|Michael Wm. Kaluta
|A Conversation with Michael Kaluta
by Todd Adams
This interview was conducted in Mike’s apartment on August 31st, 1985 and originally saw print in issues 2 and 4 of the
CFA-APA. Michael Kaluta has generously edited the text and added some thoughts to a piece done some 23 years ago.
Todd: Before you started in professional comics and magazine illustration, and before you came to
New York, did you ever have anything published in local magazines or newspapers?
Michael: My first-ever Illustration “work” was in High School. I think maybe every High School in
America has a magazine of the arts, run by the students. At Washington-Lee HS, in Arlington,
Virginia, we had The Penman, a prose and poetry magazine. I illustrated a number of student poems,
as did all my friends in Art Class. Unlike the fairly sophisticated drawings supplied by my close friends
Tony Sadoti, Ragan Reaves and Jake Pierre, my work was really bad. There is nothing good to be
said about these drawings, no reason to have them collected or shown. One would have to really be
forgiving to see any relationship between that work (and work it was: I sweat over them, but alas:
whatever benefits were to be gleaned from that hard work would have to be harvested 5 years in the
future) and my current efforts. There’s no forgiving them: they were just bad drawings.
T: Just real early stuff?
M: Very early work; unguided work. But just about that time Ace paperback books started
publishing the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus stories. Seeing Roy Krenkel’s pen and ink
drawings that graced the interior title pages made my mind go BONK: seeing how he created and
composed fantasy art was a catalyst. Where I’d had no direction to push my pen, seeing Roy’s (and
Frank Frazetta’s) pen art and cover paintings opened my mind: until then I’d no idea one could make
the words in one’s favorite stories into pictures. Before Krenkel/Frazetta (and J. Allen St. John,
Frank Schoonover, Fortunino Matania and the other ERB artists) I drew, but just doodled whatever
was in front of me: houses, scenes of trees, things like that. Once the ERB Ace Books and their
distinctive illustrations came into my life, I had something to aim for with my dreams and ideas.
T: I was into your artwork before I ever saw Roy Krenkel’s, and the first time I saw his
“Mastermind of Mars”, with the doctor over the table with the injection, I was looking at it and
saying, God, that looks like Kaluta!
M: As well it should, because I studied and studied and studied it and tried to get that same arcane
sensibility into my own work. But of course Roy’s Mastermind cover also looks a lot like J. Allen St.
John’s work, because Roy studied and studied and studied St. John’s art.
T: I haven’t seen much of J. Allen St John’s work (at the time).
M: There is definitely a J. Allen St. John Mastermind of Mars scene or two that inspired Roy’s
depiction. I share the opinion of others that Roy’s Ace Books “Mastermind” cover might be the best
Krenkel cover ever.
T: It is beautiful. Michael Whelan did a take-off from it.
M: I haven’t seen any of the new ERB covers (at that time). I don’t think that Steve Hickman or I
will ever be able to do covers for ERB, because, if one does, the other will kill him. It’d be a friendly
death, because we share a real love and understanding of “Things ERB”, but oh, we so long to give
back: It wasn’t only the terrific art inspired by ERB’s stories that brought my work and the work of
my friends into the professional arena: it was Burroughs’ stories as well.
T: You both want to do them that much?
M: Yeah, we both want to do them that much. Steve Hickman has been doing paperback covers for
years and years: marvelous work, but no ERB books so far. At the time of this interview, I had done
my Carson Of Venus comic books stories and would later illustrate Minidoka, that lost ERB fantasy
story, but, except for some Tarzan Illustrations for Dark Horse later in life, I’ve not got a shot at The
Real Burroughs stuff: Barsoom!!!
T: Steve Hickman has done some beautiful things.
M: A lot of that great work was for the same companies that published the ERB paperbacks. The
last time they reprinted the ERB stories of course was this Michael Whelan set. Steve missed that. It
may take a while, but ERB always gets reprinted, so the future holds an opportunity for either of us to
get a shot at our Dream Project.
T: Would you ever want to do that, illustrate the ERB books?
M: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think I could bring much to Tarzan that hasn’t been brought there in such
style by Frazetta, St. John, et al, but I think I could put a whack in on the Mars and Venus books. I’d
rather do both covers and interior illustrations than just covers; covers on the stands seem to want not
an illustration but a …
T: A selling point?
M: Yes, a selling point. There are any number of ways of selling a book. What I see forming in my
mind when I think of “selling point” isn’t what I’d want to do for ERB. What I see for general covers
comes from my Comic Book Cover approach, like the compositions I’ve done for Doorway To
Nightmare. I think ERB’s novels lend themselves to more action-oriented illustration, as opposed to
the formal Deco/Nouveau design with a symbolic figure inside it that I learned from studying Alphonse
Mucha’s art. To do justice to the ERB work, I’d have to sink myself back into the stories, flashing
back to when I first read them.
T: Do you still keep in touch with Steve Hickman and Steve Harper?
M: Yes. I haven’t talked to Steve Harper in a number of months, but Steve Hickman I talk to just
about once every two weeks (At the time of the interview: Now I’m much more in touch with Steve
Harper). When I’m down in Virginia, I visit Hickman, and when he’s up here in NYC he visits me.
Then there’s the Phone. Sometimes we talk about art, but these days we mostly talk about books
and movies. (Steve Hickman and his family moved to Upstate NY quite a few years ago)
T: When you first came to New York, I don’t know how you guys all got together. I’ve read that
you knew each other through letters, fanzines, but it seemed like you all gravitated toward the same
living area, all worked on the same projects.
M: Finding ourselves in the same area of NY wasn’t an accident at all. When I left High School in
1965 I worked for a year in the art supplies concession of The Hecht Company, a Virginia/D.C.
based chain of department stores. I was working in their Landmark Shopping Center store in
Alexandria, Virginia when I met Steve Hickman’s mother. She often came in to buy frames and
canvas boards. One time she saw I was drawing and said, “My son draws things just like that”. I said
“They look like boats, but they’re not really boats, these are things that fly through the air.” She said,
“I know – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom fliers”: I lit up.
I’d had a friend earlier who turned me onto the ERB books. I lost him somewhere in the shuffle of
life. He loved the ERB stories but he hadn’t been an artist. We used to talk about – “do the ERB
worlds really exist?” and “what would you do if they DID exist”, but that was the limit of our sharing.
So up came Steve, looking probably just as much like a goofy ERB fan as I did at the time (that was
1964-’65: everybody looked goofy then, but we ERB fans had a corner on the Gyro Gearloose
Look -- except for Steve Harper: he was The Cool One in black leather jackets and Beatle Boots).
Just as his mom had assured me, Hickman had ERB illustrations, and James Bond illustrations,
Dancing Girl Illustrations, Dracula Illustrations, etc. We hit it off immediately. His home was just down
the hill from the Landmark Shopping Center, so when work was done, I’d drive to Taney Ave and
into an ERB fugue state… During our art jams Steve talked about a school friend who’d moved over
to Germany: Steve Harper. Harper was a bigger fan than any of us, had his mitts on real Amazing
Stories Pulps, A L Burt and A C McClurge Burroughs firsts, etc… I learned a lot about Harper and
his fierce ERB affinity long before I met him. When Harper returned from Germany with his beautiful
drawings, and perfect Tarzan yell, that completed the team.
T: Does Steve Harper still work in the business?
M: No. He is a Magical Landscape Artist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have some nice
examples of his work, the ‘real’ work. At the time we three all planned to meet together at the 1967
Science Fiction Convention here in New York. Little did we know what a nexus that weekend would
be. Besides coming together in a strange town with all the adventure that promised, we met Berni
Wrightson there fresh off the boat from Baltimore, packing a ton of amazing art, and through Berni,
Jeff Jones and through Jeff, Al Williamson. Through the fellows who published the fanzines we
worked for, Steve, Steve and I met Frazetta, and through him, Krenkel. It was like everything –
WHOOSH! – came together. Hal Foster was even at the Con, but we didn’t have the luck to make
his acquaintance. Steve, Steve and I kept in touch with Berni and Jeff through letters and phone calls:
Steve Hickman and I in Virginia, Steve Harper in Boston and Berni Wrightson at home in Baltimore,
Maryland. It was exactly a year later that Berni moved up to NYC and started freelancing for DC
Comics. About half year later, in January of 1969, I moved up and took over some floor space in
Berni’s single room apartment on West 77th Street (the same part of town that Jeff Jones and his
family lived in). Before moving up to NYC Berni had never been out of Baltimore and I’d never lived
in NYC (College had given me a bit of living on my own, but that’s a very different story). Whether
by plan or fate, the Upper West Side of Manhattan became quite a young artists’ compound. Among
the other artistic types within a few blocks were Larry Ivie, whose Altron Boy had impressed all us
younger guys: Larry wasn’t much older, but had been deeply involved with what was then Ground
Level Semi-Professional Fandom for more years than any of us had been drawing in fanzines… His
work could be found in Castle of Frankenstein magazine and his own Monsters and Heroes Magazine
as well as the major fanzines of the day. Among other heavy hitters in the neighborhood were Archie
Goodwin, John Benson and Wally Wood. Eventually even Barry (Windsor-) Smith moved into the
neighborhood, though he was never seen away from his grueling Marvel Conan job.
T: I talked to Walt Simonson: he told me he lived in the same building with Berni. Was this the same
M: No, that was much later, in Queens, NY.
On the Upper West Side Berni shared a place with an old friend from Baltimore, Al Russell. Al was a
great Comics fan with a unique take on Life In New York. I wedged myself into their space in
January of ’69, Steve Harper came a few months later as a fourth guy in the 10 ft by 14 ft room. Al
had a day job, so there were only three artists shoehorned into the room drawing during the day…
once it was time to sleep, the place was festooned with cots. Harper returned to Boston for a while
and, by year’s end Berni and I moved two blocks north, into a two-room apartment in the same
building as Jeff Jones. Eventually Mary Skrenes and Al Weiss, both in from Las Vegas, moved in with
us: there were times I was certain there were as many as eight people living in the new place: luckily, it
was somewhat larger than the apartment back on West 77th.
During these days Jeff was holding monthly artist get-togethers. He’d taken over hosting them from
John Benson, the originator of the event. Jeff’s apartment was a LOT larger than anyone else’s. No
matter what day they were on they were always referred to as First Fridays. As time went on more
and more wonderful, talented people would come to these First Fridays, bringing their art, humor, wit
and friends. It became something we all looked forward to. Someone should collect the stories.
T: You said in another interview that Howard Chaykin worked on an issue of The Shadow?
M: Sure, issue #4. Right in this very room, actually. I think he worked on four pages. He and Walt
Simonson showed up at pretty much the same time, a few years after Berni came to NYC. It was
later, the time Walt was referring to, where he and Howard and Berni all lived in Queens.
