Mike Kunkel: What's the Best That Can Happen?A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Mike Kunkel has been creating some of the best all-ages comics for about fifteen years now. His Herobear and the Kid is an award-winning series that combines the life and joy of Calvin and Hobbes with Kunkel's own whimsical sense of humor and delightful layouts. He also wrote and drew the fantastic Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam for DC Comics several years ago before moving back to animation. Recently Mike has brought back Herobear for BOOM!, a company that's truly committed to all-ages comics, and the response has exceeded Mike's expectations. As you'll see below, we had a fascinating chat at Emerald City Comicon this year about creativity, dreams, kids and why Charles Schulz was one of the greatest cartoonists of all time.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Yeah when we first moved to Seattle in 1989, I worked for the old Amazing Heroes magazine that Fantagraphics used to put out. I was fresh out of college, and I was 22 or something. I loved comics, and I would have to report on it everyday and it quickly became a job because I couldn't just report about the things that I enjoyed. From then I made a vow not to work in a field where I have deep passion for. Then it becomes too much like work.
Mike Kunkel: It makes sense. I can see that.
CB: I could never work in a comic shop.
Kunkel: Well it would take away from you what you love.
CB: Yeah. Are comics a creative release for you?
Kunkel: A little bit. I'm on the other side in the sense that I worked in animation for almost 25 years. I worked for almost all the studios I love it, I love all the places and I love the people. My friend and I joke that we're broken because we've gotten the chance to work on our own stuff and enjoy that, so that way when you have to work in a studio setting and in that process, it's not as much fun because it's their sandbox and it's not that much of a fun sandbox to play in, when you can play over here in your own sandbox.
CB: Follow your own vision. You have a very specific vision with your characters.
Kunkel: Well I read a recent biography about Mr. Knotts in Ontario, California, and it's called Knott's Preserved. It's a great title. He talks about how the park started. It was very organic in that they had the restaurant and they had the farm. People would come out on Sundays and would wait in line for three hours for the chicken restaurant. And so he started to build attractions that would entertain them. And he built this crazy volcano, and a ghost town. It started like that. And eventually they were saying "You should get investors." And he said, "No. I want to know that if I want to build a volcano, I can build a volcano. And I just loved that. I love the idea that I want to do something with my characters that's over here on my side, I can do that.
CB: They've been around for how many years now? Close to 20 years I think?
Kunkel: The first year it came out was 1999, and so this is fifteen years. And I've lived in both worlds, animation and comics. I love the animation world for what it is, and I love the craft, but I'm a traditional storyteller. I love craft. But I love the world of comics because I get to meet and interact with the audience. I find people that found my book in some small comic shop in Kansas City or Germany or where, that I had nothing to do with but they found it and somehow we get to interact over that.
CB: And you get the families with kids that come up to the table, too, where the dads are passing the comics on to the children.
Kunkel: Yes. And that makes me happy. I've always loved the types of books and the stories I tell create the families which the parent and kid read together, or the teacher and kids read, or an aunt and uncle, or a grandparent or whoever, and it brings them together. So when everybody asks what ages my book is for, I really truly say all ages. It really does play for them all, hopefully.
CB: Well you're seeing that with the audience that's reading it, right?
Kunkel: Yeah, and I akin it to the old Warner Brothers cartoons. When we watched it as kids, we laughed at what they were doing. And then when we got older, we laughed what they say because we got it on our own levels. That's what I hope here is happening, that they can enjoy the pictures and when they read it, the book has a different level, a deeper meaning.
CB: That's always a pleasure. Do you find that you find that you come back to your old stuff and feel the same way?
Kunkel: I do a little bit.
CB: It's got to be hard when you see your old drawing styles.
Kunkel: It was hard. With going through BOOM! I did a couple new stories, and I hadn't done any in a few years so it was refreshing to get back to it. But then we relaunched the original series, and I wanted to at least clean it up and re-master it. But I promised jokingly I was like "I won't George Lucas it".
Anything that was drawn, I wouldn’t redraw anything, though I wanted to. I knew that if I wanted to redraw one thing, I'd have to redraw it all because there were poses and ways that I draw Tyler that are different now and I'm like, yeah I can't change that. I have to let it live that way. But I cleaned it up. I fixed the word balloons and rewrote some stuff. I said anything that was digitally done that I understand at the time. Because I stunk at Photoshop and everything else like that. I had no understanding of that then. So that stuff I it was okay with fixing because it was horrible. The rest of it is hard to look at sometimes.
CB: Do you enjoy reading your stories again?
Kunkel: I do. Because for me it puts me back to a touchstone of immersing back in. Certain parts I'll read and wow I'll remember when I was in that place. Or mentally where I was in life and how that affected that part of the story. I recently re-read the Shazam series that I did for DC and I was like "Eh, alright I kind of like this." I hadn't read it in a long time. I was afraid to go back to it.
CB: I loved that that book was coming out.
Kunkel: I had a great time. That was a dream.
CB: It was obviously a passion project. It was nice to have a book like that. Such an appropriate character for an all-ages series. Were you a fan of the originals?
Kunkel: Yes. Absolutely. That is in my top three favorite characters. Him, Spider-Man, and the third choice fights back and forth with Captain America Batman. I loved the idea of Captain Marvel. He's truly a kid wish fulfillment. You're given a magic word that can turn you into a superhero. You're giving him the most amazing thing.
CB: That's so powerful! At the age where you're like Billy Batson, it's exactly what you dream of right?
Kunkel: Oh it's total wish fulfillment. And so when I looked at it, and I told Dan Didio and Jan Jones, who were wonderful people that gave me the opportunity to do it, in my heart I said "I'm actually writing Herobear." Because Billy is Tyler, Cap is Herobear and his sister is Katie. I know this little relationship. I know that world. So that was fun because I could kind of keep myself connected to Herobear at a time I couldn't work on it the way I wanted to.
CB: You couldn't?
Kunkel: It was tied up for a number of years because at one time we had an option with Universal. I wrote a screenplay with Jeph Loeb, who's a very good friend of mine. Loved it. But Universal's age group or audience was American Pie. They wanted to age up Herobear a lot, they wanted to change a lot of things. It just didn't fit with where we wanted to go. We tried. We had fun trying, but it just didn't fit. But then it was entangled with contracts and all that, so I had to let it go for a little while.
CB: When you came back was it like seeing old friends again?
Kunkel: Yeah. I'd done little scribbles here and there, but nothing I could do officially. But to come back to it was nice. I'm even more protective of it now. I understand even more of the protectiveness that Bill Watterson brought to Calvin, which I'm honored by. I understand even more the protectiveness of it. For me it comes back to Mr. Knott. If I want to build a volcano I'm going to build a volcano. I never chased Hollywood with it. Not with that project. With other projects, like The Land of Sokmunster, we've got things going on with that. I've got my other stuff, and that's fine. Herobear is my sandbox. It's my baby.
CB: It's a little bit of what I was talking about earlier, I think, where you don't want to have your passion ruined. Hollywood can be such a grind.
Kunkel: It can, and as soon as you even open that door. I've been in meetings where an exec says—and I love this -- and someone asks "Do we need the kid?"
CB: Yeah! Yeah!
Kunkel: And it's like waitaminute…
And BOOM! has been tremendous. They've almost allowed me to treat this as if I'm at Astonishing, but it's with their support and belief. They're wonderful people.
CB: But you had been self-publishing it right?
Kunkel: Yeah. Through Astonishing. I still do that. I did a children's book just a year ago. That was my first Kickstarter. So there's that, and I just did a second one this month.
CB: I don't know how I didn't know about that.
Kunkel: That one is called The Squiggle Project. It plays with that idea of when make squiggles and then make something out of it. I play with my kids and I do stuff like that. I started to those and design them into graphical images until it has a cool almost opaque transparent parchment. It has a squiggle on it and you can determine what it's going to become on each page. It's more of an art-based book and an art series that I've been wanting to do.
CB: That sounds like it could really spark a kid.
Kunkel: Yes, and that's the thing. I want the kid to be able to see that everything starts with a single line. We can go anywhere from there. Anything that I can do that inspires kids to be creative, I want that. That's the path that I want to go on.
CB: You've pretty much always stayed in that area of comic art. Creativity in general I guess.
Kunkel: Yeah. That's the hope that when I see that kids see it and get it. Or I've taught cartooning classes for kids, and that's what I love. To see them get excited.
CB: Nothing like that spark on a kids face.
Kunkel: No, because it's pure. We know that for we get an idea about something, instantly life experience comes into play and our brain starts to check on things. "Well we don't need to do this." But with kids, that sort of thing comes to them and they go "I can do that." And it's just pure. Pure hope.
CB: I wish I still had that.
