Mark Steger – Finding The Right Gear

Richard Hamilton writes;

It’s been a very interesting journey for Mark Steger, from self taught illustrator and animator to performing artist, creature choreographer and film maker. His work has been seen in everything from the movie I Am Legend to videos and tours with the band Tool. He’s also performed butt naked in front of thousands of people.

Mark’s been interested in comics as a visual medium since a very early age. This went hand in hand with an interest in movies and animation, as a kid making super 8 films with animated characters and using his friends as actors.

Now he’s created an online, multimedia comic mash-up called Gearbox.

The story of Gearbox follows Xiao, a novice warrior who travels to parallel realities in an effort to derail the advance of the Monocline – a brutal, possessed species that has plagued the universes for decades and are holding Xiao’s mentor and lover captive.

Behind it all is parasitic being that is transferred from one person to another like a virus.

Gearbox is filled with dark, sexual undertones and is set in a forbidding civilization. It might be what you’d get if David Cronenberg and Mario Bava got together and made a movie about beautiful, diabolical women conquering the universe.

To be honest, I am floored by the level of artistry and sheer inventiveness in Gearbox. In an era where pundits debate the merits of print versus digital comics, Mark’s work not only contributes to that discourse, but may show us one of the avenues to the future.

Mark’s influences range from Marvel and DC classics to underground comics and books like Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine. He’s a child of Hollywood who has also spent a lot of time with Andre Tarkovsky and Derek Jarman.

His drawing and painting led to work in experimental theater and illustration. In the early 90′s he began working at an animation studio in San Francisco called Colossal Pictures. This is where the classic Liquid TV series was created for MTV. Shows included the original Aeon Flux by Peter Chung, Richard Sala’s Invisible Hands and Cintra Wilson’s Winter Steele, the first puppet series about the adventures of a biker chick.

While working at Colossal, the opportunity arose for Mark to tour with a radical performing arts company he cofounded called Osseus Labyrint. It was an artistic exploration of his interest in life science and the history of the body, and it pretty much took over his life. After many years of hanging naked off of bridges and climbing around castle ruins in the raw, at the end of a tour of Asia he started working with friends on a concept for Gearbox.

Though it was usually sidetracked by other projects, the idea stayed with him for years, undergoing many transformations until broadband and video codecs reached a point where he realized that the internet might be a good home for an innovative, comic book/multimedia mash-up.

As Mark puts it;

I had been kicking around this idea of Gearbox in various forms for years — as a movie, a comic book, an animated film — but it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I realized it could be an interesting project for the internet.

There are a lot of online comics right now, it’s a good way to self-publish. But I’m old fashioned and if I’m just looking at images and reading text I’d rather hold it in my hand. I love the printed medium and hope it’s always with us in some form — I still buy printed books and comics.

The other thing I was starting to see a lot of were motion comics, which are basically limited animation series or shorts. Some of these are good but I thought there was somewhere else to take the form.

I was always thinking of what’s unique about the internet: that you can use any type of electronic media, and that you follow links and threads, not necessarily in a linear fashion.

With Gearbox I was able to bring together all my influences and the different forms and media I like to work in.

We’re not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel but we do want to explore the possibilities of the medium and use the medium for its strengths. I love traditional narrative but I’ve also worked more abstractly and don’t think there is a right way or wrong way to present the work as long as it’s involving. I’ve recently reworked the site so that it plays out more linearly but over time I expect it to become a bit labyrinthine. Gearbox may take a little more attention and be a little more challenging but the response has been really great.

I also feel that, after a tremendous learning curve, it’s getting better and I feel more confident about the direction it’s going in.”

It seems that there is now, more than ever, a greater cross-pollination between comic book and animation professionals. There are a lot of animators who do comics “on the side” just for fun and, vice versa, there are many comics creators who are looking to supplement their work in animation.

The association makes sense. The way sequential art plays out in comics is very filmic and as many know, storyboards look like comics. The visual vocabulary is very similar and there is a degree of control you have that is very satisfying.

 “I think for a comics creator, seeing your words and images given real sound and put in motion is thrilling. For someone who does animation, the relative immediacy of doing comics is very appealing. Animation can be a very time consuming process.

When I’m working on Gearbox I’m constantly thinking about how to put the images in motion but the last update I did was purely graphic and for me one of the most satisfying for its simplicity.

There’s also just love for the forms. Often there’s a point when I’m doing one and I get whimsical and think about how nice it would be to do the other. I grew up watching and making both illustrations and animation, as I’m sure many people have. I feel very lucky in that sense to have found some continuity between my childhood and my adult life.”

One of Mark’s desires, as Gearbox develops over time, is to turn it into a kind of Exquisite Corpse, where different artists take narrative threads and develop them.

It’s an interesting way to collaborate. The internet is a natural for it — one person or group of people taking a thread and running with it in whatever direction. It’s a way to give something a very unexpected life. With digital media especially, being bound to conventional story telling(which I love when it’s done well) can be limiting when you think about the way it functions and what’s possible.”

Considering his background in both comics and animation, I asked him for his take on digital comics as they currently stand. It seems like some of the new offerings from Marvel Infinite and even Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com seem to use some animation fundamentals to help convey their stories. Is there room for more innovation along the lines of motion comics, or does that push us too far into another medium?

I don’t think digital books or motion comics replace printed comics or vice versa. I think there will always be a desire by a lot of people to possess a printed comic. I personally love the experience of reading printed comics and books. The way they look and feel, the smell of the paper and ink, even how much tooth the paper has — all these things make it a different experience than looking at a screen. And physical objects like these possess a certain mortality that I appreciate, like vinyl record albums. You develop a history with them, with the creases and scratches and other ways that they decay that are like scars that call up memories and emotions.

But, that said, it’s a very interesting time for electronic media and I think there’s a natural synergy between those and comics. A lot of people are aware of this. I think ebooks and comics are a natural fit and I’m not just referring to a book with electronic pages that you turn. I’m thinking of the other types of interactive functionality that come with new media and how, like the web, you can use animation, video and sound. I’m forgetting more ideas than we’re actually able to implement.

Kids are growing up now with a relationship to devices and touch technology that’s as natural to them as bulky text books, cassettes and VHS tapes were to my generation. It’s another tool for artists to create with, like one of my favorite pens or mechanical pencils.

The fact is though that it’s still a very new form and you pretty much need programmers to help you develop any advanced functionality. But that genie is already out of the bottle and will be granting wishes for a while.

With Gearbox we’re trying to create with all of these tools. It presents challenges but I’m feeling more comfortable and more possibilities as it progresses.”

It’s hard to put ggearboxcomic.com into words, but be sure to give your eyes and brains a treat and visit the site post haste. And a word of warning: make sure you do visit on a day when you’ve got some free time to kill. The Gearbox experience is so immersive, you may find yourself disappearing down a rabbit hole.

Richard Hamilton works at Dreamworks Animation, is the founder of Dial C For Comics publishing and a contributor to the website buyindiecomics.com

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