An interview with ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ artist and letterer from SDCC.
If you’re a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan and you are just hearing of the comic book adaptation, I can understand your confusion. How do you adapt a TV show that makes fun of old movies into a comic book? It’s simple, really: you make fun of old comic books! The big twist on the concept is developed even further as well, as the characters are jettisoned into the comic books reliving the moments in each panel.
It’s an inspired idea that I was able to learn even more about by speaking to series artist Todd Nauck and series letterer Michael Heisler at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. The first issue hits comic book shops September 12.
How exciting is it to be working on the comic book?
Todd Nauck: I’ve been a major fan since I discovered the show in 1992. I have pretty much every episode on either digital, DVD, or even my VHS tapes from the 1990s. I’m a hardcore fan.
Michael Heisler: I worked with editor Randy [Stradley] for ten years and I know that he was a fan and he used to always talk about how he really wanted to see Mystery Science Theater become a comic book. So I sorta started watching it just because he was always talking it up. He’s also the guy who got me into watching Doctor Who. He’s occasionally right about stuff.
Whose idea was it to turn into a comic?
TN: From what I understand from my interactions with Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator, it’s something that he wanted to do and as Michael said, Randy being a big-time fan, I think Randy was trying to get it going in the ’90s.
MH: It was going on for so long. There was going to be a tie in to the original show.
TN: The original series ended in ’99. I think with the new Netflix show and as the highest earning Kickstarter for any TV or movie, I think to date, with over six million dollars. There’s a lot of fans back into the show and with a success on Netflix, I think that opened the door for the comic to come about. And so I think that’s something that Joel had always wanted to do. And Randy as well.
MH: The funny thing is it’s sort of like directors you’ve heard about who have been waiting forever to make a certain movie because of the technology wasn’t there. I don’t think we were necessarily being prevented from doing a comic book in the ’90s, but it is a lot easier now.
So you’re actually riffing off of classic comics?
Todd Nauck: Public domain comics. Comics where the copyright has expired. So they are royalty free comics.
Michael, you’re lettering everything, so that’s interesting for you because you get to see it all kind of coming together…
TN: And changing lettering styles because those vintage comics have a very different look to them because those were hand-lettered back in the day.
MH: The weird thing about the first issue we’re doing about Johnny Jason teen reporter is that whoever lettered that used a lot of straight edges and French curves and everything. So everything was very clean. I’m working digitally so it just looks like there’s nothing special about this, it looks like it was done on a computer. The original stuff was actually very sharp and precise and straight and flat.
Todd, were you asked to bring your style to interpret the Satellite of Love how you wanted to, or were you given some direction?
TN: We’re doing stuff to reflect season 2 because this comic will be hitting at around the time season 2 will be debuting. So when I was on set I saw, “Oh I need to change this character’s costume or, oh the site now looks like this.” I want to reflect that in the comic because I was working off of season 1 stuff, which Joel was approving but when I went on set it’s like, “hey can I put Artie in his new uniform?” and they’re like, “Yeah please do, this is a perfect time to do that.”
When was this that you got to see the set?
TN: I think they were filming season 2 about three weeks ago or so. I just happened to find out about it by luck when I sent some pages into Randy the editor and he said oh Joel probably won’t get back to you on these because he’s in L.A. shooting season 2. And I’m in Orange County — I’m just an hour away. So I got to see some of the silhouette shots. I got to see Felecia Day and Patton Oswalt do the mad scientist stuff.
Is there anything you can tell us about season 2?
TN: It’s six episodes for season 2 but I think the stuff they’ve come up with is going to be really tight and fun. Seeing it live, I can’t wait to watch it on Netflix.
So how many issues are you guys planning to do?
TN: Six issues and if that does well, hopefully, I think they planned to do a trade paperback as well. But hopefully, it does well [enough] that we can do another six issue mini-series and do more seasons of the comic as well as coincide with the show.
Do you guys have any favorite characters from the show?
TN: I’m a big fan of the robots. Crow and Servo. Tom Servo is probably my favorite character since the ’90s when I discovered the show. All the characters are so unique to draw, [such as] Kinga Forester and Max and Jonah. Every character has their own flavor and and how they all interact with each other. I like big cast comics; I like different characters interacting with characters. But I’ll say this: Crow is probably the hardest character I’ve ever had to draw. I went on eBay and bought the build-a-bot replicas so I could have an actual Crow that I can take photo reference of, or look at from whatever angle I need to draw him.
MH: I really like what was done with Tom in the first issue. He’s so psyched to be this team reporter — Jonny Jason’s basically Jimmy Olson, and he’s just so happy to be off the satellite and be a teen reporter in the early ’60s.
TN: And have arms and legs that work.
Do you do anything differently or approach the work differently when drawing and lettering a comedy compared to something straight?
MH: You kind of have to play it by ear. I can make people yelling, I can make balloons larger, I can make stuff bursting out of the panel, but you want to make sure what you’re doing doesn’t actually distract from the joke that you’re telling. Half the book is a public domain comic, so there’s something to follow. So you either deliberately follow it or you know when you go completely off the rails. Most of the comedy comes from the dialogue.
There was one panel where Tom Servo jumps into the soap and where the word balloon was, right over the character. Are you ever told where to put the word balloon?
MH: There’s a lot of weird psychological stuff that goes into balloon placement. Yeah, I mean, you wouldn’t think so, but you make decisions a number of times on a page based on what’s going to be the simplest read. I’m pretty flexible. Editors generally do the balloon placement and it’s up to the letterer to interpret it the way they want to. But some of them can get really sort of picky, like, “Well this isn’t here, this isn’t going to read like this person is saying it.” Randy’s balloon placements are really good. In fact, I’ve learned an awful lot from him. He’ll place stuff so that it’s this much longer after you’ve read one balloon, and then another. He controls the pacing of the page.
Todd, with comedy and art, do you approach things differently?
TN: I guess in a sense it is different than if I were drawing like, a Spider-Man comic, and he’s fighting the Green Goblin or an X-Men comic, but having watched the show for so long I know the characters.
When I draw an X-Men comic I know these characters. I know how Storm is going to act with or relate to Nightcrawler relating to Wolverine. So even though we have new characters here, I’ve watched season 1 on Netflix of the new series, probably every episode, a dozen times. I already feel like I know these new characters and I’ve known Tom and Crow for 20 some-odd years. So just kind knowing how they interact with each other and the type of personality that Kinga Forrster is… there’s one panel where Joel has her shoving Max to a side, and so to play up the comedy, I have Max falling off panel. You just see his arms and legs as he tumbles out, just creating that motion and that movement and conveying the force of Kinga’s push. Max’s inability to resist that push and to kind of play up the comedy a little bit instead of him just off to the side. But really, that Jack Kirby exaggeration. Or the emotion or the characters and how they kind of get in the face of the camera on the show. Doing that with the ‘camera’ of the comic, just really forcing the perspective and really playing off the character’s personality.
I had to do that with the humor of the Young Justice series I did for DC Comics. That had a lot of comedy in it. Working off of Peter David’s humor writing kind of trained me for the kind of humor that we have in Mystery Science Theater.