We conclude our interview with Walt Simonson with part 2.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You’ve worked with so many of the titans of the industry over the years. Was there anyone you didn’t get a chance to work with that you wish you could have?
Walt Simonson: I’m sure there are. (Laughter.) I never got to write a story for Jack Kirby to draw and that would have been pretty awesome. And then there’s Alan Moore. That’s probably okay. I’ve seen Alan’s scripts and I’m not sure I could draw one of those. But still Alan is one of the giants of writers in comics. I’m sure I’m leaving out a million guys, but I have got to work with a lot of people and I’ve been very pleased. I got to draw a Stan Lee story; I got to work with Wallace Wood and other guys generations in front of me. It’s been a real privilege.
CB: Good deal. It seems you’ve been presented some great opportunities over the years.
SIMONSON: I’ve been pretty lucky on some stuff, I have to say, and in some cases I’m just in the right place at the right time. A lot of life is timing and it’s not always timing you can control. It’s funny. I got to work with Stan Lee over at DC, which is kind of a funny place to work with Stan Lee, but it worked out great. I had a really delightful time. I knew Stan from the old days a little bit and we had some nice chats on the phone and he was really easy to work with. He was very free on stuff. He really was one of the guys who invented the Marvel method and he was great working like that and he really works without a net so it was very enjoyable.
CB: It seems there’s hardly a publisher you didn’t work for. I saw where you had credits for Gold Key, Seaboard, Warren, Dark Horse, Malibu, Acclaim and of course the Big Two. How did the different companies compare? Were there real strengths in a particular place you enjoyed or more artistic freedom?
SIMONSON: I don’t know about artistic freedom other than within the world of mainstream comics I’ve been able to do jobs I wanted to do and I’ve pretty much been able to do them the way I wanted to do them. I haven’t really run into problems with censorship or whatever. I’m very much a mainstream kind of guy in my sensibilities as well. Back in the old days about the only differences you discussed were between Marvel and DC. It was a source of endless discussion and I don’t think any answers were ever actually derived from that discussion. If anything, at the time, this was back in the 70’s, I would say the generalization was that DC was a bit more corporate because they were owned by Warner Brothers and Time-Warner eventually, and there was a more corporate feeling to DC the way it was structured as compared to Marvel which was freer and easier.
That was a long time ago. I haven’t worked at Marvel in a long time, so I don’t have much of a sense of it as a company gestalt these days. I know people that work there; I just haven’t worked there myself so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge. Other than that, the companies I’ve worked at I can say I’ve been really fortunate to work on projects or be offered projects that I wanted to do. When I wrapped my work up at Marvel in ’91 I was going to move on to other companies and I got a call out of the blue from Frank who wanted to know if I wanted to draw a Robo-Cop/Terminator mini-series he was going to write for Dark Horse. Frank and I at that point…we had been studio mates for awhile, so we went back a ways, but I don’t think we’d actually worked together on anything. I think I inked a couple of his covers. That was probably about it.
He’d laid out a calendar piece for me when I was too busy to lay it out myself, so when we were in the studio he laid out the calendar piece for Hulk and Spider-Man for me and I worked it up into a drawing and rendered it. But that was the first book we worked on together and it was just a gas. It was a gas to do. It was a good story and I had a lot of fun drawing it, so we got to do that together. Then much later when I did “Orion” I was actually able to persuade Frank, probably at gunpoint, I’m guessing, to draw a short backup story for me. For Orion I had different guys doing backup stories for me and so he drew the backup story for me and he wrote a bunch of dialogue in the margins to cover some stuff and I happily picked up all those lines and claimed the credit.
SIMONSON: It was fun. It was stuff like that where I got to work great people. On “Orion” I got work with Dave Gibbons. I’ve known Dave forever and we’ve done a couple of small jobs together and that was one of them. Howard Chaykin is an old pal and we’ve done some stuff together as well. So the guys in my generation, I’ve done a lot of stuff with them in a lot of different places over the years, but I’ve gotten to work with most of the guys I’ve really wanted to do stuff with and even some guys I wouldn’t have necessarily expected, but ended up doing some neat stuff.
Working with Michael Moorcock is something I never would have thought of but a couple of things developed in the past 10 years and I got to do a couple of long projects with Mike and just had a gas doing both of them. I’ve just really lucked out on getting to do some things I really wanted to do.
