Written by Bryan Stroud
Walter "Walt" Simonson (born September 2, 1946) is an American comic book writer and artist, best known for a run on Marvel Comics' Thor from 1983 to 1987 - during which he created the character Beta Ray Bill. He is also known for the creator-owned work Star Slammers, which he began in 1972 as a Rhode Island School of Design thesis book. He has also worked on other Marvel titles (such as X-Factor and Fantastic Four), on DC Comics books (including Detective Comics, Manhunter, Metal Men and Orion), and on licensed properties such as Star Wars, Alien, Battlestar Galactica and Robocop vs. Terminator. Simonson has won numerous awards for his work and has been named as an influence by artists such as Arthur Adams and Todd McFarlane.
He is married to comics writer Louise Simonson, with whom he collaborated on X-Factor from 1988 to 1989 - and with whom he made a cameo appearance in the 2011 Thor feature film.
You'd have to travel far and wide to find a more genuinely nice guy than Walt Simonson. Not only is his career fascinating, but he's a thoughtful gentleman who's been there and done that and continues to do so. At one point he talks about his then-unnamed book, The Judas Coin, which was just a magnificent bit of storytelling and if you knew what you were looking for, you could spot him in a cameo in the Thor movie. Walt was a complete delight and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did conducting it.
This interview originally took place over the phone on September 23, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: Your start in the business came from kind of an interesting direction, going from Geology and switching to art school and it’s well documented that you used your Star Slammers as your senior degree project. How did you get from Point A to Point B?
Walt Simonson: The simple answer is that I, even as a kid, really had two interests. One was dinosaurs and one was drawing. My dad was a soil scientist and, while not a geologist, he studied the earth - so the family had a scientific sense to it. When Dad’s friends would come from out of town they were usually scientists coming into D.C. to do stuff, so I never thought about art as a career. I just drew because it was fun to draw. But I also liked dinosaurs and thought I’d pursue that as a vocation. I went to college and was a geology major. Typically when you want to study dinosaurs your undergraduate career is either geology or biology and then you become a verto-paleo or whatever you’re going to be as a grad student. In my case I got to the end of my senior year and I’d actually done some Paleo research as part of my senior thesis, but I reached a point where I decided, about two months before graduation, I could see this was not what I wanted to do as a vocation. I’m sure my parents were thrilled…
Simonson: They discussed that with me and they were nothing but supportive the whole time, but I ended up, literally, graduating from college with no real idea of what I wanted to do except that it was not in the geology/paleontology realm. What happened then was I took a year off. I was one of the very early boomerang kids. I moved back home, I lived in my old room, I got a job in a local bookstore and along about fall, having graduated in May, I decided to apply to art schools - really because that was my other interest. I really hadn’t taken very much art, and the art that I had taken I hadn’t been wild about. Mostly because in art courses back in junior high school and places like that you go through a curriculum like, “Okay, this week it’s paper mache sculpture; next week it will be toothpick construction; the week after it will be origami.” I just wanted to draw. I just wanted to be left alone so I could draw.
So, my art school grades tended to be in the “B’s,” though I had an “A” one year because I had a teacher who let me do what I wanted to do and taught me the stuff I needed to know. My original introduction to perspective was in the 8th grade because Mrs. Pope actually let me draw on a regular basis and graded that stuff and taught me perspective, so that was one year I had a pretty good grade in art. But, I didn’t know what else to do really as a graduate senior with a degree in geology. So, as I said before I applied to art schools and eventually ended up going to the Rhode Island School of Design and while I was there I got really interested in telling stories through comics. The funny part is that during my initial college career, while I was a geology student, I discovered Marvel comics. This was back in the mid-60’s, and it was right when Marvel was hitting what I regard as their first big golden age where Jack [Kirby] and Stan [Lee] and Steve Ditko and Don Heck and all these guys…some were doing brilliant work and the guys whose work wasn’t as brilliant were still doing some of the best work of their careers. They just had some phenomenal stuff.
So, about 4 or 5 years of really enjoyable comics. I read them all and I had a great time. Right about the time I went to art school I wasn’t reading as many, but I began to become interested in trying to tell stories in the form and that’s really a big part of where the Star Slammers and my degree project came from. So by the time I graduated from RISD, I had a 50-page comic that I had written, penciled, inked and bound in the second half of the volume, and over the 2 years I was working on it; my junior and senior years, my work went from being what would be regarded as pretty decent fan work to the last two or three chapters being marginally professional and they were well designed. That was just the direction I was headed in. I learned in art school and incorporated a great deal of what I’d learned into my comics, so the work tends to be a little on the eclectic side. It gave me, basically, a portfolio to take into New York City to try to get work in the business.
Simonson: And back at that time, around 1972 when I graduated, I went to New York in August of that year, and Marvel and DC were the only companies at that time producing the type of adventure comics that I wanted to draw. This, of course, was before the internet, it was before FedEx, it was before all that stuff. There was no overnight delivery of any kind, so pretty much if you wanted to do comics like that you had to live near the publisher, because you had to take your work in.
