So what do Russ Manning, Winnie the Pooh and Jack Kirby have in common? All were associated with the talented Mike Royer, who spoke with me at length in January of 2012 about the work he’d done with these creators and character and more.
Bryan D. Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It’s pretty well established that your career got started in the mid-’60s, but I couldn’t tell if you’d had any art school training.
Mike Royer: I went to art school for about a year. I was born and raised in the Willamette Valley in Oregon into a middle-class family who didn’t have the funds to say, “Here, kid. Here’s your money for school.” So I worked real hard during the summer and saved money and was able to go to school for a year and borrowed a little money which I paid back after that first year.
It was just too hard from my standpoint to apply myself properly for the lessons from art school and also work 6 hours a day at the Ben Paris restaurant in downtown Seattle. There was just no time to have a life.
So it was almost a year and I finally just had to pack up and return home. I had all kinds of strange and interesting adventures in art school. I learned to never get a room in a big city YMCA…
Royer: The people that you meet… Renting an apartment on Capitol Hill with a buddy I met while I was up there and having the stereotypical World War II era Polish landlady who developed a crush on me. Trying to stay away from her added to my “excitement.”
But getting back to your question my school was, unfortunately, the School of Hard Knocks. I sometimes look at the careers of other… I guess I could call them contemporaries or maybe close artists; you know, the 4 or 5 guys who go to New York City and get a loft and work together and use each other as models and that sort of thing and wait for years and years to get married. Maybe I just wasn’t that definite. I knew what I wanted to do, it’s just that I didn’t know how to go about doing it.
I went to a convention in 1964 and took a comic book that another fan, Dale Broadhurst did the writing adaptation. I did the drawing for an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, “The Wizard of Venus.” We got permission from Hobart Burroughs to do it. So we printed this thing up and took it to the convention and met a lot of interesting people, like Harlan Ellison, who is a fascinating, fascinating, brilliant writer and eccentric, lovable human being. Well, you either love him or hate him. I love him.
I went primarily because I wanted to meet Russ Manning, who I learned from a fanzine was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. I thought, “Well, everybody will be going to the Dum-Dum in the 1964 World Science-Fiction Convention in Oakland,” but of course he didn’t show up because he had a career and a life. But I met Camille Kazbasu who was the editor of “Urban” Burroughs fanzine and he apparently after the convention in Oakland went to southern California and visited Russ Manning who was living outside of Orange, near Santa Ana. So he told him about me and Kaz wrote and urged me to send some samples off to Russ, which I did and m-a-n-y months later Russ wrote back and said that if I wanted to be an assistant then I would be perfect for the part, or words to that effect.
So I took that as an excuse to pack up my family, tell the place I worked that I would be taking a month’s vacation and we put half our belongings in storage and packed the rest in a U-Haul trailer and headed for southern California and figuratively speaking parked in Russ Manning’s yard and said, “I’m ready to go to work.” So he gave me work.
CB: So I guess it was one of those “who you know” situations.
Royer: It helps to have people on your side. That’s how it started. I assisted with Russ for about eleven months and my day job for 5 days a week was credit manager and paint salesman for Sherwin-Williams. I worked with Russ on weekends and nights and after eleven months he mentioned that he knew someone named Mike Aarons(?) who worked at an animation studio and they were looking for people who could ink and draw, but primarily ink.
So I went into Hollywood and met Mike Aarons and went to Grantray-Lawrence Animation to work on the, by today’s standards, extremely cheap and crude Marvel superheroes cartoons which basically consisted of taking stacks of the comic book art, taking parts of the art, pasting it down, extending it down into drawings and occasionally a new piece of art to bridge the comic book panels and limited animation and lip movement. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old Marvel superheroes Captain America and Thor. The Sub-Mariner had only had about 4 issues published at that time in Tales of Suspense or Tales to Astonish or whatever book it was. It was half a book.
So we created a lot of brand new stories for Sub-Mariner. I did some penciling and a lot of inking. I got to meet guys like Doug Wildey and Keever and Mike Harris became my real mentor. This was the guy that told me, “If you ever go to talk to an editor you don’t want to be able to turn down a job because you can’t do what is necessary.” He taught me how to letter, which was simply explained to me that lettering each letter is something that you draw. When I was at Disney and was a character art manager and handing out artwork that had to be inked we had a thing where if there was any lettering on it I’d hear, “I don’t letter,” and I said, “Look at it. It’s drawing. Ink the drawing.” I just learned from Mike Aarons how each letter was just part of the drawing.
Mike gave me work and I inked and lettered some of his stories for Peterson’s Cartoons Magazine. I also worked with Mike in that year, ’66, worked with him on, believe it or not, Batman, the comic strip, that appeared in shopping newspapers in the South. They were 4 to 6 panels every week that appeared in the supplement of this newspaper. You’d find it on the rack at the supermarkets. It was the TV version of Batman.
CB: What a surprise!
Royer: Nobody ever knows about that and the only thing I have to document it is old thermofax copies that are now a really rich brown.
Royer: But Mike was my mentor and it lasted…I seem to be on these 11-month cycles in the beginning of my career. With the Marvel Superheroes I was on that for about 11 months. Then they had a layoff and at the same time Russ Manning was being asked by his editor at Western Publishing to consider doing much more work. He’d done some Tarzan work that was very popular and they wanted him to do the Tarzan adaptations as well as Magnus and some other stuff. He said the only way he could do it was if I were assisting him. But there wasn’t enough money in it to be a full-time income for me, so I got a call from Chase Craig and he said, “Would you like to come in and get some work?”
I never even had to show samples and the first thing that I did for Western Publishing…and I don’t know how many people know this or if I’ve ever mentioned it in an interview before, but the first thing I did was that I penciled a frame tray puzzle of Superboy leaping into the air as the grizzly bear takes a swipe at him. And then it was painted by one of those publishing painters on the east coast and that was my first job for Western.
So I was working with Russ and doing inking and some lettering for Western Publishing. At some point in there Russ was offered the Tarzan comic strip. Then in 11 months or less I got a phone call from Grantray Animation saying they’d got the deal to do the first Saturday morning animated Spider-Man series and would I like to come back into work and was interviewed by their new production manager who, in some sort of cockeyed wisdom had been hired from the construction business to be the production manager. You tell me how that makes any sense.
Royer: And I sat there opposite this guy and he said, “Okay, if you can only work 20 or 25 hours a week that’s fine, but we can’t give you any screen credit if you’re not in house.” Being a naive 20-something I didn’t think that I could just go to the screen cartoonist’s union, that I was a member of, and scream bloody murder and they would have jumped all over this guy and said, “Oh, but yes he does get screen credit.” But, again, being a naïve 20-something I thought, “Well, okay, that’s just the way it is.”
I laid out about one third of those shows. Anyway, after about 4 weeks of that or even less, I was working directly with Grant Simmons, who was the “Grant” of Grant ray, and he was an old-timer from way back. You’d see Grant Simmons’ name on the old Tom and Jerry cartoons as well as Ray Patterson who was the “Ray” of Grantray and was on the producing end in New York City.
After 3 or 4 weeks when I was meeting with Grant and going over his stick figure layouts and field sizes and storyboard he said, “You know, Mike, you’re really in trouble. People in the studio are really madder than hell at you. I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the work that you turn in for 20 or 22 hours a week is more than they do in house in 40 hours.”
Of course you must understand when you’re in house, there’s a lot of water cooler conversations, meetings, BSing, all that stuff. I said, “Well, what do I do?” He said, “Charge me for 40 hours.” So I worked 20 to 22 hours a week and charged him for 40 and everybody was happy.
CB: Not a bad gig. (Chuckle.)
Royer: Yeah, it’s funny. I guess I’ve been naïve my entire life. The studio went bankrupt right at the end of the Spider-Man job and one of the problems was that Ray Patterson’s wife June was in charge of the script department and she had I think 4 or 5 writers and rather than give each writer a different show, she would have a whole group of writers write their version of that week’s episodes. (Pause.) Think about it. You’re spending a lot of money that’s unnecessary, and whatever her reasoning was, and she may have wound up with better stories by picking the best of the group, but I don’t think it was a wise business decision and of course they wound up going bankrupt.
I remember on a Friday afternoon getting a phone call from Grant Simmons saying, “Mike,” we got to be pretty good friends; “Mike, the Sheriff is closing us down on Monday. If you’d like to drive into the studio tomorrow morning, you can have anything you want.” So rather than go in and take home piles and piles of cels of Spider-Man and Green Goblin and all the other characters, Electro and all, what did I take home? Two pages of original art that got sent out to the west coast. One from a Western comic that was drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by…somebody and then a page of Captain America penciled and inked by George Tuska. Now of course if I’d have taken all the rest of that stuff home I could probably have retired a lot earlier.
CB: It’s hard to imagine what those could have gone for.
Royer: But I thought at the time, “What the hell do I want with all this crap?” I’ve got to tell you, though, it was a fun time because of all the people that I met:
Meeting Doug Wildey, who was a kick in the pants, besides being extremely talented. I remember one time back in the Marvel superhero days that we were in the room picking brushes. You’d have a dozen cards with 4 to 6 brushes on them such as your series 7 number 2’s and we all did the same thing. You pulled a brush out and you licked it and if it came to a point that you liked then that’s the one you took back to your drawing board. It happened to be the same day that Stan Lee came out to visit the crew at the studio and we’re all kibitzing and licking brushes and hanging around and Doug licks a brush and remember, this is 1965 or ’66 and he says, “This stuff is shit!” Now here it is 2012 and I would kill to get some of that mid-60’s “shit.”
CB: That’s right. I’ve been told by more than one person that the quality certainly has not improved over the years.
Royer: When you talk about state of the art, that doesn’t mean a damn thing. Think about it. State of the art. “This is the state of the art brush from Winsor-Newton.” Yeah, but the state of the art sucks rubber donkey lungs.
CB: (Laughter.) Russ Heath is in your camp. He told me that if he could just get a decent brush it would make life so much easier. John Workman suggested that even the ink doesn’t seem to be of the same quality as it used to be.
