Kevin Mellon is an artist who has been working in the industry for the past years, making a name for himself for being an incredibly gifted artist and one hell of a nice guy. 2012 has been his coming out party of sorts, as he provided art for the well received writing debut of Blair Butler, “Heart,” and the well-timed “Creator-Owned Heroes,” both from Image Comics.
We talk to Kevin about how he got into comics, his inspiration as an artist, why he predominantly works in creator-owned comics, and how working on TV’s “Archer” differs from working on comics, amongst other things. Thanks to Kevin for talking with us!
Can you look back on your life and recall the single moment or work that made you want to work in comics? Or was it more of a natural progression that led you here?
Kevin Mellon: I want to say it was a progression. I can remember reading the Transformers comics my Dad got me from the Circle K gas station near our house, they came in a 3-pack, and I want to say it had issues 1,2, and 4 of that first mini-series. I know for sure it had the black costume Spider-Man in it. To this day, that’s the only Spider-Man costume I like. Anyway, I remember reading those over and over and reading the small digest collections of GI JOE that I would get repeatedly and wanting to create stories that held me and took me to other places like these did. I wasn’t overtly cognizant of this desire, but the want for “more” and not getting it (the gas station only carried so many comics) led me to creating my own stories. I’m an only child, and grew up in suburban neighborhoods that were full of either younger people just starting out having kids, or older people whose children were out of the house. I had nothing much but my imagination and the toys I got for birthdays and X-Mas until I really figured out I could draw around the age of 8 or 9.
I was making my own comics as early as fourth grade, because I remember making my own TMNT comic out of folded and stapled letter-size paper.
I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to read from a very young age, so by fifth and sixth grade, I had read/was reading Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, Peirs Anthony, the Hardy Boys (including the great case files books), and much, much more. I loved getting lost in those worlds and, especially with the Hardy Boys, imagining my own stories using those characters.
So now that I’ve typed all of that, I’m not sure if it was one moment, but a series of moments all piling on top of each other that informed my want and desire to create and tell stories.
Who or what has influenced the development of your art the most?
KM: Time. Aging. Patience.
What’s influencing me depends on where I’m at in my life at any given moment. I can kind of map out a distinct lineage of my art, but overall, the more I see, the more I take in, the better I believe I get at translating and re-creating in the physical world what I see in the worlds I’m creating in my head.
Kind of in order: Mike Zeck, Eastman & Laird, Frank Miller, David Mazzuchelli, Jim Lee, Dave Sim, Michael Zulli, Chris Bachalo, Adam Hughes, Travis Charest, Mike Mignola, Alphonse Mucha, Bill Sienkewicz, Sergio Toppi, Jorge Zaffino.
Along the way: Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, J. Scott Campbell, Joe Mad, Ed Herrera, Charles Perkalis, Joe Kubert, Tony Moore.Continued below
Non-Comics: Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Coppola (Francis and his son Roman), Stanley Kubrick, Neil Marshall, Oliver Stone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, Anne Rice, Will Christopher Baer. I could go on.
Looking through your influences, a number of the Image founders are on the list. Was the advent of Image an influence on you, both artistically and your desire to create your own work and stories? If so, how big of a thrill is it to be working on them now?
Yeah, man. 20-21 years ago, at the height of the first era of Image, I was 12-13, so there’s a couple of things going on: 1) I’m young and impressionable and finding out what I like and don’t like in the world. Everything is new and exciting to a certain degree. 2) I’m going through puberty, so it’s a roller-coaster of hormones, boners, and emotions. Comics were exciting and vibrant, and watching the switchover from the “house styles” both companies had in the 80’s (I see it as George Perez, Garcia-Lopez, Neal Adams, John Byrne, et al were the reigning mainstream styles of the 70’s and 80’s), and all these younger guys with radically different approaches to the look of what was on the shelves was changing. Guys who were influenced by the dawn of MTV, the changing landscape of entertainment in general. I started on New Mutants with issue 87. I followed Todd from Amazing to adjective-less Spider-Man. Jim Lee’s work on Uncanny 268 and 269 blew my mind. Whilce Portacio drawing The Punisher was exciting as all hell. My favorite Erik Larsen work is still his Revenge of the Sinister 6 story-line he did. I do confess to only being tangentially aware of Valentino before Shadowhawk.
I spent about 2 years previous to the formation of Image watching these guys grow into the monster creators that would make them the most bankable men in the industry of that time. Following them to Image was only natural and exciting as fuck. Hey, I bought Brigade, and anything with “Blood” in the title.
Like I (think I) said previously, I got into Cerebus about the same time that Image formed, and Dave was at the start of the Spirits of Independents stuff, his self-publishing/comics creating notes from the president stuff; also I was reading copies of TCJ when I could find it (along with Comics Scene Magazine and David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview). So, I had all of these things talking about making something you owned, creating for yourself, and not letting your creative life be devoted to the ideas and whims of corporations. It really struck a chord and to be fair, I don’t remember if I understood that it should/could be any other way until much later. I already had stories I wanted to tell, and here were these guys I idolized saying and showing “me” that I should be doing nothing but getting these things out there.
As far as working on my own creations goes, I’m insanely thrilled to have done and continue doing so much work that I create/co-create and to continue doing it. Nothing excites me more. I should only be so fortunate as to live a long life continuing to put my ideas / drawings out for an audience to see.
In the digital age, new tools are available to artists of all types. When I look at your art, I can’t see anything that doesn’t feel naturally created, but do those digital tools affect or expand your work at all?
KM: Haha. That’s awesome that you can’t see it, considering about half of my process is digital.
I have a varied process that follows these lines somewhat:
Layouts – These are rough thumbnail breakdowns of the page that I do either digitally or on paper. It varies on my mood or availability of equipment. On the road, paper is still king, but at home it’s usually digital.
Pencils – I’ve been penciling digitally for a few years now, in programs like Manga Studio and (mostly) Sketchbook Pro. I find the digital penciling process much smoother and more akin to how my brain works than traditional penciling. I rarely draw anything “right” the first time. Some resizing or redoing of specific parts always takes place. When I was penciling on paper, I would tend to let these mistakes go, out of not wanting to take the time to redraw something I had just spent a lot of time on. Now, with digital, I can resize and recompose without actually redrawing anything and not waste hours of work by erasing or (more often in my case) finish something and put out shitty work just because I didn’t want to take more time redoing something I had just done.Continued below
Again, thank you for not being able to tell. I think that has to do with the way I ink now, being a much more kinetic and frenetic style of inking than I was previously using. I literally get my hands dirty when I ink and I put as much of that on the page as I can.
I feel that Digital has affected and expanded my work greatly, allowing me to get better and to produce better work by the simple virtue of allowing me to edit in a quick manner. Doing Heart would have been an even more herculean task if I wasn’t able to quickly edit my pencils when Blair would send back notes and corrections on MMA moves.
You’re pretty active in the community of artists, both with you blog and on Twitter. Do you feel that feedback (both positive and negative) from other artists, fans or critics via those outlets pushes you at all as an artist? Do you feel like that aspect affects your art at all?
KM: From fans and artists: yeah, obviously it’s great when your peers like and respect what you do, and I appreciate and like fan feedback. I’ve been very lucky on Twitter to have the kindest and most genuine fans seek me out to say they’ve enjoyed something I’ve done. It’s gratifying and heart-warming. Likewise to meet a professional who’s work I admire and have them know me and my work and say kind things? Always awesome.
As far as criticism from either of them? I don’t seek it out, and this is going to sound dumb, but, by the time the book is printed and shipped, I generally know its mistakes pretty well, inside and out. Any criticism beyond that is going to amount to preference and opinion and that’s not something I can do much about. You know?
Critics: I try not to read reviews. I recently broke that rule a couple times for Heart and Creator-Owned Heroes/American Muscle. Aside from the above reason regarding knowing the faults in the creation and crafting of the work by the time it sees print, there’s also the notion of 1) Most reviews are just synopses and a vague “liked it/hated it.” 2) I don’t find reading reviews to be helpful to me as a creator. Some creators do. I’ve heard numerous accounts (mostly from writers, now that I think about it) about reviewers pointing out things they hadn’t considered or plot-holes and what-not. If you can get something useful out of it, awesome. I have yet to. I think it has a lot to do with art being so subjective to taste and opinion and preference. I appreciate the culture that wants to make and read reviews, I used to be among the review readers until I got my first book published in 2007 and while it was generally well-received, I found that reading reviews at all made for a worse mind-set about creating more work than a better one. I try to make stories I want to exist out in the world and I have faith that those who want those types of stories too, will find mine and hopefully enjoy them. If a review helps them do so, awesome.
I can’t help but think that once I put out books that I’ve written, my opinion of reading reviews will have to be re-visited. Remains to be seen.
I think that Twitter has helped me bridge the various gaps in social life/living that otherwise would have just been me creating and living in a vacuum. I think it’s allowed me to meet and stay in touch with people who have had a tremendous impact on my daily life (I’m in Atlanta working for Floyd County on their cartoon Archer because of Twitter). I think that it can be used for ill as easily as good and that, like real life, you have to surround yourself with people and ideas that are positive and that promote you doing better work and being a better person.Continued below
So far, you’ve been pretty much all creator-owned, all of the time. Not only that, but you’re one of the two main artists on “Creator-Owned Heroes.” For you as an artist, what is it that you find so appealing about creator-owned books?
