K.R. Whalen isn't a featured guest at this weekend's Baltimore Comic-Con. Nor will he be sitting behind a table at the Convention Center signing autographs for fans. In fact, Whalen, at this point in his comic-book career, may not yet have any fans. While the young Baltimorean has published several short stories in books like Fear Agent and Savage Dragon, has drawn an issue of Mike Baron's The Night Club, and is currently penciling a five-part backup series for Noble Causes, he's still working hard on making comics a full-time endeavor. The 32-year-old Philadelphia native came to Baltimore in 1994 to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art. He graduated with an illustration degree in the late 1990s and has spent most of the '00s working as a desktop publishing specialist at Baltimore City Community College's downtown campus. City Paper recently sat down with Whalen, who lives in Southwest Baltimore with his wife, to discuss what it's like out there for an artist just starting out in comic books.
City Paper: I heard while you were in college you busted into Marvel Comics' offices trying to get a job. What happened?
K.R. Whalen: I was in MICA at the time. We only had one class that was related to comics. There were four people who I was close with in my junior year, and we decided that we were not going to wait the two weeks or whatever for Marvel's responses to our submissions, that we would go up there and rush in. I had never been to New York, so I got my map and I was going to meet my guys down at the Peter Pan bus station. Then I got there and I was the only guy there. So I was like, "Oh no." But I'm still going to do this. So I got on the bus, went up to New York, got out my map. Marvel was on Park Avenue at the time, and I went to those offices. I got a little suit thing going and I had my portfolio. I told the receptionist, "I was supposed to meet the submissions editor today, at this time, and he's expecting me." She called him up, and it took a while for him to come out. He was like seven feet tall, taller than me [Whalen is quite tall]. He was like, "`I don't remember making this appointment.'" But I showed him my stuff. He looked at it. I wasn't that great at the time, but he saw potential. He was like, "`You know what? I'm going to work with you.'" He gave me a lot of help and stuff. I would call him, he would call me, I went up to his office to see him several more times. Eventually, somebody had interest, the editor of Deadpool at the time, so I got this script, a Deadpool/Daredevil team-up, and I did it. It wasn't as good as I could do now. Then there was this whole upheaval-the economics were changing at the time, and not as many people were buying comics-so the story was never published and I never did get that footing in. So I dropped comics for a while.
CP: How did you get back into comics?
KRW: Every other year or so, I'd be like, "Oh, I want to do comics." And I'd start drawing and send stuff out. And then there'd be no response, and it'd be heartbreaking. But then I'd do it again. I started looking at Image Comics, and not too long ago I started showing stuff to [Image co-founder and publisher] Erik Larsen, and he saw something in my work that he liked.
I started hanging around Image, online, and I kept drawing these characters. Erik offered me the opportunity to draw a backup story for Savage Dragon. Instead of giving me a story, he gave me, like, a paragraph. So I drew that out into five pages. It was hard-he didn't even give me any dialogue-but it turned out pretty well. He sent me comps, and my parents bought all these issues and gave them out to their friends. That I got my start at Image, that surprised me.
From there I did all sorts of things. I did pinups for several people. I did a short story for Fear Agent. I was surprised at that, those guys are really good writers. Jay Faerber, he has a book called Noble Causes, I approached him, and he had me do a backup story. And then he asked me to do this five-parter backup series for his book starring his character Frost. So I'm doing that. It's hard for me, with a full-time job, to sit down and do a full book right now, so I'm asking everyone if I can do these little short stories, here and there. Ultimately, of course, I do want to do this full time. . . . All this stuff, right now, I'm doing for free. And sometimes I pay out of pocket. I hire really good colorists, and these guys aren't going to do stuff for free; sometimes it costs up to $500. But it's all an investment for me.
CP: How did you get into comics in the first place, when you were a kid?
KRW: I was born in Philadelphia. We lived in a really bad neighborhood, and when I was pretty young we got caught in a cross fire, and right after that we left and moved to Beckley, West Virginia-that's where my mom's mother is from. She got a job doing nursing. Aside from getting to do stuff in the country that I never saw in the city, she started buying me comic books: "Wow." Even at this younger age, I saw them as this fascinating vehicle for storytelling, and I started drawing comic books soon after that. Then, when I was in high school, I submitted my first stuff-even though it was all wrong, even though it wasn't sequential-you know, it was just drawings of the character. "Here's Wolverine-can I get a job?" And of course they wrote me a letter saying no, but at the same time, it was my first endeavor.
CP: Who are some of your influences? What cartoonists do you look at?
KRW: Zach Howard, No. 1. He taught me a lot. I worked with him-sort of mentored with him-for a few weeks in Colorado. I like Erik Larsen's work-he's going to be at the Baltimore Comic-Con. Brian Stelfreeze-he's going to be at the convention, too-his stuff is phenomenal, he's another guy I really look up to. Khary Randolph, he's awesome, too. I like Mike Mignola's stuff, even though you don't see many elements of his stuff in my work, but I appreciate it. I can see some John Byrne in my work: He's an old veteran of comics, his stuff floors me still, even when he draws real loose. There's a whole host of people.
CP: You've done an issue for Mike Baron, and you've done some work for Erik Larsen. These are guys who are pretty high up there in comic books. Any good stories?
KRW: Mike Baron's a character. He totally is the way he writes, just totally sensei. And Erik Larsen, he's served as a mentor. He's sort of that doctor/mentor on Scrubs-Dr. Cox-and Zach Howard is like that, too. They seem mean, but there's always this love there. There are these people who know how this stuff works and can tell you what you're doing wrong and how to make it better. They have this massive amount of information.
CP: Since you have a full-time job, how do you work at home? What's your process?
KRW: I bought the house, and there's more room than I need, so I was able to build a studio on the fourth floor. But when I come home from work, I tend to just draw wherever I am, even though I should be up there. My goal is to knock out a page a day. I get off work, I come home, and I draw till midnight or so, and sleep in between. It's this odd schedule where I'm trying to establish myself. I have to draw because I really want to do this, but I have to work because I have to pay the mortgage.
CP: The Baltimore Comic-Con is this weekend. What's your game plan?
KRW: Well, I will be going and talking to a lot of people. But really, the best you can hope for is that you come across somebody who can give you some good advice. It's hard to go to a convention and get work right away. It's such a long process. If you're extremely lucky, you can get some people who will promise to call you back.
CP: Despite a lot of black readers and quite a few African-American creators, comic books are still a pretty white place, especially when you look at the main characters in books. Do you feel any responsibility there?
KRW: First I have to establish credibility before I can, you know, make a difference. I look up to Dwayne McDuffie, who worked at Marvel for a while before he was able to do Static Shock and Justice League, the cartoon, where he could get more parts for black characters and create his own characters. Do I feel any responsibility to do so? No, I don't. But I feel like it's something I want to do-not something I have to do. I really do want to see more diverse comic books because black characters in comics are often not well written or well thought out. It's gotten a lot better over the past 10 years or so, but I think now that people are actually trying to do it, then people can see that black characters can be interesting, like Blade. I'd like to see characters doing things you wouldn't really expect. Like the black strong guy, you see that all the time. I'd like to work on someone who's more thoughtful, more introspective. Or someone like Spider-Man, who has such a range of characteristics.
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