From The Desk Of Rich Buckler: Part VI - D.C. Comics In The Late '70s
If you enjoy reading these articles, and if you like the art you're looking at, then feel free to contact Rich directly and arrange a commission. Rich's schedule is fairly open right at the moment and Rich is more than capable of doing some stunning work. Give it some serious consideration and spread the word.
Before we start I'd like to point out that all of the cover images shown in this post are Rich's own favourite DC covers. When Rich points out what he loved drawing, well, you can see why people loved those covers then and still love them now.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Rich Buckler's life story, exclusive to this blog.
I put my whole experience with Deathlok at Marvel behind me. Creating something new for mainstream comics was clearly much more complicated than when I created characters for fanzines in my youth. I look back on those times at Marvel now and I am amazed at how much was accomplished with so little resources and creative freedom.
Hard to believe that I was only twenty-five years old and I was editing, writing and drawing my own book. It had been a crazy creative roller coaster ride that opened my eyes to how incredibly naive a young comics creator like me could be. I learned one really hard lesson--that creativity was one thing in publishing, but business always comes first. So it was back to "work for hire" (that is, somebody else writes it, you draw it, and the publisher owns it).
I didn't know one single comics artist in my circle of friends who didn't feel incredibly lucky to be working in the business--including me. So, what do you do when things don't quite go the way you wanted them to? You move on.
Those days at D.C. were auspicious times and very exciting for me. As D.C.'s art director Vince was always one of my main boosters and he practically adopted me. He was dynamic, straight-talking, a good teacher, a tremendously prolific and vibrant talent and a good friend. He was a rarity in the "business-first" world--a straight-shooter who always--always! --championed other artists.
It was Vince who arranged for me to have some private desk space at D.C.'s offices (this was when the company had an entire floor in one of the buildings at Rockefeller Plaza) so I would be more accessible.
As an added bonus, occupying that office/desk space also turned out to mean lots of covers would be come my way from all the various editors (just like it did at Marvel). I was still a wide-eyed youth. If I were on my own, with no guidance, I am sure things would have played out much differently. Vince would ink my work on some of my favorite covers for Wonder Woman, Black Lightning and Superman Family.
Oddly enough, every time I would switch companies I would somehow just miss Jack Kirby in the transition, and I always regretted that. As I was arriving he was leaving. I would sometimes get lucky and be in the unique position of getting to see original Kirby pages when they came in to the office at both companies--but I would rarely get to see Jack in person. In those early years when I was at Marvel, Jack had already left for D.C. Ironically, when I went back over to D.C., Jack had left them and gone back to Marvel.
Of the half dozen or so editors I worked for at D.C. there was another very influential figure that comes to mind--Joe Orlando. I recall him taking me off to the side one day and asking me in a hushed voice if I had ever heard about a character at Marvel called Deathlok. Ulp! That was an awkward and uncomfortable moment--did it mean trouble ahead?
"Maybe somebody trying to rip us off? Do you know the character?" he asked insistently. I winced slightly and said: "Yeah, I do. I created him. And no, he's nothing like Jonah Hex. Rest assured. You've got nothing to worry about, Joe."
"You're sure?" he asked, looking a bit cagey. I nodded a real serious nod. Who would know better than me? Actually, I'm not so sure he was all that seriously concerned about it. He had to have known about my involvement in the creation of Deathlok before he even asked about this. Was he putting me on? Well, he probably was. He sure was passionate about Jonah Hex though.
This man was an E.C. Comics legend whose accomplishments I knew well! He put me at ease a little later, but you know what?--I was still a bit nervous around the "big guys." To give you an idea of the generation gap here, Joe Orlando had started out in the comics business in the year I was born. So, not only was I nowhere near being a "big fish," I was actually more like a mere tadpole.
As an editor Joe was exacting and precise and always knew what he wanted. Smoking those thin black cigars, he was mild-mannered with a wry sense of humor and a crooked smile which he would put to use whenever he had serious criticism or an important point to deliver.
When he gave me advice I always weighed his words carefully. Knowledge and experience were at work here and I was all ears. I would find out, a little further on, that he and Dick Giordano supposedly had big plans for me.
It was years later at a comic book convention that Jose and I got into a private discussion about those days at D.C.--and Jose admitted to me that when he started at D.C. he really didn't know what he was doing at first (even under Joe Orlando's guidance)--so he had used my work as a guide! Whenever he'd get stuck, he'd ask himself: "What would Rich Buckler do?"
I remember saying to him: "You want to hear something really funny? I remember your first work and I was wondering then who was this guy? He's amazing! How did he get so good so fast?" And then I told him: "I remember thinking: 'This guy Garcia-Lopez is definitely on to something!' And that's when I thought I had better keep a close eye on you and study what YOU were doing!" We both had a good laugh about that.
You know what? Try as I may, I still haven't caught up to Jose's level of drawing skill (or even Alan Weiss's for that matter!).
In those days the work atmosphere at D.C.'s offices was always serenely quiet and ordered--it probably is even more so now. The environment there was nothing like the frenetic activity and hectic pace of Marvel that was so familiar to me. It was like a different world and took some getting used to.
It was more of a suit-and-tie thing, although the freelancers were always dressed more casually. I remember editor Archie Goodwin and also Len Wein and a few other freelancers were still wearing jeans despite the apparent "dress code".
Being the somewhat quirky and eccentric individual that I was (and still am), I happened to be the only guy with the long-haired "rock-n'-roll look"--so as you can imagine I didn't exactly blend in with the corporate environment. But I was there every weekday from 10 to 6 PM so after a while everybody got used to me.
I got to meet a lot of fellow professionals--Murphy Anderson, Tex Blaisdell, Ric Estrada, Bill Draut, Nick Cardy, Winslow Mortimer--many of the old school artists. For some reason, I never ran into Curt Swan, who I greatly admired (my very first efforts at drawing comics in my early teens were attempts at copying his beautifully realistic figures).
This was a really satisfying time for me at D.C. I had a great deal of creative freedom, now that I think about it--and I never had to justify anything I drew or fight for that freedom. A lot of responsibility went with that too, but I was up to it. Amazingly, virtually everything that I drew saw print. I illustrated covers and stories for just about every editor at D.C. at one time or another. And, happily, Dick Giordano would continue to ink a lot of my work. For inkers (actually, artists who rendered other artists' work) I had lots of favorites--Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Klaus Janson, Frank Giacoia--but Dick was by far my favorite inker at D.C.!
I never did like the suit and tie look--it always seemed to me to be too much like a uniform. My style of dress has changed since then, of course--but that "fierce individuality" part of my character has never left me after all of these years!
When I first started working for Julie (which is what everybody called him--"Julie", not Julius"), he was just plain tough on me, which I found bewildering at first. Julie was extremely efficient and organized but very demanding. He was a consummate professional, polite enough most of the time but he could also be quite deliberately cranky, I thought (a defence mechanism maybe?).
"What's his problem?" I inquired of Vince, wondering how I could break the ice with Julie. Vince downplayed it a lot and told me, half-jokingly: "He's just old. But he means well. Don't pay any attention." I tried not to.
It did nettle me a bit when Julie kept jibing me and mentioning at every opportunity what an "ambitious young upstart" I was (even though I had already completed assignments at D.C. for years). I never got this from anybody at Marvel--ever.
I noticed that from the start Julie was unusually sceptical and kept challenging me. That always kept me on guard. I was used to being able to easily make friends with just about anybody. This guy was going to be a challenge.
I remember my first "interview" with Julie in his office before he had even given me an assignment. How could I forget it? The way it went was more like a confrontation. I came into his office and sat down, not knowing what to expect next and he just got right to the point.
