Here he talks about his over 30 years of hard work, his working style and how one of his graphic novels ended in James Cameron’s hands, probably serving as a non credited inspiration for a recent blockbuster.
Octavio Aragão – As a multi tasked artist you seem to be very interested in different aspects of popular fiction in comics, TV and games, even winning several awards for your work including the Eisner and the Inkpot, but your name isn't linked to any literary project. Why is that so? Haven't you ever felt the urge to write a pulp fiction novel?
Mark Wheatley – That is a very perceptive question, I'm surprised no one has asked me that before. First - you should know that I wrote a long text story for the Titanic Tales pulp revival book that I produced and was published about 12 years ago. I've written other test stories - but that one was pulp, and it was published! So it isn't like I never have done this sort of thing. But more to the point - I learned to read at age 5 or 6 by pushing through Swiss Family Robinson. From that time forward I was hooked on novels. And when I get story ideas, they tend to fit novel structure and are pretty long for the average comic book or graphic novel. My Mars and Frankenstein Mobster graphic novels are pushing 300 pages (I'm fuzzy on the exact page counts). EZ Street and Lone Justice are both around 250 pages. And I think EZ Street comes closest to having a novel structure. But, of course, to really pull off true novel structure and character development in comics form, I would need at least twice the page count. When I was in my teen years I considered becoming a novelist. But it seemed to me that my ability to tell a story visually laid the responsibility on me to bring a deeper story and character element to comics. That was something that no one else was attempting. If I just wrote novels, I would be one more person filling pages with more words. If I did the same thing in comics, I could help grow the form, take it to a new level. And that's what I've been working at in my own little way for the past 30 years or so.
OA – As a graphic designer you are one of the heads of the Insight Studios and is the creator of a digital process of coloring comics. How do you balance the careers of Graphic Novelist and designer? And when did you noticed that a coloring system specially developed for comics could be necessary and, above all, profitable?
MW – Robert Heinlein used to say something like, "If it pays, I'll walk dogs!" Of course he made enough once he started writing that he didn't need to walk dogs. I started Insight Studios as a way to create a large impact with my own work. But I also thought that there would be strength in the numbers of talented people all in one place. And it has worked that way since the late 1970s! But there was a period where my running the business was so demanding that I barely had time for any creative work - I was handing that fun stuff off to all the other guys. And that went on for years. Eventually I had to restructure the way Insight worked to allow me to take time for my own projects. And that's been the way it has worked, and worked well, for the past decade or so. The major difference is that I now pull in other people to work with me on my projects - in the past I worked to set up projects for each of our people. When I was ready to change how we did things I offered the opportunity to the gang to share the project and business responsibilities within our group. But the others preferred to avoid business as much as possible. So we've all been pretty busy on my projects since. And I know I've been having a lot more fun! The Digi-Color color separation business included special unique scanning equipment as well as special art paper called Stable-Lines that I invented and had manufactured. The big problem in the early 1990's was to have painted color art stay in tight registration with the cartoon line art. Insight was already providing BlueLine production for the major comic book companies. I created Digi-color to solve the registration problems that BlueLines always presented. It was a good, successful process that became the central income generator for Insight for about 12 years before the progress of personal computers eclipsed what we had to offer. And that's saying something about how much income it was generating, because we were also producing a lot of creative work too. These days I do all my color art, including my painted illustrations, entirely in the digital realm. And most everyone else does too!
OA – Seems to me that as an illustrator your style borrows from different sources such as Frank Frazetta and some classic pulp fiction cover habituées as Edward D. Cartier and James Bama. Please, talk about your process as an illustrator and how it differs from the creation of the more dynamic, fast paced comic drawings.
MW – I will own up to being influenced by Frazetta. But I think what anyone sees in my work these days is more directly in line with the Brandywine school of illustrators, founded by Howard Pyle and best exemplified by N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth is my personal favorite. Pyle and Wyeth both had a big influence on Frazetta. But my influences from the classic golden age of illustration are extensive. I've spent a quarter of a century collecting books and magazines from the first half of the 20th century. A short list of my influences would have to include Wyeth, Pyle, Schoonover, Leyendecker, Louderback, Cornwell, Dunn, Stoops, Godwin, Schaefer, St. John, Cartier, Rockwell, Coll, and, well, the list goes on and on. And that's just in the area of illustration. There are all the classic comic strip creators, comic book artists, and I even could list a good many classical painters and sculptors. But I'll just step away from the list. The major charm of painting an illustration for me is the chance to take the time to get it exactly the way I want it. There is never enough time to really do the kind of work on a comic page that is needed. There are five illustrations on a page and usually I'm learning to draw something new for the first time in at least one of the panels on a page. I feel like I'm running constantly to keep up. But I can take three days for a painting and get it exactly the way I want it. I even have time to research and to learn how to draw a camel if needed. But I'm pretty happy working on any visual story telling project - comics or illustration. When it gets right down to it, I just enjoy telling stories.
OA – Back in 2008 you have lectured in the prestigious Norman Rockwell Museum and even had some of your comic work on view. How do you see, in times of webcomics and animated infographics, the exposition of comics pages on the walls of a museum? Does comics, and we could include here all the commercial illustration field also, really need this kind of respectability?
MW – Comics is a small market in transition. So we are constantly grasping at anything that might open up our works to a larger audience. Displaying comic art in museums is just one small piece in that very elaborate puzzle. For me - it was a huge personal thrill to have my work hanging in the Norman Rockwell Museum. But there is nothing new about comics appearing in museums. I've read accounts of museum displays of newspaper comics going back to the 1930's and 1940's. But after comics fell from favor in the 1950's, it has been a very long road back to respectability. And respect is a useful thing. It opens up comics to at least the possibility of more personal and important works. And I don't think it threatens the lively trash we all know and enjoy in the field!
OA – Now that Avatar affair. Some could say that parts of the plot of your comic book Mars was swiped by James Cameron to be used in his recent 3D blockbuster Avatar. Actually I've lost count of the novels and comics that seemed to be plagiarized by Cameron in this movie, being the most relevant the Poul Anderson's novel Call Me Joe, but that goes on till Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter Warlord of Mars. What elements could have been "borrowed" of your Mars storyline that ended as an influence for Cameron's Avatar?
MW – The plot of Mars reads like this - A young paraplegic is shipped out to a new world to become part of a team working to make this alien planet more human-friendly. Our hero and the team are doing this work by transferring their minds into constructed bodies that give them far more power on this world. In the process our hero forms a relationship with a beautiful, female fawn-like creature with large doe-eyes. The Fawn creature teaches our hero that everything in the world is connected. In the final conflict our hero actually transfers mentally into this world mind. Of course in Mars our hero is a young woman and the constructed bodies are robots. Mars was first published back in the mid-1980's and then collected in a single graphic novel edition from IDW in 2005.
Shortly after the collected edition was published I was contacted by one of the producers at James Cameron's production company asking for copies of the graphic novel edition of Mars. We supplied the copies and shortly after that, Jim's production company let that producer go when they down-sized the company. I never heard anything else about Mars and James Cameron. But watching Avatar seemed familiar - not only due to my Mars work - but for all the other cultural references he included in the film, from Roger Dean and Edgar Rice Burroughs to Poul Anderson and Dances With Wolves. I greatly enjoyed the film - especially in 3D.