While the recently released 852 page tome, Madman Gargantua is certainly an occasion to celebrate amongst Mike Allred’s many fans, it’s the new Image series, Madman Atomic Comics that presents some of the most exciting work from artist in recent years, finding Allred re-engaged with the beloved zombified titular quasi-hero, utilizing Frank Einstein as a springboard to explore exciting new territories in the outer reaches of the superhero comics universe.
In this second part of our discussion with the aritst, we discuss Allred’s love/hate relationship with the word of capes and tights, and how the death of a beloved blond leading lady lead him down the path to Madman.
It’s interesting that you that bring up the Superman story, being that you’re more or less operating in the superhero genre. How much of your work is informed by a reaction against the genre’s clichés?
I think a lot. For instance, with the death of Joe, when I was a little kid, I had a huge crush on Spider-man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and she got killed off. I was furious. Since then, I have a very open attitude toward my affection for what’s come before me, but also part of my brain is very cynical when I see that it’s not necessarily the creators and artists at work, but the coporate powers that add marketing strategies. The result of that is my real devotion is toward creator-driven work, so what that means is, over time, Batman, Superman, and Spider-man—these characters have become far less important to me. And they only really come back on my radar when a writer or artist takes those characters and does something special with them. All-Star Superman is one example. I have a Superman book that I just love to see, when it comes out now. Frank Quitely, Grant Morrison—wow, I love it. So that means something to me, and the second they’re off the book, I probably won’t get it anymore.
In regards to clichés, I might embrace a cliché, in order to see how silly it is, so I can elevate it, or twist it, or bury it. That’s fun for me. But at the heart of that, I’m doing this because I want to, because it’s mine, and nobody else can interfere with that. I’ve been really lucky when I’ve worked with mainstream publishers. I’ve been given a lot of room to breathe, specifically with the X-Men book we did—X-Force/X-Statix. I was crushingly disappointed when it did get interfered with. We were kind of spoiled in that way. Here we were able to create all-new mutant characters. Axel Alonso was our editor—he was a creative force himself. He was very much a collaborator on the book. That’s something that, when I look back on it now, I can’t believe I did that many issues. I thought I would only do a half-dozen or so.
How long was the run?
We did 20-some issues of X-Statix, and 30 or 40-some issues in total. I’m not good with numbers. Could that be right? It was more issues than I did with Madman—it’s probably around the same now. I was doing a monthly book for them. Madman has mostly been bi-monthly, though with Atomic, I’ve stuck to an almost monthly schedule. If you count Atomic, I’ve done more in the Madman universe. They’re on issue number nine of Madman Atomic Comics—I’m moving closer and closer to doing a monthly schedule. I’ve really been focusing on keeping that momentum going.
Was that initial hesitation, in terms of editorial interference, what drove you to start your own book, or was it more a matter of your having to break in somehow?
I had a real backwards way of coming into the business. I kind of abandoned comics after childhood. In fact, it might have been after the death of Gwen Stacy [laughs].
Wow, that really had a major effect on you.
It really did. I can’t overstate that. I got a paper route and starting making my own money, and mostly spent it on music. My artist interests were album cover graphics and posters. I was also aspiring to be a filmmaker, and met a guy who was a big movie nut, and we became friends and would go to the movies. He was also a big comic book fan. This was in the late 80s, and he just kind of dumped all of these comic books on me. In there was Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and also Matt Wagner’s work on Grendel and Mage. Right here I was seeing all of this spectacular talent working in the independent comic world. It surprised me that that even existed, because I was still under the impression that it was only Marvel and DC and old Archie, whatever. So I’m seeing books like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons doing Watchmen, where they were working for DC Comics, but were twisting these characters and are doing whatever they wante. It’s clearly being driven by the creators, and Frank Miller is clearly being given full-reign on Batman. It was bursting with this whole original energy. And then seeing what Matt Wagner was doing, and seeing Paul Chadwick’s Concrete and [Dave Sim’s] Cerebus. Where Matt Wagner injected himself into his own comics was with Mage, styling the main character after himself. And with Grendel, using that as a place to collaborate with other artists. That was really exciting.
There were all of these different styles on this one character that was really driven by Matt. I got really excited about all of this diversity. And then what really put me over the top—in the meantime I stayed really involved in art. I always seemed to be that guy in class who just kind of wanted to do his own thing. A lot times I just ended up teaching myself stuff, and even in school, the art teacher let me create my own projects, because the school system pretty much had your old basic, boring stuff. “We’re going to make woodcuts today.” They let me do what I wanted to do, and I ended up teaching myself sculpting.
One thing I never excelled at was painting, because I have a color blindness. I can see and appreciate colors, I just have a tough time telling them apart—red, green, blue, purple. This is where I’ve been blessed to have Laura. She just has a natural color sense. It’s completely unique and special. But what really put me over the top was that I had a friend name Pete Siegel, who was the first comic pro I ever met. This was at the air force academy [where Allred taught]. He lived right in town, in Colorado Springs. We ran into him at a comic book store. We became friends, and between him and my movie going comic friend, Charlie, they exposed me to the Hernandez brothers, and that lit me up. Love and Rockets are what the Hernandez brothers are really know for, it’s so wonderfully unique and fresh and real. The character really drive those stories.
But their book, Mr. X became the book for me. The first four issues that the Hernandez brothers illustrated and wrote were designed in the same way that a music magazine would be designed, or a fancy record album. The graphics were incredible. At the same time, The Dark Knight Returns was this glossy square-bound comic and Mr. X was this glossy book and you’d open the cover and there’d be this double page spread. And it was like, “wow.” It blew me away. It was set in Radiant City, which was like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And all of the great looking characters and the pretty girls. And this wasn’t like a superhero. This was a guy in a trenchcoat, who would drop down into manholes and run around secret passageways through the city. I hadn’t seen anything like that, in a comic book—or anywhere. And it did have overtones of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but it also had this really colorful element of music to it. All of this happened at the same time. Lights went off and I recognized that here was a medium that was exploding into a potential that it hadn’t tapped into in 40 years! And it was being driven by individuals and not companies. That’s what my goal has been, ever since. Yes there are all of these clichéd elements, and corporate elements, and taking licensed characters and turning them into shampoo and toothpaste and what have you. And yes, I like that too. I love licensing, and I think marketing is an art form in and of itself, but when it’s the creator behind the stuff with an emotional involvement, it’s always the best stuff. I can cite example after example after example. It may not be in the top selling 100 books, but it is far superior to most work in the top-ten at any given time.
Every once in a while, something will break through, like All-Star Superman, which I mentioned before, that manages to be creatively juicy and also commercially successful. That’s a cause for celebration, when those wonderfully rare moments happen—The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen. Those are always the standards that everything is measured by. Now with Madman Atomic Comics, Eric Larsen was able to offer this format to me from Image Comics that I always wanted, this cover-to-cover full-color book, and I’m utilizing those double-page spreads, where I can have some fun design elements and break into the story, and that’s why I’ve been able to muster some innovation of my own, like the recap of the previous entire issue on one page. That came about because I wanted to start the story page after the double-page spread. I am now doing the book that I’ve always wanted to do. Everything that I’ve done before has brought me to where I am now. And I can honestly say that we’ve never been more excited about where we’ve been and where we’re going than where we are now.
[Continued in Part Three.]