M O D E R N
M A S T E R S
V O L U M E
N I N E T E E N :
by Roger Ash and Eric Nolen-Weathington
Modern Masters Volume Nineteen:
MIKE PLOOG Table of Contents Introduction by J.M. DeMatteis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 Part One: A Cowboy in the Marines. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Part Two: Where Thereâ€™s a Will... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 Part Three: Marvelous Monsters. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 Part Four: A Life in Film . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40 Part Five: Creating Fantasy Worlds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56 Part Six: Storytelling and the Creative Process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69 Art Gallery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
A Cowboy in the Marines called Man of a Thousand Faces. I think Leo G. Carroll played the part of the guy. I loved that character because he was everyone. There was something magic about him.
MODERN MASTERS: You were born in Minnesota in 1942, correct? MIKE PLOOG: Right. Mankato, Minnesota. It’s a pretty remote place. Well, not any longer. It used to be.
MM: You mentioned in your Moonshadows sketchbook that you used to draw pictures at the local store and get a grape soda, and you always drew the same picture. What was the picture you always drew?
MM: Do you have any siblings? MIKE: Yes. I had two brothers and a sister.
MIKE: It was Roy Rogers. [laughs] Whoever was doing Roy Rogers in comic books at that time only drew him from a 3/4 profile. I got that down pat. Basically, I would draw whatever was on my mind at that particular time, but Roy Rogers was my staple.
MM: When did you start drawing? When did you become interested in art? MIKE: To be honest, interest was different than starting to draw. The main entertainment as a kid was the radio. I spent endless hours in the evening listening to the radio and the old radio shows. That’s what stirred my imagination. I needed to see a face. I drew on everything. I drew on the walls. I drew on the radio. I drew continuously. Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was one of my favorites. I drew him over and over again. The day that Quaker Oats brought out a Quaker Oats box with a picture of Sergeant Preston, I was absolutely shattered because it didn’t look anything like what I thought he was going to look like. I think the radio was the first incentive to sit down and make a picture. It seems like I’ve always drawn.
MM: Did you see many comic books or comic strips growing up? MIKE: Not really. I saw a lot of comic strips. I don’t think we ever really got a newspaper because where I was being raised, I was raised in St. Thomas, Minnesota, there was just a church, two stores, and a very small school that I went to. People used to save the comics for me. I was quite a fan of newspaper comics, not comic books. We didn’t get to town all that often and the only books that were really on the drug store’s shelf were things like Donald Duck and Archie and Roy Rogers, obviously. I can’t remember super-heroes. If they were there, I had very little interest in them. MM: What comic strips did you particularly enjoy? MIKE: I loved Li’l Abner. I liked Flash Gordon and Hal Foster’s work on Prince Valiant. The goofy thing is that I can never remember reading them. [laughs] I’d just sit and look at the pictures.
MM: What sort of radio shows did you like listening to the best? MIKE: Oh, dear! I loved the Westerns like Gunsmoke, and Sergeant Preston. There was one called Bobby Benson B-Bar-B Riders, Red Rider, and Little Beaver. Things like that. The other ones that I loved were the scary ones like Inner Sanctum and Tales of Horror. And the detective shows. I think I pretty well covered the gamut. There was one
MM: So it was the art in these strips that attracted you? MIKE: Oh yes. Definitely. Still, to this day, I buy comic books and I don’t read them. I have a lot of friends who are writers who’d probably shoot me for that. [laughter] 6
MM: Eventually, your family ended up moving to L.A. MIKE: Yeah. My mother and father separated when I was about ten years old. We left the farm and piled into a brand new Chevrolet. I’d never been in a new car before. When my mother and dad sold the farm, mom bought a brand new Chevy and the five of us piled into it and drove across country. A very leisurely drive, mind you. We stopped everywhere. Anywhere that took our fancy, we stopped. I think that has always given me this strange wanderlust because the most exciting period of my life was that trip from Minnesota to California. MM: What sort of places did you stop? MIKE: Everywhere. We took turns choosing motels. Any time we saw a national monument sign or something, we had to stop and read it and take our picture by it. Every state that we went through, at the border where it says you’re now leaving Iowa and going into Kansas or whatever, a picture had to be taken. The biggest memory of stopping was in the Southwest when we got into Arizona and New Mexico because that was my fascination. That was Indian country. My first sightings of an American Indian absolutely blew my mind because there they were, The American Indian. That wonderful person that fascinated me all my life. MM: Did you see the opportunity to see many movies?
MIKE: I think Le Suer had a movie theatre, but I don’t remember going to it. St. Thomas obviously didn’t have one. It wasn’t until I got to California. We went to a lot of drive-in movies. My poor mother. She used to have to sneak us in because of the fact that we couldn’t really afford to go to movies that often. So what we’d do is we would pop all of our popcorn and put it in buckets and big bags and hide under a blanket. They probably knew that when they let us in the damn theatre [laughter] because this woman is going to a movie theatre all by herself, and in the back seat on the floor board, is this lumpy blanket and the smell of popcorn. Obviously the drive-in movies at that time let us get away with it. We used to go to drive-in movies on a regular basis. Television was the thing that blew my mind. When we got to California, my mother acquired a used television with a round screen. There were pictures to these stories. For somebody that had tried all of his childhood to picture stories, to actually see pictures with stories was absolutely wonderful. MM: How old were you when you moved to California? MIKE: I was about ten or eleven. MM: Did you enjoy the same sorts of movies and TV shows as radio shows? Westerns, for example? MIKE: Oh yes. The whole family was into Westerns. We ran a relatively poor farm. We did a lot of horse trading and there were a lot of animals through the farm. I loved the horses, I really did. That was my first love. The whole family loved the Westerns and from the first time we turned the TV on, we were seeking out the Westerns.
Previous Page: Mike loves Westerns, so here’s one of his cowboy drawings. Above: Another cowboy, this time as part of a birthday greeting. Left: Okay, not quite a cowboy, but the samurai genre isn’t all that different from Westerns, really. Artwork ©2008 Mike Ploog.
