Building Stories: an interview with Dean Motter

This interview was conducted over the phone on May 21, 2013.


John Rovnak: So, do you ever tire of talking about Mister X?

Dean Motter: Not really. I’m afraid I get repetitive with the people I’m talking to, but since I’m still working on the character and the books, I enjoy it and I’m constantly generating new ideas, and more importantly, new explorations into that world. After thirty years though, it still surprises me sometimes that I have the enthusiasm. Part of that is due to the fact that the new books seem to be reaching a new audience and a whole new generation of readers that actually like it. I’m not just reaching the people that remember Mister X from the eighties, or people that may have heard of it in passing. But I’ve gotten several emails from people who were born just around the time Mister X was created. [laughs]

Rovnak: That’s got to feel a bit strange.

Motter: It’s strange, but it’s really quite flattering. The zeitgeist of the eighties was that it was a “brave new world”, with a future that would be ruled by the young. Meaning us. That was the attitude in music art and the comics. So, to not only have readers from Generations X, Generation Y and the millennials… well, it means that the character has some timeless quality after all. And it does makes me feel younger than my years. [laughs]

Rovnak: A lot has been said and written about Mister X over the years, from its creative history, its influence, to its place in comics history. But for those who don’t know, in your own words, can you explain the origins of Mister X starting with the infamous promotional poster campaign?

Motter: It’s funny you mention that poster campaign. When my collaborator on the book, Paul Rivoche, and myself signed with Vortex Comics to do Mister X, they wanted to do a proactive promotion and they took out ads in the trades and other independently published comic books like Ms Tree, Dalgoda and some of the Fantagraphics books. But we also did a year-long poster tease campaign. Every three or four months Vortex would release a poster that I had designed and Paul had illustrated; trying to build up the mystique and anticipation of it all without wanting to give too much of it away. We didn’t want it to be like a big comprehensive ad, but more like a movie ad campaign that you might see today. Right now I’m in the process of collecting those posters, as well as some of the covers, into a poster book that might, hopefully, be out in time for the holidays. The posters are very difficult to come by these days. They were distributed to book stores at the time, free, and each comic book store may have gotten a couple. Wall space then wasn’t as much of a premium as it is now, and a lot of those posters not only got displayed but also ripped off, [laughs] so we had to go back to press a few times at the request of the retailers. But they wanted to have that poster up, they had space devoted to it and they didn’t want to just put up a poster for the next mainstream comic or something which looked more like a handbill. These were things you could look at as a piece of art in the store. We were gratified with that. Basically, having been I had been the art director at CBS records in Canada at the time I was using principles I was using in the music marketing business. Creating point-of-sales material for bands and record release campaigns was a big part of my job. I tried to bring whatever expertise I had into what was at that time, little more then a hobby of mine: comic books. My day job was still designing packaging and promotions for the music business; anyway that’s where the posters came from. The comic was partly a product of the times. We were sort of on the heels of Heavy Metal and American Flagg! and Ronin. It was the year that Watchmen was about to come out, and The Dark Knight Returns. There was a real renaissance in the comic book business largely brought on by the direct market, but also by a confluence of events that shaped the talent of people like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. There was the influence of some of the British comics Judge Dredd. that were being imported and reprinted. They were very heady times. Halcyon days!

Rovnak: With regards to the book itself: Was it your concept, or was it a shared concept between you and Paul?

