|Michael Kaluta is the highly respected comics artist who, since the late 1960s, has added his
remarkable style to a wide variety of projects, among them House of Mystery, Detective Comics,
Batman and Conan the King, as well as a science fiction satire known as Starstruck (which
started life as a play), and some gorgeous, but lamentably out-of-print, illustrated books
(Metropolis, The Studio). He is widely regarded as one of the best visual interpreters of The
Shadow, a character that emerged from pulp fiction and radio to claim his own place in comicdom. In
recent years Kaluta has become a popular cover artist for titles such as Books of Magic,
Witchcraft, Aquaman and Lucifer. His attention to intricate detail and Mucha-influenced drawing
style is an odd mix with the dark cityscapes and sinister images he has often been called on to draw,
but fans at Atlanta ComiCon 2003 and 2004, where this interview took place, had no complaints, just
plenty of requests for autographs and sketches.
|Shadows of the Past
by Laurie J. Anderson
April 2003 & 2004, Atlanta ComiCon
Gwinnett Civic Center, Atlanta, GA
|Michael Wm. Kaluta
Sequential Tart: You started your career drawing on a TV set.
Michael Kaluta: I did. I did indeed.
ST: Winky-Dink back in the '50s.
MK: You ratted me out . My parents had the foresight to actually order this — it couldn't have cost
more than fifty cents — piece of plastic that, through static electricity would stick to the screen of your
television set. The screen was about 12" by 15" in size. Winky-Dink was a cartoon character that
would move around on the screen, and there was a human host, who made the stories up You had to
build fairways or ladders or doors or holes for him to fall through and so forth. So, although I've never
really credited Winky-Dink, he was seminal influence.
ST: He may have gotten you started.
MK: Oh, definitely. If I can imagine that your next question has to do with John Gnagy.
ST: Actually, it didn't, but if you want to talk about that — that really did affect you.
MK: Yes. It was a similar time period in the early '50s, mid-'50s, and I did catch his program as
often as I possibly could and learn to draw from that, especially perspective. He would play with
perspective in almost every one of his drawings, and when, years later, I got into my profession,
I became known as "the guy who can do perspective." I'm still known for that by a number of my
contemporaries. I used to get a lot of calls: "I need a perspective shot of the entire NYC harbor.
Can you help me out with it?" They'd send faxes, or, these days, image files via email with their
perspective problems in them.
ST: Wow. From other professionals?
MK: Yes. The perspective problems I'd fix were from the same guys that I'd send my anatomy
problems to ... I'd fax or file them with: "How do I make this woman's back sway so that it's human
but still looks sexy?" I'd send off my drawings and get their refined tracings back. Not a bad trade:
a New York skyline perspective for Vampirella's back.
ST: You were an Air Force brat.
MK: I still am an Air Force brat.
ST: Was drawing a way of dealing with all the moving around?
MK: I don't know.
ST: Okay, being around an Air Force base, did that influence your love of drawing mechanical things?
MK: Yes. Yes indeed.
ST: And large canvases with lots of things going on?
MK: Exactly, yeah. Living on the air bases, I had certain permissions, granted by the USAF
Dependant ID I carried, and of course there were certain things one was not allowed to do. As
much as I'd want to investigate a hangar where they worked on the B-47s or F-100s I'd stay
away .... All the brats, except for a few base commanders' sons knew that was illegal.
ST: But a young kid, a boy, with big airplanes ....
MK: Well the thrilling Mecca for all the boys on base — and the girls, for that matter — was the
MK: Any other place, the dump is full of trash. But the dump on a SAC Air Force Base was full of
wrecked and junked airplanes. Pieces of this, that and the other thing. The area was probably steeped
in a lot of really toxic stuff: hydraulic fluids and coolants and everything else that helped protect
democracy in the 1950s. All thoughts of self-inflicted damage were ignored when climbing into these
ex-flying things, playing with all the little doodads, investigating every dark area. Beyond wings, tails
and drop tanks, we didn't know what any of the machinery was for, but it was fascinating to look at,
to touch and to try to take home. One of the things I remember specifically was that conduits and
other tubing were connected, and each connector was burnished, and each was always burnished a
different color, so the mechanic could tell what it was, what it was used for. I never knew what was
what, but I ended up with a really neat collection of strange connectors — orange, blue, and they had
a sheen, a very science-fiction sheen to them. They were burnished aluminum or burnished magnesium
— very shiny, cool-looking stuff.
We had one airplane in the dump that was mostly complete ... a C-119 cargo plane (its sobriquet was
"the flying boxcar" because it was a big box with wings). This one didn't have any wings beyond the
engine nacelles. It still had its tail booms, and what was left of a cockpit. One could clamber in, up
into the cockpit area and play for hours.
Every year, on Air Forces Day (on or about May 15th every year since 1949), besides having the
Thunderbirds come flying in and the flight apron covered with familiar and unusual airplanes to look at,
the fire marshall would drag one of the junked airplanes out of the dump, paint "Old Smokey" on the
side, put it on the edge of the runway and set it on fire. Then the base fire trucks would come in with
foam cannons spraying to show the audience how they put out — and how fast they could put out —
an aviation fuel fire. Each year, we kids would wonder which one of our favorite dead airplanes was
going to be burnt up.
The imagery on one of my most recent comic book covers, Hellboy: Weird Tales, is a direct result of
my days spent in the USAF aircraft dump.
ST: What was your favorite comic book as a kid? Or favorite comic cartoon character? Either one.
MK: Like on TV?
ST: I wasn't sure if you read a lot of comic books as a kid.
MK: Well there's your first question.
ST and Kaluta simultaneously: Did you read a lot of comic books as a kid?
MK: I did. My favorite comic book was probably like Little Lotta or Richie Rich, or Little Audrey.
ST: Why? Just fun?
