INTERVIEW: Dick Ayers, Master Comic Book Artist

Nick Fury

“We had had no school to go to,” says 87-year-old comic book artist Dick Ayers. “You went to a regular art school, and that’s what I told ’em in the art school. I got upset. ‘You guys are all the camera, the single Kodak camera. I’m the movie camera. I’m telling them a story.’”

One of at least 36 comic book artists scheduled to appear on Sunday at the Albany Comic Con at the Holiday Inn Albany on Wolf Road, Ayers may be less high profile than some other artists appearing at the convention – like Joe Sinnott, Jim Starlin, Fred Hembeck and Bill Anderson – but he has been a personal inspiration to me since I was seven years old.

I remember the moment I saw my first painted cover edition of The Lone Ranger 60 years ago as if it were yesterday. It was on the middle shelf of Eaton’s Drug Store in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and it featured the masked man punching out the bad guy. The motion captured in that painting and the expression of determination on the masked man’s face completely captivated me.

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I bought the issue, took it home and poured over every page. The idea of a masked avenger doling out justice appealed to my young mind more than fairy tales about pigs and princes, dwarfs and princesses with long tresses. But my masked avenger let me down. He was a wimp who shot the guns out of rustlers’ hands instead of putting them down. His response to heinous crime pulled the punch I first saw in that cover.

To me, he never lived up to his back story.

Ah, but the Ghost Rider was different. Not the chopper-riding avenger from hell we know today, but rather a spectral figure in white with a flowing cape on a snowy white stallion who drove evil-doers insane by reversing his cape in the night, hiding in the darkness, throwing his voice and pushing the guilty parties over the edge in abject horror. Dick Ayers was the cartoonist who created stark images of terrified Ghost Rider victims in a way that mirrored the cell phone photos of Moammar Gadhafi’s last moments 60 years later.

From 1949 to ’54, Ayers drew 167 Ghost Rider stories that appeared in 14 self-titled comic books and as backup stories in a number of other Magazine Enterprise comic books including Tim Holt, Red Mask, Bobby Benson’s B-Bar B Riders, and Best of the West. Ayers’ drawings took this young reader into a fantasy world in which good triumphed over evil, and – like the more popular E.C. horror comics of the day – were morality plays where the bad guys paid dearly for their mistakes, nudged over the edge by an avenger on a horse drawn so perfectly that I half expected to be able to climb on its back and fly.

Ayers says today his ability to draw horses came from growing up on a farm in Poultney near Lake Cayuga. “That stuff stuck in my mind because I loved playing cowboys and robbers, running through the vineyards and the gullies. It was great, so it came out in my drawing for Magazine Enterprises.”

The character of the Ghost Rider was drawn from a variety of sources. ME Editor Vin Sullivan told Ayers to go see the Disney movie about Ichabod Crane, the Headless Horseman from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for inspiration. When he first drew the character, he listened to crooner Vaughn Monroe’s record of “Ghost Riders in the Sky:” “As riders loped on by him, he heard one call his name/If you want to save your soul from hell a-riding on our range/Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride/Trying to catch the devil’s herd across these endless skies/Yippie yi Ohhhh/Yippie yi yaaay/Ghost Riders in the sky/Ghost Riders in the sky/Ghost Riders in the sky.”

From the radio melodrama “The Shadow,” Ayers and writer Ray Krank took the idea of hiding in the shadows and throwing his voice to terrify wrongdoers. For two decades Orson Welles and other actors had played this then-contemporary avenger who could “cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him.”

“We thought The Ghost Rider would bring in some sales ’cause the trend was going for these monsters and horror stories, so bring ’em on,” recalls Ayers. The most successful single issue was number 10 that featured a cover of the Frankenstein monster strangling a horror-stricken baddy in a swamp as the Ghost Rider rode towards the two. The story “Ghost Rider vs. Frankenstein” opened with this introduction: “People cowered behind barred doors for Frankenstein’s monster had come to America! Again and again, the night’s stillness was slashed by the anguished screams of the monster’s victims… then… they met and grappled on a craggy cliff in the battle of the century – Ghost Rider vs. Frankenstein!”

Things were riding high for Ayers until one fateful day in 1954 when three phone calls in a row put an end to The Ghost Rider and two other comics he was drawing. A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham published a book that year titled “Seduction of the Innocent” that sparked a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the whole comic book industry. Wertham was the Estes Kefauver of comic books. His blanket indictment of the industry forced a self-regulating Comic Code Authority on the whole comics business that in one swipe wiped out all horror and monster comics leading to the development of super heroes as the leading characters in comic books.

Ayers went on to become comic artist Jack Kirby’s inker on such super hero titles as The Fantastic Four, Ant-Man and early Incredible Hulk, but to this day the only super hero film he’s ever gone to see is the first Superman movie.

“They change so much,” complains Ayers. “They change the costumes. They do this, and they do that. I did see the first Superman because DC Comics gave us all tickets to see the show. There’s something about the costumes that don’t ring true. They look silly.”

Ayers doesn’t like most of today’s comic books, either. “I jokingly say you need a roadmap to read them, to follow the lettering, the story. And it’s just too much. It’s beautiful to look at with all the backgrounds and everything, but the story loses. The thing about our story was you got to read it at a certain speed, and it was like seeing a movie.”

Comics in the 1950s were blamed for causing juvenile delinquency. He remembers one artist telling him that comic book art was the Gowanus of the business. “That’s where they dump the garbage in the Gowanus Canal.” Today, comic book superheroes are the breeding ground for some of the most successful movie franchises, and DC Comics just last month rebooted 52 titles, starting over with issue 1 on each, a jump start that sold out key issues five times over.

Comic book art still has a ways to go in the eyes of the art community, but for some of us events like the Albany Comic Con are treasured journeys into another world. At age 56, Dick’s son Rich is just getting into the business with his dad.

“That little fella’d been growing up, and I thought they all hated my work and didn’t like comic books because in school they took them away from – all the stuff they had, they blamed us for juvenile delinquency. Here was my son telling me (how to use a certain brush). My God, He never asked. I never realized, never knew it. So now here for the last 20 years he’s been off and on working on this. And now he’s building himself a studio in his house.”

Story by Don Wilcock

WHAT: Albany Comic Con
WHO: Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnott, Jennifer Meyer, Bill Anderson, Lee Moder, Fred Hembeck, John Hebert, Jim Starlin and many more
WHERE: Holiday Inn Albany, Colonie
WHEN: 10am-4pm on Sunday (October 30)
HOW MUCH: $5 at the door

Ghost Rider

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