Monday, April 13, 2009

Walter Simonson and How He Became the Man Who Fell Into Comics

“I actually like when comics weren’t highly regarded, because they were more subversive,” Walter Simonson said, leaning back on the living room sofa in his home in the woods of Upstate New York. Wearing a t-shirt with a Walter drawing of a T-Rex and a pair of jeans, his small dog is curled up next to him. “There was a time when they were the first thing a kid could buy with his own money, that their parents had no control of. I like that quality.”

Walter Simonson’s trademark goes beyond his beard and glasses and into his distinct mode of storytelling, a blend of Jack Kirby’s dynamism and blocky design mixed with a cinematic pacing laced with distinctive sound effects. Walter’s influences are on display in the home he shares with his wife, writer Louise: pages of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko artwork, along with the work of classic 20th century American illustrators. His work, which exploded on the scene with the Manhunter series written by legendary writer/editor Archie Goodwin in 1973, revolutionized and continues to make waves today. His current project, The Judas Coin, a graphic novel for DC Comics, still features hand-lettering on the original artboards. Unlike many of his generation of cartoonists, Simonson kind of fell into comics, rather than pursued it vehemently through childhood.

“I was a Geology major with an eye to go into Grad school for Paleontology,” Walter recalled. “At the end of my senior year, right before I graduated, I had one of these long and dark nights of the soul. I was sitting in my dorm room and my roommates were all asleep. It was two or three in the morning. That was in’68 and Vietnam was a major concern for all of us. For any young guy getting out of college, that was it. Not going on to Grad school was a big deal in terms of future planning. In my case, I decided to not go to Grad school, because it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.”

Landing at Rhode Island School of Design as a transfer art student, from 1969 to ’72, Simonson produced a short Thor story for grins, and then went on to create his sci-fi epic, Star Slammers, as the comic book thesis for his degree. After a brief stint working for the summer, Walt found his way to New York City, living it larger than most new transplants.

“One of my friends from my first school was dating a girl whose family lived in the Bronx and owned this corporation. They lived in the Bronx, but not the Bronx you hear about in the news. They lived in Riverdale, and had a sixty-room house on an acre and a half of ground, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and 250 Bonsai trees that needed watering twice a day. They were going on vacation for a month and needed a house sitter. My first place to stay in New York was this place.”

So Walter, went from his temporary mansion in Riverdale, armed with his portfolio, and showed up at DC Comics, looking to break in as a comic book artist. It was a pivotal time for DC, as legendary comic book artist Carmine Infantino had recently grabbed the editor-in-chief position, and brought a fresh approach to the old guard of a company. Carmine’s uprising would affect Simonson more than he knew at the time.

“At that time, DC was starting to do things that were experimental and odd, like The Creeper, Angel and the Ape, and Hawk and Dove,” Simonson noted his then-preference for DC Comics over Marvel. “A lot of it didn’t last very long, but it was still very interesting and kind of cool. When I went to New York that was the first place I looked. Kubert was doing those Tarzan comics, and Kaluta was doing The Shadow and some Burroughs’s comics. It seemed to me, from the outside anyway, that it was where the interesting stuff was happening. If I hadn’t gotten any work there, I would have happily gone to Marvel and kept my trap shut about that I thought about the work.”

Walter laughs his hearty laugh, and continues on in his enthused, rambling way:

“So, I brought my portfolio, of mostly Star Slammers stuff, and went down to the coffee room, when DC had a coffee room. They were in 909 Third Avenue, in the FDR Postal Building. Back then; you could afford to have the floor space to have a coffee room. It had plastic chairs and tables, and vending machines with stale sandwiches, soda pop, and bad coffee. The day I walked in, Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Mike Kaluta, and probably Alan Weiss were all sitting around. We sat down and shot the breeze, and they wanted to know what I was doing. I showed them my work and my portfolio. Jack Adler, who was the second in command in production, was sitting right behind us. Kaluta said ‘Let’s show Jack this.’ I had an actual bound book of my art that I’d put together, and he showed it to Jack. Jack looked it over, and said ‘Let me show this to Carmine.’ Carmine, at that time, was the big guy, so Jack went off with my stuff.

“Five minutes later, Jack came running in and said ‘Carminewantstoseeyouletsgo.’ So, I found myself in Carmine’s office talking about comic books for five to ten minutes. I don’t remember much about the conversation. I do remember he asked if I was influenced by Bernie Krigstein. I may have seen 'Master Race' at that time, and had never seen an EC Comic. Looking at it now, his amazing work is very design-oriented and linear, while my work is also very design-oriented and linear. I now understand what Carmine was talking about.