MM: Did you ever get into the movie serials like Flash Gordon?
man’s shoes to school. Just like today, unless you’re cool, you don’t fit in. Obviously, I didn’t fit in very well.
MIKE: Oh yes. Definitely. They were absolutely fascinating because of the imagery. A lot of these things I’d seen portrayed in comic strips, but to see people actually walking around them and using them, you can only imagine what a thrill it was to see something like that. Buster Crabbe was doing Flash Gordon at the time, and to see him coming in and out of that spaceship, even though when it flew through the air sparks were just dropping off the back of it, it didn’t matter to me. It worked. It was a real spaceship. And inside that spaceship, no matter how primitive it was, he had these levers and dials and everything.
MM: When you were in school, did you study art? MIKE: No, but oddly enough, I did do some art because they had a school newspaper and I did do a little spot art for it. It wasn’t actually an art class, but it was a class that you could draw in. The teacher wasn’t really an art teacher, but I could draw better than anybody else in the class. That was my first taste, I think, of finding attention through my work. And finding a way of communicating with other people that normally wouldn’t want to communicate with me. MM: You eventually joined the Marines. How did that come about?
MM: Obviously it was a big change for you moving from a small Minnesota town out to L.A. Did you have any trouble fitting in?
MIKE: A lot of things led up to it. Basically what it was was I didn’t get on with school at all. I didn’t fit in. I just didn’t feel like it was a place that I belonged, although I did go to school for quite a while. I went to school for six or seven years while I was there. During that period, it was an absolute struggle. I had one or two friends and that was about it. Going to a party was absolutely out of the question. I kind of drifted away from school and I drifted down to the river bottoms in Burbank, California, just off of Riverside Drive, because there was nothing there but stables. Down there, I knew how to talk to people. I knew about animals. I was a country boy. They liked me. I found people that I could relate to. When I first got down there,
MIKE: I didn’t fit in very well. There was no two ways about it. You can’t come from a relatively poor dirt farm and be thrown into Burbank, California. It was American Graffiti time. It was black peggers and pink mandarin colored shirts and hot rodders. What did I know from that? That, and we were still kind of living on the cusp financially. As opposed to putting me in Levi’s, my mother would put me in corduroys that were one size too big because she knew I was going to grow into them. I don’t think I still have, actually. I wore my Uncle Harold’s shoes for several years because he was a very small man. We had a lot of his shoes for some stupid reason. [laughter] I’m wearing an old 8
Where There’s a Will...
MM: How did you end up at Filmation?
MM: Was that one of the few times in your career that you’ve worked on super-heroes?
MIKE: I can’t tell you how it came about, I attribute it to an old friend at Leatherneck magazine named Duane Wells. He was a dear friend. He still is a dear friend. He kept telling me, “Mike, you can really make a good living at this. You’ve got the ability to make a living at this.” That was always in the back of my mind. One day I decided. “That’s it. I’m going to try it.” I spent about a week putting together a portfolio of drawings. Obviously, during a week you’re not going to put together anything that’s going to knock anybody’s socks off, but it was an example of what the hell I could do. A lot of things I ripped off out of comic books. [chuckles] I stole things wherever I possibly could to put them in this portfolio. I went down to Filmation and I showed Don Christensen my portfolio. He said. “Okay. You’re hired.” It blew my mind. It was that easy. I was hired. He put me in the back doing cleanup where I would clean up other people’s drawings. Don did me a wonderful favor. He said, “We want you to do other things, but you’re going to have to learn how to do them.” Don would stay late with me in the evenings and show me how to do layouts, which is kind of the next step up from cleanup; to actually do the layouts yourself. He got me doing layouts which was absolutely fantastic because it was more money than I’d ever made before in my life. That blew me away. I spent one season with Filmation. That’s how loyal I am. [laughs] I spent one season with them and Hanna-Barbera offered me more money and so I left.
MIKE: As a matter of fact, it was the only time. MM: Once you went over to Hanna-Barbera, what were you doing for them? MIKE: I got over there and that season they were doing all this goofy stuff. I worked on Wacky Races and Motormouse and Autocat. The only good thing was that towards the end of my tour there, they were doing the pilot for Scooby-Doo and I got a chance to do some drawings for Scooby-Doo. Prior to that, I was doing goofy cars and goofy airplanes and things like that. Anything that could carry Autocat and Motormouse around. [laughter] MM: Were you still doing layout for them? MIKE: Yeah. It was mostly layouts. Towards the end, they were having me do more detailed drawings for some of the designs on the cars and things. But talk about boring. [laughter] MM: Did you happen to work with Alex Toth while you were there? MIKE: No, I didn’t. I only met Alex on a couple of occasions and, for some strange reason and I don’t know what it was, Alex took an instant dislike to me. At evening cartoonist meetings, we nearly went outside for a fist fight. I found Alex a very difficult man to deal with and talk to. I once called him for some advice, and he cut me off so quickly that I thought I must have said something terrible. He was his own man. I had an enormous amount of respect
MM: What did you work on at Filmation? MIKE: Batman and Superman were the things that I worked on when I first got there, then they put me off onto other things. The Batman/Superman Hour was the major thing. 12
for his work. He was a brilliant artist. Absolutely brilliant. Personally, he was a very difficult man to get on with. And fortunately, I didn’t have to work with him. [laughter] MM: Tell me about your move to PS Magazine. MIKE: One day—I wish I could remember the guy’s name, he was a hell of a good artist—a co-worker came in and said, “Mike, I belong to the National Cartoonists Society, and we just got this newsletter where Will Eisner has put an ad in saying that he’s looking for an artist with military experience and who has a tendency to draw in his style.” He showed me the letter and it had a Will Eisner PS Magazine drawing in it. I said, “I know this work.” Little did I know that I’d spent four or five years drawing Will Eisner’s stuff. He was the guy who was doing PS Magazine and PS Magazine was like the Training Aids stepping off point. Everybody went back to PS Magazine, so I was continuously emulating Will Eisner’s style without even knowing who Will Eisner was. He wanted somebody to come to New York. I didn’t send him any artwork, I called him up and said I’d be interested in doing this. He said, “What have you been doing?” I told him that I had been working in Training Aids, and the goofy thing was, I’d been drawing his stuff for years. He said, “I’m gonna be in L.A. in about a week. Can you meet me at the Beverly Hills Hotel?” Somebody else must have been paying for it because Will wouldn’t have sprung for the Beverly Hills Hotel! Anyway, he said, “Bring some drawings along.” So I met him at the hotel. I brought the drawings and I had to do some new because I had nothing to show from my Training Aids days. He looked at them. We sat and chatted for a while. He said, “What day is it? It’s like Monday or Tuesday, right? Can you be to work next Monday in New York?” And I said, “Sure!” [laughter] I was single. The idea of going to work in New York next Monday? You’ve got to be joking! This was absolutely amazing. So that’s what got me from Hanna-Barbera to PS Magazine. MM: I think a lot of people have heard of PS Magazine, but it usually doesn’t go
beyond the fact that Will Eisner was involved with it. What is PS Magazine? MIKE: PS Magazine was a postscript to the military manuals. The military manuals covered everything. There was a manual three to four inches thick for every vehicle and every weapon that the military had. PS Magazine’s job was to break down these manuals into the simplest cartoon form so that the actual guy in the military who can’t even read this stuff—the people who wrote it can’t even really read it—could understand what this manual was saying. You were literally doing a monthly book 13
Previous Page: Caricature of Mike’s former boss, Will Eisner. Above: One of Mike’s contributions to PS magazine, featuring Connie Rodd.
