Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: There seem to have been a few different paths to Continuity. What was yours?
Michael Netzer: I was invited by Neal. I was about 18 years old at the time. I was in Detroit at a big comic book convention there put together by Greg Theakston and it was called the Detroit Triple Fan Fair. Greg was someone that I knew in high school and he was encouraging me to try and break into the business. He saw something. He saw my enthusiasm for it and he sort of helped push me into it. He had this convention and he invited Neal Adams among other guests, like William Shatner and some of the Star Trek people. Jim Steranko was there and as I remember Vaughn Bode was invited. He (Greg) asked me to be in charge of Neal and to pick him up at the airport and to make sure that he had everything he needs and so on. He did that purposely because he knew how much I was attracted to Neal’s art and what an influence it was becoming on my own work.
So when Neal came I went to pick him up at the airport. It was a pretty odd situation because instead of the sort of vehicle you might expect I went to pick him up in my 1964 Mustang. This was in 1973 and it was like going to a convention in a car that looked like it had been through World War II or something. I bought it for $100.00. It featured a convertible top with a hole in it. As it turns out, on this September day that I was picking him up it began to rain a little bit. So we’re driving and water is starting to get into the back seat and I’m sure Neal was wondering what he’d gotten himself into.
So this was my first big comic book convention. I may have been to one smaller one in Detroit, but this was my first direct contact with comics fandom and it was a very big deal for me. Neal had seemed to particularly take interest in things personally. He hadn’t yet seen my work, but he seemed good with this kid who had come to pick him up who was, at the time, very much the quiet type. Very withdrawn. I didn’t say much and didn’t appear to have an outward involvement in very much. But I was a good listener, and Neal was a good talker. (Chuckle.)
We got to the convention and there seemed to be a good chemistry between us. As things went along and he started seeing my work he took an interest in it. He invited me to come to New York and work at Continuity if I ever had the chance. I have to say that my work at the time didn’t look much like it was influenced by Neal at all. Mostly what I had to show were drawings I’d done in a life drawing class that I did in college. Interestingly enough it had a look altogether different from the comic book work that I do. It had more of a drawing look, more like an illustration, but at that period in time I was drawing more as drawing as opposed to comic book art. I think maybe that was what interested him more than anything. He knew I was a big fan of his work and was enamored of it before he came to Detroit through Greg Theakston. So at the end of that convention I got the invitation, which was a very big deal for me.
As an aside I’ll tell you at that convention I had done an exhibit of some art that was 6 pieces of the Star Trek crew and at the end of the con Neal was there when Greg told me that one of the drawings was missing from the exhibit. They thought that somebody had taken it. They were apologetic about it, but it seemed to me that it was kind of cool that someone liked my drawing enough to take it from there. I say that because recently someone contacted me from Detroit and said they’re putting on a convention in remembrance of those days of comic fandom from the 60’s and 70’s and they’re calling it the Detroit Fan Fair, not the Detroit Triple Fan Fair. But the guy that contacted me told me that several years ago he had bought a box of old comic books and inside of it was a few drawings and one of them was this drawing of Captain Kirk and that my name was signed to it and he asked me what I could tell him about that and how it had come about. I told him the story that this was the drawing that was taken from the exhibit and he basically invited me to this convention that’s coming up in October where he’s going to return it to me. Along with that we’ll be publishing a sketchbook of the last few years and the story of that drawing will be in the front of the book.
It’s an interesting theory that a big circle is being closed right now from that convention that was exactly 35 years ago to now.
CB: Oh, what a magnificent story.
NETZER: Arvell Jones, another of the Detroit area people along with Keith Pollard broke into the business in the 1970’s and they were together at the time. Keith Pollard worked for Marvel back then. They were driving up to New York to try and break into the business. This would have been late October 1975. The asked me if I wanted to come along for the ride and see if I could get in, too. Of course I had the invitation to go to Continuity, so that was a good step. I had something to rely on, so I took my meager funds, maybe $100.00, knowing I at least had a place to stay for a short time.
So I took that ride with them and went to Continuity the next day. Neal told me, “Look, I don’t have much work right here, but here’s the phone book and a list of contacts including DC and Marvel. Call them up and see if you can get an appointment to show them your work.” I did just that and had a couple of appointments lined up. One was with Jack C. Harris at DC Comics, who promptly gave me a script for a story in Kamandi. That’s how my career started. I also did a little bit of commercial work with Neal, penciling story boards and sometimes inking backgrounds. So that’s how it started, in late 1975.
CB: So you kind of got spring boarded from Continuity into your comic career.
NETZER: Exactly. Now I’ll try to give you my perception of what Continuity was at the time. Naturally, Neal’s personality was the dominant one. To me it was a whole new world. I’d just come from a limited home/school life and was thrust into New York City and the hopper of the comic book industry. So there was a feeling of being overwhelmed and also taking into consideration my age at the time, barely 20, and was still a very withdrawn and introverted man. Aside from wanting to be a comic book artist, and being thrust into this situation, I just tried to make the best of it. My own personality was fairly optimistic. I had the feeling inside that I was living at a very important time and that some very big things were awaiting us. I’m speaking generally as a civilization. There was something in the air. Something important about being there at this particular time.
Now most of the people in Continuity were young people who were looking to break into the business. Maybe they’d got their first independent script to draw. There were a few artists like that at least. I basically became attached to some of the artists like a guy named Mark Rice, a guy named John Fuller. Joe Rubinstein was one of those. They’d not really done any independent work. Along with that there were a lot of established professionals there like Cary Bates, Larry Hama, Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson. A lot of them were beginning to make a presence for themselves in the industry. Continuity was a hub in every sense of the word.
When I landed in New York it was basically in the throes of helping out Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The day I landed I was in the front room all the time and Siegel and Shuster were visiting at Continuity and Neal was giving them some details on how to move forward and convince DC Comics to give them a little compensation for the creation of Superman. That was a pretty big event and this was when I began to understand the rather peculiar personality which was Neal and that he was very involved in the industry and very involved in making things better for others in the industry.
This was a little bit unique because most other artists seemed to be more than anything else worried or concerned with advancing their own career. Very few were showing the kind of extending of themselves towards this sort of activity. So right away I became a part of a very good spirit that was in the studio, which kind of had an overall look at the industry and it seemed that there was a feeling that from Continuity, there was a very big influence over what was going on in the comic book industry.
CB: I think you’re describing it as a hub seems very appropriate, at least from what I’ve heard from others who were involved there. It has been described as a middle ground between the big two publishers.
NETZER: There is certainly that. There were artists and writers and editors from both companies who felt at home there. And people who worked at Continuity were working for both companies. It was a middle ground and it was also a place where the people who were involved in it seemed to have some influence over what was going on in the industry. Meaning that Cary Bates was writing Superman and having the regular writer of Superman at Continuity meant that everything that was going on with Superman and everything that was going on at DC Comics at the time was known and by knowing that it kind of helped us to do our jobs a little better and maybe people who weren’t exposed to this kind of environment wouldn’t be aware of it.
Now I just want to add one more aspect to this. At the time, on that first day, there was something very interesting that happened. A big poster on the wall next to Neal’s desk in the front room was a map of the Earth. I believe it was a map of the ocean floor. It was a picture of the ocean floor without the water. It was a very interesting picture that I’d never seen before. Somehow, right away, I was pulled into this discussion and I remember Neal looking at it and he said, “You know that geologist’s are saying that the continents have moved around and they used to be together, but they’ve spread apart. Now look at this map. Does it look to you like the continents can move around on the ocean floor the way they show it?” I said, “What are you talking about?” It was a little bit of overload. I wasn’t familiar with the theory. I mean I’d heard of Pangea, but never really got into the details and I found myself going out and reading and researching so I’d have an idea what they were talking about. At that time Neal hadn’t yet started talking about the planet may be growing and that the continents spread out because of it. All this about the organic matter coming from inside. But he was trying to pick peoples minds and say that there was a problem with this theory. The idea that the continents were moving around just didn’t make sense to him. This would have been around 1975, so it was the period when Neal was starting to formulate his resistance to a very popular new scientific theory and he was looking around to maybe see what people thought of it. A lot of people came in and whenever he found people to be of interest he would open up that discussion in the front room.
