[Continuing Michel Fiffe's interview with artist Mark Badger. Part 1 can be found here.]
By MICHEL FIFFE for the Beat
In this second round (out of three), Mark Badger sheds some light on collaborating with J.M. DeMatteis, co-creating the Mask, being influenced by Howard Chaykin, cultural significance in “realistic” art, the virtues of Jim Shooter, and working with the late, great Archie Goodwin.
Michel Fiffe: Getting back to inking, you’ve inked other artists. Is that just as weird as having your work inked by others?
Mark Badger: Those jobs were other artists wanting me to ink their work. I did do some sort of commercial inking gigs, but I was never like a regular inker. They basically said to come in and “Badgerize” them. The Doctor Strange thing [Triumph and Torment], Mike Mignola was gonna ink it himself but then he was like, “If I ink it myself, I’m gonna have to draw the whole thing and I don’t wanna draw the whole thing so if I get someone who can ink it who could draw…” He wanted somebody who could finish his breakdowns and take it to the next level. At that point we were talking a couple hours a day, like, “You want little Moebius lines here, I’ll put little Moebius lines here” or, “I’m gonna get Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein book out for this part here” and all that. “Do you want this color or do you want this color?”
F: It seemed to have worked.
B: It was really more of collaboration than just one guy penciling and then handing it off to another guy. I’d be a lot more embarrassed if I had to ink somebody now.
F: If you think about the history of comics, nobody really inked anybody else’s work. I’m talking about the old newspaper strips from the 20s and 30s up to the early Marvel years. Well, I guess there were the assembly lines in all of the shops in the 40s, so —
B: Yeah, I mean, didn’t Joe Simon ink a bunch of Kirby stuff? It’s a production thing, y’know. It’s a weird process, though, like when you’re finishing a drawing. I don’t really understand the really tight pencilers and then the inkers go in and ink the pencils. What’s the point? I could never draw that way anyway. I could never draw like Art Adams in a million, trillion years. I could never produce something that tight. I’d have my arm in a straitjacket.
F: You mean you can’t draw every window sill in every single building in a cityscape?
F: …but why would you want to? It kinda serves no purpose.
B: Well… how old are you?
B: You’re at that point where you’re still… you’re young, you’re young. [Laughs]. At your age I thought everyone’s taste should be just like mine. I was a snot. I got over it.
F: Thanks? [Laughs.]
B: I can feel like when you’re in high school and you look at those drawings and… I remember looking at Barry Smith and going, “Look, he drew all this cool stuff in Conan.” It’s utterly amazing what he did in Conan. I didn’t like the loose, sloppy guys, I didn’t like Frank Robbins. If your audience is basically a high school audience, then part of you should be doing every window. That’s part of what the audience wants. I have a 13 year old son now and the comics he likes are not the comics I like. When you’re a kid, you think what you like is perfect and everything else sucks. In your twenties and thirties you want everyone to like what you like and you get pedantic about explaining what’s cool. I think I’ve hit this point where I’m pretty okay with what I like and if others like something different that’s fine. I can really respect all the craft and skill that goes into creating a super hero comic these days. So I like seeing my kid do all this giant robot stuff and build these Gundam models. Not my interest, but it’s really cool.
F: He likes comics, though?
B: Well, he likes Manga. There’s a specific cultural difference between Manga and us. At least from their kids’ perspective, Manga is a very different thing than Marvel and DC.
F: Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate hyper-detail, even when it’s superfluous – I love when Barry Smith draws every blade of grass – but sometimes I don’t need to see every muscle and sinew… y’know, just move the story along. I find that readers, whether they know it or not, go back to those comics mostly because of the stories, not because of Batman’s well defined six pack.
B: Yeah, but for us to talk about the value of storytelling as an artist looking at the work as opposed to what the audience wants, I would argue that that six pack is really, really important to people somehow. Alex Ross is sort of the perfect comic book artist for the audience in terms of what fans want. I mean, they want the story, but they want the reality somehow.
