If you’ve read many mainstream titles over the past three decades, chances are you’ve seen Mick Gray’s inking. Listing his DC work alone would fill multiple document pages, from embellishing Patrick Gleason on Batman and Robin to JH Williams on Promethea (for which Mick won an Eisner Award)… and that’s not even mentioning the other publishers for whom he’s plied his trade during a long journey across the comics landscape.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Inker. I can draw, but I prefer to ink other amazing artists.
Your home base: San Jose, California
Facebook: @inkermick for comic-related stuff or @mickgray for music and art and politics
Current project title(s) (either already released or upcoming):
Dog Days of Summer [DC]
Justice League Dark #13 [DC]
Liberty Brigade [Thrilling Nostalgia Comics]
Wonder Woman [DC]
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I like to start with the big question first… Why comics? What attracts you to working in comic art specifically?
Mick Gray: Probably the most exciting thing to me at my age is that now I am a little part of this amazing comic book history. Comic books have been around since the 1930s, and I am now 30 years in. And I feel completely honored that I get to be part of it. On how I actually got into comics, that was all accidental. I was a Silicon Valley technical illustrator who was introduced to Dan Vado, owner of Slave Labor Graphics. I worked six to eight years as an assistant inker to many great artists, which just snowballed into me working for DC and Marvel on my own.
KS: Since you didn’t start out with inking as an artistic career goal, when did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
MG: A little bit at age 10, but I was mostly interested in the images. I used to cut up comic books and make collages. (I know comic fans are cringing that I cut up Silver Age comic books.) But then in 1982, during the resurgence of comics, I started reading heavily: Crisis on Infinite Earth, Dark Knight Returns, X-Men, Watchmen, etc. I had a $30 per week habit.
KS: What’s the first “real” art piece you remember creating? Something that felt like a serious project for you at the time (not necessarily comic-related).
MG: My first published work was my 8th grade yearbook cover. But at that time I was doing lots of different small published things: flyers, program covers, etc. I was getting paid for my work at 12 years old. I've always been very business oriented.
KS: Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of comics inking, because many readers may not know exactly what it entails. After you receive penciled art pages, what are the first steps on your end?
MG: Nowadays, most comics are inked on blue line copies of the pencils, which speeds up the process of inking considerably. In the old days, I would get a FedEx box full of original art that I would ink directly on. The penciller sends me the scans, my wife prints them for me (She does all my tech work.), I ink the blue line pages, and my wife scans them and uploads them to the company's Dropbox. I am now the last person who touches the physical art. Lettering and coloring are done digitally.
KS: How do you adjust when art shows up on “red alert” status — things are running behind & need to get DONE?
MG: If there are deadlines, which there almost always are, my life pretty much becomes dedicated to finishing the pages. Frequently, it's a week or so turnaround to get 5 or 10 pages completed. My wife helps with that, too, filling in black areas for me. Crazy deadlines are a way of life in mainstream comics.
KS: Are there certain times you need to be in communication with the penciller?
MG: In the best creative situations, you always ask your penciller what they want and continually communicate with them. But when you're working fast under deadline, there's not much of a chance to communicate with a penciller.
KS: Talk about your current workspace or studio setup.
MG: My studio is a single room in my home. One corner is the computer, which I bounce back and forth from, to give my hand a break. In the other corner is my drawing table. I am surrounded by walls covered in toys, music, and art.
KS: I imagine someone as into music as yourself might prefer a little background noise while working…
MG: My music changes hourly... I NEED new music in my life constantly.
KS: What about your work routine? Set or fluid?
MG: Because of life getting in the way, I need to work anytime I can possibly sit down at the drawing board. If I'm in deadline crunch, the most efficient work hours are between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.
KS: As mentioned, you’ve been in this game for many years. If you look back at your earliest comics work, what stands out as different from the current version of you?
MG: A lack of confidence would have to be the main difference. In the early days, and even when I start on a new artist today, I sometimes don't know how to handle them, or if they're going to be happy with what I do. So, I still have to work up to the high confidence level that I want. But in the old days, it wasn't there at all, and I had to fight through it. After 30 years of doing this, I'm much more comfortable in my skin.
KS: You’ve worked with a wide variety of artists, each with their own different style, yet your own style has to adapt to fit each. What have you learned along the way about the collaborative nature of the medium?
MG: All I want to do as an inker is be a chameleon. I want to hear from each penciller that I work with that what I do is exactly what they're looking for. If I get a positive phone call from a penciller, my confidence level goes through the roof, I'm happier doing the job, and the work comes out much better.
(Art, below, by Patrick Gleason)
KS: On a related note, can you think of something that fans looking in from the outside might not understand about comics production?
MG: There's a few things. At least six people work on one book... editor, writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and colorist. Also, another big question that fans always ask is, “How long does it take you to ink a page?” and I always tell them that if I'm under deadline, I have to do more than one page per day. But if I have the ability to do it, I want to take as much time as I can. Because to me QUALITY is the number one priority.
KS: Are you able to read comics these days as a fan, or is there always some part of your artist brain at work, breaking things down as you turn the pages?
MG: This is so true! I cannot look at comic books on a digital platform at all. Every time I open one to read, I end up zooming in on every panel and analyzing every ink line, completely throwing out all the enjoyment of reading the book. So, I avoid digital comics completely.
KS: What’s something that appeals to you as a reader when looking at the art of others?
MG: I don't read comics very often, but when I do, I enjoy them very much. I just don't have time to do it. I really like noir art, comic art that has lots of shadow, lots of emotion to it. I really like Shawn Martinbrough's style. I enjoy a lot of comic art that I could never ink. I like the history of comic art, and looking at all the masters.
KS: Give me one word that’s key to being successful in the comics business.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel you didn’t work on that you look at in admiration as an example of the craft at its highest?
MG: Saga. Everything about it is beautiful: the color palette, the storytelling, the emotion. It's what I think comics should be about.
KS: Finally, talk a little about your most recent/upcoming projects.
MG: On the shelves now are Wonder Woman 58, 59, 60, 66, 67, and 68. All pencilled by the amazing Cary Nord, written by the wonderful G. Willow Wilson, and colored by the stunning Romulo Fajardo Jr. Inking Cary's style opened me to new directions of what I can do as an inker.
The DC Anthology Dog Days of Summer [released in May 2019]. I inked a 10-page story pencilled by newcomer Paul Fry. It's about that strange little Red Lantern Cat, Dex-Starr.
I just inked Mark Buckingham on a 10-page Doctor Fate origin in Justice League Dark #13.
And then, the big Kickstarter project, Liberty Brigade, for Thrilling Nostalgia Comics. This is a 100-page hardcover graphic novel with MANY superstar comic artists involved. I ink a 30-page portion over the truly classic Barry Kitson. There are lots of secret origins of public domain Golden Age heroes in this book. I had the true honor of inking the 92-year-old comic legend, Ramona Fradon, on one of these!
And, I am just starting my DREAM project: inking James Harvey on Pete Townshend's (of The Who) Lifehouse, a 150-page hardcover graphic novel for Heavy Metal!
[Author’s Note: You can find Liberty Brigade on Kickstarter and more information about Lifehouse.]