Mark Bagley strikes me as something of an oddity in today’s climate of prima donna artists. He’s currently on two very successful books; one of which is a very high profile new series launch. He’s extremely approachable, genuinely loves what he’s doing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. His success proves that you really need three things to make it in comics…hard work, talent, and a good sense of humor; all of which he has in spades. Mark took some time out from his busy schedule (Thunderbolts and Ultimate Spider-Man) to talk about making it as a pro, the Thunderbolts, Spider-Man, and whatever else struck his fancy.
WILL ALLRED: Let’s begin with your “breaking in” story. How did you make the leap from fan to professional?
MARK BAGLEY: I won the contest in the Marvel Try-Out Book. I took a shot, and it paid off. Honestly, I wasn’t gonna buy the book. It was about 20 bucks back then, and this was when 20 bucks was a lot of money. I thought it was a gimmick…something Jim Shooter came up with, and I didn’t buy it. Luckily, Cliff Biggers, the guy who publishes Comic Shop News, was a friend of mine. He owned the comic book store that I went to at the time. He told me, “If you don’t do this, you’ll hate yourself.” So, he gave it to me. And, I won first place. That got me a trip to New York and a chance to meet all the editors. I went, and they threw me out of their offices. The last editor I saw on the last day I was there said, “Hey, I bet you’d like something to draw, wouldn’t you.” I said, “Yeah!” That was, I think, Mike Higgins who was editing the New Universe which was kind of winding down. He was desperate for people to work on it, and I was desperate for work. I did 4 or 5 jobs for him. After about a year and a half of doing it, I was able to quit my regular job and do comics full time. And, I’ve never looked back.
WA: You mention your regular job. What were you doing at the time?
MB: I was doing technical illustrations for Lockheed here in Marietta, Georgia. I was basically drawing plane parts and tracing photographs of parts. Then, I’d blow out cross-sections…you know, technical things. It wasn’t very exciting, but it actually gave me a lot of technical skills that I’ve transferred over to comics. It was the first place I ever used a drafting arm, templates, and things like that…all the tools that you learn about in art school. They don’t teach you stuff like that in art school. It’s always freehand. At least, it was at Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, which is where I went. I joined the Army so I could get the G.I. Bill and actually afford to go to there and study Fine Arts. Anyway, my try-out submission was a Spider-Man story. The Marvel Try-Out book took a Spider-Man story and broke it up into parts. It started out looking like a completed page of a comic, colored, inked, lettered…the whole nine yards. Then, every two pages or so in the story something would drop out. The first thing to drop out was the coloring. Then, there were a couple of pages without the lettering and a couple of pages without the inking, and a couple of pages without the pencils…just the plot. There were just a couple pages of plot and a couple of blank pages. That’s how it worked. Whoever won the writing part…I’ve forgotten the name now…finished the plot, then I drew it, and it was inked by Doug Hazelwood, who’s still in comics to this day. He does a lot of DC work. The story was colored. Then, I heard rumors that the colorist fell off the face of the earth or something. Something strange happened there. The story was supposed to be published. It never was. At this point, I’m glad hasn’t been. Hopefully, it never will be. Actually, it won’t be, because I have the original pages. Hahahaha! They probably have copies, though.
Anyway, I was about 27 when I broke in. I was at the point where I was working a lot of evenings at the house practicing drawing and sending in samples. I was getting critiques back along the lines of “you’re not doing hair right”. There’s no right way to do hair. Everybody does hair different. I knew I was getting close enough to where they couldn’t find major things wrong and were just trying to find every little thing they could. In fact I got samples back with Greg Laroque pages. I’m sure he’s nice guy. I’ve never met him or anything, but he’s not the one I would want to learn from. And, to be honest, I was at the point where by god I was not going to be a 30-year-old man running around comic book conventions and sending in samples. You know one of those sad characters who just hadn’t quite made it. I told myself that when I turned 30 that was going to be it, and I’m just going to go on and enjoy my life. I started just a little late which was good because I had a lot of jobs that I hated before getting to draw.
WA: What were some of your first jobs?
MB: I did a couple of issues of Night Mask near the end of its run. It wasn’t my fault it was at the end of its run…it was just at the end of its run. I did an inventory issue of Starbrand, which was cut to pieces. This was right near the end of Jim Shooters run as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, and he was just butchering pages. He was just cutting and pasting them back together so he could have the storytelling exactly the way he wanted it. It destroyed the pages. I did an issue of Psi-Force, which was the first time Fabian and I worked together. I also did a Justice inventory story, which never saw print, and maybe 1 or 2 other things that I just don’t remember now. They kept me busy. I was working till 3 or 4 in the morning and would then get up at 6 to go to work at Lockheed. I had to start drinking coffee just for the damn caffeine. No joke. I never liked coffee and never drank it, but I needed something to keep me awake. I was probably working about 16 to 18 hours a day. I’d go great like that for 4 or 5 days, and then boom. I was done. I’d die. I’d just sleep half a day. I was much younger then. I don’t do all-nighters anymore. I’m still working 75 to 80 hours a week now, though…especially with me doing both Thunderbolts and Ultimate Spider-Man. I can really only do that for a short while. I just can’t do it for very long. I guess the next thing was the Atlantis Attacks thing. I was doing a ton of stuff at the time, though. Atlantis Attacks was a big cross-over in that year’s annuals, and I did the back-up stories for it. My first regular gig was the Visionaries, a toy tie-in comic. It was good training because it was a big team book and had tons of characters with all this armor. It taught me a lot about storytelling and turned out to be a pretty good opportunity. I did 7 or 8 issues of that. Then, I was given Strikeforce: Morituri. It was on its last legs, too. I did 5 or 6 issues of it, and then a mini-series with it. I look back at this stuff, and it’s all fairly bad because, like I said, I was working way too hard. I was basically working for page rate and just crankin’ it out. At the end of the Strikeforce: Morituri run, I realized I wasn’t getting the kind of jobs I needed. I wasn’t breaking in to the mainstream at Marvel. I just wasn’t getting any interest. My wife had stopped working since I was making enough money. Things were going good for about 3 months after that when I told her that I had to ratchet back my output by about a third. We had a lean year there, but it paid off the minute I did it. The work improved 100%. The first job that really shows it was the back-up stories for Captain America that I had been working on. I did a ton of those. Ron Lim was drawing Captain America, and I was doing these back-up stories. If you compare that first issue I did after slowing down…which was Hyde and Cobra…to anything before it, you can just see the difference. That’s not me saying I was any better or any more talented. It was just because I was putting more work into it, and it was showing. That’s when I started getting looked at for other things…that’s when I got New Warriors. Fabian saw that stuff and saw the potential, such that it is. And, being the insightful, young Argentinian that he is, he bugged Danny Fingeroth to give me New Warriors. I think it worked out pretty well.
I did those first 25 issues, which really have some good tight storytelling and some interesting stories. I cut my eye teeth on team book stuff there, but I was too dumb, young, and full of whatever to know how hard I was working. Al Williamson, who inked the first three issues, quit. I was making him work to hard. I mean he literally told me, “You’re making me work to damn hard. It’s not worth it.” It wasn’t a compliment. He told me that I was putting too much in, but I didn’t know how to back off. He said that he’d love to have me up to his studio. He could show me just tons of stuff, of that I have no doubt at all, but I was never able to take him up on it. That was just the way I was drawing at the time. Actually, I’m still kind of doing that right now as I draw a street scene as we talk. I’m doing shadows on a set of stairs that are smaller than a quarter. New Warriors got my foot in the door with Marvel’s mainstream. Danny Fingeroth was editing it. He was also editing Amazing Spider-Man…well, all the Spider-Man books. Amazing Spider-Man came available, and he pretty much knew that if he didn’t give it to me he was going to get hurt. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I would have went up there and killed him. So, anyway, I got that. I’m not exactly real proud of the last 3 or 4 New Warriors. I wasn’t just doing it since I had just been assigned Amazing Spider-Man. I can’t do 2 books a month for any length of time, so I was just doing breakdowns, I don’t like to do breakdowns. Larry Mahlstedt was working on the finishes. He also worked on Amazing near the end of my run. Randy Emberlin was had been inking me, and then we got Larry on.
WA: You and Fabian must have really clicked since you’re working with him again on Thunderbolts. Are you guys just a good team?
