Michael Allred’s retro-styled, upbeat storytelling has graced comics for over three decades now, accompanied by eye-popping color from his wife Laura. Since his last interview with The Comics Journal in 2001, Allred has drawn thousands of pages for independent and mainstream publishers alike, and despite its zippy exterior, much of that work explores some surprisingly deep subjects.
I caught up with Allred by phone to talk about his prolific career, the existential themes in his work, and his lifelong love of David Bowie. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
– Jason Bergman
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[FULL DISCLOSURE: Earlier this year, the parent company of my employer became the parent company of Dark Horse, one of Allred’s many publishers. This is a side effect of corporate consolidation, and while we may be distant corporate cousins, that relationship had no bearing on this interview in any capacity.]
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JASON BERGMAN: When you last spoke to the Journal, you were just setting out to self-publish, starting with The Atomics. That eventually folded, and you returned to Image. Let's start there. What happened with your self-publishing experiment?
MICHAEL ALLRED: Well, that's all it was, an experiment. My entire career has been a series of experiments. And to explain that one, I’ll have to take you through a whirlwind. So hang on!
The first published professional I ever met was Steven T. Seagle when I was teaching television production at the Air Force Academy. Very helpful, as I was turning a screenplay into what would become my first published work, the graphic novel, Dead Air. I then worked in Europe to work as a television reporter for a couple years, and Steve kept in touch and sold a pitch to Comico for a 12-issue series called Jaguar Stories. Coincidentally, Matt Wagner, whose titles Grendel and Mage were also being published by Comico, was living in San Jose where my Dead Air was being published by Dan Vado’s Slave Labor Graphics. Dan had shown Matt my work, and Matt sent me the most encouraging note with his phone number on a Mage postcard. I called him from Europe and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
On the strength of the guaranteed income from a 12-issue series, Laura agreed that we should roll the dice and move back to my home state of Oregon, and leave broadcasting for a shot at my dream career making comics.
Soon after, Comico went chapter 11 and the money stopped. And Matt Wagner’s creation got wrapped up in that turmoil as well, giving us more to bond over. Steve and I keep threatening to finish Jaguar Stories in some form, but that has yet to happen.
Making a long story as short as possible, more incredible coincidences piled on. Comico’s former marketing director Bob Schreck, who was married to Comico’s former editor-in-chief Diana Schutz, were hired by the very wise Mike Richardson to work for his Dark Horse Comics in Oregon. Matt Wagner is married to Diana’s sister, Barb. And Richardson’s wisdom continued, rescuing Grendel and Mage from the Comico debacle. All of these folks that would have a huge impact on my future were moving to Oregon around the same time as us, eventually making Oregon a Mecca for comics creators and publishers.
It was sink or swim for us, and in 1992, Kevin Eastman [and Tundra Publishing] offered the lifeboat that set up my first major success with Madman. By the time Kevin lost interest in publishing, Bob Shreck had become one of our dearest friends, as well as enjoying massive success as the Marketing Director for Dark Horse.
Mike Richardson wanted to bring Madman to Dark Horse, and Bob wanted to move into editing, offering to be my editor, while also becoming Frank Miller’s editor at Dark Horse. This was an incredible blessing as Dark Horse and Bob Schreck worked in a new marketing director, Bob functioned as my own personal marketing director while editing my new series Madman Comics and exploding its success larger than I could have ever dreamed.
I’m sure Bob being really tight with Frank Miller was largely how Frank and the other guys in Dark Horse Comics’ Legend imprint (Art Adams, John Byrne, Paul Chadwick, Geof Darrow, Dave Gibbons, Mike Mignola) unanimously voted to invite me in, which threw a very bright spotlight on me.
Anyway, a few years later, Schreck’s restlessness eventually gets him with Joe Nozemack to form Oni Press. All of a sudden this guy who's been largely a guru for me is gone, but luck once again left me with his assistant editor, Jamie S. Rich. Jamie and I also became really tight, loving a lot of the same music and movies. And he was there when I recorded my first album with my band, The Gear, and helped me shepherd that into my project Red Rocket 7, which was this seven-issue series about an alien clone that is witness to the history of rock and roll, which builds into an intergalactic epic. With that, I also did an independent feature called Astroesque. So that experiment became a film, an album, and a comic book series. Without Jamie, I couldn't have done all that stuff. Then he leaves to work with Schreck and Nosemack at Oni!
I’ve always loved Dark Horse, but with these guys leaving, I very much wanted to know what publishing was like. I had Bob Schreck, Jamie Rich, and Joe Nozemack to walk me through it. Laura and I agreed that, hey, we should try to do this. We launched our own publishing entity, AAA Pop and a monthly series The Atomics. The discipline of a monthly series seemed our best shot at success, and it did really well. But it was just too grueling.
Ultimately, the publishing responsibilities were more overwhelming than actually writing and drawing, [and] in Laura's case, also coloring the books. We were about to move to a slower schedule and then Erik Larsen from Image reached out.
