Comic Creator Interview
with Mark Oakley
Name: Mark Oakley
City: Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada
Comics: Thieves & Kings, Stardrop
QRD – How old were you when you first got into comics & did you always stick with them or did you come back to them?
Mark – Heck, I learned how to read from comics! I learned from Dennis the Menace digest sized comics & Family Circus collections. Then later, there was a deluge of Mad Magazine collections which hit the market back in the 80s, featuring the works of the various artists who had all contributed to that wonderfully subversive gag magazine. Those digests were all over the place in the 80’s, & they were eaten up like candy by kids in grade school. For a kid, these comics were a fantastically rewarding way to learn how to read for the obvious reasons & others which perhaps were not so obvious. There was that shot of joy upon successfully decoding a joke & it lay in recognizing that I was connecting to human culture, of which the world of books & literature, of the written word is such a huge & defining part. A part which is an alien world to the child when they are very young. Being able to understand a joke in a comic strip was a successful breaching of that wall. A true rite of passage, & comics offered it up! An inviting, easily scaled entry point. Comics allow kids to join the human race. So yeah, comics were important.
I’ve read comics ever since I was a kid. Manga & Dave Sim’s Cerebus & the scattering of titles in between, they were the reason I saw possibility in launching my own series. I’ve been a comics reader forever.
QRD – What was the first comic book you ever bought?
Mark – The very first that I bought with my own saved up allowance coins was probably at a garage sale. I may be remembering wrong, but I think it was a dog-eared comic for fifteen cents, probably while on some road trip with my parents. A treat to get me through the unbearable hours in the back seat of some 70s car on a hot summer drive. & it did that. The comic was one of those mysterious superhero books. It confused & dazzled exactly because it was such an oddity. It didn’t make any damned sense! Comic books had always, in my eyes, been stories, or jokes. Self-contained & fun to look at. Not serious. But this thing was something else. It was fantastic & it took itself seriously & it was bloody strange. The idea of a comic book which started somewhere in the middle of an on-going story & didn’t wrap up fully at the end was really weird. & the pictures & story balloons suggested some kind of larger universe filled with dramas & astonishing characters. It all felt a bit like looking over that wall of literature again & feeling very small. I can’t remember what title it was, except that it featured some villain in a metal suit with a bullet-shaped head & super-extending stilt legs, swearing vengeance upon the hero for some perceived wrong in another part of the story not included in that issue. & because it was a garage sale purchase, I never was able to find out what happened before or next. I didn’t buy another super-hero comic until I was in my late teens, but that one definitely left an impression on me.
QRD – How old were you when you put out your first comic?
Mark – I published the first issue of Thieves & Kings when I was a cherubic twenty-four year-old. Wow. That seems a long time ago now! I just recently turned forty-two.
QRD – What decade do you think you produced the best comics?
Mark – Honestly, since I started publishing, & with only a few exceptions, I’m usually quite happy with the work I put out. I look back on some of my early Thieves & Kings work & I just love it. I really think, “Wow, this stuff is great!” but it’s not what I’d make now. I’ve changed as a person & I feel like my current work in Stardrop is focused & witty & friendly. I’m very proud of it & I consider it top shelf stuff, though it is totally of a different style & flavor when compared to my early work. If I’m not at the top of my game, then I tend to stop working altogether & step away, so I really don’t have much out there which I’m not happy with. Put short, unless something is pulling me away, all my comics are my best comics no matter what decade I made them in.
QRD – Why comics instead of just writing or drawing?
Mark – Easy! Because I love to draw & I love to write. Not putting them together is like not using both hands. Comics are such a magical, powerful way of communicating. You can share emotions & beauty & awe instantly & lastingly through the medium in ways that no other can approach. There are so many ways comics stand apart, as an art form & as a sort of highest rung on the storytelling ladder a sole artist can achieve without at last needing help from a crew of, say, filmmakers or animators etc. You can realistically create a big story all by yourself in comics, with more depth & power than text alone can achieve, & have it result in a very pure vision which the reader knows came from one mind rather than from a collective. I love regular books & paintings & drawings, but not putting them together when you can...? It’s like opting for blindness.
QRD – Do you see mini-comics & indie comics as paths to mainstream comics or as their own unique media?
Mark – I see them as both. Any steps you take as an artist toward a specific goal are valid if it allows you to get there eventually, but the steps taken are unique to each quester. It really depends on what you want from the medium of mini-comics & the indie press; it depends how you define your personal goals. Heck, you can probably find your way into mainstream comics on a dog sled if you really wanted to travel that route & if you had the required skills. Mini-comics seem to be an easier, more logical path of progression, though.
QRD – How many copies of your comic do you print in your first run?
Mark – I printed 8000 copies of the first issue of Thieves & Kings & quickly ran out of those. I did two more subsequent runs. The last was of 10,000 copies & I’m down to my last few boxes of those, but 18 years on that first issue has become more a business card/sales pitch than the sale item itself as it first began. “The first chapter of the first book,” I tell people when I hand it free to readers & interested parties. “My contact info is on the back.”
QRD – How much do you think comics should cost?
Mark – A couple dollars. Five dollars seems excessive & a buck too cheap. Ideally, you want a ten year-old to be able to comfortably buy one & not feel destitute afterwards.
QRD – How many books do you produce a year & how many would you like to?
Mark – I don’t think in terms of publications. Rather, on average, I produce about 100 pages worth of comics per year, either as comics pages, or as equivalent line mileage in covers & illustrations & such. That never seems to vary a whole lot. I’d love to double that, but only for the sake of professional exposure, but realistically, my work suffers when I push beyond my creative means. The number of actual books published is a whole different matter & it varies depending on many factors. I don’t worry too much about that. Books appear when the time is right for them, though I admit, it is always a fun year when several books happen to come out at the same time.
QRD – Do you think stories should be serialized or delivered as complete works?
Mark – That depends on what the artist feels like doing. I love graphic novels, but serialized comics are also fun. The only “Should” I think there ought to be is entirely contingent on what is most able to serve the reader & the artist & that is of course a moving target.
QRD – How are comic strips different than comic books & which medium do you prefer?
Mark – Comic strips are absolutely, utterly wonderful! When done at their highest form of expression, in the right place at the right time. But their potential is huge, far greater than mere comic books. That’s always how it has been. I love that the humble comic strip can be part of a regular societal pulse. I love how people look for & react to each strip. I should explain: I publish Stardrop as a serialize strip in a small local paper which has a very modest circulation of around 1800, with each copy being read, on average, by two or more people, so that everybody in my small town is engaged.
Stardrop has become a strong & integrated part of my community. People will stop me in the street to comment on the latest exploits of the characters, Ashelle & Jenny Mysterious & the others. Comic books, in their periodical nature, do have something of this societally bonding aspect, where you know all the fans of that story are reading the same panels you are reading at approximately the same time after the book has hit the shelves; but strips, I think, can be much more powerful in that they are a more generally available & consumed medium. They reach people who would never venture into a comic shop & so the strip artist/writer is interacting with culture in a more complete manner than an otherwise niche medium like comic books. When Stardrop later reprints in the form of a collected volume available in comic shops, it doesn’t have the same impact & though it might well be enjoyed thoroughly as a GN by its readers, it nonetheless loses some of its vital energy which only comes from the tight interwoven immediacy that a comic strip offers. Kids & grandparents & everybody in between follow Stardrop. Marvel can’t claim that. Actually, Stardrop is doing something even most of today’s newspaper comic strips are no longer able to achieve, simply because newspapers are a dying medium. But my town’s little paper is a unique creature, owned & run locally, contributed to by interesting & engaged people who love their town & it is read by absolutely everybody; drawing strips for that paper is like living & working in a time bubble. It’s a small version of what it was perhaps like to have published Terry & the Pirates or The Yellow Kid back when everybody but everybody read the papers.
QRD – How long is it from when you start a comic until it’s printed?
Mark – This depends on what sort of project I’m putting effort into. A book designed to be a graphic novel first & foremost can take years. A comic strip like Stardrop is immediate. I usually draw each strip the night before publication. A comic book takes about two months to prepare & is published shortly after that.
QRD – What do you do better with your comics now than when you first started?
Mark – I am tempted to say, “Everything”, but that would be false. I can technically DO everything with more skill & competence today than I did when I first started, however comics are as much art as they are technique & art is driven by passion & fire. When you conquer a problem the passions first involved in facing those challenges often find themselves spent. When I was young & afraid that I would not be able to draw the fantastic images in my mind or communicate the fantastic emotions & stories containing them, the dread that I might fail to create something beautiful drove me in ways which a casual confidence in my present abilities does not. You can see that passion in the work of many young creators. I love that! The art itself may appear less refined than that of the old master, but the intense emotions which drive those early creations is easy to see. It practically sizzles off the page & readers absolutely react to these new & explosive ideas being born. My present work doesn’t have that same power simply because the birth struggles are past & so I find myself needing to drive my work with different, more grown-up passions. I miss those early days, but one must grow & accept new challenges. Many artists never do & so they fade into the past. Some of us manage to find new fires. It is a frightening period, a sort of mid-career crisis & that fear drives the artist into searching. That search often bears amazing fruit. You see it when old actors burst again into film in new ways. Or when old artists blow through the publishing world again with fresh concepts, but now tempered & powerful with hard won skills. My current works I feel, are alive in this way, thank goodness! It was a fight to find myself again, but it was well worth the struggle. I am doing things now I never could have before & readers of my work can recognize this.
QRD – At what point in the artistic process do you work digitally?
Mark – These days? At every point. I work on a digital drafting board; a big Tablet PC. I use a word processor to write & I use digital art programs to “pencil” & “ink” & “paint.” It all takes place in cyberspace from notion to press time. & I find it exciting! The technologies available allow for a level of craft I could only dream of (& often did) back in the days of rudimentary pen & ink & exacto blades. Though, computers are also the devil. They steal your soul bit by bit & this needs to be recognized. So I like to keep my hands in the physical pencil & paper world just to stay real. Every week I try to do at least one piece using the old tools. I find it keeps me grounded, because while digital is fast & efficient & often looks more professional in the end, I also think you can burn yourself out on computers. Humans are not well designed to work & interact solely in cyberspace. I think you keep your soul alive by keeping in contact with the real world.
QRD – What do you think of digital comics & webcomics?
Mark – I think they’re both wonderful & overwhelming. Whenever barriers to publication are lowered, you also lower the necessity of a creator to have highly refined skills, smarts, & essential awareness. You end up with a huge field of static & poorly executed comics. The “signal to noise” ratio is presently hugely unbalanced, at least in a mass-media sense. But that’s largely only a business concern, which will sort itself out. The natural impulse to seek culturally relevant messages is strong in our species & so the glut of material will be sorted out one way or another, so I don’t worry about it very much. Whereas I think people being able to participate, to explore & share their creative sides no matter what their level of artistic evolution, is wonderful. Computers make that possible in ways which are unprecedented today.
QRD – Do you prefer working in color or black & white?
Mark – Black & white. Though I love color, I find working on my own as I do, it’s just not feasible to wear the colorist hat & also produce timely work.
QRD – How many different people should work on a comic & what should their jobs be?
Mark – I don’t know. It depends on the project & on the goals of the creators involved. There is no “should.”
QRD – How do you find collaborators?
Mark – On the very few projects where I have in fact collaborated, they are usually people I’ve known for a long time, or who I have first at least had the opportunity to have long & insightful conversations with. If you can’t communicate with the other artists involved, see eye to eye, how can vital communications be expected to transpire in the artform itself? It cannot. This is the origin of many bland & meaningless comics.
QRD – How tight do you think a script should be as far as telling the artist what to draw?
Mark – I prefer a script to be very loose in terms of visual direction, while I like dialogue to be more fixed. But the nature of comics is that evolving pictures often suggest directions the script could benefit from exploring which cannot be imagined or foreseen until the pencil has scraped across the paper & I think a lot can be gained by remaining open to possibilities as they arrive on the table. But again, it really depends on the creative minds involved. Some people need more direction to excel, while others wilt under the yoke of heavy instruction.
QRD – What comic book person would you be most flattered to be compared to?
Mark – I have my work regularly compared to Hergé’s Tin Tin, largely because I draw character eyes as simple, expressive dots. I find those comparisons to be primarily bourn of early surface impressions & consequently they don’t really mean anything to me, partly because I was never really connected to or inspired by Tin Tin in my youth. By contrast, I was hugely influenced by the collective works of Hayo Miyazaki, against which I have also been compared. I find that comparison when it arises somewhat humbling, simply because I hold his work in such high regard. But again, that’s really beside the point & I don’t aspire to be compared to any other artist’s work. I am really in my own ball park these days, & I find it much more meaningful & valuable when I see people compare my work to their own personal experiences in life rather than to the expressions of any particular artist. When I see people react directly & personally to my work, I know I’m doing my job properly. Luckily, this happens frequently, again an advantage of working in a small community sphere where I know many of my readers personally.
QRD – What do your friends & family think of your comics?
Mark – They are huge supporters & they seem to enjoy my work in many of the ways I hope people will. Some get me more than others, & that’s to be expected since how you respond to any stimulus all depends on where you happen to personally be in your own psychological evolution.
QRD – What do you think of superheroes?
Mark – Superheroes are fun, but rather out-dated in terms of our current global reality. When Superman & Batman take on the world banking syndicates & the psychopathic leaders of our planet in a direct way, then they will be more than a fun distraction. I don’t see that happening any time soon. Though, I must say there are plenty of great stories where the classic superheroes provide excellent myths through which we can explore more general aspects of the human puzzle. For instance, I really enjoy the DC cartoon show, Young Justice exactly for that aspect. It’s surprising to find writing of such quality in a kid’s program.
