Walt Simonson has been, for as long as I can remember, one of my favorite comic book storytellers. His work on the Star Wars comics was fantastic, but the best work he’s ever done was his run on Thor (as far as I’m concerned, anyway.) It’s some of the best comics have to offer.
I was given the opportunity to chat with him about The Alien movie adaptation that was released by Titan Books recently and we talked about many other things, including Christopher Eccleston’s casting of Malekith, a character he created, as well as his work on Star Wars.
My review of Alien: The Illustrated Story will be up soon over at The Huffington Post. (Rest assured it was fantastic.
Without further ado, here’s the interview. I hope you enjoy it:
Bryan Young: You’ve called Alien the best licensed property you’ve ever worked on. What did you mean by that?
Walt Simonson: What I meant was, working on that book, that particular project was really one of the best experiences of my career in all aspects, but especially on a licensed product. Licensed stuff often has a bunch of ancillary agendas to go along with it that you have to kind of work with when you’re doing it, everything from license approval rights to the reference you can get on project, and in the case of Alien, Archie Goodwin and I, we really had kind of a free hand. We were given a lot of access to reference, we saw a lot of stuff, we had 3 different script revisions that were like 2 or 3 months apart, each one, and we were really given our head to try to put together the best comic we could, really almost on our own, so in that regard, the cooperation we got from 20th Century Fox was really wonderful, and I think that’s reflected in the final product, the freedom we had to do that work. That degree of freedom is really unusual in licensed property work.
BY: How far out were you working on this before the film was released?
WS: It came out in May of 1979, and Heavy Metal who were publishing it, wanted to get the comic, the graphic novel out with the movie, basically to come out with the film, so that meant that the completed book, everything, the drawing, the coloring, the writing, the lettering, the whole package, had to be sent to the printer, I remember, sometime early in April. I don’t remember if it was the second week or whatever, but something along those lines, and in order to get the book printed and get the printed copy out to bookstores, comic shops, anywhere that was going to sell them in time for the film. So Archie and I and Heavy Metal really had a hard deadline of whatever time in April that was. I was brought on to the book as the artist in the middle or end of December 1978. John Workman, who was the art director at Heavy Metal, he was the gentleman who called me up and offered me the gig, that probably happened in November, maybe a little earlier, but no later. Then we had to work out contracts and page rates, but I know that I was working on the project mid-December or so. So I had about 4 months to do the book.
BY: With you guys working on the book so close to the release date, how much of the finished film were you able to see, because it’s actually stunning to see how well the sequentials work with pacing. They match the movie fairly well in places and in places where they don’t match the movie at all, it almost improves on it.
WS: The thing is, part of the wonderfulness of this whole experience for me was that I know that December was when I started working on it. We had a liaison, Charlie Lippencock, our guy with 20th Century, PR guy, whatever his official title was. Charlie was a comics fan, so he understood something about comics that maybe people back there especially, that comics hadn’t permeated all levels of society like it seems to have done now. But he understood what was required, and the result was I got a call on a Monday morning to tell me that I would be flying to England on Wednesday morning to see a rough cut of the film. And this was about 2 or 3 weeks before Christmas, and as it happened, I was lucky because I had a valid passport.
So I was on a plane with a couple other guys who were also involved in licensed projects with the Alien movie. We were flown over to England, we were put up 2 or 3 nights. I know I got there Wednesday morning and came home Sunday afternoon. On Thursday, we saw a rough cut of the film that was about 2 and a half hours long.
It was basically the principal photography with the actors. The scenes where there were special effects or where the Nostromo was involved, all that stuff was still being done at the time, so suddenly it would come to a strip of film that said ‘scene missing’, but I had read the screenplays, so I knew what was going to be happening, so it didn’t really prevent you from following the storylines. I couldn’t tell you now what was different between the rough cut; there were a couple of things that were different.
