There are those people who know my artwork, have seen it in the fanzines, and there comes a point when they just have to ask, "Steve, have you ever gone to art school?" and, yes, I have, and I immediately prove it then and there: "Look! See this? This is a pencil!". A thorough knowledge of tools is an unmistakable sign of good training (I particularly excelled in The Eraser, one of my favorite technical implements).
Early on I didn't need any training, grasping the subtleties of the crayon almost instinctively, often using the pointed end rather than the flat one, seldom going beyond the paper and onto the linoleum -- because I used heavy black borders; almost from the very start I was mad about doing comic strips. My pre-teen attempts dealt with masked cowboys, robots with tank treads, Jungle Girls in leopard skin bikinis, and The Adventures Of Captain Brown (and his flying submarine, also with tank treads). Come to think of it, maybe this last strip was a precursor to The Adventures Of Professor Thintwhistle And His Incredible Aether Flier, a strip I did with Dick Lupoff for Heavy Metal (still available from Fantagraphics Press); our steam driven spaceship also had tank treads. I get one good concept and drive it into the ground...
Captain Brown was an actual hektographed strip of about twenty copies, which ran three issues in 1953 that I distributed at the Yorkville recreation center, so even at age ten I was fumbling towards fanac and paying my dues.
A few years later I became an E.C. fan, fascinated by the exciting (and sometimes horrific) covers displayed in the local candy store. This was about the time when the usual political hacks were holding televised hearings and getting in cheap shots about Violence In The Comics Destroying Our Youth (sound familiar?). So my parents were hep to this filth; there on the screen was E.C. publisher Wm. Gaines whacked out on diet pill speed while some irate Senator held up a copy of Crime SuspenStories #22, the one with the axe, severed human head, the black dripping blood, all for the camera and the viewing pleasure of my mom and dad.
Which only reinforced my idea that being a comic illustrator was one of the more noble and worthwhile of human pursuits -- damn, that cover was good!
In the course of accumulating every E.C. ever published I learned that some of my favorite artists working for them had attended two schools: The High School of Music and Art and The School Of Visual Arts. Both were located in Manhattan, where I was, and both had excellent reputations. And so, in 1956, at age thirteen, I took the entrance exams at M&A, which partly consisted of drawing an arrangement of old shoes and flowers, as well as a review of my portfolio pieces -- which included two issues of my first fanzine, SAM; that was a lucky break because my interviewers had never heard of a kid pubbing an ish and thought the whole concept incredibly creative. Four years later, the people over at Visual Arts had the same reaction to some of my other fanzines and awarded me a three year scholarship.
I was blown away by the realization that fandom had actually helped me achieve my goals in the Real World!
That's the last time that happened....
Music & Art certainly wasn't a full-fledged art school but rather a high school with additional emphasis on art and music classes. Even so, I had more opportunity to familiarize myself with a wider range of materials, from chalks and caseins to oils. And here I was studying in the same school that my heroes Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, and John Severin -- the guys at MAD -- went to, so that was pretty heady. I made a number of friends and had a decent time...except with one particular fellow student who was the Reggie to my Archie, and who seemed to enjoy going out of his way slipping the meat to my delicate personality. I loathed him because he was wealthy (arriving at school in a chauffeured limousine), good-looking, smooth, jump-starting all those genetic impulses of many desirable girls in my class. I loathed him because I was poor, shy, and smelled of Wild Root Creme Oil; a self imagined Jack Kerouac trapped in a nerd's body and hang-ups.
(From such stuff many a Marxist is made; fortunately for me, our school communist, being something of an asshole, was a poor role model.)
I'll never forget the time my father arrived at a PTA meeting dressed in his carpenter's clothes. My Reggie drifted over, slowly looked us up and down with studied insolence and then drawled, "Slumming, Stiles?" (Argh! To the barricades, comrades!) I swore then and there that I would become rich and famous. I would someday be a Norman Mailer, a Pablo Picasso! Or at least a Harlan Ellison or Walt Kelly....
Today, after many years of struggling, I'm still struggling. Sometimes my income soars and more times it flops around. Each year about three comics fans ask for my autograph. Few people other than Bill Rotsler knows that I'm the one who coined the "Death Is Nature's Way Of Telling You When To Stop" maxim (which I hope to have carved on my tombstone), and once, in 1968, a mere twenty-seven years ago, I was nominated for a Hugo.
As for my nemesis at M&A, he's a millionaire now, the producer of numerous award winning television shows (I groaned when he won the Emmy, beating out George R.R. Martin's Beauty and the Beast). Justice isn't just blind, it's a mangy, sleazy s.o.b. that laughs in the face of Horatio Alger! Maybe I should try harder...
Visual Arts was and is a full-fledged art school, staffed with instructors of the stature of Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin. Among the alumni were E.C. greats like Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, Mort Drucker, and Wally Wood. Originally known as The Cartoonists and Illustrators School, it was founded in '47 by Silas Rhodes and Burne Hogarth, two very unique individuals grateful for the G.I. Bill.
