Kunkel, Mike

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Mike Kunkel

Born September 30, 1969 (Canoga Park, California)
American author, illustrator

Mike Kunkel is one of a new generation of comics creators who is equally adept as an animator. Having started his career in animation, Kunkel found his first fame as a graphic novelist with Herobear, a magical stuffed bear who comes to life as a superhero to accompany a young boy named Tyler on wonderful adventures. He grew up with comic books and cartoons on television, unlike most of the comics pioneers such as Will Eisner, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby. This exposure to comics and cartoons helped to inspire his unique style, a style he called "the animation way" that brought the liveliness of animation to graphic novels.

"I think it's a shame to think anything good is not for kids. What a silly notion to think that comics aren't for kids."

Begins career in animation

Mike Kunkel was born on September 30, 1969, in Canoga Park, California. When he was nine years old, he moved with his parents, Dennis and Carla Kunkel, to Thousand Oaks, California. Since he was very young, Kunkel has loved to draw and read comics. He told Graphic Novelists (GN) that by the age of ten he already knew that he wanted to work in cartoons. He stopped reading comics at around that time, but he rediscovered them when he found some old Spider-Man comics at age fifteen. He attended Hillcrest Christian School, where he started to create the concept of Herobear. In high school, Kunkel and his friend Jason Lethcoe (c. 1969–) created a comic strip for their school paper. Kunkel attended Moorpark College in Ventura County, from fall 1987 through spring 1989, earning a two-year degree in two-dimensional art. He married Danielle in 1991, and they had two children: Alec, in 1995, and Leigha, in 1999.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

Herobear and the Kid: The Inheritance (2003).

(With Randy Heuser) Land of Sokmunster (2004).

Immediately after graduation from Moorpark College, Kunkel went to work as an in-betweener at 'Magination studio; Lethcoe was working there and hired him. An in-betweener does all the drawings in between the starting and final frame of an action for the animators; Kunkel described it to GN as "grunt work," the lowest of the low in animation. After about one year with 'Magination studio, Kunkel took a job with Hanna Barbera/Turner Feature Productions to work on the animated feature Once Upon a Forest. Later, while working on the 1994 animated movie The Pagemaster, Kunkel was promoted to animator. He left Hanna Barbera/Turner Feature Productions in 1995 for Disney Studios, where he began work as a character animator on the animated feature Tarzan. An animated feature has a whole team of animators, each concentrating on different characters. At Disney, Kunkel benefited from working on a variety of animated films. Kunkel was responsible for animating Tantor the elephant and the baboons for Tarzan and Pegasus for Hercules. He began work in the late 1990s on an animated version of Pirates of the Caribbean, but that project was canceled when Disney decided instead to do a live-action motion picture. He also worked on the Tigger movie and The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, the 1998 sequel to The Lion King, which included an animated short called One on One, for which Kunkel did the storyboards.

Throughout his time at Disney, Kunkel also worked on television commercials and did other freelance animation work for Warner Brothers and Cartoon Network. For Warner Brothers, he animated the characters Darla Dimple and Max for the 1997 animated feature Cats Don't Dance. Kunkel directed episodes of the Dilbert animated television series for Sony in 1999. He also worked on an idea for a comic book that had been in his head since high school.

Shifts gears to focus on comics

Kunkel's comic book idea of Herobear developed in high school and continued to grow within Kunkel's imagination throughout college and his years at the different studios. Kunkel told Adrienne Rappaport for Sequential Tart that his original idea was "Heroman," a story about a little hero and his stuffed bear sidekick. Kunkel related to Rappaport that "as a kid, I had a stuffed bear that I used to carry around with me, and my son still has it in his room. And the name Herobear was coined by my wife's little brother. He had a little bear that had surf pants on it and a handkerchief that he carried around. And we called it Herobear. And I just made the story up around it."

Inspired by his friend Scott Morse (1973–; see entry), who had started to publish his own comics, Kunkel started to work in earnest on his Herobear comic in the late 1990s. The result became Herobear and the Kid, a romp featuring the adventures of a young boy named Tyler and his stuffed bear that comes to life as a gigantic polar bear wearing a red cape. Kunkel designed the comic to appeal to all ages in the way that the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons did, where children laughed at all the action while the adults appreciated the jokes as well. Kunkel found inspiration for Tyler from the television series The Wonder Years and the movies Stand by Me and A Christmas Story, all of which had the internal voice narrating part of the story and captured the essence of being a kid. With encouragement from Morse and the support of his high school friend Lethcoe, Kunkel set up Astonish Comics to publish the first issue of Herobear and the Kid in 1999.

