by Michel Fiffe
In the previous two installments, Tony Salmons discussed his early years, his artistic philosophy, and his role as a cartoonist on the fringes of the mainstream field. We finalize this interview by going over Salmons' reconciliation between his uneasy relationship with the comics business while maintaining passion for the form.
Michel Fiffe: You got back into comics full time with Vigilante, written by James Robinson. How did that project come about?
Tony Salmons: That was a full script. I met James in New York in '91. I contacted him later and he had a few projects that were taking forever to get out to the readers. He offered Vigilante to me. I was already sick of Hollywood so I jumped in. Again, this was in a marriage with kids where I was a stay at home dad in charge of 3 kids, 2 were infants, everything in the house and working on comics. I don't know how I did it.
Fiffe: Did your Legends of the Dark Knight story with Robinson come before or after Vigilante? A page of that Batman story was published years before the actual issue came out.
Salmons: The Batman story, “Citadel”, was before Vigilante. Vigil-Uncle, as Bob Camp called it. It was after I got my ass fired from WB but before the script for Vigilante was finalized. I was marooned in LA with a wife and 3 kids. Great planning. I allowed for the expected funk and fiddle of writer/editor dither for some weeks with my rent creeping and finally said to James that I had this other idea why don't we just make it Batman and do this. He acceded, and we were off. I cannibalized my previous story with another character in another time. I had a bunch of booby trap gags for the Batman version but limitations of the pamphlet format foiled them. We trimmed them down to what you see. James did a great job collaborating and changed the title to “Citadel.”
"Citadel" written by James Robinson, Legends Of The Dark Knight #85, August, 1996, DC.
Fiffe: Robinson has mentioned that deadlines were a bit of a problem during the tail end of the Vigilante mini-series. Is that a fair assessment from Robinson?
Salmons: James has taken it on himself to say a lot over the years. The shock to me was that his private conversations with me years after Vigilante were diametrically opposite to his public position. By that time, it was a familiar rusty metal taste on my tongue confirming what I know of people in the “biz”. It is indeed more than fair to say I was late.
Fiffe: This was your first major work for DC. How were your relationships over there?
Salmons: DC began to dock my pay for back payments on the insurance I'd subscribed to with them. It was never available, resulting in some non-lethal lengthy health problems of my own but the point is they were docking me a grand out of every paycheck. I was on the phone with everyone I could reach, including James and Archie [Goodwin] who by then was ailing again. Nowadays, I'd handle it very differently. I would’ve caught the first plane and been back there up their asses until I was paid. Again, I took the position of a guy who wanted to work again. I kept turning in pages and they kept docking me. I told them that if I really owed them the money, we could work it out but they couldn't keep gouging my family's income. I couldn't keep working for their bookkeeping mistake. We were evicted and my wife took the kids to a friend’s house. I went to live in my studio and I told them to go fuck themselves, but not in so many words.
Fiffe: How did you guys manage through all of this?
Salmons: The Penthouse Comix gig came in just in time for my divorce, but only because George Caragonne dumped his fat ass into the atrium of the Times Square Marriot from the 45th floor. Funny story that. It was after he let me pitch stories and characters to him repeatedly, never hired me and then did very pallid versions of them with his own artists. My great pal and all around lovely fellow Dave Elliott took me on for work and treated me exceptionally. I managed to move back to LA as Penthouse folded and wound up at the Dreamworks TV animation division.
"Kodiak" written by CJ Henderson, Penthouse Comix #23, 1997, Penthouse.
Fiffe: Your next big comics project was a Kirby-Era Avengers story for Marvel.
Salmons: Yeah, it was Kirby's Avengers. It was part of the main line. A real superhero book! Finally!
Fiffe: I could be remembering it wrong, but were you writing it as well as drawing it?
Salmons: I thumb-nailed most of the Avengers very tightly, which is how I write, lots of character redesign but restrained toward the original flavor of them, fully plotted it out and scripted much of it. I was completely jazzed, the money was fine but I really just wanted to do something meaty, fun and lasting. I roughly penciled about 5 pages. This was a couple of months of work around shit commission work. Or should I say, shit pay for commission work. And then it was all gone with Bill Jemas.
Fiffe: How did you land that huge project, especially after having so much trouble getting work?
Salmons: I cold called Bill Jemas' office and got right in. He gave me the short story in 411 and was very interested in my pitch. Made a point of shaking my hand and said it was going to be a pleasure. He was great for me but apparently had other people's interest. These led to his departure from Marvel and with him any chance of my Avengers.
"Seeds" written by David Rees, 411 #1, June, 2003, Marvel.
Fiffe: No other editor wanted to pick it up where it left off?