MB: Fabian’s just a great guy. He’s also a terrific writer, especially when he’s focused on what he’s doing. He’s very enthusiastic. To be honest, I think the writers have the tougher job. When I get away from my desk, aside from reading the occasional comic, I don’t think about comics. I don’t have to be thinking about the next storyline. I don’t have be thinking about what’s going to be happening six months down the road. What I’m worried about is the page in front of me and 2 or 3 pages ahead so I make sure I have enough room for everything. Fabian is always thinking about this stuff, it’s the sign of a good writer. The same is true for Kurt Busiek…Mark Waid. Fabian and I just get along great. We’re roughly the same age. He’s a few years younger than I am, and we have a lot in common. We have the same sort of work ethic…we both like the work.
WA: You mentioned a couple of your inkers. Who do you prefer to have inking you?
MB: In a perfect world, I dig to all get out what Mark Farmer does. He’s inked a few things of mine. I think he’s the best inker of that style…all brush…in the business. He always adds something to your pencils. Scott Hannah’s terrific, and I really enjoy what Greg Adams does on me. All these guys have varying styles. I really like what Al Vey does on me. I mean his style is totally different from Greg Adams. The main thing is that they don’t just trace the pencils and add ink. It’s important that they think about what they’re doing and try to improve the pencils. If they see a problem, they fix it. Even if the style doesn’t exactly mesh with what I think it should be, it’s not as big a deal as long as they’re adding something. It’s like Thibert on me on Ultimate Spider-Man. That’s technically not a style I really, really like on me. He’s so talented, and he cares about it, though, and he just adds so much to the pencils that I can’t argue with the results because the finished product does look really good. It’s just an impression thing. It’s interesting that for every fan that likes what Thibert is doing with me on Ultimate, there’s another fan that hates it. For every fan that loves what Greg Adams does with me on Thunderbolts, there’s another that doesn’t like it. You may be shocked to learn this, but there are fans out there that don’t like my artwork. Shocking, isn’t it. Hey, not everybody’s smart – what can I say.
WA: I can imagine you get lots of opinions since you participate in the Usenet newsgroups.
MB: Oh yeah. Everybody has got their own idea of how things should look, and who’s good and who’s not. I don’t mind honest criticism. You know, someone can just not be crazy about my style…that’s fine, but the ones who really make me mad are the ones who are rude about it. They say things like, “This guy sucks!” or something. Some guy made a comment about Ron Lim the other day. OK, in this guy’s opinion Ron is not the best comic artist out there. But, I would like to see the guy criticizing him draw anything. So you don’t like the guy’s stuff, that’s fine, but don’t bust him for it. Now, if somebody’s hacking it out, that’s another thing, you can bust somebody really good for hacking it out just because it’s not in their work ethic. Of course with me doing 2 books a month, I could be accused of that. I’m also working 80 or 90 hours a week right now, though.
WA: One thing I’ve notice is that you don’t jump around a lot. You really tend to stick with projects.
MB: Well, you know, I’m afraid I’ll never get another job. If I like who I’m working with and I think the stories are worth telling, then I could stay for a long time. I think the guys who only put out 1 or 2 issues a year don’t approach it the way I do. I think they come at it with a different mindset. I honestly don’t know how they make a living, but that’s something else entirely. Me, I think they come at it a lot more like illustrators. To me a comic is more a form of communication…of storytelling, not so much of illustration. My job is to tell the story visually to the best of my ability. When I was a kid, there was nothing cooler than going into a comic book store to see what was out this month. “Oh man, John Buscema’s out again this month…cool.” If I only did 2 projects a year…if that was my comic output, you wouldn’t be able to find anyone to hold a candle to me. To me that’s not satisfying, though. That’s why I don’t ink my own stuff. I like to tell the story, I love drawing in pencil and then moving on and drawing something else. I’m always looking at stuff. When I was a kid, my favorites were John Buscema and Gil Kane. Those two guys, and then along came Neal Adams. All I can think is, “How in the hell does he do that?” To this day, I still don’t know how the hell he draws like that. Another one is Alex Toth. All these guys have such different styles, but I try to learn something from all of them. II still look at guys today…guys like Carlos Pacheco…I hate that bastard. He’s so good. He’s just wonderful. Then there’s Alan Davis. He draws a lot like I wish I would draw. A lot of guys draw better than I do, but their styles are not the way I see myself drawing. If I was drawing the best that I can that’s kind of how I would be drawing…like Alan Davis.
Anyway, back to Amazing Spider-Man. I got that job at the absolute best time you could possibly imagine. , It was right at the start of the real boom times. The guys from Image had all taken off and made more money for everybody else. I was working with David Michelinie at the time, and then I worked with J. M. DeMatteis. We had a great time. The funny thing about DeMatteis, though was that I wasn’t to crazy about working with him. Danny Fingeroth, my editor, had become a really good friend. That was probably a mistake on his part. DeMatteis and Danny, I think they’re best friends. Danny’s idea was “Hey, let’s my two best friends together on Amazing. It will be wonderful.” I wasn’t quite so sure. DeMatteis has got a really different take on super-heroes. At the time, I just didn’t see myself drawing his kind of stories with all that psychological stuff. I respect the way he did them, but I didn’t see myself doing it, and it being right for me. We had a meeting, and DeMatteis is a really good-sized guy. We didn’t almost get into to it, but he felt that had no reason to have to defend himself, and I didn’t feel like I did either. It was really tense, and Danny ended up basically telling us that we were working together and to see how it works. It turned out to be great. The first couple of stories involved Shriek, Carrion, and Puma. I wasn’t too crazy about those characters, but he made them fairly interesting. Then we moved on to do some really wild stuff. I really came to appreciate his storytelling and the occasional things that he had me do. Normally, I wouldn’t have done a 9-panel grid. It worked out. I don’t know Marc’s opinion of that time, but I enjoyed it a quite a bit. We worked together for a couple of years I think.
WA: Do you prefer full script or the Marvel-style plot?
MB: Well, I would have said that I preferred a rough plot up until working with Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man. A rough plot is what I usually do with Fabian. It’s pretty bare bones. He trusts my storytelling, so does Kurt. Kurt really came to trust my storytelling. For instance, the plot would call for 4 or 5 panels, and I would add 1 or 2 because I felt like there was something extra needed. It really worked for him. The only other time that I’ve worked full script was when I worked with someone who I’m not going to name. It wasn’t a good thing because he would not be flexible. My job is to visually tell the story, and if the visual storytelling doesn’t work, it reflects badly on me. I honestly think I have a better visual sense than 99.9% of the writers out there. They’re not artists; they’re writers. Frank Miller aside. If I’m working with a writer, he’s got to let me tell the story. If I see a 3 or 4 page sequence where it would be better to do this, and I have a good reason for it, then he should at least consider it. Working with this guy on the script, he would not let me tell the story. I wanted to strangle him. Brian’s come to a point where he trusts me. He writes a full script, a panel by panel breakdown of what he wants. He doesn’t have any problems, especially if I feel strongly about it, going with what I think works. In the first issue, he had a 15-panel grid on one page. I was reading this, and stopped. I knew what he was trying to do. He was going for this really cinematic look, but there was no way. It was an action sequence. It’s the page where the bad guys were trying to run down Peter Parker, and he flips over the van. Cinematically it would have worked. In a comic book, it would have still told the story, but there wouldn’t have been anything dynamic to it. So, I just said, “I ain’t doing this.” This is 2/3 of the way through the book, so I just pretty much I cut it down to an 8-panel page. That’s still a lot of panels, but I think it worked well, and I didn’t even tell Brian I was doing it. I just sent the pages off. I called him, and he was really excited about the pages he’d seen. So, just before he got to that page I said “Hey Brian, so you trust my storytelling right? He goes “oh yeah, man.” I said, “Good, cause you know that 15-panel page?” He goes, “Yeah!” “It’s an 8-panel page, and I don’t want to hear anything about.” He says, “OK.” He really did not have any problems with it. You’ve really got to have that flexibility. That’s why I like working with him. You’ve got to like who your are working with, and you’ve got to enjoy it. There’s got to be a give and take.
WA: Are you under any additional pressure since Ultimate Spider-Man is such a high profile book?
