Looking Back With Mike Royer
Mike Royer is one of those who is deserving of accolades, and in spades. His is a career that has been marked with several highs. No matter what else anyone cares to say about Royer you'd find it difficult to uncover a fan who has anything bad to say about his inking. A few words stand out when anyone describes Mike Royer - quality, professionalism and standards. Along with Joe Sinnott, Mike Royer is probably the best inker to ever happen to Jack Kirby. Indeed as it's difficult to imagine Kirbys Fantastic Four being inked by anyone other than Sinnott, it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else but Royer inking Kirby on his '70s work. For years at Marvel Kirby's work had been inked by artists such as Vinnie Colletta, Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, Syd Shores, Dick Ayers and a host of others, with mixed results. Once Kirby left Marvel for DC he asked for his own inker and eventually he got it. As soon as Royer took over the inking, Kirby began to reach new heights and as such it's almost impossible to imagine Kirby's latter DC and Marvel work without thinking of Mike Royer.
Mike is a genuine talent: he pencils, inks, letters and has dabbled in colouring in his time. For the past few years he's been busy working outside of the comic book industry. If you've bought anything from the Disney Stores in the last ten or so years then the odds are excellent that you've bought a Mike Royer design. He does venture back into comics from time to time, if only to show the world just how good he is. And he isn't just good, he's better than good. It may be a big claim to make, but it can be argued that without Mike Royer, Jack Kirby might well have left the comic book industry years before he did.
(Click on any image to enlarge the art)
DANIEL BEST: Thanks for talking to me today, it is appreciated.
MIKE ROYER: Well, I need to preface this with the fact that, except for experiences of a personal nature and my love for old movies, I don’t live in the past. So, there are not a lot of details. I just did an email interview with someone from the Kirby Collector talking about inkers and their feelings about whether they were Sci-Fi fans and about Jack’s machinery and so on and they wanted to know if I had any anecdotes and I said, “No, the only thing I was concerned about at the time was that I had to ink three pages a day and letter a whole book in less than two days, and I was thinking about which templates I could use to make inking of the machinery go faster”, and I don’t know if that’s what anyone wants to read, but…
DB: If that’s all that’s there, then that’s all that’s there. Let’s go back to the beginning, where did you grow up, where were you born?
MR: I was born and raised in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. People who don’t live here in Oregon look at it and say “The Will-a-met Valley”. No, no it’s Wil-lam-ette Valley. Or you can just say I was born in the middle of the state in a little town called Lebanon, way back in the dark ages, 1941.
DB: And what sort of exposure did you have to comic books back then. Were you aware of them? Did you read them?
MR: Well as a kid, my first ten years my family lived in the country several miles outside of the town of Lebanon and about a quarter of mile down the highway from us was a little mom and pop country store and at the back of the store they had a huge box of coverless comic books which were a nickel a piece, or you could trade two of whatever comic books you had for one of theirs. At about age, oh, I suppose seven or eight, I discovered that box of comic books and being that was a time when it was actually safe for you to walk a quarter of a mile down the highway, I would go quite often to that little store and take what comic books my parents had bought me (mostly “funny animal” titles) at the market in town, that I’d read, and I’d trade for these old things from the early 1940s that were totally new to me and a lot of these books, with titles like Ace, Magic, Super, Tip Top, and, oh Lord, I forget the names now, published/reprinted the King Features syndicated comic strips (and other syndicated strips as well) from years earlier. This was my first exposure to many of the classic strips of another era. So I saw a lot of comic strips from the 1930’s in these reprint comics in the late 1940s and early 1950’s. I liked the Dick Tracy reprint comic books in the late 1940’s and as a youngster I amassed a collection of the Dick Tracy reprint comics, many of them bought at the downtown market so they still had covers on them; and as a kid at that little country store I also discovered and loved what I saw in the early and mid1940’s comic books that Jack Kirby drew and I became a big fan of his original creations, although I never really noticed if there was a by-line giving the artist credit. I just knew looking at this dynamic stuff that it was by the artist I really liked.
It’s like all of us who loved Carl Barks and his Donald Duck. Until the late 1960’s when we found out what his name was, to us he was simply “The Duck Artist” and Jack Kirby was “The Hero Artist” that I liked. In, I guess, the early 1950’s, or late 1940’s/early 1950’s, the things he did like Boys’ Ranch and Crossbow and some of those things I found very exciting. If I’ve gotten the names wrong, please excuse me. American humorist Dave Berry once said, “The human brain can only hold so much information and as you add new information you have to throw out some old.” I like to look at it as if the brain is a hard-drive and the more stuff you put in, you’ll need to really search for the password to get all he older stuff out… and I don’t know how to defrag my brain to get it all reorganised as I don’t often talk about these things from another time.
I do remember some things fondly from my youth. My mother was a voracious reader of science fiction pulp magazines and it must have been in a letter column or somewhere that someone mentioned the EC Science Fiction comic books and my mother told me about them. As a result of her sharing this information with me I sought them out at our family grocery store’s revolving comic book rack and discovered EC Comics, first the science fiction, then all the rest of them. In the early 1950’s I also discovered the Harvey reprint comics of Flash Gordon and here was this incredibly beautiful artwork and melodramatic storyline that I found irresistible. Also at some point in this time period, while rummaging through a couple of old trunks in my grandmother’s attic, looking for stamps, I found stacks of Sunday funny sections my mother had put there as a little girl and here was all this splendid Hogarth Tarzan, and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and all this other incredible comic art that covered all genre, everything from the weirdest funny animal to the straightest/serious beautifully drawn Hal Foster Prince Valiant in the sizes they were originally printed…so much better than the smaller truncated versions in the reprint comics.
So I guess by 1952 I’d pretty much decided I wanted to do comic strips.
DB: What art training did you have before you eventually broke into comics?
MR: Well I never got the training I should have had. Unfortunately, my mother lavished praise on everything I did as a kid and when all you hear is praise you don’t really mature as an artist. You don’t realise what you don’t know when everything you do is “wonderful” according to your mother who is, of course, your closest and biggest fan. So about the time I really thought seriously about trying to get into the comic strip field was about the same time I realised that the comic strip market was a dead end. Newspaper editors weren’t buying continuity strips (editors must have felt TV was taking that readership away) and it seemed no one was trying anything in the way of new adventure material. I think Captain Kate was the last adventure strip attempted in the early 1960’s and that didn’t last long and subsequently in the last 40 years any attempts to revive adventure things like Terry and the Pirates or Zorro, die a sure death, usually surviving barely two years before the syndicates throw in the towel. So I reasoned that comic books might be the place to go, after, in the mid 1960s, discovering Marvel and Jack Kirby again and realised (I was paying better attention now) that he actually had a name.
Growing up in a small farm and plywood mill community, you pretty much found that the options in one’s life were: you went through High School, found Miss Right, got married and lived happily ever after. Of course, what was left out of this equation was a most important word that Milton Caniff once used as his one word to describe life: “Meanwhile”; and so by the time I decided I really wanted to pursue a career in comic books I had a wife, three young children and the sudden painful realisation that I didn’t know very damn much as an artist. But… I could ink.
So I moved my family from Oregon to Southern California and became assistant to Russ Manning. There was not a lot of money in it, however. Russ, bless his heart, took me under his wing and gave me work, when he didn’t have to. So by day I was a Credit Manager/Salesman in a Sherwin Williams paint store and by evenings and weekends I assisted Russ Manning. There was a certain point in 1967/1968 that Western Publishing wanted more work from Russ Manning, who was their star artist, and he told them the only way he could give them more work was if he had me as a full time assistant and there wasn’t enough money for him to pay me full time. He suggested that if they gave me work, then the whole idea of him producing more work for Western was viable.
They gave me a call and asked, “Would you like to work for us?”, and since then I’d have to say that my career’s been a series of similar lucky breaks. Thus I was working full time with Russ Manning and Western Publishing, inking comic books and drawing things for them for their Hanna-Barbera TV comic books. I’ve left out the year of Animation Studio layout work. Shoot…I came close to being the voice of Peter Parker/Spiderman in the first Saturday morning animated TV series in 1967. But, that’s a subject for another interview!
DB: How did you come to hook up with Russ Manning?
MR: Well, when I saw the first Magnus, Robot Fighter and saw his signature after years of admiring his Brothers of the Spear and the Tarzan comic books and other miscellaneous things done for Western Publishing, under first the Dell and then the Gold Key imprint, I was delighted to find that this artist I admired actually had a name. At about the time that Russ was doing his first Magnus, I got involved in Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom and I found out that Russ Manning was a Tarzan and a Burroughs fan and I just made the assumption (Sherlock Holmes said one should never assume) that being a Burroughs fan he undoubtedly would be going to the World Science Fiction Convention in Oakland, California in 1964 to attend the Dum-Dum. I met through Burroughs fandom, Dale Broadhurst, a fan writer in Idaho, and the two of us obtained permission from Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated to produce a comic book based on Carson Of Venus. Very crudely drawn, but interesting, you know, in a prehistoric way. We both journeyed to this convention in Oakland with at least a100 copies of this fanzine/B&W comic book that we’d printed. Hulbert Burroughs had told us that we could sell approximately 100 copies and we asked, “How many is that, Hulbert, exactly?” He responded, “Anywhere between one and 1000.”
I had assumed that I would be able to meet Russ Manning at this fan gathering and had planned to ask him if he’d consider me as his assistant. At the convention I found out that Russ didn’t go to these events at that time in his career. But while there I met the publisher of ERBdom, and he encouraged me to send some samples of my comic book work to Russ, because at that time I had patterned my work to be similar, or at least tried to make it appear similar, to what Russ Manning was doing. I did up samples, sent them to Russ. Months later he responded and made the mistake of writing, “You know, if I ever needed an assistant, you could probably do the work.” which was all the encouragement I needed to pack up my family, tell the company who I was working for that we were taking a month vacation, borrow some money from a finance company, put half of my things in storage, put the rest in a big U-Haul trailer and drive to Southern California. I parked myself in Russ’s back yard and said, “Well, here I am” and as I said earlier, bless his heart, he gave me work. My first assignment was completing all the alien creatures in the back-up feature in Magnus #12.
DB: What was Russ like as a person? I mean because I’ve not really read a lot about Russ as, I mean I know what he was like as an artist, he was a great artist, but I’ve never read a lot about what he was like as a person.
MR: Well, I really loved his work and found Russ to be a very interesting guy. I will say of all the cartoonists I have known, met, gotten close to in all the years since April of 1965 when I moved to Southern California, Russ was probably the most “regular.” He didn’t have any of the quirks or loveable eccentricities of most of the artists I know. He was so regular that it was almost scary. I don’t mean that to sound, like you know, I’m being a smart ass, it’s just he belonged to the volunteer fire department (he lived out in the boondocks) and was very involved with the local water district and its functions, etc…very civic minded. While working with him we’d be often interrupted by this blaring box on a nearby table that was a fire or rescue “alert” that would instantly have him jumping to his feet and immediately racing off to fight a fire or rescue somebody. He did things on the weekends with family and friends that most of the other cartoonists I’ve ever known never did. He was such a down to earth regular guy that you would have never known that he was a cartoonist; but I’ve always felt he may have suffered from a dented ego because every time he would send samples to the big publishers in New York, they would turn him down out of hand. I’ve never understood why, unless it was that mentality (at that point in history) that the world ended at the Hudson River and that anyone living west of it couldn’t possibly have any talent!
DB: You started out as Russ’s assistant but you also started out pencilling before you started doing inking on a full time basis.
MR: When I worked with Russ he would give me a page that was at least half inked and at least a half or two thirds final pencils. I would finish the rest of the pencils and the inks so that when I was finished with the page you never knew where I started and he left off, which I always felt was truly what an assistant was supposed to be invisible, so to speak. You could never find my hand in the finished work and I suppose that’s where I acquired my attitude that, as an inker, anybody I inked I would try as hard as I could to make it look like I felt it would have looked if the penciler had inked it himself. I tried not to introduce my personality into the work and maybe that’s why it took me so many years to even develop a personality art wise, which I finally did at Disney in the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, 1990’s and to the present.
DB: And from there, you then became Jack Kirby’s inker of choice. How did that come about?
MR: How? One night when my first wife and my kids were at the Community College doing their swim workout (they were all AAU swimmers) and I was working late (they weren’t usually home until seven o’clock in the evening) at some point after 6:30pm I was walking from the studio that I had built at the rear of my garage to the house and as I stepped through the back door into the kitchen the phone was ringing. I picked it up and somebody asked, “Is this Mike Royer?” and I replied, “Yes”. The caller then said, “Well, this is Jack Kirby. Alex Toth tells me you’re a pretty good inker!” Abject shock! Subsequently I was asked to come to his house the next morning in Irvine (the first city that he lived in Southern California after moving there in the late 1960’s) and asked me if I’d like to ink some of his work for the company Marvel Mania that was producing licensed merchandise of Marvel comic characters. On a hunch, before leaving for his home that next morning, I pulled out my tools to take with me, my pens and brushes and ink and razor blades and so on. At his house he showed me a drawing of himself seated at his drawing board surrounded by his cast of creations and asked me if I would like to ink it, and I said, “Sure. When do you want me to bring it back?” and he said, “Why don’t you just sit down and do it here?”
Here I was face to face with the artist who, for the last four or five years, while looking at his work at Marvel I’d constantly remarked, “Why the hell doesn’t somebody ink Jack Kirby?” I’d seen a few of his pencilled pages reproduced in fanzines and realised that no one was really inking what I thought they should have been inking on Jack’s marvellous pencils. And now here I was with the opportunity to ink Jack Kirby, but at his drawing board, while he in essence looked over my shoulder. Intimidating as hell. But I got to meet the family, have sandwiches in the kitchen, visit and when I was finished with the inking he was pleased and I subsequently did many more things that he was doing for Marvel Mania. At some point, these events are all in the late 1960’s, he said he was going to New York and would have a surprise for me when he came back. Before he returned from the East, I got a phone call from Don and Maggie Thompson.
What was the name of the publication they toiled for?
DB: Comic Buyers Guide.
MR: I’m not sure if it was called the Comic Buyers Guide back then…it was just a newsletter thing.
DB: Oh I know the one and I can’t remember the name of it.
