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and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

From the original art courtesy of Nick Cuti, here a "How-To" Rog-2000 page from CPL #8 drawn by John Byrne. Rog-2000 ©2001 the respective copyright holder. By permission of Bob Layton & CPL/Gang Productions.

Byrne's Robotics

The prolific Marvel/DC stalwart on his big break at Charlton

Conducted by Jon B. Cooke

From Comic Book Artist #12

Does John Byrne, superstar comics artist/writer really need an introduction? Well, suffice to say it didn't take long for John to attain a huge fan following for his early "Iron Fist" and X-Men work after he arrived at Marvel following his first professional tenure at Charlton comics. But if you were astute enough to follow the titles of the Derby, Connecticut publisher in the mid-'70s, you may have seen the artist's accomplished debut on such fondly-recalled books as Doomsday +1, "Rog-2000," and, yes, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch! This interview took place via e-mail on April 14, 2000.

Comic Book Artist: You mentioned in an interview that your first full-length comic story was Death's-Head Knight back in the early '70s. What was that?
John Byrne: Not sure I would actually have called it my "first full-length comic story." Death's-Head Knight was a project done for the Alberta College of Art, which I was attending at the time. The curator of the gallery had brought in a comic art show, and needed a "brochure" to be given away at the door. He asked me if I could prepare something on relatively short notice, and I did, some 20 pages, each double-width. It was a sword-&-sorcery story.

Doomsday +1 pin-up by John Byrne. Characters ©2001 their respective copyright holders. Courtesy of Bob Layton & CPL/Gang Productions.

CBA: What was your college-era series Gay Guy? Was it a Sunday- or daily-style strip? How long did it last?
John: The College was located on the campus of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), and the SAIT newspaper was called the Emory Weal. On the back page they ran a truly terrible "humor" strip called Fat Faggot, which was wretched in every possible way. (Aside from what we would now consider the Political Incorrectness of the strip, it looked as if it had been drawn on the back of an envelope with a ball point pen.) I knew I could do better, even then, and put together my own strip, about a homosexual super-hero called Gay Guy. Also a humorous strip. (My, my, how times change, eh?) It ran about half a year, weekly, before I grew frustrated with the abysmal printing and abandoned the strip.

CBA: Who was John Mansfield? Did he have connections at DC and Marvel?
John: John was a Canadian fan who also happened to be in the Armed Forces. He saw the Death's-Head Knight book, and got in touch with me through the college. He offered to show my work at cons and to connect me with various people in the biz, which he did. We made a grand total of one trip to New York City together, and he introduced me to Roy Thomas. The rest of his contribution was getting my stuff published in various fanzines, and connecting me with The Monster Times, which published my first "official" work.

CBA: During the early '70s, were you consistently sending samples to the New York publishers? Did you seek work at Charlton, Skywald, Atlas/Seaboard, Warren?
John: I did a lot of work for 'zines like Chronicle, Epoch, and CPL, but I did very little hawking of my wares to the companies directly. I sent only one thing that might have been considered a "submission," and that was a Captain America sample which I prepared at the request of Steve Englehart, who was writing Cap's book at the time, and thought it might be fun to have a Canadian artist illustrate a story he had planned, in which Cap encountered a Canadian super-hero. That connection was set up by John Mansfield. The story never happened, and in any case, the work was rejected as unready for publication.

CBA: Who was Duffy Vohland and what happened to him?
John: Duffy is dead. He died several years ago, of some horrible wasting disease. He was one of those peripheral people who seem to populate comics, working at the Marvel offices for several years, but never quite managing to rise beyond a certain level. He wanted to be an inker, but he never quite made it. He saw my work in Epoch—he was part of the Indianapolis Mafia that consisted of Roger Stern, Bob Layton, Roger Slifer and Epoch published Steve Mattingly—and started pushing for me to get work at Marvel. It was because of Duffy that Tony Isabella saw my work, and gave me my first official Marvel assignment.

CBA: How do you recall the genesis of Rog-2000?
John: I was doing a lot of spot illos for 'zines, mostly for Stern's and Layton's CPL (Contemporary Pictorial Literature). One of the doodles I sent in was a robot with his arm blown off. Layton and Stern turned this into an editorial gag illo, and, since there were several Rogers involved in CPL at the time, Layton named him ROG-2000. Then they asked for more drawings of the same robot. Since I had no access to a Xerox machine, I did not have a copy of the original drawing, so I recreated the character as best I could from memory. Later, Stern wrote a ROG-2000 story for CPL, which I illustrated. It was on the strength of this that Nick Cuti asked if I would like to do ROG for a backup feature in E-man, which he would write.

Rog-2000 making woo with a certain Rogette in a John Byrne drawing from CPL. Courtesy of Bob Layton & CPL/Gang Productions. Rog-2000 ©2001 the respective copyright holder.

CBA: What was Byrne Robotics and who helped out in Canada?
John: Back when I was starting up I was very nervous about using uncredited assistants. I did not want the folk at Charlton knowing I was not doing all the work myself, but I also did not want the work credited as if I was. So I came up with the term "Byrne Robotics" as the credit whenever I had help on the books—such help being nothing much beyond spotting blacks. Two people helped out as "Byrne Robotics," my college chum Vic Bosson (now a successful illustrator in Canada) and his girlfriend, Barb Weaver.

