Joe Giella, No “Regular” Joe!
Joe Giella, one of the two Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame winners in 2018, has done it all.
His talented pencils and inks have graced books from DC, Hillman Comics, Timely/Marvel Comics and comic strips such as “Batman,” “The Phantom” and “Mary Worth.” The advertising world also benefited from Giella’s work for much of his career, which spanned close to 70 years until his retirement in 2016.
In addition to being an Inkwell Hall of Fame Award winner, a Harvey Lifetime Achievement Award Winner and an Inkpot Award winner, he is the oldest living Batman artist and a highly sought-after convention guest at the age of 90.
With more than 4,000 stories credited to Giella according to the Grand Comics Database (comics.org), his work continues to be reprinted by DC Comics today in their extensive classic titles reprint lines.
As all artists go, he did not start that way.
Born June 26, 1928, Giella and his family emigrated from Italy and settled in Astoria, New York. Growing up, he ran the streets with another Italian boy named Antonio Benedeto. Giella wanted to draw comics, and Antonio wanted to sing. Giella kept his name while Benedeto become Tony Bennett, who went on to sing for millions of people around the world.
As a young boy, Joe remembered drawing on any possible scrap of paper, whether it was from grocery bags, lists or parts of newspapers. “I was influenced by Hal Foster’s ‘Prince Valiant’ [and] ‘Tarzan,’ and Alex Raymond’s ‘Flash Gordon,'” he told Jim Amash in “Alter Ego” #52. “Like many artists of the time, if it had open space, I drew on it. and it often was influenced by these artists.” (All following quotes are Giella’s unless otherwise stated.)
“Batman was my favorite character as a kid. I thought he had the best costume but I also liked Captain America, The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. Back then, I couldn’t wait for the next issues to come out. Good books are like that.”
The young artist went to the School of Industrial Arts along with other (now) well-known students such as Tony Bennett, Al Scaduto (“They’ll Do It Every Time”), Emilio Squeglio, Paul Winchell (ventriloquist and voice of Tigger from “Winnie The Pooh”) and Rudy Lapick, an early “Archie” artist. Joe Kubert, Norman Maurer, John Romita, Sr. and Les Zakarin also studied there.
“After my first published work, I went to the Art Students League along with Kubert and Mike Sekowsky, who later became a very good friend. An interesting thing about Sekowsky was that during one class the teacher came around to look at our work and stopped at Mike’s. Instead of drawing the model, he had drawn a comic-book figure which drew the ire of the teacher. Mike never came back to class.”
Giella broke the family tradition by wanting to become an artist when his father wanted him to become a tradesman, a decision his dad later supported when the young man began to earn a good income drawing comic books.
“When I started at Timely I was earning $60 a week and by the time I finished there and moved to DC, I was up to $90. That was one of the motivations for me to become an inker rather than a penciller as it was easier to ink more pages per day than pencil them.”
A few months short of high school graduation, Joe found work with Hillman Periodicals under editor Ed Cronin at the age of 17. His first work was “Captain Codfish,” which appeared in “Punch and Judy Comics” #10 (cover-dated May, 1946).
However, Giella was looking for a steady paycheck, not a single freelance assignment, so the young artist found work with Fawcett on the Captain Marvel character with C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza. He remembered bussing out to Englewood, New Jersey, for a few months inking and pencilling Captain Marvel stories with the style guide right beside his drawing board. “They (Fawcett) were very particular about the likeness because it had to look like Beck drew it.”
Joe’s family couldn’t afford a full-time art education for their son, so he learned it from second-hand anatomy books, often working until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. He learned something from every job he did and every artist with whom he worked.
“I remember Dan Barry telling me if I thought a job was finished, go back to it. And he would show me how to improve it.”
Soon, Giella found himself knocking on Timely’s (precursor of Marvel) doors in order to find a staff position. It took persistence, but he was rewarded with his first freelance assignment by then-editor Stan Lee. “Mike Sekowsky was already on staff and promised Stan that he would ‘take care of the kid.”
However, on the way home, Joe lost the pages he was supposed to ink–a disaster for any artist, let alone a new one. “No-one slept that night in the Giella home. Mike kindly repencilled the pages and I inked them, and I was rewarded with a staff position in the bullpen. I worked on [characters] like The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America, over Syd shore pencils. I would do anything they offered: touch-up work, background art, inking or redrawing. Because of this, I decided to focus on inking instead of pencilling. What I once admired as a young man, I was now working on the same books!”
Giella also worked on Timely’s line of romance/teen books like “Patsy Walker,” “Nellie the Nurse” and “Millie The Model” with Mike Sekowsky and Stan Goldberg.
While at Timely, Giella met Frank Giacoia on the train platform and the two hit it off. “Giacoia became my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding, and he even lived only a few miles away from me. For years, when he called, I always lent a hand to help him out.”
When Giacoia moved from Timely to DC, he also persuaded Giella to move to the higher-paying company as well. “Of course, with Sekowsky over at DC too, that helped convince me to make the move.”
In 1948, Giella joined the naval reserves. Like many reservists, Joe planned his mandatory cruises to coincide with his vacation time from work so he could continue drawing. “I was with the reserves for eight years and while there, there were no conflicts so it was relatively peaceful, but I did manage to see many places I would never have been able to.”
Under editor Julius Schwartz, Giella inked early stories featuring the Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary and other characters, then later moved onto westerns in the early 1950s. His inking can be found on Alex Toth-illustrated stories of characters such as Sierra Smith and Jimmy Wakely, along with the classic Gene Colan-pencilled “Hopalong Cassidy” tales (which also featured inking by Sy Barry). Joe also inked western art by Carmine Infantino and Gill Kane on both covers and interiors, of which “Trigger Twins,” and “Pow Wow Smith” are good examples.
Giella thought highly of Toth’s Sierra Smith and Jimmy Wakely. “He was great, and his pencils were all there so there was nothing to decipher. Talents like he and Neal Adams come around once every hundred years.”
With the Silver Age of comic books beginning in 1956, Giella began inking science-fiction stories, including the features “Adam Strange” and “The Phantom Stranger” in “Strange Adventures.” He also inked Batman stories pencilled by artists such as Sheldon Moldoff (who ghosted for co-creator Bob Kane) and Carmine Infantino.
“Infantino was a great layout man with his own clean, simple style. Because of that, I felt that he should be inking his own work but an inker should be a good penciller too and be able to interpret was is there, enhancing if necessary. I always enjoyed working on Carmine’s pencils and we worked together for many years and had a great friendship.”
The ’60s found Joe working with Gil Kane on “Green Lantern” and the aforementioned Batman tales primarily, but he worked on the Batman newspaper strip for a four-year stretch as well.
“DC editor Mort Weisinger wanted me to draw the ‘Batman’ strip as [did the] Ledger Syndicate, but Julius did not as I was doing lots of work for him. In the end, I pencilled and inked the strip for most of its run and when I needed a break; Curt Swan stepped in for me with Carmine inking for a short time.” (Giella also assisted Frank Giacoia on the short-lived “Johnny Reb” and “Sherlock Holmes” strips in the ’50s.)
Joe had to sign Bob Kane’s name during his “Batman” run, yet would slide his own moniker into the strip in creative ways.
“I would draw my name into billboards or on the side of trucks just to get my name on the strip,” he said. “However, ‘Batman’ was probably my favorite feature, though not so much when I was inking Sheldon Moldoff. That was a little tough, because it was more of a camp style. That was [the] problem with the ‘Batman’ newspaper strip; they wanted me to work in a camp style, too. It was a little tough for me, but I finally got it.”
Giella alternately was inking Infantino and Moldoff on “Batman” and took the different styles yet found a way to make them look similar.
“I liked the Flash and Green Lantern as well in that time and still get mail from fans who talk about those runs,” he remembered. “When changes were being made to the characters, both Carmine and Gil were penciling “The Flash” and “Green Lantern” respectively and I felt that the newer versions were more modern and better designed.”
Joe enjoyed working with Gil Kane and marvelled at his strong style of layout. “Gil could utilize space like no one I knew and make it very interesting for the reader but despite his strong pencil skills, his inking suffered because he used markers.”
“I never regretted going to DC. The work was always there, and if I wanted a little extra work, they gave it to me. After the mid ’80s, I moved to the licensing department with Terri Cunningham and we became good friends. I remember working on a DC/Nabisco project, among others.”
