New Sgt. Rock artists Billy Tucci and Mark Sparacio joined veteran artists Dick Ayers and Russ Heath along with moderator Mark Evanier for a discussion of war comics last Saturday afternoon at New York's The National comic convention. The panelists described their military experiences, or lack thereof, and the need for authenticity when drawing historical subjects.
Classic Sgt. Fury illustrator Dick Ayers entered the army in December 1941 as a senior in high school. He'd read that if you were 18 and enlisted, you got the branch of the service you wanted, and he didn't want to be drafted into the navy. A family friend advised him to go into the air corps. Ayers went to school as a radio mechanic and got a job drawing a camp comic strip. When he finished school, Ayers discovered that his editor had been trying to get him into Stars And Stripes, the official newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces, but Ayers ruined it by finishing training and was consequently classified as a radioman.
When the opportunity came to become squadron draftsman, Ayers jumped at the chance. They sent him for thirty days' training in Florida, and he took over draftsman's duties. "I found that meant I had to make signs," Ayers laughed. "'Don't Throw Butts in the Toilet' and things like that!"
Before becoming the definitive Sgt. Fury artist, Ayers drew short stories for Marvel Comics' war books. He complained that he never knew what war he was going to be drawing. Often it was an obscure war, and he'd have to go to the library to hunt up references to get the uniforms and equipment right.
Ayers said Stan Lee Lee and Jack Kirby fought more over "Sgt. Fury" than anything. Kirby thought Lee was making it into a superhero book. "War isn't like that, Stan. I was there!" Kirby would say. That's why Ayers eventually took over the book.
Ayers didn't think much of inking Sgt Fury. and the Howlers at first, because they always had three-day beards and dirty uniforms, which might have been realistic, but it wasn't the way s soldier ought to look. Later, the artist remembered his time in the Normandy, trying to find ways to look different. He'd wear a scarf, or a shoulder holster, anything to distinguish himself from the other guys. When he applied that to the Howling Commandoes, the characters clicked for Ayers.
"Someone asked me just today, 'Did they ever howl?'" Ayers said. "Well, they went Wahoo!"
Evanier congratulated Billy Tucci on the realism of his new Sgt. Rock book, "Sgt. Rock and the Lost Battalion." Tucci said he did a lot of research, including going to Normandy. "Then I went to the Vosges mountains in eastern France where the book takes place," he said.
Tucci added, "This has given me an incredible excuse to buy so much stuff that I can't afford!" He bought weapons and equipment to use as a reference. The writer-artist also tracked down extensive photo references. The uniforms they wore at Normandy were different from the ones they wore at Vosges mountains four months later. "Name a unit, and I can tell you what they wore."
Cover artist Mark Sparacio painted over Tucci's pencils. He displayed for the New York crowd the original watercolor art, which was bright and vivid. Mark Evanier asked if he was happy with DC's production on the final printed work. "Yes I am, surprisingly enough", said Sparacio. He added, "I've read Billy's six-issue script, and it's amazing. He's really underrated as a writer."
Evanier asked Russ Heath what he'd used for reference in drawing his war comics. Heath said that at first it was hard to find references, but he knew guys who were in the war would know if he didn't get it right. Eventually, he acquired some helmets and uniforms, to make sure he got them right.
Asked if there were any stories that stood out in his memory, Heath replied, "The one I wrote!"
Heath said the first Tiger tank must have looked strange to people. It had a bigger muzzle, so it could shoot farther; better front armor so it was safe from 30 caliber fire; and it could be submerged. "It must have been a scary thing to come up against," he remarked, explaining that he drew a story that showcased all those features, with people reacting in fear and amazement. He wanted the definitive Tiger tank story. It took him a long time to complete. "The detail knocked my salary down!"
Ayers, Heath and Tucci have all served in the military, although Ayers was the only one on the panel who served overseas in wartime. "I wasn't in the military," confessed Evanier. "I worked for Disney for a while..."