…featuring an introduction by me, John Rovnak.
…including an introduction by me, John Rovnak.
More with artist Michael Zulli…
This interview was conducted via email in September of 2012.
John Rovnak: What kind of response, if any, do you strive to create in your comics?
Michael Zulli: Easy… I mostly want some sense of the mysterious, not always directly, but most often a sense of “what is that about?” or “I’ve never seen anything like that, what does it mean?” I want a kind of off-center curiosity to set in as fast as possible.
Rovnak: What was the defining moment for you when you decided to make comics your chosen medium?
Zulli: Well I’ve told this one before, but the truth of it remains, so let me dust it off and have one more turn ’round the dance floor. Sometime in the early nineteen eighties I was in a kind of artistic freefall, and try as I might, nothing I thought through seemed have the kind of “spark” I need when I make art. Until, this kid I knew who’s family lived over the local [bar] I used to frequent, when I still frequented those places, told me about this new thing (at least to me) called, “a comics shop.” Apparently they sold nothing but comics! What a gloriously silly idea. I simply had to see this fabled thing with my own eyes.
To condense a bit, I found one all right. In a smallish mall like place, was a shop (as I more than likely mis-remember) called Moondance Comics.
It was there I discovered, after a few weeks of browsing, the second book in Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright series and Barry Windsor Smith’s short story, “The Beguiling.” I told myself that if work like this could be made, and actually be sold, then I’ve found my game. Period.
Rovnak: What drew you to comics?
Zulli: What draws everybody, the odd strangeness of them. The colors and words that swirl in wonderful patterns as you stand at the rack thumbing through one. Some people seem to get caught right away, while others have a bit of a fling with them and move on, and others still never seem to get the concept at all. I think it takes a certain willingness to be impractical, to be okay with giving control over to the story and letting it carry you along.
Rovnak: Do you have any sort of rituals before sitting down at the drawing table, or is it like punching in and out of a job and it’s just a daily routine at this point?
Zulli: There was a time, say a decade ago, give or take a few years either way, that I had been sitting in that chair in front of that table under those lights that I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. And yet deadlines loomed large, and the subtle inflections of editors voices implying they weren’t happy. And the, “You know how things work around here!” speech would get dusted off, waiting in the wings for just the right amount of rebellion. So I sat down like a good boy and did my job. Everything about that picture is wrong. Wait here, I will make a point of actually answering the question… At the time, I was absolutely riddled with OCD behavior before, during and after working. The lights got turned on in a certain order, at which time the subject was placed as square center on the drawing board as possible, etc, etc… until eventually real drawing happened somewhere in the ritual mess. And yeah, even today after spending ten years or more trying to “un-learn” the bad habits of twenty years or so of exposure to (in my mind anyway) the toxic minefield that the working artist must endure in comics. Hey, maybe things have changed a lot since, but I suspect it’s the same turd in the center just a different candy coating.
Oh, the little rituals I keep these days are because I want them there, and not some nerve steadying dram of guts.
Rovnak: Describe your studio/workspace for me, and what sort of environment you find most productive?
Zulli: Comfortable as possible. Whatever that is… as long as it fits with both my headspace, and the [physical] space itself. Right now it’s quite plush and colorful. My next space might be very spartan. Ideally, I’d like to have several spaces I could move between as the work changed, so then would the mood and setting.
Rovnak: Do you have a different mental approach to a comics page versus a painting?
Zulli: Short and sweet, much to my shame… no. Shame? Well, in the sense that they are so needy in such different ways. But I pencil a comics page the same way I would lay down the composition on a thirty by forty inch canvas. Most inkers would do almost anything to get out of inking me.
to be continued…
Click HERE to read Part 1.
Interview © John Rovnak
Damn, It’s Danzig!
an interview with John Rovnak
2010 was a busy year for Glenn Danzig. He was celebrating his twentieth year as a solo artist and in honor of that tremendous feat he was to release a new album, Deth Red Sabaoth. But 2010 also meant a celebration of another sort. Glenn returned to his long dormant Verotik Publishing to release, Danzig: Hidden Lyrics of the Left Hand, a collection of never-before published lyrics illustrated by longtime collaborator, Simon Bisley. So while almost every interviewer out there was asking Glenn about his new album, coupled with a barrage of questions he’s heard year after year concerning rumored Misfits reunions, his relationship with Satan, and his various appearances in YouTube videos; we felt compelled to focus less on Danzig the musician, and more on Danzig the comics fan and publisher.
Glenn knows comics. He’s known them all of his life. And his love and admiration for the medium, and all it has to offer, is apparent. He also feels a lot of frustration with the current state of comics. But instead of sitting back and watching from afar, he’s thrown himself into the, sometimes difficult, industry ready to shake things up and put comics into the marketplace that he wants there.
This interview was conducted over the phone on September 28, 2010.
John Rovnak: At what point did comics enter your life? What are you earliest comic book memories?
Glenn Danzig: When I was a little kid, 4 or 5 years old, my uncle owned a paper mill, and I remember a lot of comics. We’d go down there once and a while; he’d get lots of comics in there and he’d just bring them home to his kids and we’d get whatever they didn’t want.
Rovnak: So where these comics whose covers were covers stripped?
Danzig: No, no they didn’t strip the covers. Nope. People would bring them to the mill, and the covers weren’t stripped.
Rovnak: Were comics an accepted or encouraged interest in your home growing up, or were they a forbidden pleasure for you?
Danzig: No, nobody looked down on comics.
Rovnak: What titles were you reading at the time? Were there any titles that had a profound impact on you?
Danzig: I liked anything that had dinosaurs and monsters! [Laughs] And then later on, the superhero stuff. Even to this day, I still like the more oddball stuff… I was exposed to DC stuff, and then I started to actually buy comics here and there. I liked the Doom Patrol and stuff like that. And then, I remember when Marvel stuff started hitting the used rack, especially Spider-Man. The Steve Ditko stuff just looked so weird and creepy. It definitely changed everything.
Rovnak: Did you make the jump, at an early age, from the mainstream stuff to the undergrounds?
Danzig: Yeah, so really what happened was that I’m getting comics that were second hand or used. There were lots of used places that sold used comics, whether it was a local flea market or wherever. And then eventually I started seeing the undergrounds, and I started saying, “Wow!” Then I remember when a lot of the artists jumped ship from DC and Marvel, and started doing more underground and, a bit more, art oriented stuff. You know, guys like Kaluta, Barry Smith and Wrightson and those guys. And I always liked the other underground stuff by guys like (Greg) Irons and Rick Griffin and those guys. And then it all went from there…
Rovnak: So it was just a natural evolution then?
Danzig: Yeah, I mean eventually one of the reasons I started Verotik was because I hated the comics that DC and Marvel were putting out. I just thought that they were terrible. There was a period there where it was kinda cool, and then they just destroyed it really. It just got more and more childish. Now I’m reading more European comics. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the fumettis from Italy in the 70’s, but they make our company look like, “Bambi Stubbed his Toe” or something. [Laughs] And of course the Japanese mangas covers the gamut of all kinds of genres, you know? A lot of that stuff’s pretty extreme… So you know what I’m saying is, it’s time for the American comics market to grow up… So that’s kinda what I did. Guys like Tim Vigil, and a bunch of other guys like Howard Chaykin, were trying to take it further than what the mainstream companies would let them. I think we took it a step further, and we did it all in color. In 1993 I started thinking about putting it together, and then in ’94 our first books came out.
Rovnak: Looking back, had a career in music not happened for you, do you think you may have pursued one in comics?
Danzig: No. You know, I always played around with being an artist some, but I think I just never thought I was as good as some of these other guys doing it. But then, of course, I saw some terrible artists. I think if I’m going to do something then I gotta be like really really good at it. People like Simon (Bisley) are much better at it than I am. [Laughs] I’ll do like little roughs for him, you know, lay out a page or something… or a cover… or do little sketches for him or Joe Chiodo. As far as being the actual artist, I’m going to leave that to the pros.
Rovnak: Are comics to you a disposable medium, or is there a bit of fanboy in you that has to make sure your comics are stored properly, bagged and boarded, etc?
Danzig: I’ve never seen comics as a disposable medium, I think it’s an art form and I treat it as an art form. I know some of the companies may treat it like a disposable medium, but we do the comics here like they’re art. And that’s how some of the people I really like do it. They treat it the same way, like an art form and it should be respected. It should be taken seriously, I think. But of course, if you’re doing crappy, dorky little kids comics, then it is a disposable medium, but that’s not what we do at Verotik.
Rovnak: Have comics been a constant your life, or did your interest stop and start again over the years?
Danzig: Actually, I funded my record label when I was a kid selling back issues of comics. Like Golden and Silver age stuff that I’d bought for 50 cents or a dollar apiece, were going for crazy money. So that’s how I put out records, but they’ve always been there.
Rovnak: Are there any comic creators, characters or titles you follow religiously?
Danzig: I used to follow (Alan Moore’s) Promethea, but it’s done. There’s not really much else lately that I’m reading on a regular basis. I mean once in a while I get to a comics shop… I actually just did a couple of in-stores, in Phoenix and then L.A., for the lyric book we put out that Biz did the illustrations for, and I managed to grab a couple of comics, but not much… I like the Shadowpact thing that DC did for a while, but then it kinda lost focus. You know where they brought back all those dark, esoteric characters… But then it kinda lost focus… I would love to revamp some characters for either DC or Marvel, but I’m sure the ideas I have aren’t what they’re looking for. [Laughs] Make them relevant, these are great characters that they’re not doing shit with, and they could actually be relevant. But that’s what I think…
Rovnak: In the past 15 years or so, one of the biggest shifts in comics has been the format; going from being just periodical pamphlets to full graphic novels and trade paperback collections. Which format do you prefer? Do you like the long form, or do you still prefer a monthly cliffhanger?
Danzig: I prefer the monthly thing. It’s tough for me to sit down and do a thick trade paperback read. I just don’t have the time, and also I don’t know that I’m digging that. You know what I mean? Some of it’s okay… I remember when (Frank) Miller’s Dark Knight came out, that was cool, because it wasn’t a big thick read. It had four different volumes, and you didn’t have to sit there and read it for days. You know, boom, in an evening you could read a chapter.
