|Edited by Roy Thomas||Alter Ego, the greatest 'zine of the '60s, is all-new, focusing on Golden and Silver Age comics and creators with articles, interviews and unseen art. Each issue includes an FCA (Fawcett Collectors of America) section, Mr. Monster & more!|
A Brief Biography of WALLY WOOD
by Michael T. Gilbert
From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #8
Wally Wood's entire life was an endless struggle for control. His obsession with mastering every aspect of his chosen profession enabled him to reach heights few in the comics field have ever achieved. But his tragic inability to control his personal demons contributed to his death in 1981 at the age of 54-an age when many cartoonists are just reaching their artistic peak.
I. "Wally Wood Loved To Draw"
Wallace Wood was born June 17, 1927, in Menahga, Minnesota. According to comics historian Jim Steranko, Wood and his father Max, a lumberjack, often fought bitterly. In The Wally Wood Sketchbook Steranko notes that "both had strong egos, took criticism poorly, were self-centered and tenaciously stubborn." The father disapproved of his son's artistic leanings. Why couldn't young Wally be more like his older brother Glenn, a strapping man like Max? Wally had other ideas.
Wally Wood loved to draw. His art must have been a source of comfort and stability to the shy and introverted boy during his chaotic childhood. The Wood family continually moved from town to town, always in a state of upheaval. Nonetheless, his mother Alma encouraged the boy, and even sewed together pages of his cartoons into little "comic" books.
She was the creative half of the marriage: a teacher who loved to write stories and songs. It was probably inevitable that this oil-and-water combination would clash. While Wally was still a teenager, his parents separated. Amid this strife, drawing was the one thing that he could control. He could create order out of the chaos surrounding him. And he could do it with pen and ink.
Wood was extremely talented, even as a teenager. Some of his early cartoons show great imagination and power. The raw ability was there, but it wasn't enough for him. He studied and copied his cartoonist idols-Roy Crane, Hal Foster, Will Eisner, Milton Caniff, and Alex Raymond among them-as he worked tirelessly to learn the craft of cartooning from the bottom up.
Shortly after his parents' separation, Wood joined the Merchant Marine and embraced the discipline and order that came with it. Discharged in 1946, he joined the Paratroopers for two years, then returned to Minneapolis to live with his mother and brother. After a short stint at the Minneapolis School of Art and a series of odd jobs, he moved to New York. At last he was free to control his destiny!
II. "On His Way!"
He soon got work lettering The Spirit for his idol, Will Eisner. The young man performed similar chores for George Wunder's Terry and the Pirates, a strip created by Milt Caniff, another of his idols. But Wood could never be happy for long as anyone's assistant. He had to be in control. He quickly graduated from lettering to drawing his own comic book stories.
At first he collaborated with another cartoonist, Harry Harrison. Initially, Harrison inked Wood's pencils, but as Wood grew more confident in his inking skills, they reversed roles. Then, in 1949, his first solo story appeared in True Crime Comics. With that, Wally Wood was on his way!
If he assumed that talent and hard work would automatically be rewarded, he was in for a rude awakening. One of his first employers was Victor Fox, already legendary as a rat's rat. A loud, obnoxious little man with a big cigar, Fox had a reputation as the quintessential sleazy publisher. Wood felt he and Harrison were cheated out of thousands of dollars by Fox. Wood learned early on not to trust publishers.
Fortunately, there were good publishers, too. He enjoyed working for Avon on such titles as Strange Worlds, Space Detective, and The Mask of Fu Manchu with another friend, Joe Orlando. The two met in 1950 and produced hundreds of pages together. Wood and his partners did fine work for Fox and Avon, but it was at EC-Entertaining Comics-that he finally found a company worthy of his talents.
Both publisher Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein were fans as well as professionals. They loved Wood's work and let him know it. EC treated their artists with respect, which was almost unique in the industry. The page rate was among the best in the business, and the editors encouraged artistic individuality.
Harrison and Wood were still a matched set during Wood's earliest EC days, but at his editors urging Wood struck out on his own. Harrison later became a successful science-fiction writer, while Orlando enjoyed a solo career at EC. Surrounded and challenged by the greatest writers and cartoonists in the comics industry, Wood thrived.
III. "In A Class By Itself"
Alone now, Wood was finally in total control of his art. And, working alone at EC, the young artist quickly built a reputation for excellence. In the early 1950s he created page after page of exquisite, intricate artwork for Mad, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Shock SuspenStories, Frontline Combat, and the like.
Wood fearlessly tackled every genre in comics-whether science-fiction, war, or historical-and mastered them all. In 1950 Wood married Tatjana Weintraub. In love, and fast becoming a superstar at EC, the young artist had never been happier.
That joy showed in his work. Almost from the start, Wood's science-fiction art was in a class by itself. His gleaming rockets, intricate machinery, heroic men, lush women, and gooey monsters redefined the genre. He experimented with a wide variety of art techniques, all of which he quickly mastered. He often used craftint, rossboard, scratchboard-sometimes all in the same story! Wood was always pushing his art to new levels. Always striving for control.
That control was evident in all aspects of his art. His pen and brush lines were always crisp, clean, and perfect. He knew just when and where to place black shadows and white highlights for maximum effect. Zip-a-tone was plentiful, and always perfectly placed to add clarity to the panels. It was as if his art reflected an inner desire for order and reason.
The fans went wild over his work. Gaines and Feldstein were two of his biggest boosters. In fact, writer/editor Feldstein himself wrote one of Wood's most famous stories. "My World," in Weird Science #22 (Nov.-Dec. 1953), was a six-page tribute to science-fiction artists-and to Wood in particular. Wood lovingly rendered each panel, and "My World" became an instant classic. A far cry indeed from his early days at Fox!
When cartoonist/editor Harvey Kurtzman launched Mad as a four-color comic book in 1952, he tapped Wood as one of his top artists. The combination of Kurtzman's dynamic illustrated scripts and Woody's impeccable finishes was magic. Kurtzman's layouts loosened Wally's art, while Wood's finishes gave Kurtzman's layouts a polish and power that transformed them.
Wood's ability to mimic other cartoonists was perfect for illustrating Kurtzman's hilarious parodies of comic books and strips. The Kurtzman/Wood send-ups of Superman, Batman, Blackhawk, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, and Prince Valiant were wildly popular, and helped make Mad a runaway success. More often than not, Woody's Mad satires looked more exciting than the comics they were imitating!