Erik was like, "Dude, come to Image. You're essentially self-publishing, but you have access to our team." The way he described it, they would take an administration fee. A set fee for each book. Then we would decide what paper we used, how many pages, what format. Any decision that we were making as publishers, we could do that at Image. They did everything else, all the solicitations and advertising and whatever based on whatever we decided.
Pretty close to perfection as far as we’re concerned. We might do something with AAA Pop from time to time, but we have no interest in self publishing on a regular basis anymore. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Whirlwind over.
But you're also publishing again with Dark Horse?
Yes, and DC and Marvel and Image and IDW and Insight and wherever it makes sense depending on the project and collaborators.
As long as Mike Richardson is at Dark Horse it’ll always be a good hang, and now Daniel Chabon is my editor at Dark Horse. Love that guy! I can’t express how important the creator/editor relationship is, and I’ve been insanely lucky getting to work with the most wonderful folks at every publisher. The editors I’ve worked with have been every bit as essential as any creative collaborator.
After getting to know Daniel Chabon it was clear that my most recent solo creator owned project X-Ray Robot made him my ideal editor, re-opening the doors to Dark Horse. And around the same time suggesting the biggest piece of candy: an all-inclusive, definitive, oversized, hardcover library, collecting all of my creator-owned work, in these thousand-plus-page, five-volume [books]. The third volume is just about to come out.
With this format I was inspired to open my mind to including my earliest stuff which I’d previously never had any interest in ever being reprinted. For me, it’s cringey stuff that I didn't want anybody else to see. If they were unfortunate enough to have bought it in the first place, that's fine, but I didn't want to encourage anybody else to see it. But then, in the context of this library, I thought, this is the most ideal opportunity to allow the inclusion of my rawest efforts.
A lot of this early stuff was black and white, so let's put some lipstick on it, color it. Also we have the opportunity to put it in context that everybody's got to start somewhere, and this is where I started. I went from never wanting this stuff to ever be seen to now actually seeing it from the perspective I have when I look at [other artists’] early work. For instance, I have Charles Burns' earliest work, and to me it's just priceless. If Charles Burns didn't ever want anybody to see that, I would understand that, but I now appreciate what it's like to have access to see the seeds of someone's growth.
Is that why then the very early stuff is going to be at the end of the series? Volume Five is going to have your first published work.
But volume one actually has my earliest attempt at doing a comic. Three issues of an unpublished series called They! that I did with my big brother Lee Allred. So you get a big chunk of contrast right out of the gate. But, yes, the great majority of my earliest work is in Volume Five. The continuous stuff is mostly chronological, but we also jump around here and there when appropriate.
Lee and I drew our own stuff for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory is waking up in a hospital, because he knocked me off a table. I had a concussion, and the hospital bed was blanketed with comic books that he had talked mom and dad into buying at the gift shop. I wouldn't even know what a comic book is if it wasn't for Lee. He had the most amazing taste in comics. All of the greatest stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s you can think of, he gravitated towards, and because of that it was ever present in my childhood. Over time he’s drawn less and less, mostly concentrating on writing. So with They! he’s writing and me drawing, but a lot of the character designs are his. It’s the first actual disciplined collaboration I can remember.
I don't remember how seriously we tried to get this superhero series published or even if we did send it to anybody. But we completed issues with covers, lettering... And with this new collection Library, as awful as my drawing is, let's bite the bullet and put this naked earliest serious attempt at making comics in the first volume and have it colored for the first time, and then bookend most of the other stuff in the fifth volume.
I wanted to ask about the evolution of Madman…there were the early Tundra issues where you had the two-tone very straight panels and then by Madman Atomic Comics, you're doing the world's largest comic panel. You tried an animation style, with painted backgrounds. Were there any experiments that just didn't pan out and we've never seen?
No, I didn't have time to just throw anything away. Sticking with the monthly schedule, I was really disciplined about that. Possibly from having a previous career that was very deadline oriented. It was really important to just get those books out on time. One thing that I observed was the people that would be late and their careers would just wither away.
Before, I’d wanted to use broadcasting as a step into filmmaking, The doorway into a comics career wasn’t apparent to me until my friend Charlie Custis saw me storyboarding a screenplay, and piled all these great comics on me I’d missed in the mid-’80s to encourage me to draw it as a comic. This is when I heard comics referred to as, “the poor man’s movie medium.” He then dragged me into my first comic book shop and introduced me to Steven T. Seagle, who had just had his first comic Kafka published. Steve mentored me in the ways of getting published and other valuable info. I reconnected with my childhood passion, completing childhood collections, and became obsessed with making comics. So this new love just took over my life. Every effort is to continually progress to make the best comics I’m capable of.
I wanted to be a part of this history. I wanted to be a part of this medium, and the only thing I was ever this passionate about is Laura. I just was crazy in love with this art form and just spilled everything into it, learning the history of it and finding as much inspiration from the past, discovering early creators like Roy Crane, as much as contemporary ground-breakers like the Hernandez Brothers, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, David Mazzucchelli, etc…
So any new experiment there is a record of it, because, yes, very little gets thrown away. I rarely even sketch anymore. I'll have my scripts, and then on my scripts I'll do little thumbnails to break everything down, and then almost always go immediately to the boards.
I want to ask about you as a writer too, because in those Image years, a lot of themes started to emerge, especially in Atomics, and then Madman and the Atomics. These deeper questions that had been lurking in the background of Madman suddenly got really pushed forward.
And maybe I'm reading a little too much into it, but it seemed like a reconciliation happening between the earliest issues of Madman, which were darker and the all ages shift that happened after. You took all these things and in a very non-comic booky way directly addressed them. The comic booky thing to do would've been to ignore continuity entirely and pretend the eyeball incident never happened. That's what they would've done in the old Marvel days, but you directly referenced it! Was that conscious?
It became very conscious. The earlier work was very subconscious. Over time I realized how much of my personal stuff was actually spilling into Madman and people would actually even say, "Hey, you look like your characters." I'm like, what? Then I would think, Matt Wagner looks like Mage and Dave Stevens looks like The Rocketeer. Maybe that's just something that naturally happens. But I think more important was how much of my subconscious was spilling into my work and things that I've always dwelled on or been tortured by, or that I was passionate about. At some point I had an epiphany that I realized that I was Madman and that in a lot of ways, it was autobiographical.
Also, my earliest work was purely selfish, then as our kids started wanting to know what daddy does, I wanted to recreate the joy I experienced as a kid and became more aware of who might actually be reading my work, using them as a kind of all ages sounding board.
Maybe this is true with most writers. You only have your experiences or what you've absorbed, so of course a lot of you is going to be in all of the characters, but I came to the realization that I was Frank Einstein and that it was a good thing, and that I shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed or avoid using this vehicle to express myself even more. I allowed Frank Einstein to speak for me more. With that, through storytelling, I’ve been able to provide a commentary of everything. Everything that had happened before, everything that was happening, and everything that I was planning on having happen. That's really how that all came together and now whenever I want to really go deep into feelings and philosophy and existentialism…things that I enjoy or concern me…that's Frank Einstein.
These kinds of deep questions really come to the surface often. There's a page in the Superman/Madman crossover where Frank asks Superman if he believes in God. I'm a longtime Superman fan, and I know over the years he's flirted with Kryptonian religion and stuff, but Frank's question, it almost seems shocking that it was published. They're just sitting around having a discussion about life and god and the cosmos and it's a superhero comic, it's in the middle of superhero hijinks that you took the time to do that.
It's interesting you point to that, because of all of the scripts -- and it's three issues. I was concerned about that. Are they going to let me ask Superman if he believes in god? The one thing, one and only thing that I was asked to change was that in that scene. I had both characters sitting on a swing set and they would not allow Superman to sit on a swing set.
Again, I think I'm just one of the luckiest people ever. Also when you're saying a lot of the stuff that I dive into with my own solo work, the writers that I work with, everyone always taps into what-- I think they try to approach their writing for me.
Yes, I was going to say, because your Silver Surfer feels very similar to your solo work. And the various X books feel very much like Atomics. Do those writers just get you?
I think so. The few times I’ve worked with Neil Gaiman, his scripts read like letters. He was writing to me. In the script he would actually call me by name. "I was thinking, Michael, for this particular panel." It was a conversation. It was really eye-opening to see that he was absolutely tailoring this to me. I've come to realize that a lot of writers do that, at least with me they do. Maybe what they perceive to be as either my strengths or my interests, and this is why I've really been drawn into various collaborations with the best writers in the business.
It's just a joyful experience where it feels like it was with Lee and I growing up, where we're playing. We're telling stories.
Whenever it's obvious to me that a writer wants me to be interested in our collaboration, of course I will be, because I'm involved. I'm a part of it. I don't get protective about what my ideas were or what my suggestions were. That ego stuff is of no importance to me at all. For me, I just want to make the best comics possible, because that's my passion. They have my name on it. I don't feel I have to say, that was mine and that was mine. Those X characters I created all by myself and those were Peter [Milligan]’s. I don't feel the need to do that. Casually in conversation I might go, "Oh, yes, that idea came from there and that was mine then Peter decided to do that or I said this to Dan and the next thing I know it's here." It flows very naturally. And now, I’m currently working with Mark Russell on this massive Superman epic, we just click and it's so awesome when that happens.
The major theme in all of your work, even your collaborations, is spirituality, and these deeper questions. But you did also create an adaptation of a chunk of the Book of Mormon. Were you at all nervous about doing an overtly religious book?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. Apologies but I feel another whirlwind coming on…
This was just after we’d finished our first Marvel mutant run with X-Force and X-Statix. Laura and I, we bought a cabin on a lake that's connected to the ocean. I think the Oregon Dunes are the largest expanse of coastal dunes in North America. You can actually get out on the dunes and see nothing but sand. You can get lost in these dunes, like you would in the Sahara, they're that expansive.
It's like going through this alien landscape. When you either hike across these dunes or kayak through the creek, when you get to the beach, there are no humans around. It's completely void of humanity, and it's haunting. When we visited out there, we just felt peaceful, and this was after 9/11 happened. When we were out there, and felt this escape, we thought, "Well, let's do this. Let's at least find a little escape here."
