When news came down on Monday morning about Mike Wieringo's death (a phrase I still can't believe I'm typing), it stopped the comics world from spinning for a day. Many were left without the words to convey how we felt. All other news seemed minor and insignificant.
Everyone loved the man. Nobody hated Ringo. Not too many could even find a reason to dislike him. Even those who might have disagreed with his self-described cathartic posts to his blog had to respect his opinions and where they came from, whether it was dismay over the darkening of so many childhood favorite characters or Wizard's journalistic and convention practices. Other artists would write about the same thing and spark a firestorm. Ringo was so honest about it and often so gentle that you couldn't get outraged by what he said. I wish more internet personalities could show that kind of restraint, myself included.
Many of us generally agreed with those opinions and were very happy to see someone so high up in the professional ranks openly state them. Many professionals would shy away from such honesty, but the southern gentleman had his charms and his integrity.
Mike Wieringo's art was cartoony before cartoony was cool. It remained cartoony while cartoony was cool. It stayed cartoony even after the comics industry moved back into the shadows. But it always grew. Take a look at his FLASH stuff today that we remember so fondly and compare it to his FANTASTIC FOUR run, or his short-lived recent Spider-Man series run, complete with roughly 256 variant covers. (SPIDER-HAM!) He grew as an artist before our eyes over the last 15 years. His character work became steadier and more consistent. The backgrounds became more proficient. The acting improved. The lines were more subtle. The page layouts were clearer.
And in recent years he graced us all with that blog, serving as both a sketch diary and a soapbox, as he pictured himself on his home page. The saddest thing about looking through the blog, though, is all the images we'll never see more of. These were "simple" warm-up sketches that showed an imagination that modern Marvel and DC comics only call for a tenth the wonder of. The kid with a jet-pack, the rocket girl, the warrior princess, the boy and his dog, and the olde English-looking emperor in full military garb - all showed us a better glimpse inside the man than a thousand superhero comics ever could. They're essential to understanding the artist, I think, even moreso than his officially published works.
How cool would all those comics have been?
Wieringo knew what he liked and followed his muse in every spare moment he had. He was a bit of the tortured artist, as anyone who read his blog over the years could tell you. He never thought he was good enough, though all of us thought otherwise and would often tell him so, whether on his blog, in e-mail, in person, or on a podcast. He often found himself a square peg jamming himself into a round hole. The work he enjoyed was most often found outside the realm of "mainstream" comics today. He appreciated Disney and Miyazaki and the works of European illustrators. And Europe appreciated him, as well, where TELLOS was so popular that it spurred the demand for what came to be known as the TALES OF TELLOS books in America. Even though he didn't have time to contribute much art to them, they're still his characters.
I hope that at the end of the day, it will be TELLOS for which Ringo is best remembered. It was the book closest to him. And while it might not have worked out financially, it was the one he most often went back to, even on his own blog. Look at how excited he was in recent weeks as the proofs for the upcoming hardcover compilation came to his doorstep. Look at all the sketches he did of the Tellos characters again. There were so many more stories to be told in that universe and it was a project he very much looked forward to, on the day when it became feasible financially to do so.
Like many others, I always held out the hope that a new TELLOS series or mini-series was just around the bend. I followed Ringo from book to book, enjoying every page he could churn out, always hoping that it would bring him enough success to foist TELLOS back upon a world that would openly embrace the series this time. Surely, the second time would be when readers en masse would appreciate its flights of fantasy, strong characters, and action. Right?
Sadly, we'll never know.
Or maybe we will, after a fashion. Maybe a new generation is about to discover TELLOS. Maybe the ideas that Ringo batted around with Todd Dezago can see form on paper. It won't be the same, granted, and it'll take some time before those wounds aren't so fresh. But there's hope.
I said it on Tuesday and I'll say it again, because cliches have a way of becoming so because they are true: we have 15 years worth of comics to look at. Mike Wieringo left us too soon, but he left us with a long box filled with memories. And for that, we should always be grateful.
PIPELINE LOOKS BACK
I'm ashamed to say I haven't written more about Wieringo's work over the years. I know I'll never be able to cover it all, but when something like this happens, it sends me to the Pipeline archives to look back and remember. This column is, after all, a journal of my comics reading life in so many ways. There's no time or space to talk about it all, though, so I take what I can get. Here are some links and reviews from the last decade of interest to Wieringo fans:
- Review: Wieringo's first ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN issue.
- Review: Wieringo's first FANTASTIC FOUR issue.
- Review: My first Tellos review
- Interview: Wieringo and Dezago talk TELLOS.
- Overview: A look at TELLOS.
- Preview: Tellos: Maiden Voyage
- Review: Tellos: Kindred Spirits
- Commentary: Why I'd put Mike Wieringo partly in charge of Marvel
- Podcast: Todd Dezago talks Tellos. This is where the TELLOS hardcover was first announced.
The one book I most regret not reviewing came out around Thanksgiving of last year. It's MODERN MASTERS: MIKE WIERINGO, published by TwoMorrows. Written by Eric Nolen-Weathington and the man who counted Ringo as his best friend, Todd Dezago, its 117 pages seemed too short on a first reading, and now seems volumes short in retrospect. Yet it covers a lot of Wieringo's history in the comics field, starting in the earliest days with some long-forgotten smaller works and his childhood drawings, pushing all the way through FLASH, ROBIN, and TELLOS to his FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN issues with Peter David.