Royer: I’m able to get an ink that seems to be nice and densely black, but if you leave the cap off for longer than 20 minutes it turns into molasses. The jar that I have now that I ink from I’ve thinned down with water so much that it’s probably 80% water, but it’s still black as sin. But as I said, leave the cap off for half an hour and you’ve got to thin it down more.
Back in the Marvel superhero days there was an artist there named Herb Hazelton who was an excellent fine artist. Back in the days when they had a wax museum down on Knott’s Berry Farm was still in business with all these wax replicas of famous paintings, Herb had actually done all of the reproductions of the famous paintings and Herb inked off an ink block. I’ve often wondered if you could still go to an art store and get an ink block. He would just wet the brush and rub the brush across the block and then you could get the ink as thin or as thick as you wanted depending on how much ink was in the brush. But then again, why do I want to find something that makes inking easier? All these years. But, sometimes you have to do what’s necessary to put food on the table.
The 21½ years that I did Disney character art was probably years that I spent as “creator” and the 7½ years working with their stores was, at least for anybody who had a creative bent of any kind, like heaven. Everything that I drew, they bought. Whether they produced it or not.
CB: Wow. You can’t beat that at all.
Royer: What a great time! Every morning I’d have coffee with my wife and we would discuss ideas. Sixty percent of what I did for the stores was concepts. The other forty percent was correcting and cleaning up other concepts in house, or doing final art on my concepts. Most of my concepts were so finished they could turn them over to somebody else.
Forty percent of my ideas came from my wife. They would either be a springboard for an idea or I would just use one hundred percent of what she said. It was fun. We used to go to antique malls and be walking down a row and she’d point and there’d be an old Jack and Jill book from the 1920’s and Jack and Jill were standing on a bridge over a creek and she’s day, “What if you had Pooh and Piglet fishing off the bridge?” Then what I drew was Pooh and Piglet sitting on a log, fishing out of a large wooden barrel full of water.
After the whole Disney store thing went to the devil, which is a good title for middle management…it was months later when I was sitting at the board in my studio and my wife would stick her head in and say, “What if you did Pooh and…oh, we don’t do that anymore.” I do have my soapbox and will go to my grave being a Disney company man. Of course it’s a company that started ceasing to exist when Frank Wells died, but that’s another story.
I highly recommend a DVD that is available, I think, from Disney Home Video. It’s called “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” I digress, but I just watched it last night and what a fantastic thing.
CB: I’ll have to check that out. One of the things I was going to mention is that it’s rather ironic that Disney now owns Marvel and you’ve had such strong connections to both companies.
Royer: It’s funny. One of the problems is that I’m 70, and the mentality, it seems to me, in most companies, the corporate mentality is if you’re over 30, you’re on the downhill side, and if you’re over 40, you’re brain dead. Or, if you’re over 30 or 40 and you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve got experience and you want to be paid for that experience. But I find that you get what you pay for. I never did anything for the stores that didn’t walk right out the doors.
CB: It’s hard to think that someone can arbitrarily put a shelf life on talent.
Royer: Well, when I was younger I wanted to do adventure stuff. Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, that kind of stuff. But I marred early, had young kids, couldn’t go off in that garret in New York with the Bernie Wrightstons and those people who all became incredibly talented, vital artists, and so I found that I could ink and I got a lot of work and supported a family for many years as an inker and doing the occasional penciling job. A couple of jobs I did in the Hanna-Barbera superhero comic books for Gold Key/Western Publishing that I actually drew and inked and lettered the entire books, but I couldn’t get any drawing assignments from Chase Craig. I said, “Look, Chase, let me save you some trouble and I’ll just produce the whole book for you. I talked to Mike and Sparky. I can ink and letter and do the whole thing.” He said, “Sounds great to me.” So then I penciled and inked and lettered the whole book and let them think that Sparky and Mike drew it and just let it go.
Which leads me to believe that a lot of editors don’t know caca from shinola. I mean a decade ago when I moved back to Oregon and the consumer products industry went into the toilet and I started contacting comic book companies to see if they had any inking jobs or anything like that because nobody was doing funny animal comics any longer. What I wanted to do and was working myself toward was doing big foot type comic work. When I would call these editors they’d always say things like, “Oh, we’ll keep you in mind when we have a Jack Kirby project.”
No matter what kind of samples I sent them, and I’ve drawn everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Zorro, but if you say Mike Royer to them they think it’s got to be a Jack Kirby project. I’ve got a letter in my portfolio from a producer at Bagdasarian Productions regarding the storyboard that I did for an Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies show (I moonlighted during a two-week vacation, doing a month’s worth of work in two weeks; it almost killed me, but I wanted to stretch my muscles) and the letter from the producer says, “Your storyboarding is Eisensteinian,” referring to the famous Russian filmmaker.
CB: Ah. I wasn’t familiar with the name.
Royer: I chose Bagdasarian when I heard from some colleagues at work who were buying story boards at the time back in the early ’90s, I guess and supposedly the toughest S.O.B. to work for was Bagdasarian. So I thought if I wanted to try to learn anything, that’s where I’m going. I met the man once when I came in with the first half of the story board and the only thing he said when looking at the first half of the board was, “It’s so nice to see someone using their imagination.”
The fee for the storyboard and three model sheets was $6,000. When the check came it was $8,000. So I like to think that I did a pretty good job. The unfortunate thing is that because the Korean studio that was doing the artwork had fallen behind schedule, they did my show, I think, on a weekend, and it’s available out there on one of the Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies DVD. This had to be around 1991 because we were dealing with Chip Tracy merchandising at the studio. When I was offered work I said, “Let’s do Chip Tracy.”
But I thought that was pretty good to get a $2,000 bonus from the toughest S.O.B. in the business. Especially when editors at DC and Marvel were saying, “Well, we’ll keep you in mind if there’s a Kirby project.”
I will say that I’m proud of my connection to DC comics because they are absolutely fabulous in sending reprint royalty checks. I just love it when they reprint a whole volume of The Demon. I inked and lettered all of them and therefore don’t have to split the reprint money with someone else. And that’s nice.
CB: I’ve read where Jack stated that you were his favorite inker. Now was it his insistence that you were pretty much exclusive on his DC work?
Royer: It’s funny, as I recall it, as long as he was producing comics, he never said who his favorite was. But as soon as he left comic books I noticed that he didn’t have any problem saying that I was his favorite inker. People ask me who my favorite inker is and I tell them my favorite inker was Joe Sinnott…but I was the best. Now I don’t mean that as any kind of egotistical thing. It’s just that I did what Jack wanted. I think I retained all of his power and the one time, for example, that I tried to pretty something up, doing my Joe Sinnott in my subconscious, I prettied up Big Barda’s face and I got a phone call from Jack saying, “Don’t EVER change the faces!” So I never changed Barda’s face after that. I did slim down her ankles once in a while and her waistline, but it was the face that was important, at least to Jack.
Getting back to your original question I met Jack when he was doing stuff for Marvelmania, a merchandising outfit in southern California, maybe in the Santa Monica area. During the Mavelmania days in the late ’60’s I got a phone call one evening and I answered it and this voice said, “Mike Royer? This is Jack Kirby. Word is you’re a pretty good inker.” That’s how it started. I went out to his house and the first thing I ever inked for him I said, “I’ll bring this back to you tomorrow.” “No, no, do it here.” So I sat at his drawing board and he looked over my shoulder. Talk about pressure. It was that shot he did for Mavelmania of himself with Spider-Man and all the Marvel characters kind of swirling around him at the drawing board.
CB: Oh, yeah, the one where the Human Torch is lighting his cigar?
Royer: I can’t remember. I mean, we’re talking late ’60s. I live in the past when it comes to movies, but my own career is a matter of remembering the nuts and bolts and things like eating chocolate cake and drinking milk with Jack in his kitchen, but that’s all I remember. Anyway, as a result of that and apparently he was pleased, I started inking a bunch of stuff for him at Marvelmania. In fact I even inked a whole bunch of stuff for Jim Steranko for Marvelmania. Steranko came and stayed at our house for over a week. Now that’s another story… I mean that with great affection.
In a conversation with Jack on the phone, he’d mention he was going back to New York and he couldn’t tell me why, but he had me in mind for this project. Then a short time later I get a phone call from Maggie Thompson saying, “What’s this I hear that Jack Kirby has left Marvel and is going to DC?” I said, “Its news to me.” Then about the same time I got a phone call from Jack saying, “Well, I’ve left Marvel, I’m going to DC and I wanted to take you with me, but they wouldn’t let me.” So Jack had me in mind from the beginning that I would be inking and lettering his DC work. Because what Jack wanted to do was to show DC and ultimately Marvel that the world did not end at the Hudson River. You could live on the West Coast and produce comic books successfully. The whole operation: Writing, editing, penciling, inking, lettering, everything. But I guess DC didn’t want to lose any kind of control on it and so with the urging of Steve Charmin and Mark Evanier, by the time Jack was ready to do issue #5 of Mister Miracle, Forever People, New Gods, etc. he finally got his wish to have me ink and letter his books. At the same time, he wanted to make sure Vince Colletta had work If he wasn’t inking Jack’s stuff at DC.
DC fully expected me to fail, thereby justifying their desire to control things on the East Coast. So the reason they said yes was that they fully expected me to fall on my butt. To their chagrin, I kept up with Jack. The only inker who inked his complete output, as well as lettering it. I had to letter a book in two days and ink the pages in 3 days to keep up with that. Probably the best thing I ever did for Jack other than to ink the books the way he wanted me to, and by the way he wanted them to look like they were done by him, was that I helped him prove to them that his idea of having a West Coast operation was viable. Of course there may be someone at DC who would dispute that. “Oh, Mike, we knew you’d be just fantastic.”
I made a great impression with Carmine Infantino. In July of 1970 I’d been doing stuff for Jack at Marvelmania and then I was back there at the Seuling 4th of July convention at the Satler Hilton and I went up to the DC offices and I went into Carmine’s office and I said, “You know, you should let me ink Jack. I could do a better job than Colletta’s doing.” I had lunch that day with Dick Giordano and he said, “You know, Mike, you’re going to get a reputation as being cocky, walking into the publisher’s office and telling him you can do a better job than somebody else.” That wasn’t really my intent, but I was still the naïve kid simply stating the facts. I could do a better job.
CB: Well as the old saying goes, “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.”
Royer: I don’t want people to think I’m anti-Colletta, I just don’t think he was right for Jack. Colletta was from the old school and luckily I had mentors from the old school, like Russ Manning, Sparky Moore and others way back in the mid-’60’s, so I learned that, “Mike, you get your first job on your ability and every job after that on your dependability.” Well, there are different rules for comic books now. You’ve got prima donna’s that are dealing with the direct sales market, so if they say it’s going to be late, then that’s what you tell the dealers and it’s late. But in those days if your deadline was the 5th of the month, it behooves you to have it in on the 4th. And Colletta was a guy that Stan or whoever the editor or publisher was, could give him a book and say, “I need it by this date” and Vince Colletta would have it by that date. He has his supporters and his detractors and my only gripe about Vince Colletta is that I don’t think he was right for Jack. But there are probably other people who loved his work on Thor.
I can remember sitting with Phil Spicer back in the ’64-’65 timeframe and looking at old fanzines with the rare Jack Kirby pencil reprints and him asking, “Why doesn’t anybody ever ink Jack?” So when I got that phone call from Jack it was like, “Oh, God, I’ve got a chance now to ink Jack.” Maybe it’s something that’s held me back in my career in that whenever I ink somebody I try to ink it the way I feel he would have inked it. I inked a couple of Ka-Zar’s at Marvel and John Verpoorten, the editor, called me and said, “Mike, I wanted you to give this a Joe Sinnott look and really embellish it.” I said, “I wish you’d have told me that and also told me how much more you were going to pay me to do that.” Because I inked the two stories to make it look like Don Heck had inked it.
I did get a nice compliment from Ramona Fradon a few years ago. I met her five or six years ago at the San Diego Con and she was talking about the one and only Plastic Man comic that I inked for her for DC and she said it was the only time that she’d ever had anyone ink her. Everyone else put in their own personality and changed it. In fact, bless her heart, she said if she were still doing Brenda Starr, she’d have me ink it.
CB: How very nice.
Royer: Nice lady. I’ve met some real talents that were…real talents and I’ve met some real talents that were incredible people. People like Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, to a certain extent Jim Steranko, who is an institution all to himself. What a talent. What a genius talent. I have my heroes. Some of whom are still alive, and unfortunately many that aren’t.
Did you have any questions? I’ve been going all over the place. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: I’m enjoying this thoroughly. There’s a legend that you’ve been to every San Diego Con. Is that true?
Royer: No. I’ve missed a few of them. I don’t think I’ll be going again. It’s not Comic Con any more. It’s this huge marketplace for the motion picture and television industry. And the toy manufacturer’s and the game people. One of the problems with International Comic Con is that tickets go on sale for the next year’s event and the place is full of thousands and thousands of kids who have scraped together every dime to get admittance because they want to get all the freebies. Giant bags with the pictures of Buffy and stuff like that stuffed with all the freebies being given out and so by the time the tickets go on sale the line for the general public, anybody that might have some money to spend, there just aren’t that many of them left. You have to get them instantly or forget it.
I could be exaggerating, but you’ve got 80,000 or 90,000 kids there that don’t have any money. Particularly they don’t have any money for old comic books. The people that would buy old comic books are older and have some money and…they couldn’t get tickets. I may be oversimplifying it, but this is an amalgam of opinions I got from several dealers who aren’t looking to be going any more.
I went there last year and set up with some friends who always get me a table and I think it’s because they like the way I introduce them to every single good looking woman that comes by the table. So after expenses, I should have just stayed home because I wound up going away with thousands of dollars worth of artwork. If I’d just kept that artwork and stayed at home and taken it someplace else that I could have sold it, I’d have been better off.
I’m not crazy about WonderCon this year because it’s going to be in Anaheim. So now it’s going to be closer to the studios. Last year I think there were two studios represented at WonderCon. Eventually I think it’s going to become another media event.
Denny Miller, who was a Tarzan and did 20-some Wagon Trains and did some work with Juliet Prowse and worked with Peter Sellers had me do some drawings for a book he did about 5 years ago. He was going to some of the comic cons, but when he went to International Comic Con he said the sad thing is that nobody knows him. In other venues you’ve got the old-timers like me or the generation behind it that remembers things like Wagon Train. Everybody remembers the surfer who comes to shore in Gilligan’s Island and that’s Denny. He was mentioning some other celebrities who did just as badly because nobody knows who they are. I found that the majority of people who stopped at my table last year didn’t even know who Winnie the Pooh was, and the new feature was just opening in the theaters.