In 1955 the Mad comic book was upgraded to the slicker Mad magazine. Wood once again met the challenge. His art became even more sophisticated, and the "wash" toning effects he mastered gave the entire magazine a more adult look. Kurtzman would soon leave Mad, but Wood's art retained all the looseness and spontaneity that had made their early collaborations so wonderful. It was as if the artist had absorbed Kurtzman's rough visual energy.
In reality, Wood was now in such total control of his art that he could finally loosen up!
Many still consider his EC work-drawn while he was still in his early twenties-to be the best of his amazing career. The sheer brilliance of his EC art makes it easy to forget that Wood was simultaneously producing reams of beautiful pages for Avon titles in his spare time. Somehow he even managed to illustrate eight classic Spirit episodes for his former boss, Will Eisner.
There was a downside to all this, of course. Wood's backbreaking schedule came with a price. He was legendary for working days on end, often falling asleep at his drawing board. And, like many cartoonists, he used alcohol to fuel these marathon work sessions. Still, he had youth on his side, and an iron will. It was "pedal to the metal" for Wally Wood-and he was loving every minute of it!
This is not to say that everything was perfect. Even at EC, Wood sometimes felt unappreciated. Decades later, he expressed resentment that Harvey Kurtzman-his exacting editor on EC's Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales as well as on Mad-would criticize some minor historical detail he'd gotten wrong. The unspoken message seemed to be, "Hey, Harvey-didn't you notice how hard I worked to get everything else right?" Wood described his feelings about Kurtzman in an interview for EC Lives!, a magazine produced for the 1972 EC Convention:
"I quit working for Harvey twice... Harvey had a very annoying way of criticizing your work... He's never easy to work for... I like Harvey and I respect him, but he's a hard man... he's a tyrant! He's gotta have everything his way, which I suppose I admire in a way, too."
In Kurtzman, Wood finally met a greater perfectionist than himself. As much as he respected him, Wood hated having someone else in control. Still, these conflicts were the exception to the rule at EC. Wood often described this period as the happiest in his life.
IV. "New Heights"
It didn't last long. By 1956 EC was essentially out of business, a victim of Dr. Fredric Wertham's industry-wide witch hunt and the restrictive Comics Code that followed. Only Mad remained.
But Wood kept busy anyway. Mad remained a steady and exceptionally high-paying client, and he never missed an issue for twelve years. Wood also did minor work for Timely/Atlas (the past and future Marvel Comics) under Stan Lee in the '50s, and the occasional DC war story. Still, his comic book output dropped dramatically. The pay was lower than it had been before the comics purge, and there was far less work. Invariably, scripts he was given were far inferior to EC's. But, like a relentless machine, Wood rolled on. Even in this bleak period, the artist thrived.
Wood expanded into commercial art and continued to develop his already breathtaking drawing abilities. In 1956 Harvey Kurtzman left Mad to start his own humor magazine for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Trump only lasted two glorious issues, but it had a huge budget, slick paper, magazine-style color, and production values far greater than any comic before it. Even the revamped Mad paled by comparison. Helping out in the first issue, Wood took full advantage of the artistic opportunities and the challenges the upscale format afforded.
Wood's art reached new heights when he illustrated Kurtzman's "Hansel and Gretel," a brutal parody of Disney's sanitized fairytale adaptations. Woody painted the story in a dead-on imitation of a Disney cartoon. Amazingly, each "frame" looked like a beautiful cel painting, filled with exquisite detail.
How did he do it? By painstakingly drawing the main characters for the entire three-page story on cel acetate, with the backgrounds painted on a separate board-just like the real thing! It was an incredible amount of work, but the finished story was funny, lively, and, well... perfect!
Total control. Just when you thought Wood couldn't get any better... he did.
Then it was back to comics again. In the late '50s he did some spectacular inking over Jack Kirby in DC's Challengers of the Unknown series and on the syndicated Sky Masters newspaper strip. Wood clearly loved Kirby's art, and the pairing brought out the very best in both artists. Kirby's raw power and imagination were further refined and polished by Wood's masterful spotting of blacks and his precise, controlled line. Many consider Wood's rendering during this period the finest in Kirby's long career. Yet another triumph for Wood! The "cherries on top" were two "Best Comic Book Artist" awards from the prestigious National Cartoonists society in 1957 and 1959. By any measure, the '50s were Wood's decade.
V. "Little Choice"
But behind the scenes, Wood's life wasn't rolling along quite so smoothly. By the '60s, the artist was feeling restless and ill-used. His drinking was getting worse, and his marriage to Tatjana was in trouble. Sky Masters had run its course and was terminated in 1961. Wood had already left the strip months earlier, as declining circulation forced pay reductions. He grew frustrated. He was starting to lose control.
Adding to his troubles, Wood suffered from terrible headaches. One assistant remembered him calling it his "never-ending headache." He began drinking even more to dull the pain-but that just made things worse. Eventually, it began to affect his art. In 1964, Mad's editor rejected one of his stories-Wood's first rejection since he had helped launch the Mad comic book in 1952. Angry and humiliated, Wood quit. In an ironic twist, the editor who rejected the story was Al Feldstein, the very man who, eleven years earlier, had written "My World" as a loving tribute to Wood!
Russ Jones, an artist who worked with Wood at the time, recently described that period:
"Mad sent Woody a rejection slip on a comic strip lampoon, and it about killed him. Yes, the job was covered in liquid paper, but it was great compared to what Bob Clarke produced. I think the guys at Mad were just kidding around, but it backfired! I stood rooted when Wally called Bill Gaines and quit. Poor Bill... he called many times to try and talk Woody back... but no go. Poor Wally... he threw out his biggest client. The whole affair was sad. No winners."
With Sky Masters and Mad both gone, Wood had little choice but to return to the struggling comic book field. Even before then, he had started picking up some comic book work from cartoonist Vince Colletta, who was packaging stories for Charlton, the industry's lowest-paying publisher. Russ Jones continues:
"So, you can imagine where he was at in '62, '63, etc., when he was forced to do inks for Vince Colletta for ten bucks a page. We had a ton of stuff to do... but mostly Charlton war books."
Turning Colletta's layouts into finished art for $10 a page was a major comedown for Wood. Ten years earlier, EC had paid him $50 a page plus bonuses-but those happy days were gone. His career had reached its lowest point. According to Jones, Wood and his assistants "cranked out endless pages for Vince. As Woody and I ground out the pages, Tatjana, his wife, made us gallons of coffee and served Canadian bacon sandwiches... We'd eat, drink coffee, and smoke tons of cigarettes. Pages would be inked, erased, and cleaned, and stacked into the 'finished' pile. It was a factory... pages would literally fly from one board to the next, nothing in any real sequence. Gallons of Higgins Extra-Dense India Ink and Windsor/Newton Series #7 & #3 brushes were devoured. We'd work all night, deliver the goods to Vinnie's studio in the west 40s, go home, collapse, sleep, then begin again. It was wild."
VI. "Second Coming"
Happily, Charlton was just a brief rest-stop. By the end of 1964 Wood returned to Marvel, where he had illustrated a few mystery stories after EC's collapse. The company, now in the midst of a creative rebirth, was looking for someone with Wood's abilities. Wood was sober now, and ready to make his mark in comics yet again.
Editor Stan Lee heralded his arrival as if it were the Second Coming. "Under the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous illustrator Wally Wood, Daredevil reaches new heights of glory!" screamed a blurb on the cover of Wood's first Daredevil issue.
For once, Lee's comments weren't mere hyperbole. Wood took over Marvel's newest title, Daredevil, replacing his old friend and fellow EC alumnus Joe Orlando. Though he'd done few super-hero comics before this, Wood easily mastered this popular genre.
By now Wood had further refined his art, eliminating what he considered "unnecessary clutter." This new approach gave the book a sleek, elegant look, perfect for the character. By issue #7 Wood asserted himself further, completely redesigning cartoonist Bill Everett's original yellow-and-red costume. In an inspired move, Wood made the uniform devil-red with striking black highlights, further emphasizing the "devil" part of "Daredevil." Fans loved the results. In fact, Wood's design was so successful that it's still in use today, 35 years later.
For a while it seemed the restless Wally Wood had found a home at Marvel. But there was trouble brewing. And once again it came down to a matter of control.
By 1964 Marvel had three superstar artists: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood. Editor/writer Stan Lee ran the show. Besides editing the Marvel line, he wrote most of the titles. In a time-saving move, the overextended Lee passed on more and more writing responsibilities to the artists. Instead of full scripts, he would give the artists a plot idea and tell them to draw the story. He then added dialogue to the finished product.
The plan worked well at first. Lee could write far more pages, and the artists enjoyed the greater creative freedom. But, over time, the three artists grew dissatisfied. Eventually they realized they were effectively co-writing the comics, but without extra credit or extra pay.
Wood addressed this very topic in a bitter 1977 article for his Woodwork Gazette newsletter. He described an editor "Stanley" who "came up with two surefire ideas... the first one was 'Why not let the artists WRITE the stories as well as draw them?'... And the second was... ALWAYS SIGN YOUR NAME ON TOP... BIG."
Wood and his fellow artists were master storytellers, quite capable of writing their own plots and finished dialogue. In time the artists grew to believe Lee was taking credit for their work-and they resented it. But most of all, Kirby, Ditko, and Wood were finally at a stage in their careers where they wanted to tell their stories without interference.
They demanded greater control over the stories they drew, and full writing credit. Understandably, Lee wasn't about to give up that degree of authority. Frustrated, Ditko abandoned The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966 to concentrate on Mr. A, a strip he created and owned. Kirby followed three years later, leaving Marvel to write and draw his famous "Fourth World" line of comics for DC.
VI. "A Dream Set-Up"
Wood beat them all.
In 1965 Harry Shorten at Tower Publishing invited Wood to create and edit a new line of super-hero comics. The 37-year-old artist jumped at the chance. Wood himself called the Tower assignment "a dream set-up. I created all the characters, wrote most of the stories, and drew most of the covers. I did as much of the art as I could... But it was fun."
Woody was ready to plunge into his next artistic challenge-creating his own line of comics. This would mean more control over his art, something he always craved. He'd mastered every genre of cartoon art; he'd won numerous awards. Having proven himself over and over, Wood now wanted to call the shots.
From 1965 to 1969, Wood and his talented crew produced T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Dynamo, and a handful of other titles. Woody drew most of the lead stories and the classic covers. He wrote, plotted, or rewrote stories and hired his old EC buddies Al Williamson and Reed Crandall to help with the art. Steve Ditko and Gil Kane also contributed stories. Wood was in his glory! In a strange way, Wood became Tower's Stan Lee, as he guided and controlled every aspect of an entire comics line.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents quickly became a fan favorite and may have contributed to his third "Best Comic Book Artist" award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1965. The stories were slight, but refreshingly clean and clear. Art and scripts reflected Wood's sensibilities and some found them a welcome relief from increasingly copy-heavy Marvel comics.
Wood's covers were elegant and powerful. Enhanced by the subdued coloring of his talented wife Tatjana, he produced some of the most striking covers of his career. Every issue was like a box of Crackerjacks-with a delicious surprise in each. In one issue Al Williamson would team with Wood on a cover; the next might feature Wood inking Crandall or Ditko. It was a fan's dream come true!
Format and distribution problems eventually killed Tower, but Wood had proved himself once again. He could edit comics as well as write and draw them. Only one challenge remained: publishing. And he'd already taken the first step.
In 1965 one of Wood's admirers, Dan Adkins, who drew science-fiction art for the professional magazines, asked him to contribute to his upcoming prozine, called Outlet. (It was soon renamed Et Cetera, and finally witzend!) Wood immediately realized such a magazine could be the ideal venue for him to publish and own his strips without editorial interference.
Wood, who was knee-deep in the first issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at the time, told Adkins he'd gladly contribute something-but only if he could publish it himself. As always, Wood's natural instinct was to take control. To soften the blow, he invited Adkins to join his studio. The younger man agreed, and soon quit his job at an advertising agency to join his idol. Wood had already mastered drawing, writing, and editing. Now he was a publisher, too!
There had been other creator-owned comics in the past: Simon and Kirby's Fighting American, Will Eisner's The Spirit, Joe Kubert's Tor, and Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug among them. Only The Spirit had long-term success, but it had not been published regularly since Wood himself had assisted Eisner in 1952. Now, at last, it was Wood's turn to try.
