Comic books today are made in vastly different ways than the were in years past. Scripts are emailed; pencils are done on tablets and then emailed or shared again across the internet; colors and letters are handled digitally. Of course, I am generalizing, but the point is that, in the world we live in, the creators of comic books have evolved to take advantage of the technology available to them. In this column, I want to remind us of the interesting events that surrounded the physical creation of the comics we read in the past.
I had the great opportunity to meet legendary artist/writer/letterer John Workman at a convention last year. He shared an amazing story with me, and recently we spoke again about it and many other comic and non-comic topics. In the coming weeks, here on Pop Culture Squad, I will be sharing the interview as a whole, but today, I would like to share with you a few humorous and fascinating stories related to the methods that John employed in getting the art, words, and color on the Bristol board pages that made the comics of old.
John Workman has been a frequent collaborator with the great Walter Simonson throughout the years. John was the letterer on the entirety of Walt’s remarkable run on Thor in the 80’s (1983-1987). They are still working together on the creator-owned Ragnarok, for which John is nominated for both Eisner and Ringo Awards this year. I asked John to recount the tale of how he and Walt would pass the comic pages back and forth back in the day:
Thor Rode the Bus
JW: When we were doing Thor, Walt was always very conscious about getting the stuff done ontime. Still, things happen, you know. There were times we really had to get things finished quickly. Walt, at that time, was living in Manhattan. He and Weezie (the fabulously talented Louise Simonson) came out here to my house in New Jersey several times by way of commuter bus, and Walt got to thinking. “I wonder if we could just have them [the pages] delivered by bus?” That would save an entire day, since Federal [Express] or other courier services wouldn’t deliver until the next day. I checked with the people at the local bus station, and they said, “Oh, sure! You just pay for it like your own ride into town, and you give it to the bus driver. When he gets into Port Authority in Manhattan, someone has to be there to get the package.” We did that several times. I would call Walt and tell him, “It’s on its way.” He would run down to the bus station on 41st Street. I gave him the bus’s number. The bus would pull in, and he would be there to receive the package from the driver.
PCS: So, he got it every time? How did you get the pages original then?
JW: Usually, they would be delivered by Federal [Express]. Sometimes they came directly from Walt, sometimes by Marvel. It depended. They [Marvel] would like to look at Walt’s rough layouts. There was nothing to look at in a way of lettering because it hadn’t been done yet. So, I think, after a while, it came directly from Walt by the way of Federal. He was right there in town. He probably stopped by Marvel and said, “Here it is”, so they could send it. At times, If things were falling behind a bit and we needed every minute that we could get, Walt would hand the package of art to a bus driver who was headed out to my town in New Jersey and I would get the number and arrival time of the bus and be there at the station to pick up that art.
What an amazing story that was. Just consider the fact that, in order to save time, the original penciled and lettered pages of Thor comics were riding a transit bus from Central Jersey through a tunnel to Manhattan. Remember, this was also in the pre-cellphone age, which required a lot more coordination of where people were to make and receive phone calls. However, our distinguished gentleman was not done. He thrilled us with a couple of more stories about how mass transit came into play regarding the making of comic books.
The Lost Fantastic Four
JW: When I was lettering Fantastic Four, the actual dialogue was the last thing to come in. The art work would be penciled and OK’d. Joe SInnott would have a go at inking it, and the editor would send me a full-size Xerox of the pencils. While Joe was inking the pencilled art, I would use the Xeroxes from Marvel to letter the story on one-ply Bristol. Then, they would send me Joe’s inked art work, and Cathy (John’s lovely wife) would cut out the words and glue them down right on the art, using rubber cement. I would then go in and do any necessary art extensions around the edges of the balloons and make sure everything was all right.
One time we were really down to the wire. George Roussos was coloring Fantastic Four then. I called Marvel and said, “Look I can save a day here. I will send the art work, the finished inked letter art work off to George Roussos.” I had a very nice copier at the time, and I told them, “I’ll make reduced Xeroxes of each page, real good quality stuff on one-ply or maybe two-ply Bristol board that George can color and mark up. That way, he could bring in the coloring and the art work to them at the same time, , and it would give him an extra day to do the work. They said, “Oh great, wonderful.” So, I fixed up the reduced Xeroxes set for him, and sent them … and the original lettered art … off to George. I think I talked to George about this because I remember warning him that this was coming. He was grateful that he had an extra day to work on the coloring. He took them into town by train. He wasn’t used to having the original art work with him, and when he got up to the office at Marvel, he realized he’d left the package with the original art work on the train. And it was gone.
So, … I had to re-letter, based on the Xeroxes they had of the entire issue. I think that Joe didn’t have to re-ink because the people at Marvel made use of Xeroxes that they’d made of his inks. The Xeroxes became the original art for that issue. Things like that have happened before, and they’ll happen again.
PCS: Wow! That’s crazy! So, how much time did you have to do that?
JW: I can’t remember, but it was real quick, just a few days to get it all done.
How about that, folks? It is just amazing to get a glimpse into the real-life circumstances that go into getting the public their comics on a regular basis. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, John whipped out one more story. This one is even more poignant with the recent passing of legendary author Harlan Ellison.
Harlan Ellison and a Quick Fix
JW: There is another story involving buses. Both Marvel and DC did a one-shot book involving famine in Africa. It was to raise money. [Note: Marvel published Heroes for Hope: Starring the X-Men in 1985 and DC published Heroes Against Hunger in 1986]
PCS: Yes. You even signed my copy of Heroes for Hope, and you mentioned the story about Harlan Ellison. I didn’t know it involved a bus. You said that you had to wait for the script from Harlan?
JW: Yeah. Frank Miller had done the art work, I can’t remember if Frank inked it, or that was someone else, Bill Sienkiewicz pops into mind [It was inked by Bill]. And anyway, the job was done. I had lettered it, but I had lettered a last-minute script by someone up at Marvel. I think it was two people. The two people thought Harlan was never going to get his final script in; so, they wrote the dialogue and narration based on Harlan’s sort of precis of the story. I think it was the last thing done for the book.
Well, Harlan heard about someone else writing his story and got really angry about it. He told them he was going to sue if they didn’t use his words. They said, “Give us your words.” At which point, he did, and I got a call from someone at Marvel. They said, “Look everything is done. All we need to do is change the black plate on this. You’ll have to put in Harlan’s words, but you’ll have to use the existing space. It will be the exact same balloons, but with different words. You can’t change the shapes or sizes of the balloons.” I got the pages, and I told them of a possible way to get them back to Marvel’s offices quickly. Ideally, I would re-letter it and get it back to them the same day by making use of this “bus thing” that Walt and I were doing. They said, “Yeah, OK.” So, I gave the package to the bus driver, called Marvel, and someone from editorial was waiting at the Manhattan terminal when the bus pulled in. They got the Harlan Ellison story … and it went right off to the printers.
These are wonderful stories about the medium I love and how there is a whole village of people doing outstanding things behind the scenes to bring comics to the world. In a world where everyone sits in front of a screen, we communicate and share things via email, text, or cloud services. It is quite refreshing to think back to the days when Thor rode the bus.
P.S. John Workman is a wealth of fantastic tidbits of comic history, and I hope you will come back to see what else we talked about.