Interview by Steve Cadigan

January 1998

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Steve Cadigan:

Why did you first decide to become an artist?

Michael Wm. Kaluta:

I am not certain there is a “why” to my becoming an artist, or, if there is, it falls under the BIG “why” category, like “Why is there hair on top of one’s head”. "How" is easier... I’ll answer “How” and see if “Why” ends up showing through.

By the time “everyone” was telling their parents, friends and school councillers What They Were Going To Do With Their Lives, I’d come up with nothing... My father had leaned on me, not too heavily, to “become” a journalist. He’d wanted to be one, had the chops, but WWII got in the way. However: my English comprehension skills, as measured by the Northern Virginia School System, suggested I’d be better off not even THINKING about any Life Path having to rely on Grammar. Math was O-U-T. The shy way I interacted with strangers suggested I not involve myself in the realm of Social Issues. I was a lousy salesman. The Viet-Nam War, really heating up at that time, was enough of a Frightening Wall Of Horror to make me, an Air Force Brat and lover of The Machines Of War, scrabble around in near blind panic to find a groove that would at LEAST get me into College. And out of The War. SO... it was Art.

Many years earlier my indoctrination into the mysteries and techniques of Art came over the airwaves in the form of Jon Gnagy’s Learn To Draw television show (though I’d had a bit of practice drawing doors and windows for Winky-Dink to open and look out of on that 1950’s TV program... one for younger kids where one drew simple images prompted by the host onto a plastic sheet that adheared to your set’s screen... ).

Jon Gnagy was no slouch... he had a goatee... he had a plaid shirt.. he had a real beret. More importantly, his compositions were always challenging and each one, as the series went forward, reviewed what was learned earlier while introducing more difficult concepts and applications, in such a forthright way, that anyone attending the tube with interest learned to draw. And I did, with crayons and paper bags, or whatever I could find. At last, in 1957, my father bought me the advertised Jon Gnagy Learn To Draw set and from then on I accompanied Mr. Gnagy in our pursuit of drawing with all the legal artifacts and media of the burgenoning artist... except the goatee and beret... they didn’t come with the set.

"Seeing", as a concept, was something I'd always done, and done well, or at least to a remarked degree. Maybe the parental admonitions to “Watch where you are going!” and “Look OUT for that!” pushed me further toward seeing as a concern. Whatever reason, I did LOOK at things, and I remembered things... the frustration in school life was I could not remember abstracts with anywhere NEAR the degree of detail I could a leaf, a tree, the moon, a frog or the intricate interworkings of an engine. “Things” and “Images” once seen, were mine forever.

When it came time for me to decide, or at least TELL what I was “Going to Do” in my life, the only straw left floating next to me was ART. It was something I could do, and do without knowing WHAT I was doing, if you understand... I was never a STUDENT, except for those very first TV times... during the rest of my life, up to this very instant, I’ve relied on the DOING to carry the art forward. To an Academic, this approach is obvious in the work itself... luckily for me, the drawings “work”... there is an appeal to them, and, more importantly, my enjoyment of having done them shines through.

After the above, perhaps I could have answered your question: “I became an Artist because there was nothing else I could do.” or “.. because I had to.”



What projects are you working on now, inside or outside of comics?


These days (1997-8) I am painting the covers for DC Comics’ Vertigo title: Books of Magic. I’ve painted these covers since issue 26 with only two gaps. I plan to continue to paint these covers for as long as my editors will allow. Just now I have the cover for issue #50 on my drawing board.

As I type this, DC Comics has just released a poster announcing the second Witchcraft mini-series. The Poster is a triptych of images that will be cut into three covers. I’ve painted another poster for Books Of Magic, due out this summer.

I am doing a few pinups for friend’s projects... one for Bigger Betty, a self-published adventure comics and prose series originating from the UK, and Steve Ringgenberg’s Synwulfe Sword and Sorcery comic, coming out of Arizona.

In the realm of Illustrating, I am just starting to sketch out about 16 illustrations for a small, previously unpublished book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, called: Minidoka, 937th Earl OF One Mile, Series M, an historical fairy tale. This book is to be released through Dark Horse Comics, and will have as a cover an unpublished J.Allen St. John painting. Although I work in ink line on all my paintings, it has been quite a while since I was able to concentrate on black and white rendering (there will be 4 color pieces in Minidoka). Also the theme... somewhat ironical satire, will guide the drawing style. I am happy, at this point in my art career to be able to pay back ERB in such a fun fashion... after all, it was the illustrations that accompanied his Mars and Venus stories that solidified my approach to fantasy art.

Also, if everything works out, there will be a CD ROM Adventure Game out for Christmas 1998 called: The Secret Of The Black Onyx, published by Blue Planet Software (Henk Rogers/David Nolte/Raymond Holmes and a cast of several more). I have designed the characters, interiors, weapons, costumes and incidental furniture, waggons, barrels etc, over the past several years. Roger Dean (Cover Artist for the Recording Group YES) is handling the Over All Look of the project and has designed the buildings and landscapes. The 3-D animation is being handled by Animatek, a Russian/American Computer Animation company, in its proprietary Voxal animation technique, “Caviar” It is a blast to see one’s characters come “alive” in 3-D, move, fight and dance. The Story, a sort of 10th Century Russian/Viking Fantasy, has been written by Elaine Lee, my partner from the Starstruck Comic book series. She also directed a good part of the motion capture... the live-action movements that will be slaved to the characters.



While the art produced by many comic book artists is similar, your style is different. Could you explain your style?


I can easily explain the “difference”... I was taught Fine Art and applied whatever I learned during my college years to trying to illustrate stories, or create single evocative images, as opposed to learning the sequential storytelling that is the foundation of Good Comic Book Art. Hence, when it came to drawing comics, I illustrated them. It was with a lot of pain and argument my various genius editors (Dick Giordano, Julius Schwartz, Dennis O’Neil, Joe Orlando and Joe Kubert) cajoled, tricked, slapped and teased me into finding a way to tell a story that most every comic book reader could follow. Storytelling is NOT an easy attribute to aquire. Nor can I say I am anywhere near a master at that part of the craft.

My drawing “style” came from my attempts to draw like all the artists I was impressed with. Although some of them were certainly Comic Book Artists, many more were illustrators and designers from the turn of the 19th Century. I never tried to tell a story like Joe Kubert, but I DID draw and draw his renderings of tanks and aircraft. The same with all the other Comic Art Greats... I studied their “things” just like earlier in life... looking, looking and remembering the OBJECT, not the style nor the storytelling, though some of that had to have rubbed off. I approached the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Children’s book Illustrators from the 1900’s in the same fashion, though their art, being of the single image variety, was easier to absorb in toto. So, my mind became a catalogue of Things.

All the objects I’d amassed in my mind and hand would draw out nearly as real as the real thing... Adding PEOPLE, that most necessary part, was the more difficult for me since they had to match the THINGS I could draw. There was little room for me to “Stylize”. If you look at a Plasticman Comic you’ll see cars, boats, trains and planes, none of them real, all “shorthand” for what they represent, and done in the style of the characters... in my case, I had to match the characters to the style of my things. Because of this, my drawing style is a touch staid compared to a lot of the snappy stylistic art now in comics... my art is often called what it is: “Old-Fashioned”. Every once in a while, however, I do attain “Elegant”.



Please explain the process you follow drawing comic book pages after you receive a script or plot from a writer.


Consider it has been a while... QUITE a while since I had any sequential comic book drawing assignments. Also, one must consider the Writer and the style of the Script.

Overall, no matter which variety of script one is given, Full Text and Dialogue or Synopsis, one HAS to see the Entire Story as a whole... even I’ve learned this. When the Art and Story “feel” like a complete whole, everyone, Writer, Artist, Editor, Colorist and Reader is happy. In my case, I used to look for places where I might be able to really blow out a page or two with a terrific shot of a building, vehicle or whatever... however, often one must do away with that sort of treat if it gets in the way of The Story.

In the Early Days of my Comic Book Drawing, the Editors at DC Comics, seeing an interesting portfolio from an aspiring artist (generally full of single images and Big Powerful Scenes of exotic fights and explosions tearing up the composition), would give them several script pages with three characters in business suits talking in an office. JEEZE! Everyone HATED that... Obviously, if the artist could come back with 3-4 pages of work that held one’s interest without a single “WOW” scene, they were IN! If it’s hard to imagine how an artist could impress with such bucolic interaction, I ask the knowlegable Comics Fans to imagine those pages as drawn by Neal Adams. right? There is ALWAYS a way to excite and direct the reader... Once this is understood by the artist, a new world of excitement opens up... much the same as for a film director who’s been given a bottomless wallet for his next production.

Then comes a weaning process. This can be quick and intuitive or dull and grinding, given any number of factors. One MUST finally decide what approach to take with the art, and once that track is laid, keep to it, saving other “neat” thoughts for another story.

There is no definitive way to start a story, but in my case, I want it to pull a reader in, even if it has to trick them... this comes from the Olde Days when a Comic Book Story always started with a “Splash Page”... a page that showed off just what the Writer/Artist team was capable of doing: a WHAM, artwise, and a TEASE, storywise. Frank Frazetta told me he always started drawing his comic book stories with the third page... he waited until his hand was “hot” before doing the Splash. Good Advice.

Better Advice: doodle out ALL the pages first, tweaking the art, design, character introduction, lighting, movement and so on (basic stuff, really, but difficult to learn right off) until one sees a flow to the entire job. With that as a guide, bring all one’s forces to bear... the rest of the story won’t suffer if one spends a bit more time deep in a single panel, drawing one’s heart out...

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