Being and Time: An Interview with Michael Netzer
By Thom Young
A few months back, Jason Brice asked me if I would interview Michael Netzer to get the details for a news item about the new website Mr. Netzer had been working on. The idea was to do a quick interview that would touch on his return to the comics industry-and then for me to simply type up a news report. However, after making my initial contact with Mr. Netzer, I suggested to Jason that I conduct a full-length interview-and he agreed (but I donít think he realized how long it was going to be-both in word count and before I could get it turned in). The result of my interview with Mr. Netzer was a back and forth conversation that covered a much wider variety of topics than what Jason initially assigned-including Mr. Netzerís hopes for the comic book industry and his relationship with Neal Adams from their initial working relationship to Mr. Netzerís lawsuit over ownership of Ms. Mystic to their recent reconciliation. Much of the interview, though, is a lengthy discussion (with tangents) on how comic books have the potential to influence social, political, economic, scientific, theological, and philosophical views throughout the world.
Thom Young: Iím not sure how many of our readers are familiar with your career. Iíve just become aware of your re-emergence through Jason Brice [SBCís Big Kahuna] and the work heís doing for your Web site (www.FlamingSword.biz) I have fond recollections, though, of your early comic work on Batman in the mid- to late-70s when you used the name ďMike NasserĒ and your style was very reminiscent of Neal Adamsís style. Could you comment on the evolution of your career and artistic style, including any specific aspects of your career that you would want to address as a way of introducing (or perhaps re-introducing) you to our readers?
Mike Netzer: Surely. Maybe Iíll first touch on why my comics career appears to have been so short lived, and whatís driven me back to comics today. Aside from being very sensitive to the natural tendency we all have to stagnate in our life and work-and wanting to see and do as much as possible in my lifetime before a proverbial curtain attempts to drop on it-I suppose Iíve always felt that we can, and perhaps should, use our presence in the world to help make it a little better for all of us, especially in the face of such a strong downward spiral as weíre living through today.Though I could settle for a simpler ambition and try to only take care of my family and immediate environment, Iíve found this to be relatively futile within a wider world community that has a profound effect on the people and goings-on closest to me. So, Iíve found myself driven, at certain times in my life, totakegrasp of the more global picture we live in and look for a way to help steer things into a more favorable direction. This has led me to leave comics for two extended periods, nearly a decade each, in the 1980s and then again in the 90s-with only short stints of comics work in-between. Several years ago, I felt it was time to put all of this experience together and return to my first love: comics.
Young: Howís your return to comics progressing? Have you been able to pick up where you left off?
Netzer: No, itís not the same industry that it was when I left. Itís not so easy to navigate a return to comics activity today as it was the last time I returned. So, Iíve been working from the outside, establishing a Web presence with ideas and projects that could inspire my fellow comics creators-and also open a door for a more active involvement for me within it. I have a lot of experience in digital productions, web design and technologies, advertising and visual media, 3D animation, film productions, and publishing. For instance, after leaving American comics, I produced and published Israelís first full color comic book, Uri-On.
Young: It seems odd that the industry isnít just accepting you back eagerly. In the initial phase of your comics career, you were a very high profile artist who also helped draw attention to what was then considered the alternative or ďground levelĒ publications.
Netzer: I donít know if I was a ďhigh profile artist,Ē but I was fortunate to have drawn a lot of the high profile characters at both DC and Marvel: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, Legion of Super Heroes, Supergirl, Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, Captain Marvel, Black Canary, Challengers of the Unknown, Kobra, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Avengers, and the Hulk-to name a few. And, as you mentioned, I also worked on books for less mainstream publishers of past eras: Charlton, Western, Star-Reach, Hot Stuff [the ďground levelĒ comic book publisher of the 70s, not the liíl devil from Harvey Comics], Continuity, and Teckno Comics along with others. You mentioned earlier how much my art in the 70s was reminiscent of Neal Adamsís work. In many ways, it actually still is. Iíve been labeled an Adams clone and even ďmaster clonerĒ for being able to emulate other artistís styles. I donít, however, know of an artist whose work isnít reminiscent of, or built upon the work of others who preceded them. It may be a matter of degree, but we can see it in most everyone. It took Bill Sienkiewicz, for example, a few years to develop an illustrative style that moved away from the heavy Adams influence of his Moon Knight work.
Young: Yes, I agree. Sienkiewiczís early work on Moon Knight-especially in the black and white back-up stories in the magazine formatted The Hulk comic in the 70s was almost identical to anything Adams could have produced. But both you and Sienkiewicz have moved on to your own styles. When I look at your work now, I can still see an Adams influence, but no longer an imitation. Similarly, I know Sienkiewicz developed his style by incorporating the styles of the political cartoonists Ralph Steadman and Ronald Stearns into his approach to comics.
