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Year of the Artist, Day 129: Walter Simonson, Part 1 – Detective Comics #440

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Walter Simonson, and the issue is Detective Comics #440, which was published by DC and cover dated April/May 1974. This scan is from Manhunter, the collected edition, which was published in 1984. Enjoy!

Walt Simonson is one of the best artists in comic book history, I should think, and one of the few people who can claim to be a true heir to Kirby without actually ripping off Kirby (if you’re a talented artist, you can probably draw like Kirby, but I’m not talking about that). It’s not a surprise that some of his greatest triumphs in comics have come on a cosmic stage, but early in his career, he was just doing a back-up story in Detective Comics, which turned out to be a classic in its own right. “Manhunter” wasn’t his first comics work, but it’s the earliest comics work by him that I own, so let’s get to it!

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Simonson was 26 when he drew this (he turned 26 in September 1973), and he’s already in command of the page and close to the style that he would use for most of his career. The Manhunter back-up stories were short pieces, and Goodwin and Simonson had eight pages to cram in a grand, globe-trotting adventure. So this story becomes a masterwork on design as well as storytelling, and we can see that Simonson is already quite good at this. Alan Kupperberg and Simonson himself are credited as letterers, and I’m not sure who does what, but the letters on the top of the page need to cramped a bit to accommodate Goodwin’s prose (and this is the 1970s, when comics were full of words, man!), but they’re still perfectly legible. We get a small row of panels showing Nostrand, and Simonson does a nice job building the tension until we get the big splash at the bottom of the page. He starts close and pulls back, so we get Nostrand sweating and looking mean in Panel 1, the acknowledgement that he’s wounded in Panel 2, the fact that he’s in a truck in Panel 3, the fact that he’s in an alley in Panel 4, and the fact that Paul Kirk and Christine St. Clair (you know you’re in a comic when you meet people named “Damon Nostrand” and “Christine St. Clair,” damn it!) are in the alley in front of him. Those are small panels, but they’re full of visual information. Then Nostrand turns the lights on and illuminates Kirk and St. Clair, and we see the distinctive hatching that becomes a Simonson staple through the years. He uses spot blacks very well, and the inking helps highlight the shadows nicely. We’re off to a good start!

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This is the next page, and it’s another good one, showing how well Simonson can pack a lot onto a page yet still be perfectly clear. He puts Kirk and St. Clair in the background in Panel 1, minimizing them as the truck races toward them to make them seem more vulnerable. As Kirk hits the ground, we get the three panels in which he cuts open the … gas tank? It looks like the muffler, but maybe it’s the gas tank? I’m not a car guy. Anyway, Simonson leads us nicely through that sequence, always pushing us from the left to the right. Then he reverses Panel 1 in Panel 5, as the truck speeds toward us, leaving Kirk and St. Clair once again in the background. Simonson cartoonishly draws Nostrand’s truck completely off the ground, which is a bit silly but always helps create a sense of motion, which is pretty crucial in an action scene. He then stacks a sequence in which Kirk lights a match and flips it on the puddle of gas, which he then uses in Panels 8/9 to lead us from the left foreground into the right background, where Nostrand’s truck explodes. Even the flames and smoke from the wreckage lead us to the next page. Once again we see that Simonson is quite good at hatching and inking, as he uses rough strokes to add grittiness to the alleys of Marrakesh and the smoke rising from the burning wreckage.

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So there are a lot of Paul Kirk clones, and he has to fight them. Simonson breaks this into a 12-panel grid, which allows him to show a lot of the fighting but also speeds up the action, adding tension. In the top row, he leads us again from left to right, then, in the second row, he still leads us, but focuses more on the individual panels as Kirk cuts through the clones. He knows when to blur his characters, as we see in Panel 5, when Kirk becomes a flash of red. In the third row, he does a nice job linking the three panels – first the dude swings that giant chain, then he gets smashed by a table, and then Simonson switches our view to show Kirk leaping forward just after throwing the table, ready to press the advantage. In the bottom row, Simonson once again uses a bigger spread with borders to keep the grid going, but he pulls back to show the aftermath of the battle, with the clones strewn about, while Nostrand (hey, isn’t he dead? – yes, but this is a flashback) shoots at him. The bullet leads across the panels to where Kirk leaps out the window, and then we get the long, tall, vertical panel on the right side, as Kirk falls from the height into the water. This is a very nicely designed page, and again we see Simonson’s gritty inking, fitting the subject matter quite well.

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Simonson uses space well again, as Kirk and St. Clair find Nostrand’s key, enter his hotel room, and find their “Wanted” posters. In the middle row, he uses thinner panels to good effect – the tight panels in the second row help create a building tension, until Kirk turns to St. Clair (and the audience) and leads us off the page with the bombshell of their posters. Notice that Simonson’s figure drawing wasn’t quite where it would be in the 1980s, when he used blockier faces, but it’s getting there. Interestingly enough, Kirk is a bit older than he looks, and while Simonson doesn’t draw him as old as he should be, his long face, thin nose, and perpetual grimace make him look a bit older. I don’t know if that’s what Simonson was going for, but it’s strange that he gets that effect.

It’s impressive how good Simonson was this early in his career, and he only got better. Tomorrow I’ll look at some of his art that, strangely, isn’t quite as good as this is. Why? Beats me. We’ll investigate tomorrow! In the meantime, have fun in the archives!

22 Comments

Nothing to had..except.; that he had some other shorts before this magnificent run .. (you should try to find ‘The Art ofWalter Simonson’ published by DC.sometime in the begnning of the90’s)

Excellent work all in all from the begining on ..

eagerly awaiting your choices, Greg ;)

Jeff Nettleton

May 9, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Ironically, this was my introduction, over 10 years later, to Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s masterpiece. I was in college, in the mid-80s, and ventured into my first comic store, where I picked out a bunch of Bronze Age books, and a couple of newer ones. One of them was Detective #440. I was hooked immediately by the story, even though I entered it in the middle of things. Just really quality work. I later read that one of Walt Simonson’s artistic influences was British comic strip artist Jim Holdwway, original artist on the classic adventure strip Modesty Blaise. I looked back at Manhunter and it shows, from the pacing of the action, to his figure work. He definitely picked a good guide for doing this type of adventure story, as it matches the best of Modesty Blaise (and that says volumes).

I later obtained a copy of the Baxter-format reprint of the series, then got the original issues. It was interesting to compare. In the originals, it looked like either Walt got the original Manhunter costume wrong (standard cowl mask, instead of blue facemask) and it was corrected by the colorist (who colored the entire area blue, including what was obviously intended to be visible flesh); or, Walt intended the change in mask and no one clued in the colorist. Since Archie edited the book, I tend to believe that he thought Walt made a mistake. Anyway, in the Baxter reprint, the “mistake” is corrected, and the Manhunter mask appears as Walt drew it, red cowl, with blue trim around the eyes and nasal and mouth openings, with visible flesh at the nose and mouth (and colored Caucasian flesh tones). I’ve always wanted to here where the mistakes lay and the corrections began.

Finally, after reading the excerpt above, I have one thing further to contribute: man, I really miss Archie Goodwin! The man could write circles around just about everyone in comics.

I had a feeling you were getting to Simonson eventually. I was hoping you’d start with his Steve Englehart written Batman issue that came right before Marshall Rogers. He’s inked by Al Milgrom in that, and he’s using such a Marvel house style in it, especially under Milgrom’s inks, that it’s basically Simonson before he was ever Simonson.

ollieno: Thanks – I’ll have to track that down!

Jeff: Interesting about the originals. As I mentioned, this is from the reprint, so the “mistake” has been corrected. I don’t own the original issues, so that’s kind of neat to know.

Yeah, Goodwin was really good. Great writer, better editor.

T.: His issue of Detective with Englehart came AFTER this, so I’ll get to it! :)

Simonson deserves a year of study, especially when you read about the issues he redrew to turn “John Carter of Mars” into “Star Wars” and “Tarzan” into “Battlestar Galactica”.

Also, is it me, or did Simonson totally repurpose those blue-and-white clone uniforms into Cyclops’ X-Factor uniform?

His issue of Detective with Englehart came AFTER this, so I’ll get to it!

wow, really? That issue looks so much less like Simonson’s later style than this one, so I always assumed it was earlier. I guess Milgrom’s inks really overpowered it and gave it a classic Marvel house style.

