Saturday, 7 October 2017

Now & Then Times: Jerry Lazare

The following interview with artist Jerry Lazare was conducted by Dave Sim and first appeared in Now & Then Times #2 in October 1973 and was subsequently reprinted in Alter Ego #36 in May 2004. The photos accompanying the text were taken at Jerry Lazare's home in Toronto on the occasion of his 90th birthday in September 2017.

 Jerry Lazare with Dave Sim (2017)
Photo @ Ivan Kocmarek
 
The following interview was held at Jerry Lazare's studio on Prince Arthur in Toronto in April [1973]. Since his early years with Bell Features, Jerry has become a top-notch illustrator and a fine painter. At the time of this interview, he was preparing to embark on one of the most important projects of his career -- an enormous mural in the National Art Gallery depicting the rise of civilization. After its completion, he wishes to spend one whole year just painting and then, hopefully, stage a one-man show at a Toronto gallery. ~ Dave Sim

NOW & THEN TIMES:
When and where were you born, and do you recall your first inclination to being an artist?

JERRY LAZARE:
I was born in Toronto in 1927. The earliest recollection I have is that I had a half-brother, and he stayed with the family every once in a while. He wanted to draw just for fun from the big Saturday comic strip pages. I guess I was about four or five, and I remember lying on the floor when he was drawing and watching him. And then I started to fiddle around. That's my first recollection of holding a pencil. When I got into high school, I read comics and was fascinated with the work of Alex Raymond [Flash Gordon], primarily because I thought he was such a great draftsman. The comics that were funny or the people who didn't draw well -- and a lot of them didn't -- didn't interest me.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
You became interested in art, then, as a result of comic strips?

LAZARE:
Yes, and primarily Raymond, just because he made things looks so real. And he was, I think, a great artist. But as I went on, I discovered that he was influenced by Matt and Benton Clark and the whole field of illustration. Stan Drake, for instance, was an illustrator, and I saw his work long before he did Heart of Juliet Jones. NoelSickles, who was really the guy whose style Milt Caniff aped, is a tremendous illustrator today. He's illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post and all the major magazines. I would spend, between the ages of nine and ten until I entered high school at thirteen, a lot of time in the evenings, because I was the only child in the family and, I guess, to a certain extent a loner, sitting and sketching while I listened to radio programs. A lot of the inspiration I got was from radio shows -- something that wasn't visual, things like The Shadow and Sam Spade and I Love a Mystery. I used to sit, and things I heard on the radio I would try and draw. Or I would just copy Raymond's style.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Besides Raymond, who influenced your art?

LAZARE:
My influences were almost exclusively Raymond, because I never liked Caniff's style that much. My partner Lew [Parker] knew Caniff, and he also did cartoons for Stars and Stripes [U.S. servicemen's newspaper] during the war. He never got into the comic strips in the Bell Features area at all, though. I liked Frank Robbins, the guy who is very much like Caniff. After about the third or fourth year, I began to look at magazines and became interested in illustrators, and I realized where Alex Raymond stemmed from, and I saw Noel Sickles' work. My influence then went into the illustration field with people like Albert Dorne -- artists that weren't into comics at all, but who were all great draftsmen and illustrators. There was another guy who influenced me tremendously and used to do a strip called The Spirit -- Will Eisner. I think Lou Fine was involved with that strip. I went to New York after Dell folded to try and work down there. But when I went down, I found that I would have been drafted. I didn't want to go into the Army, so I came back. One of the things that surprised me was that Will Eisner just penciled the pages and another guy did the inking. They showed me his penciled strips, which were just fantastic. The guy who inked them couldn't do wrong, because they were so good. I had never heard of that before. I knew that one guy wrote them and another guy did the drawing, but I hadn't realized that they had refined it to the point where one guy did the penciling and another did the inking. And this is the way Eisner did all of them -- so they told me, anyway. But strips like Superman and Batman I thought were poorly drawn. Compared to guys like Raymond or Eisner, those guys were nowhere, I thought. I was just interested in the people who drew well. [Harold] Foster was one of them and [Burne] Hogarth was another, but Raymond beat them all, I thought. I wasn’t alone. A lot of other people did, too. Raymond's Flash Gordon was by far the most copied strip, and I guess Caniff's strips would be next.

 Jerry Lazare with Dave Sim (2017)
Photo @ Ivan Kocmarek
NOW & THEN TIMES:
What did you think of the style of work in New York?

LAZARE:
The atmosphere looked pretty hack when I went down there. The artists were all lined up in one big room like a bullpen. I had been used to working on my own -- writing it and drawing it, doing the whole bit myself. There I would have just been doing penciling or inking. It just didn't look that thrilling to me, and I was worried about the draft there. Now, it would be just the last thing in the world I'd want to do.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
How did you first come in contact with Bell Features?

LAZARE:
I was in third form [equivalent of a US high school junior]. I don't know why I did it, but, for some reason I saw the Bell Features as the Canadian comics were coming out. So I sent in some pencil drawings, and about a week later I got a phone call from Cy [Bell] saying, "Do you want to do a strip?" I didn't expect anything. I was still going to high school and I just wanted criticism -- what they thought of the drawing. Around that time, I started to think seriously about an art career in comic strips. I spoke to my parents about leaving school and going to an art school, but they didn't like the idea at all. When I went down to see Cy, Murray Karn, I think it was, had just been drafted. Cy said, "Would you like to take over Jeff Waring?" and I said, "Sure. Great." So I tried to do the strip in the evenings and on weekends, and my marks just went whump! So it was either quit school and do comic strips or go to art school. My parents realized how serious I was, so they talked to the principal, and he said, "Look, I think he should go to a technical school." I didn’t really last that long at the "tech", because the whole cult that has grown up around comics was unheard of then -- no one cared. I didn't attend art schools at all until much later on. I was completely self-taught. No one helped me. I didn't know any artists. My teacher was just Alex Raymond strips, and that's all. I just took them out and copied them and learned what I did from that.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Do you remember the first time you went into the Bell offices on York Street?

LAZARE:
No, I don’t remember the first time, but I do remember the office. It was a long time ago, and I just vaguely remember the offices and the plant. I remember I was very young and nervous, full of humility. I was just amazed that anyone would want to buy the stuff. The other people there were mostly a few years older. They were guys who, at that point, were beginning to feel their oats, and when they got paid they went down the street and had beer at the local pub. I was just too young to do that, so I used to go home. By the time it folded, I was still only about nineteen. With Fred [Kelly] -- he was much older, about twenty-seven -- I sort-of learned about drinking and had my first game of poker when I had the studio with Fred.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
What did you think of the others artists at Bell Features?

LAZARE:
The people I knew at Bell were hacks as far as I was concerned. They were just out to make a dollar and were living out a fantasy of drawing comics. There were no people except maybe [Adrian]Dingle or a few others who had, I thought -- and I realize what I’m saying here is kind of alarming people -- any creative ability. This is not technically true. Some of them, like the guy who went into show business [Leo Bachle], were obviously creative people. But they didn’t draw well, and they didn't go to art school. Dingle came into the thing as a painter -- a man who had gone to art school and studied. He obviously had a lot of training. He was older, for one thing. We were just kids then. I was sixteen, and Ted Steele and people like that were maybe a little older, like Fred Kelly, whom I finally got a studio with after about a year working on strips for Bell. But most of them, I don't think, were interested in furthering an art career, in learning how to draw well. They'd copy American strips -- swipe them. I don't want to say everybody was like that, because obviously Dingle wasn't, but a lot were. I remember one of the turning points for me came when I was still swiping Raymond's work. One day I took my stuff in and Dingle said, "You ought to quit doing this. You're just swiping his stuff!" I went away and I thought, "You know, he’s right." So I just put aside all of the Raymond strips and I tried to do it on my own.

N&TT:
Were you a fast illustrator?

