When you stop and think who are Marvel's top creators working today, your mind is invariably drawn to Brian Michael Bendis, as he's become the chief writer for the company's top titles over the past decade. But there's someone else who's played a big role, working side-by-side with Bendis and others to help create what Marvel is in the 21st century: artist Mike Deodato Jr.
The Brazilian-born artist came into modern memory as one of the primary artists on J. Michael Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man run, then jumped to revitalize Thunderbolts before teaming with Bendis on New Avengers. Over the years Deodato has worked with Bendis on some of the biggest books Marvel's had to offer, be it New Avengers or Dark Avengers. And while writers seem to get the lion's share of attention in the press, the story of Deodato's career is something most people don't know about.
Deodato first onto the comics scene in the mid-'90s with an Image-inspired style on DC's Wonder Woman, and quickly became one of the workhorse artists of the era. But after being stretched to his limits both personally and professionally, Deodato withdrew from comics for a time to refocus himself and find a style better suited to how he saw comics. Drawing on inspirations from icons like Neal Adams and his own father, an accomplished cartoonist in Brazil, Deodato re-emerged in 2001 at Marvel and steadily rose up the ranks to become one of the company's most trusted artists with a style far removed from everyone else working today.
I talked with Deodato from his home in Brazil about his career, his personal life, and his real real name.
Chris Arrant: Before we begin, in my research I realized that Mike Deodato isn’t your real name, but an Americanized version of your real name – Deodato Taumaturgo Borges Filho. What do you prefer to be called here in comics?
Mike Deodato, Jr.: Whether it's "Mike" or "Deodato" or "Deo," I answer to them all -- they're all good, Chris. Just make checks out to my agent so we can deposit them, and nobody will get hurt. [laughs]
What do your friends in Brazil call you?
Lord and master? The legendary martial artist? The man and the myth? The hero with eyebrows of steel? Usually "Deo" works fine. Other names they call me are probably less printable. Maybe I need a better group of friends.
Okay, let’s do something easy – what’s on your drawing board today?
Page 9 of New Avengers #26! I do draw the pages in order, and it takes me a month to draw a book, so from this point you can reasonably predict what I'm drawing next month.
You seem to be one of Marvel’s busiest artists today. Do you have any time to draw for fun?
A little, but it's mostly private stuff. I draw silly cartoons of myself and my wife Paula and my daughter Priscilla that focus mostly on how smart and lovely they are and how much I love them. I'll send you a few of those to see.
Your father was a well-known comic artist in Brazil. Can you tell us about growing up the son of a comic artist and seeing what the odd hours a comic creator has?
Two very different questions. My father drew and wrote comics into the early '90s, and wrote some of what I drew. He was assigned some Lost in Space and Quantum Leap books to draw for Innovation in the early '90s but I ended up drawing those. I learn a lot from him -- not only from his actually drawing as I was growing up, but about how to expand my horizons and learn from everything and everyone around us.
As far as my hours: "As many as it takes." I get up early, I walk, I do martial arts, I spend a bit of time with my wife, and then a draw all day and part of the evening. I do watch some TV online while I draw, so I can do some double-duty without losing time.
Is your father is still working? And if so, have you ever considered doing something with your father in comics now?
My father's retired. He had a job with the government for quite a while. He supported my when i was growing up, and now I'm supporting him. A good balance in nature. While he's quite proud of all I've accomplished, he doesn't have the passion for doing comics right now that I have, so he's content to watch me do it.
When I look at your artwork I’m continually reminded of how your style evolved over time. I remember you back from your Malibu days through to Wonder Woman and when you first did this darker style in that great overlooked Tigra miniseries from 2002. When you talk about your different styles, do you have nicknames to how you refer to those time periods of styles?
My nicknames for some of my earlier work when I look at it are more along the lines of, "You eeediot! What were you thinking???" [laughs]
No, not entirely true. An artist drawing comics can't be static. Either change, grow, adapt -- or find yourself unemployed. How many artists blazed brightly in the '90s who can't get a job now? I vowed that wouldn't be me.
When you switched to this darker style, it seemed like a big change in just a short amount of time. Was it a conscious change for you, and how’d you learn and perfect it so quickly?
Deliberate, conscious decisions. I'm very good, and I can learn a lot in a short time.
In recent years I’ve seen you add new layers to your style, bringing back in that photo-realism work from your early days and also doing gray tones on your art sometimes yourself. Can you talk about that?
Sure. If you look back on my earliest work in Brazil, and a few years later at Innovation, you'll see I was married to the photo reference. It looked good enough technically, but it was, in a way, soulless. And the storytelling was missing. When I evolved my style to incorporate what I saw coming out of Image -- a bit of Jim Lee, a bit of Mark Silvestri, mixed with a bit of my childhood art idol Neal Adams -- that caught on. It was perfect for the bombastic '90s. But as we rolled into the new century, the market changed. Marvel, in particular, had tried a bunch of styles including slathering a lot of manga techniques onto their mainstream books, and I'm guessing it didn't catch on as they'd hoped. Perhaps manga fans didn't appreciate superheroes enough, and super-hero fans didn't necessarily go ape over manga. So the preferred styles shifted toward referenced styles. And it just so happened that I came from that background.
Fortunately, my years of drawing superheroes gave me a sense of action and power. Being paired with great writers starting with Bruce Jones got me thinking about characters and acting. It all came together when I brought acting, action -- good storytelling -- to the reference ... and then I had something powerful and visual to offer, making Marvel quite happy with my work. You'll notice, cover after cover, issue after issue, I keep experimenting with styles, technique, art tools -- so that I keep growing. Not only do I keep learning and getting better, I don't get bored. I'm excited to draw each and every day.
I’d guess that you’d consider your father the main teacher of how you became a comics artist. Have you had the chance to pass on your skills to someone else? Is there a Mike Deodato III waiting to break into comics I don’t know about? [laughs]
His name is fellow Brazilian Will Conrad, my good friend. These days he draws so much like me, I should get a deduction for him as a dependent on my income tax! [Laughs]
It didn't start that way, but we met a decade ago through my agent Dave Campiti of Glass House Graphics, when we all did a USA convention together. We hit it off so well, we began sharing ideas, techniques, tools. One of us learned about drawing on a 21-inch Wacom Cintiq, we immediately Skype and tell the other. I discover a new kind of brush or marker, I tell him about it. He discovers a program like Manga Studio or whatever, he Skypes me. Marvel recognized the style similarity, and when New Avengers needed to be done faster, they gave him several half-issues to draw with me. He might have been short-changed on the credits, because when they listed, "Art by Mike Deodato and Will Conrad," I don't think readers realized that he did complete art on half a book, and I did complete art on half a book. One reviewer praised one of Will's pages as 'some of Deodato's best work,' and I had to punch the smile right off Will Conrad's face, the bastard! [Laughs]
Now Marvel's locked him into an exclusive contract, and he's drawing X-Men. I guess it worked out pretty well for him, don't you think? He's a smart guy -- don't tell him I said that! -- so I suspect he'll develop a style in his own direction in the months and years to come.
You share a unique pedigree with John Romita Jr., Mark Bagley and Salvador Larroca as being workhorses at Marvel, turning out quality work faster than most anyone else. I know in the '90s you pushed yourself pretty hard and were even faster. As an artist and businessman, how do you balance those editors and the deadlines while keeping the quality of your work high?
I leave the businessman stuff to my agent, including even my original art sales -- because I do better financially if I focus on my DRAWING. When I was drawing two books a month for multiple years in the '90s, my health suffered and my work suffered. So I simply do not do that, anymore. I draw, at most, one book a month...and if the editor wants it faster, I suggest Will or some other artist who can come in and do some pages. I simply won't let the work suffer. Wisdom that comes from experience.
You’ve been back at Marvel for over 10 years now, but I’ve noticed you’ve primarily only worked in the Avengers side of things. With AvX on the horizon, is there any chance you could do some X-Men work in your future?
You'd have to ask my editors at Marvel. As far as I know, they want to keep me on New Avengers. I wouldn't mind getting back on Wolverine though, at some point.
Speaking of possible things, the way you draw monsters, magic and muscles in such sinewy grace: Can I throw out a wild guess and say you’re a fan of Conan and that type of comics?
When answering you last question, I stopped just short of saying, "I'd love to draw Conan, if Marvel ever picks up the rights again."
In your career, you’ve found yourself working with a couple writers on several occasions, forming some strong bonds. I’m talking about Warren Ellis (Thor, Thunderbolts), J. Michael Straczynski (Amazing Spider-Man), Brian Michael Bendis (New Avengers, Dark Avengers). What’s it like knowing the script you’re getting is from someone you know versus working with someone new, like that great one-off issue of Punisher War Journal you did with Matt Fraction?
Surprises are good for the soul. Keeps the heart beating. I'm thankful that I keep getting good writers, month after month and year after year. I learn something from each writer. Sometimes what I learn is patience! [Laughs]
But there's always something.
Lately, you’ve been joined at the hip with Brian Michael Bendis. The first time you worked with him back on New Avengers, he really pushed you to your limits drawing what I remember was an army of zombies which no doubt took some extra time. Now that you’ve worked with him for years, do you think you have a better understanding of him as a person and a writer?
Yeah, he never wants me to make a deadline, or else he'd make some of his pages easier to draw! "And just for kicks, Mike baby, let's draw 16 panels per page and a hoard of zombies in each panel! ... Oh, and leave plenty of room for word balloons!" I keep telling him he needs to give me an issue where the White Queen is battling Wendigo and a polar bear in a snowstorm -- something I could draw quickly. Don't think it's gonna happen, though. [laughs]
You live and breathe art, but is there some art you’ve done recently that you think fans would be surprised you did. And if so, can we show it?
I've a number of things. I've been doing what I call Gallery Renderings on canvas, and I'll show you a few of those. My cartoons for my wife and daughter. And my latest covers, all done in Copic brand markers. I never stop experimenting and growing. I think by now, my fans expect it from me!
By the way, if they want to see me and my work in person, I'm lined up for multiple conventions in North America this year. Look for me at Toronto Comic Con on April 14 and 15, Philadelphia Comic Con, May 31 through June 3, and Austin Comic Con, Oct. 26 through 28. Of course, every spare moment around and between those shows will have to be spent drawing to justify the time away, so I'd better get back to it.