WALT SIMONSON

 

Walter Simonson broke into comics in the 1970's, and has since become one of the best writer/artists in the field.  With his distinct, graphic style, Simonson's work stands out from the crowd.  He has worked on titles for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Malibu, and Top Cow.  Those include Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Robocop vs. Terminator, Fantastic Four, Cyber Force, X-Factor with his wife Louise Simonson, and his acclaimed run on Thor in the 1980's; he also drew the covers for John Byrne's run on New Gods and Jack Kirby's Fourth World; afterwards, he  worked with Michael Moorcock on the series Michael Moorcock's Multiverse.  With the late Archie Goodwin, Simonson worked on the Manhunter stories for DC and the comic adaptation of Alien for Heavy Metal.  His series Star Slammers was one of the early creator-owned works.

Simonson's latest work is the Orion ongoing comic series.  Already he has packed the first five issues with action, mystery, and the long-awaited fight between Darkseid and Orion, father and son. 

In this interview conducted at Midtown Comics in New York City on August 16, 2000, Simonson talked about comics, influences, dinosaurs, and of course, Orion.  On this occasion, Walt was promoting Orion #5.  In spite of signing books, doing sketches, and conversations, Walt was able to be very forthcoming about himself and his work, and…his degree in Geology?!

 

Interview Conducted By
Marc McKenzie

 


 

When did you first discover comics?

Earlier than I can really remember.  I read comics as a kid; my brother and I had subscriptions to Walt Disney Comic Book Stories.  I was a big Carl Barks fan--I mean, I was ten years old and knew Carl Barks' stuff.  So, I read them from when I was pretty young on, but I do not remember my first comic.  My friends all read comics as well.  We all had them.

You had an interest in Paleontology before turning to art.

That's right.

Why the switch?

Well, I was a major in Geology in college.  I did a degree project in vertebrate Paleontology. I wanted to study dinosaurs but while working on my thesis, I realized that maybe this was not what I wanted to do professionally.  I still love dinosaurs and I keep track of all the discoveries, but I learned that drawing comics is more fun for me than being out there under the hot sun, with the black flies all around, whisk-brooming off rock dust and using dental picks.  So I decided maybe something else would be a wiser choice for me.

Where did you study Paleontology?

I was at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  I studied Mammalian fossils because that was the nature of the college collection; I was more interested in dinosaurs.  Anyway, I decided not to go in that direction.

I was Biology and I switched to Art.  I have a degree in Bio, but people ask, "Why did you change?"  I mean, I like to draw!

Yeah, I know.  I had two interests; dinosaurs and drawing from very young.  In the end, I didn't really develop a new interest, I just went back to an old one.

So that can explain all the dinosaurs that pop up in your comics sometimes.

Occasionally, yeah.  I haven't put that many dinosaurs in my comics; people know of my interest and they assume a lot more in my comics than there are.  It's not every comic I have a dinosaur in, except, of course, for my signature.

You have a very distinct style.  Who were your influences?

Oh man, how much tape have you got?

Well, maybe two or three of them?

There were the usual American guys who influenced my generation, guys like Kirby and Ditko; a lot of the Marvel artists. Gil Kane too.  I knew a lot of those guys' works.  Other big influences would be Jim Holdaway; he was the artist on the newspaper strip Modesty Blaise.  No longer living--died young, forty-five, back in about 1970.  A phenomenal black and white artist, a phenomenal storyteller; huge influence on my work.  A lot of European artists--Moebius, Mezieres of France; Palacios from Spain; Toppi from Italy.  A lot of foreign graphic novels were available over here in the early 1970's about when I got into comics.  I studied many of them, and a lot of those guys were very influential.  You can say I'm eclectically influenced.

Was Thor the first time you worked as both writer and artist?

No, the first time was when I worked on Battlestar Galactica [Marvel's comic series].

You worked on that?

Sure, I was the artist on about half the run of that book.  Ernie Colan did the first five issues; I took over for a couple, then got off to do Alien for Heavy Metal, the graphic novel.  That took five months.  Then I went back and finished up the run on Battlestar Galactica.  So, out of the run of twenty-three issues, or whatever it was, I probably pencilled about half of them.  Klaus Janson inked them, and I began writing it with, I think, issue #19.  I did four of the last five issues, and that was my first writing in comics.

