With a mind-blowing 37 years in the comic-book industry behind him, Mark McKenna looks to the future as he enters the world of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). We had a great opportunity to sit down and speak with the man who has crafted, killed and progressed the stories of some of the world’s most loved comic-book characters.
You’ve had an amazing career in the comics industry, but let’s go back to the very start! How did it all begin?
It started back in 1984, which is actually closer to 40 years now! I got a call from John Romita Senior, the Art Director at Marvel Comics – I was reading John Romita Spiderman comics in the back of the station wagon after going to movie theatres when I was a teenager! So John Romita Senior asked if I’d like to take a job doing art corrections. But back in 1984, the minimum wage was about $4.50 an hour and my commute from Long Island to New York City would have eaten up my whole salary, so I bailed on that. Twice, actually.
Then the third time he called me, about a year later, he said, listen… are you going to take a job or do I scratch you off? So, I explained my situation and he said, well I can get you assisting work, helping other artists – and I had to say yes!
This worked out for about two years, but the problem was I was being treated as a production artist and not as an artist who could do stuff on my own. So in my lunch break one day, I dropped samples off at the offices of DC Comics, because they were only about 20 blocks away. The next day I got a call from DC to offer me a contract to work on a book called Dr Fate and that started the whole ball rolling.
So, four decades in… how would you sum up your career?
I have always thought of myself as a worker bee. People often talk about me as ‘legendary’, but that doesn’t always sit well with me. I do have a big body of work, but I just see myself as a very busy guy who’s very engrossed in the business.
When I worked at Marvel Comics, I just took it all in. I was absorbing that stuff at a rapid rate and I watched other artists, saw how they worked over their shoulder, took notes, worked until one or two ‘o’clock in the morning, got up and did it all over again. Because, you just don’t get those opportunities you know. Today it’s very difficult. These companies don’t offer solicitations. You have to know people, you have to be in the right place at the right time, it’s all that kind of stuff.
What have been your highlights?
As far as comic-book creation I’ve had maybe a dozen comic life-altering events, I would say.
Hal Jordan who was a Green Lantern – I got to kill him in a book called The Final Night. He takes out a character called the Sun Eater, becomes a martyr and gets himself killed. I’m sure he came back a couple of years later – they all do, you know!
Then sometimes, you look back on things you’ve done. I was looking for a book that I worked on back in the mid 90s that was called Manifest Destiny 2099 and I thought I would buy a bunch of them for when I go to ComicCon and offer them to fans at an affordable price. And I saw that one of my books was at $75 and I thought what does this book have? What happened to it? And apparently it was the first appearance of Moon Night 2099 – a futuristic version of Moon Night who has been in the Marvel universe – and a first appearance is always a big thing in comics – that always becomes a thing.
There are also highlights from the business, so meeting Stan Lee was huge. I was at a Marvel holiday party back in the early 90s and Stan Lee was at the party, at the bar, by himself and I made a b-line right for him and I said, ‘Hi Me Lee, my name is Mark McKenna and I work on The Punisher and Iron Man for Marvel.’ And he said to me, ‘Is that all you do, kid? You should be doing five books a month, y’know.’ That was a great moment.
I did get to meet him twice more, once at ComicCon when as a surprise for Stan Lee there were about 40 artists hiding behind the curtain. When we were all told to come out, no one would go because there were like 3,000 people in the audience and we were all spooked. So, I walk out first, and Stan Lee is looking at me and I know he’s thinking, ‘Well, who the hell is this guy!’. But I was the first one out, so I have some cool pictures of me with Stan. When the other guys started to come out, I stood back and I watched, because some of those guys were the guys who’d worked on comics back in the 50s. That was a moment for me to take in, to just sit back and watch.
Another highlight, of course, was my wife! I met my wife at Marvel Comics in 1986. She worked in the Accounting Department and I worked in the Art Department. I tell this joke that, because she worked in the Accounts Department, she knew how much money I didn’t make and she still married me.
Are there any characters you wish you had worked on, but haven’t had the chance?
