Artist of Two Worlds: A Tribute to Carmine Infantino (1925-2013)

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In 1971, I became a comic book fan at the age of eight. The comic that kicked off my lifelong passion was Flash #210. The cover featured the super-speedster hero reacting to the news displayed on a futuristic, rolling news-robot that President Abraham Lincoln had just been assassinated. “Impossible!” the Flash exclaims on the cover. “This is the year 2971!” What was not to love?

Once I got the issue home, I loved the lead story, but in the back of the comic was something really special. Under the header, “A Flash Classic,” was, “Invasion of the Cloud Creatures!” a tale reprinted from a 1960 issue of the Flash (three years before I was born!) that featured the Scarlet Speedster squaring off against a race of ancient sentient cloud beings who emerged from a volcano to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth.

Even though I was a total newbie to super-hero comics, I knew this story was something special. The new Flash story was drawn by Irv Novick and his artwork was attractive and perfectly serviceable, but the Flash in this “Classic” tale, drawn by Carmine Infantino, radiated a sense of speed and motion in every panel. Even the most cursory glance conveyed the illusion of animation. And the pages were filled with strange diagonals and long, skinny panels that defied the familiar logic of squares and rectangles that I knew from other comics. I couldn’t help but think, “Why isn’t this guy drawing the Flash full time?”

What I didn’t know at the time, of course, was that he had drawn the Flash — from the reintroduction of the character in 1956 until 1967 when Infantino become art director for DC Comics, eventually working his way up to the position of publisher. But even though Infantino was no longer working at a drawing board, the early seventies were the golden age for reprints, and over the next few years, I eagerly grabbed up all the reprints of his work on the Flash, as well as discovering his artwork on the science fiction series “Adam Strange” and his successful run on the “new look” Batman comics of the 1960s.

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Even though reprints were common in the early ’70s, younger comics fans have always been fascinated with the here and now — focusing the majority of their energy on the current, monthly four-color fix. And it was because of this that Infantino was literally out of sight, out of mind for many comic book readers of my generation.

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A native of Brooklyn, Infantino broke into the field of comics when the field was still in its infancy. His first work was published in 1942, when he was just 17. Infantino quickly developed an atmospheric style obviously influenced by the work of newspaper cartoonist Milton Caniff. In 1947, he began his long association with DC Comics, co-creating the venerable and sexy super-heroine, Black Canary, in his first job for DC.

After the death of super-hero comics in the late 1940s, Infantino became one of the mainstay artists for DC — leaving behind the Caniff-influence to develop a clean, linear style that he used on scores of science fiction, adventure and western comics. In 1956, editor Julius Schwartz decided it was time to revive super-heroes, and he started with what had been one of DC’s most popular heroes, the Flash. But Schwartz felt a new era called for a new look, and he chose Infantino to update the super-speedster for the Atomic Age.

It was on the Flash that Infantino truly found his visual voice. The pages of the Flash became all about design, composition and style while never forsaking solid story-telling. Infantino developed a unique visual vocabulary that portrayed the Flash as far more than a man who ran fast, but also as a person who experienced time at whatever rate he chose. The Flash became a big hit with baby boomers, kicking off a revival of the super-hero genre that has continued to this day.

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Infantino also began to explode the conventional panel format of the comic page — using the aforementioned long skinny panels and diagonals as well as finding new models for visual hierarchy and composition. His success made his work some of the most beautiful and innovative in comics of the early ’60s.

But while Infantino was bringing innovation to comic book art, DC Comics’ position as the rulers of the field began to slip away, stolen by the raw emotionalism and dynamism introduced by Marvel Comics and the work of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and others. In the popular narrative of the day, Marvel, the “House of Ideas,” came to be viewed as the center for all innovation in the comic book field, while DC was cast as the old-fashioned and hopelessly square competitor.

It was that perception that Infantino had to face when he moved into management at DC in 1967. He continued to promote innovation by bringing many new talents into the field (Neal Adams, Denny O’ Neal and Bernie Wrightson, just to name a few), introducing new concepts and sales formats, promoting artists to editor positions (not a common practice at the time) and even managing to recruit the two of most important Marvel creators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, to work at DC. In regards to sales though, none of it mattered as a shrinking market for comics combined with the marketing juggernaut that Marvel had become placed DC in a seemingly permanent number two position.

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In 1976, Infantino was fired by DC and he returned to drawing as a freelancer. His style had become looser and more stylized, and was not in step with younger, fan-favored artists. His art was still solid and showed a flair for design, and he had no trouble finding work at his former enemy, Marvel, and then later back at DC. Still, younger fans often disparaged his style while praising artists that had been directly influenced by his earlier work.

Infantino continued to draw comics into the 1990s — a decade that also witnessed the reformation of his legacy as many fans began to recognize the importance and influence of his work. But he was sometimes viewed as a controversial figure. It was an almost inevitable fate for any immensely creative person who spent time in the management of the comic book industry — a field well-known for its poor treatment of creative talent in previous years. He found himself praised for his achievements in regards to creators’ rights, while being damned for being a “company man.” Controversy aside, after his retirement Infantino became a regular on the comic convention circuit and an elder statesman, one of the few remaining living links to the early days of comic books — a position he held until his death last Thursday at the age of 87.

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Near the end of that first Infantino Flash tale I read 42 years ago, there’s a panel where the Flash stands still for the only time in the story. He has just defeated the cloud creatures, and their remains — ordinary rainwater — are falling from the sky in a downpour. In the hands of a lesser artist it would be a throwaway panel — just there to drive home the point that the menace is over. But the image that flowed from Infantino’s pencil (and Murphy Anderson’s inks) is a medium close-up of the Flash gazing poignantly skyward, one hand reaching out, feeling the rainwater that is dripping from his fingertips and face in long, thin streams.

It’s a powerful image, one that speaks to the wonder of the universe and the power of nature. How something as ordinary as common rainwater could constitute a threat to all humanity, and in the end return to its simple, base state. For me, the image also speaks to the wonder of the imagination and the power of creativity, and how a few simple lines drawn on paper can reach out and fire the imaginations of millions of kids around the world, as well as forever altering the life of a nerdy eight-year-old.

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