Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Interview: A Few Words With Kevin Pope

Edited by Joe Pranevich

Last time, we began our coverage of Nord and Bert by looking at the first of eight included scenarios. I’ve already played the next two scenarios (I am stuck on the third) and a new gameplay post will be coming in a few days. Before we get there, I want first to share with you a conversation with one of the men most responsible for the distinctive look of the game: Kevin Pope. While it may seem strange to consider the “look” of a 1987 text adventure, Pope’s images– starting with the game’s cover art– seems an almost inseparable part of the experience today. Players pored over Pope’s included illustrations to reveal hints about each chapter’s distinctive style of puzzles. Although the illustrations are spartan, I have become a fan of Pope’s work. 

Kevin was an invaluable resource during the development of our introductory post. He was gracious enough to answer most of my questions, piling on stories and anecdotes beyond what could fit in our brief narrative. With his permission, I have edited our correspondence and assembled them into this mini-interview. Please enjoy, in his own words, a brief discussion with Infocom’s most famous illustrator. 


One of a handful of Inside Out comics I could find online.

Pope may be most famous for his work on Inside Out, a single-panel syndicated newspaper strip that ran from 1985 to 1988. This strip brought him national attention, as well as the opportunity to publish his first book of illustrations, The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka. It was this book (and his impressive resume) that brought Pope to Infocom’s attention in 1987. That is also where my questions began.

Inside Out

The syndication with Tribune Media Services of Inside Out ran in 50 or more newspapers at its peak. I dropped the daily comic panel on my own. I was being offered a lot of advertising opportunities and the money was better. The syndicate originally brought me on due to their need to battle with Larson’s grab with his off-kilter humor. Other syndicates were doing the same thing as well, trying to offer their newspapers an alternative option. Larson paved the way in syndication for sure, but great cartoonists before him had already introduced the weird humor to smaller and select audiences, such as Gahan Wilson, B. Kliban, Charles Rodrigues and more. 

The area where I was living at that time did not have Larson in any of the newspapers, so to me he was unknown. I along with other cartoonists were always compared to him, but we all came along before him or around the same time. Yes, after his success there were many look-alikes emulating his style and humor. Gary’s forte was his writing skills initially then the drawing evolved. It was timing and good work that made him a household name. 

The syndicates would take 50 percent of what you made each month. The money ebbed and flowed with the amount of papers and their circulation size allowed them to pay. The syndicate would then take distribution costs out of the split on the cartoonist side and eventually the numbers were around 40 percent which you would receive monthly. Crunch that down to hours involved each week to create your panel and it was not very much. Exposure, licensing, and eventually royalties were where the money always was. I had a poor sales force with the Tribune Media Services company, which should have found all the licensing agreements. I found all our contracted agreements, which then they still would take 50% off the top. In fact 17 years after I left Tribune, they were still collecting royalties from our contract.

Pope’s first book, released in 1985. 

Nord and Bert

I originally received the call concerning the possibility of creating work for a video game package which included the mini-hint book inside. They flew me out to Boston for a meeting with the developers and a few other key folk. I believe the impetus for Infocom was hatched at MIT by a group of engineers and then at some point decided to develop it into a product. In the meeting I realized I was not at their pay grade intellectually. Their lexicon was in their own world and I remember sitting there listening, only hoping it would be over soon. My brain usually only started at the drawing table, by myself when I needed to address either cartoons or a project. I have never been very good in group or committee settings. My thoughts and creativity don't process that way. Everyone, however, expressed their excitement about the project and they had a copy of my first book, The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka. They liked how I used wordplay in my cartoons and throughout the book. Looking back, wordplay is a lazy and easy way to get a cartoon created and everyone at some point has used it, so the repetitiveness of it is tiring. I believe I did meet Jeff O’Neill and I think his wife as well.

Back in the Chicagoland area, I started working on the sketches and eventually after the sign offs, the finals were created. The art was shipped to Boston, printed and packaged, and the final product was sent back to me. It was fun to see what they did and– not being a gamer of any ability– I never played it. If I remember right, I couldn’t play their game due to my computer being all Mac, and their product was formatted toward Microsoft. [Ed Note: Nord and Bert was released for Mac later in 1987. ]

I was invited out to Las Vegas for the Electronic show where I sat in the Infocom booth and signed the game box for people.

Again a great experience and over time this has become aching of cult status in a way. I randomly get emails and phone calls trying to find out more about the game and its beginnings as well as the art. I do have most of the original art and I still have one or two boxes of Nord and Bert left. I received a flat fee for the Nord and Bert job with Infocom, not royalties. 

“Trampoline” from The Day Gravity Was Turned Off In Topeka, one of the comics that inspired Jeff O’Neill to seek out Pope for the project.

After Infocom

I worked with Mad Magazine from 1998 until 2018. They were bought by DC Comics, moved all the editorial out to LA, and eventually ceased their operations. I was brought in during their “Project X” phase which was the illustrator turnover from the old guard to a newer alternative or graphic novel feel. I created “Melvin and Jenkins,” an urban roommate couple like the Odd Couple, as well as many other features for them. I also worked with Juniper Networks, a large tech company creating material for their products globally, hoping to take a bigger slice of the router industry away from Cisco. That was a 7 year project. 

I have always been approached by companies to create humor, cartoons with a personal flair that would be unique to their industry or products. Some cartoonists are not able to sort of change lanes, research the companies or their products and then develop some winners for them. I found it a challenge, especially the research part. I am working on projects to this day, creating label designs for wineries and cider and basically getting back to what I went to school for, large painting, mixed media. My stuff.

Pope’s stylized illustrations continue to be popular for many brands.

Lucas Lane Farm

I took a few years off, stepped away from deadlines and a sedentary work style and decided to build a working farm on property we have owned since 1993.  [Initially,] we rented it out. We did not start any real farming until 2012. That is when we moved to the farm and we named it Lucas Lane Farm, due to the name of the old road it was sitting on. I rebuilt a 1899 farmhouse, and then developed the growing enclosures and built 6 greenhouses.  

So, now, I split my year into farming and art, which is a great combination. 

 

Thank you very much to Mr. Pope for the excellent artwork and agreeing to talk to us! You can find his professional portfolio here. Although long since out of print, you can still buy Pope’s books on Amazon: The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka and The Dance of the Seven Veals. Unfortunately, there is no collected edition of Pope’s Inside Out strips. 

Also remember that score guesses are still open for Nord and Bert. If you have not yet guessed the score, you should do so now as the next post will be coming out in just a few days. 

2 comments:

  1. That's really fascinating stuff, Joe! Thank you for going out of your way to provide us with these valuable first-hand insights!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice! Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete