Sal Buscema is a name familiar to just about anyone who read comics during the Bronze Age of comics. An incredibly prolific artist, Mr. Buscema contributed to the now-legendary “Kree-Skrull War” storyline and pencilled long runs on “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” “The Defenders,” “Rom: Space Knight,” “The Spectacular Spider-Man” and many other titles for Marvel. The younger brother of fellow Marvel mainstay John Buscema, he was one of the company’s major fill-in masters and was known as “Our Pal Sal” in the old Marvel “Bullpen Bulletins.”
In recent years, Mr. Buscema has been working primarily as an inker. Alongside writer Tom DeFalco and penciler Ron Frenz, Buscema inked lengthy runs on “Spider-Girl” and “The Amazing Spider-Girl” along with other projects. This year, he inked IDW Publishing’s recent “G.I. Joe” Annual and is currently the regular inker for the ongoing “Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms” comic series as well as a number of upcoming issues of “G.I. Joe.” When the solicitations were released, IDW credited the artist as “the legendary Sal Buscema,” a compliment which astonished the septuagenarian artist when CBR informed him during this interview.
CBR News: How did you first start working at IDW?
Sal Buscema: I did a cover for them a couple of years ago. Marc DeMatteis was doing some writing for them and he asked me if I would be willing to do this cover for one of his books and Joe Sinnott was going to be inking it. I did that, and the work at Marvel and DC kind of dried up. I’ve been part of a three man team, working with Ron Frenz and Tom DeFalco. We’ve been together for numerous years, doing “Spider-Girl” and several other projects for Marvel and for DC. I’m supposedly officially retired, but I didn’t want to stop working. I love what I do, so why stop working? If the work is still there and I’m still in demand, then I’m going to continue to work for as long as that exists. I called the IDW editor I had worked with — he used to be an editor at Marvel — and I essentially said to him what I just said to you; I just want to keep working and I was wondering if IDW would be interested in giving me any work. Primarily inking, that’s what I want to do. I guess it was maybe a month or so later I got a call from Chris Ryall, who’s the editor-in-chief up there. Chris said that he had been a fan of mine for many years. He loved what I do and, as they say, the rest is history. We hope that the relationship lasts a long, long time.
For the “G.I. Joe” annual you recently inked, Ron Frenz penciled one of the stories.
He did a third of what was one story, essentially. He did a little more than a third of the book, and Ron Wagner and Herb Trimpe split the rest of it. I had to ink three different guys on that job, which was a little bit of a challenge, but it seemed to work out okay. They seemed pleased with the work that everybody did on it.
You’ve worked with Frenz for a number of years, as you mentioned, but had you worked with either Larry Hama or Herb Trimpe previously? I know that the three of you were all working at Marvel for many years.
I have inked Herb Trimpe on occasion, though not an awful lot. I don’t believe I ever worked with Larry Hama.
You took over penciling “The Incredible Hulk” from Herb Trimpe, I believe.
Yeah. Herb went onto something else and they called me and asked if I wanted to take over the Hulk. That was about hundred fifty years ago. [Laughs] It seems like a hundred-fifty years ago. Anyway, when they called and asked me to do it, I jumped at the chance. The Hulk is my all-time favorite character. I think I did it for almost ten years. It was a labor of love for me. I just loved the character and had the opportunity to work with some wonderful writers on it, too.
Talk a little, if you would, about “Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms,” because the fantasy genre is something a little different from the work for which you’re best known.
Well, inking is inking. Inking different people is always a challenge. Lee Ferguson is a very talented guy, and I’m trying to do a bang up job on it because it’s a new project. I mean, I try to do a bang up job on everything I do, because that’s just the way I am. I can’t work any other way. He is obviously a very, very different penciler from Ron Frenz, who I have been inking for quite a few years now, and it’s a challenge to do that. The book looks very interesting. I can’t tell you anything about the story per se because I’m not privy to it, except for what I see in these pages. It’s not necessary for me as an inker to know exactly what is going on in every little instance. If it were necessary for me to know what was happening in that regard, I’m sure I’d be told. Inking is just something that you do, and whoever you ink, you try to do the very best that you can on each individual. My personal philosophy is to be as faithful to the penciler as I possibly can be.
You think of inking as something very different from penciling.
