Marvin Mann: A Cross Between Sergio Leone and Looney Tunes

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks


Marvin Mann is one of my favorite cartoonists because you never know what he's going to do. After creating three complex historical and mythological based graphic novels, Marv took a left turn into wacky craziness with a hysterical Western comic and several shorter pieces. I had a great time hanging out with Marv last year at SDCC, where we conducted this interview,

[Marvin began the interview by giving us a rundown of his most recent work.]

Marvin Mann: I have four books out from Archaia.

The first one was The Lone and Level Sands. This was part of Archaia's initial expansion, when Mouse Guard and Robotika were added to the line along with Artesia. The Lone and Level Sands was there as well. It was nominated for three Harveys, won the Day Prize at SPACE. It's more of a literary kind of book.

It's a retelling of the Exodus story from the perspective of the Pharaoh. I like to say that we thought he got bad press. The writer, A. David Lewis, is really strong at family drama and interpersonal relationships, and that's kind of the reading you get here. This is the Pharaoh who's trying to love his family and run his country. He's dealing with problems with the Hittites to the north, construction delays to the south, and all of a sudden this crazy old peasant of his comes out of the desert after 40 years and starts making demands.

Marvin Mann Interview 1

We had a lot of fun with that and got a nice response to it.

We came back with a second book that we handled a little bit differently. We're still within mythological things and historical kinds of themes. This is Some New Kind of Slaughter, which is a collection of flood myths interwoven into a kind of loose-limbed storyline. With Some New Kind of Slaughter we actually co-wrote it. David was doing his research for his doctoral dissertation in literature, so we worked on it in a more integrated kind of way.

Much of what he focused on was the Noah story. As you'd expect, that was in there. It's about 40% of it. And, again, what you get is something that has a lot of family drama to it. Noah is good to his sons, some of whom believe in him, some of whom question what he's saying. And so this becomes a meditation and this runs through much of the book. The themes of the book are meditations on faith and doubt, certainty and trusting. This is something you'll see in The Lone and Level Sands, too. It's a regular theme.

Marvin Mann Interview

But there are other myths in there, too. We use a dedication from the myth of Gilgamesh as kind of a clue character. It's the mainline, he's been awake on his ark for seven days, he's hallucinating, he sees other floods, other myths, other realities.  We have an environmental contemporary story that we made up, about a woman environmentalist who heads into a flood zone looking for her lost daughter in a strange country. And we took a couple of Chinese myths and wove them together as some thoughts on duty and obligation. And then another dozen or so myths -- from South America, Africa, from all around the world -- that drop in and out.  They connect thematically and conceptually.

It's something of an experimental structure and a loose jointed kind of narrative thread. But the stories themselves are pretty direct and straightforward, and I used some slightly different drawing techniques for the different stories and color palettes to help keep people posted as to where they were. And it's actually a fairly brisk read. I remember looking at it all on my computer once, several months after I finished it, and reading through it again. I was kind of surprised by how quickly it went. You don't see that when you're right in the middle of it.

The third book that came out was Inanna's Tears with Rob Vollmer, another writer. Rob also has a very strong intellectual interest in ancient history -- in this case, Sumeria. It [doesn't have] quite the mythological connotations, but we do have a preface in the Temple of Inanna as he's elevated to the role of high priest.  So Rob described it as a political tragedy. She has personal issues, political issues that come as a result of this, and it's more of a powerful, direct story. Steve Christy [editor at Archaia] said it was one of his favorites of the books I've done.

Marvin Mann Interview

The first three books have similar readerships. They're literary books, literary comics with historical, religious, mythological themes. The next book is completely different. It's a buddy comedy about a dead cowboy and an eight-year-old going after the bad guys. It's called The Grave Doug Freshley. Josh Hechinger, who wrote this, described it as a cross between Sergio Leone and Looney Tunes. And it really is. He's got a really gentle, easy-going sense of humor to him, but he references some of these great old movies.

I came up with the name of the character when I was doing character sketches for an ad, sent that to Josh, who had something else in mind. I won't tell you what it was, [but] it was awful. He came back with the title, and as soon as I heard the title I thought "this is perfect. We gotta do this book." And so we got it out. Doug has been a ranch hand on the McNally ranch and he's helping to watch out for a rambunctious eight-year-old, Bat McNally. The rotten old Delancey gang comes along and they kill Ma and they kill Pa, and they kill Doug too. A bullet hole right in the middle of the forehead with a nasty old exit wound.

Marvin Mann Interview

But he's a cowboy. He promised Ma that he'd look out for Bat, and a cowboy is good to his word. Nothing would stop him. He gets back up , he rescues young Bat from the fire, and they take off on the trail of the Delanceys to wreak their vengeance. But Doug has another problem too. Because he has cheated death, and death's not happy about that. So he is on a collision course with the deadliest gun in the west, the Grim Reaper. I've decided the Grim Reaper is kind of a cross between the Man With No Name and Wild Bill Hickock. He had long flowing locks and the big moustacios. And a dark deadly glint in his eyes.

Archaia's done a great job with it. It's got the feel of an old dime novel to it. You can see that in the design elements to it.

Jason Sacks: You've done three really ambitious graphic novels, and now you've let your hair down, so to speak.

Mann: A little bit. It's fun and I really want to do more of that. I kind of get sidetracked at times. I like the historical stuff and I like mythology. They're great fun to do. They were ambitious. I'd say they're more literary kinds of books. But it's also fun to turn around and do something that's cowboys or spaceships or crime or some of that kind of stuff. A lot of the recent shorter projects I've done have been within the crime genre.

Sacks: Do you exercise a different set of creative muscles when you do these different styles of books?

Mann: Most of them are written by other people. But I have some writing. As an artist, my style shifts a little bit. Dave Lewis's wife was looking at something that I had done and she asked, "Is that Marv?" He said, "yeah, yeah."  And she said, "It's a bit different but I still recognize it. Your style changes a bit in it, but it still remains you. You can still see you in it." That was really helpful for Some New Kind of Slaughter, because we had a lot of different kinds of stories and they do interconnect, so you could get lost. It was very important to keep them visually distinct to some degree and yet look like they came from the same hand.

I have a kind of strange approach to them. I will pencil first, sometimes really loosely. And sometimes I'll ink the line art first and then add the blacks and sometimes I'll add the blacks first. It kind of just depends on my mood, the way I approach it and what I feel like doing first.

I simplified it a little bit, made it a little bit more cartoonish for Some New Kind of Slaughter, but then The Grave Doug Freshley called for more shadows and a more of a gritty kind of feel. So there's a little bit of a change of approach.

I did The Lone and Level Sands first, but the next three books I did in, like, a year and a half. I did 400 pages of comics, almost, in a burst. As I got going, Doug was the last one. In some respects, things I learned doing the others paid off for me there. It became a little quicker and easier to do. I was in a groove by then.

We're really excited about the new book. I think it's just fun. They're all real interesting in their own way, for me at least. This has gotten very good response from other people.

Marvin Mann Interview

Sacks: I love that Josh Hechinger was, like, 18 when he came up with the idea of this book.

Mann: Yeah, actually, he was in high school when he first started with the idea, and was about 19, I think, when we wrote it. He's a little older than that now. He did it a few years ago. He really challenged me. He's big in pop culture and a natural storyteller who channels his stuff, just pushes it out. We've done a number of other projects since then, and, in fact, that's what I'll be drawing next, a short thing for Longbox. A science fiction story, in this case, that's what he's been working on.

Sacks: Anything else you'd like us to know about you or your work?

Mann: [I'm] looking forward to doing more writing myself in the future. I have a few projects on the back burner and some more stuff I'm looking at. I think you'll be seeing more writing out of me in the future. Maybe a little different style in the future. I may switch things up. I still have the energy to keep rolling on them.

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