Original Art Stories: Gene Day In His Own Words
Day came to prominence with his work for Canadian underground comics and his fanzine illustrations, which showed a depth and talent that, at times, lifted him above the average fanzine artist of the time. After a short stint with Skywald, it didn’t take long for Marvel to reach out for him and he was duly hired to ink Mike Zeck on Master Of Kung Fu, which saw Day following in the footsteps of Paul Gulacy when he took over the pencilling duties after Zeck left the title. Day also inked the likes of Alan Kupperberg (Marvel-Two-In-One), John Byrne (The Avengers, Spider-Man), George Perez (Avengers, Marvel Two-In-One), Jerry Bingham (Black Panther, Marvel Two-In-One), Ron Wilson (Marvel Two-In-One), Carmine Infantino (Star Wars) and Keith Pollard (Thor). Possibly Day’s best known, and best loved, work, was his Star Wars inking over Infantino and his two issues of pencilling the title, but the quality of pencillers assigned to Day shows how highly regarded his inking was held. As an inker Day was very similar to Dave Simons and Rudy Nebres, in that, in the words of Christopher Priest, “Some inkers are actually better pencillers than the people they're inking. Dick Giordano, Dave Simons, and Rudy Nebres are all extremely gifted artists who could go toe-to-toe with some of the industry's top talent. Inking is where their efforts are concentrated, and for their own reasons.” Day was a stunning penciller in his own right and he was easily a better artist than most of those who he inked. Also, much like the top quality inkers, such as Tom Palmer and Dave Simons, Gene Day was always able to make an average artist look great and a great artist look stunning. His inking over John Byrne was as good as Byrne looked at the time, on a par with Terry Austin, and Day had the innate ability to bring out the best in the artwork before him.
It didn’t get better for Day. Try as he might he couldn’t keep up the standard of quality that he was known for, nor could he keep up the fast turn around that he’d become famous for. Unlike a Vinnie Colletta, Day was fast, but very good, but when it came to both pencilling and inking his speed was greatly reduced. Things came to a head over an inking job that had been assigned to Day. Marvel contacted Day and informed him that because he was late with the pencils, the job would be inked, in a rush, by the nom de plume of Many Hands. Many Hands, and his brother, Diverse, was a pseudonym that Marvel used to denote that several artists had inked a job, usually in a hurry, and usually any artist that could be found nearby, or in the Marvel offices. Day was naturally horrified by such a thought and accepted the offer of travelling to Manhattan in an attempt to ensure quality was maintained. According to a report by Dave Sim, “Gene showed up at Marvel and they gave him the address of the hotel he would be staying at. He went there and the place was covered in cockroaches so Gene went back to Marvel and asked to be put up in a better hotel. Nothing fancy, just a place without cockroaches. Tom DeFalco gave him the choice of the roach-infested hotel or sleeping on the couch in Marvel's reception area. Gene chose the latter, not realizing that they turned the heat off in the building overnight (this was in the dead of winter). So he slept there with his coat pulled over him and developed as a result, a kidney infection which stuck with him the rest of his life. In retrospect, I think the problem Marvel had was that they had no policy for the situation. When Gene insisted on coming down to work on it, it just didn't make sense to them editorially to pay for a hotel room for him given what that was going to add to their costs on the story. For Gene, it was an obvious plus-by coming down and working on the story it would be that much better looking than it would be being inked by whoever happened to be around at the time. But, how the job looked wasn't as big a priority for Marvel as having the job done. What to Gene looked like a sensible improvement solution looked to Marvel like a needless expense and intrusion by a troublemaker.”
It was a battle that the ailing Day could never win. Although Day had been approached by DC, as the following comments will show he only ever wanted to work for Marvel Comics. Shooter, faced with Day slowing down and not abiding by his rules, saw no other choice but to fire Day, which was the final blow from which Day didn’t recover from. “His heart and soul were at Marvel Comics,” said Sim, “His lifelong dream was to work in the House that Jack Built. Of course, what he failed to see was that working in the House that Jack Built even became an untenable prospect for Jack.” Not that long after Marvel sacked Gene Day he passed away.