CB: You’ve mentioned “Alien” and “Robo-Cop” and I know you’ve done work on “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. When you’ve got established, licensed characters like that with a particular look to them is that more difficult or easier as an artist to deal with?
SIMONSON: It very much depends on what the deal is that the publisher has with the licensor, and it would depend on the licensor itself. For example in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, which I penciled for Marvel and “Battlestar Galactica” which I penciled and wrote a few of them for Marvel, in both of those cases Marvel did not have likeness rights. What that meant was that you could not draw the lead characters to look like the actors. I believe when Frank and I did “Robo-Cop” Dark Horse did not have the likeness rights to use Peter Weller’s likeness. So I’m not a huge likeness guy. I’ve got friends like John Bogdanoff who’s a phenomenal hand at drawing likenesses. I am not. I can do it if I work at it, but it’s never easy. It looks easy for John. I can only hope it’s not. (Chuckle.)
So anyway on “Battlestar Galactica” Klaus Janson is inking that book and I just went ahead and drew the actors. Since I’m not really a huge likeness guy, by the time he finished inking them and we got them colored and stuff they didn’t look that much like the guys, but they looked like okay comic renditions. We kept that late-70’s hair over the ears, so they all had the same hairstyles and it didn’t matter much what they looked like underneath that.
They kind of looked like themselves sort of in the comic. We had one thing that was actually pretty funny. There was one issue that I penciled and inked. I’m not sure why. Anyway it was a story I really liked a lot, so it was a one off story and I inked it and we got word back from Glen Larson or whoever it was that owned that property that the Apollo character looked too much like Apollo, the one played by Richard Hatch. It looked too much like Apollo and we were directed to change that. We kind of went around on that some and eventually…this was a long time ago, so they can’t sue me now; what really happened was we didn’t change anything and then somewhere along the line we discovered they really didn’t mean Apollo, they meant Adama, the Lorne Greene character, so even they couldn’t keep it straight. If they couldn’t keep it straight, we weren’t too worried.
SIMONSON: So I pretty much drew the guys as they appeared and nobody cared. Nowadays it would probably be a much bigger deal. Back then it was not, but I thought if they couldn’t even keep the characters straight, I just wasn’t going to worry about it. We had a similar issue with the “Robo-Cop/Terminator” job where again I was using Peter Weller’s basic structure. I tried to draw Peter Weller, but not get an exact likeness, but I was trying to get a flavor of that and the funny part about that was that in the last issue there’s a picture of the character where he’s human again, briefly.
I think it was a dream sequence or something and he’s screaming. Now screaming faces that maintain likenesses are hard to do, because really your face is so distorted it’s hard to get a guy where he screams and still looks like whoever you’re drawing and I had no screaming pictures of Peter Weller, so basically that’s probably the one place where I just drew a head screaming. I tried to keep the hairline about the same and the eyebrows, but it was not like it was really him. Of all the drawings in the book it was probably the least like Peter Weller and that was the drawing that whoever owned “Robo-Cop” objected to, saying it looked too much like Peter Weller. Really, it looked nothing like Peter Weller. Even on a really bad day Peter Weller didn’t look like that.
SIMONSON: So there were things like that occasionally that were just sort of odd, but that’s how licensing works. I don’t know that I would do licensing now, because there’s so much more emphasis on likenesses and there’s so much more likeness approval stuff and my feeling is that for comics what that does is it kind of sucks off the creative energy into other avenues where you don’t pay as much attention to the story or the drawing. You’re trying to make sure that so and so the actor or actress is happy with their likeness.
And that’s where your creative energy is going and I think the comic storyline is going to suffer and also you have things in comics where the comics have not been allowed to show certain things. “Take Close Encounters” all those years ago. They did not want us to show the smiling alien at the end of the comic. That was a huge secret. So I ended up doing a silhouette with some Zipatone which worked out pretty well, but how much did you really see even in the movie? But there was a lot of stuff like that. Some comics that I didn’t do any work on but was aware of had restrictions where you can’t show things during the movie, which really makes it hard to tell the story when you have to leave major elements of the movie out.
