By Andrew Scott — Not every graphic novel begins with a foreword by a legendary illusionist.
But then, The Millionaires’ Magician bucks many of the norms associated with American comics today. The narrative is autobiographical, except when it’s not (which is nearly every page). The concept belongs to magician Steve Cohen—and readers can buy the book directly from his website—but the story credit goes to another writer. Some readers might find it odd that the credit for Copperfield’s foreword precedes the names of the creators who actually produced the book.
That said, Copperfield does capture the essence of this graphic novel succinctly: “The behind-the-scenes story is as engaging as the magic [Steve Cohen] performs. Like any good fable, it weaves fact with fiction, truth with tall tale, into a memorable read.”
What he means is (spoiler alert) the character of Steve Cohen spends years hiding in Japan and training in the martial arts before returning to New York to save the innocent and exact his revenge. If you don’t know about Steve Cohen, this Q&A is a good primer for understanding the basics of his act and philosophy. In short, his is an old-school magic performance. Sleight of hand. Quick fingers. No explosions or loud music. If you’ve seen him perform—and some of you might remember his appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show—the idea of Cohen-as-superhero has to bring a smile to your face.
But despite this magician’s obvious skill, no amount of trickery can produce a completed graphic novel to pull from a hat. For that kind of magic, he had to turn to the professionals. Keith Champagne gets the story credit, while Bill Tortolini is the letterer and Tara Phillips is the cover artist. But my primary interest in the project is the art by Peter Krause and colorist Jordie Bellaire.
Cohen says he admired Krause’s work in the Daredevil: Road Warrior comic. “I instantly knew that he was the artist for my book,” he says. “I had rejected other artists’ portfolios because their style was too modern. The specific vision I had in mind pointed at the moody styles of Alex Toth and David Mazzucchelli. Peter’s work on Shazam also convinced me that he was the right artist for this project.” Cohen admired colorist Jordie Bellaire’s “textured color work,” as well. Bellaire currently lives in Ireland, so Cohen invited her American parents to attend his show at the Waldorf Astoria New York. “Their endorsement of the show clinched the deal,” Cohen says, “since Jordie ultimately agreed to participate. That was a happy day in the development of this project.”
Peter Krause is a productive artist with a long career who is still under-appreciated, in my opinion, despite that steady work. Irredeemable and Insufferable, both with writer Mark Waid, are certainly worth your attention, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his recently completed Archie 1941 series—for which he again partnered with Waid, as well as co-writer Brian Augustyn—garnered some attention from industry award committees this year.
The Millionaires’ Magician is a great-looking, fun book. I wanted to interview Peter Krause to learn a little more about how he became involved with the project, as well as his approach to making comics in general.
How did you end up working on The Millionaires’ Magician? What compelled you about the concept?
PK: Keith Champagne contacted me in the spring of 2015. He had a preliminary outline of the script. I was immediately taken with the visual possibilities of the story—magic, foreign intrigue, and crime. My work has evolved to a more noir-like approach and The Millionaires’ Magician seemed like a perfect fit.
I’d also be able to work on this with no monthly deadlines. That allowed me to do various storyboard projects, as well, and to really perfect the drawing on The Millionaires’ Magician.
After a bit of email communication, everyone agreed to terms and we were off!
Were you familiar with Steve Cohen and his act before this?
PK: I was not. But Steve provided plenty of back story, photo reference, and video of his appearance on Letterman. Steve is an energetic guy, and a huge comics fan. He enjoyed my artwork on Daredevil: Road Warrior. It’s what prompted him to contact me via Keith for TMM.
How long did it take you to complete the story? What’s a typical work day look like for you?
PK: The book is a 100-page graphic novel with a handful of added illustrations. It basically took a year for all the line work. There were a few revisions per Steve’s request and the line drawings were completed by the end of September 2016.
I like to be in the studio in the morning to begin the day. I’ll start around 8:00 a.m. and work until 5:00 p.m.—that’s the ideal. I will get some storyboard work now and then that entails some evening hours. But I don’t do night shifts for comics. I think it’s counterproductive and you pay for it with reduced efficiency the next day.
I’m all digital now, as well. I draw on a first-generation Cintiq. One of these days I’ll update it.
Was it your request to have Jordie Bellaire color your work, or was that something the rest of the team already had in place? If she’s not the best colorist in the business, there’s certainly no one who is clearly better.
PK: When we were thinking about colors for TMM, Jordie was at the top of the list. Steve was very familiar with her work and really wanted her for the book. I can’t say I really know Jordie, but we had communicated a few times on Twitter. I was the one who reached out with a great page rate that Steve offered. We were all overjoyed when she agreed to terms.
Before she started enhancing the line drawings with her hues, she sent me an email asking for my coloring preferences. I’d never had that happen before—understandable because comics is generally such a deadline driven monster. I had a couple of suggestions, but at the end I told her I trusted her judgment. Really, who wouldn’t? Her work is so wonderful. It was a career highlight to be colored by Jordie.
You stopped drawing comics for a number of years. What prompted that move? It seems to have coincided with some pretty lean years in the industry after the 90s bubble burst.
PK: Great question. If you get into comics, I think you have to be aware of the history. I saw what had happened to the previous generation of artists that had “aged out” of the industry. I vowed I wouldn’t be completely beholden to comics work. When I left Power of Shazam!—I think that would have been around 1997 or 1998—I began to ask around for other stuff and didn’t get any response. But I had been doing some ad work and storyboard jobs on the side, so that became the focus of my work. Also, my darling wife Lisa was doing fine in the tech world, so things weren’t dire.
Other than a handful of fill-ins for DC, it wasn’t until I started working on Irredeemable for Boom! Studios that I was drawing comics full-time again.
The Millionaires’ Magician, Archie 1941, and even Insufferable before that—your work has moved to the next level in recent years. What do you think is the reason for that? Is it because you’re working digitally, inking yourself, or something else?
PK: Thanks for the kind words. If true, I think it has to do with all of what you’ve mentioned.
Working digitally gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility to resize and revise. As long as you don’t go down the rabbit-hole of trying to reach perfection it is also a big timesaver. It eliminates the bad brush and the recalcitrant pen nib.
Also, when I came back into comics I gave myself a pep talk of sorts. I’m much nearer the end of my career than the beginning, and I take the actual drawing more seriously than I did before. Don’t you want to make your next work a bit better than the last? That’s become a mantra for me. Look at the people who do work you admire—not just comic art. There are so many talented artists out there. Keep looking up, keep being inspired. If you do that, I think you’ll be lifted.
The Archie 1941 series is wrapping up. You’re already at work on another “mystery project,” as you like to say to your Twitter followers—this time with writer Ron Marz. What do you want the next few years of your creative/professional life to look like?
PK: Archie 1941 was a pure joy to draw. My goal over the next few years is to do “bucket list” projects, and drawing the Archie gang in my style ended up being one of those. I have had the opportunity to draw both Daredevil and Superman professionally—not to mention Shazam/Captain Marvel—so those are checked off. I’d love to do something in the Hellboy/BPRD universe. I’ve never drawn anything for Dark Horse Comics.
Yes, I am currently drawing a Ron Marz scripted saga. It’s an espionage tale. Shady characters, sordid establishments—love drawing that kind of thing!
I should also note that there is one other unpublished, 54-page graphic novel that I’ve completed. I can’t tell you who wrote it, but it has been lettered by Ed Dukeshire and is currently being colored by Giulia Brusco. It’s a really dark murder/mystery set in southern California during the 1970s-1980s. I think it’s the best thing I’ve drawn, and it should see the light of day sometime this year or next.
Whatever the future holds, I feel blessed. I’ve met many of my comic book heroes, and most people in the comic book world are so supportive. I tell people I’m doing the same thing I was doing when I was ten years old—drawing. I just get paid a bit of money to do it now.
Andrew Scott is the author of Naked Summer: Stories. He has written for dozens of outlets. He lives in Indianapolis. You can find him on Twitter: @_AndrewScott.