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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Looking Back With Dick Giordano

This interview is a bit of a cheat. I originally did this interview via email with Dick Giordano back in 2005 and Dick had always intended it to be part of his site relaunch, which was fine by me as I saw that as an honour. Dick has since revamped his site and for some reason the interview has come down. As old as it might be I still enjoy it and felt that it'd be a good idea for people to be able to access and read it.

At the time of the interview Dick was working with Roy Thomas on the Dracula mini-series at Marvel, finishing up a project that he and Roy Thomas had started nearly thirty years prior. I was busily working on the Andru & Esposito book, so that'll help explain some of the now outdated references.

Dick has been a powerhouse in the field of comics for decades now. It's hard to argue with his credentials, either as an artist, writer or editor. Dick has done it all and, in most cases, done it better than the next guy. From his work at Charlton, through to DC and those that came before and after, Dick has led the way and forged a reputation as one of the true legends of the comic book industry.

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DANIEL BEST: Where did you grow up?
DICK GIORDANO: I was born on Manhattan Island in New York City, but I grew up mostly in Queens and The Bronx, two other boroughs of N.Y.C.

DB: What was your first exposure to comic books
DG: An oft-told story: My father would read the Sunday Funnies to me when I was very young. I was sickly as a child and often bed-ridden and I looked forward each week to my father reading me the comics pages on Sunday. When Famous Funnies was first published, my father brought those to me as well as some other comics that were being published at the time. Even before I could read, I was hooked! By the time I was 7 years old, I started drawing a bit and that habit has continued to this day!

DB: How did you break into the industry and why did you want to work in the field of comic books?
DG: I attended the School of Industrial Arts, a vocational high school in New York City that prepared students for careers in the commercial arts. Upon graduation, I roamed the streets of New York, with portfolio in hand, looking for work. After 2 fruitless months, I took a job as an apprentice at the Jerry Iger Studios. We packaged art for a number of comic book publishers including Fiction House. This was a common practice in those days that comic publishers would buy finished art from outside studios.
I had wanted to be a cartoonist from the time I started reading comics and this was like a dream come true for me even though at Iger's studio I was the low man on the totem pole. After just 9 months, I started freelancing for Charlton Comics...and moved endlessly from there, always improving my position in the field.

DB: Was Will Eisner still at the Iger Studio when you went there?
DG: No, Eisner was gone by the time I started at Iger's in '51 but the art boards still had " Eisner and Iger " printed at the top. I believe they had separated some years before that date. Much later in my career, I met Will and we became friends and I always thought that if Iger had left instead of Will, I'd have spent more than 9 months there.

DB: What people influenced you?
DG: Al Fago, my first ever editor, at Charlton was a big influence. He mentored me and was sort of a father figure. He really helped me get started. The cartoonists that influenced me most tended to be newspaper syndicate cartoonists like Alex Raymond, Frank Robbins, Hal Foster and Milton Caniff. Later, as the adventure strips started to die off, I found some comic book artists who influenced my work. I don't know all of their names, as it wasn't yet the custom for all artists to sign their comic book work.

DB: What was Charlton like in those early days?
DG: For me, Charlton was 3 different places at different times in my career. When I first began freelancing for them, Al Fago, who had hired me and was my editor, lived in New York, as I did, and he would drive to all the freelancer's studios once a week to pick up and/or deliver assignments. All I knew of Charlton was Al Fago, and he was funny, supportive and easy to work with.

Later, when the Comics Code came along, Charlton had Al working in an office in Manhattan, near the Code's offices and Al gave me a staff job as liaison between his office and the Code's. He did this not only because that job had to be done but also because the coming of the code caused such an upheaval in the industry that he could no longer give me enough free lance assignments for me to earn a living and the staff salary helped me keep my head above water until the industry settled down again. So, at that point Charlton was a nice office in Manhattan with Al, his wife Blanche, running the show...and me running around...and leaning an awful lot!

Still later, the owner of Charlton decided that he wanted his editorial staff on premises at his printing facility in Derby, Connecticut. So I moved to Connecticut. And then Charlton became the only self-contained comics publisher in the history of comics publishing. We were able to go from concept to printed book and distribute from under the same roof...and the owner just wasn't wise enough to know what that could mean to his business and he continued putting out material that was, in the main, not competitive, for the sake of not investing a few more dollars his operation. This was the Charlton that finally forced me to give up and move elsewhere.

Charlton was flooded in 1956, I think, when a dam burst upriver which caused the river next to Charlton's buildings to run well over its banks. Some people stayed to try to get important files to safety on an upper floor. The water came in so quickly that they had to be picked off the roof by helicopter. Five of us, who, at that time, still lived in N.Y. and car-pooled in every day, took off when the parking lot, which was below street level, flooded. We all came back several days after the waters receded to see what was what. The plant had been submerged in 12 feet of water and all the comics in various stages of production had been transformed into a quivering mass of paper Mache. We all were out of work for a short time and when we returned the owner had cut rates...again. Not much we could do...the industry was very slow at that point.

DB: What did the job as liaison between Charlton and the Comics Code involve?
DG: When the Comics Code (an industry self-policing program intended to quiet critics who tried to link juvenile delinquency to reading comics) was formed, it specifically banned Crime and Horror comics. These genres made up a major portion of Charlton's output. Charlton had recently purchased the rights to some of Fawcett's old titles and part of the film library for those titles, so Charlton suspended publication of all titles that might not pass the code and slowly started using their more timid Fawcett inventory in order to keep publishing. That effectively eliminated much more than half of the new material they had been buying pre-code. In some cases, Charlton even used Fawcett covers for the material that they had purchased. Many of the titles were westerns; others were tame adventure titles like Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle and Don Winslow of the Navy.

As innocuous as this material was, the code's reviewers found elements that could not pass the written code and demanded changes. It was my job to bring completed books (some just prints of the Fawcett negatives) to the code and later make changes, often on their premises, to allow them to approve the material. They had several drawing tables and art equipment in their large, expensive offices for that purpose. In doing my duties, I occasionally argued with the reviewer's interpretation of the code. It sometimes seemed that this was the job that these prudish ladies had waited their whole life for...the chance to have absolute power over others.

DB: What was the life of a freelancer like?
DG: A freelancer's life wasn't very good in those days. Rates were low, work was scarce and long hours at a drawing board were necessary if you had a family to feed, and by then, I did. Even though Charlton's rates were the lowest in the field, there was no limit on the amount of work we could get. So I learned to be fast and good and learned my craft into the bargain. After a while, work in the industry became more plentiful and I added to my Charlton earnings by getting other, better paying work from Timely (my introduction to Stan Lee), Dell and others. And I learned the skills that would lead to my becoming Charlton's editor- in -chief and later joining DC’s editorial staff. I was never rich but I was never broke, either. We ate and lived well.

DB: How did you end up working with Stan Lee?
DG: I don't recall how I started working for Stan...only that I had to go in to New York (I lived in Connecticut) to pick up my scripts and Stan would come out to the reception area where I waited for him and we completed our business there and I went back to Connecticut. I was never invited inside.

But the receptionist was very attractive and watching her do her duties more than made up for the wait. She stood out ...as did Stan. Two out of two isn't too shoddy!

Timely went out of business shortly thereafter as a result of their distributor going out of business.

DB: What were the main differences between Charlton, Timely and Dell?
DG: The differences are they are spelled differently!

Not the answer you were hoping for, right? At the time in question, Timely published mostly anthology titles. War, Mystery, Romance, Teen-Age, etc. and assignments tended to be stand alone stories, 6 to 10 pages in length, with no recurring characters. Little if any editorial oversight. Dell, on the other hand, published 32 pages all -story, books. No ads. Subject matter was mostly movie and TV adaptations. And because they were so cautious due to declining sales, most 32-page books had to be done in a month. Their on-going titles were published quarterly and they waited to the last second to commit to the next issue in order to see how the previous issue sales were. The movie books were a different problem...they had to wait until the movie was shot in order to get photos and the final script. From start to finish it takes a minimum of 3 months to write, draw, letter, color, print a 32 page comic and get it to newsstands. And that was a hurry-up schedule! We (often needed more than one artist to move pages that quickly) were able to meet these truly ridiculous schedules because the editors knew better and did not interfere in the production of the art. At one point, then editor Don Arneson, occasionally assigned a book to my studio because I had a fast writer, a fast letterer, and several artists working with me and we saved time by passing pages between us instead of mailing to Dell and they mailed to the next person to work on it. Joe Gill, John D'Agostino and Frank McLaughlin and I did a number of books this way.

