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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/25/2009
Looking Back to See the Future
Mark Wheatley on IDW’s Mark Wheatley Library (part one of two)

I’ve followed the work of Mark Wheatley almost from the moment I rediscovered comics, back in the mid-80s, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him almost as long. Mark’s been one of the constants on the con circuit for years, and like his work, conversations with him can be deeply insightful, even illuminating one moment, and bust-a-gut hilarious the next.

And it’s that dichotomy, those alternating currents of the sublime and the ridiculous, which actually gets to the heart of the matter of both the man and his work. An avowed and avid fan of many things old and nostalgic, he’s typically among the first to embrace and fully exploit the newest of technologies. Furthermore, I’d argue that it’s his constant consideration of what’s past and what’s to come, that balancing of the old with the freshly minted, which marks him as one of the medium’s Renaissance men…

Bill Baker: You’ve been doing a lot of work online, as opposed to print, over the past few years. How’d that come about?

Mark Wheatley: Well, it came about because Mike Gold and I have maintained pretty close contact over the years, ever since I first worked with him on the book Mars for First Comics. And, we’ve constantly come up with projects that we wanted to do, and some of them we published and some of them have been just flights of fancy. For the last, I don’t know, decade, Mike and I had been discussing various ways to make newspaper comics viable.

Well, not specifically newspaper comics, but where we kept ending up was some form of a newspaper publication. And what we realized we were really shooting for was a venue which would allow us to present a lot of variety, and also reach a general public, as opposed to the comic shop public—not that there’s anything wrong with the comic shop public, but it’s a limited audience, and we know there’s a lot more people outside of the comic shops than in them.

So we were just looking for different ways to do this. And we thought of tabloids that would be advertising supported, that would only contain comics. And then we thought about supplements, and we got some distance down the road to putting some of this together. But none of it ever happened because, as you might have noticed, that old technology of newspapers has been dying quickly, and even at the time we were pursuing it, budgets were getting slashed.

So ideas just kept popping around, and we just kept talking. And then one day…

There’s such a mixture in this; Mike and I were at the Windy City Pulp Convention in Chicago, because we are very recidivistic, in addition to being very adventurous with the technology, and we both love old things like pulps and old time radio. He decided we had to have some barbeque, which is not unusual with Mike. And over barbeque he said, “I’ve got this deal that I’m putting together, and you’re the first to know about it. And we’ve got to go online with these things, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

And I said, “OK, what makes this special?”

He said, “It s financed.”

And I said, “Ooooooooh!” [General laughter]

BB: That does make a big difference, doesn’t it?

MW: It makes a huge difference, because it meant from that point on, we were actively talking about doing it, as opposed to how to do it.

BB: And that project was, of course, Comicmix.com.

MW: Yes it was. I believe it was in May [2007] that we had that discussion, and Mike told me I should pitch him an idea. So, I asked, “Well, what kind of ideas are you looking for?” And he said, “I would like you to do whatever you want to do.” I said, “Oooh, I like that!”

And so, I came back and I think I pitched him a couple science fiction ideas, and a pulpy idea, and he said, “Yeah, these are wonderful, but I think you’ve got something better in you.” I said, “OK,” and he said, “I d really like one of those amazingly weird Mark Wheatley ideas.” So I go, “Oh. Ooooh!”

So I went back and within a day I had the idea that had been percolating for a long time, which was EZ Street. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, because I felt like comics have…

As a group of people who create comics, we have a low self esteem problem. And part of that manifests in that we never really include ourselves in the worlds that we create in our comics. You know, it’s a normal thing to have characters go to a newspaper office in a comic as a plot point, but we rarely end up at a comic book shop, or interrupt someone on the subway while they’re reading a comic. It happens more now than it used to, but certainly, even a couple years ago, it was rare.

And so I wanted to do the equivalent of the old Mickey Rooney idea where he says, “Hey, I’ve got all these costumes!” And then somebody else goes, “Hey, I've got a barn we can turn into a stage, let’s put on a show!” You know, the stories where you get that enthusiasm of people who perhaps didn’t normally do comics, but wanted to do comics, and I wanted to show the enthusiasm, what was involved in getting it made, and the frustrations and the joys. It would be all about getting behind the scenes, letting the readers experience what it’s like on the other side of the page.

BB: Now, you have a co-creator on that strip, right?

