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Interview with John Workman
1963 Interview by Tom Field
He's the unsung hero of the Sweatshop: the letterer who can letter a fully-scripted page with nary a paragraph of description to go by; the artist who hides his pens behind his cab medallion.
He's Jazzy John Workman...but what is this with him and women's sweaters?
Tom Field: Tell me, John, how long have you been in the business? How did you get started?
Jazzy John Workman: Well, it's kind of interesting. I grew up in West Virginia, and when I was real young there I got interested in two things: one was comic books, mostly because of the old comic that Al and the crew did years ago called Meeting Amanda, and I got interested in the character of Amanda. It's kind of a girls' comic book, but I always read it, and all the other guys always read it because Amanda had these rather large breasts, and they always drew her in an interesting way with tight sweaters. Being teenage boys, we sort of picked up on it. I got to the point where I got interested in drawing comics from Amanda. I would draw all these pictures of Amanda.
Growing up in West Virginia had an affect on me too because my parents knew the governor and later on, after he wasn't governor anymore, he became a taxi drive in Chicago. So, I was torn between two possibilities with my life: I wanted to either draw the adventures of Amanda for Affable Al or be a taxi drive. I didn't want to do it in Chicago, though, if I was going to be a taxi drive! I wanted to do it in New York, in the big time. So, in the mid-'50s I came up to New York and tried to get work as a taxi driver. I never got up the courage to go and talk to Al and the crew, though, because I didn't really think that my Amanda was quite up to what they were doing. The comics' code authority had come in by then, and Amanda just wasn't the same. They changed her quite a bit.
I did do other things. I did some acting.
TF: In New York?
JW: Oh, yeah. I was an extra on Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Jayne Mansfield. I kind of liked Jayne for the same reasons I liked Amanda.
TF: A lot of similarities. A couple of them that I can think of.
JW: Oh, yeah. There were two wonderful things I always remembered about both of them.
TF: Of course, Jayne has a hard time keeping her head about her.
JW: Yeah that's kind of sad. Poor old Jayne.
TF: So, how did you come to work in the Sweatshop? And how did you make the transition from drawing to lettering?
JW: Well, I finally did get a job as a taxi driver, and it was wonderful. I was going around, and I thought just to entertain the people who got into my cab I would put up some of the drawings I'd done. I had all kinds of different drawings of Amanda there, even though I'd never had the courage to go up to Al and the crew and show them any of my drawings. I thought, 'well, I can just entertain people in my cab with drawings.' One day this fellow got in and kind of looked at the drawings, but then he didn't say anything. He had a big portfolio with him and he was working away in the back of the cab while I was furiously running through the streets there trying to get him to wherever it was that he was going. I didn't know it, but it was the offices of Al and the guys. I wasn't quite used to the brake system on the cab. I had this old '49 Hudson when I was in West Virginia, and the brakes aren't very good on it, so I had gotten used to the Hudson, though when you put the brakes on in the cab it really ground to a halt. This dog ran across the street, somewhere near Central Park, I think it was, and I put the brakes on, and this guy splashed ink all over the drawings that he had. I turned around, and I was kind of helping him to get cleaned up, and he was not very happy. He said he'd just destroyed several days worth of work because of me. I told him I wanted to help him in some way. We got to talking, and he turned out to be one of the artists who worked regularly on Amanda. I showed him my drawings, and he had already seen some of them there in the cab, so I started helping him, and it wound up after a few days of helping him I got to be really good at ruling panel borders. So, for a long time I was doing that, and I went up to deliver some stuff for him one day, and that's how I met Al and all the guys.
TF: Of course, you got paid for the work you were doing?
JW: Well, I felt so bad about splashing ink all over the guy's work and ruining several days worth of work that I did that for free. I mean, I was getting my pay for being a taxi drive!
TF: Because the tip was definitely in danger on that one ride.
JW: Oh, yes, that's true.
