Comic Culture

FULL EPISODE

Jerry Ordway

Host Terence Dollard talks to Jerry Ordway the writer/artist on Superman and Shazam. Ordway shares his deadline secrets and more on Comic Culture.

AIRED: January 04, 2021 | 0:28:45
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TRANSCRIPT

[dramatic music]

- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture, I'm Terence Dollard,

a professor in the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is artist and writer Jerry Ordway.

Jerry, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Thank you very much.

- Jerry, you are someone who's worked

on a number of really high profile books,

whether it's all-star squadron or Superman.

And I'm just wondering,

as you are working throughout your career,

how do you go and make the transition from

somebody who is maybe just an inker

to someone who is a penciler

to somebody who's now writing and penciling his own book?

- Well, the transition's always difficult

because I think once you're doing a certain job,

if people like what you're doing,

they don't want you to move.

I mean, I'm sure it's like that in other industries,

but in comics, it was hard to break out

from inking to penciling

because you're kind of known as an inker

and people are really resistant too,

it was a struggle with writing, I kind of fell into it.

I always had ideas and I would add them into stories

whether I get credit or not.

But I was basically just in the right place

at the right time,

when Superman, when John Byrne left,

I had even suggested to my editor

possible writers to replace him and he shot back.

He said, "why don't you do it yourself?"

And I was like, Oh, can I do that?

It is something that I'd always wanted to do,

but at the same time, you get kind of into a routine

and it's hard to switch gears in a way to,

to do something scary,

which [clears throat] ultimately was very scary

to make that transition.

- Around the same time you mentioned your work on Superman,

you had been doing some work prior to that with

Roy Thomas on All-Star Squadron and Infinity Incorporated,

and you're doing pencil work there,

but then you take a moment to do

ink work over on the Fantastic Four for John Burns,

so, when you make that move, is this...

I mean, I don't know how the career hierarchy works,

but moving over from pencils to inks

and obviously you do more embellishment.

How do you sort of make that move

and keep that momentum going?

- Well, [clears throat]

I had gone from working on penciling on All-Star Squadron

and then penciling and co-creating Infinity Inc.

And after I'd kinda burned out on that,

I went over to work on a Fantastic Four,

mainly because I was a big John Byrne fan.

And I also realized, I mean, this Fantastic Four sold,

I think 250,000 copies a month at that time.

And All-Star Squadron, Infinity Inc. sold less than 100.

[clears throat]

So I knew going there that John was the star

and I was basically support.

So ego wise, it's not a problem,

I also specifically told Mike Carlin,

first time I worked with him, I said,

"I just want to do this to recharge

I just want to recharge batteries."

I wasn't like backsliding,

or I didn't want to ink full time.

It was an interesting challenge,

again, it's like when you're working on your own stuff

and you're penciling your own stuff,

you're drawing from whatever comics you read.

It's a different wanna say it's a different mindset

when you're a penciler versus when you're inking.

When you're a pencil you're all about story,

and you're all about adapting some outline

to make it into a story.

We're thinking it's pretty much a technical thing.

I guess it would be the difference between

cutting your grass and [clears throat]

maybe building a deck.

I mean, they're both technical skills,

but one probably requires more brain power

or more creativity and cutting your grass,

I mean building a deck.

So, I went from inking burn on Fantastic Four,

then I wound up getting enticed by DC to come back

and work on crisis over George Perez.

And I guess the burn, lesson was good

because when I came to crisis,

I knew George was the star.

So my job I knew was to be supportive.

I basically was on there in both cases,

I wound up increasing my profile

by being on books that sold better.

And they had, both guys had huge fan bases.

So, I think I introduced myself to a lot of new fans.

So it's like a win-win and it's not again,

it's not about ego,

when you're in a crisis situation, like no pun intended,

any book is a deadline problem potentially.

So, you just have to knuckle down and do it,

but yeah, it's a kind of fun technical skill

and I've enjoyed jumping into

doing an ink job here, there, just for fun.

I used to do that with Jergens during the 90s,

he'd say, "Hey, I'm doing this project

or I'm doing a one-shot"

and I will be okay, that's fun.

'cause it's fun to work on somebody else's, pencils

'cause you see, well, they did something different

than you would have done, They laid out a story page

or set up some elements in the story differently

than you might have, And that kind of helps,

I guess it helps your perspective

when you're working in a studio by yourself,

it kinda gives you a sense of what other people are doing,

which you don't necessarily get

until something's out in print,

and you pick it up at a comic store.

Yeah, it was fun and I picked up little tips,

I guess, from both working on John and George,

they both had specific kind of things

that were their strengths

and they both had things that they felt like

I could help them with.

So, I found like I found my place in both collaborations,

but John's really good at texture stuff.

Like his pencils were loaded with like

implied pencil textures.

A lot of people didn't really add textures,

a lot of inkers have just one kind of style,

but if you're doing rocks or you're doing something that's

like wood or whatever, you use your pen

and you try to imply whatever it is without having color.

So in other words, when the colorist

who would get the pages,

they would immediately know this is supposed to be wood,

this is supposed to be rock, this is supposed to be glass.

And a lot of inkers generally don't do that.

And penciler sometimes don't imply

don't put that in their pencils either.

So, as a penciler, I always tried for clarity,

as an inker it's even more important to have clarity

because I think it informs the coloring

and maybe sometimes can be over heavy handed,

but comics are really, at that time,

especially, they weren't a place for subtlety.

You didn't really have much subtlety,

so everybody overacts,

they use their hands or they,

they thought they say something normal,

but their faces tense or whatever.

And the same is true when you're inking something

is you wanna add extra black,

you wanna thicken a line

because it helps the drawing kinda pop out

or a figure separate from the background.

So those are all like,

those are really things that happen at the ink stage.

Even if a penciler, pencils really tightly

and puts all that implied thickness of line for an inker.

Sometimes you get a good job,

sometimes people don't interpret it correctly.

So yeah, I always try for clarity.

And again, that's part of, I guess,

going from my school days, I had high school art

and my art teacher used to talk about

you're communicating with drawing,

you're trying to communicate an idea.

And he was all for making sure that

your idea was communicated by being clear, being concise.

I guess those are lessons that you absorb

when you're 17 or 16 or whatever,

and you kinda find a way to apply 'em later on

at a time they sound stupid, [chuckles]

but you find a way to apply these things

when you're actually in the situation of

inking a page or penciling a page.

- You talked about how you wanted to

maybe do some inking to recharge your batteries.

Is there something that working with another penciler

that you can look at and see how they solve a problem

and maybe then start to think about

how you would solve the problem.

And then maybe you could apply that to a future project

that you're working on.

- Oh yeah. I mean, I think that's the fun part about comics.

For me it always was the fun part was

that you could take something and create a team.

If you have the same several people working together,

you have like in my case, when I was on Superman,

I had worked out with a bunch of different inkers

and then Dennis Janki came on

and Dennis became the regular inker on Superman.

And you share information, you learn from what people do.

I mean the same is true with stories.

You see how somebody approaches something

it's different than reading a comic that's totally completed

because when you're working on a---

whatever, fantastic for Superman,

whatever it is, it starts with a plot or an outline.

And the outline is adapted to visual.

This is called Marvel style, the outline would be adapted.

The artists would take the outline

and break it down sometimes into 22 pages,

sometimes the writer would break their outline into

here's page one, here's page two, whatever.

So you're seeing all the steps,

like watching a cooking show and seeing somebody's like,

oh, look, they put a pinch of this in there.

And that's the secret ingredient

being part of those collaborations,

you always see someone else's little pinch of something

and you wind up incorporating it into your own work,

if it fits, if it doesn't fit.

I mean, not every aspect that you encounter works for you,

but you can still admire it.

You just think, wow, I could never get away with that.

And that's true with writing as well I think

because so much of it is,

even though you're working for a client

like DC or Marvel or whatever company,

and usually on a company character,

you can't do tremendously groundbreaking things

unless they let you.

Generally, they just have you

take a character in a direction

but then return it to its original position.

But I think anyways, I think the collaboration aspect,

like when I worked with Jergens,

Dan would do stuff that would sometimes

I would go, wow, that's really cool.

Sometimes I'd go, wow, that's really awkward.

So it works both ways,

but you still respect when somebody goes out on a limb,

like with a crazy pose or a weird angle

or something like that.

But that's why I say like that every little artistic thing

applies and is something that you can do.

George Perez, George was able to pack so much story

by drawing characters so small,

but yet he did it in an interesting way.

I mean, I always was in admiration of that.

