A Tribute to the of

Here is part 1 of the interview I enjoyed with Mike Royer

Bryan D. Stroud: It's pretty well established that your career got started in the mid-'60s, but I couldn't tell if you'd had any art school training.

Mike Royer: I went to art school for about a year. I was born and raised in the Willamette Valley in Oregon into a middle class family who really didn't have the funds available to say, "Here, kid. Here's your money for school."

So I worked real hard during the summers and saved money and was able to go to school for a year after borrowing a little money from the bank (my father co-signed) which I paid back after that first year. It just became too hard, from my viewpoint, to apply myself completely to the lessons at art school and to also work 6 hours a day at the Ben Paris restaurant in downtown Seattle, to pay for my room and board. There was just no time to do all the homework and also have a life.

So, after a year I finally just had to pack up and return home. However, I did have all kinds of strange and interesting adventures while in art school. And as for life in the big city, I learned to never get a room at the YMCA…

BDS: (Laughter.)

MR: Yep…the people that one meets in the big city… renting an apartment on Capitol Hill with a friend I made while in Seattle, and winding up with the stereotypical World War II B-movie era middle European landlady, thick accent and all, who developed a crush on me... Trying to stay away from her added to the "excitement" of life in the big city for this small town boy. I still have a special feeling about Seattle, though…the same feeling some folks have for the "city by the bay." I find I get the same "feel" in Seattle as in San Francisco. Hmmm…I digress. Sorry.

Getting back to your question, my school was, unfortunately, the "School of Hard Knocks." I sometimes wistfully look at the careers of other successful, if I may be so bold as to call them contemporaries…you know, the 4 or 5 guys who went to New York City and got a loft and worked and learned together and used each other as models, etc… that approach to building a career, waiting years before getting married… Maybe I just wasn't that dedicated or consumed by a passion to "do." I knew what I'd like to do/be but, I didn't know how to go about achieving that goal. I guess I was enjoying being young and foolish. LOL.

I went to The World Science Fiction convention in Oakland in 1964 and took a couple hundred copies of a comic book that another ERB fan, Dale Broadhurst, and I produced. Dale did the writing adaptation and I did the drawing for an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, "The Wizard of Venus." We had gotten permission from Hulbert Burroughs to do the fan comic. We printed our black and white comic book and took it to the convention, hoping to sell a few copies and we met a lot of interesting people, including Harlan Ellison, a fascinating and brilliant writer as well as a warm (albeit eccentric) human being. After a rocky first meeting, Harlan proved to be a very generous, friendly guy, with a wicked sense of humor. There are two camps regarding Harlan. One either loves him or hates him. Me…I love the guy. Oops…I digressed again.

I went to the convention primarily because I wanted to meet Russ Manning, whose work I greatly admired in MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER, BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR and many other works done for Gold Key comic books. I had read in a fanzine that Russ was an avid Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. In my small town logic I reasoned, "Every Burroughs fan will undoubtedly be going to the Dum-Dum, which is always a part of the World Science-Fiction Convention!" Of course he didn't show up, because he had a career and a life! However, one of the ERB fans I met, Camille Cazedessus, Jr., editor of "Erb-dom," one of the best Burroughs fanzines being published at the time, who, after the convention in Oakland ended, traveled on down to southern California for a visit with Russ Manning who was living in Mojeska Canyon outside the town of Orange, near Santa Ana. He told Russ about me and that I was trying to develop a style like his and Caz subsequently wrote and encouraged me to send some sample comic pages to Russ, which I did and m- a-n-y months later Russ wrote me back and said that if he ever needed an assistant then I would certainly fit the bill, or words to that effect.

So I took that as an excuse to pack up my family, tell the place I worked that I would be taking a month's vacation and we put half our belongings in storage and packed the rest in a U-Haul trailer and headed for southern California and figuratively speaking, I parked in Russ Manning's back yard and announced: "I'm ready to go to work." So, bless his heart, he gave me work.

BDS: So I guess it was one of those "who you know" situations.

MR: It helps to have people on your side. That's how it started. I assisted Russ for about eleven months and my day job, 5 ½ days a week was as the credit manager and paint salesman for The Sherwin-Williams Paint Company. I worked with Russ on weekends and nights and after about eleven months he mentioned that an artist he knew from Western Publishing, named Mike Arens, had just started working at an animation studio as Art Director and that he was looking for people who could ink and draw, but more importantly, ink. I drove into Hollywood from my home in Whittier and met Mike Arens and began working at Grantray-Lawrence Animation almost immediately on, by today's standards, the extremely cheap and crude Marvel Superheroes cartoon syndicated series, which basically consisted of using stats of the comic book original art, taking selected parts, pasting them down, extending them where needed with new art and occasionally a completely new piece of art to bridge the comic book panels, to work as limited animation (more progressive stills than anything else) and the animated lip movement. I'm sure you're familiar with the old Marvel Superheroes show... Captain America and Thor, etc. Sub-Mariner had only had about 4 issues published at that time in Tales of Suspense or Tales to Astonish, whatever, as one half of a two character title. So we had to create a lot of brand new stories for the Sub-Mariner episodes. I did some penciling and a lot of inking on those stories.

I got to meet and work with talents like Doug Wildey, Mel Keever, Sparky Moore and Mike Arens, who really became my number one mentor, in fact, he became like a second father to me. He stressed the point: "If you ever go to talk to an editor, you don't want to be in the position where you are forced to turn down a job because you can't do ALL of what is necessary." He said it would be wise to know how to do it all, including lettering. He's the man who taught me how to letter, by simply explaining to me that each letter is something that you draw. Years later when at Disney and I was a character art manager, handing out artwork that had to be inked and there was lettering on it I'd hear, "Mike, I don't letter," and I would explain, "Look at it. It's drawing. Ink the drawing." I had learned from Mike Arens that each letter was just another part of drawing and tried to impart that knowledge to the free-lancers I worked with. After all, it worked for me. Mike also gave me work outside of the small animation studio and I inked and lettered some of his stories for Peterson's Cartoons Magazine. I also worked with Mike in 1966, on, believe it or not, a Batman comic strip that appeared in newspapers in the south. They were 4 to 6 panels every week that appeared in the shopping supplement of some newspapers. You'd find it on a rack at the supermarkets. It was the TV version of Batman.

BDS: What a surprise!

MR: I doubt that anyone even knows about that strip and the only record I have to document its existence are old thermofax copies that are now a really rich brown tone. *Sigh*

BDS: (Laughter.)

MR: The Marvel Superheroes job lasted about 11 months. Gee, there seems to be an 11 month cycle going on in the early days of my career. Anyway after 11 months there was a layoff at the small animation studio and at this same time Russ Manning was being asked by his editor at Western Publishing to consider doing much more work. He'd done the first of his Tarzan books that had proven very popular with the buying public and ERB fans and they wanted him to do ALL the Tarzan adaptations, as well as continue with Magnus and even some other stuff, if he could. He told his editor that the only way he could do that body of work would be if I were assisting him. He told him that there wasn't enough money in it for a full-time income for me, so I got a call from Chase Craig (Western's West Coast Editor) and he asked, "Would you like to come in and pick up some work?" I never even had to show samples and the first thing that I did for Western Publishing…and I don't know how many people know this or if I've ever mentioned it in an interview before…the first thing I did was pencil a frame-tray puzzle of Superboy leaping into the air as a grizzly bear takes a swipe at him. It was then painted by one of the Western Publishing cover painters out of their East Coast office. That was my first job for Western. So, there I was… working with Russ Manning and also doing inking and lettering assignments for Western Publishing. As a result of the fine work Manning was doing on the Tarzan comic books, he was eventually offered the Tarzan syndicated comic strip. In another 11 months or so I got a phone call from Grantray-Lawrence Animation informing they'd landed the deal to do the first Saturday morning animated Spiderman series and would I be interested in coming back to work. I was interviewed by their new production manager who, in some sort of cockeyed wisdom, had been hired because of his work in the construction business… to be the production manager on an animated series. You tell me how that makes any sense.

