Drew Friedman Interview
The minute Will Eisner started telling me about his former student from New York's School of Visual Arts, I sensed a landmine lurking ahead of me.
Friedman is best known for his stipple style of portraiture and, more importantly, caricature. I knew his work primarily from National Lampoon, Spy and the New York Observer, and was surprised to learn he was yet another distinguished alumni of both Eisner and SVA.
But Eisner didn't have anything nice to say about Friedman. That was odd, because in more than two years of interviewing him and doing research for my biography, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, Eisner rarely said anything bad about anyone. Even when he talked about Gary Groth, editor-in-chief of The Comics Journal -- who famously dissed the old comics master in print -- he preferred not to say anything bad on the record.
As soon as I heard his comments about Friedman, I knew I'd have to contact the artist and give him a chance to reply.
Friedman declined, via email:
I appreciate your interest in talking to me about being a student of Will Eisner's, but I honestly don't think I have much to contribute. The class was almost 25 years ago, and I have very little memory of it. I don't think an interview with me would be worthwhile to you.
Good luck with your book.
So I looked for fellow students from that era that could give me an independent view. None wanted to be quoted for attribution, but there was a confirmation that at least some of Eisner's view of Friedman could be supported.
In February 2006, a few months after the book was published, I heard from Friedman again. And my original instinct proved true: he wasn't happy.
I picked up your new book about Will Eisner the other day, and was surprised to see my name in the index. I think it will benefit you to know that some of what Will said regarding me in the book are out and out lies. He and I had always gotten along well during my days at SVA and I could never understand why he later came to resent me. I've heard over the years, from mutual friends, that he continually, (and falsely), badmouthed me. To set the record straight, Eisner never contacted my father at all. My father has never spoken to him. I saw my father yesterday and he confirmed this. Secondly, I never made Harvey Kurtzman cry. Harvey encouraged chaos in his classroom as he thought such fooling around contributed to the creativity of his students. He did, on one occassion, have to leave the room to compose himself and continue the class, but I was not singled out as the cause of his distress. In the three years I took Harvey's classes, we were on the best of terms, even to the point of socializing outside the classroom.
I wish you the best of luck with your book, but if Eisner's other accounts and reminiscences are as valid as those referring to me, then it should be sold in the "fiction" department of bookstores, alongside James Frey's book.
All the best,
Friedman also passed along his own supporting document, an email from his SVA classmate and respected artist in his own right, Mark Newgarden:
I just read that amusing Will Eisner-related letter printout you sent.
For the record everything you say is 100% true -( I was always amazed you actually stuck with that hateful class- I know I dropped it after a semester - if I lasted that long.)
My impression of Eisner was that he REALLY liked you. He even said once you reminded of him in his youth. (Of course EVERYTHING reminded Will Eisner of Will Eisner... ). But he was probably secretly pissed that you didn't ultimately fall in line with the Eisner- grovellers he cultivated in his class. I didn't know he bad mouthed you later on.
And of course the real culprit in making Harvey "cry" (actually just get red in the face & leave the room as you mentioned) was one James Stroud who latched onto the stooge noises etc and then went way way too far with them. I remember how red HIS face got when Harvey left the room.
Years later at one of Harvey's very last 4th of July parties when he could barely even speak he only had 2 things to say to me: "How's Friedman?" and when I told him I had fallen out with Artie Spiegelman "Bad move." This was on the heels of all the Maus publicity media hoop-la and I do remember Will Elder & his wife being very impressed with that.
Feel free to pass this email along to anybody in order to help set the record straight.
Since it's not exactly a compliment to a journalist to be mentioned in the same breath as James Frey -- and because I always wanted the full story, I invited Friedman to respond publicly to Eisner in an online Q&A interview.
• • •
BOB ANDELMAN: What year did you take Will Eisner's class at New York's School of Visual Arts?
DREW FRIEDMAN: I took it in 1980 and 1981, two years. I went to SVA between '78 and '81. You couldn't take it the first year. I went to SVA because of the teachers that I saw listed. I couldn't believe the teachers listed in the book, Harvey Kurtzman and Eisner and Art Spiegelman. I took Edward Sorel's class, and then there was Stan Mack and Arnold Roth and some real illustrators who I admired.
