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Mike Zeck - Interview
By Michael Essington

Back in the early two thousands I found myself out of work and hunting for ways to make money. I was rummaging through the garage and came across a box of old comic books; one of the first books I came across was a tattered, old copy of the Incredible Hulk. I figured I would pop them on Ebay and generate a bit of money. Well as I started flipping through some of the books I came to realize how much I still loved some of these books and how some of these great artists from the early seventies books are much better than a lot of the artists today.

So, I looked up some of the artists and wrote them asking if they would autograph my books and in the case Mike Zeck asked if I could interview him for a site I was creating (Web Comics), he agreed. This was my second interview (done somewhere around 2003); overall this came out pretty decent for my second try.

Ladies and gents, Mike Zeck.

1. First off, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Growing up You, Ross Andru, Gene Colan and Herb Trimpe were my all-time favorite artists. So, it's an honor to be able to have you as Web Comics' second interview.

My pleasure, and happy to be in the same company as those other talented gents.

Your painted covers for the Punisher Mini-series and the subsequent posters are legendary. Do you paint in the traditional way or do you use Adobe Photoshop?

First question, and I'm already going to throw a correction your way! I did finished penciling with modeling for those Punisher covers, and then passed them over to Phil Zimelman who airbrush painted them. Phil is quite an accomplished airbrush artist, and since airbrushing was one of my least favorite tasks, we became a team for those covers and some subsequent on-sale posters.

Later when computers were becoming part of an artist's studio, and Adobe Photoshop reached a very mature level with version 3, and Phil Zimelman was becoming less involved with the comics industry, those events allowed me to consider doing the complete paintings myself, but doing them digitally which was much more enjoyable than physical airbrushing for me personally. My first digitally painted covers were for the DAMNED series in 1997 published by the Homage Comics line at the Wildstorm Comics offices. Not long ago I did a new painting for that series when Cyberosia Publishing issued a trade paperback collecting the original 4 issues.

2. In the 80's and 90's when Marvel seemed to be making the bulk of their money off of The Punisher and Wolverine. Did you come out of this time in good shape financially?
No, because my Punisher output was really very limited; only the original "Circle of Blood" mini-series and the "Return to Big Nothing" graphic novel. Marvel took the overnight popularity of that character and saturated the market with Punisher material, but I don't have any ownership of the character so nothing trickled down to me.
3. What was your involvement with the Army of One: Punisher Origins documentary, on the Punisher DVD?
Almost nil. They contacted me, and there was talk of an interview, but their budget didn't allow for me (on the east coast) and their camera crew (on the west coast) to physically meet. In the end, they just requested a few pictures of me from that "Punisher Limited Series era" so they could display them while my contributions were being mentioned by Steven Grant (Punisher writer) and others.
4. Most of the Artists who've made a name for themselves are remembered for one key book; Berni Wrightson is remembered for Swamp Thing, with you it seems to be your Punisher run. How do you feel about that legacy?
Just fine. Better to be remembered for something than nothing at all. The Punisher Limited series was a very good experience for me, and since that's the series that seemed to define the character, I'm sure I'll always be connected to the Punisher. Steve Ditko did relatively few Spider-Man issues compared to all of the other artists who came along during the following 40 years, but to this day, me and most others who experienced his initial run will continue to consider him "the" artist for that character. If I'm the Punisher's "Steve Ditko", then I'm happy for that.
5. In regards to your own work who was your favorite Inker? And your favorite Colorist?
No one single favorite. Any inker who was able to retain the strengths of the pencil art, and make some drawing improvements while translating those pencils, is a favorite inker of mine. I was happy to have John Beatty ink the bulk of my 80s work. His line control was beyond what I was capable of myself, so his contribution resulted in a better product than I might have done alone.

Same with Denis Rodier on the DAMNED series. Prior to that, he had inked some of my super hero projects, and always improved on my pencils while bringing just the right finished style to the project. With DAMNED I asked for a totally different approach, and he nailed it perfectly. Again, that looser, illustrative and painterly style was something I couldn't have done myself, so Denis is an integral part of the "look" that I was after for those issues.

No one single colorist favorite either, although I should mention Kurt Goldzung. DAMNED was one of those rare times when I actually huddled with the colorist to discuss the palette and the approach to the series, and like Denis on the inks, Kurt really complimented the art with his coloring job.

DAMNED was a little 'labor of love' for all involved, and that makes it more fun for everyone, and tends to produce a better end product too.

6. Of all your work do you have any certain favorites, a particular run or issue?
Well, from the last answer, you can guess that DAMNED was a personal favorite. I also have to mention both Punisher projects with Steven Grant (the "Circle of Blood" mini-series, and the "Return to Big Nothing" graphic novel). And the "Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt" story arc is right on top of my favorites list too. Lucky me to be handed the plot that finally and totally defined the Kraven character.
7. Do you still keep up with the industry?
Not to the point that I read everything. I do try to scan the Diamond Previews catalog each month, and pick out some books or series that I think I'll like. I like to find some inspired stories and art from the newer crop of creators, and still manage to collect the current work of some of the older pros too.
8. In the groundbreaking 1986 Punisher Mini-Series, you did all the painted covers for all five issues, but the interior art for only the first four issues. What was the reason for that?

I already mentioned that the cover paintings were a team effort from Phil Zimelman and me. That being the case, the cover art was produced early on during that project so that Phil would have plenty of time to produce the paintings.