At DC there was a character I really liked called The Creeper, he was kinda like the guy who co-created Spiderman. After years of doing Spiderman when I went over to DC Comics, they did this character called The Creeper who was loosely based on Spiderman, and he was an awesome character. I grew up a Marvel guy and didn’t read a lot of DC comics, but this was one of the few characters I would always read.
I’m a big Daredevil fan and I grew up with a big Daredevil collection, but I can honestly say I’ve never worked on an issue of Daredevil. Although I did do him on a Spiderman cover once, so I guess you could say I’ve scratched that one off.
Which projects have given you the most fun?
The ones that give you the most amount of time are always beneficial, right? Cos you get to sit there and take your time with it. The problem with publishing of course is that it never sleeps, so a lot of times it takes the fun out of it. A project I was working on – I was a big Silver Surfer fan growing up – so doing space scenes and outer space, and the guys flying on a surfboard and shooting rays out of his hands was always a cool thing for me.
I also got to work on Batman, the original detective comics from the 1930s. I did issues 769 to 775. And if you go back 775 issues, sure enough, it was way the heck back there when I wasn’t even alive! But that was a great feather in my cap, to have worked on the original Batman series.
The work in our Marketplace moves away from your classic industry work and into your own created world. Is there a difference between creating work for a publisher and creating work for yourself?
You know, I was completely happy being a work-for-hire artist for Marvel and for DC for years, but then when kids stopped reading comics there was a huge fallout in the business, a lot of pros were out of work and it changed the battlefield.
Around that time my four-year-old daughter had an operation and as soon as we got her out of hospital I took her to a toy shop and said to her, you can have anything you want! And I started to think about what if I could create something that kids would love to have and I came up with a kid’s book called Banana Tail. Banana Tail is about a monkey who thinks he’s turning into a banana because he ate so many, and one day he wakes up with a yellow tail and he thinks, it’s happening, y’know!
I did that when my daughter was four and she is now 30 and I have five Banana Tail books out. And it’s a huge reward for me when anyone who reads them tells me how they love them, because that project is all me.
I also created Combat Jacks – a four-book story that is now available as an NFT. For that I created a whole new planet and what could be more fun than a hoard of raging alien pumpkins, right?! And I’ve been looking at some monsters who are now in the public domain – the Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein – and given them the Combat-Jacks touch!
Your career spans the pre-digital and digital age. How has digital changed your creative process?
My career is pen and paper. Pen, paper, brush. It always goes back to the paper. To this day, this is how I do my art. The thing that has changed dramatically over the years is that because of the digital business, you can scan in your artwork at high resolution and send it anywhere in the world for it to then be lettered and coloured.
Back in the 80s and 90s, everything had to be in the hands of the next person, you had a colourist sitting at the next table using coloured dyes on the xerox paper, never on the original, just colouring in xeroxes and then coding them. So you’d have a code that would go off the side of the paper that would say Y2, which is 25% yellow, or Y3 is 50% yellow, things like that. And that’s how they coded the stuff that would then go to a guy to prepare the films. Then Photoshop came along and changed everything.
Another way to work was to send things via FedEx, which would take days and sometimes it may even get lost that way – it’s a scary business. And now you can work with people overseas. So pencil artwork, which used to take two or three days to arrive, now arrives instantly. Which I can print out in non-reproducible blue ink, so when you do the final prints or scans it disappears and all you get is the actual art. It changes the game dramatically.
Digital has also changed how people can enjoy your work. How did you come by the idea of NFTs?
Last November (2020) I did a collaboration with José Delbo who was well-known in the 1970s for his Wonder Woman. We worked on one piece where on one side was José’s Wonder Woman and Batman and my Deadpool and Darth Vader was on the other and it went up for sale and it just opened my eyes. That introduced me to the market, then I was invited to do my own drafts and that kind of got the ball rolling.
To be honest with you, I think I’m into an entirely new audience now. A lot of people who follow me on platforms like Terra Virtua, only know me from these platforms. It’s interesting, there are very few that cross over. My original fan base is now over 30 years old, they’re older guys, and a lot of them are like myself – and I don’t 100% understand! But I’m not the core audience any more.
I feel like I’m having a renaissance.