Don’t miss the first part of our interview with comics legend Sal Buscema.
Bryan D. Stroud for ComicsBulletin: Who were your artistic influences?
BUSCEMA: The old masters, of course such as Michelangelo, who was one of the greatest draftsmen who ever lived; Peter Rubens, who was another absolutely magnificent draftsman; the more modern classics, I just absolutely fell in love with the work of John Singer Sargent. Rembrandt, obviously was one of my all-time favorites.
Where commercial artists are concerned I would list Robert Fawcett, which is a name that’s probably not terribly familiar. He was with the correspondence course known as the Famous Artist’s School, which was started by Albert Dorne back in the ‘50’s and it became a really outstanding school for commercial artists. It was composed of the twelve top commercial artists of the day. Al Parker was one while Albert Dorne was the president and founder of the school. Robert Fawcett, probably one of the greatest draftsmen America has ever produced; his work was absolutely exquisite; he did story illustrations for Colliers magazine and in fact all of the major magazines of the time which are now all defunct unfortunately. And of course Norman Rockwell was another member at the school.
At any rate, I was greatly influenced by Robert Fawcett. His drawings and illustrations were just magnificent. He did a series for Colliers Magazine many years ago written by a descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle and they were about Sherlock Holmes. He did these absolutely magnificent illustrations that were just beautiful and what’s ironic about it is that the guy was color blind. His wife was also an artist and she would help him with the colors.
That’s a short list, but right now I’m just very much into John Singer Sargent. The man was an absolute genius. When I look at his paintings I just cannot believe the brush strokes. The control that he had and the mastery of color was simply unreal.
CB: You’ve had a lot of wonderful collaborations over the years. Does anyone particularly leap to mind as especially enjoyable to work with?
BUSCEMA: As far as the guys I’ve been working with recently, Ron Frenz, who I think is probably one of the top five guys in the business today. He’s a tremendous storyteller and a wonderful draftsman. His stuff is so dynamic and powerful. Tom DeFalco. These are two very good friends of mine. We are not only colleagues in the business, but we’ve known each other for many years and they’ve been just a joy to work with. We did Spider-girl together and the work has kind of petered out a little bit, but Ron and I are working together now for IDW Publishing in California on G.I. Joe and various other projects.
Before that, Mark DeMatteis, who is a terrific writer who comes up with just wonderful stuff. When I first started working on the Hulk I was working with Len Wein. He and I had a wonderful relationship and I think we did some good stuff together. You must remember I’ve been at this for over 44 years now and sometimes the names aren’t that easy to access, even though I had some terrific experiences with many, many good people.
I loved inking Herb Trimpe’s stuff. He and I collaborated on a recent job for IDW and it was the first time in about 35 years that he and I have worked together. I loved inking his stuff.
BUSCEMA: He really is and the funny thing about that is Herb and I communicated maybe once or twice over the years on the phone and that was the extent of it. We didn’t know each other except through our work. Recently Ron Frenz was attending a comic book convention in Baltimore and I told Ron that since it was convenient we were going to meet and have lunch together and come to find out Herb Trimpe was also there as a guest so for the first time in over 40 years I got to meet Herb Trimpe in person. He was just one of the finest gentlemen you’d ever want to meet. He’s a super guy and I’ve only heard wonderful things about him and it was just a joy to see him there. We talked for a while and it was just really a lot of fun meeting him after all these years of collaborating.
As a matter of fact, when I first started talking to Stan Lee about getting work at Marvel, the first guy that he showed me, whose work he used as an example of what he wanted in storytelling was by Herb Trimpe. Herb was a wonderful storyteller. It was very graphic, very simple and very straight forward and very well done. He was the first guy I saw up there at Marvel in person being utilized by Stan Lee.
CB: Did you have a favorite character you worked on over the course of your long career?
BUSCEMA: Absolutely. My favorite would be the Incredible Hulk. Far and away. I love the character and did it for almost 10 years. As a matter of fact Herb did it for 7-1/2 years and I did it for almost 10 and what’s so funny is that there was a book produced a couple of years ago that was a history of the Incredible Hulk and neither one of us are in there. (Chuckle.) I find that really extraordinary since between the two of us we had 17 or 18 years’ worth of work illustrating that character. He and I had a good laugh about that. Maybe they were just highlighting the more recent talent. Just the nature of the business I suppose. Anyway, that is definitely my favorite character and I’d work on him in a minute given the opportunity.
CB: Do you feel like they’ve done him justice on the big screen?
BUSCEMA: I felt like they finally captured him very well in The Avengers. Better than the first two films. The first movie certainly had its moments, but I just didn’t care for the movie that much or for the story that much. I think they really got carried away and never felt like Ang Lee had a feel for what the character was all about. I didn’t like the fact that he was 25 feet tall, for example and I really felt like they missed the boat. Now I thought some of the animation was excellent. He was a little too good looking for my tastes.