MK: They were comfortable, and the stories were fairly happy. Also the Archie stories were a lot of
fun to read, too. They had a sense that the world was a warm place that the characters were very
comfortable in, no matter what trouble they were getting into or what problems they were having with
each other. There was no "dark night of the soul" in any of the Archie stories. My cousins in New
York were avid, avid comic book readers. Besides the innocuous Archies and Baby Hueys, they
read all the comics they weren't supposed to read. When the cousins finished with them, their parents
would pack and send the comic books to my sisters and me. Every six or seven months there'd be a
big package of every sort of comic book. Frankly, most of them scared me to death. But, I read
every one of them!! I still have images burned in my mind from some — one of which I found, later
in life: the story is totally vapid, badly drawn, but, as a kid, it just traumatized me ....
ST: What kind of titles are you talking about?
MK: Journey Into Mystery, that type of story. Some of them may even have been EC comics, but
more often than not, I'm sure they were all the other comics that were trying to get that EC market.
It was pretty grim stuff.
ST: All that kind of dark, shadowy stuff that you are known for doing now, as a kid it wasn't
something inspirational, it was kind of scary.
MK: Yeah, yeah. The shadowy thing that translated into The Shadow in the 1930s probably came
from later, in the early '60: watching The Untouchables on television. That show, the stories and the
visuals, really affected me. When I got to do The Shadow this imagery just fell out of my hand onto
the paper. I hadn't really done a lot of studying.
Somebody pointed out, looking at one of my Shadow pages: "Well, you know, if it takes place in
1936, you've drawn in only 1936 cars. What we had in 1936 were 1923 cars. Nobody but a rich
few, bankers and Hollywood-types, had the brand new cars." That made sense. Of course, everyone
had brand new cars in the movies. But when you look at photographs from the time period, there are
wagons with horses right next to the old Model T delivery trucks, and every once in a while a kind of
snazzy car. The taxicabs were only slightly older than the year, fairly uniform, as if the taxi companies
all bought the same machine, big enough for six people to ride in the back.
ST: That was one of the best black and white TV shows, I think, ever made.
MK: It was.
ST: Very moody .... Okay, you took a year off, between high school and college.
MK: I did indeed.
ST: And what were you doing during that year? I know you were doing a lot of art.
MK: Well, I was doing some art, but actually I worked in an art store — you'd call it a concession
space in a large department store — selling art supplies while '65-'66 went by .... My father was in
Vietnam at the time; it was his third war, and I was a bit at loose ends. This would be where I'd meet
Steve Hickman and through him, Steve Harper. I met Steve Hickman through his mom .... I worked
in the art store at the Landmark Shopping Center just off of Rte. 95 in Alexandria, VA. His mom
shopped there for picture frames, part of her business. One time while shopping, she glanced over at
what I was drawing and said, "Oh, my son draws those things." I said, "Well these look like boats,
but they're — " She said, "I know, they're flyers from Barsoom."
MK: You could have knocked me over with a feather: in my world adults weren't supposed to
know what a flyer from Barsoom looked like. Later that day Steve and Lance, his brother, and
Jennifer, Steve's girl, came up to visit, bringing along Steve's artwork.
I eventually went to art college the fall of '66; Steve Hickman arrived there the following year. Steve
Harper came to visit from time to time, so Richmond, Virgina became this kind of meeting place of
like-minded young artists — if I hadn't taken that one year off, I wouldn't have found a whole lot of
my artistic self. Through both Hickman and Harper I learned about the art and artists that eventually
formed my style.
ST: They were fans. They'd already introduced you to some of their stuff —
MK: They were already fans. While I'd read Sgt. Rock and the Archie comics, Steve Hickman was
reading and studying Magnus, Robot Fighter, and the Edgar Rice Burroughs books and comics.
Steve Harper had access to the original pulps with all the Tarzan and sci-fi that Burroughs wrote.
All of it illustrated by The Good Guys.
ST: How did you wind up not getting into Vietnam?
MK: My father came back from Vietnam right at the time that I got my request to go for the draft
physical. He said, "Well, let's get you into a college." At this point ('65, '66) America wasn't so mired
in Vietnam that they would draft boys out of college.
ST: If you were in college you could get a deferral.
MK: You could get a deferral very easily. So the college I had my eye on was Pratt Institute in
New York City. Pratt cost about $2200 a semester. My dad pointed out that Richmond
Professional Institute in Richmond, Virginia cost $500 a year, because we were residents of the
state. Going to RPI was the best thing that ever happened to me.
ST: What was the most useful thing that you learned in college about doing art?
MK: If I have a recognizable style, it's because of what the instructors taught me in college.
I originally tried to get into the commercial art school at RPI because I thought that was where
you'd go to become an illustrator. Well, thirty years before my time, that's where you went to
become an illustrator, but not in 1966. You became an art director by going to the commercial
art side of the college. As it turned out, I couldn't get in because the commercial art school was
full. So I went into the fine art section. It was serendipitous; it was the best thing that could
possibly have happened.
What they taught me to do in Fine Arts was to think visually in an almost Pavlovian way. The
instructors tricked all the artists, all the young students, by using a method of drawing instruction
where one thinks one knows what one is doing, but one is actually being taught how to sense
when a drawing or painting is "right", as opposed to just following rules. In commercial art, there
are always rules. In fine art the rules are more in the manner of "informed personal conceits".
They used the book The Nicolaides Natural Drawing Book. It is full of just awful-looking drawings,
but you weren't meant to copy these drawings. The techniques used taught how to find mass in the
drawing, spatial relationships between your line and the page. One technique was when drawing
the model: the closest part to you would be the darkest, and the furthest part away would be the
lightest. With this approach you learned to sense the mass of the figure, not define the detailing of
its anatomy. I had a friend going to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. He was learning
how to draw using tea-stained paper, white ink and Conte crayons, drawing like the old masters.
That's what I thought I wanted. He saw what I was doing in my classes and said, "Oh, I wish we
were doing that!"
