Chaykin, Hama, Levitz, Groth & More Discuss The Legacy of Wally Wood

Wallace "Wally" Wood, or Woody, as he preferred to be called, is one of those comics creators who is spoken of in a reverent way by other creators -- indeed, he's often seen as one of the greatest comics artists of all time.

Wood was one of many great artists who worked at EC Comics, moving effortlessly between humor and science fiction, realism and horror, telling crime, war and romance stories. He held a short stint illustrating Jules Feiffer's scripts for "The Spirit," and he drew numerous covers for "Galaxy Science Fiction." Wood was a notable collaborator of Jack Kirby's, working alongside his co-comic book legend on a variety of projects, including notable runs on "Sky Masters of the Space Force" and "Challengers of the Unknown." He also drew trading cards and humor products for Topps, not the least of which is the famed "Mars Attacks" series.

Wood took over drawing and plotting Marvel Comics' "Daredevil" with issue #5, and the company trumpeted him with praise few comic artists had seen. During his short tenure on the book, Wood redesigned the costume to the familiar red and created the interlocking DD insignia, among many other innovations. From there, Wood went on to create "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," which was published by Tower Comics and remains an innovative take on superheroes. In 1966, Wood launched "witzend," a creator-owned anthology that bridged the comics mainstream with the burgeoning underground movement. The complete run of the anthology, which featured a wide range of talents from Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta to Art Spiegelman and Vaughan Bode to Bernie Wrightson and Steve Ditko, was published in a deluxe edition last year by Fantagraphics.

Wood spent much of the 1970s alternating between working at DC and Marvel while working on his own creations like "Cannon," "Sally Forth" and "The Wizard King." Over the years Wood hired many assistants who went onto make their own mark in the industry, including Larry Hama, Howard Chaykin, Bhob Stewart and Mike Zeck. As an editor at Marvel, Hama distributed a photocopied guide titled "Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work," which became a widely distributed primer on comics storytelling.

With so many of his works currently available thanks to a boom in collected editions, CBR News spoke with a number of people in comics about Wood's work and impact on comics. Before they were legendary creators, Hama and Chaykin worked for Wood. Paul Levitz collaborated with Wood on a number of comics in the 1970s. Gary Groth and Michael Catron are currently publishing multiple books of Wood's material at Fantagraphics, while Scott Dunbier has been publishing other Wood projects at IDW. J. David Spurlock is the co-author of the biography "Wally's World," and the Director of the Wallace Wood Estate, which furthers Wood's legacy and is looking to open a museum to Wood.

CBR News: When did you first come to know the work of Wally Wood?

Howard Chaykin: Like most men of my generation, I first encountered Woody's stuff in "MAD Magazine." He was doing a lot of wash black and white stuff then, in a technique much like his spot illustrations for "Galaxy" -- which I only became aware of many years later.

The Ballantine "Weird Science" and "Weird Fantasy" paperback reprints were a real revelation. There was a lushness, an eroticism to this stuff that was astonishing. Years later, when Russ Cochran published the "EC Library," that same sensibility was more than evident in "Shock SuspenStories." Most of his work on this title was in the liberal hysteria vein.

Larry Hama: I first saw his work in "MAD." I really got interested when I saw his earlier "MAD" work in the paperback reprint books. Stories like "Superduper Man" and "Teddy and the Pirates" blew my mind.

Paul Levitz: I knew and loved Woody's work long before I knew his name. My earliest school lunchbox was a "Fireball XL-5" tin, and when I got replica as a gift decades later, I realized it was Woody's art on the box. I began to enjoy his comics with "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," and followed him to "witzend" and onward. 

Gary Groth: I'm sure I first encountered Wood when he was drawing for Marvel in the '60s, specifically his short run on "Daredevil." I was too young to do anything more than recognize that his work wasn't Kirby or Ditko, and what appealed to me, in retrospect, was the quiet dignity to his figure drawing -- even when in motion -- that stood in contrast to Kirby's monumentality and physicality and Ditko's wiry, kinetic energy. In retrospect, those "Daredevil" issues were pretty undistinguished, but I moved on from those to his "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents."

J. David Spurlock: I discovered Wallace Wood 50 years ago. Just as he was leaving "Daredevil" to launch the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," I was discovering both, along with his best-selling "MAD" work via the early "MAD" paperbacks.

Mike Catron: I can't say for sure when I first saw Wood's work. Possibly "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents." I did have a copy of "Wham-O Giant Comics" at one time and I did subscribe to "witzend." Certainly by the time he was working for DC and Marvel in the late 1960s/early 1970s I knew who he was and loved his work.

