Barry Windsor-Smith in 1996

Some excerpts from an interview with artist Barry Windsor-Smith from a 1996 issue of The Comics Journal:

“When I came in in ’68, I was pretty awful. I didn’t have a hang on anything, really. But I had gone through art school; I did learn how to draw properly. I had lots of accumulated knowledge, even for just an 18-year-old. But my comics drawing really didn’t display that, of course. But at least I was coming from the right angle … Oh, that’s so damn qualifying, isn’t it? At least I was coming from an angle that did, in its essence, have genuine knowledge behind it. It’s been said a thousand times and it’s absolutely true: You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

It seems to me what we have today is people who have not learned but have adapted. They are adapting, they are using a style of some nature that is twice or thrice removed from ‘pencilers’ who didn’t have much knowledge about drawing in the first place.”


“Making comics today, it seems to me, isn’t about creating; characters or about involving the reader in a personality, and what that personality or groups of personalities are doing and how they feel about what they’re doing and what other people think about them. Instead, it’s about how cool the inanely overworked pin-up shot is. How many bleedin’ details can you stick up in the top left-hand corner before a caption goes over it.”


“That sort of thing’s happened to me too, that which you thought once was so cool or whatever, and after a mental re-tooling due to any number of insights you realize that which once delighted you is just some sort of pap and you simply can’t understand what it was you were into at the time. After you’ve gained through experience, through school, through self-teaching and analysis, what stays solidly honest to you? Even though I’ve traveled so many paths since 1968 when I first drew X-Men #53, so many things have happened to me — obviously personal things happen if you stay alive long enough, but I’m talking about my perceptions of art, my needs, the things that gratify me, in fact even what art is. I’ve siphoned it through myself and I think I’ve come out a better person and an artist who is capable of realization in word and picture.”


TCJ: That’s an important point, though: you’re not using Jack Kirby as a source of content so much as the scaffolding for your own content. Earlier we were asking ourselves how to account for this miserable state of affairs in mainstream comics, and quite possibly it’s because comics are being written and drawn by people who haven’t learned to distinguish between using an artist as inspiration and using him as the single source of your expression.

Windsor-Smith: “Most of ’em are perhaps too young to have learned the process of discriminating the valuable from the crap. You and I after all are talking from some perspective of the years under our belts, as it were. Within my parameters, my overview, say, when I was in my mid-20s, I honestly believed the comic books I was creating had value to them … not all of ’em mind you, Avengers #100 didn’t really rise above street level, y’know, but I had pride in something about those books like Conan, Doc Strange, and stuff I forget now. My drawing wasn’t always the greatest but I believe my storytelling had integrity because I had a background in books and plays and other literary endeavors that wasn’t just comic-books: Hell, I read Steinbeck when I was 14. I don’t see intensity in modern Marvel and Image and what have you, no matter how abstracted it might be for the sake of the superhero genre, I can’t see it.

But when I read the entirety of Alan Moore’s Miracleman I was thrilled by his diverse experience and knowledge — you don’t find that depth in Youngblood.”


“This might be a matter of naming the wrong party or something, but when I left Marvel, and essentially by that left comics, I wasn’t saying that comics stink; I was saying that the business stinks. I’ve always loved comic books and always will, obviously. But it was the business, it was the publishers that were so disgusting to me. And all of my idealism was crushed by those publishers. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they were pussycats compared to some of the people around now today. It was just the most unidealistic, non-romantic place to be, yet my entire outlook was through the eyes of a romantic artist. I was lucky to get Conan so I didn’t have to draw superheroes, with a guy who doesn’t wear a cape and spandex. I was able to put more humanism into those stories because he didn’t fly and he wasn’t omnipotent or fire bolts from his fingers. So that was good for me. In leaving the field, it was a wholly idealistic move toward my freedom. At Marvel I was restricted by editorial and commercially placed policies that I considered inane and hypocritical.”


“When I was doing my own thing for 11 years even that had it’s negatives. I put out one picture I thought, upon reflection, so bad, and so lacking in everything that I had intended it to be (even though I have to say it was one of my more facile works, it wasn’t raw like a lot of the other stuff I did), that I would lose sleep questioning myself over and over how I came to the point that I couldn’t discern its faults. The problem was, it sold terrifically well. It sold just as well as the pictures I did that were truly heartfelt. Suddenly I was beginning to get confused about my muse. Even within the freedom of my own choice, I found that I was suddenly faced with another dilemma: I’d proved, unwittingly and without intention, that I can sell a lousy picture — or what I thought was a lousy picture. So then I thought, ‘Hey, this means I can publish all that shit that I didn’t want to publish before because I didn’t think it was good enough!’ Because actually I painted far more pictures than I ever published because they didn’t rise to my critical standard, or whatever, so they would never be published. All these things started to happen, so the whole damned idealism started to unravel for me, you know? There’s this other bloody awful thing: I would sell the reproductions of my pictures as cheap as I could, and I genuinely mean this. We would make a profit but we didn’t get rich. And there were other people out there imitating me who were selling their stuff for more money, weren’t selling as many as me because they weren’t me, but they were making more bleeding money than I was!

So I was faced with this thing: the public really didn’t understand what was a good picture and what wasn’t. There was no way I was going to start trying to teach them. All I wanted to do was give them my best, and hope they could tell the difference between me and Frank Brunner or who-the-hell without having to search out the signature. And I lived in that idealistic lie for a long time. When I found I could sell a shit piece of work just as well as something that meant so much to me, then it seemed like everything started to fall apart. Now, it didn’t fall apart overnight; it was just something that started to gnaw at me over the years. And eventually the muse started to fade, she started to go away because I no longer had the faith that kept me driving along.”


“Many of my stories that I wrote and drew have never been published. Certainly during the ’80s when I was hardly being published at all, I was turning out tons of bloody material, which I was writing and drawing. I’ve really learned the craft, the kind of storytelling craft that you see now in Storyteller from all that work that’s never been seen by the public. I allowed myself to fail miserably and to triumph with something all on the same page.

I learned, for instance, a very simple process that works perfectly for me, which is: Don’t draw. Write only. It is the words that are important. And it is. Frankly, in Storyteller, to be perfectly honest with you, the quality of my drawing has gone down a bit from the immaculately inked works of the ‘80s because I am turning out 32 pages a month here. Along with running a studio, I am drawing, inking, writing, coloring, and making all the business decisions that I can, etc., etc., all in 30 days! I mean, where the fuck do I get the energy for God sakes? Thank God someone invented coffee.

I’m in seemingly pretty good health, considering I never sleep. But the unpublished ’80s is when I learned to put together all the bits of craft that I’d learned in the ’70s and the ’60s. I learned to draw better simply because I was under no pressure from anybody. I mean, I went broke doing this, you have to understand. I was very poor in the ‘80s. I did quite a stack of covers for Marvel, none of which I signed, mostly for the New Mutants book and I also produced the occasional comic that got published, but the crappy money from those X-Mens and stuff paid the rent and not much else. But what I was doing behind the scenes was writing. Learning to write my way.

The balance I’ve always dreamed of having is where you can make it flow so easily — and this really to me is the Grail for me — where I can make my reader forget they’re reading a comic book. That’s what I aim for all the time … y’know, like in the movies — if you notice the architecture of the theater during the film then the story didn’t take you away. If I do something too flash with my visuals, I will chuck it out and do something less flash, because I don’t want anybody to say, ‘Wow, look at that cool drawing, man!’ I want it all to balance.”

— (via)