Shining Light on a Dark Oracle: A Talk with Mike Wolfer
Mike Wolfer started his comic book career after attending the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. In 1987, he self-published a series about a giant monster named Daikazu under his own Ground Zero Comics banner. He survived the Indy Comics bust of the 1990s and continues to create comics to this day. Mike’s been at it for almost 30 years, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. Mike recently enjoyed tremendous success with launching new projects through Kickstarter.com and is returning to his self-publishing roots after many years of writing and drawing for Avatar Press. Mike was kind enough to take some time from his schedule to answer a few questions. And… here… we… go!
IM: You attended the Kubert School back in the 80s. Tell us a little bit about that time and the people you knew.J
MW: That was an awesome experience. Not only did I receive instruction from some of my artistic heroes, but it was the first time that I mingled with fellow artists who had such similar interests. Keep in mind that collecting and reading comics at that time was still kept secret by a lot of us. It wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. We (or, at least, I) kept it to ourselves for fear of being teased, so to be thrust into that environment with a bunch of other kids who loved comics, and who were artistically inclined like me, it was incredibly liberating and empowering. It was like a super-secret club for which you didn’t just attend meetings; you lived it 24/7. That environment helped me to break out of my shell of introversion and was a great learning experience for me, both as an artist and an individual. As for the people I knew, the entire class size was probably only around 45 students, and within that group, we had our own smaller rings of friends. After attending the Kubert School, many (probably most) of the people in my class never entered the comic field, or even the art field, but a few of my friends did, like Bart Sears, Lee Weeks, Graham Nolan, Mark McNabb, Mark Pennington, and some character named Steven Pennella. (Interviewer’s note: Mike was one of my roommates during year one.)
IM: You left after the second year instead of attending the full three years. What was the motivation behind that? Was it financial or something else?
MW: Well, it was basically a financial decision. I had to weigh whether or not I wanted to incur another year’s worth of student loans, and if it would be worth it to attended the school for a third year. What I had heard from upperclassmen and instructors was that the third year at the school was considered “Portfolio Year,” where there was much less instruction and students created works for inclusion in their portfolios. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought, “Why pay to do that, when I can move back to Delaware, get a job, make money, work on my portfolio, and not get further into debt while I do it?”
IM: Which teacher at The Kubert School helped you the most and which one could you have done without?
MW: I felt that some of the classes were outside the focus of the direction I wanted to go with my art, but I still learned little tidbits from every instructor, regardless of their field of endeavor. I’ve been asked, “What is the most important piece of knowledge you took away from the Kubert School?” I think it can be boiled down to these four things: (1) Joe Kubert taught me not to be afraid to exaggerate poses. (2) Milt Neil taught me that the best way to begin with the layout of a body pose is to think of the torso as a bean bag; get that gesture down first, then add appendages. (3) Jose Delbo made me keenly aware that your horses must never look like “Lassie”. (4) The best piece of advice, which I use almost every day, comes from Tex Blaisdell: “When in doubt, black it out.”
IM: You’ve been an indy comic book artist and writer since the late 80s. To what do you attribute your longevity in the field?
MW: That’s a tough one. It might be due to my continued growth and evolution as a writer and artist, or my prolific output of work. I always have more than one project in the works at any given time, so the sheer volume of stuff that comes out with my name on it probably helps. My passion for creating, and the devotion I put into trying to create complex, continuing stories probably plays a part, along with how I communicate with followers of my work and show them my gratitude whenever possible. But that’s if the word “longevity” translates to, “people continuing to buy my work.” If the question is, “How do I keep coming up with new ideas?” then the answer is, “I have no idea.” They just come to me, and I’m always plotting, even when I’m not aware of it. I’m a storyteller at heart and you can never turn that off, so needless to say, I have more ideas than I can possibly put into print.
IM: You started self-publishing under your Ground Zero brand in the late 80s. The first comic you created was about a giant monster named Daikazu. Will we ever see him again? Please????
