When I often explain that I have no formal art training, a lot of folks politely smile and silently think that explains a lot, but most others are really amazed at the statement.And it’s not really true. My degree was in teaching and English Lit., and I didn’t really have the chance to take any art courses while I was college. However, even before I got my first art professional job, I had no shortage of great folks to give me advice and an education.
|(Al Weiss, Starlin and Milgrom and a lot of beer.)|
Since Prof. Jerry Bails had established comic fandom, it was only logical that Detroit was a hotbed of young cartoonists who wanted to get work in the comics. One of them was a youngster named Jim Starlin who at 13 hitchhiked out to my house in Pontiac from Berkley, Michigan to talk with me about fanzines. We became friends and Jim soon introduced me his buddy Al Milgrom. Years later after Starlin returned from a stint in the service, it wasn’t long before he was working at Marvel. When he was back in Detroit he was always very helpful about what I could do to take my work to the next level. His storytelling really impressed me, because he was incorporating film techniques as part of the process, and breaking down the timing. He also understood the Marvel approach, which was a fairly new concept in those days. But most importantly, Starlin made me understand that drawing comics wasn’t just a daydream…it could be a reality. From that point on I took it seriously.
Rich Buckler was another local talent that I had met a few times who started to get work. Rich was always good with advice, and I could immediately see that he was far more serious about drawing than most of us. When I started taking my work around to the publishers in NYC, Rich had several names of folks I could interview with. And he also used me as an assistant on a few of his projects, which was an invaluable lesson.
I had know Al Weiss since my days in fandom. Back then while we were all copying our favorite cartoonists, Al was actually looking at photo reference and translating it to his drawing. We copied Wally Wood lighting technique, but Al actually looked at models and figured out why the light made those patterns. The sneaky bastard was probably drawing with the side of his pencil even back then. When I eventually met Al, he was very gracious in giving me tips on how to improve my very stiff pencils.
|(Vinnie inking my Starfie pencils. 19760|
My first jobs were working for D.C comics where Joe Orlando was the editor and Vinnie Colletta was the art director. Vinnie liked my approach to the work, and even at my first interview he gave me some sage advice: find folks that are popular now and copy there work as much as possible for your portfolio, and you’ll get jobs. Working with Joe he would always offer me constructive criticism when I turned in a job (probably out of desperation at my meager attempts), but he also gave me similar advice: learn to draw in the house style and you’ll have steady work. (Quit looking at all those European guys!)
When I had the chance to meet a couple of the artists that had been a real inspiration for me, Joe Kubert and Alex Toth, they gave me very different advice. Master the drawing process, learn how to be a great storyteller,never rely on just shortcuts, and be your own man. Styles will come and go, but truly understanding the basics will take you a long way. While both were revered by everyone in the field, editors rarely suggested you look at their work.
At Marvel the advice I got from my friend Al Milgrom who was working as an editor was similar to what I heard at DC. Learn how to draw in the house style and you’ll stay busy. John Romita always reiterated this when I would talk with him, telling me that every day they were letting go of older artists who drew too realistically. He told me that Stan Lee loved Kubert’s work, but added, “If he worked for us, what could I used him on.” At this point, I began to understand that I was probably more interested in getting better at the craft, than just getting work.
|(Above a couple of the Flagg covers that I pencilled and Howard inked. Below my pencil and his inks on Blackhawk.)|
Fortunately, I was also pals with a number of young artist who also felt the same way. The most vociferous of these was Howard Chaykin who was definitely his own man. I don’t think anyone else in the field has had as much effect on my career as Howard. He was probably the first of my NYC friends who started showing me the work of all the many European cartoonists whose work was had a major influence on me. When we shared a studio after we had both moved to LA,, he pushed me to think more three dimensionally in my drawing. And he had design and storytelling ideas that were way beyond the field of comics. Howard introduced me the the Famous Illustrators course, and the work of so many of the men I admire now. He also helped me make the jump from cartoonist to illustrator. While I had been working in animation for some time, Chaykin also helped me segue into advertising and film work, where he worked for a good while before returning to comics.
|(Walter and Louise Simonson)|
Howard had also shared a studio in NYC with Walter Simonson and Frank Miller. Simonson I would see a good bit of because at the time he was sharing a place with Milgrom where they would kind enough to let me stay when I came into the city. Like most of my generation, Walter was in awe of Jack Kirby and a perfect fit at Marvel and DC. However, he was also an innovative designer in his own right, and always took the Kirby approach to a new level. He showed me so many things about design and storytelling. Like Toth, he also insisted on doing his own sound effects that added so much to his strips. He maintained a very linear style that while simply read, was based on a very complex design approach. It was always an education to pore over some of his originals. My only complaint about Walt is that, like Joe Kubert, he never did enough stuff outside of the field. I would have loved to have seen more of his vision in some of the latest Marvel films.
And while I only got to meet Frank a few times at the studio and conventions, I could immediately see he was another youngster I could learn a good deal from. A student of Will Eisner, what I liked about Miller’s storytelling was the way he would start out with a completely empty stage, and only bring in those elements that were essential for moving the story along. Frank didn’t throw stuff in just because it was fun to draw; if it was in one of his stories, it had a purpose.
Bernie Wrightson at the time was respected as one of the best of the new talent. His apartment was upstairs from Chaykin’s place and I remember trooping over there to see a number of large paintings he was working on for an Edgar Allen Poe story. Needless to say they were amazing. There were important lessons to be learned in watching the process he was going through in developing the illustrations. But what really impressed me that this guy was the best in the business, and he was still striving to be even better.
Not all the lessons were first hand. While I never met Richard Corben he sent me an letter of critique in regard to some of my artwork, and immediately got to the heart of the problem I was having in comics: “when you’re drawing, do you wish to achieve a two dimensional illusion of depth, or do you want the drawing to remain essentially a graphic design of flat elements?” Choose one or the other was his suggestion. I had never identified the problem before, or had my many editors. Corben also went on to suggest I get more individuality in my art style. Be your own man…where had I heard that before.
As I was older and moved away from comics to work primarily in other fields, the artists I admired like Bob McGinnis, Rowland Wilson, Bill Stout, Harry Borgman, and Drew Struzan always seemed to have the same advice: learn how to draw better and the final work will be better. They never seemed too concerned about technique, but rather if you applied yourself as a draftsman and designer, the style and technique would flow out of that. It was always great advice, and I soaked it up.
There have certainly been a hundred others who were my teachers along the way, whether they realized it or not. Virtually any time I worked on a job and had the chance to talk with or pick the brains of other artists I jumped at the chance. So while that formal art education eluded me, I certainly have had the advantage of being educated by the best that the field had to offer, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.
With the internet, today’s younger artists have the opportunity at their fingertips to google any new artists they find, or watch videos of all their idols demonstrating various skills. These are advantages they should always avail themselves of…but don’t let it stop there. One of the most important things you can do is cultivate a group of like-minded friends who are there in person to challenge and inspire you daily. They will suggest books to check out and other artists you might want to look at. Without that kind support group, success is a lot more difficult.