The Michael Zulli Interview

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Michael Zulli is one of a handful of trained artists who began drawing comics in 1980s and helped shape a new, more illustrative, look for the medium. Comics readers know Zulli for a series of collaborations with Neil Gaiman including “The Wake” story arc in Sandman, The Last Temptation, Creatures of the Night. He wrote and drew the acclaimed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Soul’s Winter and was a regular contributor to the legendary anthology Taboo.

In the past decade Zulli has published two books, The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch in 2007 and The Fracture of the Universal Boy in 2011, but has spent much of his time and energy painting and is currently preparing an exhibition of recent work. He described comics as having left him behind, but he did return to the medium last year with a new comic.

Zulli’s first work in comics was The Puma Blues, a collaboration with writer Stephen Murphy, that was the first comic each them ever made. The series was part environmental fable, part science fiction story, that touches on many of the issues that became much more central to 1990’s culture in works like The Invisibles and The X-Files and elsewhere. The series also started life in one of those funny stories when the duo gave an eight page story to Dave Sim, who offered to publish it. Dover collected the series late last year along with an epilogue from Murphy and Zulli made for this volume. The series has always dark, but the epilogue was bleak, though it does contain a glimmer of hope.

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I have to admit that before this collection was published, I had never read The Puma Blues, or even heard of it. Though I was too young to have read them when they were originally published.

I don’t blame you, actually. Those days were the wild west of comics, really. There was a lot of very good things that happened and a lot of weird things that happened. I can’t say bad necessarily, but weird. At that point in history there was more than one distributor in the United States. People were self-publishing or there were small press imprints that were producing a whole variety of different things. It was the beginnings of what I saw as potentially a quite interesting period in the medium. The birth pains of growing up. Of course it didn’t work out that way. [laughs] One by one they all toppled and well now there is a comics industry in North America. At the time it seemed like it was possible really to really stretch or even burn the envelope entirely to get to a new place where the medium itself–which is always been creative and vital and largely misunderstood as a junk culture–could grow up and flourish and entertain any segment of society that it wished to.

It was on that premise that Stephen and I originally got together as completely and utterly void entities, really. On the day we approached Dave [Sim] at a small local comic shop in the area, we had eight pages of Puma drawn and basically done. At the time we were thinking the best place to go would be one of the smaller independent publishers. Back then a lot of them would have a main feature and then an eight page backup story that might change from month to month. We thought our best chances were to get into doing eight pages every two weeks for one of these things. When [Dave Sim] said, can you do twenty pages plus a cover a month I opened my mouth and said, yeah. From there it was a done deal. We both walked away looking at each other like, what are we going to do? The only training I ever had in comics was, believe it or not, I’d gone to the local bookstore and bought How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. [laughs] Which was a complete disaster, but I did learn a few things that I found technically appropriately. To this day I still cannot draw a comics page with blue pencil. I tried but I just hated the damn thing. The learning curve was daunting to say the least.

This is first comic that either of you ever did. How did you meet?

I had just come off about seven years of largely trying to support myself as a wildlife artist. I did manage to eke out a living. I’ve always been interested in the natural world and had tried to depict it with some fidelity. I was just burnt out. I happened to stumble across this new thing that a studio assistant of mine had come across called a comics shop. He told me where one was and I went there and the two things that I bought happened to be an issue of Epic Illustrated that contained Barry Windsor-Smith’s The Beguiling, and Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright. Between the two of them I just had this ridiculous epiphany–as all epiphanies usually are–and I thought if comics can do this, then that’s what I want to do. I want to work on that level. I began practicing on my own. At the same time I discovered Cerebus. I was absolutely dead impressed by that.

I went to another comics shop in the area and I asked the manager there if he knew a writer and he said there’s an employee of his named named Stephen. I arranged to meet him and we talked and we both had the same kind of goal, it turned out. We got along well. I found his ideas interesting and persuasive. He started writing me little snippets of things and I would do a practice page or two. We did a short five page story just in pencil. That got lost in the bowels of time somewhere. We took it to the next step and put Puma together. We’d done the first eight pages and that’s what we showed to Dave that day. If you look at the first eight-ten issues if you look closely you can see me as far as my work is struggling to find an identity. I was looking early Swamp Thing that Bissette was doing. I was looking at Dave’s stuff and how he was composing pages. I’m basically riffing off of that. Then I started settling into my own routine along with the scripts because Steven has a very interesting way of piling up panels on pages that’s pretty much his own, which I admire quite a bit. That started affecting the way I laid out a page. From there, at least to a certain degree, we started acquiring our own identities. It was a terrible amount of work, really, but the time seemed to go so fast. Issue by issue it seemed like we were breaking different ground all the time. It was a wonderful experience really.79813-5_Puma_lowres 21

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I didn’t know you were a nature artist, but you put so much care and detail in your art. You even have an early chapter “Empire of the Senses” which is almost completely nature scenes.

