by Michel Fiffe
Tony Salmons sees shapes in terms of inkblots and frantic streaks, all pulled into his clipped yet subtle narrative pace. It’s a rarity, such a confident mixture of natural grace and kinetic brushwork. Not a single line goes to waste, no bit of detail is devoid of life, and every drawing has a fighting spirit that refuses to give in to the confines of the page, the story, and even the industry.
Salmons’ infamous reputation as a professional cartoonist has been developed by decades of being at odds with editors and peers and publishers, freelance battles that were traditionally relegated to behind the scenes. It would be easy to single him out as the one with the problem in today’s age of “company first, creator die”, so it’s only fair that Salmons takes a turn in denouncing the pitfalls and treacheries of the business. Tony’s experiences are his own of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re not wholly indicative of a common editorial attitude that’s inherited by every passing generation of overseers.
As harsh as Salmons is about the industry, he’s just as quick to champion the many things he draws inspiration from, as well as expressing his creative excitement all throughout his career. Here is a rare look at an artist whose brilliance, for better or for worse, has set him above and beyond – definitely apart – from the rest of the pack. Readers may sometimes reach the conclusion that comics are an art form dressed as a business of diminishing returns, but if one looks further into the matter the way Tony Salmons has, one may find that it can easily be the other way around.
Michel Fiffe: I'd like to jump right into your basic philosophies in regards to the art of comics, the way you think about comics.
Tony Salmons: First of all, passion. Mere fascination and intellectual pursuit, deep and informed appreciation, association with like minded sorts, walls full of books are not enough, though they are helpful and may aid an artist. They may also detract and hinder by the smugness of just holding the images on paper. What is indispensable is a singular pursuit of ecstasies that separate you from nearly every one because that's what ecstasies do, and that's what we're selling. Personal narrative. Art has been called a magnificent obsession, so it is for me. This is going to sound pot-headed but art isn't even the word. Story fantails artistic effort into a beautiful horizon, better than any single image.
Fiffe: Can you describe your approach for me?
Salmons: I can describe my approach as noted by other pros. Most of them never think of the story behind a drawing. They only think of drawing a collection of physical surfaces in a contrived arrangement that fills the order of the script. Some guys said they'd never thought of the motivation of certain characters except to keep their balance, show an emotion, to escape a burning elevator, whatever the mechanical aspect of the scene is.
"Siege" written by John Arcudi, The Savage Sword Of Conan #165, October, 1989, Marvel.
Fiffe: So you’re interested in comics-making on a deeper, more involved level.
Salmons: My problem with writers is that I'm a writer. I've co-written everything I've ever done. For no money and no credit. I didn't get into this to draw cool punches and baggy pants, flexing extremities and cleavage. At a certain point of proficiency these are routine and insipid. The purpose, idea and the motivation of the characters that make the scene are my purpose for drawing it. Guys like Paul Pope and Adam Hughes fully demonstrate this. They can be imitated but their sensibilities are subtle and fully expressed. The stories in their single images are cute and fitting to the subject. The full stories they do satisfy and are involving.
Fiffe: Being cute doesn’t necessarily interest you then.
Salmons: I have a liberal dose of anxiety and creepiness that keeps things from getting very cute but I continue to study Pope and Hughes. So, short answer to my personal philosophy is passion for a singular vision. And be nice while you're doing it. We're all bozos on this bus.
Fiffe: I understand that you’re a self-taught artist. What were your influences while you were developing your art?
Salmons: A better question than “who are your influences” is “who do you like and who are your influences?” Many artists don't even know the difference. They list the same people often: Frazetta, Kirby, etc. But none of that stuff is evident in their own stuff. These are artists they like, not artists they take influence from and have taken the time to reverse engineer. Often as not what is evident in their work is the last half-dozen people who drew Iron Man or X-Men for the editors they're targeting for work.
Fiffe: I get the difference between “liking” and “being influenced by”. Can you give me an example of how you differentiate the two?
