Walt Simonson: Go Where Your Imagination Takes You

(Special thanks to John Paul at NJComicBookShows.com for sponsoring this interview on Patreon!)

I’m here with writer and artist Walter Simonson, who has worked on X-Factor, Fantastic Four, Star Wars and is best known for his work on Thor and introducing the character Beta Ray Bill.
Mr. Simonson, I’d like to ask you a few questions for my readers.

Carl: When you were a kid, were you more into dinosaurs or comic books?
Walt Simonson: Ooh, that’s a hard question. I was into both! When I was in third grade – how old are you now? – (Carl: 9) OK, what’s third grade, 8 years old? (Carl: 8 to 9) Nine. My dad took me to see a movie called Fantasia. It’s a Walt Disney film. It has an animated sequence full of dinosaurs. I went nuts. And I decided, “I want to study dinosaurs. That’s what I want to do.” But I also drew all the time, so I began drawing dinosaurs. Eventually – do you know what an Etch A Sketch is? – it’s a little gizmo where you turn wheels and you have to do drawings on a little silver plate. And I managed to draw dinosaurs on that, which was really difficult. But I love dinosaurs and I love drawing, and initially I went to college so I could study dinosaurs. I learned after a while that that was not what I wanted to do, so I went back to drawing, and that became what I did do.

Carl: Cool. What comic books did you read when you were a kid?
Mr. Simonson: When I was a kid – I was a kid in the 1950s – and so, there were a lot of different kinds of comics, and I read everything. I read books that were based on TV shows, like Cheyenne and Sea Hunt. I read books that were like Classics Illustrated like The Last Days of Pompeii or Taras Bulba, or whatever, the Frankenstein, my introduction to all of that stuff. I read Superman, I read DC super hero comics, I read mystery stories, I read horror comics – by the mid-fifties they weren’t very horrible – and so I read some of those. But I really read everything that I brought back, that I spent my allowance on; my parents let us buy comics, I have one younger brother, and my parents thought that encouraging the habit of reading is what they wanted to do, so they let us buy comics and read them. We had our own little pile on the bookshelf in the dining room where we kept the comics and of course we read them and reread them and reread them over and over, and bought new ones from time to time. I like science fiction comics like Adam Strange.

Carl: Cool. You went to college to become a geologist, but then you became a comic book writer and artist. How did you go from one to the other?
Mr. Simonson: Oh, I see someone has done their research! Ooh, pretty easy, I was originally a geology major in college, because paleontology, which is the study of fossils, is mostly a graduate school study, mostly you go to school as a geology major or a biology major, and then you move in to graduate school. And I had to do a bunch of paleontological work my senior year as my senior thesis, and although it was interesting, I could see that it was not what I wanted to do as a profession. So I said, I’d better think of something else to do. My father was a scientist, my brother actually became a geologist, and so, all the people we knew were scientists. I knew teachers, professors, scientists, who worked for the government, who worked for different places, so I didn’t know anybody who was an artist or worked as a freelancer. But when I graduated from college, I took a year off, I thought about what I was doing, I worked in a bookstore, I made a few bucks, and then I eventually said, you know, my other interest is drawing, I had better figure out if I can draw for a living. But when I was in college the first time, I discovered Marvel Comics, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Don Heck, and all those guys were doing it. And I loved them. So I became a big comic collector in college as a geology major. When I went to art school, I didn’t read as many comics, but I love the idea of them, I loved telling stories, and so I began drawing my own comics. I drew my own version of Marvel comics. At first they were two or three pages long, because it was  a lot of work. But as I got older, I was able to do longer and longer stretches and eventually I began thinking, “I’d like to see if I can get into the business and actually get in the comics profession.” And that’s how it worked out.

Carl: The first time you wrote and drew a Thor book, you introduced the brand-new character Beta Ray Bill. Did having the idea for Beta Ray Bill help you get the job, or were you hired to do Thor and then had the idea?
Mr. Simonson: I was hired and then had the idea. I was already working in Marvel Comics. When I was reading comics in college, I read all of Marvel Comics, but there were only about 11 titles a month back then, and they were 25 cents or 35 cents, so I could afford to buy them all. But what happened was, I loved Thor, my favorite one of all the Marvel Comics, I loved Norse mythology. I read Norse mythology from the time I was about your age on, so I knew it before I found the comic book. And I had an idea for an interesting, what I thought would be a kind of cool story, that would go through several issues of Thor, just as a fan – I was a fan. So I put that aside. Fourteen years later, I’m working for Marvel Comics and Mark Gruenwald, who is the editor of the book, asked me if I’d be interested in taking over Thor as the writer and the artist. And I said, “Oh, I’d love to!” And I had this old idea and I was able to go back and find it. It wasn’t for Beta Ray Bill, but it was for this giant sword that Surtur had, the story around that sword. My opening series of stories was about this great sword. But I thought about it and I wanted to tell a story that nobody had told before. The comic had been going for twenty years by then – hard to find a new story – so my idea was, up to that time, nobody else had ever picked up the hammer; because the hammer says, “Whoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” And nobody had really held it. So I invented a character from scratch, from the ground up, who would be worthy, and it would make sense for him to be able to do it. And that character became Beta Ray Bill.

