“Write characters, not Christians.”
Jordan Raynor sits down with Mike Maihack, Graphic Novelist, to talk about why Mike initially declined an offer from Dreamworks, how the Old Testament’s “slow crawl to Jesus” inspires Mike’s stories, and how we can all—regardless of our vocations—think about “writing characters, not Christians.”
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey everybody, welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work, for the glory of our great God and the good of others. Every week, I host a conversation with a Christian who is pursuing world-class mastery of their craft. We talk about their path to mastery, their daily habits, and how their faith influences the work they’re doing Monday through Friday out there in the world.
Today’s guest, I cannot be more excited about. His name is Mike Maihack and he’s the author and illustrator of a very successful graphic novel series called Cleopatra in Space. He’s got six books published by Scholastic, DreamWorks has developed the books now into a TV series on NBC streaming services, Peacock and he lives right down the road for me. Randomly found each other months ago when he emailed me after reading some devotionals.
I have devoured his books with my kids, we love them and so I was super excited to bring Mike on to the podcast today. We sat down and we talked about why he initially declined the offer from DreamWorks to develop his comic books into a TV series, we talked about how the old testament’s slow crawl to Jesus inspires Mike’s stories and we talked about how all of use, regardless of our vocations can think about “writing characters and not Christians”.
I think you’re going to love this conversation with my friend Mike Maihack
[0:01:43.2] JR: Mike, thanks for being here.
[0:01:44.9] MM: Hi, glad to be here.
[0:01:46.8] JR: I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. How we met I think is interesting to share with our listeners so a while back, you sent me this incredibly kind email about how much you're enjoying my devotionals and mentioned you lived in Tampa and wanted to meet up and I declined most of those request, we get a lot of those emails but my assistant flagged your email, should I – you got to see this, this guy is like legit.
I looked at the website, I was like, my gosh, this guy’s like amazing and so we met for coffee at march and by the way, I didn’t tell you this before we started recording. I think that was my last meeting pre COVID.
[0:02:24.0] MM: The very next week, like three or four days later, all of a sudden it just – everything went down.
[0:02:28.5] JR: Everything shut down.
[0:02:30.3] MM: Yeah, we’re sweating that in just in time, you know?
[0:02:32.6] JR: We did, ended pre COVID life on a high note so all that to say, I’m very pumped for this conversation so let’s start here, talk through your story and just kind of the path that led you to the work that you’re doing now, graphic novelist.
[0:02:46.9] MM: Sure, I’ve always enjoyed drawing so that’s probably mostly what got me into drawing graphic novels. I always liked reading a lot too. Most of the stuff I read was comics growing up, I’ve read a lot of X-Men, some super hero stuff but I also like to read a lot of independent books, there was a book called Bone that was really the life changer for me that was sort of this The Lord of the Rings meets Mickey Mouse kind of thing. Yeah, it’s that – it’s like cousins in valley but it was a very fantasy but also like kind of anime Disney approach to taking fantasy.
Taking the styles that I liked growing up with like cartoons but also that sort of serious storytelling that you find in like the books like Narnia and The Lord of the Rings and some Stephen Lawhead stuff. I kind of thought you know, this is something that I would like to do, I wanted to tell my own stories, you know? That aren’t necessarily somebody else’s characters but my own characters and that just sort of led me down the path of working towards drawing my own comic.
[0:03:53.4] JR: When did you realize you could make money drawing pictures.
[0:03:58.8] MM: I don’t know if that was even in my thought process. A lot of time of me learning that you needed money to live, to get food and stuff. You know, when I first started thinking about want to do comics, I was just like, I’m just going to do comics and you know, everything else that I needed in my life to survive to serve magically spread in the house, and then later, I learned, it was because my parents have jobs and –
Yeah, I think it was probably around there and I thought, well, if I’m going to do this, if I’m going to make a living making comics, of course I probably learned the craft and get a little bit more professional at it. I focused my path going to an art school with a plan to go into animation and eventually to you know, get a job in animation and then use those skills to do some sort of comic book series.
[0:04:52.5] JR: Yeah.
[0:04:54.1] MM: Which didn’t exactly work out that way, I went to college right about the turn of the century and love saying the turn of the century since we’re about – That was right about – I was really into traditional animation and I was right about the time, like Toy Story had just come out a few years before and studios just boom, closed their doors.
Right about that time on pretty new traditional animation content. The focus was completely on CGI and computer animation which I didn’t really have much of an interest in, so I just kept going through some of the animation track that I was in but focus more on illustration and then went off after college, just did some side things like I had custom framing job for about six years and I was a graphic designer for like about another six years and during those times.