It's very hard to do if ever you work with

like a collaborator or writer

and a writer asks you to draw a nine panel page,

you know that if you've got nine panels on it,

each of those nine panels potentially have word balloons.

So those word balloons take up real estate

basically on each panel, right?

So you have to work towards what space the writer might need

with George, George was just really good

at figuring out where the dead space might be

that more of or whoever would add balloons,

dialogue, or whatever.

That's a hard thing to learn,

and I guess that's something I'm critical of

when I look at new comics,

I'll look at a new comic and I'll immediately be like, wow,

I can't believe they put the word balloon

over that guy's chest or over their shoulder or something.

I mean, you develop kind of a feel

for what looks right to you.

Ultimately, I still go, wow,

I'm not doing it, it's not my job.

But I think, little things like that,

you can't help but nitpick sometimes.

I mean, it doesn't take away from overall

respect for the job 'cause it's a hard job.

I mean, it's a lot of hours put into it.

- One of the things I think is sort of your signature is,

well, you are very good at using non ink.

You're using zippitone in some of your panels.

And I think back to the Fantastic Four where

suddenly Reed Richards is stretching,

but there's this cool texture that was never there before

that's there, and it's sort of one of your signatures.

So when you're looking at the, at that page

and you're thinking about

whether it should be pen or brush,

where do you start to think about where

it could be something else?

- Honestly, you get into a rhythm with it

and you just do it.

Except for maybe one or two jobs I've inked with a pen.

And then I go back at the later stage

with the brush to fill in

or to have the upper line or something.

But yeah, I mean when you look at stuff, I tell you,

sometimes I'll look at a page, a good example

to bring a burn again, John Bryne,

he would draw a very textured,

again, he was really good at like,

here's the texture of a street

and there could be, wow, you don't think about this,

but it's something that clearly came from him,

moving East from Canada,

being in the New York area is he gave his

New York city scenes a lot more atmosphere and stuff,

then kinda generic comic book, New York would be,

he used to drop a garbage bags, piled up on the streets.

And the street could be, even though wasn't raining,

there could be a wet sidewalk.

He did stuff like that, he would always think,

there'd be graffiti on the wall or things like that.

So when I would get a page like that,

the problem, as far as inking being just following the lines

is if somebody just followed the lines,

it wouldn't look good

because pencil is a different medium than ink.

And even if you draw with the idea that

this line is going to be a thick ink line,

it doesn't always work

in the old days now everybody pencils and inks

and I guess they're printing out blue lines

with their printer on Strathmore paper and inking.

In the old days, you would get pages to,

via Fedex or whatever.

And you'd look at the pencils

and the pencils would have the word balloons on it,

so you didn't have to ink behind, you know what I mean?

If there was like 15 captions, you could ink around them,

you didn't have to ink behind them

so that they could put in digitally.

There was no wasted effort there,

but you would look at a page and I would sit down

and I'll ink it with my pen,

usually just using a crow quill

like a hunt one or two was pretty much my go-to

for a long time, a dip pen.

I would ink all the lines,

and then I would erase the pencils.

Like if there's gonna be black areas,

you put a X free as a reminder for yourself you exit out

and then you erase it.

And then you look at it fresh with it's actually

you're looking at it for the first time, just in ink.

And that page will look very light. Like, Oh my God,

this looks terrible.

And that's when you have to go in

and you have to start thickening lines,

and sometimes again,

you'll be working really nice textures and stuff.

And you kinda just another art thing from school,

squint at something, and when you squint at it,

you lose the detail and you becomes a mass.

So I would squint at a page and I'd say, well, all these,

I might've put in all kinds of texture with the pen on,

say a brick background,

that's gonna work better if I just fill it in black.

And that's the stage of finishing the inks

that I learn that somehow.

And I don't know if I, no one taught me how to do that.

That's always the most important stage for me

in inking is to look at the page without the pencils,

because it shows you where you need to,

create some kind of depth.

And again, a lot of comics old-style comics,

they would put really thick lines on everything

because the printing process was so crude

that you needed a thick black line,

just so that the color wouldn't print off register.

So I was fortunate that when I got into comics,

printing was a couple of years away

from being more accurate.

So I didn't have to use a very thick,

magic marker or something to ink some,

but you still need to create a depth and a punch.

That's the best way to put it.

I usually say it needed oomph.

And that was with what you do with either a thick brush line

zippitone, zippitone could do it too.

