A Tribute to the of






Here is part 1 of the interview I enjoyed with Tom Orzechowski:

Prof: The earliest credit I could find for you was in 1973. Was that about when you began?

Tom Orzechowski: Exactly. It was January 2nd, 1973. No way to forget it. Tony Isabella, a dear old friend, got an editorial job at Marvel around Halloween of '72. When a lettering corrections job turned up and he gave me a call to see if I wanted to work for $100 a week. For Marvel! I went from the airport straight to the office and didn't even have a clear idea where I'd be staying that night. Klaus Janson was already on staff when I got there, but I don't know if Tony had anything to do with that. Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom, another couple of Detroit-area guys, had been getting work since maybe the previous summer, Jim doing Spider-Man layouts for Romita [Sr.] and Milgrom inking backgrounds on Superman for Murphy Anderson. Rich Buckler had already been in New York for a couple of years, drawing for Warren and Marvel, and I was the next one from our bunch who got tapped. We were all pulling our fan friends into town when gigs turned up. Tony had me doing touch-ups on the earliest Marvel stories for a couple of British weeklies, Spider-Man Comics Weekly and Mighty World of Marvel. I had to take out references to characters that hadn't been seen yet, some political references, and re-spell a few things. "Check" became "cheque," things like that. There was quite a list, actually. "Colour," of course. "Gaol," rather than "jail." This was actually good training, because I started lettering some of Chris Claremont's scripts that same year. A couple of years before X-Men. Chris' parents were British. He spent the first few months of his life in "Olde Blighty" and got the accent and the spellings down in that time. Having worked on these American-to-Brit comics alerted me to a lot of the things that Chris would unconsciously put into his scripts.

Prof: So that worked out very well.

TO: Yeah. Well, except that I wasn't handling the office pressure very well, and Tony's boss let me know after a few months that if I wanted to work at home it would be all right. I must have been working out, though, or he would have hired some other fanboy willing to work for a few bucks an hour. By then, I was also correcting their black and white horror magazines. "Tales of the Zombie" and some others. They reprinted '50s stories and also had new material. One of my jobs was to do new title on the old stories so that they'd look less like reprints. The ones I did were terrible.   [Then editor-in-chief] Roy Thomas complained that they looked too much like underground comics. What can I say?! It was l973! It took me a while to figure out how to fit into the Marvel style.

Prof: Tom, what sort of training did you have?

TO: I had no training. There was a comics club in Detroit that I stumbled onto during a convention in '68. They met across town to talk about the current books and bring out the old ones as well. I thought, "Oh, this is perfect. I've been waiting my entire 15-year-old life for this." And sure enough they had copies of Black Magic and The Spirit and all kinds of different stuff, and best of all they produced this 'zine that gathered industry news. It ran in kind of a friendly competition with Don and Maggie Thompson's 'zine, years before Maggie became an editor for Comics Buyers' Guide. One summer day we needed more content, and Arvell Jones, the publisher, said "Why don't you just call DC and poke around?" What, me?! I got my nerve up and made the call. And I did and who did I get on the phone but Carmine Infantino. The publisher. Answering his own phone! And here's this pimply faced 17-year old trying to pump him for stuff that to him was just boring. He said, "Well, Wrightson is doing some stuff on House of Secrets, I think…" Completely not helpful. But I was making notes and trying to get the hang of talking to these guys. They realized they had to talk to the fans occasionally. I thought I'd be dealing with at least 3 or 4 layers of intermediaries before reaching someone in the creative side, maybe a writer, and I got the top guy. So that kind of demystified the thing a bit, because here's the guy that publishes the stuff and he couldn't think of anything noteworthy to tell the press.

Prof: (Mutual laughter.)

TO: They had just hired [Dick] Giordano away from Charlton around that time, so the young Jim Aparo and Steve Skeates were doing a revamped Aquaman. Phantom Stranger was in its early issues. There was all sorts of stuff happening. [Mike] Kaluta was there doing The Shadow. I think Shazam! was coming out, you know, all sorts of things going on and he was just hemming and hawing and dealing with production sheets and trying to make sure the cost of paper didn't go up too much that month and so on. The content of the books was apparently the last thing on his mind.

