Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Brendan McCarthy discusses SPIDER-MAN: FEVER.

Tomorrow marks the official release of the collected edition of SPIDER-MAN: FEVER, the Doctor Strange/Spider-Man team-up by Brendan McCarthy. For comic fans of a certain frame of mind, this is a very big deal indeed: McCarthy remains under-represented on the comicbook shelves compared to his influence upon the field; the majority of his works remain out-of-print, in legal limbo or scattered uncollected in old back issues. Soon, when people ask you, "who is this fabled man of whom you speak?", you will be able to give them the ISBN number of an in-print book that'll blow their minds wide open. 

In FEVER, McCarthy finally gets to give his long-professed love of Steve Ditko's work a full workout, but I took Brendan to task to explain how there's also still plenty of his own highly individual themes and motifs going on in the book.  Brendan, like Jack Kirby or his old friend Grant Morrison, is a real "six impossible ideas before breakfast" creator, and his profligate imagination filled what could have been a simple work-for-hire assignment with highly personal symbolism and intent.

Mark: This is your first
 piece for Marvel Comics.  What was it like working for the fabled "House of Ideas"? 

Brendan: Other than to cut a few lines of text, they pretty much left me alone to get on with it, which suited me fine. The editor, Steve Wacker, suggested that I add The Vulture to the opening sequence, which worked well.
They seem to like the new sparkly k
ooky-book style: David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes video, with all that great 'black sky' video feedback, fused with a Tim Burtonesque surrealism -- with a light sprinkling of silver-age stardust.
Marvel got a fun and unusual comic -- and I was able to get the Ditko/Dr. Strange thing out of my system. The FEVER trade collection also reprints the 60's Spider-Man Annual by Lee and Ditko that inspired my story. I wish they could have scanned it directly off the old printed pages to get the period feel. Still, artistically it's Ditko at his peak. His genius is there to be enjoyed. Sadly, I am not worthy to sharpen his pencil! 

That said, another story has started to take shape, probably just starring Dr. Strange and Clea... I'm interested in different forms of magic and enchantment, not just that dark Aleister Crowley angle... Hollywood, for example, is certainly a place of magic: Enchantment by the manipulation of projected light. The name 'Hollywood' has a deeper esoteric meaning too. The wood of the Holly tree was used by Druids to make wands. I think Dr. Strange should get involved with The Light-masters of Hollywood. There's some great online articles by Jay Weidner on the esoteric symbols concealed in corporate Hollywood movies.
I recently suggested to Vertigo a Sandman/Dr. Strange cross-over as I think the characters go together well.  I'd like to see Mike Kaluta do a Ditkoesque Dr. Strange too. I think he'd be a total genius on it.
I also suggested to Marvel a Lady Gaga/Dr. Strange team-up. A comic and video combination on a new song. It's only a matter of time before the fantastic visual world of Ditko's Dr. Strange is brought to a wider public.
Curiously enough, I was over in Hollywood earlier this year mooching about, and I had a meeting at Disney and the conversation drifted around to Pixar animating a 
Dr. Strange movie... Now, wouldn't that be nice.

I'm glad I've had the chance to play with the magical and surreal world of Dr. Strange and do my own take on it. It's interesting that so few of the "big" writers have tackled the character. He seems such an obvious choice if you're into magick and psychedelia.
I read a lot on magick when I was a teenager and I've revisited Crowley, Spare, etc in preparing FEVER. But my interest in that side of it has waned. All those black-clad 'occulture' hipsters seem very quaint to me now. People can get attached to certain phases of life and not make it on to true freedom.

I definitely pitched the series to a younger reader. If I think back on myself as a teenager, I would have loved a book like FEVER. A mixture of the silly, surreal, mystical, subversive and psychedelic. 
I'm also very happy that the pages will now be in the right order. It will make quite a bit of difference.

Interview continues after this jump

You've written before about the Australian Aboriginal influence on your work, but that was in 
Swimini Purpose, so I think it's fair to say not that many people will have seen it.  Can you tell us about the Aboriginal influences on Fever? 

The Australian Aborigines are the oldest continuous culture on the planet, with some anthropologists estimating a possible span of 60,000 to 100,000 years.
Geographically isolated down under, they had developed a sophisticated system of sorcery in which I became interested. I spent about 5 years living in Australia, working on that  new Mad Max film. It's a very big and 
strange place -- vast deserts of bright orange soil. It's like living on a British outpost on Mars.

