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Interview with John Totleben
1963 Interview by Tom Field
Call him the Hero of the Handicapped.
John Totleben is legally blind--has never seen a comic book page or read the back of a pay check he's endorsed.
Yet, he's one of the Sweatshop's ace inkers and a crackerjack pencil salesman to boot.
And what is that uncanny sixth sense of his?
Call him the Inker Without Fear.
Tom Field: Jaunty John tell me how you came to work for the Sweatshop.
Jaunty John Totleben: Before I had come to work for the Sweatshop, I used to do like these sketches on 42nd Street. They were kind of novelty sketches, these kind we used to call 'radar sight sketches,' and people would pay two bucks a piece for these sketches. I thought that was pretty good money.
TF: I've seen a lot of people down there on 42nd Street selling pencils as well.
JT: Yeah, but it's like I was pretty lucky, I guess, because I didn't have to do that since I had this weird ability to sort of draw things without actually seeing them, you know? I was sitting there doing these sketches one day, and along comes Affable Al, and he just kind of took a look at some of the drawings that I was doing and said, "Hey, I can pay you twice as much if you come and work in the Sweatshop just inking some of my pencillers." I thought, 'well, that sounds interesting.' Basically, it was shortly after that I ended up working in the Sweatshop. Got to meet all the guys and hang out, and it was a pretty good time.
TF: What kind of background do you have in art? Are comics something that you've enjoyed?
JT: Actually, not really. I don't have any influences, see, because I guess I never really saw anything to be influenced by. I just kind of did it by intuition, I guess you could say.
TF: You don't have a traditional sight, then? You've got more of a radar sense?
JT: Something like that, or maybe more of a mystical thing even like a Zen or cosmic awareness.
TF: It's almost like a sixth sense.
JT: I don't even understand it.
TF: It's something you were born with?
JT: Could have been, but I don't really remember.
TF: So you've never seen comic books?
JT: Yeah. At least since I was an infant I've always been like this.
TF: What's the first strip you worked on in the Sweatshop?
JT: The first strip I worked on was Unbelievable N-Man with Sturdy Steve. Actually, that was pretty easy because everybody seems to know that Steve has a pretty heavy hand, and he kind of actually digs ruts right into the paper when he pencils. Really, all you got to do is stick the pen in the rut, and it's just kind of like going along automatically.
TF: It's almost like inverse braille. Instead of raised letters you have the pressed grooves.
JT: You can half feel it and just half go on automatic pilot with Steve. The funny thing is that I guess he developed his heavy hand and style--this is maybe a rumor or something, I don't know, I've never actually got the full story, but he used to be called Shaky Steve. He could never keep his hand still to actually get a good feed on the paper and pencil something that looked coherent, so he just tied a brick to the back of his hand, and that kind of solved the problem.
TF: So, that's why they call him Sturdy Steve now.
TF: What's it like working with Roarin' Rick?
JT: Rick's a great guy. Rick is actually quite opposite of Steve. He pencils very lightly, so that you can't even feel the crease of the pencil on the paper.
TF: That must be hard.
JT: You rely more on that cosmic awareness, you know. The whole thing with Rick's style is that he's a lot less spastic than Steve is, but the quality of the pencil seems a little more definite in places, so it's a little easier sometimes to ink that.
TF: They tell me that you have something of an unusual assistant.
JT: Oh, the dog, yeah.
TF: The dog.
JT: We don't really have a name for the dog. Yeah, he spots black pretty good.
TF: That would be a good name for him, Spot.
JT: There's paw-spotting techniques that he uses, but that's something that's kind of a little thing that we play around with really--special effects like little paws in the background for the outer space skies and things like that.
TF: Of course, Affable Al pays him.
JT: Well, not in hard cash. He keeps a supply of Milkbones on hand.
TF: Do you work right in the Sweatshop?
JT: The dog?
TF: Both of you.
JT: Yeah. I do some at home and some at the Sweatshop.
TF: What's it like in there?
JT: Well, I don't know what it looks like. I could probably describe it in terms of smells, but I don't know if there's really a good choice of words in the English language to pick from because there's so many different smells that they kind of all come together and it's really kind of overpowering at times. You've got these guys actually sweating. I mean, it is the Sweatshop, not to mention the smell of the inks and various other things that are laying around--the coffee, the beer and whatever else these guys might be into.
TF: So, it's a little beyond description.
JT: It's a little overpowering when your sense of smell is a little heightened, too, you know. You tend to block it out after awhile.
TF: Since you can't see in the traditional sense, how are you able to tell whether you've done a good job, whether you're pleased with it?
JT: Well, just the feedback that I get from everybody else. They seem to like it. That's the best way of judging.
TF: Do you have favorite characters to work with? Favorite strips?
JT: Usually I'm not too particular about the characters because I can't really see them all that well in terms of what their costumes are like. It's all kind of an abstract thing you know.
TF: Do you ever think that you might want to one day start doing some pencilling of your own as well?
JT: That's a possibility. That, of course, is something that might happen in the future, but right now I'm not too worried about it.
TF: What's it like working with Affable Al?
JT: Well, you know, Al's a great guy. He's really responsible for keeping all of us in line and making sure that we keep doing work and are productive people and all. We really owe a great deal to Al. I'm sure all of the guys realize that, but as I mentioned before it was Al that finally got me off the streets and into the Sweatshop. We owe him a great deal there. Actually, even the tagline, you know 'the inker without fear' tagline Al came up with that as well. For awhile there, the guys were asking, 'how is it that you can actually do this stuff without seeing it?' I would just say, "Well, it's just kind of like going by faith." So, they started calling me 'the inker with faith.' It was Al that said, "That just doesn't sound right." It doesn't have enough drama to it or something. He says, "Maybe it would sound better if we just said 'the inker without fear.'" It means the same thing pretty much, but it has more punch to it, you know. Al's really poetic like that, so he comes up with this stuff like nothing.
TF: He's quite a guy. Is it true that the people bow down to him when they come in in the morning?
JT: Yeah, I guess they kind of do you know.
TF: That's out of respect.
JT: Oh, he let you know that.
TF: Sounds like quite a place. What kind of plans do you have for the future? Do you want to stay in comics?
JT: Probably as long as I can keep doing it comfortably. The Sweatshop is, in spite of the odorous atmosphere, a pretty fun place to work.
TF: What kind of advise would you have for fans that would want to do what you're doing?
JT: Well, of course if they could see that would help a lot better because not everybody's going to have these strange abilities. It's the same old advice--just practice and keep at it until you get to where you're good enough to do it.
TF: What kind of advise would you have for people like yourself who are handicapped?
JT: Just do what you think you got to do. There's really no way to give advice to the people if they haven't got that special ability to begin with.
TF: If they don't have it, 42nd Street's a good place to start?
JT: Yeah, it's sort of...they'll just have to figure out for themselves what they got to do or what they can or can't do.
TF: And there's always the pencils.
TF: Well John you're quite a daredevil. Let me ask you about some of the other people. What's Dashin' Dave like?
JT: Actually, some people...I have heard some people writing in and other people saying that they actually prefer Dashin' Dave's inks over mine because, of course, he's a little tighter and maybe a little more detailed than I am, but you know he can see a lot better than I can.
TF: You don't see a lot of Dashin' Dave though. He tells me he spends a lot of his time travelling around, a lot of time between Vegas and Atlantic City.
JT: Well, I don't see a lot of anybody.
TF: Good point.
JT: I've only actually met Dave once or twice in passing, but I get a whiff of that cologne that he wears, and he's just kind of in and out.
TF: He fancies himself a bit of a ladies man.
JT: So I hear, but I try not to make comments about people's personal lives like that.
TF: How about John Workman? I guess you haven't seen much of his work either. He does a lot of lettering.
JT: I've only maybe had to talk to him once or twice on the phone to track down pages or whatever, but never really met in person. He seems like a pretty nice guy, really quiet, friendly sort of fellow. I've heard some strange stories about him, but again I wouldn't want to repeat them.
TF: Stories about the sweaters?
JT: [laughs] Something along those lines, yeah.
TF: How about Chester Brown? Now, Rick and Steve were telling me that with all the good work that Chester has done if there was a proposal he brought to Affable Al that Affable Al would have nothing to do with.
JT: I'm sure there have been several proposals that Chester could have brought to Affable Al that would probably not meet with Al's standards of decency maybe.
TF: How about Merry Marvin Kilroy?
JT: I've never really met him either. He's one of these guys that you hear about him but you never really actually see him. Well I don't actually see him, but the thing is he's kind of one of these guys that I've never really even thought about.
TF: Sort of a scholarly type.
JT: Yeah Roarin' Rick has had more contact with him than I have. Probably knows more than I do. Anything I can say would just be hearsay.
TF: Do you ever get a chance to meet some of your fans? Do they ever come up to the Sweatshop?
JT: Some of the old hangers on from 42nd Street tend to come up once in awhile to see what's happening. Just the regulars, the city guys. Al doesn't like them hanging around. They don't really contribute to the type of atmosphere that he likes to have in the Sweatshop. They're a bit of a distraction. Not really the type of people you'd want your kids hanging around. That sort of thing. Al does view us as his family sort of.
TF: That's good, he takes care of you then.
JT: Yeah, yeah, we all feel good about that.
TF: Would it make a difference if Al wasn't sitting in the room right now?
JT: Not really. He's a pretty good guy. We get a kick out his little jokes sometimes, especially with his little gag contracts, and I'm always ribbing him about the funny smell of that ink that's on that little stamp on the back of the checks. Like, I could never really see it, but there's a stamp on the back of your paycheck that kind of smells kind of fishy. We rib him about that once in awhile, but that really doesn't mean anything. He's assured us of that.
TF: So, the stamp isn't where you endorse the check?
JT: Yeah, well, you're supposed to sign somewhere underneath it. Apparently that protects our rights as creators. Al explained it one day. I forget the details of it, but it's for our own good, so we want to definitely make sure that that stamp is on the back of the check.
TF: That's smart. Of course, that must protect you to get your original artwork back as well.
TF: You do get your original artwork back?
JT: The artwork is...Al actually has been a bit of a pioneer in the area of returning original artwork because in the old days, original art that was just doormat material after it was printed. After it became apparent that fans wanted to own a piece of the artwork, you know the original art that their favorite characters were printed from and their favorite artist had actually drawn and touched, the original page is sort of a mystique that fans have with that. So, Al has been dutifully returning at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the original art to us.
TF: That's really something. JT: The rest he keeps for historical purposes, which I can see. He's a lot more far-sighted than any of the rest of us would be. We'd just sell the stuff or give it away even, which might not be a wise thing in terms of 30 years from now. Who knows what the stuff might be worth in historical terms?
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