|Edited by Jon B. Cooke||Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Darkseid emits his deadly Omega beams in Walter's art for an Overpowers trading card game set. Courtesy of the artist. ©2000 DC Comics.
The Man of Two Gods Recalls His 25+ Years in Comics
Conducted by Jon B. Cooke. Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson
Though Walter Simonson had planned to be a paleontologist-that's a person who studies dinosaurs, folks-as a college student in the 1960s, the Marvel comics of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko changed the would-be scientist's mind and led him to pursue a career as a comic book artist. Frankly-and, no doubt, inconsequentially-Walter is my favorite comics personality, friendly, approachable, generous, funny, and smart. The artist-writer, though facing crunching deadlines with his hellish monthly schedule writing, penciling, and inking Orion for DC (never mind coordinating back-up strips for the title), allowed Ye Ed into his home for two four-hour interview sessions (on July 12th and August 17th), suffered my rummaging through his enormous personal art collection, and even took me out to lunch on both occasions. Gracias, Mr. S., and also many thanks to that other cool cat, Walter's missus, Weezie. The artist copyedited this transcript.
COMIC BOOK ARTIST: If you don't mind, I'm going to gloss over
"Manhunter" a little bit...
CBA: ..but it set your career?
CBA: How many chapters were there?
CBA: As the series progressed, did you start getting feedback?
I know it was Archie's decision, but the final issue, you were getting
the whole book, with Batman and Manhunter teaming-up...
CBA: You said you would do a page in a week, and that was
a 20-page story.
CBA: You get accolades from doing "Manhunter." Did
you start getting work from other companies?
CBA: With the "Marvel Method," artists also had
to write at Marvel.
CBA: Did Jeff Rovin or Larry Leiber contact you?
CBA: With the Neal Adams cover?
CBA: You did one of your best jobs for them!
CBA: And what's the missing job?
CBA: And Archie wrote that?
CBA: But you really liked that job, right?
CBA: Your First Issue Special with Dr. Fate was memorable,
and you went to town on that.
So, when I was doing Doctor Fate, I was trying to develop an alternative way to visualize structured magic. It grew out of my admiration for what Steve had done, of course, and owed a lot to it, but I was searching for a different visual basis. In the end, I came up with the idea of using the ankh as a symbol for Doctor Fate, the Egyptian symbol for life, which seemed appropriate for the character. And I used typography as my structure the way I'd learned at RISD, where we'd extract a letter from a specific typeface, and then play with it, make it a design element. We'd use it as a building block and make circles and spirals, geometric shapes, anything the form suggested. It was really a kind of play and exploration. And you discover negative space and positive space in ways you haven't seen before and can build on. It must have worked out okay because everybody who's drawn Fate since has used the ankh.
CBA: Did you work Marvel style with writer Marty Pasko on
CBA: Was the hope to do a regular series?
CBA: With Metal Men, did you have any affection for the old
CBA: How long did you last on it?
CBA: When did the jump to Marvel kick in?
CBA: Did Doug approach you about the assignment?
CBA: He was a black-&-white editor, right?
CBA: Did you get paid full penciling?
CBA: I thought Rampaging Hulk was very nice work.
CBA: [laughs] Yeah, in the scheme of things. It hearkened
back to the '62 Metal Master era [Incredible Hulk #6]...
CBA: What did you think of Alfredo's inking on it?
CBA: You haven't done Iron Man, have you?
CBA: You did that Iron Man pin-up that harkened back to Gene
CBA: Then you did Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
At the top is Walter's splash for his early '70s version of Star Slammers and, at bottom, his 1980s revise for the Marvel graphic novel. © Walter Simonson.
Charlton first published their song lyric magazines starting in 1935, only adding comics to their line-up by the Autumn of 1945 with the release (under the Children Comics Publishing imprint) of the funny animal title Zoo Funnies #101 (the #101 giving an indication of the odd numbering systems Charlton would use up till the mid-'60s with annoying regularity). Between 1945-50, Charlton published few titles (Zoo, Tim McCoy, Merry Comics, Cowboy Western, Pictorial Love Stories), with the work out-sourced to freelance editor and packager Al Fago (brother of Timely/Marvel editor Vince Fago), who jobbed-out the assignments from his Long Island home.
CBA: Was the Star Slammers graphic novel Archie's idea, as
he was editor of Epic?
CBA: Did you have aspirations for Star Slammers to be a regular,
on-going comics series?
CBA: Did you have an eye on promoting creator-owned properties,
especially when the royalty system kicked in?
CBA: When you first went to DC, like you said, you'd find
in the coffee room, Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta,
just a whole bunch of guys who, by '75-'76, just took off to do their
own things... Bernie went off to do Frankenstein, had really high
aspirations, trying to do truly magnificent creator-owned stuff. You
stayed in the trenches in the Big Two, stayed and worked at it, and
you consistently make the top ten lists of creators...
CBA: Certainly in the generation from the '70s and on up.
Sales of your books have been pretty good, right?
CBA: You were hot with "Manhunter." Certainly there
was a buzz.
Preliminary pencil design of Manhunter by W.S., courtesy of the artist. Art © 2000 W. Simonson. Manhunter © 2000 DC Comics.
CBA: But you went to the cons, right?
CBA: I see your impact as a reader, especially "Manhunter"
and then "Dr. Fate" and some odd things here and there.
You brought a sense of design into super-hero comic books that wasn't
often there before. Obviously, there have always been artists with
a good sense of design-Alex Toth, of course, is the master-but you
brought design into the forefront, happening right then. There seemed
a lot of promise with your work. A quick question about Manhunter:
Do you feel ambivalent now that probably the most recognized character
you co-created was killed off inside of a year after being created?
He came and went so quickly.
Initially drawn as the (ultimately-rejected) cover for First Issue Special #9, Walter decided to paste-on a revised head featuring his cool helmet design. The Book of Fate apparently was a (unpublished?) reprinting of FIS #9. Art © 2000 W. Simonson. Dr. Fate © 2000 DC Comics.
CBA: Did you ever think about doing something creator-owned
CBA: Do you have projects you'd like to get out besides Star
CBA: You're now doing a monthly series with Orion!
CBA: You mentioned Mark Gruenwald offered you the Thor monthly
CBA: Yeah? Just as a writer, or did you draw it?
CBA: Was it full script?
CBA: You were good friends with one of the greatest comics
writers, Archie Goodwin. Did you show him your writing and look for
CBA: You've had an interesting line-up of artists working
on the Orion back-up stories.
CBA: The back-ups make for fun comics. Was a consideration
of yours, "Yes, I can commit to a monthly book, if I assign the
One of my major influences in writing is The Lord of the Rings, I read it when I was in college, and I've read it a few times since. Something I particularly like about it is the sense that there was a world out beyond the reader's immediate vision; you're sitting in the middle of a large woven carpet, and right where you are, all the skeins came together, and they make a thick, tight weave, but the further away they get from you, the looser the weave becomes until the threads run over the horizon. You can't see over there, but you know if you could only walk over the horizon, you could follow them to other stories. I thought that was a wonderful method of construction, especially in a fantasy world. Of course, it turned out that Tolkien had written a ton of stuff, a whole history of Middle Earth beyond just the struggle for the Ring, but it really informed the work. That's something I've tried to suggest in the comics I've done: to imply a larger world beyond just the hero I'm writing about, or his adventures. Back-ups help.
CBA: On your second run, you had Beta Ray Bill destroying
the old Thor logo. Were you also making a statement, "I'm going
to do my thing now?"
At the time, the Thor logo was the only logo Marvel had left unchanged from the '60s. Thor had the same logo since the beginning, so breaking that logo was symbolic in the sense of heralding in a new beginning. Alex Jay designed the new logo for me. He designed it, and I kind of art directed it (and that's maybe giving me more credit than I deserve). But I did ask Alex to consider old Uncial lettering. I didn't want to go to runes, because Viking runes are essentially straight lines designed for carving into stone. And Thor's got an "o" in the middle of it. But I wanted to use an archaic typeface as the basis for a logo that would have a modern feel. I think Alex did an absolutely great job on it.
CBA: It's still being used.
CBA: When you were doing Thor there seemed to be elements
of a franchise developing. Obviously it didn't go very far, but you
had the Balder miniseries going, Warriors Three, etc. Did you have
a desire to expand it?
I did the Balder mini-series because of the way the relationship developed naturally between Balder and Karnilla in Thor. There seemed to be enough of an additional story there that it could be told separately. At the time, Marvel was flexible enough, and the business was good enough that I was able to do it. Balder was threaded through the actual Thor storyline. In other words, you could read Balder by itself, but it was partly designed so you'd read an issue of Thor, then you'd read an issue of Balder, then you could go back to Thor, and so on. Balder was in and out of the actual Thor continuity, a logical expansion of the Thor storyline through other characters. In some ways, that's kind of what I'm doing right now with the back-ups threading in and out of my Orion storylines. Some of them, like the birth of Orion that Frank did, are historical vignettes that illuminate current events a little more clearly. Others, like the Lightray story Dave Gibbons did both reveal some of Lightray's character (he left the old woman to die) and examine the question of Orion's parentage a little further. I'm not really trying to create new franchises but rather to create a larger sense of a world that surrounds the comic story, something that's bigger than just what you read in the 22 pages.
When Archie and I did "Manhunter," he worked up a long list of names for the character, including Paul Kirk's. And we went with the old Kirby name partly because it was the old Kirby name, and partly because there didn't seem to be any compelling reason to use anything else. But at the time, it was not because we were planning to go back and reconnect to the old Kirby character in some fashion. I only knew the old character vaguely myself. We didn't really consider forging links to Jack's character until our third issue. And then we began thinking that connecting the histories would be a interesting way to enlarge our character's world. The development was organic, and that's what all of the best stuff is; you give the work room to breathe as you go along and sometimes you get lucky. I read on the web somewhere where a poster was crediting Jack with creating the Manhunter that Archie and I did, because we tied it back into his character. "Well, it's the same character, they just..." Get a grip! I credit Jack for a lot of stuff, but he didn't create the guy we did in the '70s! But we did go back and tie our guy into that work, and that's one of the reasons I like shared universe stuff, those options are available. Those universes are a large place to play, and if you do it right, there're so many possibilities.
CBA: Do you feel a kinship to Jack Kirby?
CBA: But you're always playing in his playground!
CBA: I meant "kinship" in that you guys dig the
same things, and while you're not as prolific, or possess the genius
of Kirby, but do you feel a connection to him that means something
to your life?
Even Fin Fang Foom made it into Walter's Thor run! Here's the artist's pencils for a Foom pin-up in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry. Fin Fang Foom © 2000 Marvel Characters, Inc.
CBA: You said when you were in fifth grade, you first read
Beowulf. Is that the essence of your work in comics? You're a guy
who's interested in mythology working in comics? Super-hero comics
as a mythology?
CBA: A lot of creators-and you've expressed this, too-are
essentially old fanboys who say, "I'd really like to do Iron
Man," for instance, but isn't there a real world aspect to the
conflicts Jack set up in his Fourth World? You say you "get"
Kirby. What is it exactly that you "get"?
But I'm not alone in thinking I "get" the Fourth World. There's been an element of fan reaction to Orion I've found interesting. Most of the reaction has been positive, which pleases me a great deal, but of course, you always react more to the negative stuff. This is the first book I've worked on where I can see some of the readers clearly expressing negative reaction to five issues of Orion based on what I regard as external agendas. These are readers who also think they "get" the Fourth World. There seem to be two general sides to the reaction. There are those who find the New Gods dull/old hat/boring/out-moded (fill in your own pejorative here) so why do them at all (in other words, there's nothing to "get" at this point), and there are those who find my Orion straying too far from what Jack himself did (another way of saying that I don't "get" it). [laughs]
I get e-mail, or see comments in fan-based magazines or websites where people dis the material with "Ah, it's late Kirby after he'd lost it. He was burned out!" etc. I haven't worked on any comics before, I think, where there was an actual contingent of the fan audience that felt that way about the material to start with. There's a website of one writer where some fan was grousing, "How can a grown man [me] even be doing the Newsboy Legion? Rahr rahr rahr!" The post was a tad more profane than that, because the poster was obviously too "cool" but it was funny! The answer is easy: Clearly, I'm not hip enough for this guy to be reading my stuff. He's probably already figured that out. But I haven't worked on material before where I've seen quite that sort of reaction. It's a pretty small segment of the audience, but it's vocal. Maybe that's one of the blessings of the internet. Of course, those readers are just wrong. [laughter]
On the other hand, what other 30-year-old characters do you know where anybody goes back and says, is this what the creator of these characters intended? I regard that is a fabulous tribute to the personal nature of Jack's Fourth World vision, but it does suggest a straight-jacketed approach to the material that I have no intention of taking. Interestingly, I've caught a little flak (very little) for once again trotting out a Darkseid/Orion fight. Once again? In the last 30 years, they've only really fought maybe three times. And never in Jack's work. How many times has Dr. Doom faced off against the FF? Just in the past five years let alone? So here's a reaction to the events in the story, based on a flawed perception of their past, that's not borne out by the actual comics. Somebody else wasn't happy with the fight because he thought it didn't live up to 30 years of waiting for it to happen. I don't think anything could be worth 30 years of waiting! The past is so important to these readers, it acts as a lens through which the current comic book is seen in a way I can't help but feel is unrealistic. And I plan to fiddle around with a lot of Jack's stuff as I go along. Fortunately, most of the readers I hear from seem to be following what I'm doing without difficulty and enjoying it. A lot.
If you ask fans familiar with the original Kirby material who their favorite character in the Fourth World is, one of the most frequent answers is Scott Free, Mister Miracle. I find that really interesting. I liked Scott and his comic book a lot, especially the early issues, with Scott and his duels with Granny Goodness and Doctor Bedlam, etc. At the same time, I find Scott Free one of the least interesting heroes in Jack's Fourth World. Part of the problem is, he's tremendously well adjusted. He's so likable. Here's a guy, the son of Heaven, who lost his birthright, was brought up in Hell, escapes, and he's a really normal, pleasant fellow. Here's Orion, the son of Hell, raised in Heaven, he's really screwed up! [laughter] It's one of the other themes that Jack worked on, nature versus nurture. Scott Free lost his seat in Heaven, and somehow, that didn't seem to bother him! He's the most centered guy in the Fourth World, which makes him very likable, but for me, not very interesting to write.
CBA: No conflict?
Going back to the idea of the Anti-Life Equation as a comic book version of Fascism, it seems clear that Nazi Germany represented a very important element in Jack's vision of evil. When Jack drew bad guys in troop formation, they're goose-stepping. And while I'm not necessarily modeling my vision of evil after Nazis specifically, I'm keeping the theme of evil in mind. An old truth. You could say I'm using it in a story about evil's effect on the individual, in this case, Orion. I'm doing one book a month instead of four bi-monthly titles as Jack was so I'm necessarily running on a somewhat smaller scale than Jack. I'm trying to make the book-for me, anyway-more personal, and more tightly focused on what's happening with this one character. In that sense, I'm not trying to repeat Jack's specific formula for events and characterization; I am trying to capture his broader intentions. Which is, I hope, what will make Orion work without making it seem like reading Jack Kirby redux. Partly I'm working on a tale of corruption, partly on a tale of redemption, partly on a tale of abstractions that become real, and what happens when they do. It's challenging.
Walter penciled and inked this double-page spread for an anticipated Thor storyline featuring a war between the Frost Giants and the gods, but the artist left the series before the story's realization. This piece was featured in a Marvel Age Annual. Thor & Co. © 2000 Marvel Characters, Inc.
CBA: So you're obviously thinking of bigger themes in the
book. There's entertainment and there's art. Entertainment might be
defined as to provoke a response from an audience, and art is to seek
the truth. Do you see a responsibility you have in being in an entertainment
medium to reveal?
Essentially, what I'm trying to do is: I'm trying to tell stories that have a degree of truth in them. Mostly old truths. Whether it's light entertainment or heavy, I'm trying to tell stories I think will be interesting, wherever that may take me. I don't want to paralyze myself trying to decide if I should be creating Art with a capital "A" this week. I'm just trying to tell stories that I would've enjoyed reading, stories that speak to me. The idea is, hopefully, because they speak to me, they will speak to others. A metaphor I've used in the past a lot is-it's like telling a joke. If I hear a joke, and I don't think it's funny, I'm not going to tell it to you in the hope that you might find it amusing. If I hear a joke and I think it's a riot, I'll pass it on. In that sense, it's the old idea of the Greek philosopher, Protagoras, "man is the measure of all things." I'm the measure of the stories I tell. The idea is that if I can tell stories I feel have some validity, then they may find an audience who will be touched by them because they'll strike a chord or a resonance within the reader. I don't think in terms of the larger issues of Art and Truth and so on, mostly because I'm not convinced you can think about that stuff, and then go out and do it, at least not without a very large B.S. quotient. You have to work on the human scale; Art and Truth get decided on later.
CBA: It's said, "God is in the details." You certainly
have facility as a comic book artist who's worked in the field over
25 years. You certainly have the talent to do, I believe, effective
comic book stories, and yet you're working in the medium of super-heroes.
You said you don't want to go there-into defining what you do as art-but
I don't know how to describe it, really, in words. I might say that I work in comics because when I'm done, if I get it right, I find a deep satisfaction in the accomplishment. I probably can't get any closer to what I do than that. When I'm done with the drawing, it rarely achieves what I saw in my mind before I laid the page out. There are two artists, Kirby and Bernie Wrightson, who I've seen draw, and they gave the impression that the drawing was already in their heads, that it was projected through their eyes onto the paper, and then they just traced it out. I don't think it was really like that but it sure looked convincing. I can't do that. When I start off, it's like sculpting, I'm facing a blank sheet of paper and I know there's a drawing in there somewhere, but I have to find it. I send a lot of lines flying out across that page, and I dig the drawing out of the paper, and eventually it emerges. Most of the time, the drawing as I realize it doesn't quite match that Platonic ideal I had in my head before I began. But it'll be close, and the closer I can get, the better I like it. Mostly, what I'm after is the satisfaction of knowing that I've done the best work I can do. I don't have any jobs in my past that I regret doing; I don't have any jobs where I felt I did less than my best work at the time. I've got some jobs I'm not lobbying to see reprinted, especially some early material, but I'm not embarrassed to see them again. I know what I put into them back then.
One of the things about comic books, the problems always come around again. You solve some problem this week, if you don't solve it quite right, a week from now, a month or a year from now, you'll have to solve the same problem again. You get the chance to do it over, and you'll do it better the next time. In the early days, when you're young, your work improves by leaps and bounds very rapidly. I visualize it as a graph with an X/Y axis. The curve of your improvement goes shooting up towards the X axis-perfection-and then begins to flatten out. The closer it gets, the flatter it gets, but you're improving incrementally toward infinity as you get older. Mostly as you get older, you don't make those giant leaps you did in your youth, although some people do. In the beginning of my career, I saw all the drawings I did, the individual panels, as unique. Each one a singular piece of drawing. A woman riding a horse, a guy clocking Batman, the sunset on a jungle. Now that I've been doing this for a long time, I see all the work I've done as one big drawing, I don't see it in pieces any more, even if it's different books. I compose it in pieces, I put the fragments together, but now, in a sense, I have an enlarged vision, where I really see everything as a whole. I love the act of drawing itself, and perhaps my real ambition is to see this one long drawing continue to improve, so that by the time I'm done, the work at the end is going to be a lot better than the work at the beginning.
I don't talk about Art with a capital "A," I don't talk much about art with a small "a" either. Here's one reason why. Bach died in 1750. Nowadays, Bach is top of the pops so to speak, but when he died, he was out of fashion. He had four sons who survived him, all composers, and they were popular. They were doing light, fluffy stuff that sounds pretty good, but it wasn't the kind of work their dad was doing. So, for nearly 100 years, nobody cared about Bach, one of the greatest composers in Western music. Something like a third of his output was lost. I think it was Mendelssohn in the 1800s who rediscovered Bach's compositions and said, "Who is this guy?", began digging out his work, and Bach was re-discovered. But if somebody like Mendelssohn hadn't come along, or if more of his work had been thrown away, one of the greatest composers we've got would remain unappreciated, probably remembered as an old-style, old-fashioned kind of guy. Who knew?
That's sort of my take on where Art is at. I think when we're looking at it in the here and now, there's just too much clutter everywhere all the time, and it's very difficult to sort the stuff out meaningfully. Certainly, there are a zillion critics on the web, and there're a zillion magazines, all screaming at us about what's good and what isn't; eventually a lot of that stuff will settle out. I'm sure there'll be a lot of good stuff that'll disappear; nobody who'll say, "Gee, who is this guy?" But I don't think it's really given to most of us to see that clearly, and a great deal of modern Art, practically speaking, is promotion. I'm not much for promotion. What I'm interested in is doing better comics. I want the comics I do this week to be better than the comics I did last week. Now, in a week's time, it's not going to change much, but I'd like the comics I do now to be better than the comics I did 10 or 20 years ago.
Some of my audience won't follow along. There are a number of fans who think that "Manhunter" was my best work. I have no problem with that. I'm proud of the work and for a certain segment of the audience, that'll always be the best stuff I ever did. I'm pleased that they like it so well. There another segment of the audience who thinks the X-Titans book was the best thing I ever did, some folks who think Thor was the best... I feel that as long as I can keep finding a segment of the audience who feel what I'm doing now is the best thing I've done, then I'm okay. [laughs] If I reach a point where it's always, "Your old stuff was better"-which anybody who's done comics more than five minutes has heard-then maybe I'll be in trouble. Or maybe I'll just be really far ahead of the curve!
CBA: What do you perceive is your best work?
CBA: I have to confess, with the recent Manhunter book, I
was really touched by the new story you did, probably because I really
liked the original "Manhunter" series so much, and because
of the poignancy that Archie is gone now, and he was very easy to
love... as a comics reader, not ever personally knowing him-and I
never met him face to face-he was very easy to love, because there
was a kindness about him. What was touching was there are no words
in the new story. Whose idea was that?
As far as that last "Manhunter" story goes , it's wordless because Archie didn't write a script, it was as simple as that. We were going to do that story Marvel style, which was to say, Archie had the idea for the plot, and we threshed it out in detail in his office one day. And it wasn't all fixed. The last scene, for example, which takes place on the bridge, was still up in the air. We hadn't decided if it would be on a bridge or in a railroad yard. We thought a railroad yard at the edge of Gotham might be a good place for the scene. In the end, I drew the bridge. It seemed a stronger visual border for the city limits of Gotham. But while bits of the plot were still flexible at the time I left his office, we had the main points nailed down. The idea was that I would do layouts-it was going to be an eight-page chapter as most of the chapters in "Manhunter" were-and it would be a prologue to reading the original series in a trade paperback reprint. Well, I was working on the Michael Moorcock Multiverse right then, and that was taking up most of my time, so I got some cover sketches done and gathered some reference material together, but I didn't get the layouts done and Archie died before I did. I just had the plot in a page-and-a-half of notes I'd scribbled, a few doodles, that was about it. And I thought that was going to be the end of it. Then, a couple of months after he died, Weezie and I were talking about the story one day. I had the notes sitting on my drawing board where they'd been for a year, and Weezie wondered if maybe I could do it as a silent story. Although I'd written a lot of comics, I always felt that "Manhunter" was the combination of Archie and me. I wouldn't have written him but I thought a silent story might be possible. So I talked with Denny O'Neil, the editor, and in the end, worked out a 23-page story that covered the plot Archie and I had developed. However, once there were no words, Denny's feeling-and I agreed with him-was that a story without words could no longer work as a prologue. I was sorry to move it, because I wanted to be as true to Archie's intentions as I could, but I felt Denny was right, you wouldn't know who these guys were, and it made a better epilog at that point. So, we moved it to its proper position chronologically.
I had told DC when I began working on it that it would take longer than eight pages to do without words, and they said if I could do it, they would print it. It was very unusual for me not knowing how many pages are going to be in the job. I work to a 22-page comic, or a 10-page back-up, some specific format. So here, it was hard, especially in the beginning. I must've relaid the first eight pages out about eight or nine times, changing stuff, doing this, moving that. I had no sense of pacing, because I wasn't sure what I was working against, and I found that difficult. Eventually, once I got past page eight, it began to pace itself out naturally, I could really see where I was going, and it worked out very well. DC was still game to publish it in that length. Archie, before he had died, had talked to Klaus about coloring it, because Klaus had colored the '83 Baxter reprint, and he did a beautiful job on this last story. I did my own sound effects again, because in the original "Manhunter," I was drawing all my own at that time, and I felt that would harken back to the past visually. I tried to capture whatever I could of the original series, even though I draw somewhat differently now. It was interesting to go back and rethink my proportions and layouts, and still do it as a silent story. It was challenging, and it was a hard story to do, emotionally it was tough. It took me several months to do. I didn't make a lot of money that year! [laughs] Fortunately, my wife had a job, so I could afford to take the time I needed to finish that story.
CBA: Do you miss Archie?
CBA: Were you ambitious to take on Thor?
It's funny. Back with I was doing Thor and for years thereafter, the two stories that got the most mention among fans when I was at conventions were either Beta Ray Bill or turning Thor into a frog. Now, 15 years later, I still hear about Bill once in a while, but the frog story's the one that gets mentioned the most. At the time, I didn't get a lot of negative letters from fans, but I got a lot of ambivalent letters from readers who weren't quite sure if I was making a joke or not. "Was this supposed to be funny? How do we take this story?" I thought that was funny in and of itself. That story was several things. It was a salute to Carl Barks. It was meant to be an interesting story on its own. It furthered my continuing story of Loki's machinations. And, through the rat-frog war of Central Park, it was partly a parody of my own stuff, those grandly operatic Thor stories where the gods fight their foes while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. I'd had the idea much earlier to do something in that direction. One of the notes in my files was a single line about doing a tip of the hat to Carl Barks. I'm such a huge Carl Barks fan, I didn't have any more idea than that. And then I reached a point in the Thor run where suddenly, I saw that I could do what amounted to a "straight" funny animal story in the context of Thor's struggle with Loki. I thought about changing Thor into a duck to start with, because of Barks of course, but that seemed perhaps a little too absurdist. And upon reflection, I realized that frogs are really tied-in with folk tales. "The Frog Prince" and all that. So off I went. And I mixed in the old New York urban legend of alligators in the sewers and even a little X-Men continuity with the Piper.
I did a lot of work in my run on Thor, such as the "Malekith the Accursed" story, that had some basis in and inspiration from Celtic fairy and folk tales. I read quite a bit when I was doing Thor-not only in Norse mythology, but about the Celtic fairy-faith and a lot of northern European folk stories, out of Britain, Scandinavia, Northern Europe. Great stuff and it was strongly related to the kind of feeling I wanted to give the book.
One of the things I really got from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Marvel comics, and also the early Ditko Strange stories, was that you could do almost anything in a super-hero comic, as long as you kept a straight face. I was not a big fan of the old Batman TV series, partly because my feeling is that it was inviting you to laugh at the material for its stupidity, rather than sharing the joke with you. It's essentially a condescension to the material, inviting the viewer to think, "Well, we're all really much brighter than this, isn't this stupid? How amusing." That might be good for one laugh, but then you're done; you get the joke, so what's the point? Whereas in the super-hero stuff I liked, you can do the most absurd things, and if you keep a straight face, you and the audience can share the joke, but you're also still inside the story. As a storyteller, my interest is in sucking you in on page one, and spitting you out on page 22, and I really try not to do anything that will kick you out of the story somewhere in the middle. That being said, I also don't mind asking the reader to work a little.
For example, I've occasionally done some layouts where the reader has to work some to follow what I'm doing. I did a Doctor Doom/Reed Richards time fight in FF #352 where the reader has to read the comic twice, once in sequence by page number, and once in a sequence jumping backwards and forwards through the comic. It's one of the comics I'm most proud of, actually. The reader has to flip back and forth through the comic, because Doom and Reed were jumping around fighting through time, and I laid the book out in a way that made the reader jump around through the comic in order to follow their fight. Essentially, the page layout created a physical metaphor for their time duel.
CBA contributor and Ye Ed's pal Lancelot Falk has the most exquisite set of sketchbooks you could ever imagine-gorgeous full-color spreads rendered by the greatest names in comics. Sigh. Here's hoping someday TwoMorrows gets rich and we can print them up proper! Courtesy of the artist, here's Walter's "star-slammin'" contribution to Lance's dream books. © Walter Simonson.
CBA: Where did the design of Beta Ray Bill come from?
One of the symbols we use in mainstream super-hero comics, of course, is appearance. Good guys are handsome, bad guys are ugly. It's not always true, but it's generally true-the same way you can often tell the good girls and the bad girls by the kinds of clothes they're wearing. So, when I began doing Thor, I wanted to tell stories that didn't feel like they were the stories we read a lot of times. That's generally my aim with stories: start off with the known, and then go somewhere unfamiliar, where you don't know what's going to happen to the characters. It shouldn't feel like Galactus coming back to Earth for the 334th time. Who cares? If he does comes back, it better be for something different, something new.
It occurred to me when I began my run on Thor as a writer that nobody had ever really picked up Thor's hammer. The rule of the hammer is, "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." That's the rule. Now, Stan and Jack forgot that once, had Loki pick up the hammer when he had a little extra Norn enchantment on him, but I ignored that as merely a goof. I'm not a berserko continuity fanatic. Essentially, only Odin and Thor had held the hammer, and I thought that'd be a good place to start a story that was unfamiliar. I didn't want to dig up some old character in the Marvel universe and discover, "Oh, look, gee after all these years-wow!-The Purple Windshield Wiper can lift Thor's hammer! What a surprise!" I thought it would be cooler and more convincing to start with a new guy we'd never seen before, and he'd hold the hammer. Now, one of the things you want to do when you're writing is misdirect your reader; not cheat, but misdirect. Which means you give them all the information, the ground rules, and you still surprise them. In the case of Bill, I wanted to create a character who would pick up the hammer. That means-by the rules-he has to be worthy. So I worked out a background for him where Bill was worthy, self-sacrificing, all that stuff. But I also thought, "I don't want to have this guy pick up the hammer and readers go, 'Oh, he picked up the hammer; big deal.'" So I made him look like a monster, because we tend to think of monsters as being bad guys. In the end, I chose a horse's skull as the basis for his face because horses are such beautiful creatures. It's the skull beneath the skin, the image of the monster lying right beneath beauty and yet, it's the structure of beauty itself. By using that head, I hoped to give a double-meaning to Bill's face, the underlying beauty of the horse, the skeletal framework of the monster. But you see the monster first. Then, I gave him a variation of Thor's costume because comics are a visual medium-and I've seen this endlessly debated since-the idea is when he gets the hammer, he gets the power of Thor. The power of Thor, of course, means you can throw lightning around and beat things up with the hammer, but the visual realization of that is the costume, he gets new threads that are a variation of Thor.
CBA: A symbol!
I invented the name Beta Ray Bill, for which I've been both praised and castigated, because pulp science-fiction was an inspiration. One of the things I love about pulp SF is that guys travel to far distant planets, aliens start talking to them, they flip the switch on their universal translator, and everybody's suddenly comprehensible. "Oh, hello there! How nice to meet you!" Probably speaking with a British accent, "Care for a spot of tea?" So my feeling is that the name "Beta Ray Bill" was the closest the universal translating machine could get to whatever his real name was. I made it alliterative because translating machines have simple joys and so do I. I chose the name Bill because it's a common name; my intent was that though Bill would be very uncommon, even among his own people, he was also a symbol of Everyman in his own race. Originally, I'd thought of calling him Beta Ray Jones, because of Jones' commonality as a name, and my feeling that the translator machine was working that angle. However, by the time I was writing the book, Marvel was publishing Indiana Jones, they had Rick Jones as a fictional character, they had Louise Jones as an editor [laughter]... seemed like there were a lot of Jones's running around, so I decided not to use the name and went with "Bill." And I wanted some slightly SF sense to the name as well, hence "Beta Ray." Beta rays are electrons, fairly weak, as I recall. I would've used gamma rays, but of course, those were already taken in the Marvel universe. In the end, the alliteration cinched it.
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