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Friday, November 03, 2006

Blue Devil: Alan Kupperberg Looks Back

History remembers the comic book, and the character, The Blue Devil, in two very different, and distinct ways. Created by writers Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin, aided by artist Paris Cullins, Blue Devil came across as DC’s answer to Daredevil (ironically Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman). The character’s origins were as flimsy as they came: stuntman and special effects artist Daniel Patrick Cassidy found himself hired to create and play the title character in the movie titled ‘Blue Devil’. As part of the job Cassidy created a full-body costume with a hidden powered exoskeleton and built-in special-effects devices, much like Marvel’s Iron Man. However things don’t often go to plan and two of Cassidy’s co-stars accidentally freed a demon named Nebiros. During the resulting battle, Nebiros managed to hit Cassidy with his demonic energy resulting in the costume being permanently grafted to his body. Instead of fleeing to a psychiatrist, Cassidy decided to pledge his life to fighting crime and the odd demon, eventually joining the Justice League.

Eventually the Blue Devil’s character was expanded with the appearance of another demon, this one named Neron. Neron had taken control of Hell and sought out Blue Devil with the opportunity of a life-time. He would allow him to become a champion stunt motorcyclist, whoops, sorry, that’s Ghost Rider, in this story Cassidy was offered the chance to be a movie star, but as any good deal with the devil always has it’s downside, Neron would take the life of one of Cassidy’s chums. Naturally Cassidy altered the deal, but not before he himself died and was reborn as a true Blue Devil. As with any good DC superhero, Blue Devil was aided in his never ending battle against badness and evil by a side-kick, the originally named Kid Devil. That’s one way, and probably the most common, in which people remember The Blue Devil. It was all a bit of a joke, not to be taken seriously and certainly the book and concepts were never going to threaten the more established characters at DC at the time.

In hindsight it’s hard to take the Blue Devil series seriously. It was a goofy premise, and as the series went on it just got goofier. However it’s the storytelling and the art where the real story of the Blue Devil is often overlooked. Paris Cullins drew the characters debut, in Firestorm #24, and continued with the Blue Devil series for the series for the first six issues before leaving for other projects. The book then went through a revolving door of artists, with the likes of Gil Kane and Keith Giffen doing an issue each. Neither Kane nor Giffen could ever be considered lightweight. The title finally settled with the arrival of journeyman and artistic all rounder Alan Kupperberg (he wrote, penciled, inked, lettered and edited). Kupperberg had recently crossed over from Marvel to DC. At Marvel he was known for his work on team books such as The Invaders and The Avengers, along with his work on the Amazing Spider-Man, Thor and, probably his best known work, Obnoxio The Clown. He’d also worked at National Lampoon (his work on Frenchy The Evil Clown is the stuff of legends), Atlas/Seaboard and served a stint as one of the original members of Continuity Studio’s ‘Crusty Bunkers’ art team. His run on Blue Devil would see him working on a book for his longest continuous run, going from issue #12 through to the books eventual end with issue #31. Kupperberg’s often irreverent outlook on life was just what the book needed, and moreso than that, he brought a sense of stability and continuity to the title that hadn’t been seen previously. Although the inkers would change (with varying degrees of success) Kupperberg’s pencils remained for the life of the title.

An often overlooked penciller, Kupperberg was never the superstar that Marvel had often produced during the 1970s. However if the likes of John Byrne, Frank Miller, Walter Simonson, Jim Starlin and Alan Weiss were the top tier, then Kupperberg was a serious contender for the second rung on the ladder. Kupperberg’s strengths included a genuine admiration for old comics books (which served him well on titles such as The Invaders and Thor), an almost manic attention to detail and, more importantly, he was always able to meet his deadlines, no matter what the workload was. With Kupperberg DC were hiring solid reliability over a more flashy artist who might not deliver the goods on time. During Kupperberg’s run not once was an inventory story or fill in required, something that is often unheard of these days.

Alan Kupperberg recently took time to look back on his run on The Blue Devil, nearly twenty years since it finished. Click on the images for a larger view.

DANIEL BEST: You came onto Blue Devil with issue #12. Were you aware of the title before you started?
ALAN KUPPERBERG: Yes, I was aware of it. Because Daredevil was the hottest book that Marvel was putting out back then. And oh, very clever, Marvel’s hot with a red devil, so DC needs a devil too. Just change the color from red to blue.

DB: Before you came onto the book it’d gone through a number of pencilers. Paris Cullins had started it and did it up to issue 6. Gil Kane then did an issue, followed by Keith Giffen, Ernie Colon, Michael Chen and Todd Smith.
AK: Besides Paris, I would never have remembered that any of those people had drawn the book. Except for Gil Kane. I used Gil’s professor characters later on in the series.

DB: You crossed over from Marvel to do Blue Devil. Was it one of the first DC projects you did?
AK: I think so. The editor was Alan Gold. And he’s a helluva nice guy. I think I got the gig there because I sort of got to know Andy Helfer. And I think we felt the same way about the way we’d approach doing some comics, which was nostalgic. I think Andy suggested me to Alan Gold because I hadn’t known Alan Gold before I started doing the book.

DB: Did you have much contact with writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn?
AK: Not particularly. I would see one or the other or both occasionally up at the offices at DC, but I don’t recall seeing them elsewhere.

DB: When you took the book on what sort of reference material did DC give you?
AK: They gave me what was necessary, which, of course, was useful because you can’t come onto a book if you don’t know what you’re drawing.

DB: The Demon appeared in the first issue that you drew.
AK: Oh yeah! I wasn’t very happy with the way my Demon came out. If you look at the first panel on page 17, it was just a big, fat Kirby swipe.

DB: Being a Kirby fan how did you feel about drawing The Demon?
AK: It’s always fun to do some Kirby swipes. But The Demon was never one of my favourite Kirby characters, so it wasn’t that great a thrill. There was too much action going on in a lot of the panels for me to have a great deal of latitude with what I drew. Generally, the more characters you jam in a panel, the farther back you have to pull your camera and as a result your characters get smaller and smaller. I look at it now and I’m not very thrilled by it. It was my first crack at the Demon character and I was still trying to find my footing. To add insult to injury, someone coloured the Demon wrong.

DB: The covers clashed with your interior art.
AK: I don’t even remember what the covers looked liked.

DB: That continued for the bulk of the series. They’d have someone such as Paris Cullins doing the covers and you’d be doing the interior art.
AK: That was okay with me, because I didn’t like doing covers. You’re selling the book and they’re a lot of responsibility. So I tend to freeze up on them.

DB: Yet when you’d produce a cover they’d come out looking very good.
AK: Thank you. The covers that I do now as commissions pay well enough and have deadlines such, that if you have difficulties you can spend the necessary time working them out. The Invaders covers were the first ones I did. And I got $35 for them. So if you’re going to sit and suffer over it, you’re going to lose money. I didn’t want to have to even deal with it.

DB: $35 is pittance to what they sell for now.
AK: Well maybe I was getting $65. But whatever it was, it was no more than what you’d get for an inside page.

DB: There appeared to be a focus with the Blue Devil, at times it seemed to be more about the guest stars because your second issue featured Green Lantern.
AK: Yeah. Though it was the John Stewart Green Lantern, which wasn’t really the Green Lantern to me.

DB: You also had Zantanna in there as well.
AK: She’s not one of my favourite characters either. The splash page on my second issue of Blue Devil looks much better to me. The figures are okay. The character that I drew behind the counter on page four is Alan Gold.

DB: Let’s talk about the inking.
AK: Looking at it now, Gary Martin’s inking isn’t as bad as I remember feeling it was at the time. It’s still a little flabby for me, but it’s not as bad as I remembered. My pencils, at least to my mind, were much crisper than the finished product would indicate.

DB: There was never any thought or talk about you inking your own pencils at the time?
AK: I doubt that there was ever a pencil assignment that I got where I didn’t ask if I could ink it as well.

DB: You never given a choice of inkers on this job?
AK: I could suggest people all day, if I wanted to. But, a] they’ve got to be available and b] they’ve got to want to do it. And anyone who was really good and available already had plenty of work to do.

