Written by Bryan Stroud
John Calnan (born February 1932) was an American comic artist for DC Comics who illustrated titles such as Superman, Metamorpho, and Batman - where he co-created the character Lucius Fox. Calnan got his start in the industry by inking Lone Ranger comics for Dell Publications only a short while after attending the School of Visual Arts (where he was instructed by Jerry Robinson). He also did some work for Classics Illustrated and worked in the field of advertising.
Skilled as both a penciler and an inker, Calnan worked with some of the greats in the industry - including Dick Giordano, Rich Buckler, and Tex Blaisdell.
John retired in 1996, but continued doing side jobs and the occasional commission.
Mr. Calnan passed away on December 27, 2016 at the age of 84.
John Calnan was not as well known as some of his peers, but he did a lot of work, some uncredited, on such features as Metamorpho, Batman and some ghosting on some daily strips. He was a gentleman through and through and I was very saddened when his bride called to tell me he'd passed away. Generous guy that he was, he gifted me with a piece of original art that I treasure. I was also able to incorporate him into a feature for BACK ISSUE before he left us and that was very gratifying.
This interview originally took place over the phone on July 12, 2011.
Bryan Stroud: Mr. Calnan, thanks for taking some time for me.
John Calnan: Please call me John. By the way, how did you get my name?
Stroud: You know, I’m a bit fuzzy, but I stumbled across something online where the rumors of your death had been somewhat exaggerated.
Calnan: That’s right. It was two or three years ago and I got a call from someone saying, “Hey, we’d heard you were supposed to be dead.” He called very nicely and asked my wife, “Can I speak to John?” He was wondering whether I would answer or not. I did answer. (Chuckle.) So I managed to straighten that out pretty quickly.
Stroud: Good! So how did your career as a cartoonist begin?
Calnan: Well, I graduated high school and then went to the School of Visual Arts, which at that time was the cartoonists and illustrators school where I met Tom Gill and inked The Lone Ranger and also worked on other Westerns, including Cheyenne. So that was my introduction into the field.
From there I just sort of progressed along until I found myself doing a little bit of work for Classics Illustrated and then I started doing work for advertising agencies.
Stroud: That was a big leap back in the day. It seems like if someone could get that kind of work they’d leave comics in a heartbeat.
Calnan: Yeah, I just sort of did that very thing. I let them go and I was working on staff. Then around 1966 I started doing a few more of them and then I again stopped and went to another agency and one of the guys there who knew some people over at DC suggested I show my stuff over there. So I began doing some work for DC while I was still on staff at the ad agency.
Stroud: So, you sort of bounced back and forth a little bit.
Stroud: So, you sort of bounced back and forth a little bit.
Calnan: Yeah, I became an advertising art director and TV producer for agencies and still kept the comic work on the side.
Stroud: Goodness knows the life of a freelancer is far from secure, so hedging your bets was probably a good thing.
Calnan: I worked all the way up through the early 80’s with the agencies and then I went completely freelance. I kept my hand in on the comics and also freelanced on advertising work.
Stroud: Obviously you made a career out of it.
Calnan: A pretty good career, I think. I retired in 1996.
Stroud: So, your career began in the 60’s?
Calnan: Right in the beginning of the 60’s, yes. As I mentioned earlier I was inking over Tom Gill on The Lone Ranger, but you probably won’t see my name anywhere. Dell Publications at the time didn’t give any credits at all no matter who was working on it.
Stroud: I think that was the case for pretty much all the publishers for years. Speaking of inking, you inked over some pretty good names at DC like Dick Dillin…
Calnan: I loved his work. I inked over his work quite a few times. That was a really easy job.
Stroud: I understand he did very tight pencils.
Calnan: That’s right.
Stroud: I think I read somewhere that he put so much detail into his work that they wondered how he made a nickel at it.
Calnan: I think we were all wondering that. (Chuckle.) He must have used both hands at the same time.
Stroud: In fact, it seems like he didn’t use paste-ups for logos and such.
