Remembering Irwin Hasen: 1918-2015
At its best, comics is like a family, where people in the field are known by their first names by fans and peers alike. Jerry, Joe (well, several Joes, actually, but context always makes it clear which one), Will, Bob, Bill, Stan, Jack, Steve, Marie, Carmine, Len, Marv, Flo.
Irwin Hasen was my friend, just as he was a lot of people’s friend. Of course, millions of people knew Irwin through his comics (Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Wildcat, the Fox, and, of course, Dondi). But because he had no children and no local relatives, Irwin’s friends and companions were his cartooning contemporaries, the cartoonists he mentored, and a steady stream of admirers, thirty to fifty years his junior, who crossed his path in various ways. Some were fans, some fellow comics pros. Some were descendants of his contemporaries, seeking information about and connection with their parents or grandparents through Irwin, who had known them all.
Irwin was always a jolly presence at the local New York Big Apple conventions, which is where I first encountered the man (as opposed to his work, which I’d been seeing since I was a kid). But it was on trips to Allan Rosenberg’s conventions in New Jersey where I got to really know him. Ken Wong would drive me, Irwin, Arnold Drake and Jim Salicrup out to those cons, and that’s where I got to spend time with Irwin and Arnold—talk about a ride with history!—and discovered the mischievous marvel that was Irwin Hasen. When not gossiping about some comics figure present or past, Irwin would drift off to sleep, and I’d wonder, “Did Irwin just die?” But then he’d respond to something one of us said with a hilarious one-liner and we’d know he was not only alive, but kicking.
Over the past ten or so years, Irwin was hospitalized several times with various conditions, often dire and seemingly fatal, all of which he rebounded from, until the final one on March 13th. No matter what, though, until the end, his grip was always strong, clinging to life like he clung to a pencil to express his vast creativity. Any number of times I figured I would never see him again, and time after time he bounced back, sometimes better than before, since the doctors would have cleared up whatever was causing him trouble. It was amazing to behold.
For instance, last year, Ed Steckley, president of the Manhattan chapter of the National Cartoonists’ Society wanted to do an event honoring Irwin. I told him I thought that Irwin’s event days were over, but to not take my word for it. “Let’s go to Irwin’s house and you’ll see for yourself.” Well, we went to Irwin’s, and he was totally up and on, energetic and crystal clear. Ed’s Irwin event was held at the Society of illustrators, and Irwin enjoyed every minute of being the center of attention, entertaining the large crowd that turned out to honor him.
The details of Irwin’s life were a classic New York Jewish cartoonist story. He attended the same high school so many of comics’ innovators did, DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx. Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and many others went there.
Born in 1918—the year World War I ended—Irwin was an only child, doted on by his parents and grandparents, who always, he said, seemed to be in loud conflict with each other. A short kid, he was ever-conscious of his stature in relation to that of others (he said that his longtime friend, editor Julius Schwartz, had suggested that Irwin join “Height Watchers”), and he used drawing and performing as way to gain attention and respect. His mother somehow found money to send Irwin to art school at the National Academy of Design (now the National Academy Museum and School), where he studied with legendary artists such as Ivan Olinsky.
While still a teenager, Irwin worked as a staff cartoonist for boxing magazine, Bang!, where he did powerful drawings of fighters, especially the Jewish middle- and lightweights who were then prominent in the sport.
Irwin’s career took off from there, as he worked for DC Comics on characters including Green Lantern and Wonder Woman—not Irwin’s last association with amazons—and co-created (with Batman co-creator Bill Finger) Wildcat. A steady freelancer for the company for many years, Irwin found himself essentially let go in 1952. The fifties were lean years for comic books, and no one was doing great. Many creators left the field, never to return.
Irwin went on a USO artists’ tour in 1954, and on it met Gus Edson, with whom he co-created Dondi. The strip was steadily published in newspapers from 1955 until 1986. When Edson died in 1966, Irwin continued the strip with writer Bob Oksner. In some ways, losing his DC assignments was a lucky break for Irwin, since, in those days, having a newspaper strip was—for reasons of both income and prestige—considered to be at a much higher level then working in comic books. The little guy had the last laugh.
Irwin seemed to know everybody in a variety of creative circles in New York, not just cartoonists. Guitarists, poets (including Carl Sandburg), dancers—all were Irwin’s friends. Perhaps his never marrying or having children left him time to cultivate his tastes in various creative fields, as well as to cultivate as friends the people who worked in them. Irwin also taught for many years at the comic art school started and run by his close friend, Joe Kubert, where he helped train and inspire many of today’s top comics creators. (Irwin and Joe, many years before, had driven cross-country in a convertible to the wedding of Kubert’s artistic partner, Norman Maurer, to Moe Howard’s daughter Joan—yes, that Moe, of Three Stooges fame—at Moe’s L.A. house. Irwin mostly remembered what a bad sunburn he got on that trip, but there’s a photo of him and Joe on the road that is a wonderful testament to their great friendship.)
Ever sociable, Irwin became, in his later years, a fixture on the local New York area comics convention circuit. Often accompanied by Dan Makara, who would go on to produce a wonderful documentary about him (Irwin: A New York Story), Irwin would sell Dondi original art and do sketches or color pre-printed drawings of the characters with whom he was associated. And, of course, he would tell stories and crack jokes and generally endear himself to whoever came by his table. Appearing at conventions in New York and elsewhere, and at special comics events—as well, inevitably, at memorials for his peers—enabled Irwin to stay connected to colleagues and fans both old and new. It was clear at these appearances that it was a two-way street. Irwin loved interacting with people as much as they got a kick out of this feisty old guy.
In 2006, I went to Irwin’s house to interview him for my book, Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. It was then he showed me the pages for what would become his graphic memoir, Loverboy. From the interview and the art pages, I came to more fully understand the creative, business, and social worlds of New York’s comics creators of his era. Survivors of the Great Depression, often from families who lost everything in that economic cataclysm, blessed with talent, cursed with out-earning their fathers, these young men and women were launched into a harsh world, then further tempered through the crucible of World War II.
Perhaps it was the collective need for heroic figures during that global conflagration, but whatever the reason, the War era was also what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Comics, the period when characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America debuted in four-color periodicals. Irwin and his peers created the modern mythology that today has taken over popular culture even more than it did in its first flowering.
Then came Dondi—which was seen by millions of readers each week—far more than read even the most popular comic books of any period. Irwin loved the character and infused the strip with a sense of wonder, telling of America as seen through the eyes of war orphan Dondi, who Irwin referred to as “the first illegal immigrant” (and also as “the kid”).
As Irwin often said, Dondi’s famously expressive eyes were “just dots.” It was the eyebrows and the facial expressions that Irwin drew that made “the kid’s” eyes so special. Irwin was able to tilt his own head and arrange his features so they somehow seemed to became Dondi’s face and, especially, Dondi’s eyes. It was shtick—but great shtick. I’m guessing it was part of his charm offensive on dates.
As the years went on, I got to know Irwin better, got to the point where I knew the details of his favorite stories of his life—as did everybody who spent time with him. And I was not alone in visiting him. Numerous local comics folks would come to see him, as would fans, journalists and academics, creating a defacto family, dropping by to cheer and be cheered by Irwin as he weathered the slings and arrows of old age. But the amazing—truly amazing—thing is that, more than once down for the count, Irwin would always rally. Just when you thought he was done for, he’d suddenly show up in a spiffy outfit (no one could sport an ascot like Irwin), regale groups large and small with his stories, and make expressive drawings on whatever paper was at hand. I used to joke that Irwin was the only person I ever knew who recovered from old age. And until last week, it was true.
So, although there may have been other Irwins, there was only one Irwin. Irwin Hasen loved life and, though not without his share of sorrows, he made every moment count. Things were always more fun when he was around, and now that he’s gone, in his honor, we’ll have to try to make life more fun, too.
Copyright 2015 Danny Fingeroth. Photo by Luigi Novi.