When comic fans hear Mike Oeming’s name, the first title that probably comes to mind is the Eisner-winning Powers, his Eisner-winning collaboration with Brian Bendis — but that’s only one highlight of a career that goes from video games to the Big Two to creator-owned work. And while the general fandom may not be as familiar with Mike’s wife and collaborator, Taki Soma, her work as both writer and artist has made her a key MVP on a wide variety of comics — in an equally wide variety of genres — over the years.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer/Artist/Cartoonist
Your home base: Washington State/attic space in Portland, OR
Twitter: @Oeming / @takisoma
Facebook: @MichaelOeming / @taki.soma
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I open with the same question for everyone: What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Mike Oeming: I wanted to draw comics pretty much as soon as I started reading them. Since I was about 12 or 13, comic book art is all I could think of. I love the visual storytelling, guiding the reader through the page to tell a story, express an emotion or mood. I love taking a script and translating the words and intention into figure work and layout to guide the reader to an experience. But really I think I’m so focused on comics, not just for the artistic expression but for me it is the ultimate in escapism. I had a rough childhood at times, especially early on. So my mind was always drifting away from wherever I was, and being present is still something I struggle with daily. I’m constantly distracted, which makes my bad memory worse, but when it comes to making comics, I’m completely focused, in the moment and there. It has been a control device for my life and anxiety, an escape from my neurosis. I know not everyone needs that kind of escapism in life, but I hope I’m able to facilitate that for others in some small way who do need it.
Taki Soma: I enjoy the artform — like how the pacing is dictated by the writer, the artist, and the reader, and how the whole concept is a unique communication unlike other entertainment available.
MO: I worked at Valve Corp for a few years, making video games and comics like Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, Portal, and more. But making art for video games isn’t the same as making them for comics and I was frankly spoiled by how much control you have in making comics vs the video game world. It isn’t just the act of making art that I need, but I find that making art with sequential storytelling is soothing to me in ways that other art forms, including writing, are not.
KS: When did buying and reading comics first become part of your lives?
TS: In my mid-20s… my breakup from [my] then-boyfriend who was feverishly passionate about comics made me realize I didn’t want to go on without it in my life, after having casually read his for a couple of years.
MO: I had moved from New Jersey to Texas in the fifth grade, and it was a really hard transition for me. I almost refused to make friends, locking myself away in my room. At a flea market one day, I discovered a bunch of comics. I had read some randomly when I was younger, but this was the time it really stuck.
KS: Can you remember some of the first titles that grabbed you?
MO: I remember [an issue of] Peter Parker. I think it was drawn by Rich Buckler and there was a generic vigilante character with some kind of hood on his face. I already loved Spidey from the cartoons and such, but then as I read about Peter Parker, I really related to his feeling of being an outsider. [Author’s Note: Some detective work has revealed this comic as Peter Parker #108, and the villain as the Sin-Eater.] This really got me going, but once I found X-Men Annual #9 drawn by Art Adams, that was it. I was hooked deeply. I was already tracing comics, but I was tracing anything with no real direction. But that book turned a lot of light bulbs on in my head. It had a voice and a direction that was unique. I didn’t understand it was at the time, that most of the other comics had that Marvel house style. This was different. Besides Art’s work, the Norse mythology in that issue obviously had a big impact on me. The mixture of mythology and superheroes really set a fire in me that still warms my soul. Once we moved back to NJ, I found an ad in the back of a Marvel comic that listed retailers. A comic book store??? This blew my mind. But now I knew how to get comics and that really began everything.
TS: I think reading Daredevil Born Again, Batman Year One, and Kingdom Come were some of my early obsessions that hooked me.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. What was a particular comic story that really had an impact on you as a reader?
TS: After reading [Born Again], I was changed. I appreciated the fact that Matt Murdock was a fallible man with a range of emotions I could relate to — I didn’t think superheroes were written in that way until then, you know? And the fact that Matt found it in his heart for forgiveness and understanding when Karen Page betrayed him. Seriously, if that story doesn’t gut you, you have no soul. That’s a fact.