During my free time, at night or I had like a lunch break. I would just work on my own stuff, my own comics and I would put those up on the internet, up for free for people to read and that’s kind of how I got into sort of making sort of a career out of doing comics.
[0:06:01.6] JR: Yeah, you’re best known today for this super successful series called Cleopatra in Space, is that how these all came about? Was this like you’re on a lunch break, just drawing Cleopatra and throwing it on the internet?
[0:06:15.1] MM: Yeah, mostly Cleopatra in Space is actually drawn out my graphic design job just as I was just sitting there in between jobs because I would just – you know, here’s some work for you to do, if I didn’t have any work I’d work on Cleopatra in Space and it was just me having fun. I came up with a character, I was part of this drawing group, with a bunch of different animators and graphic designers and comp artist.
Illustrators from all over the world and we were given a topic every so often about every two weeks and we’re just kind of, if we want to draw our own interpretation of that, just to keep our skills up and keep some sort of community and this is like before Twitter and Facebook really kind of start taking off.
[0:06:56.7] JR: Stone age.
[0:06:58.5] MM: Yeah, the stone age, this is like when we have forums and yeah. You just go in and plan exactly the people you want to talk to and find your niche. One day, it was just Cleopatra and I never really felt like I had like the skills to participate, I never felt like I was good a drawer as some of the other professionals that are in there an they’re really, you know, think - of myself as a professional because I was just doing these stuff on the side. I just tried to be funny and I drew Cleopatra and I put it over the big bubble helmet and put Cleopatra in Space across the top and a cat next to her.
That was just going to be it, just this kind of funny illustration that I did and I remember my friend Jeremy, immediately AOL instant messenger, even going back even further about it. He messaged me, he’s like wow, you got to make that into a comic, that’s brilliant and I’m like what? Yeah, that’s crazy.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the character and eventually, I did make a comic out of her. It was like this black and white thing and I put it up online for free and people really seem to dig it and it just kind of took off.
[0:08:05.6] JR: The rest is history. Now we’re six books later and you got a series of DreamWorks and Peacock, it’s awesome. Before we talk more about Cleopatra, let’s bring our listeners up to speed on the gist of this series, can you give us a quick overview of it?
[0:08:19.3] MM: Yeah, one of the great things, in fact, there’s an interview with the executive producer of the show. Whenever people have mentioned we’d work on, Cleopatra in Space and like – well, now you know what it’s about which is true.
[0:08:34.7] JR: That’s pretty on the nose, yeah.
[0:08:35.9] MM: Really easy but you know, to go a little bit more specific, she’s the actual Cleopatra, she’s sort of that out of her time period, ancient history into like the far future into this place called the Nile galaxy and then serve the pseudo, retro sci-fi fit it with ancient Egyptian kind of design elements.
There’s this counsel of talking cats that kind of tells her she is responsible for saving this Nile galaxy and this whole prophecy and things like that that show up. She finds she has to kind of save this guy, but she doesn’t want to, she’s kind of impulsive, rashy, makes a lot of mistakes, I love characters that make mistakes and you know, eventually she has to learn through – sort of her experiences and her friends and just the circumstances that she’s thrown into that she does have to kind of have to save this world and come to terms with her own insecurities about doing so.
It’s got like some serious elements to it but in the end, it’s really mostly an adventure comedy. I feel like if I can’t write a story to give some sort of emotional response, whether it’s laughing out loud or crying like a tear being shed, I haven’t really done my job, so I sort of work at those elements trying to make those all work in the story.
[0:09:52.6] JR: I’m not sure if I mentioned this to you when we got coffee. But up until then, I had never read a comic book in my life.
[0:10:02.0] MM: Comic book ever. Wow.
[0:10:03.9] JR: Not a single comic book ever and you were so generous, I don’t know if you remember this, you brought me a copy of the first five books in the series, I brought them home and my oldest daughter Ellison who is five, just kind of at the cusp of the age rank for the series. She wants to be an illustrator. She just thought it was so cool that I met with this like published graphic novelist and that you have this incredible signatures in the book to the rain of it, she just dug it.
Like I said, this was right before COVID so we’re like stuck at home the next week. I pulled the books out, we sat down and read them thinking there is no way a five year old will sit through an entire one of these books, right? They’re pretty long, right? We devoured the books, we read them all in like I don’t know, it was like a week and a half, two weeks and I get to the end of the fifth book and I didn’t realize there were six in the series and I was so disappointed that the book wasn’t out yet.
I’m like frantically emailing you hey, dude, I need the next book like right now. Anyways, we loved it. I was so surprised at how much fun we had reading the books. You get the sixth one, so by the time we release this episode, the sixth and final book will have ben out, it’s coming out on August 4th 2020 but you also had this series developed in your tv show by DreamWorks, you mentioned this a few minutes.
We’re recording this right now, July 15th, the show came out today on Peacock on NBC’s Peacock streaming service. Can you give us the quick version of the story about how the show came about and how this happened?
[0:11:37.6] MM: Well, the show came about pretty much, I had just finished, I was working on the second book so the first book had just came out and this was back in 2014.
[0:11:49.0] JR: Jeez.
[0:11:50.2] MM: Yeah, the first book had come out and my agent had kind of you know, put the book into some fillers and she had some contacts I think at DreamWorks and had put on a dusk of one of the people that worked there that was responsible for something, picking up projects I guess from the properties.
He was just like again, Cleopatra in Space, what is this? The title sort of call at him. It was really that the book had come out that April and July, I met with about three or four people from DreamWorks at San Diego Comic Con.
[0:12:27.6] JR: Wow.
[0:12:28.5] MM: Yeah, flew out there and my main reason for flying out there was to meet with these guys and we just kind of sat and had lunch and they’re like yeah, we want to turn Cleopatra in Space into a TV show.
[0:12:38.7] JR: Just like that.
[0:12:39.7] MM: Yeah. I only had, you know, you married to a dream, you know? The dream I married to was, I just want to put out a comic. At the time, I thought it would be a comic series and you know, trying to change, I just want to do a graphic novel and I did that. I put out a graphic novel series, I didn’t really have any sort of aspirations to have a television series or a movie, it was more about the books.
I had done that and so when they said, we’re going to turn this into a television series, initially I was like, I’m not ready for that. I was focusing on the second book, I was really thinking about the story and where it needed to go and I just – it felt too much too soon and so I initially declined the offer. I just said no, I’m not ready for it.
My agent sort of agreed because she thought too, you know, you did just start this series, this is going to be a large series, at the time, I thought it was going to be nine books and I sort of you know, compacted that a little bit in the end. But they kind of kept coming back, you could tell they really liked it and what sort of made me decide to go with DreamWorks is I could tell they really understood the material and they were going to kind of honor in a way that I would want the show to be, kind of represented.
I think that was really the most important thing, I just really wanted, this will serve my baby that I had kind of created and if I was going to give it off to somebody, I want somebody that was going to take care of it. I felt like that was going to happen and so yeah, I eventually I said yes and it was this long development process where they turned it into the show that you can watch today.
[0:14:22.4] JR: Literally, today, July 15th. By the way, I woke up this morning and my kids wake up at six, Ellison woke up at 6:00 and she comes out of the room, she’s like, today’s Cleopatra, right? I’m like, yes it is. We signed up, we have a no TV in the morning rule, we made an exception and watch Cleopatra while eating breakfast and loved it. I actually thought it was really fun.
[0:14:47.0] MM: Thank you.
[0:14:47.8] JR: Actually, I felt like it enhanced the book. A slightly different feel than the book. I loved it. It was a great experience and I’m going to watch the next episode, actually, right when we get done recording this, I’m really excited about it.
Was part of your rational, first of all, just as a fellow creative, a lot of respect for declining that offer. That’s not an easy thing to do, what was going through your mind other than like, I’m just not ready for this. Was it also partially an issue of focus, you were like I’m working on the second book like I can’t handle this distraction, was that part of the calculus?
[0:15:23.3] MM: Yeah, a little bit. I remember once we got into the whole contractual part where we actually – I said okay, I went thought it, it was such a headache. Glad I really – I don’t think I accepted it till after I was done with the book too as well.
I think I remember thinking I was glad I didn’t get into this while I was still trying to put the second book out. The second book was by far, probably one of the most difficult ones to write and draw because I knew exactly what the first book was so easy. I had the web comic, I was thinking about what the graphic novel would be.
But when the second one came, it was just more of- there’s so many directions I can go with this and where do I want to start and how do I want to switch things up and how can I make things still the same but different. I really struggled kind of trying to figure out exactly the structure of that story. To have something on top of that along with – also, we have just moved. I remember at the time, moving a house, that was complicated, I had a two-year-old, might be even three at the time. The years.
[0:16:30.5] JR: The years, yeah.
[0:16:32.3] MM: Yeah, a part of me was just yeah, it was just too much really. I felt like I had a lot of story to tell and wanted to kind of see where it would go.
[0:16:41.8] JR: Yeah, that’s interesting. What are the things that like really impresses me about your craft and the craft of graphic novelist is form the outside looking in, it appears that you really have to master two domains, right? You got to master words and art. I’m curious if you see those two things as separate or they just different expressions of kind of the same core skills of story telling?
