Mike McKone is a veteran comic artist whose bibliography reads like a Top 100 of hot comic book titles. I still remember picking up my first issue of his (which turned out to be his first issue of anything), Justice League International #25. These days he’s back on the Justice League, but with an even broader mandate in the currently intergalactic Justice League United. (Though they’re more often referred to as Justice League Canada.)
McKone teams up with Canadian writer-artist Jeff Lemire, whose prolific production here is confined to scripts. Together, they’ve gathered a team of heavy-hitters, novices, and wise-crackers against a universe-spanning ring of mad scientists abducting aliens for their survival traits to breed the unbeatable Ultra the Multi-Alien. It’s a lot of fun in a book that’s aware of its many incarnations, as is evident from the initial threat that resembles the League’s very first battle in the the ’60s, or the banter that characterized the team when McKone first drew them. And he’s drawn it all with the accrued talents of his years in the business.
The result is a fast, fun, reader-friendly book that is obligated only to its sense of excitement, and he was happy to dish about it…up to one specific life-or-death point.
Man Cave Daily: I’ve noticed on JLU you seem to be using a sleeker style than your usual work?
Mike McKone: You mean with less feathering?
MCD: Yes, and less splash. Did you change your actual tools, or use a different process?
MMcK: No, I did this the same process I’ve been drawing for awhile. I pencil digitally. Then I print out the blue lines and ink those with actual ink. But I am trying to pare down the way I draw to make it more economic. I’ve been going to a lot of conventions with Michael Golden, and his style is rubbing off on me a little bit. For him, a line is either there or it isn’t. [laughs] There’s no feathering, there’s no hatching, which I admire. He’s one of my favorite artists. So…by osmosis.
MCD: How’d you come to pencil digitally and then ink in real life? I know a lot of people will pencil by hand and then ink because they want that feeling they’re used to. Is that a process you’ve tried?
MMcK: I’ve tried it all different kinds of ways. I bought a Cintiq about seven years ago, not with the intention of working on it, just as a toy. I was living in the Pyrenees at the time, in Spain, and I was very bored. So I bought the Cintiq, and I was using it for 3D modeling, doing touch-up stuff in Photoshop, and eventually I started drawing on it more and more. Initially it was just layouts and breakdowns. I’d print those out, tighten up, and pencil. At that point I’d have someone else ink them.
About four years ago I began inking my own work, and it seemed redundant to start penciling very tightly, and then ink it again. I eventually morphed into doing quite loose pencils and then inked those. But then, because I was in loose pencils, I found that in Photoshop, and now Manga Studio, I could do loose pencils and tighten up the areas very easily, using that software. It hasn’t been a thing I set out to do, it kind of worked out that way. But now I’m actually penciling and inking digitally.
MCD: When you’re penciling and you know it’s you who will have the final product, do you leave it looser and make notes to yourself?
MMcK: Yeah, I can’t even pencil tightly anymore. It’s a real effort now. I’m with an inker now because…you know, deadlines, contract. So I’m really struggling to pencil tightly enough for them. Even though it’s still digital pencils because I’ve inked myself so long. They don’t know what I’m intending when I put a few scribbles. A face has to look like a face again.
MCD: You’ve always been a guy who does a lot of background and lays the scene, which…not every comic artist is inclined to do.
MMcK: We’ll mention no names…
MCD: …but we could. With the Cintiq and digital art, have you started to use any 3D models? I know a lot of guys will use Google SketchUp, build the environment and sort of ink over it like they’re creating a scene.
MMcK: Yeah, it depends how many pages an environment is going to be in. It is useful even if you’re not going to draw over the Google SketchUp model, it’s useful to build a quick set so you can rotate it and get more interesting and consistent compositions. But it can become a crutch so I’m careful not to make it the major weapon in my arsenal. I just want to draw.
MCD: One thing I liked in the battle between the aliens in Justice League United #0 is how fast and furious it was. You almost couldn’t tell they were bipedal at first, and then you could see where all the key armor was, where the important features of their anatomy were. When it’s an elaborate design but it’s also meant to look fantastical, how do you approach that?
MMcK: Well there were two problems with those designs. The first was that Jeff had asked for them to have force shields over the more vulnerable parts of their anatomy. At first I wasn’t sure how to do that. Because I was thinking to myself, “Ah, you’ll just put the shields on as an overlay in Photoshop.” That’s what I did.
The only difficult parts of their armor to draw were their heads, and I built a quick model in Sculptris — very, very simple. You just drag and make virtual impressions in the clay. So I could rotate that and then I could see the angles that I needed. I was drawing in a coffee shop throughout most of the first issue, so I’d be sitting there with my iPad in one hand, a drawing in the other, and people staring at me, wondering what on earth I was doing. [laughs]
MCD: So how much would you say, before you even draw the actual page, do you put into just design and research and building and modeling and reference?
MMcK: I tend to go through in steps and stages, so I’ll spend a day thumbnailing the whole issue, then I’ll spend another day drawing the panel borders on the whole issue. Then I’ll literally go through the whole book drawing each character in every panel that I need. So I’ll draw Stargirl one day. I’ll get to the end of the Stargirl poses, then I’ll do Martian Manhunter. Often I have to send updates to DC and to Jeff to let them know how far ahead. He said, “I have no idea what your process is. [laughs] All you’ve drawn of this book is Stargirl and there are panels missing, and you’re on 22 pages.”
It’s a mess, but it comes together very quickly in the end, and then the colorist has a nightmare because he has 22 pages to color. It’s quicker and easier for me to concentrate on one character, so I can build a short-term memory of their costumes. Like Green Arrow’s got a very complex costume that I was continually having to reference. but if you draw him throughout the book and just draw him every day for two or three days then the costume is embedded there now. It’s not going to go away.
MCD: I might actually adopt that, because if the costume gets slashed or something…
MMcK: Yeah! Yeah, it’s easier to do it in sequence like that.
MCD: Working with Jeff, is it easier to have a writer who’s also an artist and knows what he’s asking of you?
MMcK: Yeah, he generally doesn’t have full panels of talking heads for six pages and then a 15-panel action sequence. He knows not to do that. He knows not to break the 180-rule or have you break the 180-rule. He’s not going to have a long, vertical panel on the lefthand idea of the page, which some writers who shall not be named do…
MCD: Has there ever been a time when you know how a panel should be drawn, and he’s like, “Yeeeeahh, but here’s how I pictured it…”
MMcK: No, no, he’s been 100% supportive. Even if he thinks it, he’s never said it. And he’s Canadian, so he’s too polite to say it anyway.
MCD: Have you put in any requests for anything you want to draw?
MMcK: The only thing I remember asking for was we were still unsure if Lobo was going to be in the book. And I really wanted to draw Lobo rather than a generic henchman for the main bad guy. Jeff agreed. There was a character we were hoping to get for the book that we couldn’t get, but I can’t tell you who that is because Dan DiDio will definitely kill me. [laughs]
Brendan’s other recent interviews include Batman & Robin writer Peter J. Tomasi and the Mad Love of Harley Quinn‘s Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti.