Written by Bryan Stroud
John Workman (born June 20, 1950) is an editor, writer, artist, designer, colorist and letterer in the comic book industry. He is known for his frequent partnerships with writer/artist Walter Simonson and also for lettering the entire run of Grant Morrison & Rachel Pollack's Doom Patrol for DC Comics. Workman did his first comic work in the late '60s as an adman - often drawing his ads in comic form. After receiving encouragement from the legendary Basil Wolverton, John tried his hand at comics and by 1974 he had written, penciled, inked, and lettered various stories for Mike Friedrich's Star*Reach. His work for Star*Reach caught the eye of DC editors, and it was not long before he had steady jobs flowing in from First Comics, Marvel, Topps, and Image. Workman was also the art director for Heavy Metal magazine from 1977 to 1984.
Well, by now you know I've got a soft spot for letterers and I got to enjoy a nice, long conversations with one of the premiere guys, the wonderful John Workman. Not only does he have a long and impressive resume, but he continues to do stellar work and as recently as the new 80-year tribute to Superman in the flagship Action Comics, John has some of his wares on display. He's also a tremendously nice guy, very approachable and friendly and he's helped me out on a couple of BACK ISSUE articles. I just love the guy!
This interview originally took place over the phone on May 5, 2010.
Bryan Stroud: It looks like you’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve found listings for you as an editor, writer, artist, designer, colorist and of course letterer. You’ve probably done more lettering than anything else. Is that how you’d label yourself primarily?
John Workman: No, not at all. I settled into lettering because it was easy to do. I almost feel ashamed that I haven’t done more writing and artwork. When I was still out in Washington State years ago and had been doing comics material for several years, I got some good advice from Basil Wolverton. This was when I was going to school in Vancouver at Clark College. He told me to learn to do everything. My worst stuff at the time was my lettering. It just really stunk, and I took calligraphy courses and that didn’t really help an awful lot, so finally I just sort of started stealing. I would look at what Ben Oda and John Costanza and Gaspar Saladino and other guys had done and try to emulate them. I remember taking a 1946 issue of Comic Calvacade and going through it and just copying the letterforms. There’s one thing that I’ve always loved to do that I felt helped the look of the page and the individual panels and that was breaking the border of the panel with the word balloon. There’s no actual border there. The border line comes along and then it sort of becomes the word balloon. I stole that from Al Williamson and Carmine Infantino and different people who were doing that sort of stuff.
Stroud: That is a unique touch, and speaking of Carmine, that reminds me of his little “helping hands” gimmick that he used to do on some of his caption boxes. I think he told me he actually did that portion, because I was uncertain where the artist left off and the letterer took over.
Workman: I remember him doing that. It was always sort of a visual extra that helped move the narration along. Carmine was great. He had a wonderful sense of design. I used to like when he inked his own pencils. I liked Murphy Anderson inking him too, but Carmine when he did his own stuff on the Elongated Man or some of the science fiction things that he did or Detective Chimp ... it was just wonderful.
Stroud: It sounded to me like he enjoyed doing that, but Julie, for whatever reason, didn’t typically allow it. Probably for purposes of increased production.
Workman: It surprised me back in’64 when the early Elongated Man stories in Detective featured him penciling and inking those. I was real happy with it. There was a story that Julie commented on, called “Yes, Virginia, there is a Martian.” It was in Strange Adventures. Carmine did both pencils and inks on it. I seem to remember a later letter column wherein Julie said something about how he had allowed Carmine to do the whole art job. I loved the combination of Carmine and Murphy and I liked Joe Giella and even Sid Greene on Carmine, but Murphy I thought was the best inker for Carmine.
Stroud: I fully agree. You can’t beat those old Adam Strange stories, for example, although interestingly enough when I asked Carmine who his preferred inker was he said Frank Giacoia.
Workman: Yeah, I’ve got several old things from the 50’s that Giacoia had inked over Carmine and there was a Western comic I have that Carmine and Joe Kubert collaborated on and, of course, Joe Kubert also inked the first Showcase Flash stuff that Carmine did.
Stroud: He sure did.
Workman: I wanted to specialize in inking at one time and, I’ve inked various people. One of my favorite inkers for John Buscema was Alfredo Alcala. He did this beautiful stuff on some of the early issues of Savage Sword of Conan and he added so much to the look of it. It was as if Joseph Clement Cole had returned to life and suddenly started drawing comics. But he didn’t take away from the dynamism of Buscema’s artwork. It was just gorgeous, and I found out later on that Buscema hated it. He thought it was way too busy, and he preferred the inks that Ernie Chan did a little later on.
Stroud: Isn’t that funny? He didn’t come right out and say so, but Carmine left the impression with me that Murphy was not his favorite inker.
Workman: It’s amazing. Sometimes the artist is terrible as far as commenting on his own stuff and how things progress in comics from the penciling to the inking. One thing I’ve noticed about my own stuff is I’m rarely happy, whether it’s lettering or artwork or anything that I’ve done. Then time will pass and I’ll look at this stuff and it’s almost as if someone else had done it. I can look at it more objectively and think, “Well, that’s pretty good,” or “Boy, that stinks.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) We do tend to be our own worst critic and to a very, very minor extent I think I know what you’re talking about. I obviously try to dabble as an amateur writer and I’ve looked at some of my older stuff sometimes and thought, “Gosh, did I write that? That ain’t half bad.” (Laughter.) As I look back a little bit it looks as if you got started in advertising work, is that right?
Workman: Yes, when I was still living out in Aberdeen, Washington. I lived there from 1958 until 1975 when Bob Smith and I came back here to New York. I guess I was 17 when I first did some outside-of-the-area fanzine work. There was a fanzine out of California called “Voice of Comicdom” and a lot of interesting people were popping up in it. Bill DuBay, Rudy Franke, and … I think, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, and all kinds of other guys, and they would do interviews with Al Williamson and other big-time pros, and it was amazing for me to be doing these things with those guys when I was 17. I look back on it now and the stuff I did was pretty lousy, but they were nice enough to print it anyway. On a local level, I also started doing advertising work. I went around to various printers in the area and the first thing they told me was, “Well, we’ve got these clip art books that we use.” I would say, “Well, yeah, but in those books is there a drawing of this local restaurant here or the guy who runs the restaurant or anything like that?” I always tried to personalize it, and so I did okay. I wasn’t making a fortune, but I was making something of a living doing artwork on a local level and learning all the time. But I kept trying to get into regular comics. In 1965 I remember my Dad helping me and giving advice and even wrapping up the package when I sent a two-page Blue Beetle story to Charlton Comics. Then I began to collect a series of rejection slips from the various companies, but I got good comments from people such as Richard Hughes at ACG who was very nice. And when Carmine became editorial director at DC, I sent him a 28-page story about a group of characters that I’d created called “The Futurians.” I actually sent the original artwork to him. (Chuckle.) It was terrible, wretched stuff, of course, but he sent it back to me and said to keep at it. Over the years Joe Kubert and various other people were very encouraging. Paul Levitz was very kind to me. Their comments kept me going.
Stroud: I think that’s one of the things lacking on the modern scene. It seems like there were opportunities in the 60’s that are just long since gone like the weekly tours of the DC offices and the lettercol people writing in and getting a foothold in the industry just by virtue of getting acquainted with the editors.
Workman: I almost hesitate to compare the time periods because there are good and bad in every time period, but here’s a story that sort of illustrates what you said. When I was working at Heavy Metal I would sometimes pop into the DC offices just to say hello or sometimes just to use the bathroom. I’d be walking up 5th Avenue and realize, “Oh, geez, I’ve got to go.” There was DC, so I’d go over there to use their bathroom. You can’t even get into DC now. You have to call up and arrange a meeting and somebody has to come down to the lobby to escort you up to the offices. It’s so very different than it used to be.
Stroud: I seem to be getting to that stage in life when I wax nostalgic for the good old days and maybe they were or weren’t, but when I’ve talked to people like Len Wein or Mike Friedrich for example and heard about their starts it just doesn’t seem like that can ever happen again.
Workman: Yeah, it’s sad. The way Bob Smith and I got started in our jobs at DC was kind of a comedy of errors that could never be repeated. We talked to Neal Adams and Dick Giordano when they were running Continuity Associates and our champion was Mike Friedrich. I can’t say enough good stuff about Mike. In many ways we owe our careers to Mike. He liked what I was doing and published stuff by me and by Bob Smith in Star*Reach and he put us in contact with Dick, and Dick said, “Well, why don’t you guys come back here. We’ve got work for you.” So, in the summer of ’75 we drove across the country to New York. I remember that Monday after we got in to town, we met Mike and Neal and Dick and Larry Hama and the whole crew there at Continuity. We went to lunch with them, and then Larry took us to Marvel where we met Archie Goodwin and Marie Severin, two of the most wonderful people ever. At first, they didn’t really have any work for us, but we hung around and talked to them for awhile and we managed to get some work from Marvel. Then Larry took us on down to DC and we talked to Sol Harrison and Joe Orlando and neither of them really had anything to offer us, but I made an appointment to come back and see Gerry Conway who was editing Plastic Man at the time. I’d started writing a Plastic Man story, and Bob had started drawing the story, and we thought we’d show it to him and see what might happen. So we came back on the day of the appointment and the receptionist told us that Gerry was in with a writer and asked if we could wait awhile, and we said, “Okay.”
We were sitting there, and Bob Rozakis came around, and he and Jack Harris had also seen our stuff the week before when we’d come in, and they liked our work and thought we might have possibilities. Bob said, “Oh, you guys are back again. Who are you here to see?” I have a tendency to mumble sometimes, so I said, “Uh, Conway.” Bob said, “Oh, he’s not doing anything. Come on.” So, we followed him down the hallway right past Gerry Conway, who was in with a writer as the receptionist had said, and I wondered what was going on and I looked down to where Bob was leading us. There was an office door that read, “Carmine Infantino, Publisher.” Then it dawned on me … when I said, “Conway,” Bob thought I’d said, “Carmine.” And I stopped in the middle of the hall and Bob said, “Aw, he’s not doing anything, come on in.”
So, we went on in and were introduced to Carmine and we sat down and started showing him our stuff. Carmine had been one of my heroes since I saw the first Adam Strange stuff by him. I just felt that he was THE artist for me in many ways, and here I was sitting across from one of my heroes and he was looking over our artwork. At first, I thought he was just going to dismiss us and send us on our way, but he started looking closer at our artwork, and he told us that we reminded him of he and Frank Giacoia when they used to go around in the 40’s from place to place trying to find work. I don’t know exactly what happened. Looking back on our stuff at the time I can’t imagine he’d been that impressed, but suddenly he started calling Sol Harrison and Jack Adler and Joe into look at our stuff, and he hired us on the spot. Bob as an inker and me for the production department. It was just incredible, but it couldn’t happen now.
Stroud: Not at all, and what a great story. Talk about being in a surreal position. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like.
Workman: It was strange. We knew, of course, that he was there, but we never expected to just go in and see Carmine.
Stroud: I had a slightly similar experience when I first worked up the nerve to call him on the phone. This is CARMINE INFANTINO and he’s answering the phone! (Laughter.) Still a wonderful gentleman, too, if you’ve not talked to him recently.
Workman: I talked to him last year in New York. I hadn’t talked to him in awhile before that and it’s always great talking to Carmine.
Stroud: The best. So, you got started in the production department and I presume someone must have been mentoring you along. Who did you work most closely with?
Workman: Jack Adler for the most part. Although the guy who had the most effect on the lettering I was doing was Sol Harrison. My regular lettering…I never thought it was all that great. I really learned a lot later on from Moebius when I was at Heavy Metal. Not really trying to emulate him, but trying to get a feel of the lettering that he was doing. But Sol showed me something about display lettering. He had gone to a school called Franklin K. Lane High School. I think both he and Jack had gone there, and he said one of the projects that they had to do … and this was back in the 30’s … was to do a logo of Franklin K. Lane and he showed me how if you do the thing mechanically the space between the “L” and the “A” is enormous as opposed to the space between the “A” and the “N” or the “N” and the “E,” and he told me, “Stop being so mechanical and mathematical about things. Just eyeball it. If it looks right, it is right.” And it was incredible. It really opened up a lot for me.
Stroud: It sounds like it would be quite an epiphany and sometimes the obvious is so easily missed. It kind of caught me off guard when you said Sol, because I don’t think of him in any sort of context with regard to lettering.
Workman: Well both Sol and Jack and everybody I met through the years who really…sometimes they may seem like “the men in the background,” but they had the ability to do all this other stuff. Sol had actually inked and so had Jack on DC stuff. Jack had worked over Murphy Anderson and Gil Kane on some covers. He’d done them in wash tones.
Stroud: Yeah, I think Jack actually developed that process.
Workman: It was something that originated when he and Sol were working on the coloring of Prince Valiant in the 40’s. They tried to get painterly effects by using all kinds of different things. Pencil effects, air brush, and so forth, but yeah, Jack did all that and Sol did, too. Sol was a decent water colorist and he did a lot of coloring. Jack, of course, was a masterful colorist. There were times up there at DC when if you were really under the gun and something had to be off to the printers by the end of the day…well, I remember one issue of Warlord where Vinnie Colletta and Joe Orlando and Bob Smith were inking away and Paul Levitz was filling in blacks and (chuckle) anyone who could lend a hand on it was getting stuff done. But the ones that I admired, as I said, were the people who had a working knowledge of everything. Again, going back to what Basil Wolverton had told me to do.
Stroud: That would give you a broad enough perspective to be able to function and do those critical things that fly under the radar. Did you work much with Julie Schwartz?
Workman: A little bit. I remember the first time I actually saw Julie. He was another one of my heroes, someone I really had a lot of respect for. He printed several letters of mine over a period of years. I remember one in Green Lantern and Batman and various other titles, and when he first saw me up at DC he made a little pun of my name … Workman… something similar to what he’d done in this one Green Lantern letter column. I really liked Julie. And I really admired him. Years later, at the memorial service for Jerry Siegel, I got up and sort of nervously gave a speech there where I gently castigated DC for moving away from where I thought Superman ought to be, and almost treating it in sort of a fanzine way rather than aiming it at a mass audience. When I got down off the podium, Julie walked up to me and shook my hand and said, “How did you ever find the guts to say that?” It surprised me. I never got to know Julie as well as I would have liked, but whenever I saw him, we always had a little talk. A funny thing happened one time. Nelson Bridwell, who was a wonderful person, was Julie’s assistant when Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart and Terry Austin were doing Batman in Detective and Nelson came into the Production Department with one of the recent Detective pages, and he said, “You see this cape on Robin? He’s just been in a fight, and the cape is torn. The cape really should be torn off, so I want you to white it out and draw in Robin’s costume there.”
And I thought, “Oh, man, that’s a beautiful panel. Why would we want to get rid of that cape? It’s so nicely done.” And Nelson and I weren’t really arguing, but we were sort of bantering back and forth when Julie came in and he said, “What are you guys up to?” And we explained what was going on. Julie looked at the panel and he said, ‘Nelson, that cape is hanging by a single thread. See it? It’s right there.” And Nelson said, “Oh. Okay.” So, I didn’t have to take the cape off. I left it as Marshall had drawn it. (chuckle) It was Julie’s way of solving a problem.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Masterful. I imagine Nelson enjoyed much more being Julie’s assistant. Jim Shooter was telling me some horror stories about witnessing the abuse Nelson endured at the hands of Mort Weisinger.
Workman: I was kind of lucky. I met Weisinger only once, just to say “Hi.” He popped into the office one day and that was it. He was another guy that I actually admired, although I’ve heard so many terrible stories about him. But I liked what he did with Superman in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Stroud: You can’t argue with his track record, just his methods, although I’ve heard people make mention that at that point in time to be an effective editor you had to rule with an iron fist and make those deadlines or they weren’t going to happen. But I wasn’t there.
Workman: It’s the same with me. I can only go by what people have told me. I was at a convention one time and I was talking to Kurt Schaffenberger and Murphy Anderson. Somehow, they got onto the subject of Mort Weisinger. Now, Kurt, was one of the nicest people I ever met, and he couldn’t stand Weisinger. But Murphy couldn’t bring himself to say anything bad against him. He felt that anybody who was as big a fan of science fiction as Weisinger was couldn’t be all bad. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Did you work very closely with Joe Orlando?
Workman: Quite a bit. I worked closer with Joe than I did with anybody else at DC. I really liked Joe. He was a wonderful person. Joe worked all the time. He freelanced constantly, and when Bob and I first showed him our stuff, he appeared to be half asleep. He really was at the time he was looking at our artwork, but I got to know him pretty well. He and John Albano made some sort of a deal with a publisher from South Africa and they were, on the side, producing comics aimed primarily at a black audience there. One of them was sort of a Tarzan character called Tiger Ingwe, set in the 1700’s or 1800’s. The other one was a modern-day superhero character. Maybe three or four times a month, I would meet Joe up at his mother-in-law’s place, along with John after a full day of working on-staff at DC, and we would put together these books. John and Joe wrote the stories and there were at least a couple of them where I did the layouts, and then they were sent to the Philippines where a lot of the artists who were also working for DC would do the art. Then they would send the finished pages back and Joe and I would do the art corrections on them and any lettering corrections that had to be done before they were sent off to the publisher in South Africa.
I remember one time when John got a little bit miffed at me and Joe because we got to talking about the old EC days, and John was trying to re-write a line of dialogue and make it better than it was. But every time he would toss out a line of dialogue to us, we’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, that doesn’t really work.” Then we’d go back to talking about Bill Gaines and EC and all that. Finally, John got so miffed with us that he uttered this expletive-not-deleted line of dialogue and it just cracked all of us up, and Joe laughed and laughed, and we actually got worried about him because he was turning red and laughing and he had heart problems and we thought, “Great Scott, he’s going to have a heart attack right here!” He finally calmed down, but the whole thing really caught him off guard, John coming out with this totally unusable line of dialogue. But it was really funny. Joe also worked, on the side, for National Lampoon during its early years. Jack Adler did, too and a lot of other DC people were involved with Lampoon. With Joe, there was one thing that was kind of sad. I think he was making…this would have been in the late ‘60s or early ‘70’s … he was making something like $16,000.00 or $18,000.00 on staff at DC as an editor, and then he made more money, of course, as a freelancer. But the Lampoon guys liked what he was doing so much that they offered him a share in the company if he would stay there. But because he had that definite money coming in from DC, he turned them down. Five years later what would have been Joe’s share was worth a million dollars, and he’d turned them down on it.
Workman: I’d once done this thing that really impressed Joe. It was an attempt to fill in on a strip that Jeff Jones had been doing for the Lampoon. He and Matty Simmons had had an argument. Matty was the head of Lampoon, so this strip that Jeff was doing for Lampoon, this one-pager, wasn’t in there any more. I thought, “Well, they need something to replace that with.” So, I created this little character and did a page as a sample, and I showed it to Joe and he loved it, and he immediately gave me an 8-page story to ink that was drawn by Romeo Tanghal. It ultimately appeared in Unexpected. I enjoyed inking it, and I still had some thought at that time of being an inker. I had inked two weeks’ worth of dailies and a couple of Sunday strips that were for a proposed syndicated comic strip that Bob Kane was doing, so I lettered and inked that. And there was a book published by The Culver Company. I don’t know if you remember those. There were given out in schools. Books on banking and electricity…
Stroud: Yeah, I think I do. In fact, I was wracking my brain recently trying to remember one from when I was a kid about the specter of inflation and supply and demand and I thought, “I wonder where those came from?”
Workman: A fellow named Mac Culver and his son Brennan did them. Mac was the one that started the company way back when. They used Chic Stone and Kurt Shaffenberger, and I inked one of those books that Kurt had drawn and it was great fun. Kurt was the first guy whose original artwork I’d seen. Back in 1962, my friend Jack Adams had written to Weisinger, asking for a drawing of Lois Lane. He really liked Lois, and I did, too and to his surprise they sent him a whole page of artwork from an upcoming issue and it was drawn and inked by Kurt. But here I was inking Kurt and it was easy, because Kurt had put in everything. All I had to do was actually ink it and try to give it something of a feeling of Kurt’s own inks.
Stroud: Real tight pencil work, then.
Workman: Yeah. One strange thing, though. There was one panel with a figure with no hand, so I tried to be Kurt and draw in that missing hand. Those things happen. I remember a story about Neal bragging to Julie Schwartz that everything he ever drew was artistically correct and anatomically right and all, and the timing must have been wonderful. According to the story I heard, Julie said, “Oh, what about this?” And he showed Neal this page that he had just turned in where Neal had six fingers on a guy’s hand.
Workman: So … things like that do happen.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. When you’re battling a deadline it’s amazing to me that anything comes out coherent at all. When you were doing lettering, I’m still trying to figure out the exact process or sequence of events. At what point is the lettering done on a page?
Workman: After the penciling. This is another thing that’s changed quite a bit. Traditionally the story was written as a script, almost in play form. The only company that does things a little different is Archie. Those stories are actually drawn. Even though the writer maybe cannot draw, they’ll use stick figures and they’re actually drawn out on 8.5x11 bond paper, and they’re handed over to the artist who translates the sketches to the actual final artwork. It’s a method that Harvey Kurtzman used a lot, and so did Archie Goodwin. I always did my stuff that way, too, just in figuring out the story that I wanted to tell. I would draw it up in these little sketchy sort of things on typing paper first and then I knew where everything had to go. It’s a great way of working. But for most comics it’s usually a full script … except for those done in the "Marvel method"; where there is a short premise rather than a formal script …and then it’s handed over to the penciler who goes through the script and translates it into a series of pictures. The script might say, “Panel 1: Superman is flying over Metropolis,” and you draw Superman flying over Metropolis and because the dialogue and the narration are in the script, the penciler…and this is going back a little ways… had the ability to incorporate that lettering into the overall design of the panel and the page, whether it meant actually roughly lettering the stuff in or putting in a box or a circle indicating that a balloon goes there. They had some measure of control over how the final page would look.
I was always happy about this. It meant that the guy had allowed space for the lettering, and if he’d maybe bungled a little bit on the positioning of the ballooning … maybe it would be better to move it over a little bit, that type of thing … at least there was something there to kind of go by. Nowadays, if there’s any spotting of balloons at all, it’s usually handled by an assistant editor. A lot of the balloon positioning is not very well done. I’ve seen them put stuff right over an important character or over the hands of the character or something like that when there’s a perfectly big blank space that the lettering could go into.
Stroud: I wonder if this gives credibility to make editors out of artists due to the visual aesthetic and understanding of the whole medium.
Workman: I always thought that way, too. I thought that DC really had something going when Dick Giordano and all these people who really understood art were given editorial positions. People like Mike Sekowsky, who also became an editor and Joe, too, obviously. And this takes us into something that is kind of a sad thing. When Bob and I got our jobs at DC in 1975 we were in our 20’s, and here are all these guys mostly twice our age who’d lived most of their lives in the New York area, but I don’t really think they understood the rest of the country. And there were changes taking place that were really affecting comics and comic sales throughout the rest of the country. A lot of little Mom and Pop stores that were the backbone of the comics and magazine distribution were disappearing. It wasn’t quite as bad as it became later where Wal-Mart came in and 40 little businesses went out, but you could see the writing on the wall and I don’t think they’d really comprehended this. They were doing things sometimes…well, Batman was still relatively big. The sales had dropped on Batman and every other comic after the TV show had run its course in 1968, but if an editor wanted to jazz up sales a little bit, they’d toss Batman into a comic. But that wasn’t working as well as it had. and they really didn’t understand what was going on in the rest of the country.
Stroud: That would certainly handicap things.
Workman: Not only that, they were moving toward what became the direct market. I remember Phil Seuling coming up to DC, and Phil was a wonderful guy. I really miss him. He understood what a good secondary market the comic shops could be, and it’s become the direct market now, which is really the only market in many ways. I am happy that they’re getting graphic novels out to bookstores and all that, but the regular monthly comics are still pretty much only found in comic shops, and they used to be everywhere. They realized that the newsstand market, where you went into a drugstore and there would be a spinner rack of comics and a whole bunch of magazines and all and that was going through a lot of changes with stores beginning to disappear. I’m sure that there are still 100,000 outlets for magazines around the country. Down by quite a bit, but still way up and beyond the direct market. But they decided to turn inward to the fans and sort of forget about everyone else. I remember out in Aberdeen where I grew up, I’ll bet you could find fifty outlets for comics within easy walking distance at the time. Now, or at least the last time I was out there, they were all gone. If you want comics you have to do some real traveling in order to get to where you might find a comic shop.
Stroud: Yeah. It certainly requires a determined effort now. As you mentioned, there used to be opportunities for an impulse buy, but that’s certainly no longer the case. I know I certainly patronized a lot of spinner racks. Speaking of such, I saw one on eBay awhile back and it was going for quite a tidy sum. It’s become that much of a fondly remembered relic. (Chuckle)
Workman: I remember when Jack talked some guy in some drugstore into giving him one of those little plastic things that they had attached to the spinner rack that said DC Comics on it. He got one for him and one for me and I ran across mine just the other day.
Stroud: It’s probably got a lot higher value than it did when it was handed to you. (Mutual laughter.) I was digging through my collection and you mentioned Kurt Shaffenberger earlier and I don’t know whether to mention him or C.C. Beck, but you did a pretty nice homage to one or both of them with that back-cover Captain Marvel thing you did on the back of The Amazing World of DC Comics No. 17.
Workman: I’d forgotten about that. I was real happy with that. Captain Marvel is my favorite superhero character. I’ve got about a third of the Captain Marvel issues and a batch of Whiz Comics and Marvel Family and all, but I always loved the post-war Captain Marvel stuff. Same with the Spirit. I thought that was the best time period for the character too. When Eisner got back from World War Two and you saw what he’d learned really being put into the strip and the same with the Captain Marvel stuff around 1946, 1947 and 1948 it was just incredibly good. and I wanted to do something along that line. I knew at the time, too, that they were changing Captain Marvel, trying to do something a little more realistic. I think Alan Weiss was doing the artwork on it, and it just didn’t seem to be Captain Marvel to me. That’s why I wanted to do a sort of last hurrah there with what I thought of as the actual Captain Marvel.
Stroud: It turned out beautifully and if you hadn’t actually signed the thing, I would have suspected that it was something C.C. Beck had done. It was very, very true to the character.
Workman: Well, the original to that is in the living room in the house here. I’ve got a few originals hanging around. There’s a Frank Thorne one that I wrote and he drew for Playboy and a few others. Somebody saw the Captain Marvel at a party we had a couple of years ago, and they thought it was a Beck original.
Stroud: What higher compliment could there be?
Workman: (Chuckle.) It made me feel good. I think Bob Smith told me about this. I can’t remember who was looking at it, but he said, “No, look down in the corner there.” The guy saw my little signature and that was that.
Stroud: Was it specifically meant to be the back cover here or was that just luck of the draw?
Workman: I can’t remember who was overseeing Amazing World of DC then, but he asked if I wanted to do a Captain Marvel back cover, and I said, “Sure.” At first, I thought about just doing a drawing, but I’ve never been very good at that. I always liked multiple images. They’re really much easier for me to do than one single image, so I decided to do a little story rather than just a picture of Captain Marvel jumping or something.
Stroud: Yeah, just a straight pin up or something. It seemed like back in the day that was sort of an artists’ trick, if you will to do maybe a full-size image to maximize the page rate for the day or something. I notice you’ve been a frequent collaborator with Walt Simonson. Was that by luck or design?
Workman: I was still out in Washington when Walt was doing Manhunter with Archie Goodwin, and I thought that was just fantastic. It had a dynamic quality to it and the artwork was very personal and of course no one else draws quite the way that Walt does. When I came back here and started working at DC, he was one of the first guys I met, and I think I did the production work…I don’t believe I lettered it… but there was a Metal Men that he had done and I thought, “Oh, wow! This is just fantastic!” I still have it. Gerry Conway, I think, had written it and there was an appearance in there of Tina (Platinum) several pages in, and there she is sitting and looking really cute, and she said something that the Comics Code Authority would not allow. I can’t remember the exact line, but I Xeroxed that panel before re-lettering it. (Laughter.) It was something that would make the Authority a little happier. And I loved the way that Walt did Doc Magnus’s suit. The coat of his suit had a lot of cross-hatching. It was not in perspective at all. But it worked. It was an unrealistic way of drawing, but it gave it a sense of design that really worked beautifully. I lettered Walt on a Captain Fear story in a backup in one of the war books. I can’t even remember which book it was in. That was about the time I went over to Heavy Metal. For that one, Walt did the balloons himself. He’s a really good letterer. He lettered different things back then, including a Howard Chaykin Iron Wolf. I’d forgotten about this Captain Fear thing, and somebody from DC called up and said, “You haven’t billed us for this yet.” So, I billed them, and the time had passed since I’d lettered it, and they’d raised the rate by a dollar. So, I made a dollar more per page by waiting a year or so. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Not bad.
Workman: Thinking all the time.
