I spent one afternoon with Everett Raymond Kinstler, Ray to his friends, in May of 2018. I was there ostensibly to interview him about his time illustrating crime comics. A spry nonagenarian, he greeted me at the door of his apartment in the National Arts Club at Gramercy Park like an old friend. He invited me in to sit and chat, and stated that we will go to his studio next door for the interview. An hour later, I realized that this was not going to be a typical Q&A, and this was the interview. I asked if I could start taping, and just let it rip. Ironically, it turned out crime comics was the one genre he worked in that his didn’t like. - Steven Brower
Steven Brower: How did you get started?
Everett Raymond Kinstler: With the pulps. They were on 42nd Street and Third Ave. And they must have had a hundred pulp magazines. The owner was Harry Steeger. And there was one sort of rogue pulp magazine, being published and I remember the office was at Rockefeller Center. And the woman’s name was Dorothy McIlwraith. If you were to say to me how do you possibly remember 75 years ago, I am telling you I see her as clearly as I see you. And she had one publication, which was called Short Stories. That’s all they published and it was a monthly. So that meant with Short Stories, it was a great title, because that meant it wasn’t just detective, or mystery, or love, or rail roads, it was short stories. And I remember she was kind of a dowdy, middle-aged very sweet lady, not at all the publishing type. And don’t know if Short Stories was maybe a play-toy. But she was at Rockefeller Center and I had to look for work. In those days I think they paid pen and inkers probably $8.50 to $10 a piece. Of course if you get 2 or 3 a day that’s $30 dollars a day, that was $150 a week. My god! You see there were others who would get as much as $15 or $20. But I could work quickly. It was one of the advantages I had financially, that I could work quickly. If I could get the work I figured out that 1 and 15 was not as good as 2 and 10, even though I dropped out of high school. My mind was sharp. [Laughter.]
Anyhow, I went up to her, and I remember very clearly, I looked at the covers. There were 2 covers there, I remember. One was done by a man named Rico Tomaso, who occasionally did a cover for True Magazine — True was kind of the intermediary stepping stone to the Saturday Evening Post. And then they’d get people like Tom Lovell, who would do a job or two for True, wonderful stuff. Oh my god, He was the last of the golden illustrators. And I knew him quite well, as it turned out. But the other one was done by a man by the name of Benton Clark. And there were two Clark brothers, that came out of I think Iowa or Pennsylvania. They both had studied with Harvey Dunn. And Matt, who I think without question was the more disciplined and finer of the two, was a wonderful dry-brush illustrator. Nobody worked like this guy. And Alex Raymond used to swipe for Flash Gordon, these great Matt Clark figures, which basically came out of Matt Clark’s imagination. And his brother Benton, and I think they both studied with Dunn, not Cornwell, and Benton Clark was a real painter, but totally undisciplined, and really sloppy at times. Heavy paint. But boy, when they were good, they were earthy, and when they were bad they were just plain sloppy. The point is, he had covers for Short Stories, as did Rico Tomaso, and it would be as if I was a young actor going to Hollywood, and somebody saying, oh, that is Clarke Gable. That was my Hollywood. And I remember this and it did not make me feel good, this McAlaney lady said, “Well, you get the same price they do, $50 a piece.” What had happened is that these old illustrators couldn’t get work anymore. Years later I joined a very prestigious arts and letters club, called the Century and I was on the board, at a very young age, because they had the idea then that if you were on the club, don’t wait until the guy is 80. “Put him on, it doesn’t cost nothing.” Very good thinking, so they threw a young man out into the membership. And I was sitting at a board meeting the first night and there was a man sitting next to me, I turned to him and said “Hi, I’m Ray Kinstler”, and he said, “I’m Matt Clark.” I looked at him, I said, “What do you do, Matt?” and he was the medical editor for Newsweek. Very good looking guy, I think he is still alive, he is older than I, so really ancient. I said, funny, you know I started out as an illustrator, and one of my great heroes was an illustrator named Matt Clark, spelled just as you, M-A-T-T Clark. “That was my father,” he said. I got to know him a little bit, I was up in his apartment. He had a huge Harvey Dunn, and a couple of his dad’s paintings, wonderful, wonderful! They were real painters, real painters, and he told me about his uncle Benton, the older brother, and he said he had a very serious alcohol problem. Because I remember saying how much I liked them. I said, we could talk just this way, and I said, I always felt his work got so sloppy with the Saturday Evening Post and the structure of the horses was not good and he said he had a terrible drinking problem. Terrible drinking problem. And I think he died a very far gone alcoholic. My point was, these men couldn’t get work. Even Cornwell. The saddest to me was to watch Dean Cornwell, and I was 23, 24, and Dean could not get work. And they made him change his style from painterly into a very hard edge, if you remember them at all, very linear, and he lost that whole painterly … I thought he had lost it, he hadn’t, they just said if you wanted to do the Eastern Airlines family you’ve got to do … so they made him more into a renderer and the great Cornwell paintings … but he was a very disappointed and understandably almost bitter man that things had passed by. At one point I believe he was the highest paid illustrator working in the ’30s.
Yes, I think so. That might be arguable but he had to be, because of the amount of work he was doing, he was unbelievably prolific. And he was doing the Los Angeles murals, and I think it was something like $100,000, which is like millions today, and he had to support himself, with the illustrations, because he was taking so long with the murals, that he was paying his own salary to finish them. You know the Hotel Warwick? I don’t know if it still called the Warwick, on 54th and 6th Ave. You go in and there’s a restaurant, I haven’t been there in 30 years, but it’s still there, it used to be called the Raleigh room. Sir Walter Raleigh depicted by Cornwell. CornwelI, and I don’t know if it exists anymore, designed the floor, theatrical, and I think they preserved the murals. But he was for me in a class by himself.
My point of all of this was that, how sad I felt when she said to me, “Well, they do the same thing you do, 50 bucks a cover” Oh boy, this was like seeing all your heroes die, but they couldn’t get work. Cornwell.
I think it’s even worse today.
For that type I not sure there’s even a market.
Last night someone asked me what I thought about the White House portraits of the Obamas. And I said look, I’m subjective, I can’t help it but, I tried to be objective. And then I am also very, very careful who I say things to. One of the questions I do get is what was it like to paint Donald Trump, which I did, and I’m very careful, for obvious reasons. My considered judgment, no not judgment, my considered opinion was that, the Obamas being the first black couple, the president and first lady, I would have advised Barack Obama if you could find a black artist, I think it was appropriate and time they represent you. What was my opinion of the portraits? Very simple: The one of her was childish. It was a bad fashion magazine, it looked like it was done by some kid from Atlanta who was majoring in art in high school. The one of him bothered me in a different way. The likeness of him sitting on the chair was a rendering, it was not a painting. It’s OK, that’s not what I have problem with. You see it this way, I see it that way. That’s OK, that’s not what I have problem with. But what I was getting at, was that he could have been sitting on a potty. And the idea of all those leaves around, tell me why they weren’t flying bullets, or condoms? What it did was, and this was my point, or is my point, that when the artist becomes more important than the subject, it suddenly becomes a disservice, and it becomes an ego trip. If my feeling about this artist is that’s his gimmick, the background and border dominating the figure.
One of the artists I most admired in life was Flagg. His early charcoal heads of people were as good as Sargent’s drawings, they were so sensitive, and so perceptive and controlled. And as he got older, his signature became more important, almost more important than the heads, the heads became mannerisms. He had gotten a flair, a caricature method of putting it down so quickly and he had the caricaturist’s ability, but Flagg became more important than the person he was painting.
I remember years ago, and it’s a story not many people know and you might find interesting, and I think you sense me a little bit, and so you will know this is meant in a very honest way and a respectful way. The Cowboy Hall of Fame has got a very interesting collection of portraits, of Western performers, and among them was a portrait of Walter Brennan, and you could smell the whiskey. He was a character actor. And I had heard that John Wayne had been painted, we are in the ’70s now, and I heard that John Wayne had been painted for the Cowboy Hall by Norman Rockwell, and no one ever saw it
I was starting to get involved out West, where a lot of the illustrators like Tom Lovell, John Clymer, Donald Teague, who was brilliant, first guy to really use for watercolor as an illustrative media in my opinion, I think the first, John Gannon was in a class by himself but Teague was great, he was great friend of Cornwell's, he studied with DuMond in 1920. Clark Hulings, I got to know all these people very well. And I had a friend who used to do covers for Avon, he was barely making a living, he had this small apartment on 34th Street. And then he started to do better, he bought a house somewhere in Connecticut, near Westport. A lot of them were from that area, that’s where the Famous Artists School was, with Al Dorne. And I was always here. And Clark told me, I remember, it was once in the evening. And he said, “Ray, we are out here and we are making a lot of money. And I can’t keep up with the demand.” I said, “Well, here we’re all struggling to meet the rent,” and they were pulling almost 6 figures for a picture. I couldn’t believe it. I mean 6 figures! But it wasn’t unusual to see 40 or 50 thousand dollars a picture.
What he was calling about was, I’m editorializing, but this is the truth, we’re out here, we’re making money but no one is really recognizing us, they think we are just cowboy artists. Lovell had moved out there, Lovell was a great illustrator, great painter, and they were all out there, but I got the feeling clearly from Clark, who basically said it, we are not getting any appreciation for the artists out from the east, who became cowboy artists, so we’re trying to get juries, and bring in painters from the east who will give us more prestige. Well. I had just been elected a member of the Academy, and the NA in those days used to mean a lot more. And so they were trying to bring out artists, there was a wonderful illustrator, William A. Smith, who was wonderful, he was a wunderkind, at the age of 30 he was in the Saturday Evening Post, he lived in Pennsylvania, near Bucks County, and Bill was really a free spirit as a painter, really a painter, worked in gouache a lot. But he also painted a lot of personal pictures, and he did a lot of social themes. Way ahead of his time in a way. And became one of the members of the Academy, he was one of the few illustrators, along with Harvey Dunn and Cornwell.
So anyway, we started going out there to judge their shows. So that introduced me to a lot to the west. And I started participating. I don’t know about you but the toughest thing for me was to make a sample. I couldn’t do, I couldn’t do. If he said to me I want you to paint a picture of a guy who is 6 foot four and with a baseball bat, I was ready. But tell me to do a sample. I didn’t know where to begin. And lost all confidence. So I was trying to paint Western scenes and it wasn’t in my soul. I had made it very well as a pulp artist with the Westerns, they were 15 bucks a piece, I did two a day, you know, I was loose. It was like fisherman’s luck, but I was illustrating, I enjoyed it, I love it, and some of the paintings hold up pretty well. I think so. But at any rate I was not comfortable, doing these Western scenes trying to compete with … But it introduced me to the west, and I was starting to get even a couple of portraits of people there. And there was one man, again I think it is an interesting story, named Bob Norris. How tall are you?
He was maybe an inch taller. I said to someone once, “I understand Bob Norris owns a property line near Colorado.” “Hell, he don’t own property, he owns mines!” He was in the cattle business with John Wayne. And Marlboro cigarettes was looking for a guy to be their first Marlboro cigarette man, and they went out to see Bob Norris, who was a big cattle rancher. And they thought he might give them entrée to looking at the ranch hands and they saw this guy, 6’3”, looked like Randolph Scott, but thinner. So he became the first Marlboro Man, which to this day, at the age of 90 still, he has a toupee and is bent over a little bit, but I got to paint him, and we got to be very good friends, he was on the board of the Cowboy Hall of Fame. And it was about 1976 or ’77, and I got a plum of a commission to a paint the White House portrait of Gerald Ford. And Bob and I got to be friends, and I painted him with what he wore, a white Stetson, quite a craggy face, he was only about 40, and he had the lariat, and I discovered with the lariat, you may know this, they are like wire. I did not think they were soft rope. And he came here with the lariat, I painted him with a leather jacket, vest, hat, cast a shadow under here. And I was out somewhere out west, I was judging an art show, and Bob was out there, he said Ray, “Would you be interested in painting John Wayne?” I said you’ve got to be kidding. Well, you can imagine, I am sure, there were a lot of artists out there, I think a couple of them even liked my work a lot, but suddenly, you were in their territory, they didn’t like it at all, “Ray’s a good artist, but he’s a New York artist.” There was a lot of jealousy. Who was the biggest one to get, god, John Wayne. His son told me, Michael told me one day, my father gets a painting a week from someone, some artist. “Mr. Wayne, I’ve done this painting, it’s a gift to you, your friend Steve Brower.” What they wanted him to do was to give him it, and say “John Wayne owns my painting.” So what he would do, his son told me this, “My dad would always look at it, he would write a little personal note, ‘Dear Steve, thanks so much for showing this fine example of your artwork,’” and send it back. [Laughter.]
So Bob said to me, “Would you be interested?” Well, I will tell you this, and I’m competitive but I’m not egotistic, I felt this was for me. On a steady diet, I remember Barry Nelson, the golfer, who was from Texas, said to me one day, he said, “You’re good!” I said, “Thank you, Barry.” He said, “But how come you didn’t do more Westerns?” And I said without even thinking, I said, “I don’t know Barry, I didn’t love it.” And the key is you will do something well you love doing. True?
But I could really taste the job, because I was a movie kid. And when I was doing all the pulps I would use John Wayne and Gary Cooper as models. So I had the experience to paint John Wayne. And the nice thing that comes to my mind is, why in the world am I telling you this story? Oh yes, it was about Norman Rockwell. So, here was a story told to me and I think you will find it interesting, and it is said most respectfully toward Mr. Rockwell. Bob said to me, an artist, he said Ray, I am paying for this portrait. He said Duke was painted by, he was in the cattle business with John Wayne, and he said, “Norman Rockwell painted Duke, and Duke will never say this, he’s got too much respect for Rockwell, but he didn’t like it, and the boys don’t like it.” I said, “Where’s the portrait?” “Well it’s out there, and Rockwell painted it,” I said. “How’s Mr. Wayne feel about somebody else?” He said, “Well, he was never happy with the portrait, although he will never say it. I don’t know if we get you out there, let’s just see how it goes.” So I went out there and I remember in the New Quarter Inn. In fact, time had gone by and I got a call one day, say Wednesday morning, “Hey Ray, this is Rich.” You know he was the curator at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. “We were hoping you’d come out here and do a portrait for us.” And I said, “Rich, I can’t make any trips.” I said, “I am starting to get very busy, I don’t want to travel, I don’t want to go up to New Jersey. Aw heck,” I said. “No, I really can’t.” He said, “We were hoping you would come out on a Friday.” I said, “What Friday?” “This Friday.” “You got to be out of your mind.” [Laughter.] I was booking now six months ahead, I was really getting busy, I was getting commissions months ahead. And you know what he said to me? He said, “Oh heck, we had Duke all lined up for Friday morning.” Now you’re a reasonably bright guy. Where do you think I was Friday morning? [Laughter.] So we are sitting at the New Quarter Inn, Dell Webb’s New Quarter Inn, for breakfast, Friday morning, they had these two banquettes, plastic cushions, seats that were … and at one side was Dean Craigle, Bob Norris’s wife, and Dean Craigle, who was directing his son, who was 12 years old, and I was sitting here, and they had a space for Duke. Bob Norris is also there, and I said, “Where is Duke?” “We don’t know. Don’t worry he will be here. At 9:30, 10 o’clock. He may not show up.” I said, “Jeez Bob, I have come all this way and he’s not even going to be here?” He said, “Well he said he will try.” Well, my heart, and a few minutes later, in the door came Duke. You may be 6’3”. He was 6’4”. You look like him. He was built this way. Very large, small, narrow waistline, not very big feet but very big this way. Not sculptural. He was meaty rather than sculptural. And he came in, and not many people know he wore a toupee. He said to me one day, he said, “Well, when I take this rug off nobody is going to want a picture of this 70-year-old man.” And his Buick car was built up up front, with a higher hood, he called it the stagecoach. “Let’s go in my stagecoach.” Because he was so big from here up. And he came in wearing a brown polo shirt, sun tans like this, rolled up to here, with no socks, and beach sneakers. And I sat next to him, his shoulder was up against me like this, and I took a look at his hair piece, best job you ever saw, it looked like it was growing out of his head, and he had broken teeth and his eyes are small and meaty like, his nose had gotten sort of bulbous, and I’m sitting next to him. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere much, we were joking. I had brought along a copy of a book I had, called Painted Portraits. I wanted to call it How to Paint Portraits Real Good, but they didn’t. [Laughter.] And when I put it in front of him, a little pen and ink, my pulp magazine illustration, with the rider on a pony, turning around with a Winchester, and some Indians, pen and ink, not that big. So as we got up I said to Bob, “Where we going?” Oh, when he came in, he sat down in this cushioned chair, I heard the [makes shhh sound] like the displacement of the air went out of like a boat sinking in the water. [Laughter.] So we went outside and I said to Bob, this was around noon, this has got to do with the Norman Rockwell, “What are we going to do now?” He said, “I don’tknow, it’s up to Duke, I don’t know.” We didn’t even talk about a portrait. I was introduced to him. And I said I’ve got great regards for you, John Connelly was the Secretary of the Treasury, and I had painted John Connelly, and I said John, I didn’t know where to begin. What do I say, I love movies, or talk about the portraits, not my place, so I remember saying, “John Connelly sends his regards,” and at one point he said, do you want to paint the two of us together? It didn’t go anywhere. We went out on the street and I remember two people, a man and woman, a couple came, looked like they came from Scranton, and said can we have your autograph? “Well, sure.” It was sort of off season and it was not the place you would see movie stars, and I said, “By the way, Bob, I’ve got this book for Mr. Wayne.” And I inscribed the front of it “To John Wayne, an admiring fan,” and I think he said, “I’ll give it to Duke.” He said, “He loves it. He loves that pen and ink and he’s now invited us over to his house,” which was in Newport Beach. A couple things I remember about it, it was a gated community, it was on the water, like a little bay. There was nothing pretentious about the house, it was a California live-in flat, and he had one big room, as big as this, wainscoting, with Kachina Dolls all around it, but nothing about himself, nothing, a lot of Western paintings by Harold von Schmidt, if you remember his work, but he was the very best, and apparently John Ford had commissioned von Schmidt to do the paintings for the ads. Fort Apache. They are wonderful. Not Stagecoach, there’s another one, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. And he had a lot of these originals there. And we were talking, it was all very amiable. And you know sometime things kind of fit into place, and work in your favor. I hope I am not boring you with this.
You are not. It is the opposite of boring.
There was a piece a sculpture and it was about this big, of an actor named Harry Carry. And he’s standing there like this. I was walking around, ’cause there were about 8 of us, 6 of us, having cocktails. No, we stopped somewhere for lunch, that was it. Duke wants us to have lunch. And one thing I noticed about lunch, the waiter would put something in front of him, and he’d say, “Thank You.” He really had good manners. It was instinct, he certainly..
From May 16-19 2019, New York City's School of Visual Arts hosted the Queers & Comics Conference, a biennial LGBTQ cartoonist conference. The event was organized by Jennifer Camper and Justin Hall and provided a space for artists, writers and fans to discuss everything from publishing to story structure to social justice to different kinds of pens. Bay Area artist Elizabeth Beier attended the event and created visual notes of some of the panels.
In today's installment, groundbreaking writer Magdalene Visaggio (of Kim & Kim, Eternity Girl, Dazzler: X-Song, Transformers vs Visionaries) discusses comics and existentialism with Justin Hall. She says "characters are nothing but a bundle of choices", and the choice we sometimes have to make between changing and dying.
Wait . . . one more for the road? OK. You talked me into it.
Now, in exchange for your patience and kind forbearance I will finish this essay with my absolute best convention story. Trust me. It’s from my first big convention - Wonder Con 1993, Oakland - and an early peak. I haven’t been to a con of any kind since 2000, and honestly? I don’t think I missed much. I was at Wonder Con ‘93. It was all going to be downhill from there.
But first - can we just talk for a minute about Image?
If you weren’t around I don’t know if I can describe to you, in hindsight, just how intense the first, oh - eighteen months of Image were. It made the news. The news! These guys were rockstars to a degree that is kind of embarrassing to discuss in hindsight - even jaded and slightly suspicious as I was at the time. We were all just kids. I didn’t particularly like the kind of comics Image was putting out in the first year of their existence, but the story of the company was a compelling enough hook that I was happy to try anything that seemed even vaguely palatable.
The drama of the Image era played out for much of the country - and for myself -in the pages of Wizard. The magazine, which premiered in July 1991, had in the space of just a year managed to insert itself directly into the center of the mainstream of comics discourse. Certainly in hindsight the suddenness with which the company made itself indispensable was quite suspicious! Image was good for Wizard in that the drama of the company’s founding was the leading story in the magazine’s news section for literal years on end. Each of the early Image founders sat down for very lengthy - surprisingly lengthy - interviews. Some more than once. The Image guys really liked to talk, and Wizard sold lots of copies with Image characters on the cover.
Now, there’s really no excuse for the fact that I subscribed to Wizard for so long. It took me a couple years to get around to subscribing, but only because I was lazy about stuff like that. I hate the sensation of ordering or subscribing to something or other and then seeing it in the store before the mailbox - who doesn’t? But eventually I knuckled down and sent in the subscription card with the check. And wouldn’t you know it, I always ended up getting the magazine later than the newsstand. The newsstand! That’s some rank bullshit, as attested to by the fact that even decades later I’m still kind of raw about it.
Bullshit or ignominy, I here lay down my arms and admit all my sins: I didn’t just subscribe to Wizard, I bought the specials (the earliest ones of which were actually pretty nice), ordered some of the 1/2 issues (and you want to talk about taking forever? I think I am literally somehow still waiting for The Maxx #1/2 to arrive), and dear lord in heaven . . . I bought Hero Illustrated, because it was kind of like Wizard only with better writing, which if you recall the 90s was actually more of a “turn-off.”
Why am I telling you these incredibly distressing factoids from my adolescence and teenage years? You would be completely within your rights to think less of me, because I know for a fact I winced while running down the litany. I mean, sure, it’s probably a venal sin to have read a silly magazine in your youth. Some good writing snuck in occasionally through the back door. Anyone reading comics at the time who won’t cop to getting something decent from Palmer’s Picks at some point is probably misremembering, because just that one column was a gateway to a lot of books that most of Wizard’s core readership would otherwise never have seen. And, to their credit, even after Palmer’s Picks ended, their actual reading recommendations tended to be a lot better than their reputation would have you believe.
Still, in hindsight the whole thing was . . . ugh. Kind of disgusting? Vaguely predatory? Now that I’m older basically all marketing aimed at children seems profoundly sordid. That opinion is more than a little bit influenced by the sheer tonnage of comics industry marketing material I willingly - willingly! - scraped into my fetid maw at such a young and tender age. A whole galaxy of unctuous grifters, waiting for you every month in the pages of The Guide to Comics!
It was all a scam, a pyramid scheme that depended on a wide circle of people actively convincing an even wider circle of people that these weird little pamphlets would at some future time be worth lots of money. As long as enough people believed that more people believed they would be worth money, people would buy them in quantities commensurate with perceived value. That lasted until, oh . . . hmmm, Summer of 1993?
Now flashback to April of 1993, Wonder Con. Things were still going fantastic. No icebergs off the bow, no sir!
Even at the time, I remember thinking very clearly, heading into the Summer of 1993 (AKA “The Great Disaster”), how the hell am I going to afford all this crap? Dark Horse rolled out a new superhero line with sixteen weekly issues, a buck a piece, which was a pretty good marketing gimmick for the time. Some of them could have been fantastic for all history remembers, you probably only remember Ghost. Yet, oddly, Ghost wasn’t the one that got made into a movie. Do you remember which one did?
Malibu was Image’s original publisher, until the money materialized and the founders realized they had no need for middlemen. In their absence Malibu rolled out a new superhero line, too, this time with a bunch of guys you remembered from the 70s and 80s. Which was also a pretty good marketing gimmick for the time, if we’re being completely honest. And, before we go any further, it bears stating for the record that there was good stuff under the Ultraverse banner. A lot of seasoned pros doing very confident but rarely phenomenal work.
