Janet Heatherington and Ramona Fradon – Paradise Comics Toronto Comic Con 2006
This interview was done at the Paradise Comics Toronto Comic Con in April of 2006 and was published in June, 2006. I still regularly see Ramona at San Diego Comic Con and occasionally on panels.
Ramona Fradon is one of the great silver age penciler-creators. She co-created Aqualad and Metamorpho. Fans remember her for long run on Aquaman, the early Metamorpho stories and Super Friends. She is also well known for drawing the Brenda Starr newspaper strip for 15 years. I met her at the Paradise Comics Toronto Comicon and did an interview on April 29th. We cover a wide range of topics, taking careful consideration to not duplicate questions she had just recently answered on a panel (moderated by Janet Heatherington) about her career. You can hear that panel here.
Now on to the interview which includes a special appearance by another popular creator.
Jamie: How are you Ramona?
Ramona Fradon: I’m fine, thank you.
Jamie: Are you enjoying Toronto?
Ramona Fradon: Oh yes.
Jamie: Have you been out to see the sites at all?
Ramona Fradon: No I haven’t, I’ve been sitting here drawing steadily.
Jamie: Are you making money?
Ramona Fradon: Oh yes. It’s very nice.
Jamie: Okay to start off, I’ve recorded your panel and I’m going to try not and duplicate those questions. At the beginning you said you read comic strips. What strips in particular?
Ramona Fradon: Oh I like all the daily newspaper strips. I liked Dick Tracy, Orphan Annie, Alley Oop, Mandrake the Magician and more. The only one I didn’t really like was Brenda Starr (laughter). I never read it, I didn’t like the way it looked.
Ty Templeton (to Ramona): Hi, I can’t let this convention end without saying you are one of my favorite people in this business. I love absolutely everything you have ever done. My name is Ty Templeton and I worked on Plastic Man at DC. We’ve shared characters. I didn’t want to interrupt this conversation but I at some point just had to come by and shake your hand.
Ramona Fradon (to Ty): Thank you very much.
Ramona Fradon (to Jamie): Lets leave that part in (laughter).
Jamie: Okay (laugher).
Jamie: You said your father got you into becoming an artist. How did that go about?
Ramona Fradon: Well, he just kept saying it was conditioning. When I got to high school I took a lot of art courses. Not because I was particularly interested in it, but because it was something I could do. I had neglected studying so I couldn’t get into college with the grades I had. So I went to art school but I didn’t have any idea of what I’d do.
Jamie: So you just went along with the flow?
Ramona Fradon: Yeah, I went a long with the flow. When I got out I was just bewildered. I had no idea and I just got steered into cartooning.
Jamie: When you were learning art was there any particular influences that you had?
Ramona Fradon: Will Eisner. I just thought he was incredible when I first saw the Spirit. It was just the way it should be you know? There was a mix of serious and cartooning.
Jamie: Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Ramona Fradon: I was nominated for an Eisner and at one point I was on a stage with him and shook his hand.
Jamie: He was here two years ago.
Ramona Fradon: He was a genius, definitely a genius.
Jamie: Oh yes. You mentioned that you almost worked with Fox?
Ramona Fradon: I got a script from Fox and I returned it because I heard they didn’t pay. I then did three scripts for Stan Lee at Timely. The last job was for the dogs (laughter). It was bad.
Jamie: Were there any other publishers besides DC and Marvel that you worked for?
Ramona Fradon: No, just those two. And mostly DC.
Jamie: So you never bothered with Charlton?
Ramona Fradon: I never knew anything about them. I was lucky.
Jamie: At DC how strict was the creative process of drawing? I know they were a lot more strict than Marvel.
Ramona Fradon: Well DC was interested in maintaining a certain format. When I started they wanted to maintain the 6 panel grid, two panels to a line. They didn’t really want to deviate from that. But as time went on they got looser. By the time I finished I could make any type of layout that I wanted. I mean, they were strict at first, they were very worried about the continuity from one panel to another.
Jamie: The storytelling?
Ramona Fradon: Yes, sometimes I could get something in the wrong place.
Jamie: Did you every deviate from the script at all?
Ramona Fradon: I never wanted to. Unless it was something that was so horrible to draw (laughter). The most that I would do is when the writer would say… and this is the thing that made me quit cartooning… there was a panel where I had to draw thousands of roses being dropped out of an airplane. And I thought, I cannot do this, this is just insane (laughter). So you have to think of ways of abbreviating the idea, the impression. Thats the only way I would change things.
Jamie: You’ve spent a long time on Aquaman. Do you know why Aquaman stuck around while other superheroes didn’t?
Ramona Fradon: I really don’t know. I guess it was all the silly young men that kept reading him. He’s changed though, I don’t see him as the character at all.
Jamie: Are you surprised Aqualad is still around after all these years?
Ramona Fradon: Yes, I never understood while he had any appeal to begin with (laughter).
Jamie: I know you took some time off and then they called you back to work on Metamorpho.
Ramona Fradon: Yes, I think I was out for about 3 years. George Kashdan called me and asked me to at least help get it started. I then stopped again around 1973 I think.
Jamie: Why did you stop?
Ramona Fradon: I had a baby. She was clinging to my knee while I was trying to draw and it was terrible. So I just quit.
Jamie: What went into the creation of Metamorpho? Were you given any visual cue’s on how he should look?
Ramona Fradon: No, no, we did do a lot of talking about it. The first sketches I did and I think I may have them somewhere.. I made him a conventional type hero with a cape and tights and whole thing. That didn’t seem to work, then we talked some more. I think I finally figured it out that since he was based on 4 basic elements that he should be divided into 4 parts and that he shouldn’t have any clothes on. I mean.. otherwise, how would he do that? So it just evolved as we reasoned it.
Jamie: Do you know why they ended his series?
Ramona Fradon: I don’t know, I know it sorta fizzled out and they keep trying to revive it from time to time. I think his time you know..
Jamie: It came and gone.
Ramona Fradon: Yeah.
Jamie: So how did you end up working at Marvel?
Ramona Fradon: Well, I didn’t “end up” (laughter). It was the 70s, I was retired for about 7 years and there was the womens movement. They had a Womens strip and they wanted a women to illustrate it. I heard somewhere that Stan Lee really loved my work on Metamorpho and maybe they were hoping I could still draw that way, but my drawing was really rusty. And besides, it wasn’t the same story.
Jamie: Yeah, not the same character. The Cat is not Metamorpho.
Ramona Fradon: No, not at all. My drawing has always been really influenced by the script. It tends to change with the script and that was quite different.
Jamie: The last story that I know of, that you did was an 8 page Aquaman for Just imagine Stan Lee’s Aquaman.
Ramona Fradon: Oh that’s right, yeah. That was hard to do. That was bad. I mean, I was rusty. It’s very hard to get back into illustrating a script after you’ve been gone a long time. That was not my proudest moment (laughter). And I hate the colors. There is a woman down here she’s got that.. have you seen her coloring? It’s beautiful! The computer stuff is just bad.
Jamie: Going back to Metamorpho, do you know how they decided on the colors of the character?
Ramona Fradon: I don’t know if I did that or not. I have a feeling that I did. I never colored so I’m not sure how I would have. I don’t know.
Jamie: Did you like inking your own work?
Ramona Fradon: No. It was like doing it all over again.
Jamie: I heard Kirby said the same thing.
Ramona Fradon: I never got a handle working with a brush. You never know what it’s going to do.
Jamie: As of late a lot of your work is being reprinted by DC. Hopefully you are being compensated for that?
Ramona Fradon: Oh yes. DC has been really good about royalties, they really have. I can’t complain. I get paid better now than when I was first drawing them (laughter).
Jamie: That’s good to hear. Have you seen the new [Showcase] Metamorpho trade?
Ramona Fradon: Yeah.
Jamie: Do you like it better in black and white or color?
Ramona Fradon: I think I’d like to see it in color.
Jamie: So you have no interest in going back and doing comics at all?
Ramona Fradon: No.
Jamie: Been there done that?
Ramona Fradon: Yes. It’s WORK. I don’t draw easily. I’ve seen some of these artists and they just spin it out. Marie Severin is like that. She’s just do-do-do-do and it’s a finished drawing. I can’t do that. I really struggle. It’s hard unless I’m up against a deadline I just put aside all inhibitions and just draw. Then it’s easy. Otherwise it’s just hard for me. I keep editing and changing.
Jamie: I’m trying to think of a Brenda Starr question that hasn’t already been asked…
Ramona Fradon: On Brenda I did my own inking.
Jamie: You penciled and inked that?
Ramona Fradon: It was a more comic style. It was easier to ink that. Every week, 7 pages. I used to number the panels. 25-26 panels a week, penciled and inked. It was just a grind. It was horrible (laughter). And it wasn’t like the strip was making a million dollars either. The Syndicate was so cheap. In over 5 years I didn’t get in increase in pay.
And not only that I used to get the receipts, the statements, and I began to notice that when the receipts went up, the production costs went up. And that was what my pay was based on. This went on and I thought it was crazy. So I got a lawyer. Then it didn’t happen anymore. They are just criminals.
Jamie: They didn’t want to pay you any more?
Ramona Fradon: I just can’t say enough bad about the Syndicate. Everybody I know that worked for them was treated badly by them. They’re all criminals in expensive suits.
Jamie: You mentioned Dale Messick left Brenda Starr under bad circumstances.
Ramona Fradon: She hated them. She made them hundreds of millions of dollars over the years with movies rights and merchandising. They fired her actually and they didn’t even give her a wrist watch. They probably ripped her off for all those years too. She promised she’d live forever so they’d have to keep paying that puny pension they gave her.
Jamie: Okay, you are doing commissions now. Is that going well for you?
Ramona Fradon: Oh yes. It’s as much as I want to do and I can do it whenever I want.