Instead of a classic creator, this week we’ll visit a contemporary one who was heavily influenced by the classic genre. He’s a Kubert School grad – Thom Zahler.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You mentioned in our preliminary e-mails that you grew up on Bronze Age comics with a little Silver Age thrown in. Which titles did you enjoy?
Thom Zahler: I was a huge Justice League fan. I loved Superman. I read mostly DC. I went through my phases on all of them. I think I was drawn to the books because they were never as continued as Marvel. Marvel books just didn’t seem to end. When you’re getting comics based on when your parents decide to buy them, it’s important. You don’t know when you’re going to get that next issue of “Flash.” So the fact that a story would end cleanly was kind of important.
CB: A man after my own heart. I was going through the same thing, but in my case it was whenever I could scrounge a quarter somewhere.
ZAHLER: My parents had comics as a reward program for me because I was reading from a pretty early age. So if I cleaned my room, I got a comic. That kind of thing. It would be like a comic a week and it worked out pretty well. I enjoyed Justice League a lot and I went through my Legion phase for a while. Shazam! Captain Marvel. And then I started retroactively buying them. Because comics used to be where you bought them at a convenience store and then went to a comic shop. When I started going to comics shops I realized that DC published those 100-page for .60 collections and some of the giant treasury editions, so that’s where I started getting the Silver Age and some of the Golden Age stuff. They would reprint that stuff kind of relentlessly. You’d get a new 16-page Justice League story and everything else would be a reprint and I just ate that stuff up.
CB: It was like finding buried treasure. How else would you ever run across those stories unless you had an older sibling who still had their collection?
I suspected a strong Justice League influence when I looked at your work online (www.loveandcapes.com). I thought, “Hmmm. A satellite above the earth for a headquarters; the Liberty League, hmmm… I think I can see an influence here.” (Mutual laughter.)
ZAHLER: Exactly. I love that era.
CB: At what point did you decide, “Hey. I’d like to try this.”
ZAHLER: Honestly, I have known all my life. There was never a point where I didn’t think I was going to be a cartoonist. I knew when I was 8 or 9 my Aunt Alice got me a copy of “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” and that was the first book that really kicked things into gear.
CB: Ah, John Buscema.
ZAHLER: Yes. My Dad did art a little bit before he went off to Vietnam and when he came back he ended up working for the post office. My aunt did some art and my grandpa did some art. That whole side of the family is pretty talented as far as art goes and drawing was encouraged and it was never looked at like it was a novelty. It was just something you did. But when I got “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” it was the first book that started to really take apart the process and I started learning how things were made. I remember reading where you need to have a compass to draw circles and I asked for a compass from my Dad’s art supplies and he said, “Why don’t you just use my ellipse guide?” “No, it says here that you have to use a compass, so I’m using a compass.”
But it was the first book to explain how to draw characters beginning with stick figures and basic shapes and how to do construction and while there are a bunch of books like that now, but at the time that was the only one of its kind as far as I know. And I still think it’s one of the best.
CB: I got a copy not long ago and it does appear to be a wonderful resource, even though I lack any kind of artistic talent, though what is it Joe Kubert says? Something like if you have the desire and put in the time you can do it, but I suspect I’m the exception to the rule. (Chuckle.)
ZAHLER: Well, he asked me for some money when he was teaching me, so maybe that’s part of it. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: I think it’s fantastic that you weren’t discouraged during your early interest. I had the privilege of interviewing Ric Estrada shortly before he passed away and he remarked, speaking of his time as one of the original instructors at the Kubert School, that quite often he’d run across the typical scenario where the words “art” and “starve” automatically go together while he tried to explain to people that there are the Walt Disney’s and others who have proven otherwise.
ZAHLER: There is very much commercial and fine art. I was always able to find regular meals. My Dad was very okay with the whole idea. It was my Mom who was more resistant, but it was an education process. Because of the notion of the freelance lifestyle and the way comics work and so forth. Freelance art work is very different from most people’s experience. To a certain degree it’s like, “Hey, I want to go to the NBA,” or “I want to become a rock star.” People succeed every day, but it’s a pretty rarified number who do. And it takes a great deal of education to help them understand that there are a lot more places where art and cartooning are used than what you might think, because when you tell people you’re a cartoonist, they will automatically think Disney, newspapers or comics. I’ve got a friend who’s redesigned Willy Wonka for the Willy Wonka chocolate bars and I‘ve done stuff for Prilosec for one of their TV ad campaigns and there are just a lot of places where cartoons are used and people miss it. But it’s still there. There’s a lot more work out there than people give credit for.
