Sunday, April 04, 2010

From The Desk Of Rich Buckler: Part I - Early Days Of Comic Book Fandom

I'm actually quite excited here, but then it's not that difficult to get excited when you're starting an all new feature.  A while ago I was approached by Rich Buckler with the view of setting up a web-site that'd focus on his comic book art and work.  For those who don't know Rich has been involved with comic books since the late 1960s, and has seen, drawn, written and edited it all.  He's best known for his own creation, Deathlock, along with runs on titles such as The Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman, The Avengers, Spider-Man - hell, you name the character and Rich has drawn it.  It really is as easy as that.

Rich has worked at Marvel, DC, Archie, Skywald, Atlas-Seaboard and many other companies along the way.  He's as prolific as they come - by his own estimate he's drawn over 400 comic books over the course of his long career, and he's not finished yet.

(Right:  According to Rich, "This photo is me and the Legendary Dick Ayers at one of New York's Big Apple conventions (I think this was 2002 or 2003). I know I've been called a "legend"--but Dick is the real deal!")

When Rich and myself got to talking I discovered what some people already know but lot don't - he's an excellent storyteller, and he's got a lot of brilliant stories to tell.  He's worked with some of the greats of the industry, from Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Jim Steranko, along with Frank Frazetta, Neal Adams, Al Williamson, Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Alan Weiss, Jim Starlin, Joe Rubinstein, Michael Netzer, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Ron Wilson, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Dick Ayers, Wally Wood, Trevor Von Eeden, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando and many more.  That's an incredible array of talent, and Rich has been there with them all.

In these stories you'll find a story that has largely gone untold, until now.  Exclusive to this blog, and Rich's site, there'll be more stories on a semi-regular basis, detailing Rich's life in comic books from his early days in fandom through to his start at Gold Key, his breaking into Marvel and DC, through to his mentoring artists such as Mark Texeria, George Perez and Jim Lee, through to today.  So sit back and enjoy, and spread the word!

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Early Days Of Comic Book Fandom by Rich Buckler

(Left: Me and Jerry Bails--I was about 17 here)

Anyway, let's start this thing rolling. Where to begin? How about at the beginning, when I was just finishing High School, and I met...

Roy Thomas, who has always been an inspiration to me. In addition to being my favorite comic book writer and favorite writer to work with, he was (along with Dr. Jerry Bails), also one of the "founding fathers" of comic book fandom--although I don't think he would own up to this--he is too self-effacing). I have always found it a bit curious that neither Marvel or D.C. has shown any interest over the years, since All-Star Squadron, in getting the two of us together on a project (and there were quite a few times that we tried). He made working on All-Star Squadron a pleasure because of his devotion to the characters and to the Golden Age in general.

Let's go back just a little bit, to when I first met Jerry Bails (founder of "Alter Ego" magazine/fanzine, and one of the founders of organized comics fandom) in the late 1960's via Shel Dorf (yes, the same guy who started the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, and then went to the west coast to found the San Diego Comic Convention). Shel was the person who connected me to Jack Kirby (via mail and telephone)--more about that a little further on. His knowledge and collection of newspaper strips was encyclopaedic. Through him and his contacts I became familiar with the work of Will Eisner, Burne Hogarth, Dan Barry and Sy Barry, all the newspaper strip cartoonists really.

I had an opportunity several times to spend hours at a time poring over hundreds of huge full-color Sunday pages of Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond, Tarzan by Burne Hogarth, and collector's pages of Little Nemo--plus tons of collector editions of "big little books" and thousands of pulp magazines like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider. This, to a would-be comic book artist, was like the equivalent of visiting the Louvre (which I did do many years later). This was the stuff that "was" comic books before there were comic books.

It was Jerry gave me a rudimentary education that covered the Golden Age of comics. He also gave my very first professional assignment, which was a cover for one of his fanzines (he paid me for it, too--that's what made it "professional", at least for me it did).

I guess you might say that Jerry and Shel were my two earliest mentors, because of the time we spent together and interests we shared--and it was a magical time. I must have viewed hundreds of Golden Age comic books in Jerry's microfilm files. It was around this time that I first met Roy Thomas (who took over "Alter Ego" after Jerry Bails), whose energy and enthusiasm was always contagious, and Roy would later become a big booster of my work and was responsible for my more significant early assignments when he went on to become Editor In Chief at Marvel Comics.

(Right: Marty Greim, Me and Alan Milgrom--I think you can tell which one is which--around 1969--I'm not sure who the other people are)

Around that same time (I was around 17-18 years old) I met comic book fan and publisher Mike Tuohey by first writing him a letter. I found his address on a printed letter in a comic book--that's how we "networked" back in those days. It was the printed letters in the comics that helped initially in getting comic book fans together as a collective. It's how I came to meet Marty Greim and Tony Isabella and most of the "fan boys" that I hung out with and corresponded with by mail and contributed artwork to).

