Wally Wood Should Have Beaten Them All


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Weird Science 16, 1952 (original art)

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.

Captain Science, 1950

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.

Journey Into Mystery, 1956

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.

Daredevil 7, 1965

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.

Dymamo 3, 1967

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.”

Animan, 1967

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.

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16 Responses to “Wally Wood Should Have Beaten Them All”
  1. Ng Suat Tong says:

    A very fine piece of writing. Your emotional connection to the work comes through very well amidst all the historical details you present.

  2. Pete L says:

    Great piece. Good writing!

  3. patrick ford says:

    It strikes me as odd how many silver age comic book fans seem to have an emotional need to believe the creators were all one big happy family. The fun and games bullpen created by Stan Lee in his Soapbox never existed.
    Wood’s case is the most tragic but all the great writer/artists working at Marvel in the 60’s were unhappy, and things were at least as bad at DC.
    Kirby’s complaints are well known, Ditko’s, and Wood’s have received less attention.
    The comments from the artists are often dismissed as bitter rants. I fully accept the artists were bitter, what I don’t get is the “need” to view that bitterness as unreasonable.

    Wally Wood:

    Once upon a time, many years ago a young man, born the son of a
    famous comic book publisher, decided to become rich and famous. He
    had no idea of how to go about this at first, lacking both the
    brains and talent to achieve this goal. But he was driven by one
    emotion, rather TWO .. ENVY and HATE. Envy for the people
    who were responsible for his enviable state, and hatred for the people
    who could DRAW. Comics are, after all, an artist’s medium. I’ve
    never read a story in comics that I’d bother with if it were written
    in novel form.

    Did I say Stanley had no smarts? Well, he DID come up with two sure
    fire ideas… the first one was “Why not let the artists WRITE the
    stories as well as draw them?”… And the second was … ALWAYS SIGN
    YOUR NAME ON TOP …BIG”. And the rest is history … Stanley, of course
    became rich and famous … over the bodies of people like Bill and Jack.
    Bill, who had created nthe character that had made his father rich
    wound up COLORING and doing odd jobs.

    And Jack? Well, a friend of mine summed it up like this .. “Stanley
    and Jack have a conference, then Jack goes home, and after a couple of
    month’s gestation, a new book is born. Stanley gets all the money and
    all the credit… And all poor old Jack gets is a sore ass hole.”

    Steve Ditko:
    Ditko: “Those fans who continually moan about my quitting Marvel, Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, act as if Marvel was/is a southern plantation ruled by The Divine Right to Own Individuals as Slaves and that I, as a freelancer (not an employee), could at any time be (and was at times) taken off the S-M/DS strips, and given no work, had no right to quit and that I should be made to go back, be made to keep producing story ideas, panels, pages of story art and comic books for their gratification. Only they are free to act as they choose without penalties.
    In comics fandom today, there are too many acting like babies whining, crying, throwing temper tantrums and demanding another’s bottle or toy. And too few in fandom caring about the actual value, integrity, of the comic book industry, too many, too willing to surrender the objective best to the subjective worst.

    Harvey Kurtzman said that his time at Atlas working from Stan’s scripts (this after Stan removed Kurtzman from writing his own material) was quote:
    “Undoubtedly the worst year of my life.”

  4. Mike Loughlin says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It’s so rare to read a piece on comics (be it review or more in-depth analysis) in which the writer discusses the art in detail, and you nailed it. In a perfect world, you just wrote the introduction to a high-end reprint collection.

    It’s a shame that so few of Wally Wood’s comics are available at affordable prices (I can’t drop $50 or more on an EC collection, as much as I would like to), as he is one of the medium’s best and most important artists. Toth, too. (damn you, Hot Wheels and obscure ’50s comics and B-movie rights holders!)

  5. patrick ford says:

    Mike, Russ Cochran still has the bulk of his soft-cover newsprint comic book reprints of the original EC’s for sale with free shipping.
    Since I don’t work for Russ I guess it’s okay to link this?

  6. Another outstanding essay — Thank You! Your extremely perceptive analysis of Wally and his work is quite sobering. Wood remains one of my biggest comic art influences. While recognizing his limitations, I still greatly admire his best work.

    I got a chance to meet him my second night in New York (I was working for Kurtzman & Elder on Little Annie Fanny) at a comics creators’ party in a house a Staten Island ferry boat trip away from Manhattan in 1972. Our chance meeting in the kitchen turned out to prove the old adage of “Never meet your heroes.” That’s OK; I love Wally’s best stuff so much that I’ll happily forgive him any lack of social graces he might have exhibited that evening.

