Looking Back With Steve Mitchell
An Introduction to STEVE MITCHELL
He is “Big Steve,” “Baby Conan,” or “Steve-Man.” And he was a charter member of the “blue jean generation.”
I met Steve Mitchell in the reception area of National Periodicals Publications. It was 1969 and DC Comics were newly installed at 909 Third Avenue. You could still smell the fresh paint.
After introductions, Steve told me that he had “run away from home” and that he was sleeping in Joe Orlando’s studio. This got us into discussing a hot topic among sixteen year old boys; how much we hated our parents. We were simpatico. Oy, were we simpatico! Actually, in years to come, we’d come to like each other’s (and our own) parents quite a bit.
Steve transferred to the High School of Art & Design, joining me there, in our junior year. We had many adventures in New York City. We cut school an awful lot. We’d bother artists in their studios. Steve actually knew where they were. He’d just pick up a payphone and dial up Milton Caniff. Or Leonard Starr. They’d just say, “Don’t come up.” Or we’d just drop in on Steve Ditko (listed in the phone book). He just wouldn’t let us in. Nick Cardy and Tex Blaisdell were happy to entertain us for an hour or two, though.
But most of our success as young hunter-gatherers consisted of following Steve’s passion for movie stills. Oh, we were bad boys. We’d show up at, oh, say, Allied Artists on Broadway (we hit every company in town) and ask for movie stills that we needed for a high school “project.” Usually some harried secretary, too busy to be bothered, would point to a bank of file cabinets and mutter, “Help yourself.”
Were any sweeter words ever spoken?
We would load our artist’s portfolios to the bursting and stagger out under the weight. Very good hunting, indeed.
Steve often invited me to weekend at his family’s home in Whitestone, Queens. He had a studio/office set up in his basement, with a sixteen millimeter sound projector to screen his extensive and impressive collection of movie trailers. What a great hideout! We’d stay down there all weekend and I’d pencil and Steve’d ink pathetic features for never-published fanzines.
We emerged, blinking, into the daylight and Steve made me my first bacon cheeseburger in his folk’s kitchen. I’d never had a cheeseburger. Steve was very proud of his bacon cheeseburgers. They were good.
I vividly recall Steve inking Marvel Team Up number four down in his studio while I ruled his backgrounds at another desk. (This hot-shot had a background man on his first job! Fancy schmancy)
Imagine. It’s your first inking assignment, and John Verpoorten hands you a Gil Kane job.
No blacks spotted. No line weights indicated. A marked dearth of textures. And it’s your first full ink job. They were asking a novice to put flesh on skeletons.
If Steve was daunted, I can’t recall it now. I just know that that book has been a source of grief for Steve ever since. I’ve never understood the critical reaction to that book. The only explanation I can come up with is that the “powers that be” didn’t “recognize” Steve’s work. Was it Sinnott? No. Was it Giacoia or Esposito or Giordano, etc, etc, ad infinitum? No. They didn’t recognize it and it confused them.
I think it was a great shame and a grim injustice. I feel Steve Mitchell did a very nice job inking M-T-U #4. I think it is one of the strongest inking debuts I can think of in this business. At a different time, a later time, this effort would have been lauded. It’s a fine effort.
Steve was set back. But you can’t keep Baby Conan down for long. Steve came back.
He’ll tell you about “The Shark,” and how we played tag at National and at Atlas. And how we babysat Continuity for Neal and Dick.
If he doesn’t tell you about our trip across Europe in the summer of 1973, ask me about it sometime. And Steve and Pablo Picasso.
And ask me about the time we dressed up like swells and went nightclubbing uptown at the Copacabana to see Don Rickles. And how we laughed ourselves silly.
Steve tells the truth in this interview, so pay heed.
Here’s the bottom line on Big Steve; he’s one of the good guys, and I love him.
July 30, 2007
DANIEL BEST: Did you work for the DC production department at the same time as Alan Kupperberg?
STEVE MITCHELL: I think I was there before he was. Alan and I switched seats a couple of times as Jack Adler’s assistant. I think it might have been twice, but the first time it was sort of a summer job. I had a lengthy period working for Jack, then I got an offer to be the Production Manager at the, well not so lamented, but late Atlas Comics.
DB: We’ll get to Atlas in a second. How did you find Jack Adler because Alan Kupperberg has told me some great stories about him.
SM: I thought Jack was a very colourful guy and I liked working with him. I thought he was a lot of laughs from time to time and ultimately not a bad guy to work for. By the way just as a side bar, I’m probably one of the five people on the planet who kind of likes Sol Harrison who was Jack’s boss.
DB: Oh good God. [laughter]
SM: Sol Harrison was the Production Manager when I first started working for DC. He and Carmine were running the company for quite some time, and then Sol left the production department and became an executive.
I always kind of liked Sol, I was scared to death of him when I first met him. But I always respected him. I think he had a lot of shortcomings, but there was something about him that I kind of liked. I know I’m in the minority about that.
DB: Yes, you’re about the only person I’ve spoken to that actually admits to liking him. Even Jim Mooney, who's one of the nicest guys on the planet, said that he wasn’t all that fond of him.
SM: Sol was not a warm guy naturally. I think Alan kind of laid a nickname on Sol… “The Shark.” He didn’t grin very easily and if he was grinning either he was either nervous or he was going to bite your head off. [laughter]
But the thing I liked about Sol was that I respected his knowledge and I felt that he was fair. He never gave you anything, but if you asked for something he would give it to you. He was very old school in that regard. A lot of guys who were in business in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, post war especially, post American depression, never gave anything away.
But Sol was a good guy and he was a kind of a fair guy to work for. He wanted you to give him a full day every day. I really didn’t think he was a bad guy and in point of fact I know for a fact he was quite the humanitarian. He wasn’t a Bill Gates kind of humanitarian, but I think Sol was often involved with a bunch of charities. So there was some good to the guy. But he wasn’t the kind of guy that you would want to go out and have a beer with.
DB: I suppose everyone has a different side to them at times. It’s all in the perception I guess.
SM: Like I said I was scared to death of him in the beginning, but I had some degree of fondness for him and I always respected him. I don’t know anybody who would say they didn’t respect him. They may not have liked him but Sol was too knowledgeable, too good and too dedicated not to be respected.
DB: So how did you go from working in the Production Department to becoming an artist?
SM: I always wanted to be a freelancer, on the art side of things. You’re probably aware of my famous first inking job which I thought for some time was my last.
SM: Marvel Team-Up #4.
DB: I didn’t think it was that bad. It wasn’t until I read the article that was done about it and the resulting interview you did that I thought “Geez”, I never thought it was that bad.
SM: Well neither did Jim Shooter, neither did a number of other people. I look back at it today and I see that it was certainly not as good as guys who were making a regular living in the business, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part. But I didn’t really get much work after that and I wanted to stay in comics, I didn’t not want to be in comics.
I don’t know if Alan had talked about working for Neal Adams and Dick Giordano when they had their studio, but after the Marvel team up fiasco I wound up working for Neal and Dick. Alan and I worked for Neal and Dick, I think Alan worked specifically for Neal, I worked specifically for Dick but we worked for their company” Continuity Associates.
So we worked as assistants and did all kinds of stuff. I did, mostly, backgrounds for Dick on comic stuff, but we were basically there to help them with their advertising projects. They were doing a lot of story-boards for commercials. I don’t know what kind of stories you’ve heard of Continuity, but, I think, they’re probably mostly all true. It was an interesting place to work.
DB: I’ve heard some interesting stories. One of them that I heard that really made me laugh, and it involved you specifically, was Neal Adams throwing lumber down the corridors one night.
SM: Oh God yes. [laughter] Yeah, I think I had work to do and I decided to go into the city, I lived in the outer borough of Queens, and we always called Manhattan: “the city.” I think it was a Sunday night, and Neal was there at his board, as usual. Neal was always there or it sure seemed like he was always was there. It was got to be pretty late, and we had a room in the back, which had a couch in it. It was essentially a bed for anybody who needed a nap. I went back there to take a bit of a snooze and Neal... I guess Alan was there. I don’t remember who else was there but at one point or another after they had given me pretty much just enough time to fall asleep, I remember being shocked by an extraordinarily loud thump! It was a wooden 2 x 4 that Neal had hurled half way down the hall which landed somewhere in the vicinity of that back room and woke me up! It scared the crap out of me. [laughter]
Everyone there had a good laugh at my expense.
DB: What was Neal like? I’ve heard very, very mixed stories about Neal.
SM: Neal Adams is one of the most complex guys I ever knew. On the one hand he was generally friendly and warm and on the other hand I thought he was just capable of being very cruel to people. He wasn’t cruel to people that worked for him. The cruelty that I saw was when people wanted to show him their portfolios and ask his opinion of their work. Neal could be very blunt, and as a by-product, hurtful. I think he may have squashed a number of guys who had dreams of being in comics. Neal was not the right guy to show a portfolio to unless you were really, really good. I think Frank Miller may have shown his portfolio to Neal once and I think Neal may have tore into it a bit.
DB: That’s interesting because Alan’s told me that as he got older and people started showing him their portfolios, he would do the opposite to Neal and everything that he’d think that Neal would think about it he would do the opposite of and thus give a more well rounded critique of people’s work.
SM: Well there’s a famous quote of Neal’s which I heard a number of times when he looked at portfolios. I’m mostly paraphrasing but it was something like: “This work is so bad that I don’t have enough time this afternoon to tell you how bad it is.”
Now I’ve been to a few conventions as a guest and I’ve looked at some really bad portfolios. A lot of people, especially far away from New York and the centre of the biz, will bring you their portfolio and ask for your opinion. I sort of understand what Neal went through, because It took a lot to explain to someone who just was not ready what they needed to do to improve. The lousier the work, or the poorer the work, the longer you had to explain what was wrong. A lot of guys would think that if you could draw good figures you could be a good comic book artist. That has never been the case; and you could say to me, “Well there are an awful lot of guys who are making a good living today by doing essentially pin up page comic book stories”. Well that’s one kind of comics but that’s not the kind of comics that I knew, that’s not the kind of comics that was based on storytelling.
But yeah looking at portfolios is always tough. It can be draining and I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Because I’ll tell you one thing and I actually believe that Neal may have felt this way, is that you want to like the portfolio. You want to be impressed, you want to go “Wow, that’s great,” but it rarely happened to me. But, I always looked and hoped to see great stuff.
I remember I was working at DC, and Walt Simonson showed up with his portfolio. The buzz about Walt’s portfolio went through the office like a wildfire. Some guy brought in his portfolio today, and it was really, really good. The other guy I remember that about was Mike Grell. Those guys were good enough to sort of walk in an out with a script that day. There was no trial and error, there was no “Bring me back some samples, let me see if you can do this”. Those guys got work. But it didn’t happen often.
DB: Just quickly, the famous Marvel Team-Up #4. For your first job that could not have been easy because you’re inking over Gil Kane. I’ve seen Gil Kane pencils; they’re not the greatest thing in the world to fathom out.
SM: It was not easy. Gil had a tendency to sort of knock the stuff out. The first half of the job was pretty well pencilled and the second half of the job was not pencilled nearly as well. If you look at the front part of the job my work is better than the back end of the job, and that’s due partly to my own lack of ability at the time and part of that is due to the fact that Gil was knocking the job out.
I will go on the record and say I think that Gil Kane was one of the biggest hacks of all time.
DB: Oh good God. [laughter]
SM: Now I will counter that or I will layer that with, I think he was an extraordinarily talented hack. Gil had one skill that most guys never had back in the day, and that was Gil understood dynamism. He understood a certain kind of drama, but the reason I call him a hack is that Gil was always knocking the work out for money, which was my understanding. Also, Howard Chaykin said Gil never used reference. If you look at Gil’s work, his cars were always the same, his hats were always the same, his horses were always the same, his six guns were always the same and his understanding of clothing was always the same. Gil learned how to draw something one way and that was it. The guys, who are truly great, in my humble opinion, were guys who knew how to use reference and were able to make that work for their work.
Look at “His Name Is Savage,” which I think is Gil’s magnum opus. It’s an espionage story and all the guys in this story are carrying revolvers. Well in the espionage world real guys didn’t carry revolvers, cops carried revolvers. Would it have killed Gil to get a gun reference book and learn how to draw a 45 or a Walther PPK or some other weapon? Gil always took the easy way out. Howard and I agreed that Gil’s work could have been so much better had he used reference like a number of his peers did at the time.
This said, I think Gil was very talented. The other thing about Gil and this is a personal taste thing, is that Gil never used black very well. I think all of the great comic book artists were /guys who knew how to use black. Alex Toth, of course, Wally Wood, and in a more recent context: Mignola and Tim Sale.
Guys who knew how to use black to me were the complete and real deal because I believe in, what Toth had talked about which was if you have a perfect black plate… you know how comics are printed right?
SM: They’re basically four plates. If you had a perfect black plate, no matter how bad the colouring is, you couldn’t hurt the job. I have always worked better with pencillers that used a lot of black. Gil didn’t. For me Gil was tough sledding.
DB: Fair enough. Certainly I’m familiar with your work. I’m probably more familiar with the work that you did over Norm Breyfogle, the Batman work you did but that’s only because I’ve been working with Norm myself with articles and different bits and pieces over the years. So I’ve seen a lot of it.
SM: I always liked inking Norm’s stuff and I thought I did it well.
DB: How difficult was it doing Norm’s stuff? I look at some of his pencils and some of them are almost like Gene Colan in sort of a fashion with his use of shadows and graphite.
SM: Norm’s stuff was pretty clean, pretty linear. I think because he wanted to control the result, the pencils were reasonably tight. But I liked inking Norm’s stuff. I could have inked Norm’s stuff even longer than the few years that I inked it.
I enjoyed doing it. I never thought that Norm went overboard in terms of just throwing a lot of stuff on the page for the sake of throwing the stuff on the page. I always loved Norm’s stuff from a storytelling point. It was very strong. I liked the way he drew and I thought that he and I were a pretty good match chemistry wise in terms of my line and his style. I could give you a list of guys who that was not true. There were a lot of guys who I was not compatible with, but I always thought that I was compatible with Norm’s stuff.
DB: It’s interesting because Norm, in that era that he was working in, his Batman that he did along with the Alan Grant’s scripts and your inking as well, which was a fairly big part of that. That whole run is, it’s looked back upon now and become something of a definitive seminal run.
SM: Is it really?
DB: Yep. When I interviewed Norm a few years back I had a few people email me because I just threw a couple of things on a message board saying, “Look I’m about to interview Norm, if there’s one thing you could ask him”; and pretty much everyone emailed me and said, ask him “How does it feel to draw the best Batman in the last 25 years”? Oh far out.
SM: That’s far out indeed.
DB: He doesn’t really see it that way. I think it’s only now that people are fully becoming aware of the appreciation everyone has for that, that it’s almost looked upon that you’ve got that Neal Adams Batman back in the 1960’s, in the early 1970’s and then perhaps someone like Jim Aparo or Don Newton in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s and now it’s Norm Breyfogle and as I say you’re a part of that.
SM: I think I am nothing if not surprised. I don’t believe that the work was looked down upon at the time but I don’t believe that the work was held in the regard you’re talking about today.
DB: I always wonder whether it was because it was different. I remember reading it at the time thinking “This is not Jim Aparo”, which is no slight on Jim Aparo but it’s…
SM: I like Jim’s work.
DB: I do as well, but I thought this is just not Jim Aparo, I don’t know what this is and as the years went on I just thought “This is great”. It just struck me as being a melting pot of influences in there. I could see Frank Miller, I can see Gene Colan, I can see Neal Adams, I can see everyone and it was…
SM: Well I’m certainly a son of Neal, I’ve inked Gene, and I did a lot of Batman stuff back in those days. The two characters I think I’m most associated with are Batman and paradoxically Iron Man. I say paradoxically largely due to the fact that I never liked anything terribly mechanical. I hate using rulers, I hate using t-squares, and I hate using French curves. I use them but I never like to use them and I never thought that I would be a guy that would have such a long run on Iron Man.
DB: I think you even appeared in an Iron Man story.
SM: I appeared?
DB: You guest starred. Neal Adams drew you into an Iron Man story.
SM: He drew me… Neal drew me into an Iron Man story?
DB: He did indeed.
SM: Well I know that he drew me into a Batman story and I can tell you that story if you like. I was also on the cover of the Ali book.
DB: Yep, and you were in an Iron Man story as well.
SM: Wow, I didn’t know Neal ever drew Iron Man.
DB: He didn’t. It was a George Tuska issue and it had Iron Man at a comic book convention, meeting Roy Thomas and somehow Neal got hold of the pages and one of the characters that he drew in there was yourself.
SM: What year was this?
DB: This would have been early 1970’s. It would have been, I’m not sure what year exactly, but it was certainly the early 1970’s. I could find out exactly I suppose.