Just like that--BAM!!--like, "who do you think YOU are?!!" And like it was probably meant to completely blow me away. But I was prepared for that one.
"Well," I offered bravely, "Vince Colletta thinks I can. And Dick Giordano. I think I can. Try me. And if I'm not up to it today, I know that I will be tomorrow, or next week or next month. I always finish what I start. And I never give up."
"Good answer!" I thought. As he pondered my words, I wondered: "Where did that come from?" It was uncharacteristically bold of me at the time, but I was nervous and a little bit overly defensive so the words just came tumbling out.
That always has been my point of view, though--that I would constantly improve and evolve as an artist--and throughout my entire career I have never wavered from it. I could see from our first meeting that convincing Julie would not be an easy task and that I was going to have to prove myself.
Another thing about Julie--you could never quite tell if he was putting you on or if he was dead serious due to his quirky sense of humor. So early on I factored that into my assessment of him.
Vince kept trying to cheer me up whenever he would notice how this was bothering me. He would reassure me with: "He's only kidding. He's jerking your chain. Really! He likes you!" I wasn't always so sure.
Another time, on the subject of Superman, Julie called me into his office for a meeting in order to give me some "art direction" for handling the character. That meeting was somewhat more positive.
He then proceeded to sketch for me a perfect diagram of that "S" symbol--all the while giving me tips on how to "get it right every time". Yes, believe it or not Julie was a technical expert on that subject. Who would have thought? I told Vince about that meeting and he said that Julie only gives that lesson to artists he is considering working with.
Eventually, as I did more and more work for him, he did begin to warm up to me somewhat (but he never, ever gave me a compliment! That was not his way. It would have meant that he actually liked me!).
Before I got to draw Superman, an opportunity to draw Batman actually came before that courtesy of Vince Colletta (who was the one who talked Julie Schwartz into giving me a try in the first place). Now, I was no young "superstar" in the making at D.C. at the time, mind you--far from it. But it seemed like I was starting to work my way up to bigger assignments.
On this Batman assignment, for some reason, maybe because we always got along so well, Vince had decided to give me my choice of inkers. Such an opportunity was rare in those days. Now, I could have asked for Neal Adams, or Wally Wood, but before I knew it I just blurted out: "Can you get Berni Wrightson?"
Vince had gone out on a limb on this one, I was sure of it--even though he had promised, he would never actually get Berni, and if he did he would never get approval for this. But he got him! One thing I learned early on about Vince and could always count on--he always kept his word.
Regarding the craft side of drawing the comics , I was no expert on drawing materials--I figured to each artist his own. I learned that some artists used special pencils (or blue pencil). Some shaved or trimmed their brushes. Some would even bake their ink in an oven or dilute it with distilled water. Others used modified crow quill nibs and/or mechanical drawing pens.
So when it came to the quality of the paper used by artists to draw their original pages, after my own experimenting and seeking advice from other artists, I seemed to be on solid ground with my complaint that the paper the publishers were supplying then to the artists was just plain inferior. I had noticed back at Marvel this had been a problem too.
I worked with John Romita and Sol Brodsky on this at Marvel, and would later consult at D.C. with Sol Harrison and Vince Colletta about it. What was the problem exactly?
I thought that the standard paper the comics were printed on was bad enough (about two or three cuts above the grade of standard toilet paper in my estimation). My point was that the stuff we were using at the time to draw our originals on wasn't all that much better.
Eventually, both D.C. and Marvel gave in and ordered new drawing paper that, with my recommendation, was equivalent to Strathmore 2-ply bond (professional standard). After much trial and error and careful testing ("Hey, Rich, what about this one?" "Nah, it's okay for pencil, but lousy for ink" "Too rough" "Too smooth" "Nope, not enough tooth" "This one bleeds like mad" etc., etc.), finally we eliminated the "dross" and the best paper was selected--only this time, things were done with artist input in the decision-making process.
Vince Colletta acted in those days as my liaison to all the D.C. editors. At the office he was "suit and tie" in look, but he was definitely an artist in his attitude and thinking. Vince was no-nonsense, always confident and always professional. He was a real gentleman, always polite--and the way I remember it, when he spoke up people always listened.
"This is Rich Buckler. Keep this guy busy," he would tell editors as he introduced me. "He's good, fast and he's reliable!" And: "Rich, this is the illustrious Joe Kubert. Watch out for that handshake of his--it's a crusher!" It was.
I had worked in my earlier days at D.C. with E. Nelson BridwelI (a virtual human encyclopaedia of comics history, trivia and minutiae). Nelson was Julius Schwartz's assistant editor)--and a good guy to know for getting the details right. For my money, he was the expert on all things Superman.
I already knew Paul Levitz who was Story Editor at that time. Paul was now the editorial person who coordinated all script assignments--so he was a good guy to know then, for sure.
He was always pleasant, alert and quick to make a joke (and amazingly he understood my jokes--almost nobody else ever did). Sometimes he would see me looking seemingly very intense like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. "You're so serious, Rich," he would tell me. "Lighten up. Don't forget to have fun!" What he was seeing was a somewhat "serious face" I would wear most of the time--and not because I was always necessarily serious. I couldn't help it--It was just the face I was born with.
A special project came up one day featuring, of all things, dinosaurs--and Paul offered it to me. It was one of those rare times when he and I seemed to be totally synchronized. I just happened to be totally into dinosaurs! How did he know? Anyway, I jumped at the opportunity to draw the D.C. Special "Danger Dinosaurs At Large!" featuring Captain Comet and Tommy Tomorrow.
It was a clever madcap time-travelling story by Bob Rozakis that raced through time--thirty-four pages of thrills and action and prehistoric monsters! How could this not be fun?
That book also featured one of my favorite Green Lantern villains from the old Gil Kane days, Chronos!--and a new muscle-bound humanoid dinosaur villain I got to design named Tyrano Rex! I remember researching the heck out of this one at the picture library and Museum Of Natural History. I think Bob and I managed to cram in just about every species of dinosaur that was cataloged at the time!
And then it was on to other fan favorites of mine, but the biggest challenge would be a 72-page epic scripted by Gerry Conway for a special tabloid collector's edition--Superman Vs. Shazam!
I'm not exactly sure how this assignment came about but as I mentioned before I was getting hints that I was being considered to be the next Superman artist. I guess this project was a sort of grooming for it--maybe. Maybe not. I'm just guessing, now, but that was my take on it at the time. The book turned out to be more like my "trial by fire."
I had never drawn a story of this length before (actually, nobody did, before these tabloid sized projects came along!) and it was going to be the largest comic book I had ever drawn--with the artwork pages drawn up at a slightly larger size than the usual 11" x 17". Was I up for it? Definitely! But seventy-two pages?! That was like the equivalent of four regular books. I don't know how I did it, but I completed that assignment in a little over thirty days.
When the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve was in production I got to visit the set (courtesy of Thom Sciacca, who was one of Sol Harrison's assistants in D.C.'s production department). We got special passes to visit while they were filming an outdoor scene on a New York street. I was excited about this because now I could get a peek at how movies are done.
I recall being in a jam-packed crowd in front of the "Daily Planet" front entrance (actually a Rockefeller Plaza building, as I recall), and out walks Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. I noticed that Christopher Reeve had a thinner face than I expected, but otherwise I thought that he looked remarkably like the Clark Kent and Superman I had been drawing in the comics. I would have to wait, like everybody else, to see his portrayal as the super-powered man from Krypton when the actual movie came out in the theatres.
I was a little disappointed. Maybe I was expecting something spectacular, but I didn't see at the time what was the big deal--and it probably would have helped if I had some context for the scene. Then suddenly somebody from somewhere yelled "Cut!" and I knew I had just witnessed an actual piece of cinema being shot--but it didn't feel like I did.
