Sunday, January 03, 2010

Looking Back With RON WILSON

There's a complicated story behind this interview so do bear with me. It was done way back in June, 2006, but we moved house shortly after and the tape vanished in the move. For a long while I lamented the fact that I'd lost an interview with someone who really doesn't do interviews all that often, if at all, and, to me anyway, it was verging on being a crime. Then a few weeks ago, I found a box and inside the box I found a pile of cassettes. As I began to play them I suddenly discovered that in the box were a pile of tapes that I'd long given up on as being lost - interviews with artists and creators on a wide range of topics. I dared not hope that I'd find this tape, but when I did I cleaned it up, enhanced the audio and transcribed it as fast as I could.

Ron Wilson began at Marvel in the early 1970s, pencilling short horror stories. He rapidly moved to become a prolific cover artist and provided interior art to titles as varied as Power Man, The Avengers, Frankenstien Monster, Master Of Kung Fu, Man Thing and many more. Despite all of this Ron is probably best known for pencilling virtually the entire run of The Thing, mostly over John Byrne scripts, in the mid 1980s, following it up with another fondly remembered run on Wolfpack.

Ron's career effectively ended in the late 1980s. He worked for Marvel and all too briefly for DC, in the early 1990s, but believed that editors were more interested in the 'new breed' of artists that were then emerging - the Image era of artists such as Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee ended Ron's career as a comic book artist as work dried up and editors stopped calling. Ron slipped off into a form of retirement.

In recent years Jeff Jaworski tracked Ron down and began to represent him as an art agent. Ron was overwhelmed with commission requests, and expressed genuine surprise that people would both remember him after all this time and also want to own a piece of art drawn by him. If you wish to own a piece of art drawn by Ron, then contact Jeff, via his web-site.

RON WILSON: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I was raised in Canarsie, which was a melting pot of Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italians and Afro-Americans.
DANIEL BEST: Did you have any formal art training?
RW: No, I really tried to mimic my brother. He would draw faces. We didn’t have paper to draw on, we used newspaper and wherever there were blank spots on the page we’d fill up the spaces. My father would take us to church early on a Sunday morning and we’d draw in the back of the car and we’d have a contest to see who could draw the best head-shot, you know, faces. I was just trying to keep up with him really, so I’d just copy him, which was a lot of fun. When you grow up in a city like that you get exposed to a lot of programs, a lot of access programs that’d come into the neighborhood and it helped shaped me as far as my art and my career and it helped shaped me with the path I was going to be taking.
DB: What was you early exposure to comic books?
RW: My first exposure was from a friend of mine who was in high school and he collected DC comics. He was very enthusiastic about comic books. I’d always been around comics but I’d never actually bought one. After school one day he took me to a comic book store, well, actually it was a pharmacist/ice cream store and he had the books on a rack that’d spin around and the books were about twelve cents. I remember the Marvel books had just stood out and, the Avengers and the like. It had a lot of heroes, it had appeal and I was more attracted to Marvel from that time. My friend would pick up DC books and we would read each other’s books. [laughter] But that was my first exposure to comic books.
DB: What were some of your early influences?
RW: As I got older I was really in love with Gene Colan’s art. After a while it got to be Jack Kirby and John Buscema. Those were the top three. Gene Colan did all of those issues of Iron Man and I just loved his art and the way he drew his panels, the space and expression. I like the way he did his shadows, the way he handled the light and dark. John Buscema was more of an anatomy freak and I loved the way he structured his anatomy and of course he was influenced by Jack Kirby, as we all were. Kirby, well I call him the God of comic books. [laughter] Nobody was like the King.
DB: How did you break into Marvel Comics?
RW: You know, you dream about entering comic books, so it all shaped up in my last year of high school. Actually I went to school with Lawrence Jacobs, the Welcome Back Kotter kid, we were in the same art class and we’d have art contests. We had a really good teacher who said, “You want to get into Marvel Comics? You should take it all up there.” At one point I got brave and I think I mailed some work in, I can’t really remember. I know I went up to meet Frank Giacoia. He was looking at samples at the time and what I remember is that he was talking about my women. I had drawn these women with square jaws, they weren’t really round enough. I loved comic books back then and I was trying to emulate those guys who had a real touch for women. I could always draw men but women, you know, a bit softer. Frank Giacoia looked at my work and said, “You’re about six months off.” And then a lean, tall guy came out, looked at me and went back into his office. That was Stan Lee, but I didn’t know Stan Lee at the time, or what he looked like, but looking back that was Stan Lee.

So Frank Giacoia looked at my stuff and I was supposed to be starting college that year, but instead of being discouraged I went back to the shop and picked up a few comic books and started drawing, so it was like a boost and it was exciting. You’re supposed to be down and dejected but I was barely eighteen and all I thought of doing was drawing for six months and then coming back. [laughter] That was the first time.

Then in my first year at the Brooklyn Technical College Of Art I sent some more samples in and, at that time, John Romita was art director. I didn’t hear anything for about three weeks and then I got a message to give John Romita a call, so I did and he said, “Hey kid, I’ve been meaning to talk with you. I like your stuff.” I think I drew about ten pages and ten pages was the key, because professionals should be able to draw ten pages and believe me, after ten pages they know what you’re doing, they know what your skills are, so he said, “Why don’t you come on up and talk?” I was in a phone booth and I nearly shot to the moon, I was so excited. [laughter] At the time John Romita was the artist, he was the art director, he was everything and mentor. John took me underneath his wing and introduced me to Don McGregor and Marv Wolfman as an artist and I believe they were working on Tales of The Zombie, they were working on a horror book and that’s where the short stories were and artists who were breaking into the industry could get their training, or start, by working on short horror stories. I think my first job was Chamber Of Chills, written by Doug Moench, and it was a horror story. John was good to me, he put me in the field so I could get my training. In the meantime I wanted to do the hero stuff and I was itching for that stuff, but there was like a little training course you had to go through first and that was all good, to shape your skills first. The thing I learned right away that the key to get into Marvel was to be good straight away and learn to draw fast because you were up against deadlines, and John Verpoorten, the production manager, was a big guy, cigar in the corner of his mouth, and he’d come in there and see all these kids, scrawny, looking for work and they’d ask, “John, when is this due?” and he’d say, “This was due yesterday.” So we got pretty quick overnight. Ed Hannigan and I were pals at the time and there were a lot of empty booths at Marvel that weren’t being used so Ed and I just commandeered these rooms and we’d draw books overnight there and eat rotisserie chicken with wine and cheese. That’s all we ate, and we’d work on the books all night and wave them at John Verpoorten the next day. Because the books were late they couldn’t get the artists that they wanted, so there was a need for us. The biggest adjustment I had to make was speed, because how do you get good and fast at the same time? I really had to jump into the pool where the cold water was and adapt. That’s how I got started, in one big breath. [laughter]
DB: Mike Esposito once told me that he used to open Marvel up in the mornings to find Tony Isabella sleeping on a desk and people still working though the night.
RW: Yes, it was sort of like a family thing and I can’t really name all the names, but John Verpoorten, Frank Giacoia, these were like production inkers. Stuff would come in and they’d ink it right there and then. People would take work home but you needed production staff, and these were guys who did stuff as it came in, stuff that needed correcting, fixed up, mechanical stuff. These were the staff inkers, Mike Esposito, Giacoia, I think Vince Colletta was more of a freelancer. He’d come in from Jersey I think, but Esposito and Giacoia, they worked on staff. But you’d come in and a lot of guys would have spent the night. Marvel had a lot of space and they were growing, it was a great time for them and a great time for me.
DB: How big a thrill was it to walk into Marvel and meet some of these people for the first time?
RW: It was great! When John took me under his wing he handled all of the covers. I think I did a bunch of covers. Marie Severin was the assistant and some of the stuff would go to her. Doing those covers was a great learning experience and I got to work with some stars whose names I knew. There are no words to explain the immense feeling. There were some superstars, freelancers, who’d never come into the offices, they had their families and got used to doing that every day. You don’t lose any enthusiasm, but really, when John Buscema walked in the door everybody would run, just to get a glimpse of this man. It was the same with all the big names. It was fantastic.
DB: Was there ever anyone who walked in that made you stop dead?
RW: Yes. Jack Kirby. I met him in San Deigo. There were a bunch of conventions that would come up and a lot of the big names couldn’t make the conventions so Marvel needed representatives. We were walking down the hall and the person in charge of booking grabbed us and said, “Hey, I need an artist to appear at a convention, do you want to go?” I said, “Of course!” We were doing our book at the time, but we had the time to go, so we said, “Yeah, book us!” [laughter] That never stopped. We’d get booked for every show, “Hey, I think you should go to Chicago. I think you should go to Boston. Hey, can you do Atlanta?” Filling in was really great. Getting back to San Diego, Jack Kirby had this entourage around him. Wherever he’d go he had this group of people who’d follow him and I was in awe. I was standing with Joe Rubenstein and I said, “Joe, its Jack Kirby!” I was too scared to approach him, so Rubenstein went over and escorted Jack over to where I was. My heart was pounding and I’m sure he could hear it, it was pounding so hard. Jack had this very warm presence about him and he shook my hand with a firm hand grip. I told him how much I loved his work and how he was the best, and he said, “Just do it your way.” He smiled and then walked off to meet a pile of people who were waiting for him. I’ve remembered those words ever since. So it was Jack Kirby and I was definitely in awe, he was a superstar.
DB: At one stage you filled his shoes when you did two issues of the Fantastic Four that were inked by Joe Sinnott.
RW: [laughter] No, I don’t think I was ever close to Jack Kirby. I think Stan Lee called me the ‘Poor Man’s Jack Kirby’ when he was on the West Coast. He said, “Ron, you’re the poor man’s Jack Kirby,” [laughter] so no, everything I tried to do to be like Jack Kirby, well, you know the expression, ‘Be like Mike’? You hope that something will rub off. We would have all these great lectures from Stan Lee when we were working at Marvel. He had his own offices and would see us from time to time. We’d go in and always get a lecture from Stan. Stan was very exaggerated and would speak with his hands, “Look at Jack Kirby with all his power. John Buscema really didn’t take off at first. John Buscema never got it until I said, ‘Look at Jack Kirby’, look at the power he’d get in his pencils!” You really had to see Jack Kirby’s pencils, they would blow your socks off. And Jack would draw on paper that was twice up. How do you make a deadline that way? Those were the pros, those were the guys. I’m not taking anything away from the new school, the kids of today, but oh man! You salivate when you see that stuff. Jack Kirby was really an illustrator for comic books. John Buscema was an illustrator. Everything Kirby knew about anatomy came from drawing anatomy. Kirby developed a cartooning style with power, exaggeration for comic books. You want to get things right, you want to be anatomically correct, go to illustration. Pick up some advertising. [laughter] Boy, oh boy, I’m old school, all the way. I hope I haven’t disappointed you here, [laughter] but I get emotional talking about those guys. That was my childhood. I was a kid, all wet, running up and down the offices.
DB: You graduated from the horror stories to the superhero stuff. One of the first superhero stories you did was The Avengers.
RW: Well, you know, they say the first thing that goes is your memory. [laughter] The only thing I can remember is Power Man. I remember people and what people were in the office, and Roy Thomas was the editor. We had changes in editors like we had changes in weather. Roy looked at me and said, “I like you and Ed Hannigan so I’m gonna put you both to work.” I’d go up there every day because we had a freelancer’s room. Ed and I were the first to develop a freelancer’s room at Marvel so they could throw us out of there. [laughter] We had a run, we had a rave. Rich Buckler came into the room, Arvell Jones came later, and we all developed this room.