SM: Well the timing is right.
DB: Yeah. They have you pointing at Iron Man saying something like “How could anyone run around with an ugly nose on his face” because it was when Iron Man’s mask had a nose on it.
SM: Okay. You learn something every day I guess.
DB: Tell me about how he drew you into Batman.
SM: I was at the studio one night. I don’t remember what year off hand. It was a Batman story where the Joker is running around killing a bunch of guys who crossed him in some way. Batman was trying to stop the Joker from doing this. It was called: “The Joker’s Five – Way Revenge.”
Anyway, I was sitting at my drawing table and all of a sudden Neal yells, “Mitchell!!” and I snapped to and I said, “What?” I assumed I had done something wrong and he said, “Don’t move” and I said, “Okay, why?” or something along those lines and he said, “You’re going to be Bigger Melvin” and I’m going “What!” He was some guy who had doublecrossed the Joker. The first panel where you see me is kind of a profile. I froze for however many moments or minutes and the rest of my appearance is sort of Neal’s interpretation of my looks and it’s interesting, I look very Asian in a lot of shots. I didn’t know I had those kinds of eyes back in the day but perhaps I did. I’m Scot, Irish, English, and German. I’ve got blue eyes, I don’t look anything terribly Asian. So, that was how “I” made a guest appearance in that story.
DB: That’s a great story. You’ve briefly mentioned Frank Miller.
DB: You inked his first Batman story.
SM: Yes I did.
DB: It doesn’t really look Frank Millerish, the Batman certainly doesn’t.
SM: Well Frank hadn’t arrived at his style yet. You’ve got to remember that the Batman story that I inked preceded Daredevil. It wasn’t really until Frank had done Daredevil that the Frank Miller style really kind of came to pass.
Now I didn’t know who Frank was. All I knew it was a Batman job, which I always liked to ink.
So when I got the pencils I said, “Gee this guy’s pretty good” and I just had a pretty fair amount of fun with it. A collector friend of mine said to me once, I was sort of a little down on my comics career at the time, and he said, “Hey man, you inked the first Frank Miller Batman job. They can’t take that away from you”, and I said, “Okay, good point”.
I had a good time with it. I got it done. I had no idea that I would be attached to someone who is now a legendary creator. Frank and I actually were really pretty good friends when I lived in New York. He had a studio which he shared with Chaykin and Simonson. It was about four or five blocks away from my studio and oftentimes when we were working late we would have dinner. Occasionally he and I would play put down the tools and go to the movies together. Usually on a Friday afternoon – one of the benefits of being freelance -- and see action movies because we had that in common.
DB: Do you ever see Frank anymore or?
SM: The last time I saw Frank was at Comic-Com a couple of years ago. We say hello to one another, and it was cordial. But Frank has gone a certain way in the world and I’ve gone a certain way in the world. Whatever closeness we had was really due to proximity. We were also young and the caste system that kind of exists was not in place. We were young, in the same biz, liked the same stuff, and that was enough.
I have no animosity towards Frank and in point of fact I think he’s one of the few comic book creators whose work I still really enjoy and I’m a big fan of Sin City.
DB: And back to Iron Man. You inked Iron Man over quite a number of different artists. Which one of them leapt out to you?
SM: I think the guy who I was most in sync with was Luke McDonnell. One of the things that was nice about working with Luke was that Luke was in New York and I was in New York. We would run into each other every once in a while and we would talk about the work. We would talk about the things that he liked in my work. I would talk about things I liked in his work. I always wound up pushing him to use more black because I always thought that that gave his work a lot more strength. Actually one of the guys he was looking at for spotting blacks was Al Williamson. He liked the way Al used black, he especially liked the sort of double lighting effects that Al would use in his work and he kind of found a way to use those effects in his own work. I always had a really, really good time inking Luke’s stuff. Luke’s stuff was a bit cartoonier than I was kind of used to but I thought that for some odd reason we had chemistry as penciller and inker.
DB: They were certainly good issues to read back in the day. Batman of course as you said that was one of the ones that you worked on extensively. There was a wide range of artists that you worked on there.
SM: It seemed that I had worked on virtually every guy who had pencilled Batman at one time or another in the 1980’s. I inked Don Newton’s stuff, I did some Irv Novick stuff. I worked on some Colan stuff, but I don’t know if those were Batman stories per se. Might have been Batman in World’s Finest. I know I inked at least one World’s Finest.
I inked Garcia Lopez and I think the Garcia Lopez job that I’d done, the first Batman job I’d done over Garcia Lopez helped my career quite a bit at DC.
DB: How so?
SM: Joe Orlando liked it and that was the back in the day when they were offering people contracts. You had work for a year and if you delivered all your jobs on time they gave you an extra book’s worth of money as a bonus.
DB: That’s always a good thing for someone to get the job done.
SM: As a freelancer it’s a nice incentive. I was a little concerned about taking the contract because Marvel was always looming. I never really thought of myself as a Marvel guy per se. Shooter I think, because of the Garcia Lopez job and the Marvel Team Up #4 job, was anxious to have me work for Marvel. I think Shooter was always anxious to have anybody who worked for DC at Marvel.
DB: Take the opposition away.
SM: Very much so. Shooter was always big on raiding. Jim was a very competitive guy and Jim was always interested in sticking it to DC, let’s say.
DB: Well you can’t blame him for that.
SM: No I could never blame him and if you ever get around to asking me about Jim Shooter I have an interesting point of view about Jim.
DB: Oh well, now you can’t give me an opening like that and just let that slide. That’s just not happening.
SM: In a nutshell my experience with Jim and Marvel was like the Charles Dickens line from Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the...”
DB: “...worst of times”
SM: I had a great experience working for Jim until one day Jim decided he didn’t want me to work for Marvel anymore. Let me backtrack a bit. What was great about Jim was that Jim was the only executive I ever worked for who absolutely, positively, completely was on the side of a freelancer in terms of being able to make a living. Jim had been a freelancer, and Jim felt that if you could make a living, if you could pay your rent, your taxes and appease yourself etcetera, you would be a greater asset for Marvel than if you were having a hard time making ends meet. So Jim always tried to give you the most he could within his parameters, to help you make the best possible living.
Case in point, one day I went into Jim’s office just to say hi because he’s my client, I’ve got to go in and say hi to him. Personally I kind of liked Jim. He said, “How’s it going?” and I said, somewhat casually, I said, “Oh you know it’s going well but I wouldn’t mind making some more money”. Every freelancer’s going to say that; and he said, “What are you getting paid”, and I told him what my rate was and then he said, “Okay, I’m giving you a raise”. He gave me a $5.00 a page raise. This was a nice raise at the time.
So the thing that was great about Jim and I’ve always said this was, you could walk into his office, have some sort of question or issue that needed to be dealt with and you would walk out with an answer. It was a one stop shopping kind of thing. It wasn’t, “Let me ask about this, let me run it by management, let me check and see, budgets on the book” or any number of those excuses that a lot of people could come up with. Jim was the man and he could make those decisions. It was great to work for him on that side of the street.
On the other side of the street, if Jim for one reason or another decided, and Len Wein came up with this turn of phrase, “With Jim one day you would do ’the thing’ and no-one would ever know what the thing was, it was never the same twice, but it was just something you either did or Jim imagined you did or thought you did and then all of a sudden you would fall out of favour”; and so one day, I think it was on my Luke McDonnell Iron Man run, Mark Gruenwald said to me essentially, “I’ve got to let you go” and he was essentially firing me for doing good work which was on time.
SM: And I’m going “How come?” and he says to me, “Because Shooter said to do it”. I was pretty pissed about that.
DB: I don’t think I’d be happy.
SM: I didn’t do anything to earn it and so that was the “worst of times” side of Jim.
I remember one night years ago I got a call from Bob Layton, on a really, really hot summer night in New York. Bob was late with a Hercules book. He called me up and said, “Steve, I’m really in a pinch. Can you spare some time and just help me with this job?” My studio didn’t have air-conditioning at the time and it was a really rough night. It was so humid, I would put my forearm down on the page and the page would come up attached to the forearm; I had the time and I didn’t want to work late at the studio, so I said I would help Bob out.
Now Bob was a guy that I had kind of an industry relationship with, I wouldn’t say that we were really chummy, but we knew each other. He was a guy looking for some help, and guys helped guys out back then.
