Rest in peace, Michael Zulli

The artist of ‘Sandman,’ ‘The Last Temptation’ and ‘Puma Blues’ has passed away at the age of 71.

Michael Zulli, the creator of Puma Blues and artist on Sandman, Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation and many more beautifully drawn comics, has passed away at the age of 71. The news was shared by artist and publisher Stephen Bissette, who published Zulli’s work in several issues of Bissette’s Taboo in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

“Beloved longtime friend, irreplaceable Taboo ally and co-conspirator, and among the greatest animal artists who ever worked in the comics medium anywhere in the world—miss you, Michael Zulli, proud to have walked a few beats in this crazy creative path with you,” Stephen Bissette wrote on Facebook.

a page from Puma Blues

Prior to working in comics, Zulli was a wildlife artist who was introduced to comics shops by an art assistant.

“He told me where one was and I went there and the two things that I bought happened to be an issue of Epic Illustrated that contained Barry Windsor-Smith’s The Beguiling, and Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright,” Zulli told Alex Dueben in an interview with The Comics Journal. “Between the two of them I just had this ridiculous epiphany–as all epiphanies usually are–and I thought if comics can do this, then that’s what I want to do. I want to work on that level. I began practicing on my own. At the same time I discovered Cerebus. I was absolutely dead impressed by that.”

Version 1.0.0

Zulli’s career in comics started in the mid-1980s, when he and writer Stephen Murphy created Puma Blues. They approached Cerebus creator Dave Sim with some of their early pages, with the idea that it could serve as the back-up story in another comic, but Sim had other ideas.

“On the day we approached Dave [Sim] at a small local comic shop in the area, we had eight pages of Puma drawn and basically done. At the time we were thinking the best place to go would be one of the smaller independent publishers,” Zulli said. “Back then a lot of them would have a main feature and then an eight page backup story that might change from month to month. We thought our best chances were to get into doing eight pages every two weeks for one of these things. When [Dave Sim] said, can you do 20 pages plus a cover a month I opened my mouth and said, ‘Yeah.’ From there it was a done deal. We both walked away looking at each other like, ‘What are we going to do?’ The only training I ever had in comics was, believe it or not, I’d gone to the local bookstore and bought How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. [laughs] Which was a complete disaster, but I did learn a few things that I found technically appropriately. To this day I still cannot draw a comics page with blue pencil. I tried but I just hated the damn thing. The learning curve was daunting, to say the least.”

Sim published 19 issues of Puma Blues through Aardvark-Vanaheim — the rare comic from the company that wasn’t by Sim. Issues 20-24 were published by Mirage Studios, but the series ended three issues short of its intended conclusion. The actual ending to the story wouldn’t be published until 2015, when Dover Publications released a collection of the series.

While working on Puma Blues, Zulli would also create three well-regarded issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, referred to as the “Soul’s Trilogy.” He wrote and drew all three issues, and painted the covers. He was also the original artist for Swamp Thing #88, the issue written by Rick Veitch that would shown a time-traveling Swamp Thing meeting Jesus Christ. DC elected not to publish it for fear of controversy, causing Veitch to leave the title and a new creative team coming on board.

An unpublished page from Swamp Thing #88

It was around this time that both Bissette and TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman formed their own comics companies — Spiderbaby Grafix and Tundra Publishing, respectively, which were focused on creator-owned works. Zulli wrote and drew several stories for Bissette’s Taboo anthology, while also working on titles for Tundra.

At DC, meanwhile, Neil Gaiman was originally supposed to follow Veitch as writer of Swamp Thing, but following the controversy around issue #88, he elected not to take the job. Instead, he went on to co-create Sandman. As the title featured a rotation of different artists on its various storylines, Zulli would draw issue #13, which featured the introduction of Hob Gadling. Zulli would return to the title a few more times, and drew the comic’s final story arc, “The Wake.”

From ‘The Wake,’ as Daniel meets the Endless for the first time

That wasn’t Zulli’s only collaboration with Gaiman. The duo also worked on The Last Temptation, a comic series accompanying the Alice Cooper album of the same name. The three-issue miniseries was published by Marvel, and pages from the comic appeared in the video for the song “Lost in America.”

During the 1990s, Zulli’s art would appear in several Vertigo series, including Seekers Into the Mystery, the Sandman spinoff Destiny: Chronicles of Death Foretold, The Dreaming and Sandman Presents: Love Street, as well as in issues of Starman and The Shade. At Marvel, he drew the first arc featured in the Spider-Man anthology Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man and a one-shot featuring Longshot, in both collaborating with JM DeMatteis.

“Just heard that Michael Zulli passed away. Michael and I worked on a number of projects together in the late 90s/early 2000s. He wasn’t just a brilliant artist, he was a brilliant man: deep, passionate, philosophical,” DeMatteis said on Facebook.

Zulli continued working in comics through the early 2000s, drawing the Delicate Creatures graphic novel written by J. Michael Straczynski and Creatures of the Night, a comics adaptation of two Gaiman short stories. His final work would come in 2011, a graphic novel he wrote and drew called The Fracture of the Universal Boy.

Smash Pages sends our condolences to Michael Zulli’s family, friends and fans.

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