We found a cabin and bought it as a vacation weekend home, and found that we wanted to spend a lot of our time out there. Eventually, it became too remote, but in this time period, we decided that we liked the security of being out there so much that we would just build onto our cabin and live out there. This became a seven year detour into becoming pretty reclusive, where I almost took a 180 into construction working with our contractor learning almost everything needed to build a house. Excavation, foundation, framing, roofing, electrical, drywall, tiling…everything but plumbing. It was therapeutic.
For my entire life, I struggled with existentialism. When I was a little kid- I've told this story way too many times, so forgive me, but it is who I am. It was a summer night, bedtime was way too early, because it was still light outside, and I'm in bed, trying to fall asleep. I'm looking up at the ceiling, and the ceiling opened up, and I saw the sky, and the sky opened up and I saw stars.
I went beyond the stars and beyond the stars, I started contemplating, "Where do the stars end? How far does outer space go, and where does it end? What's there? Is there a barrier? If there is, how thick is the barrier? Then what's beyond that, and what's beyond that, and what's beyond that, and what's beyond that?" The next thing I know, I'm screaming my head off.
I'm just screaming my head off in terror. My mom comes running into the room, and I'm just asking her, "How long is forever? Where was I before I was here? Will I die? And then what?." She's like, "Oh, you'll go to heaven." I'm like, "How do you know there's a heaven?" My brain was exploding, and she calmed me down by simply saying, "Wait, just stop thinking, and just think about one thing. What are you going to do tomorrow? Are you going to play with your friends? What are you going to do?" I started thinking about what I was going to do the next day.
This was the first of what I'll refer to as…these “Eternity Flashes.” Shocking visions of infinity, and they happen almost regularly every four to five years. When it happens, all reality is questionable. Important to know, my dad was a shrink, and [he] didn't know what to do with me when this happened [laughs]. Always, when this would happen to me, it was like existence became so clear to me in this surreal way, that it frustrated me that nobody else clearly saw what I was seeing or understood what was happening to me.
I would try to explain what happened to me, and it would get worse every time. I would say worse because the effect lasted longer. The first one was a few minutes, and then the next one would be like it'd take me a couple of days to get back to, quote, “normal.” The last one a couple years ago, was the first one that was less impactful than the one before. Hopefully [I’m] getting better at pushing away. The one before this last one was the worst, where it was a good three months where I just could not completely relate to my real life.
That first time it happened, I was a kid. Laura and I were still teenagers when we got married, and when it first happened with her my communication skills were even more lacking than they are now. In fact, it almost ruined our marriage right out of the gate because I was in this place questioning everything. She thought I was questioning her, that I had made a mistake, that I wish I hadn't married her. I didn't have the vocabulary or tools to explain, "No, no, no, it's not that. It's something else." And, of course, it had only happened maybe four severe times before that.
Then, the next time it happened, I was able to say, "Remember that? Well, it's happening again." The thing is, I would always try to shake it off. Eventually she knew that I would just work through it, and then I'd get back to normal again.
Then, this one particular time I told her, "Well, here we go again, it's happening again." She said, "Well, why do you fight it off? Why don't you try to see where it's taking you?" And with her by my side I thought, "Huh? Okay."
So I just let the thoughts go where they were going, and ZOWIE! I nearly went insane. It was months before I could find my footing again. In fact, at one point the family went to the movies, where I could usually count on some level of distraction or escape. But not this time, and on the way home, I'm saying, "Laura, I think you might want to take me to the hospital." But instead Laura, who was also raised Mormon, took me to her folks who’d just moved up to Oregon from California and she asked her dad to give me a blessing. A healing prayer.
When we were kids, before my folks got divorced, we were active Mormons, and in Roseburg, Oregon, about an hour south from where we live now, we could actually walk down the hill [to church]. We lived just a couple blocks up the hill from this idyllic downtown. As children we would go to church on Sunday, and that would be Sunday school and Sacrament meeting, and then there would be the youth activities and whatnot.
You'd learn about Jesus Christ and heaven, and Joseph Smith and the history of the church, and the Golden Plates that were given to Joseph Smith that became the Book of Mormon and all of this stuff…it's what you're taught, like anybody raised in any religion. Obviously, it's part of your identity.
In the Mormon faith, you're taught of the pre-existence, that we were spirits before we were given bodies, coming to Earth to get bodies, to experience existence in our bodies, and then return to our heavenly parents after we die and then move on to the next level of existence.
Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother and a Heavenly Father. That they were once like us, and that over the eons, we will also create life on our own planets, and it's a cycle that just goes on endlessly. All of this stuff is just feeding my subconscious, so I'm sure it had a huge impact on why these things hit me the way they do, but also, I've yet to meet anybody else that suffers it the way that I do.
I wouldn't want anybody to suffer, but it would be nice to have somebody who said, "This is how I deal with it," and I have been able to manage it better as I get older, but it is a discipline of trying to just not entertain the thoughts, because it just takes me. I literally see visions. I lose touch with reality, and so when this happened living out on the coast, you got trees, water, sand, ocean, and everything…it's even more of a detachment in a lot of ways.
When we first got the place, you could only get there by boat. We had to carve a road into it, so the isolation and having the experience out there in the isolation was impactful in a way, where I thought, I need to dig in here.