KM: For me, the be-all end-all is creator-owned work.
I never set out to do work-for-hire, it just kind of happened that way. I got greedy at one point and felt to be a professional artist, that had to be all I was doing. Total bullshit.
The first book I was a true “fan” of was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then, a creator-owned book (don’t get me started on it’s current state. Sigh). That (and Wizard Magazine #7, and a shop that finally carried it) got me into Cerebus and Dave Sim while Image was happening. Because of those early influences, my concept of Marvel and DC has always kind of been one of “you do that to be able to afford to do the stuff you own.” And that’s kind of informed my whole thought process and career. I find and take jobs that allow me the ability and luxury of creating and making my own books.
And again, thank you for noticing that most of my work is and has been creator-owned. I don’t think it’s something that many people have really noticed about my career thus far and it’s not something I think has to be shouted from the rooftops, either. Deeds, not words, as my friend Mike would say.
2012 in many ways has been a coming out party for you. Heart with Blair Butler wrapped up, and then Creator-Owned Heroes hit and it seems like your artistic star is perpetually on the rise at this point. What do you feel like you learned the most on those two projects, and how did those experiences — one working with a newcomer to creating comics, the other with a veteran like Steve Niles — compare?
COH is still sort of on-going (American Muscle and I conclude with COH #4 – which I’m drawing as we speak – but Steve continues on with a new idea/concept/artist from there). It’s been a huge challenge because of the move to Atlanta, the new job storyboarding and finding the time to make comics in between all of that. I think that with American Muscle, I’ve made some of the best comics I’ve ever made. Largely due to the fact that it’s been so collaborative with Steve and I plotting out each chapter, and me coloring myself. I think I’ve gotten better with each chapter and it’s something I hope I can keep up with on my next project.
Your story in COH — American Muscle — seems to fit an interest you have in terms of art: badass cars. You’d worked with them previously in Gearhead with Dennis Hopeless, and now they’re back in this Steve Niles project. Besides that, what was it that appealed to you most about the project? What about it was such a great fit for you?
KM: There’s actually a 3rd project that I wrote and drew between those two, Suicide Sisters, that is sitting on my HD. It’s all Harleys and semi-trucks and fits nicely in with Gearhead and American Muscle. It’s something I’ve got to finish soon or else I’ll never put it out.Continued below
The car thing is odd for me. I grew up with a father into muscle cars, old cars. He had many over my youth, as he was always buying them in various states of disrepair, working on them for a bit, selling them, buying ‘new’ ones to tinker with for a bit. My uncle told me the other day that my father just bought a new junker to fuck around with. Old habits and all that. I grew up around it, and while I rejected it vehemently as a teen, I’ve accepted and grown to love it as an adult. I love car chase movies, grindhouse flicks dealing with cars and bikes, etc. Death Proof is one of my top films.
I also have a love of wasteland ideas. Life after people. Life out of the absence of what we currently know as every day life. The relationships people form when all they’ve got are each other. This is why zombie stories are so popular; zombies are what they are, one-note and boring by themselves. It’s the stories you craft with the people who have to deal with them where things get interesting. Same with post-apocalyptic tales, it’s less about why the world ended and what you do after. Steve and I both have an affinity for those great 70’s and 80’s wasteland/end of the world movies and we love the same car chase/biker movies of those times too.
We’d been talking for years about finding something to do together. There was a month where I was supposed to take over Mystery Society after Fiona, but then a bunch of shit hit the fan and that didn’t happen (much to my heartbreak. I’m a big fan of what Steve and Fiona did on that book). We couldn’t make any licensed gigs happen, so we started bandying about creator-owned ideas. Oddly enough, Steve had the seed-genesis of American Muscle and told me about it. I fell for it immediately, but there was one catch, Phil Noto was attached to draw it.
So I told Steve to talk to Phil and see if he’d either part ways with it or we could share ownership, Phil kindly backed out and Steve and I were off and running. Jimmy Palmiotti and Creator-Owned Heroes came along months later while Steve and I were trying to figure out the best avenue to release AM. And that was that.
Previously, you’ve worked with Hopeless on a few projects. Can we expect more with the two of you in the future?
KM: Yes, hopefully a lot more.
Dennis has consistently been one of my best friends and collaborators, and I hope to keep making books with him for as long as we are able. It’s my fault that it took so long between Gearhead and LoveSTRUCK, and we should have had about 3 other books out after that already, but life gets in the way. He and I have a list of projects we came up with in the first year or two of knowing each other that we’re trying to whittle our way through. I’m just as excited about all of them now as I was when we came up with them.