Workman: When Carmine was out at DC, he went over to Warren and did a ton of artwork over there, being inked by everybody. Dick Giordano inked him over there, and I think Alex Nino inked one of the Carmine pencil jobs. So, did a lot of different people, including Walt, and I was really impressed with what Walt had done over Carmine. Later, I was given the assignment at Heavy Metal of putting together a team to do a comics version of Alien, the movie. I read the script to Alien and thought, “Oh, wow! This is great! It’s going to go over huge!” My first thought for an artist was Carmine. I thought Carmine penciling and Walt Simonson inking would be perfect. Walt would give it that rough look and everything and Carmine would have that sense of design. Oh, man! I thought I might write it myself, just using the script to go by and I called up Carmine. His phone was busy. So, I thought, “Well, while I’m waiting for Carmine to get off the phone, I’ll give Walt a call and see what he thinks about inking Carmine.” So, I talked to Walt and he said, “Well, I don’t know if I’d want to ink Carmine for 64 pages. How about if I do both pencils and inks?” We wound up with Walt handling the complete art job, and Walt brought in Archie Goodwin to handle the writing, and I just stood back and let ‘em go. They did a fantastic job. Now I’m so proud of that book and of them because it was, as far as I know, the first comic, the first graphic novel, to be on the New York Times bestseller list. It stayed there for seven weeks.
Stroud: Outstanding. I guess when you bring that kind of talent together, as you say, just get out of the way and let them do what they do.
Workman: Archie brought so many other things to it. I really disliked the Alien movie poster. It made me think of a bunch of eggs sitting around at a supermarket and it really didn’t tell you anything. I wanted to have this big word “Alien” there and I’d already worked up a star field as a background for an ad that I’d done. I showed it to Archie and after thinking for about two seconds, Archie said, “Why don’t we drop some tentacles down from the word “Alien” and have them encircle the ship?” I thought, “That’s wonderful! It tells the story visually, and it works really well.” So, Walt went home that night and drew the tentacles dropping down and we put it all together, and some of the people at 20th Century-Fox were unhappy about it because Archie had outdone all their creation-by-committee concepts. His idea told the story better than their poster did.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Oh, boy. What’s the old saying? No statues have ever been erected to a committee? That’s another great story I’ve heard about Archie. It sounds like he was a brilliant and beloved man.
Workman: He was a wonderful guy. After I was out at Heavy Metal, he called up and I had lunch with him, and he asked me to bring my portfolio along. So I did, and he saw a 3-page story that I was working on. It was something I’d come up with on my own without having any idea who I might sell it to, and he said, “I like this. Do you think you could do it for Epic?” I said, “Sure, why not?” He didn’t give me a deadline, which was a mistake right there (chuckle) and the months passed.
We used to have these summer parties and Cathy, my wife, really enjoyed putting them on. Attending them were lots of comics creators, along with policemen and ministers and all sorts of other ordinary people. She always said, “We should have had people sign their autographs over the years and we should have taken more photographs.” Anyway, Archie and his wife, Ann came out for one of the parties, and Archie had this hangdog look on his face when he came in. I asked what was wrong, and he said, “They just canceled Epic.” I thought, “Oh, Geez, I like Epic. That’s too bad.” But he was thinking of the 3-page story because that meant that there was really no place for it. I said, “Oh, that’s okay.” Just the idea that Archie Goodwin would think some of my stuff was worth printing was enough for me. It would have been nice to have had it printed, but still…
Stroud: A high compliment for certain. I notice that both you and Tom Orzechowski had pretty long runs on the Savage Dragon book. Did you enjoy that assignment?
Workman: Yeah. That was great fun. Erik Larsen. He’s still a fan after all these years, and he and I often talked about Captain Marvel. He loves Captain Marvel, too. I was brought in on Savage Dragon when Tom had other things to do, or something. I worked on it for awhile there, and then it got to the point where I had too much work and something had to give. That’s what gave. But I really enjoyed it, and Erik’s a great guy. We had the most wonderful discussions about comic characters and about the business, and I still see him occasionally. I saw him either last year or the year before in North Carolina at the Heroes Convention. Just a great guy.
Stroud: When you approach special effects, how do you go about that?
Workman: I used to do it very mechanically and I still do some things like that, but Walt called up one time when we were both working on Thor and he said, “I want you to try something.” I said, “Okay.” Walt said, “Go look at Johnny Hart’s sound effects.” And I did, and they seemed totally inappropriate for most comic books. Walt said, “Try it on a couple of things on Thor.” So I did and I couldn’t believe how it worked. So there I was stealing from Johnny Hart. I’ve been doing it ever since. (Chuckle.) Sometimes I do the more mechanical, almost over-intellectualized sound effects and other times I go for a Johnny Hart bit.
I’ve also done things with markers, where I will just rough in with the marker and kind of translate that to the page. I actually put it on a light table and trace it off and that’s made for some interesting looks to sound effects. Especially if it’s something real organic. It works very well. If it’s a “Ping!” …metal hitting metal, I’ll go a little more mechanical with that sort of thing. If it’s a “Baroom!” sound effect or “Blam!” … something like that, I’ll go with Johnny Hart. There are a million ways to approach all this. None of them is really right and none of them is really wrong, but I do have a lot of fun working on Walt’s stuff.
Stroud: I suppose that’s one of the beauties of what you do. Maybe no two things are ever quite the same and it gives you a chance to continue to be creative with something that, at least on the surface, would appear to be kind of mundane.
Workman: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of what I call my hybrid lettering where I will letter a book or a story by hand and then I’ll scan it in and place that stuff on scans of the artwork. It works pretty well because you get this freehand look with the lettering, but I’ve been going a little bit nuts over the past year or so. I couldn’t help myself. After scanning in the lettering and enlarging it on the screen, I’d think, “Oh, that “L” is leaning a little bit. I’d better fix it.” I’d be going through it letter by letter on the computer with the letters nine inches high and of course it was ridiculous, and most of it didn’t really matter, but it was eating up a lot of time. Cliff Chang and a couple of the guys at a website called “Comic Geek Speak” …where they do these wonderful interviews…wondered if it was possible to actually letter directly on the computer. I’d done a few minor things where I’d need a word that I’d left out of the original lettering, so I’d letter it directly into the computer, and everything worked out fine, So I began to think, “Maybe I should try this lettering on the computer.” Well, I did the directly-on- computer lettering on a story for Titan over in England. I’ve been working for them lately. And it worked out perfectly. It’s hand lettering, but it’s done on the computer, and it looks like hand lettering and it’s much more interesting because of that. It looks better than straight computer-generated lettering. And that allows me to just letter it in the same way I would if I were lettering right on the art boards. I don’t have to worry about second-guessing myself and playing around with all this lettering. And corrections are easy to do. I do it, and it’s done.
Stroud: With the popularity of computer-based fonts, is the lettering profession dying?
Workman: Only in that it’s left a lot of people out in the cold. DC and Marvel have both gone one step further than what I thought would happen. They aren’t just using computer lettering … they’re doing in-house computer lettering. So, they have a bunch of people there who do the lettering for them. It’s economically good for them in one way. They were spending a huge amount of money sending artwork by way of FedEx to the letterer, and then from there to the inker. Now some of it is done where it’s scanned in and sent to the inker by way of the computer. The inker can then print it out as non-repro blue and ink it and then send it on to the company either in the form of the original art or as a scanned image. In either case, the lettering is done at the company and ultimately added to a scan of the black-line art. There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but the big disadvantage is that the lettering has a bland look to it. There is one guy up at DC … Jared Fletcher … who worked on The Spirit, and he really went above and beyond the call of duty with what he was doing. It looked not exactly hand-lettered, but it was more individual than other lettering. The guy really knows what he’s doing. I admire what he’s doing with computer lettering. But it is still type, really, when you think about it.
