A Tribute to the Silver Age of DC Comics

As I've likely mentioned before, the Challengers of the Unknown were brought to us in the pages of Showcase back in issue #6 (Sage review #29) courtesy of a story by Dave Wood and art by Jack Kirby.  It has been speculated, with some credibility, that the Challs likely served as a sort of prototype for Jack's later work on the Fantastic Four.  Whatever the case may be, the Challengers were given their own magazine in April/May of 1958 and had a 77 issue run that concluded the end of 1970.  At one point in their history, there was also a short 3-issue run that brought them up to #80 and then after a short but successful appearance in Super Team Family, DC decided to try again, so the series kicked off again in 1977 with issue #81 (ending with #87) .  The cover was by Mike Nasser and Neal Adams with Mike also doing interior pencils inked by Bob WiacekJack C. Harris is our editor for Gerry Conway's script entitled, "Multi-Man's Master Plan!"

The story takes up where the last one left off in Super Team Family #10 and the Challs are chasing down Multi-Man, one of their oldest and deadliest foes.  He has captured honorary member June Robins and has taken on the form of a giant.  Prof Haley has located the undersea lair of Multi-Man, but a beam has emerged from the dome and stricken him.

His teammates, Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan and Red Ryan, are flying to Los Angeles to meet up with military officials and to deal with a situation at a nuclear reactor.  Red Ryan brings into play a neutron gun to nullify the force field around the plant and then bursts through.

The story segues back to Prof Haley, who is just coming to and he finds himself with June.  She asks Haley about Multi-Man and the good professor recalls the origin of the criminal genius, otherwise known as Duncan Pramble, assistant to a geologist who had discovered an old alchemist's potion known as Liquid Light.  Consuming it gave him incredible abilities, including immortality, for each time he "died," he was resurrected with even more powers. 

Switching back to LA, Red is dashing full throttle into the plant to take on Multi-Man.  The villain promptly pulls a page from Colossal Boy's game book and increases his physical stature dramatically.  Red instinctively fires his weapon and Multi-Man is vaporized.  He and Rocky and Ace soon learn, however, that Multi-Man has somehow teleported to another location and they race again to challenge him.

Locating him in Los Angeles, a three-pronged attack takes place, with his power source at the undersea dome being short-circuited by Haley; Rocky using his strength to attack and distract him and Ace knocking him off the Cliffside with the transport.  The fall "kills" Pramble, but upon his latest resurrection, he is chagrined to discover he is again an ordinary man.

After depositing Pramble in jail and returning to Challenger Mountain, Ace, Rocky and Red discover that Prof is dying and there is only one man who can save him:  A man named Heathcliff Monroe in Perdition, Massachusetts.  The cliffhanger ends there.

This seemed to be a pretty strong comeback for the Challs and my nostalgic streak was pleased to see Multi-Man in the storyline.  The art was strong and dynamic and while I've never been a great fan of a continuing storyline, I'm intrigued with what the next issue brings.

I'm pleased now to present the first part of an interview with our artist, Michael Netzer:

Bryan D. Stroud:  There seem to have been a few different paths to Continuity.  What was yours?

Michael Netzer:  I was invited by Neal in September 1975 during the Detroit Triple FanFare convention produced by Greg Theakston and David Lillard. I knew Greg since high school and he was always encouraging me to draw and telling me stories about the industry and its creators. He was a few years older and had already met many of the artists and writers working at the time. During high school, he came back from a trip to New York with a sketch dedicated to me and signed by Neal because he knew how much I was attracted to Neal's art and what an influence it was becoming on my own work. Greg saw something in my work that moved him to sort of take me under his wings and introduce me to the professional comics world.  It was a big convention with guests like William Shatner, George Takei and others from Star Trek, along with Jim Steranko, Vaughn Bode, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith and other creators. So Greg asked me to accompany Neal at the con and make sure he had what he needed…and to pick him up from the airport and take him back.

When Neal arrived, I went to get him in my '64 Mustang jalopy.  It was a pretty odd situation because instead of the sort of vehicle you might expect, mine was an old beat up car with a convertible top that had a few rips and holes. It looked like it had been through World War II or something.  I bought it for $100 in '73 and rebuilt its engine at home, but hadn't yet gotten to the body or the convertible top.  As it turns out, on this September day that I was picking him up, it began to rain a little.  So we're driving to the con from the airport and water is starting to drip into the back seat, and we had to move Neal's luggage and portfolio aside so they don't get wet. I'm sure he was wondering what he'd gotten himself into by coming to Detroit.

So this was my first big comic book convention and the first direct contact with fandom and it was a very big deal for me. Neal seemed to take interest in me personally before he'd seen my work, but was comfortable with this kid whom he'd heard a lot about from Greg and who was very much the withdrawn type, didn't talk much and didn't appear to have an outward involvement in anything other than being enamored with a legendary artist I'd admired since childhood. But I was a good listener, and Neal was a good talker.  (Chuckle.)

We got to the convention and there seemed to be a good chemistry between us.  As things went along and he started seeing my work, he took a growing interest in it.  He invited me work at Continuity if I'd ever get to NY.  I have to say that a lot of my work at the time didn't look so much like it was influenced by Neal.  Mostly, what I had to show were drawings I'd done in life drawing classes and other art and design courses in high school and college. Interestingly they had a look altogether different from the comics work I'm known for, more influenced by renaissance art and classic illustration. At that time I was drawing more as a drawing, as opposed to comic book art.  I think maybe that was what interested him more than anything.  He knew I was a big fan of his work and saw some drawings of mine that had his trademark.  But he could see from the other art that I'd cultivated other influences from outside of comics at a younger age. So at the end of that convention I got the invitation from Neal, which was a very big deal for me.

As an aside I'll tell you that at the convention I had done an exhibit of some art that was about 6 pieces of the Star Trek crew. At the end of the con Greg told me that one of the drawings was missing from the exhibit.  They thought that somebody had taken it.  They were apologetic about it, but it seemed to me that it was kind of cool that someone liked this drawing enough to take it from there.  I say that because a gent named Robert Bowman, from Wonderworld Comics in Detroit, contacted me a few years ago and said they he had bought a box of old comic books and inside of it were a few drawings and one of them was this drawing of Captain Kirk from 1975 that my name was signed to - and he asked me what I could tell him about it.  I told him the story about the drawing that was taken from the exhibit. He thanked me for the info and offered to return the drawing but I thought that it had a better home at his shop. Last year, his partner Dennis   Barger contacted me saying they're planning an Oct 2010 convention dedicated to those days of comics fandom from the 60's and 70's and they're calling it the Detroit FanFare.  He invited me to the convention because he said that that box and drawing of Capt. Kirk drove them to research the history of comics fandom in Detroit, where the very first comic convention was held in the US in the mid 60's, which led them to put this new con together. So, for the event, Dennis also published a sketchbook of mine from the last few years, including the Kirk sketch and an introduction which tells the story of the drawing and how it inspired them to put together this convention.

It's an interesting story about a big circle being closed right now from that convention in '75, exactly 35 years ago.

BDS:  Oh, what a magnificent story.

MN:  Arvell Jones and Keith Pollard, who I've just seen at Detroit FanFare for the first time since the mid-70s, were two of the many Detroit artists who broke into comics then. They had an apartment in NY where they drove to from time to time for meetings with editors and to deliver and accept work. They were planning a trip to NY in Nov. 75 and asked if I wanted to come along for the ride and take a shot at getting some work.  Of course I had the invitation to go to Continuity, so that was a good step.  I had something to rely on, so I took my meager funds, maybe about $100.00, and made the journey with them, knowing I at least had a place to stay for a short time.

So I took that ride with them and went to Continuity the next day.  Upon seeing Neal, he said:  "Look, I don't have much work right now, but here's our contact book and a list of editors from DC and Marvel.  Call them up and see if you can get an appointment to show them your work."  I did just that and had a couple of appointments lined up.  One was with Jack C. Harris at DC Comics, who promptly gave me a script for a back-up story in Kamandi.  That's how my career started.  I also did a little bit of commercial work with Neal, penciling story boards and sometimes inking backgrounds on comics pages.  So that's how it started, in late 1975.

BDS:  So you kind of got springboarded from Continuity into your comic career.