As soon as I’m done with American Muscle, I’ll jump into production on Dennis and I’s next book. We’re going to experiment with some things, so I’m not sure where it’ll be as far as publisher/format goes, but that’s the beauty of the Wild West that is the comics industry right now. Wide-fucking-open.
One thing I’ve been curious about is, when you’re working on something like storyboarding on something like Archer, is it difficult to fit your natural style to a specific look? What is that experience like for an artist such as yourself?
It’s not difficult, because they don’t ask me to board in the style of the show.
I just talked about this with one of my bosses the other day; I have a more realistic style than a few of the other boarders, so I fit in, in that sense, because my drawings lend themselves to the style of the show in a way some of the other guys natural styles don’t. I don’t have to mimic the adobe illustrator/photo-ref style of the show and I don’t know that something like that would be desirable or encouraged by my bosses. I do try to make the characters look like themselves, albeit in my own voice. That said, I’m still trying to figure out how I draw all of them. It’s a lot like working on a comic book, you don’t often figure out what you’re doing till it’s almost done. I assume my time here will be the same, regardless of whether I’m here a year or 10 years.Continued below
They hired me (in part) because of my style, but also because of my tendency to do more cinematic visuals and shot-choices. So I bring that to the table, but I’ve found since I’ve been here, it’s been an ass-kicking and schooling on story-telling, It’s great. I work under and with people who are really good at what they do, so to have a job where I can learn from them and get better while having fun has been pretty great. In comics, I always thought my layouts and story-telling were the strongest parts of my work. It’s been nice to be here and have my opinion of myself in that regard demoted and having to learn new stuff and get better at things I didn’t know I sucked at. Really motivating, realizing you’re terrible at something and being forced to get better.
Another thing is, Archer is made SO much quicker than most other animated shows on the air right now. So I have to come up with, and execute ideas fast fast fast. Comics have a similar speed of production, but I really don’t have to re-think the same scenes too often, and with the majority of my work, I’m the boss/final arbiter of what goes to print. Not so, here, I have Neal (Holman) and Chad (Hurd), my direct bosses, and they have Adam (Reed, the creator of the show). So it’s been a learning experience to have to re-think many different approaches to the same scene, all in search of the clearest story-telling while serving the scene, dialog and being visually interesting.
What would be a dream project for you? Any particular writers you’re dying to work with or titles you’d like to take a stab at? Perhaps a personal project you just want to see come to fruition?
KM: My dream projects are all the books that Dennis and I have planned and all the ones I have planned. I’m actively writing about 4 different projects for myself to draw, aside from the 3-4 projects Dennis and I have talked about after our next book is done.
I don’t really have any writers I’d love to work with. I always say Joe Casey as a standard answer, but I think that’s just because he’s consistently one of my favorite creators over the last 10+ years. I’m a fan of a lot of people, but I don’t know that I should work with any of them, aside from the ones I already have. I love Jason Aaron, Nick Spencer, Fraction, Jon Hickman, Niles, blah blah blah. I like stories. As with music, I’m constantly searching for new things to get into.
Personal projects: As I mentioned above, I have about 4 things I’m actively bouncing back and forth on writing for myself, along with the books I want to do with Dennis.
Desert Island question: one book, one album, one film and one comic. What do you take with you?
KM: Book: The Vampire Lestat.
Film: Either When Harry Met Sally or Boogie Nights or Magnolia. Or the Godfather. Fuck. It’s hard to pick when it comes to movies.
Comic: The Puma Blues. Preferably the whole run, but any issue will do.
Who are your favorite artists working in comics today?
KM: In no particular order:
Tony Moore, John Lucas, Declan Shalvey, Nathan Fox, Sean Murphy, Robbi Rodriguez, Eric Canete, Toby Cypress, Phil Noto, Becky Cloonan, Michael Zulli, RamÃ³n PÃ©rez, Emma Rios, Kalman Androsofsky. Fuck, now I’m just naming friends and inserting people I don’t know but like their art in-between. But really, I’m humbled and in awe of most of the people I’m lucky enough to know in this business. Look at who I follow on twitter and you’ll get a good idea of who I’m a fan of that’s working right now.
Besides more Creator-Owned Heroes, what projects do you have coming up?
KM: I’m storyboarding on Archer Season 4 right now, finishing up American Muscle and in pre-production on Dennis Hopeless and I’s next book and hoping to get a book that I’ve written and drawn out next year (Either the aforementioned Suicide Sisters or one of the books I’m currently writing).