Salmons: Funny aside, an editor up there who promised me work for years – years – got wind I was there and had me ushered into his office. I didn't know Marvel's new digs and I thought I was on my way out of the building and there I was. He ran on about all the people he was up against in meetings and a bunch of stuff that honestly, I don't remember and don't give a shit about. Meanwhile I'm thinking, no wonder these guys don't get anything done. He ended by poking his finger at the wall of his office toward another office down the hall and when he finished barbequing that guy, he settled in to tell me how I could improve my game, how I should fix the panel borders, how he could sell this figure but not that figure. He held them up to me from a sketchbook I'd left in all offices on a previous visit. I just listened like a good freelance troll. He began to describe how he couldn't possibly walk into Jemas' office with this, when I told him I just came from there. He stopped like I just threw his baby out the window. He asked what Jemas said, which was that it was going to be a pleasure working with me. Another silent mental reacquisition by him of what's happening. Then, he starts jumping around his office like a circus monkey dragging out everything he's been doing in the last year. As usual, in the presence of this kind of exposed mind criminal, I just wanted to get out of there because Avengers or no Avengers I didn't want any of this to get on me. I let him wind down and I just left. Later I thought about how this guy had encouraged me to submit ideas, spec art, call, email, endlessly listen to his jabber about comics, media and bullshit, all that he loved about my work. Years of it, and I wondered why after everything I'd extended to him, he just never walked down the hall to Jemas' office like I did and ask for a job for me.
Fiffe: He must’ve been swamped with work, I’m sure. What led you to take up to your most recent comic, the H. P. Lovecraft story?
Salmons: I took it up because I had no other paying work. Mac Carter and Adam Byrne were friendly and committed to the idea they had and the working situation was very generous. Consistent is not a word Mac, Adam or myself would use to describe the process. It was one long haul over about two years. It didn't see print for about 2 years after that. I was already deep in a hole financially when I took Lovecraft for a quarter of my standard pay. Fine, it was my deal and Mac came up with the cash like he said. Way better than the Big Two had done for me in a while. Instead of a quick jab and oblivion it was a long slow sink onto the blade as I lost financial ground or hope of it for the whole length of the project. They never knew my true circumstances.
Fiffe: They were just happy to get Tony Salmons!
The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft # 1, written by Mac Carter, April, 2009, Image.
Salmons: To them it was great that I had a paying job! Sort of. It was for 100 pages. The situation was liberal, the way I like to work so at the end of it I'd handed back around 160 pages.
Fiffe: That’s a pretty huge jump considering the estimated page count per issue.
Salmons: The pamphlet period of comics is over. Paper will remain a niche, like radio, vinyl, movie theaters, television. But it will never command the medium again. So page count, gutters, allowances for stapled spines, et al will never govern again.
Fiffe: The Lovecraft creators were pretty open about their desire for the story to be optioned and eventually succeeded in making that happen. What's your take on comics making such a shift in its focus on being drawn screenplays?
Salmons: The movie sale was always the design for Lovecraft. I didn't have a problem with that. I was pleased that I was allowed to contribute significantly to the pacing and reach of the book. I never wanted part of the movie deal. I work better and faster on bigger pieces and stories where I'm not restrained by shot-for-shot, full script and page counts. Downside is that there's no way to calculate the value of that contribution and most are happy with that.
Fiffe: Yeah, it’s not the easiest to quantify.
Salmons: Regarding the movie connection, it's really the only game in town. Anything that gets over is going to head that way. It only makes sense to plan on it and get the best version you can. I do regard with disdain that comics is stuffed to the gunnels with Hollywood slummers who can't sell their chum-bucket scripts any other way. And it goes to the top. There are offices at Marvel and DC where I can't get work for years after a lifetime of discipline and study for comic work but if you wrote a shit action movie in the '80s, you're golden!
The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft # 4, written by Mac Carter, October 2009, Image.
Fiffe: Do you think it’s exclusive to comics? The reason I ask is because most of these experiences are rooted in the current structure of the industry. Like you said, it’s the only game in town.
Salmons: If you don't make abeyance with this insidious, this fratricidal closed circle of marionettes you don't get the chance to create something and make a living. Like Three Billy Goats Gruff, you pay the bridge troll or you don't get across. The real sickness is that you don't pay them just once. No one gets off that easily. The relationship these guys say they build with talent, from their perspective, is to have their egos massaged and their buttocks warmed at every word and appointment with your servile ass. Meanwhile, months and years go by before you draw a nickel with their permission.
Fiffe: And really, that’s business as usual?
Salmons: What drives people crazy, me anyway, was trying for hours at a time while I was doing a job is wondering what makes someone do these pointless, mean and stupid things. The truth is there's no answer. Every one is a different recipe of basically the same motivations but different experiences in different proportions and there's no time or meaning to solve each one's damages. “Why” they do these things is ultimately an occulted process, personally theirs. Eddie Murphy's joke in 48 hours is “I'm your worst fuckin’ nightmare… with a badge.” A fan with a badge… in comics, that's a job title and an office in the Big Two.
Fiffe: The industry had been driven by fans-turned-pros for a long time now.
Salmons: Editors at Marvel and DC are unencumbered by talent. No talent. Zip. Zero. So they have endless energies and time on their hands for meddling with my shit. The weight of their day is talking on the phone and plotting against each other in the form of stopping talent and sandbagging projects by other editors and people they don't like. They have nothing else to do all day, everyday. Their direct deposit shows up every Friday. What's your freelancer’s problem?
