Imagine a giant, adorable seal demolishing a village and a barbarian killing an evil version of Santa Claus. Imagine Steve Bannon and Mitch McConnell having a face-off in which their faces literally slide off. If you can't imagine such things, veteran comic-book writer and artist Mike Norton can. His Eisner-winning Battlepug will be available in a massive "Compugdium" January 23 from Image Comics, which also published a collection of Norton's Trump satire Lil' Donnie last year.
Battlepug, launched as a webcomic in early 2011, tells the story of the Warrior, a Conan the Barbarian type brawler who roams a sword and sorcery realm populated by enormous animals. His sidekick is a giant pug known to readers as Battlepug but to other characters as Sprinkles, a name given to him by Bryony, a foulmouthed little girl who is also a powerful mage and ally. They fight the magic-hoarding beast mage Catwulf and other threats. The "Compugdium" consists of the first five volumes of Battlepug, which Norton considers "the origin story." To say there's no other comic like this would be an understatement as big as Sprinkles.
Norton began Battlepug during a career crossroads. "I'd been working for years for Marvel and DC doing Superman and Spider-Man," he says. "I'd never done anything on my own. The first thing that popped into my head was, seriously, Conan riding a pug."
Why a pug?
"I've always liked animals," Norton explains, "I babysat when I lived in Memphis. My boss bought a pug puppy for his wife for her birthday, and it was supposed to be a surprise. So I was supposed to keep it for a weekend while he set the whole thing up. I was in love with them after that. I said, I have to have one for myself, just because it is a ridiculous animal. It literally would not exist in nature without us interfering, so the idea of this animal being a fierce, like, warrior-thing just entertained me in my brain.
- Mike Norton
- A panel from Battlepug
"I kind of have an absurdist sense of humor," he adds, perhaps unnecessarily. He also now has two pugs: Moe and Ninja.
Battlepug started off as a webcomic; only after it caught fire did Dark Horse Comics and now Image publish print editions. This was not the result of an elaborate marketing plan. "I didn't have the patience to take it to publishers to beg them to print it," Norton says, "so I immediately put it online, and that's worked out for me. It's more of an impulse thing than it is a strategic thing."
Lil' Donnie has a slightly different origin story: "It was impotent rage, that's all it was," Norton says. "I was drawing comics on election night and watching this stuff come in, and I just felt a sickness to my stomach. I couldn't believe what was happening. And it was just a coping mechanism. Things I wanted to yell, and I figured if I put it online, people would have to look at it rather than me just being grumpy all the time. . . . It's an exercise in creative spite."
Lil' Donnie has been a standout in the overstuffed genre of Trump satire—it's like classic Doonesbury with smoother art and geeky references to comic book characters such as Etrigan the Demon and Mr. Myxlplyx. Real-life characters are transformed: Kellyanne Conway is a wraith emerging from a skull, while Mitch McConnell is a human soul trapped in an Appalachian apple core doll. Meanwhile, President Obama steals sandwiches off the White House desk while name-dropping the deep state. Despite the strip's success, Norton has slowed down on the comic because he's suffering from a condition more common than the flu: Trump fatigue.
"The nonsense is so absurd that even making a joke is not as funny as the actual thing that's happening," says Norton. "So I have to do really weird things like make strange movie or comic book references that nobody is gonna get anyway. So it's a lot more difficult now. Plus, it's been three years now, almost, and I'm just tired of it. I'm tired of this guy."
Norton, 45, is originally from Jackson, Tennessee. He studied graphic design at the University of Memphis. He moved to Chicago 18 years ago to work in comics as art director for Devil's Due Publishing. Three years after that, he was drawing comics full-time and has been ever since. In addition to numerous work-for-hire jobs for Marvel and DC, in 2012 Norton co-created the Image horror comic Revival with Tim Seeley, one of his studio-mates at Four Star Studios in Ravenswood.
That studio is part workplace and part geek heaven, featuring comics galore, more action figures than a toy store, and some spectacular art, including a massive print from Jack Kirby's psychedelic Lord of Light adaptation. A giant whiteboard sits in Norton's area, with story beats mapped out for the new arc of Battlepug, much like an upcoming season of a TV show. (Image will publish the story this year as a monthly series.) "It's just a bunch of things that happen from issue to issue," Norton says modestly and also accurately.
Like a lot of artists, Norton has made the move to digital art, though Battlepug was originally done with traditional pencil and ink. Making a comic is still a time-consuming process with many steps, but since he only writes for himself, he feels more free to use shorthand than he would if he were writing for another artist: "I don't write like most writers in that I don't actually write stuff. I jot notes down in corners and things like that. It's pretty dumb. It's the digital version of writing on legal tablets, I think."
This modesty is characteristic of Norton. Even when he won the Eisner for Battlepug, the highest honor for a comic-book creator, he didn't let it go to his head. His acceptance speech was short and to the point: "This is only going to encourage me to do more of this crap." v