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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

From The Desk Of Rich Buckler: Part III - Marvel & DC In The '70s

Welcome to Part II of the life story of Rich Buckler!  When we last left Rich he had just recounted his break into comics and his work for publishers such as Warren and Skywald.  In this installment Rich discusses his 1970s work at both Marvel and DC and also puts some rumours to bed, hopefully once and for all.

If you enjoy reading these articles, and if you like the art you're looking at, then feel free to contact Rich directly and arrange a commission.  Rich's schedule is fairly open right at the moment and Rich is more than capable of doing some stunning work.  Give it some serious consideration and spread the word.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Rich Buckler's life story, exclusive to this blog.
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There was a certain anomaly that all freelancers faced, kind of like a "Catch 22" as they say in the military. An artist or writer, in order to get hired, had to prove they were qualified to do the job. How to prove you can do something--before you do it? Ahh, that was a problem.

You see, to be really qualified and get hired, you must be experienced--but to be experienced, you have to get hired. Ultimately, it came down to a throw of the dice and the person doing the hiring taking a chance on you. Well, now I was getting work, and I was getting experience, but I wasn't drawing super-heroes yet or working on any major assignments. That was my real goal.

I guess you could say it was "paying your dues." Nobody starts at the top, right? Okay, so maybe I wasn't yet perceived as being qualified to draw Batman, but I could draw Robin--which is what actually happened. But first came a shot at working with an industry legend--Robert Kanigher. The assignment? Rose & The Thorn.

Bob Kanigher and I developed a rapport after meeting at one of those networking parties I mentioned earlier. My first efforts were viewed as a "try-out", but Kanigher loved what I was doing, even though I didn't always quite know what I was doing, but I did have some practice on the Butterfly character for Skywald so I was confident I could handle it.

Fortunately it was arranged that Dick Giordano would do the inking, so that probably took some worry off those who were concerned that I was young and sort of an unknown commodity (that old "catch 22" again). It became a regular assignment for awhile and with this back-up feature I got a real chance to prove myself.

It didn't hurt either that Jeanette Kahn, the new D.C. Comics Publisher, took a liking to me and also liked what I was doing. So I was doing a back-up for Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane--not something to write home about, not to my comic book fan friends anyway.

Things were going places, and soon I would move on to a Robin back-up feature, and later, eventually, Batman and Superman. Just keep drawing whatever they threw my way and I would eventually get to the big stuff. Good plan, right? Except it wasn't exactly a plan. I mean, maybe it was in the back of my mind, but I really didn't have much say about what I drew next, and I was happy to be getting regular work so I just sharpened my pencils and kept my mouth shut.

At D.C., Dick Giordano was my mentor. He introduced me to everybody and that gave me some credibility. I met all the editors, Joe Orlando, Julius Schwartz (who I would eventually do tons of work for), and the rest. I also met Sal Amendola, Dick's young assistant and Sol Harrison, who ran the production department along with Jack Adler.

The production at D.C. was light-years ahead of Marvel. For paste-up, mechanical, design and pre-press work, they really set the standard for the industry. But once the art was handed in and reached the art department it was strictly "hands off." If an artist touched anything he was very politely invited to leave.

Marvel, by comparison, was slipshod and "whatever happens". This was the famous "Marvel Bullpen," which in the early days was whatever staffer or artist was available for art touch-ups and lettering corrections. D.C. was like classical music, and Marvel was more "rock n' roll." But though production people often played it fast and loose, racing against impossibly crunching deadlines (and in all fairness, they did the best they could), it was less formal and less corporate at Marvel. More often than not it was more like "just get the job done and let's move on to the next one!"

I remember that whenever I had opportunity to do so I would make friends with the Photostat guy (who was always overworked) and those in charge of paste-up and mechanical. This was at Marvel--production facilities were off-limits for freelancers at D.C. Often, if I could, I would grab a cover I did and re-do or fix up some of their work on my covers.

At one time or another production artists in the "Marvel Bullpen" included Marie Severin, Jack Abel, Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito. It was always bustling with activity. You would never know when visiting Marvel's offices who you would run into!

Since I was handing in my assignments in person I always took advantage during my office visits and hung out for awhile, which is how I met Vince Colletta. He would later take me under his wing at D.C. Comics when he became Art Director there, and he would help me out and get me some important breaks there (more on Vince further on).

