Written by Bryan Stroud
Ralph Reese (born May 19, 1949) is an American artist who has illustrated for books, magazines, trading cards, comic books and comic strips (including a year drawing the Flash Gordon strip for King Features). Prolific from the 1960s through the 1990s, he is best known for his contributions to DC’s horror titles and his collaboration with Byron Preiss on the comic strip One Year Affair (serialized in The National Lampoon from 1973 to 1975 and then collected into a 1976 book). Classic Comics Press has announced plans to release a new edition of One Year Affair near the end of 2019.
Understudy to Wally Wood, studio mate to Joe D'Esposito and yet another Continuity contributor, I proudly present Ralph Reese!
This interview originally took place over the phone on November 2, 2010.
Bryan Stroud: How are you, Mr. Reese?
Ralph Reese: I see your e-mail has “Professor,” in it. Are you a Professor?
Stroud: No, it’s just an old nickname from grade school that I liked.
Reese: They called me that, too…in juvenile detention. (Laughter.) Because I was the only one there who could read.
Stroud: You remind me a little of Russ Heath.
Reese: I knew Russ when he used to hang out at Continuity. He helped Neal [Adams] out with storyboards and comps and other stuff. At that time he was divorced and in his 50’s and very much on the make. (Chuckle.) He cut a little bit of a funny figure. I mean guys in their 50’s should not wear leather pants.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Not at all. There is a time and place for these things.
What led you to Continuity Studios?
Reese: I lived there in New York City and had been working in the field for some time and I guess I had met Neal at Phil Seuling’s convention and a couple of other cons here and there. I think at that time he and Stan Lee had just started the Academy of Comic Book Arts.
So I met Neal and once he started that place with Dick Giordano it was sort of an open door policy where all kinds of people would come and just hang out. He invited me to stop by and we struck up a fairly friendly relationship. I had been working at home at the time and was looking to find a studio space somewhere outside of my apartment. I thought that might be good for me in terms of having a little bit more discipline with my work habits.
Stroud: Makes sense.
Reese: If you’re just sitting around home it’s just too easy to sit around and smoke pot all day and never get anything done. Especially in those times. At any rate I started going down there and he offered me some work helping him out on the advertising work that he was doing because the main business was always storyboards and comps. That was really where he was making his money. Not so much in comic books.
Stroud: The commercial side was the cash cow, I guess.
Reese: Right. I welcomed the opportunity to learn something about that and thought it might be a better way of making some money. So I wound up coming down there and renting some desk space and becoming part of the crew there for a bunch of years. I guess I hung around for 4 or 5 years.
Stroud: Sounds like a pretty long run for the time.
Reese: I would say so, yes.
Stroud: It didn’t sound like there were any long-term leases.
Reese: No. It was a very loose kind of thing. At that time Neal was less of a businessman than he became later and he was much more open and friendly to pretty much anybody in the comic book world. Continuity was the kind of place where anybody who came into the city from out of town to deliver some work could come over and hang out and we’d go down and have a few drinks. I met a lot of people there.
Stroud: Who sticks out in your mind?
Reese: There were, of course, a lot of regulars. But if Al Williamson, for example, happened to come down to the city to deliver some Star Wars art or something, he would drop by Continuity and hang out there for an hour or two.
Stroud: It had to be amazing. Some of your peers have mentioned “First Fridays” with Gray Morrow…
Reese: Well, Gray Morrow was more of a regular there. He would come in from New Jersey once or twice a week and he’d come and hang out at Continuity after he’d done his business at King Features. We’d go down to the Pig and Whistle and have a drink or two and he would hang out until the traffic died down before he drove back out.
It was kind of a gathering place for any comic artist who happened to be in town.
Stroud: I’m told it was centrally located to most of the usual destinations for commercial artists.
Reese: It was right there in Midtown and it was someplace to go when you were done with your business at the publishers and a place to hang out and see what was going on in the business with other people and catch up on gossip and maybe have a few laughs.
