Monday, November 23, 2009

Madman's Mike Allred: Rock Out Flying An Atomic Red Rocket 7

Mike Allred

Words: Christopher Irving. Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I have a hard time with denying things, where people say ‘you don’t have enough faith.’ No, God gave us intelligence, and we should use our intelligence to discern things. I’m going to listen to an Atheist, an Agnostic, and I’ll listen to a Jew, or somebody whose faith is Hinduism or Islam. I want to know why you believe what you believe is it because your parents told you that? Was it because of tradition or intellectual pursuit? For me, I was drawn to the intellectual side and, because of that, I’d get these feelings because I was using my brain.”

Mike and Laura Allred, jetlagged as a result of flying in from Portland, Oregon and having worked a convention all day, sat in the lobby of their New York hotel, still full of energy. Allred, the temples of his short hair starting to gray like Reed Richards, still retains the boyishness he brought onto the comics scene in the ‘90s, with his groundbreaking comic book Madman, following the adventures of the existentialist Frank Einstein. His wife and colorist, Laura is also full of pep, and has a spot next to him on a long sofa.

“I didn’t want to believe something just because my Mom said that was the way to go,” Mike says. “The more I studied, the more I learned that we’re encouraged to learn. We’re not just supposed to believe things because somebody told us to; we need to think these things through. With Frank Einstein, he’s a clean slate, but had a life before. The more he learns about his previous life, the more he realizes ‘Maybe I don’t like who I think I might’ve been, but what’s important is who we are now.’

“That’s the lesson I’ve learned in my life: I may have done horrible things, but that shouldn’t affect my future. This day, I can decide to change my behavior, and tomorrow I can be a better person than today, and the next day I can be a better person than I was then. That’s who Frank Einstein is – he wants to be the best person he can be.”

Allred’s seminal creation, the amnesiac Frank Einstein aka Madman of Snap City, is a pop-culture saturated hero running through Technicolor adventures, as he explores his own spirituality and sense of self. Mike, like his avatar, spent the ‘90s questioning faith, religion, life, and identity in print; his existential questions found their way in Frank’s word and thought balloons, as every adventure forced Frank to discover yet another facet of who was while forging ahead on who he is in the present.

The culmination of Mike’s probing culminated in 2004, when he and Laura announced their belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more widely known as Mormonism. Not only did they announce their beliefs openly, but also began a series of graphic novel adaptations of The Book of Mormon, collectively titled The Golden Plates.

“There are so many misinterpretations of that faith,” Allred says in his soft-spoken deep voice. “I think church members misinterpret it just as badly, because a lot of people don’t go to church, but they don’t really read the book. That is startling to me when I started to do the Book of Mormon adaptation: there were people who hadn’t read it, but since they’d gone to Sunday school and get a lesson here and hear a talk there, that they had this vague overview of it. Having said that, when I got enthusiastic about wanting to know what it was really about, and a lot of that happened because my aunt gave me this journal of my great-great grandfather’s, who knew Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the restoration.

“The reason anybody was called a Mormon was because there was this other ancient record that was provided to Joseph Smith, by God, of this people who left Jerusalem 600 years before Christ, and came to the Americas. The resurrected Christ came to visit them, but this race then died out 400 years later. The man who compiled all the records was named Mormon; that’s why it’s called the Book of Mormon.

“There were rooms of records that Mormon then abridged, and that became the Book of Mormon. It was a derogatory term by people who didn’t like Mormons to call them Mormon. The church started calling itself Mormon. It’s the Church of Jesus Christ, and the later clarification is of Latter-Day Saints, these supposedly being the latter days. That’s the American history of the Church, but the book of Mormon is what happens, and most significantly of the resurrected Jesus Christ appearing here. In the New Testament, Christ said when he’s resurrected and appears to his Apostles, that he’s going to visit his other sheep. Supposedly, The Book of Mormon is one of these records from one of his other sheep.”

Despite his strength in his own faith, Allred remains open and willing to discuss, and even address questions about the Mormon faith head-on.

