A DIALOGUE WITH WALT SIMONSON: PART 2 — LEARNING FROM LIFE
Last week, I began a discussion with legendary “Thor” writer/artist Walt Simonson. Here’s the wrap-up of that discussion, with a special focus on Walt’s experiences as a student and teacher, and his advice on how to take from reality and use it in your work.
Just like last time, and, as it should be, Walt did most of the talking. We kick it off with his thoughts about what he gained by writing Donald Blake out of the “Thor” series:
Walt Simonson: Without Donald Blake around, certain stories that you’ve probably read a number of times are no longer there, and once that happens your expectations are somewhat confounded. And that means — you have another guy who can pick up the hammer, Donald Blake is gone, stuff is different than it was and that just means that you don’t know what to expect in the next story.
Not that readers would know what was going to happen in any issue. “Oh, it’s going to go like this, this, and this.” It doesn’t work like that. But I just thought by changing the playing field a little bit, it would give me a freer hand as a storyteller to do stuff that hopefully met their expectations but didn’t meet their preconceptions of what was going to happen.
Tim Callahan: How did your undergraduate studies — in geology and anthropology — affect your approach to storytelling? I’ll admit, this question was suggested to me by a former student of yours, a friend of mine, Amedeo Turturro, who insisted that this would be a great question to ask.
[Laughs] Well, it would really be geology and paleontology, but I’m glad Amedeo remembered.
You know, when I was a kid, probably around third grade, my dad took me to see “Fantasia.” This was the 1950s, a long time ago. I loved the movie, and I was completely wowed by the dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” animation. So from that point on, for a number of years, my dream was to study dinosaurs.
Now my dad was a scientist — he was a soil scientist, but he was a scientist — our family friends were scientists, so it never occurred to me to be anything else. I just thought studying dinosaurs would be really cool. I was a geology major in college mostly because, if you’re going to study paleo, you major in geology or biology and then do paleontology in grad school. And I went that route. I did a senior thesis in paleontology, though it was not on dinosaurs, which, in the end, was fairly useful, because if it had been on dinosaurs I might still be doing dinosaurs and paleontology, but since it was on mammals, there were certain aspects of it that I found kind of deadly dull, really.
There were certain aspects that were interesting, but I just couldn’t see myself staring through microscopes at rodent and rabbit teeth, trying to identify the species from the cusps and valleys in the teeth. It just was not what I wanted to do.
Dinosaur stuff would have been different, but I didn’t know that so much at the time. I could just see that this was not what I wanted to be doing. At the time, I applied to grad schools and somewhere in there decided — some I got into, some I didn’t — but I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d always drawn. I never thought about drawing as a way to make a living.
I ended up with a liberal arts education, which turned out to be very useful as it gave me a wide breadth of reading. It made me try to draw rocks accurately in my comics. [Laughs] I don’t know that I always do, but I would consider what my geology professors would think, and say, “I’d better get these rocks right if I’m going to draw them.” And of course it gave me something related to my old interest in dinosaurs, even though I don’t pursue them professionally. (And the ideas about dinosaurs have changed pretty radically since the 1960s, when I was in college, which is pretty great.) I’m known as a dinosaur fan, but I don’t really draw them that often in my comics. I have occasionally. It’s fun to do. I’ve not put them in every comic I’ve done, but my comics are occasionally informed by dinosaurs.
In the case of Fafnir, it’s great dragons that look a little “dinosaur-ish,” but that was also Jack Kirby’s design.
So even though I was a geology major, it was a liberal arts college, so I took a lot of other stuff as well. All that reading I did, literature and other things like that, all of it has kind of informed what I do. I really take a lot from a lot of different things, and I fuse them together to make a coherent drawing or story or whatever it is I’m doing at the time. I was very fortunate to have the kind of education I had and be able to bring a lot of it to bear on the work I do now, even though while I was getting the education, doing comic books was probably the furthest thing from my mind.
But you used it all in the end.
I did use it. I sort of think that if you get a good education, I’m not sure it’s wasted no matter what you do. I think you bring it to bear on whatever you’re doing. That’s why it’s important to get a good one, if you can.
Let’s transition from that into your own teaching experiences. How long have you been teaching?
