Part three (Read Part 1 here Read Part 2 here) of our interview with Marvel Comics Veteran Mike Witherby. We talk about Marvels Bankrupcy the collapse of the Comic Book Market in the 1990s and the future of comics today.
SM: Working in comics during the 90s had to be crazy. There was a huge booming interest in comic books at the time. The entire industry seemed to be going nuts and then it all collapsed near the end of the decade. What was it like? Did you have any inclination of the impending bust that took place?
MW: At the time it was like there was this great burst of creativity going on it was a real trip and a time of growth for comic books. You had an explosion of independent companies publishing books and a large demand for comic book talent throughout the entire industry. Then in the wake of Marvel’s collapse everything was pretty much destroyed.
SM: Looking back on it what would you say was the main cause of the downfall at the end of the decade?
MW: A lot of greed on the part of the comic book companies. A lot of gimmicks like putting out tons of issue number ones releasing the same comic book with four different covers. Also there was the technique of making three to four books for every character. For example you had Punisher, Punisher War Journal, Punisher War Zone, Spider-Man had like five books and eventually the fans realized they didn’t need to buy all of it.
SM: What was it like after Marvel filed bankruptcy and everything collapsed?
MW: That was a really bad time for me. I had avoided signing any type of contract with anyone because I wanted to play the field. What I hadn’t realized is that Marvel was going to go bankrupt and destroy the entire field. I couldn’t find any work and I had to work as an assistant for people for a while it was a really tough time.
SM: You self-published your own comic book toward the end of the 1990s?
MW: Yes some friends of mine and myself, we were all living in the Coachella valley which is in the Palm Springs area. I had a couple of young artists living near by who wanted to be inkers. So I helped them out and was kind of running a little studio. As they go better I’d let them assist me with some of my work they had an idea to do a comic book so I helped them out and inked about half of it. They had gone through several people who claimed they wanted to publish it but no one ever did. I had a little bit of royalty money at the time so I published it.
SM: The Wild! I loved the copy you sent to me it’s basically all animals you have stuff in it like anthropomorphic, muscle pumped, rabbits with machine guns! (The cover to Mike Witherby's self published title The Wild is pictured above left)
MW: Yea a Red Hulka Bunny! It was a lot of fun but it wasn’t successful enough to publish a second issue at the time everyone would buy a first issue of anything and the first issue sold reasonably well but the orders for the second issue didn’t support any type of readership. I’m still very pleased to have published it.
SM: So today you haven’t been in comics for a while and now and you're back doing Strength Monsters?
MW: I’ve had a lot of residual medical problems I’ve had to overcome. Even while working on this project but now my health is starting to clear up. Strength Monster is probably one of the strangest more eccentric projects I’ve worked on so it’s been a lot of fun.
SM: A lot of the nuttiness in Strength Monsters you will find in Pro-Wrestling and in Catch Wrestling. A lot of the Catch Wrestling old timers that also worked as Pro-Wrestlers seemed have really crazy eccentric over the top personalities which has had a big influence on my writing. But that’s also the direction my brain tends to write toward. What has been the biggest influence on your work as you’ve been penciling this book?
MW: Mostly what inspired me was the reference material you sent me and the book you sent me about Billy Robinson, “Physical Chess.” Reading about how Billy Robinson was a bastion of Catch Wrestling was really cool. I looked at a lot of the photos in that book when I was drawing the pages for this issue. All the materials you’ve sent me on Catch Wrestling have really inspired me. (Pictured left splash page by Mike Witherby for Strength Monsters in "Christmas Tree Delivery")
SM: You were working as an inker when you retired from comics and now you’re back penciling which is what you did when you started working in comics.
MW: Yes I’ve kind of come full circle. It’s been a great experience I had considered my life in comics over and now I’m back.
SM: How has your penciling changed since you started out on Silver Hawks back in the 1980s what's the same and what’s different in your process?
MW: Well everything is pretty much different now. When I was penciling Silverhawks I was working entirely and directly onto the art boards of the actual pages. Now I tend to work in thumbnails and find my shapes there separately and then transfer them onto the board.
SM: How did you come about working that way rather than keeping to doing all of your work directly on the boards.
MW: I found that working full size I tended to freeze up. If I worked in thumbnails I was a lot more relaxed and loose with my pencils. If a drawing didn’t workout I could just toss it out and start over. Working on the board from the start I’d try to stay more controlled with my penciling so a lot of my figures would come out looking too stiff. I do my thumbnails at exactly half the working size of a comic book page so I’ve found that if you can really make your thumbnails pop the drawing will come across very strong when you transfer them onto the boards.
SM: You’ve done some amazing work on this book. I think we have several really awesome action sequences, great splash pages, and more that really suprasses anything you did back on Silverhawks.
MW: Thank you. I hope so, every artist I think tries their best to constantly see their work improve.
SM: I know you’ve struggled through a lot of health issue over the last few years but it’s been well worth the wait as I believe we have a really nice book coming out. What does the future look like for Mike Witherby?
MW: My health is very much improved this next year I plan to produce some more pencils for another issue of Strength Monsters.