Rovnak: Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of musicians make the crossover into comics. But the majority of them have been projects where they, themselves, are portrayed as the comic character (KISS, Alice Cooper, etc); others have chosen to be portrayed as the narrator (in almost a “Crypt Keeper” role) to help propel the story. Did you ever consider doing comics that way, or was writing and publishing your own brand of comics always the plan?
Danzig: No [laughs] no [laughs] no [laughs] no no. No, that’s not my thing. Uh-uh. I’m not trying to diss anybody, they should do what they want to do. If they feel like doing that, that’s great, it’s just I never wanted to do that.
Rovnak: Musicians and rock stars doing comics; do you think it’s a natural fit, or does it fail miserably most of the time?
Danzig: Well, I don’t know what other people do… and to be honest, I’m more focused on what I do, so if they wanna do it, then fine, I don’t care… It’s not easy, and you gotta love comics to be doin’ it, because we all know, “there ain’t no money in it.” [Laughs] So, that’s how I view it. We cut back our printing schedule, and now we just put out comics when we feel like we have something to say. It started to get kind of like what I hated with DC and Marvel, or even Image, where we were just hiring artists because we had to put out a Satanika comic every two months. And you know your artist would bail on his deadlines, you couldn’t get a hold of them, whatever, you know the typical stories you’ll hear from lots of publishers. Then you’re using somebody you don’t to have to use. It just became exactly the kind of thing I didn’t like, just doing a story to do a story with an artist who didn’t really get it. So we put the brakes on it, and we now just publish whenever we have the time to do it, and we have something to say or something I want to say.
Rovnak: With that being said, what’s in the future for Verotik?
Danzig: Well we were supposed to have a Jaguar God book come out this late Fall, but Biz has gotten behind on it, of course. But it’ll be worth it, so we’re gonna reschedule it for the new year. And it’s a different format for us, basically it will be comic size, it won’t be the big 9 x 12 format, but it’s gonna be like a storybook, no comic balloons, but with an illustration or two on each page by Biz. The story and text will flow around it, so it’ll almost look like an old Edgar Rice Burroughs or a Robert E. Howard thing, like he did with Frazetta or Krenkel, but it’ll have Biz illustrations. It’ll be cool!
Rovnak: Color or black & white?
Danzig: It’s either gonna be a two-tone, sepia-tone thing, or it’s gonna be in color. We’re not sure yet, we’ll play around with it and figure it out. Either way, if we do the sepia-tone, when we go to the printer they’re gonna charge you for color, so we’ll just say color.
Rovnak: If music wasn’t your first priority, would you devote all your energy into comics, or as you said earlier, since there’s no real money to be made, would it always be a side project for you?
Danzig: I don’t know. It’s not so much the money; it’s just that like I said earlier, if I have something to say then I’ll say it. That’s how I am with my music. When I have a record I feel like I want to do, that’s when I do a record. I don’t just do a record, just because someone tells me I have to do a record now. I don’t do that. Whenever I feel it, or whenever it’s done, that’s when it gets put out.
Rovnak: To date, what is your proudest Verotik moment?
Danzig: It’s always cool when you have the number one trade paperback, or your book cracks the top 20. I remember when there was still Diamond and Capital, the Venus Domina book that had the Dave Stevens cover. That book came in a number one for Capital. That was pretty cool, because it was a mature book. Things like that are cool, especially since we’re just a small company going up against… whatever, you know. We get no play at Diamond whatsoever, in their mag. So it’s still pretty wild that we’re still here, and so many other companies that they gave tons of play to are gone. [Laughs] That’s also a proud moment.
Rovnak: Comics have a long history of struggling to be taken seriously and fighting for notoriety and acceptance. Many people nowadays would say that with all the huge Hollywood blockbusters based on comics, and comics having cracked the book market, that comics now have achieved in a lot of ways what’s it’s been fighting for. I disagree. I see comics becoming more of a “gateway drug” for Hollywood; a vehicle that exists solely to sell concepts to film producers, and the original comic gets pushed aside. What are your thoughts about this?
Danzig: I know that there are comics that are only put together to attract a movie or TV or video game deal. Obviously that’s the wrong reason to do a comic. But from a businessperson’s standpoint, it’s the right reason. A lot of these companies, at the end of the day, are businesses. So somebody like Paramount or 20th Century Fox, they don’t care about comics, they care about making money. If that studio doesn’t make money, everybody is out on the street and everybody is fired. The doors shut… They have a bottom line that they have to think about, so I can’t fault them for that. But on the same token, that’s not what Verotik does. It is what it is, man. You choose your bed, and then you gotta lie in it. If nobody takes you seriously, then it’s your own fault. Nobody else’s…
Rovnak: What have you got going on these days as far as your comics moving into other mediums, like film or animation?
Danzig: A while ago this adult film company did Grub Girl, one of Ed Lee’s characters. They did it as a sort of porn with special effects and other crazy stuff. A lot of Ed’s stuff can only be x-rated… And a movie studio did one of his Verotika stories called Headers, a live action kind of Texas Chain Saw, kind of thing. I think it just came out like a year ago. And we are talking right now with this director that really wants to do Satanika. He’s delivered his first copy of the script, and we’ll see where that’s going. There’s a trailer for a Verotika series, as a pitch to networks, we’re about to start showing to the cable networks. We’ll see…
Rovnak: Are there any comics turned to film projects you’ve either really enjoyed or really hated?
Danzig: I pretty much hate all the Marvel stuff. [laughs] They’re pretty awful.
Rovnak: What about Watchmen or, another Zack Snyder film, 300? Any of that stuff grab your interest?
Danzig: The thing that bothered me with 300 was all the CG backgrounds. I would have preferred it having some real backgrounds, instead of the CG. That’s something that bugged me.
Rovnak: Okay, I’m going to throw out some names and I want you to just tell me what comes to mind for you. Marvel Comics.
Danzig: Who cares? [Laughs]
Danzig: Who cares?
Rovnak: DC Comics.
Danzig: [long pause] The little engine that just can’t. [Laughs]
Rovnak: Jack Kirby.
Danzig: The king, man. The best.
Rovnak: The Comics Code Authority.
Danzig: Does anyone even care? [Laughs] Passé. Whatever… irrelevant.
Rovnak: Frank Frazetta.
Danzig: The master.
Rovnak: Vaughn Bodé.
Danzig: Died way too young, a tragic loss.
Rovnak: And last but not least, Simon Bisley.
Danzig: [laughs hysterically] Probably one of the greatest artists of all time, but a big pain in my ass. But he’s also one of my best friends.
Interview © John Rovnak
Last year I began a rather lengthy interview with artist Michael Zulli. Unfortunately, due to prior commitments on both my end and his, we haven’t been able to wrap it up as planned. So until the day in which we can both commit to finishing up our conversation, I’ve decided to run a few excerpts for you to enjoy. I’ve loved working on this interview so much, that it pains me to have the portions that are complete sit dormant in my hard drive collecting “virtual dust”.
This interview was conducted via email in September of 2012.
John Rovnak: What is your earliest comic book memory?
Michael Zulli: I honestly couldn’t tell you my earliest comics memory, as that would be lost to the mists of time. But I can tell you one of the most memorable. I lived in Tennessee most of my childhood, and we had just moved to New England, and I had just bought a copy of The Brave and the Bold starring the Gardener Fox and Joe Kubert Hawkman, the one with the Dragonfly Raiders on the cover. I was sitting in the waiting room of some doctor’s office for a reason I forget. It was in an old Victorian home, so I was surrounded by beautiful old wood paneling, and utterly enthralled in this precious thing, stunned by the art and story. Such a great time for comics, the so called “Silver Age”. I’ll never forget it. I had a nice binder of Silver Age Hawkman and The Flash comics that I had asked somebody to try and sell for me back around 2002, that I never saw again. I sometimes wonder what happened to it. Oh well, live and learn.
Rovnak: I find it interesting that when asked to recall your first comic, the majority of your answer actually had very little to do with comics at all, but more about the “where and when” of your life. I find that comics have a sneaky way of seducing more, if not all, of our senses that just our sight. Comics are a visual medium, but I find that most times I equate sounds, tastes and smells with a good comic, or comic experience, more than just a visualization. It’s sort of the unspoken power of comics… Do you find this to be true also?
Zulli: Oh, without a doubt. Case in point would be the long and deeply lamented Storyteller by Barry Windsor-Smith. The size ration of comic-to-hand was frightingly close to being ten year old or so and pulling a new comic from a spinner rack. What contact I have with actual comics these days, they seem these over-bright, reflective little things with no sense of mystery, as they used to. Whether this is a symptom of a generalized malaise on my part or me catching a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain” from the corner of my eye, I wouldn’t know.
Rovnak: Were comics accepted in your household growing up, or were they looked down upon? Describe for me what your upbringing was like, and how comics fit into it.
Zulli: As for comics in my home while growing up, they were totally accepted without question as my father was not adverse to picking up a copy of Sad Sack now and again, and reading in on a Saturday afternoon, laughing until tears rolled down his face. Some of the fondest memories of my father.
to be continued…
Interview © John Rovnak
This interview was conducted over the phone on March 14, 2013.
John Rovnak: We’ve seen Minimum Wage the comic book series. We’ve seen the collected editions. We’ve seen the material reworked into the Beg the Question graphic novel. Now you’ve teamed up with Image Comics to release Maximum Minimum Wage, which could be billed as the definitive edition of the Minimum Wage material….
Bob Fingerman: Yeah, you never know. I’ve already joked saying that it’s definitive for now. [laughs]
Rovnak: Well you’ve reworked or repackaged this material four times now. Bob Fingerman, who the hell do you think you are? [laughs]
Fingerman: [laughs] Yeah well, I’ve been kind of joking that I’m the low-budget George Lucas. I can’t keep my pea-pickin’ hands off this thing. I totally understand his compulsion. With other books of mine, it doesn’t seem to be as acute as with Minimum Wage. I guess maybe because I care about Minimum Wage more than certain other things because it’s a bit more personal. I really want to get it right. So each time, each iteration, each incarnation, is another attempt to improve on it. So even though I kind of promised myself, and promised my wife…. She said don’t redraw anything, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll keep it to a minimum.’ But I ended up reworking probably like 50 pages. I just can’t stop myself.
Rovnak: So as somebody who has bought and read all of the publications and incarnations of Minimum Wage, can you give me your best sales pitch for the Maximum Minimum Wage? Why should I buy this book?
Fingerman: Well, I think it reads better. And I think the fact that it is large, makes a difference. I don’t ever like to think of myself as jumping on a bandwagon, and in fact it’s been since I decided to do this book larger, I have gotten a lot of large books recently. In fact, way too many for an apartment my size. [laughs] I think it’s great that all these publishers are doing oversized editions, and yeah they do take up a lot of space. But the reason they’re being done is if the artwork is kind of busy and detailed, as the art in Minimum Wage was, it just looks so much nicer larger. It reads better, you know? I think I actually made quite a few mistakes with Beg the Question. And one of the biggest mistakes, which I had my reasons for, was printing it smaller than it ran as a comic book. I desperately wanted respectability, so I made it look like a traditional prose novel as much as I could, at least on the outside. Which, like I say, was probably not the best approach. And with this I think one of the main philosophical changes with Maximum Minimum Wage it that I’ve embraced that Minimum Wage, and it only took me fifteen years, that it’s a comic. And it looks good big. It reads so much better. And unlike the previous collections, this one really does have everything you’d want. All the covers that were done for it when it was still running as a comic, they never got reprinted. There’s a nice juicy color section in this book. There’s a huge guest gallery. I consider myself extremely fortunate that over the years both the book and myself have earned a lot of goodwill in the business. So it was really nice that a lot of my fellow comic artists contributed to this thing. In addition to having some of the back covers and things that ran when it was originally coming out as a comic, by guys like Mike Mignola and Kevin Nowlan, there’s a ton of new pin-ups. With this new collection I’m hoping there will be people who have bought it before who will buy it again in this new format, but obviously I’m really hoping to reach a new audience. I think there are a lot of people out there who have never read it, and I’m thinking this is the edition that will catch their eye. But among the bonus material, there’s some really great stuff. I think the other thing that would be especially interesting to old readers is that I’ve also included the script for the never-drawn eleventh issue. I think that’ll be of interest to some people because it definitely indicates a change in tone a little bit. You can begin to see what way the wind is beginning to blow for the story.
Rovnak: Do you normally write full scripts for yourself?
Fingerman: Yes, that’s something I’ve always done. Whether I’m writing for somebody else, or writing for myself, I just always find it better to organize my thoughts if I write it all out. I always found it very intriguing when I learned of the “Marvel Method”. When you just write an outline and let the artist lay it all out, and then dialogue it later. That to me is kind of fascinating, and I can see certain upside to it, especially if you’re doing something that has a lot of action and you don’t want to put fetters on the artist. But if you’re doing the kind of work that I tend to do, which is very character based and dialogue driven, I think it’s a really good idea to have it all worked out before hand. I’m certain not the first to say this, but doing comics is sort of like doing movies, and I think in my case TV shows, on paper. I think I’m much more of a TV guy than a movie guy, for at least something like Minimum Wage, which was so episodic. But some directors believe in storyboarding, some don’t. I’m the kind who believes in storyboarding. I think the more prep you can do, the better the final product. That rule doesn’t apply to everything. Certain things are really fun to be spontaneous on.
Rovnak: You mentioned the goodwill you’ve received from fellow comic artists. You also seem to get quite a bit of goodwill from “non comic book comics” or comedians. How did those relationships develop?
Fingerman: Yeah, I’m trying to remember it myself, because it was very organic. By and large the kind of comedians who liked my work were already comic nerds, which helps hugely. [laughs] And I think, there was something about Minimum Wage that, I guess, spoke to them. I think the first comedian that I met and got friendly with was Dana Gould, who is a brilliant comedian. He’s one of those comedians who I always think, “Why isn’t he huge?” He’s so good. You know how there are those ‘artist’s artists’? I think he’s a ‘comedian’s comedian’, because I don’t think there’s anybody in the comedy world who doesn’t have huge respect for him. I think he should be a household name. I think he’s great! He’s the first one that I had met. And I met him because he was a fan of the book. Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, I think, made the introduction. This would have been in San Diego. That’s another thing: All these West Coast comedians, they all make the southbound pilgrimage to San Diego Comicon that weekend. And as I said, so many of them are comic fans. And now that showbiz and the Comicon are so inextricably wound together, and so much more about showbiz than comics. But through Dana I met some of his friends, who it turned out also liked the comic. I’m not sure if he turned them onto it? That I don’t know. But through Dana, maybe even that same day, I met Patton Oswalt. This is going back to 1996, maybe? So Patton was a really fresh face in comedy at that point. So we got to know each other a bit, because they liked the same things I liked. We had things in common. I wish that I did know those guys better, because the few times I did socialize with them, it was great. There’s all kinds of common interests. It’s one of those things, you know? You meet a couple and the circle keeps broadening out. Through them I met some of the Mister Show guys, and of course I loved Mister Show. It kind of just kept building out. Through them I met Brian Posehn, And of course now Brian Posehn, besides still doing comedy, is writing comics. He’s co-writing the Deadpool series with Gerry Duggan. I think comedy and comic books have a tighter link than seems obvious, especially since by and large I’ve done humor comics. It’s always up to others to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded in being funny or not, but I take great pride in the fact that some of the comedians that I think are funny, like my work. That’s very flattering.
Rovnak: So there’s no underlying desire to be a stand up comedian yourself? I’ve met you in person before, and you’re incredibly funny, even outside the pages of Minimum Wage.
Fingerman: Thank you, but I’ve never wanted to be a stand up. I’m too shy for that, and I’m not that arrogant. There’s already so many good ones. I don’t need to be the guy who’s funny at the water cooler, who also thinks he’s funny on stage.
Rovnak: Are you a perfectionist? Having reworked Minimum Wage, do you have the desire to rework and update any of the other work from your career?
Fingerman: I’m more aware of any flaws in my own work than anyone else. I’m a very tough audience, and I definitely consider myself a perfectionist. I think that word can be misinterpreted. I think some people can say that they are perfectionists, and mean it very arrogantly or egotistically. For me it’s kind of the exact opposite. I’m a perfectionist, but I know I’ll never attain perfection. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep trying. That sort of explains the compulsive nature of going back and reworking art in Minimum Wage. It’s again, trying to attain the unattainable. [laughs] I’ll sound very pretentious for a minute, but that’s like me being Icarus on paper. I’m trying to fly close to the sun, but I’m never going to get there, but it doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth making. For one thing, Minimum Wage is the longest comic I ever did. I don’t see ever doing this with any other works I’ve ever done. The other graphic novels I’ve done, those are the definitive editions. Something like Recess Pieces, that’s exactly what I wanted it to be. Does it mean that I think the art is perfect? No. There’s definitely things, that if I had nothing but time, I would tweak or change or whatever. But the other thing about art is that at a certain point you do have to leave it alone. For whatever reason, Minimum Wage is the one. You asked before if this edition is the definitive one. I hope at this point it is, because if I do more work with Minimum Wage I want it to be new work. I’ve really been considering resurrecting the series again, so I’d rather move forward than keep playing with what I’ve already done.
Rovnak: Would you recommend the process of reworking and updating works to other cartoonists?
Fingerman: In a way, yes. In a way, no. If it does just become OCD, then maybe not. But at the same time, if you think you’re putting out something that you could have done better, and you have the opportunity to and you don’t take it, then I think that’s kind of lame. Obviously I’m not the only one who has this compulsion. I know Gilbert Hernandez has definitely reworked huge chunks of his stuff for when it got collected in book form. I think when you’re doing something in serial form, like individual comic books, and you collect it, the comic books are the work in progress. The book is the final result. So I think that if you thought while you were doing it in serial form that maybe you let a few things slide, if you have the opportunity to get it right then I think that’s always the right thing to do. I think Jack Kerouac had that philosophy that editing is for cowards or whatever. I don’t remember. But he thought that whatever you put on paper the first time around was pure and true, and that you should never edit. I don’t agree. [laughs] I think somewhere between his philosophy and mine is probably the most rational. Because I do think that going in and tweaking it too often does become a bit nutty. So what am I saying? I’m saying I’m a bit nutty.
Rovnak: Why Comics? Why not television or film? Why not script out a treatment for a Minimum Wage sitcom?
Fingerman: Well I am. Believe me, I have plans for Minimum Wage, and I did when I was doing it. There was a brief window there where it looked like I might have been able to move forward in developing it. But the thing is, is the landscape was so different. Even talking about 1998, when I was talking to people about developing it, the entertainment landscape was so different. You know, basic cable only meant schlock. Now basic cable is the most fertile area. You’ve got all these incredible, brilliantly directed and acted series being done on basic cable, let alone premium. And premium cable has great stuff too. There wasn’t anything like streaming or Netflix or Hulu and so forth. I definitely have been talking about developing Minimum Wage for television or streaming or whatever. I really think it would be perfect. There was nothing really like it on TV when I was doing it, and now there kind of are some things that are like it, especially in tone. You know. if anything, my fear is that I’ll seem like a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ when I kind of got there first. But that again, doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. I look at things like Girls and Louie, which I even referenced in some of the copy I wrote for the book. Those shows for me in tone are very close to Minimum Wage. They’re sometimes funny, they’re sometimes dramatic, they’re very grounded in a certain urban lifestyle. Why comics? Because they were available to me.
Rovnak: Have you always had a ‘love affair’ with comics? Were you a comic geek growing up, or was it just a natural fit for you artistically and not so much about comics as it was a way to tell stories?
Fingerman: That’s really well worded, because the latter part of that is very true. I really wasn’t a comic geek when I was a kid at all. I barely read comic books, because I wasn’t into superheroes and that’s mostly what there was. I always loved the format and I loved that kind of storytelling in panels. And like most people who love humor, I loved Mad Magazine. I loved Plop. To me, Plop was the greatest thing in the world. But I’d read the occasional Spider-Man or Iron Man. They were, I think, the only superheroes I ever looked at. But I really didn’t get the whole concept of long ongoing stories. So for me, I’d read a random issue, it would end on a cliffhanger, which I would just probably read as a weak ending, and just didn’t keep up with it. I was much more attracted to humor stuff, and since nobody did graphic novels when I was a kid I probably would have been more attracted to some of the humor ones. But I read comics strips. So for me, it was more about my dad’s paperback collections of Pogo and Peanuts that whetted my appetite for the form. But honestly it wasn’t until my first exposure to Heavy Metal Magazine. That’s really what it was, in the year it actually started, 1977. I think I got exposed to maybe the third issue, because if I’m remembering right, Heavy Metal started in either April or May of 1977. Big year, you know, it was right around Star Wars. But I saw that magazine. It was actually another kid’s at my summer camp, and it absolutely blew my mind! As some people seeing Jack Kirby for the very first time altered their perception, seeing Moebius and Corben was as close to taking LSD as I’ve ever come. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. This was the most amazing brilliant art I’ve ever seen, and “Oh my god, it’s for adults!” Wow, there’s nudity. And there’s this, and there’s that. That for me was the pivotal moment that made me say, “I want to do comics, and I want to do this kind of comic.” And then to keep up with the sort of drug metaphor, which is weird for me because I’ve never done any drugs, Heavy Metal was the gateway drug for me to underground comix. I started reading Slow Death and R. Crumb’s stuff. Between Crumb, Slow Death and Heavy Metal, the die was cast.
Rovnak: How old would you have been in ’77?
Rovnak: Heavy Metal at age twelve would clearly make an impact.
Fingerman: I was just about to turn thirteen. So really the perfect age for Heavy Metal, especially if you’re an aspiring artist. And the thing is, my opinion has never changed. Moebius and Corben are still my top favorite artists. So I don’t think it’s so much that my taste hasn’t developed, it’s that I had good taste as a kid. [laughs]
Rovnak: How do you like to work? Do you have a ‘punch in, punch out’ sort of work ethic, or are you more of a slave to your muse?
Fingerman: Well it depends. If I’m working on a deadline, I have to ‘punch in, punch out’. Fortunately, I usually like what I’m doing. Some days when I’m not feeling it, it can be rough. Ultimately, working in comics, which are for public consumption, you’re making a product. But by the same token, you’re making a ‘creative’ product. I’m sure there are some people who if they’re not feeling it can still do it. There will be days when I’ll be sitting at the board and just know that I’m not doing good work, and at a certain point I just say, “I’ll work harder tomorrow. I’m walking away from this.” Just sitting there and getting frustrated isn’t going to make me do good work. But generally speaking, I enjoy what I do, so I never feel like, “Ugh, back the grind!” It’s usually, “Oh good: Time to draw!” Drawing is a pleasurable ritual.
Rovnak: How about your workspace? Do you have a studio in which you seclude yourself away in, or can you take an art board with you anywhere and draw on the go?
Fingerman: I’ll sketch sometimes outside. But not that often really, and not as often as I should. Generally speaking, my studio is in my apartment so my commute is effortless. [laughs] I like my workspace. It’s a little cluttered at the moment with too many oversized books, but I’ve got a very pleasant room in which I work and I’m happy in here. I find it comforting. I find it interesting: a lot of friends of mine who are comic artists, in the last few years, have started forming studios where they share space. On the one hand it’s practical because you can cram six to eight people in one large room and divide the rent up, it’s not bad I guess. Some people don’t have the luxury ,and it is a luxury, of having a nice workspace in their home. Other people like to separate their work life from their life-life, and I totally understand that, especially if you’re someone who is wired like me and you do have a compulsive nature. If your workspace is right around the corner from the living room, you might just end up going back there all the time and start picking at things. If your work is in a different space, then you’ll say, “Well I’m done for the day” and you leave. But on the other hand, working for me is such a solitary experience. I find it very interesting that people can not just work but thrive when there’s a group of people. To me that would be so distracting. Maybe I could get used to it, I don’t know. I used to joke that drawing comics is a shameful and dirty act, like masturbation, and it’s best left to be done alone. [laughs] And I mean that as a joke, but for me it is just something I just do alone.
Rovnak: Speaking of shame…. Did you ever find that reading comics was a shameful act?
Fingerman: [laughs] It all depends on the comic. I certainly threw away a few comics feeling like, “Oh if my mom finds this….” My mom is probably one of the least judgmental people I’ve known, but when you’re a kid, especially going through puberty and stuff, and bringing home underground comix that you know you’re not supposed to have. Those I didn’t feel ashamed of so much as I felt worried about. It’s that whole thing of, “I probably shouldn’t have this.”
Rovnak: I guess more of what I was asking was, did you ever get criticized for reading comics? I was picked on growing up because I was a into comics. To this day, I still can’t read a comic in public for fear of being bullied. Even though, today in the year 2013, comics are probably more widely respected then they’ve ever been. I’ll see other people doing it, and I’ll think, “Wow, good for them!” [laughs] I still prefer to retreat to the safety of my own home to enjoy comics.
Fingerman: It’s funny that you say that, because you’re right, it does occur to me that when I go to a comics shop and I buy some actual comic books, I never read them on the subway. [laughs] I never read them in public. Wow! What a horrible thing for a guy who draws comics to admit, but it’s true! I guess you’re right. Oh well… Dammit. I guess we just can’t get that off our backs. The funny thing is, that as a kid I didn’t feel that. Maybe because I didn’t read that many, but if I had an issue of Plop I didn’t care if I read that outdoors. It didn’t bother me. And I got picked on for so many other things, I don’t think comics would have made a difference. [laughs]
Rovnak: Maybe there needs to be a National Read Comics in Public Day, or something? Then we can all crawl out of our closets and no longer feel shame.
Fingerman: I think so. I think that’s a good idea. Comics Pride Day, and a Comics Pride Parade! How come we don’t have a pride parade? Because there’s no pride, that’s why. [laughs] We’ve stumbled across something very troubling. We really need to develop more pride.
Rovnak: There you go. This interview is the first step towards a brighter tomorrow for comics.
Fingerman: Exactly. A breakthrough moment. I can picture the speech already. “I have a dream! When someday my child can read a comic without shame.” [laughs]
Rovnak: So… Do you create any of your work digitally, or are you still slinging ink the old fashioned way?
Fingerman: At this point it’s a hybrid process. I still do all my all my drawing the old fashioned way, but I’ll do augmentation and finishing on the computer. In the case of Minimum Wage, that’s all hand drawn. There’s not a digital line in the whole thing, but all the grey tone was done digitally. And the retouching, since I did such a massive amount of reworking of stuff, if there was just a portion of a panel and I liked most of it except a head or a hand, I would draw in traditionally but I’d digitally composite it. For me, the computer is a great tool but I don’t ever see it substituting doing it the old fashioned way.
Rovnak: So a person could own a piece of Bob Fingerman original artwork? I find it disheartening to think of how much comic art is created digitally, and how much less original art there will be in the world.
Fingerman: This is news to me. There are actually comic artists who are creating complete finished comic pages entirely digitally?
Fingerman: That surprises me. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me at all. That’s interesting. I’ve certainly seen people do finished artwork using things like a Cintiq tablet, where it is just like drawing on paper, except that it’s digital paper. I guess it’s really no different, if anything it can give you a greater degree of control. In real traditional analog drawing, you can’t hit ‘undo’. You gotta reach for your whiteout or whatever.
Rovnak: It makes me feel really old. [laughs]
Fingerman: Yeah… The way I do comics is kind of a metaphor for my role in comics. I do them as a hybrid, and I have this sorta hybrid career. I’ve dabbled in mainstream, I’ve mostly done indie. I’ve written prose, I’ve mostly done comics. Everything’s sort of bridging a different world at any moment. All of the art I did for my book From The Ashes is traditional, because the book I drew entirely with colored pencil. But then the tone work was done digitally, and it was done digitally using real textures because I didn’t want it to look digital. When ‘digi-art’ looks digital, I don’t like it. It’s too antiseptic for me. But if you can trick my eye, so that I just look at it as art, great
Rovnak: How did your relationship with Image Comics begin?
Fingerman: Robert Kirkman, who in addition to being one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, is also now one of the biggest names in comics. He’s got this level of success that we can only all aspire towards. But he, back when he was first starting and first doing Battle Pope, and I think was still working in a warehouse as his day job, was sending me fan mail for Minimum Wage. So I contacted him, and I told him what I wanted to do with this new edition. And within a couple of hours he got back to me and said, “Yes! As a fan, I want this and I’m going to make it happen.” It really was that easy. He’s now in this position where he can make things like that happen. Which is great! It’s great for me: I won’t say it’s great for him. We’ll see how it works out for him. [laughs] Working with them has been really easy. It’s definitely a different kid of company, and a different process, but so far it’s been great. There’s some really nice people over there.
Rovnak: Any idea what the sales are shaping up to be, and how they compare to Beg the Question?
Fingerman: It’s still too early to say. I’m thinking though that when people actually see the book, this physical object, I think they’ll say, “Oh, I get it!” Because it really is, and I don’t want to sound like I’m just in salesman mode, but it’s significant different to see it big like this. I’m, in a way, surprised how radically different an experience it is reading it at a different size. So I think the book itself will be the most persuasive sales tool for the book. Unfortunately, the way business is done these days, most reviewers don’t get sent books anymore; they get sent PDFs. And while that’s certainly convenient, reading this book on your iPad is not going to give you the same sense as seeing the book. It’s tactile. This book is a big book. It lays flat. There’s something about it that feels nice and looks nice. I’m biased.
Rovnak: And it’s priced affordably too.
Fingerman: Yeah. When I was talking about this, my first worry was, “Oh god, this is probably going to be a $50 book!” Because besides being a creator, I’m a consumer. But it’s $34.95. So for a large book that’s almost 400 pages, I think that’s a pretty good deal.
Rovnak: You could afford that on minimum wage…. [laughs]
Fingerman: That’s what I hope. Especially if they raise it. [laughs]
Rovnak: Are there plans to do a digital release of the book?
Fingerman: I believe there are. I believe it has been prepared for the people who prefer to read their stuff on a tablet. I’m not going to judge them. [laughs] They’re consumers, too. That’s not how I roll. I’m traditional, so what do I know?
Rovnak: You’ve primarily carved out a niche as an ‘indie’ creator, and you have done your share of mainstream work. But it seems that you didn’t toil for years and years in the trenches of work-for-hire like a lot of cartoonists. What do you credit that to? Was that always part of the ‘Bob Fingerman Master Plan’, or was it just a case of being in the right place at the right time?
Fingerman: [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever been in the right place at the right time. I always seem to be a little out of phase. In terms of doing what I do versus doing work-for-hire, I think it’s the only way it could have worked. I don’t think I ever had the affinity for the work-for-hire type gigs. And the few little attempts I made were disastrous. I was asked by both editors at Marvel and DC. This is going back to when I was doing Minimum Wage, and I felt very much like the character Barton Fink. Do you remember the film Barton Fink? They bring this guy, Barton Fink, who’s this playwright from New York out to L.A. to do what he does. And big producer has that line, “We want that Barton Fink feeling!” And of course they don’t want Barton Fink, they just want him to grind out stupid wrestling pictures. And kind of the same thing happened to me at Marvel and DC. And I think it’s funny that I have the same initials as Barton Fink. [laughs] I got that, “We want that Bob Fingerman feeling!” And I worked on developing things, and then ultimately when they got handed in it was like, “There’s too much Bob Fingerman feeling here!” So it’s not that I didn’t make an attempt at doing work-for-hire with mainstream properties, it just wasn’t in the cards
Rovnak: There’s too much ‘Bob Fingerman’ in your Bob Fingerman. [laughs]
Fingerman: Exactly. It’s a curse. [laughs] If only I could be less like me. But I think about that in all aspects of my life. There are those ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bracelets. There should be a ‘What Would Bob Do?’ bracelet, and I should always do the opposite. [laughs]
Interview © John Rovnak
Teenage Wildlife: Craig Yoe Talks Archie
an interview with John Rovnak
Craig Yoe is an internationally renowned cartoonist, designer, author and founder of YOE! Studios with Clizia Gussoni. Craig has created acclaimed products and promotions, from MTV station ID spots to Disney theme park attractions, and has six patents for toy inventions to his name. Before founding YOE! Studios, Craig was Creative Director/Vice President General Manager of Jim Henson’s Muppets and a Creative Director at Nickelodeon. Dubbed “Dr. Seuss on acid!” by Animation Magazine, Craig Yoe is a wildly entertaining speaker on creativity; his worldwide travels as a lecturer have taken him to Italy, France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Singapore. He has also served as curator for fine art exhibits at museums all over the world, including most recently the Comics Stripped exhibit for the Museum of Sex in New York City.
YOE! Studios has won numerous awards including the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators, two Addys, the Mobius and the Will Eisner Comics Industry Award.
Among his growing line of YOE! Books (published by IDW Publishing) is, Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers, released in 2011.
This interview was conducted over the phone on November 8, 2010.
John Rovnak: In the past, you’ve written about fetish art (Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster) and good girl art (Dan DeCarlo’s Jetta) in comics, would you also include Betty and Veronica on the continuum of good-girl art?
Craig Yoe: Oh absolutely. I think nobody had sexier girls than the Archie Company. They’re just drawn in such a beautiful way. They’re buoyant and wholesome, yet a little sexy. They’re teenage girls that anybody with blood flowing through their veins would want to date. [Laughs] Well maybe there are a few exceptions and some people that don’t swing that way; but if you like the female species, then Betty and Veronica are at the top of my list of hot looking girls. As an elderly gentleman I can say I appreciate them, but they are after all teenagers, so I‘ll be sure to appreciate them from afar. [Laughs]
Rovnak: Who do you prefer, Betty or Veronica?
Yoe: Definitely, there’s no doubt about it, I’m a Veronica guy! I’ve always gone for girls like Bettie Page, Morticia Addams, and Annette Funicello; and maybe topping that list would be Veronica Lodge. Definitely.
Rovnak: Comic book histories consider Dan DeCarlo to be the definitive Archie artist; the artist responsible for creating the Archie house-style. What impact do you feel artists such as Harry Lucey, Bob Montana, Samm Schwartz, and Bob Bolling had on the Archie house-style?
Yoe: You make a point in your article (Deft Mastery: The Genius of Early 1960’s Archie Comics by Philip Charles Crawford, from Panel to Panel Volume 1) that Dan’s work was so incredible and has in many ways overshadowed Harry Lucey’s work. As I worked on this book, I began to appreciate Harry Lucey more and more and how incredible he was. Dan (DeCarlo) was a friend of mine, and I’ve certainly worshipped at his altar for many years; he’s a good girl artist, as good as any of them in any time or any place. But Harry Lucey really captured my attention, so I now see both of them as masters. Everyone immediately thinks of Dan, and he sort of overshadows Lucey, but both of them have overshadowed the creator of Archie Bob Montana. I’ve always been a giant Bob Montana fan. Over time his Betty and Veronica got sexier and sexier. He has a great sense of humor, and he was also a “two-fisted” fighter in the cartoon world in that he could not only draw beautifully, but he was a really funny writer. Usually cartoonists are struggling to come up with a gag a day, but his Sunday strips, and sometimes the dailies, would have multiple jokes within the context of each strip. I think he was incredibly clever, and a great draftsman, and good girl artist who has been kind of overlooked.
Rovnak: What about Samm Schwartz?
Yoe: I wouldn’t classify him as a good girl artist, but talking to many of the young Archie artists, and some of the fans while doing this book, and I know that when I was growing up myself, a lot of us had tremendous admiration for Samm Schwartz because he gave us such tremendous enjoyment drawing Jughead. I don’t think too many people think of Jughead as a sex symbol, but as far as a character that’s great for laughs and has a little bit of rebellion and attitude, Juggie’s got it. In polls Archie Comics has done, Jughead is usually sited as everyone’s number one favorite character. There’s just something very, very cool about him. He’s nonchalant, and he doesn’t get into the battle of the sexes that everyone else is involved in. Jughead steps back and is kind of cynical about the whole thing, and there’s something nice and fun about his attitude. And his character design is terrific. I’ve got to find one of those Jughead hats myself [laughs]
Rovnak: Bob Bolling. Any thoughts about him?
Yoe: Bob Bolling has been compared to Carl Barks, as far as a storyteller. There’s certainly a tremendous charm in his work. His Little Archie’s are very different than Archie and the gang as teenagers. And there is a child-like innocence and quality in his work; more than any of the other Archie artists. As a writer he explored all kinds of fantasy and different themes and times. His stories were almost surreal in a child like, daydream kind of way. I really love him and appreciate him. We’re going to be publishing his own favorite story in the book, and many Archie fans have sited that it’s their favorite story as well.
Rovnak: What story is that?
Yoe: It’s called “The Long Walk.” It’s from Little Archie #20. It’s really sweet and a lot of fun.
Rovnak: The introduction of Kevin Keller, Archie’s first openly gay character was a huge success; popular enough to go into a second printing. However, many longtime fans would argue that Jughead, a self-labeled woman hater, was Archie’s first gay character, albeit thinly veiled. Any thoughts on the matter?
Yoe: I’m so excited that Archie is doing groundbreaking work in introducing Kevin, who was created by the über-talented Dan Parent. We’re all pretty aware that Archie, Betty and Veronica seem to be very heterosexual, Reggie too. But I always saw Jughead as asexual. His main interest is hamburgers, and he’s a woman hater because he’s Archie’s best friend and he sees how many jams Archie gets in by having his heterosexual desires never working out. I’ve known a few asexual people, and have had a few asexual friends in my life, and Jughead has always seemed like one of those types to me.
Rovnak: Historically, adults in the Archie world are depicted as unattractive, overweight, and often toothless (Mr.Weatherbee, Miss Grundy). They are a sharp contrast to the attractive and physically fit teens that populate Riverdale. The only exception is Mr. Lodge who is presented as relatively attractive and physically fit. Why is he the exception?
Yoe: All the adults seem to have had a makeover in the past few years or so. But you’re right. Mr. Lodge is pretty good looking, and Mrs. Lodge is kind of a babe now. Betty’s mom is still kind of lackluster, but Mrs. Lodge looks pretty darn good. My partner pointed out that Mrs. Lodge could probably afford botox and the best plastic surgeons. She looks pretty good. Even in the latest stories, Mrs. Grundy looks a lot better; well rested or something. Everyone seems to have taken a few youth pills in the last couple of years, or found the fountain of youth; they’re all looking pretty good now.
Rovnak: Most comic book historians focus on the history of superheroes and horror comics, but your work is unique in that it focuses on characters and genres usually overlooked by traditional historians of the comic book. The historical work you’ve done has certainly expanded and altered our understanding of the field. What draws you to write about the genres of funny animals (Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails), teen humor (Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers), and children’s comics (The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics)?
Yoe: Ironically, as I get older, I’m more interested in the younger stuff. I really have little patience for superheroes. Guys running around in tights, hitting each other; it’s just not a big area of interest for me. I feel like I’ve grown up, so now I’m interested in things like comedy and kid’s comics. I think the world needs a good laugh. I certainly feel the same for myself sometimes. I like writing books about Milt Gross (The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story). Even with my recent Frankenstein book (Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein), people ask me do I like the horror version best, or the funny version best? And I certainly gravitate towards the funny version. But I do actually have a couple ideas of some superhero histories up my sleeve… But by and large I cringe when I think about how much documentation there has been of superhero comics, and superhero artists, in comparison with the other genres. All these neglected genres, many of these have brilliant artists and writers, fascinating histories behind the comics, and I think these things need to be told. It’s what gets me up in the morning. When you tell people the term comics, all they think of is superheroes and superhero movies. I’m all for putting the ‘comic’ back in comics. That’s a big thrust for Yoe! Books.
Rovnak: What do you say to the comics fan who says, “Once you’ve read one Archie comic, you’ve read them all?”
