Building Stories: an interview with Dean Motter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview © John Rovnak

 

A Work in Progress: an excerpt from an interview with Michael Zulli Part 2

web zulli sandman

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

What Would Bob Do? an interview with Bob Fingerman

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?

Fingerman: Twelve.

“Jeez, that was a superb magazine!” -Bob Fingerman

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?

Rovnak: Absolutely.

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