Dezago leads the extended interview, and puts his subject at ease. You really do feel like you, the reader, are eavesdropping on a fairly casual and friendly conversation. This doesn't feel like a formal career-spanning interview. Wieringo doesn't hold back much throughout it, and you really got to know the man through his comments on his work and the industry, as a whole. The 30 page gallery in the back is spectacular, featuring some of the art you may have seen on his blog, but a whole lot more besides that.
As it turns out, this will be the authoritative work on Wieringo's career, and a fine one it is.
The first time I met Wieringo was at the Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2000. I waited patiently in line with my sketchbook clutched at my side. It had started off the previous year and quickly developed a "snow" theme - whether it was characters digging through the snow, characters attacked by giant snowmen, or characters with winter jackets on. When I requested a TELLOS sketch, Ringo asked if it was OK if he cheated. Of course it was. I've never given my sketchbook over to someone expecting the Mona Lisa drawn on it for me. I understand the pressures the artists are under all day as these books get thrown underneath their hands. But he's the only one who ever asked that in advance. It was almost sheepish, but it needn't have been.
And it wasn't much of a cheat. It was clever. He was the first one to have a smart idea to use the snow in a way that didn't require too much extra effort than the sketches he was up for doing that day for everyone else. In fact, several others copied his idea in my sketchbook. Whenever they flipped through it for inspiration, they would stutter over Wieringo's and go with that idea.
Ringo, you see, drew a TELLOS character, Rikk the Fox, covered in snow, with only his head popping out. This way, he did the head sketch AND kept to the snow theme. Pretty clever. Not cheating at all.
Here's the sketch, and a pic of Ringo working on it.
This was also the year Gorilla Comics was announced, with a big Coming Out party panel presentation. Here's my godawful pic of the panel, taken from about the second row. (Those were pre-digital camera days. You didn't know what you had until it was a week too late.) From left to right, that's Todd Dezago making funny faces at me because he knew the camera was pointing at him. Tom Grummett. Karl Kesel. Mike Wieringo, nose down in a sketch book. Mark Waid. Stuart Immonen, with heavy metal rock star hair. And Kurt Busiek.
I first heard about it around the time of Gorilla Comics. It's something I think Karl Kesel started doing with Tom Grummett's work. The penciller would scan his work in and e-mail it to the inker, who would print out the scan in blue line on a piece of art board, then ink that. The penciller kept the original pencils. The inker had all the original ink art, and it saved lots of shipping costs. I don't know how much of that is being done today, but it looks like Mike Weiringo did that with Kesel on FANTASTIC FOUR. I can see that in the two pages of art I own from their run on the series.
The first is a page from the memorable earlier issue where we are reintroduced to Doctor Doom. On this page, we see Doom wandering amidst the commoners. You'd think it would be a nothing page with just common people crowd scenes, but Ringo added much more to it. All of the extras on the page are worth stopping to look at, from the woman eating cotton candy to the man eating his ice cream cone to the guy walking his dog. (Ringo had a soft spot for the animals.) Every person looks different - height, weight, age, sex, and race. It's all in there. Ringo didn't do cookie-cutter, when it might have behooved him to finish off a page quicker.
In the midst of all this, Doom stands out by his clothes, upright demeanor, and positioning in the panel. Your eye is automatically drawn to him by the way the characters are spaced out around him. There's always a bit of negative space around him, or characters positioned just so that your eye glides into the panel towards Doom. Subtle tricks, but they're the kind an experienced artist knows how to use, whether he realizes it or not.
I came to appreciate all of Wieringo's choices later on, in examining the page. The pencils are so tight on the page that you could have almost shot the book directly from them. It's an amazing amount of detail that never quite makes it onto the final comic page, as well as Kesel's inks worked with Wieringo's pencils.
The other page I picked up was for its content. It's a sweet page between Mister Fantastic and his son, with guest appearances by the rest of the book's cast in the first panel. It's of the two characters playing an intense-looking game of cards. I love those quieter moments on pages, where the artist draws a lot of figures and emotion. You don't need a big splash page filled with costumes to create a solid page of original art. Often, for me, it's the day-to-day scenes of superheroes living their most average moments at home that draw me in. Look at the intensity on everyone's faces in the first tier of panels. Franklin's eyes are fixed on his mortal card-playing enemy combatant. Reed looks equally as serious. By the end of the page, we've moved to an almost Norman Rockwellian silhouette.
Check out the attention to detail: Franklin's hunched shoulders as he lays on the floor. The action figures on the chest. The pattern on their shoes. The wads of paper sticking out of the top of the garbage can.
It's beautiful work, but I don't think you can appreciate it until you've studied it, and I'm happy to have had that chance.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
One of the great things about doing this column is in talking to the creators. Mike Wieringo would occasionally drop a line in response to a column, often a quick thanks for something kind I might have said about his work, or agreeing to whatever hot button issue of the day I happened to be pressing that week. I'm going to miss those e-mails, the man behind them, and all the artwork he created for us to enjoy month after month.
He was taken from us far too soon, particularly for one who gave so many of us so much joy.
Thanks for everything, Mike.
"...I wish the industry and its fan base would be a bit more willing to embrace more diversity in both subject matter/genre as well as art styles. I'm a huge fan of the European comics market, where it seems like anything and everything goes. There are folks with very cartoony/animated styles that work on serious, dark material. There's a huge market there for comedy and humor material. There's a huge market for fantasy and science-fiction. . . I suppose it's a form of envy, but I really wish we had more of a taste of what they have there over here in the States. Good stories are good stories, and good art is good art. . . I think there's room for everything and enjoyment to be had for all in diversity. Long underwear should not necessarily be King."
-Mike Wieringo, a Modern Master to the end.