Right from the start, we all hated Jerry Bingham. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but we looked at him like a room full of supermodels looks at a younger, prettier supermodel when she walks in the room. The only problem is that anyone who knows Jerry also knows he’s impossible to hate. He’s very friendly and giving with his time and advice, and just looking at his portfolio is inspiring. So of course, all of us younger artists at Stan Lee Media took full advantage of Jerry’s time and he never seemed to mind. We’d always try to stop by his desk to see how his newest painting was progressing or to bug him about stories from his comic book career.
Many people only know of Jerry through his comic book work, and I was no exception. I had every panel of his graphic novel Batman: Son of The Demon practically memorized. He drew the coolest Batman since Neal Adams and the inside cover shot of Batman half in and half out of the shadows with his hand on his utility belt is an iconic image still burned into my mind even to this day. I think I even had a t-shirt of it!
But what most people don’t know is that Jerry is one of the most highly respected and eagerly sought after storyboard artists and conceptual designers. His work for film, television, animation and theme parks is impressive to say the least. Jerry is, at his core a consummate storyteller, and that’s the one thread that connects his long and seemingly unrelated careers. His storyboards convey subtle gestures and effortless staging. Witness his fine art paintings like Barely Dry and Unlimbered and it’s impossible not to get pulled back in time to that era, to find yourself coming up with a backstory for the characters captured in his expert brushstrokes.
That’s what I find most inspiring about Jerry, that he never stopped growing or challenging himself as an artist. He could have stuck it out in comics and called it a day. He could have picked any one of the many media in which he’s worked and made a long and successful career of it. But to see the evolution of Jerry as an artist throughout his career, is to see someone who never got complacent, never allowed himself to grow bored with his work and stagnate as a creative force. I think it’s obvious that Jerry may have long last reached his artistic peak as an artist in his fine art painting. It seems to be the one thing he is happiest doing. But knowing Jerry, this is might just be another plateau, a rest stop on his journey. He might be out climbing another mountain tomorrow.
And if you still need a reason to hate him after all that, hate him for making it all look so damn easy!
DANIEL BEST: So, Jerry, how did you start in comics?
JERRY BINGHAM: Like so many, as a kid, I grew up copying pictures out of comic books. As a young boy, I was the kid usually picked last for any ball game. It wouldn’t be fiction to say that, yes, I actually caught a football and ran sixty yards the wrong way to score a goal for the opposing team. So...
...I sort of grew up in my bedroom, and lived vicariously in comic books. My first influences (in the mid-1960s) were, of course, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and it branched from there like the Colorado River. One of the many reasons, I think, Kirby became so hugely popular was not only the power in his drawings, but that he made it look so effortless. I would lay on my bedroom floor for hours trying to copy those panels, becoming incredibly frustrated at not understanding why I could not. I guess it was my “never surrender” attitude that kept me trying, and eventually teaching myself through imitation. I then discovered John Buscema and eventually Neal Adams. John Buscema was by far my biggest influence. God, I loved that guy. It got to where each month he was all I looked for on the comic racks. It was several years after struggling with Kirby, and here I was again struggling to imitate for a whole new set of artistic and aesthetic reasons. The power in his drawings had the strength of the Kirby stuff but they resembled reality a little bit more. I’m certainly not saying he was better than Kirby, by any means, but he brought a boxcar full of new challenges. He brought grace to that power, strength plus fluidity, and that’s not just another wrung in the ladder, it’s a couple ladders later.
DB: Did you ever have any formal art training?
JB: When I was ten or eleven, my mother bought me the “John Gnagy Learn to Draw Set.” <laughter> That was instructional. Then, after high school, I worked the summer on a Budweiser truck to pay for a year at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. It was a really great school that I was just too immature for. All that money—all those beer cases lugged around in the heat of summer, delivering sometimes to dangerous Chicago neighborhood bars and liquor stores—one driver kept a loaded shotgun under the seat of the truck—and there I was, typical 18 year old bone-head, cutting out of afternoon life drawing classes with a couple friends, and we would walk across the park to the Field Museum of Natural History with our sketchbooks and draw the animal exhibits behind glass. I did get some of the art fundamentals from those first year classes though. It was a good learning year.
DB: How did you break into comics?
JB: After that year at the Academy, I put four years in the military, the Air Force. Recognizing my talent for art, they made me a policeman. I was literally crawling through the mud with an M-16 cradled on my forearms when the drill instructor called out for us to take a breather and told us President Nixon had just announced he was sending no more troops to Vietnam. After that, as difficult as duties sometimes became, I at least had time off after my shift, and comfortable (relatively) living quarters. I hammered my own drawing board together out of scrap plywood. And during those four years I spent nearly all my off time writing or drawing comic books...with the single focus of getting a job at Marvel when I finished my four. By the time I got out of the service I had written my first novel and drawn a ba-zillion page comic book that, of course, nobody at any of the companies wanted to look at it.
