Pop!: MIKE PAROBECK: REVISITED

Thu, February 10th, 2011 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

From the late Eighties, a photograph of Mike Parobeck courtesy of Momi Jahn

On the second of July in 1996, artist Mike Parobeck died from complications with diabetes in Key West, Florida. Mere days later at San Diego's Comic-Con, the news of his death would be met by his colleagues and admirers with disbelief and utter sadness. Even today, it is difficult to accept that he was taken from us just shy of his thirty-first birthday, just as he was beginning to elevate himself into one of the best draftsman in the field that he loved so dearly.

Throughout the early Nineties, as the over-rendered Image Comics art-style dominated the industry, Mike's art was a breath of fresh air. His work proved the adage, "less is more." With only a stroke of his pencil, he was able to say more than most, for his technique was as impeccable as his storytelling. His small body of work has left an indelible impression on all who have seen it. Those pages and images are filled with joyous energy and an exuberance of life that seemed to be lacking in the artist's very own introverted nature.

Born on July 7, 1965, Michael J. Parobeck grew up in Ohio and loved the comics of John Byrne, whom he referred to as being "the reason that I got into this field at all." He was the youngest of six children raised by his father, an accountant, and his mother, Lois. From grammar school to high school, Mike displayed artistic ability as he persisted despite a lack of fanfare.

Mike's mother, Lois Parobeck, recalled, "He was so good. But he had an art teacher in his senior year (of high school) that just could hardly give a darn about anybody. She was the art teacher, and she just more or less -- I think sometimes some of them think that they're so great, and they don't care. So Mike felt bad when she had that bad attitude. But I suppose that could happen to anybody, though. Then, when he went to Cincinnati art school, then he learned so much -- positioning, structure, all the stuff, shading, just everything he learned then -- and that made everything so much better, because I could see the difference from what he had in high school."

Parobeck enrolled in Commercial Arts at the now-defunct Central Academy of Art, a two-year technical school in Cincinnati, with the hopes of working in the advertising and design field. Upon graduation in 1985, Mike was determined to never return home and moved to Chicago to start his career in advertising.

At his first ad agency in the Windy City, Mike eagerly learned the craft in the mount room by prepping presentation boards for clients and meetings. He also found friends amongst other young artists at the agency, among them Momi Jahn. "I worked at an agency called Grant-Jacoby, as did my husband, and Mike started there as a beginning art director in what we called the bullpen -- a beginner place where you pick up the skills and you learn how to become an art director, and you assist the art directors watching your people, and that's how you learn," Jahn said. "That's where he started. I knew he was always interested in [comics]. He was always drawing characters. That was one of his trademarks. He was just always drawing characters like that, like the one he did of me."

From 1988, an unpublished Flash & Johnny Turbo cover from a proposed version of Flash by Augustyn, Strazewski, Parobeck and Fricke

After a couple of years, the young artist found a better position at Evans & Evans, a smaller ad agency which seemingly offered more opportunity. Mike also managed to handle freelance assignments from various advertising outfits on Michigan Avenue, including the well known Leo Burnett Worldwide.

Michael Franzese befriended Mike Parobeck at the Central Academy of Cincinnati, becoming one of his best friends. Like Parobeck, Franzese started his advertising career in similar fashion. "Mike was also very big on freelancing. He was such a great illustrator, and such a great artist, that he freelanced all the time," Franzese recalled. "He would work all night doing storyboards for other companies. If somebody would need to get stuff done, and they don't have enough illustrators on staff, they call in a freelancer. They give you a job, you go home and you draw it all night long, you drop it off in the morning and you make extra money. Mike did a lot of that."

Parobeck quickly developed a distaste for advertising work, feeling that it was mostly deceitful and misleading; he wanted out. This was the point where Mike started working towards breaking into the comics industry.

According to Franzese, "[Mike] was never content in advertising, because sales was not his strong point. Michael just felt that was weird. 'Why am I lying to people?' It's like, 'Well, you're not lying to them. You're merely trying to promote something.' He's like, 'Yeah, I don't like that.' So it never really sat well with him. A great story was, once we got a new business pitch on a Friday night to help out another agency. It was for a product, and everything had to be done by Monday morning, and that's all we thought there was to it. And Mike came to me and was like, 'I don't want to work on this.' And I said, "Well, why?' And he said, 'Because I haven't tasted the product. We're going to spend all this time trying to advertise this thing, and we don't even know what it is. We just have the basic write-up of what it is.' He had a real problem doing that. So I let him off the job."