Wood wrote and illustrated a number of new characters for witzend. Some, like Animan and Wizard King, employed concepts he'd created as a youngster. These were his babies, not to be desecrated by ham-handed editors or greedy, philistine publishers. At long last he could finally write and draw his creations his way.
By the time the first issue appeared in 1966, Wood had already enlisted other like-minded artist/writers to contribute their own creator-owned projects. Steve Ditko's "Mr. A" and Gray Morrow's "Orion" were two exceptional efforts that debuted in witzend. Wood, greatly aided behind the scenes by Dan Adkins and Bill Pearson, produced one of the all-time classy prozines. It's worth noting that Wood was doing this labor of love while simultaneously establishing his entire Tower line.
Though Wood had often complained of low pay in the comics field, he happily worked countless unpaid hours putting out witzend. Wood's primary motivation was never money, but rather what money represented. Money meant respect-and freedom! Freedom from publishers and editors. Other cartoonists griped about how they were treated. Wood put his money where his mouth was.
witzend was a watershed for creator ownership. How many budding creators and established pros in the late '60s realized for the first time that it was possible to own their own creations? Such artistic freedom was inspiring, and undoubtedly encouraged the early underground comics movement, whose main superstars-Bob Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and art spiegelman-were already fans of Wood's early Mad work.
If witzend was inspiring, it was not particularly profitable. In the days before comics shops and the direct market, most sales were mail order, which translated to poor numbers. Much as he loved the work and the freedom, it just wasn't paying the bills. Wood eventually handed the editorial reins to his friend Bill Pearson, though he continued to contribute to the magazine.
VII. "Unmistakably Wood"
Wood now drew fewer pages for witzend, but his fans were not deprived of his art. More than ever, Wally Wood seemed to be an indestructible comic book machine, cranking out page after page of wonderful comics at an inhuman pace.
The lucky fan of the '60s stumbled upon new Wood work everywhere, from Dell's M.A.R.S. Patrol to stories in Warren's Creepy and Eerie. Pick up Harvey's Three Rocketeers, or one of their short-lived anthology titles, and you might stumble on Wood's Earthman or Miracles, Inc. His backups, hidden away like perfect jewels, would often outshine the cover feature. Classic Wood art also popped up in Ballantine's EC paperbacks.
Tales of the Incredible reprinted some of Wood's best science-fiction and horror work from the '50s, while his early Mad stories filled numerous paperback collections. Then there was Gold Key's Fantastic Voyage movie adaptation, illustrations for Galaxy magazine (Wood drew 160 of them between 1957 and 1967!), designs for the deliciously gruesome Mars Attacks! cards, record covers, and a famous series of Alka-Seltzer ads. Amazing! How could one man do it all?
Actually, one man didn't.
Wood had a stable of collaborators and assistants over the years. In the '50s he mainly worked with Joe Orlando, Harry Harrison, and Sid Check. In later decades he was assisted by Dan Adkins, Ralph Reese, Wayne Howard, Larry Hama, and Bill Pearson, to name a few. No matter. The end result was unmistakably Wood. Helpers or not, the quantity and consistent high quality of the pages were unbelievable. He was always in control of the final product.
Even Wood's studio reflected his need for control. Dozens of files were filled with clippings used for reference and "swiping," all perfectly arranged. His assistants were all young, impressionable cartoonists, some still in their teens, who worshiped Wood. There was never any question who was in charge.
But it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Though Wood was quite capable of working without assistants-and often did so-the shy, reclusive artist enjoyed the companionship and energy of others. They could do the grunt work: erasing pencil smudges, penciling or inking backgrounds, and such. Wood, for his part, happily shared tricks of the trade he'd learned through decades of trial and error. A young cartoonist couldn't ask for a better teacher. Former assistant Ralph Reese once described working in Wood's studio in the mid-'60s:
"After a while I got to keeping his files in order. His file was astounding! He must have had thirty file drawers of clippings and I kept them in order. I also kept the place in order. When I first met Wally he had been working in the same room for twelve years, so there was a lot of clutter. The first time I saw his studio I couldn't figure out what was hanging from the ceiling. There were all these things with grey felt on them. They turned out to be hundreds of model airplanes on strings, covered with dust."
Throughout Wood's life, order and chaos always battled for control. But for this period, at least, order ruled. Woody produced pages at a breakneck pace. Undoubtedly, some of his incredible productivity during this period was due to a desire to provide his assistants with work. That, and the fact that he was doing what he loved.
VIII. "To Light Down Briefly..."
But his grueling schedule began taking its toll. As the '60s grew to a close, Wood continued to work for the mainstream, but couldn't stick to anything for long.
Wood returned to Marvel in 1969, having left the company for Tower in 1965 after a stunning seven-issue run on Daredevil. It didn't last long. Within a year, Wood had another falling-out with Stan Lee. After the freedom he'd enjoyed at Tower, it must have been difficult for Wood to take orders again. Nonetheless, in 1970 he returned to illustrate four "Dr. Doom" episodes in Astonishing Tales, scripted by Roy Thomas and Larry Lieber. He also wrote and drew a few short stories for Marvel's Tower of Shadows comic-sword-and-sorcery stories in the same Tolkienesque vein as his earlier "Wizard King" stories.
And inking always paid the bills. In 1971, Wood teamed with Ross Andru on the first issue of Kull the Conqueror. A year later he provided beautiful finishes on the first issue of a new character, The Claws of the Cat, over his old EC colorist, Marie Severin. One beautiful issue each-and out! Again and again, he seemed to light down briefly, then disappear.
It was a pattern not limited to Marvel. It was hit and run at DC, too.
In 1969, Wood inked a series of Superboy stories over Bob Brown. That same year his brushwork also graced Bob Oksner's pencils on the humor title Angel and the Ape, and tightened Howie Post's scratchy pencils on Anthro.
Jerry Grandenetti, another Spirit alumnus, also got the Wood treatment. Woody inked a number of his stories in the early '70s for House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected, and The Witching Hour. There were other odd pairings at DC, such as an issue of Wonder Woman in 1971 which matched him with Mike Sekowsky. He also teamed up with artist Gil Kane on a lone issue of Green Lantern and some Captain Action stories, as well as stories for DC's mystery titles in 1969 and 1970.
