Monday, February 02, 2009

Looking Back With Bob Almond

Speaking with Bob Almond is always a treat - remind me to tell you about the time we spent over two and a half hours on the phone talking for an interview that I've not yet finished transcribing, mainly due to a crappy phone connection. Until I do get that one finished and updated, I'm damn happy to be able to run this interview with Bob, as done by Kevin Scott. I'm sure that people don't want to read what I've got to say here, so without further ado, allow me to present Kevin and Bob!

*This interview took place before the announcement of the new spin on Black Panther with a re-launch in February 2009

KEVIN SCOTT: I’m in the place with the first inker that really caught my eye and made me appreciate the whole skill set........industry veteran Bob Almond!!!

Bob how are things going with you?

BOB ALMOND: Great, thanks!

KS: How long have you been in the industry?

BA: I was hired in late '91 and my first pages arrived on my birthday, January 4, 1992.

KS: What was the first piece you worked on?

BA: Warlock & the Infinity Watch # 5

KS: Did you pick this title or were you just told this is what you’ll be working on?

BA: The latter. But they could have offered me Squirrel Girl and I would’ve jumped...I’D MADE IT TO MARVEL!!!

KS: Marvel was always the BIG goal?

BA: Yes.

KS: Did you try many other Publishers?

BA: I tried EVERY other publisher.

KS: How did it feel to come onto a book that had spun out of such a successful mini series like Infinity Gauntlet?

BA: Holy crap! Among my biggest comic creator heroes were Jim Starlin, George Perez, & Joe Rubenstein! And now I was on the spin-off by Jim, Angel Medina, and Terry Austin, more idols!

KS: Was it daunting following Terry Austin?

BA: More than you can ever know.

KS: So how did you over come this? Did you seek advice or lock yourself away and just work??

BA: Both. I asked the office to speak to a couple of inkers on the phone and I was connected with Silver Surfer inker Tom Christopher, Joe Rubenstein, and Terry himself. Joe asked me a lot of questions and discussed the various tools he used. Terry was gracious but he said very little and didn’t discuss tools, telling me that whatever works for me is fine. Tom was more helpful because he had only recently gone solo as a pro after serving as an assistant of Joe’s. So he knew where I was coming from as a newbie.

After I absorbed all this info I locked myself away and worked.

KS What made you want to get into the Comics Industry?

BA: I became a Marvel zombie (the term coined LONG before the series) at the age of nine and I was a huge AVENGERS fan. But after seeing the powerful and exciting work of a young George Perez was what clinched it for me that I needed to create comic books.

KS: So what made you decide to become an inker?

BA: Failure to become a penciler. I collected a stack of rejection letters from editors in regards to my penciling samples. After I tried out for some inking samples I showed them to the right people (Jim Starlin) at the right time (a Bernie Wrightson artist get-together) and suddenly my future was inked in!

KS: Can you remember what kind of things the Editors were pointing out to you in regards to your pencil work?

BA: In Art College I was drawing a lot from reference so they basically expressed the priority to draw more and get better without the need for the reference. I don’t think I was criticized much for the sequential storytelling. That’s the funny thing about the different areas of illustration. You can rely on a lot of reference as a commercial artist and that’s acceptable. But do the same thing in comic art and there’s a real stigma about it. Plus it slows down your production speed in regards to deadlines.

KS: So you got that last rejection letter, what made you not give up the dream?

BA: I wasn’t yet at the stage where I felt crushed, only disappointed. The criticisms about my work were right on but I was still determined to do whatever I needed to to break in in any manner possible. The inking samples came about because I’d read that Dark Horse Comics was supplying pencil photocopies to ink over and back then I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing that for newbies. So I requested the copies which were from series like Indiana Jones, Predator, Terminator, and Aliens. I was supposed to rubber cement tracing vellum over them and ink them that way. I did so and shipped them out and waited. Later I had that opportunity with Bernie and Jim and, lo and behold, that paid off as previously mentioned. It was later that I got my DHC rejection letter while I was already hired from Marvel.

