SPOILER WARNING: The following interview discusses “FF” #2, in stores now.
One of the most visually distinct artists working in comics today, Mike Allred readily admits that he has to force himself from channelling Jack Kirby. But as the ongoing artist of Marvel Comics’ newly re-launched “FF” — written by Matt Fraction — the artist is finding great joy and happiness playing in the legendary creator’s universe, populating the Baxter Building with a substitute squad featuring Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa and Miss Thing in the Fantastic Four’s absence.
Known perhaps most famously for his indie creation Madman, Allred just finished his creator-owned Vertigo series “iZombie” with co-creator and writer Chris Roberson and was looking to return to the House of Ideas, having previously enjoyed a long-run on “X-Force” with Peter Milligan.
As the Marvel NOW! initiative began to take shape, Fraction and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso tagged Allred as the perfect compliment to Fraction on “FF,” and Allred leaped at the chance.
A long-time fan of the classic 102-issue run of “Fantastic Four” by Kirby and Stan Lee, Allred actually pretended to be Ant-Man as a child and his first “comic book” crush was Medusa — so suffice it to say, he’s committed to his current gig.
CBR News checked in with Allred, who was eager to discuss his approach approach for each of the FF’s team members, what changes he’s made and the challenges he’s faced in visually designing a group worthy of carrying the FF mantle.
CBR News: How did you and Matt Fraction hook up for “FF,” because it seems to be a match made in heaven for this particular team and circumstance.
Mike Allred: We see each other quite a bit; we both live in Oregon, and so we go to the same parties and both like the same sort of music and movies. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for some time.
I’ve been looking for the perfect [opportunity] to come back and play in the Marvel Universe again, and they had a retreat where they were figuring out the Marvel NOW! initiative. Axel and Matt thought this might be the perfect thing for me and approached me with it, and it was exactly what I wanted to do my whole life. [Laughs]
“Fantastic Four,” particularly the Kirby run on those first 102 issues, are some of my favorite comics ever — always have been. To be able to play with that but not specifically follow that — we’re pretty much making our own Fantastic Four — fulfills my childhood dreams.
I think there is probably less pressure too as opposed to what Mark Bagley is up against with “Fantastic Four.” [Laughs] I’ve done some short bits with the Fantastic Four before, so I envy him and I don’t envy him at the same time. This just feels very liberating, to build our own substitute team and be the landlords of the Baxter Building. It’s pretty great.
The team is such an odd mix. How did it come together?
It all started with Ant-Man. He is one of my all-time favorite characters and also, I feel, underrated. He was the second costumed character ever at Marvel after the Fantastic Four. When you’re a kid, he’s always one of the characters that you pretend to be when you are in the backyard because you can pretend you’re small — and you are small as a child — so I always identified with him. Getting into tight spots and pretending that giants were surrounding me. For any number of reasons, Ant-Man has always been a sentimental favorite, and Medusa was my first comic book crush, ever.
It was Matt’s idea to bring She-Hulk in. She’s become a favorite character of mine. She wasn’t before, but now I have great affection for her. And Miss Thing was an idea that actually came from a brainstorming session that Brian Bendis was a part of — a cute chick in a Thing costume, and I got to be the first guy to draw her. It’s a wonky, weird idea. The whole concept of her being a fling of Johnny Storm’s and — I hesitate with everything I say about her because there is so much that is happening that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. I have to keep censoring myself as I talk about these characters. What I can say is, you are in for a big treat. If people love what’s ahead just a fraction, Fraction [Laughs], of how I feel, I think they are really going to dig this.
As a long-time fan of Ant-Man, was developing your take on the character challenging or did it come quite easily?
I always wanted to play with Ant-Man’s helmet. The front piece on his helmet was always suggested as mandibles, so I just made it a little more literal.
The character I was most concerned about drawing was She-Hulk, especially when you see how these other guys have done such a great job with her, like Adam Hughes. You have this large, muscular figure, but still she’s very feminine and sexy. That was a concern of mine — that I wouldn’t be able to tap into her innocence and joyfulness, which is also a big part of Jen. I was really afraid that I would miss the target, but so far, I am really happy. At least to the point where I am having way more fun than I ever thought I would.
You mentioned Adam Hughes’ take on her, but did you go back and look at other interpretations of She-Hulk, specifically her original appearances drawn by John Buscema?
Oh yeah, John Buscema, John Byrne, Art Adams — I’m a fan of these guys. I’m friends with these guys. I really just didn’t want to blow it. I looked at their stuff to build enthusiasm for the character, and once it was built, I cut off and went my own way.
Let’s go back to Ant-Man. I love his look, especially what you’ve done with the helmet.
Thanks. The antennas are something that I’m really having fun with. They’re very expressive and very organic as opposed to the stiff, car antenna look they’ve had in the past. I’ve always thought it was strange that Hank Pym would become Giant-Man and have these very loose antennas. What does Giant-Man have to do with antennas? Why does he need antennas? [Laughs] I always wanted those antennas to be even more expressive and organic and be on Ant-Man’s helmet.
