The Dick Giordano Interview (Part One of Three)

Posted by on March 31st, 2010 at 11:35 PM

Giordano photograph taken by Gary Groth in July of 1969

Dick Giordano was born July 20, 1932 in New York City. He studied at the School of Industrial Art, and began his comic-book career in 1951 working on Fiction House’s Sheena for the Jerry Iger Studio. His affiliation with Charlton Comics began in 1952 and ended in 1968 when he moved to an editorial position at DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications).

Giordano is as well-known — and well-loved  — for his editorial skills as he is for his considerable talent as an artist. His editorial experience at Charlton (from 1966 to ’68) served him well at National, where he proceeded to become one of the company’s most artistically successful editors. (His titles have been lamented because of their failed sales record and praised for their energetic editorial quality.) He not only gave a new vitality to National’s established titles — such as Blackhawk, Aquaman, and Teen Titans — but established himself as an editorial whiz with such titles as Steve Ditko’s Beware the Creeper and Hawk & Dove, as well as The Secret Six, written by Joe Gill, and drawn by Jack Sparling.

Within the context of mainstream comics, Giordano’s books redefined their standards, and proved that even within the confines of mass-market comics, a superior editorial approach can shape and enhance — even galvanize — the artists’ and writers’ work. His books were lively, fresh, original, and, like Giordano himself, reflected a genuine enthusiasm for the genre.

In addition to his unique ability to cultivate talent, he is one of comics’ most accomplished and disciplined craftsmen. His sharp, angular inking could be mistaken for cold-edged harshness, even utilitarianism, but it belies the considered judgment and singular appropriateness he brings to each artist he inks. Compare his inking on two such dissimilar artists as Neal Adams and Alex Toth, and notice how much he adds to both men’s work by approaching them differently, and yet retaining his own crisp signature. As someone who has always been suspicious of an inker’s role in the production of comics art, I found Giordano’s thoughts on the matter especially illuminating.

Panel from "A Vow from the Grave" in Detective Comics #410, written by Denny O'Neil, penciled by Neal Adams and inked by Giordano

Panel from Hot Wheels #1, written by Joe Gill, penciled by Alex Toth and inked by Giordano ©1970 Ken Snyder Properties, Inc.

He’s also that rarest of all things — an optimistic realist. He’s one of the few artists I know in the comics business who recognizes (and deplores) the immense limitations of commercial comics. As a result, he’s refreshingly honest about his approach to his art: he balances his routine comics work with his more experimental material in alternative markets — notably Sojourn and Star*Reach. He is more interested in the art of storytelling than he is in endless rendering technique, so his emphasis is on the narrative (another rare quality among comics artists!), which may have been the key to his editorial success.

In addition to being multi-talented, he’s also among the most scrupulously fair-minded individuals in the comics industry. Talking to Dick for five hours is a privilege, and I hope our readers share that feeling upon reading this interview.

—GARY GROTH

This interview was conducted in Dick Giordano’s studio in Stratford, CT in September, 1980. It was transcribed by Gary Groth, edited by Kim Thompson, and copy-edited by Giordano.

GARY GROTH: Why don’t we start with the most topical reference — that is, your editorial position at DC. Can you articulate the specific editorial point of view you’re attempting to bring to these books?

DICK GIORDANO: That’s a tough question. It encompasses an awful lot of things. My first responsibility is, to my mind, to my reader, not to my publisher or anyone else. The only way I can do that is to edit comic books that I feel comfortable with. That’s the way I edited before. I can’t do it any other way. I have a feeling that if I think, “My reader is a 13 or a 14 year old,” and come up with a profile based on age, what I’m going to do is write down to them. So, I can’t approach it that way. I have to go by what I think is fun to read. Perhaps that means I’m 13 or 14 years old. [Laughter.] I’m not sure. But, that’s the way I edit comics. I’m bored with reading some of the things that I read today, so I’m going to DC and edit some comic books that I might have some fun reading. I will then hope that everyone else who buys that comic book agrees with my taste and will enjoy reading it.

Any time that I’ve edited in the past — both at Charlton and at DC — that was my attitude: I’m putting together a book for me and if you like it, fine. If you don’t, I’m not going to change anything.

GROTH: The books you edited for DC 12 years ago had a special quality. They were fresh, they were entertaining, they were interesting. Can you describe what your editorial approach at the time was? How did you get the best out of the people you worked with — Denny O’Neil, Nick Cardy, and others?

GIORDANO: It’s simple. I think you answered the question: The people I worked with. I tried to establish a situation where we were all working together, perhaps having some fun in the process. The work part of it was pushed into the background, and the fun part was upfront, so we were all doing comic books that we wanted to do. You mentioned Denny O’Neil. When Denny started working with me at Charlton, I said to Denny, “You probably won’t make any money, working with us, but we’ll have a lot of fun.”He has since admitted that that was exactly true. He made absolutely no money, but we had a lot of fun. I tried to keep that feeling when I got to DC, and I’m trying to do the same thing now. It’s a personal thing with me. I have been able to keep my enthusiasm — through 30 years of being in the comics industry — by not thinking of it as work. I get up in the morning and I sit down at a drawing table and I do something that I want to do, and to me that’s fun. As long as you can keep it that way, it’s never work. It’s kind of a hobby, a surprising hobby because at the end of the week somebody gives me a check for it. Not too many hobbies can claim that.

If I can create the kind of atmosphere where the people I am working with feel as if they’re enjoying themselves and can do things that they want to do, they’re going to do better work than if they are told, “This is the way it is, fella, shape up or you don’t get paid next week.” I really don’t believe that that’s the way to create anything, much less comic books.

You have to have a very special reason to be in the comics industry at any level because there isn’t a whole lot to recommend it. It doesn’t pay well, there are no residuals, there are so many factors that tell you, “Don’t get into the comics industry.” You have to have a real desire to do it, and I attempt to play on that desire with the people that I’m working with and to make them do things that they enjoy doing rather than what they need to do in order to get paid next week.

GROTH: What attracts you to comics, personally?

GIORDANO: I think if I sat down to analyze that I’d come up with a bunch of zeros. I’m not really sure. It’s something like what attracts you to sex. Articulate that for me. It feels good? Will that do it? It feels good.

Storytelling has something to do with it. I think of myself more as a storyteller than as an artist or an editor. That’s my main function in the comics industry, to tell stories and entertain. I have the opportunity to do storyboards and camps [advertising layouts] and make a lot more money. And I’m bored to tears by it. I would rather sit down and ink a Ross Andru cover. I enjoy doing that. I don’t enjoy doing the storyboards and the comps. In terms of how much time I’ve spent on the piece, I might get two or three times the amount of money for doing the comp than I get for doing a Ross Andru cover. But there’s just something I find more interesting about comic books.

I suppose part of it goes back to my being intrigued with comics when I was a kid. I was sickly and I spent a lot of time in bed. One day in the late ’30s. my father came into the room and plunked a Famous Funnies down on my bed — I was 3 or 4 years old — and I’ve been hooked ever since.

GROTH: That seems to be a pretty normal progression. Those of us who are interested in comics now seemed to have an inordinate interest in comics when we were kids.

GIORDANO: Yeah. I was mesmerized by them. I can’t tell you the feeling I had looking at comic books, even before I could read, and being so engrossed with them. I was literally penciling and writing and inking my own comics when I was 7 years old. It captivated me. I can remember my feelings at reading the early Batman issues with the Joker. You don’t know how much of a kick it is for me to have control over those characters now, because they turned me on to comics when I was — what? — 9. I’m talking about ’40 or ’41. I was born in ’32. I was a little kid. I got turned on to the Joker’s white face, and to the feeling of a bat-man. It’s still with me. I still consider that the best superhero character, certainly the best at DC, is Batman.

GROTH: Why do you feel it’s the best character?

GIORDANO: I suppose, partly because he’s not superpowered. The fantasy aspect of comics is very important, but there are times when I feel fantasy goes further than I can accept easily. If you recall my efforts at Charlton, not one of my characters was superpowered, with the possible exception of Captain Atom, which someone created before I got there and I didn’t have too much to do with it. But every other hero was just a normal guy who was well-trained or had some special weapons. To me, that’s always been more interesting. A guy who was not immortal, a person who could be hurt, and who was aided by some superior training or superior technology.

GROTH: Do you feel there’s more potential for that sort of character?

GIORDANO: There’s more you can do with it. I’ve always been a little disturbed by a character like Superman. The only suspense in a Superman story is how he’ll prevail since you know he’s going to come out the winner. That isn’t as true with Batman. Obviously you know he will prevail or there won’t be Batman #339 or whatever the next issue is. But, his physical vulnerability makes him considerably different than the Superman character. It gives me more things to worry about as an editor or as an artist. There’s more suspense that you can build into a Batman story than you can into a Superman story. For a time kryptonite was the only thing that Superman was vulnerable to, and they came up with all kinds of hokey stories to bring kryptonite into it to increase that feeling of suspense.

I admire Julie Schwartz so much because he’s able to do as much as he can with a character that I feel is a limited character.

From Batman: Hollywood Knights #3 (June 2001), written by Bob Layton and drawn by Giordano ©2001 DC Comics

GROTH: What have you thought of Batman under Paul Levitz’s editorship?

GIORDANO: That’s probably the trickiest question you’ve asked me so far.

GROTH: They get worse. [Laughter.]

GIORDANO: I don’t find anything about it that I’m dissatisfied with. I can’t criticize Paul for anything that he’s done because he picked up Batman where it was and carried it logically to where it is. I have no qualms with that. What I object to is where Batman was when Paul Levitz picked it up. I am going to try to get a little closer to the original version. The original Batman, to my mind, is still the most perfect version of Batman. I don’t know if we could go along with Batman’s costume inspiring fear in wrongdoers any more. He’s been around too long. Criminals should pretty much expect him to show up just as they expect a policeman to show up. But, aside from that, I want to try to re-establish the original relationships, between Bruce and Dick, Batman and Robin, and all of them with Commissioner Gordon. I would like to get Bruce Wayne and Batman to be two different people; they’re pretty much the same person now. I’m going to try to deal with his obsession with crime and particularly with petty criminals. That obsession will be modified by staying away from that type of story for a while. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his feeling that way about criminals, but I think to have everything that he does and everything that he says concerned with that obsession might be a little bit too much Johnny-One-Note for my tastes. I would like a broader personality for both Batman and Bruce. I have no idea at all how we’re going to accomplish these things, because I’m not going to make that decision unilaterally. It’s going to be decided by the people who are writing the material, the people who are drawing the material, and myself. Someday we will sit down — or, more probably, get a conference call together since everybody I’m working with is scattered all over the country — and work those details out.

GROTH: I don ‘t want to pry, but could you tell me what you feel DC expects of you as an editor? Obviously you talked with the management at DC. . .

GIORDANO: I’m not really sure. I have a feeling that they expect me to maintain the status quo to some degree, insofar as they would like that I not lose any readership we now have. I don’t think they want me to avoid making changes in the characterization. But, as near as I can tell, the main reason I was hired has to do with projects other than my normal comic-book activities. It’s called Special Projects. I don’t know how that translates to someone who isn’t aware of what special projects are. One thing I might be involved in, I was told yesterday, was a series of career books — public-service kind of comic books that will help young people choose careers. I know no more than that. It might involve DC characters, it might not. But we’re going to be producing these books. That means that I’ll be responsible as the editor of these projects to come up with the concept and then with the scripts to match that concept, then the art and so forth.

I know not a lot of fans like to hear this, but the fact of the matter is that a great deal of money is made by the major comic-book companies on projects that have absolutely nothing to do with the sale of newsstand comics. The Radio Shack job that was offered as a freebie was one such. That’s money in the bank. Quite frankly, they were able to hire me at the kind of money that I would have to have because I would be involved in these special projects.

How valuable what I do on Detective, Brave and Bold, and Batman will be in terms of how much money it will generate, how much cash-flow it will generate, is kind of nebulous. Six months after I close my first issue they’ll start to get sales reports. They couldn’t afford to hire me just to edit newsstand comics.

GROTH: So DC isn’t just utilizing your editorial capabilities, but your facilities here at your agency as well.

GIORDANO: To some degree. Some work may be coming here, but that’s not the big thing. The big thing is that over the past three years I’ve been involved in those special projects as an artist. I probably have a greater background in that area than almost anyone else. It made it possible for them to offer me the kind of money I would need in order to make the switch, but it also gave them the ability to not have the problem of someone else in the company saying, “Hey, I could do that job!” The fact is, they can’t. I’ve had that kind of background they lack. Additionally. I’m one of the few people who can edit comic books that also has a very good knowledge of reproduction methods and production techniques, which is also going to be part of that special projects thing. So, the two combined made it possible for them to put together a package of duties and money that were more than palatable. After my job was outlined for me, there was hardly any way I could turn it down. If I were to have a written description of a job that I would accept it would have come damn close to the conversation I had with Jenette Kahn.

GROTH: When you quit your editorial post at DC before, you said you quit because, “I found I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I thought I could help Carmine [Infantino] and National more as an artist than as an editor since I was headed in one direction and they were headed in another direction, diametrically opposed in many cases. “* Has that situation changed at DC since then?

GIORDANO: Oh, yes, definitely, or I wouldn’t go back there.

GROTH: Could you juxtapose the two situations then and now, as you perceive them?

GIORDANO: As best I can. I want to point out before I do that anything that might sound like a direct criticism of Carmine is unintentional. Personally Carmine and I get along very well. It’s just that Carmine’s approach to what we should be doing and mine were diametrically opposed, and that’s not true with Jenette Kahn. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I’m taking this job is that I’ve come to appreciate Jenette Kahn’s abilities and her efforts at DC so much during the past two or three years that I’ve found that not only could I work for her, but I really wanted to. I found her attitudes about publishing were so close to what I would want to do that I offered my services before the job was offered to me. I told Paul [Levitz], “If an opening comes up. I’m available. Maybe we can’t come to terms, but if an opening comes up, I’d want to talk about it.” This is directly linked to my feelings about Jenette Kahn’s work there. Jenette seems to have the understanding of what’s good for the company and what’s good for the creative people. She maintains a balance. She understands the needs of the creative people and knows what needs to be done in order to get them to do their work properly and to enjoy it. She also understands that she has a responsibility to the company.

In my mind I’ve never been able to separate labor from management. The two are intertwined. The success of one is dependent upon the success of the other. She seems to understand that, and walks the line between keeping Warner Communications happy and keeping her creative people and her editorial staff happy by very simply using an intelligent approach to what needs to be done so that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to and everyone comes to some sort of profit by what they’re doing.

GROTH: How would you describe Jenette’s editorial policy or approach?

GIORDANO: If you mean editorial limitations, there really aren’t any as far as I can tell. In a conversation yesterday, it came out that if I wanted to marry off Bruce Wayne I might have to ask someone before I could do that. But anything short of that, I would pretty much have control over my material. If I wanted to do something special with Batman I would have to tell the editors of World’s Finest and Justice League so that they would not introduce storylines that would interfere with what I had in mind.

GROTH: Is it a myth that ever since the Implosion [in which DC canceled 20 series], Jenette Kahn has been an invisible presence at DC?

GIORDANO: In my experience she has not been an invisible presence. I’ve heard the criticism both before that and since then. Perhaps she’s not visible at all times and some of the troops miss her, but she’s there, she’s controlling what’s happening. She’s totally in control and I admire her for that. She’s involved in a way that I find absolutely amazing. At this conversation that we had at which she offered me this job, I spoke about a script that I was drawing and she told me things about that script that indicated that she’d read it, understood it, and knew something about what we were trying to do. Of course, the script was for Detective #500 and maybe that was special. But the fact was, she knew what was happening, she knows the characters that are in the books, she knows the stories that are written for them. That wasn’t so with Carmine or, I suspect, with Stan Lee. They were never as totally in control as she is.

Each month there is at least one editorial meeting, usually a lunch meeting in Jenette’s office, where we discuss what we’re doing so that she can be brought up to date. If she’s invisible, she’s invisible to people that don’t need to see her. The people that need to see her are aware of her presence and of her influence on the magazines.

GROTH: Has there been a tangible improvement or overall effect due to Jenette’s editorial approach in the comics line?

GIORDANO: In the comic books themselves?

GROTH: Yes.

GIORDANO: That’s a tough question to answer because when you’re evaluating the quality of material it must be a subjective evaluation. It’s your opinion against mine against his opinion, against the opinions of the people who buy comic books. I really have no way to satisfactorily answer that. I do know, though, that DC generally is more cohesive now than before. There is a great deal more attention paid to keeping a character consistent within several books than there has been in the past.

I think that there are some things that need improvement, but if there weren’t things that needed improvement,why would they want to hire someone new? I think there are a lot of things that need improvement at Marvel, too. Unfortunately. I’m not going to have the opportunity to do anything about that.

Again, this is going to be something that not everybody’s going to want to hear, but comic books have a reason to exist other than for enjoyment of someone who buys a comic book at a newsstand. The operation at DC is the most integrated, cohesive, and coordinated operation that I’ve ever seen. The Implosion that you spoke about had the effect of promoting Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman by eliminating secondary titles. Although that might not have been the main reason, the fact is that those are the most merchandisable characters in the DC line and the ones that are the most popular in Europe and in the Orient where licensing of the comic books takes place. What they did was to create a better atmosphere for the entire line and allow them to make more money last year than they had the year before. The Implosion was really an explosion in terms of generating dollars. I don’t want to hear that either, but that’s what they’re in business for. If you want Warner Communications to keep DC Comics running, they have to see black ink at the end of the year.

GROTH: What you’re saying is that they discarded all their marginal characters and marginal books and kept the superstars.

GIORDANO: The marginal characters and books could not do anything but make a few bucks at newsstands. I don’t think that anyone who’s talked about comic books has ever sat down with a pencil and figured out the profit potential of a comic book at the newsstand. Start out with the fact that the publisher gets — gross — 50% of the cover price from the wholesaler. It’s somewhat less from direct sales, but from the wholesaler he gets 50% of the cover price, 25 cents on a, say, 300,000 print run. These days a 40% sale is considered good. What’s 40% of 300,000? One hundred twenty thousand times 25 cents. You deduct from that the distributor’s fee, the amount of money it takes to accept returns, the amount of money it costs to produce the material and distribute it and you end up with a $400.00 profit or something like that. It really comes down to that.

If you take a marginal character and you get a 40% sale, you’re making three or four hundred dollars on it. Well, maybe that’s not bad, but the fact is if you make three or four hundred dollars on Superman, after you’re finished with merchandising and foreign sales that three or four hundred dollars turns into considerably more than that. It makes it possible to pay higher rates, which DC is now doing, and to pay substantial bonuses, which they did at Christmastime. Many of us got a Christmas bonus which was totally unexpected and very, very welcome last year. It was a considerable amount of money because they did well during the Implosion. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Of course, all the books you edited featured marginal characters — Creeper, Hawk and the Dove, Bat Lash.

GIORDANO: Oh, sure. They all did badly, too. That in itself would have been a good reason not to do too much of that. I have to admit that experimentation is more fun than doing Superman and Batman over and over again. I think that the fact that I’m getting one brand new book to experiment with takes the stigma off having to do Batman over and over again the same way. I’m talking about the sword-and-sorcery book that I’ll be doing with Roy Thomas. That’ll be fun. I’ll have three steady, safe books and one that I can experiment with as opposed to eight that were all experimental.

Page from Beware the Creeper #4 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), written by Denny O'Neil, drawn by Steve Ditko, and edited by Giordano ©1968 DC Comics

GROTH: How experimental can a sword-and-sorcery comic be?

GIORDANO: Yeah… well… [Laughter.] You know what the big problem is? There’s a book around called Conan. To me, that’s the biggest problem, made worse because we’re going to have the same writer. My first edict is that it’s not going to be anything like Conan. It’s not going to look like him, sound like him, feel like him, anything. And that’s pretty tough. Particularly given the fact that it’s the same writer and an editor who likes Conan. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Can a leopard change its spots?

GIORDANO: I’m not sure. I wish I could say to you, “Gary, babe, I’m gonna go down there and break the mold.” I really don’t know that I am. I know that I’m going to try — for myself. I have no illusions about it. I’m not going to save DC; I’m going to try because if I can’t enjoy what I’m doing I know I’m not going to do it long. I’m hoping that I’ll have something to do that’s exciting enough to keep me at it for 17 years. They have a retirement plan that’s worth staying there for, but if I can’t get excited about what I’m doing, the retirement plan goes down the pipe like everything else. I don’t know if it will change or not, I don’t know whether I can have an influence on it… I don ‘t know whether anybody else cares [laughter].

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2 Responses to “The Dick Giordano Interview (Part One of Three)”

  1. [...] covers to mark the artist's passing, while at The Comics Journal, Gary Groth resurrects a 1980 interview with Giordano (part one of [...]

  2. [...] work (and its impact on Carlson) — The three-part 1980 Gary Groth interview with Giordano (one, two and [...]