Scott Dunbier:  The first time I saw Wally Wood's work would have been in the early 1970s. Maybe in the "Steranko History of Comics," or it could have been in the East Coast Comics EC Comics reprints. That was my first exposure to EC, and I fell in love with them at first sight.

What about his work did you respond to?

Dunbier:  It's funny. The older I get, the more I love Wally Wood. You look at his stuff, and it has such an incredible attention to detail, but not at the cost of storytelling. Wally Wood was pretty damn close to being the perfect comic book artist. He's in my top five of all time best comic book artists. He was just that good.

Groth: I think the real revelation came after I'd seen his work at Marvel and at Tower, when, in my late teens, I started collecting EC comics and discovered his work on the war, suspense and science fiction titles. That work was startling in its dramatic intensity and sexuality.

Catron: Well, I liked the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" because it was a kind of superhero take on James Bond-type adventure. It was a quirky take on costumed characters that wasn't typical DC or Marvel fare, and I was ready for that by then. But in terms of his art, I was a sucker for his slick inking and design, though I don't know that I could have articulated that at the time.

You were Wood's assistant. What was that experience like?

Hama: First of all, he hated the name "Wally." Everybody who knew him called him "Woody," which was his own preference. His first wife, Tatjana always called him "Wallace." He could be moody and sullen at times, but he lit up when he was drawing and good stuff was coming out. There was a lot of Odkin and Lt. Q. P. Dahl in him; something almost child-like that brought out the impulse in many people to take care of him.

I started as Woody's assistant in 1971 working on "Cannon" and "Sally Forth" for "The Overseas Weekly." Besides the usual assistant work of swipe-o-graphing, backgrounds and lettering, I alternated scripting with Woody. He would write one arc of "Sally" while I was writing an arc of "Cannon," and then we'd switch off.

When did you meet Wood? What was he like?

Chaykin: I met Woody in the early 1970s, on a recommendation, as I recall, from Gray Morrow. He was living in Valley Stream, Long Island, with a studio over a butcher shop/delicatessen. Nic Cuti was his assistant, and he was renting space to Jack Abel and Syd Shores.

I'd been hired to pencil a western strip to add to "Sally Forth" and "Cannon," two nudity-packed features for "The Overseas Weekly," a newspaper for servicemen. I bonded immediately with Jack Abel, who remained a friend and ally until his death. Woody was already a serious alcoholic, an engine of embittered rage. He would sit on his haunches in the studio on a nearly daily basis and vent on whatever was pissing him off at the time. It was, needless to say, an eye-opening experience for me at that tender age.

What was the anthology "witzend" like, and how did you come to contribute to it?

Chaykin: I discovered "witzend" #1 at a bookstore on 6th Avenue back in the late 1960s. It was a revelation. By the time issue two came out, I was able to find it at a used bookstore.

Like most of Woody's ideas, "witzend" never really achieved its goal of becoming an independent voice for comics guys.  Frankly, when given the opportunity to do something different, most comics talent will retreat to pastiche of whatever they'd been producing for the mainstream. This was the case at "witzend," with a few exceptions. By the time I contributed to the magazine, Woody was long gone.

What kinds of lessons from Wood influenced how you work and the work that you've gone on to do?

Hama: Woody taught me to letter, and his basic inking methodology. I guess I learned all the real basics of comics storytelling there in his studio. Life lessons learned are private matters.

What was Wood like when you collaborated with him?

Levitz: I got to work with him late in his life, and he was very quiet and subdued then. But he was still full of images and ideas, and asked that I do an "All-Star Comics" story which would give him an excuse to draw Superman in a knight's armor. 

In the seventies, over the last decade of his life, he did a lot of work at DC. He's known for his Power Girl work, but what did you think of the work he was doing then, and what do you think of his superhero work more generally.

Levitz: He didn't design Power Girl -- that was Joe Orlando -- but Woody brought her to life with his lush finishes. I don't think Woody was the most dynamic of superhero artists, but he built the most beautiful worlds, with the most amazing people in them. His finished art on my stories -- whether sword & sorcery over Steve Ditko, or superheroes over Ric Estrada -- was incredible.

At Fantagraphics, you're putting out Wood's work as part of the EC reprints. Where did Wood and his work stand in relation to the other artists working at EC?

Groth: He was certainly among the most adaptable, versatile and, indeed, protean artists who worked at EC. He could draw in any genre, make it his own, and still retain his own unmistakable stylistic identity. His war comics had a grungy, Sam Fuller-esque feel to them. His suspense stories had a brooding, urban, noir-ish fervor. His small town and rural settings were claustrophobic and menacing. His science fiction and fantasy stories were filled with technological trappings and tactile dinosaurs. He employed a playfully deadpan bigfoot style for his humor. Only Jack Davis rivaled him in his ability to cross genres so effortlessly.

Catron: Well, I wasn't there, but I think Bill Gaines regarded Wood as one of his top artists. But the simple fact is that it comes down to a matter of taste. You can find people who will point to Wood as their favorite, or Kurtzman, or Ingels, or Williamson, or Davis, or Craig, or Severin, or Krigstein, or any of them, really. My understanding is that there was a friendly competition among all the artists, and they all admired and respected each other's work.

I certainly had not read every EC story before I started on this project, and what I'm discovering as we go along is the incredible versatility of these guys as they move from story to story, and from one genre to another. Wood, especially, seems equally at home doing science fiction, war, horror or crime/shock. His "preachies" are outstanding. The first Wood collection we published ("Came The Dawn And Other Stories") included his "preachies," and when you compare it to our second Wood volume ("Spawn Of Mars And Other Stories"), an all-science fiction collection, you can just see his growing confidence and increasing mastery of his art as he moves from story to story.

You've also published other work, like "Cannon" and the "witzend" collection. In your mind, where do those works stand in Wood's career and body of work? I ask, because you're publishing work of his that he made from the '50s into the '70s, a wide range of his career, but not the full picture.

Catron: Well, "witzend" and "Cannon" are both examples of Wood's desire to do his work his way, outside of corporate editorial restrictions. He had pretty much a free hand on "Cannon" and indulged his penchant for comic-book-style sex and violence. "Witzend" was both a declaration of independence for himself and a call for other artists to join the revolution. Its influence and inspiration on underground comix is obvious.

What do you think is Wood's place in comics' history and his influence on comics?

Hama: Woody's place in comics history is guaranteed by the almost universal respect he gets from damn near every pro in the comics biz -- or at least the pros who can actually draw and tell a story. They're the ones who could tell what the hell he was doing. Generally the same people who "got" Alex Toth, Milt Caniff, Reed Crandall, etc. The "flavors of the week" come and go, but some names stick around, and Wood is one of the ones who stick.

Levitz: He set the standard for so much in sci-fi comics, and made anything he touched better, including his many assistants who learned craft from him. But he may have been equally important for his restlessness as an artist, leading the charge with "witzend," which was an important precursor to the whole indie movement, and working with his ex, Tatjana, on the blue line color project "The Wizard King," which influenced so many to try that technique.

He also influenced one ritual after his death. His former assistant and close friend, Joe Orlando, was so saddened by Woody's tragic end, and his inability to participate in the funeral because of where it was and how hastily arranged, that Joe had DC hold a New York memorial for Woody a few weeks after. That started a DC tradition of memorials for our great contributors, many of which were incredibly touching services. 

Chaykin: Woody was an embittered, self-destructive alcoholic, who produced an amazing, frequently inconsistent, body of work between 1951 and the late 1960s. As Gil Kane pointed out many years ago in an introduction to a chapbook on Alex Toth, Woody and Alex were the two most influential talents of their generation.

Like Alex, I believe that Woody was his own worst enemy, the architect of his own adversity, if you will, who could never get past his own infantile narcissism to develop anything like the collaborative nature necessary for survival in the comic book business. I don't think Woody would have been able to successfully take advantage of any opportunity. His inability to have an actual relationship -- personal, professional, whatever -- would have stood in the way.

Dunbier: There are guys who break into comics and they are okay, they start doing work that is fine but nothing special, and then something clicks and they just turn a corner and they become one of the greats. That happened to Wood back in the early 1950s. He'd been doing work since the late forties and it was okay, but then, sometime in 1952, I think, he just turned that corner and he became -- for a ten or twelve year period -- one of the most amazing, most gifted comics artists we've ever seen. Look at the stuff he did in "The Spirit," the stuff he did at EC, "MAD," Tower and Marvel. His place in comics is at the height of the pantheon. He's a comic art god. I'm not prone to hyperbole, but the guy was just that incredible.

Spurlock: Wood was a pioneer in so many ways, including for Creator Rights. Wood and Ditko left Marvel over the "Marvel Method," which shorted artists on writing pay -- their colleague, Jack "King" Kirby was stuck for a few more years until Carmine Infantino offered him writing and editing pay at DC. Wood helped support Basil Wolverton with a strike against Topps. Wood launched "witzend" -- a year before "Zap!" -- with copyrights and royalties to the creators, and was a father figure to the generation of Underground Cartoonists. Wood rose to the top of every comics genre. It is just about impossible to beat Wood when he was at the top of his game.

