Interviews

The Alcala legacy: An interview with Alfred Alcala Jr. (Part 1)

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

Alfred Alcala Jr. (his first name is Alfredo but he goes by Alfred), son of legendary artist Alfredo Alcala, was kind enough to share some in-depth recollections about his Father’s work and life. I hope you enjoy this fascinating look at the life of one of the most beloved artists associated with Masters of the Universe. Part one of this interview looks at a lot of Alcala’s pre-MOTU work before moving into the Masters material.

Q: Can you tell me a bit of background on how your father become a professional artist?

Alfredo, while still a grade school student in Santa Ana, Manila, already had that inborn talent to illustrate. He did some art assignments for his classmates. He would usually be cutting classes and could be found at the nearby riverbank doing illustrations. Due to these absences from school, he was not able to complete his elementary education.

During WW2, he found use for his talent by observing Japanese positions, pillboxes, equipment and then drew it from memory once he got home. These drawings were then given to underground resistance movements. He worked as a bootblack during the war at the adjacent town across the river.

After the war, he tried various jobs as a sign painter, carpenter, designer or restorer for reconstruction such as chandeliers, church pulpits, wrought ironworks, furniture, etc which were destroyed during the war. Then, he worked for the Philippine Boy Scouts as illustrator for their handbooks starting in 1946.

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

Undeterred by his lack of formal education, he applied for a job as an illustrator. His first stint as a comics illustrator started in October 1948 for Bituin Komiks (Star Comics). By November 1948, he began illustrating for the biggest publisher, Ace Publications. His contemporaries were either degree holders or had college backgrounds.

Although still considered a greenhorn, his distinct and unique style made him in demand for several titles and various publications. He was also made an editor by a competitor by 1950. Local comics were published twice a month, but due to several titles and publishers, he was doing a lot simultaneously with the same consistent quality.

In 1953, this unschooled boy had his own creation (script & art) titled “Ukala”, an American Indian adventure tale. This was adapted into a movie that same year.

He also loved history, and he created several series on the stories of Yamato, Battle of Midway, Graf Spee, Scharnhorst, PT-109 (JFK’s) and several WW2 events and battles.

Q: What was it like growing up in your home?

My dad was a strict father. But he usually [let me] tag me along to wherever he went that is permissible for a child. I never went to any of his bowling matches but saw the trophies. He was a champion bowler, not professionally. He also played the guitar and the harmonica during breaks. He also made some of my school props and even squeezed some artwork requirements needed by the school.

We usually had visitors at home. Students, artists, publishers went to visit. Artists who came were Redondo, Caravana, Castrillo, etc. The top artists at that time. They would sometimes bring their work at our house and camp for an all-nighter at our small apartment.

It would be a smoky atmosphere with discussions ranging from tv shows, movies, art techniques, music, etc. My dad was into hi-fi and loved classical music and would play music all night long. Zither music especially by Anton Karas is another favorite of his. “Third Man Theme” is a staple.

‘On some occasions, I remember going to school in the morning and seeing him still in his drawing board with no sleep yet. Sometimes I’d be interested on what he is doing on his table before I leave for school. By the time I get home in the afternoon, these drawings will be on a pile of several pages that he finished while I was at school. That would be off-limits to me since those final artworks are to be sent to either local or American Publishers. I would just wait for the comics to arrive then.

I got so accustomed to his speed that I presumed that all artist were that fast. It was only later on that I realized that he had an extraordinary speed. He can finish a minimum of 8-10 pages per day. This is also attested by a short video from DC Vault recently.

Image source: Alfred Alcala Jr.

During the afternoons, he would be doing some oil paintings for competitions or commissions. That was his respite from drawing comics.

Q: One of Alfredo’s own creations, Voltar, was a groundbreaking sword and sorcery tale involving Vikings. It didn’t predate the Conan stories, but it did predate the Conan comics. What can you tell me about that?

Alfredo had a soft spot for fantasy, sword and sorcery, and sci-fi. One is not dictated by what is normal because it is “fantasy” per se. By early 1960s, there was a workers’ strike at Ace Publication (biggest comics company then) that sparked inspiration for him and other famous illustrators, to establish a new company named “CRAF Publication”. There were no limitations and rules to create and illustrate, which was a hindrance when working for big publications.

In 1963, CRAF released the first issue of Alcala Fight Komix dated July 9. It featured the mind-blowing series “Voltar”. This was never seen before in any comics publication all over the world until that time. This style left an indelible mark and left a lot of artists in its wake.

Voltar. Image source: Diversions of the Groovy Kind

This highly detailed etching-style drawing was published every 2 weeks. Each issue was a 5-page cliffhanger with a double-page spread. The story ran for 45 issues. Voltar won several awards during its run (locally and in the US).

In 1977, a single issue was released in the US to introduce Voltar to the American market. A new adventure series was serialized by Warren in Rook magazine from 1979-1980.

Voltar vs a giant serpent. Image source: Diversions of the Groovy Kind

A few years ago, a colleague of him told me that if they copied Alcala’s style, it was a sure way to stay hungry and cannot support their families. For them, it will take several days to produce a single page of such highly detailed sequential art, and there’s the problem of looming deadlines.

As practiced usually here, most comic titles were huge sources for movie adaptations. Upon Voltar’s release in 1963, colleagues were saying that it won’t earn him much for it cannot be translated into a movie. Alfredo did not mind. He only wanted to create something that will make a timeless impression for all years to come. He wasn’t wrong on that. Then, he also adapted this style for Marvel’s Conan.