CBA: Did you initially do illustrations for the text pages of various Charltons? Do you recall the work?
John: Once I started working for Charlton, Nick and George Wildman looked for anything and everything they could find to keep my plate full. I think they guessed that Marvel or DC would scoop me up pretty fast if the Charlton work lagged (which is pretty much what happened), and they gave me a few of the text pages to illustrate more or less as time-filler. I was already working on full books for them, at the time, so those text illos were not my starting point with the company.

CBA: How did you get the Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch gig? What was it about the strip you found interesting? You mentioned in an interview that Hanna-Barbera requested that you "tone-down" your initial story. Do pages exist that weren't published or did you revise the original pages?
John: Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch is what I consider my first "full book"—entire issues with nothing but my work on the main pages. It was the most work Charlton was able to offer at the time (a short while before Doomsday +1), and I took it with the intended approach that, if I was going to do a book like this, then I would be the Carl Barks of Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch! Unfortunately, H-B thought my drawings were too "scary" (they were published unchanged in my first issues, so judge for yourself), and insisted that Charlton order me to tone it down. That kinda sucked the fun out of the book, and I became very robotic in my approach, just drawing the pictures and not really putting anything into them. I found myself unable to work that way, and quit the book to concentrate full time on Doomsday, which was in the offing by then.

CBA: Any contact/memories of Joe Gill and George Wildman?
John: I'm very grateful for the start they helped me get—especially Joe who told me I was free to rewrite as much or as little of his scripts as I wanted when I drew and lettered them. That gave me a good opportunity to practice form and content.

CBA: Did you ever visit the Derby offices? Did you visit the bowling alley/editorial offices? Any memories to share?
John: To this day I have not been anywhere near Derby, and it's not all that far from where I live, now!

CBA: Recall the genesis of Doomsday+1? Was there any co-plotting with Joe? (Joe recalls it as a highpoint of his writing career.) Any idea what the thinking was behind the strip— (that is, was it a take-off, of sorts, on Space: 1999?
John: Not sure how you might think Doomsday +1 was a "take-off" on 1999. They were very different books. As I understand the genesis, they simply wanted to do a post-Armageddon book, one of those barbarians-riding-giant-grasshoppers kinds of things, and as it evolved in script form it became Doomsday +1 as we saw it. Joe Staton was originally set to draw the first issue, with me coming on with #2, but George decided that was kind of silly, and had me do Doomsday +1 from the get-go. Joe very kindly re-wrote some of the first issue script to include some Canadian references.

CBA: Doomsday +1 really showcased your talents and, combined with the Rog-2000 back-ups, readers started to take notice of your work. Did you start receiving mail about your work? Any memories?
John: One of the strangest of all the reactions to my very early professional work, to me, was the number of people who said they loved it so much because I was obviously inspired by the Japanese Manga works, and Japanese animation. Which was very odd, since all I was trying to do was draw like Neal Adams, and I had seen only one Manga (which one of my College profs brought back for me from a "field trip" to Japan), and had seen none of the animation.

CBA:What was the first con you attended as a pro? Experiences?
John: That would have been Seuling con, in 1974. I had just made my first sale—to Marvel—and so qualified as a "pro" on a technicality. It was a strange experience. My first exposure to fans en masse. I remember thinking "This is the audience. . . ?" and wondering if my future lay elsewhere. I mentioned this to John Romita, when I had the chance to chat with him at a cocktail party one of the evenings of the con, and he told me I should not worry about that, as the people who turned up at conventions, like the people who wrote letters, were not considered representative of the audience as a whole.

CBA: Recall your page rate for interiors and covers? Could you make a living off of Charlton's rates?
John: Answering backwards, no. After about six months I was making $50 a page for pencils, inks and lettering at Charlton, which was their top rate. This was in the days when I was also working as a designer for Hook Signs, an outdoor advertising company in Calgary, my home town. When I started getting work at Marvel, at $35 a page for pencils alone, I was able to leave Hook, and ultimately Charlton, and concentrate on comics full time.

CBA: You were quoted as saying, "I had a lot of fun at Charlton," and said it was a great place to hone your skills for the bigger publishers. Is that so and, if yes, can you elaborate and assess your Charlton experience, now 25 years later?
John: Charlton comics were, at that time, only a couple of steps above fanzines. They had poor printing and terrible distribution, and they allowed me to hone my craft off in a corner where very few people really noticed. (To this day, I find that my greatest curse is that the best work I do is the work I know no one is ever going to see. For years I have maintained sketchbooks specifically to this end, drawing anything and everything, never letting anyone see them—I destroy them when they are full—and hoping that the developments and growth which occur there will eventually slop over into the published work. Which it usually does.) At Charlton I got paid to mess around and experiment, and I'm very grateful to them for that opportunity. I very much doubt I would be the artist I am today, had I not had that fairly loose foundation upon which to build.

CBA: Was there any plans to do a Rog-2000 book at Charlton—did you lobby for one? Do you own copyright on the character?
John: We talked about a Rog book, and I even came up with a full-length story idea, a sequel to the sewer-monster story that was, if memory serves, the last published Rog story at Charlton. I think I even laid out a cover. But Charlton was not interested, and Marvel was beckoning rather relentlessly at that point. I'm not sure anymore who owns Rog. I had a handshake from George Wildman to the effect that Rog would always be mine, but we all know what Samuel Goldwyn said about verbal agreements! In any case, it has been so long since I did anything with Rog, I would not be at all surprised if the copyright has lapsed. Pity, really.

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