Michael Wm. Kaluta Artist of Starstruck, Metropolis and Batman by Richard Vasseur
December 23, 2006
Richard Vasseur: What first got you interested in drawing?
Michael Kaluta: As far as I remember drawing was something I did since I could hold a crayon, but those very early years weren’t about “drawing” as much as about creating worlds. Each “picture” represented something that existed to me: a focus for my inner stories. The “thinking” about drawing, getting better at drawing as a mechanical skill, came about age 8 – 9 through being captivated by the Jon Gnagy “Learn To Draw” TV show in the early 1950’s. He concentrated on the illusion of depth and reality in art, using basic shapes, lighting and perspective. Before that the crayon or pencil just did whatever it wanted to do and I followed along for the ride to tell the truth, that approach is still a large part of my current image making technique. It is only in the process of finishing and rendering that I direct my hand, demanding it to perform as expected, giving the sought-after results. Other early influences: one was a baby-sitter, now nameless, who, to my kid’s eye, could draw beautifully. I recall her sketching a face: she allowed me to put it on my wall, but insisted it not be pinned above the crucifix: good enough for the wall, but not good enough to hang above Jesus. Another early art memory: my Dad drawing me a rocket ship, doing a careful step-by-step of the construction process. I copied that approach and added the steps to other machines I drew. I pulled a lot of my imagery from the early TV shows of the time: Sci-fi in particular. My early “pictures” were akin to Cave Paintings: all the action happening at the same time, without a compositional sense: a swirling collection of little elements filling the papers. The connectivity between objects was by dint of ray beams, gun-fire, etc.: action toward, and the rocketing motors, action against.
RV: What was it like writing The Batman and knowing so many people are going to read it and be expecting him to act a certain way?
MK: I never really wrote The Batman, beyond plotting my 8-page black & white story in the back of Gotham Knights # 32 (I think). The writing was handled by Mark Askwith: his Daughter, nieces and their friends were the heroines, and a local Mom’s son, Max, played the Young Misdirected Genius. I understand your question, but in my own context: the editor of a Comic Book has the job of character oversight. How far a-field a storyline can take an established character is watched very carefully, the editor reigning in both the writer and the artist if they wander too far from what the publishing company will accept. The public will often like the first version of a character, especially if they grew up with it. New versions of the character, or even with new writers or artists handling the older, first version, can cause shockwaves through the fan base, even when the differences between “new” and “old” are quite minor. On the other side of the coin: sometimes a writer, artist, or a writer/artist team bring massive changes that redefine a character, winning over even the die-hard old-timers. Batman, presented by Neal Adams, was such an event. Neal’s “Return of the Mystery” approach: the longer ears, the longer swirling cape, the crouching in the dark lit from beneath, was a powerful redefining of The Caped Crusader. Add Neal’s masterful anatomy, use of body language and facial expressions and one can see the revamping as a total success, casting previous versions into the shade. The Batman once again held the top of the pillar he’d not stood on for 20 years. Almost 20 years later Frank Miller’s approach revitalized the character in a completely unforeseen way. It was an approach that wouldn’t have worked earlier (trust me: I know from personal experience: I’d been asked by a UK Comic Book Store to do a Batman Oriented Advert for The Comic Book Buyer’s Guide. I chose to do a representation of The Joker looking out of the side of his face at us, while holding an open switchblade. DC Comics refused their permission on the piece, citing the obvious evil intent went against the “just a joker” characterization of The Joker, circa 1975. 20 years later, The Joker was QUITE a different character, in the hand of which a switchblade would have seemed innocuous). There are always fans less than enthusiastic with any changes: you can’t please all the people all the time. Say what you will, both Neal Adams’ and Frank Miller’s versions of The Batman were held as benchmarks in their time for all other artists and writers to attain, or, if they had the chops, rise above.
RV: In 1969 you began working in New York on comics: was it easy for you to find the work?
