Weighing in at an impressive 5.2 pounds, Madman Gargantua lives up to its lofty name in just about every way imaginable. The 852 pages anthology gives Mike Allred’s stylized superhero send up the tribute it truly deserves, helping secure the series’s place as one of alternative comics’ greatest and most enduring works—just in case anyone still had any doubts on the matter.
The book also helped to galvanize Allred, who began work the character’s latest staring role, Madman Atomic Comics, now on its seventh issue, which finds the artist rejuvenated and daring as ever.
We sat down with Allred to talk about how the new anthology helped the artist rediscover his old friend.
What was it like finally getting to hold the Gargantua in your hands, looking over the history of this character?
Definitely a milestone. First of all, it’s kind of an eye-opener to realize that I’ve done that amount of work [laughs], that we’ve amassed this collection that’s large enough to be used as a lethal weapon. It was also a great benefit in launching me forward and progressing my development, because I was almost forced to objectively revisit my progress, and I was able to look at moments where I was happy with the direction I was going in, and others where I was maybe treading water or regressing. So I saw my work with fresh eyes, and by doing so, I was able to really reassess what I wanted to do, and for that reason it kind of gave me a whole new lungful of air. I was really gratified and excited that this could come to exist, but also it reignited my enthusiasm for what I had in front of me, and where I wanted to go.
That second wind that the book gave you—was it really a personal thing, or was it specific to the Madman character?
That’s a good question. I always blur that line, so I’m not really sure. I put a lot of myself into all of the characters, and also people I know—friends, family members, character traits, quirks, experiences all kind of go through this filter that is my own mutant brain and kind of filters out on paper. Sometimes I’ll have a hard time looking at things objectively, at a distance—collecting Gargantua helped with that. Also, since I hadn’t done Madman for quite a while, as far as on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, when I’m in and doing it, it’s hard to maintain any kind of objectivity.
I have certain disciplines with my plots and notes and outlines that get lasered into a script and a series of scripts in a story arch and then attacking it with the best style I can—with what I want it to look like. I think, overall, I have a pretty consistent style, but I also try to do something a little different with each project, so X-Force looks a little different—even X-Statix, I tried to give it its own flavor. Even now with Madman Atomic Comics, there’s probably been one major artistic experiment with each issue. I’m also very conscious of trying to keep it settled, so it retains a certain consistency, so all of these things are consciously or subconsciously floating around inside of me, so then to differentiate from what’s personal and what’s character-driven—I don’t really think about it that much. I don’t even know how to answer that question [laughs].
You say that there’s a lot of you in these characters—I assume that goes double for Frank Einstein [Madman]—when you go back and read all of these arcs, do you ever find parts of you that you didn’t realize were there, when you were writing them?
Oh, absolutely. And that’s one of the things I’m most excited about, as far as where I am now. There are little elements that were just kind of laid out or seeded in passing, and looking back, I get excited. “Wow, I never took that to its full potential. I can do that now.” With the first story arc in Madman Atomic Comics, I realized that there was this main subplot that I had just left dangling, and that was this idea of Frank Einstein being one of The Four, with his great cosmic destiny. So this first story arc was completing that, tying that up. So, what I learned was that I didn’t really want to leave things dangling for so long.
What I wanted to do more of, which I had done with previous Madman arcs was to do a self-contained story and then move on to another one, which was really my original intent after the first series. Madman Adventures was going to be a series of self-contained adventures. That was a thing I realized I wanted to reconnect with. I want to do very genre-specific story ideas, as well. The first arc with the new series had this central theme that tied in with the whole cosmic space adventure idea. So now I’ve got film noir ideas and westerns.
Yeah. But they are an initial inspiration, but that comes through what is a Madman adventure story. I’m not really forcing it, or making a point of it, but the inspiration is there, and if you’re aware that these things are what I’m excited about, you may recognize that. Otherwise, I’m hoping that it will be a little more subtle than that. But I really want that feel for everything that happens in here. And being that this is the one place where I can do anything I want, I want to take advantage of that, and looking back at what I’ve done over the past fifteen years with this character, I can see where I loved doing certain things and where I wished I’d pushed things a little further and where I forced things.
I’m trying to be my own most severe critic, but at the same time, after I’ve written it on the script, that’s where I just let go, and the joy of it comes through. Each part of the process becomes more enjoyable for me. With writing, I get excited to lock down an idea, but once they’re locked down, more enthusiasm comes in, because I’ve got that foundation there, and I can really relax more or let loose more with the artwork, and then it’s another series of locking things down, whether it’s the layout or the penciling or the inking or the tones at the end, and then I just sit back and Laura [Allred, Madman colorist and Mike’s wife] just punches those colors in, and “wow!” And then the book comes out and it’s really thrilling.
One thing that’s happened is, each time a book comes out, there’d be this tense anxiety, because something would always go wrong. The plates would be off or the colors wouldn’t be working as well. Especially when we first started working with computers. When we first started, Laura would watercolor these graylines, that would then get printed on this horrible paper with the registration off. We’d be excited—it’s our first color book—an then we get it back and it’s just crushing. And then we working with Bernie Mireault, where he’d do these animation-style cell colors and they came back looking beautiful, and how do we work toward that? And he, of course, being the colorist, had a different reaction, but we hadn’t seen the colors. We weren’t able to go online and see proofs, so now here we are, closer and closer to where what we see on the monitor is almost exactly what we see in print. So that’s one of the most exciting things in this progression. Once we let go of it, it’s almost exactly what we were hoping it would be, when it sees print.
Where there any moments in retrospect that didn’t seem like Madman stories? Where perhaps you had to force the character in there?
Not really. But sometimes I was focusing maybe more on a plot or a gimmick than his potential as a character, like his relationship with Dr. Flem had become strained. Frank Einstein—I see him as a child developing, and now he’s kind of like a high school graduate. And Flem being the last father figure in his life—I think at every point, a son has to stand up to his father, whether it’s as a sign of respect or rebellion, depending on what the relationship is.
Frank is now emotionally realizing that Flem has never really seen him as person, but more as a guinea pig—someone that he can take advantage of, and utilize in his experiments. So Frank is trying to come to this place where he can stand up to Flem and demand this respect or stand up to him like a father, and say, “hey, dad, I’m a man now. You need to treat me like one.” Before, where it would be plot-driven, now I’m able to integrate more of the characters into the plot. So that’s one thing I recognize from the past, but fortunately, I lot of people already assumed that that kind of deep characterization was already on the page. Hopefully it was there, but I’m seeing that it wasn’t there as much as I would have liked it to have been.
One story that I’m pleased about is when people reacted when they thought that his girlfriend, Joe, was killed. I wanted it to have impact, because I know what I want to do with this, and I know where this is going, and it’s ultimately going to lead to something really fun and joyful and a big payoff, but initially, there were some real angry people out there. I thought that I had laid enough of a path where they would know that this wasn’t just some blatant…
Way to sell books…
Exactly. It wasn’t like the death of Superman, a very cynical way to sell comic books. No one with half a brain their head that was aware of comic books really thought that Superman was dead.
Or that he’d stay dead.
Yeah, so it was just laughable when you saw mainstream media just go insane with this story. All of these people got taken advantage of, thinking that they were buying historical documents. But that wasn’t my approach. “This is going to be a collector’s item, the death of Joe.” No one really reacted that way, but what I didn’t expect was that people would really feel something. What’s really gratifying are the the people that reacted on the forums or wrote letters. That kind of involvement is really where I want to be with what I’m doing, where you really enjoy what’s on the page in front of you. Where you get excited about where you’re going, and where you’ve been.
[Continued in Part Two.]