At the recent 20th annual Motor City Con, which ran May 15-17th, I had a chance to talk to one of the true legends among comic book artists: Frank Brunner. Frank’s career spans forty years in which he’s worked in comics, putting his flourish on many classics such as Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, Dr. Strange, Conan the Barbarian and Howard the Duck. He's also done extensive work in animation touching such efforts as Johnny Quest, Pirates of Dark Water and the classic X-Men cartoon.
Below is a transcript of my conversation with Comics Legend Frank Brunner:
Mania: Frank what was your first professional work in comics?
Brunner: well…Castle of Frankenstein. It was my amateur period and I was just breaking in. Basically I consider my first true professional work to be Web of Horror and some of the Warren (magazines) work…Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella.
Mania: I have had the chance to interview a number of people who have worked for Warren and everybody always has an interesting story to tell about Jim Warren. Do you have a good one?
Brunner: Sure…Web of Horror has just folded and I had three unpublished stories so I took them over to Warren. Warren was interested in everybody who had worked at Web of Horror because it frightened him…it was a better book than he had at the time. So he’s looking at the artwork and suddenly he confronts me with something I had said at a New York convention, one of those old Phil Seuling conventions where I called him a son of a bitch. And he confronted me with this. I’m sitting there and trying to come up with something and I said it was taken out of context (laughter) that kind of thing.
The phone rings and it was Ralph Reese, another artist who was coming over from Web of Horror. He was outside the building downstairs and he was calling Warren to tell him he had just left his art job in the taxi cab and the job was gone…it rode off somewhere. So Warren explodes on the phone at him. He says (mimicking Warren’s voice, “I’ve got Frank Brunner here. Frank would you do something so stupid?” I go “No, no Ralph that was really dumb!” (wild laughter). Anyway he completely forgot about the son of a bitch remark. So I hate to say Ralph came to my rescue but he did.
Mania: You guys had a lot of freedom at Warren to do whatever you wanted in terms of your artwork?
Brunner: Pretty much, you only had to please Warren. One time I finished penciling a story and I showed it to him and he comes to one dramatic panel and says you can do better than that Frank. And I said, “Really?” And he says I’ll tell you what I’ll bet you ten dollars you can do better than that. So I figured for ten bucks I’d take it back up and re-draw it. I did do better and I won the bet and Warren borrows the money borrows the money from his production designer. He opened his wallet and moths flew out (laughter).
Mania: He was noted as being pretty thrifty right?
Brunner: Oh Yeah. I think he had two wallets, one that he showed the artists which was empty and some other wallet for everyone else.
Mania: How much work did you do for Warren?
Brunner: Not a whole lot, about four stories.
Mania: And what was your first work at Marvel?
Brunner: Umm…Chamber of Chills although I was on the production staff for about six months where I did some inking. I Inked a back-up story in Silver Surfer #6 (vol. 1). So that was my first true Marvel work but as far as completely my own work it was Chamber of Chills.
Mania: So that would have been late 1960s?
Brunner: Yeah, 1696.
Mania: Lets talk about Doctor Strange which was your longest run on any particular title.
Mania: That run still sticks in my mind because of the cosmic nature of your art. As I mentioned to you recently I interviewed Steve Englehart and we talked a little bit about the Lovecraftian influence…
Brunner: Well that was at the beginning but I wanted to get away from Lovecraft because I felt the Lovecraft stuff was mainly horror and creepy, heebie jeebies kind of stuff. I wanted to get more into the straight cosmic stuff. So we just toyed with it and finished off the Shuma Gorath storyline and then we went off in our own direction. But basically it was a labor of love.
Mania: Now you guys did a story where the sorcerer Cagliostro goes back to the dawn of time and essentially becomes God.
Mania: If I recall correctly you had the image of God spelled out in words “GOD”.
Brunner: Oh Yeah. That’s when…before he actually becomes God though he has God-like powers during the time of Sodom and Gomorrah and he’s blasting the bad guys and the words “GOD” are behind him.
Mania: Did you guys catch any flak from the editors or religious groups or anything like that over that story.
Brunner: Yeah. Well, Stan Lee insisted we print a retraction about the whole story. He wanted us to say it wasn’t THE God it was just A God, and we didn’t want to do that. So Steve and I cooked up a little plot to have a certain reverend in Texas write to Marvel Comics about the story and say it was the best story he had ever read. And somehow the letter got to Stan and that one letter changed Stan’s mind about it. We got the message a few weeks later to print the letter instead of the retraction. And it was our own letter (laughter).
Mania: Why did you leave Doctor Strange?
Brunner: I had done the two major storylines that I wanted to do and I was frankly out of gas at that point and I wanted to do something completely different, and I saw Howard the Duck and I said now there’s something completely different. I thought I was just leaving temporarily but it turned out to be longer.
Mania: That segues into my next question. That cover for Howard the Duck #1 is one of the most well-known covers of the 1970s and really of all time. It’s got the Conan but also the Carl Barks whole influence going on. What was the concept for the cover? What were you going for and did you get what you wanted?
Brunner: Yeah, basically I just wanted to express the title or subtitle which was “Trapped in a World he Never Made”. I wanted to bring that essence so here he is holding a sword he doesn’t even know how to handle. There’s a shadow of a barbarian coming at him with a sword and behind him is the beautiful girl barbarian. And it’s so incongruous, the whole thing but somehow it hangs together.
Mania: Well it’s a great cover and everytime I see it I look at it and say WOW it’s just fantastic.
Brunner: Well thank you.
Mania: We mentioned Conan and you and Roy Thomas adapted the Scarlet Citadel for The Savage Sword of Conan Magazine. And it was a full-length story, one of Robert E. Howard’s original stories…and gain it had a great cover, I can’t remember which issue it was
Brunner: Number Thirty.
Mania: Right, thirty. Tell me about that cover and that story. How long did that take you to complete?
Brunner: Oh yes that story took me longer than it should have taken me; I guess I worked on it over the course of a year. It was a 48-page story and an oil painting for the cover. I was losing money like crazy doing that story because it was just taking too long to do but it was something I wanted to get done. Roy was the writer but I was the one who really had to adapt it because Roy just sent me the paperback and said, “Here, this is what you’re drawing”, so it was up to me to break it down…what to leave in and what to leave out. Believe me there was quite a few sequences that you had to leave out, you couldn’t fit it into a fifty page story. So basically I was adapting it and he was doing the dialogue.
Mania: It’s one of the best adaptations in Savage Sword and I always wished you had done more Conan stories.
Brunner: Well that story was picked long before it appeared. Roy went to all his favorite artists and said pick one of the great Howard stories. John Buscema got “A Witch Shall be Born” and I picked “The Scarlet Citadel” because it was one of my favorite stories and by the time I would come back for another all the great stories were taken so then you’d be just working with another comic book story.
Mania: When I was getting into comics in the 1970s my friends and I had this group of artists that we considered the rock stars of comic artists…you, Jim Starlin, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko…guys who came in, never remained very long on a title. Maybe just did a guest shot or a cover…were you aware of that status you had among fans at that time?
Brunner: I think we became aware of it, yes. But we all felt a little guilty that we never stuck with anything.
Mania: That kind of lent into that mystique…
Brunner: I guess
Mania: You guys would blow into town and we’d be like its got a Brunner cover we got to get that even if we don’t read that title…
Brunner: Well I’m glad it worked out that way. I was the kind of person…I was a young guy I wanted to have a personal life besides doing comic books, you know. And the old guys who would do a hundred issues, that’s all they did. I’m just glad that people appreciate the smaller amount of work and appreciated the quality versus quantity.
Mania: So you left Marvel in the late 1970s I think?
Brunner: 1978 or 1979.
Mania: And why was that?
Brunner: They instituted a new contract because copyright laws in 1978 and Marvel had to decide what they were going to do about this new copyright law, which gave new rights to the artists. So they came down like a ton of bricks. They said we own everything you ever did and everything you ever will do and what you’re working on right now. I couldn’t sign. You can’t own everything I did, that was done under a different…situation. So we were at an impasse and I decided to go somewhere else.
Mania: Were you able to get most of your art back?
Brunner: Most of it, most of it at Marvel. When they finally decided to return it I got most of it back.
Mania: When you left Marvel you began working for some of the early independent publishers, right?
Brunner: Right I did Warp for First Comics, I did Star Reach for Mike Friedrich, I worked also with Eclipse Comics and Pacific Comics. Then in 1984 after the implosion of the direst sales market that’s when I moved out to Hollywood and got into animation.
Mania: I know you worked on a number of well-known animation projects…Skelton Warriors, Dino Riders…
Brunner: The second season of Jonny Quest, The Pirates of Dark Water, and of course X-Men (the Animated Series).
Mania: Now you were in charge of designing the look of the X-Men for the animated show, correct?
Brunner: Yes. I was the head of character design on those shows. I don’t do animation I was just designing.
Mania: Now obviously, people know how the X-Men are supposed to look because they’ve seen them in comics for years. So as you go into designing them what was the goal?
Brunner: Well it was always a struggle to keep try to keep the character as close to the comic books with the essence and the flavor because a lot of them had very complicated costumes and animation doesn’t lend itself, especially Korean animation, to that kind of thing at the time. So we had to simplify it but still keep the flavor somehow and that was not an easy thing to do.
Mania: I recently had the chance to review the newly released X-Men animated series on DVD and that show really did usher in a new era as far as superhero animation because shows in the 60s and 70s were very watered down, they were for kids and Saturday mornings…
Brunner: Right. Before that you mainly had shows like Super Friends…Hanna Barbera Studios..which was really quite watered down so X-Men was definitely a step up in superhero animation.
At this point a con staffer was waving at me desperately. Frank was needed for his scheduled discussion in the speaker room.
Mania: Well Frank I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to Mania today. You’re one of the great comic book artists of all time and it was a pleasure to tale to you.
Brunner: Thank you.