Interview: Arnold Roth Pt. 1 [of 3]

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Fantagraphics’ new two book Humbug set marks the first time that the long-defunct magazine’s material has been pulled together into a single collection.  Forty years after its initial publication, the magazine has largely been forgotten by all but the most devout cartooning fans. Its founders Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee and Will Elder, however, should be familiar to all of those who have a passing knowledge of that perennial favorite humor magazine, Mad. Jaffee, Davis, and Elder all followed Kurtzman as the editor made the jump from Mad to Hugh Hefner’s newly launched humor magazine, Trump.

After two issues, however, Trump’s increasing expenses and Hefner’s own economic troubles resulted in the closure of that magazine. Along the way, however, the four Mad refugees added yet another creative cartooning force to the team—a young Philadelphian named Arnold Roth. It was with Roth, funds culled together by the five artists, and some residual Hefner office space that Humbug was born.

Humbug, too folded quickly, completing a paltry print run of 11 issues. Roth, however, would go on to a diverse and successful career illustrating for Playboy; creating his own syndicated strip, Poor Arnold’s Almanac; designing album art for Dave Brubeck; and drawing book covers for John Updike.

We sat down with the artist, a month after his 80th birthday, to discuss Humbug and his early forays into the world of cartooning.

The new Fantagraphics book is really the magazine’s first real collection.

Well, yeah. I don’t know how major of a publication it really was. You’d never think that from our sales. As the story goes, the figures that we go on sales were not reliable and never were going to be. But at any rate, yes. It’s all due to Gary Groth’s keen dedication and interest.

What’s the story behind the numbers?

They wanted us to do Cracked every other month, and of course we didn’t want to. That’s how we eventually decided that we had to fold. But the sales figures come from the distributors. Whatever they say they are, that’s what they are. You can’t argue. Since they wanted us to make that deal with them, we were never going to break even. Our sales came tantalizingly close to breaking even, but whatever number they wanted to give us, that’s what they were doing. We knew it. that’s the way business runs. So finally we had a showdown meeting and we just decided to go out of business.

What was the hesitation, as far as working on Cracked?

Well, we were owners of Humbug. There were five of us. But Cracked would be the product of the distributor and we would be doing it for free for them, every other month, just to stay in business—for all intents and purposes. We never actually talked about what the payment arrangement would be. I don’t think we would have been over payed in that situation [laughs]. So, we just decided to fold.

For lack of a more tactful way of putting it, Cracked always sort of struck me as something of a second-tier Mad. Was that the feeling at the time?

Yeah. That’s what it was. That’s very usual in magazines—well, in movies and everything. Somebody has a hit and everybody has an imitation. Hefner used to be very brilliant when discussing this, because his magazine had a lot of imitations, too. It’s like clothing lines. Somebody brings out a dress suit with short pants, so every suit company says, “well, people who liked that will buy from us, too.”

Kurtzman and Jaffee had come over from Mad. Was part of the driving force of Humbug a desire to do something different than what they had done on that magazine?

Well, not necessarily. Willie Elder and Jack Davis, of course—I was the only one who hadn’t, come to think of it. That was the appeal of the work, mining that particular vein in that particular way. But Harvey’s idea was to make it less high school and more college. And of course we all agreed that would be fine. But they couldn’t make too drastic a change, because that what the appeal was—these are the people that had been doing Mad. They had invented it, actually.

Were you a reader of Mad before you signed on with Humbug?

Yes. I didn’t know about it for a while. I had heard it mentioned. I knew the Dave Brubeck group. We had met by happenstance. Paul Desmond I think read everything that was being printed in every form [laughs]. They did a lot of traveling, so he had lots of time. He told me about it. I went to the newsstand, and of course it was there and selling like crazy by that point. I would say that it would have been about a year since it first came out. I thought it was great, of course—which it was. It was exactly what I wanted to do in my career, that sort of thing.

Was Humbug your first steady work as a cartoonist?

