Kerry Gammill: Having Fun in the Monsterverse

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks


Kerry Gammill is a comics legend who has never lost his love for what drove him to create comics. You can hear that love in every word he says about the new Monsterverse line of comics, which boasts Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave as its flagship title. Kerry has always loved classic horror stories, and his work on the Monsterverse has allowed him to indulge that love. I had a great time talking to Kerry in a long and career-spanning conversation.

Jason Sacks: Let's talk about Monsterverse. You've been doing a lot of production work and covers for the series. Tell us about the series.

Kerry Gammill: It just comes out of my love for mainly old horror movies, but also the horror comics. I grew up in the '60s and was into the Warren Horror magazines -- CreepyEerieVampirella and mainly Famous Monsters of Filmland, which was the one I started on. I used to watch the horror movies on Saturday nights. They had a great show with a horror host and showed the old FrankensteinDraculaThe MummyWolfman -- all of that stuff. And I just got the bug for that stuff. I love spooky, horror, monster things. And even though I've been drawing superhero comics since the late '70s, I never got to draw horror comics -- they were kind of out of fashion at that time

And so, after leaving comics for a while, working in movies and TV for a little bit and advertising -- drifting out of different areas of art -- I finally decided I finally want to go back to comics, but the only thing I could really get excited about is drawing horror stuff, and decided if I want to go back, I want to do my own stuff, and just build something that I can own myself and call my own. It doesn't matter if it sells 10 copies or 10 million -- I want it to be my project that I started and own.

That's where Monsterverse started. Keith Wilson is a friend of mine who used to work in comics. He was an art director at DC, inker, co-created a couple series for them. He worked at an ad agency with me for several years, and we got a studio together after he left that ad agency. So we were talking about projects we wanted to do. He had some giant dinosaur Godzilla-type thing that he wanted to work on, and I had the old-type horror stories.

Part of Keith's giant monster concept involved a place called "the Monterverse" which was a sort of other dimension where the monsters come from that invade our world. We loved the sound of that when we started up our comics company we decided to call it Monsterverse. 

I had this idea for a Bela Lugosi comic because I have known Bela Lugosi, Jr. for several years, worked with him on some DVDs. So, I approached him about getting a license to use his dad as the host of the book, 'cause I thought he'd be that great go-between with the classic horror movie fans and the horror fans because he was the original Dracula and in all those old movies -- and a lot of bad movies, of course, the Ed Wood-type things. So, a lot of people know him that are into those movies, but he's got that sinister presence that was perfect for a comic book host -- like Uncle Creepy or the Cryptkeeper, that kind of thing. So I thought that would be the perfect thing, to blend those together.

. We decided to start with the Lugosi comic. I got Sam Park – who happens to be my cousin – to come on board. He's a writer. We work on things together. He lives in L.A. and knows a lot of people that he's brought onboard. So it all just came together, and so far got the one issue out of Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave, but the second issue's coming soon, and then we'll be working on keeping that on a very regular schedule.

Sacks: Bela Lugosi is a classic, old-style anthology horror comic.

Gammill: It's very inspired by CreepyTales from the Crypt, that kind of thing, but with a little harder edge for today's audiences. Trying to walk that line between classic stuff and the more modern thing.

Sacks: It's got a little more satire to it, I think, than the classic ECs, which makes it feel a little more modern, too.

Gammill: Right, that always was a little part of that Warren stuff and the EC things. And the old horror host things go back, basically, to radio. It started with Inner SanctumLights Out and those kinds of shows. There was a lot of humor involved in the introductions to the show.

They have the twist endings to them, like EC and the Creepy stories used to have. And sometimes that twist can be a funny turn on it. We wanted to put gallows humor in there as part of the mix.

Sacks: I love the second story, with the twisted version of Popeye the Sailor Man.

Gammill: We try to get ideas from anything that comes along. Rick Baker, the makeup artist -- seven Academy Awards, did American Werewolf in London > and just just got an Oscar for The Wolfman -- he's been a friend of mine for a long time, and he, in the last few years, has been using this computer program called ZBrush. It's basically a sculpting tool in the computer -- it's basically like working with clay in a computer environment. So you can make these things and rotate them like they're three-dimensional objects, sculpt them and add textures and things. He's done a lot of brilliant pieces with that. That's what a lot of companies use now for their character designs before they do the real sculpts in special effects.

