|The X-Men, Bob McLeod style|
Our big interview subject this week is the exceptionally talented comics illustrator Bob Mcleod. Bob offers us a view into his own development as an artist, his entry into the business and subsequent career. HHe also offers us his informative insights into the changing role of artists and inkers in the comics industry.
Sam: Tell us about your early life. Where were you born, where did you grow up?
Bob: I was born in Tampa, FL in 1951, and lived there until I went to college. No one else in my family had art talent except my older sister, Linda, who basically quit doing art in college.
In retrospect, I really had a great childhood. I was the middle child with two sisters, and I was fortunate to make a best friend at age 5 or 6, and we played together all through our school years. I enjoyed neighborhood pickup softball and football games, biking and roller-skating. I had an HO slot car track on a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood suspended over my bed on pulleys rigged up by my dad. We had a ping-pong table, and I had a cheap pool table and played a lot of pool as a teenager. We had a large back yard with an aboveground swimming pool, and we even had a ski boat. I did a lot of water skiing and could ski backwards. I even went scuba diving quite a bit.
I was very busy doing all sorts of things other than drawing. But I always wanted to leave Florida and live in a big city.
|A stunning rendition of the Batman,|
sadly, a title Bob never had the
opportunity to draw.
Sam: When did you first get interested in comics and when did you decide to make a career of it?
Bob: I could draw better than my parents at age 5, and decided right then I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. I drew often, copying the comic strips from the newspaper, and became known as the school artist in elementary school, decorating the classroom door for holidays. But I took my drawing talent for granted and didn’t work hard at it because it came so easily to me. Art classes weren’t even offered in my school until 12th grade, and then my teacher said I drew better than she did and she couldn’t teach me anything. So, she told me to just sit in the corner and draw whatever I liked, which was very frustrating for me, because I was desperate for instruction. I could draw, but I knew nothing about composition, perspective, anatomy, color theory, or anything else about art.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I received any instruction of any kind in art. I was a huge Mad magazine fan, and wanted to either work for Disney or write and draw a newspaper comic strip. I wasn’t ever into comic books that much, and missed the whole Marvel comics revolution in the ‘60s. I preferred humor comics. I only decided to try to work in comic books because a friend of mine at the grocery store where I worked was a big comic book fan and pleaded with me to go to work for Marvel.
I worked at many jobs before getting into comics. I’ve been working all my life. I had a paper route when I was a kid, and I also mowed lawns for $2. At fifteen, I got a job as a bagboy for a grocery store, and worked my way up to stock boy, which I did for several years, off and on. I’ve worked as an elevator operator, construction assistant (to my dad), night watchman, drive-in theater popcorn maker, short-order cook at Lum’s restaurant, paste-up and mechanical artist at an ad agency, and even patio salesman.
Sam: Have you had any formal art training?
Bob: I attended Auburn University for four quarters majoring in visual art, where my teachers totally denigrated cartooning. I did have good classes in anatomy and perspective there. Following that I wasted a year at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, learning absolutely nothing. I quit college and art school because I couldn’t find anyone to teach me cartooning. I decided I had to teach myself.
Sam: A lot of cartoonists and illustrators from that time complain that art schools had no respect for their aspirations. Do you think that was a product of the prevailing shift toward abstract and pop art?
|I'll take this over Pop Art any day.|
Bob: Yes, schools were evidently less focused on realism at that time, but there was also this general snobbishness about cartooning being the ghetto of art. I didn’t really understand where that attitude was coming from, and I had no patience for it. If they couldn’t appreciate the genius of artists like Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, and even Charles Schulz, I figured I needed to move on.
Sam: Obviously your self-training approach worked very well. How did you go about teaching yourself?
Bob: At that point, I had decided to try drawing comic books, because at age 19 I had done a newspaper comic strip proposal that got rejected, so I studied comic books as if they were textbooks, and I went back to the pioneers of the comic strip art form and studied the masters, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and others. I thought Neal Adams and John Buscema were the best dramatic comic book artists, so I studied their work intensively. I studied and drew and inked every waking hour, pretty much, for several years, without much of a life otherwise, desperately trying to learn and improve. I felt I was way behind my peers in comics because up to then I had been much more interested in cartooning than in “realistic” comic book art. My mother always told me “anything worth doing is worth doing well”, so I wanted to learn everything, and I studied the fundamentals: anatomy, composition, perspective, lighting and visual storytelling.
I just got books and comics, and studied and analyzed them, trying to figure out what the artists were doing. I wrote and drew and lettered sample page after sample page, and each one taught me something and made me a little better, because we learn from encountering problems and making mistakes. I tried to get critiques of my samples, but no one would take the time, so I had to critique them as objectively as possible myself. It was a great help working in the production department at Marvel, seeing the original art of all the various artists come through there, and comparing them, and seeing what was brush and what was pen, and where they made mistakes, etc. I really learned a lot working in the production dept.
Sam: Were your parents supportive of your interest in the arts and comics specifically?
Bob: My parents were always 100% supportive, even when I quit college, then quit art school, and eventually traveled to NYC trying to start my art career and was repeatedly rejected by Marvel and DC Comics. My parents had total faith in me and wanted me to follow my dreams. My dad was my biggest fan, and I owe everything to my parents.
Sam: What was your first job in the comics biz?
Bob: Marvel had refused to even look at my portfolio, and Joe Orlando at DC had told me to go back to school and learn how to draw. After three months of knocking on doors, I finally met Neal Adams and showed him a sample of my drawing. He called John Verpoorten, the production manager at Marvel, who hired me on the spot for the Marvel production department doing lettering corrections, just on Neal’s recommendation.
After a couple months, I graduated to doing art corrections. I used to add zip-a-tone to other artists’ work in the black & white kung fu magazines. I finally started doing free-lance penciling and inking about six months later.
Sam: Run down some of the highlights of your career. The big breaks, the high profile jobs.
Bob: My first freelance job was penciling and inking a satire of the Yul Brenner movie WestWorld for Marvel’s Crazy magazine. They paid for me to see the movie and gave me glossy photos from it for me to use as reference. My dream had been to draw for Mad magazine, but I thought my style was too similar to Mort Drucker’s, so I never applied there. But I was thrilled to work for Crazy. I did several satires for them, including Apocalypse Now and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the Teen Hulk humor strip. That was some of my favorite work. I also drew a couple full-color strips for Playboy called Singlewoman, which was a bit of a coup at the time, for a comic book artist. They paid several times what Marvel and DC did.
Sam: I’ve heard that Hugh Hefner was very hands-on with the cartoons in the magazine. Did you find that to be true? If so, what was it like working with Hef?
Bob: I just worked with the cartoon editor, Michelle Ury. I never met or talked to Hefner. My girlfriend at the time was writing the scripts. She met Michelle at a party and got us the tryout. I did the art and they printed it. It was supposed to be a regular feature, but I broke up with the writer and we stopped after 2 strips. I had decided that I didn’t really want to draw adult cartoons anyway. I wanted to draw things I wouldn’t be ashamed to show my children one day.
Of course my big claim to fame is co-creating the New Mutants, debuting in Marvel’s fourth graphic novel in 1982. I then penciled Star Wars for several issues, inked Conan over John Buscema, The Hulk over Dale Keown, and the highly acclaimed Death of Kraven mini-series over Mike Zeck. Then, for two years I penciled and sometimes also inked Superman in Action Comics, which was the main comic I read as a kid. I also inked Batman over Graham Nolan in Detective Comics for several issues, Wonder Woman and The New Titans over George Perez, and I penciled and inked two 3-issue miniseries, Spider-Man and the Punisher and Venom: The Enemy Within. I also penciled and inked several Spider-Man fill-ins over the years.
I believe I inked the first jobs at Marvel of George Perez, Keith Giffen, Frank Miller, and Bill Sienkiewicz.
|A comparison of pencil layouts|
and inks from New Mutants.
Layouts: Sal Buscema Finishes: Bob McLeod
Sam: What job gave you the greatest satisfaction and pride?
Bob: Really, my work for Crazy Magazine was my favorite from my comics career, and in some ways, my best. I’m proud of co-creating The New Mutants, but it was a very frustrating experience. I was also very honored to pencil Superman and Star Wars. But my Superhero ABC children’s book is perhaps at the top of my list because I did it all myself, whereas in comics I was always collaborating with other artists and writers.
Sam: Tell us a bit about how the creation of the New Mutants came about, and what was positive and negative about the experience.
Bob: I’ve gone through this in so many interviews already, so it’s difficult to make it fresh for your readers. Basically, I penciled X-Men 152 and the editor offered to let me continue penciling the X-Men, or help co-create this new spin-off title. I decided to co-create the New Mutants with Chris, and after meeting with him and discussing various things, I designed the characters physical appearances and started drawing the first issue, months ahead of schedule.