Motter: Basically the concept was mine… the initial character design and all.  But it really came to life with Paul’s visualization, whom I was lucky enough to already be working with. He’s a brilliant designer and illustrator and has a very native talent for environments, places, worlds. He was working in the animation business and doing mostly backgrounds, environments and such. We were sharing a studio at the time.  He had done some work for Andromeda, a Canadian ‘ground-level’ comic (ala Star*Reach) which i art directed and co-edited.  So he gravitated towards this project. I sometimes compare his role to that of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie’s in Star Wars, but as we kibitzed he also prodded my imagination, and offered conceptual suggestions. I had originally conceived of the project as a combination of the then-obscure film Metropolis with a Sam Spade/Dick Tracy type of hero. A gumshoe in the city of the future. A mystery series that was set in a science fiction version of a noir era, as opposed to, say, Blade Runner which is definitely set in a future that projects from our own era. It began to evolve as we designed his world. I found as I began to write the first story of a detective, it was too derivative and I was falling back into some clichés without actually revelling in them. I was writing plot outlines that were “crazy quilt” stories of other noir and science fiction stories. They didn’t really have their own voice yet. It took stepping back from it, working with Paul and also what was largely with the support of the artistic community that I was part of. It became apparent that, “What if the protagonist wasn’t a detective per say, but something else?” That led to him being an architect, and it blossomed after that. At that point we were ready to begin illustrating the book – we finally had a script I was happy with. We began putting the books together and the first issue was pretty much pencilled out. At that point Paul was becoming  somewhat exhausted from developing the property for so long, and we were running into artistic disagreements. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to delay the project such that the publisher felt that he had to find another artistic solution. So reluctantly I agreed when he said that he wanted to bring on another artist. He was looking at the Hernandez Brothers, and while I was a little reluctant, I loved their work. I thought “if they’re able to put the character and his world onto a page, then let’s do it, let’s get the book out.” We were lucky enough that they came aboard for the first four issues, and helped to make it the success it was right out of the box. They already had a certain amount of heat with their book, Love & Rockets, so that was a fortuitous set of circumstances. So that’s where it came from. Paul stayed on for most of the covers- which were every bit as brilliant as his poster work. Mister X was a central part of that crop of books like Watchmen and Dark Knight, and other  titles that are regarded as “vanguard” books of the 1980s.

Rovnak: Did you consider taking on the art chores yourself at the point that Paul Rivoche was leaving?

Motter: I did. But my day job, my studio was one of the busiest music business design outfits in Canada at the time-was too taxing. As long as I could art direct, script or have editorial control of the scripts and do the occasional cover I was happy. I was happy that my vision was being preserved,

Rovnak: I’ve discovered recently that people either love or hate Mister X. What’s your response to those who accuse Mister X of being all image and no substance?

Motter: I’ve heard that. I think in retrospect that the problem was that the poster campaign and the covers were playing to my strengths as a promotional designer, so we were promising a lot. And what was ultimately delivered was probably a little more nascent than what people would have liked. People, as you say, either loved it, or it left them cold. I went to great lengths to create comic books that would appeal equally to comic and non-comic book readers alike. That was an issue at the time, if you can believe it. Something easy to read, where one didn’t have to be familiar with the vernacular of the comic book page, or the history of comic book art or be well-versed in a complex epic backstory– all of which were de rigueur at the time. If you could read the Sunday funnies, or the indie strip in your free weekly paper, then you could read Mister X. I wanted to reach a broad pop culture audience, and not a contemporary comic book audience. So, I was taking on a lot. It was very ambitious at the time in that respect. But, I think, it did meet up to its vision. It might sound contradictory to say that part of the plan, the big overview of the story, was to make it a somewhat Byzantine in terms of its plot line. But I didn’t want it so confusing that people would be turned off from it instantly. Taking my cues more from Thomas Berger (Little Big Man, Arthur Rex) than Frank Miller. It was a challenge, but I think we did quite well. I can understand why, at the time some of the more contemporary comic readers were probably a little less satisfied with it. That said, we did have quite a good following among comic book readers and a very good following among comic book professionals. I was quite surprised at how many editors at DC and Marvel were fans, and how many letters we got from them, and other artists as well. It was fairly easy when we approached different artists to provide artwork for covers, like Bill Sienkiewicz, or Michael Kaluta or Howard Chaykin or Mitch O’Connell. They knew the book, and they liked it. We certainly weren’t offering them the kind of money so that they could drop what they were doing. They seemed to be doing it for their own gratification as all as the exposure. It was definitely an exercise in marketing, and we couldn’t anticipate how it was going to be received by the public.

Rovnak: Marketing comics at that point in time was somewhat new too, wouldn’t you agree?

Motter: Oh yes, it was definitely untested territory. There were no success stories to go by. Everybody did it differently. Cerebus, Ronin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and American Flagg! were as different as you could get in terms of marketing and exposure. You couldn’t use any of them as a case study for what we were doing. We were blazing our own trails at that point.

Rovnak: Where do you ideas come from? Do they come easily?

Motter: They come a lot easier now then they did then, because at the time I was definitely trying to address a very rigid model for his city and his world. But the more I got into exploring the retro-futuristic world that this took place in, the more fun I found in it. There were more questions and crazy concepts that one could advance as everyday technology or occurrences–or whatever. To this day I still troll the Internet for retro-futuristic or vintage-futuristic graphics and concepts–old copies of Popular Science magazine, stills from forgotten films, vintage toys and clippings. It’s a wonderful mash-up. Classic film noir– there is no shortage of unknown or under-appreciated noir films. They always churn up a new set of images. I want the ideas to seem fresh, but I want them to seem familiar at the same time. I want the readers to feel like they already understand this place. It’s always a little retro and it’s always a little futuristic but it’s never so much one or the other that they get lost in the stylistic rendition of it. The story still has to be there and it has to be a compelling and fun story as well as hopefully a thought-provoking one.