T: So you live in the same apartment now?
M: Not the one in the building where Jeff and his family lived, no… that was West 79th Street. I
moved out of that apartment in the early months of 1971 and came up here to West 92nd Street: I’ve
been here ever since. By the time I started on The Shadow, 1973, Berni had moved to either Kansas
City, or Florida, or Upstate NY somewhere. Jeff had moved Upstate in a really great place along
with Vaughn Bode. FWOOSH! – like the big-bang: everybody flew off to different parts of the
world. Then, like some big-bang theories suggest will happen, it all came back together when Barry
Windsor-Smith suggested getting a Studio. It was Barry and Berni that did all the groundwork: they
really got that thing together. Then they got Jeff involved, and, eventually, me. All of a sudden
everyone was back in NYC and sharing a very large working space.
T: Are you guys all still pretty much friends?
M: No. No. (Laughter) I keep in touch with all of them. Berni and Barry don’t talk at this point,
although they talked a whole lot a few years ago. I think that Jeff and Barry are talking (at that time),
and Berni and Jeff talk every once in awhile (used to). I don’t really know how each interfaces with
the other, because they all live in different areas, but, however seldom, I am in touch with everyone.
M: Jon Muth is there (upstate NY, at the time of this interview), and so is Herb Trimpe.
T: Does Barry live up there or in the city?
M: Barry is up in Woodstock, yes.
T: Do Berni and Jeff live on the same street?
M: No, at the time they lived 35 miles apart, but that’s not the same street, up in the woods. (Berni
now lives in Los Angeles)
T: When you got your start you worked with Al Williamson?
M: Yes. I became introduced to him through circumstances that came about at those science fiction
conventions where I met Frazetta and Krenkel. My first con was in 1967, I came back the next
summer and found that Al Williamson had been shown my work by the legendary Phil Seuling.
Apparently Al liked what he saw and asked Phil to let me know he was interested in working on a
short comic book story with me. I met Al at the 1968 Phil Seuling Con: I was flabbergasted that he
thought I could help jump-start the DC Comics job that was hanging over his head.
T: That was printed in The House of Mystery?
M: Yes. Very little of it is my work. Back in Virginia I laid the whole thing out, added extra pages at
Al’s request, etc. I don’t know where those pages are but I assume Al still has them: he’s a real
collector and wouldn’t toss them, even though I KNOW they really suck! There were a few panels in
there that Al said inspired him. The next January, when I finally moved to NYC to try to become a
Comic Book Artist, Al invited me up to Callicoon, NY where he and his family lived. For a couple of
weeks we worked together on that one story (the Beautiful Beast), and a few other little things. I got
to spend every night pouring through Al’s collection of Comic Strips and rare illustrations. The man
has got a monstrous, beautiful collection of everything in the world an illustrator or comic strip/book
artist would die to see. Everything from original Hal Foster Tarzan pages and some of the rarest of
Foster’s Prince Valiant pages, through Alex Raymond’s original Flash Gordons to bits and bobs of
the most amazingly diverse material.
T: Was it just the one story that you worked on together that was published, or were there other
M: Just the one story for DC Comics. The other things I got to do a bit on were for his newspaper
strip. During a regular work day I posed for some of the Secret Agent Corrigan strip characters, or
cross hatched a background, searched out some ship reference, etc. The most fun was sitting around
the diner table listening to stories about The Good Old Days and watching a movie later that night
(way before Home Video: Al had a 16mm Projector and some CLASSIC films on tap: adventure,
sci-fi, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood… Bogart’s Casablanca, etc…all the greats).
One visit I convinced Al and his wife, Arlene, to see Yellow Submarine at a local movie theatre. Al
had one Beatles album in the house, ‘Revolver’, but said it just sounded strident and repetitive (to
him). Musically, he’s a big fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes: Frank Sinatra, where the song is about its melody, or
so the ‘old farts’ think. I don’t think Frank Sinatra had any sort of handle on melody once he hit his
stride (I like his early early scat singing stuff), but I knew Al had a monstrous collection of 1940’s into
1950’s music, and The Chairman of the Board was among his top three.
We drove miles and miles to see Yellow Submarine: surprise, surprise! It lit him up. Once we came
back, all bubbly from the film, Al said, “Ok, let’s listen to the album”. From that point on, so he told
me, he could enjoy the Beatle’s music because he was given a visual. He could understand the music
a lot more because he’d learned a way to pay attention to it.
T: You talked about Vaughn Bode earlier. How well did you know him?
M: Almost as well as anyone could. He was around quite a lot in the “early” days. He’d be there,
he’d disappear for a while, then return. If it wasn’t the 1967 Con, it was the 1968 Phil Seuling Con
where Steve Hickman and I met Vaughn, at the old Statler Hilton hotel. We talked for hours and
hours and hours about growing up, about art, about his life, his insights, humor and fears. He was a
very published artist before he did any of his lizards and Bode Broads. He had illustrated a whole
series of hardback children’s books. They were very odd, personal, very beautiful books illustrated in
his recognizable style, except the paintings were of little humans, not lizards.
T: How early were those done?
M: Before 1968.
T: in the early 70’s you worked on The Shadow comic book and the Carson of Venus series at the
same time. Was there much time between working?
M: Well, No… 20 pages, pencils and inks on The Shadow and 5-7 pages of Pencils and inks on
Carson (eventually I got to adapt the stories, too). As I’ve said in other interviews, the annoying thing
about the whole business was no one at the company, except my non-Shadow editor, knew I was
doing the Carson of Venus stuff at the same time as The Shadow. Someone else in another interview
asked, ‘weren’t you one of the first writer/artists’? I didn’t write the strip, really, I adapted it from
Edgar R. Burroughs, so I don’t know: do I fit into the category of one of the first writer/artists? Will
Eisner and Hal Foster, THEY were writer/artists absolutely, and they were writing a lot better and
arting a lot more than I ever could or will.
When I blew the deadlines on The Shadow and lost the book, the company had also killed off the
Weird Worlds of ERB and the Korak – Son of Tarzan books that had my Carson strip as a back-up
feature. Eventually DC amalgamated the books, added reprints and artists from the Philippines who
could afford to do the work for 23 dollars per page (including lettering!). All of a sudden I went from
struggling with getting the 25 penciled and inked pages done close to deadline, to having no work at
all. I was a bit dizzy
T: You showed me a bunch of original pages from The Shadow, and I forget who, but someone had
gone over them in blue pencil –
M: Blue magic marker!
T: Right, for corrections. Was this sort of thing a standard practice?
M: It was back then. The originals weren’t being returned to the artists at the time, the original was
not an end product as far as the company was concerned. The end product was the comic book
itself, so as long as whatever the editor used was non-reproducible, it didn’t matter how flagrantly
corrections were indicated. Now, any collector of originals out there knows: there is some horrible
stuff written over and smeared onto original artwork that takes some real doing to remove. I think
bleach would get the blue marker off.
T: It would take everything else off too.
M: It might… I don’t know.
T: You’ve done a lot of covers for the Marvel Conan the King books now, and I guess you’re
finished with them. Would you like to see those reproduced in a portfolio?
M: Sure, but it’s a difficult proposition, and I’ll tell you why. At last word Marvel can’t reprint any
Conan stuff without permission from Conan Properties. The portfolio rights are licensed to Sal
Quartuccio. Sal will not work with Marvel, and Marvel will not work with Sal. Now, I’ve worked
with both of them. I think it would be fun to have all that stuff printed in a portfolio. However, I can’t
see it coming to pass. I’d like to have a Conan art calendar. I don’t know how well the Conan movie
did, but I know my Conan t-shirt isn’t selling very well (it MAY have: I was never told). It’s got a
nice drawing. If the Conan movie was more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, I wonder if I’d have a
better selling t-shirt.
T: You told me earlier you have lived here about 12 years.
M: 12 to 14, yeah.
T: So you lived here the same time The Studio was in existence, and I guess the other three artists
that were there were living in separate apartments.
M: There was a real flux going on in my life. I had this apartment all on my own. The main reason I
wasn’t jumping at the chance to join the studio was because I was paying out a lot of money every
month for this place: I had both rooms and couldn’t afford to rent another space. A “lot of money”
isn’t a lot of money to me now, but a “lot of money” then definitely was. I finally joined the studio
when Charlie Vess moved in here as a roommate. With Charles paying rent on his room I could
afford to have a studio. But I couldn’t work in a studio without having all my books around for
reference. I eventually moved almost everything you see here down into the studio, and this was
almost a bare room that I visited once in awhile. I had a girlfriend who lived down on West 81st
Street. Between working at the studio and spending most of my evenings at her place I just didn’t
come “home” much. One can truthfully say that Charlie and I didn’t get to know each other for the
first three years he was living in New York, because I just didn’t see him.
T: How did you meet Charlie?
M: I met him through Phil Trumbo. Phil and I went to college together at the Virginia Commonwealth
University Art School from 1966 to 1968 (it was Richmond Professional Institute then). I came up to
New York in 1969, after two years of college while Phil stayed there and finished school. Then Phil
became an artist-in-residence for the museum, an animator working for a number of animation
companies in Richmond, he also set up his own animation department in the college and became quite
a big wheel on three or four levels. He is a collected gallery artist – several museums own his work.
He did a 40 minute stop-motion animated film titled ‘Futuropolis’ (billed as the world’s smallest epic),
taught college, developed animation techniques for local television advertising (eventually working up
4 MTV animated ID spots), and was generally “Mr. Richmond”. They put his house on the map,
folks would point to his home when they were on his street – ‘Oh look, there’s Phil Trumbo’s place,
Richmond, Virginia was my bolt hole. Whenever pressure, boredom, or anything close to either set
in I’d pack up my stuff and go down there for a month, hang with Phil, draw, get all this terrific art
and social input. Phil was, is and will always be into many more things than I. I’m a media junkie as
far as TV goes, but he was a media nut as far as music, art, street art, street people, photography,
and any number of other things all put together, along with radio. He always had the radio going on
very weird, informative stations.
To be in Richmond was like mainlining bizarreness. Whenever things in New York, the comic world,
would fall into a bit of a grind I’d find myself getting stale. I’d go down to Phil’s place, and WHAM,
right from the minute I’d get into town the bizarre input would shake me, clean the dust off my
shelves, make life a whole lot more fun and the energy and inspiration would flow. Folks from all over
would just show up at Phil’s. We’d have these big pow-wows, get together and talk art, the world,
whatever: Food, Fun, Music, Laughter, Amazing Friends, Unbelievable Stories.
Somewhere in all that I met Charles Vess.
T: Did you work on the first issue of The Shadow down there?
M: I did the whole first issue of The Shadow down there, but not at Phil’s. I was living with Maggie
Ball. Margaret Lawrence Ball Harper McFee is her full married name (as of this interview).