Anyway, I ended up taking over "Super-Hero," Mike's fanzine, since he was packing up and shipping out to college at the time. I additionally published a fanzine of all new amateur comics called "Intrigue" (which included my art and writing, and featured the work of other talented people--all of us worked for free).

These early fan publications were printed on ditto machines (a primitive process using blue ink, carbon paper masters, messy and really smelly chemicals that were probably toxic). I published out of the living room of my home, collated and stapled and stamped them all myself. I had about one hundred fifty subscribers then, which was at the time considered pretty respectable. When I think now about how much work was involved for this literal one-man operation, I am amazed that any of it actually happened--and I'm sure I would never try to do it again! It just goes to show how much love and devotion for comics went into all of the amazing fan publications that were coming out at that time.

I thought, back then, that for sure the really "big-name" fan artists would definitely make it to the professional ranks before me. Guys like Ron Foss, John Fantuccio, Biljo White and Richard "Grass" Green-- but it didn't happen for them. If I'm not mistaken, out of all of that talent pool, besides myself, only Alan Weiss and Mike Vosburg made it to the "big time" (in terms of mainstream, and the super-hero genre, at this period in the early 70's). A few others from Detroit came along a bit later, like Alan Milgrom, Jim Starlin, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard and Greg Theakston.

Why the big migration from Detroit? I'm not sure. We were all in touch with each other, and that may have had a lot to do with it. There did seem to be some kind of creative "renaissance" going on there, that's for sure. The Detroit comics scene was always bustling. It was at one of the first Detroit Triple Fan Fairs that I first met Al Williamson, Jim Steranko, Dick Giordano and Neal Adams.

This was before I made several trips to New York City to knock on the doors of all of the comic book publishers (I got scores and scores of "no's", but it only took one "yes" to get me started!). I always made sure that I had comic art samples to show and I got lots of criticism and encouragement from any comics professionals I could meet. Every time I met someone who was already a working professional in the comics my dream of one day becoming a comic book artist would get closer to coming true.

Once the military draft had found me unfit for military service (which I always knew to be true), I began to seriously focus on my goal of becoming a successful comic book artist and illustrator, even though I was entirely "self-taught," and never had any professional training as an artist. But this was not going to stop me!

If you can imagine, for a moment, a teenager from the Detroit suburbs (and a country boy in upstate Michigan for my first ten years prior to that), then you can get an idea of the "culture shock" I experienced the very first time I visited the big city--Manhattan, New York City.

My first New York comic convention, which I attended as a fan and "wannabe" artist, was a crucial first step to making my dream happen. I arrived a day early, and stayed several days after the convention, to introduce myself to the publishing companies and get my portfolio reviewed.

It was at the offices of King Features that I got my first break. I was recommended by a fan artist friend of mine, Tim Battersby (who worked as one of Wally Wood's assistants at the time). The assignment? "George Washington Crosses The Delaware". I was hired to do the pencilling, inking and lettering (and I was, honestly, barely qualified to do any one of those, let along all three!). I did the assignment back home in Detroit and mailed in the finished art. After that--nothing. Discouraging? Yes, somewhat. But it was scheduled for print in a reprint of Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond, and that was not a bad place to start!

So, it was back to the drawing board in the wee hours, while working full-time jobs as an "art apprentice" at various advertising agencies in the suburbs of Detroit. I managed to save enough money to make another trip to New York (and stayed at friend Len Wein's home during my visit), this time equipped with fresh sample pages and a newfound resolve. This time, the folks at D.C. Comics were just starting to get the idea that I was not going to go away (no matter how much discouragement was handed out!).

I met at D.C.'s offices with Dick Giordano and Neal Adams (Neal had his own office/work space). Both of these accomplished artists took me seriously (my youth and empty-headedness notwithstanding) and were gracious and generous with their time and helpful advice. I knew this was going to be tough going. I just didn't have a clue how tough it was going to be!

(Left: Me and Neal Adams at the Detroit Triple Fan Fair)

At first I was turned down (literally, no one was looking for new talent). Then, unexpectedly. Neal and Dick excused themselves and took a quick, private meeting. Neal came back with the news--he and Dick had vouched for me and managed to talk editor Murray Boltinoff into giving me a chance to pencil a short story by Marv Wolfman ("The Symbionts"). I was told Neal Adams would ink it (now, wasn't that a dream come true?)--and I understood, from this, that that was the guarantee that it would come out looking professional, but nonetheless in those conservative times Mr. Boltinoff was still going out on a limb with this one.

But for me, scoring that assignment wasn't enough--Marv Wolfman and Len Wein had managed to finagle an invitation to visit Frank Frazetta at his home in Brooklyn, and they asked if I would like to come along? Being the consummate comic book fan that I was, my answer of course was a resounding "YES!"

I returned to my home town, victorious (I thought) and took my time and put everything I had into that job, and I was sure that now things were at least going in the right direction. I mailed back the original art and everything seemed to be in place. Except it wasn't really. When I requested a follow up assignment, none was forthcoming. It seems that in every case, the comics companies were not at all willing to do business with "out of towners", not on a regular basis anyway. Carmine Infantino, out of some kindness in his heart (or maybe it was pity), actually offered to critique some of my sample pages by mail--and he did, and that helped me to hang on and provided some consolation.

I wasn't exactly getting much respect in my hometown, either. Nobody was much impressed with my new status. In fact, the only people who believed in me and what I was trying to accomplish were my Mom and my brother and sister.

So, back to the drawing board, with new samples to work up, and biding my time and rethinking my strategy. Well, along comes an opportunity shortly afterward from my friend Shel Dorf. Shel, over the years, became close friends with Jack Kirby. It turned out that Jack was looking for inkers. This was during the time he had moved to the West Coast and was just beginning to put together his titles for D.C. (the so-called Fourth World series). At Shel's request I worked up some inking samples on vellum, tracing in ink over photocopies of Jack's pencil art and mailed them out. I had never given any thought to being an inker before--I was sure, though, that my inking skills were very well-honed and that I was up to the task.

A week or so later I got a phone call from Jack. I almost lost my voice and mumbled a lot. I was so intimidated. Jack was friendly and courteous. The inking was not quite what he was looking for, but he did like the photocopies of my sample pencil pages (which I had the forethought to include in the package I sent him). He told me they were pretty good. I couldn't believe my ears. Then he told me, if you're ever in New York, look up Stan Lee and tell him I said he should give you a job. I thanked him and hung up and it took me days to recover from that conversation!

(Right: Davy Crocket record album cover was done for Dick Giordano (who did a lot of work for Peter Pan records, out of his Dik-Art studio when he and Neal Adams split). No signatures, but I did the pencil work, Dick did the inks.)

I placed a call to Dick Giordano, hoping I don't what--maybe I could talk him into something (yeah, right!), or somehow improve my situation at D.C. Dick, while being as accommodating as possible, was diplomatic. I asked him, "Tell me, honestly, would I have a better chance at getting new work if I moved to New York and lived there?" He told me that I've got talent and what it takes but that he couldn't guarantee me work (I wasn't asking for any guarantees, anyway), but "yes, your chances would improve greatly."

That was it! That was all I needed to know! I wasn't going to just visit New York again--I was going to move there, and make it or bust! How I was going to accomplish this I had not the faintest idea, but I've always had more courage than good sense, and I was determined to somehow make this happen.

...More to come.
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Check back soon for Part II.

Rich Buckler's web-site can be found here. Rich is avaliable for commissions and recreations, and has a long history in the field of comic book art, spanning over 40 years. Visit his site, check out his art and treat yourself!

4 comments:

Booksteve said...

Absolutely delightful! I've enjoyed Rich's work for a long time and he recently did me a favor even but I never really knew that much about him. Much thanks to both you and Rich!

Michael Netzer said...

Excellent undertaking, Daniel. It's a thrill to meet with the beginnings of comics fandom. Rich's tells stories that place the reader there as if it's for the first time. He is a giant amongst his fellows and these stories are worthy of a place in the comics history hall of fame.

Tim said...

It's funny, but I have actually never met Rich Buckler. The first comic book I ever bought was FF 141 which was drawn by him. Of course I am a huge fan.
I've met and was friendly with many of the other Detroit names, Mike Netzer, Greg Theakston, Arvell and Desmond Jones, as well as Kieth Pollard and Aubrey Bradford. When I hosted a convention in the mid 70's (as a boy of 12 or 13) at the Leland House in downtown Detroit, the guests included Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin and Al Milgrom. Mike Netzer was st the time a budding artist who had not yet made the jump to pro, and Greg was a painter doing magazine and paperback covers. Detroit in the 70's was a powerhouse of comics talent. It was great to be a fan back then and live there.

David Armstrong said...

In the photo of the six fans, third from left is Tom Fagan. Tom was the host of the Holloween Parade/Party in Rutland, VT. The party was the inspiration for a Denny O'Neil story in Batman #237 which featured Alan Weiss, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson (among others).