MB: I’m not under any pressure. I’m just the artist. I don’t make any decisions. I don’t know anything about the politics involved. I’m just doing the best job I can…that’s all I can do. I wasn’t that crazy about getting back on Spider-Man, but they really made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Bill Jemas really wanted me on this. He’s really involved with Brian on the storytelling. He feels like it’s his baby. Apparently, he was very involved in the Spider-Man trading cards series that I did several years ago, and apparently became a really big fan of my stuff. I was the guy he wanted to have this book. And hey, who am I to say no to the president of the company. I was only going to do the first six because it was pitched to me as a six-issue mini-series. Within an issue of me working on it they started talking about making it an ongoing. Now, I’d done Spider-Man for 5 years. I really wasn’t looking to go back. I really wanted to move on to something new. After thinking about, though, it is new. I’m re-designing everybody, and that’s kind of fun. It’s something of a guilty pleasure. Plus, it’s such a beautiful package. When I saw the first issue…Wow! Now, I hadn’t done a single character book in four years, except for the occasional annual and things. Maybe my art’s grown in four years since I last worked on Spider-Man, but I think it shows. It’s a different thing when you’re doing a team book as opposed to a single character. People talk about there being a lot more detail in Ultimate Spider-Man, and I beg to differ. There’s not a lot more detail. It’s just that you cannot concentrate on single figures or single faces as much when you’re doing a team book because you have so many more characters to juggle. You have to have them fit on the page, and you can’t put as much into each face because they’re generally smaller. You just don’t have the room to give to them, and you can’t give them that kind of attention, or it just turns into mud. Plus, you end up spending 2 months drawing a book that comes out every month, and you can’t do that either. That’s another reason why you can’t look at comics as a pure art form. You approach it that way, but you’re not going to get into the mainstream. It’s not just a pure art form; it’s a commercial product. It’s like television. There’s really bad TV, and there’s really good TV. It all depends on whose working on what the kind of effort they bring to it. That’s my soapbox…that’s my story and by god I’m sticking to it.
WA: Let’s talk about the Thunderbolts. You’ve been there since the beginning. How involved where you in the planning for the series?
MB: It was really Kurt’s baby. Kurt pitched this story in an editorial meeting with Bob Harras. All I did was the character design. Like I said, I’m not a writer. I don’t have that jones to write a comic. I talked to Kurt about some things, but its his baby. Visually, it’s my baby, but naahhh. When it comes to the actual gist of it, I’ve never had that urge. I work so many hours that when I’m away from desk, I don’t think about it. I gotta download some because I pretty much shoot my wad when I’m at my desk. I usually get to the point at the end of the day where I’ll be looking at a blank panel. I’m pretty much at that point right now, actually, where there’s no juice left. I’ll set here for an hour and half trying to break down a page or a panel, and I’ll finally give up. I’ll come back the next morning refreshed, and I’ll be done in 20 minutes. So, Kurt had this idea for a book. He and I had known each other…not real well, but we had met at conventions and gotten along fine. I think he liked my storytelling, and I’ve always liked his writing. I told him that I’d like to work with him some time. Anyway, he had this idea for a book, and he really wanted me on it. It wasn’t a book to appeal to the top tier of artists. It’s a book that doesn’t have any mainstream characters. It was something new, and he figured I would give a really good effort and that it would be positive for our careers. I got a little bit of resistance from a couple of people high up at Marvel. There’s somebody up top at Marvel that just wasn’t a real big fan of my stuff. I guess I’m just not flavor of the month enough. Kurt, he was more interested in the story, though. He really wanted to make sure the story got told. Let’s face it, George Peréz is not the most stylistic artist out there, but he’s one of the best storytellers. That’s why Kurt really wanted to work with him on Avengers. Because underneath all of that incredible detail is a ton of great storytelling, especially when you’re talking about a team book. That’s what he wanted on Thunderbolts, so he got me. Kurt had designed a Citizen V costume, and I tweaked that up quite a bit. Fabian does the costume designs, too, and I tweak those up. Anyway, I was able to design all the characters and because they all used image inducers on their faces and or had their faces changed, I was able to design brand new faces, so it was like New Warriors. It was very comfortable. They were ostensibly my characters. That might be why I’m enjoying Ultimate Spider-Man so much. To be honest with you, I never thought I drew a very good Peter Parker. I couldn’t do that classic John Romita Peter Parker. My version’s face was always too angular or too heavy, or I didn’t get the hair right. Now John Romita, Jr. does a great Peter Parker. It just never felt like my Peter Parker worked. But this, this feels like my Peter Parker, which might really piss some people off. But like I said, I’m just trying to do the best job I can on it. Anyway, getting back to Thunderbolts. I got it, and it’s a hell of a lot of work. It’s also been a lot of fun, too. The fan reaction has been terrific. It’s nice to have a book that out of a launch of 5 or 6 titles, is the only one left. That feels good. I even got on Wizard’s top ten list once for a month which is nice since I’m not on a big mainstream X-Book or book with a woman with huge enormous…hands, except for Moonstone. Waitaminute! That’s why I was on…she was naked that month. That’s right. Anyway, it’s nice to have that kind of critical response.
