Part three concludes our interview with Mark Badger.
Eric Hoffman for Comics Bulletin: The “Instant Piano” series was an interesting experiment, which utilized computer-generated artwork. The work from this period seems very personal – did you feel, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that you wanted to create work with more relevance? More social consequence?
Mark Badger: I had a really big expensive toy (my forty meg hard drive and 20 megs of ram) that I wanted to screw around with and figure out what I could do with it. When I did some books I had to separate panels one at a time and do a yoga pose while it chugged away. I’ve never been so physically loose as when I was first working on the computer.
“Instant Piano” was done as a book for free, so we felt we could do anything. Actually, after being diagnosed I was desperate to get work from DC it felt like it was the only way I could stay on their insurance plan and I tried to get inking work fill ins nothing was available to me. The fine editorial staff at DC just totally shut me out.
After trying to get more work I realized it was never going to happen and Archie confirmed it. I do have to say Terri Cunningham was the VP there and she kept me on the insurance for another year after I finished up “Jazz” even though I wasn’t able to get enough work to qualify for insurance. She was a saint. Probably one of the nicest people in comics.
HOFFMAN: You also engaged in activism for the Graphic Artists Guild around this time, which you joined in order to get health insurance, and for which you did considerable organizing. What was the effect of this organizing effort? What were you able to accomplish?
BADGER: The California chapter of the Guild got sales tax for artists rewritten and our “speech” is treated in the same way as are writers. Our local chapter built a pretty solid community to help people with their marketing and business skills for a couple of years. I was the one person who had any grass roots organizing experience so I was teaching artist how to organize. I actually was on staff for a year and got a couple of the other chapters to start being more active.
Unfortunately they hired a new Executive Director that didn’t like me; he hated that artists would talk to me, and that I could get people active and involved. He along with the President and Vice President forced me to quit. They were pretty unethical and dishonest about it. It’s the one time in my life where I really felt back stabbed and twenty years later probably still haven’t processed the whole thing.
It’s really sad, they basically destroy the Guild as an organization from there on out. They actually had no understanding of how to develop an organization. Grassroots organizing actually works, self-employed artists are actually really easy to work with and get to do things if you’re willing to work with them. It takes actually listening to people and getting people to an agreement. You can’t be a “dictator boss”.
What screwed the Guild was they thought that organizing is like a business where the boss tells everyone what to do and then things should happen based on that. Everyone always thinks they’re the smartest person in the room so if you don’t have a process for getting to an agreed on goal, volunteer work is going to fall apart. That vision of working together is really important and when leaders don’t have it is where the problems come in.
HOFFMAN: The Guild eventually disbanded, didn’t it?
BADGER: It still exists, they have a cash cow that they put together, a pricing and ethical guidelines book every couple of years that pays the peoples salaries that produce it. They poll 100-200 people nationally and claim it represents the Graphic Artist Field. I don’t think anyone takes them seriously anymore.
They certainly don’t do anything in the Bay Area. Seattle may be the only place that has an active chapter left. I suspect with Obamacare coming in and individuals being able to get insurance they really have no reason to exist now.
HOFFMAN: What do you think of the financial situation of most comics artists these days in comparison to when you were working in the industry?
BADGER: Obviously the major difference for all Americans is that health insurance is available to everyone now. After spending six years of my life wrapped up in the Obama campaigns and working on getting health care passed, I had forgotten about the comics community. Health care is always a problem for any self-employed person as insurance is based on large groups of people gathered into pools.
So now on Facebook when some right wing troll dumps on Obamacare, all these cartoonists speak up how they have health insurance now. One couple pointed out that the security of it allowed them to have a kid.
I was just a tiny little foot soldier slogging away doing whatever I could in my little area, but together we did something really big and amazing. And then you see studies saying Obamacare has saved 50,000 lives just in the improvements in hospitals alone, probably another 40-50,000 in providing access to health care and all those door knocks and phone calls seem worthwhile. I suspect there is nothing closer to feeling like a superhero then this.
Of course the Republicans feel this is a horrible thing and they must increase the deficit and take healthcare all away. It’s the endless superhero story of continually fighting to make things better.
In comics there used to be just Marvel/DC, then First, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics and others started and faded away. Now with everything from print-on-demand to digital delivery you can do almost anything.
Kickstarter, Patreon and Gumroad have made huge shifts in providing a way to go direct to your audience without a large corporation taking fifty percent for doing nothing but providing access to the audience. There’s all these comics artists like Roz Chast, Alison Bechdel and Raina Tegleimeir doing books on the best sellers list so the audience has opened up, real publishers care about comics along with all the ghetto publishers. Kids these days don’t appreciate how good they have it.
HOFFMAN: Gerard Jones is another frequent collaborator. In the 1990s and 00s, you collaborated with Jones on the mini-series “Score” for DC’s short-lived Piranha Press, “Batman: Jazz” and “Batman: Run, Riddler, Run”, the one-shots “Lemon Custard” and “Haunted Man”, and much later collaborated on a web-comic (which has since been collected into a paperback), “Networked: Carabella on the Run”, a charming little book about computer privacy (and, ironically, drawn on a computer program). With wide scale government spying programs and large-scale computer hacks constantly in the news, “Carabella” seems more relevant than ever.
BADGER: I came out of the CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador which was funded for a while by winning a big lawsuit against the government illegally spying on us. This is before there was personal computers and cell phones, so when people talk about using this to shut down dissent and control the world, it’s what our government has always done.
If you look at how the government tracked and opposed the civil rights movement it’s creepy. And if you take the slightest look at what the local governments were doing in the south around Jim Crow laws you see a country where the ruling class does whatever it wants to maintain things like voting rights and their rulings. I think Citizens United is far more of a threat to our self-rule then spying on us. Spying on us has always been there.
Certainly life is scarier because we’ve basically signed over our democracy to those with money with the Citizens United rulings and you look how candidates are funded just by rich people. I know people say “how can we change anything, we can’t do anything to change that.” But ultimately if people are willing to work together you can change things. In El Salvador basically a bunch of campesinos kicked the ass of a US-funded military. We have a black President. We have health care.
But it was a non-profit that got a big grant to pay us to do the work so it was actually a paying gig. I wish it had more of a political component and been organized more to actually work as an organizing tool to get people involved but the non-profit wasn’t interested in using it the way the grant was written because they just wanted to tweet as their political work.
HOFFMAN: Tell us a bit about your most recent works, “Abstract Kirby” and “Julius Caesar”.
BADGER: Well, the greatest wife in the world basically told me to go off and be a full time cartoonist again. So I’m re-building a career step by step. The first thing to do is sort of set the art on the right path for me as my work, not something driven by others but what I want to do.
Rand Hoppe of The Kirby Museum had put the idea of doing Caesar in my head because Kirby had done some designs for the play once. I made a couple of false starts, puttering away at it. I was terrified of working on Shakespeare with Kirby and avoided working. But that’s when I realized that I was an “artist” and I decided to do a real study of Jack’s work. I committed to draw a page a day from the Fourth World, just to see what happens to my vocabulary, how I put pages together, what can I learn from copying Jack.
At first they were just these brush drawings, looking at how he structures his shape and overlaps forms. Then it was paying attention to how he moves your eye through each panel. Jack uses a lot of sound effects, motion arcs, zaps to direct you to the next panel. But Shakespeare has people standing around talking, so I’ve paid careful attention to how Jack sets up his scenes, how he jumps from one scale to the next in his panels; how Jack will use a foreground figure to frame the scene.
Lately I’ve been looking at Lorenzo Mattotti’s work in relationship to Kirby. Both of them simplify form, although Mattotti’s obviously uses pastel and negative space to shape in a way Jack never considered. While Jack always stayed connected to the basics of figure construction with his forms, the flatness of his drawing comes probably from speed not a conscious choice. Mattotti has stretched his forms out more towards Matisse based shapes.
Mattotti is composing his panels with color more than a traditional light based scheme. Jack’s foundation of course is in the Caniff/Sickles school which is based on light defining the form in black and white. So I’ve been integrating value into my drawing of Jack’s form which is a weird approach. I’m not sure rendering Jacks forms with value makes total sense. But I know there’s something I respond to in drawing related to value.
Cartooning is when you draw an ideal form that you can repeat over and over again, it allows for storytelling as the character, can have changes over time clearly designated. Now I’m going back to how he flat designs panels as space and shape flow.
It’s funny to see how little representational drawing Jack does. He is working with almost pure form in the way he has reduced the figures down to shape. And then he decorates the shapes with his shading lines or pattern.
HOFFMAN: “Abstract Kirby” seems like a return to your roots; you’ve finally found a way of drawing abstract comics, getting them published and seen by an audience, thanks to new low-cost publishing methods provided by print-on-demand technologies.
BADGER: I think the great thing about print-on-demand is you’re never trapped into this huge capital outlay. So I have these abstract comics as books and I can sell to the tiny little audience one by one.
Abstract comics are a pure challenge to the artist; make something interesting within the structure of the comic, a grid, and shapes. Using the form of repeating shapes and varying them based on my own pull and aesthetic. The shape of course is based off of the human form and my weekly life drawing practice. So I’m not just repeating myself but looking outside of my own head.
Subject matter is really where meaning has been thought of in comics. Superman is Superman no matter how differently he’s drawn. Written subject matter is what everyone focuses on in comics, the form rarely gets touched. Visual content never ever even gets acknowledged as existing. I’ve never been to obsessed with costumes and the what do you do when you’re in a costume. But I’ve been pretty damn obsessed with the actual form of comics, what those shapes and images are on the page. So dropping it and just exploring the drawing of the comic is a total blast.
HOFFMAN: You’ve done two issues of “Abstract Kirby” so far; are there any additional issues planned?
BADGER: I’m finishing up issue three now. It’s three stories where I’m beginning to think about what the structure of a story is within the visual dialog and images relationships over the time of reading the drawings. “Abstract Kirby” is just part of my life now, I work on them ten minutes a day every day; it’s just part of my daily work. I’ve got them scheduled in until the day I die. If I won the lottery I would happily go off and play in abstract comics probably fifty percent of the time I drew.
HOFFMAN: Your adaptation of “Julius Caesar” is – to me – some of the best work you’ve produced. Why Caesar?
BADGER: Thanks for the compliment.
I heard Michael Parenti talking about his book the death of Caesar on the radio, his research into the past covered some of the bias and history we don’t often get. There was always tension between the Senate in Rome with the main populace. Their “democracy” was more like what we have today with the Senate representing the 1% and they’re being upset with Caesar was more about his taxing them and redistributing their land; the parallels were a little too close to today not to be frightening.
I think we’ve seen the same kind of rhetoric of portraying Obama as a tyrant today for providing health care. So that intrigued me, when I read the book I thought it would be neat to work through the play, integrate the 2012 campaign in some way and make this “my masterpiece.” After six months or so I realized that was nuts and I needed to just do it with my current skills and set it as the foundation of my work from now on.
So I pulled back and just said draw the thing and see where you end up. I think I’ve built a set of work habits finally that I can do work that isn’t just for the money. The habits replace the discipline of doing a comic for the check. So the reward now is doing a good comic.
All the time I’ve been working on how to teach and develop skills in other I’m now applying to myself. It’s a little more challenging then satisfying an editor. Editors are happy with getting work. I’ve got to be satisfied enough with the work to go on to the next page. That of course has to be balanced with going on to the next page because I’ll be stuck in Rome for the rest of my life if I don’t.
The last work you do should be the best work you do, I would hope.
Be sure to check out his most recent projects here: