This is a guest contribution by Bob Proehl, who is a writer living in Ithaca. Proehl interviewed Walter Simonson about his career as a comic book artist and writer. Simonson is the keynote speaker at Ithacon 44, which will take place March 23 and 24 at Ithaca College.
As a college student, comic books were my major distraction. I read comics to unwind between classes, or avoid writing papers.
For legendary comic book creator Walter Simonson, who will be delivering the keynote address at this weekend’s Ithacon 44, comic books were the course work.
“When I went to (the Rhode Island School of Design), I became an illustration major,” Simonson told me. The major required one over-arching project to graduate. “Whatever you wanted to do, but you had to work it out and get…approval. I had come up with the Star Slammers as a concept. Space mercenaries, basically. I was going to do it anyway. I was going to do it for a science fiction club I belonged to. But I thought this might work.”
Simsonson proposed it to his advisors, who accepted the idea. “It became my senior thesis,” he said. “At the time, as far as I know, nobody had gone through RISD and done a comic book as their senior thesis. That was kind of a new wrinkle.”
I spoke to Simonson by phone about his influences, and how he got his start in comics.
“(Star Slammers) became my portfolio for getting work in NYC,” Simsonson said. “At the time, this was 1972, which means no FedEx, no faxes, no overnight delivery. Which means pretty much if you were doing comic books, you lived in or around the center of publishing, which was New York City.
“First day I went up, I had my portfolio. This is when you could show up at a company and get in. That was the work I had to show people. And that’s the work that got me into the business. I ended up talking to a couple editors, and eventually Carmine Infantino, who was the editor in chief, who liked my work a great deal. He really became my champion up at the office. He made his editors give me work when they probably wouldn’t have.”
Simonson found an apartment in Brooklyn and made a living drawing short pieces for anthology books like Weird War Tales and The Twilight Zone. “I’m not sure how I did it at the speed I was working, which wasn’t very fast,” he said. “Not sure how I afforded it. Not sure how I ate. But I was able to keep it all together long enough to begin to make a little more money, and not have to quite live check to check, although it was a long time getting past that. When you look backwards and I describe it, it all seems so smooth. This and then this and then this and then you’re in comics. But at the time, when you’re in the middle of it, it doesn’t seem that obvious. You’re just doing it and kind of hoping you’re going to be able to take that next step.”
Simonson went on to create iconic runs on titles like Thor, Orion, and the X-Men spinoff, X-Factor, with his wife Louise, but much of his best known work is on cosmic characters largely identified with comic book legend Jack Kirby.
“Marvel is so much pulp science fiction,” said Simonson. “So much of the Fantastic Four was really pulp science fiction… And Jack, of all the artists to draw that kind of stuff, he was the man. A lot of artists back then who were really quite wonderful, if you look at their science fiction, you look at their space ships and stuff like that, it’s very Flash Gordon-y from like 1945. It’s no more imaginative than that. It’s not bad, it works fine in the comic book. You know exactly what you’re looking at. But it sort of looks like stuff you’ve seen before. And you look at Jack’s stuff, it’s stuff you’ve never seen before. And that’s what it is about Jack’s work that appealed to me.”
Simonson’s current creator-owned work returns the writer and artists to one of his first loves, Norse myths.
“Right now I’m doing an issue of Ragnarok, which is my own book, my own version of the mythology,” he said. “It’s a little different from the regular myths, I’ve changed things around so I can have a comic book. But I’m doing a lot of it very straight-forwardly. It’s really the first time I’ve had a chance to go back and draw a lot of that stuff, stuff I’ve loved since I was a kid. I’m just having a gas drawing it, and doing illustrations from that work.”
Simonson detailed an extensive list of the comics he’d read growing up, a master class in Silver Age artists and writers. But when asked if he was still an avid comic book reader, Simonson said he’s “very much not.”
“The one book that I do read…is Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo,” he said. “One of the things about that book I really like is, I just read it, and I don’t analyze it. I mean, I can analyze it by talking about it. But as a reader, I just pick it up. I read it. I love it. And that’s all I have to worry about. It’s nice. It’s like reading comics when I was a kid again.”
Featured image provided by Ithacon 44.