Mark Wheatley interview

Mark Wheatley, along with Marc Hempel, co-founded Insight Studios Group. In his career in comics, he has worked on such well-received projects as Breathtaker and Mars (both with Hempel), and his solo project, Radical Dreamer. He currently is working with Michael Avon Oeming on Hammer of the Gods. This month he launches his latest solo project, Frankenstein Mobster. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Wheatley about this latest project. Check out the Frankenstein Mobster listing for a Special Offer!

Westfield: What can you tell us about the series, Frankenstein Mobster?

Mark Wheatley: It stole my life in 1997. That's not entirely true because unfortunately I've been distracted by so many other business matters and creative endeavors since 1997, but this has always been the thing that's filled every spare moment. It's almost like a hobby that has now risen to the forefront to be my all-consuming job. It concerns the adventures of a pieced together individual who we're calling the Frankenstein Mobster. He's been sewn together from pieces of four different people, one of which was a very highly-respected and warmly regarded police detective, and the other three are mobsters, some of the worst that ever prowled the streets of the city. As a matter of fact, I'm dealing with two major characters here. Frankenstein Mobster is one of my major characters, but my other major character is the city itself that the story is set in and that's Monstros City. It's about the Frankenstein Mobster's struggle to do the right thing. He's got four personalities all warring for control of this body, one good man and three bad. Of course, it's a heroic struggle and our friend the cop usually wins out, but not always. That keeps things unstable which is good for drama.

Westfield: What were your inspirations for the series?

Wheatley: I know this is going to sound odd, but it's actually the old King Kong movie. I'm sure everyone expects me to say the Frankenstein book or film, but it was actually the visuals, and even more specifically the preproduction artwork that was done for the King Kong film in the nice, soft pencil renderings that inspired me to do Frankenstein Mobster. When I started drawing things in that style, it lent itself to horror. Before long, I had my sketchbook full of character drawings of a guy who looked like he should be either a decomposing Jim Steranko (no offense Jim!), or a kind of Elvis version of Frankenstein [laughs]. I've got this guy who is a snappy dresser, but just happens to be back from the dead. Then, I spent years developing the background for the story. Actually, I just saw the Frankenstein film for the first time about a month ago, although I had seen all the sequels [laughs].

Westfield: You're a big fan of old pulp stories. How much does that influence what you're doing in Frankenstein Mobster?

Wheatley: I think it informs almost everything I do. I like the fast pace and the high level of energy that you get from the old pulp stories. Honestly, when we did the Titanic Tales book back in 97, I think it was, my plan had been for a second volume and to do a lead character who was not the Spider, because I wanted to try something else. It was in the course of doing the Spider that I realized that my idea for this Frankenstein Mobster character would be a good second issue story. We’re still working on that second Titanic Tales. Who knows what'll actually be in it when it comes out. But this Frankenstein Mobster has become its own creature now.

Westfield: Who are other characters readers will encounter?

Wheatley: I have quite an extensive cast of characters. So many, in fact, that my first released issue of Frankenstein Mobster, which is going to be Frankenstein Mobster #0, is specifically an introduction to all the cast members who are not the Frankenstein Mobster. While the Mobster is in that issue, he is almost a secondary character. We're dealing with two people, one whose name is Terry Todd and the other whose name is Terri Todd. Terry Todd is the older dad cop detective, who has died and is missing as the series begins. Terri Todd is the daughter who is just about to take her first days work as a police detective following in her father's footsteps. She's been away from Monstros City, something that doesn't happen a lot, which we'll get into in a later issue. People tend to stick around Monstros City and they don't get a lot of visitors either. Anyway, she's just returned to town and spends a rather rough night preparing for her first day of work in probably the worst way possible in that she never gets any sleep and she has to solve a case illegally, off the books. She does this in the company of monsters. They like to be called "exceptionals," they object to the term "monsters," but everyone ends up calling them monsters nonetheless. The lead monster character is Ozmed who's a taxi driver but he's also a mummy. He has two major hobbies. He plays the sax in a jazz band and he also fights mold constantly. He and his group, which includes Varney the vampire and a giant and a witch, manage to aid Terri Todd to solve this case. Meanwhile, somebody is sewing the Frankenstein Mobster together piece by piece.

Westfield: A preview story has appeared in Hammer of the Gods: Hammer Hits China #2.

Wheatley: It's interesting to me. I've spent so much time thinking about this series and these characters; they've lived with me for so long that I actually have a backlog of stories. My first 8 issues are completely written at this point, full script. My first 2 issues are ready to go and I'm pretty far along on the later ones. For the short stories that are appearing, there's one that's in the second issue of Hammer of the Gods: Hammer Hits China, like you mentioned, and there's longer one that's going to appear in More Fund Comics, which is a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Both of these stories, and something very special, a crossover strip I'm doing with Vampirella; all three of these stories take place after the events of the first eight issues of the Frankenstein Mobster series. The first eight issues are a very long, elaborate origin story. Although Frankie shows up pretty quick in the story, there's all sorts of groundwork plots that are being laid in place; background details and introductions to the world and the characters that go on through those first eight issues that I feel are fairly crucial and very interesting. But the essence of what the long term Frankenstein Mobster stories will be are more clearly shown in the short stories that are popping up around while those first eight issues are in progress. In a way this is like the "probable outline of Conan's life." I've got a fairly solid outline of Frankie's life, if you can call it a life.

