Fans of superhero comics are probably going to look at the name Mike Norton with a certain lack of familiarity and it's those fans whose tastes veer a little left of center that will recognize the artist's name. However, the fact that not every comic fan is screaming his name hasn't affected Norton one bit and that's for one simple reason: he's an artist who likes to have fun. From his work on the critically acclaimed "The Waiting Place" with writer Sean McKeever to his current pencilling duties on the Oni Press title "Jason & The Argobots" with writer J. Torres, Norton has made a name for himself as someone whose dynamic and vibrant art is full of an energy surpassed only by the enthusiasm he himself possesses for comic books. CBR News recently had a chance to talk with Norton at FALLCON in St. Paul, Minnesota and the artist began by giving readers an introduction to his current hit series, "Jason & The Argobots."
"Well 'Jason & The Argobots' takes place in the future and is a story about a kid who discovers a giant robot," explains Norton. "And like any kid who found a giant robot would, he decides to pilot it. After that, he gets into lots of adventures and misadventures as you can imagine, and there's a much bigger story to it as the writer, J. Torres, is apt to do in a lot of the work that he does. It'll become a cosmic thing in a little while and we have another installment of the series coming out next year. There are plans tentatively to do another mini-series after this. Jay has this grandiose outline for where he wants to take the series if it happens and we're gonna proceed with that, as long as people keep buying it, I suppose we'll keep making it."
"I had a couple reasons for really being attracted to this project, but mainly I wanted to do something really different from what I had been doing. I had been working on 'The Waiting Place,' which I love dearly, for about two and half years, and I wanted to do something totally outrageous, because 'The Waiting Place' is based so heavily in reality, and J. Torres came to me, asking me if I'd like to draw it. He said it was about a kid and a giant robot, and I mentioned that I'm not the first guy you think of when you think of giant robots in comics, and in the end, that's why I did it: no one would have expected me to do it. So far I've had a lot of fun and I'm not exactly familiar with anime or manga the way that Jay is, he's deeply influenced by it, but I've had a lot of fun getting into it."
Norton says that his desire to shatter the expectations surrounding him isn't a result of outright "artistic typecasting," but he is aware that the work he's done has led to some pre-conceived notions about his capabilities. "I haven't had an out and out situation where it's right in my face and I'm noticing, but I've noticed near the end of the series ('Waiting Place') when people realized I'd be leaving it, I got a lot of pitches and proposals to do similar slice of life books. My first job was superhero work and I did 'The Badger' for Image, and superheroes were what I always thought I'd be doing, but no one thinks of me doing that, but while I may not want to do a straight up silly guy with a cape flying around, I want to do something fun based in fantasy. People never thought of me like that [being able to do superheroes] and I don't mind that all- I like to be thought of as someone who can put out something of substance and I wouldn't have done 'Waiting Place' if I wasn't such a big fan of the series in the first place. I haven't had anyone come up to me and say 'We wanted to give you that Marvel gig, but we just don't think of you as the guy who draws 'Fantastic Four,' we thought of you as the guy who draws the guy who cleans the Baxter Building for the FF. You're the guy who draws the deep, inside story behind the Fantastic Four.' That hasn't happened."
The time spent working on "Jason & The Argobots" has been very rewarding for Norton and he feels it's helped him grow as an artist, with the good far outweighing any downsides. "It's the most fun I've had working on comics- I'm playing around with the way I draw, the characters are fun. I've also designed a robot, which I've never done before, and I love drawing the robot. Like a lot of the projects I've worked the on, the most fun part is actually getting the script from the writer and reading at first- I get to read this book that no one else is gonna get to read for another four months. The least favorite part is trying to get it done and the time constraints. I'm a pretty fast artist but I'm also working on a lot of stuff, so it makes it hard on me because I pride myself on not missing deadlines and the time crunch becomes hard."
While Norton says there are some artists whose work has influenced him because of the subject matter, he isn't so sure if he can think of any artist whose work has led to the creation of his own unique pencilling style. "That's a real hard question for me because I know that there are artists that I love and there are artists that I look at all the time, but I don't know if they necessarily formed the way that I draw. I know I'll always be interested in and in awe of artists like John Romita Sr. and people that draw in this classic style, even Mike Allred does it sort of, I'm really into that sort of thing, but I don't think I really draw like that. I'd have to say that influences me and I'm influenced by the subject matter. Allred has a way of approaching things, he doesn't take things too seriously and I'd have to say I'm a fan of that: I don't think anything should get so serious that you can't laugh at it. It's even true in 'The Waiting Place,' as heavy as that got, there were some issues that were just as silly, because that's the way real life is and no one's always depressed. I'm influenced by the subject matter of those artists as much as I am by their technical proficiency. I read and love a lot of artists, and over time a lot of them have become my friends: I really enjoy seeing my friends draw because I find myself wanting to get in their heads and wanting to be able to solve problems the way they do."Click to enlarge.
Part of what makes "Jason & The Argobots" unique, contends Norton, is that the book has a sense of fun and genuine excitement that isn't marred by the angst found in so many other comics. "Many comics are successful because they find a certain age group or certain comic buying population feel lots of angst or they're rebelling against the world, so they make dark, brooding, angry comics. I don't particularly feel that way most of the time and I like silly things- I like to laugh and I like to watch comedy. I think that Jay is very much of the 'Hey, let's have some fun in comics!' vein and I appreciate that. Not that I can't appreciate a hard boiled crime drama- one of my favorite books right now is '100 Bullets' and there aren't many laughs in there that aren't sick, twisted laughs. But nine times out of ten, I'll pick the fun and goofy over the sick and twisted. I think there's a population of readers and buyers- if you're so serious for a certain amount of time you'll want something different and I think that time has come for a lot of people. You see it in other series too- I think a lot of the Oni [company publishing 'Jason'] series are like that. 'Blue Monday' is a perfect example- it's fun and people buy it because it's got a cute aspect, a fun aspect and it's well drawn."
Norton's career has also taken a unique turn of late, with his artistic talent and business savvy finding a common point for profitability in real life, namely as art director for the company behind the successful re-launch of "G.I Joe." "What I do for Devil's Due isn't much different than what any art director does for any ad agency. I'm in control of the design aspects, the overall look of the products and it sounds like a really boring job, but it's the opposite of that. I got started on it because I was freelancing in Memphis and I knew Josh [Blaylock, writer of 'G.I Joe'], and he kept me posted when he was obtaining the 'G.I Joe' project. Eventually projects got so big that he could do it all himself so he asked me if I could help out on a freelance basis to take care of things like 'Previews' ads or ads in the back of other comics, with Devil's Due eventually getting so big that he wanted to take someone on full-time to do that job and I gladly accepted that. It's turned into more than an art director job and I contribute illustrations, here and there- we've also since added Tim Seeley. It's very exciting too in that it's what I imagine an early Marvel or DC were like, like Crossgen in a way, where you have a Bullpen scenario with everyone on site. If you need a cover or pinup, just go in the next room and ask for it! I love the job and I feel a tremendous amount of loyalty towards them- I'll be there till they go broke or take over. And when they take over, I'll be there, standing next to them and ready to get what ever part of the country they give to me."
Norton has some parting words for fans and reminds them to be on the lookout for some cool Devil's Due work from him next year. "It's odd for me to think I have fans," laughs Norton and adds, "So I'll just say, thanks for buying the comics!"
For more on "Jason & The Argobots" read our June interview with Torres and Norton.