Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

John Buscema Interview

Interviewed & © by Jon B. Cooke

From Jack Kirby Collector #18

John Buscema took over Thor after Jack left Marvel;
here are Jack's pencils from Journey Into Mystery #112.

(John Buscema came to join the Marvel Age of Comics in 1966, first working on Nick Fury and the Hulk. His exceptional artistry is fondly recalled on his repeated Avengers runs, Conan, the early Sub-Mariner issues, and the Fantastic Four. His Silver Surfer series is considered by some to be the finest super-hero comics ever to appear from the House of Ideas. John was interviewed via telephone on November 18, 1997.)

THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR: Did you read comics as a kid?

JOHN BUSCEMA: Yes, I think I started around age 12. The first comic I ever saw blew my mind; it was Superman. By 14 or 15 I stopped reading comics. That was back around 1939-41.

TJKC: Do you remember seeing Kirby's work when you were a kid?

BUSCEMA: No. I probably did, but I saw Kirby's stuff, just a bit of it, when I started working for Marvel back in 1948. I saw one or two pages of pencils that he had done, that were laying around the studio there. I was very impressed with the drawing. It was a different style than he had later - very loose.

TJKC: Were you an avid reader of comic strips?

BUSCEMA: I was never really interested in the stories, but I was always interested in the drawings. The three artists I followed were Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and Burne Hogarth. I don't know how many years of Sunday comics pages I saved, but then in 1957, I threw everything away. (laughter) I was angry. Comics were in a bad situation. I couldn't buy a job in those days. I'd worked for Marvel, I worked for Western Printing; I don't know how many different outfits. They all folded; it was like a domino effect. I just got ticked off, and all those strips and anything comic related that I'd saved, I threw out. When I think about it, tears well up in my eyes. (laughter)

TJKC: Did you have aspirations to be a comics artist?

BUSCEMA: No, I never really wanted to. I wanted to be a painter. But who could make a living at that?

TJKC: How'd you get into comics?

BUSCEMA: Funny, I never got anything making the rounds, until I read a "wanted" ad in the New York Times. Timely was looking for cartoonists. That's the first time I met Stan Lee.

TJKC: What was he like?

BUSCEMA: Like he is today, except he had a little more hair, I guess. (laughter) He was a very energetic guy, very personable guy. At the time I thought he was a genius, because I knew nothing about comics. He gave me a staff job, my first job in comics. I worked in a large room with a group of artists: Carl Burgos, Syd Shores, Danny DeCarlo, and Gene Colan were there. Bill Everett worked there too, but he wasn't on staff. There were many others, but I can't recall their names.

We worked on the 14th floor of the Empire State Building. They had half the floor, and there were several rooms. I started in 1948 with crime comics, and I graduated into westerns. We bounced around to whatever was popular at the time.

I worked for Timely for about a year and a half, and that's when they put everybody on freelance. The story I heard is that one day, Martin Goodman opened up a closet and found hundreds of pages piled up that had never been published. These were stories that the editors were unhappy with, and they just tossed them into the closet. So Martin Goodman decided, "No more staff, only freelancers." And we all were put on a freelance basis. I loved it; I was working at home, and I started working for other publishers. I was working for so many different publishers at one time, I had guys working for me. I was just roughing it in, and they were doing the tightening and inking.

I always had in the back of my mind that I was going to get out of comics. And after 48 years, I got out. (laughter) I never really was happy with comics. I think if I were paid enough that I could turn out a page every two or three days, maybe I would've been happy. But I always pushed, turning out as many pages as I could in a day.

Jack Kirby lived it. He breathed it, it was his life. Everything that he did was comics-related. He was constantly thinking of plots, of characters. I had no interest in comics. The only interest I had was how much I can earn, and how fast I can make it. At one time I averaged three to four pages a day. I knew artists who were always having a financial problem; it's a common thing in this business. You've got to have that discipline to get up in the morning, and turn out 'X' amount of pages a day.

TJKC: How did you first meet Jack?

BUSCEMA: Back in 1965 or 1966, I got a call from Marvel. They wanted me to go back. I'll be honest with you, I was afraid, but it was appealing to me because I wouldn't have to commute. I could work at home. It was a tremendous effort for me to make that decision. But I started working for them in 1966, and I met Jack one day in Stan's office. Stan and I were working on a plot and Jack walked in. As far as meeting Jack, I think I can count the times on one hand; just for short periods. I saw him at the convention out in San Diego; we exchanged a few words, pleasantries, whatever. We drove home together once; he lived on Long Island, and Don Heck drove us home. That's about the extent of it; I didn't have that much contact with Jack. Although I would not have been able to survive in comics if not for Jack Kirby. When Stan called me back in 1966, I had one hell of a time trying to get back in the groove. You can do illustration, you can do layouts, but that doesn't mean you can do comics. It's a whole different ball game. Stan gave me a book to do; I think it was the Hulk. I did a pretty bad job - Stan thought I should study Jack's art and books so he gave me a pile of Kirby's comics. Well, everybody was given Jack Kirby books! (laughter) It was the first time I'd seen his work. I started working from them, and that's what saved me.

TJKC: What did you learn from them?

BUSCEMA: The layouts, for cryin' out loud! I copied! Every time I needed a panel, I'd look up at one of his panels and just rearrange it. If you look at some of the early stuff I did - y'know, where Kirby had the explosions with a bunch of guys flying all over the place? I'd swipe them cold! (laughter) Stan was happy. The editors were happy, so I was happy.

