On the advice and consent of our pals at Wizard, I'm running the text of the Wally Wood feature I just wrote for the magazine. It's currently in ish #228, guest-edited by another pal, Mark Millar. In the mag, it's WAY better illustrated than you'll see here, so check it out.
On a Hero Initiative-related note, the organization came into being about 19 years too late for a Wally Wood, but I've often wondered if a Hero-like organization could have prevented Wood's tragic end. Like so many things Wally Wood, perhaps we'll never know.
I found the piece very difficult to write. The subject matter is not always very pleasant. But I hope that in the end, you as a reader will get a circumspect view of Wood, and see the amazing warmth and his genius that accompanied his tragic, but very human, flaws.
HEAD: TRAGIC GENIUS
Sub: Wally Wood was an artistic hero to an entire generation, a pillar of the legendary EC Comics, and one of comics’ first successful self-publishers. And then he killed himself.
For Wizard magazine
The County of Los Angeles keeps seven pages on file pertaining to Wally Wood. The pages are maintained by the Department of Coroner, as part of its mission is “the investigation and determination of the cause and manner of all sudden, violent or unusual deaths in the County.”
The death of Wally Wood certainly fits all those categories. Sudden. Violent. Unusual.
Sometime around midnight on Halloween night, 1981, Wallace Allen Wood pressed a Charter Arms “Bulldog” model .44 caliber revolver to his right temple and fired.
“GSW to head (T&T). No note. Recent despondency over health. Was to be put on dialysis today,” the case report notes. “GSW” tells us it was a gunshot wound; “T&T” denotes through and through—the bullet passed through his skull on the right side, and went out the left. The bullet, a Smith and Wesson Special, round nose and bare lead, was found on a pillow “directly under the decedent’s head.”
Wallace Allen Wood committed suicide in a sweaty, cheap apartment at 15150 Parthenia St. in what is now known as the Panorama City section of Los Angeles. This is a fact.
It is also a fact that Wally Wood was one of the most talented artists comics has ever seen, a giant whose work on Mad, Weird Science and more inspired generations.
And in between these two inescapable points lies a man’s life.
To say that Wally Wood was a complicated man would be an understatement.
“To me, he was a great friend and mentor,” says artist Ralph Reese, who worked under Wood in the 1960s.
“He was just an engine of rage. I really can’t put it any more specifically than that,” says artist Howard Chaykin, who later worked under Wood circa 1970.
“Everybody who actually met him, liked him,” says Larry Hama, another Wood assistant. “He had his problems, but he was a stand-up guy.”
“Wally was a very talented artist, but he was a dour, humorless person, at least when relating to me,” says Al Feldstein, Wood’s editor at EC. “I found him difficult to talk to, almost impossible to criticize, and often depressed.”
“You can’t talk about Woody without talking about drinking,” says longtime comics writer and editor Denny O’Neil, himself a recovering alcoholic.
All these things are, of course, true. Human beings don’t fit conveniently into single, carefully labeled pigeonholes. Wally Wood was all these things: Great friend, mentor, engine of rage, stand-up guy, depressed, alcoholic.
But what made him “him,” what made him so quintessentially Woody, was his immense talent, and exactly that complicated personality.
WOODY'S EARLY CAREER
Wally Wood started drawing at age two, doing his best to copy the comic strips he loved best in the newspaper. He particularly obsessed over Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” and Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates.” His mother lovingly bound many of his early drawings into a book using her sewing machine.
Wood wanted to be a cartoonist since his earliest days, and by age 20, decided to try his hand in the field. He spent one term at the Minneapolis School of Art, but didn’t take well to formal education. “Decided they couldn't teach me anything; they had the same idea,” Wood wistfully recalled in his National Cartoonists Society bio.
But Wood moved to New York, and soon got his first break. By October of 1948, at age 21, he was working for Will Eisner as a background artist. By ’49, he was working on Westerns and romances for Fox Comics. By 1950, he was assisting artist Harry Harrison on EC Comics stories, when his biggest break came.
“I had given Harrison and Wood a few assignments and quickly came to realize that Wally was being exploited by Harry, and that the work was actually all Wally's,” longtime EC Editor Al Feldstein recalls. “I managed to have a private conversation with Wally, encouraged him to free himself from Harry, and told him that I would give him work if he did. The rest is history.”
History, indeed. EC Comics exploded just as Wood did, morphing its old crime, Western and romance titles into new books such as Tales From the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, Two-Fisted Tales, and Weird Science. Sales shot through the roof. EC had a goldmine of great artists such as Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Al Williamson—hell, even Frank Frazetta would do the occasional story. Wood was surrounded by stars, but he shone as brightly as anyone.
“Wally Wood would come in with a story and three artists would crowd around him and just faint, just poring over every brushstroke and every panel,” EC Publisher Bill Gaines recalled in a 1983 Comics Journal interview.
Howard Chaykin notes the Wood influence throughout the EC line. “Certainly Johnny Craig was influenced by him, whether he was aware of it or not,” Chaykin says. “The way he drew science fiction influenced Frank Frazetta, and thus influenced everybody who was post-Frazetta.”
But even in happy times in a booming business, something always seemed a little…off…about Wood. He had a tendency to keep people at arm’s length.
“I didn’t know Woody all too well,” admits Jack Davis, another legendary artist in the EC stable. “Really about the only time I’d see him is when we’d show up at the office at the same time to drop off work. And then maybe we’d go to lunch. He was a pleasant man, but he’d always be looking over his shoulder, his eyes shifting around, as if he was worried about something.”
EC continued to hum along, and Wood with the company, until Seduction of the Innocent rocked comics’ world in 1954. The book by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham tried to link comics to juvenile delinquency, and public outcry led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority and the gutting of EC’s line. Edgy horror comics were all but outlawed, and EC was left a shell of its former self. Only Mad continued, and Woody continued with it, supplementing his work and income with advertising jobs, comic strips, and magazine covers.
THE CRACKS START TO SHOW
But the cracks at the base of Wood’s life were starting to show. Although he remained a top-name artist for many years, most fans and critics consider his EC work from 1950-54 to be his best. There was also the drinking. “It was after I took over the editorship of Mad [in 1956] that I really noticed that there was a serious problem,” Al Feldstien says. “It became a huge problem for me when his work was getting sloppy and unacceptable.”
Wood himself was getting sloppy. He was arrested on a Mad editorial trip to the Virgin Islands, and eventually fired from Mad entirely. But comics and art remained a passion for Wood, and he remained in the field. Trading card jobs, comic strips and more continued to roll in, and Wood himself rolled on to the hot new player on the scene, Marvel Comics, in grand fashion.
A cover blurb on December, 1964’s Daredevil #5 proclaimed, “Under the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous illustrator Wally Wood, Daredevil reaches new heights of glory!” Ten months later, on Avengers #20, another blurb boasted, “Special note to art lovers: Wait’ll you see Wonderful Wally Wood’s inking of Don [Heck]’s drawings in this great ish!” In a day and age in which NO ONE got cover credit, Wood somehow was getting it…even as an inker.
“It just goes to show what great respect Stan had for Wally’s work,” says Roy Thomas, who joined Marvel in 1965 as Editor Stan Lee’s first assistant. “He was just wild for him. His whole style—penciling, inking, the whole thing. And he thought that Wally had his own following from the EC stuff and Mad that would help Marvel.”
The problem was, the help was sparse. Even on a bimonthly schedule, Wood penciled and inked only four issues of Daredevil, before Bob Powell was brought in to help. Wood stuck around to pencil part of Daredevil #9, and ink #9-11. The Avengers inking stint lasted three issues.
Credit where credit is due: Wood gave Daredevil’s costume a much-needed redesign in Daredevil #7, and he even wrote #10. He also saved a life.
WOODY'S SECOND RISE…AND FALL
Ralph Reese was a 16-year-old comics fan, runaway, and escapee from a juvenile detention facility when he showed up on Wally Wood’s doorstep in 1965. “Wood kind of took me in as an assistant, paying me $50 a week. I washed his brushes and so on,” Reese remembers today. “To me, he was almost a father figure.”
