Saturday, September 21, 2019

Life With Wally Wood…. By Ralph Reese





Ralph Reese wrote an interesting, informative and compelling essay about artist Wally Wood.  Ralph gave me permission to present it here, without any editorial additions. (But I did add scans!) ...And thereby hangs a  tale...




J. David Spurlock adds interesting points at the end of the essay.


My Life With Wood…. By Ralph Reese

I first met Wally Wood in 1966 when I was a sixteen year old runaway, on the lam from a juvenile detention facility in New York. Two of my friends from the High School of Art and Design, where I had attended intermittently, were Larry Hama and JD Smith. We were all fledgling comic book fans and had made a few trips together to King Features and places like that after school, where we would hang around and pester people and try to get an idea of how things were actually done. At that time I had no great ambition to be a comic artist myself - I was actually more into mechanical drawing or maybe industrial design.

Anyway, when I got in some trouble and found myself needing a place to stay, Larry and JD introduced me to Larry Ivie, who at that time was in his mid twenties and a sort of semi pro artist who put together a magazine/fanzine called Monsters and Heroes, published by Kable Pubs. Larry had an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan and was well known in the fan community, which was at that time quite small, and would sometimes let other fans from out of town crash with him when they were in New York. To make a long story short he agreed to let me stay there for a little while, as I looked for some sort of work.

Ivie had quite an extensive comic book collection, and introduced me to the EC Comics, which I had never seen or heard of, as well as the whole world of comic fandom as it was then. I discovered all the classics, Raymond, Foster, Crandall, Frazetta, Williamson and Wood. It was then that it occurred to me that real people were actually making a living at this, and that it might be something I could do. It was the Wood and Williamson science fiction stuff that really inspired me. I liked super heroes ok and read my share of FF and Spider-Man, but never had a great desire to draw them.

At this time Wood was still doing some inking for Marvel and had tried out Larry Ivie as an assistant. I’m not sure how they got to know each other´, but at that time comics was a pretty small world and Larry had been a Big Name Fan ever since the EC days. For one reason and another that assistantship didn’t work out, but I did manage to persuade Ivie to introduce me to Wood, who lived only a few blocks away and was at that time looking to expand his studio to take on more work.

I was completely forthright with WW about my situation and of my great admiration for his work and he offered to try me out as an assistant in his studio. It was in the apartment that he shared with Tatjana, his first wife, a fifth floor walkup on West 76th Street. The first thing that he told me was “Don’t call me Wally”… he always hated the nickname and preferred for his friends to call him “Woody”. The only person I ever saw that he allowed to call him Wally was Al Williamson, who used to come up and visit occasionally when he was in New York. Williamson was probably the only other artist from the EC/Mad days that Wood remained very friendly with, although he maintained cordial relations with most of the other guys except for Kurtzman and Feldstein, whom he despised.

The pay was fifty bucks a week and the duties were mostly pretty menial at first. What possessed him to take a troubled young man under his wing at that time I can’t be sure, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was becoming middle aged and was childless. Maybe he sensed another rebellious spirit… He certainly took more of an interest in me than a mere employer. I will say that although I was a very angry and rebellious young man, my very great admiration and respect for Wood made him probably one of the few people on earth that I could take direction from.

As years went by, he went on to mentor a lot of other up and coming young artists. I think that he enjoyed teaching and had developed a very systematic approach to his work. And he enjoyed having someone to talk to, especially a young person who would hang on his every word... being a professional illustrator can be a fairly lonely pursuit. As a matter of fact, he once compared it to sentencing yourself to “life at hard labor in solitary confinement.” A lot of us go and rent studio space with other artists just to have some company.

It probably helped that we liked the same kind of music. At that time the folk music revival was going strong and WW always had the record player going while we worked. We wore the grooves off the old Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie discs, and there was always country/folkie music playing. If he had been into bebop jazz or doo wop I don’t know if we would have got on so well. Also, we both had very kind of leftist/socialist political leanings, opposed the Vietnam war, etc. And we were both science fiction fans, and had read a lot of the same classics of the genre. Although it was his SF work for EC that had most impressed me, by that time Wood tended to pooh-pooh that work as overly “busy”. By that time he was already tired of hearing that “his old stuff was better”.