So, the result was that a generation of guys; one of the last generations of guys, really, where we all moved to New York. Probably guys all about my age, so I knew all the guys who got into the business from perhaps ’67 to ’75 or so. We all lived in Southern Manhattan or Queens or Brooklyn, but you’d go into the companies and drop stuff off and you pretty much met everybody, so I know all the guys from my generation, which was actually very cool and it was very exciting and very inspiring because you could see the type of work they were doing. I still remember going into DC and Bernie Wrightson brought in maybe the 4th issue of Swamp Thing. It was a werewolf story and there was a full page interior splash of the werewolf with a lot of Zipatone, a lot of tonal work on it and it was just so stunning we thought we should probably take Bernie out behind the bar and mug him.
Simonson: It was just great and it made you want to go home and say, “Geez, I’ve got to level up my game.”
Stroud: The bar just got set that much higher.
Simonson: Oh, man. So it was cool. It was a neat time to be doing comics. I was lucky enough to get work really rapidly. I wasn’t doing a regular series. Back in those days you pretty much weren’t put on regular series to start with. Back-up stories, when there were back up stories, was where you got your training. Now you probably get your training in some of the smaller, independent companies, but I got some backup stories and made enough money to pay my rent…sort of, and eat…sort of, at least until I could bring my own game up to a level where I was offered better work, but really it worked out pretty well. I was very lucky and I was able to get into the business and pretty much stay there.
Stroud: Well, right out of the gate you won Shazam Awards among others, so that must have validated your career choice.
Simonson: Well, you know what it did? It made the rest of my career possible. Basically the year I got into comics it was in early August of ’72 and by March or thereabouts of ’73; less than a year, Archie Goodwin, who was an editor at DC and became my editor on several of my backup stories and had become a good friend offered me this new strip he was getting ready to do in the back of Detective Comics called Manhunter. It ran for a year. Detective Comics was a bi-monthly comic and Manhunter was an 8-page chapter in each issue at the end of it except the sixth chapter, which was 9 pages and the last chapter was 20 pages where we crossed over with Batman and basically that strip really made my career. Between Archie and me we won six awards over two years, the Shazam Award and others. What it meant for me really, in terms of a career, was that it was before organized fandom like you have now. Fandom today is not only organized, but they’re all on the web and everything gets around in 4 seconds…including the misinformation, but everything gets around in 4 seconds.
Back then there were fanzines. I did drawings for some of the science fiction fanzines before I got into comics and I knew fandom. I knew guys who were fans. I was more of a science fiction fan as far as the organized part of fandom as well as a comics fan, but what it meant by winning the awards was that people in the industry knew who I was, and so when in the early 70’s I began doing the strip, I was one more young guy doing comics. Then about a year later when the strip was through, pretty much all the editors knew who I was at both Marvel and DC, so essentially it did kind of validate my professional credentials. I think that really helped in getting offered work. Having people know who you are rather than having to introduce yourself and show your portfolio…that really made a big difference. So Manhunter was the strip that really made me, professionally.
Stroud: That became your calling card.
Simonson: Yeah. All the work afterward was quite different from that, like the Metal Men and some other stuff, but I didn’t have to introduce myself after Manhunter.
Stroud: You’re a triple threat as a penciler, inker and a writer. Which role brings you the most satisfaction?
Simonson: They’re all neat. That’s one of those cheesy answers, but it’s absolutely true. The things that I would be most concerned about doing comics over the years I’ve been working, especially in the old days when there were no royalties, you produced a fair amount of work in order to make a living and I always felt there was some danger in that of repeating yourself too much; of falling into formula to the extent that you could crank stuff out, but it might not be that interesting. Not only would it not be interesting to look at, but I’m not sure it would be interesting to do, at least not for me and so I worked fairly hard over the years to do different aspects. To write, or to draw, be it penciling or inking, to work with other artists I would write for, or to work with other writers I would draw for - partly as a way for varying my own job so that I would retain interest in what I was doing. To tell the truth, when I got into comics (as Neal Adams never fails to remind me when I see him) I thought I’d be in comics 3 or 4 years or maybe 5, and at the end of that time I thought I’d have probably learned everything I could from comics and I’d move on to something else. Now here I am 30 (humph) some years later…
Simonson: Anyway, I feel I’m still learning. I do still feel that there are challenges when I get up every day trying to figure out a page layout or design or how to draw something, how to ink something. I work pretty hard at that and I feel that the work has done pretty well as a result. I don’t think I’ve lost a lot while trying to do the different kinds of things I’ve worked on. That in turn keeps my interest in the work and that makes it worth doing.
Stroud: And that would keep you refreshed in the process. I can see how important that can be.
Simonson: Hopefully. Another reason working with other people is important is because if you’re working with another writer or you’re working with another artist, they will bring stuff to your story, whether it’s the writing part of the art part that you will never have thought of, and I find that very refreshing. I prefer working what’s called Marvel style, which is where you supply the artist with a plot or I get a plot and then you draw the drawings and the writer works from there. It’s not a commonly done approach these days I believe. It’s certainly my preferred approach. I find in some ways it’s more like working without a net, which keeps it more exciting and for me brings a certain life to the work that I don’t always feel in work with full script.
Stroud: That sort of echoes something I heard about the joy of working with Dick Giordano as an editor when they brought a page in or what have you and he said, “Well, that wasn’t really what I had in mind, but this is great.
Simonson: In a way it kind of allows for happy accidents. I always say you either have mild disasters…though I’ve learned over the years that there’s almost no art that’s so bad that you can’t write something that makes sense out of it. (Chuckle) Probably the same is true for scripting as well, and for drawing from scripts that you’re not entirely happy with, although to be honest I’ve really been very lucky in the partners I’ve worked with over the years either as writers or artists. I’ve been kind of careful about it as well, but I’ve been able to work with an awful lot of people and I don’t really have any jobs to look back on where I go, “Gee, I wish I hadn’t done that.” It just hasn’t happened. But I do find that in working Marvel style, at least for me, the gifts that the other partner has, whether it’s a writer or a penciler that you’re working with, those gifts, it seems to me, if you are able to work together well kind of get maximized in a way that I don’t always feel is true if I’m working out of a full script. I’ve never actually written a full script myself, so I don’t know. Maybe it works out just fine. It just seemed like more work than I wanted to do.
Stroud: It sounds familiar. Len Wein said something to that effect. Something like putting a straitjacket over another straitjacket.
Simonson: Oh, that’s very funny.
Stroud: Well, over the course of your long and diverse career you’ve drawn many of the iconic characters: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Conan, and Hercules. Was any particular assignment really memorable or fun?
Simonson: The ones I’ve really liked are probably the ones I’m best known for. Manhunter is certainly my sentimental favorite because I so loved working with Archie [Goodwin]. I worked with a lot of really good writers and I’ve said this before and I mean no disrespect to all the writers I’ve worked with (and those who know Archie, don’t take it that way) but I probably haven’t worked with anybody that I was more in harmony with than Archie on the Manhunter stuff. It was very early in my career and it was really a high-water mark and even though I didn’t have much prior experience, maybe a year and a half by the time it was done, I understood at the time what a pleasure it was and what a high point it was for me to be able to do what I did on that strip and to work with Archie on it.
Another character that at the time was a best seller that I enjoyed working on was the adaptation of the movie Alien for Heavy Metal. I got to work with Archie again and I got to do all kinds of stuff with that book that was very exciting. I got a lot of help from the studio with reference. A lot of very cool stuff that I could go on and on about, but that’s a whole different interview. Alien was a lot of fun and I thought it came out very well. Thor, naturally, and honestly although it wasn’t read very widely, I loved doing Orion for DC. That ran for 25 issues. Two of them were double issues. I thought that was some of my best work. In terms of the writing and the character, it was an interesting challenge and it’s amazing how well it worked out. One of the things I like about it is Orion himself is rather a difficult character and it was fun to write a guy who’s not just…I mean, you know I wouldn’t mind living next to Thor except of course he’d keep getting attacked by frost giants and that wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood, but he’d be a cool guy to hang out with and know.
Orion, on the other hand, is the guy I probably wouldn’t want to live within 500 miles of, really, but he was an interesting guy to write because he had these inner demons but he was still interesting and worth following. It’s a little hard to describe, but I thought he was a complex character who was not necessarily the best liked guy on the block, but he had other qualities and I tried to bring those out in the storylines. So I had a great time. I did some graphic stuff in that book that I really, really liked. When I look back I’m still very pleased with some of the graphics in that book. Some of the story telling and the images in that book I had to go and find.
Something else I liked a lot, I got to work with Mike Moorcock on an Elric story for an almost 200-page graphic novel encompassing four chapters. I’ve known Mike for a long time. I read his Elric stuff back when I was in college and so doing some new Elric material…we did almost an Elric Year One where actually the material in terms of continuity precedes the first Elric book. So that means I got to draw Elric when he was still living at home, he still had his Dad, he had his first crack at getting a hold of the storm bringer, the rune sword, he had his first meeting with Ariak his kind of patron demon lord or lord of chaos, really, so I got to do a lot of origin stuff for Elric and I got to draw it, so that was great and working with Mike is always a gas. He’s such a sharp guy and he gives you way more visual stuff than you can possibly cram into a comic book. We did 4 forty-eight page comics to make the entire graphic novel, a series of four story arcs, and honestly I could have easily drawn each of those comics as an 88-page graphic novel and had plenty more left over to draw when I was done.
Stroud: Holy cats!
Simonson: It was fun. We worked from a full script and Mike and I had worked together before on the Multiverse work, which was also fun, and Mike really gave me carte blanche to do the visuals and storytelling as I felt it needed to be done. So it gave me a great deal of freedom in the visual structure of the story and I like to think I took advantage of that and still told the story he wanted told. He seemed very happy with the results.
Stroud: Nice. You can’t ask much more.
Simonson: No. It was great. So I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I’m working on a graphic novel right now for DC that I’m sort of inclined not to say very much about yet because it won’t be out until well into next year some time, but basically it’s six short stories that kind of tie together on a theme, or are tied together by a theme and they run a timeline from about 70 or 74 A.D. up into the not too distant future and each story, containing mostly lesser known DC characters, and what I’m trying to do there, and see me again later to see if this is successful. I don’t know. Or I won’t know until I’m done, but what I’m trying to do is draw each story in a somewhat different style. That’s because what I’m working at is trying to derive a style…I mean it will all clearly be me. I’m not going to suddenly become Moebius in one job and Joe Kubert in another. It won’t be that far apart. I wish it were that far apart. But what I’m trying to do is to derive the stylistic approach to the storytelling of the drawing for each story from the tale I want to tell. I’ve got some ideas I’m very pleased about as a way of approaching it and we’ll see how it actually works out in the end. I have no idea. I’m in the middle of that right now. It’s challenging to try and think of that stuff and try to figure out how to handle it and so far I’ve had a lot of fun. It will be up to somebody else to tell me how good it is…or not.
Stroud: Intriguing. When you’ve followed someone else who’s done a spectacular job, let’s say like in the case of Orion and you’ve also done some work on Bat Lash, so following in the steps of someone like Nick Cardy or Jack Kirby, did that intimidate you or did you just approach it as a new gig?
Simonson: You know, without being too egotistical about it, it really doesn’t, and that’s probably more where I come from professionally in terms of my time in comics more than anything else. You’ve got to remember when I came into comics in ’72, really almost all the work that all of us were doing was derived from earlier comics. Some guys like Mike Grell with the Warlord and others had their own characters, but a lot of the stuff you did you just came in and you were doing Thor and the Fantastic Four and Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and the Avengers. You were doing books that a lot of great talent had done before you. And really if you came in and were terribly intimidated by that, I think you probably wouldn’t have lasted very long. I mean I didn’t come in and say, “Well, I’m going to out-Kirby Jack on Thor.” It was not that kind of an approach, but it was certainly an approach that was inspired by the work that had gone before and you still wanted to do your best, but it wasn’t like you came in nervous that those guys has preceded you. I will say at the time that if I had to draw Hawkman it might have freaked me out looking at Joe Kubert’s Hawkman originally. I’m not sure. I didn’t happen that early, so it’s okay.
Simonson: And then with a character like Manhunter I got my feet under me doing a character that I got to help invent. My training in comics from day one was on characters that in a number of cases, very great talents had already had a crack at and in some cases of course invented, so it was never really an issue thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m drawing a character that Jack Kirby drew!” I mean I knew Jack. Not well, but I knew Jack. He was a neat guy who did fabulous work and it wasn’t really a question of coming in and being antsy following in his footsteps because in some ways, back in those days, we all were. Or in the footsteps of Curt Swan or Gil [Kane] or Joe [Kubert] or all the guys you could name. But that was the way the business was back then. Now there are a lot of places you could get into the business and do things that were not at all out of what those guys did, but it was different. It’s a different game now.
What it really means is that I don’t come in on a book and…now there’s no bigger fan of the Fourth World stuff than me. There are other guys who I will say are probably almost as big fans as I am, and probably there are some who know more or have memorized more than I have, but I’m a huge fan and I loved doing Orion for DC. The Fourth World material for me remains some of Jack’s very best work he did. There are probably people who will argue about that. That’s okay. I don’t care. But it seemed in some ways his most personal book.
Frank Miller and I were talking about it years ago. Frank said that he thought in some ways it was the first independent comics. What I think he meant was that there was a quality of personal vision in them that a lot of other books, even really good comics, didn’t always have in mainstream American comics back then, and even allowing for that, and I’m certainly a huge respecter of that material, when I get to work on a book like Orion, I’m happy to do it. I was delighted to do it. I was dying to do the character, but I don’t feel I’ve got to walk exactly in Jack’s footsteps or even anywhere else. I try to find out what I like about the book; what I like about the character, what I like about all the characters and then tell stories that derive from the material, but hopefully don’t just feel like they’re the same stories told over again. I’ve been through comics when they’ve back and simply been rehashing the old stuff. I can recognize that stuff pretty fast. I’d like to not do it if I don’t have to.
Stroud: Yeah. Build on the foundation rather than rebuilt everything.
Simonson: Yeah. But I really kind of build my own structure and in a way it’s not so hard because my drawing is so eclectic and borrowed from so many sources. Jack is certainly a huge part of the understructure of my drawing, but he’s not the only guy. And when I get done, as much as it may owe to Jack or Moebius or Jim Holdaway or other guys, it still looks pretty much like me at the end if the day and I think the writing is the same way. I pretty much approach the writing on my own terms, which gives me a shot at doing stuff I enjoy and it won’t come out feeling like the stuff someone else has done.
Stroud: You’ve worked with so many of the titans of the industry over the years. Was there anyone you didn’t get a chance to work with that you wish you could have?
Simonson: I’m sure there are. (Laughter.) I never got to write a story for Jack Kirby to draw and that would have been pretty awesome. And then there’s Alan Moore. That’s probably okay. I’ve seen Alan’s scripts and I’m not sure I could draw one of those. But still Alan is one of the giants of writers in comics. I’m sure I’m leaving out a million guys, but I have got to work with a lot of people and I’ve been very pleased. I got to draw a Stan Lee story; I got to work with Wallace Wood and other guys generations in front of me. It’s been a real privilege.
Stroud: Good deal. It seems you’ve been presented some great opportunities over the years.
Simonson: I’ve been pretty lucky on some stuff, I have to say, and in some cases I’m just in the right place at the right time. A lot of life is timing and it’s not always timing you can control. It’s funny. I got to work with Stan Lee over at DC, which is kind of a funny place to work with Stan Lee, but it worked our great. I had a really delightful time. I knew Stan from the old days a little bit and we had some nice chats on the phone and he was really easy to work with. He was very free on stuff. He really was one of the guys who invented the Marvel method and he was great working like that and he really works without a net so it was very enjoyable.
Stroud: It seems there’s hardly a publisher you didn’t work for. I saw where you had credits for Gold Key, Seaboard, Warren, Dark Horse, Malibu, Acclaim and of course the Big Two. How did the different companies compare? Were there real strengths in a particular place you enjoyed or more artistic freedom?
Simonson: I don’t know about artistic freedom other than within the world of mainstream comics I’ve been able to do jobs I wanted to do and I’ve pretty much been able to do them the way I wanted to do them. I haven’t really run into problems with censorship or whatever. I’m very much a mainstream kind of guy in my sensibilities as well. Back in the old days about the only differences you discussed were between Marvel and DC. It was a source of endless discussion and I don’t think any answers were ever actually derived from that discussion. If anything, at the time, this was back in the 70’s, I would say the generalization was that DC was a bit more corporate because they were owned by Warner Brothers and Time-Warner eventually, and there was a more corporate feeling to DC the way it was structured as compared to Marvel which was freer and easier. That was a long time ago. I haven’t worked at Marvel in a long time, so I don’t have much of a sense of it as a company gestalt these days. I know people that work there; I just haven’t worked there myself so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge.
Other than that, the companies I’ve worked at I can say I’ve been really fortunate to work on projects or be offered projects that I wanted to do. When I wrapped my work up at Marvel in ’91 I was going to move on to other companies and I got a call out of the blue from Frank who wanted to know if I wanted to draw a Robo-Cop/Terminator mini-series he was going to write for Dark Horse. Frank and I at that point…we had been studio mates for awhile, so we went back a ways, but I don’t think we’d actually worked together on anything. I think I inked a couple of his covers. That was probably about it. He’d laid out a calendar piece for me when I was too busy to lay it out myself, so when we were in the studio he laid out the calendar piece for Hulk and Spider-Man for me and I worked it up into a drawing and rendered it. But that was the first book we worked on together and it was just a gas. It was a gas to do. It was a good story and I had a lot of fun drawing it, so we got to do that together. Then much later when I did Orion I was actually able to persuade Frank, probably at gunpoint, I’m guessing, to draw a short backup story for me. For Orion I had different guys doing backup stories for me and so he drew the backup story for me and he wrote a bunch of dialogue in the margins to cover some stuff and I happily picked up all those lines and claimed the credit.
Simonson: It was fun. It was stuff like that where I got to work great people. On Orion I got work with Dave Gibbons. I’ve known Dave forever and we’ve done a couple of small jobs together and that was one of them. Howard Chaykin is an old pal and we’ve done some stuff together as well. So the guys in my generation, I’ve done a lot of stuff with them in a lot of different places over the years, but I’ve gotten to work with most of the guys I’ve really wanted to do stuff with and even some guys I wouldn’t have necessarily expected, but ended up doing some neat stuff. Working with Michael Moorcock is something I never would have thought of but a couple of things developed in the past 10 years and I got to do a couple of long projects with Mike and just had a gas doing both of them. I’ve just really lucked out on getting to do some things I really wanted to do.
Stroud: You’ve mentioned Alien and Robo-Cop and I know you’ve done work on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and Raiders of the Lost Ark. When you’ve got established, licensed characters like that with a particular look to them is that more difficult or easier as an artist to deal with?
Simonson: It very much depends on what the deal is that the publisher has with the licensor, and it would depend on the licensor itself. For example in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I penciled for Marvel and Battlestar Galactica which I penciled and wrote a few of them for Marvel, in both of those cases Marvel did not have likeness rights. What that meant was that you could not draw the lead characters to look like the actors. I believe when Frank and I did Robo-Cop, Dark Horse did not have the likeness rights to use Peter Weller’s likeness. So I’m not a huge likeness guy. I’ve got friends like John Bogdanoff who’s a phenomenal hand at drawing likenesses. I am not. I can do it if I work at it, but it’s never easy. It looks easy for John. I can only hope it’s not. (Chuckle.)
So anyway, on Battlestar Galactica, Klaus Janson is inking that book and I just went ahead and drew the actors. Since I’m not really a huge likeness guy, by the time he finished inking them and we got them colored and stuff they didn’t look that much like the guys, but they looked like okay comic renditions. We kept that late-70’s hair over the ears, so they all had the same hairstyles and it didn’t matter much what they looked like underneath that. They kind of looked like themselves sort of in the comic. We had one thing that was actually pretty funny. There was one issue that I penciled and inked. I’m not sure why. Anyway it was a story I really liked a lot, so it was a one off story and I inked it and we got word back from Glen Larson or whoever it was that owned that property that the Apollo character looked too much like Apollo, the one played by Richard Hatch. It looked too much like Apollo and we were directed to change that. We kind of went around on that some and eventually…this was a long time ago, so they can’t sue me now; what really happened was we didn’t change anything and then somewhere along the line we discovered they really didn’t mean Apollo, they meant Adama, the Lorne Greene character, so even they couldn’t keep it straight. If they couldn’t keep it straight, we weren’t too worried.