Westfield: What sort of reaction have you gotten to the short story since it's appeared?

Wheatley: Actually, I've gotten so much response to the whole thing [laughs]. Frankenstein Mobster as a title all by itself seems to be one of those ideas that everybody was just waiting for. I can just say the name and immediately have a group of people who are interested in having me tell them more. Which is an enviable position for a storyteller as it's exactly what you want. You want to get their attention, have them asking questions right up front. What excited me early on from a financial standpoint was I had two motion picture companies approach me based only on the name and one illustration [laughs], and wanted to turn this into a movie. I put them off. There were a lot of people in the industry who looked at me like I was crazy, but I said, "No, I'm not going to sell you the rights because I don't know what it is myself yet." That was back in like 98. Since then, I've been approached more recently, like in this past week, by another movie company and now we're actually closer to a point where I might consider talking about it.

Reaction to the stories have been uniformly great. I've already had a really nice review on the Sequential Tart site. The feedback I've gotten from almost everyone I've shown it to has been one of two types: either I've never heard from the person again [laughs] or they have just raved about it. I've been very surprised at the number of women who have responded strongly to this story. It was not my intention to specifically aim at a female audience with this book. In fact, I don't think I did. But I seem to have been able to cross some readership lines with this. It's one of the first things my wife's read in a long time that I've done. Certainly, I've got the longest, most considered comments back from female readership.

Westfield: Can you tell us any more about the Frankenstein Mobster/Vampirella crossover?

Wheatley: It's going to run online the entire month of August. It starts with an introduction in the style of a Sunday page, like the old comics where it filled up the whole page of a newspaper. It'll appear in Comic Shop News in the first issue in August and that will point everybody to the online daily strip which will appear on a number of sites, including the Westfield site. It'll run for four weeks in August and it is called The Ballad of Frankie and Vampi. It's about the time that Vampirella went to Monstros City to find out if this might be the long sought refuge for her kind of people. She and Frankenstein Mobster have an adventure which is filled with monsters and ghosts and gangsters and guns and fast cars and fast women and lingo and graveyards and all the nice elements.

Westfield: Is there anything more you want to say about what's coming up story wise in the series?

Wheatley: It's just a hardboiled story of monsters being abused by mobsters. It's a story of city-wide corruption and decomposition [laughs]. It's got a rather dark sense of humor to it, but at the same time it owes a lot to hardboiled detective stories that just happen to have as main characters your favorite werewolves, mummies and ghouls. It's a town where the cab drivers are all mummies and the ghouls are the guys picking up your garbage in the morning, and their worst problem is they tend to eat most of it before they get back to the lot. It's an interesting city and I think I can play in this playground for a long time. Certainly the internal conflict of the Frankenstein Mobster is something that will make him interesting. At least it has for me for almost a decade.

Westfield: This is the first project for a while that you've done art for instead of just writing. How does it feel to be doing that again?

Wheatley: I love it. As they used to say in Little Big Man, my heart soars like an eagle. There's nothing better than to tell my story the way I want to visually. I like to write and tell stories, but ultimately I like to write and tell stories visually. While I have tremendously enjoyed my collaborations with the other really excellent artists I've worked with, if I'm not also drawing something myself at the same time, it's almost like an ugly backup of fluids or something. But to correct you slightly, I have done some art. I did a little bit for the Hammer of the Gods series here and there. That kept me from going completely over the deep end. Working with Mike Oeming on that has just been a complete joy and now that things are cranking up because of the motion picture deal on that, I'll have two ongoing series between Hammer of the Gods and Frankenstein Mobster.

Westfield: Your art has a very nice painted style. How much of that is brush on canvas and how much is done on computer?

Wheatley: That would be 100% computer.

Westfield: That surprises me as our cover, for example, looks to be on canvas and have brush strokes.

Wheatley: Fooled you [laughs]! I have probably done somewhere between two and three thousand paintings in my professional career on actual boards, or canvas, or whatever. I really enjoy painting but when I got my Waycom tablet, which is an electronic stylus and tablet system for rendering artwork, I fell in love with it. It allows me to do everything that I can do with paint and more. After I did a couple paintings that way, I actually started drawing that way. Now I'm drawing Frankenstein Mobster on the computer. The one element that I continue to do on paper is inking. I'll print out my drawn material. I will ink it on a separate sheet of paper, which is actually a process I've done for a long time because when I pencil, I always pencil on a sheet of typing paper and enlarge it with a photocopier. I usually pencil at the size of the page when it prints. Then I ink it and scan it back into the computer and paint it from that point on. All this is done in Photoshop. The canvas you're seeing and the texture of the paint is something that's the result of a very easy technique that I do at the last minute in Painter Classic which allows you to choose a surface and allows you to pick up the details of the paint strokes. Even other artists who work in computer color who I've talked to about this seem to be a bit amazed that I'm doing these pieces on computer because they look like painted art. I think the reason I'm able to pull it off is because of that nearly 2,500 paintings that I actually did on boards. I know how the paint interacts and I tend to paint that way. The other folks that have learned to paint on computer tend to paint purely from a digital standpoint. I have articles scheduled for the October issues of both Sketch and Draw! on some of my techniques that I've developed. If anybody wants to know more, they should check out those books.

Westfield: Do you have any other projects you're working on?

Wheatley: Always. I can't stop myself. There are a number of little extra things specifically associated with Frankenstein Mobster. We're doing some giveaways that Westfield folks have access to in addition to the inked print. We're going to be giving away Halloween masks. There will be one available for free download from the Image site each week of October. I just finished doing the Frankenstein Mobster yesterday and getting the eye holes spaced properly [laughs]. There are all sorts of challenges when you wake up in the morning as an artist that you're never sure of. "What do I gotta do today? I've gotta figure out where the eye holes go. That's on the list of things to do." Of course, the easy thing to do would be to go out and buy a Halloween mask and measure what they've done. But you know what? It's really hard to find a Halloween mask this time of year.

I very briefly worked as a recording musician before I found that I was actually getting steady income from doing comic books. I've done a piece of theme music for Frankenstein Mobster which will be available also as an mp3 file online.

There are a number of special aspects to Frankenstein Mobster that we've put together. One of which is we're doing a special Trick or Treat aspect to issue zero in that a number will be randomly distributed that will have original artwork in them. It'll be 1% of the print run or 100 copies, whichever is higher, and I'm hoping my hand falls off because I have to do so many of these. We've done it in such a way that it will not be immediately obvious. You will actually have to be looking through the issue to find the page of original artwork. That's the treat. I'm not sure what the trick is. We do have a special deviant cover by Adam Hughes. I know other comic books have had variant covers, but we're doing a deviant cover. He's done a beautiful job. He's picked up on the old gangster movie posters. It's probably the sexiest that Terri Todd will ever look.

As far as other projects I'm working on, I don't like announcing them before they're ready to be announced. I'm working with a film writer at the moment who is just hilarious and has a syndicated radio show that he does that plays very well with our field because it deals with parodies of old time radio and pulp style heroics. We should be seeing something like that in the future. I also have a book I just have a copy of as of yesterday, the Al Williamson Adventures book, which I edited and produced, which is going to be available in the beginning of August. It turned out beautifully. It was a dream come true to be able to work with Mr. Williamson. He's one of my all-time favorite artists and also a wonderful person. We have a number of things that'll be showing up on our Web site. We also have Doctor Cyborg which we're finally finishing off with Mike Oeming. That may very well show up as a comic book soon. That's all that occurs to me at the moment, but I know I'm forgetting something.

Westfield: When you initially did the Jim Grim hardcover, you had said there would be more books reprinting classic pulp stories. Is there anything to report on that?

Wheatley: We still want to do them. I was all set to do more but I needed to give time to Frank Cho to get his work done. Ultimately, Frank decided that he just couldn't manage it in his schedule. Unfortunately at that time, since it had gone on about two and a half years, I had scheduled myself up so much that I haven't been able to find the gap in my schedule now to go ahead and do the books. They're still on my schedule, but they're not on the calendar. It's a long time passion of mine and I certainly want to do these books and strangely enough I get asked about it about once a week. And it's not just somebody around the studio [laughs]. We get email, we get letters. So that's very nice to know that people are interested in this and at some point we will get around to doing the next one. In fact, all the text work has been done on the next one, which is Yasmini, the very first book in the series. I've also done all of my pencil designs and research for my illustrations in the book. So it's just a matter of finding that crucial month and a half of time I'd need to do the paintings.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Wheatley: I can't remember the last time I've had this much fun doing comics. Frankenstein Mobster gives me a chance to draw things that are a lot of fun; creepy crawlies and a lot of mood. Mist and clouds [laughs]. And bats transforming into things. It's been a lot of fun. The only part I didn't know I'd have to deal with was guns. I didn't know I'd have to draw a lot of guns. It makes a lot sense, of course, but at the time when I first created this, I was more oriented towards the monster stuff. Now I've kinda gotten sucked into the hardboiled gangster side of it and I'm really enjoying it and I'm reading more detective and mobster stories. Some kids from the neighborhood were over here the other day playing with my Waycom tablet and they were looking around and said, "Boy! You really like guns!" because I've got all these guns hanging around in the studio now [laughs]. And I'm like, "Oh. I guess... Huh. Right." [laughs] I don't even see them. They're just reference material. So if anybody tries to break into the studio, I'm well covered.