I’ll open up my gut and tell this little story for the sake of all those struggling young artists who worry they’ll never make it: I was staying in New Jersey with my new, patient, in-laws, and traveling back and forth to NYC—sorry, Barbara. I remember being so incredibly frustrated—I know how silly this might sound to some, and all these years later it does to me as well—but I wouldn’t call anyone for an appointment (naturally editors love when you do that). I had this huge portfolio, and after rejections at Marvel and DC, I actually tore a page out of the Manhattan Yellow Pages and walked and took subways and went to every publishing house and illustration agency I could locate. It was the middle of Manhattan summer, my feet were blistered, my clothes stuck to my back, and back then, many parts of that city didn’t smell all that fresh. Few secretaries would even call the back office for an art director. I got home and I could feel my art career ending without a beginning. I had spent most of my life preparing for this grand moment, and I would do anything rather than go back into the military, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling, yes, I broke down in tears. Fortunately, my lovely wife seemed to understand, and never mocked me later in life (at least not to my face) <laughter> But I woke up the next day, never-say-die kicked me in the pants, and I started drawing again, and a week later I made an appointment and went back with new samples. Marvel’s art director at the time, Marie Severin, was very kind. A wonderful lady. She sat with me in the lobby and went over my samples, and told me some of what I was doing wrong, and gave me photocopies of Ross Andru’s latest pencils on Spiderman, and I went home and continued working. And going back. After about three months, she took pity (or she decided it was time to hand me off to another undeserving mentor), and she told me about an inker who’d been in the business for a long time, and that he occasionally took on assistants. Dan Adkins. Dan lived in New Jersey, so I went over and visited, and he let me stay on his couch for a couple of weeks and he set up a second drawing board. I sat at the board and he told me what I was doing wrong and helped me work up a whole new bunch of samples. At the end of the two weeks he took me into New York and introduced me to Archie Goodwin, who was editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time. Archie, possibly the best and nicest boss ever in comics, gave me my first job.
DB: Dan’s somewhat of a recluse now.
JB: Yes, Dan’s always been a bit eccentric, but he’s very, very kind-hearted. He helped a lot of guys get into the business. He helped guys like Paul Gulacy, Val Mayrick and Craig Russell. I think he said that at one time Jeff Jones had even spent some time on his couch. Maybe he felt he was returning the favor because Wally Wood did the same for him back in the EC days. He used to trot out the old war comics and point out all the panels he inked for Wally and never got credit for. My wife and I eventually took an apartment downstairs from Dan and his family for a couple years. I haven’t talked to Dan in a long time, but I owe him a lot. I owe him my first real break.
DB: What was Marvel like when you first got there?
JB: Well of course it was a thrill, but also I was a young guy and I couldn’t draw very well at the time and I was very intimidated. I think that first job I did for Archie—a Ka-zar story—wound up in a drawer and it came out something like five years later as a fill-in story when the book’s regular artist missed a deadline. (Another common practice at the time.) They’d made up a story around it and made it a joke book. It was very embarrassing when it finally came out because I had been working in comics fairly regularly by then and I had, hopefully, improved a little bit over those years. I wanted to call up everyone who bought the comic (there had to have been six or seven of them) and tell them how old that job was. Sigh! When that book came out I was quite mortified by the whole thing.
DB: You eventually went over to DC.
JB: After that initial job I didn’t get much work from Marvel for the first year, and Dan took me over to DC and introduced me to the folks over there. I got some work where they usually put their beginners—the new, so-called, not ready for prime-time, “talent”—on House Of Mystery, House Of Secrets, Our Army At War. They could give a little two or five page job because they were anthology comic books, short stories and they didn’t have to take a new guy in and put him on a full-length comic book right away. That was their breeding ground—or was it their killing fields—of the ‘70’s.
DB: What were some of the differences between Marvel and DC at the time?
JB: I recall, once I got past the lobby, the atmosphere at Marvel seemed more open, at the time. A lot of activity, a few smiling faces. Younger attitude. Where in contrast, the first time I walked the halls of DC, every office door was closed. Most of the folks I talked to appeared friendly enough, but it gave the impression of being stodgier. That’s the only way I can describe it. As far as the work, the differences were major. For an artist. DC writers gave the artists a finished work. Dialogue complete. They even gave a panel-by-panel breakdown of each page. On one hand, it was great for the lazy, or too busy, artist who didn’t care to think too much, but for one who wanted to be involved in the creative storytelling process, it was limiting. Marvel, on the other hand, handed the artist a basic story line. Major actions and story beats, sometimes without dialogue, more akin to a movie treatment rather than a full script. The whole story was there, but the artist got to decide how the story was to be broken down visually. He was more engaged with the whole process. More of a director. I could understand the arguments/benefits for each way of working, but while there are many writers who are good at understanding visuals, Marv Wolfman actually went to art school, I found there were too many who did not.
One book at DC I remember being so frustrated, the writer was giving me something like nine panels on a page, chock full of dialogue, on one page introducing three brand new villains. The editor got upset with me for not allowing enough room for the captions. My reaction (as diplomatically as I could at the time) was, WHAT! No, really it was more like, “And how do we expect the kiddies to get all excited about three new villains seen through a magnifying glass? It’s a visual medium and I’m working with Melville here!” <laughter> For the most part, those experiences were few and those frustrations minor. You learn to adapt pretty quickly on a battlefield. The differences only get a bit weird when you’re bouncing back and forth from one company to the other, sometimes in the same month as I did for a number of years. Harder to stay comfortable with a particular method.
DB: Who were some of the people you met back in those days?
JB: I didn’t live in the city so I didn’t get to meet a lot of people in the business, aside from the editors. I met Joe Orlando, the big-shot of DC back then. It was a brief meeting. Dan (Adkins) had let me help him with a deadline on one of his jobs—inking backgrounds on a Giant-sized Superman/Wonder Woman, penciled by the great, Jose Luis-Garcia Lopez—now that’s a talent! Well, I went in with Dan when he handed in the job. Joe Orlando sifted through the pages and said, “I see you let him help. Don’t do it again!” (I had never held a quill pen until that job.)
Another new pro from back then (though I didn’t physically meet him ‘til much later, was Mike Barr. I did a little two page story with him for one of the anthologies, and years later when I was looking for work, I read in one of the comic fanzines that he had signed a contract to write the first Batman graphic novel. As soon as I read that I called him up and said, “Do you have an artist?” he said, “No”, so I said, “Well how about it?” and he said, “Sure”, and got me the gig doing “Son Of The Demon.” That was towards the end of my comic book career actually, but it helped me quite a bit and was a good gig for me.
DB: Probably because it was one of the last comic jobs you did, it’s the one book that sticks out in everyone’s mind. It’s an impressive piece of work.
JB: Thanks. I had come a long way artistically from when I first started in comics to when I did Son Of The Demon. Fortunately, it was well received and fans still bring it up when I bump into them. I get e-mails all the time asking about that book, and heck, it’s nearly twenty years later.
DB: Breaking away from comics for a while, you’ve done a lot of diverse projects in the world of art, and also in motion pictures. How did that all come about?
JB: Even when I was entrenched in the world of comic books I was always interested in doing other things. Call it a low threshold of boredom, or perhaps it came from my own frustrations at not being as good as I wanted to be. So I went off and painted paperback covers for a short while, and juggled that with my comic work. I was always trying to find other avenues for my art. I had also always wanted to work in motion pictures, so it just happened that one year I went to the San Diego Comic Book Convention, and when my wife and I left the Allentown airport (I was living in N.E. Pennsylvania) it was raining and miserable, then we stepped off the plane in San Diego with blue skies and palm trees waving at me, and still standing on the runway, I said, “We’re putting the house up for sale.” <laughter> She thought I was kidding. So that was it. As soon as we got back home, I put the house up for sale and sold it in about six months and moved to California and started working on trying to get film work. Fortunately, working in comic books you can live anywhere and mail the work in, so I was still working. I did Son Of The Demon in California at the same time as trying to get work in Hollywood, which I eventually did.
I had taken a little job one day a week going into the offices of the new Malibu Comics & Entertainment. I wasn’t spending enough time there to be art director, so they called me “art consultant.” I helped design logos, some new characters, helped a few artists meet their deadlines. But my main job was teaching color to the new computer colorists they had just employed—most fresh out of art school. My background of decades of painting helped. My first major job in Hollywood came through those offices. Someone there had contacts and when a director called looking for a decent illustrator, I flew at it. It started with a single prop design, then it became many props and eventually make-up designs for Wes Craven. I worked on his last Freddy Krueger movie, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and he then asked me to help him out with make-up and prop designs for “Vampire In Brooklyn,” the Eddie Murphy vampire movie. Some of my favorite work that I never got credit for (union rules). A lot of Hollywood people get credit for other people’s work. Still, Wes gave me a “Special thanks to...” credit at the end of the scroll, and he was a really great guy to work for. Laid back. Very friendly. Please call me, Wes! <laughter>
DB: You’ve also worked for Digital Domain, Disney and Todd McFarlane.
JB: The McFarlane thing was a happy fluke. My good friend Steve Mitchell (comic book inker) was working on storyboards for HBO’s animated Spawn. Well, just into their last season, many of their regular artists jumped ship and Steve dropped my name and they hired me to draw backgrounds for their last season. Another fortunate side-bar, that season won an Emmy Award, which won me the Emmy for Best animation background designer. Cool, huh? But if there’s an art job (and it pays), I’ll do it. Mitchell, a baseball fan, calls me a great utility infielder. I may not be the #1 at any particular job, but I can usually pick up the ball from any position and help win the game with it.
It’s all a matter of self-defense. I go where I can. I was trying to get more work in Hollywood but I couldn’t get into the illustrator’s union (which I refer to as Bingham’s Bane) (insert your favorite vulgar language here), so when I heard about another job, I leapt at it. Another friend, Len Wein, had just gotten a job and told me Walt Disney Imagineering needed someone who had comic book experience because they had this new comic book ride that they were working on. I went in there, showed them my stuff and I immediately started working on the ride for them. I negotiated for an eight week assignment. They told me I could work in the comfort of my home, or they’d set me up in the office...here’s another lesson for the kiddies—take the office job every time. I don’t care how far you have to drive—some days it took me two hours, one way, on the LA freeways. Not only did I get a free pass to their art supply warehouse, but I kept my ear open (eavesdropped) and I learned about the other projects that were going on. It was a brand new facility that they were working on called Disney Quest, which is a self-contained, interactive games facility outside of Disney World. Overhearing the other projects that they were having trouble with, I went home over a weekend and did a couple of very quick concept paintings, brought them in and showed them, and they made me Art Director of Attractions for the whole project. I just sort of took over. And I stretched those eight weeks into more than three years. At one point, I counted, I was doing concept work on twenty-eight different attractions at one time, as well as helping to direct the few other artists we had on the project. <laughter> Probably the most demanding yet rewarding job that I’ve had, and I was very well paid for it. Working on 28 rides at one time and each ride is themed differently so I was designing rides and props, everything from dinosaurs to cartoon ducks and space-ships and rollercoasters and bumper cars—you name it, I was drawing and painting it. Sometimes two paintings on my board at the same time. Sometimes, in the early (experimental) weeks and months of the project, trying to sell concepts to Eisner and Ovitz, assembling presentation after presentation, working twelve-to-fourteen hours a day without a day off for a solid month. No exaggeration.
DB: That must have been extremely demanding.
JB: It was a tough time, for a lot of reasons. The worst being, I had no inkling of office politics. New fish at the poker table. I had worked alone for twenty years, and I went in there all gung-ho, thinking, I’m going to help make this the best damned project Disney ever saw. That was until a few of the lower-echelon producers found out how much money I was making. That’s when the sniping really gets nasty. I’d walk to my cubicle every morning and I could hear hissing behind the walls and claws extending and retracting. The rasp of blades on whetstones. And it’s why, when I had to incorporate to keep my self-employed status at Disney, I called my company Drawing Fire—double-entendre intended.
Well, after about a year and a half, and my time as art director was coming to an end, more and more work was being put into the hands of the computer artists and outside vendors, and they began loaning me to other projects—I helped design the ESPN Zone and eventually Animal Kingdom, The California Adventure, and a Disney Store (to name several)—the project boss leaned into my 5x8’ cubicle and said they needed somebody to help design one of the floors in the DQ facility. They had five differently themed floors to Disney Quest and they had four world-famous designers, and one floor without. Naturally, I raised my hand. He then asked me if I had any experience working from blueprints. I said, “Oh, sure I do”, but of course I’d never worked from blueprints; I knew nothing… <laughter> but they gave me the job. That night on the way home, I bought an architect’s rule, and the following day went around the building talking to the project architects and sat down and they taught me how to read and work from blueprints. I went back to my corner for another year, did the work, and everyone was thrilled—with the work at least. <laughter> Years ago I studied a little acting and my acting coach had said, “Get the job first. Tell them you can do anything. If they ask if you can you ride a horse, you say of course I can ride a horse, and then go off and learn how to ride a horse.” I was reminded of my father. Like many kids, I had a rocky relationship with dad growing up, but I always respected him as the hardest working man I’ve ever known. He was never out of work for more than two days. He got laid off from the steel mills, and the next day he walked onto a construction site, found the foreman and said, “How would you like to hire the best iron-worker in the city of Chicago?” He walked the girders of the Hancock building and the Sears Tower.
DB: And you worked for Stan Lee Media. Anything you’d care to share about that experience?
