Real superheroes: Artists of Portland's Mercury Studio
In a downtown office building, accountants and attorneys labor in button-downed silence, unaware that just a few floors away some of their...
Newhouse News Service
PORTLAND — In a downtown office building, accountants and attorneys labor in button-downed silence, unaware that just a few floors away some of their fellow tenants are gleefully taking photographs of mock mutilations and battles.
A small office at the end of a long, narrow hallway — where axes and spears hang on the wall along with Star Wars, Hellboy and Kandinsky posters — is the home of Mercury Studio (also known as Mercury Studios; there's some internal disagreement as to which version sounds better), said to be the largest professional comic-book studio in the country.
On any given day, a majority of the 11 artist members are bent over drawing boards, conjuring the worlds of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman and the Fantastic Four, among others.
It's a colorful, riotous place. Shelves groan beneath art reference books, model cars and stuffed piranhas; the stereo blares "Eaten by the Monster of Love"; and on a recent afternoon, one member was scanning photographs of his own face being ground into a carpet, so that he would have a photo reference for a fight scene he needed to draw.
And yet this quirky little studio occupies an important place in the multimillion-dollar comics industry: One editor once joked that if all Mercury's members were to fall sick, at least one major comic-book company would be forced to shut down.
While "comic-book artists have been planting themselves in a room together for as long as there've been comic books," as Mercury member Steve Lieber puts it, the size and scope of this particular convergence of artists says something about Portland.
Hotbed for comicsThe city has earned a reputation for having one of the highest concentrations of independent and mainstream comic-book talent in the nation. "You see people reading comics on the bus," says member David Hahn. "Checked out from the library, no less."
A recent visit to the studio found eight members at their drawing boards, positioned just a few steps apart, working on, among other things, storyboards for a horror movie, an illustration for an autobiographical story written by Kurt Busiek, several pages of a romance comic and a pencil drawing of a battle between the Flash and Cheetah.
And although hands were moving with a frenzied intensity and a couple of the artists were up against panic-inducing deadlines, the energy in the room bordered on zany exuberance.
A typical exchange: "For some reason the warm weather brought out all the nuts the other night," said artist Drew Johnson.
He went on: "Three o'clock in the morning, I'm awakened by drunks throwing rocks through the window. ... Later, the fire alarm went off. ... The drunks had apparently gotten in the building and were wandering around pulling alarms."
"God, it sounds like zombies," said Hahn, who writes and draws "Private Beach," and who was recently the artist on "Bite Club," a comic about a Mafia-esque family of vampires. Everyone laughed at the image of drunken zombies wandering the halls of Johnson's apartment building — this is a visual group, after all — and someone started to make "Nnnnngggg," undead sounds.
Fantasy world all day longThe truth is, although some people might think of comic-book drawing as an endless honeymoon, an artist's life is filled with vast stretches of loneliness and mania. Many work out of their homes with little or no human contact as they labor under constant deadlines.
"That's crazy-making after a while," says Dark Horse Comics editor Diana Schutz. "Especially if you're drawing a fantasy world all day long."
With so many comic-book artists living in Portland, it made sense to share the cost of studio space, so they could, as member Ron Randall puts it, "come back to the world."
Some of the early comic-book studios, such as the famous Eisner-Iger studio of the late 1930s and early 1940s, had a roomful of artists working like an assembly line on a single comic (to the point that "many of the older artists today don't even remember the books they worked on," says Schutz). All the artists at Mercury work on their own projects, and in wildly different styles.
Some work on laptops. Others are like Lieber, who has worked on "Whiteout" and "Whiteout: Melt" (about a U.S. marshal in professional exile in Antarctica) and "On the Road to Perdition," who prefers a pot of black ink and "is so old school it's painful at times," says Rebecca Woods, the studio's only female member. Her recent work includes "Robin" and "In a Dark Wood."
Still, they bleed into each other's pages in ways both subtle and overt.
Group effortThey count on each other for advice when they are stuck — when they have spent hours drawing and redrawing a thumb or a head. All they have to do is solicit the room, says Johnson, and "someone else will immediately see a way out of it." They have posed for each other — fulfilling the roles of sultans and Minotaurs, the hacked and the shot.
They've also pitched in when someone has fallen woefully behind on a deadline. "A lot like the way the Amish raise the barn," says Lieber.
And since they work with so many different companies, they are a nexus for industry gossip.
"It helps us get a drop on jobs, actually," explains Hahn. "It's insider trading, really."
"Except it's legal in our industry," says Jeff Parker, who writes and draws "The Interman," about a genetically engineered spy.
On a recent Thursday, as the clock ticked toward 5 — and the last Fed Ex pickup, vital for rushing pages to editors — the studio members were hard at work.
Matthew Clark — who draws Superman and once went 68 hours without sleep to make a deadline, finally taping the pencil to his hand before the hallucinations started — drew in silence, lost in the music streaming from his iPod.
A few feet away, Parker tried to keep his eyes open. He and his wife had just had a baby boy. Lieber dipped a pen in his inkpot, and Johnson announced: "I'm going down to the basement for some snack materials. Does anyone want some?"
Meanwhile, on a coffee table in the center of the room, Celeste, the 4-year-old daughter of studio members Rebecca and Pete Woods, drew on paper with a marker. She then gave her drawing to Lieber.
A few years ago, he had received an Eisner award — the comic book equivalent of an Oscar — for his work on "Whiteout: Melt," and it hung next to his drawing board.
After studying Celeste's drawing — she had covered the page with smiling, dancing spiders, including one clutching an ice-cream cone — he pulled out a piece of tape.
"This one," he said, "is going over the Eisner."
And that's where it remains, not far from the ax.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.