"I never let Reality interfere with what I'm doing."
My first encounter with the work of Shaky Kane came at the age of 12, when I spent my allowance on a copy of his oversized pop/horror anthology Black Star Fiction Library that I'd found at a torn-down comic shop in the Michigan boondocks. It was one of those indelible comics-reading experiences that does so much more than simply telling you a story or showing you some pictures. Kane's art -- a panic of expressionistic linework graven into seas of flat day-glo color -- has all the heft and urgency of prime Kirby, tied in with the deconstructed sensibility of punk cartoonists like Kaz and the mind-expanding fervor of Brendan McCarthy. It's some of the smartest comics drawing around, incorporating pop art precepts and trash-culture ambiance into a visual assault that seems to have sprung fully formed from the comics medium itself. The stories Kane weds it to are more than deserving of such glory; fractured, vaudevillian nightmare tales that feel like pre-Code horror comics left for decades to rot in a cellar somewhere before being introduced into the glamor of the modern world.
It took me a few years to get out of the habit of checking the racks for another issue of Black Star, but I finally did. Kane was out of comics, leaving behind the Black Star one shot (two issues for UK readers), an impossible-to-find comic called A-Men, and work in few scattered issues of Britcomics anthologies like Deadline and Revolver. If that were the end of the story, it would still be a good one -- comics is full of enigmatic artists who enter the medium for a few violent, glorious gestures before ceasing to exist. But it all gets so much better, as this year Kane resurfaced in the company of writer David Hine with the Image miniseries The Bulletproof Coffin. An exhilarating blast of danger out of a clear blue sky, Bulletproof takes the grimy fodder of Kane's old stories and weds them to Silver Agey off-brand superheroes and a cautionary tale about letting obsessions take over from real life. It's vital, virtuosic, and above all meaningful stuff (after all, you're reading this blog, aren't you?)... but I'll let the man himself tell us the rest.
MATT SENECA: Though you've had a pretty long, wide-ranging career in comics, Bulletproof Coffin is many American readers' first exposure to your work. A lot of people are saying it's almost like you've come out of nowhere. So who is Shaky Kane? Where have you been that's led you to where you are now?
SHAKY KANE: You know, I’ve never had a career plan. On a basic level I like to keep myself busy drawing and certain ideas seem to occur to me as I draw. Word associations, characters… Its just the way I’m wired. Drawing is a fairly laborious task, gives you a lot of thinking time, its something that’s always seemed fairly natural to me.
Kirby once said you don’t draw with a pencil, you draw with your head.
You know when you’re a teenager you get a notion about the kind of person you might be, someone a little less everyday? Well I figure I’ve kept it going a little longer than most people. I’ve never let Reality, as I perceive it, interfere with what I’m doing.
MS: You've been out of comics for the better part of a decade -- what were you up to? And what energized you to return?
SK: As a matter of fact it was running into David Hine at Bristol Comic Expo here in the UK a couple of years back.
In fact, I’d just about given up on getting anywhere in the comics industry, for want of a better term. You see, unless you’re the guy who draws in this manner or that manner there isn’t a lot of work out there. Step outside the arena and comics rapidly lose their importance. I can’t remember meeting very many people who were interested in comic books, in my everyday life, in particular here in the UK.
I know superhero movies and the spin-off merchandise were certainly popular, but I wouldn’t imagine the paying customers had much idea where the images sprang from anymore than they could tell you who sat down and designed the Barbour check baseball cap!
It’s a marketing exercise.
Dave was the guy who actually had the patience to listen to my somewhat dyslexic pitch!
MS: Talk about Bulletproof Coffin. There's a lot of "figuring" about it on the comics internet, a lot of attempts to define exactly what it is and what it's doing. Care to give us your thoughts?
SK: Since the reviews, and I’ll confess I have read one or two, I keep reading the word META. I wish somebody would tell me what it is.
Post Modern? If I went to an art gallery I’d be hard pressed to pick out the Post Modern paintings from the Modern ones.
I’ve got a comic book here in front of me, happens to be my favorite cover, it's Batman #188. Now on the front it reads: "WHOOSH! HERE COMES THE RUBBER-HEADED VILLAIN -- THE ERASER WHO TRIED TO RUB OUT BATMAN!" It shows this villain shaped like a pencil actually erasing the Dynamic Duo from the front cover. Are they drawings? So how come they’re reacting in alarm? Is this Meta? Is it Post Modern?
The book came out in 1966.
I bought it as a kid. I never had a problem with it! I wasn’t a comic book critic, I wasn’t even that smart, I just liked the way the guy looked in the pencil costume. It’s comic books, it's not anchored to the physical world.
MS: Word. How involved with the writing of Bulletproof Coffin are you? Both you and David Hine have "story" credits, though he's listed as the scripter -- what's the nature of your contribution?
SK: Basically I sent Dave a whole folder of disjointed ideas, names of characters, sketches, situations, bubble gum card ideas... I would have recorded a double album of Bulletproof Coffin power ballads if it would have helped! I pitched it. And you know what? David took those ideas and worked them into a story -- he used some kind of magic and bound it all together and it’s a great book to draw.
MS: Bulletproof Coffin seems pretty deeply rooted in the tropes and stylistic gestures of the Silver Age. Are there any particular creators or books that inspired you most? Any approach you're trying to emulate or homage?
SK: I’ll tell you how it goes. Last Saturday I did a Bulletproof signing, along with David, graphic magician Liam Sharp and the incredible Simon Bisley at a comic store in Northampton.