T: Maggie McFee, the woman who does the Norman Rockwell parodies?
M: No, wouldn’t that be nice. Her name is Maggie McFee now. When I went to live with her in
1973 it was Maggie Ball. When I went to school with her in 1966-67-68 (the same time I went to
school with Phil Trumbo) her name was Maggie Lawrence. So I knew Maggie Lawrence in 1966 to
1968 while I was going to college. Then when I went back down there to live with her for two months
in ’73 I drew The Shadow #1, two issues of Carson of Venus, started on the second issue of The
Shadow, did an episode of the Spawn of Frankenstein back up for The Phantom Stranger comic and,
at the same time was hanging around with Phil. I think that was exactly the time I met Charles. He was
going to school there then, what, 8 to 10 years after I had. This was the spring of ’73. Here he
comes, he can tell us.
At this point in the interview Charles Vess returns home with the new Love & Rockets, and The
Rocketeer graphic novel, both of which Mike is waiting to see.
M: So that’s when I met Charles, but it was several years later, ’76, when he moved up here. He
had to finish college. The guys at the studio were bugging me to move in. I thought it would be a good
idea, but couldn’t afford it. So there’s Charles, fresh out of school in 1976, “Hey, you look like a guy
who needs to move to New York.” He said, “You’re right”. So he moved in and I moved out, more
or less, into The Studio for three years.
(Asking Charles) Did we meet in 1973 when I came down there to live with Maggie?
Charles: Oh, we met once before that.
T: Were you happy with the end product of The Studio, with your chapter?
M: Sure. I really liked the whole book. I’m sort of easy to please, say some. I worked on my
section, my writing and my layout. I got very little input from the other guys, but only because I didn’t
let them see what I was up to.
Barry redid his section a dozen times at least, and every time it was beautiful. He made a few
judgments that I thought were nit-wit, like not including his newer paintings, but he had some idea as
to why he was doing that. I knew for myself I wanted everything I had ever done in the book: it’d be
a grace note to everything I’d touched, showing off the best things I’d done. I didn’t think anybody
was going to publish me ever again. Why? Because this was all the work I had at that point. Now it
has all become “the early work”. I don’t think my next segment of work had come up to The Studio
book work until I worked on Starstruck. My other artwork, the single-image pieces, have yet to
come up to what was represented in that book. (This interview was well before I did the Tolkien
Calendar, The Books Of Magic or Lucifer covers.) I can look at the Studio book anytime, or show
that book to anybody and say “this is a representation of me as a young man and artist, and I’m very
proud of it.” Whenever I get nostalgic about those times, I look at that book and remember things
no one will ever know happened. The inner life of The Studio wasn’t really what was represented in
Most of my pictures in the book weren’t done in the studio. Jeff did his Blind Narcissus, a major
representative piece, in the studio. Barry did most of his smaller pieces at home but his huge Artemis
and Apollo was begun and nearly completed there during the Studio Years. Berni worked the most of
anybody in the studio and did most if not all of his Frankenstein illustrations there. The things that I
remember as the best work I did in the studio were the original drawings that would, 15 years later,
become the Tolkien illustrations for the 1994 calendar. Barry looked at them and said, “I tried reading
the books, but I didn’t get into them. If these drawings were inspired by those books, they must be
T: The Lord of the Rings takes awhile to get into.
M: It takes awhile to get into, yes. After his observation, I read Barry a few entries, specifically the
Voice of Saruman scene, where Gandalf, Theoden, Gimli, Legolas Merry and Pippin go up to
Orthanc to parley. The description of how the assembled people were feeling Saruman’s vocal magic
from the outside really got to Barry. He appreciated that subtle point of view and the insinuation of the
wizard’s power over whomever he chose to work it on, and the contrast Tolkien draws between the
devious power of Saruman’s Voice and Gandalf’s self-assurance.
T: Did you guys do all your own writing for each of the chapters?
M: Yes, but not originally. Originally we had an editor from Newsweek, a friend of Cathy Ann
Thiele’s, do interviews, then write up our sections. We were very excited by the idea of a professional
putting us into a good light, but he didn’t come close to capturing the essence of what we were about.
So we ended up putting our own words in ourselves.
T: You told me you had problems with the Newsweek guy’s writing because his take on your
lifestyles was getting you into trouble with your girlfriends.
M: I know it makes good copy to say there are four hot-shot artists with a string of women coming
in and leaving, trading places, etc, but that just wasn’t what was happening. That is what the fellow
wrote, however. All four artists were secure in our relationships, each with a very strong-minded
woman. We couldn’t let that sort of fiction out and about, even if it had had a basis in reality. There
were even more egregious over-steppings, delvings into personal issues that were told the writer in
confidence: all in all, the guy was just the absolute Wrong Guy for the Job.
Todd: Can you describe the time period when you were working with Roy Krenkel?
Michael: The time period of me working with Roy was just like the time period when Roy was
hanging around. Believe me, he is missed. Even though one wouldn’t see him for weeks or months on
end, when he blew in he brought his environment with him. He’d fill up the room with himself.
One day he called and said he had a job he couldn’t do the illustrations for. That was ‘As The Green
Star Rises’ for DAW books. Being offered to collaborate with Roy Krenkel was a dream come true
for me, even though I had already ‘made my bones’ as they say – yes, made my bones in the comic
book industry. I could draw but Roy Krenkel could always draw better, to me, anyway. Here he was
calling me, saying he couldn’t draw this book because they wanted illustrations, said I was a much
better illustrator, blah, blah, blah, would I finish these drawings for him? I said, “certainly, I’ll try”.
