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Lyrics and Layouts: Interview with Adam ILLUS Wallenta

On the surface, hip hop and comics seem to be two different types of medium, but when you carefully examine and dissect them, you'll notice so many similarities between the two. Both are rich with great visuals, raw emotion and poetic storytelling. For one artist, he has achieved his dream in working with both mediums and creating his own art. Adam "ILLUS" Wallenta.

He started as an intern at Marvel back in the 90s. Since then, he has worked as a colorist for Marvel and several DC books actually including coloring for their Batman: Gene Colon Collection, Superman vs Shazam and their Jim Shooter's Legion of Superheroes collection among others . From there he was artist/writer on the Public Enemy comic book and even did album covers for the band and KRS-One. On the music side, he has sold over 250 000 records with no airplay and major record label. His newest album "A PERFECTLY IMPERFECT BEAUTIFUL NAKED CREATION", which came out early this week and was successfully founded on Kickstarter. Peter Drakopoulos interviewed Illus to discuss his newest LP, overall thoughts of music and comics industry and being a parent. 

Peter Drakopoulos: First off, congrads on completing your new album. It will be out next month and what can you say about the album?

Adam  Wallenta: Thank you! I’m very proud of this album. It was produced by fellow emcee and producer, Blueprint and he crafted some amazing beats. We actually got together in person at his studio in Ohio and I recorded all my vocals over a weekend. The album features the legendary Craig G from the Juice Crew and one of my all time favorite emcees- Slug from Atmosphere. I also collaborated with my friends Roxxxteady and Paul Dateh.

The album captures a moment in my life where I was struggling with juggling being a father and a professional artist. It touches on insecurities, depression, struggles and how I fight to overcome them and be the best I can be. This is all done with superhero metaphors and analogies and just honest to goodness passionate lyrics over hard-hitting funky beats.

PD: The album was founded on Kickstarter. It wasn't the first time that you've used Kickstarter for a project. If Kickstarter was around 15-20 years ago, would the Entertainment industry be in a different state because of it and how many lost projects would of you worked on during that time period?  

AW: Oh man, I wish that Kickstarter was around when I first started publishing books back in 1998. That would have been helpful. In other ways I am glad it wasn’t. Before Kickstarter you had to really believe in yourself. I’m not saying creators don’t now but back before crowd funding you had to believe in yourself so much you were willing to run up your own credit cards 20-30k and never look back. All of my projects before Kickstarter I funded myself and I had to fight an uphill battle as an independent to reach my audience. These days you can be internet famous and get a lot of great support without ever leaving your house. It’s amazing and because it is different/easier a lot of great people can get exposure but also a lot of crap can flood the market. Crappy artists/creators had to have a lot of spare cash 20-30 years ago to waste if they wanted to release comics or music so there wasn’t as much. I’m not saying this didn’t happen but it didn’t feel like there was as much.

PD: Backtracking for a moment, for our readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work can you tells a bit about yourself?

AW: I’m a professional illustrator with 20+ years of experience in comics, children’s books and music. I started as an intern for Marvel comics, got my first pro gig coloring comics and then started writing, drawing and publishing my own through my company American Mule Entertainment. I also co-created the official Public Enemy comic book series with Chuck D, I’ve illustrated over 50 children’s books and other novels and have toured and recorded under the name ILLUS releasing over 15 albums. Mostly I’m know for my awesome garden though and being politically outspoken.

PD:  What was the one moment or event in music and comics that made you want to do this as a profession?

AW: I love comic books more than anything (other than my wife and children) and I always have. Other than president or Jedi- all I ever wanted to be was an artist until about 13 and then I fell in love with music and writing poetry and I had this crazy idea I could be a rapper as well. There wasn’t any one moment really in regards to being an artist-art was just what I did and it was who I am. In regards to music- it was probably listening to Criminal Minced by KRS (BDP). Something about that album made me want to be an emcee.

PD:  Who were your main influences growing up?

AW: So many artists and musicians. I’m influenced by everything around me. Even to this day I am inspired everywhere I look. But to name a few specifics from my youth- Jack Kirby, Al Williamson, Norman Rockwell, George Lucas, John Byrne, Jim Henson, Arthur Adams, Ross Andru, John Romita, KRS-One, Chuck D, De La Soul, Kool Moe Dee.

PD: A few weeks ago on Facebook you posted a great anecdote about Mark Gruenwald, and you doing work on an issue of Namor the Sub-Mariner. Can you tell us that story and what it was like to work with Gruenwald? 

AW: I started out as a college intern at Marvel Comics. I actually worked for editor Mike Rockwitz and assistant editor Joe Andreani. They were in charge of books like Captain America, Namor, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, The Secret Defenders, Thor and more. Mark Gruenwald was the writer of Captain America at the time and one of the Executive Editors at Marvel. He was a great guy. He treated everyone with respect and had a passion for comic books like no other. In regards to Namor- I was in the office working one Friday and the book was late because the colorist assigned to the book flaked out. I had just recently been approved a page rate and I colored a pin up in Namor and I told my bosses that I could do the job. It was 32 pages and it had to be done by Monday. So after I finished my normal intern job that day I went home and spent the weekend coloring the book and had it done first thing Monday morning. It was my first professional job and a great experience. I learned a ton that weekend I still use to this day. 

PD: When it comes to begin a colorist do you have specfic color wheel that you use or does it depends on the story itself?

AW: I don't have a specific color wheel. I always read the story first and try and compliment the mood and story and enhance it in any way I can. Some books require fine details, others more subtle and minimalist colors. It's not about my ego or putting my personal stamp on the project, it's all about the story and making it the best book possible. 

PD:  As a rapper, have you experienece any doubt or concern to how your voice sounds like when listening to a track of yourself?  

AW: I think my voice sounds very different when I’m rapping as opposed to when I am just talking. The funny thing is I actually like my rapping voice better. When I hear myself in an interview or even on a voicemail I always feel awkward.

PD: Before you worked on the Public Enemy comic, you were signed to Chuck D's record label and even opened up for Public Enemy correct?

AW: This is true. I released a few singles under Chucks’s label- SlamJamz and toured with them and the Impossebulls along with Blackalicious and Dilated Peoples.

PD: That was probably one of the most surreal experience of your life? And later on, you did the cover for one of their albums too.

AW: It was a lot of fun but also hardwork. Looking back it was surreal I suppose but at the time it was just an experience I was very grateful to have. I used to perform a lot but it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to do shows because I am focused on my family and work. I illustrated the artwork for Public Enemy’s The Evil Empire of Everything.

PD: What was the genesis behind the Public Enemy comic? How did you pitch the idea of the comic to group and were you worried that they might reject it?

AW: I was on tour with Public Enemy and Chuck and I started talking about comics. I was already well aware that he loved comic books because in his first album he name dropped Thor and Namor. I also worked at Marvel in editorial when they had a music department and they were developing a PE comic that failed. So I knew he would be interested. I had an idea I believed in and I pitched it to Chuck one day and he said “let’s do it”. So we did it. That simple.

I never have fear of rejection. I’ve been courted by every major Hollywood studio and publishers from small to big- I also have a filing cabinet of rejection letters from all of them as well. That is just part of the business. You win some and you lose many.

PD: The comic dealt with the group battle against the Executives and New World Order. How much did the group let you go wild with the story? How many input did the group had with the story?

AW: Chuck just wanted me to do my thing. He was awesome. There were other elements of the group that I had to work with that didn’t really understand comics so I had to appease them. That’s how it is anytime you are working with licensed properties or someone else’s characters.

PD: Since the comic was publish about a decade ago, we've seen Marvel rolled up with their own version of the Illuminati and over at Valiant, Archer and Armstrong battled against the 1% percent. Looking back now, do you feel that the comic has a greater impact as time progresses? Also, did you feel that the 1% percent is actly less than that? (Like 0.00001 percent)

AW: I’m not sure if the Public Enemy stories inspired any other creators. I doubt it. As far as the 1%. I can’t even imagine the wealth some of these people hold. It’s ridiculous.

PD: Is any more plans to do more Public Enemy comics in the future? Chances of seeing a trade reprint?

AW: Not from me. If Chuck wants me to I would but I haven’t been asked.

PD: What's your thoughts on the music industry and artists petition to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and most of the acts that signed the petition are biggest artists in music instead of younger or upcoming artists?

AW: I’m not all that familiar with the case at the moment. In general anything that empowers the actual artists and makes them more money for their hard work and takes money out of the pockets of corporations, lawyers and other bosses, I am all for.

PD: How do you feel about music streaming services like Spotify and Tidal? Long term goal will help it the music industry or will it further free fall the industry into a greater widespread panic? 

AW: I’m not sure about the future. I used to think I had an idea but truthfully I have no clue. Who would’ve thought Tapes would be trendy again? I like Spotify and those sites because it helps expose new listeners to my music but those listeners don’t always become fans or customers. It would be nice if Spotify paid more, or if people were actually music fans and followed artists rather than just singles. Ultimately I think it’s the attitude of the fans that hurts the artists. Fans (or I should say music listeners) feel entitled to all the music in the world and treat it as disposable soundtracks in passing.

PD: Unlike the music industry, the comics industry has greatly embrace the digital age with comiXology and fans of this medium have mostly welcomed it in open arms. With comiXology Unlimited being billed as "Netflix for Comics" and a lot of creators of creator-owned titles are worried about this model. Should young creators and publishers be worried before going into bed with this service or demand a bigger piece of the sharings and creators getting all of the roylties from this service?

AW: Creators should always demand as much as they can get because no matter what the counter argument is- the fact is artists make very little for the amount of time they put into their craft and I know of very few that are making what they are worth. I love the idea of digital comics- more from an environmental, minimalist perspective because I think less paper, less ink, less waste…but I admit I haven’t embraced it at all. I’m 42. I love books. I love holding them, I love the smell, I love how they feel and sound when I crack one open…Here’s my hypocrisy…digital cost too much for me- why are they the same price as a printed comic? Maybe if they were all .99 or .50 I could get down with it but I also realize the creators need and deserve to make money…I don’t know. I just prefer supporting the printed versions but I am glad the the younger generations are pushing digital.

PD: The current comics landscape we're seeing 20-22 pages comics selling a $2.99, $3.99 and even $4.99 price tag. Should publishers altogether eliminate all single issue comics and move all of their titles towards giant size comics or comic magazines like 2000 AD, Heavy Metal, Dark Horse Presents and Weekly Shonen Jump?

AW: Yeah I think the 22 page comic should be killed. I prefer trades and bigger books. Writers these days barely even fill up the books with any words and I can breeze through a 22 page issue in 10 minutes or less and that’s if the art is great and I stare at it for awhile. It feels so incomplete because they are writing arcs for trades anyway. Few comics have self contained kick ass stories like back in the day, everything is designed for trade arc so why not just release the story when it is all done? I love the format of the magazines as well.

PD: I know publishers and insiders have been saying for years that anthology/comic magazine don't sell. But if publishers can put some of their A+ best selling titles with brand titles in one big comic magazine, could that doing well in sales wise? 

AW: I can’t predict what would do really well. The comic audience is pretty fickle. But as a fan I would love to buy more anthologies if they were stand-alone stories. I think if they were all 8 page stories that may or may not continue because a creator gets disinterested or off schedule- I would hate that.

PD:  As a parent, how much has it influence in your creative process and what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind for your children?

AW: Being a parent has changed what I do completely both in comics and music. In my music it’s been very obvious for people who are familiar with my older stuff that was more hard edged  and often vulgar at times. LOL. Now I focus on making Hip-Hop that people my age can listen to with their kids that isn’t embarrassing or offensive. It’s not kids rap but it’s kid friendly and for all ages. In regards to my comic work my new projects will be more all-ages and young adult- books that kids and adults can read. I am only do my own creator owned projects from now on because I want to create characters, worlds and stories I can pass down to my kids so they have something they can own when I am gone. I have no real interest in working exclusively with other company’s characters. Maybe I’d so a Spider-Man book as a fan but I don’t pursue anyone else anymore. Everything I do is owned by me and my family.

PD: What comics and albums that you are currently listening and reading? What stuff people should be checking out?

AW: Music- Anything by Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, Homeboy Sandman, De LA Soul, Roxxxteady, Venomous the Ultra Emcee and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. Comics- Invincible, Ninja Turtles, Birthright, Black Science, Walking Dead….there are a ton of great Image books I want to get the trades for. I buy anything that Lee Weeks draws or any new John Byrne material if I can find it. I love G-Man and always want more of that. I’m always on the look out for new kids comics, young adult comics because I read them to my son. Our favorites are the Three Thieves series which is amazing, Nameless City, Zita the Space Girl, Bigfoot Boy…man too many to name.

PD: Anything else you would like to promote or people should check out and support?

AW: By the timeyou read this my new album will be out and available everywhere in digital format or on my website (adamwallenta.com) if you like CDs. It’s called “A Perfectly Imperfect Beautiful Naked Creation” and I’m very proud of it. I would be honored if everyone bought a copy and gave it an honest listen. I put my heart and soul into it. I have several new comic book projects and a new company launching in 2017. Follow adamwallenta.com for all the details I will be revealing soon!

PD: Any advice or words of encouragement for the young artists and musicians out there?

AW: It’s a cliché but it’s the most important advice I can offer- practice, practice, practice! And then practice more! Master your craft, know its history and work hard. Never be late with an assignment, never make excuses, persevere and adapt. And if it’s not making you happy do something that will.

 

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