Kate and Dan interview Jerry Ordway

The Jerry Ordway Interview

Dan And Kate: Jerry, you’ve been in the industry since 1980. What was your debut work? What are you currently working on?

Jerry Ordway: I got my first DC work on a Carmine Infantino short story, “The Lazarus Fire”, which eventually ran in “Mystery in Space” #117, in 1981. I did a handful of ink jobs while still working full time at a Milwaukee art studio, before making the move to full time freelancing. At present, I am working on a DC miniseries, written by Palmiotti and Gray. Can’t say much about it yet, except that it is a new take on one of the Freedom Fighters.

Dan And Kate: You have made a name for yourself as both writer and artist. Which one brings you the most satisfaction?

Jerry Ordway: I like doing both, but it really depends on who is writing when I’m drawing, I guess. I mostly like to do both on a project, but working with others is a good way to shake up your own approach, which is good to do now and then, to keep from repeating yourself.

Dan And Kate: Your resume is literally filled with a Greatest Hits Of Comics. From “Crisis on Infinate Earths” to “Adventures of Superman” and Dan’s personal favorite “The Power of Shazam”. Your work has been on his weekly comic shop pull-list for over a decade. How does it feel to have been part of so many seminal works?

Jerry Ordway: Thanks, I appreciate the support! I feel pretty fortunate to have worked with so many different people in my career. The projects are not the draw, as much as the opportunity to work with specific creators. I guess the list is molded by the projects I turned down as much as the ones I took. One opportunity can come up because of timing and availability, which is tricky. I got “Crisis” pretty much because I left DC to ink “Fantastic Four” over Byrne. I got the FF because I had committed to ink Byrne on the “Squadron Supreme” maxi-series. John left that and took me along to ink “Fantastic Four”. With the FF, I had committed to a firm number of issues (6, but I did 8) so that left me open to pick up “Crisis” after Dick Giordano realized he didn’t have the time to ink it. Crisis led to Superman. It’s like following a path, one step at a time. 31 years later, you look back and see the twisty, unexpected path you traveled, rather than a neat straight course.

Dan And Kate: In your time as writer, penciler, painter, and inker you’ve had the unique experience of having worked with many of the great names in comics. Would you care to share some of your experiences with our readers?

Jerry Ordway: I got to ink Carmine Infantino on my very first DC job! I inked Wayne Boring, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Curt Swan —all idols of mine as a comic reader! I worked with Roy Thomas on my first regular assignment, “All Star Squadron”! Roy was my favorite Marvel writer, and that was pretty cool. I also noticed Alan Moore’s writing in the early 1980’s, via his Marvelman stuff, and later his Swamp Thing and Superman stories. When I was assigned to “Adventures of Superman,” I had been told I would be working with Alan as the writer, though that must have fallen through, or was wishful thinking on DC’s part. I did get to draw some cool Tom Strong stories that he wrote years later.

Dan And Kate: Having the unique perspective of working on “Crisis” as well as the New 52 book “DC Comics Presents”, what are your thoughts on DC’s latest reboot?

Jerry Ordway: Well, I understand the reasons behind the re-launch, and admire that they have gotten readers to try non-superhero comics in the mix. As to the continuity, I have mixed feelings, because I hated to see all the DC history jettisoned. I mean, they lost the link back to their beginnings. In chasing a new audience, I think they alienated the longtime fans who appreciated the Justice Society, for example, and their adventures from the 1940’s through a year ago. As a writer, continuity never scared me. But I think it scares the marketing people trying to connect with a teenager. I think the ratio of good books to mediocre is probably the same as it was before re-launch. But that’s just my opinion. A book I love, someone else may hate, and a book I dislike is probably someone’s favorite. The companies aren’t targeting me as a reader anymore.

Dan And Kate:At the blog, we are fans of all things local. Here in Minnesota, that means Summit beer and 3M tape. As a Milwaukee native, you’re still local in our eyes! As a Midwesterner, was there a comics community that was able to help mentor your early works?

