Dutch artist Minck Oosterveer is half the team (along with Mark Waid) on the critically-acclaimed The Unknown. In this interview he takes the time to talk to Charles Webb about working on The Unknown, his influences, and some misconceptions about European comic fandom.
CW: First, could you tell our readers a little about your previous work? You’ve been doing comics work in Europe for a while now, right?
MO: For about 25 years now. Of course it wasn’t easy in the beginning, just like for any starting artist. Most of the work I did in the early days was for a Dutch studio — licensed art for mugs and jigsaw puzzles etc…. from Tom and Jerry to Spider-man. And advertising comics.
I had a brief career as a computer-graphics artist for a game company in the late eighties but when the company went broke I tried again in comics and suddenly I found myself working for one of the major comic companies in Europe, the Franco-Belgian Les Editions Lombard. I was making comics about a policewoman named Claudia Brücken (yes, the writer named her after the lead singer of Propaganda) for Tintin Magazine together with the the Dutch writer I who I worked with for most of my career, Willem Ritstier. The stories where later published as typical European books.
“Typical” European comics were based on two fundaments in those days: “prepublication” in “to be continued” [cliffhanger] form in comic-magazines and publication of the full story in comic books after the prepublication had stopped. The weekly and monthly magazines were in fact the comics of Europe, and comic-creators earned their money by publishing in those magazines. But in the nineties this system of magazines collapsed.
I had always been fascinated by daily comic strips in newspapers and Willem Ritstier and I were able to smoothly transition to them. From that moment on was strictly daily adventure comics, two of them being the ones I’m best known for : Zodiak, a fantasy comic, and Nicky Saxx, a detective comic and more or less the predecessor of The Unknown.
Besides that I did some other comic art, merely one shots, of which the most important is a comic called Trunk which was meant to be a series but again was cut of by the disappearance of a magazine in which it was prepublished in. I’m still working on it sometimes when I have some spare time. We wanted it to be a sort of mixture between European and American comics.
CW: Who were some of your influences as you started developing your style? Do you look to other inspirations when you’re working on individual projects?
MO: I grew up with newspapers in the house everywhere. My father was a sailor, a ship’s captain sailing all over the world. When he was at home in our tiny little European country he was sort of homesick but the other way around. In those days the Netherlands formed a pretty closed culture and society and he missed the world. He had this need to taste as much as possible about this world by reading a lot of newspapers every day — and in the newspapers were the dailies comics. And with my dad coming home came the real adventure stories as well. You can’t imagine the experiences of a world traveling sailor when you’re not one of them or grow up with one of them. So, in my youth I got a whole lot of real adventure and newspaper daily adventures.
The artists of the great newspaper comics: Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Harold Foster, Will Eisner, Alex Toth, Frank Robbins, John Holdaway — you name them. Also the Dutch grandmasters of daily comics: Hans G. Kresse, Piet Wijn and Alfred Mazure were my first major influences from the moment I learned about comics. I absorbed just about everything I could find about comic art from all over the world. Newspaper comics, European comics, American comics, magazines…whatever. There is one thing that characterizes all the comic art that influenced me: a strong feeling for black and white and lighting.
Modern influences come from artists like Mike Mignola, Tim Sale and Frank Miller. I think those influences became more important when I was working on the Zodiak dailies.
Photography was also an influence, in which I have, of course, a taste for strong black and white press-like photos. Then there are movies, in which I have a special interest in cinematographic storytelling, lighting and visual appearance. The funny thing is I often don’t remember titles of movies or the names of the actors. I remember films by their storytelling, lighting, and visuals. And art… I like all kinds of art, old and modern but as an influence the old Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer with their unique knowledge of composition and lighting are important to me.
CW: What’s been your visual approach with The Unknown?
MO: When I first got the pitch from Mark Waid it sort of gave me a strong impression of something that could be a Spirit story by Will Eisner. When I got the script, this feeling grew bigger. I can’t explain why… I read it and thought: The Spirit. Not because of the leading characters. Just the story.
I wanted to give it some Eisnerian feeling. The blacks, the light and the shadows. The importance of surroundings, buildings, stairs and alleys in the composition of the pages. The moody feeling the Spirit-stories stories give me. Big guys, too big for their sloppy suits. And dangerous women, drawn slightly cartoony. I also wanted some of the influences the art of Tim Sale in it but those influences are basically the same as the influences of Eisner’s art had on mine.
I also wanted to experiment with the American way of panel layout and what I can do with it in visual storytelling. In European comics and dailies, panel layout is very strict and straightforward. But American panel layouts are more flexible and give you so much more the possibility to use them for the storytelling. There is also a danger in it. When it gets out of control it looks disorderly.
CW: Catherine (the lead character in the story) seems kind of like a dressed-down, practical character. How did you approach her design each issue?
MO: Yes she is. At first I didn’t design her that way to avoid a likeness with the Nicky Saxx character from the Nicky Saxx dailies who looks actually a lot like Cat but with long extremely straight hair and is the same type of character. I [originally] designed a completely different girl, a kind of clubbing girl on high heels. Just to avoid the likeness with the character I’m most known for over here. But of course that’s no good reason to design a character different. My editor, Matt Gagnon, brought me back to reason.
We needed a sexy woman, early thirties, a little bit eccentric and a world traveling adventurer, contrasting with her blond all-American assistant, somewhere in his twenties. He had the little bit of the exaggerated appearance of an American Football player in full uniform and was a former bouncer. Best to make Cat a bit small with dark hair, short haircut, easy, practical and a bit of a sloppy dresser, like she actually doesn’t care what to put on. Definitely n
o high heels but sturdy mountain shoes. And she needed something that made her a bit awkward. Something physical that’s a sort of Talisman or fetish or relic. Something she always wears because, although she is an extremely rational woman, she sort of believes it brings her luck. Something like the hat of Indiana Jones. I suddenly remembered Tom Baker in his role as the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who was always wearing a scarf. So I gave Catherine a red scarf as an ode to my favorite Doctor.
CW: What’s the collaborative process like with Mark on each issue? How much does he leave up to you and how much of what ends up on the page starts out in the script?
MO: Basically he writes a full script, mails it to me, I send my comments on it by E-mail to him, he agrees or disagrees and I start drawing. “Basically” because it wouldn’t be fair to Mark to leave it like this. This is NOT a “writer writes a story and the artist is hired to draw the art and keeps his mouth shut”-type situation, not at all.
First of all, although Mark writes a full script, he leaves it entirely free to me what to do with it, how to interpret his words, how to do the panel-lay out, the composition, what to draw inside the panels etc. — if I want to change the breakdown, no problem as long as it doesn’t affect the story. He even sometimes leaves the entire breakdown to me. In fact, I can do what I want in total freedom as long as it doesn’t change the story and even then I could do that as long as I do it after consulting with him. From the beginning he made it clear we were doing this with equal collaboration. It’s as much mine as it is his. There is an absolute mutual respect and interest for each other.
So, the script comes over the mail and the first thing we do after I’ve read it is contact each other about what I think of it. I make remarks, he does his remarks, we let thoughts go about details etc. This really is a full collaboration. This all happens by e-mail. For me that’s easier to be able to fully understand what he says, and probably for him too because I ‘m sure I can make some pretty crappy sentences in English. I’ve several English, and other foreign friends I have to speak English to, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t understand Dutch. But when I’m working (or doing an interview) I want to be able to understand everything fully in English. In that case reading and writing goes better. I can take my time translating what is said, in conversation you have to do the translating while talking and listening at the same time.
Much of what Mark writes ends up on the pages. It’s easy because Mark is an excellent writer, writing everything down in clear straight to the point sentences, writing great, intelligent and often witty dialogues. Reading his script alone already is a delight. But the drawings are all mine. It’s the way I take it from the script and spread it all over the paper (we Europeans work mostly on heavy weight paper instead of comic board) like I wanted it.
CW: I noticed from some of your earlier work that you gravitate towards the pulps – is that a favorite genre for you?
MO: I think adventure is my favorite genre. And adventure has a tendency to be pulpy. The first comic I read in my life was Flash Gordon, the dailies done by Berry and later on the original Sundays from its creator Alex Raymond and I loved it. From that moment on I had a crush for pulpy adventure. Didn’t mind if it was comics or books, I started to eat adventure. From Flash Gordon to Jules Verne, stuff similar to Flash Gordon in Europe like Blake & Mortimer, The ten pence adventures of Buffalo Bill, John Carter of Mars, Conan but also Fafrhd and the Grey Mauser, Tarzan, Conan Doyle, Poe, Dracula, EC, Creepy, Batman, The Flash, Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit and Dutch dailies like Erik de Noorman (Erik the Viking). Aram van de Eilanden (Aram of the Isles) and the cheap little books about detective Dick Boss and much, much more.
