|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and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Commission piece. Courtesy of the artist. Dr. Strange, Howard ©1999
Marvel Characters, Inc.
Of Doctors and Ducks
Interview with Artist Frank Brunner on His Marvel Days
Conducted by Jon B. Cooke
From Comic Book Artist #6
Frank Brunner was almost immediately a fan-favorite artist when he came into his own as artist on "Dr. Strange" in the early '70s, joining the ranks of Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Barry Windsor-Smith as a top artist on the Master of Mystic Arts. After a relatively short stay at Marvel, Frank went on to do distinguished work in animation design (notably on the X-Men cartoon series). He was interviewed by phone on July 22, 1999 and the artist copy-edited the transcript.
Comic Book Artist: What was your first experience at Marvel?
Frank Brunner: I took a staff job at Marvel for a while, and that went for six months or so. They hired me to do whatever needed doing and they told me I couldn't draw well enough to have my own strip at that time. So they had me doing redraws and minor corrections on the art. I never understood that! I'm not good enough to draw, but, "Here, can you fix this Barry Smith drawing?"
CBA: Did you work directly for Frank Giacoia or John Romita?
Frank: I worked directly for Sol Brodsky in production. I was in the same room with John, Marie, and Herb Trimpe.
CBA: How would your characterize your job as an "art corrector?"
Frank: Well, that wasn't the only thing I did, they also had me doing whatever somebody else couldn't handle, kind of like a "Man Friday." On Tuesdays, they had "portfolio day" at the office, nobody else wanted to do it, so they always sent me out there to look at the kids' portfolios.
CBA: What was the quality of the art that you saw?
Frank: About what 14-year-olds could do when they attempt to draw comics, basically not looking at real human figures, just taking what they saw in the comics and butchering it! I would tell them, "Well, get yourself an anatomy book, if you don't have the money to go to the Art Students League where they have models. Get anatomy books by Loomis or George Bridgman."
CBA: How'd you adapt to the Marvel "style"?
Frank: That was the best part of it. I had a synopsis to work with, and I could pace the story on my own, whereas at DC there was a script, it felt like a prison, because they'd map out every panel. It was very tight descriptions of what was going on—"A guy walks into the office from the editor's point of view"—blah-blah-blah—that was too restrictive.
CBA: Do you think that you received adequate credit as a co-creator?
Frank: No. In fact, I just had a fight with Marvel about that on a reprint of Howard the Duck #1. I co-wrote that story. They wouldn't give me that credit. They labeled me the "co-plotter," because otherwise, Steve Gerber would've had to share the writing money, which I really had no interest in fighting over. So I decided, "Look, it doesn't matter, as long as we get a good story," but when they reprinted it recently, I said, "Well, I should get half of the royalty on the writing," and I went back and forth with them, I sent them copies of the original pages, all the border notes—half of which is dialogue that wound up in the story—and they still said, "Well, we can't pay you."
CBA: So, it's still remains a sticking point to some degree?
Frank: Yeah, well, I mean, there's nothing to be done about it. I was co-writer with Gerber (as well as Englehart), and that's the way it goes. I was happy with the way the stories came out.
CBA: So, you did some short stories, as I recall, for Chamber of Chills?
Frank: That was my first sold work for Marvel—three stories for Chamber of Chills.
CBA: And what was your first regular series?
Frank: It was "Dr. Strange." Roy Thomas was editor at that time. When Stan was editor, you'd show him artwork, and if it didn't look like Jack Kirby's, he'd say, "I don't know what to say about it," so he'd give you no decision. Then Sol Brodsky would say, "Well, it just isn't the right Marvel style." But by the time Roy came in, the "Marvel style" was not so ultra-important, and it wasn't so restrictive to just Jack's or Steve Ditko's styles. So, Roy called me up—he'd seen my Warren work—and he said, "Hey, you do great monsters, we're doing 'Dr. Strange' with a Lovecraft motif, where he's battling various monsters. Would you like to do the book?" I said, "Sure." I was actually delighted! I did an issue of Marvel Premiere, #4. I was finishing off a story that Barry Windsor-Smith had started. Smith got sick or something, and basically he did the first five pages, and I was sticking to his layouts, and completed that book, penciled and inks. Archie Goodwin wrote it. Next thing I know, I'm already late for the next book! I had only two weeks to do that. Archie had left, and Gardner Fox was the writer, he sent me a script, and I read it, and I said, "I'm not going to kill myself for this script!" Gardner was not working Marvel style, he was working DC style, and the story was dull!
CBA: Full scripts?
Frank: It wasn't just that it was full scripts; I just didn't like the story, the way he was handling Dr. Strange. It wasn't "cosmic." It was like Dr. Strange was a detective who had magical powers.
CBA: Were you interested into taking Dr. Strange into more H.P. Lovecraft kind of territory?
Frank: Not really. As much as I like Lovecraft, I didn't think that was ultimately what we wanted to do with him. I skipped #5, I did #6 with Fox because I guess I figured maybe something would happen. I don't know. That story wound up being inked by Sal Buscema in a week, or something like that. Then, I quit again, and they had a couple of fill-in artists. Roy came back to me and said, "Hey, who would you like to work with?" I had just met Steve Englehart, and we had talked about where Dr. Strange should be going, and Steve could understand the future I was conceiving for Dr. Strange, and he was into it, so I told Roy I'd like to work on it with Englehart, and from Marvel Premiere #9 on, Steve worked on "Dr. Strange" with me.
CBA: It seemed like almost from the word "go" there were no holds barred. You had him meet God! You dealt with some pretty extraordinary questions. Was it, "This is freedom, so let's push the envelope"?
Frank: Well, yeah... like I said, with Roy as editor, there were a lot more things possible. It still was quite restrictive as far as the Code went, but since the book was neither dealing with sex or violence particularly, we thought, "Well, let's take it cosmic, we're going to deal with theology, the meaning of existence, life, death, and God!"
CBA: Did you have a close association with Neal Adams? The "Crusty Bunkers" seemed to help out a lot.
Frank: After Neal did "Deadman," I used to visit him a lot, and he would go over my drawings, and show me how to improve them. It was kind of like a father-son relationship, which was kind of nice. That was in the good old days!
CBA: What did you learn from Neal?
Frank: Idealism, really. He was a very idealistic person. I haven't spoken to Neal in years (we all get old and bitter). Anyway, we—the newer artists from both Marvel and DC would meet on the first Friday of every month (each time at a another location) and generally party! And later we'd perhaps go to an all-night café in New York. We'd be sitting there and Neal would say something like, "You're supposed to be artists, so look at everything with an artist's eyes. Observe the world around you, even, say, a telephone—how is it shaped, what is unique about the cord? Look at the trees and people—especially people; they're all different!" Neal made me more observant of the environment and everything, so when I was drawing, I'd have a better idea of what I was drawing.
CBA: With "Dr. Strange," did you lobby to do the character?
Frank: Oh, he was my first choice. I don't know if I told Roy that I really wanted to do "Dr. Strange." He sort of read my mind; here was this character who was like a super-hero, but he didn't go around punching people, and that kind of character was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a hero that wasn't predicated on hitting people or throwing things, like Captain America, or someone like that. With Doc, it was done with magic, and that he could basically do anything, anytime, anywhere, yet he was still human with all our weaknesses! I always thought that while your typical super-heroes were battling to save our lives (or us from ourselves), Dr. Strange was in the ultimate battle for our very souls!
CBA: It was the non-violent aspect?
Frank: I guess. Not that it was totally non-violent, of course—he fought monsters and even had to kill his mentor—but compared to the other books, it was not the low-brow physical violence.
CBA: Like Kirby....
Frank: Look, I enjoyed Kirby, don't get me wrong, but I just didn't want to do that! I loved Jack's work, but it's not like I ever wanted to draw like him, or do his kind of stories. Jack was the kindest man in comics I'd ever met—he always had time for young artists. At Marvel, he took me out to lunch a couple of times, he did some basic drawing for me, showed me construction.
CBA: Who did you bond with in those days? Did you spend a lot of time socially with Steve Englehart, for instance?
Frank: Yes, and I spent a lot of time with Alan Weiss. Al and I were pretty good buddies for a long time. I was also friends with Jim Starlin, Steve Skeates, Ralph Reese, and later in California, Steve Leialoha.
