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DF Interview: Jerry Ordway, Part 2: Superman, Shazam, DC doubts and freelancing
By Byron Brewer
As Superman made his inevitable return, other projects loomed in Jerry Ordway’s future, although he would always be identified with the Man of Steel because of the quality of the tales he had done.
An appointment revamping the Big Red Cheese, some cross-universe work in the 616 and finally a lack of name-mention in the New 52 were coming. Here is what Ordway told Dynamic Forces about those years, and now.
Dynamic Forces: Jerry, you really became associated with Superman and his adventures after the noteworthy “Death of Superman” storyline. The character of course returned to comics after a hiatus in which everyone was claiming to be a part of the Man of Steel. How did it feel to have your work – inks over John Byrne’s pencils, I believe – appearing in Time magazine?
Jerry Ordway: I worked on the Superman team from 1986 until 1993, on several storylines that fans seemed to like and remember, from Panic in the Sky to the engagement storyline through the Death of Superman. It was a great, exciting time for me. When we relaunched in 1986, the 50th anniversary celebration of Superman’s appearance was building, a yearlong event and I was lucky enough to be part of the Smithsonian exhibit’s opening, the great party at the Puck building at the wrap-up, and also represented on a Time Magazine cover and inside feature. That came about courtesy of John Byrne and the DC publicity department. John certainly could have inked the stuff himself, but he was cool about having me ink. I also lettered and did a color guide in addition on the interior illustration. Being on Time Magazine in those days was pretty huge, as Time was fairly conservative, and a real world news magazine, not a publicity shill. I got calls from a lot of people I had worked with years earlier, congratulating me. I was told the cover we drew is part of the National Archive, which is awesome.
DF: Talk about those post-“Supes Returns” days, if you will.
Jerry Ordway: Well, I starting my painted Power of Shazam hardcover book in the last year I was on Superman, but when I was done on Superman, I shifted to co-creating and drawing WildStar, for Image, with Al Gordon in 1993. We were one of the first non Image-founder books, and very successful. After that I worked on covers for various publishers, inked part of a Valiant crossover, finished the Power of Shazam stand-alone book, jumped onto finishing Zero Hour, and launched the Power of Shazam comic series, as writer and cover artist.
DF: As I reader, I was shocked (in a good way, lol) when you masterminded (that a correct term) the return of Captain Marvel (now called Shazam in the New 52) to the DC Universe. How did that occur, and what do you recall of the project?
Jerry Ordway: Well, to backtrack a little, to around 1990, (I think) my friend, editor Jonathan Peterson had been working with John Byrne on an OMAC project, and had convinced John to relaunch Captain Marvel next. I was really looking forward to that, but then there was a problem. John was promised a ground-floor revamp, where he could re-introduce the Shazam mythos freshly. Well, another editorial office had a crossover in the works called War of the Gods, which used all the established Captain Marvel characters in an integral way, storywise. John’s Shazam project was supposed to come out in and around that crossover, and he felt that was not right, and undermined his version. I had to agree. It was a screwy situation. So anyhow, after the dust cleared, Jonathan pitched me on doing the revamp, and we hatched a plot to play off of the great Republic Pictures serial from the 1940’s. Having drawn the 1989 Batman movie adaptation, Jonathan and I liked the idea of doing the book as if it were a movie being made of the property. I begged to be allowed to do full color artwork, though there were challenges for the production process. Since I incorporated black shadow and line art in the process, they had to do an extra step in the color separation in order to keep the black really dense, not washed out.
When the 92 page hardcover book was done, I was relieved. It came out in 1995, and quickly sold out. There was always meant to be a regular comic version, which was why I preserved a clean copy of the art in black and white, to receive a traditional flat color separation. We felt a 20 dollar book would get a bigger audience with a regular 4 issue comic miniseries edition, though DC decided to simply do a softcover of the project with a lower cover price.
DF: The Power of Shazam HC OGN was gorgeous! I did not know you were a painter as well. And an ongoing followed, correct?
Jerry Ordway: I always saw my art in color, in my head, so it was frustrating to be disappointed in the color schemes put on my pages over the years. I certainly liked some of the coloring I got, but it was never what I had in mind. Color is very personal, and we all have favorite palettes. I had painted stuff at the Commercial art studio, as well as on covers of DC projects, but never a complete story. That was a learning experience, in a good way. I studied the color work in early Disney cartoons, and was also inspired by the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940’s.
DC had been pushing me to launch a regular Shazam series, but I was busy on Zero Hour, so I agreed to write the book, and to paint covers. We were all set to spin out of Zero Hour, with Mike Weiringo as the artist, until Mike suddenly quit to work at Marvel. That set us back several months until we got Peter Krause to step in to pencil it, with Mike Manley on inks. We had a successful run, and a lot of fun! We sold in the middle of the pack, but were still successful, until DC decided they wanted me on another project. They did the stupidest thing imaginable from a business point of view—they announced the cancellation at Wizard Chicago con in July 1998, a full six months before the end, which of course just killed the sales on those last issues. I will never understand what was gained by that.
DF: How did the work on Marvel’s Avengers and later Maximum Security come about for this DC boy?
Jerry Ordway: Around my last year on Shazam, I was asked to return to Adventures of Superman, to dialogue the book over Karl Kesel’s plots, as Karl had another project demanding his time. Well, he planned on leaving the book at the end of that year, and I was asked to come back as the writer, which I was happy to do. I had wanted another shot at Superman, armed with my experiences from the preceding few years, out of John Byrne’s large shadow. He had loomed large even after he left Superman, because the revamp was our template, our starting point. Running Shazam for 4 years, I feel like I found my own voice, and wanted to try that on Superman. Well, I was waiting on my new contract, and still dialoguing over Karl’s plots, when a new editor took over the Superman titles. Against his supervisor’s directive, the editor fired me. We had all been told we’d be given a chance with the new guy, but he blindsided me. I believe Mark Schulz and Dan Jurgens were able to continue, but Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Tom Grummett, Paul Ryan, and Jon Bogdanove were gone as well as their inkers. I asked DC to guarantee me a years worth of writing on another book, since this was what my contract was worth, but they wouldn’t do that. My third child was on the way at the time, which makes a father a little weird about how to provide for the family, so I didn’t take any of this well. Shazam was derailed and I was finishing the last issues as my son was born. I felt like I deserved better from DC, and still do.
Marvel called and asked me to ink John Buscema on an issue of Thor, and I jumped at it. They followed by asking me to do 3 fill ins on Avengers to spell Busiek and Perez, who had fallen behind. I was thrilled, having been such a Marvel Comics fan as a kid. I went on do an issue of Captain America, a Thor Annual, an Avengers mini-series, “the Domination Factor” as well as a company crossover, “Maximum Security” and a USAgent miniseries before the Marvel work dried up. It was a blast while it lasted, though I wish it had lasted longer!
DF: What are some of your other non-DC work highlights, in your opinion?
Jerry Ordway: Well, I am proud of my Messenger book from Image, in 1999, as well as my work with Alan Moore on several Tom Strong comics. I did a few cool miniseries such as “Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct”, “Red Menace” and more recently, “Human Bomb.” Over the years I worked on the original Crisis, Infinite Crisis, Zero Hour, Maximum Security, and Valiant’s Chaos. That’s a lot of crossovers and characters represented!
DF: Elephant in the room: You made industry headlines in 2013 with your essay on ageism on the comics industry. If you don’t mind, tell us about that and any fallout/results/changes from it.
Jerry Ordway: Well, I’m glad I wrote it. My intent was to talk about the treatment I received under an exclusive contract while at DC, first and foremost, though of course there is an aspect of ageism to it. I took my share of blame, in that essay, in allowing myself to walk down the dark alleyway, hand in hand with DC. Everyone wants to be special, and to be valued as an employee. I had that at DC from the early 80’s until 1998. When I returned to the company in 2001, I spent my time trying to get back onto the “a” list, thinking the exclusive contract was the way to do that. “They want me to be exclusive—they must have plans for me.” Otherwise, why sign me?
As they extended the contract renewals year after year, I kept thinking, “this will be the year they put me back on a monthly title,” though it never happened. I would work for a stretch for an editor who liked my work, and then that editor would leave the company. There was a lot of editorial turnover in those years. By my last renewal, I should have seen the writing on the wall, as it lacked the clause that guaranteed a specific amount of work, as well as the end of contract bonus payment. I was told that DC was phasing out those perks, and offered a slightly higher page rate, so I stayed with it. DC had never stiffed me on a contract before. If you had a contract, the company had that obligation to keep you busy, and they made sure you had a job lined up after you finished the one you were on. In my last contract year, I had to bug editors for jobs, and often had stretches of a couple of months between assignments, but unable to seek work elsewhere. I did some commissions, and pitched story ideas to them in the interim, but fumed when I saw them assemble teams for 52 new titles without including me. That lead to a painful joke at my expense, which went like this, “I know I’m not in your top ten, but it hurts to know I’m not in the top fifty-two!”
It’s all water under the bridge now. It happened, and people talked about it for a while, then moved on to something else. I’m still standing. I see now that the blog post was a way for me sever the cord with DC, to move forward, past wanting or expecting a monthly comic assignment again. My body of work is still out there, and I am proud of it. The company is still selling it, which is also great. But at the same time, I’m not done with continuity, or wanting to draw comics and tell stories.
DF: As many fans wonder, what is the fantastic artist Jerry Ordway up to today?
Jerry Ordway: At the moment, I am wrapping up the sixth chapter of a serial that is running in Dark Horse Presents called Semiautomagic, written by Alex DeCampi. I recently completed a multi-part story in Spongebob Comics, which earned me some new fans. I still enjoy what I do, and am happy for the opportunities to continue making comics. Hopefully I can fit in some more of my own creations onto my schedule in this coming year.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Jerry Ordway for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.
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