MO: Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. I don’t have a particular story, but it was the mixture of art, philosophy, adult themes and fun — a real Saturday morning cartoon vibe that showed me comics could be anything, not just good guys fighting bad guys, but characters fighting themselves, fighting the complexities of society. I think those are still some of the best comics ever made. There were a lot of stand alone issues, one where Nexus — a galactic assassin — set up four villains to take each other out, saving the last for himself. At the same time, I was reading Marvel superheroes. I think that mixture of commercial and indie comics molded my tastes pretty clearly. A lot of my work seems to be on the verge of indie, on the verge of mainstream, but neither. It makes it unique but also a challenge for audiences and myself to figure me out at times.
KS: Because an artistic career path can be such a crapshoot, I’m always interested in hearing where the idea originated with each guest. Was this an “a-ha” moment of inspiration or something long-simmering?
TS: I was actually attending an advertising school as well as working at an ad agency when, one day, another student casually commented that it’s strange seeing me in class for advertising when all I talk about are comics. I dropped out soon after and started pursuing comics.
MO: I knew I wanted to be a comic book artist by age 13. I really have never looked at another path. I even named my art book No Plan B because I had none. So for me, this has been a lifelong dream. I think that a-ha moment was reading X-Men Annual #9 and, having no idea how the comics business worked, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I quit sports, I cut school, I didn’t party, most of my friends were adults who were becoming (like Adam Hughes) or already were (Neil Vokes) comic creators. It has been my singular focus on life since I got that X-Men comic at the 7-Eleven.
KS: Have there been any moments of real doubt or second guessing along the way?
MO: [W]hen the comics market almost collapsed in the mid '90s and I had to get a “real job.” There I was, 23 years old with no work record applying for work. It still amazes me I was able to find a job, working security for a year as I pulled away from comics and refocused on my art and life. Other challenges are how small a lot of my life has been in my youth. I was drawing comics, not having other life experiences like dating, traveling, roommates, good jobs and shitty jobs, friends, concerts — all of that normal young person stuff, I pretty much skipped. I wouldn’t trade for it, but when I’m writing, I do wish I had more “real world” experiences to draw from. But then I guess my weird, little world experiences is part of why I’m me now, and whatever voice I have is because of how my weird little life was shaped.
KS: What’s the first serious piece of art you remember creating? I’m looking for something that felt like a serious project for you at the time — whatever age that was and whether or not you showed it to anyone else.
MO: I think it must be a Swamp Thing drawing that I sent in to Amazing Heroes [magazine], and was published. I was like 13 or 14? All done in high detail, tons of lines made with Rapidograph pens. Seeing it published in their fan section gave me the other half of my artistic drive: the need of approval! People saw this, even as a tiny 2x3 pic in the letter section. It felt real and it felt like a place I belonged. I’m still chasing that dragon and I hope I never catch it. Stay hungry!
TS: I’ll tell you about my first art I remember making, which was E.T. after seeing [the movie] in the theater. I remember drawing him from different angles because I wanted to remember him as much as I could possibly remember to preserve the feeling of awe and adventure.
KS: When you first became able to identify different artists — enough to form a preference — who were your original favorites?
MO: I started reading in the mid-'80s. At that point, a lot of Marvel was full of… and I hate to put it this way, but a watered-down Marvel “house style.” Most comics looked like an imitation of [John] Buscema, but without the energy. So, any time someone stood out, they made an impact on me. Obviously, Mignola is a giant influence on my work. But before he was an influence, I just loved his work because it was different and stood out. The same with Art Adams, Rick Leonardi, Michael Golden, Steve Rude, P. Craig Russell, Larry Stroman, Bill Sienkiewicz… the second I saw their work, I would follow and collect anything they did.
TS: David Mazzucchelli, David Mack, John Romita Jr., Alex Ross, Mike Allred… the list could just go on.
KS: What does a typical workday look like in your studio these days, understanding that “typical” may change from week to week?
TS: We converted two bedrooms into a single studio, so we are able to work in the same room and we love it. We work all day there, taking breaks for meals until the evening when one of us has hit a wall.
MO: I work seven days a week. This is out of choice. I only stop working when my mind or body says it is time for a break. Typically, I’ll start working by 10 a.m. after Taki and I have a long breakfast. Then, on a good day that doesn’t have tons of email, chores or other non-creative “stuff,” I’ll keep working until lunch, then keep working until dinner. After dinner we’ll usually work at least another hour or two. On a good night, I hang it up around 9 p.m. By then I’m pretty spent, and I sit like a zombie on the couch for an hour or so and start it all over the next day.
KS: Where do you stand on music, or any other background noise, while working? Does the answer change depending on what specific element of a comic you’re working on?
TS: Yep, writing or laying out a page is quiet time for me. Outside of the two, we listen to podcasts, music, or audio books.
MO: Oh, I constantly need music. Even when I’m writing. Sometimes during dialogue, I can’t listen, but generally I always have music, an Audible book, or podcast on.
KS: Does that music ever find its way into the work you produce?
MO: Often, music sets the mood, or at least feeds the creative energy. Although I’m not a musician, music was my first influence, even before comics when it comes to writing and storytelling. I grew up in a house that was legally blind, so music, even more than TV was a constant in our house. So, I was exposed to a lot of Motown, folk, and singer-songwriters. Those songs often had a strong narrative, and you let your mind fill in the blanks. So to this day, I find it a strong motivator. I often use lyrics as dialogue. I’ve used a lot of Led Zeppelin lyrics in Thor. In The After Realm I used some of James Taylor’s “Horse With No Name” because I introduced my deceased aunt as a spirit guide. It was her favorite song, so I wrote it in.
Sometimes, music will set a mood, or a tempo. I used to listen to project specific music, but I found that can get repetitive over the many hours and weeks, so often I just listen to anything that makes me feel good. Run the Jewels has been great for when I’m just tired and every line feels like a struggle, it’s a good pick me up. Shuffle mode for my playlists sounds insane, like right now, Styx’s “Babe” is playing, Panjabi MC is next… I mean the variety can get pretty funny.
KS: You mentioned The After Realm which was recently on Kickstarter on its way to becoming an Image Comics series. When you look back at that earliest Webtoon version of it, what do you see different about the creative work then vs. now?
MO: This was an interesting experiment for sure. But I have to admit, probably too much experimenting. First, there was the comic which I started roughly 2014 with ideas and concepts, and then pages in 2015. Issue 3 was originally intended to be the first issue. But then I had an offer from a new “Webtoon like” company that offered me a great deal, so I thought I’d do an After Realm prequel story in that infinite scroll format. But then things fell through and I had all this new story stuff of young Oona, so I decided I’d run that story on Webtoon and then translate all of those pages into traditional pages to be an After Realm prequel graphic novel, but then I scrapped that and just used it as part of the ongoing story. So, wow, this has been through a lot of different intentions and formats. It does, however, feed into the extremely organic process I’ve had for this series. It has really grown into an extension of my daydreams, my natural urge for escapism since my childhood, and I guess that means taking these weird chances, experimenting with the confines of the form and just trying new things… like launching a Kickstarter simultaneously as well as a weird, oversized quarterly schedule. [N]ow I’ve found my rhythm and have a clear path for the format and publishing. The landscape of comics changes at light speed — the addition of crowdfunding, PDF comics, the ease of print on demand, and web comics really open up the world from the confines of the direct market. Scary and exciting times.
KS: Even though you had no career Plan B initially, what about a hypothetical one today? Can you picture yourself in another field if not visual art?
TS: I'd love to be a writer on a television show or for film, or stand-up and Cryptozoology research if I didn't have an illness.
MO: If I were to hypothetically pick a new path it would be archaeology, though I suspect I like archeology for the same reason I love comics — I could spend hours dusting rocks off of dirt while taking my mind away to another place where I wonder how these things got here, who made them and why. Just another form of storytelling I guess.
KS: What’s an art tool you especially enjoy, whether or not you get to use it often? Setting aside any professional commitments, commissions, etc… if you were set free to create a piece simply for the joy of creating, what might you pull out of the drawer to play around with?
MO: I still get the best feeling out of laying down a great brush line. Every time. I love traditional brushes, but have really retired them for brush pens, like the Kuretake brush pen. The difference is time, with a brush pen, there is not dipping or constant cleaning of the brushes. Laying down a smooth line is soooo satisfying. Like opening a beer on a hot day and hearing that sssss sound. It just feels good laying down the thick to thin lines. Now as far as taking my time so I could care for a brush… I have to be honest, I’m not good at taking my time. I’m careful to not rush anything, but I like speed so I like to push it as far as I can. I have a hunger to produce pages, to move on to the next image, page and project, so the idea of slowing way down — even if I could afford to — isn’t something that appeals to me. It feels like pages are chasing me. I like it, though; I feed off of a certain amount of pressure.
KS: The last two questions are time to spread some love. First, who’s a person that was especially helpful to you somewhere along your professional path? Could be they gave you a key piece of advice, opened the right door at the right time, made an introduction, whatever…
TS: Christian Beranek. She really invited me into the world of comics when I was at a con showing my portfolio around and she offered to publish — and pay me for — an illustration just to try the waters with her independent publishing [company] that’s no longer around. From there, I felt enough confidence to keep pursuing.
MO: The top three, who really built my foundation, are pals Neil Vokes, Adam Hughes, and Dave Johnson. I met Adam when I was like 13 or 14; he was working at a comics store in NJ and we became pals, even though I was like five years younger than him. We both just loved drawing comics and as he learned both his art form and the business, he taught me lots. He was also my first real “nerd friend” and schooled me on all kinds of great comics, movies, and books like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is probably still my favorite book. He also showed me Blade Runner and introduced me to Steve Rude and Jaime Hernandez’s work. Same with Neil — we would work on projects together and he’d go over inking techniques, storytelling tricks and introducing me to Alex Toth and Mignola. In my late teens and early 20s, I became pals with Dave Johnson and we’d spend full summer nights on the phone chatting about art, and faxing yards of art to each other. He really taught me a lot about black spotting. I remember him saying to try and make each page 50% black to give the page weight. He’s always been great about telling me exactly what’s wrong with a page and how to make it work.
I have to mention Brian Bendis here, too. We are peers, but we learn from each other and Brian taught me a lot about storytelling and design, specifically through learning from films and storyboards. He’s also been a great teacher about how to handle myself professionally, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at as an example of the comics craft at its highest form?
TS: All of them and none of them — I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I truly mean it. I believe I find all comics to be an example, and I do my very best to not let any of those influence me for my own projects, which of course, I probably fail at but I don’t know what my subconscious is drawing its inspirations from, really.
MO: That is so hard. There are some of the obvious choices, like anything by Will Eisner. The Building is one of my faves. Tilly Walden’s work really hits me as to what comics can be… like the expression of an idea told as a narrative rather than conflict or mystery to be solved in a three act structure. So, I really see her as transforming the typical language of comics. Mike Hawthorne’s Happiness Will Follow recently hit me pretty hard, not just for his talent as an artist, but how he expressed his life experience in the art form. He also introduced me to one of my favorite graphic novels called Six Hundred And Seventy Six Apparitions Of Killoffer, which became really influential on my book The Wild Rover as it was a meditation on anxiety and neurosis. I recently read Lucas Harari’s Swimming In Darkness which was a very Lynchian-like story that managed to haunt me.
KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for in 2021.
TS: We just finished up the third volume of Murder, Inc., and The After Realm is ongoing. Outside of that, I am cooking up a few vanity projects yet to find a home to publish through. I think at least one of them will rear itself in the next year?
To keep up with these and other future projects, sign up for Mike’s newsletter via his website.