In 2010 I decided to try to track down as many of the fabled “Crusty Bunkers” as I could to tap their memories of working at Neal Adams’ and Dick Giordano’s Continuity Associates.
Bryan D. Stroud for Comics Bulletin: How did you end up at Continuity Studios?
Greg Theakston: I met Neal Adams at the 1970 New York Comic Con, sporting a beard. That’s where I also met Frank Frazetta, Jeff Jones, Berni Wrightson, Vaughn Bode, Jim Steranko…I mean that was like a landmark show for me. I was sixteen at the time.
CB: No kidding. That’s a who’s-who right there.
THEAKSTON: And Bill Everett, who was dressed in a gray sharkskin jacket and a black shirt, and he had pushed the sleeves up and rolled up the cuffs. I didn’t even know what smarmy was at that point, but I knew smarmy.
CB: (Laughter.) Quite the fashion plate.
THEAKSTON: Yeah…not so much. So Neal Adams and Jim Steranko in 1970 were red hot and on fire. This may have been pre-Continuity. I don’t remember exactly when I arrived there, but it was in the early 70’s. Before 1974 certainly. ’71-’72 maybe. And it was a Mecca, because Adams had come out of a studio system with Johnstone and Cushing. Lou Fine was working there. They had taken Neal under their wings and he understood the obligation of the creative to tutor the next line of creatives because there was no school.
The only way you could learn to be a comic book artist is to try and fail miserably every time or show your stuff to a guy who knew his stuff and he would say, “This is what you’re doing wrong.” So Carl Lundgren, an illustrator, and myself would visit there whenever we were in New York. Carl and I were still living in Detroit. Two or three times a year we’d scrape together enough dough to go to New York City and try to break in the business. At the time I got there Neal was renting about a third or half of the studio. He was sub-letting from a larger commercial art studio. Carl and I got there about 7:30 one night. Somebody called us and said, “There’s this gigantic jam going up at Continuity right now and they’re looking for people to come and pitch in.” It was a Pellucidar story by Alan Weiss. An orange cover, I believe. I don’t think it was the first story. I think it was the second.
Now Alan had a bad reputation for being late, which goes with his astrological sign. So he had arrived at the DC offices on a Friday, on time, job completely penciled, very proud of himself, out to prove everybody wrong. “I can make my deadlines.” Joe Orlando, the editor, looks at it and says, “Yeah, but it was supposed to be inked, too.”
CB: Oh, no…
THEAKSTON: Twelve pages. “Really great pencils, but…” So he goes to Neal and says, “Neal, I don’t know what to do. Can we corral some guys and maybe get this thing done by the end of the weekend for Monday?” So word went out on the grapevine, and all these young bucks came out of the woodwork. I think that [Ralph] Reese and [Larry] Hama were already there sharing a studio space. I know Jack Abel was there. So as Carl and I are arriving, Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson are leaving.
There were twelve pages and its about half done. This is a Friday night turning into Saturday morning. So working out of two different rooms were Carl and I and Larry and Ralph and Neal. I don’t think Terry Austin was there yet. I don’t think [Bob] Wiacek was there yet. And of course Weiss himself, kind of overseeing the whole thing. Brushes and pens flying everywhere. So of course I’m the low man on the totem pole in this situation, so I’m inking backgrounds and filling in blacks. Neal would do the faces and the major figure work and he’d leave spaces open that were supposed to be blacked in and he’d put an “X” there and you’d fill in all the areas with blacks.
Carl and I put in two or three hours and Neal and I think Larry kept talking about “Crusty Bunkers.” How it was kind of a funny sounding phrase. I got there a little late to learn just how it all started, but Neal kept saying “Crusty Bunker.” So it was decided that we were the Crusty Bunkers.
So the twelve-page job was pretty well finished. I’m pretty certain Alan wrapped it up. He took it in on Monday, to an amazed Joe Orlando, very self-satisfied. The job looked great. I mean you’ve got Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson and Ralph Reese and Neal Adams inking your stuff.
