Recently I got the opportunity to sit down with long time professional artist Mark McKenna. McKenna, a 24 year veteran of the comic book industry, has recently launched a new title in the world of children’s books – Banana Tail. It’s a great story which teaches us all a great lesson – be proud of who you are. During our talk, I got the opportunity to probe McKenna about the book along with how the comic industry has changed since he started in the business and where he wants to go with Banana Tail and his cast of friends.
A full review of Banana Tail is available here.
Alex Rodrik: What was the inspiration for Banana Tail?
Mark McKenna: My father came up with an idea for a monkey who had a banana for a tail and when he passed away in 2002 I decided that I had to do the book. So I went and I self-published 2,000 books and I sold them out in 4 months – went back printed 2,000 more books and then a publisher got in contact with me and he printed 1,500 books – it was just a trickle down effect in a way.
AR: What made you release the title now and not earlier?
MM: Well, I’ve been a comic book artist for 24 years for Marvel and DC and I felt that I needed to diversify. So I needed to do Banana Tail for one day when I’m no longer a comic book artist – when I’ll be an over the hill comic artist. I needed something to lean back on. So I did Banana Tail for that day when I’m not going to be busy anymore. It’s an investment in my future and a retirement plan from one business.
AR: Is Banana Tail going to be an ongoing series? Or is this a one shot deal?
MM: Banana Tail was created as an ongoing characterization of characters that I wanted to take into an animated world. So I really developed the characters. Banana Tail is a curious monkey. Reena is a mood color changing rhino, she’s got hot and cold temperatures…she’s emotional. Tic-Tac is a plaid zebra that lives in a plaid part of the jungle but when he comes out of that part of the jungle everyone can see him and the safety-net of the plaid jungle where no one could see him is gone…so he’s a bit timid. There are two books out right now: a Banana Tail activity book and a Banana Tail storybook. I’m also on contract to do a Banana Tail Pop-Up Book by June of next year.
AR: How’s the response been to the book so far?
MM: It’s been really positive. I haven’t really gotten any negative response, other than some Publisher’s saying that they’re not sure how it’ll work for them, but it’s all about the kids. If I get a mother to buy the book from me and I get an email or I get them to come back and say to me: “we read your book three times last night…they love it.” That’s what drives me. All I need is enough of that to keep me going. I had one woman say to me: “my daughter is allowed to read two books a night and last night she picked Banana Tail twice.” There’s nothing better than that.
AR: What’s the difference between doing comics and doing a children’s book?
MM: When I do comic book work its all deadline oriented. You usually have 3 weeks to do a 22 page book and ultimately the reward comes from getting a paycheck, seeing your name in print, and having another book in your history of comic books. When I do Banana Tail – I created the characters, I’m responsible for the overall picture of Banana Tail. The colors are all my decision. The format is all my decision. Do I put text above or below the picture? Or do I incorporate it in the artwork? Down to the cover stock is my decision; I am the jack-of-all-trades for Banana Tail. It all begins and ends with me. With comic books I am part of an assembly line, where I am one fifth of the assembly line and I only have to answer to one person, the Editor, who is at the office of either Marvel or DC. But I’ve had enough experience in comics – 24 years, 7,000 pages and 425 comics behind me – that I knew how to publish my own book.
AR: Which of the two styles do you prefer? Comics or children’s books?
MM: You know, comic books have served me very well for a long time. There aren’t a lot of guys who have done comics for a lot of years and I certainly hear from guys who had 10 years in the business and now they’re doing other jobs because the business didn’t want them anymore, or they didn’t grow, or they lost contact information and didn’t keep connected, all that had something to do with it. At this point in my life Banana Tail would be much better for me because I would have control and I wouldn’t have to worry about any down time. I much prefer doing Banana Tail now, because if I can make Banana Tail pay the bills at a full time deal I wouldn’t have to worry about comics. I’m now sort of in the twilight of my comic book career so work is not as consistent as in the early ‘90s for me when I was doing two or three books a month. Now I do one book and I might have a month off or a month and a half off, it’s just not a comfortable place to be when you have to pay bills and put kids through college.
AR: Do you enjoy the writing aspect of working on your own title or are your plans to eventually bring in writers to work the stories and you would design the art of the book?
MM: Actually that was the scariest thing for me – the writing, because I consider myself an artist first. So when I had to write it, I wrote it in rhyme. I went to bed rhyming like Dr. Seuss, I would go to bed thinking the stuff and it ate me up – it was very challenging. What’s great is that you have your own children who you can bounce things off of and when you see that blank stare in their faces you know you didn’t pull it off. I could bring writers in, but at this point in my life I feel like that’d be selling out a little bit. What I would like to do is bring a writer in to be what I call a “Creative Editor” to kind of oversee me. Instead of telling me “oh this doesn’t look right,” they’d be giving me options, “well, this might work better…” therefore I could learn from that. It’s always good when you’re a creative person to have another creative person that you can bounce your ideas off of and I don’t really have that. But I want to be able at one point to pick and choose who I work with and get name guys to work on this project. Ultimately I want it to be Mark McKenna’s Banana Tail and if I could get that done then I could bring in other people.
AR: Up until Banana Tail, what has been your favorite project?
MM: I’m a big Cosmic Heroes guy. I’d have to say out of the 425 books I have about 5 that really standout for me. One was the Parallax: Final Night one shot, where Parallax goes into the Final Night and takes on the Sun Eater. The Justice League was not on Earth so they bring Parallax in to basically save the world. I also did an X-Men Unlimited where Sabertooth actually joins the X-Men at the end of it which was a really big deal in my life. I did Justice League: World without Grown-ups where the Justice League was off on another Outer Space mission, a
nd what later became Young Justice (Kid Flash and Robin, and all those guys) save the day. But I’m more of a cosmic hero fan, a Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock kind of guy, that’s where my heart lies.
AR: Who are your biggest influences?
MM: My biggest influence would have to be Brian Bolland, who did Judge Dread in the ‘70s because the guy could carve a mean line with a brush and his stuff is so dead on precise. I always thought…if I could work with him it would be the end all for me. Another team that I was a big fan of was Mike Zeck and John Beatty especially on their Captain America/Punisher run. Their stuff was just so amazing to me and for a lot of years I tried to emulate those styles – when I got to meet those guys it was great. I’m still such a fan of their work.
AR: If you could work with anyone who would it be?
MM: Brian Bolland I’ve never worked with and I actually met him about 15 years ago. I did an issue of Animal Man for DC and Brian Bolland used to do all the covers. He was up in Boston doing a signing for The Killing Joke that had just come out – he had a line that went around the corner. I had started at DC about a year earlier and I went to the front of the line, not to get an autograph, but to say “Brian Bolland, I’m Mark McKenna, I’m a huge fan, I’m working for DC, I did an issue of Animal Man.” And the guy is what you want your idol to be. He just puts his pen down, puts his hands behind his neck and asks me if I want to go out for a drink and catch up after we were done. John Romita, Sr. is someone else that would be great to work with. He was the guy who hired me to be an art corrections guy with the Romita’s Raiders. They were an art corrections team at Marvel in the mid ‘80s. It started as three guys who worked on staff and learned how to create comics. John was like a surrogate father to me and I would love to have worked with John at some point but it never really happened.
AR: How has the industry changed since you first got involved with the business?
MM: Originally everything was done by hand and sent into the editor for approval, the writing, penciling, lettering, inking and coloring. Its assembly line and that’s still the same, except now, the lettering is not done on the actual boards anymore, at least very rarely. With the addition of the computer and FTP sites, this changed the business dramatically. Coloring is also not done by hand anymore for indication of color schemes on a page or book. Now lettering and coloring are done with Photoshop on a computer screen and if changes are needed, they’re handled much easier than having somebody white out a mistake and letter over it or recolor something on copy paper to indicate color changes. The savings on overnight couriers is dramatic as well. The companies have to be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping fees.
AR: What projects are you currently working on?
MM: My current work is all for DC Comics. I did Batgirl #5 which released on the 19th and I’ve done every odd issue of the six issue run. I’m also on Tangent: Superman’s Reign, the Justice Society of America Kingdom Come Special: Magog, in which I did the variant cover. I’m also currently working on a Faces of Evil: Deathstroke one shot which ships in January.
To get your copy of Mark McKenna’s Banana Tail, go to www.bananatail.com!