The back story of Ms Ningirril, an Aboriginal Sorceress, is that she was banished from her tribe for borrowing the Elders' power-objects, things like their Gadachi shoes. So she's hiding out in the dimensions, on the run from some pretty dangerous Aborigine 'Clever Men' who are hunting her down. I'd like to explore this storyline further, in a future series.

Some Aborigine art can be stunningly beautiful. It's some of the best painting going on in the world right now. I love the story of 
Papunya Tula, of how the new indigenous art was kick-started nearly forty years ago by Geoffrey Bardon, a white schoolteacher stationed in a remote desert outpost who bought the local Aborigines paint and canvas. That would make a pretty interesting graphic novel. 
Ms Ningirril debuts. Note also the Doc's Lennon-referencing, bottom left panel.
If someone came up to the counter and asked me, Oi, Mark, what's Spider-Man: Fever about anyway? I'd say, it's a kick-ass comic about Spider-Man getting trapped in Doctor Strange's bathtub.  How would you describe it to a prospective borrower from a public library?  Apparently some people also buy books, but eff them. 

The story at its simplest: Spider-Man is abducted by a nasty tribe of spider-demons to a bizarre magical dimension, there to be eaten alive. Dr. Strange must undertake a perilous quest to rescue his friend. 
Beyond that, it explores the psychological trauma of Spidey's early life and the terrible price he paid for the aquisition of his spider-powers. Underneath that wise-cracking youth is a psyche torn apart by guilt. 
I liked playing Dr. Strange as a kind of aloof 'occult' Sherlock Holmes. I enjoyed throwing in all that 'Dr Who' type of esoteric theorising about the structure of 'illogical-magickal' systems, etc. It's fun to write these absurdist sequences. 

Also, the narrative has a pretty loose structure, so that I could be playful or serious whenever the story demanded it. For example, the film
 Road Warrior utilised a very fast-paced 'pile-driver' narrative but veered from a disturbingly realistic rape scene to a cartooney 'Chuck Jones' sequence (fingers lopped off by a steel boomerang). I enjoy that freedom of range and tone.

The three parts of the comic each have a different feel to them: The first part of FEVER is in pop-video, rather than filmic style, and sets everything up. The second episode pushes the ethereal psychedelia on the visuals of the dimensions. And the third one brings everything back to earth, with Spider-Man finally 
punching somebody -- because after all, it's a Marvel comic and dramatically, something proactively physical needed to happen at that point. 
I tell the story in a fairly loose and surprising way, so that your reading experience stays unpredictable, but fun.

A FEVER movie should be co-directed by Tim Burton and David Lynch and go all-out for the Ditko look.
Spider-Man, trapped in Doc Strange's bath, yesterday

Tell me something about Steve Cook's contribution.

Steve Cook is a digital artist, and can fake and manipulate amazing photographic effects. His website Alternity hosts a collection of his bizarre images. He created a lot of the 'photographic' skies and rainstorms and parched deserts, adding some very nifty surrealist backgrounds and colour sequences into the comic. His lettering has a distinctive look too.

Do I detect a certain level of arachnophobia going on in this work?

When I started the project, I had some basic thoughts about spiders: I hated running into spider-webs when I was a boy -- having some big garden spider scurrying across my face was a fairly horrible experience. And spiders do tend to hang out in bathtub drainholes... And drains are inter-connected, like arteries in the human body, all over a city. 
Spiders catch flies too, so it seemed a very simple and atavistic notion for FEVER that Spider-Man should have to catch a fly in order to survive. And they lay eggs and eat things alive! Cripes, spiders 
are pretty damn scary when you think about it.
Peter Parker: ironic arachnophobe.

First with Solo and now Fever, I'm really getting to like your playful use of language as a writer and those very British references. Sausages, anyone?   

Most of what's going on in FEVER will be understood by American audiences, but I put some British cultural things in there to give it a little bit of that deep-fried DANDY flavour, a light dusting of a British Comics' accent.

