You may know Kieron Dwyer from Classic X-Men issues #17-29 in 1988-1989, his two year Captain America run in issues #338-367 from the late 80s, or his Avengers run alongside Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns in 2002-2003. I vaguely remember those, but I was but a boy at the time, and my memory isn’t what it used to be. I know Dwyer through his self-published and subversive comic, Lowest Comic Denominator, and collaborations with Rick Remender in his pre-Marvel days.
Dwyer was famously sued by Starbucks due to an issue of LCD and what they felt was copyright and trademark infringement, and even with the backing of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund lost the case, settling out of court. It was a crap move by the coffee giant, as a cease and desist letter would have probably done the job. LCD unfortunately ended soon after, with only a few issues produced.
Dwyer and Remender produced some great smaller press titles such as the seditiously comical adventures of skatepunk with a robot head Black Heart Billy, dreamworld shenanigans with a serial killer in Night Mary, and the vampirate adventure with a documentary filmcrew in Sea of Red. All of these books were unique and exciting to me, and I would pick up anything these two did together. He also collaborated with Steve Niles on the post-apocalyptic zombie series Remains in 2004.
Dwyer continued to work in comics writing and drawing into the 21st century, however sparsely, but after 2008’s Fear Agent #20 and #21, with Remender again, his name wouldn’t appear in the credits of another comic. Until now. Dwyer and fellow writer Todd Rinker have launched a Kickstarter campaign for their new series, West Portal. The series follows Dex, a man with a brain injury who finds can travel into fictional realities. It looks really cool, and I’m excited to see Dwyer’s name on a comic cover again.
Remember in Calvin & Hobbes, when Calvin would dream himself as Spaceman Spiff, or a hard boiled noir detective? Now suppose it wasn’t his imagination, and those were real places with real consequences! Super cool, or scary as hell? Probably a good dose of both, and that’s the crazy world(s) in which Dexter Allen lives.
I recently had the chance to chat with Kieron Dwyer, where he shared behind the scenes information on West Portal, his childhood, his connection to John Byrne, and his early days in the comic industry. But first check out the video for the West Portal campaign.
Pretty cool, no? Now on to the interview!
Before we get to West Portal, can we talk about your “origin story” a bit? How old were you when you first started drawing?
No idea, to be honest. Must have picked it up before I was old enough to remember. I do recall that when I was in kindergarten some kids “teased” me by calling me “The Artist.” I told my dad that some kids did that and it really bothered me. He said, “Oh, come off it. You loved it.” My dad’s bullshit detector was strong, probably because he’s the king bullshitter. 😉
I remember buying Spiderman and Batman comics at 7-11 when I was 5. I bought a giant sized Batman issue which I still have, all torn and flaky. I even bought Spidey comics because I liked Electric Company and they had bits with Spidey in the show, so I bought the comics too. I remember that 7-11 had the plastic Slurpee cups with superheroes from Marvel and DC on them and I collected those as well. From day one, my two favorites were Spiderman and Batman, and so I was never a straight DC or straight Marvel guy, always rode both horses. I was always kind of pragmatic about the way I chose my comics. So I would buy comics with multiple stories in them, like the giant sized issues. My two favorite monthly comics were Brave and the Bold (starring Batman) and Marvel Team Up (starring Spiderman), because they were both team up books and that way I got to have my two favorite characters every month teaming up with other heroes.
They were very supportive of me developing my art skills. They didn’t care about comics themselves, but they were never dismissive of them, and they certainly encouraged my artistic side. Both my parents were actors in Chicago when I was a kid, so they were both pretty liberal and pretty Arts oriented. There was never any negative talk about “Don’t go towards art as a career, you’ll never make it,” but through seeing their experiences, it was also clear to me that “making it” was not a given at all. My mother would frequently remind me that talent itself was no guarantee of success.