MW: I do. A wonderful, wonderful creator. We’ve know each other for a long time. He's Robert Tinnell, who I call Bob, and, apparently his wife calls Bobby. He and I met way back when Bill Wilson was publishing Questar magazine, which would have been in the 80s. And Bob was an apprentice or an assistant in the office, and I paid no attention to him. [General laughter]

But, he remembered me, and years later I was introduced to him at a Pittsburgh Comicon by a good mutual friend of ours, Neil Vokes, who I've worked with a number of times. Bob was still actively working on the movies that he was directing and writing at the time. We just stayed in touch, and we saw each other at conventions, and shared beers and stories, and gradually started a phone relationship where we talked about everything under the sun—as you know how that happens—and we started talking, like most creative people do, about that one day when we would work on a project together.

And when I thought of this project, it was obvious to me that the only person who could write this with me was Bob, because he had the background. The two brothers in the story of EZ Street, one wants to be a comic book artist, the other wants to direct motion pictures, and they’re just perfect analogues for Bob and me.

Bob remarked on this a lot of the times when we were working on the story; that it was uncanny that he and I would spin out a scenario for the next scene or sequence in EZ Street and then, within the next couple of days, the real thing would happen to one of us. [General laughter] It was quite freaky there for a while.

Anyway, it worked extremely well. Bob’s a wonderful collaborator, and we realized after we’d ended EZ Street, that our rhythms are very similar. By that I mean, we both work very hard and get a lot done on deadline. And one of the biggest factors is, when we get an idea, we can have it done lickety-split. We're really fast. We've got a lot of energy. And another good thing is that we’re both very industrious at going out and letting everybody know what we’re doing. [Laughter]

So it was nice to have a team mate who I could push up against, and he would be there, as opposed to some creators that I've worked with who've been marvelous on the creation end, but soft on everything else, like communication, and promotion, and also speed. That immediacy of getting it done quickly is very satisfying and even inspiring. Because these days, when I actually have a week where I can devote time to work, I can do nine or ten pages a week. And Bob can work a script in a month, you know? [Laughter] It's amazing. So, we work well together.

He, Mike Oeming and I, if you locked us in a room, could create a comic book company. [General laughter]

BB: And that’s before lunch!

MW: Yeah, right! [More laughter] So, thank god no one’s done that! [Still more laughter]

BB: Or, if they do that, they better have some money to back it.

MW: And cloning technology perfected, too. Because, you know, I've gotten spoiled.
I've done everything. I've published. I've invented technology for comics. I've written. I've drawn. I've edited. I've done everything. And nothing has been sweeter than just being able to just write and draw my own stories.

BB: Well, when EZ Street ended, you guys started doing a sequel of sorts.

MW: Lone Justice, which was either an uncanny spin off or, if you’re cynical, made EZ Street the largest promotional campaign of all time. [General laughter]

BB: For those who might not have seen it yet, how would you describe that project?

MW: Well, first of all, EZ Street succinctly is a story about two brothers who want to create, and Lone Justice is what they end up creating, which is a Pulp story set in the 1930s. It has a character in it named Lone Justice, and we say we have to describe this story as being a four-fisted adventure because two fists are just not enough to describe it. [General laughter]

BB: Now, is there a definitive arc to this particular story, or is it something you two could just keep on doing for the foreseeable future?

MW: Well, you know, every story has an implied next story. Life never ends. [Laughter] As long as there’s imagination, you can come up with the next story.

I seem to have had an incredible long string of big event comics that I actually had ideas for the next story that we've never gotten to. And that has less to do with me, and more to do with companies going out of business and things like that over the years.

But Lone Justice has a very definite arc. And it will have a big ending [featuring] lots of fights and explosions. [Laughter] But, if we wished, we could do another one.

BB: Well, my next question is when these tales might move from the web into a media that we can hold in our hands?

MW: Well, that question is wide open there, Bill, because, yeah, if they appeared on say, as an example, the Kindle, yeah, you could hold it.

BB: OK.

MW: Or if it was on the PSP, you can hold it.

BB: So those are headed in that direction, then?

MW: They’re already there. You can read it on your iPhone.

Now, for this particular title, it’s not there yet. It won’t come out [in that format] until the book’s in print, which is where I think you were headed with your question.

BB: Precisely.

MW: Yeah, but to say, “Will we be able to hold it?” see, that really doesn't define it anymore. You have to use that word "print." [General laughter]

BB: Point well taken.

Well, for those Luddites like me, who don't own an iPhone…

MW: Yeah, me either. [General laughter]

You know, I've noticed an interesting phenomena; all my friends own iPhones. And I know this because you can’t get together with them anymore without them whipping it out for some innocuous reason. “Oh, let me check my iPhone!” [General laughter] “Oh, here, let me just look at that comic book from 1968 that I like so much. Yes, here it is…” [More laughter]

BB: “Let me play air guitar and pretend that I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band that you can’t listen to!”

MW: Yeah, exactly. So, you can say you’re a Luddite, but the bottom line is you’re exposed to this technology constantly, and you just can’t not know about it. It’s just out there.

But, the great thing is that we will be having books in print. And I know a lot of folks who don’t believe it’s for real until it’s in print. But I think that day is almost passed. I think that print will be around for a while, but the fact that it would be real in print, I think that’s the day that’s passed.

BB: It’s just another type of platform already, in a very real sense, then?

MW: Yes. It’s just one of many, and one that doesn't sell as much as the other ones. [Laughter]

BB: Is that because of cost, or…?

MW: It’s all about access, I believe.

BB: Exactly, distribution, really, is becoming one of the main questions, too.

MW: And the truth is, is that if you’re on iTunes, lots of people can get to you.

IDW is the publisher, and they’re just really forward-thinking. They've just lined up so many deals with the different distribution platforms. I mean, being on Play Station, my god, that’s the largest gaming consol in the world. The Xbox? Yeah, cool. But, Play Station? That’s the big one. And to be able to push our stories out through that channel is just going to be amazing.

BB: Yeah, and then there’s the various platforms supported by the Play Station. For example, I could easily see The Mark Wheatley Library being on a disc for Play Station.

MW: Sure. But, you know, there you go again. You’re dealing with a physical object. And I've got to tell ya that, for the younger audience, physical objects are like a non sequitur. “Why? Why would you want a physical object? I mean, I could download it right now.”

It s all about now. Just like my cat says all the time. [General laughter]

BB: Right. It’s all about content and immediacy.

MW: Yeah. Yeah, why wait until you go out? Even if you’re ordering it from Amazon, it’s going to take a day or two to get here.

BB: And by then, it’s likely that you've forgotten about it.

MW: Yeah. Yeah, and that’s us saying that, but I know the young guys in the neighborhood here? They want it now, and it’s all about now. Their parents may be renting from Netflix; they re just downloading.

BB: Well, how did EZ Street, Lone Justice and all your other books end up at IDW? I ask, because I know you've got more than just those two projects coming out under their imprint.

MW: Well, that’s true, Bill.

ComicMix.com always intended to have a print platform, and that’s why the online readers you can read the comics on at ComicMix.com are set up like turning pages in a comic book. And Mike Gold was out there, exploring the deal possibilities for close to two years, and we had a great deal of interest from several major, major players in publishing—both from over at the completely book publishing end of the spectrum, all the way over to the comic book publishers. And the one publisher that stood out above the crowd, for a lot of reasons, was IDW.

I’ll have to admit, I was a little skeptical, because they were a comic book publisher, and I was looking for a larger platform base. But, what I didn't know was that they were doing all this work on other platforms. [Laughter] And it wasn't until we got into the nitty gritty of the negotiations that I said, “Wow, these guys have really got it going!” [More laughter]

And, since a lot of my books are involved with this, Mike was very considerate in letting me know what was going on during the negotiations. And when he finally presented the multiplatform basis for this thing, I just said, “Go for it!” And that’s where we are. We’re with IDW, where they seem to have a penchant for collecting amazingly good people.

BB: The multiplatform aspect is obviously very key, but you mentioned that there were several reasons that IDW was the obvious choice. What are some of those other reasons for going with IDW?

MW: Amazingly good people. [Laughter]

Greg Goldstein’s a really, really smart, accomplished guy who’s running that company these days. Ted Adams, of course, his track record with the company is a matter of record. He's just made no misstep that I can see. Chris Ryall is a very aggressive, hands-on editor who knows how to keep a shop running, and he's pulled together a lot of great titles and licenses over the years. And the staff he’s put together, who are in the trenches, are great to work with. For my graphic novels, I’m working with Justin Eisinger, who is just an excellent editor, an absolutely excellent editor.