Sometimes it just needed something to separate

a figure from the background or again,

in the interest of clarity.

So no matter what the penciler,

how tight the pencils could be, at some point,

you're still gonna have to do something

to make it print ready.

And those are lessons you learn as you do,

as you work on stuff, I think my first couple of jobs,

they were very much learning experiences

because I didn't know what would print

and what wouldn't print,

because it was the days of the old style.

It was an oil-based ink, but it was like a relief.

So the pre it wasn't an offset press,

where a plate is flat,

it was actually a raised printing area, old style.

The same presses that were used

at the very beginning of comics

were still turning out comics in the 80s,

which is kind of nuts to think about.

But you always had the judge,

you couldn't sometimes Zippitone wouldn't,

you couldn't use a zippitone that was too dark

because it would fill in and it would just be a mess

that was all a learning experience,

and that's part of the technical aspect of it.

It had something to do creativity

in that you would still try to figure out a way

to get an extra depth or whatever,

and still have it read right.

But those are...

again that was fun, a fun experience and fun times,

because it really was a period where maybe first year

or two where I found out what worked and what didn't.

And I suppose every artists probably still go through that

when they see the front finished printed book or whatever,

and they think, Oh, I should have,

this should have been a black background

or this should have been shadow or whatever.

I mean, I don't think,

I think I imagine everybody does it. I know I do.

You're always second guessing even after it's done

[chuckles]

two years later, three years later you go,

why didn't I do this?

- Well, it's interesting

because I've never heard someone say erase,

once you put down the line, erase the pencil

and you get a whole new look on the page, that is.

- Yeah. Well, see, here's the thing though,

when you have a pencil drawing and again,

the pencilers that worked would always pencil for

they knew it was going to be inked.

So it was always, there was a roughness to it,

there could be double lines,

that you could still see sometimes

a lot of times you'd see the under drawing,

the little layout or whatever.

So it wasn't like you were getting a pristine

finished thing that you could actually

just follow the lines, you always have to interpret,

when you're penciling your hand,

this part of your hand is if you're right-handed

or left-handed,

the pad of your hand is gonna be smearing a little bit of

of the pencil.

So you tend to get a little bit of a gray all over quality.

And when you put ink on that, and then you erase it,

it's like taking,

pulling out a window shade or something it's suddenly

very vivid and it really becomes a different thing.

And that's why I say like pencil drawing versus ink drawing

is very...

It's a different discipline.

And sometimes pencilers have tried to become inkers

and have just either they're too used to penciling,

they don't understand the technical side of it.

I mean, that certainly has happened in the past,

but now it's less of an issue, I think,

because there are a lot more people

doing their own pencils and inks

rather than one guy doing pencils and other person,

coming in and inking it.

So that part of the business has changed,

just, I think mostly because of the digital aspect of it,

companies don't wanna spend money too,

I mean, if they can help it

they don't wanna spend money to send pencil pages

through Fedex or mail or whatever,

but in a lot of cases it's just an extra step

that the editor has to wait

and maybe worry about a deadline being fulfilled

if they have to wait on somebody to ink pages as well.

So a lot of new people I think have come up with ways to

do shortcuts so that they can,

do a 20 page comic every month.

That's always the goal it's like to get as much creativity

as you can and still make your deadline.

- You were a part of the team

during my personal favorite run of Superman.

And you were responsible for co-creating

or creating a number of characters

that have become part of the the Superman or Supergirl

television series and films,

characters like kat grant.

So can you talk a little bit about,

when you're writing for yourself,

are you sitting down and typing up a plot

and then maybe doing a script

or are you just sitting down at the board

and saying I've got an idea and I'll just get started.

And then how do you sort of shift that when you are

just the writer of the book

and you're handing it off to a pencil artist?

- Well, again, comics are like a unique creative

kind of outlet, if you're like when I was penciling

and I started writing, I had to,

I couldn't just make it up as I went along,

I had to create a plot because

there were other people working on other Superman books.

So it was a way of being fair to somebody else

that if you were doing some sequence or whatever,

they would know, Oh, Lois lane is gonna be,

trapped in a well or something,

whatever it is that part has to go,

like if someone's drawing, Superman books

for anybody who doesn't know Superman books,

we had like three and then it became four a month

and there were different creative teams on each one,

and our storylines generally were separate except for,

we would run subplots that would run across the books.

