Marcus Parcus: Knoxville's Own Pop Artist

Marcus Parcus is the greatest Knoxville comics artist you may not have heard of yet, with works appearing everywhere from The New Yorker to Late Night

Want to be a professional comic book artist? Good luck—so does everyone else with a stack of Bristol board and a head full of superheroes. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet and strong performances in several high-profile contests—and scads of talent—Knoxville-based artist Marcus Parcus (familiarly known as Marcus Thiele) might be well on his way to securing one of pop culture's most coveted job titles.

For Thiele, drawing was a pre-literate, and even pre-verbal, activity. "I'm pretty sure all children instinctively draw," he says. "Picasso once claimed that ‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.' As far as I can tell, he was right. I'm still working on that whole ‘remaining an artist' part."

He's doing an impressive job of it. The Knoxville native recently garnered a personal invite to submit to Popgun, a highly regarded "graphic mixtape" anthology that features many of today's top illustrators and comics creators. His work has been featured on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, in UDON Entertainment's Street Fighter Tribute art book, and in the Los Angeles i am 8-bit art exhibition. Two of his pieces were recently selected as winning entries in The New Yorker's 2009 Eustace Tilley Contest, where artists were invited to reinvent the magazine's dandy mascot. His coloring work can be seen on MySpace Comics' Dark Horse Presents and on the popular David Malki! strip Wondermark (regularly featured in Metro Pulse).

Like so many writers, filmmakers and artists, Thiele cites Star Wars as one of his defining influences, especially "all those old Ballantine Art of Star Wars books, filled to the brim with Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie concept art. Once the connection was made between their drawings in the books and the marvelous things I'd seen up on the screen, there was no real turning back for me."

Some things tend to come full circle. Thiele has since done a directed study with one of the lead creature designers on the Star Wars films and attended a film screening where George Lucas himself was present. ("He sat several rows ahead of me, granted, but it still counts in my book.")

While Thiele's work spans an impressive spectrum of media, comic books are his most enduring artistic passion. "I love comic books for their simplicity and economy and universality, and the immense potential beauty and variety and thought they can contain within their pages," Thiele says. "So much emphasis is placed on on-going comic storylines, all these convoluted narrative webs and decades-old continuities, that I think people sometimes have a tendency to forget the simple pleasure of looking at the pictures, taking time to appreciate fully the emotions those images can evoke. Comics give us the combined poetry of words and images, while retaining the silence that encourages us to be actively engaged and participatory with them."

As he energetically leaps from one subject to the next, Thiele deftly shrugs off any stereotypes you might be tempted to impose upon him. He's a comic-book collector and enthusiast, but he's as comfortable discussing William Blake as Will Eisner. Soft-spoken and earnest, he quotes Picasso and Charles Schulz in the same breath. Ask him about his artistic influences, and you're as likely to find yourself in a conversation about Salvador Dali as Jack Kirby.

The artist traces his love for comic books back to very early experiences, like perusing his older brother's comics collection, reading the Sunday funnies with his father, and his first encounters with untranslated anime and manga and European bandes dessinees (literally, drawn strips—Franco-Belgian comics, like The Adventures of Tintin and The Adventures of Asterix). "There is a mystery and a sense of other-ness to the printed comic page, in piecing together all these fragments to find one's way through the forest. That mystery is where it's at, for me."

Don't ask him for a favorite artist, though. "Everybody actually doing comics for a living is already sort of a hero to me," he says.

"That being said, there are The Giants Who Have Made All Else Possible (McCay! Herriman! Herge! Eisner! Kirby! Tezuka! Moebius! Crumb!); The Titans Who Can Do No Wrong (Frazetta! Lee! Allred! Darrow! Otomo! Mignola! Miyazaki!); along with The Champions of Beautimous Draughtsmanship (Cho! Wood! Stevens! Jean! Charest! Shirow! Wrightson! Rosinski! Ikegami!); The Muses Who Speak Directly To My Soul (Barry! Woodring! Griffith! Veitch! Hermann! Takahashi! McCloud! Powell! Davis! Tomine! Porcellino! O'Malley! Masereel! Drooker! Tan! Kochalka! Smith! Bilal! Thompson!, etc., etc.)." The list goes on.

Thiele was part of the University of Tennessee's College Scholars interdisciplinary program, where he was immersed in what he calls "a somewhat labyrinthine study of the arts I'd constructed upon the framework of Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game."  At the time, he was still trying to decide if he wanted to remain in the realm of academia and become an English or art teacher, or if he wanted to pursue the more perilous life of a practicing artist in music or film. In the end, he opted for the path he's currently taking, one that he says "synthesizes everything under the aegis of visual storytelling."

He recently graduated with an M.F.A. from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He was going into traditional animation at almost the very moment Disney was firing their traditional animation staff, which wasn't the most promising news for the young artist to hear. He eventually ended up in the Concept Art division of the school where he felt much more optimistic.

Having only recently finished art school, Thiele, 28, is still playing the "starving artist" game. He spends much of his time networking, pitching ideas to various publishers, and honing his craft.

Part of the difficulty of getting into comics is the fact that there really are no hard and fast rules of engagement—no secret passwords for gaining entry to the citadel. There's a long-running joke that compares breaking into comics to breaking out of prison: Every time someone actually manages to do it, they fill up the weak spot so no one else can take the same route.

"From my admittedly rather limited experience, a good deal of the creative world seems like a real Wild, Wild West, adventurous but fairly lawless," he says.

He describes his creative process as a blend of modern digital image-making and old-fashioned pencil-to-paper work. "Though I used to pride myself on being able to mimic pretty much any style a client might want, darting from paints to pen and ink to collage and back, I've since refined my process and tool set down to the basics of pencil and paper with a digital finish of color and texture.... Though I'm comfortable working straight off the computer if need be, I usually try to incorporate some vestige of the organic, the handmade, and the imperfect in the finished work."

Thiele got one of his highest profile plugs thanks to the mysterious connective power of the Internet. Several years ago, he stumbled on a little bit of cyber weirdness called Conan O'Brien vs. Bear, a website devoted to, well, exactly what it sounds like: cartoons and animated shorts of the talk show host mixing it up with ursine adversaries.

"Long story short, somebody on Conan's staff found the site, showed it to Conan, and next thing I knew I had an e-mail in my box from NBC Universal—sent by no less than the Masturbating Bear himself—requesting a large-format version of my painting," Thiele says. The poster eventually found itself in a spiffy frame, hanging in O'Brien's office.

Thiele and O'Brien would cross paths once again when the writers' strike led to the host's bizarre zip-line dive stunt from the back of the studio. He asked the audience to submit suggestions for the most dramatic ways to make use of the zip line, so Thiele contributed a comic-book-cover-style drawing of an Evel Knievel-ish scenario, which O'Brien featured on air the following night.

Thiele has won or placed highly in several major competitions, but his double wins in the The New Yorker's contest might be the most impressive to the artist himself.

"You know that scene at the end of The Graduate, on the bus? It sort of felt like I had finally ‘arrived,' without actually going anywhere," he says. "Or maybe like I'd just gone streaking through Carnegie Hall or somewhere comparably august."

The contest also indirectly gave Thiele his pen name, the now-ubiquitous "Marcus Parcus."

"The best part, I guess, aside from the complimentary copies of the issue and other neat swag The New Yorker sent me, was the blogger who billed me as ‘Pop Artist Marcus Parcus.' I signed some copies for my grandma like that—hi, Mamaw! That was pretty fun. I can live with that, I think."

Marcus Parcus currently has several projects in the works, and is pitching ideas to comic-book publishers. For giggles, he's been contributing pieces to a couple of John Hodgeman-inspired Internet memes: The 700 Hobos Project and its offshoot, The 700 Molemen Project. Google him and see what comes up.

"In the long run, I think I'll basically just walk the earth, meet people, get into adventures. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction."

Let's hope he finds time to draw lots of comic books in the meantime.