ANDELMAN: Stan Mack from Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies?
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, he taught a class there.
ANDELMAN: That's cool. The last time I was at a comic book convention more than twenty years ago, somehow some friends and I wound up in his comic. One of those 'overheard' kind of things.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, you never knew when you might pop up in one. I never wound up in one, but my friend Mark Newgarden did. One of my favorites of his was when Robert Crumb came and did a concert at the School of Visual Arts in the mid '70s, before I was there. He actually used Harvey Kurtzman in that, too, and his drawing of Crumb was funny, because he drew him so tall and so lanky and bent over, even beyond how Crumb used to draw himself. I always liked that one a lot.
ANDELMAN: When you went to SVA, you were already thinking, I guess, that you were going to be an artist?
FRIEDMAN: I knew what I wanted to do, and when I left the school, things hadn't changed. It was a great environment to be around with all those people there. I can't say how much I really learned from them... it was just a great place to be and to hang out and to meet people and to have fun, and basically that was it. But yeah, I assumed I was going to be a cartoonist. I just wasn't really clear exactly what type of cartoonist I wanted to be.
ANDELMAN: Had you published much work at that point?
FRIEDMAN: By the second and third year at SVA, I started to have some work published in a couple of underground publications, like High Times magazine, and Art Spiegelman started RAW magazine at the time, so I was in the first issue of that.
ANDELMAN: Those were some good ones to get started in.
FRIEDMAN: I started small and then sort of built up. That was like the whole thing.
ANDELMAN: So by the time you got to Will's class, you had already taken classes with whom else?
FRIEDMAN: When I started in his class, I started with Kurtzman's class at the same time and Spiegelman's class, all that same year. Will taught -- I forget the title of his class, it was just comic art. Spiegelman's class was "Language of the Comics," which was basically the lecture he did, but he expanded it to a class. And then Harvey's class was "Humor Cartoons," I think.
ANDELMAN: How were their approaches different?
FRIEDMAN: The environment in Harvey's class was more of a free-for-all, a whole lot of fun. The first assignment in his class -- and every student you talk to who ever took his class will mention this -- was blowing up a balloon just to sort of break the tension. People were excited to take his class, but he had everybody blow up a balloon until it burst, and then, by the time it burst, everybody was screaming and laughing, and it was a fun thing to do. But the point was, that's how a cartoon should be, it should open up like that, and the payoff should be a big surprise. You don't know when the payoff is coming. So he was sort of making a point, but it was like the atmosphere of the class was fun. He wanted it to be lively. He would bring in piles of publications that were sent to him every week and he just laid them across his desk, and he wanted everybody to look through the stuff, the comics, the publications that we wouldn't normally see, everything interesting that came in. He always had guests coming in, other cartoonists, people he had worked with in the past. It was a fun environment.
And then Will's class was more serious. He always did a lecture to start the class off. It was sort of like stuff he would pick up, if you read Shop Talk at the time, it was like that, lectures about his way of doing comics. It was half an hour lecture and then basically people would just sit down and do their work. Most of the work being done in the class was intended to wind up in his publication, Will Eisner's Gallery of New Comics. It was the same with Kurtzman's class. All the cartoons that were being done were gathered up at the end of the year; everybody voted on them, and then they wound up in his publication, Kartunz. Similar thing. They both had their different magazines. Ironically, I edited both of them.
ANDELMAN: When you were taking the class, did you have much familiarity with Will's work?
FRIEDMAN: Yes. I was well versed in his work and Harvey's work. A lot of students weren't. They sort of went in there because it was either required or, "Okay, this is a cartooning class," but I was well aware. I had the Jules Feiffer book since I was a little kid, The Great Comic Book Heroes, and then I used to get the reprints of the Eisner stuff throughout the '70s either when it was put out by Warren or when Kitchen started doing it, so I had a lot of that stuff. I was well aware of him.
ANDELMAN: Which year did you edit Gallery?
FRIEDMAN: I co-edited and wrote for the publication in '80 and '81, the two years I took the class.
ANDELMAN: I want to be sure of that. It wasn't that you were in the class at the end of '80 into '81; you took the class twice.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I took the class twice, two years. His class, when you were a fourth-year cartoonist, was required. There was only one other guy in the class who was in the cartooning department at that time who was graduating. I don't even remember his name.
ANDELMAN: Do you remember any of your classmates?
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I remember a lot of them. Mark Newgarden took it briefly and so did a cartoonist named Kaz. Mike Carlin was a classmate the first year, and then Phil Felix, who was my letterer for many years -- he was also Harvey Kurtzman's letterer on "Little Annie Fannie" for about a decade -- he was in Will's class, too, I think, for two years. I co-edited the first issue of Gallery with him. Phil Seuling's daughter, Gwenn, was in the class, too.
ANDELMAN: How did the class differ the first time you took it from the second time?
FRIEDMAN: You mean the first class and the second class or the first year and the second?
ANDELMAN: The first year and the second, I guess.
FRIEDMAN: They were basically the same. He was really into his lecture and then was sort of a little disappointed when people just stopped listening and started on their work. He wanted to be the center of the class, and a lot of people were just working, and he seemed a little dejected by that. That's what I picked up on. He always liked to have a crowd around him, and he loved talking about the old days, the old days of comics. He always told us funny stories, and he would admit his mistakes, like I am sure you have heard the story about how Siegel and Shuster came to him with Superman and he didn't think it was going to go anywhere. And then the guy who started TV Guide also proposed that to him, and he didn't think it was going to fly because everybody was getting their TV listings in the newspaper supplements, so why would anybody buy a magazine? He had a good sense of humor about how he turned that stuff down.
ANDELMAN: Oh, the TV Guide story I have never heard. That's good.
FRIEDMAN: It must have been Walter Annenberg who came; they knew each other somehow. This is not in your book?
FRIEDMAN: Well, you should have talked to me. I assume it was Walter Annenberg, because he owned TV Guide, I guess until he sold it to Rupert Murdoch, so he just proposed the idea to Eisner, like, "What do you think of a magazine with TV listings?" And Eisner said he didn't think it was going to go anywhere because why would people purchase a magazine when they get their TV listings for free in the newspaper? And the rest is history. He would tell the story, and he would laugh about it, and it's the same with the Superman stuff.
ANDELMAN: That's funny in retrospect, because today, we all assume that our Sunday paper comes with the TV magazine, but sixty years ago, obviously, there was no TV, but we think back, and you hear there was this comic book supplement, The Spirit, that was in the Sunday paper, and that doesn't make sense to anybody.
FRIEDMAN: I guess in '53 when they started TV Guide, was The Spirit still in the newspaper supplements at that point?
ANDELMAN: No, it had ended in '52, and instead, he started PS Magazine. Why he thought that was a better commercial move than TV Guide... I wish we had talked about it, because I would have loved to have asked him.
FRIEDMAN: When you were first talking to me, I was thinking, I don't want to say anything negative about him, and I don't really remember that much because it was twenty-five years ago, but when I started thinking about it, then a lot of things started coming back. When you start the sequel, we'll talk.
The two things that upset me about what Will said in your book, basically, if he had said just nasty things like he didn't like me, if he said I was a wiseass or nasty person or whatever, I would have let it go. I would have just chuckled about it, but it is sort of like, I think the quote is either Oscar Wilde, or it could have been Oscar Levant, "I don't care what anybody says about me or writes about me as long as it's not the truth." It would have been fine, but the two stories that obviously got to me were the one where he said he called my father and then the other one where I made Harvey Kurtzman cry. As long as you knew, it wasn't even that important that it gets out there, but those were the two things that stood out. The one about calling my father was just completely made up.
ANDELMAN: So he never called your father?
FRIEDMAN: No, he never talked to my father, and my father has never met him, and I am not even positive my father would know who he is, to be honest with you. He is not really up on comics, even though I was a student, so Will never did call my father. But there was no reason to call my father, because like I said and like other people have said, Will and I basically got along. We always got along. He liked me, and I liked him, but I wasn't reverential toward him like other students were, so I think maybe that bugged him, but we really got along. He gave me straight A's while I was a student. I edited the publication both years.
The thing I think that he was finally either annoyed by or for whatever reason there was the fact that I didn't keep in touch with him after SVA. I never saw him after that. And I didn't really keep in touch with Kurtzman, either. It was always going to be a teacher-student relationship, no matter where I went with my career, and I wasn't really interested in that. I could sort of sense that was what the situation would be if I kept in touch with him and Harvey, so I sort of let that go.
