BERNIE MIREAULT: EIGHT YEARS TO GET HER
Welcome to Noteworthy. I’m Will Scott and it’s my job to highlight projects, publications, and artists that Sequential Highway believes, due to the quality of their work or the creative message they’re sending, warrant more attention from the comic book market. This installment: Bernie Mireault.
I have been a fan of Bernie Mireault’s work since I discovered Mackenzie Queen in the 1980’s. Bernie’s comics are unorthodox by mainstream standards – and that’s exactly why I like them. Bernie knows how to attack a comic book page. He understands how to tell a story and when to move it forward. And he writes great dialogue, seasoned with just the right amount of humour.
Bernie’s art style is quite individual and is, for some, I’m sure, an acquired taste. However, if I were in charge of a publishing company Bernie would be on my A list team. Different is good, people. It means that an artist has something to say…something to offer.
Bernie’s newest project is a self-published graphic novel called To Get Her, and it features my favourite of Bernie’s characters, The Jam.
Will Scott: Let’s introduce you to our readers. You started your career in the mid ‘80’s working for Matrix Graphic Series out of Montreal, yes? Matrix published your five issue miniseries Mackenzie Queen and ran The Jam as a backup feature in their flagship title, North Guard. Sadly, only a few short years into publishing comics Matrix went out of business. Did you immediately start working on Grendel with Matt Wagner or was there another project in between? Please fill in the gaps.
Bernie Mireault: The early 80’s saw me moving from a small rural community in the Quebec countryside to the relatively large city of Montreal. I was going to Dawson College and taking real art classes for the first time. While it was fun, it was also expensive and I quickly ran out of resources and, so, had to get a job. I was working on Mackenzie Queen all through that period, in and around other jobs that actually paid the rent – dish washing, apartment building maintenance, more dishwashing, etc.
After I had been at school for a year and a half it had become obvious that I didn’t belong there. The comic art that I loved to make got zero respect and I was resolved to quit and get a job that was somehow related to what I loved to do. That opportunity presented itself in the form of the Original Heavy Metal movie. The Taarna sequence – where, in a typical Hollywood move, the famous Moebius character Arzach was transformed into a babe in a chainmail bikini – was done in Montreal by Potterton Studios. (Gerald Potterton cut his animation teeth on the production of Yellow Submarine over in England!) There was a cattle-call for artists to fill the desks in their conveniently located downtown offices; I had no idea what I was doing but got hired in the crush and, though it was touch-and-go at the beginning, everyone around me was really nice and taught me the essentials. I was able to hang on to the job of assistant animator, furnishing the in-between drawing that connect an animator’s key drawings, an interesting combination of tracing and drawing that I enjoyed very much. The work lasted for almost a year and the pay was better than what I was used to – though apparently still far below the going rate State-side, which precipitated a “successful” strike during the latter phases of production. I had a great time working there and hanging out with people from all over the world.
The modern animation worker is like a nomad, travelling the world to follow work. I guess, these days, that trail ends in China. I wish you all lucky good time 777!
It was also during that time that Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette, the Matrix Graphic Series crew, decided to publish Mackenzie Queen. That inspired me to finish the story and along the way I became involved in The Jam, the superhero satire that represents the bulk of my output to date. In the middle of all that came Matt Wagner’s offer to have me draw three issues of his crime comic, Grendel. Everything I was doing got put on hold while I worked on that plum job. Good times! While Grendel was thematically pretty much at the other end of the spectrum from the light and comedic work I prefer to do, I still had a blast working on the dark, moody story. Matt encouraged experimentation and really facilitated the work, making it all possible. I continued to contribute to that franchise in one way or another for the next decade.
WS: Did offers from other publishers come rolling in after such a high profile gig as Grendel?
BM: No. My style deviates from industry norms quite a bit and there aren’t a lot of editors out there with an adventurous streak as wide as Matt Wagner’s. It was my hope that the artist/editor, someone who has actually done the work before and knows intimately what’s involved, who cares about the work over everything else, would become more prevalent in the industry and that my stuff might have a better chance with that sort of editor, but things have always been very conservative there. I get props from some other artists for being innovative but they’re not often in a position to give me work.
It’s all about editors. These people are the gatekeepers who select who’s allowed to have work and who isn’t. Ideally these choices are made altruistically, for the benefit and growth of a) the book involved, and b) the medium in general, but of course it’s easy to imagine a more selfish agenda governing things. One does hear such stories!
I’ve never actually gotten into a boat and gone fishing for work in those waters. The stuff that has washed up along my stretch of beach has always been enough to keep me busy, but these days I’m thinking it’s about time to get out there and fish. By publishing my own work, consolidating and cataloguing what I’ve done on my new web site and continuing on with new work, I think I’m doing everything I can to promote my own personal franchise. Taking advantage of the communication possibilities of the internet and plugging into a wider comic art community than I ever have before is thrilling. Using my inventory and promoting my particular flavor of storytelling to a potentially worldwide audience is interesting in an obvious way. I may be a little late off the starting line, but that’s just ’cause I’m a tech cave-man. (Having been born in 1961 I remember reading about the internet as science fiction, and now here it is!) And I was waiting for things to trickle down to my level of do-ability before proceeding. I’ve always had my ideas about what makes a good website and now I can put them into play even without knowing HTML.
