Michael Kaluta: Interview with The Shadow Prince of Mars by Nicolas Waldmann
CFA-APA # 88 Conducted Dec. 9, 2012
Although Michael Kaluta was born in Guatemala, his soul, his eyes and his pens have belonged to Mars since a very early age. ERB and his red planet inspired (for our greatest pleasure) a young boy from the '50s who went on to become a master comic book and fantasy artist and painter whose sensitivity is unequaled among his generation of artists.
Kaluta’s art is as refined as it is flamboyant, as intricate as it is colorful, as visually impactful as it is delicate. No one in illustration except Berni Wrightson has captured horror and mystery with such a sense of staging; no one has captured the 1930s with such realism; no one has captured magic and fantasy with such elegance and authenticity. And of course, no one has ever portrayed Sci-Fi with so much fun.
Michael Kaluta is a master of many art styles, from the toned and charcoaled art of Metropolis and early ERB work, the impressionist style of Dante’s Inferno to the delicate black and white ink work for Game of Thrones (presented in this article for the first time ever), and the astonishing and vibrant color work for the Lord of the Rings, which ranks close to the top of the immense body of artwork ever produced or inspired by Tolkien’s saga.
Michael started as comic book artist in the late 1960s and became known in particular for his outstanding horror covers, but he has been solicited many times outside of the comic book industry. His distinctive style has since graced many paperback covers, illustrated books, cards, calendars, prints, theater sets and costumes.
The man behind the art is a soft-spoken gentleman and uptown NYC resident, who lives surrounded from floor to ceiling by countless reference books, accessories and artifacts that would fit well in Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University’s Library.
From the early days of the Studio in the late 70s, Kaluta’s line artwork has never ceased to be a tribute to grace and beauty, and to this date radiates with this mysterious and inexplicable appeal that only emanates from true Art.
Nicolas Waldmann: Michael, on behalf of all readers of CFA-APA, and before anything, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. So, to begin with, and since we live in the age of Social Media, I’d like to ask you about your ‘Likes and Interests’ (cf: Facebook) to better understand the man behind the artist.
Let us start with your Favorite Activities?
Michael Kaluta: Walking and “drinking in” the local atmosphere, sitting on a bench in the middle of Broadway while watching people and their dogs, their kids too.
Whenever I can, I read. I enjoy fiction, Science-Fiction and technical manuals for WWII aircraft.
I often work while listening to Talking Books -- sometimes books I’ve not read, but when I need to really focus on the art for a considerable time, I re-listen to favorite books and readers: the Harry Potter books as read by Jim Dale, Rob Englis’ reading of The Lord of the Rings and Martin Shaw’s reading of The Silmarillion. You’ll note that all those books take hours to listen to -- uninterrupted “atmosphere” for concentrated drawing.
NW: Who is your favorite artist?
MK: Out of all the artists who ever were? Well, probably Alphonse Mucha. Add to his name Windsor McCay, J Allen St John, Johnny Gruelle, John R Neill, Franklin Booth, Roy Krenkel, Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta -- but that’s a thin list, only touching on a few of the great image-makers whose work inspires and astounds me.
NW: Who is your favorite character?
MK: In comics? That’d be The Spirit, followed closely by Plastic Man (from the ‘40’s), Little Nemo and his friends, Gyro Gearloose and his Bulb-Headed side-kick.
NW: What is your favorite book?
MK: One Book? This is harsh!!! I suppose I’ll have to say The Lord of the Rings, as long as that doesn’t cancel out all the other favorite books I read and reread.
NW: What is your favorite quote?
MK: “The outcome of successful planning always looks like luck to saps.” —The Detective, The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett, Ch. 20, “The House in the Cove”
NW: What is your favorite movie?
MK: John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara
NW: What is your favorite artwork (from your production)?
MK: That would have to be most of the pieces I did for the 1994 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar
NW: In the late 70s, you were able to work with Roy Krenkel, your “second mentor”, on 2 books (Sowers of Thunder and As The Green Star Rises). What were the highlights of your collaboration during this time?
MK: The biggest highlight was being asked to help! I admired Roy’s art and enjoyed him as a person. I always gave him the horse-laugh when he’d demean his own work in favor of the artists he admired. True, his pantheon rivaled Olympus, but when he’d come to me asking that I knock in a few dropped shadows onto a group of his figures, saying “You and Jones are great shadow men”, I’d say: “But I learned what I know from copying YOUR work!”. My work on The Sowers of the Thunder really amounted to just that -- putting shadow weight for Roy’s figures onto tracing paper overlays he’d taped to his originals; I never touched his art. For As The Green Star Rises, Roy had drawn all but two of the illustrations, in pencil. I inked over his pencils (badly, as far as I’m concerned) on Vellum, but drew two of the pieces without Roy’s input. Still, I signed them with both our initials -- why miss the opportunity to have my name and Roy’s on the same art?
NW: In 1976, your life took a turn when you set up the Studio with Barry, Jeff and Berni. What was the address of the studio?
MK: The Studio was at 37 West 26th Street, the 12th Floor (the only floor higher was the Penthouse, which was the studio of J Frederick Smith, photographer and his son, Sean S Smith, also a photographer). Understand, I’d nothing to do with setting up the Studio; I was the last guy into the space. The Studio was Barry Windsor-Smith’s idea, shared with Berni back in 1976. Berni got Jeff in on the scheme and those three scoured Manhattan for a good and affordable space. I’ve no stories about The Search For The Studio. By the time I became the fourth artist, the other three (and friends, along with Linda Lessman, etc) had swept, cleaned and painted the huge room -- all I did was move in.
NW: What was your best memory from the Studio years?
MK: Let me think on this… SOME of the best times I’ve had, as far as the Studio goes, are from the years afterward -- just talking about those times has made them glow the brighter. Some bright memories are the quiet, alone times when the space, with all the towers of reference and storage, made thinking easier, as if one were contemplating a landscape. The lighting at night was particularly evocative.
Other bright times were the parties. There were not many, not often -- I remember only two full-on Everyone Is Invited parties, with fireworks on the roof, etc. But there were also numbers of get-togethers with Just Us (that being 8 people), talking, laughing, remembering and making stuff up. Sometimes it would be like a party when something or other had to be constructed in the space -- like the Darkroom (used by all and a LOT) or the Model Stand (used by none for models). The Model Stand was sort of a big box in the midst of the floor space. It was a head-shaker: no one knew why Berni, who’d never used models, insisted on buying the lumber and building it.
As with all life, there are very many moments that on their own mean nothing and relate badly as story material, but to those who went through those times, they are golden.
NW: Your worst memory from the Studio years?
MK: Got to think on that: there weren’t any bad experiences that I can recall. There were no tragedies that touched the Studio directly: no fires (though that was a near thing), no arguments. I expect the worst memory might be the day we decided to give up the space. Our landlords said we could have the space in future, after our first 3-year lease, only on a month-to-month basis. Realizing that would mean finding somewhere to move one’s things in only 30 days, should the landlord exercise that option, we opted to leave when we had a cushion of time to do it, so we’d not be like refugees escaping a conquering army.
NW: Can you tell us something that no one knows about your fellow Studio artists?
MK: Of course, but then they’d talk about ME! So, sorry, not going to happen!
NW: How did you get to illustrate Metropolis for Donning/Starblaze in the 1990s?
MK: D/S asked if I’d like to illustrate The Arabian Nights. I’d just illustrated two hardback books of Robert E Howard’s Arabian stories and, though my hand was full of that imagery, I wanted to “get away” from it. Besides, I’d never thought I’d get the opportunity to illustrate Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis. I asked them if I could -- they’d not known there was a book as well as the Fritz Lang film-- I sent a copy, and got back a Yes, please.
NW: The Lord of the Rings calendar was released in 1993. You produced 12 magnificent plates inspired by the saga. What is your favorite plate?
MK: Perhaps “Legolas Draws The Bow of Galadriel”, but “Eowyn and the Witch King of Angmar” is right up there. Truthfully, I can say I love them all, except “The First Flash Of Lightning At Helm’s Deep”. That is only because the version that was in the Calendar was a detail cropped from a finished version of the art that had been used as a wrap-around cover for The Marvel Encyclopedia of The Conan Universe. The drawing for Helm’s Deep had been done in 1978 in hopes to do a calendar way back then. During the years between 1978 and 1993, I added Conan to the cover in place of some Hill Trolls. At the time I figured I’d never get to do a Tolkien Calendar.
NW: If you were to produce another calendar, which scenes from the Lord of the Rings would you illustrate?
MK: That’s something I don’t know myself… sorry. I’d want to think about how to approach the art rather than illustrate the scenes, like for a modern book. Perhaps I’d do pictures of various events as they might have been done by artisans in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth.
NW: How did you get into gaming illustrations in the 1990s?
MK: Tony DiTerrlizi asked if I’d pencil and ink 3 Magic Cards. Though the Magic folks never approached me for card art, I did get to draw some monsters for the 3rd Monster Manual. I got to do covers and interiors for Polyhedron and Dragon Magazines. I asked around and got to do a handful of cards for The Legend of Five Rings (Japanese Fantasy during the Samurai Era), Warhammer and others. The height of my game work was doing the majority of the interiors for White Wolf’s re-boot of MAGE: The Awakening (2005). That was a BIG book and I got to draw all sorts of different magic. I’ve lost track of how many illustrations were in there, but it was a satisfying amount.
NW: Have you ever played a game you illustrated?
MK: I’ve never played any of the games, none at all.
NW: In the 1990s and the 2000s, the cover illustrations you produced for Books of Magic and Lucifer mark another milestone in your career (more than 75 covers combined). How did you approach the characters and the series to produce the covers?
MK: I had no unified approach to either the Books Of Magic or the Lucifer covers. I’d let the stories as described to me suggest cover ideas. I’d sketch them up and get an approval from the editors. If I got the green light, I dove in. It was a very good time.
NW: Over the past few years, we have seen your work on covers of mainstream comics (like FF, Avengers, Spiderman). How did you come to illustrate these books? How do you relate to these characters?
MK: The door to doing those Marvel covers was opened by Brandon Montclare, when he asked that I draw his Chaos War one-shot, Chaos King. I didn’t grow up on Marvel characters, so I had to do a lot of research, especially for the esoteric characters that got to take center stage during the 30-page book. I think, at the last count, there were as many as 40 characters salted throughout the story. After getting to “know” the mob of characters, doing the covers with the more well-known Marvel heroes was a lot easier.
NW: Game of Thrones is THE cult series of this decade. You produced a series of illustrations which were never published. What happened exactly? Is there a chance that we will ever see these illustrations in print (outside of this article)?
MK: Exactly: I did the art in good faith, I was promised some money, it never arrived. Later, after the project was off the list, the publishers offered to make good their offer, even though they’d not use the art. I thanked them and said “No.” After all, whatever the issues were, they’d not got the use of the art, so I felt I shouldn’t get the money.
NW: What projects are you currently working on?
MK: I’m just finishing 20 interior illustrations and cover for Princess of Mars, due out in 2013 from IDW. The work could be said to be in limited color.
I’ve a new Don Gates Pulp Book to do 9 illustrations for, plus cover (Challenger Storm: The Curse of Poseidon). Again, due out in 2013, from Airship 27 Productions.
I’m presently scanning the contents of the fourth Kaluta Sketchbook, due out from IDW in early 2013.
IDW is also on board to craft a larger Kaluta Art Book.
I’ve two covers lined up for the new Dark Horse Presents, plus plans to do a continuing feature to run in the DHP pages.
I’m close to delivering 9 chapter drawings for The Shadowhunter’s Codex, a guide to the Mortal Instruments/Infernal Devices series of novels from Cassandra Clare. The Codex will be filled with art from many, many artists.
I’ve got about 5 really fun private commissions in the works, with hopes to have them finished by year’s end. (2012).
NW: What book or stories would you like to illustrate in the next 10 years?
MK: I don’t know -- I’ve not thought about it. Generally, I wait for someone to ask me to work on a book. One book I’ve wanted to illustrate: Gustave Flaubert’s SALAMMBO (concerning the early years of Carthage, before Hannibal). There’s a good edition with some of the best Mahlon Blaine illos I’ve seen -- the story and content is very apt to illustration.