“I Thought It Was Worth Doing, and That Was Enough”: The Walter Simonson Interview

ROGERS: I was reading the World of Warcraft collections and one of the creators of the game was saying that that world was majorly influenced by your Thor run. Do you get that sense, of Warcraft or other things in the culture having been influenced by your Thor run at all?

SIMONSON: I got to know Chris Metzen, the guy you’re referring to. Chris wrote the introduction for the first volume and said some very nice things in there. We’ve met and he was a big fan of that stuff, which was very nice, and as a result I’m willing to take his word for it that it was kind of seminal in his development and his interest in fantasy. Which is very flattering. It’s very cool.

From the influential Manhunter. Click for larger view.

For the most part, I don’t see my influence in other stuff that much. I feel lucky to have had jobs all these years. For example, just in comics, I don’t look around and see a lot of Walter Simonson clones. I know there are several guys who’ve gone and become wonderful artists in comics who were influenced by my work early. Most of the time I don’t really see it. I think the only guy where I really looked and thought, “Boy, I see some of my stuff in his very early stuff” was Marshall Rogers. He did black and white jobs in the mid-seventies [in The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu]—a couple of girls, women with swords. There was a lot of [Howard] Chaykin and a lot of Simonson influence there. As Marshall worked out his own material over time I saw less of that. But mostly I don’t see myself in other people’s work. I just kind of do the work and put it out there. I’m hoping people enjoy it and I’m glad it’s influential on some folks, but I don’t really look at it and go, “Oh yeah, that’s a Walt Simonson right there.” I did see my stuff in the Thor movie, but that was not unexpected. [Laughs.]

ROGERS: Well, I’m just going to throw a couple names at you here and see maybe what you think of their work or what you respond to in their work.


ROGERS: Mike Mignola?

SIMONSON: I’m a giant fan of Mike’s. I love his sense of abstraction. I love the fact that he doesn’t just turn the work out in four seconds. I teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and some years ago when Mike lived in the city, I had him come by my class a couple times  and bring sketches and his art and a bunch of process stuff to show people. It was a complete treat for me to see the process, maybe more of a treat for me than it was for some of the students. It was nice to see work that is so completely finished and so completely thought out—it’s all right in the brain. He works out an awful lot of stuff before that final drawing is finished. I knew Mike when he was starting out in comics, and I couldn’t be happier for his success. I think he’s just fantastic. I’m also a big fan of his writing, which is kind of like, Zen horror. [Rogers laughs.] I could not do it. But it has a great pared-down quality, which I think is incredibly cool.

ROGERS: So on that same note, I guess, what about Guy Davis?

SIMONSON: I love Guy’s stuff.  I go back on Guy’s stuff at least to Baker Street. Without doing a lot of characters who are leaping and running and jumping and doing all sorts of active things, there is a quality of life in his drawings that I am extremely drawn to. I think it’s just wonderful. So I’m a big Guy Davis fan.

ROGERS: John Paul Leon?

SIMONSON: Aha, one of my former students! [Rogers laughs.] Not that I had much to do with where he went, but he was incredibly talented when I had him a number of years ago. In his case, I’m blown away both by his consummate draftsmanship and by his storytelling. We’ve actually worked together a couple of times and he did a very early job with Weezie [Simonson's wife] on a Superman annual where I got to watch. He drew a couple of short stories that I wrote, one for Orion and one for Batman: Black and White. And that was just a treat. I think he’s matured into a fantastic artist.

ROGERS: J.H. Williams III?

SIMONSON: I don’t know his work well enough to comment on it. I know a little of it. I don’t know enough to give you any kind of opinions about it.

ROGERS: Maybe this is the same kind of thing, but Grant Morrison’s take on the Fourth World—have you read any of that?

SIMONSON: No, I really haven’t. One of the things I find that I do, is I very rarely look at other people’s takes on characters after I’ve worked on them. Once I’ve done a character where I’ve invested a great deal of myself in it, it’s kind of hard to read somebody else’s work because it’s not the voice I hear for the character. It’s got nothing to do with whether their work is good, bad, or indifferent. But I’ve invested so much that I know how Thor talks, I know the kind of adventures he has. The same is true in a way for Orion. So I don’t really follow where those characters go after I’m done with them. If I’ve got to do something down the road with a character, I might go back and read a bunch of that stuff for homework, so I’ll know what has happened to them, but that’s with a different idea in mind.

ROGERS: You seem very comfortable working in other people’s universes, like with Thor, Orion, World of Warcraft, Elric. What kind of homework do you do to get yourself into these worlds? How do you find your way into these worlds?

