DANIEL BEST: Now, where do we startÖ youíre fairly multi-talented. I wasnít aware that your background is so steeped in the theatre.
BOB HALL: Yeah, theatre is primarily what Iím doing right now. Iím associated with two theatres here in Lincoln, Nebraska and Iím about start a production of A Midsummerís Night Dream. Midsummer In Midwinter weíre calling it.
DB: How did you get from the theatre into comic books, and how did you get back to the theatre?
BH: It was sort of a natural thing with the coming out of the theatre. I donít know if I started working with the comic books, it was the other way around. I moved to New York in the early 70s, and Iíd already some artwork and been involved with machinery design and had put myself through school doing posters for the theatre department for the student union, things like that. So I get to New York and Iím actually getting some theatre work but weíre starving <chuckles> so a friend of mine suggested that I do comic books, that I look at comics books. So I thought Ďyeah, I can do theseí, and I remember comic books from when I was a kid, and I always remember them as being halfway crude. I looked at what was happening then and it was just the time when Barry Smith was doing Conan, Jack Kirby was doing the New Gods, Kubert was doing Tarzan, Neal Adams was doing Batman and The Avengers. I looked at this stuff and I thought Ďmy God, these people are wonderfulí and realised that I couldnít compete at all <laughter> readily, but I became very enamoured of the idea of doing it, primarily because I needed a marketable skill but I also really liked the story-telling aspects of the whole thing. Because what I considered I was doing in theatre was story telling. I think that got me through many years actually because I think when I got my first job I still couldnít draw worth anything, but I was quite good at telling the stories. So it really seems compatible. It seems that the theatre training Iíd had, particularly since I was directing, really influenced the comic book work.
DB: You studied with John Buscema. Did you do that before or after you broke into comic books?
BH: Letís see, on my own I put together a portfolio, which was a fairly lousy one, but I took it to a comic convention and got a job doing a horror story for Charlton. I did about two more of those and in the meantime that was just when John was starting his class. And Iíd read about it in the back of a comic book! There I was in New York with John Buscema teaching a class, heíd rented a suite at I believe it was the Americana Hotel so I took the class and I think John wanted somebody from the class to get a job and I was really not a humble person, just as I know I was marginal at that time, even after taking the class, although I learnt a lot. Some of it didnít kick in until a year or two later and some of itís still kicking in. John said that heíd hoped that the class would consist of people whoíd had art training who wanted to learn to bend their skills towards comic books. In fact, of course, what he had was a class full of fans. Some of them could sort of draw a little bit, but none of them could draw very well and I donít think any of them had had any training, and so by default, I was older and had at least done something, so John got me a job at Marvel. Iím very grateful because I donít know that I would have had the nerve right at that moment to take my stuff up to Marvel just on my own.
DB: What was John like?
BH: John? Oh, he was terrific. He was the salt of the earth. I stayed friends with him until he died. He was a wonderful man. Gruff as a bear, but never with any meanness. He was just one of those big, gruff guys that had this sort of front that he put on. He was extremely kind, a true gentleman and really, really knew his stuff. Having gone through the illustration field he really knew how to draw in so many ways and I wonít say beyond comics, because I donít mean that the other things he did were better that comics, but there was a nice variety of things that John could teach you about ways to attack a job. He really, really knew what he was talking about. To watch him draw that was the great thing, to watch him work, nobody could figure that out because it seemed to be magic. His hand just moved so fast that you so often couldnít really follow what he was doing, you had to ask him to slow down and he would, but if he wanted to do something for us that he wanted to look good heíd go back to drawing fast because he could draw better faster than slower. He was sort of a magician with it. Thereís a chat room now dedicated to John, and I got an email from someone who had been in the class who remembers me saying that they thought I might enjoy it and actually I do. I think everybody who was involved just ended up feeling that John was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
DB: From there you went to Marvel. What was your first Marvel job?
BH: The first job I did at Marvel a book called The Champions. It was a super group that mercifully only lasted a short time. They were a bunch of totally incompatible characters who were all mixed together, all the ones that hadnít made it anywhere else. Hercules, Iceman and The Angel, the Ghost Rider, I think there were a couple of others (actually there were Ė Black Widow was the team leader and other members included Darkstar and Giant Man - DB) but none of them seemed to quite fit and it was a panicky issue for me because I immediately realised that even when youíre taking a class you can control what it is that youíre drawing, but the first thing I had to do was draw the Ghost Riderís motorcycle and I knew nothing about motorcycles whatsoever, so I just kind of avoided that issue. And I had to draw an office in flames and think about it Ė drawing an office. Nobody thinks about practicing drawing an office. And at that time, of course, mundane things were very hard to get reference on, unless you could burst into somebodyís office and take a Polaroid of it, and I was too poor to have a Polaroid, because you had no internet back then to download stuff, so I was sort of completely overwhelmed by the necessities that particularly a comic artist had to do. You had to know how to draw anything and that meant pretty much that you had to be able to fake anything if required. It was a challenge, and certainly doing a supergroup as the first thing you did was interesting as well. Probably that was a good way to start, to be thrown into the fire. I was overjoyed to be working for Marvel, so that was great.
