By Justin Stokes

In preparation/celebration of Wizard World Nashville. I interviewed one of the stars of the comic drawing world for Nashville Arts Magazine

Artist/writer/creator Michael Golden, co-creator of the X-men’s Rogue character, Spartan X and Bucky O’Hare is known worldwide for his groundbreaking work on “The ‘Nam,” “Micronauts,” “G.I. Joe Yearbook,” and “Dr. Strange, “ among MUCH more, and is counted as one of the best cover designers and storytellers in the business. 

Nashville Arts Magazine (NAM): Describe your introductory experience to the world of art.
Michael Golden (MG): I don’t know that I can point to any particular experience that led me down the career path that I’ve ultimately followed. Both of my parents were artistic in their own manner; my mother trained to be a commercial artist and enjoyed art in general, and my father was a Craftsman, so maybe I simply had a genetic predisposition.

Like any kid, I drew and doodled, and recall having an acknowledged aptitude for a kind of creativity. To a certain degree, this was encouraged by my parents and teachers, but probably, mostly to keep me out of trouble. –with limited success on that latter point, I have to add. But “Art” and Creativity were always a part of my life and continued to play a greater and greater defining role as I got older. 

NAM: What influences have shaped your art?

MG: The short answer to that question is, Getting Paid!
The longer explanation to that answer is, that I have always been a “commercial” artist; maybe loosely defined at times, but still, I have always done what I do with the intention, the motivation, and even the prerequisite of getting paid for my effort. So, my “influences” have been whatever it took to satisfy the client.

To that end, I’ve pulled style, technique, and production references from myriad and countless sources; almost

always in job-specific applications. What that means is, whenever I was edited, art-directed, or even just stuck for a way to do something, I’d look for an example where that specific issue had be effectively solved, figure out how to apply it to the particular job I was working on at the time, and if successful, yes, it probably stayed with me as an “influence”, whether I ever used that information again or not.

I’ve never said or even implied that I work in a vacuum; I have favorite Authors and Artists. I read and look at what others are doing. But I’ve rarely been guilty of emulating others work, except in job-specific instances. I have my own inclinations; maybe even a “style”, if you will. I was fortunate to find my own voice early in my career, and everything during and since has been an on-going refinement to make certain I continue to have a career.

NAM: How did you “break in” to the industry?

MG: Whether the question is referring to the Commercial Art, Creative Storytelling, Design, or Concept industries (since I’ve done them all), the answer is, that I didn’t really “break in”, but came in sideways. I never knocked on doors– There always seemed to be someone willing to do it for me. I rarely presented portfolios– And even when I did, people were usually already aware of my work and the presentation was a formality. This is extremely rare and I totally understand and acknowledge just how lucky I’ve been.

I began my commercial art career merely as a way to eat. I was a homeless teen and would do tattoos, surfboards, skateboards, and murals (as opposed to graffiti) in return for food and shelter, and a way to make it to the next city. This evolved into doing vans, signs, and store-fronts, and a more static and stable base-of-operations. Now mind you, I was also working construction (of all sorts), retail, ranching, farming, landscaping, maintenance, and transportation jobs during all of this. I confess I never really considered being an artist and professional storyteller as a living; I just fell into it.

The sign and store-front gigs landed me newspaper and trade design jobs. I still wasn’t making that much money at it, but it was starting to take up more of my time. At one point, friends, clients, and benefactors pushed me out the door and sent me to New York City. There, I was again blessed with unexpected and overwhelming generosity that opened doors for me. Despite these many opportunities and mentors, I remained unfocussed for a long time– But that’s a whole ‘nother story…

But eventually I settled into the realization that Creative Storytelling was my calling and began dove-tailing my efforts onto that path. By then, my talent and reputation tended to precede me and doors continued to open. But I always made certain I was bringing something to the table; I taught myself how to write a script (my natural storytelling ability doesn’t necessarily put words into the characters’ mouths!) and how to do digital art. I was an Editor at DC Comics and Marvel Comics’ Senior Art Director. I’ve also continued to do commercial art of various sorts, focussed more on graphic and Web design, but I made the conscious choice some time ago to move more in the direction of Storytelling, and that’s where my attentions lie currently.

None of this is a course I would advocate. I would like to say the world was a different place and my talent greased the wheels, but the truth is, I’m a very lucky man. I may have always had something to offer, but it was only by virtue of others’ altruism, generosity, and outright prodding that I got into the industry and have remained as successful as I have. This is NOT the norm. <

NAM: How does an idea for a piece begin? What are the steps to your creative process?
For me, there’s no set way for working. –I won’t argue whether that’s necessarily good or bad. It depends entirely upon the job.

If the work is for a client, generally they provide a directive of some sort and reference, if not inspiration, for what they’re looking for or expecting. Then it’s my job to turn that directive into something commercially effective; something exciting, dramatic, and evocative. I like to use the term, Memorable. If the client does not provide a directive other than the euphemism, “iconic”, I’m obliged to find my own reference and define a sense of what the current market or audience expects. Then I’m back to exciting, dramatic, and evocative, and so far, by virtue of my design skills and storytelling insight, I’ve been reasonably successful at it.

If I’m doing the work for myself or for a venue that allows me that same kind of artist freedom, the creative process tends to be far more random and incidental. –Almost chaotic. I get ideas from everywhere and everything. I’ve had to cultivate the habit of writing stuff down because who knows how many good-if-not-great ideas I’ve forgotten and lost because I didn’t. I like my SmartPhone if for no other reason! This is especially true for dialogue. As I said earlier, telling a good story is a lot more than getting your character from Point A to Point B; it’s about HOW and WHY. –And that’s easiest to explain to an audience through what the character SAYS. I listen to how people talk and how they express themselves– This invariably prompts my imagination; either to apply to an existing project or to something new.

After that initial spark of inspiration, that lightning bolt out of the blue, it becomes a simple matter of production– Although I really don’t want to give the impression that it’s as pedantic as that sounds. Again, my priority is my audience; the only reason I’m producing any given work is for the benefit, the entertainment, the enjoyment of someone else. “Production” in my mind is more than just the mechanics, but more about the insight. Layout, design, color harmonies, exposition, plot development; all this is the mechanics. My job as the Storyteller is to make it REAL; to make it Memorable. I give this a lot of thought and consideration, and sometimes it shows. But, more-often-than-not, it really comes down to going with my gut-instinct. That’s the chaotic part of it; it’s not an actual conscious, intellectual assessment of whether the idea or the work is any good– although that’s the purpose of training and experience– but rather, does it just “feel” right.

At the risk of sounding a bit elitist, I don’t think that’s something that can be taught or even adequately explained. But in my experience, it is an integral part of the successful creative process and I tend to rely heavily on it.

NAM: What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently trying to wrap-up several storytelling projects that have been in limbo for quite awhile. I’m using the term “storytelling projects” because they aren’t really mere or simple comic book-type jobs and “graphic narratives” sounds a little too pretentious… But they are sequential art stories and I’ve been obliged to them for long enough that even I want them done.

At the same time, I’ve got a full portfolio of Creator-Owned and License-Oriented projects and properties I’m actively developing. A couple are already optioned, but there are several I want to hang onto and exploit myself. That’s one of the great things about Digital Media I mentioned before; I now have the very realistic option and opportunity to produce and publish my work and properties as I want and see fit. And the Entertainment Market is totally supportive.

Sadly, I’m not really free to mention any of these projects by name until I’ve got all the little ducks in line and ready to fly, but suffice it to say, I’ve got enough going on to keep me working for the foreseeable future.
I’m also making numerous appearances all around the world. Many places I’m teaching and lecturing on Commercial Storytelling; sometimes it’s simply to meet the many fans of the work I’ve created or been attached to over the years. I’ve also found this is a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the Entertainment/Licensing industry; I get to see what’s selling, what’s hot, what’s not. –And why. –And WHERE! It’s also a great way to visit places I normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to ever see otherwise! <

NAM: Are there any mistakes that you frequently see other artists making? If so, what are those

mistakes and how do you think they can be avoided?

MG: I don’t know that it’s as much a “mistake”, as it is an unfortunate reality of the industry, but producers and publishers are motivated by perceived formulas of “What Works”, and creators, eager to participate, by design or default, capitulate to this mindset.

THERE IS NO FORMULA! Everything that defines our media, our society, our history as a culture does so by being unique; by finding a singular voice, if not actually thinking outside the box.

That’s not to say you can’t learn your chops in someone else’s shadow, or that it isn’t possible to make a living being a cog in the machinery. But I believe it’s a mistake not to endeavor to be more. I understand that may not be possible for some, for whatever reasons. But it’s a mistake not to try.
NAM: What are your favorite characters you like to depict, and why?

GM: I think that’s the favorite part of what I do; the challenge of figuring out HOW to do something. That the final work is successful is always gratifying, but it’s the actual journey to get to that point that I enjoy. If it isn’t successful, I make the effort and find satisfaction in figuring out why, and doing better the next time.

NAM: What kind of stories are you looking to tell through your art?

MG: I want to tell stories of clarity and empowerment.
I not only want my audience to focus on what I want them to focus on, but to instantly understand WHY. I want my audience to KNOW who the Good Guys are and who the Bad Guys are, and WHY. I don’t like ambiguities. –At least not without recognizable and understandable resolution.
WHY something is happening, WHY the character(s) do and say what they do, WHY the story is being told or the image exists in the first place is THE Number One Priority for me. It’s not just pretty pictures. It’s Journalism. When the audience understands WHY something is happening, they are empowered. –Either to enjoy or reject the work, but at least you’ve got their attention.

NAM: Are there any characters or stories you’re dying to do?
MG: My own.

NAM: Any advice you’d like to offer for up-and-coming artists?

MG: My advice is always, Pay Attention and Learn Everything!

Look at the world around you. –I mean really LOOK! See that everything is a machine. People, places, things. Learn how the machinery works, how the parts and pieces go together, work, and interact. Then you’ll know how to make that machinery do what you want it to. Learn the Basics. –Because it will make learning everything else so much easier. And you WILL need to learn everything else.

Being a Commercial Creator is NOT an easy job and you ARE expendable; there’s always someone chomping-at-the-bit to take your place. The more you know, the more options and opportunities you will have.

For more about Michael Golden visit www.wizardworld.com/migoicoandle

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