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Monday, May 24, 2010

Aquaman Shrine Interview: Steve Skeates on Dick Giordano - 2010

Not too long after I heard the news that Dick Giordano has passed away, I started recalling all those great Aquaman stories he presided over as editor, as part of the team known as "SAG"--standing for (Steve) Skeates, (Jim) Aparo, and Giordano.

I did a small tribute to Mr. Giordano when he died, but I wanted to do something more substantial to honor to the man and his legacy--and his huge impact on Aquaman.

So I decided to ask Steve Skeates if he would like to do another interview with the Shrine, this time centered around his relationship with the late great Mr. Giordano. Steve, generous as always, agreed to recall some of his experiences working with the legendary editor/artist:

Aquaman Shrine: Do you remember when you first met or talked to Dick Giordano?

Steve Skeates: The first time Dick and I encountered each other led directly into the pleasant and highly productive situation of a certain young previously struggling author suddenly finding himself working for quite definitely the best editor anyone who has done comics has ever worked for, although at the time I hadn't the slightest idea such as that would be the outcome of our initial meeting.

The occasion was a small-time New York City comic book convention, taking place in the summer of 1966, back when I was working for Tower Comics, writing stories for such characters as Lightning, NoMan, and Undersea Agent. This was, in fact, the first comic book convention I had ever been to, and I was wandering about gawking and aimlessly blathering to just about everyone I came in contact with. I must have let it slip (in a bragging sort of way, no doubt) that I was working for Tower because suddenly the dude who was running the convention came up to me, informed me that I was the only one there working for Tower and asked if I would be willing to represent Tower during a panel discussion.

Once I had somewhat reluctantly agreed to do so, I wound up sitting on a platform at a long table in front of an audience and next to someone far more comfortable about doing a panel discussion than I was, someone named Dick Giordano. Still, we both acquitted ourselves quite well, were witty, informative, and insightful, although how I was able to pull that off is still a mystery to me. Ultimately, as most of you well know, Tower went out of business, and suddenly I was desperate for work. But then I remembered that editor I had been sitting next to on that panel. A quick phone call later, one that seemingly subtly emphasized (as but a mere reminder, mind you) how eloquent I had been at that convention, and all of a sudden I was happily no longer unemployed!

AMS: You handled a lot of different genres (superheroes, humor, western, mystery) while working for Dick at Charlton. Did you pursue that wide array of material or did he offer most of it to you first?

SS: Once I had made my initial request for work at Charlton, there was certainly no need for me to do any further pursuing! There was such a huge volume of work to be done and so few of us willing (especially considering Charlton's low, low page rate) to do it! Furthermore, what with that just-now-mentioned page rate being less than half the starting rate offered by DC and Marvel (and even decidedly minuscule when compared to the amount Tower had been paying me), one simply had to take on as much work as one could possibly handle in order to make a reasonable living.

As soon as Dick had learned to trust me (and somehow that came quite quickly) he started really piling on the work, and I was only too happy to dig right in, no matter what it was genre-wise! Certainly Dick would preface an assignment for something he knew for me would be something new and different by saying something along the lines of "Would you like to try your hand at some comedy?" or "We need a back-up series for the Hercules book--would you like to devise one?" My answer was always "Sure! You bet!"

It's not so much that I was equally adept at all sorts of genres; more like I was equally inept, but willing and eager to learn. So what back then raced through my typewriter at breakneck speed were Westerns and period pieces and humor stories and those watered-down horror tales that in comics are known as "mystery stories." And, I must say, I truly loved the variety!

AMS: It's been widely reported Dick used positive reinforcement to get the best work out of his people. Can you think of an example of this when he was working with you?

SS: The one instance of positive reinforcement I to this day find especially intriguing actually reached beyond merely making me feel good about my work in that it was also designed to push me in a certain direction. In the main, Dick was enough of a comics fan himself that he would not only thoroughly enjoy but also actually get downright excited about the efforts of those whose work he was overseeing, and there of course would be no reason for him to hold back on the enthusiasm, to not heap appropriate praise all over one writer or one particular artist. I do believe that it is particularly hard for a writer to be objective about his own work, and therefore I was often quite surprised by which of my stories would ring Dick's chimes.