So, Rick was doing all these ZBrush experiments. And he did this one thing -- it was this old sailor that was obviously kind of a demented version of Popeye. And I asked him if we could use it, and he said sure. So we came up with a story to go along with it. That's the kind of thing that's really fun -- just how one thing leads to another.

But we're proud to have people like Rick. We've got Steve Niles doing a story for us. We had a Basil Gogos cover on the first issue and John Cassaday did a cover for us. Bruce Timm did a piece for the book. We've got other people lined up that are fairly big names, but they're just such fans of the classic horror work and the kind of thing that we're trying to do that they're happy to be involved with it and help us make the book work.

Sacks: That's a pretty star-studded group of people! Everyone from Basil Gogos -- a Famous Monsters of Filmland guy from the '60s -- all the way to Bruce Timm. That's quite a cast to work on it.

Gammill: We feel lucky that we found the right people.

Sacks: So is it fun to be drawing comics again, after all these years?

Gammill: Yeah! It is. I made a few steps toward getting back into comics, on and off, over the last 10 years, but didn't really find anything that worked out. But, doing the horror stuff and being my own editor and publisher -- I really feel comfortable with it and enjoy it a lot.

The main difference in what I'm doing now is I'm inking my own work and I'm doing it in the computer. I'm using Adobe Illustrator, which a lot of people do these days. Even like Brian Bolland, who is known for that intricate ink work -- that's all done in computers now. And Brian Denham -- he's a good friend of mine who's been doing stuff with Marvel for a few years -- works exclusively with Illustrator. He's had some tutorials and stuff online, but I'm not very good at reading something and figuring out how to do it. So I got him to come over and walk me through some stuff. He helped me out a lot. Once I finally got the hang of it and realized what working in a vector program was all about in terms of line work, it started coming real easy.

Sacks: So it wasn't really hard to learn the techniques. When you're an artist, you have your own certain way of doing things that, transmitted to something different, could really be a paradigm shift that could mess up your mind in some ways.

Gammill: The main thing that helped make a connection was that I got what's called a Cintiq Tablet by Wacom. The Cintiq is an actual monitor that's on a stand that rotates. The stylus connects directly with the tablet. It's a monitor, so you're drawing right on the surface. It's not like trying to draw on a tablet while looking at the screen to see what you're doing. This is like working right on paper. You're making direct contact with your drawing, and you can rotate it, which is just like working with a piece of paper that's sitting free on a lapboard or something. And so you can be much more natural with your strokes and everything, which I could never do with a regular tablet.

Sacks: But then you can correct, too.

Gammill: That's what I really love about working with computers. I've never been really good at working with tools -- anything that you put a line down and that's it, I hate. Working with ink and a brush was very nerve-wracking for me, because I don't have that nice, smooth flow with a brush stroke that most inkers have, but this way I can do it. If it doesn't work, I can just do it over again. You work a while at something. If you don't like it, you can take it away and do it again. Or save one version, do another one, and see if you like it better. In some ways, you can get kind of trapped in all the endless variations you can do, but in another way, it's much easier for me to be able to do a brush stroke that I can just delete like that and start over without having to white it out and draw over the white out, and all that.

Sacks: It's totally different from when you first got into the industry, where you were at the mercy of the inker, and that was it. You'd have the one copy of the piece of paper, and that was it.

Gammill: They'd draw all over your pencils and then erase them. In some ways, the pencil art doesn't exist anymore. It's erased. But now you can draw in pencil and scan it, and then do the inking separately in the computer. It's a whole different thing, but I really enjoy working this way.

Sacks: Are you planning on doing at least one story every issue?

Gammill: Yeah, I would like to. And we're going to do some serialized things. We were hoping to start with the third issue, but I guess we're gonna push it back a little more because I keep having other things come up.

We want to do an adaptation of the novel Dracula, but with Lugosi's image as Dracula, which has never been done. The Dracula movie with Lugosi was based on the Broadway play, which is not very similar at all to the novel. So, we'd like to do a very direct adaptation of the novel by Bram Stoker with Lugosi's image as Stoker's Dracula.

