Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: What led you to Continuity?
Joe D’esposito: I was Neal’s assistant for five years from ’76 to ’81. Even before that I was bouncing around at Continuity with my friend Joe Rubinstein. We went to the same high school together. This was back in ’75 and we’d go up there together and I was like, “Oooo, Ahhh.” It was all-hands on deck sort of quality. When you have that volume of work, you just have no idea. It’s a lot of work to in comics and especially with the detail in Neal’s work. Neal re-introduced a highly detailed inking style, and it’s great, but the downside of that is, of course, that it’s a highly detailed inking style. You need to have a lot of hands on deck between the backgrounds and the Zipatone.
When you look at that stuff, the older stuff, it’s just great, but Neal brought in this highly realized rendering that we hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember working there once and coming in and it was a John Buscema job. It was a Conan job. Imagine that.
CB: (Chuckle.) Buscema on Conan? Come on…
D’ESPOSITO: It was an early one and really nice and I think it was bouncing around the studio. Neal would do the heads and the main figures and whoever happened to be there would jump in on the lesser figures and backgrounds and so forth. It was a great learning thing. It really kind of goes back to the early days of the old studio systems. One guy pencils, another inks, another letters. This was taking sort of that same path; only it was breaking down the inking job and taking it to another level.
CB: Sort of like an assembly line.
D’ESPOSITO: In a sense, but it was just so great because you’d get people like Joe Rubinstein, Terry Austin, Bob Wiacek, Ralph Reese and just whoever was in the studio would be jumping in and helping out a little bit to proceed with the job and get it done. It really added a certain luster to it. I remember doing an Alan Weiss job. It was just beautiful. It was drawn by Alan but inked by Neal and I believe it was a Crusty Bunkers job and it was on one of those black and white books. I think it might have been Solomon Kane.
It was just a beautiful job. Neal looked great on Alan Weiss. He just looked fantastic. It was a way for Neal to get around. It allowed for some great inking and to lift things up to another level and additionally to get other guys broken into the business and give them a chance to develop their skills.
CB: So would you call it an apprenticeship of sorts?
D’ESPOSITO: I believe I would, yes. Dick Giordano was there, too. I was really on the bottom of that food chain. I was filling in blacks, putting in Zipatone. There were many guys there who were much better than me and they’d decide who would be touching the backgrounds and things like that.
CB: It all contributes to the whole, though.
D’ESPOSITO: Exactly, and there were people who went on to be terrific inkers in the business. They got a lot of training by working there at Continuity. It was a pretty sizeable list of talent there.
CB: It really was an impressive list. When I spoke to Bernie Wrightston a couple of years ago he sort of scoffed at the idea that he was one although everyone mentions him spending time and effort there.
D’ESPOSITO: Well, Bernie was on his way up at that time. Neal had that studio and it was just a great experience for a young artist just to be exposed to have a chance to do some work.
I worked with Neal mostly on the advertising end of things and just whatever Neal wanted me to do. I was sort of like (chuckle) his indentured slave. There was always a lot of work to go around. Sometimes one week there would be a storyboard job and then there might be an illustration job. He really kept that studio hopping. There was a lot of work and a lot of people around, so if you found yourself with a down hour or two, just jump on this. “Let’s get that inked. Let’s get that going.”
I’m not sure if it was a Crusty Bunker job, but I remember the first KISS comic and I do remember working on the boots. (Chuckle.) Inking those things took forever.
The deadlines were different then, too. We lived in a world where there were some pretty long deadlines. Some people have put Neal down on that, but there was really a lot of work. He wasn’t slow by any stretch of the imagination, but he just did this highly rendered work and he did a lot of it. So the consequences of doing a lot of work like that is that it takes a long time.
CB: I’m sure the sheer volume was staggering.
D’ESPOSITO: Oh, yeah. Neal was still doing some comic book work. I remember my first year there I was helping out on the Muhammad Ali comic. I think the inker listed on that was Dick Giordano, but I know Terry did a lot of the backgrounds on that. You started to see people branching out. That first generation from the Crusty Bunkers led to guys who became pretty important inkers in their own right. They were branching out doing backgrounds and such and sometimes just laying it out. Stats and things like that, too.
Those guys were in there really earning their chops and developing their skills. Terry in particular was just doing some wonderful stuff and working with Dick, too.
Dick was a really nice guy and he was there the first year or so after I arrived. After he left it was all Neal all the time. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: A lot of the guys have said it was hopping around the clock.
D’ESPOSITO: Oh, yeah. There was just so much work and Neal was doing a lot of things. It was often around the clock and I was 18 at the time. You really had to be young to keep up the pace. We all just worked our asses off. People have no idea. Again, Neal was the first to do that really highly rendered style of inking in comics. After the EC era, the only quality of inking of that sort could be found in comic strips maybe. That detailed, photo-realistic style that Neal was doing.
Sometimes you’d hate it. “Oh, you’re making us do all this highly rendered work and we’re not making enough money!”
Don’t get me wrong. It was really great. Almost an impressionistic quality to it. Neal brought in this realism that you weren’t seeing anyplace else in comic books. It just took a lot of time and you don’t get rich inking stuff like that. But if you have a lot of people in the studio, looking to do some work…
CB: Crusty Bunkers.
D’ESPOSITO: Exactly. It wasn’t like nobody had ever done that type of thing. As we were discussing earlier, in the old days they’d break up the job, so in some ways it’s not new. Thinking again about the work being done at EC it’s hard to believe they were doing things that were so good and it just dropped off. After EC comics went out of business nobody else seemed to be reaching for that pinnacle any longer. On the other hand, when you’re doing detailed work like that and the high use of Zipatone, that’s a labor-intensive job. In fact, that was what I did. A lot of those jobs called for a lot of Zip and that was up to me.
CB: You were fully employed, then.
D’ESPOSITO: The inking really carried a lot. The coloring available at the time was really limited. I mean it was bad. So it really mattered that you had good rendering. Strong use of light and dark. With the limitations of coloring you used Zipatone to get a good gray. Soon you began to see a lot of people of that generation using it again. If you look at the Silver Age work, you don’t see any Zip. But after Neal and the Crusty Bunkers, you started to see Zip. If you go back to say, Bernie Krigstein, who was my high school art teacher, by the way…
CB: Oh, wow.
D’ESPOSITO: Yeah. He never talked about comics very much. We kind of knew about it, but he didn’t talk about it that much. Anyway, if you look at his work he used a lot of Zip. In particular to create depth. Going from light to dark. You couldn’t get that with the coloring. It was just impossible. You were just at the mercy of what they had, even when it was good for the time, but even then you needed Zip. Either that or cross-hatching or other pen and ink effects.
CB: So you say you were there for five years?
D’ESPOSITO: Just about that and it seems like around that time the Crusty Bunkers were tapering off. That new generation was coming into their own and taking over. You had the Terry Austin’s and the Rubinstein’s and the Bob Wiacek’s.
CB: A pretty good graduating class.
D’ESPOSITO: Many of them began assisting Dick Giordano. “Crusty Bunkers” was pretty much whoever happened to be in the studio. (Chuckle.) Gray Morrow, for example, might walk in. Sometimes you could look at a job and tell. “Oh, that’s Ralph Reese,” just because I know how Ralph inks. Or sometimes it would be Rubinstein doing his best Neal imitation on a small figure. Joe was really that first generation. He was doing Neal’s style of inking and was his apprentice for a time.
I remember going in with Joe early in the game and Neal was working on this huge storyboard job and I was asked if I wanted to help color. “Yeah, sure.” I’d never colored with a marker in my life. I was half terrified. “Oh, my God, I’m coloring Neal Adams.” Joe said, “Don’t worry about it. If it gets screwed up I’ll just re-ink it.” You just had to learn to be confident. That was an important lesson.
CB: What do you feel was the most important thing you took away from your experience, Joe?
D’ESPOSITO: Good work comes from hard work. If you really want to create something good, you’ve got to put in the time. Neal never slacked off and I think it showed in the work, although perhaps the changes in the business and the money to be made off the advertising work may have caused things to go down a little toward the end. You may recall he did his own line of Continuity comics for a while.
CB: Did your time there open any doors for you professionally?
D’ESPOSITO: Sure. I’m still doing storyboards and I’m still a painter. I painted the whole time I worked for Neal. I’m working on a painted graphic novel as we speak.