Maidens, Mutants and Mages - Paul Smith Climbs the Stairway to Stardom... Two Steps at a Time
Few artists have been greeted with as much expectation as Paul Smith. With only a handful of printed stories to his credit, Paul is having the kind of attention focused on him it takes most other artists half a decade to build up. Why? Well, part of the reason is the fact that Paul was selected to replace Dave Cockrum on The X-Men, one of the top three most popular titles on the fan market. But Paul’s undeniable talent, as demonstrated in the stories already published (and which led to his selection on The X-Men) and word of mouth from those who have seen more of his work, have helped to heat up expectations to a boiling point. I expect the visual material accompanying this interview will just, if I may be allowed to switch metaphors, add fuel to the fire. I interviewed Paul in late April, comfortably installed in the lunchroom of Marvel’s expansive new offices on Park Avenue. We talked about his life before comics, his thoughts on the new career he had just embarked on, and his opinions on the series he was now taking over.
AH: Where do you come from, Paul?
PS: I was born (on September 4, 1954) in Kansas City. I was there for three days.
AH: Three days?
PS: Well, I was born in Kansas City by mistake. My father was a Naval flight instructor in Oletha, Kansas. My parents were living in Lawrence, Kansas at the time, and they had gone to Kansas City to visit my grandparents. My grandfather’s birthday was September 1, and I decided I wanted out before they could get out of town. So that's why I was only there for three days. From there on it was Kansas, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the Philippines, Colorado, California, a lot of Europe, and now here. Actually, Europe was just a visit. Last year, I was there over the Summer, for four months, living out of my backpack. Finally got tired of living out of my backpack and so I found a place to stay.
AH: I take it you’ve been interested in comics from the time you were a wee lad?
PS: Well, yes and no. I got into comics when everyone else got into comics, but I got out of them real young. I left comics when I was about eight or nine-around 1960, ’61-just because I thought they were dumb. The only comics you could come up with at the time were Superman and Batman and at that time period both the characters just struck me as being very stupid. Batman was going through his “Holy Search Warrant” syndrome and Superman’s only real problem-this isn’t an original thought, I think it was Jules Feiffer who said this-but Superman’s only real problem was figuring out who he was supposed to hit. Once he had that figured out everything else was a foregone conclusion. So I left comics. Then, several years later, someone showed me a Spider-Man comic and said, “You’ve got to read this, this is really great.” I read it, and he was right: it was really great. And so I developed the attitude that, well, Spider-Man is neat; comic books are dumb. A few months later I latched onto the Fantastic Four. And once again: Hey, this is really neat. Comic books are dumb, but the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man are cool. And eventually it just built up until the Marvel Universe was neat, and then I even got past that and started collecting various DC titles when they were done by people that I enjoy, Adams’s Batman and things of that nature.
AH: Were you always studying to be an artist, always drawing?
PS: I was always drawing; I never studied. Everyone draws when they’re a little kid. But for some reason, they stop along the way. Unlike most people, I never stopped drawing.
AH: What kind of teaching did you have as you grew older?
AH: Entirely self-taught?
PS: Yeah. I had a couple of courses in airbrush technique. I earned my living for a while doing that, airbrushing T-shirts and doing other things in the commercial field, but in terms of my illustration and my drawing, I have no formal education at all.
AH: Did you go through college?
PS: I went through two years of college, picking up my general education requirements. I was going to go to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, take a fine arts degree; they have a real fine arts program.
PS: Yeah. I guess I started in 1977, working with Ralph Bakshi on Lord of the Rings. I was an animator on that and American Pop and I did some television work that is best left unsaid, some storyboards and things of that nature.
AH: How was working with Bakshi?
PS: He’s high energy. He’s an interesting character. I don’t want to say that he’s paranoid, but he finds it necessary to have his hands in all the pies. Whatever's going on in the studio, he has to be totally in control of, so he runs around like a chicken with his head cut off at times. But he’s definitely high energy.
AH: Were you ever a student of classical animation, like Disney and the Warner Brothers?
PS: Oh, I love the stuff! But so little is being clone with it. You know, I think rotoscoping has gotten a bad name from people who really don’t understand what it is they're talking about. One of the reasons I left animation is, I decided I was not going to grow up to be Vladimir Tytla, who was the greatest animator who ever lived. That’s not really open to debate: he’s just the greatest animator that ever lived. And he believed in and used the rotoscope process, and if he used it, then it strikes me as odd that a bunch of people out on the street are badmouthing it. I would rather take Vlad’s viewpoint than theirs.
AH: Do you think that working in animation has had any input into the way your comics work is turning out?
PS: Oh, yeah! I learned how to draw real well as an animator, drawing constantly, over and over and over again. Learning how to turn bodies and shifting weights, characterization, things of that nature. My drawing has simplified itself a great deal. I wanted to be Neal Adams for the longest time, and I became much more interested in the line than in the form; this is not to say that that’s what Neal’s doing, but in looking at the superficial aspect of Neal's work I became enmeshed in this linework without understanding the reason it was there, and in animation you can’t do that - you’ve got to deal strictly with form. That’s all you have time for. So that was a very valuable experience.
AH: Did you do anything between the animation and the Marvel work, or did you go straight from animation to going to New York?
PS: No, I went from animation to Europe to New York. I was enjoying the animation to a certain extent - it was certainly a comfortable and easy living but I wanted to get out of being in a studio with 600 other people and having to draw the same way 600 other people draw. But I wasn’t sure if I was really ready to take the big step to New York, even though I had gotten some positive feedback on the Daredevil story, which I had done when I was in California, so I took four months, five months off, and went to Europe, and just walked around with my pack, thought about a lot of things, and said, “Yup, I’ll come back and do comics. It’s time to change.” I got an offer I couldn't refuse. They get this way, let us know, we’ll see what we can do." So I came out. I had done the Iron Man job just before I left for Europe. I got it two weeks before I left. I did that whole job in two weeks. And then when I got back I stopped in the offices and said, “I’m here,” everyone said, “Who cares?” Al [Milgrom] said, “If you're ever in the neighborhood, let me know” and before I left Jim Shooter said, “No, don’t let the guy go out without something to do,” so I got a Falcon story.
AH: Have I seen that?
PS: I doubt it. It hasn't been printed yet. It’s floating around somewhere. It was basically Jim’s way of saying, “We don’t really have anything for you but we like you, so this’ll keep you busy for a while.” So I went back to California, collected my gear, started to work on the Falcon story, and worked on the Falcon story as I drove across the country, visiting all my friends that I'd made along the years. It took me about three weeks to get from New York to Los Angeles by car, doing it by the scenic route. I finished the Falcon story when I got here, and since then I've been finding regular work. I was too far away to get regular work, being in California, but since I’ve been here I’ve had no problem.
AH: And so you immediately got hit on to do Doctor Strange?
PS: Yeah, Al was having problems getting people to do the work that they said they would do, so he asked me if I would fill in, and then I said “Sure”... and then I said “No” when I got a better offer [laughter]
JIM SHOOTER [who has entered the room in search of a soft drink]: That’s not how it happened, either. He went through soul-searching because he thought it was immoral...
PS: That's true. It took me about two days to say yes to the X-Men offer.
SHOOTER: Yep, yep. And then we were going to say, “You're right, it’s immoral,'' and he would have gone, “Auuuuughhh!” But we weren’t that cruel. [laughter] We should have done it.
PS: Should have done it. I had a lot of little reasons for not taking The X-Men. It’s a group book, which takes more time; it’s not as design-oriented as Doctor Strange; Doctor Strange is a bi-monthly and would be a lot easier to do; etc., etc., etc. But what it really came down to is, I came to New York for one reason. I wanted to be a famous comic book artist. I don’t want to be just a comic book artist, I want to be a famous comic book artist. Here they were handing it to me on a silver platter. It just seemed contradictory to my intentions to turn it down, for whatever little reasons I may have.
AH: So, how do you feel now that you stand upon the threshold of greatness with The X-Men?
PS: A little dizzy. It’s really flattering that people look forward to my doing the book as much as they seem to. It’s a little scary. There’s nothing wrong with sink-or-swim philosophy, but I always figured I'd start out in the shallow end of the pool. But then, it’s nobody’s fault but my own. I didn’t have to say yes. I wouldn't have taken the thing if I didn’t think I could do it. I look forward to it greatly. I look forward to working with Bob Wiacek as an inker; I like his stuff. Louise seems to be a real nice person. Chris and I seem to get along. We'll see what happens.
AH: Do you plan on getting involved in the structure and writing of the book like the previous artists?
PS: I’m just going to follow Chris for the first couple of issues, wherever he wants to go, until I get an idea of what it is the characters are really about, because understanding characters as a reader is one thing, but when you’re actually dealing with them as an artist and a creator that’s an entirely different concept. But eventually, if there are things I don’t like, I'll fight for them, and I’m sure he'll fight me. But Chris seems to have a great interest in working together so far.
AH: Have you been following the book?
PS: Oh yeah. If for no other reason, just because I’m taking it over. It’s always been one of my favorite books.
AH: What do you think its main strength is? What is it that distinguishes it?
PS: What I’m going to work with is characterization. I think it’s a book that requires it more than most in that the characters are so diversified, not only in their nationalities but their upbringings and 'so I want to concentrate on all the characters, not just any one character. Get into Colossus a little more; I don’t think he’s been given the attention he deserves. Kitty should be a lot of fun just because she really hasn't been touched yet. Cyclops is your mainstay. Wolverine’s a lot of fun, slashing, killing, blood ’n' guts... I think that’s one thing that’s been missing from the book for a while is, everyone’s been drawn the same. The appendages differ, the headgear differs, but the bodies are all drawn the same. And that’s not right. People are built differently. I remember one night I sat down and drew, just for the fun of it, Henry Pym, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, and Donald Blake, just the heads, because essentially, what you’ve got is four blonde, male, Caucasian super-heroes. But they should all look different. There’s no way in the world that Steve Rogers is going to look the same way as Henry Pym, and yet he does, and that’s wrong [laughter]. That particular problem doesn't really exist in the X-Men, because you don’t have that situation where you have four characters that are essentially the same. But that’s what I hope to deal with: different body structures. People will move differently, people be built differently, people will react differently.
AH: Which one character in comics would you like to draw?
PS: Spider-Man. I just think it’s absolutely horrible that any book in the world should sell more than The Amazing Spider-Man and I can only imagine that it’s because the people who are doing it just don’t have the love for the character that he deserves. It’s readable, it's enjoyable, but it’s being out sold by Daredevil, it’s being out sold by The X-Men, all the characters in the Marvel universe that you had the idea that Stan Lee had originally put them away in a drawer somewhere because they weren’t quite as good and then pulled them out later. I always had that feeling that Daredevil was a throwaway Spider-Man, or the X-Men were a throw away set of Avengers. And then someone else came along and took this and said, “Hey, Daredevil’s a great character! We can do neat things with him.” And you can see what Frank Miller has done. You can see what Chris Claremont has done with The X-Men. I don’t know if I’m capable, but I’d like to do the same thing with Spider-Man. So many people say, “Oh, but he's a dead character. He’s been around for 20 years. They’ve done everything.” Well, Batman was around for 40 years before Neal Adams got ahold of him. Not that I’m Neal Adams, but the character isn’t dead. He still has a lot of life left in him, and I'd like to be able to put it in.
AH: Who do you think the great Spider Man artists were?
PS: Ditko. He was the only great Spider Man artist.
AH: How about very good ones, then?
PS: Oh, well, Spider-Man had good artists, but Ditko was the only one who was right for Spider-Man. Gil Kane is a marvelous artist, John Romita is a marvelous artist, Ross Andru is a good artist, but I just don’t think they were Spider-Man. I think Gil Kane came closest. He would probably be second runner-up as the best Spider-Man artist. John Romita’s Captain America was marvelous, I still think visually his Daredevil was the best. But I never thought his Spider-Man was Spider-Man, he always struck me as... Captain America with webs.
AH: Which goes back to your talk about body structure.
PS: Yeah. I guess there was a time when they had to formularize it, or they felt they did, but what made it in the first place was going against the formula. Here was this scrawny, nearsighted, pimple-ridden, bad-breathed bookworm playing the superhero, and people didn’t fawn after him like they did Batman or Superman. They hated him!... They wanted to shoot him; they wanted to arrest him. He wasn’t a world-famous playboy, he was struggling to get money for his Aunt May’s pills. And just his physique was such that he didn’t look like a super-hero, just some scrawny little kid. Maybe you can’t do that any more. I don’t see why not. I would like to go back to that, to see him 5’ 8” and 115 pounds. He shouldn’t be a Batman character, but he should go back to being creepy. He should be totally nuts. He should be the type of a character who would pick up a stoolie, go up to the top of the Empire State Building, wrap him up with webs, and use him for a yo-yo trying to get information out of him, cracking jokes all the way. Henny Youngman-type things. People should look at Spider-Man and go, “Oh my God, it’s that nut!” Which is a different kind of fear than, “The Batman!” or “The Devil!”
