Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Swash" Buckler Saturdays: "Childhood Without End, Halcyon Days At Marvel and...And A Few Paintings..."

Every once in a while I am asked the somewhat curious question: "Are you going through your second childhood?" Well, to that I would have to answer: "Why would I do that? I haven't really finished my first one!" And I feel a little bit sad for anybody who has given their childhood or left it behind.

I loved fantasy and creative play as a child--who says you have to leave that behind? However, that doesn't mean that I don't face reality. Of course I do. I deal with that every day. I just think reality is vastly overrated. Wasn't it Einstein who said that reality is just an illusion, albeit a very persistent one?

I have considered this many times--dealing with reality, that is--and that if I had been realistic back in my Detroit days I might have done the sensible thing and taken that job I had at the post office and worked it full time as a career and lived a "normal" somewhat predictable and mundane life. Or maybe I would have been brave and continued to pursue my alternate plan of becoming an investigative journalist.

If I had chosen either one of those paths, what an incredible adventure I would have missed!

At eighteen, I was graduated from High School (and my "prison time" in school was behind me-- thank God!). I was fortunate that the military didn't want me (and I wasn't too fond of them either!). As a young man reaching "adulthood" I was faced with "finding my place in the world." You know, the stage in life you reach where all the "grown up" stuff that you were told as a child would eventually arrive unexpectedly does--and now you have to do something about it. So I became an "adult", only reluctantly.

So, once you have crossed that threshold and become an adult, there comes with that yet another requirement--that you try to figure out what you want to do with your life. No big deal, I already knew--so that was never a problem for me. Working out how to make that that was the difficult part.

How does a person know they will be good at something just because that's the thing they want to do? How do you determine whether it's really the right thing for you? Or, if you're sure it is, is it your actual life's purpose?

In my case, I just knew. My way is to learn by doing. In school I was always ahead of the teacher in my studies. And what I do I do fearlessly! I figure, yeah, it's possible that I may screw up something along the way--but I know I'm not a screw-up. Eventually I'll get it. I still believe that anything can be learned if a person is determined enough. That's how it's always worked with me anyway.

It's still amazing to me that I went so quickly from drawing back-up stories and black and white horror stories to drawing "The Avengers" and from there embarking on a long career as a super-hero artist for mainstream comics. As I have mentioned, that was a dream come true.

These present days, though, while the dream of drawing comic books is still vibrant and alive, "reality" seems to be lagging behind it. I'm not depressed or unhappy about it--but I am happiest when I'm drawing comics!

Nowadays it's been mostly commissioned drawings and cover re-creations for loyal comic book fans (thanks, one and all, for your patronage and support!), my occasional comics convention guest appearances, and a lot of painting.

Painting just came about unbidden and almost unexpectedly. Hard to believe but in my twenty eight years of drawing professionally up to that point I never once picked up a paint brush (except for some occasional watercolor work). Creatively this has been an exciting new direction for me. When I started painting in late 2000 I had no preconceived ideas about where the painting would take me.

The comic book paintings came about as a bit of a fluke. At first I wasn't even considering comic book heroes as a possible painting subject. I began with the super-hero paintings on canvas when one adventurous comic book fan from Hawaii commissioned me at a Big Apple comics convention to do my first one ("The Rampaging Hulk").

So it was Eric Anderson who was the catalyst for a whole series of super-hero paintings that followed. Thanks, Eric!

Alongside these works I also produced a considerable amount of surrealist paintings. In case you haven't guessed, I am a surrealist at heart. It's where I live and move and have my being! Gradually things developed to the stage where I was ready to exhibit at some of the art galleries in Brooklyn and Manhattan. That, in turn, led to an opportunity to show all of my surrealist work in a solo exhibition in Paris. That showing in Paris is a story in itself which I will get to later.

How did I learn painting? Well, the first thing that came was a deep desire to do it. Then it became a matter of what to paint.

I love Frank Frazetta's fantasy work, so that genre of painting came to mind at first. I recalled that memorable trip to see Frank Frazetta at his Brooklyn home and view firsthand most of his fantasy paintings. That had definitely not been wasted on me!

Then I considered the many other fantasy painters I admire--Jim Steranko, Joe Jusko, Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, Roy Krenkel and Basil Gogos. And then there's my favorite painter of all time, Salvador Dali.

