graphic thoughts

An Interview with Jackson “Butch” Guice

by Jennifer A. Ford

Jackson “Butch” Guice was born in “the Jurassic era” — or 1961 — in Chattanooga, Tennessee where he lived until he was sixteen years old. Drawing was an everyday part of his childhood, though he didn’t focus on it at the time.

“I had what amounted to a ‘Disney’ childhood,” Butch says. “Filled with adventures both real and imaginary. Summers in the woods being an Indian brave or intrepid explorer, winters filled with the tedium of school… that sort of thing.”

Along with the constant drawing went avid reading, and Butch read all the classics. Verne, teen mystery series, and Mark Twain led to some rather serious repercussions the summer he decided to emulate Tom Sawyer. “The neighborhood survived with relatively little collateral damage, and then I discovered comic books!” says Butch of the incident.

His discovery of comics set him directly on the path to becoming a comic artist. He started attending the comic conventions which were just getting seriously underway in the mid to late 1970’s and met many of the comic greats. “Great guys…” Butch says of those encounters. “People like Vosburg, Chaykin, Rogers, Giordano, and Adams who were both critical of my skills (or lack thereof), but also highly encouraging. It was very important at that particular time to receive such encouragement because all the distractions of teenage life were entering into the picture ( girls, wanderlust, girls, a car, girls… ).” Butch says he tries to repay the kindness of his early influences and critics whenever he appears at a convention or is asked to critique a fan’s portfolio. “Just hearing a working professional, someone whose work you respect and admire, say your own work displays potential, you’re on the right track, keep working hard… can make all the difference in whether you ever realize your dream or not,” he adds.

By the very early 1980’s, Butch had broken into professional comics at Marvel, and, he says, “it has been a non stop glorious thrill ride ever since. Despite the occasional bump in the road, this industry is probably the greatest sheer out-and-out fun a person can have while earning a living.”

He spent his first decade in the business at the House of Ideas, and has spent the ensuing decade and change primarily at DC where he’s worked on no less of an international icon than Superman in Action Comics as well as Flash, Resurrection Man, and now Birds of Prey. Other titles over the years include Micronauts, Swords of the Swashbucklers (which he co-created with Bill Mantlo), New Mutants, X-Factor (which he co-created with Bob Layton), Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, Eternal Warrior, Little Mermaid, Toy Story, and All Access. “Plus,” he adds, “The usual smattering of mini-series, fill-ins, guest inking, and assorted one shots far too numerous to list or even remember.”

The Interview

Birdwatching: What’s the first comic title or story you remember reading?

Butch Guice: I am always surprised when people can recall the very first comic story they read as a child. I can’t. But then again, my first comics were an entire cardboard box of them a neighbor left accidentally on my front porch. I do recall some John Buscema THOR’s were in the mix, and DOOM PATROL (the Bruno Premiani stuff, not the later garbage to come). Some of the original run of X-MEN (the Don Heck/Werner Roth reprint era). It was primarily Marvel stuff as I recall, late sixties-early seventies stuff for the most part… Fondest memory highlights include the first appearance of Iron Fist in MARVEL PREMIER (#15?), The TOMB OF DRACULA/WEREWOLF BY NIGHT crossover, the AVENGERS/DEFENDERS clash, the Black Spectre storyline in DAREDEVIL, the Goodwin/Simonson MANHUNTER run, the 50’s Cap storyline in CAPTAIN AMERICA, the Panther’s Rage storyline, MASTER OF KUNG FU, the Killraven/War of the Worlds stuff, and all sorts of other great comic work. Personally, I feel the early/mid seventies were one of the best reading times comics ever had. DC and MARVEL were just throwing everything against the wall and seeing if it would stick. It was a fun period. I miss the sheer variety of those days.

BW: Who is/are your favorite comic characters/Why?

Butch: MANHUNTER was just too cool in a fatalistic, born again to die badly kind of way. Archie and Walt just blew my tender comic reading youth senses away. Great, great stuff. Never misses a beat. Plus you got all those neat reprints and a Batman story additionally. Oh yeah, Bats was the lead feature, but every kid I knew reading the stuff was following the book for MANHUNTER. I can still remember the shocked numbness you felt after reading “Gotterdamerung”. He’s really dead? But this comics… bring him back! Fix him!

BW: How did you become interested in working in comic art?

Butch: From the moment I read my first comic (whichever one it was… I really wish I could remember three decades back), I knew this was what I wanted to do! Honestly. It consumed me day and night. I just had to be a comic artist. A neighbor friend who read comics happened to have hauled his collection to my house in a large cardboard box. Maybe fifty to one hundred issues. He was called home during the course of play and I took them inside for safekeeping. That evening I started flipping through them and the rest is history. I immediately started tracking down every comic book I could beg, barter, or extort my way into owning. Couldn’t get enough of the things. I remember buying comics from your classic Mom and Pop drugstore spinner rack, and being in anguish every time I would discover some new title I enjoyed and realizing there were sixty previous issues or something of this book out there somewhere floating around I had missed. In those days of course, your most reliable source of back issues were flea markets, garage sales, and fellow comic fans. Conventions were still relatively sparse. You wheeled and dealt like a twelve year old commodities broker amongst your friends to acquire coveted issues. Deals could take all summer to complete. Your newsstand was constantly missing issues. You had to scour the city when that happened. And best of all, the “cliffhanger” endings still meant something. The fan press didn’t give you every storyline for the next six months. It was just great!

BW: Who are your greatest comic influences?

Butch: The names change with the years. As you gain exposure to more of the history of the medium you find guys who did just phenomenal work over long periods of time. At this point in my career I would have to give the credit to primarily the strip artists; Caniff, Sickles, Robbins, Foster, Crane, and Raymond. I’m very fond of Leonard Starr’s early On Stage with Mary Perkins work. In comic books, it has tended to be people like Ross Andru, Joe Kubert, Rueben Moreira, Steranko, Neal Adams, etc. I’m an enormous admirer of Alex Toth. The man is pure gold on whatever he touches. He really is a genius in the field. His staging, simplicity, and lighting are so far beyond the rest of us it’s depressing.

BW: What was your first published job?

Butch: My first work for the majors is actually uncredited. I ghost penciled an entire chapter or so of a ROM, SPACE KNIGHT annual for Pat Broderick. First credited work came roughly a year later with MICRONAUTS #48. What a wonderfully fun book to break into comics with. Bill Mantlo was terrific to a scared kid from Tennessee… always encouraging me to develop, to stretch. Another gentlemen I owe a huge debt. During my first issue I immediately went out and broke my drawing arm while roller skating. So there I am, drawing my first few issues in a cast, working forty hours a week designing patches and emblems for a local company during the day, drawing like mad on Micronauts at night. Al Milgrom, the editor on the book kept referring to each issue I did as a tryout for the title. When I asked him if I was going to ever actually get the book as regular assignment, he told me he liked my stuff but my speed was a concern. Well, the only reason I hadn’t quite my day job was because of the tryout status. I promptly quit the emblem company and Bill and I were off and running.

BW: Do you have any writing ambitions?

Butch: Yeah. I think most artists working in the field have them to a degree. It comes with creative skills to do the job. However, I try and keep that part of my ego in check. There are far too many artists turned writer/artists out there who are just not very good wordsmiths. Some sound ideas maybe, but they could have been expressed better by someone else. I’m quite happy contributing “bits” of business in the art at this point, maybe the occasional subplot pitch, but beyond that; who knows? I have projects I’ve developed but for a variety of reasons (including the fear of embarrassing myself) I just file them away for a rainy day.

BW: Did you start out as an inker or a penciler or have you always done both?

Resurrection Man #17Butch: I broke in as a penciler. The inking work came about more due to dissatisfaction with the inkers assigned to my pencils than by any real designs on my part to always ink myself. Jim Shooter always asked me why I was a penciler in the first place. He thought I was a better inker. Bob Layton suggested I develop the second skill as a fall back for when times are tough finding penciling work in the industry. I’ve inked a handful of people other than myself, but my entire inking career is really me just fixing my pencils for the most part. The only editor who seemed to truly consider me as a separate inker identity from the penciler is Mike Carlin. Almost all my straight inking assignments I owe to him. I love Mike to death. He took a chance on me when my rep in this industry was at rock bottom (actually, he’s done that twice). He could ask me to dress up as Rima the Jungle Girl and do the hula in front of the Time Warner building and I would for Mike. He and Archie Goodwin are the two greatest editors I have ever had the honor work with in this industry. I’ll stand toe-to-toe, in your face, ready to throw down in defense of either of those gentlemen.

BW: Is there a difference in the way you pencil depending on whether you or another person will be doing the inking?

Butch: There honestly should be but I’ve penciled for myself so long it’s very hard for me to break the shorthand techniques I’ve developed. I really consider what I do as a penciler merely breakdowns. When I’m penciling, I’m far more concerned with body language, storytelling, pacing, that sort of thing. All the lighting, textures, general finishing “oomph” is done in the inking stage. I rarely ever indicate black spotting in my pencils, preferring to follow my instincts when it comes time to ink. Even when I was doing much tighter penciling work, Joe Rubinstein told me I was the most “deceptively hard penciler” he had worked over. It looks finished until you get in there and start laying permanent ink to it and realize you’ve still got to connect a few dots on your own.

