There are a few cartoonists who were masters of their art in their day, enormously talented forces of creativity who delivered fascinating, unique and brilliant work that has mainly been forgotten. That’s a tragedy and speaks to the existential angst that many of us feel about life. Who will remember us when we’re gone, and how will we be remembered? Our families and friends love us, but they never really knew us, not in full anyway, in all our complexity and weirdness passions. Memories fade like a chimera of past glory. Ink fades, new creators come along, and the past becomes the distant past.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the passage of time while I’ve been writing an essay on the great Canadian cartoonist Gene Day for an upcoming anthology about alternative Canadian cartoonists. Day was an amazing talent, as complex, quirky, brilliant and passionate as any artist in his day or ours. His work bespoke poetry and grace and a deep love of science fiction, horror and high adventure. He only created comic art for about 100 mainstream comic book stories, but he produced innumerable stories, illustrations, editorial projects and other work for a plethora of indie small press books that are almost all completely forgotten today.
They’re all wonderful. They’re all special. And I thought any fan of Gene Day might enjoy this short interview with his brother David (a terrific artist himself) in which I learned a lot more about Gene Day and the work that he adored so much.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: What can you tell me about your brother’s work habits? What sorts of hours did he work?
David Day: Gene worked 16 hour shifts, slept 4 hours and then worked another 16 hours. For one whole year Gene never left the house, he just worked. You must remember this was before Fed-Ex and he got everything by mail and he had to ink six pages a day for Star Wars and pencil two a day for Master of Kung Fu to make his deadlines.
CB: What was his workspace like?
Day: His workplace was like walking into a fifteen-room museum. Like walking into Prof Dumbledore’s office from Harry Potter, everything at his fingertips and music playing really loud to keep him in the work mood.
CB: What do you know about his submissions during his fandom days? Did he solicit subject matter or create material that he liked, then find a market for it?
Day: Every day he did three black and white drawings: one sci-fi, one horror and one misc. He would do his work then ship it out to whoever he thought it would suit. He sent originals, if they liked it they kept it, if not they sent it back.
CB: Did he spend more or less time on certain work?
Day: He spent a full day pencilling and a full day inking a cover for Marvel. He had to work at a certain pace to make his deadlines. He gave full attention to each project.
He gave two weeks to pencil a 24 page comic book on Master of Kung Fu or Savage Sword of Conan, one week to ink the full comic. When inking for Marvel, Gene inked one book a week and 4 books a month. Master of Kung Fu was every month, Star Wars, The Thing in Marvel Two-In-One and Thor.
CB: There are a few pieces he just wrote. Did Gene think he was a good writer?
Day: Gene thought he was a good plotter and story teller but not a great character writer. For example, Fantagraphics was in the process of having Gene do “the Shadow”, but Gene said he would only do it if Dave Sim wrote it. That was the last week he was alive they spoke about it and he was going over to DC Comics to work on Batman.
CB: What did you do as his assistant?
Day: I only worked on two issues of Star Wars that Gene penciled, the Boba Fett/Leia story. I penciled all the ships under his watchful eye as well as the four-part “Men of the Shadows” SSoC stories. I was only 16 years old then. Danny was there at the beginning, he lacked in and erased and whited every single page Gene touched from Marvel Black Panther on in 1978. As well as tightened all pencils on Carmen Infantino, the Star Wars penciler.
CB: He seems to have been incredibly prolific. Are there any family stories about Gene’s dedication to art?
Day: A lot came from Gene. He had an infectious personality. It didn’t matter if you were into knitting or collecting stamps; when you were done talking to him you were rejuvenated and passionate about your work. That all started from our parents. You didn’t just watch TV, you watched it and drew at the same time or played guitar at the same time. Our parents played in a band and dad was into model railroading, mom was into knitting and sewing. The whole family did something creative with their hands. When Gene was 15 years old he wanted to be a writer and like all ids in the ‘60s he was affected by the Beatles and was in a band in which he went back to later in life.
Like I said, for one whole year he never left the house, just worked.
Gene suffered from bad health, he almost knew he would not live a long life. Mom called it the “Bobby Darin” effect, he just worked, worked and worked. He produced more in five years then most do in a lifetime. He took a pay cut to pencil and ink one book a month instead of four as he knew that’s where the fame laid. Inkers would never be as popular as pencilers.
CB: Gene seems to have been a minor celebrity at the time in Canada. How did his peers and the fans see him?
Day: Gene didn’t really know how popular his book was at the time. He knew sales were climbing up over the previous artist, but he didn’t realize the extent until he got invited to the next year’s San Diego Comic Con. When he working for Marvel, in a week he was offered Batman and the highest page rate for DC at the time, as well as several other projects.
CB: How did he react when he got his big breakthrough at Marvel?
Day: It wasn’t a big break, it was inks on Star Wars and one job led to another which led to another job. He was happy, but it wasn’t overnight achievement. It was busy for two months then off six weeks then on again after eight months it became full time.
CB: What were Gene’s ultimate ambitions in comics?
Day: He pretty much achieved personally what he wanted but he liked working with new people on different things which is why he liked working on his Fanzines, Dark Fantasy, working with illustrators and writers like Dave Sim and writer Joe R Lansdale.