John Buscema

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The Independent Online

John Buscema, comic artist: born New York 11 December 1927; married (one son, one daughter); died Port Jefferson, New York 10 January 2002.

John Buscema was the definitive Marvel superhero comics artist and co-author with Stan Lee of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (1976). Of all the fictional characters he drew, he was most renowned for his depictions of Conan the Barbarian and the Silver Surfer, which he made his own.

The son of an Italian barber in South Brooklyn, New York, Buscema trained at the High School of Music and Art and the Pratt Institute, where he studied design and life drawing. His professional career was launched in April 1948 at Timely Comics, later better known as Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man. Hired as an artist at a salary of $75 a week by the editor Stan Lee, he joined a small army of artists and writers churning out a stream of five-to-eight-page stories.

In 1950 disaster struck: a forgotten storage cupboard disgorged a mountain of unpublished stories and artwork in the Timely offices, whereupon the entire artistic staff was sacked. Over the next eight years, as a freelance comic artist, Buscema was to turn his drawing hand to stories in every genre (except, ironically, superheroes) for a legion of comics publishers.

However, the McCarthy era proved to be a tough time for the American comics industry: comics were reviled for being subversive and corrupting, their sales fell and most of the smaller publishing outfits closed their doors for good. In 1958, like many artists, Buscema quit the industry and went into the field of advertising art, working for Chaite and Triad Studios: "It was a wonderful period of my life – I learnt how to paint. I did all kinds of stuff: paperback covers, layouts, editorial illustration, textbook illustration. I enjoyed it a lot." The fun, however, came at the expense of his home life: the deadline-fuelled demands of freelancing coupled with long hours and a three-hour commute into the Big Apple from his rural home on Long Island meant he rarely saw his young family.

By 1966, however, the comics industry was flourishing again, spearheaded by Stan Lee's renascent Marvel Comics. Lee was keen to recruit more artists to draw his burgeoning roster of superheroes and signed up such former Timely artists as Gene Colan, John Romita and Buscema on generous terms. Because Lee was at this point writing all the stories, he had evolved a form of writing new to comics to save time: previously, artists would draw from detailed scripts. Now, "Stan more or less gave me a rough outline over the phone of what he wanted," Buscema would recall, "and I took it from there and developed the books."

Once he had mastered the new Marvel method, Buscema's visual storytelling abilities proved highly accomplished: from the 1970s onwards his archetypal style, at once sinewy and elegant, became synonymous with the Marvel "look". Over the next three decades, at one time or other, he was to illustrate almost every title the company published, including Thor, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Avengers. But it was with two experimental series in particular that his name became associated: Silver Surfer and Conan the Barbarian.

The series for which Buscema is most acclaimed, and which the artist admitted contained his favourite work, was Silver Surfer, starring the silver-skinned eponymous "sky-rider of the spaceways" in a double-sized monthly title. Written as a modern-day morality play by Lee, about an alien space knight who had given up everything and been banished to Earth for saving the planet, the character was Marvel's noblest and most tragic hero and briefly attracted a following among students with his sub-Hamlet philosophising. But 18 issues later, in 1970, the comic closed, another victim of falling sales.

That same year, Conan was launched, featuring the wandering barbarian created in the 1930s by the sword-and-sorcery writer Robert E. Howard. Keen to draw it from the start, Buscema was turned down for being too expensive to "gamble on some new kind of project". Years later, after Barry Smith (the founding artist) left the series, Buscema took over and was to draw the title for most of the rest of its 275-issue run: "I loved doing Conan, he's a very interesting character. I'm basically realistically oriented, and I really have a hard time relating to characters who fly or crash through buildings."

Such straight talking was typical of Buscema. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never hid behind a nom de plume. Whilst willing to sing the praises of the publishing house which had supported him for most of his comics career, he publicly admitted he didn't like Spider-Man (Marvel's flagship character): "I think it's dull. I feel that way about most superheroes."

Always loyal to the company, he never bothered to conceal his utter boredom with its products: the Marvel mainstay who collaborated with Lee on How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, one of the best teaching manuals ever published (and continuously in print since 1976), and who in later years taught design and anatomy at a workshop, was the same no-nonsense professional who bluntly described his métier as "a job that keeps me out of debt, and that's the only thing I look at it as".

Buscema retired officially in 1996, and in July last year was guest of honour at America's largest comic convention in San Diego, at which a collection of his private drawings, The John Buscema Sketchbook, was unveiled. Fittingly, his final published work was in collaboration with Stan Lee, on a one-off comic called Just Imagine Stan Lee with John Buscema Creating Superman. Ironically, it was published by the one comics publisher he had never previously worked for: DC Comics.

Alan Woollcombe

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