The magic of movies, for sure, was not in the watching as they were making the movie--it was in the watching of the finished movie when it played in the theatre! Drawing comics was what I thought of as doing "movies on paper." This was clearly something else entirely.
On another day at D.C.'s offices around that time, Thom asked me sort of out of the blue if I wanted to meet Andy Warhol. "Um," I said, "not really. Why?" "I know him," he said. "Come on, it'll be fun," he coaxed.
And he took me downtown to SoHo where we came to a ramshackle factory-looking building and we took a cranky old elevator up to see the famous "pop artist" that everybody in the media seemed to be enamoured with. I was never much of a fan of Warhol but I thought this might prove interesting. I had never met a for real famous "fine artist" before.
My overall impression was that the "maestro" was not so much creating art as he was manufacturing it. Thom became insistent and waved. "Hey, Andy, it's Thom! Over here."
An androgynous frail man with odd greyish white hair approached us. He looked slightly annoyed. Thom said: "I brought along somebody I thought you might like to meet. This is Rich Buckler. He draws Superman for the comics!"
I smiled, a little embarrassed, and Andy shook my hand, looking totally bored. Actually he had no expression at all. An awkward silence followed, and then he just turned about face and walked away to go back to work. That was it? Not even a "Charmed," or "Pleased to meet you," or "Sorry, I'm very busy, this is a bad time for a visit."
Obviously, I muttered to Thom as we quietly left, he's not a big comic book fan. So, he was unimpressed with me. I was unimpressed with him. Okay, I thought, life continues. Not a big deal.
The so called D.C. Explosion was occurring during this time and with the stepped-up production I would often be doing two or three covers a day. That was when I started billing for the "cover idea" or "cover sketch".
Prior to that time, artists were only paid for the actual drawing. Sometimes I would be given another artist's sketch to work from (Ross Andru a few times), but I never liked working that way. It was always more fun to come up with my own ideas and designs.
How covers were done at D.C. was not much different than at Marvel (although at Marvel, because of deadline pressures, or because the interior pages weren't available yet, the scene on the cover would sometimes bear little or no resemblance to the story). Usually the covers were in production a little ahead of the story material.
To give you an idea of what was involved: The artist would be given some photocopied story pages and was expected to come up with a scene or composition that summarized the story or put across visually a highly dramatic moment or situation (without actually giving away the story).
Not as easy as it sounds. And not everybody could do it fast and do it well. My personal favorites for covers were Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru and Jose Garcia-Lopez.
Speaking of Carmine--another giant, to be sure--back in my days before "going pro" Carmine had actually generously given me some lessons by mail. I was eighteen or nineteen at that time and still living in Detroit. I penciled some sample pages and sent them to him and he replied by postal service with tracing sheet overlays on my art pages and an extensive written critique!
Not so for everybody. I remember I did a couple of cover sketches for Julie Schwartz one time and, as he was sometimes wont to do--and I never knew when the mood would strike him--he decided to "bust my chops" a bit.
Deadlines could be pretty tight, even at D.C., and Julie needed these two covers that same day. So I took the photocopies he gave me to work with and went to back to my work space and got down to business. Ten minutes later I had two sketches which I then presented to him. "Wow," he smirked, "what took you so long?"
So far, so good. He looked them over and said he liked them. Then he suggested, "What if...?" And asked me to do some alternate versions. I said that was okay, no problem--but that I would be billing for those sketches too
"What?!" he exclaimed. "None of our other artists charge for alternate sketches!" "Well," I said, "they should." And he countered with: "If I'm not mistaken, you just spent ten minutes coming up with these two sketches, and you made $100. That's ten dollars a minute!"
I came back with: "If you think that I might be trying to take advantage, that's not the case here. In this process the artist is not being paid for his drawing but for the quality of his thought." For me, this was about respect for the artist and what was fair.
