“Wood Told Me If You Can’t Do It Good, Do A Lot Of It”: A Conversation With Ken Landgraf

I first developed a professional connection to Ken Landgraf three years ago when he began contributing inks to the superhero side project I run, All Time Comics. He’s inked my pencils and I’ve worked as an editor for him during his team-ups with Ben Marra, Jason T. Miles and Josh Simmons. I have grown to understand his work much better by collaborating with him on art. Interviewing him has brought his work and motivations into sharper focus. 

To me, Landgraf is a lot like Raymond Pettibon with his iconoclasm, love of ink, fascination with folds and deep shadows and his lifelong devotion to the history and traditions of illustration. Like Pettibon, though he is concerned with creating volume and illusions of depth and reality, he often stretches and distorts scale in favor of an internal logic. Figures with average proportions coexist alongside giants, and sometimes midground forms cross in front of foreground forms. These sorts of punk/outsider gestures come from a place of truth and authenticity, from intuition rather than just formal experimentation.

 I am fascinated with the role mentors played in Ken’s life. He reached out to Steve Ditko in 1964, and Ditko wrote back:“If a hand you draw is bad, then redraw that hand and [re]position over-studying each hand til you eliminate the errors.”

In the three Landgraf pieces I own, I notice the hands have all been reworked on tracing paper, probably photocopied, then glued back in. Ditko’s early mandate is still in effect. Ken believes in passing knowledge between generations, and I like to think the spirit of that early dialogue with a mentor is alive here.

 I see Ken as a conduit between the past and the present, the high and low ends of art, as crude as those terms are. To quote my friend Jason T. Miles, I hope the conversation that follows will be a “new revelation about his [Landgraf’s] work as well as expanding how we look at and consider all types of comics.”

An All Time Comics collaboration between Josh Bayer & Ken Landgraf

My biggest question maybe is about the illusions of depth you create. You have such an ability to create dimension, using a classic Wally Wood like system, though I think it'd be fair so say you draw from different approaches. You’re a hybrid, like Rich Buckler was at his peak, creating something that is very specifically pulpy, and moody, mixing classic Bronze Age techniques together with poster design, and elements from classic American newspaper adventure comics.

A lot of my training came from studying every drawing book I could find - Bridgman and especially Burne Hogarth. I create dimension in my drawings from studying Wally Wood, Burne Hogarth's Tarzan, Wrightson and Rich Corben.

I also love Montes and Bache when they drew Gorgo and Reptisaurus for Charlton comics. I spent a lot of time studying Gil Kane for anatomy and perspective. Wood, Kane and Hogarth are my favorites. I assisted Howard Nostrand, Gil Kane and Rich Buckler. Buckler could be very experimental in the Black Panther series. I learnt a lot from him, he let me work on pages of comic books he was drawing, like a Batman story. I got to do a lot of backgrounds and smaller figures. Same with the Tommy Tomorrow story he did. I drew most of the dinosaurs in that book.

With Howard Nostrand I got to pencil several pages in Target: aka Man -Stalker, which he inked. It was a thrill to see my work in an Atlas Seaboard comic.

It wasn’t until I started talking to you for this interview that I discovered Nostrand was a legendary 1950’s horror artist. If you google him this insane Tomb of Terror cover comes up. With the exploding face zombie guy. Looks like Caniff drawing an irradiated zombie.  I can see the traditions of these artists live on through you.

In terms of technique, I see you popping out forms with feathering, rim lights, cross-hatching, and blacks fading to gray and then back to black. It’s amazing how much depth you can achieve using only black white and gray.

Much of that came from trying to place ink lines down on the panel as lightly as I could.

One of Landgraf's collaborations with Howard Nostrand

There’s also an ability to create overlapping areas of activity that resist becoming too busy and cluttered. How much of this is instinctual and how much do you have to really plan and strategize?

I always have the figure poses worked out, so I don’t have to think about what I am going to draw in each panel. I have horror vacui, which Wally Wood seemed to have… putting in tons of detail and lots of figures. I try to overwork the pages. I love adding detail upon detail.

I had to look up that Term- Horror Vacui is also the name of my girlfriend’s comics imprint but I didn’t know the definition ‘til now.

Towards the end of his life Dan Adkins asked if he could give me some advice and I said I know what you are going to say - try to simplify the work. He then laughed saying yeah, I love to over render myself LOL. Wood told me if you can’t do it good - do a lot of it. Wood would visit inker Jack Able up at Continuity Studio’s owned by Neal Adams, so I got to speak with him whenever he showed up. He would ask me to buy him a ham sandwich - only bread and ham and said, “buy one for yourself too”. He would sit on the floor eating his lunch.

I learnt a lot about rendering from looking at Robert Crumb. His figures would look solid and heavy.

Your work in some ways has the same atmosphere as Jack Chick’s Christian comics. The similarities might not be obvious at first but you are both outsiders, both self-publishers and there’s an obsession with power, death, carnage, cosmic mystery, and human drives. (Your work has much more humor though.) Do you feel any kinship to that work?

I liked his work, but he seems to be coming from Frazetta and maybe Rich Corben. Jack Chick was the publisher the artist was actually Fred Carter. I was not influenced by Fred Carter- he was a great artist. I don’t think he ever even signed the tracts. I had used a lot of religious imagery and war, end of the world type stuff, in my Star Fighters comics that I self-published. So in that way we were similar.

Letter from Steve Ditko

I know you cite Ditko, Wood, Russ Manning and Kirby as influences, and a viewer can easily see those artists cycled through your own distinct voice. Do you have any inspirations that may surprise people? Do you study more obscure comics artists or cartoonists from distant countries?

I am mostly influenced by Gil Kane for correctly drawing using actual perspective as well as Reed Crandall. I spent a lot of time studying Gil Kane for anatomy and perspective. Wood, Kane Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, Steranko, Steve Ditko, Alberto Giolitti, Montes and Bache and Burne Hogarth are my favorites.

When I was a kid I would write to Steve Ditko and he would give me drawing advice. He wrote me back several times. I had published several fanzines when I was a kid and Ditko drew the cover… he also corrected my art that I sent him. I can show you a letter and where he inked over one of my figures and faces. This was maybe in '64…. I was a kid ...I will get my brother to email me the rest.

Joe Kubert even wrote back with advice… I guess back then, there weren’t that many would-be comic artists, so they would send advice.

I love Gustav Doré and Albert Dürer I also loved the bloody crucifixion painting of Matthias Grünewald of the Isenheim Altarpiece. I grew up Catholic and I would stare at the Stations of the Cross all the time. I also loved the lives of the saints and I use to buy little booklets that were sold at the church which always made a big deal about how they were martyred.

I read an essay years ago where a writer observed that the blood and violence of Catholic imagery was really positive for kids to see, like kids get dragged to church and they're all full of all these churning emotions and often there’s no culturally acceptable forms of release, and there’s something about seeing blood and gore art that externalizes some need for physical catharsis in childhood. Like an adult can go have sex or get drunk, but kids are just supposed to sort out that stuff for themselves. And now that in the modern age, the church art is more sanitized, so they get that same experience through other powerful visual stimuli. Video games probably draw in a lot of kids the same way EC Horror used to. I hope the video games will encourage creativity in the rising generation, like comics encouraged kids of earlier eras. I worry about digital art encouraging less of a participatory approach and more of a spectator approach to creativity, though.

So, then, in the 70’s I ghost-penciled work for the Filipino artists, mostly Marvel and Classic Illustrated like White Fang. A Christmas Carol. Arabian Nights, Prince and the Pauper… they did not want to waste time looking up references like dogs fighting wolves. they would rather ink. 

How do you keep from overworking?

Wally told me to ink a figure with 1/3 black and 2-3white or do the opposite and ink the figures 2-3 black and 1-2 white. I always try to equal the rendering Wood did at EC, and like Ernie Bache did over Bill Montes.

How many hours a day do you draw?  

I start at 2:30 pm and work up to five. After dinner I’ll start again at 6:30 and work up till 10. My wife comes home from work around 11 so I’ll work for another hour. I work so extremely intense that the work looks on the page looks like I worked on it all week.

Can you tell me anything about how long you've been married? Is your wife also involved with comics or art? Many artists, their partners make huge contributions to their work; Roz Kirby would sometimes even ink Jack's work as I'm sure you know. What kind of involvement does your wife have with your art or your lifestyle as a journeyman artist?