MN:  Pretty much so.  Now I'll try to give you my perception of what Continuity was like at the time.  Naturally, Neal's personality was a dominant one.  To me it was a whole new world.  Barely 20 and first time not living at home, I was thrust into New York City and the hub of the comic book industry.  So there was a feeling of being overwhelmed and also still a very withdrawn and introverted type.  Aside from wanting to be a comic book artist, I just tried to make the best of it.  My own personality was fairly optimistic.  I had the feeling inside that we're living at a very special time and that some very big things were awaiting us.  I'm speaking generally as a civilization.  There was something in the air.  Something important about being there at this particular time.

Now most of the people in Continuity were young artists looking to break into the business.  Some had gotten their first independent job to draw or ink but many others hadn't.  There were a few artists struggling like that at least.  I basically became attached to some of them, like Joe Rubinstein, Mark Rice, John Fuller, and Joe Brozowski.  When Joe Rub offered to ink a sample page from my first Kamandi to get his first independent inking job, I jumped on the idea because he was pretty good and barely 18 at the time. Jack Harris loved his samples and gave him his first career assignment.  Along with that, there were a lot of established professionals like Russ Heath, Gray Morrow, Alan Weiss, Cary Bates, Larry Hama, Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, Berni Wrightson, Michael Kaluta and many more who frequented the studio or worked from there. Most every artist who worked from Continuity or came by often were nourishing a strong presence for themselves in the industry.  Continuity was a hub in every sense of the word.

When I landed in New York, Neal was basically in the throes of helping out Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  The day I landed I was in the front room all the time and Siegel and Shuster were visiting at Continuity and Neal was giving them some details on how to move forward and convince DC to give them a little compensation for the creation of Superman.  That was a pretty big event and this was when I began to understand the rather peculiar personality that Neal is, and how he became involved in the industry and very involved in making things better for others in it.

This was a little bit unique because most other artists seemed to be concerned, more than anything else, with advancing their art and careers.  Very few were extending themselves towards this sort of activity.  So right away I became a part of a very good spirit that was in the studio that kept an eye on the industry and there was a feeling that from Continuity, there was a very big influence over what was going on in comics.

BDS:  I think your describing it as a hub seems very appropriate, at least from what I've heard from others who were involved there.  It has been described as a middle ground between the big two publishers.

MN:  It certainly was.  There were artists and writers and editors from both companies who felt at home there.  And people who worked at Continuity were working for both companies.  It was a middle ground and it was also a place where the people who were involved in it seemed to have some influence over what was going on in the industry.  Meaning that if Cary Bates was writing Superman, then having the regular writer of Superman at Continuity meant that most everything that was going on with Superman and DC Comics was also known to us… and by knowing that, it kind of helped motivate everyone to position ourselves a little better within it.  This gave Continuity an advantage as a good place for creators catch up on the latest news and share in the enthusiasm for the work. A place where everyone could feel at home there and benefit from it.

Now I just want to add one more aspect to this.  On that first day at Continuity, something very interesting happened.  On the wall next to Neal's desk in the front room was a poster map of the Earth.  It was the well known Heezen-Tharp map of the ocean floor. It showed the structure of the ocean floor without the water.  It was a very interesting picture that I'd not paid much attention to before.  Somehow, right away, I was pulled into this discussion and I remember Neal looking at the map and saying, "You know geologists say the continents were bunched together and eventually moved around and spread apart on the planet's surface. Now look at this map.  Does it look to you like the continents can move around on the ocean floor the way they show it?"  I said, "What are you talking about?"  It was a little bit of overload.  I wasn't familiar with Pangaea Theory.  I mean I'd heard of it, but never really gotten into the details and I found myself researching it so I'd have an idea what Neal was talking about.  At that time Neal hadn't yet discussed a growing earth or that the continents might spread apart because of it, or about the generation of atomic matter in the earth's core which makes it grow.  But he was trying to pick people's minds and say that there was a problem with this Plate Tectonics theory.  The idea that the continents that are planted 15-20 miles beneath the ocean floor like teeth planted in the gums were moving around on the planet's surface without a reasonable mechanism or force, as if teeth can move around on the surface of the gums, just didn't make sense to him.  This would have been around 1975, so it was the period when Neal was starting to formulate his resistance to a very popular new scientific theory and he was looking around to maybe see what people thought of it.  Whenever he found someone interested, he'd open a discussion about it in the front room.