Scarlet Witch commission.
Salmons: I'm enthralled by Robert Crumb and Basil Wolverton but I don't try to draw like them. I like them. I love them! But they're not what I would call influences except for their relentless pursuit of singular visions. Evidenced in some pieces of my work but not all, are Kirby, Toth and Michelluzi but I don't drag them out for every shot or every job. Owning an artist's book or retrospective does not make you one of his. Only full study, taking apart his figures, line work, volumes, and compositions -- if you can reach his impulses -- can move the needle. It's the cauldron of your own soul, all by yourself. Anything else is good honest work. It can pay well and is respectable and it may even get you lines of autograph hounds crowding for smooches, but it's mostly not art. The evidence is standard and all around us. There's not that much genius out there. I'll go further and say the word is bastardized and overrated and near meaningless except from very particular persons.
Fiffe: It’s used pretty loosely, the term “genius”.
Salmons: The main failure with comic artists, as I observe it, is that they become located around one school or worse, one artist. Neal Adams and Michael Golden have so many unwashed bastards out there I wonder how it affects the way they see their own stuff, whose face they're shaving in the morning. Most of the guys in comics, animation and such are like the guy who paints portraits of his dog over and over again and tries to sell them at tag sales and flea markets every month. I mean, he bought the materials and put in the work and you can't stop him, you have to respect that, but jeez …
Fiffe: You just described a comics convention.
Salmons: What never surprises but always amazes me is the change in seemingly perfectly innocent souls who come into this discipline earnestly and honestly, some with great promise, and only one mini-series later… hot-cha! Genius! And they'll hold you to it.
Fiffe: Speaking of schools of style, I can never trace anyone else's style in yours. Occasionally I’ll see a tiny bit of Kirby, but that's really only in a sense of weight and power. And maybe even a bit of Kyle Baker, except it's reversed; I think you may have influenced him. Maybe you just shared the same sensibilities.
Salmons: Hah! The Kyle Baker thing! It's funny because he and I've talked about that. We both run into the comparison. Maybe he would say something else but I know I collected and studied his stuff from the first time I found it. His vernacular extends way beyond anything he could be asked to do in mainstream comics. He was really different but goddammit he kept getting work! But he's also a workhorse! Part of his success is very quick finish. It served him well. And he has a very smart, New Yorker, classic Kurtzman smartness that is at once elegant and impressive and disarmingly finger-in-your-ribs. He's also a very appealing personality. Great guy. I'm also compared to Miller. Frank must've gotten some of it, too. I'll just say that from the first, Miller taught us all how to do comics again. Not too many true creators can make the claim, or should. While I don't love everything he does, Frank deserves his laurels.
Fiffe: There's a Defenders comic where you’re listed as the inker, and I’m almost positive that it was your first published work. It was years before you were a regular pro, though, so I’m left to wonder… was that you?
Salmons: The Clea story! That was me. That was the wonderful Sandy Plunkett! I seem to remember completely ruining his fantastic pencils. Poor guy. I was out of my depth. It was also after my first horrible expedition to NY and pro comics in '76. I was desolate. I considered myself finished in mainstream comics. I was right!
Fiffe: Then how did you break into the comics business the second time around?
Salmons: [The Defenders issue] was the only real work I got in '76 besides some background work from Howard Chaykin who did his best to take me in and keep me encouraged. I didn't really “break” into the business. It was more like sneaking in or wedding crashing. It stayed that way for many years. My reviews were always shaky at best and even if positive, were left-handed. I got only a few pieces of fan mail at Marvel, all bad. I never knew what an editor thought of my work until sometimes a year or two after I lost the gig. “Minimalist”, “scratchy”, “unfinished”, “bad”, and just “wrong” weren’t uncommon. The storytelling was excoriated and often enough, rightly so but not for any reason that they could explain. Editors just didn't like it. Dr. Strange [#64] in '83 was the first noticeable book for me.
