Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Swash" Buckler Saturdays: "Well, I'll Tell You, My Boy..."

To say those were exhilarating and exciting times is probably an understatement.  I had yet to see any of my work in print, but I kept busy drawing small assignments for multiple publishers and one day I ran across an opportunity to hook up with Gil Kane as an assistant.  I thought apprenticing would be a great way to improve my knowledge and skills and get some valuable pointers from a comic book master.

I got hired by Gil and trekked to his midtown Manhattan apartment to work alongside his other assistant at the time, Howard Chaykin.  Howard and I had comics and drawing in common but not a lot else.  We got along fine, but he seemed wise beyond his years (or maybe just more "worldly"--I was not)--gregarious, outspoken and outgoing.  Not that that was a bad thing.  I tended to be more introverted and introspective.

So Howard and I didn't hang out together, but we did talk shop a lot and exchange ideas while on the job.  His self-confidence was always in evidence and he had opinions on just about everything.  I had begun to form lots of opinions too, but my way was mostly keeping to myself and listening and learning.

What was it like working for Gil?  Well, it was a bit disillusioning, actually.  Mostly what we did was draw borders on blank pages and then trace Gil's layouts (specific shots or poses which he selected from photocopies of his earlier work) and organize his files.  If that sounds a bit mechanical and factory-like--well, it was.

This procedure, I observed, would explain a lot about why Gil's work was so consistent (and sometimes repetitive) over the years.  I was getting my first look at his pencil art and his pages would be almost totally bereft of shading and feathering (his view was that this was the inker's job).

I never got the opportunity, over the years, to ink Gil's pencils.  But I did get to ink two artists who penciled in a similar manner (no shading, feathering, or indications of light sources).  I inked a cover by Jack Kirby and some Steve Ditko pencil story pages (in the 80's at Archie/Red Circle).

What I had to do is "spot the blacks" (that is, fill in or often invent shadows and lighting effects) and give everything a more finished and textured look, particularly with Steve Ditko (whose work was always minimalist and sometimes so sparse that inkers had to work up detail from objects and figures that were practically only an outline).  I gathered from talking to many inkers over the years that this was exactly what was required when inking Gil's pencil work.

Back to working with Gil.  There were long, long periods of silence as we worked away in his studio, and then suddenly he would start talking (while continuing to draw, and rarely looking up or at us).

He would chime in now and then and direct our efforts to some extent, but mostly regarding the work we would hear from him only when we did something he didn't like.  Gil was always calm, polite and very articulate, so it wasn't like he ever yelled at us or anything like that.  Both Howie (that's what we called him then) and I would try to accommodate him as best we could.  Now and then we were subjected to that ineluctable frown of Gil's as he looked down at us pensively or reprovingly.

Honestly, it was boring work.  I found myself wishing that he would just lighten up a bit.  And I wasn't learning much, if anything, about the creative side of comics.  Gil's work methods seemed to be geared mostly to maximum production in the least amount of time.  I know he's somewhat of a fan favorite for many, so some of what I'm writing here may sound overly critical or unfair.  I don't mean to sound disparaging--this is just how I remember it.  My opinions are artist-based and you may or may not agree with me.  Also I'm perfectly aware that my own work is not immune to criticism. 

I grew up on Gil's Green Lantern and his early work for Marvel--and much of it seemed to me as a young comic book fan to be visceral and dynamic.  I remember spending hours and hours studying and analyzing his art in my amateur days.  I was surprised then to find that his approach was so cerebral and mechanical.  You can imagine my disappointment, because I had this idea that working with an artist of his stature would somehow be exciting and stimulating (which it wasn't).

Both Howie and I were there to hopefully learn "tricks of the trade" and secrets of comics storytelling and the craft of drawing comic books--you know, wisdom from "on high."  We weren't there for the bucks, that's for sure.

What we got, mostly, were lengthy tirades or Gil pontificating on various theories he held about art and the work of other comic book artists--which might or might not have worked in an academic class for intellectuals studying the graphic arts.  It was definitely not the magical stuff that a couple of young and eager to learn comic book artists needed to hear.

I remember one time Gil was in a talkative mood and he asked me what it was like working with Neal Adams and what did I think of Neal as an artist.  I gave him a typical fan-boy appraisal, and then Gil launched into a thoughtful analysis of Neal's work--which mostly he liked (or said he liked) in his oh-so-often almost condescending tone.

Most of his observations were negative.  Maybe that's just how they seemed to me at the time.  He didn't agree with Neal's "concept of folds" (the way Neal rendered clothing and drapery), which I though was odd.  Then I remembered that Gil's main influence was Burne Hogarth (I think that's obvious in all of Gil's figure work) and it made sense.

While working as his assistant in his studio I would see Gil working up his comics pages with a copy of Hogarth's anatomy books always nearby (opened to a certain page for easy reference to a leg or arm position or body pose).  It was almost like his "bible."

I didn't tell him, but my opinion of Burne Hogarth is the same now as it was back then--and  it's always been a mixed bag.  Hogarth possessed a dynamic command of the action figure (perfectly suited for the Tarzan newspaper strip that he became famous for), clean and almost slick rendering, and a boldly unique and recognizable style.

