20 questions for Mike Sullivan

“There’s Something Happening in Crawford, Kansas creator Mike Sullivan– who provided the above image to accompany this interview– is a mainstay in the Kansas City creator community and a regular at Drawing Frenzy, the weekly meet-up of KC cartoonists. He’ll have artwork on display in the Drawing Frenzy show at KC’s Crossroads Coffeehouse during the month of October (with a kickoff event this Friday), and will be appearing at Iowa’s Comic Book I-Con on Nov. 10. I met Mike years ago and, over long road trips to I-Cons, found that we had similar favorite comics as readers as well as similar interests in the kind of comics we like to create. After filling too many long boxes with other people’s comics, Mike started making his own in 2004, and hasn’t looked back!

1. Your first published comic, the full-color Virtual Infinity Comics Presents #1, was an ambitious project, so different from my own simple minicomic roots. How did that come about?
Just a few years prior to my first self-published work, I’d been gathering some history about the Marvel Universe that I wanted to put together and propose as a series to Marvel Comics. It was huge and epic and dealt with the entire history of the groups of characters, created by Jack Kirby, like The Inhumans and The Eternals and how they fit into Marvel Universe continuity (which has since been blown apart by multiple reformatting storylines). I had even sketched a two panel drawing featuring Sersi, an Eternal, looking into a mirror and saying “Mirror, Mirror on the wall – -“ with the second panel of her turning to the reader saying, “what?”

I wanted to present it as a continuation series under the title of Marvel Tales with the heading “Where Have You Been for the Last Million Years?” I still have some of those pencil panels somewhere.

Anyway, I’d just been to a convention here in Kansas City in 2003. At a previous convention, I’d met a guy from Oklahoma that was showing his portfolio. I ran into the same guy a few months later and he now had published his own comic and had a table. It dawned on me that I could do that. I needed to do that.

A comic with my own characters, who had been rattling around in my brain since high school, became my priority for the next nine months. If I was going to do this, I needed to do it all. Writing, art, lettering, AND color would be necessary to prove to myself that I not only could do it, but needed to do it.

On the way home from the convention, I plotted out what I was going to create. I started drawing almost immediately when I got home.

2. If you were doing a “first project” now– but with the knowledge that you’ve picked up as a writer/artist in the interim– what, if anything, would you do differently, either to make it easier on you as the creator &/or better for the reader?
I think I would have started at the beginning. My first effort in Virtual Infinity Comics Presents #1 is actually a midpoint for my whole story arc. I suppose my thinking was, if it was good enough for George Lucas to start in the middle, it was good enough for me. But, at least, this way, I have a milestone to reach.

3. Like me, you’ve made the transition from print to digital for your current project, “There’s Something Happening in Crawford, Kansas”, yet I think we both have an eventual print collection in mind for our strips. How has that move been for you? How have you approached this work so that it can be read both as short episodes and as part of a longer story?
It was another revelation that hit me over the head that the proportions I am using would fit two-up on a printed page. I’ve varied a bit from time to time, but the basic four-panel layout will fit to an eight-panel printed page, which many of the older (read: pre 1960) comics would use. They would use that layout for newspaper strips and then assemble them for comic books later. I’m not really doing anything new, just maybe a bit forgotten.

4. You have a big cast in “Crawford”, with still more characters to be introduced. How do you as a writer handle so many players?
HAHA! When I first started writing for my book, I was told that I had too many characters; that it would be too confusing to the reader to introduce these people.  It bothered me for a while and then I went back to some of my favorite introductory comics. The first issue of the Fantastic Four had twenty-seven characters with speaking parts. The only difference I could see is that I had names for all of my characters and I would be bringing them back into the story.

Giant-sized X-Men #1 had fourteen X-Men, plus some supporting characters. The revolutionary Watchmen series had a lot of essential characters. There were more examples of comics with large supporting casts that seemed to have a big following.

Then, I went back to Charles Shulz’ “Peanuts”. I took a look at that large cast and how it developed. In the first year of daily strips, it started with three characters; Charlie Brown was the only character with a name for a long time. Patty was named after about a month. Shermy wasn’t named for a very long time and the dog wasn’t named Snoopy until about four months into the strip.

I looked at the “Peanuts” dailies and saw that the situations were important but the pacing of each strip could be carried over a few days or weeks into a cohesive little story. I would be telling a larger story, but the same basic principle was there. Make each strip a small bit of the larger story. I think, if you look at “Crawford” from week to week, you’ll see there’s a rhythm and pacing to it.

5. This may not be evident to your average reader, but “Crawford” is really just part of a larger epic you have in the works. How are you approaching this work when readers aren’t privy to the whole story– or even all the characters– yet?
Whereas the print-companion book will be much more super-hero oriented, I do see “Crawford” more along the lines of “Peanuts”. I’m trying to tell short little stories within the greater story in order to introduce the players. I’m telling you little things about the town– the world– that I’ve created for these characters that should enhance the printed companion book and hopefully look amazing in the “Mike Sullivan Essential Omnibus”. HAHA.

6. Are you able to keep working on both sides of the story simultaneously?
I haven’t been able to work on the print side of the story much. I’ve had a number of other side-projects for print that have come along. I’m going to have to scramble to get it going before my first web-comic story arc concludes!

7. Do you think of this complete project as more of a self-contained novel with a definitive ending, or as an open-ended serial?
I definitely have an ending to my story. It’s probably similar to the Harry Potter books in that, the characters will age and grow and some will die, and not in the cheap corporate-sales-device way of death. When they die, they don’t come back to life. I’m not saying they might not come back as a ghost or zombie. I may have a zombie story I just have to tell.

8. Most of your work has been as a writer/artist, but you’ve also drawn scripts for others and are now writing scripts for others to draw. What’s your favorite way to work? Do you approach the page differently if you know you’ll be doing all the work yourself versus working with a collaborator?
I haven’t written a full script for anyone yet and my own script for “Crawford” is just an outline with some fun dialogue. In writing for others to draw, I do thumbnails. I think that’s the best way to look at a page visually, to get the pacing down, to make sure you have some good reveals in the story.

I do a lot of thumbnails for myself, but a lot of times, I can visualize a page in my head and just go to penciling it. Having the four-panel grid for the web comic can simplify the process in that I know what will fit there and how to pace the story. But for a larger project, I like thumbnails. Thumbnails are good.

I usually write in approximately what the characters will be saying or what dialogue is necessary, but after the pencils are done (maybe even the inks), I’ll go back and re-write it. One of my favorite English teachers always told us “the best writing is re-writing.” I think she was correct.

9. What continues to draw you to the medium?
Comics have been a part of my life since I can remember. There’s something inside of me that feels that they are important, maybe the most important thing that I can contribute. I feel I have stories to tell. Maybe not everyone is interested in it, but it’s a deep feeling, a need to tell my stories.

10. Have you had any professional art training? If so, has it benefited your work in comics?
I was a commercial art major for two years at Fort Hays State University before getting a degree in Business– Computing. I took all of the required classes for art until the only thing I had left to take was art history. Then, I jumped ship. HAHA.

We did things the old-fashioned way back then. No computers. No Photoshop. So, when you assembled something, you had to paste it down or wax it. You had to have clean hands and no matter how many times I could wash them, my hand prints could be seen on my work. And if you cut it wrong or tore it or spilled something on it, you had to start over from scratch.

I think knowing you had to cut things out and be precise and economical helped me appreciate our current technology and tools. I still draw with a pencil, but scan my artwork into my computer and print it out to ink (or use an application to ink on the computer). You can do so much more and you can experiment. And if you spill something on it while inking, you can print out another copy and not have to start from scratch.

11. “Crawford” is presented in full-color glory. What are your go-to tools (physical &/or digital) and processes when drawing and coloring your comics?
As I’ve said, I still draw with a pencil, scan my artwork and print it out in blue-line to ink. Scanning the inked page is easier to clean up if I’m not having to deal with gray pencil lines. I mostly use Photoshop for the color work, although I used CorelDRAW for certain things and have even tried some color “inking” in that application.  I have Manga Studio, but haven’t mastered the eye-hand coordination of the tablet. It’s on my “to do” list…

12. In addition to your large “Crawford” project, you’re also working on– and masterminding– a project utilizing public domain characters in The Rainbow Legion. How did this project come about?
As with all really “great” ideas! I woke up in the middle of the night and just KNEW I had to do this project. I started looking at the Public Domain Superheroes website and started “pulling out” characters; characters with a color in their names. One color for each band in the rainbow. Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple (there weren’t any Orange ones, but I’ll get to that later).

My idea was to take those each of those characters, create a 5 or 6 page 1940s-style story for each of them and then band them together for a team-up story as The Rainbow Legion. I did a mock 1940s-style cover for it and left space to draw the characters coming at the reader. I had planned on doing this all myself. But when I brought the information to my weekly comic creators’ group, Drawing Frenzy, people seemed interested in helping with the project. It’s taking a little longer to assemble, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the others’ stories.

I’m hoping to assemble the book and have it printed and for sale. After that, I would like to take those same characters and bring them into each succeeding decade (’50s, ’60s, ’70s, etc.) and focus on the look and feel of those decades, aging the characters and supplanting them with new characters as needed. Each book would be from 48 to maybe even 64 pages each.