The first scene with the adult alien, where it kills Harry Dean Stanton was rather different in the rough cut than it was in the final and the version in the graphic novel is a very short version of what I saw in the rough cut, but it’s rather different than what’s in the movie. But again, there’s a scene towards the end of the book when Ripley is the last survivor, and she has the cat and is running towards the life boats, she runs around the corner of a corridor, and there’s a box sitting in the center of the corridor, and it’s clearly out of place, and she freezes and comes to a dead halt, looking at it, and after a moment, the box begins to shrug and move, and that great, spectacular alien head comes up and it’s the alien all folded up into this kind of organic box, and it’s between her and the lifeboat. That was a scene I remember being in the movie for two reasons. One, I thought it was fantastic. At least one of the guys I was with who was watching this movie with us, thought it looked really cheesy, I thought it looked really cool, but what it meant was when I was drawing right at the end of the book, I was working on it at March at that point, and I’d seen the movie movie about 3 months earlier. Now, I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remembered a lot, I’d seen a lot of stuff, but I got to that point, and I knew the scene, so at that point, we were in England, partly because there had been some debate about flying the rough cut over here to view. But what we had been told that it was easier to fly us over there while they were still working on and editing it and doing stuff, so that scene and other scenes like Harry Dean Stanton’s death, they were in, they were out, they were lengthening then shortening, in fact when the adult alien first appeared, what we were told at the time, and it seems like a long scene, while the version in the graphic novel is very short compared to it, but it’s the essence of the scene. Well we were told they had edited this thing down from longer footage, and now they thought they had edited it down too far and were going to add more back in. Well the final version is much different, it’s much quicker, so obviously a lot of the decisions were still being made. I got to the part of the comic where I reached the scene where Ripley runs around the corner and sees this box, and I called Charlie up and said ‘Ok, I’m at the point where I have to draw that scene or not draw that scene, so what do I do?’ And he said, ‘Well, right now, it’s in.’ And I said ok, and that’s probably important in doing a comic because, especially at the end of a book because every page you put in affects every page you put in down the road. So in order to have the pages come out the way I wanted for the last 6 or 7 or 8 or whatever it was, that was an extra page I would have to adjust my storytelling to match whatever it was, put it in or leave it out. So I put it in, went to watch the movie when it came out, and of course, the scene wasn’t there. So, that’s why that’s there.
Also, we had 3 different script versions to work from. 20th Century weren’t concerned about what we did as far as how we put the story together, so there were a couple of times Archie and I used some stuff from an earlier version we had that we thought was a lovely little scene, just a couple of panels, in the comic, where the Ian Holm character, Ash, comes in and he’s talking to Ripley and he’s talking to Veronica Cartwright, who’s name I have forgotten…
WS: That’s right, Lambert, and when he leaves the girls look after him, and Ripley says to Lambert, did you ever sleep with Ash? And Lambert says no, I never got the impression he was interested, and Ripley says neither did I. And I don’t think that’s in the film, but we thought that was a nice little scene and was nicely foreshadowing what you discover about Ash later on in the movie. So it was stuff like that basically, in the case of Alien, Archie and I worked to take all the material we were given, these 3 different script versions and the film as I had seen it, and we had a lot of visual reference, these photographs we were given. We just tried to boil all that stuff down into the best comic book we could. We were doing a comic, we were trying to make that story work for a comic, and that’s what we tried to do.
BY: Was it a licensing issue that has kept it out of print so long?
WS: I have no idea. I don’t own the rights to any of that material. Dark Horse has had the Alien license for years. I haven’t any idea what the story is on that. I know that Titan got interested in doing the reprint, and apparently was able to cut a deal and keep all parties happy, so I’m delighted it’s back in print. It did pretty well back in the old days, it got on the New York Times Bestseller List for Paperbacks, so as far as I know, the first comic book to do it. I don’t claim any credit. After all, if I could do a comic that had a million dollar movie to advertise my comic, I could probably do pretty well with that comic book. The only thing that happened was, a number of years after it was done, Heavy Metal had done a second printing, and they had a number of copies of it left over, and I believe that when Kevin Eastman bought Heavy Metal, they found a bunch of copies in a warehouse somewhere, and they were sold off to comic shops. It was a number of years later, and they were just sold at cover price, so many years later, there was a time when the book was available for $4.00. They did come back out, because I was in my comic shop when I saw some. They looked a little shelf worn, but they were still new. But other than that, there hadn’t been a reprinting till now, and that’s all I really know.
BY: Did you get any reaction from filmmakers about the adaptation?
