Originally published in The Comics Journal 230, 2001
Tom Sutton (1937-2002) refers to himself in this interview as an “odd man out.” That he is. He’s also the ultimate been-there/done-that professional. Sutton has worked for more mainstream comics companies throughout his career than anyone this side of Gil Kane. He broke into comic books in 1967 with a back-up story in Marvel’s Rawhide Kid, and worked virtually non-stop on various projects to the early ’90s, when he effectively stopped working for mainstream comics publishers — a period during which the profession was undergoing tumultuous and epochal structural and aesthetic changes. (In 1994, Sutton adopted his Dementia nom de plume and started a new career as a pornographer, which will be the subject of a second interview in the near future.) Sutton’s professional life is marked by a slew of anomalies. He fell between generations: he is, to place him roughly, about 10 years younger than Joe Kubert and about 10 years older than Art Spiegelman. So, although he had a strong impulse toward self-expression, he’d developed a deep appreciation for the craft of commercial comics (particularly the ECs) but also, less propitiously, a provincial love of their commercial values. He was a little too old and established (with a wife and child) and culturally out-of-it to take advantage of the underground comix ethos that was emerging. Because of a combination of necessity and a willingness to follow the path of least resistance, he got sucked into hacking out mainstream comics without quite knowing that this is what he was doing and where it might lead him — which was, artistically speaking, nowhere fast, and ultimately, artistic oblivion. Moreover, he had no interest in or love for superheroes, the dominant genre during his professional life, which meant that a) his options were severely limited to marginal genres, titles, and publishers (Westerns, horror, sci-fi, humor, an endless run on Star Trek, an unprofitable stint at Charlton Comics) and b) he couldn’t fuse a fanboyish love of popular superhero lore with superior craftsmanship to establish a professional identity and a solid fan base (a la John Byrne or Walt Simonson). Truly an odd man out.
As a result of these contradictory, conflicting, and paradoxical private and professional confluences that affected his output, Sutton’s work has ranged from beautifully crafted genre work (horror stories for Warren and Charlton, Planet of the Apes) to unspeakably awful hackwork (Seeker 3000, Godzilla, et al.) to the oddball and unexpected (inking Gil Kane and John Buscema). Not to mention the paintings of bar scenes he used to do in his spare time and exhibit in local galleries.
All of this gives Tom an idiosyncratic and unique (but, oddly enough, not necessarily atypical) vantage point from which to hold forth on the comics profession and its various iniquities over the last 35 years, and an interview full of pathos and drama and Tom’s characteristic knack for humor, self-deprecation, and asides to his favorite character, Buffy. — Gary Groth
THIS AND THAT AND CHILDHOOD
GARY GROTH: You were telling me about Eric Stanton at Cooper Union…
TOM SUTTON: Which is right across from my favorite saloon in New York —
McSorley’s. Do you know McSorley’s?
GROTH: I know Cooper Union, though.
SUTTON: Yup. Anyway, interesting anatomy in there. And a whole bunch of other people, obviously. You know, the daily role of standing with your little persons that you was so fucking good and I still think so.
GROTH: I do too. You read that as a kid?
SUTTON: Oh, I obsessed on it. But then I started to subscribe to EC and I said, “How good can you get?” That was probably the trip wire to my whole life. I thought that there was going to be another EC. How’s that for dumb?
GROTH: You thought that what was going to be another EC?
SUTTON: I thought there would be another group of EC adventure books like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy — and the horror books of course were fantastic. They were all fantastic. I was waiting for it to happen again. I wanted to help it happen again and nobody could be less interested.
SUTTON: I never got it. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Meantime I’m turning out Kid Colt.
GROTH: What period of time are you talking about? The ’70s?
SUTTON: Well, naturally I was getting my Weird Science things and EC things at the time that they were coming out, which was in the ’50s.
GROTH: Sure. In the early ’50s. But you were doing Kid Colt in the ’70s?