Well, no, I had been on retainer to Trump, which went out of business before it hit the stands. That’s when we said, since we’re altogether and since Hefner was giving us office space—he was very contrite and disappointed about what had happened. He heart was into Trump—as were ours [laughs]. Of course on Humbug I was spending money—we were all partners and putting money into it. I think the only other times I’ve gotten a regular check for doing work was when I had a syndicated feature with The Herald Tribune. And then a revival of that, 30 years later. That was Poor Arnold’s Almanac.

That was after Humbug?

It was after we folded. Al sold a feature. They had a very good comics editor. It was almost completely a writer’s syndicate. They had a few comics and the newer ones were BC by Johnny Hart and Mel Lazarus’s Miss Peach, which was very good also. It was sort of like Peanuts in a way, with bright little kids saying sophisticated things. But they had a few old time things that they kept alive. I think one was called Mr. And Mrs. I can’t rattle them off. So Al sold them Tall Tales and I sold them Poor Arnold’s Almanac, which ran two years. It was a Sunday only, which was why they canceled me. They wanted a daily. They said it makes the Sunday feature stronger. The Sunday feature was doing—not great, but well enough for me to make money.  At that time I was living in England and my magazine work and record album was was starting. I wasn’t in great haste to do a daily. But during one of my many moves, when I cam back, I found that I had penciled a stack of dailies, but I was never going to ink them. I didn’t want to get too locked up in the syndicate thing.

Because you had so much work on the side?

Yeah. And I really enjoyed the magazine work more. And I eventually ended up where most of my business was illustrating for magazines. I did a lot of comic stuff that I would write. I liked the humor and eventually I did “The American Report” for Punch for two pages, and that went on for about 25 years. I worked for them for 30 years. I started to do a lot for Sports Illustrated, and I would do features and spreads and Esquire and TV Guide. There were lots of magazines that I did lots of illustrating for. The way I illustrate is I try to have something humorous in the illustration. It’s not just a drawing of something in the story.

You must have considered doing a daily earlier on. That was sort of the dominant forum for cartoonists in those days.

Yeah. Well, it was one of the most lucrative fields for cartoonists, if you made a hit. It was the ultimate realization of capitalism. You only did it once and you were getting paid many times, depending on the number of newspapers. That was fine. That’s an industry, comics, and it’s a hell of a job. And doing the same thing every day—I don’t know how they don’t all become drunken hatchet murderers [laughs]. A lot become drunks, but they don’t become violent. Which is why they had to eventually get assistants, to keep the quality of the work up and make it good.

How did you get involved in Trump, initially?

I believe it was Ed Fischer, The New Yorker gag cartoonist who I was friends we. He mentioned it. I don’t know if I had already done drawings for Playboy. But Ed told me that they were starting this publication. And I hadn’t met any of the people involved. I lived in Philadelphia, so I would go to New York frequently to push my stuff. I’d go to magazines and show them my sample book, etc, etc. By that time I had already done fairly steady work for TV Guide and occasional work for Esquire. I was already selling to major markets. And of course album covers were a very good field for me. And I was even doing stuff for an animation place called Storyboard, which John Hubley owned. He was one of the three people who did Gerald McBoing-Boing.

With Gene Deitch.

That’s it. Gene Deitch was working inside at Storyboard. So they were using two freelancers that I knew of and they sort of added me on the fringe [laughs]. When they would add me when they got certain commissions to do ideas for them. But I never actually did the animation. I might have designed something for Old Gold Cigarettes.

Back when you could do cartoons for cigarettes.

Yes [laughs]. I still smoke. 80-years-old and I still smoke. That shows you how smart I am. That was a good account for me, at that time. By that time I was already rolling. By the mid-50s, I could see that that would be my career. I started freelancing in ’51. Of course, as usually happens, I was the only one who knew that’s what I was doing. I would do local work in Philly–$10 a drawing. Even in those days that was not a lot.

[Continued in Part Two]

–Brian Heater

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  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » March 25, 2009: Yes, it is