Sunday, August 28, 2011


…and Origins (this day, the anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth.)

Along came The King—Jack "King" Kirby. The man who created gods and immortals and who became that for the child-me. My strongest influence, my greatest teacher, the man who decided the direction of my life at the age of ten.

I wasn’t there for Marvel’s flagship books. I missed Fantastic Four #1. I missed The Incredible Hulk #1. I was out of the proverbial “loop,” regarding what was cool (see: story of my next 40+ years). While I was happily scribbling away, trying to copy Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Stan Lynde (and a legion of others) from the Sunday funnies, and I was already bored with Hot Stuff and Casper, and I had just discovered comic books on some of my favorite TV shows like Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Outer Limits, and then Classics Illustrated—to a childlike understanding of such things, the art sorta resembled my Hal Foster—and just this year I had discovered great comics like The Flash, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, other “cool” kids were already off to the races and collecting that which I was yet unaware.

And I would exhaust my 10c purchase, sometimes scribbling in the margins or tracing whole pictures with a ball point pen (Oh, the humanity!), and trade those comics with other “uninformed” (not-cool) kids because, hey, 10c was a lot of money to a ten-year-old in my neighborhood.

If I came across the occasional Journey into Big Ugly Monster of the Month comic book, it naturally got the same treatment. Titles were interchangeable, I was already focusing on the quality of the picture-making…

…then HE happened. The King.

Kirby was brought into my life one sunny summer afternoon, shortly after I met the new kid in the neighborhood, moved in just the other side of the playground (one of the cool ones, who shall remain nameless—for reasons that will become obvious). He was “into comics” like myself, was trying to draw from them, like myself, and he knew all about comics (not like myself). And to keep the friendship alive, we began trading comics.

Then, even to my struggling ten-year-old intellect (as opposed to my struggling old-man intellect), I began noticing a pattern to his trading practices. He was turning down some of my occasional offerings for trade. Why, you may ask. I wish I had asked that about six months earlier than I did. Then the reasoning came slowly to light as he explained to me one day the logic of why I should trade him two of my reasonably fine 10c’ers for just one of his. He told me his was worth more to him. And then he talked me into trading my reasonably fine (if drawn upon on page twelve, which I’m sure he didn’t see at the time), for a Marvel comic book that was indeed, and obviously, coverless. He said, “Just look through it.” I did—and I made the trade.

That coverless comic book was Journey into Mystery #83, Thor, drawn by Jack Kirby, and I believe my tongue actually fell from my mouth.

I stared at the first, coverless, page for at least fifteen minutes before I left his doorstep for home. I believe I also stopped at the corner streetlight for another fifteen. Then I went into my room and spent the remainder of the day, until mom called for dinner, and then went back after dinner. I believe she thought I was sick. I guess I was. Heartsick, as in love.


I went into a comic buying frenzy, sometimes three to four 10c’ers a month. Always looking for Kirby. I was still trading, because I could not possibly get to see the glut of titles that hit the drug store each month without giving up those I had purchased, but hey, I’d already exhausted those, hadn't I. Time for new ones. Even when devastated by the incredible price increase to 12c. Then Annuals and "King Sized Specials..." Awww—c'mon!

And my “new best friend,” the cool kid who turned me on to Thor, Spiderman, The Hulk (who is still remaining nameless), was diligently watching me, trading me, strategically, getting those books for himself that he needed…

…until that fateful day, about a year later, when I (in all my newfound comic coolness and wisdom) discovered his method-without-madness. He invited me into his basement to see his “collection.”

There, on the floor, along the basement outer walls, was stacked the greatest accumulation of comic books I had ever beheld. All Marvels. All separated into tidy stacks according to title. I felt the growing lump in my throat (no, not a tumor), the lump of regret. Why had I not been in on this? How did I not understand—this is what comics was for?

He held some up for me to behold. “No, don’t open them, I want to keep them in good condition.” Some of them were books I had traded to him almost a year before. And those books were still cool. And they were tidy. And I WANTED THEM BACK.

Of course I never said that to him. Even then I understood the protocol of finders-keepers, and you gave it up, it’s mine now.

I went home. Revelation. End of the world kind of revelation: I was ten years old, and I was the stupid kid. I had been betrayed. Sure every kid experiences the betrayal by a friend many times before he learns to become a jaded adult, but this was different. I didn’t just collect comics. I loved them. I studied them, every line, every inch, every panel, not just for the superheroes pummeling themselves month after month, but for the art. I should have saved the art. I sunk into one of my deepest depressions. I was almost twelve.

Slowly I came back. I bought a few more comics, what I could afford, still looking for Kirby.

And month after month, I laid on my bedroom floor, still tracing the drawings of Thor, The Hulk, the FF, then he gave me Captain America (the greatest hero the world had ever seen), Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, and then even more, The Avengers! OMG! (even though it would be forty years before I knew what OMG meant) and I was drawing (copying) on my own, not well, but focusing, struggling to get better, to be like Jack Kirby.

I don’t understand. It looks easy. Nothing complicated. The muscles are round. The speed lines showed Thor falling. The buildings are blocks in perspective (I learned about perspective from Jon Gnagy, after all). But I don’t understand—why can’t I make it look like Jack Kirby? Try again. Fail. Try again. Sometimes the same picture over and over. Always a fail. Try the next panel. Try the next.

Some might say obsession. Okay, I’ll be the first. Obsession. (There, happy?)

But it was all because of Kirby.

Sure I found others—who could not fall in love with Spiderman (Ditko) (whether I understood the attraction to the quirk(ier) line-work or not) or Iron Man or Daredevil or Sub-Mariner (Don Heck, John Romita, Gene Colan)—and each new Marvel artist was a revelation (the good kind), and each stylistically unique, but each and every artist was wonderful to this struggling wanna-be. And the artists, one after the other, started flying off the stands at me like…like Jack Kirby superheroes. I needed more. I wanted to understand the how and why of the lines. No matter the style. How did this one work, even though different from the others?

I was unknowingly developing the Genesis (word one, page one) of my own style by the mere exposure to so many disparate, great styles. I was no longer just trying to draw like Jack Kirby, but some immature, unhappy amalgam of all of the above and more. Learning by inches. Then I discovered John Buscema, and I reached for the next rung in the developmental ladder, but whenever I began to feel the slightest bit insecure about my own drawing, got frustrated with my inabilities to capture correctly what my mind was seeing…

…I always went back to Kirby. Like the old headmaster of legend, waiting for me to fall down so he could step in quietly and whisper, Remember your origins. Remember why you fell in love. It’s all right here in my lines, my figures, my simple (yet not simple) compositions. Open up the old comics. Understand the fun you had. The power I gave you. The essential, enigmatic something in the way he threw his lines onto a page, that brought his heroes and villains…off that page.

I had been working as a comic book artist for quite a few years, I had just recently moved to the north Valley of L.A. because I wanted to move on and into the film business, when I read of Jack’s passing. The news struck me like Thor’s hammer. My greatest hero was gone from the earth. I had never met the man. Never spoken on the phone. Never got to tell him of his influence in my life. How he was responsible for so much of the “good stuff” that was a part of me. (And that maybe I would be better if I had only followed his cues a bit more closely.) But he was gone. The opportunity was gone. I didn’t know his family, but I stood at the back of the modest hall at his funeral, listened to others who knew him better, could put into words the many things I knew about him, and more, about the man, his legacy. I didn’t cry, but my heart ached at the loss of him. I went home and surrounded myself with his comics, poured over them once more, this time not to learn anything new, but simply to remember. My childhood washed over me.

Jack Kirby, while my work eventually deviated greatly from his influential hand, he was my greatest teacher. The single most powerful voice in who I became, professionally speaking. Had I ever met the man, any words would have been insufficient—save these: Thank you.

Love you, Jack.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Get Uncomfortable, Damnit!

The schooling that never ends.

The ever-hungry artist is constantly searching, never fully satiated.

In the beginning we struggle to grow. We are infants trying to walk. Trying to speak. But our minds are wide and feasting minute-by-minute on the constant input from those around us. It is why psychologists say ages 2 to 7 are the optimum years to learn a second language or even a third. They call it the “critical period hypothesis.”

Then something happens within the brain that closes down these base receptors, focuses our learning on other, more advanced, skills. It is why adults who have never known more than one language have the most difficulty learning a second, while those who’ve grown up with more than one language easily adapt to a third or more. It is why this new generation, having grown up with computers, seems to adapt more readily to the ever-changing techno-environment than, say, us old fogies who grew up with high-tech gadgets like the butter churn. We turn pale at the thought of a smart phone smarter than ourselves.

I believe this is the way with Art as well. I believe a young person who focuses on a particular artistic skill, to the exclusion of all others, inhibits his ability to learn multiple skills later in life—or at least makes the process of acquiring new skills a more difficult task for him/herself.

Again, I blame my mother. I believe I was a fortunate child. She held that, now famous, pencil in my hand. She bought the Learn to Draw set. I watched her paint. She gave me books she knew I would enjoy reading. I was exposed to comic books. Art books. She took me to “grown-up” movies at a very early age, and yes, animated films, then bought those movie soundtrack albums festooned with the great movie poster art of the day. This was my earliest schooling. Everything.

It is why I searched for the perfect clover in the lawn. Why I wasted so many hours creating stories for the creatures I created out of clouds. Why I became fascinated with, and tried so hard to draw/paint, the beauty in animals before I knew how paint actually worked. And so maybe I grew up a bit more versatile in my artistic desires.

Don’t read me wrong here. I didn’t say that I grew up better, or became a better artist than anyone else. I believe having too many directions in life may have actually held me back in any single area of learning. An artist who only sculpts will learn to sculpt much faster. A painter will learn to paint much faster. A comic book illustrator will learn to draw comics much faster…if that is all they do. But eventually, that moment in life comes along when the artist says, “I wish I could (sculpt, paint, draw comics, whatever that skill was they never focused on)…” and acquiring that next skill is now more of a struggle.

I’ve seen extremely talented artists go white when forced to try something new. It’s the animal that has been caged all its life and finally finds the door open, then stands there unable to move, keeps returning to lie down in front of that same cage door.

And this is why, when I teach to the younger artists, I insist that they look beyond their present medium of choice. Get uncomfortable, damnit!

If all you want to do is draw comic books—this is your goal in life and if you can make a living drawing comics for the rest of your life you will die happy in your senility—then study the masters, the great painters, study black & white photography, study animation, sculpture! All these things will make you a better comic book illustrator. I insist.

I use myself and my experience not in a boastful or self-aggrandizing way, but as an acute lesson to make as strong a point as I can for versatility of training.

When I first started out in my chosen profession—comic books—I was struggling terribly. Yeah, I had worked at it all my young life. I grew up in love with comics and now here I was “living the dream.” But I was far from where I needed to be, I am sure to other accomplished professionals, but also to myself. I could see my faults, and Lo! They were innumerable. I had difficulty getting my assignments out the door because I would erase whole pages of art in my insecurity…but…

…I could see my faults.

I could see them because with all I had studied and continued to study throughout my young life, I knew, or at least I had an inkling of what real greatness could look like.

Like so many other fledgling comic book illustrators, I had my comic book influences. Starting with the king, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko…then Big John Buscema came along and changed everything for me. But I had also been impressed by Stan Lynde, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster—from the Sunday papers. Then there were Gene Colan, John Romita, Neal Adams, and about twenty or fifty others. I began pinball-bouncing from one to the other, trying to copy, trying to understand what they were doing that made them each one unique and yet each one great.

Then I watched as the next generation of comic artists came into my radar just as I was discovering painters like Frank Frazetta, Howard Terpning, John Berkey.

As I was “playing” at being a painter, looking over my shoulder, I noticed a peculiarity in comics. Many of the new professional illustrators were not only mimicking their teachers (as I—the not-yet-professional—was doing), some were copying one favored style. While all those greats I mentioned earlier had been so varied in their abilities, neither of those names can be confused with the others; they were individuals—stylistically, ARTISTICALLY. This new batch was beginning to resemble each other.

And there was something else. While no artist is perfect—paraphrasing Rockwell: style is merely an accumulation of our imperfections—while I could see much of the good stuff these young illustrators brought forward from their predecessors, I began recognizing drawing problems that separated these young bucks from their idols. Then one day, I saw an even younger artist who had idolized one of these imitators and my own young light bulb clicked on. Drawing problems, it seemed, were inherited and compounded by the newcomer.

The narrower the scope of the artist, unless each artist is willing to reach beyond the bounds, limitations, set by his predecessors,  the art form deteriorates. Each new generation becomes less than what had come before.

And the comic book companies themselves seemed to foster this break-down. I learned that the editors and art directors were trying to get these new young bucks to emulate those illustrators who had drawn the more successful books. They were in effect creating “house styles,” based on a few popular illustrators’ styles, regardless of the new one’s ability to draw or tell a story, or…become an individual who might even surpass his forerunners. If the style was close enough, who cares if he can only draw hands balled into fists, or he hides the subject’s feet in tall grass…? Few people cared if each minor flaw merely added to the collection of flaws from the others. Few noticed, as most of those in position to make the critical decisions were not artists.

But then, if great artists had been making the hiring decisions, I might not have landed my first jobs in the comics field. When I started calling myself a “professional,” my work sucked too. Big time. But I was trying my ass off…and erasing a lot.

And then I remember being astounded when I first connected with others in the comic art community, I met some artists in the office or at conventions and, while a number of them were actually deserving of pride in their work, some of them trumpeted their skills like bull elephants in a large herd. (These were invariably not the most talented of the clique.) Some would bash another’s reputation or demean another’s ability, and I would quietly think, does this person know where he stands in the universe? Had he never seen Michelangelo’s sketchbooks? Rockwell’s magazine covers? Bob Peak, J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, and on and on….? Comics is a very small pond, there are extremely talented, good, hard working comic book illustrators, but the largest fish is still just a carp.

Then I would go home to my drawing board and draw-erase, draw-erase. But I continued to study. Everything. I was teaching myself to paint, photographing models, and learning a whole new set of frustrations, but found myself using a few things I had learned there, like light and form, to improve my comic book illustrations. And it took forever to improve. I thought I never would. Then a year would lapse, and I was forced to look at work I had done the year before and, Lo again! I thanked the art gods I had gotten a little better.

And then, years later, when the comic book gods began turning off the spigot of work for yours truly, I was painting almost full time. For myself, for publishers.

Then I moved to Los Angeles to get into the film industry and though I had never drawn a story board, I took the job anyway, sat in Barnes & Noble for a weekend to read and learn just what a story board artist did, so that come monday, I was working on Ang Lee's, The Hulk. I designed for Wes Craven.

An lovely acting teacher had once told me, if a director asks if you can ride a horse, say yes, then go out and learn how to ride a horse.

Then when I learned that Walt Disney Imagineering needed an artist to design a ride for their new theme park, I had no idea how to design a ride, but went in and took over the art chores. Then, overhearing from the next cubicle how the producers had no idea what the other attractions should look like, I went home, and over a weekend, painted an acrylic painting (which I had never done before) of an alien invasion and that next monday was asked to become their art director of attractions. I found myself designing 28 different attractions simultaneously, directing a handful of artists to fill in where I needed and...

...two years later, when the head of development asked me if I could read blue prints (because they had three floors of the facility being designed by world-class designers, but they had no one to design the fourth) on my way home, I stopped at the drafting store, bought a drafting ruler, went to work early the next day and asked one of the architects to show me how to read a friggin' blueprint. I spent the subsequent year designing that floor, from carpet patterns to portals to slides, sculptures, bumper cars, and wall murals.

And it’s been that way for thirty-plus professional years. And I am still hungry, thanks to mom. And I am still learning, because that’s the best my art has given me, the drive to learn. And I fight to improve. Fight to be great. Know that I never will be great, not in my eyes. I believe it is the true artist’s blessing and curse. The struggle for perfection, yet the knowledge that you will never achieve it.

At this point, with this sad spear of knowledge poking me every step of my journey, the best I can hope for is to leave some sort of lasting mark. For someone to say, “Hey, this guy was pretty good,” and to understand the thought process behind the artist’s decision-making at the time; for them to understand the struggle that brought me here and appreciate all the hard work….

That would be pretty cool.