Monday, December 20, 2010

Original Art Stories: Dave Simons & Bob Budiansky's Ghost Rider

Dave Simons would have been 56 today and, as I generally tend to do, I’d have posted a gushing tribute to Dave, who would have promptly emailed me and asked me why I was wasting time and space. It was a game we played, he’d downplay his stature and abilities, and I’d always remind him that a lot of people had the greatest respect for his abilities. It was gentle, good natured banter and I miss it a lot.

Dave used to remind me that some of his best work was done in collaboration with others. Be it his work with Rags Morales, Gene Colan, John Buscema – all artists who Dave respected – or those who people called ‘lesser lights’, Dave would point out that rarely are great, or even good, things done alone. He loved collaboration and there were many on his list that he wanted to work with, sadly it would never be. If I pointed out his strengths he’d take the praise but then put it into perspective by saying he wasn’t as good a penciler as John Buscema or as good an inker as Tom Palmer. That’s what made Dave as good as he was, he learnt from others and he was always seeking to improve.

Dave always wanted me to expand a lot of what I wrote on his web-site, especially the Ghost Rider section. Dave was bemused that such a small body of his total work – 14 issues in total – had such an impact upon people. For Dave it was a job, but as time passed he realised how good it was, so with that in mind, Dave, this one is for you – happy birthday mate.


The dark demon of the night.
The world's best stunt motorcycle rider.
A deal made with the devil.
A life won.
A life lost.
Sacrifice.
Redemption.


The Ghost Rider.

Created by Gary Freidrich and Mike Ploog in 1973 for Marvel, and partially based upon a concept that Friedrich had developed earlier for Skywald with Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, Ghost Rider became one of Marvel’s best know and most popular of their supernatural characters, and was on a par with Dracula for longevity. Most of the Marvel Monsters had short runs in their own titles, Son Of Satan, Man Thing and Co rarely made it into double digits, but Ghost Rider emerged out of the pages of Marvel Premiere into its own title and in doing so attracted some of the finest talent that Marvel had to offer in the ‘70s and ‘80s. John Byrne, Jim Starlin, Mike Netzer, Don Perlin, Jimk Mooney, Syd Shores, Tony Isabella, Frank Robbins, Gil Kane, John Romita, George Tuska, Gerry Conway, Keith Pollard, Don Heck, Dan Green, Alan Kupperberg (who both lettered and pencilled the title at different times), Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatties, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, Luke McDonnel, Jack Sparling, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alan Weiss, Frank Miller, Carmine Infantino, Mike Esposito, Klaus Janson and many more all worked on the book at one stage or another, for varying lengths of time and varying degrees of success. Don Perlin certainly pencilled more issues of the title than anyone else, coming onto the title with issue #27 and remaining, either pencilling or inking, or both, with only three exceptions for the next thirty five issues. However it was the cover artist who helped make the most impact and help design the overall look and feel of the character, Bob Budiansky, aided and abetted by inker Dave Simons and writers Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatties.

Budiansky pencilled his first Ghost Rider cover with issue #33 and remained the regular cover artist for the run of the book, with five exceptions, those five covers being drawn by Don Perlin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alan Weiss, Frank Miller; Herb Trimpe and Bob Layon – although unusually Budiansky, a penciller and not an inker, would ink the sole Miller entry.

The title began with Johnny Blaze being in almost total control of the Ghost Rider, with the title character being a virtual alter ego for Blaze. Slowly, over time, this would change as writers slowly began to explore the darker side of the character, with Michael Fleischer slowly removing not only control from Blaze, but also the memories of what the Ghost Rider did. This form of a transformation mirrored that of the Hulk, and it was when Roger Stern arrived as writer with issue #68 that the book underwent a reboot and the character became a truly evil entity, bent on punishing the guilty and held only in check by a nagging conscience, that being Johnny Blaze himself. Finally coming on board with issue #68 was Budiansky, whose fine line and detailed pencils mirrored the dark storyline that Stern was creating. The first Budiansky issue was inked by Joe Rubenstein but Dave Simons was quickly assigned as the regular inker of the title after inking long time Ghost Rider penciler Don Perlin on his last issue of the book.

Although Bob Budiansky was assigned to the book, initially as penciler, he soon became heavily involved with the plots. Roger Stern wrote the first few issues to be followed by the equally as brilliant J.M. DeMatteis. Forging a strong alliance with Budiansky the creative team created some of the best books that Marvel published in the early 1980s.

“I was tricking into (writing) it by Tom DeFalco and Mark Gruenwald,” says Roger Stern. “I was visiting their office to drop off something Spider-related, and found them in a funk about Ghost Rider. Michael Fleisher, who been writing the book, was leaving to write...I don't know...CONAN or something. Tom started lamenting the fact that he had to find a new writer, and I said something like, ‘That can't be too hard. Writers should be jumping at the chance to take over the book. There are all sorts of things that you can do with Ghost Rider.’

