Interview with Jerry Ordway

Interview with Jerry Ordway
This interview is from the May 2009 issue of Crimespree Magazine.


Jon Jordan: Jerry, your career in comics started in I believe 1980 and you worked with Roy Thomas. Roy is a walking encyclopedia of comics, what was it like starting out with such a renowned writer?

Jerry Ordway: Well, it was pretty intimidating, as I was such a fan of his Avengers work in particular. It gave me the feeling that I was definitely in the “big leagues” and I knew I had to prove myself worthy, like some rookie baseball player called up from the triple A farm team.

JJ: It wasn’t too long after that you were working on a comic that quite literally changed the DC Universe. How did you come to Crisis on Infinite Earths?

JO: Well, in terms of time, it was about 5 years, but I gained a fair amount of experience in those years. I made the transition from “inking” on All Star Squadron to “pencilling” and then helped create Infinity Inc with Roy Thomas and fellow Milwaukee artist Mike Machlan, as one of DC comics first comics sold exclusively to comic book shops. And after a year on that, I jumped ship to Marvel comics, and inked Fantastic Four for 8 issues. By that time, DC wanted to lure me back, and I was offered to ink Crisis, which was a big DC project, very high profile.

JJ: When did you add writing to your comics work? Was it around the time of the Superman reworking?

JO: I started writing on Superman, after I had been drawing it for almost 2 years, when the writer, John Byrne quit DC comics. I was lucky, because I had had the chance to show the editor I had good ideas and he helped to train me on the job, editing my copy pretty heavily for the first few issues until I got the hang of things. Comics are fairly terse, as the panels have limitations to how many word balloons you can pile on without putting the readers to sleep. My editor taught me to convey the ideas with less copy, and it helped a lot. Comics are first and foremost a visual medium, and you don’t need flowery prose to set a scene if your scene is clearly drawn. It’s icing on a cake.

JJ: You seem to have a fondness for the classic age of comics and those characters that I think comes through in your art. Is this a reflection of your reading habits as a kid?

JO: I grew up reading contemporary comics, mostly Marvel Comics. I have been blessed to have friends who were older than I, who introduced me to the great characters of the golden age. Mike Machlan and I are great pals, and he was always showing me stuff I would have never seen otherwise. Also, in Milwaukee, we used to hang out at The Turning Page, run by Ron Killian, on the East side, and he was very much a golden age fan, and loved Captain Marvel with a passion. When I got into comics professionally, and onto All Star Squadron, I found myself working on a comic set in 1942, and featuring all of DC’s world war two era heroes, so I studied the stuff more closely to portray Superman like he looked in ’42, and all the others. It was a great education. My mom was 40 when I was born, and growing up, I was surrounded by older folks for the most part, who instilled a nostalgic spark in me as well.

JJ: Did you always know you wanted to do comics?

JO: I think from the time I discovered the Marvel Superheroes I did want to do comic books. I had no idea how it would happen, but it did. I went to work out of high school at a typography house, setting type for ad agencies, and then got hired by an art studio in sort of an apprentice mode, using my typography and technical skills doing darkroom work, while practicing for an opportunity to get some drawing work when the darkroom was not busy. My first real art jobs there wound up with me drawing some coloring books for Western Publishing, a client of the art studio, in Racine Wisconsin. I drew Marvel and DC comics characters, and the samples from those jobs brought me to the attention of DC Comics, who started sending me work. After about 6 months of working both jobs, I took DC up on their offer of freelance comic work full time in February of 1981, and having slowed down since.

JJ: I’d like to say that Shazam was never really a favorite title of mine, but when you did Captain Marvel it really changed that for me. You managed to take a kind of juvenile oriented comic and make the character more mainstream. How did you approach that?

JO: I approached Shazam as if I were doing a 1960’s Spider Man comic. I really adapted Captain Marvel and Billy Batson to that Marvel Comics template of the hero who does the right thing, no matter the personal consequences. It was probably the most fun I had on any series, because DC gave me free reign to do it my way.

JJ: I really like Red Menace from Wildstorm it has a great noir 30’s 40’s movie vibe to it. Was it fun working on a character that you were able to design the look for?