The title of that was ripped off of a song by Bill Nelson. When I read the script I thought, that just fits. You have may noticed there’s a lot of Bowie references in there, too. I always loved that line and it seemed to suit the character and his ongoing fascination with his father’s videotapes and things. Music has always informed by work. It’s a very important part of my work. I’m one of those people who cannot work in silence. I always used to have a local college FM station on while I was working that was really superb back in the day, WWUH in Hartford.

I think possibly I might have a mild case of synesthesia of some sort because growing up in a musical family I’d been around music all my life. My father was a jazz musician and so I grew up attending rehearsals and band meetings. I have a deep abiding memory of my father writing music arranging and writing music when I was small. Music is in my blood, in a way. I grew up with it. It’s one of those things I can’t really live without while I’m working. Styles and interests have changed over the years but it’s always been a constant companion while I work. I think for Steven too. I don’t know if he worked in silence or not but underneath the surface of Puma there’s a lot of musical influences. Which I don’t know if people would really get. Even the first issue involved music. Poor Rodney, that was taken from a Doors song I think. My then-girlfriend who was a partially trained musician transcribed it. The musical notation in the book is pretty accurate. I’m not sure. I don’t read music myself.

You and Stephen incorporated music throughout the book.

I always tended to think that the book was deeply vested in Gavia’s personal mindset. What we were really doing was taking an abstract look at his psycho-spiritual process along the way. It’s really part of the character and his mind. For me personally, when I’m building a character I always try to conceptualize some kind of psychological or spiritual underpinning of the character. That helps inform them physically–how they gesture, how they stand, how they sit, facial expressions. For me, characters become fully formed entities in my head.

What was it like returning to Gavia and this world after so long?

It was odd when we were doing the new stuff because that’s really not the way I draw right now. It is the way I drew Puma then–but thirty years on. It’s almost like there was no break in the actual continuity. I found that very very both moving and somewhat disturbing. [laughs] That I could fall into it that easily. It was deeply unexpected and not unwelcome, but it did come as a surprise that it came to easily. I really thought I’d have to labor at it to get myself back into that headspace, but lo and behold, it just happened. It seemed like one of those things just meant to happen. My working state is much different from that, but that’s Puma for you. It really was just picking up a thread and following it through the wood to its conclusion. It was nearly effortless. It was the good old days all over again, in a way, except a lot of baggage had been cleared so there was no impediment to it. I really just enjoyed the whole thing top to bottom. I continue to be extremely grateful to Drew and to Stephen for giving me the chance to tie up those ends. It was a wonderful experience.

When collecting the series was proposed, was it always with the idea of making an epilogue of some kind?

We had to quit too soon. Where it stopped just happened to be a good place for it to stop–him standing alone in the desert. I just love the way we segued as quickly as possible from the past to the present tense, at least in Gavia’s world. It worked really well, in my opinion, instead of picking up from the last panel. That probably would have been terribly difficult. As an old man dying of cancer we get to see the world through his experience and his hindsight. It really is a much grimmer place than when we left. It was bad enough then, but wow. It’s not a cheerful book, let’s put it that way. We did do things like videoconferencing, the armored taxi cabs, the terrorist attack on New York City, things like that that seems vaguely prescient.The industrial-military complex. Environmental degradation, which seems to be still an issue. The vague utopian still within me believes it should have been solved or at least agreed upon by this point in time. It still hasn’t been even though everybody knows exactly what’s going on. Nothing really seems to change.

Puma was never a happy book, but the epilogue was grim. Is that the difference of 25-30 years and yours and Stephen’s changing perspectives?

In a lot of ways. We both believe very much the same things now that we did then. That things should be taken care of, and taken care of very quickly, but other interests have a different agenda. The end result was we basically screwed up right to the very bitter end. A lot of me honestly at this stage in my life believes that’s possible. I do not think it will come from atomic warfare because that would be bad for business. I don’t think nuclear armageddon is around the corner anytime soon unless some fringe nut does something horrible with one, which is always a possibility these days.

