Today at MC, we have a chat with writer/artist Kagan McLeod. For those that don’t know him, he was the creator of one of our favorite graphic novels of 2011 – Infinite Kung Fu. That Top Shelf title was an absolute blast, combining elements of kung fu, blaxploitation, supernatural and more into one exciting blend of comic book storytelling.
We talk with Kagan about how he brought the story together, what his influences were, how he developed the powerful visual style of the book, whether or not we’ll ever see more in this world he created, and a whole lot more. You can find our chat with him after the jump.
Kagan McLeod: I think it was natural – but a foregone conclusion. Comics are the perfect medium for anyone who likes to draw and tell stories. Animation is almost impossible to do alone, and illustration is great but relies on accompanying text to tell the story in detail. I love that comics can be a one-person venture, with the only limits being your drawing ability and imagination.
Who or what has influenced the development of your art?
KM: I grew up, like a lot of people, copying drawings from Mad magazine and Marvel comics. In high school I went through a science fiction / graffiti phase. I was lucky to have some great instructors in college, who helped shape my drawing for sure: (harveychan.ca) (joemorse.com) I like to look at a lot of golden age illustration for inspiration these days.
From the opening pages of Infinite Kung Fu, it is absolutely clear that Infinite Kung Fu is a passion project for you, especially when you read the foreword from Colin Geddes. When did this project start brewing in your head, and where did the origins come from for you?
KM: I read about the 8 Immortals in Chinese mythology around 1998, when I was watching the highest quotient of kung fu movies of my life, and the gears started turning then. The idea of a master leaving his earthly body, then having to enter one recently deceased because his own had been burnt – perfect for a comic! Adding zombies with that mythology was pretty easy, and I was happy to actually provide an explanation for the walking corpses.
This was a much hyped release from Top Shelf, who have done a lot of work in getting the word out there about this book. How has it been working with Chris and Brett, and how did you decide to bring it to them?
KM: They’ve been great. I was first attracted to them because their books look so nice, even if the subject matter they’d published was less action-adventure. I had total creative freedom (so much so that I didn’t deliver anything for about 5 years). San Diego was my initiation to the team, and it’s a good one – lots of talent!
One of my favorite things about the story itself is how it exists somehow beyond time, and it’s a story that feature a fully realized world that feels entirely like a fresh creation. Every aspect of it feels derived from your imagination, and the world feels like it exists in a snow globe of time and feels as if it is in a world of unlimited possibilities. How difficult was it for you to give creative shout-outs to influences while also developing this brand new world?
KM: Well thank you! I did have to resist going overboard many times. There were other genres I could have introduced, or unnecessary explanations I could have gotten hung up on, which probably would have dragged the story down. I had a huge cast of characters, so I tried to focus on a few rather than sprawl out. There were definitely so many possible storylines that I could have gone on and on, but at some point you’ve got to just call it done.Continued below
To continue that last question, could we see more of this world eventually?
KM: Yes. It would really depend on the success of this one, but I think I have some more in me. If you read the essay at the end of the book you can probably tell that I’m really fascinated with this historical “white-browed priest” character, Pai Mei. It would be really fun to tell that story somehow, and work him into my universe.
Early on in the book, it feels like this book is going to be an awesome mash-up of genres, but it settles down fairly early on as Lei Kung starts moving towards his destiny of becoming the greatest Kung Fu master AND saving the world. In my mind, once that happens the book really starts rolling. Was that something you planned all along, or did you look at the story at a certain point and make the decision to move in a singular direction?
KM: I don’t think it was planned all along. It might have taken 60 pages or so before I knew what I wanted to focus on, in terms of genre. One difference was that I had originally planned for Lei Kung to learn kung fu from each of the immortals, and have a different adventure with each. But that could have gotten tedious, I think.
|Moog Joogular in action|
While the kung fu influences are apparent, you also included a shout-out to the blending of blaxploitation characters into older kung fu flicks with the character Moog Joogular. Why did you decide to go that route, and why no token Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appearance?
KM: It seemed like a natural fit, as black exploitation films were popular the same time kung fu films were, and had largely the same audience.
In terms of the art, one of my favorite things about this book was the way panels seemed to interact and communicate with each on any given page. It makes the storytelling very natural, and accentuates the energy on pages that are heavy on the fight front. What was your process for designing any given page, and how difficult for you was it to dovetail the panel placement with your art to best tell the story?
KM: I think early on I was more daring with page layouts, but I think that came from being young and thinking I could reinvent the wheel. I settled down partway through, hoping the reader wouldn’t pay attention to the panel layout, but the story. With heavy action and a Chinese theme some big brush strokes can spice up some of the scenes and break the monotony, too.
Another one of my favorite aspects of the books look was the choice to use Eastern Asian style calligraphy in many situations. Was that in the plan from the get go? How did you decide to do that and to develop that skill set?
KM: It kind of worked out that the calligraphic style lent itself to the subject matter, and helped my illustration style too. I had been doing detailed acrylic paintings in college, but in the real world and on deadline, I couldn’t always rush and finish them with the same level of quality. So I worked digitally for a few years, but went back to inking with a brush and paper because it’s more fun. Once I got better, I found it was a lot quicker – you could be fast and gestural and it would look good, whereas my painting style required a lot of rendering. It’s perfect for comics too, because of how many illustrations are involved.
The fight sequences you depict on the pages are filled with a lot of energy and actually manage to convey the kinetic nature of kung fu films quite well on the page. How difficult was that for you, and was it an extensive process developing that look?
KM: I didn’t go as far as making sure the movements in the book were proper kung fu styles, but I did want to zoom in a little closer to the action than you see in a lot of comics. I like reading comics where you don’t feel like you missed a whole lot between the panels. So for something where the centerpiece is kung fu, I tried where I could to make it look like you were witnessing (almost) a whole fight, the climax particularly. The hardest part was trying to think of over-the-top ways for the characters that don’t make it, to die!Continued below
After over a decade of work on it, this project is finally all together and out there. How satisfied are you with the final product, and how has the response been so far?
KM: After working on something for so long I’m kind of already over it, and ready to start something else – but the response has been great and also really helps keeps me in gear in terms of… starting something else. I’m surprised there isn’t more criticism out there because I can see lots of things wrong with the work, but I’m happy most people can overlook those things and just enjoy it. I’m most proud of that, that it’s a really fun read. And people have responded well to the quality of the printing and the price, so that’s nice too!
Besides your comic work, you are very successful in your efforts designing and creating pieces for a range of major publications. What is it about comics that keeps pulling you back in that direction?
KM: Storytelling, mainly. For an artist that likes to tell stories I think it’s the best medium. You don’t need anyone else to help you like you would with a substantial animation project, and you can get way deeper into the story visually than you can with single book illustrations. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s the storytelling that really strikes a chord with people. I never really get mail from anyone who’s seen an illustration published, but I always do from comic readers.
After the monster effort that is Infinite Kung Fu, what other projects do you have coming up?
KM: I’ve been planning a big work of historical fiction, which is really scary to start but I’m almost there. No idea how it will be released but I will be sure to let you know very soon.