My wife is not in the arts she’s a registered nurse, a hyper-realist who deals with really sick people and situations every work day, the real "human condition". We’re like yin and yang, she keeps me grounded and I keep the balloons floating in the air. Like she comes home from work and I show her a dinosaur I just drew. We met in 1980 it was magic and have been together ever since, still magical. No kids just a few cats.

A Landgraf collaboration with Ben Marra for All Time Comics.

I found working with you at All Time Comics fascinating and incredibly educational. I wanted to ask about that. When you inked over Ben Marras's stuff for us, he had very little shading in his pencils, but we've had you ink jobs in the past where we provided more rendered/finished under pencils. You were able to complete Marra's stuff beautifully, almost creating something that looked like you picked up where he left off. Do you tend to prefer pages where you can improvise more of the shadows on your own, or is Marra an exceptionally easy person to collaborate with?

When ink I always add in the shadows to make the figures have form and depth. After I finish inking, I will look through a reduction glass which is really a lens from an old pair of glasses held by a bulldog clip. I also have a red plastic sheet the kind used as old report covers to view the black and white contrast. Michael Kaluta had an old pair of 3-D glasses and would look at the Conan painting he was doing for Marvel. I have a huge file of lighting effects of all the Wally Wood faces and figures. I have them pasted up on paper sheets all in the same views as figures facing left of right. When I would watch Dan Adkins ink, he was working on a Don Newton Batman story and he referred to a cape he was inking. He had the capes arranged from left to right. Wally Wood and Wrightson figures were all pasted down. Before Dan would ink, He took a whiskey shot and said he learnt that from Wood and laughed. I saw him ink a John Byrne Iron Fist story and he looked at Wood Daredevil figures to ink the figures.

You recently inked my work, and the experience working with you is great  for the sake of this interview. I learned things I’d never have known any other way. You embellished that amazing sky, in my pencils I had a much sketchier version of a cloudy, windswept sky. I was suggesting maybe a wispy atmospheric area in the center, you replaced it with this rippling whirling area crackling with energy and life. That sky you did is like nothing I've ever seen.

I loved Gustav Doré and this Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner had skies like that. I wanted to add more mood the sky hence the stormy black.

Do you remember what you were thinking when you decided to really bring that rich black sky, with the negative space cut into it, to life? Were you influenced in any way by my having chosen to pencil the image on watercolor paper?

I didn’t even notice that it was watercolor paper. I remember thinking the brush is really gliding across the paper surface. I love your sense of exaggerated figure work so it’s fun to put lighting effects on the page. Wood once told me to outline the figures first and then place the shadows and lighting effects.

Landgraf's art for Thor's album "Electric Eyes"

What is your working relationship like with Thor? Are you a fan of his music? I’m a huge fan of his duet with Henry Rollins, Master of Revenge.

I met Thor as Eva’s restaurant. He was a friend of Steve Kapalonis one of the owners. We would have dinner there almost every night. I started working for him drawing Vikon, a comic book that Mike Appel had me create and he wanted to make it into a Broadway show. I later drew Rock Warrior, another comic book that we could sell at the Creation Comic Book shows that I attended regularly. To save money I had the cover painted in black and blue ink. The flesh tones were later added in by Thor and me while waiting for dinner.  Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland recording studio was across the street so musicians would come to eat at Eva’s. KISS even came in full costumes. In fact, Robert Fripp of King Crimson would often have dinner with me and talk about music and comic books.

How much does a rock aesthetic inform what you do? You seem like a fan of traditional rock and rockabilly; do you also pay attention to punk and metal?

I have a collection of CDs so I would draw to The Doors a lot. I had played Vox and Farfisa organs in garage bands, so I like organ driven band. I love all the heavy metal bands. Also, all the British Invasion bands especially Eric Burden and the Animals. Great singer with a great organist - Alan Price. Sometimes I put on death metal like Cannibal Corpse - mostly I play movie soundtrack like Jaws, Planet of the Apes ... lots of Italian sword and sandal soundtracks like Steve Reeves’s Thief of Bagdad or Hercules Unchained. I love Miklos Rosza work like Ben Hur and Bernard Herrmann - Jason and the Argonauts, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island. I try to draw to an entire CD before I go up from my basement studio to feed the cats, etc.

What was your experience like working at Parsons? I have experience there, but I am guessing its really changed since the '80s. Do any students stand out to you? What was it like sharing your methods with young hopeful artists?  

I had several students that became professionals either from Parsons or my private classes including John Stanisci, Chris Ivy and Prentis Rollins, all became inkers .

Isabel Kreitz became a famous German Comic artist. Phyllis Novin became and inker for the Simpsons and DC Comics, Sandra Chang became a noted fantasy artist. I do miss teaching at Parsons but I have authored several books on comic drawing including Comic Book Anatomy , How To Draw Comic Book Women, How to Draw Comic Book Perspective and How To Draw Comic Book Horses In Action all of which are for sale on eBay .

It was an honor teaching there. I showed how to draw anatomy and perspective as well as panel layouts and camera shots. I was teaching comic book drawing, an anatomy class with live models and even a Saturday class for High School students. I also got a lot of the students to study at my own classes that I ran at my NYC studio.

I miss teaching there. I stopped after many years as all the people that were in charge either died or were replaced.

That’s a hard aspect of the life of a teacher. Hardly any teacher I know of is safe from that sense of uncertainty that they’ll continue to be steadily invited to the table. No one knows what employment to expect from semester to semester.  

In the 70’s I  was able to barter my art by doing art for restaurants I drew stuff like a menu for a Greek diner. It’s an example of  how and artist could and would survive in NYC at that time.

Spread from Landgraf's New York City Outlaws

Wow, yeah. I wanted to ask about that too, how you've successfully dealt with the ups and downs of being a  freelance artist/publisher teacher, your career has spanned  so many different eras. What was the process like for you when you  published New York City Outlaws and Star-Fighter? Did you do that yourself or with another publisher?

I paid to publish my own books like Star Fighters and Rock Comics. Outlaws was created by me and Bob Huzsar. Steve paid to print the books. Bob wanted to see if we could make more money. We listed him as the creator . If the books get reprinted it will say by me and Bob.

Did your mentors like Wood and Stanton help you figure out how to do independent black & white publishing?

No, I had published fanzines as a kid, so I knew what to do. Later I was in charge of getting books printed for Thor and all the John Jacobs books. I would have the printers mail the books to him.

You, Ditko and Stanton had the inclination or ability towards doing regular  superhero or adventure genre comics for a conventional newsstand audience  by day while also doing much more challenging content for more of a select comics audience by night. You could see the books you were doing as running on a parallel track to Crumb, except that Crumb and the regular stable of artists he worked with in Arcade, Zap, Weirdo, were more rooted in a wacky, humorous cartoony language. They were all rooted in more of a humorist tradition with the exception of Spain Rodriguez, and you were and are rooted in more of that Hal Foster tradition of pulp (and you were all rooted in erotica).

So, you assisted on work for collectors of Stanton’s work?

Not as an assistant. I would draw from a script . Stanton would correct the girls and I would then ink the job.

People would commission originals, and that’s not too different from how it’s done today where I see you have a steady income stream from collectors soliciting private commissions.

He only sold them a photocopied book. This alerted the part of his audience that they could also buy the originals .

From working-with Stanton did you get any insight into what he was like on a personal level? 

He owned several buildings in German Town in NYC, he was in shape and had a beautiful wife that looked like his drawings. Very fair man - paid me right on time. He studied with Burne Hogarth, the Tarzan artist. He showed his bondage work to him and [Hogarth] insulted it.

I always wondered about Eric Stanton and Ditko’s friendship.

They shared a studio, Ditko inked some of the jobs.

They both did such eccentric art, so specific to their personal visions. What was the environment like that he was working in?  

Professional place with a copy machine to print the stories we did for private clients. 

Anonymous work by Landgraf--note the art credit as "Dancer"

Where was the bondage work seeing print?  

It’s on Amazon under my pen name “dancer”. I did not sign my name as I did not want other artists finding out about this and to try to get work from him.

Many People in this small press comics world I’m in first rediscovered your work when Daniel Clowes expressed his admiration of you. Do you feel like that attention from the younger art-comics world has resulted in a noticeable amount of attention and new opportunities? All Time Comics is dedicated to fusing Bronze Age with modern indie comics aesthetics, so you’re perfect for that, that’s one example, what are others?

