The bald head tells me “Tell me a story.”

Without breaking stride, I said “A skeleton is driving an open convertible from Times Square (not someone in a costume, but a real skeleton) and people are running in sheer panic.”

He said “I like a man who thinks on his feet.” C.W. Scott, my editor. That was it.

CI: That’s something else. Great, I really appreciate your help, Mr. Kanigher...

RK: When I started Rock and Easy Company thirty years ago, as I was writing, I realized what I had and said “Look, Joe, I’m going to write a novel of Rock and Easy--a NOVEL for Random House, or Putnam, and you’ll illustrate it. It had never been done before, and the movies would grab it because it’s all down there. My captions and dialogue and your illustrations are all the same, it’s what Hitchcock is like scene by scene.”

But, he was building his house. We could have been first.

Anyway, that’s it.

CI: Thank you so much, I appreciate your time.

RK: Is there anything more?

CI: No, I don’t think so, since you can’t recall who Nicholas was.

RK: Oh, God.

CI: Would you happen to know who Chuck Cuidera was?

RK: No. Let me put it this way: My work is in comics, I was never in comics, but I would never read comics. I never ate with, drank with, gossiped with the comic people. Their world is comics. That’s why comics is a bunch of crap. They know nothing of the outside world. They know nothing of art, of music. Everything I learned from Rapheal (you name it)...I put in my stories. NOT pedantically, but inside they gave me levels which they can know nothing about, because all they do are rewriting comics. The illustrators (or as you would call them: artists) copy from each other and, if you go back long enough, you get some intelligent ones that copy from Beardsley or DaVinci, but they don’t know that. What you’re getting is SHIT.

Mort Meskin is the guy that said “If I painted like that, it would kill me.”

You see, there are a lot of people...demonology is spread about me, which is untrue. A lot of people think I fired Alex Toth. I would never fire talent--number one. Number two--Alex Toth was drawing my Johnny Thunder, the western Johnny Thunder. I also created The Trigger Twins. Anyway, Julie Schwartz was the editor.

I couldn’t have fired Alex if I wanted to (and I wouldn’t have), because I wasn’t the editor. Julie fired him for this unbelievable reason. We shared an office together. I had nothing against him. Whenever he got into a jam, he asked me for a script. What I did was, since our offices were ass to ass, I built a tiny wall of books between us so I didn’t have to see his face. He was very methodical: he always ate in, and he would play cards with Milty Snappins. Alex used to come in at noontime for work he’d already done. His check was in Julie’s desk, in the top drawer. All he had to do was open it and give it to him.

How long would that take? Five seconds. He refused to give it to him because he “dared to enter the office of an editor at lunchtime.” Alex started to yell, Julie started to yell, and Julie fired him. Julie didn’t have the GUTS to say that he fired him, not me. But people thought that, since I created Johnny Thunder (which Alex drew) and I created The Trigger Twins, and I designed all the covers (I always designed the covers of any books that I edited and any feature stories that I always did; I happened to have the gift for that).

When Joe Kubert left to do The Green Berets, I took one look at the strip and said “It’s a still-life, it’s not as good as any of the Easy Company work that he did. There is no passion, there is no emotion, there is no movement.” Despite all of the publicity, and John Wayne posing for Joe, it bombed.

Who did I have to do Rock and Haunted Tank? Russ Heath, who had been in Chicago doing [Little] Annie Fanny. I sent him scripts, and when he said he started it, I knew he hadn’t started it. When he said he was halfway through, I knew he had started it. When he mailed it, I knew he hadn’t finished it yet. I described the covers (this is over the phone) and, as Joe said, I speak in pictures. He said he could draw, without having ever been there, something I described. The covers came back from Russ: perfect covers, over the phone, while he had been in Chicago. That’s never been done before. Have you ever heard of it?

CI: But I have to say that your skeleton driving put a pretty vivid picture in my head.

RK: Metal Men, there is a legend about Metal Men. I produced it in ten days, from a single sentence. With editors, assistant editors, conversations, tapes -- they can’t put out a book in two months. I, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito...I stopped by Irwin Donenfeld and he said “I know it’s not your turn to do Showcase [I did two to three times as many Showcases as the other editors], but they haven’t come up with a Showcase, and we need a Showcase. Do you have any ideas?”

I said “Metal Men. I’d write them with human characteristics but, nevertheless, keeping their metallic characteristics.”

He said “Do it.” So, I took my daughter...on Saturdays to Juliard for ballet. My Buick Convertible had the top down in Winter (laughter) and I started writing in the notebook. Do you know how many characters there are in Metal Men?

CI: Five of them, right? Lead, Mercury, Gold, Tin, and I want to say Aluminum but I know it’s not right.