And also, I gave an interview to The Comics Journal in the early '90s where I said some things pertaining to his class. The interviewer said, "What was it like taking Will Eisner's class? Were people excited?" I said, "It was no big deal. He was a teacher, and one class I took of his, there were only like one or two other guys in it, so it wasn't like there were crowds of people trying to get into it or anything." And that's where I also said, trying to be flippant about some humorous cartoonists who went to SVA at the time who were my friends and they wound up becoming superhero editors at Marvel and DC, I said, "I don't know how these guys can look at themselves in the mirror." That was the quote, and I know Will must have seen that interview, because I think he sort of pulled out a couple of quotes from it when he talked to you. So that was the deal.
And then the other story in your book was where Harvey Kurtzman came to him and said that I made him cry and all this stuff. Harvey was a fragile guy, and this particular day he must have been having some problems with whatever he was working on or whatever kind of stuff he was dealing with from Hefner or Playboy or whatever, he was like really kind of shaky that day, but the class was just as chaotic as it had always been, and in fact, there was a guy visiting, a friend of ours, who was a clown from the Ringling Bros. Circus. He was off. He was a nut. In fact, he is in the movie The Aristocrats. He's one of the comedians, but he's insane. He was in the class that day, so that just added to the event.
ANDELMAN: Who was the guy?
FRIEDMAN: His name is Peter Pitofsky. Did you see The Aristocrats?
ANDELMAN: I have not seen it yet, no.
FRIEDMAN: He's in it, and you can pick him out, because he looks like a deranged, Curly Howard. Really large and he has a shaved head. He used to look like a normal guy, but now he is really deranged. He is like insane. He is actually a born-again Christian, so you have to be very careful how you speak with him. I always have to watch my language around him, but he's insane. He does flips in the movie. He like falls down and does back flips and that stuff. He sort of stands out because he ... He doesn't even tell the jokes... the whole film is these comedians telling a particular joke, so he mentions a few lines from it, but then he starts falling and drooling. It's disturbing to see, but he's funny. He was actually in the class that day when this happened. So Harvey had to leave the class to compose himself finally, and he came back, but he was quiet and chagrined, and then as Mark Newgarden pointed out, which I had forgotten... There was one particular guy who had been going nuts with Three Stooges noises who looked particularly red-faced when Harvey came back into the room, so that was the situation. So I am sure it's possible Harvey talked to Eisner about that, and then Eisner, in retrospect, turned it into a story about how Friedman was naughty. Anyway, that's that.
ANDELMAN: I want to go back just a second. You mentioned in the email that you had actually called your dad and said, "Did this ever happen?"
FRIEDMAN: Well, after I saw your book, I saw him the next day in New York for lunch, and I asked him then, "Did you ever talk to Will Eisner?" And he looked at me like, No. In fact, my father would never say anything negative about me anyway, but if you want to email my father, you can ask him yourself, but he said, "No," he never talked to Will Eisner. One time he got a call from Art Spiegelman, but Art Spiegelman just wanted to touch base with him years ago about one thing or another, nothing to do with me, he just wanted to meet him. But that was years ago, too. But Will never called him and never talked to him.
ANDELMAN: That was the only other thing in there that I wanted to clarify.
FRIEDMAN: No. For whatever reason he had, this is just fiction. That just never happened.
ANDELMAN: Did you ever deal with him outside of the classroom those two years? Did you ever...
FRIEDMAN: No, I don't think we ever saw each other outside of the class. And again, he gave me straight A's. Both years I took his class, I got nothing but A's, so if I was any kind of a problem student, I don't think I would have gotten those A's. I still have my report cards.
I really think he was disappointed I just didn't keep in touch with him afterwards. And then, I know he was seeing my work, and my name would come up through Nick Meglin or at conventions or whatever, and I know he was aware of my books because he was working with Denis Kitchen around the same time I was in the '80s and '90s on one project or another. I am sure it was just like he was confronted with me and the fact that I disappeared out of his life, and I think that got to him.
ANDELMAN: Maybe he expected you to genuflect a little bit.
