"How can a real artist retire from being an artist?" -- Barry Windsor-Smith, 1996
Legendary artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, turns seventy years old today. When I mentioned that fact earlier this week to a couple of older Barry fans, they were like, "No way!" Yes. Way.
Barry Windsor-Smith's career history is a long and tangled one, spanning over fifty years. Time constraints prevent me--perhaps mercifully, for some readers--from looking at it in detail. For those unfamiliar with the life and work of BWS, you might check out this excellent link here. Or, you can read Barry’s own exhaustive bio here, though it only goes up to about 1995. For this post, I'm only going to touch on the highest of highlights, of which there are several.
Before the London-born Barry Windsor-Smith had turned eighteen, he was already doing art for a UK publisher that reprinted Marvel comics stories. The Medusa pin-up in the gallery below is supposed to be his very first published work. At that point in his artistic career, Barry was a huge fan of Jack Kirby and his art style showed it. By the summer of 1968, Barry was a freelancer for Marvel Comics, working on several superhero titles.
By mid-1970, Roy Thomas offered Barry the art gig on Marvel's new title, Conan the Barbarian. Barry accepted. While the first few issues had a distinctly Kirbyesque look, BWS quickly developed his own unique style. It blended the dynamism and storytelling techniques of Kirby with a strong influence from the Pre-Raphaelite school of art. In a very short span of time, he had gone from a teenaged imitator to one of the most revolutionary artists in the industry. His new style blew away comics fans, but Barry wasn't happy at Marvel.
Feeling constricted by the comics medium and disillusioned by the business model of the industry, BWS jumped ship in 1973. By 1974 he had established Gorblimey Press to allow him to self-publish his art. Soon after, he joined the short-lived—but awesome—artistic collective known as "The Studio," which also included Michael Wm. Kaluta, Jeffrey Jones and Bernie Wrightson.
Barry spent the rest of the decade developing his “single picture” and painting skills to a truly formidable degree, selling prints through Gorblimey Press. Comparing his work from the late '70s to that of a decade earlier is just mind-boggling. I don't know of another artist with a similar arc. Not N.C. Wyeth, not Frazetta.
By the mid-'80s, BWS was back at Marvel. He states in several interviews that he had essentially forgotten how to do comics for about ten years. He likens the difference between painting/drawing single works and doing sequential storytelling to flying a plane and driving a race car. Both may involve going two hundred miles per hour, but they are quite different in many ways. Despite any “rusty” skills, Barry got back up to speed very quickly, demonstrating his utter mastery of storytelling and action-oriented sequential art.
The pinnacle of his return to Marvel would be his ground-breaking Weapon X series (1991), which told the origin of Wolverine. Barry did both the art and scripting. It displays the same blend of savagery, detail and finesse that epitomized his best Conan work from the ‘70s. BWS also painted several gorgeous covers for Conan Saga during the same period. Some of that work can be seen in the gallery below.
Once again becoming disenchanted with Marvel, Barry was lured to Valiant Comics and then Malibu. In both cases, he turned out incredible art, but was not given the artistic freedom, intellectual property ownership and monetary remuneration that he was promised. From there, BWS worked on one series for Image Comics before moving on to do his own Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller for Dark Horse Comics in 1995. After leaving DHC, Barry had a two-volume retrospective of his work published by Fantagraphics as BWS – Opus in 1999 and 2000.
Since then, the public has seen very little new work from Barry. I'll just quote from the Infogalactic article:
"Windsor-Smith's last published work was "UFO POV" an 11-page story in Streetwise (July 2000), a trade paperback anthology published by TwoMorrows Publishing. In January 2006, Windsor-Smith announced on the website Comic Book Galaxy that he was in negotiations to publish a graphic novel for Marvel Comics starring The Thing. He has been quoted as having been working since at least 1998 on a 300-page graphic novel Monsters, which "explores the life and times of two disparate American families fatefully connected by an abandoned Nazi project in genetic engineering that has been covertly revived by the US government". He completed a Superman story in 1999 that has not yet seen print. He has produced no further work in mainstream comics since that announcement, and nothing has been produced by Gorblimey Press since the print "Liberomano" in 1993."
A look at Barry's website reveals that BWS--apparently--hasn't updated it since 2010.
As a BWS fan since the age of eight, I find this troubling. Not so much for the lack of new art, which is bad enough, but simply out of concern for his present state of affairs. I mean...nine years? Nobody seems to know what he's been doing for most of the twenty-first century. How is he making a living? Is he paying all the bills simply by way of mail-order sales on his website? Barry has a "Contact" page that provides email and mailing info. Perhaps I should give him a shout.
Happy birthday, Barry. Thanks for everything and I hope you're doing well.