LAZARE:
I don't know if I was fast or not. I wasn't slow. I was just as fast as anyone else, actually. I think Ted Steele and Leo Bachle were faster, but I never used a projector when I copied. The way I copied or swiped was to just have the strip in front of me and draw it or try to fit things together. And after that session with Dingle, I just stopped completely. I think the next time I brought a strip in, Dingle was absolutely shocked at the quality, because it just went right down. I had a very hard time after I decided to stop swiping, and from that point on I just did everything out of my head. However, I discovered when I got into illustration that you don't do that -- you use models or reference. From that day on, I never swiped another person's art. Later I worked from photographs, but I didn't on the strips. I either swiped Raymond or I made it up. Actually, when you start drawing on your own, you eventually speed up. With swiping, I think you slow yourself down, almost. When I got into advertising, I got a reputation for being very fast. The guys who would take a whole story and really steal it were very fast because, heck, that would be easy. My penciling was reasonably tight.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Did you write the story as you drew it?

LAZARE:
I used to write out a rough draft for the story. I wouldn't write out every word, but I used to write a plot. Then I'd do it page by page. I'd start the story and then think of what they were going to say in the balloon. We did everything. We did our own lettering and our own stories. I don't know if the other guys hired people to write the stories. Fred Kelly and I used to collaborate. We used to get together and talk about ideas. We didn't work on each other’s strips physically, but we used to talk over what we were doing. Any two people together will. I was always looking for ideas, always trying to figure out plots, and I used to get a terrific kick out of the writing.

Ivan Kocmarek,  Ron Kasman, Art Cooper, Gerald Lazare, James Waley & Dave Sim (2017)
Photo @ Ivan Kocmarek

NOW & THEN TIMES:
After you stopped swiping Raymond, do you think you had a distinctive style?

LAZARE:
No. I didn't think very much of my work at all. I didn't really like it until very late on, when I felt something coming. Then I started to get pride in my work. But that only happened near the end. They had a party at Peter Martin's place when The Great Canadian Comic Books hardcover was released. There was one Air Woman page -- they had a whole mock display with curtains that they drew back. This was the first time I had seen things that I couldn't remember ever doing. These were so far back that it was like looking at another person's work, so I was very objective. A friend of mine was there and he thought the Air Woman was great -- the best one there. I tried looking at it objectively; it was easy and I felt differently. I felt, "It’s not bad for sixteen or seventeen." I teach, and if I have a student who can do black-&-white that well, I'd think it isn't bad at all. But then, I thought it was terrible. It retrospect it's not bad. One of the last strips I did was a color one called Master Key. I think I did just one or two before it folded. At that point, I thought I was drawing better than I ever had.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Of the strips you drew, which were your favorites?

LAZARE:
The strip I liked that I did was The Dreamer, which is a take-off on the Morpheus and sleep thing. I did Drummy Young because I was crazy about jazz. I still love jazz. I didn't get into the war thing much at all. I don't know why. I came along fairly late. Cy had been going for quite a while, and he had quite a stable of artists. I was just sort of on the outskirts of it all. When I was doing nine strips, I was working very hard, and I did that for about a year before it folded. I'd like to stress that that is the reason the strips have an appeal now -- because they are strips about the war. The strips that would apply today aren't as important to people like the National Gallery of Canada.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
In your work for Bell, did you ever consciously inject patriotism into your stories in order to sell them? 

LAZARE:
I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to put anything in the strip that said “Canada First” or “Our Boys Overseas” or anything like that, except maybe “Air Woman” had a bit of it. But when I was doing “Drummy Young,” any mention of the war was strictly accidental, because it was a part of our lives. It wasn’t an act of patri- otism at all. It would be with Leo [Bachle], because his strips dealt directly with the war.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Were you ever worried about the financial situation at Bell, whether or not they were going under? 

LAZARE:
No, I never knew anything about the finances at Bell. I was just a kid, and Cy didn’t tell me about such things. He might have with Ted and those people, because he used to go out and drink with them, but I never associated with him. Cy never told me about finances, so I didn’t worry about it at all.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
But the question of money did enter into your decision to take the job as a fulltime comic artist. 

LAZARE:
No, I didn’t take it because I needed money at all. But the change from that time to my early days as an illustrator was fantastic. At the end, I was earning around $90 a week, which in those days, for 18- 19, was a lot of dough for someone who didn’t work too much. I mean, I worked hard, but mostly my time was my own. After comics, when I went into commercial art and illustration, as soon as they saw my comic samples, they said, “Your drawing isn’t bad, but you’re going to have to get that comic strip stuff out of your blood. That’s terrible!” So I had to change my whole approach, and I started at, like, $25 a week as an apprentice illustrator at a studio. It was a struggle for two or three years before I became a senior illustrator, where I’d be earning $150 to $200 a week. There was quite a letdown from comics to that, because I was beginning to feel, “Wow! Ninety bucks a week, and this is going to go on and on!”

NOW & THEN TIMES:
How deep was your interest in comic art? Did you see it as a new, experimental art form? 

LAZARE:
I didn’t see it as an experimental art form. That phrase “experimental art form” is, to me, practically contemporary. No one talked about it in the sense that you talk about it. The fact that the work that I did at Bell is being sent around by the National Gallery of Canada I find kind-of shocking, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to put comics down, because I think they are an art form, but, to me, most comic strip artists are not good artists in the gallery or illustrative sense. They’re creators and they create either humorous or adventure strips, but they are not men who will go any further. Stan Drake hasn’t progressed, as far as I’m concerned, from the 1950s when he began Juliet Jones . It’s a different kind of art form. The reason I like it is because as a kid I could act out my fantasies and feelings through a strip. I could write the kind of adventure story I might hear on the radio. I’ve always loved mystery stories, and I’ve always loved books like Treasure Island . To be able to draw and write for other people was something I got a terrific kick out of. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was obviously mad to draw well. I’ve always loved looking at good drawing, and I’ve always admired people who could draw a figure beautifully. That’s really my main goal. If I hadn’t been picked up by Bell, I probably would have gone to art school to learn how to draw in the traditional sense.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Did your artwork for the Bell comic books have any effect on your artwork after the war? 

LAZARE:
I think comics gave me a head start in black-&-white illus- tration. As an apprentice illustrator, you get a lot of black-&-white work, and I knew how to spot blacks, and I had a feeling for using a pen and a brush. I knew nothing about color and I never had any training. I took the “Famous Artists” course years later, and I now teach at the Ontario College of Art and at Humber [College], and I teach color. But it evolved from developing it on my own. I’ve often said I wished I hadn’t gone into comics and just had a traditional art training, but Lew and a number of others say I don’t really realize how that helped me in getting into black-&-white illustration, and they’re probably right. I’m sure it would help anyone.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Why did the Bell Features comic books fail, even the color ones? 

LAZARE:
I thought when Bell went into color that it was a good thing. We got more money to begin with. It seemed like we could compete. He didn’t go from black-&-white to color for aesthetic reasons; he did it because he thought he could compete with the Americans. I have no preferences between the two. I think it’s harder to do a good black-&- white drawing than it is to do a color one, often because when we did the color, instead of worrying about the texture or some of the line work, we could fill in with color. So it made it easier, in a way. But I don’t think he would have succeeded. I think the writing was on the wall. The Canadian comics weren’t as good, I don’t think, as the American comics. The sort of nostalgia about Canada in the war—the important thing there is the war—is a result of the content being uniquely Canadian. Canadian soldiers were Canadian; the artists who did the strips were Canadian. To that extent they’re unique. But it ends there. The quality wasn’t as good and the ideas weren’t any better. I think Dingle was a guy who could’ve done a strip in the States and have been successful, because he was, I think, the best of the group. He was older and he knew more about drawing and painting. I don’t know about his ideas for the strips; I’m pretty foggy on that. But, there again, he was mad about Frank Robbins. He thought Johnny Hazard was the greatest for style and approach. We were eclectic. We weren’t origi- nators, and I think that’s the important thing. Some of the people who went on—I think Dingle’s a good painter now in a different world, doing a different thing—became originators. Then we were eclectic, and any value we had stemmed from the stuff we copied. That’s how I feel about it.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Were the Bell comics a freak occurrence in Canadian culture? 

LAZARE:
Yes. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but I like people who are as fanatical as I was about Raymond’s work, and collectors, because I go to shops and collect anything I can find on Frankenstein . But I think the pretentious thing about it being an intrinsic part of our culture is a lot of crap. I think it’s a sort of folk thing and is fun, but I don’t think it’s important. Yes, that’s a contradiction, because, as a young boy, it was my whole world. I used to just live for the next issue of a certain comic, and I still feel quite nostalgic about it. But I don’t really like the way it’s being pushed. I don’t mean the magazine you put out, because I’m interested in collectors and fans, but I don’t like the idea of the National Gallery sending around a show of Canadian comic strips. There are painters out there who are fantastic artists who are starving and would just love to have a show of their work going around. Instead, they send around comic strips that were, a lot of them, swiped from American strips. It seems ridiculous to me. But the idea of publishing books like the ones I saw at Cosmic Con appeals to me, because it feeds your imagination. It’s just when people like the National Gallery get involved that it seems pretentious to me. It just didn’t seem like that great a thing. We didn’t really feel like that about them at the time, like “We’re doing something for Canada.” Either, as in my case, we wanted to draw well, or we wanted the money or the ego thing of having the strips printed. We weren’t doing it for the country.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
What do you think are the possibilities of Canadian comic books being published today?

LAZARE:
I wish we did have Canadian comic books, because there are a lot of students at the college every year who like comics and want to draw comics. I wish we had a comics culture field here that they could go into so they didn’t have to go to the States. I think it’s all money and supply and demand. You can’t compete, or rather no one wants to. I think publishers in Canada tend to be notoriously conservative people. They only publish when they’re sure they are going to make profits, or just about sure. They won’t take a flyer.

NOW & THEN TIMES:
Do you follow today’s comic strips to any great extent?

LAZARE:
I tend to follow the school, because I still have a feeling for it. It’s entered my commercial work. People have seen some of my old strips, and they’ll phone me up. Like last year the University of Toronto phoned me up to do a comic strip for a book on communication. So I did the comic strip without balloons. It was didactic to the extent that I was not telling a story but illustrating this author’s point on communication. I lived in England for a year, and some of the samples I showed them showed a comic strip feeling, and they were mad about comic strips in England at that point, using them as an ad form. So I did a lot of comic strip work then. I know and follow Peanuts and B.C. I don’t know the name of the guy who does Dr. Kildare , but I think he’s a great draftsman. He draws very well and spots his blacks beautifully. Aesthetically the strip is great. I don’t follow them in the comic books any more, but I was at the convention at York [University -- 1972’s Cosmic Con] because they asked me to go to talk about Canadian comics. I sort-of looked at everything that was going on. After Bell went out of business, I tried for about a year to get into comics, and then my whole interest in comics completely went, and I just wanted to be the greatest illustrator in the world. I got into magazines and, instead of going to see comic strip artists, I went to see illustrators. With people like Sickles, there was a merging to a certain extent. Albert Dorne was a man who really had a very good black-&- white style that would have fit the comics beautifully. Then I got interested in painting and fine arts. I just completely dropped any interest in comics except for nostalgia that I’ve always had about Raymond. The rest of the field didn’t mean that much to me. Ten years ago, I cleaned out my basement and I threw out every scrapbook I had from the time when I used to cut out every day’s strips. I threw out all my scrapbooks, all my comic books, which I wish I hadn’t now, because I had all the original Action Comics , etc., everything. I kept the Big Little Books. I have the first dailies of Rip Kirby. I was really sad the day Alex Raymond died, because it was like something out of the past. It’s a real love. I’d never forget him or what he meant to me.

Further Reading:
Lazare Studio
Famous Artist Magazine (Spring 1963)
Comic Book Daily
Now & Then Times #2 (October 1973)
Cover art by Gerry Lazare

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was great. We need more reprints from Dave's pre-Cerebus days.

What a precocious young man he was!

--Jeff

Tony Dunlop said...

What a great cover. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I'd swear that the woman on the right was a Gene Colan. (And the curly-haired guy a Craig Russell.)