Groth: Wood's career as a whole is problematic, as are so many of the best mainstream comic book artists -- such as Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Kirby. The whole context of commercial comic books was not conducive to lasting art, chewing and spitting out talent, artists being the aesthetic equivalent of pop culture cannon fodder, thrown into the maw of commercial culture, used up, and spent. A superb craftsman, Wood was never much of an auteur, that is, a complete artist, and squandered his talent far too much.

"Witzend" is important because it was an early attempt by a mainstream artist to break out of the confines of mainstream comics, but even in a venue in which he could do exactly what he wanted and about which money was not an issue, the work was minor. He probably did his best work for Harvey Kurtzman on the EC war books and at "MAD" because he had a collaborator who could direct his gifts in a meaningful direction. I don't know if he had that good fortune ever again.

Catron: I think Wood is unquestionably one of the top comics artists of the 20th Century. His influence is so pervasive, it's hard to even calculate. That little cheat he just basically cobbled together, "22 Panels that Always Work" (with a couple more discovered later) has been a go-to reference for comics artists and filmmakers alike. By the way, I think he came up with that primarily from working with Al Feldstein, because Feldstein supplied pre-lettered art pages in lieu of a separate script. Since the narration almost always described the action, Wood had to really put some thought into coming up with a visual that would complement the text rather than be redundant with it. Readers today are still enjoying Wood's work and artists are still learning from it. Wood is an immortal.

One of the projects we've announced for next year is "The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood," a revised, expanded and re-designed special edition of a version of a book originally called "Against the Grain." It was Bhob Stewart's final project. Bhob was a Wood assistant and biographer. "The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood" will contain nine new chapters and publish Wood's art as he intended it to be seen, uncensored. There is a lot of new information in that, and I think it will get some people talking.

Do you have a favorite work of Wood's?

Chaykin: I'm a huge fan of the work of Wallace Wood -- and I say that with no irony, despite anything said above. As a kid, I was understandably enamored with his science fiction stuff, but these days, that work tends to remain on the shelf. On the other hand, barely a day goes by when I don't check out his work in "Shock SuspenStories." The liberal hysteria stuff is still chock full of melodrama, both textual and technical -- and the urban fear material rings the same bells as Weegee's photographs -- capturing a lost era of American urban life.

Levitz: I'd have to go with "Stalker," because it was so wonderful to get to work with a legend at the very beginning of my career, or "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," because of its impact on me at eight or nine.

Dunbier:  He's was one of those guys that when you looked at his work, you knew he could do anything. He wasn't just "the science fiction guy." Sure, you look at his science fiction stuff and it's just phenomenal. "The Spirit in Outer Space," "My World," "Mars is Heaven" -- nothing beats them. But he could do great drama too, like the "preachy" stories that ran in "Shock SuspenStories." He did wonderful slice of life pieces. There's a story called "In Gratitude..." about a war hero who comes home to find that his buddy who saved his life in Korea wasn't buried in the cemetery because he was the wrong color. This is in the 1950s. There's a beautiful bit of storytelling at the end of it, where in almost every panel you see the American flag behind the soldier as he's dressing down the entire town at a welcome home rally for him. Powerful stuff.

He did humor better than almost anyone, his "MAD" work is unparalleled -- can you tell yet that I dig his stuff? He arguably did one of the greatest Marvel superhero stories of all time with the issue of "Daredevil" where he fights the Sub-Mariner. Comics just don't get better than that. He was also a groundbreaker when it comes to publishing. He published "witzend" back in the 1960s. The guy was just an amazing talent full of diversity, full of talent, way ahead of his time. 

Catron: I hate to use the cliche "his early work was better," but I'm really enjoying the EC work he did. As we go from volume to volume, it's just a joy to read it all. I don't think he was ever as consistently productive at as high a level of quality as he was in his EC days. Look at those stories, and you can see him becoming a master of that kind of comics, and surprisingly quickly, too. He very early on achieved a superb level of quality in his work and kept at it consistently through his final EC story.

Spurlock: How does one chose between so many masterpieces? "Daredevil" #7's "In Mortal Combat with...Sub Mariner!;" "The Mad Comic Opera;" "To Kill A God;" "My World;" "Prince Violent;" "The Spirit in Outer Space;" "Of Swords & Sorcery;" "Sally Forth;" "Animan." The list could go on forever.

Bettie Page: Unbound #3

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