Buscema is best known for his run on the series The Avengers and The Silver Surfer, and for over 200 stories featuring the sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. In addition, he pencilled at least one issue of nearly every major Marvel title, including long runs on two of the company's top magazines Fantastic Four and Thor.
He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2002.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, John Buscema showed an interest in drawing at an early age, copying comic strips such as Popeye. In his teens, he developed an interest in both superhero comic books and such classic adventure comic strips as Hal Foster's Tarzan and Prince Valiant, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. He also showed an interest in commercial illustrators of the period, such as N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, Colby Whitmore, Albert Dorne and Robert Fawcett, and in the fine arts, the Italian Renaissance artists in particular.
Buscema graduated from Manhattan's High School of Music and Art. He also took night lessons at Pratt Institute well as life drawing classes at the Brooklyn Museum. While training as a boxer, he began painting portraits of boxers and sold some cartoons to the Hobo News. Seeking work as a commercial illustrator while doing various odd jobs, Buscema found himself instead entering the comic-book field in 1948, landing a staff job under editor-in-chief and art director Stan Lee at Timely Comics, the first forerunner of Marvel Comics. The Timely "bullpen", as the staff was famously called, included such fellow staffers as established veterans Syd Shores, Carl Burgos, Mike Sekowsky, George Klein, and Marty Nodell and fledgling Gene Colan.
His first recorded credit is the seven-page story "Crime: Kidnapping! - Victim: Abraham Lincoln!" in Timely's Crime Fighters #4 (Nov. 1948). He also contributed to the "real-life" dramatic series True Adventures and Man Comics (the premiere issue of which sported Buscema's first comic-book cover), Cowboy Romances, Two-Gun Western (for which he drew at least one story of the continuing character the Apache Kid), Lorna the Jungle Queen, and Strange Tales. Until the bullpen was dissolved a year-and-a-half later, as comic books in general and superhero comics in particular continued their post-war fade in popularity, Buscema penciled and inked in a variety of genres, including crime fiction and romance fiction.
Buscema served in the U.S. Army in 1951 before receiving an honorable discharge due to ulcer. He continued to freelance for Timely, by now known as Atlas Comics, as well as for the publishers Ace Comics, Hillman Periodicals, Our Publications/Orbit, Quality Comics, St. John Publications, and Ziff-Davis.
Buscema's mid-1950s work also includes Dell Comics' Roy RogersComics #74-91 (Feb. 1954 - July 1955) and subsequent Roy Rogers and Trigger #92-97 & #104-108 (Aug. 1955 - Jan. 1956 & Aug.-Dec. 1956); and the Charlton Comics series Ramar of the Jungleand Nature Boy — the latter, Buscema's first superhero work, created by himself and Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel.
Buscema next produced a series of Western war, and sword and sandal film adaptations for Dell's Four Color series, including The Sharkfighters (#762, Jan. 1957), The Vikings (#910, June 1958), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (#944, Sept. 1958), which Buscema calls "one of the best books I ever did", and Spartacus (#1139, Nov. 1960).
He drew at least one issue of the radio, film, and TV character The Cisco Kid for Dell in 1957, as well as one- to eight-page biographies of every U.S. president through Dwight Eisenhower for that company's one-shot Life Stories of American Presidents.
During a late 1950s downturn in the comics industry, Buscema drew occasional mystery, fantasy, and science-fiction stories for Atlas Comics' Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and Strange Worlds, and American Comics Group's Adventures into the Unknown, and Forbidden Worlds before leaving comics to do freelance commercial art.
Buscema spent approximately eight years in the commercial-art field, freelancing for the Chaite Agency and the studio Triad, doing a variety of assignments: layouts, storyboards, illustrations, paperback book covers, etc. in a variety of media. Buscema called this time "quite a learning period for me in my own development of techniques".
He returned to comic books in 1966 as a regular freelance penciller for Marvel Comics, debuting over Jack Kirby layouts on the "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." story in Strange Tales #150 (Nov. 1966), followed by three "The Incredible Hulk" stories in Tales to Astonish #85-87 (Nov. 1966 - Jan. 1967). He then settled in as regular penciller of the The Avengers, which would become one of his signature series, with #41 (June 1967). Avengers #49-50, featuring Hercules and inked by Buscema, are two of his "best-looking [issues] of that period".