But I didn't see any point in working along the same lines as any of these modern masters. What I needed was something that was my own. Eventually I found it.

As far as learning the actual craft of painting goes I knew myself well enough to know that the academic route was not for me. So that left "hitting the books" on how to paint and then just learning it by doing it. It seemed to be the sensible thing to do since that's how I learned to draw.

I started doing painting renditions of my surrealist drawings (which at first I didn't even understand!) and as my skill and confidence grew my efforts gradually went from small works to larger works and then eventually to painting on canvas.

Then things developed along several lines--one direction was surrealism, the other a sort of pop art treatment of my favorite super-heroes--Superman, Wonder Woman, The Thing, Spider-Man, Captain America, Silver Surfer, Incredible Hulk, and of course Deathlok.

I guess my years of museum visits and studying and admiring the works of the Renaissance artists had a lot to do with my accelerated progress. Or, maybe I'm giving myself too much credit. Regardless, as an artist I know that I was really paying attention at those times, that's for sure.

Being so critical and always analyzing things, I got a pretty thorough art education in my world travels (Turkey, Israel, Russia, Greece, Italy and France) viewing some of the world's most famous architecture and works of art (yes, that includes Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and the Sistine Chapel!).

Also, with no teacher or expert to guide me and tout these "masters" as the "be-all and end-all" of the art world, I had what I think is a distinct advantage. I avoided picking up the usual indoctrination and prejudices of "experts" that try to convince most living artists that they can never hope to compete with the dead ones.

I'm just naive and brave enough to believe that anything those European masters could do I could do also--and there was no one around to try to convince me otherwise! I know--what a dreamer, right?

I still believe that. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Trust me, it makes sense if you're a surrealist. So, dead or alive, those artists whom I admired most became my teachers while at the same time I regarded them as my only creative competition!

So it was full speed ahead, no fear, and the critics be damned! I'm not sure how close I have gotten to realizing those lofty aspirations of mine in the works I have turned out so far--but I'm having one heck of a time trying!

Interestingly enough, none of the paintings I've done look anything like Neal Adams or Jack Kirby--or even Dali for that matter (hmmm...). Oh yeah, except for the Silver Surfer (a sort of Kirby tribute--I couldn't help myself) and that one portrait of The Thing (also a tribute piece).

And just for the record (so this point doesn't come up again!), in those early days at Marvel nobody ever instructed me to draw like Jack. That was unilaterally my choice. When I did it, it was because I could (hopeless fanboy that I am).

I wonder, does anybody want to hear my opinion on this subject of "tributes"? I don't mean to get cranky or sound like I'm getting up on a soapbox here but I suspect that those readers who didn't like my version of Kirby in the comics either didn't like Jack Kirby's style in the first place or, at the other extreme, they perhaps "deified" Kirby and thought I was committing some kind of artistic sacrilege.

So I get flack from both camps! Hey, it was me just having fun! Why spoil the fun of it by taking a negative attitude about it?

And one more thing--does anybody really believe for a minute that an artist who can mimic the styles of other comics artists is negligible because of it and probably devoid of talent of his own?

Think about it. Anybody making that kind of a summary judgment would have to include many of my all-time favorites and probably at least half of all the comics artists in the business! For anybody who didn't like or was somehow offended by those "tributes" of mine--lighten up a little and get over it!

Regarding that Thing painting I did, I remember reading on the internet an otherwise appreciative comics fan commenting on the original version of it I drew (inked by Joe Sinnott) for Foom Magazine. He was wondering what Jack Kirby "source material" had been used. Well, let me help out there. There wasn't any! I made it up! Yeah, I do that sometimes.

More On Deathlok and Black Panther...

In my halcyon days at Marvel, us "new guys" were an eclectic and spontaneous bunch! We all had lots of things in common but we were each of us fiercely individual and definitely not "from the same cookie cutter."

Ideas were flying constantly. You never knew when an idea would hit you or where it would come from. Inspiration would come on subway rides, while hanging out with buddies, or suddenly arrive unexpectedly in the wee hours of the morning while fending off sleep. Who needed sleep? We were all like that.