BW: Do you have real people in mind or who act as models for the characters you draw? (In other words, is there a “real” Dinah out there somewhere?)

Butch: Yes and no. I generally have someone specific I’ve mentally linked to the character as I envision them. A lot of the general body language and facial expressions, bits of visual business may come from that. Am I trying to draw that specific person? No. After you get sued for treading too close in those waters you tend to stay away from the edge a little more.

BW: What work have you done of which you are most proud?

Butch: I’m pretty much a perfectionist so much of the time I think I’m actually nailing it while I’m working only to be throughly disgusted by the time I actually finish and the book ships. Penciling and inking a monthly book leaves very little time for the refinements I would like to bring to the art. There are months the storytelling suffers in my eyes because of the deadline pressure, or perhaps the inking in flatter, scratchier than I would like because I had to turn out half the book in a week. I always chuckle when I hear inkers or pencillers complain because they had to produce a page and a half on a given day because of the looming deadline. With a monthly book I have roughly four weeks, if, everything is running on schedule and there are no interruptions in the flow of the work. Two weeks to pencil means eleven pages a week have to be turned into the editor. Same with inks after the pages are lettered. If I have an “off” day or get sick with the flu or go to a convention, I have to still make that pace up somewhere (usually weekends or nights). Sometimes the quality of the job has to give a little under those pressures. Does it make happy? No. I just strive to make the next issue better than the last and do my best. Should I ever feel the need to rest on my laurels and think “good enough” all I need to do is pull out some Alex Toth job and realize I’m still minor to the big gun’s league.

BW: What comic character that you have worked on was your most challenging and /or most rewarding?

Butch: Probably Superman during my run on ACTION COMICS when it dawned upon me I was adding something to the myth of an world icon. This was Superman for pete’s sake! The Superman! And we just did what? We killed him? Are we idiots? Oh… you mean he gets to come back to life? (the twelve year old kid in my brain meanwhile is screaming “Yeah! But you couldn’t do the same for Paul Kirk/ MANHUNTER could you?”)

Action #677 -- Making Myths

BW: What comic character that you have not yet had the chance to work on would you most like to be able to tackle?

Butch: There’s a few… and hopefully I’ll get to play with them at some point. ZORRO, who is just in a class by himself. WARLORD, which I think I could blow some doors off with in the current market. KAMANDI, out of pure love for Kirby’s original run. BATMAN, well, just because he’s the super hero Zorro. SGT. ROCK, because Kanigher and Kubert were just about the best thing going when I was a kid. SPIDERMAN, but only if the clone storyline had never been printed. What were those guys thinking, anyway? And THE SHADOW, because I love all that 1930s pulp/mystery costuming, cars, gunsels, and mood.

BW: What writers have you most enjoyed working with?

Butch: I’ve had a lot of great writers over the years. I can only recall one individual who I thought should take his word processor and shove it. Favorites beside Chuck Dixon, whose simply terrific by the way, would include Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (who are two my favorite people in comics in addition to favorite writers). Archie Goodwin while I was inking DAZZLER. Roy Thomas, my former cohort on Dr. Strange, who was a childhood dream to be working with. My “evil twin”, Dan Jurgens is a lot of fun. Oh, the list could go on and on… I’m sure I’d end up forgetting someone I didn’t intend to and slighting the person. Like I said before, there was only one individual, a “Mr. Sour Grapes”, who would not, will not, could not, stand a chance of ever making the list. Enough said.

BW: What writer would you most like to work with?

Butch: That would be tough. I would say any of the following: Denny O’Neil, Robert Kanigher, Doug Moench, Don McGregor, or Stan Lee. You can probably tell I’m still trying to live out my childhood dreams with this list.

BW: Is there a particular kind of story you prefer as a reader? An artist?

Butch: I would personally prefer to be reading and drawing some other genres beside core super hero stuff. Mysteries, westerns, war books, jungle girls. Even romance comics. I think what I miss most about the comics I grew up with versus the field today is how little variety I see out there. We have the nicest looking print and coloring we’ve ever had in the industry’s history but all we can seem to tell for the most part are super hero yarns and/or super hero books masquerading as fantasy titles. As an industry, we can’t even support the Disney books anymore. Vertigo and it’s ilk leave me cold for the most part, so that pretty much leaves the occasional quality independent and the main stream super hero stuff. As far as types of stories, anything that is compelling, rings true, and makes me care the effort to produce it was put into crafting it in the first place.

BW: What comic titles make your must read list every month?

Butch: Very few, unfortunately. Mostly reprints and archive type of stuff. I follow all of Chuck’s books, and did before I worked on BoP. Let’s see… I read Strangers in Paradise. I follow Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows work. I devour The Comic Book Artist ( … though it’s not a comic, per se). Anything Joe Kubert, Alex Toth and some assorted other guys still produce, I buy without hesitation. That’s about it really…

BW: What artists (inkers, pencilers, colorists) do you consider the best in the business (list as many as you like-past or present)?

Butch: Well, some names are going to be familiar from previous questions, but here goes… Pencilers or penciller/inkers… I would have to go with guys like Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Ross Andru, Jack Kirby, Both John Romitas, George Evans, Harvey Kurtzman, Reed Crandall, Lou Fine, Meskin and Robinson (as a team), Frank Robbins, Steranko, Gil Kane, Jack Burnley, Jack Cole, Jack Davis, John Severin, Johnny Craig, Will Eisner, Neal Adams… just off the top of my head. Inkers… (shorter list here) Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott, John Severin (again), Dick Giordano, Tom Palmer… maybe one or two others just under the bar. Colorists… Marie Severin, Greg Wright… and a few people who are probably going to kill me for forgetting them as my mind draws a blank. Current “new guy” I’m most impressed with and who actually draws a monthly book which comes out monthly… Scott McDaniel. He just continues to get better and better.

BW: How do you view the contributions of the writer/penciller/inker/colorist equation? (In other words, is the process generally collaborative in your experience or does each member of the team work on his or her own vision?)

Butch: Excellent question. Why? Because it gives me an opportunity to climb on my soap box and dispel a load of crap I hear preached all the time. Listen up everyone, you might learn something here. COMICS ARE, HAVE BEEN, AND WILL CONTINUE TO BE SO, A COLLABORATIVE MEDIUM. They are not a “visual” medium. The visuals are but one part of the medium. The idea they are a “visual” medium has been mostly pushed by prima donna young turks trying to explain away their inability to actually tell a story with pictures (their basic job requirement in this field. Go figure.) To claim they are a visual medium is like saying movies are a visual medium. What? They aren’t? When the sound messes up at the movie theater do you sit there and watch the movie in silence? No. Do you rent videotapes and then turn your volume controls down to avoid all that chatter? No. Did silent movies exist without story cards giving you the actors dialogue? No. Comics are no different. A visual medium is fine art painting. If that’s what you want then you should be in a museum, not a comic shop. Yes… you can choose to do extended scenes, even entire issues without the benefit of dialogue or captions. What happens? Generally, sound effects are added. Who wrote the sound effect? The writer. Why? Because we are a collaborative medium and a totally silent comic in black and white (remember, no colorists allowed) gets pretty darn boring by the second issue. The team should work hand in hand for the betterment of the story. When they do, either by design or accident, magic happens. Everybody understand? Good. Class dismissed.

BW: Does Chuck Dixon give you notes about the way things should look or how the panels should be laid out or does he leave a lot of that up to you (I suppose even that depends upon the story)?

Butch: Actually, Chuck is an artist’s dream to work with. He writes a lot of artistic “elbow room” into his scripts. If he’s seeing something in a particular way, or needs something specific, he will spell it out for you and/or provide reference, but Chuck generally lets the artist play with the visual/pacing details. Surprisingly, I’ve even added panels to scenes (breaking the dialogue up between them) to psychologically manipulate the rhythm of the page. The norm in comics (my career, leastwise… ) is usually the reverse; scratching your head while trying to figure out how you are going to fit everything the writer asked for into the finite space of the page. Chuck’s so polished and succinct in his writing it feeds directly into the images rather than standing apart. Archie Goodwin had the same wonderful ability with his prose. That’s pretty good company to be in…

BW: And just how great is Gloria Vasquez? Does she ROCK or what?

Butch: Gloria is the ROCK! She’s doing terrific stuff, aided and abetted by Digital Chameleon. She’s making this book look just terrific!

BW: To say I was very impressed by the BoP/Joker story arc (issues #16-#17) is an understatement. A couple of related questions to that then are who designed Dinah’s fabulous new motorcyle? And whose idea was it to set the entire storyline during a storm. That was SO effective.