I became aware of the limitation of type years ago. There are things you can do with it, but … well, I remember that at Heavy Metal I was very proud of an interview with Francis Ford Coppola. When we printed it, I set things up so that the first part of it was hand-done, and then it went into type, and I played with type throughout the whole thing, but still it’s so limited … what you can do with that. I know there was a thing that Dell Comics did back in the early 60’s, when they gave some thought to getting rid of letterers and just setting everything in their comics in type. They had in-house typesetting for their paperbacks and things like that, so they thought they might as well take advantage of that and set type for the comics. They did a six-month test wherein they took a handful of comics and typeset those rather than hand lettering them. And, you know, the sales on every one of them went down. Because it really affected the look of the whole thing.
Stroud: Yes. I’m sure you’ve seen the same examples that I have, but back on Steve Ditko’s early Blue Beetle run at Charlton they were using a mechanical method to letter with something called the Typositer machine and they literally at various points had to do a dash and finish the word on the next line and it was a dramatic example of how important good lettering is to the visual experience of a comic book.
Workman: Harvey Kurtzman hated the Leroy-lettering at EC. There were this guy and his wife who had worked for Bill Gaines’s father and did all the Wonder Woman lettering. It was all Leroy-lettered. It’s a type of mechanical lettering that’s done with a sort of a stylus, and all the letters have no difference between them. It was used a lot in drafting. But here it was in comics. I actually kind of liked it. I thought it gave the EC’s a unique look, but part of that was the fact that this fellow and his wife would do only the lettering itself. The titles, the sound effects, and the balloons were done by the individual artists, so you’d get these beautiful brush balloons done by Wally Wood where he didn’t ink it with a pen. He used a brush. Then there’d be a big, drippy Graham Ingels balloon and the sort of free-floating wonderful things that Al Williamson did. That uniform lettering actually helped to magnify the individuality of the artist’s style. But Kurtzman hated it. When he got a little say in things up there, he brought in Ben Oda to hand letter the stuff that he worked on.
Stroud: Frank Springer told me a great story about Ben. He said that Ben must not have slept and he had the keys to the places of a lot of the artists and he’d show up at all hours of the day to knock out a few things and Frank said, “Perhaps it’s a good thing Ben’s not with us any more because he probably could have written a tell-all that would have had all of us heading for the hills.” (Mutual laughter.)
Workman: You’ll have to talk to Irwin Hasen. He’s got a great story about that exact thing with Ben. Bob LeRose told me a story about the time when Bob used to work for Johnstone & Cushing and an 18-year-old Neal Adams was there doing wonderful stuff. Ben lettered a lot for them, and Bob was once awakened by a phone ringing at 3 in the morning. It was Ben, who’d been locked in the building. He’d stayed in there and was working, and he couldn’t get out. So Bob drove into town and rescued Ben. (Laughter.) Ben was also an incredible athlete. He was, I guess, almost a professional level bowler. His sons made part of their college tuition by bowling, they did so well. He was also very good at basketball. He was about my height, 5’6” or 5’7” and I remember one time the DC guys were in Central Park and we were playing a warm-up baseball game. It was Steve Mitchell, me and Bob Rozakis and Jack Harris and all these guys in their 20’s, but the two best athletes on the team were Ben Oda and Bob LeRose, both of whom were in their 50’s. It was really something to see.
Stroud: That’s the first I’d ever heard of that. Wonderful. Speaking of legendary letterers, did you know Gaspar at all?
Workman: Just to say hello to him. He’s my all-time favorite letterer. I’m in awe, looking at his stuff. It’s got such personality and bounce to it. I’d see him up at the office and we’d say hello. I didn’t know him well, but I always admired him.
Stroud: It seems that when you were hand lettering, and perhaps still do to a certain extent, if it wasn’t too terribly copy heavy how long did it usually take to crank out a page?
Workman: The average is close to an hour. There are 15-minute pages and half hour pages and there are two-hour pages. I remember working on a Vertigo book a few years ago and it averaged 500 words per page, which is something like twice or just over twice the normal average and I decided to letter it in italic because I could go a little faster that way. I’d also found out…I don’t know who had done these, but a lot of the Justice League’s from back in the 60’s, were lettered in italic. And I thought, “Who did that? Why did they do that? It works.” So, I went back and took a look at them, and I found that the lettering moved the story along faster. It made it work better somehow. I would never have thought of that, but when these Vertigo ones came along with 500 words to a page I went ahead and did them in italic, and I thought it worked well.
Stroud: You’d need any kind of advantage on something like that.
Workman: I’m working on a thing right now with Tommy Lee Edwards and Jonathon Ross. Jonathan has been a critic and a TV host and all that, but he’d never written a comic before. He loves comics and he put together that “In Search of Steve Ditko” documentary for the BBC.
Stroud: I saw that.
Workman: I really enjoyed that. And Tommy, with the artwork that he does, is a big believer in having the lettering. in place. Walt has said this, too. When I would send artwork back to Walt that I’d lettered, he’d get it and he’d say, “Ah. Now it looks like comics.” Because before the lettering was added, the art was a group of individual illustrations. Both Walt and Tommy really feel that the balloons and the placements of them are very important and that the lettering should be there when it‘s time to ink the penciled art. The situation shouldn’t exist that after the artwork is all done, the balloons are just sort of tossed on top. I certainly agree with that. Back to the thing that we’re working on right now … as I said before, Jonathan had never written a comic before, and he got, not really verbose, because everything that’s there in terms of the dialogue and the narration needs to be there. But there’s a lot of it. But it’s good, solid writing and when people buy the book, they’re not going to sit there for five minutes and blow through the book. It’s going to take some time to read, and they’re going to get their money’s worth just for the amount of reading material alone. It’s been interesting trying to make it all work well and not look squeezed. I found myself having fun with it. It’s really a joy doing the stuff. It’s well written and not redundant and overwritten. Everything that’s there should be there; there’s just plenty of it. I wasn’t sitting there grousing while I was lettering it, because it’s just been so enjoyable to do, even though it did take longer than most comic pages do.
Stroud: I see where you were honored with a Harvey recently. Congratulations on that achievement. Was it for a specific project?
Workman: That was for another Tommy Lee Edwards thing. He and Mark Millar, a wonderful guy and a really good writer did a book for Marvel called 1985. It was set in 1985, but on a real world where the Marvel characters were comic book characters, and the Marvel world and this real world overlapped in the story. I’m not really describing it as well as it should be described. It was a wonderful book, and Tommy did this fantastic artwork, and the writing was good and solid, and … anyway, I got the Harvey award for the lettering on it. I knew I was nominated, but I didn’t expect to win. Cathy and I thought about going down to Baltimore for that convention, and then we changed our minds. Then the convention people called us and said, “Can you come?” By then we’d set up other things. I didn’t think there was a chance of winning the award, but it was nice to get it. It’s a thing where other people in the business are voting on it and there’s something wonderful about that.
Stroud: I’m sure it would carry a lot more weight to be recognized by your peers. At the risk of re-plowing the ground, I know Todd Klein recently covered some of your logo designs on his blog, but I wondered if you’d describe the process just a little bit.
Workman: I remember that the first logo I did for DC was a re-working of the Action Comics logo and I thought, “Great Scott! I’m destroying something iconic here.” But I kept as much of the feel of the old one as I could. Generally, what happened back then was Sol Harrison or Joe Orlando or someone would come to me and say, “We want you to do a logo for this or that,” and they usually had a rough version of their logo idea, and they would hand me that rough and I would kind of stick with what they had, but try to add my own style to it. Some of the logos that I did, and I think it’s mentioned on Todd’s blog, I considered to be “holding logos.” They were something we’d use maybe for just an ad, but they wouldn’t really be on the final book. There were several of them that I did that they’d say, “Oh, yeah, this is fine,” and those logos wound up on the final book. Then there were a few that I did that I just thought were horrible. I’ll have to partially blame Joe Orlando for this one, but there was a Swamp Thing logo. On Swamp Thing the sales were dropping and Joe figured, “Well, a new logo will jazz things up a bit.” What he came up with … and I followed his rough on that … was something like a 1950’s flying saucer comic, and it was just totally inappropriate for Swamp Thing, I remember hoping that when Joe saw my finished version, he’d throw it in the trash. Then they used it and I always felt bad about that. I didn’t think it served the character well.
Stroud: Well, how could you ever improve upon that original one that Gaspar did? I sure wouldn’t have wanted to try it. (Chuckle.)
Workman: I don’t think there’s ever been a logo that really, to such a degree, told the story of the character the way that one did. It was wonderful. I felt so bad about being the guy who displaced that one.
Stroud: Well, I don’t think they’re using it any more and up until recently I doubt very many knew who got the credit. (Mutual laughter.)
Workman: A wise move to ditch it.
Stroud: Do you have particular tools you prefer to use for your trade, John?
Workman: I’ve always liked Castell pens. I used to use rapidographs. I’ve tried everything. Speedball pens and all that sort of stuff. By the time I got back here, I was using different types of rapidographs to do most of my lettering. One day, I was walking near the Museum of Modern Art and there used to be an art store there, and in the window, there was a sign that said, “New, Castell PG Pens! Four dollars!” So I figured, “Well, that sounds interesting,” and I went in and bought a few. Well, that night I was lettering something. I would take work home with me when I was working at DC. Actually, most of the guys did that and made more money doing freelance work than they did on staff. So that night I was lettering a story, and the rapidograph that I was using literally fell apart in my hand. They had a tendency to do that, I’d noticed. I thought, “Well, let’s try one of those new Castell pens that I picked up today.” I did that, and it worked beautifully. With the rapidographs, you had to sort of hold the pen in one position while the Castells could be moved around, and I really liked them. Of course, they aren’t being made any more.
Workman: I think it’s been at least 10 years now since the last one was made. I’m still finding them around here and there, and I’ve got a ton of them. Maybe enough to last me until I keel over one of these days. (Mutual laughter.) Todd bought a whole bunch of them out of Germany. He’s been using them, too, for a long time. So, we’ve got enough for a while. But that brings up another sad story about things happening over the years. The ink, the paper, the brushes, they’re not what they used to be. I think the best example of this involves Al Williamson. A few years back, he drew and I lettered a Flash Gordon mini-series for Marvel, and it was beautiful. He had penciled it and inked it, and he had sent it to me with the balloon areas open. He’s got such a good knowledge of that sort of thing that it was perfectly exact. It was amazing. I lettered the stuff, and I didn’t have to white out anything. He’d left exactly the amount of space needed, but he’d drawn it on some paper he’d bought 25 years before. When he’d gotten the paper, he’d thought, “Well, this paper isn’t all that hot,” and he had just set it aside. But 25 years went by and all the paper was so bad and any other paper that he could get a hold of was just useless, so he went and used this 25-year-old paper. Think about that …stuff that he didn’t like very much, by the time those years had gone by was so much better than anything he could have gotten.
Stroud: I’m reminded of Russ Heath, I think it was, who had one of the same laments when I spoke with him. He said something to the effect that, “If I could get a decent brush that would hold a little ink, I’d be so much happier.”
Workman: I used to go into art stores and they’d have the little cup of water there and you’d get your Windsor-Newton brush and dip it in and see if it would come to a sharp point and Windsor-Newton was always a bit expensive, but worth it. You’d find maybe one out of 20 that wasn’t any good and now, the last time I checked anyway, unless they’ve improved things, it was down to about half of them that were not up to snuff. It’s true of ink, too. I’ve had shared problems with Tom Orzechowski and others when it comes to trying to get ink that works well. It’s changed so much. I heard this story that someone had told me about ink. I don’t know if it’s true. Let me make that clear up front. But someone told me that they changed the formula for Pelican Ink, which I’d been using for over 30 years, because kids were carving into their own arms these designs, and they would pour in Pelican Ink. And I guess … at least at that time … there was a certain toxicity to it. So, in order to not become victims of a lawsuit, Pelican changed their ink formula. Again, I can’t swear that’s true. I actually sent an e-mail to Pelican to inquire about it and they said, “Oh, its got to be the paper that you’re using.” But the last two big bottles of Pelican I got were unusable, they were so bad. They were like gray water.
Stroud: Bad paper. That sounds like a cop-out. I was going to run this by you: If you were to take over one of the current mainstream books and you had your choice, which one would it be?
Workman: Well, Captain Marvel has always been my favorite. I wouldn’t mind doing some Captain Marvel stuff. There is that one kind of oddball one out there. Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam or something like that. I’ve always wanted to draw a Batman story. This is another thing with me: I really like short stuff. One page, two pages. Up to 8 pages, maybe. Anything longer than that, and I start to get really antsy and I want to move on to something else. I don’t even know if I’d even be capable of doing a full 22 or 24-page comic each month. I’d be able to write and ink one, but I don’t know if I’d be able to actually sit there and pencil something like that. The longest thing that I did … back in the 70’s there was a fellow named Ed Goldstein who used to work for Archie Comics years ago. He’d gone off to California, and he’d bought up several men’s magazines.
Topper, I think was one of them and I can’t recall the others. They were all mostly started in the 50’s when it became evident that Playboy was really raking in a lot of money, and so they were sort of Playboy rip-offs. I did some comics stuff for Ed Goldstein. A strip called “Sindy.” It was a science fiction one, and another one called “The Fallen Angels,” which was a humor one about these two twin sisters. I enjoyed working on those. They were four pages in each issue. Most of the Fallen Angel ones were individual 4-page stories. I did do a 3-parter with 12 pages all told. Sindy was a continuing series. I guess I did maybe 50 or 60 pages of Sindy stuff, but by the end of it I was going from one style to another just trying to find something interesting. This goes back to what we were saying about an artist not really knowing what’s good or bad or what people like or what they don’t. One time, I put off doing one of the Fallen Angel things, and I got to the point where I had to get it done. I had something like 24 hours to do it. So, in one night I sat down and wrote and penciled and lettered and inked four pages and sent them off the next day, and I thought they stunk. I thought it was the worst drivel I’d ever done, and I expected the editor to kill me. He called me up when he got them, and to my surprise, he said, “This is wonderful! This is the sort of thing I’d been hoping for!” And I thought, “What?” Because I’d thought it was just wretched. I don’t know if he’d wanted an underground look to it or what, but I’d churned the stuff out and thought I’d done a lousy job, but the guy loved it. But on a regular series, I really don’t think I’d be able to do that. Maybe if I really plowed in and it was the only thing I was doing. Just with the lettering, being able to jump from one thing to another and back to the first one and changing styles as more pages come in and all, it’s a constant bouncing around from one thing to another, but the artwork…. I did do a thing for Dark Horse back in the late 80’s or early 90’s that I always kind of liked. It was 41 pages spread out over 4 issues, so it was usually 10 pages an issue. I really enjoyed it until about the third part of it, and I was also badly affected by the reaction to it. People seemed to like it, but there was this one reader who just hated it. It wasn’t that they hated the artwork or anything. They hated the character. It sort of affected me badly, and I thought parts of the last episode weren’t up to what they could have been. I always admired Jack Kirby. I was flown out to Los Angeles to see Outland, which was kind of a minor science fiction movie starring Sean Connery and we were doing the comics version at Heavy Metal. The Ladd Company produced it, and they were really pushing Jack Kirby to do the artwork on the adaptation for the comics version of the film. So, I got to meet Jack and Roz Kirby and he was a wonderful, wonderful guy. I expected somebody 8 feet tall based on his characters and all.