I spent so much time on the first issue that I was already behind Marvel's schedule sheet when I started issue #2. I picked up the pace as best I could, but editor Carl Potts thought it best to have another artist working on plot #5 while I was finishing plot #4, so that no shipping dates would be missed. Such is the nature of 'business'!

9. Do you socialize with anyone within the comic book industry?
Not very often. Being near the New York publishing offices presented opportunities for get-togethers, but I moved south a couple of years ago. Comic conventions are a good gathering place too, but I haven't had much time for those for some years now. So outside of phone contact, I'm not hanging out with other creators much these days.
10. Who are your influences, comics or personally? Is there any one particular artist that made decide to pursue art as a career?
There wasn't one particular artist, and as far as influences, way too many to list. Just about every artist who has made a mark in the comics industry over the last 40 some years has probably influenced me at some level.
11. Your run on Captain America is legendary; the back issues still sell very well. For a while, between the Captain America-Deathlok run, Kraven the Hunter and the Punisher books, you seemed to be the one guy who take stagnant characters and make them relevant again. Is this a concentrated effort?
No, just part luck, and part good choices I guess. I was fortunate enough to have more than a few offers coming my way from various editors or writers, and could make choices. It's really those writers who were creating storylines that would boost the popularity of those characters. Maybe I was smart enough to recognize a good plot, and jump aboard those titles at the right time?
12. Wizard magazine recently wrote about your commissions work, how booked up are you? And what's next for you as far as comic book work?
That Wizard column prompted a few more re-creation requests, so I'm a little backed up as far as commissions are concerned. I also try to keep some original art sketches on eBay. I'm not getting around to the various conventions to do sketches, so eBay is the next best thing. And in my opinion, better than commissions. On eBay you get to see the actual finished art before bidding, which seems better than sending out the money and hoping for the best when the art arrives.

Recently I've been busy with some character licensing work, which won't be showing up in any books. I'm also planning to team up with Jerry Ordway again for some Batman covers at DC Comics. We previously teamed up for a years worth of Azrael covers and covers for the recent Deadshot 5-issue limited series. I really like Jerry's finishing inks over my pencils, and hope to continue doing that kind of thing with him as long as these projects continue to materialize.

13. For years your work was visible on many covers and was used as the main selling point. Which do prefer to do a cover, or the interiors? And as far as covers which do you like better the traditional illustrating or your famous painted covers?
The cover work was fun, and it gave me a chance to work with characters that I didn't otherwise have a chance to work on as story artist. As far as a preference, I suppose I'd give the slight edge to covers over interiors, just because I could finish a cover in a couple of days compared to a month or more for interior work.

I'm something of an 'old school' artist, and have an appreciation for the traditional covers, but still like the current trend of painted covers. I used to look to paperbacks for fully painted cover illustrations. Now comics are the place to look, and I see a wide range of painting styles, both traditional and digital, month after month.

14. Do you have a favorite writer to work with?
I've been lucky to work with some great writers, Steven Grant, Marc DeMatteis, Doug Moench to name a few. Steven Grant and I have similar tastes, and that's why I usually huddle with him when it comes time to consider new projects. We've developed a comfortable working relationship, and a friendship over the years.
15. Over your career you've worked for all the major companies in the industry; from an artist's standpoint who's been the best to work for and why?
The company is the business entity, so all they have to do is offer a reasonable rate and pay on time. The level of enjoyment in the work has more to do with my creative partners and the editor of the project. Steven Grant and I did a project for editor Archie Goodwin at both Marvel and DC. The same pleasurable experience no matter which company housed his office.
16. Your Batman, Ten Nights of the Beast run is still extremely popular, any chance of you returning to Batman someday?
Nothing planned at this point other than the possibility of doing the cover work that I mentioned earlier. We'll see what happens after Ordway and I have a go at a series of Batman covers.
17. On your run on the Master of Kung-Fu your style on these books was similar to Paul Gulacy's in style, with your style creeping in over the nineteen issue run; was this intentional?
When you talk about artists being connected with certain characters, Paul Gulacy is the artist who defined the Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu book, set the standard for all who would come after, and is not likely to ever lose the title "Best Shang Chi artist". I knew that coming in, I was a Gulacy fan myself, and the very highest point that I could hope to reach with that character was Best "Also-Ran" Artist for that series.

I still had a good time working with writer, Doug Moench, and learned a lot in the process. Whatever style change you noticed may have just been my evolving style at that time. I didn't consciously come to the title trying to be a Gulacy clone, although he was of course the artist who I would reference.

18. In all of your art, the backgrounds and props (i.e. guns) are highly detailed; what do you use as reference, photos, or real items?
Yep, books, photos, models, the real item, movies, the library, have all been reference sources for me. I put together a large file of weapons reference while doing the Punisher issues and G. I. Joe covers.
19. Thanks again for answering our questions. Hopefully, they weren't all questions you've answered a hundred times before.
You're welcome, and hopefully the answers aren't ones your readers have all heard before!
About Michael Essington
Michael Essington is an American author and poet, most famous for his Mike Check column. Over the years Essington has done dozens of celebrity interviews, as well as hundreds of music reviews. The weekly Mike Check column, which appears on Strange Reaction, has also been printed in The Los Angeles Beat and the very popular Deep Red Magazine. Essington's column is read weekly by thousands of fans from Los Angeles to Denmark. Essington has been writing since his high school days. He is married to wife, Elizabeth, and has two children, daughter, Breana & son Lucas. And has a dog, Max, that Essington suspects may have a learning disability or a general lack of life goals.
 
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