Michael Walsh has made quite a reputation for himself at Marvel Comics over the past couple of years. From his contemporarily essential work on Secret Avengers with Ales Kot to the sardonic laughs of Last X-Man Ever to the stunning romance of The Vision #7, he has shown himself to be an artist of great range. Now he is approaching a new project, Rocket Raccoon & Groot with funnyman writer Nick Kocher, with his reliable blend of inventive designs and deft sense of tone. ComicBook.Com spoke with Walsh at HeroesCon in Charlotte, North Carolina about what he’s doing outside of work, his approach to art, and goals for the future.
So when you’re not drawing comics these days, what are you reading or watching?
Michael Walsh: When I am not reading comics, I am often watching movies or reading novels or playing video games or hanging out with family or significant others. I just got a dog not too long ago. She’s only nine months old so she takes up a lot of my spare time. Pretty much any spare time is dedicated to her right, training her and making sure she is out and walking and getting rid of some energy.
But in terms of media that I am absorbing, I just read The Fireman by Joe Hill. It was fantastic; I loved it. It moves so fast and every character in it is incredibly interesting. There are a bunch of twists that I wasn’t expecting, and it is very hopeful for such a dark, apocalyptic book. It was really good. I just beat Dark Souls 3 on the PS4. I had a blast. I am new to the Dark Soul series and I came into the game knowing that it was going to be an incredible challenge.
I have to say bravo.
Walsh: You know what? It took me a little while to really get the knack for it, but I think I got pretty good at the game. I have never had a game where I pump my fists in glory as often, but I also hang my head down into my heads in shame and just want to scream at the same time, you know? It is great. It really pulls you in and makes you want to play more and more.
So playing video games and training the dog, those are all very different sets of mind than working directly with art.
Do those things allow you to refresh, almost like a sleep cycle, and get away from it?
Walsh: Yeah, you’ve got to try to rejuvenate yourself. I find myself suffering a little bit when I work seven days a week, like when I am on a tight deadline and I have to work two weeks straight and every night into the middle of the morning. Those are the times when you stop enjoying work. I am working in comics because I enjoy it. That’s the reason I am doing it. I love the medium and I love drawing and creating and making stories. As soon as that stops becoming fun or something I am passionate about, I stop doing it.
But the only times I feel that way are when I am overworking myself. So it is nice to get away and invest some time into something completely different. I do read a ton of comics; I am not saying I don’t. I read comics all of the time. I think that is important as well, but it is nice to do other things with your life.
So right now when you are sitting down at the drawing board, what has you excited to work?
Walsh: I recently got a big, fat Milton Caniff book. It is called a visual biography or something like that. It is a bunch of art they have gotten from his studio. I guess he was a hoarder of his own work, so he had everything. He had all of these original drawings and all of this stuff that he did when he was really young. It is really interesting to look through that and at the path of a guy who is such a legend in the industry. I just got that and I am enjoying flipping through that before I start working.
Often before I sit down to actually start drawing, I will look through a book or a trade or something of one of the artists that I really admire or an artist’s edition, like Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” for example. I look through it and get really hyped up. There are other people that will look at really strong art and feel discouraged they could never do it or can’t work on that level. But I am one of the people that looks at that stuff and feels excited to try, you know? Maybe I will never achieve the kind of quality and success that these other guys have had, but at least I can try my best and put myself out there and work on getting better. And maybe one day I’ll get there.
So it’s like a Rocky mentality where you just want to get in the ring?
Walsh: Yeah, exactly!
You want to show them you can do it.
Walsh: Exactly. I put on “Eye of the Tiger”. I flip through “Born Again”. I put on my sweats.
So what are you drawing now and what are you doing with your own pages that has you excited?
Walsh: Right now I am working on Rocket Raccoon & Groot. It is probably the most cartooning I have ever done in my work because it’s really focused on making an anthropomorphic raccoon and tree emote, right? I am doing a ton of cartooning. The first issue is mostly alien creatures that I have gotten to make up. I have a blast drawing space stuff – aliens and ships and cities. When you do that, you get to draw purely from your own imagination. You aren’t beholden to any kind of reference. I still look at stuff; I like to look at seventies sci-fi stuff, where it looks like everyone built it with their own hands and everything is falling apart. That is my favorite look for sci-fi. It is the most fun to draw, especially with my style.
The Ridley Scott aesthetic of something like Alien.
Walsh: Exactly, Ridley Scott style is my favorite. Getting in there and being able to make these wacky characters jump around and make myself laugh with the expressions that I am drawing is great too. To get creative and draw crazy aliens that come purely out of my own mind is great. That really gets me going right now in this book and makes me excited to keep drawing it.
So Rocket & Groot is a lot different than your work on Vision or Secret Avengers or even Worst X-Man Ever, where you are not animating humans nearly as much and you can go off Earth and do whatever you want. Is there any kind of pressure that came with the ability to create anything you want?
