Wally Wood Should Have Beaten Them All
by Dan Nadel
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Wally Wood’s life and art exist in the space between two comic book stories. The first, “My World”, published in Weird Science no. 22, 1953, was written by Al Feldstein as a tribute to the 26-year-old Wood, who drew it. In the story, an unseen narrator describes his daily experience of reality juxtaposed with panel after panel of spectacular fantasy scenes, consisting “. . . of great space-ships that carry tourists on brief holidays to Venus or Mars or Saturn . . . My world can be ugly . . . Landing at night and entering my cities and killing and maiming and destroying . . . My world is what I choose to make it. My world is yesterday . . . Or today . . . Or tomorrow . . . For my world is the world of science fiction . . . conceived in my mind and placed upon paper with pencil and ink and brush and sweat and a great deal of love for my world.” The final drawing of the comic has Wood smoking a cigarette at the drawing table and looking a bit wan. It’s an evocation of the celebrity of Wood-the-cartoonist published by William M. Gaines’ EC Comics, home of Mad, and the publisher for which Wood did his most famous work.
Twenty-two years later, Wood, having long since broken with Gaines and Feldstein and by then a cautionary tale to his peers, wrote and drew “My Word” for Big Apple Comix. It is again a breathless narrative complemented by stunning drawings, but this time it’s a trip through a hellish New York. A furious Wood closes his introductory monologue with “Anyhow, since I have three pages in this mag, I’d like to comment briefly on the universe.” And off he goes. After some muggings, some light S&M and the requisite pile of shit, Wood, apropos of nothing, leaps on art: “That mysterious process by which one’s fantasies enrich the lives of others… and the pockets of publishers. But it is worth it, for there are the fans.” And here we see a naked boy prostrating himself saying, “Do what you want with me! Kick me! Fuck me! Shit on me! I love you! By the way, your old stuff was better…” Wood closes with a distorted version of “My World’s” final panel: A squat alien at the drawing board, smoking and saying, “My word is the word I choose to make it, for I conceive it in my mind and put it down on paper with a lot of sweat and love and shit like that, for I am a troglodyte. My name is spafon gool.”
Six years later Wally Wood killed himself. Well, that’s the melodramatic version: Alone, heartbroken, the tortured artist ends it forever. (The back cover copy of a slipshod 2006 biography by Steven Starger and J. David Spurlock runs, “Wally’s World opens Halloween night, 1981, in a seedy world of pornographers and addicts, with a death by .44 magnum gunshot…”; the introduction to the book by Peter Max is four columns long, three of which are devoted to Max’s own autobiography. Even in death Wood can’t catch a break.) But really it’s a simpler and in some ways sadder story: Wood, an addictive and depressive personality, was a man whose expectations and talents always exceeded his world’s ability to fulfill them. Wood helped reinvent key aspects of our contemporary pop culture: Science fiction illustration (compositional complexity and modern design), comic book art (eerily close parody and crisp, clear storytelling), comic book self-publishing (his own Witzend); he also was involved with popularizing at least two mega-properties in Mad and Daredevil. While not an inventor like Jack Kirby or, in other media, Alfred Hitchcock or Bob Dylan, Wood was a tremendously ambitious journeyman. He had a genius and a love for a medium that, until recently, ground down its abundant geniuses, celebrating creation while pointedly not rewarding the creator. Before the birth of underground comics in the late 1960s, if someone wanted to draw or write comic books he also had to agree to terms that were draconian at best: No ownership, no royalties, no job security and no control. The artist creates and someone else profits. That was the predicament of most mid-20th century comic book makers, and in his travels between cultures and genres, from sci-fi hacks to hippies; superheroes to autobiography; big business to micro-publishing, Wood was the most 20th century of them all.
Wood was born in 1927 in Menahga, Minnesota into a farming family. A slight, sensitive boy, he is said to have begun speaking in complete sentences by age two and declared his intent to become a cartoonist by age 12. Certainly his voluminous childhood comics are proof of his dedication. Like the youthful R. Crumb twenty years later, Wood had a child’s energy but an adult sense of space and line. His childhood comics are disciplined, good and clear with none of the scribbling or abstractions of most kid’s artwork. He studied the contemporaneous greats of adventure cartooning: Hal Foster, whose Prince Valiant was drawn with stately dignity and the feeling of verisimilitude that every nerdy kid desires; Alex Raymond, who drew Flash Gordon as a lush, nearly erotic sci-fi pageant; and Roy Crane, creator of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, a masterpiece of minimal, expressive cartooning.
And as he grew up he moved away from the simplicity of his earliest drawings and into the knotty, detail-oriented “realistic” rendering that nerdish boys still favor for a few reasons: First, it looks like it took a long time to do, which means it has an intrinsic value; second, it’s a perfect outlet for the manic, nearly-macho energy of puberty; third and best of all, it looks “real” enough to disappear into. In many ways, these three impulses drove Wood’s initial burst of work, as well as fandom’s enraptured response to it and that of his illustrative peers, like Frank Frazetta. It’s a somewhat reactionary appreciation, valuing the appearance of hard work and the illusion of the “real” over conceptual or intellectual content. Interestingly, not much has shifted since the 1950s. Comics may be one of the last fields in which adults still argue over whether or not Picasso can “really” draw.
In 1944 Wood graduated from high school and entered the merchant marines with the idea of toughening up and perhaps living some of the adventures he was fantasizing. He was stationed in Italy and later, occupied Japan. His experience in Japan must have been horrifying, and the shock to a small town Midwesterner immense, but Wood never spoke of it in his very few public interviews. The artist retuned home in 1948 and swiftly moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now the School of Visual Arts). He stayed less than a year and made the contacts he needed to embark on professional work first as a lettering assistant for George Wunder on Terry and the Pirates and then Will Eisner on The Spirit. By 1949 he was producing entire crime and science fiction comic books.
Wood’s drawings matured in tandem with the rise of EC Comics’ “New Trend” series, which published surprisingly explicit and thoroughgoing comics that aspired to the higher end of genre fiction. There were Ray Bradbury adaptations and an Asimov knock-off or two, complemented by a exquisite illustrations that, while perhaps not the best cartooning, are compelling drawings from panel to panel. With his ability to move between both the heavily researched historical stories and biting satires written by Harvey Kurtzman for Mad, as well as his science fiction and fantasy expertise, Wood became the star of the publishing company.
Science fiction illustration up to that period tended to fall into two categories: Velvety paintings of space heroes and aliens that echoed a Victorian image of the future replete with the same ornate helmets and faux-renaissance tunics and leftover World’s Fair architecture; And surrealist visions by artists like Hannes Bok and Virgil Finlay who painted an ethereal alien life that seemed to emerge from European Symbolist painting.
Wood took a different tack and emerged hugely influential: He combined modernist design with highly detailed rendering. Much like Hal Foster aspired to realism in his medieval epic, Wood aimed to make his science fiction environments solid, inhabitable spaces. His future homes were cluttered with biomorphic forms and equipment based on the latest hi-fi technology and machinery. In his living rooms screen-based communicators are built into walls and an Eames-like table has an elaborate spindle of metallic underpinning, and mechanized wheels. Interiors of his needle-nosed spaceships are not the tin can hulls of film, but rather landscapes of circuitry and electronics. Most artists would stumble at this stage, but Wood made all the claustrophobic detail palatable by giving his surfaces a smooth and futuristic sheen. And while comics is a medium where, for the sake of the momentum of a story, explicit drawn detail is often best omitted, Wood left nothing to the imagination of the reader. Instead it was all Wood’s world. He took no short cuts and no space was left unfilled. There is no way to breeze through a Wood comic from this period—each panel demands and rewards careful inspection.
This aesthetic meant that Wood was a maximalist in a business that could not afford the indulgence. Comics were and remain published on a tight schedule and demand quick turnarounds. To fulfill both his own aesthetic demands and his publisher’s schedule, Wood worked seven days a week, fueled by booze, coffee and cigarettes. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, but he was young and his enthusiasm carried him through. He kept this pace throughout the 1950s, moving into illustration and advertising work while maintaining his comics practice. He even teamed with Jack Kirby on the great cartoonist’s Sky Masters of the Space Force, giving Kirby’s dynamic figures a cool surface with his masterful inks. Whatever he completed, Wood maintained an almost impossible level of surface control.
Unfortunately, by the end of the ’50s his body was beginning to rebel against his schedule. He began drinking heavily and was infamously confined to his room during a Mad staff cruise in ’59. For much of ’60 he suffered from debilitating migraines, and in ’61 began taking a variety of prescription medications that left him unable to concentrate. Adding alcohol into the mix only made it worse. In 1964 Al Feldstein, the same editor who wrote “My World”, rejected a Mad assignment and Wood angrily cut all ties with the magazine and, by extension, his early ingenious work. Severe frustration began to set it. As he saw it, Wood had made money for publishers and was rewarded with a paltry income and nothing of his own. He owned little of his original artwork, no intellectual property, and, at 37, was faced with not much to hope for but more of the same. In late ’64 he went to Marvel Comics, drawing and redesigning Daredevil. And in ’66 he briefly found a couple vehicles for his own ambitions: Witzend, a self-published anthology title, and his own comic book line released by a third tier outfit called Tower Publishing.
Tower hired Wood to create and supervise a group of titles that combined the popular spy and superhero fads of the day. Wood came up with T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (or, “The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves”, a group of super powered secret agents. Wood hired some of the best artists (and men in similarly frustrated positions), in the business to draw the various spin-offs, including Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Reed Crandall and Ogden Whitney. The actual content of the stories wasn’t too interesting – fairly standard spy/fantasy stuff – but when he drew the stories, Wood’s art was it its finest. With Daredevil he’d simplified his artwork – eliminating unnecessary detail and focusing on crisp forms in clearly delineated spaces. And for the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents group of titles, he continued to hone this approach.
Wood’s cover to Dynamo no. 3, features the super-strong hero soaring over the earth, a jet fighter shooting at him from the background. A simple sky and moon dominates half the cover, with Dynamo’s figure crossing it and the earth. Three explosions burst around him. It’s a picture that is simultaneously action-packed and eerily quiet. There are no screeching cover blurbs, speed lines, hysterical faces or poses. Just a graceful figure rendered in subtle volumes coasting across the picture. The plane and Dynamo form a pleasant sort of “X” in the middle of the cover, and the light of the earth and dark of the sky balance perfectly. This is Wood at his best. No extraneous lines, no exaggeration– just perfect design in motion.
Issue 16 of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents features a fairly typical Dynamo story that exemplifies Wood’s storytelling. In the first panel of page 3, Dynamo jumps from a helicopter. The next panel shows his landing and immediate attack by a bazooka-wielding baddy. He leaps from an explosion in the next panel, lands in the next, and runs towards and then into a building in the following three. The beauty of this page is that the buildings are generic – blocks of color with windows; the explosions have the same form as any Wood explosion; and Dynamo’s poses: flight, dodge, leap, and run are the same poses as, say, Daredevil, or any other hero Wood drew in the ’60s. That is, he had settled on an internally generic comic book language that always looks like Wally Wood and, when deployed, told stories with maximum clarity. In a chaotic, action-filled scenario the reader knows exactly how to follow all the moving parts. The comic book line lasted until 1969, when Tower ran into distribution problems. But Wood carried on.
During this same period he developed a manifesto of sorts: “22 Panels That Always Work: Or Some Interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting and talking for page after page.” It’s an infamous document, as ingenious in its craft as it is telling about the industry it comes from. Wood’s 22 panels include: “Big Head” (three quarter view of head filling a panal); “Down Shot, Cast Shadows” (overhead of character with a shadow behind him); “Frame” (A character viewed through a window); and of course the “L-shape Silh” (a particularly tricky composition with a silhouetted woman stage left next to an object framing her to create an “L”. Larry Hama, who assisted Wood in the early 1970s, noted, “I don’t believe that Woody put the examples together as a teaching aid for his assistants, but rather as a reminder to himself. He was always trying to kick himself to put less labor into the work! He had a framed motto on the wall, ‘Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.’ He hung the sheets with the panels on the wall of his studio to constantly remind himself to stop what he called ‘noodling.’” Wood had learned from his early work that extra effort or no, the paycheck was the same, and that “noodling” was part of his problematic physical and chemical cycles. So he needed to complete the product faster and more expediently. And yet he still wanted it done his way, in his language. So he invented and notated structures that would allow him to remain “Wood” even at his most slapdash.
In 1966, while working for Tower, he published Witzend, an anthology title aimed at adults that contained his own stories and art in addition to some of his peers and friends, including Steve Ditko and a very young Art Spiegelman. Witzend was his try for independence (it only lasted a handful of issues; Wood wasn’t much of a businessman), and also a sort of bridge to the underground. Wood, unlike his actual peers in superhero comics, had some bohemian aspirations. He lived in Manhattan, he liked folk music, he liked to rap about pop philosophy and psychology; and all around him he could see that things were shifting. So when the kids that grew up on his work began publishing their own comics in the underground papers, Wood felt a kinship with their need for independence and spirit of experimentation. He welcomed them to his studio for chats, and became one of the only mainstream cartoonists to have an active presence in the underground. But as much as he admired the kids, he could never be one of them.
Underground cartoonist John Thompson remembers going to visit him in 1969: “Wood and an assistant were inking Superboy, which he said he was basically doing for the money, and that it didn’t pay well enough to cover rent and food and basic living expenses in New York. The little apartment was clean and tidy, but there was no non-cartoon art on the wall. He dressed plainly, and his appearance was not at all remarkable. Wood indicated he really didn’t get much of a sense of accomplishment from his work at that time, and didn’t find it particularly creative or innovative, or reflecting any substantial message. So I asked, ‘If you could write material that dealt with any issues in depth, what would they be?’ Instead of mentioning civil rights, Vietnam and the other sorts of issues my friends in Berkeley addressed at length, he said the editors where he worked wouldn’t allow that kind of depth. But I got the impression that these topics really didn’t keep him awake at night anyway.”
What Thompson observed was borne out in the work. Wood, like so many of his colleagues, was a child of the pulps. His drawings are beautiful, his stories nearly perfectly told, but the actual content is mostly dull and frequently childish. Even in Witzend, Wood isn’t able to aim very high. “Animan”, a beautifully drawn adventure story, is a thinly veiled rant about being misunderstood by society: A jungle-man who only wants to be left alone, and is provoked into violence and then captured by humans. Brought to New York for entertainment, only his captor’s girlfriend, Cathy, sympathizes with him. Animan breaks loose, attacks Jim and then roams free as Cathy, nude on a bed, fantasizes about him. Given full reign, in the era of Crumb and Shelton, not to mention mainstream talents like Kurtzman, Carl Barks and John Stanley, Wood could only produce an adolescent revenge fantasy. Wood wanted it all, but to him “all” was basically pulp material with more nudity and more violence.
Understanding the limitations of so many of the great comic book artists, and realizing that it applies to so many beautifully drawn and told artifacts, is a mental knot that I’ve learned to accept about the medium. Wood and his generation wanted to make the best superhero or fantasy comics possible and make money from it, too. That desire is compelling and moving because they did sometimes succeed in creating our collective fantasies (albeit for corporations that immediately sought to wipe out their credit), but they were never compensated properly, and nearly always met with failure when they struck out on their own. Very few of them were able to make the genres sing; there are scant Philip K. Dicks or Raymond Chandlers in mainstream comics. So I pick my pleasures and savor what I can.
The 1970s found Wood pursuing his personal opus: The Wizard King Trilogy, culminating in his ’78 publication of the first installment, King of the World, a Tolkien-esque story about a pragmatic coward named Odkin. In introducing Odkin, our narrator notes that his people “did not have a word for ‘hero’ but it was the same word for ‘fool’.” Wood indulged multiple styles in this book, using fine rendering on landscapes and more simplified, elastic cartooning on his figures, much of whom are delightfully, whimsically naked. It’s a little boy’s version of nudity, but charming and somehow, despite Wood’s sometimes grim temperment, slyly optimistic. (Sadly the publisher of the most recent 2004 printing placed color fields across all nude areas, apparently at the printer’s request, which itself is baffling these days, but is also more grist for the Wood calamity myth). Wood’s story is fun, as Odkin goes out to claim a sword and fight an old enemy, but like the rest of his work, it never transcends its influences.
Reading The Wizard King I find myself wishing both that the material itself was better and that that the circumstances around it were more rewarding. That those 7 glorious issues of Daredevil went on forever and that Wood made millions and had the time to lavish even more attention on his personal work, to perhaps push harder against his own mental ceilings. But he didn’t and couldn’t. Instead, in 1976 he again self-published his own comics: Reprints of sex and adventure comics he’d done for the US Army newspaper, Overseas Weekly. He followed that with a newsletter series for fans called The Woodwork Gazette. In ’78, at age 51, he wrote that his was a “one-man operation. I’m typing the membership list, addressing envelopes and stuffing them, carrying them to the post office…” He’d seized control once again, but soon his health began to deteriorate further and his editorial in issue 5 of The Gazette is particularly bitter: “I’m through with comics—for other people anyway. All I know is comics artists have been ripped off for so long they don’t even know they HAVE rights. No medical care, no retirement benefits, no reprint money.” Wood wanted to do what he wanted to do, but was neither emotionally, financially or intellectually equipped to break out of a system with the structure and intent of keeping artists from ownership and fair compensation. Unlike today, when a successful mainstream artist might consult on the Iron Man film or the X-Men video game, in the ’60s and ’70s here was no place to go. And worse, Wood loved comics. His passion for the medium oozes out of his work from start to finish. It’s what he wanted to do, but he could never make himself happy doing it.
Unfortunately, his 1978 complaint proved prescient. Within a couple of years Wood’s health failed all together, leaving him blind in one eye, among other ailments. Unable to complete much work, in 1981 he moved to Los Angeles at the suggestion of a publisher. But Wood knew he was not well. His kidneys began to fail and doctors told him dialysis was his only option. It would seem that the indignity of losing both his artistic abilities and his physical independence was too much for him. All that ambition, all thwarted. He’d always had a fondness for guns and the power they implied. So that night in 1981, Wally Wood tried for control one more time. He shot himself in the head, dying instantly. He was 54.