Mark Bodé, 21st Century Renaissance Man
an interview with John Rovnak
Second generation underground cartoonist, tattooist, muralist, musician, teacher, husband and father; Mark Bodé’s resume is quite possibly one of the longest and most varied in all of comics. Whether he’s developing a live-action film of Cobalt 60 with director Zack Snyder, designing a footwear line for Puma International, or crisscrossing the globe with a spray can in hand; Mark could easily add the title, “The Hardest Working Man in Comics” to his growing list of accomplishments. Working professionally in comics for over half his life, Mark has dedicated himself to continuing and completing his father Vaughn’s work. And with no signs of slowing down, Mark’s genuine excitement and love for the mediums he embraces is a true testament to his father’s genius. There are no limits to what the Bodé name can and will be applied to, and that raw, “never say never” attitude is downright contagious.
This interview was conducted via email during September and October of 2010.
Special thanks to Rachael M Rollson and Joe Thomson
John Rovnak: When I hear the term “Underground Comix” two names immediately spring to mind: Vaughn Bodé and Robert Crumb. Yet, it would appear, (to my knowledge) that these two artists differ on so many levels. From the execution of their art, to their public personas, to their willingness and ambition to be seen and marketed outside the then, small world of comics. Do you feel this statement is true?
Mark Bodé: Well, I’m glad you asked that or stated that, because in my head, my father was heading the adult comics market on the east coast and Crumb was on the west coast, both receiving great attention and fame for their efforts. My father was glam rock and Crumb was a faddy duddy, so there is no comparing the two in art or in person. I believe Crumb despised my father secretly because of his good looks, but the two got along and worked in the first underground newspapers together like The Gothic Blimp and The East Village Other in the late 60s and early 70s. If my father hadn’t died at age 33, he would most certainly have embraced all mediums and been the biggest star to come out of the underground; but this wasn’t to be… Vaughn has me to follow through and make good of these plentiful worlds that he left behind. It is a joy for me to keep the characters alive like a long lost family friend who you could bring back to life to kick it with and share more stories with once again. Heart felt joy it is.
Rovnak: Who were your father’s influences?
Bodé: My father was influenced by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Walt Disney, VT Hamlin’s Alley Oop, and Wally Wood. My dad’s lizards for instance came from the duck billed dinosaur from Fantasia’s The Right of Spring, and you can also see the alligator character from Pogo was an influence on his lizards.
Rovnak: Besides your father, who are yours?
Bodé: I love most of the artists that draw wonderful women like Milo Manara, Leon Frollo, and Serpieri. My favorite undergrounders were Greg Irons and Jack Jaxon who were great visual artists and storytellers. Moebius is also a favorite full vision artist.
Rovnak: We’ve seen the Crumb documentary and the American Splendor docu-drama do rather well for both Hollywood and the comics industry as a whole; why hasn’t there been a Bodé movie yet? Will we ever? If so, is there a director that you can imagine doing your father’s story justice?
Bodé: There was talk of a biography but there just isn’t enough footage of my father to do it properly. The best would be a full blown movie with actors etc. we will see if that happens after Zack Snyder does Cobalt 60 as a live action movie that might peak the interest in such a project after he blows up the Bodé property.
Rovnak: What (if anything) are you currently reading? (comic or non-comic)
Bodé: I just read X-Women by Chris Claremont and Milo Manara. That was a combo I didn’t expect! I’m about to read Moby Dick as I am working on a gigantic Moby Dick mural in West Oakland. Its like 40 x 100 feet and I must poor myself into the mural as I do it. I want to get the mood of the book on the wall.
Rovnak: Have you read Moby Dick before? Do you usually enjoy “classics literature,” or do you find that it’s not your cup of tea?
Bodé: No. I’ve seen the movie many times but never read the book. I’ve enjoyed The Hobbit and books like that but I don’t read a whole lot. I’m more of a imaginary person, I get inspiration from fantasizing.
Rovnak: I’m imagining a line of “Bodé Classics Illustrated.” Do you think that this Moby Dick piece might inspire more Bodé interpretations of literary classics?
Bodé: I’ve always wanted to illustrate The Wind and the Willows. It seems like a natural for our style. If I only had time to do anything but Bodé stories I would, but my father left a huge amount of unfinished stories and I’m committed to that in this life, at least so far.
Rovnak: How does the process for a 40 x 100 foot mural begin?
Bodé: I begin with what I want to paint and I pitch it to the CEO of the recycling plant, so far he loves what I want to do and says go for it. I show him a small thumbnail and we go from there. Then I hold the drawing up to one eye from across the street and blow it up with the other eye and look for land marks like cracks and bolts that will give me a scale of where to begin on the wall. Then I start to outline the mural with a light spray can color like light blue that is easy to cover or correct then the block in process begins.
Rovnak: Who approaches you?
Bodé: Being a Bodé opens many doors, I rarely have to ask permission. I did a free mural about 9’ x 30’ feet in a rather dingy area of West Oakland on my high school art teachers property as a favor, and they had a neighborhood meeting where everyone gave me praise for my efforts. The CEO of one of the biggest recycling plants in the bay area was at that meeting and he said, “Mark, I got walls, let’s go for a drive.” He showed me blocks and blocks of walls he owned. So I started with him and we worked a budget for each section. Its not a get rich kind of gig but the press is off the hook. I started feeling like the press was following my every move. I’ve been in the San Francisco Chronicle five times this year and the San Francisco section of The New York Times once as well. So the murals are a give to the public and receive back in notoriety kind of gig.
Rovnak: How much input do you have in the subject matter?
Bodé: Complete input. I take into consideration what the people might like to see and I am considerate of the families etc in those hoods, but I am not told what to paint unless they want to pay me to listen, then I might paint it if its not a militant or political agenda kind of image. Too many militant agenda murals have been painted and it all says the same crap: let me rub my ethnic prowess in your segregated face, or I’m rebelling against the man, or what have you. So over done. Such a negative way of portraying slain heroes. It does make me reflect on the society that killed those people and may make me feel segregated by color, which in my opinion is not a feel good kind of premise. If the work is for supplies and momentary expenses, I decide what goes up and what I want to paint there and it’s always an escape from reality and a positive theme.
Rovnak: Are there lots of hoops to jump through to even get to the stage of you applying paint to the wall?
Bodé: No, it’s quick it may take me an hour to sketch what I want to do, and then I might do some detail sketches as I go. But I’m a fast drawer and a fast painter. I can paint a 20’ x 10’ section of wall with two helpers in a matter of hours as rolling in the backgrounds and spray-painting over the top is fast. I feel sorry for some of the artists that use brushes; they must spend months on a wall that will only take me a day or two.
Rovnak: How many murals have you completed to date?
Bodé: A few dozen over the last 6 years or so. Not all of them were my design. Some are tributes to my father like the ones I did in London and Barcelona and in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Rovnak: Are the majority of them in the San Francisco area?
Bodé: Most of the permanent ones are. The others are probably covered by other muralists by now.
Rovnak: Low Brow Art encompasses an approach that is more connected to “a youthful mind,” that is, one that continues to question/ rebel/ seek out alternate perceptions; do you consider yourself part of the Low Brow art scene?
Bodé: When I hear Low Brow I immediately think of Robert Williams who knew my father back in the underground comix hay day. Our work is nothing like Robert’s, although our subject matter can cross those borders at times. I grew up in the underground comix scene and started doing adult comix when I was 11 years old. My father called me the youngest underground comix artist in America, and I was for a short time I’m sure. But as you get older, you loose such titles. Low Brow at times, but underground for sure.
Rovnak: Your main mediums: comics, mural/graffiti, tattoo are akin to this scene and are very accessible; Has moving to the Low Brow epicenter (of California, both LA and the Bay Area range qualify) changed the way you make work or how you showcase it?