Charlton's operation was more like Timely's with all of their titles being anthologies, including titles with a recurring character. (Kid Montana Western was all about the Kid but generally contained 3 eight page stories, often drawn by different artists) Later, with the advent of the Action Hero line, Charlton went with longer stories of the title character, but still had back-up features. Charlton published bi-monthly.

Their main difference (spelling aside) was the page rates. Dell, the highest, then Timely, and Charlton brought up the rear.

I couldn't tell you what titles I worked on for Timely. I just drew an endless stream of indistinguishable stories (many of which I've never seen published) when Timely's distributor went belly up.

At Dell: Movie titles I penciled included Beach Blanket Bingo, Two on a Guillotine, D-Day (or some other movie about D-Day), The Great Race, The Naked Prey and others, too long ago to remember. TV titles included Ben Casey, Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, Camp Runamuck (find someone that remembers that turkey. I did one issue and the show was cancelled before the book came out). I worked one a slew of one shots and/or as ghost for other artists and was the co-creator of Nukla (along with Joe Gill) Dell's attempt at entering the super-hero genre. We did 2 or 3 issues of Nukla before it and Dell folded.

Actually, there were precious few artists and writers that did breakout work during this period. Most of us were turning out the work like 5 pounds of salami...Get it done! Get a check! Get another script! The publishers didn't seem to care...they were just holding on by their fingertips and that attitude passed down to us.

DB: What prompted you to move from your position of E.I.C. at Charlton to DC?
DG: The short answer is the failure of the Action Heroes line that I put together at Charlton with spit and gum. As it turned out, management at Charlton could care less. They treated the line as 5 or 6 other titles on their schedule and didn't support it with money, advertising, marketing...nothing. So when I was offered an editorial position at DC, I took it, even though it meant 4 hours of commuting, round trip, each day, while it was an easy 10-minute ride from my home to Charlton's offices. By contrast, DC management had a well-structured approach to publishing comics and they wanted to do well and were involved in the creative as well as the business end of their operations. They still are...even more so today.

DB: How was DC looked upon in those days?
DG: In the 60s they were still the leader in the industry, with Marvel breathing down their necks. Most artists and writers felt it a coup if they got work from DC. They were more formal than Marvel in the way they approached their business but that may have been a plus in those days.

DB: Did you go to DC prior or after the (now infamous) removal of various writers/editors who asked for a pay increase and better working standards?
DG: It may be infamous now, but those events have been exaggerated and elaborated upon through the years. Although it happened well before I arrived at DCs offices, and I wasn't aware of the happening until years later, all the "ringleaders" of that "revolt" were still working there and to my knowledge the only editor to be let go was George Kashdan for reasons not related to the "revolt". The only "better standards" asked for was hospitalization. At the time, no other publisher was offering that, either. A touch of irony: years later, the first publisher to offer hospitalization to freelancers was DC.

I'm not an apologist for DC simply because I worked there... the fact that no one ever brought it up until someone who was not involved in those meetings or even worked at DC at the time made it public. Of course, no one could ever accuse owner Jack Liebowitz of being a champion of creator rights. He pretty much said NO and everyone went back to work...more or less. If you have other information, I'd like to hear it but it seemed to me after the fact to be much ado about nothing...

DB: Did Marvel ever approach you at that time for a permanent position?
DG: No. Marvel and DC had a gentleman's agreement not to approach high level staff members or those under contract from the other company. Freelancers, though, were fair game. So Roy Thomas (a Marvel editor) and I (a DC editor) would go out to lunch with each other from time to time without causing any undue concern within our respective companies. We would talk business in a general way... mostly creative...without crossing the line.

DB: You did do the occasional inking job at Marvel in the 70s-how was that viewed at DC?
DG: By that time, I was no longer on staff at DC (I left late in 1969) and in 1970 Neal Adams and I formed Continuity Associates and worked for advertising agencies and for any number of other comic companies. DC had no exclusive rights to our (or my) services and so their view was irrelevant. However, the notion that the major companies were in strict competition with each other was generally nonsense. Some freelancer's preferred one company over the other and chose to stay put. Others moved freely between Marvel and DC. Later, if your services were considered essential to either company, you would be offered an exclusive contract with some "goodies" that were not available to other non-committed freelancers, written in.

DB: How was Continuity formed?
DG: I met Neal when I started as editor at DC in 1967. Although it was not common, Neal did most of his work for DC in the office directly across from mine. We would talk a bit...sort of feeling each other out... and when it became obvious that we were essentially on the same page, we became friends and co-workers. I started very shakily as Neal's inker and he did a great deal for me in my capacity as an editor...even to the point of helping out when I got into trouble with creative or deadline matters. I enjoyed our conversations and learned a great deal from him as an artist. He was so good!

I was having trouble with management micro- managing the books I was editing and eventually tendered my resignation in disappointment. Neal thought we should open an art service immediately (we had done some custom comic work together for outside businesses) but I was still smarting from the events that caused me to resign and told Neal that I wanted to sit in a corner and lick my wounds for a while. He let me do so. But about a year later, sensing that I was becoming bored inking pages in my basement studio, Neal called and made a specific offer that sounded like more fun than what I was doing at that moment. And Continuity Associates was born. Our clients were mostly advertising agencies and film studios but we always had a comic job or two hanging around. We were lucky and started off at a dead run and although we encountered speed bumps along the way, things moved along quite briskly.

My role was mostly taking care of business. Neal's art style was our selling point and to allow him maximum time to work at his craft and/or to train people to work in his style, I, with the help of Patti Bastienne, handled all the nuts and bolts that made the business run. Lawyers, accountants. invoicing, paying bills, financial forecasting, etc, became our main responsibility. Not that I didn't draw...I did! Lots. But that wasn't my main responsibility.

Aside: Patti Bastienne still works for me.

The people that worked on staff at Continuity weren't household names at the time and most have dropped out of the business. But a list of freelancers who rented space from us, or came in to do the occasional job, and art assistants that worked for Neal or myself would read like a who's who of the comic industry today. Just a few: Larry Hama, Carl Potts, Terry Austin, Russ Heath, the late Jack Abel, the late Gray Morrow, Howard Chaykin, Nick Cardy, Joe Rubinstein, Walt Simonson and too many more to list! Sorry, but I don't remember any interesting things that might have happened. I didn't take notes...I didn't think anyone would care thirty years later. Suffice it to say that they were all good friends and great artists!

DB: What were the differences between DC and Charlton, both as an editor and a writer/artist?
DG: The major differences were many: Management at Charlton played almost no role in the creative end of their comic book division. While I was Managing Editor there, no one but my proof-reader and I read or even looked at the books before they shipped. DC's management, on the other hand, was deeply involved in the creative process, often taking editorial decision making out of the hands of the editors and approved covers, contents and production before books shipped. DC had money to spend. Art and editorial page rates were much higher than those paid by Charlton...twice as high or more! Charlton's distribution was weak and ineffectual; DC's was the model for the industry. And finally, DC's creative, marketing and distribution staffs were much larger than Charlton's...there were more people working in DC's editorial offices than in all of Charlton's operations which included editorial, engraving, printing, binding, distribution and shipping, many of which departments required enough staff to work 3 shifts daily!

As an artist, I enjoyed a completely free hand at Charlton and I've often credited that fact to explain my quicker than expected progress artistically. I got as much work as I wanted and was allowed to experiment and decide on my own, how the work would be handled. At DC, I learned more about drawing comics by looking at the work of the best artists the business had to offer and was paid very well compared to rates I received at Charlton...but I didn't enjoy the same freedom. There were rules and editorial requisites.

DB: You returned to DC in the early 1980s - how much had DC changed in your time away?
DG: Quite a bit, actually! Mostly as a result of changes in corporate ownership and management. It was no longer a family held business. At this point we were a part of the Warner Communications corporation and as a business, enjoyed a certain amount of security to go along with the corporate oversight. The new management team (at DC ) consisting of Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz, and Joe Orlando, not satisfied with the status quo, set out to move DC out of the ranks of the also rans and to attain a dominant position both creatively and financially. I was eventually invited to join the management team and how well we attained our goals is up to others to decide.

DB: When you were at Continuity you did a lot of advertising work. What were the differences between working in the mainstream comic book industry and advertising?
DG: Just about everything was different working for advertising agencies vs. comic book publishers. The money was much better, the work was intended to sell products, information or ideas, not entertain. There was no residual income, you rarely (if ever) got your artwork back...unless it was rejected. And about half of our volume wasn't print work but sketch work (story boards, animatics) so you never saw the art again after it left the studio. Payment was usually 90 to 120 days from invoice (comic publishers pay every week or every 2 weeks). A common joke about many advertising art directors was that they didn't know what they wanted but knew what they didn't want...after they saw it!

But the money was great!

DB: You helped re-define Batman in the late '60s and throughout the '70s, both as an artist (with and without Neal Adams) and also as a writer/editor. What are you memories of those days? (Mind you I still believe that Detective Comics #457 is hands down THE most important, and best, Batman origin story printed)
DG: As an artist only in the time period you specify. I didn't edit any Batman titles until my second round as editor at DC which began in November of 1980. Also, I wrote columns and such, but not any story scripts.

I have very fond memories of working on the revitalized Batman. I really loved inking Irv Novick, Bob Brown and, of course, Neal's work ( and just about everyone else who penciled Batman ) and when I was in Pencil Mode, I was fortunate to get wonderful scripts to work with (including 'Tec #457...thanks for the kind words, Daniel ) ! Batman was always my favorite comic book character when I was a youngster and my feelings about the non-powered, but still super, Batman never changed and so I was thrilled to be part of the team that was bringing new vitality to my all-time favorite character! I still feel that was the high point of my career and I was overjoyed at the reception of my peers and the fans. Nothing I've done before or since has been as rewarding.

DB: You inked the Superman v Spider-man cross over. Now in the past few months I've discovered that Neal Adams re-drew the bulk of the Superman figures, and also inked the Superman figure on the front cover - is there any light you can shed on this? (Joel Adams has told me that Neal has indeed confirmed that he did re-draw a lot of it).
DG: Yes. That's true.

No one asked Neal to re-draw the Superman figures but the pages were sent to me @ Continuity and were mostly left on my desk or thereabouts when I went home at night or on weekends and Neal took it upon himself to re-draw the Superman figures without telling me that he was going to do it. I didn't complain but I also never mentioned it to anyone at the time and really never spoke of it until now...mostly out of respect for Ross and his work. Ross was one of the very best storytellers in the business as well as great at composition, layouts and design. But his drawing was a bit quirky and somewhat distorted as a result of an eye problem that affected his perception. He often drew on one side of the paper, then, on a lightbox, turned it over and re-drew it on the other side, correcting the distortion, then reversed the page again and traced the corrected version from the back side of the art board onto the copy side. This took a great deal of time and slowed him down greatly toward the end of his career. But...

I loved the distortions! It gave his work a charm and distinction that I always believed was appealing. I learned how to ink his work to minimize the distortion without losing the charm! That became moot, as Neal changed/corrected all the Superman figures to his own frame of reference. I tried in the inking not to lose too much of the Ross Andru look ( and to his credit, Neal tried, as well, to retain the "look" mostly correcting anatomy errors in his re-drawing ) . You really couldn't lose his storytelling or compositions, so in my mind, the result was still Ross Andru at his best!!

I questioned Neal's son's claim that Neal inked the Superman figure on the cover. He re-drew it and I inked it...and then Neal may have gone back and "tightened up" some of my inks as he often did on my inks on his material. He never much liked my more organic brush inking, preferring the more controlled look of pen inking. Different strokes...


DB: You've worked with some of the legends in art - what are some of the stand-outs for you?
DG: In no particular order: Andru, Adams, Novick, Sekowsky, John Romita Jr., Perez, Toth, John Busema and a bunch of people who I'm sure I'm forgetting at the moment and I hope they will forgive me.

I never thought of them as "legends"at the time...maybe they weren't yet...but they were outstanding artists. Frankly, I preferred stylists to the more illustrative artists...for some reason they got more of my creative juices flowing.

DB: You started the Dracula adaptation over 30 years ago now. How does it feel to be returning to finish it now? How much had your approach to art changed in the meantime?
DG: Considerably! I didn't realize how much until I had to draw a new 12 page story to conclude the second issue that had 32 pages of reprints from 30 years ago in the front of the 44 page issue and I had to make my 12 pager appear seamless. The passage of time wasn't the only problem. The size of the artboards had shrunk making the same amount of detail difficult. The paper itself was nowhere near as good and I was required to use Marvel's paper. Nevertheless, I think I pulled it off. Fortunately, Stoker's story heads in different directions in the last two 44 page installments and the small difference in style isn't as obvious as it might be. I concentrated more on storytelling than on illustrative qualities since the later story elements required that approach.

I feel very good about finally finishing it! Over the last ten years or so, it became almost an obsession to not leave it as unfinished business. Roy and I tried everything we could to get somebody interested in finishing it to no avail. We finally gave up... and then the phone rang and it was Mark Beazley (our editor) asking if we would be interested in finishing the work for Marvel?

I'll be finished with the 100 new pages that concludes the tale by the end of this month.

And I will breath a sigh of relief...that it is done and done!

DB: How do you feel the industry has changed since you first entered it?
DG: 1- Distribution: From Mom and Pop stores to Direct Sales (comic shops).

2- Creative: The talent pool originally was made up of failed illustrators and writers who could not sell their work. Comics became a place that offered steady work and steady (if low) income. Many did not sign their work because they felt it had no value. Others, when asked what they did, would say "Illustrator" or "commercial artist", never "comic book artist ".
Today's creators can think of nothing they'd rather be doing! It was their plan to enter the comic book industry and they admit to their profession proudly. Even the ranks of publishers have changed. They are involved in the day-to-day operations of the editorial process. Marketing, production and licensing have likewise matured. If this sounds like it's become a business, that's only because it has!

3- Financial participation: Yesteryear, you did the work, you got a check and that was it. Today work is prepared to include the creators in the financial "take" of the publications they work on. The deal is better if you created the concepts and characters but even doing "house books" offers reasonable participation for the creators. Domestic royalties, foreign royalties and reprint fees are just part of the average package of financial benefits.
And, of course, page rates have increased tremendously!

Today's editors tend to be much younger and much hipper than those making editorial decisions when I first started. And they are often an integral part of the creative process.

DB: Do you feel that a lot of those changes for the best?
DG: By and large, YES! I really can't think of anything I'd like to revert to the "good old days"! Well, maybe I can, but, nothing that would make the industry better...only my position in it!!!

DB: Any closing thoughts?
DG: I've been in this business for my entire adult life and have enjoyed myself immensely! I take great joy at waking each morning and "going to work"! How many people my age can say that?

2 comments:

Tim said...

Although Dick is an excellent artist in his own right,he will be remembered as the best inker ever for the pencils of Neal Adams. As a team, they really shined.

Lars Johansson ( Predabot) said...

Dick's a fav' of mine. Partially because of his work on another famous artist ( than Adams), John Byrne.

He cleaned up Byrne's pencils like no-one else, adding an extremely soft and inviting finish to them that I've never seen prior or since.

The biggest reason he's a fav' however, is because of his work on the Modesty Blaise graphic Novel, with esteemed British writer Peter O'Donnell.

A true gem. Published by DC in the states, and by all sorts of publishers in Europe. I recommend picking it up with all of my heart.