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Mike Ploog
Interviewed by Michael Dean
excerpted from The Comics Journal #274
Study for a painting ©2006 Mike Ploog

From Warren to Marvel

MICHAEL DEAN: Did you go from P*S to Warren?

MIKE PLOOG: Yeah. There was a letterer. Ben Oda, he was fantastic. He used to come up to the office all the time and say, "Hey listen, you've got to do comics." So one day, I was still on P*S when I went over to [James] Warren, because who could afford to work for Warren without another job?

DEAN: [Laughs.] You were between two skinflints.

PLOOG: Oh God, they were the cheapest men that God ever put on Earth. And again, you had to like the guy, he had the nerve to actually do it. I went over there and did a couple of stories for Warren.

DEAN: Now, Warren, at some point, did revive The Spirit. Was Eisner at all a connection to Warren, or did that come later?

PLOOG: Not really. Jim knew I was working with Eisner, but Ben Oda was the guy that actually sent me over there, and had spoken with Jim, so that was more or less the connection.

DEAN: Was each of these jobs a step up at all?

PLOOG: I never felt that they were a step up. I only felt that they were another string to the bow.

DEAN: So pay-wise, P*S wasn't better than Hanna-Barbera, for example.

PLOOG: Well, actually, I think I was making a little more money at P*S than I was at Hanna-Barbera.

DEAN: Even after handing over Eisner's share?

PLOOG: Yeah.

DEAN: Warren, I guess, you were getting paid a page rate there.

PLOOG: Yes. And if I recall, it was $25 a page. Or maybe it was $12. [Laughter.]

DEAN: I think I've heard $23 --

PLOOG: It was a goofy number. I'll tell you a story, I think I told it before. I think I did about four stories for him. I did this Frankenstein -- It wasn't Frankenstein, but I called it a Frankenstein because the characters looked like Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. It was a story about a hand, if I remember, and I put an enormous amount of work into that turkey.

I brought it in to the office, and I held on to it, because usually they just had you drop it off on the desk, but I wanted to talk to Jim. I wanted more money. So I held onto it, and finally Jim took me into his office, and he sat behind his big desk there. And I said, "Jim, I worked my ass off on this story, and I want more money for this."

"Well, how much more do you want?" I had just cashed a check, a P*S Magazine check, and I had about $400 bucks in my pocket of $50 bills from the bank, so when I walked in there and asked him for more money, he said "How much more do you want?"

And for some goofy reason, I just said, "Twice as much. $50 a page."

He said, "$50 a page!?" I mean, he went into a frenzy. He had just gotten back from lunch with [Bill] DuBay, who was his editor at the time. He calls DuBay in, and he says, "I bet you, between the three of us, we don't have $50." [Dean laughs.] Well, he knew how much money DuBay had because he had just come back from lunch with him and he knew how much he had, so he was betting. He was calling my bluff and betting that I didn't have anything. But I'm sitting there holding the full house. My heart just leapt.

DuBuy throws onto the table about 35 cents, Jim does the same thing, and I reach in my pocket, and I pull out one $50, and then I pull out another $50. And Jim just roared with laughter. He's rolling around the floor, laughing. He thought it was the funniest damn thing that had ever happened to him. He gave me $50 a page for that thing, but I never worked for him again. [Laughter.]

DEAN: He figured he couldn't afford you, I guess.

PLOOG: He couldn't afford me. [Laughs.]

DEAN: Now your stuff for Warren, you were working from the full scripts?

PLOOG: Yeah, they'd send me a script and I'd go back to my hovel and crank out a comic for them.

DEAN: Did you meet the writers at all?

PLOOG: No, no.

DEAN: You did stuff from Nicola Cuti and I'm not sure who else at Warren. Were you doing any other comics work for anybody besides Warren during this time?

PLOOG: No, no. Comics actually were the furthest thing from my mind, to be honest with you. I mean, my thoughts were to go back to L.A. and get back into animation, because I knew I could work there.

DEAN: But Ben Oda was encouraging you to do comics. Was that because he felt that comics were in a good phase.

PLOOG: No. He just liked my work, and he just thought that I should be doing comic books. So I can blame him for it all.

DEAN: You did stuff for Warren for about a year, I guess?

PLOOG: Yeah, I only did about three or four stories for them.

DEAN: Then you went to Marvel.