CBA: So, overall, how was your feelings about working on "Dr. Strange?" Do you feel you were successful?
Frank: Oh, yeah. It was the high point of my career, because as I said, every book I did I considered to be like a movie unto itself, and I was making a statement somewhere in the story about my philosophy and beliefs.
CBA: Was it on the success of your run in Marvel Premiere with Englehart, that it was spun off into its own series again?
Frank: Absolutely. Well, I don't want to brag or anything, but when we took over the book, it was about to be cancelled. It was in the dumper, and they were selling—I forget. It was abysmal.
CBA: Fantastic by today's standards, I'll bet.
Frank: Oh, well. Comic books were selling tons when they were 15¢ or 20¢! Anyway, like I was saying it was about to be cancelled, and to me, it was like my super-hero job to save "Dr. Strange," as well as my stumbling career. We helped each other a lot, and I feel about "Dr. Strange" like Boris Karloff felt about the Frankenstein Monster; we're forever linked, and we're always lumped together, Doc and me!
CBA: So, what happened with the "Dr. Strange" book?
Frank: Well, we kept asking Roy, "When is Dr. Strange going to get his own book?" We were aware that sales were suddenly going up, and Roy said, "Oh, Marvel Premiere is Dr. Strange's own book." The next thing we knew, about two weeks later, we got a call from Roy, saying, "Guess what? Dr. Strange is getting his own book!" So, what do you know, Marvel Premiere wasn't his book. After the first five issues of Dr. Strange, they wanted to go monthly, but I just wasn't fast enough to draw it and maintain the quality!
CBA: Were you late with deadlines?
Frank: No, I usually made my deadlines, but the point was, there were no good inkers available at Marvel. I had some people volunteer whose names I won't mention, and I ran out screaming, and ran over to Neal and begged him to do a "Crusty Bunkers" job until I could find a regular inker, and it became Dick Giordano, because he was inking on it anyway as a Bunker!
CBA: What did you think of the "Crusty Bunkers" overall?
Frank: Well, it was kind of inconsistent, it was good, better than anybody else could do it, especially when Neal inked it. Neal would go through all the pencils, and he'd pick out all the best panels, and say, "This is mine." And I'd just stand there and say, "Whatever you say...".
CBA: So, what was the genesis of Howard the Duck?
Frank: I was realizing in order to make money in comics at the time—they really didn't care about individual artists unless you were somebody like John Buscema, who had a special deal—but the only way you could make money (it was like we were all interchangeable parts) was to do more books. That was not my "Pollyanna philosophy"; I thought the comic books were becoming a medium, with more mature and adult themes, or at least retaining a college-age audience, because we got most of our letters from college kids. I saved those—amazing letters from people in college about "Dr. Strange," discussing philosophy with me, and so on. So I thought, "Wow, this is it, we're going to break loose of this kid crap medium that you'd throw away after reading it." Unfortunately, mainstream American comics have never really broken through that barrier. Anyway, back to your question... what was your question, anyway?
CBA: I don't know... [laughter] You know, what was very surprising was for a very short period of time, Marvel would reprint "Dr. Strange" in a Treasury Edition—was it the "Silver Dagger" storyline?
Frank: The Treasury Edition reprinted the "Shuma-Gorath" story, from Marvel Premiere #10. And the rest of the book was other artists.
CBA: You did the cover, though.
Frank: I did the front and back covers. That was it; they asked me to do the covers, and I asked, "Who's in the book?" And they told me Ditko was in the book, Marie Severin, Barry Smith, and I said, "Hey, Barry Smith did one 'Dr. Strange' story. You're going to tell me you can't have one story of mine?" So, they relinquished to my request. I guess it was Marvel's policy at that time to only reprint the oldest material.
CBA: Stuff that was at least 24 months old.
Frank: Well... older than that!
CBA: I know....
Frank: The thing was, my story wasn't much newer than the one Barry did, and I said, "If you're going to use that, why don't you have Barry do the cover?" And they said, "No, no, you have to do the cover!"
CBA: So why did you leave Dr. Strange?