When I turned my hand toward comic-book type drawing, I didn't have any schooling in that
approach. I ended up using the compositional approach I learned in my fine art classes where
they had taught me about negative space, shapes in space, and so on. All taught me against my will.
ST: You went to your first con when you were like 20 years old?
ST: You went with some friends and wound up meeting a whole bunch of heavy hitters in the
MK: I did. Steve Hickman and Steve Harper and I hit New York City, wide-eyed and ready for
anything. All my heroes were right there at that first convention ... we'd come to the convention
because of fanzine publishers we were working with said they'd be attending, and that Frazetta
was going to be there!
ST: And you met Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones ....
MK: Yes: Bernie Wrightson. It was his first convention, too. I don't even know why he went there.
Jeff Jones had been in NYC for about a year, and he had just won that convention's painting award.
Bernie won the "New Artist" award. We had no idea that there were even things like that, art awards
and such. Only Steve Harper, of the three of us, had ever been to a convention, and that had been a
science fiction convention years earlier. This comic book, sci-fi and pulp gathering was quite different
for all of us. I was reminding myself of it last night. There we were, standing at Phil Seuling's table,
looking at all the magazines and fanzines and so on — things we had never known even existed. My
friend Harper said, "Look up! Look over there! Look over there! See that guy? That's Roy Krenkel!"
Now how would he know what Roy Krenkel looked like? I don't know, but he did. And Roy was
over there, looking like he always looked from that point on for the next thirty years that I knew him.
ST: He was a little, kind of geeky-looking guy —
MK: Kind of geeky, but not little: tall and geekly (hahaha). If we were making a movie of his life it'd
be Christopher Lloyd, as he looked in the first Back to the Future movie, playing him.
ST: I can picture that.
MK: The hair. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet, going through a magazine rack, looking for
something, some old copy of Amra or Trumpet magazine (both early Edgar Rice Burroughs' fanzines).
We didn't meet him right then, but later, when the fanzine editors that we worked for said "Come over
and meet Frazetta now." Hickman, Harper, Wrightson and I went up to Frazetta's hotel room and
met The Man. We interfaced as best we could. Basically we were all standing in a line with our
portfolios, looking like we were going to be shot. Later on Roy Krenkel came into the room, sat
down and held court. It was a bit of fan heaven, I can tell you!!!
Now, Bernie had a fantastic style, a flair beyond any of us at that time. He had thought to bring a
drawing to give to Frank: a beautiful, overly rendered drawing; there was so much stuff happening in
it. In return, Frank gave him a Sunday page from his Johnny Comet daily strip. Bernie kept that for
years and years. It was a wonderful thing to look at: unbelievably delicate brushwork. It was a
bucolic, homey page, not an adventure theme, there were no muscles to speak of, but there was —
ST: But it was a Frazetta.
MK: Unbelievably beautifully drawn stuff: characterization, attitude, and movement. After that Frank
looked at the rest of our portfolios. There was basically a roaring in our ears. I don't know if any of us
could remember what he said, we were in The Presence. He didn't know that the world thought of
him as "Frazetta" yet, but at that convention it kind of came home to him. Later that evening he
brought originals to the room. There was a small group of people that were invited to see these things.
Bob Barrett stood on one side with large envelopes full of Frank's paintings, most on canvas board.
Bob would reach in, pull out a masterpiece and the whole room would go "Ohhhhhhh!" and lean in
toward it. Just couldn't believe it. And then Bob would pull out another one. "Ohhhhhh!" I forget just
how many pictures Frank had done at that point. He might have done his first Conan ... '67. Maybe,
just. Yes, yes, he had to have, okay. But there were so many other pieces that were in there. The
Sea Witch, Phoenix Prime, Night Walk! Frank stood in the back of the room, smoking cigarillos
with a look in his face like "What? I don't get it. What's going on?" It finally dawned on him: all
over the country there were guys and gals looking at his pictures, falling all over themselves.
ST: It was kind of a first for him, too.
MK: Right. Just to tag on to that: that same night, Roy Krenkel was sitting over in a comfy chair, my
friend Harper perched on one side of it and me on the other. Harper, who knew all the old illustrators,
had collections of Argosy magazine and so on, would look down at Roy. He'd lean over a bit, and
say, "Franklin Booth". Roy would light up and say "Oh Franklin Booth! Oh he's magnificent! What a
line quality! Nobody can do it like him! So you know this guy? That's fantastic for such a young guy
like yourself." Then Harper would say, "Maxfield Parrish." "Oh, Maxfield Parrish! I love him!" Harper
kept dropping illustrators' names. Some of them I knew, but a most of them I didn't. Harper
impressed Krenkel to the point where Krenkel yelled out to Frank: "These kids" — including me —
"These kids know all the guys." It was only Harper who knew all the guys. So that needless to say,
after that evening, Steve Hickman and I said, "Okay, Harper, you gotta show us all these guys. If
they impressed Roy Krenkel, who impresses us, we gotta to see all this stuff."
ST: So you've done your first big convention, you do another one about a year later; and you're
getting a real taste for this. Then you decide to move to New York City about a year after you
graduated from college.
MK: Well I didn't graduate from college. It was between my second and third year in college, the
summer of 1968, that I got a call from Bernie Wrightson telling me to call Al Williamson. Phil Seuling
had shown Al some of my fanzine work .... Al said, "Look, I've got this small script, a five or six page
thing they want me to do over at DC Comics; I'd like to make it twelve pages, and I want you to take
and expand it: put more girls in it, more monsters, more jungle, you know, that kind of stuff." So that
summer, thanks to Phil Seuling and Al Williamson, I sweated — and I mean sweated — over these
pages. I've not seen them since. I know they've got to be very embarrassing: I overdid everything.
ST: They were never used.
MK: My pages were never used. But the job was done. In January of '69, I went up to Al's place in
upstate New York and worked on this story (The Beautiful Beast in House of Mystery) while he
worked on his Secret Agent Corrigan daily strip. Al had taken maybe three panels out of everything
I'd drawn the previous summer and added them in to the story. The story was still as long as I'd made
it, but he'd changed all my fumbling drawing into very elegant stuff!
ST: He saw talent there.
MK: Oh, he saw some talent there, I'm assuming, because he put a good word in for me. I have to
be humble in the presence of such a great draughtsman!!!
ST: So you moved to New York. What was it like when you first moved there? How did you
survive? I mean, were you staying with your cousins?
MK: No, I stayed with Bernie Wrightson, who'd come up in summer of '68. DC Comics had offered
him the full book Nightmaster, which he eventually did two issues of, but somebody else drew the first
issues, whose name has escaped my mind.
Audience member: Jerry Grandenetti!
MK: Jerry Grandenetti. You're right. They picked Jerry after Wrightson. They thought Wrightson
had the chops, based on his drawing abilities, but he'd had yet to learn comic book storytelling.
What none of us young guys knew was that there was a certain technique to telling a story in a comic
book: the only way to learn it was by doing it. Nowadays there are a few "Guide Books To
Storytelling" by geniuses like Will Eisner that give you a clue that there's a magic way of telling
stories in comics. But not in 1968. We all had to learn the harder way: trial and error. Bernie was a
quick study. By the next year, January, February of 1969, he was back doing Nightmaster, and I
got to help a little bit doing layouts and some backgrounds. Bernie had a fairly small room on West
77th Street with a bathroom in the hall and kitchenette. I shared with him and another roommate,
his pal Al from Baltimore. When we got up in the morning, the beds kind of folded away, and the
room became a sea of drawing boards. We sat there, much like the drawing scenes in Chasing Amy,
and drew all day. At night we dug out the beds, which pretty much covered the entire room, went to
sleep, got up the next day and worked again.
ST: Do you remember consciously picking up, learning the storytelling aspects of comics?
MK: Not really. It was the job of the editor to sort of whack it into us. We were a lucky bunch.
The old guys at DC Comics really had done years and years of comic book work and we young-uns
got the benefit. I know that later on in life, in time, editors didn't seem to have time to educate a
young artist, and becoming a comic book artist became a more difficult road to travel. At the time of
my very first job, my editor was Dick Giordano. And then, with House of Mystery and the Carson
of Venus stories, it was Joe Orlando. Both of them would sit me down; take an hour and say,
"Okay, look at what you've done." It was the personal touch — and like water to a thirsty man!
I remember Joe would place tracing paper over a page I'd sweated over and, pencil in hand, say
"Now look — " while drawing large circles over different elements I'd crabbed onto the page. I had
figures in one panel and a long shot in another. I had a close-up in this other one ... I thought I had
done some pretty neat stuff. Then he holds up the tracing paper with its pencil circles defining my
masses. "This is your page." It was the dullest layout I'd ever seen. It had no action, no verve. The
circles showed me that a page of comic art had little to do with the content: nothing to do with the
horses, nothing to do with the blood or the fire or anything like that. It had to do with the weight of
the objects on the page. Then he said, "Now, if you did this ... " and he drew a kind of abstract art
thing on the paper. "Make this your castle off in the distance; now bring this up here; do this, do
that." He did tricky things that accentuated the movement of masses on the page, making the page
exciting to see, even if you couldn't see the detail. Everyone should try the trick with the tracing
paper and circles .... Giordano did a similar thing by giving me three two-page stories, two of which
have been printed, one of which will never ever see print — and probably the world's a better place
for that. Each time I brought in one of the two-pagers, Dick would congratulate the parts that made
good comics, and then show me how the other bits lost focus, or got mired in detail.
ST: Back then, I think you're on record as saying it took you about three days to do a page?
MK: Oh sure. Yeah. Three days, unless I got worried 'cause there was a girl in it, and I wanted her
to look pretty. Then the page could take a week! If I really freaked out, I was lucky to even finish the
job! I would get so caught up in worrying about drawing badly; I'd just not draw.
ST: These days, on average, if you're just penciling — I'm going to give you two different scenarios
— if you're just penciling a series of panels, how long do you think it would take you, on average?
MK: If I was going to ink it myself, I could easily do one in a day. If there was a deadline, I could do
as many as two.
ST: Same with on a cover, or do you take more time with your pencils on a cover?
MK: Again that depends on what's in the cover. And there's the process of getting editorial approval
for the sketch ... that can eat up a lot of time.
ST: What's the longest you would take on pencils on a cover? Well, that would depend on your
deadline, too, right?
MK: Yup. Here's a scenario: The editors say, "We'd like you to do a cover: this is basically the
information we need on the cover." I make little scribbles. This is the fastest part of it, coming up
with ideas. I get one I like, maybe two or three and then I fax or email the editor. Most editors get
right back; some editors take a day; some editors take a week, even when you have to call them
several times. Possibly that is payback for all the times I've been ever-so-late delivering the finished
product. In this instance you could say, okay, it's taken a week. I only worked on it for fifteen
minutes. Once they say, "Okay, fine, go with that layout," Then I might Xerox that little drawing up
to the required size, put tracing paper over it, refine it. Then I put that onto the art board, usually by
light-boxing it ... I would call it a day's work if it felt really like a day's work .... Unless there's a lot
of figures or real detail like a bridge or lots of buildings, the actual drawing effort takes about four to
ST: Do you prefer to ink your own work?
ST: Of the people who have inked your work, whom have you liked?
MK: Bernie Wrightson and Charles Vess. They are the only guys who've done a huge amount of
inking on my work. Bernie and me, when we worked together the art looked like a third person did
it. When Charlie Vess inked my stuff, it looks like I did it, but way better.
MK: Charlie's inking has a weighted line 'cause he uses a brush, as opposed to a pen. The most
unlikely tag team was me and Al Milgrom who, when somebody said, "Oh, give these pages to Al
Milgrom," I went, "Whaaaaaaaat????!" I know that if he heard me say that, or heard somebody
report that, it could hurt his feelings, but what I meant was, Al was used to inking twenty pages in a
week or two, because he was one of the "grind" guys over at Marvel. It didn't mean he couldn't draw
or he couldn't ink, it just meant that he generally inked really fast. What I'd done was sweated over
three pages and I didn't want anyone to have to sandwich it between one thing and another. Well,
I'd had nothing to fear: Al inked those three pages [for Heroes Against Hunger, 1986] and they're
gorgeous! I don't know if he'd care to ink an entire comic book of my pencils, but I'd ask him, for
ST: Do you remember who inked your Batman covers?
MK: I did that.
ST: Did you have any input on the color, in the early years?
MK: Sometimes I would have had input; sometimes they would ignore my suggestions, or I would
not bother. In the early covers, I would try to tell them what I really wanted on every cover;
sometimes doing color roughs, and so on.
ST: Did they take offense?
MK: Once. But again, I lucked out, because the fellow who was going to color this one cover was
the boss of coloring at DC Comics. He was one of the old guys in the field, and here's me, this young
guy, telling him what to do and what not to do.
In the industry at this time — this was 1970s — the printers had developed a way of taking your
black ink and dropping it out into color. The production folks became fascinated with this innovation
and over-used it. I had maybe six or seven, as far as I was concerned, of my Mystery covers, the
horror/monster stuff, ruined by dropping out my solid black areas into color. If one drew a ghost,
they'd make the lines blue, and the drawing disappeared off the page. So I wailed: "Oh, I spent so
much time drawing these things."
When the cover for Shadow #1 went into the production deptartment I got extra worried. It was a
two-part cover: a gray background that I knew they were going to make a Velox of and then color
bleed into it — Velox is a half-tone Photostat process for reproducing grey toned art — and, done
right, it would look like a painting. Then there was a line drawing in the foreground. It was of an
elevated train and cityscape. Lots of solid black holding lines the pushed the foreground closer to the
I freaked, thinking, "What if they drop the black out into blue, or worse, purple????". So I sent a
note: "Now Jack, I know you're going to want to drop the black out into color. Please don't. I know
you're going to want to color the windows some blue, some gray, some green and then some yellow.
No. They're all supposed to be yellow. Make the sky blue. Make this red. Make that orange, that
green." I went down this shopping list. Later I heard — not from Jack, but from other people in the
room at the time he got the art and note — that he ranted and raved around the production room.
ST: I'm sorry. Jack was — ?
MK: Jack Adler. He was the boss of the production room .... And as it turned out, Shadow #1 was
one of the best covers of mine that ever came out. Jack was proud of it, in spite of the fact that I told
him what to do. I was proud of it, because it looked just the way I expected it to, thank goodness.
Everyone was very happy. To this day, everyone is very happy with it. These days, however, I hope
I could get the same result in a more professional manner.
ST: This sort of leads into The Shadow that I was going to ask you about. You kind of got into that
assignment by default.
MK: In a way.
ST: Wrightson and Aparo were busy, and Toth wanted to rewrite it, and they didn't want him to
rewrite it ....
MK: And that writing problem put the kibosh on Steranko as well.
ST: DC Comics were apparently glad that they got you to do it, but did they want someone else to
ink it, or were they — was there any question about that?
MK: Having an inker over me never came up that I know of. They let me run with it.
ST: Did you feel overwhelmed when you first got that assignment?
MK: Yes. I felt overwhelmed during the whole thing. And I was overwhelmed.
ST: You weren't a Shadow fan to begin with, but as you got to know more about it, it probably got
MK: Well the comic book was twenty pages, pencil and ink, every other month. I'd never done
more than eight pages at the time, at one sitting. It would take two full months to produce the book,
which meant no slacking off ... I did slack off: part of that slacking was me being afraid that the one
line I was going to put down was not going to be "the" line: I would choke, back off, and go take a
nap. But my mind was on the job, even if I wasn't drawing it.
ST: It's interesting that an artist would have something that a writer has — that kind of fear of putting
something on paper because it just wouldn't be good enough.
ST: That's a mark of somebody who's kind of a perfectionist.
MK: Kind of a perfectionist, even though I knew that no matter how good I did, it would never be
perfect. That's just it. I know that there is no such thing as perfection, as far as drawing, though I'd
seen what I took for perfection in other people's work (Will Eisner and Hal Foster come to mind).
I've never seen it in myself. I wish there'd been somebody hanging around at the time who would
have kept hitting me in the back of the head with a whiffle bat, saying "Just do it. Don't worry. Just
do it." Life would have been fine, but I choked.
ST: Well the work that you did, obviously, is legendary. People just love it to this day. Did you feel
from the beginning that the city would be a kind of a character?
MK: Oh yeah. Had to be.
ST: Nobody told you that, but you decided that.
MK: Yeah. The scripts were fairly thin, as far as description goes. "Interior of warehouse." "Exterior
of a warehouse."
ST: Cities are something that you do well. Is that partly coming out of your love of mechanical stuff
that you draw? You moved to New York City, and that became a venue that you just loved
MK: We visited the city every other year when I was kid. My father was from New York, so
alternate years we'd go to my grandfather's place, which at that time was in The Bronx, New York.
At that time, in the early '50s, the Bronx was much more like what Manhattan had been when all the
Shadow stuff was supposed to happen. The Bronx still had all the elevated trains. Going to the movie
theaters or shopping, you had to walk under the giant El [elevated railway] —
ST: — And that's a kind of a sinister thing, at certain times —
MK: It was very sinister sounding and looking when that train came along. I can see the images in
my mind from that time, melded with the images from movies and photo books I studied later. For
some reason I was able to put into The Shadow things that had crept in while I was on vacation in
In rereading The Shadow comics I did I still get surprised: in my mind I only see the places where
I made mistakes; things I rather wished I could have drawn better. Some years later I was able to go
through the art and fix them. All the art is fine now, reprinted in The Private Files of The Shadow,
but, in my mind, I still see the bad drawing that I fixed. Also, in rereading the books, I'll find panels
I've forgotten I did. One of them was an incidental theme of the cab going under an elevated train
line toward the city. It feels like a real place, not hyper-realism, just enough information there for one
to feel that it's a real place. [A reader might think,] "Oh the guy had to use reference for this." I did,
but not from a photo ... just from remembering my life as a kid.
ST: Who else has done The Shadow since you whose work you've liked?
MK: The Shadow Strikes, [by Eduardo] Barreto, I liked the look. It had an alternate-world, "Joe
Kubert" feeling to it. I like those. I do like how Dave Stevens used The Shadow in his Rocketeer
book. The Shadow looked like The Shadow, more so than when I drew him.
ST: Wrightson never wound up doing it, did he?
ST: How come?
MK: If you're going to get Wrightson, why put him into a world where the machines are critical, the
buildings are critical, the backgrounds are critical, when you can put him into a swamp and get much
more bang for your buck? That's what he does — icky, drippy organic stuff. There's a panel in the
third issue that Bernie and I did as a tag team, The Kingdom of the Cobra. It's a prison story. I
would pencil some, and he would ink it; he'd pencil some; I would ink it. There's a panel near the
end showing The Shadow putting his cape on before he goes to find the bad guy. He's got a
submachine gun in his arms. Bernie so loved what he'd done with this solid black shadowed cape
that he said, "Well let me just ink that one, without you going over it." I said, "Of course, go ahead."
I left it just like he'd penciled it, including the submachine gun ... but — it's not a submachine gun. It's
a toy rat-tat space gun. Bernie didn't care what a Thompson submachine gun looked like. All the
other times that he or I inked it, I'd gone in after he drew his water gun, making it look just like a
Thompson machine gun. I recently found one other panel in that story where I'd missed redrawing
ST: He didn't resent that?
MK: He didn't even notice! Besides, as he'd tell you, "It was Kaluta's book". The twist of line to that
story is: many a time I've been brought into an art director's office and they single out that panel. "This
is spectacular! This is good stuff!" I'd say, "Thank you." and take the job they're offering me, never
saying, "Oh, Bernie did that."
The bottom line: the toy water gun didn't matter a whit: that is a damn fine drawn panel!!!
ST: You remade The Shadow movie as best as you could in a comic book adaptation.
MK: We did a damn good job of fixing that thing.
ST: Could you describe what changes you made and what bigger changes would you make if you
MK: Joel Goss and I were to write the comic book adaptation and I was going to draw it. We kept
the main thread of the movie story, but felt we'd like to make a better Shadow story of the thing. The
first thing we did was scan the script into character recognition software. That way we had the whole
script editable. Then we cut the beginning, that whole thing that happened in the Kung Pao luau
whatever, with the opium fields and draped babes and murder. We understood why it was in the
movie script. The producers thought, "The reason The Shadow knows evil is because he was evil."
We thought: "That's fine, but you don't do anything further with it. You never use it again. So why is
it in there?" Their answer would have been: "Oh, it looks good."
Joel came up with the framing sequence that we used: a news stringer coming into a bar, sees another
newspaper man (Harry Vincent), and knows this guy has got some connections with the people in the
city and the bigger newspapers. He says, "I've got a story that you're not going to believe, but I got
the facts, I got the figures, I got the place, but no one will listen to me. You take it." So he tells the
story, and that's when the 'movie' starts.
ST: What that does is leave more mystery with the character.
MK: Yes. Why do The Shadow movie about a mysterious crime fighter, then spend the movie telling
people who he is?
ST: If you could make bigger changes —
MK: Well, as far as the comic book adaptation, the only change that I'd make is a little better
drawing in places, a little more solid black, a little more fluid line, and such. It was 44 pages and
I felt rushed. The movie was coming out and they wanted the comic out in time for the movie.
We were so happy to make it make sense. The major point of our story is The Shadow lures Shiwan
Khan away from the Orient, his seat of power, lures him to New York City, a place where The
Shadow has more power. Shiwan Khan is very powerful: The Shadow needs the edge that fighting
on his home ground gives him. In the movie The Shadow does little beyond sitting around.
ST: What was the most fun thing for you, working on that, from an art point? What did you enjoy
drawing the most? Oriental aspects of stuff, or the city things — ?
MK: In that one particular story, or in the series?
ST: Actually, in the series.
MK: I enjoyed evoking a mood, using the city as a character. That part was a lot of fun. In the 1989
Private Files of the Shadow, the hardback collection of the older stuff, I wrote and drew what was
supposed to be a five-page backup story. With this and that, it turned into a 15-page story. It's my
favorite of all my Shadow stories. The only dialog in it is a radio program and, while the radio
program is happening, you see the action playing counterpoint to the news broadcast. It's another
Chinese adventure. I had a lot of fun with that one.
ST: Any chance there'll be another Shadow/Batman encounter?
MK: Why not?
ST: Nobody's asked you, though.
MK: No. Generally when it comes up — the Shadow and Batman — they use the Batman artists.
ST: How did you meet Elaine Lee?
MK: She and her sister Susan were sitting in a restaurant that I frequented. They were working on
one of their plays, and had a table covered with science fiction books — books on robots, Star Wars
magazines, and things like that. I thought: if I pass this up, I am such a geek! Here are two attractive
women surrounded by science fiction books. So I went over and asked them if they read science
fiction. They said "No, we don't, but we're writing a play about it." We chatted for a little bit and I
gave them my phone number, saying I drew science fiction so maybe I could help. Had I seen either
of them in stage makeup, or any kind of makeup, I would not even have thought to go over to say
hello. Luckily for me, then, they were fresh from a dress rehearsal and were the plainest they'd ever
look in life.
