Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Visit with Dick Ayers By the Yancy Street Gang

There is so much I could write about Dick Ayers and his wonderful wife, Lindy. Here is an article I wrote for Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego #90.  It’s one case where I cannot write, “’Nuff said.”

Dick, we will miss you.

Read more about  Dick Ayers on Nick Caputo's blog:


Photo by Michael J. Vassallo

The Man Who Succeeded: 

The Yancy Street Gang visits Dick Ayers

       By Barry Pearl, F.F.F.

One Saturday in January, 2008, The Yancy Street Gang, Nick Caputo, Barry Pearl and Mike Vassallo, visited the  home of Dick and Lindy Ayers.  It is in Westchester, just down the road from Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Dick and Lindy have been living there for 50 years!

Dick Ayers had been an essential contributor to the beginning of the Marvel Age, inking many of the first stories of The Fantastic Four, Avengers and Thor just to name a few.  While Dick also penciled many of  Marvel’s early super-heroes such as The Human Torch and Giant-Man Dick will be  most remembered for his work on the war and western strips, Sgt. Fury, Captain Savage and the Rawhide Kid.

The first thing we did was crowd into the bedroom to watch a DVD on the Ayers’ TV. Nick had discovered a DVD of the 1949 CBS TV show called SuspenseSuspense  was one of the many crime suspense shows that were popular at the time it was also a very popular radio series that was playing simultaneously on TV. That genre is remembered mostly because of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  There was one episode on Suspense  called "The Comic Strip Murders" which had the same basic storyline of the Jack Lemmon, movie “How to Murder Your Wife,” which was released in 1965. The plot revolved around a comic strip artist, here played by Don Briggs, who writes a daily comic strip.  A murder plot is developed in the strip and the viewers are lead to believe that the actual artist may be planning to murder his real wife! In the show, several comic strips were shown and the artist hands were often shown drawing.  The artist who created the strips and whose hands were shown doing the actual drawing was Dick Ayers! On the TV show the artist’s assistant happens to be played by Eva Marie Saint. Nick did make Dick laugh when, he said, "Dick, how does this guy get Eva Marie Saint for an assistant and you get Ernie Bache!" We then had a discussion on how few women there were in the comic book industry at that time. This was a live 30 minute broadcast, captured on film by using a kinescope, a motion picture camera that filmed the actual broadcast from a TV set. We also discussed the limitations and flaws caused by doing live TV, this was brought on by observing the actual cameras moving in the background. Dick and Lindy were so excited to get this DVD. Dick had never seen the show. In 1949 virtually all TV was live and there were no VCRs.

Leaving the bedroom we headed towards Dick’s studio and entered the walkway that is filled with Dick’s original artwork. Each page has a story.  For example, there is the splash page from Sgt. Fury #23, a particular favorite of Dick’s.  Dick told us how Stan called him one day and said, “I can’t think of a story for Sgt. Fury #23.  We won’t have an issue unless you think of something!” A worried Dick could not sleep that night and kept Lindy awake too..  They talked about story after story until, in the middle of the night, Lindy came up with the idea of the Howlers saving a nun and her young charges.  Dick said, “Stan will never go for that, he wants nothing about religion… But I’ll ask him.” When Dick did, Stan said, “What a great idea, I’ll use it.” So they put together a terrific story. When Dick’s finished pages were shown to him, he saw the credits where he was only listed as artist.  He went to Stan’s office and asked if he could also be listed as co-plotter.  Stan yelled, “Since when did you developed an ego? Get out of here!”

The wall also displayed splash pages of the Human Torch and the Hulk, as well as a drawing Dick drew as a child! In pencil, we also got to see several breakdowns of Sgt. Fury.

You could not help but notice the beauty of a framed, five page story entitled, “And Not a Word was Spoken,” a western story with no narration or dialogue. It was originally published in Two Gun Kid #61, January 1963. Dick explained that he not only drew it but plotted it..  When he submitted his payment requisition, he felt he should be paid a little extra for writing, or plotting the story.  So he asked to be paid for five pages of lettering!  They argued, but they paid him! We began to discuss that in the first Sgt. Fury Masterworks, Stan had said Percy might be gay. I mentioned that this was unlikely.  While Percy was drawn to look like David Niven, his personality was more like Hugh Hefner. In fact, in Sgt. Fury Annual #4, which took place in “current day 1968” Percy owned a ran a “Bunny” club.  Dick said he asked Stan about this and Stan said, “You’ve got to give the fans what they want.” So Percy was ret-conned!  Will war crimes never end? Dick then mentioned that he was asked to do the introduction to the second Marvel Masterworks of Sgt. Fury.

On the subject of annuals, Dick had expressed his disappointment in setting them in the future. By showing the Howlers during D-Day, Korea and Viet Nam, it meant that they all made it through the war, removing some of the suspense and eliminating some storylines where a Howler could be in real danger.  It also meant that any new Howler was in trouble! I mentioned that only other time Marvel had done this was with Conan, where in his first comic you learned that he was destined to be king when he got older, insuring that he will live at least that long..

There were no covers on the walls and Dick said that they were very hard to get and he had none, but he did have several local newspapers framed.  The papers all had stories about Dick and all had pictures of covers or characters he was involved in.  In our entire stay, I never heard him express a preference for a character, it was like they were all his children.

In the late 1950s there was some competition for jobs and assignments. Dick was disappointed when Jack Kirby got the penciling assignment on the Rawhide Kid a job Dick thought he had gotten. He was assigned the inking. Around that time, Dick mentioned he was also inking “Sky Masters.” He was paid about the same as inking for Marvel, a surprise for me because I thought work in comic strips paid more.

Dick told a story about a publisher that influenced him throughout his career. Once while doing a strip, the publisher came over and said to Dick, “They have already bought today’s paper, you need to draw something to make them want to buy tomorrow’s paper.” You can see he feels the same way about his comics, he is drawing to make you want to buy the next issue!

We took a few pictures of Mike standing next to Dick in the hallway. You can see the pictures on each side. The corridor ends at his studio and office, which is also filled with artwork.  Dick discussed how he went to art school on the G.I. Bill after the war and showed us some very beautiful pictures he drew, looking nothing like comics.

“A small group of men at the top of their game” is how Dick described Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and himself at the beginning of the Marvel Era. We sat down with Dick as he nostalgically drew upon the past. We asked Dick if any one artist was harder than another to ink. He said no, but some took longer to get used to than others.  This was not a diplomatic response, he is just a decent guy who appreciated the efforts of others.  He mentioned that Steve Ditko was one of the artists who took longer to get used to.  Dick noted that Ditko’s pencils were not very tight and that, like himself, he probably did most of the finished work in the inking stage. As an artist it showed how Dick understood what Ditko did and how he worked.  Nick noted that Dick Ayers was an important contributor to the Marvel Age of Comics. He brought a solidity of form and sharp brush work to the pencils of Jack Kirby. Those early stories of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, the Avengers and the Human Torch all showcased the distinctive inking of Dick Ayers. Dick’s work gave those early Marvel Comics a unique charm that would not have been the same under any other inker. Dick’s inking was absolutely perfect for the rough and tumble style of Jack Kirby. The team was a startling contrast to the plain and placid DC comics, giving the early Marvel Comics a visual identity of its own. Not only was Dick a thorough professional who got the assignment in on time, he also added personality to every job.

Cover outline by Marie Severin

I felt that Dick Ayers was always a master of “minimalistic detail,” a term that sounds  contradictory.  There is great, fine detail in his work, but before he is a penciller, before he is an inker, he is first and foremost a storyteller. Therefore, every aspect of his work, every object in a scene, works to tell a story, give atmosphere or set the mood. Nothing is irrelevant  or distracting. It’s all there to tell a story. Of current work Dick noted there were many fine artists, but the storytelling was often missing. I also asked if he had ever inked John Severin.  Emphatically, Dick replied: “I never inked Severin!” Nick asked Dick if he, in the early 1960s ever tried to get work at DC. Again, a strong answer was no, Dick did not like the editorial policies there and he did not want to work for Bob Kanigher.

Dick, talking as if he were a movie director, explained that he worked diligently to make his artwork seem cinematic, using movie perspective and lighting, all designed to move the story along. He had pointed out on the original artwork the various angles and lighting effects he worked to achieve. Gosh, you can really see that in his original artwork, which is so much better than the printed comic.  The spectacular detail, the sense of perspective you used this word twice in this paragraph and movement compel you through the story, and, as that publisher mentioned, makes you want to buy the next issue!

If comics were movies, the  writer would submit the screenplay.  The penciller becomes the director, placing the character and laying out the setting. The inker would be both the lighting and set designer.  Dick Ayers, as inker, added the details, shadings and atmosphere to the original pencils he worked with.  He helped tell the story by emphasizing the necessary items in the  panel.  Some inkers of that age left out, not just the details, but significant portions of the penciled art  but not Dick Ayers.  Other artists, dominated the original pencils, taking away from the look of the original artist. Not Dick Ayers. Ayers let you appreciate the work of the original pencils and brought out the strengths of the penciller. At the same time, his own style allowed you to feel the emotions of a scene and to see all the details. Dick mentioned that on one of his first jobs for Stan, he more or less just traced the pencils. Stan said that this was not what he expected, he wanted Dick to put his perspective and personality into the project. In order to embellish the work  Unfortunately, inkers are  often not given the recognition they deserve.  Some people seem to feel that by complimenting the inker they are diminishing the work of the penciller.  The best inkers tend to be pencillers. They add greatly to the finished product and bring out the best of the pencillers work.

To sit down causally with Dick Ayers and talk about the good old days, is just a thrill. When we talked about writers, Dick was like Goldilocks; some writers wrote too much of an outline and some wrote too little. Some, like Tony Isabella, were just right.  This gave us an opening to discuss War is Hell, the fourth war comic Dick drew during the Marvel era. Unique to the Marvel Age, this war comic does not feature a military group or even an enlisted soldier. It stars a ghost? It is a combination of Deadman meets Quantum Leap, 20 years before Quantum Leap.

Tony Isabella, the fourth member of the Yancy Street Gang, said of War is Hell: To be honest, I wasn’t a good enough writer to do War Is Hell (to do it) justice after I conceived the series. That’s why I handed it off to Chris Claremont. When Roy (Thomas) asked me to come up with a new feature for War Is Hell, I decided to take the “hell” part literally. Okay, maybe it was more like WAR IS PURGATORY, but the idea was that John was being punished in his afterlife.” I had asked Tony,  “When you come up with an idea do you think about who the artist will be?  Did you “lobby” for a certain one for a certain strip?” “In the case of War Is Hell, I knew Dick Ayers would be the artist. He needed a book to make up for the loss of IT!  So I tried to come up with something that would play to his strengths.” Boy did it.

One, in a series of memorable moments occurred when the Yancy Street Gang gave Dick another present: it was for him, Lindy, his children and grandchildren.  The gang had put together a four part illustrated book called “Dick Ayers of the Marvel Age” an appreciation of his work.

John Caputo, a founding member of the Yancy Street Gang, and Dick Ayers

First,  we collected and listed Dick’s credits from the Atlas and Marvel Age.  Markus Mueller, the keeper of the on-line site of the “Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Creator” helped compile his current reprint credits. Next was a section entitled, “Mr. Ayers Goes to War.”  This came from my soon to be never published book, “The Essential Marvel Age Reference 1961-1977” It listed ALL the Marvel Age war stories Dick drew, with a summery, credits and comments for every story. The third section, “Mr. Ayers of the Marvel Age” featured a similar layout for all of his Marvel Age Super-Hero stories. The final section, Mr. Ayers and the westerns discusses the very important and long lasting work Dick did in that genre, and how it “leaked over” to the super-heroes. The westerns gave the Marvel Super-Heroes so many creators, characters, stories and titles. Dick is famously know for Ghost Rider, but gave Marvel a Panther in Two Gun #77 ten months before Lee and Kirby gave one to the Fantastic Four. There are just so many of these and so many were done by Dick Ayers. One story may hold particular interest to many fans:

