Written by Bryan Stroud
Josef "Joe" Rubinstein (born June 4, 1958) is a comic book artist and inker, most associated with inking Marvel Comics' The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and the 1982 four-issue Wolverine miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. He is also known to be the one to have given artist Art Adams his first professional work.
Among his extensive inking credits (which include more than 2,500 comic books), were work with Michael Golden on Micronauts, Jim Starlin's Warlock, and Aquaman with Don Newton. Later assignments included a mini-series for Dark Horse called ArchEnemies, and issues of DC Comics' Ion and Green Arrow/Black Canary series.
In 2016, Mr. Rubinstein was inducted into the Joe Sinnott Inkwell Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech, he once again named Dick Giordano as his mentor.
If I'm not mistaken, Josef Rubinstein still holds a record for inking and you'll soon see why. He's worked with EVERYONE and for many years was considered a true wunderkind. To my delight, he actually contacted me about giving him an interview and I was certainly glad that he did. I finally got to shake hands with Joe and visit at the Colorado Springs Con 2017 and he's as much fun in person as he is on the phone. Joe's got the goods and the stories. See for yourself.
This interview originally took place over the phone on December 30, 2008.
Bryan Stroud: As I researched some of your work I was frankly amazed at all you’d accomplished for someone of your youthful demeanor.
Joe Rubinstein: (Chuckle.) Actually, you should see me walking right now. Uncle Joe is moving slowly at this juncture. I was in a car accident, so my lumbar is not a happy place to be. I was on Topanga Canyon Drive, which is a nice, long, narrow downward slope road and I got off this slanted driveway, turned on the car, turned off the emergency brake, started to travel, went for the brake, brake wasn’t working, brake wasn’t working, car wasn’t on! I’m frantically looking for the emergency brake and it was 10:30 at night, so I hit the side of the mountain and bounce off, about 20 feet down the ravine. The car is totaled, a little fire inside for good measure and my back is not happy.
JR: Well, it could have been many, many, many times worse, but it still hurts. And naturally, in my business, it hurts more to sit than to stand.
JR: So, I forget. Your interviews go into some sort of database on the history of comics?
Stroud: Kind of. A few years ago, my best friend started this webpage dedicated to DC’s Silver Age, and after a couple of years into it he suggested I do reviews of comic books from that era since we’re both either still in our first childhood or entering our second prematurely, so I did that for awhile and then through a few interesting twists and turns, about two years ago I started contacting some of the creators and have been having an absolute ball learning first hand how things went back in the day.
JR: How old are you?
Stroud: I’m 46.
JR: I don’t think I can talk to you.
Stroud: Oh, sure you can. (Chuckle.)
JR: All right. Well, I’m 50. When you were 13 reading your comic book that I inked, I was 17.
Stroud: That’s what I understand. That was your first professional work.
JR: Yeah, I was working at Neal Adams’ studio as Dick Giordano’s assistant when I was 13. I guess that doesn’t count. I was doing a little ghost assistant thing for them with The Crusty Bunkers and whoever. Then when I was 17, I got three jobs on my first day and now its 33 years later and boy are my arms tired.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) How many pages do you estimate you’ve done over that time period?
JR: I don’t have a clue. There was a real fallow period there for about 7 or 8 years where no one hired me, but prior to that for 24 years I was as busy as I could possibly be. The worst month, or the best, depending upon how you looked at it, was 104 pages. The trouble is that because I produced so much work - and wasn’t married and didn’t have kids and never get out of the house - is that all I did was work and work and work and work and I had assistants who would run errands and do my laundry and get me food. So basically I never had to get up from the chair, so the rumor got around that I just didn’t do my own work because it’s not possible that anybody was doing this much work. Sometimes I would get a job from an editor and they would say, “Okay, but you are going to do this one yourself, aren’t you?”
Stroud: Oh, jeez.
JR: So that began to hurt my reputation quite a bit because people started to doubt that I was the one artist on it. Kyle Baker, who’s quite the genius, was this kid up at Marvel and I saw this wonderful drawing he did called “Captain America and Buckwheat.” Kyle is half black, so he can get away with stuff like that. So, I found out who did it and I said, “You’re really good. Do you want to be my assistant?” He said, “Okay.” So, Kyle, in interviews, has actually given me the credit for changing the focus of his life. (Chuckle.) He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do with it until I gave him the job offer. I also had another assistant at the time, a guy named Jose Marzan, and Jose was better than Kyle, and Kyle wasn’t quite figuring it out. I mean he was okay, or I wouldn’t have used him, but he wasn’t picking it up as fast as Jose was and then one day the fuse was lit.
Kyle just took off, like the genius that he is; the rocket went into the air and exploded and all that, and Kyle is crazy, but in a good way. Kyle one day sat down and penciled a 22- page Shadow job and then he inked it the next day. I said, “What are you doing penciling 22 pages in one day?” He said, “Well, I don’t like to work a lot, so I like to get it out of the way at the beginning of the month.” So, Kyle calls me up one day and said, “I have this issue of “Web of Spider-Man” that’s due. Can you help me out on inking it?” I said, “Okay.” Then he shows up with this totally untouched 22-page Mark Silvestri job, and I proceed to try and ink as much as I can in one day. About five pages. I don’t even care what it looks like at this point. He needs it done; it’s done. Then I’m exhausted and I need to get to sleep. So, the next morning Kyle has inked the entire rest of the book AND a 22-page Butch Guice New Mutant layout job. So, Kyle inked, what is it? 39 pages that night.
Stroud: Holy Moses!
JR: So, when they say, “You couldn’t do it. Nobody could do it all in one day.” Well… Then once I went over to Tony DeZuniga’s sweat shop…Tony is a very lovely guy, but it was a sweat shop, when he rented two floors, like a condo or something on Madison Avenue, and he and his wife Mary lived upstairs, (chuckle) and everybody else was chained downstairs. There was Alfredo Arcala, a certifiable genius also, would sit there and draw at the table and he had a cot to sleep in when it was too much and I think there was a box or something. One day I think they did a 25-page John Buscema Conan job in one day, because Tony was doing Conan and Alfredo is doing the bad guy and someone else is doing these guys. Now that example was a group of people, but yeah, jobs can get turned out if that’s the necessity.
Stroud: And here I thought it was always impressive when you’d hear the legends about Kirby cranking out five pages a day. That puts it all to shame.
JR: Well, no, no. I mean, it’s Kirby. It’s Kirby when it’s done, right? (Chuckle.)
JR: Anybody can draw five pages, but it’s Kirby. He didn’t suck. And you know, that is a barrier that they talk about in comic books. You know how you break the sound barrier or the four-minute mile or whatever? If you can produce a comic book a week, and have it at a good, professional level, you have broken the Kirby barrier. So, when Frank Miller laid out the Daredevil mini-series that I inked, Frank did one of those a week, but they were layouts and not full pencils the way the Daredevil books were. Consequently, I wasn’t quite sure what do with this stuff because then…maybe then, but definitely now and for the last ten or fifteen years, my favorite inker in the business is Klaus Janson. Klaus is just so unpredictable and so spontaneous that I thought Klaus and Frank were the perfect combo. It couldn’t be done better. I was happy to get the Wolverine series to ink, but I just felt totally inadequate. I think it’s something as if someone asked, “Angelina Jolie is separated from Brad; you wanna sleep with her?” I’d say, “I gotta follow Brad Pitt? Really, I’m not sure I care who I’m following. I get that woman? Yeah, I’ll try.”
So, I got to do Frank’s Wolverine, but if I remember correctly the first issue took eight weeks to do, which is a lot slower than I was in those days. Then the second issue took six weeks and the third issue took four weeks and then the last one took something like 2-1/2 or 3 because I’d figured it out by that point. I was still really trying to figure out what to do, so if you look at the Daredevil's from that period in comparison to the Wolverine’s, they don’t have a lot of similarity because Frank laid out one and penciled the other. Mind you, for decades; I don’t remember if Wolverine was ’80 or ’82 or something, for decades people would compliment me on the thing and I would politely say, “Thank you,” but I felt totally and utterly inadequate and I thought it was a very poor job on my part and I was embarrassed. Then a couple of years ago I decided to actually look at it again just to see what it was all about and now I can look at it and think, “It’s not bad.” I’m no longer completely devastated by not being Klaus Janson on the job. I thought it had its moments.
JR: There’s a splash, like a full-page head…oh, by the way, for everybody; and most people don’t know, if you look at the face of Wolverine on the cover of #1, he’s based after Jack Nicholson. He’s got this big shit-eating grin on him, and then if you look at him for the rest of the series, especially the very first splash page, he’s based on Clint Eastwood, because I need somebody real in my head to make it make sense for me, not just be a bunch of features, but I have a person I can visualize. When he grinned, he looked like Jack Nicholson to me. I don’t honestly remember if Frank told me that or not, but that’s definitely who he is on the first cover. But then Frank sent me a “The Films of Clint Eastwood,” book with directions to specifically look at the photos of “The Eiger Sanction,” because the Wolverine series starts with Wolverine climbing up a mountain, which is what “The Eiger Sanction” has as a part of its plot. He said, “Really emphasize the crags in the face.” So that’s what that was all about.
Stroud: You were following a pretty well-established tradition there. It was only within the last few years I discovered that Gil Kane’s Green Lantern was based on Paul Newman. I had no idea.
JR: (Chuckle.) I didn’t until this very second, as a matter of fact. I knew that Captain Marvel is based on Fred MacMurray.
JR: And Bugs Bunny is based on Clark Gable.
Stroud: That’s a new one on me.
JR: In “It Happened One Night,” when they’re hitchhiking, at one point Clark grabbed a carrot and he starts chewing on it, and Clark was known for having big old ears and that was the inspiration.
Stroud: (Laughter.) I love it. And your explanation to being able to relate a character to someone makes a whole lot of sense.
JR: Yeah. I don’t necessarily have to ask the penciler who they had in mind, and maybe they didn’t, but I take an acting class. I did before I got to Hollywood and now I still do, and when I do a monologue, I don’t just speak the words I say the intention; I ask, “What’s it all about? What are we doing here? What do I want? What do I want from you? How am I getting it? Who are you, anyway?” That makes the words come out in a completely other way, so deciding that Elektra looks like Jennifer Garner gets it to make sense to me. Actually, who I always thought Elektra looked like when I did her was a beautiful actress named Barbara Carrera. When I did the X-Men with [Dave] Cockrum, every one of them related to somebody I knew. Kitty Pryde looked like my teenaged niece; I’m the height and build of Wolverine…I mean Wolverine’s supposed to be 5’4” and everybody seems to ignore that fact in the movies. Colossus; my brother’s Russian, and he has dark hair like Colossus. I had a good family friend who’s a black woman who liked to dress up as Storm with a white wig, so that one wasn’t tough.
JR: My family comes from Germany, and there was Kurt and Xavier…I think by that point I was fairly bald, but I don’t remember. Right now, I look very much like Vin Diesel. I’m just like a short, bald, wide-nosed guy.
Stroud: I saw your picture at your mySpace page. I don’t know how recent it is, but it gave me a bit of a notion.
JR: It’s recent enough. I look like that or Dr. Bernie Siegel, depending on what your orientation is, or reference. Or actually when I was in acting class and we were supposed to make believe we were talking to an agent, and I said, “I look like Alan Arkin.” A young Alan Arkin. I do.
Stroud: It’s interesting, Joe. You’re the second creator I’ve spoken to that has an acting background, too. Frank Springer said that for years he’s been doing local theater.
JR: I didn’t know that about Frank.
Stroud: He also said it gave him a wonderful perspective on doing scenes and so forth for his comic work and it does seem like a natural complement.
JR: Actually, comic books are lousy with people who want to be in show business or to be directors or movie makers. Kevin Maguire is in an improv comedy group and I know he wants to direct films. Actually, I had this kid assistant who was 17 years old, his name is Kevin Van Hook, and Kevin Vincent became the editor at Valiant Comics and we lost track for a whole bunch of years and I found him on the internet and asked, “What are you doing?” “Well, I got a studio.” “Really? What do you draw?” “Cartoons.” “What kind of cartoons?” “Well, I’m actually the Vice President of Film Roman. We do The Simpson’s.” “Okay.”
Then as it turns out Kevin also had a contract to write and direct live action movies for the Sci-Fi Channel. I think it’s a five-movie contract deal. I don’t know how many he’s done. So, Kevin’s a guy who just kind of left comic books and found himself making the movies that most comic book people wish to make. Even Neal Adams has tried to get directing gigs, but…what can I say here that won’t get me sued? If I say that Neal’s particular view of how it should go did not necessarily jive with the people with the money, maybe. They didn’t want him to direct the stuff he wanted to do. But believe me, you ask enough people and, well, Del Close used to write comics for First Comics and he was a famous comedy and theatrical coach from Second City, and John Ostrander, I think, was an associate who learned a lot from him there. You’ll find that lots and lots of creative types need another venue; another outlet. If they draw, they’ve got to play the guitar at night. If they write all day they’ve got to go paint pictures. Even people like Klaus, who does a magnificent job with the black and white stuff; he tells me that he does abstract painting which nobody gets to see, which I guess is his way of getting that creative urge out without being stuck with representationalism.
Stroud: Ah, okay.
JR: With me, I’m home all day, alone, because if there’s anybody around I start telling stories, like I’m telling you, and never get any work done. Then I’ve got to go to acting class and that means I’ve got to get out of the house and talk to other people and access another part of my brain and my emotional life that I ordinarily don’t get to and have to collaborate. And even though I’m a collaborator in comic books, I can do it alone, thank you very much.
Stroud: Right. It is a very solitary exercise after all is said and done, and it’s been remarkable, the examples of your work I’ve seen, you seem to have an amazing ability to adapt to the penciler. Some of the things I saw made me think, “Gosh, that doesn’t look a thing like what I just looked at.” Case in point: When you did that work over Carmine’s pencils for that famous Batman and Robin one that Murphy Anderson did originally. It looked to me like Murph.
JR: That’s easier only because I have a very firm guide to follow, but Dick Giordano is the one who taught me how to ink when I was a kid, and Dick very much believed in giving the penciler the respect they’re due. If Dick were inking a Neal Adams job, he would try to be more representational and more subtle about it. If he got a Mike Sekowsky job on Wonder Woman, then he would ink it more like a fashion illustration. Big, fat, bold. Chop, chop, chop. And that would absolutely decimate a Neal Adams piece. Or if he got a Gil Kane, he didn’t ink Gil Kane like Neal Adams, so I thought that was the way to do it, because if I were to pencil something; and I did something for Dick to ink. It was a project up at Continuity Associates, the studio he shared with Neal Adams. Dick inked it, and some stuff wasn’t what I wanted to have happen, but he was respectful of it.
Now if most people who are good, good inkers are also good pencilers; good draftsmen; like Murphy Anderson you mentioned earlier, but more often than not, they have this attitude of, “Okay, well your job is done, so now I’m going to make it mine.” And I don’t know if it’s an ego, or a lack of sympathy, or it never occurred to them that they didn’t want me, since they hired me. Now if you get somebody like Kevin Nowlan, you will get a beautiful, beautiful job. Kevin is one of the superior artists around, in my opinion, so you’re happy to get it, but what happens if Frank Frazetta, by some miracle, comes out of retirement and draws a job and they give it to Kevin Nowlan? Well, Kevin will probably be in awe and terribly respectful of it, but you’ll probably get a Kevin Nowlan job when it’s done. So, what would be the point of that? So, when I get some job in front of me; somebody new to me, I make a phone call, and I discuss it with them. “What do you like? What don’t you like? Who have you liked? Who haven’t you liked? What tool do you ink with?” I try to get a sense of what they want.
Now sometimes, they don’t know what they want, and sometimes they tell me, “Oh, you’re Joe Rubinstein, you do it any way you want,” and sometimes they say, “Well, just do it like Joe Rubinstein” and that’s a frustration to me, because I don’t know what that means, because I don’t know what they were looking at. Were they looking at my Justice League or my Wolverine or my Superman? So, I very much try and give the respect that I would want because I think of it as a relay race. Somebody else started the direction, and if I respect them, to proceed in that direction. Don’t say” You know, you guys are getting it all wrong. I’m going to run over on this course for awhile.”
Scott Williams told me one day that he thought that was a detriment to my career because the editors didn’t know what they were going to get when they gave me a job. There were a couple of jobs…. Jimmy Palmiotti called me up once and stated, “Hey, this Eric Larson Spider-Man/Wolverine job just came out and they gave you credit for it, but you didn’t ink it.” Yeah, I did, but I just tried to make it like Eric Larson. Another time, my favorite time; Joe Kubert, to me, is maybe the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Yes, there’s Jack Kirby, and Jack Kirby invented everything and Jack Kirby is the Galactus of comic book pencilers, and there’s no denying (chuckle) that one of those Fantastic Four splashes in your face is 3-D whether they did it or not, but a piece of Joe Kubert artwork…an Enemy Ace with that thick fur around his face, or a Tarzan with those muscles all sinewy takes my breath away. I just love Kubert work more than anybody’s work and when we did this Heroes for Hunger book which was a benefit book for African relief in about 1986, Starlin organized it, and he asked me, “Well, who do you want to ink?” I said, “I’ve always wanted to ink Garcia-Lopez.” So he called up and he said, “Well, we got you somebody, but it’s not Garcia-Lopez.” I said, “Who did you get me?” He said, “Joe Kubert.” I did a Danny Thomas spit take (water shoots out): “What !!!?”
Stroud: (Laughter.) Oh, yeah!
JR: It’s like Rembrandt does a sketch and he hands it to me and says, “Here, kid. Work it up.” So, the pages show up. They were as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen by Joe Kubert, because they weren’t sketchy pencils like he would do for himself. They were fully realized pencils, as if the page had been reproduced in graphite from ink. And now, I’m in real trouble; because if I trace it, I will lose all the vitality that is Joe Kubert. If I don’t trace it, then I will lose Joe Kubert! How do I do this? So, I inked some of it, after taking a deep breath and probably looking at it for a week. I would sleep and there would come a voice down the hall taunting me, (sotto voce) “Ink me, you wimp!”
JR: So finally, I started to do it, and I didn’t like what I was doing, and the luxury of that particular job was that I didn’t have to have it done right away, so I put it away for several days. Then I looked at a whole ton of Kubert comics and I tried to absorb it, and then I inked the thing, and I was really rather pleased by what I had done. I was so pleased that I wanted the okay of the High Father. I sent copies to Kubert, who is a lovely, lovely guy. Anything you hear about Kubert, he’s a good guy on all levels. I sent him these Xeroxes, waiting for the feather to drop down the well and hear the splash. The splash didn’t come. So finally, I called him up. “Joe, did you get the Xeroxes?” He said, “Yeah.” “What did you think?” He said, “Well, overall I don’t think it turned out badly.” And I was crestfallen. I thought to myself, “Well, I think I have to give up and do something else now with my life.” But I didn’t. And then I told Joe’s sons, Adam and Andy the story, and they said, “Oh, that was like a rave from our father.” “Oh, okay.” I wish I’d known. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Yeah, get the translation.
JR: To settle this all up, Marshall Rogers called me up and he said, “Hey, they got your credits wrong. It was obvious that Joe Kubert inked somebody else on that page, and it says you were the inker.” “I was the inker.” I couldn’t do it, if Joe hadn’t been there, meaning if somebody said, “Ink this entire job like Joe Kubert.” I’d say, “Well, I’ll try, but the fact that he’s there establishes the look I’m after, so that made it easier for me.
Stroud: Oh, mercy, and you must be in an extremely exclusive club. I can’t think of hardly anybody else that’s inked Joe.
JR: I think there are six guys, and I told Joe this, and he couldn’t even remember one of them. The six guys are: Murphy Anderson, Russ Heath, Al Milgrom, and Dick Giordano, me, and kind of, sort of Nestor Redondo, the Filipino on those Bible jobs that he laid out very small.
Stroud: Oh, right, right.
JR: I don’t think he actually penciled them so much as laid them out in miniature, but yeah, they sure look like Joe Kubert.
Stroud: They do for a fact.
JR: That’s why I inked a thing called, “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.” I did it on and off for twenty years. Mark Grunwald, I don’t know what I’d inked for Mark beforehand, but Mark was a nice guy, and he said, “We’re going to do this thing like an encyclopedia called “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe,” and why don’t you ink these three pieces and we’ll see how it looks.” I don’t remember what they were, but it seems like one was maybe a Dave Cockrum Nightcrawler piece.
So, I brought it back and he said, “Okay, good. How many of them do you want to ink?” “All of them. Why would I want to give any of this away? Just give it to me.” And he did, but you know what? I think I made his life a much easier place, because as he’s balancing 46 different pencilers for this book, he knows to send it to one inker. One inker who has proven he can alter his approach so that it will still look like Kerry Gammell and Bill Sienkiewicz and Al Milgrom when it’s done, but still have a unifying feeling to it.
As a matter of fact, I was sitting there one day inking four pieces simultaneously, that’s how I work, because I don’t want to worry about wet ink smearing, so I just ink some of this, I go to that one, I go back to this one, I go to this one, and I have like four pieces in front of me and they were possibly a Bill Sienkiewicz, an Al Milgrom, a Frank Miller and a John Buscema. So, I’m inking on this one, I’m inking on that one, and I suddenly get to this realization similar to when you’re reading and you suddenly are aware of the fact that each word is a word instead of a concept. “And_he_went...” And I looked at this and I thought to myself, “How am I doing this? Because the pencilers were sort of the four points of the compass, stylistically.
On one I’m using a real short, kind of dot-dash stroke. I’m inking this that way. Milgrom used a big, fat thick pencil with a long stroke; I’d pick up a brush. Sienkiewicz is short and kinetic, I used that. So, it’s not like I have so much of a plan as I allow myself to be open for the stimuli to tell me what kind of a stroke happened. Which is, by the way, in comic books nowadays…. a lot of the work is done where a page is mailed to you electronically, and then you print it out in a light blue ink, which is non-reproducible, and then you ink it in the regular manner, and you e- mail it back. Well, I do that. I do that a lot, but I prefer not to, only because I believe there is a physical energy on the page, from the penciler, which I can feel, which is, of course, totally lost in the reproduction. Because, when you feel a penciler’s hand go from left to right, and you can see the dent in the paper, or how his hand sort of smeared it slightly as his hand went across it, I get the understanding that he went left to right. Maybe I should make my stroke left to right. I can see where he used the side of his thumb to smear this in. Maybe I should use a bigger brush or something. So, I just try to be sympathetic and responsive to my stimuli.
Stroud: The results are very telling. As I mentioned before, I could hold two or three of your pieces up and look at them and think, “Gosh, this doesn’t look like the same guy did them.” It’s absolutely astonishing.
JR: I think maybe that’s why a lot of pencilers asked for me over the years. Because they weren’t sure what they were going to get if they got some other guy, but they knew they were going to get them if they got me. So, I think that’s why people wanted me to be on their books over the years.
Stroud: Yeah, in fact Clem Robins commented to me recently, “Can you imagine what your average penciler must feel like…the helplessness, in surrendering your work to someone else to finish?” So, yeah, obviously people feel that they’re safe in your hands.
JR: The penciler would say, “Oh, God, who are they going to stick me with this time?” And the inker was saying, “Hey, who do I get to play with this time?” And there were some pencilers who…Look; there were a lot of bad inkers. There still are a lot of bad inkers, but that brings up the question: If you have a really good job by John Buscema, not any more, of course, but if you have a really good job by John Buscema and a mediocre job, and Klaus Janson is available for work, do you give him the good Buscema, or do you try to give him that bad job to raise higher because Klaus is inking it?
So maybe what you’ll have, if the inker on the Buscema is okay, maybe you’ll have two pretty good jobs because Klaus can do just so much. Or, do you have a really great job and a really poor job? I personally feel that if you’re hiring really poor pencilers, fire them, firstly. And secondly, don’t waste the best on mediocre. Give the best to the best and get Klaus to ink the Buscema job. But nowadays there’s also the situation where the pencilers are expected to pencil so, so, so tightly, that it doesn’t matter who the inker is any more. Even Eric Larson said in an interview awhile ago, “When it was Rubinstein or Janson or McLeod, you knew it was them. Now you have no idea.”
And I actually ghosted a couple of jobs for Top Cow where they broke up some jobs and they needed some help, so I did two or three or four pages for some books for Top Cow and then the comp copy that was mailed to me came in and I looked through it and I couldn’t remember which were my pages. It’s because they’re not asking for contributions of style, and mind you, I don’t think that’s the inker’s job, but the stuff was so tight that it didn’t much matter. And by the way, when I was doing the Justice League sequels, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League,” and “Formerly Known as the Justice League” with McGuire, I was supposed to go with those guys to do The Defenders, and then when the editor saw how tight the pencilers were, he said, “Why do we need this stuff inked?” May he rot in hell…
JR: He said, “We’ll just reproduce from the pencils.” So, they saved the money of paying me. I think Kevin worked just as hard as he always does and gets more money for it because now they’re going to reproduce from the pencils and so there were several people who came up to me at conventions and said, “Hey, that Defenders stuff is pretty good, but did you try something different with the inking? It didn’t quite look the same.” I said, “I didn’t ink those. Nobody inked those.” So, there was something lacking. Not to say the stuff wasn’t gorgeous because Kevin’s a wonderful artist, but there’s something that a brush and a pen can do that a pencil can’t, and if you’re paying attention, and if you’re sensitive to such things, it will be lacking. Now I think Kevin will never let anybody ink his work. He just wants it to be reproduced in the pencil. I think it’s probably more in Kevin’s case, an economic issue. It’s practically the same amount of time for more money, so why not?
Stroud: Yeah. It does come down to the fact that it is a business after all is said and done.
JR: And of course, they’re trying to get rid of inkers as much as possible. They’re trying to do computer inking and what have you.
Stroud: I was going to ask you about that. Obviously, you’ve got a vested interest, but is computer inking the wave of the future? Is it viable?
JR: Well, there are books being done right now 100% on the computer by the artist. He does the sketch and then scans it in and makes it his own. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I found him on mySpace. He’s very good and I could be very wrong, but I think he’s doing Iron Man and the guy is great, and there was no need for an inker and maybe there won’t be really soon, but there has always been people who could draw and couldn’t quite figure out how to use ink; there were people who could ink who weren’t really interested in pencils and you’d match them together. Maybe now a person who doesn’t know how to ink just needs to know how to manipulate the computer and that’s it.
Stroud: That does seem to be the way lettering is going these days.
JR: It’s gone. There’s an entire profession of people who lettered, and now, as far as I know, other than some corrections in the production department, there is no hand lettering. The only lettering is by people like John Workman who were letterers who just use the computer. I never understood why you needed to letter first, but I guess it gives you some experience. So, yeah, it went the way of silent film music accompaniment. Its like, “We don’t need that any more.”
Stroud: Despite my use of a computer all the time it seems a bit unfortunate to me, but that’s technology, so what are you going to do?
JR: Well, I think there’s a perception problem that if it’s been done before, it’s not worth it. It’s too old-fashioned. I didn’t work at Marvel or DC for 3 or 4 or 5 years. I may have gotten a back-up gig once in awhile or something, but for the most part they didn’t hire me because my name was too well known. The perception was that “He does that old stuff.” As a matter of fact, I’m doing a book now, Green Arrow / Black Canary for DC; First time in, I think 7 years that I have a series at DC and Mike Norton is the penciler and when Mike worked at another company; he’s a fan of mine back from the Captain America - Byrne days, and I’ve been sending samples to this company of a more contemporary look, as a matter of fact.
I also ghosted some…just a few pages, but I ghosted some of Scott Williams’ pages on the X-Men when he was working with Jim Lee, and nobody ever said anything like, “What are these old-fashioned pages doing in the middle of all of this?” because I was appropriate for the look of the book. I was doing Scott Williams’ style. Not as well, because Scott does his style the best. So, I sent in these samples to this company of the same look that I’d done it and Mike Norton said, “We’ve got to hire him.” “No, no. He does old stuff.” “But look at this work.” But the publisher is still going, “No, he does old stuff.” And that’s the end of it. He wasn’t even going to consider what it really looked like. It’s just the perception.
Stroud: Oh, ridiculous.
JR: Well, thank you, but I mean that’s what editors are like nowadays. Here’s the sad part about it. I did the same thing to the generation before me by accident. I showed up. I wanted to work. That’s all. My dream was to be a comic book artist and I wanted to work with John Buscema and Gil Kane and Curt Swan, and so I start getting work and Klaus and McLeod and Wiachek and Austin. Then Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Joe Giella and all those older guys start finding themselves unemployed. And I’m sure they looked at our stuff and said, “What is this crap? It doesn’t look like Milton Caniff or Dan Barry or Alex Raymond.”
So, I was taking work from them, but I was just trying to get work. That was all. So, I’m doing this stuff and a new bunch of inkers comes around and a new look comes around, and they say, “Well, let’s hire this guy and that guy.” I say, “But I can do that,” and maybe I can and maybe I can’t, but their perception is that, “You’ve been doing it, and I like this new guy.” Editors like to bring in their own people and have a relationship going and what have you. So that’s how all the old dinosaurs, as they keep calling us, left comic books. I know Keith Pollard told me he didn’t retire. Work stopped coming. Lee Weeks who is great; Lee is just wonderful. I don’t think Lee gets much work in comics any more, because his stuff is too illustrative. It doesn’t have the more anime influence to it. Thank God that they do keep hiring Adam Hughes, who’s just a genius and this new guy, Ryan Sook. He is great. I really enjoy his work. Kevin Nowlan is great. I think there’s a guy named SkottieYoung and I saw his work. He’s wonderful. Tommy Lee Edwards. Dougie Braithwaite. Great, great artists, but for the most part I think they’re looking for the Image derived kind of look. The Jim Lee stuff.
Now mind you, David Finch; he’s wonderful, and he’s kind of from that world, so I’m not saying there isn’t room for it, it’s just that…look; why does one actor show up in everything in the world once he becomes a hit? Because they know that this guy got sales and people are paying attention. So that’s who’s hired and they don’t hire the guy who got the attention last year, because that’s last year. That happens in movies and it happens in T.V. and I imagine it happens in literary circles. The big hit novelist of last year has been done already, so let’s find the next one.
Stroud: I’m sure you’re right. I’m reminded of when Al Plastino told me that he was taken aback when they said he was getting to the age he should be retiring and he said something like, “What? Have I lost my chops?”
JR: Look what they did to Wayne Boring. In all honesty, Wayne Boring’s work is old-fashioned, as is Al Plastino’s, but if Joe Sinnott said, “I would like to do a book at Marvel Comics,” I bet you Marvel Comics would give him a book because he is who he is, and there is room for more retro looking work and there’s room for modern stuff, too. I don’t think they all have to look the same. Look, editors aren’t necessarily qualified for their job. Some aren’t. Some are. Some are great. Like Archie Goodwin, who was a universally loved, respected, talented man with great taste on what comic books should look like, but there was a woman at Marvel who, when she was editing a book, she looked at something Steve Ditko did, and honest to God, she said, “Oh, Steve Ditko. What did he do before?”
JR: If I were doing some sort of a modern movie adaptation of the next Star Wars movie if there ever is one, I wouldn’t hire Jack Kirby either. Because I don’t think he would look right for it. But if they did Thor again I don’t think Jack Kirby would be wrong for Thor, or even Iron Man. It’s just, I think, a bunch of people in their 20’s and 30’s and 40’s and 50’s who are trying to figure out what somebody in their teens would think is really cool, and how would you know that because you aren’t in your teens.
Stroud: Exactly. It reminds me of when Bob Haney was doing the writing for the Teen Titans back in the day and the dialogue was just so hokey and then I thought, “Well, wait a minute. At this stage in his life, how could he even guess what the kids were saying?”
JR: I hope I don’t offend Bob Haney’s descendents here, but he always did superficial, stupid stories where he would do a Brave and the Bold and he’d know that Deadman can enter people’s bodies, so that was the trick, and they were usually pretty dopey stories and he stopped getting work because the stories weren’t very good. But the same sort of holocaust happened to comic book pencilers as writers. I think if you hadn’t had your own T.V. or movie series, Marvel Comics didn’t want to hire you as a writer any more. You had to be J. Michael Straczynski or this guy who wrote some movie here or something there. It was, “Well, these are the real writers. We don’t want these comic book guys any more.”
Stroud: Just tossed out with the bath water.
JR: Well, it’s a business.
Stroud: It often comes down to just that. Joe Giella told me once, “Thank God for Mary Worth.” Here he is in his 80’s still chugging along.
JR: Every now and again I call him up and say, “Are you ever going to take a vacation? Just pencil a week for me to ink. Just a week. That’s all I’m asking.”
JR: That’s the great thing an inker can do over most everybody else in comics. Sure, a writer can call up Frank Miller and say, “Hey, you wanna do a project together?” but Frank can write it without you, thank you very much, and I don’t call Frank any more and say, “Can I ink something of yours?” because Frank can ink it, but I do go up to whoever and say, “I really like your stuff. If you ever need an inker…” And I’ve gotten several jobs from it just because they said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you’d want to ink me,” and I’ll go, “Yeah!” The first time I ever did Superman, I had Curt Swan’s Superman in front of me. Not anybody’s, but Curt Swan’s.
So, I was terrified and I did it and Curt was very, very hard to ink because Curt was suggestive in his pencils. They weren’t super tight. There were a lot of tonalities, to you had to turn tone into lines, so there’s a lot of interpretation, which is one of the reasons that Murphy Anderson’s pages never looked like Bob Oksner’s or something like that, but I got to be an infinitesimal part of the history of Superman, because I got to ink Curt Swan’s Superman. Yeah, I guess you could write Batman and say, “I’m now part of the Batman legend,” but when I got a Flash job to ink over Carmine Infantino…and I actually said to the editor, “I’m happy to do it, but why aren’t you getting Murphy?” They said, “Well, we’ll try something different.” So, Murphy was kind of shafted by the ageism there, too. When the thing showed up and I read the story, and it suddenly dawned on me, “This is not a Flash job by Carmine; this is a Barry Allen/Flash job.” This was a flashback job. I got to ink Barry Allen. That’s so cool.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. Clear back to ’56 where it all began.
JR: The recreation you’d referenced earlier. This guy wanted me to ink this piece and I was thrilled, and I was terrified, and I was thrilled and the thing showed up and it was big. Comic book pages are about 17” tall. 11 x 17 and the actual working dimensions are 15 x 10 or something. This thing was 24” tall. So, it was a monster, and it was probably closer to the size it was originally done, because comic book pages have shrunk over the years.
Stroud: Yeah, the old twice-up.
JR: And I opened up the package and there’s this pencil job by Carmine. He drew it, but he really more or less traced the old thing. It’s not like he re-drew it, but that’s great. He’s still got it just the way he wanted it, and inside of the box I pull out another piece of paper, and it’s the same size and drawing by Carmine of the very first Flash cover where you see this kid sitting in the foreground and Barry Allen and the Earth Two Jay Garrick Flash are both racing at him for some reason. I think it was the very first time that Jay Garrick appeared in the Silver Age Flash comics.
Stroud: Right. “The Flash of Two Worlds.”
JR: And I looked at this thing and thought, “They didn’t tell me about this.” I called up and asked, “So you wanted me to ink this, too?” They said, “No, that’s for Joe Giella to ink. After you’re done with everything, could you just mail both of them to Giella?” And I asked, “Can I ink it and give him the money?”
JR: It was like, “Wow!”
Stroud: Yeah, when will this ever come up again?
JR: Absolutely. Carmine is old. Speaking of old. (Laughter.)
Stroud: 83, as a matter of fact.
JR: A lady decided to give her husband a comic book convention for his birthday. So my art dealer called up and asked, “You want to go to Vermont for the weekend for this guy’s birthday? They’re not paying you anything, but they’ll put you up and you’ll have a weekend away. “All right. When do we fly up?” He said, “No, they’re going to send a stretch limo for you.” “Okay.” So, who’s in the limo? Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, his son Frank, Nick Cardy, Irwin Hasen, Julie Schwartz and me.
Stroud: Holy cow!
JR: So, you combine the age of everybody in this thing and it’s 347. And Julie, who is like the classic old curmudgeon…when I got this Superman job, the one I referred to earlier, I had a question about it, so I went into Julie, and I said, “What do you want done here with this?” And Julie, who spoke with a lisp, said, “Oh. They’re giving you thish job to shcrew up.” Okay. Like I’m not nervous enough already. The guy who gave me the job was the production coordinator or whatever. Traffic manager. I said, “What are you giving me this job for if Julie doesn’t want me?” He said, “Julie asked for you.” That’s Julie. Julie would never let you know his feelings. So, we’re in this Tribunal of the Elders in this limo and Julie, seeing who’s in the limo, says to me, “What are you doing here?”
JR: I was invited, Julie. So, five times that weekend, no exaggeration, five times; Julie walked up to me personally and said, “You know I’m 85 now, right?” “No, Julie, I hadn’t heard.”
JR: And then Julie passed away something like three years later. And you know what? I know so many personal stories, and I just don’t know which ones I can tell to the world. (Laughter.) I have a great Julie story. Julie Schwartz was actually a paid assassin for the Russians…never mind. Julie worked for the mob and was in this bar…never mind. Can I tell this story? Can I not? Okay. I can’t stand it any more. Julie was probably born in 1903. Julie’s from the olden days. Julie must have come from a very orthodox or religious, strict background. He married an Irish Catholic girl.
So, for the next 30 years or however many that Julie was married, Julie would go back to his parent’s house as long as they lived and have Sunday dinner. But he never mentioned the fact that he was married and had a daughter. I’m sure Julie’s parents must have thought he was a fagala (little bird). I guess Julie just didn’t want to break their hearts or be disowned or something. I don’t know. But for 30 years (chuckle) Julie Schwartz had a wife and daughter and doesn’t mention it to the family. That’s a very interesting dynamic to go through your life with. How do you not call up your parents when your baby is born and say, “Hey, you’re grandparents?”
Stroud: Holy cats. That’s astounding.
JR: These are the people who are molding the minds of teenagers.
Stroud: That’s it.
JR: I’ve got lots of these things I could tell you. Plus, I used to date a woman who was a publisher in comics, not Jenette Kahn, if anybody’s asking, though I always thought Jenette was a babe. I’ve got to admit that. Anyway, once I dated her, I started to hear all the stories that I wasn’t privy to. Which parties they would invite the girl to, not me. Which guy she dated who told her about this person in comic books or that sexual peccadillo and stuff. I heard a story about a guy who’d gone to an S&M club and was tied up to this rack and was getting beaten and what have you. (Chuckle.) So the next time I saw the guy it was very difficult not to imagine him tied up. You get this vision and sometimes you just don’t want to know stories about people because you just can’t stop laughing directly into their face. And mind you I don’t judge the guy for having done what he was doing, but then when I began thinking about how often there was a sado-masochistic sort of storyline or subtext to his work, I went, “Oh-h-h-h.”
Stroud: It all becomes clear now. (Chuckle.)
JR: Oh, absolutely. When there’s a mystery and it just doesn’t make sense and then this one little thing is put into place and you go, “Oh, yeah, of course.” Kind of like why J. Edgar Hoover said there was no mob. He’s got a lovely, frilly outfit in the closet.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Neal Adams had a few choice tales about Bob Kanigher he wouldn’t let me tell, either.
JR: Oh, you’ll have to tell me later. I didn’t like Bob Kanigher one bit.
Stroud: You’re in the vast majority.
JR: When I met him, and he was such a jerk, I wish I was older and told him to just go fuck himself right on the spot. But because, “Oh, my God, it’s Robert Kanigher and I’m just a kid, I’m new in the business, he’s got a reputation.” You know what? I don’t care. We were talking about Degas earlier. When they asked Degas what he thought of the Dreyfuss case, which was this very notorious case about a supposed spy in 19th century France who was sentenced to Devil’s Island, he said, “Well, I think he should be sent to Devil’s Island with all the rest of the dirty Jews.” All right. Well, you’re not getting invited to Passover this year.
JR: But, I’d still like to hear how you made that composition work, and then I’ll go home. Anyway, I’ve expressed my admiration for Kubert, who was a very big buddy of Kanigher’s and it’s difficult to say, “Hey, Joe. Is he as big a dick as everybody says and how did you do it?”
Stroud: It’s funny. I kind of alluded to that with Neal Adams, telling him it seemed like Joe Kubert was the only one that grooved with him really well. He said, “Well, you’ve got to understand, Joe Kubert doesn’t take shit from anybody.”
JR: So maybe what it is is that you put him in his place and Kanigher was more respectful.
Stroud: Maybe so. Neal told me that Bob was giving him a raft one day and so he followed him into his office, closed the door and said something like, “Tell you what, Bob. How about I draw and you write and never the twain shall meet?” Bob apparently said, “I guess that would be okay.” And I guess they never had a problem again.
JR: Everyone is an amateur psychologist. Supposedly Kanigher cut a swath as a lover through just everywhere, but he struck me as being a very effeminate man, which makes me think he was proving something to everybody. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But when you run into these incredible egotists, and I’m not even talking about Kanigher now, because I have very little experience with him, but when I run into these unbelievable egotists and they’re so obnoxious I'm thinking, “There’s really a very troubled, scared person in there, but I don’t care.”
JR: “I’m sorry that you were beaten senseless as a child; and no, you can’t stick your axe into me. Get some help.” There was one guy in comics. He was very big, very popular. Obnoxious, obnoxious man. Nobody liked him, ever, and it finally got to the point where very few people were willing to work with him. Just two editors. Now it's gotten to the point that nobody likes to work with him because now he’s not hot any more. And that will happen to you. You get cold, and people let you know.
Stroud: It sounds almost like Mort Weisinger. Jim Shooter told me amazing stories about the crap he endured from that man.
JR: Weisinger was just evil. You could tell that he just got a sexual high from belittling people and there’s just no reason to do it. There really isn’t. I teach life drawing and inking occasionally. Sometimes at comic book conventions I’ll do a 3-hour seminar and I wish I were a better artist than I am a teacher, but people tell me what a great teacher I am because I am sensitive to this: Nobody walks into a classroom to try and be bad. Nobody doesn’t want to get it, and I don’t believe anybody should prove me wrong. “I don’t think you can do this, prove me wrong,” is not the way to teach. “I think you can do this, now let’s see you get there.” You have to instill a sense of pride and confidence.
So, I don’t think there’s any reason ever to make somebody feel badly. It’s one thing to expect professionalism, but there are people who are just so obnoxious. I was an assistant when I was 13, so I’ve never had a corporate job. I’ve never had to be somewhere and deal with the same people day to day, but there are people in comic books who would like to screw with your schedule and shorten your deadlines just because it made their lives an easier place, and they didn’t care one bit if it was a fair thing or not. But you know, we need the job, we need to make a living and in a small industry, word gets out if you are perceived as a troublemaker, so you’ve got to be careful about who you tell to screw off.
Stroud: More than one professional has told me that same thing. “This is a very small pond.” I understand you worked with Woody for awhile. How was he?
JR: I was Wally Wood’s assistant, among others. Woody was a very sweet, child-like, sensitive man. So sensitive that he had to drink himself into oblivion to not feel. I didn’t know Woody in his really active drinking years, but even though my work doesn’t really resemble Woody’s stylistically, a great deal of what I know came from him gently pointing out what was going on in my work, speaking of the deep end of the pool, Woody once gave me this piece and said, “Ink the background.” “But…but…but, how do you do that?” He said, “Ink it busy.”
So, I got out my tools and inked it careful and precise and beautiful and accurate and I showed it to him with pride and he said, “All the lines connect up.” “Yeah!” “Don’t do that again.” I understood what he meant, because for something to look real, it’s not about an architectural drafting of a building or a catalog drawing of a knife or a car or something, it’s about “How do you make them look real?” How do you make this line loose and sloppy and wiggly, and how do you suggest this and that and the other thing? Then you start looking at Woody’s work, and you say, “Okay, here’s where he left that line out here and where he left this.” With the editors now…I was showing my samples to a very prominent inker in comics, and I didn’t tell him who I was. It was at a convention. He started to point out, “Well, this line is a little sloppy. This one is shorter than the one next to it. See this one? You should have used the French Curve there.” And I thought, “God. This is everything I hate about contemporary inking that he’s talking about.” And I didn’t much respect the guy’s work anyway, but I knew he was getting work, and I just wanted to see what he thought about why I wasn’t getting it. Then when he found out who I was, he said, “Oh, I can’t do what you did there. Can you look at my work?”
JR: I said, “No.” “That’s not fair.” “It’s not about fair.” The reason I wouldn’t do it is because we had very little common ground about what I was wanting to do compared to what he was doing. It’s as if a Republican and an Anarchist were discussing how they might form a committee together. So, contemporary inkers are trying to make…yes, there are exceptions and I’m not saying Scott Williams is one of them even though he’s contemporary, but there’s a lot of people who have made the line their god. “How do I get this line to be just right?” And if you look at the people I admire; Joe Kubert and Alex Raymond and Frank Springer and Dick Giordano and John Prentice, Hal Foster, Jim Holdaway and a million other guys, it’s never about the line. The y didn’t say, “Oh, God, I hope I can get this line from point A to point B without any variation.” It’s the difference between John Singer Sargent’s paintings…all you comic book geeks will have to look him up now, and Ingres. Magnificent draftsmen, both of them. They couldn’t get better at what they were doing.
Some people think Sargent was the greatest portraitist of all time. With Sargent the paint flew on. It had a life of its own. It had personality. It had rough patches and smooth patches and elegance. Ingres; his paintings look like they are on porcelain. Everything is smooth. There is no artist’s hand available. There are no little brush strokes. There is no little scrubby area. It is just a magnificent lacquered vase of a painting. I’d rather be Sargent. I would rather be Joe Kubert than the guy who wants to suck out all the little variations in it. Now, that’s not what they’re buying nowadays. You’ve got to be realistic. Do you want to work or not? Well, lucky for me, my former assistant editor on Marvel Universe and Formerly Known as the Justice League called up and said, “We’re changing the look of the Green Arrow book. We’re keeping the same penciler, but we want a whole other kind of a rawness to it. Do you want it?” “Yeah.” When Richard Dreyfuss did the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and it starts out when he was a young man and then it goes to when he’s in his 60’s. When they made him a young man they gave him a toupee and probably some tightening up of his neck and lines and added more color to his skin. He said, “When they made me an old man they just took off my toupee.”
JR: So, with me, I wasn’t trying to be raw. I just wasn’t trying to be smooth, that’s all. So, my not trying to be smooth apparently is raw nowadays. That’s what you’re looking for. I suspect the editors might feel the same way about Kevin Nowlan. With Kevin the physical line is not such a big deal, but Kevin is such an excellent draftsman. I’m looking at a Batman Confidential cover that Kevin inked over Garcia-Lopez, and Garcia-Lopez is considered the artist’s artist. Even people like John Byrne acknowledge that they can’t approach the drafting skills of a Garcia-Lopez. I’m not making this up. John said something to that effect, as rare as that might be. And Kevin just doesn’t care about the line, he cares about the effect. That’s what I’m after. I don’t want to spend my life polishing and polishing and polishing and defining and polishing that one stroke. I want you to see Batman coming at your face. As a matter of fact, I did a job (chuckle) that no one has ever seen because I would have to bring this from house to house and show it to people. It was for the American Bible Society and it was a respectful re-telling of the crucifixion story as drawn by Rick Leonardi. I got these eleven pages in front of me and I tried to ink them the way I felt they should be inked and as I would start the line, I would think, “But they’re not buying this. They’re buying Scott Williams and Matt Banning and Norm Rapmond and all these people.” And I would lose faith, ironically enough about a job with this subject matter.
JR: And I’d start and again I’d say, “They’re not buying this.” I haven’t gotten work for a long time in comic books because I’m perceived as old-fashioned and I’m about to do this job. It was a day of this and finally I said, “You know what? I have to do this job the way I believe it should be done, and if they hate it, they hate it, but if they hate it, I can defend it. And if they hate it and I did it the wrong way, then I have nothing to defend.” So I inked this job and I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I really think this is one of the high points of my career as far as being faithful to the intentions of the pencils and stylistically, because it’s a crucifixion job.
So, my line is jagged, and it’s painful. What else are you going to do on the crucifixion? By the way, in my mind what I did was, “I’m going to ink this job like Klaus Janson, but with no Klaus Janson in front of me. I let my memory of what Klaus looks like dictate how the ink came out.” So ultimately it was published in a thing called “The Unforgiven” from the American Bible Society. It got very, very little distribution. You can see it in my member’s gallery at www.ComicArtFans.com. I would like to ink Rick again and every now and again I send copies of the job out as a sample of what I can do. If David Finch had drawn this job I would not have inked it the same way because it didn’t start the same way, but hopefully David would have been sensitive enough to the subject matter to give it a line and a personality that that job deserves. Not all actors are created equal, and not all parts are the same, so if they were doing a new casting of Cleopatra, Rosie O’Donnell would do as good a job as she could, but she just wouldn’t have been right for it. By the same token, not every penciler should draw every job and depending upon which era of Jack Kirby, the early 60’s, for example, I think he’d have done an incredible crucifixion job. By the last part of his career, when he was so abstract, I don’t think that would have been right.
Stroud: I can see that. I’ve noticed you do quite a bit of fine art, using oils and pastels and charcoals and so forth. Do you have a favorite medium for that kind of work?
JR: It depends upon the intention, like anything else. I have a gallery at a site called redbubble.com, which show my portraits for the most part. I think of myself primarily as a draftsman, not a painter. To me, there’s nothing more important than drawing, even though everybody seems to go everywhere else with it, drawing is the only thing that holds it all together. So obviously the mediums that you can draw directly in are charcoal and graphite and pastels, so those are the ones I tend to lean to. When I do oils I try to be a little less draftsman-like in those. I want the paint to have a personality, like we were talking about the crucifixion before. It’s not only the subject matter, but how the paint goes down. Rembrandt, certainly the older Rembrandt, painted with very, very thick paint. Rembrandt did a painting of a woman entering a pool of water and she’s wearing a nightshirt and the slabs of paint on it are so thick, but they are long to indicate the smoothness of the thing that she’s wearing. Then he did a painting before or after of a cow in a slaughterhouse hanging dead, upside-down and the paint was so crusty that you felt flesh on this thing. So, it’s not only what you paint, but how you paint. How the paint goes down that communicates. As an artist, you don’t particularly want the public to stop and go, “Look at that paint. Nice paint!”
JR: But you do want it to have some kind of effect, where they’re not even aware of why they’re looking at it, but they’re liking it. If I’m going to paint a little kid, I probably won’t use thick, crusty paint, but I might. But when I use an oil, I want to play the whole range from those thick and imposto places to the thin, thin, thin washy places, and that gives me a range. Recently, I’ve been doing these trading cards or sketch cards for Rittenhouse and a few other places with the X-Men and Marvel and the Fantastic Four, and what Rittenhouse recently did was they send the artists back two blank cards, which are called artist’s proofs. The term makes no sense, because you’re not proofing anything. They’re blank.
The reason Rittenhouse does it, is because they know the artists will make money doing commissions on these blank cards. So, I got two commissions for my two cards and I decided, “I’m gonna learn how to use watercolor.” And I don’t know how to use watercolor except in a very rudimentary way, so I figured well, why not get paid to learn on these things? I enjoyed it, but also because putting up oils is a pain. You’ve got to spread them out, you’ve got to make sure they don’t splatter and you’ve got to clean up afterwards. Watercolors are a lot easier. Then after that I just did a Dr. Strange commission in watercolor and a Tarzan recreation and I figured, “Why not?” I’m learning to do those with watercolor, and there’s going to be some subject matter which are better for pastel and some are better for watercolor, but being an inker, and being part of a team is a great thing. But if I couldn’t do it all by myself, I think I would wither away and die. I need the artwork that starts with me and ends with me. I got an assignment from a comic book art dealer who called me up and said, “I want you to do an illustration of the Alamo.” I couldn’t have been a worse choice for this.
JR: I have no particular affinity or knowledge of that subject matter or the West, or horses or guns or any other thing like it. Primarily, I’m a portrait guy. So, I sat down and I researched and I lost sleep and I thought about it and I lost sleep and I tried it and I was panicked and I thought about it and I got the thing done and they loved it. I have since done fourteen more of them. You know, cattle drives and dead soldiers and patriots standing there defending the Alamo and they’ve all been done with charcoal and pastels and recently in ink, and they’ve made me grow as an artist because I’m being forced to do a lot of subject matter that I would never have considered. These pieces are about 20 x 30 each. You can see some of those at my MySpace page.
Stroud: This is a lot of work.
JR: Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it made me grow as an artist. Then I got an assignment through my former assistant/student Brett Breeding. He was offered a job, but he thought I would be better for it, and now I’ve been doing portraits and spot illustrations of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Lord of the Flies.”
Stroud: Oh, for books?
JR: They tell me they’re for PowerPoint presentations. So, they are portraits, plus scenes from the books. When I did, for instance, “The Great Gatsby,” I looked at J.C. Linedecker’s illustrations from the 20’s. The Saturday Evening Post covers and all that stuff, because to my mind, that is the 20’s and Gatsby is the 20’s, so why go elsewhere? While I didn’t do an out and out imitation of Linedecker, I did try to get that feeling into it, and then I got more naturalistic illustrations when I did “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When I just did “Lord of the Flies,” I did it, believe it or not, a little bit more like Drew Struzan, the guy who does those Indiana Jones posters and Star Wars posters. It was all children’s portraits and scenes and I thought of when he did the “Adventures in Babysitting” posters and in my mind, I associated him with a modern, youthful look to his work.
I’ll bet if you looked at any these pieces nobody would ever pick up on any of this stuff, but that’s what’s in my head and I need it as an anchor instead of, “Well, draw a face.” Okay, I’m drawing a face, but this guy is the bad guy, or this is Piggy from “Lord of the Flies,” and he’s got to have a sensitivity to him, or in Gatsby they describe someone (not Jay) who is rather elitist and not very likeable, and I thought, “Oh. Thurston Howell III as a young man.”
Stroud: The patrician look.
JR: Yeah, so I’m doing card commissions and I’m doing portraits for regular people. My friend Chris Stamp is the former manager of The Who and he also discovered Jimi Hendrix and had his own label and his brother is Terence Stamp from the Superman movie and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” He also worked with the Beatles on their T.V. projects like “Magical Mystery Tour.” I’ve got Beatles stories, too, but what did I draw for Chris? What else, but a portrait of a little, fluffy poodle. Maybe it wasn’t a poodle, but a little white-faced thing that looks like Lyle Talbot as the werewolf. You know what? When you’re a commercial artist…I don’t want anyone to hire me to do a very firm architectural rendering of a locomotive, but if I get the gig and it pays enough, I’ll learn how to do that and maybe I’ll become a better artist, because I will have understood what locomotives feel like. That’s the cool part about being an artist, at least this type, and I’m sure it’s true for plenty of the comic book pencilers; they have to draw stuff they never would have drawn and research things to find out how this works.
Stroud: You get stretched in all kinds of different directions. In fact, I think I noticed where you’d done a portrait of Dorothy and Toto, so you’ve done at least two dogs. (Chuckle.)
JR: The very first horses I ever drew were in the Alamo pieces. I’d inked horses before, but never drew them. I have one client for whom I've drawn everyone from the Wizard of Oz except the witch, Glinda and none of the flying monkeys. You know that old joke? “Who would you rather have sex with; Ross Perot or one of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz?” The answer is, “Do the monkeys have money?”
JR: I gave my friend the Cowardly Lion portrait and she called me up one day and said, “A friend of mine is here and she wants it.” I said, “Well, okay. It’s yours to give her.” “Yeah, but you have to say it’s okay.” I said, “Who is it?” She told me it was a movie star and gave me the name, which I’m not going to repeat, but her voice is very distinctive. I knew it was her. “Well, yeah, she can have it.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’ll do another one for you.” So, I did another one and I did another one for the movie star and the second Cowardly Lion one was better. Then I drew the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and all these other people.
There is a very prominent portrait artist named Everett Raymond Kinstler, and Kinstler was the first artist who ever did Zorro before Toth as he points out to everyone, and also did Hawkman in the 40’s when he was a teenager. I’d been a student of his and there’s an 19th century smoking club, a dark wood place in Gramercy Park in New York City…Gramercy Park is a very posh area, and they have the Arts Club there where artists belong and you have studio space that you have to inherit. Very close to it is The Player’s Club. The Player’s Club is for actors, directors and writers in theater and they have actual Sargent’s on the wall. Ray called and said, “I have a job for you, and it’s to do a portrait for the permanent collection of The Player’s Club if you want to do it.” “Yeah, I want to do it. What is it?” “A portrait of Bert Lahr,” and he didn’t know I’d painted the cowardly lion twice before.
The fee to doing this painting is to get a lifetime guest membership at The Player’s Club, so when I’m in town I can get an overpriced meal there. So, then what I did was contact the Lahr family. I already had Bert’s biography in my library, which I hadn’t read yet, but I bought it for when I had the time. John, his son wrote it when he was 27 years old and now I think he’s in his 60’s. Then it turns out that John’s sister Jane had edited a book with one of the artists I studied with two years earlier and the family gave me access to private family photographs and archives and I went to New York and I looked through the stuff and I got reference and I read the book. I guess some people say, “Here’s a photograph. Paint it,” but I want to know what this man is all about before I do his picture.
Stroud: I’m sure the quality difference would be immeasurable.
JR: I had a teacher once and we had a screaming fight in front of the entire class because I said it’s important to know who you’re painting and he thought that was utter bullshit and didn’t affect anything of the painting. Then he painted another man I know and if I didn’t know it was that man I wouldn’t have recognized him. So, I win. On top of that, if you look at a painting that Rembrandt did of his first wife, Saskia…actually it’s a drawing of her leaning on her hand with her finger on her cheek and she’s got this hat with this enormous plume in it and I think it was drawn on the day of their betrothal. That man loved that woman. Whoever that man was, loved whoever that woman was in the drawing and it came through. I think if you’re painting your wife, pregnant with your first or even your fifth child that, if you have any soul at all, comes through. So, I believe you can’t know all your clients, you may not necessarily like most of your clients, but at least know enough to understand why they walked into the room and why somebody wants their picture painted.
Stroud: Sure. After all, art in its purest form is an expression. It doesn’t get any more fundamental. By the way, I don’t know if you’re still working on it or not, but I noticed a fascinating project where you’re doing a ceiling mural. How did that come about?
JR: It was the same client who got me the Alamo work. He’s actually the agent for somebody and they have maybe the best private museum of everything. Just name it, it’s there. Sports and rock and roll and animation and X-Files and Star Wars and Desilu. They have a Heisman Trophy there, they have a baseball bat that belonged to Gherig and Ruth and scorebooks from the 1926 World Series. It’s just the best personal collection probably in the world. So, the assignment was to paint all these undersea mountains. Once again, I’m not the guy for this gig, because I don’t do landscapes.
So, I research it and I go to New York and buy up all the books I can find on this thing and make sketches and sit in my back yard with an oil set and do some studies of rocks and mountains and all that and then I go to the museum and I draw this thing out. It’s a curved archway ceiling fifteen and a half feet tall, sixteen foot arc, twenty three feet long and eight feet wide. So, they build a scaffold. I don’t like heights. And I’m having to climb up this thing and it hurts because you’ve got to get on with your knees and I’ve got to wear knee-pads because it’s killing me to drag me up on this thing and I’m drawing this thing and I’m drawing it out and then finally I get to painting.
I painted about ten feet a day of this thing and I’m swinging my arm as far as I can to cover as much room as I can. After about eleven days I’m ready to die, but it was done. And I’m glad I did it, for sure. It also made me understand that I should have more play when I paint my portraits because I used a palette knife, which is like a little trowel. They come in different sizes and shapes. I tried to use my palette knife 100% of the time because I wanted to get the feeling of rock and crust on this thing and when I would use a brush I always felt like I failed. But after I was done with this project I thought, “You know what? I should figure out how to do this more in my portraits.” Go back to a child-like joy of application. I haven’t had a lot of room to do it, but maybe that would help me. Actually, that one wasn’t tough. I went to a home in Maui on September 10th, 2001 and the next morning I got a phone call from home that the World Trade Center, that you could see outside my window, was bombed. I was supposed to be in Maui for three weeks. I stayed for three and a half months.
Stroud: Holy cow.
JR: I painted a series of seven murals throughout this house on the life of Christ in chronological order as you walk through their compound. The biggest one was twenty-five feet long, fifteen feet wide and the figures were eight and a half feet tall, and the heads were thirteen inches tall, which is much bigger than a human head. So, I’m on my back painting these things from about 9:00 in the morning until it got dark at about 6:00 or so and feeling channeled, by the way, as I’m working on stuff. I’ m going, “That’s a pretty good foot. How did I do that? Where did that come from?” It was based on a painting called “Jesus giving the key of knowledge to man.” So below is Jesus and five or six or seven figures as he presents a key and then up above them are clouds and cherubs and angels rejoicing.
Stroud: So, you had your own Sistine Chapel experience.
JR: And six more. I really wanted to get out of there after three and a half months. I had a life and I wanted to see how it was. The last one was…masonite is that sort of dark brown chip board, and it was a masonite tablet ala Moses, with Moses on his knees, on some rocks as the hand of God comes out and presents him with the tablets if I remember right. That one I got to climb a ladder on and paint it vertically instead of on my back. That one took three and a half days. “Let me out of here!” I mean, I’d like to go back and do more. I haven’t seen them in seven years.
So many of the people who ink that are fine, fine draftsmen, like Jerry Ordway, Kevin Nowlan, Dick Giordano; they tend to impose themselves onto the work. I don’t have a style. I know what I gravitate towards, but I don’t really pencil much, so I don’t really have a style. So, if I’m presented with your pencils, I’m just excited to get into your philosophy, and not make you into me. Fine with me. When I first started to do The Official Hand Book of The Marvel Universe series, Walt Simonson asked that I not ink his pencils directly, but to lightbox them, which means to trace them and then ink them. And I felt kind of insulted. Walt was trying to pacify my feelings. “Oh, no, I just want to ink these later for some portfolio.” But by the end of the run, what Walt told me, and Walt is a universally liked guy, but what he told me was the first time he saw me ink his work he really didn’t like what I did, and he just didn’t want me to screw it up. By the end of the run, when I’d figured out what I was supposed to do, because it takes a minute, he said that he thought I was doing a great job on it and that if he ever had something that needed inking he wouldn’t mind having me do it.
Stroud: Pretty high praise.
JR: Yeah, it is, and I was glad to hear it, but I still suspected that he was telling me a lie at the beginning and he was. But that’s the thing. When I start working with a new penciler, I say, “Look. It’s going to take me about three issues. I’m going to try on the first one, but by the third one maybe I will have gotten rid of all my preconceptions of what it should be and do what it is. Which reminds me of a story.
I did a Dick Dillin cover. I liked Dick’s work and I liked him on the Justice League and I liked when Dick Giordano would ink Dick Dillin’s work. Then I got this one cover of his to ink early on, and its okay. I think I did a professional job, but it wasn’t right, because I was pushing the square peg into the round hole. I was going to make him be what I thought he should be, instead of what he should have been and if I’d just gotten an issue or two to do…and then he died shortly thereafter. So, decades and decades later, I’m at a painting demonstration at the Art Student’s League by a guy named John Howard Sanden who is a very prominent portrait guy affiliated with Billy Graham and people like that. I think his father was a minister, which is where the connections came from. So, one of my mutual friends there says, “I want you to meet a friend of mine. His uncle used to do comic books.” “Oh, okay.” “This is Paul Dillon.” “Oh, was your uncle Dick Dillin?” “No, my uncle was Alex Raymond.” I said, “Okay, let’s forget about the demo, I want to talk to you.”
JR: So, Paul is a portrait artist and he tells me that his mother and father were the models for Flash and Dale. And Paul doesn’t look much like either Flash or Dale to my mind, but I absolutely believe him. Then it’s pointed out to me that Paul’s sons are Matt and Kevin Dillon. The actors.
JR: And then I think about Matt Dillon’s face. The long face, the cheekbones, the slim nose. I go, “Ooo! It’s Flash Gordon’s grandkid.” Then years later I get hired to do a very teeny little part on Entourage with Kevin Dillon and I bring up the fact that I know his father and all that. You know what’s funny? I’m in a health club in New York and there’s Matt Dillon. I say, “Oh, hey, hi, Matt. I know your father. It’s really cool that we’re painters and we know each other.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “And you know the thing about you and Flash Gordon.” Then he stopped and went, “Who are you?”
JR: I realized then that after a lifetime of people saying, “Hey! Can I talk to you?” You build a wall and, “I’m not talking to you.” I said, “I’m not a fan, okay? I know your father.”
Stroud: What a great story. Six degrees of separation.
JR: By the way, a holy trinity story; comic book art holy trinity; my drawing teacher when I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen years old was Arthur J. Foster, Hal Foster’s son.
Stroud: Oh, for crying out loud.
JR: I used to correspond with Mr. Foster. Harold. I wanted to study with Arthur J. Foster because he had the comic art connection. He was a lovely, sweet older guy and then he retired. He actually had been groomed to take over the strip when Mr. Foster retired, but he just didn’t want to do it. Then the guy I studied with after that for ten years was a guy named Anthony Polumbo and he studied with Burne Hogarth and if I’m not mistaken in the same class with Williamson and Frazetta. That’s the anecdote. I’m not absolutely sure it’s true, but I know that Mr. Polumbo studied with Hogarth. To which I asked, when he was teaching me anatomy, I said, “Should I go buy Hogarth’s book?” He responded, “God, no. It’s all wrong!”
JR: It is. He wrote an entire book and it’s incorrect in so many not even subjective ways. It’s wrong. So that’s sort of my holy trinity story. Oh, and Caniff. I saw Caniff at a convention. I had to go up and shake his hand. It was Milton Caniff, so what are you going to do?
Stroud: Certainly. That would be like breezing by Jerry Robinson.
JR: I was at a convention once with Toth and Toth was a volatile personality and I was with a young lady at the convention and Toth tried to make a play for her. (Chuckle.) He didn’t care who she was with. He wanted her and he was Alex Toth and he was going to do what he could. I’ve met a lot of my idols and you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes you’ll wish you hadn’t.
Stroud: Yeah, they don’t always live up to what you have in your mind, I’m sure.
JR: Almost never. Joe Kubert did, for sure and Al Williamson. Well, Al Williamson, who is maybe one of the best draftsmen ever; it’s universally told that Al Williamson is a great guy; but never to me. He would say snide stuff to me and I don’t understand why. Speaking of separating the artist from the art, right? So, one day I get a royalty check from Marvel Comics and I look it up and I didn’t ink the comic. Al Williamson did. I found his phone number and called up and said, “I’m returning this check to Marvel, but you should know that it exists and you should look for it, because they just might keep it.” And from that point on, we were very friendly because I think Al had heard stories about me and never experienced me. As a matter of fact, there was talk of me doing a portrait of his wife years ago before he got ill, so that’s how much of a compliment it was. So it’s back to that. If there’s one piece that doesn’t make sense and then it drops in.
Stroud: Right. I guess my only recent similar story was last year when I initiated a correspondence with Steve Ditko for a little while and he wasn’t that interested in talking about comic book stuff.
JR: He actually wrote back?
Stroud: Yeah, believe it or not. I got about a half dozen letters and then I said something wrong and ticked him off and that was it.
JR: Was he ticked off or just didn’t write back?
Stroud: Well, I’d seen where Marvel was now doing these online comics and they were starting with the old classic stuff and I made mention of it to him and asked if he got royalties for it. I wasn’t prying; I just wondered if he was aware and he wrote back and said, “Well, if you’re interested in Marvel’s business practices you ought to ask them if you think you have the right.” I thought, “Uh-oh.” The misunderstanding kind of went from there. I apologized, but that seemed to be the end of it. I guess I screwed that up, but he was nice enough to give me his impressions of being Jerry Robinson’s student and Jerry was happy to get a copy of it.
JR: I refer to Ditko as the J.D. Salinger of comic books. I’ve told this story before, but I may as well. I knew Steve a little bit and I ran into him several times around the Times Square area which I’m told is sort of where he lives, or maybe lived. I don’t know. One day I had done a poster for Marvel of Spider-Man/Peter Parker, half/half. Ron Frenz drew it and I inked and colored it and I saw Steve and I had nothing to lose, apparently. I said, “Hey, Steve. I figured out the secret of drawing Peter Parker.” “Yeah?” “You make him like he’s sort of constipated.” He cracked up.
And for all of you who don’t know what Steve Ditko looks like; last time I saw him, which was quite awhile ago, he’s slim, tallish, but I’m very short so everyone looks tall to me, bald, trim of hair, broad smile, looks like your pharmacist. Glasses; nothing particularly startling about the guy. So, I had missed an issue of Playboy, and unlike most people, who buy Playboy, I buy it for the pictures, because I didn’t even know there were articles. So, I missed an issue of it, and you would find these 3-packs of similar magazines being sold at newsstands. So there the Playboy was in a 3-pack. So, I bought it. And one of the other two magazines was this crappy British thing and as I’m flipping through it, there’s these three black and white comic book pages. I looked at it and thought, “This isn’t bad. Hey! This is good. Hey! This is Steve Ditko!” Or at the very least it was Ditko’s inking. It was an S & M thing, like women tied up and all that and I remembered Clea in the early Dr. Strange issues being tied up with these ball gags in her mouth. “Well, this is interesting.” So, I run into Ditko again, and I said, “Hey Steve, I bought this British magazine with these three pages of an S & M thing and it looked like you did it.” He said, “Nobody can prove that.”
JR: So, I didn’t have a lot of room to go on that subject. I used to share studio space up at Continuity Associates with Jack Abel and Jack was also one of Jerry’s (Robinson) students and Jack spoke well of Jerry, too.
Stroud: Stan Goldberg had wonderful things to say about Jerry, too. In fact, didn’t you ink some of Stan’s stuff?
JR: Yeah. There was a character in the 60’s, orthodox Jewish comics called “Mendy and the Golem.” The Golem is a Jewish sort of a Frankenstein that comes around to help people out. There used to be, and probably still is, a third Thursday gathering on Long Island of all the cartoonist’s and friends of cartoonist’s who felt like coming to have a meal and some guy would get up and sing and artwork would be on display and all that and it was called the Burnt Toast Club. God knows why.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. It’s a tribute to Walter Berndt.
JR: Okay. Frank Springer was there, and Creig Flessel who was probably the world’s oldest living comic book guy, and I used to sit at the power table. I only went two or three times as a visitor, but I used to sit at the table with John Buscema, John Romita, Stan Goldberg and Mort Drucker.
Stroud: Oh, wow.
JR: One day I get a phone call from Stan Goldberg who said, “I’m doing this project and I want you to ink it.” Once again, wrong casting. What the hell do I know about that style? And I said, “Okay. Sure. You know my work?” He said, “No.” “Why are you hiring me?” He said, “Because Big John Buscema recommended you. And if it’s good enough for John…” So, I inked the very first issue of the new Mendy and the Golem and then Stan left that project and Ernie Colon took over for the next five issues. It was a very strange company. The writer had a writer’s block and instead of firing him, they would just wait two, three, four months until he got around to writing something again.
Stroud: That is strange.
JR: As a matter of fact, I was trying to ink this thing over work in what I perceived to be an Archie comic style appropriate for what Stan was drawing, but after a short time I thought, “I can’t do this. This is not what I do. I’m going to have to ink it the way I want to,” and as a friend of mine put it, I added bones to people. I sent Stan some of it for his approval and he was very lukewarm about it and I thought, “O-o-okay. Well, I’ve screwed this up, but I’ve got to do it the way I want to do it.” Then when it was all done, Stan made a point of calling me up to just compliment me over and over again about how much he loved what I had done and it was great to hear, because I thought he didn’t like it. So, as they referred to it, it was my action/adventure inking, which is just putting bones in people.
Mort Drucker, who is obviously the best at what he does, is someone I would go and visit and he wasn’t particularly taken with my comic book stuff, but I’d show him my portraits and my paintings and he liked those. There’s a great Mort Drucker story. Mort had a job to do three illustrations for a Bob Hope movie in the 60’s called “Bwana Jim” or something like that. Some sort of jungle themed movie. So, he did them, but they had to be in color and Mort didn’t really know color, so he went down the road to his local illustrator pal and said, “Would you color these for me?” So, the guy did and they were gorgeous and then Mort got another color job to do and he went to the same guy and the guy said, “Mort, don’t you think it’s time you learned how to use color?” And so, Mort has since. Well, the name of the guy who did the coloring on those first three illustrations? Frank Frazetta.
Stroud: Oh, good night.
JR: So, unless they’re destroyed, somewhere out there are examples of Mort Drucker/Frank Frazetta artwork. That wouldn’t be bad finding them.
Stroud: Boy, I guess.
JR: So, John Buscema…John was one of the greatest draftsmen to ever hit comic books; I showed him my stuff, because you bring things to show at the Berndt Toast lunch’s, and John was like (New York accent) dis big, like Long Island guy. He was a guy! “Oh, you want 16 pages by Tuesday? Okay, and your car will be ready, too.”
JR: Once Jim Shooter hired John to teach a class at Marvel. Anybody that wanted to show up could go and get the words of wisdom from John Buscema, and the only person I actually remember being there beside myself was Lee Weeks. Oh, there was a guy there, a colorist for awhile who painted a project that John drew. Peter Ledger. Peter asked, “John, how do you draw something difficult like Conan resting on his stomach, drinking from a pool?” And John said, “Oh, you know, like this,” and then ask: “John, how do you draw faster?” “Well you know, you draw less lines.” “Okay, John. Now how do you draw Thor’s face looking up?” “Well, you know, you kinda draw these lines and then you connect ‘em up, and it’s Thor!”
JR: I guess this is what you get with a genius. Mozart said, “I make music as an apple tree makes apples, it just comes out of me.” He also said, “I make music as a sow piddles.” So, I brought my stuff to show John and I brought my portraits and all that and it was a great high for me, because John looked through my portfolio going, “I hate dis guy! Look at dis! I hate dis guy. I hate dis guy!” Then I said, “Do you want to trade some art?” And John traded me something like 60 or 70 of his layout sheets for a pastel portrait, which I was happy to do.
Stroud: Oh, good Lord, I guess.
JR: And then I loaned those sheets to the Joe Kubert School and they tell me they were mailed back and I’ve never seen them since.
JR: I’ll give you one even worse. I would solicit pencilers for Marvel Universe to make it interesting for me, because a lot of it was dull; a lot of it was the same guys, so if I could get John Severin or John Bolton or Nestor Redondo that would wake me up and I’d enjoy it. So, I said, “I’m going to get Will Eisner.” So, I make a trip to the School of Visual Arts, which is where he taught, and the day before I had copied one of the Spirit portraits out of one of his books and I inked it in his style, or as close as I could get it to his style. It was to show, “Look, if you draw something for me, I can ink it like you, I won’t just ignore what you penciled.” So, I came in and said, “I’d like you to do this project.” He said, “Well, why would I draw something I didn’t create?” It didn't compute. “Well, I would love to ink you.” “Well, if you want to ink me…” And on the same sheet that I had this portrait on, he drew a ¾ drawing of the Spirit sort of leaning on his elbow.
JR: Well; I never inked that drawing for sure. Then in the process of moving from one studio to the other I asked my assistant where that drawing was and he lost it and that’s the last of it.
Stroud: Oh, no…
JR: That’s the heartbreaker. I don’t have that idiot assistant any more. I don’t have any idiot assistants any more. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Really a tragedy. What led you to the West Coast, Joe?
JR: My girlfriend wanted to live here and I didn’t want to lose her, so we relocated. It’s warmer here.
Stroud: I guess that’s kind of the beauty of the way things work now. FedEx goes everywhere.
JR: Right. Prior to that if you wanted to be a comic book artist or an illustrator, you had to live or travel to the tri-state area and that was that. The Filipinos, when Joe Orlando was recruiting and hiring them, would do their artwork on thin, thin, thin paper, roll it into a tube and mail like a 22-page job back from the Philippines because it was the cheapest way they could make this stuff happen. I don’t know for a fact that DC paid them less money than the American artists, but I would imagine on American rates they could afford real postage. And now, of course, with electronics you don’t have to live anywhere near the companies any more and nowadays some inkers never even get the physical pencil artwork in their hands. They e-mail it to an ftp site and download it, print it, ink it and send it back. I imagine that cuts back on FedEx costs and returning artwork costs and so on.
Stroud: It’s a different world. Dick Giordano, your mentor, commented to me that he had to make that commute from Connecticut for awhile. That must have been difficult. He said he’d do work on the train.
JR: I think he worked on the train by writing and editing, but he didn’t do any artwork.
Stroud: I’m sure you’re right.
JR: I just want to make it public right now: Every time I see Dick Giordano I kiss him on the lips. There, it’s out, I’m proud.
JR: Dick’s an Italian man, and Dick taught me what I know, and he’s a very nice guy and I just kiss him. You know when your father passes away, the art of hugging and kissing fat men usually leaves with them.
JR: And Dick usually fights me. “No, I gotta kiss you.”
Stroud: Good for you, Joe. How did you guys get acquainted?
JR: I was at a comic book convention. My father, who hated comic books and didn’t want me to go anywhere near them, brought me to my first comic book convention and there was this guy there, my idol at the time, Neal Adams, and I wheedled my way into an invitation to his house for dinner and when I was there he said they’d just opened this new studio called Continuity Associates, and I said, “Can I work there? Mop floors and clean up and stuff?” It was the summer time and they let me and it was a horrible, traumatic experience, which I’m still talking about in therapy today. And then when winter came and school was back in session, I was allowed to come after school and do errands and stuff and when there was an opportunity, I would practice. I would get Xeroxes of Neal’s pencils on some advertising job and I would get Dick’s inks and then I would get a sheet of tracing paper, put it over Neal’s pencils and then imitate Dick’s inks to learn how to use a brush.
I was going to the Art Student’s League at the same time and then Dick eventually started letting me do blacks on his pages and touch up the panel borders, do a little bit of inking here and there. When Russ Heath, who was working there, and would go to lunch I would go and pick up the magic brush; this incredible brush that would render two-page spreads of Tiger tanks with the rendering on the tread and I’d pick it up and I’d dip it in ink and it was like using a turd. “Oh, I get it. It’s not the brush, it’s the guy.”
I would work in Jack Abel’s room and he’d start letting me do some assistant work and then Woody rented space there and that’s how I started to work for Woody. I went to the High School of Art and Design which was a vocational art high school and I don’t think I had money, but I know I didn’t want to continue studying, I just wanted to work. There was a new guy there named Mike Nasser who eventually became Mike Netzer (chuckle) and I asked if I could work on his samples and I did and he liked what he saw and he had just gotten his first job, appropriately titled “Tales of the Great Disaster” in the back of Kamandi and he brought my samples up and Gerry Conway hired me for what I found out was the cheapest rate anybody was being paid in the industry: $20.00 a page.
Believe me, if it sounds cheap now, it really was cheap then, but only by a little, because I found out the rates people were usually hired at was $23.00 a page. I wasn’t that fast and I figured at this pay rate, the most I’ll ever make in my life is $10,000.00 a year. I wasn’t anticipating raises. So, then I started to freelance and I got some jobs and then I couldn’t get any more jobs. I went to Israel for a visit, which is where I’m from. When I came back I thought maybe I could help people like Bob McLeod or Klaus Janson meet deadlines. If I remember right the first day when I was looking for work I got three jobs. One was from a penciler named Jim James who hired me to ink something that I don’t know if it ever got published and I got the Kamandi thing and something else I don’t remember now. The way I got the DC job was that Sol Harrison, who I hope is sharing a room with Mort Weisinger, by the way, said, “Okay, I’ll give him the work, but (speaking to Dick) only if you watch him.” So, I did the job and I brought it to Dick and he said, “Okay.” That was “watching me.”
JR: I managed to get work from then on. I was the youngest guy in comic books for awhile. I was 17 and Trevor Von Eeden was penciling Black Lightning. I think he was 16. I was lobbying for us to do something together so that we would be the youngest team in comic books, but that didn’t happen until I was the ripe old age of 20, I think. I remember Joe Orlando looking at my latest job and he went, “I remember when Al Williamson used to come into the EC Comics offices and he was 21 and we couldn’t believe how young he was.” The nice thing about being an inker is that you’re allowed to not know what you’re doing for the first two years because you can hide behind the pencils. Pencilers can’t hide anywhere, but if you get tight enough pencils and you just follow them without actually falling out of your chair, people will think you’re not bad. So I was working at DC for two years, but I was really champing at the bit to ink the Buscema’s and Colan and Don Heck and I don’t remember who else, but the guys who were only at Marvel that you couldn’t get at DC. Then Jim Starlin, who’s done this to several people, came up to me and said, “I’m doing this annual. Do you want to ink it?” “Yeah!”