I went over to the Marvel office and just started to ink away along with a couple of other guys, I don’t remember who they were. But I remember Shooter was the last guy to leave that night and first guy to come in the morning. He said, “You guys have been here all night, what do you want to eat?” and he fed us. He got our breakfast himself. Bob paid me to help him out, but Jim also gave me some combat pay for helping Marvel out.
So Jim was a real study in contrast. He was a guy who was great to work for, and then all of a sudden he was not the greatest guy in the world to be around, professionally.
DB: That’s very odd.
SM: I hope that answered that question.
DB: Yeah, it certainly did. Now backtracking a bit, back to the Batman thing. The artists that you’ve mentioned, Irv Novick, Don Newman, Gene Colan and Jose Garcia-Lopez…
SM: Oh also Dick Giordano.
DB: Dick Giordano. Now that’s five very unique distinctive styles. You were doing some of them almost at the same time. How did you get your head around that? Is it slightly schizophrenic in a way to adjust style of inking and attack?
SM: Well it wasn’t really schizophrenic, for me it was a treat because it was different and any good penciller is always fun to ink. All of those guys are good pencillers and some of those guys I inked better than others.
I think with Newton, I sometimes tried to pull Newton towards my way of thinking. Dick and I were very much in sync with one another but then there was the mentor-student relationship. My work to one degree or another bears some resemblance to Dick’s work or has at times. So I think he and I were in sync stylistically.
Novick was tough. Garcia-Lopez was not a problem. Garcia-Lopez just draws so beautifully it was a pleasure. Colan was the biggest challenge but I liked working on Colan’s stuff.
The thing with Gene Colan, and I don’t know if anyone has talked to you about Gene Colan, is that every line that you make is a choice. If you’ve ever seen Gene’s pencils they are expressionistic and impressionistic. Gene is all about grey and what Gene does is he creates the illusion of real drawing and he does it very well. But when you have to ink that stuff, you’ve got to make a bunch of choices and the choices that he would make in grey tone are very different from the choices I would have to make in black.
But I loved inking Gene’s stuff. It was very challenging and I felt that it forced me to grow.
DB: Don Newton, only now people are starting to really, really appreciate him. But artists always knew. Joe Rubinstein’s told me that he thought Don Newton was one of the best he ever worked with.
SM: I think Don was always underrated. There are a couple of other guys I think were underrated, but Don was always highly underrated. Don was mostly a guy who drew stuff in medium shot and because he didn’t have quite the dynamism of some of his other peers, he was probably considered to be not as good, which of course was complete hooey. Don was very, very good.
I like the way he drew, his stuff had personality. Nobody drew like Don did, which I think, is always an indication of why he was very underrated.
I’ll tell you a story about Don Heck. Now historically Don Heck was a guy that had been crapped on left and right, mostly famously by Harlan Ellison in an issue of The Comics Journal. I always liked Don’s stuff because, again, it was idiosyncratic, nobody drew like Heck. But historically he had a bad case of really shitty inkers, once he stopped inking his own stuff.
Now when Don left Marvel where most of the shitty inking took place and he came over to DC, better inkers worked on his stuff. I used to share studio space with Bob Smith, and I think it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting at my drawing table and stroking away there with the old 170 which was my pen nib of choice. Bob walked into the studio and he said to me, “Do you want to see something really nice?” I said, “Sure”. I walked over to his drawing table and he pulled out an issue of Justice League that Don had pencilled. Bob and I looked at these pencils and we looked at the quality of the drawing and we were really impressed by how well he drew. He had a crummy rap as a penciller due to the fact that he’d had a lot of bad inking.
Don drew women extremely well. Beautiful women, almost effortlessly, with very little line work, and that was kind of a revelation for me. Bob did a great job inking them. I actually think Bob’s inks were as good or better than anybody else who ever inked Don’s stuff. Bob was sympathetic to Don’s pencils and then he put his own sort of signature style on the pencils.
DB: Don Heck, I agree with everything you’ve said. I’ve always thought that he’d gotten a really, really bad rap. The same as Don Newton, no-one’s ever drawn like Don Heck’s since and it’s a very distinct, you pick up anything that’s unsigned by Don Heck, you know that he drew it, it’s...
DB: It’s always as distinctive as Jack Kirby or John Romita, it’s there. You know it’s him.
SM: Well that’s kind of a trick isn’t it Daniel?
SM: Being idiosyncratic.
DB: There’s a lot of people you can pick up, especially now, and you go “Is that Jim Lee or is that just someone trying to be Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane” or whatever. But I suppose it was the same back in the Neal Adams era as well; there were a lot of artists that were “doing” Neal Adams.
But Don Heck, I don’t know whether the people sat there and went, “Well I’m not going to do Don Heck because I think it’s bad” or “I’m not going to do Don Heck because I don’t know how to do Don Heck”.
SM: Well the thing about Don was that Don’s style was, uniquely, Don’s style and it wasn’t easily accessible. There was no line that you could do, no rendering pattern that you could do that would make it look like Don Heck. It just was Don Heck. A lot of guys figured out a way how to emulate Neal’s work. A lot of guys were kicking into what Neal kind of created which was sort of a house style for comics in the 1960’s. There was no more influential guy in the late 1960’s than Neal. More guys looked at Neal’s stuff, more guys wanted to draw like Neal, more guys wanted to ink like Neal than almost anybody. I think Neal was the first guy that everybody said, one way or another, “Man I want to draw like that”. Neal really turned the business upside down and brought comics from a primarily a cartooning medium into more of an illustrative medium.
Newspaper strips over here had been doing illustrative cartooning for decades, but when Neal sort of showed up, he brought that illustrative thing to mainstream comics. Neal, to me, was the guy who turned the business from a cartooning medium into an illustrative/cartooning medium.
DB: Definitely, definitely.
SM: Neal had a tremendous impact on everybody and especially if you were in New York and you were in the loop.
DB: It seems that Continuity was certainly the hot centre. Everyone that I have spoken to, Alan Weiss through to Alan Kupperberg, you, everyone, went to Continuity at some stage, Bob McLeod, Terry Austin, Mike Netzer, its incredible the amount of people I’ve spoken to that went through those doors.
SM: It was the club house because all of the guys used to go there and hang out. But it was also the King’s court. If Neal was the centre of the universe in comics at the time, and one could make an argument for that to be the case, well everybody wanted to go near the sun and feel the heat. I’m mixing my metaphors.
DB: Again with the unique artist styles, Alan Weiss that’s another one that’s got such a unique look.
SM: I inked some of Alan’s stuff. I met Alan when he first came to New York. I was a fan; he was a guy from Las Vegas. We met at a panel at one of the famous Phil Seuling Conventions. I just started talking, there’s no other way to put it and he mentioned he wanted to meet Neal or something like that. I was a very sort of pushy fan and I said, “Oh you want to meet Neal? Okay.” and according to Alan I just got up and I yelled, “Hey Neal!” which cracked up Alan no end and I was a conduit for introducing Alan to Neal.
But the thing Alan always had when he came to town, even in the beginning, was Alan really could draw well. The only thing that I think kept Alan back was unacceptance on the part of a number of editors for new guys. It was tough to break into the club at DC or Marvel. But also I don’t think that Alan’s storytelling was that great. I always thought that as well as he drew, he was not the world’s greatest storyteller. Now Alan of course would say, “What are you talking about; you don’t know what you’re saying”. But that’s my opinion and I believe that that was generally the knock on Alan’s work, certainly in the beginning.
DB: I think one of the things that has made Alan as popular as he is, and I suppose the same could be said for again Don Newton, is that it’s such a small body of work. With Alan, he’s told me that that was deliberate because he got bored drawing the same characters over and over. So he’d only draw a character for one or two issues and then move onwards and it’s left such a small body of work that everyone wants to see more of.
SM: Well the problem with Alan was that I think Alan had focus issues. I know he was a very dedicated artist, but I don’t know whether or not he wanted to work as hard as you had to work to really have a major career in comics.
DB: You and Alan go way back.
SM: The greatest artist who was never a star in comics.
DB: Depends who you talk to. I think he was a star.
SM: Here’s the problem with Alan. He never had a long run on anything; also Alan was not fond of deadlines. I think he followed in Neal’s tradition. Alan doesn’t really have that big of body of work in comics and I think that was Alan’s fault more than anybody else’s.
DB: I think that also helps his mystique. I said this to Alan as well, I said that because he only did a couple of issues of a certain title or whatever, he’s always left people wanting more and he’s walked away from them. So he’s certainly created his own little mystique there, his own little air of mystery around him. Everyone that looks at, for example, the Avengers issues that he drew and they want to see more of it but it’s never going to happen.