CB: Precisely. I think it was Don Perlin who told me he used to do technical drawings like those exploded diagrams for repair manuals and such and it had never occurred to me that, yeah, someone has to draw those. I think it’s absolutely right that we see it every day, but don’t see it. Another example struck me when I saw a billboard and realized, at some point, someone had to lay that out. When we lived in Japan I took note of their heavy use of cartoon characters instead of human models in advertising.
ZAHLER: Wasn’t it Scott McCloud who hypothesizes that one of the reasons cartoons are so successful is that they strip away so much information? With something complicated if you break it down into a cartoon you’re left with just the basic concepts of it. It’s more like a direct line, where your brain isn’t processing, “Oh, this is a person and that’s his reaction,” whereas if you see a smiley face, two lines and a smile, you instantly know what it is and what it means and it gets to you faster that way.
CB: That makes very good sense. Did you have any favorite creators from your days as a fan?
ZAHLER: Curt Swan was one of my favorites. He was the not the first artist I recognized. The first artist I recognized was Kurt Schaffenberger, because he drew the “S” shield just a little bit differently than everybody else, but afterward Curt Swan was the one I got into because his style was just so solid. It may not have always been the most interesting layouts, but he never made a mistake.
I went through my George Perez phase, and of course I still like his work. That’s when you got into the whole detail thing and George executes it very well, but a lot of times people will look at very detailed art and think that’s what makes it good whereas I have since gotten more into the Bruce Timm/Darwyn Cooke school and their stuff is so simple, but it has everything you need in it. So clean and oh so perfect. But yeah, early on it was definitely Kurt and Curt as the main two and I’m a big fan of Gerry Conway’s writing. Roy Thomas as well.
Gerry created Firestorm and he was the first new character to come out while I was collecting. I think the first issue #1 that I ever picked up was his. Probably Steel #1 was the second because I think they came out the same month. But Firestorm was the first new character that came out and the first where I got in on the ground floor of the character. A lot of it was bringing that Spider-Man sensibility to DC. It was nice seeing a second-tier character and I know I’ve said it somewhere else before, but I loved it when Firestorm came to the Justice League. He was the screw-up. I think as far as a writer goes, it was a very brave move for Gerry to take his character and make him the dumbest character on the team. But it also gave the character…Superman is going to be Superman and isn’t going to make rookie mistakes or see things the wrong way. Generally, he’s going to be right. So what was nice is that Firestorm is the one who would react to a problem with, “Oh, we’re completely hosed. There’s no way we’re going to get out of it.” The Justice League takes him aside and it’s “We’re the Justice League. We’re going to figure this out.” I thought it was really interesting to see that dynamic and I think it’s something that gets lost in some team books.
In the 80’s you’d have situations where half the cast was characters who had their own books, but the other half of the cast existed only in the Justice League with Green Arrow, Elongated Man, Black Canary, and what that let you do was have a core of characters that you could actually play with and have stuff happen to them in the course of the book and the main characters, the bigger characters were still in the book and interacted with them, but you wouldn’t get a revelation in Superman’s life in the Justice League title, it would happen in the Superman books. You would get a revelation in Hawkman’s life in Justice League, because it was the only place he was appearing.
CB: An astute observation. You’re right, too on Firestorm that he did become something of comedy relief for lack of a better term. The Marvel sensibility observation is dead on, too. Al Milgrom confirmed to me that his cover on Firestorm #1 was his attempt at vintage Kirby.
You graduated from the Kubert School. What stands out in your mind from that time period?
ZAHLER: All of it is a bit of a blur. It was very much boot camp for artists. I enjoyed the people I went to school with and I had as good a time as you could for as hard as you were being worked. It wasn’t always completely pleasant, because it’s a factory. You do 10 classes a week and each is about 2-1/2 hours long. At least this is what it was like when I went there. So you do 10 assignments a week. By the time I came home I think I’d done a hundred projects, which was kind of unheard of, at least to me.
CB: Holy cow.
ZAHLER: It was amazing how much they got you into the process of getting it done. There wasn’t a lot of coddling like you sometimes hear about. You know, how artists have to be inspired to get the work done? No. It was more like, “It’s due next week. Go!” And there’s a lot to be said for it. I hate telling up and coming artists that practice is important, because that’s what everybody told me and it’s not that I didn’t think it was true, it’s just that I understand that I need practice, but what else can I do besides just practice? I’ve heard that it’s the part that I have to do, and it’s amazing how much better you got just because of the repetition of working every day and late into the night, although I never pulled an all-nighter at Kubert. I knew a lot of people that did, but apparently I had either low standards or a good work ethic. I probably didn’t pull any all-nighters until after I graduated. I’ve pulled a couple since, but not when I was at school.
CB: Fascinating. I’ve spoken to a few of the instructors like Dick Ayers, Hy Eisman and Irwin Hasen.
ZAHLER: Irwin was one of my teachers. Hy was at the school and I don’t have any proof of this, but my last name begins with a “Z” and during my classes my first year it feels like the typical instructors got the first four classes because they’re held Monday and Tuesday and they teach A, B, C and D and we in E got the weird instructors, meaning the ones who didn’t fit that mold. Hy Eisman taught lettering and he’s legendary for how he taught lettering at the Kubert School. He was not my lettering teacher. Hal Campagna who did “Bringing Up Father” was. Oddly, I’m one of the guys out of my class who got a career as a letterer out of school. So everybody talks about, “Oh, yeah, Hy Eisman is the lettering teacher,” and it’s “No. I’m the guy who didn’t have Hy.” I didn’t have the same animation teacher as everybody else, either. My instructors for some reason seemed to be different.
CB: I’ve forgotten what Irwin’s curriculum involved.
ZAHLER: I think he taught Basic Drawing 2 and 3. It was basically an illustration class. Some of the course descriptions got a little vague. I had Bart Sears as a teacher for story adaptation where we ended up drawing a lot of comic book pages. We illustrated some Doc Savage stuff, but it was a lot more comic book storytelling class than the class it was actually purported to be. There were teachers who took advantage of things, in a good way, to teach you something beyond what you were being taught, just by virtue of the class. So in storytelling, for example, I remember doing some wash drawings because we had to buy some gray paint to make it really work. We were doing wash drawings and paintings that weren’t really typical, but it was what Bart wanted to teach us. In addition to these assignments and stories it was something he wanted to teach us during that time. Irwin’s class was Basic Drawing for the second and third year and he was one of the few teachers who…when you draw on a chalkboard it’s very different than drawing on paper. The angle of the board is wrong and the medium is different. You can’t finesse it the way you can with a pencil and it was interesting how he could just walk up and draw something on a board and it would look the same as if he had drawn it on paper.
CB: Were there any particular lessons that were more valuable than others or was it just a grand whole?
ZAHLER: There are several, but one is that I took a caricature class and I didn’t like it and I didn’t see why I had to take it and I didn’t want to do caricatures for a living, but I had kind of based my life off a line from a Batman comic, from Dark Knight when Alfred is trying to tell him that hey, you’ve got to have a backup plan and Batman says, “Can’t have a back door, might be tempted to use it.” I was one of those irritatingly smart kids in high school. Phi Beta Kappa, National Merit Scholar, all of that stuff. But I wanted to make sure I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I wanted to be an artist. It was either that or live in a refrigerator box. Those were my options.
ZAHLER: I made sure I went to art school to where that was all I could do. I took caricature class because they told me I had to, but I thought, “Man, I’m never going to use this stuff.” Well, first thing when I got out of school I was doing caricatures in an amusement park because I had cleverly structured it so that it was all I knew how to do.
That was just a lesson in the idea that if someone wants you to learn something it’s probably not a bad idea to learn it. Even if you don’t think you’re going to need it. It’s been a pretty invaluable skill in my toolbox. For a while about a third of my income was from doing caricatures. When you’re starting out it’s great to actually manage to make a living. Ever since I graduated I have managed to make a living as an artist. I was always using the skills from school to do it.
Mike Chen taught the business of art and he taught narrative art and he had a very professorial way of teaching, but there was also a lot of learning how to give a client what he wants. It wasn’t that you were doing the drawing you wanted to do, it was that you were doing the drawing based on an assignment he was giving you. Learning how to fulfill the needs of a client is a very important skill to learn in the actual narrative storytelling you were learning.
In the same way I’ve done some teaching. Usually after school programs or little day classes. I don’t think I have the patience and the temperament to teach long term. But Bart Sears was drawing “Justice League Europe” while he was one of my teachers. We were second year students and I know that among the continuum of students I went to school with I was a pretty good utility infielder, but I was never going to be the million-dollar franchise player. You’d show your work to Bart and he knew it wasn’t as good as it should be and you just felt very aware of the difference in your skills as compared to Bart’s. Bart would look at a page and say, “Oh, I really like how you did…” and he’d point something out where you had a really interesting composition, or you drew something particularly well and then he would tear the rest of the page apart. But the thing that would happen is that he would tell you the one good thing that you had done. He’d let you know that you had redeeming value.
There are those teachers who will just tear things apart. They’ll say, “Well, I shouldn’t have to tell you all the good stuff because I shouldn’t have to prop you up. I’m just going to tell you the stuff that you need to fix.” And it becomes kind of relentless and you end up questioning the value of the product you’re doing. His teaching style was the kind that helped you see that, “Hey, I realize what you’re doing, and then make sure that you’re on the right path and then I can tell you everything after that.” That’s something I’ve tried to do, because I was just really impressed with how well he did that.
To be Concluded.