Monday, March 16, 2009

Love, Death, and Rock 'n' Roll with Mike Cavallaro

“Artistically, a song has shape and color and composition, and a page has shape and color and composition,” Mike “Cav” Cavallaro said in Bar Tano, an Italian restaurant walking distance from his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The twin-bladed ceiling fans whirr, suspended from the tin ceilings. “I always just felt that some ideas were best expressed one way, and I think I stopped bothering with the bands when I became more excited with ideas that couldn’t be expressed that way. I was like ‘This is an idea that needs to happen on paper and in panels.’ If I could’ve figured out how to do that with music, I probably would have, but it just doesn’t lend itself.

“I think there are a lot of similarities in terms of how you put it together, and the philosophy of the ideas behind it.”

It’s not an unlikely sentiment from the musician/cartoonist who sits, sipping a coffee, a mere week before his comic with writer J.M. DeMatteis, The Life and Times of Savior 28, debuts on the stands.

Originally from Central New Jersey, Mike is part of the Deep Six comics studio with five other cartoonists. Cav’s cool and modest demeanor smacks of a ‘50s rocker. His band from the ‘90s, Sticks and Stones (a punk band who, he joked, “screamed and broke shit”) still plays a yearly show, keeping the laid-back musician vibe intact.

“We’re experiencing the Jersey-fication of New York,” he comments. “When I was playing in bands and drove to New York to the Lower East Side, it was scary and untamed, to a degree. What happened is that in the ‘80s and later with Guiliani, there was a wave of people my age moving to Manhattan and bringing their likes and dislikes with them. I see Manhattan becoming more like Jersey with chain stores and franchise restaurants coming in. I see that more now than I did before, when I lived in the Lower East Side.”

Moving to the city in the early ‘90s after attending the Joe Kubert school, Cav was fine with no longer having to wash dishes in his brother’s restaurant for a living, and was more than happy to take a job as colorist at the then-new comics company Valiant, headed by former (and infamous) Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter. One of the more successful of the doomed headstart 1990s comic imprints, Valiant hearkened back to the 1960s Marvel Comics line, but with a more modern sensibility. It’s obvious when you look at their revived ‘60s comics, Magnus, Robot Fighter and Solar, Man of the Atom, as well as their smattering of original properties.

“I’m serious about what I do, and it was my first job and I was much younger,” Cav reflects. “I wanted to feel like I was doing a good job, so I think I brought a fair amount of tension to it. The schedule was always tight and there was never enough time, and there was a certain amount of pressure to do a lot of work. Someone would drop the ball, and the colorist was the last man on the production line. If everyone involved blew their deadline in by couple of days, you now had to do the whole book in three days, for example. You would sleep under the desks, on the floor for three days, because you didn’t have time to go home.”

The Valiant offices were set up bullpen style in an effort to recreate the vibe of the ‘60s Marvel, and were Mike’s training ground in coloring and comic book production. Some of his heroes walked in and out of the bullpen to deliver work, like Barry Windsor-Smith and the legendary Steve Ditko.

“I was a very indy-oriented guy reading Scott McCloud’s Zot, Love and Rockets, and Pete Bagge’s Hate,” Cav recalls. “I felt like I was making a concession by working for these guys. I had this smug, indy attitude, but these guys were still heroes of mine. Despite myself, it ended up being a really cool experience. I learned a lot and had lots of arguments, like working anywhere.”

Four or five years at Valiant ended with Mike going freelance, primarily doing work for DC Comics’ trading card department. The ‘90s was a decade of change in comics, both positive and negative, as Mike had to confront lowering page rates for coloring along with a dying marketplace. To make ends meet, Mike Cavallaro made the transition to animation, and experienced more than he bargained for.

“When I was at Valiant, my first job was well paid and with royalties, and I made a good living,” he says. “I just got whittled down. I went from making $100 a page to $25 a page, which was the new going rate. Photoshop destabilized everything. Comics were bottoming out with the speculator’s crash, and I couldn’t work for $25 a page.

“I had opportunities to segue way into animation, with a lot of the same skills. Comics tend to label things: if you’re a colorist, then you’re just a colorist and you can have problems convincing people that you can do something else. Animation gave me a clean slate, and I was able to get work storyboarding for MTV Animation. I worked on Celebrity Deathmatch from the end of the first season onwards. That was a great experience because it got my speed and confidence up. I had accepted that I wasn’t good enough to draw a comic because no one would let me, and I figured that they must’ve been right. With storyboarding, I was drawing thirty to forty storyboard panels a day, so I finally realized I must be able to draw one page of comics a day.”