    I subscribed to Witzend from the get-go. Each issue was an anxiously anticipated and savored treasure; my favorite comics artists (Wood, Williamson, Krenkel, Frazetta, Torres, Morrow, etc.) drawing whatever the hell they wanted to draw. Woo hoo!

    I also loved and respected the fact that Wally could excel at both the superhero genre and at funny stuff, too. Inspired by Wally, I made that a personal goal as well, alternating “straight” comics with funny stuff (what Williamson referred to as “bigfoot comics”).

    Wally Wood’s huge volume of brilliant work, coupled with his tragic life should serve as a cautionary tale to all comics creators. In addition to consistently producing your best work, you should also be constantly paying attention to rights issues and the business details of what you do.

  7. Such a thoughtful article, and a fine comment by Maestro Stout that it is a cautionary tale. In 1969 my journal recorded a dozen pages of that chat with Mr. Wood as noted here. That same month poet Allen Ginsberg invited me to attend Jack Kerouac’s funeral, as none of his friends wanted to attend that grim event. Jack’s 1960 book “Big Sur” documented his defeat in the battle with the bottle, and the content of his work was awful after that. Mr. Wood also tried to medicate his depression with alcohol, also with disastrous results, leading to poor health and eventually suicide.
    The cautionary tale that Mr Wood revealed to me was his belief there was no Higher Power. As a Gnostic & Buddhist I recognized “Universal Consciousness” in all living things, channeling its compassion. Artist Rick Griffin and I agreed on Johanine theology, but Wood saw none of this while trying to drink away his depression. Rich was a huge fan of Wally’s, and was saddened when he read my journal entry from 1969 .Today there are more Twelve Step Programs to aid men like Kerouac and Wood, to connect them with that Power and renew their creativity, giving depth to the content of their work

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    Larry Hama wrote in to offer a correction and further insight:

    Woody (he hated being called “Wally” and preferred “Wallace” or “Woody.”) created the actual 22 panels, but they originally existed as scattered sketches on three or four 8X10 sheets. There was no editorializing or explanation, or even a title. Not long after his death, I had the various panels shot down by the photostat guys at Marvel and pasted them up on a single standard size original art board. I wrote the disparaging line about writers and lettered the title and copy at the top of the page. I take no credit for the creation, but I am the codifier who put the information into it’s most widely disseminated form.

    There is a more detailed explanation at Joel Johnson’s website:

  9. Bill Pearson says:

    This is a very perceptive essay, not only about Wood but about the comics industry. Very well written, though it’s another list of my hero’s many faults. I spent many years working in the comics industry, turning in my work by mail or delivery more often than in person. I hoped never to hear from the editor because that meant a check would eventually turn up. The only time an editor would call after a job was delivered was to complain about something, NEVER to say ‘nice job, Bill’.

    When one sees evidence of genius, it’s natural to assume the person so brilliant as a creator must have it all together in every area of life. The fact is, Wood found the real world a harrowing place to inhabit, which is why he tried to spend as much time as he could inside himself, in his imagination.

  10. Randy R. says:

    Great, perceptive article. I especially appreciated the honesty about the quality of the material–that often times the quality of the art far surpassed the maturity (or lack thereof) of the story. But let’s face it, this was a reflection of the kind of much of the audience too, who find some comfort in the developmentally-arrested wish-fulfillment/escapist fantasy that is an inherent part of most superhero comics and a lot of the fantasy genre. The same charge was often made about Alex Toth, another tortured soul whose work I also love, but whose art throughout his career generally served to elevate mediocre genre material. But, of course, to be fair, this was also a time when comics were considered trash pulp juvenile literature, not a “real” medium of serious expression.

  11. As a fan of comics and a graphic artist who has dabbled in comic art, I enjoy reading about the people who created comics as much as the comics themselves. I recently had been doing some research on Wood for my own personal interest. This article and the subsequent comments is the best resource I have read so fair. It’s informative, concise, and yet has an emotional connection behind it’s candid analysis.

    To have a measure of understanding of the circumstances of Wood’s life and the events leading up to his suicide has been a quest for me. As I approach 50, I am at the stage where I examine my own life structure and glean whatever information I can from others who have gone before me (be they tragic or happy).

    When I was a kid, I had dreamed of getting into the comics industry. It never happened but I’m thankful for the life I’ve had. Still, reading about the history of the comics world behind the scenes has been like following an alternate life story line and I remain fascinated by it.

    Thanks for the terrific article and to all who made such insightful comments.

  12. I discovered Wally Wood at twelve. Exactly the right age. I’d seen his reprinted Mad Magazine work but i clearly remember seeing his Mad Comic book reprints and then his science fiction reprints in paperback form, and was, as any 12 year old cartoonist would be, amazed. Immediately after came his Daredevil run, then Warren and Thunder and the Joe Simon packages for Harvey, and Witzend. Woody produced some of the best work in the industry during that time.

    I never met Wood, but I got my 22 Panels from Larry Hama at DC in 1978, but by that time i had a hard time looking at Wood’s work. His inking was insanely good, and is still a textbook example of old – school inking, but his personal stuff i found cold and neurotic. There’s a panel in one of his Cannon stories that seems typical – cannon and a girl, probably a blonde, sit at a round table in a dark room, and in a bright circle in the foreground a stripper dances. Somehow this image has stuck with me, symbolic of not only Wood’s deep sadness (commented on by everyone who knew him, even slightly), but of the alienation of a whole generation of men i did not want to emulate

    That said, I want to address the notion that Wood was merely a tremendously ambitious journeyman. I think that’s unfair. It may be ironically noted that comics are the last place where Picasso’s merit as an artist is argued, so please let’s not forget that a good artist is not necessarily a good cartoonist, and a good cartoonist does not necessarily turn out good comic pages, and while I admit there are shortcomings to Wood’s work, he produced great comic pages (even incorporating Picasso-like images in his comics pages, for those who take note of such things). Even though his story telling seems staged and too anchored to the golden age, he was among the generation that opened up the constrictions of the comics page. Those EC science fiction jobs that he, and Orlando (solo, and with Wood), and Williamson did looked modern in a way no other comics did, despite the anachronisms that some complain of in Williamson’s work..

    Wood’s black and white Mad work is insanely good. Try and duplicate it. Layer upon layer of craftint, zip and white out, and it’s never muddy, the compositions always sharp and reading clearly. Look at what wood was lampooning, look at 1950s TV and newspaper photos, and B&W advertising art. Wood was dead on, and never less than brilliant and often genius, which is why we’re discussing him, not because of his decline

    Wood outclassed almost all of his inspirations and peers in every way, look at his modernization of the Spirit, his combined sense of illustration and cartoon made him Kurtzman’s most successful collaborator, he did better science fiction than Raymond, was more dramatic than Foster, and better tone work than Roy Crane, and even in his later years he could breathe life into a commercial romance ink job and make Garcia-Lopez look better than anybody.

    I’ve got a page from the last issue of Anthro, which Woody inked over Howie Post. It’s a beauty. I showed it to Joe Rubinstein and he said he remembered the job, that Howie had turned in very rough layouts for a kill fee, but it was decided the book would be published, and Joe Orlando called Wally and said -Wally , you’re the only guy in the industry who can do this – and he was, you can see it on the paper, you can see the pure confident line of a top pro, who not only understands the visual language in which he’s working, but the subtleties and strengths of the original artist and who’s in full possession of his own skills to complete the drawing. I can’t see another hand on this page, the ink is all the same tone, and it’s a beautiful page, Little Wally doing what Little Wally liked to do best, drawing jungles and cavemen and spotting those beautiful blacks throughout the jungle backgrounds.

    I’ve got a lot of comic books, and if you know where to look, in late 1949, in the Fox Jungle books, in the midst of some of the most awful art imaginable, you start to see these little faces, tight and controlled, with downcast shadows, and odd pieces of depth to the backgrounds, and within a year you start to see the most interesting romance stories, often awkward but passionate and very complete looking, here’s a crafts man, someone who understands that this is a medium, something worth really doing right, making it personal, and from there you can see Wood grow in the medium, and reach a point of influence that journeymen simply don’t have. Jack Kirby said there was only one genius in the comics field and it was Wallace Wood. I gotta go with that.


    tom christopher

    comics fun at my website



  13. Tony Q. King says:

    I came across this page while googling for some “Dilbert” scene with Wally –

    I too, remember Wally Wood from Mad Magazine in the 1950s.
    Of all the artists there, he was the best.
    I remember with fondness the little kid pulling the wagon that always seemed to show up in some panel, completely disassociated from whatever plot the panel was referring to.

    He seemed to me to be an artistic genius.
    I always wondered what happened to Wally Wood…
    So he shot himself! Thirty years ago! Well, thanx for the closure.
    Did you ever see his “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” in Paul Krassner’s Realist magazine?
    Here’s a copy –

    At least I HOPE this is a Wally Wood!

  14. Tony Q. King says:

    Make that jpeg image above-

  15. […] Science Fiction and last but not least, Wally Wood 3-d. Do yourself a favour and read this – http://comicscomicsmag.com/2010/02/wally-wood-should-have-beaten-them-all.html and go pick up some Wally Wood stuff from your local comic […]

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