Herobear and the Kid quickly attracted attention in the comics industry and won critical praise. Savant reviewer Alasdair Stuart commented: "The friendship between boy and bear is emphasized without ever becoming cloying [sickeningly sweet, overly sentimental]. Instead, there's a genuine sense of wonder to many scenes, in particular where the two are flying, that makes them oddly moving. Along with Kunkel's stunning art, this makes Herobear and the Kid a comic which stays with you long after it's finished." He advised people to "Go read it." They did, and by 2001, Kunkel left Disney Studios to work full time on his own ideas at Astonish Comics.

The comic not only rose in popularity in its first years of publication, it was also nominated for an Eisner Award. (The Eisner Awards are considered to be the Oscars of the comics industry; each year a panel of judges, made up of retailers, distributors, writers, reviewers, and other professionals, select the nominees and people who work in the comics industry.) Herobear and the Kid was nominated for the Eisner Award for Best Publication for a Younger Audience in 1999, and won the award in 2000. In 2002 and 2003, Herobear and the Kid was honored with the Eisner Award for Best Title for All Ages. Kunkel received other awards as well. He was nominated for the Russ Manning Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 2000, and Ninth Art, an online magazine about the comics industry, named Kunkel to its 2001 Roll of Honour for the Under the Sonar Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. In 2001, Kunkel received four nominations for the Ignatz Awards: Herobear and the Kid #2 was nominated for Outstanding Story and Outstanding Comic, the series was nominated for Outstanding Series, and Kunkel was nominated for Promising New Talent. The Ignatz is a festival prize awarded at the Small Press Expo each year; a panel of five judges (all cartoonists) select the nominees, and people who attend the Expo vote on the awards.

Kunkel continued to develop Herobear, writing new issues and exploring new opportunities. In 2001, he wrote two issues of a comic that featured Herobear and Tyler alongside characters developed by comics creator Courtney Huddleston—Police Officer Luck and his super-powered alien sidekick named Decoy. The popularity of Herobear also attracted attention from the film industry. By 2002, Kunkel had begun developing Herobear into an animated feature for Universal Studios, but after eight months' work on the project Universal decided against making the film. Nevertheless, Kunkel continued to publish the comic, and in 2003 he also put out a graphic novel called Herobear and the Kid: The Inheritance, which collected the five issues of the comic into a single volume.

In September 2003, Kunkel merged Astonish Comics with Scott Christian Sava's Blue Dream Studios to form Astonish Factory. The group published Sava's graphic novel The Lab, the first issue of Sava's comic The Dream Chronicles, the graphic novel Spooner by Ted Dawson, and other books. Kunkel and Sava's partnership ended amicably in 2004, with Kunkel maintaining control over Astonish Factory. Kunkel diversified the Astonish Factory to include comics and book publishing, toy manufacturing, and animation studios.

Kunkel began work on a new book in 2003, a collaboration with Randy Heuser titled Land of Sokmunster. The book relates the adventures of Sam, a boy who follows a loose sock that has stolen a valuable nickel through the dryer lint catcher, where Sam finds himself in the land of Sokmunster. After eight months of work, Astonish Factory published the book in 2004 to such critical praise that Kunkel and Heuser began work on adapting Land of Sokmunster into an illustrated chapter book. Kunkel told GN that he was inspired to try the longer format by his son, Alec, who was ten years old in 2005 and needed to read chapter books for school book reports. Kunkel saw that cartoonist Mark Crilley had successfully adapted his comic series, Akiko, into illustrated chapter books (published by Random House). Kunkel and Heuser were also planning a sequel called Revenge of the Moth King, which they were planning to publish both in a graphic novel/picture book format and as an illustrated chapter book.

Animation and Cartoons

Kunkel has comfortably switched from cartooning to animation and back again throughout his career. He told Rachel Gluckstern of Comic World News, "Animation has always influenced my comics. From the storytelling to the art. I think it really affects my storytelling, because I usually approach the stories from the point of view of how I'd treat a film, and how I'd storyboard it out." He said that the comic book characters need to act, and that's how he'd draw them, acting out the dialogue. To him, comics and cartoons are very closely related. "Both have the opportunity to entertain visually and that should be always first and foremost. Cartoons and comics all start with scripts, but it is then the next step of taking that script and visually building on it and making it really come to life. For me, I love them both, and could spend time creating in both worlds forever."

