I never was sure what “200th Smash Issue” meant. Was it a certain kind of celebration? Was a “smash issue” celebration different from the usual comic book milestone? I vividly remember one of my neighborhood pals, George Riley, (who usually only collected war and western comics) boasting that he had a copy of Batman #200, the so-called ‘200th Smash Issue”. I was SO envious and curious.
No matter how you slice it – doing something 200 times on a regular basis is sumpthin’. So, I am proud of to be celebrating the “200th Smash Issue” of With Further Ado. And I’m grateful for the many people who have helped and supported me along the way.
So, this week, we’ll be celebrating a pop culture milestone – one of the most widely known – and loved- movie posters of all time; the Hildebrandt’s Star Wars poster. It’s just the start of a multi-part interview with the alarmingly talented Greg Hildebrandt. The “main” focus will be his two amazing 2023 calendars, but that all comes next time.
This week we’ll focus on Star Wars, the entrepreneurial hustle that it takes to be a successful illustrator, and why none of this would have happened without Mel Brooks!
Please enjoy Part 1 of my interview with Greg Hildebrandt:
Ed Catto: Well, this is quite a treat. I’m sure so many people you talk to all say, “I’m your biggest fan!” I’ve been loving your work for all those years so I’ll just get that all out of the way. but on a personal level, I feel like 11-year-old speaking to you. It’s a great treat for me.
Greg Hildebrandt: Thanks a lot, man. It’s always interesting to hear that, because of course I’m still 11 myself. I feel like the people that I enjoyed all my life. To have people tell me that back …now it’s always like “wait a minute” …that doesn’t quite fit!
EC: I’ve been with you, on this ride for many, many years.
GH: But do you know me for my toilet training book?
EC: I don’t know you for that one!
GH: That was that was one Tim <Hildebrandt, his brother> and I did. I think in 1974. Oh, to stay alive in the city, in New York, you have got to just take everything you can get and this one rose up, and I say “Yeah, what the hell.” There were these two young pediatricians that were really sticklers for detail. The mother and the kid and the father comes in, and we kept drawing sketches over and over and over again.
So, I’ll hold up that and the Star Wars poster – or the Lord of the Rings or something -, and say, “You may know me for this, but….”
EC: I guess every great painter has got one or two of those in the past…
GH: You take every job. You learn. And you need to make a living.
EC: Sure. I think the focus for this interview in With Further Ado, is going to be on your two new calendars, but I’d love to first kind of tag some of the other bases and use this opportunity to ask you some of these questions I’ve been waiting 30 years to ask you. For instance, your Star Wars poster was amazing. I remember as a kid, recognizing that and, of course, you know you I felt like you “were one of us” rather than a movie poster guy.
GH: You know that that whole story is very interesting. I mean, there was a poster that preceded that, by Tom Jung. He was a great poster painter. Our setup was the same setup he – Jung – came up with: figures in the foreground the big head of the sky.
And so, we got a call from this agency in New York. They were really desperate they needed a job fast. The film (Star Wars) will come out in a week and they said that the director is not entirely satisfied with the current poster. He wants something different, and so I said, “Great!”. So, Tim and I jumped on the train (when we both lived in Jersey) and we went into the city and they showed us the job. They showed us the poster.
I said “Well, what the hell? That’s beautiful, what do you want us to do?”
And they said the instructions, they got from …I had no idea who it was…. they said they wanted it more “comic booky”. That was the word.
They gave us all the information and gave us a poster. We went home on the train and we’re trying to analyze what the hell that meant.
“What do they mean?”, we thought. “They don’t want an ink outline with flat colors.” That’s how all comics were made then, no sophisticated coloring back at that time.
And yeah, so that’s the way we went home. I grabbed a couple of models for them <the characters. For the princess, Greg used his> first wife. And they said, “Make sure that the leg is torn. Make sure that the dress is torn. I said that she looks like she’s in a nun dress. I got it. I got it. I got it: it’s the sex and make sure that that hits that market. “Yeah, for sure.”
EC: Right, you also painted the female character in a much more dramatic pose.
GH: So, Tim and I did our sketches. Then we started painting. We painted the thing, I’m thinking, in thirty-six hours.
EC: Holy smokes!
GH: Because they needed it fast. Because the movie comes out in a week, and they needed it for advertising, and they needed it as a one-sheet outside the theater. But then they just saw it, and it was everywhere. It was on every T shirt, lunch buckets – you name it, it was everywhere.
