A Tribute to the of

I seem to inadvertently be on a bit of a Denny O'Neil kick lately.  It appears the guy was everywhere in the early 70's and as my Crusty Bunker project continues onward and I've discovered a few titles I was unaware of, there's Denny yet again, this time adapting stories originally written by Fritz Leiber for the short-lived (5 issues) "Sword of Sorcery" book which is (try to contain your surprise) a series about sword and sorcery.  The rest of the credits for the debut issue from February/March of 1973 has Michael Kaluta illustrating the cover, Howard Chaykin on interior pencils, the Crusty Bunkers on inks and Denny doing double duty as editor.

Enter with me now the Jade Turtle Inn, "…a tavern somewhere in Nehwon—a timeless land, a placeless place, which may—or may not—be of the planet earth…"  Here we meet for the first time Fafhrd the Barbarian and The Gray Mouser in "The Price of Pain Ease!"

They're quite a contrast, these two characters, with Fafhrd (boy, am I going to have trouble typing that name…no wonder they later refer to him as simply "Faf.")  an imposing figure with a bright red mane and matching mustache and the Mouser, a good two heads shorter than his companion, decked out in gray and carrying a fencing sword as a counterpart to the barbarian's massive broadsword.  Faf is quaffing from a massive tankard with a stylized death's head on it while the Mouser is sipping from a much smaller grail.  Two comely women accompany them and nearby, two members of the Thieves Guild are unsheathing their weapons to engage the bantering pair.

The swordplay begins immediately and it's easy to see that Faf and the Mouser are comfortable in their roles as warriors and companions, deftly warding off their attackers, even when reinforcements arrive and keeping up a running, humorous commentary between the themselves.  After their triumph, they discover the innkeeper doesn't appreciate the devastation, so they separately retreat, Fafhrd by crashing through a window and the Mouser by using acrobatic skill to deftly escape.

They later rendezvous at the marketplace and discuss their next move, the Mouser suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't have stolen gems from the Thieves Guild.  Just then they spy the palace of Duke Danius, who has supposedly taken leave with his guards.  Breaking in, the duo decide to help themselves to some of the opulence when the Duke abruptly returns.  His archers waste no time attacking and after taking shelter beneath a massive table, the adventurers take their leave, leaping down into a courtyard from a balcony only to discover they're trapped.  Prepared to fight to the death, the bold partners are startled when two black unicorns appear, complete with riding gear.

They swiftly mount the strange steeds and they leap the walls with ease and take them away, to a dark cave.  The unicorns disappear and Fafhrd and the Mouser come face to face with two wizards who introduce themselves as Sheelba of the eyeless face and Ningauble of the seven eyes.  Would it surprise you to learn they have a task for the men?

Apparently somewhere not far is Shadowland, which holds the castle of Death himself.  They are instructed to retrieve the mask of death that hangs over his throne.  Then the wizards squabble over who should really get the mask and each instruct one of the pair to bring them the mask.  Somewhat reluctantly, Faf and the Mouser depart on the reanimated unicorns, intent on figuring a way out of this predicament, which is further complicated by the warning that Duke Danius will likely be there, too, to challenge Death.

The scene shifts to Ithmar and the Duke is retrieving an enchanted war axe from a witch.  She assures her customer that it is now invincible and he thanks her with arrows from his guards.  Taking up the axe, he vows to go and defeat Death.

Back to the Barbarian and his companion, they ride onward into Shadowland where it gets darker and eerier with each hoofbeat.  Ultimately their bizarre journey ends in a forbidding castle and as they enter the chambers of Death, they spot the mask.

Which brings them to the next problem:  Both have vowed to return the mask to a separate wizard and they can think of no other answer but to battle each other, which they do, to a standstill, when Faf suggests it's futile and that there must be another solution.

Just then, an enchanted axe cleaves the air between them and it then floats back to the waiting hand of Duke Danius.  Each of the warriors engage Danius, but his accompanying magic gives him the advantage and he lays both men out, but before he can slay them he hears a sound and realizes Death has returned.

The Duke soon discovers that his axe is no match for the darkly shrouded figure, and he soon finds himself no more.  During the "distraction" the Mouser awakens and revives his companion so that they may retreat.  On the way out, the Mouser has helped himself to the mask and he tears it in two, intending to give half to each of the wizards, closing out this chapter in their adventuresome journey.

Pretty impressive stuff and I can readily recommend it, not only for the fast paced and action packed story, but the incredible, detailed art.  Plenty of intricate backgrounds and impressive figure work are to be found in this issue.

In fact, would you believe that, just like last time, I was able to find someone who did the heavy lifting and scanned this entire story?  Check it out:


Time now for the conclusion to the Steve Mitchell interview. Enjoy!

Bryan D. Stroud:  When did the actual Crusty Bunker thing kick off?

Steve Mitchell:  I don't recall.  I think Alan would have a better memory of it than I did.  What happened was there were certain guys that were getting their start in comics.  Guys like Chaykin, in particular.  At the time Chaykin was not much of an inker.  But Chaykin was an interesting penciler.  I think Neal saw something in Howard's work, and Neal volunteered to do the inks.

I think sometimes the turnaround had to be pretty fast.  Anyway, what happened was the Crusty Bunkers kind of evolved from having me and Kupperberg there and guys who would come and visit.  Guys like Alan Weiss, or Berni, or Jeff or Kaluta would sometimes come in and spend some time inking some panels and maybe ink figures.  It was really one of the original, to use a musician's phrase, "jams" ever done in comics.  I don't think any comics had ever been inked that way.  There was always a guy like Dick or Wally Wood or somebody who would ink all of the figures with assistants on backgrounds. Guys had and/or needed help to make those deadlines.  The thing about the Crusty Bunkers was it was sort of all help.  Neal did most of the key figures, but he didn't do all of them.  I would come in and see some of it had been inked over night by other guys.

Neal would say Alan Weiss had come in, or Jeff or Berni, maybe Frank Brunner, who was also around, or other guys and they would poke away for fun.  That's kind of how some of these Crusty Bunker jobs were done.  If you look at the pages, especially on the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser backups…do you remember what books those were published in?

BDS:  Not off the bat, I'm afraid.

SM:  Well anyway, if you look closely, there are all kinds of different styles going on in there besides Neal's.  I don't even remember how we got paid for them.  I know we didn't get paid much.  But it was really Neal trying to help young guys get in and sort of quality control the job.  While Kaluta and Berni could ink their own stuff, Weiss was often inked by other guys, although Weiss was a pretty good inker as I recall. Ultimately Neal gave guys a chance to have some fun, and also some guys like me a chance to do more professional work.

I'm sure you've talked to a lot of guys about Neal, and you've heard a lot of interesting and contrasting opinions or thoughts about Neal.  One thing about Neal that I liked is that he was very paternal.  I think he was often times referred to as "Uncle Neal."  He was just sort of the father of all these wayward children who were living in New York doing comics.  You could also maybe say there was a slight Fagin quality about him.  But I don't think it was ever malevolent or malicious or negative.  I mean Neal kind of liked being the center of the universe.  He just thought it was a stimulating and interesting place to be.

Ultimately that's why Dick left.  It just wasn't working out, and Neal's way of doing things was not his even though I think they were making money.  It was an interesting pairing of two different types, and ultimately Neal was kind a corrosive factor on that relationship.

That's the way I remember it.

BDS:  Well, I've heard a lot about how complicated Neal can be.

SM:  Neal was always a complex guy with quite an ego.  I don't think that's any secret.  And Neal's ego is so enormous that there have been times when I think he has taken reality and tried to mold it to fit his ego.  It's kind of what makes him an interesting character.  I mean if you were to see a guy like Neal in a movie, you would say that's a really interesting guy.  And trust me, there are a number of guys in comics that are interesting in that way.  I think Jim Shooter is another one of those guys.

I have no real axe to grind with Jim Shooter, unlike most people.  I think Jim has the perspective of a man who has lived many lives.  That's number one.  Jim was always good to me when I worked for him, until that one day when he decided to fire me.  I don't know if you know anything about my comics career or not, but I was inking Iron Man in the 80's.  I had a very long run on Iron Man with Luke McDonald and we were doing some nice work.  In fact, those books had the famous Tony Stark alcohol storyline that Denny wrote.

BDS:  Oh, okay.

SM:  And Obadiah Stane, the first villain in the Iron Man movie was created during our run on the book.  Of course I didn't make any money from it, but "Hey!  There's Obadiah Stane!"  When I worked for Marvel, Jim was a very good boss.  I remember clear as day that I walked into his office one day and whenever I went to Marvel I always went in and said hello to Jim. It was always a good and smart thing to do.

BDS:  Keep your face out there.

SM:  This particular day he said, "So how's it going?  Everything okay?"  I said, "Oh, I wouldn't mind making a little more money, but otherwise I'm okay."  He said, "What are we paying you?"  I told him what my rate was and he gave me a $5.00 page raise on the spot.  Five dollars a page might not sound like much, but over the course of a 20-page job that's an extra hundred bucks and back in the early 80's a hundred bucks was worth a lot more than a hundred bucks is worth today.