I actually have the journal of my great great grandfather, Reddick Allred, twin brother of Redden Allred. They were among the earliest members of the church. They were pals with Joseph Smith, who gave our family a sword.
So Reddick and his family left the East, persecuted and forced out of their homes. They pioneered across the entire country with Brigham Young, eventually settling the Salt Lake Valley. He and his twin were the first missionaries to go to the Sandwich Islands. The journal contains all his trials and challenges. He suffered from pleurisy rescuing other pioneers trapped in the snow. Writing about Native Americans attacking, or befriending [them]. There's just this wealth of material of this man, and it turns out that I'm the product of the third wife of [his] polygamous marriages.
In this isolated head space out on the coast, reading this journal, I was inspired to take a deep dive into actually studying all the scriptures, Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, everything. I wanted to understand, and not just take for granted this stuff taught to us on Sundays growing up, when I just wanted to get home and watch TV, or read comic books.
It's stunning to me how many people in all faiths don't study the materials that their faiths are built on. They often simply accept what their pastor or their priest or their guru or their TV evangelist or parents tells them what to believe. Often without context. It’s like a religious game of Telephone.
For instance, In the Old Testament, there's next to nothing about God being against homosexuality, next to nothing, but the people that are against homosexuality just cling to anything to support their argument or perspective, again, without context.
If you read further you’ll find a laundry list of all kinds of absurdities to avoid “‘cuz God says so” that no one adheres to. The more you study it, the more you realize it's a giant mess, that these are books that have been translated and retranslated countless times, with various generations of leadership taking stuff out, and others putting stuff in, suiting whoever is in charge throughout history. Far from a perfect definitive message from God.
You just can't logically argue that, especially the Old Testament, is of God, and to a large extent, the New Testament, and so a lot of the bragging rights of the Mormon faith is that the Book of Mormon is the most pure scripture because it was translated directly from God. But then the more you study, the more the flaws appear to you there as well. I don’t want to take anything from anyone that finds comfort in their scriptures. But objectively, not perfect.
The first rule of almost any faith is not to question it, but that's all I've ever done my entire life is question everything. These experiences that I have, forced me to question everything, to question all, every aspect of reality, I question it.
Then is The Golden Plates your version, or-
No, it is [a] direct, as faithful as possible visual adaptation of the events in the Book of Mormon. I skipped over a lot of the gobbledygook, there's lots and lots of quoting Isaiah, for instance. What I wanted to do was have an easily accessible tool for people who are interested in knowing what the Book of Mormon is. A visual representation of the events. Then when reading the scriptures, a clear visual detailed context of who is saying what, when, and why.
But first and foremost I wanted to know for myself. Why was my mother so devout in the faith? And why did my father quietly reject it even though he was devoutly raised in it as well?
I started on it, and got a nice chunk done, and the biggest book distributor in the church is Deseret Book Company, who made an exclusive distribution deal with us. It was a no-brainer with massive reach to church members around the world. And we retained the right to distribute into comic shops.
And so we're up and running. There were big newspaper articles in Utah, and it was a big deal. Even before starting I wrote to the church leadership telling them what I was hoping to do, and that if they didn't want me to do it, to tell me, and I wouldn't do it. I got a letter back saying that they don't tell people what to do and what not to do. So I set about adapting it into a series of graphic novels.
The first volume was hugely successful. Lots of fanfare that sustained us through three volumes. By the way, we self-published this through AAA Pop. This was actually the last thing that I think that we ever self-published.
It quickly became clear that it was perceived [either] as a very positive thing or a very negative thing. We heard from Church leaders who were thrilled to see it was inspiring folks towards a deeper understanding of the Book of Mormon, but then there were others who [said] it was like the devil at play, and that this was an evil thing, and that I had taken sacred text and had demeaned it. It's a comic book, and nobody should go anywhere near it. Someone related to us how they had offered a copy to a bishop and he recoiled from it like a vampire from garlic. We all know since the '50s, there's been this prejudice against comic books, and it reared its ugly head in this particular way here.
Then, what happened was, it was consistently selling out through multiple printings, but then, people were writing to us saying, "Hey, we can't get it anymore," and I was like, "Oh, just go to Deseret Books or go online and get it online from Deseret Books," and they're like, "They don't have it."
This one major entity, our exclusive Church distributor just stopped ordering it, even though there was still this massive demand for it. I can take a hint.
So, when I was just starting work on the fourth volume, Laura came in, and said, "We need to get regular work again. [chuckles] In a couple of months, we're not going to have any money." Sales from comic shops weren't going to cover us. And our main artery for sales had theoretically been severed.1
I essentially had to restart my career. Then we were saved by the super cool Matt Fraction! We always love hanging out with Matt and his better half Kelly Sue [DeConnick]. Matt and I had often talked about working together, and here, out of the blue, he's like, "Hey, you want to do FF with me?" Yeah, baby! And that reignited my relationship with Marvel, which has been pretty consistent ever since.
Also around this time, we decided to move back to civilization, and started traveling again, going to different shows again.