OK. Yeah, I screwed up and let out the secret ending to Thunderbolts #1. I keep forgetting about the freakin’ Internet. I mentioned it in a comic store with a friend of mine, and I guess there were 1 or 2 other guys in the store, and boom, the next day it’s on the Internet. Kurt squelched the rumors without technically lying about it, so it was still a major league shocker. It’s just a great concept…clearly defined. I think that’s why it’s still going strong. Fabian’s been able to keep that up. The focus of the book being the characters and how their lives are so screwed up because they have these pasts they’re trying to get over while trying to prove that they’re not these bad guys. It’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I will be leaving…some time, but I’m not going to say when. The rumors out there say I’m going to be leaving after 50, but that’s 6 months away. I don’t know what’s going to happen in those 6 months. I don’t know yet. I’m gonna stay on Ultimate for a while. The reactions to it have been so good. “The like me, they really like me!” People who are suppose to hate, like it. I don’t know about the marketing of it, though. Brian is taking his time with the origin, and personally, I don’t think Spider-Man shows up soon enough. I’m not going to say when he shows up. It’s not my business to say when things are happening, but I’m enjoying telling the story. I think there’s enough going on. I don’t think every comic book has to be a superhero story. People talking could be a good story. Fans are even talking about the expressions I’m using on faces. That’s cool. I enjoy that more than I do the fight scenes, not that I don’t enjoy drawing good superhero figures and dramatic figures and stuff. It still gives me a little bit of a charge, but how many different ways can you draw somebody punching somebody. It’s gotten to be a challlenge to do that…sometimes not a fun challenge. It is fun drawing Peter Parker looking surprised, amazed, guilt-ridden, quizzical, wry, depressed, though.
WA: You also just re-designed Hawkeye’s costume, right?
MB: Yes, and I liked George’s design, but drawing those little metal boxes was driving me nuts. I had to simplify it, and get it back to something more similar to his original costume. I like the black sleekness of it. It was a good time to change it for story reasons, as well. So, I took my shot.
WA: Does any particular character get special attention from you?
MB: Nope, it’s all drawings. Granted, some are harder than others. Mach 2 is a pain in the ass to draw. I’ve never really been one to say this is my favorite character. It’s just fun to draw…like Moonstone. I love to draw those curves, they’re fun to draw. It’s fun drawing Songbird…she’s got my niece’s face. She’s also got my niece’s figure, too, which is kind of scary. I just love to draw. I really enjoy doing a nice cityscape. I don’t like to draw cars or guns, though. My focus in the Thunderbolts is whoever the hell I’m drawing at the moment.
WA: Is there anyone out there in particular that you like to work with? For instance, I don’t see a lot of DC work.
MB: I have actually done 2 DC projects recently. I was under exclusive contract with Marvel for 4 or 5 years. I let that go and didn’t re-sign. Prior to the Ultimate thing happening, I’ve really been getting the urge to go play in the DC Universe so I did a Superboy story. There’s not any Superboy in it, though, darn it. It was really a Guardian story. I also did 10 pages of Superman 80-Page Giant jam, which was really a lot of fun. I got to draw an evil Superman. It was from Lex Luthor’s point of view. It’s something different. When you get right down to it, I’ve got no objections to working with anybody as long as their good, they care about it, and they want to work with me.
Research data provided by the Grand Comic Book Database (http://www.comics.org/).
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