Q: Alfredo is known for his work illustrating Conan the Barbarian, as well as a host of comic book heroes from both DC and Marvel. Does anything from that part of his career stick out to you?

There are two works that immediately comes to me, aside from Conan. These are Planet of the Apes and his Batman works. He made a monowash illustration for the Planet of The Apes, which was also a first for Marvel at that time. I already liked Batman during my younger years even before he did it. With different pencilers for Batman, he always did the final artwork which made a consistent look for the different titles for almost three consecutive years.

Planet of the Apes illustration by Alfredo Alcala

But during those times, a comics illustrator was just that — an illustrator, for a juvenile crowd. I seldom mentioned his current works to my friends and classmates, since their Dads were engineers, lawyers, bankers, businessmen, doctors, etc. Alfredo was not at par with their fathers. His profession did not merit the same accord and was usually frowned upon.

A different time; a different outlook, then. Comic artists nowadays are celebrities and superstars.

Q: Alfredo is of course well-known and loved among the He-Man fan community for his work on various Masters of the Universe comics, especially the very first series released by Mattel. What can you tell me about his work on He-Man?

He was 56 years old at that time and lived in downtown Los Angeles, while we were in Manila. We had almost-daily conversations on the telephone. I was in grade 6 when he told me that one of the jobs he was working on was called “Masters”. He said it was for Mattel which I knew was Barbie’s maker. So, I never paid much attention to it.

Several months later on my way to school while riding the school bus, a younger kid was reading a small book. I can spot my dad’s art in whatever style even from afar. From several seats away, I got a glimpse of his unmistakable drawing. I borrowed the book and confirmed his name at the front cover. It was the Masters’ “Battle in the Clouds”. I told the kid it was my Dad’s work.

For me, I considered it as a mini-book because the format was the same as a children’s illustrated book. Not in a comics format. It was not sold here at that time but the kid had a relative from the US and sent him those. I never mentioned this book to my friends and classmates. It was just an attachment for a new toy line and it’s kinda small in size and scope.

Q: You mentioned on social media that you have a number of sample versions of He-Man and the Power Sword that you had gotten from your father. What can you tell me about those?

Image source: Dark Horse

A few days after seeing the actual mini-book at a school bus, my Dad called home and I said to him that I saw the “Masters”. My father always sends me art supplies, comics, etc in bulk. So when I asked him to send me copies (it wasn’t available locally yet) he sent the first four issues which included several copies of the sample prints (or artist’s proof) of the primary issue (The Power Sword). Years later, I gave some copies to some college friends who were He-man fans. A regrettable decision on my part.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

He also mentioned that he also did the colors for those initial series. He used watercolors for those. His background colors for the sky also influenced me when I was doing architectural perspectives during college and at my practice.

Of the copies I still have left with me, most are in very near mint condition. Notable at the cover is the different typeface used for the title mast head as against the official release. There’s also a slight difference with the artwork itself. Some copies were also missing the first and last pages, located at the reverse of the cover page. A watermark bearing the word “Sample” can be seen on the rebate pages.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

The original series also used card stock for its covers and thick book paper for the inside pages. When this toyline became a success, the succeeding books, in comics format, were printed on thinner glossy pages, both for the cover and content.

Also included in the package sent by my Dad were the action figures, Battle Ram, and Battle Cat in its nude form (pure black). All without any box or packaging.

Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.
An interesting prototype Teela head owned by Alfredo Alcala. This one has sculpted eyes, where the final version did not. Image courtesy of Alfred Alcala Jr.

At my age during that period, it was disappointing to receive an ugly Battle Cat because my friends will definitely poke fun at it. Buying one here in Manila when it came out was very expensive. So we never had a proper Battle Cat. It was a patched-up figure with no armor. Sort of generic. Then, my interest waned as I matured.

This Battle Cat, which I consider a prototype, is made of a different material although from the same mold as the Big Jim tiger. It was a pre-production Battlecat. It was very brittle that the tail part broke off easily.

Of Alfredo’s extensive influence and him being a prolific artist, the Masters made an impact beginning at my generation and cascaded on successively, which truly cements it as one of Alfredo’s legacies.

On a side note:

Meanwhile, back in Manila… a book entitled “History of Philippine Komiks” was released during the mid 1980s. It was a roster of all Filipino artists and writers and their works (past and current works). On my dad’s page, He-Man was not mentioned. They usually downplay my Dad’s body of works because it’s very extensive and would dwarf other artists’ achievements.

A certain illustrator in that book was bragging in his page that he was a He-man artist. The animation was already a big hit. But he never acknowledged my dad’s contribution as the pioneer. He could have been oblivious to it (which I highly doubt) or intentionally omitted it. This artist faded from my memory and unto obscurity in the MOTU world.

Thanks again to Alfred for taking the time to share this information with us! You can read the following comics illustrated by Alfredo Alcala at Vaults of Grayskull and He-Man.org:

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2 thoughts on “The Alcala legacy: An interview with Alfred Alcala Jr. (Part 1)

  1. What a great read! Very informative, and I can admit I’m practically salivating at those samples of “He-Man and the Power Sword!” It’s always good to see Voltar art; I’ve wished for years that someone would publish a comprehensive collection of Alcala’s Voltar. It’s very difficult to find any of it here.

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