Most of my DC work until recently, has been with Vertigo, which has since gone away, and special projects, like with Mark Chiarello, or Gerad Way’s Young Animal imprint. But around that same time, I started doing iZombie with Chris Roberson through Shelly Bond at Vertigo. Then that got turned into a TV series, and blah blah blah, yada yada yada. Anyway, it was probably around that same time that I started doing Madman Atomic Comics.
Well, it's interesting because having reread all of Madman and now having read Golden Plates, you see the influence and how it fed right back into it. Like I was saying, right around that time is when Madman goes deep, and those moments of revelation from your own life clearly influenced Madman.
Yes. I've also finally come to terms with where…I'm not active in the church anymore. That's a sentence that would've pained me to say 20 years ago. Even though, funny enough, I've been largely inactive for most of my life, there are times where Laura will be like, "Oh, we need to go back." We do have good friends that we like visiting with and stuff, but church has never been my…I've never enjoyed [it], it's not my first choice.
I’ll just say there are other things I would rather do, and other places I would rather be than church. I am just being honest. By just saying that, it can be one of the most offensive things that you can say to some people, but I'm just being honest. When certain things happened, we both realized, "You know what? We just don't want to be there." It was liberating.
My mom was the main catalyst for guilt in being active or inactive. Dad was always the searcher. Dad was always the philosopher. He always wanted to understand, this is one of the big things I have in common with him. I want to understand what makes people the way they are. Why are you who you are? What do you believe in? What do you not believe in? What is important to you? Are you spiritual? Are you not spiritual? One of my best buddies claims to be an atheist. I'll be like, "Well, from what I understand, an atheist is somebody that knows that God doesn't exist," and he's a urologist.
"Well, science would tell you that God does not exist," and it's like, "Well, these scientists over here tell you that he does, or it does," or there is some creative force. There is some reason or order to the universe. My philosophy can be summed up in one line from a David Bowie song and that is, "Knowledge comes with death's release." We can all argue about this stuff, we can fight about it, war over it, but ultimately none of us will really know anything until we're dead. [laughs]
Well, that's a great segue into talking about Bowie. As a fan of both yours and Bowie, it was amazing to see. It’s just overflowing with art. Were you at all intimidated by it?
Not for a second. In fact, it was another example of just opening the floodgates. Bowie and The Beatles are the musical entities that have never lost any momentum for me. I will never tire of their music. I will never tire of their ideas, their storytelling. In fact, The Beatles and Bowie tell better stories than any other songwriters that I've come across, from Eleanor Rigby to Major Tom.
It's like when I listen to The Beatles and Bowie, the imagery just flows through me. I have lots of favorite music, but very rarely does any new music reach me to any impactful level. I’m always looking for new inspirations, but nothing ever impacts me like those first favorites. I'm open to all music, but there's probably less than 20 artists that I'm keenly in love with, that are just important to me and I'm obsessive about.
It's the storytelling. To me, Bowie was a science fiction writer, making music.
Absolutely, and that's the thing. See, The Beatles were always there for me. They were a presence from my earliest memories, but after the divorce, when it was just me and Dad, and I was still buying comic books, I would go down to Payless Drug Store, just walk downtown.
Next to the comic book spinner rack is the magazine rack. On the magazine rack, this image jumped out at me and it was Creem magazine, and the cover was David Bowie with his wife at the time, Angie Bowie. They looked like they were in space suits. He didn't have eyebrows and his eyes looked weird, and it was like, what is this? He looked like an alien from outer space.
I went and I looked at the magazine, and leafed through it, and it had a centerfold of the Diamond Dogs album cover, which had just come out. This is 1974, and it had the uncensored image. The image where he's half human and then from the waist down, he's a dog.
It’s in the book, as is the Creem cover, right? That's in there too.
Yes. But so this is the first time that I discovered an artist completely independently on my own, because before this, it was what my cousin Robin was into, or what Lee was into. That would influence me, but for me seeing that image, was like, oh, I [have] got to know what this is. Walking home, there was a music store called Rickett’s Music, and they had the Rebel Rebel ‘45, which is different from the album version. On the flip side is "Lady Grinning Soul", which was from Aladdin Sane, two albums prior.
His album in between was Pin Ups, which was a covers album. Anyway, I buy the ‘45, I want to know what this is. I go home and I listen to it, and it just blew my mind, and I just kept flipping it over and over again. The single version of "Rebel Rebel" just drives, it's just, [makes percussion sounds] and has this really cool, weird, distorted, background, vocal thing going, wa wa wa, and then you flip it, and then it's "Lady Grinning Soul", which is to this day, the sexiest song I've ever heard in my life.
Now, I'm just about to hit puberty at this time. The sexiness of rock and roll was starting to come at me. When my crush [Gwen Stacy] gets murdered in Spider-Man, and then I'm like, forget this, I'm not buying comics anymore. I'm just buying all this cool glam rock. Bowie leads me to Mott The Hoople and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Roxy Music and T-Rex, and of course, still and always loving The Beatles.
I'm then also buying all the other British invasion stuff with The Who, The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Rolling Stones. Later prog stuff, Jethro Tull, and of course Led Zeppelin. All of this stuff is just full of sexiness, just sexy sexiness all over the place, and also great storytelling like Tommy, The Who, for instance. Then, shortly after that, the Ken Russell movie Tommy comes out, just crazy wild visually. All of this stuff is just really hitting me hard, but with Bowie, what was amazing about this, I had never heard of him before.
Here I am, this is my discovery, I find this entity and I go back, and so I then-- I buy the Diamond Dogs album and [it] blows me away. A lot of people don't regard it as a high point in his career. For me, in many ways, it's my all-time favorite album, but then I loved it so much. What is great about this was, I had all of this other wonderful material immediately accessible to me.
In a very short period of time with my paper route money, I bought all the previous albums, going backwards. You have your Pin Up, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, and the album which is now known as the Space Oddity album. He had done some previous stuff, and that was collected on a double disc called Images, which had an epic comic book style cover.
You have all of these comic book panels wrapped around this double album that opened up like a gatefold. That was all of his stuff, coming home with me all within just weeks of each other. It was just this flood of Bowie-ness, and there's a wide variety of styles throughout all of this, but the most consistent thing throughout are the sci-fi elements of it. Then the costuming, I was-- again, this is pre-puberty, so initially i’m not consciously thinking about it sexually. It was simply flat-out gloriously inspiring!
The visual impact, and the images in my head largely impacted my aesthetics. As I'm drawing, and I was always drawing, and the costuming [was] so much like superhero costumes. Then, the ambiguity of everything and the-- Is he a man? Is he a woman? Is he both? None of this was offensive to me, or scary, or strange. Also, it never challenged my sexuality either. [I was] never confused, always intrigued.
When I would share this stuff with my friends or take magazines or do drawing at school, then moving into junior high, you got the lovers, "Hey, this is amazing stuff.” Then, you also got the haters and ugliness from homophobes, quick to throw out the ol’ f-word. At that time, that's the worst thing anybody could call you. Fighting words. I scrapped for Bowie.
There was a loyalty to this artist that provided so much joy, whatever his sexuality was, it did not matter to me. It didn't make me like him less or like him more, it was part of the mystery of it. Bowie was this amazing entity that I discovered, and nobody was going to stop me from loving this artist.
When you decided to do the book, did you pull out the archives? Because flipping through the book, I can identify so many specific images. It seems like you used a ton of reference for this thing.
Absolutely. Oh, no doubt about it. To explain how it came about, I got an email from Steve Horton saying, "Hey, you're obviously a Bowie fan, if I could get a deal, would you want to do a book with me on Bowie?" I wrote back, "You get a deal that I can live with, then, absolutely." The guy went out and he put a deal together.
We agreed to focus on the creation of Ziggy Stardust as the main bulk of the book. For years and years, Bowie tried really hard to be successful, as the book shows you. Then, finally with Ziggy Stardust, not only is he finally commercially successful, but it explodes beyond that, and also because they paid to make him look successful, he went into horrible debt. It wasn't until the '90s, that Bowie not only finally got into the black, but then became massively wealthy.
Right. The book touches on that a little bit, but it wasn’t until the Bowie Bonds era when he finally got all his recordings back and made serious money.2
You really focused on his most visual years.
Right. When I would buy albums, I would then-- dad got me a drafting board, and I would draw my own album covers and pinups, and the fan pictures. Today, If you're a St. Vincent fan, or say a Lady Gaga fan, you draw a picture of Lady Gaga, and you send it to Lady Gaga via social media, posting it on Instagram or something, but back in the day, you would send it to these fanzines and whatnot. Bowie had a fanzine, and that sort of thing.
You would start by copying the album covers. I would draw, I would copy the Diamond Dogs cover, or I would copy the cover to Pin Ups. Then, I would also do my independent drawings, where I'm drawing Ziggy Stardust with the rocket pack and ray guns. Just the imagery [in] like Moonage Daydream, “Press your space face close to mine, love. Put your raygun to my head.”
How cool for a kid? Rayguns, and it just lit me up. I'm just drawing the stuff. When after decades of just loving everything this artist did, and then leaving us, it was like, I don't ever want anybody to forget this great artist, and I want to spill everything I can of my love and appreciation for this artist. That's what I did. I just went back to that teenage fan, who just wanted to just draw my favorite images of him, and integrate them into the storytelling. The iconic images were a priority like they were when I was a kid.
Steve quickly wrote a draft that I used as an outline. I didn’t have the time or patience for much back and forth. I’ll be forever grateful to him for making the book happen, and showed my gratitude for including almost everything he wrote. But there was so much I wanted to include and just went nuts with it. Even to the point where I hand-lettered it, because I wanted to make sure that the lettering integrated with the artwork. It wasn't just digitally pasted over, which is how most everything's done now.
I posted a picture of the stack of books, almost as tall as me, that I went through to double check our events and discovered so much more. Learning that I didn’t know everything about Bowie, igniting my obsession and goals to new levels.
It was a blast! I was able to rough it out, hand-letter it, and then I knew exactly how much room I had for the imagery. You don't have a balloon cutting off part of a head or something, unless that's what you intend. It took way more time because I'm not a great letterer, and one of the biggest surprises of my career was to get an Eisner nomination for best letterer.3 I was actually telling people, "Please, these other people deserve it, do not vote for me." [chuckles] But I loved that it was appreciated, that I made that effort. And though we originally wanted it to be about Ziggy Stardust, there’s representation of his entire life, from childhood, and then several pages of montage to his passing in the back of the book.
Before the full book, Bowie clearly crept into some of your other work, I mean Red Rocket 7-
Red Rocket 7 is Bowie! Bowie actually wrote on New Killer Star. He says, "I saw my life in a comic," that's Red Rocket 7.4
Is it just me, or is the entity that Frank speaks to in that haunted house issue - Zacheous, I think his name is. Was that Bowie too?
That's the most Bowie. That's the most obvious blatant that I-
He's got the circle on the head, right? Like it's-
Oh, yes, that's Ziggy Stardust. Then, of course, Red Rocket 7, the original alien and then all the clones and, especially 7, who is the musical clone, I mean, he has the red hair and whatnot, but then David Bowie himself is in the actual history of rock and roll throughout RR7. You have the main character, who is inspired by David Bowie, and then you actually have the real life documentary David Bowie in the series.
Would you consider doing another, if not Bowie, then another musical graphic novel?
I can tell you that I'm a third of the way through the next one right now. It's not Bowie, but I did immediately do a cover for a possible second Bowie book, in the same motif as my first one, where it's just his head and shoulders, but as the Thin White Duke. At some point, I would like to keep going on to detailing the rest of his life. I think the way I outlined it, I could do the rest in a second volume, but it's a matter of time. And I don’t have much of that.
I love working with various collaborators so much, this Superman book with Mark Russell has been just such an amazing, wonderful surprise. I'm currently also working with Peter Milligan, who I've worked with so much. Dan Slott and I are making plans. I'm talking with Brian Bendis about doing something with him again. It's really frustrating to not have more time, because there's so many things that I want to do, and I want to do them now.
I'm almost always working on at least two, sometimes three things at the same time. It can get overwhelming, but because I'm loving it so much, it just keeps powering me on.
With all the stuff you're working on, then I do have to ask, are you going to return to Madman? Is Frank still on tour?
Oh, man. I have hundreds of pages of story to get to. While I'm working on anything, an idea will pop into my head, and I just put it into the ever-expanding outline…and then this happens, and then this happens. I almost have to force myself not to revisit the outline, because I then get frustrated. I'm always working on something with Frank Einstein, but other projects where other people are involved, take priority.
I don't ever want to let anybody down. Frank has become my free time project, and I rarely have any free time, so it's impossible for me to ever tell all of the stories that I want to tell with Frank.
Do you plan to set aside some time to get one of those down on paper anytime soon, or you've just got too much stuff to get to it?
Yes. I tell myself that, but then stuff happens. Again, I would be working on it now, but then Mark Russell and our editor, Britney [Holzherr], who worked with Jamie Rich, when he was at DC. All of a sudden, "Hey, here's this Superman thing," and it's like, bucket list. I can't turn this away. If you were to set me down and ask me what I would want to do with a Superman book, this is it. And now we're talking about what character, or characters to follow it up with.
Again, I’ll happily get an email or a phone call from a favorite collaborator I love working with and I get lit up finding how to slot it in. I love working on Madman so much. It’s my heart and soul, my ultimate happy place. But it’s my most selfish endeavor. The thing is I already know what happens with Madman, and so these projects with these collaborators that I love working with, it's a mystery. It’s the thrill of turning the page and finding out, what happens next?
I don't have that with Madman. Couple that with what I said before that I don't want to let my collaborators down, I have to put them first, and make sure that I get this stuff out on time. That's where I'm at. Yes, I do set aside time, but then something fills in that time. It's the old “offer you can't refuse” scenario. That's exactly where I am with Superman: The Space Age, having the best time on this. I just finished drawing a panel with Swamp Thing, The Flash, and The Atom. I can't wait for people to see this, and why they're in a panel together. That's why I love doing this. I also want everyone out there asking…what happens next?!
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- The Allreds completed three of what was intended to be 12 volumes of The Golden Plates. In separate correspondence, Michael confirmed that while they have been approached to complete the series, he is too busy with other work, while also slightly traumatized from the previous publishing experience to consider it at this time.
- While hardly destitute, David Bowie’s finances were mismanaged for decades. In the late ‘90s, he issued what were called “Bowie Bonds” that gave investors a share of his royalties for 10 years, and allowed him to raise the funds to purchase the master recordings to his albums from EMI, and fully take control of his music. Earlier this year, that catalog (plus others recorded before his death in 2016) was sold by his estate to Warner Brothers for a figure reported to be upwards of $250 million.
- Michael received 2021 Eisner nominations for Best Penciller/Inker and Best Lettering for his work on Bowie, while Laura Allred was nominated for Best Coloring. Both Allreds won awards, although Michael only won the single one for his artwork.
- The song New Killer Star appears on David Bowie’s 2003 album Reality, which came out six years after Red Rocket 7. In the song, Bowie sings: