Conversing on Comics with Mike Baron

Mike Baron has done it all in comics, and then some. But what he loves most is creating his own characters, and he was doing "creator-owned comics" years before it became a movement. A collaboration with Steve Rude, Baron's Nexus was one of the 1980s gleaming independent gems -- and Baron expanded on that with the PTSD-prone veteran-turned-hero Badger.

Like many of his colleagues, Baron spent time at the Big Two, crafting a six-year run on The Punisher and doing some memorable work on Deadman. But just as he broke into comics creating his own characters, 2014 sees Baron returning to that -- both in comics and in prose novels. The Colorado author is currently writing his fifth novel, Domain, and charting the return of his signature creation Badger.

ROBOT 6 spoke with the two-time Eisner winner spoke at length about his projects, his passion, and his love of martial arts.

Chris Arrant: Mike, what are you working on today?

Mike Baron: I’m worked on a haunted hose novel titled Domain. It’s a haunted-house story to end all haunted house stories.

I’ll be asking about your prose career, but first I wanted to ask you about comics. When I was thinking of people I wanted to interview, you were in my top five because of what you’re doing and what you’ve been doing for over 30 years: creator-owned comics. Before Image Comics and “creator-owned comics” were cool, you were doing them steadily and heavily with Nexus and later Badger. What was it like being a trailblazer?

Well, it was extremely exciting, but I do have to point out that when we originally signed the deals for Nexus and Badger we signed away the rights to those characters. It’s only thanks to Dark Horse Comics’ Mike Richardson that Steve Rude and I got the rights back to Nexus, but First still holds an interest in Badger. But since the creation of those two I’ve done numerous creator-owned series like The World of Ginger Fox, Spyke and Feud.

How do you feel about the way creator-owned comics have grown by such leaps and bounds?

Well, it’s a very positive development because owning your own creations is the way to go. It’s the creator who puts their blood, sweat and tears into the comic, so they should benefit most. I’m glad the industry has come around to that way of thinking, but of course there’s been many brave people over the years who brought this about: Dave Sim and Neal Adams, for instance, who fought for the recognition of Jack Kirby and for the rights of the guys who created Superman. There’s nothing you can do about those since they were created ages ago under the then-current laws of the land, but we’ve come a long way.

Currently your most visible comics work has been reuniting with Steve Rude on new Nexus stories for Dark Horse. Has the process changed much since you and Steve began in 1980?

Quite a bit. When I originally began writing comics I would draw out each page by hand. I’m not a bad artist, but I’m not a good one, either; just good enough to get my ideas across. These finished, hand-drawn pages would include all the dialogue, captions and notes needed to be included. Everyone loved it, including Steve and the editors; they could tell at a glance what the pages is about without reading through densely packed type. I’m not the only one who did this, as both Harvey Kurtzman and Archie Goodwin wrote this way. But after a while I began to have terrible back problems from hunching over the drawing boards, so I went to full-script. And when I say full script, it’s full script. All the captions and dialogue is put together.

In the old days, because Steve and I lived in the same city, we would meet up somewhere and go over pages. Now we live further apart, but we make it work.

You started Nexus in 1980, and it’s now 2014 – 34 years. How have your views on the character and that universe changed since the early days?

Well, it’s changed in this respect: When I started, I was winging it, just figuring out what elements make for a compelling story. But after a couple of years, Nexus and the other characters in this universe Steve and I created took on lives of their own and began dictating their stories to me. It happens to every good writer -- there comes a point where your characters come alive and will tell you what happens based on their personalities.

For many people you’re best known for Nexus, but for me it’s always been Badger from its days at First. We last saw new stories from you and him in 2007 at IDW; any chance for more down the line?

Oh, man, First has got to get their webpage sorted out. I’m doing a new Badger series with a revitalized First Comics, and it’s going to be five issues. We’ve already got the first issue in the can, and this is the best Badger writing I’ve ever done. It should come out sometime this spring, and I’ll be posting news about it on my website as well as on Facebook.

As you mentioned earlier, you’ve also done other creator-owned comics, like Spyke for Marvel’s Epic line, Feud and some others. Do you have any old creator-owned concepts you’re thinking about reviving?

Actually, I have a new Ginger Fox script that’s absolutely dynamite, and I’ve spoken to Comico about it but, as you know, they’re just on the Internet today – they don’t publish print books. The guys love it, but can’t see any way to make money on it at this stage. I’ve approached Mitch O’Connell and the Pander Brothers, but they’re not willing to do it for no upfront money, as I can understand. But I hope it happens somehow; it’s a really solid story.

We could talk about your old titles for the whole interview, but let’s talk about the new characters and stories you’re doing now. Any new comic projects you’re working on or want to work on that you can tease us fans with?

Oh, yeah. I have a new series coming out later this year from First called Howl.  It’s about a werewolf detective in the early 1960s, and is set in Kansas City. There’s a lot of jazz, and it's drawn by a terrific British artist named Shane Oakley. He deals in creepy stuff like Bernie Wrightson, but he’s totally original. He’s done quite a lot of English comics, did some work at IDW, and even worked with Alan Moore.

In addition to comics, you’ve been pushing heavily into prose writing. Your debut as a writer was doing prose for Kitchen Sink’s Weird Trips Magazine back in 1974, and in the past few years you’ve written a number of prose novels on your own – even outstripping your recent comics. What was the initial push that got you into writing full-length novels on a regular basis?

I’ve always wanted to write novels. I’ve always wanted to write comics as well, but they’re two completely different animals. It took me a hell of a long time to write a novel, but about two or three years ago I woke up one morning and suddenly understood the novel form. There were no more doubts, and I just started writing and haven’t been able to stop since.

Much to my surprise, I’m focusing on horror. I’ve always loved horror, but just as I loved over genres. My first novel was Helmet Head, and I’ve written several since. Right now I’m working on Domain, but the next one published will be Banshees later this year from American Fantasy Press. It’s about a satanic rock band coming back from the dead.

You’ve garnered an army of fans from your comics work, but I’d wager most didn’t know about your prose novels. What would you recommend as a starting point for them?

I would say Whack Job. If you like Badger or my work on Punisher, it has a long of those elements to it. It’s available from WordFire Press, a company founded by Kevin J. Anderson who people might be familiar with. They also published Skorpio, a novel I wrote about a ghost who only appears under a blazing sun.

We’ve talked old and new, but now I want to dig deeper. Seeing as you’re so well known for writing action comics, I’m impressed that you’re one of the few comic creators specializing in action stories that actually has a background in martial arts. Can you talk about that?

It’s more prevalent than you think. I’m working on a series with Jeff Palmer called Dead Bang, and he’s a karate instructor. Dead Bang came out of my love for Shang Chi and martial-arts espionage stories. Jeff’s art is just unbelievable – if you like Jim Steranko and Paul Gulacy, you’ll love this.

Dean Zachary is another friend of mine who’s into martial arts. He received his black belt a couple years ago, and he and I have a series coming out called Warriors of Yin/Yang. The art he’s been sending to me and I’ve been posting on Facebook is absolutely galvanizing.

I fondly remember that Bruce Lee series you did with Val Mayerik back in the 1990s.

Thank you. I’m extremely proud of those. My understanding of those is the Lee family was very reluctant about that, and that’s why they haven’t been seen since.

How did you come to have such an interest in martial arts?

You bet. I went crazy when the first Master of Kung Fu came out. I love Paul Gulacy. But when you see martial arts being done in comics, it’s often just poses and no technique – you don’t see any logical progression. I’ve always been a stickler about action scenes; you don’t want to see extreme close-ups of fists hitting chins or whatever, you want to understand how they physically go after one another. I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity to do a martial arts comic, I would make the techniques logical and exciting. I was able to do that with Badger, and the high point of that is Bill Reinhold and I’s Badger #9, “Hot August Night.” There’s a fight sequence in there where the characters come alive. I’m lucky to have the same thing happen with Dead Bang and Warriors of  Yin/Yang.

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