“This is the thing to get the most excited or interested about with the Mormons:” he points out. “It could be the greatest fraud ever, because Joseph Smith had a fourth grade education and, to anyone, to have made this fictional account from scratch? Either he was a genius and made this amazing fraud, or he told the truth that he was given these records on these plates by God, and was also given this device to translate it. If what he said is true, we know that there is life after death. Then, when God the Heavenly Father and Jesus were presented to Joseph Smith, they appeared in this beam of light. It confirms that God and Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, are one in purpose, but are separate beings. That’s interesting to me. By seeing these two beings, saying that they had physical bodies of flesh, and they were in a beam of light and he was given this device to translate these plates – it gets very science fiction-y at that point.”

Where the first Madman story arc, "The Oddity Odyssey", focused on Frank’s lack of identity and questions of self, the next arc focused more on his spiritual and existential questions. In a dream sequence in Madman Adventures #3, published by Tundra, Frank asks himself:

“One of two things will happen. Either I’ll die and that will be it…the end. All life I’ve experienced meaningless. “Or my being, my lifeforce, my spirit, my essence will live eternally. A continuous afterlife that goes on and on and on and on…”

“There was a scripture that says ‘Man is as God once was,’” Mike explains. “God went through what we went through. Then your mind starts really messing with you: So God had a Heavenly Father as well, and he lived on another planet…Then you start getting a galactic thing, because you think about this Earth being created and evolution set into motion so that we could grow and progress and learn from our ancestors. Then, this all happens and we move on to the next life, and as we progress to the Eternal, we at some point will create a world as well.”

“And we believe that you’ll still be who you are,” Laura adds.

“You’ll take your experiences with you.”

“It’s all about progression, and progressing through eternity.”

“It’s all something tangible,” Mike elaborates. “Also, our spirits are retained here. There’s a purpose and a plan. This isn’t the be-all, end-all, because our other progressions will go beyond this stage.”

Frank Einstein later learns he was a secret agent named Zane Townsend. As Zane, he was a hired gun who was killed by a rival agent, and was pulled back to Earth when mad scientist Dr. Boiffard brought his soul back from the light, bringing Zane back from the dead without his memory. When Frank learns the truth of his past life, he gets through it and focuses on his current life with his girlfriend Joe, by 2003’s Madman King-Size Super Groovy Special!:

“We are all, in fact, eternal beings. Our souls lived before this mortal realm and will live on after.

“But we must progress, improve ourselves, help others when we can…

“Love each other.
“Strive for the eternal happy ending that’s possible for all of us.

“Or am I just mad?”

Madman has, in essence, created a new world; it’s one where he progressed and evolved beyond the darkness of Zane Townsend, and made his own brightness as Frank Einstein, the hero of Snap City who has pop-culture coursing through his veins.

“It’s an insult to say ‘You think you’re the center of the universe,’ because literally, you are,” Mike reflects. “Everything’s relative. It’s your choice to be ‘If I’m the center of this particular existence, because everything I know has come through my eyes, my ears, my nose, my touch—that’s my existence, what I know, and what I relate to. Yeah, we are the center of our own universe.”

“You can get into existentialism, but it’ll drive you insane. You can start thinking ‘If that’s true, how do I know that I’m not the only being in the world and made all of you up? I don’t want to be lonely, so I created this fictional reality and cut that part off from me.’ Existentialism can completely mess with your head.

“Really, what it all comes down to is choice: Do you choose to make the best of what you know is real? The relationships that do come into your existence – do you make the best of those? Do you treat people the way you want to be treated? That’s what Frank Einstein’s all about.”

Madman went through a handful of publishers: first Tundra, then Kitchen Sink, in his first two storylines. The format of the initial miniseries introduced father figures Dr. Boiffard and Dr. Flem, as well as love interest Jo Lombard (modeled off of Mike’s biggest cheerleader: his red-headed wife, Laura). By the time Madman Comics started with Dark Horse, Madman gained alien and robot sidekicks (Mott the Alien and Astroman, respectively). The influences were gained from general pop culture (Madman is as permeated with it), to the classic comic book artists. Two, in particular, ring true and are evident in Allred’s style: Alex Toth and Jack Kirby.

“Jack Kirby’s the ideal,” Mike observes. “My perception of him and the way he lived his life is that I can’t think of anybody I admire more. He was very kind. So much garbage got dumped on him, and the way he conducted himself through the lack of fairness, and the ways he was treated, but a lot of times there was the example he set as a human being. As an artist, there was the pioneer he was and this magic and power to make electricity on the page. On a personal level, I love the way he conducted himself. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him, and I think that’s fantastic.

“On the other end of the spectrum is Alex Toth, who I really love as an artist. He was really kind and supportive to me by building me up, and guiding me artistically. I’m not telling any secrets here: the way he treated people at times was kind of cruel. At one point in our relationship, he cut me off over the most ridiculous thing. I felt horrible about it, until I heard from everybody else that they had had a similar experience. So, as much as I loved what he had to teach me, and the kindness he showed me in mentoring me, I wouldn’t want to conduct my life the way he did. Ultimately, he died alone, where he’d cut off every loved one he’d ever known. Again, that’s my perception of him: when he died, he could have been surrounded by dozens of loved ones, but the perception I had was that he had alienated dozens of people.

“Kirby, on the other hand, drew people to him and was a very loving and forgiving man.”

Toth, infamous for his personal volatility, died in 2006, while Kirby passed away years earlier in 1994. Mike met Kirby twice, and Toth once.

“He was as friendly and just patient,” he says of Kirby. “Also, when I think of Jack Kirby I think of ‘gratitude’. He really loved the people that appreciated what he did, and that’s what I always saw in him and the way he treated everybody. It wasn’t ‘Oh, you’re important so I’m going to treat you better than this person I don’t know.’ He treated everybody like they were special, and that really came across.

“With Toth, I talked with him on the phone quite a bit, and I met him once at his house. That was exciting. If you were on the roof of his house, you could see the Hollywood bowl. It was a cool, unique neighborhood, and there was this network of sidewalks and even an outside elevator to get you to the next level of this neighborhood. There was a Spanish style of architecture. He was a cluttery guy, and accumulated stacks of things.

“Again, I have a lot of affection for both of these guys. I don’t understand why Alex got so angry and would cut people off for ridiculous reasons. He would be your biggest cheerleader and then go ‘Okay, I’m done with you.’”

Despite any personal differences that erupted between Allred and Toth, and along with the personal inspiration between he and Kirby, the inspiration of both men’s work is still obvious in Mike’s own.

And Madman? He continued to live around goofiness in a pop culture-based world of adventure. He even had a crossover with Superman.

“I want to enjoy things, so what’s fun for me is to surround him with robots, aliens, mutants, and you have all this fun, goofy, pop culture, and genre stuff. And it’s fun!”

And the Allreds have had a multitude of things to enjoy – a uber low-budget film of his pre-Madman works, G-Men from Hell, came out in 2000; Madman had a strong life at Dark Horse Comics in the late ‘90s; Mike made a low budget flick of his own with option money for a Madman movie; a foray into self-publishing with their label AAA Pop Comics – and even two record albums (with music by Mike and his band, The Gear) spinning out of Mike’s Red Rocket 7 mini-series from 1997.

Red Rocket 7 was Allred’s ambitious multi-media foray into non-Madman territory, the story of the immortal clone of an alien who is sucked into the history of rock ‘n’ roll music. In a ballsy move, he even put Madman on hiatus while completing this ambitious seven-issue project, formatted into a square not too removed in size from a record album. Blending prophecies, religion, rock music, ‘60s fabness in a gear vein, and Jack Kirby, Red Rocket 7 was decidedly darker and more adult than Madman, and ended with Red Rocket 7 moving on to rock ‘n’ roll heaven. It was Allred’s chance to pose deeper religious questions in a more serious vein than Madman might have allowed.

Red pops up in the most recent issues of Madman Atomic Comics, when Madman and crew take a trip to space to rock out to an auditorium of aliens.

“I was wrapping up the series and wanted to clarify that it was part of my world. I wanted there to be a definitive universe with my creator-owned work, and also The Gear was doing a new album, so it seemed it was the right time to make that connection,” Mike says.

“I think I’ve established that he’s this inter-dimensional and interstellar character,” he says of revisiting Red. “The way I did it gives new life for me to bring him back any way I want when I want. But for now, I think the story’s been told. At the end of the original series, he ends up in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, and I like the idea of that being open to interpretation.”