You’ll notice with the antennas that I’ve come up with, he can frown or look sad or look startled. They’re like eyebrows — big ant eyebrows.
And twith he mandibles, you’ve shortened the front piece from previous designs.
The genius of Kirby’s original design is that they suggested that they are like the mandibles of an ant — mine are just less subtle.
Obviously, when you think about Medusa, it’s all about the hair.
Oh, man, you’re right. It’s all about the hair. My approach to Medusa is recognizing that her hair is more useful than her actual hands and legs. It’s very liberating to be expressive with her hair. Her hair can express emotion. You’ll see subtle, little things happening with her hair. Traditionally, I will draw a character and often use their hands to express what the character is feeling — I do a lot of hand acting with my characters. With Medusa, it’s that and more. It’s unlimited, what I can do with her hair — wrapping around things, holding things, picking things up, grabbing things, reaching out for things. Her hair is very much an extension of her. It’s liberating that there’s just no wrong. You can’t do anything wrong with the hair as far as I’m concerned.
Your affinity for Ant-Man is inspired, in part, by Kirby. Medusa is another Kirby creation. Did you go back and see what he did with the character?
Kirby is so ingrained in me. He’s been a part of my entire life. I’ve always been surrounded by his work and everything that he has ever done has always been the definitive version, in my opinion. There’s a natural, inspired spirit that comes from Kirby with what I do, but actually, I often have to work harder to not have elements of Kirby in my work, because I don’t want it to be too pronounced or come off as some kind of rip-off as opposed to homage. It’s actually a challenge to me to have less Kirby in my work.
I think that’s one of things that [I find] really exciting about this project. It’s an absolute license to go Kirby-crazy. He had lots of success in his career before “Fantastic Four,” but for me, that is what has always been the most powerful. His work in regard to family and loyalty and courage and squabbling [Laughs] that naturally came from those characters was — if you study comic book history, you really didn’t see any of that until then. There was almost stiffness in the way characters reacted to one another, and here, with a group a characters that lived in this amazing building in Manhattan and more times than not didn’t really get along, but loved each other unconditionally and would sacrifice themselves for each other. It’s always been very moving and it’s such a great example for making characters come off the page.
That appreciation has really fueled me, just tapping into that deep affection that I have for the whole Baxter Building and all the characters that run through it.
Again, Medusa was first introduced as villain in “Fantastic Four.” And then, with the introduction of the Inhumans, it produced a deep, deep well of amazing creations. It just seems like anything can happen at the Baxter Building. You can meet any type of character there, with the portals to different dimensions and alternate universes. I’ve just broken open this treasure chest of love for all of these comics that I’ve loved my entire life. Like I said before, having a license to tap into that is — wow. It’s exhilarating.
And with all this love for the past and for Jack Kirby and the history of the Fantastic Four, you get to add to the mythology with the introduction of Darla Deering, the lovely Miss Thing. How do you balance the beauty with the beast?
[Laughs] It’s shocking, really. You have this body that’s indestructible, and then you have this incredibly vulnerable, beautiful little head peaking out over top. It’s an amazing contrast.
The original description was to draw The Thing with a pretty girl’s head, and then we talked about her being a kind of pop star. Right now, I think the most exciting female pop star is Katy Perry. She’s somebody that has broken long-held records. I think her last record had five number-one hits off it. She’s not just a creation of a record label; she’s a master of her own destiny, but with all of this talent, she’s also incredibly beautiful with this gorgeous figure.
You’ll especially see in the third issue how I’ve really drawn from Katy Perry. You actually see [Darla] performing in concert. I really liked the idea of the flashy hair and having this whole other idea of fame and success. This way, she’s not just a pretty face. She has her own identity. She has her own sense of self, and then to be thrown into this whole other area of fame and responsibility and power and influence. It’s fun to see how she deals with it.
Are there some classic Fantastic Four villains coming up that you get to explore?
I don’t think it’s giving too much away, but in the second issue you’ll see the first great Fantastic Four villain make an appearance.
Yeah. And he’s riding that creature from the cover of “Fantastic Four”#1. But there’s a little sneakiness below the surface. You’ll think initially that it’s this good, old-fashioned, slam-bam battle, but there are actually some sneaky machinations going on behind the scenes. You’ll find out in the third issue that there is a little more to his appearance than meets the eye.
Sounds like you’re having a lot of fun on “FF” and are committed to a long run.
Absolutely. We’ve cleared our schedule for 2013. We’ve only committed to one [personal] appearance so far because I want to have as few fill-ins as possible. I’ve never been this committed to a project before. It just feels like something I’ve dreamed about since I was a child. I want to completely play this out and look back that I absolutely gave my all. I’m completely committed.
I should add that it’s always a thrill to have Laura [Allred, Mike’s wife and colorist] want to show off what she just did. She’ll call me in and be excited about choices that she has made from her latest pages. I think she’s having almost as much fun as I am!
“FF” #2, by Matt Fraction and featuring art by Mike Allred and Laura Allred, is on sale now.