Coincidentally, Marvel had just started up their graphic novel line, and they were looking for projects to make into graphic novels, and they chose the New Mutants for #4. But the GNs were on a different schedule, and suddenly we were a month behind. With very little penciling experience, I then had to pencil 50 pages as quickly as I could, and either turn the inking over to someone else, or frantically try to ink it myself. I ended up inking all through my honeymoon to get it finished, and then immediately had to pencil the first issue of the comic, and the second and the third, and the pressure and pace were just too much for me at that time.
I didn’t like the inking I was getting because I couldn’t take the time to draw the pencils tightly enough for Mike Gustovich, who was under as much pressure as I was, with even less experience. I really wanted to ink it myself. I finally decided that I could control the look of the book better if I was inking it over someone’s breakdowns, so with issue four Sal Buscema stepped in and I inked three issues over him, pretty radically changing his breakdowns to fit my vision of the book.
Chris wasn’t taking the book in the direction I was interested in drawing, and I wasn’t happy just inking Sal every month when his style was so different from mine. I just hated the way the book looked and felt it wasn’t my art and I decided I wanted to do something else.
|More New Mutants art|
Sam: You’ve been an inker and a penciler, and even inked your own pencils. Which do you prefer?
Bob: Of course I prefer to pencil and ink my own art. Inking other artists is always fun and challenging, but ultimately unsatisfying. I now wish I hadn’t spent so much of my career on it. I should have been creating my own art instead of trying so hard to make other artists look good. But as a freelance self-employed artist raising a family, I felt I had to take work where I could get it, and inking paid well because I was fast at it.
Sam: As an inker who was your favorite penciler to work with, and as a penciler who gave you the best inks?
Bob: I loved inking John Buscema’s extremely loose breakdowns, because he gave me so little to work with, and yet so much, because nothing needed “fixing”. I could take more pride in it because so much of the resulting art was mine.
|Bob inks from layouts by Big John Buscema|
I always preferred breakdowns, so the Howard the Duck jobs I did over Golden, and the Spider-Man jobs over Mike Zeck are also some of my favorites. Tom Palmer has always been my favorite inker, and I loved what he did over my breakdowns on Star Wars. Mark Pennington also did a nice ink job on my finished pencils on a Team Superman job I did. Joe Rubinstein did a good job on my pencils on X-Men #152.
|Bob's wash interpretation of Michael Golden's|
Howard the Duck
Sam: The nature of penciling and inking (and coloring) seems to have evolved a great deal in the last few decades. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
Bob: I hate this question, because it’s depressing to me. I feel my career has been one of constant frustration. I was always out of step with the comics industry, preferring humor when the business was steam rolling into ever-darker superheroes.
When I entered comics, there was every genre of fiction among the top selling titles: westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, monsters, romance, humor, mystery, war, and superheroes. I actually preferred all of those to superheroes. The job of the penciler used to be mainly layout, due to time constraints. It was the inker’s job to add lighting and rendering where needed, and to imprint it with his personal style. Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, Murphy Anderson, etc. didn’t worry about adhering to the penciler’s style all that much. They “interpreted” the pencils within the parameters of their own inking style.
The coloring was usually abysmal, in my opinion, because it paid next to nothing and was done as quickly as possible. Because we only had flat colors, the inkers developed techniques to show the gradations from dark to light, and whatever special effects were needed. The pages were hand-lettered, each letterer having a distinctive, personal style. Young artists reading comics in the ‘70s and ‘80s saw what inkers like Palmer, Rubinstein, Janson and myself were doing and naively assumed it was the penciler doing everything, with us just tracing. So they grew up and entered the business putting everything into the pencils, leaving nothing for the inker to contribute.
Computers did away with hand-lettering, and digital colorists now have a full range of color, usurping much of what the inker used to do. So today’s inkers are often left with little to do but lay down clean lines and “trace”. Of course it’s still far more complicated than that, as anyone who attempts it can tell you, but it’s a far cry from what we used to do. Many new inkers were unwilling or unable to conquer the brush and nib, so they began using rapidographs, then markers and now computer styluses to ink. There is some wonderful comic art being done today, of course, but I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of Bernie Wrightson’s or Jack Davis’s long, flowing brush lines again. Today’s pencilers are no longer concerned with the reader’s eye movement through the page, or even effective visual storytelling.
As with today’s movies, it’s all about excess: excess detail, excess drawing, excess action, excess special effects, and excess close-ups. There’s too much illustration and not enough comic in the business today.
Sam: As you can tell by some of my other blog entries, this is a very hot topic for me. I believe that one of the factors in the decay of the craft of comics storytelling is a new editorial class who come out of business schools rather than out of the creative side of comics. I believe these new editorial people have no real understanding of the craft or the medium and often hire artists who display flash over those with solid skill sets. Would you agree or disagree with this statement? Do you think there are other factors contributing to this decay in storytelling?
|Layouts by Bob, inks by the versatile Tom Palmer|
Bob: Yes, I blame the editors for a lot of it, although it isn’t really their fault because they haven’t been educated to do their jobs well. So it’s upper management that’s really responsible. Many current editors can’t tell mediocre art from good art. They’re apparently more interested in current stylistic fads than in competent storytelling and art. I recently had an editor tell me he shows my inking to young artists and tells them to study how I ink and master the brush and pen, as I have. And yet, he didn’t offer me any subsequent work.
The current artists are asked to pencil very completely, so nothing is left to chance for the inker. They’re not required to do good visual storytelling, because the editors don’t know what’s involved in good visual storytelling and are unable to ask for it. And no one seems to care about it, anyway. It seems to be more important to just kill off some superhero, or make some longtime superhero suddenly become gay or lesbian, or put a new person in Spider-Man’s costume, or substitute a woman for a man, or whatever.
In other words, it’s all about gimmicks and getting ever darker and more violent and supposedly “mature”. They’re constantly alienating longtime readers by changing everything about the comic those readers love, as if there were a new generation of readers to take their place. But the new generation doesn’t read comics. They play video games and watch movies to get their superhero fix.
No one seems to realize that comics don’t need to be written or drawn differently than they used to be. They don’t need to be changed just because the editors and writers are bored with them. They just need to write and draw interesting stories that normal people of both sexes and all ages can understand and enjoy, like they did for decades. There’s plenty of room for a variety of art styles, old and new. Everything doesn’t need to look like the latest fan favorite artist drew it, because there are still a lot of fans of all the other artists. Fans aren’t nearly as fickle as editors seem to think they are, and the ones I’ve talked to prefer substance over style. They just want good storytelling, in the art and the writing.
|I simply had to add this hilarious|
Frazetta pastiche featuring one
of my favorite oddball villains:
The Mighty Modok!
Sam: I’ve been really enjoying your blog and Facebook posts comparing pencils with inks. Not only is it fascinating to see the relative level of detail in the pencils, breakdowns and layouts, but it’s also a useful guide to inking basics and more. What led you to begin posting these?
Bob: I’ve long felt that today’s fans don’t appreciate the enormous contribution inkers made during the 70’s and 80’s to the comic art so many people hold dear to their hearts. And of course it’s not just about my own inking. I show my work mainly because that’s what I have scans of. Sure, I want people to know my own contribution, but it’s more than that. I also show what Tom Palmer, Brett Breeding, and Klaus Janson for example, did over my breakdowns and pencils. And of course I don’t mean to disparage the efforts of the pencilers I inked. As I’ve said, their job was chiefly to provide the layout, not the style, and not even exact drawing.
|Beautiful ink and wash interpretation|
of some amazing Gene Colan pencils
Sam: Do you think the art of inking is being lost?
Bob: Oh, definitely. The job of the inker is often nothing like what it used to be. Joe Kubert is a wonderful inker, but his art can be a mess of slashing ink lines and pen mixed with brush in a haphazard way. No inker today could get away with inking like that. No penciler would want them touching their work, and no editor would hire them.
Everyone wants “tracers” now. By “tracing”, I mean slavishly following the pencils exactly with regard to feathering, detail and even strands of hair; not changing anything of any import, and being primarily concerned with making clean, very controlled ink lines. It still requires a lot of expertise and skill. But it’s mostly now just a service provided to make the pencils printable, which is what Neal Adams used to claim it should be. One inker can easily be substituted with another with little discernable difference.
|Bob inks Bill Sienkiewicz|
Sam: Give us your perspective on how the comics business has changed since you started and what do you think are the most positive and negative aspects of those changes.
Bob: Well, I’ve already said quite a lot about this. On the positive side, digital coloring and good quality paper and printing have made it possible to do things not possible before, and the color is at least never off-register. Comics used to be written and drawn by writers and artists who couldn’t get work in higher-paying fields, but now artists grow up wanting to draw comics and many very talented artists and writers work in comics. Comic artists can now also earn a large part of their income from selling their original art, which had just started when I entered the business, but the market price for comic art has grown tremendously since then. There are many more women involved in all areas of the business, which can only be beneficial. The explosion of graphic novels has been wonderful to see, and offers some hope for the future. If there is anything else on the positive side, it doesn’t come to mind easily.
On the negative side, good quality paper and printing have caused cover prices to rise from 10 cents to four dollars. The digital coloring is often heavy-handed and overpowering, obscuring much of the inkers’ efforts. The relegation of all genres other than superheroes to small and indie publishers has been sad to see. Thankfully, graphic novels have reclaimed those to some extent. The major loss, in my opinion, is the change from publishing mass-market comics primarily for kids to publishing direct sales comics primarily for a small sub-culture of adults. Superman used to be fun for anyone to read, like Archie, and both were read by millions. Now Superman has to be violent and adult, and Archie has to be manga-fied. Superheroes now kill people. Their sex lives have become relevant. Is this progress? Many comics now are unreadable unless you read them as a series. Many are unreadable even then. Many artists spend days on a single page, creating very detailed, jam-packed pages of art, but making it very difficult to just read the comic and see everything clearly. Collaborations between pencilers and inkers, which produced some of the greatest comic art of the past, such as Kirby /Sinnott, Colan/Palmer, Adams/Giordano, and Buscema/Anybody are now very rare. The inker has become far too often irrelevant, and many comics are being printed directly from the pencils, with no inker at all.
|Bob adds Mood and clarity to these terrific Zeck layouts.|
The loss of black & white comic magazines is also very sad. Marvel and Warren published so many wonderful b&w jobs by top artists. The loss of mainstream humor comics, not to mention the Harvey line of funny animal comics, is extremely distressing to me.
In addition, Marvel and DC have become very corporate and cold. When I started, Marvel was like a family, and you could walk in and say hello to Stan Lee and hang out and get to know the editors. We had a volleyball league with Marvel & DC people on the same team against other publishers. Stan Lee pitched at a couple of the regular afternoon Marvel softball games. Free-lancers like Ross Andru, Mike Esposito and Frank Giacoia even used to work right in the Marvel offices. Once you were good enough to get work in the business, you stayed in until you left voluntarily or dropped dead. Now you need an appointment to get into the editorial offices, and are shuffled out as quickly as possible. You might work in comics for a year or two or twenty and suddenly be unable to get work again.
|Bob's exceptional vision of John Carter, |
one of my favorite subjects.
Sam: This seems endemic in not just the comics biz but in almost any large company today. There appears to be no respect for the creative people who actually do the work. (In the animation business, artists were often referred to as “wrists”.) Not to get all “Occupy Wall Street” on you, but do you think the large corporations that now own the comics companies have been a negative factor?
Bob: Yes, certainly. It’s all about the bottom line and making profits for the stockholders, not publishing entertainment for children and young adults, as it should be. The comic book business isn’t fun anymore, for the artists or the fans. The artists and fans still want it to be, and they’re trying to enjoy it, but you can see them sweating from the effort.
Sam: Do you think the comics medium has a future, or will it eventually be eclipsed by other, flashier media?
Bob: I think it can and should have a future, but they’ve been trying hard to kill it for the last two decades. I think in the near future it may evolve into a longer form like graphic novels that can be sold in Barnes & Noble. Paper publishing may someday become unfeasible, so maybe digital comics will be come more dominant, possibly becoming interactive. I don’t think the future of comics is in dark superheroes for adults. If they get back to making comics with broad appeal to both sexes of all ages, they can have a good future in some form.
|Storm commission art|
Sam: Are you working on anything now? Can you give us a teaser?
Bob: I’m not actively seeking work in comics anymore, because I’m not interested in drawing or inking most of what they’re publishing these days, and the pay has stagnated and even dropped from a decade ago, while the workload per page has greatly risen. It’s too much work for the money, and not fun like it used to be.
My skills as an inker/finisher aren’t appreciated anymore, as discussed above, because penciling has changed. I still usually accept comic book jobs when they’re offered to me just to keep my name out there, but I’m happy to do other things. I teach part-time, I sketch at conventions, I visit elementary schools, I do occasional illustration jobs, and I do a lot of commissions for art collectors.
I’m hoping to do more painting, and more children’s books. At the moment I don’t have any comic book projects planned, but that could change tomorrow. If you want to keep up with me, friend me on Facebook, and occasionally check my web site.
You can find Bob’s web site here: http://www.BobMcLeod.com/
I urge you all to check it out, and I’d like to thank Bob for this great interview, and for chopping out a chunk of his valuable time.
Muchas Gracias! Let's finish with another stunning full-color commission piece.