Artist Val Mayerik discusses Marvel in the 1970s and co-creating Howard the Duck.
- 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, Val Mayerik.
Val, welcome to Comic Culture.
- Thank you.
- Now, Val, you had a career that started in the 1970s
at Marvel comics, and I was wondering
if you could talk a little bit about how
you got your start in comics.
- Well, it was completely serendipitous.
I was an art student at a small Midwestern-- well,
I don't know if it's Midwestern but, in an industrial town
in Ohio, the art department there was rather lame.
And I was in my fourth year and going nowhere,
and I had been a comic book fan.
Now, I was I wasn't like an avid fan
but there were certain comics that
were coming out of the scene at the time
that I was that interested me primarily because
of the graphic content.
As an artist, I was responding to what
other artists were doing.
And there was a guy in my painting class
who also was a fan and we would talk about comics from time
And there was a woman in our painting class
who, keep in mind, we're like in our early 20s
and she's like in her early 30s, so she's an old lady to us.
But she was trying to finish up her degree and--
so she could teach, I guess elementary school art.
And she heard us, overheard us numerous times
talking about comic books.
And she said, by the way, I don't
know if you guys know who this guy is, his name is Dan Atkins,
he's one of my neighbors.
And Dan Atkins was an anchor of course
for comic books way back when.
And he done a pretty actually pretty extensive career
and he had been mentored by Wally Wood, one
of the great masters of the classical comic books.
And so I was quite stunned.
I didn't know what to make of that.
And I-- he only lived about 60, 70 miles away
from the university so I, a week later
drove down there and try to set up a meeting with Dan.
And it was rather inconsequential initially.
Dan just looked at my stuff and he said, well,
let me think about this.
And he said, I've already got a guy working with me,
which was P. Craig Russell.
I'm sure you know who Craig is.
And Craig was already working with Dan in his studio,
and he said he wasn't sure if he had room for anyone else
and if his wife was willing to deal
with another guy in the house.
And then he called me a week later
and said, yeah, come on down.
So I spent the summer--
Craig and I both spent the summer working with Dan.
He was showing us just some tricks of the trade.
He was not really a strong mentor in the sense of do this,
don't do that.
He just kind of-- we talked about comics in general
and he would make comments about maybe
we should or shouldn't draw this or that.
And then he had--
Roy Thomas was the editor in chief at Marvel at the time
and he told Roy about us, and we all ended up going to New York
together on a Greyhound bus, and Roy liked our stuff
and we were in.
We were in Marvel Comics.
As I look back on that, I think that
was just an immense stroke of luck because had I not met Dan
and had I had to be just one more hapless guy traipsing off
to New York City and starving and trying
to get people's attention, I don't
know if I would have had the focus or the endurance
And meeting Dan was just, like I said,
an incredible stroke of luck.
I was able to skip five basic fundamental steps
into getting into Marvel, and so that's how that happened.
- That is amazing because you know, it's the expression is,
it's not what you know, it's who you know.
And I've heard so many stories from folks who got
started at various companies where they either just kept
going there over and over again or they met someone
at a convention.
So it was just a great stroke of luck that you did meet Dan.
So when you go to Marvel, what's that first assignment like?
Are they giving you the top title
or are they giving you like a try out
just to see what you can do?
- Yeah, the latter, of course.
They gave me a short story plot for I
believe it was Brak the barbarian, which was
a character that was written--
it was kind of a Robert E. Howard kind of, not a rip off,
but the Conan character had become popular
and so other barbarian characters were emerging,
the guy who wrote that was, actually at the time,
his name is [inaudible] He was a well-known fantasy sci-fi
writer at the time.
And Roy found a short story and he adapted it
in terms of the script to comics.
It was only about an eight-page story, but it's my first story.
I penciled it, Dan inked it, and it came out well.
For the time, for what skill level I had,
I was satisfied with it.
I liked it.
Dan liked it.
Roy liked it.
So that that was my first assignment.
- When you start getting more work coming in from Marvel,
what's the first series that you start working on that you start
to realize that you are not just a dabbler at this point,
you are a pro.
- Yeah good question.
I think the first series I worked on was Man-Thing.
Oh no, I'm sorry.
The first series I worked on was Thongor, another barbarian
That had been written by Lynn Carter.
He had written the pulp novels for it.
That they got the rights that adapted that to comics.
I was illustrating Thongor form I
think it went about 10 issues.
And then the Man-Thing then ended up accompanying that.
And Thongor was canceled, but then I continued on
with the man thing.
And that's of course where Howard the Duck
emerges from that storyline.
- So you dropped the name Howard the Duck,
and that's a great way for us to talk about this character who
was a massive success in the 1970s, spawned a movie that
doesn't really follow the character that closely,
but has become beloved as the years have gone on.
And we've even seen appearances of Howard
in the new Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So Howard the duck, how does Howard the duck come about?
- Well that was a pure, I don't wanna say accident,
but it was again, just one of these roll
of the dice kind of things.
Steve was writing and plotting--
Steve Gerber that was writing and plotting
the man thing stories.
And apparently, Man-Thing had psychic abilities
besides being the swamp monster, and he could somehow
access portals to different dimensions.
And in this one particular issue, a portal opened up
and a whole slew of characters came through.
There was a Gandalf kind of character,
there was like a barbarian kind of character,
there was some sort of a young attractive witch
kind of character woman, and then Howard
came through as well.
Steve just told me to go with my gut
and just draw these characters as I saw them and so I said,
what about this duck?
He says, well, don't make him look real cartoonish,
make him look like if Donald Duck was actually real.
And he was walking around on the street,
he was a three-dimensional character, and he could speak.
And I just drew it.
I didn't even do any preliminary sketches.
I just drew it on the page.
Everybody at Marvel said, OK, yeah Steve, go with it.
I mean, today, that would have gone through 10 committees.
It would have been it would have been just such a nightmare
to get a new character.
There would be all these other issues of how
is this going to affect this group of people
and we might be offending this group of people,
and at the time it was just fun.
I don't think Steve or anybody really expected
that it would be that popular, but the reaction to it,
of course, warranted then its own title eventually.
- I'm just wondering, is it a hit
that first issue the, numbers come in and they're great,
or is this something that sort of builds up
as the series progresses?
- I can't really speak to that because that was something that
was going on in the offices.
That was editorial decisions based on whatever.
I know it took a while before they
decided that the character should have his own title.
And then there was also some question
as to who would be the artist because for some reason
Roy Thomas did not want me to be the artist.
I don't think it was because he didn't like my work,
I just think he didn't think I was
going to be the draw that some artists would be.
And at the time, it didn't bother me
because I was working on other stuff.
I had been assigned the classic monsters,
to do the mummy and the Frankenstein monster,
and I was having a lot of fun with that.
So whatever happened was fine with me
and that's when it took them a while to get past the rumor
stage and actually get to some facts
as to who was going to draw, and when it will be released,
and who would be in, and so on and so forth.
So he chose Frank Runner, Roy did, and once that was decided,
I think it just was a go.
And it lasted as long as it did.
It keeps reemerging.
- Now you mentioned that you were working on the Monster
book, so your time at Marvel seems to be a lot
of non-superhero books.
So is that something that's by design or is that because you
have that particular skill set where you can draw
the barbarian character or the monster character
and they really want to play to your strengths?
- Well, I don't think they were too worried about playing
to my strengths so much as I got into comics because I wanted
to do Conan.
It's just that simple.
I mean, I was a big fan of the Tolkien books.
At the time that back in the early 70s, if you recall,
there were a lot there was the emergence
of the popularity of the Warren magazines,
creepy, eerie, Vampirella.
And there were some marvelous illustrations in there
by some European illustrators on these barbarian characters.
And that really appealed to me, and I really
wanted to draw that kind of thing.
- When I got into Marvel and right
as I was just getting into Marvel,
Barry Smith had already established himself
as kind of the premier Conan artist.
I went on years later to do fill-in issues of Conan
and a few issues for the black and white magazine,
but my initial, and I think I made that kind of clear to Roy,
is I like doing horror stuff.
I like fantasy, some sci-fi.
Superheroes never did appeal to me.
And I kind of just thought that I
don't think I may emphasize that point,
but I would say now in this day and age,
I found superheroes to be really quite absurd.
I'd never I never really warmed up to the whole thing.
I never was a fan of superheroes and comics.
I was always attracted to other genres in the media, medium,
and I don't know.
It just never-- there was never any explicit thing
like, I don't do superheroes or Val doesn't do these,
so don't trouble him.
But it just was kind of like, just
became something that was intuitively known by everybody.
And so the fact that I didn't do superheroes didn't bother me.
It doesn't bother me to this day.
- When we look back at the 1970s,
we see that there were a few subgenres that sort of helped
Marvel out, obviously Conan the Barbarian
and the Star Wars comic that certainly helped them
when they were kind of going through a few lean periods.
- And we might not necessarily think back
to those as being traditional Marvel works
but they were abundantly important,
and they are the type of things that fans are still
looking for today.
- I think more so today than ever.
I think the superheroes--
I mean, I don't do I'm not in the business anymore really,
I mean I'm not that active with the major publishers.
I do a few comic book projects here and there.
I do a lot of work in advertising now.
But I still have friends who are active in the business,
artists, and writers.
And it seems to me like the superhero audience
is dwindling, really.
And people are looking for other interesting stuff to read.
And back then, of course, the superhero,
that was the backbone of Marvel and DC.
And I think I only ever did two books for DC
in my entire career.
I just never got to know any of the editors over there.
I never really got to--
and nothing over there that they were
doing was really interesting to me that much either, so yeah.
The superhero thing, I realize it's quite a phenomenon
and it's very unique and it's really
what launched comic books as we know them today,
but I can't say that I was ever really enthused by them.
- I think part of the problem with the sales
of superheroic books, this is just an opinion,
is because the movies are doing it so much more
lifelike than the four color heroes that we grew up with.
But again, that's just an opinion
and just take it with a grain of salt.
- You're partially right there.
I mean, I've heard it's a rather cynical statement,
but I've heard writers and artists
in the business saying that the only reason the books still
exist are to keep the characters in the public eye
And so that doesn't speak much for the books.
And yeah, and the movies, yeah.
With digital technology, I mean everything
that you had to use your imagination with when you're
back in the 60s and 50s reading a superhero, that can all
become actualized on the screen in a way
that you never could before.
So there's people that are fans of these movies that have never
even read the comics.
They just wait for the next X-Men to come out.
And this is quite a unique, kind of an ironic situation, really.
- When we talk about the visual language of comics,
when you are working on a comic back,
whether it's a barbarian book, whether it's a horror sci-fi
book, your storytelling approach.
How are you sort of taking what the writer is asking you for--
I'm assuming it's that Marvel style where they give you
a loose plot and they expect you to sort of fill it out
into those 22 pages.
So how do you sort of interpret what they want
and pace it and tell your story?
- Well it's good to have a rapport with the writer in case
you've got any questions.
And basically, it just requires the writer has an imagination
and the artist does as well and they can somehow mesh.
If the writer has the talent and the ability
to just a couple of paragraphs tell a story,
that's what you need to start out.
And then the writer-- then the artist
then has to have a sense of visual storytelling,
almost like a filmmaker.
And this is one of the basic things I learned from Dan.
My drawing ability was pretty--
I was very conscientious about learning to draw anatomy
correctly and all that stuff, my rendering with pen and ink.
And so Dan really didn't give Craig and that much input
in terms of our drawing skills although we
were young of course, we could have used it
but it was really primarily about storytelling.
When to use a close up, when to use a master shot,
again, like a filmmaker.
Also realizing that it's a show, don't tell medium.
