Friday, December 11, 2015

A Conversation With Michael Kronenberg!


Michael Kronenberg Interview, December 2015

Michael Kronenberg
So how cool is this? I had the opportunity to speak with the esteemed graphic designer Michael Kronenberg a couple weeks ago. Michael is the real deal. He is a graphic designer for the Film Noir Foundation, which for Michael is the job of a lifetime. He also works extensively with Marvel Comics as well as many other corporate entities. He is a high-demand kind of guy and I am grateful that Michael found a few minutes to talk. But…that’s not all! Given Michael’s love of film noir and boxing. I threw out the idea of creating two top ten lists – of noir movie posters (the art used to promote these movies was amazing), and of his favorite boxing movies. He kindly complied and not only picked out all the photos and art for the interview, but also helped me design the piece. You gotta admit – that’s pretty cool. So…enjoy this very special interview with Michael Kronenberg!



Monte: Can you share a bit about your background?

Michael: I went to school at the Atlanta College of Art. I went to college to be a fine artist. I was a printmaker, and a painting major. After graduating, I was represented by a few galleries. My lithographs are in the permanent collection of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Georgetown University Library, and the International Monetary Fund. I eventually had a one-man show in Washington, D.C., so my intention was never to be a graphic designer, I always wanted to be a fine artist.

Boxing lithograph by Michael Kronenberg currently in various permanent art collections.

But, I had to pay the bills. So, I started cold-calling graphic design studios and basically lied and told them “Yeah, I have experience in graphic design” and I was lucky enough to learn on the job.

I was obsessed with comics, books, and magazines as a kid. In 1995, I started a classic horror magazine with a friend. That’s when I started to really explore what I could do creatively in graphic design.  The magazine is titled Monsters From the Vault. It’s had a successful run of 20 years. When I got the chance to start doing something that I enjoyed, I began expressing my creativity more in graphic design. I was able to give the magazine a different appearance from all the other horror/movie fan magazines. It looked more like a professional magazine.

Michael's cover design for the final issue
of Monsters From the Vault.
Premiere magazine from the 1990s inspired me. Premiere was a professional, high-end magazine about the movie industry. I loved their design and thought why not do something like this for a classic horror magazine? The idea was to juxtapose a modern design with the old images from the horror movies. I think it was a successful. We were able to attract talented writers who wanted to see their stories designed in a professional manner. Our magazine covered movies from the Silents like Nosferatu to Hammer films in the 1970s. I was trying to do something a bit different and I believe it caught on.

In 2002, I got in touch with (EC curator and comic book authority) Russ Cochran. He hired me as art director/designer for his magazine Comic Book Marketplace. That allowed me to design articles about the stuff I grew up with. I’ve always been a comic book fan. I grew up in the ’70s, so Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, and Paul Gulacy were tremendous influences.

Russ’s knowledge of comics was pretty much restricted to EC and newspaper strips, so he didn’t know much about the “Silver Age” and “Bronze Age” of comics. He ended up relying on my knowledge for issue themes and what creators to talk to, and feature.

I got the opportunity to interview and meet people like (comic book icons) Bernie Wrightston, Will Eisner, Alex Ross, and Neal Adams. I became an artist as an eight-year old kid because of Neal.

After Comic Book Marketplace, I started working on the EC Archives with Russ, which were hardcover, full color reprints of EC Comics in chronological order. Not only was I in charge of the books’ design, I also oversaw the re-coloring of all the stories. I received a Harvey Award for my design on those books. Not long after that, I connected with a friend who is an editor at Marvel. He hired me as a freelance designer for Marvel, working on their Marvel Spotlight series and special content for comics and graphic novels.

Backtracking a little, in 2004, I became good friends with Paul Gulacy, who redefined Marvel Comics in the ’70s with his work on Master of Kung Fu. I wanted to do a book on Paul’s career. That ended up being a high-end art book titled Spies, Vixens, and Masters of Kung Fu, published by Vanguard Productions. That was the first book I ever wrote and designed.

Michael's book on the career of comic book artist Paul Gulacy.


