His name might not mean much for most, but for those in the know his name stands for a lot of things, above all else, professionalism. Mark has been in the comic book game for over twenty one years now since his first published credit in 1986 - longer than some of his readers have been alive. He broke into DC Comics after a recommendation from Sal Almendola back in the early 1980s. From there he went on to become one of the now legendary 'Romita's Raiders'. The brainchild of John Romita, the project of training young artists on the job would remain one of Romita's lasting legacies. By my account he's had his work in around 430 comic books, by his own account he thinks by the time he retires he'd have inked over 7,000 pages. But enough of that - anyone can give up a biography.
I first became aware of Mark McKenna back in the early 1990s when I was buying a lot more comic books than I am today. One of the titles I read was the now defunct Punisher War Zone. This book had been launched as a kind of reply to DC's Legend Of The Dark Knight title as both titles featured stories that appeared to happen outside of normal continuity. After seeing John Romita Jr's gritty and grim artwork that launched the series, the sparse, simple and highly detailed art of Mike McKone and Mark McKenna just blew my mind - it's hard to explain why other than it was different. I loved it then and I love it still now - and I can't stand Punisher comics. I'll admit, I bought copies of the book in the hopes that it might make me money down the track - but I'm glad I got the McKone and McKenna issues. The storyline that the duo drew was odd enough, but their art made it shine even more. You can pick up any book by McKone and McKenna and you know that it's going to be worth it for the art.
I've bought a lot of crap in my time, but none of their work has been crap - and I've bought books just one their names alone. There's a lot of art that I could showcase from both Mike and Mark as a team and Mark solo, but then you'd see nothing on this blog but Mark McKenna for quite a few months to come.
And that takes nothing away from Mark as a solo artist of sorts. His skills as an inker are a cut above the pack. He may dispute that, he'd easily give you the names of any number of inkers who he believes are better than he is, and technically he might well be right. But Mark has something that all artists strive for, yet few reach - feel. Mark's inks are organic. He has the extraordinary ability to enhance the pencil art. He can make a bad artist look good and a good artist look great (to use a cliche). If I were assigning an inker to a job then Mark would be amongst the first people I'd call. And indeed I have called upon his services. I've been blessed enough to be able to land Mark to ink a Supergirl image for the forthcoming Jim Mooney book and I was damn happy to be able to do so. To place Mark in that book - alongside the likes of Joe Sinnott, Bob Almond, Norm Breyfogle and Bob McLeod - was a highlight. When the package arrived all I could think was, "Holy Crap!!! MARK McKENNA!!!" I opened the package and the art was stunning beyond words. He inked it, above and beyond the call, and delivered it before it was due. Each time I've asked him to contribute a few words for an interview he's always been there. He's thrown his lot into a pet project and taken a risk - a risk that is paying off as Banana Tail slowly takes off worldwide. Not many people take those kinds of risks, they prefer to play it safe.
But Mark is the kind of a guy who'd rather follow his muse than to take the soft option. There's also the side of him that wants to impart his knowledge so that others won't face the same hurdles as he's seen. Every so often an aspiring artist will email and ask what professional artists are there that hand out advice to up and coming artists. I ask them if they pencil or ink? If they answer ink, I tell them to visit the Inkwell mailing list and ask for Mark and he'll set you straight and give you all the advice you'd ever need. I've always told Mark that he has a standing invite for an interview, either alone or with Mike, but true to his own modest way, he's waiting for the right time when he can speak alongside Mike.
So Happy Birthday Mark!!! May you have many, many more and as another Mike would say, may your brush never go stiff (I'll see if you can work out which Mike that was).
Now, for your reading pleasure, here's Mark McKenna's own reflections upon turning 50. As with anything Mark writes you'll actually learn something just by reading this, both about the man himself and his work. Enjoy!
Reflecting on my pro career, a MUST read for you young guys (LOL).
Normally I dont go around talking about a birthday, especially a big one like 50, you usually hide from these things, right? But I'm somewhat excited about this one. I've taken some time to reflect on the first half of my life (first 2/3rds?) and do the mental scorecard thing and I've given myself a C+ for what I've accomplished in my life up to date. To have been blessed to be a successful comic book artist for 23 years is enough to have given myself an A or B+, sheer numbers withstanding.
Any of you young talented guys will be able to one day look back at your accomplishments in the comic book realm and decide for yourself if you've succeeded or not, not simply the sheer amount of pages you've applied ink or graphite to, but based simply on your career expectations. In my case, I was nutty enough one day to actually sit and sift through all the comics I have done in my pro career and came up with some pretty good numbers. At the time (a few months ago), I came up with 428 books I've applied ink to in some form or other (not including backgrounds or trading cards or advertisements) and 428 books I've worked on (could be as little as a pin up or ghosting a few pages, Bob :o)
I think I may have given out these numbers before, but the point is, if I stay healthy and don't get kicked to the curb, I will realistically end up having inked over 7000 pages of comic work and close to 500 comic books. A good career in a business that is constantly looking for the next hot talent, not concerned with loyalty for its senor members (which I understand, its about selling comics, right?).
Was I ever the best inker in the business? Naaa, not close. First of all, there are so many styles and so many opinions about this stuff that I'll take that I was a "good" inker most of the time. Friend Mark Irwin said it as an editor to me once, "You're always good, man". I take that to my grave as a great compliment. I do know that I still believe that I care about everything I do and not simply go through the paces unchallenged by my work. I do think I have done great work at some points in my career too. I also know there are guys out there that can't understand why I'm still in the business and how I got this career. Has it been luck for the entire time?
Speaking of careers, defined as: "an occupation or profession, esp. one requiring special training, followed as one's lifework" I challenge any of you GREAT inkers to be GREAT and stay GREAT for as long as your a pro and reflect on your careers down the road and see if its what you had imagined it to be that many years later.
At this point in my career, my comic's life, I dont believe I need to prove anything in comic books, anybody who knows me or my work has had an opinion based on my work already, crapping out a perfect diamond isn't gonna change that now. I still need my kiddy property Banana Tail to take off and I think that's largely part of my self-imposed C+ grade, due mainly for having this property move along at a snail's pace. Maybe when that takes over and becomes my new career path I will up my grade to a B or B+, but until that, as my Irish mother in-law would say, I'm "doing alright in America".
End note: When I worked in McDonald's 32 years ago, my one buddy Gary, who was retiring from burger-slinging made his final Big Mac minutes before he walked out of the door for the final time and made sure it was the best one he ever made. I wonder if he remembers that?