¦ Features ¦ Al Ewing
Matt Smith tipped Al Ewing as one of the new writers “doing good stuff”,
we decided it was high time we had this guy in for an interview. I was dispatched
to investigate this possible voice of 2000AD’s future. It took longer than
I anticipated, following many false trails, before I discovered that “Al
Ewing” is a pseudonym for one of the more elusive figures of the history
of comics. (Mr Ewing has asked us to keep his identity confidential, which we
intend to respect.)
Al wheels himself
into the day room on the fifth floor of an NHS nursing institution. Once some
issues of payment have been sorted out and I’ve wiped myself down, I begin
by asking him about how his extraordinary journey began…
JM: I'd like to start by asking you about your childhood. How did you first
get into comics?
AE: Well, I
grew up in a logging town in Northern Canada, and my old dad always called them
"whorey-books". These were tiny little Tijuana bibles, eight pages long,
featuring Frank Sinatra, or 'The Voice' as he was called, in what was then known
as ‘embuggerment’ with a number of celebrities of the period such
as June Duprez or Rin Tin Tin. Dad had a stack of these in his 'special cupboard',
and every so often I'd go sneak a read of one. And then I found out that they
were using the American ones as packing to fill out crates of hosiery, so you
could buy full-colour comics when your Ma went to get a support garment.
panel from the exceptionally rare "SPANKING SUPERMAN" pirate edition.
With thanks to Gulak Tzermik, Uzbek Komiks Institute
Those were the
days when you could lay down a wooden quarter and get FUHRER-FIGHTIN' FUNNIES,
HITLER COMEUPPANCE TALES, BOFFO YOCKS WITH OUR FIGHTIN' JOCKS, JAP-SLAYIN' LAFFS,
TRAITORS DON'T DANCE and maybe a funny animal comic like KRAUTY MOUSE COMES A
CROPPER. But the real prize was a SUPERMAN. Back then they didn't have a licence
to print ACTION COMICS in Canada, so what they did was they put out two reprint
titles - SOCIALIST SUPERMAN, which had all the commie stuff where he'd terrorize
people and run protection rackets, and then SPANKING SUPERMAN for those stories
where he'd turn some pretty girl's bottom red with a well-placed ass-paddlin',
and that was the title I particularly enjoyed.
you left Canada in 1948 - I understand there were some difficulties with the authorities
at the time?
I was only ten, so I didn’t really understand what Dad did for a living
or why he’d had to quit his job three years before or what a fifth columnist
was or any of that. I probably couldn’t point to Nuremburg on a map even
now. Anyway, I know he was a very conflicted man, especially when he woke me up
in the middle of the night and said we were running away to Mexico. I often think
about the things he told me that night, generally when I’m writing a speech
for Doktor Von Skull or Hans Horror, The Man With The Cobalt Brain or one of those
guys. So I do try to keep his memory alive in that way.
JM: So how
did you get into working on comics, and what were you doing to earn a living before
Dad made it as far as Wisconsin before the unpleasantness, but I managed to get
across state lines and after that the world was very much my oyster, especially
Des Moines. I was quite lucky a couple years after that to come to the attention
of ‘Gentleman Gerry’ Schumacher, who was running Informative Periodicals
there at the time. He hired me on the spot, admittedly not in connection with
comics, but it wasn’t long before I was running around his office, sharpening
pencils, making coffee and doing other little tasks. Once my voice broke, of course,
I was quickly sent packing from the main office and given a job as assistant to
Mort Silvers, who wrote the bulk of the IP line -
Lacey deals with the Fuhrer (Copyright Forces Funnybooks 1943). Thanks to Brian
Walsh of the Fighting Men's Institute
wait – this is the same Mort Silvers who drew Marty Mechanic, Jimmy Decent
of the 8th Platoon and Up And At ‘Em with Laura Lacey? “The Serviceman’s
Favourite Cartoonist”, Mort Silvers?
JM: It must
have been a wonderful experience to stand in the presence of a comics legend like
AE: Oh yes
– though to be fair, the man was a stinking, shaking, gin-addicted wreck.
we’re all aware of the tragic way he ended his life...
the whole office had sworn never to let him anywhere near so much as a Shirley
Temple. But somehow – don’t ask me how - the man managed to down two
bottles a day. Probably hid it around the office in places nobody else looked,
like in that hole behind the calendar. Somehow, every time he looked, there was
another bottle there! Awful. But one happy result of this very, very tragic downward
spiral was that I got to write his stories when he was sloshed. Oh, he still got
the credit, but the office knew it was me, and I got a little bit extra in the
pay packet. Really, it was just a matter of time until they carted ol’ Mort
away to the booby hatch and I took his chair... which was, of course, awful. And
tragic. Very, very tragic.
So you were ghost-writing for him around the time of...
the time of the change from Informational Publications to Bloodletting Comics,
which I always figured was a snappier name anyway. In fact, most of that was down
to me! ‘Gentleman Gerry’ always had one eye on the kids, very literally,
and having somebody of around thirteen in the office meant that there was a ready-made
‘focus group’, if you will, available to consult about what our comics
should be about. And back then, I figured they shouldn’t talk down to kids.
