Interviewed by Andy Nunez
Any serious comic reader in the last thirty years has probably encountered Mark Wheatley‘s dynamic work in either story or art form. He is one of those rare multi-talented individuals like Christopher Paul Carey. I first met Mark in the early 90s, not long after he had completed his run for Malibu Comics on Tarzan. He went on to create memorable characters like Radical Dreamer and Frankenstein Mobster, and currently is delving into the world of H.P. Lovecraft. And of course, he did the interior illustrations for Swords Against the Moon Men.
Like a lot of great storytellers of the last half of the 20th century, you came up out of fandom, being the creative power behind a couple of fanzines in the 1970s. How did you make the transition from ardent fan to being in the “biz,” so to speak?
Being pushy? Well, publishing a fanzine taught me a lot about what was needed for me to become a working professional. I learned printing and deadlines. I ended up establishing an art department for the printer that was printing my fanzine, Nucleus. I also was working part time as a stock boy and clerk at a drug store that had an extensive newsstand. It was my responsibility there to order magazines, books, comics, and newspapers each week, and to prepare returns and maintain the stand. So I also learned what it was like for a retailer to have to sell publications.
Then I headed off to college at Virginia Commonwealth University, on the recommendation of Michael Kaluta, who pointed out that the school had three girls for every guy enrolled! I majored in Communication Arts & Design. Starting at the end of my freshman year I took on a full time job as the art director for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Commerce, while also carrying a full load of classes. In that position I began having a good deal of my work published, as annual reports, PR materials, and lots of drawings of chickens, cows, vegetables and farm equipment. In my free time I continued to publish a few more issues of Nucleus, where I established a relationship with several other fans who were soon to start working as professional comics creators. That includes Marc Hempel, John Workman, Howard Chaykin, Bob Smith, Dave Cockrum, and others.
When I graduated I quit my Agriculture job and moved to New Jersey in an all-or-nothing bid to break into comics. The industry collapsed at almost the same time. I still hope there was no real connection between the two events, but it did mean there were no openings for new talent. I did advertising work, designed magazine logos, and eventually found myself creating comics as small features for various magazines. This led to me creating GASM magazine and producing the color feature in each issue. That in turn led to me getting work at Heavy Metal, where I was then offered the position of editor. That timing was bad, as I was still chafing at the idea of another office job, like I had had at the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, so I turned them down. Before the direct distribution market opened up for comics, the slump continued to make it nearly impossible to get regular work in comics. I moved to Baltimore where I set up Insight Studios. Marc Hempel moved from Chicago and together we worked for several years generating advertising material for local businesses.
Good Lord! I had a couple of issues of GASM! It was a guilty pleasure. You worked with graphic novel guru Byron Preiss on the adventure series Be an Interplanetary Spy. How was it to work with such a legend?
Byron was an inspiring and energetic person. I’m afraid I can’t put a happy face on this, though. His projects often were produced at the expense of the talent involved. In the case of Be an Interplanetary Spy, he originally made his contract with Marc Hempel to produce those books. Marc signed a very bad and entirely unreasonable deal. The deadlines were tight even if Marc had been a seasoned pro with many years of experience, rather than this being his first major gig. And the budget was so low that Marc would not have been able to pay the rent or eat for the period of time it was going to take to create the hundreds of pages of art, designs and mechanicals. Marc ended up having a bit of an emotional breakdown a month or two into the schedule. Byron reached out to me to help. I was able to negotiate a more realistic deadline, but Byron refused to offer any additional money. I came on to the project and took on half the art and the job of running the project, just to help Marc meet his commitment. It took me several more months before I had a very similar emotional breakdown from the pressure and stress of the schedule and lack of income. But we got the job done.
When it was done Byron came back to me and we worked to come up with a better contract and compensation for additional books. He was fairly reasonable this time around and yet, I could not bring myself to agree to do the work. Instead I worked up the MARS series and placed it at First Comics, bringing Marc onto that project shortly before we first presented it to publishers. By the way, Insight Studios ended up doing a good deal of production work for Byron over the years, and it was always an exercise in brinkmanship and three dimensional chess to get paid for the work. Byron was notorious for running his business on a wing and a prayer and overextended credit, as well as any free labor he could wrangle.