MK: I would have been too intimidated. They're powerful women anyway, but they were very pretty
as well, and I was intimidated by that. Since they were working on their play, and had had the dress
rehearsal for another, they'd just wiped off their face makeup and pulled their hair back. They just
looked like regular people, if you follow me.
ST: How did you guys collaborate once you started doing comic books together?
MK: Elaine was the playwright, so, at first, she would write dialog, and I would break that into
panels. We'd discuss what happened in those panels, then I would draw them up. Elaine's writing
inspired me to draw better, and when she saw what I did, based on her dialog, it inspired her to
write more and better material.
ST: What was it about Starstruck that you enjoyed so much?
MK: One element: it was a play first; I knew what all the characters looked like.
ST: So those weren't your concepts?
MK: I designed the costumes with Elaine's guidance, but the faces and body movements were from
the actors. When Elaine asked me to help with her play, Starstruck, way before the comic book, she
asked me to design the poster. I got to read the play in progress. It was a good, solid science fiction
story, even though it was supposed to be silly. I realized that there was no star. It was an ensemble
piece, basically twelve roles, and each one of them gets more than their moment. I couldn't take the
easy route, put one space gal on the poster with a gun. That wasn't the play. So I put all the
characters on the poster. That meant I needed to know what all the characters looked like and what
all the costumes looked like. Elaine and her troupe had cast the play already, but she said, "We don't
really have the costumes designed." She wanted Brucilla's costume to reflect a Roman Centurion's
costume. She wanted Galatia's costume to play with the fact that she was an Amazon, and had cut
one of her breasts off. We built one side of the costume out with foam rubber, so it looked like one
had gone, so you noticed. Very witty.
The whole thing about Elaine's writing is: it's very witty. Before Starstruck there was another play she
and her sister wrote, called The Contamination of Kokomo Lounge. It was about a roadhouse in
Texas where the Dow Chemical factory spewed out stuff that killed all the men. The main characters
were two town women who just got back from the Daytona 500, where one of them was the
Firestone Tire Representative and got to kiss Richard Petty. The play was so "country" with white
trash mixed in with the PTO Club, religion and the end of the world, as we know it ... I was stunned
by the writing. Then I realized that Starstruck was going to be just as well written, and I wanted to be
a part of it.
ST: What current female comic characters do you like?
MK: I still like all the Love and Rockets characters, from both sides of the story, very much. The
Strangers in Paradise stories are also among my favorites. The modern Catgirl, she's built for speed,
she isn't like a cat. Not my cup of tea ... I like Danger Girl, and Action Girl.
ST: What about the characters in Starstruck? What are your favorites? You like all of them?
MK: Oh yeah.
ST: You don't have a particular favorite?
MK: No. You see the thing is, I know more about the stories than the readers do. The characters
seem real, even though Starstruck is still, basically, a comedy. One day, when Elaine and I were
working on the plot, we realized that at some time some major character is going to have to die. It
took three beats: the room was silent. Three beats, and we looked at each other, and burst into tears.
(Chuckles.) 'Cause we knew who it had to be! Elaine, being Elaine, said, "And it has to be a
senseless death." I said, "I know."
ST: Which material/characters do you own the rights to?
ST: Any other material?
MK: The Galactic Girl Guides.
ST: Do you think we'll ever see a live action or animated version of Starstruck?
MK: Well, it's not like we haven't been trying. At this point, most of Starstruck and The Galactic
Girl Guides have been optioned. They are being shopped around. People in Hollywood are liking
what they're hearing but not saying the magic word.
ST: You like manga.
MK: I do like manga. I haven't read everything in the world, and my favorite stuff is anything that
ST: What is it that you like about it, from an art perspective?
MK: If it's Miyazaki, it's because he does beautiful female characters in a very, very positive way,
and significantly, in a transitional age between about 11 and 17. From what one hears about what
goes on in Japan in real life, his characterizations are swimming against the tide. Culturally, the
Japanese people don't seem to want their young women to act the way his characters do, yet the
populace embrace his movies and stories.
ST: But it's not the giant, detailed machinery that they seem to love, that first attracted you?
MK: No. Miyazaki's got melding of characters that have got human depth with all these machines.
We're not sitting here thinking about the giant machines that are cooling this [convention center];
we're just feeling the cool air ... We take it for granted. And the characters in the Miyazaki movies
take everything for granted because it's the world they live in ... If I ever work on anything like a
movie, I want it to have that sort of reality, if at all possible.
ST: What's your favorite of his films?
MK: All in all, Totoro is my favorite, just because it's so whimsical, but Kiki's Delivery Service is
second, Nausicaa is so powerful ....
ST: Spirited Away, what did you think of it?
MK: It's a masterpiece, but it's hard to assimilate: there's so much to it. I do like it better than
Princess Mononoke. Why? I don't know, but I do. As a matter of fact, Spirited Away is so
incredible, I'm so happy that everybody else noticed it, too.
ST: Is it true that you're color blind to red and green?
MK: Yes. I can tell that this is red, but if that right there is black (points to a dark piece of cloth),
it might be appear black. If it's blue, it might be blue. If it's green, I wouldn't be able to tell. If it was
grey, I wouldn't be able to tell, just because it's so dark.
ST: How do you handle that when you're doing coloring?
MK: I know what colors balance out what colors, and I fake it.
ST: Have you ever had an editor come back at you and go, "Wait a second, this really doesn't work"?
MK: Oh yes. The most egregious time it happened was on a Starstruck cover painting. Charlie Vess
was my roommate at the time. He says, "Michael, their skin's green." "Well, it looks like flesh to me."
He says, "Well it's not. It's really green." So I changed it.
ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in comics today?
