by Rob Richardson
Mark McKenna has worked in the industry for over 26 years, working for both Marvel and DC on a range of projects from Spiderman to X-Men, Batman to the Justice League. The proof is right there in front of you – over 450 comic books bare his name and there’s over 7000 plus pages in total of his ink work and talent! He has recently been working tirelessly on Dark Horse’s Star Wars The Old Republic: The Lost Suns to tie in with the game from Bioware.
Mark very kindly agreed to this interview with myself for World of Superheroes about his most personal project to date; Banana Tail. This is his venture into the world of children’s books and concerns the exciting adventures of a monkey who has a tail the colour of a banana. The island he lives on has a vast array of colourful characters who share his travels, from Tic-Tac the plaid zebra to Reena the pink rhino who changes colour depending on her mood!
Banana Tail is an exceptionally fun title and has proved popular with kids and adults alike. In this interview Mark talks about his passion for this amazing venture, the journey from comics to books, what the future holds for Banana Tail, going digital and advice on breaking into the industry!
1) I got hold of the digital comic book version of Banana Tail and read it through with my son and little girl. They absolutely love it and it has now become their favourite book! Where did the inspiration for the charming story come from when you and your father created Banana Tail?
First of all, thanks! Every time I get a child interested in Banana Tail it’s a huge deal for me! I just wish the “powers that be” had the childrens sensibilities when reading the books…
OK, to answer…It’s really all about my Dad. I was in a position where I was connected to publishing due to my comic book career and my father was a great idea man. Having young children in the mid 90′s combined with the downswing of the comic book business I told him that we should team up and create a children’s book! Dad came up with Banana tail, a lil monkey who had a banana for a tail. I felt that that was a bit too bizarre as I drew the image, so I opted for a monkey that one day woke up with a banana-colored tail.
2) What prompted you into writing a children’s book?
Well, my dad actually wrote the 1st draft back in 1995-96, which was my intention to have him do and I went thru his draft like an editor and made changes so it didn’t come off TOO weird but more like a pure children’s book. What prompted this whole thing to come about was that my 4 yr old daughter had an operation to remove a cyst from her neck and the whole operation ordeal was horrible for us. I clearly recall talking her straight to Toys R Us after she was released from the hospital and spoiled her silly, buying her whatever she wanted. Then I got to thinking… Parents spoil their children. That’s how the idea came about. When my Dad passed away in 2002 I took over the writing reins.
3) Banana Tail is obviously very different from your comic book work. How did you find the transition into writing a children’s book from work you’ve previously done?
Well, clearly, I’m not a natural writer, although I did play with the idea of following journalism as a middle schooler. I don’t even see myself as a pure artist. My biggest assets are maybe in PR and editing and I like to think I’m a likeable guy. Without my Dad’s starting point, I would never have had an idea how to start Banana Tail. Comics work and being the co-creator of Banana Tail are not even close in reality. I used my comics career as a way to connect with other comics pro’s who were perhaps looking for some other avenues in making money, since comics sales started to implode in the mid 90′s.
4) The illustration and rhymes are wonderful. In Banana-Tail’s Colourful Adventure the artwork is amazing. Has Banana Tail changed much from its original concept?
Thank you and… YES! I hate to say I went with the current trends off what’s hot in 3D CGI animation, because I always viewed BTail as a purely well illustrated Disney-styled children’s book. The truth is, Publishers are always looking for the next hot thing and I hadn’t seen a whole lot of CGI picture books out in the market, so I opted to try something different, with hopes it will stick. Mind you, I also didn’t have a lot of product out nor huge fan base early on so I didn’t feel I was alienating the earlier fans I had built up.
5) The book has become very popular with both children and adults a like. Did you expect it to be as successful as it has been worldwide?
Oh, I’m not all that big yet. Granted I’ve hit 1 million plus hits on the www.Bananatail.com website and from amazing countries like Croatia, Iceland and Japan, but in reality, I’m still building the brand and small potatoes or should I say bananas? But believe me, when BTail hits it big, Ill have plenty of stories to tell about the near misses!
6) What can we expect from Banana Tail in the future? I hear an animated movie is possibly in the works…
Yes, I’ve been in talks with a Korean animator who has been talking about bringing BTail to Asia, but I can’t rest and wait to see what happens there, it’s been three years. I think the Korean gentleman also has his sights set on using BTail as an English teaching audio book for the Asian market. I also have hopes for things to happen in France but it’s too soon to tell…
7) Going back to comic books, you are well established in the trade. Do you have any particular favourites you’ve worked on?
Sure. My fave’s were usually event books like the Parallax One shot where Hal Jordan took out the Sun Eater at his own expense to save Earth or JLA: World Without Grown-Ups that originated the Young Justice title.