PLOOG: Yeah, yeah. That again was a trial-and-error thing. Somebody told me I should go to Marvel, so I got up a Western strip, oddly enough, called Tin Star. Roy Thomas reminds me about it all the time because he'd like to do the story. Christ, what story? I barely remember.

DEAN: He has a good memory for those things.

PLOOG: Roy is a library. He's a memory bank, and usually, when you first run into him, he exposes the entire bank to you in about 45 minutes. I went over there and they said the work was too cartoony and it wasn't Marvel-style. So I kind of gave up on it, and went back home, and less than a week later they gave me a call. Wanted me to come back in again. That's when I went in and talked to them about doing Werewolf by Night.

DEAN: What made you go to Marvel specifically after Warren?

PLOOG: Don't know. Good question. Why didn't I go to DC?

DEAN: Was Oda doing stuff for Marvel at all?

PLOOG: I don't think he was. He may have been, but why I went to Marvel I have no idea.

DEAN: You told a story, but I don't remember at what point it took place, where you'd offended Carmine Infantino.

PLOOG: Oh, Jesus Christ. That was after I'd been at Marvel for quite some time. Ignorance is bliss, isn't it? I didn't know Carmine was an artist. I'm afraid he took it to heart.

DEAN: [Laughs.] He has quite an ego.

PLOOG: Yeah, he wears it well, too.

DEAN: Well, maybe you should tell that again real quick, because we're both chuckling over stuff that readers of this interview may not be aware of.

PLOOG: At a gathering at Friar Tuck's one evening -- we used to bring our artwork in, or try to bring our artwork in on the same day so we could all kind of get together. I can't remember who all was there. We were all sitting around the table and we were drawing on the tablecloth. Carmine was sitting next to me. I'd had a couple of beers, obviously, and Carmine is sitting there and he's drawing away on the table. I was very amazed, look at that. That son of a bitch. "You could do that for a living." And everybody looked up at me, and I thought, "What the hell did I say?"

He looked at me and he says, "I do do this for a living." I didn't even think anything about it.

I said, "I didn't know you drew." That was it; that was the end of the conversation, because you don't tell Carmine Infantino that you didn't know that he drew. [Laughter.]

DEAN: Yeah, that's hilarious.

PLOOG: Oh well. It was innocent enough, I assure you.

DEAN: But that wasn't why you didn't go to DC?

PLOOG: Oh, no.

DEAN: Because that didn't happen till later.

PLOOG: The opportunity never arose to go to DC, and Marvel always treated me well. They were good days at Marvel, they really were, the days that I was there. I was very lucky. As a matter of fact, I can probably look back on my life and say I had a great deal of luck. On the other side of the coin, though, if you keep doing something, something's bound to happen, you know? That's always been my theory.

DEAN: Your artwork was very wide-ranging. You were doing the military instructional stuff, and then the superhero animated stuff, and Wacky Races and then you were doing the horror stuff for Warren.

PLOOG: My theory was that I had to have a variety of things in order to make a living, because I never really felt that I was going to be good enough at one of them.

DEAN: You didn't feel a particular affinity for any particular genre or style?

PLOOG: Not really. Oddly enough, one of my great idols at the time was Wally Wood, because he had a style that I felt went from real to cartoon very smoothly, you know? I always felt that Wally Wood -- it wasn't a goal, but it was a good benchmark.

DEAN: Were you exposed to Wood's stuff at Warren?

PLOOG: Well, actually, Mad magazine. I did pick up Mad magazine as the years went by.

DEAN: When you were in the military?

PLOOG: Yeah. Wally Wood was always one of my favorites. He and Jack Davis, I loved their work, and I could emulate both of them, which was a great benchmark for me.

Marvel's Horror Line

DEAN: You were doing horror stuff at Warren and then you moved to Marvel, coincidentally, as they were about to launch their horror line. It wasn't that they were doing a horror line and so you said, "Well, I'll try Marvel." It was more coincidence, it sounds like.

PLOOG: Yeah, it was all coincidence.

DEAN: And, as I say, you pretty much single-handedly did their whole horror line. Dracula would be the only exception I guess.

PLOOG: I did do some Dracula stuff, but it was Gene [Colan], mostly, that was Mr. Dracula.

DEAN: Were you aware of the history, that the Comics Code was being loosened [to allow for depictions of werewolves and vampires]? Was there any talk of that?

PLOOG: No, I wasn't aware of any of that.

DEAN: Did Roy talk about that at all, as far as "The Code is being loosened; let's try to do all these things we haven't been allowed to do?"

PLOOG: Nope, I don't recall ever having a conversation about it.

DEAN: You were coming from the Warren magazines [not subject to the Code] where there were no such restrictions.

PLOOG: I thought this was normal.

DEAN: Did you have a sense that these comics were different from the other comics being put out by Marvel and DC?

PLOOG: The only sense that I had about it was DC had Bernie Wrightson's stuff, you know; then Marvel started up theirs. So I really didn't feel that it was any more different, other than the fact that I wasn't labored with the Marvel style, because that would have killed me. I couldn't draw like that.

DEAN: Although you were able to do Batman and Superman for Filmation.

PLOOG: Yeah. But I couldn't sit by myself, in my lonely room and sit there and try to draw like Johnny Romita and keep it going for an extended period of time. This gave me a freedom to draw the way I drew and get paid for it.

DEAN: That is a good stroke of luck then, that just as you come to Marvel was when they decide to launch a whole genre that was suitable for your style.

PLOOG: It was. It was really a stroke of luck.

DEAN: In another way, you worked Marvel-style, I guess, in the sense that you didn't get full scripts. Is that correct?

PLOOG: Which was great, because it allowed me a certain amount of story structural freedom, which I really appreciated. Because to lock me into a script... at that particular time, I really believed that if the writer said, "In panel one, I want the guy to enter on the left," and a big head on the left-hand corner saying such and such, I believed it, and so I would draw it. It wasn't until years later that I realized that no, you had liberties. You had storytelling structure that you could apply on your own. By Marvel giving me that freedom, it allowed me to structure it the way I felt it should be structured. Which was great.

DEAN: This would have been the first time, I guess, that you were really exercising those kinds of storytelling muscles.


DEAN: Even though you could definitely see the Eisner influence, in terms of the look of your characters and the atmosphere, your storytelling is different. Certainly, you don't see the kind of playing around with panels that he used to do with The Spirit. Now, maybe that was because at the time you were doing these things at Marvel; that wasn't the way they told stories. But your way of telling stories, looking at the Marvel comics of that period, seems more linear than Eisner would have done.

PLOOG: It was probably just the insecurity, you know? When I sat down and started doing comics, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I mean, I often would do the beginning, and then I would go back and do the end. And then work back and forth and try to structure it, where I got the right amount of art into the page count. I did that for the longest time, until finally I got down to a point where I knew what the story was and I could pick up a particular rhythm and see it through. At that point, I could play around with page layout. I'm afraid it was just total ignorance, my friend.

DEAN: Usually, when you talk about story structure, you talk about it in terms of "gags." Even when you were talking about Werewolf By Night or something, you would use that term "gags," in the sense that there's some kind of point the story would need to get to and work around.

PLOOG: Exactly. I always looked at it like a stage-play with act one, act two, act three. Each of these had a place you had to get to before you could move onto the next one. Each one of them had to pay off in one form or another. Not necessarily pay off sometimes, but leave a cliffhanger in order to move on. So that's what I refer to as a "gag." I'm not saying a funny gag, but the punch line for this particular act.

DEAN: That's interesting. Would that have come out of your work on P*S Magazine at all, the notion of building to a punch line and then carrying that over to more serious-type comics?

PLOOG: To be honest, I haven't a clue. It was never something I was conscious of; it was only something I knew had to happen in order for the story to be told. Actually, working with animated cartoons, particularly doing storyboards over at Filmation, kind of helped because they would have one gag for a Saturday morning cartoon. Sometimes you'd have to milk this gag for a half-hour, and you had the commercial breaks and all that kind of stuff built into this gag. So what you'd have to do is try to time it where you got to the end gag, but you didn't leave things just hanging at the commercial break. It's very possible it's there that I got in the back of my head that things had to work in a structure.

DEAN: And that had to give you a strong sense of pacing, I guess.

PLOOG: Yeah. It wasn't something anybody told me or I read anywhere, it was just something I felt needed to be done in order to finish the story. To this day, I'm an even bigger believer in story structure.

DEAN: I guess this was kind of revelatory for you to be thrown into this way of doing comics, that so much of the storytelling was on your shoulders.

PLOOG: It was. It was a good part of my learning curve, I'll tell you that for a fact.

[To read the rest of this interview, please see The Comics Journal #274.]

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