Written by Bryan Stroud
Tom Orzechowski (born March 1, 1953) is an American comic book letterer, primarily known for his work on Uncanny X-Men for Marvel Comics. Coming up through the fan community in Detroit in the late '60s, Tom's first professional work (in 1973) was on Marvel's British weekly titles. He quickly got pulled over to the lettering department and in 1979 he became the letterer for the Uncanny X-Men. Over the course of Orzechowski's enduring career, he has lettered something on the order of 6,000 pages of long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont's scripts. He also created several logos for Marvel, including a New Mutants logo and a long-lasting Wolverine logo. Tom also worked extensively on the localization of several early manga series, including Nausicaa, Appleseed, Dominion, and Ghost In the Shell. In 1992, he joined Image Comics as the Title Copy Editor for Spawn. In the early 2000's Orzechowski re-teamed with Chris Claremont for X-Men Forever and then New Mutants Forever.
Ever since my first interview with Gaspar Saladino, I've had a soft spot for letterers and Tom Orzechowski has not only been an incredibly prolific letterer, but he's a legitimate comic book historian in his own right, as you'll soon see. I'm pleased to say that since this interview, I've had the chance to attend several conventions (including San Diego) and I even got to meet Tom in person at a small venue in Portland, Oregon a couple of times. Once he was a guest, and the second time he was a fellow attendee, so we had a grand time walking around and talking comics like a couple of fans. You'd have to go far and wide to find a greater guy and conversationalist.
This interview originally took place over the phone on February 24, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: The earliest credit I could find for you was in 1973. Was that about when you began?
Tom Orzechowski: Exactly. It was January 2nd. It’s easy to remember. If Marvel had been open January 1st it would have been January 1st. Tony Isabella is a dear old friend and he got an editorial job there toward Halloween of ’72 and I think Klaus Janson was already there and he immediately started pulling his fan friends into different positions. The same thing was happening at DC. Starlin and Milgrom had already started. Buckler had already been in New York for a couple of years. I was the next one tapped. He almost literally picked me up off the street. I didn’t know where I was going to stay that night, but it didn’t matter. I was on staff at Marvel in the day time. The rest of the year could just take care of itself. I was immediately doing touch-ups on the British editions of the earliest Marvel stories for Spider-Man Comics Weekly/Mighty World of Marvel. They were being published somewhat wider than the American books so they had to have the artwork extended to the sides a little bit and I had to take out topical references to different things and to re-spell a few things like “cheque,” and “elevator” becomes “lift.” There was quite a list, actually. You’d be surprised how many minor differences there are. Things like re-spelling “color.” All that “o-u” business instead of just “o.” Re-spelling jail; which was actually good training, because I started with Chris Claremont that same year. A couple of years before X-Men. And his parents were British. In a way, I guess they still are. And he spent his first few months living in “Olde (something)” and got the accent and the spellings down in that time, so early on I was changing his Britishisms into Americanisms. So having worked on these American to Brit comics alerted me to a lot of the things that Chris would do in the other direction.
Stroud: So that worked out very well.
Orzechowski: Yeah. Kind of a nice little synchronicity falling into place for me. It was a very wide-open time. I’m sure Marvel is quite regimented now. I haven’t been up to the office in 25 years so I don’t know what things are like.
Stroud: Tom, what sort of training did you have?
Orzechowski: I had no training. There was a comics club in Detroit. I stumbled onto these guys during a convention in ’68 and they had gatherings across town to talk about the current books and bring out the old ones as well. I thought, “Oh, this is perfect. I’ve been waiting my entire 15-year old life for this.” And sure enough they had copies of Black Magic and Boys Ranch and all kinds of different stuff, and pretty soon there was this ‘zine, which was a news gathering ‘zine - which was in kind of a friendly competition with the Thompson’s. Then one day in the summer I was over there and we needed some stuff, so they said “Why don’t you just call DC and poke around?” I said, “Call DC?!” And I did and who did I get on the phone but Carmine [Infantino]? The publisher. And here’s this pimply faced 17-year old trying to pump him for stuff that to him is just as boring as anything. And he’s an interesting artist. He said, “Well, [Bernie] Wrightson is doing some stuff on House of Secrets, I think…” Just completely not helpful. But I was making notes and trying to get the hang of talking to these guys. They realized they had to talk to the fans occasionally. Carmine answered his own phone when I just called the switchboard at DC! Incredible! I thought I’d be dealing with at least 3 or 4 layers of intermediaries before reaching the guy if you can reach him at all. Particularly not someone like me. So that kind of helped to demystify the thing a bit, because here’s the guy that publishes the stuff and he couldn’t think of anything noteworthy to tell the press.
Stroud: (Mutual laughter.)
Orzechowski: I think they had just hired [Dick] Giordano around that time so they had Jim Aparo then and Steve Skeates and Aquaman had been revamped and maybe that’s when they were doing Phantom Stranger. There was all sorts of stuff happening. [Mike] Kaluta was there doing The Shadow. I think Shazam! you know, all sorts of things going on and he was just hemming and hawing and dealing with production sheets and trying to make sure the cost of paper didn’t go up too much this month and so on. The content of the books was the last thing on his mind.
Stroud: Bogged down in the weeds.
Orzechowski: I guess so, because I’d wondered when I was a lot younger how it was the guys I was working for, like Sol Brodsky and Frank Giacoia up there, how they could give up…especially Sol, who’d been a tremendous inker on all of Jack [Kirby]’s covers in the 60’s and [Joe] Orlando with DC; how they’d give up pushing the pencils, pushing the brushes and take a desk job. How do you get tired of drawing this stuff to the point where you’d just want to work out production schedules and make assignments and never really consciously look at the finished work? But that’s what I think Carmine did as publisher. He was simply the top administrator. As the art director he’d lay out the covers. Additionally, it demystified the fact for me that this is a business. Stan [Lee] created this myth of the jolly Marvel bullpen, and we just assumed that Marvel owned a building and everyone came to work every day and you had a good time. No. Everyone worked at home and no one ever came into the office. There were five people in the office; Stan and Roy [Thomas], Marie Severin, Sol Brodsky and maybe one or two other people like the guy that shoots the Photostats and that was it. That was the Marvel bullpen. “Okay.” (Chuckle.) Imagine my disappointment when I found this out.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. So much for all the hype.
Orzechowski: Yeah, but the hype worked, thanks to Stan Lee. And I don’t know if he looked at the finished books once he gave up scripting them. That’s the stuff I never took and was very pleased I was never offered them. Because for the sake of benefits and job security it might have been kind of tough to be a production manager.
Stroud: That was one thing Carmine told me that was news to me at the time was that the editors and the production people were the only ones on staff. I don’t know what I thought it was configured like, but it was quite a revelation.
Orzechowski: Well, picture the Eisner/Iger thing that we kind of keep in loving memory. There’s Bob Powell and Chuck Cuidera and all these guys in the same room at the same time doing the Spirit supplements and the Quality Comics and all.
Stroud: Yeah, I guess that’s what I had envisioned. An assembly line process with people nine to fiving it.
Orzechowski: Yeah, comparing pages and making jokes. When I got there, I first saw Marvel when I was 16. I lived in Detroit, as I mentioned and I took a portfolio back there. I went to a convention and afterward I went to DC and I went to Marvel (and maybe to Warren) and at Marvel I couldn’t even get in the door. I got a glimpse and it was maybe the size of your living room. Cardboard partitions up and a few people. Maybe [Frank] Giacoia was there and maybe [Mike] Esposito doing art corrections and probably a lettering correction guy. There was almost no one there. No one to actually greet a person like myself and talk them through the process. When I got hired there it was a somewhat larger office which they shared with an outfit called Magazine Management and they were the same company. Management Magazine produced what they called men’s sweat magazines. They’d have covers painted by Earl Norem and people that later painted covers for the Savage Sword of Conan; guys wrestling bears with scantily clad women and guys with rifles shooting eagles or something. All these manly, testosterone situations and they were on the same floor and they carried the same house ads as the Marvel comics, which explains why Marvel had all these muscle builder ads and sneezing powder ads and all this weird stuff that didn’t seem like it would appeal to comics folks.
