Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Mitch Gerads grew up idolizing humble and steadfast operatives like the Green Berets. These days, he champions their cool precision as the artist on “The Activity” from Image Comics, often troubleshooting the finer details with seasoned combat veterans and real-life special operatives. Now he’s hard at work honing Frank Castle’s weapon skills and tactics for an upcoming run on “The Punisher” with his “The Activity” co-creator Nathan Edmondson.
CBR News caught up with Gerads after a long day of finishes, just before the artist settled in for a deadly session of his favorite current pastime.
CBR News: When you’re not drawing, what have you been up to lately?
Mitch Gerads: I’ve been playing — pretty much exclusively — “Call of Duty: Ghosts” on the Xbox One. It’s currently the only game I have for the system.
I went through the campaign pretty — I wouldn’t say quickly — I was excited to do it. I loved the campaign. You can tell they brought in [writer Stephen Gaghan] the guy who did “Traffic.” It has a much more robust, followable (if that’s a word) story. I’ve enjoyed all the other “Modern Warfare” games in the past, but the reasons you’re doing things never made a ton of sense. The overall story would make sense, but here everything made sense.
Nothing terrible happens to that dog does it?
I’ve been worried about that dog since they first announced it.
I won’t say anything about what happens to the dog, but having played through the campaign, it boggles my mind why the dog was such a big focus in the marketing.
How about the Xbox One itself? I’m a PS4 guy, so you have to give me a report on the whole HAL 9000 thing. Is that Kinect camera assimilated into your family?
Kind of? My fiancee is completely creeped out by it, which is great. No, it’s cool. It kind of turns you into a crazy person in a way because you’re constantly yelling things at the TV. It doesn’t pick those up as well as some of the videos seemed to suggest. You end up repeating yourself until you have the realization that you just got into an argument with the TV.
Historically, you played a good bit of “Call of Duty” with Nathan Edmondson and fans of “The Activity” online. Is that just a way to unwind, or did those sessions inspire any plot points or storytelling decisions?
Oh, no, I know it influenced me, and I’m almost positive it influenced Nathan. It’s right in that “Activity” wheelhouse. Maybe some of the things portrayed in the games didn’t pertain to what our unit would do or have to do, but at the same time, it’s telling a military fiction story. We loved playing it, but sometimes we’d say, “I didn’t like the way they handled this aspect. Let’s not do it that way in our book.” They get a lot right, and that’s our whole thing too; we try to get a lot right. We have this character who appears sporadically, called Whisper. I had to come up with a design, and I decided to pay tribute to their character, Soap, by giving him a little mohawk. They did their research, and it’s a popular hairstyle for a lot of those guys. There’s an example of the two experiences bleeding into one another.
So if we see Frank Castle remotely controlling a German Shepherd in “Punisher”…
[Laughs] I don’t know so much about that.
You prefer the “Modern Warfare” titles to the “Black Ops” franchise because while they both have their fantastical elements, the latter is maybe a bridge too far, for your liking. Do you find that across the board, preferring realism to a more heightened science-fiction?
There’s definitely a line. With “The Activity,” I really appreciate the realism of applying the research into the gear, what they wear, how they move, stuff like that. I also recognize the need for entertainment, so I’m drawn to that stretching of realism. If it were a straight up, real military game, you’d probably spend three days in a helicopter waiting for someone to tell you it’s OK to go do something. I don’t know if that would be as much fun. Realism is a double-edged sword. Too much of it, and it’s not all that much fun. Too little and you’re taken out of it.
Can you think of any examples from either side of the equation?
I’m not a stickler for realism either, but there are degrees. I remember watching an episode of “Covert Affairs.” They kept referring to a “special forces team.” These guys were shooting from the hip. For someone who knows a little bit, it was driving me nuts, and I even stopped watching the show for a little bit. I came back to it eventually. You can tell what shows have an advisor. When you use the term “Special Forces” it specifically means the US Army, specifically the Green Berets. Everything else is “special operations.” When they say, “Oh, he’s Special Forces Navy Seals,” that makes no sense. The Green Berets, I think, are one of the most badass sections of the special operation units. They’re also the teachers. They’re the guys who go into the foreign countries and help the local, indigenous people how to build irrigation systems, train their police force how to better defend themselves, etc.