TF: Tell me about your first impressions of the Sweatshop, meeting Affable Al, and I assume Sturdy Steve and Roarin' Rick were there.
JW: Well, they were all there and kind of running in and out and doing all kinds of things. The thing I remember most about it was Al laughing at my shirt.
TF: Laughing at your shirt?
JW: Yeah, I still don't know why. It was a nice plaid shirt--two shades of green with some white in it. Anyway, he thought my shirt was hilarious. I never asked him about that, really, but he just thought it was really funny.
TF: So, how did you get your first work with him?
JW: I kept delivering packages and ruling panel boarders, and one day I tripped and spilled white-out all over one of the pages. It was kind of the opposite of the ink thing in the taxi cab. No one had seen me do this, and I felt kind of like a fool because I put my shoes on wrong that morning. I was up late, double shifts on the taxi cab, and that was the reason that I tripped and the white-out went all over this page, and I didn't have to do too much redrawing, but I thought I would fix it up. I kind of re-inked parts of it, but the lettering was really gone. I had splashed it a lot on the balloons, so I relettered them. I found out that I was half way decent at it. Just as I was finishing up, I heard this noise in the corner and it was Sturdy Steve; he kind of passed out from the night before I think. He'd been up real late and all...
TF: Working hard.
JW: Yeah. He looked over, and he'd seen me doing all of this. It was kind of like the scene with Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind where Scarlet and her friend are having this big fight, and he's off to the side watching it all. Anyway, he said. "You ought to not only rule panel boarders, but you should also do some lettering, too!" Thanks to him, I got started on it.
TF: That's amazing. So you started working on the books right away, the Hypernaut, Mystery Incorporated, all the titles?
JW: Well, that was a few years before them. They're actually relatively new.
TF: That was before they came out back when they were still doing the monster books?
JW: This was just after the Comics Code Authority came in.
TF: Which, of course, Affable Al had a lot to do with.
JW: Well, yeah, they...it was almost sad to see--especially Amanda. I liked her a lot better before the Comics Code. They had the monster books by then, and I was always trying to do some drawings for those, too, but all the monsters kind of looked like they'd look real good if they were wearing tight sweaters. Anyway, I never really drew any of those, except sometimes I would help people when they were late on a deadline, and maybe I'd do a little inking.
TF: Or do a little sweater.
JW: Yeah, especially, if they needed to draw sweaters.
TF: You were there when the whole super-hero line sort of sprung up.
JW: Yeah. I think the reason it happened was everyone was kind of bored, and nothing was going on, and the big boss of the place would come in occasionally and tell us that we should get in on current things. He didn't feel that monsters were current things. He tried to talk us into doing a Pat Boone comic book, but DC already had the rights to that. We thought about Fabian and a few other guys, but at the last minute we almost worked out a deal with Fabian. He was doing some things that we thought were kind of on the juvenile delinquent side so we dropped that idea.
TF: It's a shame you couldn't have gotten Frankie Avalon. That would have been a connection to Annette Funicello and those sweaters.
JW: Oh, you know, I hadn't even thought of that, but you're right, yeah. She really filled out the sweaters by then, too. That would have been great. I would have liked to have met her.
TF: All things being equal, one day she may be back.
JW: It's possible.
TF: So you were there as the whole super-hero line sprung up. You were part of that.
JW: Yeah, it was happening all around me.
TF: At this point you were doing lettering constantly?
JW: Oh, yes.
TF: Of course, you could afford to give up the taxi job then.
JW: Well, I hated to because it's kind of fun running into different people. I ran into this young guy from Massachusetts one day. It was kind of interesting. He and his two brothers were on the way to meet their dad at the Plaza, so I took them there. They talked kind of funny, and I didn't realize that one day the older of the three would be president. So, I can say I've carted presidents around in my cab.
TF: That's amazing. Didn't have any company with them, did they?
