My very first interview was with a letterer, so they hold a special place for me. One of the more interesting interviews I enjoyed was with John Workman, who is not only a splendid letterer and all-around nice guy, but an artist in his own right who’s done lots of interesting things over the years, as you’ll soon learn.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It looks like you’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve found listings for you as an editor, writer, artist, designer, colorist and of course letterer. You’ve probably done more lettering than anything else. Is that how you’d label yourself primarily?
John Workman: No, not at all. I settled into lettering because it was easy to do. I almost feel ashamed that I haven’t done more writing and artwork. When I was still out in Washington State years ago and had been doing comics material for several years, I got some good advice from Basil Wolverton. This was when I was going to school in Vancouver at Clark College. He told me to learn to do everything.
My worst stuff at the time was my lettering. It just really stunk, and I took calligraphy courses and that didn’t really help an awful lot, so finally I just sort of started stealing. I would look at what Ben Oda and John Costanza and Gaspar Saladino and other guys had done and try to emulate them. I remember taking a 1946 issue of Comic Cavalcade and going through it and just copying the letterforms. There’s one thing that I’ve always loved to do that I felt helped the look of the page and the individual panels and that was breaking the border of the panel with the word balloon. There’s no actual border there. The border line comes along and then it sort of becomes the word balloon. I stole that from Al Williamson and Carmine Infantino and different people who were doing that sort of stuff.
CB: That is a unique touch, and speaking of Carmine, that reminds me of his little “helping hands” gimmick that he used to do on some of his caption boxes. I think he told me he actually did that portion, because I was uncertain where the artist left off and the letterer took over.
Workman: I remember him doing that. It was always sort of a visual extra that helped move the narration along. Carmine was great. He had a wonderful sense of design. I used to like when he inked his own pencils. I liked Murphy Anderson inking him too, but Carmine when he did his own stuff on the Elongated Man or some of the science fiction things that he did or Detective Chimp … it was just wonderful.
CB: It sounded to me like he enjoyed doing that, but Julie, for whatever reason, didn’t typically allow it. Probably for purposes of increased production.
Workman: It surprised me back in ’64 when the early Elongated Man stories in Detective featured him penciling and inking those. I was real happy with it. There was a story that Julie commented on, called “Yes, Virginia, there is a Martian.” It was in Strange Adventures. Carmine did both pencils and inks on it. I seem to remember a later letter column wherein Julie said something about how he had allowed Carmine to do the whole art job. I loved the combination of Carmine and Murphy and I liked Joe Giella and even Sid Greene on Carmine, but Murphy I thought was the best inker for Carmine.
CB: I fully agree. You can’t beat those old “Adam Strange” stories, for example, although interestingly enough when I asked Carmine who his preferred inker was he said Frank Giacoia.
Workman: Yeah, I’ve got several old things from the ’50s that Giacoia had inked over Carmine and there was a Western comic I have that Carmine and Joe Kubert collaborated on and, of course, Joe Kubert also inked the first Showcase Flash stuff that Carmine did.
CB: He sure did.
Workman: I wanted to specialize in inking at one time and, I’ve inked various people. One of my favorite inkers for John Buscema was Alfredo Alcala. He did this beautiful stuff on some of the early issues of Savage Sword of Conan and he added so much to the look of it. It was as if Joseph Clement Cole had returned to life and suddenly started drawing comics. But he didn’t take away from the dynamism of Buscema’s artwork. It was just gorgeous, and I found out later on that Buscema hated it. He thought it was way too busy, and he preferred the inks that Ernie Chan did a little later on.
CB: Isn’t that funny? He didn’t come right out and say so, but Carmine left the impression with me that Murphy was not his favorite inker.
Workman: It’s amazing. Sometimes the artist is terrible as far as commenting on his own stuff and how things progress in comics from the penciling to the inking. One thing I’ve noticed about my own stuff is I’m rarely happy, whether it’s lettering or artwork or anything that I’ve done. Then time will pass and I’ll look at this stuff and it’s almost as if someone else had done it. I can look at it more objectively and think, “Well, that’s pretty good,” or “Boy, that stinks.”
CB: (Chuckle.) We do tend to be our own worst critic and to a very, very minor extent I think I know what you’re talking about. I obviously try to dabble as an amateur writer and I’ve looked at some of my older stuff sometimes and thought, “Gosh, did I write that? That ain’t half bad.” (Laughter.) As I look back a little bit it looks as if you got started in advertising work, is that right?