Prof: Bogged down in the weeds.

TO: I guess so. I used to wonder how it was the guys I was working for, like Sol Brodsky, who'd been a tremendous inker on all of Jack's [Kirby's] covers in the 60's, and [Joe] Orlando with DC; how they'd give up pushing the pencils and brushes, and take a desk job. How do you get tired of drawing this stuff to the point where you'd just want to work out production schedules and make assignments and never really consciously look at the finished work? But that's what I think Carmine did as publisher. He was the top administrator. As the art director he'd lay out the covers, but the interiors were handled by other people. This also made the point for me that this is a business. Stan [Lee] created this myth of the jolly Marvel bullpen, and we just assumed that Marvel owned a building and everyone came to work every day and you had a good time. No. Everyone worked at home. There were five people in the office; Stan and Roy [Thomas], Marie Severin, Sol Brodsky, the guy that shot the Photostats... that was it. That was the Marvel bullpen. O-kay. (Chuckle.) Imagine my disappointment when I went to Marvel with lettering samples at age 16 and found this out.

Prof: Oh, yeah. So much for all the hype.

TO: Yeah, but the hype worked, thanks to Stan Lee. And I don't know if he looked at the finished books once he gave up scripting them. By then, Marvel was a 12-year-old success story that needed wider oversight, and I suppose he had indeed gotten tired of writing all those pages every month, all that stuff. Along the same lines, Marvel's lettering boss Danny Crespi offered me a staff position to learn to letter the covers, which he had been doing.   He thought I'd get more out of it than lettering "all those pages every month," as he put it. This from a man who'd done it himself since the '50s. I didn't take him up on it which may have been foolish, I don't know. If I had, it's possible I wouldn't have snagged the X-Men gig but rather would have stayed in New York, maybe stayed on staff and moved up in the company. Yeah, there's the benefits and job security, but I already had a taste for all those pages.

Prof: That was one thing Carmine told me that was news to me at the time was that the editors and the production people were the only ones on staff. I don't know what I thought it was configured like, but it was quite a revelation.

TO: Well, picture the Eisner/Iger thing that we kind of keep in loving memory. There's Bob Powell and Chuck Cuidero and all these guys in the same room at the same time doing the Spirit supplements and the Quality Comics and all.

Prof: Yeah, I guess that's what I had envisioned. An assembly line process with people nine to fiving it.

TO: Yeah, comparing pages and making jokes. I first saw Marvel when I was 16 in 1969. I lived in Detroit, as I mentioned, and I took a portfolio up there. I went to a convention and afterward I went to DC and I went to Marvel and maybe to Warren and at Marvel I couldn't even get in the door. I got a glimpse and it was maybe the size of your living room. Cardboard partitions up, and a few people. There was no one there to actually greet a person like myself and talk them through the process. Morrie Kuramoto, a lettering guy who was Dan Crespi's contemporary, chatted me up for two minutes, went back inside, came out with a full-size Xerox copy of a Captain America splash page which he handed to me and that was that. When I got hired three years later it was in a full-floor office which they shared with an outfit called Magazine Management, which was a different arm of the same company. Management Magazine produced what they called men's sweat magazines. They'd have covers painted by Earl Norem and people that later painted covers for the Savage Sword of Conan. These covers showed burly guys wrestling bears while scantily clad women cowered in the foreground; and guys in canoes, with rifles, shooting eagles or something. All these manly, testosterone situations and they were on the same floor and they carried the same house ads as the Marvel comics, which explains why Marvel had all these muscle builder ads and sneezing powder ads and all this weird stuff that didn't seem like it would appeal to comics folks.

Prof: Ah-hah!

TO: I have to believe that their advertising manager was some sort of genius, walking the fine balance between the two audiences. He sold scads of ads with guaranteed distribution in this 10-25 age group, which kept both the comics and the magazines, the same corporate entity, going. So I'd run into those editors almost as frequently as I did the Marvel editors. Marvel, by now, was kind of an impressive shop. There were a lot of people in small rooms and a lot of drawing tables everywhere and all these heroes, these 25-year pros like Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito and Sol Brodsky. Marie Severin. George Roussos. John Romita was there as the art director. Wow! Legends. Just everywhere you'd look. You couldn't walk around for three seconds with your eyes closed without bumping into somebody famous. And they were just these guys. "I'm just trying to make a living here." Today, of course, Marvel's a different animal. There's a lot more money involved with the movies and what not. In '73 it was still very much seat of the pants. It was only 12 years into Marvel in 1973. Spidey 120 came out that year; Conan 25 came out the day I walked in the door. So working on the British books as I was I ended up retouching The Hulk #1 through #6 and they were fairly recent issues. I got to work with Lee and Kirby and Lee and Ditko and Lee and Heck and Lee and Ayers. It was a real thrill. It was almost like being back in time a little bit to the earliest groundswell of Marvel.   I'd bought those books, and now I was working on them. A weird déjà vu.

Prof: Heady stuff.

TO: Now those are like granddad's comics. They're available on CD Rom which sets them even further back in time, in a way. Retrievable only through science.

Prof: Yeah, as you mentioned earlier with the popularity of the movies it's the next natural step to cash in on the catalog.

TO: I recently saw a hardcover of Amazing Adult Fantasy #1 through #15 for like a hundred bucks. A big, oversized book like the EC reprints that Cochran put out and there's the whole Amazing Fantasy run. Huh. I've got most of the comics, but now they're in a museum quality volume. Almost anything I bought from say 1960 through 1985…I just saw DNAgents, almost all that stuff has been reprinted somewhere, somehow. Only Sugar and Spike haven't been reprinted. There's a Blackhawk Showcase volume now.

Prof: I think Shelly Mayer had some sort of exclusive ownership on Sugar and Spike, but I don't know.

TO: Could be. I know the Sugar and Spike plush toys came out awhile back.

Prof: I've heard of them, but not seen them. I do have a pair of the Bat-Mite and Mxyzyptlk plush toys.

TO: I think they came out around the same time.

Prof: Speaking of them, do you remember doing the "World's Funnest" book?

TO: Yes, I do.

Prof: Good night! I went through that thing and I thought, "How many years did it take him to letter this beast?"

TO: Fewer than you'd think, but more than I'd wish. I've got a good collection. I've got a lot of Quality Comics. Blackhawk was my passion around 1970 to 1973, when Overstreet's Guide was not yet controlling the pricing. So I've got almost every issue of Blackhawk back to #9 [actually the first one] and a couple of dozen of Military Comics. Sam Rosen was the letterer for a lot of the Quality Comics early on. He also did The Spirit for the first several years. So I just enlarged those for the work and I traced them feverishly and I traced [Gaspar] Saladino's stuff, traced Costanza's stuff, traced C.C. Beck and Ben Oda and everybody. I spent hours, which was really good discipline. It was really good just to get the feel of somebody else's proportions that way. That sounds obscene, doesn't it?

Prof: (Laughter.)

TO: As a calligrapher, I studied many different hands and got passably okay at Italic, Roundhead, Uncil and other different things. It wasn't much different as I copied, as well as possible, the Saladino stuff, the C.C. Beck stuff. It gave me a whole different set of just how the different letter shapes could look. That was among the final books I lettered by hand. It was right around 2000 or 2001. Now that I'm doing Savage Dragon by hand I'm trying to have a rather different approach to the letters. I'm still using the same pen I was using since the middle 80's, though.

Prof: Which is?

TO: An Osmiroid India Ink Sketch Pen. You can't find them anymore. I don't think Osmiroid has even existed in 10 years. This is a piston-driven cartridge pen. So I can go page after page without re-filling it, without dipping it. And the nib is a gold alloy. I don't know how much percentage of gold, but it gives it some flexibility. The nib is probably worth more than my life at this moment. I pulled it out of mothballs to work on Dragon. I honed it down a little bit. Saved all the shavings and sold them. Well, actually, no I didn't. It's giving me such a nice line. It's so wonderful to work with ink, with pen and ink again.

