I have too many issues to count. How many issues do you have?
I about to start work on a new project here at Panel to Panel, and I’m calling it, ‘I HAVE ISSUES.’ It’s going to be a long and very personal project, but one that I’m look my forward to getting started on. To help inspire me and get my creative juices flowing, I felt the need to create a visual or logo to focus on. I showed the logo to a few friends, and immediately they all responded positively. So much so that they urged me to put it on a t-shirt and make it available to them and others. So I set up a store on TeePublic, and did exactly that! So if you would like to wear an I HAVE ISSUES t-shirt, or any of the other fun products that are offered, click HERE and grab yourself an item or two.
Thank so much for your interest and support. I can’t wait to share more with you soon!
Back in June, I had the crazy idea to pursue getting an interview with the legendary Steve Ditko. You see, a friend of mine is a friend of his, so I have an “in”. Now I know full well that Steve Ditko does not grant interviews, but maybe if he knew I was a friend-of-a-friend, then maybe he’d let me chat with him? It was worth a try, right? What was there to lose? So I wrote a very simple letter introducing myself and included a copy of my interview with artist Jeremy Eaton. I felt that my interview with Eaton was a great representation of my style and approach, plus it was one of my favorites, so I felt encouraged. Once it was mailed off, the waiting game would begin. Well it wasn’t too long before I received a letter back from mister Ditko… I don’t have to tell you that I was equally nervous and excited to rip that envelope open… What did his letter say?!?!
As you can see here, Steve Ditko did not grant me that interview. He graciously told me, in classic Ditko fashion, that he was not interested. Oh well, right? At least I tried…
If anyone else has a similar experience, or more specifically a similar letter or postcard from Steve Ditko, please contact me. I’d be very interested to hear about it.
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.
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: Evictionand 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.
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.
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?
Danzig: [long pause] The little engine that just can’t. [Laughs]
Danzig: The king, man. The best.
Rovnak:The Comics Code Authority.
Danzig: Does anyone even care? [Laughs] Passé. Whatever… irrelevant.
Danzig: The master.
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.
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.