MK: There were some easy, surprising moments where lots of jobs were there for the choosing, but there were many more difficult times where little or no work was available for the younger, new talent. A plus-side in those early days of 1969 to 1975 was DC Comics having set their editors to developing a number of “mystery” titles: books that could contain as many as 5 different stories, from 8 to 10 pages each, down to single page delights. Having so many smaller stories in each book opened a door to new, untried talent: an editor, seeing “something” in a portfolio that suggested the artist could be made into something, would give them a page or three to work on at their own speed. This would never compromise the schedule of the book, since those mystery comics only had to have the cover-based story inside to hit the stands. The rest of the pages could be gathered up from whatever came into the office before deadline time. The younger artist could dive into the smaller stories, flex their muscles, try out their storytelling abilities, over-render and go to town. Even if their best turned out to be only just acceptable: it was REAL work and, once printed, gave such a great boost to the artist the NEXT job was always 100% better. Practice makes perfect: working on several smaller stories gave confidence while offering the editors an opportunity to guide the new artist into the better traveled roads of Comic Book Drawing & Storytelling. It is a Rare Thing that an artist can come to a company and take over a 22 page monthly book and succeed at the deadlines and high quality of art and story demanded by the company and the readers. My first work for DC Comics, handed to me by Dick Giordano, was a 2-page story. Eventually he gave me three of those, one at a time, and boy did I sweat them. One of them has never seen print. I imagine there’s a very good reason for that! Finishing those, I was given an 8-page story, which seemed like the length of an encyclopedia at the time. Doing smaller stories also allowed the artist to “show off” without running the risk of ruining an entire book. That the stories were “mystery” genre added a lot of room for the dramatic and surprising.
RV: Who are your artistic influences?
MK: In my growing up days, I absorbed all the cartoons on the TV, the sci-fi shows and the pictures in the kid’s books (including the pictures in the school texts Geography, English, etc. Back then even Math Books had illustrations.) The first artist I copied from were probably Don Martin from Mad Magazine, and Walt Kelly, who wrote and drew the Pogo comic strip. Just after that time I started trying to draw like Roy Krenkel Jr., being impressed by his line art illustrations in the Ace Paperback Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books (1960). Another artist whose work guided my hand and thinking was Aubrey Beardsley, who worked in the previous century. The black and white of his art combined with his compositional sense really attracted my eye (I wasn’t alone!) Posters and note cards reprinting the terrific images of the Art Nouveau Movement (1890 – 1910) also brought the work of Alphonse Mucha to my hungry eye. I’m still in awe of his massive talent. One thing: the more I learn, developing my eye and hand, the better these early influences become: as I “see” more, there’s always more there to see, and, more importantly, learn from. It is inspiring to revisit their art: inspiring and humbling.
RV: You do a lot of cover art. Do you find this as rewarding as doing an entire comic?
MK: I find doing the Cover Art even more rewarding than the sequential art, in the short run. Being able to focus in on the subject matter while keeping in mind I have to represent the interior of the book and intrigue a jaded reader adds to the challenge and enjoyment. Drawing Sequential pages has it’s own rewards, rewards that are based on having told a story well and consistently while, we hope, doing some fine drawing.
RV: You have co-written the Dark Horse Comics Shadow mini series “In The Coils of Leviathan”, as well as “Hell’s Heat Wave” and “The Mysterious Three”. Did you enjoy writing as much as drawing?
MK: Both writing and drawing in the Comic Book Medium has its enjoyable side where everything happens in a surprising and satisfying way, while also having its difficult side where whatever happens is surprising and awful. Writing with Joel Goss on “In The Coils of Leviathan” was mostly a pure joy: a complete high! Having a writing partner means one can run away from the script screaming, knowing it’s being looked after by another: someone who will iron out the bits that gave you fits; someone who can run screaming from the script when THEY freak, leaving you alone to dive back in. My only awkward part of the experience was getting used to Joel’s approach to writing a story. Up to that point the only writing I’d done was helping out Elaine Lee when she was writing Starstruck. Her approach included finding the perfect word and phrase for her characters in each bit of dialogue before proceeding to the next bit. In the years we’d worked together I’d become used to that style. Joel’s approach was to use “place setters” in the dialogue so he could move the framework and plot forward quickly, then return to the place setters during the refining process. For awhile that style gave me the itch. I can remember commenting through my exasperation: “He’d never say that!!!”. Joel would wave a calming hand toward me and remind me of his place setter gambit. Eventually I got used to this new approach and relaxed. Our working approach was to discuss plot, cobble together some action, add the place setters that indicated that “something” had to be said right “there”, get the page count laid out, balanced, then pass the computer keyboard back and forth until the script jelled. Joel really was The Writer, especially as time went on and I concentrated on drawing the little layouts that accompanied the script to the artist, Gary Gianni.
RV: You have drawn The Shadow on and off since 1973. How did you bring about his mysterious nature in your art?
MK: When I first drew the DC Comics Shadow book in 1973, the mood, the “mysterious nature” of the character, seemed to take over, guiding my hand. I was still unused to drawing more than 10 pages at a time, and those under long deadlines. In those days my art was more driven by enthusiasm: the characters and the world they inhabited became “real”, like when I drew as a child. The look of the Shadow art wasn’t really a “choice” on my part: it looked the way it was “supposed” to: it came to me automatically. I was as surprised as anyone that there was such a dark, noir, pulp look to the pages. Of course, the character and writing had its powerful effect on my drawings: the way the action moved from panel to panel added excitement to the work. The dialogue drove the drama. The characterizations of the Shadow’s agents reinforced the mystery of the main character. The most effective element, what “made” The Shadow, was that he was never seen as someone who donned a cloak and fought for justice, as much as a force of nature, or something spawned by the need for him to be. By letting him be defined by his agents and his actions, he loomed larger in the reader’s minds. I had his silhouette, his gestures and his burning eyes to play with in the art. It helped me to get close to The Shadow’s look and feel having worked on several Batman and Detective Comics covers at DC Comics. By this time The Batman had taken back The Night and seemed a natural precursor to my Shadow approach.
RV: How would you describe your artistic style?
MK: In these later days my style is mostly line art with solid black areas to accent the composition. In the earlier days of Batman covers and Shadow comics, I used a brush in a loose style to accentuate movement and mood; the pen was relegated to the drawing of buildings and machines. Philosophically, my style has a deliberate defined “old fashioned” feel. I lean heavily on design elements borrowed or inspired from the advertising art from 1860 to the 1930’s. The longer I live, the more influences fill in the crevices between the larger influences of my past. I’ve been lucky enough not to be overwhelmed by my influences while being able to benefit from their power. I’ve said it in other places: there are some genius artists “out there” throughout history, each with so complete a grasp of what it takes to represent their imaginations that they offer a trap for the younger artists. There’s a pit waiting for the admiring mind where copying their hero’s style becomes not only satisfying but brings a belief that the younger artist has worked to that level without the benefit of the talented artists that inspired them. What starts as a learning effort, or as an homage to an admired artist, becomes a cloak that the wearer refuses to admit came from someone else’s wardrobe. In the end, as frustrating as it is to search out one’s own approach, definitions, color choices, line qualities and answer’s to Art’s questions (knowing one will fail more often than succeed) it is SO worth the effort to become one’s own artist, unique.
RV: What are you currently working on, and do you have any future projects planned?
MK: As of this date my drawing board has three pieces of Samurai art in process for the next release of The Legend of Five Rings collectible card game, a personal commission or two for folks’ Christmas gifts to their friends, several other, long-worked-on pieces I’d love to finish before 2007, and a stack of idea drawings for both future projects and several hoped-for jobs that never materialized. There are a number of Fun Things for 2007, if the Fates will allow. There’s a chance I’ll be illustrating a collection of Michael Moorcock’s ELRIC stories for Del Rey Books, and a number of drawings for the second Orphan’s Tales book by Catherynne Valente for Bantam/Dell. Most anticipated: there’s a 44-page Graphic Novel for Glenat, the esteemed French publisher. It’ll be a heroic fantasy story written by Patrick Mills. I’d also note a number of future film design jobs, but so many have flickered on and off that I hesitate to mention them. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and hope.
RV: Do you enjoy doing commissions?
MK: I do enjoy doing commissions, if I can keep focused on them. Over the years some of my favorite art has been finished commissions. They often bring imagery I’d not have thought to draw for myself, imagery different from what I’d be doing for the various companies. But as many people can attest, it sometimes takes me YEARS to complete their commissions. Unfortunately, there are a number of pieces that’ll never get finished. So, as much as I like the IDEA of doing commissions, my method of approach and success rate isn’t commendable.
RV: What advice do you have for artists new to this business?
MK: One all-encompassing piece of advice for anyone wanting to draw comics: set your art sites on becoming as great an artist as you can; don’t focus solely on mastering the Comic Book vernacular. Having said that, I can easily suggest the opposite: become the best Comic Book Artist you can, immerse yourself in all things Comic Book: after all, if Comic Books are what you love, why not, but if you keep in mind my first sentence while going for it, you might just bring something newer and greater to the Comic Book World. Present your portfolio to the companies you are interested in working for, and make certain you are showing them their characters. If Marvel: The X-Men, Spider-man, The Avengers, etc; if DC Comics: Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, etc. If you are trying for Vertigo, creativity takes a front seat: it's where Art supersedes Storytelling in some respects. An artist/writer with a uniquely personal approach to their art and story, an artist who can't imagine having to do anything but what they want, should consider the area of self-publishing/Small Press: there are a number of Web Sites that support self-publishing: consortiuums of like-minded folks who want to conquer the story-telling world on their own merits. There are even Small Press Expos that cater to everything from what paper to print on to how to get your comics distributed. There are a lot of rewards in handling every side of your own work, but generally less money to start with and less exposure. BUT: when someone DOES notice, they are seeing exactly what you want them to see. It's a huge commitment. The larger companies would rather not see your New Character and Story and in some cases, their lawyers tell then NOT to look at that material it's an odd world, but there it is. Just as there are Small Press Expos, the artist looking to get their work seen by one of the several large comic book companies will have to trek to a large Comic Book Convention (there's a way to send Xeroxes through the mail to your favorite companies: call them and ask their reviewing policies). Check the convention's web site to see what companies will be represented at the Con. Get ready to stand in line. Listen to whatever is said, ask whatever questions you want or dare, then head on to the next company. Aim your portfolio toward two things: your strengths and desires: What you are good at and what you want to draw are the things you should show the prospective companies: why not?? Why not get hired for what you love doing rather than what you CAN do, in a pinch. There's something that can be said for another approach, but I subscribe to this one. Remember: have sequential art in your portfolio if you are looking for Comic Book Work: it seems it needn't be said, but the companies are more interested in how you handle panel to panel story than how well you render a bicep. Don't show color except as a little taste at the end of the portfolio, unless you are looking to get work coloring or painting covers: THEN you show your best color work and, in the case of looking for Cover Work, weight the portfolio toward your single image work. Keep the portfolio to the point, and don't bring a ton of work: 10 really good pieces will be enough: remember the art directors or editors reviewing portfolios are professionals and can tell very quickly what's going on with your work: don't be offended if it appears they are being casual by not studying ever page. (you can always have more art in the very back of the portfolio in case the editor says, "Hey, you got any more?")
MK: One last "word": If you really want to draw comics, you'll draw them. By hook or by crook, you'll find a way. A good indication of your commitment to your art is if everyone you know, from parents to teachers are trying to get you to STOP drawing for a while and Pay Attention. Remember: Drawing comic books is HUGELY Time-Intensive. If you've drawn two pages in a year, you won't be able to jump into the grind of producing 22 pages in 3 weeks.