After the signing I’m looking around the store and I’ll tell you what I bought. I bought the Superman: Bottle City of Kandor trade paperback. I know I’m going to enjoy looking at Curt Swan’s art. I’m going to enjoy the color schemes. And it's brand new, it's not musty! It’s a thing of true beauty, and I like it too much and inside I know I shouldn’t. There are a lot of great contemporary books out there, and the guys who draw that stuff are, to [borrow] from Peter Griffin, ‘Smart Fellers’ -- but I know that if I took them home I’d never get around to reading them. And that’s me, so I’m an asshole, I can live with that!
MS: Issue #1 of Bulletproof Coffin is full of pop culture artifacts that exert a sinister influence over, or even outright attack, their audience. Is there a specific audience reaction you guys are going for? How would readers ideally be affected by your comic?
SK: Pop Culture, it's in my head. It's like a virus, it's all I think about.
I could never be [Bulletproof Coffin's] Steve Newman, I like the way new things look too much. The internet opens up dimensions of newness. I think readers might imagine I’ve got all these old comic books I refer to. Apart from The Eraser in Batman, which again was a signing trophy, I’ve only got new stuff. I haven’t even got old artwork. That old A-Men art must be worth a fortune now… well, I threw it all out, it got old-looking.
MS: There's also a pretty heavy ambivalence toward mainstream culture, mainstream comics especially, running through Bulletproof. How do you feel about the current corporate comics scene?
SK: This is pretty much David’s territory. I’ve never had that much to do with comic book publishers. I worked for Fleetway, when they published 2000 AD.
This is the sort of people I dealt with. The Editor, he said to me, "Shaky -- your Batman NME cartoon (I used to draw gags for The New Musical Express), it used to be on my office wall in New Zealand." So next time I saw him, I found the cartoon he was talking about, and I gave it to the guy. You know what he said? He said “It was on the office wall, I never actually said I liked it!”
Was that meant to be funny? Guy was serious. How can you deal with people like that? Is the guy a moron? Jesus wept, don’t get me started. Maybe ten years later I saw him on a TV quiz show. He was a contestant on "The Weakest Link", THE WEAKEST FUCKING LINK, ruined my day.
MS: Jack Kirby is obviously a big influence on your artwork. Is there anything that specifically inspires you about his work, or that you take away from it as being especially important?
SK: He was so important to me as kid. I was always his biggest fan. In the way that Curt Swan depicted a tangible small-town America, Jack described in his pictures an America which to me was both evocative and seamlessly realized. It was an America I yearned for. If I can convey in my art just a fleeting notion of what I saw in Jack’s work, I will have done my job.
MS: What artists besides Kirby do you consider yourself to be influenced by? Your approach to storytelling, especially, seems pretty different from anything else out there at the moment...
SK: There’s a whole shopping list. Savage Pencil, Andy Dog, Andy Warhol, Jamie Reid, Franco Saudelli, the list stretches on and on, there’s even a bit of the guy who drew Beetle Bailey mixed in there.
You know, I hardly ever get to read appraisals of Brett Ewins' work. I remember coming across Brett and Brendan (McCarthy)'s Sometime Stories, and it seemed that someone was on the same wavelength. Brett and Brendan were the first in the UK to produce work which was both forward-looking yet nostalgic for what was cool about comic books. Seeing their work made me want to do something in comics. Years later it was meeting Brett, who was incredibly generous with his time, which led to me producing the stuff I’m known for.
MS: Unique as your artwork is, it seems to share kind of a common... spirit, I guess, with a lot of the British artists who came up in the same wave as you. I'm thinking of guys like Phillip Bond, Jamie Hewlett, McCarthy, Duncan Fegredo, Rian Hughes. Was there a lot of shared influence among the Deadline/Revolver crew? A zeitgeist you were all tapping into?
SK: It was the era when the things were produced. I was fabulously lucky, and again I owe it to Brett, and of course Steve Dillon. In retrospect it definitely looks like a scene. But you know, the reality is that you go back home and draw the stuff, independent of each other. And I can’t imagine anyone saw much of, say, Jamie Hewlett in the Etch-A-Sketch-y work I carved out! And I was a good ten years older than most of the Deadline contributors. I had more Punk Rock sensibilities, I guess.
MS: Your Bulletproof Coffin linework has a really interesting thing going on where sometimes it's incredibly fine and tight and sometimes it gets kind of grainy, looking like it's been blown up larger than its original size. How do you achieve that?
SK: Funny you should mention it! I’ll tell you. I can’t draw to order! I get a drawing pad and I draw. If I like the way the picture came out then I reduce it to fit the panel, and manually paste-up the pages at twice print size.
Issue one, panel one [below] is made up of at least six separate drawings, the tree alone is at least eight inches tall! All stuck together. Hence the variety of pen lines. But it works and looks cool to me, at least! And I’m my own worst critic!
MS: What role do digital processes play in your artwork?
SK: Computers drive me nuts. It was only during issue #3 of Bulletproof that I figured out how to reduce a page into two parts and marry the image up on the screen for coloring. I used to cart the paste-up art off to Staples to get it reduced to scan size! But the color's a revelation -- say goodbye to hand-painted color misery. Isn’t it cool coloring stuff on a computer? Especially with the flat color I’m looking for. Just plug those gaps in the black line!
MS: Last question: what's coming up for you? What's in the pipeline for Bulletproof Coffin, and is there anything beyond that you've got planned?
SK: Reactions have been so positive, you can bet we’ll be back. Don’t expect more of the same, though. Bulletproof Coffin is a concept beyond Steve Newman’s world, it’s the description of obsession. The BULLETPROOF COFFIN we build around ourselves to shield us from inconvenient reality! MAN, THAT IS META!
Bulletproof thanks to Shaky Kane for his time and copy! Bulletproof Coffin #2 is scheduled for release next next Wednesday, July 14th, and you better get going now if you want to find a copy of the sold-out #1! And don't forget to track down the rest of the Shaky Kane library by whatever means necessary!