August 31, 2010

It's Time to Get Things Started

An interview with Illustrator Amy ‘Mimi’ Mebberson

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any image to largify

Something amazing happened at the end of the 1960’s. Now I apologise to all of you that reached the last months of this epic decade perhaps at an age above 6 and as such maybe have a slightly different take, but please bear with me. You see, until that time, the highlights of my life had been receiving my first collection of plastic dinosaurs (which drove me to not only be able to name them but also recite their Latin designations ... and of course employ them to attack and destroy all the Cowboy and Indian figurines which to that time had been my play-time staples); the moon landing that July that was SO COOL if for nothing else because I got to stay up late to watch it live (which drove me to want to be able to travel to the stars and back ... with my dinosaurs in tow, of course); and the shocking realisation a little over a year earlier that my parents were actually going to keep my new-born sister and not return her to the hospital (which drove me to so much anguish that I can’t even begin to describe it all here).

It was in mid- to late 1969 when quite a buzz was moving among the local parents and teachers. Even we wee ones were hearing that the evil device known as television was going to try something radical, something unheard of ... it was going to try and help kids learn in a non-commercial, even wholesome environment. This widely anticipated moment came then on November 10th, 1969. My family and I crowded around our 15” black and white TV to watch history unfold before our eyes, namely the premiere of none other than
Sesame Street. The show, of course, included an amazing combination of the great Jim Henson's Muppets, who not only had their own quirky ways but also interacted with real humans. It was for my 6-year old brain like a great lightning bolt from the heavens had charged into me and opened up a gateway to a new world!

Those first few shows were crammed full with animation, live shorts, as well as culturally relevant references galore. According to the modern fo(u)nt of knowledge,
Wikipedia: ‘It was the first pre-school educational television program to base its contents and production values on laboratory and formative research, and the first to include a curriculum "detailed or stated in terms of measurable outcomes".’ By its 40th anniversary in 2009, the phenomena that is Sesame Street had grown so that today it is broadcast in over 120 countries with an additional 20 independent international versions being also aired.

And more importantly to me, after that first show, the Muppets became my obsession. Though I understood somewhere deep inside that they weren’t ‘real’ living things, their humour, their ability to express themselves and the limitless variety of forms they came in caught hold of every fibre of my imagination.

My respect for the genre and especially the brilliance that Jim Henson and those that followed him shared with us all remains unshakeable through to today. I still find my eye automatically drawn to anything that was or is even in the most remote fashion influenced by these creations. I include here such examples as the amazing interactions of characters in movies such as ‘
The Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth’; or the wide range of ‘Star Wars’ creatures that owed their existence if not in total (Yoda) then in part to this method; or even ultimately so much of the stop-motion and CGI effects of today’s films, ranging from ‘Toy Story’ to even the more dark ‘9’ or even ‘Coraline’. And it is especially true when someone has the talent to bring such vibrant characters to life through illustration.

Amy Mebberson does just that. Amy – or ‘Mimi’ as she is often known as on-line – is an ultra-busy artist working on both Muppet and Pixar comics for BOOM! Studios. Even though BOOM! has not been on the scene that long, it is already gaining a very strong reputation in the market, putting together an impressive list of titles, with top-quality graphics and stories. Their commendable focus is ‘simply’ to bring back comics to kids, with stories written that seek to achieve the same targets as those started back in 1969, namely engage, enchant and enrich audiences’ lives. And if that weren’t enough, Amy is also very well-known in illustration circles and beyond for her expressive and spot-on style, which ranges from the sultry and sexy to the uniquely imaginative, often even with a strong nod to some of the greats of animation throughout the past decades.

We were very fortunate then to catch Amy between deadlines and the high demand on her regular appearances at comic-cons everywhere!


Hi Amy, welcome to the show (or is it Mimi ... and if yes, why Mimi? Just curious, my step-mom is also ‘Mimi’ but in her case it’s short for Marjorie).
My on-line name of Mimi goes back to my music study days, when I first joined the ‘net. ‘La Bohème’ is my favourite opera, so I borrowed the name of its rather fragile heroine, having sung a lot of it by then.

Speaking of journeys, can you describe how you came to focus on a career in illustration?
I have drawn about as long as I could hold a pencil. My mother has the picture I did when I was 21 months old to prove it.

Still, I never got a lot of encouragement to seriously pursue it as a child. I guess my parents figured I drew so insatiably that I needed no encouragement and I was managing just fine under my own steam (laughs).

In fact, during my last 2 years of high school and my first year of University, my career choices went from vet to animator to classical singer. I settled on classical singing and got my degree in music.

However, further study in London convinced me that an opera diva career wasn't for me and I went back to what I'd done all along, which was drawing. I returned to Sydney and spent five years at Disney's animation studio there, which I loved. After the studio was shut down in mid 2006, I relocated to the States with my husband and switched over to comics.

You mention in your on-line profile that you’re ‘just a Sydney girl living in Oregon, making a living drawing funny pictures. I want to be Charles Schulz or Brad Bird.’ Other than these gentlemen, who are / were your biggest inspirations, even from other walks of life in the arts (fine arts, not-so-fine arts, etc.)?
That's tough. I really don't have a list of people who have guided me to where I am in terms of inspiration.

I admire the greatness in anyone who has made a difference in the world, whether it's saving countless lives or just making people laugh. Jim Henson, Charles Schulz and Chuck Jones tend to be near the top for me because of the fortuitous circumstances that ALLOWED them to create their great bodies of work.

They had the charisma and talent and the right settings to keep their unique creative voice in spite of working for major corporations.
(ZN: for the ‘influence map’ illustrated here,
Amy says ‘The bigger areas are the real life-changers. The things that marked major milestones in my evolution as an artist. The smaller squares are influences most precious to me right now.’)

‘In spite of working for major corporations’? What do you mean by that?
I hate the divide and attitude that exists among artists, namely, that so many think that if you work for a company, you're a sell-out and that only by sweating blood for years on completely independent art is the only way to be a 'legitimate' artist. There are plenty of fantastic artists working in studio systems right now and the great ones know how to produce great work despite creative restrictions.

During my research, I very much enjoyed going through the nice collection of your ‘variant’ covers for several titles. However, I’m not quite up-to-speed on the concept of what a ‘variant’ cover is or why it’s done this way, especially when if I understand correctly, all of the versions are released simultaneously. Can you help a novice out, please?
A variant cover is simply a piece of cover art produced in limited quantities and often by commission from a single comic retailer. Sometimes a particularly high-profile artist might be commissioned to produce a variant.

They exist for their exclusivity and are aimed at comic collectors more than casual readers. The comic collector market is immense and publishers producing limited variants is standard practice for certain retailers, conventions etc.
(ZN: the examples provided here being ‘A’ and ‘B’ variants then for the same issues... neat!)

As you’ve just mentioned you obviously have an enormous amount of respect for the works of Chuck Jones and many others. But to be a bit – I don’t know – confrontational: since you are a lady of the female persuasion (huh?), did you have specific female artists that you respected or wanted to emulate growing up? Or otherwise put, did it ever discourage you that there has been a rather sparse selection over the past 50 to 60 years of female illustrators to choose from?
Absolutely not. I have never categorised myself as a female artist trying to make it in a historically male field. I am a cartoonist and I expect my work to be judged on equal terms to any other cartoonist, male or female.

I have never felt marginalised as an artist who happens to be female or encountered anything like a glass ceiling in my career. Okay, maybe that’s because I tackle my work never expecting to find one. But clearly, my gender does not define my work.

What you project in terms of confidence and artistic identity can sometimes have an impact on what kind of obstacles you might encounter.

What is your allure with the ‘pin-up’ as a subject (having
noted you ‘love Disney and (you) love pinups. Easiest math in the world.’)?
Like many artists, I find the female form pleasant to draw and aesthetically pleasing to look at. I would draw princesses when I was a little girl and I still draw them now, for fun.

I think sex and eroticism in mass media has really lost its sense of humour in many ways. If you look at mid-century burlesque dancers and strippers, sure a lot of the routines and costumes are cheesy and silly. But not only do these women still take their skills as entertainers VERY seriously, you can tell they are really having fun with it and at the same time, not taking it too seriously at all.

For me, there's such a palpable sense of fun in old school pinups and vintage Playboy cartoons and the like. There is a lot of comedy in sex and I see no reason why a sexy girl can't be also be a clown. I'd much rather see a real woman in pasties doing silly things with bananas than some Photoshopped, tanned model looking dull-eyed and surly.

It must be a nice break from the world of Kermit, Nemo and others when you draw these alluring pin-up pieces. But do you ever worry that doing the latter may in some way threaten your work with the former? Please bear with me here (I am originally from the ‘Bible Belt’), but I’m just wondering if there’s either concern that someone might complain to ‘management’ about the artist that’s drawing her little one’s comics is also posting some tasteful but still provocative pictures up somewhere else?
Oh not at all. Even in my pinup art, I never do anything that could be called pornographic.
A naked breast is about as risqué as I get and again, the context of the genre (vintage-style cheesecake) makes it pretty clear that my pinup art is all good clean fun and not lascivious or demeaning in any way.

Continued in
Part 2!!

No comments: