Back To His First Love
One of the four-color medium’s great illustrators, Mark Wheatley scared up crime comics with horror panache when he unleashed his innovative title, FRANKENSTEIN MOBSTER, and co-created the legendary limited series, BREATHTAKER. Now, the accomplished comic book creator who is also known as one of the geniuses of the field is returning to a long-lost love of his, music, for the first time in decades with the immediate release of a new song and accompanying video projects and Scott Braden talks to him…
What brought you back to songwriting?
I never really stopped creating music. I was playing music long before I ever tried to draw anything. And I have been composing and recording music for as long as I have been writing and drawing comics professionally. In my early days looking for work in New York, while I was beating the pavement to show my portfolio to art directors and editors, I was also sending demo tapes to A&R reps at the various music companies. I was doing this right up until I landed my first monthly comic series, MARS. The only musical “success” I had during that period was one of my tunes was picked for airplay on WNEW and one of their DJs was calling me to brainstorm how I would get more attention for my music. But when Marc Hempel and I signed our MARS contract, I decided that the time required to write and pencil a monthly comic was going to eat my life. And I stopped recording and sending out demo tapes. So, of course, two weeks after I signed the MARS contract Capital Records offered me a three record deal, and I had to turn it down. A few months later Columbia Records offered me a one record deal. Both of these offers would require me to also hit the road for live tours, so it was just impossible. After that, aside from recording some soundtrack music for radio and TV commercials, my musical efforts were limited to recording theme songs for my comic book creations. The first of these for MARS, “Red Horizons” was premiered as a soundtrack for a MARS preview slide show (and I do mean actual slides in a slide projector) at the Atlanta Fantasy Fair in the mid-1980s for an audience of over 800 people and got a tremendous response. That gave me a rare taste of what it might have been like to be on a stage and hear the thunder of applause on a regular basis. I could almost see the dollar signs dancing in our publisher’s eyes at that moment! Since then, I have continued to compose and record themes for my comic creations. These days it is a useful extra for presenting projects in our multimedia world.
But it does take a lot of time to produce a polished, finished recording. And my art gigs take priority, since they pay the bills. So I’ve gone a few years here and there without doing more than sketching out some musical ideas.
Right now, though, all of us are going through some new experiences. And for too many of us the world has taken a dark turn. The suffering and conflict has certainly distressed me. And that inspired me to get creative in several areas. Music turned out to be one of the best ways for me to express myself right now.
You have said that one of your influences was the prog rock group, Yes. What other bands and performers influence your music?
When I was age five and six, I was something of a prodigy on piano and organ. I was given a lot of Beethoven and Chopin pieces to play. So that probably forged some permanent connection in my musical brain. But my real influences start with The Moody Blues; Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Genesis; Jethro Tull; Kate Bush and currently I listen to a lot of Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, Opeth, etc. I also listen to folk, country, jazz and a good many soundtracks. There is usually some music playing in the studio at all times!
At first look, the song’s name, “The Witch of Everwhen,” may have one thinking of more fantastical elements. But, in your video, it is instead very political – showing images of Nazi Germany and food lines. Was communicating a political message to your audience your intent all along, or did that just come up when you were producing the visual elements?
“The Witch of Everwhen” grew out of my reactions to the conflict and suffering we are seeing daily. I have close friends who have died from the pandemic and more who are sick and suffering. I have close friends who have been treated as lower than human due only to their skin color. I have friends who have lost their homes to fire and flood. All of this is wrong. And this is what inspired me to create a fantasy that lives in the gap between our dreams and our nightmares. I was also inspired by early Yes, where the music and lyrics are freeform enough to allow the listener to build their own concept of the song. I want the “The Witch of Everwhen” to be something of a collaboration between the listener and the music. I guess the most pure way to do that is to NOT animate a music video. But I am a visual artist! But I did do my best to make the video open to interpretation. I’ve always believed that art lives at the intersection of what the artist creates and the viewer’s own point of view and experience. No one ever has the precise same interpretation and experience with art. And that is the real life and wonder of art.
There are also so many ways to say the same thing in music and art. As an example of that, about the time I had gotten my basic song structure for “The Witch of Everwhen” recorded, when it was just a basic drum track and piano, I tried a different tune to see if it might work better. What I came up with turned into “Dance With Your Brothers.” My original idea spawned two very different songs, but both songs are the same at their core.
You have not forsaken your artistic ability at all – having created the visuals that accompany your song via the video. Creating those visuals and syncing them with the music, how difficult was that for you – if at all?
It has been time-consuming, but creating work like this has never been easier. I was trained as an animator in college. But that mainly convinced me I did not want to spend my life drawing movies one frame at a time. But the technology has changed. The technology available today enables me to sit in my studio and record a fully orchestrated progressive rock song with piano, bass, guitars, string sections, flute section, drums, percussion, and lovely back up singer performances. And then, perhaps even more amazing, I can then animate a spiffy video to illustrate the song. Of course, I made the insane decision to do the animation as painted frames. But as crazy and labour intensive as that was, I am thrilled with the results. I don’t think I could have created a vision of “The Witch of Everwhen” any other way.
Anyway, my thinking for the song was visual from the start. And I have been working on bits of animation right along with composing and recording the music. But the music is the anchor, informing what I created visually. I started working on the song and the video back in late March. So I worked on it across five months. But I also completed three other songs and videos during that period, illustrated about seven books, did development work on a TV mini-series and some short comics. So it didn’t take all my time. What is important, though, is that I had a good deal of time to think about the song. Perspective is a wonderful thing.
You have created four songs this past summer including “The Witch of Everwhen,” as well as accompanying videos. Where can your myriad fans discover this “Sound + Vision” experience for themselves?
Here are some Youtube links:
* DANCE WITH YOUR BROTHERS music video:
* SURRENDER music video:
* EARTH’S FAREWELL music video:
Are you considering writing a book based on this incredible creative experience? Perhaps pointing out to your fans how the animated Witch sequence in the video required 27 digital watercolor style paintings. Things like that.
I think I will use the time it would take to make a book about it, and instead make more music!