These are some of the problems with licensed projects, especially in conjunction with movies and probably other things. It makes doing a good comic difficult and I don’t care about the movie. My concern is that when I’m done, my name is on the comic and I’d like that comic to be really good. In the case of “Alien”, we really had unprecedented cooperation from 20th Century. Part of that was Charlie Lipincott, who was our liaison with 20th Century and was a comics fan, and so he had a pretty good idea of what it took to make a good comic, and he was very helpful and very encouraging to Archie and me to do what we could. For example we had three different script revisions of that film of different versions as they were revising and revising and revising it, and we were able to actually take chunks out of different revisions of it and include it in the comic because we thought it made the best story.
So we were able to incorporate a couple of things into the comic that weren’t in the film. The film itself was great, but what it did for us was give us a coherent comic and storyline that I thought worked really well in the graphic novel. So we were essentially able to take the “Alien” story and tell it as we thought best in order to make the graphic novel work. That’s an experience I really haven’t had in any other licensing venture I’ve been a part of, where the comic took precedence and you could do as good a comic as you could manage. That was one of my best comic experiences, working on “Alien”. It just worked out really well.
CB: It certainly sounds like it. You’ve worked on virtually every genre; too, over your career whether it was superhero, war, fantasy, western or you name it. Did you have a favorite?
SIMONSON: The short answer is I like drawing. I like telling stories. If I’ve got a good story to tell, I don’t care what genre it’s in. The only thing is I’d probably prefer stories where I feel that the character of the characters is revealed through action rather than through talk because I want stuff to draw. I’m not particularly eager to draw guys who are sitting around shooting the breeze. I can do it, but I would prefer to have their characters revealed through the things they do, and that gives you more stuff to draw. But really I just like drawing and telling the stories, so if it’s a western or a science fiction or fantasy or superhero, whatever it is, I’m cool.
CB: You’d have got along famously with Jim Mooney. He told me once that he wasn’t fond of drawing pages of what he called talking heads.
SIMONSON: (Laughter.) I don’t think I ever met Jim. I knew his stuff, of course. I read his stuff when I was a kid. But yeah, I like things to be happening.
CB: What in your opinion is the greatest challenge for a comic book artist?
SIMONSON: I think telling the story. In my own case I taught for nine years at the School of Visual Arts and one of the things I tried to teach my students generally about doing comics, which I think is true for any comic, is that there are a lot of skills involved in drawing a comic. Besides just doing continuity and storytelling from panel to panel and design compositions for a single panel, then there’s the overall composition for the entire page, being able to draw the human figure, being able to maybe manage typography, being able to manage costume design, the ability to draw clothing, to be able to handle perspective, to be able to draw rooms that are persuasive, or spaceships, all that kind of stuff.
There are a lot of things that go into it, and because there’s so much to go into it there are a lot of artists who don’t do everything well, but they do enough stuff to do great comic books, which is fine. But what I tried to teach my students is that with all the things you’ve got to keep track of, whenever you make a decision, and you’re making decisions all the time; everything from whether to use five lines or to do this by 3-point perspective or to draw this costume this way or that way, the question at the bottom of all the decisions you make is: Is this making a better story? And that’s not always an easy question to answer, but for me it’s always the question you should be asking at the bottom of every decision you make.
That’s kind of the tough part. All the other things are things you’ve got to learn; the craft, but the art, in a way, comes from how you tell the story. For me, that’s what comics are about; the storytelling medium. That’s the part that’s most important.
CB: Yeah. The very fundamental basis. Unquestionably. I thought I’d share this quote with you. I was speaking with Anthony Tollin awhile back and we were talking about Jack Adler and he had this to say, which I thought was fascinating: “Jack Adler was always one of the biggest boosters of young talent in the company, including Paul Levitz, Howard Chaykin, and especially Walt Simonson, who he kind of saw as a modern day Toth in that he was pushing the boundaries the way Alex had.. How do you respond to that?
SIMONSON: (Laughter.) Well, that was very sweet of Jack. Here’s the other side of that story. It’s nice to be thought of like Alex Toth, but I’m not sure that’s quite correct. It’s a nice person to be compared to, but I don’t want to push that comparison too far. What did happen was when I got into comics, the short version of that is that I went to New York with my portfolio of Star Slammers material and I went up to DC comics because at the time, ’72, DC was putting out the kind of comics I was most interested in.
They were doing a lot of oddball stuff; they were trying a lot of things. A lot of them didn’t succeed in the long run, but they were actually doing a lot of very cool stuff and it was very interesting and exciting. At that point, again in ’72, Marvel I felt, myself, was kind of retreading and repeating old stories. The Thing went after the third time and got sucked in by the Wizard and they betrayed the FF or whatever was going on. It seemed like I had read those stories already. And DC was trying stuff I had not read. So I went to DC first looking for work. If I hadn’t got work at DC I’d have gone to Marvel and kept my trap shut. So I went to DC and I ended up talking to an editor at DC who largely looked over my work and said, “Well this is nice. What else can you do?”
So I did not walk out of his office with a job. So I’m sort of depressed and head for the company break room, and in the coffee room I think were Chaykin, Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson and I think Alan Weiss. I think those were the four guys hanging out in the coffee room. The young guys who were all working at DC at the time. I sat down and I had actually met Howard about a year before at a convention in Washington D.C. so I knew him a little bit. I knew the work of the other guys, so we all sat down and shot the breeze and it was, “What are you doing here?”
I showed them my stuff. I had my book with my originals in it and they seemed to like it. Michael Kaluta said, “Let me show this to Jack.” Well there’s a guy sitting behind us. An older gentleman, which means he was way younger then than I am now, but he was probably 40 or maybe 45.
CB: The ancient of days. (Chuckle.)
SIMONSON: And Michael shows him the work. It was Jack Adler, whom I did not know at the time. So Jack looked it over and he liked it and he said to me, “I’d like to go show this to Carmine.” And Carmine Infantino at that time was…I don’t remember his official title, but he was the editorial director or the publisher or whatever, but basically he was at the top of the ladder. I knew who Carmine was. I’d read the “Flash” and “Adam Strange” and I knew his work. So I said, “Okay, sure.”
So Jack leaves the coffee room and I’m talking kind of nervously with Howard and Alan and Bernie and Kaluta and after a few minutes Jack comes into the room, not quite at a dead run, and he says in one word, “Carmine wants to see you, let’s go.” So I found myself in Carmine’s office, and we talked about comics for five or ten minutes. I remember very little of the conversation. I’d seen Carmine a year earlier at a talk at Brown University, so I knew him. I’d actually talked to him very briefly up there. We talked about comics, and the thing I remember about the conversation was he wanted to know if I’d been influenced by Bernie Krigstein.
Now at the time I might have seen Krigstein’s “Master Race” job or I might not have. I had not seen his EC work. I knew about it, but I’d never seen his EC work at the time, and later I could see what Carmine meant because my work, particularly at the time, and it’s kind of back there now, was very linear and it was very designy. And some of the jobs that Krigstein did for EC were very linear and very designy jobs and they contained very elaborate storytelling and the work I had in the Slammers also contained very elaborate storytelling.
It was not at all like Krigsteins, but it was the use of breaking panels and the small moments and it was more probably a topographical graphic approach than what Krigstein was doing with breaking down moments of time, but nevertheless I can see now what Carmine meant. We just talked about it. Basically Carmine liked my stuff and he liked it enough that he called three of his editors into the room and before I left he made them all give me a job.
SIMONSON: Now they were all short stories. This is when they still had short stories, so they were like four and six page stories; very short little things and squibs, but I walked out of his office with a page rate and three small jobs and that’s because Jack Adler took my work in and showed it to Carmine, so in some ways I really owed the beginning of my career to the four guys in the coffee room and to Michael Kaluta and to Jack Adler and to Carmine because literally those were the guys I ran through without having any clue what the hell I was doing and went out of the office that day with some stuff to do. And then after that one of the jobs was for Archie.
A little short science fiction job and Archie liked it enough that he kept feeding me little bits of things. A four page job here, a three page job there. I did a couple of “Gold Key” jobs for “Twilight Zone” at that time, so again I was making just about enough money to stay alive and go find an apartment in New York City. Then in about six months “Manhunter” happened and that was the beginning of my professional career, but Jack Adler and Carmine really liked my work and really were instrumental in my being able to get into comics and become a professional artist. I didn’t become a writer for another five or six years before I actually began writing stuff.