Butch: The motorcycle was my design, since you asked. It is based upon a real bike with slight modifications in keeping with Dinah’s “persona ” as the Black Canary. It was nothing really. A few minutes to slap together from the original bike reference. Additionally, I was the one who put the stormy weather into the storyline. As a kid reading comics, I always enjoyed it when an issue reflected the season the book was published. It was usually a very subtle thing… a little snow, some falling autumn leaves, but it always helped make those stories stand apart from the usual bright sunny day world of costumed heroics. I mentioned it to Joe Illidge, who encouraged me to use it as often as I could make it fit. Weather is fun to draw, especially rain slick streets and sleety snow covered rooftops. It’s something I plan to continue while I’m on the book (just like having the “title lettering” worked into the occasional splash page artwork such as BoP#15). Just another holdover from a misspent comic reading youth.

BW: After YEARS, I think it’s about time that Barbara Gordon is being drawn (and Greg Land did good on this too as did Gary Frank & Scott McDaniel but you BoP artists were the first to really do it consistently) in such a way that you totally believe she used to be Batgirl. Kudos.

Butch:It infuriates me to no end seeing the “mousy librarian” Barbara that pops up in random books. That look was a poor disguise on her part at best. She was, and is, an athletically trim, vivacious woman who should turn heads at fifty feet. I’ll know I’ve had some minor influence on the character if she starts being drawn that way in the other books as well.

BW: I love the cinematic effects you’ve been throwing into the book — again, especially in the Joker story arc.

Butch: I love to play with that stuff. I’m an enormous fan of Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff, and the genius who walks amongst us, Alexander Toth. What these men did with “illustrative lighting” is just inspiring. I wish more of the younger guys coming into the field would study what those three gentlemen could do with a few simple lines and a casually dropped patch of black ink.

BW: If Birds of Prey were made into a movie, who do you think would be the best actresses for the roles?

Butch: Everyone seems to have personal preferences on this one. A lot depends on whether we’re doing the characters in their early twenties or allowing them to age slightly. For the young set I see people like Amy Jo Johnson [from Felicty] as Babs and maybe, just maybe, Alicia Silverstone as Dinah. Slightly older duo would be Ashley Judd as Barbara and Hudson Leick [from Xena: Warrior Princess] as Dinah. Just one man’s opinion…

BW: You’ve done some “official comic adaptation” work on some very prominent film projects. Any good stories from having to deal with Hollywood?

Butch: These are some of the funniest things I recall from my career… At the time I began work on the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom adaptation, Tom Defalco pulled me aside and stressed how important it was going to be to capture the likenesses of the lead actors. Seems the major complaint LucasFilm had with the first Raiders of the the Lost Ark adaptation centered on the fact the Buscema/Janson art did not reflect the “look” of the characters in the film. The LucasFilm rep, bless her soul, even inquired whether it would be possible to “peel up” (her words) the inks, get another penciler, and put the inks back on top of the new version! Who says movie people aren’t rocket scientists? Think of all the bad comics which could have been salvaged if we had only had insight like hers earlier in the industry. Story two: I did an issue of a book at Marvel written by a highly regarded writer with over two decades of professional experience. To say the guy is/was considered to be one of the best in the business is a fair statement. Anyway, he’s describing a scene in the plot wherein a lone gunman is hidden on the crest of a sand dune, sniper rifle at ready, as a jeep approaches tearing across the desert. The gunman levels his sniper scope on the vehicle, his intent is stopping the jeep and taking the driver hostage. Then this highly regarded writer asks for something which could only happen in comics. From a fixed position on the dune, he wants the sniper to fire four quick shots and blow out the tires of the vehicle so it bottoms out and slides to a stop. I’ve got to say, I laughed for several days over that one. Ironically enough, the writer eventually moved to California and tried his hand writing screenplays for the movie business. I’m sure they appreciated his “brilliant” storytelling capabilities far more than I did.

BW: I caught the “Toth’s Gym” in-joke in BoP #15 and the Dixon sign in #16. Is putting jokes into your work something you do often?

Black Canary: Toth's GymButch: It’s something I enjoy. Friends, family, comic creators of the past, fans. We’ve got more to come in future issues. The practice dates back quite a few years for me (all the way to Micronauts). It gives the more eagle-eyed fan a kick having caught it and me a chance to honor those people who had an impact on my life in someway. I hope everyone enjoys finding them. … and on that note, I’d like to thank all the fans who’ve commented both pro and con about my current BoP work. I take all the criticism as constructive advice (no matter how surly its delivery) and the praise makes all those long weekends and holidays I ended up working not so long and hard in retrospect.

Thanks everyone. Bird is the Word. Bye now, Butch

BW: Thanks very much. It’s been fun.