Insider Report on Bob McLeod by Alice Pope
Although kids are excited about the cool characters in his book SuperHero ABC, when artist Bob McLeod give a presentation to a group of schoolchildren, they show a lot of interest in his earlier work. SuperHero ABC is McLeod’s first picture book, but he’s got a long history drawing comics for the likes of Marvel and DC, including Superman, Batman, Star Wars, and other household-name heroes. During school visits, he says, “everyone still wants to know about drawing Spider-man.”
The world of children’s picture books is a great place for comics artist McLeod: Kids love superheroes and silly stuff, and he’s adept at delivering both. From Astro-Man (who “is always alert for alien attack”) to the Zinger (who “zanily zigzags through the zero zone”), his book offers an alphabet of amusing heroes helping those who need a hand—battles baddies with big bubbles, mighty muscles, gobs of goo, and voluminous vomit.
Here McLeod reflects on the past and future of the comics industry, shares his plans for penning books, and advises aspiring artists. To learn more about him and his work, visit bobmcleod.com.
What’s the difference between the comics scene when you started in the ’70s and today?
It’s a very different business now. The difference are too vast to fully get into here, but I’ll mention a few. When I started in 1973, comic books were still distributed on a returnable basis though mass-market newsstands, and there was a variety of genres, such as sci-fi, westerns, romance, war, horror, humor, etc. There were black and white magazine format comics published by Marvel and Warren and others. The National Lampoon published a lot of comic artists. Marvel had a knockoff of Mad magazine called Crazy, which is where I was first published. There were so many comics being published every month that the major publishers were desperate for artists to illustrate them. Marvel had a very informal atmosphere and was a fun place to work.
Today, comics are distributed non-returnable to mostly just comics shops, and because they’re therefore necessarily targeted to a select group of rabid fans, the different genres have slowly evaporated and we’re mostly just left with superheroes. And where the target buyer used to be 12-18 years old, they’re now 18-30 years old. So most comics are dark, violent and sexy; totally inappropriate for kids. There is very little humor to be found, outside of Archie comics, which thankfully are still around. There is a lot of competition among artists for the very few titles, and many good artists have left the business either by choice to seek more money, or by an inability to get work. Marvel
has become very corporate. Freelancers used to be able to hang out at the office and schmooze, but now you need an appointment to get in the door. I doubt I would have ever become a comic book artist if the business in 1973 had been the way it is now. I probably would have gone into animation or children’s books instead.
What did you like most about working on your first children’s picture book SuperHero ABC (HarperCollins)? How was the experience different from what you’re used to?
I got so much satisfaction from doing it all myself. In comics, the monthly deadline requires most jobs to be split up among a writer, penciler, inker, letterer and colorist. There’s so much compromise in story and art. With SuperHero ABC, I was able to make it totally the way I envisioned it, within the confines of the market. I loved being able to color it myself, after working almost exclusively in black and white for 30 years.
It was also nice to work with such a good editor, Margaret Anastas. She made very constructive comments and kept me focused on my target market of 5- to 7-year-olds. She stood up for me, sometimes against the publisher, to maintain my vision of the book. I never had that from an editor in comic books. I also benefited from working with a wonderful designer, Meredith Pratt, who really helped shape the look of the book. I really felt like we were all working to create a great book, where in comics I often felt like I was battling everyone else to do good work.
Your wife came up with the idea for superhero kids books. Why did that appeal to you?
Kids love superheroes. When my own boys were small, they wanted so much to just see superheroes in costume using their powers, but the comic books I was working on were too violent for them to read. I
had to show them mostly old comics from the ’60s. So there is a definite need for something like SuperHero ABC. I wasn’t really looking to do superheroes in a children’s book, though. I had wanted to do something different from what I’d been doing in comics. But I knew I could do a good superhero alphabet book, and I though it was a very marketable idea. I was surprised no one had done it already, and I thought I should do it before someone beat me to it.
How did you hook up with HarperCollins for SuperHero ABC?
I did finished art and text for the first two letters, and wrote ideas for the rest of the book. I gave a link to my Web site so they could get a good idea of what I can do artistically, and I sent copies off to five different major publishers. Margaret from HarperCollins called about six weeks later and offered me a contract. I think it helped that she has a five-year-old son who she thought would love the book.
What are your upcoming projects for young readers?
I’d like to do a series of early readers using some of my SuperHero ABC characters. I think kids who read my alphabet book would then be excited to see the same characters in an early reader. I’d also like to do a picture storybook using one or two of my ABC characters, but I’m currently working on a picture book proposal with another writer.
In an interview, you said, “I love to draw but I don’t care about storytelling.” Has this changed at all since you’ve delved into children’s books?
I was talking about the panel-to-panel story progression we do in comic books, as opposed to doing a single illustration. I’m a perfectionist, and I like to perfect an image rather than drawing a series of images quickly and emphasizing the story rather than the art. In comics, there’s never enough time to polish the art. The panels are drawn just well enough to get the story across, due to the monthly deadline. The perspective is often off, the anatomy is often off but the deadline has to be met regardless. It’s frustrating to feel like you’re never doing your best work.
In children’s books, there’s more time to devote to the art, so I don’t feel like it’s competing with the story for my time and attention. This was also the first time I’ve written anything, and I enjoyed the challenge of carefully choosing my words. Every single word in the book was very deliberately chosen. I had to try to be clever without being too clever for my young audience. I enjoyed it so much, I’d now like to try to write some stories as well. But my main love is still drawing.
You’ve also said you were never much of a superhero fan, and your real aspiration as a young artist was to work for Mad magazine. Is that part of what drew you to work on books for young readers—the possibility for silliness (which there is quite a bit of in SuperHero ABC)?
Definitely. There’s a lot of Mad magazine in SuperHero ABC, in the writing and the art. My “Y” character, especially, the Yellow Yeller, reveals a lot of Mort Drucker influence. Mort was always the top artist at Mad in my opinion. I learned quite a bit studying his art. And the little side comments on every page are pure Mad. Silly humor is what I do best.
From your perspective, how has the popularity of the graphic novel in recent years impacted the comics industry? How is the process for creating a graphic novel different than creating a comic book?
They’ve had an impact in the sense that trade paperback collections of monthly comics sell better in bookstores now, but there’s been little crossover from graphic novel readers to comic books, from what I’ve heard. Graphic novels are comic books. They’ve proven what I and many others have been saying for years—that there’s a huge untapped audience for comic books if the major publishers would just get beyond superheroes and write stories that appeal to a broader audience, including girls!
The process is different in that graphic novels are usually over 100 pages, whereas comic books are typically 22 pages, so much more time is needed. Graphic novels are also usually written and drawn by the same person, so they have a more personal vision, as opposed to the assembly line feel of the average comic book. When the readers realize that graphic novels are indeed comic books, and the comics publishers realize that comics can be more like graphic novels, both will benefit.
You’ve done a lot of inking in your career and you’ve said, “Two artists working together can create art that neither one could create alone.” On the flip side, what drawbacks are there to the collaborative process for creating comics?
I love inking. It’s such a wonderful skill. It’s seductive, because it’s creative, but not demanding in the way that composing a drawing is. The drawback to splitting up the art chores is that each artist has his own style and vision, and it’s difficult to let another artist mess with your art. The penciler often feels like the inker doesn’t interpret his drawing well and is making too many changes. The inker often feels like the pencils are poorly drawn and need changing. Both often feel like the colorist is obscuring much of their work. Pencilers often think the writer has the characters standing around talking too much instead of moving, and is covering too much of the drawing with word balloons. Writers often feel the penciler doesn’t draw the story the way they imagined it and didn’t leave enough room for word balloons. Everyone has an ego and everyone is often pulling in opposite directions. But even with all of that, when things go well and the styles mesh, the results can be electrifying.
How long have you been doing commissioned pieces? How many do you create yearly?
I started doing commissions when my monthly comics work stopped coming in so regularly, in the late ’90s. I discovered I preferred doing commissions to doing comics, because I got paid up front and there was more variety. I do everything from pencil character sketches to oil paintings and portraits. he number has increased every year, as I’ve spent less time pursuing regular comic book and commercial illustration work. In 2002, I did about 30. In 2005, I did over 50.
What’s your advice for artists who want to break into comics? Into book publishing?
I seriously wouldn’t recommend drawing comic books. There’s no job security or benefits, and the money is better in other art fields. But for those who stubbornly insist, I recommend studying figure drawing extensively, as well as visual storytelling, perspective and lighting. Learn how to draw guns, cars, buildings, animals, etc. For style, study other comic artists instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. When you think you can draw anything on demand, send 2-3 photocopied samples of panel pages to a specific editor at Marvel or DC.
For children’s books, I’d say study more traditional illustration, and look at what other artists are doing. As in comics, study anatomy to be able to draw the same character from page to page from various angles. Study camera angles to learn which viewpoint makes the best illustration.
The same advice really applies to both: Do your homework and learn the fundamentals. Learn to look at your art objectively with a critical eye. Breathe life into your figure.
I encourage people to take a look at comic art around the world. It’s a wonderful art form, and if you don’t respect it, you haven’t really seen it. Follow your dreams, but work hard and pay your dues. Be ready when opportunity knocks!