Wally Wood's colorful Alka-Seltzer print ad, "Stomachs get even at night," was a huge success, winning a 1967 Art Directors Club Medal. The ad received such a favorable response that Wood was hired to convert it into storyboards, and this 1968 commercial was the result.
“See you in the darkness.” —Gary Gilmore, January 1977
Worlds were created while the radiator clanked. On crescendo streets below, junkies trudged beneath crimson neon toward Needle Park, but in the silence of the Wood Studio on West 74th Street in 1968, the ink flowed in perfect curves with no ragged edges.
One night I broke the silence: “Why do you do this?” I saw Wood’s back twitch, startled, as he realized what I was getting at, but he continued to ink Superboy and didn’t turn around. Ralph Reese remained silent, delicately bringing up the backgrounds on another page.
“Why do I do what?” asked Wood.
“This super-hero crap. My God, you’re as great as any of the world’s greatest humorists. No one can do what you do the way you do it in your writing and your art. It’s your own. So isn’t this inking job just a waste? What does it have to do with you?”
The truth of this hung in the air and then spiraled away. There was no prolonged response or discussion because there was, we all knew, no answer that quite fit the circumstances. Later, a country music station played “Streets of Laredo.” The ink flowed into the night.
Wallace Wood would have loved the headline the Los Angeles Times ran above his obituary: “Gut Level Characters Made Him Famous,” a pun referring to his ad for Alka-Seltzer. I can imagine him clipping this obit, leaving it on the upper left corner of his drawing table and squinting at it occasionally while continuing to quietly ink panel after panel after panel. Someone leaning over his shoulder to glance at the headline and remark on the importance of such media attention would prompt only a smile and a muttered, “Yeah, but they got that part about the TV commercial wrong.” Later, the clipping would vanish from the drawing board into one of the dozens of file folders of work by and about Wood—all labeled “ME”—in his filing cabinets.
I remember the week Wood sketched the storyboard for that commercial (which LA Times writer Dana Kennedy cited as his “best known work” while confusing it with the print ad). The full color “Stomachs get even at night” ad, showing angry vegetables preparing for a midnight attack inside a stomach, had caused a sensation at the ad agency after publication. Had Wood picked that moment to acquire a top agent, possibly he could have ridden the wave all the way in—but even when the surf was up, what he sought was that perfect, impossible wave.
For TV, the agency wanted the vegetable characters to do something, despite the frozen moment of anticipation that gives the print ad its tension And so the storyboard—which looked like he had whipped it together in an hour—introduced a human character, a shocked guy in striped pajamas leaping off the sheets as vegetables march across the bed. The dark strangeness of the original concept had been sanitized for TV. The difference bothered me, but I didn’t remark on it.
“Are you going to follow through on this?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, are you going to protect it? Make sure they animate it in your style?”
“No,” said Wood. “Why bother?”
I was baffled by this attitude but said nothing. The board was delivered to the agency, and Wood moved on to other projects. Months later, at an impromptu party in Washington, I glanced at a TV set flickering the opening of the commercial I had not yet seen. I quickly explained to everyone present that it was by Wood, and we all watched. No one reacted. Whatever was artful in the storyboard, already a dilution of Wood’s original imaginative concept, had now dissipated completely.
Many of Wood’s projects were like this—a brilliant flash of intensity that soared and skyrocketed before arcing downward to sputter into nothingness. Compared to the famous R.O. Blechman Alka-Seltzer commercial of the talking stomach and the other popular Alka-Seltzer commercials of that period, this one was disappointing and forgettable. The animation was TV routine, and the characters had lost Wood’s comic malevolence, replaced by mere cuteness and silliness. Did Wood, I wondered, know the battle was lost even before he drew the storyboard? He once said to me, “An editor is someone dedicated to destroying the work of a creator.” His interest in self-publishing developed out of a genuine feeling that he was being victimized in the commercial world.
Wood's childhood drawings were in a metal cabinet and survived the fire. Also, some years later, Bill began looking through certain singed file folders and found some Wood art he had not known was there.
I remember clipping that Wood ad when it saw print--and being excited, yet let down, when I saw the tv version. It's nice to see it all again, this time with storyboard sketches, for which, much thanks.
(Also nice to discover your blog. It's probably been about twenty years since I've seen you, back in the days you were living in Massachusetts).
Just discovered this blog as well, via Mark Evanier.
20 years ago, I used to work at nights (after my regular day job) for a comic book artist. He had lots of swipe files, mostly Wood's work that he had blown up on a photocopier. Late at night, when we were all tired, he'd root thru the files and show us a photocopy of some Wood art and say with a voice full of wonder, "Look at the knowledge! Look at the knowledge!"
To him, like so many, Wood was God.
I did not go into the comic book field, but I did find some success in gag cartooning.
Bhob, thanks for this. I'd never seen it before. I'll be back!