Practitioners 53: Walt Simonson

Walter ‘Walt’ Simonson is a cheerful poster boy of independent creators within commercial comic books. An exceptional writer and artist, his love and enthusiasm for the boundless scope of possibilities available to any comic writer. His is a mind that smiles wryly at the prospect of turning a God into a frog or constantly bringing back an old idea from school to be enjoyed by many others. Simonson, more than most other artists displays an enthusiasm reminiscent of a boy. While most adults have carried the medium away from the stuff of boyhood dreams – Simonson’s work is fuelled by it creating a body of work that remains timeless and universal as childhood itself. Welcome to the House of Fun! Welcome to World of Walt Simonson!

Simonson was born in September 2, 1946. Studying at Amherst College he transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1972. He found work almost immediately, at the age of 26. As his thesis, he created the Star Slammers, which was released as a promotional black and white print in 1974 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Wahington DC (also known as Discon II). A decade later the Star Slammers returned with a graphic novel for Marvel Comics, the standard of the work strong enough to go straight to mainstream publication. 10 years later, the Star Slammers returned renewed with the fledgling Bravura label as part of Image. His is the story of an imaginative artist with his own ideas, and ones that survived decades. He has won numerous awards for his work, influencing the art of Arthur Adams and Bryan Hitch.

Effectively bulleting straight out of education and directly into work, Simonson’s first professional published comic book work was Weird War Tales #10 (Jan. 1973) for DC Comics. He also did a number of illustrations for the Harry N. Abrams, Inc. edition of The Hobbit, and at least one unrelated print (a Samurai warrior) was purchased by Harvard University’s Fogg Museum and included in its annual undergraduate-use loan program. However, his breakthrough illustration job was Manhunter, a backup feature in DC’s Detective Comics written by Archie Goodwin.

Recalling in a 2000 interview, Simonson recalled that “What Manhunter did was to establish me professionally. Before Manhunter, I was one more guy doing comics; after Manhunter, people in the field knew who I was. It’d won a bunch of awards the year that it ran, and after that, I really had no trouble finding work.” Simonson went on to draw other DC series such as Metal Men and Hercules Unbound.

A page from Thor revealing the close collaboration between Simonson and his letterer, John Workman.

In 1979 Simonson and Goodwin collaborated on an adaptation of the movie Alien, published by Heavy Metal. It was on Ridley Scott’s Alien that Simonson’s long working relationship with letterer John Workman began. Workman has lettered most of Simonson’s work since. It’s a highly collaborative unity, both professionals understanding the requirements of the job; Goodman’s lettering fitting seamlessly among the bombastic and dynamic panel arrangements.

In Fall 1978, Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Val Mayerik, and Jim Starlin formed Upstart Associates, a shared studio space on West 29th Street in New York City. The membership of the studio changed over time.

In 1982, Simonson and writer Chris Claremont produced The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans Intercompany cross-over between the two most successful titles of DC and Marvel. This would undoubtedly have been a premium title given the popularity of both parties and both companies selected quite deliberately an exciting and safe pair of hands. The additional excitement that Simonson’s graphic and powerful layouts and fun style perfectly matched such a deliberately populist title, making it a valuable asset to anyone’s collection.

However it is on Marvel’s Thor and X-Factor that Simonson is best known (the latter being a collaboration with his wife Louise Simonson, who he married in 1980 and who herself would become writer on Superman titles). Walt Simonson’s brilliantly wild imagination thudded beautifully against Thor’s mythological and fundamentally otherwordly content. He took almost complete control of the title, famously changing Thor into a frog for three issues and introducing one of the most distinct characters in the Marvel Universe, the Orange, Horse Skulled, Thor matching Beta Ray Bill, an alien warrior who unexpectedly became worthy of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir – both characters making a lasting mark on the Marvel character landscape. Starting as a writer and artist in issue #337 (Nov. 1983) and continued until #367 (May 1986), he was replaced by legend Sal Buscema as the artist on the title with #368 but Simonson continued to write the book until issue #382 (Aug. 1987) to great success.

Simonson left Upstart associates in 1986. In the 1990s he became writer of the Fantastic Four with issue #334 (Dec. 1989) and three issues later started pencilling and inking as well (accidentally the exact issue he started on Thor).

He had a popular three issue collaboration with Arthur Adams. Simonson left the Fantastic Four with issue #354 (July 1991). His other Marvel credits in the decade included co-plotting/writing the Iron Man 2020 one-shot (June 1994) and writing the Heroes Reborn version of the Avengers. His DC credits over the same period were Batman Black and White #2 (1996), Superman Special #1 (writer/artist, 1992) among others. For Dark Horse he was artist on Robocop vs Terminator #1-4. His distinctive, thick lined work matching perfectly the heavy metal nature of the storyline and central figures.

But he continued to dart seamlessly between writer and artist, never having to seek a project. His was a cheerful bounding from one distinctive project to the next across some of the greatest heroes in history.

In the 2000s Simonson has mostly worked for DC Comics. From 2000 to 2002 he wrote and illustrated Orion. After that series ended, he wrote six issues of Wonder Woman (vol. 2) drawn by Jerry Ordway. In 2002, he contributed an interview to Panel Discussions, a nonfiction book about the developing movement in sequential art and narrative literature, along with Durwin Talon, Will Eisner, Mike Mignola and Mark Schultz.

From 2003 to 2006, he drew the four issue prestige mini-series Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, written by Elric’s creator, Michael Moorcock. This series was collected as a 192 page graphic novel in 2007 by DC. He continued to work for DC in 2006 writing Hawkgirl, with pencillers Howard Chaykin, Joe Bennett, and Renato Arlem.

His other work includes cover artwork for a Bat Lash mini-series and the ongoing series Vigilante, as well as writing a Wildstorm comic book series based on the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The Warcraft series ran 25 issues and was co-written with his wife, Louise Simonson. As a mark of his considerable impact on Marvel’s most recognisable Norse God, in 2011, he had a cameo role in the live-action Thor film, appearing as one of the guests at a large Asgardian banquet. Simonson serves on the Disbursement Committee of the comic-book industry charity The Hero Initiative.

Simonson inked his own work with a Hunt 102 Pro-quill pen. He switched to a brush during the mid-to-late 2000s, and despite the disparity between the two tools, Bryan Hitch, an admirer of Simonson’s, stated that he could not tell the difference, calling Simonsons’s brush work “as typically good and powerful as his other work.” This is reminiscent of other master artists, such as Joe Quesada, who moved to digital penmanship from the original pen. To completely alter your tools without affecting your work is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, particularly to a discerning eye such as Hitch’s.

Simonson is a cheerful and active character in the comic book industry. His technique is impeccable, distinct and miles ahead of his peers. His was a bombastic, thick-lined and crystal clear world. His visuals developing to meet the WAM BAM impact of 90s comics. He was a capable enough artist that at all times he appeared to be a much younger, much more modern artist. His was the legacy of the double page spread, the high impact panel and the perfect blend of effective technical skill and instinctive, intuitive and timeless visuals. More than anything Walt Simonson is fun to read and fun to look at. It’s an undervalued quality. A Simonson piece has the effect of a circus poster, triggering simple, cheerful reactions of universal ideas. His sense of humour permeates everything, his artwork bound ideas off the page.

Simonson’s distinctive signature consists of his last name, distorted to resemble a Brontosaurus. Simonson’s reason for this was explained in a 2006 interview. “My mom suggested a dinosaur since I was a big dinosaur fan.”

Says it all really.