SUTTON: I think that was one of the first books I did. I got out of the service in ’59, I was in school for two and a half years or so, and I went to New York. In New York I started doing these things for Marvel. I shouldn’t play around with that one. That was very serious for them. “We’re Marvel Comics!” I had no interest in their books at all. None. Zero. Maybe the Sub-Mariner once in a while, but the Sub-Mariner did too much punch-in-the-face and not enough, as I saw it, the wonderful Atlantian backgrounds. You know, like Roy Krenkel did so well. That kind of thing. And you had to discover that they didn’t want the fucking backgrounds anyway. You’d spend all day penciling these backgrounds and they’d erase the fucking things.
GROTH: This is where?
SUTTON: At Marvel. The best thing about Marvel was the very sweet gal who was there at the time. Everybody talks about her… I’ve never heard a negative thing about Flo Steinberg. God, she was… The shit that she put up with!
At the time that I was in and out of there she was the person who would come out and say, “You’re next!” to all of these drooling creatures with these their little ratty portfolios. She was just a vision to walk behind.
GROTH: About what years are you talking about?
SUTTON: That would have been ’64, ’65, something like that. I’m making guesses here. I would see Stan and as opposed to most of the stories I heard he was really … He made an impression that lasted a lifetime. I’d never seen an editor crouched on top of his desk about to fly.
GROTH: Stan would do this?
SUTTON: Yeah. And he had a tape recorder too, and he was doing dialogue for Spider-Man or something. And he didn’t seem to think that that was very strange. He looked at the stuff that I had brought in, and the stuff that I had brought in was stuff that I had done in the service for Stars and Stripes in Tokyo. I think he was rather impressed by the fact that I had actually done a daily comic strip for two years. He didn’t get many people who had done that. I think he usually got people who may or may not have been very good, but they had just either come from art school or from high school or something. He just reached over and he pulled off this huge pile of blank paper. And he said, “OK, do me a couple of Westerns and I’ll see you next week. Have fun.” I remember that very well. “Have fun.”
GROTH: Well, Tom, I want to structure this interview somewhat.
SUTTON: Are you trying to say I’m not structured, Gary?
GROTH: You’re the least structured person I know.
SUTTON: Please go ahead. Do whatever you want.
GROTH: Let me skip back. I want to start more or less at the beginning. You were born in ’37?
GROTH: Where did you grow up?
SUTTON: North Adams, Massachusetts.
GROTH: How long did you live there?
SUTTON: Until I went into the service. Until… oh shit! I lived there for 18 years, I guess.
GROTH: So you went into the service when you were 18?
SUTTON: You know why I went into the service, Gary?
GROTH: That was my next question.
SUTTON: Because when you live in North Adams, Massachusetts, there ain’t nowhere else to go. [Groth laughs.] You wanna hang around there the rest of your life? No!
GROTH: North Adams was a sleepy town?
SUTTON: It was not bad in those old days. My sister still lives there. You spend 18 years with the folks and whatnot and it’s time to go! Do something. We both may know people who’ve never done that. I find them scary. You know, they’re still sitting on the stoop. Someday my train will come. Da-dum.
GROTH: What was life like in North Adams?
SUTTON: There wasn’t much. North Adams was a small version of all of the mill towns in New England. The big brick factories that are all closed down because the industry moved south. Lots of folks on welfare sitting on their stoops: too many.
GROTH: Even in the ’40s, during your childhood?
SUTTON: Yeah, but much more so in the ’50s. Either that or I just began to notice it more in the ’50s. My father always made a good living.
GROTH: What did your father do?
SUTTON: My father owned a plumbing, heating and air conditioning shop. They would install that junk. There was never any consideration that I was going to join the firm. No thanks! What I’m trying to say was he was one of the few who always made a living there and he was comfortable there. We had a little place outside of the town. My father was a very remote man. He was very quiet and very remote and he didn’t care too much for people. He didn’t care too much for interaction.
GROTH: Did you have any siblings?
SUTTON: Oh. That’s curious. Yeah. I have a sister, and she is… Don’t put her name in here. She gets upset about that. She was [from] my father’s first wife. Her mother died about two years after she was born. So she lived with us for some time and then she went and lived with some of his relatives, right?
GROTH: So she was your father’s daughter from a previous marriage?
SUTTON: Yes sir. That’s right. And you know, all this time has gone by and I only started talking to her two years ago.
GROTH: You hadn’t talked to her for a long time.
SUTTON: No. I was like a tiny little tad. I was like 5 or something.
GROTH: How much older is she than you are?
SUTTON: Oh, she’s about seven or eight years older than I am. She did not have an easy time. I think he tried to do what he could but there were problems. She has no idea what the hell I’m doing or why I’m doing it.
GROTH: So you were not close growing up.
SUTTON: No. No. No. There were like barricades put up. I’ve given up trying to figure out what was going on.
GROTH: Barricades put up by your father?
SUTTON: My father, my mother, other relatives, etc., etc. But you see, this is not me. I didn’t do this, so I’m not going to get into it. We talked. We discuss the fact that her house is falling down. We talk once a month or something like that. She says, “Oh, will you come back to North Adams?” And I say, Oh, my God! I’ve spent my life trying to get out of North Adams. [Groth laughs.] It’s nice it wound up more or less OK.
GROTH: How did that affect your childhood? Were you aware of that conflict or that tension?
SUTTON: Certainly. Every single day of my life I was aware of it. I was aware of the tension in that house. First of all, we get this whole single-child syndrome here, where you build up all kinds of walls. If you can draw pictures, that’s a powerful weapon. You can spend your whole damn day doing this.
GROTH: You mean, you can seek refuge doing that?
SUTTON: Exactly. Sure. I was not a popular person by any means. I was not “one of the guys.” I don’t think I knew what baseball was… or cared. And they couldn’t understand what the hell you were doing. I still remember this thing — this was so long ago — I used to come out on the front porch of our house. “Hey Sutton, you in there cutting out paper dolls?” I tell that to Buffy. She gets a kick out of it. [Buffy is a character Sutton created for Eros Comix in his Dementia guise.]
GROTH: This is so typical of a lot of cartoonists and comic artists, I think, to have grown up in relative social seclusion, or alienation, if you want to put it more strongly.
SUTTON: Right. I’ve heard that myself. Yes.
GROTH: So how young were you when you started drawing and what inspired you to draw?
SUTTON: One of the great, fantastic things that happened at that time and never happened again… We used to get the Sunday paper. I used to come back with… [starts to laugh]. Gary, I was the surrogate to go to church on Sunday. They didn’t go. So I would go and represent them or something.
GROTH: Your parents didn’t go?
SUTTON: Yeah. On the way back you pick up the Boston paper and another paper. That’s when papers were really big. I remember coming up that hill with the goddamn papers. Christ! When you spread out the comics, the comics sheet was as big as your whole body. You’d pore over Prince “Violent.” And Flash Gordon.
GROTH: This would have been in the early ’40s.
SUTTON: It was so great. I swear to God, the color was better than it is today!
GROTH: The color was beautiful.
SUTTON: I don’t get it! I mean, is this progress or what? Shit! I remember Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates comic strip. It was one of the most gorgeous thing I ever saw. It was beautiful!
GROTH: What were the strips that most enthralled you as early as you can remember?
SUTTON: Flash Gordon, of course. The old…
SUTTON: …Raymond Flash Gordon. I didn’t really get on with the second guy. I looked at the Tarzan strips. I was never really crazy about Tarzan. Hogarth wasn’t doing it at that time, was he?
GROTH: Yes he was, I think.
SUTTON: The feeling I got about the Hogarth strip was he did elegant things in his own way. But it seems that he was more interested in showing you every goddamn muscle—!
GROTH: Of course.
SUTTON: —than he was in composing sequential pictures. I don’t know what turned me off, but it certainly didn’t… Maybe I just wasn’t into guys, I don’t know.
GROTH: Had you seen the Foster Tarzans?
SUTTON: No. At that time I didn’t.
GROTH: Did you read Foster’s Prince Valiant at that time?
SUTTON: Yes. Absolutely.
GROTH: Did you like that?
SUTTON: Oh, sure. But even then, I knew this wasn’t comics.
GROTH: How do you mean that?
SUTTON: I mean it in the sense that… You know, when you get your first Big Little Book? I had a bunch of those too. Well, that wasn’t comics. It was an illustrated narrative, right?
SUTTON: That’s what Hal’s Prince Valiant was. It was absolutely gorgeous. I remember getting terribly excited. He did a — I don’t know how he got away with it at the time. What was the female’s name? The Prince’s wife? Alicia? Aleta. Aleta gets attacked by… There was a hell of a girl fight in there. It was great! Yeah.
GROTH: Presaging Eric Stanton.
SUTTON: Yes. Yes.
GROTH: You said that you knew that that wasn’t comics. Of course, Raymond’s Flash Gordon was similar in that its captions were not integrated well into the visuals.
SUTTON: Yes. Precisely. Exactly.
GROTH: Now you could actually tell the difference between Austin Brigg’s Flash Gordon and Raymond’s?
SUTTON: Yes. Yes. There was a fellow who came later on… I’m trying to think of his name. Mac Raboy, I think it was.
GROTH: Did he draw Flash Gordon?
SUTTON: I think so, yeah. And of course his style was incredibly different. I enjoyed that enormously. People would come into my room and say, “Aren’t you ever going to get rid of those?” And I’d say, “No. Go away. Mine.” Every time the postman would deliver another one of those plain brown envelopes mom won’t know about. That got inspected.
GROTH: You were 6, 7, 8 years old when you were reading these. And you said you instinctively knew that they weren’t quite comics, that they were more like illustrated fiction or something. How did you instinctively know that? Did you read comic books as well and you were comparing the two?
SUTTON: Oh sure. Sure. I was a great fan of Joe Maneely. Do you remember Joe?
GROTH: Sure. Sure.
SUTTON: I don’t know why. I mean, the guy was not the greatest draftsman in the world. It just appealed to me tremendously. I just read those things.
GROTH: He had a very appealing, earthy style.
SUTTON: Also he was the fastest guy in comics, I understand. Until he fell under the train. [Shudders.] Ewww! I remember standing at the very same place in Grand Central. “Hi Joe!” It is scary, though, when that huge thing comes in. There’s almost no clearance.
GROTH: You wouldn’t have a chance.
So tell me, you were reading newspaper strips and comic books at the same time. What comic books were you reading in the ’40s?
SUTTON: No. At first they kept a very tight rein on my allowance, they called it in those days.
GROTH: We call it that now.
SUTTON: Do we?
SUTTON: I hope you have better luck with it. We would trade. I think that’s a lost art. You’d go down… There’d be a place by the oak tree where the boys and girls would go and trade their comics, right? And of course nobody traded with girls because they only had Little Lulu or something. Go away! You’re a girl!
GROTH: Have you since come to appreciate Little Lulu, though?
GROTH: No! [Laughs.]
SUTTON: [Disgusted.] No. We would trade, and these things’d be in people’s back pockets for at least a month. You’d drag them out and you’d get some pretty good stuff. If you went with pretty good stuff you’d come back with someone else’s pretty good stuff. That’s the way it went on. Then there came the time when you actually could go and you’d buy… You went to the news stores. And the news stores, Gary… You’re younger than I am. The news stores I went to, there were comics from the floor to the ceiling. Like there were 30 publishers or something.
GROTH: Sure. More than that.
SUTTON: And some of these distributors just dumped them all on these stores. They’d be there and there’d be the ones you’d really want. You wanted the Phantom Lady! Ha! The headlight comics. People would actually start climbing over the other books, ruining them. It was a dumb way of doing things. Of course you couldn’t have them all because you didn’t have the money. What you would do, and I don’t know how we got away with it but I never got caught, you’d stick them down your belt and you’d put your sweater over it! You had to have balls of taffy or something. Marched right up, paid for the three. That’s what one of the older guys told me. He was six months older than me. If you pay for a few they won’t notice.
GROTH: You know, this is what made comics unprofitable for stores, Tom.
SUTTON: I’ll bet. But I mean, you’re asking for it! On top of this, there were spinner racks. They didn’t have room, there were so many of them. And some of them were really tragic. I mean, they were real shit! Drek.
GROTH: But comics were very much a part of kid culture.
SUTTON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I made a discovery just toward the end of that. These things come in cycles and you go on to something else. Just toward the end of the trading and shit, the girls started buying non-girl comic books. Or at least they had possession of same. What is happening here? Are they carrying guns?
GROTH: I’m not sure the point you’re making here. At some point the girls started buying non-girl…
SUTTON: All of their comic books were Little Lulu or Brides Get the Hots, right? And then they started coming up with things that were sort of Tarzan adventures.
GROTH: Why would girls start buying this stuff?
SUTTON: I have no fucking idea. Maybe it was their brothers, and they didn’t have anything to trade so they grabbed some of their brothers. They wouldn’t do that, would they?
GROTH: Did your friends in school read comics as well?
SUTTON: Uh-huh. You bet. You bet. It was always the thing of reading a comic behind your geography book. They knew that you were doing something bad because you were smiling.
GROTH: You were happy. Reading comics was not a kind of nerdish activity that you had to hide from your classmates and friends?
SUTTON: No. Not as I recall. No.
GROTH: I wonder when it became that.
SUTTON: It did?
GROTH: You didn’t know that?
SUTTON: I think that maybe a 50-year-old guy whose whole world revolves around the Atomic Twins has a problem. But not the kids. I can remember my father sitting around looking at one of my Boy’s Ranch things and saying, “That’s good.” There was no higher praise. I thought he was going to take it away. Maybe what he was really saying was, “The guy drew the gun right.”
GROTH: Your parents didn’t object to you reading comics, though?
SUTTON: No, but they checked out everything.
GROTH: Did they confiscate any?
GROTH: The good ones?
SUTTON: Momma doesn’t like Phantom Lady.
GROTH: They actually confiscated comics that they thought were too lurid?
SUTTON: I don’t remember that happening. It’s probably because I kept them very secret. I don’t remember where my secret hiding place was. I had a secret hiding place. I had the really, really, naughty ones there. Ones straight from the belt.
GROTH: So tell me again which comics you were buying as a kid and which ones you liked. Did you buy Captain Marvel?
SUTTON: No, I could never stand that. I still can’t. What I had were the EC’s, which were absolutely pristine. If I could have found Mylar bags, which thank God didn’t exist at the time — I would have put them in there. What really happened with ECs was that no matter how much I loved them, you carry them around in your back pocket and they get all tattered. Later on I used to buy them from some folks, husband-and-wife dealers in the South. I would buy them without covers. Sometimes Gaines would take four of them and staple them together. Were you aware of that?
SUTTON: Yeah. They had a little damage to them, but they were selling them very cheaply. That went very quickly. EC was first. That was it! Anything that EC made, I don’t care what it was. I wasn’t around when they made Moon Girl and those very first things that they did. You know, those very awkwardly drawn Johnny Craig things. Was it true that at one time Craig was their only artist?
GROTH: I can’t say that I’ve heard that.
SUTTON: I somehow got that impression.
GROTH: So you started buying them when they reformatted and started putting out the horror stuff?
GROTH: Now that would have been — I have to check this — about ’48? Which would have made you around 11?
SUTTON: I guess.
GROTH: So you’re reading EC’s from about 11 to 15 or 16. And you were clearly aware that EC was of a higher quality than the surrounding stuff?
SUTTON: Yeah. It’s hard to say why, but somehow they were in another league. And yet, I came to realize, when I was a kid, that these same men had worked for other companies. There was something there that was magic. What was not magic was they had this terrible business about doing these little captions, redundant little captions.
GROTH: These big captions you mean.
