This interview was published in the Oct 8, 1993 issue of The Buyer's Guide and was done by Shel Dorf, a looooong time fixture in the comics industry.
Shel: This is Shel Dorf talking from the Caelum comic book studio in Kearny Mesa, a suburb of San Diego. This interview's going to be a bit different, because we have a subject who doesn't fit the mold. Ken Meyer Jr. bounces all over the place. He's a talented up-and-coming illustrator, cartoonist, graphic designer, you name it . He's also a long-time subscriber to this publication. Ken, first question would be when did you first discover The Comics Buyer's Guide?
Ken: Oh I see, this is one of those things that is going to be a Buyer's Guide promo, huh? [Laughter] Well, The Buyer's Guide had a big part in a lot of things: in my development as an artist, in the way I got into comics, in getting into fandom in the first place. When I was back in Georgia, in high school, the librarian must have known I was into comics. She brought me a copy of The Buyer's Guide. This was way back when it was The Buyer's Guide for Comic Fandom not Comics Buyer's Guide. I think it was #8.
Shel: This would be in the early 70s?
Ken: It was '71, because I remember what happened was: when I got that issue I wrote in to Alan Light and asked him about it, because I didn't know anything about fandom. I didn't even know what the hell it was. And he sent back a letter and he sent back an issue of Fantastic Fanzine by Gary Groth and The Collector by Bill Wilson and a subscription to The Buyer's Guide for maybe a year or something like that. So it was like a full-page letter.
Shel: What a nice thing to do. And this is 1993, so you've been getting The Buyer's Guide for 22 years?
Ken: Yeah. There have been a few breaks, when I was broke or something, but, for the most part, yeah, I've getting it for a long time. I sent a letter in recently when they had the 1000th issue anniversary, but it was a little bit late and I think it was hand-written, so maybe they couldn't read my writing and they didn't stick it in the letters page. This will have to do, I guess. This is my way of getting into that letters page of The Buyer's Guide.
Shel: It's going to be a long letter, Ken. How did CBG help you?
Ken: Well, I met a lot of people through The Buyer's GuideŅeither responding to ads of people just selling comics, and then, of course, there were a lot of fanzines going on back then. That was the Golden Age of fanzine publishing, the '70s. So I'd write to people. They'd have ads for their fanzines and I'd think it was cool and I'd order it and then I'd try to send some artwork in. I was really bad back then. Everybody, I guess, always has a lot to learn. But I was struggling to understand anatomy back then.
Shel: Did you have any formal art training?
Ken: When I was going through high
Shel: What kind of drawings did you do then?
Ken: I started tracing from comics when I was a kid. I was tracing with carbon paper and then I got to the point where I could draw one with the paper sitting next to it. And then I tried to do it on my own. I was trying to learn anatomy. That was the latter years in high school around '73 to '75, and I was starting to get a few drawings into different fanzines.
Shel: When you got out of high school and you got into college, did you set your sights that early on a career in art or were there any sidetracks?
Ken: Well, I didn't have anything else I could do. I really didn't have any other interests. I was actually a pretty good student in high school. It might have been because we went to such bad public schools and didn't have to try as hard. Or maybe because we moved around so much, I'd end up in some place where I happened to be ahead of the rest of the people.
Shel. Why did you move around so much?
Ken: My dad was in the Air Force. He was a helicopter pilot. He flew air rescue in Vietnam and did some work in the Korean War, I guess. I'm not totally sure of the dates, but we moved around an awful lot. We lived in the Philippines and we lived all over the States, and then when I went into college I moved around a fair amount on my own from that point on. For different reasons, either a job I had or I went to visit my dad once and ended up staying there, stuff like that.
Shel: Did you give yourself assignments to do? Or did you contribute to fanzines?
Ken: Like I said, that came during my senior year in high school and then into college. One guy who I've known for a long time, Brent Anderson, was helpful. Brent was doing a fanzine along with Frank Cirrocco and Gary Winnick and some other people back in about '77 or so, and I used to write to Brent. We wrote a lot for a while and then he went pro and started doing the Ka-Zar book and he couldn't really write that often, but I'd see him at conventions. He'd do some critiques. In fact he helped me get the first thing that I ever had published. We were both heavily into Bruce Lee, and he inked a Bruce Lee drawing that I drew and got into a program book for a Bay Con in about '75. And then all the fanzine work came after that.
