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

ROGERS: Gil was one of the handful of older artists that I wanted to ask you about and try to figure out what you learned from them, or what kind of relationship your work has to their work. Bernie Krigstein was another.

SIMONSON: Actually, it’s funny you should mention Krigstein. I don’t know that I got anything out of Krigstein, not before I got into comics. I didn’t know his work at all before I became a professional.

I was about four years old when EC comics were coming out, so I never saw that stuff as a kid. I didn’t see it really until somebody in the early seventies put out a big hardcover that reprinted a bunch of stories from, including “Master Race.” “Master Race” is phenomenal, but it was not really an influence.

When I got into comics originally I had an interview with Carmine Infantino who was at that time publisher at DC—I don’t remember Carmine’s official title, but basically he was the head guy. He looked at my samples and liked them and we had about a five or ten-minute conversation, the only part of which I can now remember was he asked me if I had been influenced by Krigstein. At the time I had not, but my work was very design oriented and it was very linear, and I can see in retrospect why Carmine wondered if there were a connection.

I’m a big Krigstein admirer, but I don’t know that it’s ever had that strong an influence, other than I think maybe a parallel development in the way we do graphics. But by the time I saw his work I was already kind of going my own direction.

ROGERS: Okay, what about Carl Barks?

SIMONSON: I’m a giant Carl Barks fan. I don’t know I’d say exactly he had a graphic influence. [Laughs.] Walt Disney's Comics and Stories was the comic to which my parents allowed us to get a subscription, my brother and me, when we were very young. I usually bought the Uncle Scrooge comics in the drugstore, off the newsstand.

I read that stuff religiously, as much as I could. I still remember a lot of those stories. I’m a big admirer of his clarity, his timing. I’d like to think I got something from it, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t go back and really study it and try to emulate it, in the writing.

I love the drawing. I’ve done a few Barks-like ducks for friends every so often. Perhaps in the clarity of his storytelling I may have been influenced some, but it would be a more indirect influence than a guy like Jack Kirby.

ROGERS: And how about Moebius?

SIMONSON: Love Moebius’s work. I saw Moebius’s work about the time I was getting into comics, some of the Blueberrys. I really saw [Jean] Giraud’s work. I’m not sure how much Moebius there was right then.

But I had a friend who—I think his parents were French, and not French-Canadian—was living in my hometown. Jean and I became friends through a shared interest in comics and science fiction. He had a bunch of French Pilote magazines and such, really my introduction to both Giraud at that time in the Blueberrys, and [Philippe] Druillet, who was doing the early adventures of Lone Sloan. I thought both their work was phenomenal.  I still look at Moebius from time to time for inspiration because he just draws so beautifully. Both those guys, Druillet and Moebius, for different reasons,  are influences on my work.

A European influence? From the Marvel edition of Star Slammers.

ROGERS: I’m thinking especially of the Alien album or of the Star Slammers album. But I guess I’m asking because it seemed like there was a European influence on your work at the time, as well as on a lot of the artists who you were working around at the time.

SIMONSON: Well, my work is kind of eclectic in that I have a variety of influences, including several pretty important European ones.

One that’s continued to this day is Jim Holdaway, the guy who did the early Modesty Blaise newspaper strips. I love Holdaway’s work. I don’t draw much like Holdaway, but I’m hugely influenced by him, by his abstraction and by his storytelling. Even now if I get stuck I may go back and re-read a Modesty Blaise just to be refreshed all over again and start with a new eye.

I was a big fan of [Jean-Claude] Mézière's work. I loved  Valérian: Agent of Space and Time. I had a number of the early Valérian albums, in French, which I can’t really read. I get a sense out of them of what’s going on, but I love the drawing and the loose cartoony quality of it. He was hugely inventive. I love the inventiveness of it.

I was a big fan of [Antonio Hernández] Palacios out of Spain. I discovered his graphic novel, El Cid, very early in my career. A lot of brush work. I’ve got some skies that are very heavily influenced by the way he treated skies—there was, again, an abstraction to it that I liked.

And of course I became a giant [Sergio] Toppi fan a little later on. I didn’t find Toppi that early in my professional adult life. When I did find him I was just blown away by his storytelling, by his graphics, by his treatment of faces.

Again, somewhat later, [Katsuhiro] Otomo. Other guys that I like—I like the Lone Wolf and Cub series. Archie had all of those volumes in Japanese, but I wasn’t so taken with that material until I could actually read it. Once the English translations began coming out I was completely wowed by the manipulation of time: the ability to compress it, the ability to expand it. But there again, by the time I understood that work, I was already doing pretty much whatever it is I was doing. So I wouldn’t put that down as a major influence, but certainly it's work I admired.

