An interview with comic book artist Mike DeCarlo

Mike DeCarlo has been drawing comic books for 40 years, both as an inker / finisher over a diverse selection of pencilers and doing full artwork. He has worked for a number of publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Valiant, Archie, Bongo, Boom! Studios and IDW. Mike graciously agreed to be interviewed about his lengthy career.

This interview was conducted by e-mail in December 2021.

BH: Hello, Mr. DeCarlo. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start out with your background. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have?

Mike DeCarlo: Born in New Haven, Connecticut, March 1957. Loved cartoons, Newspaper Strips and Comics since I was 4 or 5. Sports of any kind also.

BH: What was your educational background? Did you major in an art-related field?  Was the comic book industry something that you actively hoped to enter?

Mike DeCarlo: Went Southern Connecticut State University in CT in 1975 and 1976 for Art. Found it boring. Began work as a Sports Cartoonist and Political cartoonist in 1977 to 1979. Took the Dick Giordano Art School Course in May, 1979 and after 2 months he hired me as his assistant.

The Brave and the Bold #179 (Oct 1981) written by Martin Pasko, penciled by Ernie Colon, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Ben Oda and colored by Carl Gafford

BH: How did you first find work in comic books? According to the Grand Comics Database, your first published work was inking Ernie Colon’s pencils on a team-up of Batman and the Legion of Super-Heroes in The Brave and the Bold #179 from DC Comics in 1981. How did you receive that assignment?

Mike DeCarlo: By the end of 1980, Giordano told me to go to DC and show my portfolio to Joe Orlando, the Art Director, and he hired me as an inker on the spot. Yes, the Colon job was my first along with “Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk” [DC Special Series #27, Sept. 1981] which I inked with Giordano around the same time.

Green Lantern #150 (March 1982) written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Joe Staton, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Ben Oda and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: One of your earliest regular art assignments was inking Joe Staton pencils on Green Lantern, beginning with issue #147 in late 1981. How did that come about? Did you enjoy working with Joe Staton? He’s one of my all-time favorite comic book artists, and I feel the two of you went well together.

Mike DeCarlo: Joe was always a great guy to talk to and incredibly easy to ink. I only remembered it being offered to me at this point.

BH: In recent years you’ve expressed that you wish that you’d been able to focus on penciling and on doing full artwork rather than working almost exclusively as an inker. As a matter of fact, you did have  a few penciling jobs at DC early in your career, namely the Green Lantern Corps back-up story in Green Lantern #155 (Aug 1982) and three installments of the Huntress back-up feature that ran in Wonder Woman #302-304 (April to June 1983). What did you think of your work on these stories? How come you did not do more penciling during this period?

Mike DeCarlo: My penciling was very mediocre then. I had much to still learn. I was not shocked that more penciling was not offered to me.

The Huntress back-up in Wonder Woman #303 (May 1983) written by Joey Cavalieri, penciled by Mike DeCarlo, inked by Tony DeZuñiga, lettered by Duncan Andres and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: Among the numerous pencilers you’ve worked with over the years has been George Perez, who is known for his hyper-detailed art style and his fondness for drawing huge crowds of characters. You first inked Perez first on Tales of the Teen Titans in 1984 beginning with the now-famous storyline “The Judas Contract” and were on the series for a year. How did you find working with Perez?

Mike DeCarlo: George was exacting and very complex. It was tedious but rewarding when finished.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #4 (July 1985) written by Marv Wolfman, layouts by George Perez, finishes by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: You then inked Perez in 1985 on issues #3 and #4 of the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, which literally had a cast of thousands of characters. What were your thoughts on that assignment? In particular, I was struck by the fact that #4 was the only issue of Crisis on which Perez was credited with only providing layouts, meaning you provided the finished artwork. That must have been a great deal of work. That opening splash page alone, with Supergirl flying above Gotham City, is insanely detailed. [Note to readers: Check out the image above to see exactly what I’m talking about!]

Mike DeCarlo: Giordano told me about Crisis well before it started and that DC would use me and a few others to ink George. It was a landmark series for them. I did what they asked of me but it was very draining to do. I was not totally disappointed when [Jerry] Ordway took over.

Batman #428 (Dec 1988) written by Jim Starlin, penciled by Jim Aparo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Adrienne Roy

BH: You were first paired up with longtime Batman artist Jim Aparo in late 1987, becoming his regular inker for the next four years. During that period you worked with Aparo on several high-profile Batman storylines such as as “Ten Nights of the Beast” and “A Death in the Family.” How did you receive that assignment? What were Aparo’s thoughts on your work? I felt you made an effective art team.