I don't remember when it was exactly that Steve Gerber came up with Howard The Duck, but I do recall him talking about it with me and Alan Weiss on a subway trip to Marvel's offices back when we used to hang out together. This was during the earliest conceptual stages of that character and before there was even a visual depiction of Howard.

I was intrigued at Steve's really "off the wall" ideas. I remember that Alan was encouraging him. I thought Steve's ideas regarding the Quackster were cool but at that time I thought he was only joking. It was all quite brilliant--but I thought there was maybe only a million in one chance that it would actually become a comic book. Nahhh--Marvel would never go for it.

But Steve was implacable--nothing could stop him! Besides my fellow surrealist Alan Weiss, Steve Gerber was the only other comics creator I knew that could obsess more than I could (and that's saying a lot, trust me on that).

Another dynamo of creativity was Don McGregor. During those early discussions with Don in my 'alternate Bullpen" office space the ideas would fly furiously and fearlessly, almost on a daily basis!

One day when Don and Klaus Janson and I were kibitzing, suddenly my office door opened. It was Marv Wolfman and he asked: "Can I come in?" And all of us, in unison, answered: "No!" I was feeling capricious and I said only artists were allowed back here--no writers! Marv pointed out: "But what about Don? He's a writer." "Yeah," I quipped. "But Don is cool and you're not!"

Sounds a bit mean, right? But we were just putting him on. I hope he got the joke.

What did we brainstorm about? Well, all those splash pages in Jungle Action with the story titles worked into the composition as part of the artwork--those were all Don's inspirations!

The maps, the logo insets and vignettes on the inside pages--they all sprung from Don's boundless imagination and amazing visual sense. And let's not forget Tom Orzechowski, another frequent visitor, and his heroic efforts in all of this!

Imagine if some other editor besides the adventurous Roy Thomas were assigned to this book. What would it have looked like? Why, the book might not have even ever been! Don and I were not doing the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby version of the character--and we didn't feel compelled to, either. It was all "Roy approved", but nobody told us we had to do it this way or do it that way. Thanks, Roy!

As I've mentioned earlier, during the time Don and I collaborated, Don was on staff at Marvel while I was a freelancer but with my own office work area. I came and went as I pleased. My time was my own and I had nobody to answer to. How Don managed to deal with the vagaries of that office environment is beyond me. I wouldn't have lasted five minutes.

Thankfully the corporate mentality at Marvel was not as rigid as D.C. Comics. Still it was palpable in many of Marvel's various departments, and it would manifest itself in the dumbest and most surprising ways sometimes.

For example, one time I had to use the office restroom and as usual I had to bother somebody for the key. This time, though, I was just about fed up with doing always having to do this--bothering somebody and asking permission. So I went downstairs and around the corner and made a copy of the key at a nearby hardware store.

Well, the person whom I borrowed the key from raised a stink about it when I returned his key a few hours later! "Did you make a copy?" he huffed. "You can't do that! It's not allowed!" I thought it was actually a reasonable action on my part and that this person (an assistant editor, no less) was being a bit "anal" about it. In other words, it was what I viewed as office corporate type nonsense, so I just shrugged it off.

I mean, really, was this something all that serious? Why would I not be allowed to have a key to the bathroom? Maybe I couldn't be trusted? And why was it locked anyway? Were they afraid that some wacko might sneak in and steal all of the toilet paper?

I had to work around a lot of this kind of thing (see my reference, earlier, to my "ninja" tactics). Always with the "can't do that" and "it's never allowed" and "did you clear that with so-and-so"? I had to wonder--wasn't anybody allowed to think for themselves? Maddening!

Anyone who has ever worked in an office in a corporate environment knows what I'm talking about. Mindless conformity and rigid adherence to rules were embedded in a thinly disguised control system. I regarded this zombie-like mentality of office workers as a kind of "dysfunctional behavior"--but from their point of view of course I was the troublemaker.

And speaking of rules--at Marvel, believe it or not, artists were rarely if ever allowed to do "touch ups" or corrections on their own work. There was a separate department for that. Once a cover was drawn and handed in, you said goodbye to it.

Well, I never asked permission. If something needed to be done, and I didn't need a whole art department to get it done, I did it myself. So, I "nursed" quite a few of my covers through the production stage back then, whenever I had the time.