Rovnak: It’s rather ambitious to not only set out to create a character, but an entire city and environment for him. You weren’t dropping the character into a backdrop, but instead drawing the backdrop forward and making that the focal point. The city becomes the character.

Motter: Yeah. It was always intended to be that way. What made Mister X different, in my mind, wasn’t his appearance or his mission. Every character has those attributes. It was his relationship to his world. So it all has to seem exotic and familiar at the same time. You have to know what the ground rules were without too much homework. Even in the current version I’m working on now, I’m exploring the politics of the city, and the different industrial, bureaucratic and criminal subcultures within the city. And it’s all kind of cut from new cloth but I’m hoping it seems familiar enough that people don’t feel that they have to go back and reread all, or any of the previous issues to get a handle on it.

Rovnak: What’s your relationship to architecture? Do you have any sort of formal background in architecture at all?

Motter: I studied theoretical architecture in college, which had more to do with buildings that weren’t going to be built, cities that were never going to be constructed. But there were several architects working in that field of study at the time: Lebbeus Woods, Frank Gehry, and there were plenty of writings by men like Frank Lloyd Wright and those from the Bauhaus era. I am fascinated by that design aesthetic—the history of architecture, especially modern, post-Industrial-revolution architecture. So I come by it honestly. I can’t say that I’m an architectural expert but the better part of my library probably consists of strange eras of architecture which span from the Winsor McCay, Hugh Ferris eras to Willy Ley’s or even Syd Mead’s space age. Every time I open one of those books I find something to either sneak into Mister X or to get me thinking along a certain line.

Rovnak: Mister X has always been a collaborative effort. You’ve worked with an amazing roster of artists and co-creators. But these days, it’s all you. Do you prefer it that way?

Motter: It is a solo act now. And I do prefer it at the moment. But I love collaborating with other artists. I don’t always feel I’m the best illustrator for the things I may have written, or the things I may be working on. I may have written a script that might be better in the hands of somebody who stylistically can handle an era or a character or the nature of the story. But in the case of Mister X, I’m so completely familiar with it after all this time. Plus, computer technology now makes it possible for me to do all the duties from writing to lettering to inking to coloring. So I no longer require a production line or staff. The help of an occasional assistant is useful but it’s not necessary for me now. In trying to reboot the character and the franchise I find that I have enough new stories in me that I am dying to tell and it’s much easier for me to do it myself how rather than to try to acquaint someone new to my idiosyncrasies or to get them on the same page. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of people who I don’t think would do a wonderful version of Mister X. The character definitely has a life of his own now, but technology is a huge part of why I do it solo now, and Dark Horse has been very encouraging of this being a book where I can legitimately put my name above the title and, in effect make this a brand I can put forward. I would compare it, without trying to be pretentious, to Mike Mignola and Hellboy. While it’s his series, he’s happy to put it in capable hands, like Corben or Fergado, when the occasion warrants it. I hope the day will come when I can take a break [laughs] and pass along a couple of issues of Mister X to Darwyn Cooke, Francesco Francavilla or Guy Davis. Maybe even Paul Rivoche.

Rovnak: Are you creating all of the new artwork digitally or are you still pencilling and inking the art before taking it to the coloring stage?

Motter: It’s a little bit of both. I still pencil on paper, and then I ink on a drafting vellum and scan that. Once I have the scan in place, I do a lot more work in Photoshop and Illustrator. Not just cleaning it up, I move things around, replace images, tone things in various ways. I haven’t mastered the digital pad yet. It’s still a little bit like drawing on a piece of wet glass for me. I need to train myself more. But I’m happy with this process because it allows me to do modify my artwork that in the past would have prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Those old traditional production methods I’m trained in seem brutal yet quaint by today’s standards. But I can do all of that now on the machine in front of me, so it gives me a lot more flexibility. The downside to this is that I now don’t have that much in the way of original art to sell. I have all these tracings and overlays of one kind or another. I’ve actually taken to cutting the artwork apart and just selling panels in a frame. If there’s a particularly nice panel of Mister X or Mercedes in the city, I can now put that in a mat and sell that and make a little bit of coin, but nowhere near what I could make off of a very sexy full page. That’s the downside. On the upside, I get speed and flexibility. What can I say? It’s another effect of working and living in the future [laughs].