DB: Issue #14 your inkers changed and you were assigned Rick Magyar.
AK: Now, I don’t know how you feel about it, but on the first page alone, it gets me excited. That heavy line has got some weight quality to it and there’s variation in the line. It’s got more a snap to it. It sort of looks to me like Jack Abel’s work a little bit. Rick was more able to take advantage of the angles that I put into it. When I went for a more Paul Dini/Warner Bros. animation design, more angles and stuff like that, a guy like Gary Martin would soften that out. And Magyar, if I put that in, would appreciate it and go with it.

DB: Was there ever any communication between yourself and the inkers?
AK: I don’t know if I ever spoke to Rick Magyar, let alone met him. But I sure appreciated what he did. Page four of Rick’s first job over my stuff is just a scene in a kitchen. Three people sitting around a kitchen table talking and drinking coffee. I think he did a beautiful job on it. It’s not the best art in the world and it’s a page of people talking but I find it interesting. It’s not boring or static. And it interested me more, doing a page like that than the page before it. Which is an action page. Because if you’ve got any ability at all, visually, action is, in essence, it’s own reward. But if you can make an interesting picture involving people drinking coffee, that makes me proud.

DB: I think that’s what Erik Larson was telling me once, that your ability to draw non action scenes is exceedingly good, and it’s an ability that’s beyond a lot of artists.
AK: I’ve done a complete 180 degree in regards to my attitude. Originally all I wanted to draw was, basically, naked people, fighting. Because drawing clothing can be very daunting. You have to draw folds. And now that I have tumbled on how to draw the folds, I don’t want to just draw naked people anymore. I want to draw the folds. I want to draw normal people. If all comic books were about normal people I’d be very happy. Especially if I was drawing them.

DB: They’re called romance books.
AK: Yeah. I wouldn’t mind that.

DB: I can see you doing romance books and making them interesting, which is not an easy thing to do.
AK: No, it’s not. But that’s the fun, isn’t it?

DB: Moving ahead you had some interesting guest stars in issue #15.
AK: I used a couple of Walt Simonson’s one-shot, incidental characters from his Manhunter series. They were in the background of a Manhunter story. I think it might have been the story that I lettered. Which is why they were so firmly imbedded in my memory. They were a couple of tourists with a bratty kid. The kid was wearing a cowboy suit and running around in the church with a cap pistol, yelling ‘Bang Bang’. I did such a good job on them that it looks like Simonson actually drew them. They become secondary characters in that story, which is kind of neat.

DB: Did you have Errol Flynn in issue #16?
AK: There’s a guy in there but he’s not Errol Flynn. The studio head is trying to set up a rival superhero to Blue Devil. Just as Billy Batson says ‘Shazam’ to become Captain Marvel, this guys shouts ‘Errol Flynn’ to become Verner’s Vanquisher. That’s Jock Verner’s Vanquisher. A couple of villains from my first issue turn up on page three driving a getaway car. I wanted them to be Abbott and Costello, but they didn’t look much like Abbott and Costello after they got inked in my first issue. But they were closer to that here. In this issue I also introduced Kid Devil’s parents and I drew the mother as Lois Lane and the father is Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame.

DB: Crisis On Infinite Earths was happening during your run and it impacted on issue #17.
AK: I’m afraid that was uninteresting to me.

DB: You had Green Lantern popping in again.
AK: I see that on page four of that issue I have my friend Andrew J. Lederer chatting up Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the beach party on the bottom of the page.

DB: Obviously you weren’t given a script asking for Lucille Ball and Desi, so you’ve done that yourself. What prompts you to do that?
AK: Andy and I were, at that time, writing television scripts. Not for money, mind you, but we were writing them. And our obsession concerned getting the greats of TV, such as Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball back on series television. So we wrote a one hour “special” for Lucille Ball and Bob Hope, called ‘The Road To Lucy’. Andy was going back and forth from New York City to Los Angeles so I went out to LA to join him. And the day after I got out there, Variety announced that Lucille Ball has signed on with Aaron Spelling Productions to do a new situation comedy for ABC. So we went nuts and immediately got on the phone with Aaron Spelling Productions, made an appointment and pitched a Lucille Ball series at the old Sam Goldwyn lot the very next day. And of course nothing happened. But we were obsessed with getting all those great folks back on the TV. Just to see, for instance, Gale Gordon and Eve Arden back together in a situation comedy, that was the kind of stuff that was important to us. After ‘Life With Lucy’ failed on ABC, Andy and I wrote and Fedex’ed a pilot script, ‘The Lucy Factor’, to Lucille Ball Productions. We received a call from her husband, Gary Morton the very next business day.

