There are many early comic books where the letterers are unknown. Credits for lettering were unheard of at the time. In many cases the artist did his own lettering, but if an artist was successful enough to hire someone else to do it, those names are often lost to comics history.
One exception is in artist studios where the assistants are partially or fully known, and that was true with Bob Kane’s studio in the early years of Batman. Some of Kane’s assistants had careers in comics long after they stopped working for him, and several were around long enough to supply information to comics historians about what they did. The Grand Comics Database has a lot of that data, where it’s known, and I’ve used it as a resource here. Robert Kahn was born October 24, 1915 in New York City. After high school he changed his name to Kane and studied art at Cooper Union before working at Fleischer Animation Studios in 1934. He began selling humorous and funny animal stories to comic book publishers in 1936, including National Allied Publications, the company that became DC Comics. With the success of Superman, DC was looking for more heroic adventure features, and in 1939 Bob Kane sold them Batman, which he co-created with writer Bill Finger.
Bob Kane is notorious for hiring other artists and writers to produce Batman work for him and taking all the credit, but at least in the first few years there’s now a pretty good record of who did what. I’m going to focus on DETECTIVE COMICS, for which Kane’s studio supplied Batman stories to National/DC Comics from 1939 to 1943, and possibly later. Stories done for BATMAN and WORLD’S FINEST COMICS follow a similar pattern. In the beginning, before Batman was a hit, it’s safe to assume that Kane did everything himself, including the lettering. Looking at the first page of the first Batman story, above, the lettering is uneven, but easy to read, and fairly typical for the time. Let’s compare it to other examples of early Kane comics work that came before Batman.
As I said in THIS previous post, I recently received a package of notebooks, photos, and documents from the estate of former DC Comics employee Ray Perry that had been among the papers of Bernard Kashdan, former DC accountant and business manager. The Kashdans and I don’t know how the papers came to be there, but since I’d already written several articles about Perry, he sent them to me. Everything related to Perry’s comics career is in the previous article, this one includes photos and documents that connect only to his fine art career and personal life, ones I thought interesting enough to show. Ray was born in 1876 in Sterling Illinois. He came to New York City around 1905, where he did all kinds of art, from book and magazine illustrations to paintings to stained glass window designs. Ray would have been about 44 years old in the photo above, but he looks younger, a handsome man with a flamboyant tie.
He and his first wife Emilie, who was a singer and musician, traveled in art and society circles at least until the Great Depression hit in 1930, probably less so later. This is the only photo I have of Emilie, her name in some places is spelled Emilia or Emily, but on the passport it’s Emilie, so I’m going with that.
Ray joined several organizations in Manhattan relating to art, including the Salmagundi Club, which must have happened before 1920, as he’s seen here in an elaborate costume for one of their parties.
This organization was about history, not art related. The Sons of the Revolution accepted members whose ancestors could be proven to have served the U.S. in the American Revolution in some way. This application includes proof that Ray’s ancestor Tristram Moore did so, and includes a line of ancestors from the 1700s to Ray. The group owns and operates Fraunces Tavern, touted as the oldest building in Manhattan, where meetings and parties were held.
Perry painted in both oils and watercolors, and was a member of the American Watercolor Society from at least the mid 1920s. This battered exhibition program from 1929 was among his documents, and he saved it because a painting of his was shown inside.
The painting is titled “Guilt Primeval,” and features a robed figure with a sword in the background, and male and female figures in the foreground. Probably these are Adam and Eve, and the background figure is the angel that cast them out of Eden. Ray wrote here: I think it was this picture that influenced George Pearce Ennis to mention me briefly in his article in Ency. Britannica Vol XXIII p 412.
This document is an Honorable Discharge from the New York National Guard. Perry enlisted with them in 1927 at the age of 41 it says here, but he must have shaved a decade off his age, he was actually 51 then. He served for three years, qualified as a Marksman, and his character is described as Excellent. He would have served at the 107th Infantry Armory on Park Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. Perhaps Ray felt this was something he wanted to do for his country, though America was not at war. The change of residence might have been to New Jersey, but that’s a guess.
Also among the papers is a cancelled passport issued in 1927 that covers both Ray and his wife Emilie. Their address is 150 East 34th St, New York City. The pages show travel stamps from Italy and France. This must have been the trip described in the New York Post, April 13, 1927, as found by Alex Jay:
Raymond Perry, an artist with the Ethridge Company, sails today to visit fifteen Italian cities on behalf of one of the company’s clients, who is seeking a series of first-hand pen drawings of certain architectural landmarks in Benito Mussolini’s reborn empire. Mr. Perry will make the drawings on tour, sending them back several at a time. From Italy he will go through the chateau country of France, thence to Paris and London, where he will make a study for the company of England’s poster mediums.
This trip of several months sounds like a wonderful experience. Their home address is given in other places as 159 East 34th Street, so either the number changed, or they moved.
On Friday, January 26, 1945, Emilie Perry died suddenly while attending a concert at Carnegie Hall. She was 71. This must have been a sad day for Ray, it’s not clear if he was with her at the concert. In a newspaper report, their home address is given as 145 East 34th Street, so perhaps they had moved again. Despite this shock, Ray remarried in December 1945, his second wife was Louise Marion Wilde. She was a music teacher who gave piano lessons, and it was also her second marriage. She was living in northeast New Jersey, not far from New York City. Several towns are mentioned including Montclair. Louise was born in 1888, so about seven years younger than Ray, who was 69 at the time.
This photo was taken in Perry’s 34th Street apartment on April 21, 1948 at a party for Ray’s brother Dr. William H. Perry. I’ve added closer views of the two Perry paintings, and his wife Louise is labeled in the second one. The smaller painting seems symbolic, like the Adam and Eve one, but I can’t say what the subject is. The large painting is of a Native American leader, but I don’t know if it’s a real person.
In the 1950 census, Louise and Ray are listed as living in an apartment in East Orange, NJ, no other family members with them. Louise had children from her previous marriage, but they were all grown and on their own. I suspect Ray kept the New York apartment as his painting studio, and perhaps he also stayed there during the week, as it was an easy walk to the National Comics offices at 480 Lexington Avenue (near 47th Street). The East Orange apartment may have been Louise’s and where she gave piano lessons, so it made sense for her to keep it. This is all guesswork on my part.
The back of this photo says “Sis at Brookhaven Station about 1945.” I think this is Ray’s sister Lynda. It suggests that Ray still had the Brookhaven cottage in the 1940s, though it was later sold. Lynda was born in 1882, making her 63 that year, but she looks remarkably young for that. Perhaps the picture is from years earlier, or it’s another person. Or maybe she also inherited youthful looks.
The Perry cottage at Brookhaven, perhaps the 1940s.
Here’s a photo of Ray’s brother Dr. William H. Perry from 1948 looking all of his 70 years, he was about two years younger than Ray.
This is a fine photo of Ray looking a bit older, perhaps from the early 1950s.
And this is Ray working on a large painting in his New York apartment, perhaps adding details with an oil pastel, or this may all be pastels. Behind him you can see the same painting by Ray shown earlier. The large painting seems to have a huge bird in it, but I can’t identify the figures or subject. I think this is also from the early to mid 1950s.
This photo was not among those sent to me by Bennett Kashdan, but taken by Ray’s fellow DC production department staffer Jack Adler. It’s of Ray playing his cello, showing musical talent that hasn’t been discussed previously, but perhaps something that attracted his two musical wives. In the diary and scrapbook, Ray writes in 1955: I played on my cello, especially enjoying it. In my early years on staff at DC, Jack was my boss, and I remember him saying that he visited Ray in a nursing home, where he probably took this picture. Ray’s New York Times obituary of Nov 16, 1960, found by Alex Jay, reads:
Raymond Perry, art editor of comic books, painter, designer and book illustrator, died Tuesday night in Dresden Madison Nursing Home at 36 East Sixty-seventh Street. He was 84 years old. Mr. Perry, who formerly lived at 145 East Thirty-fourth Street, had been art editor of the National Comics Publications, Inc., of 575 Lexington Avenue, for the last twenty years. He also had designed windows for Churches and libraries in Pennsylvania. Portraits by him are in the Seventh Regiment Armory and Fraunces Tavern in New York, and the Poe Cottage in Philadelphia.
Jack Adler’s description of Ray at the end of his life was that he was alone, and had no family, but his second wife Louise lived another fifteen years, and Ray’s brother William was alive. Ray was also in touch with nephews and nieces as late as early 1960, as shown by letters and postcards pasted into his diary. I find it a bit odd that there are no “survivors” listed in that obituary. Another one from the Patchogue Advance of Long Island, near where the Brookhaven cottage was, says: Surviving are his widow, the former Mary MacLennan; a daughter, Miss Nancy Farrell; and a brother, Dr. William Perry of Sacramento, Calif.
Other than his brother, this seems completely wrong, and those wife and daughter names don’t show up anywhere else. Jack Adler’s impression that Ray was alone may have been wrong, but I wonder where Louise was when he was in the nursing home? A letter from the wife of Ray’s nephew Lowell Stone dated July 15th 1969 begins: Dear Louise and Ray, We were greatly pleased to receive your letter announcing your visit to the far west. We will be at airport to pick you up. They were together then, it seems.