KS: How did that feel, did you want to call them up and tell them that you didn’t need them anyway?

BA: That thought probably passed through my mind at the time. But the funny thing is that after all these years I have yet to get my foot in the Dark Horse door.

KS: What would you say the differences of penciling and inking are?

BA: The penciler designs the page and tells the story by rendering everything in pencil. The inker elaborates on and enhances that by reinterpreting the work in ink. The penciler is like the lead guitarist in a band. The inker is the bassist, the support. The guitarist can do solo work but they work best together.

KS: I like that analogy, it works nicely. Touching on something you said earlier, what is your opinion on using photo referencing in comics?

BA: I don’t see a problem with using it as a guide occasionally. I can’t really condemn the idea since I was in that boat myself.

KS: Getting back to ‘The BIG break’, were things like the Bernie Wrightson artist get-together happening all the time, back in the 90’s?

BA: These events became bi-monthly and were welcome to the neighboring artist community and the venue rotated. I was at a couple at Bernie’s house and one at another’s.

They were more an excuse to get together and critique each others work. And to feast and booze it up among friends.

KS: Had you met Jim Starlin prior to this get-together?

BA: No, I hadn’t met Jim before and I don’t know if I would’ve approached him on my own. Bernie introduced my work to him as they were close friends.

KS: Did you initially know how long you’d be working on Warlock & the Infinity Watch?

BA: No idea. I just went with it. But it was told to me by someone that there was so much work needed and not enough artists to produce it so I wasn’t worried. Who knew that the bottom would fall out from under the industry within 2-3 years?

KS: What happened next?

BA: I worked on the Medina issues and later inked over much of the Tom Grindberg issues. In between issues, I was also fortunate to ink other material from that office like Silver Sable, Silver Surfer, a Marvel Holiday Special, Secret Defenders, Guardians of the Galaxy, Cosmic Powers, and Starmasters. Then things dried up in early ’95 after my editor was layed off. While I was able to pick up a few projects from other editors I had to find another source of income and I found that at Malibu Comics where I worked for a while. I was still able to get in a decade’s worth of straight work from Marvel in some fashion, after all, Malibu was owned by Marvel at that point.

KS: It seems that you worked on a lot of cosmic properties, was this where you passion lay or just the way things fell into place?

BA: The latter since those titles were produced from mostly one editorial office. But I always enjoyed the cosmic properties. So it was serendipity when Quasar later fell into my lap after a five year absence from Marvel.

KS: When you were working on a lot of books, how did this actually work? How many books could you ink at the same time?

BA: I usually worked on one project at a time with very little overlap. I spent whatever time was necessary to complete it meaning I’d often put in 7 days a week and 14-16 hours a day.

KS: Would you say you’re a fast inker?

BA: After that last explanation, the answer would probably be a no. If there was something I could do I’d gladly give it a shot but nothing yet.

KS: Do you think this may have had an effect on what projects were/are being offered to you?

BA: Sometimes. When I’m offered a job I make sure of I understand what timeline parameters I’ll be dealing with. And if the gig is a rush job and I can’t do it, even with an assistant, then I have to decline. This hurts short term financially but in the long term it’s better because if I don’t meet the deadline because I didn’t know well enough to say ‘no’ I probably won’t hear from them again. Whereas, if I’m honest they will respect that and offer me something later. That’s the hope anyway. Sadly, it doesn’t always play out that way. Some guys can be forgiving about blown deadlines. But y’never know. And I hate being unprofessional about my dealings with editors. It’s the kind of thing to get really neurotic about.

KS: How is it working with an assistant?

BA: Depends on the assistant. I usually recruit them from shows or the mail or email if they showed me their samples. It’s a scary thing when you don’t know someone to trust them with original art from a job because you’re ultimately responsible for it. Most of the time, if I didn’t already know them pretty well, I took on someone whom someone else vouched for. It’s ideal if they’re local and can work within your home because you can follow-up every step of the way and not have to pay to ship art back and forth. Some assistants worked out really well and some others not so much. It takes time to train and get the person to simulate the inker’s style but if you get a good assistant it can really work out well. Regrettably for the inker, if they turn out to be a real talent they probably won’t be around long and go solo professionally. So you have to start over again.