I mean, in Batman comics back then, if he stabbed a guy in the throat with a knife,
the guy would just fall down like nothing happened. Kids don’t like that.
It’s talking down to them. The people writing the comic have to say, here’s
what really happens, his throat goes open like that and flops like a fish while
his eyes bulge and some of the blood gets in Batman’s mouth...
JM: I don’t
believe Batman ever –
AE: Sure, sure.
The point is – blood sells! I always say, if you offer a kid a lollipop
or an eyeball, they’ll go with the eyeball. So I was pushing this stuff
to anybody who’d listen, and Mort was right with me, especially if he’d
been dry for a day or two, like if his gin hole had been mysteriously empty or
cover of "Gardens of Grue" (1952). Thanks to Gruesome Dave
JM: Er –
before you know it, OUR FIGHTING HEROES became HOUSE OF INTERNECION, SMASH KERRIGAN
turned into CANNIBALISM DOESN’T PAY and POLLY PIG AND HER PERKY PALS made
way for THE EYE SLICERS. It was a revolution in comics – for the first time,
the kids were getting something forbidden, or even illegal, and their parents
couldn’t take it away from them! Metaphorically, that is. I think GARDEN
OF GRUE still holds the record for most copies of a comic burnt. Anyway, we were
riding high and we carried on sailing that wave right up until 1954.
year of Seduction Of The Innocent?
that and the Kefauver hearings. Now, me being only the office boy, they couldn’t
pin sweet shit on me, and old ‘Gentleman Gerry’ got off pretty light
too on account of his special club membership, but my God, they practically murdered
poor Mort! His name was all over these things, from ‘Urethra Torture’
in VOODOO RITES OF THE FORBIDDEN JUNGLE OF SATAN #143 (previously LUCKY DUCK)
to ‘Trotsky Will Never Die’ in FIGHTIN’ COP KILLERS #72! Anyway,
when he got up there in the stand, reeking of gin, and tried to tell the Senator
that the cover with Eisenhower’s face going into the mincer was a valid
piece of art, it’s a wonder they didn’t have the hanging then and
that was the day he died.
infamous "feather" panel from URETHRA TORTURE. This image has been censored
to protect the innocent.
AE: Oh yeah.
After the hearing, he stumbled into his pokey office on the fifth floor and just
stood leaning out of the window and looking over the city. I thought, “Y’know,
he’s leaning out pretty far...” And that was when he fell out. All
over in a second. I mean, I was so close I could have reached out and touched
him. He didn’t even have time to scream, not that he would’ve since
it was obviously suicide – what were his last words again? He said something
after he hit the sidewalk -
“I was pushed...”
Pushed to take his own life by a society that didn’t care. Tragic. Of course,
I figured I had a duty to carry on for him – carry on his work, although
what with the noise of them clearing up the mess I didn’t get much done
that afternoon. Still, I had my name on the masthead now and my career in comics
had truly begun. So that cloud had a silver lining for me at least.
Of course, Bloodletting Comics had a somewhat startling change of focus after
the introduction of the Comics Code...
I don’t know if you’ve ever sat down and read through the Code, but
back then it was draconian - I mean, we had to kill SIDE-SPLITTING DIVORCE stone
dead. Anyway, a few days after they’d stuffed Mort in the hole, we made
a few emergency alterations – HOUSE OF INTERNECION became HOUSE OF SHOVING
– but it wasn’t going to be enough to save us. We had to get back
on the side of the government, show all those angry parents that we could be a
trusted part of the family too.
Big Brother publications.
We were like a big brother. A big, friendly brother who was going to make sure
your kids grew up right – who knew just what was best for them. We were
going for the parents this time, with proper magazines that were informative and
educational! Our comics would be like a grown-up watching over kids as they read,
and maybe teaching them a few fascinating facts at the same time! That’s
why we had that strapline running across every cover –
Watching You And We Know Everything.”
finds a Red", from INFORMANT PATROL Issue # 17
AE: I mean,
that could never keep a kid awake at night! It was our new direction – behind
the government all the way. So all of a sudden we were putting out titles like
OBEY, WATCH OUT FOR DISSIDENTS and WHERE UNAMERICAN CREATURES DWELL. In retrospect,
we may have gone just a little too far in the other direction, but we did manage
to lower the violence levels. Even in PUNISH THE COMMUNISTS we made sure the electric
chair was never on-panel – the reds were always in silhouette as they took
the last ride. And then there was FBI INFORMANT PATROL -
did J Edgar Hoover come to write the introduction to that series?
AE: Well, we actually sent
a letter to him saying that we were trying to get kids really interested in being
on the side of law enforcement, really get them involved. Basically, we were going
to hand out rewards for kids who, ah – how did we put it – “furthered
the cause of justice”. It’d be like selling GRIT, only instead of
copies sold, it was days in jail. If your information got some guy ninety days
in jail, that’d be ninety points, which would get you a few toy soldiers.
If your mom ended up doing five years on some kind of opium-related charge, that’s
– ehhhh –
that’s a lot...
with leap years.
