Here once again is the text of the Wally Wood feature I just wrote for Wizard
magazine in 2010.
On a Hero Initiative-related note, the
organization came into being about 19 years too late for a Wally Wood,
but I've often wondered if a Hero-like organization could have prevented
Wood's tragic end. Like so many things Wally Wood, perhaps we'll never
I found the piece very difficult to write. The
subject matter is not always very pleasant. But I hope that in the end,
you as a reader will get a circumspect view of Wood, and see the amazing
warmth and his genius that accompanied his tragic, but very human,
HEAD: TRAGIC GENIUS
Wally Wood was an artistic hero to an entire generation, a pillar of
the legendary EC Comics, and one of comics’ first successful
self-publishers. And then he killed himself.
For Wizard magazine
County of Los Angeles keeps seven pages on file pertaining to Wally
Wood. The pages are maintained by the Department of Coroner, as part of
its mission is “the investigation and determination of the cause and
manner of all sudden, violent or unusual deaths in the County.”
The death of Wally Wood certainly fits all those categories. Sudden. Violent. Unusual.
around midnight on Halloween night, 1981, Wallace Allen Wood pressed a
Charter Arms “Bulldog” model .44 caliber revolver to his right temple
“GSW to head (T&T). No note. Recent
despondency over health. Was to be put on dialysis today,” the case
report notes. “GSW” tells us it was a gunshot wound; “T&T”
denotes through and through—the bullet passed through his skull on the
right side, and went out the left. The bullet, a Smith and Wesson
Special, round nose and bare lead, was found on a pillow “directly under
the decedent’s head.”
Wallace Allen Wood committed suicide in a sweaty, cheap apartment at
15150 Parthenia St. in what is now known as the Panorama City section of
Los Angeles. This is a fact.
It is also a fact that Wally Wood was one of the most talented artists comics has ever seen, a giant whose work on Mad, Weird Science and more inspired generations.
And in between these two inescapable points lies a man’s life.
To say that Wally Wood was a complicated man would be an understatement.
“To me, he was a great friend and mentor,” says artist Ralph Reese, who worked under Wood in the 1960s.
was just an engine of rage. I really can’t put it any more specifically
than that,” says artist Howard Chaykin, who later worked under Wood
“Everybody who actually met him, liked
him,” says Larry Hama, another Wood assistant. “He had his problems, but
he was a stand-up guy.”
“Wally was a very talented
artist, but he was a dour, humorless person, at least when relating to
me,” says Al Feldstein, Wood’s editor at EC. “I found him difficult to
talk to, almost impossible to criticize, and often depressed.”
can’t talk about Woody without talking about drinking,” says longtime
comics writer and editor Denny O’Neil, himself a recovering alcoholic.
these things are, of course, true. Human beings don’t fit conveniently
into single, carefully labeled pigeonholes. Wally Wood was all these
things: Great friend, mentor, engine of rage, stand-up guy, depressed,
But what made him “him,” what made him so
quintessentially Woody, was his immense talent, and exactly that
WOODY'S EARLY CAREER
Wood started drawing at age two, doing his best to copy the comic
strips he loved best in the newspaper. He particularly obsessed over Hal
Foster’s “Prince Valiant” and Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates.”
His mother lovingly bound many of his early drawings into a book using
her sewing machine.
Wood wanted to be a cartoonist
since his earliest days, and by age 20, decided to try his hand in the
field. He spent one term at the Minneapolis School of Art, but didn’t
take well to formal education. “Decided they couldn't teach me anything;
they had the same idea,” Wood wistfully recalled in his National
Cartoonists Society bio.
But Wood moved to New York,
and soon got his first break. By October of 1948, at age 21, he was
working for Will Eisner as a background artist. By ’49, he was working
on Westerns and romances for Fox Comics. By 1950, he was assisting
artist Harry Harrison on EC Comics stories, when his biggest break came.
had given Harrison and Wood a few assignments and quickly came to
realize that Wally was being exploited by Harry, and that the work was
actually all Wally's,” longtime EC Editor Al Feldstein recalls. “I
managed to have a private conversation with Wally, encouraged him to
free himself from Harry, and told him that I would give him work if he
did. The rest is history.”
History, indeed. EC Comics exploded just as Wood did, morphing its old crime, Western and romance titles into new books such as Tales From the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, Two-Fisted Tales, and Weird Science.
Sales shot through the roof. EC had a goldmine of great artists such as
Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Al Williamson—hell, even Frank Frazetta
would do the occasional story. Wood was surrounded by stars, but he
shone as brightly as anyone.
“Wally Wood would come in with a story and three artists would crowd around him and just faint, just poring over every brushstroke and every panel,” EC Publisher Bill Gaines recalled in a 1983 Comics Journal interview.
Chaykin notes the Wood influence throughout the EC line. “Certainly
Johnny Craig was influenced by him, whether he was aware of it or not,”
Chaykin says. “The way he drew science fiction influenced Frank
Frazetta, and thus influenced everybody who was post-Frazetta.”
even in happy times in a booming business, something always seemed a
little…off…about Wood. He had a tendency to keep people at arm’s length.
didn’t know Woody all too well,” admits Jack Davis, another legendary
artist in the EC stable. “Really about the only time I’d see him is when
we’d show up at the office at the same time to drop off work. And then
maybe we’d go to lunch. He was a pleasant man, but he’d always be
looking over his shoulder, his eyes shifting around, as if he was
worried about something.”
EC continued to hum along, and Wood with the company, until Seduction of the Innocent
rocked comics’ world in 1954. The book by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham
tried to link comics to juvenile delinquency, and public outcry led to
the formation of the Comics Code Authority and the gutting of EC’s line.
Edgy horror comics were all but outlawed, and EC was left a shell of
its former self. Only Mad
continued, and Woody continued with it, supplementing his work and
income with advertising jobs, comic strips, and magazine covers.
THE CRACKS START TO SHOW
the cracks at the base of Wood’s life were starting to show. Although
he remained a top-name artist for many years, most fans and critics
consider his EC work from 1950-54 to be his best. There was also the
drinking. “It was after I took over the editorship of Mad
[in 1956] that I really noticed that there was a serious problem,” Al
Feldstien says. “It became a huge problem for me when his work was
getting sloppy and unacceptable.”
Wood himself was getting sloppy. He was arrested on a Mad editorial trip to the Virgin Islands, and eventually fired from Mad
entirely. But comics and art remained a passion for Wood, and he
remained in the field. Trading card jobs, comic strips and more
continued to roll in, and Wood himself rolled on to the hot new player
on the scene, Marvel Comics, in grand fashion.
A cover blurb on December, 1964’s Daredevil
#5 proclaimed, “Under the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous
illustrator Wally Wood, Daredevil reaches new heights of glory!” Ten
months later, on Avengers #20,
another blurb boasted, “Special note to art lovers: Wait’ll you see
Wonderful Wally Wood’s inking of Don [Heck]’s drawings in this great
ish!” In a day and age in which NO ONE got cover credit, Wood somehow
was getting it…even as an inker.
“It just goes to show
what great respect Stan had for Wally’s work,” says Roy Thomas, who
joined Marvel in 1965 as Editor Stan Lee’s first assistant. “He was just
wild for him. His whole style—penciling, inking, the whole thing. And
he thought that Wally had his own following from the EC stuff and Mad that would help Marvel.”
The problem was, the help was sparse. Even on a bimonthly schedule, Wood penciled and inked only four issues of Daredevil, before Bob Powell was brought in to help. Wood stuck around to pencil part of Daredevil #9, and ink #9-11. The Avengers inking stint lasted three issues.
Credit where credit is due: Wood gave Daredevil’s costume a much-needed redesign in Daredevil #7, and he even wrote #10. He also saved a life.
