In Part One of Conversation we talked to Benjamin Marra about his initial inspirations in comics and the call of the comics creator. We wrap our exclusive interview with Part 2 where we pick up the discussion talking about Marra’s love of vintage Advanced Dungeons and Dragons art.
MF: One of the first things that struck me when I got copy of the kickstarter edition of Blades and Lasers was the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons character sheets for the heroes. Was that your idea?
BM: Yeah that wasn’t my idea, that was Sacred Prism the Publisher. They came up with that I didn’t read them too closely actually. But I am a huge Gary Gygax fan, I played D&D on a weekly basis. It’s my favourite form of entertainment, doing role playing games. I only really play games from the early days, nothing post 2nd Edition. Gary Gygax didn’t have a hand in that but it’s close enough to what he did so that’s OK. I really admire Gary Gygax in a lot of respects, how productive he was and his imagination. Some of the adventure modules that he wrote were really great adventure stories.
MF: Those classic AD&D manuals from the 80s had some great black and white line art from artists like Jeff Dee, Erol Otus and Dave Trumpier. Is that influence or inspiration to you at all?
BM: Absolutely those books are an enormous influence on me. They were from a very young age. I didn’t have the chance to play D&D when I was younger due to the fact that I didn’t know anyone who would run the game and my mother was afraid my friends and I would all become Satan-worshipers and murder one another. But I still remember loving the art in those books whenever I came across them. I still have a deep affection for the old D&D rule-book illustrations. It’s some of my favorite artwork of all time.
MF: You collaborated with Grant Morrison last year as part of his stewardship of HEAVY METAL, how did that come about?
BM: One of the guys who’s currently running the new iteration of HEAVY METAL was in Toronto. He went to a comic shop and asked them if there was anything new he should check out. One of the employees handed him TERROR ASSAULTER. It made it’s way into Grant Morrison’s hands and he asked if I would illustrate a story. That’s how our collaboration came about. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get to work with Grant. I’ve been a fan of his stuff since ARKHAM ASYLUM.
MF: For me there is a single panel which really sums up your art style and approach to storytelling. There’s a panel about a third of the way into Terror Assaulter where a ninja crashes a flaming car into a building, jumps out, pulls out a pair of Uzis and then unloads into the crowd. To me that it’s perfect Benjamin Marra. How much of that is intentional ironically or are just drawing the things you like to draw?
BM: I’m conscious of how things could be read but when I’m when I’m actually working I’m just trying to do things as fast as I can. I’m trying to stay ahead of my own ability to disengage from the work so I don’t get bored of stuff as I work on it. I’m trying to work as fast as I can to stay ahead of that wave. So a lot of times the byproduct of working quickly is that the results are entertaining, lose and strange. When it comes to drawing, when it comes to anatomy or trying to draw a car or a interior or an action scene it ends up becoming off. You’re getting the idea of these things happening but there are going to be things that are a little wonky. That goes for the writing as well.
Usually I am letting my mind open up to different possibilities and the results end up being something I usually can’t predict.
So it’s by design because I am working consciously to work fast enough that the results end up being this stuff that I’m usually not being able to predict and hopefully the reader can’t either.
I don’t try and plan out things in advance.
I understand that the amateurishness of the results are there. That’s just something I’m letting happen. It is conscious in that I am allowing for it happen but it’s not something that I work on to get right. It’s more about something improvisational like music playing where you’re letting the moment of creativity dictate the outcome and having enough faith in your ability to let than stand on its on.
MF: Letting the story take you as the creator where it feels it needs to go.
BM: Totally, comics as a medium, especially when you’re doing a monthly comic presents insane challenges to the creators. You do have the time to spend over thinking anything, The issue has to come out, you have to meet your deadlines. That’s one of the things that I love about comics. It forces you to be creative and to make creative choices in a time frame that is external and forced upon you. The tough choices that you make you have to make.
