Here’s the conclusion to our interview with Joseph Barney.
Joseph Barney: Sometimes I wish I’d stuck with the comic book work. I tended to be a little too perfectionistic with it, and the advertising work was a big diversion, a detour from comics and illustration. There were good and bad aspects to doing the advertising stuff. The good part was that it paid at least three times as well as comics, and kept us struggling young artists alive, with maybe even a little money in the bank left over. But the bad part was that it kind of sucked you in and diverted a lot of energy from doing work that might actually be published. With the advertising stuff, the work that was only seen by a few clients of the ad agencies, and ultimately just ended up in the circular file, or if you were able to get the art back, in your portfolio. But comics pay was just dirt cheap back then. Starting rates of something like $25.00 a page for pencils and inks. Neal was able to shift easily between the advertising and comics stuff, but for some of us, it was hard to do both.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It seems like Ralph Reese was telling me that the advertising paid a lot better, but the payment would be 90 days down the road or so.
BARNEY: Very true. The bigger agencies would hold onto your pay longer, I think because they made sizable interest on the money, due to the volume of people they employed. Ralph and I and Joe D’Esposito were partners in our own commercial art studio for about 6 years, called Studio 23, after we left Continuity.
Oh, so speaking of comics, and to rewind a bit… Jim Steranko was the first professional to ever look at my work. It was at the Detroit Triple Fan Fair Convention in 1971. It was my first convention. I was 16, a kid from small town Wisconsin and totally clueless, and I thought, “Well, if I get a chance to show my work, I have to have a real portfolio, like the professionals.” So I used my little sister’s doll clothes case, a sort of attaché case, because it had a plastic fake leather veneer. (Mutual laughter) Years later I heard that Steranko himself claimed real pros didn’t use fancy leather portfolios, but tended to carry their samples in folded cardboard bound with a string. I didn’t expect that I’d necessarily get to show my work to Steranko, but figured I might get to show it to somebody, so I should be prepared and have a portfolio that looked “professional”.
At the convention, I befriended Keith Pollard, who lived in Detroit, and was also aspiring to break into comics. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Detroit Triple Fan Fare was run by future Continuity renters Greg Theakston and Michael Nasser (now Netzer). I have some pictures from those conventions, and years later, was looking at them and it was, “Hey, that’s Mike Nasser.”
CB: Yeah, in fact, I think Mike told me he picked Neal up at the airport to drive him there one year.
BARNEY: Somewhere I have this iconic photo I took there of Neal doing a Pentel sketch of Deadman, which has since become a sort of famous Adams piece of art — it was even used in a portfolio around ’75 for Christopher Enterprises, one of the early comics portfolio publishers. And of course, now I can’t find it. It’s around here somewhere … (Chuckle) It was just so odd because here I was, just this kid at this convention, in the presence of greatness, watching one of my idols… And I could never have imagined that just two years later I’d be working for the guy at his studio in midtown Manhattan, sitting right at “the right hand of the father”.
Anyway, Keith Pollard was also trying to break into comics, and told me about this clandestine, top secret 10 o’clock meeting Steranko was going to hold that night with a small group of aspiring artists. He was planning on publishing a magazine of some kind featuring up-and-coming young talent. I don’t think it ever got off the ground. Anyway, Keith kind of smuggled me in, and when Steranko showed up, he eyed me up and down and said, “Who’s this?” I was the party crasher, and all eyes were suddenly on me. I timidly explained I was just looking for an opportunity to show my portfolio. I was just a fifteen year old kid. So, even though I was an uninvited outsider, I remember he actually said “OK. Lay it on me”. Groovy, man! (Chuckle.) Now you have to understand, Steranko was a superstar, at the height of his fame at the time, and he played the part to the hilt. Again, it was like you were in the presence of one of the gods, and Steranko was the God of Cool. He looked like a cross between James Dean and James West, wearing this all-white, sort of Saturday Night Fever suit. Very intimidating to a kid, especially after drooling all over his Nick Fury, and other originals, all day in the art room. They were the first actual original comics pages I ever saw. So anyway, he looked at my work and asked, “Ever been to New York?” I said, “No.” I guess I was supposed to ask him something beyond that, because the conversation just sort of died there. (Chuckle.) But I took it as a note of encouragement anyway, that he would suggest I was good enough to go to New York and try my luck.
So that was my first convention experience. Vaughn Bode and Jeff Jones were there, too. I didn’t know who Vaughn was at the time, and I only knew Jeff ’s work a little from fanzines. They would later become two of my all-time favorite artists. This was just before their monthly strips in the National Lampoon. Russ Heath was also there, whom I also didn’t know of at the time: he was another one I would also later work with at Continuity on commercial stuff. I think the next year was the convention Neal attended, along with Barry Windsor-Smith and Michael Kaluta. I was actually living across the hall from Mike during my first year at Continuity, in a tiny studio apartment on West 92nd Street. There was a guy who was the sole assistant to Neal on commercial work when I arrived, named Steve Harper. Steve was a primarily a fine art-style painter, who lived in the apartment across from Kaluta when I first arrived at Continuity. He was a friend of Mike’s from Virginia, and I guess Mike got him the gig with Neal. He’d been there for a year or so as Neal’s assistant, doing mostly storyboard coloring, and I don’t think he had any aspirations to do comics, or especially, advertising, so he decided to go back to Virginia and do his painting. So luckily, I was in the right place at the right time, and took over his desk. In fact, I also took his apartment. (Chuckle.)
That was a really magical year for me. Mike had just completed his run on The Shadow the year before, and he did his first portfolio, oil paintings illustrating Dante’s “Inferno”, while I was there. He had this small two-room apartment stuffed with all these very cool antique books and knick-knacks.
There was one especially memorable series of incidents there in that building… I guess I was about 6 months into my Continuity employment, and Mike had asked me to watch his apartment while he went home to Virginia for a vacation. Of course I couldn’t be there in the daytime, so when I came back from work and checked on his place one night, I found that his skylight had been broken, and somebody had obviously been in the apartment. I guess they’d gotten a portable TV and not much else, but I had to call him in Virginia and tell him the bad news. After he came back from vacation about a few days later, while I was at work, he heard some rustling in my one-room studio apartment, and went over to check it out. This time the guy had broken in through my own small skylight. (Chuckle.) But Mike actually caught this guy, basically made a citizen’s arrest. Our apartments were on the fifth floor, the top floor of the building, so he went and got this CO2 pellet pistol, which I think was actually still considered an illegal firearm in New York City, and he very bravely went up to the roof and nabbed this guy at (pellet) gunpoint, saying “You’re coming with me, kid.” So he marched the guy downstairs and called the cops, and when they arrived, he was told by the cop doing the report that that it wasn’t entirely legal, so Mike swapped it out for a replica gun that he just happened to have around.
CB: For artistic reference, no doubt. (Laughter.)
BARNEY: No doubt! I was also around during The Studio era in 1976, when Mike joined Bernie, Jeff Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith to share space for a couple years. “The Fab Four”, people called them at the time. It was a grubby old machine shop with high ceilings, and I remember pitching in help to clean it up and convert it to an art studio. That was an amazing thing to witness. They did some fantastic work in that place; they all grew tremendously as artists in the two years they were together.
CB: The stuff of legend. I adore Bernie. He’s always been very unassuming when we’ve spoken.
BARNEY: A very down-to-earth guy. I hung out with him a bit in those days, drinking beer and chasing girls.
CB: I was looking over your webpage and I see you list animatics as a specialty. Was that a takeaway from Continuity?
BARNEY: Yeah, we did a lot of those there. In those days, they actually had exclusive animatics houses where they’d actually shoot them, and add voices, and sometimes music. It was sort of a dry-run rough draft of the commercial to see how it played, before the client actually committed to shoot the actual commercial. Back then, we just did the drawings, and then sent them over to them be filmed in 16 mm for the ad agencies. It was very limited animation, of course. You’d do something for Gillette, for example, of a guy shaving, and the arm was a separate cutout, and they’d just show the arm moving and the shaving cream disappearing on the face, that kind of thing. We had to cut out all these elements and make sure they worked before sending the art over to be filmed. Nowadays, thanks largely to computers, Neal can do everything himself. He’s done some real cutting-edge animatics with computer in the last decade or so, and as you may know, is now applying that expertise to “motion comics”.
I haven’t actually done any animatics for commercial purposes myself for a long time, other than some art for game cinematics. I’ve actually done a few– I guess you could call them animatics– for my own projects recently though, using film editing programs. I’ve just finished a proposal in DVD format with Cary Bates, a proposed dinosaur film, a Pixar-style thing.
CB: Is that the “Saurheads” I saw on the website?
BARNEY: Yes. I left Continuity in 1980 with a couple of the other guys, as I mentioned before, Ralph Reese and Joe D’Esposito, who were also looking to branch out on their own. It wasn’t that we weren’t happy with Neal, but we figured we could maybe make a little more money on our own, and I guess we basically wanted to stretch our wings and make our own way. So we got a studio together on 20th street between 5th and 6th and called it Studio 23. We called it that because 23 was my sort of my ”magic number”, and because it sounded better than “Studio 20”. My wife at the time, Mary, was our rep and studio manager.
We were doing a little bit of animatic work, but mostly storyboards and what they call “comps”, which were marker-drawn pre-visualizations of magazine ads. Alex Jay was our studio mate, too. He rented the room next door. Alex is a top-notch book designer in general, but specializes in logos; he created a lot of iconic Marvel logos, like the one for Walt Simonson’s Thor books. He also did a lot of work for the late Byron Preiss, who published a lot of comics-related stuff at the time… Alex was designing all these different books for Byron with people like Steranko, William Stout, and Moebius, so we’d see these originals come through the studio, this fantastic original art.
CB: Oh, wow.
BARNEY: Anyway, when I was creating SAURHEADS with Cary Bates, Alex shot the photostats for our presentation. Cary and I were both pretty disgruntled with the pay in the comics field, and the prospect of having to live hand–to-mouth for the rest of our lives. We’d seen how much Garfield was making in merchandising at the time, and one of us got the idea to do a dinosaur strip. Of course everyone loves dinosaurs, we figured. It should be good. It should be big. So we whipped this thing together in our spare time, and as I was working on it, this book came in to Alex to design, that William Stout was co-illustrating with a former Disney artist, called “The Little Blue Brontosaurus.” Which was kind of worrisome, since our main character was also blue.
CB: Uh oh.
BARNEY: As it turns out, that book apparently became the inspiration for the “Land Before Time” series. Alex also designed two more William Stout dinosaur books at that same time, a Ray Bradbury dinosaur book, and Stout’s most famous book, which was called “The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era”. The publisher of these books was Byron Preiss. Alex did a lot of work for Byron. He was both a writer and publisher. Are you familiar with the name?
CB: It’s not coming to me.
BARNEY: He was very well known in the business at the time, mostly as a publisher and editor, but also a writer. He worked with a lot of big name artists, trying to do books outside the comics mainstream, mostly in trade paperback form. He did a lot of projects with Ralph, starting with the long-running One Year Affair in National Lampoon. He also worked with Harvey Kurtzman, Howard Chaykin and many others. Harvey came up a few times to work with Alex on the design of a book called “Nuts,” which was a MAD Magazine kind of thing, only in paperback form. Another very nice, very unpretentious guy, considering his monumental accomplishments in the field.
In the early years, being just an ignorant Marvel-centric kid, I wasn’t fully cognizant of how huge some of these people were. I would see Wally Wood come to Continuity once in a while, to visit Ralph and Larry, his former apprentices. He was a very quiet guy, and gave off this aura like, “Don’t bother me, fanboy.” (Mutual laughter.) I picked up on that, so I left him alone, as did everyone, I think. I mostly only knew his Marvel and Thunder Agent stuff; as I said, I was pretty ignorant at the time.
I mentioned before, our post-Crusty Bunker group was called the Goon Squad. Before that name was concocted, Larry Hama, who was possessed of this pretty acerbic wit, at the time referred to us as “The Seven Dwarves”. (Laughter.) His own version, though: Funky, Scuzzy, Spacey, Dorky… I forget the rest. (Mutual laughter.) He had a name for every one of us.
CB: He really does have a wicked sense of humor.
BARNEY: Yes, he does. Like Wally Wood, his mentor, and Ralph, who also worked with “Woody”. Larry and Ralph were high school friends, and shared this back room at Continuity for a few years, and would sort of riff off each other. Then Ralph left for a while to work at home, and Cary Bates took over his space for a year or so. It was kind of musical chairs at Continuity in those days.
CB: Lots of coming and going it sounds like. You were obviously there for a few years.
BARNEY: 1975 to 1980. Probably about as long as anybody in that period. As I’m sure you’ve heard many times, Continuity was like the coffee shop hangout for artists and writers who came to midtown to do business at Marvel or DC, or some other publisher. It was smack-dab in midtown, 48th street between 5th and Madison avenues, a half block from “30 Rock”. I remember, during my first few months there, Jeff Jones came in, on his way to the Lampoon with a big “Idyl” page, and my eyes just about fell out of my head, it was so beautiful. I was just so amazed by it, and he seemed just kind of blasé about it. He was a very low key, quiet kind of guy in general. One of my art idols, for sure.
I had a Frazetta-inspired Conan painting I was attempting at the time, for The Savage Sword of Conan, I think. It was my one of my first attempts at trying to do oil painting, and Jeff gave me a few pointers, mostly about reflective light and color. Dan Adkins was the editor of the Conan black and white books at that time. So I had this pretty elaborate scenario in the painting, with Conan fighting off about 20 demons. These Nosferatu-like demons, all coming up from this foggy stairwell, clawing at him, and he’s trying to fend them off, with the obligatory girl being sacrificed on an altar in the background. When it was nearly finished I took it to Adkins at Marvel to see what he thought, and he said, “Well, the painting’s not bad, but we can’t use this. You can’t have Conan beating up on a bunch of little guys.”
BARNEY: I mean, there were about 50 of them, and this girl is about to have this knife plunged into her in the next room. Come on! That was the end of my attempt to paint covers. Different opportunities arose, I think I went on to Gorilla City right after that.
We’d also play Volleyball in Central Park. That was another fun aspect of Continuity life at the time (and pretty much our only exercise). In that period, it was very of a loose-knit affair, it was a blend of freelancers and people from Marvel and DC, as opposed to later on when there were clear-cut, permanent Marvel or DC teams. Each week someone was appointed captain, and they’d choose people for their team from whoever showed up. Neal played for a couple games. In addition to the Continuity guys, there was Archie Goodwin, Alan Weiss, Jim Starlin, Sergio Aragones, Walt and Weezie (Simonson), Jo Duffy, Jim Shooter…
Jim was like 8 feet tall, which was kind of unfair to begin with. (Chuckle) He played very competitively, and one time spiked the ball really hard, accidentally hitting this poor girl right in the face — which, understandably, brought her to tears. He felt terrible about it. He walked away from the game, dramatically, saying, “I’ve got to go. I’m going to hurt someone.” I believe the title of that episode was “Volleyball No More…” (Laughter)
CB: I think Steve Mitchell told me he was the only one who had a prayer as far as height on Jim.
BARNEY: Steve was pretty tall too. Before I got there, he was hanging around Continuity and they used to call him “Baby Conan”. He had sort of this baby face at the time, I guess. That was the kind of humor they had running around the place – more often than not, at somebody’s expense.
You’ve probably heard the story about the gag the old-timers would play on the newbies. They would take a sheet of acetate and put it over your artwork while you were gone…
CB: Oh, the ink blot or spilled ink bottle.
BARNEY: Yeah. So somebody had done that to Neal, but he was wise to it, and just calmly peeled off the acetate and said “Ha, ha.” So one night Mike Nasser, who idolized Neal and could draw just like him, copied this Superman figure that Neal had been working on, sitting there on his drawing board –perfectly — and then poured ink directly on it (laughter), and switched Neal’s drawing with it. When Neal came in the next morning, he just smiled and tried to peel the acetate—but there was no acetate — and for a minute he was taken aback that the ink was actually on the drawing. Mike’s impression was so good, it took him a minute to realize it was a forgery. Practical jokes abounded.
We just had so many colorful characters up there at the time, and in retrospect, I really didn’t appreciate at the time just what an amazing group of talented people came through there. Take Russ Heath. I remembered those Sea Devils covers he did for DC I read when I was a kid in the 60’s, done in those wash tones, and how they looked so much more interesting than anything else at DC at the time. (This was before I discovered Marvel.) I knew he was kind of legendary for his DC war books — which I was never terribly interested in as a kid — but didn’t realize he was the Sea Devils artist until I’d been there a couple years. I did a fair amount of penciling of animatics and storyboards that Russ inked. Like Neal, he could make average-looking pencils look very slick with his superior inking skills.
Russ had a lot of great stories, including the now-famous one about his time working for Harvey Kurtzman at Playboy. He got called out there by Kurtzman to help with a deadline on Little Annie Fanny. They gave him a room in the mansion, free room and board, maid service, the works … and he was working away on that job for a few weeks, finished the assist, and then, since nobody said anything, he just stayed there. He was there for something like, I think, nearly a year! I guess one day Hugh Hefner asked someone, “Hey, who is that guy, anyway?”, and he got the boot. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: What led you to the west coast? The Hollywood connection?
BARNEY: No, I just needed a break from the stresses of the city. It can get to be kind of a grind, and I’d been there for sixteen years. My brother lived in Montana, so I knew the area, so I moved there for a while, doing a few Marvel jobs by mail. I also won a commission to do a line of posters at the time, which were to be the first computer-generated Marvel characters. The first two were to be War Machine and Ghost Rider. I didn’t know 3-D modeling myself, but had a friend who helped me with that, constructing a basic model, while I did the layouts, color schemes and fixed figure proportions in Photoshop. The War machine poster was almost finished, but right around that time the infamous Ron Perlman hostile takeover episode happened at Marvel, and they went actually went bankrupt, and their entire poster line got canceled, as well as most of their titles, for a time. Another hard luck story, I guess. That’s showbiz… (Chuckle)
After a few years in Montana, I met a woman here in California while on vacation, moved out here, and though she’s now gone, I’m still here… Northern California is beautiful, and a nice place to be weather-wise of course, and you’ve got all the dotcom and game companies and that sort of work available. That’s what I’ve been doing for the most part in recent years. Storyboards for the game industry, some illustration, logos, whatever comes up. I’ve recently formed my own company, Communicomics, with the aim of specializing in comics and animation for corporate and other markets. Some of the most lucrative jobs I’ve had out here involved creating comics for “IT consulting” companies who wanted to use the novelty of comics as an attention-grabbing communication tool. One that I did was a Film Noir detective take-off, a murder mystery to find out where the company was going wrong. I think there’s a great future niche for comics like that. Then there are my personal projects, like SAURHEADS, and a sci-fi graphic novel I’m developing called “Eye”. So I’m basically all over the map, career-wise. The “fine precipice living” of freelance life.
CB: What a rollercoaster. It sounds like you’ve had some fun along the way, though and are still standing. Is there anything I neglected to ask about that you’d like to discuss?
BARNEY: Nothing in particular… I’ve been on kind of a nostalgia kick recently, reconnecting with old friends and studio mates on Facebook, so this has been fun, bouncing around a little through time, and some good memories. It’s been enjoyable. Nice talking with you Bryan.