Except for Rune, which was one of the very best comics of the decade, and you only don’t think that because you haven’t read Barry Windsor-Smith’s ode to the naked lavender space vampire who likes ripping people in half with his bare fucking hands. I mean, Rune should be a household name. If people know who Spider-Man: Noir is, then by god they should know about Rune -
- and I just realized Spider-Man: Noir’s name has a colon in it. You’d have to be a really shitty person to make a joke about that.
Sorry. I was talking about Rune. Don’t mind me, I get het up.
To make a short story very long: Image was dong quite well heading into Wonder Con. The company had actually put out a few things. Early successes were sufficient enough to justify parting ways with Malibu by early 93. And even if the books were late a lot - I mean, uhhh, a lot a lot? - I think everyone assumed that was a problem they’d get under control. Because boy howdy, if they didn’t! Why, it’s not like that chronic tardiness would ever undermine the retail and supply chain for the whole industry, now is it? Obviously not.
That show was right after Spawn #9 - the Neil Gaiman issue that launched a thousand lawsuits. The Gaiman issue was part of four issues that were guest written by industry names - Alan Moore, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller were the others, if you couldn’t quite recall - for the rather transparent purpose of bolstering the series’ perceived weakness: i.e., its creator’s shortcomings as a writer. Also significant in this context is that, at issue #9, Spawn was already the grand old man of the bunch.
Something else I remember making an impact on the eve of the show: a weird one-shot called Darker Image with three features, each stranger than the last. The first was the first appearance of The (aforementioned) Maxx by Sam Keith, the second a fruitless and pointless Lobo ripoff by Rob Liefeld called Bloodwulf (Bloodwulf!), and the third the first appearance of Jim Lee deciding he was going to draw like Sin City for a while. And I don’t mean I little bit like Sin City, I mean Deathblow looked basically just like Sin City except possibly with a better grasp of anatomy because I mean have you ever read a Frank Miller comic book?
Plus I mean . . . Deathblow. Not just the name of a character who appeared once, but a name used by a character who appeared over and over again for many years. At least he doesn’t have a colon in his name. That’s gotta stink.
The Maxx was part of the company’s second wave, which also included a brand new Alan Moore series (1963, still unfinished, still waiting), Keith Giffen’s Trencher, and Mike Grell’s Shaman’s Tears. Don Simpson also popped up to do the extraordinarily weird hagiography / roast Splitting Image, a MAD Magazine-style retelling of the company’s formation. If you ever run across it in a dollar box (and I honestly can’t imagine where else you’d come across it in 2019?) it needs to be seen to be believed. Add to that the Savage Dragon / Megaton Man one-shot which came out at the same time, another oddity that drew an explicit genealogy between the 80s black & white indie press and Image’s decidedly more upscale version of independence. (Remember the Dragon himself first appeared years before Larsen even worked for Marvel, in the pages of Gary Carlson’s Megaton anthology.)
So there was a lot of stuff going on. My favorite Image book of the show was possibly the lowest profile release of the second wave: Al Gordon and Jerry Ordway’s Wildstar, which I remember having an absolutely perfect debut issue. I run down this laundry list for the purpose of pointing out that for all the blame Image come in for later, they reacted to criticism of their initial launch by putting out some decent books with unexpected names attached. But by the time all the smoke cleared by the end of the Summer, Image’s original bout of experimentation had run its course. The Maxx carried on but by the end of the year it was one of the few books at the company that didn’t belong to one of the founders.
(It eventually wound up on MTV, which surprised the fuck out of me at the time and honestly still does a bit in hindsight, but only because The Maxx was a genuinely strange and clearly personal project for Keith. Also, for what it’s worth? Most months The Maxx was Image’s best book.)
In April, though? Those guys were riding high. All smiles at their panel on Saturday afternoon. Weird energy with all those guys in the same room - they weren’t all friends, you could already smell. But they needed each other, and its very easy to overcome personal objections over bags of money. (Whilce Portacio had already stepped back from active involvement in the company. Wetworks did eventually come out from Image, but Portacio was the only founder not to become a partner - I believe due to a family illness.) It was twenty-six years ago and I barely remember anything about the panel except that Erik Larsen was late and literally everyone on stage spent much of the panel making fun of how many pages he drew in a day. Which, I mean, say what you will, but they certainly did have their senses of humor.
Another Erik Larsen memory - from 2000, the last con I attended, another Wonder Con. Weird energy. Absolutely dead show, even on a Saturday afternoon -
- and that reminds me of another exchange I had, with Rory Root, about how dead that show was, and then I remember the last exchange I had with him, before I dropped out of Berkeley in 2000. He didn’t know me well but we knew each other enough that he asked me my plans after the end of the semester. I said I was taking a leave of absence but that I intended to go back some day. He laughed and told me that I should be careful, because he had said that exact thing. Then he gestured to his store - the late, great Comic Relief in Berkeley, CA - and said, and look where I ended up.
Anyway. At Wonder Con 2000 my best friend from high school and I got to spend a solid twenty minutes yakking with Larsen while he drew an extraordinarily nice sketch of the Dragon for me - one of the few sketches I own, even if now made out to a defunct name. It was around the time of his Journal cover story, so we talked about that, and the series, and a few other things.
I still read Savage Dragon through periods of my life where I read almost nothing else. That I am currently estranged from the book is a symptom of the fact that I remain estranged from almost everything in the industry. But I will almost certainly catch up on the Dragon someday, and that should tell you a great deal about my priorities in life.
Someone needs to make the Image biopic: gimme the Straight Outta Compton with Jim Lee as Dr. Dre to Todd McFarlane’s Ice Cube. Which of course makes Rob Liefeld Eazy E, and wow there’s even a famous photograph of those two together you can run with the column, Tucker. If you want to know what life was like in the early 90s, just look at that picture and drink some Surge.
Things were great in Spring of 1993 but maybe not so much when Liefeld was forced out of the company three years later. The one consistent through-line across Liefeld’s career is that he’s a great guy who everyone loves to work with until they go into business with him, at which point bad things happen. Maybe not Spawn #9 level bad, but Spawn #9 was such a boondoggle that it set in motion a chain of events which only ended two decades after the fact when Marvel eventually won a lawsuit to which they weren’t even a party. Which, I mean, sort of actually did happen.
All that still lay in the future. At that moment Todd McFarlane was at the height of his career. And even if he is now but a shadow of the figure he was, in his prime he was simply the most powerful artist in comics.
Notice the adjective I used there. I didn’t say “best selling,” or “most talented.” Certainly, he sold very well, and he was very talented. But he wasn’t powerful because he was good, but because he was the first of the bunch of them to really figure out how to leverage that popularity into actual power. He acted like a professional athlete on free agency, not like a guy with a lot of sentimental attachment to his work. Which is not to say that he was anything other than a consummate professional, but that he was a consummate professional and increasingly so little else was a feeling in regards to his work that never left me. Certainly not as the years turned into decades and his early promise was calcified by the logic of empire into self-parody.
His Marvel work, even as it grew bloated and baroque in the later days of his tenure, was consistently imaginative and witty in a way that Spawn never was. You know something about Todd McFarlane that doesn’t get mentioned a lot? His early work was funny. Go back to his Hulk, or the early Amazing Spider-Man - his figures stomp and scowl like Will Elder caricatures. He put lots of little touches into the work - like the Felixes - that spoke to someone who really was enjoying himself, and learning and getting better at a measurable clip.
But then he started to make a lot of money, and - let’s be completely clear, all of the gentlemen on stage in 1993 were making very good money, if not actually rich outright from selling a lot of comics for Marvel. More money than I have ever seen in my entire life, to be certain. So I can hardly blame Todd for being interested in making a lot of money, because had I been in his position I would almost certainly have tried to do the same, and most likely have failed because my business acumen is probably worse than Liefeld’s. I mean, it’s close. I’ve only declared bankruptcy the one time but I’ve also never been ousted from the company I helped found with my friends because they figured out I was using “our” company to help boost “my” company when they weren’t looking, which I mean is the kind of thing that can happen to anybody, right?
Eazy E was also notorious for employing “eccentric” business practices among friends! See? It writes itself.
Anyway. The early McFarlane was a fun artist who would have probably developed into a great artist, had he been just a bit less successful and so been forced to remain at the drawing board. As it is, every new piece I see of his seems essentially frozen in time twenty five years in the past. Or, to about when he started running his own company and quit drawing regular sequential work.
I’m not much in the advice giving racket, but if I had any one bit of advice that I would consider absolutely essential for young cartoonists (and writers, for that matter): get a gig with a steady deadline. You will learn more in a month from having to draw than you will in a year from wanting to draw. Some remarkable people can be self-starters who work every day independent of outside stimulus, but the rest of us sometimes do need to rely on more concrete forms of incentive.
The absolute worst thing that can happen to you, as an artist? Getting rich enough that you don’t have to work every day.
Now, at this late date I can’t say whether or what McFarlane cares about. I know he cares about Spawn, inasmuch as he has jealously guarded his vision of the character from any contamination. But I wonder whether or not he hasn’t ultimately suffocated the guy. Because there’s no reason Spawn has to suck. I have always maintained that Spawn had, as they say, “good bones.” He’s a Faust riff, and that’s a good template for an origin that he also shares with (Stan Lee’s origin for) the Silver Surfer. He’s got a pretty threadbare milieu - government assassin betrayed by his superiors, etc - but threadbare can be just fine if its used as a springboard to get somewhere decent. McFarlane also saw the rising trend of urban fantasy with a horror streak. Since then the genre has only grown in popularity.
And, I mean, come on: that costume. Billowing sentient cloak. Prehensile chains. So many fucking spikes. No one else could get away with something so thoroughly bizarre and purposefully, maniacally busy. It shouldn’t work at all, but it does.
But there really should be more to the guy than an iconic look. Spawn has always had a great costume and a decent premise but no saga. Nothing in his world ever has a discrete beginning, middle, or end. Nothing ever goes anywhere but in circles. It tends to work against the long term prospects of characters when all they do is tread water rehashing over and over again the greasy details of their origin.
Of course, there are also worse things than spending years at a time sitting around a garbage heap in an alley talking about your past. One of those things is Spawn Kills Everyone. Which I am distressed but also not terribly surprised to report was written by McFarlane, but not drawn by him - no, the honor of illustrating our hero goes to J.J. Kirby and Will Robinson. If you were looking for a good opportunity to check back in with Spawn after a time away, this is not that opportunity.
It’s not a good story. It’s not funny. It’s supposed to be funny, or at least I think so, but it struggles weakly to overcome a petulant premise. The premise of the book - as in, not the subtext - is that Spawn is upset that other heroes get movies and he doesn’t, so he sets out to kill them. Only, it’s not actually Spawn, rather a chibi-style “Lil’ Spawn” who basically, uhhhh, well - I’m not going to say they act just like Deadpool, because Deadpool can be pretty funny, whereas Lil’ Spawn just makes me really sad.
The first Spawn Kills Everyone one-shot is just that, him going to a comic convention to kill all the superheroes with movies. The plot of the Spawn Kills Everyone mini-series picks up from there when Lil’ Spawn, still working quite inefficiently to kill the more popular heroes, one day craps out a few hundred tiny Baby Spawns, the design for which looks strikingly similar to the old X-Factor villain Nanny.
And I realize, if you have previous familiarity with my writing - and are thereby used to the prolificacy of my swearing - you probably read “craps out” as a euphemism. But no, I must clarify: if Lil’ Spawn has anything that might be called a “signature move,” it’s screaming on the toilet. Which is most of what he spends his time doing. Again, I wish I was exaggerating, but as the lovable scamp himself might say, “OUTTA MY WAY! I’M GOING TO SHART!”
I mean, he really says that. To whom is not made clear in the moment, however, as Lil’ Spawn appears to live alone.
A few years ago I found a rather nice hardcover of Torment for under $10...
Scarcely known in the U.S. but a household name and sales guarantee in Italy – that's the criminal genius of Diabolik, one of nihilistic trash comics' founding figures. In Diabolical Summer Thierry Smolderen and Alexandre Clérisse provide you with a different perspective on the masked villain. The gentleman criminal in disguise Diabolik has enjoyed great popularity since his creation in 1962 by two sisters from Italy, Angela und Luciana Giussani – at least in the country of his origin.
As Diabolical Summer writer Smolderen says in his afterword, Diabolik rose from a long tradition of anti-heroes that also spawned protagonists like Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse, but is ultimately based on Harlequin Faustus. In Diabolical Summer, made jointly with cartoonist Clérisse, Diabolik – an archetype of sinister comics cartooning called fumetti neri, which appear to be of an assembly-line and sado-pornographic character – is used as a cipher for anarchic tendencies resting in humanity, while with Harlequin Faustus, classified by Smolderen as a lineal descendant of the Commedia dell'Arte, Diabolik's geographical offspring comes full circle.
Two attempts have been made to establish Diabolik for an American readership: in 1986 via the Pacific Comics Club, and 10 years later by Scorpio Productions. Neither were crowned with success or longevity. This fate is shared by Mario Bava's beguiling and stylistically confident cinematic take on the anti-hero, entitled Danger: Diabolik, probably because of a style-over-substance attitude that is too much on the nose – even if you're one of those wayward critics who value both as interacting on equal levels.
The basic premise for all plots evolving around Diabolik is as follows: Equipped with a minimum of moral principles that do not exclude blackmail and murder, Diabolik finances his lavish lifestyle by raiding public institutions and the morally questionable. Always by his side is Eva Kant, as a helpmeet conjoined with her partner in cold precision. The very meaning of their lives is that of a perpetual rififi, metonymic with the compensation for a never shown but always latently resonating and long-yearned sexual climax within a seemingly platonic relationship. Like most fumetti neri aimed at mature readers in Italy, the artistic level is consequently one that carelessly produces slipshod art hastily cobbled together for an all-devouring mass market.
Milo Manara, by the way, also debuted in this branch of Italian comics, and the majority of his later works still shows formative influences from this exploitative genre. However, to this day the interiors of Diabolik are sparely drawn – and certainly not for artistic reasons. Interestingly, women make up the largest share of the series readership. This may be due to Angela and Luciana Giussani's initial conception giving precedence to romance, or to the involvement of long-time scribe Patricia Martinelli. In any case, the fact that it was conceived and successfully commercialized by women is noteworthy.
So there's an inspired realization of playful sexual intercourse amidst stolen goods in the cinematic adaption of Danger: Diabolik, whereas Clérisse and Smolderen use a mannequin who allegedly served as a role model for Eva Kant in the comics as an abstraction of the sexually open fumetti neri by letting her offensively grab a male protagonist's crotch – all of which is arranged within a scenery of features commonly associated with pop art or another cipher for loot, if you will, while the original black and white version, which is still in publication, according to the sisters Giussani remains as firmly committed to its romantic roots as Eva to her Diabolik.
Unperturbed by such matters, the subliminally infused myth developed a life of its own, as you'll recognize by looking closely at Bava's interpretation, or Smolderen and Clérisse's. Though the former lacks stringency in narration despite its visual finesse, the Franco-Belgian duo once more – after their idiosyncratically furnished biography of science-fiction writer Cordwainer Smith – proves its capability of turning unusual source material into excellent comics.
For 2014's Atomic Empire is not only reverting to elements lifted from the writings of Smith, whose actual name was Paul Linebarger, but also includes excerpts from works of other writers Smith was referencing, all the while adapting his curriculum vitae in a partially embellished form. Driven by enormous dexterity, the interposing of Captain Future creator and later Superman writer Edmond Hamilton's The Star Kings and its all-doubting psychiatrist can be considered as a reference to The Jet-Propelled Couch, which tells of an anonymous client in psychiatric treatment who might have been Smith/Linebarger. The Star Kings, furthermore transferring the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda into the genre of science fiction, is just another meta level within a comic borrowing its title from A. E. van Vogt's Empire of the Atom, which in turn is based on I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
Seriatim, Van Vogt was moving in the orbit of L. Ron Hubbard, writer of science fiction of questionable quality and founder of Scientology. Hubbard appears in the comic somewhat camouflaged as an opponent of Smith/Linebarger's. And in all of that well-calculated hustle and bustle of numerous associations legendary Franco-Belgian cartoonist André Franquin rushes past on a bicycle – these are moments where reality and exaggeration are generating a new kind of quality by interlocking with each other. Comparisons to the better works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison are definitely permitted here.
Even so, this meta-level biography is consumable without knowing all the multi-layers interwoven, a thing that can't be said about Morrison's Watchmen pastiche Pax Americana, also from 2014, and its asinine tree-house-just-for-boys attitude.
Clérisse's art sticks to the retro style established in the predecessor to Diabolical Summer, but you'll notice a brightening of the colors. They start out with the psychogram of a tormented mind as it was done in muted colors for Atomic Empire, but then reach for a brightly shining summer panorama charged with the ubiquitous great promise of imminent sexual liaisons, though sometimes blurred by violent premonitions of dishonesty and violence in dark violet tones. In terms of page layout, the lack of panel borders is a matter of honor and of paying tribute to the psychedelic flow of the era the story is set in, with best regards from Guy Peellaert's Jodelle and Pravda.
The only thing devoid of color here, in the sense of interpretable relevance, is the cited Procol Harum song "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which not only serves as an audiovisual means to pinpoint the time frame, but also forms a base for a senses-stimulating sequence. The arcane lyrics fed into the novel Barefoot in the Head by Brian W. Aldiss – the Ulysses of 1960s New Wave science fiction – to capture the lysergic acid diethylamide-drenched mood of that era. For Smolderen, who in addition to numerous essays has written a history of comics and teaches at École des Beaux-Arts in Angoulême, Procol Harum's intent to have the gaps emerging from within the song's lyrics filled by the audience's imagination must have been easy prey with a view to prevalent comics theories, as they are a welcome opportunity for his partner in crime Clérisse to make the letters of the alphabet dance with feral fonts.
Appropriately for Diabolik, Smolderen and Clérisse keep it simple structurally: After the anamnesis dissolved in catharsis that was Atomic Empire, Diabolical Summer is a bulbous and curvy coming-of-age fable spiked with pop-culture set pieces visually translated in shades of pop-art color. It tells the story of young fellow Antoine, who has an aloof relationship to his father that is defined by a spatial and temporal distance and appears to be some kind of a shady character with a history going back to the intelligence business.
According to his age, Antoine naturally has to face some Sturm und Drang along the way, which includes the negative influence of friends who appear fascinating and dubious, as well as the awakening of sexual desires transferred into a brilliantly depicted reverie.
Also included? JFK's assassination and the Cold War; every distraction is welcome. And so a fumetto nero like Diabolik appears to also be the result of a misspent youth at newsstands, much the same as Paul Linebarger's life was brought into a maddening planetary orbit by trashy magazines dedicated to the possible worlds of tomorrow. The repetition of the motif is pointing to the underlying conceptual structure of a trilogy. In addition to the aforementioned afterword by Smolderen, entitled "Born Under the Sign of the Newsstand," at least in its French and German editions, the dramaturgy of colors for the pages leading into and out of Atomic Empire are anticipating the lighter tones of its successor. However, the third and final volume was announced last year as Une année sans Cthulhu, which translates as A Year without Cthulhu.
Smolderen and Clérisse once again demonstrate that it's entirely possible to craft long-form comics thematically related to biographies and works of literature that don't end up being predictable cash-ins – well, if you consider Diabolik being a literary thing at all, that is. And this second collaboration by the two authors also represents an improvement over the first: The life history of Antoine is easier to follow than the abstractions of Paul Linebarger's complicated mind, if only because every generation shares similar experiences while growing up.
J.M. DeMatteis has been writing so many kinds of comics for so long, its hard to remember a time before that was the case. He has long been considered one of the all time great writers in North American comics, but to his mind, he found his voice in writing Moonshadow, a definitive edition of which was just published by Dark Horse. Originally a twelve issue miniseries published by Marvel’s Epic imprint in 1985-87, it was re-released by Vertigo along with a sequel Farewell, Moonshadow, a decade later. Painted by the great Jon J Muth, with additional work by Kent Williams, George Pratt, Sherri van Valkenburgh, and Glenn Pepple, and letters by Kevin Nowlan with Gaspar Saladino, it remains a singular work in the history of North American comics.
Since then he has continued to write superhero comics, ranging from Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt to philosophical, thoughtful superhero tales that play with the genre, from Doctor Fate to The Life and Times of Savior 28, and perhaps best in The Spectre, to hundreds of light hearted adventures with Keith Giffen like Justice League International. He’s written comics for younger readers including Abazad and The Stardust Kid with Mike Ploog, and The Adventures of Augusta Wind and its sequel with artist Vassillis Gogtzilas. DeMatteis wrote a very different kind of autobiographical comic with artist Glenn Barr in Brooklyn Dreams. He’s one of the people who defined the Vertigo line – both by writing comics for the imprint like Mercy, The Last One, and Seekers: Into the Mystery – and for his earlier work for Marvel’s Epic imprint like Blood that showed there was an audience for thoughtful adult comics. If there is anyone who has defined what modern comics can be – which is to say, almost anything – it is DeMatteis.
In the past year he’s written two very different projects, Girl in the Bay and Impossible Inc. for Berger Books/Dark Horse Comics and IDW, in addition to the new hardcover edition of Moonshadow, which to my mind remains one of the best comics ever made. I thought that when I first read it as a teenager when Vertigo reprinted this “fairy tale for adults” and it holds up on rereading all these years later. I’ve spoken with DeMatteis in the past and he has kindly listened to my praise about the book over the years, and we spoke recently about how he found his voice in writing Moonshadow, the power of stories, and my very different reaction upon rereading the book.
I wonder if you could set the scene a bit. You had been working at Marvel and DC. You co-created I, Vampire and Creature Commandos, and written acclaimed runs on Captain America and The Defenders. You had this idea for a creator owned fantasy maxiseries about life and innocence and existence – and Jim Shooter said, sure, we’ll publish that?
Actually, the first place I went was to DC. My contract at Marvel was wrapping up and I was considering going back over to DC, where I’d started. My friend and mentor, Len Wein, offered me Justice League and Swamp Thing (pre-Alan Moore). Karen Berger was very interested in doing Moonshadow and she even mentioned a new British artist—some guy named Dave Gibbons—as a potential collaborator. I ultimately decided to stay at Marvel if I could do Moon and the Greenberg the Vampire graphic novel. This was the period when creator-owned comics were just poking their heads out of the sand and I really wanted to do something that took me out of the superhero comfort zone. Jim Shooter was approved both projects, then pointed me to Archie Goodwin, who was overseeing Marvel’s Epic line.
What was the late Archie Goodwin like and what was the process at Epic that he had set up?
Archie was a delight. Low key. Very smart. Immensely likable. And, best of all, he gave creators all the room they needed to pursue their own creative vision. I also have to tip my hat to our two editors, Laurie Sutton and Margaret Clark, who never interfered, let us tell our stories in exactly the way we wanted, but were always there to offer their help every step of the way.
How did Jon J Muth end up working on the book? How much had he done in his career before this point?
If I’m remembering correctly, Jon had done Mythology of An Abandoned City for Epic Illustrated, although I hadn’t seen it. I met Jon through our mutual friend Dan Green, who’d passed my original Moonshadow outline along to him. Jon was very excited about the project and, as soon as he showed up at my house with some initial sketches that visualized the story and its tone perfectly, I knew he was the artist for Moonshadow.
What does the song Moonshadow mean to you?
I was a huge Cat Stevens fan back in the day. His songs were often about the inner search, the grasping for truth and meaning that’s so much a part of our story. That said, much as I like that particular song, it didn’t have special meaning for me. I was just looking for a name that evoked the feeling of the tale. The kind of name a hippie mother would bestow upon her son. I remember flipping through my albums, looking at song titles, stopping at “Moonshadow" and knowing that was it.
My original title for the story, when I first envisioned it, long before the Epic series, was Stardust—which I used, years later, for my all-ages series The Stardust Kid.
In the back matter to this “definitive edition” you have a list that you made of some of Moonshadow’s favorite books. Having read the book so many times, I can’t help but think these are books that have meant a great deal to you, as well.
Some of them were definitely books near and dear to my heart. But some were books I was seeing through the character’s eyes. So it was a mixture of my favorite books and Moon’s! And some of his later became mine.
It sounds like you had this very clear idea of who Moonshadow was and the feel and sensibility of this story early on. Where did Ira come from? In the notes you include in the back he sounds fully formed, but named Klikker.
In the beginning, Ira was kind of a classic cranky sidekick—inspired by characters like Jack Kirby’s Oberon and Jim Starlin’s Pip the Troll—but he quickly became his own unique creature, incredibly important to the story. In many ways, perhaps even more than the G’l-Doses, Ira embodied the philosophical contradictions that the story addressed, the idea that, as Dostoyevsky said, “good and evil are monstrously mixed up in man.” Ira was, in many ways, a terrible person; yet there was always something good and decent trying, and often failing, to get out. There was no real reason for Moonshadow to love him, and yet he did. And, in some ways, that love redeemed Ira.
As for the name change: I had an old friend named Ira—who had nothing in common with his fictional namesake!—and I thought it was a very funny to name an alien after a Jewish guy from Brooklyn.
You mentioned meeting Jon J Muth through Dan Green. At the same time you and Muth were making Moonshadow, you were making Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa with Green. This was at a time when painted comics were still unusual. Did that aspect of how the comics would look, how the artists thought about design and color, affect the way you worked?
The painted aspect opened up the stories in new ways, adding depth and texture and a deeper sense of wonder to the art.
I don’t think painted art is necessarily better than traditional line art, it’s just different—it’s almost like the difference between traditional animation and CGI animation—but I think the painted look was essential for both these projects, a way to announce that we were doing something unique. It also helped that Jon and Dan knew how to really breathe life into painted comics. I’ve seen other artists use the painted approach and the result can be incredibly stilted. Sometimes the art gets so hyper-real it becomes completely fake. But Jon and Dan were, and are, masters. They never lost the flow and energy that comic books require.
At the time we were working on Moonshadow and Into Shamballa, Jon and Dan were sharing a studio, so I’d visit them and Dan would be at one table painting Doctor Strange and Jon would be at another bringing Moon’s universe to life. We were all good friends and there was a real sense of creative community, and creative joy, permeating both projects.
How lucky was I to be working with two such brilliant artists simultaneously?
I remember the first time I read Moonshadow thinking that this was a young man’s book. This was your first and possibly only chance to tell this massive story that had been building for years and it has this incredible energy.
Years ago I read a quote that essentially said, “Whatever story you’re writing, treat it as if it’s the only story you’ll ever write. Fill it with all your passions, hopes, dreams, fears. Everything you are.” I’ve searched high and low over the years for the source of that quote and I can’t find it—and at this point, I’ve probably mutated it so much that I can claim it as my own—but that’s exactly what I did with Moonshadow. It was, as you suggest, a creative explosion. A chance to stop “writing comic books” and just write. Be myself. In the process, I found my voice as a writer.
Of course having Jon’s incredible art to inspire me didn’t hurt. I don’t know if we’d even be talking about Moonshadow today if Jon hadn’t been the illustrator. If the story worked it was because of a creative fusion between us. I knew that, working with an artist of his brilliance, I had to up my game. I hope I inspired him as much as he inspired me.
As I think I’ve said in our previous conversations, I think this is one of the great comics. Period. But I will admit that re-reading it again for this interview, I found myself sometimes thinking, it’s a very wordy book.
You have no idea how much copy I cut out of that book! I’d write a page and then start slicing and dicing. That said, comics aren’t one thing or another. They’re anything we want them to be. And with Moonshadow—and a number of other projects I’ve done over the years—I wanted to explore the line between prose and comics.
There are some people who say that comics should be “movies on paper.” And they can be that. But they can also be a thousand other things. Want to do three of four pages that are essentially illustrated prose and then shift into more typical, or perhaps even wordless, comics? Why not? Don’t let the format lead you, let the story lead you.
When Muth and I reunited, ten years later, for Farewell, Moonshadow, we essentially did an illustrated prose piece broken up by wordless comics sequences. And I think it’s some of the best work we've ever done, together or separately. Is it a comic book in the traditional sense? No. But it’s a comic book because, well, we say it is.
I kept thinking that one way you were using the quotations and some of the references was that you were trying to place the series into a framework. That in superhero comics, you had previous runs or creators you have callbacks to in different ways and here you were trying to find a way to do that here in a comic that people might not know what to make of.
Not consciously. But I do think the quotes put the series in a more literary tradition instead of a strictly comics tradition. But, again, I wasn’t thinking that. I was just following the story, following Old Moonshadow and writing what he told me to write. In the end, he controlled the story, not me. And I really mean that.
There was a point, toward the end of the series, where I realized that Old Moon wasn’t necessarily telling me the truth. I’d taken him at his word till then, believed that this had been his life. But toward the end I began to suspect that he was mythologizing his life just as I’d been mythologizing my own.
Writing stories is a strange and wonderful thing.
So many of your stories – possibly all? – are about people born into circumstances, a system, who reject that way of thinking. Who reject the story they are told about themselves, even though it might be easier to believe it. Moonshadow, his mother and Ira all faced that.
We write about the things that obsess us. The themes in a writer’s work are the themes of a writer’s life. The Big Theme that has always obsessed me is the search for meaning, for personal, and cosmic, identity. Who are we? Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all? Exploring those ideas, from both a psychological and spiritual perspective, is the driving force behind many of my stories, whether they’re more personal projects like Moonshadow or more popular ones like Spider-Man.
Part of that search is questioning what we know—or believe to be true—about ourselves and the world around us. And those beliefs—those stories we're told about ourselves, as you put it—often have to be exploded in order to find a deeper truth.
All that said, people often forget that, philosophical concerns aside, Moonshadow can be a pretty goofy book, with a Pythonesque sense of humor running through it. Yes, we grappled with the Big Issues, but this is also a story where Moon and Ira escape death by farting their way to freedom!
As you mentioned, besides reprinting the original series, Vertigo published a sequel Farewell, Moonshadow. Why did you want to make a sequel at all?
I’d thought about a sequel when we were doing the series for Epic and conceived the basic idea of Farewell then. For reasons that escape me now, we decided not to do it, but I held on to the idea and, when we brought the book to DC, pitched the sequel to Vertigo chief Karen Berger and our editor Shelly Bond, and they both responded enthusiastically.
As for why I wanted to do it: Moon’s story was the story of an adolescent stepping into adulthood. It was also the story of Moonshadow achieving a kind of enlightenment. But what happens after enlightenment, when you come back down from the cosmic high? What happens when the boy becomes a man and has to assume the burdens of the adult world, bringing along all the baggage—good and bad—of his strange, dysfunctional childhood? Those were the questions I wanted to explore (perhaps not consciously at the time but, looking back, it’s very clear to me.)
You and Jon J Muth clearly wanted the sequel to look and feel very different from the first series. Was some of that because of the realization you mentioned, that the character wasn't telling you the truth but his own mythology, which gave you permission of a sort to go in a different direction.
Right. As I said before, Old Moonshadow was a highly-unreliable narrator—I really felt as if I wasn’t so much writing the story as transcribing the story Old Moon was telling me—and, toward the end of the series, I suddenly realized that much of what he was telling me was distortion, a fairy tale version of his life. So Farewell was an attempt to move beyond the fairy tale and cut closer to the bone. (In the end, I think we moved from fairy tale to allegory.)
I also wanted to keep stretching as a writer, so I knew that doing the book in the same way would be redundant. That’s why I conceived the idea of doing what was essentially a long prose piece with full page illustrations, broken up by silent comics sequences.
In many ways, I think the sequel is even stronger than the original series. It’s certainly some of the best writing I’ve ever done. And Jon’s art, always brilliant, reaches a real peak in Farewell, Moonshadow. You could do a gallery show of his full-page illustrations. They’re wonderful.
Working with Muth on these two projects – I think of them as related but two different beasts, I don’t know how you think of them – I’m curious about the process of Farewell, Moonshadow and working with Jon and Shelly Bond and Karen Berger. I said before that Moonshadow was a young man's story, and this felt like the work of a different creator, an older more mature creator.
I totally agree. You grow and change tremendously in ten years. Life throws all manner of weirdness at you. You lose things you hold dear, you fall, you get back up again. Find new hope, new life. I’d certainly been through my share of personal melodrama in the decade between Moonshadow’s completion and the writing of Farewell and the story reflects that.
The original series is about the journey from childhood to adulthood, both psychologically and spiritually. Farewell, Moonshadow is about the unfolding process of holding on to that growth and wisdom. Living it. Having a cosmic revelation is one thing, but how do you hold on to that, how do you not forget, while you’re dealing with the sometimes-painful challenges of adulthood, of the so-called “real” world?
As for working with Karen and Shelly: They’re two of the best editors, and nicest people, in the business. My respect for them both is off the charts. Karen’s one of my oldest and dearest friends and Shelly became a good friend as we worked together on a number of Vertigo projects, so creating Farewell, Moonshadow was a delight.
You cited the creative fusion between you and Jon as part of the book's success. And you've worked with a lot of artists over the years. Do you think that the best projects require that kind of understanding and spark? You seem to be very skilled at writing for artists – with artists? – in a way many comics writers are not always.
Comics are about collaboration, about chemistry between writer and artist, and that’s something you can’t create. It’s either there or it’s not. I’ve had projects where I’ve written a terrific script, the artist has done an equally-terrific job, and yet there’s no creative “click,” the chemistry’s not there, and the story just falls apart. But when that “click” happens, it’s truly magical and that magic infuses every aspect of the project. Jon and I certainly had that when we were working on Moonshadow and I am forever grateful.
What was the response to the book when it first came out? I remember when Vertigo re-released the book it was described as a "fairy tale for adults" and Epic was putting out a lot of really great work. It was coming out when indie comics were publishing some great work, but there's no book quite like it.
My memory was that it was very well received. Certainly the best-received work I’d ever done. It didn’t fly off the shelves the way superhero comics did, but I don’t think anyone expected that of an Epic book. Moon hit a very specific audience—a kind of pre-Vertigo crowd—that took it to their hearts.
The “fairy tale for grown-ups” label started at Epic. I believe it was on all the original ads. Our way of saying that this story isn’t for kids. But there was still some pushback when the book came out; some people were still expecting a “Marvel Comic” and they were shocked by some of the content. Which doesn’t seem remotely shocking in today’s pop culture landscape. I think, eventually, they simply labeled it “for mature readers."
I wonder if you could talk a little about Brooklyn, not today’s borough, but where you were born. Because it’s played such a big role in your work.
I think if I’d been from Peoria, then that would play a big role in my work. We’re always looking back at our roots and that’s where my roots are, in the Brooklyn of a certain time and place. Working class families living in apartment buildings. Swarms of kids playing on the streets. Teenagers coming of age while the world around them exploded with drugs and protests and consciousness-expansion. It’s a world, and an era, I explored again recently in my Dark Horse/Berger Books series The Girl in the Bay. I guess Brooklyn is like a shadow. If I look behind me, it’s always there in some form.
What was it like re-reading the book a decade later? Do you typically read your work after you’ve finished writing it or do you just put it on the shelf and admire the binding? Did you read it again for this new edition?
I read it over after it comes out, but then it usually goes on the shelf and I might pull something down and reread it years later.
With enough time, there’s a certain level of objectivity when I look at older work. It’s almost as if someone else wrote the stories. With some projects I can see every blemish and flaw and I’m embarrassed by how uncooked my writing was. And sometimes I look back in amazement at the quality of the work. With Moonshadow it’s the latter. With each issue I was stretching, growing, becoming something new. Would I write the story the same way today? Probably not. Would it be as good if I wrote it today? Probably not. Because it was a reflection of a specific time in my life, the specific person that I was then. And also the reflection of that creative fusion with Jon J Muth. The book came together in an almost magical way and I’m..
I messed up my entire life because I got high
I lost my kids and wife because I got high
Now I'm sleeping on the sidewalk and I know why
'Cause I got high
Because I got high
Because I got high
It is a little difficult to resist the temptation to write something silly when the subject is marijuana. But as Box Brown more than ably demonstrates in his new book from First Second, Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, the consequences of its criminalization here and abroad are deadly serious.
Brown has several nonfiction graphic novels under his belt including a history of Tetris and biographies of Andre the Giant and Andy Kaufman. He has settled into a comfortable grove of drawing popular histories on a variety of different subjects. Brown’s visual style is deceptively simple: a consistent, unwavering line, depicting flat, boxy people and scant background details. Brown prefers bold, iconographic shapes with heavy, solid blacks and a Zip-A-Tone-esque gray.
For nonfiction, Brown is refreshingly on the more cartoony end of the spectrum. He’s not afraid to draw motion lines or lightning bolts of shock or pain. It’s not his first rodeo — he knows to mix up his compositions to keep it interesting for the reader.
For a history of marijuana in the United States, Brown begins farther back than I would have imagined. He goes just about as far as one could — to the apocryphal first human who smoked marijuana. From there he weaves forward in time, from mythological explanations for weed in India, to conquistadors in Mexico and then finally into the US. It’s satisfying to see a more 21st century perspective on figures like Hernán Cortés. “Cortés brought with him destruction, disease, death and Catholicism,” writes Brown.
Indeed, Brown’s version is much more woke than the traditional telling. He shows, again and again, a repeating pattern of law enforcement and government using cannabis as an excuse to crack down on and restrict minorities. Brown deftly lays out marijuana’s historical contributions towards many contemporary societal ills, from mandatory minimums to the demonization of the “inner city.”
The narrative can be a little too reductive at times. There are sentences like, “when jazz was exported to Chicago, cannabis came too,” that lack explanation or context. But overall, the text avoids overly complicated and confusing descriptions and is a fun read. It’s not a textbook and instead serves as a great introduction. I can imagine that if I had a nephew living at home who didn’t really like reading and was a little too interested in pot and not much else (and I would bet we’ve all met somebody like this), they might really respond to this book. It’s an easy and fun read with a solid bibliography.
And thankfully, there are real funny moments too. Brown’s invented historical dialogue plays nicely against his informative narration, much like Ron Howard as the narrator in Arrested Development. “Most murderers smoke marijuana,” says a doctor. “It’s true!” he says. “It’s not,” says the narration.
The book is a welcome addition to the contemporary conversation about marijuana’s role in society. My one real complaint is where the book ends. After bringing the history up to California’s legalisation of medical marijuana in 1996, Brown quickly winds down with a five page closing argument that shies away from addressing contemporary laws and policies.
“Cannabis is a safe and effective drug that many people enjoy the benefits of,” writes Brown. “There is no reason it should have been prohibited in the first place.” OK, great. But now what? If you pick up the book expecting it to engage with hot topics, including edibles dosage, pot market regulation, epilepsy treatment or the need for more research, you won’t find them anywhere.
At an event here in Washington, D.C., I asked Brown about this and he said that books are written far in advance and he didn’t want to date the content immediately upon release. I’m sympathetic to that, but I think the book does the reader a disservice by leaving the politics back thirty years ago. There’s still a way to talk about the myriad issues related to marijuana that governments, companies and consumers will undoubtedly be contending with for decades.
I get it, it’s complicated. You’re telling me! Here in D.C., thanks to half-assed congressional interference, smoking pot is legal but buying it isn’t. In our weird barter economy, one can order a box of normal, chocolate chip cookies on the internet and upon delivery, be offered a “free gift” of an eighth of marijuana. This isn’t how anyone intended it and it’s not ideal. Municipalities will continue to adjust and try new policies. Some will work great and others surely won’t. But we need smart writers and artists who know the issue, like Brown, to reckon with the details on our behalf. I think it’s worth the risk of being dated.