At the time that I started working for him, Wood was just finishing up his run with Marvel and just beginning to start working on the Thunder Agents. At first I had very few real skills… I ran his errands, cleaned and strained his ink bottles, and mostly did a lot of art-o-graphing. WW had a very extensive system of files, pictures cut from magazines of almost every conceivable subject, which filled up a whole small room. Also, he had a vast collection of other artists’ published work, Raymond, Foster, Crandall, etc. etc. He would do a basic layout for a page and then leave it up to me to find “swipe” for whatever was possible. I would dig up as much stuff as I could that seemed to fit and then show it to him for his approval, then trace it into place and size using the overhead projector. One thing that always amazed me was his ability to redraw these disparate elements in the process of inking so that the finished product always came out looking like Wood.




Bit by bit, I learned the basics of producing comic art… how to rule ink lines without making blops… how to control a brush line… how to put together a job from reference material… How to compose a panel or a page, how to letter, the basic elements of anatomy and perspective. Up until this point I had a fairly good “eye” and could copy what I saw, but I had no real understanding of the underlying principles of composition or figure drawing. Wood got me practicing with skeleton figures until I could keep them pretty much in proportion, then start adding the surface musculature and drapery. Like I said; he liked to teach, and he was full of aphorisms and little sayings like “when in doubt, black it out” I am sure that by this time many of your readers have seen his “20 Panels That Always Work”… Wood was a master of spotting blacks in order to create the illusion of depth in a comic book panel and he taught me a lot about lighting and how to cast shadows …

Wood and Kurtzman


Unlike a lot of artists of lesser talent, who I met in my later years, Wood was always a rather modest and unpretentious guy. He was not a high-liver or a fancy dresser, and, actually, outside of his artwork didn’t have a whole lot of other interests. He wasn’t into sports, going to nightclubs or socializing all that much… as a matter of fact he didn’t really go out much. I guess you could say he was pretty much a workaholic; he felt most at home and he felt most himself when sitting at his drawing table. Although he was not the sort of person to suffer fools gladly and he could be ruthlessly critical, he was not the kind of guy who builds up his own ego at other people’s expense. I am sure he was much kinder to me than he had to be, and he generally tried to encourage all the other budding talents that came under his purview.

During the years that I worked with and for him, Wood was completely sober. It is well known now that he had his problems with alcohol, and indeed it was his alcoholism which eventually led to his sad and untimely demise, but during that period from the mid sixties to the mid seventies, he pretty much left it alone. He was a chain smoker and always drank copious quantities of tea, and he used to joke about his insides being tanned like old leather. I have read a lot of stuff from people, who didn’t really know him, attempting armchair psychoanalysis of the man and why he wound up more or less destroying himself, and there can be no doubt that he had some sort of inner demons, but I have no definitive answer why things turned out the way that they did.

Woody, at that time, was undergoing psychotherapy, and we had many long discussions about psychology in general and himself and myself in particular. We had both come from rather unhappy family lives, and I think we both suffered from a kind of inner emptiness that we carried with us from childhood. At that time, his marriage to his first wife Tatjana seemed to be sort of petering out or drying up. It’s not that they fought, but more like all the meaning had just gone out of it. I do know that he seemed to have a lot of difficulty in finding real satisfaction in his relationships with women, and we both seemed to have a deep seated resentment and distrust of all forms of authority. Wood hated pretty much everybody he had ever worked for, and the whole capitalist business world in general. That was something else we had in common. And we were both outspoken atheists.The first few years I spent working there in the late sixties were mostly consumed with putting together the Thunder Agents books. While other people who worked in the studio have later tried to take credit for this or that, I would say that Wood himself created, and was the guiding light for, every bit of that material. I think his experience working with Stan Lee made him feel that why should he let someone else take all the glory for his ideas? When Harry Shorten approached him with the idea of creating a whole new line of comics, he said why not me.


That being said, I don’t think Woody was ever a big superhero fan. A lot of the stories were kind of tongue-in-cheek. I think the only Thunder Agent that he had a real attachment to was NoMan, which was an idea of his that he had been saving since he was a teenager filling sketchbooks with homemade comics. Dynamo was an effort to make a Superman-like character who was not so incredibly powerful that nothing could really hurt him. That is why the Thunderbelt only worked for some short period of time. But he often poked fun at his own character, making him comically inept in his romantic pursuits and getting him into situations like being immersed in a giant vat of peanut butter. The other Thunder Agents were obviously derivative, and Wood had not a great deal of interest in them, other than that the pages got done on time.

From his past experience working at Eisner’s studio and other similar places, WW knew how to put a team together. Many artists and writers were involved in producing the Thunder Agents, notably Reed Crandall who did the first NoMan stories and Steve Ditko who took over the character when Crandall, who at that time was becoming quite old, was no longer able to keep up with it. In spite of their very different political views Woody and Ditko always got along well, perhaps because they were both unassuming in nature and shared a mutual hatred of Stan Lee. When the success of the original TA books inspired spinoffs, Gil Kane got involved with the Underwater Agent series. Mike Sekowski, Chic Stone, John Giunta, George Tuska and several others all handled various characters more or less independently, working from Wood-approved scripts. Among the writers who helped out were Bill Pearson and a young Steve Skeates .



A great deal of artwork was generated there in the 76th street studio. In addition to myself, many other assistants came and went and performed various tasks according to their ability. There was a British fella by the name of Anthony Coleman who had come over here looking for work and inked backgrounds and outlined background figures. He was always good for a joke or a funny story. Dan Adkins did quite a lot of penciling for Wood once the series was fairly well established and was a familiar face around the studio. Dan was kind of a hillbilly and had terrible teeth from drinking five quarts of Pepsi every day. Roger Brand came to New York around 67 or 68, and helped out with penciling and story ideas. I got to take a crack at writing a few scripts myself, which were then edited and fixed up by Wood. I colored a bunch of Thunder Agents stories which were not done by WWs wife Tatjana, and by the time they folded I had graduated to penciling an occasional pinup page.
The Thunder Agents series remained fairly successful until pressure from DC and Marvel caused them to lose their distribution deal. That was what really killed the series, if I remember right. This must have been a bitter blow to Wood, although I was not there to experience it at the time, having become entangled in some further legal problems and once again caught up in the juvenile justice system.

During this period WW did find time somehow for several other projects. Although he respected the work that Williamson, Crandall and others were doing for the Creepy/Eerie/Blazing Combat books he looked at it as a “money losing contest” to see who could put the most work into their stuff in an effort to outdo each other. But Archie Goodwin was such a good person and a fine writer and editor that he talked him into participating. I look at the Battle of Britain story that Wood did for Blazing Combat as some of his best work from that time, and I know that he really put his heart into it. That was one that he completely did himself - I don’t think he even had anybody artograph the airplanes for him.

Occasionally Wood would get contacted by advertising agency people who remembered his Mad work and needed some humorous illustration. While the money was good, WW always hated working on that kind of stuff. He didn’t like advertising people and he hated having to go back and forth with a job making diddlyshit changes to make some art director feel important. I am sure he could have made a lot more money if he had chosen to exploit this avenue the way that Jack Davis or Frazetta or Drucker did, but he just couldn’t deal with the BS factor.

Woody also never stopped doing occasional jobs for Topps gum company and I helped design ugly stickers, joke books, goofy product packages and funny valentines for them. Bhob Stewart was working there at the time as was a young Artie Spiegelman and both were frequent visitors at 76th street. This stuff was always fun to work on and nobody took it too seriously.

Wood was always aware of the fan scene which at that time was quite small. Publishers of various fanzines like Erbdom and Ivie’s were often soliciting him for interviews or free sketches or whatnot and he received several of them every month. When Dan Adkins came aboard along with Bill Pearson, they had both been involved in creating fanzines. Wood had several ideas and characters that he wanted to copyright himself and hadn’t found a proper venue for. Somehow in talks between them, Wood got the idea to publish his own zine. It was never planned to be a big money-maker, but he figured if he could sell maybe five thousand of them then it could at least be self-supporting, pay for its own printing and postage. Besides the ideas he had been hoarding, Woody also had a bunch of unpublished material which were samples for newspaper strips that didn’t make it, drawings he had done for his own amusement, and things he had done just to practice or sample some technique or style. He figured he knew enough other artists with similar stuff just laying around, or who had original ideas that they wanted to copyright themselves before letting anyone else publish them, to make a kick ass little magazine. Bear in mind that at this time almost all comics and other illustration were still being done on a work-for-hire basis, so that the creators had no more right to their material than a bricklayer has to the building he constructs.

Wood started calling people and calling in favors, and after a couple of months the first issue of Witzend began to take shape. He was fortunate enough to get some dynamite material in the first couple of issues, an unpublished EC sci-fi story by Williamson/Krenkel/Frazetta, his own Animan strip, stories from the Dillons and Archie Goodwin, Ditko’s Mr.A… Gray Morrow’s Orion… even a story from Brad Holland as well as single page illustrations and spots from many others. He even gave me a page to show my still rather primitive skills. All together he managed to put together about eight good issues before he really started running out of material and energy, and then wound up turning it over to Bill Pearson, who had been his greatest helper and supporter in the effort, and who had taken over all the scut work of meeting subscriptions and doing mailings, etc... The magazine never really made any money and probably barely managed to meet its own expenses if that, but it was an artistic success and has become a treasured collector’s item. Looking back at it, I am amazed that it got done at all between the demands of doing the Thunder Agents books and the other odds and ends he was taking on. Like I said before; the guy was a workaholic and he was cranking seven days a week.

After the whole Thunder Agents thing collapsed, Wood scrounged around for a bit. He prevailed upon his friendship with Joe Orlando, who had been his assistant and studio partner in the early fifties and was then an editor up at DC, to get him some inking work up there, since he would rather cut his balls off than work for Marvel and Stan Lee again. Joe gave him the Superboy book to ink, and we even did a couple of romance stories just to fill in. By this time I had advanced to the point of being able to do whole backgrounds and was getting paid by the page rather than by the week. There was another sort of humorous caveman book called Anthro that he inked, and then we took over the inking on Bob Oksner’s Angel and the Ape title, which up till that time Oksner had been doing himself.

It was during this period that I first started getting some work of my own, with Wood’s help. He generously arranged with Judy Benjamin up at Galaxy to try me out on a few sci-fi illos by promising her that he would do a couple of jobs for her himself. He got Joe Orlando and Dick Giordano up at DC to give me a couple of three and four page comic stories for their omnibus horror/mystery titles like House of Mystery.

It was around this time that I got in some more trouble for pot possession and had to go away for a while. Upon my release I briefly moved back in with my parents and tried going back to the High School of Art and Design to get my diploma. I soon realized that they had little to teach me there as I had already received more valuable practical education as Wood’s assistant.

By the time I got hooked up with Woody again he had moved out of the apartment on 76th street and separated from Tatjana, and was living and working in a small studio in an apartment hotel on Broadway and 74th just a few blocks from the old place. By then, Adkins and Roger Brand had moved on to doing their own stuff and Wayne Howard had entered the scene as Wood’s regular assistant. I’m a little vague on just what he was working on at the time, or what my role in it was, other than that by this time I had developed sufficient skill to pencil a whole page or job for him, or do complete backgrounds. I think he was doing some jobs for Warren and Topps, and there was a short-lived deal to produce a newspaper-sized comic for Wham-O, the company that had invented the hula hoop. I think, in fact, one was published for which Wood designed and wrote all new characters such as ‘Radian’, but then the whole deal fell through for some reason.


It is hard to imagine someone who was more different from me than Wayne. In spite of being a young black man he was very conservative, very Christian, and pretty much a total hick from Cleveland. He had a loud and raucous hee-haw sort of laugh, and always called Woody “Mr. Wood”… as in “Golleee Mr. Wooood” Needless to say we did not get along. But he worshipped WW and was a total imitator of his work and style, and was a reliable employee.

It was around this time that a number of folks from the blooming underground comics movement came to New York and made pilgrimages to the studio on West 76th Street. Witzend was really one of the earliest undergrounds, in a way, and Wood was sympathetic to their efforts, even if he found much of the artwork rather crude by professional standards. R Crumb came up to visit and pay his respects, and struck me as being rather studious and quiet, always scribbling in his notebook. Trina Robbins and Kim Deitch became friends and we still saw Roger and Michelle Brand now and then.

