Richard Caldwell Interviews: M. Rasheed

M. Rasheed is a VASTLY imaginative writer, artist, and self-publisher of comix and books. Having just released Book Seven of his TEN volume Monsters 101 graphic novel series, how he found the time to be interviewed by the LP must surely prove he’s in the company of higher powers. At once both super nice and hyper intelligent, his created works should really appeal to just about anyone… of the terrestrial realm…


Richard Caldwell: What was the very first thing you remember drawing? Do you still have it?

M. Rasheed: The very first thing I remember drawing as a kid was a crayon pic of the Muppets Ernie and Bert. There’s no way I would still have that. Actually I also remember having a water pistol fight with my younger brother an hour or so later that we ended up getting the strap for, so the chances it would have survived THAT would’ve been pretty slim anyway.

Richard Caldwell: When did you begin to develop a fondness for sequential art? What stories, or creators, sold you?

M. Rasheed: I’ve always been a fan of superheroes, and although I very, VERY rarely ever got my hands on a real comic book, I knew that’s where those stories originated. But all of my early superhero experiences came from watching television. My folks weren’t about to spend any regular money on comics even if they knew where to get them. I started developing a personal stake in sequential art when I first started making comics myself at around the age of seven. I remember being so impressed by a glowing moon-themed villain from a Saturday morning cartoon featuring Batman, that I wanted to see more of him… so I continued his adventures myself. That hooked me and had me making comics continuously until I went to college.

When I was about sixteen years old, a cousin of ours moved out of one of my folk’s properties and their son left his entire collection of Marvel comics behind. My parents unceremoniously handed them to my brother and me, and we immediately absolutely GORGED ourselves on Frank Miller’s DD run, the Dark Phoenix saga, etc. and that time period was one of my all time favorite memories. I can’t help but think that experience shaped my creativity in some way or another… not just the content of the stories but that kind of Christmas Morning x 1,000,000/you-just-won-the-lottery experience around it.

Richard Caldwell: I always thought it was curious how Batman has served as a sort of entry point for so many comic book readers. Of course he’s one of the more iconic characters, but seeing as how your own work plays around with archetypes, even redefining them, why do you think archetypes are what they are and hold such appeal as they do?

M. Rasheed: Because of their importance as symbols. Especially in this day and age and using this kind of language, where people are trained to look for a “thought package” that encompasses and describes several concepts bundled into one. The archetype is appealing because it’s easy to use for one, and because it’s highly effective as a communication tool second.

Richard Caldwell: As college-age has generally been the largest demographic of comic fans, what were your own college years like? Was it a particularly creative time for you? And I understand you were a part of the Kubert School. Was it a comic nerd’s paradise?
My college years were split into two parts: My time at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit where I got my BFA in Illustration, and my time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art, Inc. in Dover, New Jersey.

M. Rasheed: My CCS years were spent trying to force myself to find a cartoony style that I could use as my particular illustrative technique, despite some teachers actually hating cartoons. I didn’t let stuff like that get me down like some other friends admitted over the years. I came out of that experience with the entrepreneurial spirit pretty much gone, and I spent a lot of time after that trying to work for someone, having completely abandoned the comics I drew growing up. I really consider that a negative.

My Kubert School time was much better and felt a lot more like home. It was certainly easier to ignore the negatives that my fellow classmates complained about, but what it ended up doing was making me want to hurry up and cut the school loose and try to make it on my own (probably because I was really tired of the school lifestyle by then and wanted to start making some money drawing). It was very creative, with the seeds for my Golden Order of the Encircled Serpent magic group from my Monsters 101 comic having germinated at that time. It was a “comic nerd’s paradise” only if said nerd was very prolific, thick-skinned, and could keep up with the workload.

Richard Caldwell: I know I’m not alone insofar as the Kubert School holding a special interest, considering its origins and alumni especially. Was it awkward having “celebrity” faculty? And was the atmosphere too competitive for the students to really bond, or was there actual networking being forged there?

M. Rasheed: I’m sure it was awkward for a lot of people depending on their personal “starstruck” levels. I do remember a lot of the guys absolutely GUSHING over the fact that the Kubert brothers’ studio/office was down stairs in the art store. I was personally intimidated by a Disney artist who was on hiatus from his block buster film work who happened to be one of my animation teachers. The very concept of that blew me away as well as the demonstrations of his powers (I still consider those Disney guys some of the best artists in the world notwithstanding the cookie-cutter ‘studio look’ of their output).

It wasn’t too competitive for friendships to knit together, no. The competitiveness of the experience was primarily internal; we weren’t competing with each other so much but what our own capabilities were… the way USMC boot camp is. As a Marine-in-training, I wasn’t competing with my fellow recruits, I was competing with the old me who was full of doubt. One of my very best friends today was one of my Kubert School classmates, in fact my facebook friend list is full of schoolmates from that era and we chat all the time. One of them even helped me figure out some stuff on my website I was bumping my head on. So I’d say Kubert School networking is just fine.