“And Tom said, ‘Good. Your first plot is due two weeks.’

“And when I started to protest, Mark said, ‘Hey, you said there were all sorts of things you could do with him. Put up or shut up!’ So I promised them I would think about it.

“And by the next day, I had the idea for my first story.

“Writing GHOST RIDER was great fun, because it was so different from all the other books that I'd written. It's basically the story of a stunt cyclist who has a demon trapped inside him. And GR has one of the best visuals in comics.”

"Issue #68 was a conscious effort to relaunch the book,” says Bob Budiansky. “The editor at the time, I think, was Tom DeFalco. Roger Stern was the writer, he was the new writer and the new artist, me. It was a conscious effort to give it a new look and a new breath of life or whatever, and it worked, actually, because sales throughout at least the first half or so of my run kept rising. People took notice, and then after Roger Stern left Marc DeMatteis came on the book and we still kept rising, and the only speed bump we hit in this whole thing was when Dave Simons, who of that team is the unsung hero, left. He used to come to the office dressed in leather. I mean, this was not an act, he’d come dressed in one of these black leather, zipper jackets.

"I don’t know if he also wore leather pants. He might have worn them. But anyway, the point is, he knew how to ink leather, which was really important for Ghost Rider.”

"When we came on Ghost Rider," said Dave Simons, who indeed did wear leather pants at the time, "it was either improve or get cancelled. When we took it over it was at its lowest point ever.

Kicking off with a re-telling of the origin story of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Stern, Dematties and Budiansky wove a rich tapestry of stories which not only gave the Ghost Rider a name (Zarathos) but also an origin story of his own, which was tied into a villain who was stalking Blaze/Zarathos throughout the run. With the books impending cancellation, Dematties and Budiansky decided to do what others had tried before but had never fully succeeded in doing, separating Zarathos from Blaze, imprisoning the demon supposedly for eternity and thus leaving Blaze to reunite with his long lost love, Roxanne, to live happily ever after. Along the way, leading up to the final issue, Blaze and Zarathos had dealings with Nightmare, in one of the most beautifully drawn issues of the series run, the Carnival Of Crime, Steel Wind and more. However all too quickly it was over.

Bob Budiansky remembered what made the run so special for him. “When I worked with Roger Stern on the book Roger did things the traditional Marvel way,” said Bob. “He would turn in a plot, I would draw it then he would get back my drawings and he would do a script.

“But with Marc DeMatteis on Ghost Rider, we collaborated. If you look at the credits it was co-plotted by both of us and he scripted. So we would get on the phone with each other and, this is the way I recall it, he might disagree: Typically he would come up with the story, he’d come up with the overall structure of the story and the different emotional changes the characters were going through or whatever angst that they were experiencing, and then I would go back and I would put in the visual scenes, the big action moments. That would be my contribution to the plot: “Okay, now how can we make this thing look exciting and have a big moment where something happens that’s really visual?” So it was actually a really good partnership, we really enjoyed working that way.

“For almost a year DeMatteis and I plotted Ghost Rider together. Typically, here's how it worked: he'd come up with an overall structure for the story, all the character beats, interactions and conflicts, and then I'd go through it with him and put in all the action and far-out visual stuff. That might be oversimplifying the process a bit -- I'm sure there were times when he came up with action and I came up with character stuff -- but it was a terrific collaboration. We each drew upon our respective strengths to create a story together.”

I once asked Dave what made him and Bob such a great artistic team. Both men always spoke highly of the other and I know that Dave had a lot of respect for Bob, and vice-versa. “I think I know now what made that team click,” remembered Dave in 2009. “It's a marriage of opposites. Now Bob is a nice guy and this is not to knock him at all. His actual draftsmanship is better than mine in many cases. But he has a much more conservative nature than I do. What I brought to it was the idea of inking things in a certain way just so they would look cool. Besides my usual influences of Wood and Wrightson, I was also looking at Robert Williams for chrome technique. I had no back-off on changing the line work to bring across a texture or add a sparkle.”

Sadly the book wouldn’t survive Dave’s leaving for long. Dave was very clear as to why he left the title, and it had nothing to do with Bob’s art or the quality of the stories. What it came down to was money. “The sales were poor,” said Dave. “They probably topped anything being published today, but in the scale of the times they were poor. The ‘Freaks’ issue sold great and after that the sales began a steady decline. When that started happening you’ll notice that the last few issues are not inked by me, and that’s why. I knew that if a book’s sales continued a steady decline then it wasn’t long for this world, so I went and did something else. Especially since that was right around the time when the royalty system was kicking in and people were starting to get their royalty checks. Anyone working on anything to do with the X-Men was starting to get these massive royalty checks. I was looking at that thinking ‘Oh, I’m getting screwed here’.” Shortly after Dave made another decision that he would later come to regret. "The stupidest thing I ever did was turn down being the regular inker on Amazing Spider-Man over John Romita Jr," said Dave. "Idiotic." Dave had been offered the book on the strength of two issues that he had inked over Romita Jr but felt that he could find a more rewarding gig. Dave ultimately drew one issue each of Web Of Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man, but the majority of his efforts during this time were devoted to providing pin-ups and inks for the Conan titles, including King Conan and Red Sonja, and inking his mentor, John Buscema, on the main Conan title. “Once I got into doing the Conan stuff it was pretty fun for me because, hey, it’s Conan!”

Budiansky backed up Dave’s theories as to the book not selling massive amounts at the time. "When Dave left the book we never really were able to replace that look that he gave the book,” said Bob. “The rest of the team was all somewhat saddened by his departure. Anyway, the book was cancelled; I think it was issue 81, which was about maybe five or six issues after he left.

“At the time when Ghost Rider was cancelled we had brought sales up to maybe about 120,000 a month in the U.S., and then it started dropping, like I said, when Dave left the book, couldn’t replace that look. It started dropping, and I think it maybe went down to close to 105,000. At the time Jim Shooter, the Editor-in-Chief, wanted to launch a few new books. So he chose a few low-selling books and cancelled them to make room, and Ghost Rider was considered low-selling at 105,000.

“I’ve been pretty much out of comic books for over ten years. Well, today I think 105,000 would qualify a book to be in the top five or ten of sales. But that number was considered low enough to make a book worthy of cancellation back then."

Never had there been such a demonic interpretation of the character in all of Marvel's history. The schizophrenia between the Ghost Rider and its human host, Johnny Blaze, was explored like never before. And for seven glorious issues we were able to experience one of the best artistic teams that Marvel had to offer for the early to mid 1980s. Seven issues of interior work and thirteen covers, an all too brief run, but a run that has been reprinted recently in the final Ghost Rider Essential volume, volume #4.

Dave Simons’ encounters with Ghost Rider didn’t finish there. In 1984 he would again cross paths with Zarathos via the comic book Team America. Team America was a short-lived title, consisting of 12 issues in all. Based around the adventures of a motorcycle racing team it was inevitable that they would eventually meet Marvel's premiere biker, Ghost Rider. When this happened it made perfect sense to get one of the Ghost Rider artists to draw the character. At a time when people weren't exactly lining up to work on the Team America title, Dave Simons stepped forward.

“I had lobbied to draw this book,” said Dave. “This was the penultimate issue. I got to show what I could do on Ghost Rider solo, and draw lots of motorcycles. Pencils and inks on the story were by me, too.” Besides pencilling and inking this story, Dave provided both pencils and inks to other stories, titled Honcho’s Racing Hints, these one page stories featured as back-ups to the main title for issues #6 and #7, along with providing the cover art for issues #9, #10 and #11. Unfortunately both Bob and Dave would move on to other lines of work, and it would take twenty years before the duo would work again, for one final time, fittingly on a commission for one of their best known and best loved Ghost Rider covers.

In 2006 Bob Budiansky announced that he was finally available for commission work. I contacted Bob’s agent and requested two Ghost Rider covers, with one being the famous ‘Freaks’ cover. I always had it in my head that I’d get Dave to ink Bob’s pencils and made the approach to great success. Dave relished the chance to ink the recreated cover art and in doing so he managed to do what would almost seem to be impossible – he improved on the original. “I wonder how many readers knew the Tod Browning film?” Dave asked me at the time. “This has become the classic cover. Actually, there are spots where I think it's improved over the original cover inking. I'd like to think I learned something in 20+ years.” When to package finally arrived I was blown away by the results and by the fact that my commission had reunited both men as they reconnected with each other. However, sadly, it was to be the last time that they’d ever work together. I’d get approaches from small press comic book companies wanting to know if I knew of any artists wanting work, and I’d always recommend Bob and Dave, but nobody took things further. That’s their loss really.

To say that I was very happy to be able to re-unite the art team of Budiansky and Simons for one last hurrah would be to do a disservice to both men. On a purely personal level I felt that the reunion was long overdue and the resulting commission was worth every cent. Dave loved drawing the Ghost Rider. He knew all too well that it was some of his best work, and his best known work, and he never shied away from that legacy. There were other titles where he felt he’d done better work, and other titles that he believed should have been better known, but Ghost Rider always had a special spot within Dave’s heart and, frankly, outside of Bob Budiansky, nobody drew Ghost Rider like Dave did. A lean, mean, guilt riddled killing machine on a spectral Harley Davidson chopper. It didn’t get any better than that.

 

We shall never forget, and we shall always miss you.
Until we meet again, for the first time,
You are there, and you are with us.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAVE SIMONS

1 comment:

Mikeyboy said...

I met Dave at a con in NYC...I have a CONAN drawing from him...I love it. While he was drawing my picture I went to the food court and got him a tea and a bagel.
He was a good guy. I liked his work. I appreciated his talent.