Hey Strange Kids, Comics! An Interview With Rob Kelly
Comic books… the ink riddled pages that us Strange Kids can never get enough of. Whether you yearn to see the brightly colored tights of superheroes or perhaps some of the more dark and gritty fare, there’s no denying that we have a love affair for all the things stenciled and paneled. Our guest today is someone who is quite familiar with that love. Rob Kelly has been voraciously reading comics since he was a little tot and his immense passion for the medium has evolved into a devotion that continues to this day, one that can’t help but warm your heart like a fresh batch of Kryptonium.
In addition to being a highly talented and accomplished graphic artist (check out his great work at www.namtab.com), Rob continues to make his mark by showcasing his fascination with comics through such awesome sites as The Aquaman Shrine, a dedication to the beloved hero of the ocean; Treasury Comics, a gallery of the beautiful 10×13″ wonders of yore; and, perhaps most famously, Hey Kids, Comics!, a suppository of vintage photos and written experiences from a great number of fans who wax nostalgic on the days of their youth spent thumbing through countless issues of four-color glory. It was a great pleasure to get the chance to talk to Rob about his artistic escapades and below you’ll find our interview (A Complete 64-Page Adventure Epic!). Read on, clubhouse members!
Welcome to the chopping block, er, I mean the Clubhouse! So tell us… no matter how old we may get, how refined our tastes may become, and how fancy our mustaches may grow, why do people still love comic books?
Oh, I don’t have any great new insights into this–surely its a combo of nostalgia, either for the form itself or the characters, and an appreciation of the medium itself. Despite movies and TV encroaching more and more on comics’ territory, there are still some things that can best be conveyed via the comic book, and luckily there are still enough people who appreciate that.
Also, I think in some respects, now that there really aren’t “B” movies anymore–quickie little programmers like they had in the 40s, 50s, and 60s–comic books have taken over that arena. There are so many genre comics nowadays that, if they were made into a movie, would cost $150 million dollars and be hyped into the stratosphere. But someone with an idea and passion for whatever–vampires, space explorers, two-bit crooks, etc.–can create a comic book for fairly low cost and put it out there.
How exactly was your personal passion for comic books ignited?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read comics–they were always around. It must have started with me, since none of my siblings read them, so its not like they were already in the house. But I don’t remember the first time I ever saw one. I remember watching the Super Friends when I was just five or six, and having Mego dolls, so I’m sure comics were the third leg of that stool.
Did your mission to become an artist stem from reading comics or has it been a lifelong dream of yours?
One of my earliest memories is watching TV–Channel 48 had a particularly awesome block of programming in the afternoons–and drawing superheroes on notebook paper. Then I would place the sheet on the floor, lining it up next to the previous one, eventually filling half the floor per day with drawings. Comics were a huge inspiration towards my goal of being an artist, and I’m sure wanting to replicate the characters I saw in them was a huge boon to that desire.
Your work seems to be heavily influenced by pop culture. Is there a particular reason why you tend more towards this branch of visual art rather than more abstract, wackadoodle subjects?
I’ve always been drawn to commercial art rather than fine art–its not that I can’t appreciate the latter, but I’d rather look at a book of, say, Reynold Brown or Saul Bass movie posters than a book of paintings. (I still consider the movie poster for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms the greatest piece of art from the 20th Century) . I think I enjoy the challenge of making something that’s a beautiful, compelling image fit into a predisposed commercial application–and the ones who do it the best are the people I consider true artist geniuses.
As for my own work, I guess like any artist, my work reflects what I find interesting or worth talking about. Unlike a lot of artists, I don’t have some deep well of pain to draw from, some Big Statement I’m dying to make, so that naturally leads me down a more pop culture-y path. Plus, I want to be able to pay the bills.
Have there been any masters of the ink pens whose work has inspired your own?
I assume you mean comic book artists–if so, oh yeah, tons. All the big names from comics when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s: Neal Adams, Gil Kane, George Perez, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Jim Aparo, Ramona Fradon, Marshall Rogers, Dick Giordano, Brian Bolland, etc. They all created work that I could stare out endlessly, and I’m sure that helped spur me on.
Since comics have been such a major force in your life, is there a particular reason why you gravitated towards becoming a graphic illustrator rather than an out-and-out panel Picasso?
I went to the Joe Kubert School to learn to be a comic book artist, thinking that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And at the time, that was really THE place to learn that particular craft. But not long after I got there, I realized two things: 1) Skill-wise, I was light years behind some, if not many, of my classmates. I remember moving in to the creaky, dirty shack known as The Clinton House and seeing my new roommate Sean Tiffany’s work (www.seantiffany.com) and becoming terrified–this guy was doing stuff so far ahead of me I was floored. And seeing others’ work in class just made it worse.
Of course, I could have worked hard to overcome that if I had really wanted to–but by the end of the first year, it dawned on me that I didn’t really like drawing comic pages. I liked laying out the story, pacing it, picking the shots, but the actual drawing left me bored. In my mind, once I had laid out the story in my head, the rest was pure drudgery. This was not the attitude to have if you were planning on a career in comic books.
Also, I noticed that I really got into the handful of classes that weren’t comic book oriented–the ones focusing on color and design, while most of my classmates were just the opposite. So about halfway through second year I really stopped trying to be a “comic book artist” and instead worked on finding my own style of art that appealed to me. It took a while–several years.
I messed around with different styles, settling on collage for a bit, even landing some work with it. But I soon grew bored of that, too, and chafed at its limitations, so I kept searching until I landed on this weird abstract-yet-photo-real-type thing. I liked my first couple of experiments with it, and before too long I had found “my” style.
Two part question. First part: what have you found to be some of the most difficult challenges in breaking out in the art world? Part two: can those challenges be killed with a sword?
I was the last generation that didn’t grow up with computers the way everyone has since. So when I was first trying to land work, it meant sending stuff via the mail and actually hitting the streets, portfolio in hand–an expensive, tiring, and not all that effective way of doing it. The challenges are what you would expect–getting noticed, then finding someone willing to take a chance on someone new. It took me years to get anyone to bite.
Luckily, I was open to this new thing called The Internet, and after some bumps along the way I started putting my work out there that way, and it was really a world of difference. I put my work up on a pro art site called the iSpot, and within my first month I got a job doing something for The Grammy Awards, which blew my mind. I realized this was the way to go.
The other, less tangible challenge, is simply having the dedication to keep trying, no matter what. I’ve met a number of people in their 20s who told me they wanted to be an artist but found it too tough to get work, so they gave up on it. I would think, “Wow, you’re 25 and you’re already throwing in the towel?” That seemed crazy to me, but you have to want to do it so bad that nothing will stop you.
I had an art agent once tell me my work had “no commercial potential”–and even though I’m a fairly sensitive guy, I remember not for a moment considering that what she said was right. I sort of shrugged, thought “You’re wrong” and kept going. Some days I wish I had kept her address, so I could send her my tearsheets from the NBA, Margaret Cho, ESPN, Popular Science, Forbes, The Grammy Awards, Time Out New York, Harper Collins, and other stuff along with one of those little gag bags that laughs when you jostle it.
Get your super-powered cape on! Has there ever been an epic battle between hero and villain that you always wanted to see but was never fulfilled in the comics?
This isn’t exactly the right answer to this question, but I still long for the day DC and Marvel would get together and do a “Superman Vs. The Hulk” treasury-sized comic. I know Steve Rude did one in the 90s I think, which was great, but a battle that epic needs to be BIG BIG BIG! Regular-size comic ain’t gonna cut it.
In the Marvel tradition, another “What If?” question is coming at ya. If you had the ability to draw for any comic book in the world, old or new, thriving or defunct, what would it be and why? Yes, you can name more than one if it tickles your fancy!
Well, this answer must come from a world where I have the skills to draw a comic book, which I don’t. But if I did, drawing either my all-time favorite hero Aquaman or a classic JLA story would be the thing I would have loved to do. I have every single issue of the original JLA comic–all 261 one of them–and that’s what I think of when I think of “comics”, so I guess in the same What If? world where Conan wandered the streets of New York, I’m drawing Justice League of America. (Similar to my feelings about the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms poster, I firmly believe Justice League of America #200 is the Greatest Piece of Literature produced by Western Civilization).
Looks like you also have a taste for terror and are a fan of the horror genre (as if the whole superhero-lovin’ thing wasn’t cool enough). Be they films, books, or other works of art, what are some of your favorite pieces from the Dark Side?
I grew up watching Abbott & Costello movies (and I still do)–and I think they were my introduction to the classic movie monsters. And all my life, they were part of the mix: Superman, Batman, Aquaman, The Hulk, Thor, Dracula, Frankenstein–they’re all part of the same big mix in my head.
I love the classic monster movies–Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Creature From the Black Lagoon, etc.–and I loved the old Warren mags that were just a touch too adult for me, which of course made them awesome. Like the DC and Marvel universes, there was so much to explore once you started getting into it–“Wow, there are seven Frankenstein movies?!?”
How did the creation of Hey Kids, Comics! come about?
Around 2006-2008, I went on a tear creating blogs: I had so fallen in love with this new way of expressing myself that every time I had an idea, BANG!–I went and created a blog about it. Some of them, like The Aquaman Shrine, really took off and are still going to this day. Others just didn’t work as well, so they petered out.
Hey Kids, Comics! was kind of a new idea, where the content would be provided by others–I knew I had a bunch of cool, funny stories about collecting comics, and I bet others did, too. After a couple of years of seeing the quality of stories I was getting, I thought it would make a really good book, so the blog sort of morphed into the book, which is one of the things I’ve been spending a lot of time on.
I see you’ve even gone so far as to gather a Justice League-size of contributors for a Hey Kids, Comics! compendium set to go to the printers. What has that experience been like and are there any Super Developments that you can tell our readers about?
Putting the book together has a been a lot of fun, if a little scary at times. I’ve approached people I’ve never talked to before, knowing only that they love comics. Many people have politely said no, but many have said yes and that’s blown me away, the generosity of it. Some of the people involved are comic writers whose work I grew up with–Paul Kupperberg, J.M. DeMatteis, Steve Skeates, Steve Englehart for example–and having something from them in a project of mine is simply amazing to me, how lucky I am!
The only downside to this project at all has been trying to find a publisher–I don’t have a lot of contacts in that world, and in may ways it feels like I’m back in New York, wandering around with my portfolio under my arm, only having doors slammed in my face. But, like I did with my art, I’m not giving up–I have most of the book’s essays on hand, and they’re amazing (I can say that, because I didn’t write any of them!). The stuff is too good not to see the light of day, so I just have to find a publisher who thinks the same way.
One last question before Doodling Hour begins! Do you dare divulge to us what the strangest thing you did as a kid was?
Maybe my parents are the ones to answer that, but I don’t think I ever did anything that odd—while I did prefer to be inside reading comics or drawing, it wasn’t like I was a shut-in: I played outside, had friends, all that stuff.
When we moved into our new house in 1979, I did change the space under the stairs to the basement into my personal Batmobile. Those crayon scrawls are still there, and I chuckle every time I see them, wondering what my parents must have thought as their kid pretended to be rocketing down the streets of Gotham while sitting in a dark, dank basement.