Mark Wheatley has received acclaim for writing and illustrating comic book titles as diverse as Breathtaker, Jonny Quest, Hammer of the Gods, and Blood of the Innocent (long in development as a feature film from Crazies director Breck Eisner). Given the breadth of his work, Wheatley’s become known as an artist capable of altering his style to suit any project. So it’s no surprise his skills have been called on by Hollywood several times throughout his career. This Thursday night will find Wheatley reaching perhaps his biggest audience ever, when his work will be featured in a special fantasy sequence on CBS TV’s The Millers. Starring Will Arnett as a recently divorced reporter whose newly divorced mom (played by Margo Martindale) moves in with him, while his dad (Beau Bridges) moves in with Arnett’s sister (Glee‘s Jayma Mays), The Millers is the network’s highest rated new sitcom this season.
We sat down to chat with the amiable artist about the episode, and the joys of bringing comic art to the masses.
NERDIST: There haven’t been too may comic artists who’ve been a part of scripted network TV shows. Tim Sale on Heroes is one of the few that come immediately to mind. But you’ve been associated with several hit shows. How did this come about?
MARK WHEATLEY: I have a little bit of history of having my work featured in television. It starts all the way back with the Roseanne show, featuring my Radical Dreamer comic book on the air as part of their ongoing plot about the kid, Mark, who is wanting to be a comic book artist. He was always reading my comics on the air, and from that I got into having my comics on Grace Under Fire, and actually an issue of Radical Dreamer was used as a plot point for one of the episodes where her son was having a crisis of identity and he was advised to follow his dreams because he believed in Radical Dreamer. After that they had the Kirk Cameron television show, in which he actually played a cartoonist. He had my comic books on that show. So I’ve kind of had a connection with some prop guys, and I’ve had my stuff most recently on Person of Interest. They had a comic convention that a murder occurred at, and so I actually sent them my booth graphics and they created my booth at that convention.
So I have this ongoing thing that keeps happening, and there’s not a lot of connection between it except I seem to have fans in the industry. They get in touch and they ask to include my work. That’s what happened here, because Greg Garcia, who created The Millers, who is also the creator of My Name is Earl and Raising Hope, his crew last year about this time was putting together a pilot for CBS called Super Clyde, which starred Rupert Grint and Stephen Fry and Tyler Labine. They asked around to find a comic book artist who could work with them, since the main character in Super Clyde was a comic book collector. All of his flashbacks were told in comic book art. So they got in touch with me by a roundabout way and didn’t understand how rare the situation was that they had tripped across, where they happened to get in touch with me and then say, “In the next six weeks could you churn out about ten minutes of a network television show for us in comic art all by yourself.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Sure.” Because I’m always grinding out stuff fast. The bottom line is that I’ve always been a deadline nut and I get stuff done, so I was able to do it. The show turned out great, but in a twist of fate, at the last minute, Greg came up with an idea for a more traditional show called The Millers, and submitted that as well. CBS decided that having two shows on the air from the same neophyte producer was maybe a little iffy, so they were going to go with the more traditional one.
We stayed in touch, because we really liked working together. In fact, the producer, John Myrick, was hanging out at my booth in San Diego last year. So when they were doing The Millers, originally, they contacted me with the idea of maybe doing some title cards for the show. That kind of fizzled because their deadline kept bouncing around because they couldn’t give me the information and the material I needed to work with by the time they actually needed something. So they ended up doing something on their end. But they kept talking to me, and then they wanted to do a show similar to Super Clyde. I kind of suspected it had something to do with just showing CBS how it would have actually worked. [Laughs.]
So they’ve created this special episode of The Millers where we’re doing something very similar, only it’s centered on the Beau Bridges character, Tom Miller. He has an imaginary comic book that’s always playing in his head. He has a fantasy world that he’s created, and he kind of uses analogous characters from his life, which are on the TV show, in his comic book world, and he makes them into animals of various types, talking animals. So it was up to me to visualize that and turn this fantasy world into reality every time drifts off into fantasy land.
N: After this episode, is there a chance we’ll again see your art on the show?
MW: I would like to think there’s a strong chance, but they’ve been cautious about it, and I know why. If this is popular, then they’ll do it again. If people look at it and go, “Eh,” then I guess they won’t. I should point out that Greg got his start in Baltimore in radio. And the whole show is kind of based on Greg’s family life. He is a big fan of comics himself, and he got his start working with Seth MacFarlane on Family Guy. He got it in the back of his head that you can use comic art and animation to help tell comedy on television, so he keeps figuring out ways to do that.
N: Were they any specific requirements for this episode that led to you tailoring your art for it?
MW: Yeah, and I have to give complete respect and credit to Greg’s crew. They’re a great crew. I’ve rarely worked with a group of people who have such respect for each other. Everybody in the group, no matter what their position on the show, is encouraged to contribute. Greg’s very good at listening to feedback on the team. The work I did for Super Clyde was fairly realistic and representational in a comic-book way. In the sense of cartoon art versus realistic cartoon art, it was more realistic for Super Clyde. But for The Millers, they came back to me because they wanted something far more cartoony. They wanted funny animals. They wanted Mort Drucker style superheroics. And yet they came back to me, and I said, “Okay, sure,” and I changed my style. But in publishing, an editor would have never called me, because if he’d already worked with me on something that was realistic, he would never call me, no matter what. So I really give they a lot of credit for just saying, “Well, yeah, sure, you can do anything.”
N: How is your art introduced in the story?
MW: Tom, played by Beau, is played as a downtrodden, under-appreciated guy. So the way he copes with this, apparently, as we now find out, is (that) he fantasizes all the time, and he fantasizes that he’s in a comic book. The way they illustrate this in this episode is they have him admit that he’s actually been telling these stories to his granddaughter, and she loves the stories that he’s been telling her. It comes out because she says, “Well, you know grandpa has been doing these wonderful stories. You should talk to him if you’re gonna start a children’s show. He’s the guy you should talk to.” That’s what happens on the show – it’s a springboard for Will to start a children’s show at the local station. That much has been announced publicly. The episode is called “Tomlandia”.
N: What did you draw on for inspiration?
MW: I was thinking in terms of Mort Drucker, Wally Wood, and also things like Wonder Wart-Hog. Muscles on top of muscles, little legs and big head, things like that. Tom plays this superhero called Tom Tom. But everybody else on the show is a funny animal. I had to kind of marry two styles together. Will Arnett is represented by being a peacock, because he’s always preening and smiling for the camera and trying to look good. He looks pretty much like a peacock but he wears really upscale tennis shoes. Beau Bridges’ character is actually a superhero. He actually is two different versions. He’s more of an Indiana Jones version of Beau Bridges, and then he transforms into a superhero. There’s actually a transformation scene. We do limited animation. They have a visual effects house that took my illustrations, and I provided various elements and layers, so they could have backgrounds separate from figures, and capes separate from figures, and lightning flashes separate from the backgrounds. Things like that, so they could do interesting things with them.
N: How much art did you produce in total for the project?
MW: Of course, there’s a lot of stuff that never makes it, because the script’s being rewritten while I’m drawing it. But the final stuff that was used is a little over sixty full-color illustrations. I think it’s something like two minutes of time that I end up taking up in the final episode. So it’s less time than I had in the Super Clyde pilot, but I think I ended up doing the same amount of art. [Laughs.] It goes by faster.
N: Will you have any of the art you produced for the episode for sale at your San Diego Comic-Con booth?
MW: I will have the art, and I might offer it for sale… I guess I should just say yes. [Laughs.]
The Millers airs 8:30/7:30c on CBS after The Big Bang Theory.