On the other hand, Hogarth did repeat figure poses and hand and leg positions a lot (as did Gil Kane), which made his action figures and poses often seem "puppet-like" and sometimes stiff and robotic looking.  I tried working from Hogarth's concepts (and I studied from several of his anatomy books), but I always got frustrating and mediocre results.  I preferred John Buscema, and of course Neal Adams (who was coming from advertising art, photo-realistic drawing and rendering, and had more of a post-Hogarth and very modern and fluid approach to drawing comics).

Gil was very intellectual ("Well, I'll tell you, my boy...") and extremely analytical.  I realized that I had finally met a comic book artist who was more analytical than me!  So I suspect that Gil naturally saw Neal's work as less romantic and somewhat disrespectful of the past--and he definitely viewed Neal's art as over-rendered and using way too many lines and crosshatching (he called it "noodling").  Well, I viewed it a bit like that too, but only because I didn't understand how to do most of it and do it masterfully (which Neal always did).

Well, I did get to see Neal at work (both at D.C.'s offices and at his home), and it was both perplexing and mind boggling to me then.  Neal would trace his own mini-layouts (almost "thumbnail" versions of his pages) and enlarge them on an artograph projector--but unlike Gil, Neal's layouts were always new.  He almost never repeated himself.  I never saw any evidence that Neal traced his own work or use the same pose twice--which, to the young and impressionable artist that I was then, was astounding.

I don't know how long Howie lasted at that job, but I only managed four or five appearances--and Gil caught on fast, because he noticed I was always showing up late and he finally concluded that I had too many freelance jobs of my own to do and the assistant role just obviously wasn't going to work out.  So we parted ways.

I remember feeling awful about this at the time.  But Gil and I were never actually "clicking" on a personal level--so that made meaningful communication rather difficult--and he was always soooo gravely serious.  I could see how that gig wasn't really beneficial to either of us.

Years later, Gil and I would become rivals, sort of, at Marvel as cover artists.  This was in the mid-seventies when I was working at the time very closely with John Romita (the Art Director at Marvel at the time) and I was producing a lot of covers (when I say a lot, I mean probably a hundred or more).

That work relationship with John at Marvel was actually more closely aligned to my idea of what apprenticing was supposed to be.  Only, in this case, I was getting paid a lot better than I had from Gil.  It was a whole different set of circumstances.  I was a full-time working professional at Marvel and I was getting my name on nearly everything I drew--and virtually everything I drew saw print.

John Romita was a great teacher and one all around great artist.  I mean, the guy could draw anything!  His energy was always positive--and it seemed to me that he could solve just about any drawing problem there was!  John would art direct the covers he assigned to me.  But he never treated me like I was beneath him or less talented (I never thought I was either--I was just younger and less experienced).

I was working on my own assignments at home and coming into Marvel's offices and working at my own desk space for at least six or seven hours each weekday.  It was sort of a trouble-shooting role, where I was nearby and available to draw whatever the production manager, John Verpoorten, or John Romita would throw at me.

It worked like this usually.  I would be given a set of photocopies of the pencil art, from the story pages that were handed in (sometimes the whole story, sometimes only fragments).  From this I would choose a scene or concept that would best convey the story in one picture.

Coming up with the idea was always up to me.  I would work up a sketch, then John would make changes or corrections, or sometimes revise the idea using elements of what I came up with.  Once that was approved I would go to the adjacent offices across the hall  to my desk and work up the pencil versions.  A few hours later I would come back to his office with the finished pencil art and say:  "Okay, John.  What's next?"

I make it sound simple and easy.  It wasn't.  This was all done fast and furiously with little time to do much fiddling around or experimenting.  Everything was under a deadline.  So you were always under the pressure of drawing it fast and getting things right the first time.  I would often get five or six of these to do in a single day.  And amazingly I was never handed back anything to redraw.

Now, John's inking would tend to be heavy-handed--and by that, I don't mean overdone, just very peculiarly and stylistically John Romita.  His rendering always seemed more like painting to me.  Personally, I always loved his rendering.  Occasionally he would completely re-do a face (Captain America, or or Thor, or the Hulk--it was always the "big guys"), which I wasn't too crazy about, but I never complained.  Hey, I was getting inked by John Romita!

So, consequently, many of those covers I did that John inked looked a lot like he did them.  Many a cover I penciled during that time has been wrongly attributed to him.  That was partly my fault.  I would pencil in my name on the cover, usually close to the borders--but it didn't always survive in the printed product.

Sometimes the signatures would get cropped out or just overlooked entirely, or wouldn't be inked in.  Nobody in the editorial offices seemed very concerned over this.  It was important to me because the printed version would be identified immediately as my work (which I figured would lead to more work, right?--since a printed sample is the best sample).  Anyway, I thought it made good business sense at the very least.

So, intent on remedying this problem, I started to work out inventive ways to place the signatures on the covers so that it would be impossible to crop them out in the final version (that would happen most often when a cover was printed from a paste-up that used a photostat as the original--or, sometimes, for whatever reason, they just weren't signed at all).

