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Interview conducted by Lenny Schwartz

Neil Kleid was a name I would see and hear on various projects in the industry.

While prepping this article, I had a chance to read some of his work and instantly became a fan. So much that I ordered his book Brownsville from Amazon right away and can’t wait for it to come in.

His latest comic, Kings and Canvas, has been described as “Game of Thrones Meets Rocky.”

It’s a damn good comic book and I’m was happy that Neil was able to take some time to talk about it.

So without further delay, here we go!

FOG!: Neil, thank you for speaking with us today. Tell us about yourself. How did you get into comic books and creating them?

Neil Kleid: It’d be fair to say that my Dad got me into comics.

He used to collect when he was younger (yes, every father has a “my mom tossed my comics out” story), and when my older brother and I were about 8-9, he started bringing home brown bags of superhero comics from the local book store. That evolved into the two of us snagging issues at 7-11 and riding our bikes to the closest shop, and eventually blossomed into an obsession and ultimately a profession. I began sketching and tracing comics early on, mostly drawing on paper atop Ninja Turtles issues and then various superhero books.

Eventually, I started to redraw old issues and apply my own take, as well as tried to illustrate my own Batman and Avengers stories. An early trip to NYC had my father make an uninvited and unscheduled stop by 387 Park Avenue South—the old Marvel offices—where we asked to show my samples to an editor. One was kind enough to have a look, and kindly handed me a copy of How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, sample scripts and suggestions for honing my craft—that was a huge ego boost and really got me thinking I could make it as an artist.

But it wasn’t until college that I really started becoming serious about it, walking up Broadway to the DC offices with portfolio in hand…only to be told that my anatomy and style needed work. BUT my storytelling was actually pretty spot on, and so the editor in question asked if I’d considered writing rather than becoming an artist.

And so my journey began. I started to read everything and burned through thousands of terrible pages — screenplays, short stories, comic scripts, you name it. I worked my way up — minicomics, then self published work, to higher profile short stories and eventually some work for hire.

Neil at the drawing table

At the time of this writing, I’ve freelanced for nearly every publisher in the industry and I’m really only getting started.

I see you won a Xeric Award in 2003 for Ninety Candles? Tell us about that experience.

Ninety Candles was envisioned during a time in my life where I was still figuring out what a comic was —by this, I mean, is it simply a collection of panels per page, or can it be more?

Batman was a comic, but so was The Family Circus. A comic could have the breadth and scope of Watchmen but also me intimate and precious like the work of Jordan Crane among others.

I wanted to experiment. I wanted to try something new. And, to be honest, I wanted to make sure I was drawing something every day.

And so, I gave myself a task: one panel a day, no script, each panel iterating the story based on the panels before.

It felt like a life unfolding, and so it became the story of a cartoonist trying to make it in the industry without a net of his own…and evolved into a wonderful little project about family, legacy and comics. It’s a story that really focuses on spacing and timing in comics—each panel devotes itself to one year in the cartoonist’s life—and the reader is allowed to envision what happens between the panels.

Winning the Xeric was honestly something I had never considered. I had already been working on the book, when some pals of mine in Brooklyn—former winners of the grant—urged for me to craft a submission. I was completely blindsided by winning but am ever grateful that I did…not only to the Xeric Foundation for selecting my work, but also for giving me the opportunity to learn firsthand what it truly means to publish a comic.

I learned how to work with a printer, a distributor and both hand sell and pitch over the phone to retailers. It was an amazing experience, helping breathe life into a book built off of one of the purest, innovative ideas I may ever have, and though I don’t relish the memories of hauling boxes or sweating numbers, I’m thankful for what it taught me about comics and being a professional creator.

I also see you wrote the novel version of one of my favorite Spider-Man tales, Kraven’s Last Hunt.  How did that come about?

Recently, I had the opportunity to write a spec novel for a former editor, one that may never make it to mass market but allowed to stretch and expand my prose muscles.

Novels had already been on mind, having been working with a few publishers regarding possible book ideas, and I jumped at the chance to do more.

Once finished with the spec, I happened to randomly run into former Marvel editor Stuart Moore while walking through Brooklyn —I’ve known Stuart for years, ever since I waltzed into his office at Marvel and asked if he’d be willing to entertain some pitches. We caught up, and I casually mentioned the spec, discovering that he’d been asked to do it, as well, but had to turn it down due to scheduling.

Stuart asked to have a read, and mentioned that he was editing the Marvel prose line—I sent him my manuscript and checked in every now and then…until one day, he reached out and asked if I’d be available to write the Kraven novel.

The Original Kraven’s Last Hunt scribe, J.M. DeMatteis, had originally been tapped to do it, but he had scheduling issues, as well, and so they needed someone to step in and meet the deadline.

Now, I’ve been a devotee of Kraven’s Last Hunt ever since reading the original issues by candlelight (brought home by Dad in that aforementioned paper bag) and asking me to tackle the novelization was like asking me if I wanted to play shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. I jumped at the chance, and working with both Stuart and Marvel was a dream. How many Jewish kids from Michigan can say they’ve had the chance to write Spider-Man?

So your new comic book is Kings and Canvas. You describe it as “Game of Thrones meets Rocky.” It sounds fun and a bit nuts…so I was in from the get go. What inspired you to create this comicbook?

For those who don’t know, Kings and Canvas is a fantasy boxing take about a former champion who escapes prison after ten years of exile and fights across a changed America to win back his title and family from those who took it.

When I began to envision the series, I was going through a bit of a job search crisis, debating whether or not I had picked the wrong path in life — maybe I should go back to school and be a lawyer?—and a lot of friends and colleagues were out of work. You saw a ton of art directors in their forties and fifties vying for junior design positions because the jobs simply weren’t there, and my question was what lengths would a man go to find purpose and attain change after discovering his life and profession have passed him by?

Definitely a theme relatable to the job market at the time…and perhaps even today as the economy continues to bounce back. But what intrigued me was seeing it through the eyes of a man returning to a society that has passed him by, as well…how do you reintegrate into society after being away for ten years? Are your skills even marketable, and how much catch up do you need to play? More importantly, how do you reintegrate into a family and community you once knew, and is there even a place in it anymore?

And, to be honest, I had been looking to tackle a genre or style of story that was slightly out of my wheelhouse…and I wanted to really build a world. Create a new environment with it’s own culture and history, its own people and places and allow it to breathe through my writing. Fantasy seemed like a great bet, and I had also been starting to take some boxing lessons at the time, and really enjoying the sport—not following the pro circuit, mind, but actually strapping on gloves and getting in the ring at my local gym. I’m a fan of the practice and fascinated with the concepts, history and rules of the sport. 

Boxing feels very old-world, and there is a natural parallel between boxing and jousting, one I wanted to explore.

The art by Jake Allen is pretty fantastic. How did you get Jake on the book? Any bribery involved?

Well, does my one of my kids count as bribery? Because to me, that sounds like I’m getting the better part of the deal (no, no, kids…Daddy loves you. Hush now).

Jake and I have actually worked together before—we did a graphic novel called Brownsville for NBM Publishing —the story of Murder, Incorporated, the Jewish hit operation that worked for Lansky and Albert Anastasia in the Thirties.

And we also did a short story for an anthology titled Postcards for Random House/Villard. Since then, Jake and I had been looking for another project, and we knew that we wanted to do something different—something original and completely out there. I’d always wanted to build a fantasy world of my own…and Jake was completely up for the challenge.  His line work has taken a huge leap forward and the work he’s turning out is completely blowing my mind.

As well, we’ve been lucky enough to partner with our incredible colorist, Frank Reynoso. I’ve said this before, but Jake and Frank are seamless — I get inks in my project folder?  Jaw drops. Then the colors follow?  Knocked out.

I’m honored to be working with both of these brilliant co-authors, and I hope my words do their artwork justice.

It’s being published by Monkeybrain Comics. How did you get involved with them?

Man, I’ve been dying to work with Monkeybrain since they opened their doors. Not only am I fan of Chris Roberson’s writing, but the talent he and Allison Baker have assembled under their banner is nothing short of extraordinary.

The titles in the Monkeybrain stable—Bandette, High Crimes, Amelia Cole and more—are brilliant and filled with some of the best storytelling and artwork I’ve seen in a while. Some of my colleagues in the industry were kind enough to introduce me to Chris and Allison and they saw something they believed in Kings and Canvas…and have been incredibly supportive ever since. I’m thrilled to have our comic bear their label.

How long do you foresee King and Canvas being? Any movie deals in the works? Can I be in it if there is?

Heck, if there’s a movie deal I don’t know that I’LL be in it…but sure. You can be in it, if you don’t mind getting in the ring with Mammoth…or a dragon.

There’s a long term plan for the title…the first arc will end with issue 6, and the plan is to put out another 6 and wrap up our “season one,” then reassess…but the thing of it is, Jake, Frank and I don’t make a page rate for working on this book. We do it because we believe in it, and we love it.

Should another project come along that pays our bills, we’d probably have to adjust our schedules to take it…and even still, in creator owned comics, if there reaches a point where the following and demand simply isn’t there…well, it’s hard to ignore paid work. I think the three of us will always want to do Kings and Canvas — and should circumstances allow, we’d be happy to create it until it reaches it’s natural, organic conclusion. For now, we’re targeting 12 issues. Beyond that? Here’s hoping.

I also see you have a novel coming up that expands the Powers universe, Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim. How closely did you work with Powers Co-Creators Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Avon Oeming? Did you geek out at all working with them?

Yeah, Brian and Mike were kind enough to welcome me into their world with open arms — apart from the writers on the TV show, I’m the first person to pen a Powers story, I believe that isn’t Brian, and that takes a huge leap of faith on his part…one for which I am incredibly grateful. Brian and I worked pretty closely on the book—I’ve actually worked with Oeming before, having created a short Colossus story together for X-Men Unlimited #14 (recently collected in the Colossus: God’s Country trade paperback), but Brian and I had never met until I dug into Deena Pilgrim’s life and family.

Neil Kleid and Brian Michael Bendis

And yeah, it was fantastic to finally shake his hand last summer at SDCC and grab a few minutes of his increasingly parceled time.

We then had a few great phone conversations wherein we plotted out the structure of the story, and then he let me go into my head and really fill in the details, craft the characters and dialogue, adding my voice to Deena, Walker and the rest of the cast.

There was some back and forth as the manuscript came together, but Brian is an amazing collaborator in that he really trusts the people he’s working with, and gave me the freedom to take our shared story and really make it my own.

I would leap for the chance to work with him again…so feel free to email or tweet at him and tell him so!

Speaking of which, what makes you geek out? Who are your influences?

Lately I geek out on television—we’re in this crazy golden age of smartly crafted, tightly written episodic teevee and it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with my workload while also burning through episode of Vinyl, Billions, The Flash, Better Call Saul and dozens more.

I’m going through a new Star Wars renaissance, having ushered my sons into its fandom during the ramp up to the recent movie. Saga is always on my pull list at the comic shop, but I’m crazy excited to get my hands on the Eltingville Club hardcover collection from Evan Dorkin and Dark Horse (read the final issue—it’ll screw with your mind). These days I’m reading a bunch of old Mafia history books for a new project, but I’m also balancing it with a Game of Thrones rewatch and re-read — one month ‘til the new season, baby! And I also geek about my day job, during which I art direct the Topps Company’s suite of digital card collecting apps, including Star Wars Card Trader, which has become a runaway success.

My influences are vast and constantly changing, to be honest — one day it’s the writing of Warren Ellis, the next a deep dive into classic Lee and Kirby. Will Eisner’s work has made a huge mark on my writing, as has the work of Joe Kubert…but I’ll again point to increasingly clever and well-written teleplays from Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, David Chase and the like.

Every day I’m inspired by something new — I read lots of book and also comics (clear distinction there), watch lots of movies and TV, download apps and visit museums. I watch the news, read magazines, talk to people, listen to kids at malls…It’s a big, wide world out there. Once you step out your door —or your comfort zone—who knows what will inspire you?

Which book of yours are you most proud of? (I really can’t wait to read Brownsville)?

Thanks — that was one of my first, hope you dig it. Each of my books contains some small measure of pride, to be fair. With Ninety Candles, it was exploration and innovation. With Kings and Canvas, it’s world building and character evolution. Brownsville was the research and fascination with the subject, and the Big Kahn was emotional catharsis. Every story, every word I’ve written really defines who I am —and who I’ve been—as a writer, and all I can hope is that the next book, the next story, can make me equally proud…and allow me to learn something from its process and creation.

But if I have to choose, it’s probably Kings and Canvas, hands down. I mean, boxing dragons and amazing co-authors. Come on.

Finally, Anything else you have upcoming?

Kings and Canvas #4 will be out by the time this article posts, I’m sure, and the fifth issue will follow either end of March or early April. We’re currently mulling a bi-monthly (every two months) schedule in order to accommodate for mine and Jake’s increasingly busy schedules. But we’re definitely on track to complete the first arc by the summer, and there have been talks about printing a limited number of issue #0 for conventions, should we be able to grab a table.

Feel free to grab the first few issues HERE.

If so inclined, follow us on Tumblr and Twitter, or sign up for our mailing list.

Following that, Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim, arrives in bookstores on March 15th (the Ides!) and I am really excited to see what people think. You can preorder it now at Amazon, HERE.

Beyond that, I have some irons in the fire. Nothing I can discuss, other than another original graphic novel I’m toying around with frequent collaborator, Fernando Pinto, and another (my last) foray into mob history that ties into my former hometown…keep up with my goings on at Twitter.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today Neil…and everyone out there go buy Kings and Canvas immediately!!!

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