FRIEDMAN: I guess. I don't know what he was looking for, but it's like, we got along fine in his class, but after SVA, I didn't feel a need to keep in touch. I didn't really go to comic conventions that often. I went to a few. I remember he was at one, but I forget if I said hello to him or anything.
ANDELMAN: What kind of work were you doing just out of SVA? How did your career start?
FRIEDMAN: During SVA, I was starting to do comics that wound up in my first anthology, which came out in '85 or '86. But I was mainly doing black and white comics in that stipple style and work, first starting at High Times and Screw magazine and RAW and then eventually going to Robert Crumb's magazine, Weirdo and Heavy Metal. I got a regular gig in Heavy Metal, and that led to regular work in National Lampoon and then Spy magazine. Most of that work appeared in my first book and then my second book was in 1991, from Penguin, called Warts and All, so it was like a decade of black and white comics and illustrations that wound up in those two books. And then after those two books, I started to do more magazine work and editorial work, and that is what I have been doing for the last decade or so, mainly magazine stuff.
ANDELMAN: Just to bring it all current, what kinds of things are you working on today?
FRIEDMAN: I am still doing lots of magazine work, and then I have two books coming out. The first one later in the year is an illustrated encyclopedia of old Jewish comedians. That's coming out from Fantagraphics. I am working on that; that's due out in November. And then there will be a new anthology of comics illustrations, also from Fantagraphics, coming out early next year.
ANDELMAN: Do those books have titles yet?
FRIEDMAN: The first book is called Old Jewish Comedians, a Visual Encyclopedia. Leonard Maltin is doing the introduction. And the second book is called The Fun Never Stops, and that will be out about a year from now. And then I will be at the conventions.
ANDELMAN: Oh, then you will be working the conventions.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I will go to a few. I keep hearing the Baltimore one is really good.
ANDELMAN: I guess they have moved the Kurtzman Awards there now.
FRIEDMAN: Yes. That's how I knew about it. Then I think there was one in New York. I know everyone goes to the San Diego convention and stuff, but I will be going to some of those. I will see how it goes.
ANDELMAN: Would you have access to maybe be able to send a scan of the two covers you did for Gallery?
FRIEDMAN: I have the original art, the original Eisner art. I still have it. That's no problem. I can send those to you. I used to have piles of them. I am not sure if I have kept all of them. I know I have at least one issue, one of each issue. The second year I think I was the editor, he said to me in confidence after I brought him the cover, after I laid out the cover and did all the type and he took me aside -- and he always called me "Friedman" -- he said, "Friedman, I always dreamed about Gallery looking like a professional magazine, and finally it does." So I took that as a nice compliment.
ANDELMAN: That was a nice compliment.
FRIEDMAN: I co-edited with Phil Felix the first year, and then another guy named Dave Dubnanski was co-editor for the second year. Dubnanski took Eisner's class I think for a year and a half. He pulled out after that because something happened in his family, he had to move back to Connecticut, but he took the class for a year and a half.
ANDELMAN: Was it useful to you later or sooner going through the production issue of putting the magazine....
FRIEDMAN: That was useful, and the same with Kurtzman's class, just putting out a magazine, voting on what goes in and what goes out. Sometimes people's feelings got hurt. In fact, there was one student whose work was so terrible, so clearly awful, it was a female, I am not going to mention her name, was so horrible, and we all knew it, and then she came in with like a ten-page comic, and I went up to Will, and I said, "We really can't run this in the magazine, it's too embarrassing." He said, "Friedman, I understand, but she is paying for the course, her parents are paying for the course, we have to run her work in it. There is nothing I can do about it." So we wound up like cutting it down to one page. We couldn't really pick and choose exactly what we wanted in the magazine. Everybody in the class had to have something in there, so we sort of shrugged and went along with it. He was savvy enough to understand that. It wasn't just a situation where we could just put in what we wanted.
ANDELMAN: He was a businessman.
FRIEDMAN: I was young and said, "No, no, let's just put the good stuff in and weed out all the crap," but he said, "No, no, everybody has to have something in." In retrospect, it made perfect sense.
ANDELMAN: Was there anything of a business nature that you took away from that? I can tell you that Joe Quesada, who said he failed both Eisner's class and Kurtzman's in the same year, said that the thing that he did take away from Eisner's class was the sense that an artist could be a businessman.