Bodé: I’ve lived half my life in New York state and New England, and half in California. I recently moved back to the Bay Area and things started to change immediately as thou my father’s spirit was waiting for my return so we could play ball with the big boys. I have a deal with Universal for a Cobalt 60 movie that is to be directed by Zack Snyder who is really pumped on doing a live action Cobalt 60 movie. Somehow, big things just seem to flow into my plate in San Francisco. Mural work has been almost like point and paint and I have no problem getting walls and buildings to paint on. I’m painting an entire recycling plant in West Oakland at the moment, literally blocks and blocks of canvas. I start a 3 story piece depicting Moby Dick destroying Ahab’s clipper ship 2/3 scale of the actual size; I’m very excited to go big like that. I recently painted a church in the Mission; that was something I didn’t expect I’d be doing. The press seems to pick up on all my antics as I’ve been in the Chronicle five or six times this year and the NY Times as well. Seems San Fran is the place to showcase if you’re a Bodé.
Rovnak: How did the tattooing medium come into play for you? Has it changed the way you interact with your other mediums? Do you prefer tattoo conventions or comic conventions?
Bodé: It’s not too unlike spray can art. I was irked into the medium by artists imitating our characters and I was like, “Hey I should be able to do that as well if not better then others as I am from the well from which this stuff comes from.” I would see Bodé inspired tattoos and think I could do that; in fact I have to do that, as there is another market for my work. It’s survival and it’s eating the food that was intended for my table. Even Sailor Jerry himself used Cheech Wizard on his stencils! Being bit by Sailor Jerry is something most all tattooists won’t be able to claim fame to, but we can. Tattooing is the hardest medium to truly master as the variables are endless and the kinds of skin can range drastically, imagine drawing a straight line on a rubber wall that’s moving and flinching and complaining. I have big respect for the masters of that medium and I consider myself a dam good tattooer but I leave the master credit to the artists that live and breath tattooing. It has taught me to be a mimic of styles and when I go back to Bodé art, I can’t help but to have those other style influences creep into what I’m doing and improve my work with each difficult tattoo I do. About conventions: I’ve been going to comic-cons since I was little so I can’t count how many shows I‘ve been to (in the thousands, I’m sure). Tattoo-cons are very hard work and you have to be real creative with how you position your customer, its always seemed awkward to me but I love the adult crowd that tattoo-cons attract. I’ve been to a few dozen tattoo-cons I tend to go to the exotic ones rather then the local tattoo conventions. If I have to choose one or the other it would be comic-cons as I can sit back and sign books and sell art (that I have already made) and make more money with less physical work. Who wouldn’t choose more money with less work, but big props to those who work their tattoo machines from morning into the wee hours of the night; those people are the shit!! .
Rovnak: Any favorite local or contemporary artists? Anyone you would enjoy collaborating with?
Bodé: I have been in touch with the graffiti geniuses, The Osgemeos Brothers, from Brazil and they have wanted to paint with me for a long time now. They came to my house in San Francisco a year or so ago and painted a masterpiece for me and my wife in under an hour. Four hands are better then two for fucking sure. I traded art with them, but it took me three hours to their one hour of paint time and I consider myself a fast painter. We still have yet to collaborate but when we do, it will be unleashing like a fantastical beast, maybe with breasts, eight feet tall from top to bottom. [Laughs] In comics the people I would most want to work with have passed on already. My father Vaughn, Greg Irons, and Jack Jaxon to name a few. Alive I would want to work with Milo Manara, William Stout or my dads buddy, Bernie Wrightson.
Rovnak: How did your relationship with Mirage Studios, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) property begin? And did you ever find it to an odd fit for an underground cartoonist and the Bodé name?
Bodé: I meet Kevin Eastman in San Diego at the comic con around 1985 or 1986 and he said he was heavily influenced by my dads work; you can see in the hands and feet of the turtles that my father’s characters were an influence there. I had just came out with Miami Mice and it was a huge hit for me. I asked Kevin if he wanted to jam on the final issue and he did and we became good friends and I worked on three issues of the original turtle series after moving out to Northampton where the TMNT compound was located. That being said, Bodé was a natural fit and Kevin was way into underground comics so we were very happy to work together not to mention it was very profitable for all involved.
Rovnak: If my memory serves me correctly, in the early to mid 1990’s, you were working on a proposed project for Marvel in which there properties were re-imagined in an adult/Bodé style. Did this project ever exist? How far did it progress? And what happened to it?
Bodé: Yes, I proposed to Marvel a Bodé Iron Man story where Iron Man vs. Venom and I had Rick Veitch write the story and it was an awesome collab and I thought my drawings were brilliant and so did the editor at Marvel at the time. Unfortunately they took the premise and the idea and had the bullpen do it in issue 300 of Iron Man. I was disappointed to say the least but I had grown to expect that when toying with a property that is owned by a huge company like Marvel. I would still do it if they offered but it takes so long for me to do a whole comic book that I can’t see working on anything but more Cobalt 60 which will be bank when the movie comes out. And I own Cobalt, at least the comic rights, as Universal will own everything else related to the movie.
Rovnak: What or who introduced you to the art of tattooing?
Bodé: After the TMNT coach started coming to a slow halt, I came to a point where I was still in a small town in western Mass and needed a money flow besides comics. I meet a Cheech Wizard fan named Al Valenta who was a tattooist and he mentioned he would teach me if I wanted to learn, this seemed like a perfect way to roll my abilities into another field.
Rovnak: Did you apprentice under anyone? And if so, for how long? Any good apprenticing stories?
Bodé: Yes, I did apprentice but my first tattoo ventures were out of my house under Al’s supervision. When time came to tattoo someone I said, “Well what do I start on, chicken or grapefruits? ” Al answered “Drunk people! Lets go down to the local watering hole.” So we went down to the Ye Old watering hole and announced, “Who wants a free tattoo by Bodé?” And the hands went up and that’s how I got started, I later apprenticed in Connecticut at a shop, as it was still illegal in 1994 where I lived in Massachusetts.
Rovnak: Amongst the impressive numbers of Californian tattoo artists; are there any who influence your tattoo style? Why?
Bodé: Well that’s a hard call cause I don’t run with tattoo circles outside of the shop I’m working in. I tend to hang out with Comic artists and Satanists. [Laughs] But that’s the truth. If I picked any tattooist to give credit to it would be Greg Irons who was very nice to me when I would run into him at Last Gasp parties back in the late 70s early 80s. He was so sweet and encouraging to me back in the day before he passed. I’ve dedicated my back piece to him. I have an Irons mariner ghost ship on my back. A friend, KC Angel, is tattooing it on me and we are about 2/3 done with it. Greg also had a great line style that I was always attracted to even as a young boy reading Slow Death; I loved his stuff always.
Rovnak: Do you get a lot of comics fans coming to you for “Bodé,” who might not normally be into tattoos?
Bodé: When I’m on the road doing guest spots all I do is Bodé characters. But when I’m in a shop, I tend to do the hard to do detail stuff, and cover-ups. As I have a very good eye for detail and because of my illustrative background, I come up with some very creative cover-ups. So I tend to do that the most in the shops I work in, once in awhile I’ll get a Bodé piece to do and I always enjoy doing a Bodé Broad or a lizard or Cheech it just comes with the territory and being a Bodé that tattoos.
Rovnak: I recently just re-read Cobalt 60, and I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time envisioning it as a live-action film. It clearly lends itself to animation, but that’s not the plan, right?
Bodé: When I started drawing Cobalt 60 I was 19 I finished the story 10 years or so later. In the early 80s, CGI was in its infancy and George Lucas was the only one doing it. I had fantasized about Cobalt in live action riding a stegosaurus-looking-steed and shooting Radio Soldiers. I always saw this stuff as real in my head and I wondered what Lucas would do with these ideas. Almost 30 years later, when Zack Snyder called my house to explain what he wanted to do, I saw exactly the same thing. I told him that things need to be changed in the story and Cobalt needs to be darker and more frightening in the live action version. The thing that will make it a classic is you have Cobalt all serious and brooding and he has to deal with these very cartoony looking enemies, which make violence even more palatable, very much like Army of Darkness or Road Warrior. Cobalt’s world is a Road Warrior world if you can’t see the similarities then I’d put the books down and wait for the movie because our style is very anime looking and can be confusing to one who takes it too literal, but the essence of the material is a real world like Mad Max’s’ world.