I saw little of Rhodes, who functioned as administrator, money manager, and publicist for SVA. Hogarth, on the other hand, functioned as the Soul of the school, and taught several classes a day. He was also one of the most aggressively opinionated people I've ever known (outside fandom), with excellent credentials as the Tarzan comic strip artist, and author of many first-rate books on anatomy. His ability to whip out exquisite anatomical studies on a large newsprint pad was truly amazing, and I'll never forget his worm's eye perspective drawing of a horse leaping overhead, perfect in every detail.
Inevitably, the very first topic friends would quiz me about, when they learned I was going to art school, was modeling -- or naked women, actually. Professional nudity was a constant fact of life at SVA and frequently the models were young, nubile, and female. This seemed to fascinate my friends. Me too, but after a few weeks it became something I took for granted. Those non-art students couldn't quite understand that the voyeuristic impulse could get nudged aside if you were serious about learning to draw; all that nice flesh sublimated away into the gluteus maximus, the vastus externus, and the ever-popular pectoralis major.
With constant professional nudity being a fact of life at Visual Arts, I was amazed to read, years later, that Silas Rhodes had expelled several students for streaking. Damned amateurs!
Naturally, there were male models as well. Once, one of them managed to achieve a sheath-bursting woody while posing. I wonder if he got docked for that, because more and more of the women in the class got uncomfortable and left the class, at first leaving singly and in pairs, until a mass exodus took place.
(If I had more smarts back then, I would've taken note of the women who stuck around as he stuck it out.)
One debate that's been going on for a while is whether or not such things as art schools are necessary. There are a few lucky types who are able to grasp far more in adolescence than artists three times their age. As for the rest of us, art schools at the very least give a grounding in what went on before, the tools, the techniques, the capabilities and drawbacks of various materials, and that alone should justify their existence. There is also a horrendous amount of Art Theory, a lot of it contradicting hot air. But a good teacher tries to make more of an impact than that, and luckily I had a number of them, in particular, Jerome Martin, a popular illustrator for some major magazines in the `60s.
Martin, through discussions of Zen, Bessie Smith, Japanese art, bronzed cannons, etc., managed to distill for me an idea of what the essence of art is, what the juice is that differentiates a good picture, or book, or symphony, from a bad one, even though both were created with an equal amount of skill and cleverness. Not that I can put it into words, but the approximation is in my mind in a place I try to go when I'm putting lines on paper. And when I really succeed -- not often enough! -- the feeling is All Right! It's gotten me through a lot of dark places.
That alone justified my time at SVA, but I almost didn't make it through the full three years due to a dangerous infatuation. Her name was Deborah Howell.
I was crazy about her; I'm sure the feeling wasn't mutual, but it didn't seem to matter. Debbie was a Finishing School Girl from upper New York, and a type of woman you see in fandom: Diana Rigg, Mrs. Emma Peel, was her ideal. One of Deborah's Peelish quirks was to take her lunch on the fifth floor window ledge, and, being an idiot, I'd join her. There actually wasn't that much danger, I thought; the ledge was over two feet wide and you'd have to be spastic to topple off it. With our legs dangling over the street, the seating was comfortable and the view of the rooftops was interesting.
One day, I climbed back through the window to get us some cokes from the third floor canteen. When I got back, there were a lot of excited students milling around; there wasn't any blot on the pavement, but Dean Rhodes had spotted her dangling legs from the street, rushed up to the fifth floor, and expelled her on the spot. I had missed the same fate by five minutes, and I never saw Deborah again. She probably went to Europe.
Eventually I graduated. Meanwhile, the comic book field had been emasculated by the Comics Code Authority; Marvel, DC, and Charleton Comics were all that remained of the field and they were publishing mere handfuls of titles that were mostly drivel, nowhere near the type of stories I was interested in doing. Superheroes were a real crock -- it would never last. It was obvious to me that comics would go the way of the pulps, so I got into advertising, sublimating all my creative impulses -- and comic strips -- in fanzines, making money, working hard, being bored and depressed. It wasn't until I reached my mid-thirties that I started to get involved with comics professionally, and I often regret that I hadn't given it a serious try much earlier during my FIAWOL days.
Visual Arts still continues to thrive (my hero Harvey
Kurtzman even taught there for a few years), but some-time in 1970 'my'
Visual Arts ceased to exist; it was then that Burne Hogarth was somehow
forced out of the school by his co-founder Silas Rhodes. Hogarth later
remarking in an interview in 1995 that it was "My cherished hope is
that I live long enough to see [Rhodes] dead and buried... and I'll piss
on his grave!" I guess that works if you can't dance, but that hope
was not to be: as I was working on revisions for this article, I
found out that Hogarth had died, at age 84, at the 23rd International Comic
Strip Festival, in France-- where he was the Guest of Honor. There are
worse circumstances in which to die ....