The Buoyant, Kirby-esque, Pop-Art Pleasures of Michael AllredArt by Mike Allred & Laura Allred Comics Features Mike Allred
Michael Allred—creator of Madman, co-creator of Art Ops and iZombie, and illustrator of classic runs on FF, Silver Surfer, X-Force and X-Statix—is a singular artist in comics, wielding a style as recognizable as that of Neal Adams or Alex Ross. With clean lines, quirky kineticism and pop-art leanings, Allred brings a sense of giddy fun that’s all too often lacking in sequential art. Gerard Way’s Young Animal “pop-up imprint” unleashed Allred (with brother Lee Allred writing) on one of the most obscure Jack Kirby characters—Bug! The Adventures of Forager, which debuted yesterday in a new miniseries. Now’s a perfect to time to celebrate or discover Allred’s exuberant art, which has brightened so many shelves and lives.
Allred is one of the most Kirby-esque artists in comics, though the influence is less immediately visible than in the works of Tom Scioli and Steve Rude. As Allred told Jack Kirby Collector for their 50th issue, the influence in partly about scope: “You have to ask the big questions. Kirby always asked the big questions.” Following in the Galactus-sized footsteps of the King of Comics, Allred merges metaphysical insanity with a humane sensibility—and his art always looks good enough to eat.
Allred’s instant-classic run on Silver Surfer—alongside co-plotter/writer Dan Slott—embraced Kirby-ism in obvious and subtle ways. Surfer is, in some ways, the most distinctly Kirby Marvel character, since the artist famously threw the herald into Fantastic Four #48 with no input from early career collaborator and comics pioneer Stan Lee. But this series has been inventive on the cuckoo-bonkers level of a 1970s Kirby comic, with new ideas and races and planets and gizmos appearing in every issue. Right in the first issue, Allred goes full Kirby with the introduction of the Impericon: “the impossible place” that’s part physics-defying vacation destination and part hiding spot from the heralds of Galactus. The Impericon is introduced in a two-page spread of hyper-detailed, multicolored insanity, as if Allred were the love child of Kirby and Geof Darrow.
Allred’s mind-blowing, reality-bending art reaches peak insanity in two of the most inventive issues of an ingenious run. Silver Surfer #11—“Never After”—features a Moebius-inspired layout, forcing each page to be read right-side-up, upside-down, forwards, backwards and back-and-forth, putting readers smack dab in the time loop of the characters. That loop is also a cycle of regret and self-loathing for the Surfer, who’s seeking a new home for the survivors of the millions of planets he once earmarked for Galactus’ menu. Allred’s twisting, trippy panels make the cosmic personal in a spanking new way. No wonder this issue won the 2016 Eisner Award for Best Single Issue/One-Shot.
The recent issue #10 (about a year after that #11, thanks to Marvel’s obnoxious renumbering obsession) merges the cosmic and the romantic in a way even Kirby (who expanded the genre of romance comics) couldn’t have envisioned. Galactus—now the life-giving yellow Galactus, thanks to recent events in The Ultimates help with some cosmic McGuffins. Surfer and girlfriend Dawn must save the cosmos by returning the Alphex and Omegron to the opposite ends of the universe. The problem: Galactus has enough juice to send them there, but it’s a one-way trip, leaving Dawn and Surfer stranded and alone.
Allred uses two columns of oppressive white space between the universe-separated characters to show their plight, before the two are (in a way you need to see for yourself) brought back together by Eternity, the embodiment of the Marvel Universe. Never has the idea “The universe wants two people to be together” been so literal, physical and sweet.
Allred’s poppy art is far from photorealistic, but he has a perfect eye for body language and facial expressions. His characters are never static: Allred catches them in a moment of maximum potential energy. His bodies fidget and flail with irrepressible, irregular impulses. For example, in “An Hour with Hourman,” part of Allred’s terrific Solo issue for DC, Hourman’s shifting, unpredictable body language keeps the story moving and engaging, even when he’s just pacing. His poses are as off-kilter as real life, but far more vibrant, as if even the most dire circumstances are always a page away from morphing into a ‘60s-themed party. His characters—even Galactus—always seem a moment from breaking into the Batusi.
Speaking of the Batusi, Allred’s most famous creation is Madman, but the artist may have been created for the purpose of illustrating Batman ‘66. Allred’s covers (and a few full issues) capture the zany spirit of the show like no one else has. Take the cover of Batman ‘66 #14, which features ‘60s-style hyperbole: “It’s Gigantic! Introducing the Batrobot!” Allred’s illustration of the massive purple Batrobot, with Robin perched on the shoulder and Batman standing on a platform, captures the straight-faced insanity of not only Batman ‘66, but comics in general, when they’re on the high end of the fun spectrum.
Allred’s character designs are also consistently great, whether complex or simple. His alien races are never generic. Each race—among dozens, maybe hundreds, that appear in Silver Surfer and other titles—has its own particular anatomy that feels original and thought-out, as if Allred knows the exact purpose of every appendage. In FF, Allred created a stunning, ludicrous look with pink-haired Darla Deering in a Thing suit. Madman features plenty of strong designs, but the lead character is a triumph of simplicity. With a white outfit highlighted by a red lightning bolt/exclamation mark and some floppy hair sticking out of the top, Madman has a graceful, clean, crisp, iconic look. How is he not in the movies yet?
Allred’s wife, Laura, is the color artist for most of his work, and it doesn’t take a marriage counselor to know they’re a wonderful match. Her use of bright, sharp colors makes Allred’s pop-art pop, matching and enhancing the energy of his characters designs. When Mr. Allred makes reality bend—like when the Impossible Man warps reality in FF or the Mona Lisa and other paintings come to life in Art Ops—it’s Mrs. Allred who makes readers buy in.
No one could hate Michael Allred—other than a pharmaceutical company—since his work is such a potent anti-depressant. Whether he’s bringing a much-needed sense of joy to corporate creations or building his own wacky universes, the results are always, as Madman would say, ginchy.