Workman: Yes, when I was still living out in Aberdeen, Washington. I lived there from 1958 until 1975 when Bob Smith and I came back here to New York. I guess I was 17 when I first did some outside-of-the-area fanzine work. There was a fanzine out of California called Voice of Comicdom and a lot of interesting people were popping up in it. Bill DuBay, Rudy Franke, and … I think, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, and all kinds of other guys, and they would do interviews with Al Williamson and other big-time pros, and it was amazing for me to be doing these things with those guys when I was 17. I look back on it now and the stuff I did was pretty lousy, but they were nice enough to print it anyway.
On a local level, I also started doing advertising work. I went around to various printers in the area and the first thing they told me was, “Well, we’ve got these clip art books that we use.” I would say, “Well, yeah, but in those books is there a drawing of this local restaurant here or the guy who runs the restaurant or anything like that?” I always tried to personalize it, and so I did okay. I wasn’t making a fortune, but I was making something of a living doing artwork on a local level and learning all the time. But I kept trying to get into regular comics. In 1965 I remember my Dad helping me and giving advice and even wrapping up the package when I sent a two-page “Blue Beetle” story to Charlton Comics. Then I began to collect a series of rejection slips from the various companies, but I got good comments from people such as Richard Hughes at ACG who was very nice. And when Carmine became editorial director at DC, I sent him a 28-page story about a group of characters that I’d created called “The Futurians.” I actually sent the original artwork to him. (Chuckle.) It was terrible, wretched stuff, of course, but he sent it back to me and said to keep at it. Over the years Joe Kubert and various other people were very encouraging. Paul Levitz was very kind to me. Their comments kept me going.
CB: I think that’s one of the things lacking on the modern scene. It seems like there were opportunities in the ’60s that are just long since gone like the weekly tours of the DC offices and the lettercol people writing in and getting a foothold in the industry just by virtue of getting acquainted with the editors.
Workman: I almost hesitate to compare the time periods because there are good and bad in every time period, but here’s a story that sort of illustrates what you said. When I was working at Heavy Metal I would sometimes pop into the DC offices just to say hello or sometimes just to use the bathroom. I’d be walking up 5th Avenue and realize, “Oh, geez, I’ve got to go.” There was DC, so I’d go over there to use their bathroom. You can’t even get into DC now. You have to call up and arrange a meeting and somebody has to come down to the lobby to escort you up to the offices. It’s so very different than it used to be.
CB: I seem to be getting to that stage in life when I wax nostalgic for the good old days and maybe they were or weren’t, but when I’ve talked to people like Len Wein or Mike Friedrich for example and heard about their starts it just doesn’t seem like that can ever happen again.
Workman: Yeah, it’s sad. The way Bob Smith and I got started in our jobs at DC was kind of a comedy of errors that could never be repeated.
We talked to Neal Adams and Dick Giordano when they were running Continuity Associates and our champion was Mike Friedrich. I can’t say enough good stuff about Mike. In many ways we owe our careers to Mike. He liked what I was doing and published stuff by me and by Bob Smith in Star*Reach and he put us in contact with Dick, and Dick said, “Well, why don’t you guys come back here. We’ve got work for you.” So in the summer of ’75 we drove across the country to New York. I remember that Monday after we got in to town, we met Mike and Neal and Dick and Larry Hama and the whole crew there at Continuity. We went to lunch with them, and then Larry took us to Marvel where we met Archie Goodwin and Marie Severin, two of the most wonderful people ever. At first, they didn’t really have any work for us, but we hung around and talked to them for awhile and we managed to get some work from Marvel.
Then Larry took us on down to DC and we talked to Sol Harrison and Joe Orlando and neither of them really had anything to offer us, but I made an appointment to come back and see Gerry Conway who was editing Plastic Man at the time. I’d started writing a Plastic Man story, and Bob had started drawing the story, and we thought we’d show it to him and see what might happen. So we came back on the day of the appointment and the receptionist told us that Gerry was in with a writer and asked if we could wait awhile, and we said, “Okay.” We were sitting there, and Bob Rozakis came around, and he and Jack Harris had also seen our stuff the week before when we’d come in, and they liked our work and thought we might have possibilities. Bob said, “Oh, you guys are back again. Who are you here to see?” I have a tendency to mumble sometimes, so I said, “Uh, Conway.” Bob said, “Oh, he’s not doing anything. Come on.” So we followed him down the hallway right past Gerry Conway, who was in with a writer as the receptionist had said, and I wondered what was going on and I looked down to where Bob was leading us. There was an office door that read, “Carmine Infantino, Publisher.” Then it dawned on me … when I said, “Conway,” Bob thought I’d said, “Carmine.” And I stopped in the middle of the hall and Bob said, “Aw, he’s not doing anything, come on in.”
So we went on in and were introduced to Carmine and we sat down and started showing him our stuff. Carmine had been one of my heroes since I saw the first “Adam Strange” stuff by him. I just felt that he was THE artist for me in many ways, and here I was sitting across from one of my heroes and he was looking over our artwork. At first, I thought he was just going to dismiss us and send us on our way, but he started looking closer at our artwork, and he told us that we reminded him of he and Frank Giacoia when they used to go around in the ’40s from place to place trying to find work. I don’t know exactly what happened. Looking back on our stuff at the time I can’t imagine he’d been that impressed, but suddenly he started calling Sol Harrison and Jack Adler and Joe into look at our stuff, and he hired us on the spot. Bob as an inker and me for the production department. It was just incredible, but it couldn’t happen now.
CB: Not at all, and what a great story. Talk about being in a surreal position. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like.
Workman: It was strange. We knew, of course, that he was there, but we never expected to just go in and see Carmine.
CB: I had a slightly similar experience when I first worked up the nerve to call him on the phone. “This is CARMINE INFANTINO and he’s answering the phone!” (Laughter.) Still a wonderful gentleman, too, if you’ve not talked to him recently.
Workman: I talked to him last year in New York. I hadn’t talked to him in awhile before that and it’s always great talking to Carmine.
CB: The best. So you got started in the production department and I presume someone must have been mentoring you along. Who did you work most closely with?
Workman: Jack Adler for the most part. Although the guy who had the most effect on the lettering I was doing was Sol Harrison. My regular lettering…I never thought it was all that great. I really learned a lot later on from Moebius when I was at Heavy Metal. Not really trying to emulate him, but trying to get a feel of the lettering that he was doing. But Sol showed me something about display lettering. He had gone to a school called Franklin K. Lane High School. I think both he and Jack had gone there, and he said one of the projects that they had to do … and this was back in the 30’s … was to do a logo of Franklin K. Lane and he showed me how if you do the thing mechanically the space between the “L” and the “A” is enormous as opposed to the space between the “A” and the “N” or the “N” and the “E,” and he told me, “Stop being so mechanical and mathematical about things. Just eyeball it. If it looks right, it is right.” And it was incredible. It really opened up a lot for me.
CB: It sounds like it would be quite an epiphany and sometimes the obvious is so easily missed. It kind of caught me off guard when you said Sol, because I don’t think of him in any sort of context with regard to lettering.
Workman: Well both Sol and Jack and everybody I met through the years who really…sometimes they may seem like “the men in the background,” but they had the ability to do all this other stuff. Sol had actually inked and so had Jack on DC stuff. Jack had worked over Murphy Anderson and Gil Kane on some covers. He’d done them in wash tones.
CB: Yeah, I think Jack actually developed that process.
Workman: It was something that originated when he and Sol were working on the coloring of Prince Valiant in the ’40s. They tried to get painterly effects by using all kinds of different things. Pencil effects, air brush, and so forth, but yeah, Jack did all that and Sol did, too. Sol was a decent water colorist and he did a lot of coloring. Jack, of course, was a masterful colorist. There were times up there at DC when if you were really under the gun and something had to be off to the printers by the end of the day…well, I remember one issue of Warlord where Vinnie Colletta and Joe Orlando and Bob Smith were inking away and Paul Levitz was filling in blacks and (chuckle) anyone who could lend a hand on it was getting stuff done. But the ones that I admired, as I said, were the people who had a working knowledge of everything. Again, going back to what Basil Wolverton had told me to do.
CB: That would give you a broad enough perspective to be able to function and do those critical things that fly under the radar. Did you work much with Julie Schwartz?
Workman: A little bit. I remember the first time I actually saw Julie. He was another one of my heroes, someone I really had a lot of respect for. He printed several letters of mine over a period of years. I remember one in Green Lantern and Batman and various other titles, and when he first saw me up at DC he made a little pun of my name … Workman … something similar to what he’d done in this one Green Lantern letter column. I really liked Julie. And I really admired him.