Jerry Ordway: I don’t recognize Summit beer.  I grew up in a Milwaukee that made Pabst, Miller, and Shlitz beer! I used to go to Summerfest, and went to the Arena to see wrestling. As to a comics community, I think I had a part in developing one in the mid 1970’s, when I published two issues of “Okay Comics” and sold it locally on consignment. I met fellow comic fans at Chet’s Variety Store in Bay View, and also at the Good Old Days on 27th and State Street. I recruited Mike Machlan to ink a story in my second issue, and met Al Vey around then as well. When we started Jumpstart Studios in the mid 1980’s, we attracted others like John Statema and Mark Heike who would drop in at the studio on occasion. Of all the people I would consider mentors, Mike Machlan was the prime one. He was in his 20’s, while I was 17. We would draw stuff for each to ink, and that was a learning experience. I would joke with him that he taught me how to draw shiny shoes! But Mike, while not known as a penciller, was a very clean penciller. He used to draw on the back of a piece, and then trace it off on the other side to correct proportions. I learned about electric erasers, and using a lightbox from Mike. In those pre-internet 70s, I had no idea how that comic art was prepared, until I saw Joe Kubert’s “How I draw Tarzan” feature in one of the Tarzan Treasury books. Also, Charlton Comics sold a little booklet that spelled out a lot of basics, such as types of drawing paper, the size of originals, pens, etc. Another guy I think of as a local mentor was Ron Killian, who started out at “The Good Old Days” and then opened his own store The Turning Page in the late 1970’s. Ron was always finding cool art books and reprint books for us to buy, and that helped expand my view of the comic industry beyond Marvel and DC. He got the British stuff, like Marvelman, Judge Dredd. And he was a golden age comic collector, which gave me a little more history of what came before my era.

Dan And Kate: What was your favorite moment in comics? The moment where you saw it on the page and said, “That is so cool!”

Jerry Ordway: Wow, hard to pin down. I don’t think anything can beat the moment I saw my work in a real comic book! Of course that is always tinged with regrets – why didn’t I do this or that differently, as well as complaints about the printing or the coloring. The runner up to my first published work was when the “Power of Shazam” graphic novel was in my hands. That was such a lot of effort, and took so long, that it was really a great feeling to see it in print. Of course I picked my work in that apart too. 

Dan And Kate: What sort of work did you do before embarking on comics full-time? Secret Agent? Hotel Detective? Playboy Philanthropist? When did you finally say, “Yeah… I’m gonna write and draw stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

Jerry Ordway: I had few jobs outside of comics. During high school, I cleaned my mom’s tavern before she opened at 3PM, which entailed mopping, cleaning ashtrays, toilets, all that fun stuff. Out of Milwaukee Tech High School, after one successful semester at Milwaukee Area Technical College, I got a job as a typographer, which involved sitting in a darkroom projecting various typefonts onto film to make up advertising headlines. That required an artistic eye, because you controlled the spacing between letters with white space, such as an “L” next to a “T” where we’d often overlap to close up that space a bit. I also learned to do film paste-up and work stat cameras. That job led me to a commercial art studio in downtown Milwaukee. They were looking for someone to assist their stat department guy, who was recovering from a stroke. So I was his hands, so to speak, for a few months until he was able to do it himself. I was promised board time, when that happened, and I transitioned to a sort of apprentice role in the art department. This all took place between 1976 through 1980, at which time I had started doing small freelance jobs for DC. In February 1981, I became a full time freelancer.

Dan And Kate: What is the moment that made you say, “Working in comics is amazing?”

Jerry Ordway: It was always hard work, and a lot of long hours, but any time I don’t have to get up at 6 AM, the job is amazing! I think in a reward type of situation, I’ve had many moments—getting to stroll around the Pinewood Studios set of the 1989 Batman was one. Being on the Universal Florida set of “Superboy” was another. Then there was the time we spent on set at the pilot of “Lois and Clark”. The coolest and weirdest was at the 50th Anniversary party for Superman, in New York City in 1987, seeing then mayor Ed Koch barnstorm in, give the news a few soundbites about Superman, and then leave. That was surreal. Of course while that was happening, inker Dennis Janke and I were trying to appear in the background, to mug for the cameras.

Dan And Kate: The Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Superman or Batman?

Jerry Ordway: I will take Superman hands down.

Dan And Kate: One of Dan’s favorite childhood memories is rooting through the $0.25 bin for old comics. With the digital movement, do you think future kids will be able to have this same memory? Or will it be filled with $0.25 downloads to their iPads and Kindles?

Jerry Ordway: I suppose a digital download will never have that same feeling that finding a cool comic had. I guess some kid will run across a box of musty old comics at a garage sale or somewhere, and be amazed at how cool these things are in print. When I was around 9, I discovered Marvel Comics. I had seen the cartoon show, in 1966, and this was May 1967. I then sought out used bookstores, anywhere I could find used comics, to try and complete my collections of favorite books. With everything available digitally, there’s no thrill of the hunt. Even with physical comics, you can search eBay and find anything you want. But digging through a dollar longbox at a convention, or local comic book store still has its rewards!

Dan And Kate: Parting thoughts?

Jerry Ordway: Well, it’s been a wild fun ride these past 31 years, and I hope I can hang on in the industry for many more! The work has been fun, but it’s always gratifying to meet fans who have specific memories of various comics I’ve been involved with. That’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving.

You can follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryOrdway, find more about him at http://ordstersrandomthoughts.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, with his fan page Da Ordster where he posts artwork and eBay links.

Kate (and Dan) Read Comics is a comics-oriented column, written by folks who love comics for people that (hopefully) love comics. In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own comics-related questions we ask of every interviewee.