AH: All of Ditko’s subsequent characters got more and more crazy and off-the-wall. The Creeper took it one step further: he was totally bonkers.
PS: Exactly. Ditko did the plotting for the early Spider-Man issues as well, so that’s where a lot of that comes from, and a certain magic that Stan had. To this day I can go back and read those, they’re still great. The Marvel Tales reprints, that’s magical stuff!
AH: One of Marvel’s best comics.
PS: It is! It’s good stuff. I don’t think he should have fought Doctor Doom, though. That was a mistake. They’ve done that a couple of times. When Luke Cage punched out Doc Doom, I thought they’d gotten their concepts a little mixed around [laughter].
AH: What other characters do you lust to draw?
PS: Conan. That would be my other biggie. Captain America would be fun. I have certain concepts of what Captain America is as a character that I would like to put forth. Not that they are original, they just go back to the original concept of Captain America. Fantastic Four would be fun just to say you’d done it, but I don’t think I’d do them month in, month out. I usually go for singular characters, the lone characters. Green Lantern is really neat; I like him. Batman is nice, although I don’t really think I’m right for him. I could do a good Green Lantern, I don’t know if I could do a good Batman.
AH: When you take over a feature, do you have any compunctions about following the style of the previous artist?
PS: Absolutely none. Unless I’m going to do it for one or two issues and leave again. In my framing sequence in the Doctor Strange that just came out, * 54, that is not my Doctor Strange. It was an attemptnow that I look on it, I think it was a failed attempt-to synthesize Marshall Rogers and Brent Anderson and Michael Golden because it went from Marshall to this one and into Michael’s. I went into this debate, do I want to put the spots on his gloves because Michael doesn’t have spots on his gIoves?...Marshall had the moustache all the way down to the jaw, where Michael Golden had the moustache barely over the lip. . .Marshall Rogers had the real stiff coarse hair, Brent Anderson had real wavy blue hair, etc., and so I was just trying to mesh it in with all the other styles going on. The two issues I’m doing following the Golden issue, I’m just going to try and put it back like Rogers was doing with the original Ditko idea, using the white stripes more as a design element, the demonic chestpiece, the drapery, and the cape. It’s still not my Doctor Strange, although it’s a little closer. But for the X-Men, all visuals are gone. If they want me to do the book l’ll do the book my way.
AH: Do you think it’s going to look radically different from what has gone before?
PS: Not unless you think my stuff looks radically different from John's or Chris’s.
PS: Dave’s. I keep getting those two rolled together!
AH: They’re both blond, bearded...
PS: Yeah, really, along with Byme. I'm the only redhead in the group. I do have some ideas in how I’m going to handle the art that I think are perhaps a little different, but I want to wait until I can get them figured out visually before I describe them, because I’m just starting to think about them now. Basically, though, l feel that The X-Men should be drawn differently than Doctor Strange, for example. They’re just two different characters altogether. Doctor Strange is a product of sorcery where The X-Men are children of the atom, and so Dr. Strange should be more design-oriented, whereas The X-Men should be a little more slick. Say, as an example, the difference between Alex Raymond’s early work on Flash Gordon and Al Williamson’s work now on Star Wars. It’s the same thing, but the style is completely different. Something like that... not that I can draw that well, but that’s the idea, at least.
INKERS AND SUCH
AH: Right now you’re doing only pencilling. Iremember that when you were doing spot illustrations and I've seen a couple of covers that you've inked. How is it that you developed into just doing pencils? Is it by preference, or just the exigencies of the deadlines?
PS: It was kind of an accident more than anything else. When I started working as an animator I just so embraced the lifestyle: I was doing it 16, 18 hours a day, most of that on the job, because it was such a madhouse when we were working on Lord of the Rings. We were working seven days a week for seven or eight months. So I just put the brush away. I just didn’t have time for it. And as a result, I learned to draw quite well and I totally forgot how to ink, so now I’m trying to discover my inking style. The only real reason I inked the fanzine drawings was that they need to be reproducible. I prefer my pencils to my inks. I think my own inking cannot capture the subtlety that my pencils do. With the covers, I just thought, what the heck, it would be fun to do the whole thing myself, so why not? But I enjoy inking when I get it right. When I get it right I get a great feeling of accomplishment. So I plan to keep doing it for a while at least.
AH: Ever want to get into coloring?
PS: I’m not colorblind, but I would describe myself as being color ignorant. I don’t understand colors very well. I might do it for fun, but I certainly wouldn't do it for money. I couldn’t do it fast enough.
AH: Few can. Artists like Craig Russell and Mike Golden will sometimes do it just because they want to control what it looks like...
PS: You have to draw lines for yourself along the way. There comes a point where, as a professional, you have to trust other people to be professional as well. I used to get into a lot of arguments about this with my assistants back on the coast, but I had the opinion, the same opinion I had as an assistant as an animator that I now have as a penciller, that there are certain functions for each category, and as an animator, my job was motion, volume, timing. Cleaning up the drawing, making sure it’s right on model, etc. -the “dirty” work-that’s the assistant’s job, that’s what he’s paid to do. It’s not that it’s beneath me, but if I’m doing that I’m not doing my job. And you have to trust someone else. And I think along the same lines now that I’m doing this. My job now is timing and storytelling. To make the job reproducible is secondary to that. Which is not to say that it’s not as important... I feel like I’m giving people a bad rap, and that’s not what I want to do here. Once I’ve told the story, that’s the most important thing, and there are other people who are perfectly capable of coming and doing a marvelous job of inking; they’re probably better at it than I am and they should do that. I cannot ink like Terry Austin can ink, I cannot ink like Joe Rubinstein can ink. So if I can get my storytelling down and then have a great inker do the inks, why not? Go for that. I like all you inkers out there, that wasn’t a bum rap.
AH: I understand Terry Austin was really enchanted with your work.
PS: That’s what I hear. The story I get from Terry on the first job, the Daredevil job, was that someone was trying to pawn off some job on him that he really didn’t want to do, and he was saying, “Well, don’t you have something more interesting,” and they were going through their drawers; he saw that, and said,’ “I want that. I want to ink that.” Terry’s a nice guy. He even gave me all the pages back for that story; l’ve got them all myself. I’m his indentured servant now [laughter], but l’ve got them all back.
AH: And your firstborn...
PS: And my firstborn. All that good stuff.
AH: Which artists do you admire?
PS: In comics today?
AH: The whole world!
PS: The whole world? My new hero is Carl Larsson. I found his work when I was in Sweden. He was born in the last century-I forget when. He died in 1919, I believe. He would be best described, I guess, as Sweden’s Norman Rockwell. I would be very hard pressed to believe that Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish and the Leyendecker brothers had not seen and been influenced by his work. He’s marvelous. He does watercolors, he does pastels, he does oils, he does sculpture, he’s just amazing. So I bought a great big book of his stuff from the National Art Gallery in Stockholm. Can’t read a word of it, but like Playboy, you just look at the pictures anyway. In comics today, Frank Miller I look forward to every month, invariably. I love his stuff to pieces. Anything Michael Golden does, John Byrne, Steve Leialoha, Gene Day. I think Jose Luis Garcia Lopez has got to be the best draftsman in the business today. And his stuff just amazes me whenever I can find it. I can’t think of anyone else who's actually active.
AH: Well, how about going back for the last 20 years?
PS: Oh, I've got the influences everybody else did. Kirby was big, Ditko was probably my favorite from the early Marvel days. Later on, Neal Adams... Gil Kane when he came to Marvel, or actually, even his last year or so at DC when he started inking his own stuff, that looked real nice to me. Beyond that, you have Eisner, Harold Foster, and Alex Raymond would be my biggie. He’s my favorite in terms of comics artists. I think he’s the greatest comics artist that ever lived. Just the grace, the nobility, the style that his people had, it’s so phenomenal.
AH: Whose work do you think has influenced your style most?
PS: I don’t think any one has influenced my style most. Steven Grant paid me the ultimate compliment one day. We were working on a project one day and he was going over it, and he said, “I can’t recognize this. It doesn’t look like anyone I've ever seen before.” And I just felt so good when I heard that, because I had spent so many years trying to be the next Neal Adams, the next Jack Kirby, the next Steve Ditko, the next Frank Frazetta, until I got into animation, got away from comics for a while, and when I got back I thought, “Why not just be yourself?” And to have that validated was just a nice feeling, a real nice feeling.