Will Scott Interviews Michael T. Gilbert
I look for artists that are different. I enjoy people who take chances and approach their work from left of mainstream. Michael T. Gilbert is one such artist. Even when he is working for Marvel or DC, Michael brings his own brand of creativity to their characters. His comic pages are both thoughtful and manic – a winning recipe in my opinion.
It is with great pleasure that I present this interview to our Sequential Highway readers.
Will Scott: You left your creative stamp on several different projects over many consecutive years and then you seem to have vanished from the industry. Maybe “vanished” is too strong a word. Let’s just say that your presence has been missed and your absence noted. I must ask – what have you been up to?
Michael T. Gilbert: The reports of my vanishing are greatly exaggerated. I’ve been doing a fair amount of comics in the US, such as various Mr. Monster mini-series’, a not-yet-published escapist tale and a recently published story for the Bart Simpson comic. But my projects appear in a fairly scattershot fashion, so it’s easy to miss some. Even I forget what I’d done sometimes!
Beyond that, since 1989 I’ve written and laid out comic book stories for Disney Comics and Egmont Publishing in Denmark. They produce comic stories starring Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and the rest of Disney crew, which are distributed to publishers in over fifty countries, including the US. Both my wife Janet and I, working separately, have written tons of stories for them over a twenty-year period.
Unfortunately the comics have a very small presence in the US, so most people haven’t seen most of our stories. It’s ironic because Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories sold millions in the US in the 40s and 50s, but in the 21st century Disney comics have pretty much disappeared here.
However, they still sell in the millions in some Scandinavian countries with MUCH smaller populations. It’s funny that in America I appear to have vanished, but my Disney stories are actually read by almost a billion people worldwide!
WS: Why comic books? Why not prose writing, or freelance illustration, or animation? What about this medium inspires you?
MTG: I have dabbled in commercial art over the years, and even designed tattoos for the Tattoo Johnny Company and website art for Phartoons. But comics grabbed me when I was very young and never let go. I’ve always been fascinated at how art and writing in comics can work together to create something more powerful than each part separately.
Also, I love being able to singlehandedly do my own “movies” on paper. Comics, more than any other medium, allow me to use my talents as both a writer and artist. I also get to perform as an actor via my characters. It’s a safe outlet for the ham in me!
WS: My earliest memories of your work are of The Wraith from the pages of Quack! Were you always interested in anthropomorphic characters?
MTG: I can’t honestly say funny animals were my favorites as a kid. Mostly I was into superhero, horror and sci-fi. But I did read, and enjoy, the various Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories.
Will Eisner’s character The Spirit, was one of my all-time favorite strips. The Wraith was conceived as a funny-animal version of the character. It was my very first series, done for Quack! With a title like that, I figured it was a good idea to make my hero anthropomorphic –– in this case a dog detective.
Ironically, I did a Wraith story in 1977, Duck Death, which featured a serial killer who murdered famous cartoon ducks like Baby Huey, Dirty Duck, and Scrooge McDuck. I had no idea decades later I’d actually be writing Scrooge’s adventures!
WS: I’m acquainted with your work as a writer and as an artist. Was it a conscious choice on your part to work primarily with independent publishers or was that just where the opportunities presented themselves?
MTG: A combination of the two. Early on I’d have been thrilled to get regular work at Marvel or DC, but I was never really slick enough for them. But later on I was very happy to be working on independent projects, most of which I either owned or in which I had a financial stake. That was one lesson Will Eisner taught me: if you own your own strip you have greater control and the potential for greater rewards.
WS: You have worked for Marvel and DC. Do you aspire to do more superhero projects?
MTG: I’d enjoy working on some. I’m a big Steve Ditko fan and was lucky enough to write and draw a Dr. Strange story. Someday I’d like to try my hand at Spider-Man. I’ve also done a Superman graphic novel – Mann & Superman – and a couple of Batman stories.
WS: The comic book adaptations of Elric of Melniboné are quite memorable. You had the opportunity to collaborate with two very talented artists: P. Craig Russell and George Freeman. Did either artist’s creative approach to crafting a comic page influence you? Would you mind telling our readers something about that experience?
MTG: Well, it was really an honor to work with both of them. In Craig’s case I actually moved from Texas to Ohio to collaborate on the art. Our styles were different, but we were both huge Eisner and Ditko fans so we were on common ground artistically. Craig’s work was more serious, and mine more humorous, so it made for a very unusual combination. I’m really proud of the work we did. It was also the first full processed-color comic I’d worked on. Back in 1982 there were almost no comics being done that way, and we were learning as we stumbled along.
Craig and I split the layout work. I mostly penciled with him inking, but sometimes we’d switch around for fun. Additionally, I designed most of the covers and put together the letters page.
I often worked in Craig’s studio, but when George Freeman and I did the second series we worked through the mail. I sent him rough pencils of the stories, and George did the finishes and colors. Despite their different approaches, I really liked what both artists did and consider both friends.
WS: Mr. Monster is a wonderful comic book centered on a wonderful character. The way you incorporate so many influences into each story is very enjoyable. Are there more adventures ahead for Doc Stearn? A graphic novel perhaps?
MTG: Thank you. And there are indeed new Mr. Monster stories in the offing! I stopped working on the Disney characters in 2009, and have since been concentrating on Mr. Monster, my monster-fighting superhero.
New Mr. Monster stories appeared last year in Dark Horse Presents #1-3. And last week I finished a really intense thirty-four page “evil twin” Mr. Monster story Dark Stearn slated to appear in upcoming issues of Dark Horse Presents. I’m really excited to be working on my favorite character again.
WS: Do you have a preference between presenting artwork in black and white and presenting it in colour?
MTG: I like both for different reasons. There’s something powerful and striking about the simplicity of black & white art. But color brings a whole new dimension, one I’m eagerly exploring in my Dark Stearn storyline. I’ve just finished computer coloring the story, and I’m very intrigued by the different ways color can be used to portray emotion and atmosphere.
WS: Please tell our readers something about your creative process. For example, what typically comes to you first, a story idea or an image? Do you sit at the computer and belt out the synopsis, or do you layout a comic’s page in rough and then write in the dialogue?
MTG: I work in every way imaginable. Sometimes I’ll come up with a striking single image – either a splash page or a trick-ending – and write a story around that. Other times I’ll come up with a verbal concept for a story, and follow up with the visuals. It really depends on the kind of story I’m writing.
Often I’ll start typing an idea on the computer, and other times an idea strikes me, which I work out visually by drawing rough thumbnail sketches. Whatever works.
WS: Are you more of a traditional artist? Do you ink over your pencils or have you embraced the digital age to a great extent in the way you work? Has digitization changed your work process?
MTG: I’m more traditional. I draw my art on Bristol board, although I write my scripts on the computer. If I’m coloring my art, I’ll scan the page and color it on my computer. I still prefer hand lettering (especially when done by Ken Bruzenak, my brilliant Mr. Monster letterer, but I have lettered stories on the computer too, when necessary––such as my Mr. Monster “Oooak!” story in Dark Horse Presents #1-3. In that instance I was trying to imitate Ken’s lettering as much as possible.
WS: What do you think about digital comics? Are you open to a future where comics are no longer printed on paper or does that thought disturb you?
MTG: Since I’m running out of room for new comics in my collection, I actually buy very few comics. So as a reader, at least, it doesn’t affect me too much. As a professional, I want to have as many venues for my work as possible, both paper and pixels.
I’m actually a big fan of digital comics, and have amassed tens of thousands of Gold and Silver Age virtual comics since I began collecting them five years ago. I have almost two terabytes on my external hard drive. I find my digital collection invaluable for research when I’m writing articles on comic book history for Alter Ego magazine – I’ve written over a hundred columns on arcane comic book lore for them – as well as my introductions to Archive editions from DC, PS Publishing and Dark Horse.
As far as current digital comics, I think what will most likely happen will be that most comics will be produced digitally, with the most popular then being printed in deluxe hardcover editions. That sounds like a pretty good middle ground.
WS: In a fantasy releasing you to experiment freely with this medium and allowing you to take financial security for granted, does any particular project come to mind that you would like to undertake?
MTG: I’d probably just love to continue doing even weirder Mr. Monster stories.
WS: There is a feeling among many that comic books have remained a subculture in North America. I consider you a veteran of the comic book industry. Do you share that feeling? In light of your experience as an industry veteran, do you think that there is something endemic to the industry that perpetually inhibits its acceptance by the general public as a fertile and respectable form of art on par with other forms?
MTG: Well, I certainly think that’s changing all the time. I now regularly see comic book exhibits in art museums – I’ve even been in a couple. Upscale magazines like The New Yorker feature covers and strips by comic book artists and libraries and bookstores have whole sections devoted to graphic novels. And, of course, translating comics book properties to movies has become a multi-billion dollar business.
The irony is that even though comic culture is everywhere (such as in TV’s The Big Bang Theory) the comics themselves are selling fewer numbers than ever. DC used to publish comics that regularly sold half a million copies of an issue. Now they print some color comics with a circulation of under six thousand. That’s crazy!
WS: In the best of possible worlds what changes, if any, would you like to see in the comic book industry that would accelerate its growth and deepen its acceptance by a mainstream audience?
MTG: Variety of subject matter, cheaper prices, easy accessibility. That’s where digital comics have the potential to increase readership. And it’s really important to get young kids reading comics again. That used to be the be standard, but DC and Marvel in particular went through decades when they catered primarily to aging comic book fans and ignored everyone else. That’s one of the reasons why mainstream comics now sell as poorly as they do.
WS: Again in light of your experience, how would you describe the influence that independent publishers have had on the comic book industry?
MTG: They’ve had a huge influence. DC and Marvel had no interest in returning original art, paying for reprints and other rights we take for granted now. Then indie publishers – Star*Reach, Pacific, Eclipse, First Comics and the like – started offering those perks in the late 70s and early 80s. When those moves started luring away top artists like Neal Adams, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the mainstream publishers felt they had to do something to keep up. But it was an uphill battle.
WS: Most artists have at least one dream project locked away in their creative drawer. Do you?
MTG: Well, I’ve always wanted to adapt Larry Niven’s short story When the Magic Goes Away and Ken Kesey’s book, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. And I have a few comic book horror stories of my own that I’d like to do. But I’ve been lucky enough to have already completed a number of dream projects, including the previously-mentioned Mr. Monster Dark Stearn story
WS: Is there anything that we have not covered in this interview that you would like our readers to know about you?
MTG: Just that I’m grateful I’m still able to make the kind of comics I grew up reading. And I’m also very proud of my wife Janet, who’s one of the best of the current Disney comics’ writers. It’s wonderful being married to such a talented gal!