Sam Kieth is probably best known the creator of "The Maxx" and is fondly remembered for his work on Marvel's "Wolverine," and then there's been more recent projects like "Zero Girl" for DC Comics. This June he's hoping you'll take the time to get to know his latest creation, "Scratch."
When CBR News spoke with Kieth we quickly discovered that he's very critical of his own work and not entirely comfortable talking about it. A sarcastic wit and self-deprecating style best describe Kieth, two important aspects that should be remembered when reading this interview.
"Scratch" is a five issue mini-series, written and drawn by Kieth, that hits stores on June 2nd. The story centers on a werewolf named Scratch who lives in a small town which finds a number of children have gone missing. Naturally, because he's the local freak, Scratch is fingered as the main suspect, but the story's not quite that simple, naturally. Oh, and a certain Dark Knight is set to make an appearance.
"There's a plot we've never heard before," Keith exclaimed when talking with CBR News last week.
"It's the typical thing with these things. We've got a Led Zepplin here and if we stick Batman in, then it may not go down quite so quickly. I'm being sarcastic, really. I have to warn people, though, that Batman doesn't appear until the last issue, so, you should basically avoid the first four issues and just buy the last issue. I tell ya, we shoulda reversed it! We should have made the first issue the last issue, but of course it doesn't make any sense that way. Well, it doesn't make any sense, anyway!"
All five issues of "Scratch" are completed and ready to ship and already Kieth's tearing the series apart.
"The major thing is that every time I get finished with something, it's so far off from what I originally envisioned, that I feel like I need to apologize for it and quickly try to secure another job before it comes out. It's not anything specific to this project, I just always feel like I'm in a different place by the time it's finished."
While Batman may not show up until the fifth issue, fans of Kieth's work who'd like to see him do more Batman will get their wishes fulfilled later this year, but he can't say too much about that yet.
"By the time I finished ["Scratch"], and in fact my next project is a Batman project for DC, I was talking to Dan Didio and he said, 'It might have gone a little better for you if we'd come out with Batman, first.' It's basically a Werewolf book that Batman shows up in. It's not really a Batman book.
"I tell ya, if I drew Batman now, I'd totally draw him differently. I'd draw him super-realistically, because I think I've gotten so weird that I'm just taxing people's patients. That I'm getting so weird that even I don't know what to make of it anymore. It would be nice to get back to normal.
"That's not a good endorsement for a book, to talk about how far off course you've gotten is it? Go out and buy the first issue because by the fifth issue I'd pretty much had it!"
Kieth's a resident of Northern California and as you may be aware, there have been a number of very tragic missing children stories that have come out of the region, but they actually didn't play a part in the creation of "Scratch."
"I think that if anything I'm kind of ignorant of that whole world. I know that stuff's going on, but for me the story was taking some of the typical clichés of a small town, a stranger in the town and people who are considered freaks, but are actually outsiders, and playing against it by making the Sherrif a female as opposed to a male.
"Well, what really happened is I started out thinking about drawing things I like to draw and worked in reverse.
"Dan [Didio] said I should get back into doing horror. It's one thing when I draw a girl with super powers, but I bet if I drew someone with muscles, hairy arms and a hairy body, it might split the difference between 'Wolverine' and 'Zero Girl.' There's like a chance in hell it could sell. One guarantee's a cult audience of teenage girls. The other is 'Wolverine? No problem!' Draw a Werewolf? Well, at least make it a cool looking werewolf."
One look at Scratch and you'll notice he's one hairy beast, something Kieth's drawn a number of times before and, he joked, might very well be the reason why he chose to create "Scratch."
"Yes! Yes! That's probably 80% of it. It's completely retarded to talk about the plot when the plot seems to just be all about Rogaine! There's nothing worse than one of these artist/writer types that actually think they can write, then they talk to you and you realize, 'This guy just wanted to draw fur!'
"I swear to God, this Batman thing I'm talking about with Dan and DC, if it goes through, I will be very straight and very normal, right up to the point where the Joker comes in. Everything else will be very serious, grim Batman. No Warner Bros. big eyes popping out. Now, you gotta remember, every time I promise that I lie and break my own promise. I don't know why! I looked at the opening page of 'Hulk/Wolverine,' and it looks very serious. I intended for it to be. Then, I just go off into David Lynch land."
And of course, that's one of the major appeals of his work.
"In the end, I think it would be interesting if I were to take some of the discipline that I applied in some of the later stories in 'Four Women' or 'Zero Girl' [and tried] one of those plots on Batman.
"I would really like to be a disciplined storyteller, but there's this war between the two sides of myself. The side that wants to draw goofy shit, excuse my French, and then the side that just wants to prove that I'm a writer and make the poor artist suffer drawing all sorts of crap they don't want to draw."
Getting back to "Scratch" for a moment, Kieth would classify the story as a mix of horror and fantasy with a few twists along the way.