BDS:  It adds up.

SM:  It does add up, and the one thing about Jim, you cannot take this away from him:  He always felt that a well-paid freelancer, a freelancer who could pay his rent, feed himself, take care of his family, would be a loyal freelancer.  Loyalty was a big deal for Jim.  That was always to me one of the most endearing things about him.  If Marvel took care of you, then you would take care of Marvel by putting extra effort into your work.

One time when Jim was really good to me was when I got a call from Bob Layton.  I was at my studio in the west 20's.  I don't know if you've ever been to New York, so I don't know if the layout of Manhattan means anything to you.

BDS:  No such luck.

SM:  Anyway, I was in my studio one night and I think it was 7 or 8 o'clock and I got a phone call from Bob Layton.  "Steve, it's Bob."  "Hey, Bob, what's going on?"  "I'm trying to finish an issue of Hercules and I'm horribly late and I need help.  Can you come on over to Marvel and anything you can do, I would appreciate."  It was a hot, sticky night.  The studio I was working in did not have any air conditioning and I said, "I was going to go home anyway, so sure."  I went to Marvel's offices, sat down in the bullpen and started to ink.  I spent the whole night there just poking away.  I was literally there to put lines on the paper.

Shooter was the last guy who left.  He said he really appreciated me helping out Bob and helping out Marvel.  Shooter was the first guy there in the morning and he said, "How are you guys doing?  What can I get you for breakfast?"  He went out and brought us breakfast and we just kept going and going until I just couldn't keep my eyes open any more.  I don't remember doing a lot, but I do remember that Bob was very appreciative and Shooter gave me a sort of Marvel bonus check for my efforts that night.  I seem to recall it was about 400 bucks.  I don't think I did 400 dollars worth of work at the time, but it was Jim saying, "I really appreciate you helping us out."  And that was what Jim was like.

Now in many ways Jim was not always everyone's favorite executive.  I'm sure you've heard about that.  I read not long ago in an interview that he was described as fascistic, and to some degree that was true. I was working on Iron Man for I think a couple of years and then one day Mark Gruenwald says, "I've got to let you go."  I said, "What?  Why?  What's going on?"  "Jim told me to get rid of you.  I don't know if there is a why, he just told me."  I had a very good relationship with Gruenwald and those guys.  They were very happy with me.

So they just outright fired me and I think Luke McDonald was fired an issue or two later.  I was sort of told at a later time that if anything was sort of successful or good, if Shooter didn't feel he had a personal finger, thumb or hand on that, he felt he had to destroy it because it was not representative of him.  So I was a victim of Jim's dark side.  Len Wein explained it to me in a sort of articulate but vague way. "With Jim Shooter everything is hunky dory, everything is swimming, everything is just fine until you do 'The Thing.'"  "What thing?"  He said, "The Thing." It is like this noun that covers a multitude of "somethings."  So I guess in the case of Luke and me, the "thing" was we were doing a good job and Jim had nothing to do with it.

I always heard that the worst place to be at Marvel was to be doing something at the top of the food chain or at the bottom.  If you could stay in the middle comfortably, Jim would never pay any attention to you.  But I guess Iron Man was getting some attention at the time, partly I think because of Denny's storyline.  He created Rhodey and Obadiah Stane and Tony Stark had that really serious alcohol problem. It was getting some press, believe it or not, because comics were dealing with something serious like alcoholism.

BDS:  Socially relevant stuff.

SM:  Stuff that people were noticing.  We were mostly a problem-free book and getting a little press, and Jim had nothing to do with the book, so he had to destroy it.  So I've benefited from Jim from when he was at his best and I have been affected by Jim at his worst.

I think Neal, in a parallel universe, had that as well.  Neal had a really good side, and I think Neal had a dark side as well.  And people were affected by that.  If I had a dollar for every time some young guy came up to the office and wanted to be in comics and would show Neal his stuff…Neal could be a complete and utter bastard.  Generally, it would start off like, "There is so much wrong with your stuff that I don't have enough time left today to tell you what's wrong with it."  That's a pretty crushing thing to say.

BDS:  Devastating.

SM:  Yeah.  I think it actually did affect some guys who did want to get into comics.  I believe Frank Miller may have come up to Continuity and showed him his stuff and I think Frank Miller, of all people, got pasted by Neal (chuckle) in that classic Neal way.  I think Neal felt like, "If you can put up with that from me then you've got the stones to make it in the business."  A Marine drill sergeant sort of tough love thing, I guess.