DB: Did you get any advice, when you got stuck whom did you turn to?
BH: Nobody. It was a time when Jim Shooter was just taking over as editor. I was actually hired by Archie Goodwin but by the time I turned in my first job Archie had resigned and Jim was there, and Archie was the most benign of people and Jim was extremely critical. Somehow the atmosphere was such that I didnít want to admit to anybody that I couldnít do it. I wanted to run home and stay up all night and figure it out so I could bring it in and say, ďSee? I did itĒ and it wasnít until a lot later that I turned to anybody at all for help.
DB: When I think of your work at Marvel, I think The Avengers.
BH: That was my absolute favourite thing to do, The Avengers. I think that, visually, the best thing I ever did at Marvel was the graphic novel Emperor Doom, which featured the West Coast and East Coast Avengers; I loved doing that one. Generally speaking, I really enjoyed doing them. For one thing, they were a collection of characters that I was really most aware of when I first started reading comics. It may have just been because Neal was doing that Kree-Skrull War series and I became really hooked on that. When I first started reading Marvel, The Avengers had the greatest attraction for me of all the groups.
DB: What was Marvel like back in the mid 70s?
BH: It was going through a real change at the time. It was going from being a really tight knit family operation to being a company that had assistant editors Ė that had never happened. Jim ran it a little bit more as a business and he was the first editor that lasted since Roy Thomas had left. Basically, they had not quite gotten over Stan no longer being the editor-in-chief. The company was entirely set up to operate that and a bunch of changes were necessary to accommodate the fact that a charismatic leader was no longer going to be in charge and writing just about everything and sort of keeping it in the family, so that everybody knew what was going on all the time with the characters and books. They had just gone through Marv Wolfman and Len Wien and Archie Goodwin. They had kind of a revolving door of editors there and I think Jim was the first one to kind of realise that they needed to be run in a different way now that Stan was no longer there every day. So it was going through a lot of changes, but it was still fun, it was still fun to work there. The best thing being was that there were people around who had been in the business for so long. There was, of course, Buscema who would come in every once in a while. He mainly stayed out at Port Jefferson and mailed his work in. There was John Romita and Gene Colan and Bill Everett was still doing some work then, just a lot of shop-talk going around then. Marie Severin, people just telling good stories and things, so it was a fun place to work.
DB: What was Bill Everett like?
BH: I talked to him on the phone. I honestly donít remember him that well. I became an editor eventually, just for a short time, which is why I spoke to some people on the phone, but I think it was more business. I spoke to Kirby, but Kirby wasnít coming in at all at that point; when I was editing he was just starting back at Marvel. But he never appeared there and I spoke to him a couple of times because I was editing Devil Dinosaur, except that, of course, you didnít have to edit him that much because he was close to a year ahead on the book, but there were some people I did talk to. Gil Kane was very erudite and would use big words, which always amused me because he would say that something was a seminal influence and then go away and people would say, ďWhat does that mean? What does that mean?Ē and I would, having a theatre background, I would go ďWell having something to do with seamenĒ and theyíd look at me like I was putting them on but I was trying to get them to say <laughter> I was trying to get them into hot water.
I had brief conversations with Don Heck and I quite liked him. He was just a veryÖ you see itís hard to say what people were like. They were mainly just very pleasant and professional. It was wonderful for a young artist to be around them. Gene Colan loved movies and had a movie projector set up in his basement and would invite you along and show King Kong or something. Again, personally, he was entertaining, told good stories; he was just a nice man.
†I regret never meeting Steve Ditko. John Romita was just the best in terms of trying to help you. He eventually became, once I had gotten to say I need help, he was the person Iíd go to and he would, without putting any onus on your work, sort out what problems you might be having. Of course, it was his job; he was the art director up there, but he would really take time and work with you. Barry Smith, I enjoyed him just about as much as anybody because again the theatre background gave me certain literary references and we knuckled down a few times and explored a few characters, especially when I was working for Valiant.
John Byrne was sort of my nemesis because, when he started out, he could produce stuff very, very quickly, I mean he always could, but he started that way which was very frustrating to somebody like me and other artists who were just starting out and had to plod along at a basic speed. John was opinionated and sometimes he could be a little pompous and sometimes he could be a little arrogant. I always liked him. A lot of old time comic book artists worked for so little and struggled so hard, especially people whoíd been in business in the 40s and 50s that they were kind of humbled by the business. But some of them who got to Marvel in the 70s, it was a little hard for them to stand up a bit. And people coming new, like John, had never had that problem and had the personal confidence that a lot of artists had, and he showed it. And I think thatís clear in his work and his decisions to come along and re-work the characters that he was assigned to and start them over as John Byrne characters; but certainly a great talent.
DB: You mentioned that you were the editor on Devil Dinosaur. Certainly, in the last few years, thereís been a lot of rumours going around that some people were anti-Kirby; theyíd denigrate him. Did you ever see any of that?