Wood taught Reese the trade, and started building up his own studio as he worked on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower Comics. Come 1966, Wood was approached by artist Dan Adkins, who was working on a fanzine called Outlet and wanted a drawing from Wood for the book. “He said he’d do a drawing in trade for me helping him out with a deadline he was chasing,” Adkins recalls. “And the fanzine became witzend. He convinced me he could do a better magazine than me. He knew more people.”
witzend launched in the summer of 1966, with contributions from Wood, Ralph Reese, Al Williamson, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Roy Krenkel and more. It quickly became one of the most influential comics of its day, and in the minds of many, the very first “underground” comic. Wally Wood suddenly found himself one of the most significant publishers of the counterculture 1960s.
But even that success was short-lived. After four issues, Wood sold the magazine to witzend contributor Bill Pearson for a mere $1. Wood was largely sober during the witzend period, but had other problems. “He was seeing a psychiatrist the whole time I was working for him,” Dan Adkins recalls. “He’d see him twice a week, just someone to talk to. I think [Wood’s wife] Tatjana was seeing the psychiatrist with him. He had some prescriptions, he was taking medicine.”
Wood’s personality was certainly obsessive. Paradoxically, what made him great…also made him weak. “He was a workaholic. Like many other successful artists, he was really most comfortable when behind his desk, and like many of us, somewhat less successful at making a life outside of his work,” Ralph Reese says. “He never really had any hobbies or outside interests. Too much stewing in your own juices is not necessarily a healthy thing.”
Adkins saw much of the same in Wood. “Wally! Jesus! From the word ‘go,’ he put in a lot of work,” he says. “You could see he was frustrated by all the work he had to do. He was meticulous in a lot of things. He had 36 different bottles of ink he’d keep, in shades from black all the way down to a light gray. You made your own grays then by diluting the ink with water. And he’d mix and keep all 36 bottles up, all the time.”
Larry Hama, another Wood studio protégé who went on to a lengthy comics career, saw Wood’s intensity up close and personal. “When he got into something, he’d just pursue it,” Hama says. “I taught him how to cook a couple simple dishes once, then I went away for a week. When I came back, I found he had just been cooking those same things, over and over. And not because they were the only things he knew how to cook. It was just because he discovered something new, and he had to get into it, master it, discipline it.”
Mastering his life was a different matter. Wood’s marriage to comics inker and colorist Tatjana Wood (who declined to be interviewed for this article) ended in divorce by the late 1960s. A marriage to a second wife, Marilyn, ended quickly. And the drinking started anew.
Artist Howard Chaykin worked briefly in Wood’s studio in 1970-71, and saw Woody’s pain. “He was kind of at the end of his rope. He was not a healthy guy,” Chaykin says. “He felt betrayed by so many circumstances. He was a classic untreated drunk. It’s a shame, because he was one of my artistic heroes. He was an astonishing artist who just ran out of steam.”
As the 1970s wore on, Woody started to wear out. The drinking worsened. He showed up at a convention wearing one shoe. He started to push friends away. “Like many alcoholics, when he was drinking, his personality totally changed,” Ralph Reese notes. “I never spent that much time around him when he was drinking.”
Wood started to develop kidney problems, and a 1978 stroke left him with diminished vision in one eye. As fast as Wood was deteriorating physically, he was even worse off mentally. “Larry [Hama] and [artist] Jack Abel and I had gone down to see him at the VA hospital just after he had a stroke,” Ralph Reese recalls. “He looked to be in very bad shape. I asked him about his plans, what he was gonna do after he got out of the hospital. He said, ‘I’m gonna go get a drink.’ You know…what can you say to that? I had a feeling then that might be the last time I saw him alive. Like I said, he really looked bad. He looked sick. He looked old. He looked beat up by the world.”
Woody likely felt beat up. In a 1980 interview with Shel Dorf in The Buyer’s Guide, he remarked, “I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for years. Being a comic book artist is like sentencing yourself to life imprisonment at hard labor in solitary confinement. I don’t think I’d do it again.” By February, 1981, Wood was told by doctors at a VA hospital that his kidneys were operating at 10%, and that he should get on a list for transplant. It was then that he made his last, desperate move.
Comics was looking like a dead end for Wood, but animation was a possibility. Wood moved to Los Angeles to be near Hanna-Barbera Studios. He was looking for work there, and more to the point, was looking to sell Hanna-Barbera on a property he owned called The Wizard King. Panorama City was far from the most fashionable neighborhood in L.A., but it was cheap, and close to Hanna-Barbera at a mere 11 miles away.
But a Wizard King deal never came to pass. Wood found work doing some pornographic comics for a local publisher, and took appointments at a VA hospital on L.A.’s Westside. His final doctor’s appointment was October 30, 1981.
Around 9 p.m. on Saturday, Halloween night, Woody was chatting with some residents in the courtyard of his apartment building. He talked about the pain he was feeling, his loss of vision, and the fact that he was scheduled to start dialysis Monday. Woody then quietly slipped inside apartment #71.
Three days later, on November 3, 1981, Barbara J. Friedman, Wood’s publisher, called the Los Angeles police. She’d been phoning Woody for a few days, getting no answer. She asked if the police could check in on him. At 9:55 a.m., the police entered Wallace Allen Wood’s apartment. GSW to head (T&T). No note.
Police could find no next of kin. Barbara Friedman offered to take care of funeral arrangements.
THE AFTERMATH, AND THE LEGACY
Many in the comics industry were surprised, but few were shocked, when the news of Woody’s death rippled back to New York. The inevitable question of “why” was bandied about. People knew of Woody’s alcoholism, the stroke, the kidney problems. But the deeper “why” of what made Wallace Allen Wood take his life remains unanswerable. Ralph Reese might come closest to a final answer.
“I never understood what drove him to destroy himself,” Reese muses. “We talked a lot, but…I dunno. I guess he never really had a father. His father was a lumberjack, so he was never really home much. And when he was, he would be drunk and beating on him. I guess that left some kind of hole in him that he could never fill. Somehow, he could never get the love he wanted or needed.”
The love is there now. Woody’s legacy is a massive one. “There was such a warmth and appeal to his stuff that’s missing from so many others’ seminal work,” Larry Hama observes. “You look at a Jack Kirby, and you get this strong, graphic feel. But in Woody’s stuff…I dunno. There’s just a lot of heart. And he had such a wide range—horror, sci-fi, and the humor stuff. The Wally Wood humor stuff in Mad was just as good—if not better—than his more serious stuff with knights in armor and spaceships. And his stuff is just as believable, just as fun, anywhere across that range.”
Howard Chaykin considers Wood one of the two most important artists—along with Alex Toth—of the postwar generation. “Out of Wallace Wood, you get that dramatic realism and unembarrassed verisimilitude of everybody from Johnny Craig to Michael Golden to many artists today,” Chaykin says. “I can’t think of Adam Hughes without seeing Wallace Wood in him. The characterization he exhibited in human faces was amazing, and continues to knock the hell outta me to this day.”
Woody was also a teacher. Larry Hama, Dan Adkins, Ralph Reese, Howard Chaykin, Paul Kirchner, Joe Orlando and more learned volumes with Woody at their side. And Woody loved passing the knowledge along. “You have to have a certain facility to teach, and Woody had it,” Larry Hama says. “He liked to talk about the process. Lord knows a lot of people are great draftsmen, but they can’t talk about it, can’t transfer that knowledge. Woody thought about the process a lot, grappled with it, developed methodologies and mechanical fallbacks. And he could explain it to you, transfer that knowledge to you. You could learn an awful lot at that font.”
The font continues to flow. It was Wallace Allen Wood who ducked into apartment #71 one fateful Halloween night, never to be seen again. But through the lives he touched, the generations he inspired, the artists he taught, and the mountain of work he created, Woody lives on.