By this time our relationship had developed into something more than professional. At that time I was probably his closest confidante. In the late sixties the “encounter group” phenomenon was becoming popular and with our mutual interest in psychology we went to a bunch of them together. We both wound up meeting women there who we eventually married. In Woody’s case he met a divorcee named Marilyn Glass from Long Island who was a psychologist and had two children from her first marriage. For a while there he was really in love. They married and he wound up moving to her house in Woodmere. Wayne had by this time around 1970 started doing some work for Charlton and went his own way, moving up to Connecticut.

I did a few pages for the Gothic Blimp Works, the comic supplement to the East Village Other, which Kim Deitch was then putting together. Picked up a few small jobs from Topps with Wood’s help. When Eye magazine called Wood looking for an underground cartoonist, he recommended me to Michael Gross, who was then art directing there. So, between that and still helping Woody out here and there, I was managing to survive, although I had to eat a lot of cheese sandwiches. I think that for a time there Wood himself was not so busy and did not need too much help. For a while things got so tight I had to drop out of the field and work as a bricklayer’s helper. Then one day I got a call from Web of Horror, a Creepy/Eeerie knockoff edited by Terry Bisson, who later won the Hugo award for science fiction. Wrightson, Kaluta, Brunner, … a bunch of my contemporaries were also breaking in there. We were all pretty friendly and socialized every month at Jeff Jones’ place for the First Friday gatherings, informal open houses that Jeff was kind enough to host for all the up-and-comers in the comic book biz where we could meet and network. A young Howard Chaykin was still driving cabs and looking for work, mingling with Roy Krenkel and Gray Morrow there…etc…etc… I was beginning to get my own steady work, and so, for a while, most of my contact with Woody was just occasionally stopping by to visit and chat.



Once Wood had married his second wife and moved to the house in Woodmere he just worked out of the house for a while. I wound up moving into his studio on 74th street while continuing to work for Web every month and doing some SF and Topps work on the side. It was during this period that he made a deal with Warren to come out with a new comic to be drawn, written and edited by him. A bunch of new characters were created and a first issue was put together but the deal came apart and Wood grew to despise Warren. Fortunately, some of those ideas were able to be recirculated and it was not long after that that Woody hooked up with the publisher of the Overseas Weekly newspapers which were looking for some comic strips to supplement their other offerings, to be sold at army bases around the world. For a few weeks I commuted out to the house on Long Island to pencil an origin story for “The Misfits” which Wood wrote and inked. He also created “Earthman” and “Dragonella” for the same publisher. Although WW seemed happy it was obvious that he and Marilyn’s three children were having difficulties getting used to each other. After some months of this Wood wound up moving his studio to a small office space in a nearby town and after a while the marriage fell apart. Marilyn expected to have a husband who would be finished with his work in the afternoon, and spend weekends and evenings with her and the kids. This was not Woody’s nature. He was always working


During this period Wood created the Cannon, Sally Forth, and Shattuck strips and did them weekly, sharing the studio in Valley Stream with Jack Abel and Sid Check, who were both then of middle age and living in the same area. I came and visited once or twice but was mostly doing my own work. Howard Chaykin had at that time taken over some assistant duties and was also penciling the Shattuck strip. At this point Web of Horror had folded and I got a few other mystery jobs from Dick Giordano up at DC. I brought my samples up to Warren and he offered me some work for Eerie. I took the script and drew it up, staying up all night at the end to meet the deadline. Then I left my work in the cab I took to Warren’s office because I was so overtired. It was a disaster. Warren was not sympathetic. I got evicted from my little studio. I spent a week or two crashing on Wood’s couch at the Valley Stream studio. At that time he seemed pretty cheerful and happily married, and was still not drinking much or at all. Things were going smoothly with the Overseas Weekly strips and he was picking up an occasional inking job or Warren job now and then on the side. It was out there in Valley Stream that he met Nick Cuti and Nick kind of became part of the Wood entourage.

After a bit I got another apartment and we did not see a lot of each other for a while. I got busy doing Skywald stuff and was beginning to get a job here and there from Marvel and DC. Gil Kane had contacted Wood about helping him out with some science fiction oriented strip he was doing and WW sent me over there instead. I guess he liked what I did because he recommended me to Marvel to ink some of his covers. I always enjoyed working over Gil’s pencils; his drawing was sound and I felt like I was able to add a little more solidity to it with shadows and blacks. My old high school friend Larry Hama got out of the army and was living in the neighborhood. I was happy to have him come over and work with me on whatever crossed my desk, and to introduce him to everyone I knew in the comic business. We kind of became partners for a while, with Larry penciling and me inking, and did some Marvel and a lot of National Lampoon stuff together when that magazine started to get rolling. From about the fourth issue on I/we were regular contributors. Anytime they needed someone else’s style imitated they gave it to me, at least for a couple of years there. I knew that Wood had successfully imitated other cartoonist’s style at Mad and in a way I felt like I was carrying on his tradition. Around this time Wood had an abortive deal to do an adult humor comic Larry helped me with a John Carter of Mars parody for it that was never published.

After a while, when Wood’s marriage went bad, he moved back to the city to a little place on the West Side. By this time my own career seemed to be going pretty good and I was no longer working for him. And our relationship had changed. I had grown up and become a man, and no longer quite held him in the awe that I did when I was sixteen. And to be honest there were some aspects of his personality that had begun to wear on me after many years of such close association. He did tend to go on and on about the same old things… how women had betrayed him, that sort of stuff. I still loved him, but we didn’t spend a lot of time together. He was kind of down after his second marriage failed. I think that is when he might have started drinking again. He did come over to my place one night when he was behind on a deadline, and I stayed up all night helping him get it done. Not that I was that much help - he could do ten pages in the time it took me to do one. Another time, my girlfriend and I had a date to meet him at a folk music concert down at the South Street Seaport, but when he showed up he decided he would rather go off drinking with my brother. I did not think that was a good sign.

Although there were flashes of inspiration in Sally Forth, I think his work began to decline around this point. By dint of repetition it became more and more formulaic, until in, the end, it became a caricature of itself. After a while Wood moved to the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Larry Hama was also living in Brooklyn by that time, and he took him on as his assistant for a spell. Larry helped to write and draw the Cannon and Sally Forth strips, along with whatever else WW was picking up at the time. The Shattuck western strip had by that time died. I did go out there once or twice, notably to take over inking on the two strips for a week when Wood’s mother died and he had to go back to Minnesota. By this time WW was drinking fairly heavily, although he was still getting his work done and didn’t seem in too bad shape. During this period, Alan Kupperberg also went through the Wood studio/school…

Eventually, I decided to take some studio space with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano at their downtown office, and Larry came along. It seemed like it might be helpful to have a place outside of home to work and network, and Neal promised us that he would give us some work on the advertising storyboards and comps that were increasingly his main source of income. So we learned to do that kind of stuff and met a lot of interesting people hanging out at the old Continuity Associates. One of the new friends we met was Paul Kirchner, who had just graduated from Cooper Union and was starting out in the business. We introduced Paul to Woody and then he became Wood’s assistant for a while. WW was still living and working out of Brooklyn at that time, but we saw each other only occasionally, mostly when he came into Manhattan and dropped by. Neal did not always treat him with the deference that perhaps he should, and those occasions became rare. By this time it was obvious that WW’s drinking habits were getting the better of him and he was starting to look bad and sometimes embarrass himself in public, which made those of us who cared for him cringe, but there was no stopping him from going his own way. I remember particularly one of Phil Seuling’s Comicons where he showed up wearing one shoe.


Paul Kirchner, besides being a creative artist and funny guy to have around, was also a bit of a gun fancier, and he awoke in WW a desire to start collecting and shooting firearms. Wayne Howard had already moved to Connecticut, where Paul came from, and was another gun collector. So eventually they both moved out of New York to the New Haven area. Wood had always had a strong interest in military stuff, and was very proud of having been a Merchant Marine and then a paratrooper, so he was already sympathetic to gun culture. Since Connecticut is the gun manufacturing center of America, obtaining firearms there was relatively easy compared to the very strict limitations in New York.