“Carmine liked my stuff, and called in three of his editors: Archie Goodwin, Joe Orlando, and Julie Schwartz, and made them all give me a job. In those days, comics had back-up stories, so you could learn your craft in the back of stuff and do your damage quietly. As it happened, of those three guys, Joe had a story in the drawer.”

It’s no shock that Infantino warmed up to Simonson’s work: Even though Infantino started drawing like Terry and the Pirates cartoonist Milt Caniff in the ‘40s, he matured into a distinctive cartoonist by the next decade. When the ‘70s came around, he reinvented his style to be more design-oriented, eschewing pretty pictures for bold graphical representations. From the outset, Walter’s art subscribed to a similar theory.

“I’d later worked with Joe Orlando and he was my boss at the School of Visual Arts and died a few years ago,” Walter said later. “The last time I saw Joe, we’d had dinner that night and he told me was that he felt Carmine saw in me what he would have become had he stayed with it, with the science fiction and design. He saw in me, maybe himself, young and starting out. He was very good to me and, at the time, got me a phenomenal starting rate. Carmine did like the work I had a lot.”

The ‘70s was a turning point in comic book culture, with a new generation infusing an energy that hadn’t been present since the ‘40s. This new breed of comic book artist came in influenced by their progenitors of the Golden and Silver Ages, as well as finding their muses in everything from design to fantasy illustration (where many Golden Age artists primarily looked to comic strip influences). They were a close-knit bunch of kids and punks who were bringing new methods and approaches to the comic book, and they all concentrated on New York City.

“In the ‘70’s, especially, you had to live in New York to do comic books,” Walter explained. “There were two major companies, both in New York, and you had to go there to turn your pages in. I know all the guys in my generation, personally. [Neal Adams’ studio] Continuity was the boy’s clubhouse, and you’d be there four to seven times a week. It wasn’t too far from DC and Marvel. You got to see a lot of stuff and talk about comics with other artists. You’d walk there and see Russ Heath drawing Sgt. Rock. I’m sorry, but the web just isn’t a substitute. In an odd way, it was being part of something bigger than yourself, and it was very exciting and energizing.”

Walter, Jim Starlin, Val Mayerik, and Howard Chaykin got together over dinner in late 1978 and decided to rent out a studio space in the Garment District to form Upstart Associates. Finally settling on the line-up of Walter, Chaykin, Frank Miller, and Jim Sherman, Upstart was a cross-section of the most influential cartoonists in the ‘80s, with Walter’s legendary run on Thor, Frank Miller turning heads on Daredevil, and Chaykin’s controversial American Flagg! black and white series.

“When you work in the middle of New York City, it’s hard not to be influenced,” Walter admits. “We were in the Garment District, and Yankee Clipper was right next to us. It was very New York in its atmosphere. I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank got a lot of the water towers for Daredevil from there. We were on the eighth floor, and the rest of the building was set back behind us, and there was a balcony. We were right in the middle of the city, and not the gentrified city. We were in the middle of the raw New York City.

“This was the raw energy of being in the city, and the guys I was with were all doing some interesting work. There was some friendly competition, and the other guys were doing some cool stuff. At one point Frank was doing Daredevil, Howard was doing American Flagg and I was doing Thor, at the same time. They were doing neat stuff, and it was fun to be in that atmosphere.”

By that time, Carmine Infantino had left DC Comics as editor in chief, and Dick Giordano had taken over. With DC’s output seeming less revolutionary, Marvel took the opportunity to answer with their own new editor in chief: comics savant Jim Shooter, who’d started writing Legion of Superheroes for DC Comics at age 15.

“I couldn’t really explain it, but I think that Jim Shooter had something to do with it,” Walter observed of the turning point in comics. “He became editor-in-chief of Marvel in ’77, and there was a while where he was encouraging creativity. He also hired some good editors, including Weezy away from Warren. Denny O’Neil and others were there at editors, and I think it was a confluence of a lot of talent that crystallized at Marvel at that time, and were given their head. It wouldn’t be possible now with crossovers and editorial direction but, at the time, there was a lot of freedom. And they had some guys who were quite good. In my case with Thor, literally, I was hired by Mark Gruenwald, who was the editor at the time. I had written four issues of Battlestar Galactica (which was my first writing), the three-issue Raiders of the Lost Ark adaptation, and I’d also written the Star Slammers graphic novel.

“Mark offered me Thor, and we had talked about it a bit before. I had a Thor story I’d come up with in college, originally. I hadn’t worked out a lot of the details. My idea was to do a story that would begin in an issue of Thor and, in the same month, run through all of the other Marvel Comics (there were only ten other titles then) and each would be a chapter of the story, and a month later the annual would be the conclusion of the story. When the book was coming up and Mark asked if I wanted to do Thor, he gave me carte blanche on it. He gave me a sheet of paper with seven or eight ideas of what to do with Thor. He said ‘I don’t care if you do these or not, but this is just to show you that I’m serious about doing things different.’ It included killing the character and having a new guy become Thor. The book wasn’t selling well. It was a great position to be in because, had it gone down the tubes, I’d still have a lot of room to play. I think that Frank also had a lot of room on Daredevil.”

Walter’s Thor run sparked many controversial changes in the Thunder God by introducing alien Thor Beta Ray Bill and turning Thor into, of all things, a giant frog. He followed Thor up by taking over X-Factor, a comic series starring the original five X-Men, that he co-wrote with wife Louise. It injected a wealth of new ideas and concepts into the X-Men books, including turning the X-Man Angel into the more formidable razor-winged Archangel, and introducing long-standing villain Apocalypse.

Cartoonist Dean Haspiel grew up in the atmosphere of Upstart, as an assistant to Howard Chaykin on American Flagg!. He always thought of Walter as “Mr. Rogers” nice, always warm, friendly, and talkative.

That all changed one fateful day in Upstart.

“Dean loved Little Red Corvette by Prince, and had a 45 of it,” Walter went into story mode. “We had one of those combination turntable, radio, and cassette deck stereos with two speakers. I’d record a whole bunch of cassettes, and we tried to play music we all got along with in the studio. It was 1,000 square feet and we divided it into quarters. I had the smallest quarter because I was the last one in. Howard was to the right, and Jim Sherman was off to the near right. Howard, more than all of us, used assistants, and he would work with Dean and Larry O’Neil at the same time. Howard was good at training assistants and teaching them the same approach. Dean and Larry had their desks up against the wall.

“So, Dean had Little Red Corvette and we’d let him play it…So, somewhere along the way, I could not find an identical 45, but I found a larger 12 inch extended version. One day, we’re working away, and Dean was playing Little Red Corvette. In the middle of it, I get up again, screaming that I couldn’t stand this god damned song anymore, and I bent it up. It wouldn’t break, so I folded it up like a cootie catcher, screaming and yelling at Dean. He and Larry are working at their desks, facing the wall, and trying not to make eye contact. Howard was trying to not laugh. Then, I handed Dean the 12” version, and we all cracked up because we were evil and obnoxious,” Walter laughs at the memory, and images of Simonson hunched angrily over a Prince 45 are instantly conjured up.

Dean Haspiel never looked at Walter as Mr. Rogers again.

Upstart Associates folded by the late ‘80s, with Walter the final remaining member, the one who packed the final drawing table up, swept the floors, and cut off the lights. He and Louise left their home in the West Side in 1987, and moved into their large house in the woods of Upstate New York.

“I’m probably slower with drawing because I don’t have to make as much money to pay the rent in Manhattan,” Walter joked. “Having the studio was great, and it was a lot of fun to come into what the other guys are doing. Now, with the Internet, it’s certainly possible in ways it wasn’t before. For all that, there isn’t quite the immediacy of walking over to Howard’s table, or Frank’s as he’s using a Q-tip to apply Kirby dots to a cover he’s working on. There was an immediacy to it that I liked.

“New York, for me, is also being able to walk four blocks and being in a totally different environment that was very different. That’s something that I really miss, because I like that polyglot feel. You could sit in a sidewalk cafe in the West Side and see millions of people walking along to sketch. It was all there, and in some ways you got stuff by osmosis in ways that you don’t get here.

“I take more time in my work now, so maybe I put more into it from other sources. The studio was part of a larger experience of being in such a major, metropolitan area. It was a different world, and I found that very energizing. Here, I’m in control of my environment in a way that I wasn’t in New York.”

I’m going to break format and leave you with a “Mr. Rogers” story of Walter Simonson proportions: I first met Walter over the phone in the late ‘90s, when I interviewed him for a Jack Kirby fanzine, right when he was about to produce his excellent Orion series for DC. My first time actually meeting him was at a convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. I found out, right as I got there, that my sister had been in a near-fatal car accident. Walter Simonson has that approachable nice guy vibe about him that makes you feel you can tell him anything, and I wound up telling him about my sister. Sure, Walter didn’t know me very well, but the fact that he took that time to be an open ear to a stranger…

Well, that makes him a “Mr. Rogers” in my book, no matter how many Prince 45s he leaves destroyed in his wake.

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