8) What made you want to work in the comic book industry?
I was a huge comic book reader as a young teenager. When I was in high school and my guidance counsellor told me I needed to pick a career (mind you I was a senior who thought I had a few more years to decide!) and the only ideas I had were either a movie maker, as I was big into making Super 8 movies of myself as a Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry type or the cowboy, Man With No Name or a comic book artist. I opted for the School of Visual Arts and the film chairman told me to think about the best of both worlds, animation! I lasted 2 years in that focus and switched over to comics in my 3rd year.
9) You’re currently working for Dark Horse on the Star Wars The Old Republic title, The Lost Suns. How exciting is this project considering the canonical nature of the title?
The Star Wars Universe is way beyond where my head is at as a fan. The Old Republic doesn’t really mean a lot to me but I’m a fan of the original trilogy and the history 1000 years before Darth Vader was born gives me a lot of “HUH?” moments. I can tell you that the previous title I worked on, the web comic, The Old Republic: Blood of the Empire was so well received and reading the fan comments by the masses was a bit scary. You don’t mess with the fans!! If something is illustrated improperly, whether it’s drawing a power button on the wrong side of the lightsabre or the wrong robe on a character…watch out! They’ll eat you alive!
10) Obviously this title is set even longer ago in a galaxy far, far away. Has the creative team had many restrictions placed upon them within its place in Star Wars history in regards to plot, character design and settings?
As the inker/embellisher on the book, I leave that to the writer and pencillers to hash out. I can say that after each process LFL has sign off to move the book to the next stage.
11) From your experience have you ever found it difficult when working with a licensed product, or restrictive in anyway, or do most give you plenty of creative freedom?
Same thing as above. I make sure I don’t stray from the approved process that comes before I apply ink to the pages. I can tell you that the approval process, in this case, usually only takes a day to come through.
12) What do you think with the current shift from paper media to digital? And what is your preferred format? For me I can see the appeal of buying digital but I don’t think anything beats holding a comic book in your hands and the feel of paper on your finger tips! But that’s just me.
I’m old school. I hate change! I can’t watch a movie on a monitor or a phone. What is that?? I was recently told by an insider that it’s digital or bust in comics in the near future. I’m afraid there’s a year or two gap for them to make the transitions healthy…if they do.
Hey, Borders just emailed me that they are going out of business and stated in the email that E Readers are a major part of their demise. Why won’t that affect comic book shops? Breaks my heart mind you. I’m still in mourning over not having a video store to go in a peruse titles. Can we just find a cure for Cancer and slow down the rest of the entertainment technology?? Please?
13) With the two big publishing houses, or the Big 2 as they have become known, revealing major changes this year, how do you think these changes could affect readership? Could the attempt to attract new readers possibly back fire?
It can go either way. Of course a Magic 8 Ball would help, no? I’m concerned that DC jumped too quick with this relaunch and I heard that DC comics and digital releases of the same books will come on the same day? What does that tell the retailers who’ve been their partner for 80 years? Time to hold our breath in this industry.
14) With such changes taking place, the creator owned market seems to be flourishing with some awesome titles coming to light. Have you also noticed this? And how would you approach the industry now as a new creator?
Robert Kirkman wasn’t wrong when he said, “Make your name in the mainstream and then do your creator-owned books”. I have hopes that creator-owned products will continue to flourish, although I’ve never had any thoughts of doing my own comic books, Banana Tail not withstanding.
15) How exciting a time is it to be in the comic book industry now with so much change taking place?
I have to be honest here. I’m not nearly as involved in the industry as I once was and even working on Star Wars has its own fan base and not necessarily in the comic book mainstream. The business is at a crossroads and if Banana Tail were to become a household name tomorrow, I hate to say in publicly, but I would tip my cap and move along.
16) Finally, what advice would you give any up and coming artists when approaching the industry?
Well, the first thing is you must be objective about your art. Just because your Momma and Aunt Agnes think your swell doesn’t mean they can hire you for anything other then mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage! Secondly, stay on top of trends and technology. Look at what the best artists are doing in the business today, not the guys who are simply passable. I have a hard time being so positive about offering positive advice to up and comers, and it’s mostly because the business is in such transition that I don’t want to give false information.
I’d like to thank Mark for taking time out of his schedule for doing this interview. Banana Tail is a wonderful book and I wish him all the success with the character and his ongoing adventures!
Banana Tail is currently available at all good bookstores and now on comiXology at http://www.comixology.com/digital/9470/Banana-Tails-Colorful-Adventure
For more information on Mark McKenna’s work visit www.Markmckennaart.com