[0:17:05.6] MM: Parts of that are separate and parts of that are the same. I always think in the terms the visuals and I think in terms of dialogue.
[0:17:11.4] JR: You think visuals first?
[0:17:13.1] MM: Not always. Except when I’m writing dialogue, there’s always a visual attach to my brain, the expressions and the faces are, what their body language is like. I’m writing dialog and coming up with a dialog initially but simultaneously in my head, I’m thinking about what that’s going to look like in on a page.
Even though I’m not – maybe not drawing right away, I’m writing at first, as I’m writing those images just flooding into my head and so I’m always thinking about it. When you actually get down and start kind of putting those on paper and kind of start really structuring how everything’s going to work out. If things can change, you can go, well, I need a pause here and a break here, there’s too much dialog on this page, there’s too much dialog for what this character is saying, they need to move around the page a little bit more.
The worst thing is just have two characters just talking back and forth to each other and not doing anything, I like to try and get them to walk around the environment or even if they’re eating something, just because it feels like more like real life. Even though as I’m talking to you right now, I’m moving my hands, nobody can see this but we’re constantly as people, we’re always doing something as we’re talking..
I’m thinking about that as I’m writing. Even for the like, action sequences and the stuff, I have to have something in my head, some sort of visual before I can actually start writing but I can’t really put that visual until I start writing so – Kind of touching, yeah, it goes back and forth. In my world of writing nonfiction, I think about this in terms of research and writing, right? Kind of the chicken or egg scenario there what you're kind of always going back and forth between research and writing.
For you, do you write the full manuscript and then sit down and start to illustrate or do you write a little draw a little, how does that work?
[0:19:02.1] JR: It changes from book to book, really. That’s so encouraging to hear you say that. People are like, how do you write a book, I’m like, which one? They’re all different.
[0:19:09.4] MM: It changes, because right now, I’m working on a whole brand new type of story, book six was the last book so since the beginning of the year, I’ve been just working on something else and that I’ve just served going back to, because I don’t actually have, well now I do but the time I didn’t really have the characters exactly concrete like I did with Cleopatra in Space. With Cleopatra in Space, it was real easy because once I had that first book, I knew exactly who the characters were, exactly where the plot was going to kind of go.
For this one, I didn’t know who the characters for this new book, I didn’t know who the characters are until I drew them but I couldn’t draw them until I wrote them. This is sort of going back and forth to the keyboard or to my notebook and then to my sense eight which is my computerized in the drawn, just going back and forth until I kind of – it’s almost like if you think about it, just two ends and your hands are slowly closer together to something that works and even now, I’m working on a sequence and I feel like I’m still not quite there, about 90% there.
But for Cleopatra in Space, I was working with an editor and so I thought it was easier to actually write out the whole manuscript for the story before I actually got into the labor intensive part of drawing it. Not that writing is any easier, actually, it’s harder I find but drawing definitely takes a lot longer. I can write a book in about a month but it will take me probably about 12 to 18 months to draw it and so, yeah, I like the have, is any problem that need to get taken care of, I like they have those done in the writing stage, before actually getting into the drawing.
[0:20:42.4] JR: For me that’s outlining, right? But I spend the inverse amount of time so I spend, I would bet, I’m actually tracking this for the first time on this upcoming book.
The distinction in time between outlining and writing and full pros, what my guess is outlining 75% of the time, actually writing that in Google doc for paragraphs is like 25%. I think there’s something wise in this that I hope listeners are picking up. I think for a lot of creators, you just got to a place where comfortable with it being messy and like knowing what you’re trying to create and always having that vision in tact but being open to the path from getting from point A to point Z, dose that sound right to you?
[0:21:25.6] MM: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a humility with being comes with being a creator, you have to always have the ability to delete and get rid of ideas and note that some things aren’t going to fit and usually yeah, nice about doing graphic novels that your first draft is always very messy, it’s just – in fact you’re probably going to use hardly any of it. I was joking when I was working on this new story, I was joking with my wife one day at dinner. I was like, man I wrote done all these great stuff for this new story I’m working on it’s just great. I love this, this is what I’m going to do and I walked over through it and they’re going to do this and this is going to happen.
