• Michael Vassallo Interviews the Surviving Contributors of Atlas at War!

With the publication of Dead Reckoning and Marvel’s Atlas at War!, some of the hardest-hitting war stories of the 1950s are back in print for the first time in nearly 70 years. As this book was being prepared, and as immersed as I was in the collective artistic oeuvre of my favorite comic creators of all time, I contemplated as to how many of these 23 artists were still with us today. The answer was exactly three, Joe Sinnott, Allen Bellman and Mort Drucker. I took the opportunity to speak at length with these surviving creators, all in their nineties, and get their comments, thoughts and recollections about their work in the genre. I reached out to Allen Bellman and Joe Sinnott first, interviews you will see below. Mort Ducker passed away before I could arrange to speak to him, and sadly, both Allen and Joe would pass away within six months of our conversations, neither able to see the final product that was unfortunately pushed back from June to September because of the worldwide pandemic. What I present below are the final words of both Allen Bellman and Joe Sinnott on record. I’ve also appended below at the end, part of a correspondence I had years ago with artist Sam Kweskin, where he discusses one of his war stories in a letter to me.

Dr. Michael J. Vassallo

 

ALLEN BELLMAN

A whirlwind of energy at the age of 95, Allen Bellman is the last man alive to have drawn Captain America during the Second World War. He broke into the industry at age 18 in October of 1942, joining the Timely staff as a background artist on Syd Shores’ Captain America series, soon penciling The Patriot and a slew of the features throughout the 1940s. In the 1950s Allen freelanced for Atlas in all genres, leaving the industry in 1954. I caught up with Allen in between convention appearances and our conversation follows…..

[Note: As mentioned above, as this interview was being transcribed, word came that Allen Bellman passed away on March 9, 2020, after a short illness. Allen was looking forward to this book a great deal and very happy to know one of his stories was included. My deepest condolences to his family.]

 

MV: Allen, you were hired at Timely at age 18, ten months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. How did you approach Timely’s superhero stories that were steeped at that time in frequent wartime propaganda?

AB: At the start I was just doing backgrounds, but when I got my own feature, The Patriot, I would put myself into the story, trying to depict the action as if I was directing a war movie. I usually loved the scripts and put my heart and soul into my work.

 

MV: Were you in the service?

AB: Yes, the Navy. I served stateside at Sampson Naval Base in upstate New York. If I remember, Syd Shores served in the Army and Stan Lee in the Signal Corps. The artists at Timely gave me a framed plaque when I left. It said, “You’re the guy to knock the Axis for a loop, good luck to an old pal, from your friends at the Marvel group!”, or something like that. It was signed by everyone at Timely. It was left with my first wife and probably ended up in the garbage, unfortunately.

MV: That’s too bad. It would be great to see that today.

AB: You’re telling me! I had art, I had letters from my hero, Milton Caniff, I had Scorchy Smith originals, a lot of stuff you, in particular, would love to see today.

MV: I would. They are historical items important to help understanding comics history. The Noel Sickles stuff was gorgeous.

AB: It was! He set the way for Milton Caniff. When I was discharged, I went right back to work on the Timely staff. By that time, most of the hero books had moved away from war stories, and by the end of the 1940s, even the heroes were gone.

 

MV: Which brings us to the Atlas period. It was the Korean War that started the war comics again in the 1950s. Now you didn’t draw too many war stories for Atlas. Do you have any idea why?

AB: An artist would show up and would be given a script. It was off a pile in Stan’s office.

 

MV: Did you know who the writers were?

AB: Sometimes. In the 1940s I knew Mickey Spillane wrote a Jap Buster Johnson script I drew because he was right there in the office. There were a lot of writers always dropping off work. But Stan did tailor scripts to certain artists based on their styles. In the 1950s I probably did more crime and horror stories at this time than anything else. I think my style lent itself to the horror stories quite well. War and Western stories were more realistic. I could do them, and did do a bunch, but not as many.

MV: I always enjoyed “The Big Guns” in Men’s Adventures in 1952.