Netzer: And even a few illustration techniques from the likes of Bob Peak-which had also been explored, incidentally, by Howard Chaykin in his color work. Bill was hailed with awards and accolades for his work in the 80s for developing a more sophisticated art style within the comics-and rightly so. Yet the underlying structure of his art remains strongly Adams-influenced. What changed was his finishing technique-which, as you say came from Steadman and Stearns, among others-and which was enough to present a more personal approach. In the same way, Frank Miller drew heavily from South American comics, Jack Kirbyís power, and Jim Sterankoís noir approach-all of which still show in Frankís work today.
A collective creative influence will always be there for all of us-and thatís fine. I suppose itís important to keep pushing the envelope and bring something new to oneís art. A good look at my own work shows that Iíve made some serious efforts in this direction over the span of my career. However, at first glance, the relatively small amount of comics work that Iíve produced (and the long period of time it spans) might make it difficult to perceive the progression. Iíve extended myself past the study of Nealís draftsmanship and applied what Iíd learned from other artists in very different ways, as far back as 1977-78, when I produced two visual stories-one in Star*Reach and the other in Hot Stuff, that put together my artistic experience in a very personal way and had a very different look than my traditional comics work. I also have several unpublished works that sport a very unique storytelling approach which is perhaps a little more digestible today than they were back when I produced them. Iím not comfortable with having too many consecutive works with the same look and feel. Since 1995, Iíve used the computer in place of conventional drawing tools, and Iím exploring a range of ways to put forth an image and tell a story. Creatively, itís a vibrant time for me.
Young: Going back to the work you did in the 70s during your first stint in the industry, you were working with Adams at Continuity Associates and you were also involved with the Comic Creators Guild that Adams and a few others were trying to get started back then-mainly on the issue of the work-for-hire contract that prevailed in the industry at the time. Did those guild-forming (or unionizing) efforts have anything to do with you leaving comics at that time? If I remember correctly, a number of creators who were involved with the guild had trouble getting work at DC and Marvel-which fed into the alternative comics activities of Mike Friedrichís Star*Reach Productions and Hot Stuff.
Netzer: Yes, I was involved in the Comics Guild effort with Neal at the time, and we tried to positively influence the plight of comic creators-which undoubtedly weighed heavily on the course of my life and career afterwards. The problem was that while Neal was pointing to the blatant inequities that creators work under, we really didnít have enough support to form the guild and attempt to change the situation. I donít know if any creators were actually ostracized by DC and Marvel-although that was the feeling they had. There had been, and still is to some degree, an intimidation factor in the publisher-creator relationship in the comics industry. But itís more of a psychological factor, and not necessarily an operative policy. I know the creators have legitimate concerns, but I donít believe that attempting to form a guild should be detrimental to the creatorsí job security. I donít believe we need to form the guild with a contentious attitude towards the publishers. We can present it as an endeavor that will actually benefit the publishers-and I truly believe this to be the case. These fears and concernsare among the main culprits that held us back till now. I believe we can allow ourselves to begin to put them behind us so we can look ahead to the kind of comics industry we want for the creators, publishers, distributors, retailers, and fans alike. I believe the creators have the ability to bring about far-reaching changes that others in the industry canít. To this end, Iíve established Flaming Sword. Not as any one manís enterprise-though it appears to begin that way.
Young: Which gets us to what youíre currently working on: Flaming Sword. I know Jason has been working with you on the Flaming Sword Web site. What is Flaming Sword and what are your goals for it?
Netzer: My hope for Flaming Sword Productions is that other comics creators willstep forward, participate, and eventually take over the effort to help establish an economic and creative base for The Comic Book Creatorsí Guild. The creative community, for the most part, has been greatly compromised since the inception of the industry, and I believe we need such a collective entity in order to balance the disenfranchisement many of us suffer due to the conditions in comics publishing. Flaming Sword will set the tone for a new model in creator-publisher relationships and establish a norm that justly compensates the creators for their contribution to the medium. The projects now in the works at Flaming Sword have come about spontaneously through a renewed involvement in the thriving Internet comics community. These are strictly initial products, however, and donít necessarily reflect the type of projects a wider creatorsí community would put together.
Young: One of those projects is the ďA to Z Superhero Poster.Ē Could you talk about what it is, what prompted you to do it, and how you plan to use it?
Netzer: Well, the A-Z Superhero Poster is a project that began as a private commission for Clifford Meth, who chose the characters it features. When Clifford realized that I donít work on paper anymore, and that the commission would be a digital production from sketch to finish, we decided to supplement its production witha set of prints that would launch Flaming Swordís project base. These prints are perhaps the digitally produced equivalent of original art.
