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Long Islanders behind Batman comics

Al Plastino, 90, of Shirley, is well known

Al Plastino, 90, of Shirley, is well known for his illustrations of comic icon Batman, which he started sketching and inking in the late 1960s. (July. 17, 2012) Credit: Nancy Borowick

Joe Giella and Al Plastino always knew that the superheroes they drew nearly 50 years ago — Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and numerous others — had powers far beyond those of mortal men. They just never imagined one of those powers would be the ability to grow stronger as the years went on to become such explosive forces in movies, on television and even at convention halls.

"Back then, it was just a job. Most of the jobs I had were to get a check every week," says Plastino, 90, who lives in Shirley and whose many stints included penciling (creating a preliminary illustration of the script in pencil) and inking (retracing the penciling in pen, brush or marker to create the final drawing) on the Batman comics in the 1960s. "If I knew this stuff would be worth so much someday, I would have kept it. You know what one of my drawings went for -- $30,000."

Giella, 84, of East Meadow, also is amazed that some of the comic-book covers he drew have fetched as much as $50,000 at auctions. "It's mind-boggling. It's not that we were myopic, but we never thought it would come to this," he says. "I would have been well off today if I had saved the originals, but we discarded them. We thought, who needs them."

There's no discarding the success of superheroes on the big screen for this summer's blockbusters -- "Marvel's The Avengers," "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Dark Knight Rises." It doesn't look as though comic-book mania will be waning anytime soon, even after the pall cast by the deadly shootings last month during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado. (The three films so far have amassed a domestic gross of just under $1.27 billion.)

Plastino has not seen "The Dark Knight Rises" but he has seen the earlier entries and doesn't embrace the more sinister turn the Caped Crusader has taken. "The only thing that turns me off is that they made kind of a villain out of him," he says. "I liked it when it was campy," when Adam West played Batman on the TV series, and Burt Ward was his sidekick, Robin.

Giella, however, has been thrilled seeing a darker shade of Batman. "The name 'Dark Knight' implies it's dramatic. It's none of this slam-bang the way we used to do it years ago. I like the way it's done today," says Giella, still a working cartoonist who has been drawing the Mary Worth strip since 1991. "This is the way I always thought Batman should be done, but we couldn't dictate to the editors and the writers."

Especially since Giella remembers how hard it was as a teenager to gain a foothold in the comic book universe. Like many cartoonists, his career started as a freelancer, in his case, working for Hillman Periodicals on a long-forgotten comic called Captain Codfish, a less-eccentric 1940s ancestor of "SpongeBob SquarePants." "I was 17, and when your parents are struggling to keep the house going, the first son in the family, especially in an Italian family, had to go to work," Giella explains.

What he needed was a regular paycheck, so he kept dropping by the offices of Timely Comics, later rechristened as Marvel Comics, hoping to get a job. One of the up-and-coming editors, Stan Lee, rewarded his persistence with a tryout inking a strip that cartoonist Mike Sekowsky had penciled. Giella's elation on his trip home soon turned to panic. "The first job he gave me I lost on the train. No one slept at my house that night," Giella jokes. "I went in the next morning and thought that's the end of my job."

He was nearly right. As a frantic Lee screamed at Giella for his carelessness, Sekowsky came to his defense. "Mike repenciled the whole job that I lost on the train and I did the inking," he says. "Stan liked what I did and I got the staff position. I never left anything on the train again."

He stayed with Lee for three years, working on characters such as the Human Torch and Captain America. "What they do when you're a young artist is they throw you in a bullpen, and you do a little of everything, which is great training," he says. "I'd do a little touching up, doing backgrounds, but at my age when I started, 17, they didn't give you a whole script to work on. That's like the break-in period."

In 1950, Giella moved over to DC Comics, where he worked for nearly four decades inking other costumed crime fighters, including Spider-Man, Green Lantern and The Phantom. In the 1960s, he had a four-year stint on Batman comics.

Although Plastino worked on Batman from 1968 to 1972, he and Giella never crossed paths. Plastino, who started drawing when he was 3, never set his sights on a comic-book career. "I wanted to be a painter," he says, after being inspired by the works of Renoir, Rembrandt, Raphael and other masters during his many trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child.

Copying their works fueled his interest in painting, and he eventually attended the High School of Industrial Arts and then Cooper Union. He was building a freelance art career when World War II broke out, and he and his brothers were drafted. In the U.S. Army, one of his airplane sketches caught the attention of the top brass, and he was sent to Grumman Aerospace Corp., the Inventor's Council and then to the Pentagon, where he was assigned to design war posters and field manuals. After his Army stint, he went to work for Steinberg Studios, where he continued drawing Army posters.

In 1948, he heard DC Comics was looking for artists and it was offering $55 a page. He made a good impression with his sample art of Superman, a character that already had a following, but he was offered only $35 a page. After much haggling, they compromised at $50 — the equivalent today of $481.21.

"The reason I was cocky was because in those days it was cutthroat," he says. "If they see you're afraid, you're dead."

During the 20 years he worked on Superman (1948-1968), penciling and inking the strip, Plastino added personal touches to the character, such as using his own hairstyle as the basis for Superman's cowlick. He modeled Supergirl after his wife, Ann Marie. He also worked on Superboy, Aquaman and co-created the Legion of Justice at DC. But superheroes weren't his only specialty. In the 1980s, he did the inking and penciling on the Nancy comic strip and even did some work on Peanuts during the period when creator Charles Schulz was out sick.

These days, when Plastino isn't out on the golf course, he continues to paint, and his studio is filled with everything from copies of a Renoir to self-portraits. He also is a frequent guest at Comic-Con, the popular convention for fans of comic books and graphic novels. Plastino's original drawings are always big sellers.

Perhaps the most important contribution for both Plastino and Giella has been how they've inspired the next generations of their families to pursue artistic careers. MaryAnn Plastino Charles recalls her childhood and asking her father to help on his inkings. "He'd call us in to clean up the pages. I would erase all the penciling."

She later went to art school, where "I thought everyone could draw like him. I never saw anyone like him," she says while examining one of his intricately drawn strips featuring Aqua Man swimming. "The way he can interpret water. I wouldn't even know how to do that."

Giella's son Frank, 47, teaches a Saturday morning cartooning class for children at Hofstra University and is an art history and cartooning instructor at Forest Hills High School. He also works with his father on the Mary Worth strip (Joe pencils and inks, Frank colors it in). Now, the third generation is getting into the act: Frank's daughter Nicole, 12, scans the artwork to send to King Features Syndicate.

"He's done this his whole life and has always done it with a smile," says Frank Giella. "He would say it's not work if you enjoy what you're doing. So that's why I went in that direction to teach cartooning and instill that idea of creating to kids. It's not just to teach them to draw, but to teach them a love of art and creating things."

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