“Satisfyingly personal and pleasingly dirty.”
No, comic book creator Ted McKeever was not opening up about his personal life, but describing how he would describe his peculiar art style, which critics have called “distinct” and “Kafka-esque.”
“I always find it comical when I hear the comment that I draw ‘ugly’ people,” McKeever told PW. “That, to me, is absurd. I don't know what world these folks who say that live in, but the public I see around me are what and who I draw from. Besides, what's ‘ugly’ anyway? What defines ‘beautiful'?”
Soon, definitions may float throughout the blogosphere regarding his writing style after his new miniseries META 4 debuts in June. Described by its author as “a journey of self-discovery on a road trip of bizarre nightmares, twisted romance and scientific comedic insanity, spanning from Coney Island to the desolate Midwest,” META 4 will see the return of one of comics’ most eclectic artists, this time with a work that, in addition to illustrating, he has created and written. Although he has a library of creator-owned work behind him, in recent years, McKeever has been best known as the artist on such projects as the Eisner Award-nominated Batman: Black and White and Engine head.
It’s a welcome return to writing and drawing his own creations. “For the last eight years or so,” McKeever explained, “I have been producing various projects that have, for one reason or another, caused me to temporarily derail beginning work on a more personal story I had in mind. So part of the inspiration for META 4 came from years of experiencing, if you will, continuous creative frustration.
“After completing a wonderful little run of black and white short stories for Marvel, I finally sat down [to work on] META 4, [based on] all the notes and ideas I had compiled over the years.”
META 4 will be released as a five-issue miniseries.” My original plan was to do a 100-plus page hardcover edition,” he said. “But editor Kristen Simon and Shadowline publisher Jim Valentino suggested it be broken down into a five-issue comic, giving it more accessibility.”
“With a graphic novel,” Valentino said, “you only have one opportunity to promote and sell a work. By releasing it as single issues, we can promote the book for five consecutive months and raise awareness not only of this series, but also of the hardcover reprints of his earlier works we did last year (Transit, Metropol, and Eddy Current).”
Simon added that she’s excited to work with McKeever on his return to comics. Likewise, McKeever enjoyed Valentino and Simon’s input.
META 4 presented new challenges for the Plastic Forks artist.“What's different [about META 4],” McKeever said, “is the lack of a specific central theme or category. In the past, I would find myself wanting to do a ‘political drama’ or an ‘apocalyptic horror’ tale. But here, I am allowing myself to weave through [different] subjects, and pull into it whatever is needed based on that given scenario. The challenge is to make it all work.”The key to that, he said, lies with the characters. “[They] have to be designed in such a way that they come across as subtly ‘real’ and yet malleable enough to show extreme emotions when called for,” McKeever said.
In this case, the characters are Astronaut and Gasolina. “The Astronaut is the voice of the series,” McKeever explained. “He awakens on a beach without any memory of who he is or how he came to be there. As the story progresses, what he sees and learns, we, the reader, see and learn. I wanted his perspective to be the informer as well as the wanderer…He's my version of stranger-in-a-strange-land.”
“Gasolina is a whole different creature. She's a huge, muscular, porcelain-skinned woman with a single red dot in the middle of her forehead. She embodies the core of the title. Symbolism and interpretation run deep…she’s a vehicle for taking assumptions of what we all are used to in comic-book formulas and throwing them out the window.”
The characters represent two extremes. “Whereas the Astronaut's scars are a mystery of physicality,” McKeever said, “Gasolina's mystery is of language…each reader can (and should) interpret what she says in different ways.”
Across his career, McKeever has collaborated with a diversity of writers: Peter Milligan (The Extremist), Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier (Wonder Woman: The Blue Amazon), Joe Kelly (Enginehead), Dave Gibbons (“Survivor” from the A1 anthology), even singer Lydia Lunch (Toxic Gumbo). “It was [my collaboration] with Lydia that embodied the ultimate adventure of friendship and creator combined,” McKeever said. “She and I had met years earlier, and there was an immediate shared appreciation of our life-views and creative points of interest. We had spent many hours discussing things as simple as the brickwork on a nearby building, to the complexities and workings of the deepest ugliest thoughts a human being can have…Without a doubt, the end result is one of my personal favorites.”
Still, as much as he enjoys such collaborations, META 4 signifies something special for McKeever. “Without a doubt,” he said, “doing the art and the story is the most personally rewarding [type of project] for me. It allows me to go as far out as I need to.”
The impetus for META 4 really goes back to McKeever’s Miami childhood. “The biggest singular influence of sci-fi for me would have to be at the age of 8, sitting in a huge theater watching Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes,” McKeever recalled. “Hands down, that movie changed my life.” Other classic ’70s sci-fi flicks that inform his work include Andromeda Strain, THX-1138, and Soylent Green and Omega Man (both also starring Heston).
But don’t call META 4 straight-up science fiction: “It also has elements of horror and drama as well.” Shadowline’s Valentino and Simon believe META 4 represents McKeever at his best. “Ted is one of that rare breed of creators that one call an original visionary,” Valentino said. “His writing is filled with nuance, intelligence and heart, but never sentimentality. His art is also quite singular in it's vision, immediate and expressive. What he brings to the game is a unique sensibility and in a cookie-cutter world that's a rare and precious thing.”