Stroud: How did you typically spend your time there? What I mean is mainly your own stuff or Crusty Bunker things or…
Reese: It was mostly my own work and as I mentioned helping Neal out with some of the storyboards and other projects that he was doing. At the time I was doing a fair amount of work on The National Lampoon and I was doing horror and a fair amount of other stuff for Marvel and what not. Mostly inking. We’re talking about a few years’ time, so different things came and went.
Stroud: Did you learn much from being with the other artists?
Reese: Not as much as I would have liked. The thing about Neal was that he was not a teacher. I had been a protégé of Wally Wood. I’d been Woody’s assistant for a number of years when I first came into the business. I worked with him on 74th Street. I started working for him when I was 16 years old.
Reese: Well, I was there way before them. I was with him during the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents period. Me and Adkins and Anthony Coleman.
Stroud: Wow. It must have been a lot of fun.
Reese: Anyway, Wood was a teacher. He enjoyed taking people under his wing and teaching them his methods and his approach. Everybody in the world has seen his “Twelve Comic Book Panels That Always Work.” That was him. He had a very systematic approach to what he did and he took a special interest in me, I think. He went out of his way to teach me how to do things.
Adams was not like that. He was more apt to tell you why your work sucked and why he was on a completely different level than you. He was a lot more apt to just put you down or make you feel small. So he wasn’t a teacher, but he was friendly in a personal way at that time. Later, as Continuity grew to be a real advertising business, I think he became more of just a boss. But at that time, he was still one of the guys. He would go to the First Fridays and smoke pot with us and he would hang out. He did have a tendency to build up his own ego at your expense, but he was helpful to me a number of times. He would recommend me to a few advertising people and helped me get a few jobs here and there.
He would cash people’s checks for them. For example if you got a check from Marvel and didn’t want to have to wait a week for it to clear the bank because you had to pay a telephone bill or something you could take it to him and he would give you a Continuity check that you could take down to the corner and cash. So he was a friend. He really was, at one time. It’s just that his megalomania got the better of him after a while, in my opinion.
In those early days when Dick was still his partner, he went out of his way to be friendly and helpful to pretty much everyone. If he met someone that impressed him as having real talent, he would try and help them.
Stroud: Do you know what led to Dick moving on?
Reese: I think Dick really wasn’t too keen on the advertising stuff. He was a comic book guy. I think he kind of dipped his fingers in it, but he really wanted to keep doing comics. He didn’t really want to become an advertising person. That’s where Continuity was headed.
Stroud: Did you get involved much in the piecemeal work at Continuity?
Reese: Well, I never got rich working for Neal, that’s for sure. He certainly didn’t overpay. He pretty much kept all the gravy for himself, but that’s business. He never did me wrong. I never felt more exploited by him than anybody else. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: When you think back to those times, do any memories spring up that were particularly fond or noteworthy?
Reese: Well, a lot of funny shit happened while I was there, but I’m not sure I’d want to see it published. (Laughter.)
Stroud: I understand.
Reese: I met some good people there like Ed Davis. All kinds of very talented people came through there. Bobby London, and of course Larry Hama and I were kind of partners for a while. Larry came down there more or less with me. We had been working together a year or two before that. We were friends in the High School of Art and Design. So we had been working together at my house, but when I started going down to Continuity, he came down there with me and eventually we wound up renting a little office down the hall there and sharing that for several years.
Of course Frank Miller spent some time there. Russ Heath. One of my good friends was Alcazar, a Spanish artist who was doing a fair amount of work doing stuff for Warren’s magazines and working around comics here and there.
Stroud: There was certainly a long laundry list of folks who passed through there in those days.
Reese: As I mentioned before, Gray Morrow was a regular and Russ Heath was there for a couple of years.
Stroud: Bernie Wrightson came along too, didn’t he?