One afternoon I had the good fortune to have lunch around the corner from Marvel with Vince Colletta, Mike Esposito and Frank Giacoia--three of the nicest guys you ever met. These guys had some comic book history. I listened attentively; fascinated at how much they knew and how much about the craft of drawing comics they would generously share. Imagine me, the young upstart from Detroit, hanging out with the big guys. I never would have dreamed it!

Mike was one half of the legendary team of Andru and Esposito (D.C.'s Wonder Woman and Metal Men, and tons of other stuff). Frank (my favorite inker on just about anything!) was always jovial and funny. Vince was the articulate and outspoken one with lots of stories to tell.

None of these guys were soaked in ego or full of themselves. I remember Vince told us an anecdote, recalling one time when he ran into Dick Ayers and Dick said: "Hey, Vinnie, how are you doing? Still using that same rusty crusted old pen tip to do all your inking jobs?" You know, playfully, taunting but in a friendly sort of way. Vinnie responded: "Hey, Dick, you still using that old mop you call a brush?"

"So, I hear you're a young Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Neal Adams all rolled into one," Vince told me. "Soon, this guy will be taking over!" That was the kind of friendly banter among comics professionals that I often encountered. I could hardly believe it, but I was actually being accepted as "one of them" (well, it felt like that, anyway at the time).

I was really putting in the time too, working really long hours, at least ten hours a day six days a week, freelancing for both Marvel and D.C. at the time (actually, most of the time). What helped me tremendously and got me a lot of respect from editors was that because of my fan background I knew all of the characters at both companies--and there were a lot of them!

It became obvious after a year or two that I could pretty much handle anything. I mean, you name the character, I could draw him or her or it with no reference even. That would prove to be a distinct advantage because there wasn't any Marvel or D.C. style-guide like there is now. You either got it right, on a regular basis, or you didn't get any more work until you could get it right.

At Marvel Roy Thomas (a big booster of my work from the beginning) gave me a shot with six pages of a Man-Thing story in Astonishing Tales guest-starring Ka-Zar and Zabu the sabre-toothed tiger. This may sound silly, but how many artists at the time could draw sabre-toothed tigers? It may surprise you, but not very many. Actually, nothing intimidated me art-wise. I always welcomed a good challenge. Nobody wanted to draw team books either--too many characters and too many costumes to keep track of.

One of the things I always excelled at was drawing realistic looking animals. Along with drawing attractive females, drawing animals well was what tripped up most working pros (even some of the older guys!). Cars, trucks and buildings were another matter, but if it had hooves, claws or paws, I could draw it!

I could also do a style that was fairly close to John Buscema--in my fan years I did extensive studies and attempts to draw like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth. I got down all my "chops" by filling up notebooks with studies of arms, legs, full figures, faces, the works--trying to learn the techniques and stylisms of each artist.

John Buscema had actually penciled pages 7-20 already and Roy came up with an idea that required my pages to segueway into his (so the transition had to be smooth, with Dan Adkins' inking pulling it all together). In an amazing piece of luck I ended up penciling and inking the cover! This led to my starting to get other cover assignments.

An issue or two later of Astonishing Tales I penciled the first fifteen pages that preceded more John Buscema pages but they screw up the credits this time. Astonishing tales was one of Marvel's "catch-all" titles where you never knew who would be featured next.

Little did I know that Astonishing Tales would soon have an opening and become the "launching pad" for my own creation, Deathlok. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Things were looking up and I was slowly but surely working my way up the ladder. I would also draw Man-Thing again in Fear #11. Fear was another "catch-all" title. This story would be Steve Gerber’s first solo script.

My chameleon-like ability with styles would later earn me some flack at times (mostly with the fans), and I was often accused of "swiping" when I didn't. When I did swipe (Kirby, Buscema, Adams or whoever) it was always on purpose as a kind of fan tribute (which was somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine).

Some fans would think it was a bit of a cheat on my part. My editors always appreciated the versatility. Remember those samples I showed to Frank Frazetta in Brooklyn? Well, those pages were my portfolio for Marvel and D.C. Comics and showed my range and capabilities, with examples evocative of Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Al Williamson, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Burne Hogarth, and I don't know who else. If it were the music business and not art, I would have been considered some kind of virtuoso.

Think about it. Does it make sense to use the same style for Superman that you use for Fantastic Four? Well, it didn't to me. Of course, if all an artist has got is one style, then things are already decided for him. Me, I was more about breaking boundaries and exceeding limitations, rather than plodding along in a self-satisfied manner and turning out the exact same thing over and over and over. So, sue me--I get bored easily. But give me a challenge and I'm good to go! And I always had a lot of fun, no matter what I drew.

I moved out of that Bronx apartment when I got married and lived for a while in Flushing, Queens. I did a lot of moving around at that time but eventually ended up moving back to the Bronx again. Living in Manhattan was just too expensive and beyond my means.

I made trips to Manhattan once or twice a week to pick up checks and my assignments and hand in my work in person. Working at home, once my son was born (Neal Adams, by the way, is Rick's godfather) became increasingly difficult, so I started working in an unused office space when Marvel moved to bigger offices.

That turned out to be a good decision on my part. My availability led to an increased workload as I started to draw scores of covers in addition to my story assignments. Marvel would finally get an art director in the person of John Romita (another of my early mentors--the guy just seemed to know everything about drawing comics, and I do mean everything!).

I will pause here to interject an anecdote about my foray into Newspaper strip cartooning. Most comic book fans are not aware of my newspaper strip work, but in addition to illustrating The Incredible Hulk strip by Stan Lee, I also "ghost penciled" about six months of dailies of Flash Gordon for Dan Barry and almost one year of dailies (and some Sunday pages) of The Phantom for Dan's brother Seymour Barry (this was around 1978-79. But more on the Phantom and Flash Gordon later.

I mentioned before that I used to collect newspaper strips as a fan, clipping them out of the paper and assembling them into homemade volumes. Well, one of those strips was "Secret Agent Corrigan." As fortune would have it, I actually landed a job "ghosting" one week of this strip for Al Williamson. I was really too young and too inexperienced and barely up to it but somehow Al Williamson took a liking to me and took a chance on me.

I knew absolutely nothing about the craft of newspaper strips. This was my very first go at it and I learned how to do it pretty much the way I learned anything I did--by just going ahead and doing it! Al was a good teacher (and as a draughtsman he was really unsurpassed!). He was a gracious host when I visited his apartment to pick up the assignment. Al had the strip laid out already and lettered, all six instalments--all I had to do was pencil and ink it.

There was a lot more to my visit than just a quick interview. Al showed me some of his collector editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan with illustrations by J. Allen St. John (whom he greatly admired) and we talked a lot about comics and science-fiction. I remember he had a tremendous personal library which was reminiscent of a lot of rare collector's items I had seen at the Able Man bookstore back in my Detroit days. This was also his working art studio, and his closet was stocked with props and costumes which he used to help him visualize characters. Many times he or friends would pose for photographs which were later utilized as reference for the final drawn versions.

So, how did the job go? Well, good and not so good. The good part was that I did a decent job and finished it right on time. I met Al at the front of the office building for King Features Syndicate on the day it was due and just minutes before office hours were over. The "not so good" part is that I had caused Al a lot of grief and anxiety because we were really running it to the last minute or so of his deadline. I had no idea that he time was so tight and he never mentioned the seriousness of the deadline when I took the job.

I learned, in an embarrassing moment, just how serious the newspaper syndicates were about deadlines. I almost caused Al a $300 fine (the syndicates charged a penalty for every day one of their strips is late)--and we had just barely got the job done on time. I had almost caused a total screw-up, and an expensive one at that!

That's how things went for me working for Al. Fortunately, he is an extremely nice guy and a gentleman (most newspaper strip artists are) and he had no harsh feelings about how things went. Probably he lost a few pounds of sweat from worry, though. And I learned an important lesson. After that experience, I would always ask lots and lots of questions and always take the deadline serious, no matter what the job!

Just a few words regarding "ghosting" for other artists. This is not the same thing as being an artist's assistant. When you "ghost" you are an artist who is doing all, or most, of the work anonymously (that is, under the credit line of the official artist). I have had assistants before at various times in my career, and so have most comics artists. The term assistant can mean a lot of things.

Usually, it just involves assisting--tracing layouts, erasing the pencil lines on inked pages, and doing various non-art chores that "assist" the artist in turning out the work. Very little actual drawing would be included. There has been some confusion about this in terms of fan generated listings and accounts. A lot of it is misleading or wrongly understood.