QRD – Marvel or DC?
Mark – Depends on the writer & the project, not the publisher. Both of those publishers have offered up equal quantities of wonderful stuff & terrible stuff. (Though, I still shake my head at the whole Marvelution thing which bankrupted the industry in the late 90s. That was stupid, stupid, stupid.)
QRD – What comic characters other than your own would you like to work with?
Mark – Hmm. Sometimes I’ve pondered how I might tell a compelling story using an established character. Doctor Who I sometimes think I could do something interesting with. But really, I find myself most drawn towards sidekick & young characters like Robin, Kittie Pryde, & Jimmie Olsen. Robin & Kitty have been dealt with really well, I think in many projects over the years. Some of my all-time favorite stories are Robin stories. However, I think Jimmie Olsen offers some unexplored territory. It would be a fun challenge to give him a cool & genuinely engaging story, since I’ve never seen anybody, *ever*, do anything with the character which was able to rescue him from his eternal dweebiness. The best I’ve seen is a sort of “cool” behavior, but it has always fallen flat & forced in my opinion. Making him interesting would take some real effort, & probably a whole lot of apocryphal re-writing. I might start by flipping his gender from the outset; make the character “Jenny Olsen” or something, simply because I currently find writing female characters more interesting & I think the dynamic between her & Lois would offer some interesting possibilities. She’d be a young intern at a news organization, telling the story of how she sets out trying to establish a life after graduation & then stumbling across the astonishing truth that Kent is in fact an alien & being the only one on staff to know his secret. That could be a truly fun story, but I doubt DC will be calling me any time soon. Anyway, I’ve got more important things to work on at the moment!
QRD – Ideally would you self-publish?
Mark – For the most part, it’s in my blood. With the right team, however, I think amazing things could be achieved. It would be nice to be able to work in color, for instance, & have an executive staff to ensure all the niggly publishing & promotional activities are accounted for.
QRD – What conventions do you try to attend & why?
Mark – I like the local convention scene here in Nova Scotia, largely because I can get to those shows easily. I find traveling to big shows a pain the neck. I do have fun when I’ve gone in the past, but I’m really into staying local these days. Also, that big US/Canadian border is a pain in the arse & I have no patience with spooks & border Nazis.
QRD – What do you do to promote your books?
Mark – I’ve worked big before on the national stage; but these days, I have found a great deal of success in focusing my efforts on my immediate community. More & more, I think that local is super-important, especially these days when the world is falling to pieces. Being able to trade comics for food at my town farm market is an amazing experience. My national availability & internet presence have become somewhat secondary concerns. That may change as more higher profile books come out, but for now I am finding a concentration of a couple thousand dedicated readers a far more powerful thing than having a similar number of readers spread out all over the place. I like to be able to have face-to-face conversations with my readers & I frequently do exactly that.
QRD – Do you think your comics are well suited to comic shops or would sell better elsewhere?
Mark – The medium is the message, as they say. A comic shop is half the experience. But comics & society can interact with each other in any number of ways. Currently, I really like comic shops for the fact that they exist outside the mass-production bubble. That of the infernal book store industry where 90% or more of the books you see in a bookstore are pulped a few months after release, making for a great show of color & spectacle, but for not very many actual readers. A comic shop is much more real. That which is printed is more often than not, actually read. I think the comic store model is a very healthy holdout in a spiritually disconnected mass media driven Western world.
QRD – What other medium would you like to see some of your comics made into (television, film, games, action figures, etc.)?
Mark – I’d like to see my work in lots of other places, but each new arena takes enormous work to execute properly, & I am one man limited in my energies. Comics are fine for now.
QRD – Do you consider yourself a comic collector or a comic reader or both?
Mark – Just a reader. I keep giving away my favorite comics because I want other people to have the opportunity to experience them. I’m a terrible collections manager in this regard. Who gives away their prized books? I usually end up only keeping the stuff I don’t think anybody should bother reading.
QRD – What do you see as the most viable mediums for comics distribution 10 years from now?
Mark – Ten years? Wow. That’s optimistic. I hope we still have food & vital services capable of supporting life in ten years time!
QRD – What would you like to see more people doing with comics?
Mark – Expressing heartfelt ideas & stories informed by solid experience & research. There is little more tiresome & heartbreaking than reading the work of simple-minded, propagandized writers.
QRD – Anything else?
Mark – Nope. I’m all typed out. Thanks for the interesting questions.