AB: I remember that story well and recall wanting to make a visually impressive splash panel.

MV: I like the splash panel. There’s a large, off-kilter communist antagonist depicted. The story opens in the middle of blazing action and it draws the reader in.

AB: It was a quick story, a simple story. Us vs them, U.S.A. vs the Communists. The bad guy got it in the end. I wanted to make it dark and moody. Milton Caniff was my artistic inspiration. When facing a blank page, I always considered how Caniff would compose a scene. I was a huge fan of his Terry and the Pirates, and thought he was the best there was on adventure comics.

MV: Caniff influenced many artists. I can’t even tell you how many artists I’ve spoken to who echo what you just said.

AB: He was the best. I tried to spot blacks in the story like Caniff would. I wanted to make the communists look like the devils themselves, drawing them ugly, amidst barb wire, in heavy winter clothes in the snow.

 

MV: Would you use visual references for accuracy?

AB: Oh sure. I would go to the library on 5th Avenue and 42nd street in Manhattan and use their morgue for image clippings on tanks and artillery. That was a great help to me. I always wanted to be as accurate as possible.

 

MV: Many of the artists of the 1940s and 1950s had served during the war. Do you feel their war-time experiences influenced their work?

AB: I’m sure some did. My friend Syd Shores had a studio mate out in his Long Island studio named Norman Steinberg, who did some work for Timely in the early 1950s.

MV: Steinberg was a classmate of Joe Sinnott and both started out in the industry working for Tom Gill in his studio, which was not far from where I live.

AB: Both were good artists. I’ve gotten to know Joe Sinnott well over the last few years. We’ve met at several cons and always get tables next to each other.

MV: I met the both of you earlier in the year up in Albany.

AB: That was a wonderful surprise, Michael!

MV: It was my pleasure, Allen. Getting to spend the day with both of you is a gift to me also.

AB: Well the job you are doing, preserving these long-forgotten stories we did so long ago, is important.

MV: It is. Additionally, shining the light back on artists like yourself, is my way of giving back. Thank you for a wonderful conversation, Allen. I hope you like the book!

 

 

JOE SINNOTT (U.S. Navy Seabees WWll, MM3C Co. A, 137th Battalion, Okinawa 1945)

One of the most beloved artists in the industry for over 60 years, Joe Sinnott had two distinct careers. For Atlas he penciled and inked nearly 350 stories between late 1950 and 1959. Then in the 1960s, after an early period penciling some Thor stories in 1963, he becomes Jack Kirby’s primary inker on the Fantastic Four with #45 and helps launch the title into the stratosphere of cosmic greatness. Joe’s slick line became the defining “look” of the Marvel superhero line and he brought that class to any artist or book he was assigned to. Joe was still inking until very recently, retiring in his early 90s, with his last work on the now cancelled Spider-Man Sunday page. Knowing about Joe’s Navy career, I looked forward to what he had to say…

[Note: Joe passed away on June 25, 2020, before he could see the final book published. I hope he would have enjoyed the result.]

 

MV: Joe, you were in the Navy. What years were you in service and where were you stationed?

JS: Michael, I’ll lay it all out for you. I was in the US Navy Seabees during WWll from 1944-1946. I started my boot training at Sampson Naval Training at Geneva, N.Y. on October 13, 1944. I finished my training a few days before Christmas and I was home for the holidays. Returning after my boot leave, I was assigned to the Naval construction Battalion the Seabees. I had expected to be assigned to a carrier, cruiser, destroyer of other navy ship, but I found myself as a truck driver, which I had never driven before. I eventually found it to be a lucky break, as the Seabees proved to be a proud and great outfit. After drivers training at Camp Endicott in Rhode Island, we left by troop train for Camp Hueneme, California, for more truck training in the San Gabriel Mountains. Camp Hueneme was a great place to have training because it allowed us to go into Hollywood on weekends. We met many of the stars of the day – Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Durante, Errol Flynn and so many more of the greats.

