Talking Comics with Tim | Michael Kaluta on 'Harry Palmer: Starstruck'

It seems to me a Kickstarter for an Elaine Lee/Michael Kaluta project should be a no-brainer. And considering that in the first 24 hours of the Harry Palmer: Starstruck Kickstarter, close to half of the $44,000 goal was raised, I was not alone in thinking that way. At present, the Kickstarter, which started on April 2 (and ends May 2), has reached more than $35,000.

Kaluta agreed to an interview about the 176-page sci-fi noir graphic novell, which has been years in the making, and it proved fun to chat with the legendary artist on how he intends to marry 80 new pages with 60-some pages of existing material.

Tim O'Shea: This Kickstarter came within hundreds of dollars of making half of its goal within that first 24 hours. What was your reaction to see the project make such progress, so quickly?

Michael Kaluta: I was definitely gratified, and tried to be sanguine (I read books … sanguine … heh!), but, of course, the specter of getting almost to the goal and then having the Kickstarter stall looms large in my dreams… as it must for everyone hoping to go forward with their dream-project thanks to the Kickstarter approach. I’ll soldier on, clearing the drawing board for not only the new Harry Palmer pages, but for the Kickstarter reward drawings I’ll be doing when and if everything comes up roses.

In returning to a project for which 60 pages had been previously released several years ago, how hard is it to get back into the dynamics of the story and characters. Or do you know this universe so well, it is not challenge at all?

I know the universe as well as can be expected, having been there at its development and expansion, but folks should know: SOME of what Elaine will be adding to the Harry Palmer book is story I’m not privy to as yet… I have the original “arc” in my memory, but Elaine can be tricksy and surprising, as I believe folks have noticed: I’m excited to see where Harry travels between the Already Done pages and panels, the Already Been Penciled Pages/Panels of New Story (New In 1996) AND where Elaine will drag him and us in the completed Graphic Novel. I know well all the characters that I can expect to show up, but what: 80 new pages? There are going to be as many surprises ahead for me as there are for our most ardent reader.

It has already been decided that you will be remastering the originally released 60 pages for this new project. What aspects do you intend to address in the remastering?

The original 60 pages have been “remastered” since about 1996: I’ve physically scissored pages apart (this was pre-Photoshop), added new penciled panels and expanded the original Harry Book to Elaine’s 1996 expanded story. There’s one panel from the original Epic Comic: a page-across panel of party-goers impressing each other with witty banter laced with innuendo that I’ve cut in half … between the left half of that panel and its now-severed right-hand half, we’ve put about 23 pages of new material (in pencil now, ready to letter and ink). It’s been fun, over the years, to show the re-cobbled-together pages to friends and fans and watch their eyes when they get to that sequence!

Once the 80 new, new pages get leavened into the mix, the entire patchwork project will be a solid wonderment, Frankenstein-style!

At the core of this project, what appeals to you about telling a sci-fi noir story?

That’s sort of a trick question to ask the guy who grew up in comics drawing The Shadow, eh? I love the film noir genre, from the archly-shot but happy-ending noirs like The Dark Corner, to the archly-shot but deeply tragic films like D.O.A. and Out of the Past … having a character, Harry Palmer, who went through our original Epic Comics’ graphic novel as “just” a bartender be revealed to have currents and depths unplumbed by his customers, adds a notion Elaine and I used to discuss: the passerby on the street, a mere background character in “our” life movie, does have a real life we’ll most likely never know … a life possibly of merit beyond imagining, or horrors too deep to understand. Getting to have Harry Palmer take us along on his personal journey into his past while highlighting passages and elements of the Starstruck Story as read by all, is something not only gratifying, but a thing to look forward to.

How early in the development of Harry Palmer did you and Elaine realize -- this character should be a Bartender-Hero? What do you think makes Harry such a great character?

Harry was “only” a bartender in the graphic novel, circa 1981-82. It was when we got the go-ahead on the Epic Comics limited series that we revisited the original story and took a more-than-close look at the entire cast of characters. It was during this process, just after a lunch at The Library Restaurant on Broadway at 92nd Street, NYC (gone now) that the concept of the other lives people lead came to the fore… I recall pointing out an older man crossing Broadway, saying, “There: for all we know that little old man, seemingly only that, might have been a young soldier on the beach at Anzio, cradling the lifeless body of his boyhood friend as the waves washed around their feet.” We “blue-skied” the idea a bit, then I seem to remember us looking at each other and saying, “Harry!” “Harry was in The Tri-Clone Invasion …” And the story fell into place as bits and pieces of other characters’ stories bloomed into being as Harry was set against their pasts.

