Man-Size (man_size) wrote,

Upstart Studios

Monday had me outside early from SBX's abode as I rode my bike to make a bank deposit on Montague and to the local pharmacy on Clinton to drop off pix for 24-hour development. Hadn't biked like that in a month or so. Sure, I take it back and forth between hers, and mine but that's an easy 15-20 minutes w/no surprises. My legs ache for Prospect Park roundabouts and Brooklyn Bridge hop scotches, but this bitter winter keeps the peddles at bay and the body huddled radiator friendly. Holed up in the studio with a deadline due and rent to pay, I penciled most of T2/pp28 and made my way into Manhattan where I would encounter my two mentors: cartoonists who I assisted yet haven't shared the same room with since 1985: Howard Chaykin and Walter Simonson.

Having met Larrondo at Music & Art High School [now La Guardia], we became really good friends. I bought him H&H Bagels in the morning and he let me crash his house on weekends when I needed to escape. We shared the same sense of macabre humor, grew up on Public Enemy and The Butthole Surfers, loved horror movies, made illegal videos, and read comics like WATCHMEN and MOON KNIGHT. We even created our own comic called FEAR CITY. He wrote it. I drew.

Lar's pop was a famous comic book writer [having written the politically conscience GREEN LANTER/GREEN ARROW, the tragic BATMAN, and the alcohol challenged IRON MAN, to name a few] who later became a premiere DC Comics editor. So, because Lar's father was in the comics industry loop, he had heard that Howard Chaykin needed an assistant. This was during the days when Lar was pursuing working in comics before becoming a filmmaker and screenwriter. Chaykin had a studio that he shared called Upstart Studios in the Garment District of New York. Lar got the assistant gig working for Chaykin in the same studio as Walter Simonson, and James Sherman. The studio had also housed Frank Miller, Jim Starlin, and a couple of other industry hot dogs of the 80's. Cartoonists Bill Sienkiewicz, Denys Cowan, and Michael Davis, set up shop down the hall on the same floor. Sienkiewicz wanted to have an assistant too, and so I interviewed and snagged that gig. I went from assisting Sienkiewicz on NEW MUTANTS and ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN to working for Chaykin on AMERICAN FLAGG!, as his second assistant, drawing/pasting in backgrounds [when we used to do paste ups w/Xeroxes and glue rather than scans and layers with Quark and Photoshop, which hadn’t been invented yet]. While working in Upstart Studios I would occasionally help assist Walter Simonson on THOR. Simonson did thumbnail sized layouts and my job was to blow up the layout on this light box contraption called the Artograph, and then transpose and magnify his very loose, very small sketch onto 10 x 15, 2-ply Bristol board, trying my best to maintain the integrity of Simonson's impulsive art. The more time you have to go over a drawing the tighter it gets and Simonson really liked having that spontaneous look and feel.

I learned so many tricks of the trade while assisting at Upstart Studios. I learned how to spot blacks, shade w/craft tint, when to employ the inset [a graphic close-up] on the page, and how to use a fucking ruler. I was very fortunate to not only be friends with Larrondo [he introduced me to Bean Curd Szechwan style during those Halcyon days], but very lucky to be an assistant to such great page-makers as Chaykin, and Simonson. Later on, I took a more alternative route, because, as much as I dreamed about penciling THE FANTASTIC FOUR as a child, the studio experience allowed me to manifest the auteur in me. Chaykin was entirely producing the comics he created, and Simonson was writing his. Even though I started off collaborating with other writers, my Upstart experiences made me want to create and write my own comix. I wanted to tell my own stories. Lo and behold, 18-years later and I'm writing/drawing BILLY DOGMA and drawing a FANTASTIC FOUR comic for Marvel.

The three of us met up at Chaykin's hotel lobby at the Regency and walked over for some pizza and salad. We shot the shit, caught up, talked comic book politic, gave Larrondo a west coast shout on my cell phone, and shared our current projects on the bed of his hotel room. Now that Chaykin has basically quit television and gotten married, he's going full steam ahead with a bunch of creator-owned comix w/DC, including a 96pp graphic novel called MIGHTY LOVE, which looks phenomenal. After the success of AMERICAN FLAGG!, his controversial spins on sacred cows: THE SHADOW, and BLACKHAWK, I thought Chaykin had peaked w/TIME'2, blown his wad on BLACK KISS, telephoned MIDNIGHT MEN, and lost it on POWER & GLORY. BUT -- he found his muse and had his mojo back in spades on MIGHTY LOVE; his most intelligent art and design I've seen him flex his entire career. Don't know if it resonates like AMERICAN FLAGG!, but I mustn't confuse one era of genius with the potential of another. After all, it's context that allows for such cylinder firing clarity. Time only ever dates the magic of artistic integrity, but never detracts its authenticity.

Chaykin was flying high while Simonson was feeling vexed and a touch blue. After working on A-list franchises at both Marvel & DC for most of his career, doling out a few arcs of his creator-owned STARSLAMMERS, it was his incredible/giving it all he's got/25-issue run on ORION, and its cancellation that caused him alarm. It didn't yield the critical acclaim it deserved and enough of a job security to keep his mojo oiled. A vet/pro/master comix craftsman, Simonson was experiencing a career flux. Currently, he was drawing a new ELRIC series w/writer Michael Moorcock. He digs this stuff like nobody's business, and there's nobody better to draw it. Chaykin and I gave him the heads up that he was rocking those ELRIC pages and to disregard any iota of second-guessing. If any cartoonist I knew should trust their instincts, it's Walter Simonson. Chaykin may hit a grand slam once a decade or two, but there is nobody more innovatively consistent than good old Walt.

Charged to sit in a room with my mentors, we cracked jokes, and told embarrassing stories; like how talented Chaykin was for flipping his SUV within a 5-foot radius of Los Angeles parking space, crushing the vehicles roof and windshields, destroying an air conditioner in his garage, and sliding down his lot -- crashing into his wife's car, and turtling out the side as firemen came to the rescue! Fear of future in comix got me vexed a little but some solid tips from my teachers set me straight. At midnight we called it quits and vowed to get together again soon, as I repaired to the F-train for the long haul home reading Junji Ito’s ‘spiral into horror,’ UZUMAKI.

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