He never got bad I suppose. Every job that he did was a good job and he didn’t stay on a book long enough to become stale.
SM: He was known in the business, but I don’t think he was known in the marketplace. You’ve got to do a book for about a year before anybody knows that you’ve been doing it. Kind of strange but that’s the way it goes.
Had he found a book or a character that he was really suited to and had done, I’m not even talking a long run, I’m talking like maybe six, seven, eight issues maybe a year, then the mystique would even be greater because people would have had a chance to sort of really see his work. Alan’s a very talented guy.
DB: Oh no argument there. I’ve always been impressed by him, still am. The things I’ve seen him do lately, commissions and the like just blow me away.
SM: He’s good.
DB: He’s very good.
SM: That’s why I still feel he was like the greatest talented guy that nobody ever really knew. There were a couple of guys like Alan who didn’t do a whole lot of work when they were around. It’s good that David Mazzucchelli worked on Batman. Otherwise nobody would have ever remembered him and I really like Mazzucchelli’s work. I really wish he could have done more, but I think he had a real hard time drawing to deadline. I think that was an issue for him; and guys like Ralph Reese, I thought Ralph was really talented man.
Ralph inked an issue of Conan over Gil Kane that I thought just rocked back in the day. I said, “This is what you want”. You want those dynamics that Gil brings as a penciller and the draftsmanship and the rendering that Ralph was bringing as an inker. Had those two guys done Conan on a regular basis that would really be considered very high watermark work for the day. But I don’t think Ralph could have kept it up.
Marshall Rogers of course. I think the greatest example is Michael Golden. There’s a guy who just couldn’t get it out, get it done.
DB: It’s a shame because I look at his artwork and it just blew me away every time I saw it.
SM: Everybody in comics was a Michael Golden fan. He was an artist’s artist and he was also a fan’s artist. He was great. I used to share a studio with Sean McManus and Sean had a loose leaf book of all of his covers in plastic sleeves. He wanted to be able to just pull it off the shelf and refer to it whenever possible. To me that’s a pretty high compliment.
Nobody was like Golden. I think Golden was one of the most unique talents; and to quote a line from “Serpico,” I think he was “uniquely unique.”
Golden could draw, man he could draw; and he could make pictures and he could tell stories and his characters… the acting that they could do! A lot of guys can draw but a lot of guys aren’t really great with the acting part. A lot of the guys working today are better at it. But Golden was 20 years ahead of them. He was an extraordinarily talented guy who could have been one of the all time greats. I guess he was, but it seemed that he couldn’t put the pedal to the metal, focus, and produce more work.
DB: It almost makes you wonder why people don’t focus. whether they just can’t be bothered. It’s the only thing I can think of.
SM: I don’t think it’s really that, Daniel, I think part of it is just being able to sit there and focus on it. I used to share a studio with a guy named Rick Magyar.
DB: Yep I’ve heard of him.
SM: And Rick was very talented inker, maybe one of the five nicest guys I’ve ever known in comics.
But every once in a while he would just vanish and no-one would hear from him. The work was not getting done, it was late and I think every once in a while the enormity of what he was doing would just sort of paralyse him in such a way he couldn’t get it done.
A lot of it is about getting it done and I think that for Golden and a lot of guys, just being able to focus on it and get it done was a big problem.
DB: It’s such a shame.
SM: It is a shame because some of the greatest guys did not really do much work. Look at Steranko. As a kid I loved Steranko’s stuff, I thought Steranko was the second coming. I’ve never seen anything like it. The problem was Steranko had a real hard time getting it done.
The thing about comics that you have to remember is that the comic book business was a periodical business. In fact Sol Harrison always called the books magazines. The concept of doing comics that were late, just to make them better, was something that the business did not accept and Neal always used to say, “Well you know we’re doing good stuff, you know it’s good”. But good and late wasn’t the way things needed to be done then and now.
A lot of editors who were artists probably understood and they wanted good stuff in their books. The stuff had to be done, it had to appear every month and guys who didn’t get it done every month were not given as much work. They were considered to be somewhat problematic.
But during the 1970’s, late 1960’s, 1970’s, when the blue jean generation arrived making deadlines was sort of tough, because a lot of guys wanted to do the job the best way they knew how and sometimes you couldn’t do the job the best job in 30 days or 60 days.
A lot of guys had a hard time making deadlines. I know that the reason why Mike Grell was inked by Vince Colletta. It was because Mike always had a hard time making deadlines and Vince could get it done, sometimes over just a few days, and make the deadline.
I’ll tell you why Vince Colletta got work. Do you want to know why?
DB: I think I know why. You tell me or do you want me to tell you first?
SM: I asked Sol one day, “Why do you give Vinnie so much work?” and he said it to me, “Well basically if you have a job on Friday that needs to be inked by Monday…
DB: It’ll turn up.
SM: …Vinnie will get it done” and Sol said, “It won’t be good, but it will be done and sometimes it needs to get done”.
DB: Don Perlin told me exactly the same thing with exactly the same wording, ironically enough because I actually asked him that question. I said, “Why did Vinnie Colletta get work?” and he told me precisely that.
SM: Vinnie was a means to an end and the business needed a means to an end.
DB: Yep. He’d say that he’d erased things but it would turn up and that’s all that mattered.
SM: Yeah but the thing is it wasn’t good but you could send it to Chemical Colour Plant and they can make plates.
DB: Yep. Atlas, you worked at Atlas.
SM: Yes I did.
DB: What do you remember about those days because that was an explosion of talented and explosions, an explosion of a comic book company that just went as quickly as it came.
SM: Well I’ll sort of make the Atlas story as clear as possible. First, Atlas was started for two reasons.
Martin Goodman who used to own Magazine Management needed to have an office to go to every day, if for no other reason where he could make phone calls, schedule having lunch with people, take a nap and occasionally have an opinion about stuff. It was a way for him to be retired, but still in the loop. His son, Chip Goodman, who I always thought was an idiot, was essentially running the company. Chip really didn’t give a shit about anything except being a men’s magazine publisher. In fact they bought a magazine called Swank which was, I would say at best, it was a B- or a C+ level men’s magazine. They were trying to upgrade it. That was back in the day when Playboy was getting competition from Penthouse, there’s probably one or two other mags back in the day but Chip wanted to make Swank kind of on that level. Chip was involved with Atlas when he sort of had the time or when he had the interest, which was occasionally.
Jeff Rovin had been hired to be the Editor. Jeff had been a friend of mine and the thing about Jeff is that Jeff always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. After about six to eight months whatever it was, Jeff had written a letter to Chip which ultimately got him fired and got me fired.
But it was an interesting time. Jeff wanted to shake things up, he offered much better money than most guys did, and he offered, I think, an opportunity for a lot of guys to think out of the box. Those books were very interesting for the two to four issues that they were out.
DB: I’ve picked up quite a few of the books over the last year and they don’t look that bad.
SM: They were good books.
SM: I think a lot of guys did good work for those books. I wrote a couple of stories for them. I was sort of the production manager/ art director. The Atlas A that was at the top of the books with the banner, that was my design. It was an interesting place to work but I knew that Chip Goodman was not going to be a good guy to work for. I realised that, sadly, fairly early on, and while we did very, very interesting work, it was not a really fun place to be.
DB: Well certainly a lot of talent that went through it.
SM: A lot of talent because everybody thought, “Wait a second, we can make more money?” Remember it’s before royalties, and our page rates were very good. Neal Adams said the best line about Atlas, “Too much money, too little sense”. I would have to for the most part agree with that.
There was exciting stuff being done. It wasn’t always good, but what was nice about it was that it was fresh.
DB: A lot of it seems to be derivative of Marvel, I guess obviously so after all they hired Larry Lieber.
SM: Well Chip really wanted it to be more like Marvel. Whenever it sort of went away from being Marvelesque, I think Chip was unhappy. But I think that there were a lot of guys who had opportunities to do interesting stuff. Ernie Colon did interesting stuff, Pat Boyette did interesting stuff, Mike Sekowsky did some interesting stuff, and Larry did some interesting stuff. Ditko had done some work inked by Woody. Simonson had done a really good job. I got John Severin to draw a story that I wrote, which was thrilling to me.
Yeah, it was derivative, but if you look between the lines it was still very interesting. In a lot of ways it was just different from what the other companies were producing.
There are also guys who weren’t normally comic book guys working on the books, like Howard Nostrand who did Target. Howard was a newspaper strip guy; he never really did a lot of comics.
DB: I always look at Howard Nostrand and think of Mad Magazine.
SM: Kind of, kind of. Russ Heath did a story for Thrilling Adventure Stories. It was a police story that I recall being a really, really nice job. Atlas was kind of a grand experiment that never ultimately paid off, which is too bad.
DB: Larry Lieber just doesn’t talk about those days anymore. It must have hurt him for some reason.
SM: Yeah Jeff and Larry were definitely oil and water. Jeff, I think, didn’t care for the way Larry went about his work and Larry was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world. I liked Larry very much.
But, Jeff wanted to do what he wanted to do. Larry wanted to do Marvel comics because that’s what he was weaned on. Jeff was trying to do something different and I think both guys did good books; they just went about them differently.
DB: I spoke to Larry not so long ago and I asked him about Atlas. He just went quiet so I asked him, “Would you prefer not to talk about that?” He replied, “Yeah”. “Oh okay, that’s fine, on to the next thing”. It certainly left a lot of damage behind.
SM: For Larry or for everybody else?
DB: Well I’d imagine for everybody else because I figure if Larry felt that way then obviously other people did. I know Alan Kupperberg; he doesn’t seem to have any problems with it.
SM: When I got fired Alan replaced me.
DB: As I said, he certainly doesn’t appear to have any kind of bad memory so to speak about it. I don’t know, obviously it affected people differently.
SM: It wasn’t a great place to work. There was always an air of some tension. Part of that, or a great deal of it I think, was based on the way Jeff went about his work.
Jeff could be a fun guy to be around, we’re still friends, I like him personally, but sometimes he just had a tendency to be a bit too serious about it. The thing about comics is that it’s supposed to be fun, that it’s supposed to be a job where you’re having fun doing your job. Whether you’re an editor or production guy or freelancer, that’s the whole appeal, it’s show business; and Jeff was occasionally a tad too businesslike. Jeff was occasionally opinionated about things that he really was not entitled to be opinionated about; and I think that in the end it was another one of those “best of times, worst of times” kinds of things.
I’m glad I worked there, but in the long run it didn’t do me much good.
DB: It certainly didn’t do much to enhance reputations I suppose. Now you’ve not done a lot in recent times. What’s sort of happened there? Is it just natural attrition through the industry or did you step back from it?
SM: There are not a lot of guys my age working in comics as freelancers and my last comics work was the run on Detective with Shawn Martinborough. We didn’t quite gel, he and I. I knew how I went about inking comics and he knew how he wanted it to look and he pencilled it that way. Shawn’s pencils are so tight you could have photoshopped them and they would be inked pencils. Any deviation from any line weight, any deviation from the way he wanted it was wrong, there was no allowing for interpretation on my part. There was a bit of a shit storm between him and me and the penciller, ultimately, is the guy who wins out in the long run.
Shawn didn’t like what I was doing and what I said was, “Well I’m doing it the way my instincts tell me to do it” and then I said, “Why don’t we let Mark Chiarello arbitrate it? See what Mark thinks.” Mark had no real problem based on what I understood. But Bob Shrek was in a position where he had a penciller and an inker who were not in sync as far as he was concerned.
The other issue was that Shawn was always late and I always got the book done close to on time, if not on time. I would have to turn a book around faster than my normal allotted amount of time for inks. Shawn was often late and that’s why there were a number of different fill in pencillers. Phil Hester did two issues and I would say that of all the jobs I’ve ever done, I would say those two issues by Phil Hester are probably two of the best jobs I’ve ever inked. Phil and I, I think, were just naturally compatible.
Anyway somewhere after that I was fired and that was even after I was making Shawn look good by getting the book done on time. Once I was let go, no-one wanted to hire me. I harbour a certain degree of bitterness over how things shook out. I have absolutely no love for Bob Shrek who I think is a weasel. I think that he didn’t really see the forest for the trees and no matter what I say, it’s just going to seem like I’m a bitter freelancer.
But frankly, I was kind of done. Comics had stopped being fun for me. I just wasn’t enjoying it after a career of 20 plus years. I’m happy to be retired from comics.
DB: It’s a very good career too. If you look back on it you did a lot of good work with a lot of incredibly talented people.
SM: Well I really appreciate that Daniel. I look back at my career and I just look at all the stuff I didn’t like. I think that there were some guys I had real compatibility with, as I said, like Phil Hester. I had a run for Milestone with John Paul Leon on Static and I think he and I were very well suited to one another. I like my Iron Man stuff; I like my Brave & Bold stuff. I inked about five jobs with Dick Giordano and I’m very pleased with how those turned out. I like for the most part my Gene Colan stuff. Then there are guys who I just never clicked with, and it’s funny I can’t really remember those guys. It’s almost like I want to forget that.
DB: That’s only fair enough, why bother focusing on them when you look at the names you’ve just mentioned. That’s a gallery of artists that most people would kill to have worked on.
SM: Yeah and there are guys who I wish I’d worked with who I never really got a real chance. I only inked one John Buscema job. It was a Conan Magazine job and I frankly have to admit I wasn’t good enough to do that job then. I think if I was to get, if John was to come back from the grave and say alright here’s that one job of pencils that you wanted, I think I’d probably do a much better job today than I did then.
There are a few other guys. I would have loved to have inked a whole job of Neal’s. I’ve inked a number of things of Neal’s. I did some uncredited background work on a number of jobs, inked a few fingers here, a finger there but I never had a job of Neal’s to ink and I think I would have had a really good time. I would have been scared to death, but I think that would have been fun; and there are a bunch of guys that I would have liked to have worked on. I wasn’t a great inker, but I wasn’t a bad inker. On days I was a very good inker, on days I was an okay inker and that was due completely and totally to who I was working with.
I believe that casting is an important part of an editor’s job and if you cast the right guys together you can get really nice results and I think that when I was cast with the right guys the results were good.
SM: And there were a few guys where that was not the case and I would be the first one to admit it.
DB: Why focus on them? For me the first thing I think of is the Breyfogle stuff and then the rest of it flows after that. When I first saw that Breyfogle stuff, I thought you’d only just broken into the industry then. It was only later that I thought, “Hang on that’s the same guys name that, oh okay”, so there you go.
SM: People sort of know you from when they first saw you.
DB: Absolutely. It wouldn’t be when I first saw you though. When I first saw your work, it would have been way back when, it’s when I first noticed your name on a book would have been on that Breyfogle stuff. So and there’s nothing wrong with that, definitely not.
SM: Not at all. The other thing I was once told, is that nobody really knows who you are and nobody really knows what book you work on until you’ve done it for about a year. Dick Giordano said that once a long time ago and I believe that to be mostly true. Certainly that now because of the internet and the amount of coverage that comics has, that’s different. But back in the day when there weren’t as many avenues to promote comics, people had to sort of find your stuff on a regular basis before they knew you were doing something or before they knew who you were.
I think Alan Weiss for example was one of those guys. Had Alan done a book for a year, I think Alan would be even better known today, but I don’t think Alan ever lasted on anything really that long.
DB: I think about three issues. I think the most he ever did was the Tom Strong stuff that he’s done recently and that’s only about four or five issues. So what have you been doing since?
SM: I’m currently producing DVD special features. In addition to comics, I had done film journalism when I lived in New York years ago. I’ve written a couple of low budget feature films that have been made. I’ve directed second unit on about eight or nine pictures and I’m also a huge movie fan. So I have the skill set for this kind of work.
I started working on DVD special features a couple of years ago, with the old Combat TV series which is a show that I loved from the 1960’s and I produced five seasons worth of special features. I produced three documentaries. I produced I think 30 some odd commentary tracks and I’m on some of those commentary tracks as a host, not because I made that choice, but because the people I was working for said, “When you do the interviews you’re very chatty. So do you mind being on the track?” I said, “If that’s what you want that’s fine”; and there was a show on last year called Sleeper Cell and I produced the documentary for that and I’m currently working on doing new documentary material for the original Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again.
DB: Good God. That’s…
SM: The two non-Bond…
DB: The two non-Bond Bond’s. That’s terrific, so many artists I speak to when they finish with the comic books they sort of go to and they do commissions, you know I’ll freely admit, some of them become bitter and they don’t have much to fall back on but if anything, you’ve gone into the stratosphere with it.
SM: I’m trying to make it work and the thing is I really enjoy it and I think that I’m actually better at it than I was at comics. I always am surprised when people tell me they like my comics work because when I look at my comics work I just, I don’t care for most of it as we said before. I’m not going to crap on somebody for liking my work. That would be stupid, although some guys will do that.
But comics was great when I did it. I did it at a great time. One of the things that was great about being part of the blue jean generation is that I got a chance to work next to all my heroes. I got a chance to work with them.
Back in the day, none of us wanted to replace them; we just wanted to be part of their club. No animosity whatsoever to any of the guys that preceded us.
DB: And you’ve become a peer, you’re one of their peers.
SM: Yeah. You get to hang out with guys who gave you pleasure when you were a fan. I have to tell you something. I met John Severin years and years and years later at a San Diego Comic-Con and I told him that I wrote a story for him when he worked for Atlas and his attitude was, “Yeah I don’t remember it”. His attitude towards his work is , “The next job is the next job”; and that crushed me because Severin always was one of my favourite comic book artists, he still is.
Pound for pound, dollar for dollar nobody draws as well as he does, and his stuff wasn’t overly dynamic but man oh man oh man was he a great storyteller! He just could outdraw anybody and it was idiosyncratic and everything that’s good about comics. So that one time when I got to meet one of the guys who I had most admired it was tinged with some sadness I think. In fact when I met most of my heroes they were all disappointing to me to one degree or another, which is also a bit sad.
DB: I’ve only had that a couple of times, thankfully since I’ve started doing this. the only one I’ve had that did upset me was John Byrne but I think he does that to everyone. So I’m in good company there.
SM: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of his in any way.
DB: He took an instant dislike to me because of my email address.
SM: Well then that’s his problem isn’t it?
DB: Absolutely. It did hurt because I did like those X-Men, I still do like them. I’ve always said to people, I like his work however I don’t like him now. I like his work but I don’t think much of him.
SM: Well I’ll tell you the list of my favourite guys in comics over my lifetime. Joe Kubert. I absolutely love Joe Kubert, loved his work, he’s a great guy, I’m very fond of him personally.
Archie Goodwin; simply hands down my all time favourite guy in comics. He gave me my first writing jobs. I wrote a couple of backup stories when he was doing war books at DC. When I was a fan and I used to visit him at Warren, he always shared artwork with me. One of the truly greatest people I have ever known, and funnier than almost anybody I’ve ever met because when Archie was funny he would sort of turn it on and off like a light switch and it would come at you completely by surprise and he was sometimes shockingly funny. On the other hand he’s the most mild mannered, easy going guy you’ve ever met. Loved Archie, loved Archie.
Mark Chiarello is just a great guy; a good friend, enormously talented and really an important part of DC Comics.
Tim Sale’s a great guy I love his stuff. I think Tim is the best guy working today.
Dick Giordano was my mentor, my friend and a great guy. I learned a lot from him and I always enjoyed his company. I liked Alan Weiss a great deal. I’ve always liked Alan’s work, it was very appealing to me.
I’m probably the only guy who ever got along with Steve Ditko.
DB: You’re the certainly only one I’ve met that says that.
SM: Well for some reason Steve and I always kind of got along. Steve was an odd duck to be sure, but he and I always got along. Maybe because our names are Steve, I don’t really know.
Gray Morrow was always great. Witty, urbane, you name a guy and I obviously have an opinion about them.
I like doing comics, I had a great time doing comics, I like being in comics during the 1970’s, I liked being in New York during the 1970’s. I like being young in New York in comics in the 1970’s and I feel bad because none of the guys today will really know the kind of fraternal atmosphere that existed back in the day. It was a nice fraternity to be a part of. I never finished college and so the fraternity that I had in comics was the fraternity that I didn’t have in college. So that was nice too.
DB: One of the things that has always struck me is how much inkers bring to a job and how much that they don’t. Some inkers, like Klaus Janson or Alfredo Alcala, can overpower a penciller’s style with their own ink style, their own particular style. As an inker how do you get around that?
SM: Every inker is different. I would believe that Alfredo was expected to make it look like his stuff when he inked it. Alfredo had such a distinguished kind of line and when you hire Alfredo you knew that the job was going to look like an Alfredo Alcala job. It just wouldn’t have his approach to storytelling or composition, but it would definitely look like Alfredo.
Klaus has always been one of my favourite inkers. I think I’ve always envied his nimbleness with tools. He’s one of those guys you put a pen or a brush in his hand, it doesn’t really matter, he’s always able to get a great result.
I think inkers are hired for two reasons. They’re hired to just get the job done, just the pragmatic side of it and then inkers are also hired to bring perhaps something of themselves, which is why guys like Dick Giordano were great over certain pencillers and guys like Joe Sinnott were great over certain pencillers. If you’re a Marvel editor and you want that Marvel style, well you don’t hire Dick Giordano or you don’t hire a guy like that, you hire a guy like Joe Sinnott or Frank Giacoia; and the flipside is true.
Dick had really defined I think the DC look some time in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s and even into the 1980’s. If DC had a house style then I think Dick was kind of responsible for that.
Since I was a son of Giordano that was the style that I always gravitated towards. The one thing that I always liked were guys where I could use a lot of black.
DB: Ageism has always been a huge problem with comic books. It goes back to the 1960’s and even through to the 1950’s where once someone reached a certain age they were overlooked for the young talent.
SM: Well I can tell you from experience that anybody who came in during the blue jean generation really had to sing for their supper. There was a very strong bias against anybody young and anybody new back in the day. There was this tremendous reluctance to use anybody young at DC and at Marvel.
Comics used to be a club and you really had to break your ass to get into the club. There was also the trust issue. Can you get the work done? DC used to be called “National Periodical Publications”. They were periodicals and periodicals came out…
SM: … monthly, bi-monthly, periodically, however you want to look at it and it had to come out on time; and one of the problems with the new guys was ultimately can anybody get their work done on time. As far as I know out of all the guys who came in during that period Chaykin was about the only guy who routinely made his deadlines.
Chaykin was very, very proud of the fact that he made his deadlines. They were very reluctant to use anybody young and new; at that time ageism wasn’t an issue, and I’ve got news for you, it wasn’t an issue with the young guys either.
None of us wanted to replace those guys. All of us, or mostly all of us I can’t speak for absolute certainty for everybody, but everybody I know, we wanted to work next to those guys. It was as much as a treat for us to be sitting at the drawing boards next to these guys. I never wanted to replace Jack Abel, I didn’t want to replace Murphy Anderson, I wanted to sit with Jack Abel, I wanted to sit with Murphy Anderson and work alongside these guys.
It wasn’t until the generations, I think, after my generation, where those guys thought they were better than us, and that we all needed to get the boot. I’ll say it for the record, I think that sucks.
DB: It seems to be almost a complete 180 to when you were in then because now they’ll go for the young people and go for the people just breaking in at the expense of the established artists.
SM: Sadly we live in a world where new is new and everybody’s into the concept of new, but new isn’t always better. In every generation when you have new guys, they bring along something different and something of value. I think generally most guys who grew up in comics today and I’m not a real comic fan so I really can’t speak with any real serious marketplace overview, but a lot of the guys who do comics today I think are better draftsman than perhaps the generations before.
I think every generation gets better in terms of draftsmanship and that’s what they bring, but the flipside is why get rid of guys who are good at their job, who know the craft and know the art and also can get it done. The thing I always hear is nobody can make a deadline anymore.
DB: Yet back in the day you look at someone, even John Byrne that was pumping out four monthly books and they were team books, and managed to get the deadlines on those. It’s incredible; and even before going back before that I think of Ross Andru, he’d put out about five books a month and managed to do pencils and Esposito inked them and they all came out on time. Incredible.
SM: It was a factory kind of business.
SM: It was about output. A friend of mine has started a publishing company, does Japanese Manga but beforehand he was thinking about doing American style comics and the one piece of advice I gave him is, “Well whoever you hire, make sure they can get it done”.
See getting it done at the end of the day is what really matters and he never really quite forgot that and I said, “There are a lot of people who have huge reservoirs of talent, but working on a regular basis and getting it done to deadline, that isn’t part of that reservoir of talent”.
DB: Well see now it’s the thing with no-one will solicit a book until it’s finished. If you were doing a six issue mini series, they want Issue 6 at least pencilled before they’ll even put out Issue 1 or even say that they’ve got it going.
SM: Oh was that true?
DB: Yep, it’s a bit of a shame.
SM: It’s… but…
DB: But then it’s there.
SM: There’s a reason for that though, Daniel. It’s because historically you would hire guys who were really talented and you wanted them to do this mini-series of that graphic novel or whatever and they couldn’t get it done, they couldn’t get it done on time. A lot of guys from back in the day just couldn’t get it done. There was the whole notion of getting a bunch of issues in the can and hope that it would buy more time later for the penciller and the inker.
The last assignment that I had on a regular basis was at DC on Batman and I don’t think I missed a deadline. If I did I blew it by a day or two, negligible I think, especially since I knew what kind of wiggle time there was in production. I had a consistent run as the inker on the book for the last year or so that I worked in comics but I worked with one, two, three, maybe four pencillers over the course of the year, and Martinborough, as talented as he was, could not just draw to deadline. I hear that a lot of guys who do comics today, that’s deadlines are their strong suit.
DB: I wouldn’t be able to hire anyone that couldn’t make a deadline. As a writer if I don’t hit my deadline, I don’t get paid, I don’t get the next job and with some comic book artists it seems that not hitting the deadline is what they’re known for. Jim Lee is a classic example, this series he’s doing with Frank Miller they’re unable to produce a regular issue, Miller can’t produce a script for Lee and Lee can’t produce the art.
SM: Well both of these guys are rich and they’re rock stars. Comic books strangely enough became kind of a rock and roll medium in a sense that everybody started to believe that they were stars; especially when you go to the San Diego Comicon.
At the Con you have people coming up to you saying, “Oh you’re great, you’re great, you’re great, you’re great”. When you hear that five, six thousand times a day, you start to believe it. There’s nothing greater for any creative person than to have some humility. If you’re going to be an egomaniac or egocentric, you’d better be really friggin’ good and you’d better really be on time. If you’re going to essentially act like a rock star, you better not live in a glass house. Simple as that.
Jim Lee doesn’t need to draw comics. He draws comics ‘cause he wants to, because he chooses to, because it’s fun to. Frank Miller draws comics because he chooses to, especially with the success of his stuff in the movies. He doesn’t need to do comics.
He may do it because he chooses to keep limber and to keep the skill set finely honed, but he doesn’t need to do it; and it’s kind of amazing how a lot of guys’ whole attitude towards it is totally contrary or contrasty to the way it used to be done back in the day.
DB: Do you think part of it is the fact that no-one’s hungry anymore?
SM: I think there are a lot of hungry guys because there are a lot of guys who would like to do comics on a regular basis. I don’t know many people who make a living drawing comics or writing comics. Chuck Dixon might make a great living writing comics, because every time I ever see anything related to comics it seems Chuck has written it. But there are too many professionals, too many people who want to do it and I’ve heard stories where editors have said to artists, “Well just because you did this, don’t expect that you’re going to get anymore work” or they’ll say, “Don’t quit your day job”. It used to be you could make a living in comics. That was your day job. It’s now very different and I have to say that frankly I don’t like it and that I’m glad I’m not a part of it. I miss it occasionally; I miss the fun of it. But I sort of don’t miss the whole nature of the way the industry has kind of evolved. I really don’t.
Frankly I don’t know if you read a lot of contemporary comics or not… are they any good?
DB: That’s a loaded question.
SM: Well okay…
DB: No, I’d have to say that really, they’re not as good as what I would like them to be I suppose. Nothing much I pick up really grabs me. There’s been very little that has really grabbed me in the last, certainly in the last few years. I picked up the Civil War series, I didn’t mind it but I thought the last issue was a cop out and everything that’s come since it hasn’t been that good.
But no, I can’t think of anything that’s really made me want to go out and buy something on a regular basis.
SM: The one thing that I think has really hurt comics is cynicism. All I can tell you is that when I worked in the comic book business, especially when I was living in New York, everybody was enjoying themselves and having a ball. It was about having fun, it was about doing fun things, it was about trying to do things that would be as much fun for the reader as it was for the doer; and I don’t know if that’s the way it is done today.
DB: It certainly doesn’t…
SM: But it doesn’t seem that way.
DB: Yeah, I was going to say it certainly doesn’t come across that way anymore that’s for sure.
SM: Fun for me was inking Batman. I could ink Batman 24/7. Strangely enough the one time I didn’t enjoy it quite as much was the issue I inked over Irv Novick. I thought because all of those issues of Batman that Giordano had inked -- I probably did some backgrounds for him -- and it always looked like fun to me and I have to say that the one issue that I did was not fun. Maybe it was a boring story and the visuals weren’t very good, but I never really enjoyed that one issue of Batman that I inked over Novick. I inked a lot of Don Newton stuff and I always had a good time with that.
DB: That sort of, it sort of shows because Don Newton, that’s another artist who, looking back on his art now, always seems like he had a lot of fun when he was doing it. He really, really was enjoying it and obviously you were as well, it does come through.
SM: Yeah very much so. I always had a good time inking Don. My only problem is that he used to draw on plate finish Bristol and I was using a lot of crow quills at the time. Sometimes it wasn’t the best quality Bristol and I would get little wads of paper stuck in the crow quill nib. So sometimes it would screw up a rendering pattern. A little white out would usually save the day.
DB: I recently spoke to Norm Breyfogle about experts, how long does it take before you’re an expert in your field. He mentioned Steranko and I replied “Well Steranko is apparently an expert in comic books but he’s done very, very little”.
SM: I don’t think you ever become an expert if you have any degree of humility. I think if you say you’re an expert that means you know it all. I think that the really good guys never know it all.
Take a guy like Walt Simonson. I think Walt is very, very accomplished in just about every way that there is and if you were to ask Walt, “Do you think you’re an expert?”, I think Walt would say “Hardly” or “Not yet” or “Not as much as I’d like to be”.
DB: It’s that thing, always watch out for the person that says, “I’ve reached the peak and there’s nowhere left for me except down”.
SM: It’s to a lot of guys’ credit from my generation that I don’t think anybody ever felt they knew it all. There were too many guys out there that you could say, “Oh really? You mean you know as much as Alex Toth does?”, “Oh really, you know as much as Al Williamson does?”, “You know as much as Neal Adams does? Joe Kubert?” There are just too many names that someone would throw out that would basically deflate you.
DB: Not such a bad thing though.
SM: I think that’s a very good thing. I don’t think any creative person ever gets to the end of the journey. I think every creative person it’s about the journey and it’s always about more experience, it’s always about more doing, it’s about getting better, if nothing else, it’s about developing craft. No one is born with craft. Craft is learned. People are born with talent but they’re not born with craft and I think craft is something that you develop and you learn; and if your craft is really good, it’s amazing what you can do.
Take Alex Toth for example. A lot of times you look at what he was doing and you’d say, “Oh he’s hacking”. No, it’s just that he had such profound craft that he could find the simplest way to solve something and solve it brilliantly that he made it look too easy. Do you know how hard you’ve got to work to get there?
DB: Very. Yeah I know I’ll never get there.
SM: And I never felt I ever got there either. I’ll leave this as sort of my end point here for the night. I was in the animation business for a couple of years and I was working at HBO on the Spawn Animated Series and when I was done working at HBO and done working on Spawn, I felt that my inking craft had improved a lot because when I was doing that work it was all about form and weight and mass and blacks. All the things that I was familiar with when I was inking comics, but I was distracted by rendering and the line. Now when you work in the animation business, line is the least important thing, it’s all about the other stuff.
So, ironically, when I left Spawn and animation, I was actually a better inker from a craft standpoint than I was beforehand; and my career didn’t last all that long after that. I think I was still in comics for about three or four years at most after I was done with HBO; and I think that a lot of my later work was actually some of my best work.
I inked two issues of Detective over Phil Hester and I thought that was the best work I’d ever done because is was a synthesis of how I used my line and also just in terms of weight and mass and shape and form. Like I was seeing the total rather than the part and it’s sort of ironic to me and it will always remain ironic to me that not all that long after I did that work I basically was no longer in the comic book business.
DB: That’s weird. You’ve reached the point where you want to be and suddenly your chosen field is no longer there.
SM: Yeah but it’s actually a little bit more about being where I want to be. Again it comes back to craft. You can never have enough craft, you can never learn enough craft and I thought that my craft had really improved for the experience of working in animation and that, along with my professionalism, I had something to offer and then one day I was out.
DB: Not good.
SM: And if you talk to a lot of guys from my generation, Terry Austin, Al Milgrom, Bob Smith, etcetera, etcetera, it all kind of happened to them too at around the same time. One day we were making a living in comics and then another day we weren’t. Weird.
DB: Very weird.
SM: Very bizarre.
Thanks to Alan Kupperberg for the great introduction. Images in the introduction are copyright 2007 Alan Kupperberg.
Thanks also to Steve Mitchell himself for being as patient and open as he is - a true class act!
If you like this interview then feel free to leave a comment.