Monday, July 23, 2012

Rich Buckler's Secrets Behind the Comics Part One: "The Surreal, the Sublime, and the Fantastic..."

 Told'ja! Rich Buckler's back and the Diversions has got him, baby! Not only is the incredible Mr. Buckler back in blogging action, but he has a brand new column: Rich Buckler's Secrets Behind the Comics--which is just what you think it is, Groove-ophile! What better way to get historical perspective on the Groovy Age of comics than from a super-star who was right there in the thick of things? Aw, you (nor Rich for that matter) don't need hype from me! Take it away, Mr. Buckler!

I'm wondering how many comics fans are familiar with surrealism?  I'm thinking of the kind of imagery derived from the art and literary/art movement that, from time to time, has spilled over creatively into the comics media.  For those who are somewhat familiar with this subject, I wonder how many readers actually know what surrealism is and how to identify it?

Okay, that last question is a bit of a conundrum, I have to admit.  Defining surrealism is sort of like trying to describe what an odor looks like.  Surrealism has always been a part of my thinking and is ever lurking behind my creative process when I am at the drawing board.  It is where my most "out there" ideas come from.  Of course that surrealist mode is abundantly obvious in my painted works, but I would like to focus here on the comics (and specifically comic book covers).

In comic books, in my view nobody beats Jack Kirby when it comes to the sublime and fantastic!  And I'm not just talking about his dynamic figure work or the various art styles he worked in or his progressive graphic and cartooning techniques.  It was more his thinking that always got me going.

He was also one of the most surreal comic book artists that ever lived!  Like many of the greats, Jack's work not only embodied that special sensibility that is needed to graphically portray the impossible, the hyperbolic, the sheer outlandish stretching of ordinary boundaries of belief--all things I aspired to do in comics!--but he would frequently embark on a bold artistic journey that would take comics readers to the farthest reaches of the imagination...and beyond!

And for me that "beyond" was always a thrilling prospect.  Depicting the impossible, reconciling opposites, objectifying the subjective--call it what you will.  Jack might have referred to it as accessing "The Unknown Doors To God's Many Mansions" (in fact, I think he actually did).

In a sense, all comic book art is surreal (in varying degrees) when you really think about it.  That's my point of view anyway.  The comics medium just lends itself to it.  You will always find in comics an abundance of ideas that stretch the imagination. But what I'm talking about here are those peculiar works produced in those rare moments that an artist has when he steps back from a comics page or cover he has just created and asks himself:  "Whoa!  Where the hell did that come from?"

Those rare occurrences go beyond the extremities of fantasy and science-fiction.  I used to call them "Jack Kirby moments."  That expression would expand as I continued to work in the comics medium and I would go on to think in terms of "Jim Steranko" moments (remember those surreal Shield classic covers?), and "Jim Starlin moments," and even--yes!--"Steve Gerber moments".  Well, you get the idea. 

Every comics artist has his own way of working.  To create comic book covers (not just surreal ones) here is how the work would go for me at both Marvel and D.C. Comics.  I would be given a rough idea by an editor in a written summary or a brief note referring to a scene in a few accompanying photocopies of the interior pencil art.

I was never instructed how to go about  this, nor was I even asked if I could for that matter.  Editors just assumed that I knew what I was doing.  It probably goes without saying that a jazzed up "snapshot" of a panel from the interior pages would not cut it.  I knew that, that would be taking the easy way out, and it was definitely not what I was hired to do.

Nobody told me this in so many words, but what was expected was more like "creativity on demand" with the delivery of a scene or concept that would magically capture the essence of the story and the characters in it.

Not every comics artist can do this effectively.  Not all comic book artists are alike.  Some of my favorites cover artists (besides Jack Kirby) who I consider to be absolute masters are Nick Cardy, Jim Steranko, Carmine Infantino, John Buscema, Joe Kubert and Ross Andru.  Am I saying that I consider myself to be in their class?  No, not really.  I mention them here because the output of these artists aptly demonstrate the craft of designing and drawing comic book covers.

I recall that there used to be a "toungue-in-cheek" axiom in professional circles regarding how to determine what publishers want.  Of course it is a given that publishers always desire profit from sales and to own everything outright.  Some anonymous wit had summarized what we all knew was essentially true--that it all comes down to two points.

First point:  publishers don't usually know what they want until they see it.  Second point (the axiom--and the crux of the matter) "what they really want is the same old thing, only different".  Right.  I think that virtually all comics writers and artists encounter this conundrum on a regular basis.

Thank goodness that how I actually would accomplish my work and deliver the goods was left entirely up to me.  Following rules and instructions and doing exactly what I'm told have never been my strong points.  Besides, it's no fun at all doing the same thing the same way, over and over.  I was lucky because at Marvel and D.C. Comics there was little or no art direction most of the time--which was okay by me.

Occasionally there would be the irritating "art correction" (not very often, thankfully) or the dreaded "production fix" (this happened a lot at Marvel in the early 70's).  My take on that?  Fixing a cover after it has been done is never desirable. Sometimes the results would be disastrous.  When it would happen it was usually done for reasons that are not artistic, and in all cases the result was not an improvement.

Either a cover works or it doesn't!  Fixing a face or pasting in another figure just violated the integrity of the art.  A complete re-do would be next best thing--but there was never enough time of that.  Fortunately, this rarely happened to me--and it never happened at D.C. Comics.

Conceptually every cover was a tough nut to crack, and I found that thinking too much about it didn't always help. Neither did the deadline pressure (but that went with the territory)!  So what was my process for generating ideas?

Well, in the preparatory stage I would do my creative meditation thing and just go into my "Samurai no-mind" (my own technical term)--and then kind of blank out temporarily.  You know, "no-mind" as in not thinking--but not losing consciousness of course.  In this case all thinking just stops.  It's not like a trance.  It's more like a heightened state of readiness.  Whenever that moment of readiness was reached I was always immediately confident that ideas would begin to flow.  And flow they did.

Interestingly the very best cover ideas would often come with seemingly little or no conscious effort, pouring out like the onset of an overwhelming emotion or a sudden totally indefinable urge--a sort of "imagination spasm" that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Then I would allow the drawing hand to move and the idea would begin to take shape and become articulated in sketch form.  Actually, describing it sounds more mystical and complicated than it is.  Hey, trust me, I'm not the only artist that this happens to!

Most of the time the story content of the comics already provided the surreal elements, so it was easy for me to decide what to focus on.  Not that all the stories were surreal.  Some were, more than others.  I would just pick up on those elements, synthesize the idea in my own way, and then run with it.

Surrealism is not so much about originality as it is about uniqueness of approach.  So, what I am saying is either you think that way or you don't.  When you see it you know it.  As an artist, when you do it you have entered into what I call "The Zone."

Another important point:  Surrealism is not an art style (a common misconception).  It is not a particular painting or drawing technique.  It is more like a peculiar mode of thinking.  It's indefinable, really.  But it is definitely about "pushing the envelope", breaking barriers and challenging logic and reason.

While surrealism does embrace fantasy and the occult, the bizarre and the fantastic, the ridiculous and the absurd, it is much more than that.  It's all about capturing "essences" (of ideas & things).  Often dream-like and even "psychedelic", it is a seemingly perfect synthesis of the real and the unreal that sort of "defines itself."  There, that lets me off the hook.  Now I can stop trying to define something that defies definition.

For all you Groovy readers out there I thought it would be interesting to feature a few covers I have done that were sort of like that.  This installment is not about drawing.  The focus here is ideas.  Some of the cover examples are more surreal than others.  Surrealism can't be quantified either.  Most of the covers would work without any balloons or captions.  Masterpieces?  Maybe, and maybe not.  But definitely fun stuff! 

We go now on an excursion into the "beyond"--where most comics editors and publishers do not dare to venture!--past the derivative and the cliche and the commercially safe...far removed from the human "hive mind" and into "The Zone."  Herein we venture into the surreal...

"Trapped In A World He Never Made"--indeed!  Steve Gerber was Surrealism!  "Nuff said!

Black Panther in New York City--every bit as cool as The Phantom (the "Ghost Who Walks") adventuring in Manhattan!  You know you're in "The Zone" when you come across an image like this.  The artist's "camera" is in an impossible place (floating above), the extreme down angle perspective makes the Black Panther look mega-heroic--and gigantic.

Fans are generally not aware that the comics artist (whether he does this consciously or intuitively) chooses which point of view the reader will see each picture.  That is, where he places his "camera" to tell the story.  A lot like movie directors do.  These storytelling choices are strictly the artist's domain, almost never arbitrary, and never up to the writer or the editor.  Writers suggest, artists depict.

So, if an artist's imaginary camera is in an impossible place--like in several of the Sub-Mariner covers (underwater), or for instance suspended in the sky (Human Torch & Subby above that bridge)--well, things are bound to get mighty surreal!