DB: What did he think of the proposal?
AK: Well this guy is Mr. Lucille Ball. So he’s gotta say something brilliant, right? But what he said didn’t have much to do with our story. Obviously, he was no Desi Arnaz. But apparently he didn’t think it was terrible. First of all, Gary said that Lucy’s heart was broken because the ABC series failed and was yanked off the air after just six weeks. So, though Lucy won’t be doing another series, she’d be interested in doing a TV movie. And if you boys come up with something like that, please send it to me. You see, Andy had composed a cover letter “written” by an old friend of Mr Ball, George Schultz aka Georgie Starr. Georgie read and signed the letter for Andy, but it wasn’t written by him.

DB: Back to the Devil, what was the feedback like on the series, because you’d been on it for a bit by that stage.
AK: Editorially or from the readers?

DB: Both.
AK: As far as the readers went, I just remember a couple of comments on the letters page, but not very much about my artwork. If there was a tremendous amount of negative or positive feedback I’m not aware of it. Editorially there wasn’t much feedback. I don’t recall being asked to make any changes. Throughout my career I was almost never asked to make any changes. In fact, I can remember one of the last jobs that I drew for Marvel was Iron Man #242, written by David Micheline. And David called the editor, Howard Mackie and said that he’d received my pencils to dialogue and that he was kind of surprised. He said, “I’m amazed. This guy followed my plot. Everything I asked for is in there.”

DB: I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t follow a plot.
AK: First of all, I do wonder about some people’s reading comprehension skills. Secondly, sometimes the writers ask for something and the artist can’t figure out how to do it or they just plain don’t want to do it.

DB: Issue #19.
AK: Issue #19 is my favourite issue of them all. It’s the only one that I did any writing on and I knocked myself out on the art. It’s my Lucille Ball job. The premise of this story is that Lucy and Desi never got divorced and ‘I Love Lucy’ is still in production on the Verner Bros. lot. Kid Devil has an adventure that takes place during the filming of the 35th Anniversary episode of ‘I Love Lucy’. I really went to extremes recreating the ‘I Love Lucy’ that people remembered.

DB: How did you get that past the legal team?
AK: Well, they freaked out. It became ‘I Love Lizzy.’ I placated the lawyers by putting a bandito moustache on the Desi character. And ‘Lizzy’ was disguised with horn-rimmed glasses. But my Gale Gordon and Vivian Vance are unchanged. I didn’t change my little Ricky either. Actually it’s little, little Ricky getting involved with Kid Devil, it’s a Kid Devil story. I really had a ball with it.


DB: Were you credited as a writer?
AK: I’m credited as ‘plot and pencils’. I don’t think I was ever going to dialogue it but I seem to have a recollection that when they told me I wouldn’t be able to do it the way I really wanted to do it I said, “You can let Cohn and Mishkin dialogue it if you want.” Again, this tale is one of my stock standard plots. It’s an evergreen that I often fell back on. The old ‘chase-through-the-movie-studio.’ That’s the premise of an issue of a Marvel Two-In-One that I wrote and drew with the Thing and the Hulk. And also an issue of Howard the Duck that I couldn’t sell.

DB: How much input into the writing of the other issues did you have?
AK: Zilch. Zero.

DB: Did anyone ever ask for your input?
AK: No. I don’t remember having any input. It was Cohn and Mishkin’s baby from the beginning. I didn’t particularly have anything to say about it. I was only hired help. I wasn’t discouraged from contributing, however.

