Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who Was Bill Vigoda?

Craig Yoe's Archie history book is a good contribution to this neglected field of fanmanship (maybe not a word, but I like it better than "scholarship"), though as a semi-official history there are things it had to leave out as well as leaving in. (Starting, obviously, with the controversy about who created Archie and when exactly John Goldwater started claiming that he did it.) There are also some artists who didn't make it into the book, likely due to space reasons, and I thought I should try to give what background I can on some of them.

The one to start with would probably be Bill Vigoda, because he worked for the company for over three decades and drew the Archie character almost from the beginning. He's best known, of course, as Abe Vigoda's brother.

I don't know much about him beyond what I read in two of Jim Amash's invaluable Alter Ego interviews with comics veterans who knew him. He was one of the young artists who joined MLJ Comics and was working there when Bob Montana started doing the Archie character. His earliest credits -- again, like the others -- are on MLJ superheroes like the Hangman.

Joe Edwards, creator of Li'l Jinx, told Amash that he brought Vigoda over to MLJ, though this may be one of Edwards' claims that isn't backed up by other sources:

He lived near me in Brooklyn, and his wife Anita was friends with me, so she begged me "can you bring Bill in?" Bill was a terrific artist. "Well, I'll try to talk to Harry [Shorten], try to get him a position." So Harry looked at his work and said, "Well, it's not what I want right now." And I said, "Gee, the guy can use the work." When you've got a foot in the door, you can be stronger. Anyway, Bill was very broks... I brought Bill up there, and they were glad to get him because the war broke out.

When Montana, Samm Schwartz, Harry Lucey and others were in the army, Vigoda seems to have taken up some of the workload on the comic books. When "Wilbur" was spun off in 1944 as the company's first Archie clone title (John Goldwater believed, according to Joe Edwards, that they needed to get some imitations out there to head off the flood of Archie-alikes that their competitors were coming out with), Vigoda was the main artist, and that same year he became the main artist on Archie's title.

Vigoda continued to be the primary artist on "Archie," often signing his work, until about 1950, when a lot of the work shifted to George Frese. But the wild, slaptsticky, often rude '40s stories that many comics fans consider their favorite Archie material (yes, even Archie, which did more than any other company to get all the other companies censored, got toned down in the '50s), were frequently drawn and signed by Vigoda.

After 1950, though credits are spotty -- and signatures started going away in the '50s - I don't think Vigoda ever had his own book except for a few periods where he was a temporary replacement for some other artist. (When Samm Schwartz left to join Tower Comics, Vigoda replaced him on "Jughead" and also did most of the superhero spinoff title, "Captain Hero." But when Schwartz came back, Vigoda was taken right back off "Jughead.") He was mainly a utility artist, doing back-up stories, stories in Annuals and other special issues, covers that the main cover artists (in the late '50s and early '60s, mostly Lucey, Schwartz and Bob White) couldn't get to. He even did one issue of "The Fly" after Simon and Kirby left and before Richard Goldwater -- who didn't like the artists Simon and Kirby had lined up for the title -- signed full-time superhero artists who were to his liking.

Here, from Amash's interview with Richard Goldwater's assistant (and successor as editor) Victor Gorelick, is some more background on Vigoda:

I think [Paul Reinman] enjoyed comics. I'll tell you the guy who didn't enjoy it, and that was Bill Vigoda. Vigoda was also a fine artist and he was a sculptor. If you ever needed an example of a hippie, he'd fit the bill. He was the younger brother of Abe Vigoda.

He had a medical condition that kept him from military service, so he was around in the 1940s when the other artists went to war. Between him and Bill Woggon, who did a lot of Katy Keene comics, they did a lot of work for Archie. Vigoda used to do sketches on the backs of his pages and they looked like Burne Hogarth's work. He drew men with big muscles and sometimes nude women. In later years, I saw some of his oil paintings and they had some very strange content. A psychiatrist would have had a field day with that work!

One time I sent some Archie pages to the Comics Code. There was this woman who worked there and said, "I don't know what's going on in your artist's mind, but the artist who did this story drew something horrible on the back of the page. It should be taken out and erased." And on the back of one of the pages, Bill Vigoda had dreawn a nude woman impaled on a bull's horn. That was quite a piece of artwork, I can tell you.

He was married and had kids and couldn't make a living as a fine artist. He told me he felt stuck doing comic books because he had to earn a living. He was a very creative person and loved opera. He smoked a pipe when he drew and was a funny man. He had a great sense of humor.

JA: He's gone now, isn't he?

GORELICK: Bill passed away many years ago. He became a diabetic and had a heart condition. He went to the hospital and they took a couple of his toes because of the diabetes. He never came out of that hospital. I was really devastated by his passing. I didn't really expect him to go. I was very close to many of the artists. He worked in the office, as did many other people. There was always a place for people to work there if they wished.

Vigoda was versatile, then, and he turned out a lot of pages for the company from the '40s until his death in 1973. I would not say he's one of my favorite humor artists, though. It sometimes seems to me (and Gorelick's interview quoted suggests this too) that he would have been happier working in a less cartoony style. His best work, in the '40s, was before Montana changed and streamlined the look of the characters, a style Vigoda and the other artists then had to follow. The Veronica in this Vigoda story, from Archie # 27 (1947), still looks like an improbably mature woman, and Vigoda gets a lot of expression out of this early Archie who still looks like a buck-toothed ugly kid. There's also some male nudity on page 7, surprisingly common for the '40s.

But by 1961, when he did this story in Archie Annual # 13, he was working with the cartoony Betty and Veronica and the more presentable-looking Archie, and he never seemed to be at ease with these versions. (Frank Doyle scripted this one; I don't know who did the '40s stories, though Bill and Abe's brother Hi was a comics writer and may have done some of them.) The girls have a rather square-jawed look, and Vigoda had a tendency to give all the characters this white-mouthed, uni-tooth look at all times.

His inker on that story, Terry Szenics, was also inking for Harry Lucey at the time, so the style can't really be blamed on her; Lucey's stuff also has the uni-tooth and other similar touches, but the devices are less over-used in his stories and the characters look more appealing.

Here's another Vigoda story (from Laugh # 164 in 1964; Doyle scripting again; I don't know who the inker was) I remember very vividly from my childhood, mostly because it was the first time I'd ever heard of the old "I walked into a door" excuse. (This was a story that Doyle re-did at least one other time, maybe more.) It's certainly not badly executed, but at the end, I remember thinking that Archie's pain looked real and, well, painful, rather than funny.

Also, I seem to have found two straight stories, from the same writer and artist several years apart, where Archie gets angry and frightens the girls off. Never mind, where's the Archiedickery site?

My suspicion that Vigoda would have been happier doing serious comics is strengthened when I see some of his occasional ventures into horror stories. There was a Captain Hero story, which I can't find, about monsters who come out of the telephone, and Vigoda drew some of the most horrifying monsters I've ever seen in comic books; it was written as a spoofy comedy, but Vigoda drew creatures who weren't supposed to be funny, just really scary. I had nightmares about them as a kid. And here's Vigoda enjoying himself on one of Sabrina's short-lived forays into EC-style horror comics (Doyle, a "Dark Shadows" fan, seemed to enjoy this sort of thing too):

So in writing about Vigoda, I'm not saying he was an undiscovered great; quite the opposite. There are undiscovered greats, in Archie-style comics and every other type of comic, and some of them are starting to be discovered. Vigoda, I think, was more of a solid contributor whose work was at its best when the "house style" was more realistic and less cartoonish. His '40s work is his best by far, so the stuff to check out is the stuff he actually got to sign.


Anthony Strand said...

I always enjoy it when you point our people like this. I don't have much to add. I just wanted to let you know.

Kevin Nowlan said...

Great post, Jaime! Thanks for pulling all this information together for the rest of us. I'm learning a lot here!

Mischa said...

:))) Those comics are so funny! Too bad that this days they don't make such simple and fun stuff.

Anonymous said...

Oh god - that horror comic at the bottom of the page wrecked me for years - YEARS - as a kid.

Imagine flipping through the pages of happy little "Sabrina" and finding THAT lurking inside like a landmine. It didn't help that the whole thing was couched with intro and outro as a story that Sabrina's mischievous aunt just popped in to tell her niece in a disturbingly lighthearted manner. I had to throw it away and still it haunted me.