|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!
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
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?
RT: No kidding. [laughs]
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.
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.
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?
RT: [chuckles] And, hopefully, the last, huh?
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
RT: Not even in #43-44-where you designed The Red Guardian, in his Russian
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.
RT: Every artist has different things they enjoy drawing.
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
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.
RT: That was his edict. Do you remember drawing, in Avengers #46, Giant-Man
running around inside an anthill, fighting ants?
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
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.
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.
RT: And the next year they laid everybody off staff and turned them
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!
RT: Burgos laid out a bunch of covers, didn't he?
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!
RT: So how did you feel about George Klein's inking compared to some
of the others?
RT: He was in his fifties. He'd inked Superman for years, and could
do that Sinnott style that was very popular then.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RT: You were still doing full pencils at this stage, right? I don't
think they were breakdowns like you did later.
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.
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-?
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.
RT: In #80 we made up Red Wolf. You probably don't remember anything
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
RT: Don Heck was the Avengers artist before you. You two were friends,
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
RT: Hey, some of those might be worth money. You could go to Italy on
some of that.
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.
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
RT: You certainly do.
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?
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.
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