Kunkel: Yup. You gotta hold onto it. Remind yourself. I think what it is, is reminding ourselves instead of asking what's the worst that can happen, we should ask, what's the best that can happen. And that's what we used to do as kids. When we would get an idea we would be like "I'm going to put up a box and sell lemonade off the street." Okay, right?
CB: Yeah my first reaction would be "How much money am I going to make from that?"
Kunkel: Where's the right corner? Where do I want to do this?
CB: No just do it.
Kunkel: Just do it.
CB: Let your dream follow.
Kunkel: We would make our little comics when we were kids and stuff.
CB: I did that!
Kunkel: You'd hand them out or sell them to your friends, I loved it. I loved it, and you had to hope that this was real. I tell everybody now, especially being at BOOM!, is that what I love about them is that I truly love all ages. There's a genuineness about it. Some studios or some companies will say "we should have all ages books. So here's our all ages books. You guys are supposed to have all ages books. With BOOM! it matters to them. I see Garfield, which was huge as I was growing up. So when I think about my ten-year-old self imagining my books next to Peanuts and Garfield, he probably would have lost his mind.
Are you kidding me? I copied Garfield for years. It was a huge influence on me along with Peanuts and Dick Tracy. I tell everybody originally my goal originally was to be a comic strip artist. I wanted to have a newspaper strip. So I would go to the 7-Eleven by our house, I would buy the three local papers and I'd walk outside and I'd pull out all the comics and I threw away the rest of the paper. I'm go home reading that, then throw them out It was my daily laugh. I loved it.
CB: Charles Schulz's stuff is better now than I remembered it being. It's amazing what he could do with just a circle and three squiggles for hair. It's astonishing.
Kunkel: A friend of mine were talking about him and even the era of sort of the trifecta of Bloom County, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes during the 1980s and '90s is that even during that era they worked in a vacuum. There are stories about how Berke Breathed, his comic strip wasn't in the local paper where we lived. The same with Charles Schulz. Charles Schulz, for the first three years of Peanuts was at most was in fifteen papers. So there's no Internet checking of is it doing and what's next. Also when they would do a strip that was six weeks down the line. It wasn't even now. Now we can do something and post it from the Con.
CB: It's hard to even imagine that time. We both lived through it...
Kunkel: And I think that's what made them special. Now everything is so immediate gratification it's hard to make things special. I appreciate how they would work. What they did was meant to be special. Not caught up in what's everybody thinking about it, or how many likes are on it. It means nothing. It means nothing. It shouldn't affect what your work is.
CB: It's not the likes, it's how much people actually like work. How much they respond to it.
CB: That's what I like about going by the BOOM! table in particular, is that the artists are all there drawing the Adventure Time characters and the Peanuts characters and the kids are all clustered around the table.
Kunkel: There's a love for it, and they love doing it. I think that engages people to come around too.
CB: You're right about communications being so slow in previous decades. We get so used to things being immediate these days. People would send stuff off and not have any reaction; in fact, they may not have not had any reaction to it.
Kunkel: You had to love it enough. There had to be enough there with you to go "I like what I'm doing. I'm going to put it out and I'm not going to care what everyone else is going to think."
CB: The world was truly smaller then.
Kunkel: It's funny we were just talking about this the other night, when we were talking about the movie Super 8 and what I loved about it's tapping into an era. Because I'll watch some movies with my kids -- my daughter is 15 and my son is 18. So I have older kids, and my son jokingly will go, "you know if they had a cellphone this wouldn't work." and I go "I know I know I know, but this was done at a time that they didn't have that immediately. So what I think about with Super 8, what I loved about it was that it tapped into that old sense that you had to ride your bike to your friend's house. If you had to get in touch with somebody that and the phone was busy, you'd have to go, "I've been trying to get in touch with you all day."
CB: The one phone in the house.
Kunkel: The one phone in the house. My wife jokes about that. She had her parents buy the world's longest cord so she could go from one end of the house into the garage and sit in the car so she could talk to her friends.
CB: Right, whereas now as a family of five, we have six or seven cellphones.
Kunkel: Or you could have a conversation that's completely private through text. Normally you hear half of it when you were a kid because your parents would hear you talk with at least one side of the conversation and say, "What are you doing?"
CB: I think kids are the same, though.
Kunkel: They are, but their attention span is shorter. A little bit short. It's faster. There's a lot out there to "shiny key" us to different things.
CB: Yeah that's actually the thing that I find the hardest. I gotta tweet this, I gotta Facebook this, I got to put it on Tumblr, I've got to respond to this text message and post this item to wherever…
Kunkel: I think that it's going to swing wherever a lot of people are going to go "I'm not going to have to communicate with anybody." Because… I've had this conversation with my son. My son wants to be a writer. And he's doing awesome stuff, he just put out a book of poems. Some are deep, some are funny, some are like little short stories and it's on Amazon. It's doing great.
CB: How old is he?
Kunkel: He's eighteen and it just came out a month ago.
CB: Oh my god. That's fantastic.
Kunkel: Yeah he is, and I tell him. But his nature is to always wonder if it's doing as well as it could. He's used to --this generation is the one that expects an immediate response. And he's posted a couple things about it, and I've said "Look, stop. Don't think about if lonely ten people liked it. Because I'll put it in perspective and go "What's the best response you've ever gotten?" What's the most? Which is seemingly 70, which is a lot. That's 70 people. That is nice.
CB: Well and 70 people, how easy is it to like something?
Kunkel: Right, the question is whether it's really emotionally connecting with them. So I said don't let that define you. He's growing through that a little bit and it's helping, but he's caught in this timeframe of what we do is so connected to the world. I tell him to just do the work and put it out.
CB: Well and you have to do that to yourself as a creator you have to be out there, too. You have to be promoting yourself.
Kunkel: And we talk about that. My belief is what I create, and Herobear is absolutely my spearhead, is that I'm creating islands. So with each of my projects what I want to create is an island that someone can come visit and experience. Too often all we have is everybody waiting and thinking that it has to be perfect when it comes out. What I tell every creator, every up-and-coming artist that's working on stuff, "What is the best way you can present what you're doing and share it with others? How can you make what you're doing to hand to someone to share?"
That island doesn't have to be fully landscaped. You just have to make a destination for people to come find it. It's not just a web thing. It's something that people can get tactilely, share and have. And then you can do more of it. It may not be perfect. It may need more work, or whatever, but what is it you can do. That's why A.J. getting to this book was important. So now you have something on Amazon that can be shared. And you are a writer, you can be shared. He's almost sold ten copies. His goal was to sell ten copies, and he's making a little bit of royalty on each one through Amazon publishing. And he's loving that, so we'll see where it goes. It's funny.
CB: Yeah! He's got his creative outlet.
Kunkel: And that's what he loves, is that side of needing to be creative. Originally, it's funny because he wanted to be an actor but he hated it because he goes, I go in and they make me try this or do that, and at the end of the day it's their choice whether or not I fit. But if they make something, that's me. I have something that is a result of my work, rather than did I just look for a part, and so he likes it a lot better this way.
CB: You try to follow that pureness with your comics, too.
Kunkel: I used to say always say that for Herobear because I've been working on that since high school, but at time sit went through its path of wondering if I wanted to do it as a little short subject cartoon or whatever. Before I started doing books, Scott Morse is who got me and a couple of their friends to understand that we could send off our packages up to Canada, at the time it was Quebecor, where little elves made it and they would send it back to us like "Our box of books!" But understanding that, that cut off the studios. Because suddenly I said "I don't need them anymore. I can do my own stuff." And that's what I love now. That idea that if you have the concept for something that didn't exist and there's a legacy element to it. It's like what you're doing with your book about '70s comics. That is a legacy thing now. And I love that.
CB: It's hard though, too because you want to do everything exactly right. Make sure every line is in place, in your case. It's the right adverb in my case. It's difficult, but there's nothing better in a way either. You're creating your own thing, and the royalty checks come too.
Kunkel: And if it's off a little bit, and it's still okay. And you can laugh about that.
CB: Oh yeah! That's always the hardest thing to give up. I do a lot of writing for web and for that, the piece just goes up, and if I don't like it I'll move on to the next piece. But having something in a book, there's just something about that.
Kunkel: There was a special cover we did for Emerald City. It was a last minute idea that I wanted to have for here. We got it done but I realized now, printed, in Photoshop I left a layer turned off. And so there is a section that I'm customizing, so when I sign it for everybody I fix it and say "you know have an original." Luckily it's an easy fix. But I laugh at that and I go, you know, there you go.
CB: What's the phrase, don't make the perfect enemy the enemy of the good enough? We talk about that all the time in software. It's going to have bugs. You just have to accept it.
Kunkel: Yes. So the better thing is to get it out there and then you can refine, because there'll always going to be a version 2.0. There'll always be a refine. There'll always be the next thing. The point is to get it out. Too often too many people are holding stuff that I know… I see with notebooks or with ideas for something that they've had for years. I just want to tell them to just put it out, some way. Find a way to get it out there.
CB: That's one thing that's good about our modern communication systems. You can explore what you want to explore. You can create projects, see if they work or don't work, bounce them past your friends or strangers, abandon them if necessary.
Kunkel: It's a way to toss it out there.
CB: I like that. I like the experimental side of it. The fact that you can push yourself into unexpected areas and if it fails it fails. If it succeeds, you grow from it.
Kunkel: And because there's so much out there, it's okay if it didn't quite work. Because you're in your world. You're not worried about what everybody else is doing. There is so much else to distract everyone else that if it didn't quite work at least it you got out there and you learned from it and you make it better the next time.
CB: It's interesting because I'm still growing and learning at my age. I really feel like it's part of what keeps me younger and more able to relate to my kids. The worst are the people who shut themselves out to change and cut themselves off to modern things.
Kunkel: Well they're not willing to recognize that "yeah I can learn something new."
CB: I'm fascinated by the fact that comics right now are going through the greatest renaissance they've ever gone through. There's more great comics out now than it's possible to read.
Kunkel: There are a lot more available.
CB: Just BOOM!/Archaia alone have how many good books that come out every month multiplied by how many different companies. It's thrilling!
Kunkel: Yeah you walk that convention floor and you're amazed at how many things I'll find that I've never heard of before. And here's someone that's been doing it for years. I didn't even know this was out there, and they're doing this. It inspires you. Follow that path.
CB: It’s got to be a little bit daunting for a creator to see so much out there, too.
Kunkel: It is, but I love it because I get more happy when I see someone doing their own stuff. Even more so than a big studio doing something. I get excited.
It's funny, I was invited to a studio at one time to talk, to their artists about stuff, but the lecture turned into a "You should quit and do your own thing." I don't know if that went over well, but it's kind of what it turned into was... I get very excited when I see someone's personal stuff. When people come up and they're like "This is my six-page this", immediately I'll hand it back and say "will you sign it?" This is special and you don't need to let it be a hand out. That's important too. I'm excited for them
CB: My favorite shows are events like Stumptown or LAZinefest or SPX where people are really doing their own thing and on a lot of levels it's just the joy of doing your own thing in a way that really wasn't necessarily possible the same way before now. There's CCS that opened up in the last few years, for instance. Schools now are really encouraging people to create from the heart now instead of just creating commercial work. I really feel that there's a shifting of trends that is a generational thing.
Kunkel: I think so and I think people are open to more different styles. There's a lot more all-ages books. When I first came out with Herobear it was not as well-accepted to do all-ages books. It was harder to get someone's attention to do an all-ages book. For me, though, I didn't set out to do it for that reason.
This is what I'll tell you, too: if you have an idea for a story, just do it. Don't worry about your target audience or your market, just do it. Because if you don't believe it, then it isn't going to matter at the end of the day. You know, it's gotta be what you believe in. Now there's a whole bunch more and it's wonderful to see. There should be more, but there's certainly is much bigger group than there was.
CB: There's so much stuff out there like that is unique and personal than we can possibly review. I think there's more out there now than there has been. That's what I think is exciting. This continual growth of creator driven stuff – whether it's Herobear or Lunberjanes or whatever, each series is totally driven by the creators' passions.
Kunkel: Yeah and I love seeing that. When it's true like that, you can sense the creator of the book has authenticness to it, that I like. When you can tell it was manufactured, or for a certain reason, it doesn't feel the same as when there's authentic in it. That's exactly what I like. That's awesome.
CB: That's probably why your book has survived right?
Kunkel: I hope so, I hope so. Jan Jones at DC was very kind when I did Shazam. She came up with the credits in the pages – words, pictures and art, and I always thanked her for that, I was always honored by that. That's what I try to put in all my books, whatever it is. That was something I was very honored that she pulled that out said that was what it was in my work. She responded to the authenticness to it – and enjoyment of it – that I'm enjoying, too. The Halloween one that I did last year for Herobear was truly a love letter to Charles Schulz. It was my Great Pumpkin that I'd love to do as a Halloween special someday, animate myself or whatever, but there was a genuineness of loving that whole day, of enjoying that as a kid and walking around in a costume that Schulz captured perfectly and that I hope I captured as well.
CB: Thanks so much for your time, Mike!