*Cue flashback music while monitors get blurry around the edges...*
1973....John Byrne had yet to draw an issue of X-Men. They were still the "old" X-Men. Jim Lee was probably not even reading comics yet, much less drawing and publishing them. Gene Colan had just started a 70-issue run on Tomb of Dracula (my favorite comic series of all time). Barry Smith, everybody's favorite then, was turning Conan over to John Buscema, who would go on to make it his own. Marvel's black and white magazines (Savage Sword, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, etc.) were just starting. Jim Starlin began writing and drawing Cpt. Marvel. The Punisher was unborn. Wolverine was unborn. Howard the Duck was born and became an instant sensation. Bernie Wrightson was drawing Swamp Thing. Kirby was creating entire new worlds at DC. Joe Kubert was drawing Tarzan for DC. Mike Kaluta was starting The Shadow. Jeff Jones was doing Idyl for the National Lampoon, a new satire magazine that featured comic art by some of the best artists, including one or two Frazetta covers! Frazetta was still doing covers for Warren (or had he just finished?). Boris Vallejo was doing his first covers for Savage Sword. Neal Adams was trying to organize freelancers to form a comic artists' guild, to get better pay and benefits for everybody. It failed, partly because the best artists were doing OK, and didn't want to jeopardize their jobs, and many new young artists were willing to work under any conditions, just for the chance to draw superheroes.
I had quit college and art school after a year of each because they didn't have a cartooning class, and was working at a grocery store stocking shelves in Tampa, my home town. I was flirting with a girl on a scuba diving trip and she asked me what kind of work I did, and I said I was going to be an artist. She asked, "Well, what are you waiting for?" Embarrassed, I soon sold my beloved MGB sports car for $800 and flew to LaGuardia Airport, over-confidently ready to start my career as an artist in the big city. Being from the South, I was too afraid of muggers to go into the Big City right away, so I got a room at the nearby YMCA and started doing comic book samples. One of my art school teachers had given me phone numbers of some contacts he had in the ad business in NYC. What I really wanted to do was draw for Mad magazine, but I figured I'd do some ad work or comic book work first for some easy money until I was ready to show my stuff to Mad. (Sheesh! What a yokel!) After about a week, I finally got up my nerve to go into Manhattan, seriously worried I would be mugged and killed immediately. I discovered all of my teacher's advertising contacts had left the business. Marvel Comics wouldn't even look at my portfolio. I went to DC Comics and showed my samplessamples to Joe Orlando. He was impressed that I put so much effort into such rotten work. He was very nice, but he said I should go back to school and learn how to draw. He drew a little example for me of how to construct a figure correctly, using ovals and cylinders. I was crushed, to say the least. Up to that day, I had never met anyone who could draw as well as I could, and I had quite an over-inflated ego. Well, I didn't want to go back home a failure, and I wasn't about to go back to school, so I just started in on some new samples, determined to show Joe Orlando what I could do. I started trying to write, draw, letter and ink a new sample page every day or two.
Then came the July comic convention in NYC. I went to it and bumped into, of all people, a guy from my high school art class in Tampa! I said, "Hey, weren't you in Mrs. Nimitz's class?" It wasPat Broderick. And he was so glad to see someone from home (although he admitted he didn't remember me from class), I thought he would never stop shaking my hand! He was just as scared of NYC as I was. He had always wanted to draw comic books, and he had gotten accepted into the DC apprenticeship program (I didn't make it!). Pat and I became roommates, to share expenses. After a couple weeks, Pat told me I really ought to meet Neal Adams, whom he had met at DC. I said "What for? He can't give me any work." He kept insisting, so finally, in desperation, I went to meet Neal. At that time, Neal held a position of respect in the industry that no one in comics since then has achieved. He was the single most respected artist in the business. (But you ought to hear how difficult it was for even HIM to break into comics!) Neal looked at one of my samples and asked me what kind of work I was looking for. I said "Anything that pays." (By that time, I was down to my last $10 and ready to call my parents for bus money back home.) He just picked up the phone and called the production manager at Marvel and said, "I've got a guy here who has some potential as, well, some potential as an artist, but I think he has a lot of potential as a letterer." I was immediately hired at Marvel in the production department on Neal's recommendation, and they still didn't even want to see my portfolio. If I was good enough for Neal, I was good enough for them. One of my jobs was to actually tape the numbers on the pages of the comics. That's how low I started.
After several months in production doing lettering and art corrections (working under the wonderful Danny Crespi and Morrie Kuramoto), seeing all that professional original art helped me do better samples. The famous inkers Mike Esposito and Frank Giacoia worked right there in the Marvel office and had desks right next to me. Mike told me I could learn how to ink faster than I could learn penciling, so I had started inking backgrounds for him, Al Milgrom and Klaus Janson. I was influenced by a lot of different artists because I saw all the art that came into the office at Marvel. My main influences, after Mort Drucker, were Neal, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer. Finally, editor/writer Marv Wolfman offered to let me draw a movie satire for Crazy magazine, Marvel's Mad rip-off. Marvel paid for Marv and me to see the movie Westworld and supplied me with a lot of photos from the film to draw caricatures from. I thought I had finally ARRIVED!
I soon started getting steady freelance work, inking and adding tones to other inkers' work for Marvel's black and white mags, so I quit production work. I inked Frank Miller's first job at Marvel (John Carter #28), and George Perez's first job (Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #7). I rented studio space from Neal at his Continuity studio, and met Joe Rubinstein, who was then just a 16 yr.old "go-fer". But he would take Neal's old Ben Casey strips home at night and practice inking like them. He was already a better inker than I, but he wasn't even trying to get work! Also at Neal's studio were Dick Giordano, Russ Heath (I watched him ink a WWII tank with a #4 brush!), Jack Abel (great guy-I miss him!), Terry Austin (doing backgrounds for Giordano), Bob Wiacek, Larry Hama, Ralph Reese, and later Marshall Rodgers and Mike Nasser (Netzer). Neal would get inking jobs and anyone in the studio was allowed to ink on them, at Neal's page rate! The jobs were credited to "The Crusty Bunkers", and we would just ink a head here, a torso there, a background, etc., and Neal would go over a copy of the job afterwards and decide what percentage of each page everyone had done, and pay us accordingly! I tell you, those were the days! We had a lot of fun!
Marvel at that time was still a relatively small operation. Anyone could just walk right in or out. (Some people walked out with armloads of original art, so Marvel eventually had to start checking you at the door.) Most of the people at the office (and any free-lancers hanging around) would walk up to Central Park after work and play volleyball or softball (Marvel was at 57th St. and Madison Ave. then). Sergio Aragones even played volleyball with us a couple of times. We played volleyball in a league against other magazine and book publishers (DC didn't have a team, so their people played on our team), and we won a couple of trophies. Stan Lee even pitched at one of the softball games! Many of the staffers were not very athletic, and it was a pretty pathetic softball team, but I remember Herb Trimpe was a very good fielder. He and I would often stay after the game, and I would throw up the ball and hit flies out to him to catch in center field.
I finally got a chance to ink a color comic, Kazar(#7), over John Buscema's breakdowns, by being in the office when it came in late. They were going to send it to Vince Colletta, but I talked them into giving me a chance. I had to ink it in 2 weeks, and I had no idea what I was doing. I got Rubinstein to help me tighten up the pencils, and Klaus and even Neal inked some of it. I was inking 20 hours a day and sleeping 4 hours. Wouldn't you know, that's when my whole family decided to come up for a visit, wanting me to show them around NYC! I made the deadline, but that sure was a dreadful job. I was lucky enough to be able to learn on the job. Neal doesn't teach, but just seeing him and others work taught me a lot. I slowly improved and got a steady book, the Black Panther(#18-22), over Billy Graham. But it got cancelled a few months later, and I couldn't get any other work, so I had to move back to Tampa. I got my old job back stocking the grocery store, but after a week I couldn't take it anymore and I quit. I was too spoiled by doing comics. I went and got work at the two biggest ad agencies in Tampa doing paste-ups and illustration work. After a year of that, totally bored with ad work, I went back to NYC and started all over, doing backgrounds for Al Milgrom and Bob Layton. I ghosted whole pages for Layton, who said it was ridiculous for me to be doing his backgrounds. He showed my pages to the editor, and I was finally able to get my own work again. Learning to draw, ink, letter, and color "realistic" comics became such a challenge to me, I never did try to get work at Mad.