Walt Simonson’s long, still-prolific career in comic books has a number of landmark runs - from Manhunter to Star Slammers to Orion and the current Ragnarok. But some of the most important moments of his career came about on a book that’s been out of print for almost 40 years…until now.
In the late 1970s, Simonson worked on Marvel Comics’ licensed tie-in to the then-new TV series Battlestar Galactica, the original version of humans on the run from deadly Cylons across the stars. Though fondly remembered by a few fans, like many licensed comic books, it fell out of print and into obscurity in the intervening decades.
Now, Dynamite is bringing these stories back into print with the upcoming Battlestar Galactica: Art Edition, reproducing Simonson’s stories from the original art, at the original size at which they were drawn. Newsarama called Simonson up to find out more about these stories, their place in his career, and to geek out about Battlestar Galactica.
Newsarama: Walt, tell us about this Battlestar Galactica collection – I’ll admit I don’t know all your work from this time, though I do remember the issue with the suped-up hunter Cylon…
Walt Simonson: The Cylon Mark III! [Laughs] That was a good one.
What happened was, basically, Ernie Colon did the first few issues based off the pilot and first couple episodes, and somewhere in there, I was asked to pencil the book, and I said sure. Klaus Janson was inking me-– the credits will clarify this, but I do not remember at this point whether I was doing layouts with Klaus’ finishes, or full pencils with Klaus doing the inks.
I ended up doing the book for a while - here’s the real story, behind the scenes. I got the gig to draw the Alien graphic novel that Heavy Metal put out, that Archie Goodwin was writing. And at that time, no one knew what Alien was going to become, it was just another sci-fi film. It was a 64-page graphic novel, and took me about five months to do.
So, they actually held Galactica for me, and ran several months of fill-in issues, which was maybe not the wisest move at the time, but it was great for me! So, I took off and worked on Alien for a while, then came back and worked on Galactica again.
I returned to the book around issue #15 or #16 - and at that time, there was an issue where - I can’t remember why, if Klaus was busy or I just wanted to - I wound up penciling and inking and coloring my own work. That was the issue with the Cylon Mark III.
Around that time, Roger McKenzie was writing the book, and we had a good time doing it. By then, my wife - or maybe she was still my girlfriend, depending on the time - Louise was editing the book, and I wound up writing a couple pages on that Cylon Mark III story as Roger was getting off the book, about the last page and a half or something like that. And she asked me, after Roger was off, if I wanted to take a crack at writing it. I guess it was the upside of nepotism. I said “Sure.”
I hadn’t done much writing in comics - I was used to writing in 'Marvel Style,' where the writer provides the story, the artist provides the pencils, and then the writer provides the dialogue off the art. Which is my preferred way of doing things - it results in a much more lively collaboration.
So, I had the chance to do a few issues - though the comic wasn’t doing very well, and the TV show was on the verge of cancelation. But I had a good time! I wound up doing the last four or five issues, there was maybe one fill-in there.
By now, Archie Goodwin was at Marvel, and he liked what I had done on those issues with the writing. And he offered me the chance to write the adaptation of some unknown film Marvel was supposed to do a comic of called Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was supposed to do it, but he was too busy. The film script was there already, so I didn’t have to worry about dialogue; you had John Buscema doing layouts, and Klaus doing finishes, so I was working with a couple of seasoned professionals.
So, we went with that - and that was where my comic-book-writing career began. And it all started with Battlestar Galactica.
Nrama: I was going to say, it sounds like that was a very formative book for you and your career. You certainly were doing a lot of SF/fantasy books at that time -
Simonson: I was going to say, for some reason I was the go-to guy for sci-fi at that time. I did Battlestar Galactica, I did Alien, I did the Close Encounters of the Third Kind adaptation, I did Raiders, I did some Star Wars – right there, at the end of the ‘70s or early ‘80s, if it was science fiction, my name came up. And that was fine! I was and am a huge fan of science fiction. But Galactica really opened up a new phase of my work.
Nrama: I’m curious about what some of the challenges were of working on a licensed book at that time - what you could and couldn’t do.
Simonson: Well, I’m pretty good at working inside a bubble - I’m not really a bubble burster. One of the things we did, because Roger and I were both into science fiction - if you watch Battlestar Galactica, in the original pilot they established something like the rag-tag fugitive fleet were running on sub-light drives, while the Cylon Basestars were running on faster-than-light drives. At least, that’s what it seemed like to us, based on what was available, the show was coming out at the same time.
Well, Roger and I knew some science, and that if you had a chase like that, it’d be over before it began! So, we did a story where the mechanics went down and somehow upgraded all the engines to faster-than-light drives, to keep ahead of the Cylons.
So, we did a lot of stuff that made a little more sense than the TV show –
Nrama: Well, the show didn’t make a lot of sense in and of itself. It looked fantastic –
Simonson: Oh, you’ll love this. We heard - and I can’t confirm this - that the writers were told to take old movies, and turn them into Battlestar Galactica episodes. I don’t know how much of that is true, but I remember there was at least one episode that ripped off The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone –
Nrama: “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero!” That was the first episode I saw as a kid. It was one season of that show plus Galactica 1980, but they reran it forever in syndication.
Simonson: [Laughs] I haven’t seen them in years, but I remember seeing that episode and thinking that rumor could be true, because it was just a combination of those two movies. The other rumor was that the reason Fred Astaire guest-starred in an episode as someone who was or wasn’t Starbuck’s father was because his grandkids were fans of the show –
Nrama: Oh, that’s true. I remember reading that in a magazine. That’s actually a similar reason why a lot of old Hollywood actors played guest-villains on the Adam West Batman.
Simonson: That’s true?! What a great story!
So, we were able to do stories that we found fun. The only thing we couldn’t do… and this is long enough after that we should be okay saying this… there were likeness issues.
When you license a property to do as a comic book, one of the things you negotiate are the likeness rights - how much the drawings can look like this actor, or that actor. For example, when Marvel did Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I drew, they didn’t have likeness rights, so I couldn’t draw Richard Dreyfus or Teri Garr - I drew characters that were similar to who was necessary for the plot, but were not exact likenesses.
For Galactica, they did not have the likeness rights. Now, I did kind of draw Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict and Lorne Greene, but I didn’t try to use exact likeness. What I did was take their faces and use those to try to draw kind of iconic likenesses - they had the right hairstyles, and kind of the right faces, and we didn’t catch any flack for it, for the most part.
The one time we did catch flack was on that Cylon Mark III story - we got a note back from the Glen Larson people saying that Apollo looked too much like himself, and we had to change it. There was something odd about that, and we went back and forth several times, and finally we figured out they didn’t mean Apollo, they meant Adama. And by that time, the book had gone off to press, and there weren’t any major problems when it was published.
We were lucky, though. We got to the stories we wanted to do - we wrote Starbuck out of the book for a few issues, and didn’t get pushback. There was a much more free-form style to licensing back then. My interest is in doing a good comic book, and there was not as much saying, “You have to have the characters look like this, or say this.” When you have that many people with a hand in the book, you’re not going to get a good comic.
I got to tell the stories I wanted to tell with this rag-tag fugitive fleet. And I had a good time.
Nrama: Not getting too far off track, but there’s a lot more hoops to jump through today for licensed books - but it’s funny, likeness rights are often a more integrated part of licensing. In fact, many actors have their likenesses scanned so the tie-in materials, such as toys, can look exactly like them. So, it’s a little strange to hear about having problems with the art looking too much like the actor.
Simonson: Right. Right. Well, I don’t know that I would do a big franchise now – maybe some writing, but not the drawing. I’m not a good fit for that. What I’m a good fit for is trying to make a good comic book.
Nrama: It’s funny how much staying power Battlestar Galactica has had, through its initial version, the revival and so on… it wasn’t hugely internally consistent, but there was something cool and mythological in that idea that captured the imagination, and had a lot of concepts that could be built on.
Simonson: I liked the look of it, the design. I thought the Battlestar itself looked really cool, and the Cylons and the Viper fighters. They did a nice job with that.
I thought the show got more and more surreal as they went along - they had Patrick Macnee as the satanic figure, Count Iblis - we never went that far, we stayed with the SF stuff. By the time Marvel canceled the book, they were into Galactica 1980 on TV, and we never went into that.
The one thing I really wanted to do, and I didn’t get to do it, was the episode where they discover this other Battlestar, the Pegasus –
Nrama: Lloyd Bridges!
Simonson: That’s right! And I love Lloyd Bridges, and it was a cool idea, and the story ended kind of oddly, where there was this big battle and the Pegasus is just gone again. But that’s the comic I would have liked to have drawn – the Pegasus as this lone Battlestar out there, taking names and kicking ass.
Nrama: That’s a lot of people’s favorite, because it actually deals with the idea of being this military vessel on the run, and what you have to do to survive vs. how you retain your humanity. That’s actually the only story from the original they redid on the revival version, they had Michelle Forbes in the role.
Simonson: I’ve never seen the revival! Huh.
Nrama: So, how does it feel to see this work reprinted?
Simonson: Surprising! [Laughs] Especially in the old days, comics were kind of ephemera, so to have any of my work reprinted, it’s always surprising, especially in these artist’s editions. It’s very cool, and I’m looking forward to seeing the book.
It was kind of an intermediate book for me - where I went from drawing to doing some writing and drawing. So, it was a pivotal moment for me. I made a deal with Klaus back then, so the four issues I wrote - I had all the artwork for them, and also all the art for the issue I penciled and inked. It’s kind of cool to see the early writing, and go, “Hey, I wish I could write like that now! It’s kind of breezy and fun, and not all doom and gloom.”
I love those artist’s editions. You get to look at the work and see all the bumps and rough stuff, but you also get to see it at full size, in a way you haven’t gotten to see it before.
Nrama: They’re wonderful volumes, though not a lot of places to put them.
Simonson: There’s not. I’m thinking of making a coffee table out of them.