(13 August 1951 - 23 September 1982)
Howard Eugene Day, Mentor
by Dave Sim
(Cerebus #270, September 2001)
I first met Gene Day in the summer of 1974, when I stepped off the bus that ran a couple of times a day between Kingston, Ontario and Gene's... very, very... small hometown of Gananoque (Gateway to the Thousand Islands: one of Canada's more picturesque and renowned tourist attractions). The bus pulled in to a gas station which doubled as the local Grey Coach Terminal -- pulled in just long enough to let anyone off who was getting off and let anyone on who was getting on.
I had corresponded with Gene since the previous fall when we had been put in touch with each other by a writer named Augustine Funnell who had recently sold a couple of comic book scripts to the editor of a line of horror comics magazines -- a man by the name of Al Hewetson -- who edited those magazines from his home in St. Catherines, Ontario. John Balge and I had interviewed Hewetson for the second issue of the Now & Then Times... which I edited and had talked Now & Then Books owner, Harry Kremer, into publishing. I had gotten Hewetson's name, address and phone number from Vince Marchesano (at the time a very big name in Southern Ontario comic-art circles). Psycho and Nightmare -- later joined by Scream -- were the titles Hewetson edited for Israel Waldman's Skywald Publishing, second rate knock-off's of Jim Warren's (by 1973) equally second-rate comics horror magazines: Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. It was in the pages of the last issue of Psycho that I would make my own professional debut as a comic-book scriptwriter a year or so later.
When you are young and you are hungry and desperate for paying comics work -- as we all were in those days -- it is by just such circuitous routes and indirect connections that you begin (step by step) to get anywhere. Augustine ("Gus", as he was known in the "Gan") had gotten in with Skywald. John Balge and I had interviewed him (for John's fanzine, Comic Art News & Reviews) and he had told us about his friend Gene Day who might be willing to do some spot illos or covers for "CANAR". John wrote to Gene and Gene sent down some samples of his work. His samples were really good. So good that I had no problem with being knocked out of my spot as CANAR's primary cover artist by him.
Professional is a highly flexible term. I was a professional insofar as I sold my artwork for money and it was published (each sale duly recorded in my little black and red hardcover notebook reserved for the purpose). That is to say, technically I was a professional artist, but only technically. I was still living at home (or, rather, "living with my mother" as Gene would rather gleefully put it whenever I would get a little too big for my britches) and I wasn't earning nearly enough money to support myself. Gene was in a different category altogether -- a giant step up from where I was. Gene made enough money -- rarely, most of the time -- to rent the second floor of the house Gus Funnell lived in (although at the time of that first visit Gene slept, as I recall, on the screened-in front porch of his fiancee's mother's house). He paid for most of his own food, his own telephone bill. As I say, a giant step up from where I was.
We shook hands as the bus roared off behind me down King Street toward the next tiny Eastern Ontario town, Lansdowne, then Belleville, then the next and the next and the next -- all the way up to Montreal. For those who prefer the human side of these stories, let me attempt to describe the man who met me at the gas/bus station "upstreet".
Gene's was am intimidating presence. He dominated the space he occupied and the area around him as most big men do. We would soon be about the same height (5' 9" -- I grew about seven inches between dropping out of high school in June of '73 and the summer of '75) but he probably had forty or fifty pounds on me -- 180 or 190 would be my guess. There was an unmistakable sense, as we walked along, that he was edging me out of the way -- there wasn't enough sidewalk for both of us. A sense very much belied by his level of interest -- keen interest -- in anything and everything I had to say. He had what could be best described as a "rolling gait", both shoulders hunched, the forearms swinging, swinging in counter-rhythm to his bulldog stride: the stride of a man with places to go and things to do and little patience with impediments of any kind. He had long, long straight black hair which fell to the middle of his back and which called to my mind Conan's hair as depicted on the old Frazetta paperback covers. He was relaxed conversationally, moving easily from topic to topic: relaxed but not relaxing (it was impossible, it seemed, to stay out of the way of those swinging forearms) and I remember thinking -- briefly -- that I had made a mistake coming to visit him. His face was heavy, nearly a perfect oval. A rubbery complexion, as if molded from smooth plastic -- but firm -- which made him appear heavyset rather than fat. No facial hair to speak of -- stubble on his chin and the corners of his mouth only. An eighteen-year-old notices those things about a twenty-three year old. It was the only area where I had the advantage over him. Rotten teeth, brown and discolored and stunted. He told me the story of his teeth, once, years later. Some precursor of "workfare" had involved him in the hauling felled trees out in the bush, dragging them to a huge bonfire in minus-40-degree weather. Someone later told him that moving repeatedly from the extreme cold of the surrounding bush to the furnace-like temperatures at the bonfire caused permanent damage to his teeth, killing them from the insides out. Anyway, they caused him no end of trouble and he was forced to limit his diet to soft food. He had been quite the hell-raiser in his welfare days. Lots of drugs. For months (years?) on end his daily diet had consisted of a jug of the cheapest wine they sold at the LCBO and a box of French fries. Finally he had had an attack of the DT's -- convinced that he saw a UFO landing right in from of him on the creek that runs through the middle of Gananoque. For years (he told me) he and his friends were hauled in for questioning anytime anything bad happened in town. It was hard to reconcile these stories with the Gene Day I knew and the reaction people had to him on the street. "How are ya?" With the Eastern Ontario accent which made it sound almost like "How air ya?" How's so-and-so? How's she getting on with 'er (whatever it was). Every few feet on the way "upstreet". "Gene!" "Oh, hey. How are ya?" Just plain folks. No putting on airs. "WhattzAT?" With me, it's a conversational trick because I used to see how well it "worked" for Gene. Only for Gene it was just part pf his genuine interest in people. That and the fact he was a little deaf. Actually more than a little deaf. So, he would miss a line of the person's story, but he was so interested in what they were saying that he would lean in a little, a big grin breaking out on his face and say, "wattzAT?" Whoever they were they would just light up. I doubt that most of them had ever been listened to so attentively. I know I hadn't. He was also blind as a bat without his glasses and not exactly as "eagle-eye" with his glasses on.
Anyway, to say that he was making up for lost time -- the teenage years he had wasted on drugs and alcohol and just basic hell-raising -- was an understatement.
That became apparent when we got to his studio and he started pulling out pieces of artwork to show me. At the time, I had only seen the three or four pieces of art he had sent to John Balge and had assumed that they represented, numerically (as they would have in my own case) a substantial chunk of what he had accomplished to that time. Virtually all of his work was drawn on Bristol board: that-glossy-on-one-side-dull-on-the-other Bristol board that we all used at school (and which I had abandoned for "artsier" Mayfair card stocks.) And there was a lot of it. I see him, in my mind's eye, crouched down in front of a vertical file, pulling out illustrations after illustration. A stack of comic strips he hadn't been able to interest anyone in. Full colour strips betraying a Vaughn Bode "Purple Pictography" influence with their balloons floating outside the panels...
[I was going through my own bout with swiping Vaughn Bode's thinking and idiosyncrasies -- we were all terribly susceptible to Bode in the mid-70s, thrashing around, looking for regular work, not fitting in. Apart from the high quality of the work itself, Bode didn't fit any known category. He wasn't an "underground" cartoonist like Crumb, but he sure wasn't a Marvel or DC guy either. National Lampoon's Funny Pages with "Cheech Wizard" every month, his own (not really "underground" comics and third string skin magazines like Swank. If you could make a career out of that -- and clearly, Bode had -- there was some small hope for all of us]
...drawings of Robert E. Howard characters: Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Solomon Kane (a particular favourite of Gene's and the model for Gene's own Stromm Hel Dunn character). Conan was going through one of his periodic renaissances (on the heels of the success of the Roy Thomas-Barry Smith comic book incarnation which would one day serve as the primary satirical touchstone for the early Cerebus) and the fanzine world was awash in REH "zines" both amateur and "prozines" (as they were called: paying markets). I learned from Gene the value of doing a Conan picture and then running it around the circle of prozines until someone would agree to pay anywhere from twenty to forty dollars for "one-time" reproduction rights. Shoestring operations all, they paid "on publication" more often than "on acceptance", seldom published more than once or twice a year, and were usually backlogged with eight or ten issues of material "in the drawer", so it was not unusual to wait (literally) years to see your picture in print and to get paid for it.
