"Adulthood" did not come easy for me. Did I mention that before? Well, I've probably dropped hints about it. Nowadays my wife Mila and I go to the movie theater and I order tickets asking: "One mature adult--and one immature adult, please." I guess I have always had a problem taking much of the grown up stuff seriously.
You see, for adults there are all kinds of rules and accepted behaviors that I think really conspire to make us all into neat and predictable people. I like neat. Never been all that predictable--and I've never been all that crazy about rules!
So, tell me--when you grow up (and that's something you will do--it happens to everybody) and become an adult, do you really need all those guidelines just to make sure that everything you do makes sense?
I guess I was born rebellious. Not at all in a criminal or negative sense, mind you. I'm not talking about laws that do make sense--though there are more than enough laws on the books that don't.
I just naturally figured out as I went along what was the sensible thing to do and what was not. My guess is that this is what most people do anyway--and life sure would be a lot less difficult and complicated without most of those rules.
For me it's a mindset. Never think something is right or sensible just because a lot of other people are doing it. Conversely, never assume something is wrong just because nobody has ever done it that way before.
In the comic book field, there are all kinds of rules and restrictions. Plenty of them! You know, never draw anything outside the panel borders. Never draw more than six panels to the page. Reading direction should always left to right, top to bottom. Every page has to have word balloons. Always follow the script exactly.
You get the idea. My favorite rule (for writers and letterers) is "Never use the words Clint or flicker" (hint: those words look a lot different in all upper-case).
The top comic book artists that I have always admired the most are those who knew when to break the rules. If they never did, comics would tend to stay the same and become homogenized and there would be very little variety or stylistic differences. That would be boring, right? And comics should never be boring!
I still have that rebellious mindset when it comes to rules. Rules and regulations are about control--and control always leads to the loss of personal choice. So I'm against them a lot of times. That's my artistic stance anyway.
Like my favorite artist, Salvador Dali, I respect tradition but I always make way for the new, which always means fearlessly breaking some rules along the way! Well, Dali may have been the self-proclaimed "savior" of modern painting, but the Maestro never drew comics.
Realistically, the comics business is an industry geared to produce commercial entertainment--more and more and more of the same thing, over and over again. Innovation is seldom welcomed with open arms. They're not looking for self-motivated genius types, folks. Not really.
So I learned early on to adapt. Comic art, to me, was always art--but it was also commercial art. When I worked at D.C. Comics, my work looked like D.C. For Marvel, my work looked like Marvel. Everything was drawn in the "Marvel house style"--dynamic figures, lots of melodrama, storytelling that was defined for the most part by Jack Kirby. There were marked differences in these two companies, so your style had to suit which company you worked for.
Like Dali, I was very versatile. However I always knew there was a decided difference in wanting to be like Jack Kirby or Jim Steranko or Neal Adams, and actually trying as an artist to "be" them. I always liked being me.
So, overall the comics of that time required of an artist a more or less "commercial look" that fit the expectations of your employer. I was okay with that for the most part for my first few years in the business.
I enjoyed mixing it up a bit now and then and I always managed to find a way to approach a story that would make drawing it more interesting and fun. At all times there was that comic book fan part of me operating in the background. And my rebel side. I got braver and took more chances as I became more established.
I found that being a professional was like walking a tightrope--always seeking a careful balance so you wouldn't get labeled or sidelined, or viewed as a trouble-maker--but still have plenty of creative room to move. I had to hide that other side of me that would find some sneaky way of turning each job into a wondrously magical process that explored the new.
If I was even suspected of thinking independently or "getting any ideas" (as in deviating from the "norm") I would surely be shunned by what I deemed to be the dreaded Guardians Of Mediocrity.
So I developed some "ninja strategies" and I got good at appearing to fit in without having to give away my brain or smooch editorial backsides (metaphorically speaking, that is).
I'm sure I wasn't the only creative rebel. Practically all of us "new guys" from the seventies were like that. So were some of my favorite artists from the generation before ours.
Some examples: My first all white background for a cover (which I colored myself) got immediate negative reactions. I did it anyway. I encountered resistance to the new on all fronts. Almost totally fearless, I pressed on! There were many, many instances of this.
"Rich, you drew that page sideways! You can't do that! It's never been done!" (I guess they forgot about the two sideways pages I had already done months earlier on Black Panther) "You put too many panels on a page! Where is the writer going to put the dialog?" "Are you on drugs?"(I got that one a lot)--and so on and so on. You can laugh about such notions now, but back then, this was serious stuff.
I got along great with production manager John Verpoorten. This was one serious looking guy, I must say. He seemed to have an expression on his face most of the time of an impending doom (probably a bunch of threatening deadlines) that only he was capable of averting. He was tough--but always in control. The most familiar greeting he would give me was: "Rich, have you got those pages?" I can still hear those thunderous words ringing in my ears.
John Verpoorten loomed over just about everybody and that was enough to intimidate most freelancers. Nobody messed with him. Even I took notice of this--I'm 6' 2", so most people around me are smaller than me, which I'm used to, and I'm not intimidated by anyone. John was just a few inches taller than me, but he was massive!
I appreciated that his workload was always incredibly huge, and I would do lots of favors by helping to solve production problems. Even though he knew my rebellious side he put up with it. He probably regarded me as more like a "rebel on a leash." Even though he rarely smiled I knew that he was always glad to see me.
Thinking back on those years I realize that my early graphic experimentations on Black Panther with Don McGregor could only have happened when it did because things in the editorial offices were so constantly chaotic that nobody, often as not, except the proofreader was reading the stories once they were drawn! The production department was always overworked, John Verpoorten was always working overtime, and stress levels were usually high all around.
No doubt our assiduous Managing Editor Roy Thomas was doing his best to keep track of things and keep it all under control, and I'm guessing here but I don't think he had time to read and proofread everything. When he did catch something, he was the soul of discretion and polity. He would never come on strong. Besides, Roy's editorial style was more about guidance than it was about control. Roy never bullied anyone, ever.
Actually, somebody in editorial was paying attention from time to time, but more to Don than me. Don was constantly under scrutiny and he would frequently get snagged on some silly problem he was causing with a character or plot device. He worked on staff at the editorial office, so he was accessible and visible and within the periphery of their control.
I think they were just trying to rein him in (which, little did they know, is almost impossible to do). Don was talkative and given to expressing himself emotionally and very freely. And when he was serious he was intense. That was Don. That was his way, not mine.
I guess Don could have used some lessons from me and my "ninja" tactics I used as an artist. Never let them know what you really think, and never use logic to support your argument. In fact, never argue. That way they will never guess how different you are from them! Never let them know you care! Another tried and true technique--never volunteer anything. Also, never ever ask for permission.
Who were "they" and "them"? Why, the Guardians Of Mediocrity, of course! I'm exaggerating here a bit, I admit--and I'm not referring to the creative people at the office. But there were some editors and assistant editors that seemed to fit that category. However, if you were "on staff" then you had a boss to answer to, so you had to "toe the line." Freelancers, for the most part, were uncontrollable (probably because they had no boss to answer to).
So Don, gregarious and expansive soul that he was, would get "called on the carpet" a lot. Every time that would happen, he and I would get together later to figure out how to graphically "turn up the volume" on some other element in the story that escaped their notice.
That was a lot easier to do than you might think. None of the writers at Marvel were doing full scripts (not that all the writers were sneaky trouble-makers--they were just creative), and nearly all of them were freelancers who worked alone and away from the office. Probably by preference.
So the only time the actual finished story would be read, complete with dialog and captions and sound effects, was when the art for all the story pages were complete and inked and collated and ready to be photocopied for the colorist. Keeping track of every story for dozens and dozens of titles per month must have been some kind of crazy editorial marathon!
So, all you diehard comics fans, keep in mind that if there was ever something innovative or ground breaking in a Marvel comic around that time, chances are it wasn't dreamed up by an enterprising and creative editor--it was almost always the writers and artists!
At that time at Marvel there were no writers meetings. No editor types sitting around deciding the story direction of a book. Professional courtesy was enough--so that nobody stepped on anybody else's creative toes or messed up another writer's continuity.
I worked in a remote office away from the Marvel bullpen and the editors--my work area was sort of a bullpen away from the bullpen, across the hall and behind a locked door near the elevators. I was away from the chaos, with my own music and Ed Hannigan at his drawing board next to mine. And so I was blessed, you might say, to be able to draw and write in a sort of creative playground with no "adult" oversight.
Nobody looked over your shoulder or tried to micromanage. On Deathlok and Black Panther I was left to my own devices. Nobody in editorial was thinking up stuff like "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if Deathlok went up against a tank armed with a makeshift giant crossbow made out of junk?" "How about we make Luther Manning's wife a black woman?" "Let's bring Black Panther back in Jungle Action--but this time, we make him really black." "Hey, suicide is a no-no in comics. Let's have Deathlok try to kill himself! That'll shake everybody up!"
No, it wasn't like that at all. In fact, it took quite a while before anybody in Marvel's editorial department even noticed that Deathlok's exploits took place in the future and that the character existed "outside the Marvel universe."
It was a similar thing with the art direction at Marvel. Nobody told anybody how to draw or what to draw. Can you imagine? "Hey, Jack, you forgot all about close-ups. Why are your characters so upset all the time? And what the hell is that weird mechanical whatchamacallit?" "Gene, you've got to get more medium shots on your pages. And stop using so much shading!"
Either you knew what you were doing, or you didn't. Those who did know got regular work. The "directing" part of the art direction was mostly John Romita maintaining a consistent look to the characters. There was almost no actual oversight (or none that was felt anyway). Nearly every cover that I ever drew in the seventies and eighties were all worked up from my own ideas. And I count myself lucky that not a single cover was ever rejected or redone.
The Black Panther in Jungle Action was a joy to work on. I have very fond memories of those days. There was no map for any of where Don McGregor and I took this. Everything that Don challenged me on I would find a way to draw.
And he threw a lot at me! The only editorial mandate we got from Roy Thomas was--run with it and have fun! I got the artistic freedom to do action sequences placed in the lettering of the story title, sideways splash pages, panoramic double-page spreads, cinematic sequential action, monochromatic coloring, shading in zip-a-tone (shaded rub-on dot patterns--remember that?), as many panels on the page as I liked. Don and I were like young thoroughbred race horses--and we just both cut loose!
I wish that I had had more time in my work schedule back then to continue on the book for longer than I did. But artist Billy Graham continued things bravely and boldly and he did some stylistically spectacular graphics that carried the series to even more dramatic heights.
In the black & white comics magazines back then I got to indulge in graphic storytelling to my heart's content. I did some notable stories for Marvel and Warren in those early days--and the appeal for me was the total freedom of expression I was allowed as well as the challenge of working without color--which meant relying heavily on light and shadow and motivated light sources. Nothing like a new challenge to get me fired up!
Despite the many differences I had with Managing Editor Bill Dubay at the time, my work at Warren was creatively rewarding. The pay was slightly less than the color comics. Deadlines, though, were not as oppressive as they were at Marvel. Again, there was no "heavy" art direction--none actually. I would get the story plot and I would hit the drawing board and just let the ideas and my pencil fly.
The stories for Warren were decidedly darker than what I was comfortable with. I'm not sure how I got through some of the material. I'm not at all in favor of censorship, mind you, but some things push the limit of even bad taste. I'm not squeamish by any means--but I'm not exactly an Alistair Crowley admirer either.
Dubay seemed to have a demented fascination with violence toward women and children--or, at least, he favored that theme in lots of stories he wrote or had other artists write. Murdering children was a recurrent theme I found particularly disturbing.
I remember bringing this up one time in conversation. I was objecting to the death of children in the books Bill edited and he just shrugged it off. I didn't make a big deal of it, but it wasn't a trivial matter either, I thought. Why didn't he see that? Hey, you've got to wonder. At least I did anyway.
A whole different artistic mindset was required to work in the horror genre. I looked at it like it was the comic book equivalent of those 1960's Hammer films, which were tame compared to today's horror offerings (most of which border on MKUltra experiments and addictive psychological trauma for unwary viewers).
Or like the original Frankenstein or Dracula films with Bela Lugosi--scary, dark and mysterious, and "out there" with moments that would make your skin craw at times, and lots of chills and suspense. But they were not mean-spirited. I set my sights high--my aim was to bring something new and dynamic to the genre.
I never had a lot of horror comics in my personal collection. Mostly I was attracted to the more "illustrative" stuff--Wally Wood, George Evans, Reed Crandall, and most of the artists in the early Warren Creepy & Eerie books. I didn't have the chops back then to draw like those guys--but here was an opportunity to further explore my experimenting with graphic storytelling. While vampires and werewolves and ghouls were not my thing, I would make do by focusing on how the story was told.
And surprisingly I had a lot of fun with it. The artists at Warren usually inked their own work. I was more flexible. I inked my own pencils on my first few jobs for Warren with more or less satisfactory results, but with these stories for Dubay, I was more focused on the conceptual side of producing the pencil pages and the actual visual breakdown of the story.
I was fortunate early on to have one of my pencil jobs inked by Wally Wood (Creepy Magazine #75)--that was a thrill. It was a dark, emotionless and dreary story about cannibalism--the script was unrelentingly macabre--but I found inventive ways to make it a dynamic reading experience. Wally Wood's inking was flawless.
The other work at Warren was inked by Dubay. Early on I could see that those collaborations didn't work well. Our styles were different and seemed to clash in the most unlikely places. So I started working in a tighter style and using blue pencil to indicate shading and lighting and the finished pages markedly improved.
Production-wise, I worked at Warren "Marvel style"--that is, the pages were drawn up from a brief typewritten story outline and dialog would be added later when the writer would script from my visuals. This was unusual for Warren. As far as I knew, all the other artists at that time worked only from a full script.
Check out the first page of "On A Stalking Moonlit Night," scripted by Al Milgrom, in Eerie Magazine #48. The first two pages are "silent" except for some lettered "sound effects" and a few beginning words--and the first page (counting the logo) has 27 panels! What writer would script something like that?
Despite the dark and twisted subject matter I think these stories are still fun to read. For some reason the art I did for Bill was all inked by him on overlays. So there were "pencil originals" and "ink originals"--weird.
My original pencil pages were all later returned to me. As a matter of fact, that was the only artwork I ever got back from Warren--and the originals for that magnificent Wally Wood inking job mysteriously disappeared (that story is probably in some comic art collector's collection--but I haven't yet been able to track it down).
On the Marvel black and white books I got to work with Don Mcgregor. Still pretty dark stuff but Don, being a versatile writer, got more into characterization and subtleties. That was his forte. I loved that his stories always had a subtext that was never obvious but added substance to the characters and story.
I look at this work now and it's hard to believe that almost forty years has passed since it first saw print. It still seems fresh and new, in my somewhat biased view.
Another story of Don's that I had fun drawing featured the exploits of the inexplicable Hodiah Twist (a character who emulated Sherlock Holmes). It was served up in horror story trappings with a side order of dark humor. I loved that character!
Morbius was pretty bleak--but with Don, it wasn't always about the main character so much as it was about what was happening around him and why. Smart stuff, really, for a magazine like Vampire Tales.
I turned out the art on those stories with the same bravado and enthusiasm that I put into my super-hero work. Where did all that inspiration and energy come from, one might wonder? Actually I know. It's from that same creative flow that I still experience these days.
I remember back when I first arrived in New York and I paid a visit to Jeff Jones at his West Side apartment. He and I discussed this very subject, and he asked me a curious question. I remember his words clearly to this day.
"Rich, how do you keep it going? I mean, there are days when I wake up in the morning and it just sort of hits me--the fear that it's gone, that I've lost it and I can't paint or draw anything."
"Oh," I replied. "You mean like artist's block? Never happens to me. It's always there, and I'm always on." And he said, very seriously, almost in envy: "God, I wish I could say that!"
Imagine, this was Jeff Jones the incredibly prolific and already highly accomplished comics artist and fantasy painter!
Honestly, there is never a work day that goes by where I haven't drawn, painted or created something new. And thank God I can say that!