Part of me hopes that the human race as a whole has a collective unconscious, as Jung would put it, that’s actively trying to not kill us all and wipe us all out. If we do it will be out of sheer hubris, which I see a lot of these days even more than I did back then. As far as I’m concerned these days the drug of choice is oneself, with the rise of easily available technology that tends to turn the eye inward to the self. Unfortunately it doesn’t go deep enough, it only goes to the mundane day to day existence. For instance when I was flying home from New York in October I sat across the aisle from a young woman and she was going through photographs she’d taken and it was literally recounting her entire day. Everything she ate, everything she saw, everybody she talked to. I thought, you were just at a place where all these amazing creative people had gathered to express themselves and all you bothered to do was take pictures of what you were doing and eating? She’s a somnambulist. You’re asleep, you’re not looking, you’re not experiencing life. You’re just there to put images on your machine because you don’t feel real and you need some kind of evidence that you are here now other than participating in the life you’re living. I found that terribly sad. When I say the drug of choice these days is ourselves, I really mean it. We are our own amusement. How are we ever going to get anything done when we’re so absorbed in the minutiae of our own lives? I find that very sad and tragic and bittersweet. There’s a lot in this world that needs attending to and experiencing.

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The nature drawings in Puma especially, but so much of the detail in the book feels like an act of witness.

It is. It’s an idea that we’re surrounded in what scientists call the ecosphere, for lack of a better word. It’s this incredibly beautiful and sophisticated system and somehow we think we’re separate from it? I don’t think so. We are not superior to it, we are a part of it and we should take care of it because in doing so we take care of ourselves as a species, too. If not for nature and the earth’s own sake, do it at least for your sake and your children’s sake. That’s all we have got. One day somebody could stop your electricity. What are you going to do? You’re completely unprepared to think about life without your support systems. I don’t mean to be excessively grim. I see a lot of hope. I cling tenaciously to it, but at the same time, Puma is sort of a shot across the bow to wake the fuck up. Take a real good look around you and see what’s really there. Participate in it. Because like it or not you are part of it.

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That moment in the coda when Gavia dies, this vision of the universe bearing witness to itself. That everything is connected and everything matters.

At the heart of Puma there is a bright little glow. That’s what we were trying to express with the Coda. You see the Zoo kids unmasking. There’s a point where Gavia says let the women lead the next one. Well, the first zoo kid to unmask that you see is a woman. That book she’s kneeling in front of is his diary. In one sense it’s say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss, but also that someone else is potentially running the show. There’s a glimmer of hope there. Hold onto that.

When he dies, I was dreading it. It was very, very personal to me. I researched the faces of people who died of opiate overdose very closely. I tried to make it as accurate as possible. Ecce homo, you know. That was a very difficult page for me to draw. Personally, emotionally, it was wrenching. I don’t know if you’d call it a ridiculous epiphany, but I was relieved when that was over. I really was. That was the hardest page to do of all the series–of anything I did. I wanted it to feel that way. I wanted it to feel how he felt. I don’t know if I made it or not, but I did certainly give it my best.

It’s not a quiet or peaceful death, it’s a brutal and sad moment.

Given his back story, in a way it’s like a Greek tragedy, it all seems to be inevitable. How else can you see that character go? It had to be that way. The seeds of that was planted form the very first page.

If he was going to get old, he would have a hard death.

It does seem inevitable. That that’s the way it would go. There was a lot of love in that page. Gavia is someone I’ve lived with and interpreted for a very long time. That series made me me–the guy that went on to do The Wake and Alice Cooper and all of those things. I owe Gavia a great deal. I think of him as a person. I know he’s fiction, but there’s a definite psychological reality to him as a person that I feel deeply connected to and very fortunate to have been his interpreter in this physical world. I am a Jungian and I can get out there sometimes if I’m not curtailed.

I think the epilogue works and I think one reason it did was jumping ahead as it did, and so the epilogue becomes its own thing.

Well, Thank you. Hopefully we got that right. I think Stephen did. To my mind he took the right approach, as succinctly as possible running through the years up to the point where everything converges and the last act is played out. I found very strange that there’s one scene in the new stuff where Bowie is 93 and he’s fading out and sure as shit, not more than six or eight months later, he does. A lot of people took that really hard. I hadn’t taken anything that hard since Lennon died in ’80.

I wondered what you were working on now.