And, another thing, they re employing real proofreaders. [Laughter] it’s so much of a relief that Frankenstein Mobster, which came out for Halloween, went through the wringer. I almost think of course, this will never happen for real but I almost think we don’t have any typos in there, anymore. [More laughter]

There’s always a few that seem to squeak through. You know, that final test for a typo is to go ahead and publish it. And then you open the book randomly to any page, and there it is! [More general, knowing, laughter]

BB: And it’s always the first thing you see! It’s not like you have to search for it, it just jumps at you.

MW: Yes. Yes, it slaps you in the face. Yeah, it’s an amazing phenomenon that happens over and over and it hits you even faster the higher the print run. [Yet more general laughter]

So, anyway, they have really good proofreaders. Robby Robertson is an excellent designer, who heads up their production department. He's just amazing. Jeff Webber, who runs their electronic digital platform division, he's from Andrews MacNeel, that was his background and he set up Hallmark Cards stuff online. He's just really good. There are just so many good people!

And there’s Bob Schreck, who’s coming in, and Scott Dunbier. And that’s just the people in the office. So, it’s all about good people. They've bucked the average here. I've never seen so many good people in one spot.

BB: You mentioned that Frankenstein Mobster came out recently.

MW: I did.

BB: Is that a comprehensive collection, or a director s cut, if you prefer?

MW: Uhm, no. [General laughter]

No, this specifically is the Made Man graphic novel, which was originally published as a series of comic books from Image about two years ago. And that’s now coming out through IDW in a collection that includes an additional 30-some pages of material, which are some new pages that I had always intended to be in there, but we had to cut for space reasons when we were originally running it as a series of comic books.

It includes all the original covers by me. It also includes all the covers by people like Bernie Wrightson, and Alex Nino, and Adam Hughes, Jerry Ordway, Mike Wieringo, George Freeman, Scott Morse, Angelo Torres…hope I’m not forgetting anybody. [Laughter] It was like a list of “Mark’s Favorite Artists.” [More laughter] Anyway, it was a real trip to get all those folks involved with my project.

And I also have a “Behind the Scenes” section which includes my development artwork and paintings and things I had done to get this series up to speed. So, yeah, it’s a wonderful little package. IDW is great about the extras. We've got all sorts of cool little embossing tricks going on, and folding on the cover, and different kinds of varnish coats we can put on for specific effects. It’s nice to be working with a company that’s wide open to the possibilities of print, still.

BB: Since this isn't the definitive cut, so to speak, and you've got more material featuring Frankenstein Mobster, does that bode well for that character s future?

MW: Oh, it bodes very well. Yeah, there’s a new Frankenstein Mobster story online at ComicMix.com, right now, which was done as one of the Munden's Bar episodes. And I did that in collaboration with a writer whose name is M. J. Butler.

M. J. and I have had an internet connection for years now, because he produced a series of radio show parodies a few years back that are just absolutely dead on, rip it apart in an extremely side-splittingly funny way, the old Pulpy—here we go again—radio shows that you would hear from The Shadow, or Doc Savage, or something like that. It was called Two Minute Danger Theatre, and in little two minute episodes he would do this character “The Voice,” whose only power is this ability to throw his voice. [General laughter] And he just follows this through with deadly logic about where this would go, and it is so funny. It’s one of the funniest things I've heard in my whole life.

Anyway, I enjoyed working so much with Bob Tinnell on these books but one of the side factors of working with Bob was that he was just enough extra “Mark Wheatley extender” to allow me to devote more attention to telling the story, rather than all the mechanics of putting it together. So I thought, “You know, if I’m going to do another Frankenstein Mobster, I’d like to have the same sort of thing.”

Bob and I had discussed Frankenstein Mobster on a couple of occasions, but he had a really serious take on it, while M. J. has this sense of humor, and I wanted to crank up the humor in—a character way, not in a slapstick way, because I think there’s a serious story in Frankenstein Mobster. But I also think that the contrast of comic relief in it is something that’s important, and M. J. has just been absolutely brilliant in pulling that together. And I can say that with a great deal of authority, because we've got over 200 pages of script written now for the graphic novel that’s next up.

BB: So that should keep you busy for a couple weeks at least, then.

MW: Yeah.

BB: Are you looking at that coming out for 2010?

MW: You know, that was the original plan. But, right now, it’s suddenly up in the air, because I've had another project drop into my lap that would come first. And I can’t talk about that yet. All I can say is that it could come together very quickly, and I'll be happy to let you know when it does. If it doesn't come together, then, yes, Frankenstein Mobster’s the next one up.

BB: OK. Now, I know that there’s at least one other book for sure, that's come out through IDW, and that’s your book with Oeming.

MW: Yes, Hammer of the Gods: Mortal Enemy, our first volume of that series came out, I think, on the first Wednesday in October. And that, again, was a chance for us to get it right. Going back to the Mars book they published, the collection, every time we've done a book there, their ability to get it right…

This bears on our talking earlier about technology. When I first started working on Mars, way back in the 1990s, I had this thought that it would be a good idea to keep reproduction-quality materials available, in case we wanted to print it again at some point. Now, I know this has plagued a few other folks, but we had the foresight to keep perfect copies of the line art for Mars. So we were able to recolor it and just make it beautiful. It’s like having an HD quality comic book. [Laughter]

So, for Hammer of the Gods, we were in the same boat. We had our digital files at a high resolution, from back when we did them originally as black and white, when we originally published Hammer of the Gods through Insight [Studios], before it went to Image in color. So we've always had the highest quality material to work with.

We've added material to this edition of Hammer. It’s got more in it than was in the Image volume. There’s new artwork and character designs, illustrations, write ups, things of that sort, and new covers. But, essentially, the story is still the same [one] that was originally told in Mortal Enemy, which gives the origin of our character Modi, the Viking boy who is cursed to never touch a weapon. And therein lies his frustrations, because all the other Viking kids get to play.

BB: “But all the other Viking kids get to rape and pillage!” [General laughter]

MW: Yeah, I know, it’s so frustrating. “Just let me cut his head off!”

“No, no, no, you can’t touch the axe,” because he'll lose his soul if he touches the axe.

BB: And those things do occasionally come in handy, don’t they?

MW: Yeah. And there is some complication in the story. He does end up having this interesting relationship with a Valkyrie, and the other Viking kids didn't get to do that.

BB: Does this, again, bode well for new Hammer of the Gods material?

MW: It’s already happened! You can go right now to ComicMix.com right now and read the entire second Hammer of the Gods graphic novel, Back from the Dead. It’s there, for free, right now. And, guess what? It’s going to be in print next year.

BB: Excellent. And it'll get the same IDW treatment, including back matter and proofreading and everything?

MW: Absolutely! I guarantee you, it was put through the wringer.

BB: Well, is that the end of that particular story?

MW: No, Mike and I have always thought that there would be a third, major act of this thing, but Mike is now Art Directing for Valve, the game company, and he's a little busy. [Laughter] So, we’re not sure when we'll be able to get to the third one.

BB: OK. But there is one final arc there; it just needs some free time for you guys to develop and work on it.

MW: Yeah, we'll get to it.

And, other than that we've got a lot of other things on tap that will be coming out from the “Mark Wheatley Library.” Just about anything you've seen my name on, we’re packaging it up for new editions.

BB: Any titles you want to toss out there at this point?

MW: Well, the schedule at this point that I can say is hard and fast is that after Hammer of the Gods and Frankenstein Mobster this past October, then in February, 2010 Lone Justice will begin as a ten issue monthly mini comic book series, and be followed by a graphic novel. In April, 2010, EZ Street will come out as a graphic novel. And very soon we'll be having a meeting to schedule the rest of the books.

BB: Excellent.


And that ends the first part of my interview with Mark Wheatley. Look for the second half of this piece, wherein Mark discusses his fascination with Pulp, why Al Williamson’s run on Flash Gordon is one of his seminal influences and much more, in the next installment of this column.

But, in the meantime, why don’t you head on over to your local comic shop or book seller and check out some of Mark’s work? Or, if you’d prefer to avoid the holiday rush, just hit http://www.idwpublishing.com/, proud purveyors of Mars, Hammer of the Gods and the rest of the fine volumes comprising the Mark Wheatley Library.

And don’t forget to check out http://insightstudiosgroup.com and http://www.comicmix.com/ for all kinds of Mark Wheatley goodness.

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