Kagan McLeod: Old School Flavor

A comics interview article by: Nick Hanover

We recently jumped at the chance to review Kagan McLeod's excellent new graphic novel Infinite Kung-Fu, an epic, sprawling take on the mythology of kung-fu that fits in zombies, funk stars-turned kung-fu masters and stylish gore a'plenty. Kagan was also kind enough to agree to an interview with Comics Bulletin's Co-Managing Editor Nick Hanover, telling us about how Infinite Kung-Fu spans his own maturation as well as his favorite kung-fu directors and his attempts to track down the RZA for a pull quote.

Nick Hanover: The first question I wanted to ask you is a little less related to Infinite Kung-Fu but I was wondering if you saw the newsabout RZA playing a blind kung-fu master in the new G.I. Joemovie...

Kagan McLeod: Oh, Snake Eyes' Blind Master? I think I saw thatfrom you guys. That sounds awesome, it sounds like a perfect role because any stunt work I assume he's going to have a full mask on, so [laughs]...it'll look right if he gets a stunt double. And he won't even have to talk.

Hanover That does make it a little easier on the acting front. 

McLeod: [laughs]

Hanover: But I bring it up because you and RZA seem to have a lot of the same taste in kung-fu flicks and while you've been able to unveil a pretty epic take on the genre with Infinite Kung-Fu he's kind of stuck fitting into this big action franchise. 

McLeod: Right.

Hanover: So why do you think it is that film audiences have turned their backs on the genre in recent years? Do you think something like this can help get people interested again?

McLeod: That's a good question. I don't know. I forget the name of the kung-fu movie RZA made [The Man with the Iron Fist- ed.], but it had this total vintage look to it. I saw the trailer but I haven't seen the movie but I think he got some Shaolin temple New York monks to act in it. It had the old school flavor to it. But yeah, you're right, G.I. Joe is a Hollywood type of thing. 

I think it's hard for people who grew up with it or who are of a certain age to go back to before they were born to look up stuff. I guess that's what I did, I'm not old enough to remember when a lot of this stuff came out in the '70s but that's why it's kind of cool, because it's all new to me. You have to have the attention span to digest a different pace and a lower level of special effects and stunts. The ideas are the thing that draws me to it. They're not really like anything that's out today.

Hanover: Well, it seems like a lot of it is the mythology. In your work a lot of the appeal comes from this grand, sprawling mythology and it seems like in a way that's what inspires the hip-hop artists as well. And Quentin Tarantino seems to get off on the inventiveness. Would you say that's true?

McLeod: Yeah. That's exactly true. I like watching a cool choreographed fight but the real reason I turn to these things is the costumes and the mythology, reading kung-fu manuals that give you powers based on how you read them or secret techniques that allow you to shoot lasers, that kind of stuff. It's a whole crazy world.

Hanover: I know you started work on Infinite Kung-Fu all the way back in 2000. Did part of the inspiration come from the lack of good western interpretations in the genre?

McLeod: I guess so. I definitely wasn't aware of anything that had that flavor. You know, it always feels good to draw inspiration from things that aren't other comics. So I thought it would be fun to try to capture that old school kung-fu flavor in a different format, one that I wanted to work in. It's a lot easier to get across as an artist than it would be as an actor, or a western actor, someone not living in China.

Hanover: Right, and obviously you have an infinite budget to work with when it's in comic form, since you don't have to worry about the special effects or stunt workers or any of that...

McLeod: Yeah, my brother's in film and that's always a thing between us, that if I want to do an elaborate scene all I have to do is think it and he has to plan it out and get money for it and get people...

Hanover: Get all the insurance filed...

McLeod: Mm hmm...

Hanover: I also know that when you came back to Infinite Kung-Fu you added an extra two hundred pages to the Top Shelf release. How easy was it to begin it again? Was there a process you had to go through to reacclimate yourself?

McLeod: Yeah, I think there was a while where I felt like I was...not over it, but not interested anymore. But luckily all it took was to read it again and start thinking about it again to get excited about it. I guess one of the things is, basically I started it when I was 21 or 22 and finished it when I was 31, 32. 

So, you know, I think differently now than I did when I was 20. Some of the stuff I had done I thought was corny and maybe I would have done it a little differently now. That was a challenge, to kind of bridge this huge span of my own maturation, I guess. But I still think it has the same kind of flavor, and it's lots of fun, so once I got into it it was all cool.

Hanover: In that time when you started on it, which would have been around the same time The Matrix was happening and there was that kung-fu influence going on, and since you've come back to it now, kung-fu hasn't exactly returned to its heyday in comics but there are more examples of it. Are there any contemporary books you read that you think do a good job with the genre as well? I'm thinking specifically of books like Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's take on Immortal Iron Fist...