It's interesting that most of the people there didn't have much to say about it because it looked like Neal was challenging a popular scientific premise and most people weren't familiar enough with it to discuss it, and would rather just accept the position of the learned scientist.  People also didn't seem to know where he was heading with it, because if it's not continental drift then what else could explain what geologists were claiming? But you could see back in 1975 how the beginning of this idea would become a very important part of his work. Looking at it today after 10 years or so since Neal first presented his science project it's amazing to see the fallout. Growing Earth not only challenges Plate Tectonics but also some of the basic tenets of science, particularly, in anthropology, geology and particle physics. Even mainstream cosmology comes under scrutiny with it. Widely held theories such as the Big Bang, Matter Constancy, Dark Matter and Energy, Quarks as primary particles, Anti-Matter/Matter Annihilation, Plight of the Dinosaurs and their extinction… all these and more come under new light with Growing Earth Theory.  Now, while mainstream science scoffs at the notion, a lot of learned and accomplished scientists have voiced support for exploring the possibilities of a growing universe, as opposed to an expanding one, based on a lot of existing evidence for it. This is not such a new theory altogether. Russian geologists first proposed it in the late 1800's long before Alfred Wegener's continental drift theory which became the basis for Plate Tectonics, though it subliminally inferred an expanding earth model. Famed Australian Geologist Samuel Carey put forth Expanding Earth theory in the 50's and presented irrefutable evidence for it.  It was discredited because as a geologist he could not answer the physics question of where does all the new mass come from or what makes it expand.  The web is full of discussions on it especially YouTube. Neal has given several long interviews on it at Coast to Coast Radio and Japan Times did a big 3-page magazine feature on the history of Expanding Earth theory highlighting Neal's work. You could see the seeds of this science project right there in those early discussions at Continuity in the mid-70's.

So to me I felt that I'd pretty much found myself in the middle of a very serious and pertinent kind of place, working with the artist whose artwork had pulled me into the comic book world.  Neal was proving to be a lot more than just a comic book artist with great ability, but also someone working on a humanitarian level and with an overall view of the world and he seemed to care a little more and be involved in it.  He felt he could be an influence on any aspect of it.  A conversation with him would move from anything to politics, to social issues, to what was going on in the comic book industry.  His views and positions were more than just a personal concern. Rather he was engaged in many aspects of our world and dug deeper beneath the surface to understand it.  I lent my support to that right from the beginning and it created a very strong bond between us.

Another interesting aspect to this relationship is that I saw a lot of young artists coming in to show their work and some of them were not so bad.  Let's say that they were…I wouldn't want to grade anyone, but I would say that it seemed like almost regardless of who it was, Neal's criticism of their work was evidently harsh.  It took me a long time to understand how or why he would do this to young aspiring artists because he was never so harsh with me.  He seemed to treat me with kid gloves and it was just the opposite for some of these kids who would come in to show their work.  There were times when he would bring them back to my table and he would actually pull out one of my drawings to show them.  I remember a splash page from the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu that I did during that early period and spent a lot of time on and he would bring artists back and show it to them saying: "See that?  This is how good you have to draw to get into the business."  So he would use me as an example to show young artists the extent of work that they had to do.

What I would take from all this is that my personal situation at Continuity seemed to be a little different than what most other young artists were facing. I think it can be attributed a lot to a very positive outlook of mine in this new life that I was beginning in New York.

BDS:  That's quite a remarkable chain of events that you've described.

MN:  It is pretty remarkable.  Again, I think it was something in the chemistry between us.  I have to say that I think there was something else about me that contributed to the whole thing.  Though born in Detroit, I'd basically been raised in Lebanon until the age of 12.  By the time I returned to America, those critical school years of Jr. High and High School, I was extremely withdrawn.  I wasn't really engaged in American culture.  I had to do some catching up.  There was some culture shock to deal with and it felt like instead of starting my life at 5, where you typically start going to school and so on, I started at 12, so I had something like 7 critical childhood years missing in America.  Add to that another three years of surgery for Polio between 12 and 15 and you've got a teenager living in a world he didn't grow up in and didn't know.

I found myself a little bit disengaged from the kind of life that most kids my age were living.  So by the time I got to New York and began working, I was basically missing a big chunk of the popular entertainment culture that my colleagues grew up with.  Comic book artists and writers are naturally bound to and very interested in what is going on in the arts, film, radio, literature, science and science fiction and everything.  So studio talk would often revolve around such subjects.  People would talk about Bogart, Cagney, Citizen Kane and wallow in the progressive evolution of entertainment culture that left a very big impression on them from the world of film and television and actors and books and so forth… and I just didn't have any of that. I had none of that background and a lot of catching up to do.