RIP Ralph McQuarrie: The man who showed us Star Wars

Ralph McQuarrie (1930-2012)

Ralph McQuarrie was the visionary artist who developed the look of one of the most easily recognisable moments in cinema history. Twin suns in the sky over Tatooine, A-wings sailing passed destroyed ATAT’s on the icy surface of Hoth. A young adventurer named Starkiller against an enemy named Darth Vader. All of these concepts had been brought to life long before a crew of hundreds started work on production of Star Wars. Lucas himself was quoted as saying ‘when I run out of ways to describe what I want – I point to Ralph’s work and say – like this.’

The Darth Vader suit was a combination of Samurai armour, Nazi uniform and gas mask. To stand in a room with it represents a real moment of awe. Combining aspects of mechanised war, machine, ancient warrior, vampire lord and dark magician – McQuarrie created an image of unsurpassed power and contained evil. His vision of Darth Vader, completed with the voice of James Earl Jones the most recognisable vision of evil and power in fictional popular culture in the 20th Century.



Anyone who loves the Millenium Falcon or Darth Vader should remember Ralph McQuarrie. King of concept artists – but much more than that – a man who brought dreams alive for an inexperienced director and ultimately the whole world. A true visionary.

Thank you Ralph McQuarrie. Dream maker.

To do the same thing again Lucas employs teams of visual artists for every scene. McQuarry did it effectively alone with one man’s ideas in his head.
The very definition of visionary.

Ralph McQuarrie (1930-2012)

A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away….: BTB enters the Star Wars Universe!!

Welcome to the new Beyond the Bunker Star Wars zone. Every Wednesday there will be something from the enormously expansive Star Wars Universe. Be it from the core films I-III or the classic IV-VI, the expanded universe – Clone Wars, Droids, Ewoks – even the Holiday Special if we can find it. And the funnies too.

Interspersed among the existing material will be my little fanboy creation. The Lost Jedi was a title I developed in a fanboy fever while serving as a Jedi/Rebel Trooper at the Star Wars Exhibition in London. Working with a host of exceptional actors, performers, fight trainers and technicians we performed 8 or more Jedi Schools in the central chamber of County Hall, Westminster, in the heart of London. Still the greatest job I’ve ever done – I spent the day training younglings to fight like a Jedi, die like a Rebel Trooper. In my time there, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Lucas and John Williams it was difficult not to be completely overwhelmed by it all.

In a central chamber lay the shining corvette, spitfiresque frame of a Naboo Fighter. To the side of that Wookee costumes and a speeder like that which was ridden by the Skywalkers on Endor. In a darkened room at the back of the exhibition stood a solitary figure. A 7 foot tall goliath in a glass cage. Darth Vader’s suit loomed in the darkness and captured everyone’s imagination that entered. There was never noise in that room, only an eerie and awed hush as tourists stood and basked in a character that is now utterly synonomous with evil and tragedy. And cool.

Expanding so much further beyond mere cinema, Star Wars is an ideology nowadays. A universe that has influenced popular and scientific culture. Star Wars, perhaps more than any other cultural phenomenon of the late twentieth century has the capacity to move into historical lore and take a place in mythology. At its most challenging and insistent, the material developed by the films (even with the less impressive prequels) the cultural and ideological impact of Star Wars gives us insight into the breeding of myths of Gods and Monsters from ancient times. A modern day Odyssey perhaps, it shows us the way religious texts expand and are embraced, whether originally intended by their creators or not. If anything it shows how once a cultural phenomenon is formed it can be expanded upon and used to generate enormous monies for the creator.

Naboo N1-Fighter, parked in landing bay 1, Westminster, 2007

Offering ideologies, an alternative global religion (?!), expansion in gaming, cinema and digital technologies – both in sound and light (and magic), universal themes and characters and having been embraced by effectively billions globally noone should underestimate the width of influence a Dark Lord of the Sith might have.

Jedis unite. For Star Wars has arrived on Beyond the Bunker. Featuring articles, fan films, reviews and the Lost Jedi fan material we are planning to fill the next six months with insight and delight associated with the Star Wars Universe. I’ve got a bad feeling about this….

Next Week: The Lost Jedi. Part One.

Practitioners 29: Goseki Kojima

Goseki Kojima is the artist of the stunning Japanese Manga Lone Wolf and Cub, written by Kazuo Koike. Kojima was born in Yokkaichi and began his career as a poster artist and painter, before finally settling in Tokyo in 1950. There he worked as an artist on ‘Kamishibai’ (illustrated stories) for a number of publications. In the late 1950s, he was also turning to mangas and created serials like Omnitsu Yureijo (1957), Yagyu Ningun (1959) and Chohen Dai Roman, a series of classic novel adaptations (1961-67), all distributed through libraries.

In 1967, he switched to a more conventional distribution and made appearances in several magazines. Tgether with Kazuo Koike, he created ‘Kozure Okami’, published in Manga Action form from 1970 through to 1976. The legendary series was finally introduced to English readers as ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ in 1987 and the influence of it should not be underestimated. Lone Wolf and Cub influenced a great many Practitioners globally. Its paired down, naturalistic, imperceptibly detailed ink line work has certainly and notably influenced Frank Miller in particular, Kojima’s sharp and emphatic black and white line work visible in works as disparate as Sin City and 300. The later works of industry leaders such as Jamie Hewlett have they’re basis Kojima’s work whether it is immediately obvious or not. The artwork for Monkey (Hewlett and Damon Albarn’s recent foray into media-opera) is toned perfectly with period material lifted from that referenced in Kojima’s work. Most artists working in the comic book industry (and most likely in Illustration as a whole) will know Kojima’s name as a global mainstay of the industry. Truly representative of Japanese Manga artists, Kojima is efficient, technically acute, lavishly artistic and truly prolific. Lone Wolf and Cub accounts for more than 8000 pages alone (completed between 1970 and 1976).

As well as ‘Lone Wolf’ Kojima and Koike cooperated on other series like ‘Kawaite Soroi’, ‘Kubikiri Asa’, ‘Hanzo Nomon’, ‘Bohachi Bushido’ and ‘Tatamodori Kasajiro’. In 1994, he became editorial consultant for the magazine Manga Japan.

Kojima teaches all new artists what it truly means to be a great artist within your own lifetime. The production of pages at the speed he achieved is almost unthinkable to western artists. Dave Gibbons is considered efficient at 2 a day but Kojima is representative of a different breed of artist, perhaps now gone. Personal design work and augmenting and introducing a distinctive or recognisable style was clearly never Kojima’s primary function. To introduce alternative or unusual visuals was not Kojima’s main drive. His compositions are drawn with clarity and an instantaneous sense of scale and visual communication. Basic, simple compositions are given focus and artistic value with the addition of a dropping branch from the top of the panel or his decisions in showing objects in part to allow the reader to be absorbed into the story.

BTB Classic: Secret Samurai 3

THE RISE OF BLUE HAMMER

Enemy to the Secret Samurai, Blue Hammer is so-called because he is Blue and has a hammer. In all truth he doesn’t have name. He is the first of a large number of mystic mutations to occur throughout Japan. A smithy and weapons maker who drowns is transformed in death into the watery coloured… um… Blue Hammer.

BTB Classic: Secret Samurai Sketchwork

Secret Samurai - concept art for defunct project

I remain unsure as to how to start in terms of presenting my artwork and this seems as good a place as any. I’ll present some concept designs that never went anywhere. There’s a million reasons for this and given that nothing has been printed yet everything posted here could turn out to be concept art that went nowhere, however this is the female companion for a project I always hoped’d take off but I scuppered mainly through my own over exuberance. I developed the life out of it and failed to complete the original request. Lesson learned.

I’d love to do a samurai story based around the period in which Japan opened its borders after nearly a century of isolationism. I’d also like it to be pretty funny. Who knows, maybe one day….

http://penners.deviantart.com/