I’m planning an exhibition right now of collected works on paper. I have material from the first issue of Puma all the way up to my own book Fracture. And single pieces, original fine art.

One reason I wanted to ask is because in recent years you’ve moved away from doing comics.

Not by my own choice. The industry itself has become entirely unfriendly to people like me. I don’t see a lot in it now that interests me. There’s no room for someone as independent as I am anymore. It’s all very slick, monitored and the system grinds on continually shoving talent into the meat grinder and spitting it out the other end. I’m not about product. I invest a lot of myself into my work and that’s simply not an option much these days. The reign of the superhero has succeeded and anything else is lucky to survive. I’ve personally have always been very fond of the once or twice a year graphic volume like the French do. I always thought that was a more mature and expressive form than the weekly or monthly comic format. It’s far more artistic, open and expressive than the formula that’s currently operating here in North America. But that’s just my opinion. Just take it as the inane babblings of an old curmudgeon. [laughs] I would have no problem at all working in comics if there were something there for me to work on. It’s not my fault, kids!

A few years ago you wrote and drew The Fracture of the Universal Boy and you originally said that you would make more.

I had a second and third volume in the works, but I decided to cancel. There’s a lot of back story to that book that I’m afraid I can’t really discuss. What’s done is done. I did have the second volume entirely plotted out and it was going to be much different from the first one. Fracture was an exploration of creativity and what the creative person goes through to win the freedom to express themselves–and succeed in doing it, which I think at times I have. It’s not about me in general or in particular. I really did try to build a character who could symbolically represent this. For weeks I struggled with this. Since I know my own face as well as or better than anyone else I just figured I’d use a bit of me. I’m acting out the role to a certain extent, but it’s not really about me. It really is about the psycho-spiritual nexus of creativity.

There’s a long tradition of artists using their own faces for their work.

Goya did it, Rembrandt did it, Van Gogh did it. No particular set of features and characteristics were coming together that seemed to meld into a viable vehicle for the representation of the main character. I came up with basically a reworking of me. I don’t even totally look like that character but he resembles me in many respects. It’s an avatar in a way of a creative person. That’s all. Period. Moral of the story is, kids, don’t let your kids grow up to be artists because they are really going to take a lot of shit. [laughs] It’s not the most secure job position in the world.

I hate the term suffer for your art because you don’t suffer for your art. You suffer because you’re an artist, not for your work. Your work is a joy. Your work is always joy. You’re made to suffer for it because to do this on many levels you have to be an outsider from the group. You have to be the lone tree on a hill standing looking down at the forest. You have to separate yourself or you are separated just by the sheer fact that you have become an artistic entity. As soon as you do that the rest of the trees in that forest somehow find you suspicious and untrustworthy or odd. That you have some kind of narcissistic drive that is telling everybody else that somehow you’re privileged when in fact bearing an artistic gift takes a great deal of struggle a great deal of strength and endurance. It takes as much as it gives and the older and better you get at it, the more it takes and the more it gives. You never stop. The more you learn the less you know. You have to keep very very in touch with the muse and when that muse decides to go it’s one of the most painful things in the world. It’s like part of you is amputated. There’s an empty spot in your world and when it comes back, it’s pure joy. You fly. You fly and you fall. It’s a constant iteration of Icarus and Daedalus.

It was interesting to read Puma, which is some of your oldest and newest work.

My newest work nobody’s actually seen. Fracture came out a number of years ago and I’ve gone down many different paths since then. I hope it’s seen eventually. If comics lure me back–if there’s a collaboration with someone I feel has got something to say and wants me to help say it–I’d be more than happy to. With provisos, of course. I require a certain amount of autonomy to work, which these days I am stubbornly unwilling to give up. The more you give to the industry, the less they’ll take. You have to draw a line somewhere and I’ve drawn mine. We’ll see if we can meet somewhere and maybe make some real art for a change. But c’est la vie. I’m open to anything, really. That’s my current state of being.

I’m deeply grateful to Drew for pulling this together and I am immensely proud of this book. I just want to thank everybody that’s ever been involved and anybody that’s ever read it or will read it. It’s just wee little Michael trying to find his way through the woods and basically coming out somewhere on a good note. I don’t think my career is over yet. Not by a long shot. I plan to stick around and bug the fuck out of people for a long time. [laughs] It’s like an old blues guy, they stop playing when they die. One day I hope to die at my easel with a brush in my hand, and just slip quietly out the back door.