TJKC: Did you get a step up in pay when you went into comics?

BUSCEMA: It went up, but not that much. What I was wary of was, how long was this going to last? But Stan was very convincing. He said, "John, things are different today. We're making a big comeback. Things are picking up, we're making tremendous strides."

TJKC: Did you go into the office every week?

BUSCEMA: The first few books I brought in as I did them. After a few months, I'd go in whenever I felt like it. There were times I'd only go in three or four times a year. I mailed. I very rarely went into the city.

TJKC: Did you ever lose anything in the mail?

BUSCEMA: No, but Don Heck did. He lost a job once in the mail, and at that point he decided he would xerox everything.

TJKC: Were you close to Don?

BUSCEMA: Yes. He lived about fifteen minutes away from me. We were pretty close. I made a lot of friends in this business, but some have died and most have retired and moved away.

TJKC: What kind of story conferences did you have with Stan?

BUSCEMA: At the beginning I'd go in and discuss the story, and we would throw ideas back and forth. When Stan became more confident in my ability to do stories, he'd call me up, or I'd call him up and say, "Stan, I'm ready for a plot. What have you got in mind?" The last time I worked with Stan was on the Silver Surfer. After that I started working with Roy Thomas. I worked with a lot of different writers.

TJKC: I understand there was a problem with Silver Surfer #4.

BUSCEMA: Yes. We worked on the plot, Stan and I. I was very, very excited about doing the book. I thought, "This is one job I'm going to get away from the Kirby layouts. I'm going to try something different," which I did. I think it had a different look about it from the previous stuff I'd been doing. People were congratulating me on this particular issue. Stan tore the book to pieces! He started with the first page: "Well, okay, not bad." On and on and on. Every second page he ripped to shreds. "This is not good, this should be done this way..." I walked out of that damn office of his; I didn't know which way was up or down. I was completely demoralized. I walked into John Romita's office; John looked at me and saw that I was very upset. I said, "John, how the hell do you do comics?"

Maybe seven or eight years had gone by; I get a call from Stan one morning. We usually exchanged pleasantries - Stan said something; I think he called me an SOB or something (laughter) - and I said, "What's up, Stan? What'd I do wrong?" He said, "John, do you remember that book we worked on, the Silver Surfer and Thor book?" I remembered it very well. "John, that was the greatest thing you've ever done, the greatest comic ever done, the greatest thing you and I ever turned out!" Well, I thought he was pulling my leg, and I didn't say a word.

Stan says, "Johnny, you still there?" I said, "Stan, are you kidding? Are you serious?" He said, "No John, really, _seriously." Well, I tried to refresh his memory. He said, "I don't remember ever saying anything like that. I don't remember ever telling you that; the book is beautiful, how could I _possibly...?"

Well, I tell this to many, many people. How many guys have been destroyed by an editor - some editor who just _happened to get up on the wrong side of the bed, and does this to some guy who's put everything into his job? I know it happened to Don Heck. I remember Don coming to me and saying, "John, help me. I don't know what the hell to do _anymore."

TJKC: Did you have to redraw it?

BUSCEMA: No! The book was published. But what happened was, in those days, for some reason the Silver Surfer just didn't click. The number one issue sold well, but each succeeding issue lost sales. It just went down, which was probably what was bothering Stan. Many years later, Stan told me at lunch one day, "John, I just didn't know what the hell to do with the damn thing. I didn't know what direction we were going."

TJKC: It's been said that Jack was upset about the Surfer series, because he had his own vision of the character.

BUSCEMA: Yes, I could understand Jack's resentment. This was his thing, his idea, his creation - and it's being taken away from him and given to me.

TJKC: Do you think Jack was treated fairly at Marvel?

BUSCEMA: You know the story better than I do. What I know is secondhand. We all know how Jack was treated. They cut his page rate; you know the story?


BUSCEMA: This is again something told to me; I don't remember by who. Well, Jack Kirby was very fast. Martin Goodman was upset that Jack Kirby was making so much money. He felt, "Kirby's turning out so much work, let's cut his rate." That's when Jack left Marvel and went over to DC. This is the story that was told to me.

I'll never forget when I walked into Stan's office and heard that Jack left. I thought they were going to close up! (laughter) As far as I was concerned, Jack was the backbone of Marvel.

TJKC: Did you have to hustle fast to work on books Jack left behind?

BUSCEMA: I didn't have to work any faster. I was given the Fantastic Four. That was very intimidating, following the best! (laughter) I worked on Thor and Fantastic Four.

TJKC: Did you have any favorite inkers?

BUSCEMA: Frank Giacoia. My brother (Sal) did a fabulous job. Tom Palmer did some absolutely unbelievable stuff on early Avengers. George Klein I was never happy with; he had a very heavy hand.

TJKC: Were you one of your own favorite inkers?

BUSCEMA: Naturally! (laughter) I know exactly what I want. But I never inked that much. I would ink occasionally. If you don't keep doing it, you lose it. I think Joe Kubert is the smartest man in the business. He pencils and inks himself, and nobody can do a better job than Joe.

TJKC: What was it like doing How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way?

BUSCEMA: That came out of the workshop I had. I had invited Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Stan Lee to come up and give a talk. I had about 30 students in my class. Stan was very impressed, and thought that we should do a book together. And we did.

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