MR: I can’t remember the name of it either. Some historian will pop up with the correct “handle.” Anyway, I got a phone call from Don Thompson inquiring, “What do you know about Jack quitting Marvel and going over to DC?” and I answered, “Boy, this is the first I’ve heard of it,” and then shortly after that I got a phone call from Jack from LAX saying that he had just gotten back from New York and that he had gone back and made this new deal with DC and he’d told them he wanted me to ink his books, but unfortunately they said, “No, we want to control the books back here”. It was nice to know that Jack had gone to New York, left Marvel and signed on with D.C. and he’d felt strong enough about my work on his pencils that he had asked for me as part of the package. Of course it didn’t happen, not at first. Within four issues of each of his Fourth World titles, as a result of Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman constantly pointing out to Jack all of the art that Vince Colletta was leaving out or changing while inking the pages, the situation would change. Jack had really, I think to this point, never paid that much attention to the finished pages and books. He’d already written and drawn them in his head and then done them in carbon on paper and that was enough. He knew the material inside and out. When his young assistants started pointing out all the differences as they saw them he became concerned and lobbied strongly to get me involved. Before this occurred I remember going back to New York to Phil Seuling’s convention (always held on the Fourth of July weekend) and going to the DC’s offices and meeting with Carmine Infantino, walking into his office and proclaiming, “Hey, I can ink Jack and do a better job than Vince is doing”. Later at lunch Dick Giordano told me that I should be careful, I was going to get a reputation as being “cocky.” I simply said, “Well I just told him the truth” and he told me, “Yeah, but Carmine and Vinnie are like this,” with his two fingers held tightly together.
I finally wound up getting the assignment with the number five issues of New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People and most of everything after that until he quit DC and went back to Marvel and then it was the same situation again. They wanted to control everything back there, so it was about four issues of the new Marvel material he was doing before I was back inking Jack. At least DC had kept me busy after Jack returned to Marvel, which was nice knowing their prejudice about dealing with anybody west of the Hudson River was coming to an end. So, I continued contributing to D.C. until Jack called and brought me into his camp once more.
DB: And then of course you worked with other artists during all of this time as well. What were some of the names and some of the things that you did that you…?
MR: Well, let’s see. I drew a lot of pages for Jim Warren’s B&W horror mags and lots for Western Publishing. I drew stories for Hannah-Barbera High Adventure Heroes, and Hannah-Barbera TV Superheros…I think those were the titles. I conceived ideas for and did covers, I drew some stories, I inked a lot of stories by other Western stalwards…Sparky Moore, Hi Mankin, Mike Arens, Nat Edson, etc. and at one time I went into the editor, Chase Craig and said, “You know, Chase, since you’ve got me inking and lettering all this stuff, (the H-B TV comics) why don’t you let me produce the book for you and I’ll deal with the artists and everything and save you the headache. You just give me the scripts and I’ll take care of the rest”. I continued, “I’ll be using Sparky Moore and Mike Arens”, and he said “Okay.” I’d already gotten permission from Mike and Sparky to go ahead with my plan. I drew the entire book, lettered and inked it and turned it in and Chase couldn’t tell the difference, although he was reluctant to give me that many pencilling assignments if I went in as me. That was kind of fun, producing a book using ‘Mike and Sparky’ and actually I doing all the work myself. I think that’s a good example…ahhh… I don’t know whether you should quote me on this or not…but one of the problems with comic books then and today is that most editors don’t really know one artist from another. In my case they might just have a preference for one kind of drawing or maybe it’s simply a case that they just don’t like my work…me. Anytime I’ve contacted Marvel and DC about procuring inking assignments their usual response is, “Well, if we have a Jack Kirby project come along”, and I want to respond with, “What, you’ve never seen my inks on Steve Rude? Russ Manning? Doug Wildey? That’s not Jack Kirby. I’ve inked everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Zorro in every style imaginable”. But I don’t say anything. Most editors don’t even know who these guys are/were.
There was an issue of The Defenders at Marvel…or maybe D.C….it all runs together…I think it was the Defenders that Rick Estrada pencilled at a time when I was getting tired of doing stuff at Marvel and never getting what I considered my share of the original art back. I had inked an issue of Kazar that was pencilled by Paul Reinman. Mike Friedrich, who had written the book, when he sent the pages from his home in the San Francisco Bay area, asked me to redraw completely three of the pages because he didn’t care for what Paul had done. Of course, when the original art was split up Paul kept those three pages and in my one third share of the original art I didn’t get the three pages that I had drawn from scratch. So whenever this was chronologically, working on this Defenders book that Rick Estrada had drawn, I did not want to lose any originals that I might have felt I’d done a better than average job on. They sent me Rick’s rough layouts and of course I was being paid a little extra to finish Rick’s pencils and then ink them, and I did everything on the light box. What I sent back to Marvel (or D.C…whatever…) in New York was two sets of art: Rick’s rough pencils and then the pencils, inks and lettering that I had done on the light box and informed them, “When this is printed and you return the artwork, I want the complete book of inked pages because Rick will have his complete book of pencils.” I think in the letter pages they mentioned something about this amazing new technique that Mike Royer had created which was really nothing new at all. Almost from the beginning when Western Publishing, on the West Coast, started doing comics released through Dell (in the 1940’s they had licensed almost all the animated characters being produced in animated cartoons) most of the art was drawn by studio animators on tissue and then inked on a light board/box by the inkers. So I had not done anything new, except I guess Marvel or DC had never seen books done that way.
Something I’m very proud of…excuse me for bouncing all over the place here…but I’d heard from Mark Evanier that Ramona Fradon, whose Plastic Man I’d inked during the period that Jack had returned to Marvel and editors at D.C. were still supplying me lots of work, was particularly pleased with what I had done over her pencils. When I finally got to meet her a couple of years ago at San Diego Con I took advantage of the meeting to relate to her, “You know, Mark Evanier tells me that you were very pleased with my inking of your pencils way back then.” and she responded, “Oh, absolutely.” She continued, “Of all the people who ever inked me, you’re the only person that inked me”. In other words, when I finished with the book it looked exactly like Ramona Fradon’s pencils except it was slicked up a little bit and her statement completed in ink. Because, if you look at all the work that she did in her career, very little of it looks like her in the inking.
MR: I’m probably not making any sense, but that’s the problem I have. You look in the encyclopaedia under verbose and you’ll see colour portraits of me and Roy Thomas. [laughter] Meant with all good humor. I’m very fond of Roy and Dann.
DB: One of the things that’s always struck me with looking at your work over the Jack Kirby pencils, is you are very faithful to the pencils. Now the interesting thing that I found recently was I took a Jack Kirby commission, I had an artist ink it and he emailed me back and he said, “There’s a problem here. I want to ink it, I want to be faithful to the pencils, but there are problems”. So what he ended up doing was doing two versions. One was totally faithful to the pencils and the other one was where he’d fixed things in the anatomy. It was a Captain America piece and we fixed the shield because the perspective was all wrong. Both of them came in and both of them looked brilliant.
So was there any temptation there at any stage to go, “Well that might be a little bit off, I’ll fix that”?
MR: Well, mostly the things that I, on a regular basis, would “fix” would be simple things like eyes. Jack drew so fast that sometimes eyes in a close up would not exactly be on the same plain, and it’s a problem that is easy for artists to have if they’re working real, real fast and all I would simply do is put them on the same plain. I added simple things like pupil highlights and a shadow over the top of the eyeball, cast from the eyelid, little things like that. The only time I did any kind of a major change was on the first Mister Miracle I inked. I made Barda’s face prettier on the page 1 splash. Now at the time I was heavily influenced by artists like Stan Drake and Leonard Starr and a couple European artists who all drew beautiful women; and so I made her what I thought was a little prettier and it’s the only criticism I ever got from Jack. He called and said, “Don’t ever change the faces!” So I never did again to any amount that you or he’d ever notice. What he didn’t notice was that I slimmed down her ankles and her thighs and her waist quite often. But the face was really obvious to him; and he was probably right. Oh Gawd, who was the artist, Plastino, or somebody, that redrew his Superman faces in the Jimmy Olsen comics? After a couple of times of seeing these glaring “corrections” I called the New York office and I said, “Look, send me the model sheets and let me change the faces and change the S on Jack’s Superman, so that at least the finish is consistent”. I believe on the Jimmy Olsen’s that I inked and lettered, I made the changes on Olsen and Superman, so that they were consistent with the inking on the rest of the material.