That was the drawback. For that, we had to give up something like a model rocket
or something pretty swell like that. A ship in a bottle maybe. Anyway, that was
the carrot, and we wanted Hoover to give them some stick, maybe a letter saying
that if you don’t read this comic, maybe it’s you who’s rotting
in jail! Y’know, “I’ll come for you in the night...” It’d
be great – really get all the kids into it. He wimped out in the end –
the letter just said he was proud of all our readers for being True Americans,
blah blah... still, better than nothing.
OBEY and the rest, very few issues of that title survive.
we pulped most of ‘em. Some kid got his Dad the gas chamber – so we
pretty much had to send him the entire toy cupboard and a few bits of office furniture
– and then it turned out he’d faked up the evidence. Ended up in a
mental ward, I heard, and he’s still got my damn chair! Anyway, the Code
Authority decided that getting kids to turn in their folks probably contravened
one of the family-related statutes, and besides, we didn’t want to cough
up more toys for nothing, so that was that. Still, I reckon that was a great gimmick.
It’d work today. I can see DC running with that baby sometime real soon...
Jesus. Um, in 1961, Big Brother was probably the most successful comics house
in America, giving many soon-to-be-famous creators their first chance at work
AE: I know
where this is going! You’re talking about Ricky D’Agostino, aren’t
1958 by Ricky D’Agostino. Note the particularly well-drawn chairs
I was talking about–
was quite a guy. He turned up in ’57 – a real character, a real Deaniac
type, a beatnik. He was heavily influenced by some crazy dime novel of the time
would be ‘On The Road’?
no – ‘Junkie’, that was it. In fact, he was the guy who turned
me on to bennies. It was a revelation meeting him – I mean, this guy was
a year older than I was, and he seemed about forty what with the weird bloodshot
eyes and the way his hands shook – but he made me feel like a ‘square’!
I mean, I still can’t work unless I’m sat at a desk in a comfortable
chair – and I’m just the writer! Ricky would generally do his pages
on the floor, in the corner, with this kind of yellow sheen on his skin, and occasionally
he’d break open an inhaler and eat the paper inside with some coffee and
then he’d say I was a gone cat while he jacked off on the carpet. There
was this real sense that something was happening with him, although it didn’t
translate onto his pages because he was utterly unable to draw.
from that minor detail he was a powerful, charismatic talent. You could tell he
had something primal – the way Gerry and Sal would call him ‘a worthless
dope-peddling punk’ just told you how much they respected him. Together
we formed a writer-artist team that can stand up there with Simon and Kirby or
even Jerry and Joe!
did you guys work on?
the subways. We’d roll drunks at three in the morning then blow all the
money on... actually now I come to think of it that never happened, ever, and
I certainly never pushed anybody off the platform, that was all Ricky. Though
he did introduce me to Phillippe Druillet!
that was who I -
AE: Or his
smack dealer. I forget which. Anyway, we were having a fine old time pondering
the mysteries of ‘the road’ and cheap mexican whores, and we were
doing some amazing stuff for UNAMERICAN CREATURES! This time the monsters weren’t
coming out of Russia - they’d come out of the walls and assault you and
you couldn’t even move because you’d shot up codeine! It’s a
pity Ricky sold all his original art for green tea because that was fantastic
stuff. He’d learned how to draw a chair.
Bonzo” by Ricky D’Agostino, courtesy of Eyebrows R US
eventually happened to Ricky?
strangest thing! We were back in Des Moines – this was ‘59 - and I
was a little late into the office that day because I’d spent the night strung
out on goofballs. When I got in there, I found Ricky banging away at my typewriter.
He’d come up with a script that I have to say was the most subtle, beautiful...
I mean it was a fairly lacklustre effort. I don’t want you to get the impression
that he could have taken my job away from me in a hot second if Gerry had seen
that script. That would not be true. Anyway, he was on the bennies again and ranting
some garbage about how he’d found his true calling, and how his art was
only a stepping stone towards his destiny as a writer of the comics medium! The
comics medium? Can you believe that? Like a few cheap funnybooks are some kind
of work of art!
AE: He was
saying how he was going to change the entire way people saw comics, turn the whole
world into an art gallery where any kid who could hold a pen and paper had the
potential to be Van Gogh and Hemingway all in one – bunkum of that nature.
And all the while he was waving that goddamned genius – goddamned mediocre
script of his around in his sweaty mitt. I could’ve killed him. That was
my bread on my table he was gonna take away! Not that he had a chance of doing
that. I don’t want to give you that impression. Anyway, he turns around
and leans out of my window and takes this big breath of spring air...
Perfect Man” by Ricky D’Agostino, from the Nova Institute, Kansas
and I thought “Y’know, he’s leaning out pretty far.”
the next thing I knew, he’d fallen right out. Tragic. Really tragic. And
y’know, that script of his - he was holding onto it and, well, it just fell
out with him. Presumably it just floated away in the breeze.
you nominated for the National Book Award in 1959?
first comic ever to be! I guess Ricky was right, huh? In an incredibly tragic
and coincidental fashion.
it does seem -
Let me tell you how I met Stan Lee!