BH: Yes. Yes, absolutely. It was a feeling that Kirby was past his prime and that he couldnít write in an up-to-date, Ďwith ití style. There were other people who I think, Jo Duffy who was my assistant for instance, had a much better take on it and really enjoyed the work he was doing and I found her attitude compelling because Iíd say well I like it, but Iíve known Kirbyís work all my life, so heís sort of a hero, so what do younger people think of his work now? †And there were people like Jo who took the slightly simpler approach that he had and liked it at a time when comic books were getting more like soap opera. A lot of people were taking Stanís ability to take the private lives of characters and run with it, but they didnít all have Stanís ability to make that work as a comic book; as well as Stan had I think. And Kirby just went back to pure comics. They could have been stuff that had been done in the 50s or 60s, or even the 40s, but they were good stories, they were Kirby. They were unique. Whether it was his best work or not, I couldnít say. But I certainly thought it was good work. But you see, I was getting to edit Kirby, to deal with the man even if it was by the phone. So I was enthralled with the idea, there was a good deal of hero-worship from me going on there so, as I said, my judgement may not have been the purest.
DB: What were some of the things being said about him at the time?
BH: I canít, I really canít tell you. I donít mean that I wonít tell you; itís just been too long. I know that there were discussions about what I said, that the drawing seemed maybe rushed. That the stories were too simple and too old fashioned. That he didnít use enough panels per page. But those are general. I know that was the general gist of the conversations. But I canít remember if this person said this, or this person said that, thatís too far gone for me. I know that with Kirby, in terms of the total body of work, Shooter was a Kirby-ophile and would trot out certain issues of Kirby and call you into his office if you were an artist. Heíd wait until you brought in some stuff and take you through a Kirby comic page by page by page, showing you how he told the story. Romita would look at Kirby stuff as it came in and say things like ďMy God! Look at that!Ē meaning, Wow! ďAnd look at the pencil lines. The guy doesnít even sharpen his pencil!Ē But most of the stuff I remember was praise although what I canít remember was that did either gentleman feel the same way about his current work, and that I canít tell you.
DB: Did DC ever come after you while you were at Marvel?
DB: Did you ever approach them?
BH: No. I was quite content to be at Marvel. They were giving me the work that I wanted. I think in those days a lot of people stayed put more, unless there was a falling out. Gene Colan had a falling out with Jim Shooter and went to DC. But it would take something like that because the royalties that Marvel paid were, generally speaking, much better. They were just selling more and the company was more stable in the sense of cancelling books. Obviously neither of them at that stage were in any danger of going out of business, but Marvel was a place that exuded confidence at that time. For a long time I was a real Marvel junkie; I loved those characters.
DB: I have to bring this one up Ė you pencilled the Captain America movie adaptation.
BH: <laughter> It could indeed be the worst movie ever made, Iím not sure. Maybe Ed Wood did better, or worse, but it really is a stinker. I did it primarily because Stan was going to write it and I thought finally a chance to at least work once with Stan Lee. As it turned out, of course, I didnít really work with Stan at all. Stan did not have time to break the movie down into a scenario for a comic book, so they gave me the script and I broke the story down. I turned it into the office, they shipped it off to Stan and Stan wrote it, so we had no communication whatsoever. <laughter> I ended up doing this lousy movie for nothing. A Red Skull that looked like a can of tomato paste. And I might not have done it if it hadnít been Captain America. For some reason, heís always been one my favourite characters because heís the purest, and the goodest and the bestest. The best writers, I think, have used the fact that heís lived so long and gone through all these decades in the character, so I think itís a great combination.
DB: You did a lot of promo pieces for Marvel, in particular a large Micronauts ad Ė what was the story behind all of that?
BH: Of course, Marvel would assign me things and you could say you didnít want to do them, but for the most part you wanted the work. The thing about doing promo work was that if you were doing something monthly at the time then you probably couldnít take on another monthly book. My limit was one book per month; that was it. I tried a couple of times, but Iím a one-book per month guy. But I could do the occasional cover, or promo work, or something like that. Itíd net you a few bucks for doing just one page. In the instance of the Micronauts, I had been working with Bill Mantlo as a writer. Mantlo wanted a promo piece for reasons I do not remember. It had something to do with getting the book started and then it would also be run in a couple of comics to promote the Micronauts coming up. I canít tell you exactly why they wanted it, but it was essentially that Mantlo requested a promo piece done up and asked them to give the job to me if I wanted it. And thatís the entire story.
DB: Were you dabbling in fine arts at that time?
