No doubt you and probably everyone you know have seen Kagan McLeod's illustrations. His art has appeared in seemingly every major magazine being published today -- Time, Entertainment Weekly, BusinessWeek, Maxim, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Money, Wired and many more, as well as newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. When he isn't drawing illustrations for his clients or winning awards, he's self-publishing his own comic, Infinite Kung Fu. You can also find chapters of it on Top Shelf's website.
At Comic-Con International today, Top Shelf announced they will collect the series into one graphic novel next year. The collection will include all seven of McLeod's self-published comics, plus about 200 as-yet-unpublished pages. McLeod was kind enough to answer my questions about the book, kung fu, self-publishing and more.
JK: When did you start self-publishing Infinite Kung Fu, and what led you to start doing it on your own?
Kagan: I guess it was 2000 or 2001. It was my first trip to an Artist's Alley at a comic convention that made me want to do it on my own. I had never even thought of showing it to a publisher. The thought of getting tables at shows and getting the books into local comic shops was very appealing, though after a few years it kicked in that making money in $3 increments is tough, especially when you factor in all the expense that goes with it.
JK: What's the story about?
Kagan: I used the Chinese myth of the Eight Immortals as a springboard for the story. They're beings who spend time in both the earthly and celestial realms, trying to keep the balance in the Taoist sense. So after some cataclysmic event that leaves the earth roaming with zombies, they each take on an earthly student to help set things straight. Five of the students secretly learn kung fu from evil textbooks, and turn bad! The main character of the story is the final student to be chosen, and the story starts where his journey does.
JK: Obviously the book is influenced by kung fu, but looking through the pages up on Top Shelf's website, there's a lot more going on ... what are some of the other influences?
Kagan: I originally set the world up so I could include characters or elements from any time period, but thought it would be better once I got in to it to not go too crazy with the genre mixing. Zombies are the reason everyone in the book has abandoned technology and learned kung fu. Another part that might be surprising but not too hard to accept, are characters with a ’70s exploitation movie theme. That genre was big at the same time martial arts movies were, and they often bled into each other with music, clothes and themes, so I don't think it's a stretch to mix those worlds. I also managed to work in a story inspired by my favourite kung fu sub-genre, black magic horror!
JK: What are some of your favorite kung fu movies?
Kagan: 36 Chambers of Shaolin is what got me into the whole genre. I'm partial to Shaw Brothers movies and actors - I love Master of the Flying Guillotine for all its crazy fighting characters and weapon gimmicks. Shaolin Intruders is more obscure but it's great, I'm kind of hooked on monk movies. Executioner from Shaolin is also a favourite for the white-browed priest villain!
JK: How did you connect with Top Shelf?
Kagan: I met Top Shelf at TCAF in Toronto. Three factors sealed the deal - they were super enthusiastic about the comic, complete freedom for me, and all their books look great!
JK: A lot of people are probably familiar with your illustrations, which have appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Time, Fast Company and dozens more. What other comic work have you done?
Kagan: Right, if it weren't for all that lucrative editorial illustration work, Infinite Kung Fu would have been out five years ago! But I've always been working on it on the side. As far as comic book work I've done one story for Dark Horse's Star Wars Tales and more currently, the covers for IDW’s Kill Shakespeare book, which is out now.
JK: Since you went the "do it yourself" route, do you have any advice for young creators looking to do the same?
Kagan: Sure, make sure you'll have time, money and another job! Doing the actual art and story is one milestone to reach, but selling it doesn't come naturally with that. Be aware of the costs of distributing — the retailer gets a third of the money from your orders, the distributor a third, and you a third. Sound fair, but you pay for the units and the shipping TO the distributor, so you can only make pennies per unit or have a cover price that no one would touch. I think what killed me is that I slowed down and didn't solicit a new issue close enough to the previous one, so orders dropped. I went from 1,700 (issue 1) to about 800 (issue 8, which I cancelled and haven't published yet). The numbers weren't bad for a nobody publisher, but I was barely breaking even.
JK: Your comics and your editorial illustrations both have a very distinct style. Who are some of your influences in each area? And what are some of the similarities and differences you find between the two types of illustration?
Kagan: Thanks! I mostly aspire to someday be almost-as-good-as classic illustrators like Albert Dorne, Robert Fawcett, Austin Briggs and those types. There are some Chinese and Taiwanese artists that I really love for their brush and ink work, especially in the Chinese traditional style of drawing. I also love fashion illustrators like David Downton and Kenneth Paul Block for all the life they can put into drawings. It's definitely harder to draw with spontaneity when doing comics, because everything kind of has to be planned out to be legible. I always thought comic fans equate heavy rendering with skill, but I'm glad to have found that there's an audience for the type of stuff I like to do too.
JK: When can we expect the Top Shelf collection to appear on shelves, and what issues of the comic will it collect?
Kagan: We’ll hit all the conventions with the book next summer, and it should hit the stores in the fall of 2011. It collects all the issues that were self-published by me (1-7) and includes about 200 unpublished pages, concluding the story.
JK: Comic-wise, do you have anything planned after you finish Infinite Kung Fu?
Kagan: I do, I actually want to tackle the conquest of Mexico. I've been researching that for about five years, planning to make it as accurate as I can. I find the story really hard to imagine when I read it, which is why a comic adaptation of it would really serve the reader. The colors and costumes were so fantastic that to describe them doesn't seem to help enough in conjuring an image of a battle scene.