F: There’s something about Alex Ross’ work that takes it to this… odd level and I know the audience totally loves it, yet I can’t relate to it. They hold that “realism” as the golden standard. Neal Adams started this “realism” trend… and although I like aspects of his work and his contributions to comics, there’s something stiff and humorless about his work, about that entire approach.
B: Yeah, y’know, we were going over my fanboy faze and there was definitely a big Neal Adams faze. I don’t know… at some point you just have to say, “Well, a bunch of people are into this stuff and more power to them and… I gotta get on with my life! [Laughter.] It is weird. I mean, there are Republicans in the world and you have to accept the Republicans in the world. [Fiffe laughs.] I can’t explain it. If you’re a millionaire I can’t explain why you’re a Republican. Neal did have a story with Green Arrow that Elliot S! Maggin wrote walking through a riot and he was carrying the dead kid and there was some pompous quote from high literature and it was like the greatest piece of comics ever [“What Can One Man Do?” , Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87, Dec/Jan ’71]. When I was 14 and that came out, I was like, “Hooooly fucking shit!” It just blew my brains. So Neal hit that point, totally. I mean, he hit something there that resonated with 14 year old Mark Badger and that was really cool. I mean, that’s kinda neat. I kinda like that 14 year old now and don’t have to disapprove of him any more.
F: Let’s talk about Greenberg the Vampire. How did that come about? Was that one of the first fully painted comics?
B: It was relatively early in the Marvel series of graphic novels. There was definitely other stuff going on, I don’t think it’s… certainly the first non-superhero graphic novel they did. Marc DeMatteis had done a Greenberg story with Steve Leialoha, one of the nicest guys in comics. Marc’s one of the nicest guys is comics, too. But they had done it in Bizarre Adventures [#29, Dec. 81], one of Marvel’s black and white magazines. When Marc wanted to do more Greenberg, there really was no place to put it. We did Gargoyle and he said, “That cop you drew in Gargoyle kinda looks like a Leialoha cop! Wanna do a Greenberg graphic novel?” At that point, Marvel was giving out graphic novel contracts to everybody and anybody. “I wanna do a comic with the drunk on the bridge when Spider-Man swung by” and somebody was like “…ok, we can do a graphic novel.”
F: Sounds kinda fun.
B: Graphic novels were selling really hot, so they’d do anything. They just said to go do it. Jim Shooter stuck his finger in almost everything, but when it was something like Greenberg and he didn’t know anything about it. He kinda admitted, “I don’t know what you guys are doing, you’re writing literature and drawing not like anything I understand as drawing. Go do your thing.”
F: And he let it go, just like that, huh?
B: Yeah… we couldn’t have ever done that in Captain America, y’know, with that approach. That wouldn’t have been right. But at that point it was just “Make Marvel run, work on time, the work’s coming in, it’s fine”.
F: People always have Shooter stories.
B: I wasn’t at Marvel long enough at that period to have Shooter stories.
F: I figured even people that have met him only once are usually polarized by Shooter. But it seems that as much as people hate him, a lot of creators hit their creative peaks during the Shooter era. I was hoping for a positive Shooter story.
B: I gotta say that Shooter’s $1.25 lecture on storytelling is some of the best fundamentals about comic book storytelling. Every new artist he’d make ‘em come in… I’m relatively short, I’m like 5’9 and Chris Warner is shorter than me. We kinda went in and Shooter was standing over us, showing us this Jack Kirby comic book and going panel by panel by panel and explaining the logic behind why Kirby picked his shots. That is the best foundation for doing really clear, straightforward, this-is-what-comics-should-be… and y’know, Shooter takes the most boring period of Jack’s work — and I think Jack is the greatest artists in the 20th century — and pushed the value of having those fundamental skills. Shooter really laid those out for people. I’m sure you could talk to editors these days and you’d just get some watered down version, some 22 year old kid who’s gonna give you the Jim Shooter lecture from a very perverted point of view. That’s kinda what happened, they’d take Shooter’s lecture and water it down, “We can’t be too much of a hard ass like Shooter because he was an asshole about some things, and so we’re not gonna edit”. They’d make up all these other rules to go with stuff. And that’s sorta what Shooter ended up doing, he would make up other rules. Have I mentioned the white zip-a-tone yet?