FRIEDMAN: I don't think I got that. The business of the magazine was, it wasn't a magazine that sold, it was basically given to class members, and I don't think there was even advertising in the magazine. The Kurtzman magazine had advertising, so we all went out and hustled around the neighborhood and around New York getting ads from local diners and things like that, but the Eisner magazine had no advertising, and I don't think it sold. No, I don't think I picked up on that.
ANDELMAN: All right.
FRIEDMAN: The best thing to me about Eisner's class was just working on my work. I was, at that time, very intense about doing my own comics. The guys who sat up front in the front row listened to every word he had to say. And then there were people who sat in the back row who were not interested, who either wanted to do their work or just hung out in the lounge. I guess I was sort of in the middle. I enjoyed his stories, and I enjoyed the stuff, but I also wanted to be left alone to work on my own comics and stuff. Most of the work I did in his class was the stuff that wound up in his publication, the Gallery. It wasn't like I was working on outside projects.
ANDELMAN: You have been really kind about talking to me about him, and I am not actually detecting any anger.
FRIEDMAN: No. I am more disappointed that that was his version. I had heard that he had been telling stories about me. A couple of mutual friends had mentioned it, including Nick Meglin, and I thought I had cleared it up with them at the time over the years. One of the things that Will repeatedly said that I thought was kind of funny was that I would have no career if it weren't for '50s TV shows, but it doesn't really ring true because the only parody of a '50s TV show that I ever did was "I Love Lucy." I did a parody of Andy Griffith, but that was a '60s TV show. But I thought it was a funny line. I did a comic strip about a black guy coming to the Andy Griffith show about twenty-five years ago.
ANDELMAN: Was that in Spy?
FRIEDMAN: Well, yeah, like in l980, I think I did that.
ANDELMAN: That would have been before Spy.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, yeah, it was before Spy.
ANDELMAN: That sounds really familiar.
FRIEDMAN: There is a a twenty-year retrospective of Spy coming out later in the year called Spy: The Funny Years, which I think is a good title. It was edited by Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson, who were the original editors.
ANDELMAN: Are they going to do the sequel, The National Lampoon, The Funny Years?
FRIEDMAN: Those funny years were pretty brief. There were about ten years of funny years. When I was at Lampoon, it wasn't very good, but I was still thrilled to be in it. It was sort of my goal to be a Lampoon contributor. It took a little while. First I had to go through Heavy Metal, and that led to Lampoon, but ....
ANDELMAN: Have ever seen Comic Book Artist magazine? Jon B. Cooke did a whole issue devoted to the art in Lampoon, and it was fascinating for me, because I am 45 now, so the peak years of Lampoon in the '70s, and I remember I would get it from about '72, '73 on, and I remembered thinking as I got to college in '78, it was weak, but I thought, well maybe it's me, because maybe it seemed funnier to me when I was a younger teenager, but in reading this kind of history he did of it, I realized that no, it wasn't just me, everyone seemed to agree that it had gone downhill but they just kept producing it.
FRIEDMAN: Animal House came out in '77, '78, and after that, the magazine did start going down in quality, whereas the movie business was Matty Simmons' main focus at that point. But interestingly enough, Matty Simmons', who produced Animal House and all that, he is writing his memoirs now. I am illustrating it.
ANDELMAN: Really! Wow.
FRIEDMAN: His daughter, Julie Simmons, who was the editor at Heavy Metal, is an old friend, and she is sort of coordinating the whole thing, so I just signed on to do that. It should be fun, because he actually, aside from Lampoon, he founded Diner's Club in the '50s, that's where he made his money, but he also had encounters with people like Albert Einstein, all these legendary people, so I am getting to draw those people with Matty Simmons. So that's the appeal for me.
ANDELMAN: Really interesting. That's a book I will definitely read.
FRIEDMAN: He wrote a book a few years ago about the history of Lampoon, but this book is more of an overall history of his life. I am going to do a cover sample soon, probably in March, of him sitting at a roundtable with Albert Einstein, Wilt Chamberlain, and John Belushi, three people he has had dealings with in his life. I always liked illustrations where I could just throw in all these diverse characters in one drawing.