McLeod: Oh, I haven't read that. I did wonder if kung-fu was starting to become really popular. In movies at least, there was promise for Stephen Chow to really break out with a few of his releases. I don't know if it failed but for a while people weren't really talking about kung-fu stuff. But I'm seeing more projects along those lines come out here and there...Kung-Fu Panda and things like that...

Hanover: Do you think that will have an impact kids, seeing that at a young age? Because like you were mentioning, you grew up on it in some ways, you found it at an important part in your childhood. Do you think something like Kung-Fu Panda, even though it's obviously a kids' movie and it's not totally true to the genre, could cause kids to seek out more works?

McLeod: Well, I think it's good to even introduce some of the ideas so that the kids know them, so when they start to find out more about it, the animal style and the types of legend that that's based on, it kind of clicks for them. Even when I listen to Wu-Tang music part of the fun was finding the movies the audio samples were from and that was like a huge treasure hunt for me. So to kind of get bits and pieces when you're young and have it all make sense as you discover more is fun for me.

Hanover: You also included that primer in the back of Infinite Kung-Fu, which I thought was a great addition. It helps for a lot of people who aren't as indoctrinated in kung-fu to give them an idea of where to go next. Was that your goal with it, to make it an educational experience, to give people the next things to explore if they liked what they saw?

McLeod: Yeah, totally. I feel like what I did at the end was kind of a really brief history with a lot of the key, noteworthy things that happened in the history of martial art films. But a lot of the ones I mentioned that are significant and game changing aren't my favorites. 

A lot of my favorites lie somewhere in between. There's a lot of stuff in there that is really important but some of the best stuff is less important in terms of impact on the genre. So I hope that's a starting point for people but of course, there’s much more.

Hanover: To kind of explore how you got into the genre, I know you live in Toronto and historically that's a very international city that has lots of large film festivals and all sorts of incredible places to go for foreign films. In the introduction to your book you have Colin Geddes, from the Toronto International Film Festival, talk about playing an important role in your kung-fu education and your mom coming down and picking up some stuff for you.

McLeod: Uh huh [laughs]

Hanover: Would you say that Toronto is in some ways responsible for your interest in kung-fu? Do you think living in a city like that allows you to explore a genre that before the internet was very collector based and kind of tough to break into?

McLeod: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And that's one of the cool things that it talks about in the introduction, about going to the video store and having a movie mentor to kind of steer you in the right direction. It's a lot different with the internet, it's not face to face. I guess you could build up people you trust and websites whose recommendations you trust and everything like that. 

But part of the fun of it all was finding something super rare or finding out about something that no one has rented in years or ordering something and having it come six weeks later and finding something that no one else knows about...

Hanover: Right, and kind of showing off in a way...

McLeod: Yeah, and as far as Toronto, I mean a lot of the bootlegs I would buy came from New York. And I think that was like the whole home video market for that kind of stuff was huge but not really official. It was also just kind of xeroxed covers and all that...

Hanover: Because it wasn't distributed in North America all that well...

McLeod: Yeah, yeah, sometimes you could find one at Blockbuster or something like that but not very often.

Hanover: And Toronto has a pretty huge Chinatown, as well doesn't it?

McLeod: Yes, it’s got about 2.5 million people total.

Hanover: So that kind of gives you an in that other cities might not have.

McLeod: Yeah, before the internet at least. And now the company that owns all the Shaw Brothersmovies, they were kind of keeping them under wraps and only in the Chinese region or Asian region DVDs, but they were releasing them which was cool. But now they're starting to have a few dubbed and subtitled versions come out on region 1 from other companies, which is cool to see them remastered an everything like that because some of the movies I used to love on those bootleg tapes would be 4th generation, really terrible quality with Korean subtitles on top of the English and almost unwatchable [laughs].

Hanover: You mentioned the internet too and how that's changed it a little bit. It seems like there are some benefits and some negatives that kind of interact there, where you have better access to films and you might have better fan dubbings or fan subtitled versions. But do you think that overrules the loss of community that you speak of, of not being able to go in and have real conversations with people in the stores or do you think that people are finding different ways of getting that same fix?

McLeod: One thing that's kind of sad is the anticipation is gone because you don't have to earn anything you want, you just click around and get it basically whether it's on Amazon for the next couple days or you find and download it. That kind of sense of hunting down something or having a great find in a dusty bin somewhere and getting your friends to come over and watch it with you, that's almost gone. It's kind of like it seems less special when you can click and have it immediately. I think attention spans are getting shorter too so you might just skip through to the...

Hanover: The good parts?

McLeod: Yeah, the good parts. And not tolerate the whole thing.

Hanover: Because if you had to wait for it to come in on order for months or years then you're more inclined to watch the entire thing through...

