interview was published in the great online mag, Sequential
Tart around november of '98 I believe. Check it out!
Moving through the Spectrum
by Lee Atchison (email@example.com)
Ken Meyer Jr. is known for his stunning painted pieces. A regular sight around the San Diego Comic Convention each year, he can at some point be found at the Art Auction, creating yet another beautiful piece under the watchful stares of appreciative fans. Working in the gaming, trading card, and comic field, he exhibits diversity in his projects. His work can also be found in Spectrum, an annual compilation of the best science fiction and fantasy artwork produced each year.
Sequential Tart: Have you always been interested in painting?
Ken Meyer Jr: Well, I've always been doing artwork of some type. When I was a kid, I was reading comics, so I started tracing comics when I was probably nine or ten or something. The ones I remember tracing were Challengers of the Unknown; I think it was when Kirby was doing it. Maybe '67 or something. And then I just did line work type stuff through high school. I was really, really bad. I didn't have any training of any kind. And we went to crappy schools and I was a bad student anyway, so I didn't actually start that early. Even when I started painting, at first it was more a case of illustrating. Filling in the lines. Filling in black ink lines with color. I didn't really start painting as actual painting without filling in line work until probably '88. I've seen photographs of old paintings now and again from '87 or '88 or '89 that look okay, but there's a lot of them that are really, really bad. (laugh)
ST: Is painting your medium of preference at this point?
KMJ: Yeah. It's probably what I've become the most adept at, I guess. Mainly watercolors. And I've used some other mediums here and there, but it's mostly watercolors. I mean, I've been doing digital work to some degree for the last couple years, too, but as far as illustrations go, it's still mostly watercolors.
ST: You mentioned digital work. Do you do a lot of stuff with Photoshop and Illustrator?
KMJ: Yeah. Mostly what I know best is Photoshop. I'm using Illustrator a lot more lately in this new job that I have. And I've used Freehand a little bit, and I use Quark, and I use Director a little bit, and I'm learning Flash now at this new job that I have. And I've been using Dreamweaver at home to edit my own website. And I'm helping friends do their website. And I don't know nearly as much as someone like you in the job that you do, probably, but I know the basic HTML and stuff. And I try to use 'and' as much as possible.
ST: Plus, you've got the advantage in that you know design.
KMJ: (laugh) Well, to some degree. I don't really consider myself a designer. This last year I've been looking for a new day job, and I've had a real hard time finding one because most of the jobs are for graphic designers. I've always known that ... or, at least, since I've been trying to get a job like that ... that I'm not a graphic designer per se. I'm an illustrator that could do some design work. But I still have a lot to learn, or a lot of experience to get, before I really consider myself a real graphic designer and maybe just do graphic design. There's still a lot to learn in that part.
ST: What do you think about the use of computers in artwork?
KMJ: I think it's great. It doesn't bother me at all. There's always going to be people doing traditional stuff. It's really difficult to look upon digital artwork as anything weaker than traditional artwork when you see people like, say, Dave McKean or Rick Berry or ... Well, a lot of the artists that I've seen who do digital artwork. A lot of commercial illustrators do incredible stuff.
ST: I remember there being a big debate in the art world four years ago ...
KMJ: Yeah. Probably when people started doing more and more digital illustration.
ST: Definitely. And then you get into the whole value judgment issue. Is it inferior or superior to "fill in the blank here"?
KMJ: It's not a new argument to say it's another tool. And that's all it is: another way to end up with a final image. Maybe you don't draw the figure by hand, but you do a lot of other stuff with images if you're working in Photoshop or other programs like that. It's just like someone doing, say, collage work. And that's counted as art. I've seen digital works that look more or less like traditional collage with maybe some other effects. So, it's just another way to get artwork done.
ST: Nowadays, the debate with computers used as a medium is with comic books. Have you been keeping up to date with any of these comic projects?
KMJ: Some of the stuff online ... and I've seen some of the printed work that was done on computers. I remember seeing ... the guy's name is something Parker ... but he did a Green Lantern thing not too long ago that I just looked at on the stand. I guess he actually got friends, made costumes, photographed all these people in the costumes, and then threw it all into Photoshop and some other programs and blended all the effects and stuff. And it looked pretty good. Then something else that I just saw recently was ... One that I know was ... he did some stuff for Caliber. Greg Horn.
ST: Oh, yeah. He works with James Hudnall.
KMJ: Yeah, because he’s done some stuff for Caliber. He did a series with Hudnall for a little while.
KMJ: Yeah. Well, he's been doing some new work, and it's really pretty seamless. I mean, I guess he does some traditional stuff, and then he'll bring it into Photoshop and other programs and add things, change things, just come up with some stuff whole cloth. And it was really pretty seamless. I mean, as far as painted comics go, I still like the traditional painted looks like Jeff Jones or J. Muth or Kent Williams or even Dave McKean (his traditional stuff) probably a little bit better. The only computer aspect of comics that I don't particularly like until recently was comic coloring on the computer. But it's done a lot better now. When they first started doing it, it looked like sort of basic airbrush. Traditional airbrush stuff. Everything would look like metal or plastic. Real shiny. Highlights and stuff, whether it was hair or whatever. They've obviously gotten a lot better, like at places like Image. There's probably state of the art equipment and really, really good artists there.
ST: Yeah. Laura DePuy and I were talking about how we were blinded by the shininess of someone's hair. I think it was Black Widow or someone. (laugh) Hair does not have that kind of gleam.
KMJ: (laugh) I have to confess that I don't know a lot of recent comics, storylines and trends, whatever. Because most of the stuff that I read is Fantagraphics type stuff, independents stuff, and the odd superhero stuff would be something like Astro City or Mage or something like that.
ST: What is your favorite comic book?
KMJ: Um ...I don't know, you know. I knew you were maybe going to ask that question ...
KMJ: ...I was going to go through my comics and see, because I always forget stuff. There are always the things that most people say – Preacher and Frank Miller stuff. Actually, I was thinking David Mack is, in my mind, the most versatile artist I can think of right now. And he certainly deserves all the attention he's getting. Every time I see an issue of Kabuki, it just blows me away. But I like Kabuki, and I like anything that I see that McKean does. I've been reading Hellblazer a little bit lately because of the artwork. I mean, a lot of times I'll pick up a book for the artwork I've read Cerebus since #21. I've got Strangers in Paradise. Anything by the Hernandez brothers. And Debbie Drechsler that does Nowhere. Pretty much a lot of the stuff that Fantagraphics does. Whenever I go to a convention ...well, I don't go to many nowadays, but when I go to San Diego, I always end up spending a lot of money at the Fantagraphics booth.
ST: What indy book would you recommend to people? Cause I know the indies have a harder time getting publicized ...
KMJ: Sure. The independents that are really promoted are the ones that really don't need to be promoted like Stray Bullets or ...
ST: ...or Strangers in Paradise.
KMJ: Yeah. You know, they already get a lot of press. I mean, it's well deserved, but there's a lot of other books out there. It's not really very steady any more, but Replacement God by a friend of mine, Zander Cannon. It's really, really good but doesn't come out as often as it used to; it's tough for him to keep doing it as well. Brian Michael Bendis' stuff is always entertaining.
ST: His Jinx work?
KMJ: Yeah. Pretty much anything he does. I mean, in his books, the first thing I'll do a lot of times is read the letters pages because it's so funny that the funniest stuff is just what comes out off the top of his head. It's amazing.
ST: Have you seen his collection of ... he illustrated some stories that people had told him?
KMJ: Yeah, I have. In fact, I'm looking at Jinx: Buried Treasures. And Jinx: Pop Culture Hoo-Hah. I'm trying to look through here and see what else might be in here. Oh, EightBall. That's always really good. I wish it would come out more often.
ST: Now, you've done some comic painted works ...
KMJ: Not a ton, but I had a graphic novel come out not too long ago from NBM called Gustav, PI. PI stands for Paranormal Investigator. It's supposed to be a kind of detective, X-Files, vampire kind of thing. And that was all painted traditionally, and then I went in and did some Photoshop effects, and I did all the lettering in Illustrator and Quark and packaged up the whole thing and put it on zip disks and they sent it off to the printer. I pretty much did everything except write it. Malcolm Bourne wrote it. I did pretty much everything else. And then there've been a few things here and there, but nothing continuing. I mean I've done a story or two for Marvel here or there, and I had a Cry for Dawn story before. I think it was #8. Before the two Joes broke up and went their separate ways. I had a story in Open Space #3, before that went under.
ST: And you’ve done some covers too? Was it a Jinx cover?
KMJ: Yeah. It was a Jinx special. I did one cover, and the other cover was by David Mack. And each book was for a different charity. I'm sure David's sold more than mine. (laugh)
ST: (laugh) Oh, well, any selling for a charity is a good one.
ST: Are you interested in comic work? I know you do, like, gaming and cards and stuff like that as well.
KMJ: Well, when I first tried to break into comics, I wanted to do the typical superhero stuff. I still have some of those samples sitting around. I did one of The Justice League when Kevin McGuire was doing it and it was really, really funny. I wanted to do that kind of stuff. And I actually did a little fanzine work for that in the mid '70s and early '80s that was superhero kind of stuff. So that was what I wanted to do first. But it was really hard to break into the market, and I felt that I just wasn't good enough in my anatomy work and different aspects of it. So then I tried to ...oh, the inking was just, like, the weakest aspect of it. My storytelling I thought was pretty good, but the inking ... there were other aspects of it that weren't polished enough. So then I just sort of ... at that point I was doing more and more painting. And I started to do more illustration type work for the gaming market. More covers for comics, even though at the time I was still doing some stories here and there, mainly for Caliber. Like, I did a few issues of this comic called Kilroy is Here, and I did autobiographical things, and a few short stories here or there. But I was doing more and more painting and I sort of gave up on trying to break into the comics market even though now and then something will come up. Someone or another will ask me. But that's about it as far as comics go, except for the stuff I've done for Caliber.
ST: With the comic stuff that you did, was it mostly as penciller or inker?
KMJ: I haven't really done any teamwork kind of artwork. It's always been pretty much me. Although there was one Kilroy story that someone else inked. And as far as the page by page continuity, it was all either pen and ink or wash. Or, a full color painted job.
ST: I noticed they don't use a lot of fully painted comics. Scott Hampton' Lucifer and Dan Brereton's Giantkiller are the only two that I can think of off the top of my head in the last six months or so.
KMJ: Well, basically, I think they're waiting for the next Alex Ross project ...
KMJ: ... but he's phenomenal, too. But obviously it takes a lot more money to provide one of those things. And almost always, with the exception of Dan and Alex, it's stuff that doesn't always sell as well as superhero stuff. So it's got two strikes against it from the get-go. So there doesn't seem to be as much chance for it to make enough money for the comics companies to think it's worthwhile to do. Unless they get some real superstar artist like Ross or McKean. Maybe someone like that who can just sell it by his name.
ST: Right. Now, tell me a little bit about the gaming or the trading card industries. Those are two areas I really don't have much familiarity with. What is it like working with them?
KMJ: Well, I started doing it back in '92. At a convention I ended up talking to the woman who was an art director for a game called Chill. If I remember correctly, I did some painted kind of illustrations. They weren't in color. Then I started doing a lot of White Wolf stuff that would end up in books. Gaming books. They would set up scenarios and characters and stuff. And then during the White Wolf work, I started doing work for Wizards of the Coast. And if anyone knows anything about the gaming market, it's clear that Wizards of the Coast has become the Microsoft, I guess, of the gaming world. What they don't already sell, they buy, and then sell. There're very few companies that aren't owned by them that can stay alive. I mean, I think there was sort of a boom in gaming about 4 or 5 years ago, with tons of companies starting up their own games, but they just fell by the wayside. Wizards just kept getting bigger and bigger. When I first started working with them in '93, they were about 20 people in someone's basement putting out these games, and now they have 6 or 7 offices throughout the world. They're huge. I've seen TV commercials from them and tons of print advertising. And now with this Pokemon thing, they're even bigger. I sort of work with them like with almost any commercial client. In the past sometimes, like with White Wolf, they would just say "okay, do 50 full page vampire paintings" or "20 half page and 20 full page, just do whatever you want." And sometimes they would tell me the Clan, the type of vampire it was or if it had a certain look or something. Sometimes the companies will give you really detailed descriptions, and sometimes they'll say we need one for … in the Wizard game, it's called Guardian Beast, and I think they just said, "We want this thing called the Guardian Beast and it's a big creature."
ST: (laugh) It's pretty open ended then?
KMJ: Yeah. Well, they changed a lot since then. Now they’ve gotten so big. They logistically have to keep track of so many more things.
ST: Whose work do you like among comic painters?
KMJ: There're a lot of people, currently, that I like. Dan Brereton. And, like I said, David Mack is just way, way up there. And if you bring in the fact that he writes all this, and that he does everything, basically, and he does it on a schedule and it's really inventive – I just can't think ... well, there's really nobody I can think of that does a book that's that dense with just words and ideas and stuff. And it's also really beautifully produced. And produced on schedule, even though he's doing a lot of other stuff than that. Chris Mueller continues doing incredible work at a pretty fast pace, too. Duncan Fegredo, when he paints, does gorgeous work that's realistic and really alive, but still within that certain style he's developed.
ST: What sorts of influences have you had on your artwork?
KMJ: Well, I've also, for a long time - the last ten years - been looking at commercial illustrators. I try and get the Illustrators Annual every year if I can. There're always a lot of people that I really admire in there. People like David Grove, Bernie Fuchs, Mark English and a lot of the illustrators who did really well until about 8 or 10 years ago. And now there's just less illustration being used nowadays, so you just see less of their stuff. There're no painted covers on TV guide anymore or Sports Illustrated. They used to have a lot of covers, a lot of painted art.
ST: So the trend seems to be going towards photos, then?
KMJ: Yeah. A lot more photography and design and digital stuff now as opposed to the traditional paintings.
ST: What is Illustrators Annual?
KMJ: It's a book put out every year by the Society of Illustrators. It's a juried exhibition book where you send stuff in and they have 10 or 15 big time illustrators or art directors or whatever, and they judge what's going to go in the book. And I guess it's also a traveling exhibit. And there're other things like that. Like, Communication Arts Magazine puts out a Communication Arts Illustration annual that's a softbound book. And there's also the one that I'm real happy about because I have stuff in it. It's this thing called Spectrum. It's this yearly competition, exhibition, whatever, for the best fantasy, science fiction, that sort of stuff. You can find it in regular bookstores everywhere. And a lot of comic stores carry them because it ends up having a lot of comic illustrators in it as well. A new one should be out now or in the next week or so. I have two pieces in it, one being a full page, which is a big deal as far as I'm concerned. So I look forward to seeing that come out.
ST: What about comic conventions? I've seen you at the San Diego one for the last couple of years now. Do you make a point to go to at least that one or more?
KMJ: Because I live here, yeah. (laugh) I've been to that one every year since '87 or '89. And I've been to some other ones since then. I've been to GenCon, which is a gaming convention in Milwaukee, WI, a couple times. And I've been to DragonCon in Georgia a couple times, which is where my family is from. And I went to Chicago Con once, and that's really it. Because I just had a day job that I really couldn't get out of, or I didn't have enough money to go or it wasn't feasible. But really the only ones I go to with any regularity are GenCon - which I didn't go to this year - and San Diego.
ST: How is it for you? Do you find that you pick up a lot more fans that way?
KMJ: The main reason I go is to make some money, I guess. (laugh) I do all right. I mean, I always make money, and some years are better than others. And there's also ... if I get a booth, I have to figure in the costs of that. I mean, I end up ... It's good that I end up meeting people that I don't know, because otherwise, I'm such a social loser that I wouldn't meet these new people! It's also great to see or meet new artists that I haven't met before. I almost always meet someone that I really admire or someone that I've just started reading or whatever. So that's a good reason to go. Unfortunately, I don't usually get up and walk around that often. When my wife can watch the booth, I get up and walk around a little bit.
ST: I noticed you've been doing paintings at the Art Auction.
KMJ: Yeah, I've been doing that since way back in '89, too. One year, I've actually brought one in finished. But every other year, I've gone up there and done it. And it's a lot easier than I thought it was initially going to be ...
ST: (laugh) The weight of all those eyes on you.
KMJ: Yeah. And most of the time I do a painting, it looks like crap ...Well, I think it looks like crap until I get to the finishing point. I always think it's going to look really bad until I sort of pull it together. And so doing it up there, in front of an audience, is even worse. But I've been sort of trying to choose subjects that aren't really, really difficult or aren't really, really detailed. But even doing that the last couple of years, the pieces have turned out pretty good. The Art Auction is a charity, and some of it goes to the convention itself, and the other goes to a charity ... a cause I can't remember right now.
ST: What kind of current projects do you have in the works? You mentioned Spectrum.
KMJ: Yeah. I don't really have any comic stuff. Caliber's been using work of mine that hasn't been published, when it fits into an existing book of theirs. I can't think of anything that they're doing that's coming out any time soon. I did a bunch of work for a game based on the Judge Dredd comic series. But I think, so far, it's only going to be distributed in the UK. I don't think they have a license yet for distribution over here, but I think they're trying to get that. That's one game. I did a bunch of stuff for a game based on Dune, but then the company that did that is sort of falling apart, so I don't even know if that's coming out. I did a bunch of cards for another game that Wizards distributes called Legends of the Five Rings. It's an Asian, feudal kind of game with mystical overtones. I should take a look at my portfolio ... Like I said, I haven't been doing much comic work.
ST: Would you be interested in going back into comics work then?
KMJ: Something might happen. There are a few things that people have asked me about now and again, just nothing's really materialized. I did a bunch of paintings that you see on the website of musicians for an exhibit here recently. Mainly five really big paintings to go along with existing ones to fill up the walls a little bit more.
ST: What's the name of the exhibit?
KMJ: It doesn't really have a name. It's more of an exhibit of music related stuff that was in a club down here. So I did five paintings. They were about ... 30 by 40 inches each. I did one of Jim Morrison, one of John Lennon, one of Bob Marley, one of Jimi Hendrix, and one of Jewel, because she's sort of from the area. So, I did those five big paintings, and I put up a bunch of other paintings.
ST: You mentioned you've done commissions with people. How does that work?
KMJ: Well, sometimes, people have been looking at my website and they'll email me and ask if I do commissions and how much would I charge and stuff. I've done a few that way. Most of the ones in the past have been because of conventions. Someone will want a sketch or they'll say how much would you charge for an actual painting. There's been a bunch over the years. There's been about 7 Tori Amos ones, a couple X-Files. I've done Sandman ones and a whole bunch of other different kind of paintings over the years. I did a Vampirella at the art auction, and totally unrelated to that, somebody else commissioned me for a Vampirella, so ... Right now, it's the one that's on the main page of my web site. And what else did I do? I did a Deadman one for someone. He has a great site full of Deadman art. And I did a Wonder Woman for another guy with a site devoted to that character. There's another guy that has a series in which he gets the artist to do whatever they want that has to do with a cliff. So I did one for him too. It's fun to do. I mean, I tend to put off, and I don't want to do it until I have to start doing it, and then they usually go fine once I start doing it, but I try to think of something to keep me from doing it. I don't know why, because once I start doing it, I'm usually fine.
ST: You mentioned learning about graphic design earlier. Are you interested in going that route?
KMJ: I've got to. Like I said, when I was looking for another job this past year, that's what they were looking for. And I have a friend that just started working for MP3, and their main office is here in San Diego. There's an ad in Rolling Stone for an MP3 tour that he did, in fact. I mean, it would be great to get into a company like that and do some interesting work and meet people.
ST: Are you going to be doing some of the multimedia type stuff like Flash?
KMJ: Yeah, I'm doing that now. I did a little Flash thing at work today. But I don't know enough to do an actual big project; I'm still learning some of the basics. But motion stuff is really interesting, and being able to incorporate sound. I mean, I go to the Macromedia site, and look at their sites of the day, and it's pretty amazing work. It boggles my mind. I love doing multimedia work, possibly because it's all still so new to me…but painting is really where my heart is, I think, and that is probably where I'll stay.
I've included art that wasn't featured with the actual interview, consisting of various comics I've worked on, cards I've done, and the odd piece of art here or there.
Below you see (from top) "Clint;" from Eclipse, "Weaveworld;" from Epic/Marvel (I helped with the interior coloring), "American" special; from Dark Horse (two black and white painted pages) and "Cry for Dawn" (interior story)
Below, witness the epics that are:
A U2 comic from Revolutionary (cover only), "X-Cons" (a silly thing I did for a buddy, Don Chin-cover only), "Midnight Sons Unlimited" from Marvel (painted story inside), and the first issue of "Kilroy is Here" from Caliber.
Oh, the horror of:
"Read" magazine (an education a magazine out of the northeast-cover and interior illustrations), "Jinx" from Caliber and the warped mind of Brian Michael Bendis (cover only), my graphic novel "Gustav, P.I." with Malcolm Bourne, "Amazing Fantasy" from Marvel (two interior painted pages), and "Candles for Elizabeth" by now Vertigo writer Caitlain Kiernan (cover only).
Here we have some card art, starting at the top with the ever popular "Kird Ape" from Wizards of the Coast "Magic the Gathering" game, then another magic card, "Abu JaFar," followed by another by the name of "Guardian Beast." Then you see my character, "Feral" on an old set called "Future Stars" (they did not predict well in my case).
Oh gosh, look at that...
First, "Claw of Revenge" (oooooooo) for a game called "SuperDeck (not my best work), second a card (of two) for Image Comics "Wildstorm Gallery", third we see "Miranda Sanova from the ill-fated Wizards of the Coast game "Jyhad" (later "Vampire the Eternal Struggle"), and lastly, "Forest" from a game called "Legend of the Five Rings," first with a small company, later bought by Wizards.
Oh look, there's a card from "Dragonstorm" called " Human Werewolf," followed by "Vanessa" from the low selling but incredibly gorgeous set based on Clive Barker's "Imajica" book, then you have "Long Winter" from the "Middle Earth" game based on Tolkien's world, followed by "Undercover Agent" from the game called "Shadowfist," and last you witness the grandeur that is "Vendetta," another card from the game "Legend of the Five Rings."