...covers and illustrations for Gene's own fanzine, Dark Fantasy (then at around issue 6 or 7) and other proposed/dreamed-about publications slated for his Shadow Press imprint, painstakingly imitative of the professional digest-sized fantasy and science fiction magazines sold (widely, at the time) on newstands. I say "painstakingly" because this was before the computer revolution in desktop publishing. A small block of "type" on the cover, outlining the contents of a given issue required each letter (barely an eighth of an inch tall) to be aligned by hand and by sight and then burnished into place from a master sheet of Letrset dry-transfer lettering.
Looking at that sheer, awe-inspiring volume of work on that first visit, I recognised that Gene was not only a professional (able to feed himself and provide for himself, solely through his artwork, the basic necessities of life) -- but also, at least, potentially, a PROFESSIONAL professional (which, at the time, meant only one thing to all of us: he could, conceivably, get work at Marvel and/or DC in the not too distant future).
I was definitely not in that category -- nor was Gene -- but he was clearly much closer to the goal than I was. The only real impediment to Gene's breaking in at Marvel (that I could see) was a "cartooniness" to his drawings, a rubbery look that came and went from panel-t0-panel and page-to-page -- and an inversion of the Jack Kirby Principle of Small Heads and Big Hands to convey Heroic Proportions (Gene's figures tended towards large heads and small bodies and hands) that also came and went from panel-to panel and page-to-page.
By the end of the visit, I didn't want to leave, didn't want to go home to my parents' basement and my own modest, little stack of illustrations and strips that I had just sort of -- produced -- since dropping out of high school with no idea where they might (even theoretically) be published. That visit was the first major adjustment I made to my focus, recognising that sheer productivity was an inherent good thing and (so far as I knew) as essential element in making the jump from amateur to professional. For me, it would no longer be enough to just draw a picture or a strip and send it out to some market or other and sit back twiddling my thumbs waiting for it to be returned or a cheque to arrive in the mail.
But, this isn't about me.
Gene got work and then Gene got more work. He hooked up with a publisher who was doing comic-book adaptations of classic literature -- and who commissioned Gene to adapt Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some unbelievably lengthy format (this is going to sound funny coming from me) of 120 pages or something. Pencilled, inked and lettered. The work either never got printed or they never sent him a copy. But he did get paid for it. Getting paid was the priority. Project One -- this time written, pencilled, inked and lettered by Gene for an outfit in Chicago. In a reader poll, Gene was rated the number two guy (Jim Craig was number one) at Toronto's short-lived ORB magazine. Gene got quite a bit of work at Star*Reach in Star*Reach and Imagine. It was a story in Imagine -- a story about a Samaria Warrior -- where the cartooniness and the inversion of the Kirby Principle (suddenly!) vanished from Gene's work and where his brushwork (suddenly!) snapped into crystal clarity -- that finally attracted the attention of someone at Marvel. Norman Mailer's phrase, "an eye to the main chance" is applicable. Gene had been hungry, Gene had worked hard and now he had his chance. Unlike everyone else we knew who had "broken in" at Marvel or DC, Gene had no intention of letting (what he saw as) "the main chance" slip away. Marvel wanted Gene as an inker. There is a joke that Gil Kane (may God rest his soul) used to do on panels at conventions about Marvel inkers, pantomiming a puppet with both hands hauled aloft by invisible strings. "And then they slide the page in front of them," he would say and then mime the hands plummeting onto the page and the right hand furiously describing circles and lines and slaps and dashes until, abruptly ( a second or two later) the hands would be hauled aloft again. And then the process was repeated. It got a very good laugh anytime I saw Gil perform it.
It also wasn't far from the truth. In the pre-FedEx days, a twenty-two page story, pencilled and lettered, would arrive at the Gananoque Post Office via airmail on a Monday and Gene would be expected to ink it in five or six days. Often another issue arrived while he was still working on the first one. One way or the other, he got them done. It was an amazing thing to behold. In fact, it was believed at Marvel that "Gene Day" was a pseudonym for an art agency (like the "Crusty Bunkers" designation for "gang inking" done at Neal Adams' Continuity Associates), so reliable was Gene in turning books around, no matter how crushing the deadline. It was actually just Gene and Danny, his younger brother (the same Dan Day who, today, works for Claypool on their licensed title, Elvira). Danny filled in solid blacks (Gene would outline them in ink and put an "x" where he wanted the solid black to go) laid in basic patterns and textures, ruled the straight lines. The rest of it was Gene. 16- and 18-hour days were the rule and not the exception. As I say, it was something to behold. In addition, Gene still produced his political cartoon "Cap'n Riverrat" for the local weekly paper The Gananoque Reporter in exchange for free photocopying. He was also still corresponding and talking on the phone with all the Dark Fantasy contributors: Charles Saunders, Joe Erslavas, me, Tim Hammell, still making slow progress on Pigeons From Hell, a Robert E. Howard short story for which he had acquired the rights from the Howard Estate to adapt into comic-book format and which he intended to self-publish as a graphic novel. But mostly, from morning 'til night, he inked Marvel comics. He got a steady gig inking Mike Zeck on Shang Chi, Master Of Kung Fu (which was still being written by Doug Moench "based on the characters created by Sax Rohmer" in his Fu Manchu stories). It had been a fan favourite when drawn by Paul Gulacy (isolated issues and then a memorable run, issues 42 to 50) -- but had since fallen to a completely marginal status and was verging on cancellation (selling somewhere around 80,000 copies an issue: in this day and age, a mega hit). Master of Kung Fu suited Gene just fine with its pulp flavour, exotic locations and adventure motifs. He got on like a house-on-fire with Moench and Zeck and loved working on Zeck's pencils. Then, Mike Zeck quit. That left Marvel with no Master of Kung Fu penciller and, of course, since it was such a marginal book, no one wanted to do it. There were no royalties to be had and it was a monthly title so it was a back-breaking job. They offered it to Gene. Not because they wanted Gene to do it especially, but because Zeck had left, it was a monthly title and every day that went by that someone (ANYone) wasn't turning in pencilled pages was another day that the title was late. Or, rather, later, since it had been taking all the running Doug and Mike and Gene could muster just to keep from slipping further behind.
Even though Gene was a much slower penciller than he was an inker (much slower) , and would, therefore, be taking a dramatic cut in pay right at the time he needed every penny he could lay his hands on to pay The Mortgage on the big, old, Victorian house he had bought on First Street -- he took the assignment. Loyalty is "bred-in-the-bone" in the Scots who built the small towns of Eastern Ontario and, in the small towns of Eastern Ontario, loyalty is a two-way street. Marvel cheques paid The Mortgage and so (loyalty demanded) what Marvel wanted from Gene, Marvel got from Gene to the best of Gene's abilities.
It was, unquestionably, a thing to behold when Gene began applying the loin's share of those prodigious abilities to the task at hand. Now, instead of piles of pencilled and lettered pages scattered across the old kitchen table next to his drawing board, there were blank pages with pieces of tracing paper of various sizes and shapes and (overlapping) configurations taped to the pages at different angles -- big figures, little figures, faces, buildings, statues, locomotives, period cars, .45 automatics (accurate in every detail) -- "pencilled-side-down", ready to be transferred to the page by Danny tracing over them and then returned to Gene to be tightened-up into finished pencils.
No inking. Not yet. the pages had to make a return trip to New York so they could be approved, editorially, then lettered, then returned to Gananoque for inking. Easily (easily!) a week of working time lost out of that brutal monthly schedule.
Doug Moench was a prince, in all this. "What do you want to draw?" He would tailor the story to Gene's pencilling strengths, the things Gene had confidence in. East Indian statues. I remember the East Indian statues. Bas relief panels. A definite motif that Gene seized on, Doug played to. The book really started to click. Sales started going up as Gene edged over into his own "take" on Steranko's style. He didn't have Paul Gulacy's facility with the human figure and he knew that, but he had a nearly super-human design sense and he knew how to spot blacks like nobody's business. And he could tell a story; move your eye from panel to panel and then BAM hit you in the face with a display shot when you turned the page. He was amused talking with me on the phone one night.