JR: He had started on parts of it, but I guess he said, “I don’t like inking and I’ve got other things to do with my day.” So that was the Avengers Annual, along with its immediate sequel, the Marvel Two-in-One Annual and they got noticed. I remember John Beatty told me, I’m not sure how much younger John is than me, but he said he bought the comic book and thought, “Hey, who’s this guy?!” The thing is, I wanted to work on good pencilers. I just wanted to do Conan. Not because I have such an affinity for Conan, but because it was John Buscema and Frank Miller was this kid from Vermont who was starving who I used to buy lunches for when he would come to the studio to show his latest stuff, so I guess that’s why Frank got me to ink the first Daredevil cover he drew simply because he knew that I would try. Then they ask, “You want to do a Wolverine mini-series?” “Sure. I love Frank’s work now.” I never thought, “Oh, this is the first one ever. It’s historic. The pages will be worth $5,000.00 each in 30 years, if you can find them.” I guess it’s like movie and T.V. stars have said: “We did a job. We did the best we could and then somebody paid attention to it.” And now it’s part of people’s fantasy, folklore, childhood, history and so forth and they really want to know what it was like inking the first Wolverine mini-series. “Like a job.”
Stroud: Exactly. I remember Frank Springer saying, “Hey, I was happy to have the work. I needed to feed my kids, buy my house, and buy my car.”
JR: Someone asked Simonson, “Were you intimidated following Kirby?” He said, “Well, pretty much everything at Marvel in those days was following Kirby.” He did The Hulk, The Avengers, Captain America. It was all following Kirby. He did his job.
Stroud: That’s true.
JR: Personally, I think if you’re going to do a character that Kirby invented, go look at Kirby. After that, it got diluted. Now, maybe I’m being reactionary, but if you’re going to do Galactus, do Kirby’s.
Stroud: That’s right.
JR: I was thinking, “I am inking John Buscema, can I do this justice?” When I’m inking Gene Colan: “Oh, my God. Gene Colan. Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Dracula.” Tom Palmer was very much one of my influences, so now there’s that never-ending debate: Am I going to do it like Palmer, because I can’t do it as well as Palmer? Am I going to not do it like Palmer? Well then it won’t look like what I think it should look like. Am I doing Palmer even though I intended not to do Palmer? And sometimes you would find its like when I did Byrne’s Captain America. I thought, “Well, there’s a lovely, decorative quality to what Terry Austin was doing on the X-Men, but he didn't have any nostalgia to me then, like it does to plenty of people now. It wasn’t what I grew up on, it’s what I’ve seen going through the offices. “Oh, this is kind of nice. Yeah, I like this,” but I wasn’t saying, “Oh, God-oh-God-oh-God, are they going to judge me against Terry?”
Now I did do that with Klaus, but as I said Klaus almost always blew me away in what he did. I remember when I would get the latest issue of Daredevil I would look at it two ways, and I had to be very disciplined about it. I read the story, because I wanted to get the impact; then I went back and looked at the artwork, because if I looked at the artwork then I would lose the train of the story.
So, when I did Byrne’s Captain America… I realized that Terry wasn’t inking John the way I would do it. He was interpreting a whole other set of stuff even though I’m sure John was more or less drawing them the same way. “Okay. I feel no obligation to give it an X-Men look, because I’m just going to respond to the pencils in front of me.” And all these years later people keep referring to it as a true highlight in my career, and I don’t disagree, but my frustration is I wish they would hire me to do more John because I think I’m a better inker now, and you’d get a better job. But, John tends to ink his own work nowadays. If you go to WWW.ComicArtFans.com it’s got tons of original artwork that people have bought for their own galleries, and a big, big John Byrne fan is the inker Tim Townsend who is known primarily for his X-Men stuff. Tim hired me to ink a Captain America commission that he had John drew and I loved it. I loved doing it; I loved the nostalgia of it. I think John and I look very good together, and Tim was really pleased by the thing. I think it’s better than my Cap stuff. There’s a lot of themes on this website like drawings of Batman or Catwoman and this one guy has Chameleon Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes turning into various things. A collector named Michael Finn has his theme called “One Minute Later…”
Stroud: I’ve seen some of those. They’re very interesting.
JR: The idea is “What happens one minute after this cover?” Like Batman punches the Joker and one minute later the Joker has risen and blasts him or vice versa. “What would have happened?” Michael commissioned Byrne to draw a Captain America cover, which is the one where Baron Blood, I think it’s #254, but Baron Blood is standing over Cap and is about to kill him. So what Byrne drew was the tables were turned and now Cap has Baron Blood pinned with his legs as he’s picked up the shield and is about to decapitate him. And that was great. It was great inking it and everybody reacted to the fact that they hadn’t seen a new Byrne/Rubinstein cover in 25 years.
JR: I also do recreations where some kid might have had his grandmother buy him his first X-Men comic or Captain America, etc. And he always loved that cover, and now its 30 years later and he’s got a little bit of money and he contacts me or Frank or John or anybody, because they can’t buy the actual original art. They’re crazy expensive, even if you can find them. So, they commission me or whoever to do recreations of the cover. One day it occurred to me what we are selling: Its joy. What good does a piece of artwork do in a portfolio or even on a wall unless you look at it and you recall a fond memory or some friend comes over and you say, “Look what I've got!” You get joy from, “Look at this! It’s Daredevil!” And that’s what we do. As a matter of fact, Tim sent me an e-mail, and he said, “I just bought a Captain America cover for the equivalent of a middle-sized car.” He said, “I think you’ll be interested in it.” So, the cover starts to scan down from the top of my monitor. So, I start to see the Captain America logo, and it keeps going down and I’m waiting for a Kirby cover to pop up eventually. Then it gets low enough where I realize it’s one of mine with Byrne. So that’s the kind of money that original art, some original art, goes for nowadays and it’s rather prohibitive for most people to afford that, but it’s not as bad if you get somebody to recreate it for you.
Stroud: Yeah, and as you said, that’s an opportunity to buy back a memory and that’s absolutely priceless. I take it you enjoy doing them.
JR: Yeah. Very often when I’m re-doing them I’ll think, “Who is this schmuck inker? What is he thinking? I would change this.” But I don’t, because nobody asks me for the new and improved version. “I wouldn’t have done it that way now, but that’s not what they’re asking for.”
Stroud: If I’m reading you correctly it sounds like rather than having favorite genres you have favorite collaborators.
JR: Yeah, but I like superheroes, a lot. I even like love stories and romantic stuff because you get to do pretty girls. I’m not particularly versed in Westerns or war stories and I hate doing metal. I don’t want to do a robot. I don’t want to do the Transformers and Rom doesn’t particularly turn me on either, but if they called up and said, “Ditko did a Rom, do you want it?” I’d take it. But I like superheroes and I like pretty girls. I don’t mind mystery jobs and jungle jobs because I like doing organic things like trees and rocks and boulders, but if I have to do airplanes or spaceships it bores the crap out of me.
Stroud: Ah, back to that straight-line precision stuff.
JR: Yeah. With a muscle you have a certain amount of leeway in how it goes and where it goes, but if the fuselage is too much this or not enough that, it’s wrong, and I’d rather not be restricted that way.
Stroud: I can understand. That would not cause the creative juices to flow much.
JR: Mind you, Dave Simons - who used to do the Ghost Rider book - is a motorcycle enthusiast and he loved doing Ghost Rider because of the motorcycle, so good for him. It’s just not my thing. I like people. I like the look of people and the way clothing falls and how hair looks and I like pretty girls and whatever it takes.
Stroud: Joe, you’ve drawn pretty much every major character. I can’t think of a single one you haven’t drawn. Do they translate well to the big screen?
JR: Well, I’ll answer your question, but who cares?
JR: I mean, what do I know? Just because I do comic books doesn’t mean I have taste. I think…I enjoyed the Spider-Man movies. I enjoyed the first more than the last, but the last with that Sandman effect was wonderful. I liked Daredevil. I hear lots of people didn’t. I liked Daredevil a lot. I liked both Hulk movies, but there’s no denying the last one was wonderful. Now that they have the technology and people don’t look like they’re wearing cloth outfits…I looked at the Batman movie and Christian Bale is a wonderful, wonderful actor, but I think to myself, “You think people aren’t going to identify you from your teeth?”
Stroud: (Chuckle.) It does seem a bit absurd.
JR: Somehow Smallville has not…I don’t know if they ever will. No one is dealing with the fact that when Clark puts on the costume nobody knows it’s Clark and that never made any sense. It just didn’t. But you know what’s funny? When I inked my first Superman with Curt, I inked Superman and then I inked Clark and I thought, “Wait a second. This is not the same face.” He was drawing a different face for Clark. It’s not that he took off the glasses. He was absolutely doing something different when he drew Clark. Then the writers did a story that was trying to reconcile this, because as the kids grew up, became adults and they became writers they said, “This is stupid. It makes no sense.” They wrote this story where Kal-El, unbeknownst to himself, was sending out a hypnotic suggestion to everybody who looked at him so he wouldn’t look like Clark when they saw him. This was a real story, not a “What if?” So, what can you do?
Stroud: That’s funny. It reminds me of something I read somewhere that was very similar. It was a retro explanation where Jay Garrick, who didn’t wear any sort of mask when he was the Flash, supposedly vibrated his features when he was in costume so that they couldn’t identify him.
JR: What are you going to do? I just saw the Spirit movie, and I can’t tell how good a movie it is because I was just too fascinated with watching Frank’s pictures come to life. “Oh, look, it’s a Frank Miller shot. It’s a water tower in silhouette.” So I’m not the audience for it. On top of that, I’m usually the only guy laughing at scenes in comic book movies. It’s like in the Daredevil movie Matt’s father has to fight this guy and his name is Battlin' Romita, or something. And the character says, “Yeah, you know that Romita’s a scumbag!” I’m laughing, because I get it.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) I know what you mean. I guess I’m officially a geek because the new animated Batman, Brave and the Bold that just started showing on Friday nights a few weeks ago had one episode where the opening scene showed a couple of kids watching a television and the screen flashes a quick advertisement that made me do a double take. “Did I really see that?” I contacted my best friend and asked, “Was it me or did that screen show an ad for Plastino Kitty Snacks?” “You’re right.”
JR: I liked the way the Spirit movie showed Ditko’s Delivery Service or something. I thought, “Of course Frank has great admiration for Ditko, but he’s not a Spirit guy, c’mon!” There was a Feiffer mentioned in there and I think Donenfeld, who was the original owner of DC comics. When Howard Chaykin had something to do with the Flash T.V. show decades ago, I would watch it, and I didn’t particularly like that show, because the Flash was too damn bulky, but I would watch it and I would just listen for the names like, “Yeah, we’ve got to meet you over at Simonson and Milgrom.” Of course, Kirby Plaza is in “Heroes.” Why not?
Stroud: Sure. All the inside jokes.
JR: Think of it as tributes. Well, look at Smallville. Chris Reeve’s character was Professor Swan. That was no mistake.
Stroud: Right. Of course, back in the day that was one of the fun stories Joe Giella told me about when he was drawing the Batman strip and of course contractually it had to be signed “Bob Kane” no matter who did it. He said his only alternative was just every so often to slip in a delivery truck with “Giella’s Donuts” or something.
JR: I’ve drawn myself and my then-girlfriend into things and I did a Justice League International Annual with Bill Willingham and it was set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, having nothing to do with me for the story, except that’s where I grew up. Nobody asked me and I wasn’t consulted on plot. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn is where a large contingent of Russian Jews immigrated and there was a scene where they’re dancing in a Russian nightclub and so I just made sure one of the guys was my father. You do stuff like that.
Stroud: Nice. Personalize it a little and keep it fun. Joe, I’ve burned up two and a half hours of your night, my friend.
JR: Well, luckily, I got to do a card while we were talking.
Stroud: I can’t thank you enough, not only for your time, but for contacting me in the first place. I’m not sure what caught your attention, but I’m sure glad it did.
JR: You’re welcome.