Written by Bryan Stroud
Tony DeZuniga (born November 8, 1932) was a Filipino comics artist and illustrator best known for his work at DC Comics - where he co-created the Jonah Hex and Black Orchid characters. DeZuniga was the first Filipino comic book artist whose work was widely accepted by American publishers, paving the way for many other Filipino artists to enter the international comic book industry. He later became a videogame conceptual designer, spending a decade with the United States and Japan divisions of Sega. Tony did freelance work for McGraw Hill and the Scholastic Corporation, and illustrated for TSR's Dungeons & Dragons game. In April 2012, he suffered a life-threatening stroke which led to brain damage and heart failure. Mr. DeZuniga passed away on May 11, 2012.
Tony DeZuniga, in addition to being a fabulous draftsman, was one of the friendliest guys I got the opportunity to converse with during my interview journey. Famed not only for his beautiful figure work, but for helping to spearhead the fabled "Filipino Invasion," he has some warm and wonderful tales to tell, and I felt it a privilege to record some of them.
This interview originally took place over the phone on June 29, 2008.
Bryan Stroud: You started out as a letterer in the Philippines and then you switched to artwork. What made you decide to draw rather than letter?
Tony DeZuniga: When you’re young, you think you’re a very good artist. I went down to the publisher’s office and sure enough he told me, “Well, you need more training.” (Chuckle.) “Oh, okay.” So, he showed me some of the work of the other artists that I was doing work for and I said, “You’re right.” I saw this beautiful, polished work. Then he told me, “Don’t get discouraged. We have all kinds of magazines here that are translated into different dialects in the islands, and then we hire young people like you, so if you’d like to do that while you’re still polishing up your craft, then you can make some money on a weekly basis.” I said, “Sure,” and that’s how I got started lettering. It was okay, really. We got paid at the end of the week and managed to buy what was necessary. I had enough for clothes and movies. I was only 16. It wasn’t bad at all. I met a lot of the artists that were the same age I was and doing the same thing. Many of us started as letterers.
Stroud: So, it was a way to make a living and get your start.
TD: Right, and then we talked to a lot of artists that are already professionals and they would give us pointers. They tried to really guide us. They really tried to help out the young kids. We did this for about a year and a half. We kept practicing and polishing our craft. Then one of the artists got me an appointment to see a small publisher and that was how I got my first break doing comic book art. It was a very small publisher, but when you’re that young, who cares?
Stroud: That’s right. You just need a chance.
TD: In a way we were all lucky, because all these guys were our mentors and they were all good, really very good artists. So anything at all that they taught us or any advice they gave us we really treasured, because we’d seen what they could do. They helped us a lot.
Stroud: Marvelous. Did you take any formal schooling for art?
TD: Yeah, I did later on, but what I took was commercial art. It doesn’t have anything to do with comic book art, really. Comic book art to our experience, when we were young and studying to do this kind of work, there’s really no school for it. The guys who were doing it professionally were telling us, “There’s no school for drawing comic books.” There’s school for fine arts where you can draw the right proportion to draw figures and all that, but then they would tell us that drawing comic books is a very different ballgame because you have to stretch, really stretch your figure, how to give it weight; the whole trick of the trade. So we realized we can’t learn anything if you plan to draw comic books. There was no school for it really.
Stroud: You’ve been called the “Father of the Filipino Invasion” for introducing the leadership at DC like Carmine Infantino to the talent in the Philippines. Were your fellow artists anxious to break into the American comic book industry?
TD: There’s a story there. They weren’t really looking for talent abroad like in the Philippines or anywhere else. When they started reprinting old material I asked them, “Why do you do that? People already read that.” I don’t know if they’re still doing that today, but they told me, “Well, we have no budget. That’s why we can’t use new art.” Then I was talking to Joe Orlando. He was a very nice guy. He was the one who gave me the break at DC. Carmine was busy at the time. He was president of DC at the time.
So anyway, with the small budget I was trying to help out so I suggested, “Maybe you don’t need to reprint old material. Maybe you can buy new art.” “Oh, I don’t know.” So finally, Joe Orlando did a little research and he found out that the best they could offer was something like 12 dollars a page. So, I said, “For that kind of money you can get new material, but you’ve got to go outside the country.” You see back when we were starting we were getting fifty cents a page. We were making crummy rates. That’s why we were trained to do really fast work. The publishers were picky, too. You didn’t just do wishy-washy work. If it was like that they’d complain and they wouldn’t pay you.