Once we left California, we passed Pearl Harbor and made stops at the Caroline Islands, the Marshalls, and others on our way to Okinawa. The trip was memorable on an occasion or two. One night we passed a slow-moving oil tanker, and the next morning we received a message that it had been sunk the night before by a Japanese submarine. When we arrived at Okinawa in the latter part of June, the battle was still raging on the lower part of the island. Okinawa is approximately 7 miles wide and 70 miles long. I drove my truck over every muddy mile of it, or so it seemed. Our trucks were there waiting for us when we arrived and we went right to work that very first night, delivering hand grenades to the Marines at the front. Naturally, this was quite scary, as we were alone in the trucks and there were no roads, just mud, craters, and destruction of all kinds. Our battalion, the 137th Seabees, was compromised of 90 eighteen-year-old teenagers. We had to grow up fast! Fortunately, we were behind the lines and only ventured towards the front when ammo was needed. At other times, we were delivering supplies to the north of Okinawa, an area already captured. These were used for construction of camps, roads, housing and feeding of the Okinawa natives.

I certainly have many memories, both good and bad, of my service in Okinawa during the war. The complete devastation of its cities and farms, the beautiful shrines destroyed, nothing left standing. There were two devastating typhoons, with winds over 140 mph, that completely wiped out our camp and most other military installations. The loss of the commanding general of the 10th army, two days before the battle ended, and the death of America’s most beloved war correspondent, Ernie Pyle by a sniper’s bullet.

The last stepping-stone in our advance on Japan was costly indeed. We lost over 7,000 men killed and 31,000 wounded. Our navy had 5,000 sailors killed and almost 5,000 wounded; the first time the number of dead exceeded the number of wounded. This was mute testimony to the ferocity of the fighting. Okinawa was indeed the bloodiest battle in the Pacific war. The carnage would stop there, however, as our decision to use the recently invented atomic bomb, which saved millions, both Japanese and American. I was proud of my service there but wouldn’t want to go through it again. The night that the war ended was a night I’ll never forget. It was August 14, 1945, and every gun on the island, and on hundreds of ships in the bay, went off in celebration. It was a sight to behold.

We were sent home in May 1946 to be discharged on the APA Monrovia, the same ship used by General Patton during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. It took us 11 days to reach the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It had taken us 61 days to reach Okinawa from California. The experience of sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay is something words cannot describe. Every sailor cheered his heart out and countless people on the bridge did the same. We were home, grown up, and much older than our years, thanking God and looking forward to a new world.

 

MV: You started in comics with Tom Gill. Some of your earliest stories were spy stories in the Kent Blake book. While not particularly really war stories, they did have war-like elements. The start of the Korean War really began the deluge of war titles and stories. Did you feel these earlier spy stories were war stories or just adventure type stories?

JS: I worked for Tom Gill while attending art school at the Cartoonist and Illustrators School in NYC, run by Burne Hogarth and Silas Rhodes. Tom was one of my instructors at the school. He was the artist on the Lone Ranger, and also was working for Timely Comics doing spy stories in their recently begun line of spy titles. I was ghosting Kent Blake of the Secret Service for Tom while attending school. This is what eventually led to me getting my foot in the door there and getting my own work. I am forever grateful to Tom for making this all possible for me. We remained very good friends right up until his passing. I always felt those spy stories were really just adventure stories. I never looked at them as war stories.

 

MV: You went to school with Norman Steinberg, didn’t you? Did you know him well?

JS: Yes, I knew Norman quite well. We went to school together at The Cartoonist and Illustrators School and we both assisted Tom Gill. I would see Norman every week when I went to Tom’s studio to drop off my work. They were great times. Norman was in the Army at The Battle of the Bulge. He was a fine artist and I remember that he drew great horses.

 

MV: Did your service experience influence your approach to your war stories in any way?

JS: Oh yes, it certainly did. I always enjoyed drawing them even more than the westerns of sci-fi or horror. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed drawing all of these types of stories, however, as I experienced this firsthand while serving in the U.S. Navy, doing these stories came quite natural to me. It was as if I was living this firsthand, so to speak. I took great pride in doing these war stories.

