Giovanni Natale Buscema was born on December 11, 1927 in Brooklyn, New York (a few months earlier than Frank Frazetta, also a Brooklyn native). He showed an interest in drawing at an early age, copying comic strips such as Popeye. In his teens he had an interest in superhero comic books as well as appreciating the classic adventure strips, notably Hal Foster's Tarzan and Prince Valiant, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, and Burne Hogarth's Tarzan. He also had an interest in the illustrators of the period such as Dean Cornwell, Colby Whitmore, Al Dorne, and Robert Fawcett. His artistic interests extended to the fine arts, copying works from Italian Renaissance artists in particular.
Buscema graduated from Manhattan's high school of Music and Art. He also took night lessons at the Pratt Institute as well as life drawing classes at the Brooklyn Museum. While training as a boxer, he began painting portraits of boxers and sold some cartoons to the Hobo News. With this fairly modest art training, Buscema endeavored to seek work as a commercial illustrator while doing various odd jobs. Lacking in experience to crack the commercial art market at the time, he eventually took a look at the comic book field, thinking it an easier field which would enable him to eventually get more schooling in order to become a commercial illustrator. In 1948, he got his foot in the door by landing a staff job with Stan Lee at the Timely Comics bullpen (with artists such as Syd Shores, Carl Burgos and Mike Sekowsky. Gene Colan had been hired two weeks earlier).
Buscema spent a year in a half as the youngest artist in the Timely bullpen (until it was dissolved) with a steady diet of crime, romance and western (end even western-romance) stories. An early highlight is his work on the Tex Morgan title (#'s 4,5,6,7). His work during this period is clearly novice quality, although not without signs of strong draftsmanship.
In the early 50's Buscema (with a brief stint in the army in 1951 - honorable discharge due to ulcer. He married in 1953) continued to work freelance for Timely/Atlas as well as branching out to other publishers (Ace, Hillman, Orbit, Quality, St. John, Ziff-Davis), continuing in the crime, romance, western vein. Highlights of the period can be found especially with Our Publications/Orbit on such titles as Love Diary (#'s 31-39, including all covers), Love Journal (#'s'14-22 with most covers, Wanted Comics (#'s 47-53 including most covers) and the Westerner (#'s 28, 29, 31, 33-37, 40), featuring Nuggets Nugent, Wild Bill Pecos and Lobo the Wolf Boy.
Buscema's Atlas work drops off as the comic industry shrinks after the early 50's. It is a credit to his talent that he manages to continue working in comics for the better part of the decade, landing steady work mainly with Western/Dell. Of note for this period is his work on Roy Rogers Comics (starting in 1954 with a long run of stories, #'s 74-97; 104-108). AC Comics have reprinted a number of those stories and describe Buscema as the best Roy Rogers artist. Moreover, in 1956, he squeezes in a brief first superhero effort on Charlton's Nature Boy, (#'s 3,4).
His work up to the mid-50's is strong, with solid draftsmanship, but compared to the top golden age artists of EC and DC, it perhaps lack the impact and flair of the best of those, possibly because he didn't necessarily have a passion for the comic book medium per se, as was the case with many other top golden age artists. Nonetheless, Buscema next produces some of his finest work of the decade with a series of western, war, and sword and sandal film adaptations for the Four Color title. The peplum genre is especially suited to his style and could be considered a good preparation for his later work on Conan. The trademark Buscema power, grace, finesse and energy of his later work is very much apparent in these, although in a more subdued way.
684 Mar 1956 ("Helen of Troy", 34 pages),
762 Jan 1957 ("The Sharkfighters", 34 pages),
775 Mar 1957 ("Sir Lancelot and Brian", 34 pages),
794 Apr 1957 ("The Count of Monte Cristo", 35 pages),
910 Jun 1958 ("The Vikings", 34 pages),
927 ("Luke Short's Top Gun", 35 pages),
944 Sep 1958 ("The 7th Voyage of Sinbad", 33 pages),
1006 Jul 1959 ("Hercules", 34 pages),
1077 ("The Deputy", 34 pages),
1130 ("The Deputy", 35 pages),
1139 Nov 1960 ("Spartacus", 10 pages plus 22 pages pencils, Mike Peppe inks).
also: Life Stories of American Presidents (1957)
Buscema's work for Western dried up in the late 50's as the industry takes a nosedive (His work on Indian Chief #'s 30-33 is notable later work). He manages to hang on a little while with mystery, fantasy, and science-fiction stories for Atlas (Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Strange Worlds) and ACG (Adventures into the unknown, Forbidden Worlds.) before seeking work in other fields. It is again a credit to Buscema's talent that he landed a freelance position at the Chaite Agency, an important New York commercial art studio, which employed top commercial artists such as Bob Peak and Frank MacCarthy.
One could characterize Buscema 50's work as a period of gradual constant improvement; his work was continuing to improve as he left the field, which is somewhat different from other of his contemporaries (such as Williamson, Frazetta, Wood, Drucker, Toth, Heck, Ditko) who often experienced an earlier youthful artistic peak period.
Buscema spent around eight years in the commercial art field associated with the Chaite and Triad Studios, doing a variety of assignments: layouts, storyboards, illustrations, paperback covers, etc. in a variety of medium. Not much is known about his work from this period, but judging from the samples shown in the John Buscema Sketchbook (Vanguard Productions) it is of high quality, even by the top commercial art standards. According to Buscema: '...it was quite a learning period for me in my own development of techniques.' One can surmise that he gained a greater academic technique such as can be found in the Famous Illustrators correspondence course books (which features Buscema favorites Al Dorne, Robert Fawcett, and Harold Von Schmidt, among others) an influence that can later be seen in his 'How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way' book.
Buscema returned to the comic book field in 1966 (he accepted an offer from Stan Lee which allowed him to cut down on his extensive commuting time) as a penciller of superhero adventures with Marvel Comics. He started with an episode of Nick Fury and three Hulk stories before settling in as the regular penciller on the Avengers with #41. Highlights of that early period are Avengers #'s 49, 50, two superb issues featuring Hercules that he inked as well.
Buscema's return was solid, showing the benefits of his added illustration experience, although his style was not quite in sync with the dynamic dramatics being featured at Marvel. The catalyzing influence of Jack Kirby enters the picture as Buscema's illustrative style begins to display more powerful storytelling, design, composition, drama, action and overall impact.
Roughly coinciding with arrival of inker George Klein on the Avengers #55, not to mention the counter-culture explosion, Buscema's artwork virtually explodes as he experiences something of an artistic flowering. He produces powerful tight and clean finished pencils for an average of two books a month in collaboration with fine inkers such as Klein, Frank Giacoia, Dan Adkins, Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer, and John Verpoorten on the Avengers, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, and others. All in all, it's a creative surge of roughly three years duration, where Buscema produces some of the medium's finest illustrative storytelling.
Buscema penciled the Avengers with a vengeance until Avengers #62 (including the classic introduction of the Vision in #'s 57, 58 and several classic covers) while swimmingly pencilling the first eight issues of the Sub-Mariner, which he left to swing over to Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 for 10 issues (with Jim Mooney / John Romita inks) and launched another new title, the Silver Surfer. Buscema's stellar pencils on the first 17 of 18 issues are considered classic and stands as a high-water mark in his career. Issues #3 (which introduces Mephisto), 4 & 5 are often singled out as highlights although the first seven issues (which were double-sized) are all outstanding, with the next seven also being of remarkable quality. Issue #4 in particular (where the Surfer battles Thor) is a Buscema landmark (with a classic cover) and is thought to be an attempt by Buscema to break away from the Kirby aesthetic and establish a monumentally sprawling, powerful style in his own right, with a more open page design and a more medieval, Gothic approach to fantasy; with stunning results.
Aside from a few well-regarded fill-ins (Captain America #115, Captain Marvel #18, Sub-Mariner #'s 20, 24) Buscema caps off his golden period with a dazzling return to familiar 50's genres with a spate of mystery and romance stories (for Chamber of Darkness, Tower of Shadows, My Love, Our Love) and makes a return to the Avengers (with Palmer inks) for 11 issues. (With issues #74 & 75 being exceptional, #75 featuring the introduction of Arkon).
With Jack Kirby's departure from Marvel in 1970, Buscema is called in to replace him on both of his flagship titles for some lengthy runs: Fantastic Four (#'s 107-141, Sinnott inks) and Thor (#'s 182-259, with various inkers such as Sinnott, Colletta, DeZuniga, and others (such as Verpoorten on the notable #200) thus cementing his status as the pre-eminent superhero penciller of that era. (Ironically Buscema claimed to have a nearly complete disinterest for superheroes, although this never showed in his work).
For various professional and commercial reasons, his style becomes more streamlined and less elaborate in the mid-70's, as his artwork displays a more direct Kirby influence (To the regret of many a Buscema fan). Nonetheless, Buscema was a veritable artistic juggernaut throughout that decade and is probably overall the most prolific, visible, and in demand artist of the 70's.
Buscema begins his distinguished run with writer Roy Thomas on Conan the Barbarian in 1973 with #25 following Barry Smith's celebrated run. He debuts a second Conan series in double-sized B&W magazine format with Savage Sword of Conan in 1974. With Buscema at the drawing board, Conan became a successful mini-franchise in its own right, with Buscema contributing to over a 100 issues of each title (Conan the Barbarian from #25-190, SSOC #1-101, 190-210), one of the most prolific runs for an artist on a single character. He makes a brief foray into syndicated strips as he premieres the Conan Sunday and daily newspaper strip in 1978 and even contributed some storyboard illustrations for the Conan movie as well as painting four covers for the Conan magazines.
Ernie Chua/Chan was the main inker on Conan the Barbarian in the 70's, (except for a hiatus between #'s 44-69 which were inked by Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, Tom Palmer, Steve Gan and others). Buscema's work on the title consistently improves and develops producing some remarkably dynamic and powerful artwork and storytelling reaching a peak of sorts with the superlative issue #100 (which concludes the adaptation of REH's Queen of the Black coast) or perhaps with the excellent #115 (featuring Red Sonja) which marks the departure of Roy Thomas.
Alfredo Alcala was the regular inker on SSOC until #24 and they produced some highly regarded stories, adapting the works of Robert E. Howard. Of note are ' Iron Shadows in the Moon' (#4), 'The Slithering Shadow '(#20), 'Tower of the Elephant'(#24,). Tony DeZuniga becomes his regular inker with #26 (he also inked the highly regarded 'A witch shall be born', SSOC#5) producing some outstanding Conan literary adaptations, bringing that title to a peak of sorts which ends more or less with the departure of DeZuniga with #58.
Buscema's pencils on Conan in the 70's are some his finest work as he develops an exciting new heroic adventure story style with the Sword and Sorcery genre producing stories which are a high-water mark in terms of comic book action, movement, power, expression, mood, and dynamics.
At some point in the mid 70's, Buscema's productivity increased (to the chagrin of many Buscema fans) by opting to pencil mainly layouts (penciled pages without the shading and rendering) as opposed to finished pencils. For about ten years, he would produce on average a staggering 3-4 books worth of pencils a month.
Due to his speed and versatility, on top of his regular assignments he would be called on to pencil fill-in jobs on numerous different titles : Captain America, Captain Britain(Marvel UK),Daredevil, Frankenstein Monster, Sub-mariner and Doctor Doom (in Giant-Size Super villain Team Up) , Howard the Duck, the Warriors Three (in Marvel Spotlight), the Thing and Spider-Woman (in Marvel Two in One), Master of Kung Fu, Red Sonja, the Golem (in Strange Tales), Warlock, as well as a science-fiction story in Worlds Unknown and many covers for a variety of titles.
He also contributed to Marvel's B & W magazines including the first issues of Rampaging Hulk (Bloodstone), Savage Tales (Ka-Zar) and Doc Savage as well as various issues of Dracula Lives!, Haunt of Horror (digest magazine, illustrations), Monsters Unleashed (Frankenstein), Tales of the Zombie(Simon Garth), and Tomb of Dracula. He even did some fine Mad-style humor work in Crazy and Pizzaz.
He was also called on to launch several new titles, i.e. Amazing Adventures (Black Widow,1970), Nova (1976), Ms. Marvel (1977) and the She-Hulk (early 1980).
Buscema leaves the Thor title (although will return for issues #272-285, Palmer and Stone inks) to launch the Marvel version of Tarzan in 1977. Having already done 13 issues of the Jungle-oriented Kazar (in Astonishing Tales, Kazar, and Savage Tales) his fine version of the Burroughs icon in the first three issues (which he penciled and inked along with several covers) compares favorably with the great Tarzan artist in comic strips, comic books, and illustration, although he switches to only layouts for the rest of his 18-issue stint with many changes in inkers, giving mixed results. (Of note is his Tarzan Annual #1 with Steve Gan inks).
Other licensed projects Buscema tackled include a 72-page Wizard of Oz movie adaptation in Treasury Edition format with DeZuniga inks. (Apparently Buscema, having something of a photographic memory, was able to draw the entire book without reference except for character photos, based on his recollection of a viewing 25 years prior.) He even drew Star Trek, as well as Holo Man (both for Power records), not to mention some Star Wars covers for the UK magazine. He also contributed some superhero drawings for Pro, the NFL official magazine (1970) and even penciled some chapters for the first issue of Marvel Comics Super Special Magazine featuring the rock group KISS (1977).
1978 saw the publication of How to Draw comics the Marvel Way (Simon & Shuster 1978). Written with Stan Lee, this influential rock-solid primer on drawing and comic book storytelling fundamentals was based on the comic art classes Buscema had given a few years prior and is probably the best-selling book of its kind, still in print to this day.
An interview and many fine sketches and drawings appeared in the Art of John Buscema (S.Quartuccio) the same year (with a superb cover which was also sold as a poster). Buscema's passion for drawing was such that he continued to draw and sketch in his spare time (often on the back of comic book art pages) and these lively, masterful images form a considerable body of work in their own right.
Buscema capped off a remarkably fruitful decade with some inspired finished pencils for Weirdworld/ Warriors of the Shadow Realm, a Tolkien-Style project in Marvel Comics Super Special Magazine #'s 11-13 (although the ornately detailed pencils were somewhat obscured by the inking and coloring). A six-plate portfolio was released by Pacific Distribution).
Buscema carries his whirlwind momentum into the 80's. Despite the departure of key Buscema collaborators writer Roy Thomas and inker Tony DeZuniga, the Conan franchise continues to prosper. He does an excellent 6-plate Conan portfolio released by Sal Q. Productions in 1980 and the popular Thomas, Buscema, Chan trio launched a third Conan title, the double-sized bi-monthly King Conan in 1980) as Buscema abandons regular superhero work in order to spearhead art duties on all 3 Conan titles. Such is the popularity of the character, that a Conan movie is released in 1982; Buscema provides superb pencils and inks for a 48-page movie adaptation.
Buscema continues to tackle other high-profile projects such as the second Superman and Spiderman team-up (1981, Sinnott inks), a Silver Surfer story for the first issue of Epic magazine (1980, Nebres inks), a fine King Arthur story (Marvel Preview #22, 1980, Palmer inks), and a movie adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, Janson inks).
The Conan franchise eventually begins to struggle editorially, however, (no regular inker was found to fill DeZuniga's shoes, although Rudy Nebres provided excellent occasional jobs and even Nestor Redondo did an issue, SSOC #90) as Buscema becomes increasingly disenchanted with the writing on Conan and will gradually drop all Conan work altogether. He leaves King Conan in 1982 after 9 issues although he remains with the REH franchise with a revival of the Kull series for 10 issues.
His post-Thomas work on SSOC was done mainly with Ernie Chan as inker and is overall quite strong. He actually made a return to more frequent inking (eschewing a looser Foster/Frazetta rendering style) with a trio of superlative jobs (#'s 61, 70, 73) and a fondly remembered 5-part tale of a character of his own creation, Bront (#'s 65, 66, 79, 80, 81). He leaves the series in 1984 with #101 on a strong note with a series of stories that he plotted himself.
After pencilling the Conan the Destroyer movie adaptation in 1984 and the Conan of the Isles graphic novel in 1987 (both which seemed somewhat rushed and had several inexperienced inkers although he inked the first half of Destroyer himself), he left the Conan the Barbarian title with #190 in 1987, ending a highly successful 14-year association with the character. The series had gone through a number of changes in writers and inkers (Bob Camp being the most prolific inker before the return of mainstay inker Ernie Chan) to Buscema's dissatisfaction although he nonetheless contributed a series of several dozen fine penciled and inked covers in closing out his work on the title.
It's unfortunate that Buscema himself didn't take up regular writing chores on the title (he had plotted five solid issues, #'s155-159) as he had strong plotting and storytelling skills as evidenced in his preference for the 'Marvel method' of storytelling (i.e. working from a brief plot rather than a full script). Stan Lee: 'As a writer I found him a delight to work with. I had only to give him the barest bones of a plot and he'd flesh it out magnificently. He didn't even want a written synopsis most of the time. We'd discuss the story over the phone for a few minutes and days later he'd deliver a terrific strip that looked as though we had spent weeks going over every last detail!'
After a nearly five-year absence from the superhero world (except for a two-issue stint on Magic (a 1983 X-Men mini-series), Buscema returns to familiar ground as the regular penciller on the Avengers in 1985 (with #255, Palmer inks) and will stay with the title up to the 300th issue. He is also the regular penciller on the Fantastic Four for their 300th issue during a 15-issue stint beginning in 1986 (#'s 296-309, Sal Buscema and Sinnott inks). Ever the workhouse, he still manages to fit in an adaptation of the movie, Labyrinth (1986) as well as a four-issue mini-series featuring Mephisto, a signature character (1987).
With the sheer volume and variety of work Buscema produces and the unfinished nature of doing mainly layouts, much of his 80's work has been considered by some to be less inspired than previously. This is probably true to a certain extent, but Buscema's work continues to develop nonetheless. Perhaps to due in part to sheer number of layouts-only pages he produces, one can notice a further streamlining his artwork to a greater degree of simplicity with a shift of focus to storytelling, and cartooning (although he still has plenty of his trademark power, energy, and draftsmanship). Moreover, he continues his inking efforts, producing an outstanding Thor Annual (#15, 1985), a superb 10-page western in Savage Tales magazine (#10,1986), and a stunning plate for the WFCBA Portfolio (Éditions Déesse, 1983), for example.
Buscema caps off the decade with a scintillating return to the Silver Surfer character with a special hardcover graphic novel, Judgment Day, inked by himself and done entirely with full-page panels (1988) and by tackling Wolverine, a new character for him, helping to launch his adventures in 1988 with two new titles, Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology title (#'s 1-10, Janson inks and #'s 38-47, with Buscema inking himself) as well as in his own title (#'s 1-16, 20, 25, Williamson, Sienkiwicz inks, with issues 7, 8, and 25 featuring superb Buscema inks). Wolverine marks a return for Buscema to doing finished pencils regularly as his work displays a renewed show of power and energy.
The 90's and beyond
Buscema begins his sixth decade in the field auspiciously by joining Roy Thomas for a return to the Savage Sword of Conan with #191 (1991, Dezuniga, Chan, E.R. Cruz inks) with a lively, entertaining 20-issue run. 1991 also sees the publication of Conan the Rogue, a graphic novel plotted, penciled, inked, and colored by Buscema, which stands as one his most personal works as he produced it over a period of several years in his spare time. He departs the Wolverine title, but not before delivering a superlative graphic novel, Bloody Choices (1991, which he inked himself).
Buscema continues to tackle new genres with a stint with the Punisher (Punisher War Zone #'s 23-30). Although the stint was brief, he nonetheless produced some fine artwork with that character; including issues 26-29 which he inked himself along with the first Punisher War Zone Annual. He also penciled and inked a fine Punisher western tale, the 1994 graphic novel, A man named Frank and was the chosen Punisher penciller for the Punisher meets Archie (1994) team-up. At this late stage in his career, Buscema adopts a bolder, looser inking style, somewhat akin to Joe Kubert's. No longer attached to a regular series after his Punisher run, he pencils and inks a fine Avengers Annual (#23, 1994) and five more energetic B & W Conan adventures. Unfortunately, the Conan franchise reaches its twilight at Marvel and Buscema is the final artist on the last issue of SSOC with #235 and also the final artist on the short-lived spin-off, Conan the Savage (#10, 1996).
He provides a few fill-in pencil jobs (the Cosmic Powers Unlimited mini- series, Doom 2099, Fantastic Four 2099, Thor, and Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and a Silver Surfer/Rune special) and in 1996 after a long, productive, and fruitful career, formally takes his well- deserved retirement at the age of 68. 1997 was the first year in 30 years where new Buscema material did not appear on the stands - it would also be the last year in Buscema's lifetime, as Buscema, ever the workhouse, continued to receive assignment offers which he would take on, his retirement thus becoming a 'semi-retirement'.
Always evolving artistically, his 'post-retirement' work has an easygoing, fluid simplicity to it, which only a veteran of the craft can achieve. He did pencils & inks on a B&W Hulk short story for Shadows and Light (1998) and made a final return to Conan with the 'Death covered in Gold' 3-issue mini-series (1999). 1999 also saw the publication of a lively Spider-Man Annual with full Buscema art, five of the six-issue 'Galactus the Devourer' mini-series which he handsomely penciled (Sienkiewicz inks), and a fill-in Thor issue (Ordway inks).
Buscema continued to do entertaining work into his seventh decade of professional comic book work, working with DC Comics for the first time, initially doing full art on a B & W Batman short story. (Batman - Gotham Knights #7, 2000). He later reunited with Stan Lee on the 'Just imagine Stan Lee and John Buscema creating Superman' (2001) project. He also kept active doing private commissions and cover re-creations as well as teaching art classes and helped produce the John Buscema Sketchbook (Vanguard 2001) for whose promotion he attended the 2001 San Diego Comic Art Convention where he was received with great appreciation by fans and colleagues. The book gives a good overview of Buscema's wide-ranging passion for art: 'I love all the painters...Vermeer, Velasquez, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt...I've got over a thousand art books!'
He finished the pencils on a Superman project started by Gil Kane (who had since passed away), SUPERMAN: Blood of my Ancestors (Nowlan inks, 2003) and had just signed on for a 5-issue mini-series with Roy Thomas called JLA: Barbarians. Shortly after finishing the first issue, Buscema, diagnosed with stomach cancer a few months earlier, passed away on January 10th, 2002 at the age of 74. A superb pencil illustration of the Avengers (painted by Alex Ross) was his last professional work. A documentary on Frank Frazetta, Painting with Fire (2003), which Buscema appeared in, was posthumously dedicated to him. Comprehensive tributes to Buscema's considerable artistic talents and accomplishments were published in Alter Ego #15 and Comic Book Artist #21 in 2002 and much of his work remains in print in trade paperback reprints.
He received much recognition for his work in comics, including the Shazam Award for Best Penciler (Dramatic Division) in 1974. He was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame in 2002.
Images Attributed to John Buscema (Earth-1218)
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