WOODY'S SECOND RISE…AND FALL
Reese was a 16-year-old comics fan, runaway, and escapee from a
juvenile detention facility when he showed up on Wally Wood’s doorstep
in 1965. “Wood kind of took me in as an assistant, paying me $50 a week.
I washed his brushes and so on,” Reese remembers today. “To me, he was
almost a father figure.”
Wood taught Reese the trade, and started building up his own studio as he worked on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower Comics. Come 1966, Wood was approached by artist Dan Adkins, who was working on a fanzine called Outlet
and wanted a drawing from Wood for the book. “He said he’d do a drawing
in trade for me helping him out with a deadline he was chasing,” Adkins
recalls. “And the fanzine became witzend. He convinced me he could do a better magazine than me. He knew more people.”
launched in the summer of 1966, with contributions from Wood, Ralph
Reese, Al Williamson, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Roy Krenkel and
more. It quickly became one of the most influential comics of its day,
and in the minds of many, the very first “underground” comic. Wally Wood
suddenly found himself one of the most significant publishers of the
But even that success was short-lived. After four issues, Wood sold the magazine to witzend contributor Bill Pearson for a mere $1. Wood was largely sober during the witzend
period, but had other problems. “He was seeing a psychiatrist the whole
time I was working for him,” Dan Adkins recalls. “He’d see him twice a
week, just someone to talk to. I think [Wood’s wife] Tatjana was seeing
the psychiatrist with him. He had some prescriptions, he was taking
Wood’s personality was certainly obsessive.
Paradoxically, what made him great…also made him weak. “He was a
workaholic. Like many other successful artists, he was really most
comfortable when behind his desk, and like many of us, somewhat less
successful at making a life outside of his work,” Ralph Reese says. “He
never really had any hobbies or outside interests. Too much stewing in
your own juices is not necessarily a healthy thing.”
saw much of the same in Wood. “Wally! Jesus! From the word ‘go,’ he put
in a lot of work,” he says. “You could see he was frustrated by all the
work he had to do. He was meticulous in a lot of things. He had 36
different bottles of ink he’d keep, in shades from black all the way
down to a light gray. You made your own grays then by diluting the ink
with water. And he’d mix and keep all 36 bottles up, all the time.”
Hama, another Wood studio protégé who went on to a lengthy comics
career, saw Wood’s intensity up close and personal. “When he got into
something, he’d just pursue
it,” Hama says. “I taught him how to cook a couple simple dishes once,
then I went away for a week. When I came back, I found he had just been
cooking those same things, over and over. And not because they were the
only things he knew how to cook. It was just because he discovered
something new, and he had to get into it, master it, discipline it.”
his life was a different matter. Wood’s marriage to comics inker and
colorist Tatjana Wood (who declined to be interviewed for this article)
ended in divorce by the late 1960s. A marriage to a second wife,
Marilyn, ended quickly. And the drinking started anew.
Howard Chaykin worked briefly in Wood’s studio in 1970-71, and saw
Woody’s pain. “He was kind of at the end of his rope. He was not a
healthy guy,” Chaykin says. “He felt betrayed by so many circumstances.
He was a classic untreated drunk. It’s a shame, because he was one of my
artistic heroes. He was an astonishing artist who just ran out of
As the 1970s wore on, Woody started to wear
out. The drinking worsened. He showed up at a convention wearing one
shoe. He started to push friends away. “Like many alcoholics, when he
was drinking, his personality totally changed,” Ralph Reese notes. “I
never spent that much time around him when he was drinking.”
started to develop kidney problems, and a 1978 stroke left him with
diminished vision in one eye. As fast as Wood was deteriorating
physically, he was even worse off mentally. “Larry [Hama] and [artist]
Jack Abel and I had gone down to see him at the VA hospital just after
he had a stroke,” Ralph Reese recalls. “He looked to be in very bad
shape. I asked him about his plans, what he was gonna do after he got
out of the hospital. He said, ‘I’m gonna go get a drink.’ You know…what
can you say to that? I had a feeling then that might be the last time I
saw him alive. Like I said, he really looked bad. He looked sick. He
looked old. He looked beat up by the world.”