An orphan is raised by his Uncle Ben, a loving man, who is seen in just a few panels. He
treats his nephew as a son.  Uncle Ben gives the teenager great wisdom and insists that his young charge studies and learn. Later, the  boy discovers that his Uncle Ben, was killed, shot by a criminal.  As his nephew learns his great new skills, he tracks down the murderer. Instead of killing him, he turns him over to the law.

He pledges to spend the rest of his life fighting crime. Not trusted by the law, he must fight the good guys too. To avoid arrest he keeps his real identity a secret. It’s  August, 1960.  And such is the life of Johnny Bart, the Rawhide Kid as told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with Dick Ayers as inker. Peter Parker would come a year later.

There were commentaries and quotes throughout Dick’s book..  There were also many color pictures.  Doc supplied wonderful scans of Dick’s Atlas work, a few of which Dick had forgotten.  Doc also supplied a wonderful picture of Dick Ayers in his army uniform taken just last year! And Dick was reading a comic! Also, Doc had previously taken a wonderful picture of Dick and Lindy together, holding a copy of his autobiography.

Barry had taken scans of two self portraits Dick had drawn from Sgt. Fury #22 and #100. Dick and Lindy were very touched. In fact, we received this email two days later:

“Lindy and I thank you for visiting us and bringing the terrific book honoring my Sgt Fury and Marvel years which is a most valuable keepsake for me and the family.
I read it twice yesterday and marvel at the way you illustrated it.”

We were sitting around the dining room table talking about what made the characters good in the 1960s and what they lack today. For example, before the Viet Nam war escalated, Dick and Lindy came up with that plot about nuns defending children, “The Man who Failed.” Here the nun and children run to the Howlers for protection and aide. As the Viet Nam war worsened America took a different view of itself. I pointed out to Dick that in 1973, in a similar story in Combat Kelly #7, in a story written by Gary Friedrich, the nun runs away from the Americans soldiers, fearing that they are as evil and  violent as the Nazis.  The age of American heroism in comics is winding to an end.

Dick asked, “Did you see the PBS documentary on "The War." 60 years later people still cannot talk about what they went through and what they saw. " He discussed how the country pulled together and no one complained about the lack of sugar, gas, coffee and such.  Well, Dick did not want to talk about the war, he didn’t have to, he drew it and told stories about it.  That was his way of expressing what it was like and we never realized it until he mentioned it.  Lindy took out Dick’s war medals, there were three of them and two ribbons: For Victory in Europe; Victory for War; Good Behavior and the blue medal, to be worn over the right pocket was a Presidential Citation for his unit, the 586th of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He also served in the 394th Bomb Group. Lindy  also took out what Burne Hogarth called Dick’s “Boy Scout Picture”  young Dick Ayers in his military uniform, from November 1942.

We discussed that Marvel never romanticized war, but the Comics Code would not allow them to show the violence so Sgt. Fury often showed the loss and tragedy of war.  As the Viet Nam war raged, the new editors at Marvel decided not to put out new war comics anymore, even though they had sold well.  I said that I was sad that there was no “Sgt. Fury #121”  featuring an end to WW2.  Where were the Howlers on VE day, where were they on VJ day?  Dick said that many years after the Fury run had ended in 1974,  a special issue was thought out and was going to be produced.  But then Marvel got even newer editors and they were just not interested in any war story, so the idea was not used. The Howlers had reached “The End of the Road”

