Mike Norton has drawn just about everything. For many fans he’s known for projects like recently concluded Image Comics series Revival, or The Waiting Place and The Sixth Gun: Days of the Dead. Norton has drawn issues or story arcs for dozens of established series and characters, from Archer and Armstrong to B.P.R.D., Booster Gold to G.I. Joe, Runaways to Queen and Country.
At the same time that Norton was busy with all that, he was also consistently working on projects of his own, like the webcomic Battlepug, the comic The Answer and the graphic novel The Curse.
2017 marks a changing point in Norton’s career. He’s wrapped up multiple projects, and it’s been months since fans saw anything new from Norton in comic book shops -- which is striking because at times he was drawing two books a month. Right now he’s working on a guest stint on August's Astro City #47, but he’s also developing a new series with The Waiting Place writer Sean McKeever, and writing and drawing a graphic novel about his mother’s death.
Norton is also writing and drawing a new webcomic, Lil’ Donnie, which takes aim at the current occupant of the White House and his staff. He spoke to CBR about this phases of his career, and what's next.
CBR: It feels like you’re at this transition point in your career right now.
Mike Norton: That’s not incorrect. I was just talking to my studio mate and I said, I’m doing this interview and I don’t know what to talk to him about because I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. [Laughs] I finished a bunch of big stuff. I’ve spent maybe 10 years working on multiple things at the same time. Now I’m trying to consciously do less, and do more of my own thing. It’s been an adjustment getting used to that pace; trying to concentrate on choosing what I do and how to do it. It’s something that I’ve never really had to think about before. Somebody sent me a script and I drew it.
Some of that is the life of a freelancer, but from the outside it looks as though you’ve had some control over your career, and were always working on side projects.
I’m glad it looks like that. [Laughs] Honestly, the majority of my career has been fill-in work, so this year I’m trying to be a little choosier and do something that I come up with rather than somebody else.
Are you more conscious of this coming off of Revival?
That’s what spoiled it for me. Realizing that I can do that. When Tim and I did that, I didn’t expect a creator-owned comic to sustain me, but it did. For five years. I want to keep trying to do that.
And keep doing projects that are yours or where you’re a collaborator instead of being the artist.
Definitely. That and Battlepug are the proudest things I’ve ever done. We did exactly what we wanted to do -- and people liked it.
You did mention that Battlepug has not ended, and you have more planned.
It hasn’t ended. I mean it has and it hasn’t. I’ve got a new story, but I decided that I’m going to make it in comic format. The webcomic is essentially an origin story for what this new story is going to be. I’m two pages away from having the first issue done. I’m plugging away at that until I decide how I’m going to unleash it on the world.
To release it as a webcomic or a graphic novel or single issues, you mean?
Yeah it’s still up the air. I’m leaning towards a series right now. It was a webcomic and I know how that model seems to work, but I don’t know if that will necessarily translate into monthly comic book sales. I know people buy collections, but I don’t know if they’ll buy monthlies.
Of course you also started a new webcomic in February. Where did Lil’ Donnie come from?
Aside from the obvious? [Laughs] Impotent rage, basically. I can’t really do anything about it, so this is my screaming into the void. It started as a Sean Spicer comic. It was around the time he started doing his press briefings. I had read up on him and found out weird stuff about him like how he hates Dippin' Dots and how he’s into anime cosplay. He’s been to those conventions. I was like, is that for real?
I was thinking about that and I kept thinking of this Lone Wolf and Cub manga. I thought, this is what he pictures when he’s behind the podium -- Lone Wolf and Cubbing through a city, and all the reporters are trying to kill him and he just swipes them all down. That’s probably exactly what he’s thinking. I was going to draw that but then I thought, I don’t want to draw a whole freaking comic book about Sean Spicer. Then about a week later Trump did something and I thought, I can make a comic strip. I’ve done that before. So I did it. And I haven’t stopped since.
Had you ever done political cartooning before this?
I’ve never done political anything in my life until this year. I did a comic strip in college for the paper, but I’ve never done anything political. I’ve never done anything with a message that wasn’t being written by somebody else. I make fun of stuff all the time, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily preachy the way that the stuff I’m doing now is.
And that’s a different thing from being a political cartoonist where you’re trying to find this line of mockery and savagery.
Yeah and it’s not a pure political cartoon. I’m more focused on the joke when I’m writing it than I am on making him look like an idiot -- but it kind of goes hand in hand. I have plenty of just ridiculous, silly stuff in it. I exaggerate -- as crazy as it already is.
You do things like how Jeff Sessions appears [as a Mister Mxyzptlk-esque imp], or summoning Kellyanne Conway.
That’s the joke part of it. When I see those people on TV that’s immediately what I think about. I think about how cartoonish they are. Rather than just do a caricature, which is what most political cartoonists do, I make them a character. It’s hilarious to me to think that Kellyanne Conway is a ghost that’s trapped in a gypsy’s skull. It’s probably outside the norm for my mother and father in law. They probably don’t get that, but I think it’s hilarious. That’s why I’m making it. So that I’ll feel better.
That plays into the strange fantastic way that, say, Sean Spicer sees the world and this crazy internal logic you've established.
It’s how I think that they think. I’m not a TV comedy writer. I’m writing down the things that I would laugh at. I’m not thinking about the audience so much as I am myself. I’ve always been selfish when it comes to writing. I only make things that I think are funny. Sometimes I ask if it’s funny and I’m either told yes or no and I’ll almost 90 percent of the time do it anyway. [Laughs]
Lalo Alcaraz had a line when I spoke with him, that satirists can only do one thing and that’s punch a Nazi in the face.
Yeah. I mean I don’t have a noble mission of holding up a mirror to society so they’ll learn from their mistakes. I want Donald Trump to see this and get mad. It’s revenge. It’s pettiness. I completely fess up to that. That’s why I say it’s not a pure form of art. Well it is pure in that it’s complete emotion. [Laughs]
You also mentioned that you’re working on a graphic novel about your mom.
That’s been going really slow. I have it outlined now. It’s about the two months I spent two years ago when my mom died. It was just a really surreal experience. I’ve never done anything this personal before. Because it all happened it’s pretty easy to outline so I have it mostly written, it’s just drawing it and the drawing part is the hardest part. It’s called The Fall Risk. I don’t know when it’ll happen, but it’ll happen. I said I was going to do it. I told all my aunts I was going to make so I have to. [Laughs]
You also mentioned that you and Sean McKeever are working together on something again.
We’re working on a book about dead teenagers. I did Revival and I decided I liked zombies, and Sean said, "Hey, I’m good at writing teenagers, so let’s do dead teenagers." [Laughs] No, that’s not what happened. It’s sort of like if The New Mutants were all dead. It’s called The Undeads. It’s a group of teenagers that stop terrible things from happening, but there’s a big mystery to exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. Some of them don’t even know why. It’s Sean doing his Sean thing. He’s been out of comics for a while, so he’s coming back doing the things that he was known best for -- which is really well written teenage characters and a lot of angst -- but there’s a lot more action and mystery to it. I’m in the middle of doing a first issue of that right now.
A lot of the stuff that I’m doing now I’m not even talking to publishers about. I’m just doing it. When I’m done they’ll see it. Maybe when this goes live, publishers will call me. We’ve been talking about this for over a year, maybe two years now. I had done Battlepug for free online and I was saying, let’s just make this. As long as I can get a job doing a corporate comic for somebody, I can do that and do this at the same time. I’ve been doing two books a month in the past, so we decided to just go ahead and make it and see. That worked with Revival. I had about eight pages of that done before we ever pitched it to Image.
We’ll see how it goes. It’s fun to do. It’s a little terrifying, but it’s also fun. It’s a good comic. I don’t think there are comics about teams of ghost teenagers. [Laughs]
I’m sure it is terrifying, but the way you’re saying it, the current market means that you can take time and work it out and actually make it and say, this is it.
This is an interesting time because there are so many different ways to make a comic now. There’s a lot of grumbling online about how well comics are doing, but I see more comics now than I’ve ever seen before. So much of it is good and a lot of it is online, a lot of people are selling them online, a lot of people are Kickstarting them. I have a studiomate that has done several successful Kickstarters, and that’s a viable way. I just did a story for Dave Kellett’s Drive webcomic. It’s a sci-fi comedy webcomic, and he does pretty well off the comics themselves. It’s smart and it’s funny and really good.
I know that The Waiting Place wasn’t the first thing you did, but it was the first thing I ever saw of yours, and it's a book I've always loved.
Yeah, our new book is like The Waiting Place if they had superpowers and died. That should be our tagline. If you like The Waiting Place and dead kids, you’ll love... [Laughs]
I mention that, because I knew you as this realistic, very nuanced artist from the series where you working from McKeever’s scripts, and seeing how you’ve then moved into action and adventure and other genres has been really interesting.
That’s my favorite part of drawing a comic, actually. I love drawing action-adventure and funny action-adventure. Archer and Armstrong was one of my favorite projects to work on. But the challenge of making somebody emote without words is something that I’ve always loved doing. It’s the thing that I loved about The Waiting Place. It’s the thing I tried to do in Revival. It’s my favorite part about making comics. If people know me for that, then I’d be extremely happy.
I mentioned before that you’ve always seemed to be working on longer projects and doing fill-ins, but also “your” projects like Battlepug, like The Curse, like The Answer.
I’m going to try and just do the side projects for a while. With the odd big thing every once in a while. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll probably be begging to draw Nightwing next week. [Laughs]
But one of the fill-in projects coming up is for Astro City, which you mentioned before that Kurt Busiek wrote for you. Which I’m sure it’s nice -- it’s not an ordinary fill-in job.
I’m really lucky that it happened. It’s fun. I’m laying it out as I’m talking to you right now. I haven’t mentioned it to a lot of people, but I have told people I’m working on it and everyone goes, "Oh wow." Everybody knows what it is.
So no one’s seen a new comic from you in months, no one will see anything from you for a couple more months, but you’re constantly busy.
I’m constantly busy. I haven’t had a job for two months, but I’ve been working every day.
In some ways that’s the dream, but in other ways it’s really not.
[Laughs] It’s a dream. It’s a kind of dream.
Mike Norton's issue of Astro City, #47, is scheduled for release on Aug. 16. New installments of Lil' Donnie can be found at lildonniecomic.com.