Is that where you met Marc Hempel who joined Insight Studios, or did you know him before?
Marc submitted work via mail to my fanzine Nucleus in 1973. We finally met in 1977 when he came out from Illinois and visited me in New Jersey. We attended the New York Comic Con together that July. In 1980 Marc moved to Baltimore and we became partners in Insight Studios.
One of your early successes was Blood of the Innocent for WaRP Graphics. It has remained a classic tale and there was talk of it going to film. Is that still happening?
Yes, the film is in pre-production with a fantastic director attached and a sensational script. We are currently casting. Wish I could tell more.
You’ve worked for a lot of comic companies over the years, but your Tarzan miniseries for Malibu is where I first saw your name. Was that a labor of love?
Absolutely. I grew up in a corner of the Great Dismal Swamp. I read the Burroughs books as a kid and acted out those adventures in the forests and swamps around my home. I built a succession of tree houses and ended up living in my final treehouse in my high school years. That treehouse was a pretty slick piece of work, with wall-to-wall carpeting, air conditioning, bunk beds, a living room and nice shelves to store my comic collection. So even though I was inspired by Tarzan, I had it a bit better than he did!
It seems to me that after Malibu, your creativity really took off with characters like Radical Dreamer and Frankenstein’s Mobster. You moved into TV and concept art. Tell us a little about your growth in the last 20 years?
I’ve been busy creating my own characters and projects, even before working on Tarzan. In fact, it was directly due to the work I did on Breathtaker and the attention and awards that book got that lead to my being asked to work on Tarzan. And, while I was working on Tarzan I was also continuing the Blood of Dracula series and creating and writing The Black Hood for Impact Comics at DC. But Tarzan came at a time in my career when I was so in demand as a writer and producer that I had very little time for art.
Radical Dreamer was my return to writing and drawing one of my own creations. I also was self-publishing, which laid the groundwork for Insight Studios to become a full-time publisher a few years later. For about a decade we published a line of comic books and a number of award-winning art books. By the early 2000s I was pretty much fully occupied running the business end of things at Insight, with no time left for any creative works. And that was not a happy situation. I was trying to find a way to balance creative work with the business demands, but a small business has a way of eating up all your time. Whenever I carved out some “me” time, a new fire needed extinguishing or a new opportunity suddenly needed my full attention. I tried to elicit aid from my studio mates, but other than Allan Gross, no one was willing to step up and help keep the business running.
So I pulled the plug on publishing and set Insight Studios back on a course as a creative studio and production house. That’s when I wrote and drew Frankenstein Mobster. I did a number of commercial creations following that, including Miles the Monster for the Dover International Speedway and The Mighty Motor Sapiens as a continuing web strip for a popular sports website that ran for over a year. Next came EZ Street with Robert Tinnell for ComicMix, another web comic that was very popular and was nominated for the Harvey Award as Best Web Comic. Robert and I followed that with Lone Justice, producing two graphic novels worth of web comics, also for ComicMix. At the same time I was working with Mike Oeming on our Hammer of the Gods series. That had begun as a comic at Insight and we did a second graphic novel that was run as a web comic at ComicMix.
So much of my work was appearing to large audiences online, while my presence in print was just about gone, although I did contribute the origin of Bigby Wolf for Bill Willingham’s Fables at Vertigo.
In 2012 I was contacted by Greg Garcia, creator of a number of popular TV shows including My Name is Earl, Raising Hope, The Millers, and The Guest Book. Greg wanted to collaborate on a pilot for a new TV show for CBS called Super Clyde. It was my job to provide five to seven minutes of comic art for each episode that would tell Clyde’s fantasy story with a voiceover. One of the perks was that I got to work with Rupert Grint and Stephen Fry. While the pilot was highly rated (the trade papers were already including the show in their list of greenlighted shows) CBS could not find a space for it in their schedule. They put it on their online site where it became a huge success.
Meanwhile Greg got The Millers picked up and brought me on board to work on several episodes, including one where we essentially did the same kind of work that had been planned for Super Clyde. I turned Beau Bridges into a comic character named Tom Tom. This is an unusual kind of TV work, as my actual art is used on air and I also get a screen credit. The Millers brought in similar work for other shows and pilots, including 2 Broke Girls, Square Roots, and a second pilot for Super Clyde. I also did some design work for a proposed live action Beauty and the Beast for ABC, costume design for Lady Gaga, and set design for The Black-Eyed Peas. I love the variety of work and the unexpected connections.
