Mark McKenna on the EC-style Horror of ‘Combat Jacks’

Mark McKenna got his professional start in the graphic novel world in the mid-’80s and has since worked on almost 600 comics. Drawing and inking for DC and Marvel kept him in the world of household-name superheroes, but McKenna has also published creator-owned horror comics for both adults and children. With Halloween just around the corner, Cemetery Dance caught up with McKenna to talk about his creations, how he approaches horror comics, and how he was influenced by early horror tales from EC.

(Interview conducted by Danica Davidson)

CEMETERY DANCE: How did the style of EC Weird Science Fantasy and Vault of Horror influence your comic Combat Jacks?

MARK MCKENNA: I was a big fan of the old Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt stuff. I have the slip-case hardcover collections that Russ Cochran did. A lot of the guys like Wally Wood and (Frank) Frazetta cut their teeth on this horror stuff back then. I always had a great love for that. When I came up with Combat Jacks, it was actually like me offering homage to that genre.

It really originated from my son and me, around Halloween 2012, thinking about how there weren’t enough good pumpkin monsters. Jack o’Lanterns are supposed to be scary, but Pumpkinhead really wasn’t a pumpkin, it was a monster. So I came up with the concept of an alien planet being knocked into our solar system by an asteroid on the other side of the sun. IDW Comic’s Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall told me back in 2012 if I was to do this as a four-issue miniseries, he would then collect it for IDW.

When I originally started, it was going to be a one-and-done sort of thing, a 32 or 34 page book. But then I came up with a concept that the pumpkins on Earth are not really our pumpkins, they’re actually an alien race. In issue three I go back to Sleepy Hollow in the 1700s. Instead of the Headless Horseman, it’s actually an alien pumpkin. I take it back even further in Combat Jacks #4 to prehistoric ages where our dinosaurs were not killed by an Ice Age or an asteroid but by alien Jack O’Lanterns. You have to go bigger when you do a miniseries; you have to make more interesting dilemmas for the heroes to conquer.

Did you grow up reading other horror comics?

You know, I was not a horror fan growing up, with the exception of the Universal Monsters. My father tried to take me to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein when I was about six or seven years old, but it wasn’t playing at the theater and he ended up taking me to a Hammer horror movie. I just remember this guy with a big zipper scar on his head, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, a lot of blood. I remember my father looking over at me and saying, “You know this is make-believe, right?” I had nightmares for weeks after that.

Then, I miraculously caught pneumonia one year, probably in my thirties, and I started watching horror movies. I got caught up in it and really enjoyed them. I think about the old stuff, like It Came from Beyond the Stars or the original Thing movies, and I was fascinated with those.


What can you tell us about your comic The Tomb of Baalberith?

The Tomb of Baalberith is four short connected stories. I head this studio called Virtual Inks Inc where we’re all working in our own studios but we’re connected by the internet. I came up with the concept of the book and I looked up demon names and the name of Baalberith just called out to me. In the beginning of the book, he’s in suspended animation and his demonic jester sidekick releases three monsters on humanity to collect body parts. When the monsters collect these things, they’re feeding Baalberith, and at the end of the book he is reanimated. My hope is that if we do Baalberith as a one-shot, we get a sense of what characters work well, who gravitated to what characters, and maybe continue doing another book down the road.

How does your drawing style change for different genres? Do you have any advice for artists wanting to draw in the horror genre?

I think it’s more about black and white versus color. When you do black and white, you can add more atmosphere. I try to make it a little bit more gritty. I was told by an editor earlier, when I was trying out for a Sandman series back at DC, that I was too neat, too clean, to be doing a horror series then. I had spent years refining my lining and in horror you sometimes want to be the opposite of that.

I also did a Resident Evil story in a magazine and a couple Vampirella pieces that were commissioned. I always thought of myself as wanting to do a black and white horror book.

What is easier about doing horror in comics form and what is more difficult?

Originality is a big trick to it. Everything lends off something else. When I did Combat Jacks, I was thinking about what reasons Earth would go to inhabit another planet, but they’ve all been done before.

Also, a lot of horror is done tongue-in-cheek. It’s done for shock value. You can’t really do that so much in a comic book as you can with a really loud soundtrack at the moment the guy thumps in around the corner. It’s the trick that way, to get the scare across. I’m not a big blood-and-guts guy when I watch horror movies, either; I prefer monsters, vampires, zombies. For me, this was a real stretch from doing Iron Man and The Punisher and Spider-Man for thirty years.

You also have a Halloween-centered comic aimed for kids, right?

Yes. I do a children’s book series called Banana Tail and in 2003 I did the original storybook about a monkey who thinks he’s turning into a banana because he ate so many bananas as a kid. Then I did an activity book called Banana Tail Tales and Activities in 2005. Image Comics got hold of the property and we did Banana Tail’s Colorful Adventure. I thought about how it would be great if kids could grow older and still be entertained with Banana Tail. So I created this Halloween-themed comic book called the Boonana Tail Halloween Special, and it’s 32 pages of short, cute Halloween stories. I’d like to do another holiday themed book. But I am going to continue to do Banana Tail books, and I’m currently working on a new book, Banana Tail and the Checkerboard Jungle.

Baalberith  was just released on ComiXology (a site where you can download comics) and then Combat Jacks #4 is released (on ComiXology) on the 25th. I’m probably going to bundle them together, make a package deal with them. I might even just do “Mark McKenna’s Halloween Bundle” and include Baalberith, the four issues of Combat Jacks and maybe even the kid’s book for parents who want something for their children. It’s nice to have horror work to go along with my superhero work.

Danica Davidson is the author of adventure novels for kids that take place as if Minecraft is real. Her first series (Escape from the Overworld, Attack on the Oveworld, The Rise of Herobrine, Down into the Nether, The Armies of Herobrine and Battle with the Wither) is available as a box set November 7, and the first book in the spinoff series, Adventure Against the Endermen, comes out the same day.

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