BDS: (Laughter.)

MR: And I sat there opposite this guy and after explaining to him my work load and he said, "Okay, if you can only work 20 or 22 hours a week, that's fine, but we can't give you any screen credit if you're working at home and not in-house." Being a naive 20- something I didn't realize that I could just go to the screen cartoonist's union ( I was a member) and scream bloody murder and they would have jumped all over this guy and told him in no uncertain terms, "Oh, yes he does get screen credit." Again, being a naïve 20-something I reasoned, "Well, okay, if that's the way it is, so be it." I eventually laid out at least one third of those shows. Anyway, after only 4 weeks or even less, working directly with director Grant Simmons, who was the "Grant" of Grantray, an old-timer from way back…you'll see Grant Simmons' name on the old Tom and Jerry cartoons as well as Ray Patterson who was the "Ray" of Grantray (Lawrence was the producer in New York City.)… while I was meeting with Grant and going over his stick figure layouts and field sizes and discussing the storyboard, he sternly said, "You know, Mike, you're really in trouble. People in the studio are madder than hell at you. " I cautiously asked, "Why?" He responded, "Because the work that you turn in for 20 or 22 hours a week is more than they do in-house in 40 hours." You must understand when you're in-house, there's a lot of water cooler conversations, staff meetings, BSing, all that stuff, which cuts into actual production time. I asked, "Well, what do I do?" He casually replied "Charge me for 40 hours." So, I worked 20 to 22 hours a week and charged him for 40 and everybody was happy.

BDS: Not a bad gig. (Chuckle.)

MR: Yeah, it's funny. I guess I've been naïve my entire life. The studio went bankrupt right at the end of the Spiderman job. One of the problems was that Ray Patterson's wife June was in charge of the script department and she had, I think, 4 or 5 writers and rather than give each writer a different show/idea to develop, she would have the whole group of writers write their version of that week's episode. (Pause.) Think about it. That's spending a lot of money that's totally unnecessary, and whatever her reasoning was, and she may have wound up with better stories by picking the best of the group, I don't think it was a wise business decision and of course they wound up going bankrupt. I remember on a Friday afternoon getting a phone call from Grant … we'd gotten to be pretty good friends… and he calmly said "Mike, the Sheriff is closing us down on Monday. If you'd like to drive into the studio tomorrow morning, you can have anything you want." Grant knew that I was the only employee that had ever read a Marvel comic book and at one time he told me that if he'd had his way I would be the voice of Peter Parker/Spiderman, but that since Lawrence had contracted the services of a non-union company in Canada, it wouldn't happen. Anyway, rather than go in Saturday morning and take home piles and piles of cels of Spiderman and Green Goblin and all the other characters, Electro, etc., what did I take home? Two pages of original art that had been sent out to the west coast. One from a western comic that was drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by…maybe Dick Ayers…and a page of Captain America penciled and inked by George Tuska. Now of course I realize now that if I'd taken all the rest of that stuff home I could probably have retired a lot earlier.

BDS: It's hard to imagine what those could have gone for.

MR: But I thought at the time, "What the hell do I want with all this crap?" I've got to tell you, though; it was a fun time because of all the people that I met: Meeting Doug Wildey, who was a kick in the pants, besides being extremely talented. I remember one time back in those Marvel Superhero days when we were in the supply room picking brushes. You'd have a dozen cards with 4 to 6 brushes on them, such as Windsor- Newton series 7 number 2's, and we all did the same thing. You pulled a brush out of the band holding it to the card and then you licked it and if it came to a point that you liked, that's the one you took back to your drawing board. It happened to be the same day that Stan Lee came out to visit the crew at the studio and we're all kibitzing and licking brushes and hanging around and Doug licks a brush, and remember, this is 1966, he exclaims, "This stuff is shit!" Now here it is 2012 and I would kill to get some of that mid-60's "shit."

BDS: That's right. I've been told by more than one person that the quality certainly has not improved over the years.

