Steve Mannion, Independent Comic Artist
Steve Mannion launched an independent art and comics business two decades ago. He joins host Terence Dollard to discuss his creative process.
- Hello, and welcome to Comic Culture.
I'm Terence Dollard,
a professor in the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
My guest today is writer/artist Steve Mannion.
Steve, welcome to Comic Culture.
- Thanks Terence, thanks for having me on.
- Now Steve, if I recall correctly,
you started your career at DC Comics,
and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about
your early career and then how that led you to
where you are now.
- Let's see, I attended
the Joe Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey
and studied under Joe.
It was great.
It was a great school.
I learned lettering and stuff,
and I would come back and I came back with a portfolio
with a lot of lettering in it.
And I actually got a day job at DC Comics in the bullpen
where we would fix art mistakes
and lettering that all the freelancers would do.
Last minute, we put together the books,
and I was up there for about three years
and got to know everybody up there.
And that was like directly from the Kubert School.
We were always called the Kubert School for new guys
you know, [chuckles] it was such
a great hotbed of talent
and people that really knew the racket, you know.
And as things went on, I had enough freelance,
I started to do it a little bit with the para,
and I forget the name of it.
It wasn't Paradox Press.
It was one of the smaller, the big book series up there.
And then when I left,
I did a quick story over at Marvel,
and the Marvel editor, it's such a small industry,
he moved over to DC and I got this Batman job.
That was really fun, somebody else, and they needed it fast.
It was great to just,
"It looks great, how many more can you have by Tuesday?"
[chuckles] You know, fantastic.
I was like, "Aren't they great?"
And they're just going,
"How many more can you have my Wednesday?"
And they just wanted it fast, you know?
And it was great.
It was a really, I mean, right out of the gate
getting a Batman story and a captain America story
over at Marvel was fantastic.
- And when you are at the Kubert School,
I've spoken to Anthony Marques,
who is the current president of the school,
and I've spoken with a number of the graduates there,
Ron Randall, Lee Weeks.
And so many folks have said great things about the school.
So you're at DC, you're in the bullpen,
you're doing all of this work.
You're kinda learning the craft, sort of the dirty work
of comics, you know, fixing stuff up.
So when you're working on that Batman story
or that Captain America story and they need it really quick,
how do you sort of say,
you know what, I know that it's gotta be quick,
but it also has to be good.
How do you find that balance?
- That's a good question.
Boy, I just remember getting the script,
printing it out, and starting [chuckles].
That's like all, they were just like this thing's late.
The Captain America story,
they let me have some time with,
but I still tried to get like a page penciled a day
and a page inked a day, I wanted to produce.
I had some practice under my belt
for doing a couple of small projects for smaller publishers
so I was used to busting out some pages.
All my spare time I would spend drawing pages
and inking pages, lettering.
I liked, still to this day, I like to letter my own pages.
I was kinda seasoned by the time I got it.
I just knew, boy, I got it.
And I was so inspired.
It was like, this should be a crime
to have this much fun doing a job.
It was like Two-Face draws a comic book story,
get to be as crazy as I wanted.
And I'm kind of a crazy artist, you know?
So I was just busting out these crazy pictures, you know,
one a day, boom, boom, boom.
Putting them in FedEx to get them out.
I think the inspiration alone just had me doing,
I thought it came out really good, you know.
It was fun as heck to do, and that once you got that,
I mean, it didn't even feel like a job.
It was fantastic.
I didn't put too much thought into that aspect.
That does come up in some of my other work.
And I'm sure every pro you'll meet, I heard Tony Morris say,
"You can't knock it out of the park every day
"when you're busting out a deadline."
Sometimes you just like schmucking in a couple of cards,
put them in silhouette and move on, you know.
So that that's the name of the game,
but that was a fantastic experience.
That was really pretty easy to draw
and keep the level up.
- You said that you're working at DC in the daytime,
you're doing artwork on your own at night.
So how do you sort of balance this out so that you have,
you know, time to sleep or maybe have a social life
or eat some food or make sure that the lights stay on?
How do you kind of keep yourself from overworking
and letting one side suffer versus the other.
- Boy, I was younger then.
- [chuckles] - I was younger then.
I remember right before I got to DC,
I was doing pages and trying to get in.
I was freshening up my portfolio and I was actually doing
landscape construction at the time,
and digging holes, and pick and shovel work,
and stuff like that.
