Michael William Kaluta is arguably one of the great living fantasy artists still working today. His comics career began in the 1970’s through work on anthologies like “House of Secrets” and “Web of Horror,” during which time he created a fortune teller character for editor Joe Orlando named “Madame Xanadu.” His name became synonymous with the adventures of “The Shadow” and “Carson of Venus” for DC Comics. From 1975 through ’79, he was a member of “The Studio” along with Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson and Jeff Jones. He’s an award-winning painter and illustrator who has contributed to role playing games, illustrated Danzig album covers and in 2003 was named a Spectrum Grand Master in recognition of his vast and influential body of work.
Kaluta never left comics, but recent years have seen him spending more and more of his creative time in the medium, both as a cover artist for numerous series and one-shots and working on interior’s, like last year’s Marvel Comics’ “Chaos War: Chaos King” and five issues of Vertigo’s “Madame Xanadu” series, collected under the title “Madame Xanadu: Exodus Noir.”
“Starstruck,” which was recently released in a deluxe hardcover edition by IDW Publishing, is both an old and a new project for Kaluta. He was involved in its original incarnation as a play written by and co-starring Elaine Lee. The two adapted it into a series of short stories for “Heavy Metal” before developing it further for Marvel’s Epic line. The latest volume collects, expands and presents in full color many of those stories. The artist spoke with CBR News about the project, taking us through the process of adding to and reformatting original pages, discussing what he’s working on now and revealing the dream projects he still hopes to get to.
CBR News: Obviously, we’ll discuss “Starstruck” in a moment, but first I’d like to ask — what projects are you currently working on?
Michael William Kaluta: Since January, I’ve been drawing an 8-page Rocketeer comic strip for the new IDW 4-issue “Rocketeer” anthology miniseries. My story was written by Kurt Buisek and takes place in NYC. We follow Betty, who is working in a show on Broadway while Cliff is in the Pacific theatre fighting in a P-38 squadron.
I am drawing the 5 covers for Marvel’s “Zombie Christmas Carol,” based on the Dickens story of the similar name.
I am drawing the covers for a special “Fear Itself” miniseries, “The Fearsome Four” starring Frankenstein, She-Hulk, Nighthawk and Howard the Duck — yes, it does seem an odd combo. That’s the point, I think! I’ll have a bit of a hand on some interior art for that series, if the rumors are true.
I’ve also some other covers in the works featuring Hercules, Wolverine, Spiderman and a dedication to Captain America, but none are for the books of those names. I often don’t know the name of the book the cover is for, like the recent one featuring Wolverine and Fin Fang Foom. Apparently it was a cover for “Astonishing X-Men.” They are all variant covers, I believe.
I’m in the midst of illustrating Don Gates’ Pulp Novel “Isle of Blood.” There’ll be nine black and white interior illustrations and a cover painting.
I’ve one cover for “Dark Horse Presents” on the board, plus several private commissions. My only problem is what to do with my vast amount of leisure time.
To go back in time, how did you first get involved in “Starstruck?” Were you involved in the play that Elaine Lee wrote before the comic was spun out of it?
Elaine and I did the comic book because the play had become sort of enmeshed in a producer’s mishandling of the rights. The play, and things like movies, TV, etc., were all tied up for a year or so, but the comic book rights still belonged to Elaine. So, we did a comic book.
When “Starstruck” was originally published, much of your published work had been fantasy and horror stories, fantasy art, “The Shadow” and “Carson of Venus.” “Starstruck” is noticeably different from those projects. Were there any influences or work that affected the look of “Starstruck” or how you approached the book?
Though “different,” “Starstruck” incorporated all the different genres I’d ever worked in, albeit morphed by Elaine Lee’s sideways take on them. Drawing “Starstruck” was a smorgasbord of artistic challenges and fun virtuoso moments. I brought everything I had to doing the “Starstruck” comic, and, based on Elaine’s characters and wit, what I brought raised itself to a new level. Since it is science fiction, I used pen and ink almost exclusively, that is to say, very little gestural brush work like I’d used in “The Shadow.” That refined fine line approach gave “Starstruck” its “look.” Inspiration came from all corners, but the art in “Metal Hurlant,” etc., opened a floodgate of style to jump off from.
Visually speaking, how the play affect how you drew the comic? Did characters look like the actors portraying them? Did you take any cues from the sets or lightings or anything like that?
All the characters looked as close to the actors as I could manage. The actors had infused Elaine’s characters with living personality, so the actors became the characters. It made some of my work easier, since I could “see” what expressions each situation would engender, since I knew most of the actors as friends over the months and months of rehearsal, production and after-run partying.
Since I designed the sets, they did inform some of my approach to the comic book art, but the comic book story, all 600+ pages, happens before the play. The hardware elements of the “Starstruck” play had yet to develop, historically, so I got to draw in a prologue concept method.
What was the plan for this new edition of “Starstruck?” Was the idea always to collect all the material and make this definitive complete edition?
Elaine and I had been trying to interest publishers in collecting, and expanding, the original “Starstruck” work that was born in “Heavy Metal Magazine” and then had its teen years at Marvel Epic. Dark Horse Comics enjoyed a doubling of the pages of the graphic novel and first Epic comic, but in black and white. Elaine and I really felt “Starstruck” should be in color.
There were three or four publishers between the Dark Horse Expanding Universe and the IDW Moment who said they were interested in a color version. That always lasted until they did a cost analysis. Hundreds of pages of color is always a pricey endeavor.
IDW, in the person of Scott Dunbier, came to us. Scott had a dream of reprinting the Starstruck material and wasn’t at all averse to it being in full, new color. But even the present collection/compendium/gatherum isn’t definitive, yet. Though a complete and satisfying story as it stands, there are still twice as many “Starstruck” story pages that need publication! Something to shoot for!
What new material did you draw for this edition?
I added 2.5 inches of art to at least 80 of the pages, perhaps more. That was quite a task! There are 13 new covers, 13 (at least) new interior Dwannyun Of Griivarr introduction images, dozens of glossary entry additions and new story-link pages to smooth the transitions between chapters. If one is familiar with only the Epic graphic novel and comics, there’s over 100 new pages set in the midst of the original Epic pages.
And then there’s the color. Lee Moyer’s color work renews all the art, bonds it into a monumental whole, to the point that I get to see art I’ve done, and known for years, as surprisingly new.
Was it a challenge to work on a project that was done years ago in a somewhat different style than you work today?
That was most likely the largest challenge. Matching art by extending panels drawn 20 or more years earlier was a huge and daunting task. After the first 50 pages or so, I got into the swing of it, but wow — it definitely was a challenge. Back-breaking to the point that when I’d find I could add a new panel of art to lengthen a page, as opposed to adding a top/bottom to an already existing panel, I whooped with joy. Those entirely new panels were few and far between. The story of “Starstruck” is timed from panel to panel. Dropping a new panel between earlier ones would mean disrupting that flow. Luckily for my tired hand, once in a while there’d be a quiet moment where a new panel could slide in “unnoticed”.
For those wondering why I was lengthening pages: the graphic novel format for Marvel/Epic, and for “Heavy Metal Magazine” art pages is almost square, while a comic book page is much more a tall rectangle. Rather than leave the earlier “Starstruck” pages with huge empty space on the bottom, or top and bottom, lengthening the pages made all the art uniform with the comic book format.
What was the experience like working with Lee Moyer on coloring this edition?
The result speaks volumes. Lee has always loved “Starstruck,” he knows the story back and forth, knew the costume colors, etc. My input was in a few little, niggling places where I wanted a bit more of this or a touch less of that. Lee had the whip hand as far as color, and used it to masterly effect!
It seems as though you’ve been working in comics more in the past few years. Last year’s “Chaos War: Chaos King” one-shot from Marvel, the five issues of “Madame Xanadu” you did with writer Matt Wagner and a short story here and a cover there. What is it that keeps you working in the medium and why have you been doing so much more, recently?
I love doing covers and am always keen to get involved with illustration projects, but storytelling in comics is unique. Now and again I hanker to get back into moving a story along from panel to panel. Some years ago I did an issue of “Lucifer” for Vertigo. I was doing the covers at the time. I found it so much fun, and it sort of fell out of my pencil and pen. That experience, along with my 8-page Batman black and white and the recent “The Spirit” black and white story, brought me back to wanting to be involved in more comic book stories, always hoping I’d get to do something in keeping with my strengths. Being offered the “Madame Xanadu” fill-in arc was a blessing — it was to be two stories, originally, then became the five-issue arc — and a ton of fun. Brandon Montclare, my go-to guy on the “Madame Xanadu” project, brought me the “Chaos King” one-shot. It’s all worked out as fun fun fun!!!
What are the projects you’d like to draw in the years to come, whether comics or illustration?
I’ve never been much of one to pine for a special project, all on my own. A life-long wish was to illustrate Thea von Harbou’s “Metropolis.” I got to do that in 1988. When someone presents me with a project, I become keen to get into it and run. But, unlike most of my colleagues, I don’t think of future comic book projects as Things I’d Love To Do.
Having said that, I’d love to do covers and interior illustrations for Gustave Flaubert’s “Salammbo,” all the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” books and get another crack at doing a J.R.R. Tolkien calendar. I do dream!
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