Interview with Bob McLeod
For two generations of comics fans, the name Bob McLeod has been synonymous with quality pens and inks. Whether it was as co-creator of Marvel's New Mutants, or as penciller for DC and Marvel's flagship titles (Superman and Spider-Man), or as an inker on a multitude of books, McLeod embodies bold, confident creativity. He's passed on that vision to readers of Marvel's popular How to Draw Super-Heroes line of instructional books and continues to inspire young artists today. Mile High Comics asked McLeod how he achieved his reputation for excellence and what's next on his agenda.
Mile High: Thanks Bob, for taking the time to talk with us. Your pencils and inks create such amazing texture for the two-dimensional space. (It's well illustrated on your web site www.bobmcleod.com). When approaching an artist's pencils or when inking your own work, how do you know what will look right; what the right amount of shading is correct?
HA! So much for small talk; let's just cut right to the tough questions! Artists discuss this all the time, you know, and I could easily go on about it for hours! I'll do my best to keep it short. To begin with, inking another artist's work is very different from inking your own work. So it's really two different questions.
With another artist's work, I've always strived to make the finished art as good as I could possibly make it. That's my goal; nothing else. Sometimes, that means sublimating my ink style and merely "tracing" (albeit with knowledge and skill, of course; if an untrained person tried to trace even the tightest penciller, it could look awful, because you have to learn how to interpret gray pencil lines into black ink lines, and where to add weight to the lines, etc.).
With some other pencillers, though, doing my best means fixing weak anatomy or perspective, and making a lot of changes in the rendering and blacks. There are a few very good pencillers who intentionally leave the inker a lot of room to add whatever rendering style they choose, so a strong inking style doesn't necessarily mean weak pencils, or that the inker is ignoring the penciller's style. But it's often a battle, trying to get everything in the pencils to look good in ink. Just as pencillers have to sometimes change a script around a bit to make it more visually exciting, inkers often have to make changes to enhance the finished art. Many pencillers just don't understand lighting and rendering forms well. They've spent most of their time and energy learning storytelling. This isn't meant as a criticism; many inkers don't know much about storytelling. We all learn different things in a different sequence.
The reader doesn't see the pencil drawing; all they see is the inker's lines, so the finished art is totally up to the inker. A bad ink job can ruin even the best pencils. As far as knowing "what will look right", unless the editor or penciller request something specific, I just try to please myself, and I'm hard to please. I've learned from experience what works and what doesn't, as far as when to use heavy shading, etc. A lot depends on the style of the pencils, of course. I'm as faithful as possible to the pencils, but being faithful is not my priority; quality is. I feel there's no point in tracing bad drawing. Pencillers who want to be traced are only hurting their own work. And I'm a penciller myself, remember. I don't expect even my tightest pencils to be traced. But I do expect any changes to be improvements. And that's my guideline in inking others.
When I'm inking my own work, I try to achieve a look of stylized naturalism. I want to create a believable world, and I'm very logical and methodical about how I achieve that look. I've always believed that the inking should not be very noticeable. The drawing is what should grab you, and the inking should support the drawing in every way; not distract your attention. I feel like if the inking is too distracting, then either the inking isn't good or the drawing isn't. My inking has always been extremely dependent on my drawing, and integrated with it. My drawing determines how I sculpt forms with ink, even when I'm inking another artist.
The thing that I think raises my inking above the crowd, is that in addition to good brush and pen control, which should be a given for any inker, I know how to draw well. Trying to ink without a solid knowledge of drawing can lead to disaster. That's why I've never really been satisfied with other inkers on my pencils. They're always making the noses too big, or losing my anatomy. When you draw a face only 1/2 an inch high, the proportions are critical. And if you don't have a good knowledge of anatomy, you're apt to misinterpret certain lines on a figure.
You mentioned texture, and that's something I learned at Neal Adam's studio. I was one of the "Crusty Bunkers", a group of free-lancers who rented office space at his studio. Neal would get an inking job, and let us all ink little parts of it, mostly backgrounds, and Neal always stressed using different techniques for different textures. It's a very important part of inking that's somewhat lacking in many of the more recent inkers, many of whom tend to use the same techniques to render clothing or skin or metal or whatever.
You've worked on the premiere comic lines for both DC and Marvel and have contributed work to Disney and Playboy alike. Starting with Superman and Spider-Man, how did you get those gigs?
I don't know if they still feel this way, but when I started back in 1973, I think Marvel believed that Spider-Man was so good a concept that the artist couldn't ruin it. So they often started beginners out on him. I got all of my early jobs by simply being there when they needed an artist. In those days, you could hang out at the Marvel and DC offices, and schmooze with the editors. I was very fortunate to be able to learn on the job, getting a little better with each job. Back then, there weren't really enough artists to do all the books they were trying to publish, so there was a lot of opportunity. I started out working in production at Marvel, inking backgrounds for other inkers, and adding tones to the black and white magazine jobs. Eventually, I was able to work full-time penciling and inking. For a more detailed account of what those days were like, there's a page on my web site where I tell all about how I got into comics: www.bobmcleod.com/start.html
With Superman, it started because I really wanted to work on the Superman titles, which were the main comics I had read as a child. I inked a couple of Superman jobs that the editor, Mike Carlin liked, and I later heard that Jerry Ordway, who was the head Superman artist then, suggested that they give me a chance at drawing one of the Superman titles. I guess he liked what I had done on the New Mutants. So I thank Jerry and Mike very much for that opportunity.
I got the Playboy job because I happened to be dating a writer, Judy Brown. She had met the Playboy cartoon editor at a party, and asked me to draw a strip she had written that Playboy was interested in. We were supposed to do the strip every month, but as fate would have it, after the first two strips we broke up, and didn't really want to continue working together.
You've got a classic artwork training, having attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. What was your first commercial work? How did you get that job?
My very first paid job as an artist was while I was still in high school. It was a political cartoon about busing during the governor's race in Florida. Some campaign workers had seen some of my cartoons in my high school newspaper.
I only attended the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale for a year. I quit because they didn't have a cartooning class. But between the Institute and a year of visual design classes at Auburn University, I did learn perspective, some anatomy, design, color theory, etc. So I somewhat naively felt I was ready to start a career.
I went directly from art school to NYC, and ended up at Continuity, Neal Adams' studio. He got some of us beginners a job drawing storyboards and comps at an ad agency. It was so much easier than drawing comic books, and paid better, but I was totally bored by it. One day, I had to draw fingernail polish bottles all day. I quit and went back to comics. Really, comics always kept me so busy, I rarely had time to do any commercial work. Now that comics aren't keeping me as busy, I'm doing a lot more commercial work, and after 25 years of black and white, I'm really enjoying painting.
What was your first work for comics? How did you make that contact?
I went to a comic convention in NYC, and bumped into, of all people, a guy from my high school art class in Tampa! I said, "Hey, weren't you in Mrs. Nimitz's class?" It was Pat Broderick. And he was so glad to see someone from home (although he admitted he didn't remember me from class), I thought he would never stop shaking my hand! He was just as scared of NYC as I was. He had gotten accepted into the DC apprenticeship program (I didn't make it!). Pat and I became roommates, to share expenses. After a couple weeks, Pat told me I really ought to meet Neal Adams, whom he had met at DC. I ignorantly said "What for? He can't give me any work." Pat kept insisting, though, (thanks, Pat!) so finally, in desperation, I went to meet Neal.
At that time, Neal held a position of respect in the industry that no one in comics since then has achieved. He was the single most respected artist in the business, except for maybe Jack Kirby. (But you ought to hear how difficult it was for even Neal to break into comics!) Neal looked at one of my samples and asked me what kind of work I was looking for. I said "Anything that pays." (By that time, I was down to my last $10 and ready to call my parents for bus money back home.) He just picked up the phone and called the production manager, John Verpoorten, at Marvel and said, "I've got a guy here who has some potential as, well, some potential as an artist, but I think he has a lot of potential as a letterer." I remember Neal's exact words 30 years ago like it was yesterday! I really owe my start to Neal.