Reese: Once in a while. Not too much. Bernie and Kaluta and Jeff Jones kind of started their own thing with The Studio. They didn’t really come around that much. I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t think Jeff Jones ever came around. I was friendly with Jeff before because he used to host the First Friday gatherings for a number of years. Everybody used to go over to Jeff Jones’ apartment and Kaluta and Wrightson lived right down the hall from him in the same apartment building.
But Kaluta, Wrightson and Jones never came around too much. I’m not too sure why. Maybe too much conflict of egos or whatever.
Stroud: What were the hours like?
Reese: We put in a lot of all-nighters there [at Continuity]. Especially working on those advertising jobs, because it was always a short fuse deadline and it was always late because he always took on more than he could possibly get done, even though he was phenomenally quick. That was probably one of the more demoralizing things about working around him for me. He could do 10 pages in the time it took me to do one. (Laughter.) And of course they’d be better looking pages. It was like, “Why don’t I just kill myself?” It was rough from that standpoint. Some people just have a natural gift and some people really have to work at it and I’m more of the second kind. I always had to grind it out, where from him it just flowed.
Stroud: It can drive you crazy when you work so hard at something and for someone else it seems to just come in their sleep.
Reese: Well, especially if it’s something you’re depending on to make a life out of. The thing about Neal is that he’s a total workaholic. He never left that place. He never left his desk. It seemed like he never ate or slept. In the years that I worked there I could count on one hand the times he went out for a meal. He would drink that horrible coffee with that awful powdered creamer in it and eat Mallomars and that was his diet. He lived on that for years. He’d be in there every morning at eight o’clock or whatever and he’d leave at two in the morning or three in the morning, get three hours of sleep and then come back the next day and be raring to go. I don’t know how he survived or what powered him. (Chuckle.) He certainly was a phenomenon in that respect.
He just never left that desk. Even his family had to come see him at his desk.
Stroud: Just a machine. I understand Kris, his daughter, spent some time up there, too.
Reese: Oh, yeah. She became absorbed into the Continuity fabric and became an integral part of it after a while. Especially later when it became more of a real business and less of a place to hang out.
Stroud: Was your experience there a career builder?
Reese: Sure. I picked up a lot of stuff just by osmosis and I learned a good deal just working on stuff. I had known nothing about the advertising world, really and I got a pretty good foothold on what that was all about. These days I kind of regret that, actually. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time doing advertising stuff.
Reese: Well, because what do you have to show for it? Here I am, 62 years old and it’s not anything I can remember with any fondness or have something to show to people as something that I could be proud that I did. 90% of the time the work is lying on some shelf in some advertising agency. You’re doing a lot of shit that nobody will ever see outside of some focus group or the client the advertiser is trying to impress. So I mean, is that art? That's one thing that I think about Neal, is that he wasted his talent doing all that shit. Storyboards for mini-pads. (Laughter.) With his ability he could have done so much more, but I guess he wanted the money and that’s where it was. That’s where he went.
Stroud: Are you still doing work today, Ralph?
Reese: I kind of got caught in the crash of ’95 and after nearly 30 years in the business, suddenly I just couldn’t get work. I couldn’t get work anywhere. The comic book business totally tanked. I was working for Acclaim and they folded. I wasn’t politically connected up at Marvel or DC at that time and with everybody desperate and scrambling, I just wasn’t at the top of anybody’s list. Also, coincidentally, right around that time the advertising work started drying up. The agencies cut back on their budgets drastically for hiring outside people doing storyboards and comps for them and started just using the art directors and also at that time the computer revolution started coming along. And what happened was that even people like Neal, who had a multi-million dollar business by that time, really got clobbered. There were no more animatics. Do you know what an animatic is?
Stroud: I’ve heard of it but I’m honestly not certain.
Reese: An animatic was basically an animated storyboard, where they would use sort of cut-out animation where you’d draw the pretty, nice lady holding the glass of orange juice but you’d make a loose arm so she could raise the orange juice up to her lips. That kind of thing. What they would do is they would film these on an animation camera and do the voice-overs in order to test commercials before they went out and hired live actors and spent all that money. This was a pretty common practice in the advertising business at that time. Before they’d make an actual live-action commercial they might make ten animatics of the concepts and test them on folks to see what they thought was going to fly.
So there was good money in that and there were a lot of people doing it. But once the computer revolution came along then all that stuff dried up because they could do all that stuff on the computer now with clip art and stock photography. It was a lot cheaper than having to hire an artist to visualize the stuff for them. There was a big change in the advertising industry around that time, too. There was maybe a tenth of the work that there used to be just a couple of years prior.
At any rate, to make a long story short, I found myself totally high and dry. I wound up getting evicted from where I was living, I went through some very hard times and actually ended up going out to drive trucks for about ten years. I just couldn’t get work.
Stroud: Oh, no. That’s awful.
Reese: Well, it was quite a shock, I’ll tell you that. I thought that my artistic career was fairly secure. I mean I had a six-year old daughter and the bottom fell out of my whole life.
Stroud: It almost sounds like the same thing that has been happening to lettering for a while now.
Reese: I used to pick up lettering jobs when I was first starting in the business like in between if I couldn’t get other work. If I couldn’t get artwork I’d go over to Marvel and say, “Give me something to letter.” At least it would keep a few dollars coming in and kept my hand in.
Then I got injured in the trucking business and messed up my back and wound up becoming disabled, so now I’m on disability, doing the occasional commission for a fan now and then, but I haven’t really worked in about 15 years as far as having regular artwork to do.
About five years ago I got a call from Sam Viviano at Mad Magazine out of the blue and I thought I might be able to make a comeback then, but they didn’t like my work. They said it was too old fashioned.
Stroud: Oh, that’s ridiculous.
Reese: I can’t believe it either. I think it was political. So much of the business is about who you know and who your friends are. I’ve been out of touch for so long and I’m perceived as being from another era. I got a job from DC about a year and a half ago. Somebody up at Vertigo was bringing back the old House of Mystery title and I had done some work in the original House of Mystery books, so I guess they tracked me down and they gave me that one job and then nothing. I sent samples up there and called them and looked hard for more to do, but they gave me that one job and that’s it.
I went so far as to go to the Hero’s Initiative people last year and asked them for help because I was in a pretty desperate situation. Even as things are now I’m kind of living month to month. I get a Social Security disability, but it’s not enough to live on.
Getting back to the Crusty Bunkers, though, it was mostly me and Neal, actually along with whoever else happened to be around that week pitching in. Frank Brunner would do some, especially on his own assignments. We inked a couple of Doctor Strange jobs as I recall. It’s a little hard to remember after all these years. But it was mostly me and Neal at the time that I was there. Maybe Terry Austin, too. He would do backgrounds it seems. At that time he was just starting out and I don’t think Neal would let him do the figures.
Neal would do all the main figures and leave me a lot of the secondary characters to complete and then various and sundry would fill in blacks or work on backgrounds. Who else have you heard mentioned as being a Crusty Bunker?
Reese: Joe D’esposito? He and I and Joe Barney had a studio together for a number of years. We were partners. We split off from Neal and formed our own little advertising place. We called it Studio 23 and it lasted maybe four years.
Let’s see Bob McLeod was around when I was there and Pat Broderick. They pitched in if there was something going through there at the time while they were there. I’m not sure of exact timelines. People came and went. McLeod and Terry Austin rented space up there and so did Pat Broderick. So they had their own little rooms in the back like Larry and I did. If there was a Crusty Bunker project going on at the time while they were there…I don’t know. Crusty Bunkers might have been done by the time they showed up. I’m just not sure.
Stroud: Well, and it’s not easy to pin down when the Crusty Bunkers really started or ended. It’ not like there was a formal charter or anything.
Reese: That’s true. It was a very interesting time with a lot of interesting people.