Prof: I was going to ask. Has that been pretty enjoyable?

TO: It's just joy.

Prof: I read the most humorous comment at Mark Evanier's blog one day talking about lettering and how he'd tried his hand at it and I'm paraphrasing, but he didn't appreciate how much wrist strength is required for the job. He said something to the effect that after awhile his letters looked like Katharine Hepburn had done them while riding a bobsled.

TO: It's true. You're making motions…letter forms involve five different movements. That's it. And you're making them less than 1/8" tall and looking the same every time, within percentages. And real rapidly. And you have to pay attention to the script more than what you're doing. So it's like being on stage. If you're working on Daredevil it's almost like if you're performing Henry VIII, being Olivier or Kenneth Branagh. All these incredible people did it before you and it's a very old work; it's been seen by millions of people; everyone's heard of it whether or not they've ever seen it, and you're part of that tradition. People will be doing it after you. So you're just trying to kind of stay invisible while putting some of your own feeling into what it means to be doing cerebral balloons or whatever. Because other people will do them later, other people did them before you, then someone else will come along like Todd Klein or Comicraft or someone and quantify a newer version that will be the boilerplate for awhile and then someone will do a newer version later. But it's this component gesture while being part of a large entity. So it's kind of awesome in a way. It's still kind of awesome to me. This is the X-Men. They've been on the big screen and animated and you can get them on Slurpee cups. Sometimes that's MY work on the Slurpee cup. It's possible that in the opening rapid fire panels in the X-Men movies, that those are some of my panels. If you slow it down on your Tivo or on your laser player, you'd see me. I didn't get a penny for it, but there I am. There's Costanza and there's Artie Simek and it's all in there if you're self-conscious about things like I am.

Prof: That's beyond cool. And after all weren't you on the X-Men for something like 18 years?

TO: Yeah, 18 years for that first stretch and then…one thing and another. It just felt like it was time to do something else. I was signing books for people that weren't as old as my stint on the book…

Prof: (Laughter.)

TO: That comes as something of a shock. Suddenly that existential moment. "Okay, let's look at this." And the editor and I weren't getting along too well. I don't even remember why any more. That's it. Claremont had just been bounced and I stayed for another year anyway just because it was the job, and then I had enough and said, "Now what am I going to do?" And of course anyone else would have just called one of the six other Marvel editors and said, "Well, I've got some time now. Do you have any books lying around?" But no, I'd been attached to the X-Men for so long that I truly didn't know what to do next. Fortunately, Todd McFarlane called me that same week as Image was being launched. I guess that was '92. So, yeah, 18 years doing 100 pages a month or more, between New Mutants and Wolverine and the various Annuals and Specials.

Prof: Holy cats, and as I recall those Claremont scripts were pretty darn copy heavy.

TO: That's my boy.

Prof: There's a rumor out there that you had to be getting some kind of extra compensation for all that additional work. Any truth to that?

TO: Uh, there are rumors, yeah…

Prof: (Laughter.)

TO: Chris was writing on 8-1/2 x 14 pages, not 8-1/2 x 11. And sometimes he'd go onto a second one.

Prof: Good Lord.

TO: Well, it was eight panels on a page, eight characters in a panel. Hearts being broken, universes being destroyed. There was a lot to say. And maybe he was going overboard, but we just had a really satisfying working relationship. I was not living in New York. He and I had been pretty good chums and when I went to New York I stayed at his flat. But, to finish off where we came in, I left New York pretty quickly in '73. I just couldn't deal with it. Manhattan was too big for me; too intense in so many ways. After eight months I went west but they kept sending me scripts, which was really amazing when you think about it, because comics was very New York oriented. There was no such thing as overnight delivery. Special Delivery mail took three or four days. Why they just didn't keep them in New York I'll never understand.

Prof: Oh, I have a notion.

TO: Well, okay, thank you. But there was me and Chris and it was working out well. Nobody else wanted to touch the scripts because they were too long, and I'd say "Send me more." We survived about six editors-in-chief, and I've lost all count of how many actual editors we went through. Probably close to a dozen, and countless assistant editors. It was always me and Chris. Normally, a new editor likes to put his or her own stamp on a series, like a new logo or a new creative team, but they came and went and it was always Chris and me. And when he was ultimately off the book I missed the rhythm of his work. The characters didn't sound right any more. So I gave that about a year and then it was time to go. It wasn't my team any more. When a long-delayed project by Chris and Rick Leonardi came on the plate again around the year 2000, Ralph Macchio gave me a call and I was back.

Prof: Very nice.

TO: I've become assigned to a series called X-Men Forever. Tom Grummett is the penciler, and he looks just right.   I guess you could say he's working the territory between Dave Cockrum and Jim Lee. It picks up pretty much where he (Chris Claremont) left off the series in 1992, with the same team, more or less. Storm and Kitty and Scott and they won't have died and been reborn twice or whatever's been going on in the past 15 years. Truthfully, I have not read any of the X-books since I moved on in the early '90s.

Prof: You and me both. Modern continuity for the most part just leaves me cold. I find myself gravitating toward familiar names like Len Wein with his recent guest shot on the Justice League.

TO: Yeah, it's kind of an awkward place to be, which I think is why people embraced the Ultimates so greatly. They take it back to first issues. Reconsidered concepts, characters introduced in different sequences and in different relationships. Who wants to have 40 years of back-story to deal with? They kept trying to reinvent Spider-Man, and tried to eliminate the back-story with that Ben Reilly thing. And it just didn't work. I don't know why Marvel can't do these things the way DC did. Because for DC it seemed like it was a roaring success when they started over with John's Superman and George's Wonder Woman. Those characters are 70 years old this year, or awfully close to it, but DC somehow managed to reinvent them while leaving them in line with their origins.

Prof: Remarkable, isn't it?

TO: It's impossible to deal with that much back-story. I knew George Olshevsky, the indexer, when I was in Toronto in the late 70's and he was self-publishing these Marvel indexes with painted covers and full credits and synopses. Marvel followed that template for years in its Marvel Universe line. It was George's contention then that Peter Parker was in fact about 32 years old and that all of the stories actually happened in canon and that he was actually aging realistically, and I said, "No, no. The stories become anecdotal over time and Parker's only about 23 or maybe 22 and time is compressed and this is fiction. You can't take these things seriously in that kind of historical way, because he couldn't possibly have had all those adventures and still be only an age where he'd still be in college." He said, "Well, he's a grad student. He's just doing it really long term." "Well…"

Prof: (Chuckle.)

TO: Occasionally you've got to scrape away the barnacles and understand that a lot of the stuff just can't be taken as part of the canon. This is fiction. And I guess when a character's been roaming around for 40 or 60 years and you really love the stuff, you love the costumes and creators and so forth it's hard not to take it seriously. But, I mean really, come on.

Prof: When I was talking to Joe Rubinstein, who I guess would be a good contemporary of yours, he was talking about how he was being perceived as old-fashioned at 50 years of age and had a dry spell for awhile getting any work.

TO: There's a weirdness that permeates comics as much as everything else. By the time you're 50 you become invisible. That's when Giacoia found himself outclassed with the Scott Williams guys, the guys who became Image people around 1990. Wayne Boring was out of a job on Superman when he was about 50. I don't think Shelly Moldoff lasted on Batman much longer than 50 or 55.   At my age I'm delighted to have as much work as I can handle and then a bit more. I'm not on the books that have the buzz any more, but the checks clear the bank, and if you've got a choice, yeah, I want my bank balance to be steady.

Prof: Absolutely.

TO: Todd Klein, Nate Piekos and a few other guys get the books that have all the notoriety, all the attention and well, I can't knock a thing that they do. They do fabulous work, and maybe one of these days if Todd's too busy and Nate's too busy, maybe I'll get the next Secret Invasion type of series.

Prof: Well, your name is certainly one of the more prominent ones among your contemporaries, there's no question of that.

TO: Yeah, it's probably the most famous Polish name in the lettering world. No one can pronounce it, but they recognize it on sight. 

© 2009 by B.D.S.


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