SUTTON: Big captions, right. With Leroy lettering sets. They would do, “And the pirate ship floats out of the bay and into the sun.” Below it would be a picture of a pirate ship floating out of the bay into the sun. Hey guys! That didn’t matter earlier on.
GROTH: You enjoyed all of the genres at EC — horror, science fiction, war?
SUTTON: Yep. I loved it all! Because it all to me was as good as it gets. It don’t get no better than that.
FROM FAN TO ARTIST-IN-TRAINING
GROTH: Were you attentive to all of the different art styles and the different artists?
SUTTON: Oh Gary, was I ever! I copied everybody. When I was 11 my father bought me a great Weber drafting table with an oak bottom and it tilted back and forth. And it’s sitting right across the room from me right now.
GROTH: You still have that? Jesus!
SUTTON: That thing is built like… and it has moved with me 100 times.
GROTH: You still work on it?
SUTTON: I do every day! Mainly right now it’s my watercolor table. I have another one, which has a built-in lightbox on it so I do a lot of your things on it.
So I was there with all of my piles of comic books, and I was 12 years old and I was drawing this stuff on my brand new drafting table. I drew space ships and stuff. Mostly I liked the space ships. I drew them on oak tag — you know, the same stuff they make file folders out of?
GROTH: Yeah? Why did you do that?
SUTTON: Because that’s all they had. You use what they got. You don’t go down and say, I’d like to have a number two Bainbridge board please!
SUTTON: Sure you would. You put these all in a bag, you fill out the form and you send them to the Boston Globe!
GROTH: What do you put in the bag? Just a bunch of cartoons?
SUTTON: No. Two or three pages of art. Comic-book art.
GROTH: Comic-book art. Right.
SUTTON: Sequential art.
GROTH: So you sent it to the Globe?
SUTTON: Yep. It was having an art contest.
GROTH: Oh, I see. OK.
SUTTON: This is my art. I can’t build birdhouses. And I won. I won. I got a big bowling trophy. And I got — what the hell did I get. I got… Not the famous artist thing. The school in Minnesota… they’re on TV now. Art School Incorporated or something?
GROTH: Boy, I don’t know.
SUTTON: That’s all right. Fine. They’ve been around for 100 years, Gary. Yeah. My instructor, the guy who would put the tissue over it and correct the art was Charles Schulz.
GROTH: You’re kidding!
SUTTON: No. That’s what Charlie was doing while he was trying to get Peanuts.
GROTH: Of course. Right. Right. So this would have been in the late ’40s? Was he doing that when he was starting Peanuts? I’d have to check.
SUTTON: With me, it had to be. I was in high school. It was.
GROTH: Well, you weren’t in high school before ’51. Peanuts started in ’50. So there might have been an overlap when he was doing that and Peanuts.
SUTTON: Maybe I did that when I was in grammar school.
GROTH: You might have. I’d have to research that to see when he was at that school. So you submitted this material. I’m sorry, you signed up for the course?
SUTTON: Yeah. Somebody gives you an art course, you take it!
GROTH: Yeah. Damn right!
SUTTON: It was OK. I got bored. I think my father got upset with me because I didn’t finish it. Later on, the best course I ever had, and I understand the course books for this thing are worth a considerable amount of money now. I was art director in Boston…
SUTTON: Don’t get impressed. [Groth laughs.] Anyway, I put together some stuff and the art director’s club gave me the Famous Artists course. Now that was real, Gary. That was real. Wow! Boy, you flipped though one of those big binders and you come away feeling like, maybe plumbing! That was very good. I don’t know what happened to that. I think it was one of those things where some young person came in and said, I don’t know how to do it. I can’t do it. I’m no good. And you just pile them up in his arms and say, Take these and go. Like, I don’t need these anymore. But that wasn’t true.
GROTH: Huh. So you took the Famous Artists course.
GROTH: Approximately how old were you?
SUTTON: Oh, that was… That was after the service, after the museum school, after…
GROTH: OK. In your 20s. How old were you when you went to Minnesota, the Minnesota thing that Charles Schulz worked at?