I just didn’t realise that growing up. I would like at comic book art and some of it was really dissatisfying. Nowadays I look at and I can’t believe what they were able to do to get these pages done. I am in awe of these guys abilities to get these comics finished. Jack Kirby is the pinnacle of that but I worked on Herb Trimpe’s last comics, he penciled it, I inked it. I was a huge fan because I knew he was this consummate professional, this workhorse who had this reputation that he could just get stuff done. There’s a story about this Iron Man issue, I think he might have penciled and inked it over a weekend which is incredible to think about but it’s a fascinating issue to know that it was done under those circumstances. It’s puts in a whole different lens on things , especially as someone who is trying to make these things. I don’t understand the hurdles you need to overcome to be able to do that.
I’m friends with Tom Scioli, we spend a lot of time together at conventions. I saw him a lot when he was working on this Transformers GI Joe series, he was very invested in the creation of Larry Hama’s original GI JOE run. He went back and read all that GI JOE run. He said that in addition to creating these phenomenal stories Larry Hama had to time when he was going to introduce new characters or vehicles because there was an advertisement that was going to happening 6 months in advance or they were going to appear in the cartoon but it added this whole other layer on top of what he had to produce on a monthly basis. I don’t know how he did it.
MF: How did you come to work on All Time Comics?
BM: Josh Bayer contacted me out of the blue and said his brother Sam wants to do a comic book line of superheroes. [He said ] I’ve got a budget and we’re going to do these comics, he [Sam] wants to meet with you.
So I researched Sam and found out that he’s a very accomplished music video directors, he’s done a bunch of car commercials and feature films.
I went a met him when he was working on a this car commercial in New York and a I met him at a film studio lot in Queens. He’s working on this car commercial and there’s literally 50 ad execs standing around in the back either on laptops or on their phones and then Sam is yelling at these guys about lighting, it was really crazy to watch him work.
We spoke for about 5 minutes and he was telling us about all these ideas that he had for this comic book line. This story about these characters that he wanted to present as a comic book line. So said I would help, I had room in my schedule. Fortunately enough Sam was into what I had been working on to that point. Josh and I just started hammering out these stories. I plotted some, I provided script ideas. I penciled and inked two issues. I penciled another issue which AL Milgrom inked. Josh was really adamant about bringing this Bronze Age veterans in.
So at the time it was just Josh and Me and Sam was overseeing it. He was making it really happen. That actually all went down before I had even conceived or put pen to paper on Terror Assaulter (eds: Terror Assaulter was conceived in 2014 and published in late 2015).
Josh has been slowly putting all the pieces in place, he wanted it to be ready to go before i was published. Sam comes from a movie background so he wanted to launch and announce it properly so that it could be done well and done right.
They put it all together and then Fantagraphics came in at the latter end of it. I think Josh had approached a few different published or a kick starter but it made sense that it would fit in well at Fantagraphics. It was weird and strange and very different but very much like old comics.
And then Herb’s issue came out and Josh said I was getting I’m getting Herb to pencil this one issue would I like to ink it.
It happened organically, like a lot of stuff, right place right time.
MF: Are all those your designs? You can see your fingerprints on the books we’ve seen so far Crime Destroyer and Bull Whip. Were you in from the ground floor?
BM: Yeah, from the initial meeting with Sam he described what he wanted the characters to look like, what they were about and who they were. So I submitted a bunch of design ideas based on what we had talked about. I loved working with Sam, as a director he understands delegating things. So he would say things like “yeah I like that design, use this one, go forward with that one, add this here that there.”
He wouldn’t split hairs and I’m used to that in some of comic book work. It can get a little much but he was great. A lot of those designs that you see are things that I was able to make and submit and they moved forward with.
MF: What was it like seeing the All Time Comics Characters brought to life in the Trailer Video?
BM: It was very cool to see the All Time Comics Characters brought to life on video. Josh sent me set pics of the actors and it kind of blew my mind.