During the ’70s, Giella also worked with Marvel in their corporate books for Simon & Schuster, including covers for “Stan Lee Presents the Mighty Marvel Comics Strength and Fitness Book” and “The Super Hero Cookbook.” Joe also worked on the comics “Captain America,” “The Avengers” and “Son of Satan.”
“I also ventured into a superhero-themed product with hero book covers licensed from Marvel that were popular for a while. However, that fizzled out as we ran out of ideas for our character covers.”
Giella decided to move to other markets and found work with ad agencies McCann-Erickson (illustrating posters for Exxon) and Saatchi & Saatchi (designing characters for a Mars candy bar project), as well as Doubleday and Communigraphics (Harlem Globetrotters yearbook) in the ’90s.
At the same time, Giella branched out into other business ventures such as partnering with a hospital administrator to create widely-sold model kits, as well as a unique glass-carving company from 1982 to 1989 with John Garafalo, arguably the best glass carver at that time.
Joe’s friendship with Sy Barry, who at the time was drawing “The Phantom” strip for King Features, turned into a part-time assignment which lasted 17 years.
“One day, I got a call from Jay Kennedy [King Features’ editor-in-chief], who wanted me to try out for the ‘Mary Worth’ strip. I said to him, ‘Will I be able to put my name on this strip?’ and he said, ‘You have to put your name on it,’ so I said I’d do it. This was a try-out, after all, and I did up a couple of dailies and they gave me the job over a dozen guys.”
John Saunders was the first writer Joe worked with and with Saunders’ passing, Karen Moy took up the mantle and writes the strip to this day.
As the new artist on the strip, Giella gradually changed the look from previous long-time illustrator Ken Ernst’s style to his own and began to receive mail on the public’s reaction to his Mary Worth. “People love this strip and it means something to them,” he said. “That’s why I loved working on it. With my retirement in 2016, my schedule is no longer ‘Mary Worth’-driven and I can look back on a good run on a popular strip that had more than 400 papers carrying it.”
In 2006, the United States Post Office honored Joe Giella by using two of his covers for celebratory postage stamps in the “DC Super Heroes” collection. In June, 2018, Giella received the Inkwell Awards Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame Award for his contributions to comic book inking.
“When I received my first award, the Alley Award, I was very surprised. After all, inking comic books was what I enjoyed doing. But after I thought about it for a while, the recognition was nice; it meant that people noticed what I was doing. The Inkwell is the same for me. People remember what I did so many years ago and I still get fan mail and sign comic books at conventions in addition to sketches and commissions.”
Joe’s long career has included many good friendships with Frank Giacoia, Carmine Infantino, Sy Barry, Gil Kane and other legendary artists.
“Carmine and I had a long professional relationship that included work on Batman, Adam Strange and the Flash. But we also did work after comic books that included commissions and special projects such as a Batman picture we did together.”
Just how many pages and stories has Joe Giella done? According to comics.org, his career story count is at 4,071 and the page count is currently in excess of 14,000, not including his daily comic strip work. Given his prodigious output of four years of “Batman,” 17 years of “The Phantom” and 25 years of “Mary Worth,” that total could be 40,000!
However, despite his artistic accomplishments, Giella has a quality that cannot be measured. Neal Adams said, “When I met Giella for the first time, he was one thing that stood out above all things. If anyone needed something done, he would help out. He demonstrated that with Frank Giacoia and his loyalty throughout [Frank’s] life to him. He was a true friend, and that is one thing I admire about Joe. He is a worthy winner of the Hall of Fame Award. Congratulations, Joe.”
The artistic excellence of Joe Giella has passed onto the second and third generations with son, Frank, and daughter helping during “Mary Worth.” Frank teaches a Saturday morning cartooning class at Hoftstra University and is an art history and cartooning instructor at Forest Hills High School.
As Frank said about his dad in an interview with “Newsday,” “He’s done this his whole life and has always done it with a smile. He would say it’s not work if you enjoy what you are doing. 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.”
Article by Tim Lasiuta, co-author of Brush Strokes With Greatness: The Life & Art Of Joe Sinnott.