So Roy said, “I’m going to put you on Power Man.” I think this was in 1974, Tony Isabella was the writer. Billy Graham was the first artist. When I was drawing all of the horror books, Billy would come in and take Power Man and would turn pages in and talk to Marv Wolfman about the theatre. I’d be looking at them, not knowing that I was going to be the next artist. Billy Graham no longer fitted the bill so the script was open and Roy put me on the book and I did a good run on Power Man. Thinking back I probably drew the Avengers at some point.
DB: Billy Graham is an artist who is somewhat forgotten now.
RW: He was very dynamic. Of course I remember him because he was the first black artist I saw at Marvel, and he might have been the first black artist to get work at Marvel. When he walked in I said, “Oh, black!” [laughter] I didn’t know that because you don’t know until you meet these guys, so I definitely remember that. But he just loved the theatre and I guess he went on to theatrical stuff. I stayed on that book for a while and I’d make guest appearances on books, I think I did the Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu, or at least a cover to that, but you’d have a lot of special appearances and a lot of inventory books, fill-ins. The schedules were really tough to make and you had to be on schedule to get by. Your reputation was enhanced if you could do a book really fast and make the deadlines. They loved that, but, of course, it had to be good and that was the toughest thing for me, to get good and get fast and meet the pressures of deadlines. It was a tough business, but I had passion and I loved it. It was what I wanted to do, it was the job that I picked.
DB: The book you stayed the longest on was Marvel Two-In-One. You virtually drew every character in the Marvel universe by default as they’d cross over into the book.
RW: Yes, a lot of guest appearances, a lot of fill ins, heroes, so forth. With the Thing I actually got tired drawing all of those rocks toward the end, but with the introduction of Byrne I had to get with it because John Byrne was hot. White hot. Hot as fire, he was sort of like Larry Bird coming in and waking up the NBA. He was very quick, very fast and very good. Byrne put a lot of spark into me and you had guys who were trendsetters and that was good for the industry.
DB: You worked with Byrne.
RW: That was later on. The days I remember with Marvel Two-In-One was with Tom DeFalco was the writer, he was a very good writer, an underestimated talent as a writer. Jim Shooter comes to mind. I did very well under Shooter. No-one liked pin-ups. Shooter would say, “If you’re going to do a spin-up then why are you cutting off his feet? Pull back, use an establishing shot.” Jim Shooter was a master story-teller and he preferred that you not be as dynamic. You could use big panels, but if it’s telling the story then be clear. If you weren’t a good story-teller then you didn’t last long with Jim Shooter. I tried to listen to everything he said and I tried to adapt to the way he felt comics should be. And he had a lot of good points, he’d say it was like looking at a movie, you’d get your close-ups, get your camera angles and timing. If it was all a bunch of close-ups it’d never work, so the technique had to be right on.
DB: Shooter is a bit of a maligned character these days.
RW: First of all Jim Shooter was right for Marvel. He had people who liked him and people who didn’t like him, but Bill Cosby once said, “You can’t make everybody happy.” You can’t please everybody, but I felt Jim Shooter was perfect for Marvel in as far as the direction he wanted to take it. Jim Shooter was a very good writer, sometimes controversial in terms of subject matter, but sometimes edgy, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I can only speak for myself, that under Jim Shooter, I thrived. We got along and we did other activities. We’d hang out and talk to each other. We’d got to the gym and put on boxing gloves and box each other, go to the movies, different things like that. We’d take a camera and shoot us knocking each other’s heads off and stuff. [laughter] We hung out and did things together, so it was like a family. So thumbs up for Jim Shooter, wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, that’s my man and will always be.

I wasn’t a writer and I wasn’t jockeying for power, so I wasn’t in a collision course with Jim. All I had to do was draw good stories, and that’s what I concentrated on. I didn’t get into the politics at Marvel, I didn’t rock the boat. I was glad to be there, it was part of my childhood dream.
DB: You became one of the main cover artists at Marvel during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
RW: Thanks to John Romita. Some freelancers did their own covers, but Marvel had a certain trademark, the covers were to represent a certain style and John Romita was a master of cover design. When a cover had to be done he sometimes send it to me or Marie Severin and if I didn’t live up to par then Marie would give me a whipping. [laughter] I had good teachers. John Romita was a very good artist and he knew what Stan Lee wanted on a cover. He’d mentor me and take out the tracing paper and say, “Let’s change it, let’s change this bit over here,” just little things. So believe me, if the covers look any good it’s thanks to John Romita, period.
DB: Did DC ever approach you during your time at Marvel?
RW: I felt that as an artist, from a kid, I wanted to work for Marvel. I think Marv Wolfman said at one time, “You know Ron, I’d love to see your version of Superman.” You still might see that, but no. I did some stuff with Jim Owsely, but that was later on. I was a Marvel boy. You look at Neal Adams and you think DC because he did more work for DC than he did Marvel, so there’s nothing wrong with preference. And preference is a big thing, along with style and who you know.
DB: A few artists only ever worked for Marvel. Herb Trimpe was one.
RW: A lot of artists crossed over, and there’s nothing wrong with that because you get experience and the word is versatile. Sometimes they’d bounce back to Marvel. Sometimes they left Marvel because they were unhappy and went to DC. It all depends on who you are your relationships. With the characters I never got to draw, well there’s always commissions and eBay, so I get to draw them now.
DB: You created Superboxers and worked with John Byrne on that project.
RW: It came after the first time I saw Star Wars. We all saw it and thought of Dr Doom from the Fantastic Four. But you had to be inspired after coming out of seeing Star Wars and I think that’s what sparked a change in the industry. I walked out of the movie and saw two boxers. I took it all the way to Walt Disney who optioned the graphic novel. They held onto it for about three years, they paid me, and then it went into turnaround and I lost that battle. It’s all about money; they didn’t want to pay forty two million at the time. I had another investor, but it’s all about politics, but we came close. We had other independent movie producers came after it, the energy was right. Byrne did excellent scripting, he didn’t impede the way I wanted the story told. The book came from an idea that I pitched to Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco over lunch and Shooter said yes right over lunch and it was a go. Those were different times, “Where can I go today to pitch something over lunch?” [laughter] he was a boxing fan, we were both wannabe boxers, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Robinson and all that, and I always wanted to a science fiction boxing story and Marvel were exploring a partnership with creators and a freelancer could take advantage of owing the rights and optioning it off to Marvel to print and then take it elsewhere and owning it all. It was one of the first graphic novels done, so I jumped on that ship and sailed away. Marvel gave me $12,000 to pick anyone I wanted to work on the book, so Byrne was writing, drawing…Byrne was doing everything at the time, and he was the man. I used to call Rich Buckler and say, “Rich, you’re the man who would be King,” because we all wanted to be Rich Buckler because he was hot back then, he had this cool stuff.

The comic book industry gets a lot of credit for entering a marriage with the movie industry. The movie industry saw that it was very good and so they started working together. Today everyone wants to marry each others, video games want merchandise, all to come out at the same time. Marvel and DC are really the forerunners in this marriage; they’re all working together and feeding off each other.
DB: You stopped working after a while.
RW: I look back at the ‘80s and think of rappers, like the Sugarhill Gang. You had to be an icon to survive the ‘80s, to survive the changing trends and style. I called this time the Image Style. A lot of people at Marvel were shaking at Image and worried about their jobs and the style changed. I didn’t mind it; you have to get old someday. I did, but these guys were coming in and bringing a new style of penciling, of inking and were catching fire. Herb Trimpe said to me, “Ron, I see this stuff but I’m never gonna draw like that,” [laughter] Herb was Herb Trimpe and that was it. Image came on to the scene and shook things up and that’s what the people wanted, a style change, a trend change. Sure I’m a bit comic book fan and I had a good run and some moved into other fields such as animation. It was the Image explosion and style trend that made me feel that maybe they had to put me away, but that’s ok because when I see Al Green all I want is the classic stuff, so when people commission me now they want the same guy. [laughter] So I don’t mind at all. It’s good to be wanted for something and I have my place in Pop Culture. I’m part of people’s minds and lives and I guess they feel to me what I felt for Kirby. I’m still around, still drawing. I’m still watching other artists and still enjoying myself, and I think that’s what it’s all about.


swanshadow said...

Excellent interview, Daniel! I'm glad it finally surfaced so that the rest of us could enjoy it.

Ron Wilson was one of the premier talents of the '80s. It's criminal how many of the best artists from that era are largely forgotten today.

I was lucky enough to get one of the first commissions Ron did when he got back into doing them. It's still one of my favorites.

Daniel Best said...

And it's a bloody good piece of art too Michael!!

Damon said...

Wow, just find this interview and enjoyed it greatly. Ron Wilson drew some of my favorite comic stories. I hope one day you'll do an interview with another favorite artist of mine, longtime GREEN LANTERN penciler Darryl Banks. Keep up the great work!