And then I paused for about a few beats and I was like, I’m not going to use any of it. Because I knew it, I knew I was, I knew eventually, the next day I’d sit there and look at it and I just rewrite all of it but I needed to get that messy stuff written down, I had to have that down before the next stage. That’s nice about doing graphic novels, I have so many stages to go through that. By the time, I have the outline like you said, the outlining and my different droughts of riding that you might some nails which is a very rough version of the comic, I actually draw it and then I have to color it. Throughout the whole stage, I can constantly serve tweak it and make it to a point where I’m happy with it. At some point, you just have to kind of go it’s never going to be perfect and just kind of let go off into the world and some of those things that you thought wouldn’t work at all are some of the more popular things that happened. You always have to trust that you don’t have all the right answers and –
[0:23:06.5] JR: Well yeah and there is something spiritual there, right? Like we are not responsible for the results of our work. We’re just responsible for being diligent with what the Lord’s given us. I am curious, what do you think world class storytellers, kind of regardless of medium, do that they are less masterful counterparts don’t do? What is the delta between good and great as a storyteller?
[0:23:27.7] MM: That is a good question. I think one of the things is I think they strive for completion. I think in order to be successful, you have to create the work and then you have to finish the work and then you have to share the work and so yeah, I think a lot of world-class storytellers because they really put the work into even if they don’t feel like it is the most perfect best amazing thing they have ever done. At least they have finished it and they’re moving on and they’re next project can be the thing that they improve upon.
[0:23:55.8] JR: So what would you tell somebody? Because I got to imagine there is people listening right now and then working on a novel for a year or working on a business for a year, whatever it is what advice would you give them for mentally giving the place where they can’t finish, where they can bring this thing to completion?
[0:24:13.3] MM: Oh yeah that’s another great question. Yeah, I think they have to find that thing that they can sort of focus on. I think that is part in this day and age especially these past few months it’s been so hard to focus on anything and so I think it is important to sort of look at the work that they are working on and think, “Well what is important to me about this? What is the key element? Why did I start this in the first place? What am I trying to get out there?”
What am I trying to tell people? And focus on that key element and keep that in your focus and so write, put it on a sticky note in front of your computer so you are always staring at it and you know, I have two sticky notes. What I am working on here it says, “From Frank Inali” the famous animator. It says, “What was the character thinking and why do they feel that way?” and the reason I have that is because when I am working I have to stay focused on what is important to my story.
And I think if we start getting distracted and there is so many distractions, you know out there, if we start getting distracted I think that can really hurt our chances to get our novels done to get our work completed but also if we forget what is important about it, we lose that desire to want to finish it.
[0:25:18.7] JR: Yeah, you got to focus on the essence but you had to define the essence, right? So I am a big fan of Ryan Holiday’s one sentence methodology for this. You got to write out one sentence, what you are trying to build a business, a book whatever this is an X for Y audience that helps them do Z period. Like one sentence no more, slap it on a posted note or a Google doc and just stay laser focus on that vision, right?
[0:25:47.8] MM: Yeah, it is like your movie pitch.
[0:25:49.7] JR: Yeah that is exactly right. So what is your day look like typically from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, what is a life in a day of a graphic novelist look like Mike?
[0:26:00.7] MM: Currently it is all weird, yeah. Typically, I try to keep and I think part of it is having some full-time jobs to keep me having really good work ethic when it comes to it but I have two kids. I have an eight year old and a soon to be six year old. So they are kind of the important aspects of at least my morning. I get up, the eight year old is always up before me like crack of dawn so he’s up. He’s almost at that point too where he can just make himself great breakfast.
He is at the point where he can make himself breakfast, he just doesn’t want to but you know, I get up. Normally my wife has already left for work. Currently she is working at home but she is still keeping the same schedules and so we get the boys lunches. We make sure they are staying alive. They get some iPad time and things like that and you know usually I would take them to school and I used to joke I had this commute where I had this 30 minutes ago upstairs to my office.
Because I was just driving to different schools. So now we try to at least start my day with just making sure the whole family is alive and doing okay and then once I get home and start my day as a graphic novelist, I usually I start this year reading a devotional or some sort of devotional and reading a little bit of the Bible each day to start my day off, which has been amazing. It is funny that my dad is a pastor and it is funny that it took me until this long to do this every morning.
I used to do it at night and it just did not work out at all. I was too tired. I really focus on when I was trying to read but that’s really helped my day and then instead of going on social media, which is also something I used to do right away I started to read my devotional and I would draw for at least an hour just for fun just to get the king assessor but you know you stretch in before working out and I would do that for a little bit then I might check social media.
I definitely did today because I was quite curious. Yeah, people are thinking about the show and then I just get to work and I listen to music all day long, you know throw a bunch of tunes up in my computer and I listen to music all day and I just work until about 6:00 where either we switch off, my wife and I either go make dinner or I go pick up the kids, one of the two and then while the kids are getting ready for bath and bed, I might come up and work for another hour or two hours at night.
But for the most part I make sure we that family time. We always eat dinner together after the kids are in bed, turn off my computer. I go down and my wife and I watch whatever TV show we are binging at the time and I spend the last hours of my day reading whatever book I happen to be reading during the day and so I always end my day – I start my day drawing in my day of reading pretty much.
[0:28:45.5] JR: I love that talk about the difference that’s made in reading the Word in the morning versus the evening? I think there is something important here that I want you to drill in a little bit more.
[0:28:55.4] MM: Okay, well hopefully we have the same.
[0:28:57.2] JR: No we do, yeah and listen I think any time in the Word is great, right? But I do prefer mornings and I am curious what you do?
[0:29:05.5] MM: At night, you know you are ready for bed. You are done with the day. You read your message and then you go to sleep and then the next day it is just the bustle and business of life while starting over again and so there is no really time to sit there and really dwell on it and really meditate on what the Word has to say to you, think of what God is trying to tell you today and He might have something really important to tell you that morning.
But you need to hear for something you don’t even know that’s kind of developed in the middle of the day and so because of those words He gave you in the morning when that situation develops, you’re like, “Oh it’s right there” and it is just – like I said, it’s funny it took me so long to get to that point because now I can’t imagine not having that part of my life every morning.
[0:29:53.5] JR: Yeah and I think too, it is an opportunity for the word to seep through our work as we got through the day.
[0:30:01.1] MM: Oh for sure yeah.
[0:30:02.4] JR: It’s part of the reason why I want you to join this podcast, right? You’re such a good excuse to hit on one of my favorite themes, which is that you know your faith really does seep through your work. It’s not overt right? And I love talking about Christians who are serving others first through the ministry of excellence before they are preachy at all in their work. Serve first, share second, I think the art to like the best showcase for this.
And correct me if I am wrong, you would never describe yourself as writing Christian graphic novels and yet, there is deeply redemptive themes. I mean Cleopatra is the story about this savior of the world. Can you talk about the distinction here and you know why you take this approach to your art?
[0:30:48.0] MM: Yeah sure because Cleopatra in Space definitely – I mean it’s a front that I am using. A lot of the old ancient Egyptian data is and this probably for us like kind of way of having religion within Cleopatran space and so you have Anubis and Thoth and all of these others. So that is very different than what you would find and serve the Christian theology but it fits well in Cleopatra in Space. What I love about telling stories is being able to draw upon the stuff in the Bible that really resonate with me as a kid.
I was really a huge fan and still am of the Old Testament and I love that slow crawl to Jesus. You know the Old Testament is just one giant lead up to Jesus and then his sacrifice and it is just fascinating. I always say like it is one of the best books every written because every story that I have read since you can go, “Well yeah but you know the Bible with that first” you know everything derives from that and so one of the things that I really liked was this prophecy that kept coming up.
About the king that wasn’t common. It was going to save Jerusalem and then finally, you find out that king was Jesus. He wasn’t what people expected. You know they were expecting this very – someone more like Samson that was very this strong with a blazing sword and he was just going to fall from the heavens and just defeat all of their enemies and he wasn’t. He was very calm, he was a pacifist, he would spend time with the people and I love that aspect of it.
Of like this there’s this prophecy of a savior and then it is not what they expected at all but then I thought what if that savior also feels the same way? What if he feels exactly what everybody else does? And they have to work through that too and so there is a story there, I can use that and that is how I kind of used it with Cleopatra. It’s like yes, I want to use that savior trope because I love it towards to kind of have that theme to them but how can I twist that a little bit?
And make that a little bit more interesting and so, I could use Cleo as sort of this person that I can feed through those desires and insecurities and how she’s kind of grow. You know the same is kind of finding out that you’re savior isn’t exactly how they should be.
[0:33:09.2] JR: Right and you know there is also these themes throughout the books that are so clearly rooted in your faith that I think makes people long for the truths of Christianity whether or not they are rooted in Christianity or not. So there is one line in particular that I am remembering where Cleo is talking about how she has come to realize basically that being the leader isn’t about her. It is not about ruling with power. It is about sacrifice and service.
I was just like, “Oh wow. That was like really, really well done.” Like expounding upon, you know basically giving a summary of servant leadership in Christ and making Christians and non-Christians alike long for that type of humility, right? Which of course brings us just a couple of steps closer to craving the ultimate example of that in Christ in himself but you did it in such a non-overt way. I just thought it was really, really artful and really, really beautiful.
[0:34:06.7] MM: Thanks. I think the reason that works is because you know the readers got to grow along with the Cleo could actually get to that point. That is not something she would have, it’s no way she would have said that in book one but by book five, he had reached the point where she was mature enough to say something like that but readers got to kind of grow along with her. I don’t think it would have never have worked otherwise.
There is a – I make these soundtracks again, I listen to music all day for the books and there is this Seawell song that I put it on the first, the very first sound track and there’s this line in there. It says, “I know you don’t believe me when I believe in you” and that was a line I put or a song I put in there because that is pretty much Khensu, who is her teacher, her cat teacher and Akila too. Pretty much everyone around Cleo is saying to her she doesn’t believe that she is capable of doing these things.
And to instill that I think there is a lot of us as creative that we just don’t believe that we have the power to do what we want to. It is just too much but I love the idea that there is somebody there that does believe in you even if you don’t believe in yourself. There is God, God believes that you can do this. You know he is there and I think it helps to know that there is somebody there that is kind of pushing for you, you know? It’s there like rubbing your shoulders.
Pushing it up to the experience, you can do this. I believe in you despite you not believe in you and there are characters that have to tell Cleo that throughout the entire series so she could get to a point where you know, she is telling the Pharaoh, who is the leader of the whole Nile Galaxy or at least the Aurela System exactly what she was being told in book one but yeah, again what makes it work is that she couldn’t be at that point at the beginning. She had to grow along with the readers.
[0:35:55.7] JR: Mike seeing that interview you did like 10 years ago, you probably don’t even remember what you said this should be fun. In the interview, you said something I love, you said sometimes you actually make a conscious effort to temper down the on the nose references to your faith and I am curious number one, if you still do this 10 years later and if so, why?
[0:36:20.4] MM: Oh, I honestly don’t remember saying that but –
[0:36:23.6] JR: I figure you wouldn’t yeah that is why I wanted to ask.
[0:36:25.8] MM: That’s great but what makes that funny is yeah, I don’t know if tempered down is the right – if I would use that as the right word you know nowadays.
[0:36:33.7] JR: Yeah I don’t think you said that verbatim but that was the gist.
[0:36:36.3] MM: Yeah because I am not trying to hit somebody over the head with something and I also don’t think that is the best approach too. So you kind of –
[0:36:44.6] JR: I agree wholeheartedly, yeah.
[0:36:46.0] MM: Yeah, people have to come to their own conclusions about things and come to their own terms. I think one of the most brilliant sequences and at least in creative and movie making ever made was the Empire Strikes Back with Yoda and Luke where you Luke crashes on Dagobah and he’s looking for Master Yoda and Yoda appears but he doesn’t immediately tell Luke who he is. He could but he doesn’t because Luke has to learn on his own.
And I think if you hit somebody too hard with something they’re going to back away too fast from it like we would if we are being hit too hard with something or it is going to distract from the narrative of the story especially when you’re talking about entertaining stories. Stories that are fiction and meant to be entertainment and so I guess I want those themes to come across. So I am always thinking about like the central themes that I want but without just being verbose about it.
[0:37:44.8] JR: Yeah and I think we talked about this over coffee right? Jesus spoke in parable and he basically never hit the nail in the head and drew conclusions except for when he pulled his disciples privately aside. It’s like, “Hey, here is what I meant” you know what I mean? There’s something to do that.
[0:38:03.0] MM: Yeah, exactly and I think that is such a great way to tell a story too because some of the best stories are the ones where you can even draw your own conclusions or they can kind of spin off on their own ways and the ones that last forever are the ones where people can constantly sort of draw their own conclusion and come up with new stories that deal with those same themes or characters and stuff like that.
[0:38:28.0] JR: I do want to read a quote directly from the interview that I thought was brilliant, which you don’t remember. So I am going to quote you to you 10 years ago. I mean with time travel to Cleo, right? So here is the quote, “Write characters not Christians and then from there, you can delve into the themes that are important to you.” I love that and I think that is true in art but I also think that is true in business, right? Just make a great business. Serve a great cup of coffee, right?
And then reveal the themes as to why that is, so write characters not Christians, I am plastering that everywhere because I think it’s really, really good. Really, really succinct way to say what we talk a lot about on the podcast. So Mike every podcast episode we end with the same three questions. Number one, which books do you tend to recommend or gift most frequently to others other than of course Cleopatra in Space?
[0:39:25.5] MM: Yeah, it’s funny because I do gift Cleopatra in Space more than any other book. That is a good point. Yeah, my go-to is you always and I was trying to think of something that was not always my go-to because I think most people listen to me they always hear me talk about Bone because it is a book that got me into writing that’s really my craft now. So I was trying to think about something for your listeners and I was thinking about this earlier today.
And I was almost worried because it is a self-published book but I just looked it up on Amazon. There is a Kindle version of it and some used versions of it. So I think it is still worth to some of your readers. A good friend of mine, his name is Stephen McCranie and he wrote a book called Brick by Brick and I am holding it right here so I can see a little bit about it. Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery. It is a graphic novel but I am going to read just a quote here on the flap.