Part two (read part 1 here) of our interview with Marvel Comics veteran and Strength Monsters penciler Mike Witherby. In this installment we talk about Morbius and Punisher War Journal both books Mike worked on specifically we discuss some of the differences betweenthe 1980s Punsiher and the 1990s Punisher.
SM: Morbius is a pretty iconic Silver Age Marvel Character and Ron Wagner is an A+ level penciler what was it like working on that book?
MW: It was a great time I really enjoyed it. Ron did a great job on the pencils which made my job a lot of fun and I just inked my heart out on the book.
SM: You had quite a run on Morbius was there any particular issue you found to be the most challenging?
MW: I think my favorite issue was number three the one with Spider-Man. I grew up reading Spider-Man and always loved the character to get to ink him in a Marvel Comic book was a dream come true. The second issue was definitely the most challenging. Ron had expressed we go a little different direction than what I was use to. The cover to the first issue (pictured left) was kind of my tribute to Joe Sinnott over Steranko. That was the kind of drawing Ron did and in the second issue he said he wanted to go a bit more edgy. He kind of change the look of Morbius and made him a bit more psychotic like a monster or some maniac so I took an entire different direction on inking that cover and the entire book. I did a lot of what I call shredding in the industry they call it splatter.
SM: So that change in style really seemed to push your abilities at the time?
MW: It was just a real different approach for me. I had grown up looking at Joe Sinnott which he had really smooth, slick inks. I was able to get into a lot of the different textures with what Ron was creating. If you were ever able to see the original pages you would be able to see the skin is a different texture from the suit he was wearing which was a different texture from the cape it gave me a whole new range of expression.
SM: Did you guys run into any editorial problems while working on that book?
MW: Ron did he had some disagreements with the writer with one scene in particular I don’t remember the issue but there was some stuff he did. Like we did a decapitation scene and someone went in over our artwork and put the head back on the guy. But I really enjoyed working for Marvel and I just wanted to do the best job I cold and not create too much of a ruckus. Ron seemed to battle with them a little bit.
SM: You did some Punisher and Ghost Rider stuff with Ron Wagner also?
MW: I worked on a couple Punisher Books with Ron and we did the Ghost Rider Number Twenty Five Special Edition issue also issues twenty six and twenty seven. If I remember correctly those were done right before Moribus.
SM: I see Ghost Rider twenty six has a Jim Lee, Scott Williams cover with your art inside. It’s a very 1990s looking Jim Lee job but this must of been right in the middle of his rise to comic book fame?
MW: Yea I think that book came out right before the big split with everyone breaking away from Marvel and the formation of Image comics.
SM: Those Punisher War Journal issues you did look as good as comics can get. The Punisher was probably one of the characters I was immediately drawn to as a kid. I read a lot of those Punisher War Journals off the shelf as they were coming out.
MW: The 1990s Punisher is a lot different from the 1980s Punisher. My understanding is they began to base the Character of the 90s on the rogue warrior type of character featured in Dick Marcinko's autobiography about his time in the seals. They seemed to kind of want to base the character on him.
SM: The 1980s Punisher was more or less a crazy guy with a cool t-shirt warring on criminals. In the 1990s they really started to flesh out the character looking into his background as a veteran of war?
MW: The 1980s punisher was a lot more of a daredevil, villain, sort of semi-hero, semi-villain and the character wasn’t as richly defined as they did him in the 90s. In the 80s he’d kind of appear and disappear he really didn’t have the personality of the 90s Punisher incarnation. In the 90s he was a lot more kind of like an urban rat but really over the edge. It was a pleasure to work on the book.
SM: After your run on Morbius ended what did you do?
MW: I was invited by Jim Shooter to work for his new company Defiant which never really made it as a company but I learned a lot working for him. He’s kind of a natural teacher and he really helped refine my work and take it to a whole new level
SM: Jim Shooter is probably best known for having been Editor in Chief of Marvel for a number of years. What kind of stuff did Shooter teach you? When you’d turn in work he’d discuss it with you?
MW: Yea he had me out to New York a few times to visit in the office and he would talk to me about my work then. One of the main things he pointed out to me was a lot of inkers are concerned with line weight which is the thickness of the line and how that relates to where shapes appear in space. Shooter taught me about line importance and how you need to have a natural atmospheric fade in the backgrounds which will push your figures out more. He also helped me with my understanding of storytelling.
SM: I remember Defiant as one of the many independent companies that popped up during the comic book crazy of the 1990s. I believe I even picked up their flagship title, “Warriors of Plasm.”
MW: I worked on Warriors of Plasm it was the strangest concept. The idea that these guys lived on a living flesh and blood planet with a consciousness and could manipulate genes to the point of manipulating life. It was a wild book. Unfortunately Marvel sued Defiant for trademark infringement on the book title. Marvel lost the court battle but the court costs Defiant incurred as a result of defending itself was pretty much the demise of the company.
Interview concludes in art 3 here.
 "Defiant Books." Jim Shooter: Defiant Comics. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Strength Monsters recently had the time to site down with Marvel Comics veteran and comic book penciler and inker Mike Witherby who is making his return to comics in our forthcoming book, Strength Monsters in "Christmas Tree Delievery" Due out this December. In this installment we are able to discuss with Mike the beginning of his career, Role Playing Games, Silver Hawks and much more...
Strength Monsters (SM): Let’s start from the beginning how did you get into comic books?
Mike Witherby (MW): My favorite comic book to read as a kid was probably Spider-Man but when I was a kid you could collect the entire Marvel line up each month for about a $1.20 so I read everything. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the Love Comics though.
SM: What are the love comics?
MW: Marvel published romance comics for a very brief time Jim Steranko even illustrated a story in one but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy it even though it was nice looking job but that was also when I was young and at the peak of my comic book reading. When I was a kid that’s all I really thought about was being a comic book artist.
SM: How did you become a comic book artist?
I always wanted to do them but I was dissuaded from doing them while I was in school and the people I was introduced to in the comics industry also dissuaded me to enter comics as a profession. So I became disinterested for several years. Then I ended up losing a job and I thought this is the time to make up my mind about what I really want to do and so I began training to make comics. My first job was actually in the gaming industry doing illustrations for a role playing game called Champions.
SM: What was the game Champions all about?
MW: Champions was a Superhero role playing game. I heard from a lot of people that the system they had was brilliant. The company missed getting their new books out for something like four or five Christmases in a row and went under. The same company also had Justice Incorporated which was a Pulp Magazine inspired 1930s and 1940s type of deal with detectives and what not.
SM: This would have been around the early to mid 1980s when you were working on this game? Around the same time Dungeons and Dragons was really climbing in popularity?
Yea if you go back to the 1970s Role Playing Games (RPGs) were still pretty obscure. By the 90s there were specialty shops popping up in malls for RPGs. The Hero games I was working on kind of reached their peak in the mid 1980s. I did some character designs but I was mostly assigned to do covers. I did some full color covers for their quarterly book I worked as an inker on the Champions book and I illustrated a book called Enemies Three which was a package of various villains you could use for these game scenarios it was a cool assignment.
SM: How did you make the transition from working on these RPGs into comics?
A couple years after that I took a trip to New York and spoke to some editors in the Marvel office and that lead to doing Silverhawks which was my first professional comic book assignment.
SM: Silverhawks was a pretty big deal. I remember that cartoon spun off of Thundercats which was huge.
MW: Yes Thundercats had and still has a big following. But Silverhawks never quite took off like Thundercats did. SIlverhawks was created by the same creator as Thundercats they used almost all same voice actors they used in the Thundercats cartoon. But Silverhawks just wasn’t as big a hit. We had seven issue come out and the book was canceled.
SM: While Silverhawks didn’t grab nearly as many kids as Thundercats. It still produced around 60 cartoons and is an icon I think in a lot of people's memories of 1980s comic book and cartoon culture. I love the cover you did for issue seven. Is there a favorite issue you did during your run on the title?
MW: Thanks, I’m glad I had the opportunity to work on it. The fourth issue is probably my favorite it’s where The Copper Kid helps out The Gambler. That one was a lot of fun.
SM: What did you do after Silverhawks?
MW: I ended up working for Innovation under David Campiti’s mentorship. He called me up and asked if I wanted to to do some comics and we started working from there. I worked on Hero Alliance and Newstralia all published under Innovation.
SM: From there going further into the 90s probably the work you are most well known for was inking Morbius The Living Vampire how did that job come about?
MW: I hadn't done any work for Marvel for 4-5 years at the time. I ended up working as an assistant for Joe Rubinstein. He flew me out to his apartment in brooklyn and trained me for a week. While I was out there he took me over to Marvel and to the office of Bobbie Chase. She took a look at my inks I did on Hero Alliance and really liked them then offered me a Job on a Hulk Annual over Ron Wagner. Ron really liked what I was doing so I was then given the chance to Ink Morbius over Ron. It was a neat Story. The first time I walked in there they offered me work.
SM: How did you meet Joe Rubinstein?
MW: At a comic con in San Francisco around 1980-82 he was the only comic professional that would really talk to me about my work. I talked to a lot comics professionals and they’d usually just say “yea keep it up” or “keep trying you’ll get there” and Joe gave me some really strong instruction and high level of critique. I guess I was one of the few people who could handle his stern correction and we kept an acquaintance after that and he became a real mentor.
SM: What was it like working as Joe’s assistant?
MW: Pretty intense I kind of cut my teeth on the Infinity Gauntlet series. I did some of the backgrounds and got a special mention in the early collected edition of those stories. That was some of the stuff I worked on when I was staying with Joe Rubinstein in Brooklyn he was looking over my shoulder while I was working on that. I was doing some inking over Ron Lim but I also go to work over some of George Perez’s stuff.
SM: That’s one of the most iconic stories of Marvel Comics and it looks like they’ll be bringing a lot of it into the films soon.
MW: They’ve already brought in the Infinity Gems. The Gauntlet will probably be coming in next. Thanos has made appearances so it will be cool to see what they do with it and how they interpret all that material for the films I’m looking forward to it.
Pictured below interior art from Silverhawks issue seven Pencils by Mike Witherby inked by Fred Fredericks