The Gallery Mike Majestic
by Evan Miller, Feb 14th 2009
Valentine's Day is upon us, which means many of us are either a) out on a date or b) coming up with some kind of anti-Valentines alternative, which may or may not involve strong drink. If it does, and you have a few friends who are into anime, here's a game you can play to pass the time!
1: Get a copy of the classic film Macross: Do You Remember Love?
2: Every time the love triangle, or anyone involved in aforementioned triangle, is indecisive or otherwise frustrating, complain loudly and take a drink.
3: When the ending credits roll, start drinking water to fend off the inevitable hangover you'll have. Trust me, you'll need it.
Anime News Network is not responsible for what may happen to your liver if you try this.
Custom banner this week. Now that is something to love.
This week's featured artist entered the world of manga through a love of mecha. Since then, he's worked with numerous publishers, handled illustrations for video games, and has worked with Harmony Gold on Robotech related products. Please welcome...
Mike Majestic, the head artist of the indie art outfit VulnePro, didn't end up in his position via traditional means. While many of us may spend years waiting and searching for the inspiration that leads us to a professional career or "line of work," Mike's path to becoming a published artist started very simply: with a gift from his father. Mike remembers the moment well: "My dad bought me a model kit for one of the Macross robots, but at the time I had no idea what it was." Now, many years later, Mike is making a living by sketching his own detailed robot designs and freelancing in the comic industry. Ironically, one of his clients is Harmony Gold, the same company that marketed the Robotech series that featured the robots that initially inspired him. Although Mike admits that freelancing can be rough - especially considering the state of the economy - he still devotes an extraordinary amount of time to his own designs in the hopes that they gain a little exposure. "Faith in your work can keep you going," admits Mike. "I'm not a quitter by any means."
Mike grew up in the Detroit area with a passion for art, and knew from an early age that he wanted art to be a part of his life. However, the moment when he decided to make a career out of art was a bit more specific. In 1995, Mike was introduced to the North American anime omnibus series Robotech, which featured some of the robots he had previously assembled as models. The world of mecha anime appealed to him instantly - and it wasn't just because the robots looked sophisticated. "I had never seen an animated show that dealt with drama like that," reminisces Mike, who viewed the show as a sign that a job in the animation field could be feasible, not to mention rewarding. Inspired, Mike began to seek out other anime. With the help of a comic book store that specialized in imports, he picked up a copies of the film Macross: Do You Remember Love and the series Megazone 23. He also got his hands on a storyboard and production art book for the critically acclaimed Gainax production Wings of Honneamise, which he still refers to from time to time: "So many big names were involved with Honneamise, people like Hiroyuki Yamaga, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto... it's still a huge inspiration for me." Although anime was still a niche market when Mike took an interest in it, his parents noticed how much art meant to their son, which is why they endorsed his decision to enter college with the hope of making a living off his artwork.
Although the anime that inspired him is strictly modern in the artistic sense, Mike entered college majoring in Fine Art instead of modern art. He attributes the decision to a change of focus - in other words, a desire to accentuate the perspectives featured in his work. "I don't want to simply emulate anime. To do only manga is fine, but to me, that limits you," says Mike, who approached school as an opportunity to try something new and combine it with the styles he was used to. He cites his professor, John Piet, as a key figure in his artistic development. Piet got Mike into constructivism, cubism, and art deco. Around the same time, Mike had the honor of meeting and showing his work to famed creator Kenichi Sonoda at an anime convention. Sonoda suggested that trying to prepare his work through making "thumbnails" of his drawings would be a good way to focus on shape, detail, silhouettes, and other elements. The technique - along with the stylistic pointers that he received from Piet - helped Mike refine his work, as well as draw inspiration from non-traditional elements. "When I was young, I wasn't considering the details," admits Mike, who's work has taken inspirational cues from not just anime, but architecture, traditional aircraft, and other technical elements.