It was also my mom who took me to my first comic book convention, in downtown Chicago. This was back in 1980, and there weren’t comic book shops in nearly every town like now, so I had no idea that conventions even existed. She found out about it through her theater connections, because there was a stage production going on in town called Warp, which featured scenic and character design by Neal Adams. So there was some kind of link between the local theater scene and comics. She brought me to the show and I was in hog heaven. DC was doing some nationwide talent search and I waited in line as showed my stuff to Joe Orlando, who was super nice and encouraging. I was disappointed not to get a job, but I was 13 years old at the time, mind you! I spent most of both days standing at the artists tables watching them draw sketches for other people. I was in awe. That was the fateful meeting of my mother and John Byrne. A few short months later they were married and he was living with us. It was pretty surreal.
Self trained. When I was young there weren’t that many art school options for comics in particular. I guess the Kubert School existed but I didn’t know about it, or something. In high school, I was living in Los Angeles and contemplating an acting career, but decided comics was a safer bet, given the odds. I think that was a smart decision.
Do you feel art school or life drawing classes are important?
I definitely see that they are for some people, and I wish sometimes that I had gone to a good art school like Pratt or Art Center or Cal Arts, if only to have been immersed in some different kinds of art techniques and fundamentals. A lot of the artists I admire the most (Bill bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, Scott Hampton, J Muth) went to art schools and were encouraged to play and experiment, and it took me years into my comics career to start daring to try new things, and fail, and try some more, and loosen up. I had to break out of the rigidity that came from being laser focused on getting into the comics business by drawing a particular sort of way. Of course, it’s possible that had I gone to art school, I may have ended up going a whole different direction than comics, so who knows? While I don’t see it as necessary, I would encourage young people to go to art school if they have that opportunity. It’s much harder to do that the older you get, once you’re a working person, or once you have a family and other larger responsibilities than your own personal artistic development. But art is art, and artists by nature seek learning and developing, and that can happen in any circumstance, as long as you keep doing it.
Comics were almost my entire focus, artwise. I admired other kinds of art, I suppose, but nothing spoke to me the way that sequential storytelling did, and does. Within comics, I had a lot of favorite artists over the years: Jim Aparo on Batman (Brave and the Bold was my favorite comic), John Romita Sr on Spiderman, John Buscema on Avengers, Don Newton on some Batman stuff. Mort Drucker in MAD magazine was a huge influence. Byrne’s work was a huge influence, of course, but not because he married my mom. I knew his work before they met, and I followed it later as well, but I moved out a few months after he moved in, so his influence was not a direct thing. Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns), Michael Golden (The ‘Nam), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), and Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra, anything he did) were my teenage-era influences. When I was 19 I was introduced to Moebius’ work and my mind was blown. I still sometimes can’t quite wrap my head around how good that guy was. His versatility in particular, but also his environmental design and imagination. Just off the chart brilliant.
It was hugely intimidating. Thrilling, too, of course. I mean, it was Batman, my favorite hero of my childhood. It’s kind of hard to look at that issue now, because the stiffness is so painfully apparent to me. I think it was an acceptable job and people seemed to like it, and it opened the doors for me, so it’s a great memory overall. And a Walt Simonson cover to boot. The original art to which I own, by the way. Very proudly hangs on my studio wall.
Both things came through John Byrne. He was asked by Denny O’Neill to do a Batman fill-in, but John said to him, “Why not give it to Kieron?” Denny agreed, having seen my samples over the previous months. And some time later, after the comic had come out, Byrne convinced Walt to sell that cover or something so that he and my mom could give it to me for a birthday present. A nice bookend to the whole experience. And Walt’s just a super guy, too, in addition to being an amazing artist. What an honor to have met and been a peer to him. Not a nicer, more humble and generous guy in the business, as far as I’m concerned.
Well, as you know, I first did the fill-in issue of Batman with Jo Duffy and as I was wrapping that up, I had some other editors at DC ready to give me some more work, but Mark Gruenwald (as an editor) had me do a bunch of Marvel Universe pages and a short for Solo Avengers with Roger Stern. When I was done with that, Ralph Macchio offered me Cap with Mark (as writer), and I didn’t really have to give it a second thought. Not that I was a big Cap fan per se, but I had enjoyed Stern & Byrne’s short run on the title around the time he and my mom got together, so I thought it was kind of a nice bookend to the whole thing. I imagine there might have even been a piece of Mark and Ralph offering it to me that was influenced by awareness that some fanboys would dig that through line as well. In any case I jumped on the book and it was daunting at first. Mark’s scripts were dense, for one thing, and I still hadn’t quite figured out when to be literal in following script and when/where I could take liberties, no Cap pun intended.
I’ll tell you, there was a moment when I was only a few issues into the monthly grind that I started feeling panicky, because I was still feeling the weight of Mark’s penchant for large groups of characters and very packed action scenes (i.e., Cap+Nomad+Falcon+D-Man+Diamondback vs The Serpent Society with a bunch of new snake characters). I almost jumped ship but was convinced (by my mom) that sticking it out and using it to learn from difficult situations was a better course of action. I calmed down and I started to get more comfortable, and ultimately Mark and I had a really good working partnership, and I’m still generally proud of what we did together during those 2 years. After the high point of the Bloodstone Hunt storyline, though, I was pretty much ready to move on to some other things.
To date, that run is the longest I’ve been able to sustain on a monthly title, due to my artistic ADD, which brings me back to West Portal. This series was designed to accommodate my need to try new art styles and draw different kinds of stories. The closest thing to it would be my series Night Mary, which Rick Remender and I co-created at IDW. I was able to draw all of the dream sequences in completely different styles.
The mainstream stuff was largely a long nod to my childhood, both in terms of which characters I loved and wanted to draw, as well as just the fulfillment of a childhood dream to work in comics. But no question, the work on my creator-owned books has been infinitely more fulfilling. Not financially, mind you! But artistically, creatively, personally, they have been the high water marks of my career in comics. The stuff Rick and I have done together, in particular, has been gratifying because we are close friends and everything we’ve done has stemmed from our personal connection, our shared sense of humor, etc. If any of our books together had really sold through the roof, enough to sustain us and our families, we’d probably still be doing whatever series that was.
It’s a great town and a nice place to live in general. People here are pretty cool overall. And the comics scene is certainly a strong one, and that definitely influenced our decision to move up here from San Francisco when our son turned 2. I knew a bunch of the cats at Periscope Studio (Steve Lieber, Jeff Parker, et al). Rick and I were both part of Periscope for a good few years after we first moved to town, but ultimately we both found we were more comfortable working at home by ourselves. I miss the group camaraderie sometimes, but I like being home with my family and in my neighborhood. Todd and I have conceived and worked on much of West Portal at our neighborhood Peets Coffee, which feels like the coffee version of Cheers sometimes, there are so many regulars like ourselves who are there nearly every day.
I used to live in Bellingham, Washington, and loved everything about it. What is your favorite thing about living in Portland in specific, and the Pacific Northwest in general?
I generally love the outdoors, and when the weather is decent here, it’s hard to find a place with as much easily accessible nature, cheek by jowl with or just a short skip from the urban center. I like that it’s rarely too hot or too cold. Since we moved here in 2006, the city has grown quite a bit, which has its ups and downs. It feels like it is maybe growing at an unsustainable rate, especially without anything to clearly change the employment prospects for much of the populace. I’m not really sure what people here are doing for a living, to be honest. 😉
You are a Member Emeritus of Periscope Studio, which boasts such creators as Colleen Coover, Terry Dodson, Paul Guinan, Karl Kesel, Erika Moen, Joelle Jones and others. The whole idea of it reminds me of the Golden Age of comics, specifically the Eisner/Iger studio. What is it like to be surrounded by creative people while working?
Well, as I said, I left a few years ago after being part of it for a couple years. Some of those folks hadn’t joined yet, some were rarely or never there during my time. But overall, it’s always a cool thing to have other people working on creative ventures in your immediate environment. It can be a little distracting sometimes, but mostly it helps feed your own personal spark, I find. It’s great to be able to ask directly for guidance on something, or get some other eyes on a thing you’re doing, to give immediate feedback. Somebody else always has some bit of Photoshop knowledge or inking science that you don’t have, so that’s very cool too. I like still being associated with Periscope in some basic way, they’re all really talented, kind people.
Rick came up to my table at SDCC many years ago when he and his buddy Harper Jaten were doing Captain Dingleberry, and the friendship with those guys grew out of our shared humor. I had just started doing LCD mini comics and people were digging them at the con that year. It was just kismet, I think.
A year or so later, Rick decided to move to San Francisco with his girlfriend, and he joined my studio, which I shared with John Francis Moore, John Heebink, and Darick Robertson. We started cooking up Black Heart Billy during that time, and then worked on virtually everything together during the next several years, continuing when we each moved up to Portland (many of our mutual friends from the Bay area had already done so).
Currently, Rick has more than enough to occupy him, and West Portal is basically all I can handle along with my advertising work, which is what pays my bills. I think Rick and I will eventually do something together again, but there’s no actual plan. What I can promise is that when it happens, it will be something balls out funny. It’s time for the world to laugh again!
Lowest Comic Denominator was a short lived but genuinely hilarious series. I’m sure you’re sick of talking about the Starbucks lawsuit for your “Consumer Whore” parody cover, so I won’t ask about that. If people get curious they can Google it. I just want to ask if LCD will have a collected edition one day?
You bet. The plan is for that to happen later this year, in fact. I’ve been getting it all organized and rescanning a lot of the artwork, since I still own most of the originals. In all likelihood it will also contain the work by other comics friends who contributed to the standalone issues. It will make a nice sized trade paperback. I wish I had enough material to make a hardcover book, especially after seeing Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix bookshelf edition hardcover, which is brilliant.
Matt Fraction and I are also planning a reissue of Last of the Independents in hardcover, probably through Image.
You’re throwing your hat back into the creator owned ring after many years outside the industry. Your last published work being two issues of Fear Agent, again with Rick Remender. Am I right? What have you been doing in the intervening years? Why choose to return to comics now?
Good question. Running this kickstarter campaign is certainly making me rethink the wisdom of the entire venture! But the fact is Todd and I have put a long time and a lot of effort into building the foundation and structure of West Portal and we will get it out one way or the other. The Kickstarter campaign was meant to help boost our ability to turn out a few more issues without worrying so much about income.
Rick has been talking up the creator-owned market to me for the last few years, so I’ve been contemplating it a while now. I’ve been watching all of the very cool creator owned comics hitting stores recently, a lot of them at Image, and just a general explosion of amazing artists and a wide variety of stories, beyond the mainstream superhero stuff. It’s exciting, and it feels like a good time to jump back in with something that isn’t the standard kind of story.
As for what I’ve been doing in the last few years, I’ve been helping create some of the world’s best and funniest TV commercials! I’ve been very fortunate for a long number of years to be hired much of the time by Portland based ad agency Wieden Kennedy to draw storyboards and comp illustrations for lots of cool ads. I’ve worked on famous TV and print ads for Nike, Old Spice, Coke, Target, Powerade, and many more. Some of the more notable ads were the sensational Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ads with Isaiah Mustafa (“I’m on a horse!”), the Coke polar bear ads for the Super Bowl a few years back, the Nike MVPuppets spots with Kobe and LeBron, and the Oreo cookie “Whisper Fight” Super Bowl ad. In fact, I think I’ve had at least one ad I worked on in every Super Bowl for the last bunch of years, or nearly so. Working for W+K has truly been a great work experience for me, honestly; to a single one, everybody I’ve worked with at that place has been gracious, and friendly, and super supportive and appreciative of anything that I’ve done for them, regardless of how stressful the deadlines, etc.
Crowdfunding has become a great new distribution model for comics, getting rid of the middle man, and putting the books directly in the hands of your readers. There are many reasons to use Kickstarter, but why did you personally choose to go this route?
Well, it was meant to be a way to get an infusion of funding to help facilitate the process of finishing out a few more issues of the book in a more timely fashion. But it is truly a much bigger job in itself than I imagined, and I am not sure yet whether it is worth the effort. I won’t know for a few weeks I guess, when this thing wraps up and is either successfully funded, or falls flat on its face. If we fail to fund, it will have been a lot of work for no obvious yield, and it will have eaten up a lot of my time when I could have been earning money with paying work. So the jury is very much out on the value of Kickstarter as a platform for raising money.
I will say this about it, though. Whether we fund or not, the opportunity to get some publicity and awareness of the project in advance of releasing the monthly comic will definitely have some benefit.
What can you tell our readers about West Portal?
West Portal is the strange tale of a man named Dexter Allen, whose adventures in alternate realms based in popular fantasy and fiction seem all too real…because they are.
Imagine if Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes grew up to be a middle-aged man, yet still occasionally became Spaceman Spiff. Imagine that he had no idea when or where it was going to happen, nor any way to control it. Now consider that these sudden episodes weren’t just his imagination at work, they were actually happening. Welcome to the bizarre world of Dexter Allen, a modern day Walter Mitty battling to keep his sanity as the boundaries between reality and fiction get blurrier by the day.
Can you tell us more about the different realities (spheres) Dex visits?
The first world we visit is that of Glint Granger, a space-faring hero in the mold of Flash Gordon and drawn in a style reminiscent of classic comics artists like Alex Raymond, Al Williamson, et al. There are also hints in issue 1 of worlds built around a comic strip cat named Fillmore, as well as the religious tracts of Jack T. Chick. There are many other worlds to come in subsequent issues and arcs of the story, including some built on the psychedelic works of Peter Max (think the colorful oddities in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine animated film), Chinese folk tales, children’s books, and lots more. It’s not just a guy going into comic book worlds, although that is how the series begins, because that is his personal frame of reference for the fantasy worlds. But as the story moves forward, he visits many different “spheres” from all sorts of fictional stories.
Where did the idea for this series come from? Was it a truly collaborative effort between you and Todd.
The genesis was an idea I was sifting around for a while, something I came up with as a way to draw different kinds of stories in different art styles, all within the larger structure of a story about a guy who may just be losing his mind. I talked it over with Todd to see if he was interested in working on it with me, which he was. He had done some indy comics years before when he exhibited at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) show in S.F. and things were slow for him, work-wise.
It seemed like a good time to jump into this new thing together, so we talked a lot for a couple months, working out the laws of this new world, and the multiple worlds within it. Then Todd started tying our conversations together into something linear, writing the outline for our first 16 issues of stories, which introduces all the main players in our tale, as well as setting up the larger threat to the entire group of characters. It turns out when you start breaking down the barriers between fiction and reality, bad shit starts to happen.
West Portal looks really cool partially due to the various art styles the book demands. Knowing of your artistic ADD, I’m sure you’re having a blast with it. Can you talk a little about your process when drawing the book?
We came at first from a vague place of what would be fun to draw, then figured out what worked and what didn’t as our actual storyline developed. The larger outer story of Dexter’s life is quite a bit more complex than what I originally had in mind, which makes everything happening to him in the alternate realms that much more important and effective, actually. But working out all those details took quite a lot of time, and Todd spent many days and weeks puzzling over the intersections of the various spheres.
As for drawing the book, I take a pretty organic approach to the different worlds. I’m making a concerted effort not to just straight rip-off any specific artist’s style, but to distill the different artists who embody a particular genre or sub-genre, and create a look that evokes that particular thing. Because it was an effective method in Night Mary (a series I did at IDW with Rick), I decided to go a similar route with the art for the pages of Dex in his day-to-day life with his ex-wife and young daughter. It’s a simpler method that is effective in large part because it is distinct from all the other realms, and so they each stand out as unique in contrast to “reality.”
How far ahead do you have stories planned for West Portal? Do you have an end game in mind for Dex?
Well, we have the first issue basically completed, the first 4 issues scripted and the first 16 issues mapped out in pretty detailed form. But we have lots of other stuff sketched in for the story beyond issue 16, so we’re in no danger of running dry on ideas. In large part because as the story goes on, Dex learns that he’s not alone in his ability to traverse the boundaries between our world and these other spheres of existence. And the larger threat I alluded to will ultimately require huge sacrifices from Dex and his compatriots or the outcome will be catastrophic to everyone.
Will the series still come out in some form if the campaign doesn’t reach it’s funding? Please say yes.
Ha! Yes, indeed. Todd and I have put far too much work into the development of this story and this world to abandon it. Failure to fund through Kickstarter only means that the book will continue to be done at a much slower pace than we would like. By necessity, as freelancers with families, etc., we will have to chip away at this in our “spare time,” of which there isn’t much, sadly. But we’ll trudge on regardless.
In the past, the creator owned books that I’ve done frequently ran into the wall at some point because we ate up whatever lead time we had when we solicited the series to retailers. As I’ve stated on the Kickstarter page and in the video, our goal is to prevent that as much as possible by not even soliciting the series at all until we have the first 4 issues done completely. That will actually give us a greater lead time, because by the time retailers are seeing issue 1 in stores, we will have finished a few more issues. With good planning and due diligence on our part, we will sustain that buffer and never come up against the feeling I’ve had before of “Oh, no! The next issue is due and it’s not finished yet!” And since it’s our own book, we can’t slot in a fill-in or whatever.
However, since the nature of the series allows for lots of different stories within the larger story, there is definitely the possibility of using some other artists to great effect, and that’s something we may explore in the future, once we’ve established our story. And I’ve already got some alternate covers lined up by some friends of mine who are titans of the industry and I’m excited to show what they’ve got in store as soon as I’m able.
Not sure yet, though I’m sure we will to build and keep momentum on the book once it’s actually coming out. It’s been quite a while since I did any conventions and frankly I was pretty burned out on them when I stopped going, but I think enough time has passed now that it will be fun again. Todd hasn’t really seen that side of things, so he’s in for a whole new experience! 😉
One of our rewards for the Kickstarter is a special Backers Only party here in Portland, which will likely be held at one of the local comics shops, but won’t really be a first issue release party per se. Just more of a celebration if the campaign is fully funded, with lots of cool swag for the folks who attend. And I imagine we’ll have some kind of release event at one of the local shops when the first issue actually comes out.
Another of the rewards we’re offering is a full expenses covered store appearance for retailers. So they could host us for a West Portal in-store event, at our expense.
Other than West Portal, what’s next for you?
Just continuing my ad work, I expect. Playing my guitar, being an awesome dad. Between all the time I spend at the board/computer drawing, etc, the last thing I want to do with my free time is more drawing, so I like to be involved in other creative endeavors like music. Todd and I get together with some other dads in our neighborhood pretty regularly and jam for fun.
Working on the campaign video, which we shot and edited in very short timeframe rekindled my interest in doing film stuff. I took a class a few years ago in film editing and I really enjoy working in Final Cut Studio, so I’d like to find some reasons to do more of that. Also, Todd and I used our kids for the video, which was a great memory for all of us. Truly, I look at that day or two as a gift from this otherwise very challenging, arduous endeavor, and even if we don’t achieve our funding goal, I will be glad that we had that experience with the kids while they are young and still gung-ho to do fun, silly stuff.
Do you have any last words for our readers?
Just that I hope they’ll check out the Kickstarter campaign page here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kierondwyer/west-portal and support us in this endeavor if they like what they see, and I hope they dig the series once it’s up and running.
Thanks for getting behind us, we appreciate it.
I’d like to thank Kieron for the interview, and to recommend checking out the campaign. And hey, why not follow Kieron on Twitter while you’re at it?