Joe Staton has enjoyed a 30-plus year career in comic books and it’s about to be summed up by a show in Pittsfield presented by the Storefront Artists Project and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City. The show in Pittsfield will concentrate on his Scooby Doo work and various versions of Batman that Staton has worked on, including some from the 1970s and more recently in “Batman Adventures,” which was based on the animated television series.
Staton made his name in the 1970s, most notably working for DC Comics, where he drew characters from the Justice Society of America to the Metal Men. He co-created The Huntress, a character that started life as the daughter of Batman and Catwoman (she has also seen action on the television screen in the series “Birds of Prey”) — but he is most fondly remembered for his own creator-owned character, E-Man.
These days, he’s maintained a young audience through his work on Scooby Doo — he was the artist on that title for its first 10 years and will return after a short hiatus — as well as a new version of Jughead that features an update of the character’s look. Staton also recently worked on the recent Ronald Reagan biographical graphic novel.
Becoming a comic book artist was an early plan for Staton — no other course seemed to suit him
“I pretty much decided that I should draw comics when I was sitting on the floor when I was 3 or 4 trying to trace Dick Tracy,” said Staton. “I realized that somebody drew Dick Tracy and why shouldn’t I? I almost became an art history teacher along the way, I almost became a newspaper person, I almost became several other things, but comics were always what I wanted to do and once I started getting comics work, it’s where I stayed.”
Starting a comic book career in the late 1960s wasn’t an easy proposition, simply because the industry wasn’t hiring — in the early 1970s, however, the business saw a mass firing of the previous generation that opened doors to some of the medium-transforming talent that would get exposure in that decade. People like Berni Wrightson, Howard Chay-kin and Staton started to get their feet in the door.
“I started at absolutely the lowest rung. I’d taken my samples around to Marvel and DC and they had thrown me out,” said Staton, “but Charlton Comics was open to people starting out and that’s where I got work.”
Charlton was a small company that published titles like “The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves” and “This Magazine Is Haunted,” and it gave Staton the kind of wide experience that was a precursor to the modern comic book industry that thrives in the small presses. He didn’t just draw comics, he did everything.
“I used to be able to say that I was the only person in the business who had done every step to the production of a comic book, from writing it to unpacking the boxes at the store. That’s not true anymore, so many people do everything now,” said Staton.
It was at Charlton that editor/writer Nic Cuti approached Staton about E-Man. The character was a ball of energy that takes human form, a concept that offered Staton’s bouncy and animated art style a chance to really come alive on the comic book page. Staton transformed Cuti’s hero into something entirely different for the time and it propelled the title into a permanent cult status. E-Man comics were renowned for their humor and entirely different approach to the genre of superheroes.
“Nic was an admirer of Plastic Man when he was reading things growing up, so he always had a lot of the Plastic Man idea there,” said Staton, “but I think some of his strips, if somebody else had drawn them they could have been very serious, but I always played off things and throw in little jokes — and just how the characters related to each other gave it a lighter edge. Even with it trying to be lighter and funny, we were still trying to do real stories.”
E-Man popped up over the years in several different incarnations for different companies over the years and decades later, the character will see the light of day yet again in a new version for the company Digital Webbing, as well as in some reprints from Image Comics. This revival will allow the title a chance to live up to its reputation, as well as put it in its rightful place in comic book history.
“A lot of people mistake E-Man as a straight satire on superheroes, but it wasn’t,” said Staton. “It was just a different take on superheroes, not taking them so seriously.”
Staton took this sensibility with him after he left Charlton, but found himself working his way back up the ranks in the major companies.
“I had shown samples at Marvel that didn’t get any interest, but after I had been at Charlton at three years — and in that time I had worked as Gil Kane’s assistant also — Roy Thomas gave me a call to see if I would be interested in doing finishes over Sal Buscema’s layouts of The Avengers,” said Staton.
At the time there was a shortage of people who were able to do rough sketches and break down page layouts — finishing drawings and textures — so the work was being given to inkers. Staton was soon approached by DC Comics to do the same on the short-lived title “Karate Kid.” He was also getting antsy and wanted to do more — he was, after all, accustomed to doing everythihng.
“I had gotten kind of spoiled at Charlton,” said Staton. “I penciled, lettered, inked, did the whole thing at Charlton, so I was starting to get a little pigeonholed by finishing at Marvel and DC. When I went to DC, Paul Levitz promised me that I would be getting some penciling as well and he lived up to it — Metal Men, I penciled and inks, I went to penciling the Justice Society. I wound up doing a little bit of everything at DC.”
It was during this period that Staton helped create the Huntress. He’s also created a few other long-standing characters for the company that he gets royalties for, most notably Kilowog, a tough alien member of the Green Lantern Corps who has appeared on TV shows and has his own action figure.
It was in the early 1980s that Staton was able to take his all-around expertise and translate it into an independent effort as art director for First Comics, one of the earliest serious alternative presses to appear in the comic industry. It was a proving ground for several creator-owned comics by big name comic book creators, but it was also the point of return for E-Man after almost a decade. After that, the character might go on hiatus now and again, but he never went away.
“There are enough people around to make it worth doing,” said Staton. “It is weird, the book has never actually been popular enough to keep going, but people who like E-Man always remember E-Man and are still interested.”
The 1990s proved tough for Staton — and many others — when the vogue art styles became very serious, aping the look of then upstart Image Comics. Somewhere along the line, though, Staton discovered his work was well-suited to titles aimed at kids and started this phase of his career with Scooby Doo. This asignment had him working off the original designs that were done by one of his art heroes Alex Toth and walking a line between studied reverence and giddy invention.
“The fun with Scooby is all the background, strange ghostly mansions and crazed real estate developers in rubber masks,” said Staton.
This was nothing new to Staton. It was a similar situation to his earlier stint with DC Comics, when he was given total autonomy to the minor characters, though sometimes had to reign in his style a bit with the major ones.
“When I would do a straight-forward Superman story, they were pretty strict on how you could do Superman,” said Staton. “When I would do any Superman stories in DC Presents, Joe Orlando would give me little lessons on how to draw Superman’s head, how to draw the S, things like that. And there were certain angles you absolutely could not use to show Superman from because the suit doesn’t work from all angles. So they were careful of the main characters.”
Along with his return to Scooby Doo, Staton is working on “Femme Noir” with writer Chris Mills that Staton describes as a female version of the Spirit mixed with old Republic Serials and pulp magazines — and it’s something he can afford to do for the fun of it because of his licensed work.
“It’s a very moody mystery pulp sort of crime book,” said Staton. “It has lots of gangsters — well, gangsters who are shot and killed but their brains are transplanted into giant gorillas. There are clanky robots with rivets. That’s my indulgence right now. It’s something that I really want to be doing that I’m not particularly paid well for.”
That’s the biggest change in the industry during Staton’s career — the ability to do the work he wants and know that he’ll make a living as well. From his vantage point — and with the advent of graphic novels — comics have never been bigger.
“Graphic novels are being so accepted and available,” said Staton. “People don’t think it’s strange to have material presented in what we would think of as a hardback comic book. It’s just all over the place now.”