Mike DeCarlo: Again, it was just offered to me and I happily accepted. Jim was pretty easy to ink and he and I got along well. Jim said I did a wonderful job with his pencils. Quite a compliment.

Thor #475 (June 1994) written by Roy Thomas, penciled by M.C. Wyman, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Phil Felix and colored by Ovi Hondru

BH: In the early 1990s you began doing work for Marvel Comics. How did that come about? Eventually in 1993 you became the regular inker on Thor, paired up first with Bruce Zick and then M.C. Wyman. The two of them had very different art styles. How did you approach working over each of their pencils?

Mike DeCarlo: I went to see [Jim] Shooter and a few editors and lined up some work. Marvel was a fairly unfriendly place for me–maybe because I was known as a DC guy? I had issues with both Thor pencilers. I was happy to be on Thor, but those two were not pleasant to work with for me.

Fantastic Four Annual #22 (Summer 1989) written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Tom Morgan, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by George Roussos

BH: You’ve said on Facebook that Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby was one of your favorite comic books when you were a kid. You did have a chance to work on a few issues of Fantastic Four in the early 1990s. How did you find the experience? Would you have liked to have done more work with the characters?

Mike DeCarlo: I wish I could have done the FF every month!

BH: What was it like working with Mike Zeck on Bloodshot: Last Stand for Valiant Comics? That was another great collaboration, in my opinion.

Mike DeCarlo: We were the best of friends anyway and I found it a pleasure.

Bloodshot: Last Stand (March 1996) written by Mark Moretti, penciled by Mike Zeck, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Joe Albelo and colored by Frank Lopez

BH: For more than a decade, beginning in 1996, you worked on a variety of series featuring animated characters such as Looney Tunes, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, and Cartoon Network Block Party for DC Comics. How did you approach working in a style that is very different from so-called traditional superheroes? Some of those animated stories also gave you the opportunity to do full artwork, which I image you enjoyed.

Mike DeCarlo: Animation came easy to me because I was skillful with a brush and enjoyed a highly graphic approach to Art.

Johnny Bravo in Cartoon Network Block Party #21 (July 2006) written by Jim Alexander, drawn by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Travis Lanham and colored by Heroic Age

BH: You’ve inked a diverse selection of pencilers during your career. Do you have any favorites?

Mike DeCarlo: Gil Kane, Michael Golden, Mike Zeck, Joe Staton and Jim Aparo and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez.

BH: What was your general approach to inking?  One thing I’ve noticed about books that you’ve worked on is that your inking style is fairly apparent at a casual glance, yet you also are successful at not subsuming the style of the pencilers you worked with. It seems like it must be a delicate balancing act, one that you accomplish very well.

Mike DeCarlo: I tried to “get into the head” of the penciler and use my art training judiciously.

“The 60’s” montage commission illustrated by Mike DeCarlo

BH: Please let us know what you have been working on in recent years.

Mike DeCarlo: I do tons of commissions, The Black Swan Man as an ongoing Internet Financial Strip and am working on Trinity, a Graphic Novel for European Investors. I don’t ink anymore, unless it’s my own work. I happily take on any commission a client has in mind. I’m also mostly done with a Patreon site for my work patreon.com/MikeDeCarloArt or website mikedecarloart.com

BH: Thank you very much for your time, Mike!

George Perez’s Wonder Woman

As with many, many other comic book fans, I was deeply saddened by the announcement this week that longtime artist & writer George Perez has been diagnosed with cancer, and has been given an estimated life expectancy of six months to one year. Perez is one of the all-time great creators to have worked in American comic books over the last four and a half decades.

While I have mentioned Perez on this blog in passing, regrettably I’ve never taken any sort of in-depth look at his art or writing before. I really want to rectify that now, while Perez is still among the living. And so I am going to showcase several examples of his work on one of the characters with whom he is most identified: Wonder Woman.

People like to throw around the word “definitive” but that is exactly the term I would use to describe George Perez’s iconic run on the Wonder Woman series from 1987 to 1992. In my mind, he wrote and drew one of the definitive versions of the character.

I had one heck of a time narrowing it down to just 10 examples!

Let’s start at the beginning. Here is George Perez’s beautiful cover for the first issue of Wonder Woman volume two (Feb 1987). Perez’s intricately detailed work superbly depicts Princess Diana, Queen Hippolyta, the Amazons, the Greek gods, and the island of Themyscira.

I really believe that Perez’s post-Crisis On Infinite Earths reboot / revamp of the Wonder Woman mythos is one of the primary reasons why the character of Princess Diana has subsequently become such a major character. Or, as acclaimed comic book writer Gail Simone put it:

“The hottest artist of the day, with a string of hits behind him, decided to cast his ridiculous talents on Wonder Woman. And it changed EVERYTHING.”

I don’t know if Perez deliberately set out to top the first issue’s cover when he illustrated the fold-out cover to Wonder Woman #10 (Nov 1987), the first chapter of “Challenge of the Gods,” but he definitely succeeded.

The introduction of the post-Crisis version of the villainous Silver Swan was heralded by Perez’s incredibly striking cover for Wonder Woman #15 (April 1988). Perez’s utilization of highly detailed work, an unsettling layout and negative space all combine to really make this one stand out. I wish I knew who did the coloring on this, because it certainly complements Perez’s work.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not showcase an example of Perez’s interior work. “Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” in issue #20 (Sept 1988) finds Diana investigating the brutal murder of Myndi Mayer, her vivacious yet troubled publicist. On the final page of this story Diana at long last learns the tragic truth behind Myndi’s passing. Perez’s storytelling & dialogue combine to deliver a shocking, somber emotional moment.

“Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” was written & laid out by Perez, from an idea by Carol Flynn (Perez’s wife), with finishes by Bob McLeod, letters by John Costanza and colors by Carl Gafford. It was justifiably chosen for inclusion in the collection Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told published in 2007.

Another hyper-detailed Perez cover graces Wonder Woman Annual #1 (Nov 1988), in which Diana takes her good friend Julia Kapatelis and her teenage daughter Vanessa to visit the Amazons on Themyscira. John Stracuzzi’s vibrant colors enhance Perez’s work. Lettering is by Todd Klein.

A talented line-up of artists drew the different chapters of Perez’s story for Wonder Woman Annual #1. One of the more interesting artistic teams on the Annual was Silver Age Wonder Woman penciler Ross Andru inked by Perez himself. Andru is an underrated artist, and his storytelling on this chapter is solid, beautifully enhanced by both Perez’s inking and Carl Gafford’s coloring.

Kudos to Todd Klein for effectively lettering Perez’s script for this Annual. That was one of the great aspects about Perez’s Wonder Woman stories; they were very dense & intelligently written, the exact opposite of decompressed storytelling.

When I started reading DC Comics in the early 1990s, the 16 issue loose-leaf edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe edited by Michael Eury was an absolutely invaluable resource. Eury recruited an all-star line-up of artists to create the profile images for the DC heroes and villains. Of course he asked George Perez to draw Wonder Woman, who was cover-featured in Who’s Who #4 (Nov 1990). Coloring is by Tom McCraw.

As I previously touched upon in my post on the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, my first exposure to the series was during the “War of the Gods” crossover… which was probably the absolute worst time to start reading it! I was completely lost as to who these characters were and what was going on with these various different plotlines.

Nevertheless, Perez’s stunning covers, as well as the beautiful interior art by penciler Jill Thompson & inker Romeo Tanghal, caught my attention enough that when several months later DC Comics presented a jumping-on point for new readers with incoming writer William Messner-Loebs, I dove in. Soon after I started to read the earlier Perez stories via back issues and collected editions.

In any case, here’s Perez’s atmospheric cover for Wonder Woman #59 (Oct 1991) featuring guest appearances by Batman and Robin.

George Perez’s epic run on Wonder Woman came to an end with issue #61 (Feb 1992). Nevertheless, he has subsequently drawn Princess Diana on several occasions since then, and his return to the character has always been welcome. Here is one of those, the gorgeous pin-up Perez drew for the Wonder Woman Gallery special (Sept 1996). Coloring is by Tatjana Wood. I scanned this from my copy of the book, which I got autographed by Perez at a comic coon in the early 2000s. I’m glad I got to meet him.

A few years ago on Twitter writer Gail Simone shared the first page of Wonder Woman #600 (Aug 2010) with the following explanation:

“When George Perez specifically requests you to write his farewell story to Wonder Woman and this is just the first page.”

Perez has an absolute penchant for drawing literal armies of characters, and that is definitely on display here! Diana leads some of DC Comics’ greatest female heroes into battle on this dynamic opening page. “Valedictorian” was written by Gail Simone, penciled by George Perez, inked by Scott Koblish, colored by Hi-Fi and lettered by Travis Lanham.

During an astonishing career that stretched from 1974 to 2019, Perez drew literally thousands of comic book characters. Nevertheless, his work on Wonder Woman will always be one of the absolute highlights.

It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.