Simonson: So I pretty much drew the guys as they appeared and nobody cared. Nowadays it would probably be a much bigger deal. Back then it was not, but I thought if they couldn’t even keep the characters straight, I just wasn’t going to worry about it. We had a similar issue with the Robo-Cop/Terminator job where again I was using Peter Weller’s basic structure. I tried to draw Peter Weller, but not get an exact likeness, but I was trying to get a flavor of that and the funny part about that was that in the last issue there’s a picture of the character where he’s human again, briefly. I think it was a dream sequence or something and he’s screaming. Now screaming faces that maintain likenesses are hard to do, because really your face is so distorted it’s hard to get a guy where he screams and still looks like whoever you’re drawing and I had no screaming pictures of Peter Weller, so basically that’s probably the one place where I just drew a head screaming. I tried to keep the hairline about the same and the eyebrows, but it was not like it was really him. Of all the drawings in the book it was probably the least like Peter Weller and that was the drawing that whoever owned Robo-Cop objected to, saying it looked too much like Peter Weller. Really, it looked nothing like Peter Weller. Even on a really bad day Peter Weller didn’t look like that.
Simonson: So there were things like that occasionally that were just sort of odd, but that’s how licensing works. I don’t know that I would do licensing now, because there’s so much more emphasis on likenesses and there’s so much more likeness approval stuff and my feeling is that for comics what that does is it kind of sucks off the creative energy into other avenues where you don’t pay as much attention to the story or the drawing. You’re trying to make sure that so and so the actor or actress is happy with their likeness. And that’s where your creative energy is going and I think the comic storyline is going to suffer and also you have things in comics where the comics have not been allowed to show certain things.
Take Close Encounters all those years ago. They did not want us to show the smiling alien at the end of the comic. That was a huge secret. So I ended up doing a silhouette with some Zipatone which worked out pretty well, but how much did you really see even in the movie? But there was a lot of stuff like that. Some comics that I didn’t do any work on but was aware of had restrictions where you can’t show things during the movie, which really makes it hard to tell the story when you have to leave major elements of the movie out. These are some of the problems with licensed projects, especially in conjunction with movies and probably other things. It makes doing a good comic difficult and I don’t care about the movie. My concern is that when I’m done, my name is on the comic and I’d like that comic to be really good.
In the case of Alien, we really had unprecedented cooperation from 20th Century. Part of that was Charlie Lipincott, who was our liaison with 20th Century and was a comics fan, and so he had a pretty good idea of what it took to make a good comic, and he was very helpful and very encouraging to Archie and me to do what we could. For example we had three different script revisions of that film of different versions as they were revising and revising and revising it, and we were able to actually take chunks out of different revisions of it and include it in the comic because we thought it made the best story. So we were able to incorporate a couple of things into the comic that weren’t in the film. The film itself was great, but what it did for us was give us a coherent comic and storyline that I thought worked really well in the graphic novel. So we were essentially able to take the Alien story and tell it as we thought best in order to make the graphic novel work. That’s an experience I really haven’t had in any other licensing venture I’ve been a part of, where the comic took precedence and you could do as good a comic as you could manage. That was one of my best comic experiences, working on Alien. It just worked out really well.
Stroud: It certainly sounds like it. You’ve worked on virtually every genre; too, over your career whether it was superhero, war, fantasy, western or you name it. Did you have a favorite?
Simonson: The short answer is I like drawing. I like telling stories. If I’ve got a good story to tell, I don’t care what genre it’s in. The only thing is I’d probably prefer stories where I feel that the character of the characters is revealed through action rather than through talk because I want stuff to draw. I’m not particularly eager to draw guys who are sitting around shooting the breeze. I can do it, but I would prefer to have their characters revealed through the things they do, and that gives you more stuff to draw. But really I just like drawing and telling the stories, so if it’s a western or a science fiction or fantasy or superhero, whatever it is, I’m cool.
Stroud: You’d have got along famously with Jim Mooney. He told me once that he wasn’t fond of drawing pages of what he called talking heads.
Simonson: (Laughter.) I don’t think I ever met Jim. I knew his stuff, of course. I read his stuff when I was a kid. But yeah, I like things to be happening.
Stroud: What in your opinion is the greatest challenge for a comic book artist?
Simonson: I think telling the story. In my own case I taught for nine years at the School of Visual Arts and one of the things I tried to teach my students generally about doing comics, which I think is true for any comic, is that there are a lot of skills involved in drawing a comic. Besides just doing continuity and storytelling from panel to panel and design compositions for a single panel, then there’s the overall composition for the entire page, being able to draw the human figure, being able to maybe manage typography, being able to manage costume design, the ability to draw clothing, to be able to handle perspective, to be able to draw rooms that are persuasive, or spaceships, all that kind of stuff.
