Wednesday, January 21, 2015

BAB Firsts - BAB Book Review: Sal Buscema, Comics' Fast and Furious Artist


This post was originally published on April 2 2010

Doug: Last December Karen and I showed some things on our Christmas wish lists. On March 19 I finally got one of my wants -- TwoMorrows' Sal Buscema: Comics' Fast and Furious Artist, by Jim Amash with Eric Nolen-Weathington. I received the standard trade paperback edition, which retails for $26.95. You can order it here (at a slightly discounted price). It was worth all of the publishing delays...

As I usually do with TwoMorrows' books and magazines, I took a quick thumb-through upon unpacking it. I'm not sure they could have crammed any more art into this volume! If you wanted samples of Sal's work, then you'll get it here (Disclaimer -- the illustrations I've included with this post are examples of original artwork that was for sale on eBay when I wrote this post; these art pages are not in the TwoMorrows book). In fact, the last 64 pages are a B&W and color art gallery featuring sketches, commissions, and tons of published covers and art pages. All of that is in addition to literally hundreds of exhibits from Sal's career shown throughout the book. The format of the text is one long interview between Jim Amash (best known as one of the major contributors to Roy Thomas' Alter Ego magazine) and Sal. To say it's an exhaustive interview might be an understatement. Amash covers all of the points of not only Sal's career, but his life. I had the one-time pleasure of visiting all-too-briefly with Sal at the Chicago Comicon (in the late 1990's), and his gentlemanly manner certainly shines through in Amash's interview.

Fans of Sal's big brother John (eight years Sal's senior) will be extremely excited to read all of the anecdotes about John's career, as well as the interaction between the two. I at first wondered at the directness of interviewer Amash's questions in regard to John -- in a book about Sal, it seemed as if Amash jumped right in about the impact of John's career on the family, on Sal, about the two being compared, etc. Sal's love for his brother just shone through, and any discomfort I had was quickly laid to rest. In a market that is all too thin on the life and work of John Buscema, this biography of Sal dovetails nicely with Vanguard's The John Buscema Sketchbook, Pearl Press's John Buscema: A Life in Sketches, and the out-of-print SQ Productions The Art of John Buscema. Whereas the first and last books feature interviews with John, this latest Buscema book features comments from Sal himself on John's career. Of particular note is Sal's clearing up once and for all the matter of John hating comics. Sal affirms that John didn't hate comics; John hated drawing buildings! John wanted to draw people, and particularly loved drawing Conan and Tarzan because there were no rules -- the fantasy settings allowed John's imagination to run wild and he could draw whatever he wanted!

One of the most interesting series of quotes in this book concerns Sal's remarks about inkers who have embellished his work over the course of his career. While he admits that he holds no one in disdain and would never deny a man his livlihood, he does have negative words for Mike Esposito, Joe Staton, and Ernie Chan.
He says that although he liked Joe Sinnott inking over his pencils, John strongly disliked Sinnott's inks -- not Sinnott the man, but the impact Sinnott had on John's pencils. Sal remarks that while Sinnott is certainly considered one of the best inkers in the business, when Joe inks a penciller, it's Joe you see. I'd argue that Sinnott is what gave the Fantastic Four its visual identity over 2+ decades, but I understand what is being said. Oh, one other nugget -- Sal reveals that John loved Dan Adkins inks on the Silver Surfer. What the...?! I have many a'time commented that I think Adkins was even heavier than Sinnott over Big John. I was shocked to read this!

Sal also discusses his collaborators through the years. Of all of the writers he has worked with, he praises Len Wein and Steve Englehart above all others. Wein was his longtime scribe on The Incredible Hulk (I did not realize that Sal handled the art chores on that title longer than Herb Trimpe), and Sal raves how they just clicked -- Sal knew exactly what Len wanted him to draw, and Len often couldn't believe how Sal returned pages with ideas drawn just as he'd envisioned them. Sal gives the reader further insight to the oft-discussed "Marvel method", and takes a shot at current writers and their too-constricting plot synopses. In Sal's opinion, artists of today are confined. As for Englehart, Sal places him just below Wein, yet raves about their tenure on Captain America. Sal does hold some reservation, though, for the climax of the Secret Empire storyline, and further questions Steve Rogers becoming Nomad. To Sal, Rogers and Captain America cannot exist apart. Sal also discusses his relationship with Jim Shooter. At first amicable, they parted under less-than-friendly circumstances due to Shooter's alleged micro-managing of Sal's art on Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21: the wedding issue. This was detailed in Back Issue #23
. It's those little stories that make this book a really fun, nostalgiac, insightful, and so much more-kind of read.

The table of contents is --

Introduction by Walter Simonson

1. Inspiration All Around
2. A Heroic Departure
3. How to Break In the Marvel Way
4. The Workhorse Hits His Stride
5. A New Start With a Different Company
6. The Craft of Creating Comic Book Art

Art Gallery
(pssst... an Index would have been a nice addition!)

You can find a chronological listing of Sal's work by clicking here.


Erick said...

Being a huge fan of the Hulk, I'm also a big fan of Sal's art. I'm gonna have to get this book. Thanks for the review.

Edo Bosnar said...

Since I came into comics in the mid-70s, Sal always seemed like THE Hulk artist to me. But really, he left his mark all over Marvel in the '70s and early '80s; there was hardly a title he didn't work on. My personal favorites are his work in Marvel Team-up, Rom and Tarzan (and I'm always partial to Marvel's Tarzan just because the first half of the series was penciled by John, and the second by Sal. Pure awesome).
Anyway, thanks for the review, this book is definitely on my want list...

Doug said...

Happy to provide the review, gents. It's really a fun read, and as I said, it's a feast for the eyes as well.

There was a super-limited hardcover edition that a sketch by Sal, but I understand those 100 copies sold out pretty quickly!!


david_b said...

I didn't read much of the Hulk back then.., unless he had some cross-over guest stars.. Sal's rendition of Captain America is TOPS on virtually everyone's list, easily in Englehart's 'Secret Empire' saga, but in the years before that..

I nearly STOPPED collecting Cap when Robbins came in to ruin the beautiful art I came to expect.

His work on Avengers was typically excellent, but first and foremost to me was his work on Cap and Falc.

Sal was my REAL hero..!!

Doug said...

Hey, everyone --

I just put a poll up about Sal, so give us a vote!

I was the first to vote (natch), and gave the nod to Marvel Team-Up. I was never a big Hulk fan, with the exceptions David cited. I enjoyed his run on Cap off and on, and also like David said, the Robbins art killed the book for me. Perhaps my longest following of Sal, beside MTU, was in the Peter Parker book.

Sal's just a solid artist -- nothing flashy, but just good all the time.


david_b said...

I'm sure there's many reasons why Frank Robbins' art was so despised (hate to say that because I'm sure he was a very nice man..), but the one that comes to mind was Sal always gave his characters such 'gravitas' (weight), well-sculptured/chiseled features, and excellent action sequences. If you looked at Robbin's art, it was almost the antithesis of that, more wobble, awkward, less defined depth, call it what you may.

A Herb Trimpe, Colan, or anyone perhaps well-known style-wise could have pulled it off. Robbins?? After Sal's extended run of drawing Cap?? It was a terrible idea. Thanks again for the GREAT posts!

david_b said...

Actually, don't mean to post so much, but Sal's artistry was SO COOL back in '73/'74 that I started collecting the Defenders line as well, especially since I was a Hawkeye fan from the reprints and the Avengers/Defenders cross-over.

I became a HUGH Yellowjacket fan because of Sal's artistry (#23) in the Defenders Serpent story arc. NO ONE drew YJ better than Sal, George Perez being a good runner-up.

Humanbelly said...

This book was one of a couple of things that I had made a mental note (meaning I didn't write it down) to put high on the ol' Christmas list this year, and then of course I couldn't remember a single thing once December rolled around, and gift idea requests came pounding at my mental door.

Yeah, I'm all over the place on record 'round here with my declaration of Sal as my favorite Bronze Age artist. "Best" and "Favorite" may not be exactly synonymous, as it turns out-- is my own spaghetti the Best I've ever had? No, probably not-- but there's no question that it's my Favorite. (And ironically, I'm sure I have more than a couple of issues of Sal's books that have spaghetti sauce stains in the pages.)

Naturally I hugely associate Sal with the Hulk-- and given what a staunch Trimpe fan I was (even as his work started to decline on that title), I was NOT predisposed to welcome Sal onto that book when Herbie left it. And it was a brilliant personnel move, clearly. No matter what title it is, or what characters are involved-- if Sal stepped in, there was never a jolt. The Hulk may have been unique, in fact, in that the book went for DECADES with, gosh, basically three or four regular pencilers? Trimpe and Buscema-- a little bit of Taloc-- and then I think McFarlane and Purvis carried him for quite awhile before the title got mired in the 90's trend of "hot" artist carouseling.

Sal's simple portrayal of Greenskin's shattering heartbreak over the final death of Jarella (w/ Valkyrie trying to comfort him) is something that I can't even think about w/out tearing up, I must confess.


Edo Bosnar said...

It's always interesting to when the topic of inkers comes up, and pencilers comment on the ones they liked best - primarily because us fans often tend to disagree with them. In the post, Doug mentions his surpise about John preferring Adkins, and I have to say I find it odd that Sal wasn't fond of Esposito, Chan and Staton. I thought all three of them did pretty solid work over Sal's pencils (Staton in particular). However, I have to say that in all phases of his career, Sal was by far his own best inker.

Humanbelly said...

Edo, couldn't agree more with you on Staton's inks over Sal. IMO, that was a key element (albeit unsung) in the smooth transition between Herb & Sal on HULK-- 'cause those are two pencilers with very, very distinctive styles. Staton's inks (which looked great over Herb also) went a long way toward providing a subtle feeling of visual continuity. But yeah, Sal was generally his own best inker. In fact, didn't we read 'round here somewhere that Sal really preferred inking to penciling? That he kind of thought of himself as Inker-First?


J.A. Morris said...

I've never read this, but I should probably add it to my wish list. Since Sal is the "patron saint" of my blog, this book should be mandatory reading for me.

pfgavigan said...


I'm of mixed feeling regarding Buscema the Younger. When he's at his best he is very, very good. The art is clear and sharp and the story telling direct and straight forward. There were times during his brief period on "The New Mutants" where you could remove Clairmont's dialogue and still get the gist of what the characters were saying.

That is when he is at his best. When he was cranking the pages out, sometimes for four books a month, he took shortcuts. Like all comic book illustrators he had stock characters and figures. It makes sense, use them to speed things up. But when you buy as many comics as I did back then you begin to notice the repetition.

Also, to use the term "Inker" in regards to those individuals who provided the final rendition to Buscema raw artwork can be misleading. When he was the "Marvel Workhorse" and turning out all those pages he was delivering primarily layouts. "Embellishers" such as Chan, Colletta, Esposito and many, many others were putting in much of the details, making the artistic decisions based on their own styles.

I've seen some of these pages, sometimes you can make out the original pencils. If Buscema had the time he put in a lot of detail, made the work definitely Sal Buscema. If he didn't have the time he provided what were essentially high end layouts and sent them off to the office.

Like I said, I am a fan of Sal Buscema, I always knew that I would get a well rendered story from him. It was always a question of just how much Sal Buscema would I be getting.

Yours in the sincere hope that I do not offend.


Martinex1 said...

Sal Buscema is my favorite artist also. His storytelling is top notch and his characters are always on model. For me his images define many Marvel heroes. Personally I liked some of his earliest work on the Avengers circa issue 70. I thought Sam Grainger did nice inking around that time. Although I also like Sal's inks. His style changed a bit on Peter Parker and ROM but his storytelling was still supreme. Always a fan.

Humanbelly said...

If I remember my Marvel history correctly, PFG, Jack Kirby was used a LOT in the very same way in the mid-60's-- doing layouts as the penciller, and the embellisher and/or inker would complete the job. Although not officially designated as such, this might suggest that Sal was in fact representing the Marvel "House Style" at that point.

While I didn't care quite as much for the inking style that Sal developed in the 90's, I do recognize it as a conscious effort on his part to expand himself as an artist-- I'm pretty sure he explained it in so many words at one point. That says a lot about a fellow who could just have easily kept working along on autopilot.


pfgavigan said...

To Humanbelly


Quite true, Kirby started several artists off on their Marvel careers by providing layouts for them to pick up on his story telling techniques, chief among these were John Romita on Daredevil and Werner Roth on X-Men.

There were also periods when Kirby was producing layouts on several of his regular books, among them Thor and Fantastic Four and relying on the Inkers of the titles to finish them. I've seen scans of the raw pencils from some of these issues and I can safely say that both Sinnott and Colletta served the King well.

Yours with fond memories of days past.


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