Arts Desk

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat With Mark Wheatley

Mark Wheatley lives in suburban Maryland, and has been a professional cartoonist since appearing in Heavy Metal magazine in the late 1970s. To save the City Paper from accumulating excessive research fees, Wheatley provided his "standard bio" for us. It's also worth noting that he was an early supporter of the Small Press Expo and I recall his comic book Radical Dreamer being a big hit at the show. Wheatley is also the founder of the local Insight Studios Group, which has eight current members and has included Adam Hughes, Frank Cho, and the late comic book greats Al Williamson and Gray Morrow. Wheatley's comic Blood of the Innocent is currently being developed as a movie. His long list of accomplishments, and his answers to our questions, after the jump.

Mark Wheatley: Mark Wheatley holds the Eisner, Inkpot, Mucker, Gem and Speakeasy awards and nominations for the Harvey award and the Ignatz award. His work has been repeatedly included in the annual Spectrum selection of fantastic art and has appeared in private gallery shows, The Norman Rockwell Museum, Toledo Museum of Art, Huntington Art Museum, James A. Michener Art Museum and the Library of Congress where several of his originals are in the LoC permanent collection. His comic book creations include Ez Street, Lone Justice, Mars, Breathtaker, Black Hood, Prince Nightmare, Hammer of the Gods, Blood of the Innocent, Frankenstein Mobster, Miles the Monster, and Titanic Tales. His interpretations of established characters such as Tarzan the Warrior, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Jonny Quest, Dr. Strange, The Flash, Captain Action, Argus, and The Spider have brought them to life for a new generation of readers. He has written for TV, illustrated books, designed cutting-edge role-playing games, hosts a weekly radio program, and was an early innovator of the online daily comic strip form.

Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

MW: I mostly work on long-form graphic novels. I like the opportunity to develop characters and follow more complex plots. Beyond that, it all depends on the story. I try to develop a style and approach for each project. Anyone looking at my work on Mars and The Spider and Ez Street and Lone Justice—even Skultar—will see that the look of my art changes from story to story. That's just the illustrator approach. But – I've worked with a number of cartoonists. These guys can run rings around me on cartooning. Even when I draw something that looks like a cartoon, I have to draw it more like a painting—and then simplify it. At heart I am much more of a painter than a cartoonist, and that is not for a lack of trying to master cartooning over the years. Cartooning is a high art. The ability to make complex images appear to be simple diagrams is the best kind of sorcery!

WCP: How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

MW: Although I've done thousands of pages of comics and illustrations with pencil, ink and paint, there is no question that digital is taking over. I've been "penciling" with my Wacom tablet and Photoshop for over a decade, now. I still like to print out my pencils and ink them with pen and brush. But there have been several jobs in the past year where I didn't have that option because of very tight deadlines and it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the real brush and the digital brush. My illustration work, my paintings, are now 100 percent digital.

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

MW: I was born the same year as Godzilla, during the age of President Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Joseph McCarthy, on May 27. I'm from Portsmouth, Va.

WCP: Why are you in the Washington area now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

MW: My wife and I moved to the area as a compromise between where my freelance work was (New York City), where my parents lived (Portsmouth), where my wife's parents lived (Pittsburgh) and where she could find the best job. Since I'm freelance, I can almost work anywhere. We are directly north of D.C. in Carroll County.

WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

MW: I have a degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Communication Arts & Design – essentially I was trained to become an art director. And I did that job for several years before I started my freelance comics career. My cartooning, and my illustration chops are all pretty much self taught, with all the books and comics I've read over the years serving as my textbooks.

WCP: Who are your influences?

MW: Well, I start with the Brandywine school of illustrators, founded by Howard Pyle and best exemplified by N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth is my personal favorite. Pyle and Wyeth both had a big influence on Frank Frazetta. But my influences from the classic golden age of illustration are extensive. I've spent a quarter of a century collecting books, magazines and newspapers from the first half of the 20th century. A short list of my influences would have to include Wyeth, Pyle, Schoonover, Leyendecker, Louderback, Cornwell, Dunn, Stoops, Godwin, Schaefer, St. John, Cartier, Rockwell, Coll, and, well, the list goes on and on. And that's just in the area of illustration. There are all the classic comic strip creators like Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Elzie Segar's, Billy DeBeck, Winsor McCay and all the other usual suspects. Then comic book artists such as Steve Ditko, Al Williamson, Bernard Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Jack Davis, Alex Niño, and so on. And I even could list a good many classical painters and sculptors, but I won't.

WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

MW: I would love to be able to answer interview questions better!

WCP: What work are you best-known for?

MW: I suppose Breathtaker was my highest selling graphic novel. And the fact that the art and script from that book are now touring the country in museum shows – starting with the Norman Rockwell Museum – means that someone remembers the book.

WCP: What work are you most proud of?

MW: To date, that would be Breathtaker created with Marc Hempel and Ez Street created with Robert Tinnell.

WCP: Why did you start Insight Studios?

MW: I started Insight Studios as a way to make one starving freelance artist seem like something more! So I teamed up with another starving freelance artist and we suddenly had a studio! Once we had work we attracted many other starving artists and since then we have had to keep finding work to feed everybody. The entire, detailed story is in the book IS Art: The Art of Insight Studios by Allan Gross.

WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?

MW: I have a good many graphic novel and comics projects in the works that are all on my wish list – but I can't talk about those while they are in development. At the moment I am working to expand my illustration work – doing more book covers, story illustrations and illustrated books – so every new plum illustration assignment is exciting!

WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

MW: AAAARGH! I can't think of an answer! No—wait! Actually, I've never had that problem. My greatest problem is all the ideas that I never, ever will get to.

WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?

MW: I think printed books are well on their way to being nostalgia items. But I bet that just makes the books I still want for my collection even more expensive! Fortunately, I believe that comics, graphic storytelling, is a unique language that crosses cultural, and national boundaries. In spite of my personal love for the written word and the printed form, comics is the perfect language of the future. Cartoons, comics and visual storytelling are everywhere we look. And that will not change.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?

MW: Used book stores and a fascinating variety of restaurants.

WCP: Least favorite?

MW: The roads!

WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

MW: The National Gallery!

WCP: Do you have a website or blog?

MW: Insight Studios: InsightStudiosGroup.com

I have two online galleries—and they are open all night! 2010 Gallery: on.fb.me/hOK0ZW. 2011 Gallery: on.fb.me/hNCC4A

My Facebook Fan page features frequent postings of new art and behind the scenes info on my work and projects: facebook.com/WheatleyMarks

My YouTube page features trailers for my comics: youtube.com/user/Insightmovies

A number of my graphic novels are free to read online at: ComicMix.com

And all my in-print graphic novels are available through Amazon.com: That includes (from this past year) Lone Justice (volumes 1 & 2), Ez Street, Hammer of the Gods, Frankenstein Mobster, The Spider, and (just published) The Mark Wheatley Gallery.

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