I am amused by the differences in "magick" and stage magic. Both involve conjuring, mystification and enchantment. 
There is some fantastic footage (
on You Tube) of Tommy Cooper onstage, pulling all sorts of ridiculous objects from beneath his coat. It's hilariously funny. I think that he was a kind of "Laughing Saint" in that there was sometimes a genuine transcendence in his performance. The creation of joy and light-heartedness is a wonderful gift. In our western culture we tend to equate tragedy with 'cultural importance', whereas comedy is seen as the lesser artform. In comics for example, the 'dark' Batman is considered more important than the 'pop' Batman.  
Alluding to the UK's most beloved master of the mystic arts, Tommy Cooper.
It's interesting to observe people who cultivate a special 'mystique' around themselves. It's called 'glamour' in the old meaning of the word -- to be enchanted and beguiled.
But the ego, that which wants to be seen as 'special', is also a beguiling enchantment -- a mind-story that is lived inside of for all our lives. What is known as 'self-realization' or 'enlightenment' is the falling away of the core belief in a separate 'personal self' that is running 'your' life. The
 life force is powering everything anyway -- You are not the doer. The awareness that is reading this right now is actually the true center. The fuzzy cognizing space that you are looking out of gives rise to the egoic thought-construct called 'me' and its subsequent story. 

Simply put: Everything is happening to no-one.
 An interesting statistic I read recently is that it takes just 4 generations before 99.99% percent of all people are totally forgotten by their culture. The cultivation of celebrity seems a curious use of a lifespan.

The Rantzen-referencing Pugly in a pun-happy page from FEVER.
As for sausages: Tele-Magus Eshter Rantzen once featured a 'talking dog' on her TV show who barked out what sounded uncannily like the word, "Sausages." When asked what he'd like for breakfast, the dog's reply was, "Sausages." When questioned about the nature of God and reality, the dog responded, "Sausages." The little dog became a huge sensation in the UK, with builders and cabbies shouting out "Sausages!" to each other all day long, as in "Hey Terry, what do you want in your sandwich?"  So that's how two talking animal archetypes ended up in FEVER

By the way, has anyone ever heard those 60's tape-recordings made by the deranged UK record producer Joe Meek, of a cat who he claimed spoke to him? They're on You Tube and are pretty odd.

That weird "Harra-Harrah" refrain throughout the series -- where did it come from? 

With the Harrah-Harrah chant, I wanted to create a hypnotic sound in your mind (right where the 'comic book experience' takes place) that would start to subconsciously disturb you... A bit like "those damn drums" in old jungle movies, when the heavily perspiring hero starts to lose his mind to the incessant throbbing of the tom-toms.
I like how sound effects can create a "noise level" in your imagination. You can 'hear' them in your mind. The 
Harrah-Harrah's were purposely over-repeated to drive you crazy, so you got to feel directly what Spider-Man is going through in his fever-dream... Harrah Harrah. Harrah Harrah. Harrah Harrah.
I've never really heard comic creators talk much about the imaginative "sound" of comics. Will Eisner used 'visual sound' really well. I think he and Krigstein were terrific.

More Beatles influences in this too - Strange's pedalo is very Heinz Edelmann, and when the need for utter nonsense arrives, Strange uses a "Number 9 incantation" from The White Album's most skipped track.  Any chance of a follow-up; Spider-Man: Dr.Octopus's Garden? Or Thor: Odin's Silver Hammer? 

A big part of Dr. Strange for me is that it was created in the 1960s, which was when I first read it as a boy. So I wanted to evoke the particular mood of that period by referencing The Beatles' Yellow Submarine (still an amazingly brilliant animated film) for it's obvious psychedelic imagery, as well as Revolution Number 9 to capture its creepy 'occult-Manson' vibe. 
I recall I once had a very vivid dream in which John Lennon had not been murdered and was on stage, finally touring, singing his version of "Good Night", fully orchestrated. I woke up utterly happy to have heard it. Isn't it incredible that we can create such beauty in our dreams?
I should also mention that I once met Jack Kirby in a dream. If Ditko was your weird uncle, Kirby was your Dad. He winked at me, smiling from across a room, as if to say, "You son of a gun". It was like he 'got' me... Like he understood me, one comic book artist to another. It was a powerful dream. 
The 'Secret Sun' blog has some great essays on Kirby as a visionary artist, whose work has stood the test of time. I'd say the post-Marvel work looks better than ever.