For instance, he couldn't say enough positive stuff about a certain western saga of mine (one that ended up in Gunfighters #52, beautifully illustrated by the great Jim Aparo) entitled "The Coward!" whereas I (quite likely being back in that day way too serious-minded and even stogy) saw that baby as being way too over the top and into the disconcerting realm of the utterly cornball.

I was a bit more in the ballpark vis-à-vis Dick's enthusiasm over a Sarge Steel episode entitled "The Case of the Widow’s Revenge!" a piece Dick himself wound up illustrating as but a back-up feature in Judo Master #97. Still, although I did feel I had properly captured the Mickey Spillane milieu, I didn't feel my mystery had anywhere near the number of nifty twists and turns that Dick saw in there! Was I being way too hard on myself back in those days? Did I need to lighten up? Dick may well have thought so, which may in fact be explanation enough for the particular path Dick decided to place me upon.

Then again, though, the one genre of the many that I back then attempted to tackle for which my efforts would invariably knock Dick out was (in all actuality) my lighter stuff, my humor output, which Dick is on record for saying he'd laugh himself silly over! Hey, I wanted to be taken seriously, in itself a silly idea, but Dick saw something in my writing that was pretty much a rarity in comics, a sense of humor that was neither too broad nor too fannish (surely an outgrowth of this correspondent, back in my high school daze, back when I was essentially a fifties variation upon what today would be labeled a "geek," fairly friendless, totally immersing myself in the chuckle-inducing works of people like Robert Benchley, Frank Sullivan, and Donald Ogden Stewart!)!

In any event, when it came time for Dick to give a raise to those guys who had become his two major writers (one Dennis J. O'Neil and the other being myself), he gave Denny a dollar a page raise on everything he would be writing, whereas I got a two dollar raise, but only on my humor stuff. So, of course, I started leaning heavily upon the humor, which ultimately led (once I had made the leap to DC) to my writing something called "The Poster Plague" which was the inspiration for a little comic called Plop!

In addition, back there in the seventies, I won four ACBA Shazam Awards, all of them for humor writing. In a big way, then, I owe Dick a lot for pointing out to me that the writing of laughable material was indeed where my energies should be placed.

AMS: I've read in several places (including interviews with Giordano himself) that the sheer volume of material Charlton needed was a massive grind to get out. Did you feel that pressure or were you happy to take in all the work Dick had to offer?

SS: As mentioned earlier, due to the paltry rates Charlton was paying, one had to take on a lot of work in order to make ends meet! But, as for pressure--no way, man! Not back then! As I also indicated earlier, in those crazy days I was young (hey, do the math!) and energetic, hungry and totally into it, not only wanting as much work as I could get, but as much variety as I could possibly glom onto!

Certainly, were I to take on a comparably intense volume of work these days (or had even attempted such as that in the seventies or eighties), I probably would have had a nervous breakdown or something! However, back there in the mid-to late sixties--wow! Lemme tell yuh, looking back myself at some of the stuff I did back then, even I have a hard time believing the volume and how much (in fact) this goes beyond mere volume as we get into the amount of work I'd cram into each little portion of my mammoth Charlton output!
Take a little story I did for the fourth issue of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves --an eight-pager entitled "The Triangle" in which (for example) there's one page upon which, within its seven panels, there are two captions, three spoken balloons, and ten extremely wordy thought balloons. Also within this tale, this typical example of my relative insanity, there are several changes in point of view, several narrators, and even illustrations that purposely contradict what the captions are saying! Good Lord! Was I trying for a Pulitzer Prize, or what?

AMS: You were one of a handful of people Dick "brought" with him over to DC. Did he ever tell you he planned to do this, or did he just basically start giving you jobs as soon as he got to DC?

SS: Here we touch upon an event that, I’ve recently learned, I've been disseminating over the years a touch of misinformation about, seeing as I had thought that Steve Ditko made the leap from Charlton to DC at the same time that Dick, Jim, Pat, Denny, and I were barging our way in there, whereas, as I've since been informed, Ditko was actually already there even as the rest of us were making our leap, and he, in fact, may have been instrumental in getting DC to offer Dick an editorial position as well as convincing Dick to make the jump!

When I think about it, this does (in fact) make a lot more sense than my previous version, especially considering that both The Creeper and Hawk & Dove (the two new series Ditko would be handling for DC) had already been pretty much totally conceptualized in rather minute detail by the time the five of us got there. Otherwise, though, I do believe I have (and have had) this situation fairly well scoped in that I figure that the other four (okay, okay, I originally thought it was five, but anyway…) most likely got the same sort of phone call from Dick that I received, one informing each one of us that he'd been offered an editorial position at DC, that due to Charlton's recent cancellation of its entire action hero line he had decided to take DC up on its offer, and that he'd love to have each of us join him there!

Personally, I was not particularly pleased with this turn of events. Having previously visited DC in an attempt to expand upon my freelancing work, I had found the people there to be rather unfriendly, downright glum, even tortured, somehow ashamed of what they were doing there, hiding behind the name National Periodicals so that "hopefully" the general public would remain unaware that what they were putting together in those offices was something as "low" as comic books.

Still, I'd mainly be working for Dick who hardly possessed an attitude in any way, shape, or form similar to that which otherwise strangely seemed quite utterly pervasive at that company, continuing a working relationship I quite enjoyed, and now able to apply my talents (such as they were) to rather well known characters while reaping the benefits of a far more reasonable page rate. Pluses and minuses, pros and cons--where would it all lead?

AMS: You've mentioned before Dick offered you two titles--Aquaman or Bomba, The Jungle Boy. I think History can safely say you picked the right one! Did Dick give you any indication of what he was looking for with Aquaman once you accepted the assignment?

SS: Once he'd been made aware of which DC series it was that he'd been hired to helm, Dick obviously gave the characters whose lives he’d now be in charge of quite a bit of thought. Thus, as soon as I had chosen Aquaman over Bomba The Jungle Boy, Dick veritably bombarded me with all sorts of happy ideas!

First came the fact that he had already bestowed the art part of this latest Aquaman incarnation upon none other than Jim Aparo, an artist I had more than merely enjoyed working with at Charlton, someone who was definitely on my wave-length, someone who thought as I did and was therefore able to make my writing look way better than even I'd see it as being (no easy feat, more like an uncanny knack) via his work upon such projects as that never-ending period piece concerning the banished Thane of Bagarth plus various self-contained spooky tales for the likes of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, Strange Suspense Stories, and even that aforementioned issue of Gunfighters; yet it wasn't just the way he drew my stuff that I admired--there was also the artwork he'd provide for other writers, most especially that crazed humor stuff featuring lots of penguins with which he'd beautify Norm DiPluhm’s Bikini Luv series.

Also, Dick had already come up with a nifty overriding plot idea for our upcoming portion of the Aquaman oeuvre--that Mera would get kidnapped and that Aquaman (atop his giant seahorse Storm) would ride around from one undersea community to another, rather endlessly searching for his captured Queen.

Dick likened all of this to a Western, and I could certainly see where he was coming from there, the way Western characters like Kid Colt (a couple of whose adventures I had helped concoct at the very beginning of my career, during my brief stint of work at Marvel) and Kid Montana (who at Charlton had presented me with my big chance to work with one of my all-time favorite artists, Pete Morisi) would wander from one dusty dilapidated Western town to another, always being the "outsider" in whatever adventure they’d get involved in, yet I could also see within Dick’s idea elements of such famed TV fare as The Fugitive, Run For Your Life, Then Came Bronson, etc.--that whole slew of shows that utilized the "adventure-along-the-way" theme that as a kid (for some now hardly even half remembered reason) I had been totally into and then some! All in all, then, definitely digging what Dick wanted done, I happily dove right in!

AMS: What was Dick's reaction to some your more off-beat Aquaman story ideas? ("Is California Sinking?" and "The Creature That Devoured Detroit" come to mind)

SS: Dick may have had fairly conservative political beliefs (which certainly caused me no end of grief when it came to those earlier issues of Hawk and Dove, said beliefs making for my boss, the ultimate decision-maker, way too often being far more in agreement with what Ditko was selling than with where I was coming from, where I wanted to take that series, but surely that’s some other discussion, meant for some other time), and, in his capacity as editor, he may have come off (especially within the visual arena) more like a business man than an artist, yet I had learned early on that Dick possessed quite the soft spot for the totally off-the-wall!

Take the nearly two years in which I had been writing all three of the stories in each issue of Charlton's The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, for example--Dick would invariably choose the wackiest of each trio of those tales to function as that issue's cover story: "The Triangle" in issue four, "The Insomniac" in issue five, "Whatever Happened to Reality" in issue six, "The Mist" in issue eight, etc.

In short, then, I was not (once we had made our way over to DC) at all surprised by what Dick let me "get away with" in Aquaman! There were, however, other forces in play here as well. Dick knew, as we approached the fiftieth issue of the sea king's comic, that I was not one bit pleased by the decision (which everyone else involved seemed utterly--and sadly--in total agreement with) to dive into a three-part story so soon after our big gangly nine-part opening opus!

What I was quite eager to pursue instead was the construction of a whole bunch of one-shots. Once that three-parter was over, then, it may have been merely to put the kibosh on yours truly pouting all the time that Dick finally gave in, allowing me to write such crazed self-contained entities as "Is California Sinking?" "Crime Wave," and "The Creature that Devoured Detroit!"

Keep in mind, though, that those three stories came into being during a period in which Dick was under a lot of stress--embroiled in a number of highly heated arguments with his boss, Carmine Infantino, while trying to decide if he really wanted to leave his editorial position in order to get more deeply involved in that entity known as Continuity Inc. At that particular point in time, then, he certainly didn't need any additional anxiety, so perhaps the easiest thing to do as far as I was concerned was simply to let me have my way.

AMS: Dick had an extraordinary back-and-forth with the Aquaman readers in the letters column. There was much less editorial "distance" maintained and you got the sense he was being extraordinarily honest, sometimes even to DC's detriment. Were you aware of any of this as you were writing the book?

SS: Yes, indeed, I loved that letters page (which usually would stretch on into two pages actually)--thoughtful appraisals, heavy-handed criticism, and especially Dick's responses, sometimes cornball, sometimes self-deprecating, often with no punches pulled.

Living some three hundred miles from NYC, working mainly through the mail and over the phone, visiting the office a mere three or four times a year, generally I couldn't help but wind up reading those letters and those responses at approximately the same time most of you readers out there were dutifully perusing them, i.e.: whenever the latest Aquaman ish would hit the stands! Certainly there were freebie copies of every comic I had contributed to that month waiting for me back in the big city, waiting for me to make my next visit there, but usually, especially in the case of Aquaman, I simply could hardly wait; there in that smoke shop in Hornell, the one that also sold comics, I simply had to buy myself a copy!

Often subsequently I'd be viewing for the first time Jim's artistic interpretation of whatever I had to say, checking out, also for the first time, how deftly Dick had chopped out certain sections of my inane verbosity in order to make the story actually readable, and then there were the letters! It's not so much that I was intensely into discovering what certain readers (the ones who felt so strongly about something or other that they had actually employed an actual pen in order to apply an actual quantity of ink to a piece of paper) thought of one or another previous story of mine (although that impulse was indeed in there)!

Mainly, though, what I loved about that letters page was that it made our product, our comic, an even fuller book. Not only was the reader getting a wacky story by me, beautifully interpreted by Jim and made far more succinct by Dick, with all of that so nicely topped off with a fantastically compelling cover drawn by the great Nick Cardy; there was also an indication, thanks to the letters page, that a one-on-one relationship with the actual editor of this comic was indeed possible! What more could anyone possibly want?

AMS: Did you continue to stay in touch with Dick after Aquaman was canceled, and he left DC?
SS: Suddenly a portion of what passes hereabouts for a brain is zeroing in upon one of those stories you moments ago mentioned, one of the ones within your category of off-the-wall stuff, to be more specific "Is California Sinking?"--a turbulent tale that begins and ends with the same scene, hardly a new, different and original story idea, yet one I had hoped would catch the readers by surprise, even as I was taking pains to point out that the question posed by the title of this story had hardly been answered.
How this relates to another question, the one you just asked, will soon become rather obvious, but right now I wanted to point out that once Dick had departed from DC, I would still run into him quite often. Soon after Dick’s departure I was back living in New York City and would often drop by at the Continuity offices mainly because it was a fun place to hang out--Dick was there of course, along with Neal Adams, Larry Hama, Ralph Reese, and even Jack Abel and Cary Bates.