Calnan: I don’t recall ever seeing any paste-ups on his pages.
Stroud: He must have been fast.
Calnan: Some guys were. I won’t mention who, but I knew one guy who could pencil five pages in a day.
Stroud: I’ve heard that legend told of two men just off the top of my head: Jack Kirby and Mike Sekowsky.
Calnan: I guess you did hear about it then.
Stroud: Joe Giella called Mike “The Speed Merchant.”
Calnan: (Chuckle.) That’s a good definition.
Stroud: How long did it usually take you to do a page, John?
Calnan: Considering the fact that I worked all day, it took me quite a few hours at night to do it, because I wouldn’t get home until about 7 o’clock at night. I’d have dinner and then get to work. I was still doing freelance work for the agencies at that time, too, so I’d sometimes have to prioritize. “I can’t do a page tonight. I’ll have to do it tomorrow night.” Still, I delivered the story on time.
Stroud: Burning the candle at both ends.
Calnan: Yeah, I did quite a bit of that.
Stroud: From what others have told me it seems to be an occupational hazard. I know for a few of them night time was the only time they could work without distractions or interruptions.
Calnan: I fortunately had a very tolerant wife.
Stroud: I see you did a fair amount of penciling, too.
Calnan: I penciled all my Batman stuff.
Stroud: Yes, and it looks like Tex Blaisdell worked with you a lot as an inker.
Calnan: Yes and Dick Giordano did some, too.
Stroud: Dick was really fantastic.
Calnan: He was great. I wish I’d had him all the time.
Stroud: No less than Neal Adams told me that Dick was his best inker at DC.
Calnan: Dick had a great faculty for inking sort of in the style of the penciler. So the pencil work wasn’t lost. There were one or two guys out there that if you handed them the story it came out looking like his work instead of anybody else’s.
Stroud: Another notable collaborator was Rich Buckler.
Calnan: Yes, I think I inked Buckler at least a couple of times.
Stroud: I noticed on an issue of “Ghosts” you got to draw none other than James Dean.
Calnan: (Laughter.) You’ve done your homework.
Stroud: I try.
Calnan: I worked on so many different things at DC. It’s amazing I got that much work out of them. I did war books, Young Love, Unexpected, Witching Hour, Ghosts, Teen Titans, I did some stuff on Superman.
Stroud: It looks like you got to work on a lot of the major characters, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Metamorpho, the Element Man.
Calnan: I had Metamorpho for a year and half or something like that. One thing nice about him was that you couldn’t screw his figure up because he kept changing so much.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Of course Ramona Fradon was the original artist on that book and she said she loved the goofiness of the character.
Calnan: I think I got it shortly after she left to do her syndicated strip. (Brenda Starr) I remember thinking, “Gee, I’ve got to change completely for this one.” But it turned out to be a lot of fun working on it.
Stroud: Did you have a favorite scripter you liked to work with?
Calnan: No real stand outs. Most all of them were pretty good and I had no problems with anybody.
Stroud: Did you have a preference between penciling and inking?
Calnan: Oh, yeah, I prefer the penciling for the simple reason that everything had to look spic and span perfect by the time the inker left it, whereas if there’s some little thing wrong as a penciler, the inker could come along and straighten it out. I won’t tell you who, but I had a prime example. There was a story I had to ink for one artist and all his major figures were about 5’4”. So I had to go through the story and lengthen the majority of them. That takes up a little extra time.
Stroud: Sure, and time is money in that world.
Calnan: Oh, yes. So, anyway, I can’t say anything wrong about National Periodicals. They were great and they just kept feeding me work and I was quite happy with it.
Stroud: I believe it comes through in your work. I looked at a handful of examples and it all looked like terrific stuff.
Calnan: Thank you. In quite a few cases the inker made me look good. There were so many books I forget all that I worked on.
Stroud: Did you ever read anyone else’s books?
Calnan: Several come to mind. I enjoyed the work of Jim Aparo, Joe Kubert, Dick Dillin, Rich Buckler and of course Neal Adams. I liked the Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. That was a great series.
Stroud: I liked it, too. Even after Neal Adams left it.
Calnan: I didn’t really follow it after that.
Stroud: It’s interesting how characters evolve. I asked Jerry Robinson where or even how he thought Batman could go after 70 years.
Calnan: Jerry Robinson. When did you speak to him?
Stroud: I spoke to him last just a few weeks ago to let him know about Lew Schwartz passing away.
Calnan: Is he still working?
Stroud: Not as a cartoonist, but he stays busier than any three men between his National Cartoonist Society work and his recent books and other activities.
Calnan: He wouldn’t remember me, but he was one of my instructors at the School of Visual Arts, back when it was still called the School of Cartoonists and Illustrators. Jerry was a very good instructor and gave some valuable tips about cartooning work.
Stroud: How about that? He told me about some of his students who went on to make a name for themselves to include Steve Ditko, Stan Lynde and Stan Goldberg.
Calnan: Unfortunately I never met any of them.
Stroud: Well, in the case of Steve Ditko, hardly anyone has. (Chuckle.) He keeps a very low profile.
Calnan: I guess that sort of brings you up to date on me. I’m retired, but not really retired. I’ve got so many requests for paintings and drawings that I keep busy. I generally have a listing of what I need to do right on the drawing board here.
Stroud: So, are you doing commission work?
Calnan: I haven’t had commission work for a little while now. I’ve been doing favor paintings I guess you might say. I just did one with 37 figures in it with a hellish scene at the bottom and a more heavenly one at the top. And I’ve been asked to do a city scene by a mountain in Italy. Fortunately I’ll have photo reference for that one.
Stroud: Good for you. I know some of your peers have done the same, by going into painting. Al Plastino has sent me copies of some of his paintings and Frank Springer was doing them before he passed away.
Calnan: Joe Giella really loves to paint.
Stroud: He told me that. I’d love to see some of his work.
Calnan: I saw one he did of the Phantom and he is quite the painter.
Stroud: One thing I neglected to ask is that so many cartoonists got into the field because they were fans of strips as kids. Would you categorize yourself there?
Calnan: Absolutely. I was an avid reader of comic books and strips.
Stroud: Any particular favorites that leap to mind?
Calnan: Prince Valiant, of course. And the thing about Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is that he had an original hanging up in our school on exhibit. We’re talking the 1950’s. At the time it sold for $300.00, which today I guess would probably be around $4,000.00 in today’s dollars.
What really impressed me though was the sheer size of the page. It must have been 20” x 30”. It was about the size of a drawing board all by itself. Such beautiful work.
Stroud: I’ve wondered just how many careers Hal Foster started without even suspecting it. He’s mentioned consistently as an influence along with Milt Caniff and sometimes Roy Crane and Van Buren. I actually have an original Abbie ‘n Slats. So much great stuff and I wonder where it’s all going in the computer age.
Calnan: It’s all going that direction and I think it won’t be long before newspapers are out of it completely.
Stroud: Kindles and iPads are changing the world of the printed page it seems.
Calnan: The digital medium has really been a game changer. Animated film times have been cut in half at least.
Stroud: Did I neglect anything? Was there a genre you enjoyed over the others during your career?
Calnan: Well, to make a dollar it was whatever came along. (Chuckle.) But I still prefer working on comics.
Stroud: Is it correct that you worked on the Catholic Treasure Chest series of educational comic books?
Calnan: I don’t believe I did any work for them.
Stroud: Okay. There’s some misinformation out there, it seems.
Calnan: Now I did do some things for a Catholic organization in the Midwest, but that was little spot illustrations. No comics. I don’t recall the name of the publication, but I’m sure it wasn’t Treasure Chest.
Stroud: If I’m not being too personal, how old are you, John?
Calnan: In February I turned 79.
Stroud: You’re still a young man.
Calnan: Well, my doctor says that cartoonists keep working…even after they’re dead.