It’s kind of amazing to think that superstar artists like Michael Lark could find another gear with their work. But sometimes, they find a project they truly care about, and then you can see what they are really capable of like Lark has found with “Lazarus,” his creator-owned project at Image Comics with writer Greg Rucka.
On today’s Artist August entry, we talk to Lark about his work on “Lazarus,” why he prefers working with Rucka and writer Ed Brubaker, what appeals to him so much about creator-owned comics, and much more. Thanks to Lark for chatting with me, and I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
From what I understand, you started with a background more in design than in illustration. How and why did you end up in comics, and how do you feel that design background changes your perspective when it comes to your comic art?
Lark: I actually never intended to go to art school. I intended to go for music. I kind of…it’s a long story, but I stumbled into a small scholarship, but I had to major in art for it. I figured, “well, I’ll do one semester of advertising or art or whatever, and then I’ll switch back over to music.” I learned really fast that I was a much less talented musician than I was an artist.
But I also don’t have…I’ve just always drawn. It’s all I ever really wanted to do. So I was getting into this design crap and type setting and type design stuff, and I think that stuff is fun but I’m not into design as much as a guy like David Aja is. I think that’s not really where my talent lies. It’s always been with just like…wanting to tell a story with pictures. Wanting to be able to on paper recreate what I see.
That’s…and design really didn’t have anything to do with that.
I fell into comics because I was playing in a band in college, and the drummer in the band was into manga. This was in the mid to late 80’s, 86, 87, 88, and there was the whole big black and white boom in independent comics going on then. I didn’t like anything going on in superhero comics as far as art goes. I always looked at superhero comics, and there were a couple that stood out to me…even as a kid things like the “Empire Strikes Back” comic adaptation that Al Williamson did. I was able to tell at whatever age I was that that was good art.
I had no idea who this Al Williamson guy was, but I knew I liked it.
Mainstream comic art didn’t appeal to me, but when I saw that black and white stuff, I was like, “wow! I could do something like this.” Which was very arrogant of me at the time (laughs), I had no idea how to draw a comic! Back then, I didn’t even speak the language.
Those interested me. The different kind of storytelling, the different kind of drawing, it seemed much more…nobody was trying to conform to a house style or anything like that.
So it allowed you to do your own thing pretty much?
Lark: Yeah. I can’t draw like John Romita or Neal Adams or something. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Not only that, but the guys that were big in the 80’s. I can’t draw like that stuff. I don’t want to.
So when I saw that there were people like the Hernandez Brothers and Ted McKeever was a big one and Mike Allred and Guy Davis. Those guys were all just starting out, and I thought “this stuff is all cool!” I kind of…slipped in through the door after they opened it.
I know when we were talking before about Lazarus, and about how you went to school to design Cheerios boxes, not to do Coats of Arms. Does that design background influences your work at all today?
Lark: Yeeeahhh…to some extent. Only in as much how I have a more discerning eye, maybe. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I have the talent for it. I can do some stuff.Continued below
But it’s not something that factors into your work on a regular basis?
Lark: It factors into…it factors into what I am aiming for, and what kind of reference I look for, but not in terms of how I lay out a page and stuff.
There’s just basic art background stuff that goes along with that which will apply to any kind of art you do, but not specifically that kind of stuff. I mean, I enjoyed doing logos and some of the little types of types design here and there that I get to do, but to do that for me would be a full time job. So I prefer to just draw the comics.
On Lazarus, we’re finding ourselves farming out more and more of the little jobs we have to do like that so Greg and I can focus on writing and drawing a good story.
You don’t seem the type of guy who half asses stuff when it comes to…even when it comes to design work on things like covers. It seems like something you could fall down the rabbit hole on.
Lark: Oh, I can fall down the rabbit hole on anything. (laughs)
We were just talking about baseball a minute ago, and I could fall down the baseball rabbit hole. That’s how I do.
When we previously talked, you had mentioned you use Sketch Up, a 3D design tool, sometimes to help in your art. Are you primarily digital at this point?
Lark: No, I’m a mix. A lot of the preliminary work is digital. Like, you know, my reference is either photographs I take of myself or 3D models. That’s all digital. I lay out the pages digitally. I do all of my thumbnails digitally. But when it comes time to lay out the page, I refer to digital but I lay everything out by hand.
So once you’re past reference, it’s all traditional?
Lark: Yeah. I do all of the panels on the page. Some of it is predicated on what art collectors like to have. I like to be able to sell my originals. I do it pretty old school when it comes to that part of it.
And I can’t imagine ever inking and drawing my pages digitally. I find the interaction with the brush and the paper to be essential to the whole process.
What’s your relationship with Santi Arcas when it comes to coloring Lazarus? Do you work closely together on that end of the process?