13. Have your approached working on a character with a past– even if only a minimal published history– differently from characters you’ve created yourself?
Most of the characters that I’ve created are based on real people. I know…”Gasp!” I don’t approach my own characters with “ooh, this would be a cool hero with cool powers.” I say, “this person is interesting, let’s put him in a situation and let him deal with it.”

So, with the public domain heroes, I read whatever story(ies) that the character is in. Even if it’s only one issue/story, I really try to absorb what is being told. With characters from the 1940s, like those in The Rainbow Legion, most were just being produced because the publisher wanted new stories. ANY stories. A lot of them were pretty much swiped from other existing heroes of the time.

Then, I have to ask, what makes or would make this character stand out and away from other characters. The Blue Flame is basically the Human Torch in … blue. He only appeared in one story in 1947. He wasn’t an android and he had no origin story. So, the challenge for me was to make him different than the Human Torch characters, because that’s what people would be first to point out. So, He needs to be a different person. He needs a different set of foes. Even his powers, although similar, needs to be presented differently, so that he’s not the Human Torch.

14. How did you first discover comics as a reader?
My early comics were Bugs Bunny, Hot Stuff and Casper that Santa brought. Our local grocery didn’t have comics, so I was mystified by the ones I had, reading and re-reading them.

When we moved to the “Big City” (Salina, Kansas), I saw my first spinner rack at Weeks Grocery. It had lots of the double-sized 25¢ comics. Jimmy Olsen (the one where he turned into Turtleboy, among other creepy versions of himself), Superman, Lois Lane, all characters I’d seen on t.v.  And then, I saw my first issue of Marvel Collector Item Classics featuring The Fantastic Four. It was issue #21, featuring the story “It Started on Yancy Street”, which I’d seen on the 1967 Saturday morning Fantastic Four cartoon show. I’m certain I heard a choir of angels…

15. What are some of your all-time favorite comics (runs, teams, or issues)?
After almost an entire life of reading comics, there are a lot. (British accent) A VERY lot.

First off, and I know you’ll agree with me, Dale, Bill Mantlo was a great and wonderful writer. Historically, if I remember some story from the ’70s and ’80s, it was probably written by Mr. Mantlo. ROM, MicronautsI guess if it had a toy-line associated with it, they gave it to him to write. HAHA. Marvel Team-up Annual #1, featuring Spider-man and the new X-Men was a story that Bill had some credit for. The prelude story is brilliant. If you have the chance, those first few pages are worth gold. I know Bill Mantlo has a good fan base, but I think he is definitely under-appreciated in the industry.

Speaking of the “All-New X-Men”, those first new issues with Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne (Giant-sized X-Men #1, X-Men #94-138) had a huge impact on me. After all that has come since, I like to think of that is one story and leave the rest to some other set of characters that just happened to be called “X-Men”. Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne told such a wonderful story in X-Men #97 through #137.  At that time, Claremont was at his best, bringing these characters to a fullness I don’t think had been realized in comics before. Showing the relationships of these characters, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Storm, and ultimately the death of Jean Grey, it made a huge impact on me. It’s what I had hope for in my own comic creations.

In my all-time favorite comic book, the Fantastic Four, I have a big fondness for the Overmind story arc, especially the double-sized conclusion in issue #116 written by Archie Goodwin, another writer who is so under-rated and under-appreciated. The Overmind had the sum-total mental power of a barbaric race called The Eternals (which someone without ANY imagination tried to tie into Jack Kirby’s Eternals much later). The Overmind came to Earth to conquer and met resistance from Reed Richards and the FF. Reed was eventually mind-controlled by the Overmind and Sue had no one to turn to, save the infamous Doctor Doom. The dialogue in this story was epic and Goodwin had such a wonderful grasp on those individual characters.

I liked the Marv Wolfman/George Perez run on New Teen Titans and was especially impressed with the Judas Contract storyline (Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44). There were a lot of really adult themes going on in those few issues.

Steve Gerber was also another favorite writer of mine. He always had a quirkiness in his writing, humor and relevant absurdity that a lot of modern writers seem to fail at. Loved his Howard the Duck and Defenders runs.

I could go on and on. Watchmen, Sandman, both brilliantly told stories that didn’t need anything added after the final installation. I need to stop. I could talk about this forever.

16. What current comics are you enjoying? Why?
Currently, I’m only picking up Fables from Vertigo. It’s self-contained, well-written by Bill Willingham and beautifully drawn by Mark Buckingham, and doesn’t have a bunch of corporate types guiding it. Great stories. That’s what comics are about.

17. What webcomics are you following?
It’s probably shameful for me to say, but there aren’t a lot of webcomics I’m following. Of course, there’s your “Watusi” and Tara Avery’s “Gooch”  and Ed Bickford’s “Snowbob”. I do go to Just the First Frame to check out what’s trending there. I’ve enjoyed a few of those, but haven’t kept up with them. I’m really trying to focus on what I’m doing with my own work right now.

18. If you could assemble your dream creative team alive or dead to work on your dream comic, who would it be? What title?
Jack Kirby and Mike Royer on Jack Kirby’s Inhumans. I think Jack had a lot of stories to tell with the Inhumans and he didn’t really get a chance to tell them. He did the stories in the FF with the Inhumans and then the back-up Inhumans featured in Thor. Then, just before he left Marvel, he wrote and drew the front-half of Amazing Adventures featuring them.

I know he liked Triton, or at least, he did quite a few stories featuring the aquatic Inhuman. But he never got a chance to feature each member of the Royal Family. The back-up feature in Thor ended abruptly and the two stories (in four issues) from Amazing Adventures seem to take the Inhumans on a quest for the bizarre.

I think he had more stories to tell and I think it would have shown how to work with a non-speaking comic character. So, there should be a LOT of scenes with Black Bolt (recently, I’ve seen that they’ve given Black Bolt a “voice”. I think it was telepathic, or something. I just put the comic back down, rolling my eyes. Black Bolt was cool because he didn’t need to speak.).

I would also like to see the real origin of Galactus’ herald, the Silver Surfer. I don’t think the Stan Lee/John Buscema collaboration was anything like Jack had intended of his skyrider.

19. If you had free reign to work on your dream project any character, any collaborator– what would it be?
The Fantastic Four. Hands down, I’d drop everything to work on that book. I have an ego-dream of making that Marvel’s Greatest Comic again. I know a lot of people seem to like what is being done in the current comic, but the issues I’ve picked up lately didn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual members of the Fantastic Four.

The current comic all seems to revolve around Reed and that little girl that he and Sue have by some alt-universe-changing miracle. My evil twin thinks we should just kill her off or have her be a dream-figment of Franklin’s imagination and just get rid of her. But the not-evil-me says that would cheat the current readers completely. If I were at the helm, I’d just take it and go, but just maybe not feature the kids so much and get back to the book being about The Fabulous Fantastic Four.

20. Is there anything I neglected to cover in these questions that has you really excited about making comics?
I think everyone has their “win the lottery” fantasy. In mine, I’d want to hire all of the people that need to be hired to do some really awesome comics as a company and get them out there into the hands of children. I really am looking at corporate intellectual properties in a pretty bad light these days.

I don’t think that the “big two” have a clear, SMART vision to take comics into the new millennium. They certainly aren’t trying to bring on new readers. I think they are all starry-eyed for comic-book based movies. They really don’t care about comic books as a medium, because it doesn’t make them money. It seems that is a corporate mindset.

I have a couple of other projects in mind to get comics into the hands of a new generation. I would still love to see some 10-year-old with a copy of one of my comics, rolled up in his back pocket so he can show it off to his friends. Not “bagged and boarded” and in a box in the closet. That’s not where comics are supposed to be. They need to be opened and read and enjoyed and lived. That’s my goal; that gets me excited.

Finally, turnabout is fair play– is there any nagging question you have about my comics?
Do you have a big story to tell that you’ve been just a bit apprehensive to tackle?
I do it’s kind of a thematic prequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. It would have a novelistic scope (beginning and end), feature an all-new cast, and be pretty serious in tone. I’d like it to have the visceral sense of place that Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage did, so I’d need to spend a lot more time on each drawing, along with extensive preparatory work. Plus, it would mean I’d need to have my head in a pretty dark place for a long time, which would be difficult for me to do. Keeping it in Wonder Valley is just a lot more fun!

Thanks for your time and for sharing these insights into your work, Mike!

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3 Comments to “20 questions for Mike Sullivan”

  1. Ater reading Mike’s answers, I had a few comments I wanted to add, but didn’t want to break the flow of things in the actual interview…

    4: I like your take on this– that your background characters all have a personality and a back story, even if you don’t reveal it right away. This makes really good sense with your small town setting, too; it’s natural to see the same faces over and over again in your crowd scenes, so why not get to know them a little…

    15: I enjoy a lot of the runs you mentioned, and I get a chuckle out of how you think of the X-Men after #138 as a different team. Even though I hadn’t been following the X-Men that long (and hadn’t yet been able to find of copy of #137) I was impressed by how moving #138 was to a reader not that invested in the characters.

    18: Your “Dream Team” was a bit of a surprise to me. Not so much the creators, but the choice of feature for them to work on. That would definitely be a wild comic!

  2. Great interview! I learned a lot about you, Mike, that I either didn’t know or had forgotten. I admire your continued devotion to comics. Great questions, Dale.

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