SIMONSON: The general way is, you do a lot of reading. In the case of Thor, I had not read all twenty years’ worth of Thor that came before I began working on that book. So I went back and read it. The Lee-Kirby material I actually knew pretty well, and I had the book for a year back in the seventies, where I did layouts for twelve issues. Back then, Len Wein was the writer, I was the layout guy, and we talked about it a great deal and did our Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Thor back then.

Some of the ideas that I started with in '83, including Surtur, were ideas I had had fifteen years earlier. Not quite in their published form, but in some cases pretty close. So I had thought about that stuff for a long time before I actually began doing that character.

In some ways the same is true for Orion. Jack’s Fourth World work is probably my favorite Kirby. Jack’s drawing, especially during that time, began becoming a little more abstract, very graphic, and I thought his writing matched that sort of abstraction.

Some of it was very funny, not always intentionally. I remember some of the characters, supporting mortals who weren’t around very long, they would say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, girl secretary. I’m so-and-so, boy student.” [Rogers laughs.] Which I just thought was a riot—why not just have them wear funny hats with a little name on them?

But then there’s a wonderful moment where Orion is pretty battered, he’s fought Kalibak to a standstill on Earth. He and Lightray are in a woman’s apartment recovering, and at some point he kind of goes nuts and steps out on the balcony and screams into the heavens to Darkseid to quit sending him any lesser beasts like Kalibak and show himself. And of course it’s full of Kirby crackle and energy. It’s an incredibly powerful moment of writing as well as drawing.

The abstraction in the writing in many ways served Jack’s purpose beautifully in that material. So I love that stuff, and of course there’s not that much of it, so I knew all the Kirby Fourth World stuff cold by the time I began doing Orion.

I picked up from John Byrne’s run, his twenty issues or so that he did on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and The New Gods. I was doing his covers for the most part, and when he was getting off his run, we knew I was going to be doing it. I asked him not to complete a particular idea so I could pick up on it and use it in my run, which was the idea that Darkseid might not be Orion’s father.  That tied in with Tigra’s plans to enable Orion to kill Darkseid and not think he was committing patricide. I thought that was a very cool idea.

I didn’t read every New Gods appearance up to that point. But I went back and read a lot of them. However, I largely based my work on the Kirby work and then some on John’s and went from there.

In Warcraft, they had a bunch of novels and there were some manga—I looked at some of that stuff. In that case, we did have a lot of input from the Warcraft folks about where they wanted the stories to go. And there were these immense Warcraft wikis on the web that had all these characters and vast histories. They weren’t all 100% accurate, but they were close enough for rock and roll for what we were doing. Weezie was doing a lot of work with me on that, doing a lot of research as well. Between us we were able to get a handle on what was an immense world. In that case, the web was hugely helpful, and I find elsewhere the web has become very useful to be able to track down descriptions of characters and images and things like that in a way that would’ve been much more difficult in the old days.

ROGERS: In an interview with Jon Cooke for Comic Book Artist, you were talking about Dr. Fate and you were saying about Ditko, “I wasn’t trying to draw like him but to imitate his inspiration.” It seems to me, anyway, that that’s how you approach many of your projects. It seems like you are able to channel Ditko or able to channel Kirby. I wonder if that’s something that you’re conscious of doing.

SIMONSON: I think it probably is. In the very beginning, when I was first a comic book reader, I did a whole series of drawings. I have a fan Facebook page with a lot of galleries, and one of the galleries is “Old Stuff,” and my drawings that I have posted there go back to about third grade. I have a drawing posted of the Destroyer from Thor in a crouched position, and his hand glowing with Kirby crackle and the logo behind him. I did a whole bunch of those drawings back in the day, before I had ever begun to think about drawing as a career. At the time I was a geology major and thought I was going to be a palaeontologist. So they were just done to amuse myself.

What’s interesting to me now is that there’s so much of what I came to do as a professional in them. In all those drawings—I wish I still had some of them, but I just have that one now, I think—I tried to draw them in the style of the characters as they were in the comics, because for me that’s how they looked. For instance, I had a Gene Colan Iron Man as inked by Jack Abel. I had a Thor that was Jack inked by Vinnie Colletta. In the early cases, I was simply copying drawings, trying to catch that one perfect image.

So for me, in a lot of ways, the way Thor looks is the way Jack drew him. He has kind of a round face, narrow eyes. It’s as if he were the actor, and I’m trying to catch the look of that actor, not by imitating Jack, but in a sense by emulating him.

