British comic book artist Mike McKone has been in the game for over 25 years.
He's drawn damn near every character in the DC and Marvel universes — including Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Teen Titans, Green Lantern, The Punisher and The Fantastic Four — to much acclaim.
His latest project, 'Justice League United', will see him team with writer Jeff Lemire to send a team of superheroes north of the US border. More 'JL, Eh?' than 'JLA', the series will be the most Canadian comic book since 'Scott Pilgrim'.
We spoke with the Supanova guest
about pledging allegiance to Canada, the evolution of comic book art in the digital age, and who wears the pants in today's comic book industry. Your next big project on the docket is 'Justice League United', which should be out shortly after Supanova. What separates this from all the Justice League books we've seen before?
Oh, my goodness. Well, it was originally called 'Justice League Canada'... we have changed the name to 'Justice League United', but it's still set in Canada, and there are a couple of new Canadian superheroes in there. So the spirit is very much the same, it's just the name that's changed.
[Writer] Jeff [Lemire] is a Canadian, a very proud Canadian, and we have a First Nation character in there
. That's really what sets it apart.
There are some heavy DCU hitters in this line-up. Is there anyone in the team you were particularly excited to draw?
Yeah, Animal Man. I really enjoyed Jeff's run on 'Animal Man', and he was the character who appealed to me the most. He's probably been the one I've enjoyed drawing the most, too. Frankly, that's just because of the animals. I've been to the Early Learning Centre and I've bought my little model animals to use as reference. I have a small zoo on my desk! Fantastic. I was going to ask you about reference, because you're obviously drawing a lot of Canada in this book as well. How do you go about that?
Well, so far, except for one page that takes place in Toronto, it's pretty much all taken place in the wilderness, in the northern territories of Canada. It's really just been snow and trees so far. I can't say I've been stretched too far. Well played. In the back of the first 'Fantastic Four' collection you drew, there's a picture of a clay model of The Thing that you used as reference. Do you use sculpture reference very often?
On a couple of occasions I have done things like that, yeah. Now, if I need to do that kind of thing, I tend to use 3D modeling. There's a program called Sculptris, which I use on my iPad if I want a quick model. There's a couple of aliens in 'Justice League United' that were kind of tricky to visualise, so I made a few quick models of those.
Generally, if I have, like, a building or a spaceship or some kind of prop that I'm going to be drawing again and again, I'll make a quick model of it in Sketch It. I'm guessing a lot of people don't really know what an average day is for an artist like yourself. People might picture you sitting down at a big drawing board; does that still happen or is it all digital?
Well, for the last few months, I've just been living in hotels. I was in San Diego, and I decided to get on the convention trail last year. So every couple of weeks, I move to a different city where there's a convention, and I work in hotel rooms in the meantime. I've got my 30” portable digital monitor and my laptop, and that's pretty much all I need to work with.
If I'm drawing from blue lines, I take my digital pencils on a USB stick to the local FedEx office and have them printed out and I ink on those, but for the most part it's all digital nowadays. Do you think that adds something to your work, or subtracts something? Does it make a difference?
I don't really think it does make a difference, actually. Well, maybe it does to me. I can see the difference between the digital and the real stuff. But some of the books I've drawn over the last couple of years have been a combination of analogue, if you will, and digital, and the readers don't seem to notice the difference.
I can tell, but hopefully it's seamless for the reader, so people really aren't aware what's been drawn digitally and what's been drawn with a pen and paper. Was that a big transition for you? I'd assume that if you're used to something very tactile, the move to a digital monitor might feel awkward at first...
It was awkward at first! When I bought my first digital monitor, I didn't buy it as something to draw on. Frankly, I just bought it to play around on. I gradually found myself using Photoshop for touch-ups to the real artwork, and eventually I transitioned, probably over a period of two or three years. So I never sat down at any point and said, 'Okay, from here on in I'm only going to draw digitally', I just found myself going that way. Cool. How does the relationship between you and writer Jeff Lemire work on 'Justice League United'? More generally, how does the relationship between an artist and a writer on a title like this work? Do you have a lot of input into the plots and scripts?
No, I don't have any input into plots and scripts, and I think that's probably true of most comics today, because they're... I hesitate to use the term 'written by committee', but they're editorially led.
That's not to say Jeff doesn't write the comics himself, but it's often the case that lots of different comics by lots of different writers are being written at the same time that have to be coordinated. So there's less room, certainly, for artists to be involved in influencing the script. So I'm really working with writers after the fact, rather than during the writing process. When [comic book writer] Matt Fraction was in Australia last year, he was saying that he thinks the next era for comics — now that we've had artist-driven comics, and writer-driven comics — might be editorially-driven comics. Obviously, comics are already editorially driven, but he meant it in the sense that a reader might seek out comics by a particular editor, rather than a writer or artist. They might say, 'Oh, I know I like all of [editor] Stephen Wacker's books, so I'm going to buy all of them', rather than buying all of Mike McKone's books. Which makes sense, when you consider that TV shows have 'showrunners', rather than a guy who sits down and writes literally every episode. Do you think that's where comics are going, that the editors will become the marquee names?
I think that's entirely possible. It really depends on how much freedom the editors have from their bosses, and how much of a 'personality' the editor wants to become on social media. You mentioned Stephen Wacker, and Wacker's got a hilarious Twitter feed. So he has become a 'creator' that people follow, and he has created a certain tone with his books, and he certainly would be justified in calling himself a creator, whether he chooses to do that or not.
But of course he's left now, for the sunny climes of Los Angeles
. But yeah, I guess... I mean, 40 years ago, when Julius Schwartz was editing DC books, people definitely sought out his books specifically because they were edited by him.
As far as the editorial direction of DC goes, the New 52 [a streamlining and rebooting of 52 DC Universe titles in 2011] was obviously a massive publishing initiative for them. A lot of fans miss the old continuity. How do you feel about that as a creator? For example, you had a great run on 'Teen Titans' with Geoff Johns, but the stories that you drew couldn't have 'happened' that way in the new continuity. Do you care about stuff like that?
Oh man, I don't know. I don't know! I think you have to look at the New 52, or however many books are being published today, as transitory, you know? Five years from now, the New 52 is going to be something else. And maybe those old stories will be 'real' again.
I think there are probably more important things in the world to worry about than whether or not my imaginary stories are slightly more or less imaginary than anybody else's. As long as I keep getting royalty cheques, I don't mind. As well as 'Teen Titans', you had a great run recently on 'Avengers Academy'. Is there something about your art style that is particularly suited to these younger characters?
I really don't know. I guess so. When I was drawing 'Teen Titans', we definitely wanted to get across that these were 16, 17-year-old kids who were almost adults, but not quite. That's tricky to draw, because the temptation is just to make them very round-headed, wide-eyed, cartoonish teenagers. So it did take a while to get the hang of drawing that kind of age range.
I think I've only done it twice, on those two books, so I'd love to take credit for being particularly good at that, but I don't know. Whatever book I get to draw, I just try to draw it as well as I can. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think it probably worked better on 'Teen Titans' than it did on 'Avengers Academy'. What got the young Mike McKone into comics in the first place? Who were your early influences? You've got such a smooth line, so I'm assuming Alan Davis played a role.
Yeah! Yeah, definitely. Before Alan Davis, I was reading the black-and-white reprints of early Marvel comics in England, so it was Jack Kirby and John Buscema and John Byrne and those kinds of guys. In my late teens, I became aware of Alan Davis' work, and just as importantly, I became aware that Alan Davis had somehow drawn comic books in America.
That was huge for me, because I wanted to draw comic books professionally, but I had no idea if it was possible for someone living in England to do that. So people like him and Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons paved the way for people like me, and made it not such an unreasonable expectation to be able to do that. You draw some incredible commissions at conventions; I see a lot of the stuff you post on Twitter. There's occasionally talk of Marvel and DC cracking down on commissions, and charging artists to draw their characters on Artist's Alley. Do you think that'll ever happen, or will artists always have that freedom?
I suspect they'll always have that freedom, because I've never actually heard anyone from Marvel or DC talk about a crackdown; it's generally the artists themselves [talking about it]. Marvel and DC both produce sketch covers, and I'm not sure they'd be doing that if they didn't want people to draw the characters at shows. I imagine it'd be very difficult to stop people doing that, anyway.
But who knows? They're both owned by huge corporations now; maybe they have a different idea about that kind of thing. But I've never heard anybody from Marvel or DC say that they want sketches to stop at conventions.
Mike McKone will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Gold Coast Convention & Exhibition Centre from April 4-6 and Melbourne Showgrounds from April 11-13. For more of his art, follow him @Mike2112McKone. 'Justice League United' #0 will be released on April 23.