WS: You have a very distinctive style – I love that you are able to infuse your strips with elements of pop culture while keeping an alternative comics feel to the overall product. Is this a conscious effort on your part or is it a natural extension of who you are creatively? And why is the element of humour so important to you?
BM: I try to work intuitively and channel all the things that I’ve seen and enjoyed about all the great comic art done by others into a goulash of my own devising; largely subconscious at first, but then with conscious touches added like icing on a cake, if I have the luxury of time. When you do work for yourself and there’s no huge rush, you can take the time needed to think and add things like fore-shadowing and joke call-backs with the luxury of being able to consider the whole story after it’s completed and as a whole. Those details are fun and add depth.
Humor is important to me because out of everything I’ve experienced in life the entertainment arts are what have given me the most pleasure. I especially enjoy being made to laugh. To make others laugh seems like a worthwhile thing to do. You give people pleasure and help lighten things up. It’s a challenge. Also, I think humor is an effective vehicle for philosophically-based anthropological observations. The truer it is, the funnier. Monty Python has always impressed me more than Aristotle. To be light and heavy simultaneously seems like magic.
WS: Would you like to continue down the self-publishing route?
BM: Yes, I’m bent on it. I need to get my inventory collected and eventually to have four or five big books in my catalogue to go around and flog. To be able to derive an income from that work without paying too much to middlemen or losing rights to the work in any way – that’s my goal. Wouldn’t take much. Nobody cares about this stuff like I do and so I figure that I’m the man for the job.
WS: Are there any mainstream companies – e.g., Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image – that you would particularly like to work with? Or any with which your work would be a good fit?
BM: I could get into anything from that environment, it’s a fascinatingly weird expression of our societal Id and I have a nostalgic love for the medium and its old guard. But to contribute to the collective continuity is difficult. It’s like trying to get into a club where the doorman doesn’t like what you’ve got on. Turned away for wearing sneakers. Though if you do get in somehow (we’ll just leave that to the imagination) and get some work from a large publisher, then you get paid! And if you’re lucky and your editor is feeling benevolent, then he or she can up your pay-scale based on years of experience and you can end up actually being paid relatively well. And if you’ve been granted a gig on a hot book and there is a reliable royalty program in place, well, then there is extra income down the road that may severely dwarf the money that you made for drawing the work in the first place, and all that’s good. Even a brief succession of gigs like that can grant relative wealth to an artist or writer that they can coast on for years.
But it all hinges on the editor. A good one operates no cliques, facilitates the work and is a pleasure to collaborate with as a good-natured liaison between the artist and the publisher. A poor one, i.e., someone who comes from outside the medium and has little-to-no understanding of the work involved, can make the work harder to do, waste time and resources and often project a negative vibe, which makes for terrible working conditions.
I think it’s important for an artist to protect their inspiration to do the work and so to do their best to avoid soul-crushing situations as much as possible. Working for yourself is the optimum scenario, in my opinion. Finally, a boss that understands you! The pay might not be great at the beginning but you can work on that.
WS: How do you approach your work?
BM: I have a loose idea of where I’m going but like to have the freedom to change direction as ideas occur to me along the way. Stuff always evolves as you go and you have to be flexible enough to go where it leads you for best results. Sometimes I’ll get a very defined idea for a short story that is structurally complete before I draw it but those are rare. Like dreams that I remember.
WS: What are your work habits? What tools of the trade do you use?
BM: These days ninety-nine percent of my work is done on computer. It allows me to not have to deal with expensive art supplies and makes so much possible in terms of drawing, storage and even art delivery!
When I work on paper, I like to pencil lightly with a hard pencil, 4H, and then ink the work using a C6 Speedball nib for the major contour lines and a Pigma Micron .005 permanent marker for the tiny detail lines. I used to use the C6 strictly for lettering, as recommended in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, but I soon fell in love with its line and began applying it to everything. Still do, on paper. I occasionally get commissions for originals over the internet and that’s where I work on paper, to create an original for a collector. I have no trouble switching from digital to analog and back again. It’s fun! I have some of those commissions posted on my web site.
WS: And who, or what, inspires you artistically?
BM: All the comic art that I’ve ever read and liked. Fine art, music and literature, of course. The list of beautiful things that humans have made is huge and if I can just add one thing to that list before I die, I’d be happy. The bits and pieces of comic art technique I’ve absorbed and grafted onto my own defy conscious categorization. I know who I would like to claim as my influences, but at times wonder who really is, subconsciously. Can I ever really know?
My conscious list of direct artistic inspirations are taken strictly from the comic art medium: Hergé, Kurtzman, Eisner, Moebius, Underzo, Kirby, Corben, The Hernandez Bros., Alan Moore, Mike Allred, Chester Brown, Dave Cooper… these are just the names that come first and the list, as I said, would be long and include all my friends and everyone I’ve ever worked with, all the people that I have talked about craft with who are perhaps the biggest influence of all.
WS: For several years you have been working on your new graphic novel To Get Her. Can you give us an idea of what To Get Her is about? What was your journey like to bring it to print?
BM: The first long comic art story I ever did was my own version of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee`s Doctor Strange. I loved those early issues for their mood and psychedelic atmosphere and that inspiration was strong enough to get me through a five-issue miniseries – a relatively new concept at the time – which ended up being published by a small Montréal publisher called Matrix Graphic Series, created and owned by Mark Shainblum and operated along with Gabriel Morrissette, who together were working on their take on the nationalistic Canadian superhero thing, à la Richard Comely’s Captain Canuck. Their creation was named Northguard.
Along the road of writing and drawing Mackenzie Queen, my first big story that I was just talking about, I got involved with another character that I created as a response to Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s original Daredevil run, which I was very excited by. I called that book The Jam, an abbreviation for The Jammer, which was my costumed character’s actual name, because I enjoy music too, and I eventually made over 450 pages of story for that. It represents my main body of work to date.
To Get Her continues the story of Gordie and Janet, my lead characters from The Jam, after the original series stops. The story of The Jam was basically about a guy who has a superhero costume but no superpowers to go with it. Even so, he goofs around and gets involved in a crazy adventure that leads to a pot of gold, which his girlfriend doesn’t mind, though she’s not quite sure about the costume. That took place in the 1980s and 90s.
Now it’s early 1999 and we check in to find that Gordie has given up running around in the costume – Janet made that a condition for continuing their relationship – and has become a cartoonist! The events in the book are events taken from life and then heavily fictionalized with fantasy elements and joke set-ups.
To Get Her took me eight years, on and off, to get done.
I applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2003, just to try. Because I had over twenty years of experience, I qualified for an established writer’s grant to write a graphic novel. It was the only place comic art was acknowledged as a project choice, so I applied as a writer. The grant was for $20,000… and I got it! The money didn’t last very long but the project certainly did. As I was wrapping up the book last year, I applied for a Xeric Foundation grant to self-publish because if I was going to see it printed, I’d need help. Thankfully I received that grant, as well, and because of it I have this nice book!
For now, my distribution will be mostly done personally. A small first edition of 810 books, signed, numbered and drawn in, for collectors, and carefully side-stepping regular distribution channels this time around. My plan is to keep sending out review copies and to gather what publicity I can – an appropriate place to thank Will Scott and Sequential Highway for their attention – and spread it as far as possible, until as many people as possible have heard of the book and are ripe to order it when they have a chance, hopefully to be provided on a larger scale later through Diamond or whatever, but for now strictly sold person-to-person over the internet and through some shops. If you want to help the project you can do the word-of-mouth thing for me and I’d say thanks!
Superhero comics are slowly dying once again. Time for romance comics to cut in and take over, as in the past.
To Get Her is a dystopian romantic comedy and a plea for understanding from cartoonists to their civilian mates. (I’ve always felt cartoonists are like art marines.) Small parts of it are pure prose text and people really don’t seem to dig that element, but I think it’s an obvious extension of graphic novel storytelling technique that I’ve never seen anyone use in that way before and I wanted to try it. Oh well, people can just skip it, I suppose.
WS: Getting very basic: how many pages is To Get Her and what format did you print it in? Where can people buy To Get Her and how much does it sell for?
BM: The book is $25 plus shipping. Expensive, yes, but It’s a clearly marked [as a] first edition; each copy is signed, numbered and with a little self-portrait drawn in ink. A nice book physically, 178 pages, black and white with hysterically detailed grays, well printed on beautiful paper. Two lbs.! Good size (8.5 x 11) and heft. Thrown, it would hurt. Rounded corners, so as not to take an eye out.
WS: What’s next for Bernie Mireault? Are you working on a new graphic novel? Do you plan to revisit any of your past creations, like Mackenzie Queen?
BM: Organizing my inventory and creating more big-ass comic books out of it. Color would be nice. Mackenzie Queen, The Jam; my past stuff is to be touched up and re-presented in color digitally at the very least. Of course new stuff too; don’t know what yet, though. Gotta sell these books first – 600 left.
The internet makes it all possible. I love the internet.
WS: Finally, what would you like readers to know about Bernie Mireault and his work that we have not covered in these questions?
BM: I make music as well. Check out the music page on my website to see the band Bug-Eyed Monster playing original three-minute rock songs. Two minutes even, brevity being the soul of wit.
Photograph of Bernie by Zoë Tousignant.