Yoe: We’ve been talking about the artists, but George Gladir and Frank Doyle are some of the most brilliant writers that comics have ever known. And there are newer guys, like Craig Boldman, coming up with great stories too. When John L. Goldwater created Archie Andrews, he was sort of the antithesis of Superman. He knew he couldn’t out-super Superman. He tried. The MLJ Company tried with the Black Hood and The Shield, which as we know was the first patriotic hero by over a year, but still they couldn’t compete with Batman and Superman. So what’s the antithesis to that? A normal human being. Writing comedy was hitting the sweet spot with teenagers, and their foibles, and their interest in the opposite sex, and being in school. There’s a whole group of people who contributed to the brilliance of Archie. John L. Goldwater had more than an idea, he really put a lot into the character, and a lot of thinking behind the character. Then when he gave the job to visualize Archie to Bob Montana, Bob brought a tremendous amount in from his own personal experiences in high school The editor Harry Shorten, I feel contributed a lot too. No one, rarely, mentions that there was a writer on the first three stories that’s credited, Victor Bloom. People know very little about him, but I was able to turn up a little bit of information; I wish I had more, but it is more than has ever been put together. Archie Comics had an incredible team then and they have an incredible team which continues through today. Archie is keeping these stories fresh and green, creating new ideas and humor. I really enjoyed doing this book inparticual because I’m usually not working with any people, because the books I’m usually working on, the cartoonists are long gone. But, it turns out that the Archie offices are less than a half an hour from Yoe! Books’ office. I’m going over there all the time. The management they have at Archie now is phenomenal! Jon Goldwater leading the show, with Victor Gorelick and Mike Pellerito, are doing kick-ass comics. The excitement that’s over there, the ideas that are flowing, the attitude, and the valuing of the creative people of the past who did Archie and that are currently doing Archie. The way that they are esteemed and thought highly of, it’s just a thrill to me; I’m tying to get some of that across in the book too. How not only that Archie has had a glorious past, but the present is very exciting and it seems like it’s very bright; we’re going to need sunglasses [laughs].
Rovnak: It’s interesting, and amazing, that Archie has survived all these years without relying on, or resorting to, such things as licensing and expanding themselves outside the comics market. They really don’t adhere to the same business model that, I would say, 99% of the comics industry adheres to.
Yoe: Yeah, they have this weird concept; they’ve always given people great stories and great artwork. It’s an interesting concept, and an interesting way to run a comic book company. [Laughs] By golly, it just might work…
For more information on YOE! Books go to www.yoebooks.com
Interview © John Rovnak
Steve Murphy Comes Out Of His Shell
an interview with John Rovnak
Steve Murphy’s life is an open book. It’s no secret what he is thinking or feeling, just read any of his stories from a nearly 25 year career in comics. Whether he’s talking about politics, the environment, or his personal life, Murphy reveals all. And whether he’s writing about mutant turtles or government agents, Murphy holds nothing back, and demands that his audience view his worlds with unflinching eyes.
Beginning his career in the black & white boom of the mid 1980s, Murphy soon came to work for Mirage Studios, home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A job he had for nearly 20 years. When we spoke, it had barely been a year since it was announced that the cable channel Nickelodeon (a subsidiary of Viacom) had purchased all of Mirage’s rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property; a move that left Murphy quite vulnerable, both as a person and as an artist.
In February of 2010, Murphy decided to return comics, this time creating his most personal and revealing work yet. Contains Traces Of, both written and drawn by Murphy, premiered online in the guise of an unassuming blog. Posting a panel a day, Murphy once again began giving us stories that hold nothing back; a captivating tale of his own life, full of fears and insecurities, and raw human emotion. Contains Traces Of allows Murphy’s unique voice to shine in ways it never could before, and allows him to look towards a very bright future, as he dissects his past for all of us to see.
This interview was conducted via email during September to November of 2010.
John Rovnak: When did comics first enter your life? What’s your earliest memory of comic books?
Steve Murphy: I’m not sure when comic strips first entered my life but I’m sure it was early on via the various Sunday papers we had around the house: both the Boston Globe and the more local Worcester Telegram, as well as the occasional Boston Herald. My first memory of comic books is a bit later, when my great uncle brought me into his local smoke shop and newsstand and, feeling a bit intimidated by the group of friends he was talking to by the checkout, I wandered around the store and came across a low display shelf lined with comics. I can still see it all clearly in my mind. I’m sure my jaw dropped. It’s also the day I made my first comic book purchase – or, rather, my uncle did for me – an issue of the Amazing Spider-Man – I think it was number 71 – that featured Spider-Man fighting Quicksilver on the cover. Quicksilver is running a tight circle around Spidey, punching him over and over again from multiple points as he runs round and around like only Quicksilver can. And all visualized by Romita Sr in a full body shot that at the same time was in-your-face, like a close-up. From that moment on I was hooked and went back to that newsstand at every occasion. I still have that comic in my collection. Late 60’s to early 70’s: that’s my golden age of comics.
Rovnak: The Puma Blues, to my knowledge, was your first published work in comics, with you as writer and Michael Zulli as artist. Can you explain the origins of that book, and of your relationship with Zulli?
Murphy: You’re right: Puma is my first published work and Michael’s as well. We actually worked together on a couple of short stories first though, just to see how we’d get on together. Those have never seen print. How did Puma start? That was a long time ago, something like twenty-five years now, and half a lifetime away. Puma actually began life several years before I met Michael. I was taking a “comic creating” class in Northampton, Massachusetts. I think it was through the long defunct Northampton Art Guild. The teachers were two very talented local cartoonists, John Hayman and Brian Turner. The class’ final assignment was to start an actual comic book. I can’t say precisely how it came together for me but at that point in my life I had been spending most of my free time hiking the Quabbin Reservoir and, I suppose, doing a fair amount of daydreaming. One of the things or stories about Quabbin was the increasing circumstantial evidence suggesting that the area was either being visited by a mountain lion – a puma – or that the watershed area was actual home to one. I think that possibility, which I saw as both romantic and melancholic – a lone puma out and about in the shadows of man – struck a chord deep within myself and gave voice to my sense of isolation and alienation. At any rate, I wound up calling it The Blue Puma, writing the first few pages and even illustrating them in my own cartoony way. The class ended and a few months later I got a job at Moondance Comics, a comic store in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I continued developing the story during my free time, changing the title to The Puma Blues. Michael was a regular customer, someone whom I was a little afraid of at first – he can be very off-putting at first, a defense mechanism of his – but when a fellow employee told me Michael was an artist I got up the courage to talk to him and before long we warmed to each other. One day Michael gave the store a clock he had made: a basic clock face mounted on a beautiful piece of wood (more a slice from a tree showing both rings at the center and bark at the edges) upon which Michael had painted a very dark image of Batman. It was amazing. I soon got up the courage to ask if he’d like to work on some comics together and before long we did (those short stories mentioned earlier). We then started spending some time together outside of the store and at some point I explained the whole Puma series concept, which Michael strongly identified with. Feeling we were kindred spirits we tackled the project.
Rovnak: How did it come about that Dave Sim and Aardvark-Vanaheim published The Puma Blues?
Murphy: Moondance had Dave and Gerhard as guests one day. Michael and I, knowing this in advance, decided to screw up the courage to show Dave the first eight or so finished Puma #1 pages, as it had been announced that Sim was going to be reviewing portfolios for future A-V titles. Michael and I waited in line with the other hopefuls and dreamers. As soon as Dave read the first three pages he said he’d publish it and that Michael and I were the next Alan Moore and Barry Windsor Smith. No shit. And, obviously, at least as far as I’m concerned, not quite. Few can even come close to Alan.
Rovnak: The Puma Blues went through its share of ups and downs, including the well-documented battle between Dave Sim and Diamond Comics, which you were caught in the middle of. It seemed to be a battle well fought. The book’s writing and art seemed stronger than ever, the Creator’s Bill of Rights (which you and Zulli played an integral part in) came out of this mess with Diamond, and overall seemed like a great “David vs. Goliath” story. Why after such an upward battle to keep the book alive and well, did The Puma Blues end so abruptly soon after?
Murphy: I’ve voiced various answers to that question over the years but now I think I finally know the real reason: Puma was too autobiographical for me to continue. You see, when I started writing it, I was living the life of a somewhat pathetic loner. It was easy to get into the mind of Puma’s main character, Gavia Immer, because we were the same being (Gavia Immer, by the way, is Latin for the common Loon; oh so clever). After becoming a “studio mate” at Mirage, I started to change; becoming more outgoing and confident, thanks, primarily, to my roommate and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) collaborator at the time, the very talented and often overlooked Ryan Brown. Simply put, it became harder and harder for me to both be and write Gavia. Finally, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Strange as it sounds, at this point in my life I think that I could. One of the pluses to being old: emotional distance, professionalism.
Rovnak: So are you saying you’d ever consider returning to The Puma Blues?
Murphy: I’ve been seriously considering it but I haven’t discussed it with Michael and have no idea how he’d feel about it. I’ve only recently realized that the first issue came out twenty-five years ago. Half my lifetime!
Rovnak: How did Michael feel about the book ending?
Murphy: We’ve never discussed it and in fact never even had any sort of meeting during which we officially ended it. I’m sure he was displeased with my drifting away from and eventually abandoning it. On the other hand, it may have lead to his seeking outside work and his eventual stint on Sandman. So for his own professional life, it was for the better.
Rovnak: In Zulli’s TMNT: Souls Winter trilogy, you’re credited for providing the script. Is this a credit you had from the inception of this story, or were you brought in later, out of necessity, to help complete the project?
Murphy: My memory’s a bit fuzzy on this but I’m fairly certain that all three issues were fully conceived by Michael. He wasn’t feeling all that confident about tackling the script on the first issue so he asked that I come in and give it an “organizing polish” as it were, writing from his script notes. Since his notes were so extensive I also seem to recall encouraging him to fully script the next two issues, which he of course did.
Rovnak: You write comics with a message, whether it’s The Puma Blues or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the books you write have a social awareness. While I imagine this seems quite natural to you as a creator, it’s not always the norm in comics. Do you think comic readers are open to these messages?
