Skateboarding monsters, sci-fi snakes, and belligerent skeletons dominate illustrator John F. Malta’s delightfully garish portfolio. His work is the kind you might expect to adorn a skateboard, yet Malta’s grinning figures feature more often in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post than between the four wheels of a beat-up deck. Malta spent his teenage years honing his craft while traversing the Northeast Ohio punk scene, wandering local swamplands, and penning his own zines and record covers. He also raised reptiles and read a lot of comics.
Now living in Kansas City, Malta works on projects with Adult Swim and produces web-comics for Vice called Herman the Elder, simultaneously editing and publishing an annual comics and art anthology aptly entitled Universal Slime.
Despite his distinctly punk-inspired style, there’s a versatility to Malta that makes him stand out—the way he elegantly moves between large-scale editorial work and scrappy, hilarious, home-made comics makes him a force to be reckoned with. We caught up with the artist to hear about his Cleveland roots, the illustration scene in Kansas City, and how capturing frogs and snakes in rocky and twig-ridden terrain first informed his style.
Tell me about your most recent comic, Living Land.
Living Land is an ongoing series that I am self-publishing and collecting into a larger book next summer thanks to a grant from The University of Central Missouri. It’s about a character who breaks down ideas on living and dying while playing basketball with his friend who is a humanoid dog.
The idea for the story came out of the fact that I read a lot about transhumanism [the belief that humanity can evolve beyond its current limitations through science and tech], futurism, and life extension technology. There is this dude Aubrey De Grey that thinks that he can cure dying. Environmentally this idea is obviously disastrous, but selfishly I’d rather just keep existing in this concrete state where I can draw, skateboard, rock climb, and live life. Those things could potentially get old after an endless eternity of doing them, but I have been drawing for as long as I can remember and it is all I have really ever wanted to spend my time doing.
The main character in Living Land, Tight James, wrestles with this idea throughout the book.
You grew up in East Cleveland, Ohio but now live in Kansas City—why did you originally move there, and what’s the illustration scene like?
I moved to Kansas City to work as the program coordinator for the University of Central Missouri’s illustration program. I write the curriculum for the program, and teach courses. I travel a lot due to the fact that my girlfriend lives in NYC and I try to go to as many of the gallery shows and comic fests that I am fortunate enough to be apart of—so I find my time split between Kansas City and New York City.
Nearly all of the artists that I work on projects with are based in either New York or Los Angeles so I feel more closely linked to those cities artistically. Siobhán Gallagher and I have a myriad of projects that we are working on together, including an ongoing collaboration that you can check out on Instagram, and I have been working with the Los Angeles-based weirdo Josh Freydkis on some projects with Universal Slime.
There are a lot of great artists and illustrators that live in Kansas City—Grant Kratzer, Dustin Williams, and Allison Kerek are all constantly crushing it and have really cool and active Instagram accounts. Wonderfair Gallery is based just outside of Kansas City in a town called Lawrence and they consistently put on really great and exciting exhibitions, and one of the larger zine fests in the midwest also happens in Kansas City every September, Kansas City Zine Con.
Turning to your comic work, who is Herman the Elder, the star of your comic for Vice?
A friendly and timid six-legged tarantula who doesn’t want the softer side of himself revealed. He is a character that I started drawing in my comics a while ago.
How did you get the idea for him?
It came from two specific experiences. I used to have a pit bull and Herman the Elder’s character was based on the perception people had of him. A lot of people are afraid of pit bulls, and they don’t need to be. They are muscular dogs, and can be intimidating to look at, but not so deep down pit bulls are just goofy and loveable. So I wanted to write a character that embodied this idea.
I also used to have a studio in my friends basement in Ohio— it was filled with orb weaver spiders, which are pretty big in size, but I decided to leave them alone, and they left me alone. We lived in harmony for an entire summer and from these two experiences Herman the Elder became a character I began drawing over and over again. I think it’s important when you are drawing things that are surreal or imaginary that they are tethered to some kind of reality that is meaningful to you.
More generally, where do you get your ideas for characters and stories?
They come from a personal point of view. Either conversations that I have with friends, passing thoughts, or past experiences. Drawing characters and stories from a place that is real is so important, that way when you are drawing something that is completely unnatural and not real (in some cases a mythological six legged tarantula that has a flat top and wears sneakers), it is coming from a place that is honest and true to your experiences.
Apparently your illustrations seek to capture “past memories of murky Ohio creeks”. Which illustrations have especially done so?
My paintings capture that idea or feeling better than any of my other work. That line is pulled from the About section on my website and when I wrote it I was thinking about all of the things that are really important to me visually.
Wading through murky creeks in hope of catching frogs, snakes, and other cool creatures that are lurking beneath the water surface was something I did all the time as a kid. A lot of the imagery that I remember from those times contained piles of rubble, rocks, sticks, leaves, and twigs. This is why so much of my work is cluttered with those particular artifacts.
Also, my little brother Charlie and I would often memorize lines to comedies. So in terms of past memories and experiences much of the dialogue between the characters in my new comic Living Land is derived from conversations he and I have—either in the present or the past.
We talk on the phone for three or four hours at least once a week and those conversations are really energizing to me creatively. He is an intelligent and insightful dude, he dropped out of art school and makes paintings in an attic while reading an endless pile of books on a range of topics. Living Land begins with two characters postulating over whether or not there will be a Bio Dome sequel. One of them asks the other if he’s seen Pauly Shore Is Dead which then leads the two characters into a conversation about life and death.
Your work seems so entrenched in the sensibility of DIY/ skate culture and comics, but then you also have a long list of clients that are not part of that world at all (the New York Times, The New Yorker, MIT tech review, etc.) How did you first start working with these clients?
I started out drawing posters, designing cassette tapes and demos, and painting stage banners for me and my friends’ punk bands in high school. This continued throughout undergrad where I started using MySpace as a way to reach out to bands and record labels that meant a lot to me. I was also drawing posters and flyers for most of the punk houses and DIY spaces in Columbus, Ohio. No one was paying me to do any of this, I just liked supporting a community that I was a part of, and was psyched that people that I thought were cool thought what I was doing was cool.
This eventually led to music venues, bands, and labels asking if I wanted to be paid for the work I was doing. I later moved to New York City and the illustrator and chair of my graduate school, Marshall Arisman, asked me why I wasn’t contacting publications, newspapers, and other clients in the same way I was reaching out to punk bands and record labels. I began tirelessly doing just that, and started working with publications, establishments, and companies like the New York Times, The New Yorker, Adult Swim, etc.
I didn’t really understand the process of getting illustration work or how to self promote until I started grad school at SVA. The illustrators Chi Birmingham, Pat Kinsella, Will Varner, Ben Voldman, Daniel Fishel, and Hyesu Lee were all in the year above me and they taught me a lot in terms of how you get illustration work and really build a business as an illustrator. They were all already doing all of the things you should do to promote yourself (sending mailers, e-mails, etc). And they were nice enough to explain the process to me.
For my thesis project I met with Josh Cochran and Mike Perry and they both encouraged me to continue to focus on the comics and zines I was making. I did that, and then used them as a way to reach out to art directors. From there I just continued to make books, zines, and comics and sent them out to every art director that I hoped to work for and eventually began to get illustration work.
And do you find your approach to editorial differs drastically from the self-published zines?
I’ve never really differentiated my approach when it comes to the various projects that I work on. Since I started out illustrating punk posters I didn’t really have to give much thought to whether or not the work I was making fit the project because the drawings I was doing inherently did, since I was a punk drawing punk posters. So moving forward I’ve never really seen a reason to differentiate what I do–whether it’s a personal comic that I’m self-publishing, an editorial illustration, or a painting for a gallery show.
I’ve always pursued a lot of different projects within the various fields of art and design so working in a way that allows me to not differentiate how I approach a project has always been really important to my art-making practice.