WS: The long answer is no. We didn’t hear from anybody, we didn’t talk to anybody. I did meet Ridley Scott, and I’m sure it was the highpoint of his Alien filmmaking career. When we were over in England, we got a tour of the model shop, and we got to go on set where they were filming a loop with the alien. They had some guy in the alien suit, not the originally actor in the alien suit, he had gone home by the time we got there. But they had someone zipped up in part it, and it was too long for him, they had his feet sticking out the bottom of it, which was pretty funny. But it was a shot of the head and it was for a loop in the last part of the sequence where Ripley was trying to escape. Carlo Rambaldi was there doing the workings of the alien jaw, and we got to see them film some of that a few times, which was just fabulous, it was fantastic! We didn’t meet any of the actors; they were done before we got there. But no, I never got any feedback from the book from the filmmakers at that time. One assumes that wouldn’t be their principal interest at that time anyway. We were satisfied we had done the best job we could, so that was all right.
BY: It’s interesting reading the book. I’m a big Alien fan, I’m a big comic fan, and I’d never read this book because I couldn’t get my hands on it, and reading it now, after 30 years of reading comics, you can almost see, from when it came out, changing things in comics. Like Frank Miller in the 80’s sort of built his house on the foundation that you built visually.
WS: It’s a comic, it came out, it did well, we liked doing it. We were lucky with the licensing stuff you sometimes run into. We were lucky there were very few constraints about what we were allowed to do. One of those things is that we didn’t have likeness approvals we had to deal with. Not every licensed project that came in had those, but sometimes, for example, when Marvel did Close Encounters of the Third Kind like a year before, Marvel did not have likeness rights on that story, so there were no problems with approvals, but you couldn’t draw the actors as the characters, and with Alien we were able to, and it was a little bit tricky because there were no approvals to deal with, but part of what that means, what I like to do is draw the actors and actresses so they look like themselves, but at the same time, I want them to look like part of my drawing.
A lot of times, you will see the heads of real people in comics where they’re approvals so you have to do it just the right way so someone will sign off on it, and that will occasionally lead to these highly rendered drawings that don’t seem to be like the rest of the art work. There are a lot of stories like that. But in this case, since we didn’t have to deal with that, I think it gave me a certain freedom to draw the actors and actresses, but at the same time, do them in a way that I felt fit with the style I was doing. I look at the book now, and I’m amazed how much we were able to cram into 60 pages. I do know that Frank thinks very highly of the Alien book which is very kind of him
BY: It feels now, in retrospect, an obvious inspiration.
WS: It’s possible. People take what they see from what they know themselves. I read a review of something I did recently, another project for DC called Judas Coin, and someone remarked that some of the artwork reminded them of Howard Chaykin. Howard, like Frank, is an old friend, and I don’t know that I went to Howard and used him as an influence in that, but someone saw Howard’s stuff, someone saw some similarities and commented about it. On this stuff, I don’t know. I don’t know if Frank was influenced by it or not, honestly. The book came out, that was enough.
BY: Would you have any interest in doing anything else in this universe? If they came in and said, ‘Hey, this Prometheus adaptation, or anything else in the Ridley universe.’ would you jump back in?
WS: I don’t know the answer to that, partly because it’s hard to know what degree of freedom you would be given now as opposed to 30 years ago. Even in mainstream comics, it seems to me that there are more constraints in what you can do with mainstream characters for a variety of reasons than there were 30 years ago. And that kind of changes how the comics get done, from my point of view; it changes the nature of the game. It’s very hard to believe that Mr. Scott would offer me some bucks to adapt Prometheus and then hand me a bunch of reference and he’d turn and walk out of the room and I’d never see him again until the comic got published. I just think in the modern world there so many agreements and character approvals and likeness approvals and all that kind of stuff. It was all stuff we didn’t have to deal with 30 years ago on this project, and my feelings on that kind of stuff, well I haven’t been on that many projects where that kind of stuff is involved, partly because I’m not that interested.
