My Life in Comics: Part 4—The Artistic Years …

At some point in time, I decided I would become a comic book artist.

While I can’t tell you the exact date, I can tell you how that thought came to me. Sometime in 1970, I was reading a comics fanzine called Auction Block. In its second issue, there was a long interview with Al Williamson, a comic book artist whose resume included EC, Creepy magazine, Flash Gordon for King Comics, and who was currently drawing the great newspaper comic strip, Secret Agent X9 (soon to be, if not already, retitled Secret Agent Corrigan). Williamson was an artist whose work I intensely admired. In the interview he revealed how he learned to draw. Born in the U.S. but raised in Bogota, Colombia, Williamson started copying, line-for-line, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon strips. And that’s when it hit me: If Williamson learned by copying Raymond, I could learn by copying Williamson. (That’s a very early attempt by me up top from 1970, complete with Crayola colors.)

In 1970, I was 15 years old, so it was a late start for me to plan a journey down an artistic path. When you read most interviews with comic artists—or ANY artist, for that matter—they say they were born with a pencil in hand or can’t remember a time that they didn’t draw. I was an elementary school art class flunkee, botching my Papier-mâché bottle project (it ended up being a bottle badly covered in green paper). An art career seemed like an unlikely future for me.

But I persevered and one day I woke up and could draw a face without reference. I never really achieved much beyond that, though, but it was still enough for me to keep drawing all the time and gathering all the things I thought I needed to be a “real” artist, things like pens and inks; a drawing board (followed by a drawing table); the “correct” sketchbooks and boards; watercolor and acrylic paints … the list is endless. Once you decide you’re going to be an artist, there’s no turning back and your wallet is the first casualty, followed quickly by your ego.

Early 1970s work, including Batman, Bogie, and my first attempt at a movie poster of my own, The Bride of Frankenstein. Batman is marker, Bogie is blue Bic pen, and Bride is pen and ink on Bristol board.

Spoiler alert: I never became a world famous comic book artist. I just didn’t have it in me. Comics take a lot of discipline, a lot of skill, and at that point in time, there was no real college or school specializing in comic art (the Joe Kubert School was a couple years away, but I sincerely doubt I would have been accepted there). I flirted with the Famous Artists School correspondence course, where you did assignments and mailed them in for grades. I have very vague recollections of doing that, including a salesman showing up at our house to talk to me and try and sell me the complete course. My father was dead set against this course, since it was expensive and uncertain in what the outcome would be for me. I kept my budding drawing skills a secret through most of high school, telling only a few close friends about my hidden interest. Just like my love of comics, art was a nerdy pastime most kids just didn’t get, and just another reason to make fun of a shy, smart, introvert like me.

I graduated high school in 1973 and unlike most of my peers, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The art thing was there, scratching away in the back of my brain, but I had no real answers on how to pursue it. So while some of my friends settled into jobs or went off to college in the fall of ’73, I sat at home and drew, until later in the year, when my parents and I made the trip to Pittsburgh to visit the Art Institute.

More early work from the 1970s, including a generic superhero with excessive noodling for a background, created with red and black ink on Bristol board; the EC Comics Cryptkeeper (inks on canvas); and Frankenstein (colored inks on canvas).

Driving back home the next day, I was incredibly excited about the possibility of going there. Pittsburgh was an actual CITY, far different than my dinky little hometown. While at the school for a tour, they took me to meet the cartooning teacher, Bob Sallows, and the president of the school, John Johns, who was a well-known cartoonist/illustrator and caricaturist in Pittsburgh. Sallows let me know that one of his recent students, Paul Gulacy, from Ohio, had just landed a job with Marvel Comics and a few months later I saw it: He was drawing the new Morbius strip in Adventures into Fear. (He later went on to an amazing career, with the high mark being his work with writer Doug Moench on strips such as Master of Kung Fu, Batman, and James Bond.)

For a while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I augmented my income from my newspaper design job with 11×14″ color marker “portraits” of comics characters that I sold via ads in comics newspapers like Comics Buyer’s Guide and at conventions like the annual PittCon, put on by the Pittsburgh Comix Club. Here are three that never sold.

So I signed up … I joined the Visual Communications course at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and started class in March of 1974. This, of course, involved moving to Pittsburgh, where I lived at Duquesne University’s dorms for two years while I completed my course. VC was a fancy name for graphic design and we learned layout and paste-up (no computers, just stinky rubber cement with T-squares and triangles) alongside painting and drawing classes. I had some amazing teachers and some absolute duds. One of the more amazing ones was Henry Koerner, a man who lost his entire family to the Nazis in World War II and went on to become one of the great portrait artists of his era, including twenty TIME magazine covers (click here for more info). Koerner was a short, fire-plug of a man, who rode his bicycle into downtown every day from Squirrel Hill, with his tiny (and mean) dog, Piglet, safely ensconced in his basket. (I could—and will—write an entire post on him one day. He was a character, to say the least, and an immensely talented artist.) Another teacher who had a huge influence on me was Anne Hernstrom, who taught a drawing and painting class and made us write and draw in journals each week. Some students thought it was borderline voyeurism, her insistence that we be open and honest in our journals; I jumped in wholeheartedly since I had a giant crush on her and, of course, lived for her validation. She inspired a love of writing in me and as such, is more than likely one of the inspirations for this blog and its predecessor.

It quickly became apparent to me that if I had any skills in art at all it was as a designer, not as a comic book artist. So that’s what I pursued, and that’s what eventually became my career. I went through the complete two years at the Art Institute, getting my associates degree in Visual Communications and promptly losing my first job at a local advertising agency because I didn’t have a driver’s license (a long story for another time). I moved back to my hometown, Tamaqua, PA, and eventually found a job as the art director for The Tamaqua Paper, a local weekly that had just changed hands, where I and the receptionist/typist kind of ran the paper each week. I did layout, paste-up, illustrations, even some movie reviews under the nom de plume “Patrick Walker,” an amalgam of two art school friends’ last names. I emptied a lot of waste baskets, too.

Some actual paintings in my quest to become a TV Guide color artist: Gilda Radner from Saturday Night Live (watercolor on illustration board) and Buster Keaton (gouache on illustration board).
Four different pop culture illustrations, mainly done in ink and marker on Bristol board. Left to right: The cast of Lou Grant; Richard Chamberlain in the TV mini-series Shogun; Christopher Reeve, et al in Superman II; and pop chanteuse Rickie Lee Jones.

But dreams die hard, and even though I knew a career as a comic book artist wouldn’t ever be mine, I longed for something different. Along the way on my art journey, I discovered illustration, and I longed to become a great magazine illustrator. In the 1970s and ‘80s, magazine illustration was still a thing and the zenith of that profession were artists like Bob Peak, Richard Amsel, Jack Davis, and Charles Santore who did TV Guide and TIME magazine covers. And that’s what I really wanted: my very own TV Guide cover. Some of the images on this page show my art from that time period (the captions reveal what and when, mostly), as I tried and tried to work up samples, mainly for my own satisfaction, that captured pop culture personalities of the era. I remember long, late nights in my attic “studio,” and then bringing my finished pieces downstairs for critical evaluation … which mainly consisted of my mom saying “Oh, that’s a nice one,” and me staring at them from across the living room for hours on end. I’m not sure my parents understood what I was trying to accomplish. But I look back on that art now and some of it still holds up, or at least I think it still does.

Both cartoony and realistic depictions of Indiana Jones circa 1981 or so.
My presentation piece for the comics adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, done for Marvel Comics in 1979. Sadly, although purchased, it was never published.

Ironically, I did have one chance at comic book superstardom. In 1979, I was at PittCon, the Pittsburgh Comix Club’s annual convention, and Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief was a guest. I had the opportunity to interview him for his spotlight panel and he looked at my portfolio. He liked some of the illustration art and told me Marvel was going to do an adaptation of the new Star Trek movie (the first one, directed by Robert Wise). He asked me to work up some ideas for an inside front cover piece, and I did the one above, being very careful to ask since the movie was going to feature new uniforms for Kirk, Spock, and the crew, shouldn’t I be using that for reference material? “This is great,” I was told, and I did a finished piece that was quickly rejected by Paramount, since TV and movies were two separate entities. I did get paid, though … 100 princely bucks, and I got the original back, which I sold to someone for their kid’s birthday present. While I still have the presentation piece, I wish I had the original.

In 1979, The Tamaqua Paper folded and at the end of that year I moved back to Pittsburgh to try and chase some kind of art job. I worked as a clerk at Eide’s, a comics and record store which is celebrating its 49th anniversary in 2021, for about a year, until I somehow heard about an opening for a graphic designer at KDKA-TV due to one of the artists going on maternity leave. I went in for an interview and called every day after that (I can be an impatient SOB at times, despite my quiet—some may say somnambulant—exterior demeanor) and finally wore them down and got a full-time job. The pregnant artist never came back and I stayed for almost 18 years, until a boss from hell drove me out the door, yet again another story for another time.

I finally did become a comic book artist, but I had to self-publish my own book to do so. The tale of Innocent Bystander, the comic, is coming soon. Sadly, these days, I’ve lost the will to draw, replaced instead by writing and photography, both of which fulfill any artistic urges I may have. But I do look back fondly on those years when creativity through drawing was a dominant and very fulfilling force in my life.

Look for Part 5 of “My Life in Comics: The Pittsburgh Comix Club Years” coming soon …

To see how I scratch that creative itch these days, follow me on Instagram @gg92118 for all of my latest photos!

One of my favorite pieces from back then, “Rainbow Girl.”

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