I drew to begin with and in my early work I basically penciled and inked all my own stuff. So in fact, my very first job, which was a job in “Weird War” #10 written by Len Wein, “Cyrano’s Army,” which was an inventory job Joe Orlando had in a drawer and gave to me at Carmine’s behest, on that job I not only penciled and inked but I lettered it at well. I learned very rapidly that I was not a major letterer and should not be doing lettering on a professional basis. I learned a few things in my early days. I lettered one of Howard Chaykin’s “Iron Wolf” jobs and I lettered a couple of my own stories here and there and that was okay.
CB: Well, when you’ve got people like Gaspar out there it’s kind of hard to reach that mark.
SIMONSON: Yep, but it was still fun and it had a lot to do with my sense of design for the pages overall. Even though I didn’t have to do that later on I kept a pretty close track on lettering and how it looked on my work and tried to make sure that there was a good marriage of the graphics and lettering because that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about comics is that combination of pictures and letters.
CB: Oh, yeah. And I’ve been told by Clem Robins that ideally a letterer’s work should be invisible in that it shouldn’t take away from the story, but complement it so that you don’t even really notice it so much.
SIMONSON: Well that’s true. I would add to that, however, that I do think that the word balloons and the use of them and the use of sound effects and display lettering in a comic, those are important shapes in the drawing so that they’re not exactly invisible. I’m not saying that lettering that’s so weird or so bad that you notice it because that’s a different thing, but I do think that the forms of the word balloons and the forms of the topography that address the sound effects and the special lettering that you need, that those things are important visual elements on the page and that you need to consider that stuff as much as you consider how you draw a head.
CB: I wouldn’t disagree. You’re married to a literal cover girl, Walt. (Chuckle.)
SIMONSON: Yeah. After a long career in comics, that’s what I should be known for. “Yeah, wasn’t she the cover girl for that “Swamp Thing” try out that Bernie drew?”
SIMONSON: I think that’s the picture they’ve got for her on Wikipedia, or maybe they don’t any more, but for awhile they had that cover up, which was pretty funny.
CB: How long have you two been together now?
SIMONSON: We began dating in 1974.
CB: Quite some time then.
SIMONSON: Yep, and we’re still trying to get it worked out. (Chuckle.)
CB: I’m just at the 23 year mark myself. Any advice for someone who wants to hang on as long as you have?
SIMONSON: We’re just still good friends and we get along real well and also just as it happens she’s in the business as well and on those few times, and there have only been a few, where we’ve actually worked together, we work together very well. I’ve worked with Weezie when she was my editor and I’ve worked with her when we were co-writing stuff, I’ve worked with her when she was writing something I was drawing and all of it actually worked out quite nicely.
CB: Outstanding. Partners in every sense of the word.
SIMONSON: Yeah, it’s worked out very well.
CB: One last question. Any thoughts on the recent upheavals at both Marvel and DC as far as the buyout and restructuring?
SIMONSON: I don’t have any real thoughts about it because I don’t know what it means. I mean I’ve heard the stories. I’m a big Paul Levitz fan. Paul has been a real friend to me and also a good publisher to work for. I regret his going on to other stuff. That said, I kind of expect some stuff to change, but what stuff that will be I have no idea. I can think of 8 million different things, but whether any of them will change or it will be something I don’t expect, I really have no idea. I do know that generally on a much smaller scale in the business, occasionally books will be moved over to other editors and when that happens usually the book shifts direction.
Usually a new editor comes on and he or she has their own ideas where the book should be going, where the character should be going. They’re really kind of the guardians of the character and frequently that means an editorial shift in the art or in the writing, even the coloring. Whatever it might be. I don’t know that it happens every time, but it happens often enough that when there’s a shift in editors you kind of wait for the other shoe to drop and that doesn’t necessarily mean things will be worse, it just means it’s going to be different. So in that regard I expect that at least in the long run there will be some differences both at Marvel and at DC. I have no idea what they would be and whether it will come down the food chain far enough to affect where I am or not. I can’t say, but I would think that there will be some changes coming along as time goes by.
I haven’t the faintest idea what they are, so like everybody else I’ll be kind of curious. I’ll wait to see how it shakes out, but I’d be really surprised if everything stayed exactly the same. I mean I’m not in the upper echelons of the business, but usually when they shake things up it’s with the idea that things will change somewhat for whatever reason. I just don’t know what they will be and I don’t have any predictions for it. Like everyone else I’m just going to wait and see.