Writer Mike W. Barr was presented with an Inkpot Award last month at That '70s Panel at Comic-Con International, featuring great comics artists and writers of the 1970s. The panel opened with CCI's Gary Sassman presenting Barr ("Camelot 3000") with one of the redesigned Inkpot awards for his contributions to comics. Moderator Mark Evanier mockingly grumbled that others on the panel had the "older, cheaper, smaller" version, with artist Jim Starlin ("Dreadstar") remarking that he intended to trade his in for a new one.
Evanier then introduced the panelists: Starlin, Joe Staton ("E-Man"), Mike Grell ("Warlord"), Barr, Bernie Wrightson ("Swamp Thing"), and late arrival Len Wein ("Incredible Hulk"). Scheduled panelists Howard Chaykin ("American Flagg!") and Paul Gulacy ("Master of Kung Fu") were unable to appear.
Evanier got things rolling by addressing the idea that Comic-Con is increasingly about "passing the torch" to a new generation, and asking the veteran creators how their generation differed from the previous Golden Age generation. The consensus on the panel was that the primary change was that creators were able to get credit for their work, where the previous generation labored in anonymity. Wrightson told of meeting Frank Frazetta at a science fiction convention in the mid-'60s, saying that until that event, Frazetta was completely unaware that he was popular and had fans.
Several panelists discussed the influence that older creators had on their work and careers, with a few of them mentioning Joe Orlando in particular. Grell said that Orlando gave him drawing lessons in the DC Comics offices after first scolding him for showing Aquaman "mooning the reader" in his first published story. Wrightson agreed, saying that Orlando kept tracing paper in his desk and would sketch suggested revisions over Wrightson's penciled pages. "I wouldn't call them drawing lessons, but he did teach me the language of comics, how to tell a story," Wrightson said.
This led to the topic of mentorship, and each panelist named the person or people who had been their mentor or inspiration. Barr, Grell and Evanier agreed that famous Batman writer and editor Denny O'Neill was, as Evanier stated, "a role model for a writer," with Grell stating that O'Neill had taught him more about being a writer than anyone. Evanier then asked who had told each panelist to give up on trying to become a professional artist, mentioning that he was told he had no writing talent by controversial Batman co-creator Bob Kane. "If it had been anyone else, I might have been upset," Evanier laughed.
Wrightson responded that he had been discouraged in high school by a teacher he called Sister Mary "Lee" Marvin, who smacked his knuckles for drawing monsters in class, saying that he was wasting his God-given talent. He resolved to become a success as an artist "just to get back at her."
The panel was asked a two-part question: what was their first published work, and what was the job when they first felt that they were a real pro. Barr stated that he felt that one could not be a professional comic writer in the '70s until one had written a Superman story drawn by Curt Swan, as Swan was the definitive Superman artist of the time, so even though he had been writing professionally for a few years, it wasn't until Swan drew an issue of "DC Comics Presents" starring Superman that he had written that Barr felt he had really made it.
Mike Grell described hyperventilating and almost passing out from the realization that he had achieved his childhood goal. While working on a Sunday page for the Tarzan newspaper comic strip, he stopped to think that it was Tarzan that had first inspired him, and now he was drawing the same strip that had made him want to become an artist in the first place.
Talking about their early work, Evanier admitted that even though it bothered him at the time, he is now "kind of happy" that he is uncredited on his first 50 or so stories for Gold Key. Grell talked about the experience of having fans come up with some of his very early work and saying "this is the best thing you ever did," remarking that it had happened twice on Thursday. Starlin told of taking his name off a story and insisting that it be credited to "Steve Apollo," while Staton described his difficulties during his run on "The Legion of Super-Heroes." "I kept putting the wrong boots on everybody. I'd put Matter-Eater Lad's boots on Lightning Lad; I could never keep all the boots straight. We'd get letters," Stanton revealed.
After a brief mutual-admiration session in which Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson each asserted that the other was the best collaborator they ever worked with, Mark Evanier told a story about meeting legendary "Teen Titans" and "Crisis on Infinite Earths" writer Marv Wolfman at the DC offices. "Marv was being berated by an older writer who shall be nameless -- it was Robert Kanigher -- and he was going on about 'young kids coming into the industry, you're all arrogant, you think you know more than we do, you want to turn everything into these fannish things that you like...' to what extent was he right?"