Murphy: I think some are. At least those fans that have told me that they glommed on to my messages when they were kids, especially the great many that read my main TMNT gig, Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. Keep in mind that in its heyday, the title had multiple reprints in many languages and sold in the millions of copies per issue. Far more than the seventeen thousand that were buying Puma at its peak, or the ten thousand who were actually reading it. Which, in hindsight, is another reason for my drifting away from Puma: I was very aware that I had a huge audience through Adventures. Ryan saw this before I did. I also found that I loved telling stories to kids. Still love it. My six-year old daughter and I have a very rich alternate universe story that has been ongoing since she turned four, one that we add new elements to every day. It blows my mind how rich the story is. Me, I enjoy thinking like a kid. I love how my daughter thinks.
Rovnak: Are publishers and editors open to comics with a conscience?
Murphy: I honestly don’t know. Dave Sim, as publisher, never gave me any feedback at all, ever. Nor did Eastman and Laird. For the latter two, I came to realize it was because neither of them are writers and simply don’t understand how writers think. Pete didn’t step up to the editorial plate until he was in complete control of Mirage and even then his changes were more plot-driven than thematic. At the end of the day though it comes down to this: I never had a story rejected and for the most part no one said a thing about whatever messages the stories may have contained. Archie only balked over one story element (Hitler’s brain! Ooooh!) but we beat them back like the money-grubbing dogs that they are. Or were. Are they still around? Actually, I read in the Times that they’ve put out an Archie newsstand magazine. Only it’s new-newsstand. Toy and maybe grocery store checkouts. I love how Archie keeps it old school. What will they do next, plastic model kits? Gumball machine character rings? Actually, that might be too cool.
Rovnak: Speaking of the TMNT Adventures series, who is Dean Clarrain?
Murphy: I am. It’s an anagram based on the name of a woman I was dating at the time I started writing TMNT Adventures. When I first started Adventures I wasn’t sure whether or not I would like it or be good at writing for kids. There was also an element of trying to maintain two careers, as it were, but then Clarrain eclipsed Murphy. At least for a while.
Rovnak: Did you find it challenging to write from the point of view of a teenager (or in this case, four teenagers)? How did you find their voice?
Murphy: Strangely enough, no, it wasn’t challenging at all. Finding their voices came pretty easily once I figured out and developed their personalities in ways that were different from both the Mirage and original cartoon characterizations. I had to “make them mine” first, so to speak.
Rovnak: In 2003 you were turned down for the writing job on the Dreamwave TMNT series, in favor of Peter David. Was this a blow to your ego, having spent the majority of your career working on these characters?
Murphy: Ha, no, not at all. It was a shot against the odds knowing that Dreamwave wanted a “name” writer on the project. In fact, it was somewhat interesting being the Mirage liaison on the project, relaying Peter Laird’s feedback to Peter David’s scripts, then David’s comments back to Laird’s, and then watching the two of them act hissy towards each other in follow-up emails. Later on, I wound up tweaking my two Dreamwave scripts and using them during my stint writing the Mirage’s Tales book.
Rovnak: What other failed or rejected submissions do you have in your files?
Murphy: Hmmm, failures and rejections, let’s see. I also tried out for the position of writer on what would have been the second Imagi TMNT film, submitted a handful of plots, got them all rejected (and I’m still not even sure by whom). I even adapted the first Mirage issue into a full screenplay which Imagi also rejected but was then purchased for an intended third party direct-to-DVD CGI film that was to bridge the “product gap” between the first and second Imagi films. Imagi later shut that project down, unfortunately. And then of course Imagi lost the TMNT film license shortly thereafter. The next producers made it clear up front that they wanted a name writer for their film so that was that. Once Viacom bought the TMNT brand they killed that script but, I believe, have somehow retained the same producers.
My greatest disappointment was my first rejection, which took place a few years before beginning Puma. Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, placed an open audition of sorts for new writers. I was fresh out of college and submitted two very detailed plot synopses, one for Spider-Man, one for Captain America. I immediately got a very nice “close but no cigar” rejection letter from Shooter (I still have it). However, about nine months later my Cap synopsis was used as a three-part Captain America story arc (wherein Deathlok came back in time and fought Cap, etc.). That was both disappointing in the short run – and eye opening – but also somewhat encouraging as time passed: after all, the idea was good enough to be stolen.
Rovnak: Have you ever suffered writer’s block? If so, for how long and how did you remedy it?
Murphy: Shit, John, I suffer from it lots of the time. I suffer, in fact, from two kinds of writer’s block. The “usual” and more mundane form is what happened once I got married and which worsened since having a child: I just don’t have the head space and quiet late-night time that I used to have when I was a swashbuckling (although very dedicated) single. Too many writing-less nights go by – usually due to the exhaustion of being a husband and father and worrywart – and I can plunge into a non-productive writer’s block. The old remedy was that I would shut myself off entirely from my family for a few hours, usually after they’ve fallen asleep, and always out of insane and somewhat depraved anxiety and frustration. The current remedy is much the same, only more, like, mature: I now own a cabin on a mountaintop near the Vermont border that I escape to (my friend Keith McCleary points out that the cabin’s setting is very much Gavia’s [see The Puma Blues – editor]; the solitude and forest visuals minus the reservoir). It’s twenty minutes from home. I head up there for an afternoon or evening when I need to. This past year I’ve put in electricity and a composting toilet. The wood stove cranks and there are framed posters of Frazetta’s The Bear to keep me in line and of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire to remind that the times they are a changing, fast, and that I’m getting old, also fast. There’s an impressive view of Mount Monadnock through the east-facing glass doors. Also a generator and good line of sight all around. When the shit hits the fan, I’m Jeremiah Johnson with an old lady, a beanpole and a beagle-mix.
That other, more daunting form of writer’s block sets in when I’m majorly depressed. I’ve only suffered this three times in my life. The most recent period was during my last two years working at Mirage. I just couldn’t deal with the way I was being treated by the CEO, nor handle all the various grumpy or unhelpful personalities around me. It was killing me. I couldn’t write Turtles – or anything else – for shit. It’s a miracle that I lasted until the endpoint when the Turtles got sold.
Rovnak: At some point you made the move from Managing Editor to Licensing Director. Was this an upward move, lateral move, or a step down? In Tales #13, you mention a disagreement with Peter (Laird) over how the letters page should be presented. Were situations like this just the “tip of the iceberg” for you, and did this influence you move within the company?
Murphy: Actually I was both Licensing Directing of Mirage Licensing and Managing Editor of Mirage Publishing for several overlapping years (but not editor of Pete’s TMNT title which was always under his direct control). I eventually got sick of how the production on the books was always late and as a result, very stressful; often necessitating my receiving proofs while on vacation via Fed Ex. It was beginning to lower the quality of my life. So I threw in the towel on publishing but without diminishing my salary, although I did lose out on more and more writing opportunities as new editor Dan Berger developed a more systematic way of approaching things, more democratic if you will, which resulted in more competition to get plots approved. At the same time Pete took a greater interest in the book, even altering many plots to the point where they became as much his as a given writer’s. For me, that’s fine in small doses or if it strengthens a plot, but when my story ideas got changed too much – to the point where it became a different story altogether – I’d lose interest in the plot; it just wasn’t the story I wanted to tell anymore. I’m grateful to Pete for many things but a few rounds of that and I’d had quite enough with writing for Mirage.
Rovnak: The TMNT name, brand and license is, in recent years, a very viable and popular property, even 25 years later. What do you attribute that to? So many properties, especially in the comics world, are swallowed up by Hollywood, turn a quick dollar, and are then forgotten never to be heard from again. What made the Turtles different?
Murphy: The TMNT earned, what, six billion dollars in revenue by the time the second movie came out? Those are six billion big reasons to keep it going and by that I mean licensees as well as by agent and owners. But that’s only half the answer of course. What set the Turtles apart are several things: the obvious mix of action, adventure, humor and kung-fu mayhem (filling the void left by Bruce Lee), along with an element of family and brotherhood that struck a mass nerve. Plus, perhaps, an underlying sensitivity that appealed to girls without alienating boys. Mind you, I’m talking about the TMNT once it left the confines of the direct comics marketplace.
Rovnak: When all is said and done, the Turtles are (and will be) remembered for the cartoons, the films, the toys, the breakfast cereal, etc. The comics will, quite possibly, be among the last thing to be remembered. Why, do you think, comics are doomed to be forgotten when it comes to properties like the Turtles, Batman, X-Men, etc.? Why can’t comics seem to ever really achieve the mainstream acceptance we so badly want?
Murphy: We live in a multimedia age, with the winning media being the largest common denominator if you will. It’s a generational thing. For me, growing up in the sixties, comic books remain the media by which I define Spider-Man, Batman, etc., because comic books were the dominant media for those characters at that time. If I grew up in the eighties or nineties, I’d define those same characters by their films or video games; again, the dominant media form of the time. I think it’s all a matter of which media rules the general culture at a given historical time.
As far as comics achieving mainstream acceptance… well, I think it’s all about content and marketing and the fact that most Americans don’t read for pleasure, whether it’s comics, graphic novels or serious literature. Also, comics used to be aimed at kids. Now they’re aimed at adults. Mind you, there are exceptions. And of course now comics have become secondary to the films that can be made by their being optioned to Hollywood. Comic-based movies are as close to mainstream acceptance as it’s going to get. Also, comics are just so damn expensive: one doesn’t get much bang for one’s buck.
Rovnak: What was it like working within a “studio” setting at Mirage? Comic’s creation is usually such a solitary process; having worked both in and out of the studio setting, which do you prefer? What are the benefits, and what are the downsides?
Murphy: There were two Mirage studio spaces. The first was a true open shared studio space (circa 1987-1990), the second and final “studio” was a suite of offices, one per artist, and not really a studio but more a, er, mirage of one. I never did much creative work in the shared space: there was just too much loud music, socialization, horsing around and, at times, media intrusion (interviews with Eastman and Laird were often carried out in the studio). In the later office set-up, I got much more done but even that wasn’t ideal. For me, like you say, creation truly is a solitary process and as a result I tended to (and still tend to) work alone. I have home office space and the cabin but I sometimes work at the local public library if the mood suits me.
Rovnak: In the late 1990s you published V-Mag, an arts and entertainment magazine for the Northampton, Massachusetts area. How did this venture begin? What was it like to go from the “published” to the publisher?
Murphy: I was visiting a friend living in Pennsylvania and saw an arts related magazine for his area and thought maybe the Pioneer Valley could use the same; something in addition to the Valley Advocate, which I abhorred for its smugness and elitism. However, as with most creative things I undertake, V-Mag (for “Valley Magazine”) became something else entirely, something more reflective of my own interests, and thus something more difficult to explain to potential advertisers. It’s strange, but I folded it about ten years ago and only now are various people contacting me and telling me what a great publication it was. Too bad I wasn’t hearing that at the time!
Being a publisher and managing editor (and eventually layout person as well) was challenging and a huge amount of work. I learned a lot about people, dealing with freelancers and staffers, most of which I was able to put to use in my twin capacities (explained above) working for Mirage managing both artists and licensees. It was an enriching experience that lost me lots of my personal savings but it was worth it on many levels, not least of which was that’s how I met my future wife.
Rovnak: In 2006, your first non-TMNT comic since The Puma Blues, Umbra was released by Image Comics. What inspired this mini-series?
Murphy: When I came back to Mirage in 2002 to work in Licensing I also worked at getting Publishing up and running, which I did with the re-launching of Tales and related titles. But I also wanted to work with Jim Lawson and Eric Talbot on creator-owned projects. With Jim in mind I created Umbra, inspired in part by my trips to Iceland and Alaska a few years earlier but based, more so, on a series of dreams I had following the Icelandic trips. Askja, the main character, was an extension of myself, at least when I was working through my substance abuse problems. The sequence when she finds herself approached by a pod of killer whales really happened to me on my third trip to Alaska, although I was kayaking with several friends, not solo. Lawson, for reasons he never quite explained, passed on Umbra after reading the scripts. Luckily, through Dan Berger, I met Mike Hawthorne and the books came together better than I ever could have imagined.
Rovnak: How were your experiences working with Image Comics?
Murphy: Image was very hands off. Artist Mike Hawthorne and art assistant Erik Swanson and I just delivered the books and that was that: no editorial input at all. Image was also great about making their U.S. payments. Their biggest problem – at least at the time – was a lack of organization that I perceived as their being a bit of a dodge: when I discovered foreign reprints of Umbra that Image hadn’t made me aware of (nor sent payment for) I blew my top. In hindsight, I’ve come to see that I overreacted.
Rovnak: In the second issue of Umbra, you’re interviewed and make mention of two other projects in the works. It’s now nearing 2011, five years later: what has happened to Sturgeon Creek and God’s Dog?
Murphy: God’s Dog is the project I alluded to above that I created with Eric Talbot in mind. Talbot was into it and spent a long time trying to get a handle on the first issue. When it became clear that he wasn’t all that into it, or getting anywhere on it, we parted creative ways on it and I in turn offered the book (it’s six 24-page issues) to Dario Brizuela. The art’s been completed for several years and I’m finally getting off my ass and beginning the lettering. Sturgeon Creek is my second project with Mike Hawthorne and Erik Swanson. It’s a 120-page autobiographical graphic novel and the art is ninety percent done and the lettering now underway. If Mike can finish it up soon, I’ll put Sturgeon and Dog out in 2014, along with an unrelated 32-page stand-alone book with art by D’Israeli. I’d also like to finally put out a trade collection of Umbra. Not sure which route to go, though: publisher or self-publishing. Time will tell.
Rovnak: What part of your life is Sturgeon Creek about?
Murphy: Sturgeon takes place during a single autumn night during my senior year in high school but also flits back now and then to various moments earlier in my childhood. It takes an evening when certain threads of childhood unravel and end, while others begin to come together. Not obvious at the time of course, only in hindsight. For someone who wasn’t there and didn’t know me at all in my youth, artist Mike Hawthorne has done a brilliant job of capturing my friends and I, just based on a handful of old photos. Uncanny!
Rovnak: Speaking of autobiographical comics, in February of 2010, you premiered Contains Traces Of online, posting a panel every weekday. In your own words, what is this blog/webcomic about?
Murphy: It’s about me, and about how I came to learn a deep family secret. About how I deal with the knowledge of that secret while trying to uncover other information related to that knowledge. It’s mostly a retelling of the therapy sessions I went through as I came to grips with it all. This is going back to late 2001 and early 2002. It also deals with the problems I was having when employed by Mirage, and how I dealt with those problems and my anger through therapy. Typical “dark night of the soul” stuff.
Rovnak: Why did you choose to handle the art chores as well, and not just stick to the writing?
Murphy: Traces is just something I wanted to do alone. First, just to take the challenge – I mean, I can’t draw, so how can I even attempt to do the art? Once I figured that out – by tracing and/or altering existing “found” art – it came together fairly quickly by providing a somewhat primitive frame or medium of delivery: one panel at a time. Also, because I wanted to post just one panel per day (aside from most weekend days) I couldn’t expect any artist to get behind something so, I don’t know, I guess so ongoing, something with no clear end in sight. Plus, obviously, it’s an extremely personal story that begs to be told by the writer alone, without even the slightest input of or altering by anyone else’s vision. It’s more words than pictures.
Rovnak: Your name appears nowhere on the blog, and no fanfare was made when it was launched. Who do you hope finds this, and how?
Murphy: I don’t care who finds it, honestly. I launched it by sending the link to my ten closest friends. They’re my true audience for this. A few months later Ryan Brown told Dan Berger about it and Dan was kind enough to link it to what’s left of the Mirage web site. Now I merely link it as the “signature” at the bottom of all my emails and let happen what may. It’s incredibly liberating to just produce the thing and not worry about paying an artist for it or dealing with anyone telling me how to do it, nor to be concerned about making money off it.
Rovnak: The events in the story begin, and revolve around, the eve of September 11, 2001. As the story unfolded, panel-by-panel, weekday after weekday, throughout 2010 it reached a real crescendo during the month of September watching you discuss the events of nine years earlier. If you were following the story, as I was, it was hard to not be moved by the synonymous barrage of news coverage of 9/11 and your story. Did you have the timing of your panels mapped out when you first began Contains Traces Of, or was this a happy accident?
Murphy: I have certain milestones or important dates in mind relative to the unfolding of the story. Some of those milestones I reach, some I don’t. I don’t plan it out very far ahead, on average two weeks of posts at a time. I may write out five or six weeks in a given evening and then spend another evening doing the art and any editing for the next two-week batch. The writing, for the most part, is first draft. I’m trying to be honest.
Rovnak: How long do you anticipate this story running?
Murphy: I have absolutely no idea. My story hasn’t ended yet.
Interview © John Rovnak
Friend to Panel to Panel, Josh Rollson, stopped by this weekend and performed an impromptu version of his P2P “theme song”
If this doesn’t inspire me to get crackin’ on a Volume Two, nothing will…
The year was 1995… I was working at Comics Route in Manchester, Vermont when I first met Chris Kulig. Little did I know at the time, that this interesting man who road into town on a bicycle, asking to be photographed next to my display for Teri Wood’s self-published Wandering Star, would remain a constant in my life for the next 16 years. Chris made his purchase that day, and inquired about mail order options before continuing his travels across the green mountains of Vermont. You see Chris was enjoying his first summer off from the Seminary, and his travels had landed him in my comics shop, and every month since that day in ’95, I’ve been selling Chris his comics. Although he’s not just Chris anymore, now he’s Fr. Christopher Kulig, O.Carm. of the St. Joseph/Immaculate Conception Rectory. That’s right folks, a comic book reading Roman Catholic Priest! And not only does he read comics, but at my request, he wrote a little something about them too. Here’s an excerpt…
Meet Joe Priest
It was 15 years ago or so that I found myself in a comic book store in north Jersey, browsing through the various titles. I came upon a most intriguing graphic novella: Meet Joe Priest. If I recall correctly, it had both a priest in roman collar and a Hell’s Angel character on the cover, replete with motorcycle, of course. Hmmm, I thought, I did have a few extra dollars in my allowance, so what the hell–I bought it. The story was fairly kitschy: in a future time of dictatorship, when human birth had been usurped by genetic engineering done in the laboratory, a renegade priest runs rampant with his motorcycle bodyguard, “confessing” every nubile young lady in town (“confessing” being code word for impregnating, if you hadn’t inferred) as a way of subverting the evil regime of his time. Oh, brother, was it worth the five bucks?
I had to laugh, though, since this was nothing like priesthood or sacramental confession. How might I know? Well, I have a confession to make: I am a Roman Catholic priest, going on ten years, now. It was in the seminary that I picked up the aforementioned title (really, how many grown men have an “allowance,” save “priests-in-training for poverty, chastity and obedience—or very henpecked husbands!). But my interest in the art form of comics went back just a little bit earlier, to the late 80s. My college roommate at West Virginia was somewhat of an avid collector, back in the day when the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns series was a hot seller. However, my potential interest in comic books was quickly squelched when my roomie wouldn’t let me read that four-part series, lest I ruin its re-sale value (NB: Another dorm-rat college buddy wouldn’t even let me read the ensuing compilation book, since its bluebook value was increasing, too!).
Suffice to say, my interest was put off for a few years. If these books had become like ancient manuscripts, “sacred texts,” forbidden from my purview, then why bother?
Then I took a road-trip with Tony, the sole representative of the WVU fencing club, for the NCAA fencing tournament in Orlando in 1989. For the journey, Tony had brought his Cerebus Phone Books, both High Society and Church and State I & II. I can still recall, with great glee, the hilarity I found in the opening pages of High Society, where this new hero for our ages—Cerebus the Aardvark—was itching to pick a fight with anyone, and was foiled at every turn. I was enthralled.
I would soon begin collecting Cerebus and eventually go on a quest to find first printings of each issue. It probably did not help my relationship with my last girlfriend at the time (“You just had to make me drive you to every comic store in the area in search of ‘another Cerebus comic book’!” echoes her perturbed voice in old section of my romantic memory); but I grew to appreciate the different stores I visited in my travels. Why call ahead and ask, “Do you have any old Cerebus?” when you can go into the store and see what treasures were waiting to be found? Like Meet Joe Priest? Well, some stores had more hidden treasures than others (but, as kitschy as it was, I did like Joe Priest).
[Meet Joe Priest can be read in its entirety in Panel to Panel: Exploring Words & Pictures, which can be purchased at this website.]