From Monty Python to Mad to Manga: An Interview with Mark Crilley

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Brody's Ghost by Mark CrilleyBrody's Ghost by Mark Crilley

Image: Dark Horse Books

Mark Crilley has been a storyteller most of his life.

His work includes the Eisner Award-nominated Akiko books, the acclaimed four-part Miki Falls series and his latest tale, Brody’s Ghost, a six-volume Dark Horse Books project which debuted last summer. Book 2 in the series has just been released.

Crilley looked up from his drawing table recently long enough for an email interview with GeekDad. And we started by flipping the pages, of course, back to the beginning…

GeekDad: You’ve said that the art always came first – even that “I’ll bet I wrote stories simply to give myself something to illustrate” – and that some of your earliest influences were monster-drawing assignments in school, the artists of Mad magazine, and an M.C. Escher exhibit which inspired you to “make realistic drawings of strange, other-worldly things.” What else in the way of books or television or movies grabbed your imagination and shaped the way you saw things?

Mark Crilley: One of the early influences was Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I think of them as kind of The Beatles of comedy: Innovators, hugely intelligent, and — though sometimes a bit out there — always accessible in terms of what they were getting at. It’s pretty easy to see the influence of the early Star Wars movies, particularly on my Akiko books. When I was at college I studied under children’s book illustrator David Small, and this led to a lot of artistic influences both in terms of classic children’s illustrations and masters of western art like Rembrandt and Degas.

GD: In describing your parents, you’ve noted that they weren’t artists, but that your mother “had a creative streak and was always making things for us: stuffed animals, superhero costumes.” You’ve also written about her “creative tunnel vision” and penchant for delving deep into a subject or project, and that you’ve inherited that. Can you give an example or two of how that’s come through in your own work?

MC: Well, it has come into play in a lot of things over the years. When I went to Taiwan to teach English after graduating from college, I threw myself into learning Chinese with a real “tunnel vision” kind of dedication. As a result I became conversational in Mandarin within about a year. More recently I decided to teach myself how to draw in a manga-influenced style and thus focused exclusively on that for many months until I was able to produce a project like Miki Falls. I can trace this desire to teach myself something, quickly and intensely, straight back to my mother.

GD: You’ve written about your earliest creations: “There are stories I wrote about race-car drivers, men who turn invisible, and kids living in the future who take antigravity pills,” and that some of your first stories were inspired by The Twilight Zone. Any other favorite storytellers who made an impact early on?

MC: I read a lot of Peanuts collections as a child, so I’m sure that Schulz’s style of writing (if not necessarily his approach to drawing) had an influence on me. My father used to read The Hobbit to us, so I think a touch of that was in there, though I’ve never been a huge “swords and wizards” kind of guy. I’d have to go back to those Mad guys, though, particularly Sergio Aragones and Al Jaffee, as my big influences in childhood.

GD: You’ve said that you really started working on your writing during college and in several years of post-college traveling, meshing it with your art, for instance, in what you describe as an “illustrated diary” called Across Asia. What parts of that multi-year journey have had the longest-lasting impact on your storytelling?

MC: I always say that Akiko on the Planet Smoo was an allegory for my experience traveling overseas. As I went from country to country, seeing mind-blowing pieces of architecture and encountering incredible new sounds and tastes, this provided me with a template for the amazing adventures Akiko could have, leaving the dullness of her ordinary life for the more exotic locale of another planet. It’s a theme I’ve come back to again and again.

Artist and writer Mark CrilleyArtist and writer Mark Crilley

Image courtesy of Mark Crilley.

GD: Teaching English in the small Japanese city of Morioka in the early 1990s, you serialized a comic story titled “The Beast That Ate Morioka” in the local newspaper, and you wrote the first version of Akiko on the Planet Smoo. Were you already at this point primarily interested in creating manga-influenced art? What is it about that style that you find most appealing, and are there aspects of it which you don’t care for, or that you deliberately try to avoid in your work?

MC: I don’t really see the Akiko comic book series as having been primarily manga-influenced. There are touches of it here and there—the design of Poog, for example—but it’s all more similar to classic American cartooning like Little Nemo in Slumberland or Popeye. I did look at a fair amount of manga in Japan when I was living there though, so it was all there in the back of my head waiting for me when I sat down to create Miki Falls years later.

One of my favorite aspects of manga is that it allows for a huge variety of stories, ranging from wild fantasies to things more grounded in everyday life. This has of course always been true of American comics as well, but by the 1990s the American comic industry had become so wrapped up in superheroes and dark gritty tales that it was pretty hard to imagine a place there for a sweet, innocent love story. Manga had been specializing in this type of story for years, so it was a natural choice for Miki Falls. I’m not a fan of the more wildly exaggerated manga styles, and so you don’t see much of that in my work.

GD: Flash forward a bit: You’ve had success with the Akiko books, which are aimed at younger readers, and then in the mid-2000s, you decided to write for a bit older audience with Miki Falls. Talk a little bit about that transition, and what your goals were with both the art and the writing as far as trying to tell a little more mature story.

MC: Actually there was a second project in there: Billy Clikk, a series of chapter books I did for Random House, very much targeting the same age group as Akiko. By the time I was finishing up work on that I was ready for something new. The big thing about Miki Falls for me was maybe not so much that it was intended for an older readership in terms of content, but more that it would be read by a more patient readership: One that had no need of explosions monsters to stay interested in a story.

This freed me up to focus almost exclusively on the characters and the various decisions they made as the story unfolded. This is of course the stuff of good storytelling from its earliest days, but it was for me fairly new territory. Many of the Akiko stories were made up on the fly: “Things are getting a little slow. Let’s have a big dragon creature suddenly show up!” There’s a certain charm to that kind of storytelling, to be sure, but it tends to result in things becoming very episodic. Miki Falls was carefully plotted out from beginning to end, allowing for plot twists that made sense and could hold up to real scrutiny.

In the second Miki Falls book I sat down to create a situation in which Miki intends to help her friend but ends up inadvertently alienating her. It involved a series of scenes building toward a slip of the tongue on Miki’s part that causes her entire plan to come crashing down. I’d never done anything like that in the Akiko days. I felt I had entered the realm of the serious writer – or had at least dipped my toe into it – for the first time.

Still, I hope there’s a consistency in my storytelling approach from Akiko to Miki Falls and beyond: A certain type of pacing, a way of writing dialogue that is distinctly “me.” I think the people who really get what I’m all about as a storyteller will enjoy both stories.

GD: Where, then, was Brody’s Ghost born, idea-wise? How has the story and/or art evolved over the course of its development – are the characters what you had in mind from the beginning, or have they taken different directions?

MC: Brody’s Ghost had a longer development period that anything I’ve ever done. In its earliest form the main character was going to be female. In another incarnation it was to be set in Japan: “Toshi’s Ghost.” But the basic idea was always to pivot away from Miki Falls and challenge myself again to do something drastically different. If people imagined that I was now primarily interested in love stories, I wanted to startle them by throwing that all out the window and going “dark.” Hence the decaying futuristic cityscape that is the setting for Brody’s Ghost.

I also wanted the main character to be different from all of my previous main characters, who were generally well-adjusted kids with a lot of spunk. This time I wanted to present the reader with a slightly messed-up protagonist: someone in the midst of a downward spiral and in need of a big turnaround. It’s surprising what a big decision it is just to depict your lead actor as having razor stubble. People immediately draw certain conclusions about him: He’s a loser! He’s a bum!

Brody’s Ghost is also – ironically, considering I’ve been in the comic book industry for fifteen years now – my first attempt at a sort of superhero story. Brody would never end up with a cape and spandex, but he is following the classic arc of the weak young man who acquires great strength. The key difference is that I’m staying away from the “instant empowerment” of gamma radiation and spider bites and going instead for what might be called the “Luke Skywalker” approach: Powers acquired gradually, though enormous self-sacrifice on the part of the protagonist.