Woody likely felt beat up. In a 1980 interview with Shel Dorf in The Buyer’s Guide,
he remarked, “I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for years.
Being a comic book artist is like sentencing yourself to life
imprisonment at hard labor in solitary confinement. I don’t think I’d do
it again.” By February, 1981, Wood was told by doctors at a VA hospital
that his kidneys were operating at 10%, and that he should get on a
list for transplant. It was then that he made his last, desperate move.
was looking like a dead end for Wood, but animation was a possibility.
Wood moved to Los Angeles to be near Hanna-Barbera Studios. He was
looking for work there, and more to the point, was looking to sell
Hanna-Barbera on a property he owned called The Wizard King.
Panorama City was far from the most fashionable neighborhood in L.A.,
but it was cheap, and close to Hanna-Barbera at a mere 11 miles away.
But a Wizard King
deal never came to pass. Wood found work doing some pornographic comics
for a local publisher, and took appointments at a VA hospital on L.A.’s
Westside. His final doctor’s appointment was October 30, 1981.
Three days later, on November 3,
1981, Barbara J. Friedman, Wood’s publisher, called the Los Angeles
police. She’d been phoning Woody for a few days, getting no answer. She
asked if the police could check in on him. At 9:55 a.m., the police
entered Wallace Allen Wood’s apartment. GSW to head (T&T). No
Police could find no next of kin. Barbara Friedman offered to take care of funeral arrangements.
THE AFTERMATH, AND THE LEGACY
in the comics industry were surprised, but few were shocked, when the
news of Woody’s death rippled back to New York. The inevitable question
of “why” was bandied about. People knew of Woody’s alcoholism, the
stroke, the kidney problems. But the deeper “why” of what made Wallace
Allen Wood take his life remains unanswerable. Ralph Reese might come
closest to a final answer.
“I never understood what
drove him to destroy himself,” Reese muses. “We talked a lot, but…I
dunno. I guess he never really had a father. His father was a
lumberjack, so he was never really home much. And when he was, he would
be drunk and beating on him. I guess that left some kind of hole in him
that he could never fill. Somehow, he could never get the love he wanted
The love is there now. Woody’s legacy is a
massive one. “There was such a warmth and appeal to his stuff that’s
missing from so many others’ seminal work,” Larry Hama observes. “You
look at a Jack Kirby, and you get this strong, graphic feel. But in
Woody’s stuff…I dunno. There’s just a lot of heart. And he had such a wide range—horror, sci-fi, and the humor stuff. The Wally Wood humor stuff in Mad
was just as good—if not better—than his more serious stuff with knights
in armor and spaceships. And his stuff is just as believable, just as
fun, anywhere across that range.”
considers Wood one of the two most important artists—along with Alex
Toth—of the postwar generation. “Out of Wallace Wood, you get that
dramatic realism and unembarrassed verisimilitude of everybody from
Johnny Craig to Michael Golden to many artists today,” Chaykin says. “I
can’t think of Adam Hughes without seeing Wallace Wood in him. The
characterization he exhibited in human faces was amazing, and continues
to knock the hell outta me to this day.”
Woody was also
a teacher. Larry Hama, Dan Adkins, Ralph Reese, Howard Chaykin, Paul
Kirchner, Joe Orlando and more learned volumes with Woody at their side.
And Woody loved passing the knowledge along. “You have to have a
certain facility to teach, and Woody had it,” Larry Hama says. “He liked
to talk about the process. Lord knows a lot of people are great
draftsmen, but they can’t talk about it, can’t transfer that knowledge.
Woody thought about the process a lot, grappled
with it, developed methodologies and mechanical fallbacks. And he could
explain it to you, transfer that knowledge to you. You could learn an
awful lot at that font.”
The font continues to flow. It
was Wallace Allen Wood who ducked into apartment #71 one fateful
Halloween night, never to be seen again. But through the lives he
touched, the generations he inspired, the artists he taught, and the
mountain of work he created, Woody lives on.