When I ask Rick Parker whether he thinks he’s still improving artistically, after all of his years in comics, he answers, deadpan, “There’s no question about it. I think, if I live another 20 years, I might actually do some great work.”
For most artists, an answer like that would likely be a little tongue-in-cheek. With Parker, however, I’m not so sure. The cartoonist is, as he’ll be the first to admit, his own harshest critic. He’s also got a work ethic that won’t let him slow down.
But Parker is a teacher of sequential art, as well as a student, and learning, thankfully, comes with the territory.
It’s interesting that you worked in lithography, making copies of other people’s work. I think one of the things that has defined one much of your comic work is your skill as mimic, in terms of doing a Beavis & Butthead or a Simpsons book.
Yeah. That’s true. When I was young, one of the ways I learned was by copying other people’s drawings.
That’s a pretty standard approach.
I think other people do that, yeah. From what I’ve read, I think a lot of artists—I think John Romita tried to draw like Alex Raymond. When he got the newspaper on Sunday, he would copy all of the Tarzan strips from Hal Foster. There’s nothing wrong with it. I read newspaper strips as a kid. In those days, they came in the Sunday paper. Everybody talks about them, but they really were nice. I wasn’t a big comic fan, really.
I did see EC Comics, so it was fun for me, after they brought Tales From the Crypt back, after 50 years. Jim Salicrup asked me if I wanted to do the old Crypt Keeper and the Witch. I remember those characters being extremely bizarre. I’d never seen a man with hair down to his shoulders before. That was just so weird. I guess it just goes to show that, if you live long enough, you never know what’s going to happen.
I copied stuff. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I copied a bunch of Pogo newspaper strips, because my mother liked Pogo. Some of her friends—I would put their names on the back of the row boat in the swamp and have the characters and stuff like that. Walt Kelly would have known that that wasn’t his work, but I probably could have fooled most people.
In terms of teaching art or comics—especially when dealing with younger children—how strongly do you push students to develop their own style?
Very strongly. It takes a long time for a person’s style to develop. But sometimes I see kids—it’s maybe kind of rare—who are well on their way. Even at age 10, you can see that their style is starting to develop. I don’t know if you saw my Facebook page, but I’ve got some student art up there.
I saw the drawing of the mousetrap.
Yeah, that kid is ten years old. He won first prize last year in a national contest against 8,000 people, designing a poster for back to school safety for the Automobile Club of America. And he won third prize in an Essex County poster contest about what he likes about Essex County, against 900 other kids. He’s a really bright kid, really remarkable. And his little brother, who’s two years younger than he is, is pretty amazing too. And I had another child who I think was low on the spectrum of autism.
Yeah, or something. They never really told me, but he was clearly unlike other children. He had this remarkable ability. He was eight years old. And there are others who are quite good. Over the course of my lifetime, I think what really wins the day and trumps everything is the continuous, day-by-day slugging away and continually making forward progress. It all adds up, eventually. Then you really start to see the harvest of all of that hard work, over many, many years.
Basically, the harder you work, the better you get. It’s nice to be talented, but the ones who are talented and also work hard, there’s no stopping them. I think they will accomplish something great.
After all of these years in the business, you feel as though you’re still improving, on some level?
Oh yeah. There’s no question about it. I think, if I live another 20 years, I might actually do some great work. Seriously.
I had an art show on Sunday, and had to try to figure out what I was going to use for the show. When I looked back on works I did ten years ago, I’ve come so far in the last ten years. Mainly it’s a result of having a number of different projects that were fairly intense, that I learned a lot from.
One of the things I learned a lot from was the Beavis & Butthead series from Marvel. It was 28 issues and four trade paperbacks. That’s over 500 pages of material. That’s basically all I worked on. You have to 28 pages and a cover in a month, you’re gonna learn something from that.
In 2004, I had a 164-page graphic novel to illustrate. I spent a year on it. There was some good drawing in there, but there was a lot of stuff that I’m glad didn’t see the light of day, to a certain extent. I’m not ashamed of it, or anything, but I don’t want people to see the ugly children that came out of me. There were some nice kids, but 164 pages, some of those pages are not going to be so hot. But I learned a lot from it.
Has working as an educator made you a harsher critic of your own work?
Well, I was always a pretty harsh critic of my own work. In fact, I was a much harsher of my own work than anyone else was. I think it would have been better for me if I had actually come out of the closet and let people see what I did, rather than to try to hide it, until I was ready. If you want to be a good ice skater, you have to let people see you fall down. I did a lot practicing when no one was around, but basically, you want to be working all the time—that’s what I’m saying.
I probably missed some good opportunities. I guess everybody misses opportunities in life, but when I was working up at Marvel, I probably should have just said to somebody, “hey, what’s the worst selling comic book you have here? Let me draw that for you.” But I wasn’t a superhero artist, so that was kind of a tough situation.
I think if they had been doing the kind of work that I was more well suited for, I think it would have been a different story. But I was just not well suited for drawing superheroes.
What did you do for Marvel?
When I first went up there, they needed someone to do lettering. I really wanted to be an artist. They looked at my portfolio, but I guess I didn’t knock anybody’s socks off, or anything. Dan Adkins was the one who met me in the reception room and looked at my portfolio. Personally, I think someone should have said, “this guy obviously has talent and is young. Let’s develop him.” But there were probably a lot of young people like me in those days.
[Continued in Part Three.]