Interview: Sal Abbinanti on 'Atomika: God is Red'
We chat with the cartoonist about how his Soviet superman rages with Jack Kirby brilliance.
Years ago, Atomika hit the local comic shops: twelve issues written by Andrew Dabb and illustrated by Sal Abbinanti. It was a nifty, gnarly series fueled by a great admiration for artists like Jack Kirby and John Buscema, a superhero saga that imagined a man-made god birthed by the Soviet Union. When the old mythological deities attempt to reclaim their worshipers, Atomika challenges their audacity with catastrophic might.
To creator Sal Abbinanti's delight, the issues were eventually collected in trade overseas. A new audience had discovered the work, and their words of affirmation got his brain cranking. Having funded his Hostage comic via Kickstarter successfully, Abbinanti returned to the crowdfunding model. Here was an opportunity to publish Atomika in a massive, glorious omnibus, a physical totem to match the personal significance he placed on the comic.
This new edition collects all twelve issues as well as the incredible pinups from other comics masters like Claudio Castellini, Ernie Chan, Gene Colan, Darwyn Cooke, Gary Gianni, Alex Nino, John Romita Sr., Alex Ross, and Sanjulian. The new Atomika: God is Red publication represents a dream come true, and it was an absolute joy to chat with Abbinanti about it.
We discuss his artistic influences, and why there really is no one out there like Kirby and Buscema. We dive into the revelation that The Hunger Dogs and The New Gods inflicted upon a young Sal Abbinanti. We discuss why certain folks still can't click with their style and why they're foolish to deprive themselves. Our discussion is an epic celebration. Come, join the party.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity, but if you would like to hear the entire thing, you can join our Patreon. At the $1 level, you'll have instant access to over fifty bonus episodes, including dozens of unedited creator interviews like this one.
Brad: I look at Atomika today and I imagine what it was like looking at Atomika in the mid-00s and early-00s, and how really removed from the Marvel house-style it must have been perceived. It's certainly way different than anything you saw back in 2002 or whatever.
Sal: I tried Brad, I really did. I tried to do it house-style. I tried to break it down and make it more refined, in terms of what they were looking for. Cause I really wanted to go in the front door. I wanted to draw Luke Cage. People were like, "Well, who are your influences?" And they start mentioning these German impressionist painters and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari . They'd say, "It just reminds me of Merno." I'm like, "Guys, guys, what are you talking about, man?"
I grew up with John Romita, and Jack Kirby was my hero. I don't know what to tell you, but people were like, "What part of Europe are you from, or what acid did you do in high school?" And I'm like, "Guys, I don't know if you realize you're offending me, but I didn't do drugs. And I did my normal amount, but I wasn't doing LSD." People seem to think I did a lot of LSD with my art style. I don't know what to tell you.
Brad: Well, in the video that you put up with your Kickstarter, you talk about Jack Kirby being an influence, and you can certainly see Kirby's dynamic action in the panels of Atomika. The comic feels alive with Kirby. I think when I first encountered these images because I was a Bill Sienkiewicz fan, I was a Glenn Fabry fan. I encountered Atomika originally because of those pinups that you got all these amazing artists to do, and truthfully, I didn't really know Jack Kirby 15 years ago. Since then, sure, I've become like a maniac for Jack Kirby. And Kirby is all over Atomika. It is Jack Kirby behind the wall, in Mother Russia.
Sal: Absolutely. It was a hundred percent. He's a cross between my love for John Buscema, Thor, which is what introduced me to comics, and Kirby's Fourth World. We have very few moments, especially as guys, we have very few things that are life-altering experiences, because we just go along until a jolt hits us, and then our life changes. And it could be kids. It could be marriage. Mine was New Gods. When I discovered New Gods, I knew at that moment what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I didn't know how I was going to do it.
You grow up in a big Italian family. My father's like, "No you got to go to work. You can't draw flowers with the girls." That kind of thing was his quote. And I wanted to go to art school. And that doesn't fly when you grow up in a working-class family. But yet I saw The Hunger Dogs and New Gods #6. And it was just forget it, it was over for me. What I got out of Kirby was it should be a product of your imagination, comics. It should look like how you see it in your mind. It shouldn't look like how other people tell you it should look. That's what I got from him. You couldn't draw like him because if he drew a toaster, it was three pages long.
Everything was larger than life. Everything came out of his head. So when I sat down to do that, comic companies don't want that. They want Cap to look a certain way. They want Thor to look a certain way. They've got to look, because we were coming out of a generation of Neal Adams, where everything was illustrated beautifully. Neal Adams was like on Mount Rushmore for comic artists. Kirby was it for me. But some people were scared by Kirby. "Oh, it's ugly. It's this, it that." I'm like, "Yeah but when you get it, then you get it." You're bit by a vampire when you finally get Kirby.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. And that is my experience as well. And I actually just picked up The Hunger Dogs at Baltimore Comic-Con just a couple of weeks ago. It's unbelievable. And I love that it was New Gods and Hunger Dogs for you, because at the time, that was not the Kirby that people wanted. They wanted the 60s era Kirby.
Sal: All that stuff he did at Marvel was obviously groundbreaking. But for me, his stuff at DC was much more cerebral. It led me into The Demon. It led me into Kamandi. It led me into The Forever People and Mister Miracle, which had these over-the-top double-page spreads. Where every book in Kamandi, you knew page two and three were going to be double-page spreads. You knew when you turned the page, you knew what was coming, and the same with The Demon, where you were like, "I don't know who this guy is. I don't know who any of these characters are. And I don't even care." It was the art that really pulled me in. And everybody like, "Yeah but there's no Avengers and there's no Cap." But I wasn't character-driven. I was art-driven with comics.
Brad: Yeah. And for me, when I look at Kirby and I look at Atomika, what I get out of it is the emotion of the scene. It's not Neal Adams, but I see the authenticity of what the character is going through in the action, in the design, in the imagination. I think that is something that some people don't connect to, especially American readers who seem to crave realism, or their idea of what realism is, and that's why they respond so well to guys like Neal Adams. But for me, with Jack Kirby, with Atomika, with Daniel Warren Johnson, what you see on the page is so honest to what the characters are going through emotionally.
Sal: The cool thing about when I finally started, when I finally said, "Hey, you know what, I'm just going to do my own book," was I didn't have a mind's eye of what the editor was going to want anymore. When you create samples, when you're creating pitches - and I did a million pitches! I did a million sample pages on spec. From Swamp Thing to Supergirl, to The Atom, I tried to do characters that I didn't think anybody else- at the time everybody was pitching Wolverine and Batman. I was trying anything else to get them to notice. So when I finally gave that up and said, "Hey, I'm going to do my own book." I didn't have to worry about, eh, they're not going to like this.
I better do that. I better tone this down. I better not that, and I was staying up all night working on Atomika. So I could just find a creative flow that didn't really give a shit. And there's nothing cooler as an artist than when you just finally don't care. You lose that voice - you lose that governor of like, "Oh no, I shouldn't do that." I used to love the advice I used to get in these portfolio lines. "You should never draw a character from behind." What? And so I started using everything they told me not to do. I started putting it in there, cuz those other guys don't even draw. These are guys that are selling storm windows now. They're not even in comics anymore. Yet they're telling you how to draw. They're telling you how to create. And you're just like wait a second.
The freedom of just going, "I got nothing to lose." There's an amazing amount of freedom when they won't hire you because you're just like, "Well, you're not hiring me now. So if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down in flames. I don't care because I'm going down. The milk's got the tag on it that says it's already expired." Eh, you may as well drink it or throw it out. It doesn't matter what you do with it.
Taste the milk for yourself! The Atomika kickstarter campaign is in progress. After you back that (like we did, can't wait for our physical copy to arrive), find Sal Abbinanti on Twitter and Instagram. You can also find more info on Atomika by visiting Mercury Comics.
And if you'd like to hear the rest of this conversation, please consider supporting our Patreon. The un-edited discussion is available at the $1 level.