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The World of Jeremy McFarren
Area cartoonist’s Red Rocket Comics evokes the spirit of an earlier age
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In the collection of original images that cartoonist Jeremy McFarren kindly sends over to FWR towers, there’s one called “The Tintin Sketch” that features someone who looks a lot like McFarren himself in the title role, menaced by the Thomson twins and with Snowy at his side.
To what extent McFarren identifies with the character I couldn’t say. And artistically, the work McFarren creates for his comic book imprint Red Rocket Comics doesn’t have many similarities with Tintin creator Herge…
But there’s a spirit in many of the stories McFarren tells in his Red Rocket comics that seems to come from an earlier age.
In McFarren's The Cauldron in the Back Cabinet — a 52 page book that McFarren intends as the first of a four-book series — an 11-year-old girl named Livi finds a strange black pot in the back of her parent's kitchen cabinet and opens up a world of magic and mystery.
And in RocketBoy and the Space Ghosts, a precocious young man builds himself a rocket and shoots himself into space looking for adventure, only to learn how little it all means without loved ones around him.
Basically, young heroes and heroines exploring strange worlds and having adventures, tackling whatever obstacles that come their way with courage and conviction, and perhaps discovering wondrous abilities along the way.
Like we said, the books seem to take their cue from an earlier age, when comic books were about escapism and storytelling, and the style of the artist — at least on some level — served as another function of that. For McFarren, a Fort Wayne native who earned his BFA from the University of St Francis in 1998, it’s all about the story, and always has been. “All my work has always wanted to be made in a way that told a story,” he says. “All of my influences can be boiled down to who can tell me a good story, show me some good drawings, do it in a good voice and from a unique point of view.”
Any subject that promises action, mystery, or just something a little unusual sparks his imagination. A scene or character will pop into his head, he says, and if that idea stays or floats back later, he’ll start exploring it to see whether it can turn into a structured story.
Comics were always an interest for McFarren (like many comic book artists, he liked the superheroes), but he didn’t really study the form in school — comics weren’t taken as seriously as he believes they are now. “Don't get me wrong: I had tremendous support from parents when it came to art, and worked with great professors,” he says. “But when conversations turned to study and careers, when comics were brought up, the talk invariably turned to illustration or animation, neither of which really grabbed my attention.”
“In my formative young adult years, I kind of wandered artistically,” adds McFarren. “It kind of stunted my growth in cartooning and storytelling and turned me into a dabbler — do a little of this, a little of that.”
That dabbling, however, probably helped McFarren in his professional career — he’s an art teacher at Carroll High School, where he teaches classes in Digital Art, Graphic Design, and Cartooning. Most of McFarren’s students know about Red Rocket and his books, and he sometimes uses things he’s done at home as examples for class projects and lessons. “Being pretty open about what I do and what I like, along with sharing my excitement about my interests with the kids, kind of helps me to build a good rapport,” he says. “They’re able to see me ‘ walk the walk,’ as it were. My stuff's pretty PG, so I really don't worry too much about content. I keep both lives pretty clearly divided, but the kids know that when I'm selling these ideas, I'm pretty sincere.”
McFarren’s influences — the artists on his “do-no-wrong” list — are a mix of older and contemporary artists. Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Jack Davis, and Wil Eisner rank high with him. Newer artists include Darwyn Cooke (DC:The New Frontier and Parker: The Hunter) and Paul Pope. “I love Jeff Smith,” he says. “His all ages series Bone is fantastic, it’s like the child of JRR Tolkein and Walt Kelly. I also absolutely adore the world created by Mike Mignola through his work on Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics.”
“Anyone who can tell a story and hit me a some gut level I will follow nearly anywhere,” McFarren says. “These are artists who have great styles, who mix art and story in magical ways and who know how dive in and make it seem new all the time. Who make work that has a purpose for where it is: when it's all ages, it's safe for kids and just enough for grown-ups.”
But McFarren doesn’t see much that moves him in mainstream comics these days. Not even superheroes — which he calls “the brick that hit me over the head” and got him into the artform — do anything for him, and when he puts it down to becoming stodgy in his advancing age, he’s only half joking. “I feel even older when I find myself wishing that comics could back track a little,” he says. “There was this whole meme in the 90's of artists that were influenced by Frank Miller's seminal Dark Night work and Alan Moore's Watchmen and how they ‘helped comics grow up.’ I love those works, but I feel that's where we've kind of stalled as an industry.”
McFarren has no problem with adult stories or even R-rated material (though as he said, his own stuff is pretty PG), but as he sees it, the concept of “growing up” for a lot of the newer comics isn’t really “growing up,” it’s more of a 14-year-old boy’s version of “growing up.” “It’s the way a 14-year-old looks at their kids books and says ‘this is kid stuff. Now show me more nakedness. And hide the nakedness by medusa-like hair, strange bubbles, smoke, and conveniently placed environmental objects’,” McFarren says. “That's not grown up, that's juvenile fantasy.”
He continues: “Let's face it: comics are for kids, especially superhero comics. For kids and for grown-ups who want to escape the every day drudgery in a child-like way for a little bit. Making kid’s stuff into young adult male stuff just makes it icky. If you want to tell adult stories, tell adult stories. Don't be gross and say you're going to ‘grow up’ Batman by making him edgy enough so he has sex with Catwoman and pretend not to market it to kids or their older brothers. If you to want make comics and read comics like that, then fine, but let's be honest about what you're selling.”
“Sorry for the rant.”
McFarren’s family seems to play a significant role in how he approaches his Red Rocket work. Outside of his teaching duties, he says his work habits can get a little scattered at times, and become involved in several projects at once. “My wife is really good at helping me see when I'm wandering and reminding me that if I get too into something that's not my comics, I'm going to be whining pretty quickly that I'm not making comics,” he says. “I've also realized that I'm creating stuff that, either right away, or when they are older, my kids will like. My kids inspire me everyday. My work is my art, but really, it's all for them.”
Recently, McFarren finished a non-comic project with artist/designer Frank Noca. The two collaborated on an album cover for the band Anti-Flag, who saw McFarren’s work and thought it would be a good fit.
In addition, he’s also working on the second book in the Cauldron series. “Since I don't get paid to make this art as a day job, I’ve got to have fun with it,” he says. “If it becomes a chore for no good reason — like no convention to prepare for — it's no good.”
For more on Jeremy McFarren and Red Rocket comics, visit his blog at nowhitepicket.blogspot.com
To buy Red Rocket comics, go to etsy.com/shop/RedRocketComics