Mike Kaluta: Frenzied Visions and Scattered Dreams by Tim Lasiuta
Penguin Comics 2004
Michael Wm Kaluta is one of the masters of our age. From his entry into the art/comic book world in the late 1960's when he, along with Berni Wrightson and Barry Windsor Smith, was considered a ‘young buck’ to today when his art graces genres from fantasy to super hero, he has always stood out in the crowd. I was privileged to have been able to chat with him, and to sense his enthusiasm for the world of art, whether comic book, fantasy cards, or fine art commissions. Mike Kaluta is a man of many talents, some developing, and some developed. His work has always evoked awe and admiration, and the release of ‘Echoes: The Drawings of Michael Kaluta’ further reveals the depth of his passionate talent.
Tim Lasiuta: Michael, your work is immediately recognizable. The signature graceful line drawing and symmetry that often characterizes your work is inspiring. Where did you get your art training?
Mike Kaluta: Thanks for all that. My art training started with the TV show "Jon Gnagy, Learn To Draw" in the mid-1950's. His strong suit was teaching form through use of light and shadow and artistic perspective. His perspective training "took." I'm fairly able to use perspective in my art. I've still a lot of work to do in defining form through light and shadow. It is chiefly my line (outline) that defines the forms I draw.
TL: It's clear that fantasy plays a large part in your work. Who were your influences as a young man learning to draw? Did many literary figures influence you?
MK: You asking about Literary Figures, as in "characters inside books?" I know all my reading and heavy TV-watching influenced what I wanted to do once my drawing skills allowed me to try. Years of seeing "The Untouchables" on TV had to have influenced my work on The Shadow Comic Books, as did all of the Midnight Movies and Saturday Matinees that showed so many of the Warner Brothers' detective movies. My Sci-Fi "look" was drawn from a combo of the early TV shows (Like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and Space Patrol) and my early Sci-fi reading. I started with Tom Swift stories and read through hundreds of Ace Double SF paperbacks (A Bertram Chandler, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, A. E Van Vogt) and ended with the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars and Venus books. BUT: Did I consciously mine those early viewings and readings to develop my style? Not until I was working at learning Illustration in college did I consciously dig into the swamp of collected imagery.
TL: Did you ever cross pencils with your influences? I remember reading somewhere that "If I have seen farther, it is because I have stepped on the shoulders of giants." Is that how you see the artists that inspired you to your style?
MK: I was lucky enough to work with Roy Krenkel and Al Williamson quite early in my career. Roy asked my advice on dropping shadows on figures: something he claimed he wasn't good at. I told him that I'd learned whatever I knew about dropping shadows from looking at his drawings. More important than drawing with other artists was the treat of just hanging out with them, discussing different views of art and life. I've talked other places about how working with Al Williamson was so important to my early career. Al was my very first mentor. Being in his presence as he worked, then enjoying lunch and art discussions was invaluable in my early comic book drawing days. A bit later on, it was having Neal Adams explain his unique approach to storytelling that challenged my illustration-based approach to comics. During these formative years, from 1966 to 1976, any and all moments of cross-pollination added depth, technique and ideation to my style. If you add the books and other artists these artists suggested, you can sense how fertile the ground was for my developing talents.
TL: I remember being a young comic fan in the 1970's, and reading the House of Mystery, Ghosts, and any of your genre work. I would walk by the comic stands, which were packed in those days, and see your covers jump out at me. The sheer eeriness of your covers still impresses me to this day. What drew you to the horror genre?
MK: The horror genre was all that was available at the time. There were superhero comics galore, but I've never had an "eye" for them (save perhaps Batman). In the category of "other comics" all that the late 60's and early 70's offered was the "Mystery" comics (the word "horror" wasn't allowed by the Comics Code Authority). In 1973 DC Comics got the rights to the Edgar Rice Burroughs' catalog and many more creative doors opened. I jumped at the chance to draw any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' science-fiction stuff.
TL: The Shadow and Kaluta are an awesome team. Like your mystery work, The Shadow period stands out for me as an artistic high. You seemed to be born to illustrate the Shadow. How did you get involved with that project? When you did the Graphic Novel, you never seemed to lose a step artistically. Is he one of your favourite characters?
MK: The Shadow became a favorite character as I discovered I had an innate sense for the noir world of the 1930's. The imagery fell out of the pencil, the mood flowed from some source inside and enhanced pages (luckily overshadowing some of my very "young" drawing flaws). My involvement, how I came to draw the Shadow comic, has been over-reported these last several years. The question I have never thought of till this minute: who at DC Comics got the idea to publish a Shadow comic in the first place? The Shadow is not a DC character, nor is it much like any other DC character. What was "whomever" thinking when the Shadow idea came up? Was it in context of Batman? I just don't know. I do know Berni Wrightson was tapped for the art chores from very early on. His half-page ad for the comic preceded my involvement by a year at least -- and I've spent my entire Shadow-drawing career trying to top that half-page ad!
