Modern Masters Volume Eight: Walter Simonson
Edited by Eric Nolen-Weathington and Roger Ash
That the first few pages of the eighth volume of Twomorrow’s Modern Masters series begins with none other than Fantasy novelist par-excellence Michael Moorcock gushing on about Walter Simonson, both as a human being AND an artist, could very well tell you all you need to know about this perennial and unassuming comics favorite. Indeed the fireworks that Walter Simonson lacks in his personal history and persona is more than made up for in his artistic output and drive to innovate the visual vocabulary/presentation of sequential art, while still packing that visceral punch (pun intended) that you could only get from a Jack Kirby comic. Simonson just might be the Gang of Four of superhero funnybooks; his rendering style is kinetic, angular and almost abstract but your eye can’t stop dancing over these unique images.
The Twomorrows interview squad present a current and well-researched conversation with a Simonson hard at work on both Elric with Michael Moorcock and a revamp of Hawkgirl with close friend and peer Howard Chaykin for DC Comics (with the promise of more projects soon). The interviewers display a more than passing familiarity and fondness for Simonson’s, extending to even several enlightening captions accompanying oodles of accompanying original artwork and sketches. (Which win the day for me, always.) We start at the beginning, with a young Walter Simonson struck at home with mono, picking up a drawing pad and pretty much never putting it down, an early love for Carl Barks and superhero comics, and a break into the biz at DC Comics that might just be the very definition of “right place, right time.” But it wasn’t just kismet that got Simonson an “in,” for he was soon hard at work with Archie Goodwin on a comic that is still today considered groundbreaking, Manhunter. The creative genesis of the Manhunter series is covered, as is the circumstances surrounding Simonson’s decision to do a final wordless/silent issue of Manhunter as a tribute to Goodwin, who sadly passed away soon after the initial series run. Great stuff.
Anyway, after talking about Simonson’s work on the comic adaptation of the Alien film, the book really gets rolling once it hits his time with Marvel Comics. Right out of the gate, he was given control of Thor, where he undertook a number of radical, yet not shock-driven, changes to the title. He talks about the rationale for giving an alien (Beta Ray Bill) the power of Thor and I got a total kick about hearing the secret origin of Frog Thor — when Loki turns our hero into a not-so-helpless frog — it was meant to be an oblique tribute to Donald Duck mastermind Carl Barks. This radical redesign work would be repeated with members of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Jack Kirby’s New Gods in the years to come. From there the conversation turns toward Simonson’s artwork on X-Men spinoff X-Factor, working alongside his wife, writer and editor Louise Simonson. Hearing about their working dynamic was fascinating stuff, since I think it’s pretty much just them and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) in terms of marriage/working relationships, that I’m aware of. Oh and dig this, Simonson’s one of the guys to blame for all your mega crossover events; hear the innocent genesis behind “Mutant Massacre” and “Inferno,” and then shake your fist impotently the next time you go to the comic book store and see all those “Civil War” mastheads.
The chapter where Simonson discusses his creative process is incredible. No slave to an elusive muse, he describes his working methods very intelligently and matter-of-factly, there’s a definite linear process involved but through the visual aids provided — sketches progress into fully finishes pages of art — drastic changes from penciling to inking stages betray a feverish mind open to spur of the moment improvisation and inspiration. A quick discussion with longtime lettering collaborator John Workman reveals the amount of thought the pair put into typefaces, and integrating the dialogue and sound effects as an active part of the overall composition and design.
The closing sketchbook pages are a treat, but then I think you probably already knew that. Thor Frog pinup, anyone?