I thought the second movie was much better in terms of the story. In a lot of instances I didn’t think the animation was that good. The drawing of the figures just wasn’t that good. It had its moments, too and was superior to the first movie, but in The Avengers I thought they really captured what the character was all about. It was a lot of fun and they even managed to inject some comedy into it and I really liked it. I just think they finally hit their stride. The first two movies, especially the first, just missed the boat. The second one was better and I thought The Avengers was excellent.
BUSCEMA: (Laughter.) They were hilarious and it was like he was a big kid. This 6-year old mentality with the strength of a billion guys was absolutely hilarious. I think it’s part of what makes the character interesting and so much fun to do. The possibilities are almost limitless with a character like that.
CB: You’ve worked both Marvel method and full script. Do you have a preference between them?
BUSCEMA: Oh, yes. Marvel method far and away. One of the reasons I’d given up penciling was because first of all I’d had enough of it. I think I’d just gotten to the point where I was oversaturated. I didn’t want to do any more penciling. Essentially, I’d retired. Even though I want to continue working I was officially retired some 11 or 12 years ago.
Working full script is just an absolute bore. I think it was the genius of Stan Lee who came up with this concept of working by giving the outline of the story to the artists and telling them to flesh it out and this is what created the excitement of Marvel comics. It made them head and shoulders above anything else that was being produced in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s and even the ‘90’s and made them the biggest selling comic book company in the world. I think it was because of that method. The stories were so much more dynamic. I mean who can tell a story better than Jack Kirby, pictorially speaking? Stan recognized that the gift these guys had and said, “Let me just give them their head. Let them do whatever they want to do.” The result as fantastic. To this day I cannot understand why it was abandoned.
I don’t even look at comic books any more. I was at Borders a month or two ago and out of morbid curiosity I walked over to the comic book end and picked up a couple of Spider-Man books and one or two others and leafed through them and I had to put them back on the shelf. I can’t stand looking at them anymore. I don’t know what’s happened to the medium of comic books, but that’s not what they’re doing anymore. They’re just not doing comic books anymore. They’re trying to reproduce movies in comics and it doesn’t work. It never will because it’s a completely unique and different medium.
They’re working on them full script. I speak with Ron Frenz frequently and he’s doing work for DC occasionally and doing work for Marvel occasionally and they’re all working from full script and he can’t stand it. He hates it and for the reasons I stated. It’s so restricting. It’s a case of the writer telling the story by telling the artist what to do, where to place the characters, what he wants in every panel. It just doesn’t work as well. We, as artists, think visually. I know they say writers think visually, too, but it’s just not the same. I think it shows in the difference of the product between today and the product of the heyday of Marvel. There is no comparison as far as I’m concerned.
It’s interesting. I don’t do conventions any more, but when I was, especially back in the earlier days, most of the attendees were children; kids or at least young people. Then there was this extraordinary change in later years. The last dozen or so conventions that I did revealed to me that the people waiting in line for drawings or autographs and so forth were 30, 40 and 50 year-olds. And every one of them telling me, “I don’t buy comic books anymore, when I want to read a comic I re-read my old ones. I just don’t buy them anymore.”
This is why the industry is about 20% of what it used to be. I don’t understand why this is not recognized by the powers that be. The only conclusion I can come to is that they are strictly trying to satisfy their own creative egos. That’s the only way I can put it. They’re not interested in selling comic books. When we were doing comic books, to us it was a business. We were in the business of selling comic books and we sold a ton of comic books. There was a time when Marvel had 50 or 60 titles a month and if a comic book was selling in the 40,000 to 50,000 range per month, it was on the bubble.
I just heard a story recently where the editorial staff at Marvel was all excited because their top Spider-Man book sold 50,000 copies. This is what’s happening now and I just find it extraordinary. When I was doing Spider-Man there were four separate Spider-Man books. Mine was in third place and it would sell anywhere from 220,000 to 230,000 copies a month. Combined, the four books sold over one million copies a month. Now they get excited over 50,000. And as I said, 50,000 in sales for a particular issue back in Marvel’s heyday, probably would have led to that book being canceled because the sales weren’t good enough.
So that’s where we’ve come and I don’t understand why. I don’t understand the thinking anymore. The comic books we used to do are being produced on film now. They’re certainly not being produced in the books. I have no idea what they’re doing and I just don’t even look at them anymore.
CB: The last new books I enjoyed were John Severin’s art on Dark Horse’s “Witchfinder.” John Severin was just the best at vintage western work and this was a showcase for him. I was especially impressed where some pages had no dialogue at all because it didn’t need it.
BUSCEMA: Exactly. One of the nicest things that ever happened to me, pertaining to what you just said, when Mark Dematteis and I were working together on Spectacular Spider-Man in the book where Harry Osborn dies, I got very emotional about that because Mark wrote a beautiful plot for me to flesh out the story with and the last couple of pages are the very emotional part where Harry passes away and Peter is overcome with grief and goes to Mary Jane about it and she’s overcome and it was just really an emotional trip for me and I guess I put a lot of that into the last two or three pages of the book and Mark wrote absolutely no dialogue. He called me up to tell me. He said, “Sal, those pages were so beautifully told that they didn’t need any dialogue, so I didn’t put any in.” That was one of my proudest moments in my career because coming from a guy like Mark DeMatteis, who is just an outstanding writer, it really moved me a lot. It was very touching.
CB: What higher compliment could you receive?
BUSCEMA: That’s what comic books are supposed to be. Comic books are supposed to be pictures, telling a story. The ideal that we always worked for on a monthly basis was to tell the story so that it didn’t need any dialogue. And of course it’s a pipe dream, because you’ve got to have dialogue, you’ve got to have descriptions and so forth, but this was what we worked toward. I have no idea what they’re working for today. I look at pages of panels of heads talking to one another and I have no idea what’s going on and I don’t care. (Chuckle.)
It’s very sad. It’s a wonderful medium, but it’s dying a slow or maybe pretty rapid now, death. Thank God for the movies because we can kind of rejoice when we see these movies and most of them are wonderful. I never miss them and have frankly been disappointed in very few of them. Most of them have been very well done.
CB: You did one recent project that was kind of interesting to me when you inked the Retroactive Flash from the ‘70’s for DC.
BUSCEMA: Is that the thing with all the gorillas in it?
CB: That’s the one.
BUSCEMA: Oh, yeah. The penciler was a guy from Spain, I believe and one of the reasons they asked me to ink it was because I think the guy was just very, very rushed. They must have given him a ridiculous deadline and if I’m not mistaken it was something like a 28-page story. It was more than 22 anyway. (26 in my copy.) Essentially what they wanted me to do was tweak it a little bit. It looked to me like the guy just banged out the pages because he had a ridiculous deadline.
He’s a pretty good draftsman and looks like he’s a pretty decent storyteller, but the pencils left something to be desired. So being a penciler myself I think they just wanted me to tweak it. It was somewhat of a fun job. I was very reluctant to do that to another penciler because I didn’t like it done to me when I was penciling, but in this case I think it was necessary because some of the panels just seemed to have a lot of stuff omitted. Let me put it that way. It was kind of an interesting job. I saw the finished product when I got my comps and it looked okay.
BUSCEMA: The work at Marvel and DC kind of dried up and I just want to keep working. Not out of financial necessity, but I just happen to be one of those weird people. First of all, I enjoy what I do so much that I don’t even consider it work, but I’m also one of those individuals that think that work is good for you.
When you retire, what do you do for 24 hours? Well, you sleep for 8 and you recreate for 8. What do you do with the other 8? There’s just so much recreating you can do and I was climbing the walls after a while and I said, “I’ve got to get some work.” Keep busy. I decided I’ve got to keep working as long as people want me to work, if for nothing else to maintain my sanity.
So I knew one of the editors at IDW. I had done a cover or some small work for him that he’d asked me to do and he used to work for Marvel, so I called his number and he wasn’t in so I left a message and told him what the situation was and I said I was trying to get some work because I want to work. I didn’t hear anything back and then I guess it was 5 or 6 weeks later when I got a call from Chris Ryall who was the editor-in-chief at IDW and they said they had gotten the message from this other editor’s voice mail and that he was no longer with the company and they just hadn’t changed the voice mail and they were really sorry that they didn’t get back to me sooner. So they had just discovered this message that I’d left and they said they’d be more than happy to have me do some work for them and I said I was delighted to hear that and here we are. I’m doing work for IDW now. I appreciate it and they’re a smaller company, but they seem to have their act together and I’m working with a good young penciler there along with working with Ron Frenz on G.I. Joe. I’m working with Lee Ferguson who is a very talented young man and we’re working on a book called “Forgotten Realms” where it’s actually a licensed product having to do with the Dungeons and Dragons game.
It’s good, solid stuff and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I really am. It’s fun inking different people, too. My philosophy is that you’ve got to keep busy or you just sit and sign your own death warrant. The body and the brain need to be kept active.
CB: Do you do much in the way of commission work?
BUSCEMA: Oh, yeah. I’ve got an agent and we’ve got a 25-year relationship and he comes through with commissions fairly frequently.
CB: Have you tried you hand at painting?
BUSCEMA: It’s something I’ve tried in the past and it’s something that I always want to get to, but for some reason I just never get to it. But it will happen. I know it will because all I have to do is open one of my books on John Singer Sargent and I get inspired and I start to think, “I’ve got to do something. Paint a portrait or a landscape or something.” I’ll get around to it one of these days.
CB: I know that among your interests is something that two of your peers have also done, namely Frank Springer and Joe Rubinstein who have both hit the stage on occasion.
BUSCEMA: Oh, you’re talking about Community Theater. I’m a ham from way back. I did stuff in school and then one year when I was well into my 40’s I decided it would be fun. I was looking for another activity and thought, “Why don’t I try Community Theater?” I wound up doing it for over 20 years.
It wore off after a while. It was fun while it lasted and I met a lot of wonderful people and made a lot of wonderful friends. It was just a really terrific experience. I enjoyed it thoroughly.