The Jaguar:  An intense visual--very hallucinatory.  Very god-like and iconic, with several levels of meaning.  Again, we are dealing here with essences.  And it is very occult.  Not necessarily the Dr. Strange kind (which often, in comics, gets very trippy and surreal). 

"Hitler's Horror."  Obviously.  Stupid caption that just repeats in words what we already see in the picture.  A bit redundant, I think.  If I somehow I didn't draw a good likeness of Hitler (on both this Human Torch cover and the Creature Commandos), of course it would be necessary to identify him.  Both images are very surreal.  As I mentioned before, most of these covers would have worked with no words.  Occasionally, judicious copy editors did restrain themselves and let the pictures do the work.

Transformation & Invisible Forces:  Superman becomes inflated (Action Comics #477), and Superman gets his butt kicked by something invisible.  Note:  An extra "inside joke"  with this second Action cover is embedded in the crowd in the background.  I drew the editor of the book, Julius Schwartz, and the cover artist (which was me--how I looked at the time) reacting as they comment on what they see!.  That made it even more surreal, but only to insiders who "got it."

Man on fire:  one of my favorite absolutely surreal things to draw!  Not the usual cartoony abstract version you usually see in comics.  There is absolutely no reference in the "real world" for this kind of special effect.  The Original Human Torch was, for me, more of a realistically rendered version of Johnny Storm from Fantastic Four.

The idea of anybody on fire and still alive while they are in flames is a scary and surreal concept in itself, no?  "

"Two Realities At Once":  This of course defies physics, right?  Two simultaneous points of view are presented (plus the reader's point of view makes three) as depicted in the Aquaman scene and the Warlord cover.  It is an effect that can probably only be achieved in comics!  Also we get a slightly different treatment of "alternate realities" on the cover to Detective ("I Of The Beholder) and Superman Family #190 (breaking an imaginary dimensional barrier).  Mind bending stuff!

Time & Infinity--Chronos, of course, is Time--but sometimes time is illusory and not what it seems to be, relatively speaking.  So, on the cover of World's Finest #321, time stands still.  But does it really?

Infinity is indefinable and immeasurable.  Both time and infinity are perfectly suited concepts for surreallism!  In the Ghosts #100  "infinity cover" (cover within a cover, within a cover, ad infinitum), everything depicted therein is impossible--yet, there it is!

Size Relationships:  Another visual feature of surrealism.  Disparity in size and/or juxtaposition of objects that cause cognitive dissonance.  Which can be fun.  Note that in the Unexpected cover the telephone and the stapler are much too large for this scene (but you don't notice it at first--I didn't either when I drew it).  The famous surrealist painter Renee Magritte used this dreamlike theme to great effect many times.

Falling & Defying Gravity:  Again, we are in Magritte territory, with World's Finest #267(falling upward), and Warlord (a "freeze-frame" of Warlord and the bad guy battling as they plummet to certain death!).  Evocative of "falling dreams", and we have all had those, right? 

There is much more to surrealism that I haven't touched upon.  Symbolism, psychology, alchemy, metaphysics, dreams, visual puns, illustrated metaphors, hypnagogic fantasies, folklore, optical illusions, riddles and enigmas, etc.  Hundreds of books have been written on the subject.

When most people think of surrealism they think of the popular works of Salvador Dali (my favorite painter).  However, surrealism is much bigger than Dali.

Dali is famous for melting clocks and watches--but that is only one compartment of surrealism's immense amalgam of the real and the unreal.  There are as many artistic expressions of it as there are surrealist artists.

My view is that artists do not chose surrealism--it chooses them!  And surrealism even melts Dali (which I did in one of my paintings!).

Me and my friend and mentor Jim Steranko, taken at the 2012 Comic Book Marketplace convention in New York.
 Be sure to visit Rich's Hermetic Surrealism website at and of course his comicbook-related site at And if you're interested (and who wouldn't be?) Rich does commissioned sketches, drawings, cover recreations and paintings. You can contact him via e-mail at!


  1. Enlightening stuff!

    Much of Rich's work, as I've told him, looks better and better over time as opposed to so much comics work from about the mid-seventies on that I can barely look at anymore.

  2. Great way to kick-off! I'm looking forward to more of these posts in the future.

  3. right on, Steven! Rich's work looks as fresh now as then!

  4. We're thrilled to see Rich Buckler contributing once more to the king of bronze age comic blogs!

    Rich's previous series here turned us on to his surrealist painting career outside of the comic books we grew up with. It's great to read about the connection between the two styles and his creative process.

    Sounds like the no-mind part of the process has more in common with Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery than Dali's paranoiac-critical method. Great collection of covers, too!



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