BH: No. I started that in the early 80s and not too much then. But thatís when I started branching out. I basically got started because I felt my figure drawing was not as good as Iíd liked it to have been. Because like a lot of comic book artists my only point of reference was comics, so I decided I needed to take a figure drawing course. So I took something of the New School, and the New School was working through an art studio called the Don Stacey Studio, that turned out to be a co-operative studio run by this painter, Don Stacey. I took that course, which consisted mainly of just showing up on Wednesday nights and drawing the model. I began to really like drawing the model and started coming on a few other days as well and found that I was breaking away from a comic book style entirely with the figure drawing, and I really liked that. I thought it freed up my whole approach a little bit. I was no longer feeling so much that everything I was doing was imitating a comic book art. Eventually Don kept trying to get me to paint and I kept saying ďNo, no, I havenít got time, no, noĒ. For some reason I was very afraid of being that creative. I cannot tell you why, I have no idea. It took a while, but eventually Don just put a canvas in my hand and handed me some paint and a brush and said, ďHere, paint something on thisĒ <laughter> and I was hooked, and Iíve been painting ever since. The other nice thing about painting was that, especially if I was doing comic assignments. Comic book assignments are something like engraving the Lordís Prayer on the heads of pins and I began to really enjoy doing abstract paintings where you just came in and really moved the paint around and stand back and throw stuff at the canvas if you wanted to.
DB: Did you ever attempt to adapt your fine art and painting to the comic books medium?
BH: Iíve never done any. I have in the last couple of years in fact started, but am getting nowhere with it; a portfolio of my paintings. Because I feel the same way and Iíve just been too damn busy and I never seem to get them finished. So Iím rather determined to do so because it seems to me a nice way to make some bucks, an enjoyable way. And yes, Iíd like to get to put what I found out about layering paint and textures and colours to work for me. The closest Iíve ever come was doing wash drawings for one horror story for Marvel.
DB: How did Valiant come about?
BH: Well Marvel seemed relatively un-interested in me at that point. I think because weíd sort of had a dispute and it wasnít like anybody had raged at anybody. I think they felt that I had let them down, and I felt that they had let me down. I was given the Nick Fury series that followed up on the Nick Fury mini-series, which I think that Mick Zeck did. My deal was that I said I would do it, but that I had a lot of other things going on and I didnít have much time, and the only way I could maintain a monthly schedule on it would be if there was always a script waiting for me when I turned in the previous issue. Everybody agreed, and the writer was Bob Harras. At any rate, I turned in the first one and the script wasnít ready and I said ďWell, do it as soon as you canĒ and I think two weeks later it still wasnít ready and I said ďI canít do it. That was the deal and I think itíll be like this for every issue and I just canít do itĒ. So I think they were upset because I had left them in the lurch for issue two and I was upset because I couldnít do it and, I wasnít upset that ďOh, they betrayed me! They didnít have the script readyĒ; I was just upset that I couldnít do the work and I knew that in this instance they would be pissed at me, but, nonetheless, I had to say I couldnít do it. That was sort of it for Marvel at me. It just seemed that I couldnít get anyone to hire me at all, and at the same time Jim (Shooter) was starting his company and I thought Ďok, Iíll work for himí, because he told me he wanted me. When I called he wanted me to write for him, and that delighted me. I always wanted to write comics so thatís what happened. He gave me a choice of several projects and I picked Shadowman because it was the least involved with the Valiant Universe in a way. I liked the idea of doing a book that was sort of a cul-de-sac over to one side. It was not going to be constantly influenced by other characters who were all going to interact. I wrote a couple of issues and then started writing and drawing, which is what Iíve tried to do ever since.
DB: Your Valiant work was fairly different to the other Valiant comics at the time.
BH: I think it was different. I sort of felt it had to be in order for the book to have an identity, and also I didnít particularly go along with the style. Valiant was really trying to do a grid and I looked at what other people were doing and felt there had to be a compromise between an absolute grid and the fact that, indeed, some other books for other companies were getting to be very hard to read. I thought I could pull it off, so that they still had interesting layouts but were readable. I felt free to experiment because I was writing it.
DB: You were almost the antidote to the Valiant house style.
BH: Well I hope so. I never like house styles too well, but like I said thatís why I chose that book. I knew that if Iíd written Solar itíd have to fit very tightly into the Valiant universe. I thought the result would have ended up that Iíd have done a house style. I might try to break away from it, but it would have been much harder to break away from that doing Shadowman. I think I would have been pressed a bit to keep it within the framework.
DB: How did Valiant start up?