Getting back to your question I’ve been to about 80% of the cons in San Diego, but after the first five or six years I was at a weekend thing in Orange County and had lunch with Shel Dorf and Shel asked if I was coming to Comic Con that year. I said, “Yeah, as long as you’re giving us West Coast guys a room. I’ll do anything you want. Panels, anything.” He said, “Well, we’re not giving you guys rooms any more because you’ll come anyway.” I could understand from a budget standpoint that they could no longer comp West Coast artists, but if he’d put it in the context that because of the cost they can’t comp us I’d have said, “Okay, I can still be there.” But the way it was presented was that, “Well, you guys will come anyway, so why should we give you anything?”
So for the next couple of years I didn’t go. Let’s see, my Inkpot is dated 1978, so I probably skipped for three years. Most of the people I knew understood why, because it was just the way it was presented to me. I didn’t mind not being comped, I mean it was nice of them to comp us West Coast guys, but as the event got bigger and they got bigger talent from the East Coast it takes money to do that. So I think I’d boycotted it for about three years and then I got a phone call from Gene Henderson. He was always involved with the Inkpots and Eisners and so forth including security and who knows what else. He’s one of the backbones of the convention over the decades. So he said, “Hey, Mike, are you coming down to Comic Con?” “No.” “Mike, you’ve got to come.” “No.” “Come on down!” “No.” Finally it was, “Mike you’ve got to come, you’re getting an Inkpot.” “Uh…okay, I’ll be there.” So I wasn’t supposed to know, but it was the only way he could make sure I’d be there.
At the Inkpot Awards, which was always part of the banquet, Jim Steranko was the emcee, and he knew that I had been boycotting it for two or three years, which was really silly of me to do when you think about it, but he said, “For his loyal, never-ending support of the San Diego Comic Con…” With his tongue rammed up his cheek. I do remember standing in the doorway at a party in ’78 at two in the morning and someone came up behind me, put their arm around my shoulder and said, “Well, we got ours, kid.” I turned around and it was Burne Hogarth.
CB: I’ll be darned.
Royer: I’m thinking, “It took them that long to give an inkpot to Burne Hogarth and here he is looking at me and saying, ‘We got ours.'”
Carl Barks, Burne Hogarth, Garé Barks
I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve met over the years. Way back in the early ’70s I went to [Phil] Seuling’s conventions for something like three years in a row from ’70 to ’72 and I remember at the ’72 luncheon with the Academy of Comic Book Artists and talking with John Romita about the kind of brushes he used. Pros ask pros the same questions that fans do. “What kind of pens do you use? What kind of brushes do you use?” I was so amazed that the wonderful work John Romita was doing was accomplished with a Windsor-Newton series 7 Number 4. Not a 2 or a 3, but a 4. So I took my plate of food and I went to sit down at a table and simultaneously here’s Stan Lee with some gorgeous blonde on his arm and we all sat at the same table. This gorgeous blonde with the long, shoulder-length hair had glasses on. What I did next Stan got instantly and laughed aloud, but she looked at me with a glance that said, “What?” We sat down and I looked over at her and said, “Could you take off your glasses?” So she took them off and I said (faux British accent) “My God, you’re beautiful!” She didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but Stan knew it was an old movie cliché. But at least once in my life I made Stan Lee laugh aloud.
CB: When I got to meet you in Portland and you signed my copy of The Amazing World of DC Comics that contains what I believe is the only published “Murder, Inc.” Days of the Mob story…
Royer: That’s the one they relettered, too. That’s not my lettering . Costanza or somebody relettered it. I never understood why they did that. Did they dislike my lettering that much?
CB: It does seem strange, particularly since it shows your credit as letterer.
Royer: I remember when I was inking that and showing it to Richard (someone) and he said, “Wow! This is Simon and Kirby in the 1950s.” If you compare it to the ’50s stuff it may not be the same, but it had the feeling of it and when I was inking those pages my mindset was, “This is 1950’s Simon and Kirby.” I enjoyed inking those pages. Of course I think the very best inking I ever did on Jack was on his gods. Dark Horse recently published some of those and I think it’s the best inking I ever did for Jack.
We didn’t have the luxury of scanners back then, so I would deliver the pages directly to Jack. I lived in Whittier, and he lived out in the Thousand Oaks area and while I don’t recall what kind of drive it was it seems like it wasn’t a long drive, maybe 26 or 28 miles, but I would either send them Special Delivery back when the Post Office offered that service. I could just walk to the back dock of the post office and some guy would come out and I’d just hand it to him, unlike today. When I didn’t do that I’d visit him in person. My most vivid memories of those times weren’t the actual nuts and bolts, but just pleasant times sitting with Jack in his studio, going over the pages and looking out the window at my kids playing in his swimming pool and talking with Roz and the times when I’d go alone, enjoying milk and chocolate cake and Jack talking about the movies he loved. I learned early on that his favorite movies were the Warner Brothers from the ’30s. When you look at Jack Kirby’s comic books, or at least when I do, I can make an instant connection. When he said he loved those movies it was like, “Of course.”
