Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Swash" Buckler Saturdays: "Dead Ringer"

During the period while I was still living in Detroit I worked a full-time job and did my drawing at home in a makeshift art studio on the of the enclosed back porch. My mom, my brother and my sister were all supportive of my creative efforts. Whenever I was publishing, my operations would occupy the entire living room with uncollated printed pages for my fanzine.

In between publishing fanzine issues I would draw and send out comic book page samples. I remember my first big break was from an obscure New York publisher. I got an assignment by mail for "Web Of Horror Magazine". This was a Sword & Sorcery tale entitled "Sword Of Dragonus" written by Chuck Robinson (I had submitted his script by mail along with my art samples, after editing it and typing it up from handwritten pages). I was to pencil, ink and letter the story. The publisher already had Berni Wrightson and Mike Kaluta, so even though the magazine was a bit of a Warren knock-off, I would be in good company.

It turned out to be a big disappointment though because shortly after I sent in the final artwork I received a "kill fee" for my efforts (I never heard of a "kill fee" before this and didn't know what it meant at first). Then I realized my artwork was rejected--with no explanation as to why that happened. An early lesson there for me in handling rejection, with nary a thought of even the possibility of "giving up." At least they eventually sent me back my originals.

Much to my dismay, a few months later, I saw the exact same story published in an issue of "Web Of Horror"--with artwork this time by Frank Brunner. Nice job, too. But it had been apparently re-drawn from my original pages and I saw that it recreated my splash page and the rest of it followed my pacing and layout. I was totally nonplussed. The writer, though, did get a credit line. I guess since the publisher paid a "kill fee" they figured they had bought the rights to the story, so why not use it and reassign it to another artist--but how they went about it in this case seemed to me to be a bit of a shady business practice for a publisher.

My first few pro assignments were horror/mystery comics short stories for both Marvel and D.C. Comics, and this was once I moved to New York to live. I remember the first one of those assignments for Marvel because it was written by Mimi Gold, a young lady who had dated Jim Steranko a few times, as it turned out.

We met up at the Marvel offices one day and I managed to get a lunch date with her. Since I didn't know any females in New York that were my age at that time I thought there might be a chance that we would get along okay and perhaps become friends.

We talked briefly about her script, but it soon became evident that she had no interest in me (other than professionally)--because all she could talk about after that was Jim! Awkward, to say the least.

After that lesson, I did not pursue any ex-girlfriends of famous comic book artists. I had my sights on actresses or maybe model-types--actually, just kidding. I was still very much focused on becoming a full-time professional comic book artist. To be honest, for months there just wasn't ever much time left over for any kind of socializing.

I was a young man with a dream and I kept my nose to the grindstone (drawing board, actually). Plenty of time for dating once I was earning a regular income and getting a foothold in the comic book industry. And I am not exaggerating when I state that I was one serious-minded and doggedly determined self-taught freelance artist determined to make a name for myself.

I guess that sounds sort of egotistical, but it wasn't. The reality was I was not trained to do anything else, so for me it was make it or bust! And what I did have in the way of training as an artist was by and large self-taught--otherwise known sometimes as "learning the hard way."

Here are some of my thoughts about what made me decide to pursue art as a career. People who are passionate about art or writing, or any profession really, tend to look to their heroes, to those men of accomplishment in their chosen field who are regarded as the "masters." I was no different.

I read and collected comic books since I was ten years old. You might say I was a "dyed-in-the-wool" comic book fan. I loved movies, too, but comics were a passion for me. My heroes were comic book artists--men like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, John Romita, John Buscema, Vince Colletta, Curt Swan, Ross Andru, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Joe Orlando, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano--to name only a few. Those were my heroes then--and they still are today.

I would draw endlessly and do hours and hours and days and weeks of studying the work of all of those artists. Analyzing their graphic storytelling and draftsmanship, and like some kind of mad professor I busied myself with dissecting it, deconstructing it, emulating techniques and stylisms, and all the while figuring out everything I could about the work of these comics artists by thinking--and then I just practiced and practiced and practiced. Anyhow, you know, if you do something wholeheartedly and for long enough, you tend to get good at it. That's what happened to me anyway.

I don't know much about that elusive quality that some people identify as "talent." There may be something to that, but I never put much stock in "talent." Yes, I do think something quite magical or spiritual starts happening when you are thoroughly immersed in the creative process. Or call it psychological, or "right brain" understanding, or "tapping into genius," or whatever you want to label it as. I think of it as just giving yourself over to creativity.

Of course, it was my good fortune to eventually meet and study with and collaborate with many of my heroes. Most noteworthy were Neal Adams, Dick Giordano. Vince Colletta and John Romita. So, of course, it helped tremendously that I encountered so many great teachers along the way. But the necessary craftsmanship and stamina and problem-solving skills required to become a full-time professional comics artist were acquired over time and with a lot of effort and perspiration!

And let's not leave out another important factor in talented and creative people--imagination! As logical and analytical and rational as I am, I always have immediate access to that seemingly magical resource that operates from the right side of the brain. I suppose one could understand "talent" to be that careful balancing of both sides of the brain to create something new.

My first real Marvel "super-hero" assignment was actually my first big break at that company, and it was Stan Lee who hired me. Yeah, in a way I started out at the top. This occurred in a modest three-room office on Madison Avenue that Marvel occupied at the time. It happened on one of my many trips to New York that usually coincided with a big comics convention. That proved to be a good strategy for an upcoming artist because at the comic cons in those days it was possible to meet and converse with many of the big name comics creators (and some even took the time to critique my work and offer advice).

I first met Al Williamson, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby and Dick Giordano at comics conventions. To give you the whole picture I have to back up a bit and give the back story of how I came to get that lucky appointment with Stan Lee.

I got word from Shel Dorf (of San Diego Comic Con fame) that Jack Kirby was scouting for inkers on his new books he would be creating for D.C. Comics. Well, I never really wanted to be an inker, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try out for this. I inked some Jack Kirby photocopied pages that Shel supplied me, tracing them on a light board. I gave these pages to Shel, along with a half dozen sample pencil pages of mine, and he forwarded everything to Jack.

I didn't think I had a prayer, but hey!--I could dream, couldn't I? I was still living in the suburbs in Detroit at that time (Jack Kirby had just moved to California). Imagine my reaction when weeks later my mom answered the phone and she said it was for me. "Who is it?" I asked. "I don't know. Somebody named Jack Kirby."

Well, you can probably picture me stammering and almost totally "brain numb" as I nervously held the phone and spoke with my biggest idol (sounds like slobbering hopelessly obsessed fan-boy stuff on my part, right? Well it was!).

What I remember from the conversation (and he was friendly, warm and effusive) was that, no, he didn't think my inking was quite up to what he was looking for. It didn't suck--it just wasn't up to professional standards. But he was impressed with my pencil samples. I could hardly believe what I was hearing when he said that if I were ever to visit New York, that I should look up Stan Lee--and that I should "tell Stan that I said to give you a job!"

The rest of the conversation was a bit of a blur, but imagine my excitement! A personal recommendation from the King Of Comics. That was the equivalent of somebody like Elvis or The Beatles connecting you up with your big break in the entertainment business!

I felt certain now that all of my studies and hard work were about to pay off. I was still just a kid, really--but this so emboldened me that there was virtually no stopping me now! That was the moment I decided that nothing short of actually moving to New York would make this happen--so that's what I did next.

When I got to New York I hit the pavement with my portfolio under my arm, resolved and focused--and my first stop would definitely be Marvel Comics. I remember calling up Marvel on a pay phone and getting a female on the line (who was probably Flo Steinberg), and I identified myself and said I would like to make an appointment to see Stan Lee.

To my amazement, I got that appointment on that very same afternoon. When I hung up the phone I thought--hey, that was easy. So that's how it's done? I didn't even realize that in the excitement of the moment I had forgotten to use the recommendation from Jack Kirby.

Well, to make a long story short, yeah--it was too easy. I spluttered and mumbled my way through the interview with Stan (remember, I was just a kid in my twenties). Stan made up a character and story plot on the spot and then told me, "You got all that? Now go and draw it!" It was an eight-page back-up story featuring Man-Wolf (which, by the way, never did see print--probably misplaced or forgotten--I never did find out what happened to it). After that, it was one assignment after another, and I was finally on my way.

On a somewhat ironic note, I never did use Jack Kirby's recommendation (that kind of thing can happen when you're young and empty-headed)--but it occurred to me later that Jack had probably talked by telephone with Stan and arranged the whole thing before I had even gotten to New York.

I called back Jack Kirby and Shel Dorf and thanked them both profusely (long distance on a pay phone sure used up a lot of quarters fast!). My first few months in New York proved to be quite a struggle financially (living and working in a tiny room of the 34th Street YMCA), but what kept me going was the dream.

There were visits to D.C. Comics, Warren Publishing, Skywald--all with the same results. I got hired by every publisher I tried. The rest, as they say, was sweat and hard work--and the hardest part was learning how to juggle and meet deadlines and figuring out how to somehow make a living at it.

Eventually Neal Adams located an apartment for me in the Bronx. It was my first apartment in the big city--prior to that I had only lived in houses, both in Detroit and in the rural small town I grew up in before that in upstate Michigan. From that point what would become for me a lifelong adventure working in the comic books began in earnest.


  1. Great post! Rich Buckler is one of those very underrated artists, mostly because people just tend to think of him as a Neal Adams clone or someone who can imitate other artists. But back when I was in my teens, whenever I browse through comics and see his name on the credits, I instantly buy it regardless of what comic it was.

    Thanks for this insight into how one of the most talented artists in comics got his start!

  2. Buckler Saturdays looks to be a good read and something I'll be looking forward to!

  3. Hey Rich
    Really great reading your history on your big breaks. I was a young teen when I first saw your beautiful art in the Avengers I believe & of course the FF. Never thought I'd be good friends with Jolt'in Joe Sinnott today. I went to the same highschool as Jerry Ordway & we had the same art teachers.

    I envy you getting to meet & know your idols. I've only met a few in person. But have gotten to know them well & others through phone calls & e-mails. Such as Herb Trimpe, Marie Severin, John Romita SR, Roy Thomas & a few others.I loved your Man-Monster & Demon Slayer for Atlas Comics. As well as your work at DC & Marvel of course.I can't wait to read your future installments!

  4. Thanks for posting this,'Dead Ringer' is a gorgeous story!

    I've been a big fan since I first noticed your name in FF#148.

  5. What a story! I'm glad you made it!

    Thanks for sharing.



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