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Andrew Farago Remembers Creig Flessel (1912-2008)
posted July 21, 2008
 

By Andrew Farago

imageI first met Creig Flessel at a booksigning at the Cartoon Art Museum in the fall of 2000, when Michael Chabon was promoting The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This was pre-Pulitzer, and at the time Chabon was just some guy who'd tracked down the great Golden Age comic artists, interviewed them and written an entertaining book about that era.

Malcolm Whyte, the museum's founder, put in an appearance that day, bringing Creig along for the ride. Chabon gave a stirring reading, answered a few questions, signed some books, and I'm sure that he was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing when Creig pointed out that the book was okay, but he really wished that Chabon had spelled his name right. Sure enough, on page 144, when Sammy Clay defends the new medium to his cousin, he says, "These guys aren't trying to draw bad, Joe. Some of what they do is okay. There's a guy, Craig Flessel, he's really pretty good. Try to keep an open mind."

Chabon promised to have it fixed in future printings, but I don't think Creig minded, since it gave him yet another story to tell the gang back at his retirement home. And to the fans who met him at conventions. And the admirers who sent him fan mail, or commissioned him to draw Sandman cover recreations. And just about anybody else who had the good fortune to sit down and chat with the first great comic book artist.

I ran into Creig a few times over the next eight years, and he was always in great spirits and only a question away from launching into any number of stock stories in his repertoire. He'd talk about his father, the blacksmith. Or his job as a security guard in New York, watching the door while artists drew nude models. He'd talk about his days at DC Comics, back when it was National Periodical Publications, working on the Sandman feature in Adventure Comics, and illustrating most of the pre-Batman covers for Detective Comics.

Think about that. Batman turns 70 next year, and Creig had already been drawing comic books for about four years before Bob Kane and Bill Finger knocked out their first issue of Detective. He'd gained a pretty good rep as a cover artist years before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster decided to try selling Superman as a comic book instead of dealing with another rejection letter from the newspaper syndicates.

When the comic book market reached a crisis point in the 1950s, Creig shrugged his shoulders, took his portfolio to the ad agencies, and was hired by Johnstone and Cushing, which led to a decades-long career drawing ads for Eveready Batteries, Cream of Wheat, Tollhouse Cookies and whatever else came along. He spent a few years assisting Al Capp on Li'l Abner, further padding one of the most well rounded resumes in comics.

In the 1960s, he advanced to lead artist on his own syndicated strip, taking over from Ed Dodd on David Crane, a light drama about a small-town minister and his congregation. The strip folded in 1971, but by the end of the decade Creig had landed his own running Playboy feature, The Adventures of Baron Furstinbed. "I went from virtue to vice in a single lifetime," he liked to say.

In the 1980s he settled into retirement with his wife, Marie, and restricted his drawing and painting to projects for his own enjoyment. The fan community rediscovered Creig in the early 1990s, which led to a number of convention appearances, the 1991 Comic-Con Inkpot Award, the 1992 National Cartoonists Society Silver T-Square Extraordinary Service Award, a successful sideline drawing Sandman and Furstinbed commissions for fans, a lengthy 2002 Comics Journal interview conducted by Gary Groth, and a 2007 Sparky Award from the Cartoon Art Museum, which was followed by a retrospective exhibition of Creig's work at the museum in 2008.

I was fortunate enough to interview Creig twice this past year. The first time was at the Sparky Awards ceremony in October of '07, when I played straight man to Creig as he riffed on a variety of subjects for an appreciative audience consisting mostly of fellow residents of The Redwoods, Creig's retirement home.

Not wanting to mess with a winning formula, we reprised our roles at a WonderCon panel this past February. Knowing full well that you taking nothing for granted at age 96, Creig greeted me by shaking my hand and saying, "I bet you thought you'd seen the last of me!" Any doubts that I'd have difficulty passing another hour's worth of conversation with him disappeared immediately.

We'd made plans to take our act on stage again in 2012, when Creig's 100th birthday rolled around. I thought for sure he'd make it, and everyone in the audience that day probably figured Creig had another 20 years left in him, easily. I'm sorry that he didn't hit the century mark, but can't deny that Creig made the most of his 96 years. And he never held a grudge, either. Whenever mention of his appearance in Kavalier and Clay came up in conversation, he'd quickly reply, "I'm on page 144. That Chabon guy's really pretty good."