Bryan D. Stroud for Comics Bulletin: John Workman told me a little about how you both began in the industry together. What are your recollections?
Bob Smith: It must have been about 1971. I’d gotten interested in comics only a couple of years earlier. I’d never been that interested before that. I was interested in cartooning and such, but comic books? No. Somehow, though, I managed to get fascinated by it. I was hanging around this bookstore and was buying old comics and stuff and I’d started to do some artwork and I showed it to the owner of the bookstore and he said, “You should show that to John Workman.” So I gave John a call and got together with him and we started collaborating after that.
CB: And is it correct that you two traveled east together to break into the business?
SMITH: Yeah. In 1975 we moved back to New York together.
CB: As I recall he said you were both lucky enough to get assignments the first thing.
SMITH: It actually took about a week and a couple of trips up to DC. We managed to get in to see Carmine Infantino and he seemed to like our work and John got a job in production right away. I was given Plastic Man. We did some stuff for Marvel, too. Some work for Crazy Magazine.
CB: Okay, so you didn’t keep all your eggs in one basket.
SMITH: No. We were trying to get anything we could at that point. Money was starting to run out pretty fast. (Chuckle.) We were staying in a motel on Staten Island.
CB: Ah. I believe it was Bob McLeod who told me how intimidating he found New York City initially and he had to take another run at it later.
SMITH: We were pretty lucky, actually. I’ve heard horror stories about people who tried for years to get work and just couldn’t find anything. Here we managed to get something within just a few days. Now it would be impossible today.
CB: Ah, yes. John was remarking how at the time you could just stroll on into DC, but those days are gone.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. You can’t so much as walk into the building now without being strip searched.
CB: The security requirements these days get onerous. Never mind flying.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. I flew back to New York in October and I think it’s going to be another three or four years before I put myself through that again. (Chuckle.)
CB: I certainly can’t blame you. Now at the time that you got in, with the full understanding that the industry has been cyclical right from the beginning, where were things then, if you recall?
SMITH: They were talking about everything folding up. We were told by people that you could probably get a job, but the whole business will likely go under in the next six months. This was right before the distribution system changed. General distribution was falling apart and the companies just figured it was over. Sales were dropping. Of course sales were so much better than they are now.
CB: I’ve heard stories that fanzines back in the day sold more copies than a lot of comic titles do today.
SMITH: I think they were dropping titles when they dropped below 400,000.
CB: Anyone would kill for figures like that now.
SMITH: Oh, yeah.
CB: Did you go through the whole implosion while you were working for DC?
SMITH: Yeah, but I was lucky. I was under contract at the time. So I managed to hang in there. A lot of people lost books and several editors got let go. I think Gerry Conway and Denny O’Neil were let go at that point. I think even Al Milgrom was up there at the time and he was let go.
CB: I seem to recall someone saying that the next thing they knew he was lined up at Marvel looking for work.
SMITH: Denny ended up over at Marvel, too.
CB: That was such a mess. I’ve heard different stories of how it all came down.
SMITH: I never did know.
CB: It seems like Carmine told me they tried to pack the racks with new titles and then a gentleman’s agreement on pricing was ignored and then…Shazam!
SMITH: Also Marvel was reprinting practically every book they had. The stands were flooded with reprint material.
CB: And then there was that horrible winter storm in New York where they couldn’t get the product out. Anyway, I don’t know how it will all turn out in the end.
SMITH: The digital thing may change things to a certain extent. They may be able to pick up some extra sales that way. But who knows what will happen there.
CB: Didn’t DC recently fold up its digital comic thing? Zuda?
SMITH: I don’t know a lot about it. I knew a couple of people who tried out for it, but I never really checked it out. I think it was more of a news strip sort of thing. I just don’t think it worked out the way they wanted it to. I think at some point they’ll be looking more into comics that you can download to computers and iPods and so forth.
CB: Well, Kindle’s and Nook’s and the like seem to be catching on and while I hate to sound like a Luddite, there’s something about holding a book…
SMITH: Yeah. You can’t smell the newsprint if you’re reading the comic book on the computer.
CB: Precisely. In my mind one of the great things about picking up the great old Silver Age comic books, whether at shows like the one I saw you at in Portland or through eBay auctions, is that when I crack that thing open the smell of it takes me right back to when I was 12 years old.
SMITH: Yeah. And the displays on those units right now are black and white, so you wouldn’t necessarily be able to read a comic book on them anyway. Now the iPad displays color, but they’re about twice the price of a Kindle.
CB: It will be interesting. I see that among your credits that in addition to inking, which is probably what you’re best known for, you’ve done a little bit of penciling, too. How did you happen to settle on inking?
SMITH: Well, they hired me as an inker. I was doing some penciling for Crazy Magazine for about the first year, but they liked the look of my inking, so I started inking and unlike some guys who started out inking like Jerry Ordway, I just sort of shifted over from penciling and just kept inking. I was faster at it. Every time I tried penciling I was just so slow at it that I just found I couldn’t make any money at it. I wasn’t doing enough of it to pick up any speed.
CB: Obviously for the life of a freelancer, that’s the name of the game. If you can’t produce, you don’t eat. What’s your typical production rate, Bob?
SMITH: I can do a couple of pages in a day.
CB: Very respectable.
SMITH: Although on things like Plastic Man and Super Friends I could do 3 pages in a day. On superhero stuff I’m a lot slower. I just started doing a superhero book for Archie and oh, boy. It’s been a good 10 years since I’ve done any superhero work and it’s taking me a little time to adjust.
CB: You’ve worked with some great penciling talent and I was told that Gene Colan felt you were one of the few inkers who really did his work justice.
SMITH: Yeah, Gene seemed to like my inks. Garcia-Lopez seemed to like what I did, too.
CB: Mike Esposito was telling me how challenging it was to work on Gene’s stuff because it wasn’t well defined.
SMITH: It was like inking fog. From two feet away all the pencils look really nice and when you’d get close up everything just seemed to dissolve. It’s all in tone. There aren’t very many clear, precise lines. It was so much just tonal work. If you’ve ever seen his pencils reproduced…I know awhile back they were trying to do that and they had to color it so lightly it really didn’t work very well.
CB: Gene’s stuff is definitely in a class by itself.
SMITH: Oh, yeah.
CB: Tom Palmer seemed to be Gene’s other favorite.
SMITH: He has such a strong style that you always know immediately who it is no matter who inks it.
CB: That sounds exactly like what Bernie Wrightson told me about inking Steve Ditko the one time he did. He said something to the effect that Steve’s pencils were so strong that no matter who did it or what you did, it looked like Ditko.
SMITH: It’s like Carmine. I remember when Warren did something with Carmine where a bunch of inkers worked on it and Bernie was inking one of those jobs. It was very interesting seeing all these different inkers on Carmine’s work. I think it was in the late 80’s.
CB: I understand Carmine is no picnic to ink. Someone described his pencils to me as a “mare’s nest.”
SMITH: Yeah, Ross Andru was kind of the same way. There were two or three different lines to choose from and you had to kind of pick the right one. (Chuckle.)
CB: (Laughter.) I think Joe Giella, who obviously worked a lot with Carmine said you just had to erase what you didn’t need and take it from there. How you would decide, I cannot imagine.
SMITH: I always felt that I had picked the wrong line to ink. I never really liked what I had done over Carmine for that reason.
CB: Carmine told me that he didn’t much care for Murphy Anderson’s inks, but his favorite was Frank Giacoia.
SMITH: Well, he and Frank had been friends for years.
CB: Yeah. It did sound almost like he and Frank preceded you and John by several years in approaching the publishers. What sort of equipment do you favor, Bob?
SMITH: I use a combination of pen and brush. I use several different points. I’ve settled down on a few specific kinds. Quill pens and a couple of different brushes.
CB: Did you have a penciler you especially enjoyed collaborating with?
SMITH: I did enjoy Gene a lot. Ramona Fradon was the first penciler I worked with at DC and her pencils are very nice to work with. Dick Giordano was a lot of fun to ink.
CB: I sometimes don’t think of Dick as a penciler, but obviously he did. I even own a few examples.
SMITH: I didn’t do that many jobs over him, but those I did were enjoyable. I wish I could ink Garcia-Lopez again, because I don’t feel like I did him justice when I was inking Atari Force. He’s a great penciler.
CB: Is he still working?
SMITH: He does mostly licensing stuff.
CB: That’s more lucrative, I imagine.
SMITH: Licensing work pays pretty well. I know a lot of guys who have been doing that. Mike Zeck, for example, has been doing that for the last several years.
CB: It seems you worked on all the major DC characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern…
SMITH: I only got to work on one Superman job. I wish I would have got the chance to ink that one more. I was doing a lot of Batman work at the time, so I think I was tagged as a Batman guy.
CB: Were any of those stories particularly memorable?
SMITH: I liked the assignments, but no particular stories are coming to me at the moment.
CB: It seems there’s a certain cachet to working on a major character.
SMITH: It was a lot of fun. I inked a lot of stories for Detective. I think I was inking all of Gene’s work and Adam Broderick. Early on I inked some Irv Novick stories that were a lot of fun. I believe that was in the late 70’s. Now two people I missed inking were Curt Swan and Gil Kane. I really wish I could have inked them. I just never got the chance.
CB: Al Plastino said that Curt’s pencils were quite detailed.
SMITH: I’ve got a framed pencil job by Curt of Superman and Supergirl. It’s very nice to have. It was one of his later works from the 90’s, but still very nicely done.
CB: It looks like you’ve done everything from horror to humor and heroes to war books…
SMITH: Well, yeah, when you started out at DC at that point, they would give you a lot of the 6 to 8 page mystery and war books because that was just sort of how you started.
CB: Kind of the apprenticeship?
SMITH: Yeah. I think that’s what the anthology books were good for. They were a good place to start. I miss those books.
CB: They had some wonderful stuff. I’ve sure been enjoying the reprints in those Showcase Presents editions.
SMITH: I did quite a few on the mystery titles, but not much on the war books. They were with Murray Boltinoff. I got pretty close to Joe Orlando and did a lot on the mystery titles with him.
CB: Everyone speaks so fondly of Joe. Any memories to share?
SMITH: He was very helpful. He was tough, but he was helpful. If there was something he felt you were doing wrong he’d put a piece of tracing paper over it and show you what you’d done wrong. He was a very good teacher.
CB: Sounds familiar and I’ve never heard anyone say a cross word about him.
SMITH: Well, there were people he didn’t get along with and he could show a little temper, but I never had any trouble with him. He got along fine with the other artists, but I think the administration was where he had some trouble at times.
CB: It’s interesting how they sometimes feel if you’re good at whatever you do you can be an administrator over whatever it was you specialized in.
SMITH: And if you don’t do well at that, they usually don’t let you go back, they just fire you. I think the only one I ever saw do that was Mike Carlin, who went back to being an editor.
CB: Maybe Dick Giordano, too.
SMITH: I think he was an editor and then I think he quit and he and Neal formed Continuity at that point. Then after that he went back to DC.
CB: Now as I recall, you were telling me in Portland that while I was under the impression you’d spent time at Continuity that you said you hadn’t?
SMITH: Yeah. John Workman and I used to pop in there all the time and there were a couple of times when they said, “How would you like to work on something?” and I think we worked on an ad for a Looney Tunes show for TV Guide although I don’t remember ever seeing it. That was very early on. Then we showed up there one day and they were doing these black and white books for Emergency! We spent a day there working on that. But both of us had other work, so we really didn’t need to work for Continuity. They were doing a lot of tracing stuff and we just weren’t really interested in doing it that way. Putting photographs of helicopters under the projector and tracing them off. We just weren’t interested in it that much.
CB: Did you attend an art school?
SMITH: I have a degree in art from Western Washington State College. It’s a University now. I took a lot of painting and drawing courses. I also took some painting classes at the Art Student’s League in New York. I didn’t go to the Kubert School like a lot of the other people did.
CB: After Joe got the school set up it seemed to become the gold standard in fairly short order.
SMITH: One of the guys up at Archie teaches up there and he’s a graduate. I don’t know if I could teach. It’s never really interested me that much. A lot of guys do supplement by teaching, though. I was offered a teaching job about 15 years ago, but I just really wasn’t interested.