Rovnak: During your work on DC’s The Prisoner, I noticed that Rob Walton was credited as an art assistant. What was Rob’s role? Do you often use an assistant?

Motter: During that period, Rob was working at my studio as kind of an intern. He was helping out, not just on the comic book work, but with the general graphic design and illustration work we were doing. I met him through our local comic book store and he was one of those talents that was irresistible. His enthusiasm was obvious, and his skill level was certainly there, so I brought him in on the book to basically ghost me when needed. Since that was my first big project for DC Comics, and a pretty prestigious one, I couldn’t afford to experiment too much with my deadlines. It meant having a second set of hands. Rob ghosted several panels, either doing backgrounds or long figure shots or something like that. That was true up until the fourth issue where I was getting a little bit overbooked in my other work, and I said, “Rob, why don’t you do a couple of these pages? You know what the drill is. You know where the story is going. You know the script. You’ve been working on the book long enough now, you can go to town. I trust you.” So he did some wonderful pages. [laughs] Actually a couple of the more memorable ones in the final book. He was one of those people who was a delight to work with. Not only just in terms of his professionalism and skills, but his sense of humor is rather infectious. He was a good person to have around and rely on. He went onto his own provocative Ragmop comics soon after he left the studio.

The Prisoner by Dean Motter, with art assistance by Rob Walton (1988) 


Rovnak: Mister X is the trademark of Vortex Comics Inc. I always assumed Mister X was your property. It seems, to me, the name Dean Motter and Mister X are synonymous. So who is Vortex Comics Inc?

Motter: Vortex is a company which is still owned by William Marks. It’s not acting as a publisher any longer. He’s gone on to become a motion picture producer in Canada, but the company still retains the ownership of the issues it published. But we’ve come to a contractual agreement wherein I’m the one controlling it. I own all the rights to the new work. We had a few legal issues to settle when I left Vortex. We were moving in different professional directions. Bill was also the business manager of my graphics studio at the time, so we were inextricably connected on some legal levels that took us several years to disentangle. But we did eventually and it was resolved. It was a very complicated but very amiable divorce.

Rovnak: Recently artist Jerry Ordway spoke online about his experiences with ageism with publishers in the comics industry. He said on his blog, “I want to work, I don’t want to be a nostalgic act, remembered only for what I did 20, 30 years ago.” What’s your response to that? Do you agree the comics market is a hard market place for the aging creator, or is this an isolated incident?

Motter: To a degree, yes. Age can be a problem, especially for those of us from that “Peter Pan generation” that wasn’t totally convinced it would ever grow old. Harvey Kurtzman once remarked to me. “Comics are a young man’s game” (read “person” for “man”.) And that’s not just the pay rate and the hours. The problem today is that, in terms of the major publishers, the number of profitable titles that are available is dwindling. And the talent pool is growing exponentially. There’s a larger number of very talented creators. So the competition is pretty fierce. It’s much more difficult to be the flavor-of-the-month and have a marquee value that the publishers feel they can properly exploit. If one’s name becomes too familiar, readers can grow blasé about seeing that name. Having worked on the other side of this, having been on staff at DC for several years. I understand that mindset. I don’t always agree with it but I can see how the number-crunchers look at these things. It’s more of an institutionalized prejudice, but I think the ageism is there. I encounter it from time to time, not as much in the comics field because I’m working on a property that’s specifically associated with me. I don’t feel like I’m a nostalgia act. Not yet. [laughs]. At this point, I feel like I’m still breaking some new ground. It’s not the most avant garde work in the market, but I try to keep it up to date. I found the ageism to be more prevalent in my other field of endeavour, which has, oddly enough, now become more of a hobby, ie. music packaging. It’s very difficult to compete against someone fresh out of college. whose laptops which do more than what my ancient G5 can, know the cloud inside out and can work for quite a bit less (a plus in the face of the shrinking packaging/promotion budgets), not to mention that they’re a lot more connected by social media and the new distribution channels of the music business. So, in trying to do a cover or graphic for the next up-and-coming hip-hop act, it takes a lot more effort for a dinosaur like me to maintain “street cred” than it is in the comic book world. But I was touched by Jerry’s blog because he’s one of those people who I was lucky enough to work with when I was up at DC. He’s a stellar talent, and vastly under-utilized these days, in my opinion. I think his work schedule has picked up, and deservedly so. His work on the new THUNDER Agents is especially welcome. Classic yet fresh.

Rovnak: So what can we expect from you in the near future?