This photo has long-been mis­understood. It should not be seen as, 'how low the mighty had fallen.' this was in Connecticut. Before Woody remarried, his studio had been in his house. After he married his 3rd wife, so that Muriel could have a normal-looking home, woody created a separate work­space, which was, in the little out­building, separate from the house. A few years later, in California, he lived in a simple, modest, but normal, 1-bedroom apartment with his workspace set up in the living room."
- J. DAVID SPURLOCK

After Woody moved to Connecticut we didn’t see a lot of each other. I did go up there to visit a few times, memorably when he was getting married for the third time. The thing that really struck me at the time was that for a guy who was just getting married he did not seem very happy. The ceremony was very subdued and he mostly just sat there looking kind of lost and sad. I had to ask myself why are you doing this? I guess at that time he needed to have someone to look after him, to see that his clothes got washed and that he ate once in a while. I helped him out a little bit with the Wizard King book inking a few backgrounds and stuff. I think he was hurt that when pressed I had to tell him I thought the story was maybe a little trite and that he didn’t need to put a skull on the villains shirt so that we would know he was the bad guy. Of course, Wood knew that he was dealing in archetypes; he was making an attempt to give his own slant to the Tolkien genre, but I don’t know that it was too successful. He self-financed it, and I think it was pretty disastrous for him. We all went out shooting at the old quarry nearby a couple times, Wood, Wayne, Paul K and me, plinking at beer bottles and tin cans. Bill Pearson and Nick Cuti had also moved up there to work at Charlton, and helped Woody out with the Friends of Oddkin fan club. I think he was was still doing occasional work for Warren and some stuff for Screw but I didn’t see a lot of it.

To be honest, it kind of made me sad to be around him, and to see how he was deteriorating, and I kind of avoided him for a while after that. Did I fail him as a friend? Maybe. But I couldn’t really stop him from drinking, or fix his life for him. And he had a lot of sycophants around him who pretty much went along with whatever he said. I had plenty of my own problems and was hardly without weaknesses or bad life choices. During this period Wood developed a desire to become a musical performer, and put together and financed a self-published record album called “Wally Wood Sings” as well as playing at open mikes etc. at some local pubs and such. He had always played guitar and liked to do the old Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers tunes, an interest which I shared, and we had tried to play together a few times, but I found it difficult due to his slightly offbeat sense of timing. I know that Bob Layton became his assistant for some time but never met him then, and am not really familiar with what they were doing. By that time Paul Kirchner had moved on and was working on his own material.

We pretty much dropped out of touch, and for several years I did not see him. I heard that he had divorced his third wife and presumably moved, but where he was or what he was doing in the late seventies I really don’t have any personal knowledge. There were rumors that he was drinking heavily and behaving somewhat erratically. I did, however, see him one last time several months before he went to California and wound up taking his own life.

I was still renting desk space at Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates when we got word that Woody was in the VA hospital at downtown Manhattan. Larry Hama, Jack Abel and I got together and went down there to see how he was doing. At that time he had already had a couple of strokes that left him blind in one eye and partially paralyzed on, I think it was, the left side. Besides that, his kidneys were failing and he was told he needed a transplant. He had approached his brother Glen about donating a kidney for him, but this was just not something Glen was willing to do. Although they were brothers they pretty much had lived separate lives, with Glen staying in the Midwest and becoming an engineer and living a pretty normal life as far as I know. To his credit, he some years later arranged a ceremony at the School of Visual Arts to endow a scholarship in his brother’s name.

Anyway, we went on down to the Veterans Administration Hospital (where Wood could always get free or low cost treatment as a vet) and went to see him there. He looked terrible. Although he was still only in his mid fifties he looked ten years older and just beat to hell. We chatted about his health problems and prognosis. He mentioned he was probably going to have to go on dialysis. At one point he and I went into the smoking lounge to have a cigarette. I asked him what his plans were once he got out of the hospital, thinking that maybe we could find some way to help him out. He told me that the first thing he was going to do was to go and get a drink. What can you say to that? Here the guy is obviously dying on his feet and surely knowing it, but yet and still…. After some rather awkward moments of well wishing we left him there, and I had a strong feeling that it might be the last time we would see him alive.

A few months later we heard of his death in California. Although he did not leave a suicide note and the exact chain of events is unclear, I think that he had tried the dialysis once or twice, and then just decided that it wasn’t worth it to go on living like that, especially half blind and with partial paralysis. He had come to the end of the road. To this day I don’t know what happened to his remains, and there was no funeral that I know of. Since he died intestate and without heirs, there was then, and still is, some doubt about what should be done with his estate. I think that by then he may have sold off most of his original art for cheap money just to keep himself afloat, and perhaps some of those who were close to him in those final years appropriated some of it. Eventually, it fell into the hands of Bill Pearson to manage his posthumous affairs, which was fitting since Bill was probably his most loyal and long-suffering friend. Bill is now in his mid-seventies and has passed that mantle on to Dave Spurlock, who set up a Facebook page dedicated to Wood’s memory and work. I have to admit that it sometimes galls me to see his EC pages which he never had returned to him now selling on Ebay for forty thousand dollars while he died alone in a crappy little apartment far from anyone who ever really cared for him.

In the end, however, Woody will be remembered for the laughter and excitement he brought to so many with his work. That is his enduring monument. His MAD stuff was full of life, background gags and his own brand of sly humor, and his science fiction art took us into the cosmos with such depth and realism that you could lose yourself in his world for hours or days. A man who lived for his art and whose endless creativity and energy entertained and amazed millions of us for many many years. The world is more fun and a better place since Wood was in it, and that’s about the best legacy you can have.

Ralph Reese is today semi-retired and living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He is available for cover recreations and commissions and can be reached at ralphreeseart@gmail.com



J. David Spurlock generously adds to the discussion:

Hi Barry,

In response to your request for comment,

I love Ralph Reese’ essay on Wallace Wood.

In the midst of all the great bits of information and 1st-person recollections, there are only a small handful of issues in the piece which is overall, wonderful and, a great addition to Wood history. I hesitate to detract from it in any way, even to address the few minor situations that, most good editors familiar with Wood might catch. But since you asked, very briefly, some things that, for best understanding call for notes or clarification would include:

    1) A consistent chronology with occasional dates inserted. Obviously, it starts in 1965 as Wood was wrapping up his ever-so-historic one year Marvel run and preparing to launch his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents via Tower.

    2) Why & when Woody chose to use, or not use "Wally." Expanding upon Ralph’s comments; since WWII Wood had preferred to be verbally be called Woody and listed in print as Wallace. But, Wood also understood the uniqueness of “Wally Wood” which even one of his idols, Pogo creator Walt Kelly had noted in print. So, when Wood chose, he used “Wally” for various reasons, often marketing related. In fact, one of Wood’s famous slogans was, “There is only one Wally Wood and I am him.”

    3) Syd Shoes shared studio with Wood in Valley Stream NY, not Sid Check,

    4) Savage World by Williamson and company was for Buster Crabbe comics not EC.

    5) Kurtzman and Wood, as well as Feldstein and Wood, were two of the greatest collaborative teams in the history of comics, While Feldstein and Wood’s relationship had always been more professional than personal, Woody and Harvey had been very close in the ‘50s and the Kurtzmans were regulars at parties the Woods hosted. If one reviews the history of these two collaborative teams in-depth, it is quite understandable that relations became, as Ralph indicated, quite strained. But, not so much as to keep Woody from inviting Harvey to contribute to Witzend or to keep Harvey from contributing. Or enough to keep Feldstein and Wood or Kurtzman and Wood from appearing together at 1970s comic conventions.

Again, in the big picture, these are minor after-the-fact editorial notes on Ralph’s very important and welcomed essay which I only contribute here, in response to your request.

Best regards,

JDS



To keep up with the World of Wood, follow  the  Wally Wood Facebook Page

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just an absolutely superb personal essay with so much to enjoy for Woody's fans. Thanks, Ralph, for your wonderful effort to enhance the historical record on your dear friend. I wish you continued health and happiness.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Reed Crandall was six months older than Jack Kirby, making him 50 in 1967. Not exactly "quite old."

    ReplyDelete
  4. That photo you ran with Woody on the left and Harvey Kurtzman on the right fails to mention Bernie Krigstein in the middle.

    Regards,

    Chris A.

    ReplyDelete