JB: Shit, where haven’t I worked? Naturally, you can’t grow up in love with Jack Kirby’s work without a similar affection for Stan Lee. He was Marvel Comics, in those years. I really don’t have the inside track on the relationship between Stan and Jack, I’m sure you’ve gotten plenty of that from other interviews, but I do know that Jack wouldn’t have been as great without Stan and I don’t think Stan or Marvel would have been as much without Jack. Together, they changed the comic book universe, so naturally when the opportunity presented itself to work for Stan Lee Media, I pursued it.
At first, I didn’t know what I had to offer there. They were mostly creating small cartoons for the internet, and my only actual animation experience was with background design. I sketch when I draw, even my finishes have a loose quality to them, so I’m really not the one to go to when you need a steady, precise ink and paint line. But SLM was looking to expand into other areas, including LBE (location based entertainment—a fancy name for anything resembling carnivals or theme parks). Bingo. Not only did I have a comic book background, I had major theme park experience. Plus the big muckies at SLM, always needing to impress the investors who kept the company alive, had acquired several other ex-Disney employees, and it played well, when they came out with the headline in trade magazines like The Hollywood Reporter, “9 Disney Vets Move To Stan Lee.”
So they moved me into their top-secret, basement “Skunkworks” department. Special Projects, Eyes Only, Licensed to Kibitz. They put me to work painting portraits of their new Superheroes, drawing the Backstreet Boys, Tyra Banks (bless her heart), Judy Tenuda...whew! I set an easel in the corner and became part of the “investor’s tour.” But I also helped design dozens of new characters, environments, and even helped with a couple LBE projects, and designs for the Hollywood Christmas Parade, which they had acquired the rights to produce that year. I even painted a large canvas of—God help me—Al Gore as the Silver Surfer “Surfing the Internet” on a wave of ones and zeros, to be presented when the V.P. came a-callin’ for a fund-raiser. The big Hillary campaign financing debacle is now a part of history; apparently she gave the money back...I wonder what happened to the painting? I met some very nice people working there. Movie stars came through regularly. George Hamilton worked in the office right next door, a very nice man. Even Michael Jackson stopped by my easel and told me how great I was and shook my hand. The others, I won’t mention—for fear of a subpoena (joking here!).
DB: Back to the comics, you stopped drawing them. Was that a conscious decision on your half, or did the work just stopped coming in?
JB: I don’t want to put down anyone in comic books <laughter> and it’s ancient history for me, but I had issues with some of the folks who ran comic books at the time. There were a few editors I really respected—I mentioned Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas is another champion, but they weren’t really running things during my time there. At least not so I came into contact with them often. And I don’t want to say that other editors were wrong-minded, but they’ve always tended to look for a popular “house style,” and if you’re not conforming to the house style then a lot of times you’re just pushed out of the loop.
I remember when I first started out Marie Severin and Dan Adkins were both telling me, “Well you have to draw more like Ross Andru and John Buscema” and so I was gearing my artwork towards that to get into the comics biz. After I had been in comics for fifteen or so years, the editors were telling me that I had to start drawing more like the Image comic books. I really had no urge to draw like anyone else at that point. I thought I had established my own style and that I had learned to draw fairly well by then, and for them to tell me that they wanted me to draw like someone else; well it just rubbed me the wrong way. DC was a little more flexible than Marvel, but they too began morphing the books into (the editor’s vision) of what’s popular. Eventually the work just slowed down. Fortunately by then, as Image was becoming the huge gorilla on the block, I had already started getting a few jobs in Hollywood and was able to work myself away from it.
I know a lot of comic book creators from my era who harbor bad feelings toward the comics industry because, well you grow up loving what you’re doing. We’re all fans of comic books first and that’s how most of us learned our craft, by studying what we loved. By lying on the bedroom floor copying Jack Kirby and John Buscema. I wanted to draw comic books more than anything else in the world, it was my only childhood ambition, and when I finally got to draw them it was literally a dream come true. Sooner or later, the alarm bell rings and the fight’s over. And it happens just about that fast. So when you’re eventually edged out of that business, and you can’t get work anymore, after you’ve put in the years and feel you’ve contributed to the industry, you’ve sold books over the years for these people and then you wind up not being able to get work from them. It leaves some hard feelings.
I don’t want to speak for other people though; there are a lot of guys my age who have nothing but wonderful experiences working in comic books. Like I said, I was fortunate, I had some place else to go. I’ve made some decent money on occasion, and I’ve had some great experiences outside of comic books (Christ, I was storyboarding a feature film last year in Kazakhstan of all places—“Nomad”—working with the great director Ivan Passer and getting spit at by camels...) ...but I really feel sorry for some of these guys, especially those who got pushed out of comics later on in life and had nowhere else to take their talent. Who wants to try out a guy who’s already fifty years old? It’s a too-common story. It’s sad.
DB: Other than being told to draw in a different style, how did you see the impact of Image comics at that stage?