I think everybody, military or not, has a line for themselves in terms of bending authenticity.
We see it in our superhero movies. People have a problem with some weird detail, but at the same time you’re like, “But, they’re all mutants with powers.”
It’s all suspension of disbelief, and you’re afforded only so much time to establish the rules for your world. You set up the boundaries in that first act, and if you hop the fence 45 minutes into the movie, you throw in this whole other wrinkle. That’s a bridge too far. And about seven metaphors, I’m sorry.
[Laughs] That’s a good point as far as what I’m into in terms of TV, movies, games, what have you. I have a really high tolerance. I can suspend disbelief like you wouldn’t believe.
Of course, with military shooters it’s not just a question of suspension of disbelief, but respectful authenticity. There’s an expectation that it’s even more dangerous to play fast and loose with the facts when portraying modern warfare.
Yep. That’s really where I’m coming from on that question. I don’t mind if you take liberties for entertainment purposes, so long as you pay it respect. Once that respect gets bridged, maybe I’m out.
Why is that especially important for you personally?
I have two older brothers and, counting my dad, I’m the only male in the family to have not joined the military at some point. My dad was in the Army. My second oldest brother was in the National Guard, and my oldest brother just retired from the Air National Guard. I remember from a young age reading about the Seals or Green Berets. That was always so cool to me. When I was a kid, I never got into Rambo or any of the big, hulking characters. The muscle. I always liked the guys who could go and do their thing and nobody knew it’d happened.
Quiet. Stealthy. Professionals.
Yeah. That’s what drew me to special operations. Sometimes I hate going into this in interviews because I worry I look like I’m trying to come off as an expert. No, I’m just super into it. I nerd out about it. The few special operations guys I’ve met hate when you call them superheroes. They just don’t dig it.
Because it’s silly? Reductive?
It’s just such a job to them. It’s what they do. Recognition is not a huge thing with them. Most special operations guys not only go into their mission and leave without being seen, but they like no one knowing they did it, too. For me, I think it’s so cool is because it’s the real world Batman story. It’s people who trained to be the tip of the spear in every way they could, as tactically-minded and aware and present, able to handle whatever situation comes at them.
Did you get a tattoo this year?
I did! I got two tattoos this year.
Tell us about them.
I got one on my left arm. That was the first one. We went and did a Free Comic Book Day signing at Memory Lane Comics in North Carolina with Nathan. We actually met a guy through the shop who own a local tattoo parlor who said to come on down. Nathan was into it, so I tagged along. As he was getting his done, the guy said, “You’re next!” I said, “Wha?” I’d always wanted one, but never knew what to get, narrowing it down for a long time but never seriously considering it. So I called my fiancee and asked if it was OK. [Laughs] I ended up getting the logo for my first creator-owned comic I did, called “Johnny Recon.” I did it with one of my best friends, Scott Dillon. We’d created our fake studio, our version of a Marvel or DC. We called it POPGUNPULP COMICS.
It’s a great name.
I came up with a cool logo which I still love today, this ’50s ray gun inside concentric circles. That’s what I put on my shoulder. That was awesome, but it’s exactly like people say. Once you get a tattoo, you immediately want the next one.
Immediately. I’m talking 20 minutes after I got this thing. It’s still hurting. I knew what I wanted for the next one. I waited a few months, but on my right arm, I got the reversed American flag. It’s my tribute to both my time on “The Activity” but also the amazing experiences I got because of that book, meeting some of these guys who were heroes to me growing up. I never thought I would get to meet someone who used to be Delta or Nay Seal. I’m having dinner with these guys all of a sudden. What soldiers do is, on their right arm, wear the flag patch reversed so that the blue star field is facing out. It goes back to the cavalry. If you’re moving forward through the wind, the flag is going to drape backwards. It’s going to drape in reverse. It’s kind of that idea of, “We never retreat. We’re always moving forward.” I did my due diligence and contacted some of the people we’ve met and some other people I know in the military and asked them if it would be cool and not brand me, falsely, as military. That’s something I’d never want to do. You’ve got to earn that. But they said, “No, you own the flag just as much as we do.” They all gave me their blessing and I went and did it. It’s my favorite one. I love it.
I always wondered what that reverse flag meant when I’d see it on TV or movies. I used to think it was a mistake, like they flipped the image because they’d shot from the wrong angle and needed to fix it. Then I kept seeing it and realized it must mean something.
It’s kind of become a talking point. I’ve learned that a lot of people who aren’t in the know often assume it’s anti-American, like putting the flag upside-down on your stamp or something. I explain that, no, it’s not. Quite the opposite. So, I enjoy passing along that knowledge, because I didn’t know at first either. I didn’t know until a Green Beret came up at Heroes Con to say how much he enjoyed our work and explained the whole reasoning behind it. He gave me a patch that he’d worn in Iraq.
It sounds like you’ve had a lot of rewarding interactions with readers.
More so than on any other project I’ve worked on. We got to meet a lot of really cool dudes and got to learn a lot of information I didn’t know and didn’t think I’d ever get to know. Whenever those guys come and say, “You got this right,” that’s the biggest thing for me. I love that. It shows that they care that we care.
And for that to come from the guys you always viewed as heroes–
Who were some of your other heroes, growing up?
I was always into the underdog or the good guy. Luke Skywalker. Peter Parker. Growing up, I never really had an anti-hero thing. That was something I appreciated more as I got older. I always liked the hero, the guy doing it for the altruistic reason.
You were more of a Captain America kid than a Punisher kid.
In fact, I would admit that up until I was about halfway through “The Activity,” Punisher was not one of my favorite characters. A lot of shooting from the hip, etc. But when I started doing “The Activity,” that’s when that character clicked for me. “If I ever get the Punisher, this guy’s awesome.” I couldn’t wait to put my spin on it through stuff I’ve learned. Lo and behold, here we are.
Between this “Punisher” run and getting hitched, you have a big 2014 in the works.
I’m getting married, yeah!
Are you terrified? Excited?
No, super excited!
You’ve got to think about that dance, right?
Do you like dancing?
I’m a huge — I’ll dance the night away. I’m such a wedding guy. I love weddings. When I get invited to weddings, it’s the greatest thing. I spend the entire time on the dance floor. I have a really big extended family, so we always do weddings really big. Everyone gets out there. I have a ton of memories, growing up, going to weddings.
Do you like the slow dances, the theme dances?
I hate theme dances. I don’t like any dance where the dance move is part of the lyrics to the song. The “Electric Slide.”
You like to improvise.
You’ve got to feel the groove, move with the music. My absolute favorite wedding song, and I request it at every wedding I go to, and I break out the official dance every time, is “Dancing in the Dark” by Springsteen.
I roll up the sleeves, start snapping the fingers.
Is that going to be your first dance, your official wedding song?
It probably won’t be our first dance, but it’ll be in there.
Have you talked about this? You have to do something big, something viral. This stuff makes the news everyday.
A big choreographed thing.
Something big though.
I only do it big.
You’re not going to bring the sketchbook on the honeymoon, are you?
No. Drawing is fun. I love working in comics. I get my fun working on the work that I have. So, whenever I do have free time, the last thing I want to do is draw. It has nothing to do with being paid or not. I enjoy drawing “The Activity” and “Punisher.” But when I have free time, I turn on the TV or play video games. I go for a run or see a movie with friends. Tonight I’m going to play some more “Call of Duty.” Next week, if it’s not that, I’m not sure what’s coming out, games-wise, coming up. I’m sure something will come along to tickle my pickle.
That’s the dream, isn’t it? Here’s to each and every pickle getting tickled as we hope it to be tickled in 2014.