So, we learned to do good work and fast. So, I told Joe about it. They had a meeting and finally asked me if I could write to those guys and get a few samples of what they can do. So, I did that and when the work came in they were very impressed by the detail of the work they can do. So finally, they decided, “We’ve got to go down there and have a big meeting and talk to the artists themselves.” I said, “Fine.” If they do that they’ll see even better work, because the guys will try to impress them. And sure enough when we went down there; I went with them. They said, “Tony, you’ve got to go. You’re our personal ambassador to the islands.” (Laughter.) “Well, sure,” I said. “No problem.”
So, I went and sure enough we had a big meeting. Oh, my God, every artist showed up. It was wonderful. They showed more work. The only problem they noticed was that they were showing beautiful drawings, but they still didn’t know quite how to tell a very clear story. But that’s a minimal problem. That’s easy to disguise. They speak English, all of them, because thank God, we were all taught English as young kids. The schooling system in the islands is set up like that because we had an American Governor just like Puerto Rico does today. In the old days in the ‘20s and ‘30s we had a Commonwealth Government which was run by Americans. We had an American Governor running the islands and the military was there, of course. Everybody knows MacArthur was running the military down there. We were in a way very lucky because everybody spoke English. Today, I heard they only teach English in the islands in college now. We were on the lucky side. Everything was taught in English, from grade school to high school to college. A lot of people don’t know that.
So, when they left, that was the start of everything. They met everybody and they got work. They agreed to page rates up to ten dollars. Carmine explained that they needed somebody to get all the work and mail to us and all that and clean it up and so the other two dollars goes to those people for coordinating it. (Chuckle.) They don’t get the whole 12 dollars. And that was still very good money for those guys. They were so eager to start and sure enough they showed what they can do and it was the start of the “invasion.” (Chuckle.) I really hate that word, but it happened that way, really.
Stroud: What a neat story. It obviously provided some good opportunities.
TD: Oh, yeah. But these guys, these Filipinos, they still communicated through me, so they asked, “Well, what if we come to the states? Are we still going to get the same rate?” “Oh, no. That’s different.” I was telling them, “The only reason you’re getting that rate is because that’s the reprint rate. If you come here you have to renegotiate for another rate. You don’t get paid that low.” A lot of them did their best to get over here, but the problem is that once they got here for a couple of years due to immigration restrictions and they’d have to get out and if they wanted to come back they’d go through it all over again.
Stroud: You mentioned working with Joe Orlando and I know you also worked with some of the other big names at the time like Dick Giordano and Gil Kane. Who did you consider your friends at the time?
TD: I would say it has to be Joe Orlando. Joe Orlando, from the very first, when he saw my work he was telling me, “You know, Tony, what I saw was very impressive. Of course, that was your sample. You may have somebody doing that for you.” He was very frank. “So, I really don’t know what you can do. So, what I’m going to do is give you a test. I’ll give you a script and you do it and if I like what I see, we’ll go from there.” So, I said, “Sure, no question about it.” So, when I did the job he was more impressed because he saw that I really tried more, and he said, “Oh, yeah.” That was the start. He gave me a lot of assignments from that time. You know Orlando was an artist himself. He was very honest and he said, “In all these years if I had to draw today, I would like it to be like your style. I can see in your figures that you have your own style. You didn’t copy Wally Wood, you didn’t copy Al Williamson; it’s all your style.” We got along real well.
Stroud: It sounds like he gave you a great deal of respect.
TD: Yeah, he did and that’s why I really liked working for Joe. He gave me so much freedom, too. We talked a lot. He gave me a lot of guidelines, too. He really helped me. As an editor, he helped me a lot.
Stroud: Good to hear. Did you prefer inking or penciling?
TD: You know, that’s a very good question. I really prefer penciling and then I would ink it myself. I really prefer that system of working. But back in those years there were a lot of young people who could pencil, but they don’t know how to ink. So, what they would do is they’d hire these young people, so actually we are like job savers. That’s what they called it. We saved the jobs, because they don’t know how to ink. So, you ended up inking a lot of work. You ink, you ink, you ink and then sometimes, along the way would come a job that you would like to do yourself. It’s very negotiable. Editors know that once you volunteer to do something like that, they know it will turn out to be a very good job, so they don’t have anything against doing something like that. That’s how inkers end up inking a lot. They say, “Well, this is your job now. You’ve got to save the job.” (Chuckle.) But some of these young artists are very good in doing the layouts and figure drawings. Even in all that, though they sometimes don’t know how to ink, because they’re just too young.
Stroud: It is a very specific skill.
TD: Oh, yeah. When I was doing Conan for Marvel, the Savage Sword; now John Buscema; he’s a fantastic penciler, but it’s all flat. It’s all outlined. It’s a breakdown. It’s all very loose. I like it that way myself, because that’s when I can spot my blacks; I can tie in my blacks even to the next page. It’s very challenging for us, but I like it myself, doing a job like that. With John Buscema’s pencils, you can’t go wrong. His figures are solid with clear story-telling and nice backgrounds. Wow. I mean, how can you miss, really?
Stroud: I see where you’ve done work on superheroes and westerns, horror, romance and you mentioned Conan. Did you prefer any particular type?
TD: I love all of them, to be honest. The reason I did a lot of romance; the gothic romance in particular, they gave me a real free hand to do those. Even the layouts. In those years, I really believe they were a little bit advanced. In those years even Carmine was very impressed with the layouts that I did. Anyway, the reason I did a lot of romance was that they had a warehouse; a whole room of romance pencils and they told me, “Hey, Tony, you want to make some money? You can take home a lot of these and ink it and that’s it.” I said, “Oh, yeah, okay.” I was young, I was hungry, so I thought, “Well, they like what I do, thank God.” So, you should have seen it. It was a whole roomful. It’s like they’re all in inventories. Nobody wants to ink them. Everybody just wanted to do superheroes. They don’t want to do romance books. (Mutual laughter.) I enjoyed doing them. I enjoyed doing pretty pictures for girls.
Stroud: Well, I’ve seen some of your women, and they’re very, very impressive.
TD: Thank you.
Stroud: It sounds like it was a good place for you to be.
TD: I enjoyed it, like I said. I did tons of things. I did romance until it was coming out of my ears. But I loved westerns. You know I was a little boy and we had no cowboys in the islands. (Chuckle.) So, we’re watching John Wayne movies and oh, man, I love westerns. Even to this day. I would still enjoy creating a western character or drawing scenes of western stories. I still enjoy it, because when the spaghetti westerns came along; when Sergio Leone started doing westerns, oh, my God, they changed the whole concept of westerns. Before comic book westerns, like the Rawhide Kid, you showed these guys shooting the guns out of the bad guys’ hands, when me and [John] Albano were doing Jonah Hex, I designed the character. Albano said, “Ah, perfect. I like that. An anti-hero type western. No more shooting guns out of the bad guy’s hands. He’s shooting down the bad guy himself. No more guns like that.” I thought, “Great! Okay.” That was when Jonah Hex became an anti-hero and a popular comic book character.
Stroud: You bet and that character that you both created is still around. Does that feel pretty good to you?
TD: Oh, man. Hey, you said it. I created the character and you know I’ve got to tell you a story about that. When Carmine was asking me during the time period when everything was “weird;” Weird War, Weird this, Weird that, Weird Western Tales; everything was weird. When Carmine asked me if I’d thought about the character, I kept telling him “yes,” because Albano told me, “Don’t ever tell Carmine ‘not yet,’ because he’s gonna nag you. Just always tell him, ‘Yeah, I’ve got it.’” But actually, I really don’t have any idea at all yet. No idea. But it’s “weird.” The title of the book was “Weird Western.” And then one day I have to go to my doctor and I went in there and you know how doctor’s offices are. They have anatomy charts that show half of the body in all muscles or bones. So it’s hanging up there and I got the idea. “Look at this. This is my guy. Half is face is blown up almost and half is normal.” (Chuckle.) So when I decided on that, Carmine just loved it. I actually didn’t have any idea at all until I went to my doctor’s office.
Stroud: Oh, that’s great. So, you got your design idea and just took off with it.
TD: Right. It was right in front of me. I said, “Well, I could do him like this.” Then I came up with the little hanging scar on the lip. He loved it.
