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An Avengers Interview--Sort Of--with John Buscema

A Conversation between Two Longtime Collaborators about a Half-remembered Sojourn

Conducted by Roy Thomas Transcribed by Brian K. Morris

From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #13

John and Dolores Buscema smile for Dann Thomas' camera at Joe Petrilak's All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention held in White Plains, NY, in June of 2000. They're looking pretty cheerful, considering that the chauffeur hired to drive them from Long Island to White Plains got lost and took several hours to get them there! John said he went to this con and one in San Diego because "my grandkids made me!"

NOTE: Even as I was in the final stages of proofreading this issue of A/E, I learned the sad news of John Buscema's passing. As you might expect, it still seems unreal to me as I write these words, only an hour or so later, for last-minute inclusion. I'll have far more to say about John two issues from now, in A/E #15, much of which will be devoted to this Titan among comic book artists; but I preferred to let the following short interview stand. From 1967-72 I scripted for Stan Lee a 70-issue run of The Avengers, quite a few of them penciled by John Buscema, who was one of Marvel's major artists from 1966-67 through the 1990s... and he was my major collaborator, as well, on both Conan the Barbarian and The Savage Sword of Conan in the 1970s-and on the latter, again, in the '90s. In November of last year I began working with the semi-retired "Big John" on a new five-issue series for DC Comics, and he graciously agreed to speak with me about our Avengers work. It was unspokenly agreed between us that there would be no mention of his recent diagnosis of stomach cancer, or of the chemotherapy he was undergoing at the time, though we did speak briefly of it between ourselves. Of course, during the recorded interview, we detoured off onto such subjects as Conan and the 1940s Timely, as well... and we made tentative plans to return to both topics in near-future issues. But this plan, like the one I'd forged with Gil Kane a couple of years earlier, was not destined to be realized. To jog John's memory in preparation for our talk by phone, I mailed him photocopies from many of our Avengers issues. When I phoned him, he expressed half-serious amazement that I had bothered to save all those comics, let alone (as I informed him) had them professionally bound so they could sit proudly on bookcases. At this point I turned on the tape recorder:

ROY THOMAS: You wonder why I saved the stuff?
BUSCEMA: Well, Roy, I'm not a fan of comics.

RT: No kidding. [laughs]
BUSCEMA: As far as I'm concerned, if I never saw another comic-! The only thing I've saved is a couple of Conan books we worked on, and that's it. I got rid of everything. One of the reasons, which upset me over the years, is that other people were inking my stuff, and that is not my work. I can't look at it. The ones I inked, yes, I keep. Anything with super-heroes, I'm not interested. Only the Conans.

RT: You inked the last Conans we did together-that three-issue series two or three years ago. And that graphic novel you plotted, penciled, inked, and even colored in the '90s, then asked me to dialogue-Conan the Rogue-was some of your best work ever! Of course, you always had the option of inking Conan. You just didn't want to, generally.
BUSCEMA: No, it was a matter of trying to keep up with the schedules, because at one time, if you remember, Roy, I was doing the black-&-white and the color book.

RT: [laughs] And, of course, Stan wouldn't have really wanted you inking all that work, because he'd rather get more penciling out of you. Me, too. So, obviously, very few of your Avengers stories were inked by you.
Taking a brief look at our Avengers work together: the first one you penciled, back in 1967, was #41. Do you remember being put on The Avengers? I think that was the first full-book assignment you had when you returned to Marvel.
BUSCEMA: Yeah, because I started back in '66, and it must have been right after that.

RT: You'd done "S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Hulk" over Kirby breakdowns. Then Stan had you do a fill-in issue or two of Avengers with me while Don Heck was busy elsewhere... and I kept you on for another year or so. Had you ever done a super-hero group book before?
BUSCEMA: No, that was the first.