"Art Rage" written by Ann Nocenti, Doctor Strange #64, April, 1984, Marvel.
Fiffe: You worked with Ann Nocenti on that one. This was around the same time she started out coming out of editing and into writing. How was your work dynamic with her?
Salmons: Annie is a sweetheart and a pleasure to work with. She's a very different thinker and storyteller and not always appreciated for it in comics. We were sympatico in that respect. Wish we could've done more together but the distance between corporate comics and myself was growing and I lost faith in the idea of continuing.
Fiffe: How was your Dr. Strange story received?
Salmons: An editor told me he'd just been in a meeting where Jim Shooter held it up to the staff and warned them that “this is not what a Marvel comic should look like.” I mentally hi-fived myself and then the editor said it meant I was getting no more work. Shooter was notifying the editors from the top down that if they used me, their books would be bounced, which they were. Virginia Romita is a lovely person and all the Romitas are great folks but she made those books run on time. Editors recounted a drop of piss running down their leg when she showed up in their doorway! Hah!
Fiffe: But you were still used pretty regularly for a couple of years after that… on New Universe titles, at that. Did you just slip under Shooter’s radar?
Salmons: The only reason I got much work at Marvel thereafter was because Larry Hama's books were outside of the Superhero Gulag of the Marvel Universe. Like Epic Magazine, it was where ideas and people ended up after being shit-canned from the regular line up, especially if editorial didn't want them around but also didn't want the evidence that they were cutting off undesirable new talent outright. All through this time Marvel was increasingly stringent about enforcing their house style, even while they adamantly, even indignantly maintained that there was none. But the hyper-steroid escapee Image-virus bubble a few years later announced the result and proof of it. Bret Blevins was under contract at Marvel all throughout this time. He noted that marketing's, and so, editorial's, fiat went from “do more comics like this” to “do more comics like this or else.”
Fiffe: That explains a lot.
Doctor Strange Classics #2 pin-up, April, 1984, Marvel.
Salmons: Remember the “little fucks” memo? A leaked copy from Shooter's office was printed by The Journal. This vernacular, and worse, was common and disheartening for me.
Fiffe: Yeah, I read that in an old issue of The Comics Journal. I thought it had to have been a joke. That was the common attitude in the offices?
Salmons: It was worse than that. Much worse. Was and is. Important as it is in the story, that's a mere trace of evidence. What was observable in the offices was revolting and demoralizing. People react to demoralizing and debasement mostly in two ways, they kneel and start licking boots or they opt out. You know my choice, even though it took a number of experiences and some time. Common parlance in meetings was, "Let's put this out next. They'll lap it up!" Marvel at that time was on two floors; 9th floor was bullpen/editorial, 10th floor was executive/marketing and whatever the fuck those guys call work. 10th floor referred to 9th floor as, "the animals." When some one was looking for paperwork or something and it wasn't around they would be told, with casual indifference, "It's down stairs with the animals." The Romitas were down there, Romita's Raiders in the Bullpen, so was beloved Sea-Devil Jack Abel. I was incensed but I didn't and couldn't react to it because I made a practice of not doing so. I wanted to work.
Fiffe: And this must’ve been your first year of working.
Salmons: Someone gave me a short stack of Roy Thomas' Alter Ego mags recently. He thought I'd snuggle warmly into revisiting those Halcyon days. That rag is the penultimate smothering wall of what I was personally and professionally swimming uphill against my entire life: off-center, bloated, static, recombinant, self-referencing superhero drek… and from a whole field of putative creators over all those years. Shinier and shinier titties on the women and the men, shinier and shinier grew they! And so it continues today! Shinier titties, cool punches and a pose-in-costume on every page. Don't get me wrong, a few of those artists have enviable chops and nearly dignify the phenomenon, but the writing is even worse! Primetime cop-soap rehashes and sweepings from Hollywood star vehicle turd advisories. Flash and dash but no substance beyond vacuous borrowed dramaturgy.
Fiffe: So even on the most general, technical terms, you don’t think the basic standard of writing in mainstream comics has improved since the 80s? I admit to having some difficulty maintaining that notion, but for the sake of argument…
Salmons: The case may be made for that. I personally believe that comics are in a renaissance at every level. I feel very lucky to be anywhere in this line up. No false modesty. The examples of the strength of the medium are sterling, Alan Moore, Miller, Al Columbia, Jim Woodring, the continual infusion of stuff new and old, from Fantagraphics and Gary Groth. Beyond that, the proof is still emerging in the virility of new hands: Matthew Southworth, Dave Johnson, Dan Clowes for Christ's sake. We used to have to hunt this stuff up in dusty corners of second hand shops. I had no measurable amount of Caniff or Sickles or Eisner 'til the middle '80s. Now the stuff is everywhere. But the highest always exists with the lowest. Best of times, worst of times. There're the fetishist superhero guys who're inducted by the corporations to suck along the brain-dead and make them think they're entertained, praises to Brad Rader for the phrase. Then there's the guy making a comic book on a sheet of masonite-drawing board at his kitchen table and trying to make up 3 months of back rent. This is not new. Read the Steranko History of Comics to know what Siegel and Shuster, young Jacob, the wonderful Jack Cole and others went through.
Conan Saga #12 pin-up, April, 1988, Marvel.
Fiffe: I don’t mean to make strict camps out of mainstream and non-mainstream comics. They aren’t mutually exclusive even though there are substantial differences, but when I ask about comics writing, I want to put what you’re saying into context.
Salmons: They used to be camps. It was better when they were camps. The two will never meet except when Wallace is betrayed. It only seems that the distinction is irrelevant because corporate wonks – editors – are subverting the revolution in this very medium we're discussing in order to televise it and turn a buck for the boards of directors, basically like everywhere else on the planet. John Lennon said in the '70s that the same people are in charge, they just have longer hair. It's gentrification. I lived in Tribeca in the '80s. It was changing then but it was still fish markets and minor living spaces. I was just there again last year and I couldn't find my way around. Everything from before and during my life there is gone. It has, like the rest of New York, been turned into a yuppie mall. Used to be you were taking your ass in your hands when you went into some of those areas. Not glorifying it, but now the worst you can get is a ticket for your car alarm.
Fiffe: I want to get back to your drawing for a bit. What’s interesting about your early years is that you were allowed to ink your own material, something that wasn’t the norm back during that time, especially for a young new artist. Did you insist on having complete control of the work?
Salmons: It wasn't so much that I was allowed to ink it, but that no one else wanted the job! One top slick, house style inker was offered one of my books and declined. “Too much drawing in it.” This from guys who inked everything with one dead line without meaningful weight that amounted to really nothing more than a nervous twitch and jab over and over again. They reduced the anatomy and articulation of any well-drawn form to a string of sausages flexed like a human limb. These guys were making money hand over fist. I have some embarrassing examples of house style I attempted. They found no favor. They're not bad, looking back over them, but I'm glad none of them got out.
Unused cover for Web Of Spider-Man Annual #1, 1985, Marvel.
Fiffe: Would your Web of Spider-Man Annual be one of those jobs? Some of it looks like other inkers. Some heads look completely redrawn.
Salmons: Oh god. That was another inventory job. It was supposed to be an issue of Iron Man, then an issue of Spider-Man, then it was an Iron Man/Spider-Man team up. Didn't even know it was still going then. Then it was decided that it should be an annual, which added 18 pages to it. Pages I was told to come up with. And because it was now an annual it went from an inventory job to scheduled and it got later, of course. They pulled it from me but every time I went into the offices for weeks after that the pages were circulating with crusty layers of white out and many things redrawn. I believe Vinnie Colletta inked, a typical public punishment for lateness. He subbed it out to Frank Giacoia which would've been great but Giacoia subbed it out to unknown assistants and then the bullpen guys backed over it a few times. Oy.
Fiffe: That doesn’t sound like deadline art, it sounds like torture.
Salmons: I had taken the precaution of only taking inventory jobs, jobs without deadlines, pointless it turned out. It seemed perfect for some one like me who didn't know what he was doing yet. But uniformly, at a certain point of finish, they would be suddenly scheduled. Two of them were called in over two different weekends! I had to pull all nighters to finish the inks. Monday morning I was in there with the finished jobs, bleary eyed with fatigue toxins. But they were not late. All the stuff I did in Marvel Fanfare was inventory but again they would be called in. On the inside cover of the Cloak & Dagger Fanfare issue [#19], Al Milgrom's regular “Editori-Al” commentary made me a cutsie problem freelancer turning in late pages. I was not late on inventories, but Al was a continually late part time editor. He's remembered as being in the offices a couple hours a day and not on business, mostly lounging in other offices. There was never anything near finished in his file drawers. When the heat came on to fill an issue he called in the one closest to finish. That I didn't mind, so much as I minded him hanging the late thing around my neck when I was a new guy and it was one of my best jobs and turned in as fast as anybody working then.
Al Milgrom's "Editori-AL", Marvel Fanfare #19, March, 1985, Marvel.
Fiffe: Those “Editori-Als” themselves look pretty rushed. That one Hulk job of yours looks really good.
Salmons: That's what killed him, I think. He bounced the splash page to that job. I redrew it 3 more times and he bounced those. Then he patched the original with his own work. Literally defacing the job.
Fiffe: That splash isn’t you?
Salmons: No one's ever seen the splash. It went from this huge explosive figure blasting off the page in one of my first successful Kirby experiments, to a Macy's day balloon, dead in the air. Al's one of the few guys in comics that never learned his basic Bridgman of reversing the arms and legs of a figure in motion to increase dynamism. He had the misfortune of following Miller onto Wolverine. He was making plenty of money but seeing a whole batch of young hotshots sweep in around him. I was not one of those, but that's how it was explained to me by others at the offices. Everyone's had those feelings but it takes a diminutive nature piqued in a special place to do something like that to a new kid.
"A Day In The Life..." written by David Anthony Kraft, Marvel Fanfare #17, November, 1984, Marvel.
Salmons: I penciled that 12 page Hulk job in 3 days at Bret Blevins' house and inked it in around a week. I didn't get an “Editori-Al” for that. Nor did I work in that office again. And here's another note on comic book deadlines: they're bullshit. They're all late. All late. L-A-T-E! Every motherfucking one of them. The average monthly comic comes out 9 maybe 10 times a year; do the math. Many of them even less. A few years ago, Marvel lost a class action suit brought by retailers for late releases and -- get this -- substitutions of one book for another that was solicited but unavailable. They settled. The whole business is l-a-t-e. But, like the old “continuity and creative team” vice-grip on a title, they use it to squeeze out people they don't like or don't think they can sell.
Fiffe: What about the last minute pushes, the freelance all-nighters. Those comics are made right before going to press.
Salmons: Half of schedule fuck ups aren’t freelancers, it's slack and malfeasant editorial. See the Bill Mumy opine in Comic Buyer's Guide some years ago. He'd seen whole music projects go from idea/conception to marketing and sale in less time than it takes to get something just approved at the Big Two. You may remember the Avengers/JLA crossover that never happened but hung dazzling loyal readers for some years. It seemed to never go away but never happen at the time. I was there. DC was on board. This was nothing but purposeful sandbagging by top egos at Marvel editorial. They played zero-sum that some one might get something they wouldn't. The wonderful George Perez worked continuously on it, working on spec and working to make it happen, as did many others. It wasn't my kind of project but it was too much to let the “little fucks” enjoy, even if it would’ve made tons of money for everyone.