Carl: Cool! How did you get the ideas for turning Thor into a frog?
Mr. Simonson: When I was a kid, younger than you, a little older, one of my favorite comics was Walt Disney Comics and Stories. They had a Donald Duck story in the beginning, two or three, two short stories, and then a Mickey Mouse story. I loved them all, but I really loved the Donald Duck stories. It turns out that they were written and drawn by a man named Carl Barks, whom I knew nothing about at the time. But I loved his work, and you could really tell it. At the time, he was known as the “Good Duck Man” because nobody knew his real name, and so we all…but you could recognize his style. Somebody else drew Donald Duck, you knew it wasn’t this guy. And he was also a brilliant writer. He invented Uncle Scrooge, he invented Gyro Gearloose. He began writing and drawing quarterly comics of Uncle Scrooge and the giant adventures. So I loved his work, still one of my very favorite guys ever to do comic books. And when I write a comic, I have ideas, and I jot them down, well, now I use a computer, but I’ll write them down, and I’ll say, “oh, it would be kind of cool to have Thor do this. Cool to have Thor do this, or whatever it is.” And I had an idea. I said, “I’d love to do a story as a tribute to Carl Barks.” So, I was somewhere in the middle of Thor when I suddenly said “Oh! I’m in a place where I could do something like that.” And my initial idea was to turn Thor into a duck! But the thing about that they already had Howard the Duck and there was already Donald Duck (other companies) and there were other things. So I said “that won’t work.” And then I thought in fairy tales the handsome prince almost always turned into a frog. And so I thought a frog would be a good idea and that’s were that idea – it really became as a tribute to some of my very favorite comics and one of my very favorite creators.

Carl: Did anyone ever say that frog Thors and alien Thors were too wacky and you should try make the stories simpler? Or were you allowed to use your imagination as much as you wanted to?
Mr. Simonson: At that time you were allowed to use your imagination as much as possible. I think now the comics are more controlled now than they were before especially some major Marvel and DC. They were very free-form back in the day. And one of the things that did happen is when Mark Gruenwald offered me the book and he said do you want to write and draw it he offered it to me and said, “You can do anything you want.” The comic was not selling very well and so the expectation was well look if you start doing it and it sells poorly we’ll cancel it and you know what that’s just the way things will be it’s not doing well. If it does better my thought was if does better than that I’ll look great! Well turned out I did very well, much better than I thought. But I was really given what you would call a carte blanche, which is just a free hand in doing whatever you wanted to do. And for the most part, that’s why I was allowed to do it. So I invented Beta Ray Bill, or I turned Thor into a frog, or I had the execution of one of the characters die a heroic death. Nobody gave me a hard time, nobody said, “Oh, you can’t do this.” I was just encouraged to go wherever I thought the story would take me. That’s probably the one time that’s been true in mainstream comics. But it was just, it was great, and it resulted in what I think was pretty good comic books.

Carl: What comics do you read now?
Mr. Simonson: I read, I look at several comics, just to see what people are doing. But the one comic I read these days, it’s called Usagi Yojimbo.  Yojimbo  is a ronin and a freelance samurai in feudal Japan. It has funny characters and the main character is a rabbit samurai and there are other animals and other samurai and store keepers but it’s very straight. A man named Stan Sakai is the writer and artist he has been doing it for longer than you have been alive he’s been doing it for I don’t know 20 years or more and it’s beautifully drawn it’s very simple – not as simple as it looks, but it’s very simple. It’s good stories. Some of them are funny stories, some of them are longer and more tragic stories. It reminds me of a lot of the work by Carl Barks, the Donald Duck stuff where the ducks behaved as humans and in this the animals in Stan’s comic behave as humans. And he does a lot of research into feudal Japan and brings a lot of the history of that time in Japan into his comics. So I read it for fun! It’s a fun comic book! I don’t mean to make it sound heavy, but I just enjoy it the way I enjoyed comics when I was your age.

Carl: Thank you for answering my questions. It was nice to meet you.
Mr. Simonson: You’re quite welcome! Thank you for coming! Thank you for having me!

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