Powers. Hammer of the Gods. Mice Templar. Ship of Fools. Six. Parliament of Justice. Rapture. Thor: Blood Oath. Omega Flight. Foot Soldiers. Bastard Samurai. Red Sonja.
The list of Michael Avon Oeming’s projects could go on and on and on and on (it does, just trust me on this one), and he always has something more on the way.
Whether as an artist, a writer, or even a filmmaker, there is always at least one project he’s working on now, one in some stage of development and one he’s just contemplating. The level of his success over the years has definitely changed, but for those who have known him for an extended period, that’s one of the few things that have.
“I've known Mike since he was in high school, I think. He was working at a comic shop run by a friend and helping with their small line of comic books that they were publishing,” said Mark Wheatley, his collaborator on Hammer of the Gods.”
“Mike was one of those irritatingly talented kids. But unlike a lot of irritatingly talented kids who get success easy and stop growing artistically, Mike has always had a need to reinvent himself,” a trend that continues today, he said.
“He is always trying on other art styles. And he is good at it. His sketches are like a walk through a Who's Who of the very best comics artists of all time. So he learns by assuming the style of others. And then he turns it all on its head and comes up with his own distinctive style that carries over the essential thinking and design of the original artist that influenced him. It might sound like cheating to someone who isn't an artist. But to do this really well means you have to leave your ego at the door. And that is almost impossible for most talented artists. Because what we do often gets propped up by a healthy dose of ego!” he said.
His work on Jim Krueger’s Foot Soldiers is as different from his art on Powers as the Powers material is from Hammer of the Gods. His writing, likewise, changes to suit to the project, whether Thor: Blood Oath or Parliament of Justice.
And as much as he infuses outsides elements into his craft on a regular basis, there are definitely also some constants, Wheatley said.
“Two things never change about Mike. He is a basic, good person. And he is one of the best storytellers I've ever worked with,” he said. “And I'm proud to say I've worked with some of the very best.”
He met his best known collaborator, Brian Michael Bendis, at a signing in Philadelphia. Soon after that, Bendis said, Mike was working on a new style that evolved into the style he would use on Powers.
“Mike faxed over a version of [BMB’s character] Jinx and David Mack's Kabuki. I loved, loved, loved it! I dove to work with him. We became family very soon after,” Bendis said.
It may be difficult for some to put in perspective now, but Bendis had a mainly indy track record with Goldfish and Jinx and Mike was known for either illustrating Ship of Fools or inking Daredevil when they got together to do Powers at Image.
It was anything but a sure thing.
They clicked in working together, though, and what they were doing clearly clicked with the fans as well. Powers built into a hit and each of the creators established themselves further. Bendis wrote Sam & Twitch for Todd McFarlane and then moved to Ultimate Spider-Man before running off a list of hits at Marvel Comics.
Mike set himself on a course that has seen him alternately writing, inking, designing or playing cover artist on a string of creator-owned properties and company-owned titles.
“I think Mike will tell stories in any medium that comes along,” Wheatley said. “And he will make it a lot of fun whenever he does.”
“He's grown as a storyteller, writer, businessman and publisher,” Bendis said. “Honestly with the right diet and sedatives, there is nothing Mike could not tackle. Next year Mike and I will be doing another creator-owned project together that is as different from Powers as Mice Templar is, and I know he will destroy on it just like he did on those books.”
First, though, he has to deal with the 20 Questions:
JCV: What compels you to create?
Mike Oeming: Hmmm. It's probably psychological. Some kind of OCD. I'm not kidding. I look back at my life, I've been drawing constantly since I was 12 or 13 and there's a lot things I never did because I chose art and drawing first, even simple things. It was pretty compulsive for me and still is.
JCV: What was the first story you can remember coming up with or actually writing down or drawing?
Mike Oeming: It was a superhero team, a brother and sister, the brother could run at super speeds and the sister could turn into animals. I had them racing for like 30 panels on one 8 ½” x 11” page of typing paper. I think I was 13. I still have it somewhere. I have almost everything I've ever drawn. I don't know what to do with this old stuff. Throw it away? Burn it cathartically?
JCV: When did you know that you wanted to pursue art as your career?
Mike Oeming: When I was 12 or 13. I started reading comics and I knew right then and there what I wanted to do. I had all this want to draw, but draw what? It was frustrating. Then I found comics and my inner compass led the way.
JCV: What type of education did you have? Did you have any particular formal focus on art or was it just something you picked up?
Mike Oeming: Honestly, I have very little education. I was a terrible student. If it weren't for the art, I’d be a blue collar drifter. Seriously, other than art, I had no focus and I was practically raising myself. My mother was sick most of the time. I did the shopping with food stamps while she was zoned out on Prozac and stuff like that.
I never finished high school; I was kicked out for skipping too many days. I was passing though. I was skipping school to stay home and draw or I was up so late drawing I couldn’t get up. We were too poor for art school and I didn’t have anyone around to tell me I could have gotten a scholarship or something, so the idea of even trying for higher education wasn't even on my plate. I just had no idea. I thought of the Joe Kubert School, but there was no way I could afford it.
But I was head strong and beleived in myself, so I never saw those things as a problem at the time! I do wish I went to art school, Kubert or the big one in NYC. That would have been an amazing experience.
JCV: What was your earliest exposure to comic books that you remember?
Mike Oeming: About five or six years old, getting my haircut in Bordentown, New Jersey. It was an issue of Spider-Man.
JCV: Did you collect comics after you discovered them or were they just something incidental to your art?
Mike Oeming: I collected not for value, but for love. I had lots of Amazing Spider-Man, New Mutants, X-Men, Nexus. Then it became about collecting artists like Art Adams, Steve Rude, and Mike Mignola.
JCV: What other early influences inspired or sparked your creativity?
Mike Oeming: Music. It's always influenced me. Lyrics, a sound, a vibe... I drop lyrics into dialogue sometimes like Led Zeppelin. In Rapture there’s some lyrics by Bright Eyes that were very influential.
JCV: What was it about comic books as an art form that helped you find that inner compass?
Mike Oeming: Hmm. Could be that I spent so much time as a kid in my own head. My own fantasy world and such. I spent a lot of time in the woods, wandering around my mind and imagination taking hold of me... or listening to my aunt and uncle’s ‘70s music, the singer-song writer thing, creating stories in my head. It was all pretty unfocused until I found comics and it all came together.
JCV: Do you think the lack of formal art training actually held you back in any way or do you think it made you more open to trying different approaches?
Mike Oeming: Well, I did have an art school of sorts. A circle of friends, most never made it, but they all had skills. It was like an art studio every weekend for a few years, making our own comics.
I met Adam Hughes and Neil Vokes early on. They were really my mentors and schooling. Had I gone to school, hell yes, I would have learned even more, pushed myself harder. Still, the past is the past and I seemed to have done pretty well...
JCV: What was your first experience with comic professionals and how did it come about?
Mike Oeming: The first pros I met were Neil Vokes and Rich Ranking, creators of Eagle, at a small con in New Jersey around ‘86-87. Rich showed me how to use spatter with ink and toothbrush!
JCV: What was your first professional work and how did it come about?
Mike Oeming: The inking job on Newstrallia when I was like 14. I was just handing in samples and somehow I actually got work from it. I was too young to know I could follow up and get more work, so there was quite a time between that and when I was 17 and got some real inking work again. Well, I guess three years, but it felt like forever.
JCV: What were the next steps in your career?
Mike Oeming: Grinding it out as an inker and doing indie comics. Then I did an issue of Lyrcra/Spandex with Bryan Glass and caught the eye of DC Comics somehow. During that time I started some inking gigs on Daredevil and somehow leapt right to penciling and inking Judge Dredd. I was not ready in many ways. That was a harsh lesson.
JCV: What were your early influences?
Mike Oeming: Art Adams, Steve Rude, Frank Frazetta, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola Kevin Nowlan, Mike Golden and Jamie Hewlett. Quite a contrasting bunch of folks. For years I couldn’t sort it out in my head. If you have the Ship of Fools trade, you can really see those styles colliding.
JCV: What influences did you pick up later? There was a point not all that many years ago when one could see a lot of Alex Toth in your work. Now that’s much more subtle, for instance. Has this been a constant evolution?
Mike Oeming: Yeah, Toth and Bruce Timm came in later, a real growth. I don't think I would have understood their work if I was not into Steve Rude first, though.
JCV: What was the lowest point of your career and how did you rebound from it?
Mike Oeming: Which one? The one where I was fired from Judge Dredd or from inking Force Works? During the five months I stopped drawing after some personal hell? Or the one where there wasn’t any work coming my way and I had to get a regular job?
I've had quite a few lows, been kicked a few times while I was down, but it never kept me down. The idea is that bad times happen and bad times pass. You just have to remember that, learn from it and move forward!
JCV: Some years back, we talked about perceiving yourself as more of a storyteller than specifically an artist. You’ve been a writer, penciller, inker, layout guy, cover artist, photographer and filmmaker. What other roles have you undertaken and what do they have in common?
Mike Oeming: Well, that about covers it! When it comes down to it, storytelling is about communication. I think the only other role I've learned well over the years is about communicating and that spans a lot of things, not just art but day to day stuff. How do you get your point across in a conversation? Well, it's not a story, but the goals are the same, aren't they? Writing and drawing has made me better at simple communication, and vice versa.
JCV: What do you perceive is different about expressing yourself in each of those roles?
Mike Oeming: Point of View. Always have one, or do your best to find one as soon as possible, or you’re lost.
JCV: You’ve had a lot of collaborations. Are they all different?
Mike Oeming: Yes, but I've been pretty picky about who I work with and for the most part, they become very similar in the process. I think a lot of that has to do with trust, both in ego and creativeness. Show trust, earn trust and the working goes smoothly.
JCV: In terms of synthesizing two different sets of ideas, what’s the best or most effective collaboration you’ve ever had?
Mike Oeming: Wow, that's hard to say. I'd have to go with working on Rapture with Taki, but we are married, we live together, so it's not quite fair to compare. I mean this morning we were working out, jogging and watching Chuck on our iPod when an idea struck and we were able to talk about it right there. I don't work out with any of my other writing partners!
JCV: When you see an aspiring creator with talent, what is the advice you give them?
Mike Oeming: Patience. Always be on a learning curve.
Mike's new series, Rapture, is due out from Dark Horse Comics in late May 2009. He's working on the new Powers series, as well, and you can find out more about him at on his new website. You can also sign-up for his email newsletter by dropping a request to Oeming@aol.com.