Mark Kalesniko is a legend in the indie comic world. With his books Mail Order Bride, S.O.S, and the recently released and critically acclaimed Freeway. Mark continues to put out some of the best graphic novels on shelves. Mark has worked almost exclusively with indie publishing house Fantagraphics throughout his entire graphic novel career. I was able to talk to Mark about his successful career and he was able to offer some great advice as both a writer and artist. We cannot thank Mark enough for his wonderful insight and thoughtful conversation.
Your first published work was Adolf Hears a Who, with Fantagraphics, how did you go about getting that comic published?
First of all I actually just completed a story, I didn’t even worry about looking for a publishing house or anything. I had this idea in my head so I just created it. I just started sending it to different publishing houses, and had the good fortune that Fantagraphics took it. Basically they just liked it, I had good fortune and they liked it.
Did you have Fantagraphics specifically in mind for a pitch or did you just them a copy of the finished book?
They way I work is I just finish a project and I don’t worry about whether it’s good or bad, I just like to finish a project. I like to finish projects for myself, so I like doing what I want to do. So when I finish I just send it to whomever I think will like it and if they don’t bite then I will send it to some body else.
Does your experience as a animation lay out artist tie in with your experience working in comics?
I think it does, the one thing with animation is that it is film, it’s a beautiful mix of film and drawing and I think it’s the same with comics, there’s an idea of action and an idea of a motion of story telling and putting your points across to make sure it’s easily read. I think that animation is almost a sister to comics. Animation is very valuable and of course in layout, which is doing the backgrounds for animation, has been very useful for me. I like doing comics, as you saw in Freeway, I like doing some comics with detail, I like to go in and show people a world and paint it and draw it. With Freeway I can take you to downtown Los Angeles and really give you a tour.
Has that experience as an animation layout artist defined your paneling as a comic artist?
Oh yes absolutely, as my books have progressed I really like to put in large elaborate drawings to help tell the story and also to add beauty. My inspiration going further back, as a kid I really loved the Dennis the Menace comics especially the comic books where he went some place. These were beautifully illustrated, and what I got from these as a kid was I could read them over and over again and feel like I was going to Hollywood or Washington or Mexico City. With Freeway and even Mail Order Bride I wanted to give you something were it’s not a crude drawing but give you a layout so you really feel like your there. There is also a joy with that kind of work were you can come back to it over and over again and always find something new.
What made you want to get into comics, going from animation to comics, what made you want to make that jump?
Basically I wanted to do something for myself, with animation you are working with a lot of people and you are put into a category. Like I said I was a layout man, in comic books I get to do what I want, I get to act it, I get to write it, I get to do the layouts, I like to do what I want. I wanted to get into comics to tell my story, that was the main goal for getting into comics was I wanted to tell my tales, and I wanted to do it my way, I didn’t want to pitch a project to a studio or an animation studio. The beauty of the comic book is it’s just me, I get to what I want with it.
So on more of a technical note, how is your process for creating comics as opposed to animation.
What’s funny is I am actually working on an animation desk, basically there is some similarities but of course I am not using animation paper, I am using Strathmore board which is really nice board for doing my pages. And were I use the light board is for tracings with thinner Strathmore. And of course with the computer I am using Photoshop, especially with Freeway it was necessary because there were so many different places and characters and cars. A lot of the things I would have to repeat and sometimes I would do things on smaller panels and blow them up or cut them in. So I would work on my desk then using the light board I would trace it on and apply the ink using a thinner form of Strathmore paper, then scan it into my computer and build the page using Photoshop. This was the first time I used Photoshop was with Freeway because it was so complicated, once I got a computer and started playing with Photoshop I could see the possibilities.
At any point did you consider working with another publisher other than Fantagraphics?
Basically it has been Fantagraphics; Fantagraphics has been great for me. They embrace all my ideas. Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, and Eric Reynolds are all just excellent. Gary is a great editor, he likes things to be smart and not dumbed down. For instance in Mail Order Bride I had sequences that were flashbacks and basically he read it and said that we didn’t need it and people will remember things. So he likes things smarter that’s really great. Fantagraphics has been just wonderful, they like my stuff, I don’t ever pitch anything I am going to do in the future, I just go ahead and work on it and when I am finished I hand it to them. With Freeway I was almost finished before I sent it to them and they hadn’t even looked at it once previously. I have complete freedom at Fantagraphics.
For someone just starting out, would you recommend that process of having a book almost finished before presenting it to a publisher or would you recommend they have a layout of the book before presenting it to a publisher?
When I first started getting published it was twenty years ago and things have changed, but what I have picked up at Fantagraphics is they got a kick out of having a finished book presented to them. I don’t recommend having an enormous book finished but maybe a shorter book like seventy pages, even S.O.S was very small. I felt with doing a book like that, they were impressed by that, it showed that you are already disciplined and committed and you are showing your work right off the bat and that you know what you are doing. Starting out they don’t know how professional or committed you are, but with showing them a completed book they can see that you are ready to go and sometimes that will help open a door. I myself would recommend at least when your just starting out if you have the passion and you love doing comics saying what the hell and going for it. Even if they don’t like it you will still have a great portfolio piece to show to comic book places and it shows your work ethic.
With Freeway you said you already had a lot completed, but did you have a pitch ready for Fantagraphics when you presented it to them?
Nope. I just handed it to them, I had a rough layout of all the chapters done, they knew it was coming but they didn’t ask to see a first draft or first chapter. They were great about it.
Have you considered working with any writers or artists in the future?
I will say this, I’ll never say never I would be willing to work with another writer or artist in the future. My comics are very personal and often have experiences from my life, not saying that they are autobiographical but they are more personal works. But I would not say no, I would be willing to work with a great writer or another artist.
As an artist and writer how would you recommend an aspiring writer to approach an artist to have them work on their project?
To be honest because I have never had anyone approach me and I have never went out and looked for someone I don’t know what to tell a writer. The only thing I would say is, I was talking to someone who wanted to do a children’s book and looking for illustrators. The only thing I would say is go to your local art school and find illustrators there, they would be willing to work for less and have a great portfolio piece. As for pitching an idea, if your story is really interesting and you have an artist you would really like I would say do like a Hollywood screen writer and present a really great pitch.
Did you find that networking in the comic industry to be an important function of getting your worked published?
Actually I just sent in cold, it was amazing I didn’t know anyone in Fantagraphics. Again that was twenty years ago so I don’t know how it is now but I just packaged it up in a envelope and sent it over. They responded positively so I did it the old fashion way just sending it cold, with a cover letter and that’s about it.
Do you have any last advice for both aspiring writers and artists?
The best kind of advice that I can give is to write from yourself don’t look at what’s hip all fads will change. Write what you know and imagine what you know, your own life and your own stories are the most interesting. Work from what you know and just do it, even if your worried that it won’t work through a cold call or that no one will look at your story just write it anyways for yourself. If you have that time just keep working on that story and do it your way, nothing is guaranteed but at least your product will be out there, who knows somebody might knock.
Thanks again to Mark for taking the time to speak with us. Below you can find his blog as well as links to purchase some of his amazing graphic novels. If you haven’t read anything by Mark Kalesniko you are seriously missing out.