In ART OPS, the new mind-trip actioner from writer Shaun Simon and artist Michael Allred, art isn’t always content to lay dormant in its frames. It lives, breathes… and escapes, and when it does, it’s up to the highly secret team of agents known as the Art Operatives to control the situation. They police the world of ink, charcoal and paint, subduing it when necessary, because as any artist is likely to tell you—art doesn’t always play nice.
Fortunately, the same should never be said about Allred, the acclaimed, influential artist behind ART OPS, iZOMBIE, Madman and dozens of other comics that if you haven’t yet read, really need to be on your list. We recently sat down with Allred to find out more about this just released new title, the challenges presented in bringing classic art to life, and why when it comes to comic art, simpler is usually better.
So what can you tell us about ART OPS?
The basic premise is that we find that works of art—what you see in frames and museums—are actually living creatures and at times escape. The operatives that are in charge of corralling them and policing them are called the Art Operatives. In the very first case that we see, they actually release the Mona Lisa from her frame and replace her with a volunteer, who is excited to be a classic piece of art. So they make the volunteer up to look like the Mona Lisa and put her back in the frame, and then sneak the real Mona Lisa out. Really, it’s just fun to see all of these classic, very recognizable, iconic pieces of art as personalities, and then to see how the Art Ops deal with them.
The first generation of operatives that we’re introduced to disappears, and the son of the leader is tasked to step up. His name is Reggie Riot, and he’s kind of an irresponsible character. A piece of evil graffiti actually rips his arm off and in order to save his life, he’s taken to a special division of the Art Ops where his arm is replaced with actual art. So it’s oozing living paint that he can control, spew and attack with.
Shaun Simon is writing the book. Who came up with the idea?
Shelly hooked me up with Shaun. It’s almost the exact same situation that I had with Chris Roberson and iZOMBIE. Shelly was just inspired to put us together. She has a knack for just feeling out the chemistry between creators. She hooked me and Shaun up and he had this great idea, and we just started knocking things around and defining the characters. Then I designed them all and just started bringing them to life.
It sounds like an idea that might really speak to artists—the idea that your art takes life and sometimes maybe gains control. Was that something that resonated with you?
It’s funny because the birth of the idea probably doesn’t have much to do with the concept of the series. All of us—Shelly, Shaun and myself—are big fans of the New York music scene. The Ramones, Blondie… The first time we got together we actually just ran around these old haunts where some of those bands would play and different shops they shopped in. From there we got the spirit of Reggie Riot and were able to build out everything else from there. The idea of the Art Ops came first from Shaun—the seed of the idea was absolutely his. But then, to blow it out, we incorporated all of these textures from the environment. It really is a love letter to this spirit of New York, which hopefully a lot of people have the same kind of affection and enthusiasm for that we do.
Because you’re dealing with classic and fine art, will you be drawing more in that style? Or is ART OPS very much going to look like a Mike Allred book?
Oh, definitely. I love being challenged. I love doing anything I can to progress. I’m always experimenting. When I did my Madman Atomic Comics series, I made it a goal for every issue to work in some kind of experiment, like creating the world’s biggest comic book panel. In one issue, I told a story where in every single panel I tried to draw in the style of a different artist. So chronologically, you’d see the history of comic books in this one issue as I’m trying to draw in the style of artists throughout comic history.
This is a new a challenge in that I still want it to look like a comic book, but at the same time, I want to have the spirit of the artist in the piece of art that we’re dealing with. You’ll see that challenge on the cover of the first issue where you see the Mona Lisa right after she’s been taken out of her frame. I tried really hard to make it look as much like the painting as possible, only with her freed and her aggressive spirit now released. We’re used to that very calm, slight smile on the Mona Lisa, and I gave her just a little bit more of a kick, while trying to be as faithful to Da Vinci as possible.
Were you already a fan of the art that you’re having to recreate in ART OPS, or have you found that you need to go back and study a lot of it?
I was an art major and so you study the masters, but my passion has always been comic books and the simplicity of it—just always finding the essence of something. I’m one of the people who feel like simpler is better when it comes to comic book art. The story is what’s most important. You have to be very selective about when you show off. It’s tempting to show off with every single panel, and some fans love that. There are fan favorite artists who are able to just really throw a lot of stuff at you. But sometimes that doesn’t help the story. It can be a distraction. It can block it or even stop it. The story is the priority.
Alex Toth mentored me, one of the greatest blessings of my career, and he was all about if it doesn’t need to be there, then don’t put it there. When you have those opportunities to do a splash page or something that really blows it out, it’s more effective because you’re telling this story and then—POW!—you have this very visceral moment, or romantic moment, or scary moment. I honestly think it makes the entire piece more exciting and more involving.
Also, simple doesn’t mean boring. Simple means clear and powerful. With this and all the different artists that we’re dealing with, I have to find the essence of it. So I’m not going to try to recreate Rembrandts or Da Vincis. That said, I took a little more time on the cover for the exact reasons I’m talking about! You want to show off a little bit on the cover. So I pushed really hard to try to achieve the Da Vinci style in that painting.
You mentioned that your passion as an artist and as an art student has always been comics. Do comics appear in the ART OPS story? Do we see comic book art coming to life?
No doubt. We’ll see every kind of art. I think Reggie Riot, more than anyone, is in the spirit of comic books with the colors that burst out of his arm.
I should also mention my very good friend, Matt Brundage, is helping me with art here and there, too. We’re going to have really exciting guest artists like Eduardo Risso. So it’s going to be a party. We’re just having a lot of fun with this stuff.
I can’t let you go without asking you about iZOMBIE. The show’s back for its second season and seems to have some pretty devoted fans. Have you met fans that have now read the comic because of the show? It’s really brought some awareness to your prior Vertigo book, even though the show’s quite different from it.
Absolutely. It’s thrilling. For me, comic books are my absolute first love. I’ve been involved in film and music, but I make comics a priority. For me, it’s daydreams coming true. You think about how it would be great to have a movie, but why? For some it might be so you can put in a new swimming pool or to have more people exposed to your work. For me, I want people to come back to comics. So when somebody says they dug the TV series and wanted to see what the original source was, that’s thrilling for me. It’s also thrilling for me to see another medium excel with something that started with me and Chris. It’s very satisfying, and even more so when the entire cast and the showrunners are just wonderful people. In this case, we’ve just been incredibly lucky that so far everything is just wonderful on every level.