Looking back at Thor now, years later, what are your feelings about your run on the series?  You did some pretty wild things with the character.

My run on the series?

Yeah.

Oh, it was great work. [Laughs]

One of your best-known works was Star Slammers.  Have you tried to bring the series back, and how did it come about?

Well, Slammers was my thesis in art school.  After I graduated college with my Geology degree, I went back to college as in Art as an Illustration major, at the Rhode Island School of Design.  I did the Star Slammers as a degree project, really over two years.  It was a fifty-page comic which I wrote, pencilled, lettered, and inked.  Came out black and white, sort of an ashcan publication; printed on an offset press in a guy's basement as a promotion for the Washington Science Fiction Association for their World Con bid back in '74.  I did a graphic novel in the early 80's, creator owned through Marvel, and then eventually a five-issue limited series that began at Malibu and then finished up at Dark Horse in the early 90's.  So, I go back to it once in a while, when I can squeeze it in.  I've got more stories to tell, but I haven't been able to do them yet.

You worked with the late Archie Goodwin several times, including Manhunter and the comic adaptation of Alien.  What do you remember the most about working with him?

Just how good he was.  He was tremendously good as a writer; he was a tremendously good editor, tremendously good cartoonist.  He had all the gifts, which meant that working with him was just really a pleasure because he understood everything, and he understood it really well.  As it happened, the two of us became close friends too.  I said in the afterward of the Manhunter book [the Manhunter collection trade paperback released recently by DC], that we had a chemistry together.  I've worked with a lot of other really good writers and artists, but I haven't worked with anybody that I could fit together better with than I did with Archie.  And that's really the best I can say.

I loved the Robocop vs. Terminator mini-series you and Frank Miller worked on.

Oh thanks!  Me too!

How did that come about?  I mean, it was fantastic!

Frank called me up out of the blue, said, "Look, I'm writing this Robocop/Terminator series for Dark Horse."  I was just getting off Fantastic Four at Marvel, my last work at Marvel.  Didn't have anything lined up at the time.  Frank and I--I've known Frank for years; we've shared studio space in New York for a while back in the early to mid 80's.  And we always wanted to work together, but never had the chance.  So when he called me up out of the blue I jumped at it.  That's really how it happened.

Speaking of comics based on famous films: Star Wars.  You worked on that.  How many issues did you do?

About a year and a half--seventeen, eighteen issues, something like that.  I did layouts for it, Tom Palmer did finishes, and David Micheline was the writer.  I began it right after the second movie [The Empire Strikes Back] came out.  I worked on it between the second and third movies. 

What was the best thing about working on Star Wars, and what was the worst?

Now, working on media properties frequently means a lot of sweating trying to get likenesses done.  Back then, it was more like just doing comics.  They were a little worried that we might actually tell a meaningful story about the principal characters instead of waiting for the next movie, but mostly, it was just doing a comic of Star Wars.  The good thing about it was that we liked the characters and we had fun; David was an excellent writer, I enjoyed working with him.  Tom Palmer was a phenomenal inker.  His young son, Tommy, now all grown up, was a huge Star Wars fan.  Tommy--he was five or six at the time--used to critique his father's work, and if the Millenium Falcon was not right, Tom would hear about it.  That was one of the funnier things about working on Star Wars.  We had an expert available.

Orion is your latest series.  It is set in the universe of the New Gods, but why is the primary focus Orion himself?

Well, partly because my feeling is that the primary focus is one of the things I liked about Jack's original New Gods title.  You go back--not the ones that have come since Jack, but during Jack's original series--the New Gods comic was the adventures of Orion and his buddy Lightray.  DC didn't want to use the name "New Gods" again, because they just used it when John Byrne was doing the series and they changed it, and I think they felt they didn't want to go back to the old name quite so quickly.  So I suggested, "Well, I'm just going to be doing my version of Jack's new Gods--the actual New Gods comic.   Let's just call it Orion", and they were game to do that.  It also indicates to a potential reader who the book is focused on.  Gives the central character as the title.