RK: Tina, Platinum! Dr. Magnus, and the villain was Chemo!

Anyway, I did the twenty-three pages on Saturday. My wife typed it up on Sunday. I had called Ross [Andru] to come in Monday morning. He came in Monday morning. I gave him page one of the script, and I gave him a single page of blank typing paper. I said “Go into production. No matter how many panels I may have, I want you to get it all on one page. When you’re finished, come back to me. You can give me a vertical line for a figure, horizontal for horizon, a circle for a head. I don’t give a damn what, just do it.”

I was then conducting my editorial business. He came back to me, and I told him I wanted to rough, so I was able to make one panel across out of three or four, or three or four across out of one. I was able to make a vertical out of a horizontal, or a horizontal out of a vertical. I was able to tell him “I want you to make this panel one inch shorter or one inch less than the regular size, so that you’ll be able to have an action break through the panel.”

I read Mark Evanier’s column [and] he said that he interviewed Ross, and knew that Ross was unhappy with the work that he did. There was always something more that he wanted to do. Ross said (I don’t have it here, so I don’t remember exactly what he said) “When Bob gave me the script to THE Metal Men, I knew that I had an impossible deadline, but I also knew that if I could get it in in the time he gave me, it could be mine. Of course, I was sure there would be a series, and [Kanigher] designed it so that it would never be able to do again! The one thing I couldn’t understand, was why did Bob create characters which engendered 7,000 complementary letters for the first issue, why did he kill them all in the first issue!?” (Laughter)

I did it because I didn’t want to do another one!

CI: Yet they brought them back.

RK: I didn’t have a choice. What gave me the idea? A single sentence. I never took science, I regret to say. I prefer to make up my own world of science. I read in a science book, before I started. It was a battered old volume. It said “A single strand of hair can be stretched the distance of a mile.” That told me how to handle them all.

I used their characteristics, metallic characteristics for all those wierd shapes. All I could remember about Mercury was that my mother stuck it in my behind when I was a kid and it went up and down. When Mercury got mad, he went up and steam came up from him and so on. He thought he should be leader.

Tin, I made him with an inferiority complex. How did I show it? I gave him a stammer. That’s the way I write. It flows, and I never plot. I start form a line, and it just flows. I don’t know how they do it.

CI: I know people who will toil away at something for years, and keep writing and writing with the belief that if they keep plotting it will make it a good story. But it’ll be crap if you don’t start out with a good idea.

RK: Like Meskin, who saw me do a completed oil in an hour and a half and say “It wil kill me if I tried to paint that.” I am highly complemented in the world. I feel that there is some force inside me, using me as a conduit. There is no hesitation that just flows. I write poetry. I look at it ten minutes later, and I don’t know how it got there. I just don’t know.

I can’t tell you anything more about The Blue Beetle.

CI: I do appreciate everything you’ve told me, Mr. Kanigher. It’s really tough to find any first person accounts. Unfortunately, not too many writers or artists are easy to find or even around anymore -

RK: They’re all dead! God dammit! It’s shocking, out of all nine editors at DC, two are left. It’s a tragedy, and people like you are trying to get the so-called Golden Age. You know that I’m responsible for the Silver Age?

CI: Are we talking about the Barry Allen Flash in Showcase #4?

RK: Correct.

CI: That’s mighty impressive.

RK: Not only that, but I designed the legendary cover.

CI: The film strip with Flash bursting out of it.

RK: That’s right. Julius told everyone that Carmine did it. Carmine denied it twice in a great big interview. I forgot the name of the editor, but he called me up and I said “no” before he asked me what he wanted to. He questioned Carmine twice about The Flash, and said “Kanigher all the way.” Not only that, but he gave me a rough of the cover that everybody credits me with. You see, there’s a lot of things going on comics because of stupidity, lack of integrity. If I were to tell you the truth...

I took the place of an editor who died. At breakfast I came in. Naturally, I called switchboard and said “Reroute all my appointments and calls to his office. I’m setting up HQ here.” I look to see what inventory he had. I found out that he kept every carbon of mine for the past several years, drew a line through my title. He also got kickbacks from DC: $76,000. You’d never know it, no one would know that.

CI: My God!

RK: I saw it first. I picked up twelve scripts of mine. I said “I’m not gonna tell anyone, I don’t want to embarass the family. I’ll write one script a month with his title, because the inventory people won’t have a script. They only have the ones that I did. All right, that’s not bad, I’ll do one a month.”

Then, twelve became twenty, became thirty, became fifty. I called Mort and Jay and said “For God’s sake, come in here.”

They said “You ought to speak to Jack.”

“I can’t do it.”

They said “You’ve gotta do it.”

Do you know that? Nobody knows that, it was kept secret.