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A Fine Line

John Buscema

Autumn Whitehurst

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 12/25/2002

In 1948, John Buscema started drawing comic books for Timely Comics in New York. He left comics about a decade later to work in the commercial-art field but returned to the company, which had changed its name to Marvel Comics, in 1966. For the next 40 or so years, Buscema drew hundreds and hundreds of comics for Marvel. In the mid-'90s, he mostly retired. He died of stomach cancer last January at the age of 74.

It's a story that could apply to dozens of comics artists who entered the business in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The thing is, John Buscema drew like a dream. Combining lush romanticism, rippling anatomy, and historical fantasy, Buscema was sui generis--it was as if one of the Old Masters had landed in the 20th century and, after taking a glance at the modern scene, decided to take up pencilling comic books.

No matter the topic or setting--interstellar spaceship battles, medieval barbarians, undersea wars, or just plain ol' superfolks punching each other's lights out--Buscema could make it sing. He was blessed with virtuosic draftsmanship and learned his excellent storytelling abilities from the legendary Jack Kirby.

But then there's this: "I have a theory, and it works pretty good for me. I feel that, if you can do something with one line instead of two, you're gonna cut time in half."

"Big" John Buscema, as Stan Lee nicknamed the bear of a man, said this during one of several instructional "chalk talks" he made for young Marvel artists in the early '80s. And it's excellent advice, if you have the talent of a John Buscema. But most young artists do not, and the older artist's chalk talks, plus his work on the mega-popular book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (which also encouraged shortcut-taking and practically refused to acknowledge that comics could feature anything but action-adventure characters), had a debilitating effect on the art form.

In a time when a rising tide of cartoonists was exploring the artistic possibilities of the comic-book form, Buscema was not only encouraging shortcuts but also pushing a corporate mentality. While Dave Sim (Cerebus), Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Love and Rockets), and dozens of other cartoonists were doing some of the best cartooning ever doing personal and avant-garde work, this is what Buscema was saying:

"[I]f I hurt management, I'm hurting myself. You gotta be realistic. And the only way we're ever gonna help ourselves is by helping management. Get the goddamn job in on time. That's the most important thing: getting it in on time, do the best you can. You're gonna help yourself and you're gonna help management."

This attitude was understandable, as Buscema grew up during the Depression and started working when comic books were usually option number two or three for artists who would have preferred doing a newspaper comic strip or even working in advertising. "For Buscema, a craftsman of extraordinary skill, satisfaction came in the form of a job completed and a paycheck earned," wrote The Comics Journal managing editor Eric Evans in his introduction to one of Buscema's chalk talks transcribed in the August 2000 issue of the magazine, No. 226.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native's bad influence can be found all over mainstream comics of the 1980s. Peruse the back issues in any random comic shop and be bored by long runs of just plain badly drawn comics. Besides a few highlights, including Buscema's own work, Marvel in the '80s pales compared to the great children's literature the company printed in the '60s or the quirkiness of its '70s output. And that corporate mentality he was happy to be a part of persists today.

Despite his anti-Art leanings, however, John Buscema will be best remembered for his work, especially his runs on Silver Surfer in the late 1960s and Conan the Barbarian in the '70s and '80s. In those books he was able eschew superheroes--"I hate those guys!" he often told interviewers--and his sheer love of drawing shone through.

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