NEAL ADAMS

Monte: I’m also a big Neal Adams Fan. What attracted you to his work?

Batman #232
Michael: I was eight, and loved to draw, and my parents saw that I had some talent, so they always encouraged me. I was at a 7-11 in Miami, and I saw the comic that changed my life, I think all comic book fans have one of those. It was Batman #232, the first appearance of Ra’s Al Ghul. I had never seen Batman drawn like that before and I couldn’t believe it. That was the first time I ever looked to see who drew a comic.

That comic had great content: The introduction of a memorable villain and Batman and Robin’s origins. It changed the way I perceived Batman. He looked dark and frightening. I started copying Neal’s art, and I definitely learned from that. He was such a big influence on me.

The darkness of Neal Adams’ Batman comics are probably one of the reasons I became attracted to film noir. I never cared for the 1960s television show. That’s always been kind of a pain to me. I disliked what it did to the character and the camp baggage that it brought. One of the reasons I did the Batman book that I wrote with Michael Eury – The Batcave Companion – was that I wanted to show how Neal Adams – and writer Denny O’Neill – were really the ones that moved Batman away from the Adam West-era, and took him back to his darker Pulp roots of 1939. Frank Miller has received a lot of credit for this. I like Frank Miller's Batman, but I was always peeved that Miller was getting the credit when it was Neal Adams in the late-1960s and ‘70s who revived Batman as the “Dark Knight.”

The wraparound cover for the Batman book Michael co-authored and designed.


While I worked on Comic Book Marketplace in 2003, I got the chance to interview Neal Adams. I went to New York and spent two days with him. There had been many other interviews with Neal about his career, but what interested me most was his work on Batman. So, I decided to focus strictly on the Batman stories he drew. I asked Neal questions that I wanted to know, what I always wondered about regarding those Batman stories. For me, it was very memorable. Here I was talking to Neal in his art studio for two days about Batman. The interview I did with Neal is reprinted in The Batcave Companion.
Michael's interview with Batman artist Neal Adams.


Monte: Neal Adams also drew the seminal Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics in the early 1970s.  Were you influenced by these as well?

Michael: I was a little too young to completely grasp the political and sociological ramifications of those comics. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I went back, bought the back issues and realized how important they were. After I read them and being an idealistic young man, I loved those stories. I reread GL/GA in the 1990s and thought they were a little dated, but considering what’s currently going on in our country those comics have become very relative again.

The conclusion to Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76.
Monte: They deal with some pretty serious issues.

Michael: The race and poverty problems that they dealt with are all relevant today.

Monte: They weren’t really about Green Lantern and Green Arrow per se. Those two were the vehicle that was chosen to bring out these amazing stories.
Michael: Right. What’s interesting is that those stories were very much like Easy Rider. They had Green Lantern and Green Arrow traveling through America confronting various issues and problems in the country, just like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda did in their movie.











Film Noir

Monte: So while all this was going on, you started to associate with the Film Noir Foundation, and built a pretty strong partnership with its president, Eddie Muller.

Michael: I had been interested in film noir since college. There was a repertory theater where I went to school that would show double features like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, Body and Soul and Champion.

Seeing those movies on the big screen was fantastic. As a lithographer, WPA artists from the Depression like Robert Riggs, John Taylor Arms, Louis Lozowick, Thomas Hart Benton, and others heavily influenced me. Their work had that stark, black and white, urban look, similar to film noir. That look, and storytelling – appealed to me. Film noir looked like the WPA art, especially those pieces by the lithographers and other printmakers.


Boxing lithograph by WPA artist Robert Riggs.
Boxing lithograph by Michael Kronenberg.
Monte: So in college, these movies, the WPA influence, the attraction to the darker side of things, all these things came together in your own work.

Michael: It goes all the way back to childhood, and what attracted me to Batman, and the old classic black and white horror movies. At that time, I didn’t know what Film Noir was. It was when I got to college that I discovered what those movies were. Their appeal to me was a natural.

Monte: When I look at your art, you seem to capture not only the dark aspect of film noir, but also the mood, and the feel – the style. It seems to me that is what you are trying to capture.

Michael: Yes and also the great graphics of movie posters, back in the day. The art of those film posters was just amazing. I try to incorporate that into my design work. We don’t have anything like those posters anymore.

Monte: Orson Welles…John Alton – they seem like they just knew how to bring so much of this out – the stories are being told just in the lighting, and the mood that they set.

Michael: John Alton wrote a book titled Painting With Light, that’s exactly what he did in the movies he worked on.

Monte: From the perspective we’re talking about, which movies do you think really stand out?

Michael: I love the Phantom Lady, and many of the classic noir films such as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Crime Wave, The Killers, Criss Cross. He Walked By Night is a John Alton film I really enjoyed. Regarding Welles, Touch of Evil is brilliant on so many levels, I also like Lady From Shanghai – it might not be a great movie, but it looks terrific. Night and the City is wonderful also. There are just too many to list, I’d be here all day.

No doubt, my graphic design work is inspired by not only these movies, but also the WPA art that influenced me as a lithographer. As I mentioned before, the visual correlation between WPA art and film noir is very strong in my mind.

My favorite film noir is The Set-Up; it’s also my favorite boxing movie. What I love about The Set-Up is that it’s about the lower rung fighters, the young fighters trying to rise up and the older fighters desperately trying to hang on. The larger than life champions, the big names…that’s only one part of boxing. Robert Ryan’s performance is phenomenal, even after so many viewings it still amazes and moves me.

The movie that really put the film noir hook in me  – the movie that got me obsessed – was Kiss Me Deadly. I love that movie. It has a comic book feel and a great look. Ralph Meeker is absolutely perfect. You know Mickey Spillane hated that movie. It’s nothing like his book.

Monte: Well, he’s not the first…

Michael: Right.


CURRENT WORK WITH the Film Noir Foundation

Michael: I had been aware of the Film Noir Foundation for several years. I was on their mailing list.  Eddie Muller, the founder and president of the FNF, sent out an Email blast to all subscribers asking for someone to design and do the production on their electronic newsletter called the Noir City Sentinel. He listed all the requirements for the job, and I said to myself, “I can do that. I’m jumping on this.” I had a full plate of work at that time but I wrote him back immediately and told him, “I really want this job.” In fact, I kept bugging him and said, “If you don’t give me this job, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.” He told me that he had other designers interested in the job, so I was going to have to take a test.

I had never taken a design test before. He sent me a story he had written about the history of To Have and Have Not – all the various versions that had been shot. He sent me the newsletter’s specs so I could set up a design file. I ended up giving him three completely different designs and sent them back to him in an hour. I guess he was impressed because I got the job.

After working on the Sentinel newsletter, I eventually said to Eddie, “let me redesign this, and make it into a full color digital magazine.” He gave me the green light and that’s how the Noir City Sentinel became Noir City e-Magazine.  NOIR CITY is a fully interactive magazine, it contains movie trailers, film clips, and music. We also have a back issue site where you can purchase and download all previous issues.

A minimum $20 donation to the Film Noir Foundation gets you a year’s subscription (four quarterly issues) to Noir City magazine. All of the donations go towards our film restoration projects. If you love film noir, then you should consider donating to the Film Noir Foundation.

Michael's cover designs for the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY e-Magazine.

Next year we’ll be releasing two of our restored movies on Blu-Ray/DVD, Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run.

Eddie Muller's Dark City and Dark City Dames are essential
reading on both Hollywood and film noir.
It’s been great working with Eddie. We hit it off really well because we have a lot of similar interests. He’s such a brilliant and charismatic guy, and without a doubt, the most talented writer I’ve ever known. His novels The Distance and Shadow Boxer are fantastic. And the noir-related books that Eddie has written, Dark City Dames, Dark City, and The Art of Noir, are the best books on the genre. I highly recommend all of them.  What many people don’t know is that Eddie is also a talented graphic designer. There’s no doubt that since I started working for Eddie he’s helped me push the envelope so I’ve become a better designer.



Monte: What led Eddie to publish a book so focused on the great Gun Crazy movie?

Michael: Eddie originally wrote that book as a companion to the Blu-Ray release of Gun Crazy in France. The book was in French. Eddie retained the rights to publish it in English. I redesigned the book for the English language version and Eddie released it through his new publishing firm Black Pool Productions.


Gun Crazy star Peggy Cummins and Michael.
The FNF puts on festivals all over the country, but the biggest festival is in San Francisco. Eddie invited Gun Crazy star Peggy Cummins as a guest to San Francisco in 2013. She’s 89 and traveled by herself from England to appear at the showing of Gun Crazy at the Castro Theatre.

It was a wonderful experience for her and a little overwhelming. I’m not sure she was completely aware of how beloved that movie and her performance is. She truly enjoyed it.

My brother Steve (co-managing editor of Noir City magazine) and I go to the San Francisco festival each year. We were asked to take care of Peggy while she was in San Francisco. We were at the same hotel with her, escorted her to breakfast every morning, made sure she was comfortable, took her to the theater, and we got to know her fairly well. She’s so personable, sweet, and has a great sense of humor. She eventually referred to us as “her boys!” We loved watching Gun Crazy and Curse of the Demon with her at the Castro.

Michael's cover design for Eddie Muller's book
on the making of Gun Crazy.
So, Eddie’s book Gun Crazy: The Origin of Outlaw Cinema came from not only his love of the movie, but also how close he became with Peggy. He wanted to tell the story of how it was made and how influential the movie and Peggy’s performance were.

On a related note…I highly recommend anyone who loves film noir to attend the Film Noir Foundation’s upcoming film festival in San Francisco January 22-31 at the Castro Theater. For film buffs, there’s nothing like it, the city practically comes to a halt and seeing Eddie as host is extraordinary. And there’s a reason Quentin Tarantino said he wanted to die at the Castro Theater, it’s a magnificent movie palace. We always debut our newest restorations at the festival. The movie schedule will be released on December 16. For details go here.





Wrapping Up

Monte: It sounds like you have a dream job. All the things you loved have converged and you must be really happy about it.

Michael's cover design for Philippe
Garnier's book on author David Goodis.
Published by Eddie Muller.
Michael: It is a dream job. I really enjoy what I’m doing right now. There’s always something new, creative, and interesting. NOIR CITY has a wonderful and talented group of writers who contribute to each issue, their work is what inspires me. I love working on FNF and Black Pool Productions projects with Eddie and Daryl Sparks (promotional director), the three of us put a lot of love into what we do. In addition to the Gun Crazy book, Black Pool Productions released another book I designed, Goodis: A Life in Black and White, all about noir author David Goodis. We have some really cool stuff coming up from Black Pool Productions, like a postcard collection of Eddie’s Belgium film noir movie posters. Beautiful posters and I got to design a cool package that it all comes in.


Michael's cover design for Bela Lugosi in
Person
. Recently selected as one of the
best film books of 2015.
Monte: Any current work that people need to know more about?

Michael: I’ve recently designed a couple of books about horror movie star Bela Lugosi for film historian Gary Rhodes: Bela Lugosi in Person (selected by Huffington Post as one of the best film books of 2015) and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. And I just completed designing a book on Electric Football titled Full Color Electric Football, maybe the most popular sports toy ever made. It was the NFL’s best selling merchandise for over 20 years.








MICHAEL KRONENBERG’S 10 BEST BOXING MOVIES

My father was a New York Golden Gloves Tournament participant and had a brief professional boxing career, so I’ve been passionate about the Sweet Science all my life. Here are my ten favorite boxing movies.

The Set-Up.
1 - The Set-Up (1949)
Robert Wise delivers the greatest boxing movie and its also one of the best film noir movies ever made. The narrative unfolds in real time (clocks are ever present). Robert Ryan’s performance transcends the noir genre and ranks as one of the best ever and his co-star Audrey Totter is equal to the task. To me this movie represents what boxing is all about. Seventy-three unforgettable minutes!

2 - Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull
An extraordinary movie considering director Martin Scorsese knew nothing about boxing and star Robert DeNiro had to beg him to make the movie. When the movie was first released, the talk almost exclusively surrounded DeNiro’s real-life weight gain to portray an older Jake LaMotta. As time passed, it’s now recognized as a classic and arguably the best collaboration between Scorsese and DeNiro.