TL: I love your Batman work, and the cover you did for the Shadow/Batman issue is classic. They could hang in any gallery and shame any 'modern' art easily. As comic fan, and a fan of comic art, I believe the covers you did for King Conan are true masterpieces. What goes through your mind when you are creating a cover for a comic? Do you have a process that you follow?
MK: I think you over-praise the Shadow covers: they have little reference to modern art and would look quite out of place in a modern art gallery. Still, as homage to the Pulps, I know I did pretty well. The covers, if included in an overview of The Shadow from early radio to today, would certainly hold their own. As far as the Batman and Shadow together, there was only ever one Batman / Shadow cover by me. The cover-creating process has at its root "what best will sell the comic book." My imagination thrives on that structure. Working out an idea within the confines of the character, the printing limitations and the editor's whims has always been a challenge that I've honed my imagination against. Having a "thinking" editor really helps the process: then one isn't tied to standard approaches. Some covers have been developed solely by me, then presented to the editor and accepted right off. Others started with an idea given me, then adapted by me, changed by the editor and eventually published as the product of a two-to-four person committee. In my career, I've been totally lucky to work with genius editors.
TL: I was one of the fortunate few to purchase a M.W. Kaluta portfolio from Starstruck. What is the story of that venture?
MK: Starstruck, a space-opera-type comic book, filled with humor, adventure and "cheek," was born from the play of the same name. Having worked on costumes and set designs for the play and being sympatico with the author, when it came to getting the property out there to the public, a comic book was seen to be a great idea. It turned out the play wouldn't really translate into a comic, it being a string of speeches by a dozen characters on stage. It worked on stage: the sets, the lights, the action, the actors, all combined to make for a very fun evening. But if the comic book followed the play's structure, it would have been a dull read. Elaine Lee decided to do comics as a prequel to the play. In mining the history, we discovered much more about the characters. The one or two line character descriptions in the play turned into approximately 600 pages of comic book story and art. First published in Spain, then Heavy Metal Magazine, Starstruck came to the attention of Jim Shooter at Marvel Comics. Marvel had recently started their graphic novel line but each graphic novel took over a year to create. Jim Shooter saw Starstruck as a nice, hefty full-color graphic novel ready to publish. Through the editorial hand of Archie Goodwin, the Epic Comics graphic novel of Starstruck was born. Though the dyed-in-the-wool Marvel fan saw Starstruck as a totally confusing book about nothing they were interested in, the Marvel imprint was a big door-opener for our comic. Through Epic Comics, Starstruck found its audience. Two years after the Epic comic, Mike Richardson at Dark Horse Comics became the angel who let Elaine and me enhance the Starstruck material, adding well over 300 projected pages to the already existing 300.
TL: What occupies your pen today? With all of the changes in the industry, what was the last major work that you did?
MK: These days I've found work doing many little paintings for the collectible card game world. I've worked on Dungeons and Dragons characters for their Monster Manual, images and scenes for Polyhedron Magazine, some editorial cartooning for Dragon Magazine and card art for AEG's Legend of the Five Rings and Warlord card games. I've also done a good handful of images for Sabertooth Games' Warhammer card game. The secret world of Kaluta art has been the developmental designs for several stillborn projects. I've done many drawings and designs for computer games and TV pilots, movie concept design and even stage shows and amusement park work. This material will eventually surface in future sketchbooks and on my website (www.kaluta.com). "Echoes: The Drawings of Michael Wm Kaluta" has been a recent highlight for me. I also illustrated the Celtic Society calendars for 2002 and 2003 (see top art).
TL: As a young artist in the 1970's, to how the industry operates now, what changes do you think have improved the quality of the story-telling process. With respect to art, who do you admire today?
MK: The one thing I find better in modern comics is the appropriation by the Big Three of the underground and self-publishing storytelling approach. This is a healthy crossover and it is the comic book reader who benefits. The approach of authors and artists such as the Hernandez Brothers, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Terry Moore has begun to influence the more standard approach to creating comics. Add to the above that DC Comics/Vertigo Books have quietly been redefining American comic book storytelling and you'll see what I think is the new future of the comic book medium.
TL: If you were to describe your self and your contributions to the comic industry in one sentence, what would you say?
MK: "One guy who did what he wanted and has been honored for it by his peers."
TL: What does the future hold for Michael Wm Kaluta?
MK: That new future: more of everything, some surprises, some expected approaches and, with luck, many more years of drawing.
"Echoes: The Drawings of Michael William Kaluta" is published by Vanguard Productions. "Echoes" includes work from Michaels’ own unpublished files, his TV and theatrical work, and his most memorable characters and published work. As with all Vanguard editions, "Echoes" can be purchased in both signed, limited editions, with extra material, or in standard Vanguard format. Neil Gaiman, David Chadwick, David Spurlock, and Michael Wm Kaluta have combined to make this voume a tour de force presentation. "Echoes" is available at www.creativemix.com/kaluta or from your favorite bookstore.
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