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.

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Star Wars Galaxies: An Obituary

Gamers across the world are jointly mourning and celebrating today as Star Wars Galaxies finally closes its servers for good. As the sun sets on today the game which brought the Star Wars Universe to the Massively Multiplayer Online world will stack the chairs on the tables, give the bar one final wipe and switch off the lights on its way into the history books. It may seem odd to write an obituary for a computer game but as a site that frequently covers both games and Star Wars, it seems right to spend a bit of time looking back over the life of a game that has had such a profound impact on both.

Released in 2001, Star Wars Galaxies was a joint venture by LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment that aimed to allow people to live within the world of the Star Wars movies. Set in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the game let players create characters from many of the franchise’s popular races and then set them out into the galaxy to earn a living any way they saw fit. It saw great success early on but a series of unpopular decisions by the development team combined with the monolithic rise of games like World of Warcraft saw the games subscriber numbers gradually dwindle and the decision was finally made earlier this year to pull the plug.

Unlike modern MMOs, SWG was a true sandbox game which in many ways bore more resemblance to Skyrim than something like WoW. Rather than leading players by the hand from quest to quest or insisting on strict class choices, SWG simply allowed players to find their own path. If you wanted your character to be a smuggler, you picked up a pistol, spoke to a guy and started smuggling. If you wanted to be a tradesman and open a shop selling the finest weapons on the galaxy, you could do that too. Heck, you could even be a hairdresser if you wanted to. It was a level of freedom unheard of in today’s world of tanks, dps and healers.

I came to STW not long after launch after a house mate of mine gave me his copy to try and I can honestly say that it was like no gaming experience I’ve had before or since. I rolled a Wookie musician, scraped together the money to buy a flute from another player who was kind enough to discount it for me and started busking on the streets of Coronet City. Before long, passers by started stopping (I’m talking players here, not NPCs) and throwing change in my direction. We’d swap life stories, chat about the galactic civil war, at one point a Jedi even paid me a few extra coins so that I wouldn’t tell any passing Imperials that he’d come by (I sold him out first chance I got). It was a level of immersion and roleplaying that you simply don’t see in today’s world of “LFGs” and “ROFLCOPTERs” but at the same time it didn’t have the kind of scary nerdism that permeates many hardcore RP communities. This was just regular people, playing in the Star Wars universe and totally digging it.

This was all helped by SOE’s relentless focus on pushing community events. Players were encouraged to organise their own in game events and in return the company would advertise those events prominently on the game’s website. If you were stuck for something to do for an evening you could just log onto the SWG site, find that there was a Cantina crawl going down on Tatooine and head on over. Before long I found myself touring the galaxy, performing stand up comedy routines to groups of other players. I even performed at a couple’s in-game wedding (a regrettable incident which ended with me vomiting on the bride after ingesting too much “spice”). I spent days playing SWG.

But it wasn’t all roses. While the community in the game was second to none, the game itself was riddled with flaws from the start. Classes were unbalanced, bugs went unfixed and promised updates were delayed. While this didn’t matter to the roleplaying community, those who craved more action were left wanting. When Blizzard arrived on the scene with its near bug free World of Warcraft, those players began to migrate en-mass. SOE tried to stem the tide with the now infamous “Combat Upgrade” which served only to break the connection between the combat and non-combat classes, effectively splitting the community in half. When that didn’t work the developers went back to the drawing board and rolled out the even more controversial “New Game Experience.” The NGE gutted the sandbox elements from the game and turned it into a straight, class based MMO like WoW. The previously strict barriers to playing a Jedi were dropped and the ability to freely change professions vanished. When the dust settled the number of playable classes had dropped from 33 to a mere 9.

While many gaming communities like to moan about how things were better in the old days, the NGE is a widely recognised example of a cataclysmic failure by a gaming company to recognise what fans loved about their game. By attempting to emulate World of Warcraft, SOE succeeded only in creating a second rate clone. They couldn’t best the newer games on their turf and they had surrendered their own uniqueness in order to wage that war. It is perhaps telling that for a good couple of years post NGE, the phrase “SWG exile” mentioned in any other MMO would almost always reveal one other member of your group to have been a former player.

For the next few years SWG slowly lived out its retirement, sustained by a dwindling cabal of loyal fans. The announcement of Bioware’s  Star Wars: Old Republic in 2008 all but sealed SWG’s fate as LucasArts moved its support away from the old warhorse and on to the new star. When the final announcement came in July this year, fans past and present were expecting it. To SOE’s credit they continued putting out new content right up until the final weeks of the game and the players themselves will doubtlessly give their old playground a hell of a send off. One group of players even got together to create this tribute video to the world they wrote:

SWG will always be thought of with mixed emotions by the people who played it. Yes it was a mess in terms of gameplay and yes it was dogged by terrible management decisions at every level. But for the Rancor hunts on Dathomir, for the time spent sitting in a bar haggling with a shady trader over the price of a new speeder, for being the only game that’s ever let you truly LIVE in George Lucas’s universe, it deserves its place among the great games of our time.

Rest in Peace SWG. Thanks for all the stories.

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My 5 Favourite game cinematics by Steve P

The end result of the cooperation between game and film industries – led by Pixar and Lucasarts for the most part has given rise to a lesser recognised art form. The reason why games can’t be converted to film is simple. The jobs already done. Here are five (from my very limited gaming experience) of the best I’ve seen. Fun fun.

Lemmings Tribes Intro

Angry Birds: The Mighty Eagle

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Deceived Trailer

Cataclysm – World of Warcraft

The Betrayal of Kerrigan – Starcraft 2

Always, always had a thing for the cinematics in any game I’ve ever played ever since Lemmings 2: Tribes. May they live on long and continue to get better and better. These 5 represent the epitomy of the style and I am more influenced by them than I care to admit. Over the next 5 weeks I’ll go into them in a little more detail but I thought I’d show you them first. For laughs. One thing worth noting. All of them represent the beginnings of stories in which millions (billions in some cases) die. Gotta love gaming!

The Twelve Geeks of Christmas – Leeerooooy!

As a thank you for all your support over our first few months of being operational, we’re giving you twelve days worth of geeky videos, hand picked and guaranteed to raise a smile. Enjoy.

There’s a pretty good chance that you’re familiar with the famous Leroy Jenkins video but how do you fancy seeing it in live action with Vinnie Jones and the kid from Superbad? Well here it is, originally presented as an extra on the Year One DVD. Very, very silly.

Last one tomorrow and it’s bloody epic.

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The Twelve Geeks of Christmas – Red Shirt Guy Autotune

As a thank you for all your support over our first few months of being operational, we’re giving you twelve days worth of geeky videos, hand picked and guaranteed to raise a smile. Enjoy.

If you’re a citizen of the internet then you probably came across the unlikely hero known only as “Red Shirt Guy”. Not only did this chap manage to stump the World of Warcraft creative team with his scary knowledge of their own product, he also became an overnight legend by the calm and reasonable way he addressed the hail of flames he got over his first video. So popular was he with fans that Blizzard even incorporated him into the latest World of Warcraft expansion. Fitting then that an icon such as this should receive one of the internet’s highest awards – a badass autotune remix!

Another X-Men parody tomorrow. Sweet.

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