Tony De Zuniga, a Filipino American comic artist, who was among the
top artists at Marvel in its heyday, passed away this weekend in Southern California.
Here’s a story I did on him seven years ago while he lived in Stockton.
Stockton artist brought comic-book heroes to life
STOCKTON — Batman, Superman, Supergirl.
Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk.
Tony De Zuñiga literally
had them all under his thumb at one point in his life.
The 70-year-old Stockton artist
brought the power of the pen to his bosses at Marvel and DC comics and, through
that pen, brought superheroes to life.
“I’m lucky I had some real good
drawing teachers in the Philippines,” De Zuñiga said modestly in the
main room of The Islands, his new gallery/restaurant that he’s opening Saturday
with his wife, Tina.
She’ll hang most of the artist’s
comic drawings there, but no Spider-Man.
“He’s always giving away Spider-Man,”
she said, looking at her husband with a half-joking scowl.
The gallery will also feature fine
art from contemporary Philippine artists, the De Zuñigas’ native land.
Tony De Zuñiga himself is
a fine artist of some repute, having won first-place awards at last year’s Delicato
Art Show in Manteca, as well as the Mondovi Art Show in Lodi.
His award winner? A smiling Filipino
man holding his prized fighting cock.
“They liked the look of the champion,”
De Zuñiga said.
That was what De Zuñiga was
— a champion — for comic-book publishers DC and Marvel.
“In regards to comic books, he’ll
go down as one of the best,” said Manuel Auad, a publisher of books on comic-book
artists. “He’s very, very good. And he’s very fast. A pro.”
To this day, De Zuñiga hasn’t
lost a step.
“In the comics business, you’ve
got to draw fast, a hundred pages a month,” he said, grabbing a pencil and paper
for a quick demonstration.
He took off his Christian Dior shades
with big, flared lenses that give him the look a superhero, and replaced them
with work glasses: thick, frameless and clear. Modified granny specs that help
With his pencil, he drew a rounded
outline of a head, then dark, deep sockets for eyes that in seconds came alive
with real eyeballs. Next: the mouth, chin, side of the face and hair that flowed
to the shoulders.
“You don’t lose the point,” he said
of his special lead pencil which raced across the paper. “It sharpens itself.”
As he drew, the image’s shoulders
took shape with pecs and biceps. From the fingers, a long line went across the
chest as De Zuñiga created a sword.
“Yup,” De Zuñiga said. “He’s
With a little shading to the legs,
the drawing was complete: a three-minute Conan the Barbarian, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
“I drew him for eight years. He’s
already in my head,” said De Zuñiga of his quick sketch. He said he’s
sent the governor some pieces to sign but hasn’t heard back yet.
Trained in the Philippines, De Zuñiga
came to America to attend the New York School of Design. He graduated, returned
to the Philippines but missed the big city. In the late 1960s, he came back
to work as a commercial artist. But his big break came when he met an editor
at DC Comics who wanted him to do a “House of Mystery” comic book.
“The editors loved it,” De Zuñiga
said. “And that’s the start of it all.”
He was the first of dozens of Filipino
artists to come to America to work in comics.
“De Zuñiga’s importance cannot
be overstated,” said the journal Comic Book Artist, which praised him for his
muscular and beautiful female warriors.
De Zuñiga he is best known
for creating Jonah Hex, a western anti-hero created in the early 1970s. Hex
is John Wayne on crack, a bad guy from unknown origins who found no price too
small if it was attached to someone’s head.
“They wanted something like the
spaghetti Westerns that were popular at the time,” said De Zuñiga, referring
to Westerns financed by Italian companies that featured actors such as Lee Van
Cleef and Clint Eastwood.
De Zuñiga did what he was
told. But unlike comic-book writers today, he got no royalties. Now, he says
he was cheated.
“Today, you get paid,” he said.
“Back then, they said, ‘You’re already drawing it, why don’t you just write
the whole book.’ ”
De Zuñiga followed orders.
But isn’t bitter about any of it. He has nothing but kind words for his ex-employers
such as Marvel’s Stan Lee.
“He’s a good guy, a very animated
fellow,” he said.
These days, De Zuñiga attends
comic-book conventions and is often asked to do “reconstructions.” That’s where
fans request old Jonah Hex or Conan covers. De Zuñiga said 40 percent
of his requests are for a female character that came out of the Conan series,
“She’s a barbarian girl, a fantasy
character just like Conan,” he said. “But I wanted them to do more with her.
She’s always underplayed.”
Since most of the original art work
he’s done is gone, De Zuñiga puts together for his fans brand-new ink
drawings, often in full color — but with a difference.
“I hate doing it exactly the same,
like a Xerox copy,” he said. Besides, the old stuff, De Zuñiga said,
is boring by today’s standards. “We had it easier back then, but we didn’t know
that because there were no special effects those years.”
Movies, with all their snap, crackle
and pop realism, have challenged the comic artists’ vision, he said. But the
artist still prevails.
“They have moving pictures, but
we’re still visual — the artist can still compete,” De Zuñiga said.
De Zuñiga has experience
in animation and video. He worked for Sega a few years ago, creating characters
and environments for games such as “Dynamite Cops.”
But he knows it all ultimately still
comes down to some paper, a pen and an artist’s vision.
With just those tools, De Zuñiga
has no trouble summoning up the fantasy world of the superhero within.