Friday 6 November 2009

Reflections in a Golden Eye Part 2

Yesterday's look at ways of adding that vital spark of life to the characters that inhabit the weird and wonderful world of Cloud 109, got me to thinking about an earlier exemplar in the art of making comic book eyes really sparkle.

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 ...


  1. I first encountered Wally Wood's art on Daredevil, and later sought out his EC work. Didn't know he committed suicide, that's very sad - and an uncomfortable reminder of how the corporations running the entertainment industry are always willing to plunder, chew up and spit out great talent.

    On a happier note, I always appreciated the way he drew girls in figure-hugging spacesuits. That made a big impression on a teenage comics fan :-)

  2. Woody's great dream was to be able to garner enough money from his work for hire output so that he could devote himself to publishing his own creations. It never really happened for him but amongst the stuff that he did self publish was a really amazing pro comics-art-zine called "Witzend", where along with his own lovely creations such as "Pipsqueak" and "The World of the Wizard King", and stunning artwork by the likes of Frazetta, Williamson, Ditko et al there were also offerings from a very young Berni Wrightson, Jeff Jones and a really out there comics genius called Ralph Vaughn Bode who died way too young but again had a profound influence on a lot of other young artists coming up through the ranks.

    Worth seeking out when you see Witzend cropping up on dealer's lists and definitely gives a hint of what else these guys could come up with when left to their own devices.

  3. Old Daredevil reprints were probably my first experience of Wally Wood but then I found an old pocket book biography, think I found one on Harvey Kurtzman to, they blew the mind of a spotty thirteen year old whose only access to American comics till then had been mixed bundles of them that occassionaly arrived at the local corner shop.

  4. In 1980, Wood's original, three-page, 24 panel (not 22) version of "Panels" was published with the proper copyright notice in The Wallace Wood Sketchbook (Crouch/Wood 1980). Around 1981, Wood's ex-assistant Larry Hama pasted up photocopies of Wood's copyrighted drawings on a single page. Hama left out 2 of the original 24 panels as his photocopies were too faint to make out some of the lightest sketches. Hama distributed Wood's elegantly simple primer to basic storytelling to artists in the Marvel bullpen. Eventually, Wood's "Panels" achieved its own iconic status.
    Wood's "Panels That Always Work" is ™ & copyright Wallace Wood Properties, LLC as listed by the United States Copyright Office which assigned the work Registration Number VA0001814764. All Rights Reserved. The only official print is available through the Wallace Wood Estate website.