Wally Wood’s life was a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Born to a family of immigrant farmers, hated by his father but beloved by his mother, Wally Wood’s amazing talents helped to make him a legend in the American comics industry. For many years Wood was as big a star cartoonist as any, and yet by the time of his suicide in 1981, Wood was producing pornographic comic books for a living and existing in squalor. Rumors flew around Wood for much of his career: whispers of alcoholism, a passion for guns, and, perhaps worst of all, a wandering eye that caused him to wander from project to project throughout his career. What were the passions and demons that drove such an amazingly talented man to squander so much of his potential? How could a man whose work was so viscerally powerful end up in such an ignominious end? There’s a great book to be written about Wood, but unfortunately, Wally’s World has too many weaknesses to be a great book.
There’s no question that the book is scrupulously researched. Starger and Spurlock do a great job of informing the reader about the state of Wood’s family as he was growing up, and this history really adds a lot of context to Wood’s life. For instance, Wood’s family lived a highly itinerant life as he grew up – he and his brother attended school after school in town after town as his father chased after his next opportunity. This lifestyle clearly led to Wood’s restless nature later in life. Starger and Spurlock are skillful at describing this side of Wood, taking pains to show how this also affected Wood’s personality. Wood was, by all reports, a charming child with a terrific memory who just wanted to draw comics depicting his vast fantasy life.
Wood grew up loving horror films and science fiction novels. In many ways, Wood may have been one of the first real fans turned pro. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who saw comics either as a temporary steppingstone to more lucrative work or a place to make lots of money quickly, Wood wanted to draw comic books like the Edgar Rice Burroughs books and Bela Lugosi movies he loved. In that way he was the perfect artist for the comics he’s most identified with. Wood’s science fiction comics for E.C. Comics were, amazingly, autobiographical in a way that reflected his passions if not his life. In his lovingly rendered renditions of technology, his zaftig women, and his amazing alien landscapes, Wood drew scenes that came straight from his imagination. Spurlock and Starger do a nice job of showing how a lonely child, constantly moving and continually at odds with his father, would find refuge in a rich a complex fantasy life.
It’s not that Starger and Spurlock don’t try hard to illuminate Wood; it’s more that they go about it in ways that are intensely frustrating. For instance, the book frequently references either work that Wood did, or pictures of him with family and friends. But the book only shows those pictures about half the time. For instance, though Starger and Spurlock talk quite a bit about the wedding picture of Wood and his third wife Muriel, the picture isn’t actually published. Similarly, though the writers quote the entirety of the text of Wood’s great “My World” strip that he illustrated for E.C. Comics, they only publish a few panels of it, and none in the color section. Without getting the chance to see Wood’s majestic art accompanying the fantastic story, it produces an effect much like listening to a movie on the radio.
In fact, the color section is the most disappointing section of this book. Though there are some treasures in that section – a very rare collaboration with Peter Max leads off the section and is absolutely gorgeous, and there are some absolutely beautiful pieces where Wood tries on an animated style – much of that section is taken up with old Marvel and Tower Comics covers that are relatively easy to find. Adding to the frustration is that fully nine pages of slick paper, perfect for a color section, include just text. Why not print more interior pages by Wood? Perhaps some of his greatest EC stories, or pages colored by his wife Tatjana?
In many ways this is a well-written book. It just really feels like this book needed another draft. One real weakness is that the book is written in a fairly eccentric manner. Chapter two, for instance, describes the settling of Wood’s native Finland and ends in the 19th century. Readers get five pages describing Norse mythology and its place in that society. However, this section doesn’t add any context to the story, merely taking five pages away from the compelling story of Wood’s life and times.
There are a lot of other small complaints I have with the book. For instance, a discussion of Wood’s epochal work at EC is discussed again and again in different chapters, which causes the book to feel like it lacks focus. As well, Wood’s career between the cancellation of THUNDER Agents and his work on witzend isn’t discussed in great depth. I would have loved to hear more commentary by Wood’s collaborators on the work he did at Marvel and DC. Other chapters try hard to add context, but could be handled more succinctly. Chapter five is basically a short history of the birth of comic books, but the section is oddly both too detailed and too general to be really useful for most readers.
This book had all the potential to be a terrific history of a great cartoonist. The writers certainly did a great job of researching their material. However, for me, the book fails in its organization and execution.