BH: Well Jim Shooter had been fired from Marvel, or dismissed Ė same thing as being fired but it sounds more mutual, and I donít know that it was. I donít know the details of that one. I know that Jim was left feeling rather bitter about it. Heíd made an attempt to take the company in his direction and went out on a limb and the powers that be upstairs said, ďNo, we donít think soĒ. So Jim, Bob Layton and Barry Smith and Jimís lawyer, Steve Makarsky, formed Valiant Comics. While it was a good name, I think it also had a little bit to do with going valiantly to the fore to take something in the direction that Jim wanted to take Marvel. That was more hindsight since his next project was called Defiant. For a couple of years they didnít start a line of comics. They were doing comic book spin-offs from video games, Zelda, the Super Mario Brothers, and they were doing wrestling comics for what was then the WWF, now the WWE, and were trying to get cash flow to eventually start a comic books line. I did a little bit of work for them at that time, really very little, doing some wrestling one-page posters of famous wrestlers. Then they acquired the rights to the Gold Key comic line. So that gave them a bunch of, well, not very well-known to the younger generation heroes, but sort of a place to start with characters like Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter and a couple of others. They added to that characters that theyíd invented, such as Bloodshot, Ninjack came later, Dr Mirage, there were a lot of them including Shadowman. I was in a position where I needed some work. I had been doing theatre and I had been director of a project for six years and thought it was time to leave that behind and everybody in comics was making money hand-over-fist, so it also seemed a good time to get back into comics. As I said, Jim said ďCome and writeĒ, and gave me the choice of several possibilities and I picked Shadowman. The interesting thing being that Iíd never worked with Jim, even as an editor. By the time I was ready to run the first story-line by him, he had been voted out, or bought out, or partially bought out, or something by his partners. Again, the details of that were all very unclear, but apparently Jim was going in a direction that they didnít want to go and I think this time the trouble was business. They were very interested in selling the company, they didnít particularly want to leave it, but they wanted to sell it to a company that had more cash flow, plus, through happenstance, it was at exactly the time when their fortunes were burgeoning, so the company was worth a lot more than they had put into it and the partners stood to make quite a gain off it. Jim didnít want to do that. He wanted to maintain control and the company as he had wanted it to be and partially because heíd been burnt by Marvel dismissing him and he didnít want that to happen again. He felt he could make strong decisions as long as nobody could come along and say ďAh, strong decision. That disagrees with mine, youíre firedĒ. So, at any rate, I found myself working for Bob Layton. Thatís sort of the continuum, the story of my sojourn at Valiant. Everything else was pretty stable.
DB: They had a good selection of artists at Valiant Ė you, Bob Layton, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Dixon, Don Perlin and they also nurtured younger artists such as David Lapham, Sean Chen and Joe Quesada. Was there any involvement with the younger artists coming through?
BH: None whatsoever. It was, for the most part, that comics had become pretty much what they are now. Well, perhaps not quite but they were certainly on their way to comic artists being very mobile and not necessarily even coming into the office. So I would say most of the pencillers, for instance, may have passed through once or twice. But that was about it.
DB: You werenít living in America when you were working for Valiant.
BH: It was half and half. For the first two and half, maybe three years, I was in America. I started working for them when I was in Nebraska and that lasted about six to eight months, and then I moved back to New York, which was when I spent a good deal of time in the Valiant office and they gave me a drawing table there; they were sort of anxious that I came into work. I think Bob had in mind that it would be a mentoring situation, but it never quite transpired. I would say that more the mentoring was done, for me, by Don Perlin, who was quite a terrific editor and gave me a lot of ideas and also gave me some old pro advice that Iíd never quite heard before and we had quite a nice relationship. Of course, there were moments of working with inkers. I would say I had more interaction with inkers than with pencillers. Tom Ryder, obviously not with John Dixon, he was working from Australia, so it was sort of catch as catch can. In Ď94 we decided to go to England Ė because we could. It was just a time when, since communications had improved, I had not been doing a steady book. In other words, back when I was working at Marvel, it would have been a little more difficult to keep checking into the office and all that sort of thing. You could, but it was all mail and that kind of stuff. By the time mid 90s arrived, you had fax and FedEx and all that kind of stuff you could really work anywhere, even before the Internet. I could kind of see the handwriting on the wall. Sales had started to taper off and a lot of people were more optimistic than I was. I sort of saw that extreme collector market that we were involved with being something that was going to collapse, and I donít mean I had terrific foresight or something, but just being around a certain amount of years I sort of said, ďWell this is abnormalĒ. It was a balloon; it felt like people that collect Beanie Babies. There was not really much difference; people were obsessed with Beanie Babies. Some of them at a particular time were worth a ton of money until everybody realised that these were a product being made right then, and everybody who wanted one, had one. Once they started hitting the market with the comics that they had been scarfing up, the collectors, they began to realise that no matter what the charts were showing, that this should sell for a hundred dollars, this comic, that it was selling for half that, then a fourth of that and then slowly it drifted back towards most of them being worth what they are now. There are ones that collectors bought entire runs of that are now selling for cover price or less. I kind of didnít want to be around to see that. That wasnít the reason I left for England, but it felt good to be getting out of town. I thought also I could sit still and try and bank as much money as possible or I could do something fun while the getting was good. That was what I decided. <chuckles>
DB: If you can do it then do it.
BH: Yeah, and donít regret it for a moment. It was a lot of fun going over, it was kind of my fiftieth birthday present. We lived in Cornwall and York, and then spent eight or nine months in Dublin as well. We were there for about two years and had a really terrific time. I decided that I wanted to stop doing Shadowman just before we went. Partially because people were beginning to panic a little bit as sales declined. One day I went in and Bob Layton said to me, ďYouíre not drawing Shadowman black enough, youíve got to draw him blackĒ. I said, ďBut heís a person of colour, but heís not strictly speaking black, heís a CreoleĒ. Bob said, ďNo, no, heís black and youíve got to draw him more blackĒ and walked away and I sort of thought Ďthis is strangeí. I did a couple of things that way and slowly went back to how Iíd been drawing it, but I kind of realised that the books-days were numbered. Especially drawing him that way he was no longer quite the character I had lived with for three years, he was a different character and I could probably make it a perfectly fine black character, in fact we had a lot of black characters in the book, but Jack was what he was and I didnít feel like getting into a situation where Iíd start altering what heíd always been. So I felt maybe itís time for me to get off it because Iíd had a very long run on it. In fact, when I got off it, they decided just to put the book on hiatus for a while. Bob encouraged me, I donít mean Bob was a terrible editor, he was quite fun to work with and I think this was just one of those things where somebody was sweating saying, ďWhat can I do to make the books sell? How can I make them sell?Ē and he encouraged me to create a noir series, a gangster series and sort of let me have my head with it. It was a black and white series called Armed And Dangerous, which I think is quite the best work I ever done. The first three were seen by some people and the last three were seen by almost no-one, because the distribution just went down and down and down, the number of orders for the books and the number of books being printed followed suit. Iím actually trying to see if I canít possibly acquire the rights back to it. They havenít gotten back to me yet, but Iíd love to own, if even only the publication rights so I can get it out as a graphic novel because I really loved the series. And that was sort of the end of Valiant, which was the time when they were cutting back and cutting back and cutting back, and finally it was clear that they were going to, as they did, dribble and drabble for a year or so and then they were going to stop producing.
DB: You then went from Valiant to DC.
DB: Your Batman graphic novel is very visual, without that sounding stupid. It has the touches of a director. It looked different to the other Batman projects of the time.
BH: I was not displeased with that. The reason I went to DC was because I put out feelers to try and see how would give me some work and the person who came through was Denny OíNeil, who didnít know me personally, although since then weíve become friends. I really like Denny a lot. He knew my work and that pleased me. He knew the Armed And Dangerous work, which is what I felt was the best reference for Batman. If you put Shadowman in the middle of the Armed And Dangerous stuff you sort of had Batman in a sense, and again he let me pretty much go my own way with it because I was doing the thing they call the prestige series. Somehow that always sounds very arrogant even to say, ďWell I was doing the prestige seriesĒ. It allowed me to do things that they werenít doing. I did one Elseworldís thing. They didnít have to be exactly, they had to be Batman, but they didnít have to be current Batman, they didnít have to be what was happening in the continuity of it, which made it fun for me. I thought the Batman: DOA was quite successful. I did one about the Joker where I called it Joker Time and tried to do satire. I think it confused people a little because comic books arenít really used to that any more. Theyíre so serious, a lot of the mainstream comics and satire doesnít seem to be terribly wanted, but I had fun doing it.
DB: Itís odd, you say satire isnít wanted but people still call them funny books.
DB: How do you see comics these days?
BH: Well Iím a bit burnt out with them. I think there are a number of things that are problematic about the market. Clearly, the market has reassembled itself after the crash of Ď93 as a niche market, but it certainly went down and down and down until it finally sort of levelled off. Some people would say it levelled off and other people would say itís still declining, I donít know which is true. I think we made a number of mistakes during the time of the collector that hurt us. One of them was just things that catered to the collector, like putting comic books on archival paper, like acid free and all that kind of stuff. In the long run, I donít think it made the collectors happy because comic books didnít yellow and become more rare, but by the time theyíd done that, computer colouring had come along and things could be done that perhaps required paper better than newsprint. Although I always thought the newsprint gave a very pleasing look to comics, it kind of absorbed everything. For a while computer colouring was just terrible because nobody really knew how to do it. Some of the old colourists would have known how to do it if theyíd known how to run a computer but couldnít run a computer, and some people who could run a computer had not the vaguest idea of how to colour. We did things that made comics much more expensive so now they comparatively cost a fortune, so that the kid who wants to read all of Marvel; I donít know if that person exists anymore. Unless youíre a real rich kid, youíre not going to go and scrimp to buy every one because you wanted to see how they were connecting; it seemed like a universe and that was so great. The other problem I think weíve got, in about 1979 there was an explosion of special interest magazines on the stand in this country. They drove comic books off the stands because they took up the same amount of space but sold for so much more. That was when, I think it was Phil Seuling gets the credit for figuring out that you could distribute through all the head shops, that were stocking back issues of comic books and were all over the country. That worked brilliantly because we already had a built-in audience who wanted to get the product, they were just not being able to find it. I think what we failed to realise was that, about three generations later, we had a bunch of kids who had never seen a comic book. Theyíre sort of not that much in drug stores or supermarkets anymore; theyíre in comic stores and why would you go to a comic store to get something that youíre not right into? Thatís been a real difficulty and nobodyís quite worked out how to solve it yet. In terms of the business, I think weíre still looking for what could it be. And for a while nobody worked on the distribution because they thought that the dot-coms were going save comics and fix all of this, and of course, we know what happened to them. So I think people are looking for a new answer, I hope. Beyond that, I think that leads us to what are comics now. And as a niche market theyíre selling to people who are 35-45; I would imagine that would be the medium age of the comic reader, and they really are fans. Nothing wrong with that, but what they want is the esoteria. They love it. The continual repeat of variations on Supermanís origin story is one of the best examples. They sort of do that over and over and over and over and it appears the comics readers like it. Thatís fine, except that itís not exactly whatís going to appeal to a broader audience. I think itís clearly something for the esoteric audience. The continual re-inventing of the Marvel and DC universes has become pretty boring to me. I donít know that Iím interested in seeing any more adventures of Green Lantern, and thatís sort of sacrilege I know, or anyone else, Batman, Superman. Every once in a while someone will do something thatís really inventive. Iím enjoying Kyle Bakerís Plastic Man right now for instance, where itís really brushed off a character, but Iím tired of the ultra complexity that they really have become terribly like soap operas. You really must have deep backgrounds in order to read most of them. And the sense of fun that was there sometimes; itís not that I think thatís how comics should be, as opposed to grim, serious stories, which I think is the norm now, but again the Kyle Baker ones did seem to hark back to when there were comics around that were mainstream comics by the big companies that were funny. And superheroes could be funny; some were, some werenít, and I miss that. I guess Iím most interested right now in sort of independent movies, some of the people who are doing quite personal comics. Like Dan Clowes and The Smartest Boy On Earth. I donít mean I would never read a superhero comic, or never draw one again; itís just that Iíve kind of just gotten a little tired of the genre.
DB: If you could pick a book, which one would you like to do?
BH: What I would like to do is graphic novels. At this point in my career, Iíd like to own some of the stuff that Iíve done. The only real difficulty was probably taking that trip to England. The problem with doing that is you pretty much have to finance them yourselves. There arenít very many companies whoíll front you the money to do the graphic novels, so getting them done in the first place is a bit of a chore. I would like to go there and see what I could do.
As for characters Iíve never done Superman, who, of course, of all the characters who have the most boring problems, Superman has had that problem of being God, but I still would love to draw him at least once before I retire. I would do more Batman. I stopped doing it, not by my own volition, but because Denny OíNeil retired and Bob Shreck came in with a roster of artists that he wanted to use. Which is certainly fair enough, thatís what happens with editors constantly. Itís just harder in the business right now because all of these cartoonists who were working during the boom who are all now struggling after a lot fewer jobs, so the competition is much more difficult. I suppose in comics nobody should count on making their living out of comics. You might, but itís a bit more like being an actor. You might really hit and make a killing, but itís better to go in at least and count on you might have to have alternate work. Even if that means you had to diversify in comic style things. Like Iím trying to prepare a portfolio of cover illustrations, that maybe just doing comics isnít quite the career it used to be. You might work very steadily for a year and a half and not have anything to do for another year and a half or two years.
DB: †Youíre a theatre director. Looking at your background, your theatre work is predominately Shakespeare. One thing that leaps out though is the Swan Shakespeare Festival that takes place in a cemetery.
BH: Well thatís purely accidental but I love it. The actors have taken to calling it ĎBard In A Boneyardí. It was the oldest cemetery in town and they wanted to restore the notion of people using the cemetery as a public space. There was a section set off as sort of a park, and in the early part of the 20th century, perhaps, people were less phobic about cemeteries; I donít know, but they would come and picnic, that sort of thing, under the trees it was quite lovely. As part of getting back to some of that activity, the cemetery contacted me about an old carriage house they have. Itís actually a barn and some stables that form a square behind it, with an open courtyard in the middle, and thought it might do for theatre and perhaps Shakespeare. I came to look at it and I was rather dubious to a degree about the whole business, but it was lovely. It was gorgeous! It must have been very much like what the inn yards were like, that Shakespeareís troupe toured to in off-seasons. And itís just a perfect Shakespearian format and thereís something quite magical about it and people seem to really love it. And Iíve become quite fond of wandering around the cemetery myself, and yes indeed, there is something strangely comic book related about the whole notion. I canít put my finger on it, but itís there.
DB: How did you get into theatre?
BH: Itís what I always wanted to do. I started off wanting to act and tried acting and realised that I probably was not the greatest actor that ever lived, but I did have a real affinity for stories and storytelling. The director is very much like a comic artist in the sense that he takes whatís on page and translates it into visual images. I make sure that the visual story is being told as well as the emotional, etc. But he has to break down the script and analyse it just as an artist does, so I think that was the connection between the two professions forming. How I got onto it, I donít know. I started trying directing while I was in college and found that I was good at it. I was never that good at that many things, so when I found it I wanted to latch onto it and keep going.
DB: Is it classical Shakespeare that you do? When I think of Shakespeare on the American stage I think of Orson Welles and his Voodoo MacBeth and his fascist Julius Caesar. Is something like that a possibility, to take classical Shakespeare and contemporise it?
BH: Yes. I think I always contemporise it in some way, although I would feel that I had made it that we had, how do I put this. You donít need to make Shakespeare contemporary; you need to find whatís in the play that is contemporary, ideas that seem to concern us as it did the Elizabethans. So, in that respect, the plays can still be contemporary even if theyíre set in Elizabethan England. But I have had done a lot of them in other periods, or in modern dress and it does well to free the play a bit from being stiff and historical. The thing you have to watch for is trying to be too clever. Iíve seen Shakespeare where the soliloquies were done into cell phones and things like that. And they can tend to become pretty self-concisious if you over do it. Although I think certain plays could be fun to over do it in. A Comedy Of Errors, for example, might very possibly do well in cell phones but it depends on the play and the circumstance. †But I also deal with them in terms of the modern theatre because theyíre so presentational. Because Iím doing Midsummerís Night Dream, Iíll have some of the Oberonís retinue actually become the forest, with long poles and things, so they can get a lot of business out of the lovers running around the forest and the forest moves around on them. Sometimes it moves right in front of them so that they run into it and things like that. Thatís sort of a more contemporary idea of something that you can do than in the 40s and 50s when it was expected that, for most part, plays would be staged fairly realistically.
Welles was clearly ahead of the game with what he was doing, especially in this country. People like Tyrone Guthrie were doing some similar things in England, but Welles, as usual, was off and running (somehow the picture of Orson running is not a pretty one <laughter>). Now a lot of people have moved towards the kinds of things that he did. He certainly was a pioneer. I saw, in San Diego, a summer production of Julius Cesar that worked quite well and featured the conspirators walking through metal detectors, as they had to come in to the capital and that, so itís very interesting what you can do with them. And the production in no way violated the spirit of the play at all.
DB: You also co-wrote a play, The Passion Of Dracula. How did that come about?
BH: Well a regional theatre in New Jersey, this is when I was living in New York, asked me if Iíd do a Dracula and we were going to do the one that Bela Lugosi did and we found out it wasnít available. Essentially, because someone was trying to make it into a musical but nobody thought that it would actually happen, but they had secured the rights. We did what seemed to be the best other version. Frankly we wrote parts of it and things like that because it was a little bit too campy. To my embarrassment, the playwright came to see it and was very gracious. But it was a big hit and we got the reviewer from The Times out to see it and he really liked it and he liked the production elements. He didnít say much about the script, but liked some of the things weíd invented. The producer of the regional theatre wanted to bring the show into New York but the playwright wouldnít allow it because of the changes weíd made. So Erik Krebs, who was the producer, said ďWell, why donít you write a new one. Write your own versionĒ. There was a fellow in the play that seemed like a good writing partner. †I had never written much of anything at that time and having somebody who had written seemed like a great comfort especially as it was a commission. So we wrote our own version and in fact did do it in New York and it was pretty successful.
DB: And you did it again with Frankenstein.
BH: We swore that we would never do another genre piece, that weíd adapt something else, or else write something from scratch. We could never quite come up with anything until somebody also commissioned us to do a version of Frankenstein. The moment they were offering us money we said, ďWhy not?Ē and did what really didnít work very well for theatre. It was a much more difficult piece to adapt, but eventually it has boiled down into quite a good script. Iíd like to go back and do it again in New York now.
DB: Your future, by the sounds of it, seems pretty much set in theatre.
BH: Iím not sure. Iím at a point where Iím looking for something that can be a bit better money. I hate to be mercenary about it but Iím planning to do a blitz, trying to see about doing comic book work and at the same time do something with trying to contact a lot more theatres than Iíve been working at. Whatís happened to the arts during the last two or three years in this country is difficult. The ability to make a living has declined and Iím sort of in that position right now, I need to find something better to do than what Iím doing, just from the point of view of practicality.
DB: Do you feel that the comic industry is ageist now?
BH: Oh totally. Denny OíNeil and I were talking about it the last time I saw him, he said he was getting a lot of it from people he knew, and he knows a hell of a lot more people than I know, of people who were not even really that old, people in their 40s who were feeling that the editors were so young and, again, itís pretty common for you not to hire someone a hell of a lot older than you are. So editors were hiring people who they felt were their contemporaries. Thatís just always the case and unless you somehow become one of those people who really is, and feels that theyíre indispensable, youíre going to have those difficulties. There were a few people like John Buscema who kept being asked back to do stuff, but not that many people are asked back to do stuff. There are a few and, of course, Frank Miller is a good example. Iím not sure how old Frank is, but he must be getting close to 50, and is probably going to go on working for a quite a while yet because heís such a legend. John Byrne appears to be doing some stuff at DC, Chris ClaremontÖ but other older people like Len Wien, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, you really donít see them working much and they were good writers and pretty much the staple of the industry. Barry Smith. Now, Barry is a bit of an eccentric so maybe he doesnít want to work, but thereís nobody better than Barry. I would certainly like to see more of his work out there. And the only real person whoís conquered the ageism is Will Eisner by doing a continual series of graphic novels thatís he persuaded various people to publish, including DC, and Iím sure thatís part of my inspiration in thinking thatís the way to go.