It was like an immediate overexposure to the world.  But I saw that the infatuation of comics creators with entertainment and arts was a big influence in the comic book stories and art they produced.  I found myself always a little to the side of things learning and absorbing as much as I could.  I think that contributed to something that was distinguishing me from others.  Something like a little kid among grownups who needed a little patience to catch up to speed.  I think Neal instinctively felt this and took it upon himself to be that guy, to be the one that would keep an eye on things as I was taking these steps of getting acquainted with everything.

I think that also contributed to the bond and friendship we had, relative to the kind of relationship Neal had with other artists.

I would also say that I shared and supported his larger outlook on the world.  That being engaged and using the position you have, or using your time in this journey through life to do what you can to contribute to making your environment a little better.  It's to have an overall wide outlook on things so that you can be engaged in almost anything you need in order to see where you can contribute in a positive way.  This was a little bit unique in modern America.  It was the crux of what Neal was doing in this life and he may still feel that way. You can still see a spark of that spirit in him today, though certainly not as bright as it was in his heyday.

Most people saw this quality of Neal's as being a little eccentric. Sure, everyone respected his efforts on behalf of the comics creators but not everyone saw it as benevolence. Rather, more like a strategic decision to advance his reputation and career as a comics artist and activist.

Neal has a big world within him.  It's really rare that he expresses the depth of that world, so he has his own way of concentrating on things that open up certain avenues, especially the way he talks about his contributions and their impact on how the comic book industry was shaping up.  When Neal and I would talk about the idea that comics…and this was back in the 1970's…you have to remember that comics were going through a difficult time being the quirky child of the entertainment culture. The onslaught on comics in the 50's was over, the 60's gave us a rebirth and the 70's catapulted the medium with a new vibrancy of  artists like Steranko, Smith, Wrightson, Kaluta and Jones. DC and Marvel were raising the stakes with the notion that comics hold more relevance than escapist entertainment with projects like GL/GA and the Spiderman drug story without the code approval. But sales were on a decline and there wasn't a lot of optimism for where the industry at large was heading.

Now, we all know there are a lot of very talented artists and writers who've been shut out of the industry since.  Creators who devoted a lifetime and everything they had towards making DC and Marvel look good, and who were rarely compensated fairly for it, have been forced to lay their talents aside and settle for other means to make a living.  Still, most of the creators I'm in touch with today admit that at the time, in the 70's, they never dreamed that comics would have the influence they do today.  This is important because we seemed to have, during that early period, this new spirit of taking our fate into our hands and trying to improve conditions for everyone - to level the playing field a little.

This led to a serious effort to get the artists and writers together to form a guild - something that Arnold Drake had attempted in the 60's from his position at DC, and it didn't work because creators weren't willing to rock the boat.  We found the same thing.  I remember Neal asking me to try to outline the beginning of a charter of the guild's purpose and I spent some time discussing it with other colleagues.  It was amazing to hear the resistance from the actual artists and writers themselves.  It surprised me how many established creators were reluctant to put their names onto it and to support the idea of presenting a unified group to the publishers.  People were just afraid for their jobs.  They were afraid that DC and Marvel would stop giving them work and the effort eventually fizzled.  It's a natural and familiar situation and it wasn't working in our favor.  Another attempt in the 80's with Kurt Busiek, Scott McCloud, Rick Veitch and others also failed for the same reason.

In the end it turned out that it really wasn't enough of an effort.  But the effort was made.  Steps were taken and some things were written and names were signed on.  But it wasn't enough. What this indicated was a general feeling that the industry and creators were not up to speed with the vision that seemed to be coming out of Continuity.  If we could not do this thing, then it seemed that the industry would continue to develop in such a way that the state of the creators would remain as that of an abused underdog because we weren't able to unite in order to be rewarded fairly for the work and the contribution we were making.

Now just to put that a little bit in perspective, I think it's really important to understand the reason creators deserve to be in a better position.  Most everything that the comic book industry represents has basically come from creators.  There isn't a character, there isn't a property you could name that a publisher created.  At best you could say, "Well, look at Stan Lee.  He was the publisher and look at what he did."   But Stan wasn't a publisher.  Stan was a writer/editor.  Basically everything he did, he did as a comic book creator, not as a publisher.  Stan was editor in chief, but without Kirby, Ditko and a host of talent on board, it's not clear that he could have orchestrated the surge that Marvel lavished in during the 60's. It's not clear that Timely and Marvel could have developed the characters and properties that the world so loves today.

BDS:  Not at all.

MN:  The same with DC.  You could look at everything that DC's developed over 75 years and it all came from the creators.  The creators are the source of everything that the comic book industry has become.  And when you look historically at what the comic book industry is and where it's going, it is the leading source for entertainment properties in the world today.  I'm not just talking about super heroes, I'm talking about everything.  The breadth of the comic book mainstream, the independents and everything coming from the periphery are all prime fodder for film and TV today.  This is all made possible by the sacrifice of comic book creators.  Without them, none of this, none of it could've happened.  And yet, even to this day, we continue to work under conditions of near slavery or worse.  I've drawn a few stories recently and am familiar with current rates. Why is it that I find myself still getting a contract that says, "Work for Hire" today? We've been fighting against it since the early 70's and it's as if we never lifted a finger. The page rate I get puts me back 20 or 25 years.  It's like half the page rate I was getting from DC comics in the 90's when I returned to do a few Batman stories.  That's the story, that's the situation comic book creators are living in.  A situation where the publisher is taking these properties which they didn't create themselves, making millions and billions of dollars on them while throwing out a few gratuitous morsels for the creators as if there exists some measure of fairness in this picture.  For all that wealth and popularity that have been generated by the hard work of comics creators, we find ourselves fighting for every bit of scrap we can get – every dropping that falls from the publishers' table.

It's kind of like there is a serious and grave injustice being perpetuated against us and we find ourselves powerless to improve the situation.  That's kind of an interesting dichotomy, because you could say, "Well, back in the 70's, we also had the same situation,"  but the big difference is that back then nobody dreamed that the industry would flourish as it has.

On the other hand we have a very interesting situation where comic book publishers have been crying for 50 years about comics not being profitable.  "We can't compensate you any more than we do because we don't sell enough."  I don't know.  Is someone cooking the books, or telling weird stories and lies about how much money comics generate? Because comic book companies are making a lot of money.  If there's a reason that comic books themselves are not making enough money, then maybe it's that publishers have brought this situation about on purpose and are happy with it.  I mean, come on.  Why would the publishers continue making this product that isn't making any money?  Well we all know that they're making money.  They're making it from licensing and marketing of comics properties but they say this is their profit and they're not obligated to share any of it with creators.  It seems almost like it's in the best interest of the publishers that the comic books don't sell well because that's the best way to keep the creators on a short leash and prevent them, at least psychologically or as a group, from asking for fair compensation for their work. Oh, they're making a lot of movies and a selling a lot of products that are generating a lot of profits and it seems very much in the interest of the publishers to whine about being poor so they can keep the creators at bay.  This way they can get off the hook and creators who want a comics career wind up giving away intellectual property rights, without which the publisher cannot make all these movies and sell all these products which are generating billions and billions of dollars today.

As far as the publishers are concerned it's a great situation.  When a publisher says they're not making enough money, it sounds more like the publishers haven't done anything to sell more comics because they don't need to.  And it serves their interest because the creators will keep giving their work away.  It's a terrible vicious circle.  I think that we began seeing that in the 70's.  I think we saw the seed of this monster we're dealing with today.  The industry has grown and grown and grown and creators are still at the very bottom end of this thing although they are the major contributors to its success.

BDS:  The sales figures would seem to bear out their position.  I think they peaked in the post World War II timeframe, so pointing to that it would be easy to say, "Sorry, guys, but we're just not selling enough copies."

MN:  Exactly.  They might show the numbers and say, "Look at the numbers, look at the sales.  We're only selling 40,000 copies of Superman."  Back in the 70's they were selling a couple hundred thousand of Superman and Batman.  Today the numbers are like a third or a quarter of what they were selling back then.  And nobody can argue with that, you know?  The comic book industry is like on the ropes.  Well, it's not true.  They lie.  That's a really big distortion of reality.  The publishers are making a lot of money from the comics.  They might not be making it from the comic books themselves, but without the comic books they would not have these properties to make films from and to do all these other things and produce the merchandise that they're producing.

BDS:  The licensing.  I suspect it's not an accident they keep getting sold to larger conglomerates like Marvel to Disney for example.

MN:  Exactly.  They're not stupid.  Now of course throughout all this we saw some very nice things in the 80's.  Certainly the idea of Image coming together and the opening up of the industry on the one hand was a very good thing. But as soon as the industry began opening up in the late 70's with Star*Reach as the first notable independent publisher, we run into another problem in needing to change the distribution system, so we jump from the frying pan into the fire with a new system that's even less efficient than the first.  I look at distribution today and I can't believe that the people who are running the industry are so stupid that they think this is a good way to sell more comics.

If you have a property that has any potential, any shot at being successful, the distribution system is working against it right from the beginning.  The idea of direct sales and selling your books ahead of time before you see the project, and basically that the success or failure of the book has already been determined before the book is published?  By the amount of advance sales at the store where it's being sold?  You want to tell me this is the best way to sell a product?  Wouldn't it be better to put it out there, without predetermining its fate with advance sales, without putting it into a situation where retailers have to take pot shots at what they think the readers want?   How can they know how fandom will react to each and every book?  Do they know only by the PR the company is putting out?  That means the company determines ahead of time what comics are going to make it by the amount of PR they give to every product?  Regardless of whether it's a good product or not?  This is a great situation for the publisher because they can say, "Well, you know, this way we can do anything we want without considering the market forces. We're going to do an Infinite Crisis and Endless Crisis and we'll give you one Crisis after the other until you forget that we don't care whether you like it or not."

BDS:  (Laughter.)

MN:  "Crossovers.  And these are the ones that we're going to push.  And they will sell because we put all our promotion into them, and whether this product is good or bad and whether the readers like it or not, we don't care.  In fact, we're determining the sale of this product from the beginning anyway, so who cares?"  And the readership really has nothing say about it because the readers don't buy from the publishers. Comic book stores are buying them and it doesn't matter what the readers want.   The publisher has made their money or not. They don't care. And they really don't care if the stores are able to sell them or not.  It doesn't matter.  No one can do anything about it because of the distribution system.  This is the awful situation.  There is no other product being sold that way in the world!

BDS:  You're absolutely correct.

MN:  It's a very strange situation.

BDS:  It doesn't seem to reflect the market in any realistic way.

MN:  No.  The market is forced to like or not because this product is being shoved down its throat.  They are forced to like or not like it based on the priority that the publisher is giving this product.  Again, it seems to me that if I were the publisher at DC or Marvel and I was looking out for the interest of the publisher at the expense of the workers, and was trying to keep the creative community at bay so I retain full control of the properties, then this would be the best way to do it.  I would support the present distribution system because this way I could control the sales and we can make it look like these properties are not doing very well, not selling enough.  They decline, over the years, and they continue to decline, and we can make all of our money on films and other merchandising and this way we can maintain full control of the properties and acquire these intellectual properties to ourselves without the creators having any leg to stand on to get the rights that they duly deserve as creators.

Now I didn't really want to get into this whole thing with the publishers.  I do want to get back to Continuity.  What we were talking about.  (Mutual laughter.)

BDS:  Well, I appreciate the insight just the same.  How many years did you spend at Continuity?

MN:  About six.  During the latter ones I wasn't there regularly but about half the time there and the other half traveling around the country. The peak of my career was basically two years between 1975 and 1977. These were learning curve.  What's interesting is once I got to New York, that natural drawing quality my work had in school was placed on the back burner and I became more of a comic book artist honing the craft based on industry standards.  I wasn't drawing freely as I did before.  I was drawing comic books with a heavy Adams influence.  The 70's, working at Continuity, and the two years of developing this skill took a front seat and I worked so hard at it that it was a little scary at times because the similarity between my lines and Neal's wasn't just in the drawing.  Our handwriting was also pretty much the same and I could easily do his signature in a way that made it hard to distinguish from the original.

But I wasn't yet thinking about a personal style or another direction or doing Neal better than Neal. I was just trying to do things the best that I could.  I wasn't aware of where I would be taking my art at a later time.  I just pretty much put my mind to concentrating on that learning curve of absorbing everything I could in those two years. The wonder of being exposed to this new world also had a strong influence on the art which gave a strength and a life to the work that slightly distinguished it from Neal's. During this two year period you could see a marked improvement in every job that I did.  There seemed to be a feeling in the studio of:  "Keep an eye on what this guy is doing, because it looks like he's getting better really fast."  It took something like almost a year, in the later part of '76, that I was finally able to put together a good comic book, which was probably Challengers #82. I remember when Neal first saw it in the bundle that came in from DC, he rushed back to my room waving it in the air saying; "This is a really good comic book!"

That seemed to be a turning point. There was also another one on the Batman/Kobra.  I'd gone from someone groping as an artist to one who had at least developed the ability to put together a good comic book.  I wasn't really looking for a style because I was too busy trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing as a craftsman. I was still in the learning curve but there was also a lot of criticism of my work because of it.  But it really didn't bother me.  When it would come up that, "Well, you're just an Adams clone," I said to myself: "Well, sounds like something good to strive for at this point, at least on the technical level of a craftsman."  It took some time get out of that mode and explore other aspects aside from craftsmanship.

I was also very secure in myself that I knew that I had a natural personal drawing style way before I came to NY.  But I also knew that I wanted to develop this particular skill to some professional satisfaction. Worst yet, as far as DC and Marvel were concerned, Neal's influence was the cat's meow. Anyone who could emulate that work was raised to the top of the chart.  Mike Grell and Bill Sienkiewicz are a couple of good examples.

But all this was enough for me in that first year.  It was the second year that things started changing.  I had come from a difficult personal situation in Detroit having a fiancé and child whom I very much wanted to be able to support as a comic book artist and eventually bring to NY.  But it never became possible. I couldn't support a family in NY with $30 or $40 a page and sometimes a page would take a couple of days to finish.  And living in New York was a very expensive thing relative to the conditions in Detroit.  I was sharing an apartment with young artists who were still looking to get work.  Whatever money I was making at the time sometimes had to be shared with the people you're working with.  Things like rent and food were not easily accessible to everyone working from Continuity. If we were all heading out for dinner before the all-nighter at the studio, then the people who were making more money simply helped out those who weren't, because not everybody was working enough to afford it.  So, whatever money was being made was also being shared and spent much more quickly.

So there was a bit of a change happening in that second year, slowly building up and I'm saying to myself:  "You know, there's something about this that isn't working."  It made me invest a lot more time in the art, trying to develop the craft more and more hoping to quickly be able to command a better rate.  You could see from issue to issue that I was investing more effort than before.  It was improving fast and I was getting some commercial work from Neal and some free-lance illustrations for magazines, like a nice little double page illustration of Bjorn Borg for Crawdaddy Magazine. That was my first full color illustration. When Jim Starlin saw it at the studio he said that I was too good for comics. I had a good reputation but it cost me the ability to get my life together financially and it just wasn't really working the way it was supposed to.

So, it was a time that I needed to see where I was going with all this.  I couldn't see myself forging a career in this direction anymore.  The business was not compensating enough for the work needed in order to do it the way I wanted.  Neal worked in an entirely different reality.  He was into commercial art long before he came into comics.  He had an infrastructure.  He wasn't doing that much comic book work.  The little bit of comics he was doing at the time were supplemental to a large amount of commercial work, so he never really had that problem.

For me it was like I was still young.  I was coming into my own.  I started feeling that I needed to decide what I wanted to do in my life. And I had a few friends outside of the comics periphery who sometimes commented on such drawing skills being wasted on comics.  "This work is so good, but why are you doing comic books?"  I'd say, "Well, what else can I do?  Illustration?"  That was an even more difficult game for someone from the comics at the time. Certainly, today in hindsight, illustration wouldn't have been a very good choice because even though there was a lot of illustration in printed media back then, it's all gone today. We had commercial artists doing movie posters and magazine illustrations but we don't see that in printed media anymore. Or at least not enough of it to support a profession as an illustrator on any reasonable scale.

More to come, readers, as Michael recounts more of his career and time at Continuity Associates, so be sure to return next time for it.

Happy New Year and may 2011 be good to you.  As usual, comments, questions and feedback of all sorts can be directed here:  professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you in about two weeks and…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2010 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by Michael Netzer

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