Roy brought over absolutely finished drawings. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, my inking was
highly inferior to his. What is highly inferior? There is a grammatical term for phrases like Highly
Inferior, like saying Pretty Ugly. Unfortunately for my diatribe, I’ve forgotten the term and lost my
point… Ah well. Easy come, easy go.
T: Do you do a lot of studying words and language?
M: No, just some. Every once in awhile I go for it, but I don’t remember anything I study. I really
have horrible retention. (Don’t you believe it. The man has a phenomenal memory. Ed.) When I do
retain things they are in my mind as a feeling or a mood (or an object). That’s a good reason my style
has more feeling and mood than technique.
So Roy came over with the drawings: they were beautiful, but apparently not finished enough for
publication. I finished them all and drew one scene he hadn’t got to. I signed his initials and my own to
all of them: what a treat: I still get a thrill when I see those illustrations with our dual signatures. We
never got the drawings back from DAW Books (though SOMEONE did: there’s at least one of
those originals winging around the internet).
T: They’ve still got all the originals?
M: Yeah. They’re just little bitty things. If not drawn exactly the printed size, then almost the printed
size. Oh: I didn’t ink Roy’s original pencils, though: the printed art was inked on overlays: I couldn’t
bring myself to sully his fine pencil work.
T: How much did you do on ‘Sowers of the Thunder’?
M: On most of the major, full page illustrations I spotted blacks for him, to give weight to the figures.
But again: I didn’t draw on the original pieces. I drew on an overlay, and spotted where the shadows
were to be dropped. Roy said I could do those type shadows better than he, and wanted me to go
for it on all the pieces. He had been working on the book for years and years and had reached a
place of complete saturation. He couldn’t go the next step, which was to refine these larger
illustrations. He was a very meticulous worker. He did innumerable sketches for each element of a
drawing, then a version or six of all the elements combined in different ways, in different colored pens
on different types of paper with subtly different compositions: then he’d not be able to make up his
mind: I can’t fault him, they were all, in their ways, terrific!. A lot of reference and research went into
every piece, especially with this book. But I think ‘Sowers of the Thunder’ broke him of that habit of
over-researching. From the point of finishing work on Sowers he worked directly with ballpoint pen
and brush onto whatever surface he chose, using his imagination and tempting fate with every line.
This new work was very sketchy compared to, say, his Canaveral Press pen illustrations, and a lot of
people didn’t care for this freer approach. To their eyes the sketchy drawings were like looking at the
recipe of a cake, and not the cake itself, or just looking at the cake and not eating it. I don’t know if
either of these analogies works, but Roy LOVED cake, especially Chocolate Cake.
T: There are a lot of books around with Roy Krenkel art in them, a few Krenkel books with a lot of
unfinished art, but not a book showcasing his art.
M: There are some people trying to put together a really nice book. I hope they succeed. Not all of
them are my friends, but they were extremely friendly to Roy, took good care of him and gave him a
place to be during the last years of his life. As far as I know they are the recipients, owners or holders
of Roy’s entire collection of books, art prints, art and everything else. It is a mammoth payment, but
they deserve it: they did real good for a great guy in need.
That pretty much covers all the work I did with Roy. It was minimal. The most art fun we had was
talking on the phone about concept, the concept of illustration. Once he called me up and said,
“Geeze Michael, I’ve got this book, and nothing happens in it. Absolutely nothing happens in this
book. There is nothing to illustrate”. He’d talk about various illustrators from Days Gone By who
could pick a line of text from such a book, for example, “Mr. Penhamoresure, glancing askance at the
card table, noticed the nap unfurled beyond the lady’s handkerchief” and do an immense beautiful
illustration with the entire ballroom hall behind the card game inferred by the quote adding all the
characters, lots of atmosphere, chiaroscuro, etc. A real world-beater piece based on an absolutely
non-informative line of prose. “How the hell do they do it???” I said “Yes, yes, I’ve seen these
myself, but when it comes to a book that doesn’t have visuals, then illustrate the metaphor”. He said,
“What are you talking about?” I said, “Well even the barest, sparsest books, the sparsest writing
styles, Hemmingway for example, will say, ‘The air roared around the ship like …’, and then will
come an idea. Like, instead of here is a very boring boat in this Hemingway story, a very boring boat
on a very boring sea, a flat sea, flat sky, no birds, nothing. Well, when the wind does come around, it
roars around like what? The writer will describe something at that point. That thing is not in the picture
where the boat is, but it can be in the illustration, because the writer has implied it”. Do you follow what
M: Illustrate the metaphor, or the analogy, or the simile that the writer has put in there to help the
reader visualize what the writer had in mind. The artist can get a better drawing, a more dramatic
drawing out of what might be a very flat scene by paying attention to the form of the narrative.
So, conversations like these with Roy, that was the heavy-duty stuff. There were hours and hours of
conversations that I, and others, have had with Roy about the craziest things. And our lives are the
better for it.
T: He’s one of your biggest influences?