CB: What other inkers do you admire, Bob?
SMITH: Dick Giordano, Tom Palmer, Frank Giacoia, Bernie Wrightson. People who aren’t necessarily exclusively inkers, but in addition to their other talents they ink really well.
CB: Have you been able to interact with any of them?
SMITH: Yeah, I’ve been able to get to know most of them. Certainly Dick. I shared a studio with him for a year. I think that was in 1994. Tom Palmer is someone I didn’t get to know very well. I’ve met him a couple of times, but can’t say I got to know him well. I never did meet Frank Giacoia. There’s just something about every one of them that I felt I could lift something here and there to use in improving my own work.
CB: I’m sure it’s very much an ongoing process and evolution.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. You’re always learning and you always try to get better. You’ll go through a period where it feels like you’re stagnating and then suddenly one day you notice you’ve gone up a notch somehow.
CB: When did you make the shift to Archie?
SMITH: That was in 1998. I was looking for work and a friend of mine suggested I contact Victor Gorelick at Archie and so I called him and he sent me some photocopies of things to do some samples over and he seemed to like them and said, “I’m not sure I can give you much work.” The next thing I knew I had more than I could handle. So that worked out very well.
CB: You’ve made the rounds, too. In addition to what we discussed before I saw work for Dark Horse, Bongo, First, Defiant…
SMITH: I was trying to recall if I did any work for Valiant. I think I went there a couple of times, but I don’t believe I did any work for them.
CB: Did you find any significant differences among the various publishers?
SMITH: I didn’t think there was much difference. I’ve also done some work for IDW. One of the issues for Star Trek was running kind of late, so they got several different inkers to work on section of it. I think I did six pages.
CB: I’ve been talking with a lot of former Crusty Bunkers and some of those jobs sounded like they were you classic crank-it-out-over-the-weekend scenario.
SMITH: I never got involved in any of those. I knew a lot of the guys, though, like Bernie and Kaluta and Alan Weiss as they did them. A lot of that was going on in the early 70’s.
CB: Greg Theakston described how even the rushed, collaborative jobs turned out looking professional.
SMITH: Yeah, it’s fun to look back at those and try to pick out who did what. I understand on a lot of them that other people were doing the penciling, but Neal was doing most of the inking. I could pick out Alan Weiss on some of those jobs, though.
CB: What did you do for Star*Reach?
SMITH: That was some of my pre-professional work. John and I got involved in that before we moved to New York. In fact, I did one before I moved to New York and one afterward. The first day John and I came to New York, we went to Continuity first because we were meeting Mike Friedrich there. I did one story that was more realistic and one that was more humorous. The second one kind of drove me crazy working for DC at the time and trying to find the time to write, pencil and ink this job for Mike.
CB: Ah, a juggling act. That couldn’t have been much fun.
SMITH: No, especially since I’d only been working for a couple of months and didn’t want to blow anything with DC. I recall an early Keith Giffen job and that was kind of tough to do. His stuff didn’t look like it did later. He was doing material that looked like Barry Smith. I guess you could say it looked a little crude. (Chuckle.) There were some jobs early on that they should not have given me because I just wasn’t ready for them.
CB: You must have shown them something because you kept working.
SMITH: Yeah. When you’re doing a lot of that anthology stuff, you can blow a couple of them without really killing yourself professionally. Even just individual stories like backup stories and things like that. It wasn’t a terrible thing to make some mistakes. I think they were more concerned with just getting the work out there and getting it into print. At that point they weren’t so concerned about having the hot artist on the book. The sales maybe weren’t quite as important as they became later. It wasn’t like the royalty situation you had in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
CB: Just keep up with the production schedule.
SMITH: Yeah, you’ve got to keep things moving through production.
CB: I see you’ve done some special projects like the 911 book and the superhero stamp album. How did those compare to the other work?
SMITH: The superhero stamp thing goes way back to my working with Joe Orlando when he became the head of the licensing department or whatever it was called from being an editor. I did a lot of work for him there. Pamphlets and things for the Atari game and a bunch of other material. When the superhero stamp book came out I think it might have been Joey Cavialeri running it at that point. It was kind of fun inking the different artists. I never did see any of the stamps. It’s not like they gave me copies or anything.
