by Michel Fiffe
In part one, we covered Tony Salmon's cartooning theories and muses, his breaking in and struggling through his early years at Marvel Comics. Today we cover his work on the short lived Dakota North, his minor fling with the independent scene, and his branching outside the world of comics.
Michel Fiffe: Let’s get into the next project you worked on, Dakota North. I was under the impression that it was supposed to be an ongoing series, and when it started getting momentum, it suddenly ended. Were the sales not enough to support it?
Tony Salmons: The book and characters were full blown and Martha Thomases was as green at writing something like a regular series as I was at drawing one. It was a rough ride. It was published every 2 months. In those days, direct sales were just coming in and were only partial of the circulation. The numbers on a book were not in from retail and rack sales, the most important then, for 12 months. We did 5 issues which is just 10 months short of the numbers coming in and Dakota was canceled because they were trimming the line to make circulation sexier as Marvel itself went on sale. That's the word I had on it.
Dakota North #3, October, 1986, Marvel.
Fiffe: How did the title originally come about?
Salmons: It was totally Larry Hama's idea. He hired me cold at the offices one day. We were zipping up at the urinals appropriately enough, and he told me to bring my stuff into his office. He told me I could draw better than most of the guys working there, the first and only editor to ever say anything of the like, but was emphatic that my storytelling “sucked.” In the year plus we worked on Dakota North he showed me why and what's better, how to fix it if I would take the advice. For me it was the beginning of the lengthiest, troubled and most rewarding working experiences in comics.
Fiffe: What do you mean by troubled and rewarding?
Salmons: I redrew more work under his editorship than any other place I've worked but he always showed me why. It was never arbitrary or just because he didn't like it. It was what I'd wanted, to find my way through stories. He could speed up the pacing or slow it down, focus on a character versus an action and always make the image serve the story. That is, keeping in mind the continuity before the image in question and it's relationship to the images after to form a coherent whole; keeping this in mind both within the scene and the longer continuity of the story itself. It's not rocket science but it is fully the art of storytelling. It dove tailed perfectly with my own ambitions, for craft, not for fame, and sent me spinning on a whole new course of personal studies. It also kept me out of mainstream comics for good.
Dakota North #2, written by Martha Thomases, August, 1986, Marvel.
Fiffe: Which was around the time your stint over at Dark Horse began, back when it was still a very young company. Were you getting a clearer idea as to what you wanted to achieve as a cartoonist? Was there more artistic leeway in this environment?
Salmons: Before Dark Horse there was First Comics. I was scheduled for a three issue stint on Jon Sable, Freelance. Mike Grell is one of my favorite writers in comics. One of the few I would ever choose to work with. He wrote a terrific, tight story. It was my first job after Marvel. I was stunned that after the 56 pages I did for them they asked me to redraw not a single figure or panel. Not what I was used to. While there are some rough spots I made some real headway in those 2 issues. I'd moved home to Arizona for some months, staying at my parent's again with my tail between my legs. I landed Sable and thought it was something great. I moved back to NY to a loft full of hippie artists, including the great Bob Camp and erstwhile Vincent Waller. As Bob said at this farewell speech after Ren & Stimpy production: It sucked great. We were young with a future and the traffic through that loft was insane and truly New York.
Jon Sable, Freelance #54, written by Mike Grell, December 1987, First Comics.
Fiffe: What was the working situation during this period?
Salmons: I turned in pages continually that summer of '87 but the pay was always a problem. I got the run around every time I called the First offices. People weren't “in,” where's the invoice, talk to accounting, sorry they're not in, either. This went on for over three months of sweltering Summer in NY, if you've ever known one. I was doing short jobs and commissions but Sable was my main feed. Flat broke in NY again, with a full time job. I'd finished 2 issues of Sable and hadn't even been paid in full for one. By now, my back was coming up over, “turn off the lights, hide behind the couch until he stops knocking” office hi-jinks. I guess the telling point is that when I informed them I wasn't doing the 3rd issue without payment for already finished work, they didn't argue. Sable was over and somehow they got another sucker to finish the third issue. They were tits up in the next year and good riddance.
"Fossil", written & drawn by Salmons, Dark Horse Presents #9, July, 1987, Dark Horse.
Fiffe: Then you went to Dark Horse? How did that go?
Salmons: Dark Horse was fun. They weren’t nuisances, editorially speaking. They let me do what I wanted and even write. We did have a few sticky places over paper and pay. Right after the Sable job I was home again and broke. This was tiresome for folks at the farm, if you've ever tried something everybody thought you were nuts to do in the first place.
"Monq: Message From Earth" written & drawn by Salmons, Dark Horse Presents #7, May, 1987, Dark Horse.
Fiffe: You did okay at Dark Horse, though, right?
Salmons: I did a couple of short jobs for Dark Horse Presents and then they bounced a check on me. I'm probably the only guy you'll hear that from. In those days, if you had a bank account in NY, it was inaccessible from the West without a costly and untimely money transfer. My sister cashed the check from Dark Horse against her own checking account. When it bounced, it in turn bounced 12-13 of her small household checks. The fees were hundreds of dollars. When I called DH, they explained the whole thing to me. I knew a bit about business accounts because my family runs a couple. I understood it was an error but they would only make good on the original amount. Randy Stradley said I “cashed it wrong.” You wrote me a check, how did I cash it wrong? Still being a lucky-to-be-working freelancer I zipped it and went ahead. I did an issue of the Mark for DH after that which I'm still proud of and I think I could've done some very similar stuff quickly after that but it was just too hard to get paid from indies, already even at that point. I couldn't convince my parents or anybody that I had a job! Jeez. DH was paying me in quarters: two halves in pencils and two halves in inks. I had half the job in and the other half nearing finish when again my rent was due. I tell them I have no money for half a comic I've drawn; I don't want everything, just $300 to pay my rent. Stradley blazes back that they have half a comic they can't print! It was maddening. I seethed for about a week and then just sent in the finishes. That was the end of my DH tenure.
Mark #4, written by Jerry Prosser, September 1988, Dark Horse.
Fiffe: Sounds like the tipping point for you. Was this common for Dark Horse or any other minor publishers of the time? I can’t imagine this happening on a continual basis.
Salmons: I must stress that these are not unique stories. They're not even personal to me, except that I got the full Jimi Hendrix experience in corporate comics! And I'm not going back again. I might be crazy, really. But I'm not stupid. Not by that much.
Fiffe: Was self publishing or contributing to more alternative publications ever a consideration for you in order to branch out from the mainstream?
Salmons: First and Dark Horse were my only experiments in the indie press. I couldn't get paid by the more mainstream indie publishers. Lots of people went broke self publishing from their kitchen tables. It was a full conspiracy, knowingly or unknowingly, by the companies and talent, the distributors and even the retailers. Why display Neil the Horse or Itchy Planet when X-Wads are outselling them 300 to 1? The circle of idiots was complete. When they started to go broke, beginning with mom and pops, they all deserved it. A few didn't. Some of them are still around. But it was a conspiracy of dunces. They strip-mined the speculator and collector market for all time with fake collectibles, foil covers, multiple covers, cards, and glittery crap. Well, they're all broke now and it ain't never coming back. Now there's this artificial movie connection. Feh. It'll blow up soon, too and most of you guys crowding in now are too late. I've already stated how long it takes to get a comic on paper. Wait'll you get to “turn-around hell” in movie land. Hey, I'd love movie money. It's just never come along.
Saturday Morning Comic #1, written by Ralph Sall with Mike Lackey, March, 1996, Marvel.
Fiffe: Well, after this period you did less and less comic book work anyway, and now I can understand why. What kind of work were you doing in the early 90s?
Salmons: I did lots of things. Commissions, spot illos, there's a bar in Wickenburg, AZ that’s decorated with my work. Used to be, anyway. Wall art, western. Not much money in any of it. Then I was married and had kids. Extra distractions and stresses. I went to Los Angeles alone in '90 and was hired at WB for the new Batman Animated series and brought my family over. It was the best job I ever screwed up. But by then I was a full casualty of politics and office wankery. This new corporate scene and seeing it every day walking past my cubicle was too much. The next 10 years in and out and around animation and comics showed no evidence I was mistaken.
Foot Soldiers #2 pin-up, November, 1997, Image Comics.
Fiffe: Can you get into your experience in animation?
Salmons: In animation, draw-ers are the bottom of the food chain. Rightly so. I used to have to sit with the board and character artists while they endlessly discussed that The Rock with Nick Cage was the greatest movie ever made. Ever made. They would run scenes from the disc over and over on the video equipment. Every time was like the first time they'd seen it. One reviewer said that Cage went through the film with his eyes at eternal half mast as if to show that there's nothing more boring than being excited all of the time. Any wonder the audience of the media we produce isn't any brighter than this?
Fiffe: They’re responding to the superficial elements of what they’re experiencing. Maybe digging a little deeper into something like The Rock is pointless.
Salmons: Well, on Batman, I wheeled my chair into Kevin Altieri's office where Brad Rader and Dan Riba worked. We'd discuss art, history, culture, Science, applied and theoretical, our own craft. Then I'd wheel my chair back to the storyboard artists where they were discussing how to draw cool hands or Bernie Wrightson trees or something. I'd walk in on them while they were saying, “Why didn't they just kill Gilligan? Then they'd' gotten off the island.” It was one of many Edward Hopper moments in studios of surface thinking draw-ers.
Fiffe: A sort of conflict of interests.
Salmons: I'm shooting for the eggheads and they're not all Ivy League. Good sense and depth of internal experience is common, even without education. Exerting, especially in American media, to connect with that in a network of others is not.
Fiffe: You've considered yourself to be a non-mainstream artist and more of an "underground" artist. Did you feel as if though your sensibility wasn’t embraced by fans on top of your editorial troubles?
Salmons: I don't think there's much of a question. Richard Corben's done more Marvel comics than me. But then he's done more comics than I will probably ever do! And I add, better. As for fans, they absolutely get what I'm doing. But corporations and corporate handmaids, called editors, have another agenda for the audience. Why sell them just a triple-espresso when they can run an entire city, state, nation on heroin, coke and crack. Money-shot, money-shot, money-shot. Why not just take money-shots forever? Excitement, excitement, excitement.
Fiffe: I always saw your style as being too bizarre for the typical mainstream comics audience, yet because of the genres you work in, your work may be lumped with typical mainstream artists and ignored by those who may actually appreciate what your work represents. It seems like a frustrating position to be in.
Salmons: I know. I hear people shocked at certain work or statements by me because they think of me as a Kirby artist or a superhero guy. Amazing, after all of this! I just had this conversation with a young artist. He liked how my work is idiosyncratic in spite of occasional obvious apes that I pull. I replied that I succeeded too well. I never wanted to be pigeonholed as a superhero or horror or war or sci-fi artist, etc. I wanted to be like an all-purpose tool that could be fitted with new purposes and do anything. I knew early on that trends and audiences changed fairly often in comics and media. I can carry off some acceptable version of any genre I take an interest in. As a result, the simple minds in editorial don't know where to put me in their thinking or work line up. At this point, I'm their monster. I know a lot about them. I don't need them and I never want in again. I didn't insult or burn any bridges, I just walked away but the work I did makes them jaw and now I have to say something.
Savage Sword of Conan #146 pin-up, March 1988, Marvel.
Fiffe: I’m a little surprised that nothing had been said prior to this.
Salmons: At any point in this inanity I could've sold out and done what every one else did. I chose not to. I could pencil a shit superhero book in a week; and ink it the next. People who've worked with me in studios know it. It would've exhausted me for anything else. If I had sold out, nothing I've done would exist. If I'd listened to editors, writers, or even other artists and corporate fulfillment house wienies, nothing I've done would’ve existed. There would certainly be something else but not what I've done. I would be in a “higher,” monied and therefore better and accepted society. I just won't do it.
Fiffe: That would require that editors actually call you back.
Salmons: After years of meetings in the office, on the phone, ping-pong emails, pitches, and spec art, I couldn't get an action project through at [this one particular] company. They had plenty of money at a still swell point in the Image afterglow. Finally, another editor took me into his confidence. He told me it wasn't me, it was the editor in charge. He said he had a stack of approved projects on his desk right now, the moneys were allotted, the teams idling in the hinterlands with house payments and kids to raise, everything ready to go. This other guy just wouldn't waddle his fat ass down the hall and sign off on them. Dangling people because he could. There're other stories on this clown and they're well known but people want to work again so they don't say anything. I wrote him a pretty tough e-mail and fired him. He didn't do his job, and isn't doing it.
Fiffe: There’s a part of me that wants freelancers to share their horror stories with editorial in order to at least start a dialogue about it in hopes of bettering the situation. But I know it’s a naïve wish, that it won’t really solve anything.
Salmons: If the readers only knew who was blackballed at certain places they wouldn't believe it. There are top people blackballed right now. Not me. I'm out, of my own choice. Kirby was blackballed at DC in the '60s. Then he was sabotaged at DC in the '70s by people at DC and never allowed to finish his Fourth World series. Comics business was not a safe or fun place for Jack. It's not all it's cracked up to be when you're the prettiest girl in the room. If they can do it to Jack and they can do it to Alex Ross, who am I?
Fiffe: The way they’d see it, it wouldn’t be their loss.
Salmons: I won't draw their corporate properties ever again, even for commissions, of which I have only one outstanding. Why should I shine up Spider-Man or fatten up Batman when they don't hire me or pay me for turning out the best stuff I could do for them? Enough. As in comics or any show business, Dorothy Parker observed long ago that Hollywood is the only city in the world where you can die from encouragement. I would add comics, too.
To be concluded in Part Three...