I was immediately hired at Marvel in the production department on Neal's recommendation, and they still didn't even want to see my portfolio. If I was good enough for Neal, I was good enough for them. I was hired to do lettering corrections, paste-up and mechanicals, and some minor art corrections. It was a huge help being in the office and seeing original art pages by all the best Marvel artists. I was constantly studying and drawing new sample pages. I kept showing my new samples to all the editors, and after a few months Marv Wolfman finally gave me a chance to draw a movie satire for Marvel's Crazy magazine. I drew a lot like Mort Drucker, my idol, back then. I didn't really read many superhero comics as a kid. I was more into Mad magazine. I really had to study comics a lot to learn how to draw in a more "realistic" style for superheroes, which were fast becoming the dominant genre.
In 1979, you co-created The New Mutants, one of Marvel's first X-Men spin-off books (but by no means, the last!) and certainly one of its most successful. Those characters are now firmly ensconced in the Marvel mythology. Many now appear on the Kids! WB animated series X-Men: Evolution. What was the New Mutants' beginnings for you? How did that get started?
I helped finish penciling (and inking) Uncanny X-Men #151 when artist Jim Sherman got behind schedule, and the editor, Louise Jones, liked my work and asked me to draw issue #152. She then offered to let me continue as regular X-Men penciller, or draw a new spin-off title they were planning called The New Mutants (Stan Lee's original title idea for the X-Men was "The Mutants"). I decided to go with the New Mutants because I would be a co-creator, and we all thought the New Mutants was going to be huge, which it was. Chris Claremont, the writer, and Louise had already developed the characters' names and personalities and powers, but I got to design how they looked.
After I was 10 pages into the first issue, however, they decided to make it into a graphic novel; 50 pages instead of 22! And they had a different schedule for the graphic novels, so instead of being three months ahead of schedule, we were suddenly a month behind schedule before I had even begun! Even worse, schedule-wise, I was getting married. The editor was going to get a different inker (whose work I didn't like) to ink the graphic novel, unless I could ink it immediately. So I had to work all through my honeymoon, inking as fast as I could move the pen. Not prime conditions to do your best artwork! A review of the graphic novel in The Comics Journal subsequently stated that I was not my own best inker!
I then immediately had to begin drawing the first issue of the comic, working with another inker I didn't like, and being so new to penciling, I just could never catch my breath and do what I considered good work. So I regrettably decided to quit penciling the book after the third issue, and started inking it over Sal Buscema's layouts. I realize it's the work I'm best known for, but it was a very frustrating artistic experience altogether, and I feel it's some of my weakest work, because it was so rushed.
Who was your favorite New Mutant to illustrate? And why? Your favorite villain?
I always liked Cannonball the best. I tried to give all the mutants distinct body types and characteristics, and with his big ears and lanky frame, he was just the most fun to draw. I tried to make all the characters individuals and fun to draw, though. I made Rahne short and full-figured, and Dani taller and more flat-chested. Roberto was short but muscular. As for villains, I did love drawing the Sentinels. They let me design a somewhat new armor, and it was fun to draw them because they're so huge.
What has been your favorite project to date?
It's hard to pick just one, but I think the most fun I ever had was drawing something few fans probably ever saw. It was the Teen Hulk, for Crazy magazine. It was a humor strip, and I penciled and lettered and inked little four-page stories, with gray tones, in four issues. I really enjoyed that strip, and all the other work I did for Crazy. My heart has never been in superheroes. That's just where the work was. I've always preferred humor, and more cartoony work.
Is there any character or concept you'd like to illustrate that you haven't yet?
I've always wanted to do a western comic. I just love the look of westerns. Jean Giraud's Lt. Blueberry is one of my favorite series. I have a western story and characters in mind, but I doubt I'll ever get it done. It's too much work to do on spec, and westerns don't sell, they tell me.
What's your next project?
I'm currently inking some issues of the Left Behind comics over Paul Ryan for Wildstorm. They're based on the best-selling novels. I'm also constantly doing private commissions for collectors, which I really enjoy, and various commercial projects, and painting whenever I get time.
Who were your inspirations as an artist?
My all-time idol is Mort Drucker. He's just fabulous. For superhero comics, I studied the two best: Neal Adams and John Buscema. I've always loved Frazetta, too, but who doesn't? Giraud/Moebius, also. Outside comics, I love many of the painters from about 1850-1950. The Impressionists, and realists like Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran, Waterhouse; the wonderful N.C.Wyeth, of course, and all the great illustrators of the 20th century.
Comic fans' taste in art is rapidly diversifying. Some of the labels for these styles are: Manga, gritty, impressionistic, ultra-cartoon. But there still seems to be room, and seemingly a resurgence of interest, for clean, bold, "classic" comic art like your own. How do you explain the appeal of your style? Is it exclusive to super-hero titles?
In my opinion, my style is based on subtlety, which I learned from studying Mort Drucker. So superheroes are probably the least effective use of my talents. Any success I've had in superhero comics is just due to hard work and study of what works best. I can draw Manga, gritty, ultra-cartoon, etc. also, and no doubt better than superheroes. I've just never had much opportunity to do it. During most of my career, superheroes were where the most steady work was available, and I believe a clean style works best on superheroes. If I were to do a western, I certainly wouldn't ink it the same way I would Superman.
I think probably what people like about my work is the subtlety of my line, and the attention to detail. I know where to use detail, and more importantly, where NOT to. I always try to draw expressive faces and figures with personality. I think that's what appeals to most people. Whether the style is "clean" or "classic" is irrelevant, in my opinion. I do think most people like drawing they can easily understand.
When Bill Sienkiewicz took over drawing the New Mutants, a lot of fans hated it. Many fans also loved it, of course, and Bill's a wonderful artist who was trying to break new ground and do comics differently than they had been done before, and he succeeded. There's always a big following for innovative work. But the fans who like my work want clear drawing where they can easily see what's what. They don't want to have to figure out what it is they're looking at. I think those are the people my work appeals to. I've never had any interest in breaking new ground. I just like to draw the old ground as well as I can.
Having said that, I note you did some work for Disney, Playboy, and the Brenda Starr comic strip. You even drew caricatures of former President Jimmy Carter during his run for the Oval Office. Is there a different mindset you get into when being more 'toony than heroic?
First of all, I've never worked for Disney, although I'd like to. You probably saw the Disney-style mice on my web site. Those were drawn for the instruction manual of a role-playing game, and they requested a Disneyesque style. I did do a lot of drawings of Disney characters when I was a child, which my mother sent to Disney, and we never saw them again.
Yes, I do put emphasis on different things when drawing various styles, but it's all still drawing. The basic rules of drawing still apply. The goals are just different.
By the way, I got the Jimmy Carter job from Neal. He was hired to do it, but he was busy on other things, so he sub-contracted me to draw it, because he knew I was good at caricature, and he inked it. I also wrote some of the jokes and inked a couple pages. That was a fun experience. I enjoyed being inked by Neal.
What advice can you give artists or inkers trying to enter the field today?
I always advise against a career in comic books now. It's a very unstable business that isn't run very professionally, and offers no job security or future. The money is better in most other art fields, and comics are one of the most difficult things an artist can attempt to do.
I also advise against inking as a goal. Inking is just a step involved in producing art that can be printed, and may very well soon be replaced by the computer colorists. Inking is a dead end artistically and as a career.
Artists should aspire to learn their craft and develop as many skills as possible. They should only ink other artists on a regular basis if that becomes their most valuable and requested skill. By all means, learn how to ink. It's a wonderful skill that I'll always love. I really love inking. But it's absurd to aspire to be just an inker. Learn to draw. I've done a whole lot of inking, but I've always also done a good bit of penciling.
If you insist on getting into comic books, it's very simple. Just learn the skills and show your work to the editors. The easiest and fastest way in is by hooking up with an already established writer or penciller and getting them to request you as their penciller or inker. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to acquire the skills. However, I, uh, do offer art lessons on my web site! But a large part of making it is just having more determination and confidence than the next guy. Don't let initial rejection or criticism discourage you. When I first showed my samples to Joe Orlando, the art director at DC, he told me I needed to go back to school and learn how to draw!
Thank you again, Bob.
You're welcome! Thanks for asking.
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