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Monday, April 20, 2009

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Chuck Patton - 2009

Being on the internets yields some amazing surprises sometimes.

Chuck Patton, who drew Justice League of America #s 217-239 (plus some more covers) was one of my all-time favorite artists. His clean, direct storytelling I thought was perfect for The World's Greatest Superheroes, and in particular I thought he rendered Aquaman especially well.

But after unceremoniously leaving the book, Chuck seemed to disappear from comics entirely. Every so often while working on the Shrine, I'd think to try and find him on the web, but to no avail.

Then one day, Frank Lee Delano of The Idol-Head of Diabolu and the Justice League Detroit blog, pointed me to the comments section of this post, which featured a comment from the man himself, Chuck Patton!

I quickly emailed Chuck, introducing myself and seeing if he wanted to do an interview with me for the Shrine, since his tenure with the JLA was also some of the most important moments in Aquaman's history.

Chuck, to my delight, had heard of the Shrine (as well as my JLA Satellite blog), and readily agreed to an interview. Awesome!

Chuck is an extraordinarily friendly guy, quick with a laugh and a great storyteller. During our long talk, he gave me all kinds of info I can't use here, but luckily we did spend some of that time talking Aquaman and the JLA:

Aquaman Shrine
: So, Justice League of America was your first assignment? How did you end up with such a huge book as your first pro job?

Chuck Patton: When I got Justice League, I felt like the guy that knocked out Mike Tyson--Buster Douglas--I felt like I had knocked out the champ, or had gotten a home run, because that was a book I had always loved, one of my favorites from childhood to adulthood, so being told "You're going to take over", I was like "Wow."

AMS: Wow, indeed.

CP: I was with a bunch of guys [at DC], this was before we were officially called "New Talent", we were just a bunch of young guys and gals Dick Giordano brought in, twenty five of us picked to become the next generation.

He always had his eye on me, and he would look at my stuff, and say "Patton, you went out of your way here to be....really boring." Then he'd show me the correct drawing or proper storytelling technique I was missing (that's very important to me, cause to this day I use that line on my artists to light a fire under them just as Dick did to me). He had a great way of giving you harsh criticism, but gently. He was then and still is a real gentleman.

When I was picked for Justice League, I had done no professional work whatsoever. What I had done was what I had done in that class, and I was basically a kid in the woods--"Here's your flashlight, here's your compass, now go!"

Don Heck was leaving the book, he wanted to do something else, because, as he told me he "Got tired of having to draw 200 characters every month." And originally, Gerry [Conway] was leaving, and it was going to be a whole clean slate. But then a few months later, Gerry came back and said "I have some ideas" and that was a whole other chapter.

AMS: Oh yeah, it sure was. When you got JLA, did they indicate to you there was going to be such a big change in the book, relatively around the corner?

CP: There was a lot of talk [at the time] about the different characters going off somewhere--Aquaman might be going off somewhere, Batman might be going off somewhere, because it was felt that these characters were getting a little stale [in JLA].

So there was always this threat that [DC] was going to take out some of these characters, and for a guy like me who loved Justice League, "Oh, come on--you take the big guys out, who's the lynchpin? Who are you going to be left with?" That feeling was coming up stronger and stronger as I worked on the book [in the first few months].

Finally the word came down, "We're going to lose Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman." As the new kid coming on, I didn't know my place where to speak up, but I was thinking..."If it was up to me, I would've kept them."

Originally, [JLA editor] Len Wein thought about bringing in all new but established characters, a whole new team, but that seemed a little risky. But when Gerry said he wanted to bring in all-new, original characters, that sparked DC's interest to revamp the series, as long as we kept some core guys such as Aquaman, Elongated Man--which was fine with me, because they're Justice League, too.
Originally, my first story was going to be the one where the JLA fights the animal people ["Beasts", JLA #s 221-223], but that got pushed back, so the first one I drew ["All The Elements of Disaster", JLA #217, written by Paul Kupperberg], which was supposed to be a fill-in story down the line--ended up being first.

Then as now, I'm really proud of that book, it reminded me of the Justice Leagues that I wanted to draw.

AMS: Oh yeah--that first issue is great. Absolutely.

CP: I had fun with the ending, I had fun drawing Aquaman--that was when I think I had my first touch with Aquaman.

I always loved Aquaman, too--Aquaman drawn by Nick Cardy--that and Aparo's version of Aquaman I thought were the Aquaman, so I always tried to pay attention to that. I always loved Joe Kubert's Hawkman--I wanted to go in and make these guys iconic again.

AMS: The first book you drew, with the story by Paul Kupperberg, and the second, written by Cary Burkett--are some of the best single issues of JLA ever. The stories were great, your art for them was perfect--I really liked the way you drew Aquaman, each of their faces was distinctive. Aquaman wasn't just a blond Superman.
CP: [laughs] Thank you.

AMS: ...and I really thought, if this is what the JLA is going to be, I could read this for another ten years! And then a few months later, it took this strange diversion...

You mentioned drawing Aquaman, and I wanted to ask you, as a comic book artist who was also a fan, were you disappointed that you didn't get to draw the book featuring Superman, Batman, Flash? Were you happy having Aquaman and Martian Manhunter as your main characters? You said you liked Aquaman, so at the time you didn't feel like you were "stuck" with him as your main character?
CP: When I was drawing that "Beasts" three-parter, and I drew Aquaman fighting the whale guy, I realized this was an Aquaman who would take no prisoners. He's really a king.

AMS: That's a great sequence.

CP: I love that sequence, and at the time I tried to find a way to make a whale guy work, how it would look. I kept thinking of the whale in Pinocchio, and I was thinking he has to have a giant eye--a human eye, twisted. So we had to do something that made you go, "Whoa, Aquaman--respect."

So to me it worked because you focused more on Aquaman and less on the big goofy monster guy. And so when he leaves him with those bubbles, which I was really happy with, [JLA editor] Alan [Gold] says, "We have to make sure he doesn't die", and I said, "Who cares? We just watched Aquaman wipe this guy out--that's the kind of guy I want to see in the Justice League!"

AMS: That's one of my favorite Aquaman moments ever--the way you drew the whale guy looking completely like a vegetable. Because, as a kid, that was terrifying--"Aquaman's going to leave this guy, a bunch of sharks are going to come along and eat him, because he can't defend himself!"

Back in the early days of the Shrine, I did a series of posts about my top 5 favorite Aquaman moments, and that was one of the ones I picked.

CP: You know, I read that, and it really warmed my heart. Because, at the time I drew that, my roommate was Shawn McManus, who's had a wonderful comics career on his own, and Shawn was a heavy heavy [Bernie] Wrightson guy, and he would say "How would Wrightson do it?", so I was thinking about that eye--again, distracting you from the goofy little arms the whale guy had.

So, getting back to your question--I loved Aquaman, I wanted him in the group, and I was happy to have Aquaman. Also, I liked the idea that he knew he had big shoes to fill--he missed have Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman around, so there was no problem having him around. But it never came off.

I feel like we got a guy who became a complete ass-hole, and we never really got to show that kind of moment again--this is the guy whose running the group, this is why he's a founding member of the Justice League. And I never felt that way, and I didn't know how to assert it, because the scripts were telling me something different.

I drew in the Dale Gunn character because I wanted a guy--I wanted a guy like Batman, a guy who doesn't have powers, but can go toe-to-toe with the others in the group, and that's what helped make it work. You had a Green Arrow, a Batman, in there. So that's why I drew Dale Gunn in there--and yes, he did look like me [laughs]--I wanted a guy in there who was that human voice. But it never really worked out that well in the scripts.

Which is a shame, because Gerry was a good guy, very nice to me, and DC was playing games with the characters. They wanted to do something with Aquaman, so they told Gerry you have to set it up, but he was like "But then you're going to mess up my story line", so I could see Gerry being very frustrated with that. I was more than frustrated and powerless over the book as well, especially in the series' direction and the editing.
AMS: Yeah! When he told me that, it really drove me nuts--Gerry had taken Aquaman to a bad place, but he was doing something with it, going somewhere, and DC's like "No, no, no, we've got to pull him out for the mini-series." Gee, thanks--you've got him being an a-hole here, with no denouement.

CP: It's funny, because I would ask Alan straight-up how the book is doing. My biggest shock--we're coming back 20 years later, and you're telling me you and some other guys like what I was doing--at the time, and until the day I left DC, I thought I was the most despised guy at DC. I felt blamed for co-creating the characters that brought the book to its near demise.

AMS: Oh, wow--no, I always liked your work, and that was one of the things I thought was so odd at the time. As a kid, you pick up on things, and at the time the JLA book seemed very rickety, in that you had come on, been on for a while, done some really great work, and then--bang!--you were gone. And no one even mentioned it on the letters page--one month you had George Tuska filling in, and then a few months later, you had someone else as the new regular penciller, and as a kid, I was like "Well, what happened to Chuck Patton?!?"

The fact that Alan Gold never mentioned it, it felt very disjointed, very strange. And they even did the same thing with Gerry Conway, about a year later--in the middle of a story line, he was just gone.

CP: I got along with Alan, but I would ask him how the book was doing, are kids liking it, are the fans liking it, and he would tell me it was 50/50. And Nick Cuti was his assistant at the time, and he would give me another thing, something like "Well, its 50/50, but people like what you're doing, but not so much liking the characters." And I was like okay, that's telling me something.

AMS: So what finally happened?

CP: By this time, I felt more powerless and frustrated over the book from story direction to editing and it was time to go. I was living in Los Angeles by then so I called Alan and said, "I'd like to move on, I'd like to do another book", and he said, "Well, you've got Justice League, you can't 'move on'", and I said, "No, I'd really like to." And God bless Marv [Wolfman], he gave me a Teen Titans try-out, with the idea that maybe I'd come on as a regular penciller.

I followed the book [Justice League] afterwards to see if I got some sort of goodbye, and--nope.

I tried Titans, which kept going between different people, like Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, so I kept trying for a regular gig, and I almost got one on Vigilante, another Marv book. I did a Blue Beetle for Len, but it wasn't a regular book--it was Paris Cullins' book. I was getting the feeling that DC had nothing for me. By that time, I had made contact with Marvel, and did some fill-in stuff for them. I kept feeling that, whatever the "magic" was, I wasn't getting it. Whatever's going on in comics, I'm just missing it.
I was then doing the Nightwing story [for Action Comics Weekly], and at some point they got an inker on it who I really didn't like, didn't follow my pencils. I asked to do a color-hold, and DC told me they couldn't afford it. I said "George [Perez] is doing color-holds all the time!", but they still said no.

After that, I got an offer from DIC, who wanted someone to work in their development department. I worked on Ghostbusters, then COPS, becoming the 'go-to guy' for designing most of the superhero/action adventure properties in house at DIC.

From there I went from Art Director to Director to eventually Director/Producer for such shows as GI Joe, Double Dragon, Inspector Gadget, Kong and others. The high point of my animation career was winning the Emmy for my work on HBO's Spawn with Frank Paur. An accomplishment I'm also very proud of was revamping the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for 4 Kids and a slew of other properties down the line.

AMS: What are you working on now?

CP: Well, I'm waiting to hear if there's going to be a sequel to my movie, Dead Space Downfall. I'm also just starting to develop some personal projects as well as doing storyboard work to keep me busy. Right now I'm working on the Secret Saturdays show and having a blast.

When I'm not directing, I usually do storyboard work. Ironically, I've done boards for Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes, two books I drew back in the day. Funny too cause in doing those, I missed out working on Justice League Unlimited where the JLA Detroiters appeared. Lucky me--lol.

A good friend of mine is creating a website for me, digging up stuff I've done and haven't seen in years.

AMS: I'm glad to hear that. Well, Chuck, thanks so much for talking to me for the Shrine. It was great to finally get talk to you, after enjoying your work for so long. I appreciate it, and let me know when your site is up and running!

CP: I'll do that. You know, I haven't ever really thought about blogs or websites until I saw what you guys have done. I have artists that work under me, and they said, "You never listened to us about getting a blog!" They were looking at your blog and going, "See? We told you!" I have to say, you guys really gave me a shot in the arm. I'm being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

I thank you and the fans for giving me the chance to talk about something I haven't talked about in years. This was great, and I really appreciate it.


Sean Tiffany said...

Excellent, excellent interview! Great job, Robbo!

Russell said...

Awesome! Thank you, Rob, and thank YOU, Chuck! You were always one of my favorites, and I'm glad to read you're doing well.

Neal Snow said...

Sounds like a cool guy.

Diabolu Frank said...

A great interview, but was any of that stuff you couldn't use Detroit-oriented? I posted links and extended comments here, and from my grousing you can tell I'm hoping you're planning a Post-Script for the JLA Satellite.

Pete said...

Oh man Rob, thanks so much for this interview!! Like you, Chuck is one of my favorite artists and I was reading JLA at the same time and was very saddened and confused by Chuck leaving the book. I bought whatever stuff of his I could find after that, but it was such a shame he never got another full time assignment. BTW, I always liked the way his stuff looked in Action Comics Weekly because I thought it gave his pencils a kind of manga-esque quality. Thanks for all the great work, Chuck, and can't wait to check out your site.

Siskoid said...

So THAT'S the story! In my head, because I was a kid when I first picked up a Patton book and he then soon left the business, I thought for sure he was an older artist. Certainly had an accomplished old school style!

He drew my first issue of JLA ever (which is the one you posted about with Vulko there) and drew me into Tales of the Teen Titans.

rob! said...


There was some Detroit talk I left out, but not too much. He credited Gerry for making The Martian Manhunter a top-tier DC character again.

Chuck's a great interview, and someone with a forum more suited to a long-form career overview (like the late, great Comic Book Artist magazine) should do an interview with him about the whole of his life and career, he deserves it.

Vincent Paul Bartilucci said...

Great interview with a great artist!

Like so many others, I always wondered where Mr. Patton had gone. The mystery is now solved.

Chuck, come back to comics! They really need you!

matthew jones said...

An excellent interview. Chuck Patton is a good and very under-rated artistwh comes across as a nice guy as too. Good to know that's he been doing alright outside of comics, but I'd love to see him drawing the odd comic again. He draws a great Aquaman.

Diabolu Frank said...

Yeah, I also followed Chuck around-- DC Challenge, Secret Origins, Action Comics Weekly, Teen Titans... I never got the nomad bit.

rob!-- Thanks for the info. Honestly, I suspect Chuck's got a lot of negative associations with the Detroit era characters, so I guess he's pretty divorced from them. He seems to really love the classics, and resent, say, Gypsy for replacing them. I always figured he'd at least dig Vixen, though. He's my favorite artist on that character.

I didn't realize Comic Book Artist ended. I bought that book for the first few years, but the price hikes turned me off. I still pick up the occasional Back Issue magazine, though.

BentonGrey said...

Thanks for the excellent interview Rob! It's interesting to see the perspective of the artists who have to put up with the DC editorial staff monkeying with characters and such. His art on these books was fantastic though, no two ways about it.

Also, I've been really enjoying the Secret Saturdays! It is one of my favorite shows on TV these days. It reminds me of that great adventure fare that was Johnny Quest and the like, but it is also something new and interesting.

Christian said...

I'm re-reading the JLA Detroit run at the moment, and was wondering why Chuck left the industry, having seemingly come out of nowhere. Thanks for having a great blog with such a good interview regarding it.

There are any number of good Conway/Patton moments in the run, and for me Chuck's Steel and Vixen are definitive (not that there's a slew of artists doing Steel for obvious reasons). There have been some great Aquaman artists down the decades, but Chuck really brings him to the fore in his JLA run. You can really believe he's capable of leading the others.

While it's great that Chuck has done so well out of comics over the years, it's a shame that we don't have nearly as many issues to look back on as we could have done. Reading his work today is still as entertaining as it was then.

Chuck Wells said...

Man, it was both great and depressing to read this interview. I also thought that Patton was a wonderful choice for the Justice League and he did solid, dependable work on the other series that he mentioned.

There's gotta be more to the story behind why he vanished all those years ago, but even if it's none of my business, THE COMIC BOOK BUSINESS has been the poorer in his absence.

Patton was a terrific artist who is well deserving of wider recognition.