MW: Ha ha! Daikazu’s return is always possible. Anything is possible when you’re self-publishing. Daikazu was the first thing I published, and such an interesting learning experience. Not only was I working on shaping my rather amateur artistic skills into something a little more polished, but I was learning every aspect of the business, from production (writing, drawing, lettering), to publishing, to printing, to marketing, to distribution. The list goes on and on. I wish that every comics writer and artist could enter the field the way that I did, as a self-publisher, so that they could have a firm grasp on just what it takes to get a book on the racks and all of the steps involved. Quite a few comic pros only know, “I do my thing and get a paycheck, then the book is in stores.” I feel richer for knowing all of the aspects of taking that “thing” and getting it to press and into stores and I have a great appreciation of the process and respect for budgets, which other creators might not have.
IM: You started Widow a few years later, and she’s made the rounds in Boundless Comics. She was published under Everette Hartsoe’s London Night Comics brand. What was it like working with him?
MW: I self-published Widow for two miniseries, then London Night made an offer to publish the third series. Sales were awesome, with Widow: Metal Gypsies #1 making it into Diamond Comic Distributors’ Top 100 for the month of its release. They published two of the three issues of that miniseries, as well as four issues of the black and white reprint Fangs of the Widow, before unceremoniously and unexpectedly pulling the plug. To this day, I still don’t understand why. I was called on the phone and told, and I quote, “Hey, Wolfer. Cancel Christmas. We’re gonna have to cut you loose.” So I finished Metal Gypsies at Ground Zero Comics, published the follow-up Widow: Bound by Blood mini, and continued Fangs of the Widow up to issue #14.
IM: At one point, Ground Zero started publishing titles from other artists, like Dan Parsons’ Harpy. What was it like being a big time indy publisher and why did you stop?
MW: You asked, so here it is, straight up. I was facing the prospect of bankruptcy in the mid/late 90s, but not because of low sales. I was in incredible financial debt because I was screwed by a slew of creators whose books I was soliciting as new Ground Zero titles. I was paying people out of my own pocket for drawing pages. They’d do a few, get paid, and then disappear without ever getting close to finishing their books. I was printing posters and promo cards, soliciting comics and paying for full page ads in Diamond Comic Distributors’ PREVIEWS catalog. I was spending all kinds of time doing promotional work and building and running ads in my own books, and every last one of those series came to a dead stop without the creators delivering what they had promised, so I had no completed books to print and sell to recover my advance expenditures. The only person who I worked with who was a pro from start to finish was Dan Parsons, and to this day, I admire him for his professionalism and moral compass. Because of all the money I was putting out on those projects with nothing coming in from them, I subsequently couldn’t pay my own Widow printing bills. To top it off, this all happened during the comic market “crash,” when speculators left in droves, sales plummeted, and publishers, comic shops, and distributors around the world were driven out of business. It was a mess. I was around $24,000 in debt, but spent the next ten years paying it all off, because I was not about to declare bankruptcy.
IM: After Ground Zero, you were approached by Avatar Press and started writing and illustrating for them. What were some of the advantages they offered versus being your own publisher?
MW: While I was going through all of my financial hardships, they made the offer to take on Widow and, as you can imagine, the benefit was that it allowed me to recover from the horrible beating I took as a self-publisher. I was able to focus on creating, rather than running a company, to catch my breath and use my page rate from my Avatar work to pay off those debts I incurred as a publisher.
IM: You’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best writers in the biz, like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. How has that helped you with your own writing?
MW: I’m sure that there’s some osmosis that goes on, whether it’s from illustrating stories from their scripts, or succeeding them as writer on books they began. Every writer has his or her own style and, naturally, I have my own, but when I take over writing on a book like Warren Ellis’ Gravel or Garth Ennis’ Stitched, I look at what they did, get a feel for the ambiance, and do more of “that.” It might not necessarily be what I would do on a series I’m creating from scratch, but it’s not my job to take over and switch things up. I want to keep readers comfortable, and to try to seamlessly mesh with the feel that’s been established by the previous writers. There’s much talk about a writer’s “voice” being evident in their work. That’s what I try to replicate, but I try to do it unconsciously. No one wants to read a book that’s trying too hard to sound like someone else wrote it.
IM: You’ve written and illustrated licensed properties while at Avatar, such as Jason from Friday the 13th, and created stories based on Night of the Living Dead. How is that different from creating stories with a Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis? What are some of the politics involved with a studio character?
MW: Each series or character that’s licensed has its own unique requirements that must be fulfilled, but really, they’re all basically the same when it comes down to the approval process. The final word lies with the license holder, which is how it should be. Truthfully, sometimes requested changes make for a better product, and sometimes they seem arbitrary and pointless. Working with Warren and Garth are both examples of “making a better product.” Working with George (Romero) and John (Russo) on Night and on Escape of the Living Dead was wonderful. Working on Friday the 13TH for New Line Cinema was different. They had an approval panel that would go over every script, page, and cover, and sometimes I couldn’t understand why changes were being requested. I did a cover where Jason has split a guy’s head down the middle with his machete. I was requested to make an art correction to remove the gold chain from around the victim’s neck. Why? Not a clue and does anyone care? I did a cover with a couple making out in a hot tub, with Jason hovering menacingly in the shadows behind them, with basically only his mask barely visible. I was asked to add a machete. I was going for moody, and relaying the idea that Jason doesn’t need to be flashing a machete in every picture, that he can kill you with his bare hands. Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll add the machete. Another cover had Jason looking badass in the woods, and the suggestion was to add a suburban house in the background, because “when we see houses, we think security, and we should feel that there’s no security from Jason.” Right. In the middle of friggin’ woods surrounding Camp Crystal Lake, there’s going to be a suburban house. Luckily, we got past that one without making the change. I think I flat-out refused to do it, if I remember correctly.
IM: It’s my understanding that some of the artists you work with at Avatar are from other countries. What are some of the challenges with working with people from different cultures?
MW: Right, I’ve worked with creators from all over the world and, as long as there’s a good translator for the script, it doesn’t matter where we all live. When I’m writing panel descriptions in scripts for foreign artists, I have to be careful not to use anything in the way of American/English slang and use as few contractions as possible. Those tend to be confusing for translators. But yeah, if I were to say, “The hero is totally kicking the zombie’s ass,” or “the hero is beating the hell out of the zombie,” the images we get from the artist might be quite literal, or they’ll be utterly confused. It’s specifically what the script asked for, but not the intent of the writer. So for those examples, the proper description would be, “The hero is fighting with the zombie and profusely punching it. The zombie is being injured and is losing the fight against the hero.”
IM: What gave you the bug to return to self-publishing?
MW: It was mainly a financial decision. At one point, I was writing Gravel, War Goddess, Lady Death, and Night of the Living Dead, and drawing Gravel, all for Avatar Press. But low sales and other factors forced the cancellation of many of those books and there were no new projects to fill that void in my income. I had to do something to pay the bills. I had quite a few series proposals that Avatar wasn’t interested in, so I pitched those to several mid-size publishers, but nothing ever transpired. I’d also been yearning to try self-publishing again, because I did enjoy controlling the output of my creative work, setting my own schedule, etc., so I figured, “Why not do those dream projects for myself, rather than shop them around to other publishers?” And Mike Wolfer Entertainment was born.
IM: You returned to your self-publishing roots with Ragdoll and Countess Bathory. You’ve had a few successful Kickstarter campaigns. What have you learned about crowdfunding after the first campaign that made it easier to succeed in other campaigns?
MW: I haven’t the slightest clue. I really don’t. All I can say is that I’m so grateful that I have a solid core of fans who are aware of and who are tapped in to Kickstarter, who are very loyal and who are helping to make these dream projects come to life. For me, the Kickstarter for The Curse of Ragdoll was an absolute experiment, just to see what would happen. I set my goal low, crossed my fingers, and promoted the hell out of it all over social media, to the best of my ability. And it paid off, with the final total exceeding my goal by 136 percent.
IM: When it comes to Kickstarter, what was the biggest mistake? Biggest surprise?
MW: The biggest mistake was underestimating domestic and international shipping costs, and not taking into account that those rates can change at any time. The biggest surprise was how giving my fans are, and how willing they are to drop half a week’s pay on unique, collectible items to add their collections. I thought that some of the higher ticket tiers might be unreasonable, but I think that many supporters know that their money isn’t going just to “pay for stuff,” it’s going toward directly supporting ME, so that I can create more stuff for THEM. And that is what it’s all about.
IM: You recently announced your intention to distribute Ragdoll as a monthly title vs. Kickstarter campaigns for graphic novels. What’s the motivation behind this?
MW: Initially, I was going to publish a string of graphic novels, maybe twice a year, and fund each one through Kickstarter. But the critical and fan response to The Curse of Ragdoll was extremely positive, and it won a few awards, even tying for first place as Best Original Graphic Novel of 2014 in comicattack.net’s yearly Readers Poll. I also looked at the numbers. The Curse of Ragdoll was not distributed to stores, and is only in the hands of just under two hundred people, those who backed the Kickstarter. There are a lot more than two hundred people out there who follow my work, but if they’re not connected to me via Facebook or Twitter, they have no idea the book even exists. Also, I didn’t want current Ragdoll readers to have to wait six months between each new installment of the story, so I decided to form Mike Wolfer Entertainment, put out the Ragdoll story in regular, monthly installments, and distribute it through Diamond Comic Distributors. In that way, I’m reaching more readers who would enjoy my work, and I’m giving my current Ragdoll fans regular monthly doses of scary, sexy goodness. The story itself has also grown, as has the cast of characters, so I’ve changed the title to Daughters of the Dark Oracle, to better reflect the wide range of characters we’ll see. Ragdoll herself will be a recurring player throughout, but she’s not necessarily the focus of each series. I’ll be doing a string of miniseries, by the way, so that it will be easier for readers to collect. The first will reprint the first, four-issue Ragdoll adventure, titled Daughters of the Dark Oracle: The Curse of Ragdoll, followed by Daughters of the Dark Oracle: Orgy of the Vampires, which will be five issues, and include the Countess Bathory one-shot I funded on Kickstarter. I’ll be running Kickstarters for each “Daughters” miniseries, too, to make sure that I can cover all of the upfront production, printing, and creative expenses for each.
IM: Your books will be distributed to comic shops via Diamond. Is your relationship any different with them now, compared to the Ground Zero days of the 80s and 90s?
MW: Surprisingly, the relationship, the contracts, and the publisher requirements are virtually identical to what I knew back in the 90s.
IM: Where do you see Mike Wolfer Entertainment in five years? Will you publish or distribute works from other creators?
MW: I’ve been down that road before and I’m not going there again, unless it’s with someone who I know well and trust. And if I entertain the notion of publishing the works of others, I’m going to have a much different contract with creators, to ensure that what happened to me in the 90s never happens again.
IM: Would you ever consider letting other artists work on your characters? I know someone that would love a crack at Daikazu.
MW: Ha! I’m not opposed to the idea, but it’s not on my agenda at the moment. Pow Rodrix and Andres Ponce did a great job portraying Emma/Widow when she was a supporting character in War Goddess, but we’ll see what the future holds. Right now, Daughters of the Dark Oracle is priority, and if that’s successful and I branch out into other titles, I’m going to need some help!
IM: Would you be interested in licensing the rights to a horror movie character or franchise, such as Jason or Freddy, and publishing work under your own banner?
MW: Nope, not at all interested. I’m an all-around creator (conceptualizer/writer/artist/publisher), so there’s no need to use someone else’s creations in my self-published works. Mike Wolfer Entertainment is all me.
IM: You also announced more Kickstarter campaigns. What are your plans and what will you offer?
MW: From March 9 to April 8 was the Kickstarter to fund Widow Archives, which is a four-volume set of trade paperbacks, reprinting all of the Ground Zero Comics’ series. Then on April 20, I launched the Daughters of the Dark Oracle Kickstarter, to fund the first miniseries that hits stores beginning in July of this year. Sometime in early May, I’ll also be doing a peripheral crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for Maximum Rissk, a one-shot comic that features the adults-only origin of the Widow villainess. My rewards tiers have a slew of cool collectibles, like trading cards, autographed sets of some of my more popular past works, Oracle (Tarot) Cards, art prints, original art, variant covers, action figures, you name it.
IM: Your Widow character was licensed to a toy company and was an action figure. Could you tell us about how that came about? Any possibilities we’ll see Ragdoll action figures, or other characters from the Wolferverse?
MW: The deal for the Widow action figure was all a part of signing on with Avatar Press. They set up their own merchandise company called Bolt (later Rendition), and Widow was just one of a number of action figures they produced. As for action figures of Ragdoll or my other characters, it will all depend on whether or not there is a demand for them. From what I’ve heard, creating the sculpture, prototype, and die for a figure is ridiculously expensive, so there would have to be a very high demand for something like that.
IM: Here’s a hypothetical situation: You’re talking to a guy with a full-time job, wife, kids and real-life responsibilities who wants to self-publish and get his own graphic novel or comic book out there. What advice would you give them?
MW: That’s pretty simple. Concentrate on the real world first. If you have any spare time, work on your project on the side. Get a couple of issues completed before even considering publishing. Show that work to others in the field and hope for honest critiques. If people in the industry, or real comic book readers, aren’t telling you that it’s killer, keep working on your skills. Only after you’re being told by people who know what real comics look like should you even think about taking on the labor-intensive tasks of marketing, promoting, and self-publishing a comic. Do not quit your day job, even after you’ve published that first issue. You have to be realistic and you need to do your research of the field to know what to expect from sales. It’s a terribly competitive market, and although there are ways to carve out your particular niche and attract your own readership, this often takes many, many years. And no matter how much your close family and friends tell you that your comic book is so amazing, don’t listen to them. They’re just amazed that you can do what you do. But they don’t know what a professionally written and illustrated comic book looks like. Trust me on that.
IM: How did you handle a real job and self-publishing in your younger days?
MW: I continued to work my full-time job for the first eight years of my self-publishing career, so as you can see, I took my own advice that I just gave in your last question. I got very little sleep for those eight years, that’s for sure.
IM: Besides being a writer and artist, you’ve also dabbled in the music and ghost hunting industries. Can you tell us a little about those worlds?
MW: Just for fun, I’ve been in several bands over the years, first as a bass player, and later, as lead singer. It was all rock/metal/disco stuff, if that makes any sense. I’m also (believe it or not) a paranormal investigator with Haunt Squad, a Delaware-based group. I’ve been a member of several other area teams, and have seen and experienced things which are absolutely mind-blowing. I first pursued paranormal investigating as a hobby, just something fun to do on weekends, but after experiencing what I have, it’s become a permanent side-project of mine. Haunt Squad is composed of me, Ragdoll letterer Natalie Jane, and our friend Vinny Gomez. We were all investigators in Diamond State Ghost Investigators, before we decided to branch out and form our own, close-knit team. We’re having a blast doing it, particularly our bi-weekly podcast in which we talk about not only our paranormal experiences, but creepy comics, movies, games, or whatever geek culture stuff we want to discuss. You can find Facebook pages for those at www.facebook.com/hauntsquad and www.facebook.com/hauntsquadpodcast.
IM: Where can we find you on the web?
MW: My personal Facebook page is www.facebook.com/officialmikewolfer. All of my comic and self-publishing news can be found at www.facebook.com/thecurseofragdoll, and my Twitter handle is @WolferMike.
IM: Where can we purchase Ragdoll and other works you’ve created?
MW: Everything I’ve published this year, including comics, art prints, t-shirts, and Oracle Cards can be found at www.ragdollonline.com.