Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cream City Conversations with Mark Miller

Hello & thanks to the Cream City faithful.

I hope you're still having fun with these C. C. Conversations 'cos I've another fine batch coming your way. As per usual, I've switched gears on you to keep things fresh. My next Cream City guest is a first time comics writer/illustrator but he's not at all new to the comics biz.

Mark Miller is an editor/columnist at Ain't It Cool News. For me, one of the things bringing me the most pleasure in having him participate in C. C. Conversations is the amount of time and energy he's devoted to promoting underground/indie comics as he has the mainstream variety.

It's an honor to count him among my friends and colleagues. Take it away, Mark.

CCC: For those who don't know, Name and location?

Mark L. Miller. Chicago, IL.

CCC: How did you become interested in creating comics?

I've been reading comics since I was about 8 years old. I was always encouraged by my father to read and inherited quite a few old and valuable comics when he passed away when I was 12. Since then, I've been a comic book fanatic... reading everything from the most indie-rific to the mainstream of mainstream comics.

About seven years ago, a group of my friends got together and decided to put together an ongoing comic book review column for Ain't It Cool News. Seven years later, I'm still editing the column and reviewing both mainstream and independent comics.

My Indie Jones section at AICN sheds light on independent comics and serves to promote new and exciting voices in the medium. Although I've never created my own comic book story until now, I've always dreamed of doing so; constantly lobbing around story and character ideas with friends. I was lucky enough to befriend Amado a while back and that inspired me to hunker down and really do something with some of those ideas.

CCC: What was your first published work? Did you self-publish that work?

Well, if you don't count the weekly review column at Ain't It Cool News, the TALES OF JACKASSERY story in MUSCLES & FIGHTS 3 will be my very first published work.

*Note: Without getting all sentimental and mushy here, I want to inform you all, Bud and I are very pleased with Mark's first step into creating comics. His is a brilliant piece and we're excited about getting it into print.

CCC: If you self-publish, what do you gain from that experience?

Although I didn't self-publish, after spending the last few years critiquing comics created by other people, I have gained a new found respect for those who write, draw and publish their own work after finishing my first story. It's hard work, but in the end, when it's all done there's this feeling of accomplishment that can't be described.

But any name for ourselves that has come from reviewing at Ain't It Cool News has come from consistency and hard work to keep that consistency throughout the years. I guess you could consider that a self-publication because we had no guidelines starting out. We wrote what we wanted, formed our own code of ethics to adhere to and stuck to it.

It's a thankless job. We don't really see any profit from it other than some comps here and there. We do it for the love of the comic book industry. I guess I gain a lot knowing that our column is read by fans and creators alike. It's just a good feeling to know that something you have written is actually being read. It kind of makes it all worthwhile. Acknowledges your existence in some way.

CCC: If you've been published by other publishers, compare the experience to self-publishing.

At Ain't It Cool, the comic book reviewers (AKA The @$$Holes) have the freedom to pretty much publish anything we want in our weekly column. I'm lucky to have that kind of freedom. But the only reason the reviewers at AICN Comics have that freedom is because we've provided consistent comic book reviews for seven years now.

Those who have read the site know that our reviews are anything but conventional. I've written reviews in iambic pentameter, skits featuring Batman calling into a Love Line show after being dumped by a girl, and movie reviews done from the perspective of a dung-flinging monkey. Some have been a blast to do... others I look back on and feel physical pain from how bad they are. But it's all fun, though. It's all a learning experience.

I look at my weekly reviewing schedule as a good way to keep the writing muscles in shape.

CCC: Give us a list of your published works (self-published or otherwise).

Online - Our weekly comic book review column at Ain't It Cool News. My favorites are our yearly awards column, better known as The @$$ie Awards. So far, the awards have been hosted by Green Lantern John Stewart (coinciding with the year Jon Stewart hosted the Oscars) and John Byrne's pitiful creation Crucifer. I manipulated already existing panels to use these characters to host the awards. It's a riff on the Oscars and occurs around that time.

Which reminds me, Oscar time is coming up, so I have to start picking my @$$ies for 2007.

CCC: Describe the art scene where you live. If you've lived elsewhere and were producing art there, compare those scenes.

I've always [unfortunately] functioned outside of the art scene wherever I live. I work better alone and unobstructed. I love promoting art in others and talking art with fellow artists, but I was never good at finding the art community. I understand the value of having other artists around to encourage me to work harder and produce more. A little friendly competition works wonders. But for some reason, I've found that I don't fit in.

I went to The Ohio State University and got a Bachelor's in Fine Arts. I remember loving the solitude of the art department there and usually did my drawings and paintings late at night because my roommates at home were too busy partying, as well as my fellow classmates, I guess, because the halls and rooms were always empty. I called myself an outcast among the outcasts.

Artists can be a fickle and clique-y lot, just as they are often chastised and out casted by those who don't appreciate art, I find artists to do the same quite a bit. There's nothing really wrong with that, but it always made it hard for me to fit in. Here in Chicago, I don't really know many artists.

By day, I work as an Art Therapist. So I know a lot of those. But they are much more interested in the psychology of art and the art that their patients create and less interested in creating their own work. I often find myself in that category too; placing other people's work ahead of my own, which definitely influences the time that it's taken me to produce my own work.

I know, when I do run into artists, I am often pretty giddy and fascinated because despite the fact that you can't throw a flaming beret two feet in this city without hitting a starving artist, I don't get to interact with too many of them on an even level. It's usually as their therapist promoting their own creation of art and not as a peer.

CCC: Do you belong to any online or 'real world' art groups? If so, list them and describe what that/those group/s benefit you.

I have my Art Therapist friends and my team of reviewers at Ain't It Cool News... both are always very encouraging. Although they are spread out over the globe and I've only met a few of them face to face, I consider some of the reviewers at AICN to be very close and valued friends. I usually use them as a sounding board for ideas. And they're usually pretty honest whether or not an idea sucks or not.

It's good to have people around you who aren't afraid to tell you that you suck sometimes. It's not that they constantly tell you that you suck, but they are there to nail your ass back down to reality when you get so caught up in a project or an idea that you are unable to tell if it sucks or not.

CCC: What is your ultimate or immediate goal in creating comics? Are there other mediums you enjoy working in? If so, what? How do you display this other work?

I write short stories. I have a drawer full of stories that I've always wanted publish in one form or another. Seeing my own comic book, written by myself and read by others is something that I would love to see. I always fancied myself a writer, but I think with the subject matter I write about, it would be better suited in a graphic storytelling format. I guess I've always wanted to write comics and always kept them in mind when I was writing those stories.

CCC: What do you think is lacking from the underground art scene? If you had the power, what would you do to address that void?

I think there are a lot of people like me who are not in tune with the underground scene. But I guess if it was easily accessible, it wouldn't be underground. Would it?

I guess, I think that the one thing about the underground scene that troubles me is the belief that if you become successful or have some kind of positive feelings for mainstream things, you no longer have a right to be a part of that underground scene.

I call bullshit on that because, no matter how indie you are, I'll bet it was some old X-Men or Batman comic that inspired you to make comics. So if the interest came from mainstream books, then there still should be a little appreciation towards the mainstream no matter how far you deviate from it.

*Note: I hope it isn't only me noticing how many of these Conversations take this tact when addressing attitudes in the art community. The underground is great... it's a breeding ground for growing talent. Some so-called underground folks are hanging art in a few... quite a few very mainstream galleries and museums. Sam Kieth is a great example, in comics, of someone with the ability to travel to and fro on the underground railroad.

CCC: Do you blog? MySpace? ComicSpace? If so, what kinds of things do you communicate through it and what is your ultimate goal in using that site?

I wish I had more time to blog or journal. I have a very selective memory and I'm sure there's a lot of good stuff I could use in stories if I documented my existence on this earth a little better. I have a MySpace page and a ComicSpace page. I occasionally pay attention to them. But I don't really use them for anything other than catching up with long forgotten friends and, of course, flirting with females.

CCC: Do you read any other creators' blogs? If so, what do you think of them?

I don't really read other blogs. Not because I'm not interested in them. Hell, I got into Art Therapy because I was often more interested in the lives of the artists than the art itself. I'm just extremely busy... no more busier than anyone else but busy. If you're a STUDIO 60 fan, I relate my weekly schedule to that of the Matthew Perry character. After working at the hospital doing the Art Therapy thing, I come home and work on the weekly AICN column.

Deadlines for reviews are Mondays... editing, formatting and imaging the reviews happen on Tuesdays... posting the column occurs on Wednesdays... then it's new comic day and we start all over again. It's like that clock in Matthew Perry's office in Studio 60. For a moment on Wednesdays, when the column goes up, there's that sense of relief and peace. But that relief fades fast and the work begins all over again on next week's column.

That schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for blogging or reading other's online journals.

CCC: What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

I love short fiction. I love horror and offbeat stories involving characters and scenarios that defy explanation. Comic wise, I like indie books as well as mainstream. I like to read STRANGERS IN PARADISE then chug through an issue of BATMAN. Since I review a lot of comics, I tend to read across the varied spectrum of comic book-dom.

CCC: What kinds of standards and/or expectations do you place on a comics purchase?

Depends. If it's a mainstream book, my standards are set pretty high. Those guys get paid the big bucks, so their shit better be good. But I'll read indie books to see creators in their earliest stages of development. My expectations are set much lower. I like seeing artists and writers grow and evolve.

CCC: What is your favorite indie publisher?

I really like First Second. Some of my favorite reads of the last year come from them. LAIKA, about Russia's space race involving canines, brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. I love AIT/Planet Lar. Larry Young's ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE is phenomenal. Is IDW Indie? I like that whether it is or not. Ben Templesmith is an art god.

*Note: Yes, Mark, I'd consider IDW an indie outfit and Ben Templesmith is definitely a modern Expressionist master.

CCC: What is it about that publisher you find unique?

First Second seems to be publishing books of the highest quality. They focus on good stories, first and foremost. When I read their books, I feel like I'm reading literature... not funny books. They seem to want to push the quality of the comic book medium forward into something that can be taken seriously and I really find that to be unique and pretty scarce in comics these days.

CCC: Who is your favorite creator/writer/illustrator?

I like Larry Young as a creator and a publisher. AIT/Planet Lar, like First Second, is a publishing company that is pushing the medium forward with strong stories. But I like a lot of mainstream writers too. Chuck Dixon, Pete Tomasi, Geoff Johns. I like Garth Ennis when he writes serious stuff (his PUNISHER is honestly some of the best comic book writing in the mainstream).

I love some of Steve Niles work, mostly on the CAL MCDONALD MYSTERIES stuff. Jonathan Lethem is writing OMEGA THE UNKNOWN for Marvel and that is probably the most indie comic book Marvel have ever produced and it's fantastic. Art-wise, I love Ben Templesmith, Ashley Wood, Eric Powell. There's a book I just read called CHIAROSCURO by artist/writer Troy Little that turned out to surprise me both story wise and art wise.

*Note: For those unfamiliar with Omega... pick up an issue, read it, then surf back here and check out the link for the series illustrator. And, definitely, check out Troy's Chiaroscuro. It's been a while since the single issues were started but the hardcover collected treatment is what that book always deserved.

CCC: Is there an artist working in another medium you follow?

I love movies. Just saw THE ORPHANAGE and loved it to pieces. I've seen Crispin Glover perform and read from his novels at the Music Box here in Chicago. I got to see his film WHAT IS IT?, but missed it's sequel when it made it's way through town. It's amazing because Glover tours with the print across America and gives his own personal intros and Q & A's afterwards. His books are very graphically put together, using found art and pics, text from other books and Glover's own poetry.

It's just so off the wall and original, like David Lynch, but lacking Lynch's innocent way of looking at the obscene. Glover's stuff is obscene and he knows it... Lynch just seems not to know any better. I love both of their work. Films by Guy Madden fall into that category too.

I saw his most recent silent film last year at the Music Box. It was narrated by Crispin Glover again with a live orchestra, a sound team utilizing old school Hollywood gaffing techniques and even had a real castrado present for the final song of the film. It was like seeing a three ring circus in theater form. It's that type of experience, the type that defies explanation and categorization, that I love to experience... no matter what the medium.

CCC: Give us a short list of indie creators you believe are sort of shaping the future of comics (indie and/or mainstream)?

In my review column, I often give artists who rely too much on photo referencing a hard time. But after seeing what artists like Ben Templesmith and Ashley Wood and even Phil Noto (who utilizes computer art techniques over old school penciling) can do, I realize that it is an inevitable direction comic book art seems to be heading into. I'm sure there will always be room for the good old pencils and inks, but with my short story TALES OF JACKASSERY in M&F3, I found myself fascinated with what I could do using even the most rudimentary of computer programs.

CCC: If you could change one thing about the modern comics 'industry' what would it be?

I think egos are running rampant in the industry. Maybe this has always been the case and the internet has just made it more obvious now. I don't know. In mainstream, writers and artists care more about making that one all-encompassing, earth shattering, medium changing story rather than just telling a good story.

Fame far outweighs craft these days and it's bass-ackwards if you ask me. Frank Miller or Alan Moore didn't set out to make comic book history with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or THE WATCHMEN. They set out to write a good story. It was the strength of those stories, not the volume of the voice of the ad department or the writer's agent or EIC, that made those stories classics.

If more artists and writers were focused on writing and drawing good stories instead of making history, the industry as a whole would be a lot better.

CCC: Give a shout out to any site and/or underground comic you think people ought to be checking into.

A little website called Ain't It Cool Check it out every Wednesday for AICN Comics, our weekly comic book review column.I just read a comic called STRANGE DETECTIVE STORIES from OddGod Press. It tells a story about Renfield and Igor from the old Universal Monster movies as they set up shop as detectives in LA in the fifties. There is such a love for classic horror cinema in this book. It really is a cool book and worth seeking out.

CCC: Share a bit of advice for other creators.

How about "Sometimes you eat the bar... and sometimes, well, the bar eats you"...?

No? "Always bet on black"...?

No... Ahh... just work hard, respect others, don't give up and [hopefully] someone will notice it someday and there'll be some kind of payoff.

Erm... great advice, Mark. Thanks!


And... to the faithful readers... enjoy the rest of your week! Have a great weekend!! If you're roundabout the Twin Cities... visit Bud, Amado and many of the other M&F creators at The Source Comics & Games and Diamonds Coffee Shoppe. Don't forget, M&F... M&F2, M&F t-shirts and Heavee Underground will be available for purchase!!!

Comics, original art, Martial Arts, music and booze? No-brainer... put up your dukes!!!!


**By the way, this is how this art 'community' thing works:

Thanks, Mark! RESPECT.