The Art and Life of George Roussos

1915-2000

A photo of the artist at work in 1941. Provided to Comic Artist Magazine by the Roussos family.

 

George Roussos was many things: philosopher, professional, kind, sincere, comedian, astronomer, humble, gentleman, smart as a whip/sharp as a tack, Leo, photographer and I think somewhere after a million other words you could say, he was a comic artist. In spite of that, you could count comic book greats such as Alex Toth  and Jack Kirby among the fans of his comic work. Almost everyone in the field knew something about "Inky," a nickname given Roussos by artist and editor Bob Wood of Crime Does Not Pay fame.
Roussos worked in comic books and strips for an amazing 60 years, straight through.  He worked for nearly every major publisher, worked in every aspect of comic production and managed to set the look for the most recognizable pop icon of the 20th century. He was an extremely humble man, who never saw his own place in comics history as all that big a deal. He wasn't falsely modest, he just saw himself as honestly self-critical.

Roussos was born on August 20th, 1915 in Washington, DC to William and Helen Roussos. There is some debate about this date but it has been varified by use of his birth certificate. Roussos referred to himself as "the Old Greek." He and his two sisters, Helen and Alice, were orphaned at a young age. He spent his youth at the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum. He went to school at PS 125 in the Woodside area of Queens, New York, where he started drawing for the school paper. Roussos told close friend Bill Cain, "I was always interested in the newspaper comic strips. I actually learned the basics of comics production from Frank Miller's strip, Barney Baxter. I would imitate Frank's style and send him samples of my work. He'd critique my work and I'd learn from his comments and criticisms." Roussos has said he was most influenced by the artists Chester Gould, Stan Kaye, Robert Fawcett and Hal Foster.

With an indelible knack for adaptability, Roussos broke into the comics in 1939 doing lettering for a Spanish language version of the Ripley's Believe it or Not strip. He couldn't read Spanish but as he told Mark Gruenwald, "It wasn't as hard as it sounds. I know Greek and there's a lot of similarity between the two languages." In 1940 Roussos answered, along with 60 other applicants, an ad in the paper that was hiring assistants for Bob Kane on the Batman comics published by National (DC) comics. George's familiarity with comic production, thanks to Frank Miller's advice and his own skill, got him the job. He worked hand in hand with Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson producing Batman. Finger wrote the stories, Robinson would draw the people and Roussos would do almost everything else (including drawing backgrounds, inking, lettering and possibly coloring). Though Batman was quite popular, Roussos wasn't fazed by the character's success. "I needed a job," he told Jon B. Cooke.

After a few years Roussos moved on to work directly for DC Comics on Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Superman, Starman and most notably Airwave: "I had so much fun with this title because I could do almost anything with the character. It was only five pages, so I could go in many directions." He turned a little known filler character into a work of art, remembered to this day. On Airwave Roussos began, in earnest, a lifelong passion for experimentation with every aspect of the art including coloring. "One thing I did in an Airwave was use only grays. Mr. Leibowitz, who was the publisher, came in. ‘George' he said to me, ‘Where's the color?' I said ‘This is a different effect. This is color but it's different.' I don't know what the hell I said! I made it up! He walked away and after a while he said ‘I'm talkin' to another nut!'"  During his time at DC, fellow artist Stan Kaye became a friend and mentor of sorts. "He helped with illustrations. I would do an illustration every week with opaque colors and he would correct it for me… I was interested to learn because I had no schooling [in art] except the things I learned by myself."   Roussos continued working for DC comics off and on through the end of the1960s. Roussos would sometimes draw the whole package but often he would sign on as an inker, letterer and/or colorist. He was always recognized by editors as a superlative drawer of settings and backgrounds.

During the 1940's Roussos worked for companies like Timely, Standard, Avon, Fiction House, Family, Better, Spark, Hillman and Lev Gleason, among others. Through DC, Roussos also produced a series of 16 comics for General Electric in the early 40s; he told Bill Cain, "These pamphlets were distributed in schools throughout the country and South America, Europe and India. I received an extension from the local draft board in order to complete this publication. When the work was over, the bomb ended the draft. This is a good thing for the Army… they might have lost the war!" There were 68 million of the pamphlets distributed, according to an article in the New York Daily News. He worked on an advertising comic for Thom McAnn Shoes in 1944 and '45. During this time Roussos also began a long period of working as, his usual, inker/ penciler/ letterer/ colorist with fellow comic artist Mort Meskin. Roussos told me that Meskin, "…suggested:‘let's open an art school.' We rented this room for about 25 bucks a month and we [set up] chairs and everything." Neither of them were too business minded though, "We bought orangeade and made tea and coffee, so the profit went out the window, plus paying the model."

One thing Roussos was always very adept at was dealing with authority. While working at DC he had a run in with editor Mort Weisenger: "His trick was to give you a job to ink and he would have your job to ink and another job ready. The third week, you go up there and there was no check and no story. He would watch your expression. Now he's got you at bay. Finally, you'd say ‘Where's my check Mort?' He said ‘Oh, the check!' and all that, try to see what my reaction would be. He'd hope for me to get angry. I said, ‘Mort, forget about it.' So, I pulled out some change from my pocket, about a dollar fifty or so, and I said ‘Don't worry, I can get along with that very nicely. Whenever you have my check, fine.' I didn't want to give in to his tricks."