In order to adapt to the Marvel Comics style of superhero adventure, Buscema "synthesized the essence of [Jack] Kirby's supercharged action figures, harrowing perspectives, monolithic structures, mega-force explosions, and mythological planetscapes into a formula that he instantly integrated into his own superbly crafted vision. The process brought Buscema's art to life in a way that it had never been before. Anatomically balanced figures of Herculean proportions stalked, stormed, sprawled, and savaged their way across Marvel's universe like none had previously".
Buscema would pencil an average of two comics a month in collaboration with such inkers as George Klein, Frank Giacoia, Dan Adkins, Joe Sinnott, his younger brother Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer, and, occasionally, Marvel production manager and sometime inker-cartoonist John Verpoorten.
Among Buscema's works during this period fans and historians call the Silver Age of comic books are The Avengers #41-#62 (June 1967 - March 1969), which includes the introduction of the modern-day Vision in #57 (Oct. 1968), and The Avengers Annual #2 (Sept. 1968); the first eight issues of The Sub-Mariner (May-Dec. 1968); The Amazing Spider-Man #72-73, 76-81, 84-85 (ranging from June 1969 - June 1970), providing layouts finished by either John Romita or Jim Mooney, and two issues he himself finished over Romita layouts; and a new title, The Silver Surfer. That philosophical series about a Christ-like alien roaming the world trying to understand both the divinity and the savagery of humanity was a personal favorite of Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee, who scripted. Buscema penciled 17 of its 18 issues — the first seven as a 25¢ "giant-size" title at a time when comics typically cost 12¢. Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas said Buscema considered Silver Surfer #4 (July 1969), featuring a battle between the Silver Surfer and Thor, "as the highpoint of his Marvel work".
Toward the end of the decade, Buscema drew some fill-in issues of superhero series and also returned to familiar 1950s genres with a spate of supernatural mystery stories (in Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows), and romance tales (in My Love and Our Love). He then returned to his signature series The Avengers for 11 issues inked by Tom Palmer.
Buscema began penciling Conan the Barbarian with #25 (April 1973) following Barry Smith's celebrated run, and debuted as the Conan artist of the black-and-white comics-magazine omnibus Savage Sword of Conan with issue #1 (Aug. 1974). He would eventually contribute to more than 100 issues of each title (the former through 190, the latter through 101, then again from #190-210), giving him one of the most prolific runs for an artist on a single character.
In the mid-1970s, Buscema began opting to pencil primarily layouts (pencilled pages without the shading and rendering) as opposed to finished pencils. For about ten years, he would produce an average three to four books' worth of pencils a month. He launched the feature "Black Widow" in Amazing Adventures in 1970), and the comics Nova (1976) and Ms. Marvel (1977). In additional to his regular assignments he would pencil covers and fill-in issues of titles including Captain America, Captain Britain (Marvel UK), Daredevil, The Frankenstein Monster, Howard the Duck, Master of Kung Fu, Red Sonja and Warlock. He also drew a story for the science-fiction anthology Worlds Unknown.
Buscema contributed as well to Marvel's black-and-white comics magazines, including the features "Ka-Zar" in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971) and "Bloodstone" in Rampaging Hulk #1 (Jan. 1977), and Doc Savage #1 & 3 (Aug. 1975, Jan,. 1976). Other magazine work ran the gamut from horror (Dracula Lives!, Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie) to humor (Crazy, Pizzaz).
Buscema left Thor for a time to launch the Marvel version of Tarzan in 1977. Other licensed projects include a 72-page The Wizard of Oz movie adaptation in an oversized "Treasury Edition" format with DeZuniga inking. For Power Records, which produced children's book-and-record sets, Buscema drew Star Trek and Conan the Barbarian comics. He also contributed some superhero drawings for Pro, the NFL official magazine (1970), and pencilled some chapters of the first issue of Marvel Comics Super Special Magazine featuring the rock group Kiss (1977).
Buscema collaborated with Stan Lee on the book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (Simon & Schuster, 1978), a primer on comic-book art and storytelling. The same year saw the publication of The Art of John Buscema (S. Quartuccio, 1978), a retrospective that included an interview, previously unpublished sketches and drawings, and a cover that was also sold as a poster.
Buscema capped off the decade penciling writer Doug Moench's three-issue Weirdworld epic-fantasy tale "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" in the magazine A Marvel Super Special #11-13 (June-Oct. 1979). Pacific Comics released an accompanying portfolio of six signed, colored plates from the story.