Orzechowski: And they were in those magazines, which I guess appealed to them and they just sold scads of ads with guaranteed distribution which kept both the comics and the magazines, they were the same corporate entity, going. So, I’d run into those editors almost as frequently as I did the Marvel editors. It was kind of an impressive shop. A lot of people in small rooms and a lot of drawing tables everywhere and all the heroes like Giacoia, Esposito, Brodsky. John Romita was there as the art director. I guess he’d always been the art director. Wow! Legends. Just everywhere you’d look. You couldn’t walk around for three seconds with your eyes closed without seeing somebody famous. And they were just these guys. “I’m just trying to make a living here.” Now, of course it’s quite corporate looking. There’s a lot more money involved with the movies and what not. In ’73 it was still very much seat of the pants. It was only 12 years into Marvel in 1973. It was all brand new. Like Spidey #120 came out that year; Conan #25 was out the day I came in the door. So, working on the British books as I was I ended up retouching The Hulk #1 through #6 and it was fairly recent issues. I got to work with Lee & Kirby and Lee & Ditko and Lee & Heck and Lee & Ayers and all those things. It was a real thrill. It was almost like being back in time a little bit to the earliest groundswell of Marvel. But again, it was just fairly recent. I’d bought those books, and now I’m working on them. A weird déjà vu.
Stroud: Heady stuff.
Orzechowski: Now those are like granddad’s comics. They’re still available on CD Rom and what not. Marvel seems to be repackaging everything at all times.
Stroud: Yeah, as you mentioned earlier with the popularity of the movies it’s the next natural step to cash in on the catalog.
Orzechowski: I recently saw a hardcover of what was first Amazing Adventures and then Amazing Adult Fantasy and finally Amazing Fantasy #1 through #15 for like a hundred bucks. A big, oversized book like the EC reprints that Cochran put out and there’s the whole Amazing Fantasy run. Gee. I’ve got them all, but here it is. What a thing, though. Almost anything I bought from say 1960 through 1985…I just saw DNAgents, almost all that stuff has been reprinted somewhere, somehow. Only Sugar and Spike haven’t been reprinted. There’s a Blackhawk Showcase volume now.
Stroud: I think Shelly Mayer had some sort of exclusive ownership on Sugar and Spike, but I don’t know.
Orzechowski: Could be. I know the Sugar and Spike plush toys came out awhile back.
Stroud: I’ve heard of them, but not seen them. I do have a pair of the Bat-Mite and Mxyzyptlk plush toys.
Orzechowski: I think they came out around the same time.
Stroud: Speaking of them, do you remember doing the “World’s Funnest” book?
Orzechowski: Yes, I do.
Stroud: Good night! I went through that thing and I thought, “How many years did it take him to letter this beast?”
Orzechowski: Fewer than you’d think, but more than I’d wish. I’ve got a good collection. I’ve got a lot of Quality Comics. Blackhawk was my passion for a lot of years around 1970 to 1973. So, I’ve got almost every issue of Blackhawk back to #9, the first one and a couple of dozen of Military Comics. Sam Rosen was the letterer for a lot of the Quality Comics early on. He also did the Spirit for the first several years. So I just enlarged those for the work and I traced them feverishly and I traced [Gaspar] Saladino’s stuff, traced Costanza’s stuff, traced C.C. Beck and Ben Oda and everybody. I spent hours, which was really good discipline. It was really good just to get the feel of somebody else’s proportions that way. That sounds obscene, doesn’t it?
Orzechowski: As a calligrapher, I studied many different hands and got passably okay at italic, roundhead, uncil and other different things and copied, as well as possible, the Saladino stuff, the C.C. Beck stuff. It gave me a whole different set of just how the different letter shapes could look. That was among the final books I lettered by hand. It was right around 2000 or 2001. Now that I’m doing Savage Dragon by hand I’m trying to have a rather different approach to the letters there. I’m still using the same pen I was using since the middle 80’s.
Stroud: Which is?
Orzechowski: An Osmiroid India Ink Sketch Pen. You can’t find them anymore. I don’t think Osmiroid has even existed in 10 years. This is a piston-driven cartridge pen. So I can go page after page without re-filling it, without dipping it. And the nib is a gold alloy. I don’t know how much percentage of gold, but it gives it some flexibility. The nib is probably worth more than my life at this moment. I pulled it out of mothballs to work on Dragon. I honed it down a little bit. Saved all the shavings and sold them. It’s giving me such a nice line. It’s so wonderful to work with ink, with pen and ink again.
Stroud: I was going to ask. Has that been pretty enjoyable?
Orzechowski: It’s just joy.
Stroud: I read the most humorous comment at Mark Evanier’s blog one day talking about lettering and how he’d tried his hand at it and I’m paraphrasing, but he didn’t appreciate how much wrist strength is required for the job. He said something to the effect that after awhile his letters looked like Katharine Hepburn had done them while riding a bobsled.
Orzechowski: It’s true. You’re making motions…letter forms involve five different movements. That’s it. And you’re making them less than 1/8” tall and looking the same every time, within percentages. And real rapidly, and you have to pay attention to the script more than what you’re doing. So, it’s like being on stage. If you’re working on Daredevil it’s almost like if you’re performing Henry VIII or Henry III. Olivier did it or Kenneth Branagh. All these incredible people did it before you and it’s a very old work; it’s been seen by millions of people; everyone’s heard of it whether or not they’ve ever seen it and you’re part of a tradition. People will be doing it after you. So, you’re just trying to kind of stay invisible while putting some of your own feeling into what it means to be doing cerebral balloons or something. Because other people will do them later, other people did them before you, then someone else will come along like Todd Klein or Comicraft or someone and quantify a newer version that will be the boilerplate for awhile and then someone will do a newer version later. But it’s this grand scheme of being part of a large entity, I guess would be the word for it. So, it’s kind of awesome in a way. It’s still kind of awesome to me. This is the X-Men. They’ve been on the big screen and animated and you can get them on Slurpee cups. Sometimes that’s MY work on the Slurpee cup. It’s possible that in the opening rapid-fire panels in the X-Men movies before just Marvel; those are probably some of my panels. If you slow it down on your Tivo on your laser player, you’d see me. I didn’t get a penny for it, but there I am. There’s Costanza and there’s Artie Simek and it’s all in there if you’re self-conscious about things like I am.
Stroud: That’s beyond cool. And after all weren’t you on the X-Men for something like 18 years?
Orzechowski: Yeah, 18 years for that first stretch and then…one thing and another. It just felt like it was time to do something else. I was signing books for people that weren’t as old as my stint on the book…
Orzechowski: That comes as something of a shock. Suddenly that existential moment. “Okay, let’s look at this.” And the editor and I weren’t getting along too well. I don’t even remember why any more. That’s it. Claremont had just been bounced and I stayed for another year anyway just because its work and then I had enough and said, “Now what am I going to do?” And of course, anyone else would have just called one of the six other Marvel editors and said, “Well, I’ve got some time now. Do you have any books lying around?” But no, I didn’t know what to do next and fortunately [Todd] McFarlane called me that same week as Image was being launched. I guess that was ’92. So, yeah, 18 years doing 100 pages a month sometimes or more, between New Mutants and Wolverine and the various Annuals and Specials.
Stroud: Holy cats, and as I recall those Claremont scripts were pretty darn copy heavy.
Orzechowski: That’s my boy.
