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RIP Joe Giella. Reflection Interview on Joe's Phantom Work Assisting Sy Barry

[Editors note: This article was originally released in the amazing Friends of the Phantom Newsletter #13 released by the late Ed Rhoades and Pete Klaus in the USA Spring of 1996. The interview was conducted Summer 1995. This article was republished with permission. Access to all Friends of the Phantom newsletters and much more can be found at our Phantom Preservation Project.

This republishing of the insightful interview is in reflection to his passing 21 March 2023. You can read the family release here on Facebook.]

It was Don Heck who first directed me to Joe Giella. I had known that Joe was an assistant on The Phantom as well as a legendary comic artist, and I eagerly looked forward to speaking with him. After a few phone conversations, I finally met him at a Berndt Toast Gang meeting. He invited me to visit his studio on my next trip to visit with Sy Barry. On the day I ventured to Joe’s house, the temperature was in the triple digits and I was lost driving through sweltering streets over melted tar.

Twice, I stopped at phone booths to ask for directions and felt like I was stepping from my car into a furnace. His kindly, patient, reassuring voice redirected me and I learned that I had been driving the length of a street only one block in the wrong direction. I caught Joe at an incredibly busy moment, catching up for time lost in the midst of his son’s wedding.

Still, he made me feel welcome and unhurried, putting his strip aside to show me an impressive portfolio, some rare mementos on classic things he had done. He answered my questions with thoughtful insight and fascinating glances into the workings behind the scenes of one of comics greats.

I knew about his impressive contribution to comics, but was absolutely knocked out by his watercolors and oils painting.

Besides being a major talent, Joe is a warm human being and a delight with which to spend an afternoon.

Ed Rhoades: I understand that you worked on The Phantom for 17 years.

Joe Giella: Right, 17 years.

ER: Where did you meet Sy?

JG: We went to school together in high school, the School Of Industrial Arts. That’s where I met him.

ER: When is your birthday?

JG: June 27, 1928.

ER: Was the 17 years all at one time, or was it sporadically?

JG: On the Phantom it was 17 years, but prior to that, I worked with Sy on Flash Gordon. When his brother was in Europe, Sy handled the strip.

ER: Who else did you work with on The Phantom?

JG: Well it was really with Sy, because it was his strip.

Occasionally, he’d ask me to recommend someone, and I would. Don Heck, Frank Springer and what we’d do, we’d take their layouts, rub them down, tighten them up and then ink them and try to maintain the style.

That’s the way to do it. If I asked you, “Do you want to do a week of dailies?”, you would probably say “Gee, I don’t know if I can imitate that style.” Don’t worry about it; just give us layouts, what we would do was rub them down with the kneaded eraser, tighten it up and then ink it. That’s why it looked consistent all the time.

ER: Were the pencils done by Don Heck and George Olesen?

JG: No, George Olesen always penciled the strip. I think from the beginning. I’m not sure. Now, I’m not talking about Wilson McCoy.

ER: Actually, I believe Sy penciled the first episode himself and then Bob Forgione helped him on the Sunday.

JG: Yes, see I wasn’t with him then cause I was doing my Batman strip or I was working on Sherlock Holmes. And I think it was years later, I got a call from Sy and I started working with him.

ER: In the 70s, there was a while where Andre LeBlanc did the penciling instead of George Olesen when George got real busy.

JG: Yes, I think you’re right. George, I believe, was working for an advertising agency. Yes, that’s true.

ER: Did you do any of the pencils on The Phantom or just inking?

JG: When George Olesen would go on vacation, Sy or I would pitch in with the pencils. But I was penciling all the time because I was tightening up the roughs, the backgrounds, tightening the figures.

The Sunday page—believe it or not—we used to do a lot of paste-ups on the Sunday page. George would indicate the panels that he would refer to, and he’d say daily so-and- so and month and the year, we’re using that shot. So what we’d do is, we’d take that shot and we’d paste it up, embellish it, you know—add something to it, add figures—utilize it just to save time.

ER: Would you trace it or cut it?

JG: No, we actually cut it up. He’s got a pretty good copy machine. The blacks are black and we were able to do that. With the Phantom, he may be on a horse, we have to put him on a horse here or whatever.

ER: You would cut out the talking balloons?

JG: Oh yeah, just delete the balloons and just put in different footage, see? There’s another shot, see? Whenever we could do that on The Phantom... we’d have panels and panels of foliage, which is so time- consuming.

It’s nothing worth swiping, I mean Sy did that so many times. We would just cut it out and put [it] in back of maybe a figure, you know, utilize it just to save a little time.

The Phantom is a grueling strip. It was tough. Mary Worth is real easy because it’s mainly two panels. That’s it. It’s a soap opera. No one has thrown a punch in 65 years. [laughter] In fact the writer said to me, “Joe, you’re not going to be used to this, cause you’re used to guys flying off buildings— Batman, Superman,” he says, “This is very dead.” It does take a little bit of skill to try to make it interesting. It’s dead. It’s a quiet strip, it’s a soap opera, but you have to create layouts, expressions, characters— you know, it’s a little different.

ER: More subtle.

JG: You got it; that’s it. Now the Batman strip, you can see, three panels. Now this was a heavy strip, very time-consuming. I mean what you’re seeing here was every week. To answer your question, whenever we could save a little time, we would take advantage of it.

ER: What observations did you make about Sy’s style when you were copying it?

JG: Our styles were similar, because you see, his brother was a big influence on us. There was another fellow who had a big influence on me, my good friend who passed away, Frank Giacoia. He used to live a few blocks away, and he did Sherlock Holmes and he worked for the comic books, too. He was a very good friend of mine.

Between Frank Giacoia and Dan Barry, Sy and I developed a very solid style. When we started in the comic books, comics at that time didn’t have the reproduction that they had today. The reproduction left a lot to be desired. It was very bad, and the production manager was constantly telling [us] “You guys gotta thicken your lines, you gotta put more blacks, the colors falling apart... it’s weak... it’s not standing up.” So I would put [in] more blacks and keep the lines solid.

We were indoctrinated with this and we kinder developed a solid black-and-white style. Sy’s style and mine were very similar so it was very easy for me. In fact, if I needed help on Mary Worth and I asked Sy to pitch in and ink a couple weeks for me, you couldn’t tell the difference. Really, you couldn’t. It’s very close.

So between the comics, because of the bad reproduction, we had to solidify our work. His brother, Dan Barry, Frank Giacoia and a couple of illustrators that we liked, Robert Fawcett and Noah Sickles, we developed our style.

ER: Did you follow the Phantom strip when you were younger?

JG: On and off. I liked the Phantom strips. It was very interesting. I bounced back between Dick Tracy, Smilin’ Jack and The Phantom. Yeah, I followed it, all the strips, Terry and the Pirates, Smokey Stover, Joe Palooka [laughter].

ER: How would you describe your brush and pen work?

JG: My pen work is a little illustrative and I use my brush sparingly, just for solid blacks and effects, dry brush effects, or for a very large figure like that poster, like that [pointing to a dramatic action poster of Batman]. I don’t use a brush on something this size [showing smaller strip rendering], but when you take the strip, I use the pen as a brush.

ER: Would you tell us about the licensing you did on the Phantom?

JG: Yes. Allison Manufacture had two T-shirt companies. They were both based in the Empire State Building. They liked what I did and they sought me out and they asked if I would be willing to work on some projects for them. I went up to see them and both of them were in one week.

ER: It wasn’t through King Features?

JG: No, it was through Wilke Brothers and Allison. They had the licensing. They were children’s apparel, pajamas, T-shirts.

ER: Do you have any of the designs around?

JG: Yeah. [He showed me an outstanding action scene of a karate figure.]

ER: That was painted with those dyes?

JG: Yeah, but now the Phantom and the characters - they had a whole array of characters and that was for, I think Wilke Brothers, but they looked like these.

ER: I’d love to see some of those Phantom shirts.

JG: I wish I had them. I have no idea where they ended. I’m lucky I got these.

ER: They look terrific.

JG: And those dinosaurs you saw in the book, they were on here too. Somebody stole those paintings. They were big and they were supposed to give them back to me. He felt so bad. He said, “Joe, I’m not gonna lie to you; somebody stole them.” Now the Phantom and the comic characters, it’s similar to these. These are proofs. That’s the way they come out. If it was approved I had to make some changes. It’s a dye cut. There were 21 of these, similar to this for Walt Disney.

ER: Do any of the Phantom stories that you did stand out in your memory?

JG: There were so many. Lee Falk was such a great writer. I enjoyed every one.

That same was true of James Saunders; he was a TV anchor man, but he could write. It amazes me how he could create interest in a supposedly low key strip. But the Phantom, there was one story where he built something up in a tree, a treehouse, there was a name for it too, but I forget. It’s been awhile since I’ve drawn the Phantom now.

ER: Andre LeBlanc designed that treehouse. I have the first drawing of it.

JG: I liked that.

ER: I was wondering what years you worked on the strip.

JG: Year from the 1970s on. I did the Batman for four years. Probably in the 1970s sometime, right after the Batman, I started working with Sy.

ER: When did you last work on it?

JG: Maybe one of those will have a date [pointing to Phantom artists proofs]. 1984.

ER: So you did it from late 1960s to mid 1980s?

JG: Yeah. Whenever I started it was 17 years.

[Looking at Batman work] You see Bob Kane’s name here, penciling and inking. You won’t see Joe Giella’s. My kids used to watch TV every Saturday, and Bob Kane, what he would do was draw on a pad and he did a figure, that was my drawing lightly [done] in pencil.

I’d sketch the Batman figures on the big pad and just went right over my line. And my kids were so perturbed. I said it’s not my strip. But things have changed, but what are you gonna do? That’s the way it is.

ER: I think they have changed for the better. How long did you work on Mary Worth?

JG: Mary Worth will be four years this June. In fact, they just renewed my contract.

ER: You’ve done a number of other syndicated strips.

JG: Yes. I did a strip called Character Clues. It was sort of a one panel deal. If a person has like beady eyes, maybe it means that he’s devious or whatever, or a long nose or a wide face. These were all character clues. It was a feature that was run with the Batman. And then I worked on Flash Gordon, Batman, Johnny Webb, Sherlock Holmes, and then Mary Worth.

ER: And you worked on the biggest Superheros: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash.

JG: Oh yeah. Mostly inking for the comics, but for the licensing, it was penciling and inking.

ER: Did you work for DC alone?

JG: I started at Marvel, but it was called Timely Comics then at the Empire State Building.

I was around 17 and I remember I had to leave school a few months before I graduated, because my mother was losing her house. All my brothers are educated but me [laughter]. But we saved the house. I started at Timely Comics and then Frank Giacoia said, “Come over to DC, it’s a better deal here.”

But it took them three years to convince me to leave and I left Timely Comics to DC. But Stan Lee and I were still friends even thought I left. At the first Superman movie, me and Stan went together. We went to see the opening together. As we were approaching the theatre, I remember mentioning to Stan, look at all these cops here, cops on horses, we walked into the theatre and we sat down and Stan says to me "Joe, know what all these cops are here for?" We looked down in front and there was Mayor Koch and Governor Carey. They were at the opening about four or five rows ahead of us. I’ll always remember that when Stan and I went together.

ER: They should have been protecting you and Stan. [laughter] Did you know Carmine Infantino did one Sunday of The Phantom?

JG: Yes. He also did one week of the Batman, but they didn’t like it.

ER: You and he designed the new look of the Batman for the 60s. How did that come about?

JG: Well, see, this was the old style. The reason I have this here [showing me old original Batman art] is because my son is a comic buff. This is by Sheldon Moldoff & this was the old style.

We got together and we gave it a little more of a modern style, a different look. Along came Neil Adams and he even embellished it a little more, and gave it a nicer look, see. A lot of people are jealous of Neil Adams, but I always felt that the guy is a talented man. Talented! There’s no reason to be jealous. It’s like a singer you know. Forget about the guy’s personality altogether and go by the art work. Neil Adams is a terrific artist.

ER: Did Carmine always do the pencils and you the inking?

JG: Yes. I used to pencil and ink, but Carmine was strictly a penciler. I’m not saying he didn’t ink a few jobs, he did, but he wasn’t really an inker. His strength was really in his layouts. He was a terrific layout man. Terrific! And I think he put the drawing secondary. He really concentrated mostly on the layouts. I loved his layouts. Terrific layouts! I really did.

ER: What other comics have you worked on?

JG: Well for Timely (Marvel) Captain America, Human Torch, Submariner, Mighty Mouse.

Would you like to see the first comic book I ever worked on?

ER: Oh I’d love to!

JG: I’ll show it to you, it was called Captain Codfish, I penciled and inked it. It’s falling apart. [The comic was indeed falling apart from years of wear.] I worked on practically all the characters.

At DC, I worked on Hopalong Cassidy, The Flash, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Many times I’d get a call here, early in the morning—an artist would call and say, “Joe, can you pitch in?” Many times my wife would serve coffee to sober them up. She’s Irish but I taught her how to make Italian coffee real quick. [laughter] It used to wake you up. I worked on all the characters though.

ER: And for animation?

JG: The Disney characters, Woody Woodpecker, I’m not an animator, just for the licensing. That was a little more lucrative for me, you know. For the animation, the studios were in California and I couldn’t go out there.

Oh, you know what else I worked on? Captain Marvel for Beck Costanza in New Jersey. I worked on Captain Marvel before I went to Marvel (Timely Comics).

ER: I read Captain Marvel as a little kid.

JG: That was a good character. I loved Captain Marvel, good head, great head.

ER: Fred MacMurray, I believe was the model.

JG: Yes. Right, right, that’s what I heard.

ER: Did you consciously make it look like him?

JG: No. You couldn’t deviate from that head. They’d give you the head and, man I’ll tell you, you had to come up with that head.

There was only one studio that was more of a stickler on the the characters than Beck Costanza and that was Walt Disney. I gotta tell you, I bled on those tee shirts. I thought I had that character, I traced every line. I’d submit it for approval and sure enough it came back. And they were justified ... little subtleties, little things you just wouldn’t get unless you were doing it constantly.

ER: What other kinds of illustration have you done? I noticed some oil here.

JG: Yeah, mostly for advertising agencies, for publishing companies, brochures.

ER: You’ve been an art instructor at C. W. Post College ?

JG: Yeah an adjunct teacher for C. W. Post.

ER: What kind of art background do you have. Any formal studies?

JG: You know something? I picked it up on my own, self taught. I went to the School of Industrial Arts, then I went to the Art Students League, then I took courses in layouts at Long Island University.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I teach there [C. W. Post]. I’m an adjunct teacher. If someone’s on vacation they call me, the same with the Institute of Technology. I went to the School of Industrial Arts, a fine school, and I spent quite a few years in the Art Students League at 57th Street.

Three years ago I was still going on Friday nights. And I took a couple of courses at Hunter College, art courses. I wanted to get into different fields, because the writing was on the wall. You have to diversify. That’s the name of the game. So that’s my education, but I taught myself.

ER: Do you ever use markers?

JG: Occasionally, I’ll use a marker. I’ll use them on compos; my son is a comp artist. He uses markers. I’m not too crazy about using them. I like the older [mediums] but I use them for effects, but oil is my favorite. And watercolor, Dr. Martin’s Dyes.

ER: Where did you first develop your technique?

JG: You know you don’t develop it right away. It takes years to work to develop it. You know there wasn’t a job that I did, well there were a few jobs but most of the jobs I did, I wished I could do over - even from last week. You’re constantly learning and your style improves as you go along. I like my style to be loose and solid.

ER: Do you use any photographic refences? What’s your morgue like?

JG: Yes. I use reference, stored in three file cabinets. I see something interesting. I pull it out. You can see I’m doing Mary Worth [showing some fashion advertisements], bathing suits around the pool. You have to be up-to-date. It’s a dead giveaway if you bomb out on the styles. Look at hair styles and see what they’re wearing: a touch like this, a haunting look. Occasionally I’ll delete them and go with something new.

ER: Do you retain many originals of your work?

JG: Now I do. Years ago, they destroyed them, but now they send all the originals back.

ER: Do you do any comic shows like the Great Eastern?

JG: I attend a few and walk around, but I don’t do them. But they’re trying to get me to one in San Diego 1996. But they don’t want me there as a Batman artist; they want me there as a Mary Worth artist. I thought for sure because of my affiliation with Batman and the comics and everything.

He said, “I know, but they want to get into the syndicates now. They like what you’re doing, you came recommended and they are going to try to get you in as a Mary Worth artist.” Every Saturday in front of my house there was a row of bikes lined up. The kids, they used to come from all over every Saturday. My brother, John, lives across the street. He says “Joe, what do have, a bike store?” I said, “Now it’s kids from Levittown, Hicksville,” and I used to look at their work.

A few of them became editors, like Marv Wolfman at DC. These were comic fans. Lynn Wein, he’s a writer. He was a fan of mine and he became an editor.

ER: Do you collect any art or comics?

JG: No, my son does. I don’t go near it. [laughter]

ER: What are your hobbies or interests outside the art field?

JG: Well, I’m a cabinetmaker. I built all of Sy’s furniture in his office. I built all this. I used to build furniture for artists, custom furniture. I make all the stuff, cabinets etc. I have a woodshop and that’s what I enjoy doing.

This house was a shell. I built this house.

ER: Where were you born?

JG: I was born in Manhattan.

ER: Did you serve in the military?

JG: Eight years, mostly reserve.

ER: When you worked with Sy, was it in his studio or was it separately?