What do you think it is it about your's and Elaine's collaborative dynamics that makes the combination so effective?

I wouldn’t have been able to field that question back in the day -- too close: We sort of blended together on a lot of the concepts running from one idea to the next (and remember, there are many worlds of Starstruck that saw being for only a minute or an hour before being washed away by a further or different takes or concepts). In retrospect: During the conceptual phase Elaine would put forward where she wanted, or thought she wanted, the story to head. I’d toss out disparate Ideas that her direction made pop into my mind ... she’d generally say “No,” “No,” “No,” to each. At the time I thought “Dang!” but, once Elaine wrote out the story pages, nearly every idea I’d offered could be found incorporated into the plot or narrative… in a uniquely Elaine Lee way. When I realized she wasn’t saying “No, that’s a crap idea” but was saying “No, that’s not the lynch-pin of the plot, let me back-burner that until the concept gels” that I relaxed and did what I do: toss out a LOT of ideas and let Elaine’s planet-sized brain do what it does.

I spoke with Elaine about Starstruck in 2009, and one thing she said really caught my attention back then: "... when we met, Michael was disenchanted with the world of comics. He hadn’t worked in comics for a few years. So if the project hadn’t been a highly unusual one, I doubt he would’ve been interested." Would you say working on Starstruck and this universe of characters reignited your interest in comics back then?

Without a doubt: I’d “had it” with working for comics in general (not entirely comic books’ fault, but …). Not being one of the folks who could write and draw his own stories (the adapting of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Carson of Venus books was as close as I came in the writing/drawing department), I was happy, for quite a few years, drawing what I was given (though I was a bit of a brat about that, sometimes… my apologies to all who know how true that is). In the late '70s, the characters I was working with were a lot of fun, but I noted the stories were getting really “news story-driven.” Nearly every script that came my way seemed based on the Sharon Tate Murders, etc. … I was so non-inspired by this trend I totally rewrote a script from a Manson-like family horror into a pure fairy tale story, and drew it … but, hey: I never asked my editor if I could. I was (rightfully) fired, immediately.

It was Elaine’s writing that re-inspired me: I didn’t think “Hey! This’d make a GREAT comic book!” but when Starstruck came down to having all the rights except comic book rights held up in a production deal, what was there to do but Starstruck Comics!

Elaine may have told how the Starstruck story we all know came to be a prequel to the play it was based on. Briefly: The play, if made into a comic book story, would have been a lot of pages of talking heads: plays are about dialog, with blocking direction having the actors cross the stage, pose some, turn to another character and talk some more. It’d been a damn clever comic book with lots of talking heads, but Elaine and I knew it wouldn’t wash without some heaps of action and “scene” changes … we tried, nothing worked, until Elaine, recalling that every character in the play has a “moment” where, frozen in a spotlight, a voice-over tells the audience the astounding back-story that made the character the character they are now seeing on stage. It was a Starstruck gift (the first of many): a custom-made map to the Starstruck Graphic Novel: We’d do a comic book on how all the characters became themselves … and we are still at it!

The nature of the project will change drastically in a certain sense if a certain amount is not raised, as you will opt to print the book in black and white as opposed to color? Is it your hope that fans will have a vested interest in making the goal that will enable the book to be in color?

Yes: our immediate Kickstarter goal amount is for a black-and-white graphic  novel … Elaine and I agree that Starstruck and color go together like, well, like anything that goes together goes together… especially after Lee Moyer redefined the word “color” in our big IDW Starstruck Compilation. I know folks would love love love to have a color Harry Palmer graphic novel: Elaine and I are all fingers-crossed that we’ll find a way to get there (which accounts for all the typos …).

Has your art style changed drastically from when you initially drew the story (a factor to consider since you will be drawing new pages for this project)?

Not too far, from the Harry Palmer/Epic Comics art. When I was adding the inch and a half to the first 80 pages of the Big IDW book (those original pages having been done for Heavy Metal, hence an almost square format as opposed to the rather tall rectangular comic book format) I had to try to match art I’d done in 1980 … THAT was a bit of a beast-job. If I was adding a panel between panels it wasn’t so bad, but when lengthening a panel matching rendering of 332 Erotica Ann Androids walking through sand, I admit to cursing out my 33-year-old self: “Why so DAMN many little lines, you nut!!!!”

Hardcore: Reloaded #1

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