Shel: Let's talk about the time when you started getting paid serious money for your work.
Ken: The serious money part won't be coming for a few years, I think. My first mainstream comic was for Eclipse comics back in about '84, and it was a two-issue mini-series of these wacko characters, the Adolescent Radioactive Black-Belt Hamsters that Don Chin, who has been a friend of mine since that time, wrote. At that point, the regular comic might have been #4 or #5 and then he decided to spin off one of the characters into a two-issue mini-series. He wrote it and I helped write it, more in the second issue than the first Ņit was a two-issue thing. And I did the covers and the design. I did the second issue cover like a movie poster and typeset all the stuff because it was supposed to be a parody of the Apocalypse Now movie poster. So I got the type to match it. I had the Hamster character in Martin Sheen's place up in the right corner. There's this character in the comic called Queenpin who was the transvestite crime lord of Bangkok and he was sort of modeled after Marlon Brando with a wig. And then it had other elements of the stuff on the covers. This was called "Clint: Hamster Triumphant."
Shel: That's how the Turtles started, as a satire book.
Ken: A lot of the people who know that period know that there were all kinds of parodies of the Turtles which were, of course, themselves parodies, and a lot of them were really bad. But most people I that I've talked to liked the mini-series better than any of the other animal parody stuff. By the way, Mike Dringenberg inked that and he contributed a helluva a lot of good stuff to it. But anyway, that was the first big deal and it was at the same time that I started a full-time job. I think we worked 21 days straight including weekends, because we were setting up a site in this company that I worked at, so we had to do a lot of artwork fast and continuously.
Shel: Now that you're working at Caelum Studios here, tell me some of the assignments which have come your way.
Ken: Well I've been really busy lately. I guess if they paid a little bit more, I'd be less busy. but I've been lucky and maybe I can back it up somewhat with my skills, too. But l've gotten continuing assignments from Revolutionary Comics. doing a lot of cover paintings for their unauthorized biography books. They're mainly sports personalities. some music personalities. I did one for the Image Comics guys. But I've probably done about 20 or so covers for them in the last couple of months.
Shel: Can you describe how you approach a painting?
Ken: Well, it depends on the subject, of course, but I did a Marilyn Monroe, and that was pretty interesting to do, because if it's someone like Marilyn Monroe I go out and look for photo references, find something that I want to use and sometimes I'll project that through a projector onto the paper to get the basic proportions done, mainly so I can get it done in time to meet the deadline.
Shel: Most commercial artists still work this way.
Ken: Yeah. Well, I think a lot do and some people look down upon it, but right now I don't really care. If I have to get it done in a certain amount of time, sometimes things like that speed the process up.
Shel: Norman Rockwell did his paintings that way, by projecting an image on the board and painting it.
Ken: The Marilyn one, which I hope I can get a photograph of with this interview, it's probably one of my favorites so far, because, aside from the fact that the painting part of her turned out really good I incorporated some collage-type effects. I went to Kinko's with some photographs of some other people involved, the Kennedys, Frank Sinatra and another guy that I can't remember the name of. Anyway, I look those photographs to Kinkos and got on the color copier and had them stretch it one way so it was a long. thin, stretched-out image. And then I tore the edges to get that torn paper look and, being the fact that it's paper, it worked. And then, when all the painting was done, I pasted up the coior copies and did a few other things.
Shel: What kind of paints do you use?
Ken: If it's watercolor, usually Windsor Newton, sometimes Grumbacher. I use a lot of other media, too. I use pastels, I use gouache. I use toothbrushes, I use all kinds of junk.
Shel: It sounds like you're having fun as an artist, anyway. A lot of variety.
Ken: This studio has helped me a lot. This studio is one of the best things to happen to me in a long time.