Frank: Dr. Strange was going to go monthly, and—I'll tell you the truth, I was out of storylines at that point. I mean, I felt I had done everything I could do, we'd taken him from just a magician to sorcerer supreme and he took the place of The Ancient One, and I didn't have another idea! At that time, I was looking at a "Man-Thing" comic and this duck comes walking out with a cigar, and I said, "That's what I want to do!" Something funny! Evidently, the "Man-Thing" books got a lot of attention; Steve Gerber wrote a short story to appear in the back of Giant-Size Man-Thing #3, and I bumped into him at a cocktail party, and I said, "Hey, I really like the Howard the Duck character, I'm off Dr. Strange, and I'd like to do it." And he said, "Great! It's been sitting on Neal Adams' desk for six months!" Actually, Neal was scheduled to do it originally.
CBA: You became a fan favorite with Dr. Strange, and Roy has mentioned that books sold really well when you did them.
Frank: Well, when Howard the Duck #1 came out, it was the best-selling book Marvel ever had (that wasn't based on a movie). The only other book that sold as good at the time was Star Wars.
CBA: You did the short story in Giant-Size Man-Thing #3....
Frank: (There was never a more obscene title for an overground comic than Giant-Size Man-Thing.) Actually you caught me in a lie; it was supposed to be in Giant-Size Man-Thing #3, but it wound up in #4, and Steve Gerber never forgave me—he wrote a nasty editorial about it, something about "As we were going to press on GSMT #3, we don't have the 'Howard the Duck' story, it's probably sitting on Frank Brunner's sun-drenched drawing board in California."
CBA: Did you have any dealings with Stan?
Frank: When I was on staff? Yeah. Like I said, it was mostly, I'd show him the artwork, and he'd say, "All I know is Jack Kirby." And when I'd bump into Stan in the elevator, he'd say, "How're ya doin', Rich?" (He thought I was Rich Buckler!—and I think he still does!)
CBA: Did you have regular dealings with Roy as editor-in-chief?
Frank: When I was in New York I'd see Roy whenever I came in, and when I was living in California, we made a lot of phone calls. He wanted me to do the Red Sonja book, but I couldn't do it. I told him the reason I'd quit Howard the Duck wasn't that I didn't like it; there were two reasons: Steve Gerber started writing full scripts, DC style, and giving them to me in pieces—in other words, six pages here, six pages there, and I couldn't pace the story! After the sales figures came in for Howard the Duck #1, I called up the font of wisdom, the editors at Marvel—and Roy was gone by this time—it was Marv, and I said, "How about a little raise?" And he said, "Well, we can't give any raises right now, call us back at Christmas time." And I said, "I'll tell you what, I quit. Let me know what the raise is around Christmas time, and maybe I'll come back."
CBA: Was it a fait accompli—did you kind of walk in knowing you'd get that kind of answer?
Frank: I really expected that... we were talking something like three to five bucks a page... I had hopes that after the enormous success of that first issue, that they could spare a small raise in my page rate!
CBA: How did you learn about the success of that first issue?
Frank: We were aware, we had spies who'd tell us. Hell, dealers couldn't keep it in stock!
CBA: During that time, I remember, oddly enough, for such a big-selling issue, it was extremely hard to find. I was in New England, and it was virtually impossible to find, and I'd have to go to conventions, where it'd be $3-5 apiece, or something like that.
Frank: And you know why? I don't know exactly how it happened, but they printed what they thought they could sell, and obviously, it wasn't enough. It was the first Marvel comic that went back to reprint as a first issue—not really a reprint, they just went back to press again and printed more.
CBA: Do you think a lot of the sales had to do with speculators and dealers buying up enormous runs?
Frank: I don't know if that was entirely responsible... I don't think it was quite like Shazam! #1, which was a total speculator thing. I think that the colleges, they were ready for this kind of stuff... I keep running into people who say, "Oh, I remember reading Howard the Duck when I was in college."
CBA: How did you work with Gerber?
Frank: Well, it was something new. I guess the best time I had with him was when we co-wrote #1. I flew into New York City just for that reason—he lived in New York—and I started writing down notes, and we put it together, continuity and page synopsis, I got into a taxicab, and left it in the taxicab! When I got back to my apartment where I was staying with a friend, I immediately called him, and we had to re-create the whole thing over the phone before I went back to California!
CBA: You say Steve suddenly started giving you full scripts?
Frank: For #2, I was delivered a full script in pieces, and full script is one thing, you can at least pace it, but when you get it in pieces, I don't know where to put the big dramatic scenes!
CBA: You had a very public resignation from Marvel, actually...
Frank: A lot of people were saying that I was fired, and I wanted to make it clear what my reasons were for leaving Marvel. And it appeared in the Comics Journal. I had a lot of anger to get rid of.
CBA: Did it work?
CBA: What was the fallout of the article?
Frank: I was probably blacklisted from Marvel, but there was no point to it anyway.
CBA: Did you want to seek—like Gerber eventually did, not too many years later—some ownership of Howard? Howard the Duck was a daily comic strip, was made into a movie, and the comic was quite successful for a period of time. Did that annoy you?
Frank: Well, yeah, I wanted to create my own comic, there was very little opportunity, because companies would say, "Yeah, yeah, sure," and then they'd go out of business. All these places where I thought I might get a start with a character, and then they would fold. I just was a little bit off in my timing, because it was a little too soon for the direct-sales market which later took off.
CBA: Moving back a little, I think in roughly 1974, 1975, Marvel began a policy of returning artwork. The way they divvied it up was— to say the least, it was interesting—delivering the majority of the art to the penciler, then some to the inker, and then I've heard that roughly two pages per story went to the writer. What was your take on that?
Frank: Well, none of the artists liked that. In fact, Jim Starlin went so far as to cut the captions out and send them to the writer in an envelope! I didn't do that, because I didn't want to destroy the artwork.
CBA: How long, as your memory serves, did that last?
Frank: I don't know, because by the time I quit, I stopped being aware of what their policy changes were.
CBA: Didn't you lose some of your art to the writers?
Frank: Yeah, yeah, unless I negotiated with them. I had some arguments with Steve Gerber about it.
CBA: Craig Russell, for instance, said that Don McGregor gave him McGregor's "share."
Frank: Right, a lot of the writers who felt the artists were really breaking their buns doing the best job they could, they felt the artists deserved the artwork, and really, it was a way of subsidizing your income if you could sell the originals—but Gerber was argumentative on it.
CBA: When Roy Thomas was editor-in-chief for a while, it seemed an awful lot of creators enjoyed being under his editorship.
Frank: Roy was terrific. He was a breath of fresh air for Marvel. Stan was getting kind of crotchety, basically. He really wasn't coming up with anything new. When he went around the college circuit speaking, he was asked about Howard the Duck, and he replied, "Howard the who?"
CBA: Is there anything else you wanted to cover about those old days?
Frank: I've got so many stories I could tell you, but most of them are probably irrelevant. I mean, a lot of stuff went down in those days. I'll tell you one story: This is the story of Sise-neg/Genesis. We had just completed Marvel Premiere #14—well, I had just completed the pencils, most of the art, but for some reason or another, nobody took notice of what we were doing. When the book came out, Stan finally got a hold of it, and I don't know, somebody pointed it out, or he read it, and he wrote us a letter saying, "We can't do God. You're going to have to print in the letters column a retraction saying this is not 'the' God, this is just a god." Steve and I said, "Oh, come on! This is the whole point of the story! If we did that retraction of God, this is meaningless!" So, Steve happened to be on his way to Texas for something, this is when we were in California, and we cooked up this plot—we wrote a letter from a Reverend Billingsley in Texas, a fictional person, saying that one of the children in his parish brought him the comic book, and he was astounded and thrilled by it, and he said, "Wow, this is the best comic book I've ever read." And we signed it "Reverend so-and-so, Austin Texas"—and when Steve was in Texas, he mailed the letter so it had the proper postmark. Then, we got a phone call from Roy, and he said, "Hey, about that retraction, I'm going to send you a letter, and instead of the retraction, I want you to print this letter." And it was our letter! We printed our letter!
CBA: True confessions!
Frank: Hey, it worked! We thought, "Wow, this went perfect!" We later found out that Jim Starlin was in New York at that time, up in the Marvel offices, and he was reading the Dr. Strange fan mail, and he was the one who actually saw the letter, believed it was the real thing, and gave it to Roy, who showed it to Stan!
(For the rest of Frank's interview, be sure to order COMIC BOOK ARTIST #6!)
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