So even though the writer might be
someone who wants to load up the page with a lot of word
balloons, basically the good writers don't want to do that.
So keep in mind that writer's looking to you
to get as much information in that panel as possible
so he doesn't have to explain that much of what's going on.
So when I look back on it now, I mean every--
in the past, I don't know how many years now,
when I kind of drifted out of comics
and got into advertising in the mid-90s,
from all through the 80s and early 90s,
I recall working from very tight scripts.
And working for various different publishers,
Dark Horse, and so forth.
And I don't know if it was a precedent that was set by them
but the protocol was that the writer would do a full script.
Page one, panel one, caption, balloon.
And I look back on it now and the quote
Marvel way of doing it.
I mean my gosh we were just young guys
and we just took those scripts and ran with them.
And I can't really tell you what my process was at the time
because that was the only process I knew.
And so I just would get a script from Steve.
And Steve really had such rich texts.
Steve was just-- there was no limit to Steve's imagination.
Gerber was quite a good writer and quite
an interesting writer.
And so Steve just gave you a lot of really fertile ground
to work with.
Yeah, that's pretty much how that occurred and I don't even
know if they work that way anymore at Marvel.
I know most companies don't.
- It's my understanding that the most companies
are using that full script mostly because like you
were mentioning the characters are such valuable IP
They don't want to risk Messing something up
by letting someone misinterpret something.
Now you had mentioned that you had
sort of a youthful enthusiasm when you were getting
your plots from your writer, Steve Gerber,
and you could kind of work with it as you wanted.
Are you, at that time, a disciplined creator
where you're working a set number of hours every day?
You know, I'm going to start at the drawing board at 10:00 I'm
going to wrap up by 7:00, or is this something where, hey, I'm
just going to get this stuff done,
and if it takes me all night it takes me all night?
- Well it depends first of all, what the deadline was,
how much time I had between receiving the script
and having to turn in work.
But interestingly enough, I worked--
Dan worked at night.
Dan was a night owl, so Dan would keep Craig and I there
till 1:00 - 2:00 in the morning working.
And that was when his creative juices got moving.
And I was always kind of when my dad was a kid.
I was the kind of kid that would be reading comics
at midnight in my room when my parents told
me to turn the lights out and go to sleep,
and I never was much of a very energetic early riser.
So this suited me to a T. Wow, we get to stay up late
and when we take a break, we watch the Late Show.
And so I would get the script, at the time,
I was working to helping teach at a martial arts school.
I had been in martial arts for years prior to that.
And so I would do my do my teaching during the day
and then settle in, have dinner and settle in
and just grab that script and just go to town
and just lay out as many pages as I could in that night.
I wouldn't lay out the entire job at once,
I would usually go about four or five pages at a time.
I read the entire script, of course,
so I had a sense of the through line where I was going with it,
but I would only layout about four or five pages at a time.
And then we just work by the post office.
Would just send those into Marvel or to the inker
or, actually, we would send to Marvel first
because, in those days, the pages were
being lettered right directly onto the art,
And that's how it worked, and that just was fine with me.
I didn't really need to discipline myself
that much because I liked working at night.
I liked that process of when everybody else goes away,
goes to sleep, or whatever, I'm left alone,
no distractions, and just draw.
- And you said you do about four pages of layouts at a time.
Is that because it fits into the act structure,
the dramatic structure where you know, might be act one,
might be act two, part one here, or is it
just something where you knew that that
was as far along as you could get
because of that particular creative vibe that you had,
and after that maybe your work would start to suffer.
- Yeah, both, I think.
And I think that just intuitively,
I would think like well, here's the first beat,
or here's the first episode essentially.
And I would kind of just get the feel of that.
Also, I would mail those off to Marvel, first-class mail,
it would get there maybe two days later,
and I'd wait for some feedback as well.
Like Roy would say these are good, keep going
or he would say, let me talk to Steve about this first,
And so there would be a little bit of back and forth.
So I didn't want to just shoot out the whole book
and then realized there were changes to be
made way back on page five.
So it just Yeah you kind of pace yourself,
due to your own creative moods and also due
to just the process.
I don't think there were that many artists who,
maybe people that were just like Gil Caine who could turn out
zillion pages a week.
And they would know exactly what they were getting.
I don't think anybody did like a whole book in total
and sent it in.
- And when you are working with an inker, again,
this is the pre-internet days, the pre-cell phone days.
Are you able to speak to the inker or maybe
the inker is going to call you and ask what you were thinking
on this page, or you could call them
and say, I'm looking for this sort of effect
in the inks or something like that
or is it just the editor is going to send it out
and the editor makes that final call?
- That's the editor.
And unfortunately, I got some inkers that I did not really
care for in those.
And when I moved to New York City a few years later,
I met a lot of these inkers, and they were good guys,
and they were actually pretty skilled people
but they just didn't get what I was penciling.
So there really wasn't a really good marriage there.
But yeah, there was always an editorial decision.
I really got to choose my own inker,
and until my inking skills got up to par, I was not able--
Roy didn't want me to ink, or John,
whoever was having the art assignments
then, Johnny Ramita.
I was not-- they didn't feel I should
be inking my own work early on.
So now, I mean that recently actually, I'm
involved with a comic book project
right now that it's called power comics.
It's done by a guy named Houston Huff from Chicago.
He's all over Facebook, so you can get more information
about it there, but me and a lot of other--
he hired me and a lot of other guys
from my generation to work on this series of books,
Pat Broderick and Al Milgram and a whole slew of guys.
And we had the choice of inking it ourselves or having
Joe Rubenstein ink it, and he's one of the best
thinkers in the business ever.
So I chose Joe because I just thought it would
be an interesting combination.
And now things are a little more artisanal with comics.
Inkers and pencilers are paired up
usually as a result of them being used to working together
or the editor knows that would be a good combination.
Back then, Marvel for as much fun and as different
as Marvel was then with the whole industry,
it was an assembly line.
You know, penciler, letterer, inker, colorists, boom,
get those books out there.
Because these books were selling immense amounts.
They were putting them up in the little spinner
racks in the pharmacies and the bookstores
and just corner stores, where gas stations even and they
were selling immense amounts of books every month
and they just had to get them out.
Many times it was like, you don't like that ink,
or too bad you relate with the pages.
And just the way that happened.
- If the folks watching at home wanted to maybe find out
a little bit more about some upcoming projects,
is there a website or a social media address
that we can go to?
I'm on Facebook although I don't really
post a lot of what I'm doing on comics.
There is that series I'm working with called Power Comics.
It's kind of fun.
It's kind of harkening back to the Bronze Age of comics,
the goofy old superheroes bouncing boy and stretch man
and all of these guys.
And that's been kind of fun, and it's not the kind of a thing
I normally would do, but since I've been away from comics
for so long, it's a novelty to me and I'm enjoying it.
A few years back, with a writer friend of mine up in Oregon,
we had done a graphic novel called
of dust and blood, which was about the Little Bighorn told
from both sides.
The sides from the Native American Indians
and from the sides cavalry.
And it got a lot of good reviews.
It was reviewed well on Bleeding Cool.
There's that and that book can be ordered.
It's not available, I think, in retail right now.
I've been working on some film projects and stuff
that's not necessarily related to comics,
but all in the genre of fantasy and science fiction
and so forth.
And as you can see, there's a picture of a horseback here.
I love horses I have a horse, I do equestrian art
and I have some work in a couple of galleries
here in Texas and New Mexico.
So I'm keeping busy and I have to say, in all deference,
I owe it to comics.
Because that's what got me off on being a working
Illustrator in my young years when a lot of guys were really,
really, really slaved away trying to get some attention.
- Well, Val, I want to thank you so much for taking time out
of your schedule to talk with me today.
And I'd like to thank everyone at home
for watching Comic Culture we will see you again soon.
- Comic Culture is a production of the Department
of Mass Communication at the University of North
Carolina at Pembroke.