Connie Rodd, PS ™ and ©2008 Department of the Army.
Below: The second page of Mike’s piece for PS. Next Page: Mike’s character, The Artfull Dodger, introducing The Spirit. The Artfull Dodger ™ and © Mike Ploog. Connie Rodd, PS ™ and ©2008 Department of the Army. The Spirit ™ and ©2008 Will Eisner estate.
that was helping the average GI or Marine to understand what this vehicle that he was responsible for, or this weapon that he was responsible for, was really all about. How to take care of it. How to repair it. How to maintain it. That’s what PS Magazine was about. It was done in a cartoon form, but it was done in a Will Eisner cartoon form which meant that the GIs you saw working on these things were real GIs. The GIs
could relate to them. They could recognize themselves in the characters. They understood the humor because it wasn’t putting the guy down. It was more aimed at the establishment. “They say it’s a smoo.” “No! It’s not a smoo, it’s a smerack! Don’t they know their smoos from their smeracks?” [laughter] And a lot of times, if they wrote those manuals, it was a smoo but, six months later, they realized a smoo didn’t work so they replaced it with a smerack, but they didn’t bother to tell the poor guy. It was our job to keep up to date and to portray this information to the lowest common denominator, the guy that really didn’t want to read the manual and didn’t really totally want to understand his machine. Suddenly, this cartoon would get him interested. And it worked. It’s still running, I think. MM: Did you do any writing for the magazine or were you strictly doing art? MIKE: The only writing I would do for it was the gags. I would be given a list of different assignments in the book, and I would have to come up with a gag that would fit the situation. How to keep sand out of an M-16, or how to check the oil pressure, things like that. What’s the pressure of the tires on your jeep whether you’re on a hard road or a dirt road? You’d have to come up with a gag that would lead you into that particular situation. Let’s just say the tires on a jeep. You let some of the air out if you’re in sand. You pump the tires up if you’re back onto a hard road. So you’d have a GI standing there next to an Arab on a camel. He’s asking the Arab, “What can you do to get this camel moving faster across the sand?” Well, obviously, he’s got to have bigger feet, so you have to have bigger tires and more surface. It was goofy things like that. I don’t know how goofy that was. [laughter]
MM: What made you decide to approach Marvel for work?
I started doing the werewolf book and everything else is more or less history.
MIKE: I didn’t. Actually, they approached me. They gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in doing some work for them. I thought, “Woah!” But I didn’t know what it was going to be. So what I did is, I did up a presentation story and it was a Western, which they were obviously not interested in. [laughs] Westerns were dead in the water at the time. When I came in there with this Western story they must have thought, “This guy’s living in another world.” They didn’t like the story. I went home. A day or two later Roy Thomas called me and said, “Hey, Mike! Sorry I wasn’t there when you came in. I loved your Western story by the way.” Still, Roy wants to do the damn Western story.
MM: The early issues of Werewolf By Night really had a noticeable Eisner influence. How much of that was your style and how much of it was a result of working with Eisner at PS Magazine? MIKE: Oddly enough, my style of drawing was very much like Will’s anyway because of the fact that I’d
MM: Was the Western story “Tin Star”? MIKE: Yeah! I ran into Roy about two or three years ago and he said, “God! We’ve got to do that ‘Tin Star’ story.” I looked at him like, “What in the hell are you talking about?” He says, “The Western.” I thought, “God, I can’t remember that.” He told me the story because he remembered it. I thought, “Damn! That would make a good book.” At that time, I was really hot on doing a Western because I loved the mountain man sagas: the Jeremiah Johnson stuff and things like that. Man against nature and the Wild West villains. That was one of my favorite subjects. One of these days I may do it. If it’s up to Roy Thomas, I’ll end up doing it tomorrow. Anyway, he says, “We’re thinking seriously about doing a series of horror comics. We’d like you to do one.” I said I’d love it because I needed the work, and it was either do comics or go back to L.A. and do animation. I went in and they pitched me this werewolf book. I thought it was a great idea. I went home and I gave it some thought. I took a look at a video I had of I Was a Teenage Werewolf. I thought, “That’s great. That’s perfect.” So 19
copied so much of his work while I was in the military. Then working with him, he was such a heavy influence and it was such an easy style for me to slip into. The thing was, I kind of fought the style. I didn’t fight it in the sense that I didn’t like it. I loved it. It was easy and it was flowing, but it was rather soft. I spent a great deal of time trying to develop something that was a little bit harder and a little bit more oriented to horror, which is not easy. I’m kind of a natural cartoonist, and in horror, you have to have a sense of reality to it to make it believable. The only way I could really do that was through acting. Somehow or another involve the reader in the emotions of the characters and just hope like hell that I was pulling it off. MM: Looking back at Werewolf, it was actually a fairly violent book. People died in it quite often. Do you think your style helped you to get away with being that violent? MIKE: I’m not real mad about violence unless I can justify it within the context of the story. I think my style helps soften violence. I didn’t pull people’s throats out or anything like that. Most of the violence was done over the back of somebody and you didn’t actually see it. I’m a real firm believer that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. If you see tendrils and blood and guts and gore, where are you going to go from there? Nothing’s going to be more frightening than that. Then the second time you use it, it’s got nothing. You use it sparingly and I think it has more impact. MM: Did you do any character designs for the book?
MIKE: I did all of them. I just started drawing and they said, “Don’t stop. Just keep drawing.” MM: With this, and later with Frankenstein, were you given any direction to make them look like the classic Universal versions of the characters? MIKE: That was more or less my idea; good, bad, or indifferent, I felt Frankenstein was a recognizable character 21
Previous Page: Statue by Night! Opening splash page of the debut issue of Werewolf by Night. Above: Just a little violence from Werewolf by Night #14. Werewolf by Night ™ and ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.
and he had his identity. To try to change his identity, I felt that was a big mistake. You can change his personality, you can change a lot of things, but the look of him—when people see him, they know exactly who he is. I felt that was necessary. Today, if I was doing Frankenstein I’d probably do him totally differently, but back then I thought that was important. The identification factor. MM: And you carried that through with the werewolf as well? MIKE: I wanted the werewolf not to look like your average, run of the mill werewolf. I gave him a face that I could work with. I gave him a shorter nose. He probably looks more like a pug than he does a wolf, [laughs] but it worked for me. Nobody complained about it so I just kept going with it. It fit more within the character that I was trying to give the werewolf. There was something soft about the werewolf, in my mind anyway. It may never have come across in any of the art or story, but I felt there was something there to him.
Above: Convention sketch of Frankenstein’s monster. Right: Mike’s approved final design for the star of The Monster of Frankenstein. Next Page Top: Hooray for Hollywood, part of the werewolf’s stomping grounds. Panel from Werewolf by Night #2. Next Page Bottom: Dracula “vamps” it up in the crossover issue, Werewolf by Night #15. Monster of Frankenstein, Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night ™ and ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.
MM: Werewolf was your first monthly comic. Was that challenging for you jumping into that? MIKE: Not really, because I’ve always been a bit of a work horse. I enjoy having the deadlines and having to sit down and go to work. I’m an early morning person. I get up early in the morning and I go to work, and sometimes I work into the evenings. In those days, I was working both day and night just keeping up with those things. MM: The story in Werewolf was set in L.A. Did your growing up there help you with any of the settings for the book? MIKE: Roy decided to put it in L.A. because of the fact that I knew L.A. and it was something they had never done. Marvel Comics is more or less based in New York City. L.A. and the palm trees and the bikers and all of that stuff, it was more conducive to what I knew. It was kind of an automatic thing to base it in L.A. for some goofy reason, if I remember correctly. I have to admit, my memory of the ’70s is rather vague. [laughter] 22
A Life in Film
MM: You left Marvel for a few years to work with Ralph Bakshi.
So it was kind of a trick just to get me over there to get me to work on Wizards. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. He called them “history drawings,” or something like that. They were just still drawings. They would put voice-over on it and then they just plugged the still drawings in. It was to fill in the story gaps he’d skipped over while doing the regular animated part of the film. It was great fun. I enjoyed it, but it was very strange.
MIKE: When I left Marvel, I actually went to work with a guy by the name of Takashi who was doing an animated film called Winds of Change. I’d worked with Takashi at Filmation many, many years ago, and now he was producing. I worked there for about six months, I guess. One day I got a telephone call from Ralph Bakshi. Ralph said, “Mike, I’m you’re biggest fan. I love ya. You’re the greatest. [laughs] I want you to work on a special project. It’s right down your alley. It’s Lord of the Rings.” I said, “Wow. You’re kidding.” “We’re starting pre-production on it. Get over here. I gotta talk to you. You gotta go to work for me next week.” I went over and I talked to him. He didn’t have anything done yet on Lord of the Rings, but I was going to start next Monday on design and concept. I got over there and he said, “Well, yes, Mike, I’d like you to do the Lord of the Rings stuff, but first I’d like you to help me finish off Wizards.” [laughs]
MM: How long did it take you to do all of those? MIKE: It didn’t take all that long. I worked on them off and on because we were holding meetings for Lord of the Rings. I even did some background drawings. It took about six months, I guess. MM: Once you did get going on Lord of the Rings, what was that like?
MIKE: [chuckles] It was like any other Ralph Bakshi production. It was genius chaos. Ralph is one of the most creative people I think I’ve ever worked with, except that it’s totally unharnessed. It’s totally out of control. I really enjoyed working with Ralph. Lord of the Rings was great fun. I did an awful lot of different things on Lord of the Rings. I did character designs. I did a lot of backgrounds. I did storyboards. I even played the part of Gimli in several sequences. And I was a ringwraith on horseback, which was great fun. I enjoyed it because Ralph had no idea where to get these horses, so I went to a lot of old friends and they brought in all the horses. I designed the costume. We shot it out on the Salton Sea on the salt flats so that there would be no background. It was hot. Really hot. And I designed these things so that you weren’t going to see any face in the helmet. There was a big cowl that went way up, almost to the horns of the helmet, so you never really saw a face. They were made out of a heavy, woolen sort of material so that it would flow when the horses were running.