Jeff Nettleton

May 9, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Greg,
Just so we are clear, and for the benefit of anyone interested, I’m referring to Detective #439 (Chapter 3 of the story), not the artwork from #440 (depicted above). #439 features the meeting of Paul Kirk and Christine St. Clair, where he relates his history. There is a panel, depicting Simonson’s version of his 1940s costume. Simonson either had never seen it and misinterpreted a description, or mis-remembered it, or made a change. The original costume consisted of red shirt and tights; dark blue trunks, buccaneer boots and gauntlets. His mask consisted of a red cowl hood, but a solid, light blue theatrical-style facemask, with eye and mouth holes. The mask featured a frozen expression (though artists often gave him different expressions). Simonson interpreted the mask as a cloth cowl, with openings for the eyes, nose and mouth; but, those areas trimmed in the same dark blue as the trunks, boots and gloves. The colorist in #439 not only colored the area Simonson indicated for the trim in the original light blue, but also the exposed skin. So, it appears that Paul Kirk had light blue skin, poking through a light blue mask!. In the early 80s single issue reprint, the color has been changed to what Simonson (probably) originally intended. That version provided the original art for the trade book reprint, which included the newer silent story that Archie and Walt co-plotted, but Archie never got to script, prior to his death.

Now that everyone is thoroughly confused (or bored) I suggest hunting down some of those DC 100 page books, like #440. They were great treasure troves of new stories and classic reprints. Detective #440 also featured a Simon & Kirby classic, when they took over Manhunter, in Adventure Comics. DC mined their old stories for those 100 Page books, including some classic Blackhawk stories (from Quality Comics), Kid Eternity, Captain Triumph, the Marvel Family (in the 100 Page Shazam issues), and many other less prominent (but still great) features, as well as classics from the big guns. They can be a bit pricey, these days, but give you a lot of bang for your buck. Think of them as mini-Greatest (fill in the blank) Stories Ever Told collections.

Jeff: Ah, thanks for the clarification. I’ll have to drag out my reprint and take a look.

Greg Hatcher has written more than a few times about the 100-page giants. They’re the kind of things that make me wish I was buying comics in the 1970s.

When I was a young comics collector, I remember reading Inferno and comparing Simonson very unfavorably to Silvestri (probably because Silvestri’s women were far sexier). In hindsight, my judgment was way off. While I really like Silvestri’s style, Simonson’s storytelling is much superior. The sketchiness of his line work really has grown on me over the years.

Jenos Idanian #13

May 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

If you do not devote at least a couple of paragraphs to Simonson’s rather unique signature, sir, you are a cad and a fiend and a man of little virtue and no honor.

I applaud the choice of artist wholehearteadly.

A question: Is Simonson’s Ragnarok a sort of “what if if Walter had stayed at Thor?” or a fully original go at the characters?

T.: Yeah, it’s weird. I’ll get into it, especially when it comes to Milgrom’s inks!

Nu-D: I probably would have thought the same thing. I started buying Uncanny X-Men when Silvestri was drawing it, and I loved the art. Then again, it took me years to appreciate Kirby and Ditko, too!

Jenos: That’s a chance I’ll have to take!

Kabe: I’m not sure – I think it’s a completely original take, because as far as I know, Thor is red-headed in it. The solicitation didn’t mention that it’s a “continuation,” so I assume it’s not, because they probably would have promoted it like that a bit more.

I know you have to space the great artists out so you don’t blow through them all at once, but it’s about damn time you got to Simonson! He’s my favorite comic book creator. You probably made Greg Hatcher’s day using this specific issue for an example as well.

I’ll go ahead and second Jeff Nettleton’s recommendation. The 100 page giants were pretty cool. Detective Comics in specific was super great at this time, most likely because Goodwin was editing. #439 has “Night of the Stalker” in it and that’s one of my favorite Batman stories.

Your point about Simonson being a true heir to Kirby is quite apt. He basically learned all of Kirby’s lessons on design & layout, pacing, and dynamism, and spun it out into his own unique style which (sinful to admit on forums like this, I know) I far prefer to Kirby’s.
Jeff makes a good point about Goodwin. I wish he and Simonson had collaborated more often, because when they did, you get masterpieces like this Manhunter story.

And yes, if you’re a Simonson fan, you should definitely get the “Art of …” book if you can find it for a reasonable price (I lucked out on that mark a few years ago). It’s page after page of eye candy, but the stories are good, too. By the way, Howard Chaykin wrote the introduction to that book, and he made some interesting comments about the young Walt Simonson in the early ’70s:
“His stuff was the most stylistically complete and consistent work of any of our generation at the time. Period.”
And also: “… Simonson, in his earliest works … displayed a grasp of mature graphic ideas that most of us would come to only years later. Some of the guys never got it.”

tom fitzpatrick

May 10, 2014 at 7:51 am

I’ve never read any of Simonson’s Manhunter series, but I do agree with you that seeing his work as an artist – he can pack quite a bit on one page.

I’ve read Star Slammers and he has done the same type of thing there. Not sure about his other works.

P. Boz: Hey, I think all the artists I’ve featured are great! :) I know what you mean, though, but it’s not quite as calculated as you think. I started putting these together in September, and I built up a buffer of about 45 days. Those artists were much more planned because I had the time to think about who I wanted to show. Now that my buffer has shrunk (and I’m trying to get some of it back, because I’m going to San Diego in July), I’m just skimming my list of artists that I’ve been writing down and seeing what jumps out at me. Some artists I’ve been waiting on because I don’t have enough examples of their work and I’m trying to buy some of their older stuff or I’m waiting until it becomes available (Marvel just released the Marvel Masterworks of Steranko’s Captain America in softcover, and I hadn’t owned that before, which is why I haven’t done Steranko yet). So while I am holding back on some “great” artists, it’s not quite as planned out as you might expect!

Edo: Yeah, this is a year into his career, and it’s amazing. He really did start out great, even though his development into “Walt Simonson” took a while, as I hope to show here!

tom: Simonson does a very good job with space. He doesn’t always have to – his layouts of the Thor issue with all full-page splashes leaps to mind – but he’s very good at it.

Greg, I am a huge fan of Walter Simonson. I’m really looking forward to reading upcoming entries in “Year of the Artist” to see what other work by him you spotlight.

I always enjoyed the way Simonson draws sound effects (with the best one in one of the Galactica issues)

I was 7 years old when I was introduced to Simonson’s Manhunter work in Detective Comics and it freaked me out because it was so different than what I was used to. that being said it is stupendous work and he went on to be one of my all time favourite comic book artists when I became reaquainted with his epic work in Thor.

Speaking of the Art of Walt Simonson book, it’s pretty great. It’s all DC stuff, of course, since it’s by DC, but a lot of those stories are a little more obscure — there’s Batman, there’s pirate stuff (a pirate fighting a ninja, actually, so, y’know, there are worse times), there’s a really nice Dr. Fate story, there’s some scifi, there’s a couple of fun-but-mostly-forgotten issues of Hercules Unbound, and finally, a buttload of Metal Men, which is obviously awesome.

The earliest story in the book is from 1973, among the very first things Simonson did for DC. That’s one’s called “UFM,” followed by a sequel titled “The Return.” They ran in Star-Spangled War Stories #170 (June, 1973) and #180 (May-June, 1974), respectively. You can see how much rougher the work here is than in the Manhunter, but you can also see how he improves — and how the spark is there all along; right from the get-go, Simonson had a sense of style and composition that a lot of other artists just never quite grasp.

My scanner’s dead, but here’s a couple of photos — not the greatest quality, but they should do.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/9os7fjvvtyl9fpv/simonson_UFM.jpg

Here, in a page from UFM, you can already see how Simonson is doing what you describe above — packing a lot of beats into a single page, and while it’s not as sophisticated as in the Manhunter story, it doesn’t feel cramped or rushed — if anything, our hero’s struggle to defeat the UFM (Ultimate Fighting Machine, natch!) feels well-paced, especially given that this is just a seven-page story, so things have to move at a good clip. We get the sense that this is almost a montage of his suffering, but he still keeps going, and while the look of determination at the end isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, it works really well.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/ohc5gqsni6wvciq/simonson_the_return.jpg

This is a page from The Return, which takes place a year later, where we find that a part of the machine has survived, and other characters have to try and defeat it all over again. Simonson also had a year to hone his craft, and I think, this is where he really starts to shine — the way he arranges the panels is a great way of showing how both characters take their time to get into position (with only six pages in the story, space is again at a premium), but it also shows their different perspectives — he’s taking aim at the machine through a scope, from a distance, whereas she’s creeping closer to the machine, and then explodes into action to distract it so he can take his shot. Simonson colored the latter story himself, perhaps not to best possible effect — the eyestalk thing on the machine really blends in with the background, so you don’t easily understand that it swings around to look at her.

These stories were written by Gerry Boudreau and edited by Arhchie Goodwin, who must’ve seen the talent in Simonson, as rough as “UFM” is (there are pages there that look much less sophisticated than the one I link to above!), given that the two of them worked together on Manhunter later.

Such a talented guy, right from the start.

Mikki: Wow, that’s very cool stuff. Thanks for sharing. I’m trying to look out for your comments, because I like to respond if I see them!

Thanks, I appreciate that! I know I’m dropping these comments into the much older posts, so I won’t hold it against you if you miss some. =)

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