I didn't ask to get paid extra for the work and it wasn't as if I wasn't qualified. By the way, at D.C. Comics the art department was at all times strictly off-limits to artists--with no exceptions! I thought that really sucked.

So at Marvel, why did I do it? Well, because I could--and because I cared, and I knew my efforts would make a difference in the finished printed product.

I knew "paste up and mechanical" from way back in my early fanzine publishing days. Just the right touch with a little "white out" to hide the "cut lines" for collages and paste-ups, and I knew my way around when it came to using a straight edge and a matte knife and rubber cement. I was a veritable one-man art department!

Nowadays art production is all done digitally--and, yes, I'm currently up to speed on all the latest computer tech, thank you very much. And I'm quite a wiz at Photoshop too, if I do say so myself. But sometimes I still miss the old "analog" way of getting things done!

Many times I worked in the bullpen area right next to Jack Abel and Mike Esposito--and they would give me pointers and helpful advice. As I recall they did think I was a little quirky for even wanting to do this stuff in the first place.

For coloring expertise, no problem. I had an excellent rapport with Marie Severin and George Russos. I was even buddies with Phil, the photostat guy, so getting a quick stat on a moment's notice was never a problem.

So I was very hands on with my art for Jungle Action and most of the Deathlok art for Astonishing Tales, particularly the covers. With advice and guidance from multi-talented Marie Severin I commandeered some space in the coloring room and colored the cover to Astonishing Tales #26 myself. This was the one with the sparse white background.

I got some static from the Guardians Of Mediocrity on that one. I got it "approved" anyway--by Stan Lee, no less ("Sure, Rich. Of course you can color your own work! You can do whatever you want!"). That was sneaky of me. And hey, Marie thought it was pretty cool.

There were a number of covers for Deathlok I am particularly proud of and that I thought stood out from the rest of Marvel's output of that time. Particularly the covers to Astonishing Tales #'s 35 and 36, both of which have stories behind how they came about.

Deathlok and Ryker were depicted on the cover of #35, with both figures facing off, with a symbolic head of Deathlok behind superimposed over an American flag. Cool so far--that had been the easy part--but I could see right away that the design needed something more. I needed to put the characters in their "virtual" environment.

For those not familiar with this particular book--according to the story both characters are supposed to be in a "cyber world" (my totally non-technical based version of the internet--and this was before there even was an internet as we know it), with both of them battling it out inside a gigantic supercomputer. The aim of Ryker, the bad guy, was to become "god of the universe" in an idealized all-powerful digital form.

And wouldn't you know it? Those darned Guardians, again, were on my case. "What's this?--nudity on the cover of a super-hero book?" Of course, I was told, "You can't do that!" I was not deterred. So, I ask you, what would a "digital god" wear for such a virtual event anyway? Maybe a jogging suit and some sneakers?

Well, of course Ryker was supposed to be completely in the buff (because that's how he appeared in the interior of the book--so let's at least be consistent!). Clearly I was challenging a taboo in the comics--not that I had set out to do just that. It just played out that way. I found it a bit remarkable that the figures of Ryker on my artwork for all of the interior pages had remained un-retouched up to that point.

But I wasn't all that surprised that, once it all went to the presses, the totally naked version of the villain didn't quite make it to the cover. At the last minute someone added the brown-colored underwear. Hey, close enough--it still worked. And I still have no idea to this day how that story ever got past the comics code.

So, back to the drawing board and how the cover came about. In the conceptual stages I had a workable composition in the pencil version--so far so good-- but what was really needed was a surreal background. Something "cybernetic", whatever that was. Something really different. What to use?

A paper cup I held in my hand provided the answer. Printed on the side of the cup was a panorama of Manhattan rendered in partial silhouette. Perfect! Why? Because when I took the cup apart and flattened it, the skyline had a perfect curve to it.

Hey, just what I needed! So I had a photostat made of that and pasted it on to the artwork, which completed the picture and gave it the proper surreal look. "Low tech" became "high tech"--well, sort of. Who would have figured? A surreal approach to a surreal comic book cover that would have made Marcel Duchamp proud!

The idea for the cover to #36 came about quite differently. There were a lot of sports ads in print at that time that I noticed used collage and images inside on giant figure. I'm not a sports fan but I thought that was so cool. So that was my take-off point.

The result was bold, dynamic and surreal--one large action shot of Deathlok with scenes from the story inside the figure. It was almost like a movie poster--and nobody else had done anything like it before! Not in comics anyway.

Back then all of the visually exciting stuff that thrilled comics readers was "analog," not digital. There were computers for office work at that time--but no graphics interface yet. What we creative types lacked in technology we had to make up for in imagination. "Special effects" in the comics did not come from a computer program--computer generated effects weren't even possible then. So we used our own "bio-computers" (brains) for that!

Anything dynamic and innovative in the way of visual enhancements had to come from the imagination and rendering skill of the artists, colorists and letterers. If some of that visual magic is missing in today's comics--which I do notice a lot-- it's because of too much reliance on computers for the finished printed product. Computers can compute--but they can't think!

Like I said earlier, inspiration could come at any time from anywhere. And it still does to this day.

Quick change of subject. We all know what comic book companies do, right? They publish printed entertainment--but in reality they create absolutely nothing. For the most part they are manufacturers who create product to sell for a profit. Maybe that seems obvious, but I'm trying to make a point here.

Marvel did not create Captain America. D.C. Comics did not originate Superman. Marvel is not the author of Deathlok. And I understand that there is even some controversy over whether Bob Kane created Batman, and there has been lots of speculation about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and who created what--but I'm not going to go into any of that.

My assertion here is that comic book publishers own and exploit commercial properties that they usually own and control--but the creativity comes from individuals! Corporations create nothing. They just make money.

The creators, who do all the brainstorming and possess all of the talent and skill to produce comics, usually end up owning nothing. Is that backward, or what? As creators, we get the short shrift.

Okay, granted that comics fans know that Bill Everett created Sub-Mariner, Marv Wolfman created Blade and Steve Gerber dreamed up Howard The Duck (or did Howard actually create Steve Gerber?). Comic fans know it. But this should be public knowledge. That's what I think anyway, because the real heroes are the super-hero creators!

Nowadays the words "Stan Lee" and "comic books" are synonymous. Well, so should be the names Spider-Man and Steve Ditko. Simon and Kirby and Captain America! I wonder how many fans out there know that Dick Ayers created the original Ghost Rider? Hey, everybody should know this stuff!

In a perfect world, that is. But then again, we don't live in a perfect world, do we?

A note from Ol' Groove: Hey, Groove-ophiles, if ya wanna plant your peepers on more of Rich's awesome artistry be sure to visit his websites! For comicbook art visit and for viewing his surrealist paintings check out That should keep ya busy 'til next week!


  1. Hey Rich
    Don't you just love that corporate/I'm God mentality. I've experienced that myself first hand. But once I put it back in Marine/Sgt.Carter mode miraculasly the BS ceased immediately. As some clown used to say, Homie Don't play Dat! LMAO!

    I will never understand that type of silly garbage. The power trip control freaks. I noticed they don't last 5 mins with ex-marines! They get the Darth Vader vibe off us I guess! Another very informative & interesting chapter. How did you come up with the idea for Deathlok? I heard it was because Charlton had beat Marvel to aquiring the $6 Million Dollar Man.

    Which anyone who grew up in the 70's knew he was as popular as Star Wars but on tv. Can't wait to hear about your short stint at Atlas Seaboard comics also.

  2. This was fantastic! I'd say you made the right career choice. I mean, society may have lost a first-class postman, but we gained Deathlok and a whole bushel of great comic book art! Wise move, ol' Groove!

  3. I don't recall at what point I actually realized that you were "the" Rich Buckler, but it was certainly after I began carrying this link over at my own blog, The Comic Book Catacombs.

    As I was reading this really insightful post, I realized that I had never taken the time to say that I am a big fan of your work. I loved your stuff back in the Seventies and have remained a fan through the years.

    Hope to see you back in Charlotte, NC for Heroes Con, or maybe in Atlanta at Dragoncon sometime.

  4. Thank you Mr. Buckler for this fantastic and insightful article. And thank you for creating the book "RICH BUCKLER'S SECRET OF DRAWING COMICS" I thoughly enjoyed it and loved it!

  5. Great to see the surrealist paintings! Thanks for showing the side of Rich Buckler we don't see in the comic books.



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