Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Sample page Barry sent to Marvel in 1968. An encouraging letter from Linda Fite (Stan's then-assistant/writer/future Herb Trimpe wife) prompted Barry to fly to the U.S. with friend Steve "BoJefferies Saga" Parkhouse and camp out at Marvel's door. Artwork ©1998 BWS. Captain America ©1998 Marvel Entertainment.

Alias Barry Windsor-Smith

Interview with Storyteller & Conan Artist: BWS

Conducted by & © Jon B. Cooke

From Comic Book Artist #2

The following interview was conducted via electronic mail in May, 1998, and it features a wry storyteller in a playful mood. Enormous thanks go to Barry, Alex Bialy and the Windsor-Smith Studio for their exhaustive efforts in attaining this interview and the art that illustrates much of this issue.

COMIC BOOK ARTIST: When did you develop your interest in comic books and the art form?
BARRY WINDSOR-SMITH: I have been interested in all forms of graphic art since childhood. At the same time I was copying Wally Wood cartoons from Mad magazine I also copying Leonardo Da Vinci. I perceived little difference between what is called fine art and what is considered otherwise, and in fact, since the Sistine Chapel ceiling is now so clean and bright I suggest you might notice the strong facial link between Michelangelo's figures and colors with those of the best of super-hero comics art, Jack Kirby for instance.

CBA: Did you gravitate towards the American imports over the British weeklies?
Barry: Yes, once they started being imported into Britain as ballast for American cargo ships. That was the early '60s, I believe. Before that it was just black-&-white reprints of American material and the English so-called funny comics. I was never much of a fan of the British stuff although I enjoyed Marvelman for a while. Desperate Dan was so particularly British in his manifest brutishness (rather like Monty Python's "Mr. Gumby") that one couldn't help but identify with him somehow.

CBA: Any favorite British cartoonists, such as Frank Bellamy?
Barry: I was quite awestruck by Bellamy, his "Heros the Spartan" was simply magnificent. I was never particularly influenced by him, however. Britain had a clutch of exceptionally gifted comics artists during the '50s and '60s but the subject matter of the strips often disinterested me. I liked "Dan Dare" and Heros, I think that's all. I named the lead male character in my "Young Gods "series Heros in homage to Bellamy.

CBA: Do you remember your first Kirby comic?
Barry: Yes, distinctly. The Double Life of Private Strong, which, incidentally, I had misremembered for years as The Private Life of Double Strong. Although some other hand was evident on the cover's main figure, it was the background figures, and more-so, the vignette film-strip-like drawings by Kirby that framed the cover that caught my eye: I'd never seen figure drawing like that before, dynamic, fluid, highly romanticized. Kirby stunned me with that first issue's interior work.

CBA: You obviously have an affinity for the work of Jack Kirby, from your "Kirby-esque" drawing style when you arrived at Marvel to your dedication to the King in the series "Young Gods." What was it about his work that grabbed you?
Barry: As above, really. But as Kirby continued to evolve into the major conceptualist he was in the mid-sixties, with his drawings of figures and fantastic buildings and machines coming to such a breathtaking peak of knowledge, assurity and sheer visionary power, utterly unequaled by anybody as yet, the question might be better rendered as "What wasn't it about Kirby that grabbed me?"

Kirby's only drawback was his simplistic and naive scripting style, and I believe an intelligent, in-depth study is well overdue on this most blatant of discrepancies in an otherwise genius-level creative energy.

CBA: Did you seek out Marvel because of Jack's work?
Barry: Yes. Marvel was my only interest because of Kirby's work.

CBA: Did you submit material by mail to Marvel or basically show up at their doorstep?
Barry: Both. I sent material first, and based solely upon a pleasant return note from Stan's assistant Linda Fite, my pal and me were at Marvel's doorstep in the blink of an eye. That was the summer of 1968.