Starlin told a story about a young artist who got an assignment and then disappeared and could not be reached. As the deadline approached, the editor gave the script to veteran artist George Tuska, who completed the job in just four days. On the same day that Tuska turned in the job, the young artist showed up with his finished pages. After comparing the two versions of the same story, the editor said, "We're going with Tuska; it's better." Len Wein responded by telling how he tried to break into the industry as an artist by redrawing a story that he felt the artist had not done well. He showed his version of the story to the publisher, Jim Warren, explaining that he was a better artist than the other person. Warren agreed that his work was better, but then said, "I'm looking for artists who are better than my best artist, not my worst."
Mike Grell talked about artist Mike Kaluta's work on "The Shadow," which was universally hailed as beautiful work. Grell explained that the work was gorgeous, but sales steadily dropped on the title, until finally Kaluta was taken off the book and it was given to Frank Robbins, cartoonist of the "Johnny Hazard" comic strip. "At his best, Robbins was not pretty," Grell said, but sales spiked and increased after Robbins took over, because Robbins' work "was dynamic; he really knew how to tell a story." Starlin mentioned that the late Gil Kane frequently complained about the younger generation of artists indulging in what he called "masturbatory rendering."
On the subject of censorship, editorial interference and the effect of the Comics Code, Starlin explained that he avoided the problem by always turning in work at the last minute so there wouldn't be time to make changes. He also explained that in one year, the Comics Code Authority issued twelve warnings, of which he received for his work on "Warlock." Others explained how the CCA was sometimes circumvented by putting objectionable content in the coloring; the censors only saw the pages in black and white, so sometimes gory or violent scenes could be done using fire or blood that don't show up in the black linework.
Wrightson described a conflict that came up about a year after "Swamp Thing" began, when someone from the CCA noticed that the character was naked. Editor Joe Orlando went to the CCA with the first six issues and showed that the character had always been nude, but was always shown in shadow, "and besides, he's a plant."
Len Wein said he was surprised he was allowed to work on a comic called "Giant-Size Man-Thing." Finally Evanier described a project he once wrote for Gold Key, a knock-off of "Archie." In the comic, the "Archie" and "Veronica" characters are trying to ditch the "Jughead" character, whose name in the story was "Wheeler." In one panel, the couple are parked at "Lookout Point" for a necking session, and the "Veronica" character says "That Wheeler is really something." Later, the editors decided to change the title of the comic to "Tom, Dick, and Harriet," with Wheeler being renamed "Dick." The letterer was instructed to go through the story and re-letter the character names; when Evanier received a copy of the finished story, he caught the problematic panel and alerted the publisher. The story was pulled off the press and corrected, and Evanier claims to have the lettered original framed on his wall.
An audience member asked about Grell's fondness for Tarzan. Grell explained that the first real book that he ever read was Tarzan the Terrible, and he found it perfect, especially in the way author Edgar Rice Burroughs created entire new civilizations out of pure imagination. Grell went on to say that his series, "Warlord," was partially inspired by Burroughs's Pellucidar and partially by Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, among others. There's a strong possibility that it may be reprinted next year, Grell stated.
Evanier jumped off from that point to ask the panelists what they considered to be their most personal work. Grell responded that he looks just like Warlord, except I'm shorter, fatter, older, balder, and uglier; but on the inside... before going on to say that he felt his most personal work was a Jon Sable story in which Sable goes to Vietnam to search for American soldiers missing in action.
Mike Barr cited "Amaze Agency," qualifying that by saying, It's not at all realistic, and I've never had any of those adventures, but I sure would like to. Bernie Wrightson chose "Captain Stern: Running Out of Time, a five-issue limited series from the early '90s, while Len Wein said he'd like to say he looks like Wolverine but would have to admit it's "Swamp Thing." Joe Staton laid claim to the first few issues of "E-Man" for Charlton Comics, which he produced with Nic Cuti. Jim Starlin concluded the panel by saying that I used to look like Dreadstar, more of my real life is in 'Breed' than any other book, but my most personal work is 'The Death of Captain Marvel.'