The following interview was featured in Issue #7 of Twisted Pulp Magazine.
Michael T. Gilbert is an American comic book artist and writer who has worked for both mainstream and underground comic book companies. He worked on such titles as American Splendor and Star Reach, an adaptation of Elric. Mr. Gilbert may be more famous for working on Mr. Monster, but has also worked on Dr. Strange, and Legends of the Dark Knight.
What was the first thing you remember reading?
I’m guessing one of those Dick and Jane children’s books, which I was having trouble with when I was a kid in the late 50s. To encourage me, my Grandma gave me a copy of a Jimmy Olsen comic. I resisted at first, but after I read it I was hooked on comics and never looked back.
How did you get started in Comics?
I’d tried to sell some stories to Creepy and Eerie around 1971, while still in college. I didn’t quite make it, but I eventually published my own comic, New Paltz Comix (a 1973 underground comic named after the college I was attending).
What was the difference between working for independent comic companies and mainstream companies?
Generally, more freedom at the independents, more money at mainstream comics.
What artist/writer inspires you the most?
Will Eisner. His Spirit stories set the bar high. He had the best writing art and lettering in the business, and he owned his own character. And the Spirit himself was always warm and approachable as a character.
What comic book title/graphic novel are you proudest of?
Mr. Monster: Origins, from 1996, collecting the eight-issue Dark Horse series. At 200 pages, it was my most ambitious comic book project and I thought it came out very well.
Do you think your environment, where you live, has an effect on the type of art you create?
Only to the extent of the weather. The worse it is, the longer I stay at my drawing board.
Is it easier for you to create if given an assignment or does it get in the way of your creativity?
I can work either way, but prefer to create my own ideas.
Where do you think the comic book business will be in ten years?
Mostly digital, but still some in-print comic books and graphic novels. There may be some comic book shops, but it’s possible that the majority of “real” books will be print-on-demand.
What was the oddest thing you’ve ever been asked to do in your writing career? A specific assignment from a comic book company, screenplay for a producer, books for a publisher?
Some website hired me to come up with interactive comic book panels, in which I would create comic book scenes that users could insert their photographs into the scene.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on new Mr. Monster stories, as well as a couple of reprint projects for Fantagraphics and Dark Horse.
What was it like working with Roy Thomas?
We get along fine. Back in the Elric days Craig Russell and I would adapt the first Michael Moorcock Elric of Melnibone into penciled form and send it to Roy to dialogue from our notes. That’s pretty much “Marvel style,” as I understand it. I did the same with my work on the two subsequent Elric novels, only with George Freeman taking over from Craig on the art finishes.
Currently I enjoy working with Roy on his Alter Ego magazine, which we’ve done since 1998. I write my “Mr. Monster’s Comic Crypt” comic history column for the magazine and Roy gives me a lot of freedom. Roy has a real encyclopedic knowledge of comics, literature, and punctuation, which allows him to catch any mistakes I make, which I greatly appreciate.
How did you get the rights to adapt Elric to comic book form?
Mike Friedrich, (who at the time was an art agent representing me, Craig and Roy) arranged it with Michael Moorcock.
I see you did the art for Harvey Pekar American Splendor. What was it like working with Pekar?
I only did a handful of stories, but it was an interesting experience. We connected initially when I wrote a fan letter in the mid-seventies, praising a one-page story he’d written for American Splendor, but commenting that I was disappointed in the art. He told me to redo it, as a second take on the story. Harvey liked my take, and gave me a few more. But I don’t believe he ever sent an actual script, preferring to tell me the story over the phone, long distance. I asked for reference photos of himself (since he starred in the stories), but he never sent any, just told me to draw it like he was shown in the comics. Of course, there were many different artists doing the stories, so I had to come up with a version that integrated them. I enjoyed working with him, but after I got my Elric gig, that took up all my time.
You’ve even worked for Disney, and I see you worked on Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor. What was that experience like with Ellison?
I recall getting a call out of nowhere from Harlan, which greatly surprised me. I’d been a fan of his writing since I was a teenager. He said that he wanted me to illustrate a story for his Dream Corridor comics anthology, but that publisher Dark Horse had told him that I wouldn’t be interested. I’m not sure why they said that, but I definitely was interested.
Harlan said that he saved one of his best stories for me, but “Rat Hater” was an early crime potboiler for one of the pulps, certainly not one of his more famous stories like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream!” Those went to more popular artists like John Byrne in the early issues of the magazine. I confess I felt a bit manipulated by Harlan’s initial sales pitch, but “Rat Hater” worked well with my style. It was a fun project, short and sweet!
Did Hollywood ever come knocking? It seems Mr. Monster would make a great show for HBO or even an animated show.
Hollywood came knocking in the mid-90s, when Nelvana took an option on my Mr. Monster for a cartoon show. We almost sold it to ABC, but then Disney took over the company and dropped the option. I’ve been approached over the years since, but unless there’s a lot of upfront money and creative control, I find it more trouble than it’s worth. But I’m sure we’ll eventually see a Mr. Monster movie or TV series. I just want to make sure it’s done right if it comes to pass.
Do you enjoy going to conventions?
Within reason. I enjoy meeting the fans and fellow artists, but it can be a lot of work… especially the three or four-day conventions. That’s a lot of sitting and sketching!
What are your thoughts on Cosplay?
I enjoy looking at it, and I’m very impressed, but not personally into doing cosplay. However, in my sordid youth I did attend the 1971 NY Seuling Con dressed as Green Lantern as part of a costume contest that year. That was fun!
What Legend in the field did you meet that you were most taken with?
In 1982, I had lunch with Will Eisner, who had been my artistic hero since I first saw reprints of his 1940s comic series, The Spirit, as a teenager. I’d begun corresponding with him in 1978, shortly after I finished my Wraith series in Quack! (The Wraith was my funny animal Spirit parody). I sent him copies of the comics and he wrote back a very warm and encouraging letter, which I treasured. I was living in California at the time, but in 1982 I was planning a visit to my native New York.
When I mentioned that to Will, he invited me to speak to his class at the School of Visual Arts. That was the first time we met in person, and I was nervous as a cat in a dog pound. But Will quickly put me at ease with his warmth and unpretentious humor. We had a good time and he even offered me pointers concerning where to sell my stories. We kept in touch over the years and after he moved to Florida, my wife and I visited his studios a few times.
Will was one of comics earliest and greatest innovators. He was a terrific writer, storyteller and artist, and much of what I learned about comics I learned from studying his work. And in person, Will was every bit as great I’d hoped he’d be!
Do you think you would ever go back to doing underground comix?
As much as I would enjoy doing more stories for $25 a page for art and lettering, I think I’ll pass. I did my stint in comix in the ‘70s, when I was in my 20s. Now it IS the ‘20s and I’m in my 70s. The math doesn’t add up. 😉
Seriously, I think my Mr. Monster stories have a real underground flavor—and since I own the character, I’m still my own boss and can do whatever kind of Mr. Monster stories I want. Breaking taboos in the ‘60s and ‘70s made sense. Nowadays it sometimes feels like there are no taboos.
Someone should approach you about doing a book of your art. A career spanning art book.
I agree. I think it would be a good project for some deep-pocket, enterprising publisher with impeccable taste!