This month, I spoke with Marcel Lamont Walker. Walker is talented visual artist who is gaining well deserved recognition for his body of work which includes drawing, creating Comics, painting, writing, photography, teaching, volunteerism and social activism. He was voted Best Local Cartoonist in The Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2017 Reader’s Poll. He volunteers in and around his community for various worthy causes. Walker is currently the lead project artist and the project manager of CHUTZ-POW! SUPERHEROES OF THE HOLOCAUST, a series of comic books produced by The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
In the first five minutes of our conversation, I felt like I was chatting with an old friend. Walker sees art as “a little window you open and leave behind for the world.” His hope is that people will be inspired by what they see and create their own little windows. According to Walker, “If my work causes someone to do something to move the earth forward in a meaningful way, I’ve done my job.”
We discussed his work, the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's Museum of the Comic and Cartoon Arts, and how he became involved with the Holocaust Center.
“Apathy for information is frustrating,” he said. “Remembering the Holocaust is important, so we can make sure it never happens again. We still have survivors with us to provide living history of what really happened. Telling their stories through the unique medium of graphic art gives us the opportunity to reach an entirely new younger audience.”
After talking with him, I concluded the best way for my readers to get to know Marcel Lamont Walker is through his own words. Here are my questions and his answers:
1. Tell us a little bit about your family and your upbringing.
Marcel: I was born in Pittsburgh, and my family moved all over the city (All over the city. You name the neighborhood, we probably lived there…). The last high school I attended was a small private school in Homewood; it isn’t there anymore. I’m a graduate of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where I pursued the course of Visual Communications. At the time I attended, they didn’t have a specific course in Comics art, so I learned skills in illustration, design, and fine art that were applicable.
Both of my parents were creatively inclined. My father had many talents – sculpting, drawing, and particularly photography – but none of them were his vocation. My mother was a musician and played organ and piano for her church. I’m the eldest of three siblings, and my mother, sisters and I were the main family unit; our father was a more peripheral figure. Times were occasionally very rough, but by the time I reached my early twenties, a lot of problems had subsided.
2. How did you begin your career in the print business?
Marcel: As a visual artist, specifically one who produced work intended to be reprinted, I always gravitated toward printers. I had friends who worked in a couple of places Downtown and Oakland, so I was there a lot. The Kinko’s on Grant Street (which is now a FedEx Office) was a frequent place I had work printed, so I got to know the staff pretty well. One day the manager offered me a part-time job in custom printing services, and I needed something to augment my other part-time teaching job, so I took it.
I quickly discovered that Kinko’s was where lots of local Comics creators worked. Several of my peers also had jobs at the various branch offices, which made lots of sense. It was an opportunity to get your work printed in a hands-on way…and the discounts helped a good bit too.
3. How did you become interested in writing and drawing comic books?
Marcel: My father was also a skilled visual artist, not necessarily by trade, but he had a lot of talent. I frequently would find my favorite individual panels in my comics (which I always read with no help), and would ask him to re-draw them. He would, and I’d be temporarily satisfied and go away, then I’d be back. Eventually he suggested I re-draw the pictures myself, something I’d never considered. I liked the results so much I never asked him to do it again.
I knew almost immediately I wanted to make comics for a living. This is before I was old enough to consider money as a factor. Most children wouldn’t have remained so single-minded about a goal throughout childhood, adolescence, and their teens, but I’ve known other cartoonists who experienced a similar early affinity for making comics. I drew from the beginning, but somewhere in my tween years I realized that I needed to have actual stories to hone my skills. I didn’t have any other budding Comics creators as friends, so I decided to create my own stories with my own characters.
4. How did you develop your ideas into a series?
Marcel: None of my earliest ideas have survived into being published – and they mostly didn’t deserve to! But I basically just kept writing and drawing and studying the work of others. The best thing I did was use work I admired as a benchmark of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to create work as good as the work I enjoyed. If it wasn’t that good, that meant more development was necessary. I also had to seek out criticism from people who would know what they were talking about, and that meant Comics professionals. Fortunately, several of them were willing to talk to me and evaluate my work. That kind of critiquing helped me figure out what I was doing right and wrong.
5. You are a bit of a Renaissance man. Drawing, painting, writing, photography, teaching, and you serve as a board member of The ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's Museum of the Comic and Cartoon Arts. How do you find time for everything?
Marcel: I don’t know if I’m a Renaissance man so much as I’m a control freak who also likes certain challenges! Comics fostered my love of comics and writing, and when I went to art school to develop those skills, I also studied painting and photography. My father was also a photographer, and those skills overlap with my visual art talents. I think my work as a Comics creator informs my work as a photographer, and vice versa. I started teaching because a small opportunity presented itself to me, and that developed into a vocation of its own. The best way to learn more about something you think you know is to teach it. I learned at least as much about life and art from my students as I hope they learned from me, and probably more.
I joined the board of The ToonSeum to address some of the needs of the local Comics community, and to help the organization fulfill its promise of being a resource for them. I still see vast potential for The ToonSeum to expand its reach and become even more valuable to the community at large.
As for finding time…that’s hard. I just try to prioritize as much as possible, which is a continual challenge. Some of my more recent achievements have meant a little more stability in my finances, which means I don’t have to move on every single opportunity that comes my way. That tendency develops when you’re always looking for your next big job. But, it pays to take some time to figure out how you want to get paid.
6. You often collaborate with other authors and artists. Tell us about the process for you. Is it hard to give up complete control of a project?
Marcel: It depends on the project and my role. An anthology comic book is great because ideally everyone gets to have their chance to shine and produce their work in their own way. I’m a very methodical artist – I work in a linear fashion, from sketches to more developed sketches, to pencil art, to inked art, to lettering, and sometimes coloring – but you can’t expect other artists to work the same way you do. That’s what makes group projects exciting: the opportunity to see work produced in ways you’d never consider. Sometime you’ll see processes you can incorporate into your own; other times, you get validation that your own way works best for you.
7. You were recently voted Best Local Cartoonist in The Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2017 Reader’s Poll. What does this honor mean to you?
Marcel: That’s a real honor, and I hope to keep working on projects – like CHUTZ-POW! and HERO CORP., INT’L – that allow people to see other facets of the world in ways they’d never before thought possible!
That thing people who are nominated for awards always say about feeling honored to be in the company of esteemed peers? That’s true. I’ve had some friends joke that I “campaigned like a BOSS” for the votes, and they’re right. That’s because I wanted to WIN! You don’t get the things you want by being bashful about it; you’ve got to let it be known. That being said, I understand it’s a poll and these things are subjective. But if genuine talent can intersect with popularity, and we can (literally) change up the face of who’s doing this kind of work, then I’m fine with winning this poll. Now let me start working on next year’s poll!
8. What keeps you motivated?
Marcel: Fair compensation for my efforts is an important motivation. Reaching my intended audiences is another. I’m a people-person by nature, so I like interacting with audiences whenever possible. It’s nice when I hear back from people who have encountered my work in places beyond my direct reach. Hearing that I’ve made a positive impact on someone out in the world by doing what I do best makes me feel like a success.
9. You self-published SMOKING GUNS: ONE SHOT. Was this your first comic book? What is it about and what gave you the idea for it?
Marcel: SMOKING GUNS was the first comic book that I was able to see through to fruition, from concept to distribution, so it represents a big accomplishment for me. I came up with the concept for it when I was seventeen, and it reflects my basic interests at the time. It’s a mash-up of 1930’s and ‘40’s-era gangster and detective stories and more contemporary science fiction. I like the term “retro-tech” to describe it. It started out conceptually more violent, as most boys in their late-teens are more interested in that kind of storytelling, but it became much more lighthearted by the time I put it out in the world.
I sent out a lot of submissions to publishers for it, and was routinely rejected. I even completed one entire issue of a planned mini-series that ended up being unpublished after the company, a local start-up Indy publisher, discovered they’d overextended themselves. A few years later I decided to produce a single-issue story – a “one shot” in Comics vernacular – to prove I could do it. I saved money for a year while writing the script, budgeted the time, and took a two-month sabbatical from my jobs to produce the artwork. I vividly recall having problems with an intended printer and looking for another one, and standing at a bus stop worrying about what to do at such a late stage. As if on cue, a truck from a printer on the South Side rolled past me, and I called them that day. It worked out perfectly. I was able to get a thousand more copies of my book printed for the same cost. I still have copies of SMOKING GUNS, if anyone is interested!
10. You describe your current ongoing comic-book series, HERO CORP., INTERNATIONAL, as “a meta-human narrative set in the city of ‘New Pittsburgh’ which explores the world of corporate American super-heroics.” What inspired the series and how long have you been working on it?
Marcel: Like a lot of my projects, it’s been a slow burn. It began almost twenty years ago as a bunch of disconnected drawings I made of myself and various friends I worked with at my jobs. Over time, I realized the characters probably coexisted in a world like ours, and that they also worked together. The conceit of HERO CORP., INT’L is that for those characters being a superhero isn’t necessarily a calling or a responsibility the way it is for most mainstream characters: it’s their job. When they manifest powers they get recruited and trained and, depending on their notoriety and specialties, compensated heavily. They’re like celebrities and law enforcers rolled into one. An added bit of fun for me is that I try to retain my friends’ personalities even in the more extreme characterizations. I cast myself as the lead character, The Pro, who is the Superman-archetype of that universe’s “New Pittsburgh” (a name I think we should adopt by the way). It’s also been heartening connecting with Black audiences, who always immediately notice having a Black character at the forefront of the narrative.
11. Are you excited about the Pittsburgh art scene? Why?
Marcel: I’m excited by aspects of it, and the potential of the arts community. The potential is always the thing for me. We have thousands of creative people here, and it’s accepted that artists have been, and continue to be, catalytic to the city’s economic development. What I’d like to see is for the arts, en masse, to be held in the same regard as our region’s professional sport teams. I want to see that same kind of dedication and devotion from the public, and by extension from donors and sponsors. I want to see a radical inclusion of the arts in Pittsburgh by the general public. When the artists, of all disciplines, are finally able to reap the benefits of the catalytic changes they bring about, that’s where we’re going to see the true growth that needs to occur here. When I see local creatives embraced for doing what they do, that’s when I get excited about that potential.
12. What projects are you working on?
Marcel: I am currently the lead project artist and the project manager of CHUTZ-POW! SUPERHEROES OF THE HOLOCAUST, a series of comic books produced by The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. We’ve already produced two issues since 2014, and VOLUME THREE: THE YOUNG SURVIVORS is slated for release in late-January 2018. There will be an accompanying art exhibition as well, so there’s a lot coming up with this project!
I’m also working (slowly, but it’s coming along) on the third issue of HERO CORP., INTERNATIONAL, the third installment in my own comic-book series. Production on it slowed to a crawl as I had to take on other work, but I love those characters and it’s in the pipeline. It’s still a thing!
On the professional front, I’m having some conversations with local creative people, and those associated with the arts community in Pittsburgh, to discuss a specific initiative that would raise the collective political voice of regional creatives. The need for this initiative crystallized for me earlier this year, and there are several purposes it would ultimately serve. There’s no set timeframe for when this will “go live” but it’s in motion. There are a number of fiercely intelligent people in Pittsburgh who are talking with me about more ways to get artists “in the room where it happens.”
If you see that I’m going to be speaking at an event – and I do that a good bit, like at the Bridge Series, or at the PAGE reading series – please come out and say hello. I love talking and meeting new people. Hopefully you’ll like some of what I have to say…but you can draw your own conclusions!
13. You wrote a touching article about Pittsburgh muralist Judy Penzer and how her work inspired you to create a mural for a local art show where artists were live-painting murals in a gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh for audiences to watch throughout the afternoon and evening. All the murals from the show were painted over recently to make way for new art. Do you hope to recreate your mural in a permanent setting? If so, where do you feel would be the most fitting location to honor Penzer and her work?
Marcel: I would love exploring that opportunity. I don’t know if I’m the person to actually produce the mural, but if so I’d want to spend much more time on it to ensure the treatment it deserves. I suppose my relationship with Judy makes for a compelling link in that narrative, but maybe more talented hands would be suitable for such a project. Either that or a recreation of her sports mural would be nice. Downtown or the Strip District or somewhere on the North Shore would make a nice home. I could easily see a Penzer mural within the vicinity of the stadiums, close to where her sports subjects scored their greatest victories.
14. What do outdoor murals add to the identity of a city?
Marcel: When done right, they serve as cultural identifiers. The tone of a city’s murals says a lot about what type of artwork is accepted and appreciated there. They can be fun and playful (like the one downtown right now that features Andy Warhol and Andrew Carnegie) or political or social, but the right mural can speak volumes about what’s important to the community.
15. The artists I have known tend to see the world through a different “lens” that captures qualities the rest of us might miss. How do you capture your vision and share it with the rest of the world?
Marcel: My goal is always, always, always to be as genuine as I can possibly be. In Letters to a Young Artist by writer/teacher/actor Anna Deavere Smith, she attempts to answer the question of what constitutes having a "presence." Her answer is that in the future she believes “presence will be defined by possessing complete authenticity.” By that extension, if I want my work to have a significant presence in the world, I have to make sure I retain my authenticity in the work. I’m most able to do so when I believe in what I do and can stand behind it with conviction. If I’m writing or drawing fiction, it’s still probably going to be infused with whatever makes me tick. I like having a purpose of some kind with everything I put out there in the world.
Sometimes that purpose is utter whimsy for its own sake though. I try not to take myself too seriously.
16. How do you want to be remembered?
Marcel: In some way, shape, or form, I hope the planet itself remembers me -- not as an individual, but as a micro-organism that sought to mutually sustain our lives. I hope it knows that I'm on its side, and I'm floating around in its miasma trying to contribute to the greater good.
If planet Earth (or whatever its celestial name is) is capable of considering us as such, I want to be remembered as part of its life force, something reflective of sunlight, and something calming in moonlight. And something that helped keep the planet in motion, rather than trying to get it to stay still.
A really good micro-organism that pulled more than its own weight; that's what I want to be remembered for being.
For more information about Marcel Lamont Walker, visit his website, http://www.marcelwalker.com/.
Be sure to visit the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's Museum of the Comic and Cartoon Arts located in downtown Pittsburgh's Cultural District at 945 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA (http://toonseum.org/), and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh at 826 Hazelwood Avenue in Greenfield (http://hcofpgh.org/).
The images used in this article were supplied by Marcel Walker.