I never accomplished much of anything there, never picked up on any work or anything like that; it was simply a nifty place to hobnob with various folks, and after a day of fighting with editors and struggling to find work (Aquaman of course had been cancelled; Teen Titans had been given editorially to Murray Boltinoff who wanted Bob Haney to write it rather than myself; Carmine Infantino had tried to read "The Creature that Devoured Detroit," didn’t understand it, didn't like it, and therefore was now against my being given once again any major superhero to write for, so I was scrambling around, picking up whatever assignments I could find--Kid Flash seven-pagers for the back of the Flash comic, mystery stories for House of Secrets and House of Mystery, dialoging jobs in which I would "punch up" stories plotted by Marv Wolfman and E. Nelson Bridwell, work from companies other than DC, like Gold Key, Warren and Red Circle, etc.)--yes, indeed, after a day's worth of all of that, I needed a place in which to wind down (if not collapse) and for that the relaxed atmosphere of Continuity seemed downright perfect.

Ultimately, however, somewhere in the eighties, comics started getting really dark, and after all those life-lessons that had told me to lighten up, I wasn't about to get into anything like that! In other words, I decided to get outta there, to quit comics at least professionally, to move back upstate where subsequently I found employment as a bartender while continuing to write on the side, even getting into self-publishing but (of course) merely as a hobby! At that point I must admit I did lose touch with Dick, had no contact with him for more than two decades as a matter of fact; I had simply moved on to some other sort of life.

Recently, though, what with certain people "rediscovering" me and therefore wanting to interview me for this publication and that publication, this website and that website, and all of that, in turn, making for various invitations to various conventions suddenly showing up in my mailbox, I'd been running into Dick all over the place, at one convention after another. To say it was great to see him again hardly puts enough of a spin on where it was (and is) I'm coming from here.

There's more, though, seeing as, not unlike a well-written story that has taken the reader full circle (something "Is California Sinking?" at least pretends to be), the last time I saw Dick was at last year's Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the two of us were at it again, up on a stage, fielding questions from the audience, doing the comic book panel pastiche! And, though this time around, due to his forever-worsening deafness, all Dick's questions from the crowd had to be repeated, and though I was somehow (surely I need merely blame the relentless onslaught of time) even more bemused and confused than I used to be, it was nonetheless as though the late sixties had come back for one final visit, giving two old friends one last chance to blather not so much at the gathered throng but at each other about comics.

I am eternally grateful to Steve Skeates for making time to do this second interview with the Shrine about his experiences with the great Dick Giordano. Giordano loomed so large in the world of comics--and the world of Aquaman specifically--that I thought it was important for the Shrine to pay him tribute in some substantial way.

Thanks to Steve, and thanks to Dick Giordano. May he have nothing but Good Afternoons.


Colin Smith said...

That is a fascinating interviw. It really is. Both truly touching and informative. I second your wish for the granting of "Good Afternoons". I hope that goes for you as well. Thank you for posting this.

Joe Slab said...

Another gem of an interview Rob! Kudos, you are on a roll here :)

Orin's dad said...

Another great interview, and a very intriguing insight into the world of Mr. Skeates and Mr. Giordano. Thanks Rob!

rob! said...

Thanks guys. Glad you liked it and I REALLY appreciate the comments.

These interview posts I do really confound me, regarding the reaction to them. They are among the highest rated (in terms of hits) posts I do, yet they generate lower-than-average comments.

I have never understood this, but I keep doing them anyway...

Richard said...

Rob, part of the reason you get so few comments on these interview posts might be that there's so rarely anything to add. Your approach to these things is very straightforward and unpretentious -- in a good way -- with no sense of any hidden agenda. And it seems like the subjects respond to your interest and enthusiasm in equal measure; I have yet to read one of these where your subject didn't come across as gratified by the questions and pleased to talk about this stuff. So basically, all that's left for us to say is "Wow, that was really good. I liked that." And how many times can someone say that before it sounds trite?

This particular interview reminds me how much interesting stuff Steve Skeates has participated in and witnessed, and how cool it is to get his insights. I just spent the whole time going "Yeah, that was cool…oh, I liked that one…wow, he digs Pete Morisi too, that's awesome!" And somewhere in there, I'm whacking my head for never realizing his Aquaman run was actually a western. So obvious once it's been pointed out, you know? Great stuff.

Mykal Banta said...

Rob: Just excellent work. This interview is such a great piece of comic book history. It really speaks to what a fine working relationship existed between Mr. Skeates and Mr. Giordano. I loved hearing about Mr. Skeates’ Charlton days. What also leaps of the page is what a fine individual Mr. Skeates is - and what a fine fellow Mr. Giordano (sadly) was. Thanks for this