BDS:  It does sound like boot camp.

SM:  Artists are very sensitive people, though and Neal could be merciless.

BDS:  The Bob Kanigher School of nurturing.  (Laughter.)

SM:  Bob Kanigher never nurtured anything in his life.  He was another very interesting character.

BDS:  Mike Esposito told me about how he thanked Bob once, despite all he'd done to Ross and him and that he thought Bob was going to cry.

SM:  I think I know why Mike said that, too. Guys like Mike and Ross, and other DC stalwarts had these sort of unofficial verbal type contracts.  "You work for me.  You get the job done on time at a certain level of quality and I will continue to give you work."  It was a non-contract contract. Kanigher, and the other editors was very loyal to "their" guys.  You know why?  Those guys made his day easier.  If you talked to Jack Harris, you know that a freelancer is an editor's best friend or worst friend.

Getting into the whole Vinnie Colletta controversy, as a consumer, I'm sure you and thousands and thousands of others would say, "Why in the hell did Vinnie Colletta ever get work?"  The one thing Vinnie Colletta did was he never made your day harder as an editor.  I said to Levitz, years ago, "Why do you give Vinnie work?  Why do you give Vinnie good pencils?"  He said, "It's Friday.  The book is late.  I need the job on Monday and with Vinnie, I'll get it on Monday.  It won't be good, but I'll get it."  Fans and pros sometimes forget that this stuff has to come out every month!  A lot of the artists that were part of my generation and generations to follow, and Neal…they didn't give a flying rat's ass about deadlines for the most part.

Neal always felt that if he did, and this is a quote, "Good stuff," that the deadlines didn't matter.  This, of course, is not true.

BDS:  They're unforgiving.

SM:  It's a periodical business.  It's not the art business.  An editor wants to know that it's coming in tomorrow.  If it doesn't come in tomorrow, it can f*** things up.  And Neal was horrible at that.  Horr-i-ble!

By the way, I'll tell you a quick Neal story.  Remember the Superman/Muhammad Ali book?

BDS:  Sure.

SM:  I actually worked on that.  I did some backgrounds and some figures for Dick.  I was one of a few that pitched in.  I remember when Neal brought the pencils in.  It was a BIG deal.  Everyone was curious and excited. Sol Harrison, who was a VP at DC in charge of production, had a quiet and focused way of looking at a job. He would just sort of turn one page over right after another.  His eyes were very quick.  When he was done, he turned to Neal and he said, "You know, Adams, it's the best work you've ever done…and not worth the wait."  The book was like a year late.  So Sol, who was another of the great comic book business characters, who a lot of people don't say good things about, but I always liked Sol, gave him a compliment and then yanked it away.

But it probably was Neal's best comics work at that moment.  But Neal always had contempt for the restrictions of the job, I think. I had the impression Neal felt that deadlines were meant to be broken.  The only deadlines he ever kept were for his advertising clients.  A lot of times we were working very close to the edge on those.

BDS:  That's probably where the bread and butter was, I suppose.

SM:  Yeah, it's just that sometimes the bread and the butter took a long time to get there.  There was an ad agency that we used to do animatics for.  It was about three blocks north of Continuity, and I remember running over there with a lot of pages and I remember saying all the time, "Gee, they're three blocks away from us.  Why does it always take them so long to pay us?"  It's not like its coming cross-country by mule train.  The waiting to be paid was tough for me, but that was how things worked. I had no choice but to accept it.  That's why comics were so attractive.  You just knew when you were going to get paid.

BDS:  Cash flow can make or break.  I'm reminded of stories a distant cousin told about dealing with Wal-Mart's tactics of demanding deep-discounts from suppliers, the deepest in the industry and then insisting on freebies and then routinely paying 60 days beyond invoice.

SM:  I haven't worked in comics since the early part of the decade and one of the things I do to make a living is to produce DVD special features and Wal-Mart does not report its sales numbers.  Everybody reports their numbers so the companies have an idea. But the Wal-Mart numbers are not available to the public and the Wal-Mart numbers are probably the biggest numbers in terms of DVD sales.

BDS:  They move the market.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if they controlled comic book distribution.

SM:  They operate to the beat of their own drummer.  And they get away with it because they sell so much product.  But, that's another topic.

BDS:  Yes.  Steve, what do you think, in summation, you took away from your experience at Continuity?

SM:  It helped me learn how you went about doing comic books; literally getting a shot at putting ink on pages and also working with guys like Neal and Dick.  Jack Abel, by the way, was renting space up there and it was also a chance for me to be around guys who had a lot of experience.  Guys who could tell interesting anecdotes for purposes of entertainment, but could also give me useful information about doing the job and being a pro.  It was a great way to apprentice in the business that I wanted to be in, with exposure to the business and guys who were at the top of their game.

Jack Abel was an interesting guy with a real work ethic. In many ways he was the complete opposite of Neal. Jack would come to work at 10:00 in the morning, and he would go home at 6:30 or 7:00 at night and he would ink 18 panels that day.  Because Jack felt that 18 panels was the equivalent of three pages.  So Jack was doing three pages a day and he did it like f***ing clockwork. While Neal seemed to work all day long, it didn't seem that his output was nearly as great. Jack was turning out about 15 pages a week, like clockwork, and it seemed to me, almost effortless.  I thought Jack was a very good inker. As an inker, Jack was one of those guys I would call an equalizer.  I did not like Jack on certain guys and on other guys he was fantastic.  I always thought he was underrated as a Curt Swan inker.  I thought his work on Curt was quite good.

Curt Swan, by the way, was one of the finest draftsmen I've ever seen in comics.  If you saw his pencils, you would be amazed at how well he drew.

BDS:  The pictures I've seen looked like they were very tight and detailed.

SM:  It wasn't that tight, but it was amazingly well-drawn: more grey-toney than line specific.  I think Andrew Loomis, who was a great illustrator and an illustration teacher, was a strong influence of his. I don't think anybody, unless they've seen his pencils, knew how well Curt could draw. He got good inking, but I don't think he got great inking.  I thought George Klein was, stylistically in sync with Curt's pencils. Murphy Anderson was a great match. Jack, too, although I think Jack would flatten out some of the drawing. The overall effect of Jack's inks on Curt's pencils however yielded a pretty nice result.

Day after day there's Jack, cranking it out like clockwork.  Totally professional, and Neal just being, you know, Neal.  Dick was very professional as well, and I learned a lot from Dick.  I liked Dick a great deal.  And listen, I liked Neal, too, back in the day.  Neal was an interesting guy to be around.  It was an interesting place for young guys like me and Kupperberg.  We were exposed to a lot of interesting characters and talent. Good times for young guys like Alan and myself.  Alan and I were sort of the…and how's this for a self-complimenting kind of thing?  We were the vanguard of assistants. 

BDS:  (Laughter.)

SM:  I say that with a smile on my face.  By the way, Alan has a shockingly good memory for stuff than can be personally embarrassing to me. He has a memory like a video camera, which is great.  He's a good guy.  I live in California and Alan still lives in New York.  For many years we just kind of lived our own lives, and we've reconnected a bit in the last year or so and it's nice to be in touch with Alan.  Remember some good times…it's nice. As an aside, do you watch Madmen?

BDS:  I've been meaning to, but haven't pulled it off yet.

SM:  Great show. I mention it because the environment of Madison Avenue and the advertising business was not terribly different than the environment of the comic book business.  There are a lot of parallels that exist, I think, between the world of that show and the world of DC back in the Silver Age.

For example, this season on Madmen, season four, they have new offices.  The new offices really remind me of the Lexington Avenue DC office.  The offices were physically and architecturally, very similar to the offices in Madmen: the overall 60's style of the offices, along with the work place dynamic as well.  I like Madmen because it's good drama, but also it does take me back in time, which I enjoy. Somewhat coincidentally, I met Neal at the 575 Lexington Avenue offices. . He was working in the bullpen probably on an issue of Deadman or a cover. I was on the official "Thursday after lunch tour," and Neal was in the production department, which was a very dark room, working away. He was very nice to me, endured my gushing compliments, and did a drawing of Deadman for me. Little did I know that years later I would be working for Neal.  Funny… I think back now and realize just how small a world the comics business actually was. Some days I really miss it.

I can't thank Steve enough for his time and efforts in sharing his remembrances.  Knowledgeable, generous and a lot of fun is Steve.  I hope you got as much out of this one as I did.

For those of you who weren't already aware, Steve was used as the model for "Bigger Melvin" in Batman #251's "The Joker's Five Way Revenge!" [Sage #38]

I'm still not done, faithful readers.  More reviews and interviews await, so c'mon back in a couple of weeks for the latest and as per usual, my electronic door is open to your thoughts at:  professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you soon and…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2011 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by Steve Mitchell

This feature was created on 05/01/00 and is maintained by



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