DB: Did you follow the scripts religiously or did you ever change anything?
AK: I don’t recall if I was working from plots or full scripts. Of course anything they asked me to do, I did. I drew a story featuring Kid Devil and Robin, and that was a lot of fun too. I don’t know if it was Dick Grayson, but the kid was wearing a Robin costume. I’ve always liked drawing that costume and it’s the only chance I’ve gotten, professionally, to do so.

DB: Going on to issue #20…
AK: The Marv Wolfman issue. The one guest-starring Cain.

DB: Yes.
AK: That one was partially inked by Bill Collins and again it’s not as bad as I remember at the time. But, for instance, on page two, every line has the same weight to it.

DB: Bill became the regular inker from issue #22.
AK: Yep. Although Rick Maygnar came back at the end. Again, I notice on page four that the lady is Lucille Ball, with gray hair.

DB: You had a fetish for Lucy.
AK: Yes, at the time I surely I did. This story was based on rock star, Jim Morrison and the Doors. On page five are two of Morrison’s acolytes. I took them from the old DC ‘Dobie Gillis’ comic drawn by Bob Oskner. Then I just aged the characters, Dobie and Maynard G. Krebs. Or Windy and Willie, if you prefer the reprint better. I also got to draw a girl in a Supergirl costume later on during a Halloween sequence.

DB: The next issue you featured Bob Hope.
AK: “Hey, in’t that something?” Actually, in issue # 21, on the splash page, I’ve got Jackie Gleason as Joe the bartender. Everyone in America over a certain age knows Joe the bartender. Whenever I needed a bartender I always used either Joe the bartender or Jack Adler. I typecast. I have characters that I cast in certain roles, so those are my two choices for bartenders, unless something specific is asked for by the writer.

DB: Was Jack Adler still at DC when you were doing Blue Devil?
AK: No. Again, in the car on the same page the wife is Lucille Ball but with blonde hair and I think she’s with Bob Hope. The very next issue I see that I cast Desi Arnaz as a Las Vegas casino owner.

DB: It’s more interesting going through the supporting characters than the main characters.
AK: You’re right, they were more interesting to me. I always enjoyed drawing Jock Verner, the head of the movie studio. A real scenery chewer. He was a character a lot like J. Jonah Jameson, but a good deal more flamboyant. And unlike JJJ, money was no object.

DB: Did you have any interest in the main characters?
AK: Interest? In Blue Devil?

DB: Yeah.
AK: Well, Blue Devil was pretty much like any other hero of the day. He was vanilla. He was the good guy.

DB: You focused more on the secondary characters and the supporting cast.
AK: First of all, you know who the main character is. I know I do. For the purposes of this conversation, I figure that pointing out what I put in the work might be of interest. Because it’s about what I brought to the work. And it’s my relationship to these characters. Drawing the hero is a given, so I haven’t commented on him. Because we expect him to be there. But I did input on the character a bit, visually. I changed the collar on his costume. I felt that Deadman’s collar was much more dramatic. That was my main contribution to the Blue Devil look.

DB: Visually if you cut the horns off Blue Devil it’s almost Hellboy.
AK: I suppose so.

DB: It’s almost as if Mike Mignola saw Blue Devil, coloured him red and shaved his horns and instead of getting Daredevil, he got Hellboy.
AK: It’s back to that red devil/blue devil/red devil parlay again, isn’t it? Way back, Mike Mignola inked a Defenders story of mine (#128). I think it was probably one of the first things he ever did at Marvel. Carl Potts was the editor. He got the art back from Mike and he showed it to me. I said, “This isn’t very good, is it? Do you mind if I take it home and re-ink it?” and he said, “Go right ahead.” Mike Mignola didn’t have the most auspicious of debuts. But I think he’s a hell of a designer, and he’s got a nice simple ink line. But back then he was kind of Mark Farmerish, he was over-rendering and things lost definition, as I recall. But he got good fast.

DB: Back to the Blue Devil, even though the book was coming to an end, look at the inkers on issue #30.
AK: Kurt Schaffenberger!! Beauty, ‘ey?

DB: Absolutely. Were you told beforehand that he’d be inking it with Mike Machlan?
AK: I don’t recall. I’m not sure who did what pages, though.

