When Words Collide

Wed, April 22nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE MIREAULT INTERVIEW: 2009

Bernie Mireault

Last week I spent a couple thousand words making a case for the importance of the oft-overlooked "herald of the Modern," Bernie Mireault. From the cosmic-and-Volkswagen-laden hijinx of "Mackenzie Queen" to the insidious corruption of "Grendel: The Devil Inside" to the everyday superhero sweetness of "The Jam," Mireault injected an idiosyncratic art style and a enveloping humanism into the comic book world.

So I decided to speak to Mireault about his most important work, looking to the past, present, and future. What follows is based on a series of e-mail exhanges between Mireault and me, circa Spring of 2009:

Tim Callahan: What did you do before "Mackenzie Queen," artistically or otherwise?

Bernie Mireault: I started "Mackenzie Queen" when I was in my early 20s. It was my second attempt at a long story. Prior to that I had started a story entitled "Orc Head," a fantasy featuring monkey-faced protagonists inspired visually by the art of Ken Macklin, a favorite artist of mine in my early days, and inspired thematically by Moebius's "Jerry Cornelius's Airtight Garage," a strip that ran in early issues of "Heavy Metal." I never got very far with it and have lost the artwork over the decades, moving from apartment to apartment. I had forgotten all about it until just now thinking in response to your question.

Prior to that, between the age of 16 and 20, I would make little unfinished strips in my sketchbooks, always inspired by great work by others that I had seen. My favorite thing to do, pre-"Mackenzie Queen," would be to get a big pad of thick watercolor paper and draw/ink/erase/color large pin-ups of Conan and Red Sonja, my favorite comic book heroes of the time, back in the days of Barry Windsor-Smith. I remember doing a short Captain America story in color featuring Nightmare. Still have that somewhere. I remember making a little strip illustrating a joke that I liked. A short story featuring funny animal-type characters. I have them all in a suitcase in the archives.

Prior to that, I made WW I and II airplane models.

What kind of art training/experiences/ influences did you have?

My art training was and is mostly on-the-job experience. I started drawing a lot around 15 years old, and by the time I was twenty I knew that I was an artist and devoted to comic art. School just got in the way. Not a lot of respect for the medium in academia in those days either, 1980-ish. I went to a college in Montreal for almost two years in the creative arts program. First time taking real art classes! First apartment, complete with roommate I went to high school with. First time living in a big town, too. School was happily abandoned when I got a job as an assistant animator on the original "Heavy Metal" movie. I was untrained in animation but surrounded by such nice people (from all over the world) that everyone pitched in and brought me up to speed quick and I got to hang onto the job, working all the way until the end of the production and enjoying it immensely. I made my comic art too. I was working on "Mackenzie Queen" all through that period and had begun "The Jam." I was influenced by comic book artists like Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Richard Corben, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, George Herriman, Herge, Moebius, ...mercy! There's just too many. All of them are cartoonists though. I felt that the fine arts world was just so much pretentious twaddle. Sure, there's a lot of nice stuff, but they take it all so seriously! Comic art was free of all that. And you had to work hard to do it, so no bullshitting.

Gordon Kirby and his beloved dog
The five issue of "Mackenzie Queen" show your style developing quite rapidly. The first few pages seem sharply simplistic compared to the much more confident and expressive style you would develop only a couple of issues later. What do you recall about your work on that series? What did you learn about comic book art while you drew those five issues?

Mackenzie Queen was my first consciously organized comic art project and certainly there's a dramatic progression from simple to more complex. I learned as went along. I had just met Mark Shainblum, a Montreal writer and small press comic book publisher. He had created a company, Matrix Graphic Series, as a vehicle for his patriotic Canadian superhero, Northguard (drawn by Gabriel Morrissette), and he offered to publish "Mackenzie Queen" as a five-issue limited series. I was very excited to be printed and that drove the work. I knew that I was hopelessly out of step with commercial concerns and had always thought that I'd have to self-publish. It was great to see others respond to the work in a positive way.

"Mackenzie Queen" was directly inspired by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's "Doctor Strange" work, of which I found the first two volumes in a drug store book rack. They were those terrible little "digest"-sized books, but the work really blew me away and gave me a lot of energy. I wanted to try something along those lines. I began the work while still living with my parents, so there was some discussion about me spending so much time working -- it sure is funny how folk get nervous when you can do something for 12 hours at a sitting -- on comic art, and did I really think I could make a living at it? I said I didn't know, but that I was stuck with it for better or for worse. It was a calling. They were concerned but gave what encouragement they could and never got in the way, bless 'em. I must have puzzled them, though. Looking back, I suppose I was an odd child.

Grendel by Mireault
"Mackenzie Queen" feels complex, with a wide range of characters from Heaven (space), Hell (underground), and everything in between, but it also feels improvised, too. How did you write the series? Did you script it before you drew any of it? Did you make it up as you went along? How did you balance its complexity with its by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel?

In terms of the overall story arc on any big project that I do, yes, I like to start at the beginning and see where it takes me, as opposed to the reverse. It's more interesting that way. Making comic art takes hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. You have to do everything you can to maintain the inspiration to keep at it, especially when you don't really get paid for the work. Sometimes I'll get an idea that's whole from the moment it hits, and in that case it's a different process. Also fun in it's own way. Those are always short stories.

For "Mackenzie Queen," I would first write down story notes for the issue and then break it down into rough layouts with dialogue in chunks of four or five pages. Then I'd do it on nice paper, changing stuff as I go in an attempt to refine things as much as possible. I tried to be practical and make decisions quickly and not waver. I tried to be intuitive and trust my subconscious to have the story already written.

"Mackenzie Queen" himself is an interesting-looking character. He sports what's apparently known as "friendly muttonchops" and he wears a turtleneck sweater. Why that look? Why write and draw a story about this character in the first place?

With "Mackenzie Queen," I was trying to design a character who was easy to recognize. The facial hair is a style I think is cool and that you rarely see in North America these days. I felt it stood out well for that reason. The turtleneck sweater I got from Morty in "Bazooka Joe" comics.

Why that look? I prefer casual to formal any day of the week. Anti-fashion over fashion. Loose over tight.

Why do a story about him in the first place? Because I made him up, and I like him and wanted to tell his story. He's one of my crew. I'd like to add more to his adventures someday. Throw it on the pile of things to do. Big pile!

Gordon Kirby will return
By the late 1980s (and this has kind of continued until today), there seemed to be a divide between "genre comics" and "art comics." The divide tended to boil down between Romanticism (superheroes, aliens, monsters, magic) and Realism (relationships, loneliness, work, family issues). And what's interesting is that your style seems closer to the art comics/realism side of the spectrum, but you've continually done crazy genre work, filling your comics with excessively deranged (and wonderful) weirdness. Can you speak about that approach? How conscious were you at the time (throughout the 1980s and 1990s) that your style was more superficially similar to the "art comics" guys? What's your interest in wacky genre conventions?

To me, "art comics" are anything done well, but for the sake of the question we'll go with your definitions.

I've always been a fan of genre writing. Less pretension. More imagination and vitality. When I think of "art comics" in North America, I first think of American underground comics from the 60's. I know there was Herriman, Goldberg, Segar, etc. before all that, but I got into comic art at a time when a lot of this material was out of print but Zap comics were still around. That stuff blew superheroes out of the water as far as I was concerned. It was like comparing African drumming with the music of Perry Como. Both are enjoyable, but one is obviously far closer to nature, which is the way to go in my opinion.

When I tell a story, I've always tried to create a brew that no one has experienced before, thematically, while using visual genre conventions that everyone who ever read superhero comics is familiar with. I've always thought of my stuff as a hybrid of North American underground and North American mainstream comics, with a bit of Europe and Japan thrown in for good measure.

The "art comics" category seemed to be striving to encompass the same self-absorbed themes and self-consciousness that has always polluted the ivory (twin) towers of Art and Literature. Not a step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned. This is a folk art and I think it should be kept that way for maximum vitality and accessibility.

How does "The Jam" fit into all of these concerns? It seems, at first glance, to be part of the "realistic superheroes" trend of that era, but it is manic and exaggerated in its own unique way. What is "The Jam" really about?

Like everything I've done, "The Jam" was directly inspired by someone else's work. In this case, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's "Daredevil." What a good time I had following that series! Frank Miller's bold, stylized approach to storytelling was a revelation to me, being new to the medium at the time, and Klaus Janson's inks and colors floored me with their panache. I took the energy I got from it and used it to start "The Jam." Like usual, I took a mainstream inspiration and put it through an underground blender to create that third thing. The hybrid.

Janet, from the in-progress graphic novel

What is "The Jam" really about? My themes were/are: lower middle class existence, trying to manage a romantic relationship, relationships with animals and superhero satire. I try and bring the whole superhero thing down to Earth in an amusing way. Gordon Kirby has a costume but no superpowers, yet has these odd adventures because he wears the thing occasionally. It's a set up that still works for me. I try to use humor as much as I can. Always looking for a chance to make people laugh.

How did your approach to visual narrative continue to change from "Mackenzie Queen" through your work on Matt Wagner's "Grendel: The Devil Inside" and into "The Jam"? How would you describe "The Bernie Mireault" style to those who may not have seen it?

Working on "Grendel" was working from someone else's script for the first time and thus a completely different ballgame. I enjoyed adapting Matt's work, and he was great about encouraging experimentation and throwing good ideas around. It was an excellent atmosphere to work in. With "Grendel" I tried to go deeper design-wise than I had in my previous work. The good thing about collaboration is that it makes you do things that you wouldn't normally do on your own. It widens your experience. No matter what the work is, your own or collaborative, each page begun and finished pushes you forward along the artist evolution curve and sometimes you can see a change even over the course of one short story. Each page demands a thousand decisions and forces you to think constantly about the best way to do a thing and then experiment to see if you're right.

How would I describe the Bernie Mireault syle? I'd call it odd. Personal. Unusual. I love the medium and put my heart into everything I do. Some people can feel that.

"The Devil Inside" features some unorthodox page layouts -- particularly in the use of gutter doodles and juxtaposition of text (scrawled text). How did you develop that approach for that story? How closely did Matt Wagner specify the layouts? Did you work closely with letterer Bob Pinaha on those pages?

With "Grendel" I tried very hard to create a strong visual unity between my three issues. Matt Wagner was living in Montreal at the time and we shared a studio and were enthusiastic comic art people constantly discussing craft and bouncing ideas back and forth. He didn't specify the layouts but wrote stuff that determined them. (i.e. All those notebook pages from Brian's diary were a big visual element.) Bob Pinaha did a great job lettering cursively on those little notebook pages. Matt's script was pretty heavy and Bob had to work pretty hard for his page rate there. I'm not sure how he felt about me doing some of the lettering myself -- insulted or relieved.

Another page from the new Mireault graphic novel
I always think of your big three works as "Mackenzie Queen," "Grendel: The Devil Inside," and "The Jam," mostly because those are the things I first saw from you, and they left a big impression on me. But also because I couldn't find much of your work after that. Other than a Neil Gaiman-written Riddler story from "Secret Origins Special," what other things have you been working on since those early days? I saw that you did an online strip for "Tripping the Rift," but what other comic book projects have been keeping you busy recently, if any?

If you go to my website and click on CV, you'll find a comprehensive work history that names everything I've ever worked on that I can remember. It's a surprisingly long list. I did the "Tripping the Rift" web comic as you mention, and I'm working on a "Jam" graphic novel. It's a lot of work and it's been a few years that I've been on it, doing it in my spare time. Wish me luck!

A new "Jam" graphic novel? What are some details about that?

Way back in 2004, I received a Canada Council (government arts support) grant to write a graphic novel, and I’m still working on it and trying to get it finished. It’s called “To Get Her” and features Gordie and Janet, the main characters from “The Jam”, my chief narrative to date in a “dystopian romantic comedy” to be about 200 pages long. I’m at page 113 right now and have to squeeze the work in between rent-paying jobs. This work has no publisher yet and is being represented by Kitchen, Lind & Assoc. LLC.

Reaction to it has been very mixed.

Well I enjoyed the excerpt you sent me [selected pages of which are published to accompany this interview], and I can't wait to hold the finished book in my hands. I hope we don't have to wait too much longer.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, bernie mireault, the jam, mackenzie queen

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