CB: Hard to go wrong.
THEAKSTON: And everybody was doing the thing they excelled at. Everybody had the personal expertise and the job looked spectacular. Alan goes in to see Orlando on Monday morning and plops it on his desk and the following Friday he comes in to get his check and he happens to go through the production department and there it is, just sitting there. No stats, no coloring. Five days later it’s still just sitting on the shelf in the production department. “Well apparently you didn’t need this on Monday, did you?” I mean Alan could have inked two pages a day and got the whole thing done by himself.
CB: How strange.
THEAKSTON: After that, word kind of got out that if you were jammed up with a job, the Crusty Bunkers could turn it out literally overnight. So whenever there was a pinch, or somebody had maybe a little more time and just wanted Neal Adams to ink, they’d shove a job in our direction. And when I finally moved to New York City, there were moments when I’m pounding the pavement looking for paperback cover work and I’d stop in at Neal’s. It was a place where all of the new guys felt welcome and they washed up there.
I worked on Crusty Bunker jobs where I would take an hour and fill in some blacks for Neal. Two or three pages and didn’t even expect to be paid. Because it was fun to just be sitting there inking with Neal. Very interesting guy. I owe Neal up and down. Most of us that went through those doors do. Rich Buckler, Howard Chaykin, Wiacek and Austin, Marshall Rogers. Mike Nasser particularly.
It was the first opportunity that you really had to work in a professional situation. And if you were doing something wrong, Neal would tell you and you wouldn’t do it wrong any more. He had come out of the studio system where he had learned. And he was acutely aware of how important it was to orally transfer the art that we were doing. And when I eventually moved there in ’78…and by the way I would take these 7 or 8 day sojourns to New York City to deliver a job and try to dig up some more and he let me sleep there in the back room on a stinky couch. In the far back room they had a big sofa. So it was free rent. All you needed was airfare and food money.
CB: No small consideration.
THEAKSTON: And a lot of guys took advantage of that. I always tried to contribute back to the studio. I mean there were plenty of times when it was one in the morning and the place was empty and what do you know, there’s two buckets of white paint. “I’ll paint the room, or I would take some Glo-coat and wax the studio floor.” I remember sleeping in the back room, which was hermetically sealed, so it was a really good room to sleep in, and Neal comes in about 10 or 11 in the morning and he wakes me up and says, “Hey, what’s the deal with the floors?” I said, “You know, I thought I heard some Brownies in here last night, but I might be wrong.”
So an hour or two later I get up, stretch, get my clothes on and go into the front room and Neal announces to all the young bucks there in the front room, “I don’t’ want to see you guys scuffing up this floor. It looks beautiful.” And I mean to tell you every evil eye in the room looked in my direction. In retrospect I understand what was going on, but at the time I didn’t. Here were all these guys from all over the United States trying to break into comics and I didn’t feel competitive, but all of these guys did. It was never announced or anything, but it was always…I wouldn’t even try to say they were trying to curry favor, but it was every man for himself and I didn’t feel that way. Because I was getting work on the lowest tiers from men’s’ magazines and painting cheap paperback covers. But getting work on my own.
CB: Keeping body and soul together anyway.
THEAKSTON: Well, I was just doing what I wanted to do. And in a lot of respects this was the only “in” that these guys had toward becoming a Professional artist. These guys are 20, 21, 22 with not fully realized personalities. To some extent myself included. There were moments of…slight discomfort. You know, young bucks are rutting around and scratching. I was talking to [Alan] Weiss about this once. I said, “You know, every once in awhile you’d go into the front room in Continuity and you say something and everybody’s back stiffens but Neal’s and you know that you’ve just crossed some invisible line. You don’t even know what you did!”
The studio probably had 12 guys working in there at any given time, so you’re dealing with 12 different personalities, and you’re 22 and don’t know yet how to deal with different personalities.
During the time that I worked there it was like a Conga-line of wannabes. Somebody would show up and Neal would take them under his wing and provide him with some direction. Neal was doing a lot of storyboard work at the time and animatics, and while I had not yet mastered drawing, I could color like a mo’ fo’. My coloring really excelled. Neal even used to let me color the faces and special effects.
CB: Quite a compliment.
THEAKSTON: Yeah. I would occasionally touch something up, but pretty much I just cranked it out. We’re talking hundreds of storyboards. His agent would come in at three or four in the afternoon expecting eight storyboards with 20 panels apiece due the next morning. Which is the way commercial art works. The creatives dicked around until the very last minute. I would look at it some, and they’d come up with some horrible ideas. Really stupid stuff.
But it wasn’t up to me to judge, it was up to the client. It was up to me to color. And everybody would have a box of markers. I guess there were at least 24 colored markers. They were these wooden boxes with row upon row upon row of markers, color-coded, so that you always knew where it was when you instinctively grabbed a flesh-tone, for example. And the front room by 3 or 4 in the morning in an alcohol-fumed smog. And everybody would be high.
CB: (Chuckle.) Oh, no.
THEAKSTON: Yeah, you’d been breathing these fumes for 4 or 5 hours with no ventilation. There was this Gigantor air-conditioner in the back, but all it did was recycle the fumes. And the markers would begin to give out and as the markers began to give out they would squeak. They would twitter. “Eee, eee, eee, eee, eee!” Neal used to call it “the insane twitter of Magic-Markers.” So there is nothing but the classic rock station, Allison Steele, “The Night Bird,” and it’s the same twitter of drying out markers. And you never really knew who’s going to be there. There was the usual gang of idiots, but there was always somebody dropping in making a quick 200 or 300 bucks and in 1978 that was good money for night’s work.
When we inked for the Crusty Bunkers, once the job was inked we would do a full-sized Xerox. There was a Xerox machine there that would do a full 150% art work reproduction and then someone would tape tracing paper on all of the Xeroxes and then everybody would take a different color magic marker and circle the things that they did and sign their name or initials or whatever, and then Neal would go through and calculate what he thought everybody had earned. That’s how we were paid. Backgrounds didn’t pay as much as figure work, but Neal would mentally calculate. “This, this, that, that. Okay, he gets $57.00.” And that’s how those jobs were broken up and paid for.
THEAKSTON: We didn’t generally write bills; Kristine would just pass out checks. It was super cool. Because you’d get your check the next day.
CB: Can’t beat it.
THEAKSTON: Oh, listen, for starving young men it’s a Godsend. “Oh, good Lord, I can eat again.” Neal would pass me a $20.00 and say, “Go to the bodega across the street and get some Entenmann’s,” which is a New York brand of cheesecake, coffee cake, biscuits, whatever, and that was a high-toned treat. Chocolate cake.
The third room back from the front room held an Art-o-graph, which really sped things along. An Art-o-graph is an overhead projector. So if the story has a call for a whale, you just go to the clip file, get a picture of a whale, slap it in the Art-o-graph and trace it off projected onto your paper. It saved a lot of time. Neal would take an 8-1/2 x 11 paper and fold it in fourths and then he would do all of his layouts, four pages of layouts on this tiny thumbnail version. Which is brilliant, because if it will work small, it will work big. You could see the whole page. You’d put your hand over it and it was gone. You take your hand off of it and it works.
So Neal would do these fold-ups and then take them to the Art-o-graph and blow them up and then he’d throw these roughs away. And man, there was this mad scramble for Neal’s garbage can. Because to him it was just a tool, some kind of function for him and not the final art. So people were always rummaging through Neal’s garbage can.
CB: Didn’t you auction off a cast-off Deadman sketch awhile back?
THEAKSTON: Yeah. He’d just toss these things in the garbage can and be done with it. It wasn’t even worth his time to wad it up. So he’s in the Art-o-graph room with all the lights off and he’s got an Entemann’s chocolate cake with white icing and sprinkles on the top, and he’s eating it while he’s drawing, and he says, “Oh, I do love those crunchy sprinkles.” And somebody not realizing that he’s in there working, steps in the room and turns on the light and there are roaches all over the top of the cake!”
THEAKSTON: Mmmm. Crunchy sprinkles. Yes, it was like that. So anyway, we weren’t starving and actually there was this guy that came up, Bill, and he’s still working as an artist. Another guy from Detroit. A lot of guys from Detroit washed up there. Buckler, Mike Nasser, me, Terry Austin…I don’t think I ever saw Al Milgrom up there, but it’s not out of the question.
CB: Doesn’t Tom Orzechowski hail from there, too?
THEAKSTON: Tom Orzechowski as well. I knew Tom when he was 16. And off the point here a little bit, Detroit had the first comic book convention in America. Maybe the world: who knows? We had guys like Jerry Bails who lived in Detroit. So it was kind of a magnet. Richard Buckler used to show once-a-month a 16 mm. film in his living room. Arvell Jones. Desmond Jones all of us thrilled to something we hadn’t seen. So we all got together and we all wanted to work for Marvel comics, but we all stink. Richard, who was clearly way ahead of the rest of us would give us critiques. So it was a very unified fandom in Detroit, from, I would say, ’67 to ’70. Maybe a little after. We had the Fantasy Fan and Comic Collector’s Group. The F.F.C.G., which put out a news fanzine called The Fan Informer. I think by the time I left Detroit, twenty-three issues had been published, which is remarkable for any fanzine.
CB: I was about to say, that had legs.
THEAKSTON: Once a month I would take a ride to the east side of Detroit and spend the night with Arvell and Desmond and we’d work on the fanzine. I don’t know if it was monthly at that point, but it was pretty regular. So there was camaraderie among the people there and when we all ultimately hit New York we gravitated toward Continuity. A friendly island in the middle of a tsunami. And Neal always had work to do, so he was glad to have the staff to do it. Because if you were going to do fifteen storyboards in a night, you’d better have a staff.
THEAKSTON: Ultimately in 1978 I moved to Lexington and 45th Street and Continuity was on 48th Street between 5th and Park, so it was a very, very short walk to work. Now, I could have worked out of my apartment, but I liked the camaraderie, the communal thing and Neal always had good paying jobs, so if there was nothing cooking on my desk I’d head over to Continuity.
So I got a room there next to Ralph Reese and Larry Hama’s and later on Larry and Cary Bates’. On the other side, toward the front of the building was Wiacek and Terry Austin. I said, “Look, Neal, I really don’t need to rent space here, because I live 5 blocks from here.” New York City blocks are small blocks. I said, “I’ll tell you what: Let me be your studio manager and we’ll just trade off space for my services.” So we wrote up a contract and I was the studio manager of Continuity between ’78 and ’80.
If somebody left the coffee on and burned the pot it was my job to clean out the burned coffee with a Brillo pad. Sweep up once in awhile. Neal wanted to upgrade the studio and he bought boxes and boxes and boxes of corkboard. We’re talking 2-1/2 feet by 18 inches. Slabs. And I started at the front of the studio, and as you’re facing 48th Street, the wall to the left, and corked the whole studio all the way to the back. Tenants bitched about that.
CB: Holy cow.
THEAKSTON: The cement was really pungent and I’d be punchy by the end of the day. Part of my duties began with collecting the rent. I’m not going to name any names, but the deadbeats gave me a lot of trouble. “Oh, yeah, yeah. Catch me in a week.” So that eventually was turned over to his daughter, Krissy.
There was this constant ebb and flow of young guys in and out of the studio. And the guys from California for some reason, you knew they wouldn’t be there at the end of the month. Mark Rice. John Fuller. California guys just couldn’t take New York. It ate them up. I remember John Fuller arriving. He was kind of a tall guy with steel-rimmed glasses and sort of a John Lennon quality about him. Somehow you just knew instantly that this guy was in over his head.
He went up to Dell/Whitman trying to draw Bugs Bunny or just anything, to get any kind of work and they looked at his samples and said, “Well, this is all superhero stuff. Go back and do some funny animal stuff and bring it back.” So, John took a Bugs Bunny comic book out of the studio library and put it in the Art-o-graph and traced it off. And I’m thinking, “Look, they’re going to give you a script and you won’t be able to trace it off of an old Bugs Bunny comic.”
CB: (Chuckle.) This won’t do it.
THEAKSTON: He was also diabetic and he stopped taking his insulin. I generally had the table to the right of Neal. There were four tables that faced 48th street with picture windows. Left to right it was Carl Potts, Neal Adams, Greg Theakston, Joe Brosowski. There were two tables behind us. One at the crook which Bruce Patterson worked at for a long time, the one in the other corner which Russ Heath eventually perched in. So I was literally Neal’s right hand man.
And there comes this moment when John Fuller comes out of the back room off the couch without his shoes on, and shuffling. I don’t remember precisely what Neal said, but I think he said, “I think it’s time for you to contact your parents and get some money and go home.” He was in insulin shock.
CB: Not good.
THEAKSTON: I don’t hold anything against Mark Rice. He’d been a child actor in the Bob Cummings show among other things, but at the time, he was a very pissy character and I won’t say we nearly got into “it,” but there were moments where the situation became tense. And there were moments like that with Alan Kupperberg. Neal and Paul had a falling out, but he would occasionally show up and it was another case of “Why is this guy so pissed off?” It took me years to realize that he had terrible parents. That made him unhappy. I couldn’t relate to it because I had great parents. [Howard] Chaykin, too. He had real issues with his father. He would take it out on anybody at the drop of a hat.
You would know who was going to be a keeper and who was not. You could tell probably within the first week if this guy was going to work out or not. And Bill from Detroit comes in. and he’s living out of the back room. He comes shuffling on some morning and Neal looks at him and he says, “When was the last time you had something to eat?” Bill says, “Last night.” Neal says, “What did you eat last night?” “Half a tube of toothpaste.” So Neal passes him a ten and says, “Go get something to eat and then come back and do some work.”
So we’re sitting there and directly across the street from the studio on 48, second or third floor, there’s always been some debate about this. I always thought we were on the second floor. Nasser is pretty sure it was the third. I think he’s right in retrospect. Anyway, it’s got a pretty good view of the street and we see Bill dodge traffic and go towards the Alpine, which is like a high-falutin’ restaurant for a hamburger. Neal saw what was about to come and announced, “Not there! Not there!” Now we’ve got a Burger King right around the block where at the time you could get a hamburger for .79 or a buck or whatever. You could eat for a week on ten dollars and Neal sees him walking into the Alpine and just shakes his head. There goes that ten bucks on one burger.
It was that kind of savvy that would save you or doom you in New York City. Don’t spend eight dollars on a hamburger. And of course he was gone within the month.
The point in coming to Neal’s was, this is a jump-off point. You could take the work that you had done with Neal, point to it and say, “Look, I’m being published by your company.” So Bill…I don’t know what he’s like now, but he was an oddball then, I’ll tell you that much: he shows up at DC and he’s got a zebra-skin bathroom rug tied around his neck and a wrestler’s mask on with his portfolio. He shows up at the receptionist’s and says, “I’m here to see Carmine Infantino.” The receptionist says, “Do you have an appointment?” Bill says something like, “No, but he’ll know the genius that I am when he sees my work!” The guards then escorted him out. At that point I learned that you have a lot more credibility if you show up in a suit and a tie with an appointment.
Let’s see, who else was there? Bill Draut, who had a hell of a pompadour for an old guy. He lived with his two cats.