Interview with Mike Cooper

Interviewed by Tyrone Burns

For the uninitiated who are you?image

Mike: During the day I’m a computer game developer. I’ve been doing that for 16 years and I now teach it. But then, when I go home at night I become Doctor Mike 2000 and I make comics. I’m the writer/artist for Universe Gun which is a psychedelic superhero comic that I’ve been making for the past 3 years. Prior to that I used to make game mods.

What games did you mod?

Mike: I did superhero story driven missions for “Freedom Force” back in 2002, with a very Stan Lee, Jack Kirby sort of vibe. Freedom force was made in Canberra and I met some of the people who worked on it. It was my first taste of creative fame in many ways.

I started making my own storyline with my own characters. I was competing with people who were making mods with the X-men and Fantastic Four and other known characters. Word started to get around that mine was kind of good. Being a game developer meant I could do a lot of the technical stuff. A lot of people thought it was really cool because it had good lines of dialogue and character voices and so on.

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I ended up making a mod called The Strangers which ended up being longer than the original game. I got a bit carried a way there. Then I made a couple of more artsy mods. There were Tales of the Navigator which was kind of meta-fictional on how the superhero universe was created and then I made an expansion on that game. It got about 10,000 downloads.

I eventually ran out of steam, I was making this in my spare time while I was working insane hours in Ratabag Games. I would get home at 9pm and then start coding the mod into the night, making character textures, or writing some new dialogue. I was doing it all by myself. That was from 2002 through to 2005. I went back for a brief return where I was working with an artist I had met in the forums. I did a mod called The Amazanauts featuring 7 versions of Ms.Amazing all working together, which is actually going to be my next comic series. I’m going to be revisiting that stuff again after Universe Gun is finished. I’ll probably make a note in the comic that you can actually play with these characters or prototype versions of them.

So you can still use your mods on Freedom Force today?

Mike: Yeah it’s still on my website, I’ve got a little games tab down on the bottom of the website where you can get all the Freedom Force stuff. You can get Freedom Force for like $3-5 dollars on Steam and my mods should still plug into it.

Let’s talk more about what you’re currently doing. Namely your comic series Universe Gun.

Mike: Universe Gun is going to be a 12 issue series. 7 of them are out now. I’m currently in the middle of number 8 and drawing that.

What are the main themes of Universe Gun?

Mike: It’s a superhero comic set in the 37th century. Whilst it’s brightly coloured, psychedelic and very silly in places, it’s very politically driven as well.

What types of political drama do we see in the story?

Mike:The X-men for example always compares to the civil rights moment, the mutant rights was similar to black rights and so on. What I’ve tried to portray and discuss in Universe Gun however, is the war against drugs. Since the 1980’s when the Reagan administration decided to get tough on drugs, the American prison population soured dramatically and it’s actually disproportionate with black people who are getting locked up for possession of drugs for recreational use. I’ve mirrored this exactly in Universe Gun with superpowers. Superpowers are illegal; people get locked up for it; low grade ones are referred to as recreational superpowers.

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With the character “Kid Identity,” who you first meet in prison, has been sort of hassled by the police for minor misdemeanors with his power- a malleable face. So I tried to cover it all, “Recreational nonviolent offenders,” using phrases like that.

The other big one is wealth and equality. In the same time period since the 80’s, wealth and equality has been massively polarized on our planet. The rich have been getting incredibly richer, all with this lie of trickled down economics. So I try to apply that to a superhero universe. Imagine if you could buy and sell superpowers. These rich hoarder types would basically gather them all for themselves.

I believe the main villain who gets revealed in issue 5 is the epitome of this wealth polorization. In the comic we have the Life Star. An alien satellite that brought superpowers to our universe. It’s like a natural resource that just turned up. It’s now being strip mined. All the good stuff from it is being taken and locked up in a tax haven. It’s this “woman’s jewelry cabinet” where she’s keeping power rings, some of which used to be people. She’s got a machine that takes people with superpowers, disintegrates them and turns them into a ring that she can wear.

“What was the story I heard?” It was about some oil sheik type dude suffering severe depression. Having this big downer for months because he only became 29th in the Forbes rich list that year. The previous year he had been number 27.

It just made me think, if your incredibly rich and you have a giant bank account, money that goes in there does absolutely nothing to your tangible lifestyle. You wouldn’t know any difference unless you keep looking at that number on your phone or your computer.

That money, these millions that have been diverted from tax dodgers into the wealthy one percent pockets could do massive change. What would happen if it were applied at ground level? Where talking about people not being able to afford medicine;  people not being able to live normal lives;  people not being able to afford food and shelter. So yeah I’ve tried to apply the superhero equivalent of that. What if your very life was taken from you so someone could have your superpowers sitting in a cupboard?

I could tell when meeting you that you didn’t want to just create a comic fluff piece and that you really wanted to say something important.

Mike: Yes I do! When you look at the superhero genre in general, nearly every superhero that has ever been created is either a policeman or a soldier and we actually do a lot more in our world than that. What would the world be like if you had superheroes who were hairdressers, or if you had superhero programmers? For that reason half the cast in Universe Gun are basically non-combat characters. The first two you meet, Princess Amtora is a games programmer. Kid Identity is a street kid but he doesn’t really have the ability to fight or anything, yet he does still have useful powers.

In Issue 2, I introduce Coriolis Boy and Star Girl. They are kind of the strong arm of the team who actually think like superheroes because they have been raised in that lifestyle. I tried to show how inapplicable that is in some ways to a more complex world. You can’t just go out and fight evil everyday with your fists.

How has the series changed since you started?

Mike: It evolves. I did have it fairly well planned out, like the overall storyline when I started. Things keep changing here and there though. There was an entire character who I’ve had to ditch. I’ve had to jettison certain other things because it just didn’t fit anymore. I was going to do space but thought “yeah this story can be told without introducing certain complexity.”

Every now and then something occurs to me and I think “oh my god that fits really well!” If I just move these little pieces around then I’ll actually have something that makes more sense than what I originally envisioned. So yeah, it kind of morphs a bit. There was a lot of planning that went into it. I originally came up with these characters in 2006. I started making the comic around 2013, and I’ve played most of the characters online in mmo’s (massive multiplayer online) and workshopped them in that way. So I actually had plenty of time to figure out who they are and come up with a story for them.

Who is your favourite character?

Mike: (Laughs) That’s a really hard one!

If I didn’t like any of the characters I wouldn’t have put them in there.

Possibly Princess Amtora. She is the first character you meet and in many ways she is the biggest stand-in for me in this comic. She is a games programmer like me. I’m an identical twin. There is generally two of her because of her self duplication abilities. By page 14 she falls in love with herself. She was searching for her ideal programming partner. On Mars they have a total lack of work life balance. Everyone just works all the time which is making the great database smarter and it finds arranged marriages for them. Her ideal programming partner it turns out is herself. That’s a kind of veil reference to a writer looking for an artist. For ages I thought of myself as a writer looking for an artist until I realized the best artist to draw this stuff is actually myself. So I just kept practicing at the art.

What have you learned over the years of writing and doing art?

Mike: I’ve learned about the art of stringing a story together in a comic. I look back on the first couple of issues and I wince a little bit. But “never look back or you’ll turn to stone!” So I’ve learned a lot about story structure. I’ve had a fairly decent understanding in place from making games before, that were narrative driven. “What does the player or the viewer or the reader need to know? What facts do they know by this point? If your going to set up a twist, what facts do you need to reinforce before hand?”

I think I’ve learned more on how to apply that in comics. One of the first pieces of advice you always seek as a first time comic creator is, don’t start with a massive series.

I’ve always thought, “yeah I’ll be ok.” The two downsides I’ve found to that are that I look back on the first two issues and I think they could have been better and if I got that practice out of my system before then, I would’ve had more consistency. Also, I’m now trying to sell seven issues at one time to people at markets and corners. “Hey, spend $30 dollars on me whom you’ve never heard of on these characters you don’t know.” Having a smaller bite size intro piece would be nice.

Why did you decide to write comics?

Mike: It’s a lifeboat for these characters. I’ve had them in my head since 2007, and I think it occurred to me that basically I was going to die with all these characters in my head. I always toyed with the idea of making comics.

I’ve always thought “argh, it’s a lot of hard work”, but then I just thought “my daughter’s moved out; I have fewer responsibilities than I used to when I was making games and being a single parent. Now is the time I thought “right ok, I’m just going to do this! I’m going to make a page every week.” I went to a friend of mine (David Williams), who runs a West Australian course on how to write comics. He introduced me to perspective. I think that was the final piece of the mission. It was like “ok now I’ve got all the skills I need to tell a story, rather than just drawing characters with a vague background.”

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What’s your advice on time management?

Mike: Just set yourself a goal, one page a week. You will be amazed what you can fit in around a day job and everything. Don’t feel depressed! “Oh it’s Thursday, I haven’t done the inking yet. Oh it’s Sunday, I’d better finish this off before I go to work tomorrow.” It works wonders!

Quick questions:

Who is your favorite writer?

Mike: Grant Morrison

Who is your favorite artist?

Mike: My favourite artist is a guy called Seth Fisher who died in 2006. My current favourite artist is Philip Bond.

Where do you see comics going in the next 10 years?

Mike: I don’t see comics changing in a lot of ways. Just telling new and different stories.

Where would you like the industry to go?

Mike: We have things like comiXology which is great, I would like to see that get better in some ways, so that it can be easier to broadcast the comics you’ve made. So, not so much change the way you make them, but change the way people find them.

Who is an overrated writer?

Mike: Geoff Johns. I’ve never really clicked with him.

Who is the most overrated comic character?

Mike: I easily think it’s Wolverine.

Who is underrated as a writer?

Mike: Peter Milligan, he did X-Static which is like a reality TV take on the X-men. No one writes young love like Peter Milligan. He is currently doing Brittania.

Who is the most underrated character?

Mike: Wonder Woman has the most untapped potential. But I think Black Canary is a character who is absolutely fantastic.

Marvel or DC?

Mike: I follow writers, but if I had to then it’s DC.

If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?

Mike: It would have to be an artist I think. I would really like Mike Allred to draw my characters; the guy who did X-Statix.

What’s your advice for new writers and artists?

Mike: Just do it and practice! There is no better time than now. There is never going to be a perfect time to start a comic. Treat your first comic as practice. Drawing a comic makes you draw all sorts of weird stuff that you don’t get to draw just drawing pin-ups or characters. When do you ever draw someone going underneath a desk to fix some wiring on the bottom? Never! Unless the story calls for it.

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