Interview with Jerry Ordway
Jerry Ordway's strength as both a comics writer and artist is his ability to humanize his characters in a way that makes them endearing and approachable (even the villainous ones). Since his first break in comics in 1980 (inking a Carmine Infantino-penciled story in Mystery in Space #94), Ordway has grown quickly into a unstoppable force in modern comics. His artwork has graced the pages of DC's biggest superhuman powerhouses - Superman and Captain Marvel - as well as team books such as the Avengers and All-Star Squadron. Mile High Comics caught up with Jerry just as USAgent completed its 3-issue run for Marvel and he turns his pen toward the much-awaited Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating JLA.
Mile High: Jerry, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Congratulations on a fantastic, but all too brief, run for USAgent. It really makes one think of the James Bond-inspired comics of the mid-60s like Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and others. Were you a fan of that genre? How much of that crept into what you did with USAgent?
Thanks for the kind words on USAgent. I had a lot of fun on that, and yes, I was trying to get a bit of the Steranko SHIELD feel to it, as that was some great stuff I read as a kid. I also am a fan of the Bond movies, but the real kick in doing USAgent was in continuing the cast Kurt Busiek and I introduced in last year's Marvel crossover, Maximum Security.
How did you capture the mind-set of a character like John Walker who has lived in the shadow of Captain America all of his life? What type of motivations did you want to instill in him?
Well, Kurt Busiek did a terrific job redefining John Walker in Maximum Security that it was pretty simple to pick up the feel of the character in writing it myself. He's a Captain America knock-off, and carries a chip on his shoulder about it. There's a lot I can relate to in him-- he pushes himself hard, but constantly beats himself up over stuff, even when he gets things right, because it's not perfect. Honestly, I wish more people bought the darn thing, as I would've loved to do a regular series.
The first time I caught your work and got hooked on it was with All-Star Squadron written by Roy Thomas. How did you get that assignment? What was it like working with such a huge cast of characters?
I guess Roy was hoping to land Dick Giordano to ink Rich Bucklers' pencils on All Star, as Buckler was doing his Neal Adams-inspired style at the time. Makes sense, even to me. However, Dick passed on it, and Len Wein, who was championing me, convinced Roy to let me do it. I purposely took Buckler's work away from the Adams style, to a more traditional one, because I thought it fit better for a book set in the 1940's. It was really a baptism of fire, as more than half of the first issues pencils were lost by Fedex, and I had to ink them on vellum overlays, working from spotty zeroxes. In addition, Roy wrote copious margin notes, asking for all sorts of corrections, and those were not readable on the pencil zeroxes. I had to wing a lot of things, but somehow I got through it and won Roy over, so much that, when Len suggested I draw the book myself, Roy was my biggest supporter. And yes, the cast of characters was pretty huge!
How did the idea for the spin-off title, Infinity Inc., come about?
Roy and his wife, Danette apparently came up with the concept, and sold DC on it. Then Mike Machlan (my inker on All Star, and friend) and I designed the characters with much kibbitzing from Roy of course.
Did that book whet your appetite for other Golden Age characters such as Captain Marvel? What encouraged you to pursue The Power of Shazam?
Oh sure. Working on All Star exposed me to lots of great golden age work, and I always regretted not getting to draw the Marvels in an issue of the Squadron. I was very familiar with the Marvel Family via the TV show of the 70's as well a DC's revival of the characters. I was offered the project when John Byrne quit, and got to do it the way I and original editor Jonathan Peterson wanted to do it-- as an homage to the RKO serial of the 40's, with the first appearance and origin from Whiz Comics as the backbone.
Power of Shazam was obviously a labor of love as evidenced by your wonderful painted covers (check out the cover of the Fawcett Companion for more of the same). What attracts you to the character of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family?
The same thing that attracts me to any good comic character-- a solid concept. If sales hadn't dipped in our 4th year on Shazam, I'd still be doing it! I loved the idea of a kid becoming a hero-- and an adult to boot. The idea I embraced was that since Billy had lost his parents, he was subconsciously recreating his family-- the Marvel Family. Only he was his own Dad, in a sense. Anyways, I had plenty more stories to tell.
Do you prefer working on ensemble books or solo titles? Why?
I think ensemble is best, though even a solo like USAgent becomes an ensemble. Recurring supporting characters are what help define the hero, I think. On all my years with Superman, the greatest joy was in the support cast, because they not only humanize Superman, but they also help define how he's different from them-- he's from Krypton, no matter how hard he tries to blend in.
Image's Wildstar was a great chance for fans to see your creativity let loose. Any plans to revive the character?
Not really. WildStar was a great success for Al Gordon and myself, but I always felt that I had said my piece, so to speak, with the original miniseries. Al originated the concept, and name, and I contributed a lot too, but it's still kind of his baby.
Are you working on other original character titles for any publisher at this time?
Not at the moment, but I have a few concepts I want to explore. The trouble is, I can't afford to work for free, and unless I can cut some kind of deal where someone fronts me an advance, it's very difficult. The Messenger one shot I did through Image (Still available--hint hint) was a true labor of love, and I didn't earn a cent from it. The experience was terrific, and the thrill of doing something like that on your own is tremendous, but at the end of the day, I still have to make my house payment, and feed my family.
You'll be penciling Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the JLA for DC Comics. Congratulations. What can you tell us about working with "The Man"? The issues that have come out so far have been so different than anyone could have predicted. What can you tell us what to expect from the JLA chapter?
So far it's been a fun experience. I have laid out 48 pages of pencils and Stan has dialogued a big chunk of it already. I look forward to finishing the work in ink. I mean, this is the Cadillac of the comics industry, this project. What's not to like? I get to work for my old friend Mike Carlin, who's editing the book, and Stan Lee, who's writing hooked me on comics when I was a kid!
Who were your comic artist favorites before you got into the business yourself?
I grew up loving all the Marvel guys of the 60's-- Kirby, Ditko, Romita, and especially John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. Then, Wally Wood and Gil Kane, on DC stuff in the late 60's, as well as Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.
Your style is crisp and so precise. Does that come from your commercial art days?
I didn't work in commercial art long-- from 1977-1981, so I can't credit that with inspiring the slick style. I'd say it's just an approach I saw and tried to emulate. My love of Wood, and Buscema and Kirby led me to discover Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, via Nostalgia Press reprint books in the 70's, and that stuff was very influential on me. Joe Sinnott's line work over anybody-- Giacoia over Kirby-- Wally Wood-- Tom Palmer over Colan or Buscema-- all good solid stuff.
It's reminiscent of the artwork of Wally Wood or Gil Kane in that it's so immediately accessible and yet implies so much work per panel. How much time do you spend on a single page for a comic?
Time spent on work is relative to the deadlines. I sometimes can manage two pages a day, when I'm really cruising on a job, but I've never been like clockwork-two pages a day, every day of the year, like some folks. I would totally exhaust myself on a deadline, and dread jumping into the next issue without a few days off. I am very critical of my work, and can't just force it out. I have always tried to give 100 percent to every job, and know that ultimately, the paying customers will appreciate it.
What's more challenging; capturing emotion in art or in dialogue?
Oh, in the art. It's a visual medium after all. An effective facial expression can speak volumes.
Any advice for would-be artists or writers?
The best advice is to know right off that there are tons of people more talented than you not getting work, and that if you really want to do comics, you have to work hard at it, and have strength in your own convictions, and an ego that's not too big, nor too small. I guess, ultimately, you have to believe in yourself.
What other projects are coming up for you that you can talk about?
Honestly, I have nothing scheduled for after the Stan Lee Justice league. I kept hoping for a monthly
assignment from Marvel, after almost three years of fill-ins and miniseries, but nothing's popped up
yet! Not that I haven't had fun doing the various comics, post Shazam, but I miss being on a monthly
book, and I'd love the chance to make a mark on one of the old time Marvel characters, like Captain America,
or the Avengers. Heck, I'd even like a second chance at the
15 years after. Barring that, I will pursue some of these creator concepts I have rattling around in my brain.
People interested can check with my website, created and run by my friend Walt Grogan, for updates, and upcoming
projects at: www.jerryordway.com.
Thank you, Jerry. Fans like myself will keep watching for your work.
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