We started speaking of the comics produced today and why the four us simply did not enjoy them as we did the ones produced in the good old days. We discussed with Dick the fact that many comics today do not have the sense of character and morality that he Stan, Jack, Steve, Don and so many others brought to the comics. We discussed the humanity and the decency that Dick , Stan and Jack always and Marvel presented.  This is something that we miss in comics today.  Where did it go? Well, I pulled out the Ayers project  and read out loud, what Ken Quattro had written on this subject for and about Dick: 

"I suspect the writers do not have any of these qualities either and that is why the story lines are so repulsive. Honor is now suspect; decency is treated with a smirk and a roll of the eyes. I believe that today's writers feel obligated to strip away any semblance of heroism to somehow add "realism". What they cannot understand is that heroism is real. Previous generations understood that implicitly because we witnessed it. Our parents survived The Depression, The War and still managed to come through it all to raise cohesive families. And they did it all while maintaining an unshakable sense of Right and Wrong. That's real heroism. That's what is lacking today." 

The silence was deafening.

Dick added a story that changed the mood.  In Europe, Dick mentioned that he would paint logos onto the military aircraft, and often take a bottle of liquor as payment.  One day he refused the bottle and asked to get a ride inside the belly of the plane. He wanted to buzz the Autobahn and to get so close that the cars would had to get out of the way.  The pilot agreed and they buzzed the Autobahn!

Lindy then brought out a picture of their greatest creations, a wonderful family picture, with children and grandchildren.  I asked Dick if he got reprint rights for grandchildren. Here, at least, Stan does NOT get a co-creator credit!

Dick also told a story where his then young daughter was in class and the teacher asked the students what their fathers did fir a living. The daughter replied “My daddy draws Monsters!” The teacher thought the child was fibbing and talked to the father about this. Dick’s daughter, of course, was telling the truth.  Originally, especially in the 1950s, comic book artists were looked down on.  We mentioned that when the Congressional hearings took place, even Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, got some flack. Dick told a story about a neighbor who ignored him because he worked in comics. Dick was home during the day, working, but they treated him like he was unemployed. Recently, the neighbor, now a grandfather, had his grandson over. His grandson turned out to be a big comic book fan and, when discovering that his grandfather lived next to Dick Ayers insisted on meeting him.  The guy knocks at the Ayer’s door and has to eat a bit of humble pie.

Today, Dick is happy to be remembered so fondly. He is delighted that the fans care so much about him. At one point, he thought no one would.  He pointed out that he had a choice in 1949 to go to Hollywood or stay with comics.  More than ever when he meets his devoted fans, he knows he made the right choice.

When we left, Dick and Lindy generously pulled out sketches and let us pick one for each of us. Ghost Rider, The Thing, The Hulk, Fury, Ant-Man, Giant-Man the Wasp were all laid out on the table. He treated them equally as if they were all his children. It was a touching sight.  The biggest thing for me was when we were leaving they asked for OUR autographs on the book for them! Imagine Dick Ayers asking US for our autographs!  Dick was later to email us saying that he is going to conventions and showing that 1949 tale of  Suspense.  He wrote us: “You 3 F.F.F. (Fearless Face Fronters for those who don’t know) guys have launched me on a new gig.”

Lindy and Dick have one thing in common with his artwork, they are genuine, gentle, generous people. There was a premise to the Dick Ayers Project that they proved: The decency, humanity and humor of the Marvel Super-Heroes is hereditary. They get it from their creators.


  1. We have great memories of visiting Dick and Lindy which we'll always cherish.

  2. Always enjoyed his work. I looked forward to meeting him at the Heroescon in Charlotte but the years went by and he didn't attend. My loss. Thanks for your contribution to my childhood and the fond memories your work made.

  3. Thanks for the great article. I fully agree that the early Marvel stories definitely had more punch. Of all the comics I own, few new issues compare in strength of simplicity in the artwork and readable stories. Dick will be missed. It would be really cool if one could go back and be there when these guys were "at the top of their game."

  4. Shaun, I wish I could have been their too. The next best thing is to just next to someone like Dick Ayers and listen to the stories he had to tell about that era. I'm so glad that blogs give us an opportunity to share those occassions