 

MV: What type of war story did you enjoy drawing best? You did many personality and campaign stories (Fidel Castro, Kiska, etc.), did you actively ask for that type or was it the luck of the draw?

JS: As I said, I really enjoyed doing any war story. I did so many of them for Timely during the 1950s and I have favorites. Kiska and The Man with the Beard, which you are publishing in this book, were two of my all-time favorite stories I ever drew, and I’m very happy and looking forward to seeing them in print again in this book!

 

MV: And I’m happy to have included them! I began the process by looking for the best of the best, and these two visually were stunning examples of your beautiful, precision pencils. How did you approach the violence that was inherent in a war story, particularly in the pre-code stories, where violence was allowed?

JS: I tried to make each story as realistic as I possibly could. The fear was real, the anger, the expressions reflected on the faces were real. As an artist who served, I tried to make every story I worked on as close to realistic as possible, to make the reader feel as if they were experiencing the powerful impact that was happening.

 

MV: How did the comics code change the Atlas War story? Artists and writers were sailing along, doing whatever they wanted, and then in late 1953 all of a sudden, graphic violence was taboo, yet you were still able to do war stories. In fact, the Comics Code didn’t stop publisher Martin Goodman in the least, he just added more titles to replace titles being cancelled when the Korean War ended. Interestingly, many of the combat-type titles were replaced with Navy-themed titles.

JS: It seemed that with the Comics Code, we were still able to do the war stories, although toned down. I think it had a much bigger effect on the horror and crime stories.

MV: Crime stories just about vanished overnight. Horror changed to the milder “fantasy” story.

JS: The war stories were definitely toned down quite a bit from what we had drawn and depicted earlier on, during the Korean War. But we were still telling the story as it should be, just at a more refined art level. The visuals began to take precedent over the content, a bit.

 

MV: Which explains why the post-code stories, while bland, were some of the most beautiful drawn of all! Do you feel that the writers had trouble adapting to the Code?

JS: I would think they had to. They were telling stories a certain way for years, with gruesome, realistic content that they now had to tweak to make the Code people happy. I’m sure, at the onset, this wasn’t easy for a writer to do, as they wouldn’t be writing this story the way they initially intended it to be. As an artist, it would be the same. We couldn’t draw the violent action the way we really visualized it.

MV: In the western books it led to funny moments where already drawn art had to be modified to conform to the Code. Panels where a Native American may have been holding a tomahawk or a knife were replaced with an upright hand holding nothing! Cowboys now shot guns out of their opponents’ hands, rather than shooting at their opponents.

JS: The same happened to one of my horror stories, “Sarah,” published in Uncanny Tales in 1955. I originally drew an ugly old witch in that story and the Code caused them to completely change her face from that of an old hag to a less frightening appearance.

MV: That was just plain silly!

JS: It was, but it became the norm we had to now conform to. A little earlier Stan and I did a story to mock the entire idea of what Dr. Wertham was trying to accomplish. We did “The Witch in the Woods” in an issue of Menace, a story showing that violence was always inherent in children’s literature like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which was much more violent than anything we were doing in the comic books!

 

MV: Do you recall any of the writers who wrote the War stories you drew? To jog your memory, some of the known writers at the time at Atlas were Hank Chapman, Carl Wessler, Paul S. Newman, Don Rico, Robert Bernstein, perhaps even Jack Oleck. Who wrote the Kent Blake stories? Did Tom Gill write them or did the scripts come from Timely? Stan Lee did not write any large amount of stories in the genre, no more than 2 or 3.

JS: Other than the name Stan Lee, the name of Hank Chapman is familiar to me. It seems I may have worked on some stories that Chapman wrote.

MV: Good memory! Chapman wrote the three stories printed in the very first issue of Kent Blake. As Chapman signed his stories usually, it allows me to match up artists and writers. Those three, and one other in the title War Combat, are the only known Chapman war stories you drew, that I could find. You drew a few Carl Wessler and Paul S. Newman war scripts as well, but the vast majority of your writers are still unidentified.

