Anybody who reads comics knows the name Walt Simonson. Anybody with good taste loves Walt Simonson’s art. Since his debut with The Star Slammers in 1974, Simonson went on to revolutionize not just comic book art, but the entire medium. He created Beta Ray Bill, wrote what is largely considered the definitive Thor and contributed his talent to everyone from Batman to the X-Men.
In 1979, Simonson was tapped to illustrate the movie adaptation for Alien. This year Titan Books is re-releasing the original graphic novel as well as a full art edition and we here at Crave Online figured now would be a good time to sit down with Walt Simonson and talk about Alien: The Illustrated Story, his Avengers work with Brian Michael Bendis, The Judas Coin and, of course, Beta Ray Bill.
CRAVEONLINE: First of all, thank you for doing this interview.
WALT SIMONSON: My pleasure
CO: So, taking you back to the 70s, how did you get involved with the Alien Illustrated adaptation project?
WS: At the time, Heavy Metal Magazine was going to produce the Alien book. John Workman was the art director there and it was John’s initial idea to have me ink the book. He wanted to get Carmine Infantino to illustrate it and me to ink it. He called Carmine, couldn’t reach him, he called me and I said yes. I was going to draw it and ink it, and John went with that idea. He says, though I don’t remember the conversation exactly, that I suggested Archie (Goodwin) to write. John was fine with that. He of course knew Archie’s work and that’s how we came to be the creative team on the graphic novel.
CO: I was only a kid then, but I don’t remember there being too many movie adaptations in comic books. Did you find it odd to be part of one?
WS: No, not at all. I had already worked with Archie on the comic book adaptation of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and when I was a kid in the '50s, there were always adaptations of movies. Helen Of Troy, John Buscema drew it. Ulysses with Kurt Douglas, John Buscema also drew that. Land Unknown, a dinosaur movie; Alex Toth drew that. So I didn’t see anything unusual about the adaptation of a movie. The only thing maybe different about this book was it was going to formatted as what we now refer to as a graphic novel. I know they had giant editions and regular floppies, regular comic books, but I don’t think they had graphic novels back then.
CO: How did Heavy Metal come to be the publishers of it?
WS: I have no idea how Heavy Metal became the publishers, but it all worked out for me.
CO: How did you approach taking real people, like Sigourney Weaver or Harry Dean Stanton, and translating them to your style of art?
WS: I just tried to draw them; I didn’t make any special allowances. There were several things going on at the same time. Heavy Metal had likeness rights which, when you do a project like this, is generally worked out in negotiations. When I did the Close Encounters book, Marvel didn’t have likeness rights, so I was not trying to draw Richard Dreyfuss or Terri Garr. Heavy Metal also had, or rather didn’t have to go through a layer of likeness approval, which you’d probably have today. That meant I didn’t have to spend any time drawing characters that would be acceptable to the actors. As long as they were acceptable to me, then I could keep working. What I was trying to do was draw the characters so they looked like the people, but also so they looked like part of the story and the way that I draw. It’s probably good for me not to have likeness rights. (Laughs)
CO: Were you a fan of HR Giger’s work before starting the Alien project?
WS: I was. I liked it. I had a book of his that came out before the movie and had nothing to do with it, though there was one painting in there that was very Alien-like. Yeah, I thought the stuff was really cool. I was delighted to go back and look at his stuff. I think I used that book for the opening double page splash page where I used the Alien letters to find stuff for it. I wanted to get at least an idea of the textures and the creepiness of it.
CO: On a personal level, I was really impressed with the use of color. They were vibrant in sections and then muted in others. Was the constructed by you on purpose?
WS: It’s partly the ink that we used and the way it all worked out. I colored the first eight pages until it became really clear I wasn’t going to be able to pencil, ink and color the whole book, so I turned to my girlfriend at the time and two other friends that I knew who were also artists. One was a Pratt graduate and the other, Polly, she worked at Continuity with Dick Giordano and Neal Adams. They colored the rest of the book. The way that we worked that was we took Photostats of the final black and white art, and I paid my daughter and one of her friends a couple of bucks to rubber cement all the stats on chip board.
Then all the stats were painted using watercolors. If you look at the book, the three women had very different color sensibilities. Louise liked very bright and pretty colors, Deb worked in very grey tones, and Polly’s work was in between that, which was very cool. When we realized that, we tried to split the pages up by scenes, so the color scheme would accompany a scene change. By the time we got to the end of the book, the colors had all come closer together.
CO: Jump ahead a couple of decades, how did the re-release of the book come about?
WS: The book hadn’t been reprinted since its original two printings back in the day. The first printing sold really well, so Heavy Metal did another one and that was it. Somewhere before Prometheus was coming out, Titan Books got ahold of me about re-releasing the book. Around that time, the IDW artist edition of Thor had come out, so Titan Books asked if I had the original art, which I did, and they decided to release the original graphic novel plus an original art edition.
CO: Moving outside this Alien re-release, you’ve also been penciling for The Avengers. How does that work? With somebody as iconic as you are, does Marvel call you up and ask if you want to draw for them or do you call them up and say “Hey I’d like to draw The Avengers?”
WS: (Laughs) Yep that’s exactly how it works (laughs again). Really how it works is that about eleven years ago, Brian Michael Bendis and I and some other folks were guests at a pair of conventions. One of them was in Australia and the other in New Zealand, which meant we had a chance to hang out and became friends. One thing I like to do is work with different writers. Brian is a major talent and I wanted to work with him, but for the next decade he was doing his work at Marvel and I was under an exclusive contract with DC.
