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Mark Evanier Talks Groo, Garfield And The Art Of Simon And Kirby

by  in Comic News Comment
Mark Evanier Talks Groo, Garfield And The Art Of Simon And Kirby

Because of the many hats he’s worn across the past four decades in the fields of comics and television, Mark Evanier is a creator that needs little introduction. On television, Evanier has written for shows ranging from classic sitcoms like “Welcome Back, Kotter” to beloved animated series like “Thundarr the Barbarian,” “Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo” and “The Garfield Show.” HIs writing can be read in the hundreds of comics he’s scripted, which includes recent work on “Garfield” for kaBOOM! and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” for IDW. He co-created the immortal character Groo with artist Sergio Aragones, who will return in 2015 in a new series from Dark Horse. He’s also the author of the Eisner Award winning book “Kirby: The King of Comics.”

Last year, About Comics reprinted “Hollywood Superstars,” the title Evanier wrote and co-created with artist Dan Spiegle that was originally published published under Marvel’s Epic imprint in the early nineties. Additionally, 2014 saw Abrams release “The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio,” a book that Evanier wrote the introduction for and edited. The book contains hundreds of pages of original artwork from Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and others who worked at the studio including Doug Wildey and Al Williamson. With 2015 now underway and “Groo: Friends and Foes” #2 on sale Feb. 18, Evanier spoke with CBR News about all of these projects and teased what the new year has in store for Groo the Wanderer.

CBR News: You wrote the introduction to “The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio.” Could you talk a little about what kind of work is contained in the book?

It’s several hundred pages of work that was created in the forties and fifties by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and some of the talented writers and artists who worked for them. That would be enough but we reproduced these pages from high-resolution scans of the original artwork and didn’t add color or change anything, so you can get up close and personal with what the artists actually did. You see their brush strokes and pen lines and leftover pencil lines and corrections and smudges. You know, great comic book artwork has almost always been a lot better than what you saw in the printed comics. This is a way to see the work without color hiding a lot of detail and bad printing on cheap paper further bringing it down.

You have worked with a lot of artists over the years, including Jack Kirb. What is the most interesting part about original artwork that we may not see in the final product?

Oh, there’s so much more. If you have any original art, compare it to the printed version. It’s not as much of a difference these days when we have better printing than when I grew up, but back then, the difference was stunning. I remember the first time I got a page of original artwork. It was a page from a “Showcase” issue of “The Inferior Five” and it was penciled by Joe Orlando and Jerry Grandenetti, and inked by Mike Esposito. I had sent in a letter for the letter column that the editor thought was clever and worthy of reward, so he sent me this page. I was amazed. I spent an hour looking back and forth between it and the printed comic and noting all that I hadn’t noticed in the comic — details that blurred together or were overpowered by color, subtleties in the line work that were lost in the printing process. When Charlie Kochman at Harry N. Abrams Books asked me if I wanted to assemble a book from Simon and Kirby original art, it was one of the smartest/dumbest questions I’d ever been asked. Of course!

Do you have a favorite project that’s reprinted in this book?

There’s a complete “Boys’ Ranch” story in there called “Mother Delilah” that Jack often cited when people asked him, “What’s the best story you ever did?” I tend to agree with him but if you get the book, read the other “Boys’ Ranch” tales before you tackle that one. That was a great comic and it got more enjoyable as you came to know the characters.

The book is not just Simon and Kirby’s work but work from other artists as well. Do you have any favorites or artists people should really be looking for in these pages?

Well, I have a soft spot for the work of Doug Wildey and I think we have two complete stories by him in the book. Doug was an original and a very colorful gent who was completely self-taught when it came to drawing, and I find his work very fresh and interesting. It’s also fascinating to see the way Al Williamson interpreted Kirby’s pencil art. Al inked several stories with a great sensitivity and understanding of how Jack constructed figures and panels. But really, no one passed through the Simon-Kirby studio who didn’t do something special. There was a high bar to clear in that place.

We’ve seen a few books collecting work by the Simon and Kirby studio in recent years. Titan has collected a lot of their work in the “Simon and Kirby Library” series, and DC Comics has published “Boy Commandos,” “The Newsboy Legion” and “Sandman.” What else do you think we need to see?

Everything that isn’t out yet. I’m not even sure what that would be, but everything those two men did, individually and collectively, is worthy of being readily available. I’d like to see a book reprinting the early issues of “Sick” magazine that Joe Simon concocted. It wasn’t quite “Mad” but it was easily the best of the eighty zillion imitations of “Mad.” The works of the masters need to be available and those two guys were true masters.

Last year, About Comics released “Hollywood Superstars,” which is an older series from you and Dan Spiegle. Could you talk a little about what it was and how the series started?

Well, I’d done this comic book with Dan Spiegle called “Crossfire” which we enjoyed doing very much and which attracted something of a following. As its publisher began having trouble getting paid by distributors and suffering other problems, the comic became unprofitable, so it stopped but a lot of people missed it. One was Archie Goodwin, who was then in charge of a whole division over at Marvel. He had an idea that Marvel could reach a new audience with a comic that had no superheroes, no fantasy elements, just drama. He wanted Dan and me to do such a book. We signed on to do “Hollywood Superstars” and then Archie left the company — and no one else there was interested in trying to attract that audience. So the comic didn’t last long.

What was it like working with Archie Goodwin?

He was the best editor in the business — when he didn’t leave the company. No, he was great. I did a couple of things with him and wish I’d done more.

The book portrays a very seedy side of show business and depicts people cutting costs and being unconcerned for the safety of extras and stuntmen. Was this your perspective of what was going on in Hollywood?

Yeah. I based everything on people I knew or had observed close up, especially one particular stunt coordinator who I thought was rather reckless with the lives of others.

I kept thinking of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” where three actors were killed and a number were wounded while filming. I was just curious how prevalent that kind of risk was.

A lot less prevalent now than it was then for two reasons. One was that that tragedy made a lot of folks become more cautious. And the other has been the rise of CGI effects. A lot of stunts that once had to be performed by human beings are now being done in the computer.

Did you have a long term plan for the series?

Oh, yeah. I could have done that comic forever.

Talk a little about Dan Spiegle, who is one of those artists that I think people don’t know very well anymore. The two of you worked together for years on different projects. Besides him just being good, why did you two like working together?

I don’t know what he saw in me, but I just thought he was a terrific artist — a guy who really knew how to draw people with real expressions and life. He was also amazing at “setting the scene,” drawing the world in which those very real people functioned. It was so much fun to write scenes he’d draw and then to get the art back. He was just perfect. It was also a great bonus that he was such a nice man and that he never missed a deadline. If you needed the job on Tuesday, you could bet your house than Dan would have it in on Tuesday or, more likely, Monday.

Even though you’re not primarily a comic book writer, you’ve had many comics released lately — including the “Garfield” comic series. You’ve written “Garfield” a lot over the years, for both TV and comics. What do you like about the comic and the characters?

To me, writing Garfield is like writing for a superstar. He’s such a colorful, well-developed character and thanks to the voice Jim Davis gave him, he delivers lines with great style. It’s tough to make a bland character interesting but Garfield is anything but bland.

For the animated series “The Garfield Show,” you were writing and voice directing. What exactly does that mean and how does it work?

It means I write scripts and then I go into a studio with the cast, plus any extra actors I’ve engaged, for that particular episode and we record the script. I explain the storyline to the actors and then we start recording what they do. We have a great cast so I don’t have to do much besides say, “Okay, let’s start.” The sessions are enormous fun.

You’ve worked with some of the great voice actors like June Foray and Stan Freberg. Do you have a favorite person you’ve gotten to work?

When I was a kid, I discovered Stan Freberg and fell in love with his records, his talent, his whole sense of humor. He did a record in 1961 called “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume 1” that I think is the greatest comedy record ever recorded. Each week, I’d go back to a record store on Westwood Boulevard and ask, “is ‘Volume 2’ in yet?” It never was. When I got older, I began working with Stan and one day in 1996, we went to lunch at a place called Junior’s Delicatessen and he asked me to help him put together ‘Volume 2’ — so it finally came out 35 years later. I was thrilled to help make it happen but here’s the amazing part: by the time it came out, that record store on Westwood Boulevard was long gone. They tore it down to build Junior’s Delicatessen. Stan asked me to help him do ‘Volume 2’ on the exact same piece of real estate where I once badgered a record store clerk about when ‘Volume 2’ would be available. How’s that for a nice coincidence?

Will we see new reprints of the series you wrote for Eclipse Comics in the ’80s — “Crossfire” or “DNAgents”?

Probably but I’m guessing not some time after the current ones go out of print. I’d still like to bring those characters back in new stories too, some day.

It’s been announced that we’ll see more “Groo” in 2015. Do you have more plans for Groo, including new collections of the older comics?

Starting in 2015, Dark Horse is putting out a twelve-issue series — one per month — called “Groo: Friends and Foes.” In each issue, Groo encounters one of the feature’s supporting characters and — well, it’s a new Groo series for one whole year. There will be more after that, including probably a “Groo/Tarzan” team-up mini-series. And yes, there will be new collections. I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about them yet but if someone asks you whether the totality of “Groo” will be issued in hardcovers soon, don’t tell them no.

“Groo: Friends and Foes” #1 is on sale now.

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