When I first went to DC Comics in hopes of a Job, a page, please, I was in the constant company of Bernie Wrightson. Bernie was working steadily with Dick Giordano on stories for House of Mystery, or The Witching Hour. When Dick came to usher Bernie from the lobby into the hallowed halls, late winter of 1969, I was the guy left to cool my heels, but I always tossed a "If you find a page or two just laying around, needing drawing, I'll be here..." as the Sanctum door closed. When Dick Giordano did give me work, May of 1969, it was in the form of several two page stories I'd sweat over for weeks and then bring to him for a great lesson in How To Do It Better... I've no idea if Dick's decision to give me those jobs was on his own head or if he'd run my name past Carmine. The work stint dried up when Dick went Freelance himself, leaving me no contacts at DC Comics.
But hanging out did the trick again, though it took until July of 1971 to have it bear fruit. This time it was Joe Orlando who gave me the nod and we worked together for many years after.
I can't remember my first meeting with Carmine, but there is one interaction that marks my coming of age as a young free lancer at DC: in November of 1971 I'd balked at heading out to the Color Plant, a field trip put on by the company... instead I hung out at the offices in "Neal's Room", one of the smaller offices along the hall leading past Julie Schwartz's office, Murray Boltinoff's office and Joe Orlando's office on the way to Carmine's. I'd been drawing Carson of Venus for about two months (My first pages, in other words) and had a few more Mystery Stories and two House of Mystery covers under my belt. I sat at Neal Adam's desk and was doodling on something when Carmine appeared at the door--- loomed is more like it: a big guy, Carmine.
"Mikey!? What are you doing here? I thought you'd gone off with the gang..."
I explained myself, and, out of the blue, Carmine says, "Have you ever thought about doing some Batman Covers? I think you'd be good at it. Give it a shot--- you know, something moody--- maybe with a cemetery or something... bring it in to me and we'll talk."
I started right in right there, as I recall, and I choked on the first several "ideas" I tried... but in a few hours I got some okay Ideas and the next time I was at the office, Carmine gave me the thumbs up. It feels like I worked directly with Carmine on these Batman and Detective Comics covers, but Julie Schwartz was right there at the desk.
On some occasions I'd be handed a cover sketch done by Carmine and I'd balk, thinking maybe I had a better Idea... "Go ahead and give it a shot, Mikey" was always Carmine's reply. I think I got about 50% of the covers my way.
The Classic One: Being in Carmine's office when the Production Guys (Jack Adler, Sol Harrison) and Joe Orlando brought a Mystery cover in for approval. I believe it was a Nick Cardy cover. It showed a Chinese Man in olden days scurrying along a brightly lit street during the Chinese New Year's Celebration--- paper dragons and large Chinese banners everywhere silhouetting the figure. Carmine took a look at it, this way and that, said "Hmnph! Pretty good." I'm certain he felt there was something afoot since his office was now crowded with smiling guys, with another one or two at his door... when Joe Orlando said, "So, it's approved?" the chuckles started and Carmine took another sharp look at the piece. It took a minute, then he called them--well, all of us--a few choice names. Right in the center of the picture the largest of the "Chinese" banners was the Hebrew "Kosher for Passover" lettering, plain as day. Big Laughs all around.
Two Personal Interludes: One was at a time, early 70's, when everything was "going wrong" with my art. I was down in the dumps, feeling I'd "lost it." Somehow Carmine had a sense of it and called me into his office.
"Mikey... it's simply that your mind knows more than your hand is capable of right now-- you are frustrated not seeing what you know you can do. It is a sign you are on the verge of a big jump, of becoming a whole lot better at what you do. Give it a few weeks, you'll see."
And I did... he was quite right and I've sensed the phenomenon several more times in my life, and have passed the advice on to others...
The second personal interlude: I'd finally stopped smoking. It had been quite easy as it turned out and I must have bragged a bit about it. Carmine, cigar at the ready, gave me some thoughts about smoking, cigarettes and cigars, then told me a story from his own trials at quitting cigarettes. "Mikey, it was weird... days, even weeks went by and I didn't want a smoke. But then I smoked a cigarette in a dream... I woke and just like that started smoking again... I thought I'd already really smoked. The body will trick you, so be careful..."
The story sunk in and I swear the same thing happened to me. Ten days, maybe a couple of weeks of living easily smoke-free and I had a dream, a vivid dream about nothing in particular, but in that dream I smoked a cigarette, casually, no big deal. Upon waking the dream wouldn't let me alone. It kept going over and over in my mind, until I remembered smoking the cigarette! I was bummed. Damn! Three seconds later I was in my roommate's desk, tapping one of her cigarettes out, feeling like I'd betrayed myself... and I remembered Carmine's warning...sat back and laughed in relief, and amazement.
I know Denny O' Neil cleared my name with Carmine in 1973 when he agreed I would do the DC Comics version of The Shadow Comic, but I wasn't in Carmine's office during that meeting. Carmine's saying "yes" was the single most pivotal decision in my career, certainly and as time goes by, I get to hear more and more about what went on while I was sitting in the DC coffee room, waiting.
I remember Carmine drank Iced Coffee, like my dad, then, and like I do, now, though I've made it Iced Double Decafe Espresso with cream.
My approach to a cover, when I got to do my own Ideas, was to show the picture straight on, staged, unless it was a dramatic perspective view. Almost every time I'd bring one of these sketches in to Carmine he'd turn the paper about 30 degrees to the right and demand that that made the composition 100% stronger, more "grabby"... and I'd have to agree about 50% of the time... His trick was so prevalent it became an inside joke with the editors, along with the phrases "Leave Room For The Kids" and "Make It More Mysterioso." At one point in a cover conference Joe Orlando and I got to laughing so hard about the tilting idea we left his office and walked to Carmine's, our feet along the base of the left wall and our shoulders rubbing along the right. Carmine's "What are you idiots up to?" just made us laugh that much more.
The last story I'll leave you with was at one of the Company Functions, a dinner of some sort at a fancy restaurant. Out in the hallway we young guys, Bernie Wrightson, Howie Chaykin, etc., got to talking to this terrific looking woman--- she was very affable: we were knocked out that someone so classy would be showing us such delighted attention. I've no idea what we talked about. What I do remember is Carmine easing around the corner, dressed to the 9's, spotting us with the woman and getting a wry look on his face. He moved in, took her arm and walked off with her, saying over his shoulder, "You can't afford her." She was his date, of course!