Additionally, the black-&-white Warren magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella provided another showcase for the artist's clean, solid art. Wood was working steadily, but there seemed to be no focus to his career, no long-term goal. Wood's professional life was drifting. His terrible migraines continued and he was drinking again. Years of overwork and alcohol were slowly killing him.
As Wood's health declined, his art suffered. More and more, Wood's vivid visual imagination was replaced by formula. There had always been some of that, even in Wood's earliest work. But in his prime there was also startling originality and inventiveness. By the time he was in his 40s, his art was as slick as ever, but there were fewer and fewer surprises.
Professionally, Wood was fearless, even reckless. But artistically, he seemed to be playing it safe.
As the '60s rolled on into the '70s, the patented Wood formula became more pronounced. Though still beautiful, his art seemed increasingly stiff and homogenized; his heroes were often interchangeable. Switch costumes and you could barely tell Dynamo from Radian-or Radian from Earthman. They were perfect-template perfect. Too much control was sucking the life out of his art.
Wood's drinking undoubtedly contributed to this, but his increasing reliance on his studio added to the problem. In an effort to churn out more pages, Wood encouraged his assistants to draw like him. To help them, he distilled his art to a series of formulas and mannerisms-gimmicks that could be easily imitated by his students. He further increased production by having helpers trace work from his earlier comics. A Superman figure in All-Star Comics might be swiped from Wood's Earthman or Dynamo. Eventually, everything started to look the same.
Occasionally the real Wally Wood would come out of hibernation. Wood sometimes tackled a story without help, just to show he still could. Two such stories from this period, "Sno' Fun!" for DC's House of Mystery in 1972, and 1971's "To Kill a God!" recall his glory days at EC. Both were exceptionally beautiful.
Those stories and a handful of others displayed the artist's impeccable layouts, detailed art, lush shading, and luscious women. To his fans, stories like these were both exhilarating and frustrating. Why wasn't Wood doing this level of work on a regular basis?
The problem went beyond his use of assistants. To some, it seemed the years had taken away his passion, leaving behind only craft. More and more, Woody seemed to be coasting. He needed a new artistic challenge.
At EC he had competed against the very best artists ever in the field, for an appreciative publisher. Back then, Wood had illustrated superb stories by Al Feldstein, Ray Bradbury, and Harvey Kurtzman, and had risen to the challenge. As EC's young golden boy, he had seemed in control of his destiny. At DC and Marvel, it was a far different story.
By the mid-'70s both companies were in a deep creative slump. Scripts were largely bland and derivative, and morale was low. Vince Colletta, Wood's old packager at Charlton, was now art director at DC, and the comics looked it. Cluttered, copy-heavy covers were everywhere! Story count was lowered to make room for cheesy ads. Plastic printing plates made the shoddy comics of old look positively glorious by comparison. Any artist who truly cared about his work had to be discouraged. Wood's problem drinking only made it worse.
Wood struggled with alcoholism all his life. Early on, the shy and emotionally repressed young man discovered that a few drinks could "cure" those traits, temporarily. Drinking enabled Wood to open up and relax with people. Better yet, it kept him going during long, grueling hours at the drawing board. And Wood wasn't alone. Many cartoonists of his generation and beyond were also alcoholics, including fellow EC artists Graham Ingels and Reed Crandall. Some beat the problem, others died from it.
Alcoholism is a disease of control. Hardcore drunks either refuse to admit they have a problem, or they think they can "handle it" themselves. Most can't. Only those who are willing to accept help have a real chance of beating it. Wood refused to give up control. Instead, he tried to do it himself, with limited success. In 1964 his drinking had caused his painful break with Mad magazine, but the lesson didn't stick. He would dry out for periods, but could never completely stop.
X. "Spinning Downhill"
In 1969, Wood's life took a drastic downturn when he divorced Tatjana, his wife since 1950. From then on, his drinking got worse. His good friend and studio mate, Bill Pearson, recently described the situation:
"His marriage... ended sometime in the late Sixties. He didn't drink at all from 1965 until then, that I know of, and it was primarily due to her, of course. Over the years, in my opinion, she became more of a mother than a wife to him, and that was a natural evolution. He needed someone to tell him when to eat, when to go to bed, when to change his socks. He grew tired of her running his schedule, and divorced her. She still loved him and welcomed him anytime he showed up to visit in later years."
Wood, the ultimate control freak, finally rebelled against the one person he'd allowed to control him. Predictably, the results were disastrous. He started spinning downhill again and sought help from a psychiatrist. Even here, Wood took control, eventually marrying his therapist. Bill Pearson described Wood's second marriage, to Marilyn Glass, this way:
"I didn't know his second wife well. She was very pretty and intelligent... with three young children. She lived out in the suburbs of Long Island somewhere. I went to their wedding reception... That marriage was probably around 1970... because I remember moving back to Arizona in the early '70s, never visited Wood in that house on Long Island, only got sporadic phone calls from Wood complaining about the three children and his inability to cope with his wife's lifestyle and her inability to cope with his. Marriage lasted two or three years, no more."
In J. David Spurlock's The Wally Wood Sketchbook, Steranko states that Wood's second marriage began in 1970 and ended in 1973. With his personal life again in shambles, he faced some rough times. He was well into his forties now, and feeling it. Decades of smoking, drinking, and "all-nighters" were finally catching up with him. He suffered dangerously high blood pressure, failing eyesight, and worse. As his health faded, Wood became acutely aware he was still just a hired hand in an industry he no longer respected. In a 1978 editorial he described his situation:
"I'm through with comics-for other people, anyway... All I know is comic artists have been ripped off for so long they don't even know they HAVE rights. No medical care, no retirement benefits, no reprint money... I think everyone gets into the business because they love it, and somewhere along the line, when they've wised up, find themselves trapped in it, too old to start a new career..."
By now, he'd seen how the industry used and discarded people just like him. Reed Crandall, Bill Finger, Bill Everett-the list was endless. His friend and collaborator Jack Kirby had co-created many of Marvel's most popular characters. By the late '70s Kirby was out of fashion, scrambling for work and being treated as a joke by some of the younger Marvel editors.