But my true love is illustrated stories and comics. So when I was asked to be a part of the Jungle Tales of Tarzan project for Dark Horse and Sequential Pulp, I was the first to sign on and got to illustrate one of my favorite Tarzan stories, “The Nightmare.”
By the way, I have also had my originals displayed at a number of museums in the U.S. The Norman Rockwell Museum mounted a show that toured for several years. Currently the Rockwell has put together a show of Marc Hempel’s and my Breathtaker originals.
Along the way, you won several awards and were nominated for others. Watching your stuff on Facebook, you just seem to be getting better and better. You look like you’re on to another hit with Doctor Cthulittle, a strange mashup of a children’s story and H.P. Lovecraft.
Doctor Cthulittle has been in development for nearly five years. It started as a joke, a pun name. But my imagination was captured by the implied concept of the name. I spent a year or so working out some character and environment designs and finally came to the conclusion that the only way this would work is as collaboration. I just did not know who could help on the project, until I met G. D. Falksen. Geoff is a throwback to a time when the written word was supreme. He writes text as if it were poetry. And he has an arcane sense of humor and wit that was just perfect for Doctor Cthulittle. Geoff took the good Doctor and added new characters to my framework and nailed the story that could only be about saving the universe from the Old Ones. We just completed our successful Kickstarter campaign for the first fully illustrated hardback book adventure of the Cthulittle Team. I am going to be spending most of the winter finishing off about thirty pages of paintings to get the book done. We plan to have the book in print in the early summer.
You’ve handled pulp-era heroes like Tarzan and the Spider. How did you discover these characters?
I had been aware of Tarzan through the movies. Our local TV station ran Johnny Weissmuller films every Sunday morning. I was attracted to the characters and concepts, but even as a kid I was left thinking that the filmmakers had totally missed the inherent potential in the situations. It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of the Ace Tarzan at the Earth’s Core with the Frazetta cover that I actually read a story about Tarzan. It was good! This Edgar Rice Burroughs guy really understood the character!
At about the same time my grandfather passed away and my family spent some time clearing out his possessions. He had a small library and on one shelf was a perfect condition copy of the G&D Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar in the original dust jacket. I read that and suddenly I was hooked! Now that I knew there were more Tarzan books, more Edgar Rice Burroughs books, I tracked down every one that I could find. And in the process I started picking up Robert E. Howard books and Edmond Hamilton books and Leigh Brackett books, while not understanding that these were all reprints of old pulp stories. Then I read Jim Steranko’s History of Comics and came to understand that the pulp magazines had been the breeding ground for comic books. From that point on I was a pulp and comic book fan.
As for the hero pulps, I tried The Shadow and Doc Savage, but the stories did not have the intensity and fire I was used to in Burroughs and Howard. The pulps had such lurid covers that promised extreme stories. But the actual text usually was very mild by comparison, until I picked up a Spider pulp by Norvell Page. The Spider quickly became my favorite pulp hero. I didn’t find The Spider until I had been a working professional for a long time. In fact, it was the mid-1990s. And I happened to meet the owner of the rights to The Spider and arranged to publish my Spider story, “Burning Lead for the Walking Dead”!
You’ve contributed a lot to the fan base around Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I’m not really surprised that you landed a fun assignment like illustrating Christopher Paul Carey’s Swords Against the Moon Men. How did that come about?
This past summer at the San Diego Comic-Con, Jim Sullos and Cathy Wilbanks came by my booth and asked if I would be interested in painting covers for any of their new line of Wild Adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs books. I was open to the idea. We left it that we would come up with specific projects at a later date.
Meanwhile, I had already painted the cover for Christopher Paul Carey’s book Exiles of Kho. He and I already knew each other and are friends on Facebook. He posted about his new ERB book project, I think on the same day I had seen the ERB, Inc. gang at SDCC. Well, I was very impressed with his Kho book and knew he must be doing something amazing for ERB, Inc. So I messaged him and asked if they had assigned an artist to his book yet. It all just worked out due to timing and connections. The only twist is that I could not do the cover because it had just been assigned to Chris Peuler, who delivered an excellent painting. So I don’t have any complaints! And I am working on at least one ERB cover, and that is all I can say about that!