"One of the things I wanted to do with the kids in the story is walk the line between, on the one hand, drawing them as little strange looking creatures, but in the end you need to sympathize enough with them to realize that these characters are little kids, even if they're strange and deformed. It's fascinating to me how we've switched over from the circus freak days to just people with disabilities. In the space of fifty or sixty years, all of a sudden, it's not appropriate to have that anymore. The tricky thing is there's sort of a heavy-handed message about how we shouldn't treat the freaks as outsiders. I've tried to write it tongue in cheek and have fun with it, but I've probably under minded my message. These things are always big gumbo stews of a bunch of things that go together. With my work it either fits all together, or it's horribly dissident."
While Kieth is best known for his creator-owned work, in "Scratch" he's created a new character for the DC Universe that he has a shared interest in, much like his early work on Veritgo's "Sandman."
"I just said [to DC] I wanted to do a werewolf character. After I started doing it they pointed out that I had created something for them and I thought fine, that doesn't really matter because I don't feel like I've given you a great gift because there's a bunch of other characters with big fur and teeth. It's like they did with [my work on] 'Sandman.' I felt like Neil was the one that had created something new there, but in the end it was the generosity on his part to give some of that money to me and [inker] Mike [Dringenberg]."
In recent years, as is also the case with "Scratch," Kieth's been both writing and drawing his own work, but he's absolutely not against the idea of just being the artist and relying on someone else to write the story. Among the many he'd like to work with, Kieth mention "Hulk" writer Bruce Jones and they're trying to get together on a project for the future. The list of writer's he'd like to work with include a couple of other comics luminaries.
"I was talking with [DC Editor] Joey Cavalieri about this. I said, 'How about Howard Chaykin.' He said, 'I'd like to see Howard Chaykin doing Howard Chaykin.' Every writer we keep thinking of is either a creator you'd rather see do their own thing, or they're such a good writer they don't want to work [with you] because they've got plenty of other work. I'd still love to work with David Lapham. I called him and he said, 'Yeah, that sounds cool.'"
As you can tell from above, Kieth isn't fully comfortable talking about his own work and he explains that very well could be because he had to talk a lot of talking early in 2003 in preparation for "The Art of Sam Kieth" (which hasn't been released yet).
"Probably, I'm not the best one to ask about stuff I do at all. I hate everything I do! That doesn't matter, though. As long as we just sit down, shut up and draw or write it, then you can decide for yourselves. For instance, I don't care if Picasso was hell to live with and treated women like crap or was ambivalent about them. I just want to see him shut up and paint. Not to put myself in the same category [with Picasso], but I just kind of feel like it's a strange thing. I don't want to paint myself any further into a corner of this niche world that I have, but I keep doing that, don't I?
"Part of it is going through 360 pages of talking about myself and my own work in the art book [with IDW]. That's enough to make you want to jump out of a window because you think, 'My God! I am the most boring person in the world!' It's funny, because John Layman, the writer, kept saying that Sam loves to talk, but by the end of that sucker I think I could go three years and never talk again and be just fine."
Speaking of Layman, Kieth had nice things to say about his work as a writer and enjoyed "Puffed," a black and white series published by Image Comics. This shifted the conversation to the hard working creators of black and white comics, a group he'll be a member of again real soon.
"The one thing you can say about black and white comics is at least everyone is doing them and now I'm doing on, too. The only reason to do them is because you want to do them. You can't make any money and you're not going to get any attention. But, it keeps it safe and pure. The only reason people do it is because they really love doing it.
"I'm doing a book for Oni that I'm working on with another artist. I'm carefully shifting more and more work to him. So, he can do all the hard work and I just sit around and write it and not do any of the artwork. It's called 'Oh Joe.' I'm supposed to deliver the first issue to them in a week. I don't think they have it on schedule yet. I told them myself not to put it on until I get some art for it."
As we finished, Kieth shared some thoughts about comic artists, keeping in mind he's one himself.
"Artists are pains in the ass," said Kieth. " Either they're really good and they won't listen to you, or they're kind of good, or they'll do exactly what you say and nobody really cares because they're really boring. I think I'm one of those guys that falls into the middle category. Sometimes I'm good, sometimes I'm not, but ultimately I'm really hit and miss.
"I want to say one thing, when there are panels in there and they don't look good and you think I'm blind to them, I'm not. I know it sucks. I know it really misses and there's nothing I can do about it. At the time I think that this is about as good as I can get it, then it's as if I wake up out of a nightmare and I look at the panel and I think, 'Oh my God! How'd I draw that? That looks like crap!' But I can't see it at the time because I'm not objective. It's very strange to look back on things you've done. The only blessing is no matter how bad it looks to you, it's probably not as great as you hoped when you were in your delusional state, and it's probably not as terrible as you fear. It's probably all pretty much the same crap in the middle. [Laughs]."