I like to think that I gave Jack Warner Brothers inking and Joe Sinnott gave him MGM inking. If you’re not as in love with old movies as I am you might not make that connection, but I can see that connection. I love pre-code movies. Some of my favorites are movies with Warren William and there is an MGM film called “Skyscraper Souls” which is the best Warner Brothers movie that MGM ever made. It’s the Warner Brothers gritty drama and it’s like Jack Kirby inked by Joe Sinnott. Then if you take Warren Williams in Employees Entrance, which is a similar type of genre and it’s Jack Kirby inked by Mike Royer.
I don’t know. There are still people who don’t like my work and that’s okay with me.
CB: I think they must be few and far between. I’ve never run across anyone denigrating anything you’ve done.
Royer: Well, sometimes I look at some of my old work and I don’t like it. As we’d talked about before, I started out wanting to be a straight adventure cartoonist, but in 1979 realized what my real bag was. I look at some of the stuff I did for Jim Warren and some of the stuff I like and some of the stuff is like, “God, as much as I can’t stand Jim Warren, he took a chance on me and printed it.”
Sometimes I’ll hear stuff like, “I really liked your work on such and such” and I think, “Really? I mean, really?”
One of the things that really ticked me off with Jim Warren was that when he started out he had Wally Wood and Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta and people like that working for him, but for whatever reason he had to greatly reduce his page rate to stay afloat. So what he did was start using new guys like me and Bill Black and a few others. Some of us developed into tremendous talents and some of us went other directions. He paid $29 a page. To pencil, ink and letter. But he would not return the original art. So I had started working with Jack and I knew that I could maybe make time for Warren jobs or I could just go out taking a stand. So the last job I did for him I went to great expense to a local stat office and had stats made of all the pages. Then I sent him the stats. A few days later I get an irate phone call from Jim Warren: “How dare you make the unilateral decision to not send me the original art? I cannot pay for the damned stats and if you do not send me the original art, you will not be paid!” Well, I sent him the originals, but between the time I sent the stats and the phone call, I had tweaked the artwork. I changed a couple of things and added some stuff. I was very angry when the book hit the stands and I looked at it and it was obvious that he’d printed from the stats.
Where this really galls me is that right at the moment there’s a complete Jim Warren Creepy story on eBay that I penciled, inked and lettered. In fact, sometimes when I look at something my memory does work. I remember the panel where Alex Toth told me, “Mike, if you really don’t understand all that, you don’t need to put it on there.” Referring to some guy’s back musculature details. And here is this 8 or 9 page story on sale at eBay for $99 to $199 a page. The $99 ones are the stats because it was a time crunch, so rather than re-draw it I just did a stat and stuck it down.
It really galls me that here is this stuff being sold that was never given back to me. It really galls me to go to a convention and see one of the Magnus Robot Fighter comic book covers that I did where they took an old Manning cover and wanted me to do a line drawing of the painting and then to see it on the wall of an art dealer for $1,000. I remember very clearly asking Chase Craig, “Can I please have that back?” “Mike, it’s too much trouble.”
Now this is not to be saying that if I didn’t have those Creepy and Eerie and Vampirella pages I wouldn’t be selling them on eBay as fast as I could. When you’re paid $29 for something and 30 or 40 years later you’re seeing it on eBay with pages going for $199 or more, it’s like, “Dammit!”
CB: Tough to take, I’m sure.
Royer: Why are other people profiting off that? I can see that if I have the page and sold it for $50 and 20 years later somebody’s got it for $200, okay. That’s business. But I had no say in that art being out there. It just really burns me.
CB: It’s a sore spot with a lot of your fellow professionals and the debates rage on about “liberated” or stolen or whatever term you like to use.
Royer: Oh, yeah. I know some stories about “liberation” and stuff that’s been liberated by people who turn around and get on their soapbox about how it’s unfair that the artists didn’t benefit while they’re sitting on stuff that they “liberated,” but that’s another story for another time.
I still have a lot my Disney store art left and if I ever run out I’ll just redraw it, because it will still be my original art and as a freelancer I own it, but as far as my own original art from comic books I have three pages from the Tarzan Twins, a lot of which is just godawful and some of it I’m proud of, and I have on my wall here a Tarzan comic book page from the European Tarzan comics that I penciled and 90% of it is inked by Russ Manning and a tiny background detail by Dave Stevens and it’s signed, “To Mike – The only other artist I’ve had the privilege of inking. Russ Manning.”
Royer: Framed next to it is a page from another Tarzan story that I penciled, inked and lettered. I have two pages from that and one is framed on the wall. I’m not even sure if I still have the Sunday Mickey Mouse page that Don and I collaborated on. I laid it out and he tightened it up. I inked and lettered it.
Working for Jack, the only originals I got, he was nice enough to give me a Captain America that I inked and I think that’s all. I wound up giving art away to friends and trading it to people because if I wanted to own some Jack Kirby original art unless it was something that Giacoia or Sinnott had inked I was too close to it. I didn’t want to collect his pages inked by me. Of course 40 years later I’d LOVE to have some of that stuff.
At the wake for Jack somebody associated with the family gave me a Black Panther book which was only two thirds of the book and if I’d had it I’d have kept the double-page splash page, which wasn’t there and I wound up giving and trading that away. I was still close enough to it, you know?
Royer: Jack’s been gone what, seventeen years now? 1993? Has it been that long?
CB: Hard to believe.
Royer: Yeah. We only lived 16 miles apart.
CB: When you think about the tremendous volume of material he cranked out and that it still commands such a premium, it’s obvious his talent was and is well recognized.
Royer: There was a big flap last year at one of the comic book collector’s association websites. Last year I did a dozen superhero pinups. I took pinups that Jack had commissioned for fans over the years and blew them up and traced the pencils and inked them on 11″ x 14″ paper. Strathmore. I signed them “Kirby/Royer” because it was Kirby’s drawing. I didn’t think I was committing some sort of sin. I then sold two thirds of them to a guy in Australia who then started trading them at $3,000 apiece! He was apparently hiding the fact that I’d traced Jack’s pencils.
So on this website as they were tarring him with the brush of fraud they were also tarring me with things like, “This is totally Mike Royer original art.” I will argue to my grave with these bozos that that’s not so. It was a Jack Kirby drawing that I traced and inked and if it was Jack’s pencils I wouldn’t have sold them for $250.
So I’ve got another dozen of them that a friend is going to list for me on that same website, but they’re signed “From Kirby by Royer.” I’ve got four Captain America’s, I’ve got a Silver Surfer, I’ve got a Big Barda, the Hulk fighting some guy, Ka-Zar, The Demon and Thor. For my money, if you want a Jack Kirby/Mike Royer pin-up, this is the closest you’re ever going to get. But they now feature “From Kirby by Royer” so they can’t accuse me of being a fraud. It’s all because someone else tried to hoodwink a collector by eliminating the fact that I had reproduced his pencils, but it’s still a Kirby/Royer drawing. So I’ll continue to take issue with people who say, “Oh, this is totally a Mike Royer original.” If it were a Mike Royer original it wouldn’t look anything like Jack Kirby. It would have high eyes and a big nose and big ears and a tail.
Everyone has their opinion on what something is and what something isn’t and so to make sure I can avoid any future flap, for the purists they will say “From Kirby, by Royer.”
CB: And that should be the end of that.
Royer: I’ve got a picture here of the Silver Surfer and it’s a great drawing. It’s got the Silver Surfer and all kinds of planets and comets and all kinds of stuff going on and if it actually had Jack’s carbon under it, it would go for thousands, I’m sure. And there’s a part of me that feels guilty putting $350 on it. Then again, I spent a lot of time on it, too.
CB: Did you get credit for the postage stamp that features your Green Arrow?
Royer: No, no. What really gripes me about that…I tried to set the record straight in the Jack Kirby Collector, but I don’t think it ever resonated with anybody. Because everybody talks about the “Green Arrow stamp inked by Mike Royer.”
DC sent me a scan or a photocopy of a western character they called Bullseye. It was in fringe, leathers, a cowboy hat and a feather, pulling back on a bow and inked by somebody who inked their personality over Jack’s pencils rather than inking it the way Jack would have penciled it. They said, “Can you take this pose and make it an early 1970’s Jack Kirby/Mike Royer Green Arrow?” Which is exactly what I did. So it’s his pose, his stance, his dynamics, but I made it Green Arrow and all the folds and everything is the way Jack would have done it in the ’70’s. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s the “Green Arrow inked by Mike Royer.”
It was printed on a comic book; a special one-shot thing of Kirby’s ’50s Green Arrow and then a few years later it winds up being on a postage stamp. It’s first day issue was at Comic Con in San Diego and I think they figured they might sell $200,000 worth of stamps. A buddy of mine in the Post Office gave me the Post Office newsletter stating that they sold over $500,000 worth of stamps at Comic Con.
Royer: I think I must have signed at least two or three dozen first day envelopes for the Post Office employees. Or at least you’d like to think it was for their employees. Not a week goes by that I don’t see a Mike Royer signed first day envelope on eBay for $5. If I’d known that I’d have grabbed as many as I could and taken them with me. “One each for my kids and one for myself and…” Just like Grant Simmons, “Come in and take anything you want!” All right, I took what I wanted rather than something I thought might make me some money down the road.
I’m finding that everything sells. I’ve been toying with the fact that I have this big giant glass jar with the metal screw lid on it that’s full of ribbons and memorabilia from conventions and stuff. I’ve got buttons and I have all of my Walt Disney Mickey Mouse credit cards. I’m wondering in my old age if anyone would pay for a credit card with Mickey Mouse on it issued to me. I wonder if anyone would pay anything for that?
CB: It wouldn’t surprise me for a second.
Royer: I used to get letters from guys in prison. Anymore now I don’t even open them. They’d ask me to please sign a couple of cards for their children. Then I see them on eBay two weeks later. Or the people that write and say, “You is one of my favorite cartoonists. I would like a drawing, please.” I guess they encourage inmates to write letters to celebrities. It’s like a way to make money by selling autographs or something. Give me a break.
Let me share one last story about a time I was with Roy Thomas on a panel and he turned to me and said, “You know, your name is on the cover a magazine every month.” I said, “Really?” He pulled out a copy of “Destroyer,” and said, “If you cover up the DEST you’ve got Royer on the cover every month.”
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