Stroud: You had Carmine there as a boss for awhile…
TD: Yeah. He was okay. The only problem with Carmine was that he was a tyrant when it comes to doing the covers of the book. He
He would want you to just trace what he had sketched on a piece of little paper. That’s why Neal Adams didn’t want to do a lot of covers when Carmine was doing that. Neal Adams is more of a straight talker than myself, so he would tell Carmine right in front of him, “I don’t want to do that. Why would I want to trace your drawing?” He would give it to us, but Orlando would tell me, “Come on, Tony, just ignore the man. Just make it up. Just ink it.”
So, nobody wanted to do the covers. What it is, it’s really a problem. What he had sketched on that little piece of paper, what you had to do was transfer it to what is it, a 12’ x 17” sized paper? And sometimes all these shapes are on that one little piece of paper. Oh, it’s really a big job. It’s now a big job, because you have to trace it and he’s going to look for that. “What happened to my drawing? Where is that drawing of mine?” Then he’ll tell you, “Look, this is supposed to be this and it’s gone. You have to redraw it.” Oh, my God… That’s why nobody wanted to do covers in those years. They’re not our drawings. They’re all Carmine’s drawings. He did them all. Green Arrow, Green Lantern, maybe now and then a Superman cover, Batman. Quite a lot.
Stroud: The funny thing is that years later you ended up inking some of Carmine’s stuff over at Marvel.
Stroud: That must have been a little strange.
TD: Well, the problem is…I like Carmine’s work, don’t get me wrong. He’s a very good artist. The only problem is I wish he’d leave the planning to the inker. Not just trace what he’s got on the paper. I was telling them that they could save a lot of money by not even hiring inkers to do the job of inking pages like that. If you want it exactly like the pencil, I know the process for the printer to do it and shoot it like a shadow and it will all turn black and you don’t need to ink it to finish the job. They thought I was crazy. (Chuckle.) But I think later on they realized I was right. What they needed was artists to tell the editor, “Oh, if Tony would ink it, I would just let him do what he wants to do, and that’s it.” Then they would see a beautiful job that was being finished because of freedom like that. You can now plot all your blacks and plan everything. It was never just outlines. How can you plan something like that when you’re very limited?
Stroud: What do you think were the major differences, if any, between working at Marvel and at DC?
TD: Marvel really has a style. The Jack Kirby feeling and what he had started. So, if you’re an artist and you’re aware of that, you tend to do a little bit of what we call the Mickey Mouse stuff. That thick and thin like what Kirby was doing. That’s the difference between working for Marvel and DC. DC has a little bit more freedom with what you can do. In those years, though, at DC, you had to be careful with fine lines. They were using plastic plates, and if your lines are too thin, they break. They warned us against that. “If you’re making your lines too thin, like a hair thin line, that will break and that won’t even show up when they print it.” But other than that, you could play with your rendering, for example. With Marvel you had to be a little bit conscious of what they called the Marvel style. Which is okay. As I said, we called it the Mickey Mouse stuff, as in thick and thin.
Stroud: You make an excellent point there that I’d never thought about, too. Jack had just dominated things there for so long that I’m sure that’s just what everybody expected.
TD: Oh, yeah. It’s not just me. Everybody was aware of that and hey, don’t knock it. The books turned out really beautiful. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Absolutely. If it didn’t work, they’d do something different. Did you have other artists that you particularly admired?
TD: Oh, a lot. I could name Gene Colan. He was one of my favorite artists. Palmer. There were many, actually.
Stroud: Well, your style was so unique and realistic that I didn’t know if it was just strictly your own thing or…
TD: Oh, I have my favorite artist. His name is Alex Raymond. I’m sure you know who he is. He did Flash Gordon…
Stroud: Oh, yes.
TD: He did Rip Kirby for the newspaper strip. I loved the way Raymond stretches his figures. Oh, man. And the way he does women. Very beautiful.
Stroud: A true master.
TD: His idol was an Italian illustrator. His name was Joe Legata. And if you see his paintings, he did a lot of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. He did a lot of the magazines in those years and Raymond was exactly that guy only it was in black and white, because I was doing paintings and could compare the two of them together. I love Raymond’s stuff, to this very day. He was my biggest influence, really, was Alex Raymond.
Stroud: He was an excellent artist.
TD: Oh, yeah. His women were just exquisite. He could show the form in such a way. He’s so good.
Stroud: I read a comment you made somewhere and you said that your art tends to remain fresh because you are a student of the world. What sort of things do you think are helpful when you’re observing?
TD: Styles change almost every year. The trends change every year almost. Because I like a wide coverage of art; contemporary art, the old masters; but today’s art, I keep a close eye on it and I try to adopt very little of the contemporary art because no matter what kind of trend they do every year, you’re still catching up with the trend of today, so that’s my feeling. What would keep your art up to date, really? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, because today; the young generation today, sometimes they say, “Oh, Tony. He’s been drawing since the 70’s. Is he still alive?” (Chuckle.) So there goes what I just told you. So sometimes it’s useless. You just throw that whole concept out the window. But then there are still people who say, “Oh, he’s still been doing beautiful work.” Okay. That’s good and when that happens it would apply to what I just told you.
Stroud: I’ve seen you do some absolutely beautiful depictions of animals in some of your work. Do you use reference materials or is that just a natural talent?
TD: No, no, no. Most definitely not. I’m a very poor artist doing animals. I’ll be honest with you.
Stroud: You’d never know it.
TD: You know who’s very good with animals? Frank Frazetta can draw animals in his sleep. I have to find a picture of a lion, I have to find a picture of whatever I’m drawing. I’m not very good with animals.
Stroud: Well, the results are wonderful.
TD: Well, once you have the picture… (Mutual laughter.) Frazetta would sit down and draw. It’s all in his head. Horses, lions. Oh, man, that guy is something else. He’s so good.
Stroud: He’s definitely got a well-deserved reputation.
TD: It’s a shame that he had that stroke and they say he’s trying to paint with his left hand now. That’s sad.
Stroud: I see where just this last year you had an art exhibition. How did that go?
TD: Oh, in Manila. I never went home for 30 years and then when I got married the last time she’s always there. She’s always going. She’s still got a big family in the islands. So, I went there one time with her and somebody was telling me, “Tony, can you do contemporary art by using Filipino subjects?” I told him I’d been doing that for so many years, but not here. So, the gallery was telling me, “Why don’t you do a show? Because I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that today.” So that’s what started it and then, when I had the show; it makes you feel so good; in one week, all my paintings are sold out. (Chuckle.) It just makes you feel so good. It was covered by two medias. Oh, wow, how can you miss?
Stroud: It sounds like a nice homecoming.
TD: Yeah, really. Now I’ve got another show probably at the end of this year.
Stroud: Back in Manila?
TD: Yeah, back in the islands. I’m going to try it again. They seemed to like it the first time, and besides, I need a vacation. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: I see where you’ve used lots of different mediums in your work. Watercolor, oil, acrylic, colored pencils. Which do you like the best?
TD: That’s a tough question. I think it depends a lot on the subject you’re going to do. Some subjects call for a watercolor and if you use oil it really would just destroy it. But then I am what they call a figurative painter. There’s always figures. I’ll do landscapes with trees and a little mountain in the background and that’s it. I like painting like fruit vendors or a scene with a lot of people in it. That’s why it depends on the subject.
Sometimes like a fruit vendor, like a woman, a big, colorful gala when she’s wearing this kind of dress, and a lot of beautiful fruits that she’s selling, well then it tells you what to use. You may use oil, or acrylic. You see, I’m allergic to oil because of the toxic fumes that go with it. The turpentines and so forth give me such a big headache when I smell it and I can’t paint in oil, but today they’ve come out with beautiful oil that is water soluble, and so hey, I can work with that and I’m using that today and it works beautifully. No toxic chemicals and even the cleaning stuff I can avoid. Just water and soap. So now I can paint in oil. You have to paint if you’re doing a portrait. The colors are really brilliant if you use oil and the colors are very important. I do a lot of portraits.
Stroud: I noticed on your webpage that you’ve got some beautiful work and I see you’re pretty active in the convention circuit. Do you enjoy that?
TD: I certainly do. It’s so nice to see people and they still remember you. That’s what I enjoy about conventions. I go to all of them from Texas to Seattle, Washington, to all over. I go to a lot of them.
Stroud: Good. You fan base seems to be very much alive and well, too.
TD: I guess so. That’s why I enjoy it so much. They remember you and when you hear things like, “I thought you’d look like you were 100 years old and you only look like you’re 60, Tony.” “Hey,” I says, “I’ll buy you lunch, man.” (Mutual laughter.) I really enjoy talking to the people.