F: You mentioned it in our previous back-and-forth that Marvel was buying all of the white Zip-A-Tone.
B: Later in Shooter’s reign, every black shape in the background had to be covered in white Zip-A-Tone to get depth…
F: For every Marvel comic? That makes no sense. Was that all handled by production people?
B: Shooter didn’t want blacks in the backgrounds for compositional reasons. Someone had explained atmospheric perspective to him, like in traditional painting. As things went further in depth they get lighter. So he turned it into a law. The staff would just have to go in every time a black was spotted and it would get white Zip-A-Tone over it, making it a light gray. In painting it makes sense, that’s an actual technique but paintings are big and they’re oils and they’re lush and rich and this was a period in comics where you’d still see the dots in the printing and the solid blacks were a fuzzy gray to begin with. So that design level of whiting blacks to make the figure pop in the foreground … that’s when Shooter was making too many of the rules and not paying attention to what was going on in the actual comic.
B: Yeah, I think that was right after Greenberg, I was working with Dark horse and went on to Flagg. American Flagg was going on and then Chaykin left and I think I finished up Greenberg and Mike Baron had wanted me to draw an issue of Badger, which has never happened, but I was going up to First Comics saying, “OK, I need work. I’d like to do the Badger issue now.” But there were changes going on in editorial, and I just said “I don’t know what you guys are doing with Flagg but I’d totally be interested in working on it.” And they were like, “Oh, yeah, you wanna do the book?” That’s basically how I ended up drawing the book.
F: DeMatteis wrote those.
B: Yeah. Steven Grant wrote a couple of them but we weren’t working in any way shape or form… so I sort of said to First, “We’re not clicking, can we get DeMatteis to write it?” They said, “Yeah, we can do that. We wanna keep you doing the book.” Marc came in and wrote the anti-Chaykin version of Flagg. Marc and I are probably 180 degrees from Howard’s world view. Marc’s the nice, nerdy, sensitive Jewish guy and Howard is the smart ass, bad ass comics guy, so I don’t know if what we did on Flagg worked very well, but it was a great experience.
F: What did Howard think about your work?
B: I think at that point Howard wanted to walk away from Flagg and let it run on its own. The only thing I got from him was that “You draw like you’re on another fucking planet”. I was busting my hump on the job trying to bring all this technique to it but I was just doing me and not a Howard riff. There really shouldn’t have been anybody else but Howard doing Flagg. I mean, there’s no way for anybody to just come in and do it. Howard’s pretty much one of a kind. You could make an argument that the first 12 issues are a graphic novel and leave it at that. He did what, 16 more issues after that, 4 more storylines? Those were sort of him running on his craft, where the first 12 issues were tightly plotted out.
F: Yeah, the first 12 were definitely the most incredible issues.
B: I can sit here and rave about Monark Starstalker and Howard would probably get embarrassed. Howard was one of those guys who, like Wrightson, would have regular gigs. His stuff would pop up and I, all throughout high school, would go, “Aw, this is really cool! I wish they’d do more of these!” Then it would disappear and he would do something else. He did the first Star Wars before it was anything big and you’d go, “Howard’s gonna do this!” Then you were like, “No, he’s not. That’s kinda lame.” Now you look at it and know that Chaykin was just doing a job and nobody knew that it would be a big thing and more power to him, but as an adolescent kid you’re expecting every job to be this great masterpiece. He did some issues of Solomon Kane and it had no context of a Puritan adventurer, I’m sure, but they were really cool. So I’m totally a Howard fanboy, I went though a period where I’d study his work and see all the artistic influence he would pull into that stuff, his stuff. It’s really impressive.
F: Funny how you say that you’re a Howard fanboy because I noticed some influence in your writing. You rarely ever write your own stuff, but you wrote The Masque [later, the Mask], which I think is great.
B: Well, thank you.
F: Yeah, it’s very much like Chaykin because it dropped you in the middle of a conversation, or a situation and we had to figure what was going on. How’d you end up doing that comic?