What Day did leave is a legacy of fine art; both pencils and inks – especially inks – and an impressive sense of design. For an excellent example of all of those skills take one look at the story below, Hive, read the first line and then look at the panel designs of the entire story once more. Subtle, but incredibly effective. Due to Day not having a lengthy career and also partially because he lived in Canada, there are very few existing interviews with him, and only one real one where he talked in length. This was published in the Canadian magazine, Orion, and one of the interviewers was none other than Geof Isherwood. The interview in question was conducted in November, 1981, but didn’t see publication until 1982, shortly after Day passed away. Presented below is an edited version of that interview, with only Day’s comments, showcasing his views on artists, the comic book industry, Marvel Comics and how he started out. Gene Day might not haven been with us long, but he shouldn’t ever be forgotten.
I consider the Orb work out of Toronto professional. I suppose more recognizable would be the Myron Fass stuff: UFO, Space Wars and whatnot. Also Star-Reach and places like that. Marvel of course... I started there in the summer of '78. The first pencil job just came out in 1981. That was done for them in April, 1978, which is why it looks dated. I realized I was a little slow at pencilling, so I applied for an inking job, and I landed that in July '78. That was the last time I was ever without work with Marvel. I've worked constantly day-in with them ever since then. I sold to DC a long time ago. I sold them a story, a written story, some people are not aware that I write as well. I don't think it ever came out however. I've been a short story writer under another name; I paint... mind you, fantasy per se, science fiction or whatever, no I don't want to leave that. I used to do commercial art too, and I worked for Dodge and Chevy and all those guys and I hated it. It was terrible. I'll do anything that's imaginative, anything that involved bigger than life stuff.
I think the only problem with being a Canadian is customs. Other than that, and there's not too much problem with them, there's no problem with being Canadian or whatever. Some women have come up and asked me why there are not more women in comics: Well, I don't know because no one cares what you are. That's the great thing about the field.
I do a lot of war.., anti-war stories. I'll call it historical for lack of a better term. Historical and adventure. I like anything that's science-fiction, and anything that takes from World War II, back. If it takes place today, I don't like it. I don't really like superhero stories very much. There’s nothing wrong with them, it's just that I don't do them very well. I feel I'm better suited to a historical setting. Plus I find it more interesting.
We're doing a story right now in France, and I would say that within reason it's probably more the France of the slight past anyway. We replaced the fact that they have no steam trains running there. We're using a steam engine instead of a diesel, simply because I like steam engines a lot better. They only quit in '72 or something so... I really like working with these kind of things. I think props are really important to comics. I think Steranko and people like this worked really excellently with props. Their backgrounds were as important as their figures, sometimes more important. Steranko always does one-up on everybody else. He does things different, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but he does everything, and he tries it once. I think experimentation is a necessity. It's the only reason for doing it. Who wants to do the same thing month in month out?
You always have to do some things that you're not happy with. They know that people are going to do a better job on something they want to do. I just did a story called "Silhouette" for Bizarre Adventures. I got that mainly because the editors on the book, Denny O'Neil and Ralph Macchio, knew I wanted to do Star Wars-like material, and that I wanted to do black & white. Well, it was both put together and they gave me a lot of rein to add stuff to the plot and whatnot, and I had a good time with it. They seemed to really like the finished pencils. Unfortunately, deadline problems arose though, and it had to be inked by me and a couple of other people in four days. I feel it really seriously hurt the finished quality of what I thought was going to be a really good story.
I don't like doing character design, so that sort of puts me in awe of doing new characters. I'd never done any character design up until I started on Kung Fu. No. 107 is the first villain I ever drew in my life. I just don't do that kind of thing. But it's always nice to get a piece of the action. On the whole, if I'm working on something like Shang-Chi or something, no, of course not, because I didn't come up with it. It wouldn't say so. I wouldn't say it means that much to me. My home is the house that Marvel built. It's their money that gives me all the pleasures in life that I have now. Before them I didn't have too much. Everybody runs around thinking that every character they come up with is going to be worth a mint, and nine out of ten times, the character is worth a dime and a doughnut. Once you're hired to do it, my only advice would be that you'd better do it to the absolute best of your capabilities. You know, there'd be no point in cutting back on the quality of your work simply because you don't own it. It's not going to do you any good.
