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Reflections on Geo. Tuska

I wanted to write a little something more, not so much about George Tuska (who died the other day at age 93) as about the comic book creators of his generation. As you may notice from the incessant obits on this site, we're losing them at a good clip and that's sad on so many levels. It's not just that men like Tuska were charming, dedicated folks who did comics not for the money (there was never much of that) but for the love of the form and the pride of earning a living by creating something. Jack Kirby, for example, was notably proud that he could start his workday with essentially nothing — blank paper and some pencils — and before bedtime, he'd made something exist that didn't exist when he got up — pages that would buy groceries for his family.

Obviously, younger folks who write and draw comics have some of the same motives but it was different with guys of Jack's (and George's) era, men who'd grown up in the Depression and at a time when few imagined the stardom and rewards that would one day come with being a top comic book creator. One of the many ways it was different — and I'm going to leave Kirby aside here because he was always in his own special category — is that the George Tuskas of the world did their work with little to no clout, power or say-so in what they created or what happened to it.

If work was available at Timely Comics and nowhere else, they worked for Timely Comics. If the available work was on romance comics, they drew romance comics. If the editor wanted them to pencil, they pencilled. If the editor wanted them to ink, they inked. If the editor wanted them to pencil and for the work to be inked by someone really bad…well, it was inked by someone really bad. A competent artist today has a lot more ability to say, "Gee, I don't want to draw that strip" or "I don't feel I can work with that writer."

He or she especially does not have the problem that someone like Tuska had, which was the whiplash effect of caring passionately about creating the work and then suddenly having to not care. An artist of his era was handed a script, which he may or may not have liked in the least, and he had to go home and spend a week or two of his life making it come to life on the paper. Even a bad artist put in a lot of hours at the drawing board and I'm sure those were rougher hours because they knew that at some point, they'd have to hand their work over to a system that treated it as fodder for the assembly line. It was like, "We want you to sweat over every page and give it your all…then not mind if we have it inked by a caveman, redrawn in the office, colored by a blind guy and printed with the cheapest-possible printing. Oh, yeah…and then we're going to burn the original art." It's hard to turn pride 'n' passion off and on like a toggle switch.

Often, one sees the work of a comic book creator dismissed as "hackwork," done by someone who clearly didn't care and just slopped it out as rapidly as possible to get the check. My own observation is that in comics, that is rarely the case. Bad work is done, of course, all the time. Some people just aren't that talented and many are miscast, assigned to the wrong material with the wrong collaborators. In the seventies, I had a memorable (and troubling) lunch with one of Mr. Tuska's contemporaries who was then having trouble getting work. He had drawn many wonderful comics in the past but his current art was disjointed and full of odd staging and distortions. "I'm trying to give the editors what they want," he told me ruefully. "But no matter how many times they explain what they want, I never know what they're talking about."

This still happens in comics but not as much. Artists and writers today command more proprietary respect. They're more likely to be engaged to do what they do, not what they can't do. This changed in part because the industry recognized that customers buy because of who writes and draws the books; that an issue of Batman by Frank Miller is worth a lot more to the company than one by the next kid who walks in the door with samples. Some of the change was also because the industry just plain matured to keep up with changing times. And a lot of it was because that new generation moved in…artists and writers who didn't have quite the same attitude about their work and making a living as the folks who grew up in and around the Depression and World War II.

George Tuska worked in comics from around 1939 until around 2001. Leave aside the first few years (when he was learning his craft) and the last few (when old age impaired his work) and you have roughly 55 years of productivity that was pretty much consistent in quality and quantity. When circumstances and sensitive editors got him on the right project with the right collaborators, something very good usually resulted. That was not always the case. I'm not surprised to read pieces about him like this "take" by someone in a silly list of comic artists over at The A.V. Club…

Pity poor George Tuska. By all accounts a likeable, pleasant man, versatile and eager to please, he started out in the 1930s, and worked for every big publisher of the era, from Will Eisner to Lou Fine to Lev Gleason. It's hard to find anyone who would say a bad word against him as a man. But as an artist, his Silver Age work for Marvel Comics… Well, it wasn't exactly bad; Tuska was perfectly competent, and his art for titles like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk is decent, though unspectacular. But his drawing was so quickly assayed, and so essentially flavorless, that he became the King Of The Fill-In Issue, hopping in to provide bland, forgettable work whenever someone else blew a deadline. He thus played an inadvertent part in setting up the Big Two's creed of speed over quality, and helped establish the Marvel house style, which nurtured some young artists, but acted as an artistic straitjacket for others. A respectable journeyman, Tuska nonetheless played the fall guy for what would become an ugly, largely detrimental tendency from the 1960s until the birth of the miniseries in the '80s.

There's some truth to that, especially if you note that the author of the above thinks Tuska drew The Incredible Hulk. Not really. The one issue (only one) that features his art was a case when he drew a story for another comic and when Marvel suddenly needed an issue of Hulk in a hurry, they took Tuska's story had another artist draw the green-skinned guy into a couple of panels and published it as an issue of The Incredible Hulk. That may have been the best move in order to get a book to press on time but George never got a chance to show what he could do on the Hulk comic. He may not have ever known he'd even "drawn" an issue of it.

The great thing about George Tuska's career is that he made a decent living for 60-some-odd years doing something he loved. The sad thing is that The System could have gotten 55 years of great comics out of him during that time and didn't. It had a wonderful asset in dedicated craftsmen like Tuska and it too often wasted them. Which is a special shame because we'll probably never see guys like Tuska again…guys who spent their whole lives giving comics all they had to give.