It will be nearly 10 years this January since “Big” John Buscema passed away, yet his legacy in comics remains as constant as the iconic characters he drew. Although he started out in the comic book industry in the 1940’s, Buscema left comics in the 1950’s to pursue a career in advertising, where he honed his art skills and technique. By the 1960’s Buscema decided to return to comics, when Stan “The Man” Lee offered him more money than he was earning as an advertising illustrator— Thank you Stan.
Buscema (1927-2002) drew nearly every title Marvel was publishing during the 1960’s and 70’s, but he will be remembered mostly for his long runs on The Fantastic Four, Thor and Conan the Barbarian. He was the master of hero comics, although by his own account he hated drawing super heroes, stating on many occasions to his colleges that “one guy in tights is the same as the other.” He also hated drawing buildings and machinery, but you could never tell, given the draftsman-like precision in which he created cityscapes for Marvel’s top heroes to save.
According to Buscema, he preferred to draw more realistic, swashbuckling stories, which is probably why he stayed on Thor for as long as he did and why he jumped at the chance to draw Conan after Barry Windsor Smith left the book. Although Buscema didn’t draw in the “realistic” style of say, Neal Adams, he did successfully blend the Jack Kirby’s supercharged, larger-than-life style of storytelling, with his style to create an interesting blend of a kirby/realistic approach, which really came to the forefront when Kirby left Marvel.
Buscema became Marvel’s new Kirby, for all intents and purposes, so it wasn’t a hard decision for Stan to choose Buscema to draw one of Kirby’s seminal creations, The Silver Surfer when the character got his own title. Remember the movie Crimson Tide? In the movie a fight breaks out among two sailer on a submarine over which Silver Surfer is the “true” Silver Surfer, the Kirby Surfer or the Mobius Surfer— Breaking up the fight, the first officer, played by Denzel Washington, said that “Kirby’s was the true Silver Surfer.” I must agree, but Buscema’s version of the Surfer was a very close second in my opinion.
By the mid-1970’s Buscema was in heaven drawing Thor, Conan, Tarzan and a few Ka-Zar stories in Savage Tales. He also started his own art school, which opened a few years before Kubert’s, which helped groom the next generation of comic artists, such as Bob Hall and Richard Howell. Unfortunately Buscema’s school didn’t last long, however he did take his course and turned it into a best selling art instruction book called, How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way. The book is so popular it remains in print over 25 years after it was first published.
In the 1980’s Marvel had decided to give one of the X-Men’s most popular character, Wolverine, his own title. Buscema was asked to draw it. With it’s debut issue Wolverine became one of Marvel’s top sellers, and Buscema was thrilled to work on a super hero book, that was more spy thriller than spandex. Buscema was also tapped to work on Marvel’s licensed movie adaptations of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Labyrnth— he also worked on the adaptation of the DC/Marvel/MGM Wizard of Oz treasury edition.
By the 1990’s, after close to 50 years in the business, Buscema decided to retire at the age of 68. He worked on a project here and there and for the first time, worked on some assignments for DC Comics. He did a black and white Batman short story in 2000 and teamed up with Stan Lee in 2001 to draw a Superman story— Just Imagine. In 2002, he signed on to do a 5 issue mini series called JLA: Barbarians. Sadly Buscema finished only one issue. He died a day after starting work on issue two. The official cause of death was stomach cancer.
Although many fans knew him as “Big” John, perhaps a more fitting title is the Michelangelo of Marvel— well anyway, that’s how I see him. Thanks John, for teaching me how to draw all those years ago when I bought your book, and for continuing to teach me every time I look at your work.