I don't think I'm spoiling things by saying that that last page is a lovely tribute to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, on a couple of levels.  Is that last panel conclusive proof that Steve Ditko invented heavy metal?

I had noticed the similar finger positions that both Spider-Man and Dr. Strange use in the comics when I was a young reader. It was a huge revelation to me that an artist like Ditko could develop a style that was distinct from Kirby or Curt Swan, not just by his designs or how he drew faces, but by his extremely odd finger postures. 
When I was getting to the ending, I had the strong feeling that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko should appear at the end of the story. They drew themselves into those "How Stan and Steve Create Spidey" strip features in the comics of that era. I really wanted to meet them again as they are now, forty-five years later, as drawings in a Marvel comic. I was very happy when the ending of the story fell into place. 
Spidey & The Doc debate metal gig etiquette.
 How does drawing a three-issue series feel these days?  Hard work, or comparatively easy after production designing movies in Hollyweird? 

Comics are the artistic equivalent of digging holes in the road. They are very hard graft, particularly the drawing. But like a idiot, I happen to enjoy doing them. It's a beautiful little art form.
Hollywood can be a confounding experience. It took me a while to realise that Hollywood is a power system. And there, power buys talent. It's a brutal, toxic place and not for the faint-hearted. But somehow, good things do come out of all the craziness... Just name ten great movies!  I've lived over there on and off for many years and you have a time when you're briefly 'hot' and that's when you have to go for it.
Speaking of heat, I enjoyed drawing that 'Captain America in the ice' short tale that Marvel commissioned me a while ago. I wanted to do a quieter story, using sepia and native designs without all the 'psychedelic' whiz-bang. It struck me when researching the Inuits that most of the images I was looking at were in sepia. It seemed to visually represent the past.
Those little shorts that Ditko did with Stan Lee in the late 50's are amongst his best work. I'd like Marvel to get me to edit a collection of the best of them, scanned off the actual printed comics pages, in groovy Chip Kidd style. And a companion Kirby volume too, thank you very much! 

I recently returned to the UK from Los Angeles. I fear the US economy is about to crumble. The shit and the fan are about to meet quite soon.
America, it seems to me, is now solely being run for the benefit of the rich, a ruling class of corporate financial criminals. The political system appears to be extremely corrupted and the country is falling apart -- The locusts have eaten all the grain. In the FEVER comic, Manhattan is portrayed as a hollowed-out Termite City. Only the facade is left standing. Inside, it's empty, there's nothing left. 
Spider-Man has fallen into a weak and passive state under the enchantment of the Spiders. It's only when his true center is restored (with the intervention of Dr. Strange, who is versed in the esoteric and understands the enchantment) that he overthrows The Arachnix and hurls them into The Abyss. 

I was reading up on the Peasant's Revolt that happened in medieval England, in the early 1300's: Impoverished peasants rose up against the ruling class and marched on London, lynching many members of the political ruling class until the King brokered a deal with them. I think it's an interesting comparison with what may happen in America.

It's been a very productive period for you as a comicbook creator. Is this hot streak going to continue? 

I hope so. I have some good creator-owned projects that I'd like to get done. Some sci-fi, a horror thing, a few kid's books and a couple of idiosyncratic graphic novels are all in various stages of readiness. A new edition of SWIMINI PURPOSE is something I'd like to get out there in a few years. It's just a matter of finding a stable publisher and a decent deal. Which is a lot harder than it sounds. 
Comics are a writer's medium at the moment and all the buzz and money is generally with the writers. So if you can both write and draw them, you're better off. 

The accepted paradigm that the writers are the main creators and the artists are mere illustrators of their wondrous visions doesn't sit well with me. In the world of fine art, painters are the intellectual equal of writers. In film, directors take a script and turn it into the actual movie. But in comics, all the weight is with the writer. I think it's something to do with the fact that almost all editors come from a literary background -- with the notable exceptions of Carmine Infantino in the 70's at DC and Joe Quesada these days at Marvel.
What comics are you enjoying at the moment, given that you still read them? Any new movies or TV series that grab you? 

Yes, I still read a few, but not as much as I used to. I think I mentioned elsewhere the peculiar delights of Tobias Tak. But there doesn't seem to be too many new radical creators ruffling the pages of my Kooky-Book. 
I find that 'comics geek' bedwetter subculture very inward-looking. It doesn't interest me at all... Comics like Scott Pilgrim are not on my radar. I think that stuff has already had its day in the sun. 

Recently, I watched the TV series Twin Peaks again: It really did change TV. It certainly gave rise to the X-Files and you can see its influence on more recent shows like Lost and Mad Men. David Lynch and Mark Frost touched on the deeper esoteric forces that run under the shiny surface of America. Aspects of Twin Peaks were genuinely unsettling -- The Black Lodge, the Owls in the woods, the backwards language of the little man and also Bob, the demonic killer who inhabited mirrors and carpets. 

I am very aware of the "hidden in plain sight" nature of esoteric symbols... they are everywhere, when you start to look. John Carpenter's film They Live is worth viewing.

I met David Lynch a few times some years ago in LA, when he was trying to get an animated feature film off the ground. He was interested in my designs and in understanding the possibilities of cgi animation. He's definitely the real deal, a genuine artist and also very humorous. I'd quite like to do a graphic novel with him. 
After viewing all that Lynchian weirdness, I thought Inception was really disappointing. The folding buildings sequence was the only thing that really stood out and that was already shown in the trailer, so the movie, sold as an adventure about dreams, offered nothing new. The Kubrick-swipe of the 'rotating room' was surprisingly dull too.  

Vertigo Comics are re-releasing The Extremist by Pete Milligan and Ted McKeever soon. Is Rogan Gosh likely to follow?

I'm afraid not. All the rights to Rogan Gosh reverted back to us a few years ago. And at this point, none of the classic Milligan and McCarthy stories are in print. 

Back about twenty years ago, I thought up The Extremist and it was going to be a new series from me and Pete. A kinky thriller. I had the basic idea of the title and of a woman who goes into a restroom, undresses, tapes down her breasts, puts on a black leather costume and emerges as The Extremist. But I had too many other work commitments on and I wouldn't have been able to draw it, so I just gave it to Pete who liked it, to do with as he pleased. He and Ted developed it into a much stronger concept. It's a good story and it would make a decent movie. 

A real fannish question to end on: Any chances of seeing your work again in 2000AD?

Funny you should mention that, but there is a Judge Dredd short story I am working on as we speak. I haven't drawn ol' misery-guts for about twenty years... It's amazing what you forget. Al Ewing is scripting from a story I pitched. He's a great talent. I think he will go far. 

To the


Sean Phillips said...

Great interview Mark. If only all comics could be drawn by Brendan!

Terry said...

This looks very cool. So how come I never saw this series when it was out?

Them doggies better not poop in the Sanctum, otherwise theyll be banished to the Dark Dimension.

Sausages, indeed!

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Brendan is a national treasure and should be held to our collective bosom and cherished. Hed like that. I will literally read ANYTHING that Brendan chooses to do, and I can feel safe in the knowledge that it will be GOLD.

joe bloke said...

I purposely avoided the series, waiting for the trade. oh, let the wonderment commence!

good job, Mark. nice one.

WJC said...

That was grand, great work, thank you.

Dan McDaid said...

Cracking stuff, Mark - a real thrill to read some of the philosophy which underpins Brendans work. His thinking on people like Tommy Cooper really reminded me of Stewart Lees writing, specifically Lees musings on the "holy fool". Anyway - great.

Miklós Felvidéki said...

Its great to see that while comic industry changes and new artist pop up every day, the core materials never become completely forgotten. The work of Masters like Ditko and Kirby and others (etc..)should always be kept in mind. Ditkos Spider-man is iconic, still I havent seen a lot of artist relating to it. Its maybe because the audience nowadays likes a Romita sr spidey. That art gives a more standard old school comic feel, while Ditko had some sort of crazynes in his work. The surrealistic world he did for Dr Strange is just as special as the worlds Kirby imagined.

colsmi said...

Tremendous work, Mark, a fascinating read.

Its so good to read that Mr McCarthy is as enthusiastic and curious as his work has always seemed to say he is. If Idve created a mental image of Mr McCarthy, which Im quick to confess I never have, Idve wanted "him" to be discussing occult symbols, the collapse of American capitalism and a love, amongst so many other things, of Sixties Marvel.