Workman: I knew that wasn’t actually the case, but in person we saw eye-to-eye. We were about the same height. We talked about a lot of stuff, and to my great surprise he started talking about something he called “knock letters.” I didn’t know what he meant at first, and he explained that it’s people knocking your efforts in the letters that they write. I didn’t say it, but I thought, “But you’re Jack Kirby! You shouldn’t be paying attention to what some 13-year old kid has to say about the way you draw fingers or something.” It really surprised me that, at that point in his career, he could still be affected by something derogatory that somebody had said about his stuff.
Stroud: He certainly had nothing to prove at that point. Wow!
Workman: It was a big surprise. But, what a wonderful guy! And Roz was so nice. It was just a great experience, being able to spend a little time with them. We went in then and saw the first half of the movie in color, pretty much finished, and then we were shuttled in a car to another screening room and were shown the last half of the movie in black-and-white with none of the special effects finished. It was just a great time.
Stroud: It sounds terrific. I saw an interesting notation on your Wikipedia entry. You’ve done a little acting, have you?
Workman: Oh, that was just a hokey little thing, really. My brother was looking around for some work at one point. He’s actually a more than decent actor, and he signed on with this group that did crowd scenes and that sort of thing for movies, and he got a call one Saturday and he then called me up and said, “I’ve got to be in Brooklyn at 9 o’clock.” So, I went into New York … to Staten Island … and gave him a ride to Brooklyn. He was to appear in a movie called, “Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God. Back by 5.” Way too long a title. It’s actually a very good movie. I saw the whole thing later on, and I have it on VHS and DVD. It was interesting to see the machinations that go on in movie-making. We saw them film one sequence 27 times before they were happy with it.
Stroud: Oh, gosh.
Workman: The scene we were in was just one quick little bit, and we were there from 9 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning, just getting things set up for that. They hauled me into it, too. They needed some more people, and I was there, so they put me in it for this one bit. I’m in it for all of 5 seconds. My brother, though, got a close-up. The camera pans across, and there he is. It was fun. I’ve always meant to write an article about it, spotlighting the class system or maybe you’d call it the caste system. The big actors had this table set out there with everything imaginable as far as food on it, and one of our little group went over there and was chased away. Then some production assistants hauled us all down to this kitchen where we had pizza. (Chuckle.) It was kind of a “You are here!” sort of thing. John Cryer was very nice. He thanked us. We didn’t get paid a penny for it. One girl got up and left. She was there for the money. Lots of the extras were there to add to their resumes so that they could get their Screen Actors Guild card, I guess.
One guy told me how he had brought his whole family together to see his debut as a TV actor. He was in a scene in some TV show, and he didn’t have any dialogue, but he would be seen right there with the main actors. Well, the scene came up, and they showed his feet. The camera went by and that was it. (Mutual laughter.) They all told me stories like that, and about people they’d met and who was nice and who wasn’t. It’s not something I would want to do on an ongoing basis. My brother went on vacation up in Washington one time, and I got a call at my Heavy Metal office asking for him, and I explained that he was on vacation and the caller said, “Well, do you look like your brother?” “Well, we’re brothers.” “How tall are you?” I told him I’m 5’6”. My brother is 5’ even. “Would you like to do a photo shoot with Brooke Shields?” (Chuckle.) So, I did this photo shoot with Brooke Shields, but I felt sorry for her. She had to keep changing dresses, and they put me in this silly shirt with fish all over it, and I was supposed to be her boyfriend. She was very nice. Her mother was, too. But I felt sorry for her, because she’s doing this thing and she has to spend all this time getting her hair changed around and all these different things she was wearing, and she had to wait for them while they did the lighting setup. All this stuff. I know Groucho Marx, when he was in a similar situation during the time he and his brothers were making movies, he read. Dick Cavett once said the most highly-educated person he ever met was Groucho Marx. It was because Groucho was a voracious reader, even though I think he’d only gone through the third or fourth grade. He read constantly. Cavett said that Groucho was more knowledgeable than any college professor he’d ever run into.
Stroud: Just taking advantage of the dead time. Good for him. So much for the glamour aspect of Hollywood. That was one thing Gerry Conway passed along to me. He said he’d pretty much retired from doing anything for Hollywood anymore and “I couldn’t be happier.”
Workman: Well, when I went out to Hollywood to see Outland and to meet with Jack Kirby, I traveled with Julie Simmons. Her father Matty had made a fortune off of the “Animal House” movie, and he lived next door to Tony Bennett. So we stayed with Matty and his wife while we were out there. Well, we all went out to a restaurant, and I felt like a jerk because I hadn’t brought a suit or anything like that to wear. But Matty said, “Aw, it’s okay.” So we went to this restaurant and there were Rolls Royce’s out front, and I went in wearing a ratty old coat that my Uncle Bob had given to me years earlier. But Matty was so successful at that time that if we’d all come in naked, they would have seated us.
Workman: But Matty was talking and he said, “You know, if I were your age, John, I wouldn’t even bother with publishing. I’d go straight into Hollywood.” Economically, he was certainly right, but I’ve always been glad that I’ve done what I’ve done, rather than gone off in a different direction. A lot of what I’ve believed in, what I enjoy, it’s kind of a thing of the past. But I think there are still possibilities with comics, and it’s such a wonderful, unique art form. You see a Steven Spielberg movie and it’s Steven Spielberg and a thousand other people working on a movie. But one guy with a bottle of ink … even a bottle of lousy ink … can sit down and come up with great stuff.
Stroud: Absolutely true. It’s one of the uniquely American forms of entertainment, too, as far as origin. Jazz music and comic books are all that leap to mind. Now at the risk of embarrassing you I thought I’d share a comment about you from Clem Robins:
Twenty-two years ago I got a project to do from an artist named, I think, Tim Sale. It was for Malibu. He sent me a letter in advance of the book, explaining to me how much he loved John Workman’s lettering and why. He gave me specifics of the qualities John had, and which he wanted me to emulate. I did my best, but only John is John.
Workman: (Chuckle.) That makes me feel so good. I’m still this kid out in Washington in many ways, growing up there in Aberdeen and buying used comics for five cents. Sometimes everyone feels a little sorry for themselves, and when I get to feeling like that, I think about whom I’ve gotten to know over the years and the people that I’ve run into, and it’s just incredible to me. I’m still a fan, too.