"Judge Parker's" new artist debuts today. (KFS)
The call came just weeks back. Would Mike Manley be interested in drawing "Judge Parker"?
The strip's artist, Eduardo Barreto, had become severely ill, and King Features's comics editor, Brendan Burford, needed a replacement. Manley and John Heebink, who had known each other for two decades, since high school, would be in the running for the job.
"It was definitely a two-man tryout ... ," Manley, 48, tells Comic Riffs. "After I turned in my second week, Brendan offered me the strip full time."
So it is that today, Manley makes his debut as "Judge Parker's" artist -- a move that the strip's writer, Woody Wilson, says he feels very optimistic about.
That is partly a credit to Manley's resume: The Detroit native has been a pro's pro since he began drawing for DC Comics, and then Marvel, at age 23.
Manley, now a Philadelphia resident, has drawn for such titles as "Transformers," Conan and Spider-Man. He co-created the Marvel character Darkhawk. He has worked for animated Superman and Batman shows, as well as the animated "Clerks" and HBO's "Spawn." His Action Planet Comics features his creation "Monsterman."
And in his "spare time," he produces DRAW! magazine and is studying for his MFA in painting.
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Manley to discuss his boyhood desire to be Frank Frazetta; vast changes in the comic syndication business -- and how a single Michigan high school came to produce himself, Heebink and "Troubletown" cartoonist Lloyd Dangle in short order.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Welcome to the comics page, Mike. With your extensive background in comic books and animation, are you a big fan of newspaper comics pages, too?
MIKE MANLEY: Comics are a big part of getting the newspaper. They give you all that value for the dollar -- or 50 cents. Even if you don't read them every day, it's comforting to know they're there.
MC: In "Judge Parker," you're inheriting the art for a legacy strip. Running legacy strips is hotly debated by readers, of course, since by definition the original creator is no longer producing the comic. What's your take?
MM: With the legacy strip, I can see both sides. I can see where because space is tight, new cartoonists think they deserve a shot at what they can do there. But when you have a comic that's had a 40-year run, papers know it's popular. ... It's a safe bet. And now, with strips online, that changes [the business] because you can offer more strips in the paper on your Web site.
I always will tell people: It's like we're in the first 10 years of radio -- people weren't sure how it was going to work out. As it progresses over the next 10-15 years, it will come to look more like radio today. The fact it, you either embrace change or you end up like the music business, which refused to embrace change.
MC: And now, of course, satellite radio changed the game for radio again.
MM: I listen to a lot of Internet radio -- I only listen to terrestrial radio when I'm in my car -- but that's an example of being willing to [continue to] embrace all that's changing. Formats come and go. It's like my commercial art career: I used to always be faxing things -- faxing cover sketches to Marvel, or getting a faxed script, and when I did storyboards for Warner Bros., I would fax the board. Now it's all FTP.
Mike Manley. (courtesy of the artist)
MC: So how did you first get into art, especially cartooning?
MM: My grandfather was a commercial artist and I always liked comics and cartooning. And "Wonderful World of Disney" used to show [the artists working behind the scenes], and Gulf stations sold a Disney magazine. So I was aware that you could make a living doing this. And then, before [in Michigan], I would go to a comic book store every day after school, and got into more serious collecting and following. By the time I was 13, I decided that's what I wanted to be: A comic book artist or animator or illustrator. Frank Frazetta seemed to be able to do everything, so he was my role model.
MC: Ever meet Frazetta?
MM: I've never met Frank. But I was lucky enough to share a studio with one of his longtime friends, Al Williamson, who is one of the great comic book artists.
MC: So how did you first find work as an artist?
MM: I had a commercial art class in high school in Ann Arbor, so I made a portfolio and [got hired in town]. I was 15 when I started in commercial printing. I did that off and on, then [eventually] began working for the Detroit Metro Times [as art director at age 21]. I did that till I was 23 and got my first job working at DC Comics.
MC: Did you go to college at all to study art?
MM: I'm back in school now, at the Penn Academy of Fine Arts, where I'm an undergrad now and am going for my master's in painting. But after high school, I wasn't getting the art education that I was interested in, at Washtenaw Community College. I went to a comics convention and that ... opened the door to DC. When you get one job, then the next editor calls you and then the next. ... Once you're in the door and your word is good and you've proved yourself reliable, then usually people come seeking you out.
MC: So did your style evolve over time?
MM: My style's always been flexible. I've always been a good chameleon. I like a wide variety of cartooning and illustration. I like very realistic stuff by Neal Adams, but also Warner Bros. cartoons.
MC: How has that flexibility helped in stepping into "Judge Parker"?
MM: I'm now on my fifth week of the strip. You start fairly following Eduardo -- you want to stay close to their style. And style is like clothes. If you're in shape [as an artist], you can wear anything and it will fit. I knew: If I really work on my good solid fundamentals, that would allow me to please different [projects] stylistically. With Disney, or Warner, you have to draw the character just [how] the character should look. With Superman or Batman, there's a little more liberty. You can do their flavor, in animation and comic books.
I'm used to being able to flex my style -- that's the easiest aspect.
MC: Prior to being approached about "Judge Parker," were you a devoted reader of the strip?
MM: To be honest, I didn't follow it too much, though I'd see it occasionally online. But I'd worked with Eduardo before, inking his work.
MC: Woody [Wilson] says he's never meet Eduardo before -- have you?
MM: Yeah, I met Eduardo four years ago, at [San Diego] Comic-Con.
MC: So you were already very familiar with his style. Can you speak to adapting to his style -- and the constraints of a continuity comic strip?
MM: Eduardo and I have very similar influences artistically. It's all a little restricting to walk in someone else's shoes. I talked to Brendan and Woody about this. It's not like people are going to flip to an entirely [different looking] strip -- one minute it's Neal Adams, the next minute it's Jack Davis. It's not that jarring.
That said, some people, no matter what, won't be happy that it's me and not Eduardo. But [give it] five months. That's the nature of it: Everyone gripes when something changes. People don't like change. I was aware of that even as a kid, when "The Flintstones" made changes after the first season. ...
So people will be upset about change. But as you go along, they'll see: Eduardo and I have some similar influences and tastes. I'm a huge fan of Hal Foster and Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff -- most all illustrative [classic comic] styles descend from one branch of those three great trees. I'm closest to the Alex Raymond tree.
MC: So how is it so far, working in such a style and producing under weekly deadlines?
MM: There are a lot of great cartoonists who couldn't produce work consistently. In this job, you have to sit down and hit the ball [at least] 300 days a year. You can't go 10, 12, 14 days of swinging at air. This has to be a fit for your personality.
So I'm still trying to live up to my heroes. Every panel, every page, I try to step up to the plate and artistically hit a home run.