I'm hugely influenced by Archie, in terms of writing—how I try to write stories and layer exposition in with character and try to make that invisible, stuff he could do just beautifully.

ROGERS: And this is something you would learn from getting his finished scripting over your work?

SIMONSON: Yeah, a lot of that influence was seeing what he did and trying to emulate it, and it was also from being encouraged by him.

My very early writing was a few issues of Battlestar Galactica. Archie was very complimentary about that. He was supposed to write an adaptation for a movie and he was too busy to do it, so he caught me in the hall one day, told me how much he had liked the Galacticas I’d written, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a three-part adaptation of this movie that was coming out. John Buscema was going to do the layouts, and Klaus [Janson] was finishing it. The movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. So my fifth, sixth, and seventh writing assignments after Galactica were three issues of Raiders, which again was from a movie script so I had less to do. But it was still very complimentary, very encouraging and very helpful of Archie to encourage me like that. I’m probably leaving some guys out, too, but those are probably a lot of the principal guys.

And yeah, I have a lot of European influence in the work I do.

The cover to the original collection of Manhunter.

ROGERS: I was thinking too about some of your cohort who were coming through at the same time and exhibiting a lot of the same influence. You know, Bernie Wrightson’s doing the album Creepshow, Bill Sienkiewicz is doing that Daredevil graphic novel, Jim Starlin is doing the Dreadstar graphic novel. I guess that’s Marvel’s graphic novel line. And you and Archie’s Manhunter would have been one of the first comics to actually be collected, would it?

SIMONSON: As far as I know, yes.

ROGERS: So I’m wondering, was there a feeling amongst you at the time that you were trying to win some legitimacy for comics?

SIMONSON: What would that mean? [Laughs.] I felt pretty legitimate to be doing comics to begin with. I wasn’t at all concerned with proving to anyone else out there that this was something worth doing. I thought it was worth doing, and that was enough.

I liked the subversiveness of comics, even the mainstream stuff back then. Back in the old days, that was one of the first things that a kid could spend his own money on. You get your allowance, you can go buy your own comic. I didn’t do comics that were so incredibly radical that parents would have been appalled to see them, although I have had people tell me, years and years after the fact, they were caught by Manhunter because he was actually killing people. I’d seen the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip that [Peter] O'Donnell and Holdaway were doing, and I didn’t think twice about that sort of thing then.
I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the superhero mainstream, I just thought this was what adventure stuff was like. So I wasn’t sitting there trying to break new ground. Archie and I were simply trying to tell good stories and it seemed to be appropriate for the character.

Also, we wanted to separate the character from, say, Batman. Not that killing was necessarily the way to do it, but there were things about Manhunter we did partly because Archie was trying to create a second feature in Detective [Comics] that would be in contrast to Batman. Where Batman was dark and gray and blue, Manhunter was bright; where Batman was really a city guy, from Gotham City, Manhunter travelled the world; where Batman has batarangs and a variety of utility belts, Manhunter went armed. There were things like that that led naturally to the kind of stories we did.

But, you know, legitimacy for me is one of those things that people decide later, after you’re done. Kind of like art—I figure that people will decide later what art is or what it’s not.

A million years ago, Bob Dylan did an interview in which they ask him about protest songs, and he had some remark about the word protest or the idea of protest song, that it had kind of a hernia-like sound to it, it was crass [Laughs.] I don’t know that I think legitimacy has a hernia-like sound to it, but it sounds like you’re working toward some other goal than telling a story. My interest really is to tell a story the best way I can, and my talents enable me able to do it visually in a graphic-story form. If I can do that well, that’s enough.

ROGERS: Are you still following the stories that some of those other guys are telling today? Are you still checking in on what Chaykin’s doing or what Jim Starlin’s doing or Sienkiewicz or Miller?

SIMONSON: Once in a while. I haven’t seen Starlin’s work for a while. I just picked up a book which I have not read yet, that’s one of the Steve Niles/Wrightson horror things for IDW. I grabbed a copy a few days ago at a bookstore.

I don’t take a broad survey of the industry on a regular basis. I go to my comic shop and get the comics I’ve signed up for. But I’ve reached the point where I do not peruse Previews every month trying to get through 8000 pages of 5000 different products. I just haven’t got the time. And the comic shops I go to, most of them don’t carry everything anymore.

I’m not in New York City these days, so it’s a little harder to see as wide a variety of material—I kind of haven’t paid as much attention to some of it as I would like to. Occasionally I’ll browse the web, or cruise through a bunch of books in a store, looking through the racks to see what’s going on. I’ve gotten DC packs for a while, so I’ll look through the DC books, just to get a sense of where the artwork’s going, where some of the stories are going.

But I’ve kind of worked over in a small corner of the comics universe for a while. I’m just trying to make that corner as comfortable and as interesting as I can for readers.