Before much longer, Mike was not only self-publishing, but also well on his way to becoming a part of the Brooklyn comics community.

Parade (with Fireworks) is a 2008 Eisner Award nominee; despite its colorful and animated quality, Parade is a human drama that documents a piece of Mike’s family’s history in Italy during the rise of Fascism in the 1920s. Parade was first posted as a web strip on e-comics collective, and eventually collected in the form of two single issues.

“I felt like realism is very specific, and I didn’t want to make it specific,” Mike notes. “As I thought about the trend in autobio or bio comics, I’ve read some great ones that are among my favorites, but didn’t really want to make one of my own like that. I felt that the best thing a lot of those stories’ have going for them is they’re true. I wanted to make something where it doesn’t matter if you believe or are aware it’s true, but that you’re interested and engaged in it anyway. The fact that it really happened shouldn’t factor in to whether it works or not. I wanted Parade to have a hazy, fairy tale quality. I wanted to emphasize the human parts of the story and deemphasize the historic parts. If I was doing a historical comic, I think realism would have been important, but since it’s about relationships and accidents and reactions, that stuff doesn’t matter. I created a fantasy world.”

The influence of Gilbert Hernandez’s "Palomar" series of stories in Love and Rockets is obvious, as is that of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. Parade wasn’t only a personal accomplishment for Cav, but also a formative project that is a marked point in his evolution as a cartoonist, much of which is owed it being his first project of his drawn at Deep Six.
“A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I decided to move out of the Lower East Side and move into Brooklyn, and I was only so excited about it,” he admits as he nurses his coffee. “I didn’t want to come to Brooklyn. It was a trade-off for more space and less rent. What ended up happening is that being here allowed me to meet Dean Haspiel, Simon Fraser, and Tim Hamilton. We became friends and, when the idea of a studio space came up, I jumped on it. The studio has really changed everything for me.

“Being involved in Act-I-Vate is the most important thing that has happened to my career as a cartoonist, but Deep Six, the studio, is an extension of that. You put six people in the same room, there are going to be disagreements, but ultimately we help each other a great deal. I have all this combined experience to turn to for advice on how to handle something. I can get five or six different opinions on different things. We keep each other employed, because we’re always getting offers that we can’t handle or don’t feel like we’re the right fit for, and we can hand it off to the guy next to us who may need the work. It’s been an essential part of my life, and I couldn’t do any of it without Deep Six. There are no comic book artists where I grew up, so being here with access to this rich community of people doing different things from different perspectives has been valuable.”

Perhaps a combined social love of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Marvel Comics in Deep Six led Cavallaro to create Loviathan, a story of titanic Kirby-esque figures fighting amidst the rough poetry of a Stan Lee. The sharp angles and solid blacks of Cavallaro’s visual departure from his work in Parade keeps Loviathan from being a shameless Kirby riff, and into the realm of a sincere homage. The strip proved a training ground for The Life and Times of Savior 28, his creator-owned collaboration with legendary writer J.M. DeMatteis.

Savior 28 opens with the lead character, a disenchanted and alcoholic patriotic superhero, gunned down by an unknown assassin. As the washed-up hero’s career is recounted by his estranged and grown-up kid sidekick, glimpses of a violent world made vibrant by Kirby-inspired leanings combined with Cavallaro’s solid animation background are mated with DeMatteis’ exceptional sense of character. The final result is a #1 that offers more story and pathos than a usual single issue.

“You’ve got to do both your own thing and worthwhile collaborations,” Cavallaro reflects back in the bar, on the eve of Savior 28’s release. “Telling your own stories is comics in their purest form – it’s all you from top to bottom. In a collaboration, you have to work different muscles because there are different challenges. What I noticed is that Savior 28 is pushing me to be a better artist because I’m forced to draw things that terrify me. Things I consider difficult. When you’re doing your own story, you might cater to your comfort zone, but when you’re given a script, you’re not allowed to. I think it’s really imperative as an artist, if you want to grow, to be challenged by something. That something can be someone else’s script. I’m very fortunate to have a script that I love and have always been a fan of J.M.’s.

“I’m so grateful to be on it. I don’t know how it landed in my lap.”

Mike Cavallaro, the rocker turned colorist turned animator turned cartoonist, has had a long and strange trip through the publishers and networks of New York City. After close to two decades in the industry, his star is beginning to shine in a sky populated with Kirby crackles and dots. Cav doesn’t feel that he’s entirely alone, though: he has a rich background of comics ancestry behind him, not just on his studio shelf equipped with reprint books, but also within the city itself.

“I love the history of comics, and I feel the history of comics here, in New York City. I’m here, very much on purpose, because this is where it is.”

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