Mike Allred has been a major name in comic books for going on two decades, but between Madmen, The Atomics, X-Force, X-Statix, iZombie, and everything else he's done... do you really know him as a person?
Newsarama is looking to answer that by delving into Allred's early days as a comics creator, and earlier days as a comics fan. The Oregonian cartoonist reveals his first comic books, what's the first comic that broke his heart, and the roundabout way he ended up in comics after a tour of duty in Germany. Also, he'll give some free marriage advice he's learned in his relationship with his wife (and colorist) Laura Allred.
Newsarama: Mike, let's start off slow - what are you working on today? What's on your drawing board?
Michael Allred: Two books.
The X-Cellent with Marvel, which is Peter Milligan and I spinning off our X-Statix series.
And a top secret creator-owned project.
Nrama: From the sounds of that, you can't say anything more about that project, huh?
Allred: Not yet.
Nrama: Fair enough. With these two books on your table, you just recently finished another - Bowie for Insight Editions. X-Men, creator-owned, and a David Bowie biography - is this the kind of work you thought you'd be doing when you started out in comics?
Allred: No way! Not to this extent. I might’ve daydreamed about doing the X-Men someday, but not creating and c-creating my own X-Men, or with them appearing in movies, like Zeitgeist did in Deadpool 2. That was too cool!
And from my earlist indy comics I was constantly referring to or referencing David Bowie, I didn’t dare dream of doing a super deep high-end graphic novel biography.
Nrama: So when were you were first introduced to comic books?
Allred: It’s actually one of my earliest memories. My big brother, Lee, knocked me off a table I was dancing on, since I was dancing fast enough…
And I woke up in a hospital with a concussion. The bed was blanketed with comic books. Lee had convinced mom and dad to get a bunch of comics for me (or were they for him?) in the hospital gift shop. Thanks to Lee and his excellent taste, I grew up being always surrounded by the best comics.
Nrama: That's a good memory - do you happen to remember which comics they were? And do you still have them?
Allred: I couldn’t remember any of them. But Lee could. I have re-purchased one of them: Action Comics #338.
Nrama: And as a comics-lovin' father now, what would you recommend as a great batch of comics for a child that age cooped up in a hospital or in bed sick?
Allred: Any of my "Madmaniverse" comics, thank you very much; especially The Atomics, which is probably my friendliest “all ages series”. I think kids should get some twisted weirdness in their comics diet early on.
But I’d always push timeless classics like the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man.
You can’t go wrong with Jeff Smith’s modern classic Bone, and Craig Thompson’s Space Dumplins would be some terrific comics medicine for a kid.
Nrama: You grew up in Oregon. What was the comics scene like as a teenager?
Allred: I was born in Roseburg, Oregon. About an hour south of Eugene, where we live now.
I was forced to move in with my mom after our folks split up for high school in Altamont, Utah, up in the Rockies way past Park City.
Mom married a rancher, so it was rare to get to a store with comics. Lee continued to buy them in bursts whenever he could. But I went cold turkey after Gwen Stacy was killed in Amazing Spider-Man. That event traumatized me so badly, I ended up spending any money I had on record albums. Discovering comic book shops in the mid-80s, and the “indy movement" brought me back to the cult.
Nrama: That's really interesting. If you feel comfortable talking about it, I'd like to ask more about your reaction to Gwen Stacy's death. Looking back at it now, why do you think it was such a powerful and unsettling thing to do you?
Allred: I had several comic book crushes when I was a kid. Medusa was a big one, but Gwen Stacy was very real to me. I adored her intensely. And when she dies in Spider-Man’s attempt to save her, it devastated me. Comics were my safe space… where you could always count on the hero to save the day.
Her death truly traumatized me. I always did my best to get every issue off the drug store spinner rack. Before the advent of the comic book store, it was virtually impossible to have unbroken runs of anything. With this, I just stopped entirely.
It wasn’t until years later that I found a complete run of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan the Barbarian in the back of a used book store that spent any money on comics. And then my pal, Charlie Custis, showed me what comics were doing in the mid-80s, and I fell into the magical realm of comic stores that I refueled my love for comics. My passion has only increased since.
Nrama: You've since gotten back into comics, and even done some Spider-Man comics. Do you feel like you ever came to terms with it? If so, how?
Allred: It still stings, like any childhood trauma, but the Dead Girl series I did with Peter Milligan and Nick Dragotta had some healing properties. We were able to visit several characters who had passed on, including my beloved Gwen Stacy. That went a long way to help me get over it. Of course, finding lifelong true love in the 'real world' with Laura is the ultimate.
Nrama: The first comic work I know about from you is 1989's Dead Air from Slave Labor Graphics. First off - a 104-page graphic novel - is that something you'd recommend to someone breaking in to start out with?
Allred: In retrospect, yes. It was intended as a four-issue series. But by the time I found Slave Labor Graphics to publish it, it was all done, so instant graphic novel!
My point is, I don’t think anyone should wait for permission to be published. Do the work because you have a passion for it, and anything else is pure bonus. I was so obsessed with improving and experimenting, by the time Dear Air was published I had a couple hundred more pages in the can. They were esoteric that I created an anthology of my own to umbrella everything called Graphique Musique, and then later Grafik Muzik.
Nrama: Dead Air is based roughly on your time as am AM radio host - can you tell us about that kind of work?
Allred: My first childhood friend, Eric Worden, lived across the street and his folks owned the local AM/FM radio stations: KYES and KRSB.
Eric continued in the family business and still works in radio, doing a morning show back east as well as voice-overs for commercials nationally.
Anyway, I originally majored in art in college, but began to panic about how I could make a living at it. The Wordens offered me a summer job working on the radio and so when I went back to school I switched my major to broadcasting and really got into it at the college radio station. From there I went back to Roseburg and worked full-time doing the top 40 mid-day shift on tyhe AM station and pulled the 'Night Rock' shift Saturday night’s on the FM station.
While I had to stick to format, I always had at least two slices of the hourly “pie chart” to play whatever I wanted, and there were always plenry of requests that I could get excited about playing. It was big fun getting paid to play music and read news, And we always got the latest music from all the record companies before anyone else did.
Nrama: Did you have an on-air name, or did you just go by Mike/Michael Allred?
Allred: [Laughs] I should have. But I always used my real name.
Nrama: After that you spent some time as a TV reporter in Europe. That's wild for me to picture - can you tell us about it?
Allred: So, there was an Air Force recruiter who brought in radio spots that I would talk with whenever he came in, and when I told him that Laura was pregnant with our first child, he told me that I could do what I was doing for the Air Force, have free medical care, housing, and see the world.
And while we’ve never found anyplace we love more than Oregon, this sounded appealing at the time and so I went in and tested. Ultimately I scored high enough to be offered a teaching position at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The cadets have their own TV station and so I was trained to teach Television Production as well. Every aspect of it: Cameras, audio, lighting, editing, control room and remote on location work. After a few years there I was offered a reporter slot in Europe, where we produced a weekly news and entertainment show for AFRTS and AFN out of Rammstein, Germany, but we were sent all over Europe to cover stories for Americans living overseas.
My first story there was on helicopter rescue workers and an air show disaster where two Italina jets collided midair, and one of them crashed into the crowd. We were also tasked with gathering the private video footage from survivors to share with worldwide news outlets.
My last story over there was covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and interviewing East German refugees and documenting their survival stories.
While there, my comic book making hobby began to pay enough to risk going full time, which I did starting in January of 1990.
Laura worked full time managing a jewelry store which kept us afloat when my comics career sputtered from time to time initially. But thanks to her, I’ve never had another “real job” since. I like to say I haven’t had to “work" since 1989. All day every day I get to do what I was always doing just for fun.
Nrama: Your artwork is heavily influenced by pop art. When do you feel you became aware of pop art as its own thing, either by comics or independent of that?
Allred: Oh that was always around. Dad and mom had art books, multiple magazine subscriptions, and Time/Life libraries that featured all that kind of stuff. So, Andy Warhol was someone I was aware of for as long as I can remember. I remember hearing adults always talking about what is art and what isn’t art. And I remember them talking about how the Batman and Monkees TV shows incorporated pop art. So I had a reference I could relate to from early childhood.
Nrama: You've mentioned your family several times; were any of your ancestors artists?
Allred: Not really. Not that I’m aware of.
But Dad was a full on Renaissance man. A Psychologist by trade (Ken Kesey worked as one of his orderlies!), but he had his hand in everything, drinking in every interest or hobby you could imagine. Fortunately for us, art was a mjor passion and we were always encouraged to be creative and never lacked art supplies.
Nrama: Coming back around to comic books, you toiled for several years before making a real name for youself with Madman. But that's me, judging - when do you feel you 'made it' as a comic book creator?
Allred: Easy answer. For me, January of 1990. And then around 1994, when Laura was able to do coloring full-time. We were concerned we might get sick of each other, but it brought us even closer. Sharing each success, each event, each trip, each experience is pure bliss.
Success for me has always been defined as being able to make a living doing what you love doing. We’ve been blessed to enjoy that and more.
To this day I’m in constant awe that enough people seem to like what we do to allow us to keep doing it. We’re infinitely grateful!
Nrama: My wife and I both work from home, but in different industries. For couples that live and work together, any advice you can impart from your and Laura's lives to help make it work?
Allred: I think we simply fully appreciate that our shared experiences are priceless. When we were first living in Germany and I was being sent all over Europe gathering these amazing experiences without her… it was frustrating trying to fully describe what I had seen, heard, and learned.
If fortunate enough to share your entire life with your spouse, I’d suggest never taking that for granted.
When she was deciding whether to quit her job managing a jewelry store to color comics full time, we were both very concerned that we’d get sick of each other…that maybe we needed that time and space from each other. But the opposite has happened. We just get closer and closer. Laura is my ultimate addiction. We go nuts when we're away from each other for any extended length of time.