"It's 'Have a Cigar' time," he laughed, referring to the Pink Floyd song.
People at Marvel were taking notice and suddenly everyone wanted to fiddle with Master of Kung Fu now that sales were going up. Everyone wanted to make changes so they might be able to steal some credit for the success ("It could be made into a monster/if we all pull together as a team"). Gene laughed. But, I knew it wasn't funny. I suspected it was going to get a whole lot less funny. And it did.
[As tends to happen, a warning about misplaced loyalty arrived in Gene's life in the winter on 1981-82 during a particularly server cold snap that blanketed much of Ontario, Quebec and the north-eastern US. Right in the middle of struggling to maintain his brutal schedule on Matser of Kung Fu, Gene was summoned to Marvel's New York offices as an emergency inker; and eight- or ten-page story needed to be inked over a weekend. Gene had s lifelong fear of flying so he had to take the train east to Montreal and then south through Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and finally into Manhattan -- and "hit the ground" inking on arrival. Whatever Marvel wanted, Marvel got. They put him up at a hotel that proved to be roach-infested. He asked to be given a different hotel (not substantially better but, you know, not roach-infested). The editor, who will remain nameless (it wasn't Jim Shooter, by the way) told him he could sleep on one of the two-seater couches in Marvel's reception area. Whatever Marvel wanted, Marvel got. He slept on the couch with his coat pulled over him... in a Madison Avenue office building where the turned off the heat at night... in the middle of a serer cold snap. He developed an infection in his kidneys, as a result, which would cause hm almost as much pain as his teeth did for the rest of his life. He finished the inking job over the weekend and went home.]
Meanwhile, on Master of Kung Fu, as the sudden sales spurt continued to attract editorial attentions, Gene ran afoul of many of Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter's Rules of Good Comic-Book Storytelling. "No continuous backgrounds" was a big one (that is, no pages where a single background ran across two or three panels: a cornerstone of Steranko's storytelling.) Loyalty isn't the only attribute of a Scot. There's also stubbornness. Gene was part of a hit -- or, at least, a book whose sales were going up, a book that was being talked about. He must have known that that success could only be attributed to his storytelling since that was the only thing that had changed (he could never say that, or course -- not even to himself -- his natural modesty, his self-effacing Eastern Ontario nature would forbid it). But, there was another way to make his point. He did a sequence that ran across four or five pages.
One. Continuous. Background.
That, of course, led to The Phone Calls: Knock off the continuous backgrounds, said Shooter. Get them Coloured Properly, replied Gene (Shooter had told the colourists to use different colours on the backgrounds in different panels, so a continuous wall changed from mauve to red to yellow. Unbeknownst to Gene, the colourist was Shooter's long-term girlfriend) (oops, as they say)
It was an unhappy situation. Shooter called the shots. He was Editor-in-Chief. It was his job to call the shots. Gene was a freelancer. It was his job to do as he was told. Shooter told him that Archie Goodwin found his work unreadable. That hurt. Big time. I knew Archie quite well by then, so I called him. No. He didn't find Gene's work unreadable. Shooter had brought the continuous background pages to him and asked him if he found then unreadable and Archie had said, no. They were a little more difficult to follow than a typical page, but he could read them with no problem. I phoned Gene to relay the word. He was relieved to hear it, of course, but the relief was temporary. At that point, that was all any of us could provide for Gene: temporary relief. It was between Gene Day and Jim Shooter and there was no doubt how it was going to end. Not in my mind. Not, I suspect, in the mind of anyone who was privy to the conflict. Gene got the axe. Got work at DC right away. Dick Giordano snatched him up to do Batman (a guy who can do Steranko-style graphics and storytelling, pencilling and inking, on a monthly schedule? What, is this a trick question?). From an Industry standpoint it was, unquestionably, a promotion, or rather a Promotion -- from a marginal book at Marvel to the top book at DC. But not for Gene. Gene wasn't a DC fan. Gene was a Marvel fan. The House That Jack Built. Marvel had picked him and Gene had vowed never to let them down and was on the verge of delivering a hit for them. The way it ended, for Gene, wasn't so much "wrong", as it was "inexplicable". If sales were going up, why not let him do what he wanted until sales went back down? The wrenching "downshifting" out of the 16- and 18-hour days took its toll, no question. But it wasn't just the 16- and 18-hour days and it wasn't just the downshifting...
There are things that happen...
There are. Things. That. Happen...
...which, spiritually, can just cut some vital part right out of you, some vital part that is necessary to sustain life as is blood, as is oxygen. And that, I believe, is what happened with Gene getting fired off of Master of Kung Fu. He had a regular check-up with his doctor in mid-September of 1982. Apart from the lingering effects of his kidney infection, he was given a clean bill of health. A week later, September 23, 1982 -- coincidentally, his brother Danny's birthday -- out for a walk in the neighbourhood around the First Street house, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
At the age of thirty-one.
"Jim Shooter did not kill Gene Day", said the Marvel spokesman -- before anyone had even had the chance to ask a question -- at the weekly "news conference" they used to hold for various New York-area fanzines and their correspondents. And that's really all that was ever said, apart from Archie Goodwin's wonderful tribute in Epic Magazine and my own in... The Comics Journal?... The Comics Buyers Guide?... I don't remember offhand. What else could be said? Embarking, as I was, on the first national tour of comic-book stores a week later, I was certainly in a position to say something, but what? Gene had made his own choices all along, choices that had put him on a collision course with his boss. To the day he died, his loyalty to Marvel remained unshakeable. To me, loyalty to Gene meant respecting that loyalty -- both in the immediate aftermath of his death and for the ensuing (as it turns out) nearly two decades -- even though I saw that loyalty (then) and see that loyalty (now) as having been wholly and completely misplaced.
"It was a Shame."
Many depths of meaning descended through the noun which ended that simple sentence, allowing me to express what I truly thought -- while also allowing a largely disinterested industry, and the company at which it was directed, to take (because of my loyalty to Gene and his memory) the surface meaning. Yes. "It was a Shame."
All of us who knew Gene, who respected and admired the man and his work, who had worked with him and had watched his talents hatch out into something remarkable, exhibiting the first glittering promise of many gems to come -- me, Danny, Doug Moench, Archie Goodwin, Mike Zeck, Mike Friedrich, a handful of others -- separated geographically, stunned, disbelieving but, alas, still just a mere handful of individuals, caught between the rock of the industry consensus and the hard place of our own loyalty to Gene, would have to content ourselves with that.
Yes. Jim Shooter did not kill Gene Day. Yes. It was a Shame.
In a perfect world -- in what I would consider a perfect world -- Gene Day's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Pigeons From Hell enters its record-breaking thirtieth printing this year. Still the flagship volume in the extensive and ever-expanding backlist of Gene's own Shadow Press (which occupies a quarter-page in the Star System catalogue), it will soon be joined by the first printing of his latest effort, two years in the making, as all of us head to "Gan" to salute him on his 50th birthday: August 13, 2001.
Howard Eugene Day (1951-1982) was the Canadian comic book artist best known for Marvel Comics' Master of Kung Fu and Star Wars series. Dave Sim credits Gene as his earliest and most influential mentor, and the inspiration for his own self-publishing efforts. From 1985 to 1986, Deni Loubert's Renegade Press published four issues of Gene Day's Black Zeppelin, an anthology series primarily featuring stories and painted covers Day completed before his death of a coronary on 23 September 1982 at the age of 31. From 2002-2006, Dave Sim and Gerhard created The Day Prize, an annual award given to a comic creator chosen by them from the exhibitors at SPACE (Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo) held in Columbus, Ohio. In February 2009, the Shuster Awards received permission from Gene Day's widow, Gale, and brothers to name the annual Gene Day Award For Self-Publishing in his memory. Gene was inducted into the Shuster Hall of Fame in 2007.
Jim Shooter was the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics between 1978-1987. He addressed many of the issues surrounding Gene Day's death here in August 2011.
Jim Shooter was the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics between 1978-1987. He addressed many of the issues surrounding Gene Day's death here in August 2011.