Smash Pages Q&A: Bernie Mireault on ‘XVI’

The creator of ‘The Jam’ talks about his career, current projects and new short story collection from About Comics.

The new book XVI from About Comics collects short comics from the acclaimed creator Bernie Mireault. He has never been the most well-known or best-selling comics creator, but over the past few decades he’s been a key figure in comics.

His miniseries Mackenzie Queen wears its influences on its sleeves, and those influences are Steve Ditko and Doctor Strange and Harvey Kurtzman, European comics and manga, back in the early 1980’s when that range of influences was not as common – or as easy to find – as it is today. Mireault went onto draw Grendel: The Devil Inside and colored many other stories in Matt Wagner’s Grendel series. Mireault then created The Jam, a different kind of superhero comic, which appeared before many other reinventions of the genre appeared.

Mireault spoke about the new collection of his black and white comics, what he’s working on now and more.

I read that your first job as an artist was on the Heavy Metal movie?

That’s right, the first art job I ever had was in animation. I grew up in the countryside of Quebec and when I got out of high school I started attending college in Montreal, my first city of any size. There I had my first art classes that were more than just a free period joke and that was fun. At that point I had decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist but quickly learned to not mention it to my teachers. The stigma against comic art was supernaturally strong at that time [early 1980s] and in college myself and like-minded individuals had to form a kind of secret society to escape official disapproval and reprimand. I had started working on a more ambitious comic art project and was struggling to pay for school when an ad for artists showed up in the local paper, that had everyone talking. Unlike most, I knew Heavy Metal magazine and showed up with bells on. I knew nothing about animation but such was their need for artists that I made it in as an assistant animator and then everyone around me was kind enough to teach me the basics and eventually I caught up. A wonderful time.

Was Mackenzie Queen your first comic?

Yes, Mackenzie Queen was my first attempt at a long story and was what I was working on when the Heavy Metal gig hit. It was delayed by that but eventually it was published as a 5 issue limited series by Mark Shainblum’s Matrix Graphic Series out of Montreal in the early 1980s. This was my version of Doctor Strange. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s first work on the character gave me so much juice that I wanted to do something along those lines and Mackenzie Queen was the result. I plan to go over the material with an eye towards fixing it up for an eventual color reprint. I’ll leave no character behind.

You mentioned that Daredevil by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson were a big inspiration. What was it that they were doing that really inspired you?

Frank Miller’s panel design just made more sense to me than most of what I’d seen before. I noticed that he often used animation technique, two or three panels in sequence showing a single movement. Harvey Kurtzman did that a lot too and I thought it was a powerful chop. I was so susceptible to the effect that even Doonesbury looked like magic to me.

Klaus Janson was more than half of it, though. His bold ink lines had a wonderful style and his use of heavy blacks gave power. Also, he colored the work and we were treated to his very creative use of comic book color that showed me what was possible when someone actually cares about the work they do.

One reason I ask is because looking at Mackenzie Queen and The Jam, I would guess that you grew up reading American superhero comics and weird comics and underground comics but also Franco-Belgian comics and manga. Today I think that’s pretty common among cartoonists but back then it wasn’t. Or maybe I’m wrong.

It’s funny. When I was a kid my parents would buy Archie comics and Mad magazine. They did nothing for me [Richie Rich? gimme a break] until Mad included one of the original comic sized issues bound in with the magazine. THAT had an effect but they were few and far between and hardly a threat to my first love at the time which was building airplane models. Then I went to school and the libraries always had complete collections of all the most popular European work of which Tintin and Asterix and Obelix were my favorites. I really enjoyed this stuff but it never made me want to draw comic art. It was only when I got into North American mainstream superhero comics that the fire was lit. I guess I thought that they were going the wrong way with that stuff and that I could do better. Around that time I was living in Montreal and my new comic art friends were only too happy to educate me in the history of the medium. That’s where the influences on me multiplied exponentially and I’m still sorting through it all.

There’s an old Norman Spinrad quote: “Science fiction deals trivially with matters of great cosmic importance while mainstream literary fiction uses its superior literary skills and powers to examine the lint in its own navel.” I feel like this is something you’d agree with because you’re really interested in using all of these elements and genres together.

Definitely! I like genre fiction. Being force-fed “the classics” in school, I came to the conclusion that most of it was dull and pompous and that without it being part of a school curriculum, few would read the material by choice. It killed reading for most of us right there. Maybe if we were allowed to read what we liked in school, simply to have fun reading being the key thing, then more people might do so today. As it is I know few people who read books for pleasure. I feel that comic art, the blend of words and pictures, can help one to get over that road block.

Humor is a key part of your work. Or if not humor, maybe it’s that you have a humorous perspective on the world. Does that sound right?

Sure. I always try to be funny. Doesn’t always work of course. My view of humor is represented perfectly by one of our planet’s most potent and wise pieces of art, the Yin-Yang symbol. There’s a bit of funny in the sadness and a bit of sadness in the funny. A sort of optimistic pessimism.

So much of your work was originally done in black and white, and XVI is in black and white, but you were also a colorist and worked with a lot of different artists. I’m curious how you thought about color and how you worked.

I love coloring but rarely was allowed to apply it to my own work, which was frustrating. Now that the computer age is here I have a chance to add color to all my old stuff and that’s a dream come true. My color aesthetics are mostly derived from Marie Severin’s work under Harvey Kurtzman at EC Comics in the 1950s. I’m a sucker for the big dot, retro look and am always trying to tap into that. Black and white printing is the most economical and so most of us have no choice but to get used to it if you want to be in print. Most people won’t even look at something printed in black and white, though. It takes a real interest in the material to break the bias against that kind of no-frills presentation.

You also have Dr. Robot. Is there a chance we’ll see that reprinted or see more of the character in the years to come?

Yes, I hope to do more Dr. Robot in the future and I have a long story for him written in my head that’s been there for years. Having survived the forget test, I know that it’s destiny that I do it.

Ideally, I’ll be given the time on Earth to revisit all the characters in my stable at least once and do new work as well. I’m having fun going through my inventory and picking out things to fix up and color but I’m also in the middle of a new 32 page story featuring The Jam. No shortage of personal projects but of course everything gets put on hold when I get a paying job.

A few years ago you mentioned you were working on a graphic novel of The Jam. Anything new to report on that?

The book was published Feb. 2012. 810 copies printed. Almost nobody saw it, and I have hopes that it might be properly presented in color and as a 157-page part of a Jam collection someday.

You mention in the book that you’re working on cleaning up and coloring The Jam and Mackenzie Queen. How is that going?

Going well. It’s slow work but even after all these years I still enjoy doing it and am glad to have all these things to help pass the time of day in an interesting way. I haven’t watched TV in decades.

All the work I’ve done so far has been on The Jam. Mackenzie Queen has yet to be touched but there’s a guy here in Quebec who is interested in reprinting the work in French sometime in the future and that will spur activity there soon enough. Having work translated is very cool and I’m psyched to help all I can there.

At the risk of making this question seem too philosophical, you mentioned in the book at one point you mention how a lot of your work fell by the wayside because you had a family, you had bills and responsibilities, but that now the kids have left home, and you’re “ready for round two.” What do you want that to include?

I’d like to take advantage of the relative peace and quiet to get back into the medium and make an interesting contribution to this medium. I’d also like to make music, animation and film. If only I had another 200 years instead of around 20. Still, for me it’s about enjoying my time here on Earth, and thanks to the arts, it’s been great.

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