August 16, 2011

How Cleo Got Her Groove Back

An Interview with Mike Maihack

Page 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any picture to enlarge to full size

I think the most telling description of
Mike Maihack’s work came from a recent discussion on his Facebook page. Mike had just posted a ‘quickie’ sketch portrait that he likes to release every now and then just to whet the appetite of his flock of fans. One colleague responded:

‘Is this your morning sketch? I love it! But... I hate you sooooo much right now!’

Granted, it was said very much tongue-in-cheek (and perhaps with some weeping, too? No, wait, that was me...), but what was being said is simply that Mike makes what he does look easy. Wonderfully, enticingly, ecstatically easy! It’s like taking golf lessons for years and never breaking par, then taking out a younger colleague to try it one day and he winds up being the next whoever-is-the-next-Tiger-Woods.

And it’s this ability to make these ‘amazing shots’ that he shares look so easy that has garnered Mike a huge number of fans and that he continues to be a favourite of all at any number of comic-cons, illustration displays and of course his very well known collections and also web-comics!

We’re very pleased then to bring you this interview with one of our own favourites of the past moons!


Hi Mike, welcome! Before we start, I have to ask from where did the name Cowshell come? And do you pronounce it ‘cow shell’ or ‘cow’s hell’?
Hi Ziggy, thanks for the invitation!

That is a great first question! And I have a completely uninteresting story for it. There was a project back in college where I needed to create a name brand. I’ve always loved cows and at the time I was throwing spirals into practically everything I drew. So I drew a spiral, placed some cow spots in it and called it a Cow Shell. It was magic!

Then, for whatever reason (probably laziness), I decided to keep using it. Now it’s on my tax forms so I guess I’m stuck with it. I really wish I had thought of something like ‘Mega Quantum RoboDragon.’

Can you tell us then, please, a little about Mike Maihack and how he got to be the popular illustrator that he is today? What were your biggest influences from childhood to now?
Popular? Haha. I don’t know about that. I just like drawing. And watching cartoons. And reading comics. So all my influences spawn from those things.

I’d have to say though that animation has been and continues to be my biggest influence. I devoured all those 60’s & 70’s Disney animations growing up, when it seemed like the greats
Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl were animating almost every character. Even though it was talking animals for the most part, those characters were as real to me as anything else on screen. Or off-screen for that matter. ‘Robin Hood’, ‘The Sword and the Stone’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ still remain some of my favourite films.

Eventually, I also of course I discovered comics, like ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, ‘Far Side’, ‘Outland’ and eventually the X-Men. I had very little interest in drawing an actual comic book though until I picked up this old Bone trade that collected the first six issues. It was the one that had Fone Bone stepping on a rock and looking off into the distance with a map or something. Hm, now that I think about it, I loaned it to someone who moved away back in high school and never got it back. Dang!

It is kind of depressing because that is the book that pretty much started me on my career path. Again, it was such a character-driven story and the art was this amazing mesh of comic strips, animation, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and everything else I was into. I fell in love with Thorn and that was that.

I find your style unique in that (at least for me) it balances very fine pen-work with a subtle, maybe even often simplistic (not right word, I’ll work on that) way of depicting both every day and more complex or even fantastic scenes. Now that may sound like I’m trying to slap a ‘manga’ label on your work, but it’s not that. How would you describe your style, say, if you were writing an introduction for promoting your work to a general audience?
It’s funny you mention Manga because I just starting reading it last year. I mean, I’ve been watching anime for years but manga is an entirely different vehicle.

But what I’m resonating with, besides the dynamic storytelling, is what you said: this balance between incredibly fantastic situations with everyday life. I mean, looking at things like going to school or what to eat for dinner. I love that!

Even my favourite X-Men comics were the ones where they were all hanging out by the pool or playing baseball. It’s one thing to take all these crazy characters with all these extreme personalities and pit them against the Juggernaut or something, but when you place them into a real world situation—something anyone can relate too—well, that’s when the character dynamics really shine. And that to me is more interesting to read than say, ‘having to defeat the evil super villain or else the world explodes.’ But in turn, you need those impending world exploding events to make the ‘everyday’ stuff that much more enticing. It’s a balancing act.

Miyazaki is a master of this. The scenes in ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ where the girls get to have these unreal adventures with forest sprits only makes the scenes where they are dealing with her ailing mother that much more powerful. Or in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, where even though she can fly and has a talking cat and all this other awesome stuff, the real drama lies in whether or not she’s going to deliver pies on time. I love that stuff.

Sorry, I’ve gone completely off topic. But I’d say that’s the gist of what I want people to get out of my work. The fantastic mixed with the mundane. If the result ends up being a little absurd, then that’s all the better. But hopefully it comes off kind of sweet as well.

Before we get to your latest awesome comic, ‘
Cleopatra in Space’, I wanted to ask you about a couple of your longer running previous offers, including ‘Cow & Buffalo’ (your creation and art) and ‘Parable’, which if I understand correctly, was or is a collaborative effort:

First, what is the current status of these ventures? ‘Cow & Buffalo’ seems to have ended; or will the closing promise of ‘to be continued’ be realized? And will ‘Parable’ continue as well now that Volume 1 has been released?
I always intended to get back to ‘Cow & Buffalo’; but now that it’s been almost two years I feel kind of bad about putting that ‘to be continued’ on there. Haha. But I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we’ve seen the last of them. I mean, those characters are a part of me. I used to describe ‘Cow and Buffalo’ as two sides of my personality having conversations with each other. It would be incredibly sad to find out I’ve become completely sane and have no more conversations to draw about.

‘Parable’ on the other hand was a massive undertaking, and I had a lot more time on my hands at the time I organized it. I guess we’ll see if another one happens. There are already a handful of stories already done for a second volume. I even fully pencilled twenty-four pages that I’d like to see finished someday.

‘Parable’ seems to have ... well, sorry, the best description I can think of is that it has an intriguing ‘
mission statement’. What was the impetus behind putting this collection together?
Well, as a comic fan and a Christian, I was frustrated with what I was seeing out there as far as Christian or faith-based comics go. Not even in terms of quality, but in the material being delivered. Like the Christian music scene of the 80’s, everything was derivative of something that was already out there in mainstream. There were good intentions, but very little on the side of creativity. But there were exceptions, like Royden Lepp’s excellent ‘David’ miniseries, and I thought, ‘This can be done.’ It’s just hardly anyone was doing it.

What was your role in getting ‘Parable’ started and up and running?
I brought up the idea of it on the Flight forums a while back (this is back when there were two, maybe three Flight books out at the time). There were a lot of like-minded artists on there so I thought it would be a good place to get some honest feedback.

It wasn’t actually my intention to do something like Flight, or even a printed anthology. I was actually thinking of maybe a website with cycling stories every now and then. But somehow the idea of doing an anthology got brought up anyhow and I ended up editing it. My role was then really more or less selecting the artists and making sure the book stayed on the path I envisioned for it.

I’m really happy with how it turned out, but the whole ordeal was a huge learning curve. If we do end up doing another volume, I would do certain things differently and hopefully end up with an even stronger book as a result.

collection of books that has been published is also very impressive. What has it meant to you as an artist to have these works put into book form vs. ‘just’ having them appear on the Internet?
I don’t know. I don’t really see much of a difference.

For me, the comics remain the comics whether they are on a computer screen, on paper or on an iPad. Where it changes is the timing within the actual story. ‘Cow & Buffalo’ worked as a serialized webcomic because even though it had these long, inane story arcs, it was essentially a gag-a-day strip. It was easy to only read one page at a time and not lose too much of its integrity.

I think ‘Cleo’ on the other had suffers a bit since I’m asking readers to essentially wait a week to sometimes find out a response or reaction between the last and first panels of each page. Which maybe isn’t fair to the comic or the readers but I think many of them have adapted to that sort of timing. And I appreciate their loyalty more than I can put into words. But I do think Cleo works better as a whole and that’s where it’s nice to see it collected in print or as a digital download.

Continued in Part 2

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