Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Hollywood Club

(Storyboard frames from Prince Caspian, by Mike Vosburg.)
Life as a freelancer is always precarious. I was offered a job last week working on the proposed remake of the James Thurber classic,  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty .  In this slow economy, this was major excitement. However, once I talked with the coordinator, I was told politely that they couldn't  hire me because I wasn't a member of the Local 800, the Hollywood live action storyboard union. Despite my resume and list of credits, I've had this same situation happen a number of times over the years. It's always a source of frustration.

Unions are essential for an educated, talented  and utile labor pool. I was in college when I started my first real job in the summer of 1966 ; I worked at Yellow Truck and Coach in Pontiac, Michigan, making busses.I became a member of the union. When I started teaching school, I became a member of the teacher's union. When I started my comicbook career, there was no union, and despite the attempts of many of the older artists to establish a guild, nothing really came of that venture. I saw firsthand how difficult it was to negotiate with a company on a solo basis. When I moved to LA in l985, I started working in animation and I joined the union and I am still a member.

 (Storyboard frames by Trevor Goring for National Treasure.)

But a few years later when I wanted to move into live action films, I tried to join their union and was told I couldn't join. You had to have a job to get in the union; to get a job you had to be in the union. (You figure out the logic.) If you are a qualified person looking for work you will always be welcomed by a true union, because they understand implicitly that there is strength in numbers and solidarity.

(Storyboard frames from Skycaptain by Anson Jew.)

If you are a qualified worker seeking employment, you are eligible to join the union. The problem that we have with the live action storyboard "union" is that its leadership has chosen not to represent  a large section of its constituency. In the movie Norma Rae Ron Leibman plays a union organizer in the south who runs into resistance from a group of white workers who don't want blacks in the union; his answer was simple and elegant:"Anytime you have a union that excludes a section of the work force, you don't have a union, you have a club."
(Frames by Tom Nelson)

If admission to the "club" was based on a qualified entry process that might be more acceptable.But there is no portfolio review or even apprenticeship in the process. If artists were being  excluded because of race, sex, or age there are fair hiring laws to protect us. Myself and others aren't being blacklisted, as many creative people were in Hollywood in the 50's, we are simply being "non-listed".  The "club" process is supremely arbitrary. If you're in,you're in, if you're not, you're not.

(Storyboard frames by Aaron Sowd.)

The great irony of course, is that virtually the only way you can get in the union these days is by becoming a "scab" and taking a non-union job. The hope is that the project will go union, and you will be "grandfathered" in. The union and their membership always caution us not to take those jobs, since we are hurting their bargaining position whenever we do so. But if you don't take those jobs, you will certainly never be admitted to the union. It is a "catch 22."

(Storyboard frames by Josh Sheppard.)

I used to think I was the only board artist in Hollywood with this problem. Unfortunately, what I have discovered as I have talked to more and more people  in my field, is that there are just as many, if not more, storyboard artists who have both the ability and the experience to do the job but are excluded, as there members of the storyboard "club." And now the Local 800 is currently expanding, seeking to unionize the Previz sector of the industry. But while new workers are being sought out for the "club" those of us who have long sought membership as  qualified board artists are still being excluded and denied representation.

Imagine that you wanted to make a film and cast a John Hamm, Robert Deniro or Mila Kunis, but were told you couldn't use those people because they weren't in SAG, and couldn't join. What happens is that you are creating a product without having access to the all of the best people who are available. For management and the studios the negative side is that there are excellent people available for jobs that you can't use. The positive side for these groups is that in fact you have a large low income labor pool constantly available. And for the Local 800 that means you've lost a lot of clout as you  negotiate from a weakened position.

(Storyboard frame and concept design by Jerry Bingham.)

The job that we do is very competitive. When I was teenager working on my comicbook fanzines with dreams of working as a cartoonist, my competition was perhaps 500 other kids across the country who had the same dream. Now there are at least 500,000 young artists across the world who all want to do this work...and the number of new jobs have not expanded in proportion to the labor pool. The only way you can stay competitive is to continually improve on your abilities and to market yourself efficiently. Now you have the added difficulty of being excluded from the prime jobs.

If you are one of the few in the "club", you can shrug your shoulders and smugly feel secure that you will have job security. But that certainly isn't what a union is about. The Animation Guild has never excluded members, and Local 800 members are always welcome to join if they want to work on an animated film. But when members of the Guild try to apply for union jobs, they are turned away. It is not a matter of us trying to steal  your jobs. The only thing that will protect your job in the long run is your skill level, not a discriminatory practice against those with similar skills.

(More Prince Caspian boards by myself.)

I don't expect this entry to suddenly change the union issue in Hollywood. There are complexities that I am certainly not privy to and don't understand. However, I do implicitly understand from reading history just how ineffective a union stays when it restricts membership, and refuses to represent its constituency. This is particularly distressing when you become aware of how small the number of unionized live action board artists is compared to the actual labor pool.

I'm reminded of Ben Franklin's quip as he signed the Declaration of Independence:"Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or we will certainly all hang separately."

(In all of the artwork I've posted I've avoided specifying which artists are union, and which are non-union since I think the latter title belittles our abilities. Maybe you can figure out why the Local 800 refuses to represent some of these artists.)

(Frames that I did for an independent film called Beheading Buddha.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Masquerader: Celebrating 50 Years of Fandom

(The cover of Masquerader #1, drawn by Paul Seydor.)

At the San Diego Comiccon this Saturday night there will be a celebration of the 50 Year Fandom Anniversary. While I won't be there in person, I will be there in spirit. Comic fandom was a major part of my life when I was a teenager.

When I was a freshman in high school I put together a planned issue of a fanzine, which I called Masquerader (hey, Alter-Ego was taken). It was about 18 pages of material: a couple of ads for comics for sale, an article comparing the Justice League and Society, an article on Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books, and my own comic strip, Dr. Destiny. I was so green that I everything I drew was in ink on paper, and the text was typewritten with the drawings pasted on. Very pretty, but there was no that I could print it. On my next attempt, I used the standard spirit duplicator method, drawing and typing everything on stencils. With this process there were limited print runs; after about 200 copies, the pages started to fade out rapidly. And there were frequent accidents with the originals; if they weren't properly clamped into place they would often wrinkle, ruining the page.

But this mock up issue, with Fred Jackson contributing a number of pages,  I sent that around to probably Ronn Foss, Jerry Bails and two or three others asking for suggestions and criticism. Everyone was always very helpful, but Ronn and Jerry were certainly my mentors in the field. Their input into what I needed to do to take my fanzine beyond the "crudzine" classification was essential. And of course, the unsung heroes behind all this were my parents who always gave me their support; my dad give me access to the duplicator machine (and paper supply) at the school where he worked as head custodian.

(One of Fred Jackson's illustrations for the first issue.)

The first issue of Masquerader that was published featured a Hawkman drawing by Paul Seydor on the cover, my rehash and review of one of the JSA issues, my take on the new Marvel heroes, Dick West's article on the New Age of Comics, a piece on the Shadow by Fred Jackson, and Mike Touhey's review of The Hangman. There were several pinups, and two strips: The Blue Bolt (by Fred and Larry Charet with my drawings ) and the Cowl (with my writing and drawn by Ronn Foss.) The strengths of the issue were some really beautiful drawings by Paul, Fred, Ronn and Biljo White. One of my innovations was "justified margins" with the type.When I would type out the articles, I would add a series of "bullets" at the end of each line; when I did the final typing on the master I would add a space for every bullet, so both the left and right edges of the columns looked like a professional magazine. The biggest weakness was that too much of the art was my own crude scribblings. But as a first attempt it wasn't bad.

(This was Biljo's White's drawing for the ad section of the zine.)

With the second issue there were two major problems. The first was that I decided to use black masters instead of the traditional purple. Unfortunately, the "black" reproduced as a light medium grey, and while the purple masters would usually last 2-300 copies, the black dittos were starting to die after the first hundred pages. The second problem was that I wound up doing most of the artwork. I was in a hurry to produce another issue, and the really good artists were booked up for months in advance. The overall effect was that the issue was a step back from the first.

(This and below are two of Ronn Foss's stunning Hawkman drawings.)

The articles were solid: Howard Keltner's "High Flying Hawkman", "Meet Doc Solar" by Gregg Way, Margaret Gemignani's piece on Hourman, Steve Perrin's piece on the Jaguar, my own on Mandrake, Rick West's excellent article on "The Birth of the JSA." Ronn Foss did two beautiful illustrations of Hawkman and one of Captain America for the letter's page, and Grass Green had a great cartoon. Unfortunately, after that there was a whole lot of my doodles, including a really abysmal cover drawing of the Comet, that just proved I had a LOT to learn.

So issue three was bound to be an improvement. In retrospect, I am amazed that I was trying to produce the issues on a bi-monthly schedule. But what really amazes me was how much I apparently improved in two months; while I did far fewer drawings in this issue, they were all remarkably stronger. The only articles were one on Fighting American written by Mike Touhey that I did the art for and a short piece by Foss (using the pseudonym Scott Russell) on defining amateur zines. There were two strips. The first was an Action Ace and Thrillboy story by Grass Green that was the highlight of the issue. The other was Astro, written by Phil Leibfred and drawn by yours truly; whatever else there was to say about it, I believe it was the first "color" strip produced for a fanzine. My cover was well designed and not badly drawn, but again the best art was the spot illustrations by Ronn (Newsboy Legion and the Guardian) and Grass (several ACG heroes). And "Quotes from the Readers" did feature letters from both Gardner Fox and Joe Kubert.

(This strip by Biljo was actually a continuation of a strip started, and continued, in 
another fanzine. I'm not sure how often that was done in early fandom.)

The fourth issue was probably the best of the ditto issues. Once again, Hawkman was featured on the cover, drawn by myself. Ed Lehmann did a knockout article on Simon and Kirby called "The Donnybrook Boys", with several illustrations by Ronn. Mike Touhey did a piece on the Shield, illustrated by Grass, and Howard Keltner contributed "The Story of Mr. Justice", with drawings by Biljo White. "Captain  3-D was written by Margaret Gemignani with one of my drawings. My personal favorite was Rick West's piece about Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, "Lord of the Si Fan", again with my artwork. Ronn also had a sweet little illo of the Spectre. There was also the knockout strip Astro Ace- the 8th Astronaut, by Biljo White- which was quite stunning. All in all, I was really proud of that issue.

What stands out about issue five was the amazing technical feat of having three different artists all draw their favorite character on the cover: Biljo White did Batman, Ronn did Hawkman, and Grass did Fighting American. What this entailed was sending the dittomaster to each artist in turn, have them do their character, and then send the master on the next artist, and finally to me for printing. You don't think I was nervous when I finally fitted that sucker onto the spirit duplicator machine. One wrinkle and my life was over!
(In the days when you could actually depend on the mails not to lose things
this cover had to be sent to three artists and then myself. )

"Stan Lee, the Man Behind the Comics," was the lead off, which I wrote and Ronn profusely illustrated. Ed Lahman did a piece about five of his favorite characters which Grass did the drawings for."Radar- International Policeman" was written by Ray Miller and featured the first artwork by Alan Weiss in Mask. Margaret Gemignani wrote about Bulletman and Bulletgirl, with my illustrations. It also featured a foldout pinup of my drawing of Viking Prince. We weren't always brilliant, but we were innovative.

Which is why I chose to print the sixth issue of Masquerader on a photo-offset press. Producing the pages for the press was much more difficult than working on the ditto masters. With every page I had to cut out whatever I typed and carefully place it and glue it into place on the master sheet. Same thing with any artwork. Then any excess rubber cement had to be cleaned off. It was a time consuming process.

(More of Ronn Foss's artwork.)
Masquerader #6 was one the very first comicbook fanzine printed this way;  Alter Ego #5, which Ronn Foss produced, came out  just before this issue. I do remember was that the issue was ready to print long before I had the money to pay for the printing, which was about $250. At 50 cents a copy that meant I had to sell 500 copies to break even, and that was before postage. With the limited size of comic fandom that wasn't going to happen. Fortunately, my parents who supported me in all this weird comicbook stuff, stepped in and told me to invest some of my own money and get the issue printed.

Then I had to wait about five weeks for the printers. Patience was not one of my virtues. The spirit duplicator had always been so instantaneous. You finished the masters, ran over to dad's school on a weekend, and printed an issue.  I was getting pretty antsy....but eventually I got the call that my issue was ready. Well, not quite. They did advise me to wait two to three days for the ink to dry properly before I started to assemble the issue. I couldn't afford to pay the additional fee for machine assemblage and trim.

(An early drawing by Alan Weiss, who developed into a magnificent talent.)
There were eight to ten boxes of ledger size sheets. I would lay out stacks of the seven sheets (each with four pages printed on each one) and the cover sheet (on a different blue stock). I conned my younger sister Sue, who was about six at the time into helping me put the pages in the right order. Since I didn't have an oversize stapler I would open the one I had and put two staples face down into the center of the pages with a heavy piece of cardboard under them. Then I would pull pages up and manually fold down the upright staples. It really was a work of love. Then the issues had to be addressed, a stamp stuck on them, and they were sent out.

You can view the issue on my flickr site, so I won't take a lot of time describing it. The highlights for me were Ronn's beautiful pages of the Cowl, the two full page illustrations Dick Memorich did as a tribute to Jerry Robinson's Batman, and the Viking Prince splash by Kubert that was reprinted for the article about Joe. My correspondents were very generous with their praise of the issue, but I'm not sure I ever saw or can remember reading any "reviews" in  what there was of the fan press at the time. But after a year and half of publishing, I was pretty burned out. My fanzine days were pretty much at an end.

In later years I would come out with two oneshot zines: Savage Princess and Beyond Infinity.  But both of them were more self-published comics than zines. The first was done on the dittograph and my pastiche to Kubert's Tor and Frazetta's Thunda with a dash of Wood and Williamson thrown in. I doubt if I printed more than a  hundred copies. Beyond Infinity was another photo-offset book, with three E.C. type stories in it. Sales and distribution were very limited. Both of them were attempts to establish myself as an artist; I had little or no interest anymore in establishing myself as a writer or editor.

The great highlight that I talked about in Bill Schelly's book on fanzines was the amount of mail I received. A lot of it was envelopes with nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay for an issue of
Masquerader, and a lot of it was correspondence with so many wonderful and interesting people who didn't seem to mind writing to this nerdy teenager.

One of the most important things I learned from working on my fanzines, was the importance of drawing for reproduction. It didn't matter how beautiful a drawing was in its initial stage, the real test was when it was copied and printed in whatever medium you were using. Working on the dittomasters required a very simply linear style. You could be a bit more clever with the line for the photo-offset jobs, but you quickly learned that those delicate fine lines that look so pretty on the original are quickly lost in this process; and too often cross-hatching would just turn to a blot.

(This and below are a couple of the covers for my Avalon sketchbooks.)

The other edge that working in fanzines at that time brought me was being able to network with people who would be my future competition and employers. At the age of 16 I was already introduced to most of the people that I would work for and with when I was ready to begin a career in comics 8 years later. I was corresponding with the likes of Joe Kubert and Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Alan Weiss, Al Milgrom, Jim Starlin and so many others whowere part of my fanzine circle, and those contacts would be invaluable later on.

And the competition! The professionals who drew the books were in their own unapproachable universe; at best I could strive to do my own poor imitations of their work. But with fanzines I was suddenly seeing what other amateur artists were doing and it was the spur I needed to start dramatically improving my own work. With the occasional homemade comic stories I was doing, I was laying out the pages with more care, using a lettering guide, and inking them with a pen and brush and even coloring them with ink washes. Both Ronn Foss and Grass Green were great mentors with helpful hints, passing on invaluable information to me; they would send me issues of their homemade comics to study. I was in heaven.

At the same time I was doing Masquerader I was also keeping a monthly "sketchbook" that I called Avalon (after the street that I lived on.) It was composed of story ideas, character designs. pinups and rough layouts of stories. I always had a part-time job during high school and got excellent grades; I really don't know where I found the time for all this. But then, I wasn't going out on a lot of dates. Apparently this schedule finally got to me in college when I became obsessed with playing basketball. Most of my drawing and fanzine work dropped  dramatically in priority during this time. It was only after I was teaching school that I seriously sprained an ankle that kept me off the basketball court all summer; I rediscovered drawing and comics again, quit my teaching job and have never looked back. However, I still am obsessed with basketball.

(That was then)
(This is now)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Vokson-Comics Made by Kids

 (One of my first comic characters:the evil villain Sahib X.)
When I was a kid I always had stacks of comics to read. They were all types: funny animal, western, horror, Archie, Batman and Superman and my personal favorites, Classics Illustrated. I was probably the only kid on the block who didn't have TV, so along with the occasional Friday night movie, they were my source of visual entertainment. While I was also a fan of the Sunday funnies, they were always vignettes that left me waiting, while the comicbooks were complete stories.

(Another famous villain that fascinated me, and still does, Dr. Fu Manchu.)

From the time I learned to read, I wanted to become a writer.. My earliest creation was something called the XX Patrol. In those days we had these oversized winter coats that were belted, and the buckle was two interlocking X pieces- so as soon as I donned my uniform and clasped that belt together I was an officer in the XX Patrol. My stories were more a way to create a doorway to my fantasy life than anything else; I wasn't interested in having anyone else read them.In fact I can remember being furious when my older brother found one of my stories and read it out loud to the family. His motivation in this was probably just sibling harrassment ;my family was impressed, but I was certainly outraged and mortified.

(Fred Jackson III from a newspaper photo a couple of years back.)

When I was in sixth grade I met Fred Jackson, who astounded me by showing me the homemade comics he had created. I liked to draw a bit, but it had never occurred to me to put words and pictures together in my own comics. Fred was definitely management material. We soon had our own company, Vokson, and a number of titles that we created and traded back and forth to read. Fred's Cool Calm and Crazy and my Dumb Drastic Demorilizer were both Mad parodies. His action stories were Smollett Jones (using the Sherlock Holmes "o-e" homage) and Jetman (with the son of Fu Manchu) and mine was The Purple Plum (a beatnik  expresso house -the concept was Maynard Krebbs  meets 77 Sunset Strip) .Another title wasVokson Presents, where I did pastiches of my favorite books- one I remember clearly was The Cursed: Sherlock Holmes,Van Helsing and Nayland Smith team up against Dr. Fu Manchu who has created a super-villains group of the Wolfman, the Mummy and Dracula. Wait a minute...was I anticipating the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?
(If only I'd sent this comic to Hollywood sooner!)
For the comics we usually took a piece of typewriter paper and folded it in half, and drew and both sides, giving us four pages for each sheet. The stories were drawn in pencil. We'd either cut the sheets in half and staple them together, or open up the stapler and lay it flat to put two staples in the center of the page. My innovation was adding a construction paper cover to a lot of the books, and using different color ballpoint pens for some of the work. Fred's work was infinitely more advanced than mine. I used to call them my 2-minute comics....meaning I tried not to spend more than two minutes on any page. I was far more interested in story and continuity than in drawing pretty pictures. On a side note I still use the same approach when I'm working on comic stories to this day: I use a sheet a typewriter paper, divide it in half and lay out two pages on each sheet. However these days I don't try to draw on both sides of the paper...and now my deadline is 3-4 minutes a page.

(One of my favorite movies was George Pal's The Time Machine . I did my own sequel.)
 (Fred wound up drawing the big battle panel on the left hand page. I couldn't handle
that many figures in a frame.)

Looking back on those comics I found that what I was really experimenting with was continuity. I knew so little about drawing that I rarely attempted to make an interesting picture or illustration  in any frame. What I was beginning to understand was what I should show in each frame and how it was connected to the preceding and following one. I was discovering how to "write" with pictures. And I found that telling stories with pictures was a lot more attractive to me that just using words.

(Mary Roberts Rhinehart villain, The Bat soon found his way into my beatnik comic.)
( When you look at these early drawings, you realize that if there was hope
for this kid, there's hope for anyone in the field of art.)

Fred and I worked together on Vokson during the 7th and 8th grades. Somewhere along the line I started to abandon my two-minute deadline and actually started to improve the drawing. I was starting to pay more attention to what my favorite cartoonists were doing in the comics world and emulating them. Joe Kubert and Leonard Starr were my two main inspirations so I was looking a lot at what they did. My favorite comics were the ACG line, which published a lot of mystery type books and most of there artists had realistic styles.  At some point I stopped trying to turn out "issues" and instead was trying shorter stories where I put a lot more work into the drawing of each page, often inking the drawings with a ballpoint pen in and adding some colored pencil to them.

 (I loved Jack Kirby's Fighting American strip when I saw it. It was just so FUN!)

Without Fred's friendship and common interest in the creation of comics I'm sure I never would have followed the path that led me to making a living as an illustrator. For that I'll always be grateful to him. While Vokson hasn't published anything new in the past 50 years, Fred and I still keep in touch. Fred continued to do cartoons, and for years sold his gag strips to magazines. Coincidentally, Fred's current passion is creating crossword puzzles, and one of his clients is the LA Times, a puzzle that I work on every morning.

 (Proof of the debilitating nature of cartooning. On the left, me at 13 when I just
started drawing comics. On the right three years later.)

With the onset of what's called "The Silver Age" of comics, a Detroit area university professor named Jerry Bails, had a letter in one of the DC comics telling of an amateur publication he had created called Alter-Ego. Now there was direct link between the people who created comics and the fans who read them. I was a freshman in high school and I can remember getting copies of Alter Ego and On the Drawing Board, a newsletter about comic book news; a whole new world opened for me.

Once I entered the world of fanzines, I learned about editing...and that started with my own work. With my homemade comics I never changed a thing...and rarely used an eraser. . What I understood from the beginning with publishing a fanzine was that whatever I produced was going to be seen and commented on by the public. I didn't want to embarrass myself with my work.

 Thursday: Jumping from homemade comics to fanzines! Be there!