RT: [chuckles] And, hopefully, the last, huh?
BUSCEMA: Well, you know, if you know how to pace it so that you don't have seventeen guys in each panel... [laughs]

RT: You did that well. At one point, we had Hercules shave off the beard he had in Thor. Do you remember, is that something you and I both wanted? I can't remember.
BUSCEMA: I don't, either. You know, all these Xeroxes of pages you sent me, they don't even ring a bell. [laughs] I completely forgot all about this stuff.

John B's pencils for a late-1960s Avengers pin-up, courtesy of David G. Hamilton. [©2002 Marvel Characters, Inc.]

RT: Not even in #43-44-where you designed The Red Guardian, in his Russian Communist outfit?
BUSCEMA: I sort of vaguely remember that one.

RT: You always seemed to come to life when we'd be doing the mythological stuff, like Hercules fighting some of these gods or monsters.
BUSCEMA: That I enjoyed-because I don't have the restrictions of the goddam automobiles and skyscrapers. I can create anything that comes into my imagination. That's why Conan appealed to me. I had a lot of freedom in those books. I could do anything with the buildings and create costumes. Again, I don't like drawing mechanical things. I just don't enjoy it. I like animated stuff, you know.

RT: Every artist has different things they enjoy drawing.
BUSCEMA: Well, Herb Trimpe used to draw the most beautiful airplanes. He loved doing airplanes. And I hate drawing them. [laughs]

RT: There were fans who wrote to me when I started doing Conan and doing less super-hero work: "Why don't you quit that stupid Conan and go back to the super-heroes?" But what I enjoyed most was doing a little bit of everything.
BUSCEMA: First of all, Conan was something that hadn't been done before and I loved the Howard books. I fell in love with them as soon as I read them and I was chomping at the bit and I wanted to do them so badly. [NOTE: John is referring to 1970, when he was the first artist offered the assignment of drawing Conan the Barbarian.]

RT: Well, all you'd have had to do was cut your rate in half, and they'd have let you do it. [laughs] Martin Goodman [Marvel's then-publisher] wanted to get back that tiny bit of money he was paying out for the rights-$150 an issue-in some way.
BUSCEMA: Oh, God. [laughs]

RT: That was his edict. Do you remember drawing, in Avengers #46, Giant-Man running around inside an anthill, fighting ants?
BUSCEMA: Again, it's so foreign to me, really.

RT: #49-50 are two of the only Avengers issues you inked. They have all the mythological stuff again, which had the feeling of the Thor strip you'd draw later.
BUSCEMA: Yeah, that's my inking, right. Again, I don't remember the book.

RT: When you were doing the John Buscema Sketchbook recently with David Spurlock, you didn't recall designing any characters; but here's a villain you designed-The Grim Reaper in #52. Do you remember him? I know it was my idea to have him carry a scythe, but I have this feeling it was your idea to make the scythe part of his actual arm.
BUSCEMA: No, I don't remember that at all, Roy. If I could help it, I didn't want to create anything. [laughs]

RT: You penciled The Black Panther in that issue with the full-face mask, but Stan decided we should make certain readers could see he was black. So we had to redraw the whole book to show his face. Vinnie Colletta inked.
In #55, George Klein became the inker, with more of a Joe Sinnott kind of style. Had you known Klein from the old days when you were both at Marvel or Timely?
BUSCEMA: Yeah, at Timely. I started there in '48. George Klein was there before me. I was one of the last guys to get in. I was probably the youngest guy in the place at the time, and I remember another guy named Joe Something, a young kid about my age. And Gene Colan was working there about a month or two before I did.

RT: And the next year they laid everybody off staff and turned them into freelancers.
BUSCEMA: They had a closet full of artwork that was partially finished. Apparently, if the editors weren't happy with some work, they'd throw it in a closet-and when Goodman saw it, he went bananas. And I'll never forget, it was one of the saddest times that I experienced. One of the guys that just got married came back from his honeymoon and he was out of a job.

John's most famous Avengers cover, which heralded the coming of The Vision (#57, Oct. 1968), [©2002 Marvel Characters, Inc.]

RT: Back in the '60s and '70s, we almost never wasted a page, once it was drawn and paid for. If we wanted to pay for a new page, we'd better have a damn good reason!
BUSCEMA: What the hell, there's a lot of money involved. But they weren't on top of it in '49. There was Al Jaffee, he was one of the editors. There was-Jesus, what the hell are their names? I see their faces but I can't remember. There was a whole raft of these guys. These guys would just throw this stuff in the closet. I really can't blame Goodman. You know, one of the things that was different in those days-we didn't get paid by the page. We were paid a weekly salary. We were on staff, the whole Bullpen. We were about twenty guys in one room. There was Danny DeCarlo, Syd Shores, Carl Burgos, a whole raft of people in that room.

RT: Burgos laid out a bunch of covers, didn't he?
BUSCEMA: He did. The production people were in a different part of the office. I very seldom walked out of the bullpen. That was in the Empire State Building. I was there for about a year and a half, and that's when things hit the fan with Goodman.

RT: You were in the famous Room 1404. I wonder-is there a 13th floor in the Empire State? Because if not, that means the 14th floor was really the 13th floor! Which would explain a lot!
BUSCEMA: Could be. [laughs] But I do remember the 14th floor for the simple reason that, on the same floor, there was an outfit whose name was something with "gold." They'd buy it and sell gold jewelry. And they used to advertise on radio and they would say, "The 14th floor of the Empire State Building." That's why it stuck in my mind.

RT: So how did you feel about George Klein's inking compared to some of the others?
BUSCEMA: From what I've seen, a very credible job, not bad. He wasn't that old when he died, was he?

RT: He was in his fifties. He'd inked Superman for years, and could do that Sinnott style that was very popular then.
I also sent you a copy of that robot who became Ultron. Do you remember if I ever sent you any reference on that, as I seem to recall?
BUSCEMA: Roy, I don't remember. The only thing that I remember is when I saw the page that you sent, and it rang a bell. That's all.

RT: I don't recall if he was always going to be Ultron or if he started out just as the robot. But Ultron, in his various incarnations, has easily been the most popular villain you and I ever created. I even co-wrote an Avengers comic a few months ago with him as the villain.
BUSCEMA: He's still around?

RT: Oh, yeah. The two most popular characters you and I devised together for The Avengers were Ultron, and the other was The Vision, who came along in #57, as part of the same storyline.
BUSCEMA: Well, I think it was already created and I just made a revision.

RT: Jack Kirby had done a Vision back in the '40s. I sent you a picture of that one, but I asked for the diamond symbol on his chest-and you added, on your own, that jewel on his forehead. So he's partly new and partly old. Do you remember that final page where the kid finds Ultron's head and is kicking it around?
BUSCEMA: Bumping the head all around? No, I don't. Roy, let me put it this way: I never read a comic book. [laughs] In all the years I've been doing comics, I've never read one.

RT: So you never knew I took that page and put a poem by Percy Shelley with it? Many people assumed I must have intended it that way when I plotted the book. But actually, I just saw your page with all those panels and it sort of fit the poem so I threw it in.
BUSCEMA: Well, I wouldn't have drawn with all those panels unless you described the scene in a lot of detail.

RT: Well, I probably wrote, "Do this scene in a number of panels." Then, the next issue-#58: I'm sure that on this second Vision story, "Even An Android Can Cry," I must have put the title on the synopsis I sent you, because that's your lettering of the title on the stone wall, isn't it?
BUSCEMA: If you say so.

RT: In #59 we introduced Yellowjacket, who turned out to be Goliath with amnesia. One panel you drew of Jan in her wedding dress reminded me that I saw lots of things and background characters you'd do, that looked to me like they came out of advertising art. Was that conscious on your part? I remember one panel where a kid in the foreground is shouting back toward the reader, and he looks for all the world like he's in of those Schwinn bicycle ads.
BUSCEMA: Probably I still hadn't gotten the advertising out of my blood.

RT: That story, where Hank and Jan get married-I wrote the dialogue for the early pages of that story on my honeymoon, which is probably why I was divorced later.
BUSCEMA: You're kidding! [laughs] A lot of characters in this story-I can see that.

The Masters of Evil, from Avengers #55, the first inked by George Klein on his return to Marvel after 2 decades. [©2002 Marvel Characters, Inc.]

RT: Yeah, we always invited everybody to a Marvel wedding in those days-and the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime had to crash the gate.
#61 has a couple of nice splashes: "Some Say the Earth Will End in Fire, Some Say In ice."
BUSCEMA: That's a nice splash. That's pretty damn good.

RT: That's another story where I must've made up the title in advance, because you wouldn't have lettered it as part of the art if I hadn't given you the title, from the Robert Frost poem. But I should have arranged it so the two title pages faced each other.
Then came the last Avengers we did together for a year: #62, with the Man-Ape-another villain you designed.
BUSCEMA: Yeah. That I remember. I enjoyed that. I loved that costume because I like drawing animals and I really enjoyed it.

RT: That was one of the rare times where we just talked for ten minutes on the phone about the story. And then I was going to send you a plot and you said, "Naw, it's okay. I got enough." [laughs] Then you drew the whole thing from that ten-minute conversation, which is not the way we usually worked, where I gave you a written synopsis.
BUSCEMA: I worked that way with Stan for a long time. You know, he would get on the phone and give me a plot and I'd take it from there.

RT: That's about the time he took you off Avengers to do Silver Surfer, I guess. During that time, you began to show more Kirby influence after your experience on Silver Surfer #4.
BUSCEMA: Silver Surfer #4-that's when I was trying to get away from Kirby. I didn't want to work like Kirby any more. But Stan tore the job apart, so when I got home, I said screw it, I'll go right back to the same old crap.

RT: It was still good work. About a year later, with #74, in 1971, you came back on The Avengers. And this time, Tom Palmer was inking.
BUSCEMA: Tom did a fabulous job, as far as I'm concerned. He did some of the panels-he really followed me right-you know, the penciling. That's what I like about an inker. If he can follow my stuff, I'm happy.

RT: You were still doing full pencils at this stage, right? I don't think they were breakdowns like you did later.
BUSCEMA: Oh no, no, no, no. These were full pencils.

RT: You did some nice things that weren't in the Kirby vein. I think even when you were trying to imitate Kirby, you still kept coming up with things that were different.
BUSCEMA: I guess after a while, you sort of start using your own brain instead of somebody else's. [laughs]

RT: In #75 we introduced another one of our more popular creations-Arkon the Magnificent. He had the feel of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars crossed with Conan. Of course, you had read Conan several months earlier. Did you have Burroughs and Conan in mind when we-?
BUSCEMA: I don't remember, Roy. I really don't. I just remember the character because I can see the drawings here. But if you had talked to me about it over the phone without seeing this, I wouldn't remember.

RT: When we were doing stories set in Arkon's sword-and-sorcery world, with him riding around on lizards, you seemed to really turn loose and enjoy that a lot more.
BUSCEMA: Well, like I keep repeating, I enjoy doing animated stuff. You know, animals, people, and stuff. I just don't enjoy doing the mechanical crap. You know, Jack Kirby used to draw the most beautiful machines, and you can see the guy enjoyed doing it. He'd come up with a different idea every panel and I'd swipe his because I couldn't stand drawing these goddam machines. [laughs]

The first of the two splashes for Avengers #60 (Feb. 1969). To see the other one, pick up Essential Avengers, Vol. 3, from which this b-&-w image, like some others in this issue, is taken. Like the other volumes in Marvel's Essentials series, it's a great, inexpensive way to latch onto readings copies of Silver Age classic stories. [©2002 Marvel Characters, Inc.]