GD: Do you still have ideas and projects in the younger reader range, or do you see yourself continuing to create more for the Brody’s Ghost and Miki Falls audiences?

MC: I’m looking forward to returning to the young reader world, hopefully with my next project. As you’ve probably gathered by now I hate the idea of repeating myself, of painting myself into some sort of creative corner where I’m only allowed to tell one type of story. This applies to my illustration style as well: I try to reinvent myself with each new project, almost to the point of making my artwork unrecognizable as having been drawn by the same person.

I’d even like to try something for the very youngest readers at some point: A picture book. I’ve got a number of ideas in that area; it’s just a matter of connecting with a publisher.

GD: You’re also known for your YouTube instructional videos – with so much writing and illustration already on your plate, how did those come about, and why are these important to you? Does it tie into things like your classroom visits to talk about your books – in which you seem to have an awful lot of fun and make an impact on the kids?

MC: The YouTube thing is something that started very small and then somehow mushroomed into a big following. I initially just wanted to get the word out about Miki Falls, but soon found that people were watching my videos as drawing lessons. As more people watched I got hooked on passing on drawing tips to the next generation, and so I continued producing more and more instructional videos. It’s cool because it allows me to be a sort of long-distance mentor to lots of people who don’t have access to a drawing teacher. I think kids particularly appreciate having an art teacher who takes manga seriously, and doesn’t dismiss it as an inferior art form. I’m sure plenty of art teachers are all, “Stop drawing those saucer-eyed characters! Draw this still life instead!”

It has on a few occasions resulted in YouTube viewers getting their schools to invite me to speak. But my public speaking at schools and libraries predates YouTube by many years, and the vast majority of those engagements come from word of mouth. If you’re good at standing in front of kids of all ages, holding their attention, and getting them inspired to read and write more, then word gets around about that pretty fast. A top selling author is not necessarily a great speaker, and the last thing schools want is to spend big money to bring an author in and find that they ended up putting the kids to sleep. Which happens, believe me: I’ve heard the stories.

GD: Talk a little bit about being a geeky dad: How old are your kids, and what sort of things do they enjoy? Do you share any particularly geeky activities as a family?

MC: Our son Matthew is eleven, and our daughter Mio is four. Matthew is into all sorts of things, but is particularly good at sports. He does soccer and karate on a weekly basis. Mio is our little craftsperson, always making things out of paper, stickers, and anything else she can get her hands on. The main thing that I geek out about is pop music, and I believe I’ve passed that on to both of them. Matthew knows all the latest hits, and Mio is currently hooked on the Tangled soundtrack.

GD: It seems like our generation of parents has benefited from the technology of being able to easily share so many bits of our pop culture past – have you “passed on” any specific bits of fandom, or shared, for instance, things like those old Twilight Zone episodes that made a big impression on you?

MC: I have shown Matthew old Mad magazine stuff and, when he was younger, made sure he saw the original Star Wars movies. But for the most part I’m more interested in going to where he is – allowing him to introduce me to new pop songs I haven’t heard, say – than making sure he hears all the Beatles albums or whatever. I suppose the one thing that I try to pass on to him a bit is my sense of what is high quality versus low quality in current pop culture offerings. He’ll hear me singing the praises of a spot-on song parody on Phineas and Ferb then see me rolling my eyes through an entire episode of Suite Life on Deck. In a general sense he sees that I don’t dismiss all pop culture as junk, but rather sift through it to find the really good stuff.

GD: Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to GeekDad and our readers – and could you remind us again what the time frame is for the release of the remaining four Brody’s Ghost books?

MC: It was a real pleasure. There will be a bit of a delay on the third Brody installment since I’m in the middle of creating a big How to Draw Manga paperback for Impact Books right now. I’m sure readers would rather have a quality book than have me rush it and deliver sub-par artwork. So it may be quite late in 2011 before we see the next book. But this is the one where the “Penny Murderer” story really starts to kick in, so it’ll definitely be worth waiting for.

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