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Michael Ploog
Interviewed by Dirk Deppey
from The Comics Journal #267
Spread from P*S Magazine#224 (circa 1971), probably drawn by Ploog.

Mike Ploog has had a long and storied career in comics, which continues to this day -- his series Abadazad, a collaboration with J.M. DeMatteis, was the last successful comic issued by CrossGen before that company went belly-up last year. The duo is set to release a follow-up, Stardust Kid, from Desperado Publishing later this year.

Ploog got his start working for Will Eisner as the principal artist on P*S Magazine in the early '70s. In the interview that follows, he discusses the time he spent with Eisner, and his experiences in creating the magazine for the U.S. military, a rare window into a little-known aspect of Eisner's career. The interview was transcribed by Kristy Valenti and copy-edited by the participants and Gary Groth.

DIRK DEPPEY: According to the interview that you did with Jon Cooke in Comic Book Artist #2, you were working for Hanna-Barbera when you saw a flyer advertising a job opening at Eisner's studio.

MICHAEL PLOOG: Actually, the flyer was brought to my attention by a guy that I shared a room with there at Hanna-Barbera, because he belonged to the National Cartoonists Society.

DEPPEY: When was this?

PLOOG: I'd say it was around 1970.

DEPPEY: What made you leave Hanna-Barbera for Eisner's studio? I can't imagine that it was a rise in pay.

PLOOG: [Chuckles.] No, it wasn't, actually. It was New York, you know? It was getting out of a kind of malaise I was in, in the animation business. I was in television animation, which was, at that time, more or less the bottom rung of animation. Hanna-Barbera was a great place to work, because it was very free and open and a lot of fun going on and everything, but the projects were not really very interesting. When this young man that I was sharing an office with -- Will had run an ad in the newsletter for the National Cartoonists Society looking for an artist that had military experience and that drew relatively close to the way he drew. When this guy saw the ad, he thought "Well, Ploog does that."

DEPPEY: According to the same interview, you said you interviewed with Eisner two days later at the Beverly Hills Hotel. How did that go?

PLOOG: It went very smoothly. Will was out there on a business trip anyway, and so we met up two days after my telephone call. We had a chat -- it was on a Thursday -- and he literally just looked at me and said, "Can you be to work on Monday?" And I thought, "Oh, what the hell, yeah, I can be at work on Monday." [Deppey chuckles.] That was it.

The problem was that I missed my flight, and I wasn't to work on Monday. I was a day or maybe two days late, actually, and Will had the FBI and the police and everything else looking for me. [Laughter.] He was a very caring person. I don't know if he thought I was worth looking for, or that he didn't want to lose another artist. [Laughter.] I showed up two days late.

DEPPEY: One thing that confused me about that interview is a point where you were talking about the contract with P*S Magazine:

CBA: Who did you get together with to get the P*S contract?

PLOOG: It was Will and I. I was going in and picking it up by myself, and Will was going to be my shadow. He and I were going to be partners but I was actually going to hold the contract.

Now, Eisner was already working on P*S Magazine at the time.

PLOOG: Well, Will had worked P*S Magazine since about 1952, and they decided, "We've got to put it out to somebody else." You know, it's like he's got this dynasty going. So they said, "Well, Will, you've got to do something. You've got to either back out of it altogether or find some way of doing this."

So Will came up with the idea: I picked up the contract, and Will became the shadow partner, and I moved across the street from Will's office into another office that he had. I don't know whether he had been leasing it, but we subleased it from Will, and we took over the book. Then it just got to be too much, because it's not that profitable without a partner [laughs], but if you've got a partner, then it becomes totally non-profitable.

DEPPEY: Were you working on this solely by yourself, or was there a...?

PLOOG: Oh no, I still maintained the crew that we had across the street. Everybody that had worked on it with Will came over and worked it with me. So, I had a complete crew there.

DEPPEY: Do you remember who was involved in this?

PLOOG: Yeah, there was Ted Cabarga who was more or less the editor... and then there was Bob Sprinsky who was my partner on this little venture, because he was a an art director. It was very hard to really separate jobs on that project, because everybody kind of pitched in and did everything, you know? But there was Bob Sprinsky, Bernie Schwartz and Frank Chiaramonte, who became my inker later on, when I started doing comic books.

DEPPEY: My understanding is that the head office for P*S Magazine was located in Lexington, Kentucky, so they had a group of staff writers who would sit there and assemble the text, for... if not the actual comics section in the center, then all the stuff that surrounded it.

PLOOG: They would put together articles. Each book had a theme, whether it was going to be tanks, or whether it was going to be artillery, or whether it was going to be weapons or radio or whatever. They would assemble all of the articles that were going to be now used within the book. They were usually two- or three-page articles.

DEPPEY: Was Jim Kidd still the editor at P*S?

PLOOG: Yeah.

DEPPEY: Did you have any leeway when it came to creating the eight-page color comic in the center?

PLOOG: Yeah, actually I did quite a few of them. It was more or less based upon whatever the theme of the book was that month. We could pick any angle we wanted to take on it as long as we maintained the theme. Let's say, for instance, it was communications. We would do a theme on American Indians sending smoke signals. You know? As long as we had plenty of Connie Rodd in there in a sexy costume, it was perfect. That was what we would pick for the centerpiece.

DEPPEY: How much interference did you get from the military? I understand that after you did the initial work on it, it would be sent off to Washington and then you'd have to get approval all over again for it.

PLOOG: Well, yes and no. What they were more concerned with was the hardware: whether we were relatively accurate in our portrayal of the actual equipment. The cartoon stuff was there to soft-sell the product, whatever the machinery was -- that was left up to us. We very seldom had any interference on it unless it really offended somebody, which very seldom happened.

DEPPEY: Were there ever any concerns over, for example, the way you were depicting Connie?

PLOOG: Only Will, he was continuously redrawing her face. Yeah, every time I drew her, he'd draw over it again. He liked my bodies, but [laughs] there was something about that face that had to be just that, and if it weren't there, he'd draw over it again. You could get pretty damn sexy with her, as long as you didn't get obscene or offensive. You kind of had to use your own judgment on it. Very seldom did we get rapped about it.

DEPPEY: During the '60s, my understanding is that they were kind of de-emphasizing some characters -- Joe Dope for example, and Private Fosgnoff -- and they started adding new characters. For example, they added a new black female mechanic...

PLOOG: That was actually the period when I was there. And I can't remember her name, but she appeared about a year after I got there. So, it was like in the early '70s that she appeared, and she was kind of the black equivalent of Connie Rodd.

DEPPEY: Right. Right, and in the comics I've seen, she was used accordingly. What was the impetus behind adding her? Was that something you guys did, or was that handed down?

PLOOG: No, I think that was a request from headquarters. As a matter of fact, we went to a lot of effort to make sure we included a lot of black people in the book content itself and in the continuity stories that are in the middle of the book. But they just felt they wanted to have somebody up front, and they just felt that a girl would be just the perfect thing.

DEPPEY: This is during the Vietnam war, and you were featuring Vietnamese characters. Was there ever any, back-and-forth between you and the home office in terms of how they were portrayed?

PLOOG: No, not at all. I mean, when you're dealing with the enemy, you know... you can portray them any way other than joining a chow line. No, we never had any problem with that whatsoever.

DEPPEY: Well, I mean you know they were also dealing with Vietnamese civilians, who were also depicted there.

PLOOG: Yeah, well, a lot of it was just left up to everyone's individual judgment. So it was not something that we were going to portray in a way that was going to be negative in any way, unless they were the Viet Cong -- they were open for whatever we wanted to throw at them. I mean you could do anything you wanted to them. But it's still a magazine that's going to be reaching a lot of guys that have never been to Vietnam, you know. So there was a certain amount of sensitivity. It was never something that anybody talked about; it was just within the office.

A lot of times you just portrayed the Viet Cong as a loser, as opposed to a brutal warrior. He's fighting a losing battle. By thinking of it that way, you could even come up with humor. Bill Mauldin used to do it with the Germans. I mean, he could find humor in the German army, which was a very difficult thing for a lot of soldiers to do at that particular time. Our job was to reach these guys, and make them laugh, and make them interested in the book. We weren't in the market of propaganda.

DEPPEY: Right, right. Did you get a lot of feedback from soldiers about the work that you did?

PLOOG: We used to get a lot of letters from guys, yeah. The soldiers really loved P*S Magazine. You couldn't go to a motor pool in the Army or in the Marine Corps without seeing P*S Magazine pages posted all over the walls.

DEPPEY: You always had that center spread that was a pull-out poster, or as big a poster as you can have for a magazine that small.

PLOOG: [Laughs.] You used to see it in every motor pool in the armed forces. They loved the book. They loved it because it talked to the soldier. It wasn't talking over their heads, and the jokes in there weren't jokes on the soldiers, and it wasn't making them look stupid. It was jokes on the military, on how complicated someone can make this thing. That kind of a joke -- you know, "There's a simpler way of doing this, obviously, so why doesn't somebody tell me how to do it?" That's what we did.

I'll tell you, it was a pretty loose kind of an office up there. There were all kinds of goofy things going on. Will had that educational supplement that I can't remember...

DEPPEY: Educational supplement?

PLOOG: He used to bring in goofy things like pipes from Peru, and silk worms from Japan. They used to be stored in boxes all over the place, and they used to be shipped out in these educational supplements. I remember we had silk worms in the basement that the rats got. [Laughs.] We ended up with boxes and boxes of empty silk worms, and beads from South America that somebody realized were highly poisonous. [Laughs.] If somebody even so much as put one around their neck, it would kill them. Goofy things like that. And I can't remember what the name of that company was, but it went on in the back, in the back room, more or less.

DEPPEY: So these went out with comics, or...?

PLOOG: They went out with a weekly newsletter. To be honest with you, I never really got to the bottom of it, whether he was working with somebody else who was putting the newsletter, the weekly newsletter to students, together and Will was just more or less kind of a partner in it of some kind. But we used to get these strange boxes full of exotic bric-a-brac. And from time to time, and everybody would kind of wonder, "What in the hell is going on around here?" [Laughter.] I just collected a paycheck there, and it didn't matter who it was coming from.

