A Tribute to the of

Here is the interview I enjoyed with Sergio Curbelo:

Bryan D. Stroud: In the issue of Amazing World of DC Comics #3 (Nov/Dec 1974) that I spotted your photo in, you’re welcomed as the newest Woodchuck, along with Anthony Tollin. The thumbnail biography says: “Sergio A. Curbelo, born in Cuba and brought to the U.S. in 1962 at the age of 11. Sergio attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. In 1970, he won an N.P.P. (National Periodical Publications) sponsored cartooning award and when he came to pick it up, he showed his samples around the office. The next thing he knew, he was working in the art department.” Does that sound accurate?

Sergio Curbelo: That is accurate.

BDS: So, what was the N.P.P. cartooning award?

SC: That was the corporate name for DC Comics, who was known as National Periodical Publications. The award that I got at the High School of Art and Design, was given every year to one outstanding student who the instructor’s felt had the potential to go further and succeed.

BDS: So, a great foot in the door. Do you remember what it was at all?

SC: I went there with just the intention of picking up the prize, but when I saw all that original artwork, hanging on the office walls, I got really excited. I saw that and thought, “Wow! This is very impressive.”

Jack Adler and Sol Harrison were the ones I sat down with and congratulated me. And they said, “Do you think that one day you might be able to do this kind of artwork and work for us?” I said, “Absolutely. Why don’t I make an appointment with you and show you my samples and then you can make up your mind or you can decide for yourselves.”

I think I returned in two or three days. It wasn’t the same day that I got the award. They saw my samples and they said, “Do you want a position with the production department?” Of course, I said yes. I started immediately.

BDS: What did they start you doing in production?

SC: I started out fixing original inked pages, doing things like changing words in the balloons, inking penciled backgrounds and pasting the book titles on the cover pages. The artists had already inked the book and sometimes left some background frames incomplete for production artists, like me, to finish. They didn’t give me the bestselling books right away. They wanted to test me out.

BDS: Of course.

SC: I worked mainly on the mystery books like House of Mystery. Not the big sellers. Then they saw that I was able to handle their quota, which was 3 pages a day minimum.

BDS: Pencil and ink?

SC: No, production artists didn’t pencil pages. Once I got a book, (a set of 16 pages), the changes were indicated on tracing paper over it, showing me what the editors wanted done. Except for coloring. I didn’t do any coloring. Jack Adler did the coloring. Then he trained another fellow named Carl, who was one of the Woodchucks, to color.

BDS: Oh, Carl Gafford.

SC: Gafford, Yes. He was the other one that did coloring and became Jack Adler’s assistant.

BDS: I’ve actually been in touch with Gaff a couple of times.

SC: How’s he doing?

BDS: He lives in the Southwest. I didn’t get much of a chance to find out how his life is going, but I know in one interaction I had the bright idea to contact a few people who had worked at the DC offices for a number of years because, as you probably know, just a few years ago they moved out of New York altogether over to California.

SC: The west coast, yes. I was heartbroken when I heard that.

BDS: So, I thought that might be an interesting piece to write up. Getting remembrances of a few folks, because Paul Levitz had written up quite a thing about it. So, I reached out to Gaff and he took a little bit different tack. There were traces of bitterness there, I’m afraid. He talked about hazing and things like that. So, I get the idea his memories aren’t as fond as yours, unfortunately.

SC: Well, you know anyplace that you go to…are you a creative person? Do you draw or paint or are you a musician or anything like that?

BDS: Sadly, the only meager talent I have is for writing, so…

SC: Well, even in writing. What happens is that any time you have a group of highly creative people in one room, you’re going to have a clash of egos and friction. Mostly between the artists and the editors. Carl worked with Jack Adler, clear across the other side of the room, so I don’t know exactly what kind of things he encountered. But because we were the younger group, the older production artists used to haze us.

I chose to ignore it, because for every one person that criticized us about our youth and inexperience, you always had another artist that was encouraging. I remember Neal Adams saying to me, “I want you to keep a sketchbook. I want you to come to me every two days, or weekly and I’m going to look at your sketchbook to see how you’ve improved.” At first, I just thought, oh, he’s just being nice. He wasn’t. (Mutual laughter.) He wasn’t. I remember one time he caught me in the hall and said… “Where are you going? Let me see the sketchbook.” “Oh, oh, I thought you were joking.” “No, I’m not.” He was firm but very encouraging.

The lessons I got from him, you could never get in four or five years in an art school.