JO: Red Menace was one of the hardest jobs I’ve done, owing to the time frame, and not really knowing Los Angeles in the same shorthand way I do New York. It was set in a specific year, and I tried to be historically correct with cars, fashions hairstyles, and still draw fast enough to make my deadlines. The writers asked for specific locales, and tried to point me to movies that had been shot on location in LA at the same time, but it took a lot of internet photo searches to get the proper reference. I literally spent hours at a time finding and grabbing photos from the Los Angeles public library site and other places, to give me a little background to draw from. I’m proud of the finished work.

JJ: Being a fan of comics as well as a creator of them what was it like working with Stan Lee?

JO: Well, to hear Stan say your name is a thrill. I find the guy awfully inspiring, and also very much as I would expect him to be, from reading his “Stan’s Soapbox” columns in the old Marvels of my youth. While I think his accomplishments have been overstated with regard to the artists working with him, his “voice” was undeniably the voice of Marvel, and those characters. That’s not to denigrate him in any way, as he has finally come around to acknowledging the important contributions of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in recent years. On my project with him, it was a terrific thrill to share a byline with a childhood hero.

JJ: Generally speaking it seems a lot of your work seems to be more in the realm of the sixties and seventies type of comics when they were for the whole family and not so dark and foreboding. I especially think this was the direction of some of the ABC line like Tom Strong and Top 10. Do you think that sometimes people forget comics can be fun and heroic and don’t really need to change the world?

JO: I don’t think we need to limit the scope of the types of stories to tell in comic book format, but I think there is a dearth of truly selfless heroes nowadays. Everyone is conflicted and brooding and all that, so there’s no contrast anymore. I am attracted to the ideal of a hero, and as I stated earlier, with regards to Shazam, I like the drama and conflict in someone who does the right thing despite the personal cost. The villains get better motivation now than the heroes. My favorite comics are the old Spider-Man ones, where Spiderman was always doing good things, and still branded a villain by J

Jonah Jameson! I love that stuff.

JJ: You’ve recently come kind of full circle and have been drawing the Earth-2 heroes again and now you are doing JSA. I seem to associate your work with Infinity Inc and the Earth -2 Justice Society so I was thrilled to see you back with these characters. Is it kind of like coming home again, or is more like visiting a place you used to live?

JO: Well, it is fun to revisit characters that you’ve touched earlier, unless they are ones I hated drawing:) Seriously, I find it comforting, and pick up where I left off 20 years ago. I had great fun on the JSA Annual because I enjoyed drawing the Huntress and especially Power Girl so much in Infinity Inc back in the mid 1980’s. I know I’m not know as a “good girl” artist, like Adam Hughes , but I like drawing them. I just never liked to pander by exaggerating the sexy poses like cheesy pin-up shots. I always draw to service the story, not for the sake of big posed shots.

JJ: Over the years you’ve worked on a lot of different titles with a lot of people. Any favorite moments that you’d love to repeat?

JO: I think I’ve been lucky to be a part of many great projects, but I always cherished the times I got to work with the heroes of my youth. I worked on comics with Wayne Boring, Jim Mooney, Gil Kane, Julie Schwartz, John Buscema, Curt Swan, Stan Lee, as well as many of my talented contemporaries. It’s a major thrill to have connected at least once with so many greats.

JJ: If you had total control over the process, what projects would you love to do?

JO: If I could do a project of my choosing, it would be something new, that I would write and draw. I have wanted to do a comic that combined a Raymond Chandler feel with a superhero. Like a superhero private eye, but not like Batman. Someone who operated in that world, or on the edges of it.

JJ: Is there anything you are reading right now that you really love?

JO: I listen to tons of audio books. I finally got through “Atlas Shrugged” and enjoyed it. I have been reading Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters detective stories. They are set in Hollywood in the 1940’s and involve some star or another in each adventure. They’re great train reading for me. I love Michael Connelly’s books a lot. Harry Bosch is a great character. Also Robert Crais, with his Elvis Cole books. I listen to a lot, as I have little time for reading. I can draw and listen to audio books, and prefer crime fiction.

JJ: Where do your tastes land when it comes to novels and movies?

JO: I’m a sucker for Bogart and Jimmy Cagney and all the 30’s and 40’s movies. I love mysteries, and as I said earlier, crime fiction. I find more on TV to my tastes than contemporary movies, for the most part, with shows, like The Shield, The Wire, Damages, Mad Men, Lost. I love character development, and these shows are a great way to get that over the course of a season or several seasons.