B: Mike [Richardson] wanted to do a character but really didn’t have the time or probably the patience to actually sit down and actually write something at that point. I don’t know what his situation was. When we were doing this, comics were like off the seat of your pants, none of this, “Did you have to think this up and write a proposal for this?” No, it was all just, “Let’s make some comics.” There was no money involved and we were just sorta screwing around and doing stuff. I mean, he really just had this idea for a Shadow knock off, y’know, that’s really what the main idea was. Instead of a hat and cloak and a big gun, there was a mask and a big gun. That’s what Mike wanted to do and… that’s not me. I don’t have this burning desire to rework all this old character stuff.
B: Part of my failing in the comic book industry is… well, I’ll have to draw Batman but I’ll go, “I’ll draw Charlie Parker and Batman!” I don’t really care about Batman. I admit it that I’ll get into drawing Batman’s cape. I mean, the cape is a whole other issue. So Mike Richardson asked me to do this thing, The Masque, and we were supposed to plot it together. At that point, when I worked with DeMatteis, we’d talk out a plot and Marc would type up something and then dialogue it and it would make sense. So I thought Mike and I will talk and then I’ll write it up, but Mike wasn’t able to plot. He didn’t really know anything about plotting at that point. This wasn’t the guy who’s a Hollywood exec. This is a guy coming from running a comic book store. So I was trying to integrate his ideas with my ideas. I was getting all fascinated with the stuff in Central America and what was going on there, like what wouldn’t it be really surreal if what happened in Central America happened in America? Then trying to integrate that with Mike’s idea of doing a Shadow knock-off and wanting no plot to go in there. I’m not a writer and I tend to not have stories to tell. Structural stuff and putting together a story really is what interests me. It’s why I like working with writers so much, because I can think of all the structure and interesting bits. I should’ve written more of my own stuff, but I’m not sure what kind of stuff I would do.
F: So it’s more about the building of a story from the ground up rather than giving it a point or a purpose?
B: It would be interesting to go over this with Marc and Gerry and ask what I did to contribute when we plotted together. One of my favorite comics is a back up in Fantastic Four Special # 5 [“This is a Plot?”] with Stan Lee and Jack plotting a story and they would throw stuff and shoot and jump around the room and map out the whole story. That’s the model of what you’re supposed to be when you’re plotting comics, right? Working with Gerry and Marc has totally been that experience. I’m pretty sure they like working with me, since we’ve done so much of it.
F: You just didn’t want to do it all yourself.
B: I didn’t wanna be the brand. I don’t have that burning desire. Mignola was always talking about his stories. My brain doesn’t get activated until we’re actually working on something and juggling the problems.
F: Some of the chapter introductions, where the Masque breaks the fourth wall, were the best parts. There was this one where he was just going off on the reader about styles and the industry and art and then the story sort of comes in later… it all seemed natural, not forced humor at all.
B: Well, the one thing I’ve never been good at doing is… OK, if you’re doing a comic about Batman, it shouldn’t really be about you as the artist in the context of the corporate machine of DC Comics. I mean, if you can figure out how to turn “This is who I am and what I’m saying” into a story, is sort of easy when you’re doing… if you look at most of the autobiographical stuff now it’s kinda nice and I like it but then I think “What really matters beyond your ability to deal with things and what are those bigger issues?” That’s always been the tension and the dynamic I’ve had trouble with.
F: You mentioned to me before that the ideas you wrote in the Masque were scary to people. Or rather, that comics people are usually afraid of new ideas. That’s still going on, I would say. That’s still an issue, and it’s very relevant with what’s going on.
B: Are you serious? In context to – who are you talking about?
F: I’m talking about the bigger companies and their imitators for the most part. It seems as if there’s always been this kind of sameness or a refusal toward anything new. That’s why I find it remarkable whenever something obviously different gets in through the door at all. It’s all very conservative still.
B: Yeah, I don’t know if they’re more conservative now. The funny thing about you wanting to interview me is that I don’t know if they’re any more conservative now than they were when I was in comics. I mean back then, I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I have a bit of comics Asperger’s, y’know, they’d say, “You could be a great artist if you’d just draw what I want.” I’m sure they’re just doing their job in producing for a big entertainment industry, but should it fit into the mold? Look at the movies; how often do they give you the model? And so part of me thinks “I should’ve scared the shit out of Mike Carlin.” [Fiffe laughs.] I remember one time Carlin had a Mignola pencil drawing of Superman and then he had Jeff Jones ink it and it actually looked like a cross between Jones and a loose Mignola and it didn’t look anything like Superman. It was just a pin-up and Carlin was like “I can’t run this.” Why couldn’t he run it? Isn’t that weird? What’s one pin-up in one comic gonna do to the universe? It’s a weird business. If you look at Japan, where they have Naruto, the anime and the manga fit together more or less. There’s a slight deviation but there’s also a consistent business model going on there. But if you look at Superman, there’s Superman by artists A, B, and C and none of them look alike. So they’re not doing the business model, yet they’re trying to do one. Part of me thinks they’re right to want that iconography for their business, but the part of me that’s an artist says, “Well you should want your art form to grow and change and not just be this little entertainment thing.”
F: They should have room for that.
B: Yeah, they should have room for that art form stuff but they clearly don’t. There are some people that if you don’t fit in their mold somehow, you can’t make yourself fit. It’s nice being out of it because I can see how I didn’t fit into their mold. So I don’t have to beat myself up for not fitting into what their idea of comics are. I don’t have to burn up my energy on being mad at them that I can’t fit into their model of comics.
F: I think the America comics mainstream has always tried to do interesting and different things here and there, but isn’t it difficult for creators with a distinctive style to thrive under the usual conditions? It’s the really unique voices that make the lasting comics. Why wouldn’t you want to nurture that?
B: I think unique voices are really hard to recognize and support because they challenge your assumptions about what’s good. If you’re trying to make trains run on time, it doesn’t help to have something different. So if you have this one voice that’s unique, what does it do to all the people that fit into the model of what you’re doing? What’s weird is the line I always got, “I like your work but it’s not commercial.” After I did the Excalibur [#s 37-39, 1991] I did Batman: Run, Riddler, Run, and that was the payoff for doing Excalibur, and it sold just fine. It sold just as well as anything that sold at the time. It bought me my first computer. I had proved that my work was commercial to Dick Giordano or whoever, and then suddenly it became, “Well, I don’t like your work so therefore I’m not gonna use it”. So they went from liking my work but not using it because it wasn’t commercial to, “You can sell but I don’t like it so I won’t use you.” Their attitude is that I had deviated from the norm and they didn’t quite know how to define that. It was interesting working with Archie Goodwin on Batman: Jazz because he can actually say, “You did something wrong in Run, Riddler, Run that wasn’t right for Batman. I don’t know what it was, but you’re doing something right with Batman: Jazz. I don’t know what you’re doing different but you’re doing something right here.” I said that I thought it was me basically given up trying to make editors happy. I knew at that stage that Archie’s the only guy who could say, “Yeah, you’re never drawing Batman again, you’re too weird.” He was that cool. It wasn’t like everybody else saying, “Ah, well, you never know!” Archie was secure and honest enough to be up front about things. The man was great. It was nice to hear that up front and honest. I felt like the world was not totally insane after all!
F: Every time I read or hear something about Archie Goodwin, it further confirms that he was the best person, very caring of his creators and his work.
B: Unfortunately, I didn’t work with him that much. My connection with him was really more when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and we had a couple conversations about living with chronic illness because he had cancer at that point. Yeah, he was solid in away that – I’m not sure what it was – at that point he had gone through the anger, denial, and fear and had accepted that his cancer was eventually going to kill him. So he could calmly tell me that when I was in the middle of the anger, fear, and denial about my illness. He said he would rather have what he had than what I had, “but I’ve accepted that some point cancer is going to kill me, so I’ve got to live my life.” That kind of pure acceptance of life and getting on with it was this huge treasure to me at that stage. I mean, it was like the distilled essence of Buddhism being passed to me at a critical moment. “We’re all going to suffer and die so go on and live your life.” He was just a really good man who took the time to talk about something so precious with a kid who was doing three comics with him.