On the 911 book I hadn’t received any work from DC in a year or so, but I heard that was happening, so I called Paul Levitz and asked if I could do a page for it. I wanted to be involved in it. I think he just sat down and wrote one for Joe Staton and me. I believe that’s how that happened. It made me feel good, whatever the circumstances might have been.
CB: John Workman tells me you’re quite the excellent caricaturist. Do you still dabble in that?
SMITH: I haven’t done any caricatures in years. That was the kind of thing I was doing in Crazy Magazine. I had some samples of that and I think that’s what helped me get the job there. I had done some samples for political cartoons and stuff like that. Before coming to New York we had gone up to a couple of newspapers in Seattle looking for work, but we weren’t able to get anything there.
CB: I remember John telling me that a lot of places were using clip art.
SMITH: They were phasing their art departments out and as the artists were gradually retiring they weren’t replacing them. I do remember doing an AT&T ad with Batman in it. I don’t remember who penciled it. That was another job for Joe Orlando.
I never did try to work for Mad Magazine. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t think I was good enough or something. (Chuckle.) I never did take them any samples, even though they were in the same building as DC. They were just downstairs at that point.
CB: Was that around the time Carmine was using Bill Gaines for consulting?
SMITH: I remember seeing Bill Gaines come up to the office. This would have been around ’76, I guess. Before Carmine left at any rate.
CB: Just for fun I wanted to ask if you approved of Michael Golden’s depiction of you in “Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure.”
SMITH: That was fun. Al Milgrom was in that and Todd Klein. It was one of those books that Al was editing at the time, before the implosion.
CB: (Laughter.) When I told Al that the story had been reprinted in the Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told he said, “Oh, good grief, why?”
SMITH: I seem to recall Bob Rozakis was in there, too.
CB: Yes and Tony Tollin and Jack C. Harris. Really a fun little story.
What’s your typical workday like, Bob?
SMITH: I usually start around 9 o’clock, break for lunch and then stop around 6:30. Sometimes if I feel really energetic I’ll work for another hour after dinner. I sure don’t keep the same hours I used to. I’ll do six or eight hours these days. When you hear about people working for 16 hours or overnighters or 48 hours straight, I just don’t know how they do it. Maybe when you’re 22, but at my age, you just can’t do that.
CB: Well, the human body isn’t designed to just sit for that long. Carmine told me his recent back surgery was absolutely due to all that time at the table.
SMITH: I know a lot of younger guys with bad backs. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had any troubles. Of course I make it a point to get up every hour and move around a little bit.
CB: Wise precaution.
SMITH: I’ve never used one of those fancy chairs, either. I get by with a cheap chair from Office Depot. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: With the advent of computer art do you think inkers are an endangered species?
SMITH: I don’t think they’ve figured out a way around it yet. They’ve tried, but they haven’t perfected it yet. You can ink a book on a computer and maybe that’s how it will go someday, but as far as just making the pencils darker or something the penciler has to be so clean and so tight and most pencilers I know don’t work like that. So I don’t know that digital inking would really work that well.
I know that people like Brian Bolland and Kyle Baker do everything on the computer. There’s no paper involved. I know that you can use a tablet and actually ink and I can see scanning the pages in and inking it on the computer, so that’s possible.
I’ve only recently learned how to print out a blue line copy and work with that. That’s a major technological advance for me. (Chuckle.)
CB: Do you see retiring at any point?
SMITH: No. I enjoy what I do, so I see no reason to retire. Unless my vision goes, or something I have no plans that direction. It might be a forced retirement at some point if people stop using me, but even then I could probably find something to do.
CB: Good for you. They say if you enjoy what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.
SMITH: For me it’s one of those things where you get up in the morning and you just look forward to starting. There are days I don’t look forward to it, but I know I have to do it anyway. A lot of the time I become a little kid again. “Wow! I’m working in comics!” Even at my age I get that feeling once in a while. I think John is the same way. And especially for a company whose comics I read as a kid. It’s just great.