And I was up till two in the morning trying to do these,
and my mother said, "What's the matter with you?
"When are you going to stop doing that?" [chuckles]
You know, and I said,
"Probably when I'm 78 or something, I don't know."
But it was just, I was young fortunately,
so I could sort of burn the candle
a bit more than I can nowadays.
And I wanted it, I just wanted to do it, you know,
and those really helped me.
Those two things were a blessing, you know.
- [Terence] And after that, it you've moved over to
AD 2000 which is, I guess, the home of Judge Dread.
And you've also done some work for Heavy Metal.
And I'm just wondering,
how do you sort of shift gears because there's a difference
in that style of artwork,
and I've seen your Judge Dredd pieces
and they have that great,
as we said before the show started,
that British aesthetic.
So how do you sort of refine your artwork
and match what they're looking for, and I guess, you know,
find your voice in that new style?
- 2000 AD called me up with a horror story they were
releasing, I guess you could say,
or republishing Scream, sort of creepy eerie type of book.
And my stuff already fit in.
I always noticed that I've had a lot of editors say,
"We love your stuff, Steve,
"but we just don't have anything for you."
You know, they'd need, but when a horror story comes up,
I can usually just get right into the groove
just cause that's my strengths, you know,
zombies and things like that, pretty girls in trouble,
you know, [chuckles] that kind of thing fits right into
my wheelhouse, you know.
So I always got that in my mind, like,
Ah man, I gotta have it come out this good
or something, and it just comes out. [chuckles]
You know, I'm starting to kind of embrace it.
It just gonna come out.
You know, I always want it better.
I'm one of those artists that's always striving
to make it better, you know, and things like that.
But thank God the work comes in you know.
People still say, "Hey, we want you to do this"
every once in a while.
And it's a good feeling.
And it's always a challenge.
That's a Joe Kubrick thing, too.
Every job he wants to do better than the last job.
I think like that too, you know,
kind of neat when I remember him saying that to us.
- And I'm just wondering, for a lot of artists
it's a challenge going from pencils and ink
to maybe doing some color work.
So I'm wondering, when you're doing a cover
and maybe you're doing all the work yourself,
how are you sort of, you know,
leaving yourself enough space, like you're not
over penciling, you're not overinking,
so that way you can have something that you can still
express with the color?
- Boy, I'll tell you there was a fella,
and he would call me the night before and say,
"Steve, we need this by tomorrow."
[chuckles] And I would put on a pot, "Man, he did it again."
And I put out a pot of coffee and just get to it.
You know, like I'd make a little thumbnail quick as I could,
email, looks good, blow it up and trace it
without even penciling sometimes.
Just make a really tight thumbnail
like that big, you know.
And I used to get every one of them.
And sometimes that made them better.
I met them all, I met all those deadlines.
11 o'clock at night, too, Terence, it would be
[imitates telephone ringing] I'd say,
"Oh no, that's Jim again, it's him." [chuckles]
Sometimes the deadline helps to push you
and some of the covers come out really good.
They always got done.
I think that's a big part that I would stress to anybody
starting out like showing up that you did even a
small comic job and it got done and met a deadline
is kind of important.
And I'd always liked to have a little more time,
but there's a time also where it's too long
and it's got to get out the door, you know, and I stop.
And I recently have a job where I just stop myself and say,
"Let me send it to him now and see what he says." you know,
and he always says it's great, it looks great, you know.
I guess time to answer your question.
The time restraint of the job will really make a difference,
but I'm starting to get so I can put in
some looser pencils than I used to
and just get right to it, you know,
and then clean it up and color it.
But yeah, whatever time it takes
and I'll bring Joe up again, he said,
never hand it in early.
He said he hand it in on time.
They'll know you're fast and they'll abuse that. [laughs]
I think he said something like that, you know?
And I agree with that too.
Like get it in on time.
And I do the best I can with the time of got you know.
- And I guess too, if you're handing something in sooner,
there might be an editor out there that says, you know,
"You could have done more on page five.
"You know, you could have taken a little bit
"more time on that."
So I guess it's that double-edged sword
of being a professional and then being too quick
because there's always that room
for extra criticism I suppose.
- Yeah, yeah that was another, it wasn't in comics,
but I had heard it a few times
that guys would hand it in late
'cause it was sitting around the art director's room
too long and they'd start kneeling over it,
"Oh, let's move this nose over." [chuckles] you know.
You got all this extra work
'cause you got it there early.
And the boss, even at the time said,
"Don't worry, the corrections will be slower.
"It's getting close to deadline."
He told me on this big job I had one time
up at Scholastic publisher.
You just roll with it you know?
- [Terence] So one of the things that is interesting
is you are also doing some self publishing.
You've got a book called "Fearless Dawn",
and I was wondering if you could talk
a little bit about that journey going from, you know,
basically doing freelance work
to doing creator owned work and kind of, you know,
getting the ball started and having something
that has your name on it.
- Boy, this is like kind of the story of my career
was like, "oh my God, what am I going to do now?"
You know, [chuckle] this was where that came from.
You know, I had done the Batman
and I did the Captain America
and they sent me a big stack of paper like this.
I said, boy, I'm in there.
And they gave me that much Marvel paper.
I said they want me to draw like a Bunch, you know?
And I just did the one shot and it dried up, it dried up.
Another Batman story, I did a Batman black and white,
but they were very sporadic.
And, then I got this Scholastic work
I was telling you about it
in a big publisher back then when the kids
used to have to buy those books for college, you know.
And that paid the bills for a while.
And I sort of drifted from comics,
but then it all kind of dried up
and I said, what am I going to do now?
And I started putting those Batman pages on eBay.
It worked in my favor 'cause it turned into a few different
revenue streams for me actually.
And I learned how to do eBay.
And then I saw, Ooh, look, they do like,
the superhero girls do a little bit better
than these Batman pages.
At the time, these Batman pages
were going for like 35 bucks.
I said, look like I could do Catwoman for 60.
And I started to draw like sexy superheroes.
I got good at pinup girls and stuff like that.
And then I thought, the stuff we have available
to us nowadays you could do a comic book yourself
and go to a print on demand, and that's exactly what I did.
I got together a little story
and I was just knocking that out,
and eBay and a lot of pictures.
And I'd have to do popular characters
but then my characters started to pick up
and I got this book done and I printed a hundred of them.
It took me a year to sell a hundred of them.
[chuckles] I sat at a lot of conventions
watching people walk by going over to the Batman toy
booth over there. [chuckles].
And I sat there with my books like, ah man,
but it started to gain momentum
and like three or four years in,
Asylum Press collected the whole thing
and we got it out into Diamond.
So in all, it was like a long game, you know.
Original art always sold well.
I know you've talked to some other artists about that.
My career was always done,
once it started to take off from the eBay and everything,
a lot of it, I make much more on the original art
than I do publishing.
But yeah, it all happens like, oh my God,
maybe I could sell this book, you know, let me try a book.
And then Kickstarter came along as my daughter was born,
we were like, "Oh my God,
"what are we going to do now?", you know.
And I said, let's try that Kickstarter, that new thing,
you know, and we did well there.
By then, I had some momentum from being in the shops
and things like that "Fearless Dawn".
And I think that really helps,
to go in with a little audience like that.
But yeah, it was just like
good old fashioned Charlie hustle.
I guess I got in enough of a little niche that
you know, we got a little house here
and we got a car and stuff [chuckles]
and the bills get paid, you know, I've been blessed.
And a few different revenue streams
is the point I was trying to make,
just from having to do that kind of thing,
almost in desperation you know.
Now I got Kickstarter, I got eBay,
and then I got everything else that trickles in.
So we got three revenue streams
that are all pretty strong, you know?
And I look back and go, man, I was just,
oh, what am I going to do?
I ain't that smart, you know. [laughs]
It just, I said, what am I going to do,
my daughter? you know.
So it's been great, you know.
- So you mentioned Kickstarter.
The way that a lot of comics are made now
you might be a famous name who's no longer in vogue
with Marvel or DC and you reach out to your fans essentially
to get that venture capital to, you know,
support you while you are doing the book
and then get you through the printing process.
And then eventually, you know,
hopefully the book will get into comic shops
and those initial investors will get a copy of the book
and maybe some other swag.
So when you're working on a Kickstarter campaign,
how are you sort of cultivating the audience that you have
and sort of building a new audience,
and then, you know, keeping them interested,
not just for book one,
but for book 3, 4, 5, and so on?
- Again, we were just like, let's try it, you know.
I think that was the just the daring of setting up.
I looked at people that did well.
I went over to Jimmy Palmati, he had done a few.
And I saw what people were charging for shipping,
I made sure I had that.
I just made sure the schematic was set.
I had the idea for the book.
I had a lot of it done,
so I wouldn't be stuck stiffing everybody.
God forbid I don't want to wreck a revenue stream, you know,
I want everybody to be satisfied with the thing.
And we launched and it just did.
We were like, oh my God, [chuckles] you know.
I didn't even think like what the next one was.
I was just hoping to get the heck through this one you know.
But I knew how to go to print on demand,
and I seem to set up everything.
A couple of times it switched,
like overseas shipping changed and that sort of cut
into the bottom line a little bit,
but we were gonna beg for couple more bucks to help,
but I said, nah, let it ride.
That's what we said, that's what we're gonna do.
That's what we're gonna ship it for you know.
And the first one we were jumping around,
me and my wife were like, 'Woo hoo" you know.
It was successful enough that me and her could handle
all the logistics of the Kickstarter,
and then as soon as it was done,
I started drawing the next one, you know.
And we popped out another one pretty quickly after that,
which didn't do as well.
It was a little bit disappointing.
I have noticed if I really work it,
it's harder to say, just each one's a little different,
but we got a pretty consistent number,
but I really worked one and we did a little bit better.
The first one I think did the most,
I think that did the best.
It didn't really grow like I would like to see,
but we're steady, you know.
It always stayed steady, which is good, you know.
I can't complain.
The one time I remember I kept massaging.
If somebody canceled their bid or whatever,
I would quick put another hot piece of art up, you know,
'cause it hurt my feelings and stuff to see
that lose a backer, you know?
And it worked out.
I remember that one, and that was a lot of hard,
and I had a lot of add-ons, they had this add-on thing.
I think we're going to do that with the next one,
which slows down a little
in the packing department and everything.
But me and my wife did all the shipping and handling
and all those types of perks.
I don't know, we just go with each one,
see where the wind blows [chuckles] you know.
- You mentioned print on demand,
and this is another interesting concept.
I have a friend who wrote a novel and he went through Amazon
and he's able to sell the book through Amazon
and they print a copy essentially when someone purchases it.
And I'm imagining that similar to what you're talking about,
but through another company doing it.
How do you guarantee the quality?
Is it something where they send you samples
and you kind of pick the paper and the resolution
and stuff like that?
How are you making sure that the book meets your standards
and therefore the readers' standards?
- I just took a chance.
I knew, well, I guess I had been with the one company
went down and they seemed like they were printing good.
But later on, they got,
I think they have to, like our own printers,
I think they got to fill the ink or something,
'cause sometimes they'd come and I was like,
those last ones were really good.
Same files, you know, and then they showed up
and they weren't that good, they were a little lighter.
That that company went out of business.
But I've also noticed, I think with this other company
that I use that the same thing happens.
Maybe they have to bring in a maintenance
on a machine and get it up to snuff,
but it's always been good enough
that the fans are satisfied.
A couple of times I opened up a box,
"Oh man, that's light.", you know what I mean?
And I should have darkened the files
is what I concluded from that experience,
and that seemed to help a bit.
But most of the time if you got your files
looking pretty good on the screen, black and white.
Pencils, I noticed I got to push the pencils
a little more just to be careful.
I do some watercolors that are light,
sometimes I push the contrast a little bit
if I send in a file.
Just cross my fingers, say a prayer and order
500 of them, you know?
And I hope they, and they generally do.
Everybody's psyched to get it.
And very rarely, I think one guy was like
a corner bent, you know, complainer
and you don't want their business anyway do you? [laughs]
I shouldn't say that.
God bless him, whatever.
But it's always been all right you know.
Just get out there and do it, you know,
I guess is my message there.
- Now you mentioned conventions,
and the pandemic has kept a lot of us
from going to conventions.
I know the last two years of HeroesCon have been canceled,
and that's my favorite show right here in North Carolina.
So I'm just a person who likes to go to a convention
and meet the writers and artists of the books
that I really love, but for you, a creator,
that's a revenue stream as you said.
So in this era of no conventions or fewer conventions,
how are you sort of keeping the connection with the fans
so that way when we are able to go back out,
you're able to, you know, keep your name out there
and get that stream back up and flowing?
- I love Heroes too.
We moved down here a lot because we knew Heroes
was down here, and it's more affordable than New Jersey.
I was in New Jersey and we couldn't.
But here we bought a home and Heroes was right there.
It was a funny thing that year.
We did really well on the conventions.
For some reason, I got all these invites to conventions
that the 2009, 2019, I'm sorry.
We went to Lake Como, Italy,
and that seemed to start at all.
And everybody was inviting.
And we went to Lexington, Kentucky.
We went up to like the Raleigh area,
all around here, you know.
And it was the strangest thing,
I said, "Ah, we are on the road a lot."
As to my wife , "Let's take a year off." [laughs]
Be careful what you wish for because that darn
epidemic come in and everything got canned, you know.
I just been laying low and I got a Patreon happening.
I said, let me try that, and I put some stuff up on there.
And I was doing a lot of eBay and stuff like that.
But lately I've just had a big job
and haven't been doing a whole lot of stuff.
A little bit of worry gets in there that I'll say,
"Ah, they'll forget me",
or something like that with the career.
But I don't know.
But I've been blessed with this work
that people like to look at, you know. [chuckles]
So maybe a little break won't hurt, will hurt, I don't know.
I don't know, I'll cross that bridge when I get there.
But you know, put up a couple of things.
I haven't put anything up in a while and kinda like,
eh, just gotta take it easy.
I got a big job and let me just do that, you know.
Pop my head out of the hole when the smoke clears
a little bit on this whole thing, it's kind of crazy.
So we've been enjoying our time here
and it's been all right, you know.
- And it's interesting,
I see we have probably about four or so minutes left
in our conversation, and I wanted to talk
a little bit about you said you have other jobs that come in
and obviously when, you know, it's time to pay the bills,
we've all got to do that work that does that.
So how do you sort of, again,
it's that scheduling question?
How do you schedule a little bit of, you know,
time to do work that reflects what you are interested in
versus what the client is interested in?
- It's a tough one.
I think there is quite a bit of separation
'cause on my own I'm just blasting away.
I'll draw the stupidest thing you can imagine here.
I got this guy, Dino-Guy, he's got a tail, you know.
Like I wanna draw a guy with a tail, a big dumb tail,
and he's got spikes that come and go,
and I don't care, [chuckles] you know.
But a client might say take out the spikes, you know.
So I just the job as it is.
The job now I show them almost a stick figure layout.
And he okays that, makes a couple of dialogue changes,
I do the lettering too.
And I send it to him and hope he likes it, you know.
If he says change this.
Very few changes have come in.
I seem to to have a good vibe about projects, you know.
I try to read through and make sure I'm thinking.
I think I got that, I can bust it out pretty fast
and make a guy look scared, you know
or a guy look angry, you know, accusing, you know.
I can sorta get the body language right.
And the clients have been happy with what they get.
This job has taken up quite a bit time,
so I just, the best I can, if I got a day off
or I'm waiting for him to, okay some pages,
I just jump over and try to do my own stuff.
or try and take a day off like you said earlier.
Try to remember to eat or enjoy a movie
or something like that.
We just watched the Bob Ross documentary,
and just enjoy it man.
Bottom line, I got to enjoy this thing.
I just don't wanna ever be like what a drag this is.
And like, I'll say a Joe Kubert thing again,
I've been a blessed guy to do what I love, you know,
every day for a living.
And it's been awesome, you know?
- Yeah, it's funny I was thinking
before we started the show today, you know,
this show for me is
a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun.
And I'm imagining for you, what you're doing is work
but it's also fun.
I see we have about a minute left
before we have to wrap up our conversation.
If the folks at home wanted to learn more about you,
your artwork, and maybe see some of the fun that you have,
how can they find you on the web?
- I would just say, I'm very Google-able.
You can Google me at Steve Mannion,
Steve Mannion Art.
I have a blog, which I don't want to hit on too much,
but Instagram, I think Steve Mannion Art and Comics
it's called or something; I don't even know, [chuckles]
but I come up pretty quick on the Google, you know.
And yeah, get ahold of me there,
and we'd love to see you if you pop on by,
send a note and say that Terence sent you. [chuckles]
- All right, well Steve, I wanna thank you so much
for taking time out of your day to talk with me today.
It's been a fun and fast half hour.
- All right.
- And I'd like to thank everyone at home
for watching Comic Culture.
We will see you again soon.
Comic Culture is a production
of the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.