It was great period of time. Before I met him, I never knew who Will Eisner was. I knew his name because I was familiar with P*S Magazine from the military, but I didn't connect anything with it, you know, other than the fact that he did P*S Magazine. When P*S Magazine popped up, and I had an opportunity to go work on it, and I'd been copying his work for years, because I was doing visual aids and training aids for the military for a long time.

DEPPEY: This is when you were in the military yourself?

PLOOG: Yeah, this is when I was in the Marine Corps. So, I was very familiar with his work, and it wasn't until I went to work with him in New York did I find out who he really was. It's not that I'm not very easily impressed, but you know, The Spirit was great, and I used to go back, because he had all the original plates [laughs] from all of the newspaper strips, he had all the lead plates back in the back there.

DEPPEY: Really!

PLOOG: [Laughs.] Every single one of them: I'm not joking. And he had Xeroxed copies of all of them, the Sunday pages. I went through them all, I must have read every single one of them. Then I became impressed, because the fact that I thought the guy was my kind of an artist, because both of us loved doing cartoons and caricatures and stories about losers. That was Will's forte -- he loved the loser. It wasn't until after I got there that I realized who he was and what he was. Working with him was a hell of an experience, because he was a bit of a taskmaster when it came to what he wanted to see. If you weren't in tune with the drawing, he'd sit there right over your shoulder and say [imitates Eisner], "No no no no no no no. That's just generic, I mean anybody could draw that. Draw me somebody that you know."

I learned an awful lot from Will. I walked away knowing an enormous amount that I certainly didn't have when I went to work there.

DEPPEY: Did he ever discuss comics as an art form, or did he ever show any indications of the guy who would later be a champion of the graphic novel?

PLOOG: I don't think he really liked comics, per se. He loved the idea of visual storytelling in comics form, but he always felt that there was more to it than that. He always felt that somebody was going to do something with this comic-book format that was going to be great, and it wasn't going to be just pulp. He always felt there was more to comics than just superheroes and big fists and people jumping off the page screaming at you. I mean it's going to be something of importance. That's why he always liked Jules Feiffer -- because he always felt that Jules had done something with comics that no one else had done. I guess in his later years, Will decided, "That's it. I can't wait any longer, I'm going to do it myself."

DEPPEY: Were you guys at all familiar with the underground comics movement? It seems to me that that was the only other alternative that was going at the time.

PLOOG: Well, I was a little familiar with it, because I'd met some of the underground comics artists in Los Angeles when I was out there. But the underground movement was going in a totally different direction than what Will would want to go in -- or even myself, because I really wasn't interested in that sort of humor, that sort of storytelling.

DEPPEY: ...the culture behind it.

PLOOG: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Robert Crumb did some beautiful stuff, fantastic stuff, but a lot of it was just for shock factor. There was more to comic storytelling than that. You don't have to shock people to get their attention.

DEPPEY: I guess the other thing I'd have to ask about is European comics. Was there any indication that anybody there was following European comics?

PLOOG: I think Will did. I never did because I was not a comic-book fan. I never was. [Laughs.] I am one now, obviously, but as a kid I was never a comic-book fan. As a matter of fact, we were lucky we could afford a radio, to say nothing about going out and buying comic books. I didn't really get into comic books until I was in comic books, and so I really wasn't that aware of the European market until after I got into comics. Then the European market blew my mind. I mean, why could the European market do this and the American market can't...? It became obvious.

DEPPEY: You were with Will for two years, if I recall.

PLOOG: A little over two years.

DEPPEY: In the Warren issue of Comic Book Artist, in #4, Eisner talked about how you were freelancing with Jim Warren while still working for him.

PLOOG: Yeah.

DEPPEY: The discussion was kind of vague, but I assume there was a relatively hefty turnaround of people finding other jobs and then...

PLOOG: Oh, no, no. People stayed with Will until they died.

DEPPEY: Really.

PLOOG: Oh, Christ, yeah. Ted Carbaga must have been with him for 10, 15 years. No, there was a very very small turnaround there. People stayed on with Will. Will actually was a very good employer. He was a good employer -- it was a very loose shop. We more or less regimented ourselves. He just really wanted the book to be produced, and we saw to it that it got produced every month.

DEPPEY: So, what finally convinced you to move on?

PLOOG: Well, I wasn't making any money and the schedule was a nightmare. I felt that I really couldn't handle the project, not under the circumstances that I had it. I had to go freelance again and go off on my own. Financially, it was not a very good idea; when Murphy [Anderson] took it over, he took it over by himself, and that's the only way it could have been done. But I more or less had Will, and I wasn't going to be able to get rid of him.

DEPPEY: Did you maintain contact with Will after you left?

PLOOG: I didn't for several years. It wasn't on purpose, it was just our paths went different directions. I did finally get in contact with him, and then I stayed with him up until just a year or so ago.

Dirk Deppey is the Managing Editor of The Comics Journal.

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