Artist Spotlight on John Buscema

by Blaise Tassone

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When I think of Marvel Comics in the late 1960s and early seventies, I think of one artist more than any other. That artist’s name is John Buscema.

Buscema started out as something of a ‘Jack Kirby clone’, more due to the business model of Silver Age Marvel than anything else; however, he eventually solidified his own powerful drawing style. In the process, Buscema eventually managed to achieve some dynamic and iconic work on titles like The Avengers, the original Silver Surfer series and, especially, Conan the Barbarian.

Born on December 11, 1927, as Giovanni Natale Buscema in Brooklyn, New York, it was almost destiny that Buscema would end up working mainly for Marvel.

After graduating from Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art and taking lessons in life drawing at the Pratt Institute as well as training to be a boxer, Buscema found work as an illustrator.

In 1948, after answering an ad in the New York Times, Buscema began his career working for Timely Comics, where he worked for Stan Lee illustrating mainly westerns, crime and romance titles, i.e. the books popular just after the war.

Buscema’s earliest published work was for the crime title Lawbreakers Always Lose #3 (August 1948).

Leaving Timely in 1950 and working freelance in New York for multiple companies, including Charlton and Gold Key, by 1958, like many other comic artists before him, Buscema abandoned comics in order to give advertising a try.

It was his old boss Stan Lee that convinced him to come back to comics. Buscema’s first Marvel artwork can be found in Strange Tales #150 (November 1966).

Before long, Buscema was contributing to practically every title Marvel published. His time with the company also coincided with Marvel’s rise from the big competitor to DC to the leading American comic book company.

 

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Savage Sword of Conan #5 (April 1975) – Classic Buscema Conan Art

It was Buscema’s range more than the striking vitality of his panels that were his true gift. He drew cowboys, police officers, soldiers, girls in love and much more. You name it, Buscema could draw it. The one title where this range was exploited was his long run on Marvel’s Hyborian Barbarian. A stand out work in the Conan comics is Buscema’s art for Savage Sword #5. The cover alone makes this a standout. The interior work complements the powerful art of the cover perfectly. Buscema would go on to draw over 200 issues of Conan during his time at Marvel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Avengers #80 (September 1970) – First modern Red Wolf/William Talltrees

Although in terms of classic Avengers covers, the demonic-looking first appearance of the Vision (Avengers #57) and the heroic group shot of the old and the new Avengers together on the cover of (Avengers Annual #1) may be his standout works, in terms of internal panels the height of Buscema’s Avengers art is probably the Lethal Legion/Red Wolf storylines (Avengers #78-81). The athleticism of his figures in this period is perfectly matched by the emotion and expression of their interaction. This is vintage Buscema at his peak.

 

 

 

 

 

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Silver Surfer #4 (January 1969) – First time Silver Surfer meets Thor; First battle with Thor

During his many years with Marvel, Buscema contributed some stand out covers. These include his cover art for Sub-Mariner #1, Thor #188 and Fantastic Four #112 with its classic Hulk versus Thing battle. For my money, however, my very favorite Buscema cover is and remains the confrontation between Thor and the Silver Surfer depicted on the cover of SS #4. This comic has also skyrocketed in value over the last few years, which leads me to think that I’m not alone in loving this cover.

John Buscema died on January 10, 2002, in Port Jefferson NY. Luckily, comic book creation seems to run in the Buscema blood. His brother, Sal Buscema, also worked for many years as an illustrator for Marvel. Comic creator Stephanie Buscema is John’s granddaughter. John Buscema was inducted into the Will Eisner Awards Hall of Fame the year of his death (2002).

 

 

 

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4 comments

Dianne Buscema-Gerogianis October 20, 2019 - 12:41 pm

Very nice article on my Dad—–thank you!

Reply
Blaise Tassone October 28, 2019 - 3:16 pm

Dianne,

Thank you for reading and for the nice words.

Reply
W Bradley Raker October 20, 2019 - 12:59 pm

Nice article. John Buscema was one of my all time fave artists. I would try to emulate his style as a young artist. His art brought so many of Marvel’s characters to life for me. Truly one of the greats.

Reply
zachary alford October 21, 2019 - 9:00 am

It’s great to see a tribute to the great John Buscema! He is my no. 1 marvel comic artist! I have many favorites, all geniuses but when pressed to just pick one, its Big John! You mention that he started as a “Kirby clone”, which I find needs some clarification and could be misleading. If you look at Barry Windsor Smith’s early work (funnily enough, also on Conan) you see that he too, was mimicking Kirby’s style. These artists I believe already had their own signatures, and while you mention that they were bending to the “business model”, I think its important to remember that they most likely showed up already able to draw as they would later on. So their “progress” wasn’t so much a development over time, as a relaxing of restrictions at Marvel. In other words, they didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s not to say they didn’t learn something from Jack and Stan, I’m sure they did.
I fell in love with John’s work through Conan. Not only could I stare at the panels for hours, but the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s stories were fully engaging. In the 1970’s, this was new stuff. You didn’t have a plethora of fantasy and sword and sorcery comics to choose from. They were creating the genre. You certainly didn’t have the movie yet! However, for me, the epitome of Marvel collaborations was the saga of the Silver Surfer. You only mention the cover, but those first issues of the original Surfer run (again, ironically a Kirby creation) are some of the most compelling, beautiful and sublime comic stories ever created. Stan Lee and Big John Buscema striking gold!

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