Stroud: There’s a rumor out there that you had to be getting some kind of extra compensation for all that additional work. Any truth to that?
Orzechowski: Uh, there are rumors, yeah…
Orzechowski: Chris was writing on 8-1/2 x 14 pages, not 8-1/2 x 11 and sometimes he’d go onto a second one.
Stroud: Good Lord.
Orzechowski: Well, its eight characters on a page, 8 characters in a panel. Hearts being broken, universes being destroyed. There was a lot to say. And maybe he was going overboard, but it was kind of a funny relationship, too. I was not living in New York. He and I had been pretty good chums and when I go to New York I stay with him. But I left New York pretty quickly. I just couldn’t deal with it. Manhattan was too big for me; too intense in so many ways. And I went west and they kept sending me scripts, which was really amazing when you think about it because everything was very office centered. In other words, Rick Parker and Jack Morelli and all these people and they were sending things to me. Why they just didn’t keep them in New York I’ll never understand.
Stroud: Oh, I have a notion.
Orzechowski: Well, okay, thank you. But there was me and Chris and it was working out well. Nobody else wanted to touch the script because they were too long, and I said, “Send me more.” And so we survived about six editors-in-chief, and I’ve lost all count of how many actual editors we went through. Probably at least six or seven and countless assistant editors. It was always me and Chris. A new editor would come on and normally a new editor likes to put his or her own print on a series like a new logo or a new creative team, but it was always Chris and me. And when he was ultimately off the book I missed the rhythm of his work. The characters didn’t sound right any more. So, I gave that about a year and then it was time to go. It wasn’t my team any more. And as soon as a project of his came on the plate again around the year 2000, Ralph Macchio gave me a call and I was back.
Stroud: Very nice.
Orzechowski: And I’m just about to start a series called X-Men Forever. I think Tom Grumman is the penciler. And as I understand it, it picks up pretty much where he (Chris Claremont) left off the series at #280 in 1992; the same team, I guess within percentages, the same plotline, the same subplots. I think that’s all been reprinted by now, too. So, it won’t have to be backtracked too heavily. There will have to be some back-story filled in, I’m sure, but that will be so exciting for me, because he’ll get his full team back. Storm and Wolvie and Colossus and Kitty and they won’t have died and been reborn twice or whatever’s going on. I can’t read these things.
Stroud: You and me both. Modern continuity for the most part just leaves me cold. I find myself gravitating toward familiar names like Len Wein with his recent guest shot on the Justice League.
Orzechowski: Yeah, it’s kind of an awkward place to be, which I think is why people embraced The Ultimates so greatly. Let’s go back to first issues. New concepts, new timetables, characters in addition to different times, different relationships; because who wants to have 40 years of back-story to deal with? They kept trying to reinvent Spider-Man and kind of eliminated the back-story with that Ben Reilly thing that comes to mind. And it just never really worked. I don’t know why Marvel can’t do these things the way DC did. Because for DC it seemed like it was a roaring success when there was John [Byrne]’s Superman and George [Perez]’s Wonder Woman. Those characters are 70 years old this year, or awfully close to it.
Stroud: Remarkable, isn’t it?
Orzechowski: It’s impossible to deal with that kind of back-story. I knew George Ovshesky (the indexer) when I was in Toronto some years ago, in the middle or late 70’s and he was self-publishing these Marvel indexes. Nice covers and full credits and synopses, and it was his contention then that Peter Parker was in fact about 32 years old and all of the stories actually happened in canon and he was actually aging realistically, and I said, “No, no. The stories become anecdotal over time and Parker’s only about 23 or maybe 22 and time is compressed and this is fiction. You can’t take these things seriously in that kind of historical way, because he couldn’t possibly have had all those adventures and still be only an age where he’d still be in college.” He said, “Well, he’s a grad student. He’s just doing it really long term.” “Well…”
Orzechowski: Occasionally you’ve got to scrape away the barnacles and understand that a lot of the stuff just never happened. This is fiction. And I guess when a character’s been roaming around for 40 or 60 years and you really love the stuff, you love the costumes and creators and so forth it’s hard not to take it seriously. I mean really, come on.
Stroud: When I was talking to Joe Rubinstein, who I guess would be a good contemporary of yours, he was talking about how he was being perceived as old-fashioned at 50 years of age and had a dry spell for awhile getting any work.
Orzechowski: There’s a weirdness that’s permeated comics and probably pretty much everything else. By the time you’re 50 you become invisible. That’s when Giacoia found himself outclassed with the Scott Williams guys, the guys who became Image people around 1990. Wayne Boring was out of a job on Superman when he was about 50. I don’t think Shelly Moldoff lasted much longer than 50 or 55. DC managed to keep itself looking pretty static for a very long time. Marvel edited itself a lot more and a lot more frequently. At my age I’m just delighted to have as much work as I can handle and then a bit more. I’m not on the books that have the buzz any more, but the checks clear the bank, and if you’ve got a choice, yeah, I want my bank balance to be steady.
Orzechowski: Todd Klein and Nate Peikos and a few other guys get the books that have all the notoriety, all the attention and well, I can’t knock a thing that they do. They do fabulous work, and maybe one of these days if Todd’s too busy and Nate’s too busy, maybe I’ll get the next Secret Invasion type of series.
Stroud: Well, your name is certainly one of the more prominent ones among your contemporaries, there’s no question of that.
Orzechowski: Yeah, it’s probably the most famous Polish name in the lettering world. No one can pronounce it, but they recognize it on sight.
Stroud: (Laughter.) It seems like I read somewhere that you were one of the pioneers as far as computerized lettering. Is that true?
Orzechowski: I guess so. It was in ’89 that I started doing Manga. Viz comics had three titles that Eclipse was distributing and a friend of mine named Toren Smith was packaging under the house called Studio Proteus and some of those were published by Eclipse (Dark Horse ended up absorbing this company under their own outfit) and those were very copy heavy and very sound effects intensive. That was really the time-consuming part, because we had to put English language sound effects on top of the kanji’s and kana’s and make them look as if they belonged there without having to do an awful lot of redrawing. That ended up taking all the time. And then lettering and cutting and pasting the stuff, it was several layers of production. Several layers of time being consumed. And Toren said, “Tell you what. Why don’t you go and get yourself a PC and get a font design program and just take care of the lettering digitally and maybe even have someone else generate that while you do the work that’s more of the complicated stuff.” Other people said, “You should get a Mac. A PC has such clunky technology. You should get a Mac if you’re doing graphics.” But Toren said, “Ah, they can do the same things on PC’s that you can do on a Mac.”
But it took a year, because the font salesman lied to us about the capability of what he was actually selling us. I actually had a font where I could type “A, B, C,” and realized I had something there. By the middle 80’s I had a small staff called Task Force X. There were five or six of us, sometimes all together in the same time. Generally, I’d have two or three people helping on an X-Men deadline or a Manga deadline and I’d do the copy placements on the X-Men books, you know position the balloon concepts and somebody else would letter the text and I’d balloon them, which gave it a certain continuity of appearance and I would do the sound effects generally. It came across as a fairly uniform look. I insisted the people I worked with learn calligraphy up to a point just so they knew what the letter forms looked like as ideal concepts. It would more or less match my approach. And it looked pretty good and a lot of them got their own careers. And that kind of obviated the need to get a whole lot of typography done for quite a long time and meanwhile, and again this is in San Francisco, and Richard Starkings was running full speed ahead with Comicraft and taking over Marvel, because they could produce essentially identical results employing, say, a dozen people, I have no idea, but a lot of people that could just break a book up into segments and so if it was really a deadline hell, a whole book could be lettered before lunch. You just give 22 pages to 10 different people and everyone does 2 or 3 pages and it’s done. And that changed everything and suddenly made the digital thing impossible to ignore. I was the last holdout. I was lettering Spawn by hand until about 2001 or 2002 and when I started working for Marvel again in 2000 it was all digital. When I left them and I left DC which was about ’99 I guess it was all still by hand.
I had the capacity to do digital work, but I resisted because the look is not as fun, not as organic, but now it’s 2009 and that’s old thinking. It doesn’t matter any more. There are now countless body copy fonts; fifteen, twenty, thirty body copy fonts. Nate Peikos has fifteen or twenty himself. So, there are a lot of varieties possible. Clem Robins is the absolute master of developing fonts. There are things known as contextual ligatures where the letters like “ly” and “lw” are created like an individual letter concept, the two letters together, so every time you type a thing with “ly” at the end it defaults to the contextual ligature. So, they’ll be nicely spaced next to each other just automatically. And he’s created such a series of different letters for the contextual ligatures that on Hellboy you can read a page and sometimes not see the same letter “e” twice. If it’s against the letter “o” he’ll make it somewhat recessive to the center, if it’s against the letter “w” he’ll make it somewhat longer at the bottom. So, it all has that organic look as if it were made by someone who was considering each letter however rapidly as he was making it. Just ingenious. The volume size of these fonts must be into just megabytes.
Stroud: Fabulous. I’ve seen examples of what you’re talking about, too. I got a copy of Hellboy awhile back and asked Clem if he was doing it by hand and he was so happy that it looked that way to a reader.
Orzechowski: He puts a texture into the font, which is something I try to do in my earliest versions also to make it look as if it’s got some of the tooth of the Bristol board still showing and the point size he does on Hellboy is so large; it’s larger than most books so you can see that little bit of texture of the Bristol board showing through which adds to the organic appearance of it. The fonts I’ve done tend to be rather smooth and I’ve promised myself this year that I’m going to go back and produce two new fonts because the ones I’ve got are several years old and I know they’re kind of showing their age.
Stroud: Innovate or pass the torch.
Orzechowski: Yeah, that kind of thing. I need to look as good as Blambot.
Stroud: I heard that your wife does or did some lettering also?
Orzechowski: Yeah, she was part of Task Force X. She also lettered a fair amount of stuff on her own. The last stuff that really caught anyone’s eye was when she was lettering for a guy named Jim Silke, who was a good friend of Dave Stevens, and Jim was drawing a series called Rascals in Paradise as well as Bettie Paige comics and Rascals is the same kind of stuff where these ladies’ clothing just keeps falling off every few pages, running through the jungle with something and oops! Rascals was more of a science fiction thing with much the same kind of verve and feeling and pastel quality of Dave Stevens’ work. And she was being hyper-expressive on those things in a way that you really didn’t see since the old days on, say, Pogo, and she was really going to town but then everything went digital and there was no way to retrieve that look again. It would take just ghastly amounts of time to slip that many fonts in. It left her kind of annoyed. Things moved on. There’s no way to resurrect hand lettering on any kind of a mass scale except in the indie comics and even they’re being driven that direction.
Stroud: Is Savage Dragon considered an indie or more of a mainstream title?
Orzechowski: I don’t know if indie has to do with the number of units sold. Image is certainly a powerhouse publishing empire. I don’t think anyone imagined fifteen years ago that they’d have so many titles and be looked upon as more than just a vanity project and is in fact now another publisher. Another place to take your interesting proposal. I don’t think it’s an indie, because I’m working on issue #148 right now. And except for Cerebus, nothing goes beyond a couple of dozen issues. Maybe Stranger in Paradise, but for the most part…I’m going to have to try and find a working definition for indie.
It used to be that you had DC, Marvel, Tower, Charlton and those were the major publishers. Then you had the Indies like Eclipse and Pacific and Dark Horse. That’s kind of preposterous by now. Because the whole Eclipse thing was to look as mainstream as possible and then better. I think indie is kind of in the eye of the beholder and maybe whoever’s ordering the comics. I don’t know if Diamond has any particular distinction in the way these things are organized or if it’s just all alphabetical. I think Dragon is as mainstream as it gets. And it’s a fun comic. I think of any of the Image books that have made it all these years, Dragon is the most comic-booky of them. Erik [Larsen] has got just a wicked sense of humor. A real love of the “flip-er” kind of comics, which certainly takes us to the middle-60’s Marvel and a lot of Frank Miller’s work. The thing with the comic book is that as its being put on the page, you kind of revel in the fact that this is preposterous stuff and we know it, but we’re going to treat it like its serious business anyway.
The Dragon book has just stupendous dialogue and the drawing is top notch. Very emotive and the tongue is planted firmly in the cheek. I never read Dragon before I started lettering it, which is issue #136 or #137, so I really don’t know what it’s all about. I’m only just tuned in to the fact that his name is Dragon. He has no other name. He doesn’t know who he is. He’s just here. And everyone treats him like a guy. But he’s got two kids and meanwhile he’s out there fighting crime and his girlfriend is also a crime fighter, so they tell the kids to do their homework and they’ll be home by 10:30 while they go out and battle the forces of evil. Okay.
Stroud: Why not?
Orzechowski: It’s a very simple way of trying to bridge the stupidity I guess you’d say of Marvel comics at their best and a kind of a sitcom life. I am raising kids. I am responsible. But I’ve got to fight the Crazy 88’s. I’ve got to go out there and do the job because no one else can do it. And I’ve got kids. So there’s a lot of poignancy in the book. It’s a very well considered and well written book. I’m very glad to be part of it.
Stroud: It sounds like a cool concept. I’ve only seen a few panels which Todd had posted on his blog as examples of your work. The sound effects in particular really caught my eye.
Orzechowski: You can’t do that digitally. John Workman kind of created a new paradigm, a new status of doing sound effects by taking markers, you know Magic Marker pens and drawing the effects that way and rather than averaging out the strokes and making it more like John Costanza’s effects for example, he had them look like they were drawn with a marker. Which sounds awfully obvious. It was quite a step forward in kind of admitting what it is you’re doing. Taking the mask away and saying, “Yes, this is drawn with a marker and this is exactly what they look like.” Miller has got that same gestalt with his effects and Erik asked me to do that, too. The book was coming out bi-weekly for about six months, so I lose track sometimes of where we’re at.
Stroud: That’s a brutal pace.
Orzechowski: Very brutal, very grueling and somehow, we kept it lively and fresh and it snapped me back into working effectively very quickly. Because I hadn’t lettered by hand in about 7 years at that point. I had to reacquaint myself with the tools.
Stroud: I imagine muscle memory and things like that came into play, too.
Orzechowski: It did, but also the fatigue. You mentioned that comment by Evanier. It’s hard to do that little motion hour after hour if you’re used to just doing keystrokes for a long time; when you can enlarge everything on the screen and get everything down to really tight tolerances. To letter that small, that often, that quickly and then run to FedEx. No service, gotta run to FedEx. Oh, what a burden. (Chuckle.) You have to stop working and take it to a courier? How crazy. How 20th century.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Yeah, back to the Stone Age.
Orzechowski: Yeah, normally I can just work until dawn or later and having everything loaded on the server by the time Marvel opens for the day, and then go to bed. But with Dragon I’ve got to stop by 3:00 in the afternoon and run up the street a few blocks to the FedEx drop. Crazy. I’ve got to stop working. What’s that all about? 21st century. Eh…
Orzechowski: I found that those New Exiles came to an end after 18 issues. As the final issues were drawn I was trying to make the sound effects look more hand drawn. Put more balance in there; put more variables, which took far too long. Working with fonts instead of just taking a marker and working these things out organically. But I like that look.
Stroud: It’s hard to beat.
