Raphael Jerard Norman Astarita was born August 2, 1912 in Brooklyn, New York City. His father, Ralph Anthony Astarita, was born 1886 in NYC of Italian ancestry. His mother, Hulda Elsie M. Astarita, was born 1882 in Norway and immigrated to America in 1906. His parents married in Brooklyn in 1910 and had three children. His older brother Raymond Winthrop Astarita was born in 1911 and his younger sister Victoria L. Astarita was born in 1918. They lived at 1965 86th Street in Brooklyn. His father was a patrolman in the 80th Precinct of the NYC Police Department.
His natural talent for drawing was nurtured by his mother, who had studied art in Norway and was exceptionally creative. According to her own account,"I was always of an inventive turn of mind. You know, when I sew, I sew differently from most women. I think of little things to make the work easier, and when my clock stops I take it apart myself. Of course when you have children they take up so much of your time that you can forget about inventions." Despite parental responsibilities, she found time to invent a patented automatic fire-escape device that lowered occupants from the windows of burning skyscrapers. The device was featured in the April 1918 issue of Popular Science.
In 1918 the family moved to 808 Bay Ninth Street in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn, where his father became a mounted policeman in the 172nd Precinct. His father's horse was named "Rack."
In 1928 his father was reassigned to the 88th Precinct, in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. The station house is adjacent to the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn.
Raphael attended public school. In June 1926 he completed the eighth grade, at which point he left school and entered the work force as a menial laborer.
Although he never graduated high school and did not receive formal art school training, he followed a dedicated regime of self education. He eventually assembled a massive home library of instruction manuals and "How To Books."
He went to the beach every day and was physically fit. He lifted weights, went for long walks, and was a strong swimmer. He saved several people from drowning. He even dove from the Brooklyn Bridge to rescue a person who had jumped off to commit suicide.
The Astarita brothers were both avid sailors - perhaps too avid for their own good. They once had a fight over conflicting notions of the proper way to tie one particular sailor's knot. The dispute became so bitter that the brothers severed their relationship and remained estranged for the rest of their lives.
In 1933 his older brother Raymond joined the NYC Police Department as clerical secretary, and in 1935 married and moved to an apartment at 3111 Glenwood Road in Brooklyn. They had no children.
In 1935 Raphael Astarita was twenty-three when he began to work for comic books. He drew a two-page strip about King Arthur for New Comics. He signed the work "Rafael Astarita" instead of using his birth name "Raphael." His friends called him "Raf."
On February 20, 1937 he married Ann Baraf in Brooklyn Civil Court. She was born September 26, 1906 in NYC of Roumanian Jewish ancestry. She was six years older than the groom. She had completed her sophomore year at college and worked as a legal stenographer for New York City, where she earned a steady income. They moved to a modest home at 51 Poplar Street in Brooklyn.
He drew for the Chesler Shop (1936-1939) and Eisner & Iger (1939-1941). He joined the staff at Fiction House Comics in 1942 and worked there for two years.
During WWI he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in October 1944. Frederick Blakeslee, John Falter, and pulp magazine publisher Harry Steeger all served in this same volunteer branch of the National Guard. Astarita was a member of an armed patrol that accompanied merchant ships in U.S. waters and through the Panama Canal. He was honorably discharged as a Seaman First Class in January 1946.
After the war his pen and ink story illustrations appeared in pulp magazines produced by Fiction House, such as Jungle Stories, Lariat Stories, and Planet Stories. His work also appeared in pulp magazines published by Ned Pines, such as Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder.
In 1947 Rafael Astarita became Art Director at Ned Pine's Standard Comic Books.
From 1950 to 1951 he worked for Avon Comics.
By 1953 the publishing industry of pulps and comic books was rocked by political scandal, self-censorship, lost readership, and the growing popularity of television. Even the most successful artists were forced to find new sources of income.
During the second half of the 1950s Astarita contributed illustrations to a juvenile reference work, The Picture World Encyclopedia, published by the F. M. Charlton Company. According to advertising, this was the "first truly modern picture book encyclopedia specially written for children 6 to 16 and offered at fifty cents for each of the 12 volumes. There's never been an encyclopedia so easy to understand, so thrillingly presented, so up-to-the-minute with the very latest facts! No long wordy explanations. No dull, confusing language. The Picture World Encyclopedia informs in a bright, lively way. Every subject is illustrated in full color, with over 6,000 pictures in all!" This ambitious project took five years to complete and included illustrations by many artists, such as Paul Jepsen, Gene Fawcette, Robert Jenney, Ric Estrada, and Bob Powell.
In 1954 he designed sets for The Tom Corbett Space Cadet TV Show.
In 1956 he opened an advertising art agency called "Astarita Associates" at 145 East 49th Street in Manhattan.
By 1958 he had closed his ad agency and accepted a job as art director at the advertising firm, Rossman Productions, which produced slide-shows and film-strips for sales presentations.
By 1968 both his parents had died and left him a considerable inheritance. He and his wife moved to 140 Cadman Plaza West, a modern housing project in Brooklyn Heights that towers over the swirling exit ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge. Their apartment on the 27th floor had a spectacular view of the NYC skyline.
According to the artist's longtime friend and comic book historian, Hames Ware, "Rafael Astarita seemed perfectly content to take his art supplies down to the shore and paint seascapes, which he seemed not to worry over whether they sold or not, just happy to be painting and near the sea. I can recall how he was always reading and would get excited about any new concept. He had just read Drawing From the Left Side of the Brain and he called to tell me how it had stimulated new ways of approaching art. He was very wise. He once told me, 'If you're afraid of failure you haven't failed enough.' Surely he is one of the top artists to have ever drawn for comic books."
He and his wife were happily married, but they had no children. She suffered her entire life from a chronic illness that was periodically incapacitating. During each episode he served as her devoted bedside nurse.
In 1981 she had a massive stroke that left her unable to communicate. Despite Ann's condition of aphasia Rafael continued to care for her at home and take her for daily walks in a wheelchair. After several years his own elderly infirmities forced him to move her to a nursing home. He found one four blocks away, where he could still visit her every day.
By 1992 he also needed nursing care, and was no longer competent to serve as his wife's guardian, so her nearest relative, a daughter of her sister, became the appointed guardian of both. He was moved to a nursing home in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, near the niece's home.
He explored and sketched his new neighborhood, and still paid regular visits to his wife, who remained in a condition of aphasia. After three years he developed colon cancer. When informed of the illness, his long-estranged brother Raymond visited and their past grievances were forgiven in a touching reconciliation.
Rafael Astarita died in New Jersey at the age of eighty-two on December 7, 1994. His wife died one year later on December 11, 1995.
© David Saunders 2012