It’s certainly true that I look at the stuff in these shared universes when I start drawing it, and I try to capture what captured my own interest in the beginning. Then as the books go along I move further away from that. But I’m always mindful of the model on which I’m working, and I try to keep some of that in the work that I do.

My work is always going to look like my work, whatever I do, and I want the work to still feel like it’s fresh. Even though I go through a whole series of stages to get to a finished drawing, I’d like it to look as if it were just laid right down on the paper in a couple of seconds. So it has the energy, the life of an original drawing as much as possible. That’s one of the things the facsimile will probably come close to capturing—the life of the drawing.

Preserving the life of the drawing, from the Artist's Edition.

ROGERS: How is working in this kind of shared universe, or in a superhero universe, how is that different than working on licensed properties like Alien or Star Wars or World of Warcraft?

SIMONSON: Generally, the superhero universe gives you more freedom. Licensed stuff, like movies and so on, has changed a great deal over the years. Back when I did Alien, Archie Goodwin wrote it, I drew it, Heavy Metal published it. At the time we had a degree of freedom on that comic that I can’t begin to imagine anybody doing movie adaptations or TV adaptations now would actually have. We had three different script revisions, from different periods of that script. I actually had a chance to visit the model shop and look over the stuff that they were building. I saw a rough cut of the film. It did not have the special effects or the spaceship stuff in it, but the principal photography with the actors was done, so I got to see all that stuff. And that made an enormous difference. We were able to basically go through and try to create a story out of these different layers, take the material that we thought would make the best comic book. We were given pretty much complete freedom to do that.

Back then there were no likeness approvals. Stuff that you would have to deal with now—I mean, I understand, this is a property owned by somebody else. They want to make sure it conforms to whatever their ideas are. But, what happens for me is, the more people I have to get approvals from and hoops I have to jump through, the more creative energy goes into dealing with that stuff rather than into the comic itself.

I think the Alien graphic novel came out pretty well. I thought it benefited from letting a couple of guys who knew comics do a comic of the movie, and I thought the result was pretty good. But it’s harder to do these days. The licensed material, in some ways, is harder to deal with.

ROGERS: Having to go through likeness approvals—is that something that would happen with Robocop Vs. Terminator or Jurassic Park?

SIMONSON: In RoboCop/Terminator it did. I didn’t draw Jurassic Park—the artists were Gil [Kane] and George [Pérez]—and I don’t know what their parameters were.

Another fight sequence, this time from Robocop vs. Terminator. Click for larger view.

I know in RoboCop/Terminator, [the publisher] Dark Horse did not have likeness rights for Peter Weller and as a result we weren’t supposed to be using Peter as a model—[sarcastic:] like I know him, so I call him by his first name. The funny part about that is there’s a picture of the character in the last issue where he’s screaming about something and so he’s got a distorted face. And you know, with screaming people, even photographs don’t look much like themselves. That was the one drawing where the studio said, “Oh, this looks too much like Peter Weller. Change this.” [Rogers laughs.] And we kind of went, “What?” Because as far as I could tell it probably looked less like Peter Weller than anything else anywhere in the book.

ROGERS: What was it like working with Gil Kane on Jurassic Park?

SIMONSON: It was fun. It was a little bit of a surprise because Gil went back a long way. He’d been doing Marvel-style comics forever. That book was done Marvel-style, which is something most folks don’t do anymore, but basically it means that you supply a plot, the artist draws a bunch of pages, he gets them back to you, you write the script from the art. Which is really the way I prefer to work, although I’ve worked both ways without any problem.

In that case we had a screenplay, so I would tell Gil, “Alright, the first issue should be from page one to page thirteen or fourteen in the script, where this happens, and that’ll be the end of the first issue.”

The thing about that that was funny was that the third issue included the scene where the T. rex gets loose from the enclosure and eats the lawyer and tries to eat the kids. The comic book, in my original breakdown for it, continued somewhat beyond that scene. When Gil got to that scene—I’m not sure if he didn’t quite know how to boil it down—but basically when he ended the issue it was still part of that scene. He hadn’t finished it yet! And that meant that issue four was pretty dense--we had to cram everything else in.

So for issue four, I actually went through and did a diagrammatic breakdown of every page, a little box for each page and then wrote what was supposed to occur on that page in order for us to be able to get to the end of issue four and finish the story.

But you know Gil did very active stuff. It was fun to do, especially as a writer. I had the screenplay in one hand and Gil’s art in the other, and Gil was a good storyteller, so it made my job really easy.