I don’t care if someone approves their likeness, I just want to make it work in my drawing. But what it means is, when you have those issues to deal with, and I have dealt with them in some of my work in the past, mostly a long time ago now. My feeling is some of your creative energy gets sucked off to deal with things like that, and that’s a little less energy you have to put in the comic, and in a perfect world, the comic is where I want my energy to go. Yeah, it would be neat and kind of cool to go back and revisit that world, it was fun to do the first time, it’s just hard for me to imagine that the degree of freedom we had on that project would be available now. I’m not saying if someone walked up and said, ‘Walter, here’s 5 million dollars, how about doing Prometheus?’ I wouldn’t go ‘Oh yeah, sure! I don’t care. 5 million? I’m your man!’ But really, from a creative point of view, it would be hard to imagine you’d have that much freedom at this point. If turned out they were offering that kind of freedom, I would seriously consider it, but I’m fairly confident that wouldn’t happen. Not in the modern world.
BY: I have some quick questions about Thor, and one about Star Wars. I’ve loved your Thor books from further back than I can remember. It was funny, I was talking to my son about doing this interview and I was saying this is the guy who created Beta Ray Bill, and my son was saying, I really don’t think people know who Beta Ray Bill is except for us anymore.
WS: Well, my only comment about that, is they just did the origin of Beta Ray Bill on the Disney Channel in the Avengers, so there might be a lot more kids who know about Beta Ray Bill than who knew about him 5 months ago.
BY: With the second Thor movie coming out with one of your villains. So what do you think about your work being adapted to the screen? Are you excited about that? How do you feel about the casting of Malekith [Christopher Eccleston].
WS: I’m curious to see it. I don’t expect my stories to be there the way I did them, as that’s not the way this stuff works most of the time. But I’m happy to be the inspiration for it. What I’m dying to see is what he looks like. I can’t imagine for a heartbeat that the designs I imagined will be up on the big screen, which is just fine, it’s a different world in a different medium, but I’m very curious to see how it works, and all that kind of stuff, honestly, whether it’s stuff inspired from what I’ve done or what friends of mine have done, or even from people I don’t know, my biggest enthusiasm for this is that I want the work to be written well. If the writing is good, you can build everything else on top of it. If the writing is lousy, well, you can do some stuff, but you may not end with a great film when you’re done. And I’m just hoping they choose to do the dark world and elves and dark elves and whatever they’re going to do, I have no information. I’m the same as everyone else who reads the web. I’m hoping it’s a good story; I’m hoping it’s well written.
BY: With your run on Thor, what would you say is your favorite piece on that?
WS: I was just thrilled to do it. I read Marvel comics in the mid 60’s when I was in college. It was a time when my own feeling, in retrospect, Stan and Jack and Ditko, all those guys working for Marvel at the time were really doing some of the finest work of their careers, either by themselves or in concert, there was a lot of great stuff coming out. There was about a 5-6 year period where comics were just fantastic, great to read, exciting every month to go down to the spinner rack and try to find them, and beat out the other college kids to get there first before they were all sold out. And of the comics of the time, Marvel had 10 or 11 monthly titles back in those days, I bought them all, read everything, but Thor was my favorite of all the titles, partly because I was a big mythology fan and had read a lot of mythology before I discovered the character. My parents had some books at home that were pretty old books published in the late 1800s which meant when I was reading them, they were 60-70 years old. So I knew something about the Norse myths, and I was thrilled to discover a comic that followed it to some degree.
I’m not a continuity fanatic. It didn’t bother me that Thor’s hair wasn’t red and he didn’t have a beard — I took care of the beard later on. But at the time, that was fine. I enjoyed the comic, I still think the run of Journey into Mystery and Thor from about issue 114 to about 139 or 140 are some of my favorite comics. Very complex interwovem storylines and some goofy stuff, and I just enjoyed that immensely at the time. So the chance to do Thor, to write and draw the book, really from the kid I was in college, was a thrill for me. I was happy to do it. And from, including, the Baldur mini-series the stuff that I wrote was about 4 years of stuff. I look back on it with fondness, I’m still pretty pleased with the work and I’ve got some stories in there I’m really happy with. Generally speaking, the whole experience of doing Thor for Marvel at that time and place was really exciting for me.
BY: How hard was it to convince your editors to turn Thor into a frog?
WS: It wasn’t. I get asked that a lot, but it really wasn’t. When the late Mark Gruenwald, who was the original editor, gave me the book to write and draw, he gave it to me literally with carte blanche. He literally told me I could do whatever I wanted with it. The book wasn’t selling too well at the time, so the idea was if I could do something with it and it sinks like a stone, well it was going down anyway, and if I do something with it and it does better, I’ll look great. It was kind of a no lose situation, no matter what happened. Then Ralph Macchio took over as the editor after a year, and Ralph was the editor for the Thor frog story, and honestly, that story is kind of a parody of heroic fiction in general of my own stories in some way, but it’s told completely straight, and one of the lessons I got from Stan and Jack in their comics, not only in Thor, but Fantastic Four and the other work they did, was that really in those books, in that time and place, you could do almost anything so long as you kept a straight face.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the idea that you do comics that are stupid because we’re all too bright for this and kind of nudge the reader and go ‘Isn’t this stupid and aren’t we clever and superior to the material?’. My feeling is you tell the story you want to tell, keep face with the reader all the way through, and pretty much go anywhere you want if you can do that well. So in the Thor frog story, and in fairy tales everywhere. In fact the original idea — the idea originated because I wanted to do a tip of the hat to Carl Barks. I’m a huge Carl Barks fan; one of the only comics I had a subscription to as a kid were Walt Disney Comics and Stories because of the Carl Barks Duck stuff. I bought Uncle Scrooge whenever it came out, so every quarter, because it was quarterly I believe, for a time. So I thought about doing a tip of the hat to Carl Barks. I got to a point where I thought I could do something here, I think I did have the idea originally to turn Thor into a duck. I kind of thought about that, but then thought it doesn’t make a difference as far as Carl is concerned, but animal transformation are very common in folk and fairy tales.
There’s a lot of folk and fairy tale stuff in the Malekith tales which are based, in part, on Celtic fairy stuff, so I could use any of the fairy tale stuff as grist for my mill. You go back to the Brothers Grimm, people often get changed into frogs, princes and stuff, so it was a standard trope, so I decided a frog was the way to go. About the time I did this, I was living about a block from Central Park, we were a little south of the reservoir where the action takes place, but I knew the park pretty well, and they were always putting in rat poison to kill the rats, and they were always putting up signs saying ‘rat poison, don’t let dogs eat anything’ that kind of stuff, so the background, how fantastical the story itself was, was quite real, and I think that was what gave the story a little gravity. Once again, it was set against stuff that had basis in reality, as goofy as the idea was. And of course, I went for the urban myth, which wasn’t norse, or God knows where else, like the crocodiles in the New York sewers. Tall tales and legends of any sort, I love them, animal fables, going back to Aesop, so it seemed to work pretty well. It fit perfectly in the plot, as it was evolving at that point, with Loki, and I still am really pleased how that story worked out, especially that last issue where Thor is really the large frog, but the business with switching hammers how they all worked out, I was really pleased how that was able to turn out as a series of plot threads that all came together in the end. But I never had any kind of discussion with Ralph or Jim Shooter who was editor in chief, about doing that story. I just thought I would propose it, let them know what I was going to do, and I was on my way, and that was it really.
BY: Thank you for that, it’s one of my favorites. I really like it; it’s one of those things that puts a smile on your face. You’re reading Thor which should already be putting a smile on your face, and seeing him turn into a frog is just a joy.
WS: It does seem like part and parcel of folk and fairy tales, and I had some underpinnings of that, so it didn’t seem too far out. I’ve seen some readers who thought that it was too far out who weren’t able to adjust to it. When I hear about stories I wrote, and this was almost 30 years ago, when I hear about Thor there are 2, no 3 stories I hear about are Beta Ray Bill or the Thor frog, and sometimes about the Executioner’s Death — those are probably the three I hear most about.
BY: I would have picked Surtur.
WS: As an overall series of stories, Surtur is probably what I’m best known for, and that was about 15 issues. Another lesson I got from Stan and Jack is that I tried to break this longer story down into smaller, more digestible storylines, where the Beta Ray Bill story, which was 4 issues long, was the longest story arc in the entire book, as far as one single story goes. I mean, Surtur ran over a number of issues, and didn’t show up, as far as making a physical appearance, as far as where you really got to see him, and even then it was these one page things, that was more than a year to get to there. But I ran short stories, the Last Viking was a story I really liked, that was 3 issues, and there were other stories that were only 2. So, I tried to break it down, I tried to make it so each issue had its own dynamic and felt like a complete package of something, and I tried to make each little story arc its own story that was eventually furthering the Surtur stuff until he bubbled to the surface and became the focus of the next batch of stories.
BY: That was actually my favorite thing as a kid because I couldn’t get my hands on all the issues, all I had was this one page of a guy forging a sword and it was like ‘what is that? I can’t wait!’ so the anticipation was literally building for 15 years before I could track down all the issues to read the story.
WS: Well in that case, I guessed my plan worked.
BY: I’ve got one last question about working in the Star Wars universe. How did that differ from working on say Alien, and what was your favorite Star Wars piece that you’ve done?
WS: I didn’t write the book, David Michelinie was the writer on that book. although we worked together very closely. It was fine, we had a good time doing it, we ran into, because of the licensing aspect, we ran into several constraints that we were able to finesse, but they were always there. By that, I mean, the run we did on that book, about a year and a half, that run came out right after the second film, but before the third film, so after Empire Strikes Back. So the result was, that we couldn’t use Han Solo, because of course, he was in carbonite. We were told we couldn’t have a romance between Luke and Leia, but we were not told why. We were told that we couldn’t have Luke actually meet face to face with Darth Vader.
So, you have a series of stories where you can’t use one of your major heroes, you can’t do a romance among your major boy and girl, and you can’t have the remaining hero meet the main bad guy. Now, I don’t think anyone read those stories and thought about that. Everyone knew Han Solo was in carbonite, so that wasn’t a problem, but there were things like that where we had to kind of write stories, or David had to write stories, in ways that kind of got around that. We’re doing a comic, ok you can’t do a hero, you can’t do your main bad guy with your main hero, those are kind of important limitations. The other one is kind of funny, one of the early issues, that might have been a first was a 2 issue story where David came up with the idea in the wake of the first 2 movies, that he thought what the Empire would do, their next logical step.
And at this time, I don’t know about now, but Lucasfilm, they were paying attention, but they weren’t guiding everything, so you had some room. So David’s first thought was ‘You know, if I was the Empire, my first move about this time would be to build a new Death Star and put chicken wire over the exhaust ports. I’ll spend $5, cover those exhaust ports, and then go blow up the enemy.’ He proposed that plot, and word came back from Lucasfilm, can’t do a Death Star. So it was something else we can’t do, and we thought, ‘well, now we know what the third movie is going to be about’, but we also went back and said, well what if we have a giant cannon floating in space that can blow up planets, but it won’t be spherical, and they said sure, no problem.
So we did a story ‘To Take the Tarkin’, we built a giant floating platform in space, I did a 3 point perspective view, we gave it that front disc like the Death Star had, but the rest of it was all Star Wars tech, and we named it the Tarkin. It was David’s idea, and it was a great name, after the first two films, it was a great name for a ship, and we told our story about it. There were constraints; I think Marvel did have the likeness rights on that material, I don’t remember ever – Tom Palmer inked it and Tom has a photographic approach and he’s very good at that stuff, and I don’t know if Lucasfilm ever came back to us, but I never heard about any likeness approval problems, we just did the drawings, we drew those characters, and sometimes they looked more like themselves and sometimes less, in the drawings, but we never had any problems with that aspect of the license work. It was really more that they every so often, they would say, ‘We don’t want you doing that,’ and they wouldn’t say why so we thought, it must be in the third film, and that happened a couple of times. It was more really where those characters were really at the end of the second film that constrained us to do or not do certain things in the year and a half we were doing the book after the second film.
BY: Sounds like we could probably keep going, and I could keep asking for the next decade, but I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
WS: Well, in that case, I am gonna plug my latest book which is a graphic novel I’ve worked on for the last 3 or 4 years almost off and on, it’s out from DC, came out the same week as the Alien graphic novel. It’s called the Judas Coin. It’s a series of 6 short stories bound together by a common narrative thread. What’s thrilling about it for me, is apparently, one of my friends sent me the link and apparently it’s number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for graphic books this week.
BY: I will definitely be picking up a copy.