My friend Steve Mitchell in his younger days once asked Joe Kubert why he didn’t draw his machinery and weapons realistically like the great Russ Heath. Rather than be insulted, Joe smiled and said. “ Well, Steve, I draw them emotionally.”
Joe was my favorite comic book artist as a kid. From the first time I saw his work at around the age of five or six (an issue of Tor that scared me so much I had to slam it shut) through the run of Viking Prince, to Hawkman in the 60’s (which was the comic that inspired me to become a cartoonist), I was in love with the work. Even as a youngster I was aware of his faults in drawing, but it didn’t matter, because it was drawn with such confidence and life that it always looked right. When I had tracked down a lot of his work from earlier career, the same thing was true, but even more so.
One time in figure drawing class a younger artist was showing me a drawing and as I pointed out a couple of flaws, I joked with him that when you are starting out and something in the drawing isn’t right, it’s a mistake. When you’re older and you do the same thing, it’s called style. But call it style, call it emotion, call it whatever, it caused me to connect with Kubert’s work. To this day, the drawings amaze and inspire me.
Wally Wood was another major influence both with his Mad comics humor and his science fiction stories. Those voluptuous women, the slick line and the dynamic use of black…I could go on intellectualizing about WHY I liked the work, but the bottom line was I just loved it. Conversely, Harvey Kurtzman’s criticized Wood’s as “stiff” (“ I drew a lot of the work for him… His figures looked like the joints were cemented.”). As a kid (and still as an adult ) I would marvel at Wood’s stories, and quickly skip over the ones with Kurtzman’s minimalistic drawings.
Ditko, who based his style on Kubert, was another one that had that emotional pull for me. While he never approached Joe’s work for facility with figures, NEVER drew a beautiful woman, and at times was just plane sloppy, when he was on he created a world that astounded us. Ditko at his best was always a gut level experience.
Eisner was some one I didn’t discover until I was at least 20 years old, but I was immediately attracted to his design and the life and reality he brought to his cartoon characters. I quickly understood why he was a mentor and employer to both Kubert and Wood and how much he taught them. Will was the undeniable master of the short story in comics, with pathos, drama, comedy and suspense unmatched. He was arguably the greatest talent to even work in the comics field.
Fawcett was probably the least emotional artist I’d even seen. He was rarely hired to do covers, probably because the depth of the work could rarely be appreciated at a quick glance - something essential to sell magazines. There was an attention to detail, tension without hysterics in the acting, a brilliance in the abstract design and impeccable draftsmanship. There was so much to learn and to emulate in his approach.
One of Fawcett’s biggest admirers (and he certainly had any number in comics and illustration) was Alex Toth. While Alex was certainly not a non-emotional person, the work was very non-emotional as he consistently chose substance over style in his stories. And I hated his work as a kid. (One of the major reasons for this was in Toth’s version of The Time Machine where he did spot on likenesses of Rod Taylor and the rest of the male cast, but his Weena bore little resemblance to my teenage heartthrob Yvette Mimeaux. Unforgiveable!) I eventually came to my senses, and Alex was a major inspiration in my career.
Al Williamson was someone who’s drawings I could never get enough of as was the great French cartoonist Paul Gillon. There was a sense of elegance and lyricism in the line and the movement of the figures, and their settings were imaginative and fantastic. But unlike Wood and Kubert, while I loved looking at their comic stories, I wasn’t that interested in sitting down and reading them. I was attracted to the pictures, but not the stories.
When I started out in comics I knew a little bit about storytelling technique and absolutely nothing about drawing. Beyond the one year of art I was offered in high school (and the class was also half filled with the school’s discipline problems) I had no formal training. I only knew how to copy other drawings. To succeed in the field I knew I had to improve and quickly. My library of art books expanded and I studied them all assiduously. I worked constantly in my sketchbooks and every other artist I met became my new instructor. Without the help and support of folks like Jim Starlin, Joe Orlando, Al Milgrom, Walt Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Al Weiss, Joe Kubert and other too numerous to mention, I would have gone nowhere. There were also classes in photography, oil painting and watercolor, and a lifelong addiction to figure drawing. (Where else can you stare at beautiful naked women and call it practice?)
Needless to say, my work improved dramatically over the years. And my tastes changed as well. I found that I was looking at material from a difference point of view. The visceral emotional response became less a focal point, and I started to be more concerned with the subtleties that would raise the work to another level. This definitely created a problem.
While my ability as an artist had made great strides, the emotional connection that I had with the audience was diminishing. Kubert once told me about hiring the legendary Lou Fine later in his career to do some covers. “I couldn’t use them,” said Joe. “Whatever he had, he had lost it.” Being familiar with Fine’s change from the flash and dynamics of his early years to the brilliant illustrative style he later used, I disagreed with Joe. Lou Fine had changed, but only in that he was less commercial. The work itself was better.
While you want to be popular with readers, does that mean you can’t continue to grow as an artist? The creator owned projects I done over the years (Lori Lovecraft, Retrowood, and currently The Mad Mummy) have always had much more resonance with me than anything I ever did in my commercial work. The craftsmanship on the pages is far superior to what I did as a youngster. However, the sales of these projects have rarely been beyond my fanzine numbers that I did as an amateur. Fans who lavish praise on my early work, seldom have any interest in what I’m doing now. And this is not a problem just for me; it’s a concern that is a common lament for many creators of my generation.
How do you continue to connect emotionally with the public, since not only your work changes, but the readers out there are continually changing and evolving also. I don’t know if there really is an answer. If you want to continue to grow as an artist, there is always the danger that your popularity will wane. The English poet William Wordsworth described his readers as “a fit audience, but few.” Martha Graham’s advice to Agnes Demille, “No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
While I was never a successful basketball player in high school, when I was in college and all my spare time was spent in the gym (instead of on the drawing board) I got to be a decent player in pickup games. There was one memorable one-on-one match that I played against a friend where I won by driving to the basket for a layup, turning my back to the hoop as I leaped in the air and tossing the ball blindly over my shoulder and through the net. My friend, Bill Deitrich, fell on the floor of the gym in disbelief. There probably wasn’t another person around to witness that victory, but such was my elation that I realized at the time, that whatever success I might have in a career, it would pale in comparison to that moment in the gym.
You have to live for those moments.