Monday, March 16, 2015

Irwin Hasen 1918 - 2015

Golden Age comic book artist and co-creator of the long-running Dondi comic strip Irwin Hasen died in the early hours of Friday, March 13th at Lenox Hill hospital. He had been admitted a couple of days prior with high blood pressure and slurred speech. The cause was heart failure. He was 96.

Born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, Hasen went to the National Academy of Design.
"Across the street was the National Academy of Design, a huge structure like a garage, an airplane hangar. One of the oldest art schools in America, one of the most prestigious. Classical art. I was always drawing. I was drawing... on the empty pages of books. So my mother, God bless her soul, took me across the street and enrolled me in a course of drawing... I was there for three years, every night during the week, drawing in charcoal all the statues of Michelangelo and all the Bernini and all the classics... During the day, I would hawk, sell, drawings of prizefighters down in New York. That was my first job—boxing cartoonist. I made a very small, very slight living. I was 19-20 years old. I sold my cartoons to the Madison Square Garden Corporation. They were printed all over New York in different newspapers. It was like public relations for the fights."
-- Alter Ego Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 1 "So I Took The Subway And There Was Shelly Mayer..."An Interview with Golden Age artist Irwin Hasen, conducted by Roy Thomas, transcribed by Carla Conway.
Hasen got work in the then-fledgling comic book industry after additional study at the Art Students League. First, with Harry "A" Chesler's studio, and then with National Comics (later known as DC Comics).

During the war, Hasen was stationed at Fort Dix, where he managed the newspaper.

"I edited it, I published it, I took it to the printers, I learned how to set up type, I did the comic strip, I wrote the whole goddam thing, and I interviewed all the celebrities coming in from New York. I worked my ass off, and I wound up in the hospital. But that was my proudest time, editing that newspaper for a year and a half." -- -- Alter Ego Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 1
Returning to New York after being discharged in 1946, he took up where he was, drawing covers and interiors for many comics. Some of the characters he worked on:

The Green Hornet

The Fox


The Flash

Green Lantern

Johnny Thunder

Justice Society of America

He created The Wildcat, a DC Comics character who now appears on The Arrow TV series.

It was also during this time that ne drew a comic strip version of the radio show The Goldbergs for the New York Post from 1946 to 1945.

He was active in the National Cartoonists Society, a then-New York City-based group of professional cartoonists. In 1954, while on an NCS tour of Korea, Hasen met Gus Edson. They hatched the idea of a comic strip based on a war orphan. Dondi was the name of the strip. It was sold to King Features and debuted the next fall. The comic strip would run for 32 years.

"I belonged to the National Cartoonists Society, and we had USO trips to Korea during the war. I went to the frontlines with six cartoonists ... And Gus Edson ... he and I got to be very close on the trip. One day, he asked me, 'What are you doing?' Now usually, when you're not working, you say, 'I'm in advertising.' 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!' 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. Gus wrote it. He wrote it in longhand — no computer, no typewriter. He couldn't use a typewriter. He drank a lot." - Mark Evanier POV, October 20, 2000
Bob Oksner shared the writing duties when Mr. Edson died in 1966.

In 2005, with Bill Gallo, I organized a group of cartoonists to create a mural on the wall of The Overlook Restaurant (formerly Costello's) in New York City that would serve as a counterpart to the famous wall decorated by cartoonists a generation earlier. It was a great event. My efforts brought together a number of legendary artists and received significant media coverage.

Irwin was there, of course. He drew Dondi, looking over his shoulder, while peeing on a tree.

A year later I got a call from Stan Goldberg. He and his wife Pauline were going to be in the city that night, and did I want to join them at the Jewish Museum for a panel of cartoonists? The panel was Irwin Hasen, Jules Feiffer and Jerry Robinson, with Danny Fingeroth moderating. Well, of course I did! 

Hasen was asked about his comic book work, and he had to remind everyone that he really didn't remember and, at the time, didn't much care about the comic book industry. It was a throwaway product. Most of it was crap. And comic books were just something to do before he got his big break. The big break that all cartoonists want: a nationally syndicated comic strip. He never imagined that decades later people would talk about comic books or that he would be on that panel talking about his covers and stories. 

He had a minor stroke the following year, but he still attended conventions actively. I talked with him at one of the Big Apple conventions, and asked him about that drawing of Dondi peeing on a tree. He explained that the tree symbolized the syndicate and Dondi was peeing on it because of what it did to Dondi. 

Here's more of that Alter Ego interview conducted by Roy Thomas:

Alter Ego: At what point wasn't the strip worth doing anymore? 
Irwin Hasen: 1987. When I got my last royalty check, I looked at it and I said, "Oh Jesus, forget it," 'cause I had to pay my letterer, and Bob Oksner, who was helping me with the writing. When he saw my check, he cried. At the syndicate they don't give a damn, as long as they get enough money to pay for paper clips. It just wasn't worth it any more. And I was very proud that I made that decision. No regrets.

Twice Dondi won the National Cartoonists Society Division Award for Best Story Strip.

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