JW: No, just those three. Like I said, they were on their way to the Plaza. Marilyn Monroe was staying at the Plaza, now that I think about it.
TF: I was thinking at least two out of those three brothers share a certain interest with you.
JW: I've got to admit I always liked Marilyn. She looked great in sweaters, not as good as Jayne Mansfield, but she was right up there. One of these days...well it's a little late now. I was sad about Marilyn going last year, but at least Jayne Mansfield is still around.
TF: So, talk about your work. How do you approach the work that you do? You do a tremendous amount of pages.
JW: I do about 20 hours a day, which leaves me about four hours to take care of my sleeping and my personal business and all.
TF: That definitely rules out the taxi business.
JW: Yeah. Like I said, I hated to see it go, but it's sort of fun to sit around here for 20 hours a day and listen to the radio. It keeps me up on all the current music. I keep hearing about these guys from England, but I don't know about them.
TF: They'll never replace the Beach Boys.
JW: Probably not.
TF: Tell me how you work. You must get full scripts from Affable Al.
JW: Oh no, no. We work in different ways than most other people. I did one job for DC years ago, and I didn't quite understand their method of working. They give you a full, complete script just like a play or a movie script. I'd never really read it like that before, and I handed it in and they got real mad because I didn't understand that you're only supposed to put in a dialogue. Where it said, like, "Superman leaps across the building," I would letter in at the top, "Superman leaps across the building." Anyway, I lettered everything that they gave you. It took forever, and I really had to squeeze it. I thought I did a pretty good job, but they were very mad, so that's the only job I did for them. But Affable Al gives me the pages, and they show up, and there's some rough notes about who's doing what just so I can figure stuff out, and then I just sort of make it up as I go along.
TF: He doesn't give you the actual dialogue and the captions, then?
JW: No, well, sometimes he'll have something like someone says, "Ow" or something like that. I decide, 'should I say, "Ow," or should I say, "Avast ye varlets this hurts," or something like that.
TF: There's a lot of flexibility for you then.
JW: Yeah, it's kind of fun. Every now and then my next door neighbor, Charlotte's her name, she comes in and she helps me out on some of the stuff. She looks good in sweaters, too.
TF: Let me understand this...when you get a script from Affable Al, it's not a script, it doesn't have all the dialogue, doesn't have all the captions, it has notes for you to go by.
JW: That's right.
TF: And you sort of fill it in from there.
JW: Yeah Al's real good about that.
TF: That's almost like writing the stories.
JW: Sort of, yeah. I guess I hadn't really thought much about it before. I mean, Al's got everything down. He types up sort of a resume--I think it's maybe a couple of sentences--and then it goes off to Steve or Rick, and they do the story, and they put in their notes too, and then it comes to me, and I whip it on out there. Sometimes I do a couple of books a day if there's a real crunch, if they've fallen behind for one reason or another.
TF: Do you ever consider writing stories of your own?
JW: I don't know. I don't really...everything that I write about tends to get around to sweaters sooner or later and I think that would be dull for most people after awhile.
TF: Would you ever consider proposing to Affable Al that you bring back Amanda and maybe do it a little differently?
JW: Well, I kind of wonder about how the Comics Code Authority would react to Amanda. I took pride at one time...I was in the offices, and everyday at the end of the day they gather all the work that they've done and make copies of it and they have silverprints, they're called, made downstairs at this print shop, and they send them over to the Comics Code Authority where the people there spend all day, hours every day, looking over comic books and trying to find perversions and such, and I thought, well, maybe I should send them something just to see what the reaction would be to Amanda. I took some of my drawings, and I made a little story out of it. It was about Amanda and how she'd met her friend Betty and they went out to buy some sweaters. You should have seen the reaction. I couldn't quite understand it, but the code authority people sent police over the next day. Affable Al had to send them away and tell them that it was all a joke.
TF: He's not usually understanding about those things.
JW: Well, he kind of kept the pages for himself. I never did get them back. That always bothered me, but he was nice enough about it.