JS: I’m sure there were others as well, but I would deal directly with Stan Lee. I would go into Stan’s office once a week and he would give me the scripts directly. Other than the Hank Chapman scripts for the first issue of Kent Blake that you mentioned, I don’t know whether Tom Gill wrote the rest of them that I worked on. Probably not as the scripts, as I mentioned, always came from Stan at Timely.

 

MV: What about research? Did you do research when you drew a particular story? Did you use photo reference to get details as correct as possible?

JS: Oh yes. I’m a stickler for details. Even to this day, everything I draw has to be as true to form as it is. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my art. If there are medals or ribbons on a uniform, I make sure they are the correct ones. It is so easy for an artist to just add a rifle or boots, etc., to make the art look good, and to the reader, this is fine. They would never know. But to me, it has to be perfect. I have a filing cabinet filled with reference that I had cut out of magazines through the years, from uniforms, guns, etc., to stagecoaches, saddles, etc., if doing a western. I often purchased magazines and books just for the specific reference material they contained. You get the picture. Today, I’m sure there are no more reference files, as the artist can just pull the material up on their computer.

 

MV: Joe, why did you only draw a tiny handful of covers for Atlas, and only two war covers?

JS: I managed to do a few covers during the Atlas era, but not quite as many as I thought. Most were in the later years at Atlas, when the work re-started again. They were mostly in the science fiction books. I think the main reason I did so few was due to the fact that I worked from home. I would pick up my scripts from Stan Lee once a week, go home and pencil and ink the stories, return them to Stan the following week, and then take another batch of scripts home with me. I would think the covers were probably done by artists that were around the office each day. I know that Stan loved Joe Maneely’s work. I’m quite sure that he got to do a good number of covers. Stan thought that Joe was the next Jack Kirby. Such a shame we lost him at such a young age.

 

MV: Any stories, anecdotes or other recollections you have about working on these war stories that we haven’t mentioned? Not only the six stories of yours in the book, just the War genre in general?

JS: As I said before, I enjoyed working on all types of stories. The war, horror, sci-fi, westerns, romance, whatever it was, I always took pride in every page that I worked on, but quite honestly, being a U.S. Navy veteran, and having worked on so many war stories, it seems that I always added that little something extra to those stories. I was so proud to have served, and to have my art reflect that.

MV: Thanks, Joe!

 

One final note:

Years ago, I corresponded with artist Sam Kweskin, who drew 2 stories presented in this book. One of the stories, “City of Slaves,” published in Battlefield #9 (Mar/53) depicted the concentration camp Dachau. I sent Sam a copy of the story in June of 2004 and he wrote me back this message…

Sam: Michael, where oh where do you find these things? I haven’t seen it in 50 years! I must have been still living in Chicago when I drew this story for Timely/Atlas. I had quite forgotten that I had done it. I WAS at Dachau as a soldier – one of our battalion companies entered Dachau to free its inhabitants, and the guys couldn’t believe the intolerance to mankind practiced there. Outside the walls I engaged in conversation an elderly lady trimming her hedges, in a garden of the initial building across the road from the walled jail. There was, across the street from her, an old French “40 & 8” railroad car (40 men or 8 horses), and one could still see lying within it the grey and blue striped clothes of the prisoners inside. At the corner of her house was a sign, a carved wooden-and-shellacked painting of two German soldiers holding by the back of the collar a stereotypical Jew who was being led away in the direction of the sign. Another sign, equally rendered with care, read “SS Barraken” (to the SS barracks). Yet, when I asked her, in German, such questions as, “Did you see people marched from the railroad cars through that (I pointed) gate into the camp?” She said, “Ich Weiss nichts” (I know nothing). I said, “from 1933 to the present (1945) you had no idea what those signs meant, or what the military was doing in that camp?” She answered, “Ich Weiss nichts.” All of her answers were in the negative.