He continued to tackle other high-profile projects such as the second Superman and Spider-Man team-up (1981), a Silver Surfer story for Epic Illustrated #1 (1980), a King Arthur story (Marvel Preview #22, 1980), an adaptation of the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the St. Francis of Assisi biography of Francis, Brother of the Universe (1980).
He left King Conan in 1982 after nine issues, although he remained with Marvel's Robert E. Howard franchise with a revival of the Kull series for 10 issues, and left The Savage Sword of Conan in 1984 with #101 with a series of stories that he plotted himself. After pencilling the Conan the Destroyer movie adaptation in 1984 and the Conan of the Isles graphic novel in 1987, he left Conan the Barbarian with #190 in 1987, ending a 14-year association with the character.
After nearly five years away from superheroes, except for the first two issues of the X-Men-related, four-issue miniseries Magik (Dec. 1983 - March 1984), Buscema returned to familiar ground as regular penciller on The Avengers from #255-300 (May 1985 - Feb. 1989). He was also regular penciller on Fantastic Four for its 300th issue, during a 15-issue stint from #296-309 (Nov. 1986 - Dec. 1987). Additionally, he also fit in the three-issue film adaptation Labyrinth (Nov. 1986 - Jan. 1987) and the four-issue miniseries Mephisto (April-July 1987), starring a character he created with Stan Lee in The Silver Surfer.
Buscema reteamed with Lee on the Silver Surfer himself with the 1988 graphic novel Silver Surfer: Judgment Day, self-inked and done entirely as full-page panels. He and inker Klaus Janson drew a Wolverine solo feature in the biweekly anthology Marvel Comics Presents #1-10 (Early Sept. 1988 - Early January 1989) and, inking himself, #38-47 (Dec. 1989 - April 1990). He pencilled the first Wolverine ongoing series, inked by Al Williamson from issues #1-6 (Nov. 1988 - April 1989), self-inked on #7-8 (May-June 1989), and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz on #10-14 (Aug. to Mid-Nov. 1989).
Buscema returned to crime fiction with The Punisher: War Zone #23-30 (Jan.-Aug. 1994, self-inking #26-29). Buscema also pencilled and inked that title's 1993 summer annual and the 1994 graphic novel A Man Named Frank, a parallel-universe Punisher Western tale. He also pencilled the Punisher portions of 1994's The Punisher Meets Archie team-up. No longer attached to a regular series after his Punisher run, he penciled and inked The Avengers Annual #23 (1994) and five more black-and-white Conan adventures, serving as that Marvel franchise's final artist on The Savage Sword of Conan with #235 (July 1995) and on the short-lived spin-off Conan the Savage with #10 (May 1996). He also provided fill-in pencil jobs on the Cosmic Powers Unlimited miniseries, Doom 2099, Fantastic Four 2099, Thor, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and a Silver Surfer/Rune special.
Buscema semi-retired in 1996 ,at age 68. He did pencils and inks on a black-and-white short story for Shadows and Light (1998) and made a final return to Conan with the Death Covered in Gold three-issue miniseries (1999). He penciled and inked The Amazing Spider-Man 1999 Annual (June 1999), penciled five of the six-issue Galactus the Devourer miniseries, and a fill-in Thor.
Buscema worked with DC Comics for the first time in 2000, initially doing both pencils and inks on a black-and-white Batman short story (Batman: Gotham Knights #7, 2000). He reunited with Stan Lee on the 2001 one-shot Just Imagine Stan Lee and John Buscema Creating Superman. He helped produce The John Buscema Sketchbook (Vanguard Production, 2001).
He finished the pencils on 2004's Superman: Blood of my Ancestors, begun by Gil Kane, who had since died, and had just signed on for a five-issue miniseries with Roy Thomas, JLA: Barbarians. Shortly after finishing the first issue, Buscema, diagnosed with stomach cancer a few months earlier, died at the age of 74. An 11x17-inch lithograph print of the late 1960s/early 1970s Avengers, penciled by Buscema and painted in watercolor by Alex Ross for the publisher Dynamic Forces, was Buscema's last professional work.
Inker Bill Sienkiewicz told on Buscema's pencil layouts: "[T]he sturdiest foundation an inker or an embellisher could possibly hope to build on, and their beauty was not in their attention to fastidiously rendered minutiae, but instead were marvels of deceptive simplicity. Each page an example of grace, elegance and power".
In 2002 and 2004, the Haxtur Awards presented a Special John Buscema Award.