One thing that Parobeck learned in Chicago was to stand up for himself a bit more, as Momi Jahn recalled. "I do remember, once, he got mugged. He came in to work, and he was all beat up. His face was swollen, he had a black eye and we were like, 'Oh, my God! What happened?' And he had been mugged. I can't remember what street corner he was standing on, waiting for a bus or something. He got mugged, and I guess he tried to fight off his attackers. I mean, he was a very soft-spoken man, but he was tough. You didn't fool around with him. He was a big guy, and he thought he could fend off these muggers, and he didn't; he got beat up, and he got his wallet taken anyway. That was so Mike. And he was just quiet about it. He didn't say anything. We're like, 'Oh, my God! What happened to you?'"

Around the mid-Eighties, Chicago was fast becoming a hotbed in the comics community, and Mike naturally gravitated towards that crowd. Many of these people quickly became friends and colleagues of the enthusiastic, young artist. Emerging comic book talent like Len Strazewski, Paul Fricke, Scott Beaderstadt and Brian Augustyn all befriended and encouraged the young artist to illustrate a short sequence, written by Strazewski and edited by Augustyn, for a 1987 charity book titled "Quest for Dreams Lost," a benefit for The Literacy Volunteers of Chicago. The opportunity to become a comic book artist was one that Mike would seize.

Early 1990s Captain America and Bucky commission by Parobeck. Art courtesy of Mark Tomlinson

"In his earliest work, Mike was already showing all the strengths that would establish him as a terrific comic artist: clear, clean layouts, great senses of design and drama and accessible, attractive characters," Brian Augustyn said. "I could see his potential immediately -- his talent was so brilliantly evident, I'd have to have been blind to miss it, frankly."

While Mike made his portfolio stronger, Augustyn was hired for an editorial position in 1987 at DC Comics by Mike Gold. Soon after, Augustyn presented Mike's work to the attention of fellow editor Mark Waid -- always keen on his using new talent for his "Secret Origins" series -- and he, too, was quickly impressed with the "spot-on" storytelling. Mike made his professional comics debut in "Secret Origins" #37, illustrating a short story featuring Doctor Light, the first of several stories he did for the title. Being a consummate professional, you could see his progress with each passing story. Rather quickly, he landed a new series called "El Diablo" with writer Gerard Jones and inkers John Nyberg and Paul Fricke. The El Diablo character was Rafael Sandoval, a Latino city councilman, who, through his masked persona, fought to protect his constituency from crime and injustice.

"When he got the 'El Diablo' job, we were having drinks one night and he said, 'Oh, I'm leaving for San Antonio tomorrow,'" Michael Franzese remembered. "I said, "Oh, what are you doing in San Antonio?' And he was going to San Antonio because that's where the 'El Diablo' comic took place, and he knew nothing about it. He stayed, I think, for three or four days. It wasn't too long, but he took a ton of pictures around town and did a lot of research, so that when he was drawing stuff, he could make sure it was correct."

Despite the nobility of the more realistic storylines and the animated artwork, the title never fully caught on with readers, nor did DC's marketing department ever really promote the series, a situation that ultimately led to the series' cancellation with its sixteenth issue. "Mike was nervous," recalled Gerard Jones about the artist's reaction to "El Diablo's" end. "Every new creator is, of course, but Mike seemed particularly plagued by anxieties about failure. Part of the problem was that the word was going around DC that his art was 'too cartoony.' I thought it was a grotesquely unfair criticism, and I think it had as much to do with office politics and the opposition of some editors to Brian Augustyn's approach as it had to do with Mike's art. But word of that reached Mike, and he came to feel that he always had too much to prove. When 'El Diablo' was canceled, he got angry at the readers and at DC, but mostly I think he blamed himself. Brian and I told him that it did pretty well for what it was, but his confidence was rocked. His anxiety seemed higher from then on."

"Inside the DC offices, the response was not positive," Augustyn, his editor, remembered. "Mike, being ahead of his time, puzzled many of the powers that be, and many of them thought Mike was a counterintuitive choice in the days of heroes with giant thighs, tiny feet and heavy cross-hatching. On the other hand, I was never told to use Mike, I was never told to make him draw more 'fill-in-the-blank.' There was often shaking of the head and clucking, but they mostly left us alone. It needs to be said that on most of Mike's projects with me, he was the right guy and got appropriate support from on high. Then Editor-in-Chief Dick Giordano liked Mike's stuff on 'El Diablo' a lot. Group Editor Mike Gold and Dick Giordano thought he was perfect for .The Fly.'"

From the original art of Fly #2, an awesome splash by Mike Parobeck and Paul Fricke

Parobeck's demeanor quickly rebounded when he was selected to be the penciler on a revamped "The Fly" for DC's new Impact imprint. The Fly, a vintage Archie Comics character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was licensed by DC for their short-lived !mpact imprint in the hopes of attracting new readers with accessible stories that had none of the "grim and gritty" approach that was commonplace in 1991. Mike's artwork was nicely matched with Paul Fricke's inks; together they evoked the kind of wonderful sense that the editors wanted. The writer of the series was his good friend Len Strazewski, a fellow Chicagoan, and the two would regularly meet at a convenient eatery to discuss their latest stories.

"It was always great, because he would spread pages out on the table, and we'd have lunch, and put the pages out and I always had the same experience, Strazewski said. "I would look at the pages and go, 'Wow! Mike, this is very good! Tremendous! Where did you get this?' And, he said, 'Well, in your script.' I realized that I would write something like, 'The Fly buzzes around the office building,' and Mike would just, sort of, creatively interpret this stuff in such a lively and imaginative infused way that was like, 'Yeah. I did say that, Mike.' But there was no way that I could have visually conceived what he did. We didn't plot so much -- I mean, I wrote full script -- but his ability to take a script and to just infuse it with his own style and imagination was tremendous."

Initially, the sales of the !mpact books were met with success, but internal company conflict and the declining sales in the months ahead would lead to the end of the entire project. Again, Mike didn't handle the news well. Strazewski added, "Mike took everything extremely personally. And in many ways that was his...I want to say downfall, but in many ways that's what killed him in the long run. It's that Mike was extremely sensitive about his work, and when things did not go well, for whatever reason, he took it on himself. The idea of canceling a title that he had as much fun as 'The Fly' -- it was a blow to Mike, absolutely."

Prior to "The Fly," Mike had penciled two issues (#3 and #5) of a 1991 "Justice Society of America" miniseries, the success of which brought him back to launch an ongoing "JSA" series in 1992, written by Strazewski with inks by Mike Machlan. While his art style continued to evolve, the Justice Society characters benefited from his style, royally. He used his Berol 4H pencils to make that Golden Age group larger than life. He gave them bigger proportions that evoked the feel of Dick Sprang's work, a style that Parobeck emulated in his 1992 "Elongated Man" miniseries. Parobeck illustrated the team in a way that made the heroes look like they could finally hold their own against their younger counterparts. No longer were they simply "the senior citizens" of DC, they were finally characters who could hold their own alongside their modern equivalents and who were their superiors when it came to experience.

The book was well received by the fans, yet according to Strazewski, that wasn't the case inside DC. "Remind Mike Carlin of that. He was the one who pretty much single-handedly nixed the series. And his argument was that we shouldn't be doing stories about senior citizen heroes. I discussed this with Mike many times over the years since then. I think he was wrong; sales were always good on that book. I think there's been some slander circulated that the books didn't sell -- that's absolutely untrue. Those books earned royalties for every issue. There were ten issues, every issue earned royalties."

"SuperMomiJahn" sketch that Mike rendered for his friend Momi Jahn

When "Batman: The Animated Series" premiered on Fox Kids Network in September of 1992, the most natural result on DC Comics' side was the comic book tie-in. DC debuted "Batman Adventures" alongside the television show with a cover date of October 1992. Ty Templeton and Brad Rader, the pencilers of the first six issues, successfully set the direction of the series. "But then I needed a new penciler starting with issue #7," Scott Peterson, the editor of "Batman Adventures," said. "The series was originally designed to be a miniseries, but it was so good and so well received that Paul Levitz decided to turn it into an ongoing monthly as soon as the first issue came out. I looked around for a new penciler, and Mike had just finished his previous gig. I thought he'd be the perfect guy for the job, so I offered him the slot and he accepted; he seemed particularly pleased that Rick Burchett was already the regular inker. It was going to be a week or so before Mike got the first script, but two days later I got a bunch of pages from him -- he wanted to show me he could adapt to the style. He already had the job. And yet he was still auditioning. That's the kinda guy Mike was."

For most artists, it would seem a daunting task to draw in a style that wasn't their own -- someone forgot to tell Mike that. He enjoyed the challenge and enjoyed working on the book, so much so that he once said, "As long as they'll be putting out the book out, I'll be there." Right from his first cover on issue #5, he embraced the style that Bruce Timm had set for the show by infusing it with his own, which ironically was very similar to what he had been doing for years. "Batman Adventures" paired the penciler with Rick Burchett, Mike's favorite inker, who brilliantly brought out all the mood and rich characterizations from the pencils that he was given.

"At the time, it was a pretty radical departure," Burchett said. "A straight adventure book with a more iconic, designed feel to the art. All I knew was that I was having a ball. Everyone on the team was a joy to work with. I really don't know why the team clicked. That's something you can't manufacture. Maybe it was because we understood the material and realized that this type of art could be used to tell practically any kind of story you wanted to tell. We never intended the book to be just for little kids. We wanted older readers along for the ride, too. We didn't talk down to anyone."

The book was a breath of fresh air for comic book fans tired of the grimness and gimmicky fads that the main Batman books were going through. The "real" Batman that everyone loved was in those elegantly crafted "Batman Adventures." The stylized stories conveyed the imagination and adventure people expected from a Batman book. The sales for the title were always steady -- Mike wanted the book to succeed so much that he would draw two fully-rendered sketches for the best letter writers of every issue, something he did through the entire time he was on the book. For three years, the stories that Kelley Puckett wrote for Parobeck and Burchett to present were always fun. In time, Mike's interpretation of the animated Batman became the standard, appearing on countless licensed products throughout the Nineties.

In terms of his output, the perfectionist was a prolific workhorse that averaged seven to nine pages over his five to six day work week. Between Batman and licensing assignments, he managed to do art for other DC Universe books like "Robin," "Justice League Europe" and "L.E.G.I.O.N.." Despite not having the best of networking skills, he managed to do an issue of "Wonder Man" and two covers for "X-Men: The Early Years" for Marvel Comics -- his only chance to do work with his favorite team of characters.

1994’s The Batman Adventures #17

In regard to who he was taking influence from during this period in his career, the line art of Jaime Hernandez became an undeniable influence in all of his DC work. From Alex Toth, he learned the importance of economizing and simplicity, never over-rendering his figures or designs. During his lifetime, he could count fellow artists like Kelley Jones, Brian Stelfreeze, Matt Wagner, Alex Ross and George Pratt, as fans of his work. Mike even took the time to help other young artists -- including an up and coming illustrator named David Mack, with whom he would correspond with, offering letters of advice and encouragement.

"He was pretty much a loner," Franzese said about his late friend. "But I think that's something that you have to watch. I was thinking about this after the last time we talked; there's probably a few things that I think Mike would want people to know about him. Because sometimes, that lonely thing, it's bad for you. When he was working at the ad agency, there was always somebody to talk to. When he was doing the comics, he was basically locked in a room 24 hours a day, just drawing the comics, and it became so very insular that I think he -- not that he hated it, but it was one of those things, like, I think he always dreamed of the Marvel bullpen, when it was six or eight guys, or back in the day when Neal Adams and those guys used to share studio space. So you could work and draw all day long, but there was at least somebody there to talk to if you wanted to. I think that he worked alone, but it was very -- I won't say disturbing, but I think his own sensitivities, being so much of a loner, I think it got to him. He wouldn't pay attention. He wouldn't eat properly. He wouldn't do things for himself because he would get so into his own little world."

Behind his self-deprecatory humor and anxiety, Mike was also dealing with severe childhood trauma. As a result of that pain, he buried himself deeper in his work and spent too much of his time alone, bottling up his anger and regret. Everyone who knew him remembers Parobeck as being a tall, handsome man, who was slightly athletic and slender, but painfully shy. Although he had girlfriends, most of those relationships were sadly doomed from the start. Then, he started becoming thinner, more frail and lethargic, and it wasn't until he had a severe episode that he finally sought a doctor for help. Midway through his "Batman" run, Mike Parobeck was diagnosed as having Type 1 diabetes.

"He had noticed that his vision was going," Franzese said. "He was getting a lot of headaches and his vision was going. So we went and we got him glasses, and the glasses helped for a couple of weeks, but then he just started to notice other things. And, finally, I think what happened was he had passed out somewhere, like, literally walking down the street and falling over. They got him into the hospital and figured [it] out, and I ended up getting a call that day, that he was in the hospital and his blood sugar, was, like, one. Which is an exaggeration, but it was so low that he couldn't move, so he ended up passing out. They got him into the hospital, they got him loaded up and his sugar was high, so they had to bring it back down. He was gone about a week -- I think a solid week, week-and-a-half -- in St. Joseph's Hospital here in Chicago as his doctor tried to regulate his diet and figure things out for him.

Unpublished Parobeck artwork from The Target, one of Mike’s earliest comics efforts which was written by Brian Augustyn and lettered by Paul Fricke

"That's when he was diagnosed with diabetes. And he seemed pretty good there," Franzese continued. "He seemed like, 'Oh, you know what? I gotta change my life; I gotta learn how to eat correctly, because I have this disease.' A couple weeks later, we were talking one night, and he started drinking heavily. And I'm like, 'Dude, with the diabetes, you've got to kind of watch your drinking.' And then he went off on a big tear about how his life was screwed up, and every time he tried to get going somewhere, something would happen, and he was constantly screwing up his life. Look at the diabetes as an example. And I'm like, 'But diabetes isn't caused by anorexia or any emotional problems you have. You didn't do it. It's just a fact, your pancreas shut down.' Even the doctors had told him that. But he couldn't buy that. He thought it was his fault that he was sick. It was kind of a weird thing."

The news of his illness crushed the young artist. He told all his friends he had diabetes, but didn't always take care of himself nor adhere to his doctor's advice. Every day, people cope with Type 1 by taking their insulin, checking their blood glucose levels and adjusting their lifestyle, but Mike had a hard time juggling his new medical disorder with his personality issues. He wasn't suicidal; he was just naïve enough to believe it would never catch up with him. As his outward appearance worsened, his friends would tell him to take care of himself, but he'd either change the subject or shrug his shoulders. Sadly, even his work began to suffer. It wasn't right. He was having a hard time drawing even the simplest things. Mike decided to move to Key West, thinking that perhaps the warmer climate and a change of scenery would help make things right.

"I knew he wasn't in great shape," Scott Peterson recounted, "but I guess none of us realized he was quite as bad as he was. I've never been clear in my own head whether or not even Mike himself knew for sure. I spoke to Mike a few days before he died, so when he didn't answer the phone, I wasn't totally surprised or worried. I just did what I always did, which was to leave a message. He always got back within an hour or two, though, so when I came in the next morning and hadn't heard from him, I tried again and still got no answer. I called a friend of his down in the Keys that I'd spoken with a few times before, and she and her boyfriend drove over to Mike's place and found him. I'd just gotten back from lunch with "Shadow of the Bat" artist Dave Taylor and his wife, who were visiting from England, when I got the call. I couldn't believe it. Mike's friend was trying to tell me what happened, but she was crying. That pretty much let me know right there."

"Unfortunately, work and his personal demons seriously interfered (or were allowed to interfere) with Mike's necessary self-care, said Brian Augustyn. "He didn't eat often enough, didn't stay on top of his sugar-levels and insulin injections and didn't worry enough about what he was doing to himself. By that time, he was living in Key West, Florida, and far away from most of us who would have helped him be more dedicated. Who knows exactly what combination of carelessness, disease and personal trauma contributed to his too-early death. It was a tragedy, with long, deep roots into Mike's shadowed past."

Paul Fricke told me that Mike was once invited to a convention in Texas where he was the only headliner of the show. He spent the entire weekend giving everyone who came up to see him a free, fully rendered sketch. Most comic book artists would see this as a nightmare, but Mike loved every second of it. For him, it was a blissful experience and a pleasant surprise to know that the artwork that he worked so hard on had so many admirers. That weekend reenergized him. He loved his fans and in return gave them everything he had within his work. His final comic was "Batman and Robin Adventures Annual" #1, which came out several months after his death, in November of 1996.

Had he remained alive, he would have seen the outpouring of admiration from his fans. He would have seen how popular his books are among parents and younger readers who discover his "Batman Adventures" work anew everyday. How beloved his art is by all whom so thrown it a passing glance.

1992 Justice Society of America promotional art by Parobeck

Looking back, Augustyn said, "It turned out that Mike was right all along and a genius after all. I'm glad that worked in the end -- especially as early critics became fans. And Mike did pave the way for a return to a more 'cartoony,' more fun art styles. Mike Weringo, Humberto Ramos, J. Scott Campbell, Ed McGuiness, Mike Oeming and about half the working artists today have proven a lighter style to be popular and viable. Not necessarily that Mike directly inspired any of them, but his instincts and talent were ahead of their time, alas."

Mark Waid added, "There are very, very few comics creators whose actual body of work is surprisingly small in comparison to their influence on those who came after them. Art Adams is one; Steranko is another. That's a good group to be in."

Here we are, fifteen years after his death, still talking about Mike Parobeck's outstanding accomplishments. These facts alone are a testimony to his legacy, and Mike was that and so much more. Mike was a dear friend to many, the type of person who got more joy out making others happier than himself. Despite his somberness, his work brought a lot of smiles to readers all over the world. Michael Parobeck and his art have become a friend to all.

Since his passing, Mike's proud mother has been awestruck with the appreciation that has remained for her son's body of work, telling me, "I've got a picture on my wall, just above me. When he was down to Cincinnati, he went by Independence Lake. Mike had a way of sitting, that he would put this leg over on top of the other leg when he was sitting on the ground or whatever, and he's sitting by the beach and looking out into kind of the dark. You know how you see a little bit of light, usually, when you look out, because people living there have lights on and everything. And he's got his red hair, and he's got his light green trunks. I didn't know whether I was going to keep that one or not. I framed it because, to me, that's Mike."

His mentor, Brian Augustyn, related this anecdote. "Before we -- my family and I -- left Chicago for the East Coast and DC, a whole bunch of us went to Old Comiskey Park so that I could see a last White Sox game as a local fan. The White Sox were and are my all-time favorite baseball team. Mike came along, and in the eighth inning of a sparsely attended, who-cares September game against some forgotten team, Mike chased down a foul ball and walked it back and plunked it into my hand. It remains one of my most treasured possessions. That was Mike; he'd go way out of his way to make sure that you got what you wanted or needed."

Michael Parobeck was a comic book artist completely devoted and true to this graphic medium. He always gave readers his best with the hope that his work would uplift their spirits. Franzese explained, "To him, it was all about drawing comics. When he was in it, it was the middle of everybody breaking out, the guys from Image, the ultra-violent books, and he hated that. It's why he liked working on 'Justice Society.' He's like, 'You know, they punch somebody, they go down, the fight's over, boom, you move on. Nobody's out to kill anybody. It's not all dark and dismal.' He thought that, for kids getting into comics, they should be lighter. You could have a point to them, but they shouldn't be so violent. And now it's sort of his deal. If he wanted to do anything else, it was to reach children through his work and show them that life could be good."

Very special thanks to Michael Franzese, Paul Fricke, Momi Jahn and Lois Parobeck for sharing their memories of Mike in this updated article. Special thanks to Brian Augustyn, Scott Peterson, Len Strazewski, Rick Burchett, Gerard Jones, Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza for all their help in the original 2006 edition.

Copyright: George Khoury

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