JB: It can’t be overstated. And if artistic success were measured in dollars alone, it certainly exploded the industry...for a time. But I think everyone involved (except for the creators making millions for themselves in a short span of time—and my hat’s off to them for it) was extremely short-sighted. I think that the subsequent craze to copy the Image style, thinking the fad would last forever, eventually hurt comics. Or at least it did in my eyes as an artist. At the time the editors were trying to feed a particular audience and the audience was thrilled with the great new style—and again, I’m not taking anything away from the artists—I thought a couple of them exceptional talents—but the editors at DC and Marvel were saying “Gosh, all we need to do is produce work that looks similar to this, then this is what the kids are gonna buy. Forever. Ad-nauseum.” They so missed the big picture. But when they’re making buckets of cash, how do you tell them that when all the books on the stand look the same and the cover price is creeping upwards from a buck to a buck and a half, to $2.25, and kids can afford to buy fewer and fewer books, and they’re beginning to split their allowances with the likes of cool, new, action-packed video games, and special-effects are beginning to make superheroes look cooler on screen than in the books, and when every page in those books looks the same...as the kids say, “it’s like, so what?” after a while. I think they eventually diluted their product so much that kids could afford to get their comic book fix by buying three comics a week when they were once buying 10 to 15 comic books per week. (I feel like the old timer saying he had to walk barefoot in the snow twelve miles to get to school each day—but my nostalgia muscles kick in and I long for the months when I would buy John Buscema and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Gene Colan and Gil Kane and Ross Andru and Neal Adams and Joe Kubert and...and...and every book would have its own great and disparate look to it. A kid studying all these guys learned more than copying, he actually learned how to draw because he didn’t have time to focus on a cool pen technique and its repetition. The figure, or the action, or the composition was the thing.)
So they (the company powers) hurt themselves in the long run. There are a lot of reasons why comic book sales dropped off, and I’m sure not breaking new insightful ground by pointing to the investor/collector boom that drove everything over the top and made a handful of comic book creators rich, that eventually went away when they (the investors) realized they weren’t getting the return on their dollar that they’d have gotten if they’d invested in the stock market—big surprise, shock and awe. I guess these geniuses were never clued in to the obvious, that scarcity is what drives up long-term value on any investment. And the “Death of Superman” sold enough books to actually climb to Krypton. You don’t buy stock in New Line Cinema after the Lord of the Rings movies hit the theaters. You buy it the moment the first executive says, “Well, we’re hurting financially, but maybe we should finance this little project...” So when the “investors” eventually waved the white flag on comic books, the industry took its inevitable screeching nosedive because the folks running the show were standing like Wiley Coyote, flatfooted, unable to see the train light coming down the tunnel (how’s that for jumbling metaphors?). There were other contributors to a very difficult time in comic books, but you’re probably all bored to tears by now (my real master plan). Again, I’m not revealing any real news here.
And I don’t want it to sound as if I’m down on comics. Quite the opposite. It’s only the strong love for the medium that brings out a strong reaction when you think it’s being misused. And these are a few cautionary notes after twenty-five years of mostly really good experiences in the comic book biz. But I’d like all those kids out there working and dreaming of making it in comics to go into it with open eyes and keep honing those other artistic abilities in preparation for that inevitable day.
I’m told lately that comic books are starting to make a little upsurge, that they’re coming back a little bit and people are starting to buy comic books again. (Probably because all the Image artists are being told to draw Manga-style.) And I’m happy for them—at least for the continuation of an art form that I have a lot of nostalgia for, and for the fans. I just think it’s not good for any industry to dictate too rigidly artistic style. Quality, yes. Style...gets trickier. You’d think they might recognize it in movie trends; you have several decent comic book movies, and then producers say, who needs a script? the kids want to see Jennifer Garner in leather (and, by the way, I’m okay with that part of it), but then we get this deluge of comic book crap hitting the theaters until no one will finance a superhero movie for the next twenty years. It’s the industry trying to make as much money as they can off of a fad and destroying the genre in the process.
Of course, it’s all just my opinion, and worth exactly what you paid for it. Many will disagree (even though I’m always right). And no, I’m not very opinionated.
DB: Have there ever been any approaches for you to go back into comics?
JB: No. Actually I’ve always had a mind to work on my own projects and publishing on my own, given the time. Over the years I’ve gone back and talked to a few of the editors but they don’t seem to be interested.
DB: That’s staggering, because if nothing else your art is better now than ever.
JB: I think there are a lot of reasons why the younger editors won’t hire the older talent. But I won’t go into it. Most old pros understand. And it’s been so long since I’ve been out of comics that any real anger has long since dissipated, and I’ve done other things, and have had so many great experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in comic books.
