Interview: Mike Cavallaro

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

I spent much of my youth haunting book stores and libraries. I don’t know what sparked it, but I was a fantasy and sci-fi junky, attracted to the associated artwork as much as the stories themselves. I couldn’t help notice ERB’s “Tarzan” books, but it was the Neal Adams paperback cover art that made me have to possess them. There’s something infectious about Burroughs’ writing, and although I consumed probably more “Tarzan” books than necessary, that enthusiasm somehow didn’t carry me through to the John Carter books until recently. This is the long way of saying I seemed to always know about the books, but I didn’t actually read one until not that long ago.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

It’s a pleasure to watch Burroughs expertly weave together the best elements of pulpy Western, War and far-flung Fantasy stories. Carter is a classic serial adventure hero, like Tarzan, Conan, Pat Ryan and other square-jawed but honor-bound adventurers. I’m an adult now, but these sorts of tales have never lost their appeal for me. I think I love watching a creator like ERB throw open the doors to their imagination in such an effortless yet tightly-wrought and compelling manner.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

The idea that ERB was writing this so early in the 20th Century is one of the most amazing things about it. I’ve seen the state-of-the-art special effects that Hollywood has to offer, and yet I’m still blown away by the vivid imagery conjured up almost a century ago in the Barsoom books. I believe that like the works of Tolkien, Howard, and Lovecraft, the DNA of Burroughs’ imaginings can be traced in most of the heroic fantasy that followed it.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

There are so many original, unique and imaginative characters in the Barsoom books, but the hero is the hero for a reason, so for me the most engaging is John Carter himself.

Tell us a bit about your illustration for the anthology. What’s happening in the scene?

Easy: This is Lam Jones’ first meeting with a Green Martian, up close and personal.

After reading the story, how did you decide which scene to illustrate?

I did a few thumbnail sketches of some of the action scenes in the story because I knew I wanted something with a sense of drama and energy, and I knew I wanted to draw some of the more iconic elements from the Barsoom stories that I’d grown up seeing. The four-armed Green Martians are among the most identifiable characters in the stories, so this one image in particular seemed to fit the bill.

Was this a particularly challenging piece to create? If so, how?

It definitely was, because I knew the linework itself was going to have to adapt to the subject matter. I don’t draw everything the same way. Different images require different lines the way different stories require different vocabularies. I guess you could say it’s about tone. While I normally ink everything with a brush, I switched to a pen nib, and replaced the solid black areas I typically apply with more airy hatching and rendering. It was a very different approach than the way I normally do things, but the stories themselves evoke certain types of images in my imagination, and I wanted to put that down on paper as closely as I could.

What artistic techniques did you employ to create this piece?

I went from a tiny marker sketch, to a detailed, full-sized pencil drawing. No photo-reference on the musculature or lighting, although I do advocate that sort of thing, but this just happened to be straight from my imagination. Then, just some traditional pen-and-ink. I used a Japanese “g-nib” and standard Black Magic ink on bristol board.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add? 

About I year or two ago, author Jane Yolen and I released a graphic novel called “Foiled”, published by First Second Books. We’re currently working on the sequel, but the release date is a long way off. In the meantime, I do some periodic work on DC Comics’ “Cartoon Network Action Pack” series, mostly cover art and stories based on the “Ben 10” cartoon. Other than those, I’m always working on my own comics, some of which can been seen on the ACT-I-VATE.com webcomics site.