This poster perhaps embodies the essence of what Flaming Sword intends to achieve in the comics industry. It follows the model of many sketchbooks or art re-creations by popular creators in that it depicts copyrighted characters from both DC and Marvel. Itís become an accepted norm in the comics industry that itís okay for creators to use these characters as long as the work remains low key and doesnít go through the major distribution channels. Thatís how, for example, a renowned comics artist can sell a re-creation of one of his DC covers for more than $40,000-or how so many comics artists can produce and sell an endless amount of commissioned work depicting other publishersí copyrighted characters.Many comics creators have given their all in order to excel in their profession-but now find themselves disenfranchised from being able to make a living in the one career theyíve cultivated. So they turn to more ďundergroundĒ avenues to supplement their income. Flaming Sword is attempting to turn this revenue avenue into a legitimate one-protected by the ďfair useĒ stipulations of the international copyright laws-in order to allow creators to legitimately depict a publisherís copyrighted work in projects that donít infringe on the comic book sales or the merchandising of the copyright holder. It could be argued, for example, that the appeal of the A-Z Superheroes is primarily in the artistís work rather than in the characters it depicts.
Young: Hmmm. Regarding the ďfair useĒ policy, there was an academic book on Batman published in 2000-Batman Unmasked by Dr. Will Brooker-that ran into some problems when DC denied the publisher, Continuum Books, permission to use any trademarked material in the book-including the use of several panels that were under discussion. Apparently, DC refused permission because the book addressed the homosexual subtext of the Batman and Robin dynamic that had first been broached by Dr. Fredric Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. In the academic community, it was largely regarded that Brooker had a legitimate right to use art panels under the ďfair useĒ provision-as all academic critiques of literature have always done. However, Continuum Books shied away from going to press with any trademarked art without DCís permission since they didnít want to risk the expenses that a court battle would entail. Anyway, thatís a long way for me to go to ask whether you are at all concerned in this area of ďfair useĒ when it comes to dealing with a large corporation and their army of lawyers.
Netzer: You bring up a good example of the problems I see throughout the media and journalism industries. For instance, if comic book reviewers write especially negative critiques of certain titles, they could conceivably find themselves in a similar situation for using an image to illustrate the review. I would actually prefer to publish the poster with the agreement and co-operation of both DC and Marvel-but that may be a little difficult at this time since both companies appear to have declared a policy of not allowing their characters to appear with those of the other. Instead of producing a different poster, however, Iím interested in exploring why it is weíve come to this peculiar state. Both companies have reaped great profits from joint ventures theyíve produced in the past, beginning with the Superman-Spiderman crossover in the late 70s. A fiercely competitive attitude has, however, settled into the corporate world since. A more separatist spirit now moves the publishers-who appear to be more concerned with devouring their competition than they are with their own fiscal prosperity. The result is a continued dismal showing of comic book sales for the second decade in a row-nowhere near the average six digit figures of two decades ago.
Young: Yeah, I remember when I was a kid in the 70s I would read the ďStatement of OwnershipĒ box that had to be included once a year for the Post Office. It would indicate that such books as Batman or Detective Comics had circulation rates as high as 100,000 to 200,000-and, of course, that was down from the circulation of over a million readers for a title during World War II. Sales go down when you arenít selling books in bulk to the military or stocking them in convenience stores and supermarkets.
Netzer: Absolutely. All this has come about because comics have disappeared from the public eye into the specialty bookstores that the common consumer doesnít frequent.In the case of the scholarly Batman book you mentioned earlier, there was never an exploration of whether the publisher was legally entitled to use the images of Batman in the book. They most likely would have had a legal right under the fair use provision. The issue was put to rest, apparently, due to DCís intimidations and Continuum Books backing off. The question we should be asking is whether we wish to allow ourselves to be governed by a sense of truth and justice (as the comics have tried to instill in American culture), or by the intimidation of a publisher threatening to use an army of corporate lawyers in order to distort the law through the blatant abuse of their economic strength.I would prefer not to engage DC and Marvel with a legal entanglement over Flaming Swordís right to publish and sell the poster. On the other hand, I donít intend to allow intimidations to infringe on our intrinsic right to publish it under the fair use provision of the international copyright law. The precedents in the low profile publishing arena and commissioned artwork sales only strengthen our position and provide strong supporting cases for a copyright issue of this type. Iíd hope that we can begin to see a change in how the subject of fair use is perceived in the comics community, and to give back the right that the creators have in how they choose to present the work that theyíre primarily known for-namely, as writers and artists of the iconic characters, initially created by comics creators, not by publishers.
Young: I hope youíre successful. Coming from an academic background, I was upset that DC apparently intimidated Continuum Books into not using any art simply because DCís management objected to one very small discussion of the homoerotic undertones of the Batman stories of the 1950s. Of course, DC and Marvel shouldnít find anything objectionable in your depiction of their characters-but I imagine itís also a good thing that you arenít putting all your efforts into just one project.
Netzer: Thatís right, the next project after the poster is the Heroes & Villains and Other Celebrities Sketchbook,which began as