One thing I found with Jack is that I loved the power in his work. From the time his first book arrived in the mail and the very last book arrived at my house, I would open them up and just be excited by the sheer power, even if it was for characters that I had no empathy for, like Sandman (I hated that character) and Devil Dinosaur, which I just couldn’t relate to. But I always related to the raw power of his pencils, and as I said, with things like eyes, little minor things like that I might correct, I wouldn’t mess with anything else. My job was to complete Jack’s statement, not “fix it” as others felt.
I remember in the first New Gods, there’s a page where Orion, at the top of the page has his right or left leg trapped in a huge clam shell and then half way through the page it’s the opposite leg ensnarled. But it worked because of the sheer power of what Jack had drawn, the visual storytelling, it’s… its like, well, so what if it’s a different leg. Dramatically it worked! I think Jack was an absolutely tremendous designer, but there are his detractors who say, “Well, his page layouts were so boring, it was just that same six panel grid or a four panel grid, yadda-yadda-yadda.” Jack’s philosophy was that the comic page and its panels are like a movie screen. When you’re at the movies look: the screen size doesn’t change; it’s what goes on inside it that changes…moves. That’s what is most important. I can remember an early Neal Adams work, I think it was Deadman, where there’s a page that if you squint your eyes you can see a head shot of the character formed by the design of the elements inside the panels. Another time you could see something like smoke rising up in the panel and if you turned the page sidewards it spells “a Steranko effect.” All of those kinds of things are “cute” but for me they had nothing to do with telling a good story…just ‘smarty pants.’ I’m trying to modify my language. My wife keeps correcting me by saying, “There’s no reason for you to use that language”. They didn’t talk that way in my favourite movies of all time in the 1930’s, as you know.
DB: What are some of your favourite movies from the 1930’s?
MR: Well, I think my favourite 1930’s films are almost everything through mid 1934… well not everything, but the films before mid 1934 are those that film fans lovingly call “pre-code.” There was a motion picture code that was supposed to enforce decency regulations in films, but nothing much was really being regulated. By the mid 1930’s, as a result of some of Mae West’s racy dialog and material such as a naked underwater ballet sequence in Tarzan and his Mate, the Catholic Church’s film rating board announced, “We’re going to give every film an X rating if you don’t clean up your act, Hollywood.” The movie industry was run by European Jewish immigrants and they were, if nothing, very smart businessmen. Knowing that the bulk of their paying audience was Christian and mostly Catholic they did not wish to incur the wrath of the Catholic Church and their threatened placement of an X rating on everything they produced. It would be real disaster at the Box Office. So the film barons appointed a new tsar to the motion picture production code office and he clamped down, created a list of do’s and don’ts, which is why after mid 1934, and until the late 1960’s that you never saw a woman’s naval in the movies or on television again, as an example. All kinds of things became forbidden.
What I love about pre code films is not the fact that they incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, but that by today’s standards they’re extremely innocent, yet they possessed a kind of realism. People actually, oh my Gawd, horror, slept together without the benefit of marriage. Married folk actually were seen sleeping in the same bed. Lordy! Sometimes people were killed and the murderer was never brought to justice because in the context of the film, the person who was killed deserved it. Certain kinds of dialogue and situations that seem to work for me. One of my favourites of the last of the great pre-code films is Tarzan and his Mate. The outfit that Maureen O’Sullivan wears is just cuter than the dickens and I suppose you could look at it as being extremely sexy, (she just wears a couple of flaps with a string around her mid section) but I don’t know if one can find a more beautiful, sensual, feminine and innocent all wrapped up in one actress as is found in this second MGM Tarzan feature. Scandalous! There’s a sequence in the film where one of the big game hunters has Jane trying on these gowns, brought from back home, in a tent out in the middle of Africa. He casually states, “You know it’s funny, I’m usually trying to talk a beautiful woman out of her dress.” And the long underwater naked ballet thing with Tarzan and Jane, when you look at it, compared to todays “anything goes,” is pretty innocent, you know. Anyway, I love the pre-code films. But when Hollywood was forced to avoid “risqué” things, the studios developed a way of handling the same topics but in such a way that the code didn’t forbid them and it was because the writing became more sophisticated and by the early 1940’s when you look at a film like the Maltese Falcon with Bogart, there might be some question in some peoples’ minds just what Bridgette O'Shaughnessy is offering Sam Spade to take her case, but it’s clearly obvious in the early 1930’s version with Ricardo Cortez. Shame!
So, my favourite films are the 1930’s, my next are the 1940’s and I can’t really say there’s a genre that I prefer over another. I love the mysteries, detectives; you know the wise cracking reporter films, the gangster pictures, which as a child when I saw them on television disturbed me because every time Bogart got beat up by some guy in an ally, you know, to me it was real. Yeah, I felt it. But I also love the cowboy films. I love the programmers, the B’s, and B didn’t necessarily mean bad or cheap. In the old days all theatres kept a log and there was the A feature which was the big prestigious feature from Hollywood which cost them a percentage and then there was the B feature, the second feature on the night’s double bill, which cost them a flat rental fee because it was usually shorter than 70 minutes and was done in a couple of weeks or less on a tight budget. So it was called the B feature and now the term usually means just cheap, but I prefer, when talking about Hollywood’s Golden Age, the word “programmer.” I just love programmers. First from the 1930’s and then the 1940’s and there’s a handful of 1950’s films that I think are worth mentioning. I just did an interview this morning via email asking me if I am a sci-fi fan. Yes, since I was eight or nine years old and went to the movies with my folks and saw things like Destination Moon and The Man from Planet X and Rocketship X-M and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I love that stuff; and what’s funny is that at the time they were kind of like B+ programmers and I do take some satisfaction in the fact that now all these years later many of them are considered classics. You know, there’s probably not one person in the world that doesn’t know or has not seen the original King Kong, but ask anybody who won the Academy Award for the best picture in 1933 and you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody that knows it was a movie called Cavalcade. Everybody remembers King Kong. Not a programmer but one of pre code’s finest!
I love Hopalong Cassidy. I was a Saturday matinee kid in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry films. I’ve gotten way off the topic, haven’t I? I’m sorry.
DB: No, that’s fine. I love the old movies as well. My mother introduced me to them when I was very young. One of my favourite things of the last two years was when Universal released the Universal Monsters Series with all of the classic horror movies in the… finally on a DVD with things that just never came out on video or were rarely seen on TV. Frankenstein versus the Wolfman and things like that. I just love those movies.
MR: Well, in the mid 1950’s when Universal opened its package of films to television, (released in packages called Shock and then Shock 2) the way TV stations would run those films in this country was late at night and each TV station always had some local celebrity that was the host or hostess. In Portland, Oregon, the TV station that ran the Shock packages did it on Thursday nights starting at 10:30pm and I’m telling you, as a young high school kid I really had to plead to get my folks to allow me to stay up late on a school night to watch “Tarantula Ghoul,” Portlands Gothic Horror Hostess, a good looking slinky gall who opened the show by stepping out of her coffin. You know, over the years there’ve been all types of hosts that horror movie and monster movie fans rap enthusiastically and nostalgic about, but in Portland it was a gal named Tarantula Ghoul.
DB: We had a guy here called Deadly Ernest who introduced the movies.
MR: But these old films by today’s standards are pretty bland because they don’t have all the blood letting and the guts spilling all over the place, and… I’m sorry; none of that crap does anything for me except repel me. What happened with the film industry with the crack down by the motion picture production code office in mid 1934 is that the film makers started doing really great writing and did the same kinds of things they had done before the code enforced standards, but they did it surreptitiously and subtly and all that fell apart in the late 1960’s and now with very few exceptions, most movies in my opinion are just boring exercises in CGI effects, involving people that I don’t care about, and I was really disappointed with Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I loved what he did with the Ring Trilogy and I remember reading in Newsweek before the third Ring film was released that he said that his next project was King Kong because when he saw it as a kid on television, not only had it changed his life, but it rearranged his DNA and I thought, “Yeah, here is somebody to redo a classic!” But unfortunately, because there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do visually with CGI, I think he went too far overboard with the thing. For me the last 30 minutes of the film is great but everything before that is just another wasted exercise in CGI technology.
So I prefer films that have stories, characters, people that you can care about. Maybe I’m just old and naïve but I also like my heroes that are heroes. I don’t like them so grey.
DB: It’s not a case of being old and naïve. I agree with everything you said there. It all works for me.
MR: I don’t mean to interrupt you but since you’re Australian, I do have to mention that in the mid 1950’s the fledgling ABC television network on Thursday nights, because they didn’t have a lot of programming other than movies and old syndicated stuff, ran a Famous (or maybe Foreign) Film Festival and all the movies they ran were either from England or Australia and at one time in my life I guess you could say that I was a fan of Chips Rafferty.
DB: Oh good old Chips.
MR: All these years later, you might be able to show me a picture from it, but if it’s not labelled I probably wouldn’t recognise it, but I can remember in the mid 1950’s seeing, I think, one of his hits called Bonanza, not to be confused with the stupid American TV series. Made me want to go to Australia, Mate. Fan-Bloody-Tastic!
DB: Yep, that’s about right. You would have seen him probably in the Smiley series.
MR: All I know is that I saw several of these “foreign” films and I became Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons fans because of their British films. I knew Granger from his early American films like King Solomon’s Mines, but I didn’t know that there was this whole wealth of material that he did before MGM turned him into a swashbuckler and then after seeing Australian films in the mid 1950’s that I thought “I would love to go to Australia,” you know. I have a very good friend who’s from Australia who, when he was 15, sent me a fan letter in the form of a little reel to reel audio cassette and you probably know him, Paul Power?
DB: Yes, I know of him.
MR: Paul said, “Hey mate, I love what you’re doing with the Jack Kirby comic books” and so we had an audio correspondence for some time and then he came to the States. We didn’t hit it off immediately because, being in the States, I think he was more interested in women than anything else. After he’d calmed down a bit we got reacquainted (in person) and… then, I was not married at the time, we were both looking for women together. Had neon signs on our foreheads (seen only by the fair sex) that blinked on and off “Hunter…Hunter…” We spent a lot of evenings shooting pool. Paul’s an old mate who emails me quite often and we talk on the phone now and then and once a year we get together at the San Diego Comic-Con and act foolish and go to a little place a couple of blocks from the Convention Centre called the Kansas City Barbeque which is where they filmed scenes from the movie Top Gun and the bartender there seems to really like me and the fact that I’ve drawn so many napkins and placemats for his regulars that being a co-owner of the place, I’ve never had a bar tab that came anywhere near being a quarter of what I actually owed.
Finally after three years of going to this bar during the convention, we finally saw a girl donate her bra to the ceiling which has all these bras hanging from it. There was a scene covering that in Top Gun and then I realised that all these nights and years in a row that we’ve gone to Kansas City Barbeque hoping for somebody to donate their bra and how absolutely unspectacular it actually is. Amazing how a woman can remove a bra from the sleeves of her blouse. We exclaimed, “Oh wow, this is great! She’s going to give them her bra!” and then it was “Okay, which was pretty exciting, (not) let’s have another glass of wine.”
You know my problem, Daniel, is that in about eight or seven days I’m going to be 65 and I find that outrageous because between my ears I’m 23 and… so I get angry sometimes and feel “I’m not 65, this is ridiculous” and when I’m with Paul, and gosh I think he turned 50 recently, I’m thinking, “Paul’s not 50, I’m not 65… we’re both kids”. I digress again.
DB: No, I mean having a young outlook is probably; well it is the only way to go. I’ve realised…
MR: I think that Chips Rafferty film might have been called Bonanza Stockade, no? Was that it?
DB: It sounds familiar. I mean I’ve seen so many of Chip Rafferty’s films. They used to put them on TV every day there for a while. It was a…
MR: And of course I’m a big fan of all the Australian actors that I see making it in some way or another in this country. I get a kick out of …who is it? Ingo Rodamocker… that’s on General Hospital.
MR: He’s an interesting guy; and of course, oh my God, senior moment, what’s her face with the Alabaster skin that had the wise sense to let Tom Cruise go?
DB: Nicole Kidman.
MR: Oh yeah, the movie she made about the weather girl that wanted to be a star. In that one film I think she is just so incredibly irresistible. See I’m not even addressing her abilities as an actress, am I? I’m just objectively admiring her.
DB: Everyone else does it to her and I don’t think anyone…
MR: Oh and I’m telling you, one of my favourite, probably my number one favourite all time sci-fi space opera was/is Farscape.
DB: Farscape? Virginia Hey?
MR: Everybody was Australian except for Ben Browder.
DB: Yeah true. I think they filmed that, was it in New Zealand?
MR: Australia first and then in New Zealand.
DB: Yeah I forgot about that.
MR: But almost everybody involved with the series was Australian! Luckily, two years ago at San Diego-Con I got to meet Claudia Black, who I think is just absolutely gorgeous, and I gave her an original Disney Tigger drawing I’d done especially for her. I told her that when I saw the first episode of Farscape, about six years ago, I called my wife into my studio/office and I remarked, “Look at this one” and then “We both agreed how incredibly beautiful you are” and she remarked, “But in those first shows I was so mean looking.” I told her, “But there were those shots of you in the album credits”. She agreed, “Yeah, they were pretty nice, but I have to credit my parents for the bones.” Anyway, it was a great 20 minutes (just the two of us in the press room) for this ol’ fan of good sci-fi and beautiful women. Later, Comic Con Guest Relations informed me that all Claudia could talk about on the way back to the airport was the original drawing of Tigger (her favorite character) that she’d been given.
I guess if I have any credibility as an artist, (and I sometimes wonder if I do) it’s that I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career because I feel that I was really just a small cog in a huge comic book machine. I’ve been influenced by all kinds of things. There were the icons, artist icons of my youth, some of whom I got to meet and there were the movies, the last days of dramatic radio when I was a kid and… oh, I also enjoy, it’s probably just historical stuff to you, but the Australian broadcast companies versions of American radio shows like the Avengers and Charlie Chan…I have some of those recordings and I enjoy them thoroughly…all these “storytelling” influences on me, have made me who/what I am today. Just a lucky stiff… but the journey’s been Fan-Bloody-Tastic. That was one of the first expressions I learned, that is repeatable, from Paul.
DB: It’s a very Australian expression that one. Now you became the Winnie the Pooh artist.
MR: Well, I do like to tell people that at the Disney stores they did refer to me as “The Pooh Man!” I was still on staff at Disney (in my 14th year) and a designer, Claudia, who lived in Simi Valley (where I lived and we occasionally would carpool) came into my office and said, “Mike, I’ve been given the assignment to update and create a whole new licensing program for the Winnie the Pooh property, because Sears is at the end of their 30 year exclusive license.” Until that time (1993/1994) the only place you could buy Pooh merchandise was at the Disney Parks and Sears. “We want to retool everything and would you like to do the artwork, come up with the new look?”, and I told her, “Well, I’m not really crazy about the Pooh characters. If you let me come up with something…a style that I enjoy doing I’ll try.” “Do whatever you want to do.” and so I developed the style that became the “look” of the launch, in late 1993 of the International Pooh Licensing Program and in a year and a half, Pooh was outselling Mickey Mouse worldwide! It was the style that I can say launched the program, but it was a style that all the other artists had trouble doing. I created something that I could do better than the rest of them, felt more comfortable doing.
So, eventually the (person) that was in charge of consumer products creative simplified things and watered it down and as a result of this and many other dunderhead moves, I think ten years later Disney licensing was almost dead. But that’s another story. After a year of her taking over, I bit the bullet and told her (I took her to lunch, bought her a glass of wine and…) “Susan, you’ve heard me talk about how life is an adventure. Well, I’m going to stop saying it and do it. I’m quitting!” and she blacklisted me and I never worked for licensing again for nine years. But the Disney stores immediately said, “Come, come. You’ll never be out of work. Don’t even come in in person, it’ll take you away from the drawing board.” and that lasted for seven years before things fell apart. A long, long story involving the stock market and idiot management which results in the Disney philosophy of, if there are problems, lay off talent.
So for seven and a half years I was The Pooh Man for the Disney stores and I would say I did 75% of the Pooh art found on their merchandise. 50% of what I did for the Stores was concepting and 50% was doing finished art from my concepts and the concepts done in house and by a couple other free lancers. The stuff that I didn’t concept that came from in-house I made “work” and any of the stuff that was produced by Studio Licensing Creative that the Stores wanted to use they’d have me “fix” so that it was “my” Pooh rather than what it had eventually become in Licensing…something so simple that any idiot could draw it. Believe it or not, those characters are very hard to do if you do them right.
DB: I suppose when anyone hears your name, they instantly think Jack Kirby and some people may feel that that’s all you’ve done, and you’ve done so…
MR: Well, a lot of people that’s all they know.
DB: Yeah I know but you’ve done so much before, you’ve done so much in the middle of it and so much after it. I mean it’s almost a shame that that’s what they think because you know you’ve sort of been labelled, to use a musical term, a one hit wonder when in fact you’ve got a huge body of work without Jack Kirby which is just as valid if not more valid.
MR: Well, that’s funny. Starting in 2001 when the consumer products industry and the Disney Stores started going to hell, I began looking around for other work and I thought “Well hell, I’ll try comic books again.” If anybody remembered me it was because of Jack Kirby and they couldn’t look at any of my other work (penciling or just inking) and see how different it was. “Well, we’ll think of you for a Jack Kirby project” and I was looking for work so I wasn’t going to be nasty and say, “Look you idiot, you can’t tell the difference between Jack Kirby and Alvin and Zorro!” Of course I would love to draw “bigfoot” comics, but no one’s really producing them and what DC does with the Warner characters is so bad in my opinion…not bad… it’s just it could be so much better. You know, it’s just “by the numbers” boring, as far as I’m concerned. They’re not really doing any new Disney stuff at the new publishers because for $26 bucks a page they can reprint all this stuff that was done in Europe by a bunch of really great artists. I think some of the most fun I ever had in comic books was… Lord, was it late 1980’s or early 1990’s?… when I did three 12 page Mickey Mouse stories for the Mickey Mouse comics when they were published by Marvel and produced at Disney.
I had a great deal of fun doing those stories and they were a real challenge because they were written by Marv Wolfman and I really like Marv but he had three times as much dialogue as really needed. So it was a challenge to make it work with the writing. It’s not… the writing…you know the writing wasn’t bad, I just think it didn’t need to have that many words. But nobody is really producing the kind of stuff I like to draw and as an inker, nobody’s really interested in me because “We don’t have any Kirby projects at the moment” and between you and me, I don’t really enjoy inking anymore anyway. I much prefer drawing.
I do occasional artwork for a pin company that produces collector lapel pins for several Disney divisions. The most recent thing I did was a set of pins in honour of American Labour Day which is in September. I did a series of pins for Flag Day with the standard characters and then before that I did 14 or so pins for the Torino Winter Olympic Games called Mickey’s Olympics. That’s where I do most of my Disney art these days. Occasionally I do things for Danbury Mint. I’ve done a lot of work in concepting ideas for faux bronze statues, some of them Disney characters. I just recently did a bunch of concepts for… are you familiar with the garden gnomes…the little gnomes, statues people have in their garden?
DB: Yeah I’m familiar with garden gnomes, yeah.
MR: Well, I did a series of gnomes playing baseball and gnomes playing football. Occasionally they have me do corrections on statues that other people designed, and bless the account executive I work with. She’ll email (with attachment) and say, “Mike, would you please put a tissue over this and add your magic.” So it’s nice to have a handful of people still thinking that I might have some “magic” left. I don’t know what it’s like in Australia but in this country, if you’re over 30 the comic book companies think you’re brain dead. I guess they don’t figure that the older you get the more experience and knowledge you might have.
It’s funny, the people who are in the decision making roles drive me nuts. The Disney Store people would say, “Now Mike, we want you to do some concepts for children’s bibs, so keep them simple because, remember, they’re for infants.” And I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting “Wait a minute! The only difference between infant and adult fashions is the size of the garment. An infant doesn’t even know what the hell is on the bib!” Its mom and dad and grandma and grandpa that shell out the credit cards, the cash, you know, write the cheques to buy this merchandise. If you get them smiling or laughing aloud…”
DB: They’ll buy it.
MR: “It’s sold!” But they always made this distinction between child and adult fashions and if you were drawing something for sleepwear, you couldn’t do too much acting because the characters had to have their eyes closed “because it’s sleepwear.” Sigh… I once did what I thought were a bunch of cute concepts and I said, “These would be perfect for kitchen aprons.” They were plays on cookbook recipes (I was inspired by some old Our Gang theatrical shorts from the early 1930’s) and I had Tigger furiously rolling on the floor in clouds of dust, on the floor behind him was an old fashioned large metal flour tin and then in the back on a little easel was a cookbook with an arrow pointing at it showing what the recipe says: “First roll in flour”. I had things like Pooh handing Piglet a wooden mallet and Piglet has a cutting board with three eggs on it and sitting to his side is a dozen egg carton with three empty spaces and the recipe book says, “Separate three eggs and beat.” I showed these to adults and they laughed aloud. The Disney stores response was, “Well, we like these but we don’t make aprons.”
DB: Oh God.
MR: “Well, why don’t you make some aprons?” I should just get over it. I haven’t done full time art since 2001 for Disney. Now it’s just the pin company and related vendors and an occasional pencil job for some California illustrators who do full paint stuff for Disney in Asia. But I’ll go to my grave a Disney man, a Disney company man, you know, remembering the company that existed until the mid/late 1990’s.
DB: Well you’ve worked at Disney longer than what you did over Jack Kirby’s artwork; you’ve done more years at Disney.
MR: A lot of people don’t understand when I try to explain this. I guess I don’t have a grasp of the vocabulary and sophisticated words to explain it properly. But there’s very rarely a drawing of any kind that I do on Disney characters art that I don’t think about Jack, because I’ve got in front of me a blank tissue drawing pad or a piece of white paper and I have to tell a story in one picture with either one character or six or eight characters and I learned from Jack not to be afraid of that white space, that blank space, and to tell the story; and so I would say that 90% of what I did for the Disney stores told a story. The finished art that I did for them that doesn’t tell a story, the stuff that was concepted in-house and I couldn’t change the concept I just had to make it work. I’ve done some large group scenes where I just took a piece of paper 12 x 18 and started in the centre and when I was finished I looked at it and I thought, “Holy cow, did I do that?” I’d had an idea what I wanted to do and when I was finished it was, “Don’t tell me I didn’t learn something from Jack Kirby that won’t work with funny animals!”
DB: No that’s good. I suppose we…
MR: Are you going to be able to use any of this, Daniel?
DB: Yes I am, yes I am. I’ve got plenty there. It’s all good, it’s all very good. What I’ll do is I’ll transcribe it all up, type it all up and send it through to you so that way you can take out anything you don’t want in there.
MR: Sometimes my stream of consciousness, when I see it in print, I realise that there are sections of thought that were totally left out that need to be added. I do tend to ramble.
You know, I think that Jack got a bum deal in the end from Marvel. So many people…I see/hear this from many professionals at conventions…so many people wanted to have the opportunity to fix, I say that in quotes, “fix” Jack and I think it was just to grab a hold of his shirt tales and share in the glory. There were those at Marvel who wanted to write the dialogue for Jack’s stories and so they were constantly saying that Jack’s prose is just bad, old fashioned and stiff. Well, maybe on one hand it might have been considered that…it was not Stan Lee…you knew it wasn’t all the other hot shot writers at Marvel, but it was Jack, straight, direct, to the point. They wanted to fix it and I think that they, in a way, sabotaged him.
You look at the letter pages in some of the later Devil Dinosaurs, for example, and you’ve got these 12 year old kids writing letters (after all, Jack was producing the comic book for 12 year old kids) and the letters that were printed seemed to basically all say the same thing: “Gee, the artwork is great but the writing sucks!” Well, you put enough of those letters in a magazine and the 12 year old who buys it, susceptible to peer pressure from everywhere, in person and in print, reads these “stacked” letters pages and he’s going to start to question his taste. “Why am I buying this if the writing sucks?” Maybe I’m doing Lucy’s five cent analysis (from Peanuts) but it’s just something I feel strongly about. You tell somebody that’s reading a book long enough that they have no taste, and they’ll probably soon stop buying it. Funny… you know what’s interesting; the sales started dropping off on those books. Also funny how many folks walk up to me at Comic Con saying how much they “loved” Devil Dinosaur. Go figure…
They had to fix Jack. So at the end of his Kamandi drawn issues, another example, with Denny O’Neil writing it, it’s not Jack’s Kamandi anymore and it shows in the artwork. The graphics are powerful and strong and the visual design is still great, but the soul is gone. They took Jack’s soul away.
DB: That must have impacted upon Jack himself because surely month after month he must have been looking at this and thinking, you know, “Can you print one letter that doesn’t say, ’Geez this book sucks’”.
So I’ve always wondered towards the end there whether he just went, “Well I’ve got a contract, you want x amount of pages, here they are, go for it, I don’t care”.
MR: In my opinion, again Sherlock says, “One should not assume”, but I’m assuming that it did have an effect on Jack and at the end he just became a wrist and, no longer in control of his own material. They were no longer his babies.
I believe that Jack Kirby needed an editor, but not an editor to fix him, an editor to point out that he might have left out an explanation that was necessary.
As an example, there was the time that Jack and his wife Roz and I met for lunch at the Copper Penny Restaurant that used to be across the street from the bungalows at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. He wanted to know if I would ink this new comic book he was doing called Silver Star. I was busy working full time at Disney then and we hadn’t done a project together in a while, and he proceeded to tell me the story of Silver Star; and all through lunch I’m thinking. “My Gawd, all of this material in one issue?” No, what Jack had done was relate to me the complete six or seven issue saga. It was all in his head. So when he sat down to draw it and put his dialogue in, he already knew everything about his story. When I got the penciled pages, looking them over, sometimes I’d find an instance of something left out, maybe just a word or explanation of motivation or something. Jack didn’t realise it because he knew his plot and characters by heart. Roz did too. What he needed was an editor who had no vested interest in anything except “Does this part make sense to me?” At Marvel I believe the attitude was “We’ve got to rewrite this so that it’s Stan Lee type dialogue yadda-yadda-yadda.” Jack needed an editor but someone to just simply say, if they were unsure of a story point, or whatever, “Jack, I’m confused…is this what you meant?” Am I making any sense?
MR: There were…I don’t remember how many Silver Stars that I inked. I always thought it was one but somebody said I did four or five of them, so geez…who knows. As it turned out, the screen cartoonists were on strike and so I was working for the studio at home (we’d pick up work at the Jack In The Box drive through across the street from the studio), rather than cross the picket line. It was a case where we (the creative department for consumer products) weren’t violating the strike; we were just honouring the strike by not crossing the picket line. We were doing work that had nothing to do with what the animation cartoonists were striking over. So we worked at home. Well, I could do in four or five hours what one could do in an office situation in twelve hours. I had plenty of time to work on Silver Star. But there were a couple of spots where I thought, “This is a little confusing.” So I thought about it and added a couple of words here and there in narrative and then it made sense. But like I say, people wanted to “fix” Jack.
I was at San Diego Convention once on a panel with John Romita and Robert Kanigher, and a whole bunch of famous people. Privately, before we went on stage, I mentioned my theory about the people at Marvel sabotaging Jack in the letter columns to John and he agreed with me. But on stage not one person felt I had a valid point and I was actually booed from the audience when I said, “The problem with comics today, is that they’re being produced by a bunch of incestuous fan boys who grew up loving comic books, wanting to do comic books and now that they’re doing comic books they don’t like the idea that they’re doing comic books primarily read by kids. They feel It needs to be something a little more prestigious, more elevated, an adult medium…but kids?”
Well Jack Kirby was producing comic books for twelve year old kids and I guess the fan boys didn’t like the stigma of writing comic books for kids. Like I said, someone might agreed with me privately, but no one backed me up on stage and I was booed from the audience because I called many of the editors fan boys who didn’t want to admit they were doing comics for kids.
DB: The truth often hurts.
MR: But that’s a long time ago and I look at comic books now and they’re not being produced for kids, but I’m not sure who they were being produced for. There was a period a decade or so ago that it looked to me that most comic books were just huge guns and every woman had a 62 inch bust…it was all phallic symbols and big boobs.
DB: It hasn’t gotten much better.
MR: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with somebody like Steve Rude, who I consider the contemporary Alex Raymond. He doesn’t draw like Raymond but he is the master draftsman that Raymond was in another era and he does terrific work; and if I were inking on a regular basis, I would want to ink Steve Rude because what he does inspires me, the inker part of me, to do the best I can possibly do. He believes like I do that comic books are comics, comic books, you know. They may not be cheap pulp paper with a maximum of 64 colours now, but why do we need 356 colours on a page and all this graduated colours and modelling and so on, it’s just…overkill. You know, I’m a dinosaur and it’s probably a good that I’m not working in comic books, although Steve wanted me to letter the comic books of his new character, The Moth, because apparently I’m one of the few guys in the world that letters, that letters on the actual paper. Everybody does it in a computer and pastes it down and he doesn’t want that. But, I declined.
DB: That was a good sign then. I mean I’ve always liked Steve. I’ve always thought, looking at Steve Rude, I’ve always thought it was to my eyes and I’m an uneducated art person I suppose, I always see it as a perfect combination of Jack Kirby and Alex Toth.
MR: Well from a… maybe, maybe from a design sense. I see more Raymond and Manning, but he thinks like Jack dynamically; and I remember some of the reviews on the internet, some of the pages that cover and critique contemporary comic books and when his… the four issues of Captain America came out, the What Price Glory, everybody said, “Well it’s just Steve doing his Jack Kirby thing again” and maybe I’m just stupid, but I looked at his pages and I didn’t see Jack Kirby in the drawing. I see a methodology and a thinking, a dynamic, perhaps like Jack, but to just dismiss his talent by saying, “Oh, it’s just, you know, it’s Steve doing Jack Kirby.” These critics…I don’t think they know shit from shinola.
DB: I loved that series. I bought the preliminary cover years and years… preliminary to the first cover from Steve, oh God a couple of years back now. I loved that when it came out. I thought it was brilliant.
MR: On every one of the title splash pages Steve penciled in and instructed me to letter “Based on the characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon” and Marvel removed it every time.
DB: It’s insane. It was a very, very, very good, very good series that one. In fact the series, because he did a few, I think he did, he wanted to do Spiderman, and he did a Thor. The Thor was brilliant.
MR: Well, the Thor…I had less fun on the three issues of Thor than I did on the four Captain America's because I hadn’t done production inking in, Lord, a long time. You know how many years ago it was that I inked that Mr Miracle over Steve’s pencils, that special issue? I mean, you know I was working full time at Disney and it’s probably 15 years ago or more, probably 20 years ago. And in that 20 years the only comic book stuff I inked was, I think, a Steve Rude Rainbow story for Mark Evanier’s DNAgents and then a six or seven page Last of the Viking Heroes for Mike Thiebedeaux. Those were things that I did on weekends…so I was just learning how to work with tools that I hadn’t really used for a long time and I don’t know whether it’s me and being an old codger and that I’ve lost the ability or, what I suspect more, is that the papers, pens, brushes and inks today suck!
I remember in 1966 at the little studio when I worked on the limited animation syndicated Marvel Superheroes with Doug Wildey, Sparky Moore, Mike Areas and Mel Kieffer and it was one of the times that Stan Lee came out to meet with the studio crew. We were in a conference room, visiting with Stan while we were picking out the brushes we used for inking our pencil work on the drawings we produced to work with the stat art of the comics which we were “animating.”. The company bought them by the bulk on cards and we all selected our brushes in the same manner. You pulled the brush off the card and you stuck it in your mouth, licked it and studied the point it made. In 1966 those Windsor Newton Series 7 No 2’s cost $2.50 each and I’ll never forget Doug Wildey, trying to put a point on one bitterly saying, “This stuff is shit!!” Well, I’m telling you, I would kill to get some of that 1966 shit! Today the brushes are $30.00 or $40.00 and for my money they suck rubber donkey lungs. [laughter] I don’t know what that means, but it’s a great expression…it works.
DB: It’s a great expression. I’ve never heard it before.
MR: I heard it my first week at Disney back in May of 1979. One of the designers and I were discussing something and he remarked, “Man, that sucks rubber donkey lungs!” I love that expression and use it quite often, to this day.
DB: Oh no, that is, that’s priceless. Well I’ll leave it there for now. Look thank you very much for your time today, it’s been great. I’ve really…
MR: Well, I talk to much and I don’t really say anything and when my kids and my wife start groaning while I’m talking, I know they’ve heard that story three or four times and… You know, recently Marvel asked me to write the introduction to their hardcover book The Complete Collected Jack Kirby’s Eternals which they’re going to release with the launch of the new comic book series done by some of their new young guns, and asked me to write an introduction and talk about what it was like working on the Eternals. I can’t remember what it was like.
I had to ink three pages a day and letter a whole book in less than two days to keep up with Jack. So in the first paragraph in essence I said, “For those of you who are approaching the Eternals for the first time, the icons of another era, I don’t wish to be a spoiler, and for those of you who are returning to heroes from another time, I don’t have to wax nostalgically, you know what it’s all about” and then spent the rest of the 1200 words talking about me and Jack and our friendship/relationship rather than the work, because I remember more about that now. Going to his house and my kids swimming in his swimming pool right outside his studio while we talked over the current project. I would either pick up and deliver in person half of the time, the rest of the time his pages would come by special delivery. I’d open up that package and first thing I woult be engulfed by this aroma of Roy Tan cigars which was intoxicating and then I’d look at the pages and think, “Oh my Gawd, don’t screw this up!” I remember the sitting and talking philosophy and all that sort of stuff and, of course, old movies. He loved the Warner Bros. movies and I don’t know how to explain this intelligently but when I look at the Warner Bros. movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, I know why they were Jack’s favourites.
I guess I have to state that his comic books are the Warner Bros. of comics. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just a gut feeling, it’s just something I know when I see it. When I look at the programmers… when Jack Kirby would draw buildings and rooms and houses and stuff, look closely… it’s not really contemporary times, it’s from a Warner Bros. programmer from the 1930s or the 1940s.
Maybe all that added together is what struck me about Jack’s work. He was a master designer. I refer to him as an impressionist/expressionist. The expressionism happened when he would draw action figures that performed in time, actually. If you looked at one of his typical figures in motion from a correct anatomical position, that leg is wrong or that arm is incorrect perhaps. But if you look at the foot at the end of that leg that’s stretched behind a character, it is in a different time zone, a different period in time than the fist in the foreground …the rest of the figure is receding in time…it works. That’s Jack and his dynamics. Look at Jack’s early work and Jack knew how to draw, he knew the anatomy, but the more and more he became an impressionist/expressionist his action storytelling became…something else. He was drawing movement in time. One could say he was drawing emotion, rather than motion.
As they used to say at Marvel, “Nuff said!”
DB: Enough said. Well thank you for your time today. As I said, it’s appreciated; it’s been terrific to talk to you.
MR: Well, I hope you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to pay for this phone call.
I read interviews with artists like Neal Adams and Dick Giordano and I think, “Gawd, these guys are so intelligent and they have such a grasp and organisational use of words” and then I read me and it’s “What is this stream of consciousness blather?!” you know.
DB: It should be like that, everyone’s different.
MR: Well, way back in 1959 Wally Wood drew a Mad Magazine piece where Al “Jazbo” Collins says, “Art is cool, and cool is everything!” and I cripped that to go with my picture in my Senior Year Book in my High School graduation year of 1959. I got away with it because I was on the annual staff and I had the type set by my picture to say “Art is cool and cool is everything!” But I’ve amended that thought in recent years and it’s become, “Art is cool and cool is everything and everything is subjective!”
MR: One man’s opinion.
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