CBA: Herb Trimpe mentioned that he remembers you virtually living out of a suitcase during your initial stay at Marvel. What were impressions of New York at that young age?
Barry: Terrifying, to be frank. The summer of '68 was a time of considerable unrest in many urban areas in the States. We saw homeless people laying in the street unaided, we saw policemen in riot gear beating up groups of Black kids. A building we stayed at for a few days was blown to bits a short while after we left because there was an illicit bomb factory in the basement. And yes, we lived out of suitcases—sometimes, without money, we went without food or water for days in stifling 90 degrees-and-up heat.

CBA: Did you aspire to live in America?
Barry: After my above allusions it is bound to bring a laugh if I say "yes," but the fact is, despite the poverty and misery of those days in 1968, yes—I had every intention of living in the States. I needed to be physically free of my roots, that I might start afresh and explore my own visions in a new and thoroughly different environment.

CBA: What was your first break at Marvel? I recall a Western Gunfighters story.
Barry: "Half Breed," I believe it was. My first work was X-Men #53. Then it might've been "Half Breed," then a SHIELD book.

CBA: Can you give a brief chronology of your output at Marvel?
Barry: Well, heck—whaddaya think I'm doing here? Cutting sushi?

CBA: Daredevil? The Avengers?
Barry: I think Daredevil (the Starr Saxon story that, bizarre as it may seem, has some cult following somewhere) came next. I pretty much just made that up as I went along, giving Roy Thomas a taste of what was to come in later years with Conan. I think I started The Avengers after the US government told me to get out of the country. I believe I drew those books in London, circa 1969.

CBA: Were you seeking a regular book? Were you able to pitch your work to Stan Lee?
Barry: There was no pitching required, really— Stan loved my stuff because although it was pretty amateur and klutzy, it had the essence of Jack Kirby about it, and that was what sold Marvel comics in those days. Stan wanted every "penciler" in his employ to draw like Jack—not necessarily copy him, I must point out, because that has been misconstrued for too long—but, rather, to adapt from Kirby's dynamism and dramatic staging.

Many pencilers pretty much had their own personal styles wrecked by Stan's insistence in this matter. It was horrid watching Don Heck—a perfectly adept illustrator of everyday things and occurrences—struggle to create a dynamism in his work that simply was not a part of his natural capabilities. Herb Trimpe, John Romita Sr., and others were all twisted away from their own natural proclivities to adapt to the Kirby style—disastrously affecting their own artistic vision or needs. I doubt whether Stan pushed Steve Ditko to be more like Kirby because, after all, Ditko's style was already dramatic in its staging and pacing. If Stan had insisted that Herb Trimpe, for instance, should draw more like Ditko, I don't think Herb would have felt so buggered about by Stan's need for a "Company Style."

In my case there was no problem—I had an idée fixe that comics were Kirby and, in so drawing a comic, I drew it, to the best of my young abilities, as if I was Jack Kirby. However, if during that same period I chose to draw, say, a tree that I admired in some park somewhere, I would draw it in the correct and well observed manner that my brilliant drawing instructors had taught me at Art School. Real drawing was academic, but comics was Kirby.

CBA: Are you satisfied looking over your work from that time?
Barry: No, not at all. I have no sense of satisfaction about practically anything I've ever done. I perceive those very old works as mere vehicles to move from one challenge to the next, in terms of learning my craft, though at the time of their creation I had no self-perception beyond a powerful instinct to always move forward. I was really just a young guy with a lot of talent—I was a natural who wanted to do as much and learn as much as possibly can be done in one lifetime. I still feel exactly the same way.

CBA: Did you work in the Bullpen with regularity? Do you recall what the atmosphere was like? Any anecdotes or memories of Marie Severin, John Verpoorten, Herb Trimpe, Frank Giacoia, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, and other office "regulars"?
Barry: I worked there on occasion. The offices were no bigger than an average NYC apartment. Areas were sectioned off—the Bullpen itself could hold four people sort-of comfortably, with liberal deodorant use. Stan had the only office with a door. The atmosphere was quite merry most of the time. Marie was a constant source of laughs with her wonderful cartoons of all of us. I remember one afternoon in the late summer of '68, the radio was playing the Beatles' latest song and as it came into the long, chanting coda one by one each person began singing along—Herb, John Romita, Morrie Kuromoto,Tony Mortarello, Marie and a few others—all singing at the top of their lungs, "Naaa—NaNa, NaNaNaNaaa—Hey Ju-u-ude..." It was wonderful, gave me chills of pleasure.