Lark: I’ve been more involved with it on Lazarus than anything else. Poor Santi always feels like he’s getting art directed (laughs). With Lazarus…I don’t think in color. I think in values. If I’m thinking about values, it’s usually only in terms of “warm” and “cool.” I can go that far. I can push it a little bit more if I have to.
We’re working on an issue where we’re going to be jumping around…Greg usually writes a scene that starts on one page and ends on the end of another page. This one’s going to have a lot of back-and-forth.
There’s things happening in three different locations that are all important. We were talking about how we were going to do it, and I realized because of the location, because of where they are, we can differentiate them with color palettes. I’m going to be able to tell Santi, I want all of the panels of this scene to do be done with this palette, and this palette for this scene.
I would never have done that working on something in the Big Two.
I have to imagine it’s way more separate in the Big Two. Like you’re all cogs in a machine. Not to devalue how it goes in the Big Two, but that’s how it seems outside looking in.
Lark: Well, yeah, working on a Big Two book…the company hires the creative team. The company owns the work. This is a case where first of all it’s me and Greg on the book, so we have a lot invested in it. Creatively and time wise and emotionally, so we feel we have the right to be more controlling about it. Greg is great at encouraging me to do that more than I am naturally.Continued below
I don’t want to rock the boat, and Greg is like “no man, this is your book. You get to say.” (laughs)
You’ve been working for the Big Two for a while, so I have to imagine you almost have to break yourself of habits you used to have. Or maybe it’s just a personal thing.
Lark: Yeah, things changed a lot. I’ve had to learn how to do it differently. In some ways, there are certain aspects that we miss. We’ve gone ahead and hired an editor just for our book. It’s somebody that Image provides, but we’re going to have an editor that helps us shepherd the book through the process and give us feedback as it goes and things like that.
We’re talking creator-owned, and it seems since you broke free and started working on “Lazarus,” it seems like you’ve become a pretty big proponent of creator-owned comics. What drove your desire to work on creator-owned?
Lark: I’ve really been wanting to for a long time. It really began for me when…it was really when I was working on Daredevil it kind of started, but I really realized when I did that short run on Spider-Man. Then I realized that, you know, any of those characters that those guys have, they’re their characters, and they don’t really care. Any of the good stories have already been told about them. I mean, Spider-Man has been around forever. There are no more good stories to be told about Spider-Man, I’m just going to tell you right now (laughs). That’s been played out.
But I mean, I started out doing creator-owned stuff. I’ve always wanted to do more. I watched the success of people like Mignola and Guy Davis, obviously Kirkman with Walking Dead, and started watching more of my buddies doing more creator-owned stuff…like Ed and Sean doing stuff, first over at…what were they calling it at Marvel?
Lark: Yeah, Icon. The Criminal stuff, which I thought was fantastic. “This is the comic I want to be drawing.” That book was awesome. I like everything Sean and Ed do together.
They did Sleeper together before, but I don’t know if that was creator-owned at all.
Lark: That was part of Wildstorm.
That’s a shame. That book was awesome, but I guess it was still awesome even if it wasn’t.
Lark: Yeah it was. I just pulled out my copies the other day because we were talking type design on title pages, and those have great design to them. Sean’s a great designer.
Definitely. I love seeing what they come up with on the collections.
Lark: I’m looking forward to doing that on Lazarus. I’m going to be right there in the middle of that with Lazarus.
I started realizing after so many years of doing for-hire, I was putting so much of myself where it didn’t really matter in the end. Yeah, they paid good page rates and I need to make a living, but then all of a sudden it became real apparent that people can actually make a living doing it creator-owned. I don’t know how it happened, but it’s happening.
It sounds like ultimately you want to tell stories you care about, and you weren’t having that on superhero books.
Lark: Yeah, I never really cared about them. Some of them engaged me more than others. I really enjoyed doing the adaptation of the Stephen King book (Dark Tower). That was super fun. They were great people to work with. Every single person who was working on that book was great to work with. That was just fun.
I don’t have the passion for it like I do for Lazarus right now. I’m all about Lazarus. When I left Gotham Central, I was not ready to go.
That seems like it was your book. Before this, this seemed like your book.
Lark: That was our book. They tell me it wasn’t the same after I left, and I’m sure it wasn’t the same after Ed left. The three of us just got off on doing it, and we had so much fun doing it. It was so much the kind of comics we wanted to do. So yeah, there is definitely more of that with this. Even more so now. Greg and I are the parents of this. When Greg brought the concept to me, he didn’t even have much. He had the images in his head. He was trying to put a story in the background of it.Continued below
The first issue of “Lazarus” was both a sales hit and people were raving about it. How excited were you about the response?
Lark: I love it. (laughs) I’m very excited about it. I can’t…yeah, I’m grateful for it. I’m excited about it. I really like that it seems like a lot of the people who read it really get it. I mean, you never know, Greg and I have talked about this so much and we know so much more than everyone else does, and we know what we’re trying to do, but you never know if you’re successful until people read it and get it.
