Bryan D. Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Do you remember what your first published piece of art was?
Sal Buscema: That would have to be in 1959 as far as commercial work, but actually as I think about it, I’ll bet it was something I did for the Army because believe it or not my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in the Army between ’56 and ’58 was as an illustrator for the Engineer Corps, which surprised the heck out of me, so I couldn’t tell you precisely what it was, but that would probably be the first professionally published thing I ever did. I was attached to the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir and worked there for almost two years doing those illustrations for the Engineer Corps.
Of course I worked with John (Buscema) on comics before I got into them myself. He was working for Dell Publishing at the time and occasionally when he got into deadline problems I would work with him doing backgrounds, inking them and that kind of thing in order to help him out.
CB: Did you have any formal training?
BUSCEMA: My only formal training was where both John and I attended, which was the High School of Music and Art. Are you familiar with the movie and T.V. show “Fame?”
CB: I am.
BUSCEMA: Well, that was the school they were talking about. Of course at the time they were doing “Fame,” the movie and the television show, it had expanded to not only music and art, but had expanded to the performing arts also. So it is now the High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. It was quite a school that was established by the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia. He thought it was necessary to have a school that dealt with the fine arts and serious music and it really was quite a school. We had 4 symphony orchestras, believe it or not and the art curriculum was pretty difficult. I was commuting from Brooklyn and would leave my house probably about a quarter to seven in the morning and take a subway to the school. It was actually located pretty much in the heart of Harlem on 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City just on the other side of CCNY. The art curriculum was extensive and very, very good. Unfortunately, being a kid and not being too bright I just didn’t take full advantage of it, but I guess enough of it rubbed off on me so that I could at least try to make it a career.
That was the extent of my formal training. John went on to Pratt Institute for a year or two, I think, which was a very, very fine school at the time. I wanted to get right into the business and am not sorry that I did. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. And that’s at an age where you’re not usually making very many good decisions, but it worked out for me and I’ve never regretted it. I had the opportunity to go to Cooper Union in New York City which was a very fine art college, but it dealt primarily with fine art and I wanted to get into the commercial end of the business, so I declined that and got a job as an apprentice and as they say the rest is history. So aside from the training I already mentioned, I’m primarily self-taught.
BUSCEMA: Having been doing this now for nearly 60 years, I developed the belief that no one can teach you to be an artist. You have to learn on your own. You can get guidance, which is essentially what you get in school. Unfortunately there are some schools that misguide you, which is just an unfortunate fact of life. There isn’t much you can do about that. At the period of time when I was looking for more extensive training there really weren’t very many good schools to go to, so I just jumped right into the business and learned right on the job. In that respect it was a very good beginning for me.
CB: So you were in the commercial side of the industry to begin with?
BUSCEMA: Yes. My first job was in a commercial art studio and for the first 13 years of my career I was a commercial illustrator, graphic designer and whatever the rest of it might entail.
CB: That’s usually the goal of many artists, and yet you went into comics. How did that come about?
BUSCEMA: It was my desire to do comics initially, but when I was ready to do comics the comic book industry was pretty much dead. We’re talking about the 1950’s. I graduated in ’53 and in the early ‘50’s you may remember the big scandal about comic books back then. Of course if they compared them to what they’re doing today they would be like children’s stories. It’s amazing how the times change. The industry was so depressed that John had to get out of it also and go into other areas of commercial art because there just wasn’t any work available, much less so for a beginner like myself. This is why I was forced to go into other areas of commercial art. It was wonderful, wonderful training for me. I was very happy with the results and if I had to do it all over again I would not change a thing.
CB: Do you recall the page rates when you were getting your start?
BUSCEMA: Let’s see, I always use John as kind of a yardstick because he was 8 years older than me and got started in the business with Timely and Stan Lee when he was 20 years old. That would have been 1948. He started working for salary, but as things began to deteriorate somewhat in the industry he went on to become a freelancer and I would say that the page rates were, for the top people, and of course he went on to become one of the better known people in the business, probably in the area of $35.00 to $40.00 a page, perhaps as much as $50.00 penciling and inking.
If you had enough work and a reasonable amount of speed you could make a living. Of course salaries back then were much lower than they are today. He did all right until the bottom fell out of the industry.
BUSCEMA: Yes. I was very fortunate. Is’ a funny story, actually. John accidentally met Stan Lee in Manhattan one day. They just bumped into each other on the street. They got to talking, discussing the old days and this was years after John had left Timely and went into other areas of commercial art and Stan was asking him about his desire to do comics because he said the business was coming back. This was probably right around the late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s.
He said, “John, we’re looking for people, so if you want back in, just say the word. We can pay better rates and business is really picking up and we need good people.” So that’s what he did. He was commuting from pretty far out on Long Island to Manhattan with the commercial art job that he had and while he was making a good salary it was really a burden for him because he was commuting 4 hours a day and it was just killing him. So when this opportunity presented itself where he could be a freelancer and work at home, he jumped at it.
Now when I heard about that and heard that the industry was doing well again I decided I needed to take a crack at it. He’d mentioned it to me because we communicated by phone and I worked for about a year because I had to learn how to do comics. I’d never really done them except for the little bit I’d done with John. The big thing was superheroes by the likes of Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John Romita, Sr. and their peers and they were flourishing. Marvel was doing very, very well and so I decided to take a crack at it. I worked up a 6-page story, just in pencils, I really wanted to ink. That was my first love. I just wanted to be an inker, but John said they were looking for pencilers, so I thought I’d try that and then adjust from there.
I made up the samples, Stan saw them and he liked them and consequently I worked for Marvel for over 40 years.
CB: Wow! You can’t ask much more than that.
BUSCEMA: No. I’ve been very blessed. It’s been a wonderful career and I’m still doing it. I will continue to do comic books as long as people want me to do them, although now I’m just doing inking and have been for the last several years. I enjoy that thoroughly. It’s a lot of fun. All you’re doing is finishing the work, to be blunt about it, as opposed to a penciler where you’ve got to put in a lot of thought into the storytelling. The pacing, the design of the story, page and panel layout, breakdown, it’s just so much more difficult and so much more work. As an inker, you get the stuff that’s already penciled and finish it off and have a great time doing it. To me it’s just a lot more fun.
I enjoyed penciling very much. I did it for many, many years and worked on just about every character that Marvel had and I did enjoy it a lot, but it is a lot of very hard work. It requires a lot of thought, effort and energy and comparatively, inking is a blast. I could do it in my sleep. There’s a little hyperbole there, but that’s the way I look at it. Inking is just a lot of fun and that’s why I enjoy it so much, because to me it’s really not work.
CB: What more could you ask? According to another friend of mine who is an industry pro, he’d seen your pencil work before and said it looked like your primary method was breakdowns. Was that your usual approach?
BUSCEMA: I was asked to do breakdowns. One of the things that I was blessed with was strength in my storytelling ability and I was pretty fast. I was able to crank out stories at a pretty good rate of speed. It took me a few years to get to that point, but once I got there it came fairly easily to me. Because of that ability, Marvel would come to me frequently and ask me to do fill-in jobs where they were having deadline problems on given books. So in order to expedite things and to get the stories done faster I would do what they called breakdowns, where pretty much everything was there. My breakdowns were fairly tight. The only thing that was lacking were the blacks and if you’ve got a good inker they know where to put the blacks and they would follow my stuff pretty well.
With breakdowns you could turn out a story a lot faster. Since Marvel came to me frequently and asked me to do this additional work, obviously I could not do really tight, finished pencils on all of them because the time just didn’t allow, so I would go with breakdowns and it got to be a pretty normal thing. I enjoyed that a lot better when I was penciling and inking my own books. I would just do breakdowns for myself because then I could do the finish work with the inking.
At one point for Marvel and I was penciling and inking two books a month. That was a real boon to me because the way we worked back then, rather than the computer driven world of comics today, I would pencil the book, or rather do breakdowns and then the dialogue would be written and the lettering would be done and then it would come back to me for inking. Then it was a matter of doing the finish work with the ink. I actually draw better with a brush than I do with a pencil. Why, I don’t know. It just seems to be the way things are. Anyway, that was a real boon to me because I enjoyed the inking more than the penciling, so it was just a nicer way for me to work. I did that for a lot of years at Marvel and of course a lot of other guys did, too.
Again, my breakdowns were pretty tight, so if another inker got a job to do on my pencils, everything was there for him. He didn’t have to do any guesswork or redraw anything. Essentially what breakdowns were in my case was just straight line. No blacks, no shading, nothing of that sort. What you saw in the comic book was what I did in pencil without any of the blacks that would appear in the finished product.
BUSCEMA: At the time Windsor-Newton were producing the best brushes in the world, but their product really deteriorated in later years and frankly I’ve had a lot of problems finding good brushes. I switched to a pen for a period of years because I could not find good brushes that would work the way I wanted them to work. I was fortunate enough to find some brushes produced by a small company in Ireland. Apparently an elderly retired couple decided they wanted to have a little side business and became the American distributor for this company. The name of the brush is Kolinksky. They’re really good brushes, though not as good as the best Windsor-Newton brushes were years ago. Still, they do what I want them to do.
As far as pencils, I just use a good old HB or plain old No. 2 pencil. I’ve also used Pelican ink for years, but have found it difficult to get it from my distributor in large bottles. I have also had good luck with an India ink made in Japan. It’s good quality, a nice dense black and I’m delighted to have found it because I can get it in large bottles which of course reduce the cost by a considerable amount. Unfortunately I can’t tell you the brand name because it’s written in Japanese. (Laughter.)