CBA: Did you meet Jack Kirby? Did he look over your work?
Barry: I met Jack only once and it was during that first year. It's an old cliché , I know, but I was really surprised that I, at 18 years, was taller than The King. I had envisioned him as a physical giant as well as a creative one. He was a lovely man, thoughtful and considerate, and although he could obviously see that I was imitating his style, in my own less than skillful way, he was not the least put out by it and simply said, "You've got some strong design here, Stan likes that." I have always regretted not knowing Jack better. I've had a few chances, over the years, to approach him and take of his time, but I always stayed away, not wanting to bother him. I guess I thought he was going to live forever and I'd just catch up with him one day in the future. I was mistaken about that. I used to be a neighbor to John Lennon and Yoko; I'd see them around just like I'd see any other neighbor but I never approached him (even though I knew that he liked my work) because I had the same imaginary sense that I had with Kirby; that we'd get together eventually, naturally, somehow. I was wrong about John, too.

CBA: I recall through reading the Bullpen Bulletin pages in 1969 that you were suddenly back in England for a period. Did you have a work visa?
Barry: I worked all of 1968 without a work permit. The government got pissed about that. It took several years to secure the proper papers and I returned to the States in 1971, I believe.

CBA: Do you recall the circumstances surrounding Jack Kirby's 1970 departure from Marvel? Do you think that overall Jack was treated fairly by the company? What was your reaction to the King's leave?
Barry: No, I was in England at the time of Jack's resignation. I recall Roy Thomas' letter to me beginning, "There's no way to say this but straight: Jack Kirby has left Marvel." Obviously Jack's departure was cataclysmic to Stan and Marvel as a publishing entity. It affected me in no way whatsoever, I just wished him well. As to being treated fairly by the company that he co-created, I'm not privy to the internal goings on that existed between Jack and Marvel management, but I would hazard a guess that if Jack was less of a romantic and more of a business man, he could have had anything he wanted from Marvel. Hindsight is so easy, but if Jack had hired a smart lawyer to do business with Marvel at the time that Jack felt the urge to split the "House of Ideas," it's a pretty good shot that Jack could have written his own ticket. But then again, if Kirby had more of a head for business, he probably wouldn't have been the genius artist we have all benefited from. There's a tragedy of some considerable proportion right there, know what I mean?

CBA: How do you recall the development of Conan as a comic series?
Barry: It's pretty well documented by Roy Thomas and others who dwell upon such things. Roy's historical materials tell the tale fairly accurately, as far as I know.

CBA: It has been oft-mentioned that you were put on the Conan book because (due to the outlay of funds to pay for the licensing agreement) you were less expensive per page than John Buscema or Gil Kane. Is this true?
Barry: Yes, I believe so. Though, interestingly or not, the fee Marvel paid to Glenn Lord for the Conan rights was pitiably small in those days. As an adjunct to the licensing fee situation, though, I believe that Stan wasn't wholly behind the idea of a Conan comic and, if I recall, he was against putting an important artist on a book that was probably going to tank. Obviously, I was not considered an important artist at that period.

CBA: Did you have any previous affinity for the character before you started working on Conan?
Barry: Yes and no. Roy had sent me all of the Lancer paperbacks some months prior to our beginning the first issue, so my prior affinity was merely months old but, as it happens, that made my perceptions energetic and fresh because I was utterly hooked by Howard's writing style. "The Tower of the Elephant," in particular, was a real head trip, to use the vernacular of the time.

CBA: Were you satisfied with the selection of inkers during your run on Conan?
Barry: Well... y'know, it was a crap shoot always. I really don't know who chose Frank Giacoia for that one book, but the likelihood is that it was a last-minute decision because Dan Adkins had screwed up some deadline or other. Dan was certainly my favorite inker at that period because he meticulously followed my every line, but he was hopeless at controlling his time in relation to deadlines. Sal Buscema was serviceable and competent, I suppose, but he would often slick over my more sensitive mannerisms.

CBA: Can you describe the collaborating process you had with Roy Thomas?
Barry: Sure—he created everything and told me what to draw, everybody knows that.

A super-hero team of Bucky, Red Raven, and Quicksilver was proposed by Roy Thomas and BWS in the late '60s, but never got off the ground. Here is a page of Barry's pencils from the pitch.

CBA: In very short order, your drawing style matured from Kirby-pastiche to a more romantic, illustrative technique. Were you becoming exposed to Beardsley, Raphael, Pyle, Wyeth, et al. for instance? Did you begin to develop more of a taste for illustrating over sequential storytelling at the time?
Barry: No, that's not the least the case, and I can't imagine how you include Beardsley and Raphael in the same sentence without such a qualification as "As diverse as..."

I had always been influenced by so-called fine artists, even including some illustrators such as Pyle or Wyeth, but in the '60s I had not made the connection that to create comics didn't wholly mean to create Kirby. It is not as if my love of Kirby waned at all, rather, I allowed my other influences to come to the fore, and that brought about the many turning points in my work that seem so evident today but, frankly, I was not fully aware of at the time. Some observer somewhere said in print that I was responsible for bringing Romantic art to American comics. I believe that is quite correct (and that's why I self-servingly re-quote it here), but it was not an intentional program on my part but, rather, it was simply my need to break the chains of conformity. Conan, being non-super-hero and non-Marvel universe, just happened to be the right vehicle to create havoc with the old order, the status quo and its flabby trappings. I harnessed all sorts of influences in that series— some not even noticed or acknowledged. But it's like Bob Dylan answered in some long ago interview that asked who his influences were: "Open your eyes and your ears and you're influenced, man." Or Marlon Brando replying to the question, "What are you against?" with, "Whatcha got?"

CBA: There were some fill-in issues featuring a reprint of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" and Gil Kane's work. Did you actually quit the book for brief intervals?
Barry: Yes—this was the beginning times of my dissatisfaction with the way Marvel was running the railroad. I was in dissent and there was friction.

CBA: Were you satisfied with that story from Savage Tales #1, "The Frost Giant's Daughter"? Was it finished entirely in pencil?
Barry: No, not all—I inked it myself. You must be thinking of the latter pages of "Hawks from the Sea', which was printed from not-too-keen copies of my finished pencil drawings. That came about because of the aforementioned Dan Adkins' deadline problems: It was a choice of getting Verpoorten, Giacoia, Trimpe and Romita to hack black ink through those pages in a matter of days or go with pencil drawings. My pencil work was quite finished in those days (had to be because I never knew what inker I'd end up with) so we went with printing from pencil. It looked pretty lousy even though I tried to beef up some lines on the copies and I deliberately toned the color vocabulary down to pastels so as to not obliterate what little line work remained in the copies. Comic book printing in those days was deplorable, to say the least.

CBA: For a few issues before your departure you had a number of assists from fellow artists. Were deadlines becoming a problem?
Barry: Technically those weren't assists to me, rather they were assists to Dan Adkins and his inking coterie. It was an experiment that failed utterly—that being that to catch up on the heat of the deadlines, I'd do a book, every now and then, in breakdowns only and Dan and his studio would finish the work "in my style." Needless to say, this didn't quite work out in the end. I've never looked at that particular issue since it was published.

CBA: Did you prepare "The Song of Red Sonja" as a fare-thee-well to the color book?
Barry: I knew it was my last book of the series. Push had come to shove and I hated everything about Marvel Comics' policies toward their creators. Once again Dan Adkins was slated to ink the work (he had just done an excellent job on the previous story, "Black Hound of Vengeance"), but I decided that I wasn't going to risk the possibility of a screw-up on this, my final Conan. I inked it myself whilst I was back in London for some months —it is inked entirely with a Mont Blanc fountain pen and I wrecked the pen in the process. I have been complimented over and over again for "Sonja"'s color work yet, as it happened, I had photo-copied the artwork just slightly smaller than the correct size for the hand-separators we used in those days and, as a result, the separators could not trace my work onto the film as usual. They had to "eyeball" the placements of the color and simply could not follow the intricate patterns I had created with the use of white and black as color entities unto themselves. The result was not bad and hard won by the crew of separators but, unfortunately, the multi-toned flesh passages, that became a bit of a trade-mark for me, were never reproduced at all.

CBA: Did you ever have any interest to do work for DC?
Barry: In one of my tantrums over some aesthetic mistreatment or other at Marvel, I decided to check out DC. I sat with a DC executive in his office, and he asked me what was wrong at Marvel. I think at that time I had some sort of upset over the printing of my coloring, so I told him that. He then told me in the most hyperbolic fashion imaginable, how "Just last week..." he had reamed out one of his printers for getting a yellow tone (or something) wrong. The executive described how he had ordered the printer to be at his office in the morning, dammit! Then, he said, "I had him on th' carpet! I had th' son-of-a-bitch on th' goddamn carpet! And he begged me to keep his job!" Throughout this outrageously ridiculous piece of opera, I kept saying to meself, "Y'know, Stan's not such a bad ol' fart after all... Wonder how ol' Herb's doing... Gee, I miss those nutcases in the Bullpen." That executive totally turned me off of working at DC.

That was thirty years ago—today I'm involved with two, maybe three important projects with the modern DC and I feel quite happy about that. Paul Levitz has been a thorough gentleman in all my dealings with him.

CBA: How would you assess your experience at Marvel?
Barry: Concisely—a learning one.

CBA: What was the level of editorial interference? Did you feel any constraints?
Barry: The better I got at what I was doing, the more constraints sprung up like weeds. Come to think of it I guess they were always there but as one grows one must challenge the old order or you're not really growing. I outgrew the Marvel style quickly, in just a matter of a few years.

CBA: Was Marvel going in a direction that interested you in the early '70s? Did you have any interest in other Marvel books?
Barry: I was losing interest in all comic books, Marvel in particular, I guess, because I was right there in the thick of it. With Kirby gone and Stan decreasing his script output and with a change of style in both story and art that I perceived as a backward step rather than an advance of merit, I felt that I couldn't tolerate the whole scene anymore. I was becoming more and more disillusioned and, independent of whom ever else claims to have coined the phrase, I started referring to Marvel as "The House of Idea."

CBA: Did you collaborate with Stan for that issue of "Doctor Strange" [Marvel Premiere #3] or did he dialogue your story after you completed the pencils?
Barry: No, "collaborate" isn't the word. Not only did Stan dialogue the story after I had created it but, marvel of marvels, he ignored my plot and wrote another story entirely over my staging. Remarkable feat, actually. It wasn't until many years later that I realized that Stan's grafted-on title "As The World Spins Madly" was a spin (as it were) on the title of a daytime soap-opera. I've always hated that sort of thing, y'know, where some ass-wipe comics writer lifts the title of a film or a famous novel thinking he's being cool or allusory to another art form, y'know. That sort of stuff is so immature and, wouldn't cha know it? Stan pulled it on me and I didn't even know it at the time.

CBA: Are you satisfied with your short tenure on The Avengers?

Barry: I can't really remember my Avengers stuff, to be honest. I recall the nightmare of drawing the 100th issue, though—all those bloody characters that I didn't give tuppence about. That was another disaster in the inking department. Although, if I recall correctly, the one and only Joe Sinnott did a couple of pages over mere layouts and, as always, Joe was wonderfully rich and detailed.

CBA: "Red Nails" is, in my opinion, your best work from that era. How long did it take you to complete that incredibly detailed work? Were you satisfied with the final production?
Barry: Oh, God—! "Red Nails"! How many time can I use the term "nightmare" in one interview? I should grab a thesaurus right now, right? How long did it take? Oh, only forever. Detail—? What detail—? There was detail in that thing? Where're my pills—? Somebody get me a doctor.

No, I'm fine. It's okay—I just need to breathe. S'okay. What was the question?

CBA: The second chapter of "Red Nails" showed a departure in your inking style from the delicate, finely rendered line to a more spotted, bold approach? Was this experimentation or the demands of the deadline?
Barry: Deadline—? There was a deadline? What do you mean "spotted'? Am I alright? Where's my medicine?

CBA: Why did you leave Marvel?
Barry: Did I leave Marvel? When? What time is it? Hello?

CBA: Your work on Conan has been reprinted an untold number of times. Have you received compensation for the reissues? Any frustrations over their dealings with creatives?
Barry: No. I loved every single second of every single minute I spent in the Marvel Universe. Compensation for reprints—? Why isn't anybody getting my bloody medicine—? Do I have to do everything around here?

CBA: Did you feel driven from comics or did you simply aspire to more creative freedom and independence when you established Gorblimey?
Barry: I needed to be free of constraints and policies that were imposed by the dictates of creating entertainment for children. If Marvel (and the other comics companies) had grown up and out of its own immaturity and spread to new avenues of expression as it filled its coffers out of repeating itself over and over ad nauseum, the comics industry would be a wholly different medium today that could embrace, and perhaps even influence, the world at large in all its many-faceted and textured complexities. But, No-o-o! It's still the same old, same old. Just older, not to mention in the way, too.

CBA: I'll be honest and tell you that while I have long admired your pacing and abilities to sequence a story (never mind the pure artistry of your line work) I never was aware of your superior writing ability until Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller came along. Your flair for dialogue is among the best in the field and your characterizations are compelling and realistic. Did you aspire to write way back when at Marvel?
Barry: I was always plotting my own stories right from the beginning. X-Men #53 I just made up, The Daredevil/Starr Saxon stories were stream-of-consciousness fabrications of mine. To give the scripter some clue as to what was going on, I would write my own dialogue on the edge of the pages. Some scripters would use my dialogue, others would willfully ignore it. In either case I was never paid or credited for the work. Some of the more amusing dialogue in Conan came from me, Jenna telling Conan he looks like a yak with that dumb helmet he used to wear; the slow-dawn on Conan's face as he realizes he gotten involved with a wizard again. "Sorcery? No one said aught of sorcery [when I signed on for this war]!" Roy was good at picking up the better stuff and letting others go.

Largely, I think, the reason for my earlier reticence to become my own writer was a gullible acceptance of the chain-gang system of creating American super-hero comics—y'know, "he's the inker" and "he's the writer" thing. The workload had to be sub-divided in order to get the material out every month, so if you hook into that sort of thing you're pretty much a part of a chain, no matter what you might imagine yourself to be otherwise. In later years, like the '70s and '80s, when I'd do this or that fill-in issue for some title or other, it was horribly evident that my storytelling and artwork were existing, and operating, on an entirely different level from that of the continuing series itself and my fill-ins became anomalies in the stream. It was around that period that I concluded that if I wished to continue moving forward in the realm of the comics arts I'd better take control of the entire palette—stop fiddling about like I'd done for years and get some serious work done. Thus was born BWS the writer. But, you must realize that it is not simply a matter of getting all the words in the right order (as some Python skit asserted), it's largely about staging and allowing characters to have their own personalities invested into the stories. This sort of procedure, in itself, is a trick-and-a-half and I don't advise people to try it at home, but once one is over those annoying little details of actually creating a character that has his or her own life independent of what somebody like me has to say about it, the rest is pretty much, as they say, a walk in the park.

That last sentence—? I was lying big time!

CBA: Is Axus a "grown up" Conan?
Barry: Almost. He's a Conan for grown-ups, if you get my drift. Howard's character was hopelessly without humor, of course, and Axus is the very soul of dry wit and befuddled perspectives. As with almost all of my characters they are, in some form or other, extensions of myself (even the girls), and it's not unknown that, at times, the Windsor-Smith Studio more resembles the Ram and the Peacock tavern than an art studio.

CBA: What next for Barry Windsor-Smith?
Barry: Never did get that medicine I asked for.

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