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Thoughts From the Land of Frost:
Getting DAMNED: An Interview With Comic Legend Mike Zeck By Alexander Ness
Mike Zeck is one of those creators where even if you don't recognize his name, you'd surely recognize the work. One of the legends of the industry, some of Zeck's most notable projects include Master of Kung-Fu, a three-year run on Captain America, fan-favorite Kraven's Last Hunt and Punisher miniseries, and a number of covers on such books as G.I. Joe, among many other works.
In 1996, along with writer Steven Grant, Zeck created The Damned, an acclaimed series put out by Homage Studios (then still under Image Comics). Now indy publisher Cyberosia is releasing The Damned as a trade paperback collection. Slush's Alex Ness sat down with Zeck to discuss his career, Damned, and what fans can expect to see in the future from the noted artist.
Alex Ness: Please tell us about your family, where you grew up and where you live. Are you married with kids, etc.?
Mike Zeck: I was born in GREENVILLE, PA, grew up in FT. LAUDERDALE, FL, spent the better part of my professional career in the NEW HAVEN, CT area, and recently back to FLORIDA, ORLANDO area this time. Married once, single again, no children.
AN: How and where were you trained?
MZ: Most of what I know about comics art is self-taught. After high school, I spent my college years at RINGLING SCHOOL OF ART in Sarasota, FL as an illustration student.
AN: How did you get into the comics industry?
MZ: The best way to break in hasn't changed much in the 30 years since I was trying to find work... Putting together a portfolio of sample pages, showing pro level continuity and drawing, then attending the bigger conventions where publishers and editors have time and are willing to look at submissions.
In my day, that was the Phil Seuling conventions in NYC, and was a long way to travel from Florida, but I think those face to face meetings with editors made the difference in getting work sooner rather than later.
AN: Your work is clearly of its own style and quality, but who would you cite as most influential upon your work? I see a lot of Alex Toth and Milt Canniff...am I wrong?
MZ: I've been influenced by so many artists over the years, that it would be hard to name one or two as most influential. There have always been artists who come along and bring something new to the table and manage to raise the bar a bit. I look at all of them and absorb what I can.
AN: What was your first published comics work?
MZ: For Charlton Comics. Their line of animated titles featured two-page text stories, and I started supplying spot illos for those. At that same time, I was able to sell some pinup illustrations to Marvel's magazine line, but I didn't transition to their color comics line until a few years later.
AN: I enjoyed your work on the popular Master of Kung Fu. What was it like to follow Paul Gulacy on that book and what role did you get in the plotting of the work?
MZ: I loved what Gulacy did to define that character, and his incorporation of Bruce Lee, Kung-Fu movies, secret agent movies, etc. I was a Bruce Lee fan as well, and brought that and my interest in martial arts movies to the table too. I realized that Gulacy would always be the "defining artist" for that series, and the best I could do is fall somewhere close behind.
As far as plots, Doug Moench's plots were the most detailed and thick plots that I had seen, or have seen since! So I probably had less than usual input as 'plot artist' with that series since the plots didn't leave much for artist interpretation.
AN: Captain America. You spent a long time on that book, and as a run was artistically very good, but it did seem to have ups and downs as well as multiple inkers and such. Was this a true learning experience for you?
MZ: Actually I had a three year run on that title, and other than the first half-dozen issues or so, John Beatty was pretty much my regular inker throughout. Sure, it was a learning experience, like any project should be. Once DeMatteis, Beatty, and I gelled as a team, I thought there were many more "ups" than "downs." We all had a genuine 'like' for that character, and were very happy to be Cap's caretakers during that period.
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AN: Let's turn to GI Joe. Was this a series that exemplifies professional storytelling for yout? It was a hot-selling title aimed for a younger audience and yet, it had artistic merit.
MZ: I liked what Larry Hama was doing with the Joe characters, and Larry liked what I was doing with the Punisher and other gun-toting characters, so it was natural that we would get together for some G.I. Joe work. I did as many covers for Larry as I could fit into my schedule, including the Special Missions book, and later Merc. Odd that I never did an entire interior story for that title until recently when Devil's Due relaunched the title!
AN: Who would you cite as your favorite characters to illustrate?
MZ: I usually have to say THE PUNISHER when asked that, because I felt that I knew that character better than others I've illustrated. If I'm more able to be in the mind of the characters I'm drawing, then I'm a lot more comfortable with the work and feel that I can contribute much more artistically.
AN: The Punisher miniseries is where most fans really associated you as a star in the comics world. Was the power found in that first Punisher series a result of your collaboration with Steven Grant? Would you also consider it the maturation of your style?