I think one of the interesting things that has come up recently is…you’re talking about getting comics and stuff like that, is how many people read comics and look at it as a writing first medium. Like they don’t think of the subtleties in art and the visual storytelling and things like that. When it comes to your art, is the visual storytelling the most important thing?
Lark: Yes. There’s a panel, I’m not even going to say what it is, in #1 that is an important panel, but I absolutely hate the drawing (laughs). I hate the camera angle, I hate the drawing, I hate everything about it. Except that it was the right panel to tell that moment. I penciled it in a different way, and I said “Greg, I have to change it” and he was like “eh, it’s fine.” But I changed it, and he was like “yeah, you’re right, it had to be that panel.”
I think that’s interesting. It sounds like you and Greg are checks and balances for each other. Sometimes you’re like, “I don’t know about this Greg,” and vice versa.
Lark: Well, we should both be perfectionistic. Greg’s mantra is “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and you know, Greg is just as likely to get caught up in it. He’s been working on a scene from the issue he is writing now, and he’s been working on this one scene for like a week. He doesn’t normally do that, and I keep telling him “man, you’re overthinking this. Just write it.” What he did is great. I got it today and it was great, and he was like “nah, it needs some tweaking.” We both do it.
The way I look at it, and you being a baseball fan will get it, is a Hall of Fame caliber hitter gets a hit one third of every time at bat. If I like two out of every six panel, I’m Hall of Fame material. I’m so picky. But the storytelling definitely comes first.
A great example of that is the sequence in Lazarus #2 that finds Forever being followed by a character named Mason, a three page sequence that is entirely wordless. For you as an artist, is working without words to express a sequence freeing or something that adds a degree of difficulty?
Lark: It depends. It depends on the amount of space you have. It takes a lot of real estate to tell a story completely visually. Or a lot of panels, because every action has to be shown in order for it to work. If you’ve got…especially if you’ve got narration, narration can solve all those problems with you. Narration can control the pacing. That’s the other thing…words can control the pacing. Every panel takes a different amount of time. Some panels, like the fight scene at the beginning of Lazarus #1 takes a lot less time then the subsequent 2 or 3 pages, you know?
Comics can do that. The timing is very fluid. So words can help you control that. I like the balance that we’ve struck so far with Lazarus. Greg gives me a lot of silent panels. The joy of working with Greg is the truth is trying to come out of the story somewhere in-between the words and the pictures.
It’s the combination of the two of them that makes it all work. It’s like…I can’t think of a good example from #1, but Greg’s characters really often don’t say what they mean. A lot of times, whatever they’re feeling is really conflicted.
Well you can talk about Forever’s brother and how he’s coming up to her and being all lovey so he can control her, I guess he is saying what he means…
Lark: But that one is obvious, because the reader’s already clued in. It’s a little different when…where my job might be to convey how Forever is feeling just by how she is standing at a window. In the last panel, that was really tough for me. A really good one is…I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the last panel where she’s raising her gun up to the person she’s supposed to be killing. There’s such a broad range of emotions going there, and I don’t think I got anywhere close to getting it. The depth to what is going on…there’s so much going on.
It’s always a challenge to work with Greg because I’m responsible for that. No one’s going to say…there’s not going to be narration that says “oh my, I’m so conflicted…” I’ve got to do that. It’s a great challenge, and it’s one of my favorite things about working with Greg.
I think that’s really interesting especially given the nature of Forever’s character because the emotions are almost beat out of her. So much of what you’re supposed to do is really based off subtleties. It was really interesting to read from that perspective.
Lark: It’s really challenging to draw from that perspective. It’s challenging, but it’s the kind of challenge I like. But there’s enough mayhem to make it all worthwhile as well.
There’s a little bit of everything. That’s what I like about it. I get to do the subtlety, but I also get to turn around and there’s flying body parts and death and destruction. Issue four is absolute mayhem.
I’m excited for that!
Lark: Shit hits the fan in so many ways in issue four. So many ways you don’t expect.
I already don’t know, we’re on issue one!
We’re talking about how great it is to work with Greg, but also how great it was to work with Ed. You seem to stick to a small group of writers you work with. Is it something you decided or is it just how it shook out?
Lark: It’s just kind of how things shook out. I mean, it’s kind of people who I am friends with too, and know. I’ve done stuff with Bendis because we know each other and are friends. Me and Ed and Greg are all friends. It’s kind of like if someone has a project going, they’re like “we want Michael to draw it.” That’s how it happens. When Ed needs fill-in issues of Winter Soldier because Butch wants to take time off or something like that, Ed’s going to ask if we can get Michael to do it.
When Greg needed a fill-in for Punisher, he did the same. I’m always happy to work with those guys.
But it’s not any slight against any other writer I’ve worked with. It’s like any other relationship. You never know what it’s going to be like until you get into it, and some relationships you speak the same language in. Greg and Ed write in very different ways. They have very, very different ways to tell a story, but for some reason, they both speak my language and I really easily…it’s always a labor of love to make their scripts into a visual reality.
You’re more willing to make it work. It’s easier to make it work.
Lark: I understand what they’re trying to say. When I read Greg’s scripts, I know what he’s trying to do with a scene. I know why he put that scene and made it that way in that spot in a story, but not every writer I can do that with.
You were talking about how the story is told somewhere between the writing and the art, and it combines into this one cohesive whole if everything is right. It’s pretty hard to do if you have a writer and artist who aren’t on the same page.
Lark: It’s almost impossible to do. I’ve tried to do it, and it doesn’t work out well.Continued below
That ties into my next question. On a lot of the Big Two books, with monthly schedules and bi-monthly schedules, there are a lot of rotating art teams. One thing I’ve often wondered is do you think the traditional monthly schedule is too daunting for artists to do their best work?
Lark: Some of us, yeah. Some of us. I look at Sean Phillips, I look at what Fiona Staples is churning out on a pretty much monthly basis, and she is even coloring it herself. You know, I think it’s doable for some artists, just not slower artists. For me, doing six issues a year would be so much more reasonable. But, you can tell so little story in a comic book. How can you engage a reader and keep them coming for more if you’re putting your book out that seldom. It’s a constant battle to put a book out that fast, and if I have to ask for help I will.
I’m developing a small army of people who are helping me…well, Greg is too. They’re helping us create the world of Lazarus. That’s the only way to meet the deadlines for me, is get help.
I have to imagine your schedule, with an arc then a month off with the trade coming out, and repeated…I have to imagine that has to help meet that schedule.
Lark: Yeah, it helps a little bit. That gives you basically one extra week on a book, and so when you think about it in those terms, you have to be working constantly and be disciplined. It’s been difficult changing gears from Big Two to creator-owned. A brand new property where everything had to be invented and every character had to be created, so it’s not like where you’re drawing Batman.
It’s not like you can just reference everything from Google Images.
Lark: Well, we do a lot of that. It’s not like it’s super sci-fi. There’s a lot of “in the future, we think spy planes are going to look like this.” But at the same time, I don’t want to steal those ideas.
For example, Forever rides a motorcycle in issue two, so we had to design it. Greg wrote, “she’s on this badass motorcycle.” So I’m like “Greg, that took you like a second and a half to write. What does this badass motorcycle look like? What does it run on?” Greg was like, “oh, I guess we do have to think of that don’t we.” There’s a lot of stuff like that that goes into.
That’s funny. I don’t think people think of that. People probably just think, “oh, they just did a motorcycle.” No one thinks of what goes into that.
Lark: I probably spent days online looking at different kinds of motorcycles. I think, what makes this motorcycle look futuristic. I take this from here and that from there. That’s what I end up doing.
How long did you have to develop this world?
Lark: We started talking about it about a year ago. They announced it at San Diego last year. We had really just sold it to them. They just agreed to publish it. Just right before San Diego.
It gave you time to fall down your favorite rabbit hole, research.
Lark: Well, I had to finish up Winter Soldier, but then we had to do research, and then Greg had to write the first script. It took me a long time to get in and start drawing it. It took me longer than I intended.
When it comes to your art, how important to you…it seems like details are very paramount to you. How important to you is getting the details right in your work, and is there ever a point where the research overwhelms the work?
Lark: Oh, the research ALWAYS overwhelms the work.
I don’t think I get many of the details right. But I…they are important to me. They really give so much of the story. And they show so much about character and stuff. Getting them right is what I strive for, but do I succeed at that? Rarely, if ever.
There’s a scene in issue two where I just look at the set and think, “oh god, I wish I had another week to design that set.” It just doesn’t look like what I want it to look like. But I just had to get it done.Continued below
Do you ever kind of want to never look at your work again after you’re done? It seems like you would be constantly looking at it thinking “I wish I had done this!”
Lark: That happens, but there is also equal parts of, when it’s going well…even when it’s not going well, on the worst days, there are things that surprise you. It’s like seeing those and finding those in my work is fun. Whereas I’ll look at it and think, “wow, I don’t remember doing that.” That just happened completely by accident.
I’m not saying everything is like that. Not even close to 5% is like that. But it’s nice when I find that.
I’ve done a number of interviews for this, and I’m surprised the amount of people who say about the same thing.
Lark: It’s more like somebody else did it. Then it’s like, how can I recapture that? I really want to do that again. That’s…yeah. Getting in that state of mind where you can do that again is really 75 to 90% of this job, I think. When you’re in that state, everything else is easy.