"Art Rage" written by Ann Nocenti, Doctor Strange #64, April, 1984, Marvel.
Fiffe: Do you think there’s a difference in treatment from editors who used to be artists?
Salmons: George Pratt said it. He said it wasn't just me. As soon as Mark Chiarello got his position at DC, work dried up for several of those Chapel Hill guys. Himself and Scott Hampton are two. He said, “I love him like a brother, but it happened to us, too.” Chiarello’s explanation to George was that he didn't want to be known for favoring his friends. What the fuck? That's the only way any one gets work in any company! I told George that if Chiarello's your brother, your mother got him from the milkman because he's not like us, if he ever was. He's like them. He's a photo-tracer as an “artist” with a rote pallet as a “colorist” that he applies with the subtlety of a 32 oz. roofing hammer to every situation.
Fiffe: You don’t have to hold back, you know.
Salmons: I went to the San Diego Con in 2001, I believe, to confront him about calling me an “idiot savant.” Like he could say and repeat something like that in our circle and not hear back in some fashion. These guys walk between the raindrops because of their position and job titles. Mind you, at this point, I'm still a hapless aspirant to work in the open pit holes of this cultural land mine. So I'm delicate in approach, supplicant in the juncture, and then I back out bowing, just to let him know I heard it. I let him talk in the usual circles of dodges that his type call “good meeting” and left without further challenge. After this, I heard from a mutual friend what was officially, let me emphasize, “officially” in Chiarello's “office” going on in regards to me. This friend told me, “Look, I know he's been encouraging you and you've been knocking your brains out trying to get work at DC. I don't want to get in the middle of you two but I'm going to tell you not to waste your spit, and go somewhere else because this is what's happening here.”
Fiffe: You weren’t able to get work even if you were willing to play the game.
Salmons: A young editor, while my friend also fruitlessly sought work in a visit to this place, stepped into Chiarello's office to say he was going to put me on a mini-series. I know this editor's name and also his verification of this incident, but I still don't know him. This was in the couple of years where I first went bust. I was sleeping in studios and on couches, drawing and submitting things furiously, ghosting storyboards in LA. Also in this time, I wrote two of the most humiliating missives of my life to Mr. Chiarello and Mr. Axel Alonso at Marvel, laying out in un-sparing detail my miserable circumstances. Dot com bust, 9/11, inexplicably Hollywood cowers in its horizon pools, humanitarian causes, goat fuck orgies and closes it's legs to new projects. On the personal side I had divorce, child custody suit, loss of property and true physical and ongoing hunger, the usual results of black balling. This goes on for a good couple of years. Minor health issues ensue. In the middle of all this I supplicate once again, with ideas and art, this is what the sonar ping brings back.
Fiffe: So the young editor was proposing to Chiarello that you draw a mini and…?
Salmons: My name went up like a clay pigeon in Chi's office and didn't hit the ground until after lunch, shot full of holes in an energetic and lengthy debauch of invective. Again, I stayed nice for a couple of more years. I continued e-mails, phone calls and empty exchanges for years. Also with Scott Dunbier. Meanwhile, no one believes I have a job, let alone a career.
Fiffe: It seems like you’re still keeping busy, though. You’ve posted a few things on your site.
Salmons: I'm working on a '20s crime story set in the West that I'm sworn not to talk about. What I will talk about is the projects I'm dragging out of my files for publishing online. I have a metaphysical character that I've written. I'm reaching for the itchy edge of murder, psychosis and maybe something genuinely supernatural but all in good fun. I have a Science Fiction property I really want to get to. It's based on classic SF fetish and tough guy stories. I've done lots of development on that. I'm also restarting my animation work that will involve some of these properties in short bits. I've only ever done rough animation but damned if I'm not a natural at it. It's equipment intensive and requires careful file trafficking for someone with my transience but I can manage it now. I still have a pent up steaming chamber of superhero material, characters, designs and stories that I never had the opportunity to excise. They're there and I can still vaguely remember the motivation to do it so I'll probably posit some of those.
Fiffe: There’s one thing I’d like for you to shed some light on before we wrap up. By your reckoning, and despite your frustrations with the industry, what is it about comics that always bring you back?
Salmons: Comics used to be, and in some places still is, a place to prove your ideas, to hear and see everyone else's and to do something worthwhile. It's been mollified, diluted, fixed and shaved by corporate feint in the figure, in the-shape-of so-called progressive editors, and in Shooter's own words, "the little fucks" lap it up. Gary Groth, the finest comic publisher in America in the last 30 years -- yes, he's pissed me off, too -- opined in the '80s that American comics were eating its own young. I didn't think it would be me, but it wasn't only me. Everyone who can, gets out of comics. Fans pined after Frazetta and I've defended Steranko and others for getting out over the years. Some jabbed Steranko for weighing in on modern comics when he doesn't do any. Guys like him made the statements they could make in a great medium run by backwater business types and then they moved on. Most of those works are still unmatched by anyone I know of today. Steranko can say whatever he wants and you'll take it.
--Michel Fiffe, 2012