There are a lot of things that go into it, and because there’s so much to go into it there are a lot of artists who don’t do everything well, but they do enough stuff to do great comic books, which is fine. But what I tried to teach my students is that with all the things you’ve got to keep track of, whenever you make a decision, and you’re making decisions all the time; everything from whether to use five lines or to do this by 3-point perspective or to draw this costume this way or that way, the question at the bottom of all the decisions you make is: Is this making a better story? And that’s not always an easy question to answer, but for me it’s always the question you should be asking at the bottom of every decision you make. That’s kind of the tough part. All the other things are things you’ve got to learn; the craft, but the art, in a way, comes from how you tell the story. For me, that’s what comics are about; the storytelling medium. That’s the part that’s most important.
Stroud: Yeah. The very fundamental basis. Unquestionably. I thought I’d share this quote with you. I was speaking with Anthony Tollin awhile back and we were talking about Jack Adler and he had this to say, which I thought was fascinating: “Jack Adler was always one of the biggest boosters of young talent in the company, including Paul Levitz, Howard Chaykin, and especially Walt Simonson, who he kind of saw as a modern day Toth in that he was pushing the boundaries the way Alex had.” How do you respond to that?
Simonson: (Laughter.) Well, that was very sweet of Jack. Here’s the other side of that story. It’s nice to be thought of like Alex Toth, but I’m not sure that’s quite correct. It’s a nice person to be compared to, but I don’t want to push that comparison too far. What did happen was when I got into comics, the short version of that is that I went to New York with my portfolio of Star Slammers material and I went up to DC comics because at the time, ’72, DC was putting out the kind of comics I was most interested in. They were doing a lot of oddball stuff; they were trying a lot of things. A lot of them didn’t succeed in the long run, but they were actually doing a lot of very cool stuff and it was very interesting and exciting.
At that point, again in ’72, Marvel I felt, myself, was kind of retreading and repeating old stories. The Thing went after the third time and got sucked in by the Wizard and they betrayed the FF or whatever was going on. It seemed like I had read those stories already. And DC was trying stuff I had not read. So I went to DC first looking for work. If I hadn’t got work at DC I’d have gone to Marvel and kept my trap shut. So I went to DC and I ended up talking to an editor at DC who largely looked over my work and said, “Well this is nice. What else can you do?” So I did not walk out of his office with a job. So I’m sort of depressed and head for the company break room, and in the coffee room I think were Chaykin, Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson and I think Alan Weiss. I think those were the four guys hanging out in the coffee room. The young guys who were all working at DC at the time. I sat down and I had actually met Howard about a year before at a convention in Washington D.C. so I knew him a little bit. I knew the work of the other guys, so we all sat down and shot the breeze and it was, “What are you doing here?” I showed them my stuff. I had my book with my originals in it and they seemed to like it. Michael Kaluta said, “Let me show this to Jack.” Well there’s a guy sitting behind us. An older gentleman, which means he was way younger then than I am now, but he was probably 40 or maybe 45.
Stroud: The ancient of days. (Chuckle.)
Simonson: And Michael shows him the work. It was Jack Adler, whom I did not know at the time. So Jack looked it over and he liked it and he said to me, “I’d like to go show this to Carmine.” And Carmine Infantino at that time was…I don’t remember his official title, but he was the editorial director or the publisher or whatever, but basically he was at the top of the ladder. I knew who Carmine was. I’d read the Flash and Adam Strange and I knew his work. So I said, “Okay, sure.” So Jack leaves the coffee room and I’m talking kind of nervously with Howard and Alan and Bernie and Kaluta and after a few minutes Jack comes into the room, not quite at a dead run, and he says in one word, “Carmine wants to see you, let’s go.”
So, I found myself in Carmine’s office, and we talked about comics for five or ten minutes. I remember very little of the conversation. I’d seen Carmine a year earlier at a talk at Brown University, so I knew him. I’d actually talked to him very briefly up there. We talked about comics, and the thing I remember about the conversation was he wanted to know if I’d been influenced by Bernie Krigstein. Now at the time I might have seen Krigstein’s Master Race job or I might not have. I had not seen his EC work. I knew about it, but I’d never seen his EC work at the time, and later I could see what Carmine meant because my work, particularly at the time, and it’s kind of back there now, was very linear and it was very designy. And some of the jobs that Krigstein did for EC were very linear and very designy jobs and they contained very elaborate storytelling and the work I had in the Slammers also contained very elaborate storytelling. It was not at all like Krigstein's, but it was the use of breaking panels and the small moments and it was more probably a topographical graphic approach than what Krigstein was doing with breaking down moments of time, but nevertheless I can see now what Carmine meant. We just talked about it. Basically Carmine liked my stuff and he liked it enough that he called three of his editors into the room and before I left he made them all give me a job.