Orzechowski: It ought to be a requirement somehow, though I can’t imagine how it could be implemented or enforced, that all these new lettering folk have to work by hand for awhile. Just to see what it feels like. Just to actually construct sound effects and understand ratios and space by making mistakes. Fonts make no mistakes. You can easily just goose the thing up a little bit. It’s no trouble. But having no safety net; actually putting pen onto the Bristol; that can be really scary. Particularly since there’s no decent correction paint any more. I can correct inside the balloon, inside the sound effect, but not outside because the ink doesn’t really want to sit well on the Pentel on the Bic correction paint.
Stroud: All this stuff that gets missed.
Orzechowski: The stuff I used to use was an alcohol-based thing called Snowpaque, and it’s still manufactured in the U.K. but not here in the states and it used to have kind of a weird alcohol base to it and now I guess you can’t use that any more.
Stroud: Probably Hazmat.
Orzechowski: Yeah, so you can’t thin the stuff out, so it clogs up in the bottles and you have to buy a dozen bottles in the first place and I don’t want a dozen bottles, I want to buy one and see if it works. So, I guess I’ll just stick with my Pentel correction paint and just hope Erik is merciful and forgives my misjudgment, my little smears here and there.
Stroud: You bring up an excellent point. I’ve wondered on occasion if the craft of writing has benefitted or suffered from things like grammar and spell check.
Orzechowski: I don’t think that’s really an issue as much as the fact that the sort of people writing the books have changed. And of course, it’s awfully easy to make generalizations, but at one time you had writers and one time you had editors. And Archie Goodwin might have been the first guy to do both jobs superbly, but often times you had people who were…and I won’t name them, who should not have been their own editors because they needed someone to go back and say, “You know, none of this makes any sense at all.” (Mutual laughter.) “Where’s the motivation? Does anyone really care about the outcome of this? Why is this person so obsessed with “X” if repercussions will never be felt anywhere? There’s no emotion centered on this character.” All these sorts of things that an editor would point out to a writer who’s just doing guts and glory and having a wonderful time going straight ahead, but not stepping back to think that, “There’s no consequence to this villainy. If this villain really wants to kick the hero’s ass that badly, why is he going through such complicated ways of doing it?” Of course, it makes a good cover, but is that reason enough? Is this real life or is it a comic book, and if it’s a comic book then there ought to be some point to the villainy, right? Not just a grudge match that involves threatening everyone with a skyscraper.
Orzechowski: There was a fellow named Perelman. He was at Revlon. I guess he might still be the CEO of Revlon. He bought Marvel Comics in the early 90’s. I think Jerry Jones wrote a book about this. And he didn’t know what he was buying, he just figured, “Oh, Disney has theme restaurants and Warner Brothers has theme restaurants, I’ll just make Marvel-themed restaurants and merchandise these characters in the same way,” without realizing you can’t really do a Hulk-themed restaurant, or Wolverine placemats. It doesn’t make any sense, because there’s no gooshy-gooshy good feeling about these characters in the same way. You can’t have murals painted in Kindergarten’s of the X-Men. It wouldn’t make any sense. You can do that with Warner Brothers characters.
Orzechowski: And, as a cost-cutting measure, the first thing he did was fire all the editors, and so all the assistant editors became editors and all the interns became assistant editors. He probably shaved a third off his costs that way. But that means that completely inexperienced people then took over writing the books, editing the books, and that was a dark age for Marvel. And some of these people have gone on to have fabulous careers and become extraordinary writers, but for the entire corporate structure to change that way instantly… And then within months Lee and Toddy [McFarlane] and Robby Liefeld left the company, so suddenly there was no one to do training for on the job training.
Stroud: A recipe for disaster.
Orzechowski: That created a culture…I don’t think exclusively at Marvel, because by then you had so many smaller presses as well, but there was just no editorial oversight with any gravitas; any long view. And this was a time when the Marvel characters were really showing their age because by then they were getting to be 35 or 40 years old and then, again, you’ve got all that back-story. How many times can you bring Doctor Octopus back before it stops having any weight, any bearing? At the same time the Image boys ran off and said, “We don’t need editors. We don’t need writers. People buy these books based on visuals, and so we need strong concepts and strong visuals and that will carry the day.” And it wasn’t long before they were getting writers and editors also. Because the visuals didn’t really build enough mythology to carry these things for a truly long time. I think Todd’s extreme close involvement with his book has kept that quite fresh and he keeps reinventing it. I couldn’t even tell you what the high concept of the sport is any more. There have been so many evolutions. And Dragon is a cop and he fights bad guys by beating them up. It works every time.
Stroud: You were talking a little bit about Manga earlier and I noticed in my wanderings around that it’s just beginning to dominate the graphic novel section of the bookstores. Any idea why?
Orzechowski: Well, there are two or three answers to that. The easiest answer is that they’re there because nobody is buying them. As I understand it, TokyoPop has cut their output by a third, I think the last two years. A problem with Manga beyond entertainment value is that they have no collector value. So, no one is scrambling to get all the issues of Mai, the Psychic Girl, or Fist of the North Star, or you name it. It’s usually good for two more printings, but nobody cares if it’s the first printing or the fifth printing, they just want to read the material. So, there’s no clamoring to fill in the gaps in the collection at conventions because they take up so much space; they’re kind of expensive; and they don’t have whatever verve, whatever sex appeal that comic books have that cause people want to get the entire run and not a reprint.
Manga might have been kind of a generation thing that ran its course up to a point, but I don’t think I see as many kids at Borders and Barnes and Noble just sitting there reading Manga all day long any more. I think Manga brought an awful lot of people into the stores, into the concept of comics as a valid entertainment form which they’ll carry into their adulthood, and their kids will therefore be exposed to more comics, so in the multigenerational sense it’s a fabulous thing.
Also, I think it added more legitimacy to DC’s Showcase Presents line and Marvel Essentials and just the fact that you can have things in black and white with square spines that sit on the shelf and you don’t have to buy the pamphlets because the collection is the same. It stands on a shelf, you can read a whole bunch at a time; you can buy the whole bunch for seventeen bucks. So, it’s given us a different packaging strategy for the comics and it will keep them in people’s hands to make them affordable. If you want to pick up the new Claremont X-Men Forever, you can pick up every issue before it, in Essentials volumes, for less than a hundred bucks all together. If you’ve got the time to read all those things, you can be up to date with the book as soon as it comes out. Instead of buying the pamphlets which would cost…well, you tell me.
Stroud: You’d be combing eBay for months.
Orzechowski: Yeah, I was at the shop the other day and there was a Blackhawk Showcase book and a couple of Challengers volumes and I’m tempted by them, but I’d never have the time to read them, but to have Superman Family featuring Jimmy Olsen reprints back to 1956? Oh, man, I’m there. That’s just fabulous and I think Manga had a lot to do with this, because it brought a different introspection to the part of the buyers. “Hey, we can have them cheap. I want them cheap. Why hunt for back issues? Let’s just have them in one block.” So that’s one thing that Manga did that was just incredible for us.
Stroud: I’d never made the connection. It makes perfect sense.
Orzechowski: It’s all about marketing, which sort of gets back to what I was saying earlier about Orlando and Carmine and these other guys giving up the drawing table for the administrative desk. “How do we get these things into the hands of a lot of people? What are the trends out there?” And Manga kind of came out of nowhere. When Toren started publishing Studio Proteus books he was trying…well, they had a satellite book and a teenage girl superhero book. Kind of a high school girl and a military thing. Area 88, Air Force and Toren was going for science fiction for the most part. Some samurai and mostly science fiction. He wanted them to look as much as possible like the American comics.
So, he brought me on board for my sense of the sound effects for the body copy and this was in ’89 so it was 20 years ago and they became, to everyone’s complete astonishment, an enormous genre. (Something) Communications became just a powerhouse. They were backed by one of the Japanese publishers, Shogo (something?). They do voiceovers for animation; they’ve got a couple of rather fat weeklies; a couple of things that were about ¾” thick for five bucks, which really seemed like market suicide in superhero comics, but in Manga, people want to get a whole lot of this stuff in a big chunk just like the Japanese do. They wanted to get the Japanese experience.
There had been kind of a schism forming, because even as early as ’89 or so Lois thought, “Why aren’t you publishing the books in the Japanese format, back to front, then why are you taking all this trouble to recreate the sound effects? Why not just read them like the Japanese do?” And that was dismissed out of hand as crazy. “Oh, the Americans just want to read these things the way they want to read them.” But by now Manga is so ubiquitous and so ordinary to a whole generation that they want to see the experience, they want to see the sound effects as they were, they want to read the books back to front, and be as close as possible, including in some cases really bad translations.
Stroud: The Godzilla effect?
Orzechowski: Kind of the Godzilla effect, kind of the thought that these writers are just working by the seat of their pants to begin with and they’re not the best writers doing it, but the visuals are awfully strong. But, I only know what I see in the stores, and it’s getting a little scary in the stores. You mentioned the Secret Six, well that’s out there again. The Creeper’s out there again, the Challs are out there. Everything that was ever in print; Two Gun Kid, Bat Lash, everything comes back from time to time. It’s amazing. DC being especially prominent in this one, there’s every character they’ve ever had in his or her own series, except maybe Hawk and Dove, are back in a series. I don’t know who’s buying them all.
Stroud: Good question. I get the sense that in some cases the revenue from licensing is actually outstripping the publishing.
Orzechowski: I can believe that. I’m sure Dark Horse makes a pile on the Zippo lighters and the lunch boxes and those nice little bisque figures. I’m not a collector of that sort of thing myself, but I’ve got a Wonder Woman Golden-Age figure here and a Superman Golden-Age figure. They’re beautiful. I think the fascination with the 40’s material and even into the middle-50’s is that they didn’t really know what they had. Superman in the post war era was in domestic situations and was having battles of wits with Lois’ eight-year old niece. This is a guy who can move planets and fix dams and fly with 50 criminals strapped to his back and he’s having a battle of wits with an 8-year old. They just didn’t know what they had. They were desperate for sales, they couldn’t figure out who was buying these things any more.
There was just such a charm and innocence to the 40’s stuff, where the costumes were kind of ineffectual and would get in the way, at least in contrast to what current costume perceptions are supposed to look like. It was the Disney philosophy for years as expressed to me by a friend of mine who worked for the Disney comics arm back in the early 90’s. Another Rainbow or someone was publishing the Disney comics and then Disney said, “Well, we could just do it ourselves. Why license these things out? Let’s just keep them and make all the money ourselves.” And they published them for about a year and then when the numbers came in they realized they can make more money by selling a $10.00 Mickey Mouse poster to a kid at a theme park than a comic book for $2.00, because a comic book is instant litter. It’s going to be dropped because it’s too small to hold onto. The kid reads it once or twice and he’s done. But give him a poster and it’s going to be on his wall for 10 years. And he’s going to treasure it and carry it carefully because he doesn’t want to crumple the thing up and so they were simply much better off from the corporate point of view to not perpetuate Mickey as a character you care about, but as one image in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Let’s just cast him in stone that way.
So, Another Rainbow or whoever got their license back for a few years and they’re probably still publishing Disney comics. But the company itself never really cared if the character had any vitality, or any progression or friends in their life. It was all about selling these posters with their markup and they’re better off. I don’t buy the Wonder Woman comic, but I’ve got a figure of her on my desktop and that’s all I need. The gestalt of Wonder Woman with the khoulats and the weird outfit with the eagle on her chest rather than the “W-W.”
Stroud: The classic icon.
Orzechowski: And kind of normally proportioned. In the same way that Superman in the 40’s is proportioned pretty much like a guy, like a well-built guy, but still like a guy. The costume seemed so wrong, because it was more impressive than his physique was. In other words, his physique didn’t match the costume. You have to look really out of the ordinary to wear a costume like that in order for it to make sense, it seems to me. I think that might be partly behind the Jim Lee costume design philosophy with all the buckles and straps and stuff. It’s basically just a leotard with the flash and the bits of leather here and there across the biceps and buckles but nothing as pronounced as the classic outfits, the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman things where you’d need a really large physique to make the costume not look too much. I think Kirby had the same thing going with the original Challengers jumpsuits and the original X-Men jumpsuits. Enough of these people are remarkable. Why do they have to look so outstanding just by themselves? And I guess you could go back and forth on this.
Stroud: There’s a lot of logic to that.
Orzechowski: Just don’t think about it too hard.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Yeah, after all this is comics we’re talking here.
Orzechowski: I think it was Len Wein that tried a couple of redesigns on Black Canary when he was writing Justice League and he also redid the Zatanna outfit once or twice and they just didn’t evoke the same feeling as the stupid outfits that was just basically bathing suits with fishnet stockings. The fishnets were dressy enough for the other one that just kicks ass for a living and the other one who says everything backwards. What kind of outfit do you need if you’re just going to say things backwards? The fishnets, the body stocking and a top hat. That’s all she needs. They kind of fulfill the male fetish stereotype in a way, but so what? It’s not like all of them are wearing that thing, it’s just her. She’s a stage magician.
Stroud: Why mess with what works?
Orzechowski: In fact, I think on Smallville, I’m kind of behind on these things, but I think on the Smallville show the Canary character pulled on a mask, which was beautifully done, and she was wearing a body stocking and fishnets, which works very well on a T.V. concept. I don’t know if Clark is ever going to wear the costume. They seem to be leading up to something. I don’t know if this is the final season of the show.
Stroud: I don’t know either, but if it is going to happen they’re certainly taking their sweet time about it.
Orzechowski: Lex is dead. Anyone who knows what he can do has been pretty well written out of the show. Clark has never worn glasses, so he doesn’t have a disguise as such, but it is conceivable that the final moment of the final scene before the curtain draws for all time, he’ll have the costume on. But since he’s still got Clark Kent’s face, I don’t know how they can truly do that, unless he’s wearing a mask. I guess we’ll find out by about June.
Stroud: I see on your webpage that you’re doing logo design and so forth. Could you describe that a little bit?
Orzechowski: I always enjoyed the letter forms a great deal since I started looking at calligraphy when I was in my 20’s, and then at the same time old movie posters, opera posters, packaging design, and trying to incorporate those elements into comic book logos, which is completely different from what Marvel was doing at the time. The only one of those I did that’s still in use is the Wolverine logo. I did a lot of things for Eclipse, a lot of things for Manga. But that’s all pretty transitory. At the moment I’ve got a book in front of me for Eclipse called “Pug.” It’s about a boxer and it takes place between about 1951 and 1956, and so for the cover…remember the old film noir posters?
Orzechowski: That kind of stark minimalism that kind of evokes an emotional feeling without a whole lot going on. Also, I’ve got a 3-letter word. (Chuckle.) That’s a little challenging. But I’ve got about eight things I’ve roughed out. P-U-G, you’ve got your round letters. So, you could square off the edges, you could really play with the roundness, a lot of bottom-heavy or top-heavy, ragged edges; there are many, many possibilities. And since it’s a short word I could do more treatments in less time than a title like Wolverine, which is almost all the letters of the alphabet when you get right down to it. I’m not doing as many logos as I’d hoped to be doing at this time, because Marvel keeps a lot of that stuff in house, and I’d probably have to go back to New York and make an acquaintance with a lot of people to get my hat back in that ring because Klein does countless logos. Pretty much any new titles for anything, the Elseworlds books, anything they’ve done in the last 20 years was probably done by him. I think he’s got a lot of this stuff on his website. Just countless treatments of the word Batman; countless…I mean you name it. The range of what he’s been called upon to do is a testament to him. He keeps it fresh.
I never did more than about 20 or so myself and then locally I was doing things in the music world, like bars. The smaller level music thing. But I’d love to get back into it. I keep sketchbooks. Letters are incredible. If you follow them historically there have been so many variations in their elemental forms. Between the calligraphy versions, Helvetica, the more stringent typeset versions and the more florid things. There’s always been…and now more than ever, they’ll have a type of brand new ways of announcing the same old things. The free font sites, like PC fonts, they’re not truly free, of course, but if you don’t use them for anything that makes money they’re free. There are thousands! I went through 37,000 fonts one day and saw eight that I thought I could use. For web purposes especially, there’s just an endless hunger for more fonts.
Stroud: Good grief.
Orzechowski: Not so much for product packaging. I see that some of the Blambot fonts are showing up in product packaging, which is a fabulous thing. Because it kind of pulls comics and the real world ever tighter. It blurs the difference is what I’m trying to say.
Stroud: Yeah, it creates a bridge that way.
Orzechowski: Yeah, American culture especially. The bridge connecting pop culture and comic books has never been stronger. Everyone’s heard of Spider-Man movies. You see Spider-Man backpacks, Spider-Man piñatas; it’s amazing the saturation of Wolverine and Spidey and Superman and Batman. Everyone knows that Superman is Clark Kent. Everybody. Everyone has heard of Kryptonite. Because of Heath Ledger everyone’s heard of the Joker if they didn’t before. Everyone’s heard of Batman. It was inconceivable not that long ago.
Stroud: Yes and the irony, at least when I’ve spoken to some of the creators who worked in the Golden Age, like for example Jim Mooney, who told me that back in the day you’d tell people you did almost anything other than work in comic books.
Orzechowski: Well, consider my business. I do lettering for comics. I don’t even make up the words. “No, I don’t make up the sound effects, thank you very much. I’m just typing dictation.” But it’s fun. It’s a design thing. I think the comic book art stigma is gone partly because the royalties were so fat in the 80’s and 90’s that some people, like the Image guys, got to the point where they could do anything they wanted. And there’s Miller who became outright a prominent star, and pulled comics into more respectability just by doing weird comics. I don’t know how many people saw Sin City, but everyone saw that imagery and everyone knows it was drawn as tightly as possible to the comics, likewise 300. The Spirit has received a mixed reaction. But I think he’s going to be doing other things anyway. All in all, this is a great time for comic books; I just wish the sales would improve.
Stroud: That’s just it. The figures seem to be pretty dismal. It makes you wonder what the future holds.
Orzechowski: I don’t know what the economies of scale are. I don’t know if it’s in their interests to keep publishing books that sell 20,000; 30,000; 40,000 copies. There’s got to be a certain amount just to keep the number of people employed because that’s your idea factory for the movies and the animation. Who’d have thought there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes animated show? And it’s actually good.
Stroud: It really is. Have you seen the Brave and the Bold?
Orzechowski: My wife has seen it and didn’t care for it too much.
Stroud: I was taken by the fact that they seem to be fairly true to the heritage. The art reminds me very much of Dick Sprang. I also loved the fake ad on one episode selling Plastino Kitty Snacks. I told Al about it.
Orzechowski: Yeah, they do a lot of nods to the older guys. Al Plastino is an artist I’ve come to appreciate a lot more as time has gone by as I’ve seen more of his early work. Because he was best known for, dare I say, the kind of doofus looking Superman of the late 50’s and early 60’s, but in the early 50’s his stuff and Boring’s had the same kind of punch, the same kind of real vibrant vivaciousness to it. Then in the middle 60’s again he was almost handling the Clark and Lois stuff in such a way that it was almost like a romance book. He had a very sensitive line in there.
Stroud: Al had a great versatility.
Orzechowski: I was always impressed with the artists who could follow the same model sheets with the same vivacity and how they could bury themselves in someone else’s style to that extent. Drake was drawing Blondie for awhile and he looked just like Chic Young.
Stroud: You bring up a good point. Someone had suggested to me that Shelley Moldoff’s work for so many years doing another style may have lost his own artistic identity.
Orzechowski: I’m kind of piecing his stuff together, as a matter of fact, because I’ve got a passion for coverless 50’s DC comics. I’ve got a couple hundred of them by now and I usually get them…I just got the final H.G. Peter Wonder Woman issue from ’57. $5.50.
Stroud: How could you beat it?
Orzechowski: Yeah, with the cover it’s five times as much, but without the cover… I can just download the cover from Heritage Auctions or somewhere. In one batch of 50’s comics, a grab bag with House of Secrets and a bunch of other titles there was a copy of Mr. District Attorney that was Shelley’s pencils and Sy Barry’s inks, who was the definitive 50’s DC inker. Giacoia got a lot of his chops by looking at his stuff and Esposito used to look a lot smoother along those same lines. Very brush oriented.
Moldoff was doing Batman at the same time, but this Mr. District Attorney stuff evoked a lot of what he was doing in the new look of Batman. I think if he’d had an inker more like Sid Greene, who was a bit more flamboyant rather than Joe Giella who would bring everything down a notch, kind of averaging out the look of everybody, it might have been better received. But I don’t know if he lost his own approach to the stuff, but it must have been kind of tough to subsume your own work to the look of someone like Bob Kane, or anyone else for that many years. He kept inking. He was inking Dick Dillin’s Blackhawk’s from time to time. He was inking a lot of covers; I think to keep a sense of himself intact. He did a lot more work than you might think. At the same time Dillin, I didn’t realize this until later; he was penciling World’s Finest covers and some other stuff for quite a long time while drawing Blackhawk.
Stroud: I didn’t realize that either.
Orzechowski: I never really thought that much about World’s Finest. This would be about the early 60’s. They were good solid covers. Moldoff had a line a bit more like Giacoia’s. A bit broader. Not as fine as Chuck Cuidera’s. So, it was pretty clear when he was inking the Blackhawk covers, when he was inking Dillin on these other covers. So, it makes it more understandable that how it is when the Blackhawks were canceled around ’68 and I think [Mike] Sekowsky had finally had enough of drawing Justice League that they put Dick Dillin on that book. He’d been drawing some of those characters on covers. He didn’t just come out of nowhere. He’d been more of a DC mainstay than we thought because the covers were just never signed.
It was determined early on by some Hollywood producer that people were going not just to see these Little Tramp movies; they wanted to know who the Little Tramp was. So, they started pushing Charles Chaplin, and his female co-stars and then the movie magazines. Then there were more credits on the posters and more credits on the films, but to begin with people just wanted to see their entertainments and who cares who the players are? But then the players very quickly became very important. And how it is that Stan [Lee] saw this, I don’t know, but whoever were the powers to be at DC at that time did not see it and it’s always been a mystery to me.
Stroud: The only inkling I’ve ever heard was from Jim Shooter about Mort Weisinger. Apparently, he told Jim something to the effect, “I want them to care about Superman, I don’t want them to care about you.” Jim’s reaction was, “Fine, just send me the check.”
Orzechowski: I guess he kind of had a point. Speaking of Superman, it had been Plastino, Boring and Swan drawing that book for 15 years. Each issue would have those three guys, Al Plastino and maybe two Boring stories. So indeed, it was Superman himself, but when Stan was pushing credits so hard and people were signing the covers, I’m kind of surprised that DC didn’t tweak to the fact that Marvel is getting all this strength because they’re selling more than just the characters. It was Stan selling this whole bullpen mythology. Everyone had a nickname and he was making more of a clubby kind of thing. Here’s DC being all grown up and losing sales and wondering what happened. People have conjectured, this is based on talks with the senior guys at DC, the Jack Adler generation, that they figured finally the reason Marvel comics sold so well is because they were so ugly. They were really drawn to that ugly Kirby and Ditko artwork.
Orzechowski: Is that the best they can come up with? And then within five years Ditko was drawing the Creeper for them and inside seven years Jack was busy drawing Forever People and so on. DC was so tied to its long time stable. Infantino, Kane, Moldoff, and a few other people. Jack kind of compared to cool jazz. And Marvel was Rockabilly. And the two schools were something that DC just could not see that this incredibly, almost testosterone driven Marvel stuff; this crazy, whacky Marvel stuff would have any appeal because it was jumping off the page. It was just nuts. They had Lantern and Flash being all mannered and nice and polite. The Thing, meanwhile, was punching people off the page. That’s why kids like it.
Stroud: It sounds like something Alan Kupperberg wrote when he was comparing the two cultures and saying something like, “At DC we make comics wearing neckties!”
Orzechowski: They did. In my early days working at Marvel it was all sweatshirts and jeans. I had long hair and was unshaven. It was quite a place. At DC you’d find Murphy Anderson there with his white dress shirt and tie and he’d be inking Superman or whatever and Al Milgrom is there assisting him doing the secondary characters and looking more like a Marvel guy but I think he played himself up a bit because that was the DC ethos. “We’re adults here.” I think that was George Bush’s comment about President Obama, also. You still have to wear a shirt and tie to the office. Well, maybe. I guess it depends on who you’re meeting that day and maybe how late you worked the previous night. But Marvel was the fun place and DC was…the office. They had beautiful offices, up there on Lexington Avenue at the time. They’d been in the same place for numerous years with this big, sprawling space with windows. Marvel had no windows. But the entire feeling of the people just doing the scut work around the office; very different. And I felt kind of self conscious at DC because I just wasn’t dressed well enough. Now, of course you’ve got Paul Levitz and others in there that are of my generation.
Stroud: It’s been an interesting evolution.
Orzechowski: You mentioned the earlier generation of editors and they were kind of formal. George Roussous, a fine gentleman who would come into Marvel at the time when we were all scruffy; he’d be there in a dress shirt and a tie and he was carrying a briefcase, and he’d set himself into a small partitioned area in Sol Brodsky’s bullpen and he’d be listening to the ballgame or classical music or something and be coloring fabulous covers. He treated it like a job. I’m sure his neighbors didn’t know what he did. He was just this professional man who worked in the city somewhere, and he treated it like a professional occupation and not like an extension of the ‘zines like we did. We didn’t know at that time, because comics’ history was such that we were just starting to get a sense of the background. There were no reprints of the old material except for the Jules Feiffer book, “The Great Comic Book Heroes.”
Stroud: A true classic.
Orzechowski: George was inking for Bob Kane in the first year of Batman. He wasn’t the first rung of the ladder, but he was just an inch above the first rung of the ladder. He was inking all sorts of stuff on Superman as well as the Batman books. He was universally inking everything at DC it seemed at that time, and we didn’t know that. It had only been about 25 years earlier, but that was the ground floor; the beginning of the whole thing. He was there! He met all those people when they were still having their fresh ideas. All these first inklings. Incredible! But I think if he’d have told us we wouldn’t have left him alone. “What was Bob Kane really like? What was Bob Kanigher really like?” He just did his job. I guess I haven’t been up there in 25 years so I don’t know what Marvel or DC looks like. I see these people at conventions, of course, but…actually I don’t see that many people at conventions because everyone’s always mobbed. That’s one of the reasons some decide not to do the conventions very much.
Stroud: I’m sure they can be daunting. I’ve heard a few legends. I haven’t been to one yet and frankly I’m a little bit intimidated.
Orzechowski: You’ve never been to a comic’s convention?
Orzechowski: Oh, come on.
Stroud: It’s not easy to get to them from where I live.
Orzechowski: You’ve never been to San Diego?
Orzechowski: How old are you?
Orzechowski: My God.
Stroud: I know. Sheltered existence.
Orzechowski: Every year since ’68 I’ve been to two or three conventions. Maybe that’s obsessive. I went to San Diego pretty much every year between 1975 and 2000. Then it just all became too expensive. Last year in San Diego I think they had 185,000 there, but that might be an exaggeration. The harbor is a beautiful sight and there are a lot of 60-story hotels within a stone’s throw. I understand that the Hyatt immediately next door to the site books for $350.00 a night for a room. And that was last year. I believe they’re about to officially open the housing division for the convention. You send them your list of your top 3 hotels and they place you as they can. Tumultuous numbers of things have to be done immediately because everybody wants to nail down their room at once. Some people get together groups of people to rent condos nearby. I’ve got my own place picked out, but I’m not going to mention them because that’s my secret.
Stroud: It gives a whole new meaning to the term “cottage industry.”
Orzechowski: Oh, yeah. Kind of like Obama’s inauguration. People are just leasing their condos out for $7,000.00 a night or something because everybody wanted to see the inauguration. It’s just a colossal event. Last year I went there for the first time in awhile acting as a business person. I had a portfolio with me, I had my business cards and I went to every single table, and we’re talking dealer’s tables half a mile long and three city blocks deep. I went to every table twice. I did the entire room twice, which took the full five days. I bought one comic book. In this sea of popular culture, I bought one comic book.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Must have been quite a book.
Orzechowski: It was five bucks. It was a DC western from around ’58. It had a cover, but the cover had a tear halfway across it, but otherwise all the pages were there. The cover was all there, it just had a tear across the cover. Carmine and Gil and I think Howard Sherman were all on the third story, so that’s a good five-dollar comic book. A thousand miles to the south and back. Air travel has become ghastly expensive.
Stroud: Well, and a hassle, too. Have you tried to travel with a laptop lately?
Orzechowski: I have to. I have to take in the after con parties, which are legend. Everyone is there. If you have a British accent, people buy drinks for you.
Stroud: So, have you perfected yours yet? (Mutual laughter.)
Orzechowski: But I had to do an issue of something. I forget what it was. Maybe it was New Exiles. So, every night I was pounding the pixels from about 6:00 p.m. to midnight and then catching cold because the convention is like Kindergarten. Everyone is shaking hands and everyone is coughing in everyone else’s face. I was sick for two weeks afterward. That’s a con, boy! You really should try it sometime, though San Diego would probably be far too much for a first experience. Having come up through it all these years, because I think the Detroit convention I went to then was in the low 100’s of people. More than dozens, fewer than 100’s, and I’ve just watched the whole thing grow. When I was first in San Diego it was probably no more than about 5,000 people. And of course, there’s no way anyone could have ever imagined that it was going to become such a focus. I’m not sure if it’s the proximity to Hollywood or what that made it The One. Why not New York, because that’s where everyone is?
Stroud: Maybe a chance to get out of town?
Orzechowski: Again, being along the harbor it’s just quite a nice place to be. It’s quite warm there, quite nice.
Stroud: One final question, Tom. The bulk of your career has been with Marvel and I was curious, between the fairly significantly differences in the way that Marvel and DC script, did the Marvel method work better for you or did you like full scripting, or did it even matter from a letterers perspective?
Orzechowski: Full scripting is more of a balance. It does depend on the artist giving you what you, the writer, are asking for, and reading DC from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and so on you can see that often times the artist didn’t care as much about what the writer was asking for as the writer did. So, lots of the panels were rather different. A lot of the dramatic settings were different from what the writer may have been asking for or even from what the writer was intending, so the two don’t match that well.
Chris [Claremont] is writing full script as often as Marvel style and he’s sometimes asking for more than the artist’s wanting to produce, so he’ll ask for maybe seven panels on the page and only get five. It’s easy to describe things that can’t really be drawn. In your mind’s eye you can see them, but on the other hand the Marvel style tends toward over-scripting. So, it’s really on a case by case basis, because often times with a full script you don’t know who your artist is going to be, while obviously with the Marvel style you’re working off the art.