2000 saw the coming of Mike’s new superteam, The Atomics, spun out of the pages of Madman. The Allreds took the self-publishing leap with their AAA (Allred Atomic Art) Pop Comics, putting out fifteen issues of The Atomics (guest-starring Madman, who became their de facto team leader). The book lasted until late 2001.

Mike and Laura then made the jump to Marvel Comics that year when they joined up with writer Peter Milligan on the reinvented X-Force title. Formerly yet another X-Men title, Peter and Mike brought out a team of new characters, many of whom didn’t make it more than a few issues before being killed off, in this combination of action, drama, and social parody.

“I played with how much detail and how much economy,” Mike says of his art. “Just before X-Force, I was trying to be as economic with my linework as possible. In some ways, it was too simple. With X-Force I started to get more detail and finer linework, instead of that thick brushstroke, so less bold and more intricate and lush, maybe. Then, also, I was experimenting with efficiency…

“That even goes to ‘Where should I put my pencil down? If I put it here, it’ll be easier to reach.’ It’s something as simple as that. With the X-Force stuff, I even experimented with page size, and was working almost printed size. It was faster, but because of the detail I was putting in it, it ended up physically hurting my hand. Again, it was an experiment, and I learned some things from it and realized other things didn’t work as well as I would like.”

X-Force was rechristened X-Statix in 2002, and lasted two more years. In all, Allred enjoyed a three-year run on a mainstream superhero book that forced him to reinvent his way of working, as well as his style.

After X-Statix, it was time to return to Madman for a one-shot in 2003 (through Oni Press), and then into a more personal venture – The Golden Plates, and Mike and Laura’s openness about their religious beliefs.

“To cap off this whole religion discussion, I’ve learned so much about tolerance. It’s obvious to say, but the horror of religion is how so much of it creates the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to inspire. Every religion is supposed to inspire us to care and love for another, yet people kill each other over it.”

“On our message board, I never realized how much hatred some people had, until that,” Mike says of the announcement about their Mormonism. “There was a tidal wave of ‘Why are you doing this? Mormons are stupid and this and that…’ A lot of it may have been based on a personal experience with somebody, or a misperception; there were a couple of months where we quietly chipped away.”

“There were a few really nice people who chimed in, and Mike didn’t have to say anything,” Laura leaned in and added. “They did it really nicely. And Jamie Rich was awesome!”

“To the credit of the people that are regularly on our website, they are mostly kind, considerate, and compassionate people,” Mike reflects. “I can mostly let them talk things out. There are some pretty strong political discussions going on there; the whole Prop 8 thing came up, and I thought ‘This is going to get ugly,’ but it was all quite nice.

“Again, there’s the principle of agency and choice: there are people in my faith and others who can be so hateful of gay people. If they feel like a gay person is making bad choices, let them make those choices. Don’t try to destroy their lives, because if it is a bad choice, they’ll come to terms with it. Let them do what’s going to make them happy.

“And there’s Christ in general. When did he ever rip on anybody? He was the one who was always getting ripped on…

"And eventually, the angry people just fell away, and just talked stopping. There was a lot of goading and trying to get angry discussion going. It was eventually the patient and kind dialogue that first became the mode of discussion, and then became an interesting discussion.”

The low-key Allred is affected by the reactions aimed at he and Laura. He has to be a cartoonist and create his own worlds, possibly (in part) out of a frustration at the shape of the real world. When the real world isn’t meeting up to its full potential, a better one can be represented through art.

“What it boils down to for me, in its simplest form, is that I see hypocrisy (if not the greatest) as one of the greatest evils,” he says. “If everybody really thought about what their intentions were, and goals were, and what example are they following, I think we’d all be a little nicer to each other. We’re all imperfect, and the second somebody tries to come up with a better idea, they’re called pious and preachy.”

While fairly liberal in his beliefs, Mike Allred belongs to the Human party on the country of “the World”, eschewing an allegiance to either the Democratic or Republican parties.