A little over a year ago I wrapped up my contract with DC and finished the graphic novel I was working on, The Judas Coin. So I just called up out of the blue and said I had finished my contract with DC and I’d love to do a story with you. Apparently, when Brian was younger, we met at a convention and I wasn’t excessively rude to him (laughs). He showed me his artwork and I didn’t throw him out the door, so he’s always held me in high regard for that. I thought maybe I’d do a one-off issue, but then Bendis came back to me and said would you want to do a six-issue story arc. I said sure, I wasn’t doing any regular gigs at the time.
Paul Levitz and I, about every fifteen or twenty years, do a Legion Of Superheroes story together. So about a year ago, I did that story and then something for THUNDER Agents. After that, I called Brian and jumped into it with both feet. At that time, I hadn’t worked for Marvel in about 20 years, so all the characters I knew looked different and there were a lot of them I didn’t know. Marvel was great at getting me all the reference stuff I needed.
CO: Do you prefer doing one-character stories, like your work on Thor, or team books?
WS: I don’t like doing team books the way George Perez does. I don’t think anybody likes doing them better than George does. What I really want is a story that’s worth drawing. I want to have good character interactions and scenes. Solo books are easier, or at least less challenging. When I was working on Thor, I did have a pretty extensive supporting cast that I tried to use in subplots, but I didn’t have them together very often. When I worked with Brian, there was one scene around a dinner table with at least twenty Avengers standing around, and that has its own challenges. In that sense, the Avengers is more difficult in that it takes more time, but it’s not necessarily more difficult to draw.
Really between the two I’m looking at who is the writer, who is the editor, what kind of stories are we telling, that’s what’s important to me.
CO: Would you do Thor again?
WS: I’ve been asked that question from time to time and here’s my standard answer. If Marvel walked in and said “Walt, here’s a million dollars to work on Thor,” my answer would be “Sure, for a million bucks? No problem.” The reality of it is comics now are different than when I started Thor thirty years ago. When I worked on Thor, I was given carte blanche, I could do whatever I wanted to up to and including killing Thor off and starting with somebody new holding the hammer. The business now, I think, is not so carte blanche with all the tie-ins and movies and crossovers. I don’t know what the considerations would be, so I’d have to figure it out. I love the character and I hope to do some more mythical stuff on down the line.
CO: Let’s talk Judas Coin. It was epic. How long did that take you to organize and execute?
WS: I worked on that for about three and half years. I’m glad you liked it. The Judas Coin started with a book called Solo about eight years ago. The idea was you’d have a 44-page comic that was a collection of short stories all written and drawn by one guy. Richard Corbin did one, Howard Chaykin did one, I think Darwyn Cooke did one and DC spoke to me about doing one. During this time, I was working on a 200-page Elric story, which took me a long time to finish. When I was done, Solo had finished it’s run, they did 12 issues and they weren’t going to do any more.
In the time I was doing Elric, I had been thinking about Solo, and I came up with the idea of doing a linked series of stories. I like anthologies that have linked stories in them. I was trying to decide what would make a good link, and at some point I thought of one of the coins Judas was paid and I decided to make that the core of the story. From there, I thought about Bat Lash story with a poker game involving the coin, and then I began wondering through the DC Universe choosing characters that would work all the way back when the coin was first given to Judas, then spaced out over the centuries and then a future story. Ultimately, with help of some friends who more knowledgeable of the DC Universe, I settled on the six stories with the Golden Gladiator from the old Brave And The Bold, The Lightening Prince, Bat Lash, Two Face and so on.
So I’ve got all the plots written and I’ve finished Elric, and then Solo was cancelled. One day I was in the DC offices and I saw poor Dan Didio sitting all by himself, and I tried to persuade him to lose money on one more issue of Solo. I explained the idea and he was very gracious. He told me to write up a proposal, find an editor and DC would release it as a 96-page hardcover. The story was approved, but I wouldn’t say I was off and running, I was off and plotting. I wrote the script from my thumbnails and then decided that I would try to draw each story in a different style that would be appropriate for the material. The only thing I did differently was going back and giving DC something to hang their hat on for advertising by including Batman. Originally, my Two-Face story was only Two-Face, but I added Batman and I’m really pleased with how their dialogue worked out.
OC: One last question, where did you come up with Beta Ray Bill?
WS: (Laughs) I should post this one my Facebook page. The short version is, when I do a series I try to tell stories that people haven’t heard before. In the case of Thor, when I thought about it, there is something that’s been there since the beginning, which is the inscription on the hammer. “Who so ever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall posses the power of Thor.” Nobody had really picked up the hammer. There was a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby story where Loki held the hammer because he’d had some extra juice from Enchantress. I didn’t buy that story for a second. If I had been the editor I would have stricken that story. Anyway, nobody had really held the hammer. When I was doing the book, it had already been around for twenty years and all the characters had been around, Captain America and such, and nobody had picked up the hammer. What that said to me, from a story standpoint, was that none of them could pick up the hammer.
That meant I was free to invent a character from the ground up. The idea being that he would be worthy of the hammer. In comics at that time you had no expectations of the work being reprinted. At that time, there were no trade paperbacks, so comics came out and disappeared. So, you work in symbols a lot to achieve short cuts to meaning. In the case of Bill, you want to mislead the reader but do it fairly. In other words, you don’t want to write something where, on page two, the reader says “Oh, the butler did it.” Now, in this time in comics, the rule was that bad guys were ugly and bad girls wore less clothing. I figured if I made Bill a monster, people would think I was messing with the very core of Thor’s existence by having an evil guy pick up the hammer. Nobody ever wrote me a letter saying “Oh, Bill must be good.” Instead, it was like “Simonson’s screwing it up, I have to buy the next issue”. Essentially, Bill was designed as a character that could hold Thor’s hammer.