Oh, my gosh, yes. Absolutely. [Laughs] It’s like night and day. With penciling, you’re creating the story pictorially. You have to be a storyteller. In inking, you’re primarily concerned with the reproduction of the job. As I said, in my case, I always try to be faithful to the penciler. When I was penciling, which I did for so many years at Marvel, and I did not ink my own work, I would always hope that whoever was inking my penciling would be very faithful to me. The difference [between penciling and inking] is so different.
The inker doesn’t have to tell a story in the same way that the penciler does. All the inker is doing is finishing what the penciler does. That’s what the inker is: A finisher. There was a time, many, many years ago when I first started in the business, and even before that obviously, when the inker was primarily the guy who finished the work, tried to be faithful to the penciler, and it was strictly for reproduction purposes. It was line reproduction. Of course, it’s vastly different today. It’s not like it was in the old days. Inking was, by and large, done by guys who were probably not good enough to be pencilers. That was not true in all cases, obviously, but it was true in a lot of cases. It’s always been my first love. I broke into the business as an inker and I wanted to stay there, but when Stan saw my penciling he decided he wanted me to pencil. And when Stan wanted you to do something, you did it. [Laughs]
I’m just interested in how you think about and approach inking —
There’s no great mystery to it. I pick up a brush, I dip it into the inkwell. [Laughs] I hate to be so non-profound, if there is such a term, but that’s the mystery of it. When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, you can almost do it in your sleep. There’s a little hyperbole there, obviously. The challenge is when I have someone different to ink. As I said, with Lee, it was a little bit of a challenge because he is so vastly different from Ron Frenz. Guys are just different and you have to adapt to the penciler. Hopefully I’ve done that with Lee and hopefully we’ll be turning out a good book together.
What is it about inking that you enjoy?
It’s always been my first love. When I was a kid, as you know, my brother John was in comics. When he became a freelancer, there were always penciled pages all over his studio. I would pick up a brush and a bottle of india ink and I’d start inking them. I guess I developed an ability to do it. It came very naturally to me. I love working with a brush and I love the medium of black and white line. It’s not easy to do. It’s a tremendous challenge and it’s just something that I enjoy thoroughly.
As I said, when I first applied at Marvel for work, I wanted to do inking. I did a six-page story that I just made up myself. No dialogue, just told a story pictorially. The character was the Hulk, because I was fascinated with that character. When Stan saw it, he wanted me to pencil. Now don’t misunderstand me. It’s been a wonderful career being a penciler, but I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need that kind of difficulty, and it is very difficult being a penciler. It’s very difficult telling a story pictorially, especially some of the books. The group books are very difficult to do because you’re dealing with so many different characters and you have to capture their personalities and telling the story is just not an easy thing to do. Inking is fun. It’s not work. It never has been work for me. Was it Mark Twain who said, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life? That’s essentially what inking is for me.
I bring this up because when people talk about your work —
People talk about my work? [Laughs]
You were prolific, but you were also an excellent storyteller.
Thank you. I appreciate that. I think that was my strength. My storytelling is probably why I worked so many years for Marvel. If they had their way, I would never have had a day off. I insisted on that upon occasion.
When did you start as an artist? As you mentioned, and many people no doubt know, your late brother John was an artist.
John was eight years older than I. When I was twelve years old, I think, he got his first job at Timely Comics, which then became Marvel. At the age of sixteen, I made up some comic book samples, penciled and inked them. I took them around. At the time there was, a little hyperbole here, a comic book company every six blocks in New York. I guess I went to every one of them. I was not good enough. I wasn’t ready. I did not get any work, so I continued with school. When I graduated from high school, I had the opportunity to go to college. I could have gone to Cooper Union in New York, which is a very fine art college, but I opted to go right into the business. I started right out of high school as an apprentice in a couple of different art studios. Essentially what you did was ran errands and erased things and kept things clean and swept — you did the odd jobs that nobody wanted to do until you had the opportunity to finally sit at a board and start doing some work. Of course you had to have a portfolio to get the job to begin with, so I assume they recognized the talent that you had. I was in advertising and graphics for about thirteen or fourteen years.
I found out in the sixties that the comic book industry was coming back through John, who was still living in New York. I was down here in Virginia. When that happened, I decided I wanted to take another crack at it because I wanted to do comic books. It’s just such a fun way to earn a living. I worked for about a year to try to learn how to do comic books because I was not a part of that industry. John was doing them, and I certainly had an insight into doing comic books, but it’s not an easy craft. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do and requires a lot of work and diligence and dedication. Anyway, I worked up those samples at the end of that year and Stan saw them. Ss they say, the rest is history.
