Concluding part three of Bryan Stroud’s wonderful interview with Allen Milgrom!
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Do you do commissions, Al?
Allen Milgrom: I do. It’s funny. I don’t have a website and I’ve never advertised anywhere, but between word of mouth and also Spencer Beck, the art dealer, who puts some of my stuff up on his website, he’s gotten some inquiries and some guys who commission something will then mention it to their friends or they’ll post it on this comic art fans board where they’ll say, “Hey, I just got this great commission from somebody-or-other and people will then contact you and as a matter of fact I’ve got a handful of them lined up right now. My problem is if I have freelance work for one of the companies I tend to put the commission stuff aside.
CB: Sure. Priorities.
Milgrom: Well, in some ways it makes sense, because you want to keep busy and keep your name out there so you’ll get work from DC or Marvel or whoever, but at the same time, in terms of the amount of time involved, you’d probably do a little better doing commissions. (Chuckle) So in some ways it would almost make more sense for me to do more commissions and less stuff for the companies. Well, right now I couldn’t do less stuff for the companies, other than Archie, which is keeping me supplied with semi-regular work.
I had one commission where a guy wanted a fairly difficult recreation of an old cover that I’d done and there was no excuse for this, but I think it took me more than a year to get it finished. It wasn’t that hard a cover, it’s just that I kept getting busy with deadline work and kept putting it aside. Toward the end he was getting a little annoyed with me and rightfully so. But I did get it done and I did a very good job recreating the cover and when he saw it he said, “Well, it was worth the wait.”
CB: All’s well that ends well.
Milgrom: And he proceeded immediately to ask me to do another commission for him. I actually want to try to get that going in the next week or so. I’ve got a couple things to finish up and then I’ll be working on that as well as a handful of others, so I’ve got stuff to keep me busy. I like the commission work.
It’s fun and is usually less tedious than having to draw an entire story, which I’m so out of the loop and so out of practice that I don’t know if I could any more. I mean I haven’t drawn a story, let alone a complete issue of anything in a number of years and I like to think it would come back to me if I got an assignment, but I don’t know that for a fact. I’m most happy doing inking these days.
CB: It seems that might be your greatest forte, even though you are a multi-talented threat between writing and editing and penciling and inking. I think I even saw a stray lettering credit for you someplace.
Milgrom: I don’t think I ever lettered anything. God help me if I did. I can’t letter and I make no pretense. I colored a job once. It was a humorous job that I did for I think Bizarre Adventures for Marvel. I did a story about Santa Claus trying to deliver presents in New York City and the problems he ran into there. I wrote it, I penciled it, I inked it and I colored it, but I think that was the only time I ever colored a job and it was like pulling teeth. (Chuckle)
It took far longer than it should have. I kept sticking my hand in the wet dyes. It was good, though, because I could really appreciate the work the colorists do, which in the old days they did fairly quickly. Now, of course, it’s a much more difficult and elaborate process. Another case of the computer making life harder rather than easier.
You can get much more ornate coloring and more detailed coloring and stuff like that, but in the old days if a book was running late you might get it sent out like a week before it was supposed to go to press and you would still get it done. Now, if you get something in there less than 5 weeks ahead of the printing schedule, you incur all kinds of late fees and you can’t possibly make the deadline.
CB: This is progress.
Milgrom: It’s sort of like one step forward and four steps back, but again the kind of color you get nowadays on the computer…there’s just no comparison. And it’s not always necessarily a good thing. To a certain degree, the coloring is so ornate that sometimes it either gets very dark or there’s so much color it sort of drowns out the line work. As an inker that’s especially hurtful, but also in some ways I think they’re trying to take these black and white illustrations and turn them into Alex Ross. They can almost do that. They can really saturate it with so much color.
I remember there was a job I inked over Starlin a few years back for Marvel. He did an issue of Captain Marvel…why not? And this was when I think Peter David was writing it and Jim drew it and I inked it and he put in a lot of very nice, fine-lined detail, which I inked faithfully and then when the book came out I remember somebody called up and said, “Al, you really butchered Jim’s stuff.” I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?” They said, “Did you see the issue?” I said, “I haven’t really looked at it.”
I dug it out and looked and sure enough everywhere that I did any rendering in pen, the colorist had decided, “Oh, look. He shaded this with a pen, so I’ll go him one better and shade it with a bunch of gray tones.” So there would be some rendering on Captain Marvel’s ribcage, say; nice crisp, visible lines, and it would be colored almost like an airbrush effect of fairly dark gray. So instead of having these crisp ink lines, it was just a mass of a sort of gray, amorphous shapes.
And the guy who called me up thought I had done a bad job…thank you very much. I said, “I’m going to send you a photo-copy of the inked page, and you tell me what you think,” and when he got it he said, “My God, what did they do to the artwork?” I said, “They COLORED it.” And he said: “Oh, I had no idea.” “Well, maybe before you accuse somebody of doing a bad job, know whereof you speak.” Obviously it was one of those ego things on my part, but I think I complained to the editor and he said, “Hey, Al, that’s the way we color these things these days.” I said, “Okay.” What can I do? To get any more work, just try to go along.
CB: As an inker I’ll bet you felt a certain degree of satisfaction doing your Warren work in black and white.
Milgrom: I enjoyed it. I did very little for Warren. But what I did do was a couple of Carmine Infantino jobs. Of course that was a bit of a treat because again it was one of my all-time favorites from when I was a kid growing up and I tried to mesh, as I always do try, to mesh my inking style to Carmine’s pencil style which was, again, a lot more angular and graphic than you might know when Murphy inked him, for instance.
I had a good time with it. It’s funny, because I did, I believe, three Carmine jobs altogether. There’s actually a fourth job that I started and didn’t finish when Warren went under. So I still have that job, partly inked, which I’m trying to figure out how to sell it and get some use out of it. It features this warthog character that Nick Cuti created called Cronk, I think it was.
CB: I’m not familiar with it.
Milgrom: He was a humanoid warthog with the body of a man but the head of a warthog and it was an ongoing series and one of the three stories I’d previously inked for Warren was one of his. I also did one about some sort of sports story that maybe Bill Dubay had edited. It was a football story and I inked that and used a lot of Zipatone for tone and then I did another one about a black tennis player, probably loosely based on Arthur Ashe, I’m guessing, and I used marker and crayon to get tones on that one and I remember Jim Warren wrote me a note saying that he really liked the first story that I inked, but that he was less impressed with the second one because he just didn’t think the tones were as good as the line work in the Zipatone.
I think I dropped him a line back saying, “I understand that, but I’m a relatively young artist and I’m trying to develop my vocabulary and I wanted to do this to stretch my muscles and trying other ways of getting tone on a story.” I never heard back from him, but he was right, I think the first story was stronger, but I didn’t think the second one was horrible. It helped me learn some stuff, which I think was important, too. But my run was three stories and I have this fourth story and I’m actually trying to see if I can sell it to Dark Horse because they’re doing Creepy and Eerie now I understand.
CB: That’s right.
Milgrom: I contacted an editor up there and said, “Look, here’s this story and Cuti says that Jim Warren said it would be okay to use. The copyright was returned to the creators and therefore if you think it’s a viable story…” It’s an 8-pager and I think I’ve got 3 or 4 pages inked, so I figure I could finish inking it and get paid and divvy up any remaining money for the story, penciling and inking between the entire creative staff, which was Nick Cuti, Carmine, myself and whoever lettered it.
CB: That would be cool.
Milgrom: It would be cool, but I don’t know if Dark Horse is going to go for it. In fact I’ve got to remember to write back to them and see.
CB: It’s worth a shot. I hope something comes of it.