MZ: All of the above, I suppose. It certainly wouldn't have been the same book without Grant. When he approached me with his proposal and ideas for the character, they were perfectly in line with what I was interested in doing, and it turned into a great collaboration, which has a natural way of flowing over into the work itself.
Probably a maturing of style there, but also having an inspiring plot can bring out the best in an artist. A little bit of a shame because after the deadline pressure and rushed art of Secret Wars, I was ready to slow down and give appropriate time to a series. Deadline reared its ugly head again, and I had to rush the latter half of the Punisher series anyway.
AN: Your work on Batman has some of my favorite depictions of the character. Is it the setting and environment that makes Batman so powerful under your pencils or is it a love of the character for you?
MZ: You'd be hard pressed to find a comics artist who doesn't like Batman, and for me, there's a little bit of "Punisher" in him as well. Add in the fact that I like to work with black areas to achieve a black/white balance in my art, and 'Batman' becomes a natural for someone like me.
AN: For years your work was visible on many covers and was used as a selling point. While some say you cannot polish a turd I think it would be true to say that your work often outshone the work within. How different is it for you to do a cover as opposed to interiors?
MZ: It's different! With one image you need to convey as much information as possible about the character, the story's conflict, action, and emotions, and still try to make it stand out among other titles on the comics rack. Something of a challenge, and I've always enjoyed doing them.
AN: THE DAMNED written by Steven Grant and illustrated by you is a crime genre story that, despite its hard hitting story, remains accessible to fans of crime noir and superhero fiction. The miniseries saw you and Grant create a scenario and characters that felt true. Did your work on this book come from a more personal place?
MZ: DAMNED is probably as personal as a project can get. Grant and I got together and posed the question "What would we do if we could do just what we wanted, without any outside pressure or direction?" DAMNED was a result of that. We both prefer the crime genre, and without costumed characters populating it. I hand-picked Denis Rodier (inker) and Kurt Goldzung (colorist) and it became something of a labor of love for all of us.
AN: Main character Mick is a gray character, being a man of some morals yet being a convict. Your work depicting him was especially powerful I think, due to your ability to make him a quiet loner, but not a lunatic loner. His inner struggles are clear... I guess I need to ask a question here...did your work on this force you to develop a new style -- one more emotive and more based on facial expressions versus action (despite the great amount of action)?
MZ: It wasn't so much developing a 'new' style as it was working in a style that I've wanted to work in, but not able to bring to established super-heroic characters. A style closer to much of the European art that I'm fond of, and a style that would fit the story at hand. Had lengthy discussions with Rodier, who grew up looking at works by those European artists, and he new exactly where I wanted to go with the art. I really love that loose, illustrative, and painterly quality he brought to the inks. Just as important was the color palette that Kurt brought to the story, and his ability to use color to compliment the art, not overpower it.
AN: What has fan response been towards it?
MZ: Some were shocked by the departure from my usual super hero style. Others saw it as growth, and tailoring the art toward the material. Bottom line, it was not widely advertised, and not widely read. Maybe the trade paperback edition will help rectify that.
AN: Why the new ending? Wasn't the original rather abrupt ending rather appropriate in that it ended this gray tale without a feeling of neatly wrapping up loose ends?
MZ: I don't want to be a 'spoiler' here and discuss the endings in detail. The ending of the original series is, in my mind, nice and tight, and leaves you with a certain impression of the main character. The new ending is not an alternative ending or anything like that. Grant and I just consider it the "real" ending of that story, and it gives a different slant to the character that didn't exist in the original series. It's much more than a hastily slapped together epilogue for filler purposes alone.
AN: Any plans for you and Steven to return to this character in the future?
MZ: Had the original series been financially rewarding, I would have liked nothing better than to continue with some stories along that same vein, if not revisiting Mick Thorne's world. If Grant and I are in a position again to do "just want we want to do," I'm sure you'll see a very similar project in the works.
AN: I think that THE DAMNED TPB from Cyberosia is akin to a loaded DVD compared to a single viewing of the original. The package is really nice to look at and read. Did you know Cyberosia would do such a great job?
MZ: Not exactly! Even I was surprised at some elements like the choice of higher quality paper. I'm pleased, and certainly appreciate what Cyberosia has done to help Grant and me get this collection out.
AN: What's next for you, Mike?
MZ: Well, you're asking as I'm preparing for some personal travel, so that's technically what's next. Maybe catch up on some requested commission art after that, and then finally give some thought as to what publisher work looks interesting.