Mike Rooth is a Canadian cartoonist that we’ve had the pleasure of knowing for a few years now thanks to some righteously fun interactions on the convention circuit. Mike has been in illustration for a long time, but may not be a household name yet. Based on his passion, his talent, and what he’s been doing lately for AfterShock Comics, I think his notoriety is going to skyrocket. We sat down for a chat, and I think it’s a powerful look into what it’s like to be a hard-working freelancer who hasn’t quite made it to the mountaintop yet. Mike is fantastically candid about his own struggles, insecurities and lessons learned on his journey into comics.
We first met a few years ago on the con circuit, but you’ve been a professional artist for a long time. Give our readers your origin story.
My earliest memories are of my mother doing drawings for me, she was very, very skilled for someone with no real art training or anything. Just a natural. I’d bring her a comic book and she would flawlessly copy/draw my favorite characters for me. She hated drawing the Thing (haha) but he was my favorite character and so she’d draw him for me. Sometimes she’d draw them on the inside of cereal boxes or a scrap of cardboard and cut them out for me and color them and they were my toys, my action figures, a hand-drawn and cut-out Marvel Universe, courtesy of my mom. I’d give anything to have one of those toys again!
I digress, but that’s where the passion began for me-was watching her draw. Eventually my little brother was born, and she no longer had the time to spend with me drawing, and so I would come to her with a sketch request and she would say, “Sorry Mike I’m a bit busy, why don’t you sit and try to draw it yourself?” and so I did, and discovered that I wasn’t half bad at it. And then sort of all through grade school, middle school and then high school I was that kid in the class who was good at drawing. It was the only thing that gave me any real validation at that time in my life I think, because I grew up as a nervous, very high-strung, fat, weak, ginger kid in a very rough, sports heavy hockey/lacrosse-focused town.
I think many of us are from a similar place. Our generation looked at comics as an outlet, but it was largely something the cemented our being different. Today’s generation views comics-related stuff as mainstream. What a change!
Totally. As you said, being a comic fan wasn’t as cool as it is now, socially speaking. My high school was one that was legendary for great sports achievements, so I was quite surprised to show up in 9th grade and discover that it had an entire fourth floor that was just a gigantic, multi-chambered art studio, with dark rooms, clay studios, photography labs. It was amazing. I met a lot of great teachers and fellow artists in those final years of high school and I really began to develop my stuff then. I moved on to study at Sheridan College in Oakville, a school that at the time was very famous for producing highly-skilled animators.
So you pursued animation in college?
No. I didn’t get accepted into the animation program, but instead was accepted into the 3-year intensive Interpretive Illustration program. And I’m really glad for that because I met fantastic people there, many of whom are working in comics today, some at the highest level. We had great teachers and some of the people (I won’t mention names, but you’ve all read/seen/heard of their work) I studied with were so skilled and so great at what they did that they really raised the bar for everyone else in the class. I was fortunate to be at the school at that time, and to competing against those high-level people really pushed me.
You didn’t pursue illustration as a career, at first, right?
That’s correct. I wasn’t sure if I was going to succeed as an illustrator or as an artist. The fear of starting out with massive student loan debt, heading into a very competitive freelance field was terrifying. So, I got a job in construction, and started doing minimum wage labor jobs because I was too chicken shit to follow my dream, after putting in all those hours at the drawing board and years of study… But I’m glad it started that way, because very shortly after I chose that path came a moment of truth, a great universal reckoning –a split-second, near miss event that changed my life—and this is I guess were the origin story of my career begins.
So you had a moment of clarity, something that put you back on the path toward being an artist?
Exactly. I was on the job site putting together bleachers for a big Canadian curling championship (yeah, yeah, I know). We had to carry these huge metal planks, 30- and 60-foot lengths, and they were very heavy. We were carrying them through a treacherous path of snowy sidewalk from the truck into a convention center. The fellow on the other side of the plank tripped and fell, dropping his end of the plank. I pitched over and fell too, and got my hands out of the path of the falling plank just in time.
The sound that falling metal plank made on the concrete floor was deafening, and I stood there in its wake and stared at my hands, which were nearly just smashed into strawberry jam.
And in that moment, it was clear.
All of it was clear. I walked up to my foreman, and I told him that I quit.
I called my girlfriend (now wife) Erika, and told her I was done. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “I’m going to be an illustrator, or I’m going to starve to death. And that’s it.” I started looking for illustration jobs the next day, full-time. I had already been searching here and there, contacting magazines and record companies, and never hearing any response. I sent samples to comic book and RPG companies, charities, advertising firms, everyone. Anywhere I got a bite I went for it. It didn’t matter what the job was, it didn’t matter what style I had to draw in, what hat I had to wear, no matter who the client was. I never said NO to a job, any job, for over 10 years and I just built my entire art career off word-of-mouth and the most solid reputation I could forge, working for anyone and everyone that I could, regardless of their budget or worldly status. Within a few years, I landed a gig with a company that had a Marvel Comics license to create a new line of billiard room products like Spider-Man pool tables and Punisher pool cues and Fantastic Four dartboards and things like that. It was a blast and the pay was crazy but it was a very short-term gig.
This eventually leads to you becoming super-prolific at Rubicon Publishing, right?
Yes, I landed at Rubicon Publishing, who specialized in doing educational textbooks and graphic novels. Taking old stories, like Shakespeare or Poe or other stories from history and converting them into graphic novels and sequential art to make the material more accessible for children and for new readers of English. In a span of four or five years I created over 50 graphic novels for them, working at a heroic pace producing 44 finished and colored pages every six weeks or so. It was a grind but a good way to cut my teeth on comics.
Suddenly, without any warning, that gig ended you due to a big restructuring of the company, and so in 2010 I found myself unemployed and penniless; I was left sprawling. Since I had to start my career over at zero, I decided I was going to do what I always wanted to do and finally chase after that comic book dream.
And so I began to hang out at local comic shops, I would trade sketches for my lunch, I would trade sketches for my dinner, I would do commissions in exchange for electric bills, things like that. Pure bartering, pure survival, but doing it all with my pencils and brush. It was a desperate but highly satisfying way to live (and sometimes it still is).
That’s the straight HUSTLE.
Hah, indeed. Eventually I worked up the bravery to start heading to comic cons, and artist alleys, started meeting creators, offering to do pinups or covers for free just for a little bit of exposure in the comics world, to get the ball rolling. I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve met some great people and have been extended friendships and opportunities that have changed my life. And now I’m primarily getting gigs as a cover artist, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. Sorry that was a very long answer. Can you tell I don’t get out much?
I think it’s great that you’re willing to share the journey. Too often, we only share a curated version of our path. You’re letting people understand that the road to professional satisfaction is not always linear or particularly endearing. Props to you.
You seem to have a passion for fantasy settings. What drives that? Does your interest in fantasy pour into other types of entertainment, too? (e.g., film/TV/books).
I love all that stuff, that sword and sorcery stuff. I’m not sure where it started. My uncle Floyd had all those great early metal and hard rock bands and posters, the Molly Hatchet Frazetta covers, those great Ken Kelly painted KISS album covers, that I would have seen as a toddler. My favorite movie is Conan the Barbarian (from 1982) and it has all of that stuff in it. And Star Wars, of course. Warriors, monsters, beautiful maidens, wizards, magic. My favorite cartoon was Thundarr the Barbarian also from 1981/82, and it’s practically my religion. I had access to stacks of Savage Sword of Conan, and Heavy Metal magazine, and Mike Grell’s Warlord. I loved all the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels in school, Tolkien, books about Mythology from all over the world. It all left an impression.
How did you get into comics, as a fan? Are you still an avid reader? If so, what books have really impressed you lately?
I used to steal my neighbor’s comics and read them when I was young. It’s how I learned to read I reckon. I still read quite a few titles, but mostly indie stuff, hardly any Marvel or DC anymore. The Marvel Universe used to be a place of great solace for me, but now I feel like a stranger in a strange land. It’s lost its magic for me, but I’m glad the Thing still has a job.
Head Lopper by Andrew MacLean has stood out as my favorite in recent years. I still read The Walking Dead, Nailbiter, and The Beauty , excellent stuff. Green Valley is fun too, been enjoying that one, and Black Road gives me my monthly Viking fix, when Conan or Red Sonja can’t deliver. And naturally I love what AfterShock is doing, I’ve been impressed with all their titles that I have tried so far. Animosity is particularly good.
You’ve been doing a lot of cover work. Do you prefer that to interiors?
I think for me it was always about the covers. Comics are fun but a terrible grind and very difficult to make any real money yet. The sacrifice to your time and body can be huge. In my case I gained over 100 pounds in 6 years of doing sequential work. It was non-stop, every day, every weekend, every holiday (even my honeymoon) was deadline driven, 80-100 hours per week, and I’ve never been able to recover what I lost of myself from those years, though I did hone my drawing skills.
But I’ve always felt like I could tell a better story with one well-illustrated cover than I can with 30 pages of talking heads, but that’s just me. I love the pressure that comes with trying to sell a book with a great cover. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say most of the comics that I have bought for the first time were probably because a wicked cover convinced me to buy it.
I know the Thing is your favorite character, but you’ve also said it’s your “white whale” because you never seem to draw him to perfection. Have you finally harpooned your white whale?
Ha ha!! Well I’m not sure about harpoon—a harpoon seems to suggest that victory is at hand. Let’s just say that I’ve put a badly-applied sleeper-hold on ol’ Ben Grimm. He’ll probably slip away from time to time, but I’m finding the sweet spot through practice.
From a process perspective, what are your tools of the trade? Do you work digitally at all?
I’m about 95% traditional at this point. Pencil, brush and ink. I say 95% because occasionally I am asked to color my own work which I most do with Photoshop (with much complaining and griping and muttering under my breath. Digital just doesn’t do it for me, y’know?)The problem is my Mac is over a decade old and I haven’t been able to afford to upgrade my system. So I have never used a Cintiq or anything like that. I did work digitally almost exclusively from about 2008 to 2010, using a mouse and Wacom Bamboo tablet, but I suffered a massive system crash one terrible day and lost an entire project that could not be recovered. The whole month of work gone in a split second. From that day, I pushed the computer away and picked up my brushes and never looked back.
As someone I see at a lot of conventions, how important are they to your career? Are they an important part of supplementing your income? Are they requisite for networking for jobs as a freelancer?
I can definitely say that going to conventions was crucial to the growth of my career.
Not so much for connecting with publishers or “jobs”, although can happen too, but just to connect with the community itself. The people who make comics. The people who sell them. The people who give them away so that you can see their insides. It’s an amazing community, and very warm and welcoming, for the most part.Most importantly it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude. You have to get out and stand tall next to your table. It’s your banner, your name, and your work displayed. It builds character and confidence. It teaches you about people. Not everyone is kind in their honesty, and it’s important to learn how to take the responses that your work creates, both the good and the bad, with pride and humility. It measures you, it makes you a better person. I am the very best version of myself when I am at a convention. The very first time I showed my work at a large convention was in Montreal—not a large show compared to C2E2 or NYCC—but I was terrified nonetheless. I remember setting up my banner that first time, rolling it up to its full 8-foot height, seeing it… and then promptly having a massive panic attack and wanted to go home (haha)! But I held fast, and have been on tour now for 6 years or so now, though much less in the last 2 years.
What advice would you give young creators out there who have a passion for comics but are struggling to find a place at the table?
Stay hungry, stay humble, and aim high.
Make comics, YOUR comics. Create and promote characters. YOUR own characters.
Don’t fall into the fan art trap. As I personally have learned, it’s tough to climb out of. Start with your own original material, and build a fan base around it, and it will feed you, body and soul. Make the things that you yourself would want to buy, don’t worry about what you think ‘they’ want or trying to please ‘them’. And most importantly, be nice while you’re at it.
When I was a teenager I dreamed that one day I would get a pinup published in a Savage Sword of Conan magazine. To me at that time, it represented the highest pinnacle of achievement that I could ever hope to attain. It ended up being scratched off my bucket list within a year or two of me seriously deciding to work in comics, in 2013. I don’t say that to brag, I say that because I am still utterly bewildered, humbled and awed that it even happened.
Dreams can come true, so make sure they’re big enough to fill your belly just in case they do.
What projects do you have upcoming?
I’ve been doing a lot of covers for AfterShock Comics lately and it has been an absolute blast. Really, it’s been the highlight of my career so far, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner. There are some cool things in the works that I can’t share right now, but will be very happy to chat with you about again as soon as I can.The only sad part about getting awesome professional work is that it forces me to put my pet projects to the side. I’ve had a little Viking horror comic book called Widows Wake in the works with my wife for a few years now, but it’s been coming slowly and on and off the shelf in the grooves between other assignments.
Where can people find you and your work? Are you currently open for commissions? If so, how do people go about requesting something?
www.mikerooth.com is my website, it’s still a work in progress but coming along (it’s much nicer than the clunky old gallery thing I had running for the past decade or so). My shop is mikerooth.bigcartel.com and I can be found on Twitter and IG as @uncouthrooth. I do have a few commission slots open for Emerald City Comic Con actually, and they can be ordered directly from my shop in a couple of different sizes and price points. Any special requests can be sent directly to me at email@example.com.I will be attending ECCC in the Artist Alley and will also be doing several signings at the show for CBCS with an Animosity #5 Emerald City exclusive variant cover. I’ll also be at Toronto ComicCon in March, East Coast Comic Expo in May, and Niagara Falls Comic-con, and HeroesCon in June.
Thanks so much Mike. Keep up the great work and we’ll see you in June.