Ken: Well, I've had friends who have been able to be in a studio setting and I always envied them because you get to see a lot of good art work, you get inspired, you get competitive, you can pool your resources, you develop friendships and all that kind of stuff. That's what this one's done for me. The people in it; there's Ben Herrera, who's doing comics now at Malibu. Then there's Scott Benefiel, he's doing Cage for Marvel, and Ellis Goodson who has done something for my friend Don Chin and who will be doing a top secret job soon, and Mike Christian, who is inking Ben's work for Malibu. Meeting all these guys has helped very much.
Shel: I'm sure there are kids working up in their attics in the Midwest who wish they could have something like that. You guys probably look very glamorous, living in Southem Califomia and having your own studio.
Ken: When they come over to the actual studio, I'm sure they'll lose that myth right away.
Shel: It's hard work, isn't it? A lot of times it's strong coffee, cold pizza and soda and all-nighters.
Ken: Yeah, I think a lot of people outside of comics don't know how much work goes into comics. A lot of people who aren't artists don't know how much work goes into art. They think it's a gift, they think it's natural, you've had it since you were a kid, that type of thing. I've always been kind of averse to the word "talent," because to me it implied that it's something you were born with and don't have to work at. But those who do it know you have to work at it. And comics artists especially deserve a lot more respect than they get. When you draw comics you have to draw everything. You can't fake anything, whether it's like the plane going overhead here or a building or people in all kinds of positions.
Shel: The next obvious question is: Can you make money at it? Have you paced yourself as to an hourly rate?
Ken: Comics are still far behind straight commercial art, if you break it down as to the hours you put into it and how much you get paid. But they're slowly starting to get up there, I think partly due to companies like Image coming into the business. They pay their creators more and now Malibu is doing the same thing and Dark Horse has probably the best company, from what I've heard and the little bit that I've worked with them, in paying their creators fairly, giving them all the rights they deserve, that type of thing.
Shel: ls it true the more drawings you do the more confident you become?
Ken: Oh, probably.
Shel: I heard a teacher once say to a student that he had about a thousand bad drawings he had to get out before the good ones would start to come. Do you believe that?
Ken: That's probably true. I'm about on #550 right now, so I'm about 450 away from being what I want to be. I think it's just like anything, like playing the guitar or playing tennis or learning your skill at your regular job. The more you do it the more you become confident in what you're doing. Also, the more you want to try something new, since you've got the basics down and you know what you're doing.
Shel: When you do a comic-book story and you're working from a script and the script calls for different angles of figures, can you pull these out of your head now, or do you use photographs for reference?
Ken: Well, sometimes I can pull them out of my head: sometimes I use photographic reference. For the paintings that are realistic, I use a lot of photographic reference.
Shel: Do you pose your models and take Polaroids and work from those?
Ken: Yeah, pretty much. I treat it like a movie. I do storyboards and then I get together with people I'm going to use, when I'm doing a painted, realistic comic, and I position them and get them to run through what's going on and treat it like a film, except they're stills. Then I take those stills and I use them as reference for the artwork. Sometimes I'll even project them, sometimes I don't. It depends on what effect I want to achieve, how much time I have to do it. A lot of variables go into that. But then I also do non-realistic work, more comic book type stuff
Shel: Let's lalk about the writing side of your career.
Ken: I think at some point I would like to do sort of a self-published type of thing.
Shel: Would you cater to today's market? I mean all these bloodthirsty little kids plunking money down for the most gory stuff l've ever seen in my life.
Ken: Hey, don't knock bloodthirsty little kids.(laughs) The kind of stuff that I'm interested in reading now, which is also probably, obviously the kind of stuff I want to do is the more realistic day-to-day type stuff. I mean, it might not be totally realistic, because it might be about a vampire or something, but it might be drawn realistically.
Shel: Ken, now that we know your background, what can we watch for on the newsstands. When we see the name Ken Meyer Jr., we know the guy now and we want to buy your work, so what do we watch for?
