Welcome to THE MIKE ALLRED INTERVIEWS — a new series of discussions with one of the top guys in the world o’ comics — who digs so many of the same things as you.
Some people just get it, you know? You can just tell. From a distance, Mike Allred seemed like one of those guys to me — an artist whose work appeared to revel in the joy of comics. And it’s not all brightness and Silver Agey, there’s a hint of darkness there too. Nevertheless, there’s an inherent optimism and love for the craft.
Talking to him only underscores what I believed by looking at the page. Dude seriously loves comics. Like a hardcore fan. He, unlike most of us, just also happens to be a great artist and storyteller himself.
I’ve talked with Mike a couple times and each time, I just want to keep going. He values what I value about comics and my hunch is that if you read this site, his work appeals to you too.
Mike’s hardly a stranger to the site, either. In May, he wrote commentary for each of the Batman ’66-themed variant covers he did for DC that month. You can find them here: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Bonus round.
We also just featured a Kickstarter involving a Madman action figure, and Marvel‘s Silver Surfer happens to be one of my absolute fave titles right now. Aaaand, make sure you check out his new Madman In Your Face 3D Special, from Image, starring a cast of thousands.
But Mike is one of the few contemporary creators I wanted to really sit down with. Sadly, he lives on the opposite side of the country, so we had to do it by phone. And, unlike Adams, O’Neil and Wein, I was less interested in talking about specific stories. Instead, I really just wanted to shoot the shit and talk about what we both really dig about the awesomeness in comics. Because it’s not often you get to just gas with a guy whose work speaks to you — and for you — on that level.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be trotting out occasional installments until I’m out of notes. There’s no real format to my line of questioning, I really just went wherever the conversation took us. Lemme tell you, the hardest thing was getting off the phone, so my gut tells me you might like what he had to say.
As usual, I asked where it all really began for him:
Mike Allred: The Barry Smith Conan comics really lit me up and to this day they just mean the world to me, and, probably more than any other single book in my childhood, inspired me to make comics of my own.
Of course, I loved everything Jack Kirby ever drew. Fantastic Four is probably my all-time favorite series and I remember always loving the DC Giants. There always seemed to be a lot of those laying around the house, like, the 25-cent 80-Page Giants?
Dan Greenfield: Oh, I loved those books!
Yeah. There was one I remembered where Superman had a girlfriend and she was in a wheelchair and she turned out to be a mermaid. (Mike laughs)
Yeah, Lori Lemaris.
Now, where were you getting your comics?
My older brother! It was all about Lee. He had amazing taste. It was always a treat to get in his room and dig through his stacks. (Mike laughs) There weren’t comic-book boxes back then, there were just stacks of stuff.
Right. (Both laugh)
So he always had the best stuff. Amazing taste. A lot of Adventure Comics. A lot of Legion of Super-Heroes. I remember seeing a lot of those when I was little. But, yeah, the Marvel stuff probably inspired more of a desire for ME to make comic books than anything else.
What was your age around this time? Were you drawing when you were a kid? How did it all start to take root with you?
There’s no memory of not always being surrounded with art supplies and comic books. One of my earliest memories was I was up on a card table and my brother was shaking a card table. Next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital and the hospital bed was BLANKETED with comic books! That’s one of my earliest memories. (Mike laughs)
This story has come up a lot of times lately, mostly because Lee and I have been working together quite a bit this last year. I asked him if he could remember any of the books that were there because HE bought ’em! He got them from the hospital gift shop which had comic books at the time. It’s kind of sad that you can’t… I mean, I love comic-book stores but I remember comic books being in drug stores and grocery stores and, in this case, a hospital gift shop.
He was able to find one of the comics — not the exact one but an issue that was one of the ones which would have been one of my very first comics. I have it here in the rack, actually, Action Comics #338.
What’s the cover?
It’s Superman, he’s underwater and it’s, “Who Will Replace the Man of Steel When He Dies? What happens when the future Superman of 2966 clashes with Muto, the Monarch of Menace?” (Dan laughs) And it’s this alien dude with a big yellow head kind of leaning over Superman who looks like he’s drowned.
Of course! If that’s not the Silver Age Superman, I don’t know what is. It’s funny. You mention the stores. Same thing. I grew up… How old are you?
I just turned… 51.
So you’re only a few years older than me. I’m 47, and I do, I remember in the ’70s, I didn’t go to comic-book stores. I mean, it was a special thing. You’d find one or maybe they’d have one in the city or… there were certain places that did have a comic book store but mostly I just went down to the local stationary store or the sweet shop and they had comic books. That’s where I got my comics.
One of my very earliest comic-book memories was standing at a 7-Eleven (or maybe it was a Krauszer’s) and seeing on a rack, Batman #237 which was “The Night of the Reaper.” You know, the famous Neal Adams red cover with the Grim Reaper and Batman and Robin. I remember seeing it on the rack. I remember seeing Detective #406 on the rack.
Now, I’m not an artist, I don’t write fiction. I blog, I do whatever. But there’re a lot of things as I’m going along that will pop up. As a reader, as a writer. When you’re creating comics, do any of these stories or story elements ever pop into your head or is it completely compartmentalized? How does that get involved in some of your thinking, because your style in particular has that sensibility all over it while very modern at the same time.
Gee…(Mike laughs) I just don’t think about it that much. In fact, I clearly don’t even think about how old I am. I’m looking at the thing here and I opened up the comic book and it’s June 1966, so I would have been 4 years old when I was in the hospital and that actually makes me 52, (Dan laughs) so I don’t even know how old I am!
That’s OK! I forget sometimes, too and I have to do the math. Like, am I 47 or am 48 yet?
Ever since I turned 40, I haven’t paid attention to age. I don’t think it’s a valid thing. (Mike laughs) But I think a lot of it is instinctual and subconscious and if I’m writing something myself I start with an outline, where I want to take the characters. If it’s a character-driven thing, what’s happened to them that would set certain events in place. And then I just kind of… I enjoy it, the kind of natural flow, more of a stream of consciousness thing. So, of course, the things I have a lot of affection for are going to stream in and filter their way into my storytelling.
With the collaborations, we’re almost always dealing with established characters and so there are certain consistencies that are already in place. It always kind of has that same vibe that my brother Lee and I had when we were kids making our own comics, like with Dan Slott or Matt Fraction, for instance.
It just kind of feels like we’re playing. It’s just a very playful way of telling stories and I think if we have fun then there’s a very good chance that that’s going to show up on the page.
Do you ever go back and look at your back issues just for the hell of it?
I pretty much re-purchase my back issues. (Mike laughs) My comic-book collection… parents got divorced when I was around 11 and not much survived after that.
Where was this? What part of the country was this in?
Oregon. The first 14 years of my life, I lived an hour south of where I live now, a town called Roseburg, Ore. Then, after 14, I moved around quite a bit. And then even with Laura, we lived in Europe for a while. We always wanted to get back to Oregon. Laura’s from Southern California but when we first got together, we would often visit my dad who had stayed in Oregon and she fell in love with Oregon.
So when we made the decision to put in some roots, she was as much wanting to settle down in Oregon as I did. So that’s what I call home, for sure. What happened was my older brother ended up going with my mom and I stayed and lived with my dad until I was made to live with my mom for a while. In that, I think when I lost my older brother’s influence, my comic-book buying continued up until they killed Gwen Stacy.
I had a HUGE crush on Gwen Stacy and that made me completely stop buying comics cold turkey.
It was traumatic for me. I’m not even exaggerating. It was too much. I couldn’t… Where I went for joyful, happy escapism kind of like tore my heart out (Mike laughs) of my body, out of my soul.
But I’ve always been an artist. I was then more drawn to my record albums. I would often buy a record album because it had a cool album cover. I got turned on to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for instance, simply because there was this really cool H.R. Giger album cover that made me buy it. Of course, I liked the music, too. It was cool and dramatic. Then it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that a friend turned me back on to comics, showing me… The exact time period, there were like two issues left of Watchmen to come out. He knew I was an artist — I was sculpting at the time — and he knew I was an aspiring filmmaker. I wanted to make movies. I wrote a screenplay that I was storyboarding and he was, like, “Man, why don’t you just make it a comic book?”
And then, he’d dump piles and piles of comics on me and say, “Read all these Frank Miller Daredevils.” (Dan laughs) “Read Dark Knight Returns.” He gave me Mister X, which had the production design of the coolest record-album covers and that led me to Love and Rockets, which was very diverse in its storytelling.
The bug bit me hard and next thing i knew I was spending all of my time and all of my money at the comic-book store and was rediscovering comics from my childhood, as well as picking up the new stuff, which was really exciting me.
So it was the perfect time to come back into comics. The mid- to late-’80s was a renaissance and all the independent companies that were starting up like Dark Horse. It was heaven. There I was with a job, I had money.
When I was a kid, I would have certain issues of Iron Man or even the Fantastic Four with big holes in them and with Marvel… As a kid, actually, if I were spending my own money, I would be more likely to buy a DC comic because they were usually self-contained stories.
The Marvel comics, I would usually read those my brother had because for me it was frustrating to not have the complete stories. So here, for the first time in my life, I was able to get entire runs of stories because the comic-book store was this magical place that had complete runs, so that was fantastic!
I think that’s one of the reasons why the Barry Smith Conans were important to me. Because it was the first time I spent more money than the cover price. I was able to buy Conan #1 to 24 in one place, at a used bookstore, before I ever even saw my first comic-book store so for me that was amazing to have every Conan that Barry Smith had done. I picked up Red Nails after that.
When you look at Conan #1 and you look at Conan #24 and then Red Nails, in this brief, two-year period, this guy goes from being like a Jack Kirby wannabe to being this just completely unique, ornate, brilliant artist! It’s just very exciting to look at those issues and see the very fast progression of this artist finding his own style. It’s thrilling to me.
I revisit those comics over and over and over again. That’s really my history with comics, just very casual, taking it for granted in my childhood and then rediscovering them in my 20s and never looking back.
Want more Mike? Check out his website www.aaapop.com!