I'll tell you what the biggest problem is: Wanting to do your best but not having the time to do it. Theoretically, it takes about two weeks (to produce a book). That's the pencils. Maybe two weeks, but it never works out that way. I'm always late with my pencils, I'm slow at them, and I always seem to get the dead-end jobs, the tight jobs, with inks. The last day I had off, really physically had off, was last Christmas. If it's near the first and its not too pressing, (I’ll work from) probably around eight am to ten pm. Near the end, as much as it takes to get it done, which I've seen run thirty-two. Some guys plot very meticulously, almost a finished story; other people plot really loose and leave a lot up to the artist. It's just a paragraph. Sometimes the paragraph stretches into five pages, but theoretically it's a paragraph. Something along the lines of... say, when I did Caleb Hammer with writer Peter Gillis: "Caleb Hammer comes to the door, has quick fight, main villain is knocked to the floor, Caleb picks him up and throws him against the wall." It's up to you to figure out how many panels you want to do that in, what angles, what you're going to do with it afterwards from that stage. It's up to the artist to make it work. I refuse to work from scripts. Doug (Moench) and I especially work really well together. He leaves me a lot of room, a lot of the fight stuff now I get to add things to. In No. 109 of Kung Fu there's a fight at the end in a graveyard. I got to do a lot of that on my own. Only through the Marvel method would I be allowed to do that. All of a sudden if I come up with an idea when I'm sitting at home I can choreograph it to fit it into the story. If it's not in the text of a finished script, you don't do it. Everybody has their own preference. You talk to some artists and they'll say that this is the worst method to work with because it's too hard. Too time consuming.
With Master Of Kung-Fu it's just that most actual kung fu stuff, if you went directly from a photograph, it's usually very stiff. It's too stiff, and the kung fu artist, even though they look fine in the photograph... take Bruce Lee: You couldn't take a photo of him and use it directly, because the guy has really tiny hands. His hands look like these little miniature hands on the end of these big arms. It really looks terrible in art form. I look at it though, sure. If you want a key drawing, you usually go to a photograph. Otherwise you try and make it up. Mind you, some guys are real natural artists, they can just sit down and whap off anything and it looks great. I'm not like that, and a lot of guys aren't. I've got to labour a long time to make even the most miniscule figure at least look passable. Sometimes things just fall into place; usually you use a lot of different methods, and end up with whatever you feel comfortable with. John Byrne probably uses very little outside reference because he's become so stylized. I went out and bought things like Enter the Dragon on film and video. I've got a lot of photo reference; it's just that a lot of it isn't really that usable. But you get the feel of it. The big trick is to give the illusion that you know what you're doing. Even if you know kung fu really well it's still hard to draw. It's like anything else: You can know airplanes, you can be a great pilot and an artist as well, but to sit down and draw, you'd better have an airplane sitting in front of you. I don't think you should do any machine or background prop if you don't know exactly what it looks like. You can do cars that look like boxes; they're done all the time, look around, you'll see a lot of them. I don't like it, I think it's terrible. I think it means a lot when somebody calls you or sends you a letter and says: "Yeah. I saw the splash page you did with a bunch of weapons. I really liked the luger and that switch-blade is a 1951 something-or-other." It takes a lot longer to draw though. Consequently, every prop that you draw, you've got to have a photographic file on. I have large prop photofiles.
You can't replace the feeling of pencilling something; you're starting right from scratch. But for pure out and out enjoyment I'll take inks any day of the week; pencils are too much like work!
I make as much as I should have working in a factory or something. A lot more headaches; no weekends. You earn your money; comics are not an easy way to earn it. Mike Zeck says he can get by on the amount of money he can make on one book, that's why when he did Kung Fu that's all he pencilled. He works basically, within reason, about five days a week. When I did the job for Heavy Metal it was six months before I got paid; this was for pencils. When I do anything for Marvel I get paid immediately. Caleb Hammer was done a year-and-a-half before it came out, but I was paid when I did it. The first Kung Fu that I did was done three years before it came out, but I was paid within two weeks. Big difference. It's almost like having a real job.
You've got to have feedback. It's just like anything else: Why be a musician if you're going to sit in a room and play to yourself? You could be the greatest musician since Beethoven: Who cares if nobody's listening to it? You've got to have feedback, and conventions are great for that. Plus I want to promote Kung Fu a little more; it doesn't do well in the specialty shops. It does really well on the newsstands, which is totally the opposite of how that book should do. I want to talk to the fans. In Ottawa I was invited to fourteen conventions within the next four months. I can't go to that many.
I love films. I think that every comic-book artist probably wants to be a movie director. That's one of the attractions of comics, that's what got me interested in actually doing them, rather than just reading them. Films I didn't really understand, I didn't know how to go about getting into them at all. Plus it's very costly to get into. Comics you can sit down with a piece of paper and come up with something. When you're the comic artist, you're the director, you're the actor, you're everything. And when you work the Marvel method of working from a loose plot, you're the cinematographer; you're the storyboard artist, etc. I'd like to do storyboards, storyboards would be great. A lot of guys are going into it. In Japan I find it really strange that many of the comic-book artists seem to eventually get around to being movie directors. They actually go to the comic book field and get guys out of there because they have such a developed visual sense. A producer can come in and look at what they've done; they know what their visual sense is like. Comics and animation is an art form over there, I mean really an art form. Here it's only an art form to the people that like it, and to everybody else it's junk. It's almost an embarrassment out in public to admit what you do sometimes. "Oh, you draw those things, they're for kids." Oh sure, you get put down for it a lot, you have to fight against it constantly. There's a real stigma in this country against it. That's why sales are down: Television, everybody watches television. People aren't reading as much, there's phases where the sales go up because they're "in vogue". Now how many do you run into who say: "Oh yeah, I used to read those." That's like saying "I used to breathe." All forms: film, books, television, and comics are there and should be used. Comics are an art form, Japan realizes that.
You can make a lot of money, I've heard, in France from being a comic artist. It's a highly respected field. I think is just starting to realize again, for the first time since the thirties, that there are a lot of advantages to comic-book material. I've talked to a lot of people who hated (The Legend of the) Lone Ranger, I've talked to a lot that liked it. I'm just happy they did it. It may not have been totally successful, but then how many films are? Consider how many films are made in a year: How many are really successful? I mean reasonably successful, they can't all be Star Wars. I've really liked a lot of films I've taken flak for. I think Saturn 3 was a serviceable film. I didn't like the ending; I liked it right up to when they exploded in the water. That was great, I love, it, they should have cut it right there. I don't care it was similar to The Fury; leave it alone, it worked. That little shot of Farrah Fawcett at the end going back to Earth that they didn't even bother to explain was just a waste of time, and it left you with a bad feeling when you left the theatre. Cronenberg's Scanners, another quite decent film. If you're talking about films it's definitely on the upswing; if you're talking about comic books it's more dead now than it ever was. This country's cheap! I hate to say it, but I really think it's the truth, that if you say to an American: "Sink a dollar into this and I can make you ten cents profit." He'll think about, and chances are, if he's got the money to spare, he'll go for it. You say to a Canadian: "Put in a dollar and I'll make you ten cents." He'll say: "No, I want it guaranteed I'll get the dollar back, and I want a dollar's profit, and I want this and I want that." and it always falls through. I've worked for two Canadian firms in the last year. They both came to me, they both asked me to work for them, I had trouble from both of them. One just canned the job completely and decided they didn't want to do it anymore, and the other guys only paid me half the money they owed me. I said "That's it!"
The Canadian fans are wonderful, at times. As for the actual field, no, forget it, I don't want to work in Canada. I don't want to move to the States. Canada's my home. I'm pro-Canadian, I'm 100% Canadian. The only thing is, if I work here I starve to death. I can't give my stuff away. People know who I am down in the States; I get letters from Israel, Germany, you name it; and I go to a Canadian publisher and the first thing he does is put the screws to me. He wants to get it for nothing. I hate to say it, but it is.