DB: Do you think that Kurt might have done the character and Mike Machlan the backgrounds?
AK: No, no, no, each artist would have gotten a bunch of pages to do on their own. I doubt very much that they shared pages. I don’t know what Mike’s work looks like, so I can’t tell. On page 27, the face of the girl is beautifully inked. Schaffenberger always drew beautiful women. I do think the Gorilla Grodd faces are a bit flabby however. Schaffenberger softened it up a bit more than I would have hoped for.

DB: The next issue was the last. When were you aware that they were canceling it, or were you just not told?
AK: Sometimes you know in advance. I can’t imagine that the Blue Devil was ever a huge seller to begin with. And I didn’t have an ego that allowed me to imagine that anything I would draw would be a huge hit anyhow. Frankly, I always had the suspicion that when I was put on a book, that they were just playing out the string. That the book was going to go away pretty soon. Marvel was going to cancel Thor when they gave it to me to pencil. Then Simonson took it on and sales shot right to the top. Now, I wasn’t crazy about the stories Walt did, but then I don’t like stories about magic. While I’m sure there can be great creativity when it’s done well, I feel that magic is too easy. Poof. Because it’s magic. It’s just not my cup of tea. Walt’s artwork was certainly more interesting than mine. And I never did get the hang of drawing Thor’s helmet. I think I have, since. But I never took the time to get it right. I never took the time to get a lot of stuff right. And in retrospect, if my pencils had looked, on the page, the way they looked in my head, you would have seen some great stuff!

DB: You must have felt settled on Blue Devil though?
AK: I counted on the work every month. I never heard I was going to be replaced. I think editors, whether or not they appreciated my art, appreciated the professionalism involved and not having to worry about if Alan Kupperberg is going to show up with their book. I missed very few deadlines in my life. Once, early on, I disappeared on an editor. I didn’t answer my phone all weekend. That was for Crazy Magazine and the editor was Paul Laikin. And I didn’t get another job from him. A lot of guys do that all the time, but I don’t know if it’s very common to lose the account. But it certainly got my attention. Luckily I got the Crazy magazine account back when Larry Hama became its very fine editor. Generally speaking, though, I was almost always early with my work.

DB: How do you look back on it now?
AK: It’s nice to have a chance to have a run on a book and to get comfortable with the characters. I enjoyed drawing Blue Devil and those people and the situations they were in.

DB: That’s the longest run on mainstream comics that you’ve had.
AK: Yes. But don’t forget, Blue Devil is a “made up” character to me. You see, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Hulk etc., are the “real” characters from my point of view. They pre-existed my interest in the field. They live and breathe in my mind. Blue Devil is just some comic book character Cohn and Mishkin made up long after I became a pro. I grew up with Spider-Man, Superman and the Hulk. They’re “real.” So it was fun, but much more fun for me was drawing Lucy and Jackie Gleason and these “old friends,” not these “made up” characters.

DB: You dropped out not too long after the Blue Devil.
AK: About 1989, 1990 I really started losing interest in comics, outside of what I was working on. And even then. DragonLance? I never lost interest in the old stuff but I lost all interest in the new stuff. I didn’t like the direction that comics were taking. In my opinion, they’ve done great violence to my heroes and it just does not interest me.

DB: If you could go back and do it again what would you do differently?
AK: I’d work harder. That’s what I’d do.

DB: How would you like your run on the book to be remembered?
AK: I hope people had as much fun reading it as I did drawing it, because I had a lot of fun drawing it. So, if you had fun, that’s what counts.
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Alan Kupperberg can be found most days over at his own web-site, Alan Kupperberg.com.

Pop by, say hello and remember that he's avaliable for commissions, so if you want some Kupperberg art (which always looks better in person than on a computer screen) go ahead and ask.

Content on this post is copyright 2006 Alan Kupperberg and Daniel Best.
All artwork on this post is copyright 2006 DC Comics & Alan Kupperberg.
No part of this post can be reproduced anywhere in any format without the prior permission of both Alan Kupperberg and Daniel Best.

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