EC: And at that point, you had no idea how big that was.
GH: I didn’t know anything about the movie. These were just guys in the studio. There is a branch of a major poster company in California – I forget what the hell the name of the studio was – and they had a small office here in New York. And these two young guys were handling the Fox account. They were dealing with 20th Century Fox and Alan Ladd, JR. And they didn’t see the movie. These guys said they’re given us all these pictures. You know there’s a Darth Vader head. “Yeah, I don’t know; < he’s like > The Man in the Iron Mask or something.” Nobody had any information.
EC: Probably you would have charged more. I imagine it’s one of those things.
GH: We agreed to a price which I very…by any standard, today’s standard: minimalist. But it was at that moment, you know where, again, you get a call and somebody wants a job, and you say “yeah” because that’s what illustration is. You’re scrambling all the time -so just take anything that comes your way. In fact, Tim and I had already decided we wanted to kind of make the movie posters because it as opposed to total art books. But we never really got into it.
I did a Barbarella. They head released Barbarella. But they used somebody else’s for the that.
But in any event, it was a fun gig. Our poster is on TIME Magazine. They’ve got it on the stands now. It’s a Special Edition TIME – the History of Star Wars.
The interesting thing was when you look inside, we were looking for the credit for the cover, and the credit for the cover read something like from the Getty Archive. There’s no name of a person. It’s just: Getty Archive.
It’s like the name is on the cover <but> they didn’t take our name all.
Still, I thought that was kind of weird.
EC: I recall like someone asked you to make your name bigger on the painting.
GH: Apparently, they were looking at the poster. We sent it to him overnight. The next day they called us to say the director wants some additions, so we went back into the city. And that’s when we added the droids because the day before there were no droids in the picture.
“Yeah, okay.” I said you had a big hairy guy it’s in whatever else and they said “Okay”. They went around the corner. I guess talk to Lucas, I have no idea. We talked to a junior somebody.
And they came back and said ”Good idea. They want the robots in it.”
So, we get that right there in their studio. I told them that they needed to go get for me the right acrylic paint and everything Tim and I needed. We painted it right there in the studio. Then they said, “He wants you to make your name big.”
To be a fair, I mean I’ve never met George Lucas.
Yeah, you know, normally take your, especially with a movie poster, they’ll take your name off. They’re not pushing the artists. They are pushing the movie.
EC: Oh, that’s so funny that’s amazing what a what a crazy what a crazy story.
GH: Stuff happens. You know it’s like the only reason we got called by the studio is after the toilet training book. We said, “Let’s go look for something else to do Let’s try make movie posters or something.”
So, we said, “Okay, who was at what studio?” We opened up the yellow pages, which you could do back in the day, you remember.
We called the studio. And this young guy answers, and I said, “Hey, I’m an artist, I have done this, and this, and this. We’d like to show you our portfolio. And they said, “Great! Come on in tomorrow.”
Now, right it takes you 14 years to get an appointment with somebody!
And so, we jumped on the train into the city, went to the studio, walked in and there’s all these paintings sitting around. Finished paintings for a film called Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks.
I said, “What is this? I know Mel Brooks!” And they said, “Yeah he’s just done it in black and white. This is what we have. These will be shipped out to Brooks tonight. And so, we need it tomorrow morning, and then there’s no money left there’s no budget.”
“I don’t give a damn! I don’t care. I don’t care. I’ll get something to you.”
“Tomorrow morning we need it.”
And I said, “I don’t care!”
Tim and I both grabbed a bunch of black and whites (stills) from the movie. We got on the train, figuring that out doing sketches, because we carry pencils. And we come up with the composition on the train, got back home shot a couple polaroid shots of the monster and the girl, did you know the hunchback and it brought it in the next morning.
EC: Oh, my gosh.
GH: Okay, we just dropped it off, and they ended up telling us, “Well, Brooks didn’t use it. It didn’t get there in time, and he decided against it. It gave too much of the plot away. That’s what it was because I had the monster hugging the Madeline Kahn. And they didn’t want to give that away.
So anyway, that’s why so a lot of the times, but like to say to people, the reason I got the Star Wars was because of Mel Brooks!
EC: That’s fantastic! What a tale!
GH: It’s kind of fun.
Next time: More stories from Greg Hildebrandt – and a look at his two astoundingly beautiful 2023 calendars!