MK: The worst that's happening in comics right now is using computer color: blowing up the page,
going in and rendering every bubble. They're forgetting that there's a major impact that an artist has
sweated over trying to get the page to say something, and over-color it to the point where you don't
know what's going on. You might admire it, but the story goes right out the window.
ST: Your illustrated edition of Metropolis looks gorgeous.
MK: Thank you.
ST: That's not still in print?
ST: Any chance it's going to go back in print?
MK: There's always a chance, and if so, I hope they let me put in some line work, as well as the 60
other pictures. There's a bunch of blank spaces in the book that were supposed to have line drawings
as far as I was concerned, but the publisher ignored my request. I'd said, "If there's any space at all,
at the end of the chapters ... I'll do the drawings. Twenty-five drawings, twenty-five chapters. They
didn't get back to me. When I flip [through] the book, I just see blank pages. I know there's a lot of
art work in there, but I just see blank pages.
ST: What happened to the original art?
MK: With the exception of about five pieces, I have all of it.
ST: Your days with The Studio, with fellow artists Jeffrey Jones, Bernie Wrightson, and Barry
MK: My days at The Studio.
ST: I'm not going to ask a whole lot about that; I think you've probably been asked every question
that can be asked about it. I don't know if I have anything really insightful to ask. Do you find that
that work is still inspiring artists today?
MK: Very much so. People say, "You should reprint this book. (The Studio) You should reprint this
ST: The publisher is not convinced?
MK: The publisher doesn't really publish any more. But somebody has the separation plates. As long
as the plates haven't got mold on them they could print from them, if they could afford to print [such]
a color book.
ST: And everybody involved would want that, would be happy with that happening?
MK: Well at one time, but these days who knows ....
ST: Do you feel any of that work is dated?
MK: The Studio stuff? I look at it in kind of constant amazement that I actually could draw that well [back] then.
ST: Books of Magic covers — how did you go about developing them?
MK: Originally, Charlie Vess was doing them for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. He eventually had to
stop to focus on other work. DC asked me and I said I couldn't. I had way too many other things to
do, but I thanked them. Then, all the things I had to do fell through. Five or six months later I called
and asked, "Do you still want me to do those covers? I can now." They said, "Sure." The assistant
editor at the time, Julie Rottenburg (later one of the story editors on Sex and the City) was the main
editorial force behind the covers. Sometimes the story would be written, sometimes they kind of had
an idea: "Next issue is about searching for eternal life, and Tim finds eternal life, but he has to live
forever and get older and older." In those cases they'd say, "Take that and run with it." Other times,
the story would be finished and the cover needs would be exact, "Put this character right here, make
it about this, that or the other thing."
ST: Is there a favorite of those covers of yours?
MK: I think issue 21 or 22, the very first issue. It's when Tim was being tattooed with three different
symbols, the moth, the scorpion and whatever the other one was, I've forgotten. It was a very sexy-
looking cover. The tattoo artist was a woman, and had him in an embrace. That was my overall
There was one later on, with Tim in full armor, with little angels holding swords and such. It's got real
iconic feel to it.
ST: Kind of like a tarot card?
MK: Like a tarot card, yes.
ST: Did you look at tarot cards when you were thinking about your design for this?
MK: No, I'd studied tarot cards years earlier when I was doing work for DC Comics on the
Madame Xanadu / Doorway To Nightmare covers. She used the tarot in the stories, and we used
the cards on the cover. We generally used the imagery from the Rider/Waite deck.
ST: Your covers for The Spectre, same kind of story, where sometimes you would get just a sort of
a rough idea — ?
MK: I did two that were my own ideas: the one with all the ravens tearing him apart. I'd wanted an
entirely black cover with birds' eyes and little bits of green on it, so you couldn't tell that they were
birds. The other one is where the Spectre's holding a decomposed body in a sumpy, sewer-feeling
place surrounded by chains.
ST: When you're working on a project, what's a typical day like for you?
MK: I wake up and go out to a coffee shop, sometimes outside, sometimes inside, depending on the
weather. I sketch towards finished pictures. After two or three hours doing that, I'll eat something, go
home and fall asleep, or do email, or I'll start drawing. I'll draw until I get tired. I generally get tired
around 6:30 or 7:00. I might take a nap, and then wake back up and decide whether or not I'm going
to eat dinner, go back to sleep, watch TV or go back to work. If there's a deadline on, I'll go back to
work and not watch TV.
ST: How many hours on average do you think you put in a day?
MK: Six-ish. Less than I should.
ST: If there was any project that you could work on, what — ?
MK: Too many have passed me by. I really wanted to be a part of the Tolkien movie team, but —
ST: They didn't call you?
MK: No, not at all. I tried, but I gave my stuff to the wrong guy ... but that's okay, 'cause they did
good work with the movie without me.
ST: Of stuff that hasn't been done, that you would still want to do — no particular projects? John
Carter of Mars — you never got to do that. If you could redo it in your own style, is that something
you'd want to do?
MK: Well sure. But everything I've seen production-wise on that, they're never doing it right. So it'd
be heartbreaking to be called in and then be told, as many have been told, "Okay, we can't afford to
build a Bath, we can't afford to have a green man with four arms, so do what you can do for cheap.
ST: If you were to do a Hallowe'en costume for yourself, and money wasn't an object, what would
be fun for you to design?
MK: Something with more arms, like a Shiva or something.
ST: Upcoming work soon to be in print?
MK: Cards for a new release of Legend of Five Rings, a Fallen Angel cover, and a cover for
Hellboy: Weird Tales #8 that just came out. Also a cover for Lucifer #53. I had a lot of fun with it —
lots of wings and swords and fire. I'll be doing the Lucifer covers from #53 on, to the end of the
ST: Also the cover for God's 15 Minutes, the Harlan Ellison/Clifford Meth thing that just came out,
MK: Oh yeah! That too!
ST: What's the best advice you ever got about doing art?
MK: From Al Williamson: "Never draw for reproduction: always draw for the art! It'll always look