Following college, Mike fell out of the art scene for a while, working odd jobs and spending two years dabbling in music production. However, it wasn't long before fate brought him back to art. As he visited conventions and showed off his portfolio, he soon discovered that there was not only an interest in his work, but a few potential sources of income among the exhibitors. He was scouted by Pat Lee at Dreamwave Productions, and ended up handling colors for Warlands, as well as a full line of profile books for the Transformers series. After working with Dreamwave for a year, Mike realized that he could make a living from freelancing and began seeking out other opportunities in the industry, both by himself and as the lead designer for an art group he founded called Vulne Pro. After establishing a business relationship with Palladium Games, he helped with artwork for their Rifts game series. In a particularly ironic twist, Palladium had a business relationship with Harmony Gold, the company that marketed Robotech in North America. Mike, along with his Vulne Pro cohort Nick Meridian, were asked to work on the artwork for the game. The experience was nostalgic, but Mike did his best to stay humble in the process: "Overall, it's just about having a fun job." In the recent past, Mike was contacted to handle artwork for the Ubi Soft video game Emergency Heroes for the Nintendo Wii. He also collaborated with other Vulne Pro artists for a comedy series called Ebejeebies, a sample of which can be read here.
Theos Ke Polemos thumbnails
Unfortunately, as Mike would soon discover, freelance work has its own share of disappointments. In 2007, Mike was asked to work on a pitch for an animated TV series. He leapt at the opportunity, spending a good part of the year on character designs and other elements for the show pitch. One group expressed interest, and gave it a greenlight. However, the victory was short-lived; the project ended up in "development hell" and still has yet to see the light of day. The experience was tough for Mike, but he admits that the experience was valuable in that it reminded him how much patience and resources go in to such a project. "[The experience] showed me that it is possible, but it's not an easy thing to do," says Mike, adding, "It comes down to a lot of different factors. Who can fund and sponsor the project? Why should they invest in you? But if you can prove to them that you can do something entertaining and commercially viable, anything is possible."
Mike's biggest creative outlet outside of work is his pet project Theos Ke Polemos, or greek for "God and War." He has spent almost twenty years developing the series, which is currently the main focus of much of the artwork on his gallery. Although the work is "for fun" in many aspects, he gives Theos the same amount of effort as his professional work, thumbnailing every element out (as Sonoda suggested he do - see the image above) and referencing a dizzying amount of source material for backgrounds and characters. The characters of the story are not your typical mecha heroes; they are older, and the robots (called FOILs) that they interact with come with their own sets of flaws, which gives the story a realistic feeling inside the fantasy world that serves as its background. Mike admits that he has pitched previous incantations of the story (he talks more about the current version in the "In Depth" section below), but at the moment, he's just having fun with it. Theos has also attracted an online fanbase, including some artists who have asked to be involved with the project as well. As for the future of Theos, Mike is cautiously optimistic, saying, "I believe in the material... it might get noticed, and if that happens, we'll take it from there."
Today, Mike continues to work on his own pieces, as well as other pitches for animated series. Although he has been through quite a lot as an artist, he doesn't plan on giving this line of work up any time soon. "It's not a glory job," admits Mike, adding, "you can't get starry eyes if you do this stuff... but if you love it, the rewards are worth it." His main focus at the moment is continuing to adapt and expand the world of Theos Ke Polemos, a project which also serves as a natural outlet where he can hone his skills and experiment with new techniques. Sharing his work online has also brought him a little attention, and he is quick to mention that the support from others is greatly appreciated. If his past accomplishments are any indication, it won't be long before we see Mike's work in print again - but for the artist himself, he seems to be content with building his portfolio and continuing to push his creative boundaries. As he puts it, "There's a lot of freedom in [exploring a fictional culture] and developing your style. For me, that's the true 'buzz' of doing art."