Richard Caldwell: You mentioned losing some of your “entrepreneurial spirit” through college. But I know in the years since you’ve put out comics and books, webstrips, and even branched into caricatures and commercial art. What initially inspired you to pick up the pieces again?

M. Rasheed: Oh, it was a combination of a few things. When I got out of college I was dissatisfied with the quality of my work… it FELT “art schoolish.” I envied the polished, confident look of the professionals I admired, and knew that they got that way from consistently cranking out a professional level of output. In order to make my work more attractive to both myself and the clients I was trying to attract at the time, I decided to create a couple of comic book properties that I would work on in a full-time schedule… forcing myself to put out regular pages consistently the way I figured the pros did… so that my style would develop that polished look that I saw in my mind all the quicker.

Along the way, one of the properties grew stale on me and I ended up abandoning it, while the other became my masterwork Monsters 101. As it developed I became more and more possessive of it, and my boyhood entrepreneurial spirit began to resurface. Slowly at first, but increasing as I started noticing the testimonials of successful self-publishers I admired (like Jeff Smith of Bone fame, and Richard Sala of Evil Eye), but the biggest kicker that tipped me over was my marriage. That was intense for me, it being my secret worst nightmare that I would have to abandon cartooning altogether in order to discover more immediately stable but less fulfilling means of supporting a new family, like so many older gentlemen I had met during my college years confessed to me after they saw me draw. At the time it seemed like there was one every week, “Hey, young blood! You draw pretty good there. I used to draw just like that, but had to give it up when I got married.” At the time I vowed that that wouldn’t happen to me, but when I got married those guy’s regretful and weary voices haunted me… coinciding with the birth of Print On Demand tech, the creation of my first web site, and my discovery of social networking. The feel that the stars were somehow lining up just for me wasn’t lost on me at all, and I decided to jump in feet first and see where the journey would take me.

And at that point, the real M. Rasheed was back!

Richard Caldwell: When exactly did Pugg and Mort first take shape in your mind? And was the plan always so ambitious, for a finite series of ten graphic novels?

M. Rasheed: The concept for Monsters 101 first formed as part of a group of five newspaper comic strip ideas I was sending out to the syndicates in the late ’90s. In that form, the story was very narrow and confined to having Pugg being stuck in bully mode unsuccessfully trying to talk people into coming to the cave, along with his dialogs with the three monsters. The way Pugg was depicted in the beginning chapters of Book One was how he popped up in my mind when I first sketched him. Mort on the other hand went through a dramatic transformation. He started out as homage to the way I drew when I was a child, on top of a stereotypical nerd template. His only one-dimensional function was to creatively, albeit unsuccessfully, attempt to talk Pugg out of beating him up every time they ran into each other, with a semi-Sarge/Beetle Bailey relationship. The whole ‘boy sorcerer’ shtick came up only in the comic book version.

Once I decided to reformat it into a comic book, I had no plans to make it a finite series; I was just going to keep going, and going until I either died or ran out of ideas, probably because I was already prepared to be in that mindset if a syndicate picked it up in its original strip version. I only decided to make it a finite story within the last three years or so, after a personal tragedy resulted in the loss of all my notes/sketchbooks for the series. Making it a finite series of storylines and wrapping up the tale was basically a desperate effort at saving the story while the notes were still relatively fresh in my memory. Book Seven represents the official moment when the story is more advanced than where my old notes left off. I feel very good about that successful rescue.

Richard Caldwell: What strikes me about Monsters 101 is just how vast a story it is that you’re building. This is more than middle school antics or Saturday morning cartoon fare, you really have a very rich and new cosmology being revealed. No offense, but I want to be the first to say that you’re the black Neil Gaiman. Except, whereas his comic work can be quite addictive unto itself, it is still an ethos that depends on certain “doorways”, certain techniques and views. Monsters 101, from what I’ve seen thus far, would be much harder to spoof or parody. You lack his pretension, which I think could potentially draw even more new readers. How much research have you undertaken for your series? Or were these omniverse-building ideas flavored with pseudo spirituality always the sort you just liked reading about anyhow?

M. Rasheed: It’s funny that you mentioned Gaiman… his Sandman story is what made me want to grow up as a writer. When I was a kid I liked the action and the dialog, the most fun parts of writing to me, the equivalent of shading in drawing. I didn’t want to be troubled with doing an outline in either writing or drawing, approaching both with a non-planned, from-the-hip style. As far as my drawing was concerned, I eventually saw a demonstration by a Disney artist, and saw just how much I was shortchanging myself by not doing a light sketch first to build up the drawing. The Sandman did the same thing to me on the writing end, it being so tightly plotted, showing shades of things to come in the earliest parts, having prophecies become fulfilled and stuff like that, impressed me immensely, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off something like that without doing a rough outline of an extended story first. Monsters 101 was my opportunity to try doing that myself and I’m hooked now. I’m not going back. THAT aspect of my childhood creative life I will leave back there gladly.
I am very interested in multiverse-building tales, being a Jack Vance fan, a Stephen King fan and an old school Marvel Comics fan. I’m also a big Graham Hancock fan (as well as a fan of many of the scholars in his peer group and bibliographies), and that influence is responsible for a lot of directions that my story has gone in, in addition to the influences of my background as a practitioner of one of the Abrahamic Religions (Al-Islam). A lot of stuff I’ve researched of course I do have to tweak or even invent some things in order to make some of those metaphysical concepts do what I need them to do in my fantasy world, but for the most part they function as is from the way I found them in the research, with a minimum of alterations from me. The bottom line is that I’m committed to making a story that I myself would’ve loved, and full of concepts that have always filled me with awe.

Richard Caldwell: So what is the technical process behind Monsters 101- you’ve mentioned plotting and breakdowns, but are you using brushes, or are you a total techie?

M. Rasheed: Well, on the writing side, I started off by determining what I wanted to accomplish by the end of each 6 chapter story line. The next step is, using just a sentence or two, describe what I want to happen in each chapter. And then, one chapter at a time, I would number a sketchbook page from one to twenty-two, and block off sections determining what I would want to happen exactly throughout that chapter. The final step in the writing stage is to create a detailed thumbnail sketch in which I both write the dialog and layout the panels/pages.

My drawing method is to rule out my boarder/panel lines using an HB mechanical pencil, very lightly rough in the drawings and lettering, go back and rule in my guidelines with the Ames Lettering Guide. Then I ink the lettering and panels, then go back and ink the line art in detail using a #103 crow quill dip pen and Higgin’s Black Magic ink. Then I go back and spot blacks/shadows with a #6 Windsor & Newton watercolor brush. As of Book Seven I stopped filling in large areas with ink, and instead just fill them during the later pagination step in Photoshop.

Once the pages dry, the clean-up step begins, and I erase the light pencil marks with a white vinyl eraser, then scan the pages into the computer to clean them up, fix any inking mistakes, and assemble them into my page file templates with page numbers (pagination). And that’s pretty much it.

Richard Caldwell: I’ve done a bit of cutting boards, filling in blacks, and erasing pencil marks, and I think it feels more like you’re really making something, rather than just hitting buttons. I am saddened by the thought that in mainstream comics, all lettering and most coloring is strictly done digitally. I think we lost something very human there, in the randomness of imperfection. But in terms of progress, you work incredibly fast, right? How soon can we expect an animated Monsters 101? Your youtube gallery is full of interesting shorts. Is animation an experiment for you, or something you’d like to pursue more?

M. Rasheed: To echo off of a thought Bill Watterson expressed once, the low tech aspect of cartooning is INCREDIBLY appealing to me. With just me, my paper, my pen/brush & ink, and my imagination, I can create whatever the heck I want. That’s friggin’ awesome. Now, the problem with it is that once you’re finished world-building, you have to prepare the artwork for the printing process, which during my pre-computer revolution college days, was the biggest pain in the ass ever to me. “Now you have to make a camera stat thing on acetate and do this and that and what for” and it was totally like, “Hey! Where’d the fun go? Come back, fun!!”

Today all I have to do is scan in the drawing, push a button, push another button, save it, upload it, PUBLISHED!! Welcome to the Jetsons, ladies and gentlemen. As far as I’m concerned that is the absolutely perfect example (along with a heart transplant, I guess) of 21st century high technology performing the way it’s supposed to. I don’t mind the fact that I don’t have my gravity defying jet pack and moon boots in the 2000s. My scanner + Photoshop + high-speed Internet are a more than satisfying substitute.

Now as far as the lettering aspect of it, it’s not like the tech is forcing people to computer letter. It’s not. As you see, I still hand letter as of a few weeks ago as I was finishing up the art chores on Book Seven. This is an example of other cartoonists feeling the same way about the lettering thing that I feel about pre-press. We had a lettering class at the Kubert School, taught by Hy Eisman, and I know for a fact that the lettering part of our chores was by no means universally loved. I remember the who’s who of legendary newspaper comic strip cartoonists feeling the same way about their annoyance regarding the lettering chores in the sadly gone CARTOONIST PROfiles magazine. The cool thing about this modern tech for us is that it gives you the option to hold on to the old school aspects as you would like, or fully embrace the new tech trends if you would like. That’s a great blessing to me and a big part of the proof that this is a wonderful time to be a cartoonist. Especially for ME as a Black American Muslim. I would argue that this is the very BEST time to be.

I am interested in filling up my YouTube channel with original animated shorts done in the simplified animatrix style of those Marvel Comics cartoons from the 1960s. The Monsters 101 teaser trailer that I made was a dry run to see if it would be possible, made just a few weeks after I attended a couple of Adobe Flash classes at the local community college. In fact, the clips that are on my channel were made in a white-hot flurry of excitement as I discovered to my delight just how easy Flash turned out to be. I had to pause, take a breather, and get back to my publishing before I got ridiculously sidetracked off of my publishing schedule. But trust that I have every intention of getting back to my animation projects as soon as possible… probably by the end of 2013, God willing.

Richard Caldwell: Without trying to pull any Monsters 101 spoilers from you, what beyond that epic, creatively, are you the most proud of? And of the flipside- is there anything creative that you today are embarrassed by, or was Larry Marder right, in everything being a process?

M. Rasheed: Creatively, I am most proud of the extended Monsters 101 universe, it being the heart and soul of all of my peak focus and drive for the last 12 years or so. After that it would be both my animation efforts, and my website created of course to showcase M101. But at the moment I am most proud and excited about my recent plans and work building my publishing company and my title backlist… so exciting that it even induced a mild anxiety attack recently. Non-creator owned projects don’t create much of a blip on my creative radar, tending to be just something to get to the other side of, and somewhat of a necessary evil. My ultimate goal is to have my life set up the way Stephen King describes his: to have the peak projection hours of the day set aside for his creative work, say from about 5am to 11am, and spend the rest of the day enjoying the company of his family and friends. Because of that current mindset (‘right’ or not, ‘fair’ or not) my focus has rarely strayed beyond Monsters 101 in the last few years, causing every other creative endeavor in my life to become pretty much a needling irritation to just get out of the way as soon as possible. Perhaps in the not too distant future I’ll be able to reflect on that question again and be able to say, “Yeah, XYZ project was also very creatively fulfilling, Richard!” But right now I pretty much have on horse-blinders.

And I was never embarrassed about old artwork. In fact, for years I still carried around my childhood comics until the tragedy a few years ago where all my accumulated original art was lost, and would show it to people freely. I agree with Mr. Marder that being an artist is a process, and there is certainly no shame in looking back and seeing the creative humps, bumps and hurdles overcome over the course of a developing career.

Richard Caldwell: As you seem to be nearing the finish line in completing the ten volume, roughly 1500(!) page Monsters 101 graphic novel series towards year’s end, will you be giving yourself any kind of break before jumping into whatever your next comic book project will be? And would you care to share any hints as to what that project might be? Pleeeaaasse?

M. Rasheed: One of the business highlights of my year has been the North Carolina State Fair, where I’ve been a permanent vendor since 2006, drawing cartoon portraits of fair patrons in my comic book style. It tends to be pretty intense, with me chained to my easel from 9am to 10pm for ten straight days around mid-October. I was actually attempting to finish Monsters 101 before that show began, so that I would be able to take a MUCH needed breather from all things art related for the rest of 2012. Those are my semi-chiseled in stone immediate plans.

In 2013 is where I’d planned to complete the second half of my masterwork… a one-shot, full-color graphic novel featuring a powerful group of super magicians that Mort met in Monsters 101, Book Seven: “Eye in the Sky.” This book is called WILD HUNT: The Aspects of Death, and showcases all the expanded notes that developed naturally from the white-hot creative download of transforming Monsters 101 from the narrow and very limited newspaper comic strip stage it was initially birthed as, into the multiverse of the graphic novel Dexad of its ultimate form. Even though my beloved M101 protagonists Pugroff and Mort certainly encountered some crazy stuff during their journey, there was still a whole lot of concepts created during that universe building that the boys would’ve had no reason (or opportunity) to run into during the course of that story. Instead of just letting that stuff sit in my mind and (new) sketchbooks doing absolutely nothing hiding from my readership, I wanted to publish them, and I believe will add to the fun of Monsters 101, too. The Wild Hunt story is designed to be HUGE in scope and force… Book Seven on steroids if you will… and I am very much looking forward to digging my hands into it.

Richard Caldwell: That sounds INSANE. Rasheed, it has been a royal honor sharing words with you. You are a stone-immaculate creative mind, and we at the LP wish you the greatest of fortune in all of your endeavors!

M. Rasheed: I certainly appreciate the generously kind words and interest in my work, Richard. I’ll admit it’s been fun watching you have fun, and that’s the very best part of being on the cartoonist road. Take care!