Since you knew Christopher prior to getting the assignment, how was it working with him?
We really got to know each other through this process. When I painted the cover for Exiles of Kho, it was an assignment from Meteor House. Christopher and I didn’t have much contact. But for Swords Against the Moon Men, we were in constant contact. I ran every rough and every idea past him, and he was very good with comments and feedback. Christopher is an excellent author, very much to my taste. He is also something of a chameleon. And for this new book he has assumed a writing style that is pure Edgar Rice Burroughs. The tone of voice is perfect, but he also managed that inventive imagination that Burroughs brought to his best books. If I had any problem illustrating this book, it was that I was limited to eighteen pages of illustrations, and Christopher easily had a hundred great scenes in his manuscript! Anyway, he and I cooked up the idea to do a limited edition of the book, since ERB, Inc. didn’t have any plans of their own for such an edition. So I painted and designed a signing plate and we each put our signatures on 100 of these.
I’ve seen a lot of your Burroughs work over the years. Was the relatively obscure Moon Men trilogy a challenge for you, or were you on solid ground from being a fan?
I read the original Burroughs books back when I was a teen. So I did have to re-read the stories. But Christopher’s book also does a perfect job of re-introducing all the important details. Anyone could start in reading this new book with no previous exposure to the Moon Men series, or to any Burroughs series, and still get the full impact. And I should point out that, as Christopher has set things up in this book, the Moon Men series is clearly the glue that holds the Edgar Rice Burroughs universe together [so this is a great place to start].
How did you decide which scenes to illustrate and what materials did you use? How much digital technology was applied? I ask because I am always interested in technique, and you were an innovator in colorization in comics. Also, there may be some aspiring artists in the readership here who could use a few tips.
I read through the manuscript and made a note of every scene that stood out in my imagination. I was about three chapters into the book when I exceeded my limit for illustrations! So I had to pace myself and try to evenly space out placement of the illustrations throughout the book. I also eliminated any images that might give away major plot spoilers. And that was a tough one, because there are some wonderful surprises in this book!
My process was to work up a small rough digital painting for approval. This went to ERB, Inc. and also to Christopher. Everything was approved, with the only changes to any of the illustrations being that Jim Sullos asked that I turn two of the illustrations into double page spreads. Next I worked out my drawing, tightening details, proportions, perspective, etc. Then I did an inked line piece, using ink on paper. This line art got scanned and was used to digitally paint up the final pieces. I did the paintings in color and then translated them to black and white for their final form to be used in the book.
When I was asked to do this book, one problem was that, even though I am a fairly fast artist, it was at minimum a forty-five day assignment. And I only had a thirty day opening in my schedule. On one end I had several existing commitments and I was locked into the scheduled Kickstarter campaign for Doctor Cthulittle. At the other end I had a very tight deadline to illustrate a Neil Gaiman script for the Mine! anthology. But I so wanted to work with Christopher on this book, I decided that if I worked long hours and nothing went wrong, I would just be able to squeak by in thirty days.
So, of course, come the first day of the thirty and everything started to go wrong. I came in to the studio on the first day of the job and fired up my computer, and my hard drive was dying! My computer was in the shop for repairs for a week! My forty-five day job that I was squeezing into thirty days was now going have to get done in twenty-three days! I managed to pull it off in twenty-five days. And I still got Neil Gaiman’s script illustrated on time. But, as nice as everything turned out, I have no interest in repeating that kind of road race. Next time I’ll stick to my professional wisdom and insist on the longer deadline to start with!
Finally, unlike the fate of Julian in the Moon Men trilogy, your future is still building. Where do you go from here and what can we expect to see from your talented hands and brain in the near term?
Doctor Cthulittle is next up. And I am also working on that unspecified ERB cover, as well as covers for a few other books and several audio book CDs. I’m also penciling a new comic book in collaboration with my longtime friend and studio mate, Marc Hempel, for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, most everything is pending permission for public announcement!