Just for the record I have never in my entire career had any assistant draw my work for me. If they were up to that (which they weren't, in all cases) they would be "ghosting". There are some exceptions and I can't speak for other artists, but generally being a "ghost artist" was a common practice amongst newspaper strip cartoonists.

Being an assistant for a comic book artist was more like apprentice work--because assistants didn't know what they were doing yet (that's why they took the job in the first place).

I don't know, personally, of any case where an artist hired an assistant because the artist doing the hiring lacked the talent and ability to turn out his own work without help. If any drawing or inking was ever required (and again I can't speak for all artists) it would be on backgrounds and maybe secondary characters (for example, that's the kind of inking I did on the House Of Mystery story "The Symbionts" that Neal Adams inked).

Except for that brief period of a week or so with Gil Kane I have never worked as any artist's assistant--not that I started out knowing everything there was to know (far from it!), but I have hired assistants from time to time. None of my assistants ever drew my work for me (which would be "ghosting", as I've already said). I guess that about covers that subject.

Now, moving along, the influx of new talent of the early 70's was well underway. A new era was emerging, it seems. Young and new comics writers and artists were coming to New York in what seemed like a renaissance period for comics. They came from all over (some even from other countries).

Everyone who was a native New Yorker always seemed to notice I was from out of town. They could tell by my Midwest accent (which I have never lost). I talked a lot slower than everybody else, but from my point of view they were always talking too fast!

Aspiring writer Don McGregor got an offer to work at Marvel as an editorial assistant and proof-reader and moved from Rhode Island with his wife and daughter to New York. Don and his family stayed at my place in the Bronx briefly and I helped them to locate their own apartment not far from where I lived.

Around this same time comic book fan turned professional Bill Dubay (who married my sister) moved across the street from us. Our proximity and made for some interesting collaborations, and my friendship with Don McGregor eventually evolved into collaborations on Killraven (War Of The Worlds), some Warren stories for Bill and the revival at Marvel of the Black Panther.

Don and I had a lot in common. We both came up from the fan ranks. We both loved Jim Steranko's comic book work and we both were both sci-fi, pulp magazine, and movie lovers. That led to some experiments in comics storytelling that were somewhat unorthodox for the time. Both of us were also headstrong, independent thinkers, boldly experimental and 100% passionate about the comics medium.

The black & white comics were a good place for my early experiments with "cinematic storytelling" and sequential panel storytelling techniques. Inspired by Steranko and the movies I was trying to develop new ways to get a sort of movie storyboard feel to things and at the same time convey a sense of heightened drama by compressing and manipulating time. That, along with new graphic designs that still preserved the readability (more or less left to right, top to bottom), made for what I thought would one day be regarded as ground breaking. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of my comics output that has been almost entirely overlooked or ignored. Maybe it was a little ahead of it's time. Who knows?

I would continue over the years to expand some of these experimental story-telling concepts on Deathlok. Really, you might say, I was always a somewhat frustrated film director. In the 1980's I would explore this further with some actual filmmaking work of my own--and I will tell about that much further along.

Back to the Don McGregor. Story plots were not only written out--Don "acted out" many parts of it. His verbal accounts of the storyline reminded me of my first assignment from Stan Lee--the one where Stan just told me the story and I took notes. Stan would get emotional and start gesticulating--he was internalizing and giving me visual cues so I could easily remember certain parts. Well, Don would do the same--only turn up the volume to "11"!

He was always very visual in his writing (so were all of my favorite writers, but Don especially). Sometimes he would even give me crude sketches and diagrams and tell me "Remember, now, I'm not an artist, so don't laugh!"

I remember he always was a bit overly sensitive regarding jokes about being short. "No short jokes today, Rich. I mean it." I told him "Don, you're not short. You just lack height!" He always had a great sense of humor and an infectious almost boisterous laugh. Hours could pass like minutes in a conversation with him. He was totally immersed in what he was doing, and I always appreciated the enthusiasm.

Who was chosen to ink what, in those days, seemed to be a matter given almost completely to chance, and the writer and penciler rarely if ever had a say in the matter. My choice from the start was a young prodigy of Dick Giordano's named Klaus Janson. This was to be Klaus big break and his first solo inking for Marvel.

I liked Klaus from the beginning ("Hey, what's not to like?"), and I remember his favorite expression which he used often was "Oh, give me a break". He too was totally immersed in his work and totally dedicated, and he was ready to do professional work. There was one problem, though. Nobody who was hiring was taking him seriously (remember that old Catch "22"?).

I had handed in the first half of Jungle Action #6 and still no word from the "powers that be." I decided to take matters into my own hands--literally!--and snatched the pages back when production manager John Verpoorten was looking the other way.

Big John saw me walking away with the pages in tow and yelled "Rich! Where do you think you're going with those pages?" I yelled out loud, without looking back, "Klaus is going to ink them!" And he yelled back "No he's not!" I said "Yes he is!" And I kept walking.

Now, John could have just followed me and taken back the pages. But he didn't. I had done tons of deadline favors for him, he liked me, and I was trusting that he respected my judgment. And that's how Klaus Janson got his first big break at Marvel.

Now, backing up a bit, before I got any assignments at Marvel on a regular basis, I was a sort of "all around" or "go to" guy. You needed a cover in two hours, I was your guy. Quick layouts? Same deal. Cover ideas and sketches? No problem, I could do it, on the spot. And I did a lot of whatever they threw my way--or rather, what art director John Romita threw my way. That was an important relationship. John trusted my abilities and relied on my familiarity with all of the characters. Plus, he knew I whatever I drew would fit the "house style" (whatever that was).

It was handy working on the same floor as Marvel in a nearby office space, but soon that would change to a smaller space as Marvel expanded and they figured out another use for my work area. I could easily go back and forth and take art direction and make art changes "on the fly." And sometimes I would get stuck--I knew how to draw a lot of things, but I didn't know how to draw everything! That's where John Romita came in (nothing replaces experience!).

John could solve just about any drawing problem anybody could come up with. So rather than spend frustrating hours on a single drawing problem I would just ask John for advice and he would always came through and saved my butt.

Also, during this time, Marvel was doing a lot of reprinted for the British market and they produced new covers in house. Tony Isabella was in charge of this and I did dozens of covers for him (even though the pay for these was ridiculously low).


As I recall, Ed Hannigan and Ron Wilson joined me in the work area that I sort of commandeered ("Hey, John, is anybody using that space across the hall? No? Mind if I take advantage?").

Ed and Ron also worked on a lot of the British covers, sometimes in collaboration with me. Sometimes Ron would ask me to help him out on some of his work and I remember telling him: "Hey, you're John Romita's understudy, you lucky stiff! Ask John. He knows everything!"

For a while there the three of us were almost like an added art department for Marvel! The best part of it was that there was no telephone and almost nobody even knew we were there so we had total run of the place.

I mentioned before that you never knew who you would bump into, and one day who should I meet on my way to John Romita's office? Jack Kirby. "Hey, Rich, how are you doing?" I almost couldn't find any words. I had only met him once before at a New York comic book convention--and he remembered me!

I noticed that he seemed a bit disoriented and in a hurry. As I was arriving, he was just leaving. It was an awkward moment at first because the receptionist was not at her desk and Jack, who was unaccompanied, opened up a closet door by mistake. He couldn't find the right door to get out. I ended up escorting him out of the building and I thanked him for his help and encouragement.

Afterward I wondered why nobody at Marvel had bothered to show him the way out. That's what you do with important personages, right?

On a lighter note, I recall one time there were comic book fans out in the hallway between the office I was using and Marvel's main offices. I walked up to them and asked them if I could be of any help. They looked a bit lost.

One of them spoke up, deadly serious, and said: "Yeah, we're visiting Marvel Comics and we're looking for Rich Buckler. Have you seen him?" I said, on a whim, "Uh, no. I don't have any idea where he is, but I tell you what. If I do see him I'll tell him someone's looking for him!" And then I went about my business. As you can probably tell, I didn't always take being a celebrity all that seriously. I didn't even think of myself at the time as being anywhere near famous.

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Check back soon for Part IV.

Rich Buckler's web-site can be found here. Rich is avaliable for commissions and recreations, and, as you're clearly reading, 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! 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a great series, but there's a few things I'd like to ask:
Did Rich ever use ghost artists of his own?
What story did Rich do with Stan Lee?
Will Rich address the accusations of him swiping Jack Kirby on the Fantastic Four?

Otherwise, fascinating insights into the comic book world of the 1970s. I'd love to see more.

woody0023 said...

"Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Neal Adams all rolled into one" - sounds good to me.

As for addressing swiping, it looks like he did, @ 1/3 of the way into the article.