Simonson: Now they were all short stories. This is when they still had short stories, so they were like four and six page stories; very short little things and squibs, but I walked out of his office with a page rate and three small jobs and that’s because Jack Adler took my work in and showed it to Carmine, so in some ways I really owed the beginning of my career to the four guys in the coffee room and to Michael Kaluta and to Jack Adler and to Carmine because literally those were the guys I ran through without having any clue what the hell I was doing and went out of the office that day with some stuff to do. And then after that one of the jobs was for Archie. A little short science fiction job and Archie liked it enough that he kept feeding me little bits of things. A four page job here, a three page job there. I did a couple of Gold Key jobs for Twilight Zone at that time, so again I was making just about enough money to stay alive and go find an apartment in New York City.
Then in about six months Manhunter happened and that was the beginning of my professional career, but Jack Adler and Carmine really liked my work and really were instrumental in my being able to get into comics and become a professional artist. I didn’t become a writer for another five or six years before I actually began writing stuff. I drew to begin with and in my early work I basically penciled and inked all my own stuff. So in fact, my very first job, which was a job in Weird War #10 written by Len Wein, “Cyrano’s Army,” which was an inventory job Joe Orlando had in a drawer and gave to me at Carmine’s behest, on that job I not only penciled and inked but I lettered it at well. I learned very rapidly that I was not a major letterer and should not be doing lettering on a professional basis. I learned a few things in my early days. I lettered one of Howard Chaykin’s Iron Wolf jobs and I lettered a couple of my own stories here and there and that was okay.
Stroud: Well, when you’ve got people like Gaspar [Saladino] out there it’s kind of hard to reach that mark.
Simonson: Yep, but it was still fun and it had a lot to do with my sense of design for the pages overall. Even though I didn’t have to do that later on I kept a pretty close track on lettering and how it looked on my work and tried to make sure that there was a good marriage of the graphics and lettering because that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about comics is that combination of pictures and letters.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. And I’ve been told by Clem Robins that ideally a letterer’s work should be invisible in that it shouldn’t take away from the story, but complement it so that you don’t even really notice it so much.
Simonson: Well that’s true. I would add to that, however, that I do think that the word balloons and the use of them and the use of sound effects and display lettering in a comic, those are important shapes in the drawing so that they’re not exactly invisible. I’m not saying that lettering that’s so weird or so bad that you notice it because that’s a different thing, but I do think that the forms of the word balloons and the forms of the topography that address the sound effects and the special lettering that you need, that those things are important visual elements on the page and that you need to consider that stuff as much as you consider how you draw a head.
Stroud: I wouldn’t disagree. You’re married to a literal cover girl, Walt. (Chuckle.)
Simonson: Yeah. After a long career in comics, that’s what I should be known for. “Yeah, wasn’t she the cover girl for that Swamp Thing try out that Bernie drew?”
Simonson: I think that’s the picture they’ve got for her on Wikipedia, or maybe they don’t any more, but for awhile they had that cover up, which was pretty funny.
Stroud: How long have you two been together now?
Simonson: We began dating in 1974.
Stroud: Quite some time then.
Simonson: Yep, and we’re still trying to get it worked out. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I’m just at the 23-year mark myself. Any advice for someone who wants to hang on as long as you have?
Simonson: We’re just still good friends and we get along real well and also just as it happens she’s in the business as well and on those few times, and there have only been a few, where we’ve actually worked together, we work together very well. I’ve worked with Weezie when she was my editor and I’ve worked with her when we were co-writing stuff, I’ve worked with her when she was writing something I was drawing and all of it actually worked out quite nicely.
Stroud: Outstanding. Partners in every sense of the word.
Simonson: Yeah, it’s worked out very well.
Stroud: One last question. Any thoughts on the recent upheavals at both Marvel and DC as far as the buyout and restructuring?
Simonson: I don’t have any real thoughts about it because I don’t know what it means. I mean I’ve heard the stories. I’m a big Paul Levitz fan. Paul has been a real friend to me and also a good publisher to work for. I regret his going on to other stuff. That said, I kind of expect some stuff to change, but what stuff that will be I have no idea. I can think of 8 million different things, but whether any of them will change or it will be something I don’t expect, I really have no idea.
I do know that generally on a much smaller scale in the business, occasionally books will be moved over to other editors and when that happens usually the book shifts direction. Usually a new editor comes on and he or she has their own ideas where the book should be going, where the character should be going. They’re really kind of the guardians of the character and frequently that means an editorial shift in the art or in the writing, even the coloring. Whatever it might be. I don’t know that it happens every time, but it happens often enough that when there’s a shift in editors you kind of wait for the other shoe to drop and that doesn’t necessarily mean things will be worse, it just means it’s going to be different. So in that regard I expect that at least in the long run there will be some differences both at Marvel and at DC. I have no idea what they would be and whether it will come down the food chain far enough to affect where I am or not. I can’t say, but I would think that there will be some changes coming along as time goes by. I haven’t the faintest idea what they are, so like everybody else I’ll be kind of curious. I’ll wait to see how it shakes out, but I’d be really surprised if everything stayed exactly the same. I mean I’m not in the upper echelons of the business, but usually when they shake things up it’s with the idea that things will change somewhat for whatever reason. I just don’t know what they will be and I don’t have any predictions for it. Like everyone else I’m just going to wait and see.