that cowl, it was like an oven. Better men than I were passing out from heat exhaustion in those damn costumes. Ralph was absolutely terrified of horses, so when all of the scenes with horses were shot, he was directing from the trailer. It was a lot of fun because I was involved in a lot of different parts of the production. I really felt we were going to make a damn good animated film, but what happened was that too many people started to influence Ralph. We’d taken characters out because we didn’t have time to introduce them properly and you wouldn’t know who in the hell they were. They’d just pop up and then disappear again, which would make no sense. It would just confuse everything. But people would say, “You have to have this character in there. It’s a must.” So Ralph would come in the next day and say, “Okay guys, this character’s back in.” And we’d go, “Oh, no!” [laughter] It was quite an experience. I’ve got to tell you one story. We had shot this sequence with this young bull rider. It was shot on a horse that wasn’t used to the particular bridle that we had on it. The kid was Frodo and it was the Flight to the Ford. The ringwraiths were chasing him. He pulled up to stop in front of the camera and, because of the bridle, the horse’s head
Below: Some of Mike’s character designs for Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. Wizards ™ and ©2008 Ralph Bakshi.
different worlds. The Creature Shop weren’t worried about what the creatures had to do in the movie. We were worried about the movie and getting these things to do what needed to be done for the film. It was an experience. MM: You did quite a lot of work with the Henson people over the years. Were they enjoyable people to work with? MIKE: They were wonderful people. They’re very creative and once they know what the problems are going to be, they’ll go to any extreme to solve the problem. It’s like on Little Shop of Horrors, the Henson people did the plant. There were sometimes 30-some people operating this damn man-eating plant. They were fantastic to work with.
ences working on films. Frank was just a jewel. That was one of Frank’s big independent movies where Frank jumped off on his own. He wanted me to literally storyboard the movie almost as if it was animated, because during the song sequences in particular, we had to do special cuts to get the characters in there. A lot of times the camera was over-cranked. The plant couldn’t move that fast, so we had to cut to get Seymour into it. Frank and I worked very closely together on the song sequences. It was absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed working on that. MM: What was Frank Oz like to work for?
MM: You also worked on The Storyteller TV show with them. Was there much of a difference between working on the TV show versus the films? MIKE: Not really. I was freelancing at the time and I was working from home. They’d send me a script and I’d just send them back a storyboard. Basically, that’s all it was. MM: Was it your association with them that lead you to working on Little Shop of Horrors? MIKE: Yes, because Frank Oz was the director. That’s one of my alltime favorite films. That was one of the most enjoyable of my experi49
Previous Page: More of the storyboard sequence for Little Shop of Horrors. Left: Mike’s final head design for Shrek. Mike left the production after two years on the job and well before the movie was finished, but his designs still show through in the film. Below: Shrek storyboard with Shrek and Donkey. Little Shop of Horrors artwork ©2008 Warner Bros. Shrek ™ and ©2008 DreamWorks Animation, LLC.
Above: Design piece for Shrek. You gotta love the Baba Yaga-inspired chicken hut. Next Page: Storyboards of Shrek’s meeting with the two witches. Shrek ™ and ©2008 DreamWorks Animation, LLC.
MIKE: He’s a gentleman among gentleman. He and Richard Lester are the same kind of characters and approach film the same way. Frank was the first person on any film production I ever worked on that walked into the art department and said, “Now listen folks. Family comes first. If you’ve got something that is pressing at home, take time. Do it. Family comes first, movie comes second.” Never did I ever hear that out of anybody else’s mouth. When you went to work on a film, it was like committing yourself to a monastery. You had to shave your head. You had to wear gowns. [laughter] And you couldn’t leave the premises. It was a total commitment. Nobody even got sick on films. MM: Did you work with Frank on any other films? 50
MIKE: Yes. I did some work on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. We’ve been friends for a long time. He sends me e-mails with goofy jokes all the time. I went and visited him on the set when he was filming his latest film, Death at a Funeral. MM: You worked on Disney’s Black Cauldron, which, from what I’ve read, was kind of a mess of a movie. What can you say about that? MIKE: I think I can sum it up. I worked there for about a year and we went to a screening where they had partial animation. Some of it was inked and painted, others were just storyboards. As I walked out, the producer, Joe Hale, said, “Okay, Mike. What’d you think?” I told him, “That was the best two movies I’ve ever watched.” They had two different directors working
Creating Fantasy Worlds
MM: You didn’t do much comic work in the ’80s and ’90s. Was that intentional or were you just really busy working on movies?
kind of went through the roof. Everybody’s taking themselves very seriously. The films just weren’t fun to work on anymore. There were too many people in charge. It was nothing to work on a film to where you’d go to work on it and you’d find that they didn’t have a script. You, as the story department, and the director, more or less sat down and worked out the script, or at least worked out the sequences. I worked on films where there were six producers, and each producer was looking out for his own interest. As soon as you felt like you’d gotten someplace, then suddenly it would go before these producers and each one of them would have something to say about it. Many times you’d have to start from scratch again. There was so much money involved in the production of a film that everybody just kept their heads down. There was just no fun on the sets. There wasn’t any fun in the art departments anymore. Everybody was just taking everything very, very seriously. I guess when there’s that much money involved, you have to take it seriously. It’s supposed to be a job where you’re dealing with an art form of some kind, but it doesn’t seem that way.
MIKE: I was really busy with the movies. They all came one right after another during that period of time. In film, it’s kind of a goofy thing. They kind of know when you’re coming to the end of your project and the phone starts to ring. Which is good. MM: What made you decide to get back into comics? MIKE: The film industry changed enormously; about ten years ago it really changed. It was changing prior to that, but ten years ago it just
MM: One of the books you did do during the ’90s was the Classics Illustrated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. How did that happen? MIKE: I think I was approached by First Publishing and asked if I would be interested in doing a Classics Illustrated. I said I would love to do one, and I’d love to do Mark Twain. They said, “Would you like to do Tom Sawyer?” I said, “I’d love it, and I’d also like to do Huck Finn.” Actually, I wanted to do Huck Finn 56
first, but they wanted me to do Tom Sawyer first. That was just great fun. I really enjoyed that because I’m a big Mark Twain fan. I think those two stories are just absolutely magical stories. MM: After hearing a bit about your childhood, I’m curious if you feel an affinity for Tom and Huck. MIKE: Oh, yes. Definitely. I was reliving my childhood. The funny thing is, when I wrote and illustrated that book, I drove everybody in the building nuts. I had a studio above a coffee shop in a small town in Wiltshire, England. I played “Dueling Banjos” over and over and over. I had it on a loop, and it just kept going over and over again. Believe it or not, I paced that entire book—the artwork, the dialog, everything—to “Dueling Banjos.” MM: You did some interesting layouts in the book. In the whitewashing sequence, for example, you just had the fence in the background instead of traditional panel borders. What led to that experimentation? MIKE: It really wasn’t experimenting because I did quite a bit of that when I was working on PS Magazine. That’s kind of an old Will Eisner stunt: leave the page open and just get into the acting. What always comes to mind for me is that wonderful Saturday Evening Post cover that Norman Rockwell did called “The Gossips,” and it’s just people’s heads. I like that kind of feeling. If you don’t have to confine the panel, it’s really great fun to do it. You have to give a lot of thought to it, so it does take a lot more time. MM: Why did Huck Finn never happen? MIKE: First Publishing went out of business. That was about the size of it. I had worked it all up, and broke it down. The hardest part of it is taking a big story and breaking it down to however many pages you had. They had even given me extra pages on that, if I remember right. I did want to get in the hucksters who picked Huck up and took him through town and the old lady he ended up living with. I no more got it broke down and was ready to go to work, than they went out of business.
MM: Around that same time, you also did the adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. What attracted you to that story? MIKE: Santa Claus. I always wanted to do a Santa Claus book. That book was brought to my attention years and years before. When I read it, I found that it’s a 57
Previous Page: Tom Sawyer reads his story. Above: Queen Zurline from Mike’s adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Artwork ™ and ©2008 Mike Ploog.
ably a very equal collaboration, which is the way it should be. Too many times, writers try to write to artists and artists try to draw to writers, and it is just not a marriage made in Heaven. MM: Stardust Kid is a bit darker than Abadazad. Was that intentional? MIKE: It just worked out that way. Abadazad was going to get darker, I’m sure, because we had a whole world to explore. In The Stardust Kid, we had only a few books to do it in, so it seemed to get darker faster just because of the fact that it was dealing with evil trees, and evil places, and you never knew what was going to turn up next that was going to try to harm the kids. It had that dark side. I enjoy the dark side of things because it’s a great contrast. It makes the good even better. You need those contrasts. The Stardust Kid’’s got plenty of that. MM: Do you have a favorite character from there? MIKE: I think my fish man. I like him. I think we could have done a lot more with him. He had a big role to play, but you’ve only got so much material you can stick in the book. MM: Both of these projects, and the Santa Claus book, were creator-owned. Was that important to you?
Above: Every story needs a villain, and “the Woman” certainly fit the bill in Stardust Kid (though, as with most good stories, things aren’t always what they seem). Next Page: Pencils for Stardust Kid #3, page 18 and the cover of Stardust Kid #4, featuring Mike’s favorite character of the series, Ruchh the River Giant. Stardust Kid and all related characters ™ and ©2008 J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog.
He had this Stardust Kid story, and he sent me an outline of it. I read it and I liked it. I just started doing drawings. I must have done maybe 15 or 20 drawings of characters and stuff. I had a bunch of old drawings of characters as well. All together, I sent him a huge wad of drawings. Between the drawings and his outline, The Stardust Kid was born. It was a real collaboration, which I enjoyed doing. MM: Would you say that you had more input into the story on this than you did on Abadazad? MIKE: It’s always a hard thing to say when you’re talking about a collaboration. The artwork is a stimulus to the writer, and the story’s a stimulus to the artist. It was prob64
MIKE: It wasn’t important, but it felt good that you were doing something that actually was your material and belonged to you. Good material is good material whether somebody else owns it or you own it. Right now, I’m working on The Spirit. Everybody under the sun seems to own the Spirit, but I love working on him. I put an enormous amount of work into the stories. MM: Stardust Kid started out at Image then moved over to Boom! Studios. Why did that happen? MIKE: It wasn’t really at Image, it was at Desperado. At Desperado, Joe Pruett, who’s the nicest guy in the world, just had too much on his plate. He wasn’t taking care of things properly. The books were printed way, way too dark. There would be big mistakes in the copy. He wasn’t there to really
look after it and nurture it the way I felt it should be. After the third issue, I thought, “That’s it. The color is way off. It’s way too dark. It doesn’t look anything like it’s meant to look.” Nick Bell was doing beautiful color work on it. We had the option to pull out if we wanted to. J.M. had been doing work with Boom! before that, so he said, “Let’s take it to Boom!.” I said, “Let’s take it someplace where somebody’s going to watch out for it and just do some checks on the proofs.” So it went to Boom! and Boom! finished it off rather nicely. We’re coming out now with the paperback. We’ve collected all the stories, so now all five are going to be in one book, and it really looks good. MM: And the colors have been corrected to look like you want them to? MIKE: The colors have all been corrected. Everything has been corrected. It looks great. MM: Do you plan to do more Stardust Kid stories, or is that story told? MIKE: No story is ever really told, particularly if it’s a fantasy story. Fantasy lives on another world. There’s a good possibility of doing more Stardust Kid. The thing is, we need to see how it’s received once we get the album out. It should be out soon. That’s what they tell me anyway. MM: You obviously like this type of story. What’s the attraction for you? MIKE: Imagination. I like stories where I can actually put my imagination to work. It bores me stiff if there’s nothing in there that I cannot create. I need my imagination to get stirred for me to really get behind it. I love things that have imagination to them. MM: You also had your own trading card set. How’d that happen? MIKE: I tell ya, that was one of the finest experiences in my life. I loved doing those. What happened is I left England in the late ’80s because the film industry just dried up. I had done the Santa Claus book. Mike Freelander, God love him, calls me up and says, “Mike, I have a company that does trading cards. We do them on different artists. Would you like to do a trading card set?” I thought about it and I thought, “What in the hell would I put in it?” I said, “I would love to do a trading card set, but I haven’t got any material.” He said, “I want you to do 90 or 100 paintings.” I said, “You’re kidding!” He said, “No.” I said, “What do you want me to paint?” [laughs] He said, “Anything. Anything that comes into your head. But I do want some of your monster stuff.” So I sat down and just started painting. I had a ball! I absolutely loved it. I never had so much fun in my life. To be honest with you, I’d never painted that much in my life. I’m not really noted 65
Storytelling and the Creative Process
MM: What artists influenced you?
of the writers I worked with did it like that. Believe me, some of them took advantage of it. [chuckles]
MIKE: That’s always a trick question. It depends on what I’m doing. Painting-wise, I fell in love with N.C. Wyeth so long ago that he’s always been a big inspiration. There are so many other artists. If I’m doing watercolors, I look at different artists. If I’m doing oils, I look at different artists. As far as line art and comics go, I think that Milton Caniff was a big influence. He used these great blocks of black, and everything was so dramatic. I loved that. Even before I knew what it meant, I loved it. And his storytelling was very good. There was a lot of emotion in it. I always have to go back to Caniff, but there have been so many others that it’s impossible to name them all. Everybody influences me in some way or another. It’s like I walked into this life with no identity and I just borrowed it from so many different people and so many fantastic artists. Hopefully, one of these days I’ll find my own style. Then I’ll probably be out of work, so it won’t do any good.
MM: How so? MIKE: Sometimes it wouldn’t even be a written plot. It would just be a telephone call. Most of these stories are monster of the month or villain of the month. They gave me an idea of what the villain did and I had to get to the villain and, somehow or another, defeat him. It could be nothing more than a ten-minute telephone call and then I’d sit down and start drawing. That’s not to say that any of my writers were lazy, because they weren’t. They were damn good writers. MM: Could you tell me a bit more about how you broke down the plots? MIKE: I’m somebody that has to think with a pencil. I’ll read a script or a plot just to get the impression of where it’s going, what it’s going to do, and what’s going to happen. Then I sit down with a pencil and I go through one scene or situation or page at a time and let it build, always keeping in mind where I have to get to. I’m just building up to a point, then I build up to another point, until I end the story. So it’s all in thumbnails.
MM: When you were working at Marvel, did you mostly work Marvelstyle off of a plot, or were you given full scripts?
MM: Do you transfer the thumbnails up to your completed pages?
MIKE: I was working off plots, which made it a lot more comfortable for me. I’d worked in animation and film, so I had a good sense of laying out a story knowing that I needed a beginning, middle, and end. A plot would allow me to pace the book. I could start it off with the introduction of the story, and then in the middle have them come into the conflict, and then wrap it up in the end. I enjoyed working that way. Most
MIKE: Sometimes I do, if I’ve got a good layout. Thumbnails aren’t always good compositions. What you’re doing is you’re just trying to tell a story in pictures. You’re not always thinking about composition and how you’re filling the space. If you’ve got a good one, you throw it on the computer, blow it up, and just trace it off. Nine times out of ten, it’s not a good composition. Something always has to be changed. 69
Below: This inked Kull the Destroyer page with the word balloons only penciled in. Next Page: Another panel from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. King Kull ™ and ©2008 King Kull LLC.
Sometimes you’ll do a panel and you’ll realize that it shouldn’t be one panel, it’s two panels, so you have to re-lay out the entire page just to get your storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, the story is everything. I put a lot of work into the art because of the fact that I want people to find it interesting, and I want them to like what they’re looking at. I’ve always believed that if I could tell a story without any words at all, I would be successful. If you could do that, you did your job, and you did it very well. But it all starts with the thumbnail. MM: How conscious are you of trying to leave space for word balloons or captions? MIKE: I try to be. I even try to have the person that’s speaking first in the right
place so that balloons don’t cross. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I try to keep it that way. I try to consciously make it so the dialogue is going to work within the context of the drawing. Sometimes, it’s very difficult because you realize, “My God! I’ve got an enormous amount of dialogue in this particular panel.” Then you think, “Well, maybe it’s not one panel. Maybe it’s two panels. Wait a minute. If I do that, then I’ve trapped myself because now I’ve got to do something else.” It’s trying to think ahead and trying to keep the reader involved as much as possible without any difficulty. MM: Do you prefer to ink your own work, or do you prefer to have someone else do that? MIKE: I prefer to do my own inking. When I put the pencil down and I’m making a line, it might not be the line that I really want. When I’m inking, I’m still drawing. I think what happens with some inkers is that they don’t draw. The penciler is drawing and, if you’re a half-way decent inker, you continue drawing when you pick up the brush or the pen. You never stop drawing. MM: When you know someone else is going to be inking your work, do you do more complete pencils? MIKE: Yes I do, particularly when I’m spotting my blacks. To me, the blacks on a page are very important. They have to lead from one panel to another. They have to be positioned in a place where it helps convey whatever you’re trying to say within that panel. Within every panel there’s a message, and you have to get that message across. That black ink is your best friend to getting it across because you can emphasize, you can push things back, you can pull things forward, you can eliminate backgrounds. There’s a whole lot of tricks you can use to get that one little message across. Which is your job. Your job is to get the message completed within that panel. And it leads to the next message. Right now at DC I’m doing the Spirit book. For some goofy reason, which I can’t understand, nobody’s been able to explain it to me, if I’m writing it and penciling it, I can’t ink it. [laughter] Have you ever heard of anything like that? I know there has to be some
kind of a legal thing. Like I told Joey, “I just want to complete my work.” I’m putting an enormous amount of work into the pencils on it because of the fact that the story that I wrote has got a lot of characters in it. I want the personality of the characters to come out. You’re very careful about how you pencil it so that it’s very readable. You’re putting all the blacks that you want in there because, when you’re actually inking your own pencils, you don’t always follow your own layout. As you’re inking it, something else happens. As you’re penciling, you’re drawing. When you’re inking, you’re drawing. And it’s two different ways of drawing. One drawing is rendering and you can see the lights and darks, and even greys in there. When you’re inking, it’s stark black-&-white. When you’re doing that, suddenly you realize that you’d treat something totally differently. You don’t ever stop drawing once you start inking. Hopefully. [laughs] I’m hoping my inker won’t stop drawing.
ciler” who is “the artist” and here you are. You’re getting paid a lot less than he is and you’re working your tail off to get the damn thing done so that you can pay the rent. And still to be expected to bring something to it. When Al Williamson stopped doing penciling, he decided just to ink. I thought, “Damn! That’s a great idea.” If nothing else, it loosens you up and you’re using another part of the brain. Particularly if you’re working on someone else’s work that’s not really your style. I thought it was a brilliant idea when he did that. Problem is, I never thought I’d like to do it. [laughs] Maybe one of these days. MM: When you’re painting a book like Tom Sawyer or Santa Claus, do you approach the pages differently? Do you stop at an earlier point and say, “Okay, now I can start painting?” MIKE: I approach them much the same as I would an inked book. Like in Tom Sawyer, I found a system where I was just doing very little blacks and just putting in a line. It was working better, and a lot faster, and it looked a lot crisper. You can busy things up very easily when you’re painting a book. The system was all the same. Both Tom Sawyer and Santa Claus, I wrote. The hardest work, and the most work, was put into the thumbnails and working on the dialogue so that things moved along and making sure that my page count was going to be alright. I had to break things down into acts and say, “I’ve got ten pages to get to here, so I have to eliminate this. I have to put this in, so how am I going to put it in in just a half a page?” Actually, I find that fun. I find that a fun way of working. With Tom Sawyer, I had a big book that I had to break down and put it into a very small book. Santa Claus was a bit of a nightmare because Frank Baum’s story was a bit on the scattered side, so I had to make a lot of things up. The strange thing about it is that not that many people noticed the things that I made up. With a lot of books, you read the book and you put it down. Two years later you think about it, and there’s a lot of things that are left out in what you remember, but your mind fills them in.
MM: Is Mark Farmer inking you on that? MIKE: Mark inked the first one. I think they’re going to give me another inker on this. I’m not quite sure who I’m going to get. I’m very curious. Hopefully I’ve got everything in there and they could put anybody on it and they could pull it off. I’m hoping to get somebody absolutely brilliant. More brilliant than me, actually. You’re always hoping when you’re penciling that the inker is going to bring something to it. And he should. At the end of the day, he’s an inker and he’s also an artist. You feel that your inker should be bringing something to that piece of art, as opposed to just merely doing the lines. They have to bring something to it so that there’s something more than what I put in. I’m not so precious about my work that it has to be my original thought and my original idea. I really love the idea of when somebody is finishing your work, whether they’re inking it or painting something that I’ve done, they bring something to it. Make me look good! [laughter] I’ve got a lot of respect for good inkers. It’s kind of a strange job because you’re following in behind the “pen71
Everybody’s mind fills in different things. If you meet them half-way, everybody’s satisfied with it. I had to fill in immediately. I couldn’t wait. I filled in a lot of places and I had to make things up in order to move the story along and give reasons for why things were happening. Fortunately, they fill in in a way that everybody felt wasn’t that far off of the story and it made sense. It was like the glue that took you from one situation to another. I love adapting. I think it’s like making a movie. You’ve got a script by a writer, and you have to adapt it because you’re taking the written word and putting it into pictures. It’s a process that I really enjoy. And you’re editing all the time. You’re sitting there editing as you’re going along, and making sure that the cuts are right and that you’ve fulfilled the information that needs to be told within that particular scene. And you can very quickly jump something, and move on to something else. MM: Are there other stories you’d like to adapt? MIKE: Oh, yeah. Hundreds of them. One of them that I would love to do is Jamaica Inn. Have you read it? MM: No, I haven’t. MIKE: Do yourself a favor. It’s written by Daphne Du Maurier. It’s a story about a girl, which I like because there’s not that many really good adventure/suspense stories involving a girl in comics. Jamaica Inn is so brilliant. Another one, much in the same period, is a book called Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner. It’s about ship wreckers. The coast and the pirates. It’s got great villains. I’m a big fan of stories that have great villains. One of my favorite books is Treasure Island. What better villain could you have than Long John Silver? You love him and you hate him. You want him to be your father, but you can’t trust him. MM: When you are painting a book, what do you use? MIKE: Watercolors. I’ll use some gouache if I need a nice bright sky or something like that. Now I’ve discovered these soft acrylics. They’re brilliant. MM: What’s a normal work day like for you? 72
Artwork ™ and ©2008 Mike Ploog.
Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night ™ and ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.
Ghost Rider ™ and ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.
Artwork ÂŠ2008 Mike Ploog.
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Shrek ™ and ©2008 DreamWorks Animation, LLC.
In the 1970s, horror comics were huge—and no one drew werewolves, swamp creatures, and demonic motorcyclists better than Mike Ploog! Though already well established in the fields of magazine illustration and animation, Ploog endeared himself to comics fans with his creepy yet beautiful artwork on such titles as Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, and Man-Thing. After an all too brief stint at Marvel Comics, Ploog returned to the world of animation and film, working on such classics as Ghostbusters, Ralph Bakshi's animated The Lord of the Rings, Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. Now he's back in comics with the children's fantasies Abadazad and The Stardust Kid, as well as The Spirit, and proving he still has the chops. Roger Ash and Eric Nolen-Weathington proudly present a true Modern Master: Mike Ploog! This book features a career-spanning interview and discussion of the artist’s creative process, complete with both rare and unseen art, including an enormous gallery of commissioned work, and an 8-page color section! (120-page trade paperback with COLOR) $14.95 (Digital Edition) $5.95