Rovnak: Do you have confidence that it can be done correctly in live-action? Was it a hard sell?
Bodé: No, I was relieved when he said he wanted it live action. I thought to myself finally someone who sees what my father and I saw. It’s magic in action once again.
Rovnak: Were you a fan of Zack Snyder’s work previously to Cobalt 60 being optioned?
Bodé: When Zack called I wasn’t such a movie buff that I knew who he was, he mentioned he was working on a movie with Frank Miller called 300 and it didn’t ring a bell. I had seen the Dawn of the Dead remake that he did but didn’t put him together with that film till my wife and I googled his name and all the pieces of the puzzle came together. That same year I was excepting the Eisner Hall of Fame Award for my dad at the San Diego Con and Frank Miller was there with his arms full of awards and I asked him so what’s up with Zack Snyder and you? Ya know he wants to do a movie with our material? And Frank replied, “Mark, you’re with an angel who never looses his head on the set and he won’t ruin your property. You couldn’t be in better hands.” That being said I wait for the day when it goes into preproduction I hear Zack is doing Superman next, then the 300 sequel, then Cobalt 60 if all goes as planned! Just hope Batman doesn’t get in the way! I got competition with very good company. Magic does happen, this I’m sure, just ask Cheech.
Rovnak: You recently attended the Comic book Biennial in Le Havre, France. What can you tell me about this?
Bodé: Yes, it was the first time our work has been exhibited in France as far as I know as my father did a slide show in the Louvre in Paris in late ‘74 and packed the ballroom there. The excitement seems to have resonated all these years as I was received with open arms and a very excited public. The event you can see on line www.artslehavre.com and was run by Jean Marc Thevenet and Linda Morren .The group show was an amazing tribute to the story telling abilities of the artists involved and I was proud to be in such a show. Because we were coming from so far away we were featured in many of the talks and lectures at the openings. I also spearheaded a Bodé graffiti tribute where fifteen French graffiti artists and myself did a 200 foot long mural dedicated to my dad. It was rather wet weather but we got through it and the production came out great. Later we had dinner with Jean Marc and his wife Linda and he announced it was time for a major museum exhibition of Bodé work in Paris. The French people consider my father’s passing in 1975 as the very birth of graffiti art from the bubble letters he drew to the characters and their look. His work inspired the birth of graffiti art and now that you are continuing his works and using spray cans this is an amazing opportunity for an exhibit in Paris. He said there will be a big budget for the instillation of the show and I will be on hand to design the rooms with the sculptors and electricians; a hardcover book will also be produced to come out for the opening. I know my dad is smiling up there as I never expected a major museum show to come from this, I was shooting for a gallery gig at best but magic does happen and my father and his material prove that to me on a regular basis.
Rovnak: Have you been performing the Bodé Cartoon Concert recently? If so, where and when. If not, why?
Bodé: From 1987 to 1998 I hit pretty hard with the slide show doing conventions and colleges and even nightclubs but I kind of peaked out when I opened for Gwar in the late 90s in Atlanta at Dragon Con. I felt that a thousand plus people chanting, “Gwar Gwar Gwar,” and me doing a solo comedy act was near suicidal. I did tame and entertain that crowd with my X rated material but my fathers material being R rated started loosing them. Every time I got to one of pop’s pieces the murmuring got louder and louder to the point I thought the crowd would turn on me. Then I would get to another hard-core comic strip and they would quite up and start laughing again. At the end of my 40-minute set Gwar came out and shouted, “Bodé you plagiarize everyone!!!” And they mock killed me with a blood bag and dragged me off stage and the crowd rushed the stage. The members of Gwar said I was the most successful opening act they had ever had (most being booed off stage after their first song or two) never the less I’ve never been so alone and scared in my life and I didn’t do the Cartoon Concert as much after that event. Mainly because I realized it needed to go digital so I could read the crowd and skip strips that were not appropriate. I haven’t had the time to scan all the slides, file, and type in the dialogues. It’s too time consuming a project I’m looking for a computer wiz that wants to trade for artwork to do it for me, if there is any takers out there contact me. I did the Cartoon Concert for a closing party at The Bodé Show at 1 AM gallery last summer in San Francisco to about fifty heads and it still had people rolling in laughter. There still is nothing like it in the comics industry. The San Diego Comicon won’t let me perform it at any of their conventions anymore because of the content, and I’ve had bad experiences with renting projectors since it’s a bygone technology. Once in a blue moon, I’ll brush off the carousels and take it for a spin for a few lucky folks.
Rovnak: Whether it’s the Cartoon Concerts, mural events, tattooing, or just comic conventions, the Bodé’s seem to be “showmen.” This is a rarity in comics; our industry doesn’t have many outspoken talents; ones who can rattle the cage a bit, or ones who push many envelopes. The music industry has them, the book industry has them, and the film industry has them. Why not comics?
Bodé: There are many degrees of being an entertainer. I figure whenever a comic artist draws in front of people at benefits or auctions it’s a showman thing. The flash, the style, the quickness. But really no one goes for a full-blown stage show or stand-up routine like my father and I have done. My dad hated being a hermit, day in and day out over a drawing board, never seeing the public’s reaction to the hard work being done. So after some thought he came up with pictography format which had the balloons separate from the panels so he could do a reading of the art without having people read ahead of you. A kind of ultra cheap animation if you will. I took it on as I saw it as another promotional tool that kept us in the public eye and I understood the voices and genetically I have the same voice as my father. All these showmen acts are promotional tools which adds up to making a living as an artist… When I do a mural I send out a press release and make sure it’s a media event, spray can murals can unfold before your eyes unlike brush painted murals which take lots of time… so its exciting to watch an artist or artists get down with spray cans. I’m unsure why there are not more performing comic artists out there, it comes down to its a solitaire business and you get used to being a hermit and just showing up at conventions when you want to come out of that shell.
Rovnak: Other than the Bodé name, I really struggle to think of any. Do you agree that the comics industry could stand to be turned on its head a bit more? What will it take?
Bodé: Winsor McKay had it. He would project his animations of Gerdy the Dinosaur and stand behind the screen and do the voices, he invented that shit, we didn’t …and then there was the magic lantern where a performer would use projection to convey stories in front of a gaslight and do voices. It’s an old concept just rarely used these days.
Personally I’m disappointed in the comics market. The underground comix field which I was raised in has all but vanished in American comics. It has become “alternative,” which is watered down underground, a conformist path so you can be censored or censor yourself and still be proud about yourself like you said something personal but you didn’t get to draw anyone fucking; you wanted to draw fucking but you couldn’t. That’s what alternative means to me. The only person(s) who really are still cranking out undergrounds are Crumb and maybe Bobby London, who still does Dirty Duck strips for Playboy. These days most American publishers will avoid underground material all together unless it has the name Crumb on it; it spells publishing death to a publisher with any other name. We need a self-publishing resurgence of freedom of speech, like a renaissance of creativity and storytelling. Man, I feel for the younger comic artists that never experienced the excitement that there was in the late 60s and early 70s. When a comic artist could say and print what one wanted to. The excitement in the air was amazing! I was a little too young to be part of that movement, but I was born and raised into it and it was thrilling to see the glow and excitement in everyone’s eyes back then. I’m still trying to keep that excitement alive, and I will always be an underground artist whether it’s the underground urban art of graffiti, or the underground comic artist. I was born into it, and I will proudly carry that flag to the grave.
All images © Mark Bodé
Interview © John Rovnak