So that's something unique that has never been done, which we can now do, since we have the license to use Lugosi. And it's something that Bela Lugosi, Jr. really wants to see done.

Sacks: It's a movie his dad never got to make.

Gammill: Right. That's one of our goals -- to do a thing that Bela Lugosi would be proud of, and try to help his image stay more respectable.

And not constrained by the period censorship, too. We can do this with some taste, whatever effects.

What Lugosi would be doing if he were still alive today, using modern film techniques.

Sacks: It's work that people can relate to these days, too. Because the one complaint that people have about the original movies is that it's a different style. They're slower -- it's stagier, if you want a better term.

Are you gonna stay with the Bela Lugosi series? Or are you hoping to expand the Monsterverse line at some point?

Gammill: We have plans for several other titles. We've got a miniseries in the works that's all werewolf stories. We have a graphic novel coming out by Bob Tinnell and Neil Vokes called Flesh and Blood that will be out for next Halloween. It's a tremendous story -- kkind of '70s gothic horror film approach with more sex and violence. The art's fantastic. It's gonna be great.

And we have several other series that we'd like to launch before too long to fill out that line. We've got a lot of things in the works, but nothing but nothing ready to announce.

Sacks: Obviously you've worked for a long time at Marvel and DC. I hope everyone's familiar with the work you did for them. Did you have a series that you particularly enjoyed working on or particularly disliked working on?

Gammill: Well, I loved doing Superman, which is funny because I was never much of a DC reader as a kid. But my earliest memories of Superman were from the television series that was made in the '50s. They were still rerunning that when I was a little kid. So, to me that was Superman.

I remember buying a couple of issues in the early '60s of the comic, and just didn't really catch on to it because it didn't look like the TV show. It was like, "This isn't really Superman," y'know? I wanted to see that same stock footage of him jumping out the storeroom window and flying in profile -- and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen didn't look the same.

So I didn't read the comics much. But when I was asked to draw the series after John Byrne said he was gonna leave -- Mike Carlin asked me if I would come on and be the penciller -- the first time I drew that S on his chest, it just all came back: the excitement of Superman, when I was a little kid, watching him on TV. "Alright, this is it. I like this."

Sacks: It's funny because at Emerald City Comic Con, when I was talking to Pete Woods, who's doing the current arc on Action -- he's got a very modern style, but he said basically the same thing as you. "This is the book I always wanted to do on some level. I love the movies, I love the book, I love the TV show, and all I want to do all my life is just draw Superman. And I never really realized that," he said, "until I drew the shield." Something about the iconic shield.

Gammill: Yeah, that's kind of the way it was for me. When I'd go to mail my pages in, I'd stop at the office supply store and make xeroxes of the pencils before I mailed the pages in to Marvel or DC, and I would try to do that as inconspicuously as I could. I didn't want people stopping and saying, "Wow, whatcha got there, young feller?" and have to explain what it was and everything. So I'd try to quickly make copies, get 'em in the envelope, and leave.

But, when I went in to xerox Superman, I'd kind of look around, like, "C'mon, somebody! Notice this! I want to show off! Look, I'm drawing Superman!" It was a whole different thing. I wanted the world to know what I was doing.

Sacks: Something about drawing such an iconic character, right? Pretty different from Power Man and Iron Fist. That's an "inside comics" kind of book.

Gammill: Right. I enjoyed that a lot, but the average person on the street had no idea who Iron Fist or Power Man were. But something as famous as Superman really gave me a boost.

Sacks: Did anyone ever ask you? You must have had friends who you'd meet and have to explain it to them. You'd go to a party, "Hey what do you do?" "Oh, I draw Superman."

Gammill: I loved to brag about that. When I was doing Marvel Team-Up, I wished that Spider-Man's name had been in the title, 'cause they'd say, "What book are you drawing." "Well, it's called Marvel Team-Up... but it stars Spider-Man." So I tried to work that in there.

That was another fun book except it was a little frustrating because each issue had that different guest-star, and so I'd feel like, halfway through the issue, I was getting the hang of drawing that other character. And then the next issue I would have to start over again with somebody else.

