Note: This interview originally appeared on Critical Mess on April 14, 2009.
Walter Simonson is one of the best-known and most-loved writer/artists in all of comicdom. A mainstay of the comics industry since the early 1970s, Simonson is perhaps best-known for his work on both Thor and Manhunter, but his name (and distinctive brontosaurus-shaped signature) can be found on better books everywhere, from Marvel’s Fantastic Four to the too-short-lived Orion series at DC to the video game-inspired World of Warcraft from Wildstorm.
I first met Walter Simonson at a convention in Valley Forge, PA in 2001. He was — and remains — the most approachable industry professional I’ve met to date. We must have talked for close to twenty minutes, general this-and-that, and at the end he was gracious enough to give me his email address, should I ever have any more questions for him. Unfortunately, both his email address AND the Darkseid headsketch he did for me are buried somewhere in my storage unit, so any thoughts of contact with him fell to the back of my brain.
Enter the marvel that is known as Facebook. I sent him a friend request and, although he obviously did not recall our meeting, he agreed to an interview.
So without further ado…
JB: Your Orion series from earlier in the decade showed that you have a deep appreciation of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. Those characters have been the focal point of a great deal of the “event” comics DC has published in the last year. How do you feel about how DC has handled the characters in these stories?
WS: I don’t really read the stories of characters I’ve worked on, particularly those I’ve worked on for more than a few issues, after I’ve written and drawn the character. I don’t have any problem with whatever a company decides to do with their characters; after all, they’re company characters. But I think that once I’ve written and drawn characters myself, there’s a strong voice in my own mind about who the characters are and how they look and behave. So I don’t look back.
JB: It seems that at every major comic convention come announcements of creators signing exclusive deals with one publisher or another. What are your thoughts on such contracts? Do you consider them good for the creators, the industry, both, or neither?
WS: Personally, it’s been good for me because I’ve enjoyed the benefits of having a contract with DC Comics for some years now, and it’s worked out very well. But it’s probably worth keeping in mind that contracts as a part of comics aren’t that new any longer. I had a number of one year contracts, renewed several times on an annual basis, with Marvel back in the late 80s. Seems to have worked out okay.
JB: How do you feel about all of the big events in comics today as opposed to when you were doing monthlies? More to the point, in relation to an artist doing the book that he’s working on as is, rather than having to tie it into something happening elsewhere?
WS: That’s a question with a complex answer because there are lots of points of view from which to view it. I haven’t been involved seriously with major crossovers in some time, so I can’t say for sure how they work these days. I know that back in the day when I was working at Marvel, crossovers would create a sales spike and then sales would generally drop back to about their pre-spike level. But for an issue or two, sales were up, and maybe some folks who hadn’t looked at your work before might stick around afterwards. Hard to know.
I don’t know how I would have felt about them as a reader, because the development of the mega-crossovers really postdates my being a fanatic comic book reader. I still look at stuff, but I don’t read comics the way I did when I was younger. There are more reasons for that than I feel like trying to pin down here, but essentially, as a professional in the field, I see comics differently than I did when I was a fan. I see far more of the ‘working’s within the comic, both in the art and the writing, so I have a certain analytical approach to the material I didn’t have years ago.
Of course, as a writer/artist, I’d generally rather do my own storylines than someone else’s. But I understand why crossovers exist.
JB: Manhunter helped bring you to the forefront as an artist. Where did the costume design come from? That is, what led you to outfit the character in the way you did? Was the character always destined to die at the end, and, if not, what led to that decision?
WS: I don’t remember the origin of the entire costume any longer. I did several sketches at the time, trying for a somewhat Eastern look, because Archie Goodwin (the writer) and I planned on a sort of martial arts ‘feel’ for the character and the stories among other things. That may have inspired the flowing sleeves. The one thing I do remember is that the tunic or ‘wings’ or whatever it is that Manhunter wears over his shoulders was directly inspired by a costume I saw in the movie, Yojimbo, that I was watching while I was sketching. It just happened to be running on TV at the time. No idea where the boots came from although I wanted something to hold a throwing knife down there.
We didn’t plan to do the character’s death from the beginning of the series. But Archie decided to leave DC to go to another company about the time we were working on the fifth chapter. Julie Schwartz was going to take over as the next editor of Detective Comics where Manhunter was appearing, and he wanted to do back up stories with a different DC characters. Elongated Man I think. So Manhunter’s tale was going to come to an end in terms of publishing with Archie’s last issue in any case. Consequently, we began thinking about drawing his tale to a real conclusion and that informed our plotting from Chapter Five on.
JB: As a creator, do you have any titles or characters that you have worked on in the past that you feel you have “unfinished business” with, or do you prefer to move forward into new territory? That is to say, are there still Walter Simonson Thor or Fantastic Four stories to tell, or would you prefer to explore new characters?
WS: I don’t know that I have any ‘unfinished’ business anywhere, but when I’m working on characters, many thoughts occur to me about possible storylines I might want to develop. I usually make notes about such thoughts. Sometimes, they even turn into published stories. But when I leave a title like Thor or the FF, I generally have notes for more stories than I’ve actually written already. The two books where I have stories I would actually like to have pursued further are Thor and Orion. But there are others floating around. And I like doing characters I haven’t done before.
WS: I do have a Bill action figure. Two of them in fact. One recent, one from about 10 years ago.
I’ve told Bill’s origin any number of times at this point so please forgive me for not going into great detail again. Essentially, I wanted to create a character from the ground up who would be able to pick up Thor’s hammer. Up to that point in the Marvel Universe, nobody had. And in my version of the Marvel Universe, nobody else can. So Bill had to be noble enough to fulfill the requirements of the hammer’s inscription (“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”), but he had to be nasty enough looking so that readers would think he was a bad guy and therefore in conflict with the inscription. Hence, the monstrous look.
Bill got a variation of Thor’s costume when he took the hammer because comics back then were a rather short form. No reprints much. No collections. No trade paperbacks. What you saw was what you got—the end. So by giving Bill a variation of Thor’s outfit, the reader was instantly made aware of what happened the moment Bill got the hammer without any long-winded exposition to cover the event. When Bill held the hammer, he turned into a sartorially variant version of Thor. And it was crystal clear that Bill had acquired the power. Since Bill had an SF background, I modified Thor’s outfit with metal and such to reflect Bill’s own nature as well as his acquisition of the power of Thor.
I used a horse’s skull as inspiration for Bill’s face because I wanted both the monstrous aspects of death (betokened by the skull) with an underlying sense of nobility (betokened by the horse—a beautiful creature). I didn’t actually go look at a horse’s skull. I’d done a little work while I was in college on horse evolution so I had a reasonable idea of what the skull looked like, and I wasn’t trying for any sort of precise rendition. I just wanted the sense of it.
JB: Right now you’re writing World of Warcraft for DC’s Wildstorm imprint, a comic based on a well-known computer game. What sort of differences do you see in working on a licensed property versus characters owned by Marvel or DC? Have the fans of the World of Warcraft game been receptive to seeing the property in comics?
WS: The main difference is that there are more layers of approvals to negotiate in a licensed property generally than you find with either DC or Marvel characters. And at least on the web, I’ve seen responses from Warcraft fans who liked the comic and from Warcraft fans who didn’t care for it. Most of those who didn’t care for it (that I’ve seen) seem to be in the “Well, if I were writing it, here’s what I’d do” category of responses. Which I regard as a measure of the breadth of the game.
Among other things, what I like about the comic is that we’re setting up some things that will eventually appear in-game. I think that’s pretty cool. And something I think gamers will go back to find eventually and enjoy.
JB: Are there any upcoming projects of yours you’d like to share with us?
WS: I’m doing covers for the DC Vigilante comic at present. I’m in the middle of writing and drawing a long graphic novel also for DC called “The Judas Coin”. [NOTE: This was the first reference, ANYWHERE, to The Judas Coin. He revealed it in this interview. — JB] And I have few other DC odds and ends lying around here and there. One of them is that I’m working on layouts for a Wolfman Vigilante story that John Paul Leon is going to be doing finishes on. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.
JB: You’ve gained recognition both as a writer and an artist. What advice can you give to someone who wants to try to break into the industry in either field?
WS: If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you love drawing and writing and storytelling, it’s a great place to be. And be prepared to work your tail off.