Now with Julie, if you had an argument with him you could walk away and never quite be sure exactly who had won it--but it was probably him. Anyhow, it didn't much matter because after that he never did bring up the cover subject again. I loved working for him, I got to draw Superman quite a bit, and he always got first rate covers from me--and they were always on time!
The actual deal, to everyone's dismay, fell through because of endless complications with contract details involving use of the actual likenesses of the actors. What they settled for was a tabloid photo souvenir book that showed how the movie was made. Too bad. I excelled in getting likenesses of real people. And I loved just about everything they did with the movie and I thought it would have made one heck of a comic book.
I was getting steady work and my career as a professional was really taking off at this point--or appeared to be. I wasn't getting wealthy but I was making a living and getting a lot of attention from both major publishers. But I always assessed my status as somewhat tenuous.
I suspected that if and when an artist was considered "hot stuff"--well, my take on it was that the fame had more to do with the character or project being worked on, and did not depend so much on who the artist was. Realistically, you could be hot this week, and not the next.
Maybe I should have had a plan, I don't know. Thinking back now on those years, maybe I was hopelessly immature (no, actually I probably was!) and I was more than a little obsessed (I thought of it as "focus and determination"), but I just didn't pay much attention to that side of things--and I wouldn't pay it any mind for quite some time afterward. My attention was always on the work at hand, not what might be coming my way later.
Actually, I was (as I said before) just living my dream. I was doing one assignment after another--joyously!--never sure what would come next. It was all very dream-like. For the most part career-wise I wasn't following a plan so much as I was just making things up as I went along (which, when you really think about it, is what most people are really doing anyway).
I'm a little more practical these days, but I still do think like a surrealist. For me, "reality" is overrated, the world does not work the way one would expect, and things rarely are what they appear to be. Just when you think everything is under control, it isn't. Never trust experts. Don't confuse me with the facts. The camera always lies. Always expect the unexpected.
I'm always wary of allowing my thinking to fall into "ruts" or to the tendencies of solipsism. Anyhow, those are just a few of my "pseudo-axioms" (or is it "oxymorons"?) that have helped me occasionally to deal with "reality" (which is, you know, the stuff that happens to you after you've made other plans).
So, despite my creative difficulties at Marvel, I would eventually start to get an itch for creating something new or at least doing a big project that I could really throw myself into. Nobody had a clue what I wanted--including me. But I knew what I didn't want. I didn't want to draw The Flash forever. Or Star-Hunters. I didn't want to be drawing any one title forever.
I was too restless--and besides, it would literally drive me nuts to have to draw the same thing over and over for years and years! I knew that just wasn't in my genetic make-up, so to speak. That's when I realized that being the new Superman artist was not something I looked forward to--or even wanted to happen (sorry, Vince!).
Did I say "normal" artist? Now there's a conundrum if there ever was one! I'm fond of saying that I have been accused of a lot of things but being "normal" was never one of them.
Think about it. What's normal about spending most of your waking hours, day in and day out, alone at a drawing board--drawing away with no real promise of any reward beyond earning enough money so that you can afford to keep on doing it? Surrealist, maybe. Obsessed? Probably. "Normal" though has nothing to do with it.
For anybody trying to keep track, by that time I had already drawn just about every character at Marvel. It wouldn't be long before I would do the same at D.C. Occasionally I would jump back over to Marvel on something--I did that a lot, back and forth, back and forth. Was I a Marvel guy or a D.C. guy? Well, happily, I was both!
I was always up for just about anything, drawing away and honing my craft and just biding my time until something significant would come along. And come along it did when the 80's rolled around, in the shape and form of All-Star Squadron.
Check back sooner than you expect for Part VI, when Rich moves further into his life and into the '80s!
Rich Buckler's web-site can be found here. Rich is avaliable for commissions and recreations, and, as you're clearly reading, has a long history in the field of comic book art, spanning over 40 years. Visit his site, check out his art and treat yourself!