His style of printing directly from his penciled drawings rather than inking them first (as most comics are done) also comes from his work as an animator. He told Adrienne Rappaport of Sequential Tart that he preferred his sketchy drawings to the hard, smooth lines of inked pictures because they gave his comic books a look that was not "overly done" and had "a lot of life to the drawings."

In both Herobear and the Kid and Land of Sokmunster, Kunkel's art shows the influence of his time as an animator. His art retains the sketchiness of his pencil work, which lends a sense of movement and dynamism; he called it The Animation Way. Herobear and the Kid was done in black and white, with only the bear's red cape printed in color. Land of Sokmunster was published in color but retains a sketchy style. Kunkel explained his decision to print his sketchy drawings, instead of inking over them as traditional comics artists do, to Sequential Tart: "For me, there's something to it that keeps it alive, and gives it a little more warmth maybe. I'm also a horrible inker. And working as an animator, I just went with what I knew. And have always liked animation drawings instead of finished cells. I like that look; I've always been more attracted to that. And I wanted it to look like a finished book, but not be overly done, and still have a lot of life to the drawings. It helped me capture the movement. It wasn't a static image; it felt like if you looked at it, it was still moving." Kunkel's books look like a cross between a standard picture book and a movie storyboard.

Animates Juniper Lee

Although Kunkel spent most of his time working on his comics, he accepted an opportunity to work in animation again in 2004. In spring 2004, Judd Winick (1970–; see entry), the creator of such works as The Adventures of Barry Ween, Pedro and Me, Green Lantern, and The Outsiders, asked Kunkel to work with him on a new animated television series for Cartoon Network, The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. Juniper Lee is an eleven-year-old Chinese American girl who is the new Te Xuan Ze, the Protector of the world against monsters from the spirit world. She's a cross between The Ghost-busters, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and has more than a touch of The Simpsons-style humor. Kunkel worked as the character designer along with Phil Mosness, and Astonish Factory did the opening credit sequence for the cartoon.

Winick and Kunkel had been friends for years. Winick said in an interview with Fanboy Planet, "When I was developing the show, I actually thought it would be great if it looked like Mike Kunkel's stuff. It was actually suggested to me, well, if you know him, why don't you give him a call?" Kunkel, Mosness, and Winick worked together on the concepts, and Kunkel then designed all the characters, human, animal, and monster. The show premiered on the Cartoon Network on May 30, 2005; by fall 2005, the network had renewed it for three seasons. Kunkel said that he pitched a story idea for the third season that Winick liked, so he was planning to script an episode as well as handle the character design.

By the end of 2005, Kunkel had myriad projects. He was working on a new Herobear graphic novel, Herobear and the Kid: Saving Time, which he was hoping to publish in 2006. Kunkel also worked on other animation projects, including serving as a storyboard artist for Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows, a direct-to-video animated feature starring the Lego [trademark] toys and with Scott Christian Sava on a new animated series for Nickelodeon. In addition to his own work, Kunkel took the time to teach others. The Fall 2005/Winter 2006 course schedule for the California Art Institute showed that Kunkel would teach a course on cartoon drawing during one of the terms. With less than a decade in the comics industry, Kunkel had risen to the top and he seemed poised to remain there, producing works for young and old. Kunkel's enjoyment of his comics fans made him feel good. As Kunkel related to the Comic World News: "Everyone is so supportive and encouraging, it just makes you want to keep doing this forever."

For More Information


Kan, Kat. "Kat's Bonus: An Interview with Mike Kunkel." Voice of Youth Advocates, December 2004.

Web Sites

Barbagallo, Ron. "Herobear and the Kid." Animation Art Conservation.http://www.animationartconservation.com/herobear.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Gluckstern, Rachel. "The Astonishing Mike Kunkel!" Comic World News. http://cwn.comicraft.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi?column=interviews&page=104(accessed on May 3, 2006).

"The Life and Times of Judd Winick: An Interview, Part 1." Fanboy Planet.http://www.fanboyplanet.com/interviews/mc-juddwinick1.php (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Rappaport, Adrienne. "The Un-Bear-Able Lightness of Being Mike Kunkel." Sequential Tart.http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/june01/kunkel.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Stuart, Alasdair. "Reviews: Herobear and The Kid." Savant.http://www.savantmag.com/53/reviews.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).


Additional information for this entry was obtained through a telephone interview with Mike Kunkel conducted on September 20, 2005.