I first discovered the work of Wally Wood in the mid sixties by which time I was well and truly hooked on American comics. I'd already discovered the delights of the elegantly delineated superheros that both Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane were creating over at D.C. comics and Jack Kirby's powerhouse renditions of The Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America, not to mention Steve Ditko's beautifully idiosynchratic Spiderman over at Marvel, but Wallace Wood had slipped past my gaze until I stumbled over a series of comics he was doing for a relatively minor publisher under the title of Thunder Agents. Beautiful work indeed everything was in your face as with the other guys but Wally's work had this extra ... well lustre would be the most apt term to describe what made his work stand out.
It started with the eyes, he would nine times out of ten draw a circle for the iris and then dot in the pupil but after that and here came the masterstroke, he would then drop in a solid black over the top half of the iris and then add a white highlight and voila! Eyes with lustre, sparkle even...
But it didn't stop there with old Woody, no siree, by the time he'd finished with you your senses were assailed with highlights, reflections and deep rich shadows creating a vision of tomorrow with such purity and conviction that you just felt that for Woody these alien and futuristic worlds were a part of his here and now.
It wasn't until later, much later in 1981 after he'd shot himself that I really started to discover what a truly tragic life he'd led for much of the latter part of his career. He was in essence so driven that he became a total workaholic, working impossible hours, churning out pages and pages of comics with the aid of a variety of young assistants and devotees, who would all pile into his increasingly cramped studios and ingest the smog of the endless cigarettes, feverishly working away on backgrounds, inking, sourcing swipe references, making cups of black coffee and occasionaly being sent out in a quest for junk food while Woody regaled them with endless banter and his own particularly cynical take on the comics industry and life in general.
The trouble was that Woody's life style and ongoing battle with alcoholism were rapidly doing him in and in the end with chronic liver failure and a stroke which robbed him of the sight of one eye he could see no alternative but suicide. A truly tragic tale but his influence on comics and succesive generations of illustrators has been profound and will continue.
Here courtesy of one of Woody's assistants Larry Hama who pieced together this Wood "How To" guide for aspiring comic artists comes the following recollection:
I worked for Wally Wood as his assistant in the early ’70s, mostly on the Sally Forth and Cannon strips he did for the Overseas Weekly. I lettered the strips, ruled borders, swipe-o-graphed reference, penciled backgrounds and did all the other regular stuff as well as alternating with Woody on scripting Cannon and Sally Forth.
The “22 Panels” never existed as a collected single piece during Woody’s lifetime. Another ex-Wood assistant, Paul Kirchner had saved three Xeroxed sheets of the panels that would comprise the compilation. 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.”
When I was starting out as an editor at Marvel, I found myself in the position of having to coach fledgling artists on the basics of visual storytelling, and it occurred to me that the reminder sheets would help in that regard, but three eight-by-ten pieces of paper were a bit unwieldy, so I had Robby Carosella, the Marvel photostat guy at the time, make me re-sized copies of all the panels so I could fit them all on one sheet. I over-compensated for the half-inch on the height (letter paper is actually 8 1/2-by-11) so the main body of images once pasted up came a little short. I compensated for that by hand lettering the title.
Lastly and in case you were wondering, Gina, Cary and Rabby are not having an easy time in the dungeons. Pray for them ...