If on-the-job training was the second key to the kingdom that Joe handed me, the third key was getting in print and that one opened the door into the New York comics industry. The business was a slow motion train wreck in 1977 but Joe somehow got DC to buy an inventory of “back-up” stories done by the students. The one title he still edited was SGT. ROCK, so these were to be war comics done under Joe’s watchful eye. Steve Bissette and I received one of the coveted first scripts, a 5-pager called A SONG FOR SAIGON SALLY. But soon everyone who wanted a shot (and was up to date on assignments) got one. This included the big-foot stylists among us, who had the chance to do gag pages and spot cartoons. There were lettering and coloring gigs as well. (That’s Bissette and I collaborating on “BIG HOWIE” above).
War comics are notoriously difficult to pull off convincingly. Many of us were plugged into the superhero genre, so the sudden stylistic switch to gritty battle realism wasn’t easy. But here was the acknowledged master of the form firmly guiding us every step of the way. We’d begin with a discussion about the story; how Joe saw the staging and what elements he wanted to see pulled out. Perhaps he might make a small thumbnail to get an idea across. Then we’d go off to break down and tightly lay out the story. Back to Joe who would critique and direct, sometimes making his own tracings. Often it would take a couple sessions going over layouts before a story went on to the full pencilling, lettering and inking stages. Working through these stories, Joe was much more blunt than he was in the classroom. There was lots of reworking and more than one story of mine that went to press with panels and figures patched by him. Sometimes after demolishing my stuff, he’d give me that sly smile and say “Not too hard on ya’, am I?” and I’d reply “Keep it up, Joe!”. I knew I really needed that kind of no-bullshit approach to make the grade as real comic book man.
Things started to gel for me on my fourth or fifth script. Joe made no changes to the pencils! That charged me up so much I inked the whole job that night. When I showed it to him the next morning I got the sly smile again: “Looks like you’re on a roll, kiddo.” It was the first back-up he let me sign my name to. He encouraged me to experiment with different methods and material, like airbrush, then to write my own scripts. Doing these back-ups while at Kubert School, was like going for your Bachelors and Masters degrees at the same time. And all of us who worked on them appreciated the paying jobs. But most amazing was seeing our stuff in print. I’d been published in black and white a couple times, but nothing compares to that first time you see your work in a color comic book. Only marred by the fact that you see how crummy it looks!
But that is the evolutionary path to improvement for the commercial artist and Joe knew it. How he found time in his life to follow through, and ride herd on us, I’ll never know. But I, and many others, are eternally grateful to the guy.
That’s me solo on a Kanigher script “Rendezvous”, below.