BDS: I don’t doubt it for a second, and that’s consistent from stories I’ve heard from others, although, who was it? It might have been Greg Theakston, he was telling me, because he used to work at Continuity for a while, along with many others, although of course most were simply renting space and I asked about Neal’s mentoring and he said something to the effect, going back to the ego thing you mentioned before, some people took it as savaging their work, but if you could look past what appeared to be savaging, there was valuable information, but you had to be listening and be humble enough to accept it.

SC: Yes, yes. He was tough. The delivery wasn’t pleasant because he would always say, “You’re working here, amongst us.”

BDS: That makes sense. I’m reminded of the Frank Miller anecdote where he’d visit Neal at Continuity to get his work critiqued and Neal would take no prisoners and one day Frank said, “Thanks, but I’ve actually sold this one.”

SC: You sometimes had to take the things they had to say with a grain of salt. If you went to Continuity to see Neal and he was working on something and was busy, you couldn’t expect him to always have time for something like that. He was already jammed up, so his delivery was not going to be pleasant. As a professional artist, you have to understand that. You don’t go to someone asking for criticism when they’re busy.

We were all 20-something at that time, and as an artist, you had to be sensitive to the human being that’s working. You can’t just do that to them, interrupt when they’re doing their work. And at some point, you have to strike out on your own and have some sense of what you want to do. So, I can understand. He was harsh with me a couple of times also. But I understood what was happening. I chose a more global view of what was going on.

That’s where Neal forced me to grow. Because a lot of times as artists or writers, we tend to be laser focused on what we’re doing on that paragraph or that page we’re working on. We don’t tend to look at anything else. What he taught me was to look at it globally. How would you start the page and how would you end this book? Once you have an idea, based on both ends, your mind, your creative juices will fill in the middle. And I can say this to you now that I’m 60-something, but back then, it was a milestone.

BDS: Priceless. Your story reminds me of something that I believe Steve Mitchell was telling me that Joe Orlando was instructing him and he said it’s sometimes a good idea to start in the middle when you’re illustrating a book and save your best for the splash and the end pages and use the middle to warm up.

SC: Great advice. That was very wise advice. I knew Joe, I worked with Joe and I had a lot of respect for him because he was an editor who could draw and ink. He was talented in both areas. So, whenever he gave you a nugget of advice, I grabbed it.

These were men that were very busy. For them to take 5 or 10 minutes to talk to you, specifically about something, I treasured it.

BDS: Sure. Great value there. I believe it was Tony DeZuniga telling me that Joe used to routinely keep tracing paper in his desk drawer, and Tony said, “He really helped me out with layouts.” I guess off the cuff he’d just sketch out something and say, “Here’s what I’m talking about,” and Tony said it was so valuable to him.

SC: Absolutely. Great guy.

BDS: Who else did you encounter in the DC offices, Sergio?

SC: Oh, let’s see. So many. I haven’t thought about these people in years and then you found me and got me to thinking. Only one other person has found me and it had to do with a comic con.

Okay, Jack Adler, of course, was the most important person. He brought me in. And Sol Harrison. Another one I worked with was Joe Kubert. Also, Carmine Infantino, who was the publisher at the time. And not only was he a publisher, but he could draw his fingers off. He was fantastic and I hit it off with him too. This guy’s the publisher and he walked around in a suit all the time, smoking a big cigar a real tall guy. Six foot something. He always looked kind of unapproachable, but he had a special place in his heart for the artists in the bullpen where all the artist’s worked. Writers had their own individual offices. He would always come in and greet the production artists every day.

BDS: That says a lot.

SC: If you wanted to talk to him, his door was always open. You kind of peeked you head in and knocked and if you were an artist it was, “Come in! Come on in!” Great guy. Fantastic guy.

I also met Dick Giordano, who worked with Neal on Batman. Another great guy. A lot of fun. He was always joking around. Great sense of humor. A lot of wisdom. Russ Heath. Frank Springer. Jerry Robinson. Joe Simon. Tony DeZuniga. Murphy Anderson was one of the editors. He was an old-timer. He’d been around for a long time. He had a lot of wisdom to share.

Bernie Wrightson was there when I was there. I know he passed away. His talent surfaced early and he got the editors to give him a chance. Once they did, he took off. I also met Mike Grell.

Let’s see, who else did I meet? Alan Kupperberg. He stayed after I left. I don’t know what he’s up to.

BDS: He passed away a few years ago. I cannot remember the illness now, but his brother Paul is still doing some writing here and there.

SC: I’m sorry to hear that.

BDS: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. Time marches on and sometimes it’s kinder to some than others.

SC: Well, I’m over 65 and I’m not ashamed to say it. Let’s see, now. I also met Nick Cardy but that was at Continuity. He had worked on some of the books, but at Continuity he was renting space from Neal. A good artist, also. John Buscema was working at Marvel of course. I met him, but I never did anything with him. I also met Denny O’Neil, of course. He was the shining star at DC. Also, Gerry Conway. Paul Levitz was also there while I was. He rose quickly to become publisher of DC. I knew Cary Bates. Also, Gaspar. You told me that he’d passed away. It was amazing what that guy could do with a speedball nib. Amazing!

BDS: You know, he was so humble. He was the first person that agreed to an interview and for most of it he was kind of confused, and by that, I mean that to him it was just doing a job. Just a way to provide for his family. He couldn’t understand why anybody was interested in what he had done.

I asked him at one point about the legend of the Gaspar stone. Supposedly it was a particular stone he used to file down the nibs on his pens. I asked if there was any truth to that and he laughed loud and long. He said he used sandpaper like everybody else. There was no Gaspar stone. But what a true gentleman.

SC: Absolutely and the combination of humility and art. I mean that guy was simply amazing, what he could do. I never saw him do any kind of drawing, but his lettering was amazing. Just amazing. To get a birthday card from him was the greatest. What used to happen is sometimes he’d send a birthday card or whatever to the guys he worked with and you treasured the envelope. You absolutely treasured that envelope, because he didn’t just write down the address. He would play with it, with calligraphy. He was simply a master. If he taught a class, he would have had people lined up for years. I was sorry to hear he’d passed away.

BDS: Yeah, but he got up into his 90s and was still very sharp. Sometimes I’d call him just for a friendly call and he never seemed to mind. And you’re absolutely right. We exchanged Christmas cards and I remember one where he put his signature inside a balloon, which just delighted me. And I’ve also got a Christmas greeting where, precisely as you described, he played with different colors of pens and a couple of different fonts and I wouldn’t trade them for gold.

SC: I can only imagine what he would do with a magic marker. They didn’t have those at the time and now I’m dating myself, but I mean, what he did with a speedball penpoint was amazing, so I can only imagine what he could do with colored markers. (After telling the story of my Ferro Lad commission, Sergio shared the following):

SC: You know that was one reason Mike didn’t like to show up when Neal was around, because he didn’t want him critiquing his artwork.

BDS: Neal kind of alluded to me that for a while he thought Mike was aping his style.

SC: We were a community. A nice, tight community. Some got along better than others, but it was still great.

BDS: Did you socialize with anyone outside the office?

SC: With Neal, and the Crusty Bunkers on Fridays after work. I’d stop by and hang out with the crew to see what the other publications were up to.

Until things got very busy for both of us. The last I heard he had his kids and his wife working for him. So, we kind of lost touch. He’s doing whatever he’s doing and is very busy.

The only other master artist that I admired, when he was still in New York, was Alex Toth. Another harsh critic. When you showed him stuff, he was a tough critic, but whatever he said to you, were golden nuggets.

BDS: I actually saw evidence once. He had that very distinctive handwriting, but someone had posted on the internet that Steve Rude was given the Jonny Quest assignment, either for comics or maybe a syndicated strip, and he had sent pages to Toth to review and Alex just took no prisoners.

SC: I saw that posting. Whoever posted it shouldn’t have done that. He was a harsh critic, but the guy was great. DC had little offices with doors, and if any of the artists allowed you to come in and look over their shoulder, you were a trusted person. Once the artists were sitting down and drawing, God help you if you came in and touched their shoulder or asked them anything. Alex was one of those. When he was drawing, leave him alone. Outside of that, if he took a liking to you, you were great.

BDS: That sounds pretty familiar. I’ve got another friend who still does some lettering in the industry and he was friendly with Gil Kane and said he didn’t know why, but Alex and Gil despised each other. They respected each other artistically, but just did not like each other at all.

SC: I can see that. It’s all in the approach. With Alex, it was all about how you laid it out. And some people had a different way of working. They could be sloppy and Alex had a specific way of doing things. The way his mind worked; it was very design oriented. Of course, he was into dark blacks. He could create anything using blacks. Solid black pieces.

I remember the last book I worked on of his I think was The Shadow. I think it was a Shadow reprint. At the time that he did it, I don’t think I was old enough to hold a pencil. DC had the rights to it. DC did the reprint and for whatever reason, those things were shot as negatives. The original artwork was kept in a safe, but sometimes they took them out and reissued them. They were taken out and printed, so that we could work on them, it would be just like that.

I remember there were parts of pages that had to be totally redone. I’m talking about entire frames. Four or five frames would have to be redone, but done in his style. I remember Jack Adler coming to me and saying, “Can you copy it? In such a way that no one can tell that someone other than Alex did it?” I said, “I’ll do my best. I know that you like him and have a lot of respect for him and his work. So, bring it over.” That was the last piece I did and then when it was shown to him, he said it was fine. He liked the way I finished it. Whew! I didn’t want to be destroyed by Alex Toth. So, I passed the test.

BDS: That had to be some pressure being felt there, I’m sure.

SC: Listen, Bryan, I wasn’t stupid. I kept lots of sample copies of the artists I liked and would do work for so in case I had to imitate them, I had artwork for reference. We didn’t have Google Images or anything in those days, so that’s what you did. Jack Adler knew that if he had anything that needed repairing, I could do it. If it was Mike Grell, I could do it, if it was Neal, I could do it, if it was Alex Toth, I could do it. Sometimes I had to work on Gene Colan’s art.

BDS: Oh, wow. And his penciling was so ethereal. That had to be a challenge.

SC: My goodness. You have no idea the things that I had to do. In those days we worked on 2-ply Bristol board. What happened was you had a piece of illustration board, but it has two layers, so a lot of times when we had to fix something, we cut the first layer out, smooth it and then go right back in and ink it. So that way you couldn’t see the cuts. It would look like it was one piece. Or sometimes you’d have to do it on a separate piece and glue it. So that’s what would happen when they needed a change. A lot of times it was the editors asking for the changes. “I don’t like this. It has no background. I want it to have this sort of feel. Give me this, or give me a jungle.” Did you know that DC at one time had Tarzan?

BDS: I know somewhere in my collection I’ve got a copy that Joe Kubert did.

SC: Exactly! Very good. Now Kubert was an excellent artist. Excellent guy. His stuff rarely came across my desk for any corrections. But one time, one of the editors wanted some art to the background. I remember it was a challenge to do. I had to do a jungle background in the back of Tarzan and then draw a desert as a background and then Tarzan swimming under water. This was given to me and mind you I had to finish it that day.

BDS: Oh, of course.

SC: I didn’t have the luxury of sitting on it. “Well, let me look at it, you know? Let me think about it. Jack, how about I give it back to you tomorrow?” When it was put on your desk, it had a date on it, it had a stamp on it and when you’re finished, you put your initials on it and you turned it in to Jack Adler. That was the proof that it was finished the same day. Oh, my goodness. That was kind of scary. All that stuff for Joe Kubert’s backgrounds. Oh, man… Did you ever meet him?

BDS: I did not have the pleasure. I got to talk to him twice. Well, once, actually. Once I began to gain a little steam in lining people up for interviews, I hit Joe up and he said fine, but he preferred to do it by email. And I tell you, Sergio, it was frustrating, because a lot of his answers were monosyllables. So, it wasn’t much of an interview at all, but then, when I got to interview Jack Adler, he praised Joe up one side and down the other and he told me he had kind of helped behind the scenes to set up the curriculum for the school that Joe founded.

SC: Yes.

BDS: So, I thought this would be a nice angle if Joe would be willing, so I set up an appointment and called him at the school and he was much more forthcoming, so I thought, well, maybe Joe is just one of those people who doesn’t enjoy talking about himself. It was just a delightful conversation and he put me at ease right off by insisting I call him Joe. It was just a delight.

SC: Great artist. Great guy. He was a very imposing figure. He was 6-foot something and he looked like a lumberjack. If you saw him, you’d think this guy cuts trees down every other day. He sat down, rolled up his sleeves and took out his pen and started inking. He wasn’t the kind of guy you’d imagine being an artist. But if he liked you, you were okay. Whatever he did, you just treated it with kid gloves. Again, the fact that it was given to me to work on, felt like an honor. I appreciated that honor, but I was stressed. I have to admit I was stressed. I was stressed because I knew it had to pass Joe’s eyes, but I figured if Jack Adler gave it to me, he was using his judgment and trusted that I could do it and I didn’t want to betray that trust.

BDS: I’m reminded of a story Joe Rubinstein told me about having the opportunity to ink Joe Kubert, which was rare, as he inks his own stuff almost exclusively. He said he got the opportunity and submitted it and waited and waited and finally when he heard back Joe said something like, “Well, it didn’t turn out too bad.” Joe Rubinstein was crestfallen and said, “Well, I have to do something else with my life now,” and then he ran into either Adam or Andy and they said that was high praise from their father.

SC: Is there anything else I can answer?

BDS: I noticed in the Amazing World of DC Comics issue #7 they credited you with taking some of those photographs with staffers out on the streets of New York for the cover of Superman #289. Do you remember anything about how that went?

SC: In those days, people didn’t have cameras in their phones. So, what happened was I used to take pictures with my 35mm camera and carried it all the time. This is so I could take pictures of whatever I needed as reference. So, one of the editors said, “Go out in the street and take pictures of this, because we need it for a cover and it has to run today.” “What?” So, I went out and…of course everything was due today. The pictures had to get taken that day for the cover background. That, was laid down then the artwork was done on a piece of acetate as an overlay. So, they had to have that photograph. They needed that photograph today. “So, who has a camera? Well, Sergio has a camera. He brings his camera every day. Come on, Sergio.”

It seemed like I was always trusted. “Well, what’s Sergio doing? What’s he working on? Take that over and have him do this.” I was the go-to guy. I didn’t really mind. I kind of liked it. I was trusted and it’s a nice feeling.

BDS: Especially since Jack was an accomplished photographer, that was pretty high praise, I’d say.

SC: Yes, it was. I only did it as a hobby. I liked doing it. I still do. In those days, it was a nice thing to have. You could get a Polaroid, which was the closest thing to instant, but those cheap little plastic photos were awful. To get good the ones that took nice pictures, those cameras were expensive. In those days, processing black and white took minutes. We had a lab downstairs and that was it.

Before I forget, I met a lot of the MAD artists. For whatever reason, even though MAD magazine was not associated at that time with DC comics, some of the artists, whenever they were in New York, would come in and use the office space at DC Comics. They were all jokesters. All of them. They all got along great.

So, whenever they came in, Jack Adler was always, “Do your work. Leave those guys alone.” “But they’re fun, man, they’re fun.” “Do your work.” So, I met most of them.

Let’s see, Burt Ward and Adam West came to the office and made a personal visit. They came in to say hello to the staff and I remember the artists would turn around and when Burt Ward came in, he wasn’t wearing his leggings, he was wearing the little socks and his shoes. So, there he is, in his costume with hairy legs. The guy is hairy. So, he comes up and everybody is looking. Adam West is going, “Oh, hey guys, how are you doing? You’re doing a good job and I hope you represent us well.” Then, one of the artists says, “Gee, man, what is it with the hairy legs? Do I have to put hair now on your legs when I draw you?” Burt Ward didn’t know what to say. “Oh, okay. I’ll see you later. Next bat-time, next bat-channel. Let’s get out of here.” (Mutual laughter.) I’m going, “What is that?” “Oh, come on, man, you saw how hairy his legs were. You could see it from 15 feet away! He’s got jungles on his legs.” Oh, the stuff that used to go on.

BDS: Obviously you didn’t stay too long at DC. Did you decide it just wasn’t the kind of work you wanted to do?

SC: I left because they wanted people to do freelance work. And that was it for me. So, I decided for a while to quit and just do freelance work. They gave me plenty of it at first. But, for whatever reason DC decided to start giving a lot of the artwork to the artists in the Philippines to do. Then, all of a sudden, the work dried up. They were paying the Filipino artists a dollar per page and I couldn’t compete with that. It was a financial decision, so I left and became an art director for Rupert Murdoch.

BDS: Sounds like a soft landing.

SC: Yeah, while I was doing that, I was doing storyboards which is one of the things that Neal taught me. He said comic book artists do this whenever work gets slow, do storyboards. Every advertising agency always needs storyboards. So, I would do those.

BDS: The pay was a heck of a lot better, too.

SC: Oh, man, c’mon. We’re talking about for a 4 x 6 frame they paid $25 per frame and if you did an 8 x 10 frame, it was $75. And that was full color, of course. Now, if they wanted a correction, they had to pay again. And you know, the first time you create art for a client, they’re always going to make changes and corrections. “Go ahead. Make as many corrections as you like.” Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching… (Mutual laughter.) I loved it. “Make corrections. Go ahead.” Sometimes they’d end up paying more for corrections than for the original storyboard. This is nice! Comic books were never going to pay you that. So, $25 per frame and every storyboard had to have at least six frames. Six to 10 frames, usually. So, do the math. And I was used to doing 3 pages a day, so a storyboard was nothing to me. And I’m working 11 x 14 pages. Which is what comic books used to be done in.

After that, I stayed in touch a little bit with some people, but I just couldn’t compete with the Filipino artists and things started changing. There were more changes and more changes and once the digital age came in with the Mac computer, DC didn’t keep anyone on staff. You had to have your own studio and your own equipment. So, what some artists did was to run over to Continuity because Neal had the equipment. Well, you had to rent space from Neal and by the time you paid him, what are you left with?

BDS: That’s no way to make a living. And of course, the cost of living in your neck of the woods has not gotten any better.

SC: Oh, no. New York City, my friend? Oh, no, no, no. I’m retired now and sometimes you’ve got to get creative with things. (Chuckle.)

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