As for his paintings, as seen in some of the photos above, Bernard Kashdan wrote to someone asking about that in 1961: Mr. Perry, in contemplation of the few years remaining to him, had given away all his paintings and other property of any value. Perhaps Ray and Louise had had a falling out, and that’s why Bernard was handling his affairs and had his personal documents. This is a mystery I can’t unravel.
Meanwhile, I’ve located a Perry family member that would like to have his papers and photos, and I will be sending them soon. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of Ray Perry’s life as much as I have. Thanks again to Alex Jay and Bennett Kashdan for research help and images.
I’ve written several articles about long-time DC staffer Ray Perry, the main one is HERE, with others HERE and HERE, and Alex Jay has a detailed look at Perry’s early life and artistic career HERE. To summarize, Perry was born Sept 16, 1876 in Sterling, Illinois. By 1895 he was attending the Chicago Art Institute, where he was spoken of highly of by his teachers, and won awards. By 1898 he was doing magazine illustrations and on his way to a commercial art career. By 1905 he was living in New York City, and in 1907 he married Emilie C. Russell. He was a self-employed artist and she was a musician and singer. He served in World War One in the Army’s Pictorial Publicity Division, and in the 1920s Perry did illustrations for books and magazines while developing a fine art career as well, joining the prestigious Salmagundi Club for artists, exhibiting in top art shows, and designing stained glass windows. By 1925 the couple also had a cottage in Brookhaven on Long Island, and participated in society and art events in Manhattan and elsewhere. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought this life to an end, or at least curtailed it. Ray and Emilie lived in an apartment on East 34th Street, Manhattan, and Ray was advertising his services as an art teacher. Perry continued to paint and gave some lectures, but commercial work probably dried up and few could afford to buy his paintings. Around 1935, at age 59, he began his comics career when he was hired by Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson as an artist. His art first appeared in NEW FUN #4 dated May 1935, small strips about knights of old. Perry’s painting skills probably steered him into coloring as well, and when the Major’s company was taken over by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz around 1938, Ray Perry joined others employed by the Major as part of the staff of National (DC) Comics, where he became the main cover colorist by 1940, and at some point he was given the title of color editor. Later, Ray also did lots of text page headers, both lettering and art, and he was skilled at both. He remained on staff at National/DC nearly until his death in Nov 1960. He also continued to paint, doing portraits of many DC staffers and friends, among other work.
If you were a reader of comics and newspaper strips from the 1950s through the 1980s, you saw lots of Ben Oda’s lettering, even though most of it was not credited. Ben worked for everyone. He was the lettering star of many comics publishers and newspaper strips, the man they trusted to get things lettered professionally and on time. From his earliest days with the Simon and Kirby studio, to work at EC Comics, example above, through years at Western Publishing, Warren, and DC Comics, Ben worked hard and slept little to meet everyone’s deadlines, while at the same time juggling a half-dozen or more newspaper strips from Prince Valiant to Flash Gordon,Terry and the Pirates to Dondi. In this article I can only scratch the surface of the work he produced while outlining his life and career. I had help with that from my research partner Alex Jay as well as three of Ben’s children, Ken, Marcine, and Barbara, and couldn’t have done it without them.
In 1936, Will Eisner, one of comics’ most innovative creators, began working in the new field, first partnering with Jerry Iger to form one of the earliest packagers of comics, providing material for publishers that didn’t have their own creators. The studio was a financial success, but in 1940 Will sold his interest in it to launch a new type of comics project. It was a sixteen-page supplement (later eight pages) inserted into Sunday newspapers known as the Spirit Section for its lead feature and character, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a masked man who was legally dead and lived in a hidden lair in a graveyard, from which he fought crime. The Spirit had no super-powers, but was amazingly tenacious and able to take all kinds of physical abuse while pursuing criminals, helping his friends, and aiding the police. Each of his stories ran seven pages, and they formed a wonderful and influential body of work for many years. The series had several letterers, including Sam Rosen and Martin DeMuth, but in 1947, Will hired Abe Kanegson. In the example above, one of Eisner’s favorite stories, Kanegson has added a great deal to the page through his creative and energetic lettering, as he always did. In an interview with Cat Yronwode published in The Comics Journal nos. 46-47 (1979, Fantagraphics), Eisner said about Kanegson:
“He was the best letterer I ever had. He worked with me from 1947 to about 1950. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I miss him sorely. He brought far more to The Spirit than many of the background people ever did — he was very responsive to ideas and he added a creative dimension to comics, which I always thought was important. He’s the only one who ever really understood. I had other letterers before he came in, but he helped me reach out. Sure, I had certain standards I wanted him to follow—for instance, I did Old English before he came in, but he would take that Old English and really do it — his skill was enormous — even more, he understood the function of lettering in comics. He regarded it as something important. Everybody before him regarded it as a chore.”