“While I’m perfectly happy to identify myself with the Mormon faith, I’m also perfectly willing to criticize it and those that I think represent it,” Mike continues. “Again, with the Prop 8 stuff, I don’t want to be associated with the members of the church who claim that the thing to do is to be intolerant of people just wanting the same right as everyone else. It doesn’t affect your faith, how you worship, or what you choose to do with your own life – let them make their own choices. To me, that goes right back to the heart of what Christ taught: love one another, and don’t try to take things from each other. I want to make sure that if someone wants to identify with me in a certain way, I want to clarify the differences that those perceptions of misperceptions may have, and that would be one of the main ones.

“[I don’t] represent the church in general,” Mike elaborates. “This is me. This is my opinion. I think I always clarify that, that this is my opinion.”

“We can each decide what we have in our lives, with everything. We’ve been poor, and we’ve been well off, but the only thing that’s changed is our attitude at that moment in our life. We can be poor and blissfully happy, or we can be rich and horribly miserable; it really is our choice to make the best of what you’ve got. “The more I make a study of life in general, and have this comic book of all things to use as an outlet, the more I learn and the more I grow from it. First and foremost, I hope that people have a good time with my work, and the stories I tell and a part of, but also if something inspires somebody to think ‘You know what? I’m going to make something of my life, even if it’s that tomorrow I’m going to be happier than I was today,’ that’s everything.”

The most recent Madman series, Madman Atomic Comics, features Madman and his pals The Atomics adventuring through space and Snap City. The Allreds have taken a more experimental approach with their work – in one issue, Mike aped several of his favorite cartoonists, as Frank had a subconscious journey with his hero, Mister Excitement; the figures and backgrounds are sometimes drawn separately and compiled in Photoshop, producing an animation cel effect; and Laura’s coloring has taken a more sculpted approach – and they are bringing all the tricks learned to March’s new ongoing series for Vertigo comics. I, Zombie! combines the Allreds’ unique blend of art and coloring to writer Chris Roberson’s script.

“The main girl is a zombie. It’s a running theme in all of my work of dying and coming back again,” Mike jokes. “But, in this case, if she doesn’t eat a brain once a month, she then becomes your drooling, traditional zombie.”

The zombie in question is the short-haired Gwen, who works at a natural “green” cemetery, where the dead are buried without the process of embalming, shy of injections of formaldehyde.

“She buries the bodies with three other guys, and then comes back later, digs them up, and eats the brain once a month,” Mike explains. “The side effect is that the memories overwhelm her, so we can go in any direction on whose brain she just ate: it could be an astronaut, a little boy. But the characters in the story are also fun, too, because her best friends are the ghost of a teenage girl who died in the ‘60s; there’s a 2,000 year old Egyptian man who has to do sacrifices and rituals to stay young, and he’s the mummy character; there’s a were-terrier; and these two kung-fu monster hunters. And there’s a clan of vampires who run a paintball business and take people out into the woods and shoot them.”

The first Zombie story was in the House of Mystery Halloween Annual, and featured Gwen, Ellie (a ghost), and their were-terrier pal going trick or treating in the Allreds’ hometown of Eugene, Oregon. They just happen to knock on the door of a mummy preparing a human sacrifice…

“I can say right now that Gwen, the lead character, is easily in the top three of my favorite female characters, ever,” Mike points out. “She may sail into first place: I like her every bit as much as Jo or It Girl.”

It’s now past midnight, and Mike Allred has to be too tired for hype: all that’s left for it to be is his trademark golly gee sincerity and enthusiasm, whether it’s talking about comics, religion, or planning their trip to Strawberry Fields tomorrow.

“With any opportunity, I really always want to talk about the potential of comic books in general,” Mike says in closing. “Even today, it’s so untapped, the power to combine pictures with words. I always want to express to people out there who want to give it a shot: if they do, have fun with it, no matter the skill level. As long as you’re having fun, it’s good for you. If you have fun with it, you do it more, and if you do it more you get better at it, and if you get better at it it’s more fun…and it keeps building on itself. I say that because I’m a fan, and anytime I can get excited about somebody else’s work, it gets me excited about my own. The more people who jump into the pool, the more fun the party’s going to be. I encourage everybody to pitch in and do stuff that’s going to get me excited.”
See more of Mike Allred's work at his AAAPop Comics! site.

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