Milgrom: By the way, at some point I went off on a ramble. We were talking about inking Kirby and Ditko and I started talking about doing cover layouts for Kirby, but I always had this thing in my head where I wanted to work in some capacity with all the original guys who I loved at Marvel. When I say that, I mean the original four guys who did most of the very early stuff and that was Kirby, Ditko, Dick Ayers and Don Heck. Those are the four artists and of course Stan.
So doing that stuff with Kirby was one of them. I’ve inked and been inked by Don Heck, so I got him, and I’ve inked and been inked by Steve Ditko. I think Steve only inked a cover of mine, but I’ve inked a number of his things over the years, and Dick Ayers, I had never worked with, either inking him or penciling something for him to ink, but a few years back now, I don’t know how many, five or six or seven, some little independent publisher…I think they were Mecca comics or something like that, though they didn’t seem to have anything to do with Mecca or Islam or anything like that, but they had hired Dick to do some stuff for them. It was very weird.
They were posting stuff on the Internet and they were really sort of trying to create the atmosphere of Marvel of the 60’s, I think, but they got Dick to draw a pinup of one of their characters and they offered me a chance to ink it. It was for a nominal fee, but I did actually finally get to ink Dick Ayers as well. I did also pencil one short story for Fantastic Four Annual or something that Stan wrote, so I actually got to work with all five of the original big five at Marvel.
Actually I should say I did work with Larry Lieber who worked with them back then, too. He didn’t work on any of the major characters, but he was doing Westerns and would fill in on stuff here and there. I’ve inked Larry and I think I maybe drew some Hulk strips for him. Newspaper strips back when they were doing newspaper strips of the Hulk briefly. I think I either laid them out or penciled them and Giacoia inked them. I have a vague recollection. So that’s where I was originally going with that story when I got sidetracked.
CB: That’s quite the accomplishment, especially when you consider how iconic those names are and what they mean in the history of the genre.
Milgrom: I’ve been lucky that way. I’ve worked with many if not all of the guys I really admired when I was growing up as a kid. I’ve inked Carmine, I’ve inked Gil Kane, I’ve been inked by Murphy, of course and I’ve actually inked Joe Kubert on a couple of Sgt. Rock stories, so.
CB: That’s a rarity in and of itself.
Milgrom: And I’ve been inked by Jack Abel and inked Jack Abel and he was a good friend as well. Yeah, but about the only guy I never did any real considerable work with, outside of helping on some Crusty Bunker stuff, I never inked Neal Adams. I don’t think Neal’s ever inked me. He’d probably run screaming from the room if he had to. (Mutual laughter)
I’ve actually been inked by Russ Heath, which is sort of unusual. It was on one Mister Miracle cover that I did. So I’ve had a chance to really work in some capacity with almost all the guys whose work I grew up liking and admiring and that’s kind of a nice thing to have on your resume.
CB: Very much so. I noticed that you had a run there for a while with the Legion and I wondered if that assignment was intimidating at all considering how fussy Legion of Super-Hero fans can be.
Milgrom: I wasn’t intimidated until I got the job and I started getting letters from these guys and they had a lot of ideas and I think they sort of felt like you should listen to their ideas. But that’s not really what an editor does. I mean, look, if they’d sent in an idea and it was good I might have done it, but a lot of times the fans have ideas about what they’d like to see the characters do, but if you do that it’s like the death of the character.
I’ll give you the best example: At Marvel they used to get a lot of letters about Ben Grimm being The Thing. They would write in and say, “Poor Ben Grimm, the Torch can turn back into a regular looking guy and Reed Richards can return to normal after he stretches, but The Thing is a monster…” They wanted to give him the power to be able to become Ben Grimm at will and Stan had actually played around with that. Sometimes he would have him change to Ben Grimm at an inopportune moment or Reed would find him a cure and he’d have to give up the cure like in “This Man, This Monster,” where he’d have to become The Thing to save the world from some situation.
Shooter said this, which was very insightful: “The fact that they want him to be able to turn into Ben Grimm at will doesn’t mean you should do that. Because then the character is no longer empathetic. All that means is that it’s their way of saying, ‘I feel bad for him.’ They empathize with his situation.
If you then give him the cure to the situation, then the empathy’s gone. The Thing is not a tragic, heroic figure if he can turn into a normal human at will.” I thought that was a really brilliant observation and an example of what the fans would like you to do, but if you did it, it would ruin the character. So I kept that in mind with the Legion and I would politely listen to some of their suggestions and then I’d go ahead and do whatever the hell I wanted.
Milgrom: I’d hire guys who were good writers and good artists and go from there. I was only at DC for one year. That was my editorial tenure almost to the day. We had problems with deadlines so I called in a bunch of my buddies and I remember Starlin did an issue or two of the Legion and I got Joe Staton to be inked by Jack Abel, which was kind of interesting and I remember Wiacek inked some and Howard Chaykin did an issue for me.
So I got a bunch of guys who had never been associated with the Legion to do Legion stories for me and it kind of got things back on track. Jim Sherman did several issues of the Legion and he was a really good artist and I remember some fan writing in and saying, “You can’t fool me. This guy is really using a pseudonym and it’s so and so.”
Which was totally wrong, Jim was an actual human being. But Sherman drew really cute girls and he shared space up at the studio where Walter and Chaykin and Starlin and Frank Miller all worked at one time. He did not have a long career in comics. He used to do a lot of commercial work in storyboarding and comps and things like that for advertising. He did some female American Indian character in a yellow costume.
Milgrom: Yeah, Dawnstar, thanks. This guy drew her really cute and sexy and I think I got him inked by Bob McLeod, and maybe Joe Rubinstein and it was nice stuff. Beautiful stuff. And the lucky bastard actually got to draw The Fly for Archie when they did that short revival under the Red Circle banner back in the early 80’s. Of course I was exclusive to Marvel at the time and couldn’t have done The Fly even if they’d wanted me to.
CB: I always think of Mike Grell with DC at that time.
Milgrom: Mike is one of the few artists I didn’t work with. I used to bug Marvel when I was working on staff for them to try and hire him. I said, “Look, this guy is popular, why don’t we hire him away from DC?” They said, “Well, maybe as an inker.” They were very snobby about his penciling. I thought, “Hey, the guy is popular and he’s developing.”
He was very obviously a Neal Adams influenced guy in the early years, but I liked Mike and it turned out he was maybe even a better writer than he was an artist and I thought he would have been an asset. I also tried to hire Jim Aparo to come work at Marvel.
Milgrom: I thought with his Batman stuff and his urban drawing chops he’d be a good artist for Spider-Man. He said, “No, no, they keep me busy up here. I’m fine.” I offered him a very good rate. I think maybe it was better than the rate he was getting at DC and I think he felt like I must be lying to him. That’s just conjecture, of course. It was one of those things where on the phone I could sort of hear him hesitate when I offered him the rates for penciling and inking. He used to letter his own stuff, too.
CB: He thought it was just too good to be true.
Milgrom: That was my sense because there was this hesitation on the line. I offered what was near our top rate to him and he hesitated and I thought he couldn’t believe the rates could be that high, but at the time Marvel was paying better rates than DC. But he declined, saying DC had been loyal to him all this time. I said, “I understand, but if you ever change your mind…”
I’m sure he was thinking, “Who is this guy?” I don’t think he had any idea who I was or who I worked for or if it was legitimate. I never met Jim and I think that was the only time I ever talked to him. Maybe he thought it was some prank call and I was recording him to play it back to DC. I don’t know what he thought. I also once called Will Eisner to see if he’d do some work for Batman Family.
Milgrom: It was the funniest thing, because Murphy had worked for him on the P.S. Magazine for the armed forces and after the one year I worked for Murphy he actually took over producing that magazine (Eisner had given it up). Murph put in a bid to the military and got that gig. He said, “Hey, why don’t you come work for me?” I said, “I’ve got to do comics,” and he said, “Okay, I understand.”
Anyway, he gave me Will’s phone number and I called him up and said, “Hi, Mr. Eisner, my name is Allen Milgrom and I got your number from Murphy Anderson. I worked as his assistant and now I’m an editor at DC comics and there’s a book that I edit called Batman Family and I would love to have you do a cover for it if you’re willing.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no. I can’t.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, I never draw Batman.” I said, “Well, yeah, that’s sort of the point.”
Everybody loves your Spirit stuff and you’re a great artist and we’d love to have you do it and it would be a real coup for us and we’d pay you the top rate.” He said, “Oh, I just don’t think I’d do the character justice.” I said: “No, no, you would, but I understand you don’t really want to do it.” “Well, maybe another time.”
As I hung up the phone, Mike Gold, who was an editor at the time also at DC, comes lurching into my office and he said, “Did I just hear that correctly?” I said, “What’s that?” “Did you just call up Will Eisner and ask him to do a Batman cover?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “You’re my god.”
I said, “But he turned me down.” “But you called Will Eisner!” “Well, what was the worst that was going to happen? He’d either say yes or he’d say no. It’s not like lightning was going to strike me dead.” Having the temerity to ask him, he said, “I don’t care. It takes balls to call up Will Eisner!” “I don’t see why, but okay, thanks.” (Chuckle) I got a lot of mileage out of that story over the years.
CB: (Laughter) I bet you have.
Milgrom: I never got so much cachet as when I was turned down by an artist to do a cover for me. I also tried to get Steranko to do some stuff for me and he was funny, too. “I want the top rate. I mean the top rate. The Neal Adams rate!” “Yeah, I hear you.” Then we never were able to reach an agreement on that, either. Not getting Steranko is not as impressive as getting turned down by Will Eisner, I guess.
Note: As we were wrapping up, we got to talking a little about Bernie Wrightson and Al shared this terrific remembrance of his friend:
Milgrom: I didn’t even tell you about the apartment building in Queens that we all lived at. At one point I was living there with Simonson and Chaykin and Wrightson were living in the same building and at some point I think Bernie moved out, Kupperberg moved in, Kupperberg moved out and Roger Stern moved in. Not in the same apartment. There were two or three apartments in the same building that were occupied by comic folks.
While Bernie was living there we were very friendly. He’s a really sweet guy and a super, super talent. Unbelievable. I felt like I was relatively adept at using a brush, but I’ve never seen anybody who can do with a brush what Bernie can. Pen, too. That’s drawing ability, but his use of brush…in fact; I’ve got a bunch of his artwork. I bought some stuff from him and also one day, (chuckle) he called Walt and me and we had our apartment upstairs and Bernie had his a couple of floors down and he says, “Look, you guys, I’m throwing out a bunch of art work that I don’t need any more and don’t want any more and do you want to come down and see if you want any of it?”
We said, “Sure,” and we went down and basically he was throwing out stuff that were roughs and there were some finished pieces that he didn’t have any use for and partly finished pieces and so on and so forth, but just such gorgeous stuff and so of course Walt and I traded off.
He would take a piece and I would take a piece and then anything left over that nobody was interested in I said, “Look, if you’re going to throw them out, I’ll take them.” So I’ve got all kinds of fascinating little Bernie Wrightson sketches and finished drawings and half-finished drawings and a couple of pinup pieces that he did that I bought from him and also one entire story he did for Warren which was one of my favorites.
I think maybe that one was written by Bill Dubay and it was like a riff on Little Nemo in Slumberland. These goblins or demons would come and push this kid’s bed like almost out the window. It was like Little Nemo waking up at the last minute and being on the floor outside his bed, but in this case it turned out he wasn’t imagining it. It was a really cool story.
CB: Talk about a treasure trove. Holy cats.
Milgrom: Like I say, if the work doesn’t pick up I may end up having to sell all this stuff, but what are you gonna do?
CB: Can I have first refusal? (Laughter)