With Orion, you've taken on character created by Jack Kirby.  When did you first discover the New Gods?

Bought the first issue of Jimmy Olsen the day it came out.  I bought every one of those comics on the day they came out, back in the early 70's. 

During the recent revamp of New Gods, which both you and John Byrne worked on, what was the idea behind the background stories done in some of the issues?

Well, I did one backup story that was four parts.  I liked the character Kanto; he was a very minor character in Mister Miracle; as far as I know, he had only two appearances in Jack's issues.  I thought it would be interesting to give him an origin.  He was a minor enough character that it didn't really matter much, it wouldn't screw anything up.  I think John was the one who suggested the idea that Kanto's name could be a ceremonial name for Darkseid's assassin, as though it were a brand name rather than the guy's specific name.  So I went from there and worked out an origin.  It came out well.

Orion #3 had on the cover the blurb,  "Town Without Pity".  Is that an in-joke of sorts relating to Sin City?

Actually, it's an older in-joke than that.  "Town Without Pity" was a pop hit back probably in the 60's by a singer named Gene Pitney.  It was also, I think, the name of a movie of the time.  I presume, although I don't know for certain, that the song came from the film.  In any case, it's the song title I was using rather than a reference to Sin City.  Although with Frank's job in the issue, I shall claim a fortuitous coincidence.

In just four issues of Orion

Hey, five, five!  Five's out today! [Laughs]

you've brought back in Darkseid, the Anti-Life Equation, Orion's parentage, Tigra's death, the Newsboy Legion…a lot of other characters and events familiar to long-time fans of the New Gods.  But new readers can just jump right in and get acquainted with it right away.

Well, that's my hope anyway.  I tried to write it in a way that it both partook of all the old stuff so that the long-time readers would recognize it.  But I've tried to write it so new readers can start fresh and be introduced to all that stuff as they went along.  I've had a couple of comments from people where it's "Yeah, but the first couple of issues took a long time to get started".  However, going back and looking at it, there's like eight million things in the first two issues!  How much more stuff do you need?  I think what they were really responding to was that Orion wasn't a comic you could zip through in three seconds without reading it carefully.  There's so much stuff in it; it was pretty dense. 

You have to go back and read it again and again…

Or at least read it carefully, because if you're trying to read it in three seconds, you're not going to get it.  So in that sense, I'm presuming a readership that actually reads with some deliberation.   In the first couple of issues, I was also trying to present a lot of stuff that will help set up some future storylines as well as introduce the basic concepts!  I think the later issues simplify out a bit, once I got everything rolling.  Issue #5, which came out today, has all of two word balloons in it.  It's not the chattiest comic I've ever written.  However, a lot of sound effects!

So far, you've had Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, and Howard Chaykin illustrating backup stories for Orion.  Can you tell us who else will be doing backup stories?

Eric Stephenson wrote one that Eric Larson pencilled and Al Gordon inked; Jeph Loeb wrote one that Rob Liefeld pencilled, inked by Norm Rapmund.  Who else do we have down the line--John Paul Leon is doing a story that'll be in issue #11, an eight page story.  Art Adams will be in Orion #10.  Mike Mignola's busy right now but will do one when he can squeeze it in.  Those are the creators that I've actually got that are in the works.  There are a couple of guys I've called to ask about doing backups for future issues, but I haven't gotten them plots yet, so I'm reluctant to name names, but that's the score so far.

What can we expect in later issues of Orion?

Well, minor spoilers…If you haven't read issue #5, you should stop right now. 

[Spoilers ahead--REALLY!!]

In issue #5, which is now out, Orion and Darkseid fight, and it's a big fight.  It's Orion's book, so Orion wins.  Darkseid is dead, the same way characters are dead in comics all the time; he's toast.  And that means Orion takes over Apokolips as the new ruler.  Of course, he's going to bring goodness and enlightenment to Apokolips; that's what good guys do.  But this is Apokolips--it doesn't work like that.  So that's where my stories are going to go.

[Spoilers end]

When you do the New Gods, when you do them for a while, you have to have an Orion/Darkseid conflict.  It's like doing Thor--do Thor for awhile, you have to do a Ragnarok story [In Norse mythology, the final battle that will end the world].  In the three and a half years I wrote Thor, I did Ragnarok twice; it's such a great story.  In Orion, it’s the same sort of thing.  Orion vs. Darkseid is basic.  And I decided to get it out of the way first.  It took me four issues to set up the fight, so that people who have not read these characters before would be able to read these four issues and the fight would make sense, rather than just being a continuation of some story that's thirty years old.  So I did a four-issue story that set up the fight, issue #5 is the fight, and now, I can take the character of Orion places no one has seen him go before. 

…So now, you have to have the story after the fight.

That's right.  What happens after the good guy wins.  I'm structuring Orion the way I did Thor -- which is, say, one long story which is broken down into short story arcs; one, two, three, four-issue story arcs.  Basically, this is just the introduction of my long story arc.   It'll probably run about a year and a half-long, maybe longer if the book keeps going.  And I've got a big story arc after that which will use some of the elements I'm introducing now.  I've got some long range plans--please buy this comic and make those dreams come true!!

Speaking of sales…right now, how is Orion doing in the market?

You know, I have no clue.  I haven't actually talked to DC about it in months.  The overall sales in comics are so different from what they were say, in the mid 80's, when I was doing Thor.  And the early 90's, which I don't count as exactly 'real', was a nutty time.  Sales on individual titles now are far less than they were back in the early to mid 80's.  So, I don't have any basis for judgement right now as to what's good or what's bad.  I see books selling 30,000 copies and people are happy about that.  But I really don't know, I haven't asked them about it.  I probably will one of these days--I'll ask the tough question.  However, we've been given a go-ahead to start commissioning back-ups beyond Orion #12 so I'm really pleased about that.  There's even a possibility of an Orion trade paperback reprint of some of the early issues but that's ONLY a possibility at present.

Besides Orion, are there any other projects you have in mind, or is Orion just it for now?

Well, right now, Orion is it.  Doing a monthly comic really fills up all my time.  I have an eight-part Star Slammers story sitting around that I would love to do down the road.  Maybe when Orion wraps up, that's the next thing I try and work out.  I've got other comics, ideas in the works as well, mostly creator owned stuff, and I might go hunt some of that stuff up and see if I can find some place to publish it.  But who knows?  The eight-part story of the Star Slammers is kind of a sequel to the five-part series that Malibu and Dark Horse put out.  It's that same character, Old Rojas, and it tells Rojas' search for his dead wife.  That's the story I'd like to tell next…

Have there been any plans to do a follow-up book to The Art of Walter Simonson?

Not that I know of.  The Art of Walter Simonson, along with the Manhunter reprint book, pretty much reprints all of my earlier works at DC, from 1972 to 1980, plus the new Manhunter story I did a couple years ago.  I worked at Marvel for seventeen years, from the mid to late 70's up until about 1990, 1991.  After that, I've kind of bounced around a lot, worked for Top Cow, a little work for Image, a little work for Dark Horse, Malibu, DC.  Now I'm at DC, now I work for DC steadily.  But all that's pretty recent, so there's not much stuff to reprint yet beyond the original book.  At least for the time being, that's probably the only Art of Walter Simonson we'll see.  See me again in another fifteen years, and maybe there will be a new reprint.  And I've got my fingers crossed for Orion.

Finally, both you and your wife, Louise Simonson, worked on the X-Men books several years ago.  You did the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover in the mid 80's…What's your opinion of the X-Men movie?

Believe it or not, I only saw the movie a couple of days ago.  I really enjoyed it.  Thought it did a nice job of being true to the spirit of the comic, and concentrating on a few characters rather than trying to fit a zillion of 'em into the story.  The leads for Wolverine and Rogue were spot on and I'm always willing to watch old pros like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart pretty much do anything.   I also thought the writing did a nice job of introducing the X-Men to a civilian audience too.  Given Marvel's track record with movies, it's probably even more stunning that the movie was so nicely done.

Thank you Walt Simonson for letting us turn your brain to Slush.


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