RT: In #80 we made up Red Wolf. You probably don't remember anything about him?
BUSCEMA: Yes. I do remember that character. He had this wolf with him. Yeah, that I remember.

RT: Another of our characters who's had an even more successful life in different incarnations we made up in #83-The Valkyrie. I just told you, "Let's do a female Thor," and that was basically it.
BUSCEMA: The only reason I remember her is that the cover on this book came out in Time or one of those magazines.

RT: Probably because we had all those women characters together. It was not one of my best stories, but it looked good, thanks to you. They ran the cover in Time?
BUSCEMA: Either Time or Newsweek. I don't remember which one, but I did save the magazine. I don't remember what they said about it. [laughs] I remember it had nothing to do with the book. It had something to do with Women's Lib.

RT: Soon afterward, you were taken off Avengers again, but you came back to do a chapter in #94, the second otherwise Neal Adams-drawn issue of what would soon be known as the Kree-Skrull War. And, by sheer coincidence, the last Avengers the two of us did together was #97, where I had to give you that whole issue to do in a few days due to Neal's severe deadline problems.
BUSCEMA: I don't remember that well, either. I remember you calling me up and saying that there was a problem, but I don't remember the book. Lots of guys wouldn't come through at the last moment. Remember Frank Giacoia? He was good, but he was always screwing off. [laughs] He inked a couple of books of mine, and I loved the stuff he did.

RT: Yeah. But Frank would rather sit around and watch Gunga Din for the fiftieth time on TV than work-which is unfortunate, because he was one of the best inkers around.
BUSCEMA: The guy could draw. That's another thing in his favor. If you can draw, your inking has got to be better than a guy who can't draw.

RT: Like Tom Palmer, too. He started off penciling one or two Dr. Strange jobs, and he actually could draw, even if he was a better inker in Marvel terms. Joe Sinnott too, had been a full artist.
BUSCEMA: Yeah, but I preferred Tom inking me over Joe Sinnott. Sinnott, for some reason, just couldn't ink my stuff. But he was born to do Jack's stuff! I think no one could have done a better job. One of the things that Sinnott did to my stuff-he would smooth out the figures. And my drawing had a lot of bumps, you know. Drawing the muscle on the arm, I put a couple of bumps here and there. If you take those out, it loses its power, or whatever the hell I'm trying to convey.

RT: Don Heck was the Avengers artist before you. You two were friends, weren't you?
BUSCEMA: Oh, yeah. We lived about ten minutes away from each other. One of the things I remember about Don-he was having a lot of trouble with a lot of the editors in later years. I don't know why. I always thought Don was one of the better men in the business, and for some reason, these young editors wouldn't give him enough work to survive.
I was out to lunch one day with a couple of the editors and some of the writers. And I brought up the subject of Don, and I told the editors, "What the hell's the matter with you guys? Why don't you use Don Heck? He's one of the best men in the business!" And you know, one of them said, "You know, I love the guy's stuff, but I never think of calling him." And that's murder. [laughs] I said, the guy's gotta eat. What's the matter with them? Give him some work. They never gave him the work, anyway.

RT: If Stan had told someone he was going to keep them busy, even if they were officially freelancers, he got very angry if that person had time on his hands because no one had work ready for him when he needed it! I continued that policy, and so did an editor or two after me. But, over the years, it went by the wayside. And once the company went to having a whole ream of editors a few years later, if one editor dropped you from a book, nobody else at Marvel felt any obligation to find you a replacement. That horrible, inhuman departmentalization was happening there, like it had at DC earlier. Editors would forget about people.
BUSCEMA: And that's a hell of a way to treat a guy after so many years, and he was damn good.

RT: Don had been very popular, especially in the '60s, doing Avengers and Iron Man. Of course, he wasn't really a guy who enjoyed doing super-heroes. I remember the backup story you did for an Avengers Annual, with humorous versions of you and me and Don Heck in it. Do you remember it at all? It had the feel of Mort Drucker in Mad.
BUSCEMA: [laughs] I couldn't believe that I had done that. I didn't think I could do it.