Years later, at the memorial service for Jerry Siegel, I got up and sort of nervously gave a speech there where I gently castigated DC for moving away from where I thought Superman ought to be, and almost treating it in sort of a fanzine way rather than aiming it at a mass audience. When I got down off the podium, Julie walked up to me and shook my hand and said, “How did you ever find the guts to say that?” It surprised me. I never got to know Julie as well as I would have liked, but whenever I saw him we always had a little talk.
A funny thing happened one time. Nelson Bridwell, who was a wonderful person, was Julie’s assistant when Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart and Terry Austin were doing Batman in Detective and Nelson came into the Production Department with one of the recent Detective pages, and he said, “You see this cape on Robin? He’s just been in a fight, and the cape is torn. The cape really should be torn off, so I want you to white it out and draw in Robin’s costume there.” And I thought, “Oh, man, that’s a beautiful panel. Why would we want to get rid of that cape? It’s so nicely done.” And Nelson and I weren’t really arguing, but we were sort of bantering back and forth when Julie came in and he said, “What are you guys up to?” And we explained what was going on. Julie looked at the panel and he said, ‘Nelson, that cape is hanging by a single thread. See it? It’s right there.” And Nelson said, “Oh. Okay.” So I didn’t have to take the cape off. I left it as Marshall had drawn it. (chuckle) It was Julie’s way of solving a problem.
CB: (Laughter.) Masterful. I imagine Nelson enjoyed much more being Julie’s assistant. Jim Shooter was telling me some horror stories about witnessing the abuse Nelson endured at the hands of Mort Weisinger.
Workman: I was kind of lucky. I met Weisinger only once, just to say “Hi.” He popped into the office one day and that was it. He was another guy that I actually admired, although I’ve heard so many terrible stories about him. But I liked what he did with Superman in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
CB: You can’t argue with his track record, just his methods, although I’ve heard people make mention that at that point in time to be an effective editor you had to rule with an iron fist and make those deadlines or they weren’t going to happen. But I wasn’t there.
Workman: It’s the same with me. I can only go by what people have told me. I was at a convention one time and I was talking to Kurt Schaffenberger and Murphy Anderson. Somehow they got onto the subject of Mort Weisinger. Now, Kurt, was one of the nicest people I ever met, and he couldn’t stand Weisinger. But Murphy couldn’t bring himself to say anything bad against him. He felt that anybody who was as big a fan of science fiction as Weisinger was couldn’t be all bad. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: Did you work very closely with Joe Orlando?
Workman: Quite a bit. I worked closer with Joe than I did with anybody else at DC.
I really liked Joe. He was a wonderful person. Joe worked all the time. He freelanced constantly, and when Bob and I first showed him our stuff, he appeared to be half asleep. He really was at the time he was looking at our artwork, but I got to know him pretty well. He and John Albano made some sort of a deal with a publisher from South Africa and they were, on the side, producing comics aimed primarily at a black audience there.
One of them was sort of a Tarzan character called Tiger Ingwe, set in the 1700s or 1800s. The other one was a modern-day superhero character. Maybe three or four times a month, I would meet Joe up at his mother-in-law’s place, along with John after a full day of working on-staff at DC, and we would put together these books. John and Joe wrote the stories and there were at least a couple of them where I did the layouts, and then they were sent to the Philippines where a lot of the artists who were also working for DC would do the art. Then they would send the finished pages back and Joe and I would do the art corrections on them and any lettering corrections that had to be done before they were sent off to the publisher in South Africa.
I remember one time when John got a little bit miffed at me and Joe because we got to talking about the old EC days, and John was trying to re-write a line of dialogue and make it better than it was. But every time he would toss out a line of dialogue to us, we’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, that doesn’t really work.” Then we’d go back to talking about Bill Gaines and EC and all that. Finally John got so miffed with us that he uttered this expletive-not-deleted line of dialogue and it just cracked all of us up, and Joe laughed and laughed, and we actually got worried about him because he was turning red and laughing and he had heart problems and we thought, “Great Scott, he’s going to have a heart attack right here!” He finally calmed down, but the whole thing really caught him off guard, John coming out with this totally unusable line of dialogue. But it was really funny.
Joe also worked, on the side, for National Lampoon during its early years. Jack Adler did, too and a lot of other DC people were involved with Lampoon. With Joe, there was one thing that was kind of sad. I think he was making…this would have been in the late ’60s or early ’70’s … he was making something like $16,000 or $18,000 on staff at DC as an editor, and then he made more money, of course, as a freelancer. But the Lampoon guys liked what he was doing so much that they offered him a share in the company if he would stay there. But because he had that definite money coming in from DC, he turned them down. Five years later what would have been Joe’s share was worth a million dollars, and he’d turned them down on it.
Workman: I’d once done this thing that really impressed Joe. It was an attempt to fill in on a strip that Jeff Jones had been doing for the Lampoon. He and Matty Simmons had had an argument. Matty was the head of Lampoon, so this strip that Jeff was doing for Lampoon, this one-pager, wasn’t in there anymore. I thought, “Well, they need something to replace that with.” So I created this little character and did a page as a sample, and I showed it to Joe and he loved it, and he immediately gave me an 8-page story to ink that was drawn by Romeo Tanghal. It ultimately appeared in Unexpected. I enjoyed inking it, and I still had some thought at that time of being an inker. I had inked two weeks’ worth of dailies and a couple of Sunday strips that were for a proposed syndicated comic strip that Bob Kane was doing, so I lettered and inked that. And there was a book published by The Culver Company. I don’t know if you remember those. There were given out in schools. Books on banking and electricity…
CB: Yeah, I think I do. In fact I was wracking my brain recently trying to remember one from when I was a kid about the specter of inflation and supply and demand and I thought, “I wonder where those came from?”
Workman: A fellow named Mac Culver and his son Brennan did them. Mac was the one that started the company way back when. They used Chic Stone and Kurt Shaffenberger, and I inked one of those books that Kurt had drawn and it was great fun. Kurt was the first guy whose original artwork I’d seen. Back in 1962, my friend Jack Adams had written to Weisinger, asking for a drawing of Lois Lane. He really liked Lois, and I did, too and to his surprise they sent him a whole page of artwork from an upcoming issue and it was drawn and inked by Kurt. But here I was inking Kurt and it was easy, because Kurt had put in everything. All I had to do was actually ink it and try to give it something of a feeling of Kurt’s own inks.
CB: Real tight pencil work, then.
Workman: Yeah. One strange thing, though. There was one panel with a figure with no hand, so I tried to be Kurt and draw in that missing hand. Those things happen. I remember a story about Neal bragging to Julie Schwartz that everything he ever drew was artistically correct and anatomically right and all, and the timing must have been wonderful. According to the story I heard, Julie said, “Oh, what about this?” And he showed Neal this page that he had just turned in where Neal had six fingers on a guy’s hand.
Workman: So … things like that do happen.
CB: Oh, yeah. When you’re battling a deadline it’s amazing to me that anything comes out coherent at all. When you were doing lettering, I’m still trying to figure out the exact process or sequence of events. At what point is the lettering done on a page?
Workman: After the penciling.
This is another thing that’s changed quite a bit. Traditionally the story was written as a script, almost in play form. The only company that does things a little different is Archie. Those stories are actually drawn. Even though the writer maybe cannot draw, they’ll use stick figures and they’re actually drawn out on 8½x11 bond paper, and they’re handed over to the artist who translates the sketches to the actual final artwork. It’s a method that Harvey Kurtzman used a lot, and so did Archie Goodwin. I always did my stuff that way, too, just in figuring out the story that I wanted to tell. I would draw it up in these little sketchy sort of things on typing paper first and then I knew where everything had to go. It’s a great way of working.
But for most comics it’s usually a full script … except for those done in the “Marvel method” where there is a short precis rather than a formal script …and then it’s handed over to the penciler who goes through the script and translates it into a series of pictures. The script might say, “Panel 1: Superman is flying over Metropolis,” and you draw Superman flying over Metropolis and because the dialogue and the narration are in the script, the penciler…and this is going back a little ways… had the ability to incorporate that lettering into the overall design of the panel and the page, whether it meant actually roughly lettering the stuff in or putting in a box or a circle indicating that a balloon goes there.
They had some measure of control over how the final page would look. I was always happy about this. It meant that the guy had allowed space for the lettering, and if he’d maybe bungled a little bit on the positioning of the ballooning … maybe it would be better to move it over a little bit, that type of thing … at least there was something there to kind of go by. Nowadays, if there’s any spotting of balloons at all, it’s usually handled by an assistant editor. A lot of the balloon positioning is not very well done. I’ve seen them put stuff right over an important character or over the hands of the character or something like that when there’s a perfectly big blank space that the lettering could go into.
CB: I wonder if this gives credibility to make editors out of artists due to the visual aesthetic and understanding of the whole medium.
Workman: I always thought that way, too. I thought that DC really had something going when Dick Giordano and all these people who really understood art were given editorial positions.. People like Mike Sekowsky, who also became an editor and Joe, too, obviously. And this takes us into something that is kind of a sad thing. When Bob and I got our jobs at DC in 1975 we were in our twenties, and here are all these guys mostly twice our age who’d lived most of their lives in the New York area, but I don’t really think they understood the rest of the country. And there were changes taking place that were really affecting comics and comic sales throughout the rest of the country. A lot of little Mom and Pop stores that were the backbone of the comics and magazine distribution were disappearing.
It wasn’t quite as bad as it became later where Wal-Mart came in and 40 little businesses went out, but you could see the writing on the wall and I don’t think they’d really comprehended this. They were doing things sometimes…well, Batman was still relatively big. The sales had dropped on Batman and every other comic after the TV show had run it’s course in 1968, but if an editor wanted to jazz up sales a little bit, they’d toss Batman into a comic. But that wasn’t working as well as it had. and they really didn’t understand what was going on in the rest of the country.
CB: That would certainly handicap things.
Workman: Not only that, they were moving toward what became the direct market. I remember Phil Seuling coming up to DC, and Phil was a wonderful guy. I really miss him. He understood what a good secondary market the comic shops could be, and it’s become the direct market now, which is really the only market in many ways. I am happy that they’re getting graphic novels out to bookstores and all that, but the regular monthly comics are still pretty much only found in comic shops, and they used to be everywhere. They realized that the newsstand market, where you went into a drugstore and there would be a spinner rack of comics and a whole bunch of magazines and all and that was going through a lot of changes with stores beginning to disappear. I’m sure that there are still 100,000 outlets for magazines around the country. Down by quite a bit, but still way up and beyond the direct market.
But they decided to turn inward to the fans and sort of forget about everyone else. I remember out in Aberdeen where I grew up, I’ll bet you could find fifty outlets for comics within easy walking distance at the time. Now, or at least the last time I was out there, they were all gone. If you want comics you have to do some real traveling in order to get to where you might find a comic shop.
CB: Yeah. It certainly requires a determined effort now. As you mentioned, there used to be opportunities for an impulse buy, but that’s certainly no longer the case. I know I certainly patronized a lot of spinner racks. Speaking of such, I saw one on eBay awhile back and it was going for quite a tidy sum. It’s become that much of a fondly remembered relic. (Chuckle)
Workman: I remember when Jack talked some guy in some drugstore into giving him one of those little plastic things that they had attached to the spinner rack that said DC Comics on it. He got one for him and one for me and I ran across mine just the other day.
CB: It’s probably got a lot higher value than it did when it was handed to you. (Mutual laughter.) I was digging through my collection and you mentioned Kurt Shaffenberger earlier and I don’t know whether to mention him or C.C. Beck, but you did a pretty nice homage to one or both of them with that back cover Captain Marvel thing you did on the back of The Amazing World of DC Comics #17.
Workman: I’d forgotten about that. I was real happy with that. Captain Marvel is my favorite superhero character. I’ve got about a third of the Captain Marvel issues and a batch of Whiz Comics and Marvel Family and all, but I always loved the post-war Captain Marvel stuff. Same with the Spirit. I thought that was the best time period for the character too. When Eisner got back from World War III and you saw what he’d learned really being put into the strip and the same with the Captain Marvel stuff around 1946, 1947 and 1948 it was just incredibly good. I wanted to do something along that line. I knew at the time, too, that they were changing Captain Marvel, trying to do something a little more realistic. I think Alan Weiss was doing the artwork on it, and it just didn’t seem to be Captain Marvel to me. That’s why I wanted to do a sort of last hurrah there with what I thought of as the actual Captain Marvel.
CB: It turned out beautifully and if you hadn’t actually signed the thing I would have suspected that it was something C.C. Beck had done. It was very, very true to the character.
Workman: Well, the original to that is in the living room in the house here. I’ve got a few originals hanging around. There’s a Frank Thorne one that I wrote and he drew for Playboy and a few others. Somebody saw the Captain Marvel at a party we had a couple of years ago, and they thought it was a Beck original.
CB: What higher compliment could there be?
Workman: (Chuckle.) It made me feel good. I think Bob Smith told me about this. I can’t remember who was looking at it, but he said, “No, look down in the corner there.” The guy saw my little signature and that was that.
CB: Was it specifically meant to be the back cover here or was that just luck of the draw?
Workman: I can’t remember who was overseeing Amazing World of DC then, but he asked if I wanted to do a Captain Marvel back cover, and I said, “Sure.” At first I thought about just doing a drawing, but I’ve never been very good at that. I always liked multiple images. They’re really much easier for me to do than one single image, so I decided to do a little story rather than just a picture of Captain Marvel jumping or something.
CB: Yeah, just a straight pin up or something. It seemed like back in the day that was sort of an artists’ trick, if you will to do maybe a full size image to maximize the page rate for the day or something. I notice you’ve been a frequent collaborator with Walt Simonson. Was that by luck or design?
Workman: I was still out in Washington when Walt was doing “Manhunter” with Archie Goodwin, and I thought that was just fantastic. It had a dynamic quality to it and the artwork was very personal and of course no one else draws quite the way that Walt does.
When I came back here and started working at DC, he was one of the first guys I met, and I think I did the production work…I don’t believe I lettered it… but there was a Metal Men that he had done and I thought, “Oh, wow! This is just fantastic!” I still have it. Gerry Conway, I think, had written it and there was an appearance in there of Tina (Platinum) several pages in, and there she is sitting and looking really cute, and she said something that the Comics Code Authority would not allow. I can’t remember the exact line, but I Xeroxed that panel before re-lettering it. (Laughter.) It was something that would make the Authority a little happier.
And I loved the way that Walt did Doc Magnus’s suit. The coat of his suit had a lot of cross-hatching. It was not in perspective at all. But it worked. It was an unrealistic way of drawing, but it gave it a sense of design that really worked beautifully. I lettered Walt on a “Captain Fear” story in a backup in one of the war books. I can’t even remember which book it was in. That was about the time I went over to Heavy Metal. For that one, Walt did the balloons himself. He’s a really good letterer. He lettered different things back then, including a Howard Chaykin “Iron Wolf.” I’d forgotten about this “Captain Fear” thing, and somebody from DC called up and said, “You haven’t billed us for this yet.” So I billed them, and the time had passed since I’d lettered it, and they’d raised the rate by a dollar. So I made a dollar more per page by waiting a year or so. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: Not bad.
Workman: Thinking all the time.
Workman: When Carmine was out at DC, he went over to Warren and did a ton of artwork over there, being inked by everybody. Dick Giordano inked him over there, and I think Alex Niño inked one of the Carmine pencil jobs. So did a lot of different people, including Walt, and I was really impressed with what Walt had done over Carmine.
Later, I was given the assignment at Heavy Metal of putting together a team to do a comics version of Alien, the movie. I read the script to Alien and thought, “Oh, wow! This is great! It’s going to go over huge!” My first thought for an artist was Carmine. I thought Carmine penciling and Walt Simonson inking would be perfect. Walt would give it that rough look and everything and Carmine would have that sense of design. Oh, man! I thought I might write it myself, just using the script to go by and I called up Carmine. His phone was busy. So I thought, “Well, while I’m waiting for Carmine to get off the phone, I’ll give Walt a call and see what he thinks about inking Carmine.” So I talked to Walt and he said, “Well, I don’t know if I’d want to ink Carmine for 64 pages. How about if I do both pencils and inks?” We wound up with Walt handling the complete art job, and Walt brought in Archie Goodwin to handle the writing, and I just stood back and let ’em go. They did a fantastic job. Now I’m so proud of that book and of them because it was, as far as I know, the first comic, the first graphic novel, to be on the New York Times bestseller list. It stayed there for seven weeks.
CB: Outstanding. I guess when you bring that kind of talent together, as you say, just get out of the way and let them do what they do.
Workman: Archie brought so many other things to it. I really disliked the Alien movie poster. It made me think of a bunch of eggs sitting around at a supermarket and it really didn’t tell you anything. I wanted to have this big word “Alien” there and I’d already worked up a star field as a background for an ad that I’d done. I showed it to Archie and after thinking for about two seconds, Archie said, “Why don’t we drop some tentacles down from the word “Alien” and have them encircle the ship?” I thought, “That’s wonderful! It tells the story visually, and it works really well.” So Walt went home that night and drew the tentacles dropping down and we put it all together, and some of the people at 20th Century-Fox were unhappy about it because Archie had outdone all their creation-by-committee concepts. His idea told the story better than their poster did.
CB: (Laughter.) Oh, boy. What’s the old saying? No statues have ever been erected to a committee? That’s another great story I’ve heard about Archie. It sounds like he was a brilliant and beloved man.
Workman: He was a wonderful guy. After I was out at Heavy Metal, he called up and I had lunch with him, and he asked me to bring my portfolio along. So I did, and he saw a 3-page story that I was working on. It was something I’d come up with on my own without having any idea who I might sell it to, and he said, “I like this. Do you think you could do it for Epic?” I said, “Sure, why not?” He didn’t give me a deadline, which was a mistake right there (chuckle) and the months passed.
We used to have these summer parties and Cathy, my wife, really enjoyed putting them on. Attending them were lots of comics creators, along with policemen and ministers and all sorts of other ordinary people. She always said, “We should have had people sign their autographs over the years and we should have taken more photographs.” Anyway, Archie and his wife, Ann came out for one of the parties, and Archie had this hangdog look on his face when he came in. I asked what was wrong, and he said, “They just canceled Epic.” I thought, “Oh, Geez, I like Epic. That’s too bad.” But he was thinking of the three-page story because that meant that there was really no place for it. I said, “Oh, that’s okay.” Just the idea that Archie Goodwin would think some of my stuff was worth printing was enough for me. It would have been nice to have had it printed, but still…
CB: A high compliment for certain. I notice that both you and Tom Orzechowski had pretty long runs on the Savage Dragon book. Did you enjoy that assignment?
Workman: Yeah. That was great fun. Erik Larsen, he’s still a fan after all these years, and he and I often talked about Captain Marvel. He loves Captain Marvel, too. I was brought in on Savage Dragon when Tom had other things to do, or something. I worked on it for awhile there, and then it got to the point where I had too much work and something had to give. That’s what gave. But I really enjoyed it, and Eric’s a great guy. We had the most wonderful discussions about comic characters and about the business, and I still see him occasionally. I saw him either last year or the year before in North Carolina at the Heroes Convention. Just a great guy.
CB: When you approach special effects, how do you go about that?
Workman: I used to do it very mechanically and I still do some things like that, but Walt called up one time when we were both working on Thor and he said, “I want you to try something.” I said, “Okay.” Walt said, “Go look at Johnny Hart’s sound effects.” And I did, and they seemed totally inappropriate for most comic books. Walt said, “Try it on a couple of things on Thor.” So I did and I couldn’t believe how it worked. So there I was stealing from Johnny Hart. I’ve been doing it ever since. (Chuckle.)
Sometimes I do the more mechanical, almost over-intellectualized sound effects and other times I go for a Johnny Hart bit. I’ve also done things with markers, where I will just rough in with the marker and kind of translate that to the page. I actually put it on a light table and trace it off and that’s made for some interesting looks to sound effects. Especially if it’s something real organic. It works very well. If it’s a “Ping!”…metal hitting metal, I’ll go a little more mechanical with that sort of thing. If it’s a “Baroom!” sound effect or “Blam!”… something like that, I’ll go with Johnny Hart. There are a million ways to approach all this. None of them is really right and none of them is really wrong, but I do have a lot of fun working on Walt’s stuff.
CB: I suppose that’s one of the beauties of what you do. Maybe no two things are ever quite the same and it gives you a chance to continue to be creative with something that, at least on the surface, would appear to be kind of mundane.
Workman: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of what I call my hybrid lettering where I will letter a book or a story by hand and then I’ll scan it in and place that stuff on scans of the artwork. It works pretty well because you get this freehand look with the lettering, but I’ve been going a little bit nuts over the past year or so. I couldn’t help myself. After scanning in the lettering and enlarging it on the screen, I’d think, “Oh, that “L” is leaning a little bit. I’d better fix it.” I’d be going through it letter by letter on the computer with the letters nine inches high and of course it was ridiculous, and most of it didn’t really matter, but it was eating up a lot of time. Cliff Chiang and a couple of the guys at a website called “Comic Geek Speak”…where they do these wonderful interviews…wondered if it was possible to actually letter directly on the computer. I’d done a few minor things where I’d need a word that I’d left out of the original lettering, so I’d letter it directly into the computer, and everything worked out fine.
So I began to think, “Maybe I should try this lettering on the computer.” Well, I did the directly-on-computer lettering on a story for Titan over in England. I’ve been working for them lately. And it worked out perfectly. It’s hand lettering, but it’s done on the computer, and it looks like hand lettering and it’s much more interesting because of that. It looks better than straight computer-generated lettering. And that allows me to just letter it in the same way I would if I were lettering right on the art boards. I don’t have to worry about second-guessing myself and playing around with all this lettering. And corrections are easy to do. I do it, and it’s done.
Join us next week for part two.