TF: What's it like working in the Sweatshop? What's it like working with the guys?
JW: Oh, it's kind of strange. Like I said, I don't usually get in there. I just go in after working for maybe two or three days and getting the stuff all done, and I'd go in and I'd drop it off and then they'd hand me other thing. I don't really see a lot of them. Every now and then I'll bring my lunch in with me, and we'll sit and talk while they work, and sometimes I'll rule some creepy panel borders for them.
TF: Still making up for those spillages?
JW: Yeah, yeah. I still feel a little bad about that. Al, the other Al, the fellow who used to draw Amanda, he doesn't work there anymore. He kind of...he got real religious one time, and he decided that what he was doing was the work of the devil, and he tried to talk me into getting into another line of work, too. I don't see it that way. I think what we do is interesting to a whole lot of people--kids. It isn't only kids that read our stuff. There are a lot of people like in the Army or the Navy that read them, too.
TF: I bet they'd appreciate Amanda.
JW: Oh, they really love sweater stories.
TF: This must be a very lucrative business for you. I'm sure you've done very well over the years.
JW: I never did quite as well as I was doing when I was driving that taxi cab. Sometimes the tips were real good.
TF: But the page rates are very good.
JW: Well, they're up to fifty cents a page now for lettering, and I think the inking rate if four dollars. I was thinking about maybe getting into inking, but I don't know. Every time I show samples to anyone, they always tell me that I should work more and that I'm really great on panel boarders.
TF: You would think that Al of course would pay you more because you embellish the letters. You don't just letter; you embellish what he gives you. You'd think they'd be worth a little more.
JW: Well, I do bring it up to the point where there's a lot to read. I always thought that with comics you shouldn't be able to sit down and read it for five minutes. You should maybe be able to spend 15 or so. I try to bring a lot of words to it so that people think they're really getting their ten cents worth.
TF: Well I'm sure Affable Al appreciates your work.
JW: I hope so. He keeps promising that there's going to be a raise, and at the last Christmas party, I know, before he passed out in the corner there he told me that he was going to get it up to fifty-five cents.
TF: Wow. That's a heck of a leap!
TF: What's it like working with Affable Al?
JW: He's just a great guy, and he's real visionary. He's always looking for what's going to happen next. He told me that he likes to get in mentions of current things because that it'll make the books more really with it. Every now and then I'd toss in something about the big guys like the Beach Boys or Merv Griffen or Perry Como or somebody like that.
TF: What advice would you have for someone that wanted to get into comics, that wanted to say work at the Sweatshop like you?
JW: Well, what I've done of course is concentrated mostly on lettering and ruling panel boarders and I think that's the best way to go--specialization. You should learn to do one thing and do it real well.
TF: Would you advise anyone to attempt to spill ink or white-out on someone's pages as an approach?
JW: Well, I...those were just pure accidents, and sometimes when you try to do something and make it look accidental it looks real hokey and all and people know what you're trying to do. I mean, if you walked up to Al and spilled something on him, it could be dangerous too.
TF: What sort of plans do you have for your future? What do you see yourself doing five years from now, or 10 years?
JW: Well, every now and then when I'm at some sort of little party or something like that where there are a lot of people who work in the industry, Kubert comes over and asks me if I want to teach at this school that he's thinking of opening. He and Norman Maurer had been talking about it for years. They even had a correspondence course that they used to sell through the comics where you could learn to draw. What Joe sees is maybe a school for individual people, teach different things. He wondered if I might want to do something about teaching people how to rule panel boarders. So that's a possibility. I don't know that he will ever really get it off the ground, but I could see myself as a really good teacher.
TF: Because if the panel boarders didn't work out there'd always be the sweaters.
JW: Well, every now and then I drive by Macy's and I look in the window and I get to thinking that there must be some sort of advertising that they need, or maybe I could draw some sweaters for them. But, we'll have to see.
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