Generally, though, you can tell it's a John Romita cover because John would sign his solo work.  Even when he inked Gil Kane's covers if there was no signature on the art, you could usually still tell it was not penciled by John.  Which brings us back to Gil Kane and me competing for cover assignments.

At that time Gil acquired a contract with Marvel to draw covers only and he had a hefty quota to meet every month--and he started turning out covers faster than you could say, "Hey, Rich, work up a sketch for this cover."  I had no such contract.  I was an all-around guy who happened to work at the actual Marvel offices, on my own time and on a freelance basis--so it was more like "catch as catch can."  I wasn't working for wages.  If I drew something, I could voucher it and get paid.  No work, no pay.  Thankfully there usually was a lot of work.

Gil was getting a lot of choice assignments--at least from my point of view.  And that's how he ended up drawing a few covers for issues of Fantastic Four that were drawn by me.  I was a bit miffed, because I always insisted on doing my own covers if I were drawing the rest of the book.  If I complained, it wouldn't have mattered.  Gil's contract would have precluded my argument.

Now, not all artists insisted on this.  For me, it was a kind of "comic book fan thing."  Hard to explain.  I guess it was one of my many quirks.  I never would have objected to a Jack Kirby or Neal Adams cover, though--so I guess it was more of a personal preference on my part rather than some rule that could never be broken.  I drew a lot of covers for other artists' stories, but that was always a "deadline-buster" kind of deal, or the artist who did the interiors wasn't available or didn't care either way.

Now we're getting into a subjective area and matters of tastes, but I thought you could always tell a Gil Kane cover--because it tended to look a lot like the one before it, or the one before that.  Dynamic, bold, in your face--but somehow always with a "sameness" or formula that I found a bit tedious and boring at times.

I wanted to be more like Neal Adams and come up with new and different ways to do things, without repeating myself.  Marvel, at this time, was heavy on production--they didn't so much care who did what covers, just that they got done.  I remember saying one time to John Verpoorten:  "Hey, John, you want this fast, or you want it good?"  His answer?  "I just want it done!"

Anyway, the rivalry was not something personal (I didn't hate Gil), and besides I was new at Marvel and knew I was lucky to be getting the work that was coming to me.  But one day I just couldn't resist "getting even."

So a Howard The Duck cover came up, and I penciled it--and I drew the "Master of Quack Fu" squarely kicking the sand out of some bad guys, and I made one particular bad guy into a cartoon-version of Gil (I mean, I made the artist into one of the characters).  I did a pretty good likeness, too (I thought).

I even went so far as to include very Gil Kane-like hands and an up-the-nose head shot (which Gil was famous for).  But it was such an "inside joke" that only a few people got it.  I think John Romita, John Verpoorten and Marie Severin were the only ones that caught it, and they got a laugh.

At least I got some satisfaction.  Finally.  If only in a vicarious manner.

Those were fun days.  Nobody thought they were "superstars", not really.  There were only the "masters" and us "new guys."  Yes, I was on a first name basis with all the "big names" in the comics--but there was always respect, the rivalry was friendly, and at Marvel we were all on the same ship and Stan Lee was the captain.  It was a magical time for me, and I was having the time of my life--ah, but everything changes, and so do the times, right?

There were other instances where I apprenticed in later years, with much more positive results.  My experiences working with Al Williamson, Dan Barry (Flash Gordon) and Sy Barry (The Phantom) were memorable and invigorating.  I never ever stopped learning.

I count as mentors Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Vince Colletta, Larry Lieber, John Romita, Joe Orlando, Dick Ayers, Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko, Archie Goodwin, Marie Severin, and (of course) Jack Kirby.  Boy, did I have a lot of great teachers!


  1. Wow. I wanna read more---especially Buckler's take on Colletta. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Rich, that was a great post ! I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a teen, I was a big fan of both you and Gil Kane. I got to shake hands with Kane in London back in the late 80s but I never met you, more's the pity.I look forward to more anecdotes of yours!
    (Thanks for posting it,Groove!)

    Best wishes,
    John Parker,Spain

  3. Wow! That's some history Rich. Funny tale with Gil Kane as well. I forgot you had drawn that HTD cover. I loved the interiors in GS Avengers as well. Any chance of seeing that funny drawing you did awhile back. I believe it was a commission for a fan.

    It was of Ben Grimm sitting at a drawing table drawing a pic of Kirby. I saw it up for auction recently on the Heritage Auctions. Very creative & cool.I was wondering did you draw parts of Sub-Mariner #72? It was the last issue of that series. I know the faces were drawn by Romita SR. The interiors were drawn by Vince Colleta & Jack Abel. But it sure looks alot like your artwork to me. Especially the extended arms, fists & body poses. The faces look alot like your style as well. Can't wait to read the next chapter!

  4. Really enjoying the artistic perspective you give, and fascinated by the 'day in the life' details.

    Was just enjoying some of your covers on Challengers of the Unknown featuring Swamp Thing.

    Also found a Buckler rarity in Weird War Tales: a 2-page story by Len Wein where the last man on earth freaks out about having nothing to eat but money from a vending machine.



Blog Widget by LinkWithin
Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1970s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!