I kid you not when I tell you that Walter Simonson is one of my all-time favourite comic book artists; from my first exposure to his work in the Alien graphic novel decades ago, through Manhunter, Thor, X-Men/New Teen Titans, and probably a dozen other projects, I've always been enchanted by his unique, design-oriented style. As the years have gone by, he's refined his line to the point where there is literally nothing wasted in his work. It's a rare ability, one seen in just a few other talents I can think of, such as Alex Toth and Gil Kane. Rarified air, indeed.
For the past year, DC Comics has published Walter's Orion; Simonson handles the writing and art on this, DC's absolute best title. The joy that Walter takes in just telling a story well comes across in every panel, in every line; again, nothing is wasted. Orion is one of those rare books that even as it comes out every month, I realize how lucky we are to have it. A legacy is being built, issue after issue, and I'm confident that Orion will be remembered in the years and decades to come as one of the brightest moments in mainstream comics history. As so many have before, someone has taken Jack Kirby's ball and run with it. For perhaps the first time, the runner hasn't stumbled.
That Walter is doing work that is as good, or better, than the source material (pardon the pun), is the greatest compliment I can pay him. If you're not reading Orion, you're doing yourself, and the comics artform, a grave disservice. You're also missing some damn fine comic books.
My deepest thanks to Walter Simonson for taking the time to share his thoughts on his career with Comic Book Galaxy readers.
Alan David Doane: The thing that comes through to me in virtually all of your work is the sheer joy you take in telling stories. Where does that come from?
Walter Simonson: That's hard to say. I've always like reading stories. And I just enjoy telling stories (Ask any of my friends to whom I've described movie I've seen). And I love drawing. Which means that comics is a very fulfilling place for me to work.
ADD: How did you first become exposed to comics?
WS: I read comics as a child. Don't remember the earliest ones I read but I know I was reading them steadily by the time I was ten. I particularly remember an adaptation of John Carter of Mars by Jesse Marsh that I read back then. I didn't have any clues as to who Edgar Rice Burroughs was at the time but I devoured the comic book. And I loved the Alex Toth adaptation of the movie, The Land Unknown. Helicopters, the Antarctic, and dinosaurs. A perfect combination.
ADD: What were your favourite comics as a child?
WS: I read almost everything that passed through my hands--superheroes, westerns, humor comics, funny animal strips. But we had a subscription to Walt Disney Comics and Stories, largely for the Barks lead story (didn't know who Barks was either back then of course) and the Mickey Mouse continued stories in the back.
ADD: What comics (if any) are you reading today? Is there anything coming out these days that you think represents the artform at its best?
WS: I read Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo for the same reason I read comics 40 years ago. It's well done and it engages my interest with both its stories and its characters. I just read it for pleasure without analyzing how Stan does it. Which I believe is a measure of its success. I am also delighted that Dark Horse is reprinting the Lone Wolf and Cub series. Absolutely top drawer stuff, very powerful, very moving, beautifully constructed.
ADD: You've carved out quite a niche for yourself with Orion, and for my money are doing some of the best work of your career. Are you having as much fun as it looks like?
WS: The short answer is yes. That's probably the long answer as well. Jack's Fourth World work is some of my favorite Jack Kirby work and it's a real treat to be allowed to tell stories about some of the characters from that world.
ADD: Does DC have a lot of input into the stories, or are you pretty much operating solely on your own creative instincts?
WS: DC has given me an immense amount of room in which to operate. Essentially, I've been allowed to take the character, Orion, and run with him in the direction I wanted to go. I haven't asked to turn him into a frog yet but you never know! Essentially, the stories I'm telling are stories that are developing out of my own sense of who Orion is based on my reading of Jack's work. He's a great warrior; he's deeply flawed. He's no dummy and he has a deeper understanding of the cost of freedom than most characters do. Which means that given the current direction of the stories in ORION, he's going to be paying a very high price for what's been going on.
ADD: Previous titles dealing with the Fourth World mythos seemed, for the most part, to tread water rather than try to build on what Jack Kirby created. How conscious of that were you in plotting out Orion, and did DC resist at all the way in which you've finally moved the saga forward?
WS: DC has been completely supportive of what I'm doing. They ask for overviews of the future directions their books are going to be headed in, so they've known where I'm heading with ORION from the beginning. My own aim has been fairly simple. It's the same aim I had when I was doing THOR. I want the ORION comic to offer stories that haven't really been told before. In the case of THOR, I started by taking Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, and having somebody else pick it up, something that nobody had done up to that time. In the case of ORION, I've taken one of Jack's key concepts from the NEW GODS--the Anti-Life Equation: the outside control of all living thought--and manifested it, that is to say, made it real in a way that as far as I know hasn't been done before. Essentially, I look for a jumping off point nobody's used, and I jump. After that, stories flowing from that initial leap just seem to move in new directions. Essentially, I want to write comics that I would like to have read; not variations on comics that I did read.
ADD: You've brought some of the best creators in comics into Orion's back pages to illustrate tales of the New Gods. Why do you think the best and the brightest are still so anxious to play in Kirby's sandbox?
WS: I think a lot of professionals like the New Gods as much as I do and doing a little piece for ORION gives them a chance to draw characters that in most cases, they've never drawn before. Some are folks I've wanted to work with for a long time and we've never had the chance to work together until now. Some are folks I have worked with before and enjoyed it so much, I wanted to work with them again. And since these are mostly fairly short little pieces, folks find they can squeeze the stories into their schedules. What I'm mainly trying to do is extend the sense of fun I'm having doing this book to others and that seems to be working out.
ADD: What about the Fourth World still appeals to you? It's obvious you're jazzed to be working on this series.
WS: I'm just a huge admirer of the original work Jack did on all four titles back in the early 70s. I thought it was a beautifully structured, multi-layered work filled with wonderful characters, a wealth of incredible concepts, and a Wagnarian sense of drama. And the stories were ABOUT something. Dysfunctional families for one. But there was thematic material all through the original Fourth World work; free will vs. slavery, nature vs. nurture, fathers vs. sons, love vs. hate...the original books were a real exploration of thought. I believe that's one of the reasons people keep coming back to them.
In addition, some of the ideas, like the use of cloning to create the D.N.Aliens and the new Guardian, are the common currency of much of the field now, but they were brand new in comics then. Jack was a little ahead of the curve and the Fourth World work really demonstrated that. I think it's also true that nobody really reads that material now as it was originally published. The books were bi-monthly, a different pair alternating each month. Which meant that unlike the way a reader would read them now--in collections straight though as stand-alone single titles--they were originally read as a mosaic, in which the overall storyline about the great cosmic struggle between New Genesis and Apokolips was gradually built up in small pieces, becoming clearer and clearer as the months went by. And I think because of that structure, deeper and deeper as the reader discovered how everything fit together.
ADD: How far ahead have you plotted out Orion? And how's the book doing overall? Are you confident it's going to be around for a while?
WS: I'm plotted out seriously about five to six issues ahead. I'm plotted out in a more general way--that is to say that I know where my stories are going--at least a year ahead. And I've got ideas that will likely take two or three years to develop. In some cases, I have bits of dialogue written for scenes that won't be in print for another year or so. Given the current state of the market in American comics right now, I'm not confident anything's going to be around for awhile. But I'm game to do ORION for as long as I'm able. I've got a lot of stories that I hope I have the opportunity to get out there.
ADD: Tell us a little bit about the difference between the way you're working today and the years you spent working with other collaborators. Which mode do you prefer to work in?
WS: I think the difference is that now, I get to wear two hats--writer and artist--and I can curse myself as writer OR artist depending on which hat I'm wearing when things aren't going well instead of being crabby about somebody else. The truth is that I enjoy doing the writing AND the art in comics and since I see them both as essential to the creation of the story I'm making, I don't find I have a preference for one or the other. Except that whenever I'm writing, I feel like I should be drawing and whenever I'm drawing, I feel like I should be writing!
I still enjoy working with other creators a lot and still do work from time to time where I only carry a part of the burden. I like drawing for other writers; I like writing for other artists. For two reasons. First, I enjoy working with my friends and that's what I've been fortunate enough to do most of the time. And second, other creators, whether artists or writers, give me feedback that helps to crystallize ideas in forms I would never have thought of myself, which means that the final story is the result of a fusion of ideas that have often gone in unexpected directions. When it works out like that, it's great! And it keeps me refreshed at my job.
ADD: You seem to have developed a good online rapport with your readers. How has the Internet changed the way you approach your job?
WS: I enjoy going online generally. I like the directness of online contact with my readers. Naturally, you want everybody to like what you're doing; naturally, they all don't. And the web seems to bring out the crabbiest in people sometimes. But I get a lot of interesting and immediate feedback thanks to the web that I don't think I'd be hearing otherwise.
It hasn't really affected the actual stories I tell. In that regard, you really have to trust your own judgment. And there are some things I'm very careful of. Thanks to the relatively easy access readers have to professionals, for example, I often get requests to review submissions, both writing and art. I can't do it. I just don't have the time to get out a monthly book and look at all the stuff I'm sent. So I decline that part of the web, as politely as I can.
There are a couple of very practical benefits I've found with the web. It's a great resource for providing additional research on stuff I'm doing. For example, I recently needed to compile a list of indictments, if you will, against Darkseid. I know a lot about him; however, I don't know much in terms of all the times he's been used in the DC Universe since his creation by Jack about 1970 or so. So I left a note on the two ORION websites I keep track of (www.comicboards.com/orion/ and the DC website boards), asking for help in compiling such a list. In addition to a variety of suggestions that were all over the map, many of which I really hadn't known about, I was sent a complete list of all of Darkseid's appearances in the DCU since he was created! I didn't have a chance to go back and track all of them down, of course, but the fans gave me some leads I found useful for specific stories.
The other benefit is that I get letters from fans through e-mail and the websites I mentioned above. This is great for writing Letter Columns as not that much snail mail comes in. And it means I can write columns that are as close to the publication of an issue of ORION as possible. Generally, I'm writing a LetterCol on an issue within a week of the issue's publication.
ADD: You've been doing comics for a good portion of your life so far...is it still as much fun as it was when you started out?
ADD: With the diminishing market over the past few years, what do you think the future of comics is?
WS: Beats the heck out of me. I think the future of comics had better include plans to get them back out into the real world with some sort of wider form of distribution or there won't be much of a future. If you can't find 'em, you can't buy 'em.
ADD: What do you think are the biggest problems the industry needs to overcome right now?
WS: See above. Once comics abandoned the newsstand market and went with the direct market, I think they began cutting themselves off from their wider audience. They began working seriously for a narrower audience for the first time. And the companies began producing a lot of material designed to appeal specifically to that narrower audience, a specialty audience, something that comics hadn't done before. A lot of wonderful work had been produced, including a lot of work that is no longer for kids--which I think is pretty nifty. But by essentially giving up the "kid" market, I think comics gave up much of their future audience. And maybe their future. If some way isn't found to reestablish a connection with that young audience, I would think that comics will keep heading in the direction it's going now, a field of specialty items for what is essentially a smaller and smaller coterie of readers.
I think that comics aren't out where they can be found casually any longer. If you want to find them, you have to seek them out. That's no way to develop an expanding audience. I think if the problems of distribution aren't overcome, none of us are going anywhere!
ADD: What are its greatest strengths?
WS: What they've always been. Good stories, well told. There's always room for stories, especially good ones. And comics, because of their relatively fast turnaround time, can take advantage of pop culture developments at a speed unmatched by almost any other fictional medium.
ADD: You've said the New Gods were the only mainstream characters you hadn't done that you wanted to take a crack at. Now that you're doing just that, any other aspirations in the field? Anything at all you haven't yet taken a stab at?
WS: Only in the sense that I'd like to be a better storyteller in 10 years than I am now. I'd like to draw better, I'd like to write better, and I'd like to put pictures and words together better than I do now. In short, I'd like to be better at my job!
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