“The road to mastering your artistic craft is a long one. Discouragement, exhaustion or even simple boredom can cause you to give up. If you want to reach the end, you must find a way to make your creative practice sustainable. Brick by Brick explores the ins and outs of sustainable creativity with succinct and memorable comic essays.” In this book you will find useful principles for goal setting, improvement and motivation to help you set up a creative practice that last a lifetime.
[0:40:44.4] JR: That sounds amazing.
[0:40:45.7] MM: Yes, it is a great – I mean he made these comics because he thought there is a lot of books out there about how you make comics, how you create comics and in fact there is, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. He is one of the greats and I gift that one a lot. It is one of the greatest but this one is really more about the creative aspect of it and how you maintain that sort of creativity and what inspires you to tell comics and working on that aspect of it.
Which is really something that hasn’t been done. I think he was working on – I am trying to do it again and I am actually getting a publisher for it but yeah, I was thinking about your listeners and I was like that sounds like something me would be the all about and not only that but it’s a book I fully endorse. It is just a gorgeous looking graphic novel from a really great wise friend of mine so Brick by Brick by Stephen McCranie.
[0:41:37.1] JR: Brick by Brick and you guys can find that at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf. Mike, who would you most like to hear on this podcast talking about how their faith influences the work they do in the world?
[0:41:49.1] MM: Well, Stephen McCranie probably again, a good guy. He does a web comic currently that is also published through Dark Horse called Space Boy, which is really successful and it is doing really well. Also I was wondering have you ever had Jon Acuff?
[0:42:04.9] JR: Yes, so Jon is coming on the podcast we are scheduling that, yeah.
[0:42:09.5] MM: Okay I think he would be perfect for your podcast, yeah.
[0:42:12.1] JR: Yeah, Jon is really, really great. Are you a Jon fan?
[0:42:14.4] MM: I have been following his mailing list like I’m on his email and lately I have been watching some of his YouTube videos but yeah, I have a friend of mine that did some illustrative work for him like years ago and that’s how he came on my radar and this dude is totally – he’s got my same sensibilities in terms of sense of humor and what he’s trying to accomplish using his skills and stuff. I have never met the guy, I have never talked to him but I have been following him for a long time and I thought he would be perfect.
[0:42:43.7] JR: Jon was very kind. He endorsed my last book and yeah, we have been trying to get him on the podcast for a while. He’s committed we just haven’t nailed down a day yet. So we’re going to do that. All right, last question, one piece of advice to leave this audience with, this audience of Christ followers who believe in doing really masterful work for the glory of God and the good of others, what do you want to leave them with?
[0:43:03.7] MM: Oh that is a heavy question.
[0:43:05.6] JR: Heavy, high stakes.
[0:43:07.8] MM: High stakes yes. I think one of the most important things to kind of leave off is to really to stay humble and you know accept failure, be quick to forgive. My entire mantra has been Mark 12th verse, just treat your neighbor as yourself. You know love God not just with your heart but with you soul and your mind and those are the things that I think we need to live by those rules.
[0:43:34.4] JR: Amen, very well said. Well Mike, I want to thank you for loving your neighbor as yourself by just making great work and telling really, really good stories with these beautiful redemptive themes and pointing to the true myth of Christianity as Lewis and Tolkien used to say and on a personal note, thank you seriously for giving me hours and hours of fun with my daughter. It’s been a blast. So guys, this series is called Cleopatra in Space.
Like I said before, by the time we release this episode all six books will be out. I cannot wait for the 6th one and you go watch the show right now on NBC’s Peacock. If you want to connect with Mike, you can find him at operationspacecat.com. By the way, is that a reference to Khensu? Is that real here?
[0:44:21.5] MM: Yeah, well in the 5th book that you find out that –
[0:44:24.6] JR: Yeah, don’t give it away. Come on.
[0:44:27.5] MM: Yeah, you’re right. It is such a reference that nobody would understand unless I point it out but that’s fine. I think that’s good.
[0:44:34.7] JR: Yeah, you got to keep it hidden and Mike, thanks for having this conversation with us today. We really appreciate it.
[0:44:40.0] MM: Well thanks Jordan. Thanks for having me, this was a blast.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:44:43.5] JR: I hope you guys enjoyed that conversation. Hey, if you are loving this podcast make sure you subscribe to The Call to Mastery so you never miss another episode that we release in the future and if you are already subscribed, do me a huge favor and take 30 seconds and go review the podcast right now. Thank you guys so much for tuning in. I will see you next week.