An interview with… Jerry Ordway

For a very long time I have admired and been a huge fan of Jerry Ordway – a comic book artist, inker and writer for DC Comics and other titles. My reasons are mostly for his work on Superman, but he is also a renowned artist for Shazam and other iconic heroes. I have a rather large collection of comics and I’ll be honest, quite a lot of them have something by Jerry, whether that’s his artwork or his writing.

His most famous work has been for DC Comics where he worked on Crisis of Infinite Wars, The Man of Steel, The Adventures of Superman and the Superman titles in the 80’s/90’s. If that isn’t enough to make him an instant LEGEND, he also worked on The Power of Shazam, which was released in 1994. Jerry was kind enough to do an interview with me, for an insight to what inspires him, what Superman means to him and what we can expect from him in the future.

 jerry ordway

What is your favourite thing/character to draw?

I love drawing the classic characters- Superman, Captain Marvel, all of them. I grew up reading Marvel Comics, and Captain America is just a great one to draw. My time spent on Superman and the DC heroes gives me more of an emotional connection to them, though.

Which of your pieces is your favourite Superman?

I do have favorite drawings or covers for Superman. I like the ones where the process went smoothly! The covers I struggled over when I drew them still bother me, as I see the flaws, years later! I drew a nice run of covers, I think, When I took over the main Superman title, in 1988, starting with the Prankster cover, and the ones that followed. I was confident, and I was certainly trying to prove myself worthy of being on that comic!

superman 1988 prankster jerry ordway

What does Superman mean to you?

Everything I feel for Superman is encompassed in the first Superman film, from 1978. The warmth of family, growing up in Smallville, the excitement of being in Metropolis, starting his career (as a superhero and newspaper reporter) and the woman he loved the minute he set eyes on Lois Lane. Clark Kent is a good guy, someone who loves people, and wants the best for them!

In a previous interview you did with Jamie Coville in 1998, you stated that you wouldn’t work with DC Comics unless they offered an apology from someone higher up in the company. This was for being fired without authorisation. Have those issues now been resolved now that you worked on Action Comics #1000 “Five Minutes”?

No, I never got any kind of apology, and I held on to my anger toward the way that whole Superman firing went down for years. I was flying high at DC, back in 1998, and in the space of a few months, Shazam was cancelled, and my return to Superman was cut short by an editor who was told by his superiors that we would all get to pitch our ideas to stay on the books. No one was to be fired. He waited until his supervisor was on vacation to fire us by phone. I was blindsided by it. My DC career took a fatal hit because I wanted an official apology. It also shook my confidence in a big way. Several years later, that same editor had been promoted again and again, so I knew if I wanted to work on the characters I loved, I would have to put it behind me. He was recently fired after many complaints from the various women who worked with him at DC. I feel badly for those women, but he treated a bunch of us creators pretty badly as well. Creating comics isn’t combat. Treat people fairly and don’t be an a-hole, you know?

Would you ever consider returning to Superman more permanently, or would you do a celebratory issue again like you did for Action Comics?

I think I’d like to do more, but I’m 60 years old now, and have no desire to kill myself on deadlines like I used to. I would love to write a monthly comic again, it’s just too much to try and draw one. I always had extra ideas for stories, and still have a file folder with various springboards, and such.

What was it like to return to drawing such an iconic character?

I’ve drawn a lot of Superman stuff since the 90’s, for DC Character licensing, as well as fan drawings, so I wasn’t feeling rusty or anything. I found it very smooth, to slip in there with the short story, It was very comfortable, plus drawing for Louise Simonson’s story was fun!

jerry ordway superman commission

As someone that has both written and drawn Superman, which do you prefer to do for the character?

I’d be lying if I said drawing. I love writing, and I’m more connected to working from my own script! I understand that the days of the Death of Superman are ancient history, but I was a lead writer on that stuff, since I started writing in 1988. I had the most seniority as well, as the only one still standing from the John Byrne reboot, as Carlin joined as editor a year into it. I enjoyed my time writing for Tom Grummett on Adventures of Superman, but eventually left to finish the fully painted Power of Shazam graphic novel I had already started working on in 1992.

How do you think your artwork compares to other artists? How important is it to have your own trademark/style?

I think my art is solid, though how it compares is up to others to say. I always tried my best to make whatever I drew, something personal. I never could draw in a generic way. Superman is Superman, and he “acts” in a way differently from another hero. In the 80’s when I started in comics, a lot of the work was kind of generic. A Batman story idea not bought by DC would be retooled and be sold to Marvel for a Daredevil story. That’s just the way the business was done, from the beginning. An artist or writer took on an assignment, and finished as quickly as possible, because it was piece work, and the more pages you did, the more money you made. The comics I loved reading as a teen had something extra—their creators had made that stuff special, you could see they loved it. It was not just a page rate on the great stuff. So I have always tried to do that—make the stuff personal, to hopefully inspire readers like I was inspired. And I guess I succeeded, based on the enduring quality of many of the story lines I created or helped create.

From the moment you started a piece, whether artwork or writing, how long did it take until we saw the finished product?

On monthly deadlines, as was the deal for most comics, it usually meant a writer wrote their 22 pages in around a week, while the penciller had to do at the least, one page per day, or better, two pages per day. That’s the hardest part of the process, because drawing is more demanding. The inker would likely need to ink at least two pages a day just to make a living. For me, personally, I could pencil one and a half pages per day, sometimes two, depending on the time I had. When I was writing and penciling, I had a week to write, and three weeks to draw a comic. I used to get into trouble, trying to ink my own work, and that just always stressed the schedule too much to do a monthly comic on time. Luckily, Dennis Janke did a fabulous job inking me on Superman for several years, never missing a deadline.

jerry ordway superman dennis janke

What happens during your drawing or writing process, where do the ideas come from and what/who are your inspirations?

I read a lot, fiction and non fiction, so ideas can come from that. I also would cut out interesting newspaper stories, to use for sub-plots, mainly. I have one in my files to this day, never used, that I thought of as a good Lex Luthor idea – There was a company that got into trouble for hiring homeless me to clean out potentially hazardous waste situations. They were paid in cash to do work they didn’t know was dangerous! I just never found a place to use it! As to writing in general, I would start an outline with a prompt, or basic idea, and as I worked my way into it, it often went in different ways than I ever planned. A lot of writers talk about this phenomenon, but I linked it to playing an involved video game. Your character enters a room, and he or she has choices to make. Each choice suggests a next step, on and on until you get to the end or your character is killed. So that’s what happens once you start writing a story, Each little choice you make takes you through the adventure, and it is exhilarating when it’s happening. Like, you think, “Holy smokes, how did Superman get here on page 16?” Another thing about writing, comics or any fiction, is that you need to “hear” a character’s voice in your head, to write that character as an individual. Superman and Clark were basically my own voice. I’d mentally assign other characters to people I knew well enough to capture their speaking style. My father in law was Pa Kent, and my mom was Martha Kent. Jimmy Olsen was younger me, etc.

To you what are the essential Superman characteristics that have to be captured in design/artwork?

Superman needs to look cool! Bigger than life, and idealized. He embodies a certain goodness of character as well. Strong nose, strong jawline, erect posture. The cape has to flow and look cool, not limp.

Trunks or no trunks?

I don’t care. I think the trunks work, and are part of a historic costume, so I get why people want them to stay. But I was fine with them doing away with it. The problem in that the red trunks break the blue, so you have to compensate with some sort of color to break the top from the bottom.

 action comics 1000 jim lee

You are also a renowned Captain Marvel/Shazam artist, what do you think of the upcoming movie so far?

I think the teaser trailer was fantastic! The key to that concept, and what made it unique, is that it’s a kid who gets an adult body and super powers! Having the kid as a hero enjoy the powers is what I tried to show in my Power of Shazam graphic novel, as well as the series I wrote later. So I loved that in the stuff I saw of the film.

Are there any current/new DC artists that stand out to you? Are there any that you could see yourself working with?

There is a lot of talent working currently that I’d love to work with! I still buy my comics every week on new comic day, so I’m blown away by many folks. I have always loved Lee Weeks, Ron Garney, and Alan Davis. I think Evan “Doc” Shaner and Chris Samnee are great ones! Many more as well. I think if I got an opportunity, and a commitment from a company to do 12 issues of any character, with a consistent art team, any artist chosen would stand out. That’s my biggest gripe- artists are treated as interchangeable, basically thrown at deadlines like weapons, to do an issue or two, then on to another emergency situation. Not fair to any creator, to not get the chance to “own” a property for a stretch of time, because that encourages creativity and a kind of bonding I had with Superman or Captain Marvel.

Are there any characters that you haven’t yet worked on that you would like to?

I don’t have that drive anymore. I always wanted another chance at the Marvel heroes. I think I could bring something special to the Fantastic Four, or Captain America, But it’s also fun to learn to love a character while working on the adventures.

captain america comic art

Are you currently involved in any other comic book work – whether art or writing?

I am attempting to write and draw some of my own characters, but drawing commissions often keeps me too busy for continuity stuff. But I’ve managed to produce enough pages to self publish two “hybrid part comic/part sketchbook “ comics in the past year, to sell at comic cons.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Besides my own stuff, I may have a short comic story in this year’s DC Holiday Special. We’ll see.

Do you have any plans to attend a comic convention in the UK? Or would you be willing to attend one in the future?

I have nothing against doing a show in the UK, I just haven’t flown anywhere in a while because it’s such a pain! I spent an amazing 11 years without flying anywhere, which was broken by a trip to the San Diego Comic Con in 2012. I really just hate the flying experience, sorry. I had fun at a very busy UK show in October of 1988, so I guess I am overdue.

A huge thank you to Jerry Ordway, for even allowing me to interview him. But also thank you Jerry for your incredible designs, interpretations and stories of my favourite character. For those that are wanting to see Jerry at a comic convention, he will be attending two this year! First, Terrificon at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut from August 17th – 19th, and also at Baltimore Comic Con towards the end of September!

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