SUTTON: You didn’t go there. It was a correspondence course.
GROTH: Oh, you didn’t actually see him.
SUTTON: No. No. No. No.
GROTH: Were his observations valuable, do you think?
SUTTON: Shit. I don’t even remember. I remember him. That was the idea. Maybe it was another Charles Schulz.
GROTH: Probably not.
SUTTON: I think it was him, because I think I remember reading where he said that he was doing something like that while he was getting Peanuts around from one place to another.
GROTH: Yes, he did. He worked there for a while.
SUTTON: I was never… That’s another thing. I was looking at it, and there was one part of my head that could admire it, and another part that said, So what! It wasn’t my thing. I’m going to go back to being a little person and studying the newspapers, studying the piles of raggedy-tag comic books. That was love. I know what that was. That was love. Nobody on God’s earth could tell me that this was junk, this was crap, this was anything because I had already formed this bond. This is what I wanted to do. And logic was not going to work. Have you run into that before?
GROTH: Not put quite that way.
SUTTON: No. It was. It was love.
GROTH: As opposed to infatuation?
SUTTON: Oh! Yeah, because infatuation, as I understand it, phases out and leaves you without much.
GROTH: Yes. Has that love diminished over the years?
SUTTON: No. What has happened over the years, Gary, is a very personal appreciation. A very personal, very narrow appreciation.
GROTH: From the ages of about six to 12 you were reading a lot of comics, you were starting to read a lot of EC comics; were you pretty obsessive about drawing at this point?
SUTTON: Yes. Yeah. I was drawing. I got thrown out of every class I was in. I remember trying to do a drawing of one of Woody’s stock shots of the guy with the half shadow running down his face. On half of that he’s got a Plexiglass space helmet you can see through. I was trying to draw that and I couldn’t. Christ! I spent a week trying to do that. And I… We had one of these art teachers that they have. I brought it to her and I said, “What am I doing wrong here?” This I tell everybody, because I will never forget it. Up to that point she had been a really good help to me and had been a nice person. She just took the drawing and the comic book and tossed it in the trash. “That’s junk!” Oh, Gary. I might have to climb a Texas tower with my rifle. I was so hurt and so pissed. “You bitch!” You know what I’m saying?
GROTH: What grade would that have been in?
SUTTON: You entered when you’re 5 and go for eight years. I was 14?
GROTH: I see. So you were old enough to be pissed.
SUTTON: Oh yeah.
GROTH: And this was a woman who had otherwise been encouraging?
SUTTON: Yes. I did the covers for the schoolbooks and they had you going around doing these chalkboard things on the fucking chalkboard at Christmas time. All this kind of crap. We had a radio station, “It’s fun to be an artist! Even if you do go broke!” She was on that. There were more fucking people using you for one reason or another. And I didn’t get it! I realized later on it didn’t have to do with art, really. Up until that point she just hadn’t got it, that’s all. So we didn’t show her anything any more. Ever.
GROTH: Did that actually fuel your obsession with pursuing comics?
SUTTON: Yes. Oh yes. But I’m afraid in a rather negative way.
GROTH: How so?
SUTTON: I became like a kamikaze. I was out there drawing twats. There’s a political term for that. I don’t know what it is. Reactionary, or something like that.
GROTH: You’re talking about as a kid?
SUTTON: I’m talking about as a kid. That’s right. But then I had been doing that schoolyard stuff for a long time before. And I’d also been expelled for it.
GROTH: When you say you were drawing twats, you were drawing women?
SUTTON: Yes. Crudely.
GROTH: Crudely? Was that inspired by an obsession with girls?
SUTTON: That’s good, because it brings up something else I’m thinking about. I think that at that very, very early age, if you go through enough fuck books and whatnot, and I agree with you at that time they weren’t anywhere near as strong as they are today, but you build a kind of vision, a mental encyclopedia of material. I think the very best artists who draw anything build a mental encyclopedia, a visual encyclopedia. This is why they don’t have to go every fucking time to a reference, right?
SUTTON: There. Some of us have it stronger than others, and I think perhaps when we’re younger we have it stronger than we ever will. Whatever it is, that’s where it comes from, from studiously studying. Images mean much more to some people than prose, text. That’s why I think we’re in different tribes. We can’t spell but we can draw a pelvis. I think that the guys who probably do some of these things for mainstream comics, the muscle boys and whatnot, I think they have to have this kind of thing. They can’t go to a fucking cheat sheet every time they want to draw a ballbuster going left. [Laughs.] I hate these things. Oh, Gary, I hate these things.
GROTH: But they don’t have to have a large repertoire, because they draw basically the same thing over and over again.
SUTTON: Yeah. I suppose so. Do you recall Humorama?
SUTTON: Humorama was a group of magazines, usually the small digest-size magazines like Whisper, and Peek, and Peep and Pee or something which were all turned out by one Martin Goodman, who, incidentally, owned Marvel Comics at that time.
GROTH: Now this wouldn’t have been in the ’60s, it would have started in the ’50s, right?
SUTTON: I thought it was interesting because I used to continually have problems with Marvel. I think they had one person who had Wite-Out. Their task was to Wite-Out Tom’s jugs.
GROTH: Tom’s what?
SUTTON: Well, not my personal jugs. The jugs that I put on my girls. Because no matter what jug I put on them, it was too big.
GROTH: I see.
GROTH: Now, what books would these have been?
SUTTON: My leaving may have thrown that person out of work. I don’t know!
GROTH: Right. Reduce the stock of Wite-Out.
SUTTON: It was any book that they happened to appear in. I remember getting books by… What was that ape man that they had, that Conan creature? I would get some pencils by Gil Kane and Conan the warrior would be in the foreground and he had one attendant. Gil would mark in a whole kind of squiggly thing where there were hundreds of people following him. [Laughs.] And a caravan, and — right! I’d get paid extra for it but it was never worth it. And those girls would of course be much too voluptuous for them. It happened again and again and again. It even happened in Captain America books. Roy Thomas I think called me one time and said, “Tom, how can the Captain get anywhere near her?”
GROTH: Why didn’t they just instruct you to uniformly reduce the breast size instead of fixing the art after it was done?
SUTTON: They did.
GROTH: They did. OK.
SUTTON: Didn’t help at all.
SUTTON: I think that I didn’t realize this at first. I think that what that really meant was I don’t care. I have to get something out of this.
GROTH: Yeah. Right.
SUTTON: No, it wasn’t a good idea. I wouldn’t advise anybody to go that way. Do it their way. They’re the people who are paying you, etc. But that was my attitude. It was one of those things that as time went on got worse and worse and worse.
GROTH: Is that because they were allowing you to do less and less of what you wanted to do?
SUTTON: Uh-huh. I was supposed to have the Dr. Strange book. Gene Colan was ill or was just sick and tired of it. And I was supposed to have this thing, and Dr. Strange was the only thing that they had that I was really interested in. Because I love Lovecraft and Arthur Machen and these other people, blah, blah, blah.
GROTH: I assume you liked the Ditko Dr. Strange?
SUTTON: Sort of.
GROTH: Not passionately, though.
SUTTON: I had my own idea of how I wanted this to be. They wanted two guys duking it out. I had to tell you that, right? There was one that one guy did. I kept it for a while and then I threw it away in a fit of pique. It was a full page, an entire page that had two figures in it. They weren’t human! Their bodies were so enormous! You remember how Woody did “Superduper Man and Captain Cheese” or whatever?
GROTH: Of course.
SUTTON: It was like that! And these two things were chest to chest and they were yelling at each other. Gigantic speech balloons, and they were yelling at each other. It was like two kids on the playground. “You gonna hit me? Hit me first!” That was the gist of it. It went on and on. I said, What the hell? You’re gonna blow a whole page for this? So there you are, and you’re in your place and you try to take care of your kid and the wife and the mortgage and this!