RT: I have a page hanging up in my guest house that you and I and Stu Schwartzberg did for Marvel's Crazy black-&-white in the '70s-a parody of the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. You could obviously have done stuff like that for magazines like Mad on a big scale if you'd really wanted to.
BUSCEMA: I never really thought about it, because I never had an interest in that kind of stuff. If they asked me to do it, I'd do it. That was it. I know when I was in advertising, I did a lot of cartoony-type art that some of the agencies wanted.

RT: Well, I'd say that you made me look ridiculous in that Nehru jacket and beard and on the tricycle-except that I really looked that way-except for the tricycle. [laughs] Of course, you came back and worked on a lot of Avengers later too, with others, right?
BUSCEMA: I don't remember, Roy. [laughs]

RT: Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you about them. But I've invited Steve Englehart to write about his experiences on Avengers and the like, anytime he feels like it.
BUSCEMA: You know something? I have about 10,000 comic books down in the cellar, in boxes and boxes-remember we used to get all the books from all the publishers? I just threw them down in the cellar and put them in boxes and I forgot about them. My granddaughter came over and she went down in the cellar and said, "Grandpa, what are these? Oh, can I have-?" I said, "They're all yours. Take 'em." I don't know what the hell I had.

A 1990s Buscema pencil sketch of Conan, provided by David G. Hamilton.
©2002 John Buscema; Conan © 2002 Conan Properties, Inc.

RT: Hey, some of those might be worth money. You could go to Italy on some of that.
BUSCEMA: Ah, Roy, I don't have the patience. I told her, "Look, if you can sell them, it's yours." I'm keeping some of the books, the Conans. I'm not interested in any super-heroes. Some of the Conan books I enjoyed. I'm sorry I didn't ink more of them, but at the time I wasn't interested. All I was interested in was how much I could make today.

RT: I remember you'd ink an issue, then you'd say you wanted to pencil and ink, and we'd say, "Okay." Then you'd pencil and ink a few issues and say, "I just want to do layouts." So we just kept changing, depending on what you felt like doing.
BUSCEMA: Roy, it was a matter of economics, that's all. It wasn't a matter of artistic craftsman, or anything like that.

RT: At least, even though you weren't wild about some of those Conan inkers, you at least understood that we had to put somebody on them. Alfredo Alcala, for instance, did a lot of noodling. It was popular. And I still hear people say, "Oh boy, that Ernie Chua," who was also Ernie Chan-"That Buscema/Chan stuff was great!" That and the stuff with Tony DeZuniga and with Alfredo.
BUSCEMA: I remember the first time Alcala inked my Conan. I went up to Marvel and ran into one of the editors-Len Wein, or who's the other guy-Marv Wolfman-in the hallway, and he said, [excitedly] "Oh, you've got to see it, John. It's beautiful." Alcala was a good artist, but he destroyed my drawing. He would make these girls-now, I draw a pretty good-looking broad-

RT: You certainly do.
BUSCEMA: And he would put these eyelashes from 1930-

RT: Well, it did change the look. I put Alfredo on Savage Sword mainly because he put in all that detail-and, coming off the Conan issues by Barry, who had put so much detail in, I thought, well, if you weren't going to ink it yourself, we might as well noodle it up and make it look like there's a lot of drawing there, you know?
BUSCEMA: Giving them more than their money's worth.

RT: Yeah, artwork by the pound. But artistically, much as I rather liked you with the Filipino embellishers personally, it probably was less successful artistically than commercially... certainly in your eyes.
BUSCEMA: Well, I have a certain taste, and you want to know something? What I like, most people don't like. So what can I tell you? But I enjoyed every Conan we worked on, Roy. As long as it was Conan, I loved working on it.

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