Usually an inker will pick a page where there’s considerable ‘background’ art and have the assistant ink that material and maybe the small figures. I pay proportionally for what percent of the page they did compared to me. It doesn’t pay a lot considering that there’s often no credit for them but being that they are getting on the job training for free and many will eventually break in if they have the skill and perseverance it’s a fairly good deal. Some guys I started out who later went pro include mainstream inker Norman Lee, sculptor Andy Wiernicki, and small press artist Scott Ambruson.

KS: What was it like working in comics in the ‘90’s? You came in at the end of ‘91 and things were booming, but then the balloon popped. How did this affect you?

BA: It was unexpected and scary. It affected all of us to this day in making us more cautious and be more prepared with back-up plans. Not everyone survived but those that did were probably stronger for it.

KS: What keeps you focused?

BA: Paying the bills, but being a longtime fan helps!

KS: So what happened after Malibu?

BA: Acclaim Comics followed where I was paired up with Sal Velluto for the first time. Some intermittent Marvel gigs. Penny-Farthing Press, some DC, and finally Black Panther at Marvel.

KS: Was the Penny-Farthing Press work Captain Gravity?

BA: Later, yes, with Sal. But in ’98-99 I got my first job from them, Decoy, a four-issue limited series and the first one with that property. Between both jobs for PFP I inked some pin-ups for The Victorian series.

KS: What DC work did you do?

BA: Mostly pin-ups and short stories in Resurrection Man, No Man’s Land Secret Files, Batman Chronicles, and a JLA 80-Page Giant. It wasn’t until after Black Panther for Marvel that Sal & I got some JSA and Aquaman work.

KS: Were there any significant differences working DC to Marvel?

BA: At that time, yeah, DC had the talent work way ahead of schedule like by six months whereas Marvel always played it close to the printer deadlines and still does. I understand that over the years DC also runs it closer. Also, the atmosphere at DC was always more like a business whereas the Marvel environment always seemed like a college campus, less structured. The traumatic ‘90s did change these surroundings a bit, of course, but I haven’t been to the Marvel offices since the end of the Black Panther run in ’02 and I haven’t been to DC since just after that. Generally DC has been more structured (I hesitate to say bureaucratic) than Marvel but DC has the nice entertainment corporation backing from Warner Brothers so they show more respect to the talent in areas like royalties and sending comp copies of our work. But Marvel has my fave characters.

KS: How about working at an Independent Publisher, did you notice any difference in the working environment or culture?

BA: Some were like the Big Two and others were smaller with like 3 people in a room doing everything with less company policies and procedures to deal with. Sometimes you get more input and creative freedom at a smaller publisher but you often also get less pay for your work, less recognition since the material is low-profile and a limit to the quantity of work they can offer you.

KS: Are there any independents where you’d really like to work at the moment?

BA: Although they’re mainstream, I’ve never been able to penetrate the Dark Horse wall so that would be rewarding to one day do so, and other than two pages, Image. But I’ve been fortunate to work for so many independents like Acclaim, Valiant, PFP, IDW, Harris, Malibu, Topps, A First Salvo, London Night, etc. with only a few major guys slipping by me over the years like Crossgen, Tekno-comics, etc. that I can’t complain. Maybe Archie, Dynamite, or Bongo would be cool.

KS: Acclaim was where you met Sal. What was the book you worked on?

BA: Bloodshot. I came aboard with issue 8 to replace the previous two inkers who had worked on the series but I stayed until the end with Sal with issue 16.

KS: How did that come about?

BA: During the mid-‘90s dry period I was ink assisting my bud Mark McKenna over Mike McKone on Magnus Robot Fighter and the assistant editor, Alex Glass, felt that if I could ink McKone then I could handle Velluto and faster than the previous ink artist. So he called me in the summer/fall of ’97 to hire me and Sal called me shortly after to discuss what would become our long-lasting relationship since.

KS: Did you and Sal have instant chemistry, cause you really seemed to work well together?

BA: Oh no. If you check out the first few issues of Bloodshot you’ll see that my slick brush style of the time changed after the first couple of issues. Sal had me try our using markers in order to give the work some edge and not be so clean. In fact, I use markers to this day, among other tools. Even so, for a while after Bloodshot, like from ’98 until a few issues into Black Panther by 2000, Sal was not totally satisfied with my look and I kept trying to appease him since that was my job to enhance and elaborate on his intentions. This was why I didn’t ink him on the Marvel Remix Silver Surfer 2-issue series because he wanted that one to look as good as possible since the format was supposed to be more prestigious and he’s a huge Silver Surfer fan. Then as we started out on Black Panther Sal was trying a different look and it took a while to get it down. And then when we did, it wasn’t colored and printed like we were told it would so we reverted back to a more traditional look for us and we’ve been pretty much in synch ever since.

KS: Did Sal tell you his artistic vision and then you’d send samples trying to capture that affect?

BA: Yes but no samples. It was a work in progress as we went along.

KS: How did the Black Panther come about?

BA: When the title left Marvel Knight it was almost cancelled but then it was decided to integrate the series into the Marvel Universe of titles and editor Ruben Diaz intercepted the book. He had worked with Sal at DC previously and he had hired Sal for that Surfer project. So when the slot opened up, he hired us.

KS: Did you meet with Priest before you actually came on board?

BA: No. He lives out west and he doesn’t do public appearances so meeting wasn’t an option, regrettably. Actually, we didn’t hear from Priest via email until like 3 months into the series. The email correspondence was fast and furious from there. After the BP series we did have a 3-way phone conference so that we could discuss pitches for new projects so I did finally get to talk to him which made me happy and nervous at the same time. Sadly, no assignments came out of that discussion. Other than a few emails for some months after that, we haven’t heard from him since. Which is one of my greatest regrets. I’d love to do more work with him. He’s a freakin’ genius!

KS: Did you know about the character before you started work on the book?

BA: Indeed. Remember, Bob the Marvel zombie? I was familiar with all the classic Marvel characters, both from what I collected and read since the ‘70s and from my back issue collection going back to the early silver-age. I had his early guest-appearances, his Jungle Action series, his Kirby series in the late ‘70s, and probably most of his appearances and series from there until the gig.

KS: So you really had an idea on the whole visual ambience as well as the mythos. Did you have any favourite characters/villains or elements about the series from those classic issues you had?

BA: I wanted to use Klaw and Man-ape but Priest resisted. I subsequently wore him down and convinced him to just do it. I lobbied for Storm like many other readers. The various Jungle Action villains. Avengers. I got Sal to draw the original Venom into the final issue.

KS: What did you think of Priest’s take on the character and its mythos? And did this view point change from before taking on the book, to when you were deep in the mix?

BA: I thought he was brilliant and working with the man only reinforced that opinion. He may have reinterpreted or retconned some new ideas into the mythology to give it a fresh feel but he always respected what came before and tried building on much of that. The best of both worlds.

KS: Did you get to have input on the look of things and even story elements?

BA: Did I have input? I had more say with that run than any job I’ve done before or since. Priest welcomed requests and ideas and he used most of the ones I had. In fact, that’s why he started crediting me and Sal as ‘storytellers’ along with him starting with issue 19. If I had visual ideas or occasionally a cover image in mind, Sal would utilize many of them. And I scanned images as reference for Sal from my personal comic collection. I played unofficial ‘continuity cop’, pointing out any errors and discrepancies in the script or art to Priest, Sal and the editor. It was extra work but it was a passion of mine and I’m most proud of that collaboration than any other since.

KS: You mentioned earlier, when you came onto Panther, it had just escaped the clutches of cancelation. Now all the fans know that this was a continuous fear with the book. How did that affect everyone? And did it have any impact on the stories?

BA: It was very stressful. In fact, you’ll notice that after the long Killmonger saga, which ran from 13-24 or 25, all arcs were much shorter. And those arcs were often intended to have another issue/ chapter and priest would have to edit the story elements down leaving some stuff on the cutting room floor, as it were.

KS: What was your take on the low sales, but critical acclaim the book was getting?

BA: Yeah, we were the best book out there that no one was reading. Priest doesn’t write standard super-hero fare or, as he puts it, ‘ten-minute reads’. He wants to engage his readers so that they have to reread the issues to catch elements they missed the first time. They need to be read all at once as arcs. The non-linear storytelling can be quirky for some (and editorial had Priest delete that component late in the run). He’s not everyone’s cup of tea and when you throw in the political backdrop and not have gratuitous slugfests, many readers lose interest. But Priest wouldn’t ‘dumb it down’ so to speak so we were on an inevitable path but we were absolutely loved for what we were doing by a very vocal minority.

KS: What did you think of the introduction of Kasper Cole and the new direction that was tried after your run ended?

BA: I read about 4-6 issues into it before running out of free reading time due to my work schedule but I did buy the rest of the series. The constantly changing artists was tough and I wasn't overly engaged with the different characters and scenario. It may well be that I was simply too close to our own work to appreciate this version. I still plan to go back one day and read the final issues when T'Challa returned and Killmonger woke up.

KS: Is Panther still a character you follow, do you like the new series?

BA: No, I don't read it. I've read a lot of messages by Reggie Hudlin, his fans at his forum, and readers from the Comicboards BP board to get the gist of what's going on. The new series is seemingly a new take, or retcon on the character and his history. While there are some nods to Priest' run, much of the previous series, CJP and before him, has been ejected. I love John Romita. Jr.'s and Klaus Janson's art from the first year but the art teams have rotated frequently since then which I'm not into but I'm perhaps too 'old school' in my likes. This series approach is apparently what Marvel wanted and the sales were strong, or at least initially, so I don't blame Reggie. I wish them all the luck in the world and we'll see how far they can keep it up.

KS: Would you like to revisit it or do you prefer not to go back?

BA: I would be happy to revisit if Marvel and Reggie would have Sal Velluto and myself do an issue or story or cover. And I'd really LOVE to have Priest do a story with us for old time's sake. I'd like to think the fans would appreciate and enjoy both options.

KS: Are there any new books in the pipeline, anymore knowledge you’d like to drop before our time’s up?

BA: This has been a slow year at first but since the summer it's been crazy. I've worked with Sal on an Archer & Armstrong short story with Jim Shooter that shipped in September in a HC compilation of reprinted material from Valiant Entertainment. Sal and I also worked together on some pages for The Phantom for Sweden's Egmont Publishing which is published only in Europe.

For IDW I inked a few pages over Gordon Purcell for the last issue (#5) of Star Trek year Four: The Enterprise Experiment which led to what I'm working on now for IDW, Star Trek: The Last Generation. It's a 5-issue series with Gordon pencils and written by Andrew Harris. Think Star Trek meets the X-men's "Days of Future Past" and you'll see a dark, alternate What-if? style epic incorporating most of the characters and aspects of the Star Trek universe. I just wrapped up issue 1. Besides that I have like 20 commissions waiting for me to do and ongoing Inkwell Awards responsibilities so things will be hectic around here but you won't fine me complaining.

KS: Where will fans be able to find you online and off-line and do you do commissions?

BA: As mentioned, I do commissions, although the list is closed for now until I can eventually catch up.

Offline, hopefully at NYCC again in February. Online, you can catch me official site is The Bob Almond Inkwell. I can also be found at The Inkwell Awards site, my Comixtreme forum, I'm on Comicspace and I have 2 Yahoo mailing lists of my own and I'm a member of The Inkwell mailing list.

KS: Well Bob, you're always welcome to stop by whenever you want to talk about any new projects, this has been live!

BA: Thanks for the opportunity, Kevin. I appreciate it. And thanks for everyone's support and kind words through the years!

KS: Outstanding Bob, thanks a lot for your time, much appreciated. Hope to catch you again in New York.

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