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Notes Toward a Future Understanding of Wally Wood

Panel from Total War #2, 1965 (Gold Key) by Wally Wood

1. Why is the art of Wally Wood so hard to describe, so hard to get at? Why am I so interested in the care Wood put into his art, while the similarly painstaking craftsmanship of a Joe Kubert or Will Eisner leaves me cold?

2.

Panel from 'My World,' published in in Weird Science #22, 1953 (EC Comics) by Wally Wood

People are obsessed with this panel. I love looking at it, and who doesn't? But thinking of Wood as a 'sci-fi' artist leads one astray. I don't look to Wood to have my mind opened to new concepts of reality or what is possible within the cosmos. Wood's art is about the human world, and very specifically his own world. It's revealing that people care about this panel and not the six pages of so-called sci-fi it serves as a conclusion. It might be the only point at which we confront Wood's art for what it really is: an expression of the complicated reality of Wood himself, an artist of enormous talent in an industry that was indifferent to all but the most superficial aspects of his expression. The idea of Wood as a 'sci-fi' artist is one of many side roads diverting us from the richer truth of what he was up to.

3.

Cover for Daredevil #10, 1965 (Marvel Comics) by Wally Wood

Here's a sad story, which can be found in the excellent The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, Vol. 1, edited by Bhob Stewart and J. Michael Catron. It comes to us via an exchange between Wood and Mark Evanier:

Wood: I enjoyed working with Stan [Lee] on Daredevil but for one thing. I had to make up the whole story. He was being paid for writing, and I was being paid for drawing, but he didn't have any ideas. I'd go in for a plotting session, and we'd just stare at each other until I came up with a storyline. I felt like I was writing the book but not being paid for writing.

Evanier: You did write one issue, as I recall--

Wood: One yes [Daredevil #10]. I persuaded him to let me write one by myself since I was doing 99% of the writing already. I wrote it, handed it in, and he said it was hopeless. He said he'd have to rewrite it all and write the next issue himself. Well, I said I couldn't contribute to the storyline unless I got paid something for writing, and Stan said he'd look into it, but after that he only had inking for me. Bob Powell was suddenly pencilling Daredevil.[Later on in the interview] ... I saw [Daredevil #10] when it came out, and Stan had changed five words---less than an editor usually changes. I think that was the last straw.

Quite a bit of smoke and mirrors to get out of paying someone for writing. It gets at a key point about Wood: all this relentless professionalism, all this ambition to be one of the best artists in his field and ... for what? Why? The desire to do something well in comics, and the much rarer execution of that desire, is treated with deeply abstract (or, more accurately, opportunistic) reactions. 'Thank you for all your hard work. I will now wage a campaign of confusion so that I don't have to pay you what you're owed.'

Lee's spectacularly immaculate record of mistreating his artists is no great revelation, of course, but comes alive when we place it next to this statement about Wood from Harvey Kurtzman (also pulled from The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood):

Wally Wood was a workhorse, and I feel that Wally devoted himself so intensely to his work that he burned himself out. He overworked his body. That's my own observation. Wally had a tension in him, an intensity that he locked away in an internal steam boiler, and I always had the feeling that Wally was capable of erupting---which he apparently did occasionally----but he had that quality of frustration and tension and I think it ate away his insides and the work really used him up. I think he delivered some of the finest work that was ever drawn, and I think it's to his credit that he put so much intensity into his work at great sacrifice to himself.

Most people first see Wood's work as a child, and it leaves a lasting impression. It certainly did on me. To a 10-year-old, it seems like magic. Later, we hopefully comprehend that a lifetime of effort and dedication was the true magician. Of course, when people are going out of their way to not pay you, your effort and dedication might just have to be tripled, and that might affect your physical and mental health. We talk a lot in comics about intellectual property, about how certain artists didn't benefit from the money their billion-dollar characters generated. But what about the abuse of the faith (in Wood's case, deep faith) these artists placed in making the art itself? What does that look like in reality?

4.

Page from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #3, 1966 (Tower Comics) by Wally Wood

When Wood pared down his style, a horrible emptiness to the world he rendered begins to emerge. That's not a criticism, as I prefer Wood's simplified style to his more famous EC detail-upon-detail mode. Hovering around every line is a crushing lack of warmth, a cynical world without a single utterance of actual cynicism. Wood communicates a story through drawing better than anyone, so you are guided through a world void of feeling with expert precision. You stop and confront it head on. Here it is, looking right at you:

Panel from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #3, 1966 (Tower Comics) by Wally Wood

I don't feel unease from what this figure (The War-Lord) is saying, but I feel a real horror in how Wood chose to draw him. It's a hugely depressing image in its coldness. And yet Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories are as divorced from a world where 'depression' or 'sadness' exist as anything put to page. Unlike a social critic making a point about lack of passion, we are left with the thing itself. The above splash page of Noman really sums it up: a perfectly rendered figure, 'invisible' but more accurately described as ghost-like, standing stiffly in a perfectly ordered, lifeless world. The answer to my question as to why Wood put so much care into his work in the face of such indifference is almost answered in the drawing: 'I've erased my feelings about all of that.'

Sequence from Wild 1/2, from Mad #15, 1954 (EC Comics) by Wally Wood

Twelve years prior, Wood gave us images like this one. Kurtzman's assessment of Wood mentions 'intensity... capable of erupting,' which I take to mean anger. That quality is evident even in a 'joyful' image like this one, with its ruthless determination to render meticulously something so ridiculous. But the contrast of feeling between this and Wood's work for Tower, which paid badly, is a story in and of itself. A decade and a half in the comics industry has left a mark on the artist. Yes, Wood probably pared down his style mainly to save time, to be able to generate more work and thus support himself. But the absence of feeling smeared all over the simplified panels is something beyond mere simplification.

Is the story of Wally Wood's art 'I am a science fiction artist. My name is Wood' or a pictorial statement of self-negation from someone whose work was never fully appreciated? That drawing of Noman screams, 'This is where I'm at now.'

5.

Work by Wood for Fox Comics, 1950

Here's one more sad story from The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood related by Wood's peer and art-partner Harry Harrison, describing what it was like to work for Fox Comics in 1949:

The art director would say, 'Well, yeah, this is great stuff but we don't pay very much. Know what I mean? I think the rate at Fox was $23 per page for ten-page stories. And while he was talking, he'd slip you a note saying something to the effect that they also expected kickbacks of $5 a page. This made a big difference to us in the rates, of course. But all these guys took kickbacks, and if you didn't go along with it, you wouldn't get any work...We would slide in this ten-page pile of crap with a real good splash page for the first page on top. He would look at only the first page and count the other nine, flipping through them fast. Nobody really cared about the quality. Nobody looked at these books, no one read the things very carefully. So he'd count the pages. We'd give him the $50 or whatever it came to----$5 a page in kickbacks---and then we'd get our check in the mail from Fox, not necessarily in a week or two but in a month or so, sometimes slower than that. The money owed would add up...

Wally Wood was 22 when he was working for Fox, and this is quite an introduction to his chosen profession. So many artists of this era left comics for advertising or illustration, and of course why wouldn't they? Treatment like this was standard. Wood, on the other hand stayed with comics forever, as did practices like the one in place at Fox. Lee, sixteen years later, was essentially doing a crueler version of the same thing, depriving Wood of money for his writing, and syphoning it into a credit for himself.

Wood made perfect drawings throughout his life and placed them into this sea of maltreatment. His self-publishing, with Witzend, might have been the only space where his work was not preyed upon in some fashion, meaning the only business partner Wood could be safe with was himself. Only Wood fully appreciated and respected what Wood was up to, a hard thing to reconcile when his vast artistic achievement is immediately apparent, even at a side glance.

6.

Sequence from 'Confession!' printed in Shock Suspenstories #4, 1952 (EC Comics) by Wally Wood

But, again, what is this vast achievement, exactly?

When I look at a Wood story from Shock SuspenStories, it reads as a document of a singular project that I can't quite explain to myself. The writing in Shock SuspenStories is, at its absolute best, silly. But the art Wood put into those stories cannot be dismissed as 'first-class illustration of pap.' Instead, it expresses something as it grafts itself onto a template of cliches that do not. But why and how? Internally we tend to solve the question in our heads with 'wow, look at the detail!' But I don't think this answers much if we are truly engaged in taking the time to examine our honest reactions to Wood.

I'm uncomfortable with my usual "improvised" conclusion, that artists like Kubert and Eisner were more adept at keeping themselves financially secure than Wood was, and that because of this their work feels more 'safe' to me. Instead, I think a closer stab at the truth centers on the notion that Wood's heart and mind are richer than Eisner and Kubert. Even when confronted with a particularly mindless sequence like this one below from Total War #2, I feel the presence of an actual human, fully involved:

Sequence from Total War #2, 1965 (Gold Key) by Wally Wood

There is emotion here too, though it is extremely clipped. I don't mean emotion in that Wood 'feels' for the murdered civilian in panel 3. As with the lack of voiced dissent in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, that's not what Wood is about. But there is feeling from Wood himself for what he is trying to accomplish, for pulling it all off. What emerges to me about Wood's art in this period is an angry defiance. This sequence almost says, 'You can debase what I do, but I'll continue to do it better than the rest, even as I take away the bells and whistles that people superficially latch onto. I will take a pride in it, and it will continue to be done well, even as it is done less and less to please you.'

The violence in Total War and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents isn't bloody, but it is blunt. You don't empathize with the civilians, but you recognize that brutality has been done. It's not the villains that are doing the destruction here, but the artist, and it's directed inward. That his focus and his allegiance to his craft remains crystal clear as this battle is waged----yes, here we come to part of what I think makes Wood so important and why I always want to read one of his stories. He is there, in every one of them, and often there with pain, though he never indulges it.

7.

Cover for Shock Suspenstories #4, 1952 (EC Comics) by Wally Wood

Wood once said: 'I'm an artist, I do it for a living.' The larger context for the quote is Wood stating that he doesn't spend too much time worrying about whether he is defined as a high or low artist. 'They sell those fine art paintings, don't they?' He is an artist working for a living like any other. But the quote opens itself up widely. Wood accepted the limitations and degradation of his chosen field in that he remained loyal to comics his entire life as an artist. But coupled alongside that acceptance, we witness a deep rejection in the undertone of his stories. Wood's intelligence could not remain unaware to the paradox of his situation, and the art he dedicated his life to producing has that understanding imbedded into every line.


19 Responses to Notes Toward a Future Understanding of Wally Wood

  1. Bob Levin says:

    Thanks for this honest and committed grappling. It added to my own thinking and awareness.

  2. Brian Canini says:

    This is a great article! Thank you

  3. This was a great read. Thanks Austin! I’m interested, though, to hear why you chose Eisner and Kubert as repeated points of comparison. Both those guys drew much “sloppier”, brushier, and framed their images more expressively – and as you mention, Wood’s style was a paragon of coldness and white-knuckle controlledness. To steal a dichotomy Jeet Heer used when he was writing about Nick Maandag, Eisner and Kubert are very “wet” cartoonists, while Wood’s work is super “dry”. Does the difference in their stylistic approaches play a part in your greater enjoyment of Wood, do you think?

  4. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    One thing that strikes me about that sequence from Mad #15 is how clearly it seems to show the influence of Kurtzman’s layouts.

    And yeah, that Noman splash really delivers the goods, quite haunting really. I never quite understood the high reputation that T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents seems to have for comics fans of a certain age, but pages like that certainly might explain part of it in its elevation of fairly pedestrian material to something special.

  5. Matt-

    Glad you enjoyed! Let me explain my aversion to Eisner like this:

    In 1997 when I 14, I dutifully brought my copy of A Contract With God to San Diego comic con, and stood in line to have Eisner sign in. He was nice when I met him, and said ‘gee, youre so young…I imagine most of this is over your head!’ But my feeling at that moment is the same as it is now: ‘uh, nah…it’s not really that deep. Trust me, I get it!’

    I actually love the way Eisner draws, maybe even prefer it to Wood. I like the way he used the page like a stage and that he usually doesnt crop the characters for close ups, he uses their entire body most of the time. But i dont like the way he ‘cartoons’. My favorite Spirit story is ’10 Minutes’ but it makes sense that that one is aftually written by Jules Feiffer (thanks to Bill K for pointing that out to me). That story is great and I love reading it, it doesn’t ask more from you other than to read it and be affected by it. But Feiffer is on a different level than Eisner. Most everything else from Eisner I just feel this constant ‘wow, you see what I did there??? Did you get it?’ It’s fine and extremely well done, but has all these other agendas, I feel like it’s constantly selling itself to me.

    Wood isn’t like that. His EC stuff is arguably more insufferably written than even a mediocore Spirit story, but his mind and emotion make it something else, and not simply in the drawing. Everything is charged with an actual human concern that….well, that I try to get at in this essay.

    Kubert I just don’t like looking at. Eisner I struggle with, going back and forth, but Kubert I just don’t get, so it’d be dishonest for me to explain with a reason. Maybe it’s that his Fax From Sarajevo book still leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. That book is like fufilling the prophecy of ham-fisted melodrama that Eisner laid down with COntract with God (to be fair, i kinda like Eisner’s last book, the Viet Nam one…it feels more honest, like he was just happy to do it rather than forcing you to like it).

    Daniel- Yeah I didn’t like THUNDER Agents when I read it in nice reprint form on bright paper. But the sliminess of it really clicks when you read the actual newsprint issues, it’s much sader that way.

  6. Zack blackstone says:

    This is so wrong-headed and bizarre. Wally Wood’s drawings are as dumb as the scripts he illustrated. That he worked so intensely on this crap is a testament to his own stupidity. He could have worked half as hard, got the same money, and lived a longer healthier life. Too bad he had his head up his arse. He never even developed his own style – just the most acute rendering of ‘comic booky’. It’s fun for us to look at because we’ve been trained from an early age to accept and even exalt this sort of drawing – it’s subjective – you have to be ‘in the club’. But anyone coming from outside of comics who knows what good drawing is being told that what Wood was doing is that…would laugh in your face. I can imagine the late Robert Hughes doing exactly that. I remember S. Clay Wilson relating about how he liked Wilson’s work but dismissed Robert Williams’ work. Williams and Wood are coming from very similar schools.
    Look at the figure in the panel where Wood is at his drawing board – how stiff and dead it is. The arm protruding out onto the desk doesn’t even appear to be a part of the body – it’s just stuck there. And, understanding perspective, were the hand on that arm to be brought up to the head it would cover the whole of the head. Dumb drawing! The only cartoonists stiffer than Wood are those that worship at his feet. If you enjoy Wood but want to see that look attached to a worthwhile vision, read Spain Rodriguez’ comics! Spain’s art, though heavily influenced by Wood, has real depth and feeling – he lived life. Wood was just a chain smoking, weedy shut-in…it’s all surface.

  7. Bob Levin says:

    Gee, I think I ought to stick up for Al Feldstein’s (or whomever’s) scripts are being trashed here. True, EC comics aren’t some thing I have considered turning to for reading material in, oh, 60-years, but when I was a kid, they had it all over Landmark Books or The Hardy Boys or whatever else I was being offered. Let’s remember, they were written for kids (and, I guess, low-on-the-GPA adolescents), not nit-picking adults (who, let-us-not-forget, wanted them banned, words and pictures), and they were GREAT. Think of them as a gateway drug to edgy, transgressive art and thinking — and both Spain and Wilson were fans.

  8. Zack-
    “He could have worked half as hard, got the same money, and lived a longer healthier life.” But he didn’t work half as hard. Why? Your answer is he ‘had his head up his arse.’ My answer is this essay.

    I mention Eisner at the beggining as being, to me, inferior to Wood. If I look at Eisner’s drawings, i often prefer them. But Wood is the superior cartoonist, engaged in an art beyond making a mere singular pretty drawing, but a web of expression involving many drawings, decisions and choices.

    But if we are to unfairly judge Wood simply as an illustrator, I understand your point. There’s somehing off about it, sure. Why, then, does it still move people? Why, despite it being stiff, is it so powerful to so many? There’s something about Wood that is beyond his drawing, his accurate expression of himself as a ‘weedy shut in’ that you reject and others are drawn to. Art!

    Bob-
    Thanks for bringing this up so I can correct myself. I think Feldstein’s scripts are fun (the captions tho, I’d rather not defend)…I still love reading them. My ‘silly’ comment relates to the Shock Suspenstories specifically. Just too over the top and hard to justify. The rest of EC’s writing was perfect for the audience, as you say. But more importantly, I think Feldstein, like Kurtzman, was also a great art director, matching artist to subject and allowing a lot of freedom of style. Wood mentions over and over in ‘Life and Legend’ of Feldstein’s innovation of having the dialogue already placed in the panel, allowing the artist more freedom to draw and not worry about where dialogue would be placed. So…Feldstein: serviceable writer, but also someone who understood that good comics means allowing for artists to cartoon as they pleased.

  9. Austin – that Eisner story is fucking hilarious. Lol! He was, for sure, on of the Top Three Comics Self-Promoters, along with Spiegelman and ol’ Stan Lee. You can see that “look how hard I’m doing this”/”look what the comics medium is capable of” tendency in his work, ya – that’s well observed. The plainspokenness of Wood’s framing is refreshing by comparison. Though I gotta say that pretty much everything Wood was doing pre-Witzend – formally and drafting wise at least, everything except his design sense – was hugely indebted to the Hal Foster playbook.

    Enemy Ace is pretty good by Kubert.

  10. Matt-
    There’s certainly a Fraiser like quality to Eisner. The funniest story I’ve read I think comes from an interview with Drew Freidman (or a contemporary of his) saying that when he had Eisner as a teacher, Eisner would say ‘oh, i was passing by the TV last night and noticed this interesting technique.’ Like…he couldnt admit to watching TV, just to passing by it,

  11. Bob Levin says:

    If anyone is still reading this thread, I wanted to lay out my response to Austin about “SHOCK SUSPENS being “silly.”
    I looked back at the first volume of my Ross Cochran-bound collection and found that every issue contained a story of social significance. Feldstein spoke out against racism, police brutality, anti-semetism, the KKK, lynch mobs, and over-zealous demanders of respect for the flag. This was gutsy stuff for the first half of the 1950s. The commentators point out a few other examples of works of popular art espousing similar views, but none of those were likely to be seen by pre-adolecents. I can’t think of another comic or tv show that wasn’t toeing a more Eisenhower-McCarthy approved line. So kudus to Feldstein (and Gaines) for that.

  12. R. Haining says:

    I should point out that the authorship of “Ten Minutes” is subject to dispute. Eisner said, “I once read that Jules Feiffer said he wrote ‘Ten Minutes,’ but I could swear that I wrote it. It goes like this a lot with us – sometimes he says I wrote a particular story and I thought he did it. I guess we may never know for sure.” (quote from Spirit comic # 48) Feiffer says he wrote it and gave a detailed recollection of it in Panels # 1 published by John Benson in 1979. Feiffer did say Eisner came up with the ending (he could not recall what his was) and pointed out his work on the Spirit was that of a “ghost”. He was essentially trying to channel Eisner when he wrote the stories.

    By the way, Feiffer was no fan of Wood. He said of Harvey Kurtzman, “I knew I was in the presence of someone extraordinary . It was a joy to see the work and a joy to be around him. I knew that I was in the company of a artist. With Wood, I felt I was in the presence of a carpenter. Somebody who worked very hard at his craft, and by working hard got results, but there were no sparks. And certainly no invention.” (TCJ #124). Gary Groth summed it up by saying Feiffer felt Wood was more of a craftsman than an artist.

    This evaluation strikes me as overly harsh, but I think there is some truth to it, particularly when you compare his work to Eisner’s. A key difference is that Eisner wrote nearly all of his material. I know Eisner didn’t like comparisons between comics and movies, but he was acting as the screenwriter, director, & actors while Wood was only fulfilling the last part in his EC and much of his other work. There is an intensity about Wood’s work, but there’s also a stiffness that makes it difficult for me to put him in the same league as Eisner.

    Regarding Eisner’s comment to you when you were 14 years old, maybe he was a bit condescending and/or egotistical, but he may have thought you were younger than 14 or maybe he was projecting his own lack of maturity at your age onto you. A 14 year olds in 1931 had less access to mass media and may have been less sophisticated than a 14 year old in 1997.

    I cut Eisner a lot of slack about his propensity for self-promotion. Hey, the man grew up during the depression. If you didn’t blow your own horn, you starved or you wound up getting second billing (Jack Kirby). And keep in mind how tough a sell A Contract With God was back in the late seventies. He was trying to sell something for which no market existed at the time. To get even a small New York publisher (Baronet) to take it on, you had to have a great belief in the work and, by extension, in yourself.

    Final note: Last Day in Vietnam was not Eisner’s last book. I was The Plot (which I don’t recommend.)

  13. David says:

    Nice article and I’m definitely in agreement with you about Wood. Love his work, especially the Tower comics and Witzend stuff. Cannon is probably my favorite of all! Have to say, that I disagree about the Kubert put/down or comparison. Kubert was brilliant in his own unique way and I’ve gotten a lot out of almost everything he has done. He was also one of a kind, albeit a very different personality.

  14. R-
    Oh, i dont think Eisner was being condescending! I just think his ‘serious’ work is on the level of a teenager. Which…is fine! But i’m not sure Eisner is aware of that or if comics people admit it enough.

  15. Mark Morey says:

    The first time I saw Wood’s work was in MAD, the comic book. I had a hard enough time getting MAD out of the store; I didn’t see the horror books until much later. All I can say is: Wood was, far and away, the most impressive to me in the early Fifties, and remained so in my teenage years, after I was “too old to read comic books” but read and re-read the first five MAD paperback reprints. Since then, of course, I’ve learned enough to put Elder at the top of the heap (though still below Kurtzman-I’ll probably always rate JUNGLE BOOK the highest of this kind of writing/drawing). Jack Davis took a little longer, just because of an inexplicable snottiness that hampered my enjoyment of a lot of stuff I learned to love in middle age and senescence. I guess Dan Clowes expressed it best (paraphrasing): Wood has everything you need when you’re a certain age. I discovered Eisner in HELP! magazine, and for a time I thought he was the greatest ever, always excepting Walt Kelly (who, in my view, was bolder in tackling McCarthyism and the Fifties version of anti-immigrant fever than the EC guys). Perhaps because I have been impressed with Wood longer than any of the others, I just don’t see the stiffness everybody else does, but I haven’t seen much of his work outside the humor field. Thank you for this article. It took a certain amount of chutzpah to put it out in today’s climate of comics attitudes (as I perceive them, anyway).

  16. David Tea says:

    Another fantastic article by English. A lot of this is over my head, but I disagree with the comment that Wood’s drawings were stiff. I think his figures were fluid, and I theorize it’s because Wood was a paratrooper, etc. Like Frazzetta was an athlete, and subconsciously understood the human figure in motion. Wood had some flaws, but I think he had some credibility with physical action art. But it’s a matter of taste. I did not know about the kickbacks system. Wow. Depressing.

  17. Tim Gagne says:

    Love the Stan Lee bit – the Donald Trump of comics. Maybe Stan Lee had teh idea for a Space Force and DT took that from him!

  18. You Betcha says:

    My take — Wood was subconsciously trying to win his father’s approval by becoming “one of the greatest cartoonists of all time.” By the standards of the day in 1950-ish, that meant “displays of painstaking draftsmanship and dazzling visual effects.” Because he was self-taught, his style reflects his influences heavily (notably Hal Foster, as someone stated previously here) and it has particular fixations and quirks and deficiencies — rough edges that formal training might have smoothed away.

  19. You Betcha says:

    Also, I’ll just sat flat-out that I strongly suspect that most commentators who slag Woody as a “craftsman” probably could’t render a decent-looking spaceship interior if their lives depended on it.😘

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