Sacks: I've always wondered about that, because in your run there was a lot of really obscure characters. It wasn't like you were drawing Fantastic Four and the Human Torch every issue.

Gammill: Right, yeah. I was drawing people like Dominic Fortune and -- who was it? It was some kind of -- like the Frog? Frog Man? Some kind of Mark Twain villain? Who was that? A robot or something. I guess that one had the Vision in it. All the villains and some of the heroes were just people who I had no idea who they were. J.M. DeMatteis was writing it, and so he was trying to work in stuff he was doing in The Defenders and things like that. He had the Gargoyle in one issue, I remember.

But there were a couple of good ones. I got to draw Captain America in one issue. That was really good. It had the Watcher in it. Anything that went back to those '60s roots of my comic reading.

Sacks: Totally indulged the fanboy side of you.

Gammill: Yeah.

Sacks: 'Cause you came up through fandom.

Gammill: I started reading Marvel comics around '66 or '67, and just became a total Marvel Zombie. I love all those old '60s things -- artists like Buscema, Kirby, Gene Colan, Ditko's Spider-Man, Dr. Strange. That's what I'm rooted in. Steranko and all those guys.

Sacks: But your style was always uniquely your own. It seems like, you might have seen some of the older pieces by you -- they all look like your work. It just got more professional, the further you went.

Gammill: I never knew what my style really consisted of, y'know? There's a lot of Buscema influence, if I have to point to one guy who I mostly learned from. Some Gene Colan. It depends on who or what I was drawing. I was picturing Gene Colan drawing it because that was my version of it in my mind -- or Kirby or Buscema. My Superman owes a little to Neal Adams, from those great covers he was doing. He did thatSuperman vs. Muhammad Ali -- that giant book -- and that was an incredible thing. I just read that thing ragged, looking at that art.

Sacks: That might be the greatest thing he ever did.

Gammill: Yeah, could be. I know he spent a long time on it. So, some of that was stuck in my head when I was drawing the character.

Sacks: And that's when comics actually sold, too. The famous Shooter era, especially. That was like the best-selling era for comics. 

That must be strange, too. You're working on a book now that's selling a tiny percentage of what you were selling on even a second-line book.

Gammill: I always kept waiting for that balloon to pop. I just thought the sales could not keep going up like they were. Finally, by the time I finally gave in and said, okay, comics are gonna keep selling through the roof -- all of a sudden it just took a downturn overnight. They got in with the trading cards and all the kids were just in it for the value of the comics -- the monetary value -- all the multiple covers and all the things the companies were doing to cash in on that speculator market that eventually made the whole thing collapse.

That's when I got out of the business, because all of a sudden people were scrambling for work. It was the first time since I started in the business that I did not have something waiting for me when I finished one book to go into another one. I realized I didn't have any assignments coming in, so I started looking around for another things. That's when I got into doing concept art for an effects studio out in L.A. I came out here, worked for a year or two in that, and that was a great job, drawing monsters all day.

Sacks: It sounds like one of those things where it's almost doing you a favor by the industry kind of dying out a bit, pushing you to do something else.

Gammill: I'd been pretty burned out by that time, anyway. I really enjoyed doing something different for a while. I then got into advertising after that. After doing that for years, I missed showbiz, you know?

Comics is basically show business. You're in the entertainment business. Even if you're making good money doing art in advertising, the kind of stuff you're doing most of the time is nothing that anybody's gonna see. It's something for a presentation. The company is pitching some project, some promotional item or something, so you have to come up with dozens of concepts and do drawings. And then they mount them on boards, they go into meetings, they throw them all out there and 99% of the time, that's it. Nothing ever happens with them.

Sacks: And after that, they probably never even look at them again.

Gammill: Right. It's just for a meeting. And the percentage of stuff that actually gets developed from the original drawing you did is incredibly small. It's a functional thing that pays well, but you want people to see the work and have a real audience -- people that know your name. You're telling a story. You're in show business. I miss that.

Sacks: It pushed you to go back full-circle -- get back into the industry again.

Gammill: Right -- rediscover who I am as an artist and what I want to do. I've never been having more fun than I am right now.


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