Strumgeist Foil 2
Mike Majestic: The answer is simple, I feel I may have something new to say through my studio's exploration of it. In designing the Faedai Omni Icar Leviathans, or simply FOILs, my goal has been to continue to explore exotic and somewhat unconventional aesthetics in the familiar notion of "mecha." I have not been the first, nor will I be the last, to use swords - but the story kinda led in that direction and it seemed like an interesting angle to pursue. The war on Polemos is a very, almost strangely proper honor based contest of point spreads that yield an advantageous political and economic cycle for the side that wins the spread. The war is between two primary planets, the industrial planet of Indus (as much a play on the Indus valley as the word industrial) and the planet Polemos, Greek for war. The FOILs are as much living weapons as they are a form of entertainment for the populace of the SOL system in which all this is happening so the approach is to give them a sense of character visually. I wanted to give the FOILs a more gritty, dirty military feel so there are visual cues back to WWII camouflage and markings (something also explored often by the hardcore Japanese mecha modeler crowd). The approach is a combination of aggressive and appealing aesthetics, ferocity and flow. The Strumgeist here is more a workhorse grunt type of CAV (cavalry) FOIL so I gave it a very stocky sturdy look. The FOIL also has some unique design flourishes on it's head (both variants I did) some very Futurist inspired intersecting sweeps and curves. The Futurist movement was an art form with ties to Cubism and emphasized the notion of implied movement so that seemed to work with the aerodynamic feel many of them have. I've designed many of these creatures and the project has also had some wonderful contributions from Karl Ostlund, Nick Maradin, and Tabnir (DA handle) as well, and you can expect more from all of us in the future.
ANN: You mentioned how much anime influenced your appreciation for storytelling. What else has inspired the narratives you picture for your own stories?
Mike: Ultimately much of my current work and projects have been geared towards animated TV series pitches, so my intent has always focused on animation as a means of telling stories. As to what has inspired the narratives for my own work, I imagine like many writers and creators it's a mix of personal and external experience and observation. I probably watch more live action cinema than animation so it's certainly had some impact. Also my interest in history and sociopolitical phenomenon - and very much my fascination with the unknown - have been driving factors. For anime, The Wings of Honneamise Royal Space Force was a huge inspiration when young, along with many old school films like Venus Wars. These days, it would have to be the work from Studio Bones and Production I.G, both doing exceptional material.
ANN: What inspired the look of the cities featured in "Nouvous Manarola" and "The Hammer Falls?" Did you have any references for the architecture used in these pieces?
Mike: For Nouvous Manarola, a it was indeed inspired loosely on the real village of Manarola, which is a part of Riomaggiore in Italy. It's a fractured version of that city though, only resembling it in basic look and feel (clearly the rocks the building are built into look like the rock face from the original Manarola, built this isn't Earth... hmmm). Also there's the industrial nature of the place and the lone artillery turret in the distance. In the setting of Theos Ke Polemos there's a massive disconnect humanity has from it's true historical past and they live in an environment that's a kaleidoscopic patchwork of fragments and echoes of that history. So places like Nouvous Manarola could be as much a mutated replica of that old city as it could potentially be some of the actual city "relocated" to Polemos. How this could have happened is part of the mysteries that drive the story forward.
The city in The Hammer Falls is also a mix of loosely basing the foreground buildings on a European picturesque village look and that sense of ever prevalent industry and war peppering the landscape. The large towers with all the copious pipes going to who knows where is an atmospheric processing plant. I'm not too particularly inspired by the notion of cold, sterile, and clinical cities in much science fiction so I deliberately wanted to go in another direction. To me the environment is as much an important character as beings you populate it with. Ultimately I feel it should have a sense of character visually, something distinct and believable.
At the end of the day you need to imagine your characters being able to live and function there, no matter how dystopian you get in themes and appearance. Also, whether an external wide shot of a city or an intimate interior set the sense of space having history is important to me too. That is to say visual signs of weathering, decay, detritus, dirt, grime, rust, graffiti of some sorts, etc. Why is it important? It shows an unseen progression of history to the place you're exploring, a sense it's been there and had living beings, nature interact with it, leave their mark. This kind of visual information is more subliminal but I imagine the audience appreciate the efforts to really involve them in your world on every level.
ANN: Tell us about some of the character archetypes you want to feature in Theos Ke Polemos. What kind of motivations do you picture for them?
Mike: Theos, at it's heart, is a metaphysical war drama that moves into the exploration of evolution and abstract spiritual themes and... it's a love story. The primary antagonist, Endiel Koh, is very much the archetypal classic man with a haunted past. Something terrible in his past has led him to flee from the industrial planet of Indus to Polemos and ultimately lose himself in the war as a rather effective CAV FOIL pilot. His progression is from a young man with deep personal scars with little to care for to finding a sense of personal redemption through the advances of a young woman he meets in the story and an eventual change of perspective due to other important factors.
Many mecha shows seems to focus on teen pilots with emotional issues in command of highly exotic mecha or flashy robots with special powers and wildly colorful paint jobs calling out crazy attacks, etc. While I can have fun watching that stuff as much as any other fan, I was not really interested in going that direction from the get go. I wanted to focus on pilots in their early 20s, at the youngest and some in their early to late 40s, at their oldest. These people have motivations connected to a variety of complex issues and developments that unfold in the story so while there will be some familiar archetypes in there they will always be in service of the progression of the narrative. The "mecha" are all bio-mechanical life forms called Sendai (not actually intended to reference the Japanese city of Sendai). Even the FOILs in the story are a form of sendai so my intent was the make the notion of mecha, not. In other words, I wanted them to be characters, not just machines the humans climb into. By having a huge variety of creatures that look like living sculptures (Sendai are typically smaller than humans while FOILs are 40 foot tall combat frames) but are self aware living beings trying to adapt and reconcile with their "strangeness" in the face of their human creators, it allows for a great deal of tension and unease.
ANN: How did you go about refining your drawing style after college, and what kind of advice would you offer to someone who is trying to teach themselves how to draw mecha?
Mike: College was fantastic for me in that I wasn't, in any way, doing art that had anything to do with manga, anime, sci-fi, etc and I threw myself completely into that fact. My primary reoccurring instructor, John Piet, was a 20 year practicing sculptor at the time with a classical fine arts background. That led me into things like Deco, Cubism, Futurism, Modern Art, etc. He was also a very open and exciting instructor to study under; I even worked in his studio with him for a time so he will always have my gratitude. What this did was open me up to exploring any and all possibilities as to where I could go with visually expressing my ideas. I was doing mostly non-representational work and constructivism, with a bit of cubism in some of my figurative works. I think my leanings to various fine art movements of the past has had a big hand in my conceptual work seeing as how Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, primitivism,etc all creep in there.
I think for anyone trying to learn how to draw mecha the first thing I would suggest is begin to learn from looking at what has been done because the idea of mecha has certainly evolved into a very recognizable sub genre with reoccurring visual themes. From there though I would say begin to look at anything other than mecha to inspire your ideas as this will often yield interesting and, hopefully, unique results. The trick is to make something that identifies with that genre but stands apart and on its own. You can't do that if you're looking to do another emulation of Gundam or whatever is the popular thing of the day. Try something wild, look at cars, planes, even something as odd as an old art deco microphone might inspire an idea for a torso, head, cockpit, etc. Also try to always work in thumbnails for the early concepts as it will force you to focus on form. Break free from your primary anime influences and find your visual voice and the designs will follow.
The Hammer Falls
Interested in seeing more of Mike's work? Here's where you need to go:
Mike keeps his latest work posted to his Deviant Art page, but he also manages the official Vulne Pro website, where you can find a detailed back catalog of the works he and his Vulne Pro teammates have worked on.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will be seasoned, fried, and served with tartar sauce), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
All works © Mike Majestic.
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