Staton on Ayn Rand, Archie and Dick Tracy

Joe Staton is an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist with a long career in comics. Beginning in 1971 as an artist with Charlton Comics, over the decades Staton has worked for First Comics, Marvel, Archie, Ape Entertainment and many other publishers. He was the artist on "E-Man," a cult favorite first published by Charlton. He was the Art Director at First Comics for many years. He has had lengthy runs on mainstays like "Green Lantern" and "Green Lantern Corps." With writer Marv Wolfman, Staton co-created another group of characters with a cult following in The Omega Men.

Staton is currently as busy as he's ever been. "Anthem," his graphic novel adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel, has just been released. He is illustrating the storyline "Adventures in the Wonder Realm" which is currently running in "Archie and Friends Double Digest." It was also announced last month that in March, Staton will be taking over "Dick Tracy" as the comic strip's regular artist. With all of these projects currenty on his plate, Staton took time out from his busy schedule to speak with CBR about all of them, and more.

CBR News: How did you get involved in adapting "Anthem?"

Joe Staton: I was brought into it by Charles Santino, the writer who packaged it. I've done a lot of proposals with Charles over the years. He had researched the rights and contacted the Rand Institute and had everything lined up. He was looking for an artist and he wanted to know if i'd like to take another shot on a job with him and I was.

Did you know the book before becoming involved?

Not really. I was aware of it, but never read it. I read it and I could see there was a story there that we could draw. That was all I needed.

Ayn Rand has a very devoted group of followers. Were there concerns about changing or adapting her original script, or have you been in comics long enough that you just accept that sort of response as a matter of course?

[Laughs] Whatever you do, if there are loyal followers, there are going to be objections. I've worked on "Elfquest." After "Elfquest" followers, Ayn Rand's followers are nothing. [Laughs] I'm accustomed to thing like that. Really, my only concern was that there was a story there. That we could have likable characters. To me, the politics and all that was incidental. It's a couple spunky kids in love coming up against society. It was a story I could relate to. The politics, everybody else can sort that out.

The book is printed directly from your pencils, with no inks involved. What was behind that decision?

That was something that Charles had decided. He was pretty clear on shooting from the pencils and on the three panels to a page format. He had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted when I came onto it. My only adjustments were, I had done samples that were much more complicated and darker to show the Rand Institute. As we got their input, I went to a simpler kind of drawing style, but it was always being shot from the pencils.

Did coming from a background of having worked as a penciler, inker or sometimes both on the same project help as far what's essential and the best way to approach drawing the book, knowing that there wouldn't be another step?

There was a little bit of experimentation. There were a couple of shots where the characters are going down into the tunnel, where they're getting into more dark. I was penciling there and was I thinking more in terms of the blacks for inking. That didn't seem to work quite as well, but as I went along, I think I found the balance. It does take a little adjustment to just think in terms of the pencils.

What was the challenge in terms of the details and locations in this world and how much help was Charles Santino and his script?

He was tremendous. That's one of thing he'd been thinking about all along, working on the story. There's not really a lot of description in the book, but it happens over quite a bit of territory and has a lot of different scenes. He had figured exactly how we'd be setting it. There's a long geographical range when the characters move from the city out into the forest and find the house out in the forest. We were thinking, well, maybe they start in Georgia and end up in Michigan. That kind of range. And as the characters are moving through the story, you can see that the trees around them will change. We really did try to make sure all of this took place in a recognizable, believable physical situation.

Were the small details in the book, like the experiments and technology, similarly thought with regards to how they would work?

He had really thought that out. He realized, basically, the experiments that the boy does in the tunnel are kind of restating the history of the development of electricity Charles gave me a lot of printouts and information on how to set up the actual experiments. He says that if there's some clever child or young adult who's reading this with a knack for engineering, they could probably do these experiments on their own. We tried to make them legitimate as basic engineering.

Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed working on a graphic novel versus a monthly comic?

It's all comics to me. There are things in monthly comics that you can't get into a one-shot. Monthly, you get to know your characters and their expressions and you live with them over a long period. With a one-shot, you're trying to establish things where you can bring in something you haven't shown before and have it believable off the bat. That's a challenge, but a lot of fun too.

A graphic novel is long enough that you do get to work with your characters and your situations a reasonable amount of time. I think the hardest thing to do, really, is something like an eight-page story where you really don't have time to get to know your characters.

You mentioned that you and Charles Santino had worked together on other comics in the past. What is it about working with him that you enjoy enough to continue to team on projects?

He just has ideas for things that I haven't done. He comes to me with something that seems like fun and he will have thing pretty well thought out. He has a lot of interests that overlap mine, like science fiction and history. I've just found him a good guy to work with. Also, we're generally of similar ages and similar backgrounds, so when he describes something and uses a reference to Gilligan's Island, we both get it. It's good to work with somebody who has your own touch points.

It was just recent announced that you would be taking over the "Dick Tracy" comic strip. How did that happen?

It just kind of came together. Dick Locher is eighty-one and had a lot of things that he needed to keep up with. The syndicate has closed down some long running strips recently, but they didn't want to shut down Tracy. They were aware of things I had done related to Tracy -- everything is on the web now -- so they knew that I would be wanting to do this. I had actually put up some Tracy continuities with Mike Curtis, and they approached us to keep the strip going. I've always wanted to do Tracy. Anyone who's asked me about my dream job, it would be a Tracy graphic novel and the Tracy newspaper strip immediately behind, so I was definitely up for it.

So you're a big fan of Chester Gould from way back.

From way back. I'm told that I was following Tracy in the comic strips before I could read.

What is it about the strip and the characters and the design of the world that you enjoy?

I think you nailed it there when you said the design of the world. For a newspaper strip, and to a great degree for a comic book as well, if you have an artist or writer on the property for a long time, they design a world. Gould's world appealed to me, obviously, on some kind of primordial level before I had really any understanding of graphics. I think I was attracted to Chester Gould's world before I was to the real world. It was just the way he designed things and the way he saw things. His graphics determined a world with very strange looking characters in it. His use of space really didn't relate to the real world; it was a way to tell the story in his world.

You've had a fairly long career, with opportunities to do lots of things for different companies, different forms, different approaches. What have you enjoyed most? Or is that like asking who's your favorite child?

[Laughs] Well, it's all putting one picture after another to tell a story, so your brain has to be wired that way to be attracted to comics in the first place. For me, who I'm working with [has to be] somebody who is good at coming up with those pictures that will tell a story. I basically think I can draw anything that anybody can describe. With the exception of horses. [Laughs]


I've just never mastered horses. It's not a part of my skill set. An inside joke among people who know me is, "Let's write stories with horses for Joe." [Laughs] But I like working with guys who have pictures in their head and can communicate how those pictures tell a story. A lot of times a good writer, for me, is a guy who may have started out to be an artist and decided he was better at writing. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman have a lot of art background. My buddy Nic Cuti, that I did "E-Man" with, Nic's an artist as much as he is a writer. Chris Mills, who I do "Femme Noir" with. Mike Curtis, who's doing the Tracy strip with me, he writes his strips as very rough drawings rather than typing them out. That's how Nic used to work a long time ago. That's how guys in those days learned from Wally Wood. If you think in terms of pictures, you're probably a good guy for me to work with.

You mentioned Marv Wolfman, there. The two of you had a long run on "Green Lantern" and created a lot of the mythos that's been revived in recent years. Do you follow the current comic?

There's so much now, I can't really follow it all. [Laughs] I did lose track of the book for a while, back when it was wandering in the wilderness, but from what I can tell now, it's very recognizable to me. It's taken off on concepts that we were working with back when I was on the book. Of course Geoff Johns has developed everything so much more now and there's really more depth to it now. But I recognize it and I like what I see.

Looking over your career, with all the different roads you've walked and jobs you've had, is there something that you still want to do in comics?

I really should nail something down, another character that I want to do, but I've done so many. I wanted to do Tracy. I want to keep on doing my "Femme Noir" character. One of these days I'd like another shot at something related to Green Lantern. But a lot of times I don't know what I'm really going to enjoy until somebody comes to me out of the blue with a project and asks, "Does this look like something you'd like?" And I'll take a shot at it. That's how I get into a lot of things and enjoying a lot of things. It's not like there's something out there I'm trying to do. It's comics. I've had pretty good luck with the next thing that turns up being something fun.

You seem to have good luck. It's certainly not just luck, but to be constantly working is something not every freelancer experiences.

I would say it's luck. I am consistently amazed that I'm still working. I'm amazed I'm doing this for a living since I started doing this for a living. I've just got to keep my fingers crossed that my luck holds for a little longer.

Just to get back to Tracy, what is it that you and Mike Curtis want to do with it? What are your goals for the strip?

We're coming in at a really good time. This year is going to be Tracy's 80th anniversary and we're going to get to do two things at the same time. We're going to go back and reintroduce Tracy's history and villains and stories and let people know what the history and the heritage of Dick Tracy is, but we're also taking the characters the technology and we're going to really try to make them function in the current world. So we're working backwards and forwards at the same time. Mike has got some real good ideas for how to do all that and I think we're going to give the strip a good run.

Is there anything else you're working on these days?

I'm doing some work for Archie. I have an arc coming out currently in one of the Archie books. A version of "Tron," where you have everybody trapped in a virtual world and they're face to face with Archie versions of the Mario Brothers and World of Warcraft and things like that. So you get to see Archie with a big sword fighting a knight.

How did you end up involved in that?

Actually, I'd done some covers for "The Fly" and other stuff, so I know people there. It's like anything else -- something comes up and somebody thinks, Joe could this or, Joe would like this. This particular job was an idea that Steve Oswald who's on staff there had. He's a big gamer. He had gotten the go-ahead for this arc and they were thinking, there's all these different styles and all these different games, who could draw the Archie characters and all these different styles? He said, "Joe could do that." So they called me out of the blue, and I really enjoyed it. That's coming out now in the "Archie and Friends Double Digest."

Joe Staton's run on "Dick Tracy" begins March 14.

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