Ken: I've been doing a lot of work lately for the gaming industry, for White Wolf Games, some of their vampire things. I had a story in Cry for Dawn #8 and I'm going to be doing a mini-series for them called The Face of Medusa, a three-issue painted mini-series, plus a six-page story in #10 or #11. And then my next biggest break coming up will be a painted story in Midnight Sons #3 for Marvel so hopefully that will be something that will get me more work. What else? I have my list here because I don't want to forget something.
Shel: Do you want to be a star, Ken, and make personal appearances in comic book stores?
Ken: I wanna rake in the babes. [laughter]
Shel: You want to rake in the babes. That sounds like a good way to do it. More girls are hanging out in comic-book stores, right?
Ken: Oh, yeah. I think if you become a comic-book artist, you will rake in the babes. Just ask Scott. He knows from experience that when you become a world-famous comics artist, Scott: when you become a world-famous comics artist, you rake in the babes, right?
Scott Benefiel [ln the background]: At least four a day.
Ken: Four a day. he says. I hope this doesn't offend any women out there.
Scott: Of course, none of them stick around.
Shel: Do you have an agent in New York, showing your stuff around, or is that the next step?
Ken: I have an agent now. I haven't had one really ever, although Mike Friedrich was my agent for a short time, when I was just starting out. But I wasn't really good enough then for him to get me any work, so that didn't last long. Now Steve Donnelly at Creative Interests Agency is going to be my agent. He's going to try to get whatever work for me he can, whether it's painted work, whether it's, say, trading card set. There's a lot of that stuff going on. Or work like the Vertigo type stuff.
Shel: Do you have any advice for anybody starting out in the business now?
Ken: I would hope that not everybody out there is copying the people who are popular now, because logic would tell you that they're not going to be popular forever, and if you copy their style, you're not going to be popular, either. I don't consider myself an authority on it, by any means... in any facet of the comic industry, but the logical advice would be to study other artwork, other than comics for one thing.
Shel: A Fine Art background? Life drawing and everything?
Ken: Oh yeah. Life drawing, yeah. You don't necessarily have to go take an oil painting class, but it would be pretty much a given that you should know your anatomy. Know how to be able to draw a lot of things relatively easily. You should study people in the business that you like, but study for the right reasons. I wouldn't study it to catch all the surface inking technique of Jim Lee. I'd study him for the dynamic way that he tells a story. And you can go back to the people that these guys were influenced by. You can go all the way back to Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, Neal Adams or Jim Steranko, or all the people that are popular now for the right reason rather than just the surface techniques. If you look al the industry now you see a lot of people who are aping those specific inking techniques that those guys use, that Jim Lee and different people like to use, because that's real popular. There are probably eight or ten artists out there now that are doing work that looks like Jim Lee clones and they'll probably do pretty good. but then, might not do too well when another style comes into the public's eye, into their fancy, and they'll be out of work. So you just have to do what you feel and then at Ieast you'll be happy and maybe have some peace of mind and not be strapped to someone else's popularity to make your living.
Back in the Caelum Studio days.
My first published work, inked by my friend, Brent Anderson. At this point, I think he hadn't gone pro. From the Baycon program book, 1975.
Entropy cosmix, 1976. This zine had great early work by Bill Neville and Rick Burchett and was the zine for Interfan, a fan organization.
Ah, a great fanzine in the true sense of the word, put out for years by my homie, my stromie, David Heath Jr. This is from number 8, 1977. Among many other contributors, it featured some of the first published work by the Hernandez bros.
One of the many zines I did stuff for, this being an Outer Limits centered one, from 1978.
Another great zine family with a lot of variety, these could hold their own with many of the mainstream 'pro' comics today. Put together by the mighty Matt Bucher (check out his site, getting together many of us again at www.vwcom.com/ultrazine2000/uz-newstuff.html), they featured many future pros such as Willie Peppers, Mark Heike, Rick McCollum, Bill Anderson and others. This was fun stuff to do.
Another of David Heath Jr.'s many ventures, this with The National Fantasy Fan Federation zine, Tightbeam. I did the dang cover! Circa 1985.
Another zine, I did the backcover and a bunch of illos inside, circa 1983.
Ellis and I battle to the death! (from Kilroy reference photos)