When We Were Kings
3 - When We Were Kings (1996)
This Oscar-winning documentary explores the 1974 bout between challenger Muhammad Ali and champion George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. This film is about much more than the fight itself, it’s a peek into our world during the mid-‘70s.

Body and Soul
4 - Body and Soul (1947)
A fictionalized account of Jewish boxing great Barney Ross. This movie was filmed by star John Garfield’s company Enterprise Productions. It’s the best of the “fame to ruin” boxing movies. A number of the movie’s cast and crew would eventually be Blacklisted by Hollywood, including stars Garfield, Canada Lee, Anne Revere, and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky.

The Harder They Fall
5 - The Harder They Fall (1956)
Based on Budd Schulberg’s novel, the fictionalized story of one-time “Heavyweight Champion” Primo Carnera. It’s a hardcore portrayal of the overwhelming corruption in the Fight Game. Contains numerous cameos by real boxers. Humphrey Bogart’s final movie.

Fat City
6 - Fat City (1972)
This was John Huston’s best movie since The African Queen and based on Leonard Gardner’s brilliant novel (he also wrote the screenplay). Representing boxing away from the limelight: young fighters ascending and older fighters descending. 

7 - Triumph of the Spirit (1989)
A true-life survivor’s story about a Greek Olympic boxer who fought for the amusement of Nazis at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in order to insure his survival and his family’s. Willem Dafoe delivers a powerful performance in this overlooked movie.

8 - Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
This big screen version of Rod Serling’s story about punchy, big-hearted, and washed-up fighter Mountain Rivera is darker and better than the original TV version. The movie is driven by terrific performances from Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Julie Harris, and Mickey Rooney. Also contains a who’s who of cameos by boxing greats: Jack Dempsey, Barney Ross, Willie Pep, and Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) as the fighter who sends Rivera into retirement.

9 - The Great White Hope (1970)
Based on Howard Sackler’s successful Broadway play, a fictionalized account of Jack Johnson the first black Heavyweight Champion. James Earl Jones brilliantly portrays Jack Jefferson, but he might as well be Jack Johnson. The play and film came out during Muhammad Ali’s three-year exile from boxing when he was stripped of his titles and boxing license for refusing to go to Vietnam. As much as this story is about Johnson’s difficult plight in the early 20th Century, it’s also allegorical to Ali’s struggles from 1967-1970.

10 - Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (2005)
This documentary tells the powerful story of six-time Welterweight Champion Emile Griffith, the hidden life he had to lead, and confronting the son of Benny Paret, the boxer he killed in the ring.


MICHAEL KRONENBERG’S FAVORITE FILM NOIR POSTERS

This is by no means a complete list, because there are far too many noir posters that I love. But, here are the posters that stand out for me. I’ve used several of these in my designs over the years. You can find the Belgium posters I’ve listed in Eddie Muller’s upcoming postcard set coming from Black Pool Productions. (Posters listed in alphabetical order)


Angel Face – Belgium poster
The Big Heat - Belgium poster
Blonde Ice – Half-sheet
The Blue Dahlia – One-sheet
Gun Crazy – Three-sheet
Highway 301 – German poster
The Hitch-Hiker – Three-sheet
Ministry of Fear – Six-sheet
The Narrow Margin – Italian poster
Nightmare Alley – Three-sheet and German poster
Somewhere in the Night – One-sheet
Taxi Driver – One-sheet
Touch of Evil – French poster
(scroll down to view posters)











2 comments:

  1. Greg Jones - Miami, FLDecember 14, 2015 at 11:52 AM

    There is no one more talented than Michael. His eye for details that most of us overlook is amazing. All of his work exudes a passion and always draws me in, even if the subject isn't well known to me. Great interview Monte!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for those kind words Greg. Michael is an extraordinary talent, I agree. And I felt he was really insightful as well! He also helped me design the piece, and it really shows in the excellent layout. Neat guy!

    Thanks again!

    Monte

    ReplyDelete

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