As a kid I loved television series like Ivanhoe, Bonanza, Star Trek, Tarzan, The Saint, The Avengers, Dr. Who, The Dutch “super knight,” Floris, a television series directed by Paul Verhoeven who is of course not an American Hollywood director but a Dutchy. And also my favorite films are “pulpish” adventure, from the original King Kong, a lot of black and white oldies to Planet of the Apes, Indiana Jones, Star Wars to Sin City to Peter Jackson’s King Kong. And on and on and…
Doesn’t mean I don’t read Shakespeare, Keats or The Adventures of Kavelier and Klay or A Contract With God, I’m just very fond of reading AND drawing pulp adventure.
CW: Are European audiences pretty receptive towards pulp stories?
MO: Why not? There is not much difference in what the regular European and American audience like. Next to European productions we watch the same TV series and movies as the Americans.
In comics there is a difference because the American like a lot of spandex, muscles and masks and most Europeans don’t and there is a difference in page layout but there ain’t much difference in the kind of stories. Europeans have heroes with or without superpowers as well and damsels in distress that need to be rescued, and fantasy, spies, detectives, space travelers and all kind of adventurers and villains as well. The most important mainstream comics are just as much pulp adventure as American comics with the exception of the spandex and the secret identities. Maybe there is a tendency in European comic characters to make the heroes a bit less larger than life and to give them a bit more character and to put more realism into the stories (although In my opinion Mark Waid did give Catherine a whole lot of character next to the pulp figure I gave her). But yes, Europeans like pulp adventure as well.
There is another thing though. The European doesn’t exist. Europe is a bunch of countries which all have their own culture and where several languages belonging to different language groups (indo-Germanic, Latin, and Slavic) are spoken. There is no way you can compare a northwestern Dutchman to a Southern Italian or a Frenchman and Dutchies and Germans may be neighbors, but their culture are very different. Germans are thorough and straight whereas the Dutch are called “the rebels of Europe”. Different parts of Europe have different tastes in comics. The English regions like American comics most, The Latin (French speaking countries, Spain, Italy) regions like realistically-drawn adventures and literary graphic novels (France), and in Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries cartoony-style comics are best sold. German regions are less comic-minded.
CW: Who are you reading/following in the comics community now?
MO: In American comics: Mike Mignola with Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis, Tim Sale, Jason Pearson
, Jason Aaron with R.M Guéra, Ed Brubaker with Sean Phillips, Brian Wood’s Northlanders, Jordi Bernet , and many, many more I can’t remember at the moment.
In European comics: Enrico Marini with Stephen Desberg (The Scorpion) Diaz Canales with Juanjo Guarnido (BlackSad), George Bess, Christian Rossi, Serge Le Tendre, Regis Loisel, Christoffe Arleston and many, many more.
CW: Right now, what’s your dream project?
MO: Absolutely The Unknown. Or do you mean what I dream of to do but probably never will?
I always wanted to do some kind of Flash Gordon-like comic but with a modern twist to make it interesting for modern audiences. Not the way they did with the actual Flash Gordon comic at Ardden… That one is okay, I suppose, there is absolutely quality in the drawing, but not my taste. Oh… and I love this certain Lobster Johnson character.
CW: You hear that out there, Mignola?
What kind of projects can we expect from you in the future?
MO: Don’t know, I have lots of choices. The Unknown has a pretty steady growing audience and I sure would like to stay at it to let it grow as it does now. But we have to wait if it is possible to continue for several reasons I can’t talk about now… fact is I love doing this kind of American comics.
There is also the Western comic for the Dutch magazine.
There’s Don Lawrence’s Storm project, a painted comic about a space traveler and adventurer called Storm created by Englishman Don Lawrence for a Dutch/ English company. After his death, the comic has been continued by two teams of writers, pencilers and painters. I’m the penciler of the second team and nearly finished one story but at the moment there isn’t a painter with the right quality and color feeling to put it in color.
There is also a French language project about Iceland in the post-Viking time about the murder of the statesman and Edda writer Snorri Sturleson in the early 13th century and what caused this death.
… and much more.
But if possible, one of the things I would like to do most is stay on The Unknown.
CW: It seems like you have a lot on your plate. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
The first issue of the new series, The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh is on shelves right now and first trade of the series has been collected in hardcover. Issue #2 of “The Devil Made Flesh” is also set to release on 10/28.
You can also see more of Minck’s work on his site, http://www.MinckOosterveer.com.
If you liked this interview, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins