By MICHEL FIFFE for The Beat
Previously in part 1 and part 2, Badger spoke of his breaking into comics, his approach to character icons, and his collaborations. In this final installment, he catches us up on the Instant Piano anthology series, being an activist, digital drawing, unionizing artists, and prioritizing the cartooning lifestyle.
Michel Fiffe: I’d like to talk a little about Instant Piano and how it came to be. Was it just a bunch of friends getting together to make comics?
Mark Badger: It was Robbie Busch who really started it. He started out at Pratt and I don’t even know how Robbie and I met. Probably through the inker, Art Nichols, but Robbie was my assistant when I was living in New York and he was friends with Evan Dorkin, who I was incredibly cruel and arrogant to. I think at some point in San Diego, I was drunk and Evan had 2 comics out. I looked at one and just bashed it.
F: It’s the kind of thing where you go, “OK, I feel really bad.” It’s one of those things you don’t remember doing and feel really guilty for. “That was me? I was that much of an asshole? I can’t believe it, I’m so sorry that I was such an asshole!” The drunken arrogance of me, 25 years old, and poor Evan, he was 21 or 22 or however old he was. Anyway, so Robbie brought Evan in and was hanging around in the offices and Kyle Baker and I were hanging out so we all started going out talking about doing something. We pitched it to Dark Horse and then their lawyer took a hundred years to negotiate a contract because heaven forbid you can just do a book. So many policies at Dark Horse. But it was really just 5 guys hanging out, doing a book. It had no grand pretension. You got Kyle doing the Shadow, I was doing Batman, and we thought we’d make some money, not lose money. We sold some copies, though. What happens is that you get older and you analyze why it all fell apart. But there was a fun period of hanging out in the West Village before there were any McDonald’s there.
F: You were all in New York at the time, or were some of you West Coast by then?
B: I was in Hoboken, Evan was in Staten Island I think, Robbie was in Brooklyn maybe, and Kyle was in the Village. Stephen DeStefano was in Brooklyn or Queens. It was like if you work at an office and then you kinda hang out afterwards. It was just hanging out.
F: Instant Piano came out around 1994. Were you one of the first to use computers for your art?
F: Sounds like you were one of the early guys to use that stuff, you and Kyle. I’m not counting the “digital” comics Marvel and DC put out years before, which were more novelty than anything else.
B: I think we were the first guys to pick up the Wacom tablet and really draw on a computer. We were just sick of dealing with the production people, which was sort of the first impetus of the computer. I can’t stand dealing with the production people. That was the beginning of it all.
F: The other thing that’s interesting about your stuff in Instant Piano is that you used the comics platform to talk about things, about immediate problems like politics, personal health issues —
B: Multiple sclerosis is a chronic illness. I was diagnosed with it when I was 30. It’s a pretty mind blowing experience. At that point, I pretty much figured I would live forever, but then I was diagnosed and I was like, “Ok, how do I deal with this?” There was no model for that at all. One of the things I’m very clear about is that the activism is a model for dealing with it. It’s depressing when you say ’94 because at that point there was a single-payer health care system in California that I was working on, and Hillary Clinton was thinking about doing her thing in ‘94. Now, 20 years later, Barack Obama and Congress are screwing everything up all over again. So the personal stuff in comics, I tried to figure how to get it to come out. I mean, guys your age grew up with a model of people doing comics like that. There weren’t many models for that kinda stuff back then. But I’m lucky, I married well. She’s an artist, a Tin Tin fan, and she was able to transition from running her own business to working on the web at a big company so we would have health insurance. And eventually drugs came out for MS and they work on me. It’s pretty sad that the artist health plan comes down to “get married to an office worker”.
F: You were actually giving out phone numbers in your comics for people to call up and be active.
B: I think if I wasn’t an activist I probably would’ve been a much more successful comic book artist. I would’ve been more focused on making money and being a good cartoonist and not putting together demonstrations. People don’t appreciate how much work it takes to get a demonstration together. Elliot S! Maggin said it best when he was like, “That’s the whole point if you read superhero comics. You become a Democrat if you read Superman comics.” You’re supposed to go out and fight for truth and justice. As far as fanboys go, I’m the 6 or 7 year old that always feels, “That’s what you’re supposed to do!” It was very life affirming for me during the Obama election and Gerry stuck up on his blog the famous Ditko Spider-man scene where he’s buried beneath the machinery and it goes on for several pages. I was like, “Ah! They finally get this! Yeah, that’s good! There’s a reason I like working with this guy!”
F: What happened after Batman: Jazz? Did you say you were blacklisted from comics?
B: I don’t know if it was blacklist. I’m sure DC doesn’t have a list of people you can’t hire. They’d probably get into antitrust laws if they did, but I certainly couldn’t get any work at all. The style I had was just too out there. I’d done a bunch of stuff for non profit people, I’ve been teaching Flash and ActionScript. Eight years of that, and then I burned out on a lot of teaching. At this point I qualify as an Internet guy who can do Flash applications and stuff. It’s frightening. It’s totally frightening. Part me thinks, “You draw comic books, you’re not capable of putting together an application!”
F: Were you also trying to build a union for cartoonists?
B: The Graphic Artists Guild has been around forever. When I got diagnosed I had to have insurance, so I joined the Guild which was mostly illustrators and graphic designers. There weren’t a lot of cartoonists. I helped the California chapter expand, and not fall into bickering by applying the techniques of community organizing. All the things I had learned in doing CISPES [Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador] I started teaching to the California Guild members. Basically, our chapter went from 3 or 4 activists and 100 members to 300 or 400 members with 20 to 30 activists because of all of these organizing techniques I had. This kind of stuff works really well and can benefit almost any organization. The Guild ended up affiliating with United Auto Workers. The affiliation gave the Guild some more economic power to higher organizers.
F: That would’ve been a big push to have that kind of support.
B: Yeah, we had an honest to god lobbyist in Washington who could work on artists’ rights. And so I went to work for the Guild for about a year. I went from teaching it locally to teaching it across the country and started getting some success with some of the chapters. The executive director being a white male — as a white male I can bad mouth white males, right?
F: Feel free.
B: He didn’t want a grass roots community. He wanted to put on conferences to get his people to treat him like something special. Because I was able to talk to the artists and get them organized and working together, he and the presidents didn’t want that. And that’s the way they went. At that point the Guild started falling apart. The Guild still exists but the local chapter’s gone. Every year or two they put out a Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook, and they make a lot of money off of that. As an organization, it’s really sad. They wanted what they got. They didn’t want to be a union. They didn’t want to work with blue collar commies, big labor. And they didn’t want to be a community where you’d have members working together to improve conditions, but a bunch of people make a living off of publishing the Guidelines.
F: That’s too bad.
B: It’s probably the saddest part of my work life. All artists need an organization working for them, but unions and campaigns don’t just happen. Organizers are the glue and structure that hold things together and make stuff happen. I think it’s fair to say at that point there weren’t any other artists who had any organizing skills so I was in a perfect place to fight for “truth justice and the American Way.” So I did that and taught for 8 years and lots of web development. Now I’m doing a bunch of comics. Suddenly I’m back doing comics.
F: That’s a shame about organization, too, because it’s true that artists don’t usually organize. They have no training in doing so, maybe not even the interest.
B: That’s the thing. Every artist wants to get together and drink beer. You know any artist that would not want to get together to drink beer, or coffee for those who’ve been alcoholics in reform? The interesting thing is everybody I’ve ever worked with, the union people I worked with are self employed artists. They all know how they’re being screwed, they all wanna get out of their studios and they’re all really capable of doing stuff. They can all take on a project, do it on their own and not have it fall apart. People who have regular jobs, you have to hold their hands all the time. They don’t realize how good our skills are. I mean, if you can draw comic, you can do almost anything. Comics are a shitload of work. That’s the interesting thing about being out of comics. Suddenly I have more respect for all the people doing comics than I ever did when I was doing comics. Artists need a little bit of support and skills, superstar artists need to get hit over the head because of their egos, but then artists just run with it.
F: Evan Dorkin recently blogged about the health care issue, about cartoonists living in New York. His wife, Sarah Dyer, did the bulk of the research but he put up all this information which was great. We need all the help we can get, y’know. It’s a little weird and pathetic how we make no money.
B: There was this one person who was into design and she was on the Guild and she would say how she had all these degrees yet all the union guys were making 3 times the money, and paid vacations, and health care, and that’s not fair! Well, yeah, they’ve got a union; they’ve worked their ass off for it. We haven’t. We’re creative and we do it all ourselves. Partially, artists are legislated against. If you and I wanted to form a union legally, we can’t, because if you and I form a union for comics, that’s an antitrust move.
F: No kidding.
B: Yeah, that would be antitrust. You would be doing something with the Competition law. That would make it antitrust to bargain with Time Warner, who are what, owners of 70% of the universe or something?
F: Sounds about right.
B: Part of the legislation is to prevent individual workers from unionizing because unions are bad. So that’s good that Evan’s pushing stuff out there. The question is can Obama get the country back to the point where there’s a middle class or not? He’s got to get it back to the point where there’s less of a feeling of intense pressure. Once you have a middle class, you can have artists existing as part of the lower class. There are a few artists that make it up to the upper class, but we need a middle class. Everyone should go read Elizabeth Warren, don’t listen to me. She heads up the TARP Oversight Committee and is pushing for more regulations. Jon Stewart clearly has a huge crush on her. What’s sad is when I was working with the Guild, a rival organization started up. It was all the big name illustrators who started in the 60s and 70s and they felt the Guild worked with too many peons and was the problem. They hated “Leftist Big Labor.” The UAW was evil to them because they felt they were the equal of Time-Warner. Single artists were the equal to large corporations, and only the really successful were worth supporting and working with. To them, Time-Warner is good and the UAW is bad. So supporting the civil rights movement, single payer health care, equal rights for gays, bad. Making as much money as possible for a few people at the top, good… if those at the top give you a cupcake or two.
F: I think a lot of cartoonists may be technically poverty line now.
B: I mean, there’s a lot of money to go around, it’s just not going around to everybody.
F: It’s not circulating down to us.
B: Yeah, there are huge loads of money out there. Somebody posted how much money the board members of the recent Marvel/Disney buyout made. It is a big deal. I didn’t recognize any of the names. They didn’t make any comics I ever bought! I never saw any of the movies Marvel made but they’re all making 30, 40, 50 million dollars. There’s plenty of money going around now. You’d think Marvel can take one million from 10 board members and set up a creative independent arm and spread all that money out to a bunch of the artists that make their comics. But y’know, what’s more important, making comics or a board member making another million?
F: Clearly, the board members need all the money they can get.
B: I’m happier now that I can teach and do flunky work for Pixelpushers as a programmer so I can do comics and just put them out there. It’s great to work with non-profits where the idea and the story are important, not sticking to the company’s house style. Ultimately… comics are like poetry now, where you make your comics and have a day job to support them. It makes the lines clearer about what’s important, so if I want I can go off and draw an 8 page abstract comic without a publisher and the success is linked to the drawing not making the editor happy. I’m so out of comics it’s ridiculous. It’s sweet that you wanted to do this and Heidi is running it, but I’m just a guy who flitted through comics for a little while, fit into some of the cracks in the business and went on with his life. I may be dumb but I think what I’ve done working with CISPES, working on health care, working with the Guild, working in my kid’s school are all more important than Batman. We lose perspective and think “comics” are the only thing, but the world and how you walk through it that’s what really matters.
It’s been a great pleasure interviewing Mark Badger, who was kind enough to let me ask him anything to begin with. Make sure to bookmark Mark Badger’s Art Blog and check in frequently. Visit right here for tons more Badger artwork and comics. –Michel Fiffe