Wallace Wood: Against the Grain, part four
Wood returned to Minneapolis after his discharge, worked odd jobs and attended the Minneapolis School of Art. However, he stayed through only a single term, later remarking, “I can’t say I learned anything about technique.” Glenn Wood was discharged from the Navy that same year: “We came together when I got out of the Navy in July 1947, and Wally was there in Menahga with me. I went out to the West Coast, and I worked there in my first engineering job in Hydraulic Laboratories near Portland, Oregon. I had purchased my first automobile, and my mother and I made the trip westward. We went all the way out to Oregon, and Wally just stayed around Menahga. He really didn’t do too much productive that next year that I can recall. He had a lot of Army buddies that he was hanging around with, but he wasn’t really into anything that was furthering his career much at that point. I got back in 1948; that’s when things started to happen. Wally got down to serious business. I was heading for graduate school; I was accepted the year before, but I postponed it about a year and worked for a while. When I came back to Minnesota, Wally was primed and ready to go, to take on New York City, which he did. I drove back cross-country, picked up my mother and Wally, and the three of us drove to New York in late July and August 1948, because I had to start graduate school in the first week in September. We went off on a side trip to Gettysburg and those areas, driving east in my 1947 Ford. It was rather enjoyable; we took our time driving east. I dropped Wally off and went on to graduate school. Mother was my housekeeper that year that I went to MIT; she lived in Cambridge with me in 1948 to the spring of 1949. Those first months I don’t remember how or where he was staying. He developed friends in the business, and he was working at Bickford’s as a busboy. On West 97th Street was the first place where he started a serious set-up of a studio. From grammar school onward, he had been developing his characters. He had a great deal of latent talent, but it wasn’t really professionally developed at that time. He had stories and things that he had been seriously working on, but he didn’t have a sample portfolio developed. Wally was doing a lot of things, including bussing different cafeterias, stuff like that. He was a pretty struggling artist in those days.”
Carrying a bulging portfolio of drawings, the 21-year-old Wood made the rounds of the midtown Manhattan publishers in the fall of 1948. There was, however, a problem — the portfolio may have been hefty, but when he failed to show editors and art directors any previously published comics pages, he was soon back on the street again, contemplating his uncertain future and the possibility of spending the winter in daily treks through the snow to the cafeteria jobs. Then one day, probably in October, while he waited in the reception room of a publisher in the West Forties, another artist, 27-year-old John Severin, initiated a conversation, and they quickly discovered interests in common; Severin had also served in the Airborne and was himself heavily influenced by Roy Crane. The meeting was a significant turning point, putting Wood in contact with the writer-artists who shortly became his co-workers. The encounter apparently left Wood feeling very aware of his unprofessional status yet grateful for the help and direction he received, as indicated by his 1972 memory of that day: “John Severin was a funny guy. I think he was some kind of a war hero. A true conservative; he always was. John was the first artist that I met in this business, before I went to Hogarth’s school or anything. I hit every place in town, and I got thrown out of every place in town. Then I went into one office, and he started talking to me. We showed each other our stuff, and he invited me over to his studio. In the studio were Harvey Kurtzman, Willy Elder, and Charlie Stern. I was really impressed with John and how nice he was to me. Harvey was kind of nasty: ‘Why are you letting a kid hang around here?’ But they each did me an original and wished me luck and gave me a couple of lessons. It seemed that overnight I was working for EC, and there was Harvey, and he was my editor.”
In truth, Wood’s EC work for Kurtzman was not “overnight” but a year-and-a-half in the future — with much late-night labor in between. Further Wood’s version of his day at the Charles William Harvey Studio omits a crucial detail — the recommendation from the group that led directly to an assignment, as noted by Severin (in the 1982 Dimension Conventions program book): “Noticing the Paratrooper’s pin in his lapel, I struck up a conversation with him. This skinny kid had beside him one of the fattest portfolios I had ever seen, crammed to bursting with great fantasy and science-fiction samples. He told me he had been to ‘every’ publisher in New York with no luck, and that if he got no work here, he would be returning to Massachusetts the next day. Well, he had no success at this ‘last stop,’ but I persuaded him to come to the studio I shared with Willy Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. We got him in touch with Will Eisner, and the next 30 years are part of the history of this business.”
According to Glenn Wood, his brother never lived in Massachusetts as suggested by Severin’s account and as documented in the EC biography page. “I was going to graduate school,” said Glenn. “Wally would visit me on a couple of occasions, but he stayed in New York while I was at MIT.” On the two or three weekends Wood came to Boston, he would cross the Charles River to Cambridge, where Glenn and Alma were living a short walk from Harvard Square, facing the Cambridge Public Library on the first floor at 86 Ellery Street, the same street where the poet Delmore Schwartz had been living during the Forties.
After Wood’s appointment with Eisner, as Severin tells it, Wood did not return to the Charles William Harvey Studio. At $3.00 a page Wood began lettering Eisner’s The Spirit
. In The Outer Space Spirit
Cat Yronwode wrote, “It was his first professional job. He was a temporary letterer, filling in after the departure of Martin DeMuth and before the arrival of Abe Kanigson.” In 1980, without mentioning a specific year, Wood noted that he was paid “about 30 bucks a week” for “lettering and backgrounds on The Spirit
,” although Eisner today cannot identify a single 1949 Spirit
background by Wood and “can’t recall” Wood inking for him during this period.
Wood finally had his foot in the door, but to make more connections and acquire a professional polish, he enrolled in Burne Hogarth’s Cartoonists and Illustrators School, located at 112 West 89th Street. In late 1948 he took advantage of the GI Bill and filed for a “training and subsistence allowance” from the Veterans Administration, supplying his claim number (C-13 465 995) and checking “person without dependent” and “full-time training” on the form. On December 2, 1948, VA’s New York Regional Office (at 252 Seventh Avenue) authorized a subsistence allowance of $75.00 a month, noting “11/1/48” as the “date entered or re-entered training.” This authorization could have allowed Woody to collect benefits for two years, until October 15, 1950, but as his professional contacts and assignments increased, he dropped out of the school, having attended for only one term. In an interview with Rick Stoner (Woodwork Gazette
#1), his comment on the school indicates some respect for Hogarth as an instructor: “I came to New York in 1948 and went to Hogarth’s school. He personally taught me how to letter and to hold a brush. In a few weeks I started doing lettering and backgrounds and inking love comics.”