Walsh: I think that other people would find more pressure in that. For me it is simply exciting. I put pressure on myself in other ways. Logically in my mind, I know it wouldn’t be worth it psychologically to put pressure on myself in that respect. I’ve got enough problems in making sure everything gets done in time and making sure the pages look good. I don’t want to put more pressure on myself; it could stifle my productivity. The more worried or the more anxious I am about drawing, the slower I will go. That is never good when you are trying to create comics on a monthly schedule.
I think a lot of your work recently has a real sense of joy to it. It would not help that at all.
Walsh: Not at all. A lot of times when an artist is having fun, you can see that in the pages. At least I can. I think that you will be able to see that in the Rocket & Groot pages. I am having a blast. I get to play a lot with the layouts in it. There were times in the script when Nick [Kocher] would say, “Let’s get a little weird with the layout. Do something different. Go crazy. Do something new that you’ve never done before.” So I got to do some crazy, wacky layouts in that issue that I haven’t been able to do in a while.
It wouldn’t have worked well with the story I was trying to tell in Vision to mess too much with the layouts. I think that that was such an emotional story and I didn’t want to take away from that by doing super dynamic panels or doing super crazy layouts. I wanted to focus on the emotions of the story so that when you are reading it, you are not taken out of that moment by asking, “Where should my eye go next?” or “Where are these characters in relation to each other?” I just wanted the storytelling to be as clear as possible, which is what Gabriel [Walta] does too. That is why he is so good on that book. He tells those emotional beats, the slice of life stuff, like nobody else.
I think clarity and small moments are sometimes not valued enough.
Walsh: I one hundred percent agree with you.
You have developed a bit of a reputation as being a guy who is great on comedy books. I find that interesting because my favorite comics of yours have beenSecret Avengers and Vision, and those have been very quiet, intensely emotional works. When you are jumping between disparate tones, do you find yourself working different artistic muscles too?
Walsh: Definitely, because I feel with quiet and emotional moments you want to be very subtle with the body acting and character acting and the way you lay things out. With comedy you want to jump out at the reader like crazy, but you don’t want to go too wacky. That’s the thing about comedy; there is a balance to it. If you go too wacky, it is almost unrealistic. It loses a little bit of that really comedic element. Comedy is hard because you have to really play into the beat. You have to hit the punchline in a way that it is unexpected. You want the punchline to be a surprise. You want to lay the page out around that punch line, which is the way you do action and horror too.
Something I like about what both you and Steve Lieber do with comedy is that you never feel the need to oversell a joke. You understand the timing and you deliver it well then trust the reader to laugh.
Walsh: You hope they laugh. You do your best and see what happens.
You were talking about delivering comedy. Looking ahead at Rocket & Grootand beyond that, are there things that still challenge you that you want to push yourself to control and learn about?
Walsh: I would really like to do horror. I haven’t had much opportunity to do that. I have done a little bit of body horror in Comeback, which is a sci-fi noir, but I wouldn’t really call that a horror genre book. I would like to try that because I think I have some good ideas of how I can scare a reader, which is a hard thing to do in comics. You don’t really get the opportunity for that a lot.
I think that there are some horror elements to Vision as well, not as much in my issue as in the other issues that Gabriel has drawn. The horror in Vision is more of an unsettling atmosphere than anything. Do you know what the uncanny valley is? I feel like it taps into that same revulsion that you get when you experience the uncanny valley in a nonhuman, but humanistic entity. There is something about that in the Vision. It taps into that revulsion in a really interesting way. Those moments are the horror moments in the book, but I would call it more of a drama.
I think comics can do well with horror when approached correctly. Horror comics can’t jump out at you, as they lack so many of the tools that make horror films effective. Simple things like timing, tone, and building character relationships are all things you are showing off, and doing well in comedy and drama books, that then lend themselves to an effective horror comic.
Walsh: There are some manga guys that do it really well. One of my favorites is [Junji] Ito. He is able to draw these incredibly unsettling images and always put them after a page turn. He builds up tension for an entire page where it is only these characters that are scared. There are little hints of what could be on the next page and then you turn the page and there is this horrifically unsettling imagery that stays with you because of the way he sets it up. I think that is one of the more interesting things that you can do in comics. You don’t see it very often in North American books and Western books. I would love to be able to do that at some point. It probably won’t happen this year, but I am working on some stuff that I can hopefully do in that realm eventually.
It seems between Secret Avengers, Worst X-Man Ever, and now Rocket & Groot, doing all of these different books that fall into very different genres, that is invigorating to you. It is not so much a challenge as it is an excitement to find different ways to push your craft.
Walsh: I find that every time you do something new, you learn. By keeping yourself in a box, you are really just becoming stagnant and not growing. Every time I have the opportunity to do something that I haven’t done before or even to try new media (new brushes or new paints) or to work with characters I haven’t done, it is an opportunity to get better. If you are not trying to get better, you are not finding work. People are going to become uninterested and you have to keep moving.