Who were some of the artists you were interested in when you were younger?
Well, in comics, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond. I was a big fan of [Milton] Caniff, but I preferred the styles of the two that I mentioned before. Some of the great illustrators of the day. Robert Fawcett, who I’m not sure a lot of people are familiar with, but he was probably one of the greatest draftsman that this country has ever produced. He did some absolutely marvelous story illustrations for the magazines that existed back then, like “Collier’s” and “Ladies Home Journal” and all the wonderful magazines that are no longer in publication. Al Parker. Norman Rockwell was a great favorite of mine. So many of the artists that were involved with the Famous Artists School. Of course, the great artists of the Renaissance. One of my favorites is Rembrandt. Just an absolutely fantastic painter. The man was an absolute genius. Da Vinci. Even more than Da Vinci, Michelangelo. And in more modern days, one of my favorite artists of all time was John Singer Sargent. It was just uncanny what that man could do with paint. Just unbelievable. He was truly gifted beyond mortal imagination. I can’t name everyone, but that gives you a smattering of who my favorites were and who influenced me a lot.
In comic books, Jack Kirby was, to me, the greatest comic book artist of all time. Joe Kubert was another great one. Just marvelous artists. And I was greatly influenced by John. It’s pretty evident in a lot of the work that I did.
I think so and I can’t help but think that if you brother was still with us and I put that same question to him, he would name many of those artists, Foster and Raymond, especially.
Absolutely. He was a great admirer of Hal Foster and Alex Raymond. He liked Caniff also but we went more towards the master draftsmen and although Caniff’s drawing was very good, it was somewhat stylized whereas Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, their drawing was extremely realistic and they were both marvelous draftsmen. That’s what John and I, and probably everyone else in the business, appreciate.
I did want to talk a little about the years you worked at Marvel. For instance, I didn’t realize until the recent collection came out that you drew part of the Kree-Skrull war story.
Oh, my gosh. That does go back a few years, doesn’t it? You probably know more about it than I can remember, it was so long ago. So many times in interviews, the interviewer will ask me a question about an issue that I did thirty or thirty-five years ago and I have absolutely no recollection of it. [Laughs] Go ahead, I’ll do the best I can.
I can imagine. There are pages and sequences that just imprinted themselves on our young brains and have stayed with us ever since, but you spent an hour on it decades ago.
Maybe less than an hour. [Laughs] One of the things that I have been blessed with was, I always told everybody I wasn’t a very good artist, but I sure was fast. [Laughs] I don’t mean to be flip. That’s one of the things that Marvel could always depend upon.
You mentioned that the Hulk was your favorite character. Why?
He’s so different. He’s not your normal superhero running around in spandex saving the world every month. He was such a fascinating character and the possibilities for the character were limitless as far as I was concerned. It was always an adventure. Every book I did, I approached it like I was working on it for the first time. That was one of the blessings of being able to work with such good writers when I was doing the Hulk. I was working with good writers on other books, too, but I was particularly blessed with that book. The character was so unique and I really felt that the possibilities for that character were truly limitless. He was a lot of fun to draw because he was ticked off all the time. [Laughs] You could really vent with this guy when you put pencil to paper.
There was a great run of writers working on the book in the course of that decade.
When I started, Len Wein was the writer, if I remember correctly, and again, I’m trusting a very faulty memory. Len and I had a really good relationship and we were worked very well together.
Roger Stern wrote it for a while. Bill Mantlo worked on it for a long time.
I ended my run on the Hulk when Bill was writing it. There were several in-between, and they’re probably going to get really ticked off at me for not remembering who they were. I ask for their forgiveness.
You also drew the Hulk in “The Defenders” for a few years. Like “The Incredible Hulk,” that was a book that was a little different.
They were supposed to be a very loosely-knit group of reluctant characters who really didn’t want to be there, but circumstances brought them together every month. It was unique in that fashion, I suppose. Not like the Avengers, who were official members of this group. The Defenders really wanted to be elsewhere, but circumstances always brought them together.
Another book you worked on with writer Bill Mantlo was “Rom.”
I enjoyed “Rom” a lot. A very funny story about “Rom” is that, as you know, it was based on a Parker Brothers toy. I believe that this was the first time this had ever happened in the comic book industry, where a major company came to them and asked them to develop a comic book based upon, in this case, a toy. Which Marvel did. They were hunting around for somebody to do it. Nobody wanted to do it because they said, this guy is a walking toaster. We don’t want to do it because it’s very uninteresting. They finally called me, and I’ve always had the attitude of, take the work when it’s available. I didn’t care what I was doing as long as I was busy. Obviously, I said yes and it turned out to be a pretty successful book. I think I had a five-year run on it before I dropped it to go onto other projects. It was a very interesting book to do. It had a lot of challenges.
You joked that you don’t remember all the writers you worked with, but did you have much interaction with writers or was most of the interaction through editors?
Mostly through the editors. One of the things that I think was a mistake on my part was, I didn’t go to the offices in New York as often as I should have. Just to let people know what I looked like. [Laughs] Or just to fraternize with the people up there. That was probably a mistake on my part.
Funny story about Len Wein — I started “Hulk” with Len. He had a habit of being late with the plots, so he would call me on the phone and he would relate the plot to me over the phone. Of course he had this sketch in his mind of what he wanted to do with the story, but occasionally — and this didn’t happen too often, because he would usually know what he wanted — he would reach a little bit of a snag in the story and he and I would kick it back and forth. I would say, well, how about this, and he would say, let’s go that way and so on and so forth. When I said that we had a great relationship and the chemistry between us was really good, this is what I was talking about. He communicated the plots to me over the phone, and I don’t recall that ever happening with any other writer. It may have, but I don’t recall it. Len worked that way with me all the time and it worked out to be a pretty successful run that he and I had. We had a lot of fun together.
I enjoyed working with Roy Thomas and I learned a lot from Roy. I was starting in the business with Roy as my first writer, and his plots were fairly tight. He certainly gave you a lot of freedom, but he knew very well what he wanted. Back then, we were doing it the Stan Lee way where [the writer] would have a fairly loose plot and then allow the penciler to flesh everything out and turn it into a twenty-two page book. Why that was ever abandoned, I will never know. It was that system that made Marvel the number one comic book company in the world. I loved worked with Marc DeMatteis. Tom DeFalco is the consummate professional. I loved working with Tom. I worked with him recently on “Spider-Girl,” and of course both he and Marc DeMatteis wrote the “Spectacular Spider-Man” book that I was fortunate enough to originate back in the seventies. I worked with both of them for a time on that book. Again, I ask forgiveness of those I worked with that I do not mention because my memory is pathetic. [Laughs]
As you mentioned, you and Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz have worked together for a number of years on different projects. Why do you think you and Ron work so well together?
One of the reasons I enjoy working with Ron so much is because he’s a consummate professional, a phenomenal draftsman, a wonderful storyteller and his work is just an absolute blast to ink. He puts a tremendous amount of information into every panel that he does. I thought I was fast when I was doing penciling, but I’m amazed at how fast Ron is. He must put in a very long day because it’s just amazing that he can produce as much work with as much detail and as much information as exists in every one of his panels and pages and still turn out the work as quickly as he does. He’s just a joy to ink. He’s just a tremendous draftsman and that’s one of the things that I mentioned before that I really appreciate I love his drawing. He has a great sense of drama. He can be comical. He has all the qualities of the great storytellers and you can’t ask for more than that. He’s just an absolute blast to ink and I enjoy it thoroughly. He and I are going to be doing some “G.I. Joe” together for IDW.
When you were penciling, who were the inkers you enjoyed working with?
Well, Joe Sinnott is a master. He made me look good all the time. I was always very appreciative of that. One of the guys that I really enjoyed was Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill totally overpowered your penciling because his style was just so overpowering, but my gosh, what a fantastic talent he is. It was a privilege to have him ink my breakdowns. Again, I’m having problems with memory. I’ve been separated from that aspect for so many years. The names just don’t come back that quickly.
I don’t know if you know this, but all the previews for the IDW books have mentioned that they will inked by either “the great Sal Buscema” or “the legendary Sal Buscema.”
Wow. I’m overwhelmed. I’m not being flip. That just boggles the mind. I had no idea I was a legend. [Laughs] I certainly don’t consider myself a legend. My gosh. If that helps sell a few more books, then fantastic. Go for it.