At the end of this semester, I will have taught ten years out of the past nineteen. Ten complete years. The first time I taught, back in the 1990s, I taught for six years, then I kind of went, “Ooh, I’m tired of this,” so I kind of blew it off. Then after a few years, the School of Visual Arts called me up and said, “We’ve got a teacher that dropped out. We’d love to have you come back and take over that class.” So I came back and taught for, I think, three more years. And then I said, “Ah, I’m tired again,” and I quit.
Then a couple of years ago I got a call that said, “How about coming back and teaching a one-semester course?” I said, “I’ll try that,” but of course it ended up being two one-semester courses, so it was a full year, and I just got done teaching that. I’m going back next year, I’ll teach next year, and I’m taking it a year at a time right now.
It’s kind of up and down. I remember, as a student, that I had some classes where the other students were just crackerjack. And other classes where the crackerjacks were few and far between. I saw some of that.
The very first class I taught, in 1992, I had: John Paul Leon, Brett Lewis, Kevin McCarthy, Will Rosado, Shawn Martinbrough…
All guys who went on to do some amazing things. And they were good in college. It wasn’t like I was teaching them much. They were really good. Other guys in that class, too. I can remember at the time thinking, “Wow, this is great. These guys are fabulous!” And then, within a couple of years, I was having good, but ordinary students.
So a couple of those guys were some of the best students I ever had in ten years of teaching. That doesn’t happen every year. I’ve had classes that were a little up, a little down. Always had some good students and always had interesting students. Even the ones who aren’t as good as the others in raw talent, they do some interesting work and wrestle with the same problems we all wrestle with in the business. It’s been interesting.
I live outside town — I don’t live in New York City — so one of the toughest things is just the commute. That’s one of the reasons I quit every so often. I just get tired of driving into the city in crummy weather in February. I’m at the point where that is just not the adventure it used to be. So we’ll see what happens. I’m going to teach again next year, and then we’ll see about the year after that.
What’s the title of the course you’re teaching?
I have no idea.
Sad, isn’t it? “Graphic Storytelling,” or something.
“Something About Comics.”
Well, mostly. When I first started teaching, Klaus Janson was there — Klaus is still there — and Klaus teaches a very structured class. I teach a very unstructured class. Mine is mostly almost like a portfolio review.
What I would like to do is to be able to get students to do what it is that they’re already doing but to do it better. I teach some nuts and bolts, but mostly they bring in their work and we review it, we go over it. Often, in students, you’ll see the same kinds of mistakes running across five or six different pages, because they’re all trying to learn some of the same stuff, even though you always get asked, “How can I develop a style?”
And the thing about that is that you already have one.
Don’t worry about it. That’s the last thing you need to worry about. And, honestly, in a course with twelve students, by the end of six or seven weeks, I can identify everybody’s work without looking at a name on the paper. They’re all drawing in their own style. Some need improvement — well, they all need improvement, but some more that others — but they’re already drawing in ways that their hand moves or their mind works. And it’s all there on the page. So, as I said, mostly I try to get them to do what they’re doing but to do it better. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I’m not so sure.
How do you do that, overall? What’s your theory of comics? What type of advice do you give?
I don’t know that I have a “theory” of comics. I think comics, like so many things, can be done a million ways very effectively and a billion ways badly. The idea is to winnow out the bad stuff and try to get to the good stuff as much as you can. What that really means is that, in class, I try to teach a few things. Design and composition. Composing panels, composing pages.
But the other thing I really try to persuade students to do, and sometimes it’s hard, is that you need to use reference.
Such a simple thing, and yet, especially at that level, so many people think cartoonists just invent everything. I’ve known some guys that could invent everything and get away with it. Jack Kirby for one, although I think Jack looked at lots of stuff originally, and maybe still did later. I don’t know about the later, but he could clearly just invent stuff and he had a huge visual memory. Bernie Wrightson comes to mind as a guy that had an enormous visual memory. Both those guys I felt could project the drawing from inside their heads, invisibly onto the paper, and then just trace off the drawing.
Which is very annoying for guys like me who can’t do that.
But the idea that you would use reference and figure out some way to incorporate it into your drawing so you would make your drawing better, that’s not as easy a concept to do as you might think. One of the things I do, over the course of a semester, is try to persuade them that using reference is not a bad idea. And it will make your work better.
That’s interesting — your work doesn’t look like it’s full of reference, because it’s so distinctive and so design-oriented. It looks like it comes right from your brain to the page. So, to tie it back to “Thor” a bit, what would you regularly reference when you were drawing that series?
One example from “Thor,” which got kudos from some people and others didn’t like it so much. I had done “Thor” in the 1970s with Len Wein — I was doing layouts back then, I wasn’t doing full pencils, just layouts for Tony DeZuniga to ink, and I was doing a Kirbyesque Thor, and I was doing Asgard Kirbyesque. That was what the 70s were about in a lot of ways, picking up from the 60s and trying to extend that work. It wasn’t until the 80s that we began moving away from that.
I’ve said this before, but because I did a year’s worth of “Thor,” and I did a year’s worth of being Jack Kirby — and I wasn’t slavishly trying to imitate Jack, but I took a lot of his tropes and I made an Asgard that was full of shining towers and large ramps and sculpture and all the stuff Jack put into it — by the time I was asked to write and draw the book myself, maybe because I’d already done all that Kirby stuff, I was kind of freed of it, even though Jack was and remains an enormous influence on my work. But I kind of felt that I had maybe the dispensation to rethink some of that stuff. I kept Thor in his clothes, I didn’t really change the outfits all that much. Balder had several different outfits, so I gave him one that I thought was more interesting. Basically, I used a lot of that stuff.
But one of the things I did rethink, top-to-bottom, was Asgard.
The Norse gods to me are kind of the wild gods of the north, and even though I really like what Jack did with Asgard with the shining towers and ramps — it’s very science fiction, and that’s kind of how the movie looks — I thought, “If these are wild gods of the north, their homes should look more like that.” And, as far as I know, there are no surviving Viking-era structures. That stuff was wood. It’s all long gone. There are post holes in places and foundations and you can see where things were, and stuff has been reconstructed. But I don’t think there are any buildings that survive, from that far back. At least, that was my understanding when I was doing the book.
However, in Norway, I believe, there are several stave churches that were built. They are churches with these very steep roofs, which, I presume, helps the snow slide off of them. They have little dragon decorations on the tops, on the ridgepoles and other things like that. They’re kind of stepped in a way, up. They look really cool. I don’t know that they have anything to do with Viking architecture but I thought, well, you know, I like that there would be some kind of continuity of ideas from the earlier stuff we don’t have anymore.
To be sure, I did not do an exhaustive archeological research for this, but I did research the stave churches and they looked really cool. And so even though it’s a pagan community, I used the model of the stave church, with the steep roof and the stepped structure and dragon ridgepoles and so on, as my model for Asgard.
I did “Thor” with rough textures. Fur and wood and stuff that I thought was appropriate for “Thor.” So I made an effort to have drawings that would capture that kind of energy. So I really changed the way Asgard looked. I didn’t write a story in which I knocked the old Asgard down and built new buildings. I just did the look the way I did it.
Nobody at Marvel said “boo” about it. Some readers were unhappy, most didn’t seem to mind. But it gave me an Asgard that was very distinctive, that I felt looked more Norse, that had more of a northern feel to it.
I didn’t always reference everything in that sense — or make that big of a change. I had to reference the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. In “Thor” #337, there’s an opening shot of the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and there are several top-flight U. S. jets flying by and the jets are all researched. They’re all real jets. Rather than doing fake airplanes, or fake science-fictiony jets, I tried to make them look real because that would make the helicarrier look more real if you had actual, identifiable airplanes flying past.
I gave, as much as I could, an aura of verisimilitude to the work.
Later, I did something with giant looms and the three Fates, and I dug out some real looms so I would have some idea about how the things would look. There’s always a place to bring in real life to reify the work more effectively.
One of the things I try to do is create work that looks like it was spontaneously generated on the page. Like I just drew it. But in actual fact, I go through any number of actual stages to get to that point where it looks like I just did it. And there are some artists, like I think Jesse Marsh, who I think did just do it. [Laughs] I don’t have that courage.
I work through a series of layers to give me…
The appearance of spontaneity.
…the appearance of spontaneity. Partly because that, to me, is what makes the drawing vital.
Now there are guys like Brian Bolland who draw beautifully and very tightly and wonderfully and the drawings are alive. If I tried to draw something that was that carefully rendered, my drawing would be so dead…it would have a stake through its heart before I drew it. So what I’ve tried to do over the years is find a way — and I’ve found different ways — to create drawings that, for me, from my hand, have a life on the paper. In the hopes that they will have a life in print as well.
[Laughs] Well, it seems to have worked out for you.
So far, so good!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan