The current Rice Gallery exhibit at McDaniel College showcases original art from the graphic art novel “Breathtaker,” written and painted by Westminster resident Mark Wheatley 33 years ago in collaboration with Marc Hempel. The exhibit is on view through Oct. 29 and was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Wheatley and Hempel’s graphic novel broke new ground and set new standards in the comic book industry. It came at a time when comics were transitioning into graphic novels. A graphic novel is a longer comic book, often with a more developed form of comics’ language. “Breathtaker” runs over 200 pages. The subjects for graphic novels include anything that one might find in any book including essays, history, biographies, science fiction, fantasy, mystery or westerns, etc.
Wheatley explained that the definition of comics “goes far beyond the limits of a Marvel comic book. Comics are an ancient language that is visual. It is the same language that cave men used when they first drew on a cave wall.”
“My studio mate, Hempel, and I had collaborated on many projects through our Insight Studios. We created our own material and produced the work of others for publishers such as Marvel, DC Comics and Fantagraphics,” Wheatley said.
Insight Studios Group was a creative resource and provided technical help to comic book publishers. This gave them nearly complete control over the printed “Breathtaker” books. For “Breathtaker,” Hempel drew the original black and white drawings based on Wheatley’s script. Then Wheatley painted the color.
The exhibit features the art of “Breathtaker,” and the steps involved in creating a graphic novel. Some of the pages of the original script with handwritten notations of how Hempel planned his drawings are on display, along with preliminary designs and examples of the paints and pens that were used.
Before “Breathtaker,” Hempel and Wheatley had worked together creating several notable comic series, but each reached the point where they wanted to work solo. Hempel, who lives in Baltimore, created a comic called “Gregory” with script and illustrations. Wheatley was busy running Insight while writing, packaging and producing Tarzan comics.
After Hempel’s “Gregory” was complete, Wheatley came up with the idea of “Breathtaker” as a new collaborative project. “Once I had the name, the story was implied,” Wheatley explained. “It only took me one hike through the mountains to imagine the entire story. I pitched the idea to Marc, and the rest is history.”
They sent the samples off to DC Comics on a Monday and the next morning, Wheatley got a call from the editor at DC Comics with an offer to publish the book. There were four chapters released in 1990 to wide acclaim and high sales. The graphic novel collection has been through seven printings and has been translated into several languages.
Wheatley always liked comics. “When I was in fifth grade, my parents took my comics away from me because they thought it was distracting me from my schoolwork, so I drew my own,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley’s father had been a comic book collector, but he never said a word about it. As a boy, his father had worked at the family business, the Wheatley Confectionary in Portsmouth Virginia. When Wheatley was in college, his father finally told him that his job had been to manage the newsstand and comics. His father got to choose the ones he wanted and managed to collect early Superman and other valuable comics. Unfortunately, his mother, Wheatley’s grandmother, threw them away when her son went into the Army.
Wheatley studied communication arts and design at Virginia Commonwealth University. He had already been publishing his own magazine for four years when he got to college.
He continued to publish his magazine, titled “Nucleus: The Center of the Comic World.” At that time, he met Hempel, who submitted artwork to him for the magazine. Hempel was in high school while Wheatley was in college.
Creating the magazine “Nucleus” gave Wheatley an understanding of printing processes. One summer, he was the art director for the company that printed his magazine. The camera they used to photograph for print, a copy camera, had been installed after the Civil War. In 1973, they installed the first computer typesetting machine called a Compugraphic. At the time, they were still using hot lead to set type. It was a time of technological change.
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Stan Lee, the head of Marvel Comics, lectured at Wheatley’s college and after seeing his work, offered him a job. But a few months later, after Wheatley had graduated and moved to New York, the industry collapsed because of a downturn in the economy sparked by a massive winter storm in 1976 that interrupted the distribution of magazines and a paper shortage that drove up prices.
Wheatley found himself doing illustrations and comics for magazines instead of comic books. It wasn’t until 1984 that the industry bounced back and he would get regular work in comic books.
In 1978, Wheatley moved to Baltimore, where he started doing advertising and design work and started his business, Insight Studios.
In 1980, Hempel joined Wheatley in the business. “Marc is very talented and together we were able to generate a lot of work,” Wheatley said. Today, Insight concentrates on publishing its own projects. Wheatley remains in demand as an illustrator for other publishers, TV shows and businesses. Having been an author, artist, editor, and publisher, Wheatley also recently added the title of television producer to his resume. He has active options for his comics for television.
“I love art, stories and the combination of the two,” Wheatley said. “I always have ideas for stories swirling around in my head. I am so fortunate that I can share them with people.”
Wheatley can be contacted through his website at MarkWheatleyGallery.com.
Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.