Sunday, October 18, 2015

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #44: The Art of Alfredo Alcala

Book Report
By Professor Flynn

Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala
Alfredo Alcala, Heidi MacDonald and Phillip Dana Yeh
Introductions by Gil Kane and Roy Thomas
112 pages
Dover Publications

“I’m a big fan of Alfredo Alcala. If you have any taste at all, so are you.” — Roy Thomas

As someone who hasn’t purchased a comic book in over 30 years, my tenure at Marvel University has been an eye-opening experience. For example, I didn’t have a clue that Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Iron Fist was one of the most outstanding — and tragically short-lived — series of the 1970s. Or that Ghost Rider was one of the worst.  And who knew that Doug Moench wrote approximately 57 titles each month? But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that I had never even heard of the most talented inker of the decade, the amazing Alfredo Alcala. 

Born in 1925, Alfredo Alcala was part of a superb group of Filipino artists that took the American comic book industry by storm in the late 60s and early 70s, working for both The House of Ideas and the Distinguished Competition. For Marvel, Alfredo did his heavy lifting on the publisher’s black-and-white magazine line, inking and drawing numerous issues of The Savage Sword of Conan the BarbarianTales of the ZombieThe Rampaging Hulk and Planet of the Apes. Alcala also worked on a few color comics from time to time, illustrating a handful of Kull the Destroyer and Doctor Strange issues. But for my money, his star shined the brightest in the sensational Savage Sword magazines that teamed him with John Buscema. Alfredo wins my award as the legendary Buscema’s ultimate collaborator, taking Big John’s energetic pencils to majestic heights. Yes, I am aware that most professors would probably pick Joltin’ Joe Sinnott as Big John’s #1 partner. Then again, some also champion the work of Tony Isabella.

Like many artistic types, Alfredo was thrown out of school at an early age. While most other Filipino children in his sticky situation turned to such menial jobs as shining shoes, Alfredo earned his coins by illustrating his friends’ notebook covers. Years later, when World War II threw his country into bloody turmoil, the daring teen began drawing the gun positions of the occupying Japanese forces, delivering his reliable illustrations to the underground. From there, the sketches would make their way to American bombers. Alfredo would later joke that he amazed his friends by accurately predicting where the bombs would drop. Obviously, this was a highly dangerous endeavor. To make it even more risky, the budding partisan taught himself to write Japanese in order to create fake passes for himself. If caught, the boy would have been immediately executed. Well, maybe not immediately.

After surviving the war, Alcala found work in the booming Filipino comic book industry, quickly becoming one of the top artists on the island country. In 1963, he managed to launch his own company, Alcala Fight Komiks. There he created the hugely popular Voltar, a sword-and-sorcery hero who predated Marvel’s version of Robert E. Howard’s Conan by seven years. And then, in 1972, DC publisher Carmine Infantino visited the Philippines, looking to recruit new talent. Of course, Alfredo was one of the artists he plucked from relative obscurity. After spending a few years dutifully and lovingly inking the pages air mailed to him from DC — and eventually Marvel — Alcala moved to America on a permanent basis.

With a fascinating story like that, you’d figure that someone would have written a book about Mr. Alfredo Alcala. In fact, somebody did. Well, actually two somebodies. Plus Alcala himself. In 1994, Alfredo, Heidi MacDonald and Phillip Dana Yeh coauthored Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala. Sadly, the book has been out of print for quite a few years. But luckily, Dover Publications has just released a faithful — and in subtle ways improved — reprint edition. 

[Full disclosure: I am employed by Dover. But, by Crom, that does not color my appreciation for this excellent book.] 

Now, Secret Teachings is a bit hard to buttonhole. It’s not entirely an art instruction manual, not really a biography, and much more than a fine art portfolio. Let’s just call it a collection of illustrated essays and interviews that celebrate its worthy subject.  

First up is “On the Road with a Real Artist,” a warmhearted travelogue by Phil Yeh,  the Southern California artist who created one of the earliest American graphic novels, Even Cazco Gets the Blues. Even though Alfredo was 30 years older than Yeh, they became fast friends after first meeting in 1976. “On the Road” basically tells the story of a train trip they shared from Los Angeles to Seattle. Along the way, Yeh offers insights into Alcala’s life as a boy in the Philippines, his artistic philosophies, and such “Secret Teachings” as “real artists create for themselves” and “travel light and always carry your art supplies.” Throughout, Alfredo seems a delightful traveling companion and a marvelously generous human being. The piece features numerous illustrations by Alfredo on each page, from quick sketches he did during the trip to self-deprecating self-portraits.

The next chapter, “The Art of 
Observation,” gets more involved in the nitty gritty of illustration, offering inspiration and pointers on observation methods, compositions, and other techniques, mostly in the words of Alfredo himself. The use of Alcala’s outstanding artwork is ratcheted up in this section: it’s packed with full pages from Voltar and Savage Sword, as well as Ukala, a Philippines strip featuring Native Americans, and The Gift, an American graphic novel about the making of the Statue of Liberty written by, of all people, Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson. 

Written by the comic book master himself, the next chapter is devoted entirely to Voltar. Now I had a hard time finding any specific proof, but this 1963 serial has to be one of the — if not the — earliest sword-and-sorcery comics ever published. Alcala cheerfully discusses the theories and techniques he used in creating this influential work, described by the Comics Reporter as “an incredibly lavish, lushly-drawn comic book serial that showcased Alcala’s diverse interests and influences.” I’ve never come across this stuff before, so thankfully Secret Teachings includes a ton of impressive Voltar artwork. Alfredo also reveals that while still living in the Philippines, one of his dreams was to work on a sword-and-sorcery series for an American audience. So you can probably imagine his delight when he opened a package from Marvel that contained John Buscema’s ink-ready layouts for The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #2 in 1974. Brings tears to my eyes.

The final four pages of Secret Teachings is a series of questions and answers that focus on one of Alcala’s later passions, painting. Plus, the book kicks off with a pair of killer introductions, a short tribute by Gil Kane and a two-pager by Roy Thomas. The Rascally One literally gushes over Alfredo. As he should. 

Now I can’t expect everyone to share my electric enthusiasm for the late Alfredo Alcala, but Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master stands as a worthy addition to the curriculum of any fan of comics from the late 60s and 70s. Not only was Alcala a remarkable artist, he was a remarkable story.

“Alfredo Alcala is one of the most disciplined and perceptive artists inking in comics. During his best work, on the early black and white Savage Tales, which featured Conan, Alfredo achieved levels of tonality that I have seen equaled only by the engravers who worked over Gustave DorĂ©.” — Gil Kane

P.S. Just between you and me, Gil should have said Savage Sword instead of Savage Tales. But let’s cut the great man some slack. Think of all those great Kane covers. Magnifico!


  1. Great piece, Professor Tom, and you should be proud of your part in bringing attention to The Master. Anyone wanting to learn more about Alcala's DC work should jump over to our sister blog, bare bones, where Jack Seabrook and I discuss every single one of Alfredo's DC mystery/horror masterpieces. It's a shame that lesser "artists" are the rage these days when there are "hidden" greats like AA all but ignored.