Motter: I’ve just completed a comic book called The Book Hitler Didn’t Want You To Read, for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. I’m wrapping up Dynamite’s re-mastered edition of 1993′s The Heart of The Beast graphic novel I did with illustrator Sean Philips and co-author Judith Dupré; A gothic horror story set in the New York art world of the 90s. I’m very excited about that. Sean’s painted work here is so beautiful, and largely unseen. Both should be out this fall. Along with the collected edition of Mister X: Eviction and Other Stories (which includes The Vanishing Breed and Hard Candy.) And there are a number of new Mister X projects commemorating his 30th anniversary in comics. T-shirts, prints, etc. At the moment I’m working on a new Mister X serial for Dark Horse Presents along the lines of ‘Hard Candy‘.

Rovnak: Has your approach to Mister X changed very much since the 80′s?

Motter: You know, I’ve been going back into my notebooks; “Oh here’s an idea I’ve been wanting to do for a million years!” [laughs] And it’ll go through several incarnations. “This would be a perfect little Mister X story.” I was surprised and gratified by the response and reaction that ‘Hard Candy‘ got when the one-shot came out. More than one blogger or reviewer remarked, ‘This is what Mister X should be like, what more comics should be like…. One-issue stories…’ They were lamenting that few comic book publishers are doing shorter tales any longer, that they’re a rarity. The master of short stories, of course, was Will Eisner. He could create an eight-page story in which you felt like you’d read twenty-two pages. And it wasn’t just that he used small panels [laughs], it was the masterful way that you were immediately drawn into his world. I think I’m more concerned with the Mister X story than the Mister X concept today. The challenge for me has been to write these shorter stories. And hopefully the tales won’t suffer from brevity too much. The back-stories can still be complicated and unpredictable, but the main mystery, the main story that occurs between the covers of any given book(s) should be a complete experience. The reader should want more Radiant City, but not feel that they’re being forced there. My reader shouldn’t have to worry about the over-arching story arcs, but simply enjoy the story for what it is. If a synopsis or recap is needed it should be there, either as a structural element of integrated into the dialogue and exposition. That harkens back to when I was reading comics when I was younger.

Rovnak: Well one thing that comics has definitely suffered from ever since that groundbreaking year of 1986, with Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns, and Mister X, is that everybody feels they have to build towards a graphic novel. The periodical format, made up of one-shots and short stories, has suffered. The periodical format really only exists these days to supply chapters to a larger book, which is already being planned and marketed. I’ll be curious to see the direction that digital comics go. Short stories and one-shots seem to me to be ideal for a format such as digital comics. Comics don’t need to be such an investment of time, but comics can and should be for entertainment either long or short. The short side of stories seems to have been forgotten. Do you agree?

Motter: I love the bookshelf/legacy formats. It elevates the form, to be sure. But the ephemeral qualities do tend to get lost. The episodic pacing, for one thing. The genuine cliff-hanger- where one HAS to wait, hope and imagine for month for the next revelation. The Watchmen series was the last time I recall that anticipatory dynamic on display in a big way. That said, I’m quite optimistic of the new digital formats I’ve seen, and that they may revive a previous archetype of the comic book. mind you, the audiences now are much more sophisticated than when I started reading comics as a kid, so it is a bit trickier to tell a short story these days. You have to know your stuff. You can’t bluff as much, or get away with much thoughtlessness. You really need to find that fine medium of brevity and richness. When you find it, it’s very rewarding on a visceral level, but it’s pretty elusive. I find the writing is much harder than the drawing, and it didn’t used to be that way, at least for me. I’m trying to write a script that doesn’t read like it was labored over, that reads naturally without being too superficial. It’s a cliché, but knowing what to leave out is much harder than knowing what to include. Back when I was starting out, the sort of thing one left out was usually left out because of one’s own ignorance. But you can’t get away with that so easily anymore. As charming and quaint as it may seem today, you can’t write that way now with any sense of sincerity or seriousness: it would be very difficult indeed. I love reading the old Stan Lee or Gardner Fox stories, but they often don’t really hold up as the masterpieces we fondly remember them as.  But that doesn’t diminish their cultural value.

Interview © John Rovnak

 

About John Rovnak

John Rovnak can hardly remember a time when comic books were not a part of his life. He has bought them, sold them, written them, drawn them, collected them, bought them again, and sold them again. He has endured a lifetime of ridicule and shame for his hobby, but that hasn't stopped him. Most recently he's written and edited a book about comics. He's planning more.
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