Michael Is The Hero We Deserve

Vice illustrator Stephen Maurice Graham on 'elevating the ordinary to a fantastical place' with his online comic series and its not-so-super protagonist

Many of our childhood comic book superheroes have been adapted for cinemas in recent times. Why are they so vital to the movie industry? Is the world such a complex and worrying place that we the audience need Superman or Batman to save the day in a fantasy world? Or is Hollywood just out of ideas and they need a franchise that can easily sell? The answer is probably a bit of both.

Planet Earth is indeed a complex and worrying place. Especially this year. Events like Brexit and the recent president elect Donald Trump are causing many to fear for the future. Surely this is the perfect time for costumed vigilantes to come along and take us off to a planet far away and battle space aliens. Or, perhaps instead it is a time for a normal guy who reads about intergalactic space battles too much. We don’t want Superman, we want a person who hides away from danger.

Enter Michael. The protagonist created by Belfast illustrator and comic book artist Stephen Maurice Graham. Already with years of experience in the art world, Graham has developed a reputation for producing darkly witty and colourful illustrations for clients such as Vice, Coca-Cola and American Airlines. Much of Graham’s artwork is perfect for the internet age because he litters it with references to computer games, sexual innuendos and day-to-day monotony – all very popular topics in any Reddit thread.

It is Graham’s online comic book Michael that is picking up recent attention. The series surrounds the mundane and nerdish world of a soon to be middle aged man. Michael lives with his parents, finds it boring to work in an office and enjoys nothing else but to imagine he lives successfully in a fantasy world of his own creation. He is a contemporary video game everyman who I discover is particularly relatable when I speak with Graham about the character's upcoming print debut in a new book of the online series.

Michael is a very nerdish person, often strange but somehow normal. How would you describe him?

Stephen Maurice Graham: Michael often fluctuates between strange behaviour and very straight, bland normalcy. I liked having him hard to pin down, sometimes it’s hard for the reader to root for him, to understand him and other times he's sympathetic and childlike. I think often a protagonist of a comic acts as a cipher for the reader, coming upon situations and interpreting them in ways that allies them with the viewer. Sometimes it’s easy to not like Michael and I enjoy writing that, it's more human to me. Ultimately he is a reflection of the generation I think I'm spearheading, one that never grew up entirely, wishy washy in their opinions and a bit milquetoast all round. A babyish generation.

Where did the idea come from to have an online comic series? And why that name?

Films, comics and books always seem to have really dynamic and sympathetic power fantasies for their protagonists. Guys called Hawkeye: buffed and bronzed and quick with the witty retorts. I'm not into that at all, I can't root for that as it isn't real, that's why Michael is called Michael, he's just a guy like many others!

It wasn't my idea to do the online series either – it was Nick Gazin, the Art Editor at VICE.com. I'd done some illustration work for him and he said my style could lend itself well to comics if I wanted to try it out. I'd always wanted to make comics but could never justify the time and this seemed like a good excuse to. If you read the book you see me learning and working out how to make weekly comics along the way, which means the end of the book is a lot stronger than the start!

You have a passion for computer games. The episode when Michael crushes interviewers and shouts 'Video games are art!' seems to strike a chord with you and gamers everywhere. Can you and other people relate to the interests and attitudes of Michael?

I do love, love, love videogames! And that moment where Michael tears apart his interviewer is kind of a tongue in cheek wink to people that get wound up over that distinction. Games are amazing and I certainly relate to Michael’s passion for them but there's no need to get so angry and shout in a person’s face that they're an artform. They are crafted by artists but it doesn't bother me what another person would think about that, I just enjoy playing them!

Stephen Maurice Graham

There are also other relatable aspects to the character, like when he is simply bored with his office work and colleagues. Does this in particular resonate with you?

Yes indeed. Many of those office scenes are based off things that happened to me in my old jobs. I completely relate to his mundane life – we all live mundane lives, even people on Instagram who look like they're living an amazing life are living mundane lives. But mundanity is the spice, the lip smacking sauce which I think makes writing Michael fun. You have this baseline that everybody gets, this way of behaving in public that's ripe for lampooning. It's fun to elevate the ordinary to a fantastical place.

For example in one recent comic Michael’s neighbour, who has children, paints onto his gate the face of a clown just for a bit of decoration. But this alarms Michael and gives him nightmares where the gate comes to haunt him in his dreams and threatens to drag him to hell. It's a weird comic that escalates quickly but it happened to me in real life, in that my neighbour has this weird freaky gate with a clown’s face on it and it’s completely terrifying.

Michael is also quite strange and anti-social. Do you go a bit extreme in this regard to illustrate points about society, friendships and even (with regards to your latest episode 'Worryin') politics?

Yes I think Michael is an extreme person, but he's fairly unrepentant about that. He's a very inward looking person, pleases himself and no one else. That's why he's so childlike, he's all Id and no ego. I think it's also in part due to the format of a weekly comic in that you have to blow things to extremes and amp it up a little. I'm trying to play for comedy so things can end up really on the nose, really big but if I had more time, in a longer format I would probably try something subtler and less driving towards a punchline.

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His parents seem to try hard to help him out. Why can't he just become the perfect 9 - 5 worker with a good job, family and able to make small talk with people?

Well in this world you've just got to do you. If you don't and try to be something else you're likely to end up frustrated and sad. I think Michael accepts himself, it’s just everybody else that doesn't get it.

Writing and drawing comics is a long process. You also need to have the knack for it. How much time and effort do you put into the comic series?

It's really hard making comics, I feel like a beginner myself. It takes a long time to learn how to pace a story, how much detail to put in and what to leave out. It's a bit like being a comedian sometimes just in a different format.

I've been working on comics on and off for 10 years, Michael was the first one I devoted any time to at all, it was good to stick with it and develop it but it's easy to be discouraged and give up. Eventually with enough time you get more and more confident and can start to experiment and then things start to flow. It’s all practise, like anything!

Who would be your 'go to' artists of both print and online comics?

I love the work of Joe Sparrow, Sam Bosma, Simon Hansleman, Anna Hailfish and Sophia Foster Dimino - they're all incredibly talented artists and make really engaging books and characters. Everybody nowadays I think would do a mix of both online and print work. It’s handy to show your work online and grow a world wide audience from there - it’s a bit like the music industry that way. I'm big in Japan (I'm not).

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You established yourself as a successful illustrator. Has it been a worthwhile process moving into the world of comic book art?

I try to balance it all and juggle it. My illustration work has a heavy narrative focus in the first place, I try and tell a story through my illustration so it led in nicely. I hope that I continue to get to have good opportunities in both industries in the future as I love the discipline of both. They're very different skills but very enjoyable.

Vice and Spaceface are involved in the Michael comic series. Will there be more books in future?

I hope so! I've several more Michael comics on the go already and I hope to bring out another book in a year or two, maybe a larger collection or maybe something different altogether. Vice and Spaceface have been really great in fostering and supporting my work there.

Who will tell stories from the series to be performed at the launch event? How will they be portrayed? In full costume and greasy hair?

I don't think we'll do costumes but I'm sure I can try and have greasy hair! We're going to read them out panel by panel to people at the launch, just for about 15 or 20 minutes to see if it's fun! We're hoping to get some audience members to step in and do some roles too.

Could you give us some hints of what the exclusive game will be like at the book launch?

Well Michael’s favourite game in the comic is DOOM so look out for a version of that but with some drastic overhauls to the way it looks!

Michael - The Comic Book launch takes place at UsFolk, Queens Street, Belfast, on Wednesday, November 30 at 6.00pm. The book is available to purchase now via Spaceface.