MR: When one talks about state of the art, that doesn't mean a damn thing. Think about it. State of the art. "This is the state of the art brush from Windsor-Newton." Yeah, but the state of the art sucks rubber donkey lungs.

BDS: (Laughter.) Russ Heath is in your camp. He told me that if he could just get a decent brush it would make life so much easier. John Workman suggested that even the ink doesn't seem to be of the same quality as it used to be.

MR: If I'm able to get an ink that seems to be nice and densely black and I leave the cap off for longer than 25 minutes it turns into molasses. The jar that I have now that I ink from I've thinned down with water so much that it's probably 80% water, but it's still black as sin. But as I said, leave the cap off for half an hour and you've got to thin it down even more.

Back in the Marvel Superhero days there was an artist on board named Herb Hazelton who was an excellent fine artist. Back in the days when there was a wax museum down at Knott's Berry Farm, with all these wax figure replicas of famous paintings, Herb had actually done all of the reproductions of the famous paintings on the walls behind the wax figures. Herb inked off an ink block. I've often wondered if you could still go to an art store and get an ink block. Hmmm…another item for my wish list. He would just wet the brush (with water) and glide it across the surface of the block and then he could get the ink line as thin or as thick as he wanted, depending on how much water vs. ink was in the brush. But then again, why do I want to find something that makes inking easier?

After all these years, inking is my least favorite thing to do. However, sometimes you have to do what's necessary to put food on the table. The 21 1/2 total years that I did Disney character art were years that I spent as a "creator" and did very little inking. But, because of my background as an inker I became a character art manager and handed out inking assignments to free-lancers on the outside. The last 7-1/2 years of this 21 ½ year period (almost 15 years on staff) of doing character art and product design was spent creating product art, full time as an independent contractor, for the Disney Store and was, at least for someone who has a creative bent of any kind, like heaven. Everything that I drew, they bought. Whether they produced it or not.

BDS: Wow. You can't beat that at all.

MR: What a great time! Every morning I'd have coffee with my wife and we would discuss ideas. Sixty percent of what I did for the stores was concepting. The other forty percent was correcting and cleaning up other concepts that were done in-house, or doing final art on my own concepts. Most of my concepts were so finished they could turn them over to somebody else. A good percentage of these concepts came from my wife. They would either be a springboard for a concept or I would just use one hundred percent of what she came up with. It was fun. In those days we used to go to antique malls a lot. She was a collector, and since she's 10 years younger than myself, I would tell people I was her first…antique. Anyway, as we would be walking around she'd point at a shelf and there'd be an old Jack and Jill book from the 1920's and Jack and Jill were standing on a bridge over a creek and she's day, "What if you had Pooh and Piglet fishing off the bridge?" I turned her idea into a drawing of Pooh and Piglet sitting on a log, fishing out of a large wooden barrel full of water. Bought, produced and sold! After the whole Disney store thing went to the devil, which is a good title for middle management… months later, I would be seated at the drawing board in my studio and my wife would stick her head in and say, "What if you had Pooh and…oh, we don't do that anymore." I do have my soapbox and will go to my grave being a Disney company man. Of course it's a company that started ceasing to exist when Frank Wells died, but that's another story.

I highly recommend a DVD that is available, I think, from Disney Home Video. It's called "Waking Sleeping Beauty." I digress, but I just watched it last night and what a fantastic thing.

BDS: I'll have to check that out. One of the things I was going to mention is that it's rather ironic that Disney now owns Marvel and you've had such strong connections to both companies.

MR: It's funny. One of the problems is that I'm 70, and the mentality, it seems to me, in most companies, (the corporate mentality) is that if you're over 30, you're on the downhill side, and if you're over 40, you're brain dead. Or, if you're over 30 or 40 and you've been doing it for a while, you've got experience and you want to be paid for that experience. I find that you get what you pay for. I never did anything for the stores that didn't walk right out the doors. They called me "The Pooh Man." If you ever bought anything with the 100 Acre Wood's characters on it at the Disney Store from 1993 to 2001, there's a good chance I drew it or did the concept. I also did lots of 3-D products…i.e. snow globes, bell jars, kitchen ceramics, etc., using any or all the Disney characters.

BDS: It's hard to think that someone can arbitrarily put a shelf life on talent.

MR: Well, when I was younger I really wanted to do adventure stuff. Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, that kind of material. But I married early, had young kids, couldn't go off to that garret in New York with the Bernie Wrightston's and those people who all became incredibly talented and vital artists, but I found that I could ink and I got a lot of work and supported a family for many years as an inker while doing the occasional penciling job. I inked a lot of the stories, drawn by Mike Arens, Sparky Moore and others in the Hanna-Barbera TV Superhero comic books for Gold Key/ Western Publishing, and although I designed, penciled and inked many of the covers for these titles, it was very difficult to obtain any interior story drawing assignments from Chase Craig. One day I said to him, "Look, Chase, let me save you some trouble and I'll just produce the whole book for you. I've talked to Mike and Sparky. I can ink and letter the whole thing and save you some effort." He thought a moment and then said, "Sounds great to me." So I penciled and inked and lettered the entire book and he thought that Sparky and Mike had drawn it and that was that. It was great of Mike and Sparky to go along with my ruse. Which leads me to believe that a lot of editors don't know caca from shinola. I mean a decade ago when I moved back to Oregon after the consumer products industry went into the toilet, I started contacting comic book companies to see if they had any inking jobs (I said one would do what it takes to put bread on the table) or anything like that, because, sadly, nobody was doing funny animal comics any longer, or if they were I felt they were lacking. What I wanted to do and was working myself (for almost 22 years) toward was an opportunity to do "big foot" comic book work. I think some of the best comic book work I did was on Mickey Mouse stories I did, moonlighting for another division, while on staff at Disney. Anyway, when I would call editors they'd always say pretty much the same thing: "Oh, we'll keep you in mind when we have a Jack Kirby project." No matter what kind of samples I sent them, and I've drawn everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Zorro, if you say Mike Royer to them they think it's got to be a Jack Kirby project. I've got a letter in my portfolio from a producer at Bagdasarian Productions regarding the story board that I did for an Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies show (I moonlighted during a two-week vacation, doing a month's worth of work in two weeks; it almost killed me, but I wanted to stretch my muscles) and the letter from the producer says, "Your story boarding is Eisensteinian," referring to the famous Russian filmmaker.

BDS: Ah. I wasn't familiar with the name.

MR: I chose Bagdasarian when I heard from colleagues at Disney, who were moonlighting doing cartoon boards, which studios were buying storyboards at the time (back in the early '90's), and was told that the toughest S.O.B. to work for was Bagdasarian. I thought that if I wanted to to learn anything and continue to stretch my muscles, that's where I was going to try and get a board assignment. I met the man only once when I delivered the first half of the storyboard to the producer and the only thing he said when looking at my storytelling was, "It's so nice to see someone using their imagination."

The fee for the storyboard and three model sheets was $6,000.00. When the check came it was $8,000.00. So I like to think that I did a pretty good job. The unfortunate thing is that because the Korean studio that was doing the artwork had fallen behind schedule, they did my show, I think, over a weekend, and (choke) it's available on one of the Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies DVDs, but I cringe when I see how bad their work was. This had to be sometime in 1991 because that's the period the licensing creative department was developing so much Dick Tracy merchandising at the studio. When I was offered titles to pick from at Bagdasarian I asked for "Chip Tracy." Seemed like a natural. I thought it was pretty good to get a $2,000.00 bonus doing Chipmunks from the toughest S.O.B. in the business. Especially when editors at DC and Marvel were all saying, "Well, we'll keep you in mind if there's a Kirby project." I will say that I'm proud of my association with DC comics, because they are absolutely fabulous in sending reprint checks. I just loved it when they reprinted that whole volume of The Demon. I inked and lettered the entire run and therefore don't have to split the inking reprint money with anyone else. That's nice.

© 2012 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by Mike Royer

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