M: Absolutely! You can see it in everything I do. I have a pet theory that one can always tell what
artist first impressed another artist, even years after the influence has paled. One can look at Barry’s
work and think “what beautiful, exquisite this, that, and the other thing”, and that Barry is a unique
individual who has mapped out his approach through the strength of his inner Muse. All true, but when
the info comes across that his main original influence was Jack “KING” Kirby, one remarks, ‘My
God, there it is’. Just hold up the cover of the latest Life Death II story in X-Men 189, and hold up
that old Kirby stuff that he would have been looking at when he was of an age to start drawing: you’ll
see so many similarities in intent, or in silhouette. The silhouette of the figures have a real similar
feeling. Composition is always something that one will learn from their first influence. Mine was Roy
Krenkel. You might not see Roy Krenkel in Starstruck until you hold a Roy Krenkel drawing up, and
you hold a Starstruck panel up next to it. “My God, look, there it is”. Now Charlie Vess is an original.
His original founding art inspiration is Howard Pyle, not necessarily a name that leaps to mind when
thinking of Charles Vess’ art. Put a Howard Pyle drawing from The Wonder Clock next to a Charlie
Vess drawing from The Ladies of Grace, Adieu: all of a sudden the C. D. Vess drawings have got a
history. “Oh, I see where this came from”. Steve Hickman has been inspired by any number of artists,
and he loves all the artists I love, with the exception perhaps of Frantisek Kupka. His founding artist,
the one he was originally inspired by was Russ Manning, specifically his Magnus, Robot Fighter
comics. Take a ‘Magnus Robot’ page and put it up against almost any of the terrific Sci-Fi or Fantasy
book covers Steve’s done: you’re going to see a Russ Manning echo feeling. Steve doesn’t look at
Russ Manning when he paints. He probably hasn’t looked at Russ Manning’s work in years, but it
was imprinted and has an inner energy that informs Steve’s figures with the lithe elegance we all recall
from the Magnus hero comics.
When a baby duck is born, the first thing it sees is its mother, no matter WHAT it sees (imprinting)
My art is imprinted by Roy Krenkel’s work.
When Berni talks about his major influences, depending on what kind of drawing he’s doing, he
might mention Frazetta, ‘Ghastly” Graham Ingles, etc. But his real rock bottom influence, the art he
first found himself reflected in is by Jack Davis. As soon as you throw Berni’s art and Jack Davis’
next to each other you’ll go “Damn, OK”. It’s all there.
T: I never noticed it before, until you mentioned it.
M: Jack Davis will crosshatch a shoe. Berni will crosshatch the back of a beast. They’ll have the
same resonance, more so than any of his other major influences. Their art isn’t the same, and of
course, again, there’s not a piece of Jack Davis art on Berni’s board while he’s drawing ‘Cycle of the
Werewolf’, but the Jack Davis influence lives under every Wrightson drawing.
It’s obvious that Frazetta’s really strong influence was Hal Foster: if you go back and take a look at
Foster’s ‘Tarzan of the Apes’, you’ll agree if it was signed “Frazetta” you would not argue. It’s not
because Frank draws with Foster art in front of him, but rather because he studied Foster’s work
when he was younger and it still lives inside him.
Roy Krenkel is very much based in J. Allen St. John and Norman Lindsay. Both I think are real
strong influences, but there has got to be another, earlier influence in there somewhere. I just don’t
know enough about the arcane styles of illustration Roy had access to in his youth to put my finger on
it. Anyone out there have an idea?
Find some of Steve Harper’s rare figure work, note how oddly iconic and formal it appears when
everything else in his art has a flow and swirl. Then say the name Burne Hogarth in your mind. All of a
sudden it makes sense why Harper draws his figures the way he does: he used to study Hogarth’s
figures before his hand was developed. A long gone influence, but not forgotten by the muscle
T: Can you give us the story on the Marvel Age cover you did?
M: The Marvel Age Starstruck cover was based on a Dave Stevens’ t-shirt design: The Rocketeer
posed with Betty tied up over his shoulder and his Mauser in his hand. There were only certain places
one could wear that shirt: classic Pulp Art, yes, but in NYC one was libel to get bopped on the head
by justifiably insulted working women. Also, it is a very sexy image. Even without seeing exactly what
is depicted it’s sexy, the way the forms move. Dave designed it in that delightful old-fashion
composition that I love: a circle that draws you right in: “Target Art”. It’s sexist in a post-modernist
way: Dave Stevens is making a comment on the type of Adventure Art that was prevalent in the
1930’s without imitating it.
What we did with our Starstruck version was an extra-post-modernist parody. I swiped Dave’s
composition and intent and put Brucilla (“hot-headed and impetuous, a strapping lass from Earth
who’s answer to every question was ‘We’ll Blast ‘em Outta The Skies!’”) with “Specs” Truheart tied
up over her shoulder. She’s got a big gun, too. It’s obviously the same scene, except Brucilla is
smiling at the audience. I also included Galatia 9 in a smaller circle spelling out ‘Hi’ in the Manual
Alphabet. I also included little cryptograms around the border, the alphabet hand signs spelling out,
‘Thanks Dave, Cliff and Betty’. That was my snarky hedge against someone saying “Oh look, Kaluta
is swiping Dave Stevens”.
T: Was the same language used on the Conan t-shirt?
M: Oh no. The Conan t-shirt uses Anglo-Saxton runes. My friend Augusta Ogden (who wrote ‘Bird
of Death’ for the portfolio of the same name) is an expert in runic languages and wrote that out for
me. One of the reasons I wanted runes surrounding Conan: they’d look weird and arcane. Another
reason was that Barry Windsor-Smith often used runes in his pictures. He was quite the scholar of
early languages and knew his runes. Whether he used the letter forms to phonetically spell out an
English sentence, as I did on my Conan T-Shirt, or wrote actual Celtic/Anglo-Saxon language I just
I’ve done what, 7 or 8 ‘Conan the King’ covers? To some young kids I’m more of a Conan artist
than Barry. They haven’t seen the 23 or so issues he drew in his younger days. The line I picked for
the Runes is from Howard: it’s a classic interchange between Belit and Conan, and, in the context of
me becoming “known” as The Conan Artist, it’s a pun. The quote is: “Conan, do you fear the
Gods?”, to which he answers, “I would not tread on their Shadow”. I hope I don’t need to explain
T: Has Barry commented on it?
M: I don’t know if he’s ever seen it. He doesn’t read comics, he just draws them.
T: Did Charles do any work on the ‘Bird of Death’ portfolio? There is one plate that looks like his
M: No, he’s always been an inspiration, but the work is mine.
T: Are you still working on the Metropolis book, is it still in your mind?
M: It’s more or less in my mind. There have been two times in the real world when it was actually a
project. Once, Dragon’s Dream, who published ‘The Studio’, were planning to do a series of
illustrated books and Metropolis was slated. They even paid money for me to begin. When they
backed away from the Illustrated Book Project, they put that front-money against poster sales. The
other time Metropolis looked to becoming a Kaluta Illustrated Book was when Byron Preiss asked if
I were interested. I said I’d love to do it. He said he’d look around. Then, like so many other fun
projects that weren’t meant to be, it just folded its tent and disappeared. Right now the illustrated
Metropolis project is really in limbo. My mind is not on it at all, although I still love the book and am
probably going out tonight to buy the Giorgio Moroder version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on video
(Kaluta’s Note: in 1988 Donning-Starblaze contracted me to illustrate Metropolis: it was published
in hardback and trade paperback. I was near- totally satisfied with the results)
T: You’ve said you like Will Eisner’s work a lot. Is he an influence at all?
M: Well, the drawing style is not an influence, although I look at it to see how much one can
exaggerate a situation and still bring across dramatic intent. The man is a master storyteller. His
atmosphere, his choice of points of view, you know, I couldn’t answer you anything but “of course,
he’s always been an influence.” Hearing that his influences were ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Third Man’,
and other Carol Reed films, I made certain to revisit all those films and was equally inspired by them.
T: Have you ever wanted to draw The Spirit?
M: No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t make it look funky enough. It’d be like Neal Adams drawing
The Spirit. Why the fuck bother.
T: Have your parents been supportive in your career?
M: I can say yes, they have not been unsupportive. My father chose to be supportive early on by
challenging everything I did, which is his way. A young child has many whims – I want to do this,
I want to do that – and an adult can either back the child to the fullest with whatever whim, or
challenge the hell out of them so they fight against the apparently negative input the parent is giving.
That’s the course my father chose. While I was going through his parenting process, it was real tough.
I thought, “Well, he doesn’t like what I’m doing”.
No matter what he said about me choosing an idiot way to make a living, when a piece would come
out he would go off with it, show everybody else and generally brag about it. He’s very proud of the
work, I know that, just a bit ungenerous with his praise. My mother is equally proud, though much
more vocal about it, as are my brothers, sisters and all my friends outside the comic book industry.
T: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
M: Two of each.
T: A question I wanted to ask earlier. Have you ever worked on an issue of Swamp Thing?
Someone said issue #9.
M: No, that’s Jeff Jones’ inking. His rounder approach to the inking makes it look like I penciled it.
(Laughter) Jeff worked on that issue because Berni got behind when he helped me out on issue
number 4 of The Shadow. As far as I can tell I never worked on one.
Oh, I was in the first Swamp Thing story (HOS 92). I was one of the characters: the Bad Guy.
I don’t think I did any of the drawing. It’s all Berni’s work. (possibly not… I have to look into it)
T: Can you give us an idea of what’s in the future?
M: Well, the future is the Starstruck comic leaving Marvel’s EPIC line and going ‘we don’t know
where’. We don’t know in what format yet, back-up feature, graphic novel, it’s own comic book, it’s
hard to say, but it will continue – fingers crossed.
Charles: The future’s not ours’ to see …
C.V. & M: Que Sera Sera.
M: Yes, the possibility of a Shadow graphic novel and/or mini-series through either DC or Marvel.
There’s that possibility because people are jumping up and down right now about the Shadow movie
coming out. Maybe the Tolkien work will go somewhere. As I told you before, maybe I’ll do some
illustrations for an unspecified writer for an unspecified publisher. These are just real clouds on the
horizon, dimly seen vistas.
I’m presently illustrating four books by Michael Hardwick, called ‘My Name Is Paris’. Four
different books based in Paris at the turn of the century. I’m doing the covers, and perhaps 4 – 6
illustrations inside. Byron Preiss is the publisher and the Nom-de-Plume on the books will be
T: Do you have any idea when they’ll be coming out?
M: Just next year, ’86. If a graphic novel gets done of The Shadow then I hope to co-plot it with
Elaine. I’ll pencil it and Berni Wrightson will ink it. If we do that, that will be for DC (well, THAT
Todd: Thanks to Mike for the above interview. I have re-typed the manuscript for this edition, editing
my initial errors and adding an entire sequence that was left out the first time.
Michael: (And I edited the entire interview so I didn’t sound so thick-skulled: the original interview
had been taped and transcribed. I opted to not comment TOO much on where history really went,
but some notes were needed).
|A Conversation with Michael Kaluta