So Jimmy Olsen or [clears throat]

Lex Luther or something,

there could be storylines that would run across.

So we had to, in fairness to Dan Jurgens

or Louis Simon or Roger stern, everybody had to know where,

what you were gonna be doing in that issue

a couple of months in advance,

I would adapt my plot and I would start doing layouts,

I could still, if I came up with an idea that was better,

that didn't affect what other people were doing.

I could still make changes, and a lot of times that happens,

again it was the beauty of the way

this kind of assembly line system work.

But I would do layouts from my plot.

So the plot would, again, I'm working on issue 20.

I would be plotting issue 22,

the plot should be done while I'm working on 20

so that the other writers can work on their stuff, right?

So by the time I get to issue 22 to start laying it out,

I might've rethought things like, Oh, wait,

that works better this way or whatever.

So generally I would sit down with my drawing paper

and I would do kind of stick figure panel borders.

I would layout the page I would kind of indicate dialogue.

So I knew how much space

and how it was going to be laid out,

but I did not do finished penciling.

I would then go to the typewriter

and I would work on my script,

my dialogue, captions, what have you.

And I would send out batches of say five to six pages

to the letterer, New York territorial.

And they would pass it to the editor

depending on how, whatever,

how much they needed to read it in advance.

I would get multiple chances at a story if I was drawing it,

that I also wrote it.

I was getting that time

basically that you wouldn't have,

if you had to do it all in one month.

So two months later after plotting it,

I can kind of think maybe,

oh, this might be a better way to do the story,

I can lay it out that way.

Then I send it to the letterer,

I get lettered boards back with the panel borders

and the dialogue all in it.

And then I would tighten up the drawing.

So it was getting almost like a fresh set of eyes each time,

because there was always gonna be a gap a time,

whether it was two months or two weeks,

that's always good because you could constantly refine,

an idea or even change a panel angle or whatever,

as long as it didn't affect the word balloons,

you could change a figure, whatever,

but it was, I really like working that way,

'cause a lot of times,

when you just have one shot at something,

you wind up with regrets because you look at it later

and you go, why didn't I do a reverse angle?

Or why didn't I, you know what I mean?

It's always something that,

you wish you'd had a chance to do,

which we did have a chance to do

when we were working on Superman and even Shizam

and with Superman and Shizam,

both were done with other artists.

I just basically used to try to,

I would use the lessons

of things that I liked and I didn't like

working with other writers.

So I would always try to keep my plot

from having too many panels,

which was a problem with other writers

when I was working with them it was like,

I don't wanna do a 22 page story with nine panel pages

because it doesn't breathe, there's no big,

there's no way to make it exciting.

I would plot stuff for Tom Grumman or for Pete Krause

who was on Shizam, and I would try to give them at most,

this is gonna be a six panel page,

if you need to make it into seven, that's on you,

if you feel like there's an inset panel,

you can add, it's totally on you, you can do it.

But I didn't wanna overburden 'em,

and I always tried to give them double page spreads

with panels underneath because

it was also a lesson that I learned

when I was working on any deadline.

It's always pushing a rock up the Hill,

and then once you're at the Hill,

say halfway through the rest of that,

the second half of the job goes faster

because you got the momentum and you're like,

oh, I'm already 10 pages in or 11 pages in,

then it goes faster towards the end.

I would always build in a double page spread

because I knew that the first page

was generally a splash page.

Second and third page could be a big panel on top

with maybe five panels going across

that would give the artists the point

where they would suddenly be on page four and they go,

Hey, I'm into to this job, I'm getting my momentum.

So those are things I did just because

I liked the idea of it and I also felt like that helped.

There's nothing worse than having a plot

or a story that's really, really hard

right at the beginning

because you don't get a chance to get any momentum.

I mean that's what comics and monthly comics

are all about momentum and deadlines.

[laughs] - well Jerry I'm gonna

have to interrupt you here.

Unfortunately we've run out of time

and it seems like we're barely

scratching the surface, - okay.

- But I wanna thank you so much

for taking time out of your day to talk with me.

- Thank you, sorry about being too long-winded.

[laughs]

- No it was great, I appreciate it,

and I'd like to thank you at home

for watching comic culture,

we will see you again soon.

[dramatic music]

- [Narrator] Comic culture

is a production of the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

[dramatic music continues]

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