DB: And you paint.
JB: That’s what I do most of the time, is paint. When I was working at Disney I actually learned acrylics by sitting in the same cubicle as one of their Disney painters, a terrific illustrator named Tom Gilleon, and watching over his shoulder as he handled the paint. Up until that point I had only ever painted in oils or pastels. When I was painting paperback covers back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s I was working with oils. But working on site at Disney, naturally oils are very inconvenient, long drying time and everything, so I sat there for about a week, and while I was working on my own drawing board, I was keeping an eye on him and learning. Tom soon left, but a month into the project, I was doing two to three concept paintings a week. I’d be asked to do a scene from Independence Day, so I’d grab a photo and slap out a painting in about ten hours. They were all very impressed by that. (And I started to get a little flack from other painters who were asked to keep up with me.) It’s not a painting that’s of finished quality, but when you’re doing concept art, it’s all blue sky work and conveying, and selling, the idea is what’s important.
DB: You don’t have a huge output in the way of comics, and you might find it hard to believe, but you did have a large impact.
JB: Yeah, that is hard to believe. I guess maybe I’ve been removed from it for too long.
DB: People see your name and probably the first thing they think of is the Batman graphic novel.
JB: Well for one thing, I am never in awe of my own work. <laughter> Never have been. I know some of these guys that have wonderful egos and they live happily ever after, but even at my age I’m still struggling and I’m constantly trying to reach for a different level. I’m always looking five steps down the road. My wonderful ex-wife used to say I never had a hobby. When I took up Ju-Jitsu, I couldn’t just have fun with it. I worked at it like a job, like a competitor, I was driven to teach, until most of my joints were shot and now I’m on my third left hip. Or I would go to the Grand Canyon and I couldn’t just sit and enjoy the view, I had to run and see what was around the corner. It’s just something in my make-up. A need to squeeze the most out of an experience. When I look at my comic book work, especially at the time when I was doing it, I hated my own work because I could only see the flaws in it.
My first year or two in comic books I was so intimidated I almost couldn’t do the work. I was very slow because I was erasing whole pages and re-drawing them three or four times and still the stuff didn’t look good enough. Adkins would tell me I would never be any good and I needed to swipe more from other artists, trace if I had to, but that gets embarrassing and I eventually decided to stand or die on my own merits. But I still take a little pride in the fact that I never missed a deadline in over twenty-five years in comics, but I did put in some long damned days. So anytime anyone brings my old comic books up to me, my goose-pimples rise up <laughter> and I think to myself, “God, how could anybody like that stuff?” But somebody did, thank God. <laughter>
DB: Well lots did.
JB: The thing that really saved me in comics was going to conventions and meeting the fans. I loved the fans because they would stand in line, with my books in hand, and say how much they loved them. I wouldn’t have known otherwise, because I hated the stuff I was doing. When I was drawing comic books I’d be looking at my work and thinking, look at this latest issue of Conan by John Buscema, or look at this stuff that Neal Adams is doing...I was half-way through working on Batman, Son of the Demon, when Frank Miller’s first Dark Knight hit the comic shops. My brain nearly exploded. I felt like Roger Corman watching a Spielberg movie, and I had to force myself to pick up the pencil again. No, I was never in love with my own work. I’m still not. I have my own paintings on my walls, only because I can’t afford the really good artists. And then, I’m constantly changing them. I have a painting I did three years ago, and I recently yanked it off the wall and started repainting it. Obsessive, me? Lord, every psychosis I ever had is coming out in this interview. Thanks a lot.
All I can think is that artists with huge egos must be comparing themselves to the lowest common denominator. I’ve always compared myself to the best and naturally wound up falling short. While it makes for a very frustrated artist I think it made me a much better artist, and I take some solace in that. I have two paintings in an upcoming gallery show (Feb 12, ’05, Settlers West Miniature Art Exhibition and Sale, Tucson, AZ), hanging on the same walls as some of the greatest western artists and illustrators in the world. Howard Terpning, Frank McCarthy, James Bama... While it’s an incredible ego boost just to be included in that august company, deep down I know I’m going to have to walk into that gallery and stare at all those terrific artists’ work and avoid looking at my own. (No one wants to watch an old artist have a nervous breakdown at a champagne reception—well, it might be fun if it were someone else, and they just developed a little twitch or something—) <laughter>
DB: Did you ever meet John Buscema?
JB: No. I brushed shoulders with him once at a convention. I sat and listened to him talk and then went up and introduced myself, but I never really got a chance to sit down one-on-one with John. He’s such a big hero of mine (as if you couldn’t tell by now) and I was very saddened with his passing.
DB: And Tom Palmer?
JB: He inked one job of mine and of course it was a thrill because I was in high school when Palmer was inking Neal Adams and I was in awe of that work too. So when he finally inked my work on the one Spider-man job it was enormous. I never got the meet the man; in fact I don’t think I’ve even spoken to him. Most of us are very removed from each other. It’s a solitary business, comics, and because I’ve nearly always worked via the mail, aside from those other pioneers who packed their covered wagons and migrated to LA, I don’t meet a lot of industry people.
DB: What were some of the standout jobs for you?
JB: I think my favorite book is still the “Beowulf” graphic novel. It was the first book that I put together by myself. I came up with the idea for it at the time (1984?) because Lord Of The Rings and Conan were so hot; Conan had a huge fan following at the time. Because I’ve always been into literature, thanks to mom, I wanted to show the fans where this stuff originated from. I grabbed the Beowulf poem and I grabbed several different translations and wove them together so they were a little easier to understand. I drew it up, graphic novel wise, so the words are mine (more or less), the pencils are mine and I learned to ink almost specifically for that job. I grabbed a couple of my favorite inkers and twisted their styles into my own thing. I took Tom Palmer, Moebius and Victor De La Fuente, I took little elements from their styles and tried to knit together something of my own. Then I eventually colored the thing, hand painted with dyes (another first for me). I did everything except the lettering on that book.
I took it to Marvel and they turned it down, as did DC. First Comics was new kid on the block and they thought they’d like to try a graphic novel for variety, and it wound up being one of their first big money makers. I think Chaykin’s American Flagg had just hit big, and a Mike Grell’s book, and a few others, and the Beowulf graphic novel all came along around the same time. The fans received it well. But the thing I’m most proud of is that I got many letters from high school teachers, and I still have the letter that I got from a couple of professors at Rutgers University—two of the “foremost professors of ancient languages in the US”—who praised me and asked if they could do an original language version for their students. It never came about because I didn’t own the rights at the time. (I do now because they’ve long-since reverted to me.) The book sold as well as it did because teachers said they were buying crates of it for their classrooms. That project was early enough in my career, it finally gave me a feeling that I had something to be proud of. I’m a frustrated teacher at heart and I love kids, so that gave me a genuine thrill.
DB: Have you ever thought about re-printing it now that the Lord Of The Rings movies have been so huge?
JB: I have thought of it actually, and I was talking to friends of mine a little while ago about doing just that. I still have the black plates; I don’t have the original art anymore so I would have to recolor it all. First I’d have to interest a publisher, but that would be terrific if that could happen. I’d be able to give something to a whole new audience.
DB: It won awards.
JB: That was also very nice. 1984, the Kirby Award was an industry award voted on by other creators. I felt it was sort of like the Oscars for comic books. So that was very uplifting as well.
DB: It must have given you a sense of justification as well, considering it’d been rejected.
JB: Yeah! So many people who had turned me down, told me later that they voted for it for best graphic novel for that year. That was wonderful.
DB: If you were to come back to comics what character would you love to work on?
JB: If the story was right and all things in the universe being perfect…my favorite character growing up was Captain America. When Jack Kirby did Captain America in the early days, he was my idea of a perfect hero. Yeah, okay, I had a hero complex. When you grow up reading comic books and living in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, you wind up appreciating all the heroes you come across. Captain America was it for me. Fighting the Nazis—how much better can you get? I did one issue of Captain America but it was very early in my career and I wasn’t good enough for it, and I would love to be able to go back and do him some kind of justice. But like I said, in a perfect universe.
DB: You still draw the occasional superhero. I saw your on-line eBay auctions.
JB: That’s fairly recent. Friends of mine have been selling their work online for some time, and I kept putting it off—who the heck would be interested in old Jerry Bingham art? Well, I took a flier and have been stunned by the response. There are actually people out there who still collect my stuff. Woah! So, yeah, I’ve gotten a number of good-paying commissions off just re-exposing myself (now that’s an ugly thought) to the comic world. And it’s put me back in touch with the fans. I needed that.
DB: So what does the future have in store for Jerry?
JB: The future is the past extended. (Is that a quote? I’ll steal it.) I’ll continue hammering away. The gallery world is brand new for me. And it is a different world. All new challenges. And these first steps of mine are exciting. Two years ago I won an Honorable Mention for a painting at JENAE—Journey’s End National Art Exhibit—commemorating the Lewis & Clark expedition. It was my first gallery show ever, and I walked away with a prize. I was floored. It’ll take some years to get recognized, I imagine—gallery art is mostly purchased because of the signature—but I feel I’m off to a good start. I feel like I’m at least running at the right goal post anyway. So my biggest hope, at this point in life, is that one day I can live with that brush in my hand and paint whatever I want to paint and people will enjoy it. But isn’t that the wish of every artist?