I remember meeting Irwin Hasen in late January of 2005, at Big Apple Comicon in New York. I was attending the show with writer (and now Hang Dai Studio mate) Vito Delsante, and Irwin was sitting across the room from us at his table — until I realized he was actually standing. He was petite.
I knew he drew a lot of the Golden Age DC Comics superheroes and co-created one of my favorites, Wildcat, but I’d forgotten he drew “Dondi,” a daily newspaper strip that somehow always irked me. It wasn’t anything like “Peanuts,” “Dick Tracy,” “Blondie,” “Hagar the Horrible,” “Motley’s Crew,” “Beetle Bailey,” “Spider-Man,” “Herman, “The Far Side” or the “Calvin and Hobbes” strips I liked to read. “Dondi” featured a little boy with big ears, billowy black hair and two large black dots for eyes. And he always seemed sad. The male response to “Little Orphan Annie”?
Anyhow, the cartoon disagreed with me, no matter how many times I tried to read it — to this day, I don’t really know why. Was it meant to be read by kids and teenagers, or was it more for adults? (Now that my 48th year on Earth is fast approaching, I should take another look-see.)
On that day, I walked over and shook hands with Irwin and told him his work made an impact upon me. He was kind yet cautious. He was very old — 87 at the time. After all, he was cut from the cloth that kick-started this comics form and it must burn a man out. Still, he was there, representing. I asked him whether he had any original “Dondi” strips for sale. He smiled and pulled out a handful from his portfolio.
Coming face to face with a bizarre childhood allergy, I felt curiously at ease. A calm washed over me as I confronted Dondi in all his gloomy glory. I read each strip and broke it down to the three that resonated the most for me. I asked how much they cost and Hasen said, “$75.” I asked him whether he took credit and he said yes. Then he helped me select one, his favorite of the bunch (a strip from 1968), and I agreed. I asked him again whether he was sure he accepted credit and he said, “Yes.” I asked him whether he would sign the original strip, perhaps draw me a Dondi. He was already doing it before I finished my request. The man was a pro. He asked my name and wrote “To Dean.” It was mine.
I pulled out my credit card and handed it to Hasen. He looked at the plastic and then looked at me. His eyes began to water. He didn’t know what to do with my credit card. I asked him whether he had a machine to swipe it with, so I could be charged. He said, “No.” The water in his eyes fell. It almost made me cry. I felt terrible. He had personalized the “Dondi” piece to me and a senior moment was betraying him.
We stood there, staring at each other. Water in our eyes. Finally, I asked him whether I could write and mail him a check the minute I got home. He said, “Yes,” and I sighed relief. I thanked him, shook hands, wished him well and returned to my table, exhausted. You can’t mess with Dondi or Dondi will make you cry. I suddenly had more empathy for that kid with the giant black pupils.
A couple of years later, I formed a comics studio called DEEP6 in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with five other cartoonists. One of them was Mike Cavallaro. When I got to know Mike, he told me about having Irwin Hasen when he attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, and how he was a terrible teacher but a great storyteller. Apparently, Irwin was a regular Casanova, and I could hardly believe it until I read “Loverboy,” Hasen’s graphic novel memoir about working in the comic-book industry while chasing tall, beautiful and buxom women. It was a hoot, and I was excited to see lettering legend Ben Oda make a cameo.
Ben was the very first professional cartoonist I met back when I was 15 years old, working after-school at the local candy and tobacco store on the corner of the building I lived in, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ben would often come in and play Lotto. One day I noticed he was carrying a portfolio and asked him what he did for a living. Ben kindly revealed that he lettered newspaper strips like “Prince Valiant,” “Apartment 3-G,” “Dondi” and others; he suggested that he sometimes ghost-illustrated some, too. Hasen’s “Loverboy” confirmed that Oda would sometimes swing by the hotel that Irwin used as a studio (and a sex den), nearby.
A year or so later, when I was 16 or 17, I discovered “The Fox” by Alex Toth in the back of a Black Hood comic book published by Archie/Red Circle. I was mesmerized by the savvy simplicity and sophistication of the art and story in contrast to the Marvel and DC Comics I was accustomed to. The Fox always stuck with me until a few years ago, when I created a character called The Red Hook that was semi-inspired by The Fox’s costume. I happened to be parlez’ing with Vito Delsante when he revealed to me that he’d recently written a short Black Hood story for Archie Comics and I asked him whether he would introduce to me his editor. Luckily, Paul Kaminski was a fan of my work and I showed him a four-page Red Hook story I did, to prove that I could rock The Fox, and asked whether Archie was doing anything with him? He said no, but asked me to pitch a six-page story. In doing research, I was elated to learn that Irwin Hasen (with writer Joe Blair) co-created The Fox in 1940! Which kind of made sense, because Wildcat was similar in that they both wore black and were superheroes that had no superpowers. Paul greenlit my zany Fox script and by the time I was finished drawing the six pages, he asked me to pitch a five-issue mini-series that evolved into “Freak Magnet,” the first Fox comic book series.
With the exception of a panel I saw at New York Comicon seven or eight years ago, where Irwin Hasen mixed it up with Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Jules Feiffer and other comics gods, I had not seen hair nor hide of him in a long while. A friend of mine, former Marvel editor/writer Danny Fingeroth, was in contact with Irwin and I was hoping to invite him to my signing for the first issue of The Fox at Jim Hanley’s Universe. Unfortunately, Irwin wasn’t in good health and he couldn’t come, but I always wanted to thank him for creating such a cool-looking character, and to tell him how honored I was being the current custodian of The Fox.
A week ago (while working at my current shared studio, Hang Dai, in Gowanus), I drew a page for “Fox Hunt” #4, a sequel to “Freak Magnet,” and the launch of an ongoing Fox series under Archie’s Dark Circle imprint. The fourth issue isn’t scheduled to be released until June 8, so I don’t want to spoil the context for the narrative, but on that page, The Fox realizes he’s been buried deep inside a grave and panics. He kicks and scratches himself to the surface of a cemetery and punches through the ground, his mighty fist idling in front of a tombstone that says “R.I.P. FOX.”
Two days after I drew that eerie Fox page, Irwin Hasen passed away at the awesome age of 96.
DEAN HASPIEL is creator of Billy Dogma and current custodian of The Fox.