FROM FRANCHISE TO FRANCHISE
GROTH: I know you did Star Trek from ’84 to ’88, but did you do it prior to that?
SUTTON: No. Marvel actually put out some Star Trek books. They had a contract — they must have screwed up in some way or another with the heavies — and then it belonged to DC practically. Doesn’t everything?
GROTH: Everything will eventually. We’ll all be working for DC before it’s over. Before Star Trek, there was, of course, Logan’s Run in ’77. You did Godzilla in ’77.
SUTTON: You’re telling me all of these things and I’d forgotten all about them. Godzilla…
GROTH: You did — God help you — you did an Alice Cooper comic in ’79.
SUTTON: I did. I remember calling and saying, “Who is she?”
GROTH: Were you out of it or what?
SUTTON: I listen to Mozart. I don’t know. I guess Alice Cooper was a musician. Some kind of giant snake or some damn thing.
GROTH: So why the hell didn’t you do a Mozart comic?
SUTTON: Nobody asked me to.
GROTH: It sounds like these were all from Marvel. You did Alice Cooper, you did Logan’s Run, you did Godzilla. You did Man-Thing.
SUTTON: Yeah. I did. That was in black and white, wasn’t it? The first one.
GROTH: You did Warlock. You did Mummy.
SUTTON: Do you know the editor on the original Man-Thing?
SUTTON: Because we did a 10-issue… They have all kinds of formats, these people. Drive me crazy: 12 pages of this, 10 pages of that.
GROTH: These were in the black-and-white magazines?
SUTTON: Yeah. The 10-issue thing was.
GROTH: Well, you did the Heap as well, for Skywald.
SUTTON: Did I?
GROTH: In fact, let me see, you did Man-Thing for Marvel, you did the Heap for Skywald and you did something for Seaboard called the Bog Beast, which sounds Heap- and Man Thing-like.
SUTTON: Ain’t I versatile?
GROTH: I was going to say, you’re really into these muck monsters.
SUTTON: There was so much you could do with these guys. I remember there was a double-page thing in the Marvel thing, where it’s swimming under water and there are fish swimming through it. Shit like that. It was much more than “catch the bad guys robbing the bank.” Which sort of does bring us up to some big honcho, I don’t know if it was Mr. Levitz or who called me, and said, “Tom, chance of a lifetime. How would you like to draw Star Trek?” Like he hadn’t approached anybody else first, right? I’m not saying that it is Paul [Levitz], I’m just saying that it might have been Paul. It could have been anybody down there. And of course I said, “Yes!”
GROTH: You’re talking about the early ’80s now?
GROTH: I think your Star Trek started in ’84. So you took on the Star Trek assignment. Did you take this on with enthusiasm?
GROTH: Because you like Star Trek?
SUTTON: Not necessarily, because I like science fiction.
GROTH: And this gave you an opportunity to draw the science-fiction trappings.
SUTTON: Uh-huh. And I thought, Well, they’re limited, especially in the television series, on what they can have, how much leverage. It seems to me it was about the time the first film was coming out.
GROTH: That sounds about right.
SUTTON: I thought to myself: why are they doing this? It seems at the time, it seems now that what they were doing was Paramount was willing to do it because it would help get them into the theatres. Paramount turned out to be hell on earth.
GROTH: Tell me how.
SUTTON: What is behind Captain Kirk’s giant barber chair? Huh? You never see back there. I wanted to know what was back there because it was the only way that you could draw the big screen with the other characters in front. From that perspective, behind there, and you didn’t know what was behind there. There were other things that were impossible. No, I did not ink this thing. This was inked by a fellow who I was told inked in bed watching television. The enthusiasm of this man was evident. He was a pro. Oh, he was very slick. He was very, very good. It was exactly what the book didn’t need. What the book needed was Moebius. Hear what I’m saying?
GROTH: I do. Who was the inker?
SUTTON: I do not recall.
GROTH: That sounded vaguely Nixonian, you know.
SUTTON: Which point?
GROTH: “I do not recall.”
SUTTON: I don’t know. I really don’t know. If I had any I could probably easily find out. But they loved him. He was not only doing Star Trek. He was a speed-inking machine. He did two other books a month for them.
GROTH: Star Trek was actually the longest, most consistent thing you ever did. It lasted at least five years — ’84 through ’88.
SUTTON: It lasted hundreds of years.
GROTH: And you did some Star Trek stuff after that as well.
SUTTON: This will sound really dumb, but even after all of that crap I had gone through I went into this thing and I said, This is going to be fun. This is going to be creative work. I worked like hell on the thing. I penciled backgrounds you wouldn’t believe, with all the scopes and all of those things. I thought I was Wally Wood. I forgot that Wally inked his stuff himself. I had to leave it up to Ying Yang watching TV or something. They actually took your backgrounds out and erased them. I never realized it until I saw the fucking comic book and I said, I drew something there. A large something. A complex something.
GROTH: And this would have been for sheer expediency’s sake?
SUTTON: I suppose so. Because he knew he could get away with it. He knew something that I didn’t realize until later, that that book had a special job. And that job was to promote movies. It wasn’t like anybody’d read it. It wasn’t like the fellow on the phone originally put it to me. It wasn’t the chance of a lifetime.
GROTH: Do you remember who wrote the book?
SUTTON: All kinds of people. Bob Greenberger. I don’t know what I would have done without Bob. Bob was enormously helpful.
GROTH: In what way? Why did you need help?
SUTTON: I had so little. You can imagine the number of swipes that were required for that. Especially when the movie came out. What do I do with this? Bob would go to the coast, and Paramount would give him a batch of shit and say, “Get out of here.”
GROTH: So Bob got a free trip to the coast every once in a while.
SUTTON: Yeah. And I would get this stuff in the mail. I don’t think anybody ever looked at it. This really, really pissed me off. I got a whole batch of Xeroxes of Ektachrome transparencies. Do you know what happens to a high-intensity Ektachrome transparency when you Xerox it?
GROTH: I have no idea.
SUTTON: You get black.
SUTTON: So you have these black silhouettes and you have stark white backgrounds. There was no detail at all. Nobody’d ever looked at these things. I could only draw the Enterprise because the young fellow who had lived next to us when we lived in Connecticut — his dad and I were good friends — he built the biggest plastic Enterprise that there was: the one where the lights blinked on. I’m sure his father paid for the thing and they gave it to me. I took it out on the sundeck and I photographed it with my Nikon from every conceivable angle, and that’s the only way I could ever draw the damn spaceship. This is all little dinky stuff, I know, but it adds up to a really lousy attitude.
GROTH: It sounds like drawing that book was enormously frustrating, but simultaneously it allowed you to draw a lot of stuff you wanted to draw or you enjoyed drawing.
SUTTON: Yeah. I guess. The other one was you did get 8”x10” photos of all of the stars so that you could trace them off onto every panel.
GROTH: That must have been a joy.
SUTTON: Hey. You draw your book, and you leave blanks for all of these people. I never made more money. I got to the point one time when I was totally exhausted. I was not feeling well. I don’t know what I had. I know I was becoming an alcoholic.
GROTH: During this period?
GROTH: Was that work-related?
SUTTON: That was it.
GROTH: And based on what? Your frustration and your lack of fulfillment?
SUTTON: Sure. That and the fact that the bar was about a block down.
GROTH: That’s helpful.
SUTTON: Yeah. Got to get this done before happy hour.
GROTH: So you would stumble out of the Montessori school and get a few drinks.
SUTTON: Yeah. Oh, it was another way out. She didn’t have to know. She knew where I was going.
GROTH: You went out the servant’s entrance.
SUTTON: Yeah. That got to be pretty bad.
GROTH: You were not happy with your professional career at this point.
SUTTON: No. And just in the middle of this, we went to New York again. There was a big convention thing. DC had made their Star Trek affiliation so blatant. I had changed… I think it was the second film, where Kirstie Alley played the Vulcan Officer Saavik. She was a relative of Spock’s or something. She has this tremendous scene. I love Kirstie. I think she’s great. In the next film, they kept the same character, whatever her name was, and they got this little squeaky girl. Kirstie was, as you see her today, she was not a short woman.
GROTH: She’s got some heft to her.
SUTTON: But she’s great. I guess. Anyway, this little gal, she just wasn’t my thing, and I wouldn’t draw her. I kept drawing Kirstie. And Kirstie was off the Paramount lot. She was off making Cheers or something. Anyway, I was at this convention with my wife, wandering around. Well, there was this little short girl. She was a fan. I think female fans are potentially more dangerous than the others are. She charged right up to me and grabbed my jacket. You blah blah blah. You’ve done something terrible to Saavik! That’s Robin! You have to draw her as Robin. I said, Robin works for Batman. Go away. Oh, she was fucking severe. She was going to kill me.
GROTH: Really upset about this.
SUTTON: I had never gotten into anything like this. I told the wife, I think it’s time to go home. Because the guys that I enjoyed were not there. It was like it was all over.
GROTH: This was a Star Trek convention?
GROTH: It would be hard to enjoy yourself there.
SUTTON: It was also the comics convention.
GROTH: I see.
SUTTON: There were like a hundred tables piled with new and used comics. How anybody could get so upset about the likenesses portrayed in… And God knows these likenesses were not overworked, too. They were simplicity in themselves. Have you seen those television commercials [William Shatner]’s been doing?
GROTH: I can’t say that I have.
SUTTON: I’m not sure what they’re all about but he’s trying to sing. He’s immense. I pity the horse he has to ride. He has a horse farm. I pity the horse he has to ride. But that was sort of the last straw. I had put so much on this.
GROTH: What was the last straw?
SUTTON: Star Trek.
GROTH: Star Trek. OK. You said you started drinking during this period, and it sounds like a demoralized period. Because you weren’t doing what you wanted? You weren’t enjoying what you were doing?
SUTTON: Oh, there was that. And there were personal reasons. Domestic reasons. You can find a reason. Any drunk can find a reason why he’s doing it.
ON TO FIRST AND SQUALOR
GROTH: Tom, at this point you started working for First.
SUTTON: Yeah. I forgot all about them. They were really nice to me.
GROTH: In 1984, you started working for First. You did a book called Mars, and you worked on a book called Star Slayer.
SUTTON: I don’t remember.
GROTH: And in ’86 you penciled a book called Grimjack.
SUTTON: Yes. And that came about in a rather nifty way. One of my favorite young people at that time, who was working — I say young because he was much younger than me.: Timothy Truman. He had, together with the writer, created this character, and they’d worked a deal with First as I understand it. Tim wanted to go and do something else. I don’t know. I got this phone call. Do you wanna do Grimjack? What’s Grimjack? I don’t even recall the name of the writer who called me. It wasn’t First. It wasn’t the company themselves.
GROTH: Was it John Ostrander?
SUTTON: Yes. I liked John Ostrander very much. We got along famously. Let’s really rip the top off. OK, John. In defense, what he was saying was this terrible hooligan who ran around with all the guns and whatnot was a parody. I could dig that. Let’s give him more guns.
GROTH: Bigger guns.
SUTTON: Yes. And he had a pal. A big black guy who was his pal.
GROTH: Did you know Tim Truman before this?
SUTTON: No. I’ve never met the man. I understand he’s also very much into music.
GROTH: So Ostrander and Truman created the character, and Truman drew it for a while.
GROTH: And then apparently didn’t want to draw it.
GROTH: And asked you to continue it.
SUTTON: Tim didn’t. It was Ostrander who called me. As I recall, anyway.
GROTH: You accepted that.
SUTTON: It’s like how many times can you trip over your shoelaces? I penciled about four of these books before I saw the first one. Nobody wanted to tell me who was going to ink it. I told them starting out, I’m doing another book. I do not have time to ink this thing but I’d like to draw it. Oh, that’s great. We have a dynamite inker. It was inked… It would be hurtful to get into names here, but it was inked by someone who had been hanging around the office for quite a while.
GROTH: Let me skip back for a second and ask you how you got involved with First to begin with. I’m not sure if the first thing you did was for Mars or Star Slayer, but it was for ’84, I think. And First Comics was positioning itself as a competitor to Marvel and DC: one of the earliest to actually go head to head with Marvel and DC as a mainstream comics publisher.
SUTTON: That was not lost on me. I liked that very much. I also liked the idea that you got paid pretty well, if you were persistent enough.
GROTH: Did they pay you any better than Marvel or DC?
SUTTON: No. As you say, this Mars book, I’m sorry I don’t even remember what that was all about. And there was another one you said I did.
GROTH: Star Slayer?
SUTTON: Don’t remember that one? What did Star Slayer… Was it done by other people before I got a hold of it?
GROTH: I suspect it was. Yes.
SUTTON: Star Slayer. Good God! Oh well.
GROTH: In ’89 and ’90 you did a book called Squalor.
SUTTON: Yeah. That was interesting to me.
GROTH: Which easily looks like the most interesting thing you did in that period. It
looks like you actually had fun drawing it.
SUTTON: That thing was written by a fellow who had a very high-tech background. So high-tech I was on the phone almost every night. What the hell is this? Well, Tom, that’s a djlkalkasjdfljsadfl. Fine. I’m afraid he’s back to writing programs.
GROTH: This was a pretty slick package. It was printed on very nice paper. Full color. And it looked like you put an awful lot of work into it. It looked like a four-issue series.
SUTTON: Yes. It was four. How nice of you to remember, because it makes me feel good.
GROTH: Was this indeed something that you enjoyed doing more than most?
SUTTON: Oh, yes. Definitely. Because there were undercurrents, and there was a subtext there. I don’t know if anybody ever got it. The bad guy wasn’t entirely bad. He was a product of our times. He goes around with a needle shoved in his arm, right? He’s the doper. Whether you like it or not, we’ve got them all over the place. The other guy… Here’s your hero. He works in a library. Loved that! He’s got his little girlfriend there who works in the library, too, coincidentally. And a lot of sheer nonsense from outer space. Clowns who fly by. I love shit like that. It has nothing to do with it. It does not move the plot forward. Most of these books are like soap operas on television. Perhaps you’ve noticed that, Gary. There’s nothing in the script that isn’t designed only and solely to move the damn thing forward. Nice to get away from that.
GROTH: It sounds like, at this point, you were kind of desperate to do anything that you could involve yourself in as opposed to just work on as labor.
SUTTON: I was. It’s my own fault. On the few occasions I’ve had to talk to the real old timers, they don’t seem to understand what the hell I’m talking about. You had work!
GROTH: Most of the old timers were essentially craftsmen who did what they were told and didn’t much care one way or the other what they did do as long as they could sit down and do it.
SUTTON: It’s possible, very possible, that the worst thing I ever did was to go to a legitimate art school.
GROTH: It also sounds a little like you fell between the generational gap between the older generation in mainstream comics, who, as we just said, were first and foremost craftsmen, and the newer generation of underground and alternative comics who could apply their craft to a vision.
SUTTON: Oh, God. I envied those kind of people. Oh, Lord. I did. There was a time when I wouldn’t have looked at anything they did because it wasn’t anatomically correct. Not that I have any great background in anatomy. Also, it was political. Politics just bored me, unless I was the one going to jail. Now look where I am.
I remember something, if you want to use this. I remember my wife and I going, about the time that this Star Trek garbage was going on. We went over to visit this couple: that kind of thing — blah, blah, blah. They had two sons. They immediately presented all of their comic books. “We have more upstairs.” I bet you did. You have to go up there. You are a captive audience, right? They had stuff, which I suspect today is worth a fortune. They had superhero stuff and whatnot that went back to the 1940s. I surprised myself. I got into the thing and I was sitting there on the floor with them so we could be eye-to-eye. You know that number? Of course you do. You have to get down there, in the grit. I was looking at these things and I was thinking, “Is it possible that these fucking things haven’t changed since 1940? They may be a little better drawn, but significantly I don’t believe they’ve changed.”
GROTH: Let me ask you a few questions about First. They positioned themselves as an alternative to Marvel and DC. Did they grant you greater rights than Marvel or DC? Or was all the work you did on a work-for-hire basis?
SUTTON: Gee whiz. That’s a good question. Creator rights. There was, yeah. There was a contractual agreement, because I remember I had to sign it and I had to send it on to the writer, and he had to sign it as the writer. What that really amounted to I have no idea. I don’t remember. And I remember we got the artwork back.
GROTH: In ’84 or so, Marvel and DC were probably starting to return artwork, so that wasn’t that revolutionary at that point. What about ownership? What did your contract actually say? What rights did it give you?
SUTTON: I don’t know.
GROTH: So it wasn’t necessarily better than Marvel’s or DC’s.
SUTTON: Probably not. Just the atmosphere seemed to be a little more… But you get in deep enough and you realize that the atmosphere really isn’t all that peachy.
GROTH: And not that dissimilar to Marvel and DC’s.
SUTTON: Maybe not. Maybe not. I actually did feel bad when First came to an end. They did do something that I never heard from the other guys.
GROTH: What was that?
SUTTON: That was… “This is it! We don’t have any more money.”
GROTH: You mean, he was actually honest.
SUTTON: Yep. Then I learned that they had started up six months later as the ABC company or something. I spend my life doing this. I would like to keep this in the interview, though. It’s possible to get so bummed out by something like that Star Trek thing that you can get into emotional difficulties, which in my case led, thank God, just to drinking and not to something else.
GROTH: You mean like serial murder or something?
SUTTON: I mean like some nasty substance abuse. Which can leave you dead. But what I’m getting at is you can be drunk as a fucking skunk and there’s a little voice that goes off in your head that says, “Would you like to draw pictures, or would you like to be drunk face down in the gutter? Choose one.” Those are the only two chances you’ve got. I had my own little miracle. I thank God for it to this day. I’m not making a big thing out of it. The only reason I even talk about it is the fact that I think there are other people out there who need to know this.
GROTH: What miracle are you talking about?
SUTTON: That you can save yourself. You go to AA, and eh. I couldn’t stick with AA. Other people, that’s a great place for them.