One of my greatest talents is constantly reinventing myself. When I first got to NYC, I was attending SVA art school. The comic book classes were for 2nd year students only. I already served 2 years in Vietnam so there was no way I was going to spend my time as a first year student, I went to see the head of the school, Silas Rhodes, and he said if I got written permission for [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Will] Eisner I could join their classes. So, I showed them my portfolio and they signed me in.

In both classes you had to draw pages on your own and they would go over the work and suggest corrections or a better way to do the panel breakdowns. When Thanksgiving Day was coming up Kurtzman asked if I was going home to Wisconsin and I told him no. So, he actually invited me over to spend the holiday at his home. After dinner we talked about EC Comics and he asked who my favorite artist was, and I told him Wallace Wood. Harvey then said “all he did was trace over my layouts”. I said I liked the way he used lighting effects and how he drew women. According to Harvey, Will Elder was the best.

I used to write to a lot of comic artists when I was in ‘Nam and Elder sent me a watercolor portrait of Little Annie Fannny, as did Graham Wilson . I even got a free comic art course from Tony Tallarico.

One day I was standing outside the school and a guy was yelling can anybody draw illustrations for a catalog. I told him I could. This turned out to be for High Times magazine. I drew all sorts of rolling paper designs as well as bongs and other drug paraphernalia. This led to me becoming the art director and illustrator for the first few issues for Tom Façade, the creator of High Times. I later drew comic strips for the magazine. This would lead me to meet Craig Silverman and I got to draw covers for the Yipster Times.

Later it was that Wally Wood was drawing covers for Screw Magazine so I went over there and did a lot of covers as well as satire comic strips. They loved me as I could bring in a story overnight with Dave Simons helping me to ink them. Later Dave and I did work for Club magazine which paid a lot of money. One of the writers was Bob Martin who later became the editor of Fangoria magazine. Just by meeting people I got more jobs. I always loved Eric Stanton's bondage work that Ditko inked, so I went to meet him and showed him my Nightwing and Flamebird comic pages. I had drawn a girlfight on the splash page, so he liked that and I started to do work for him .

I specialized in drawing World War 2 Nazi girls fights and biker girlfights, so Eric told me to make a fake insignia on them, and not draw swastikas. I would draw the pages in pencil and Eric would touch them up to make them sexier and then I would ink the job, a lot of times with Dave Simons.

At the time I had a studio with Armando Gil and Dave Simons. I would hunt up jobs for us to work on as a team and make sure they were fed at one of my Greek friend’s restaurants. I always ate for free and they would get a discount!

I found work all over the place. I went to Myron Fass Pubs now known as Eerie Pubs or Country Wide Pubs. And I got work on Gasm which was made to compete with Heavy Metal. My favorite work was for the killer shark attack magazines like Jaws of Blood and Jaws of Death. They would only give me so much work as they wanted a variety of artists working, so I sent up Dave with pages I penciled and he inked, and he got work from editor Jeff Goodman.

Tell me more about Gasm magazine! I'm really fascinated by that name. I've never heard of it. I remember 1984 magazine, but don't remember this Heavy Metal competitor.

Jeff Goodman was the editor. The magazine was to compete against Heavy Metal. I got the job through a Village Voice ad. I think I drew a story about punks.

Also, you discussed getting a lot of work from “Shark Attack” magazines. it might seem odd to modern audiences that there was enough interest in Sharks to spur monthly magazines. Do you attribute that all to the mania around Jaws?

The shark magazine was to capitalize on Jaws. I made the drawings as bloody as possible. 

And out of these magazines you mentioned: Whitetail Deer Hunter, Tactical Knives, etc. Are any of them still active?

The hunting magazines are all gone as Harris Publications ceased publishing in 2006. Later I would work for Cannon Films drawing poster sketches for their shark film Mako- Jaws of Death and the Happy Hooker goes to Washington with Joey Heatherton! I actually did hundreds of sexy shark attack art and sold them all on eBay. When Jaws came out, I had Dave go to fish stores and we ended up getting jobs drawing fish in action poses.

In the 70’s a lot of farms in Greece were failing, so a lot of Greeks came to NYC and opened up restaurants. I would go to them and always bring my art portfolio with me and look at the pages and the owner of Eden’s saw the work and asked “how would you like to eat here for free? I need you to do drawings of our food for the menu and I need signs for the store”. John Tenthoas always needed art so this lasted for years.

Later I met other Greek owners who needed signwork. So I was working for Eden’s which now had 2 stores as well as for Eva’s, Nature Works and Silver Spurs, a hamburger place. I did a glass window as well as signs. I would buy the Artist Market book that came out every year and I sent everyone a catalogue and I got lucky. Several religious organizations wanted art. Somewhere along the line I found out about Vantage Press which was a vanity publisher so I drew several hundred books for them. I went up to see Herschel Waldman the publisher of Skywald horror magazines. They were no longer publishing them but I got work on their new classic illustrated books as well as humor books. I even lot work doing some storyboards for Winnie Pini’s Elf Quest that was going to be a cartoon. Herb Trimpe was also drawing for the company.

I had seen a lot of Harris Publications and submitted some war samples to Vietnam Combat and got a call back from editor Harry Kane. He gave me a bunch of assignments. Other editors saw what I drew and I quickly became a full color illustrator. I did painting and black and white art for White Tail Deer Hunter, Tactical Knives, Combat Handguns, Turkey Hunter and Bass Fisherman . I had to do a lot of research as I had to learn to draw all the different fish and animals.

I worked for Harris Publications until they went out of business. They had a huge working staff at first then the computers came in and one man could layout the whole book and digitally place photos and lettering down on the page. They would scan my drawings and add them to the page as well. Carl Burgos the famous creator of the Human Torch was working there doing office work. I didn’t ever talk to him but saw him after an employee pointed him out.

I also saw Barbour Press and illustrated a lot of books for them about famous people like Mary the Mother of Jesus, Daniel, Samuel, Eric Liddell, Clara Barton, Luis Palau and Sojourner Truth. These were Children’s books. The job lasted until they quit publishing the series.They were fun to draw. I even lettered the captions. I was the storyboard artist for the 1980’s Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. An ad appeared in the New York Times and hundreds of artists showed up. I was lucky to be chosen.

I had professional comic book credits at Marvel and DC which gave me an edge. I also said I could draw in perspective and drew a scene of a spaceship landing and men on  horseback. After seeing that I got hired immediately. I worked on TV shows like Law and Order as well as doing art for Bill Cosby’s Mysteries in which he played a detective.

Amazing. Were you required to spend time in Los Angeles to work on Cosby Mysteries?

It was shot in NYC as was Law and Order.

Pretty crazy to see Cosby holding your work, so odd. Are you surprised his story ended up the way it has?                          

I really don’t have any opinion on him. I watched him film part of the TV show and even getting his make-up on he was very funny. I bet a lot of that drugging stuff went on at the Playboy mansion.

How would you like your career to be remembered by the comics audience?

I want to be remembered as a professional artist that could handle any art job. I am very proud that the younger artists cite me as an influence. I was lucky to have drawn the first solo Wolverine story “The Sign of the Lion“ where he fought Hercules. I am happy that fans still like the work I did on Hawkman and Nightwing and Flamebird and that people are still interested in buying my work, that’s the best thing. I am also proud of my self- published comics such as The New York City Outlaws, Star Fighters and Rock Comics. I like the work I did for John Jacobs such as Dr. Peculiar. I am happy to be asked to ink the new generation of comic artists. It is energizing and an honor just like how Santana records CDs with the younger singers.

What do you have to say about the changing nature of the comics industry?  Many shops have closed, the whole network you used to depend on to make your independent books work is gone. Do you think it’s harder to make your dreams come true now in the current climate?

The good thing today is that current artist can have a following of fans on social media.  But you still gotta sell your stuff if you want to make a living and not have a day job. This takes constant work output and hunting for jobs. Older artists have to be lucky to still be recognized for their past and current works. It was way better to be an artist in the Bronze Age of comics as you can see by my career, I was able to work all over the place, no computers, so lots of illustrations were used. It was a powerful feeling to be able to draw, write and have my comics printed and sold in the hundreds of comic stores, so it was possible to be an independent cartoonist at the time.

 Can people still buy your anatomy books from you?

My drawing books are always up on eBay for sale. As far as commissions I can be contacted at my email:  [email protected]