McLeod: Yeah, yeah. And another thing is that Colin [Geddes], who wrote the forward, also ran a kung-fu fridays film night once every month or two weeks, I think. He basically found a bunch of movies from a closed down Chinese theatre in the trash and rescued them all along with all the lobby cards and posters from the '80s and '70s and would screen them every once in a while at one of our small theatres. Not having been alive for much of the '70s it was cool to see them in the theatres on the format they were made for, with other people who were reacting to the same scenes...

Hanover: Like the Street Fighter scene in True Romance, when Clarence walks into the theatre...

McLeod: Yeah! Exactly!

Hanover: To kind of shift gears here for a minute, I wanted to talk more about your style, which is very iconic and immediately recognizable. It's interesting because I think most people probably know your work from the commercial work you do for magazines. 

McLeod: Mm hmm..

Hanover: Do you have a different frame of mind that you get into when you're doing, say, Infinite Kung-Fu, which is very motion based and almost rubbery in some ways, and your cleaner magazine work? Do you need to switch over for one or do you use stuff from both that we might not immediately recognize?

McLeod: Yeah, probably a little of both, I feel like I do a lot of different work for different types of magazines and I do kind of switch up the style a little bit depending on the tone of what I'm trying to illustrate. So if it's a serious news article I tend to go for a little bit more realism-- it's still kind of comic booky looking but not as cartoony. And if it's something more lifestyle or humorous I tend to cartoon it up I guess. And I don't do anything conscious for Infinite Kung-Fu other than I guess it's a little bit more fun but I just kind of do it and see what comes out. I do feel like the two separate worlds are...I never expect anyone from my magazine clients to come across the comics world and know what I'm doing there. I feel like they're separate even though they're not. I just kind of feel like they're separate clubs.

Hanover: Right, they're different cliques, different lunch tables...

McLeod: I guess what I'm saying is if I'm doing some nice illustrations for Newsweek or something like that I'd be...not embarrassed but it's kind of a secret that I do this gory kung-fu comic on the side.

Hanover: I know what you mean. It kind of filters into something else I wanted to ask you about, about influences and inspirations that you bring because, to me, your work, at least on Infinite Kung-Fu, has some similarities to Jack Cole, who did Plastic Man and who used motion in ways that seems similar to what you do, where everything is kind of rubbery and has this almost ballet-like movement. And he worked in the same area, did a lot of work for Playboy and he kind of had a troubled life so there were different reasons why he would be more secretive. But it's interesting that you bring that up because that's something that has always been around with comics and it seems like it's still not going away.

McLeod: Mm hmm...

Hanover: When you talk about that secret club do you feel that artists that you work with have the same takeaway on it? Do you feel that people who work in both fields like you do kind of take that same approach?

McLeod: Yeah, I don't know. One of my favorite artists is Nathan Fox and he was on top of the illustration field and he's been doing a lot more comic work recently. I wonder if he has some of the same feelings, where the money is a lot better in commercial illustration but it's not always as much fun. I love comic book stuff and I don't think it's looked down upon by people as much anymore but I kind of feel like...at least the stuff I do is lower brow than some of the clients I have...

Hanover: It's kind of interesting too because just from a comics review standpoint we've recently come into this issue where a lot of publishers who do artier comic books now just don't even want to run quotes from comic reviewing sites. They go for the New York Times and stuff like that, so it's interesting that as comics are getting a little more highbrow in some areas there's still...it's almost like there is this weird thing where some people try to distance themselves as much from that part. So when you say your work is more "low brow," I wouldn't really consider it low brow. I feel like there's this exoticness to it and it has this very inventive style. It's almost like there's this strange cultivation of that going on with comics now. It's just interesting to hear how you feel there's that alienation in some ways...

McLeod: Yeah, yeah, especially with the action adventure stuff I spoke to, it's not something very heavy...it's heavy, but it's all in good fun in Infinite Kung-Fu...

Hanover: I know what you mean. Most people associate high brow comics with Chester Brown or Daniel Clowes or the creators doing that arty confessional type of comics...

McLeod: Yeah.

Hanover: Kind of switching back to the inspiration stuff...I'm curious, were there any particular filmmakers that you looked towards for inspiration for the choreography of Infinite Kung-Fu or was that more something of your own design and invention?

McLeod: I'm flattered when people ask me if I studied kung-fu because I don't and I would say a lot of the moves and stuff are fictional or I just kind of made stuff up because for me it's more about, or for this comic book at least, about the ideas and the mythology as opposed to the correct forms. But I still think they're cool to see and hopefully believable...

Hanover Other than the limbs coming off at least...

McLeod: Yeah. I'm very partial to the Shaw Brothers. Chiang [Sheng] is very good, he has some of the bloodiest of the old school movies which are always crazy. Gordon Liu's adopted brother Lau Kar-Leung, those people are my two favorites for sure.

Hanover: You've also said in the past that you're especially inspired by Chinese calligraphy and you feel that it has a lot to offer for artwork in general with its bold lines and strokes. What led you to look toward calligraphy as a technique for inspiration?

McLeod: Mm hmm. Maybe even now I'd include brush painting with that, because that kind of Chinese simplicity that they could do with scroll paintings has always been inspiring. When I started drawing in ink, that started appealing to me even more and I thought if I could combine those kinds of strokes with some kind of contemporary look it could be something that was cool. And basically I started painting in ink because when I graduated school I was doing a lot of acryllic painting but it took so much rendering to get something that looked good. Ink was just more economical for time, for deadlines and stuff like that. So that kind of fast, simple brush stroke style kept a drawing lively and I was able to do it quicker.

Hanover: Yeah, it definitely shows, it's a really interesting style. You don't see much like that. Even the lettering in Infinite Kung-Fu is beautiful, you see so much digital lettering now it's always kind of nice...at least, I'm assuming you did hand lettering for this...

McLeod: Well, it's digital but it's my own personal font called Kagan. I made it years ago and I'm glad you like it. There's things that bother me about it. But yeah, I'm glad it's legible [laughs].

Hanover: Well, it's legible and it's also different. You don't really see stuff like that all that often. I guess I'm so used to the Comicraft lettering that you see everywhere now that's obviously digital...

McLeod: Yeah, yeah...

Hanover: And yours, it felt like it was hand drawn.

McLeod: Yeah, I have great respect for people who have great hand lettering and if I do a project in the future I want to take a crack at it and keep the lettering and balloons more integrated with the artwork. It's terrifying but I think it's worth it to take the risk.

Hanover: Lately I've noticed that you've been appearing more often in comic work, doing covers for series like Kill Shakespeare. How'd that come about?

McLeod: Well, the creators are all from Toronto. I met with Andy [Belanger] and Conor [McCreery] and Anthony [Del Col] and I was glad to do something like that. I feel like I have projects I want to do on my own as an author and illustrator so I would be less inclined to illustrate somebody else's comic book but the covers are no problem. I think that's great, it basically doesn't take up all my time like doing an entire series would so I would like to save that time for some of my own projects and do shorter projects where I can.

Hanover: When you work on other books do you feel like it kind of frees you up to explore things you otherwise might not have in your own work? Do you ever find yourself utilizing anything you've explored in that area in your own pieces?

McLeod: Do I try new things on projects for other people?

Hanover: I mean like, for instance Kill Shakespeare seems like a different type of work than what you might personally write. Do you find that you pick up things on that, different perspectives perhaps or storytelling techniques that you might not have thought to use in your own work and kind of pull from it and use it later? Or is it kind of like a totally different experience where you kind of isolate it and think from the perspective of the person who's created the work?

McLeod: No, as an illustrator I'm used to that because most of the time I'm hired to illustrate somebody else's stories. So it's about a balance and pleasing the client and doing something that you're proud of too. Conor and Anthony were great, they had their suggestions for the types of covers they wanted but gave me enough freedom to come up with something that was pleasing to both of us.

Hanover: So what are other projects do you have on the way?

McLeod: I think other than promoting my comic book this summer and fall I've tried to think of what my next big one will be. I guess for the last five years I've been planning in my head my next one and it's going to be kind of a historical fiction of the conquest of Mexico, Aztecs and Conquistadors. So the same kind of...not superhero...but action and adventure as Infinite Kung-Fu but probably a little less...well, a lotless...filly. Not that Infinite Kung-Fu is filly...well, I would say some of it is...certainly no zombies. But lots of crazy things happening, for sure. I think what I'm going to do is a first chapter and then show it around and see how it will come out and go from there.

Hanover: It seems like you're attracted to the epic works...

McLeod: Yeah, and that kind of scares me...I mean, I didn't work on Infinite Kung-Fu for ten years but it took ten years to complete it. So if I start another project that's gonna be ten years, I'll be getting pretty old by the time I finish. [laughs] So we'll see, but maybe it'll come out in smaller chunks. The timing is good because the actual historical date will be 500 years in 2019, so that would be a good time for a collected special edition [laughs].

Hanover: Planning well in advance there [laughs]

McLeod: [laughs] Yep.

Hanover: The last question I had was more of a just for fun thing. I was wondering if you had sent Infinite Kung-Fu off to the Wu-Tang Clan for any quotes...

McLeod: That was one of the first things I wanted to do and I've had trouble getting an address...

Hanover: They're a little hard to track down...

McLeod: I have a contact who knows Masta Ace who was supposed to give the GZA's address in Staten Island but I haven't heard from him...and Colin knows Eli Roth who knows the RZA but I haven't gotten an address yet either. But if I do you'll see a quote plastered on everything I put out [laughs]

 

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