DC's similarly shoddy treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was common knowledge. The company's owners grew rich off Superman, while their creators lived in virtual poverty. Wood looked around and saw nothing but dead ends. Sure, he'd created T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents-but didn't own it. His Mad work was constantly being reprinted-but he didn't own that, either. For all his talent, he was just a hired hand. Wood put it this way: "Everyone in the business has given away ideas for page rates, which then become the property of the company. And no one has anything to look forward to except being poor in their old age."
XI. "Sick Of The Industry"
Wood knew the score. If he was sick of the comics industry, who could blame him? But, to be fair, he had burned many bridges in his career. He was inclined to take artistic disagreements personally and to hold grudges, severely limiting his options in the field. It was a decades-old problem. Harvey Kurtzman, commenting on this in 1972, stated that Wood "had this enormous talent, and his curse was that he was introverted... everything was bottled up. The dominating thing in Wally's life was this bottled-up quality which eventually did great harm to him and destroyed much of him."
Kurtzman's assessment was harsh but incisive. Wood buried his emotions his entire life, and his career suffered for it. If he had a disagreement with Kurtzman or another editor, he silently stewed about it until his anger and resentment reached a boiling point. Then he'd explode.
It happened with Al Feldstein at Mad, with Stan Lee at Marvel, and countless other times. Eventually this impulsive, self-destructive behavior became a pattern and served to further isolate the artist. Wood's reclusive nature affected his personal life, too, and was noticeable even during his EC days.
In 1972, Bill Gaines remembered Wood fondly, but described him as "moody on occasion and... difficult to get close to."
Al Feldstein recalled him as shy, uncommunicative, and "very careful about letting people come close to him as an individual."
Throughout his career Wood seemed drawn to characters who were outsiders. Cannon, Andor, Dollar Bill Cash, Weed, and The Sub-Mariner were all outcasts-people who never fit in. He related to characters who were misunderstood-noble heroes who hid deep emotions under a stoic facade. Like them, Wood kept his emotions close to the vest, fearful that exposing his feelings would make him vulnerable. He felt more comfortable sharing them in his art.
Fellow Mad artist Will Elder hit the nail on the head when he observed: "There was a need of showing his sensitivity through his work, since I don't think Wally had the personality to show it any other way."
Art is a reflection of life. If Wood's drawings grew cold and sterile over the years, was it any wonder? He was a passionate man, but afraid to show it. In time, it even became hard to display his emotions on the page.
Too much control had drained the life from Wood's work, and there was nothing in mainstream comics to recharge his spirit. By the mid-'70s his frustrations were reaching a boiling point. Between his stalled career, broken marriages, and all the rest, nothing seemed to be working anymore. Wood's whole life was spinning out of control, and there seemed no way out.
XII "Naked Glory"
During this period, Wood began producing hardcore strips and covers for the notorious sex paper Screw and its various spinoffs. By now, he was so disgusted with mainstream comics that drawing X-rated comics for porno publishers like Al Goldstein seemed like a step up. Wood enjoyed it, and they let him keep his copyrights.
Actually, Wood's move toward X-rated material wasn't a huge surprise. Even back in the '50s his lush women were a favorite element of his science-fiction art. His sensuous Mad comics parodies of Lois Lane and the Dragon Lady were the stuff of adolescent wet dreams.
A decade later, Wood still made male hearts beat faster with a handful of softcore sex cartoons drawn for Playboy, Cavalcade, Dude, and Gent. He also featured plenty of tasteful sex in witzend. In 1967 he created a strip called "Pipsqueak Papers" for the magazine, featuring a sexy elf named Nudine. Wood obviously enjoyed rendering her in all her naked glory!
A year later, he created a sexy humor strip for the publisher of Overseas Weekly, an Army paper. Sally Forth was a sweet innocent in the classic Little Annie Fanny mold-always vainly trying to protect her long-lost "virtue" from legions of horny admirers. Sally was silly fluff, but essentially good-natured fun.
Wood's work for Screw was different. Still impeccably drawn, his new work had acquired a mean, misogynist edge. The story "Malice in Wonderland" was particularly disturbing. Appearing in 1976 in the first issue of The National Screw, his story was an X-rated parody of Alice in Wonderland. One scene gleefully depicts a female cartoon character being violently battered and sexually violated. Clearly, Wood was acting out his personal frustrations on the page.
He and his second wife had recently divorced. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to guess what was going on in his head. Yet another failure, another loss of control. Throughout his life, Wood was always a dreamer. He dreamed of creating perfect comics for a perfect, appreciative audience. He also dreamed of finding the perfect woman, and was inevitably disappointed by reality.
Wood had always idealized women, but they could never live up to his impossible standards. A third marriage would follow in 1977, but it too would end. The "Malice" story was just an ugly symptom of his frustration. If he couldn't control women in real life, at least he could on paper.
His anger spilled out in another X-rated story he wrote and drew in 1975 for the underground Big Apple Comix. His three-page story "My Word" was a bitter and surprisingly funny parody of "My World," Feldstein's 1953 love letter to Wood. In "My Word" he depicts his fans as disloyal and fawning, his publishers as mafia thugs. The story ends with the artist in a grave. Carved on his tombstone are the words: "Do me now, c-s!" Wally Wood-defiant to the end!
Wood drew this himself and it clearly came directly from his heart. The story was as emotionally revealing as any he'd ever done, and the art was some of his best ever. It was as if the old Wally Wood had briefly resurfaced.
XIII. "Marking Time"
And then it was back to DC and marking time. His frustrations were killing him, but what could he do? He had to make a living.
He continued working for DC, but his heart wasn't in it. It was just another job. In 1975 and '76 he inked his old friend Steve Ditko in four issues of The Stalker, and a single issue of Sandman over Jack Kirby. Six issues inking Ric Estrada on Richard Dragon, Kung-fu Fighter followed, then nine of Hercules Unbound over young Walt Simonson and others.
The work was slick and handsome, but empty. In that same period he drew covers and stories for DC's humor comic, Plop!, as well as some very handsome issues of All-Star Comics over Ric Estrada and Keith Giffen. Now in his fifties, it looked as if Wood would spend the rest of his life as a hired hand, never again in control of his own destiny. There seemed no way out.
XIV. "Life Is Too Short!"
One day, Wood had finally had enough. Decades of pent-up frustration finally came to a head, and he decided to take action. He wrote about it in the first issue of his self-published newsletter, The Woodwork Gazette:
"It was just a couple of weeks ago, when I was preparing to go out and try to line up some work from Marvel or DC, that I suddenly realized LIFE IS TOO SHORT! I have better things to do than another dumb comic book for the kind of money they pay."
In a bold, impulsive move, Wood took control once more. Using his own money, he started his own comics company. Years earlier, he'd dabbled in self-publishing with witzend. He had done it mainly as a hobby, and to secure copyrights for himself and his friends.
This time he'd approach it as a fulltime job, with Wally Wood as the company's product.
In these times before the direct market made self-publishing feasible, it was a daring move, bordering on foolhardy. But Wood had made up his mind. With stubborn determination he set to work. Original art sales and foreign reprint money helped finance his dream. On the side, he drew X-rated comics and forced himself to ink for DC. But the bulk of his efforts were directed at his new company.
He planned to start small, with two different reprint titles, and build from there. First came Sally Forth in 1976, followed by Cannon, a cynical, emotionally-repressed military operative. Wood had created both features in the late '60s for the Overseas Weekly and its companion comic, Heroes, Inc. Since the work was already done, it was a smart, cost-effective first step.
But Wood had bigger ideas.
He planned to issue the comics in a deluxe, 36-page, 10"x12" oversized format-four issues each, on slick paper. These comics would sell for $3.50 at a time when most comics sold for 35 cents. Wood realized he couldn't sell huge numbers, but he hoped that a small select group of his fans would pay top dollar for a high-quality product. Wood addressed this in his Woodwork Gazette:
"No one is killing comics. They seem to be committing suicide. I think the only hope for the form is to go the way of European comics... hardcover books, in limited editions that don't have to sell millions of copies, and that aren't tied to two weeks' exposure on the newsstand. There will be fewer of them and they'll be more expensive, but I think the form is too good, too vital, to die out altogether."
XV. "Full Of Plans"
By 1978 things looked bleak for the comics industry. But, rather than giving up on the medium, Wood did what he could to fix it. Making his new company a success was the first order of business.
He was full of plans. He started Foo (Friends of Odkin), a Wally Wood fan club, and its companion newsletter, The Woodwork Gazette. He hoped to sell Sally Forth and Cannon directly to his hardcore fans, and use the profits to fund other projects.
And what projects they were!
Wood had plans for a Heavy Metal-type magazine called Warp. It would be a Wally Wood anthology, devoted to whatever type of story he felt like telling. Knotty Woodwork would be a collection of his sex comics. Then he wanted to do a series of Wizard King books featuring Odkin and a crew of elves and wizards he'd created as a kid. He had dreamed of doing this Tolkienesque fantasy for decades and had previewed the series years earlier in witzend.
Woodworks was another dream: a collection of ten hardcover books featuring all the work to which he held copyrights. Later it was to be a thick 500-page hardcover book. He planned prose novels and graphic novels and records and movies. He was giddy with the possibilities of his newfound freedom. Remarkably, in spite of all the disappointments and setbacks he'd suffered in the field, Wood still loved comics. He explained it this way:
"I may as well admit it... I'M A FAN. Why else am I publishing fanzines? I have a theory that all pros are composed of part fan and part hack. And somehow, the fan part is the GOOD part. It's the part that cares, that wants to do something good, better than anyone's ever done it before."
Wood still cared. And he worked his heart out to make his new venture a success. In the first issue of his Gazette he explained: "This is a one-man operation so far. I'm typing the membership list, addressing envelopes and stuffing them, carrying them to the post office... and trying to write and put together the Gazette at the same time. So be patient, friends..."
Wood was totally in control now-and loving it!
He felt that 5000 hardcover readers could support him, but he was willing to start with 1000 hardcover fans. In an inspired bit of insanity, he agreed to do personalized sketches for each and every fan who paid $10 to join his fan club. He lived to regret the offer, as he and his studio eventually penciled and inked over 800 pictures.
Wood's dream was a glorious one, but doomed to failure. A decade earlier, he might have pulled it off. But alcoholism had ruined his health, and he simply couldn't carry on alone anymore. He gave the story in the fifth and final issue of his Gazette:
"The reasons I had to call it quits were (1) I had no help. I was doing EVERYTHING myself and (2) I've had some bad luck... my kidneys are failing, my blood pressure is up, I've had 3 minor strokes so my left eye and left hand are fairly useless."
Wood's brave venture was coming to an end. It hadn't made him rich, but on its own level it was a qualified success. He managed to publish four beautiful issues each of Cannon and Sally Forth. Though they weren't printed by Wood himself, he and studio produced two volumes of his beloved Wizard King trilogy-The King of the World and Odkin, Son of Odkin. And, despite failing eyesight and a series of strokes, he proved once again how much he could accomplish through sheer will power.
XVI. "Final Days"
The last years of Wood's life were the worst. He described his health problems graphically in the final issue of The Woodwork Gazette:
"The first thing I noticed was my left eye... things began to vibrate, then I couldn't see clearly enough to drive at night... By the time I went to an eye doctor, I couldn't read... OR DRAW... it was so bad I couldn't use my left eye at all. I had to put a piece of tape over the left lens of my glasses. My left eye was still strong, but the image was so distorted I couldn't bring them together. The eye doctor took my blood pressure and put me right in the hospital. My BP at the time was 210..."
There's nothing more terrifying to an artist than losing his sight. But things got even worse for Wood:
"This was in Jan. 1978. The next thing that happened was that I had a 'small' stroke. I found I couldn't type with a manual typewriter any more... or play the guitar. And then I noticed that I was limping, and then I fell down the first time. I've fallen 100 times at least in the past 2 years... And then I had another stroke... I've had at least 4 so far."
Wood didn't have long to live.
At the end, his friends rallied around to help and protect him. One of those friends, Bill Pearson, described those final days:
"I started with him as a ghost writer, assistant editor, became his friend, then his letterer and general assistant. Ended up his parent... telling him 'no' more often than 'yes' when he wanted to do something self-destructive. It's odd how relationships change over time.
"For the last few years of his life, I wrote his letters, screened his calls when possible, talked to publishers and tried to make them believe he was still a functioning artist when he was close to complete disability. For several years after his death, I tried to protect so many secrets... It's not easy to be a genius, and he was a genius. For all his faults, I loved the man."
In his final days Wood once more relied on hardcore sex comics to pay his bills. One of these, Gang Bang!, was one of the last things he worked on. In reality, others illustrated the lion's share of these final stories, as Wood could hardly draw anymore. His friends did their best, but Wood was no longer capable of controlling the quality of the finished product. These stories were a sad finale for one of the field's finest artists. But, as Bill Pearson put it, "At least it paid his bills for the last year of his life."
In the end, Wood was in and out of veterans' hospitals and looked like the walking dead. He shared his health problems with his fans in the final issue of the Gazette:
"Now I find that my kidneys are failing... A doctor in New Haven told me that they're only operating at about 10% of capacity. And that I'll need dialysis or a kidney transplant soon."
In a final, terrible irony, Wally Wood, the ultimate control freak, was unable even to control his own body any longer. He was terrified of dialysis, and hated the idea of being hooked up to the machine. Despondent, and no longer able to draw, he refused to surrender to this final indignity. Though he'd courageously struggled on for years, Woody finally had enough.
He was last seen alive on October 31, 1981.
Sometime between then and November 3, when his body was discovered, the artist took a .44 caliber pistol from his collection, placed it to his right temple, and squeezed the trigger.
For a single, final moment, Wally Wood was once again in control.
And then he was gone.
Toward the end of his life, Wood was asked if he regretted his career. His reply is particularly poignant in hindsight:
"If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't do it... and yet, I'm not sorry I am where I am. I guess it all depends on how this works out. If I make it, it was all worth it. If I don't, it wasn't."
In the twenty years since Wally Wood's death, the jury is still out.
From a fan's point of view, his sacrifices were certainly worth it. He produced some of the most beautiful, beloved comics ever done. His readers continue to remember and treasure his legacy. Numerous articles have been written on the man, including an ambitious seven-part series by David Hogan for Outre magazine. Foreign reprints abound, and an extensive Wood biography is in the works.
His friend and collaborator, Bill Pearson, has been unwavering in his efforts to perpetuate Wood's artistic legacy. In addition to continuing witzend after Wood's departure, he and Bill Crouch produced two volumes of The Wallace Wood Sketchbook in the early 1980s, preserving the artist's earliest drawings and preliminary sketches. More recently, Pearson and publisher J. David Spurlock collaborated on the lovely Wally Wood Sketchbook.
In the last few years, Pearson and Fantagraphics have produced a number of superb Wally Wood books, reprint collections Wood himself planned years earlier. To date, both Naughty Knotty Wood (collecting his X-rated material) and The Complete Sally Forth have seen print. A third book, The Complete Cannon, should be out by the time this article appears.
In 1991, Marvel Comics devoted an entire volume of its Marvel Masterworks series to Wood's seminal Daredevil run. Additionally, the 1982 book The Marvel Comics Art of Wally Wood reprinted the artist's short-lived "Dr. Doom" series, as well as a handful of sword-and-sorcery stories he had written and illustrated. No extensive book collection of his Tower work exists to date, but such a collection is inevitable. Though his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents ended over thirty years ago, it is still remembered and is periodically revived. No revivals have been as successful as Wood's original version.
Publisher and longtime EC fanatic Russ Cochran deserves special praise. Over a period of twenty years his Complete EC Library reprinted virtually the entire EC Comics line in a series of beautiful black-&-white hardcover books, as well as inexpensive color reprints of the comics themselves. Thanks to him, every page of Wood's EC output has been preserved for future ages.
The late Bill Gaines deserves much credit, too. As EC's publisher, he saved all the artwork Wood and other artists did for the company. His foresight preserved much of Wood's finest art. Gaines and his successors have also kept Wood's Mad artwork available to the public through various reprintings.
In short, much of Wood's best work is still in print, and deservedly so. His artistic legacy is secure, and on that level, at least, Wood's sacrifices were worth it.
But, on a more human note, the answers are less cut and dried.
Woody's whole life was contradictory. His work was the apex of what a comic book artist can strive for, but he suffered the terrible effects of a life without balance. By devoting himself almost completely to his art, he produced works of genius. But he did it by drinking his way through deadlines and by sacrificing years of his life. His final years are a chilling cautionary tale. If Wood had listened to those who loved him and had taken better care of himself, he might still be with us. But he was too stubborn.
The grounding of a real home life, separate from his work, could have given his life a much happier ending. Everyone needs times away from his or her job to rest and rejuvenate. Wally Wood thought he could keep going by sheer force of will. He couldn't.
Wood never understood that one doesn't have to be self-destructive to be a great artist. Many of our greatest cartoonists have lived happy lives and created brilliant work, Will Eisner and Joe Kubert being prime examples. Each has produced volumes of incredible comic art; but they also had a stable home life, and didn't abuse their bodies. As a result, their lives have been longer and happier. To date, both have had an additional two decades to create wonderful comics.
As a fan, I'm thankful for all the amazing things Wally Wood did accomplish in his short life. But I can't help wonder what a sober, happy Wood could have produced in those two decades and beyond. Sadly, we'll never know.
Working yourself to death for your art may seem romantic when you're a teenager-but Woody was old enough to know better. And he should have known that nobody can control everything all the time.
Sometimes you just have to let go.
The author is extremely grateful to Bill Pearson for sharing his memories about Wally Wood, and for his invaluable help. I'd like to thank the members of the Wood List, as well as Russ Jones and others who worked for the Wood Studio, for their insights. Additional Wood info can be found on Russ Jones' entertaining and informative website, Monster Mania 2000. Russ discusses working with Wood in the early '60s and the creation of Creepy and Eerie. Check it out at: http://www.hotad.com/monstermania/creepy/index.html
Jim Steranko's insightful article in J. David Spurlock's Wally Wood Sketchbook provided valuable information on Wood, as did Greg Theakston's excellent Wally Wood Treasury. My sincere thanks to all three. And a tip of the hat to Jean-Francoise Masse for supplying copies of The Woodwork Gazette, and to R.C. Harvey and my wife, Janet Gilbert, for reading and commenting on my essay.
Thanks, too, to editor Roy Thomas and publisher John Morrow for giving us this forum.
And, most of all, thanks to Wally Wood-for creating worlds of wonder and sharing them with us.
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