The comic books weren't enough to keep Roussos busy and he branched out into newspaper comic strips over and over again throughout his career. He worked, as always, in many capacities on The Lone Ranger, Judge Parker, Judge Wright, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. He also came up with a number of finished proposals for his own strips: 2001 A.D. (in 1945, 20 years before the movie), Azeena (1967), an archeology strip and Transisto (in the late ‘60s with writer Bill Finger). Sadly for us fans of his work, his own strip ideas never made it into the papers. During the 1950s he worked for outfits like St. John, EC, Atlas and Crestwood (a shop run by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon).  He returned to Atlas, now renamed Marvel comics, in 1964 where he worked under the psuedonym "George Bell." Stan Lee needed some one who was a fast and good inker. Roussos told Mark Gruenwald, "I could sit down and ink 24 pages in about a day. I sat down with a pen and outlined a whole job in about 10 hours  (less with a brush) then went back and spotted blacks. But I wouldn't bring it in the next day, because I didn't want them to know I was so fast." Roussos even worked for Warren publishing for a brief time in 1970 and '71.

   After working for Marvel for years, in 1972 he joined the staff of in-house artists and began a second career in comics, as a full time colorist. He took over the position after Marie Severin quit. Roy Thomas, chief editor at Marvel, from 1972-‘74 remembers Roussos as somebody who knew what he wanted: "I liked his coloring and we got along real well. We used to go around and around about one little thing. When he was coloring interiors, whenever Spiderman, who wore red and blue, leapt from one wall to another, he was always leaping from a yellow wall. Whatever wall he headed for suddenly became yellow when he landed on it to contrast. He would say, ‘You've got to have contrast.' and I would say, ‘There's also got to be continuity.'" Roussos' amazing color sense reinvented the look of Marvel books, particularly the covers. He believed that colors in comics had to be simple and striking and developed a unique approach to using white that would "make a white seem whiter than the paper it was printed on." he told Gruenwald. His color sense is unmistakable. He was working on cover proofs and corrections until his death this year. He still continued to do hand coloring as a back up, even when computer coloring became the norm in the ‘90s. As usual, playing down his own role, Roussos told me in 1999, "A very easy job, I have now."

Roussos from the February 1986 issue of Marvel Age.


In the 1950's Roussos began a life long interest in photography which would eventually lead to a book, the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in the 1984, of his photographs and writing on the history of a local (Oakdale, NY) estate. He had his own darkroom for developing the photos. Roussos would sell some of his valuable collection of original comic art by others to further his photography. There was a Hal Foster Tarzan page he "…sold for almost a thousand dollars and I bought expensive lenses. The thing that I sold for peanuts was a book with drawings by every artist from Foster, Charles Flanders , to Jack Kirby, all the newspaper artists that I knew and worked for were in there. I sold it for about $900. I needed a German lens."

Of course, Roussos had a million more interests: cooking, astronomy, art history, gardening, natural medicine, cars, chemistry, architecture, philosophy, steam engine trains, animals and painting; all of which he was fully conversant in. Flo Steinberg, longtime Marvel Comics staffer, puts it best. "George was many dimensional." Steinberg knew Roussos from his days as "George Bell" but in the 1990s the two began sharing a workspace in the Marvel offices. "He was a very learned guy. He was always reading: papers, books, magazines. He had such eclectic tastes, he could be reading about history, philosophy, ethics, politics or architecture. He was very erudite and had sophisticated tastes. As a young man he had traveled all around the world." Steinberg went on to say, "He was very modest, that was his way…He was a unique man."

Roussos, always the philosopher, told me his ideas on art: "Our natures are expressed in the way we work. Some people are very meticulous in the way they live, the way they do things, and it expresses itself in their work. When you find a detailed artist, he's usually not a very creative artist. In order to make up for it, he becomes meticulous. When you look at his work you see everything in order. You appraise him on that value. People who are more creative, they are more or less like [their] handwriting. You know how some of the guys write with this wild handwriting, never even, terrible penmanship. The same thing with [their] artwork. Technique, usually, is a disguise for creativity. Sometimes you don't need creativity, you need people with technique. It's a toss up."


Roussos, a Leo and astrology buff, always noted that his life was full of Geminis: "The first artist who helped me out (Stan Kaye) was a Gemini. So was the second, Mort Meskin. My two wives were both Geminis." His first wife's maiden name was Viola Fink; they had met at school in their youth. Roussos' second wife was named Florence Lacey. They were married on November 17, 1980.  The second Mrs. Roussos passed away in 1998. He is survived by his sister (Alice), three sons (William, Robert, and Louis) a daughter (Marie), four grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

One thing that every one I talked to about Roussos has noted is that for the last 20 years of his life, he would always take time, even in the dead of winter, to go the near by park, the Sportsmen's Club and feed the 280 deer. His daughter Marie has told me, "The deer knew him and did not run from him."  He was always more concerned with the welfare of others; a generous, generous man.  Roussos' death was caused by a heart attack on February 19th at the Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, New York. Of course, Roussos would be embarrassed by all this attention. He'd probably wonder why anyone would care so much about his life. How could we not!

by Dylan Williams