It’s interesting that most of the people there didn’t have anything to say about it and Neal was going to go up against the scientific community and who would know more? People just didn’t seem to know where he was heading with that, but you could see back in 1975 the beginning of this idea which for Neal has become a very important part of his work. You could see the seeds to it right there.
So to me I felt that I’d pretty much found myself in the middle of a very serious and pertinent kind of place. And here I was in the midst of the place and person whose artwork had pulled me into the comic book world. This man was proving to be a lot more than just a comic book artist with great ability, but also someone working on a humanitarian level and with an overall view of the world and he seemed to care a little more and be involved in it. He felt he could be an influence on any aspect of it. A conversation with him would move from anything to politics, to social issues, to what was going on in the comic book industry. He was someone whose view was more than just worrying about advancing his own career. Rather he was someone who would be engaged in many aspects of the world we were living in. To me that was very important. I had been instinctively pretty much the same way.
So as time went on, this interesting bond was forming between us. I would say that it may not be like a lot of people that shared that engagement that Neal had in the studio. I like to think I lent my support to that right from the beginning and it created a very strong bond between us.
Another interesting aspect to this is that I saw a lot of artists come in to show their work and some of them were not so bad. Let’s say that they were…I wouldn’t want to grade anyone, but I would say that it seemed like almost regardless of what identity these people were bringing in Neal’s criticism of their work was evidently harsh. It took me a long time to understand how or why he would do it. What was interesting was that with me, particularly is that I never faced that criticism from him. He seemed to treat me with kid gloves and it was just the opposite when some of these kids would come in to show their work. There were times when he would bring them back to my table and he would actually pull out one of the drawings that I did. I remember a splash page from the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu that I did during that early period and spent a lot of time on and he would bring them back and he would say, “See that? This is how good you have to draw to get into the business.” So he would use me as an example to show young artists the extent of work that they had to do.
So what I would take from all this is that from my situation, personally, my work seemed to be a little different than what most other young artists were facing at Continuity. I think it can be attributed a lot to a very positive outlook of mine toward the future in this new life that I was beginning in New York.
CB: That’s quite a remarkable chain of events that you’ve described.
NETZER: It is pretty remarkable. Again, I think it was something in the chemistry between us. I have to say that I think there was an aspect to me that contributed to the whole thing. I’d basically been raised in Lebanon. I was born in Lebanon, but I came to America and by the time I came to America, between the ages of 12 and 19, those critical school ages, I was extremely withdrawn. I wasn’t really engaged in American culture. I had to do some catching up. There was some culture shock to deal with and it felt like instead of starting my life at 5 years old, where you typically start going to school and so on, I started at 12, so I had something like 7 years missing. I felt like I was behind everybody else.
I found myself a little bit disengaged from the kind of life that most kids my age were living. So by the time I got to New York and began working, I was missing basically a lot of the culture that my colleagues had. I hadn’t grown up in America throughout that whole period. There was Greg and others and these were the people who were at the forefront of media and culture in America. Comic book artists and writers were just very interested in what was going on in film and in books and science fiction and everything. So the conversation between them would inevitably be around certain things. People would talk about Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca and Citizen Kane and James Cagney and things in the culture that left a very big impression on them from the world of film and television and actors and books and so forth and I just didn’t have any of that.
It was like an immediate overexposure to the world. When everyone else seemed to be involved in these conversations it would bring out the impact of these things in comic book stories and so on and I had very little of that. I found myself always on the outside and learning and absorbing as much as I could. I had a lot of catching up to do. I was very interested in knowing what everybody was talking about. I think that contributed to something that was distinguishing me from everybody. Maybe that needed someone who was like a little kid in an environment of a lot of grownups who needed this kind of perception. I think Neal instinctively felt in this situation that he took it upon himself to be that guy, to be the one that would take care of me as I was taking these steps of getting acquainted with everything.
I think that also contributed to the bond and contributed to the difference in this particular relationship that we had, relative to the kind of relationship he had with other artists.
I would also say that I shared and supported his larger outlook on the world. That being engaged and using the position you have, or using your time in this journey through life to do what you can to contribute to making your environment a little better. It’s to have an overall large outlook on things so that you can be engaged in almost anything you need to see where you can contribute in a positive way. This was a little bit unique and I think that Neal was pretty much wanting to do that. It was the crux of what he was doing in this life and I think he still feels that way, and you can see it even today in everything that he does.
It wasn’t such a shared thing…it wasn’t clear to everybody in the studio and in that environment shared that feeling with him and sometimes it was even said that it was just an eccentricity of Neal’s that he was that way.
With most people, you have your career and you have your life and you have your own things to take care of and that’s enough of a chunk to deal with. A lot of people thought, “Well, that’s all there is. I can’t change the world.” Certainly we all run into this situation where we get cynical. “So what, you think you can change the world? The political situation, the economic situation?” But then some actively try to see where the weaknesses are in what humanity is going through and try to improve them in some way. And here I was in the situation I was brought into, drafted into this thing with the kind of optimism that you have the ability and yes, you can do that. To have someone like Neal around just pulled me right into that inner world of his. And there was a big feeling, at least for me, and I’m sure it was for him, that this bond that was developing between us was something that is going to lead to some kind of an ability to be some kind of a contributing factor. The steps that we were making for ourselves.
Neal has a big world within him. It’s really rare that he expresses the depths of that world that is within him, so he has his own way of concentrating on things that open up certain avenues, especially the way he talks about his contributions. How the comic book industry was shaping up. To me it was very clear. When Neal and I would talk about the idea that comics…and this was back in the 1970’s. You have to remember that comics were going through a very difficult time. They had been through the 50’s already and there was some new energy coming into the business now with artists like Wrightson and Kaluta and Jones. Having gone through the Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. The feeling that comics were now somehow becoming pertinent. The sales of comics was still very much questionable at that time. There wasn’t a lot of optimism in the industry for where the industry at large was heading.
As a matter of fact, I say this all the time. A lot of creators from that time would be very enthused about what was going on in comics at that time. They might not be getting a piece of it. They might not have a lot of work because there was so much talent and a lot of the creators from that time found themselves jobless and outside the industry and they had to look for their work somewhere else. Still, most of the creators I’m in touch with still cannot deny that at the time, in the 70’s, they never dreamed that comics would have the influence they do today in our culture. This is a very important thing because we seemed to have, at that time, during that early period, this new spirit that was new and that Neal had injected into the industry through Continuity, being a hub where a lot of creators were coming in.
This led to a serious effort to get the artists and writers together to create a comic book creator’s guild. Something that Arnold Drake had tried in the 60’s after working at DC, and it didn’t work. We found the same thing. I remember Neal asking me to try to write some kind of beginning of a charter of why we needed to do this. There was a lot of talk with a lot of artists. It was amazing the resistance we had from the actual artists and writers themselves. It was amazing how many established creators were reluctant to put their name onto this piece and to support the idea that we present a unified stance to the publishers. People were just afraid for their jobs. They were afraid that DC and Marvel would stop giving them work and so we had to work very hard to get the things that we did on it.
In the end it turned out that it really wasn’t enough to put together a guild. But the effort was made. Steps were taken and some things were written and names were signed on. What this indicated was a general feeling that the industry was not up to speed with the vision that seemed to be coming out of Continuity. That made for an interesting struggle and dichotomy for a particular problem that we faced. Because if we could not do this, then it seemed that the industry would continue to develop in such a way that the state of the creators would remain as that of an underdog because we didn’t have the ability to put forth a unified stand in order to be rewarded fairly for the work and the contribution we were making to the industry.
Now just to put that a little bit in perspective, I think it’s really important to understand one of the reasons we felt comic book creators really should be at the top of the pyramid. The main reason being, most everything that the comic book Industry was basically came from creators. There isn’t a character, there isn’t a property you could say that a publisher created. At best you could say, “Well, look at Stan Lee. He was the publisher and look what he did.” Stan wasn’t a publisher. Stan was a writer/editor. Basically everything he did, he did under the auspices of him being a comic book creator, not as a comic book publisher. Stan was editor in chief, but without Jack Kirby it would be very questionable whether Stan could come in and create the surge that Marvel went through in the early 60’s with the characters and stories and properties.
This is the thing that came from comic book creators. The people who owned Timely, which became Marvel, were not the ones who created these properties.
CB: Not at all.
NETZER: The same with DC. You could look at everything that DC has developed over the years and it all came from the creators. The creators were the source of everything that the comic book industry has become. And when you look historically at what the comic book industry has become and where it’s going, it is the leading source for entertainment properties in the world today. I’m not just talking about the super heroes, I’m talking about everything. The breadth of the comic book industry, the independents and everything that has come from the periphery of the indies world. It’s going into film. This is all the work of comic book creators. Without them, none of this could be. And yet, even to this day, I finished a job for Dynamite Entertainment and I’m still getting a contract that says, “Work for Hire” for doing these eight pages for Dynamite. I know that the page rate I get from Dynamite puts me back to a time from 20, 25 years ago. It’s like half the page rate I was getting from DC comics in the 90’s when I returned to do a few Batman stories. That’s the story, that’s the situation comic book creators are living in. A situation where the publisher is taking these properties, making millions and billions of dollars on them, from properties that no one there had created themselves. It all came from the creative community and they find themselves fighting for every bit of right that they get. For every little morsel of bread that they get. Droppings that they get from the table of the publishers.
It’s kind of like there is a serious, serious injustice going on and being perpetuated in the comic book industry that comic book creators find themselves powerless to change. Even to this day. That’s kind of an interesting dichotomy, because you could say, “Well, back in the 70’s, that was also the same situation,” but back then nobody dreamed that the industry would flourish to what it’s become today.
On the other hand we have a very interesting situation where the comic book publishers continue to this very day to keep presenting the same situation that the comics aren’t really making enough money. “We can’t compensate you any more than we do for your work.” I don’t know. Someone is cooking the books, it seems, or someone is telling these weird kind of stories, because comic book companies are making a lot of money. If there’s a reason that comic books are not making a lot of money, then somebody has to look at whether the publishers are happy with the situation. I mean, come on. Why would the publishers continue making this product that isn’t making any money? Well we all know that they’re making money. They’re making it from peripheral projects. It seems almost like it’s in their best interest, the publishers, that the comic books don’t sell a lot and they make a lot of movies and a lot of products that make a lot of money and this is very much in the interest of the publishers because they can keep the creators at bay and say, “Well, look, the comics aren’t making money, so we’re not in a situation to compensate you for the amount of work and contribution that you’re making for the industry.” This way they can get off the hook and keep the creators at bay and they will have to settle for a situation where they give away their intellectual property for characters that they create or they never get a proportionally fair reimbursement for the work that they’re doing.
Because the industry just isn’t making money. As far as the publishers are concerned it’s a wonderful situation. If the publisher tells you that the comics aren’t making any money, it seems to me the publishers haven’t bought anything to help the comic books themselves make any money because they don’t need to. And it serves their interests because the creators can’t get for themselves what they need. It’s a terrible, vicious circle. I think that we began seeing that in the 70’s. I think we saw the germination of that, which has continued even to this day. The industry has grown and grown and grown and creators are still at the very bottom end of this thing although they are the major contributors to this industry.
CB: The sales figures would seem to bear out their position. I think they peaked in the post World War II time-frame, so pointing to that it would be easy to say, “Sorry, guys, but we’re just not selling enough copies.”
NETZER: Exactly. They might come and show you the numbers and, “Look at the numbers, look at the sales. We’re only selling 40,000 copies of Superman.” Back in the 70’s they were selling a couple hundred thousand of Superman and Batman. Today the numbers are like half or a third of what they were selling back then. And nobody can argue with that, you know? The comic book industry is like on the ropes. Well, it’s not true. They lie. That’s a really big distortion of reality. The publishers are making a lot of money from the comics. They might not be making it from the comic books themselves, but without the comic books they would not have these properties to make films from and to do all these other things and produce the merchandise that they are producing.
CB: The licensing. I suspect it’s not accident they keep getting sold to larger conglomerates like Marvel to Disney for example.
NETZER: Exactly. They’re not stupid. Now of course throughout all this we saw some very nice things in the 80’s. Certainly the idea of the Image guys coming together and the opening up of the industry on the one hand was a very good thing. It seems to me like the distribution is a factor. I look at the distribution and I can’t believe that the people who are running the industry are so stupid that they think this is a good distribution system that we have today.
If you have a property that has any potential, any shot at being successful, the distribution system is working against that right from the beginning. The idea of direct sales and selling your books ahead of time before you see the project, and basically that the success or failure of the book has already been predetermined before the book is published? By the amount of the advance sales at the store where it’s being sold? You want to tell me that this is the best way to sell a product? Wouldn’t it be better to put it out there, without selling it in advance, without putting it into a situation where people have to pre-sell the amount of books they’re going to sell? How do they know? Do they know only by the PR the company is putting out? That means the company determines ahead of time what comics are going to make it by the amount of PR, the campaign they give to every product? Regardless of whether it’s a good product or not, this is a very good situation for the publisher because they can say, “Well, you know, we’re going to do Infinite Crisis and Endless Crisis and one Crisis after another…”
NETZER: “Crossovers. And these are the ones that we’re going to push. And they will sell because we pushed them ahead of time, and whether this product is good or bad and whether the readers wanted it or not, we don’t care. In fact, we’re determining the sale of this product from the beginning.” And the readership really has nothing to do with it because the readers don’t buy the book. It doesn’t matter. The company has made their money. And they really don’t care if the stores are able to sell them or not. It doesn’t matter. No one can do anything about it because of the distribution system that exists. This is the awful situation. There is no other product being sold that way in the world!
CB: You’re absolutely correct.
NETZER: It’s a very strange situation.
CB: It doesn’t seem to reflect the market in any realistic way.
NETZER: No. The market is forced to like or not like this product that is being spoon fed to it. They are forced to like or not like it based on the position on the scale that the publisher is giving this product. Again, it seems to me that if I were the publisher at DC or Marvel and I was looking out for the interest of the publisher, and was trying to keep the creative community at bay, then this would be the best way to do it. I would support the system because this way I could control a system where we can control the sales and we can make it look like these properties are not selling very well, not selling enough. To decline, over the years, and they continue to decline, and we can make all of our money on films and other merchandising and this way we can maintain full control of the properties and acquire these intellectual properties to ourselves without the creators having any leg to stand on to get the rights that they duly deserve as creators.
Now I didn’t really want to get into this whole negative thing with the industry situation. I do want to get back to Continuity. That is what this is about. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: Well, I appreciate the insight just the same.
Stay tuned for Part II – coming next week!